Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

The Unfinished Arab Spring

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 29th May, 2020

The Unfinished Arab SpringIn the wake of the December 2010 self-immolation of the impoverished young Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, a wave of unrest swept across much of North Africa and the Middle East, leading to the ousting of Presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. At the time, I railed against fellow journalists who adopted the lazy slogan of “Arab Spring” for the new phenomenon. Lazy for at least two reasons. First, the term was a clumsy adaptation of the 1968 (ultimately failed) Czech uprising against the country’s Soviet occupiers (the “Prague Spring”); just as virtually every US political scandal since Watergate brought down US President Richard Nixon in 1974 has similarly been sloppily dubbed X-gate or Y-gate. But the second, and more important, reason for my displeasure was that it was blatantly obvious from the turn of events, not least when they reached Syria, where I was lecturing in March 2011, that this momentous political trend was not a matter of just one season. Or indeed one year. I predicted it would take at least a decade, probably two, before we could map its trajectory or judge its success.

Tahrir Square demosWhile I was working with the late Palestinian-Jordanian Minister, Jamal Nasir, on his autobiography, we adopted a fresh term to describe what was happening: The New Arab Awakening. We were intending to write another book, with this title, deliberately echoing that of the classic 1938 history of the rise of Arab nationalism by George Antonius, The Arab Awakening, but sadly the nonagenarian Dr Nasir died before we got very far with that. Now, however, a book has appeared that effectively does what we would have wanted to achieve, but with the added benefit of bringing together contributions from a wide range of distinguished scholars, many of them from the MENA region themselves. The title is well justified, too. The Unfinished Arab Spring  (Gingko, £40), edited by Fatima El-Issawi and Francesco Cavatorta, is in two distinct parts. The first is a series of case studies, covering Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Morocco and Algeria (Yemen being an interesting omission). Each chapter’s author takes a different approach that is country-specific and illustrates well how very differently each uprising or revolution has turned out, from “delegitimising democratic demands” in the case of Egypt to “resource competition” in Libya. The second part brings an analytical approach to the dialectic between the “dynamics of change” and the “dynamics of continuity”. Various agents and actors are identified, from well-educated youth to secular women, but so too the technological context, not least the prevalence of social media and other alternative platforms.

Algeria demosIn the second section, Tunisia receives particularly close attention, which can be justified not only because this is where the so-called Arab Spring began (in mid-Winter, of course), but also because Tunisia is the one country in which the New Arab Awakening can be said, more or less, to have been a success. Whether others will prove to be in the long term remains to be seen, though there have been encouraging recent developments in Algeria.

All of the chapters have extensive footnotes and at the end of each there is a very useful bibliography. This is, after all, a serious collection of academic papers, though most of its authors have nonetheless managed to write in a style that is accessible to the informed general reader. As a part-time SOAS academic myself, I did momentarily baulk at one chapter heading in Part Two: “Youth Activism and the Politics of ‘Mediapreneurship’: The Effects of Political Efficacy and Empowerment on Mediated Norm Conveyance in Tunisia and Morocco”. But do not be put off by this, or indeed by the price of the book. For a work of such scholarship, £40 is quite reasonable. And if you cannot afford to buy the book yourself, get your library to order it. You and they will be grateful.

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Dangerous Escalation in the Gulf

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 3rd January, 2020

49A0EB41-E8AC-4F7A-9DF1-5A1214C2A9E4The US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani, reportedly on President Trump’s direct order, is a dangerous escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf that could all to easily develop into all-out war. Donald Trump has been itching to hit out against Iran ever since he came to power and last year a direct US strike was called off at almost the last moment. Meanwhile the Americans have been ratcheting up sanctions against Tehran, and the Iran Nuclear Deal, in which major European states including Britain were instrumental, has been seriously undermined by a US withdrawal. Not that all the blame rests on American shoulders, of course. Despite Iranian denials, a drone and missile attach on Saudi oil installations last September was almost certainly inspired by Tehran. And Iranian special forces — including General Suleimani’s Al Quds brigade — have been active in fighting in Iraq and Syria, sometimes in conjunction with regional allies such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. But there is a real danger that tit-for-tat retaliatory acts will spiral out of control, while all affected parties claim they are the victims of aggression. Britain and France, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, potentially have an important role to play in defusing the situation, though President Macron is seriously weakened by ongoing domestic unrest and Boris Johnson may be too close to Donald Trump to be seen as a mediator. Significantly, Washington did not warn London about its planned assassination strike, despite the fact that there are UK troops and civilians in Iraq and surrounding countries. All could be potential targets for reprisals if the British government comes out in support of the US action. Instead, it should listen to the wise words of caution from both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. Tony Blair made the wrong call over Iraq in 2003 and that lesson should not be forgotten.

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The Story of Syria

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 2nd April, 2017

The Story of SyriaAs the Syrian civil war enters its seventh year the flow of books about that tragic nation is similarly unending. But Ghayth Armanazi’s The Story of Syria (Gilgamesh, £19.95) stands out, not only for its readability but also because of its author’s privileged perspective. The scion of a prominent Syrian political and diplomatic family, Mr Armanazi has had a distinguished career across several fields including banking, academe and the media. Latterly he has spent many years based in London, holding a variety of posts, including General Manager of the Arab Bankers Association, Editor-in-Chief of the journal Arab Affairs and, for nearly a decade, Head of the London Mission of the League of Arab States. He thus kept one foot firmly in Syria and the MENA region while gaining a good understanding of the mindset of British readers who will be the most obvious market for his book. While making no claim for academic originality, The Story of Syria draws on a wide range of English and Arabic language sources, supplemented by personal observation and reflection. It is written in a flowing narrative style, recounting Syria’s history right up to the start of the Arab Spring, sharply critical where necessary not only of some of the main Syrian actors but also of external forces. It will thus be particularly useful for anyone who wishes to understand how Syria got to the tragic point it has now reached, but area specialists should also enjoy the book’s fluency and insights.

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Yes, the World Has Gone Bad

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 19th December, 2016

Six months ago I thought the world had gone mad, but now I know the world has gone bad. For Liberal Democrats and others of good faith 2016 is proving to be an annus horibilis like no other in living memory. First there was the Brexit vote, followed by Donald Trump’s election “victory”, confirmed today by the US electoral college. But today has itself been a real stinker: the assassination of Russia’s Ambassador to Turkey by a Turkish policeman outraged by the agony of the siege of Aleppo; a mosque bomb in Zurich; a truck careering into a Christmas market in Berlin. How much horror awaits to unfold over the 12 days left of the year? Yet absolutely the wrong reaction to all this would be to throw our hands up in the air and say there is nothing we can do about the global espousal of hatred, violence and post-truth politics. That is the way to let a 21st century version of fascism take hold. No, all people of good faith need to stand up and say, “No, no, no!”. Let’s make a premature New Year’s resolution now to make 2017 a year of hope, not a year of despair.

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The Regime

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 20th March, 2016

imageIn the Middle Eastern state of Badia, some high school students spray anti-government slogans on walls in the city of Adar. The regime, notorious for the brutality of its control and its favouritism towards the Ray people from whom its president hails, cracks down hard. Far from bringing the incident to an end, the regime’s reaction prompts yet more protests as marchers peacefully call for true democracy and freedom, only to be slaughtered or arrested and ‘disappeared ‘ or tortured. In despair, some youngsters instead turn to the armed Brotherhood, which takes on the regime by its own terms, taking the country into civil war. If this all sounds like what has happened in Syria since March 2011, it is because it is. George Nassif’s novel The Regime (Amazon kindle £6.61, paperback £9.99) is clearly inspired by the attempt by the Assad family and associates, including mafioso elements, to hang onto power in Syria, come what may. The author maintains a mask of fiction, even calling the United Nations the World Order Organistion and the United States, Hovan. As a fiction writer, though, he has the advantage of foreseeing the outcome of the civil war — and it is not the peaceful pro-democracy campaigners who win, though these are the ones the author supports, as is made clear by his use of first person narrative in the case of the protagonist who argues for Gandhian tactics against the regime. The style of the novel is often cliche-ridden and some of the dialogue is clunky, but the topicality and narrative thrust of the story means that it achieves what novels should do, namely to keep one reading to discover what happens next.

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Syria: Think of Reconstruction Now

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 14th March, 2016

Syria destructionIt was striking that in his speech to the Liberal Democrat spring conference in York, Tim Farron devoted a lot of time to the refugee crisis and in particular the Conservative government’s failure to step up to the plate adequately in meeting the needs of the most vulnerable people, especially those fleeing the carnage in Syria. This is something Tim clearly feels passionately about and is also a fine issue on which Liberals can campaign. Moreover, an emergency motion on Syria won the ballot for debate early yesterday morning, emphasizing that the subject is uppermost in people’s minds. The fact that six of the eight LibDem MPs voted in favour of the UK joining in the US-led Coalition’s bombing of ISIS/Daesh in Syria is still a sensitive matter; both Paul Reynolds and I outlined our opposition to that at a fringe meeting of the Liberal Democrat Peace and Security Group the previous evening.

Bashar al-AssadBut in the emergency motion debate in the main hall I stressed how important it is that thought be given already to the reconstruction of Syria, which some UN estimates suggest could require up to US$4 trillion. There will be a difficult period of reconciliation to go through but my impression is that the vast majority of Syrian refugees would like to return to their homeland when it is safe to do so, always presuming the cities are made habitable. The situation is very complex and it is true that some areas of the country, notably those under the Assad government’s control, are relatively intact. But Assad and the Russians have bombed much of the rest to oblivion. I argued that Britain and France have a particular historic responsibility for helping resolve the Syrian mess, preferably as part of an EU diplomatic effort, which would lead to all interested parties being involved, including Russia and Iran. Understandably, much of the debate on the motion centred on short-term measures, but I underlined how vital it is that we learn from the lessons of Iraq and Libya and make sure that there is a proper, workable plan in place for what happens if or when Assad goes.

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Shas Sheehan’s Plea for Refugees

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th February, 2016

Refugees are human beingsThis is the time of the year when Liberal Democrat local parties organise sessions to discuss the agenda for the Party’s forthcoming Spring conference, but Hackney LibDems decided instead at their Poppadoms and Politics last night to focus more directly on the burning issue of refugees, and in particular those who have been fleeing the last five years of carnage in Syria. Shas outlined the evolution of the Syrian conflict, which I have also been following on a day-by-day basis, and highlighted the fact that a quarter of Lebanon’s population is now made up of Syrian refugees, most of them housed in local peoples’ homes or out-buildings, or in makeshift accommodation. There are another million Syrian refugees in camps in Jordan and more than two million in Turkey, and tens of thousands continue to attempt a perilous crossing to Europe. The photos of the lifeless body of 3-year-old Syrian Kurd Alan Kurdi certainly brought home that reality to the British public, but David Cameron has only promised to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees, over a period of five years, and all from camps in the Middle East. As Shas said, the situation will only get worse, as Assad’s forces and the Russians further their advances into rebel-held districts of Aleppo. Moreover, this is a problem that is going to be with us for years not months, as happened with the refugee flows after the Second World War. That makes all the more necessary a coordinated and compassionate, long-term strategy on the part of the European Union.

refugees 1Inspired by her own trip to Dunkirk, Shas encouraged others to be part of relief efforts for people stuck there or in the Calais “Jungle”. But she was rightly insistent that only the right sort of aid should be delivered. Médecins sans Frontieres is working the the camps and absolutely does not want people self-miedicating on drugs brought over by well-meaning Brits. Similarly, most types of clothes and shoes are similarly not appropriate, nor tinned soup. What is needed, and could indeed be organised by local political parties or even at next month’s York LibDem conference, are items such as batteries, wind-up torches, sleeping bags, good quality tens and a limited range of foodstuffs and beverages, including tinned tuna, chickpeas, tomatoes, lentils, beans and fruit (preferably in ring-pull tins), cooking oil, spices, tea, sugar and salt.

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Standing up for Syria

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 4th February, 2016

Syria war damageOn the first day of the Syria conference currently taking place in London billions of dollars have been pledged to help Syrian refugees, including $1.7bn from Britain. That’s the good news and the UK Conservative government, which rarely gets praise from me, deserves it in this case. However, the bad news is that the Syria peace talks that were being held in Geneva earlier this week were suspended yesterday while fighting on the ground in Syria has intensified. It is of course essential that the millions of refugees who have fled their homeland, notably to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, be given help, but such assistance can only be a form of band-aid relief rather than a solution so long as the civil war goes on. Moreover, yet more refugees will be created in the meantime; Turkey estimates that another 70,000 are fleeing the current Syrian government and Russian assault on rebel-held areas in and around Aleppo. The only solution as such can come from an internationally-agreed and implemented peace settlement and associated ceasefire. I opposed British airstrikes in Syria because there was no comprehensive peace agreement on the table and I do not believe that simply bombing necessarily helps. Of course, I despise ISIS/Daesh, but the situation in Syria is much more complex than just an attempt to curb self-styled Islamic State. Similarly, I dislike the Assad regime in Damascus, which has been responsible for egregious human rights abuses, both in its notorious prisons and in its use of cluster bombs and other weaponry against its own civilian population. Only through a proper peace settlement, at Geneva or wherever, can a way forward be mapped, which would include an end to hostilities and a transitional political arrangement leading to free and fair elections with sufficient international supervision.

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Bread Not Bombs for Syria

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 9th January, 2016

I was totally opposed to the recent decision by the UK parliament to bomb Syria, in the absence of a coherent strategy for bringing an end to the civil war in that country, and I was pleased that among the LibDem MPs, at least Norman Lamb and Mark Williams voted that way. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground has got much worse in many places, thanks partly to the Russian support for the murderous Assad regime, which is itself responsible for the vast majority of deaths in Syria, without mentioning the gross human rights abuses that it perpetrates in its prisons and detention centres. Now, there is a new, horrific spectre in the land, in which over 250,000 have died and millions have fled or been displaced. This has been most vividly illustrated by the harrowing images of starving children from Madaya, which has been under siege by regime forces for many weeks, and other places. The images are as awful as the pictures that came out of Bergen-Belsen at the end of the Second World War, and are similarly of the victims of a pattern of extermination. Quite apart from the adults who are dying on these appalling conditions, infants and babies are being fed on boiled leaves, watered-down jam and anything else that distressed parents can lay their hands on. So tell me, am I being unrealistically utopian in wishing that instead of dropping bombs on Syria, the RAF should be dropping food and medical supplies on Madaya and other communities in distress? I don’t think so. It is pain humanity. But that seems to have been lost in the noise of the anti-ISIS narrative. Of course, self-style Islamic State is repulsive and needs to be combatted, but can we really say we are on the side of the angels if that combat means we stand by and let innocents die?

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Making Children Bear Arms Is Child Abuse

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 4th January, 2016

IS childThe chilling pictures published by ISIS/Daesh of a small child thought to be British, proudly brandishing a gun, are symptomatic of a worrying trend by political extremists to try to “normalise” the phenomenon of children bearing arms, supposedly in the defence of a particular cause. I’ve seen examples on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict and child soldiers have been a sickening feature of a number of recent civil wars, such as in Uganda, Liberia and Sri Lanka — in some cases with children being forced to kill or else be killed or tortured themselves. You will even find photos of American kids posing with weapons with the encouragement of their gun-loving parents, despite the fact that each year numerous victims, both young and old, get accidentally shot by young children in America. For supporters of the US constitutional right to bear arms, the issue at stake is “freedom”, but I would argue that even in countries where it is legal for adults to own firearms it should be a serious criminal offence to encourage or allow children to handle them. For me, that amounts to child abuse, and a particularly pernicious form of child abuse, for kids often do not have a developed sense of right and wrong, or of the nature of killing and death. I believe that if parents proudly pose with their infants who are brandishing weapons they should be prosecuted for child abuse and sentenced accordingly.

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