Category Archives: Syria

The road ahead on Syria: how I see it

The Friends of Syria conference today produced a chairman’s statement and some moderately strong language from Secretary Clinton. Where is this going?

The assembled dignitaries were under pressure from Syrians, including the National Council (SNC) represented at the conference, activists and, indeed, the media, given some of the questions directed to the Tunisian Foreign Minister and Secretary Clinton at the end of the day: pressure to do something now to make the killing stop. Arab League and UNGA support weigh on the side of what seems to be majority public opinion on this. On the other side are the Russian and Chinese vetoes, and caution about western imperialism (driven in part by assessments that NATO stretched its mandate in Libya).

What to do?

In the news conference, we were told that the question of arming the rebels had not been discussed. This may be true in the sense that it was not part of the official agenda. But we can be sure that private conversations between the most involved powers are indeed taking place on that subject. Many may be resigned already to some form of direct military intervention, probably under an Arab League banner or joint AL/UN branding, with Turkish and other NATO support as necessary. But getting from here to there is not straightforward, for reasons mentioned above, and no doubt all concerned would indeed prefer to see a political solution as called for in the chairman’s statement.

So we have a process.

Processes have a bad name due to the farce that the ‘Middle East Peace Process’ became after the death of Rabin. But they can be diplomatically and politically necessary. Along with attempts to set up machinery for immediate humanitarian relief, the commitment to follow up conferences in Istanbul, Paris and possibly a fourth venue is, I think, more significant than it sounds.

Why? Because it can get us from here to there. A series of meetings, which will review progress by Kofi Annan on the political front as well as the Assad regime’s actions – Clinton said the Friends would be “constantly evaluating what is happening inside Syria” – will either mark movement toward a peaceful outcome of democratic transition or, more likely alas, show that with the best efforts and intentions, the Friends are unable to bring Assad around to such an outcome. Clinton feared that “there will be more killing before he finally goes” as do, I suspect, most observers.

Following such a process will both strengthen the resolve of those Friends who are at the moment disinclined to pursue any military option, and increase pressure on China and Russia to reassess the cost of their support for the present regime. Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem told journalists he hoped that Russia and China would change their position. I think the planned series of conferences and constant evaluation are designed in some significant part to achieve precisely that.

This is all politically necessary. The cost will be measured in many more deaths and ruined lives in Syria.

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Friends of Syria Conference: observing journalists in the wild

As I arrived at the Palace hotel where the Friends of Syria conference took place today, so did several hundred demonstrators. Waving Syrian and Palestinian flags, and banners against imperialism, Zionism etc, they entered the grounds barely impeded by the few police deployed at the entrance. Chants and slogans accused the US, Sarkozy, Qatar and others of cowardice, and said the Syrians and Arabs were not traitors.

As they got closer to the entrance, more police and security emerged from several directions to corral them at a distance. Photographers and camera crews emerged from the hotel at the sound of chanting, to get images and interviews. A few individual demonstrators got close to the hotel before being escorted back. I saw no violence, although one demonstrator told me that the police had treated them badly at the starting point of their march. A journalist told me that the police used batons on a few of the demonstrators in front of the hotel, but I did not witness that myself.

It was pure luck that I arrived at the same time as them, and so took some of the first images and video. I gave it all to the crew of Tunisia Live, one of few English-language news services based in Tunisia. They work as fixers for visiting journalists and seem to know their stuff – so if you need such services in Tunisia, give them a call! Some of the images are available here.

A much smaller group of pro-opposition demonstrators were waiting to one side, clearly with permission to be there, unlike the group who had marched to the hotel. Security let those who supported the conference in turn chant and march into the hotel, holding back a surge of pro-Assad demonstrators (video here). I saw a few of them around the lobby where the media were covering the conference with their (apparently brand new, identical) pre-Ba’ath Syrian flags. The presence of demonstrators supporting intervention was not only allowed, but actively facilitated by the police and security. The opposing demonstrators were not. This was almost certainly part of one of the conference’s aims, to introduce the Syrian National Council (SNC) to the assembled officials and receive recognition as “a leading representative” (not the representative) of the Syrian people. Dr Burhan Ghalioun, President of the SNC, addressed the conference.

I had applied for a press pass, planning to accompany a local independent journalist. In the event, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff did not issue me a pass, but allowed me to stay, so I spent the afternoon in a kind of official limbo. However, since they had apparently not provided enough passes, I fit right in with the others working there uncredentialled. Other aspects of the organization, particularly on the media side, were below the usual standard for an event of this type. Then again, Tunisia’s government is still finding its feet, and (as Secretary Clinton emphasized at the news conference later) the conference had been put together quite quickly.

I got to see journalists and diplomats at work and experience an international conference from the outside. There is a lot of sitting around and chatting involved, in between interviewing, filming, writing and editing. In my previous experience of such events – the Edinburgh European Council in 1992, the Sharm El Sheikh ‘summit of the peacemakers’ in 1996 – I was on the other side of the tracks, as a press officer or otherwise. The novelty of having no responsibility beyond observing was quite refreshing. I made some contacts. Mostly I watched people at work.

I admire the profession of journalism and many journalists individually. This is probably not a popular position today, in the wake of the Murdoch empire’s hacking scandal and other lapses in professional standards. But if the job is to be done right, it is a demanding one, one I’m not sure I would be cut out for. And it needs to be done right. Several journalists in both Egypt and Tunisia have complained to me of low standards in the profession in their countries. But it is clear than many are trying to do the job properly. Their countries need them to keep trying. We all need our journalists to do their jobs well.

The taxi home was very expensive, as taxis are in the evenings here. But it was worth it.

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Understanding the Arab uprisings one year on

I strongly, strongly recommend Volker Perthes’ very clear analysis posted at Open Democracy for anyone interested in understanding the broad dynamics of what is going on in the region, both within and between states.

This is great writing: it is clear, and it says as much as it needs to say and no more. Stop reading this; go read that.

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Syria, seen from Cairo

Among the most striking things I have witnessed in the past few days was the commemoration, on 2 February, of the 30th anniversary of the massacre in Hama, Syria, of an estimated 10,000 Syrian citizens by forces of the Hafez al-Assad regime. Syrians gathered at the Syrian Revolution Tent in Tahrir near the Arab League building (from which besuited gentlemen observed the proceedings from time to time). They sang and chanted, danced, and held a mock funeral, carrying a young man on their shoulders.

Last night as I returned from a meal, drinks and long discussion with poets in Zamalek, I heard the first news of a new massacre in Homs. At that time the number of deaths was reported as at least 200, although since then it has become clear that their is some doubt as to the number.

There is no doubt at all about the strength of the reaction. Syrian embassies have been picketed and in some cases, including Cairo, stormed by protesters. Tunisia has expelled the Syrian ambassador. The UNSC met to debate a resolution supporting the Arab League’s initiative to resolve the crisis, essentially to provide a way for Bashar al-Assad to leave power in a managed transition. The veto of that resolution by China and Russia will no doubt inflame anger even more.

I know Syria somewhat, have loved my visits there, and can completely understand why most of its citizens would take significant risks to get out from under one the world’s most repressive regimes. But I’m not going to pretend to be an expert who can predict what is going to happen now. I’m not sure anybody can really know how things will go from here.

But I fear that the astonishing bravery of Syrians in standing up to a regime they surely do not deserve will continue to be tested for many months to come.

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