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An Overview of Syria’s Armed Revolution

April 23rd, 2012 No comments

The author's first trip to Syria in 2002. Umayyad masjid, Damascus. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have the cover story out today in the April issue of the CTC Sentinel, the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point’s monthly publication. This article is based on my most recent trip to northern Syria in January as well as my earlier travels in the country as pictured above. This piece was some time in the making and virtually nothing in Syria has improved in the interim in my view. Kofi Annan’s shuttle diplomacy is an utterly abject failure. UN soft power will do nothing to solve this painfully festering crisis.

The Free Syrian Army has suffered a series of territorial defeats since the beginning of 2012 including being routed from the position in Idlib I visited according to a colleague’s report in March. Despite these setbacks along with Turkey’s failure to act in any meaningful way (sorry conspiracy theorists who believe Erdogan is unequivocally aiding the FSA), the rebels don’t seem to be yielding their will even with their “tactical withdrawals” over the last few months. So far NATO has stuck to its guns of insisting Libya was not a “model” but a unique, one-off operation that will not be repeated any time in the near term.

Abaya (or chador)-clad women stroll through the brilliant grounds of the Umayyad masjid, considered the fourth holiest place in the Islamic world. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

I think most ordinary Syrians as well as rebels have long ago almost entirely given up on the idea of any sort of external intervention, military or otherwise, including even rather meek offshore balancing.  Saudi and Qatari talk of overtly arming the FSA seems to have gone nowhere. The rivalries within the GCC are intense, egotistical battles among some of the world’s most successful self-aggrandizers. That makes it near impossible for even two of the six member states to act in unison-the subjugation of Manama by Riyadh being the current exception. If the FSA is waiting for the GCC to get its act together on Syria, they may be waiting a long time.

I remember seeing this poster for George Clooney for the Italian eyewear brand Police and thinking that an a-list star of his ilk would never pitch such a product back home. Perhaps Clooney should have put his efforts into Syria rather than Sudan. I recall seeing his visage in several places in Damascus that summer a decade ago. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

There has been a lot of discussion about the emergence of so-called black banners in the Syrian conflict (which is a much more significant issue in Mali/Azawad at the moment). Of the cross section of Syrians I interviewed at the beginning of this year, everyone-even those moderately sympathetic to an Ikhwan agenda-eschewed the idea of their Syria becoming one more star in the constellation of global jihad. The fighters on the ground were certainly Sunnis drawn from the conservative milieu present in Syria’s northern governorates, but those obvious circumstances do not a jihadi make.

One of the more absurd “points’ in Annan’s UN-Arab League plan was to twist Assad’s arm into letting international journalists in with what I suppose should be unrestricted access. Not bloody likely. Judging by the tragic fate of France-2 cameraman Gilles Jacquier who was killed on a dog-and-pony show tour of Homs in January, I don’t have much confidence that journos would be any more safe if legally admitted to the country than if not. You have a vain, materialistic regime armed to the teeth that is suppressing all forms of dissent and shows no sign of letting up.

The war in Syria has ultimately become a contest of wills. The FSA, many international players, and the non-violent opposition all believe Assad is doomed to fall and it is all a matter of when, not if. But as the unceasing violence drags on, it is clear the Assad and those in his inner circle believe he can ride this one out. And it is to this point where I think the rash, extra-judicial killing of Qaddafi did immense damage to the quarters of the Arab world still in the bitter throes of revolution. It became very clear to Bashar al-Assad et al that the end of a regime did not necessarily mean quiet exile. It could end in death. This gives Assad that much more impetus to keep fighting-which he is clearly doing.

Since enough time has gone by I decided to finally upload a short film I made (which is part of the background for the CTC article shown above) onto Youtube because…well…otherwise it will never get seen. It’s my (very) rough first person account of my trek to northern Syria’s Idlib Governorate in late January after much networking in Antakya, Turkey.

No End in Sight to Bahrain’s Troubles

April 22nd, 2012 No comments

New York-Busy working on some last minute touches for an article coming out tomorrow but wanted to repost an email I received today from the beleaguered Bahrain Center for Human Rights. I get emails from the heavily suppressed Bahraini revolution from time to time but this weekend’s seemed especially poignant in light of the human rights disaster known as the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix. The most deplorable thing I read was some clueless quote from the German winner of the debacle:

“Some teams have expressed frustration at the attention on politics. Sebastian Vettel said shortly after arrival on Thursday that he thought much of what was being reported was hype. He [Vettel] looked forward to getting in the car and dealing with the ‘stuff that really matters – tire temperatures, cars.’”

What a freaking idiot. Vettel’s main sponsor is the godawful RedBull energy drinks company. Perhaps people should let Austrian tycoon Dietrich Mateschitz (his Thai business partner died last month) know that a European Union-based company shouldn’t exploit a human rights crisis to promote a frivolous product.

Bahrain’s crisis goes on unabated because its citizens are trapped in the anti-egalitarian nightmare known as the Gulf Cooperation Council where it’s perfectly fine to talk about democracy in Syria but deadly to dare try and implement it in these stultified monarchies passing themselves off as modern with shiny architecture built on the backs of South Asian slave labor.

Here is the text from BCHR:

“The Bahraini regime has continued its escalation and crackdown on peaceful protesters. A number of activists, journalists and peaceful protesters were arrested today. Many more were beaten, tortured and shot at with tear gas, shotguns and stun grenades. Another death was reported of inhalation of tear gas.

Death of a resident

The excessive use of teargas as a means for collective punishment against villages has caused another yet death. An Indian man, known as Sabeer (25 years old), was found dead in his room in Sanad village. Reports say that he died of suffocation of tear gas which makes him death number 79th person to die according to BCHR records since the start of the revolution. The authorities continue to delay releasing the body of Salah Abbas, a protester who was found dead yesterday after getting arrested and beaten up.

Protesters arrested

Today, at least 8 Bahraini women went to the site of Formula 1 grand prix to protest against the unjust detention of activist Abdulhadi Al Khawaja who has been on hunger strike for more than 70 days, which puts his life at great risk. The women were unarmed and peacefully protesting when they were arrested. Witnesses say that they were beaten up as well. The women’s names are as follows:

1- Ramleh Mula Abbas from Nabih Saleh

2- Zainab Laith from Dar Kulaib (a poet and an activists who was listed to go to Gaza on “Mariam Ship” in 2010)

3- Zainab Almuglak from Sihla

4- Eman Alhabishi from A’Ali

5- Masoma Alsayed from Bilad Alqadeem (was arrested before several times for protesting )

6- Mona Ali from Sitra

7- Zahra Abdulanabi from Sitra

8- Sara Hasan from Sitra

Journalist Nazeeha Saeed, torture victim, stated in her twitter account that “torturer office Sara Al Moosa is on duty in BIC protecting the race”. Concerns raised over the wellbeing of the arrested women who were taken to the same police station where Naziha and several other detainees have previously reported being tortured, Riffa police station . When the families tried to see their daughters they were pushed out of the police station.

Heavy security measures including security checkpoints, armored vehicles were deployed at areas surrounding the Pearl Square as calls for a march back towards the square emerged early today. There were many protests heading to the former pearl roundabout (AKA Lulu), which has become a symbol of freedom and democracy to Bahrainis. All the protests were all violently attacked with teargas, shotgun and stun grenade.

Activists targeted

Activists and blogger Zainab Al Khawaja, (@angryarabiya) was arrested again on night of 21 April 2012 after she staged a single woman protest by sitting peacefully in the middle of the road protesting against the continued detention of her father who is possibly on his death bed, after being on hunger strike for over 70 days with no compassionate reaction from the authorities in Bahrain. Zainab refused to go to the public prosecution today and she is currently being held in jail. Her sister Maryam Al Khawaja, head of foreign affairs in BCHR, said “I can guess it’s because nobody really believes in the legal system. Zainab’s mentality is you can only bring about the fall of the regime when you stop treating it as a government.”

BCHR reported yesterday the details of the arrest of blogger & youth activist Mohammed Hasan, who was released last night after being beaten. Today, Mohammed was rearrested in a checkpoint in Sanabis with journalist Colin Freeman from The Sunday Telegraph. Colin is an accredited journalist allowed to work in Bahrain. They were taken to the Exhibition center police station. Mohammed was interrogated about his connection to the journalist and later released without any charges.

Activists Dr. Alaa Shehabi and Ali Al Aali were with a group of journalists from Channel 4 News on Budaiya road near Naqsh coffee shop in their car. They were chased by 11 riot police vehicles until forced to stop and were arrested. Ali said on his twitter account “we are being insulted/ humiliated”. Dr. Alaa is an economist, lecturer, writer, activist, head of researches of BRAVO human rights organization and a co-founder of Bahrain Watch. She has been very vocal about her political views in interviews with different TV channels and newspapers. Dr. Alaa was on the same panel with Nabeel Rajab, president of BCHR, in a press conference about detained and tortured Athletes in Bahrain just a couple of days ago. She has also written articles against the Bahraini regime in numerous foreign newspapers. Dr. Alaa and her husband, a former political detainee, met Bernie Ecclestone in their visit to London where he told them that the people of Bahrain can hold protests in the circuit and that he “want(s) the opposition to have a press conference in which opposition can get their message across and for open dialogue”. Not only was there no press conference but freedom of expression was targeted in every possible manner due of F1.

Journalists arrested

A statement by the Channel 4 news confirmed that “A Channel 4 News team, with Jonathan Miller, has been arrested in Bahrain. We have been in contact with them and are very concerned for the welfare of their driver who was arrested and assaulted in front of the team, and then separated from them. When last seen he appeared to be bleeding from slashes to his arms.” Miller managed to record an audio report while in the police car of what happened: channel4.com

Like many other news agencies, Channel 4 News was denied journalist visas and has been working without accreditation during the Grand Prix. Yesterday, another reporter, Rasmus Tantholdt from Danish TV2 channel was denied entry to Bahrain at the airport for the second time in 24hrs. He was in Bahrain 2 weeks ago and did some coverage for the channel on the protest for the hunger strike human rights defender Abdulhadi AlKhawaja.

Also, two Japanese journalists working for Asahi Newspaper were arrested in Sanabis village and taken to Exhibition police station, where they they are still detained.

Mazen Mahdi, a photojournalist with German news agency EPA , was stopped today by riot police while covering protests in Belad Al Qadeem village. He was then threatened by police that they would break his camera. He said: “Threat made by what appears to be an officer masking his face and rank!”.

As the Formula1 race is over, it seems that the Bahraini authorities are again trying to enforce a media blackout in place by targeting journalists and those who facilitate their work in Bahrain. The most peaceful assemblies continue to be targeted. Bahrain center for human rights strongly condemn the government’s fierce crackdown on whoever exercises freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and the attack on journalists and activists for exposing the crimes committed in Bahrain by the authorities. We immediately demand the release of all detained activists, protesters and journalists, putting an end for the use of violence against peaceful protesters and allowing Bahrainis their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”

Dear Azawad, What’s Going On?

April 6th, 2012 No comments

New York- Confusion and lack of clarity is mostly what is emanating out of northern Mali’s three rebel controlled regions after the principal secularist rebel outfit, the MNLA, declared independence from the Malian republic today. The current situation is definitely one that begs more questions than provides answers.

The lightly populated northern regions which border Mauritania, Algeria and Niger take up far more land area than the more populous southern regions of the country where the capital Bamako lies. What I am finding interesting are two things: first, I haven’t seen anything from any international journalists who have actually traveled to Mali’s north to meet the MNLA and have a look at the situation for themselves and second, no one in the twitter/journo/wonk-o-sphere no matter how much authority they may try and write with, really knows what is going on amidst the chaos.

The main dispute is just which rebel/jihadi faction is either driving or in control of this logistically immense territorial takeover. Is the MNLA or the salafi Ansar Dine (alt. Ançar Dine, Ansar Eddine) really in control of Timbuktu? Are leaders of AQIM with Ansar as reported? Is the Harakat al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad fi Gharbi Afriqiyya (Movement for Monotheism/Unity and Jihad in West Africa-MUJWA) also involved in the takeover and ejection of Malian state forces? I think part (or perhaps largely) what answers my first question is that the hype of AQIM involvement–a group mostly gaining headlines for kidnapping Westerners–may keep journos and other assorted war tourists away from the area for now.

It certainly is possible or even probable that non-Malian nationals are tagging along with Ansar fighting groups but the ‘liberation’ of Azawad we are seeing is the result of an ethno-nationalist agenda. Maybe when the dust has settled we will see a internecine conflict between the MNLA and Harakat. If their various statements are to be believed, theirs may have been a marriage of convenience whereby the two groups were drawn together by a temporary convergence of strategic agendas. If so, this will certainly end in bloody divorce as a fight for the region’s control begins. To me this is evidenced by an Ansar statement to AFP today decrying the MNLA’s Azawad move.

Their high degree of difference in their outlooks is illustrated by the fact that the MNLA has a suited Paris-based spokesman while Iyad ag Ghaly’s Ansar has reportedly cut off a hand or two in their hasty implementation of Islamic law in Timbuktu. The two movements have entirely different approaches to how they communicate with the outside world. A British couple that fled the guesthouse they ran in Timbuktu credits the MNLA with aiding in their dramatic escape to Mauritania while the city’s tiny Christian minority reportedly fled in their entirety as Ghaly’s sharia-bent forces advanced.

Within the study of AQIM as a movement, there are so many questions as to whether AQIM is a legitimate salafi-jihadi group driven by ideology, is it a front for drug running, cigarette smuggling and other criminality in the Sahara? Or as some conspiracy types have posited, is it connected to or front for Algeria’s DRS intelligence service?

The MNLA and Ansar state they have widely divergent agendas. The MNLA has repeated that they seek a politically independent Tuareg homeland with democratic mechanisms. Ansar Dine say they seek not independence but the implementation of sharia law in the areas under their control. And then on top of all that AQIM and Harakat supposedly seek a pan-Sahel caliphate.

The recognition of Azawad in the near term is entirely unlikely by any regional or international powers and will be discouraged less it cause or encourage the splintering of Niger, Nigeria, Algeria etc. Unlike, say, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, the Tuareg rebels in Mali do not have any known external political supporters. They may have had one in Libya had the eternally meddlesome Qaddafi survived last year’s war in that country. The main regional powers in Algiers and Abuja have no interest in seeing the situation in Mali worsen.

The Nigerian state is currently threatened by an increasingly emboldened Boko Haram movement in that country’s north while Algeria has seen no end of troubles since the beginning of the civil war there in 1992 and the ensuing GIA-GSPC-AQIM evolution. The United States waded into the mess that is France’s near abroad in 2002 with the beginning of counter terror training throughout West Africa that was meant to serve American interests in eliminating a then rather non-existent al-Qaeda threat to the region. One that has now manifested itself as a reality according to Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler’s account of his AQIM ordeal in the Telegraph.

For now I can only do my own armchair analysis from afar as I don’t have the means to zip over to Bamako at the moment. Hopefully that will change.

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