Darayya: Fear translated

There is a perverse logic behind the Syrian regime’s measures.

With the massacre of 400 people in Darayya strange emotions are coursing through Syria. Some are shocked by its sheer callousness, others are cursing the FSA, whilst in the provinces they shout ‘God is most Great! Death to Assad!’ What is becoming increasingly clear is that these massacres are not just the actions of a desperate government trying to hold things together. There is a perverse logic behind the regime’s measures.

The systematic isolation of the town located not too far from Damascus, the house to house searches, the clinical executions followed by Duniya TV, owned by Bashar Assad’s cousin, suggest that this was far from random. Darayya occurred because it is known as the cradle of the Syrian revolution. Houla occurred because it sat on the fault line of the Sunni-Alawite divide.  There is method in the madness.

Some, like the dissident scholar Muhammed Yaqoubi in a recent Royal United Services Institute lecture, suggested that these massacres are designed to set up an Alawite mini-state in Lattakia.  After all, Lattakia has a good infrastructure with two ports and an international airport.  With the right support from the Russians, Chinese and Iranians it could be a nice counter against Western hegemony in the region.

However, Darayya is beyond geo-politics. Darayya is the translation of the deep seated fears of a community that has much more to lose than simply power. The town represents everything that the regime and indeed some of the Alawite community fears; Sunni ascendancy would mean a return to its historic servitude.  Darayya stems from the same emotion that made them ban books of a thirteenth century scholar who advocated their destruction. Darayya comes from the same fear expressed by Bashar Assad’s grandfather in 1936 to the French premier Léon Blum: that if the Sunnis gain ascendancy the Alawites would be driven into the sea.

The regime fears that it will be paid back in kind for its actions in the past.  It’s aware that its actions in Hama, Aleppo and other towns in the 80s, its disappearances and tortures have bred a generation that thirst for pay back.  Especially in the provinces where the the culture of revenge or intiqam still plays a role. So it responds like a cornered animal fighting for its very existence. Darayya is not the action of an out of control mercenary shabiha but that of a regime that has planned for these eventualities. It takes advantage of the divided International community confident that it can out gun the FSA in the long run. It knows that civilians do not have the stomach for a long and bloody conflict and behaves like the Algerian military junta in the 90s, inflicting terror without compunction and creating a psychology of fear in the populace.  It aims, as the Syrian joke goes, to crush the uprising so that even Viagra can’t get a rise out of Aleppo or Damascus ever again.  Houla and Darayya is a part of that plan.  Make no mistake it is working; friends tell me they send their children to school with tags attached in case the worst happens.

Of course in times such as these, intervention is on the agenda yet again. Truth is, intervention would play into the hands of the regime. The Syrian government has had plenty of time to propagate the idea that there is a foreign plot to destroy the nation.  Foreign intervention would only confirm this belief. Stephen Starr’s ‘Eyewitness to the Revolution’ suggests many Syrians would resent foreign military intervention.  A recent Youtube post by the well known dissident scholar Osama Rifa'i is telling. Following Darayya he commemorated the dead and urged steadfastness, but throughout the twelve minute speech not once did he call on the international community to intervene.  

However revolting the idea might sound in the light of Darayya, the sectarian fear that drive young Alawite men to commit atrocities must be addressed.  Deep down these perpetrators believe the same thing will happen to them if the Sunnis come to power. That fear must be addressed.

The solution though cannot be a military one but rather a political one. In other words, a space must be created for dialogue. This means opening up channels with the Alawite leadership who sided with Rifa’t Assad during the rift with his brother Hafiz Assad.  Dialogue must be opened up with what Dr. Shmuel Bar calls the “young guard” - those who have taken a more consultative approach than their fathers.  The Sunni community leaders must also reach out to the Alawite sheikhs - once so influential in their local communities - to alleviate community fears.  Dialogue with organizations with close links to the regime must be opened up. This must be followed up by the Sunni lead opposition toning down the incendiary rhetoric targeting Alawites. There has to be guarantees of the Alawite community’s safety, complimented with an inclusive vision of a Post-Assad Syria open to all.

On the international level, the war of words against Iran (the regime’s closest backer) must calm down to allow for a space where the conflict can be discussed.  Threats of armed intervention are unhelpful. Diplomacy and tact is what is needed, not gung-ho politics. We are, after all, dealing with a situation that can change the world as we know it.  Therefore, diplomatic efforts must be exhausted with appropriate exit strategies to allow the regime to go quietly or at least split their power base.  If this is not done then not only will there be more Darayyas, but a conflict that can spill over and destabilize the whole region.

An image from a video released by the Syrian news, showing the funneral of children killed during the massacre in Darayya (Photo: Shaam News Network)

Tam Hussein is an award winning writer and journalist specialising in the Middle East. He spent several years in the Middle East and North Africa working as a translator and consultant. Tam also writes for the Huffington Post.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage