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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.