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.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue