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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Aussies and Kiwis can be “us” to Brexiteers - so why are EU citizens “them”?

Nostalgia for the empire means Brexiteers still see Australians and New Zealanders as "Brits abroad". 

There are many terrible things about Brexit, most of which I counted, mournfully, on the night of the referendum while hiding in a stairwell because I was too depressed to talk to anyone at the party I’d just run away from. But one of the biggest didn’t hit me until the next day, when I met a friend and (I’m aware how ridiculous this may sound) suddenly remembered she was Dutch. She has been here 20 years, her entire adult life, and it’s not that I thought she was British exactly; I’d just stopped noticing she was foreign.

Except now, post-referendum, she very definitely was and her right to remain in Britain was suddenly up for grabs. Eleven months on, the government has yet to clarify the matter for any of Britain’s three million European residents. For some reason, ministers seem to think this is OK.

If you attended a British university in the past 20 years, work in the NHS or the City – or have done almost anything, in large parts of the country – you’ll know people like this: Europeans who have made their lives here, launching careers, settling down with partners, all on the assumption that Britain was part of the EU and so they were as secure here as those with British passports. The referendum has changed all that. Our friends and neighbours are now bargaining chips, and while we may not think of them as foreigners, our leaders are determined to treat them as such. People we thought of as “us” have somehow been recast as “them”.

There’s a problem with bringing notions of “us” and “them” into politics (actually, there are many, which seems like a very good reason not to do it, but let’s focus on one): not everyone puts the boundary between them in the same place. Take the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. The sort of man one can imagine spent boyhood afternoons copying out Magna Carta for fun, Hannan spent decades campaigning for Brexit. Yet he’s not averse to all forms of international co-operation, and in his spare time he’s an enthusiastic advocate of CANZUK, a sort of Commonwealth-on-steroids in which there would be free movement ­between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

When pushed on the reasons this entirely theoretical union is OK, when the real, existing one we’re already in isn’t, he has generally pointed to things such as shared language, culture and war memorials. But the subtext, occasionally made text by less subtle commentators, is that, unlike those Continentals, natives of the other Anglo countries aren’t really foreign. An Australian who’s never set foot in Britain can be “us”; the German doctor who’s been here two decades is still “them”.

There’s a funny thing about Hannan, which I wouldn’t make a big thing of, except it seems to apply to a number of other prominent Leave and CANZUK advocates: for one so fixated on British culture and identity, he grew up a very long way from Britain. He spent his early years in Peru, on his family’s farm near Lima, or occasionally on another one in Bolivia. (You know how it is.) That’s not to say he never set foot in Britain, of course: he was sent here for school.

His bosom pal Douglas Carswell, who is currently unemployed but has in the past found work as both a Conservative and a Ukip MP, had a similarly exotic upbringing. He spent his childhood in Uganda, where his parents were doctors, before boarding at Charterhouse. Then there’s Boris Johnson who, despite being the most ostentatiously British character since John Bull, was born in New York and spent the early years of his life in New England. Until recently, indeed, he held US citizenship; he gave it up last year, ostensibly to show his loyalty to Britain, though this is one of those times where the details of an answer feel less revealing than the fact that he needed to provide one. Oh and Boris went to boarding school, too, of course.

None of these childhoods would look out of place if you read in a biography that it had happened in the 1890s, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they instilled in all of their victims a form of imperial nostalgia. I don’t mean that the Brexiteers were raised to believe they had a moral duty to go around the world nicking other people’s countries (though who knows what the masters really teach them at Eton). Rather, by viewing their homeland from a distance, they grew up thinking of it as a land of hope and glory, rather than the depressing, beige place of white dog poo and industrial strife that 1970s Britain was.

Seen through this lens, much of the more delusional Brexiteer thinking suddenly makes sense. Of course they need us more than we need them; of course they’ll queue up to do trade deals. Even Johnson’s habit of quoting bits of Latin like an Oxford don who’s had a stroke feels like harking back to empire: not to the Roman empire itself (he’s more of a late republican) but to the British one, where such references marked you out as ruling class.

There’s another side effect of this attitude. It enables a belief in a sort of British diaspora: people who are British by virtue of ancestry and ideology no matter how far from these shores they happen to live. In the 19th century, Australians and Canadians were just Brits who happened to be living abroad. What Britain absolutely wasn’t, however, was just another European country. So, in the Leavers’ minds, Aussies and Kiwis still get to be us. The millions of Europeans who have made Britain their home are still, unfortunately, them.

I’m sure these men bear Britain’s European citizens no ill-will; they have, however, fought for a policy that has left them in limbo for 11 months with no end in sight. But that’s the thing about Brexiteers, isn’t it? They may live among us – but they don’t share our values.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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