The Syrian uprising: one year on

After more than 8,000 deaths and the displacement of thousands of people from their country, amid horrifying reports of systematic torture and massacre that have sent many others into hiding, it seems hard to believe now that virtually nobody predicted the Syrian uprising - nor the astonishing extent of the brutal crackdown by Bashar al-Assad - before it began one year ago.

In fact, even as Egypt and Tunisia were celebrating the toppling of their dictators and the United Nations was giving Nato the go-ahead to bomb Libya, Syria was still being marketed as an up-and-coming tourist destination. As late as 5 March last year, one article in the Independent lauded it as an unspoilt nation "packed with attractions that will dazzle anyone who visits". At the time, there seemed little reason not to celebrate the historical wonders - and despite being little known in the west, they really are wonders - of Palmyra, Crak des Chevalliers and Apamea.

That was how I myself naively came to be flying out there for a fortnight's holiday on, as fate would have it, the very day that the first protestors were shot dead in the southern town of Deraa - unintentionally becoming what Christopher Hitchens might have called a revolutionary tourist, and unwittingly securing a rare but tragic glimpse inside a beautiful country just as it was beginning to be ripped apart.

That first day of violence, Friday 18 March 2011, saw at least three civilians killed, leading Joshua Landis to write: "This is a turning point - to what, one cannot say."

Indeed, even with the benefit of two weeks touring through Hama, Homs, Aleppo, Palmyra and Damascus, watching ordinary Syrians react to the increasingly disturbing footage leaking out of Deraa of civilians being shot by snipers, none of what has since happened - neither the proliferation of protests, nor the explosion of state violence - appeared inevitable. The rest of the country was largely going about its business as normal, on the surface at least, save for occasional mass demonstrations which in fact were in favour of the regime. But in hindsight, perhaps we should have predicted the horrors from the start.

The Syria I saw was undoubtedly a totalitarian state - complete with, as I have discussed elsewhere, a sickening cult of the personality surrounding Bashar al-Assad. The first night I spent in Hama - when what at first appeared to be a dead body floating in the Orontes river thankfully turned out to merely be an effigy, presumably from a recent protest - the state TV channel in the restaurant we were dining in began showing film of the violence in Deraa. The waiters stopped and watched, standing coldly still until the end of the report, when the channel began playing patriotic music and embarked on a stupefying 15-minute montage of footage showing Assad waving to crowds of thousands and kissing babies.

Clearly many of us in the west had been conned by the propaganda, swallowing line that Bashar - a man who not so long ago met Tony Blair and the Queen in London - was not the same as his father, Hafez. Yet the people of Hama, where between 10,000 and 20,000 are thought to have been massacred in the 1982 siege, surely had not. What seems chilling now is the realisation that, as those waiters in that restaurant were watching that footage, they may well have been able to forsee the horrors of Homs would not be too far away. After all, how often does a totalitarian regime, even one with a new modern face at its helm, really change its ways?

When we arrived in Damascus, Bashar finally appeared before the Syrian Parliament. Even after many people had been killed in Deraa, it was still interpreted as a real chance to make big reforms, to turn the situation around. Instead, as the labyrinthine souks deserted for once as Syrians huddled around TVs and radios to watch and listen, he chose to blame foreigners and terrorists, promising reforms but offering little to no detail. At the time it was unclear even among experts whether his speech was a case of supreme confidence or extreme recklessness. But perhaps now we can say this was the date that bloodshed on a far wider scale was sealed into fate. More was needed from Assad, and all Syria his country has got is more violence. He always was his father's son after all.

The day I left Syria for Jordan, a letter appeared on the pinboard of the hostel I was staying in, addressed to the guests and written by the owner. "The minority led a few small protests that numbered hundreds," it told us. "They have no grounds to stand on and their attempts have failed."
It seemed so ridiculous even at the time that I took a photograph of it. Reading the last section a year on from the start of the violence, however, it now looks even more like a sick paraody of party propaganda. "I can say with total confidence that there is no revolution," it said. "I feel relieved that the tense situation has ended peacefully unlike Egypt or Tunisia. The country is in firm hands of the current regime under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad. I fully understand the situation at the moment and it is absolutely safe."

Safe? One thing safe to say is that few tourists will have passed through that or any hostel since Assad's speech.

Rob Hastings is a reporter for the Independent.

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Don't blame Brexit on working-class anger - it's more worrying than that

White voters who identified as "English not British" backed Brexit.

For those of us who believe that the referendum result in favour of Brexit is an unmitigated disaster, the nominations for culprits are open. Former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg made a compelling argument in the Financial Times that the blame lies squarely with Cameron and Osborne.

Clegg, who has first-hand experience of Tory duplicity, is scarcely a neutral observer. But that does not make him wrong. No doubt the PM and the Chancellor are the proximate cause, and should be held accountable by their parliamentary constituents, their party, and by the country as a whole - or what’s left of it if Scotland goes its own way.

Yet journalists and historians alike would do well to probe deeper causes of the referendum result. One obvious culprit is the British press, who, at best, failed to scrutinise the Leave Campaign’s claims and at worst actively abetted them. The New York Times has suggested that using the EU as a punching bag has helped sell papers (or at least generate clicks) in what is probably the most challenging climate for traditional journalism in two centuries.  Boris Johnson, it seems, is irresistible clickbait for the fourth estate. And as Nick Cohen has observed on Saturday, Johnson and Gove, both politician-journalists, have elevated mendacity in politics from an occasional vice to a lifestyle choice.

The search for deeper causes of the Brexit vote, however, cannot end with the press. A different electorate could have taken a different view, as they did in Scotland, which voted 2-1 to Remain.  What was the magic sauce?

Too many commentators, especially those on the Left, have blamed working-class anger. It’s all about social class, apparently. Lisa Mckenzie nearly predicted the result on that basis. Others use it simply to criticise Tory austerity politics. Blaming class can be woven into another favourite narrative - this is about lack of educational attainment. Anyone who has lived in Britain for any period of time knows the class system, the town-and-country divide, and intergenerational wealth disparities as important features of British life. 

Another favourite culprit is racism, as the Washington Post wondered on SaturdayOthers had the same thought, and racist attacks are on the rise. Given Nigel Farage’s antics in the weeks before the election, none of this is surprising. Amidst such scary stuff, many have tried to emphasise that most Brexit voters are not racist, but rather disillusioned with the rule of metropolitan elites. Douglas Carswell is one proponent of this argument, but he’s not alone. The Economist, in an effort to avoid talking about race, asserts that this result was about age, region and class.

Still, this kind of analysis is at best naïve and at worst disingenuous. 

As Lord Ashcroft’s polls suggest, it is only the white working class (if by this we mean C2/DE, though many in DE are unemployed) who voted for Brexit. In fact, those describing themselves as "in employment" generally voted to Remain. Those describing themselves as Asian, black or Muslims overwhelmingly voted Remain. By contrast, nearly six in ten white Protestants voted to leave. 

Brexit was a rejection of British multiculturalism. That is the real take-home message of the Ashcroft polls. Of those who see themselves as "English not British", 80 per cent voted to Leave, irrespective of social class. Those who see themselves as "British not English" voted 60 per cent for Remain. Similar patterns (and similar press involvement) can be found in the Quebec referendum of 1995, which failed by a narrower margin than Brexit succeeded.

Of non-Francophone voters in Quebec, 95 per cent voted to remain in Canada. Those who voted to leave, on the other hand, were rejecting Canadian multiculturalism. Quebecois separatism was seen as part of a struggle for cultural survival.  

Whether or not you call those attitudes racist, the advent of white English (and Welsh) nationalism is, for those of us who have taught modern European history, the truly ominous consequence of Brexit. Do not be fooled by the alternatives.

Dr D’Maris Coffman is a Senior Lecturer in Economics of the Built Environment at UCL Bartlett. Before coming to UCL in 2014, she was a Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Newnham College and a holder of a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in the Cambridge History Faculty.