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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Five of Scotland’s most exciting general election battles

Will unionists hook the big Salmond in Gordon? And can the Tories overrun the Scottish Borders? Everything's up for grabs. 

In 2015, the Scottish National Party won Scotland in a landslide. With the next election expected in 2020, politics for the next five years looked homogenous, managerial and predictable. 

But then came Brexit, talk of a second independence referendum, and an early election. Now everything's at play. Depending on your perspective, this is a proxy indyref2, or a chance to condemn the Brexit government, or the opporunity to turn Scotland blue. One thing is sure - local contests will not just be about collecting the bins on time, but about the great constitutional questions of the day. With a giant splash of egotism. 

Here is my pick of the constituency battles to watch:

1. Who’s the biggest unionist of them all?

Constituency: East Renfrewshire
Battle to watch: Blair McDougall (Labour) vs Paul Masterton (Tory)

If anything symbolised the #Indyreffightback, it was the toppling of Jim Murphy, the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire in 2015. Murphy had slogged away for the No campaign during the 2014 referendum, braving egg throwers and cybernat centurions to make the case for the UK in 100 towns across Scotland. Being ousted by the Scottish National Party’s Kirsten Oswald was the biggest metaphorical egg of them all. 

Still, Murphy only lost by 3,718 votes. The self-styled defenders of the union, the Scottish Tories, have spied an opportunity, and made East Renfrewshire a target seat. Paul Masterton, a local activist, hopes to follow in the footsteps of Jackson Carlaw, who snapped up the same area for the Tories in the Scottish parliamentary elections last year. 

But who’s that appearing on the horizon? Blair McDougall, the former Better Together chief, is waving Labour’s banner. And no one can accuse him of flip flopping on the independence question. 

Since quashing a second independence referendum is the priority for pro-union voters of East Renfrewshire choose, they are likely to vote tactically. So which candidate can persuade them  he’s the winner?

2. The best shade of yellow

Constituency: East Dunbartonshire
Battle: Jo Swinson (Lib Dem) vs John Nicolson (Labour)

When Jo Swinson first won her home constituency in 2005, she was just 25, and by her early thirties, she was pacing the inner sanctums of the Coalition government. But in 2015, East Dunbartonshire voters decided to give her an early retirement and opted for the former broadcaster, the SNP’s John Nicolson, instead by 2,167 votes. 

In England, the Lib Dem surge has been fuelled by an emotional Europeanism. Swinson, though, can sing “Ode to Joy” as many times as she wants – it won’t change the fact that Nicolson is also against Brexit.
So instead, the contest is likely to come down to two factors. One is the characters involved. Nicolson has used his media clout to raise his profile – but has also been accused of “bullying” STV into dropping its political editor Stephen Daisley (Nicolson denies the claims)

The other is the independence referendum. East Dunbartonshire voted 61.2 per cent to stay in the UK in 2014. If voters feel the same way, and vote tactically this time, Nicolson may wish to resurrect his TV career. 

3. Revenge of the Tories

Constituency: Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk
Battle: John Lamont (Tory) vs Calum Kerr (SNP)

And the winner is… anyone who can reel off this constituency name without twisting their tongue. Let’s call it BRK, or Project Blue. 

BRK, a rural constituency in the Scottish borders, was once a comfortable home for the Liberal Democrat Michael Moore. He was driven out in 2015 by the SNP’s Calum Kerr. Indeed, such was the political turmoil that Moore slumped to third place. Kerr’s biggest rival was the conservative John Lamont. 

Two years later, the electoral horns are sounding, and Lamont is so confident of his victory that he is standing down as an MSP. There were just 328 votes between him and Kerr last time round. So who will be the new ruler of BRK?

4. Labour’s last stand

Constituency: Edinburgh South
Battle: Ian Murray (Labour) vs everyone else

When Ian Murray first won Edinburgh South for Labour in 2010, he might have been in his early thirties, but he was surrounded by Labour heavyweights like Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy. Five years later, after a catastrophic election night, he was the only Labour MP left in Scotland. 

Murray’s survival is down partly to his seat – a leafy, academic constituency that epitomises Edinburgh’s pro-union, pro-Remain vote – and his no-nonsense opinion on both these issues (he’s no fan of Jeremy Corbyn either). A similarly-minded Labour candidate, Daniel Johnson, won the overlapping Scottish parliamentary constituency in 2016.

Now, though, Murray is fighting a defensive battle on two fronts. The SNP came second in 2015, and will likely field a candidate again. But those with longer memories know that Edinburgh South was once a Tory realm. Stephanie Smith, who is also standing for local elections, will be trying to take a bite out of Murray’s pro-union vote. 

Still, Murray has a good chance of outlasting the siege. As one Labour activist put it: “I think I’ll be spending the next six weeks camping out in Edinburgh South.” 

5. The big fish in the pond

Constituency: Gordon
Battle: Alex Salmond (SNP) vs Colin Clark (Tory)

Freed from the chains of high office, Alex Salmond is increasingly in touch with his inner charismatic bully. When not trying to wind up Anna Soubry, he is talking up a second independence referendum at inconvenient moments and baiting the Brexiteers. This is the big fish the pro-union movement would love to catch. 

But can they do it? Salmond won the seat in 2015 from the Liberal Democrats with a majority of 8,687 votes. Taking on this whopper is Colin Clark, a humble Tory councillor, and he knows what he’s up against.  He called for every unionist to back him, adding: “I have been in training since 2015 and I am fit and ready to win this seat in June.”

To get a sense of how much the Scottish referendum has changed politics, consider the fact that Labour activists are ludicrously excited by this prospect. But however slippery he may be, the SNP goliath in person can win over even devout unionists.  I’m not betting on a hooked Salmond any time soon. 

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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