Spice Bazaar reopens after a year long hiatus

 

Spice Bazaar is back again – but with a slight difference.

After a year long break, this site will now attempt to collate some of the most interesting news and writing currently shaping the Middle East.

I hope it will serve as a useful window onto an endlessly fascinating region.

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So, what do you think of your husband’s brutal crackdown, Mrs Assad?

Asma al-Assad in a photo from the now-infamous Vogue shoot

 

Originally published in The Independent, 18 October 2011

Vogue magazine famously called her a “rose in the desert”, while Paris Match proclaimed she was the “element of light in a country full of shadow zones”. But when Syria’s glamorous First Lady invited a group of aid workers to discuss the security situation with her last month, she appeared to have lost her gloss.

During the meeting, British-born Asma al-Assad – who grew up in Acton and attended a Church of England school in west London – came face to face with aid workers who had witnessed at first hand the brutality of her husband’s regime. Yet according to one volunteer who was present, the former investment banker and mother of President Bashar al-Assad’s three children appeared utterly unmoved when she heard about the plight of protesters.

“We told her about the killing of protesters,” said the man, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “We told her about the security forces attacking demonstrators. About them taking wounded people from cars and preventing people from getting to hospital … There was no reaction. She didn’t react at all. It was just like I was telling a normal story, something that happens every day.”

Syrians working with aid agencies to try to help the thousands injured as Mr Assad’s security forces unleash tanks, guns and airpower to crush a seven-month uprising against his rule had hoped for a lot more. The First Lady’s office contacted them and said she wanted to hear about the difficulties they faced in the field. She met the humanitarians in Damascus.

“She asked us about the risks of working under the current conditions,” he added. But when she was told about the abuses of power being committed by her husband’s notorious secret police, Mrs Assad’s blank face left them unimpressed. “She sees everything happening here. Everything is all over the news. It’s impossible she doesn’t know,” said the volunteer. Yet even if Mrs Assad does know about the worst of the violence and the 3,000 civilians human rights groups accuse the regime of killing, many people who have met her question what she could possibly do about it.

“Whatever her own views, she is completely hamstrung,” said Chris Doyle, the director of the Council of Arab-British Understanding. “There is no way the regime would allow her any room to voice dissent or leave the country. You can forget it.”

Mrs Assad, who achieved a first class degree in computer science from King’s College University, was brought up in Britain by her Syrian-born parents, who were close friends of Hafez al-Assad, the former President of Syria. She started dating Bashar al-Assad in her twenties, and they eventually married in 2000, when she moved to Syria for the first time.

According to one prominent Western biographer of the Assad family, Bashar chose Asma against the determined opposition of his sister and mother. “He had lots of beautiful girlfriends before her,” said the journalist, who asked not to be named. “He faced opposition when he wanted Asma because she was Sunni and he is Alawite. Here was Bashar al-Assad marrying outside the clan.”

She championed several development initiatives, and delivered genuine change by helping to create NGOs in Syria, as well as highlighting the plight of disabled children and laying the groundwork for plans to rehabilitate dozens of Syria’s ramshackle museums.

For some, she is the modern, made-up face of a former pariah state; to others, an aloof, 21st-century Marie Antoinette. Either way, nothing perhaps crystallised the fate of Syria’s First Lady better than the disastrously-timed interview run by Vogue magazine in its March issue this year.

Amid obsequious descriptions of Chanel jewellery and her matey banter with Brad Pitt during the Hollywood star’s 2009 visit to Syria, the article described how the Assad household was run on “wildly democratic principles”. According to Mrs Assad: “we all vote on what we want, and where.”

Naturally, many outraged Syrians were left asking why the Assads could not extend them the same courtesy.

Fears of civil war in Syria as defectors battle Bashar forces

Syrian troops pulling out of Daraa back in May

 

Originally published in The Independent, 29 September 2011

Fears are mounting that Syria may be on the verge of civil war as reports emerged yesterday that hundreds of army deserters were battling Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the first major confrontation against the regime.

With an intensification of violence looking increasingly likely, Britain and its EU allies have been forced to drop calls for immediate UN sanctions against Syria after major powers failed to agree upon a suitable course of action.

The UK, along with France, Germany and Portugal, circulated a heavily-diluted draft Security Council resolution condemning the Baathist regime in Damascus.

But calls for immediate sanctions were scrapped in the face of Russian and Chinese opposition. Delegates hoped that the weaker document, which demanded an “immediate end to all violence”, would eventually be approved by the two veto-wielding members.

One Syrian lobbyist, who was in New York yesterday pushing for firmer action, criticised the proposed resolution as “basically useless”. “In reality, it is very weak,” said Wissam Tarif, executive director of the Insan human rights organisation. “It doesn’t mention the International Criminal Court and it doesn’t mention an arms embargo.”

A series of European and US-sponsored sanctions against the Syrian regime are already in place, but no measures have yet been approved at the UN.

The developments in New York came as heavy fighting continued in the central Syrian town of Al-Rastan, an opposition stronghold which has become a bolthole for army deserters. Activists said that at least 1,000 former soldiers and armed citizens were now waging a battle against security forces, who were laying siege to the town backed up by tanks and helicopter gunships.

According to New York-based human rights organisation Avaaz, the Syrian regime was even deploying jets to bomb the town of 40,000 people, a claim that was repeated by at least two activist organisations monitoring the violence.

A third group said the jets had dropped poison gas, though it was impossible to verify either of the claims. Speaking to Avaaz, one witness said: “In Rastan they’re using military jets to shell their own people.”

Elsewhere in the town, there were reports of tanks shelling homes, helicopters strafing neighbourhoods with heavy machine guns, and electricity and water supplies being severed.

Nadim Houry, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Beirut, said he had heard reports of jets over Al-Rastan but had received no information about bombs being dropped. If the claim is true, it would mark a serious escalation of the violence. It will also heighten concerns that Syria is slipping into a Lebanese-style conflict that could seriously destabilise the region.

Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian exile and prominent opposition voice, said the fighting in Al-Rastan highlighted the need for firmer international action.

“This is why we need a no-fly zone,” he said, adding that such a measure would provide a much-needed safe haven for defecting troops.

Britain’s minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, said: “If ever there was a stark reminder that the UN must take further action, this is it.”

Although Syria’s protest movement has been largely peaceful since unrest erupted in March, recently there have been numerous reports of mutinous troops cobbling themselves together into rebel groups. The area around Homs, the central Syrian city about 10 miles south of Al-Rastan, has seen the greatest number of desertions. Some of the bloodiest crackdowns on protesters have happened in the region. The battle in Al-Rastan is the first major confrontation between deserters and the regime, though the majority of troops still remain loyal to the army.

Even so, activists have told The Independent that some protesters, in the face of brutal state-sponsored violence, are now looking to arm themselves. “People are looking for contacts and finance,” said one, who asked not to be named. Yesterday’s continuing violence came as Human Rights Watch called for a UN investigation into the decapitation of an 18-year-old Syrian woman.

Zainab al-Hosni, from Homs, was tortured and beheaded before her body was returned to her family. A nuclear engineer was also shot dead in Homs yesterday, according to Syria’s state news agency. Officials blamed “armed terrorists”, but activists said the regime was targeting academics.

Ahmad Biasi: the man who exposed Syrian regime’s lies

Ahmad Biasi risked his life to expose Syrian lies

Originally published in the Independent, 23 May 2011

In most countries it would have been inconsequential. But for Ahmad Biasi, a young man from a small town in north-west Syria, the simple act of filming himself in his home town captivated the Syrian protest movement, made him a symbol of the nationwide insurrection – and may have put his life in danger.

It began when he was filmed in a video uploaded onto YouTube last month. Just days before, another film had been broadcast on news networks around the world, purportedly showing Kalashnikov-waving security forces beating and stamping on prisoners who had been captured in the town of Al-Bayda, close to Banias in north-western Syria. Ahmad Biasi had been among those being beaten and kicked by gun-toting security men in the original video.

The government responded by saying the video had been faked, that the uniforms of the security men were not right, and that the film had probably been shot in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Presumably incensed by the lie, Ahmad Biasi set out to prove that forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had been as brutal as the video seemed to show. Using a mobile phone, he and his friends shot a long sequence of film which started by driving past the entry sign to Al-Bayda and continued with footage from the clearly recognisable town square where all the prisoners were held and beaten.

In an amazing act of bravery – an act which has amassed him a devoted Facebook following – he finished the video by standing in front of the camera and holding up his national ID card, thus proving to the world that he was the Syrian national in the original video.

But his bravery came at a terrible cost. Earlier this month, Ahmad was arrested by one of Syria’s most feared intelligence units. Human-rights activists – who received reports last week that he had died under torture – told The Independent that had been held in a secret-service headquarters in Damascus.

Before the weekend started, many people in Syria thought that Ahmad Biasi was dead. Human-rights organisations were receiving reports that he had suffered a terrifying final few hours at the hands of Syria’s secret police.

By Saturday night, it transpired he was very much alive and had given an interview to state television offering proof to that effect. “We know he was detained and taken by security,” said Wissam Tarif, executive director of the Syrian human-rights organisation Insan. “He was humiliated in front of other prisoners. They urinated on him and he lost consciousness after being electrocuted. He was very badly tortured. They made him an example to the others and made other prisoners watch as he was being tortured.”

According to Mr Tarif, the types of abuse used by the Air Force Intelligence Directorate – the notorious branch of the secret police believed to have taken Ahmad – include electrocution, nail extraction and genital mutilation. “The level of brutality they are using is just absurd,” Mr Tarif added. “It is so inhuman.”

Other human-rights organisations also received reports of Ahmad’s death. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, residents in Al-Bayda had feared that “Ahmad may have died after being subjected to severe torture”.

Then on Saturday night, possibly under pressure from the growing publicity surrounding his case, Syrian state television dropped a happy bombshell. It ran an interview showing Ahmad Biasi sitting on a leather chair in a blank room expressing his “surprise” at hearing about his own death.

Looking gaunt but otherwise healthy, he said: “I was home when I heard that I had died under torture in a prison. I was very surprised and I felt strange when I saw it on the news. I wondered how they broadcast such fake news. It is humiliating.”

Yet in spite of the dramatic turn of events, news of Ahmad’s fate may turn out to harm the Syrian regime more than it had anticipated when it released the footage. Activists have already accused the secret police of extracting a forced confession, while others are saying that the interview has inadvertently done what Ahmad intended to do in the first place: prove that he was Syrian and that the original video of government abuse did not take place in Iraq.

“He is now a hero of truth for protesters,” said a Syrian journalist from a small town outside Damascus. “The thing is that national television has proved that this video took a place in Syria. They proved how stupid they are.”

His plight is also gaining online attention from growing numbers of people inside and outside Syria who view the activist’s case as something of a cause célèbre – a rallying point for a nation in tumult.

Thousands of people have joined Facebook pages which have been set up in solidarity with Ahmad, while his case has attracted a small but growing following on Twitter.

Despite saying earlier in the year that he thought his country was impervious to the revolts shaking the Arab world, President Bashar al-Assad is now battling to contain a nationwide insurrection which began in the southern city of Deraa and has since spread to other major cities.

On Saturday, at least 11 people were killed in Homs when security forces opened fire on a funeral. The violence came a day after 44 people were killed in demonstrations around the country, according to the Syrian National Organisation for Human Rights. Rights groups say 850 activists have died and many thousands have been arrested and tortured since the uprising began.

The driver

A service taxi driver negotiates the streets of Damascus

Our driver today has a moustache which could sweep a conference hall.

Its greying bristles twitch in the wind as he heaves his van through the streets of Damascus, ferrying passengers along a route he has probably driven a thousand times.

The journey starts near the upper slopes of Mount Qassioun on the northern edge of the Syrian capital and winds its way down through the teeming streets to the Christian Quarter in the east of the Old City.

His service taxi, which like most of the others can hold about 12 people – a couple more if you don’t mind squatting without a seat – is a great leveller. Businessmen or students; ageing housewives hauling their shopping bags or young girls on their way to a night out in a coffee shop or bar; the driver takes all-comers.

And he is by no means alone. There are other men who work this road – and countless more who growl through the Syrian capital on separate routes which criss-cross Damascus like the circuits of a microchip.

For 10 Syrian pounds (around 12 pence) it is possible to get from one side of the city the other. Or a simple shout of al yameen lau samaht (on the right please) will see you dropped off at any point along the way.

The driver rarely turns round to meet the eyes of his passengers. As every 10 pound coin is passed through up to three sets of hands to the front of the van, he bends his right arm back as if he were a pallbearer then drops the fare into his money box on the dashboard.

One wonders whether he keeps track of every passenger’s contribution or simply relies on an assumption of goodwill among those on board.  It’s probably best not to try and hoodwink him though – he’s been around the block a few times after all.

Mountain People

Bludan

Bludan in the late afternoon sun

A short 45-minute hop from Damascus is Bludan, the gettaway town nestled in the scraggy mountains between Syria and Lebanon.

Beloved of affluent Damascene families and summer break Saudis alike, the village is a magnet for those wanting to escape the firey Syrian sun and breathe in some fresh, pine-scented mountain air.

There isn’t a whole lot to do and come early September and the place begins

Arcade

The kids of Bludan getting their kicks

to close down for the winter. Bar the occasional keffiyeh-clad tourist or the pot-bellied street hawker buying-up unwanted Emirati currency, Bludan is slowly sliding to a halt.

Not that the kids scurrying around the ramshackle arcade near the top of the village would know. Shooting pucks on the air hockey tables amid a fairground chirrup of beeps and ringing, they seem determined to defy the dying rays of Bludan’s summer.

And over at the  “Moses Cave” – a network of mine tunnels which were recently converted into a bizarre visitor experience complete with wall carvings, grotto restaurants and a murky, cave-floor boat ride – huddles of tourists wander around the catacombs chattering like restless ferrets.

But the waiter in one of the classically Syrian open-plan restaurants nearby confirms the lingering feeling which is beginning to settle here – the party is coming to a close.

The skewered shish taouk kebab is one of the only options available, he says. The management is not buying any more food in – Bludan will be forgotten once the sun begins to set.