Tuesday 4 September 2012

From Tehran to Grozny to Damascus

I was disheartened to read what a Syrian activist wrote today in Arabic on his Twitter page, which translates as:
“Don’t read a word of the Arabs’ scripts. Their warfare is hearsay. Their sword is timber-made. Their love is betrayal. And their pledge is a lie.”
But reading shortly after an overnight Agence France Presse (AFP) dispatch filed by Dominique Soguel from Aleppo soothed my heartache.
The dispatch, which is very widely quoted today in the regional media, reads:
ALEPPO, Syria — Veteran war surgeon Jacques Bérès has his own compelling reasons for urging that a no-fly zone be imposed over Syria -- one bomb dropped by the regime leaves more wounded than doctors can fix in a day.
Working under cover in the northern city of Aleppo, which has been pounded for weeks as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces seek to overrun rebel bastions, Bérès insists the death toll in the Syrian conflict is higher than what is reported.
“At least 50,000 people have been killed without counting the disappeared,” Bérès, a French surgeon who daily patches up dozens of people in a hospital near the frontlines of Aleppo, told AFP in an interview.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground across Syria, has given a latest toll of at least 26,283 people killed in Syria since the revolt began in March last year -- 18,695 civilians, 1,079 defectors and 6,509 troops.
But Bérès said watchdogs such as the Britain-based Observatory are unable to paint a full picture of the losses because many deaths are documented “only with ink and paper.”
“I am sure that the dead that I have here are not tallied in London,” said Bérès.
In the past two weeks, he said, he has treated a daily average of 20 to 45 wounded people, the majority of them fighters with the opposition Free Syria Army, including “quite a few jihadists.”
Fatalities in rebel ranks range between two and six each day, he said.
But those are just the figures collected in one small hospital within a massive commercial city, which is now almost evenly divided between rebel and army-controlled areas.
Many grey zones lie between both camps and the security situation remains fluid: shops open and pedestrian traffic has resumed in some neighborhoods while tank shells and mortar hit others.
“It is shameful that a no-fly zone hasn’t been set up,” said the co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, setting aside a cup of tea to review X-rays and offer a Syrian colleague advice on how best to dislodge a bullet from a man's leg.
“It is an incredible massacre. Even if now it is a civil war, it is a very asymmetric conflict: light weapons against tanks and aerial bombardment,” said Bérès, whose experience on the field covers almost every major war from Vietnam in the sixties to Libya last year.
“All this because they asked for a little bit of freedom and said that they had enough of Bashar.”
This is the third humanitarian mission that Bérès has undertaken to Syria this year, backed variously by organizations such as France Syrie Democracie, UAM93, Doctors Without Borders, and AAVS (Association d'Aide aux Victimes en Syrie).
He was in the central city of Homs in February when the neighborhood of Baba Amr was decimated by Assad forces.
In May he roamed around Idlib province where he says pro-regime soldiers destroyed pharmacies and burned a clinic down to the ground.
Bérès, in his seventies, has been smuggling himself into the country at great risk, armed only with the firm belief that he has a “humanitarian duty to heal” even though “in one second a bomb leaves more people wounded than a surgeon can fix in a day.”
Compare the above with:
(1) The futile attempts made last February by a group of Jordanian, Egyptian, Tunisian and Gulf Arab physicians affiliated with the Arab Doctors Union to enter Syria. They gathered at Jordan's northern border with Syria, demanding that they either be allowed inside to treat Syrians wounded or that those injured be permitted to seek medical care outside the country. Damascus turned down their request three times on both counts.
(2) The shocking remark made by Assad last June, when he compared his security forces to surgeons working to save the life of their patients. Speaking before his newly selected parliament, he said: “When a surgeon ... cuts and cleans and amputates, and the wound bleeds, do we say to him your hands are stained with blood? Or do we thank him for saving the patient?”
Separately, prominent Lebanese novelist playwright, critic and public intellectual Elias Khoury comments today on what he describes as the journey “From Tehran to Grozny to Damascus.”
Writing for the London-based pan-Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi, Khoury says the Assad regime’s crackdown on the Syrian opposition “has gone through two stages: the Iranian phase stretching from the onset of the uprising in March 2011 to the blitzing of Baba Amr in March 2012, followed by the second phase that I would call the Chechen phase.”
Khoury continues:
In the first phase, the Assad regime sought to implement the plan Tehran used to stifle the 2009-2010 Green Revolution that erupted in Iran after the so-called “re-election” of Mahmud Ahmadinejad as president.
The Iranian template proved inapplicable in Syria because it was unrelated to Syrian reality.
The Green Revolution had its roots in the major cities, chiefly Tehran. It failed to take off in the rural areas. The latter remained loyal to the concept of Wilayat al Faqih advanced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Moreover, the political legitimacy of the Iranian command derived from its doctrinal and religious legitimacy as enunciated by Khomeini.
The Syrian Revolution in contrast broke out first in cities a long way from the country’s political capital Damascus and its economic heart Aleppo.
Brutal repression of protests in the rural cities incited the Syrian countryside to join the revolution. Suppression of the insurgency by the classical measures used in Iran proved unworkable.
The failed attempt simply triggered defections from army ranks, the rise of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the public’s recourse to arms. Instead of their revolt being stifled, Syria’s rural areas inflamed the insurgency in the two centers of political and economic gravity, Damascus and Aleppo.
This is not to mention also that the Syrian regime draws neither social nor political nor religious legitimacy.
When the Iranian template proved ill suited, the Syrian regime fell back on another mold for its second phase of repression: the Chechnya template featuring the destruction of Grozny.
The Chechnya-Grozny blueprint is the brainchild of “Russian mini tsar Vladimir Putin.” It allowed the Russian Federation to use the massive firepower of its artillery, tanks and warplanes to systematically obliterate Grozny.
The Assad regime’s recourse to the Chechnya model is shortsighted:
  1. Because Chechnya has a population of about one million and forms part of the Russian Federation, which surrounds it on all sides. It sought to break away from Russia and become independent. This is nothing like the Syrian Revolution, which is a revolution by a majority of citizens against a tyrant, instead of foreign rule.
  2. Because the “mini Tsar sitting in Moscow fought his war against a weak and dispossessed ethnic minority under the banner of protecting Russia. But the “mini Mamlouk” sitting in Damascus is not fighting a small town of 400,000 people like Grozny but all Syrian cities.
The Chechen solution for Syria is collapsing, much like the Iranian solution before it, Khoury concludes.
(Interestingly, Russia state news agency RIA Novosti reports today: “Simultaneously with the threat of attacks on civil airports [by the FSA], the Foreign Ministry [in Moscow] advised Russians not to travel to Syria and advised Russians already in Syria to find the safest available routes out of the country.”)