Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Nir Rosen's reports from Syria

Today, the final installment of Nir Rosen's interview series with al-Jazeera was published.  Rosen, a Lebanon based journalist and the author of two books: "In the Belly of the Green Bird: The triumph of the martyrs in Iraq" and "Aftermath: following the bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World," spent the last two months in Syria, the second extended trip he has made to the embattled state in the past year.
His interviews can be found here:
Part 1: Armed Opposition
Part 2: The Protest Movement
Part 3: Syrian Sectarianism
Part 4: Daily Life in Syria
Part 5: Rosen's predictions
And here is his website, full of his previous reporting from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East

Some excerpts from each section follow below:
On the Armed Opposition
  • The FSA is a name endorsed and signed on to by diverse armed opposition actors throughout the country, who each operate in a similar manner and towards a similar goal, but each with local leadership. Local armed groups have only limited communication with those in neighbouring towns or provinces - and, moreover, they were operating long before the summer.
  • While fighters are often portrayed in the media as defectors from the Syrian military, the majority are civilians who have taken up arms. The opposition believes it will have more legitimacy if fighters are dubbed "defectors", and described collectively as the Free Syrian Army.
  • In my encounters with armed opposition groups throughout Syria, I was reminded of Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in south Lebanon, Iraqi Sunni and Shia insurgents and resistance groups as well as the Taliban in Afghan villages - not in the religious sense, but in how they were an organic part of the community. 
  •  The armed phenomenon began in rural areas, known in Arabic as the reef, and in the working class urban shaabiareas. Men there were more likely to own guns and were known as qabaday - "tough" men more likely to have the courage (and potential for violence) that one needs to respond violently to security forces. 
  • From an early stage of the uprising, suspected informants for the regime have been intimidated, expelled and often killed.
  • The armed groups generally operate secretly and in small groups, conducting ambushes on targets of opportunity using light arms and, increasingly, improvised explosive devices. For the past few months, insurgents have been using improvised explosive devices such as those found in Iraq, Afghanistan or southern Lebanon. Unlike in Iraq, however, the explosives used in these IEDs are fertiliser-based. These have been used in Idlib, Hama and Homs. In addition, rocket-propelled grenades - such as LAW anti-tank shells - have also more recently been used as shoulder-fired anti-armour missiles. The fighters have access to some sniper rifles as well.
  • The Syrian insurgency is not well-armed or well-funded. Fighters purchase their weapons locally on the black market, from arms dealers and smugglers who are profiting from the violence in Syria. I have been with insurgents purchasing weapons and seen how they arrange to do so via smugglers from Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey.
  • Many fund their arms purchases by turning to their savings or selling what valuables they have, or the products of their shops or farms. Others borrow money from friends. Much of the financing comes from Syrian businessmen inside or outside the country. Some Syrian opposition activists and politicians in exile are sending money to people inside. In addition, diaspora Syrians tied to Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, or to conservative clerics in the Gulf, also send money to certain groups.
  • The debate over whether or not it is peaceful is not based on empirical research but on propaganda from both sides. The pro-regime media wants to portray the revolutionaries as nothing more than armed criminals and terrorist gangs. In response, opposition supporters have, until recently, denied all violence - fetishising the notion of a peaceful revolution - which has hurt not only their credibility, but the credibility of foreign media which often uncritically report their accounts.
  • Every day the opposition gives a death toll, usually without any explanation of the cause of the deaths. Many of those reported killed are in fact dead opposition fighters, but the cause of their death is hidden and they are described in reports as innocent civilians killed by security forces, as if they were all merely protesting or sitting in their homes. Of course, those deaths still happen regularly as well.  And, every day, members of the Syrian army, security agencies and the vague paramilitary and militia phenomenon known as shabiha ["thugs"] are also killed by anti-regime fighters.
  • A the fighters I met - in the provinces of Homs, Idlib, Hama, Deraa and the Damascus suburbs - were Sunni Muslims, and most were pious.
  • They fight for a multitude of reasons: for their friends, for their neighbourhoods, for their villages, for their province, for revenge, for self-defence, for dignity, for their brethren in other parts of the country who are also fighting. They do not read religious literature or listen to sermons. Their views on Islam are consistent with the general attitudes of Syrian Sunni society, which is conservative and religious.

On the Protest Movement

  • The revolution is strongest in rural areas, the smaller cities and the working class,shaabi, areas of Homs, Damascus and Aleppo. But there are also many wealthy and educated activists in the revolution. 
  • Most protesters are in their late teens to mid 20s, but in many areas one can see middle-aged and even elderly men taking part. Leaders tend to be older, usually in their 30s to their 50s.
  • While the revolution is strongest among the Sunni population, I have met many activists from Druze, Christian and even Alawite backgrounds. Unlike Sunnis however, minority activists cannot rely on the support of their broader communities.
  • I have met many secular activists, who for example drink alcohol or date the opposite sex. There are female activists who dress in western fashions.
  • Women are playing a rather limited role in the uprising. This is in part because the uprising is strongest in socially conservative areas. However, even in the most conservative areas such as the Damascus suburb of Douma - where almost all residents belong to the conservative Hanbali school of Sunni Islam and where almost every woman on the street is covering her entire face - there are women's demonstrations or a crowd of women in the back of protests chanting along. 
  • The nature of the demonstration is determined by the security situation. If it is in a "liberated" area it may last for well over an hour and number in the thousands. It may be "protected" by the armed opposition. Additionally there are neighbourhoods in Damascus, Homs and recently even Aleppo where armed opposition fighters guard the roads leading to the demonstration to hold off security forces. These demonstrations may be roving, marching throughout the neighbourhood, or remain in one location. 
  • Typically there are lights, banners, flags, and loudspeakers. Each demonstration is led by a hateef who sings songs and is cheered if the lyrics are clever or humorous. Some, like former football player Abdelbaset Sarut in Homs, have become celebrities. The same core of songs are sung throughout the country though there are always local inventions too.
  • There is a carnival-like atmosphere for most demonstrations, a celebration of life and dignity. Political speeches are given, educating participants in the values of the revolution, and announcements are made. Poems are also recited.
  • Demonstrators frequently sing praises of satellite channels they view as sympathetic to the revolution while condemning the pro-regime channels of Syria as well as its allies in Lebanon.
  • Organisers meet activists to plan the time and location. They design banners, decide on the slogans, produce signs - all in a safe house. They arrange lighting, loud speakers or sound systems....In many places they coordinate with the opposition's security teams who block the streets to prevent regime security from entering. These teams collect rocks or Molotov cocktails to delay security forces so demonstrators can flee. They post lookouts to warn of approaching security forces. And in much of Syria, since the summer, protest organisers coordinate with local armed groups to protect them and post armed sentries around demonstrations. 
  • While most demonstrations are non-violent, by April demonstrators clashed with security forces, throwing stones or Molotov cocktails. In some towns or neighbourhoods they would attack security headquarters and other government buildings they associated with repression, such as Baath party offices or ministry of interior or justice branches.
  • In November I returned to Homs after a two month absence. "The days of rocks are over," said a friend of mine who used to throw rocks at security forces in demonstrations. "A new phase has begun of the Free Syrian Army defending demonstrations, and there are less demonstrations because security forces shoot more."
  • Activists throughout Syria established larger, more formal structures, to coordinate the various activities of the opposition. Often the leaders of these organisations were better educated and older than the activists on the streets. The Homs Revolutionary Council was formed in September. It has committees dealing with security and armed operations, media, demonstrations, medical, humanitarian, and legal needs. As of January, it was feeding 16,000 families throughout the province. Its leadership is elected and lives clandestine double lives. 
  • Communication is difficult for them. The regime can monitor phone calls so they have to use mobile phones not registered in their names - often the phones of slain "martyrs" of the uprising. Skype is also essential and one of the main methods of communication because it is believed to be hardest to monitor. Often land lines, mobile phones and internet are cut off, presenting a challenge to those without rare access to satellite internet or phones.

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