The Syrian Civil War: Two Years On

Arab SpringTwo years ago today, on the 15th March 2011, small-scale protests were held in the southern city of Daraa in Syria in response to the imprisonment and torture of young students for writing anti-government graffiti.  A small event in a small city which in normal circumstances would be insignificant, but, by this point, two Arab dictators had been swept from power by popular protests in Egypt and Tunisia, unrest was brewing in Yemen and Bahrain, and a civil war had broken out in Libya.  This was part of the Arab Spring revolutionary wave, a new generation’s chance to claim freedom in a region infamous for brutal dictatorships and human rights abuses; a revolution which Syria’s government, headed by President Bashar al-Assad, was determined to prevent affecting his own country.

He failed.  As any thinking person could have perceived simply from the events of the last few months: oppression does not stop a popular uprising.  Perhaps Assad had hoped for a repeat of the Hama Massacre of 1982, an undocumented brutality by the Syrian regime which quelled an Islamic protest in the city of Hama, estimated to have killed tens of thousands.  In this age of the internet and mass communications truths cannot be hidden, and within days the protests had spread across the country.  The government responded, predictably, with bullets.  The protesters responded, predictably, with bullets of their own.

Syrian War Today

A crude war map of the current situation, taken from Wikipedia. Green represents government-held cities, brown those by the opposition and blue where the situation is unclear.

Two years on, what began as a peaceful protest has erupted into a full scale civil war, estimated to have claimed the lives of over 70,000 people and caused over 1 million Syrians to flee the country, in addition to 2 million who are internally displaced.  The country’s population was no more than 21 million before the war.  Unlike in Libya, where NATO had a UN mandate to intervene which brought about the downfall of Colonel Gaddafi, the international community has not become involved.  This is largely due to divisions: the West would like to see the Assad regime fall, partly because of humanitarian reasons but also due to his alliance with Iran.  However they are reluctant to do anything which could cause the situation to become anymore unstable; the horrific ethnic violence which resulted from the Iraq war is still fresh in recent memory.  A ‘Friends of Syria’ group has given the opposition political support; words and little else.  Only Qatar and Saudi Arabia are openly arming the opposition, and I highly doubt they are doing so in the name of democracy.  Furthermore, Russia and China both have strategic interests in Syria and have thus far refused attempts to take action against the Syrian government.  Their roles as permanent members on the UN Security Council has meant no resolutions against the regime can be adopted.

There is, however, a sign things are changing.  Recently both Prime Minister Cameron of the UK and President Hollande of France have suggested the possibility of arming the Syrian opposition – even if it means going against an EU arms sanction.  I can appreciate the dangers of such action, that it could cause more suffering and deaths, and that the weapons could fall into the arms of Islamic extremists.  My own personal belief is that both these things will happen anyway; the longer the stalemate goes on, the more people will die, and an Islamic group called the Al-Nusra Front has assumed massive influence in opposition-held parts of Syria – the Syrian people, abandoned by the world, have understandably turned to such groups.  The Assad regime is finished – of that there is no doubt.  Arming the rebels will bring the inevitable end to the war closer, in the long run resulting in fewer deaths and preventing Islamist groups from gaining any more influence.

Another interesting, small point to note is that the Syrian opposition, under the umbrella group ‘Syrian National Coalition’ – which has recognition from half of the world – has taken Syria’s seat in the Arab League.  The Arab League has taken a surprisingly anti-tyranny stance during the Arab Revolutions, considering its reputation as a kind of ‘Despots Club’ in the past.

I wrote in my 2013 predictions that the Assad regime would collapse this year.  This is no closer to a reality now than it was back in January and, while I am absolutely certain his government will not survive this war, he has surprised everyone by clinging onto power where others have not.  No one knows when, or how, this conflict will end.  Most analysts agree that the capture or death of Assad and the complete unraveling of his regime would probably not end the violence.  Wartime alliances would collapse – most likely the Free Syrian Army, the largest opposition armed group, would turn against the Al-Nusra Front.  The conflict already has an unsettling ethnic element, as Assad’s government is comprised largely of Alawites, whereas the rebellion has its core within Sunni Muslim groups.  Villages have turned upon each other, resulting in horrific massacres.  This could become far worse.  Syria could even collapse entirely and become a failed state like Somalia or Western Sahara.  It will be a long time before Syria sees stability once again.

Doctor Who: The Reign of Terror (Review)

Contains spoilers.

The Reign of Terror (1964) is one of those stories which holds a position of high respect within the Doctor Who fans’ collective psyche, as often happens to those unfortunate stories which  could not escape the jaws of misguided BBC decisions in the 1970s intact.  Two of its six episodes no longer exist after being wiped in order to create more filming space.  Fortunately, audio recordings exist for every Doctor Who episode filmed in the 60s, and though these can be poor quality they do give an insight into how the episodes were directed.  The announcement that this story would be animated was greeted with wide excitement.  I particularly looked forward to seeing it, considering my utter fascination with the historical period of revolutionary and post-revolutionary France between 1789 and 1871, previously satisfied by Les Misérables.  So I had high expectations for this story.

Unfortunately, myth is destined to always trump fact, and I ended up being slightly let down by the story.  The first disappointment was the plot, which begins slow and uninspiring and struggles to develop into something more meaningful.  The TARDIS lands The Doctor, Susan, Barbara and Ian in France, 1794, during the final days of the violent period dubbed ‘The Reign of Terror’ where radical republicans and revolutionaries, within less than a year, executed tens of thousands of ‘enemies of the revolution’ with the dreaded guillotine.  The characters find themselves caught up in these bloody events, first during the siege of a house used as a base by counter-revolutionaries which ends in bloodshed and flames, and then forced by circumstance into joining a group of monarchists and counter-revolutionaries.  These events signify the tone of the historical period they’re in, although the story frequently seems to forget this.

This all sounds promising, but unfortunately very much of the story is spent getting in and out of prison, which serves as the main setting for the story, or collaborating with the opposition whilst not achieving very much.  There’s just too much padding.  The plot does develop half way into the story, as the treacherous nature of the period is encapsulated by Léon’s betrayal of Ian and various attempts to reunite and escape during the final rebellion against Citizen Maximilien Robespierre’s tyrannical rule.

I did enjoy the historical characters very much.  Despite my interest in the period I have never really studied it, so knew little of Robespierre before watching, though it inspired me to do research afterwards.  I did, however, have a bit of a history-nerd moment when Napoleon Bonaparte walked into that backroom of the pub in episode 6.  Napoleon!!  Way before he became Emperor of France, back when he was simply a popular general.  That was very exciting.

As ever, I must look at this episode through the lens of a historian, and I’m afraid I don’t think the episode quite managed to develop the historical debate to a great enough extent. Doctor Who‘s a family show, so I guess that’s to be expected.  It’s just, the narrative does seem to suggest that ‘Republicans are bad’ ‘Monarchists/counter-revolutionaries are good’.  Well, in this context the ruling, extreme republicans were undoubtedly wrong to create such a dictatorial, oppressive regime, though they believed themselves to be in the right.  But essentially, the French Revolution marked the rise of Liberalism in Europe and an end to the absolute monarchy that could treat its citizens in any way it wished.  The Reign of Terror was a blip which inevitably occurs during the forced transition to democracy (see also: The Soviet Union, Hitler, current violence in Egypt, etc).  I just don’t believe this is an issue which can be cleanly divided between noble ‘heroes’ and villains’.  If you think about the monarchists, they want to impose a system upon the French people in which one person, typically a male, is born into supreme power.  How is that fair?  I suppose they could be constitutional monarchists, preferring a semi-democratic system like we have here in the UK rather than a full blown republic.  It’s never made clear.  This is somewhat rectified towards the end of the story, particularly during Barbara’s rant about the republicans not being ‘all bad’, which eases some of my issues.

Another historical problem was the fact that the characters seemed to be actively fighting against the Reign of Terror and actively willing to work with the counter-revolutionaries.  This jars, considering the issue of changing history was explored in much depth merely two episodes ago in The Aztecs, where the moral was quite clearly to not be involved.  Again, just as I’m finding this inaccuracy really distracting, it’s brought up by the characters themselves, although they still don’t really resolve the issue.

The characters and acting were all wonderful, as usual.  I particularly enjoyed William Hartnell’s acting as the Doctor, dressing up in that ridiculous ‘provincial official’ costume.  Some minor characters were rather two-dimensional, including the prison officer and some of the counter-revolutionaries, but generally they were well written.

I can’t finish this review without a comment on the animation.  Necessary for episodes 4 and 5, I should say first that I am incredibly grateful the animation exists at all.  I long thought that The Invasion would remain the only ‘lost’ story ever to receive animation, the the fact that The Reign of Terror and, soon, The Tenth Planet have also been animated is wonderful.  Despite this, I have to say that I think there were some very, um, interesting creative decisions taken by the animating team.  They do successfully create 3D likenesses of the characters who interact within living, breathing settings.  The characters’ movements are as fluid as could be expected.  In fact, I might say that they’re too fluid.  To prevent the characters from coming across as too rigid and ‘cartoony’, the animators seem to have gone over the top in animating every facial muscle possible whenever a character speaks, or is even on screen.  The facial muscles work well – just far too often!  You’d be forgiven for thinking someone had let off a batch of nerve gas.  And some of the editing is rather strange.  It’s been described as edited to a modern standard, which supposedly clashes with the 1960s style of editing the rest of the story has, but the constant cutting between shots every second or so, close ups of mouths and eyes, etc. is more bizarre and dizzying than even the fast-paced shows we have today.  I appreciate that to gaze upon an image of the animation for too long would betray their stillness (twitching aside), but again the jumping from shot to shot goes too far.  I hope Thetamation, the animation company, can learn from this and work out the issues to make a really good recreation for The Tenth Planet.

Overall, The Reign of Terror is a good story but not quite on the level I had hoped.

Final Rating: 6.5/10

Freedom In The World 2013

Taken from Wikimedia Commons.


Green = Free 
Yellow = Partly Free 
Blue = Not Free

Yesterday, pro-democracy group FreedomHouse published their annual report, ‘Freedom in the World 2013’, which reports on the state of political and social freedom on a country-by-country basis during 2012.  I was very eager to see the results, as their reports have become something of an authority in how I view freedom in the world.  One of many sources, obviously, but by far my favourite.

As you can see from the map, when comparing it to one I wrote about a month ago, not a huge amount has changed.  Europe and the Americas are still almost completely free, Southeast Asia and central Africa not so much, etc.  However the small changes which have occurred are extremely significant.  I made some mental predictions before reading the report, which I can boast were mostly along the right lines although were at times too optimistic or pessimistic.  I’m pleased to see that Ukraine and Venezuela are still perceived to be somewhat free countries, even if only on the fringes, for instance.  Russia and most of the other former Soviet states, particularly in central Asia, have continued their descent into autocracy.  Here are the rest of the countries which made significant changes:

Egypt
For the first time, Egypt is considered a ‘Partly Free’ country, in the wake of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.  Amid fears that the revolution would be hijacked, first by the ruling military and then by the Muslim Brotherhood, it is comforting to know that Egypt has at least made marginal progress, even if its political freedom rating is precarious at best.

Libya
More reassuringly, Libya has made significant gains.  Although also only ‘Partly Free’, considering it was only recently scoring the worst possible scores a country can achieve during Colonel Gadaffi’s totalitarian rule, his ouster in the 2011 Libyan Civil War has paved the way for extraordinary political and social progress.

Tunisia
Tunisia’s rating has not changed from the ‘Partly Free’ it achieved in the 2012 Report.  While it’s comforting to see the gains made after the 2011 Tunisian Revolution have been maintained, I had hoped to see freedom extend further.  But I think I was naive to expect such fast progress.

Mali
Mali always was going to score badly after the 2012 coup and conflict though I never appreciated just how badly.  Falling down all the way from ‘Free’ to ‘Not Free’, one of Africa’s most stable democracies has, in the space of a year, completely collapsed.  Not good.

Burma
Burma has now, for the first time, been reported to be a freer state than neighbouring China.  While still marked as ‘Not Free’, it is now at the top of that range rather than at the very bottom, due to political and social reforms being passed by the ruling military.  A slow, tentative improvement, but very encouraging.

Ivory Coast
With the Second Ivorian Civil War over with and democracy cautiously restored, the country has leapt up to ‘Partly Free’, albeit at the lower end of the category.

Other Positive Changes
Other countries to see positive changes are: Lesotho, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tonga, Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Mongolia and Bhutan.

Other Negative Changes
Other countries to see negative changes are: The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Iraq, Italy, Kenya, Kuwait, the Maldives, Rwanda, Tajikistan and Turkey.

Worst of the Worst
Countries titled ‘Worst of the Worst’, meaning they have achieved the worst possible score in both the political and social categories, are: Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Overall Trend
For the 7th year in a row, FreedomHouse has reported an overall decline in democratic standards across the world.  There is not reason to despair however, as for every decline in one country is, roughly, a gain in another.  The situation is not rapidly deteriorating – many of the declines are in fact a response in authoritarian countries to the rise of pro-democracy movements elsewhere.  Their fear is not without cause.

Israel’s Obsession with Walls

Israel appears to be developing an obsession with walls and barricades that would have made the Romans proud.*  First came the infamous West Bank barrier, which upon completion will cover around 700km, clearly separating the territory of Israel and the West Bank.  The Gaza Strip is separated similarly.  The stated purpose of this was to protect Israeli civilians from Palestinian terrorism, and in that respect is appears to have been a success.  But underneath this reasoning there may be a humanitarian disaster for the Palestinians.  The Palestinian economy declined between 2000 and 2002 as work on the barrier began, and has only made a feebly recovery.  Communities have been cut in half.  They have lost their human right to the freedom of movement.  This isn’t even getting into Israel’s highly criticised settlement policy.

The city of Jerusalem is increasingly becoming cut in half, between West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem.  Both Palestine and Israel consider Jerusalem their capital city – and of course, neither respect the right of the other to exist.  Israel, having won the most wars and gaining the most foreign military aid, now appears to exist more so than Palestine.  But that’s a different subject/rant altogether.  Jerusalem is bearing more and more resemblances to  Cold War Berlin, separated by the Berlin Wall.  We can only hope this wall will be brought down as peacefully.

Then I read the news article which inspired this post, commenting on the Israel-Egypt barrier being built along the border at Sinai.  And then, just as I was planning this post in my head, I read this news story of yet another barrier being planned, this time along the eastern border of the Golan Heights as a result of the Syrian Civil War.

The Golan Heights were captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967 and have remained in their possession ever since.   As the Syrian Civil War becomes ever more violent and bloody it has begun spilling into other countries – this can be seen in both Lebanon and Turkey.  Israel has remained neutral during the war – again a whole other subject – and does not want to be affected by the instability.  So up goes another wall.  Once more this barrier protects Israel from terrorism, this time the terrorists being radical Islamist insurgents who have gained influence in the Sinai region since the Egyptian Revolution.  However it was also intended to cut off the flow of African migrants into Israel, and in that respect it will certainly be successful once reaching completion early this year.  It is also hoped to crack down on illegal drug trafficking.

While there may be some legitimate reasons for all this obsessive building of walls, the fact is that it does nothing for Israel’s image of being an imperialist occupier, and the idea that a Second Apartheid is developing between the Jews and Arabs of the region.  In fact, a quick search with the words ‘barrier’ and ‘wall’ brings up results for every single one of Israel’s neighbours, though not all of these are quite so dramatic in scale.  Virtually, there are walls over every single one of Israel’s borders.  Extreme paranoia, an abuse of human rights or necessary defence?  I could not say.

*Well, okay, the Romans would have resented any attempt of wall-building by Israel, but that’s besides the point…

Morsi Rescinds Decree

President Morsi of Egypt has rescinded the decree he enacted several weeks ago giving him wide reaching powers, more powers than even Mubarak ever had.  This is clearly in response to the unrest that has plagued the increasingly divided country since his decision.  Although a victory for the opposition and Morsi’s critics, it will not go far enough.  The reason Morsi took these powers in the first place was in order to rush through a constitution which many claim is biased towards the views of the Muslim Brotherhood, and so in that respect his aims have still been fully achieved.  The opposition will be continuing to demand that the constitutional referendum is postponed and for fairer discussions over the drafting of the constitution.

So welcome news, but the crisis hasn’t ended yet.

Back in Tahrir Square

Image

After watching scenes of jubilation from Cairo’s Tahrir Square – the focus point for protests during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution – following the resignation of President Mubarak, I thought scenes like this would become confined to history books; hopefully to be remembered as the day Egypt won its freedom. Yet here we are, 22 months later, back in Tahrir Square, as the Egyptian people must still fight for their liberty.