Thursday, 19 July 2018

Review: My Country, by Kassem Eid

First posted at SyriaUK.

My Country, A Syrian Memoir
Kassem Eid, Bloomsbury, 2018

On the early morning of 21 August 2013, the Damascus suburbs of Zamalka and Ein Tarma in Eastern Ghouta, and Moadamiya in Western Ghouta, were attacked with rockets loaded with Sarin nerve agent. An estimated 1,500 people were killed. Kassem Eid, then 27 years old, was amongst the survivors.

The Sarin attack comes halfway through Kassem’s book. By then he has already told of how the people of Moadamiya had suffered regime violence, snipers, car bombs, massacres with hundreds shot or stabbed or burned by regime militia.

Childhood

When Kassem Eid was just three years old, his family came to Moadamiya. Only three miles from Damascus city, Kassem describes the rural quality of his childhood home town, with old mud houses, surrounded by fields and olive groves, with neighbouring families who had farmed there for generations. Kassem’s large Palestinian-Syrian family lived in one of the few modern buildings, a block built by the Ministry of Media for its employees.

Kassem describes his parents with great fondness, his late father working in TV, radio, and journalism, and passing to his young son an interest in the outside world and the English language through an illicit hoard of Reader’s Digest saved from the parents’ years in Saudi Arabia.

But as Kassem grew older, the harshness of his world was revealed. He tells of his first day at school, lined up under the sinister smile of the dictator Hafez al-Assad and reciting the daily pledges of loyalty, of learning that at every level Syria was governed by connections to the ranks of power, with no opening to advance on merit, and with privilege and power maintained by violence.

His friendships growing up included a few across sectarian divides. In particular he writes of his schoolfriend Majed, a son of a military pilot who goes on to be a fighter pilot himself, from an Alawite family, the same sect as Assad. Their relative positions are demonstrated in the sixth grade when Kassem outperforms Majed in test scores, only to be docked marks in his fimal report card to give the military officer’s son top place.

Later when the revolution comes, Kassem’s contacts with Alawites help him to arrange the smuggling of food and medicine into Moadamiya, but his relationship with Majed cannot survive the uprising. At their last meeting, Majed says, ‘Many Alawites hate Assad too, but we still fight for him, because if he falls, they’re coming for all of us.’

Revolution

Moadamiya’s revolution began with a protest on the afternoon of 18 March 2011. Around 300 people marched through the town centre calling for the resignation of the mayor, and for the return of municipal lands confiscated by the regime. Plain-clothes Shabiha regime agents arrived, armed with clubs, swords, and guns to attack the demonstrators. Despite this immediate resort to violence by the regime, Kassem describes himself and his family that evening daring to hope that freedom was possible for the first time in years.

With Shabiha militia on Moadamiya’s streets, the town’s community leaders went to negotiate with Air Force Intelligence chief Jamil Hassan, who threatened them: ‘Make sure that such events never happen again. We wil not be so forgiving next time.’ He was in a position to deliver on his threat. Germany’s chief federal prosecutor has recently filed charges against Jamil Hassan, for ‘crimes against humanity.’ He is charged with command responsibility for the systematic torture and killing of hundreds of detainees by Air Force Intelligence staff between 2011 and 2013.

Moadamiya’s residents knew much of what to expect from the start, even if they were to be shocked by the scale of what followed. Kassem knew from personal experience. Years earlier his eldest brother Yazid had spent months in prison after being picked up by Air Force Intelligence, and Kassem himself had previously been picked up by regime security forces, giving him a brief and brutal experience of the Syrian state’s violent system of institutionalised torture.

After the first protest, the Shabiha imposed a curfew on Moadamiya. Despite this, by early April Moadamiya saw daily protests of over 10,000 people, and over 15,000 people on Fridays, with every protest attacked by Shabiha.

The book describes how in those first weeks Kassem witnessed a horrifying sexual assault on two women by Shabiha, after which he persuaded his sister to leave Syria along with her young family. He and his brothers also persuaded their mother to leave for Jordan. Kassem began joining the protests, experiencing gunfire, and witnessing increasingly frequent killings by snipers.

Kassem puts the count of people killed in Moadamiya in the first seven or eight months as 200 people. More than 5,000 people were detained, including children, close to ten percent of Moadamiya’s total population. By the end of 2011, over seventy percent of the town’s population had fled. This was the point when some joined together to start the Free Syrian Army.

The year that followed, 2012, saw even more extreme violence, with executions in the streets and horrendous massacres where as many as 450 were killed by Shabiha in one event. Kassem describes the aftermaths of the massacres with images of pure horror. With his knowledge of English, Kassem focused on media activism, translating reports, filming fighting, and documenting casualties.

Although Kassem knew nearly every founding member of the FSA in Moadamiya from school or from the neighbourhood, at first he wasn’t ready himself to take that step. That day would come later, on the 21 of August 2013 when while still suffering the effects of nerve agent he picked up a gun and joined his neighbours in fighting to try and stop regime forces advancing into Moadamiya after the chemical attack.

Survival

The second half of the book describes what followed the international failure to respond forcefully to Assad’s chemical massacre: the grinding starvation siege of Moadamiya, the division and gradual surrender of the community, and his own surrender and then brazen escape from Syria.

But perhaps the bitterest experience was his time in America. He had told his friends in the first months of revolution that the United States had a million reasons to take Assad down. Now he experienced the alienation of visiting a society enjoying a privileged protected peace, disconnected from the reality of his war.

Protests in America were without gunshots, but a demonstration in America’s capital didn’t attract the thousands seen in Moadamiya. Just 1,400 people, most of them Syrian. Where, he asked, were Washington DC’s Muslims? Where were the non-Syrian Arabs, the Palestinians, the Americans who wanted to defend democratic values?

In America, Kassem spoke at universities, on news programmes, in meetings with policymakers. He writes that he was pleased when Samantha Power, Obama’s UN Ambassador, asked him to stand up in front of a Security Council meeting, but later he wished that he had not stood silently, but that he had screamed.

Kassem has cut a tight, powerful story from the span of his personal experience. No one book can capture the full scale of events in Syria in the past few years, but by the intensity of this sample of one neighbourhood seen through one pair of eyes, Kassem Eid’s memoir gives a powerful impression of the great drama and disaster of the Syrian revolution and its violent suppression.

The clear line Kassem Eid traces through this one vital part of Syria’s story should make a good introduction to readers not immersed in all of the war’s details, as well as being welcomed by those already deeply involved. May his testimony endure.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Dangers of believing in your own virtue

One of the recent defences of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn on the issue of antisemitism has been to point to a report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, and to suggest that its finding of prejudice being worse on the Far Right than the Far Left means that the problem in Labour is exaggerated.

My first thought on this was to question was whether the study was accurate, as other survey work a couple of years ago suggested the Far Left did mirror the Far Right in anti-Jewish views.

But then I also thought, what if the Institute for Jewish Policy Research numbers are accurate in showing fewer people with antisemitic views on the Far Left than the Far Right? If there are no more antisemites on the Far Left than anywhere else, why does Labour have a problem dealing with them?

We all have similar biases of over-rating our own judgement, and of seeking confirmation of our already existing views. Where we strongly identify with a group, these biases get reinforced by the group.

A problem for groups with a strong belief in their own collective virtue is that their confirmation bias renders them incapable of recognising vice within the group, so even though perpetrators of vice may be fewer inside the group than out, they can thrive more easily.

For example the number of people with paedophile tendencies may be no greater inside a religious group than outside, but they can thrive more easily inside because the group’s strong belief in its own virtue makes it harder for it to recognise the problem.

The more a group and the individuals within it believe in their own virtue, the harder the problem is to deal with. To say “I am an anti-racist” or “he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body” (a bizarre expression) and therefore conclude “I am not capable of racism” or “he is not capable of racism” is to be in denial about human nature, human fallibility, the complexities of human thought and human behaviour.

When this kind of thinking becomes applied to a group, even victims of prejudice within the group may find themselves incapable of recognising that prejudice because of their belief in the virtue of the group. This is how a cult functions.

So with Corbyn loyalists, we see a difficulty in recognising any instance of antisemitism amongst their own group.

A logical deduction from the knowledge that antisemitism exists throughout society would be for Corbyn supporters to expect that it also exists to a similar degree amongst their own number, but their strong belief in their own collective virtue—embodied in their belief in the virtue of their leader—means that their first reactions when faced with an accusation are:
  • This can’t be true because our leader is a man of virtue;
  • This must be a dishonest attack by political enemies;
  • This must be anti-Zionism falsely portrayed as antisemitism—even if the accusation has nothing to do with Israel.
So the possible presence of even an average proportion of antisemites is discounted; only explanations in line with preexisting biases can be considered; and explanations with little or no external evidence are felt to be compelling because they confirm well-established expectations.

It’s notable that the recent report about supporters of Jeremy Corbyn attempting to block action against Labour members facing complaints also included an instance of trying to block expulsion of a member accused of using a racial slur against a black candidate.

The greater the Corbynistas’ belief in their own virtue becomes, the harder it will be for them to recognise any vice amongst their own, not just the vice of antisemitism.

It won’t matter if there are no more antisemites, racists, misogynists, or xenophobes inside Labour than outside, the number that are there will find greater protection inside Labour than elsewhere.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Over the line

Friday, 21 July 2017

Syria’s crime story



Syria looks bloody awful and impossible to deal with.

Any sane person would want to run a mile.

Over five million Syrians have run much further.

But if we—you and me—don’t deal with it, the awfulness won’t stop. It will get worse. It will spread further. It will last longer. It will get even harder to deal with.

What can we do? Lots. There is lots we can do. There is lots we need to do. But first we need to recognise the threat to all of us if we continue to fail.

Syria is the world’s biggest crime scene. It’s the crime of the century. And the crime wave has spread through the whole neighbourhood and beyond.

The scale of the crime in Syria is impossible to take in. When we turn to a crime novel for light relief, we read of one or two people being murdered, and the entire plot revolves around identifying and stopping the killer. In Syria, something like half a million people have been killed. One organisation alone has gathered names and details of over 209,000 individual civilians violently killed, with the vast majority, over 196,000, killed by the Assad regime and its allies.

Assad is the main killer. But because he and his allies have killed hundreds of thousands of ordinary adults and children, rather than just the one or two of a crime novel, we don’t get a neat detective story where he is tracked down and brought to justice. Instead of a police cell, he has a seat at the UN. Instead of a trial, he is cajoled to join in negotiations in Geneva. Instead of justice, he is offered bribes of billions of reconstruction money if only he will make a deal.

In a crime novel, why is it so important to catch the criminal? People die for all sorts of reasons—very few by murder. But crime threatens society more widely. Stopping crime, stopping killers, isn’t just about stopping a threat to a few individuals, it is about protecting an entire society from a breakdown in trust.

To prosper, a society needs trust. For our everyday dealings with each other to run smoothly, we need to be able to trust that we are not all out to rob or injure each other. And when someone violates that trust, we need to know we can rely on each other to stop them from repeating that violation.

International relations similarly require trust. Without trust we are unable to travel, unable to trade over any distance. Without trust we face piracy, plunder, and war.

There will always be some violations of trust in international relations as within nations’ own societies. Maintaining trust depends on sincere collective efforts to counter those violations.

The failure on Syria has torn an enormous hole in that international trust. Governments cannot trust governments that are openly opposed to them, but now also find they cannot trust governments that are supposed to be their allies. And the international lack of trust then spreads into national societies with heightened xenophobia and extremism.

The unravelling goes like this: Assad sees himself free to shoot, torture, bomb and poison Syrian men, women, children, by the thousands. International governments show themselves unwilling to join in collective action to stop him, judging the risk too great. UN resolutions and all the other instruments of diplomacy are revealed as a sham.

And as governments find it easier to tolerate Syrians being murdered in Syria than to stand together against Assad, why not tolerate them drowning in the Mediterranean? The judgement is similar: the political risk of uniting in offering safe passage is deemed too great.

Then the same applies when we reach Europe’s shore: brutality triumphs over unity. If murder abroad and drowning offshore is acceptable, how different is it inside Europe’s borders?

In Europe, instead of an effective collective humanitarian response, we’ve had separate states fracturing into individual responses of varying degrees of brutality. This hasn’t just harmed Syrians arriving to Europe, it continues to harm European societies. If a Syrian could be beaten, or robbed, or detained without charge in a European country yesterday, who else can be beaten or robbed or detained in that country today? And which country will it happen in tomorrow?

This unravelling of trust has gone so far that we risk losing sight of where it begins. It has gone on so long we risk believing this is how the world must be.

So what can we do? First, recognise that crimes on the scale seen in Syria are not an internal issue but an international threat. They threaten all of our societies and all of humanity. They threaten us, our friends, our families, our children. Stopping these crimes in Syria is a matter of self defence.

Second, understand that we may need to use force. The UK and other states accept the need to use force against international non-state criminal threats in Syria: against Al Qaeda and ISIS. The Assad regime is equally an international criminal threat, even though it clings to the trappings of a state.

Third, understand that to restore trust we have to protect civilians. Assad’s crime is the mass slaughter of civilians, and the deliberate destruction of any civil society outside the control of the regime. Merely prosecuting a few individuals at some future date will not restore trust either within Syria or internationally.

Protecting civilians is not a simple task for today or tomorrow. It requires long term commitment to protecting Syrian lives and protecting and supporting independent Syrian civil society. It requires showing trust and earning trust, not a hit and run action followed by handover to the next authoritarian offering security in exchange for an arms deal.

We have so far failed on Syria because of individual and collective failures of comprehension, of imagination, of morality, and of courage. Changing that is not just a task for leaders; it is a task for all of us in understanding our own personal stake in the outcome of Syria’s crime story.