IN every way, 2016 has been a challenging year to be a journalist. Shrinking print space, incessant cyber-attacks, the dumbing down of hard news, local mamparas, diminishing employment opportunities and increasing danger in doing one’s job, have been the background to an eventful and action-packed 12 months.
In 41 years I have never ended a year on such a note of global fretfulness, unpredictability and street rage. Even in stable democracies people have had enough, this leading to rampant populism and the rise of Trumpism – a case where anything just has to be better than debt slavery and neo-liberal hypocrisy.
This year a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists revealed that right now 259 journalists are sitting in jails. Eighty-one of them rot in Turkish cells and possibly face years of incarceration on questionable charges. The traditional chart-topper, China, has 38 reporters behind bars. Egypt heads the African ratings with 25 prisoners, followed by Eritrea with 16.
Tragically, 48 journalists perished while on duty in 2016. This tells us that the 21st century phenomenon of shooting the messenger – if all else fails in suppressing the truth – will continue well into the next decade.
One story that has typified all the above – and perhaps even more – has been Syria, the biggest human disaster in the Middle East since the Mongol hordes. Due to a lack of context, it has not been properly understood or reported on – especially given recent events in the besieged city of Aleppo and the agendas of the US, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Israel using it as a 21st century Cold War chessboard.
I can remember being quizzed by a Syrian humanitarian-aid doctor, whilst en-route in Libya from Ajdabiya to Benghazi in March 2011, what I thought would happen to Syria in the face of the so-called Arab Spring. “Will we be okay?” she had asked with tears in her eyes.
“Assad is too strong,” I can remember saying, adding that unlike Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, Assad would not step down. I reminded the doctor of what Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, had done in Hama. In response to an Islamic Brotherhood inspired uprising in 1982, he had killed thousands of Hama’s inhabitants, razing it to the ground.
I asked whether the Assad regime – supported by not only an Alawite minority, but also an elite Sunni class – would ever tolerate power-sharing. I added that secularist Ba’athism had its shortcomings, but it had caged the sectarian tiger tearing Iraq into pieces.
The Arab Spring, which I covered in detail, was never a homogenous event. Each country had its own unique characteristics, despite the common thread being overwhelming disquiet at decades of corrupt, self-serving rule that had generated widespread poverty.
Syria’s fate was sealed by several events, not least a crippling drought from 2008 that had impoverished large sectors of the rural community. A moribund economy and disastrous measures to re-invigorate it, combined with a youth bulge, had merely compounded resentment against the state, which most felt needed reform.
The Syrian uprising was sparked on April 2011 in the town of Daraa when a 13 year old boy, Hamza al-Khateeb, was killed by the mukhabarat, who not only electrocuted him, but broke his bones and cut his genitals off. Losing their fear, Syrians took to the streets in a wave of pro-democracy protests.
Space precludes more detail, but things did turn bloody when some army units deserted. Assad, unsure of how to break the mould, vacillated between state violence and hints of reform. He finally chose the iron fist and sent in the tanks.
This dragged Syria into a vortex. Unfortunately, the Eurozone did not understand that calling for Assad’s downfall, before negotiating a political settlement, was naïve in the extreme. The US’s response, (via the Gulf States) to support the Al-Qaeda aligned Jabhat an-Nusra and other extremist Salafi-Wahhabi groups, became part of the problem.
ISIS – an Iraqi phenomenon – quickly migrated with its Toyota 4X4’s into the Syrian vacuum, focusing its attention on fighting An-Nusra and other foreign-manned Syrian Salafi opposition units, and not Assad’s forces. The ‘Free Syrian Army’, a rag-tag force existing outside of the extremist paradigm, has always been a euphemistic term.
Iran, an edgy non-Arabic player and an arch-enemy of Saudi Arabia, sent in proxy Hezbollah forces. Iran’s intervention was seen as a geo-political move designed to prevent a pro-US-Israel axis emerging out of any peace deal. Hezbollah’s (and Iran’s) reputation has been badly sullied by its support for Assad in a conflict that has violated international law at almost every turn.
Russia’s intervention is partially explained by remembering that Syria is one of its longest standing allies, and that Russia’s last Cold War foothold in the Mediterranean is at the port of Tartus. However, Syria has never traditionally been a major consideration for the Kremlin.
But, a fear (shared with the US?) that ISIS could possibly march to Damascus did become a concern. Mindful of Muslim unease in the Caucasus, Putin – forever the KGB macho-man – wanted to show that Russia was a world military power, and that it should not be trifled with.
Aleppo, the story of the day as 2016 limps off the page, is the most tragic victim of a conflict complicated by political egos and characterised by the gross inhumanity of its players – whether from the east or the west.
Aleppo is another signpost of man’s inhumanity to man. It represents the lack of moral fibre of leaders who, if they were to spend just 24 hours in the battle zones, would beg for world peace. And as the ‘rebels’ of Aleppo seek shelter in the Idlib district, one can only fear the worst as the jets and barrel bombs follow them.
In Syria – apart from a bubble in Damascus – most of the country lies in ruin, half of its 22 million-strong population has been displaced, communities have been destroyed, schools and hospitals no longer function, its historical cities have been reduced to rubble and when the suffering is real and the graveyards full, as it is in Syria today, numbers simply become obscene.