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Syria Crisis: What can be done?

Demonstration in Homs

Regional military intervention, international interference, bi-lateral negotiations, round table meetings, humanitarian aid, unification of the opposition, arming of the rebels – these terms were being thrown around at the Frontline Club this evening, bouncing off each other only to be caught and chucked again, in a debate on the steps that should be taken for Syria. There may be many options, but as the heated discussion and its decent into a rabble of raised voices showed, there is no right answer here. The foreseeable outcome of every idea raised tonight is an extension of the bloodshed.

Ammar Waqqaf, a member of the Syrian Social Club which backs regime reform, said: “If NATO come in, the number of dead will be 700,000 not 7,000. The majority of Syrians don’t want the central government to collapse.” And that’s  not because they like the regime, but because they trust it more than an unknown entity to carry out reforms.

Syrian politician Mouna Ghanem said: “International intervention will not work.” She advocated round table negotiations between all parties.

But Malik Al-Abdeh, chief editor of Syrian opposition channel Barada TV, disagreed: “We’ve gone way past the point of negotiations, ” he said. “If Assad was interested, he would have done that long ago.”

Instead, he advocated arming the Free Syria Army so they stand a chance against Assad’s troops. “There isn’t enough strength to force Assad out,” he said. “Only military intervention can do that.”

And that is what the Free Syria Army are calling for – international assistance. They face an increasingly dangerous path and they can no longer see themselves succeeding on their own.

Ramita Navai, who spent 2 weeks in Syria for Unreported World in September, said the rebels she met then were adamant they wanted to do this on their own. They absolutely didn’t want international help. “But now,” she said, “they very much do.”

But Ms Ghonem maintained that the Syrian army is too big for the activists to take on, even if they are armed. And Ms Navai agreed. She compared the size of Gaddafi’s army to Assad’s, saying that what worked there could never work in Syria.

It took an hour before sectarian divides were brought up. Once again this caused friction in the panel. It was Mr Al-Abdeh who mentioned ‘the elephant in the room’ as he put it. “I don’t believe there was ever a sectarian problem in Syria,” he said. But since the 60s indignation among Sunni Muslims has been growing.

Ms Ghonem hotly refuted him, saying “Everybody is mixed in Syria, there is no separation.”

But according to Ms Navai, when the activists began their protests, they did so in the name of a repressed Sunni population led unfairly by the Alawite minority. “The sectarian issue is a big part of why this happened,” she said.

Whatever conclusions were drawn from tonight’s discussion, international military intervention seems unlikely, as does round table negotiation. Another observer mission is set to begin but a stalemate looks to be on the cards. Even if Assad stops the shelling, he doesn’t appear ready to leave office.

A transition to democracy and regime change never came easily but Assad and his allies are not making light work of it. The referendum on the new constitution may placate the moderate Syrians who are trying to just lead their lives, but it will appease few protesters. Plus there is little faith in its impact in the international community.

Can Assad really believe he will weather this storm and maintain his monopoly? Something the panel agreed on: Syria can never go back to pre-March 15th 2011.



After my post yesterday on the journalists killed in Syria this week, I should add that Marie Colvin was supposed to be at the Frontline Club event tonight, chairing it, but wrote to its founder Vaughan Smith to say she would no longer be able to do it. She said: “They’re killing people with impunity and I have to write what I can.” So she stayed a few more days.

The full panel discussion can be seen here on the Frontline Club’s live stream page. It was part of the series of talks in conjunction with BBC Arabic.



Marie Colvin BBC dispatch“Despite all the videos you see from the Ministry of Defence or the Pentagon, and all the sanitised language describing smart bombs and pinpoint strikes, the scene on the ground has remained remarkably the same for hundreds of years. Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers children.

Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice.”

This is part of a speech given by Marie Colvin at a ceremony remembering journalists killed in war in 2010. Many of the things she said that day, and throughout her career reflecting on what she did, have a cruel irony now. She went on to the question that is regularly put to journalists and editors, and is a matter of constant debate:

“Is it worth the cost in lives, heartbreak, loss? Can we really make a difference?

I faced that question when I was injured. In fact one paper ran a headline saying, has Marie Colvin gone too far this time? My answer then, and now, was that it is worth it.”

Remi Ochlik Libya World Press photoAnd that says it all. She died in a place, at a time when she couldn’t have been anywhere else. She is a standard bearer for our times and an inspiration for a new generation.

Alongside her on the 22nd February 2012 in Baba Amr, Homs, was Remi Ochlik. Just 2 weeks ago, at the age of 28, he had won the first prize in the World Press Photo News stories category, for his series of photographs in Libya. This is one of them.

On the same day, blogger Rami Al-Syed was also caught in the shellfire. He has been a key source of footage and information for news outlets worldwide and on his way to a hospital he was hit. The three people with him were killed instantly, and he died a short time later. Seven activists trying to get to him with medical supplies were also killed.

These three deaths among many are going to have an impact far beyond the relentless build up of bodies until now. As John Owen, international journalism professor and veteran journalist said today, they represent the core modern strands of news gathering. Without them, what would we know? What would we understand?

Marie Colvin believed in her profession with unwavering idealism. In her speech she continued, “Our mission is to speak the truth to power. We send home that first rough draft of history. We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians.”

She concluded, front line journalists, fixers, drivers, translators “have kept the faith, as we who remain must continue to do.”



Marie Colvin features in the documentary Bearing Witness which follows the work of female foreign correspondents  working during the Iraq invasion in 2003. It is an excellent film.

(Top picture, Marie Colvin speaking to BBC news the night before she was killed. Second picture, one of Remi Ochlik’s award winning photos taken in Libya during the revolution.)



On Valentine’s Day 2012, after 11 months of violence in Syria, around 60 British Syrians gathered on Westminster Bridge to remember the dead. They threw roses into the Thames and released balloons bearing the words: “Syria’s fallen roses.” This is the audio slideshow that I put together using the pictures and sound I took on the day.

More photos, as always, on my flickr.

Syrian boy at Trafalgar Square Amnesty protest Demonstrators gathered in Trafalgar Square to mark the one year anniversary of Mubarak’s departure, in solidarity with activists in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and their ongoing struggles.

The Bahraini human rights activist Maryam Alkhawaja said, in a speech to the crowd: “This is not Sunni versus Shia. It is the oppressor versus the oppressed.”

Photos here on my flickr.

The 25th January 2012, Cairo.

A first celebration, a second cry for true democracy, an ongoing call for the continued revolution: no longer such an act of defiance. Some things do change.

Picture courtesy of ‘We are all Khaled Said’ Facebook group.



“I’m a Muslim and I think that empowers me.” Maryam Alkhawaja is a Bahraini human rights activist and a strong advocate for the Bahraini revolution. Her sister is currently serving a 7 day sentence in Bahrain, charged with ‘illegal gathering’ and ‘incitement to hatred of the regime’.

“The Quran was interpreted by men to suit them.” Mervat Mhani is a Libyan activist working towards the development of Libyan society with her NGO Free Generation Movement.

“Human dignity is not a Western concept… Women’s rights are not culture dependent.” Sussan Tahmasebi is an Iranian women’s rights activist and founding member of the One Million Signatures movement.

If women of the Middle East are to overcome the decades of reduced access to civil liberties and participation in society, they must take matters into their own hands and empower themselves. There is very little the west can do anymore. That was one of the conclusions that could be drawn from the discussion at the Frontline Club‘s collaboration with BBC Arabic.

Mervat Mhani said that Western governments are seen as supporters of autocratic regimes and so anything perceived to be from the West is rejected. “The best way to help is to condemn all human rights violations,” she said. The key is to listen to and understand the culture in order to avoid disrespecting it. But she added that western NGOs and individuals can help by providing capacity building for women, training and workshops in self-empowerment, politics, leadership.

Maryam Alkhawaja said there’s also a problem in the First Ladies of the Arab world claiming to stand for women’s rights. How can someone claim that to be an advocate for the empowerment of women when their main function is as a wife? “It will take women who fought the revolutions to decide to continue the revolution as a revolution for women.”

Mervat Mhani thinks there’s hope. “I don’t see women stepping back and letting men take over,” she said. “A woman can be president and a Muslim.”

People may say that women have no experience of politics in Libya, or inded elsewhere in the Middle East, but as Lindsay Hilsum, international editor at Channel 4 news, chairing the talk, pointed out: nor do the men! So why should they have any less of a chance at contributing?

Sussan Tahmasebi is concerned that men will say “You did your part for the revolution, now go back home and look after your family.” But of course, “It’s not democracy if half the population has half rights.”

She made a plea to the new governments and councils forming in the region: “Draft laws that you can defend against your children in 30 years. Draft them so your kids don’t go to jail when they become politically active and question the system.”

They say cut-back we say fight back

Don’t you just hate it when education gets in the way of learning?! I was only able to get the National Demonstration against Fees and Cuts for about 10 minutes between doing assignments and interviews for class, so I took a few photos but that’s all. No search for the quote of the day, for the best placard, for the hotspots and no practice of random interviewing or sharp lead writing. In the past, though, I’ve found that people at protests are all too happy to talk, (a chance to have their voice heard!) but the ones who want to give you a piece of their mind rarely say something useable. To be blunt.

Anyway, the pictures I got are on my flickr.

Student protest photo

Women of the Night

Today’s contribution to the never-ending treatment-of-women saga is from Tessa Jowell, currently shadow Olympics minister. She’s managed to turn parking charges into an attack on women’s safety.

Writing in the Evening Standard, she says not only are women “shouldering more than two-thirds of the burden” of the cuts, as has been widely discussed (though how that is worked out I have no idea), but they, in particular, will suffer from the proposed new nighttime parking charges* in the West End. This argument against Westminster Council’s bid for more funds has been made elsewhere and is not the first of its kind. But I take issue with it for several reasons.

The argument goes that women will be at risk if they are not able to park their cars close to the venues they are attending (due to an aversion to paying up to £5 an hour for the privilege) because they will be walking alone at night. You can probably guess where I’m going with this, but stick with me.

In order for women to be, and feel, recognised as equal to men, they have to stop playing on their vulnerability. Yes, far more women get raped than men and yes it does happen to women who are walking the streets alone at night. But it also happens in their own homes and in nightclubs, and yes, in cars. And it also happens to men. According to the Home Office, 1 in 6 victims of sexual crime in the  UK in 2010-11 were male (crimes that were reported that is). Plus men are more often the victims of other violent crime such as mugging. So is Ms Jowell saying that they are not also at more risk, that women’s increased risk is of greater concern?

Another problem is also brought to mind, and it is the same point that was raised when, in an interview with a girl who had been raped, Eamonn Holmes asked why she was tempted to walk home and didn’t get a taxi. Fear of walking home is exactly what is exacerbated by articles like Ms Jowell’s, and exactly what portrays women as vulnerable – just asking for it. (Unless men are just as afraid as women are supposed to be, but I don’t think that’s what Mr Holmes meant.) Far be it from me to pass judgements on a broadcaster’s slip of the tongue, but this case was no slip of the tongue. He went on to advise her to always take taxis from now on. It must be deeply ingrained in his psyche for him to come out with that on live television and not think another thing of it. (Well, until the press rubbed their hands with glee…) So is Ms Jowell agreeing with Mr Holmes here, saying that women should be driving to Central London if they want to stay safe? That if they don’t have a car or a very handy bustop or money for a taxi, they shouldn’t go at all?

For as long as women are seen as victims, as the vulnerable of society, and for as long as they perpetuate that view themselves, they will not succeed in gaining an equal footing with men in any sphere. Women can be just as strong as men, and men can be just as vulnerable as women. It is only society that chooses which is which. I believe in equality of treatment of the sexes, but I am not a feminist. Much as feminists would wish it, men and women are not the same. But they both deserve respect in equal measure.

Personally I would never dream of driving into the West End – as Michael McIntyre so delicately put it, the traffic’s a nightmare! Not to mention petrol prices… So admittedly this parking price problem would not have the slightest effect on me were it to be introduced. The bus is just fine thanks, and I will continue to walk the streets at night, albeit sensibly briskly and with ears pricked, but out in the real world, taking it in.

*Their introduction has been postponed until Christmas due to the uproar

Creative editing

There was an article in the London Evening Standard last night about the photo exhibition “Becoming the Story”, which is on at the KK Outlet, showing pictures taken by photojournalist Giles Duley. He stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost three limbs, and now intends to return there once he is fit to continue his work. But this is not the story. Creative editing has fixed the spotlight on his girlfriend to bring him up the news agenda for the commuter audience.

At first, this struck me as odd – is a man’s determination in the face of adversity not enough of a news hook for a page 15 story in a human interest paper?  How many people are actually physically or mentally able to go back to a job which injured them that horrifically? In this case his decision to go back had already been reported in the Observer Magazine last weekend, and therefore somewhat old news, but his girlfriend’s comments are fresh from Wednesday night. “Our love has survived the bomb blast that cost my boyfriend his legs.” But is that any more newsworthy than the fact that he is going back? I would say no. But equally it’s got the story into the Standard and that’s not a bad thing.

After a hard day in the office, do people want to read a story about a man risking his life again to take some pictures, or a tale of love survives anything?

At a promotion event for the new AlJazeera programme Africa Investigates last night, producer Ron McCullagh made this point. If you want wide coverage of a story, it has to be interesting to the 9pm prime time viewer, looking for something to take his mind off day-to-day living. A story about terrible health statistics in Sierra Leone is probably not going to cut it. So this is today’s lesson: select the story, choose the angle, make an impact.

More on Africa Investigates and its premise later.

Occupy the London Stock Exchange

The occupiers around St Paul’s have settled themselves in for the long haul – toilets, kitchen space, recycling bins and solar panels promised… They are a highly organised bunch, if somewhat idealistic. But if their organisation stretches as far as planning this new world order they speak of, perhaps there’s a chance someone will listen. More photos on my flickr, click here.