Sunday, May 26, 2013

Decadence and death inside Damascus city walls

Damascus is a schizophrenic place, writes Ruth Sherlock. It is a city hunkered down in war, blighted by shellfire, blitzed by warplanes - and a thriving capital where business continues and the parties go on.

The waiters passed between tables, carrying silver platters piled with meat, fruits and elaborate desserts. Beneath glittering chandeliers the guests guzzled wine and clapped rhythmically to the music of the singer on the stage.

The party at the Damas Rose hotel in Damascus was in full swing. The ladies had coiffed their hair, applied blusher to their cheeks, and wore corsets and tight, silky, dresses with stiletto heels. At the edges of the grand parlour, groups of friends sat in booths upholstered with red velvet. Lovers wandered out to the poolside and rested on loungers below the starlit sky.

A few streets away Red Crescent volunteers washed the blood from a stretcher and hosed down an ambulance. A sniper's bullet had smashed the taillight. They had just returned to base after delivering the lifeless body of a young man, shrapnel in his brain, back to his parents.

"We have transported a lot corpses of late," one volunteer named Hamza, 23, said: "It is a job no one else will do but it is important. Often the bodies are just left on the front line. This is a city with 6,000 years of heritage and now it is being destroyed by the hands of its own sons".

The Sunday Telegraph's visit to Damascus last week, on a rarely issued government visa, provided a glimpse at schizophrenic place. It is a city hunkered down in war, blighted by shellfire, blitzed by warplanes and regularly shredded by car bombs. It is also a thriving capital, where parties go on, singers still sing, restaurants are lavish and civilians still put on work suits in the mornings and carry their briefcases into the office.

The sounds of heavy fighting that were once so terrifying - and many thought, the beginning of the end for President Bashar al-Assad's reign - have become a backdrop to everyday life. The national army's tanks have been firing relentlessly for months.

Rockets and missiles detonated from the military stronghold of Qasioun Mountain have long flown over the heads of residents in central Damascus before crashing into rebel held districts, sending up plumes of smoke. Planes continue overhead, carrying out bombing runs day and night.

But as the war has come closer, it has not led to a collapse in Mr Assad's support base, as many expected. In fact, it has strengthened the laager around his rule, drawing his constituents in Damascus's elite and new rich classes together in fear at what would come next.

Cafes are abuzz with the chatter of clients swapping stories of the latest rebel atrocity, some real, some invented. Most express fear at the Islamist hue of the opposition and of the jihadist groups, including the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra that has claimed responsibility for many of the car bombs that detonate in the capital almost daily.

Many Damascenes told the Sunday Telegraph that at the beginning of the uprising in 2011 they had been against Syrian government. Tired of its authoritarian rule, some had even joined popular protests. But the war now has gone beyond the narrative of a popular uprising against a dictator; a rebel takeover would lead to less, not more freedom, they said.

"Those people want to take us back centuries," said one mother of two children. "My daughter won't be able to go to school. I will have to cover my head in a black veil. I don't like this government, but does the West really think that this opposition would be any better?"

In the old Damascene Christian quarter of Bab Touma last Sunday residents made their way to church under the rattle of gunfire from a front line less than one mile away in Jobar district. A slightly quickened pace as they passed the local police station, now surrounded by a fortress of sandbags and a clear target for a car bomb, was their only sign of discomfort.

Mortars fired by rebel groups regularly fall on these narrow cobbled alleyways. But market stalls and shops selling everything from handbags to jewels remain stubbornly open. Two female art students, both in their early twenties, walked casually down the street chatting and carrying wooden easels that displayed their half finished paintings.

"We walk to university now because it is faster than trying to drive through the checkpoints," said one of the girls, who preferred not to give her name. "Apart from that life is OK. At night-time we drink in bars with friends. The shelling wakes us up sometimes when it is particularly loud, but we are mostly used to it now".

Disappearances, kidnappings and assassinations are a new reality in the city, and locals fear that anyone known to support President Assad, or with relatives in the government is a potential target. The owner of one Damascus radio station showed The Sunday Telegraph the burned out remains of his car that is still parked outside his office. More

The international community stand by and does nothing helpful for Syria. How long is this goind to be allowed to continue? Over seventy thousand people have been killed and nothing substantial is done. As Gareth Evans said in his book The Responsability to Protect - Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once And For All, "Never again!" the world has vowed time and again since the Holocaust. Yet genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other mass atrocity crimes continue to shock our consciences - from the killing fields of Cambodia to the machetes of Rwanda to the agony of Darfur. He goes on to say 'The Responsibility to Protect captures a simple and powerful idea. The primary responsibility for protecting its own people from mass atrocity crimes lies with the state itself. State sovereignty implies responsibility, not a license to kill. But when a state is unwilling or unable to halt or avert such crimes, the wider international community then has a collective responsibility to take whatever action is necessary. R2P emphasizes preventive action above all. That includes assistance for states struggling to contain potential crises and for effective rebuilding after a crisis or conflict to tackle its underlying causes. R2P's primary tools are persuasion and support, not military or other coercion. But sometimes it is right to fight: faced with another Rwanda, the world cannot just stand by'.

In Libya the total number of people killed includes protesters, armed belligerents, and civilians ranges between 2000 and 25000 between February 15 and October 02 2011. On 17 March, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution which authorized member states "to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamhariya, including Benghazi, while excluding an occupation force".[3] This began a new phase in the conflict.

Therefore, within one month of the start of the conflict the United Nations Security Council has passed resolution 1973 authorizing intervention.

The Syrian conflict could be deemed to have started on June 15 2011 when the United Nations urged investigation of Syrian abuses. This conflict has been ongoing for two years and no resolution has been passed by the United Nations and the killing continues. Seventy thousand have now died and the international community has obviously forgotten The Responsability to Protect.

What is the difference? Are regional and other states using the conflict for their own objectives? But what of the Syrian people? Are they worth less than the Libyians? And what of The Responsability to Protect? Editor