Friday, March 30, 2007

Damascus massacre - an update on UNESCO's actions

The good news is that UNESCO is sending a delegation to Damascus. The delegation will try to bring the authorities to their senses over their insane plans to "modernise" parts of the old city and put a stop to the destruction.

They will meet tomorrow, 31 March. The delegation will then report the outcome to UNESCO's World Heritage Committee, which is made up of 21 member states. The Committee is scheduled to meet between 23 June and 2 July to review all conservation reports including the one on Damascus. The Committee's deliberations and recommendations will be made public through press releases or postings on their website during their meetings or shortly afterwards.

So, let's wait and see. In the meantime, let us hope the bulldozers do not get there first.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Damascus Massacre

Emotions have been running high on Syrian blogs. Stories about the destruction of parts of the old city of Damascus (a protected UNESCO World Heritage site since 1975) have been circulating for weeks.

It is hard to get an accurate picture of what is happening, who is responsible and what the official position is. This is hardly surprising; Syria is not an open country with clear laws and responsible free media. The government does not think it is accountable to us, the people, or feels obliged to consult before making decisions that profoundly affect our lives and national heritage.

What people observe with absolute horror is physical destruction of old buildings and entire markets just outside the wall of the old city, which have been around since at least the 11th century (e.g. Souk Saroujah) and some buildings inside the wall, in the Bab Touma district. Apparently, the officials want to make way for modernity and judge some of the districts to be unsafe and unsightly and do not believe in compensating people or that they are violating the UNESCO agreement. Ministers have, by some accounts, recently received strongly-worded letters from UNESCO condemning the destruction and calling for it to be immediately halted. We are still in the dark and, already, comments on the blogs have moved on to other issues while the destruction continues. What are we to do?

Curiously, the UNESCO World Heritage website makes no mention of this issue, presumably because it is politically sensitive and UNESCO prefers to use quiet diplomacy to exert pressure on the government. Such a softly-softly approach will not work with stubborn and greedy philistines driving bulldozers. We need to act quickly and in large numbers to exert pressure on UNESCO to come out in the open on this issue and make its position clear on its website. I have already written to the UNESCO official is charge but, with the best intentions, she is unlikely to be able to act on a single polite e-mail. Here is an extract of my message and I provide her contact details (should you wish to make your feelings known to her):

Mlle Veronique Dauge
chief of section

Arab States Section (CLT/WHC/ARB)

World Heritage Centre
7, place de fontenoy
75352 Paris

Tel: +33-(0)1-4568-1805

Dear Madamme Dauge

You will no doubt be aware of the concern of many Syrians about the destruction of parts of old Damascus. Many Syrian and other blogs have highlighted this issue and some have leaked a letter from UNESCO to the Syrian Minister of Culture demanding a halt to the destruction.

I am an ordinary Syrian national. Although I applaud UNESCO's protestations to the Syrian Government, I feel dissappointed that your website makes no mention of this important issue and you are continuing to use quiet diplomacy while bulldozers raze to the ground whole districts in 11th century Damascus.

The Syrian Government is not likely to stop the destruction in response to quiet diplomacy alone. You may consider it unwise to politicise the issue but ordinary people expect UNESCO to be open and make its position clear on its website, without necessarily publishing confidential correspondence.

Time is running out and UNESCO should be less reticent about declaring its position publicly and take more responsibility for preventing further destruction.

Thank you for your consideration and understanding.

Philip I

In the meantime, amuse/depress yourself with this article which was published in the Architectural Review 12 years ago, in January 1995:

Author: Gerard Degeorge
The Damascus massacre(effect of modernity on old buildings in Syria)

The historic city of Damascus, Syria has suffered continuous and indiscriminate destruction of its ancient buildings. The city boasts of beautiful examples of Islamic architecture dating from Roman times to the rise of the Umayyade caliphate and the wars of the Crusades. However, French colonists and succeeding nationalist regimes have made misguided attemots to modernize the city at the expense of its older structures.

In territory barely the size of the UK, Syria can boast a wealth of architectural, archaeological and historical masterpieces: the Roman theatre at Bosra, Crusader castles and in particular the Crak des Chevaliers, Byzantine churches, and Palmyra, are but a few of its most famous and spectacular. Its capital Damascus stands out with its own particularly prestigious cursus honorum. Yet in the Western mind this illustrious city evokes little more than its famous craftwork: damascene swords and damask fabric.

Damascus has no rival in wealth of legend; Abraham, Noah and Gog are among many that appear in its annals. Developed from neolithic times, it has always been recognised as the capital if not of the country then at least of its region. The focus of one of the principal Aramean states of Syria from the end of the 2nd millennium BC, it was integrated in 732 BC within the Assyrian Empire, losing political independence which it only began to recover 14 centuries later.

During Roman times, Damascus was a place of outstanding ornate monuments. Its Temple of Jupiter, built on the site of the old temple of the Aramaean god Hadad, was one of the largest in the whole of the East and sections that still exist today are its oldest architectural remains.

In 660 AD, with the Umayyades in power, the seat of the Caliphate was transferred to Damascus. Its authority spread from the Atlantic to the Indus and from the Yemen to Central Asia. Although contemporary written sources are scant and the celebrated mosque which still keeps the name of the dynasty is the only architectural relic that exists, Damascus undoubtedly achieved its highest flowering under the Umayyades.

During the Crusades, a compromise was reached with the Franks and despite the wars, Damascus was able to expand with a vast amount of religious, civil, funereal and commercial building - some of the best examples of Moslem architecture in existence. Each was remarkable in its form of harmony, restraint, quality of materials and precision of workmanship.

The thousands of acres of gardens which surrounded the old city, accommodated the yearly assembly of pilgrims and the tombs of 'saints', caliphs, attendants of the Prophet and martyrs of Holy War. With the birth of legends about characters like Adam, Cain and Abel, to Jesus and Mohammed, Damascus was guaranteed an eminent position in the Moslem world: 'it was the seal of all the Islamic countries we visited' said the Andalusian traveller Ibn Jubayr in 1184.

It was celebrated over the centuries by European visitors amazed by the archetypal great city altogether magnificent, delightful and prosperous, becoming progressively from the sixteenth century, as the gap between East and West narrowed, the exemplar par excellence of exotic and local colour.

In the first half of the twentieth century, during the period of French rule imposed in 1920 (despite promises of independence in 1915) Damascus felt the full shock of Western Modernism without parallel with its violence and the effects of the intrusion of European taste denouncing the past.

New districts were built to the north-west of the ramparts, destroying some of its best agricultural land. At the same time, the traditional urban fabric entered a process of rapid degradation. Attracted by 'modern' French-style architecture, the Damascan bourgeoisie gave in to foreign influence abandoning their beautiful homes, with courtyards and iwans, which had been much admired by travelling Westerners. The majority of them, overpopulated and badly maintained, are today in a state of irreversible delapidation.

In 1925, Damascus suffered the harshest blow in all its history: a repressive nationalistic insurrection. There was bombing from the air with tank and cannon attacks on the ground. After three days the entire Western section of the city was a heap of smoking ruins. Rebuilt today, this area is called hariqa, 'the fire'.

Immediately after the 'conciliation', during the winter of 1925-26, the French, as Mandatory Authority decided to replan the old topography, so favourable to urban guerrillas on Haussmannian principles. An external boulevard with wide openings was started and spuriously presented to Damascans as a series of 'urban improvements'. In reality it was designed to give 'the best methods of modern means of combat' as a contemporary 'confidential' report revealed.

Functional town planning

By 1968, Syria had been independent for more than 20 years. Damascus appointed the French architect Michel Ecochard to produce a master-plan, rounded on the principles of 'functional' town-planning from the Athens Charter. Ignoring the realities of Eastern socio-history, everything was sacrificed to the great infrastructures of transport. The plan recommended that monuments should be seen in real perspective. For health reasons numerous ancient buildings within the city were denied any architectural value. Outside the ramparts, the Ecochard plan was hardly followed to the letter; inside, the concert of protests which it provoked quickly stopped the works. At the same time the value of age was beginning to be realised.

In 1972, only two years after the coup d'etat which brought General Hafez al-Asad to power, a decree, alas never rigorously applied, forbad all demolition or reconstruction within the city walls.

In 1975 Damascus was registered on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites, to try to encourage the Syrian authorities to carry out procedures respecting the old city sanctioned by the international community. In the following years, committees or associations were formed, bringing together senior officials, eminent people, academics, and architects, all with one aim - the protection and restoration of old Damascus. New measures regarding building height, materials, land-registry and so on came into force. Unfortunately, they were easily distorted by the authorities themselves or by 'investors' to line their pockets and suit their own needs in return for favours to various ministers.

In 1983, only a year after the oppression of the Hama Revolution and the methodical destruction of the old town along with its historic monuments by troops of the president's brother, Rifa'at al-Asad, old Damascus found itself again subject to arbitrary expressions of power. Inflamed by the hatred that all tyranny - from Herod of Syracuse to Ceaucescu - always feels for the old and organic and the tyrant's instinctive love of the new, rigid, straight and rectilinear, the authorities embarked on the 'improvement' works. With unaccustomed speed, without reference to UNESCO or to the Government Committee on the city, demolition contractors were unleashed. The citadel was cleared on three sides following the plan recommended by Ecochard. To best assure the safety of the officials coming to offer their prayers at the Umayyades Mosque, a wide opening was randomly bulldozed in the west rampart at the entrance to the mosque. Other 'improvements' were announced but public disapproval and protests from UNESCO were beginning to have an effect. The Department of Antiquities came out of its stupefaction and set out to rebuild and patch up the gaping holes in the damaged facade.

Besides the great sham of good intentions put forward by the State, the 'restoration' enterprises were incompetent, cheap and distorted by greed, amateurism and improvisation. None followed the appropriate guidelines. Everywhere there is defective masonry jointing, misuse of plastering, inappropriate materials and equipment, weakness of form, gaudy paintwork and kitsch ornament. Hammams, madrasas, mosques, tombs were spoiled: none of the precious patrimony of the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was saved.

Mosque grotesques

The Umayyades Mosque became a victim, after the Gulf War, due to a 'restoration' decided in high level diplomacy. Financed by Kuwait to say thanks to the regime of Damascus for serving the Arab cause so well by siding with the US and its allies during the conflict, the large west minaret, the most beautiful in Syria, was spoiled. The top of the fifteenth-century minaret was inscribed to commemorate the 'renovation' of the building under the 'glorious rule of President Asad', causing the loss of so much of the beautiful golden patina accumulated over the centuries. The west wall and the tower adjoining the south side, precious remains of the ancient Temple of Jupiter, were partially dismantled. The first-century Egyptian-style capitals of the pilasters, rare in Syria, were nearly all damaged.

Most worrying remains the absence of all technical, architectural and archaeological study, even in basic form. The 'calculations' put forward for certain sections of masonry which would certainly have caused collapse, are regretfully unavailable. On the other hand, their chief designers openly admitted being inspired by an eighteenth-century drawing, by the Russian traveller Barsky, of a monument with griffons. Why then, stop at this mediocre sketch, and not restore the building to its former state before the fire of 1400 or better still to that of 1069?

UNESCO which should have been consulted, and which would have been able to provide technical and financial help, was not even informed. The International Committee reported with great anxiety at the meeting of the Committee of World Heritage in Santa Fe in December 1992 on a simple letter received in November from a tourist 'intrigued by the strangeness of works in progress'. The director of Syrian Antiquities who participated in the meeting put forward a 'Committee of Academics and Architects' who stood guarantee for the necessary works and their conformity to the appropriate regulations regarding design and craftsmanship.

In March 1993, the Minister of Culture, Najja Attar, in a curt, dismissive letter, claimed with firmness that all the guarantees would be upheld, and Syria had no need of assistance. It prevents, unhappily, any of the restorations being effected to this day.

All proposed improvements should be evaluated by a group of architects specialising in historic monuments, to ascertain their worth. The committee should co-ordinate all initiatives from municipalities or different ministries. Failing which Damascus, this urban jewel, already very much disfigured, will soon become just shapeless blocks of stone without soul.

COPYRIGHT 1995 EMAP Architecture

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Political cartoons

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Here's a small selection of political cartoons which has appeared in the last year or so expressing the passions of our time (to enlarge click on image):



















Wednesday, March 07, 2007

New toys for the Syrian Army

Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper and Stratfor, a private intelligence organisation run by former CIA operatives, claimed last month that Syria was strengthening its air, ground and naval defences with advanced Russian, Chinese and Iranian missiles. If true, this could be good news for the beleaguered Syrian defence forces but don’t hold your breath. The Syrian military has been corrupted by three decades of occupation and plundering of neighbouring Lebanon and allowing senior army officers to treat their divisions as personal fiefdoms to ensure their loyalty to the regime.

Military strength is necessary for peace but it has to be visibly based on capable people, reasonably modern equipment and intelligent, efficient systems. The occupation of the Golan will continue as long as Israel perceives Syria to be a relatively weak adversary, at least on the human side.

Syria must negotiate the return of the Golan from a position of strength while simultaneously striving to build trust and normalize relations with Israel. Syria also has a moral and strategic responsibility to defend Palestinian rights and not allow itself to be sucked into a separate peace deal. Some argue that Syria has always adopted this strategic position. They are wrong. Syria has been relying on proxy militias to destabilize other countries in the region, thwart superpower plans and ignite mini conflicts instead of building a professional and loyal Syrian military machine. No amount of hardware can save a country if the majority of soldiers are poorly trained, poorly equipped, abused and humiliated by officers who owe their loyalty to the regime rather than the nation as a whole.

Haaretz, 22 Feb. 2007
Syria could soon receive thousands of advanced anti-tank missiles from Russia that could find their way into the hands of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

Ha'aretz, which did not disclose it's sources, said Thursday the new sale of Kornet AT-14 and Metis AT-13 missiles was close to completion despite Israeli diplomatic efforts to get Moscow to abandon it.

The Kornet AT-14 is a semi-automatic, command-to-line-of site missile system capable of destroying armored vehicles equipped with protective plating, including those with explosive reactive armor. It is also effective against fortifications and entrenched troops. Mounted on a small tripod, the missile is considered accurate when fired from as far away as 3 miles.

Evidence that Hezbollah was in possession of the weapons was found during last summer's war in southern Lebanon. Crates of the missiles, with shipping documents showing they were procured from Russia by Syria, were found near the Saluki River, where Hezbollah delayed an Israeli armored column with missile fire.

The report said the evidence was presented by Israeli diplomats to the Russians, who purportedly promised to re-evaluate some of its arms deals with Syria.

Stratfor: Syria's Russian Connection
The Israeli daily Haaretz reported Thursday (22 February) that Syria is strengthening its army "in an unprecedented way" and massing troops near the border with Israel along the Golan Heights. Syrian lawmaker Mohammed Hasbah denied the report, saying Syria has not redeployed its troops to the front lines but is prepared for any situation. Hasbah warned that Israel would "pay a heavy price" if it should "decide to do something stupid."

This heated war of words between Israel and Syria likely was sparked by the Israelis catching wind of a Russian arms transfer to Damascus; Haaretz also reported that Syria is close to sealing a deal with Russia to procure thousands of advanced anti-tank missiles.

Russia currently sees a prime opportunity to return to its Cold War policies in the Middle East. From the mid-1950s to the fall of the Soviet empire, Moscow's principal clients in the Arab world included Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Algeria and Yemen. Supplying these regional allies with military assistance and training under long-term loan arrangements that were unlikely to be paid back -- or even, in some cases, for free -- bought the Soviet Union leverage against the United States in the region. Eventually, Moscow's financial constraints caught up with its geopolitical ambitions, and military expenditures in the Middle East dropped low on its list of priorities.

Now, with the United States trapped in a thorny standoff with Iran over the future of Iraq, Russia has a chance to edge itself back into the sandbox. Moscow once again is trying to make friends in the region, with a particular focus on the two countries with the greatest ability to aggravate Washington and undermine U.S. policies: Iran and Syria.

While there have been some rumors about shipments of modern Russian air defense equipment to Syria, many reports are unconfirmed and are, at best, being debated in defense establishment circles. Of major concern is the S-300 long-range air defense system, considered to be among the most capable air defense asset in the world. The latest version of this system, the S-300PMU2, is unlikely to be in Syrian hands -- but the mere discussion of such a sale would be enough to put Israeli and U.S. policymakers on edge.

That said, there are plenty of other Russian military goodies that could be used to add some muscle to Syria's air defense. The summer 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah was a major gut check for the Syrian defense establishment. As Israel Defense Forces (IDF) engaged Syria's militant proxy in Lebanon, the Syrian regime had little choice but to play nice and stay out of the fray for fear of a devastating strike by the Israeli air force (IAF) -- which used two F-16s to buzz Syrian President Bashar al Assad's Latakia palace in June 2006. The relative ease with which the IAF penetrated Syrian airspace -- without fearing a response -- reinforced the need for Syria to improve on its Soviet-era air defense capabilities. Syria knows that the denial of airspace to Israel or the United States is a key strategic priority.

A likely Russian sale of upgraded SA-9 and SA-13 Strela surface-to-air missiles to Syria would fit into this strategy. New acquisitions and deployment of Iranian-built Chinese C-802 anti-ship missiles also are rumored to be under way. The Syrian navy has badly decayed in the last 10 years, and the acquisition of significant quantities of these missiles would be a serious improvement.

But while it makes perfect sense that Syria is taking advantage of the regional dynamic to rebuild its military capabilities, the Syrian regime is not looking for a fight with Israel. Rather, the acquisitions are meant to signal to Israel and the United States that the cost of engaging Syria militarily would be too high. Damascus would much rather work through its militant proxies as it remains focused on re-establishing itself in Lebanon.

Hezbollah, meanwhile, is busily evading U.N. troops in southern Lebanon and rebuilding its own military capabilities -- with Iranian and Syrian assistance -- in preparation for round two of the summer's conflict with Israel. Recent Syrian imports of AT-14 Kornet-E and AT-13 Metis-M anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) likely are making their way into Hezbollah arsenals in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Hezbollah employed these advanced missiles against Israeli tanks during the 2006 conflict, when it successfully delayed an IDF advance near the Saluki River. The guerrilla tactics Hezbollah used against Israeli armor were not lost on Syria, which almost certainly will be deploying any new ATGMs it acquires near the Israeli border -- except for the ones that slip across the Lebanese border to Hezbollah.

Sources in Lebanon also say Hezbollah fighters in the Bekaa have been sighted at least twice carrying what appear to be SA-18s. The SA-18 is a shoulder-launched, infrared-guided missile akin to the U.S. FIM-92A Stinger (which was used to great effect against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan). While it will not stop the IAF, it will be especially useful in the Bekaa against low-flying close-air-support sorties and IDF helicopters.

Hezbollah has an interest in demonstrating that it possesses these weapons in order to dissuade Israel from launching commando raids against its forces in their Bekaa stronghold. After the 2006 summer conflict, Israel knows it will have little chance of crippling Hezbollah's militant arm unless it thrusts into the Bekaa; but the transfer of these weapons from Syria will make such an offensive more costly.

A concerted effort by Russia and Iran is clearly under way to exploit the U.S. position in the region and upset the regional balance in their favor -- which falls directly in line with Syrian interests. As long as Russia can take advantage of this geopolitical opening, it can stir up enough regional cyclones to make money for the Russian defense establishment, and more important, win back influence to barter with the United States. In the end, lesser powers like Syria stand to gain a great deal.