Thursday, January 26, 2017

On Martin Chulov of the Guardian (he is competing with Liz Sly for being the worst correspondent in Beirut)

from a Western journalist working in Syria:
"Chulov's article is very problematic. Its allegations are false and its methodology is flawed.
You cannot write an article making such allegations from Lebanon without collecting evidence empirically, without field visits etc, and you cannot write such an article relying purely on pro-insurgent sources, or even sources who are insurgent officials.
there are no population swaps in syria. iran has no project to alter the social landscape in syria. thats not why its in syria. iran seeks to support the assad government for a variety of reasons but not out of a sectarian project. it would say that assad is the only reliable partner and that he is part of the resistance axis and if he fell then the whole system would collapse, and if they tried to replace him then his replacement would sell them out to the saudis or the americans, and they would say that there is a salafi/wahabi/takfiri threat coming from syria and threatening the region and they want to stop it in syria.
shias are one percent of syria’s population. iran works with sunni militias in aleppo. these are things you dont know if you report on syria remotely.
Chulov says that:  “Russia, in an alliance with Turkey, is using a nominal ceasefire to push for a political consensus between the Assad regime and the exiled  opposition.” no, in fact the exiled opposition seems not to be invited to the talks, only insurgent groups, and its not so much to reach a political consensus but it is to impose a new order Chulov makes a string of baseless assertions and then quotes “one senior Lebanese leader” hizballah actually works with sunni militias in the same area between damascus and homs. there are senior security officials in damascus who are sunnis from the region between damascus and homs. zabadani and madaya are not key for iran for the reasons chulov alleges. first those two towns are key to hizballah, more than to iran. and this is because hizballah saw itself as pursuing a lebanese homeland security strategy which required protecting lebanon from the car bombs that were entering it from western syria and securing the towns on the border. but once madaya and zabadani were surrounded and neutralized as threats (and there was a nusra and ahrar al sham presence there as well as a small isis presence) they realized they had a bargaining chip. two shia towns in idlib (fua and kfarya) were surrounded and tightly besieged since 2015 with supplies occasionally dropped by air while they were shelled and sniped at by insurgents in adjacent towns. many of syria’s 230,000 shias have joined the local branch of hizballah and they were furious that their brethren were being besieged. this was an issue of iran and iranian officials mentioned the potential “genocide” in fua and kfarya every chance they got. they were obsessed with it. as such they negotiated a deal in turkey with ahrar al sham that did NOT involve population exchanges but it was still an ugly precedent. on one side largely shia forces held two sunni towns hostage and on the other side sunni forces held two shia towns hostage. in idlib local factions were also profiting from selling supplies to fua and kfarya and very high rates. anyway the deal was not an exchange of people but if a loaf of bread goes into zadabani then a loaf of bread has to go into fua, and if ten bandages go into madaya then ten bandages have to go into the two shia towns in idlib. and if a sick or wounded person is evacuated from one of the two sunni towns then the same thing must take place in the two shia towns. the syrian government was unhappy about the sectarian nature of this arrangement and it has not been repeated. but the government would not accept sectarian population exchanges and no shias want to go to live in madaya or zabadani anyway. when shias are displaced in syria they move into other shia towns or neighborhoods, or with friends or relatives. the deals that have involved the evacuation of insurgents and their families have been mischaracterized in the media. they are not forced to go to insurgent held areas in the north such as idlib. they are given an option by the government forces, either stay and renounce the insurgency or leave to insurgent held areas in the north. and in most towns where such deals have taken place we actually see an increase in the population because conditions improve and displaced people return. 
the UN in syria has not recorded any population exchanges have taken place and no outsiders have been imported to live in other people’s homes. chulov accepts without any skepticism the statements of an ahrar al sham official based in turkey who represents a salafi jihadist overtly sectarian group. he does not ask for evidence he just repeats the claims. chulov refers to wadi barada and the ongoing fighting there. hizballah barely has a presence there and acts like special forces supporting the syrian army’s republican guard which is fighting to regain control of the water supply to damascus which was held by insurgents. quite a few senior government officials are from wadi barada in fact, including the head of the baath party and security committee for the reef dimashq province. which reminds me that the governor of aleppo, a former senior security officer himself, is from zabadani. chulov also repeats the lie that iraqi shia famiies have moved into daraya. they have not. they would not be allowed to anyway, and nobody is moving in because the government is rehabilitating it and has asked international NGOs for help in doing so in order to return the displaced from daraya. chulov did not visit daraya. he did not speak with people in damascus. he did not ask UN or other NGO officials, he merely repeated opposition claims. syrian state media did not announce that the iraqis had arrived at all. there was a destroyed shia shrine there and some shias visited it, and from that the opposition media sources crafted a story. i’d love to know why an iraqi shia would even want to move in to a bombed out abandoned neighborhood with no services, even if the syrian government would allow such a thing- which they would not.  reporting on syria requires no standards at all it seems. 
likewise the umayad mosque is not a security zone controlled by Iranian proxies.
chulov who has not been there is relying on an insurgent who has also not been there to repeat an absurd claim. i was there a week ago. the umayad mosque is in the same situation it was before the conflict and in the hands of the same forces responsible for securing it before the conflict, the normal syrian security forces and anybody can visit it just as before and there is no shia plan for it. in fact if damascenes even thought there was such a plan they would go crazy and demand that assad halt such a plan. the syrian regime has always been very sensitive to the concerns of the damascene conservative class, and thats why this class has remained loyal. there has not been a “systematic torching of Land Registry offices in areas of Syria recaptured on behalf of the regime.” this is without evidence and in a system as obsessed with paperwork and bureaucracy like the syrian one it would be unthinkable. and most senior officials are sunni as are most state employees and they often come from insurgent held areas, the idea does not even make any sense. likewise it is not true that most residents of zabadani have gone to idlib. only a fraction went there because they did not accept the deal. the rest are displaced in the area around it, in damascus or outside of syria.
it often seems like all standards have been abandoned when it comes to writing on syria."