Friday, November 29, 2013

New rebel merger off to modest start

[Originally posted at NOW]

The merger of seven major factions has yet to make much impact on the battlefield.

When seven major Syrian rebel brigades announced their merger last week into a unified Jabhat al-Islamiyya (“Islamic Front”), independent of both the al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadi factions and the US-backed Supreme Military Council, a number of analysts speculated the move would translate into significant military gains for the opposition on the ground.

So far, however, while rebel factions have made a number of advances on forces allied to President Bashar al-Assad in recent days, analysts told NOW Jabhat al-Islamiyya’s contribution to these efforts appears to have been relatively modest.

The new super-brigade brings together an estimated 45,000 fighters from some of the most powerful Islamist forces in the country, comprising what were hitherto known as Liwa al-Tawhid, Ahrar al-Sham, Suqur al-Sham, Liwa al-Haq, Ansar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, and the Kurdish Islamic Front. Over and above the military alliance, Jabhat al-Islamiyya has also explicitly declared a political program. In a marked departure from the more secular rhetoric of the Western-supported Syrian National Coalition opposition body, Jabhat al-Islamiyya calls for replacing the Assad regime with an “Islamic state where the sovereignty of God almighty alone will be our reference and ruler.”

Coinciding with the Front’s formation were several substantive territorial gains for rebel forces, though the overall war continues to stand at a general stalemate. On Saturday, in Deir Ezzor province, rebels captured the largest oil field in the country, effectively bringing an end to the regime’s supply of the commodity. On the day the Jabhat al-Islamiyya merger was announced, rebels captured the town of Deir Attiyeh in the strategic and heavily-contested Qalamoun region along the Lebanese border, though regime forces later re-took it. And in the Damascus suburbs, an intense rebel campaign to break a year-long regime siege overran a number of neighborhoods earlier this week, and has led to a spike in casualties among pro-regime militias such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

“Hezbollah has already announced around 30 dead for November,” said Phillip Smyth, researcher at the University of Maryland and author of the Hizballah Cavalcade website that tracks the various Shiite Islamist militias active in Syria. “Casualties are [also] coming from the entire Iranian-backed front” of pro-Assad Shiite forces, including the Iraqi Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization, which recently announced the death of a commander, Smyth added.

For the most part, however, these rebel advances have been made not by Jabhat al-Islamiyya fighters but rather their powerful jihadi rivals.

“The capture of Deir Attiyeh was the work of Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which is currently in a joint front in Qalamoun with Jabhat al-Nusra and an independent battalion led by Saudi foreign fighters known as ‘The Green Battalion’,” said Aymenn al-Tamimi, Syria analyst and Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. Similarly, “the capture of the [Deir Ezzor] oil field was led by Jabhat al-Nusra.”

Only in the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta does Jabhat al-Islamiyya appear to have played a lead role in the recent fighting, where it and a local coalition have outperformed the smaller ISIS and Nusra contingents, according to Tamimi. A video uploaded Sunday showed Ghouta residents celebrating as “victorious” rebel brigades drove through the streets.

In general, though, “It’s still very early days for the Islamic Front so [there have been] no really significant military gains as of yet,” said Tamimi.

Nonetheless, several analysts with whom NOW spoke argued the Front could soon make a noticeably bigger impact on the battlefield, provided it receives sufficient logistical and financial support.

“If they can draw more financial backing and set up a better internal coordination of their forces, funding channels, and resources, I'm sure that the creation of the Islamic Front could have an impact on the military balance,” said Aron Lund, researcher and editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s Syria in Crisis website.

“This coalition is formal and set to last, unlike the Islamic Alliance that translated to no real change on the ground,” said Tamimi. “A change in the rebels’ fortunes might occur if this appeals to the Saudis and potential foreign backers to step up support in the belief it is the only viable rebel force.”

Absent that crucial ingredient of material foreign assistance, said Lund, the Islamic Front’s formation will be “mainly a political event, rather than a military one.”

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Note to Turkey: Not everything has to be a mosque

[Originally posted at NOW]

With moderates like Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, I often wonder, who needs Islamists?

Having only last week referred to the UNESCO World Heritage Listed Hagia Sophia museum as a “mosque,” the ruling party is now turning its conversionary zeal on the 5th-century Monastery of Stoudios – or the “Imrahor Ilyas Bey Mosque,” as it will apparently soon be known. This follows the unpardonable Islamisation that has already been inflicted on other priceless Byzantine-era churches in the towns of Trabzon and Iznik.

This kind of thing has a long and ugly history, implicating Christians as much as Muslims. No less a structure than the Parthenon of Athens, the finest monument of all antiquity, was irreparably wrecked during its conversion in the 6th century into a Byzantine church (also named Hagia Sophia, as it happens).

Though the Ottomans later turned this too into a mosque, they had enough reverence for it not to make alterations beyond painting over the Christian mosaics, which were anyway disfigurements in the first place. One wishes one could say the same of the Istanbul Hagia Sophia, where the Ottomans placed lugubrious black calligraphy discs like crude stickers over the still-visible and colourful artwork with which the building had originally been decorated. Of course, to this day, a crackpot Christian fringe still dreams of knocking down the minarets there and restoring it as an Orthodox place of worship. Not for nothing did Ataturk decide to do away with the building’s religious significance altogether and make it a museum.

That his secularizing project looks to be under redoubled and fortified threat in today’s Turkey is already very clear. Yet the notion of purifying or “conquering” (fetih in Turkish) every last pebble of non-Muslim heritage is a much larger issue than the domestic secularist/Islamist debate. It is, in fact, nothing short of an aesthetic and cultural crime; the spoliation of unique and irreplaceable remnants of world history; and for these reasons demands the attention – and if, necessary, intervention – of the international community.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Hezbollah's opponents divided over Iran deal

[Originally posted at NOW]

Despite March 14 officially welcoming US-Iran agreement, several MPs expressed reservations to NOW, though no broader strategic response is apparent.

When Iran reached a landmark deal with six major world powers this weekend to obtain partial relief from economic sanctions in exchange for temporarily freezing its controversial uranium enrichment program, the Islamic Republic’s allies in Lebanon’s March 8 coalition were quick to declare a victory.

“This is a victory for […] the resistance of Iran in the face of international pressure for more than 10 years,” sources close to the Tehran-backed Hezbollah told a local newspaper Monday. “Iran has managed to extract an international concession that it has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.”

At the same time, March 14, the longstanding rival of the Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc, also claimed the outcome as a success on the grounds that it imposes new constraints on Tehran’s activities. The former’s General Secretariat Coordinator Fares Soueid said via Twitter that “[t]he ‘resistance’ has given in to the rules of the new international order, and this is a great achievement for all of us.”

However, conversations NOW had with members of various March 14-affiliated parties suggest a more complicated, indeed uneasy reaction; with many doubtful that Iran would amend what they see as its disagreeable policies in Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Arab world.

“I’m a little worried,” admitted MP Bassem al-Shab of the Future Movement. “What worries me is that this move has not been linked to a behavioral change in Iran. It is assumed that this goodwill will translate into an evolution in the policy of Iran, but what if it does not? What if Iran has more resources to pursue the same old policies? Frankly, we haven’t heard anything from the [Obama] administration, nor from the Secretary of State, nor from the European Union, to say that this deal will take into consideration Iran’s posture in the Middle East.”

“The main concern in the Arab region and in Lebanon is that [the agreement] gives Iran a kind of relief regarding normalization with the international community while it is still interfering in an aggressive and unacceptable manner in Syria, and more subtly in Lebanon, through Hezbollah,” said Antoine Haddad, secretary-general of the Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement. Tajaddod is not formally part of the March 14 alliance, although Haddad told NOW it was “sympathetic with their overall objectives.”

Hardliners within the Saudi Arabia-backed Future Movement were even more skeptical of the deal’s merits, arguing that the international community was being deceived by a disingenuous Tehran.

“I am almost certain that Iran will not give up on its nuclear program,” said MP Khaled al-Daher. “The nuclear program of Iran represents its ambition of widening its power in the region. Iran’s attempts to expand and dominate in the Arab region are clear. They are part of Iran’s [ideology].”

Other parties, while also striking a cautious note, said it was too soon at this stage to form an opinion either way on the matter.

“We are waiting for tangible outcomes of this deal because there’s an immense difference between talks and walks,” read a statement sent to NOW by the Lebanese Forces, March 14’s leading Christian component.

Similarly, the Kataeb’s Central Committee Coordinator Sami Gemayel told NOW last week that his party would oppose the deal if it turns out to “contravene Lebanon’s interest and hand the country over to Iran.”

Despite his reservations about the agreement, Shab told NOW that it was unlikely to have much of a material effect on Lebanon, and thus he did not foresee any significant strategic response from the Future Movement. Indeed, there was no indication from anyone in March 14 with whom NOW spoke that the deal would affect their broader political calculations.

“I don’t think it will change anything on the ground,” said Shab. “We’ve long seen an American and Western disengagement [from Lebanon]. It’s not like there was this massive support that’s going to be withdrawn.”

Haddad, however, took a somewhat more upbeat stance, arguing that the deal could be turned against March 8 if handled properly by the latter’s rivals.

“The very spirit and logic of this agreement is that Iran won’t deal anymore with the United States or the West as a ‘Great Satan.’ I think that Lebanese, Syrians, and other Arabs need to deal in a realistic manner and try to […] take advantage of this new climate in which Iran has to deal more responsibly and become more accountable to international law.”

“It’s a matter of concern, but at the same time, it’s a test for Iran.”

Luna Safwan contributed reporting.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

British liberals should learn from their Arab counterparts

[Originally posted at Left Foot Forward]

Catching up last week on yet another milestone in the sorry emaciation of free expression in Britain, documented in this case by Nick Cohen (who has after all written the book on this), I took to Twitter to quote his elegant synopsis of the problem with far too many of London’s self-styled radicals and insubordinates: “We only challenge religions that won’t hurt us, and governments that won’t arrest us.”

Within seconds, a prominent Lebanese atheist blogger, Gino Raidy, had replied, pointing out the curious and conspicuous fact that the same could not be said of the average disbelieving scribbler in the Arab world.

He’s exactly right. The truth is it seems to be more taboo to criticise Islamism in Britain these days than it is here in Beirut, where it’s taken for granted in liberal circles that theocracy is the enemy (and where, incidentally, the religious bigots are Christians as often as they are Muslims). The takfiris whose “legitimate grievances” right-thinking Britons are so anxious to locate and placate are treated with open contempt by liberal and leftist Arabs, and for very good reason.

It’s not just the proximity to the daily sectarian slaughter in Syria and Iraq, or the residue of the heady Arab nationalist days when the titanic Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser urged Saudi Arabians to revolt against their “reactionary” Wahhabi-Salafist rulers and openly ridiculed the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is, crucially, that Arabs – who naturally know their own language, culture, and history best – have the least difficulty seeing the Bin Ladenists for the crackpot criminals they are, and consequently have the least inclination to respect them.

Take the recent murder in Woolwich of Private Lee Rigby by two unapologetic Islamists. British jihadism’s savviest self-promoter, the former head of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s UK franchise and founder of the now-banned al-Muhajiroun, Omar Bakri, quickly made headlines by defending one of Rigby’s killers and claiming that, “To people around here [in the Middle East] he is a hero for what he has done.”

One pictures it all too easily: the furious throngs of bearded young men, burning Union Jacks, and bellowing for the infidels to be put to the sword. But there’s a reason Bakri didn’t repeat that claim when I interviewed him for a local publication: none of it happened. There were no demonstrations, no posters plastered on the walls, no festive sweets jubilantly doled out in city squares. Even the fringe militant Islamists, who successfully torched a KFC during the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ furore, made nothing of the occasion.

There was, quite simply, no evidence to suggest anyone in Lebanon felt anything but ordinary shock and disgust.

Yet the impressionable British mujahid-in-the-making two thousand miles away wouldn’t and couldn’t know that (and, incidentally, would have been little enlightened by the BBC’s invitation of Bakri’s protégé, Anjem Choudary, on to Newsnight to explain that the real victim in Woolwich was the killer, who had only acted in self-defense).

Maajid Nawaz, the former Hizb ut-Tahrir zealot turned liberal democracy activist, writes in his memoir, Radical, of how easily enthralled he and his fellow east Londoners in the 1990s were by the mere fact of Bakri’s being an actual Arab:

“Everyone wanted to see him and hear what he had to say […] Here was someone who did have a beard, who spoke Arabic, and who had the theological authority from having studied shari’ah (Islamic jurisprudence) at Damascus University.”

Western liberals have for decades permitted themselves to be fooled by these charlatans, even while secular Arabs have consistently and vocally opposed them (some, like the Egyptian Farag Foda and the Algerian Tahar Djaout, paying with their lives for doing so).

Recall that when Salman Rushdie was being vilified by John le Carré and Germaine Greer for the malicious “insult” his novel had been to a “great religion”, no fewer than one hundred Arab literary heavyweights, from Edward Said to Mahmoud Darwish to Adonis to Amin Maalouf, jointly published a book unambiguously rejecting the pro-censorship arguments (let alone the pro-murder ones) and explicitly identifying Rushdie’s cause as their own.

Indeed, in this, they were only following a Middle Eastern tradition identifiable since at least the irreverent poetry of Omar Khayyam, and much revitalized by the intellectual nahda (“awakening”) that flourished in the 19th century, of combating clerical and faith-based stupidity and asserting the superiority of reason and free inquiry. (My favourite example is the 1882 ‘Lewis Affair’, when university students in Beirut boycotted classes and even dropped out in protest at the firing by a Christian missionary administration of a Darwinist professor.)

The day can’t come soon enough that Britain’s liberals realize that, so far from extending a hand of “solidarity” to their Arab counterparts by making excuses for religious fundamentalists, they are on the contrary sharpening the daggers of those who are, and have ever been, their great adversaries.

Who are the Abdullah Azzam Brigades?

[Originally posted at NOW]

I wager that not too many people who aren’t unusually interested in militant Islam had heard of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades when the group’s spokesman took to Twitter to claim the twin suicide bombings that killed 23 people outside Beirut’s Iranian embassy yesterday. Who, then, are these supposedly al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists?

The short answer is that nobody really knows. The slightly longer answer is that “Abdullah Azzam” may be more of a brand name than a single, identifiable organization (rather like al-Qaeda itself, in that respect). Abdullah Azzam himself was a Palestinian contemporary of Osama bin Laden’s, or rather a mentor of his. It was as Azzam’s guest than Bin Laden first arrived in Afghanistan shortly after 1979 to wage jihad against the Soviets – a campaign for which Azzam remained an important proselytizer and recruiter throughout the 1980s. By the time of his 1989 assassination in Peshawar, al-Qaeda as we know it today had already taken shape in embryonic form.

While some sources, including the US State Department, cite the founding year of the Brigades as 2009, attacks by groups calling themselves the “Abdullah Azzam Brigades” have been carried out across the Arab world for almost a decade. These include the 2004 truck bombings of the Hilton in Egypt’s Taba; the 2005 car bombings of hotels in Sharm al-Shaikh; the 2005 launching of rockets at US warships in Jordan’s Aqaba; and the 2009 launching of rockets at Israel from south Lebanon in the name of a sub-faction, the Ziad al-Jarrah battalion (named after the Lebanese national who was among the 19 hijackers on 9/11). They also took credit for the 2010 bombing of a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. More recently, they have claimed responsibility for a roadside bomb targeting a Hezbollah convoy in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley this July and the firing of four rockets at Israel from south Lebanon in August, having previously denied conducting a similar rocket attack in December 2011 and bombing an Italian UNIFIL patrol in May 2011. Adding to the general murkiness is that yesterday’s attacks were carried out by the previously-unknown ‘Hussein bin Ali’ sub-faction, named (sarcastically?) after the grandson of the Prophet whose death in the Battle of Karbala was commemorated by Shiites just last week during Ashura.

Like almost all Islamist groups, the Brigades’ principal focus has shifted to Syria since the outbreak of the war. According to Jihadology’s Aaron Zelin, the Brigades have been actively engaged in the fighting there since at least August 2012, though they don’t appear to have anything like the prominence of other jihadist outfits like the Islamic State of al-Sham or Jabhat al-Nusra.

Nonetheless, there have for some time been indications that the group might attempt an ‘operation’ such as yesterday’s. In the summer of 2012, they released a “Message to the Shia of Lebanon,” imploring members of the sect to abandon the “criminal” Hezbollah and Amal leadership and cease their alliance with the “oppressive” Assad regime that threatened the “Sunni people,” warning that the “consequences” of siding with Damascus would “intensify upon you.” Similarly, after the roadside bomb in July the Brigades released a statement warning it was but one of “a series of attacks [to come] against Hezbollah that will include every part of Lebanon.”

Few took these threats seriously at the time. But after yesterday, when the group’s spokesman pledged that such “operations in Lebanon will continue” until the “withdrawal of [Hezbollah] from Syria” and the release of the Brigades’ members from Lebanese jails, Lebanon’s security agencies may well start paying them much closer attention henceforth.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Suicide slaughter at Iranian embassy

[Originally posted at NOW]

NOW reports from scene of blasts, which analysts say are likely linked to Syria developments.

There was still a bloodied body squirming on the ground when NOW arrived at Jerusalem Street Tuesday morning, surrounded by rescue workers frantically trying to lift the semi-conscious man onto a stretcher. The Lebanese army, in tandem with plain-clothed security forces including some wearing yellow armbands bearing the Hezbollah logo, had sealed off an adjacent fifty-meter stretch of the street outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut’s predominantly Shiite Jnah suburb, where earlier two suicide bombers had detonated over 50kg of explosives, killing 23 and wounding over 150.

In the minutes following the explosions, television stations aired disturbing footage of charred corpses sprawled before blazing rows of cars, the air thick with clouds of black smoke. By the time NOW arrived, the fires had been doused, but pools of blood still dotted the street, dyeing the countless shards of glass blown out of hundreds of windows from the surrounding apartment blocks. At least a dozen cars lay mangled and squashed. The residences nearest the blast had entire chunks of their balconies ripped off even five stories above the ground.

As the crowd of aid workers, journalists, and onlookers gradually thinned, residents headed indoors to begin the task of repairing their homes, and the sound of glass fragments being swept up could be heard for several blocks. “I heard both explosions very well, they were very powerful,” said one young man with a broom, who declined to give his name. Asked who he thought carried out the attack, he replied, “The terrorists, of course,” a generic reference to the various Sunni jihadi outfits opposed to Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as its ally, the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.

Indeed, the attacks were later claimed by exactly such a group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an al-Qaeda affiliate whose spokesman said on Twitter that such “operations in Lebanon will continue” until the “withdrawal of [Hezbollah] from Syria” and the release of the Brigades’ members from Lebanese jails. The group has previously taken credit for a roadside bomb targeting a Hezbollah convoy in the Beqaa Valley in July and a series of rocket launches at Israel in August.

Accordingly, some analysts told NOW the Jnah bombings were likely linked to recent developments in Syria, particularly the ongoing battles in the strategic Qalamoun region, one town of which was captured by Syrian regime forces Tuesday after three days of intense fighting.

“Recent Syrian government gains around Damascus, Aleppo, and in the northern Qalamoun have resulted in a further escalation in sectarian sentiment among Syria’s insurgent opposition,” said Charles Lister, analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Counterinsurgency Centre. “The apparent involvement of one or both of Hezbollah and Iranian military personnel in recent military gains makes the targeting of those actors’ assets abroad much more likely. As such, attacks like this one are likely to continue on a sporadic basis.”

Others, however, saw in the attacks a message intended more for Iran than Syria.

“My opinion is that it’s not related to Qalamoun. This is bigger than the Syria issue,” said Qassem Qassir, a Lebanese analyst specializing in militant Islamist movements. “These explosions targeted the Iranian embassy on the eve of the negotiations with Iran on the nuclear file. It’s clear that this is a message to Iran and to the role of Iran in the region as a whole. If the negotiations reach an agreement, we are going to witness a lot of changes in terms of the relationship between Iran and world powers,” which the attacks aimed to forestall, Qassir told NOW.

Qassir also treated the Abdullah Azzam Brigades’ claim of responsibility with caution. “I don’t know, I don’t have any information on this. They took responsibility, but any Islamist group could be part of this plan.”

Assuming the Brigades’ claim is accurate, however, Lister told NOW it could bolster the relatively little-known group’s profile, further fuelling the level of violence in Lebanon.

“A ‘spectacular’ attack like this will be highly likely to encourage further recruitment into the group’s cause. This attack is a significant escalation – after months and months of speculation, an al-Qaeda-linked group has now underlined its involvement in the Syria-related Lebanese theatre. Short-term stability in Palestinian refugee camps” – from which the Brigades primarily recruit – “could feasibly suffer, as could the situation in already unstable towns such as Arsal on the Syrian border.”

Indeed, signs of greater pressure on Arsal – the key remaining crossing point for anti-regime militants between Lebanon and Syria – have already manifested in the hours following Tuesday’s bombings. In the late afternoon, regime warplanes launched air-to-surface missiles at the nearby village of Akabat al-Moubayda. Casualty figures were unavailable at the time of publishing.

Maya Gebeily contributed reporting.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Holy Wisdom: The other Parthenon marbles scandal

It has for years been something of a custom for visitors to the Acropolis and its accompanying museums to take the occasion to comment on the enduring dispute over what were once called the ‘Elgin marbles’, named after the British ambassador to Constantinople who in the early 19th century took a saw to the Parthenon – the crowning glory of 5th-century-B.C. Athens – and shipped the best part of its sculptures back to Britain, where they remain in the national museum to this day. I won’t go into this old and tired debate except to say that, as someone who was already convinced of the case for returning the Parthenon marbles (as they are properly called) to Athens on principle alone, to see the consequences of Elgin’s surgery first-hand at the new Acropolis Museum at the base of the temple last month was to appreciate also the irrefutable aesthetic argument for restitution.

It dawns on you the moment you realize, when examining the panels of the frieze (which once ran along the outside of the naos, or inner temple) and the metopes (the high-relief sculptures carved into the outermost rim), that only the sand-coloured marbles are real, while the white ones – which are the majority – are merely replicas of the originals kept in Bloomsbury. It’s as if the Louvre were to exhibit only a torn-off half of the Mona Lisa, the remainder having been painted on in different colours a couple of years ago. One sees instantly that, even more than the duplicity and injustice and avarice of Elgin’s crime, it’s the absolute vulgarity of it all that is so singularly embarrassing. As the 19th-century travel writer Edward Daniel Clarke put it, “Could any one believe that this was actually done? and that it was done, too, in the name of a nation vain of its distinction in the fine art?”

And yet, for all the opprobrium rightly directed at Elgin, his was not the only deliberate disfiguration of the Parthenon in its two and a half millennia of existence. As I learnt with fascination from the information panels accompanying the marbles – or, more accurately, the gaps in them – the Parthenon lost 6 of its original 115 frieze slabs, as well as several metopes and a major chunk of its eastern pediment (the largest and perhaps most dramatic group of sculptures, comprising a 30-metre-wide triangle atop the 10-metre-tall columns) when in the 6th century A.D. it was converted into a Church of the Holy Wisdom. This involved destroying three frieze panels on each side to create windows; cutting three doorways through the walls of the naos; and demolishing the centre of the eastern pediment along with the adjacent metopes to construct the signature Byzantine Christian apse, or half-dome; all of which amounted to “irreversible damage”, according to Prof. Charalambos Bouras, now director of the Acropolis’ restoration committee.

Having amended the structure of the pagan temple to their satisfaction, the Christians proceeded to redecorate the interior, painting the walls and installing the necessary altar, benches, etc. According to the late Prof. Robert Browning, who contributed an electrifying introduction to Christopher Hitchens’ The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification (which I happily picked up at the Acropolis Museum’s gift shop), there was even “occasional, apparently deliberate, defacement of sculptured figures [by] over-zealous Christians at this time”, although this wasn’t “systematic”. Up until its conversion into a Catholic church in 1204, “notices of the deaths of the bishops and archbishops of Athens were carved high up on some of the peristyle columns”.

Thereafter, the damage inflicted tended to be basically secular in nature. Even when the Ottomans made the Parthenon a mosque after capturing Athens in 1458, and erected a minaret on the Acropolis, actual alterations were limited to whitewashing or plastering over the Christian mosaics and frescoes, which were of course anyway disfigurements to begin with.

Yet the parties of God were to play one final, and central, role in the ruin of the Parthenon, this time in direct collaboration with its most famous vandal. At every moment of Elgin’s looting campaign, his chaplain at Constantinople, one Reverend Philip Hunt, was to be his inexhaustible fixer and accomplice: delivering saws to his workmen; procuring the necessary paperwork from the Ottoman occupiers, by bribery when necessary; impelling him to take ever more precious sculptures, such as the priceless caryatid porch of the Erechtheion; and even indulging in some not insignificant plunder all of his own. As Hitchens puts it, “Reverend Hunt seems to have been a most worldly chaplain”.

Perhaps it will be said that it’s unfair to blame today’s Christians for the sins of their fathers (though I can’t help thinking the whole sorry history rather undermines the argument that a world without faith would be poorer in art and beauty. Among the first acts of restoration carried out on the Parthenon after Greece attained independence in 1832 was the removal of the Byzantine apse, in recognition that the alien appendage had no business spoiling the finest monument of antiquity). But the Church’s hands are by no means clean even now. Though it loaned one of them to the Acropolis Museum in 2008, the Vatican still claims ownership of three Parthenon marble fragments it acquired in the 19th century – one from the western pediment, one from the northern frieze, and one from the southern metopes – two of which it continues to display in its Gregoriano Profano museum.

Is this, too, not shameful? Does it not warrant at least some fraction of the international outrage reserved for Elgin and his present-day apologists at the British Museum? Those who think Downing Street’s covetousness is the only obstacle to the sight of a reunited set of Parthenon marbles might recall that the Greek Culture Minister Georgios Voulgarakis asked in 2006 that “all foreign museums that possess sculptural elements of the Parthenon” return them, and that in the same year the late Athenian Archbishop Christodoulos explicitly requested the return of the Vatican’s holdings in a private meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. The Parthenon, as is often pointed out, is no ordinary temple, built simply to glorify the tyrant of the day. It is instead the greatest remnant (much more than a mere “symbol”) of the most extraordinary intellectual and cultural awakening of all time – the age of Socrates, Sophocles and Herodotus, which gave us philosophy, ethics, logic, physics, history and of course democracy (all of them Greek words). “It was to be”, in Browning’s words, “an everlasting monument to a unique and dazzling society”. If the new Pope Francis is indeed the generous and compassionate maverick we’re so often told he is, he might reflect on what his co-religionists have done over the centuries to impair this monument, and make the necessary gesture of atonement.

(Don't) Stop the War: Agnes meets the pseudo-pacifists

[Originally posted at NOW. Since the time of publication, Mother Agnes' name has been dropped from the conference speakers list]

Later this month, Bashar al-Assad’s favorite nun, Mother Agnes-Mariam, is set to receive perhaps the most significant legitimization of her career, when she will speak in Britain alongside the former chairman of the Labour Party, Tony Benn, current Labour MPs Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn, and more than half a dozen writers, including Guardian columnists Jonathan Steele, Seumas Milne, Tariq Ali, and Rachel Shabi, at an event sponsored by the Stop the War coalition.

Indeed, to judge from the event’s write-up on the STW website, Syria will take center-stage at the ‘International Anti-War Conference’, making Agnes something of a guest-of-honor: the description begins by cheering the “historic setback for the organizers of the War on Terror” engineered by Russia in September. Though the conference will also include such sessions as “Imperialism, war and resistance” and “The new scramble for Africa,” the main event will surely be “The Syrian war in context.”

Below, NOW imagines how that panel might kick off:

Jonathan Steele: Many thanks to all of you for coming to what I hope will be our most enlightening panel, on what is perhaps the most important and dangerous conflict facing the world today. Of course, we all know the mainstream media has been totally one-sided on the so-called Syrian “uprising,” and what’s needed more than ever is to put this war in its proper context, free from nefarious state-sponsored propaganda.

Mother Agnes-Mariam: You have to understand, all Free Syrian Army fighters are terrorists.

Steele: That’s a great place to start, thank you Mother Agnes. It’s a great irony that, while one of the most perfidious lies of the War on Terror propagated by Orientalist imperialism is that all Muslims carrying guns are “terrorists,” this has in fact turned out to be entirely accurate in Syria.

Tariq Ali: Some things are true even if George Bush believes them.

Steele: Indeed.

Seumas Milne: If I could just jump in here, on that point, what’s been especially depressing for me to watch is the decline of al-Qaeda in Iraq from a resistance force, as I described them in 2011, to a reactionary, counter-revolutionary one in Syria.

Ali: Hamas, too. Don’t forget they’ve become terrorists now as well.

Milne: Right, yes. The very Palestinian cause itself is threatened as never before by imperialism.

Steele: Is anti-Zionism the new Zionism?

Milne: We should have called one of our sessions that. Next year.

Steele: We could invite Galloway.

Milne: Definitely. But back to the point, obviously propaganda-wise what we’ve seen in Syria fits a familiar pattern. Just as the number of Stalin’s victims has long been inflated by capitalist agitprop, so the alleged crimes of President Assad have been hugely exaggerated, if not outright fabricated. And this is something I know Mother Agnes has often spoken very courageously about.

Agnes: Yes. Whether it’s the Houla massacre, or the chemical weapons attack in East Ghouta, there’s never been any evidence of Syrian government responsibility.

Owen Jones: I’ve said that too.

Milne: Me too.

Steele: We’ve all said that. It’s disgraceful how so-called journalists rely on YouTube videos for their reporting nowadays.

But I think more broadly the problem is a fundamental refusal to understand that Assad is not the problem in Syria. As I’ve often written, it’s the rebels themselves who are responsible for the continued violence.

Agnes: Assad is a merciful man. Let me give you a personal example. When I negotiated the handover of hungry civilians from Moadamiyah to government forces last month, not all of them were arrested.

Milne: Remarkable. Even though they were Sunnis.

Agnes: Yes.

Milne: And people have the gall to say Assad’s government is sectarian.

Steele: They use the same smear on Hezbollah, even though Sayyid Nasrallah has made it very clear that his fighters are in Syria to save Sunnis as much as Shiites.

Milne: And what do they get in return? Human hearts eaten out of corpses. I mean we’ve all seen that YouTube video.

Agnes: Can I just say, it’s so nice to be here in Britain. I deeply regret that, during his recent visit to Syria, I wasn’t able to meet with the head of your National Party, Nick Griffin.

Steele: [Coughs] Coffee break! Anyone fancy a coffee break?

Friday, November 15, 2013

Speaking on Monocle 24 about Hizbullah, Syria and Lebanon

I spoke to Monocle 24 radio last night about Hizbullah, Syria and Lebanon, following Nasrallah's Ashura speech. Episode available here (I come on at 20:25). 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Ashura on campus stirs student complaints

[Originally posted at NOW]

While some Lebanese University students defend the campus makeover in the run-up to Ashura, others say university is not the place for political and religious activity.

Amal Movement flags flank a banner saying "O' Hussein" greeting entrants inside the foyer (Source: "Hope [amal] of the media, hope of Lebanon" Facebook group)
A visitor to the Lebanese University’s UNESCO Street campus this week might be forgiven for believing they had walked into a political party’s office, or, as the running joke among some students goes, a “Husseiniya” (Shiite religious center), rather than a public higher education institution.

Hanging squarely above the main entrance is the flag of the Amal Movement, Lebanon’s oldest predominantly-Shiite political party and a leading member of the pro-Damascus March 8 bloc. Only once inside, however, does the extent of the decoration become apparent: countless Amal flags, along with posters bearing messages of religious devotion to Imam Hussein ibn Ali as well as Amal founder Imam Musa al-Sadr, are all set against a backdrop of ubiquitous black cloth. The theme continues in the campus courtyard, where speakers have been playing a steady stream of religious anthems for the past few days. And on all floors throughout the building, there is scarcely one noticeboard or hallway without either a Shiite banner or an Amal logo.

The campus isn’t always like this, but this week is a special one for Shiites across the world, who are preparing to commemorate Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar, marking the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein in the Battle of Karbala in 61 AH (680 AD). Although Lebanese University bylaws prohibit the display of explicitly political and religious materials on campus, students say the practice has been going on for years with little opposition from the administration.

And several students NOW spoke to on campus Wednesday afternoon defended it.

“It’s not only for Shiites that we do this. At Christmas time we also put up Christmas trees,” said one who would only give her name as Samar. “I don’t think it should be a problem, people should learn to accept and live with one another.”

“They’re just flags,” said another student, who gave her name as Zahra. “It’s not like we’re converting people to Shiism or forcing anyone to join a political party. This is Lebanon, all sects celebrate their festivals in public, it’s not something new.”

Other students, however, argued campus was not the proper place for such celebrations.

“If someone wants to commemorate Ashura, there are more mosques and Husseiniyas than universities in this country,” said Eva Choufi. “We came here to learn. When they play the speakers, we can’t even hear the professor’s words in our classroom. That’s not logical. I’m not saying don’t commemorate Ashura. I’m saying the commemoration of Ashura has a specific place. Even Sheikh Jaafar Fadlullah, the son of [Grand Ayatollah] Muhammad Fadlallah, wrote yesterday on Facebook that Ashura should not be commemorated in universities.”

“There are things happening that should not be in a university campus,” agreed another student, who gave her name as Yasmin. “The black flags, the pictures, this is not supposed to be a political office. And this is not about sectarianism – it’s not only Christians or Sunnis or Druze who oppose it, it’s many Shiites as well.”

According to Yasmin, the university’s administration has made attempts to rein in the students responsible, but to no avail.

“Once there was a message for the students – a paper was put on the door of the elevator – saying all political signs should be removed. After two days, instead of removing the signs, they removed the paper,” she told NOW.

It’s unclear why staff have not done more to prevent the practice when the university’s president himself, Adnan al-Sayyid Hussein, has publicly condemned it. “I don’t agree with what’s happening, especially since no one requested official approval before proceeding,” Hussein told the Annahar daily. “The university has already warned students against these activities, but God help us.” Yasmin and other students alleged to NOW that the administration was being intimidated by Amal Movement members, though Amal itself also rejected the activities to Annahar and called on students to abide by university bylaws.

Maya Gebeily contributed reporting.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

As Iran talks falter, is Saudi relieved?

[Originally posted at NOW]

Experts suggest Saudi may still seek partial break with US, particularly on Syria.

When Saudi Arabia declared last month that it would implement a “major shift” in its relations with the United States, in protest at what it perceived as the latter’s unsatisfactory policies in the region, one of the key reasons cited was Washington’s diplomatic overtures to Riyadh’s greatest rival, Iran. Now that a prospective American-Iranian agreement to ease sanctions in exchange for a freeze of uranium enrichment has faltered, with US Secretary of State John Kerry saying it could take “weeks” to materialize, it is unclear whether Saudi Arabia’s displeasure will abate somewhat.

Some experts familiar with Riyadh’s thinking told NOW that it likely would not, because enrichment per se was never the monarchy’s chief concern.

“Saudi knows the enrichment issue is being handled adequately by the US and Israel,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist and former advisor to then-ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal. “What worries Saudi is that the issues it really cares about, like Iranian intervention in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, will be left hanging. America is interested in the nuclear issue, but is dragging its feet on Syria.”

Similar concerns were voiced by Riyadh’s allies in Lebanon. “For the Saudis, the big issue is Syria. The reluctance of American policymakers to support the Syrian revolution left the Saudis completely disappointed,” said Mustafa Alloush, a former MP with the Saudi-supported Future Movement.

Should a US-Iran deal emerge, however, some believe Saudi may be able to negotiate some compensation. A leading French diplomat at the Quai d’Orsay [foreign ministry] has suggested the Saudis would be offered a “consolation gift” in Lebanon in the event of an agreement, according to Karim Emile Bitar, senior research fellow at the Paris-based Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS). This, in practice, would likely entail concessions in March 14’s favor on the cabinet, and perhaps the coming presidential nomination, Bitar told NOW.

Certainly, during his trip to Riyadh last week, Secretary Kerry said the US sought a cabinet in Lebanon free from “Hezbollah intimidation,” and upon returning from his own trip to the Saudi capital Monday, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman took an implicit jab at Hezbollah by stressing the importance of the “Baabda Declaration,” which calls for Lebanon to stay out of the Syrian conflict.

However, Khashoggi dismissed the notion of such a “gift.” “Syria and Lebanon cannot be separated. I don’t see how the Iranians can ‘win’ Syria and the Saudis can ‘win’ Lebanon. It doesn’t work that way,” he told NOW.

Alloush also said the Saudis see gains in Syria as the only meaningful route to gains in Lebanon. “The Saudis know that cutting the rope to Hezbollah through Syria would mean a Hezbollah that is willing to make concessions in Lebanon. Now, Hezbollah is acting like a tyrant in Lebanon, because it feels it got a boost after they realized an attack by the US on the Syrian regime isn’t happening. So the Saudis feel that only more use of force against Syria can weaken Hezbollah.”

To that end, Khashoggi told NOW the most tangible consequences of Saudi’s so-called “major shift” will be felt on the ground in Syria, where Riyadh may team up with European allies to provide more support for rebel forces than Washington has hitherto accepted.

“The biggest shift is to bypass the Americans in Syria, by sending certain weapons to [rebels in] Syria. We’re beginning to get the French more onto our side. The French are helping out, they are becoming friendlier, if that’s the right word, with Saudi Arabia.”

Ultimately, however, some analysts believe the extent of any potential US-Saudi rift is being greatly exaggerated.

“I don’t see this as as major as it’s been made out to be,” said Andrew Hammond, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and author of The Islamic Utopia: The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia. “Remember during the Intifada, [King] Abdullah was allegedly very angry, and went to America and showed them these pictures of Palestinians suffering. It’s kind of a familiar thing in this relationship that is essentially on pretty good terms. These disputes between them are always in the context of two very close allies.”

“The investment that the Americans have put in, on so many levels, which has even got to the extent of them sharing military technology […] it’s a lot. The idea that that kind of relationship could be overturned in a short space of time is basically ridiculous.”

All the same, others suggest a genuine, fundamental realignment of relationships is conceivable.

“It could be – and here I’m speculating – a calculation of US foreign policy that the Saudis are too weak to make really significant changes in Syria, or Iraq, or Lebanon; that Iran is the dominant and effective player; and that US interests are better served by seeking conciliation and collaboration with the Iranians to maintain influence in the region,” said Dr. Imad Salamey, professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University.

“Things may be changing, and they may be changing rapidly.”

At Beirut's war cemetery, remember the "gifts"

[Originally posted at NOW]

Gathered like pearls in their alien graves
Silent they sleep by the Persian waves,
Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands,
They lie with pale brows and brave, broken hands

- Sarojini Naidu, ‘The Gift of India’

Beirut's war cemetery (NOW/Alex Rowell)
It would be idle to pretend the history of the two World Wars was not contentious in Lebanon, as indeed it is everywhere. On the one hand, the wars marked the defeats of the Ottoman and then Vichy French occupiers, and thus led more or less directly to the creation and independence of the Republic as we know it. On the other, this partition (as many saw it) of Syria was one of several enacted by the British and French victors, who themselves took up occupation of the region, and whose bright new ideas also included the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, later known as Israel. The arguments and conflicting allegiances sparked by these events contributed in no small part to Lebanon’s subsequent wars, and are by no means reconciled today.

Wherever one stands on the question, what is not disputed is that many people died in the “Great War” and its sequel, including thousands here on Lebanese soil. Few public spaces in Beirut are as striking as the British war cemetery, where a ceremony was held today by the British embassy in remembrance of these victims. Nestled between the Shatila refugee camp to the south, the pro-Future/Islamist Tariq Jadideh neighborhood to the north, and the pro-Hezbollah Shiyah to the east, it’s perhaps not the first place one would expect to find vast, immaculately-groomed gardens, hemmed in by rows of tall, verdant trees. Yet, while Allied war cemeteries have elsewhere been vandalized by both Palestinians and Israelis in recent years, Beirut’s bears no more at present than a spot of Islamist graffiti on the outer wall.

Islamist graffiti on the outer wall of Beirut's war cemetery (NOW/Alex Rowell)
More arresting than the scenery, however, are the engravings on the headstones themselves. For while it’s called the “British” cemetery, this conceals the immensely diverse nationalities of its inhabitants. Pace up and down the rows of the 1,000+ graves and you’ll find hundreds of Christians, Muslims and Jews of Arab, Indian, African, Australasian and east European origins, all of them induced and perhaps coerced (though not actually conscripted) to fight under the British command.

(NOW/Alex Rowell)

(NOW/Alex Rowell)

(NOW/Alex Rowell)
On Remembrance Day, therefore, by all means remember the Brits who died, if you’re so inclined. But do not forget the numberless others for whom the outcome, whether ultimately worthwhile or wasteful, was paid for in quantities of blood of which there can be no debate at all.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

At AUB, a big win for Lebanese secularists

[Originally posted at NOW]

Amid the din of familiar political chants in the two segregated crowds outside AUB’s West Hall Tuesday night (“Bashir [Gemayel] lives within us!” on the de facto ‘March 14’ side; “God, Syria, Bashar [al-Assad] and nothing more!” on the ‘March 8’ one), there was occasionally a more unconventional slogan emanating from a small but lively corner: “Secularism! Secularism!”

The Secular Club, whose president Jean Kassir I interviewed on Saturday, had reason to be in high spirits. As Kassir had predicted, Tuesday’s elections were by far the most successful ones for the independent club in its history. Having won their first and only University Student Faculty Committee (USFC) seat last year, this year they took 13 of the 109 Student Representative Committee seats and 3 out of 18 in the more important USFC.

While this hardly spells the imminent demise of sectarianism in Lebanon (the March 8-PSP alliance won the most seats overall), it’s difficult not to take some encouragement from this slight flaring of the candle. It’s already been a historic year for those Lebanese who aspire to a day when clergymen can no longer tell them who to marry or what doctrine to impose on their children, and it’s gratifying to see these achievements, and the spirit undergirding them, making gains on the parties of God in all their guises.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Secular students hope to shake up AUB polls

[Originally posted at NOW]

Though support for independents may be growing, they are unlikely to threaten the major established parties on Tuesday.

The American University of Beirut (AUB) is set to hold its annual student elections Tuesday, during which undergraduates and graduates will elect representatives from all faculties to a pair of committees intended – at least in theory – to advance the interests of students within the broader university administration.

While overt affiliation with real Lebanese political parties is forbidden, it’s an open secret that most of the various “clubs” running candidates are de facto proxy parties, with the Youth Club representing the Future Movement, the Cultural Club of the South standing in for Hezbollah, and so on. As a result, student elections are often regarded as indicators of the prevailing political dynamics nationwide.

However, not all students see it that way, and indeed a minority of independents is seeking this year to convince their peers that there is something more at stake.

“We have taken for granted that student elections are a kind of survey of the political distribution in the country, and the class consciousness of students as an interest group is not really present,” says Jean Kassir, a final-year political studies student and president of the Secular Club, an independent, non-sectarian club that won a seat in the business faculty last year, and aims to win more on Tuesday. “So when you talk about a platform, or a vision for AUB, many students don’t care.”

Kassir, by contrast, clearly does care. A nephew of the late writer Samir Kassir, assassinated in the aftermath of Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, Jean opposes March 8 but is evidently also unimpressed by March 14, and anyway insists that policies are what count when he meets NOW at the largely deserted AUB campus on Saturday afternoon.

“Our platform specifically targets tuition fees” – a controversial 6% hike was introduced this year – “as well as the issues of transparency in financial aid, transparency in AUB expenditures, and the idea of improving overall academic standards.” He speaks at length about questionable allocations of funds by the administration (“there is no culture of accountability at AUB”) and what he believes is the failure of the mainstream clubs to address any of the above.

“What are their priorities? These guys are really obsessed by the score they get in the elections and they don’t care about the essentials. The 6% increase in tuition fees is maybe nothing for them but I know people who really cannot afford it.”

And he believes the club’s message will resonate with voters – particularly graduates – on Tuesday. They have indeed already won a graduate seat in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) unopposed (“It’s known that political parties have no chance there”). Also working in their favor is a boycott of this year’s elections by their strongest independent rivals, No Frontiers. Even Bilal Derian, spokesperson for the Future-affiliated Youth Club, conceded to NOW that independents stood to gain this year: “People now are against all that’s going on in the country, and so are becoming more and more independent from political parties.” All in all, Kassir believes they can take all the FAS and Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) graduate seats, along with a few undergraduate seats across various faculties.

Nevertheless, the Secular Club is unlikely to significantly upset the March 14-8 duopoly, according to Makram Rabah, former vice-president of AUB’s University Student Faculty Committee, author of A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut 1967-1975, and an active alumnus of the Progressive Youth Organization (PYO), the unofficial affiliate of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP).

“They’re not strong at all,” said Rabah of the Secular Club. “They might win a couple of seats, but since they’re not competing in the big ones – the vice-president, the treasurer, and so on – they’re not a challenge. They don’t have the manpower, the political leverage, or the funding.”

Indeed, Rabah believes the election is already effectively a foregone conclusion, given that the PYO – which, much like the PSP itself, enjoys a ‘kingmaker’ role, determining which of the two camps wins the day – has chosen once again to ally with March 8.

“Ever since the PYO decided a few years ago not to run on the March 14 ticket, March 14 has never won an AUB election. And there’s no reason for something unexpected from them this year.”

Derian, however, told NOW that the PYO’s alliance with March 8 actually gave Youth Club activists encouragement. “It made us work harder and boosted our people’s morales. We are working like bees this year.” Accordingly, Derian believes March 14 still has a “high chance” of winning the overall election. “Since last year, we decided to work for the students rather than for the political party we represent, and this allowed us to be powerful this year.”

Rabah, by contrast, says Tuesday will if anything see slight gains for March 8, given that they “are entering with a winning record,” and due to poor campaigning from March 14. “March 14 are too used to the pre-2007 victories, when they were so popular that everyone voted for them. Now, you have to actually go out and get the votes, which they’re not doing.” The PYO was in fact negotiating an alliance with March 14 earlier in the year, said both Rabah and Derian, but they fell out over seat allocations.

The Secular Club, then, may be destined to remain in the political wilderness for now. Yet it didn’t take long to find supporters on campus Saturday. The very first person to walk out of Main Gate following NOW’s interview with Kassir was Qasim, an undergraduate in the business school.

“I’m voting for them,” said Qasim. “Because they’re not affiliated with any political party.”

Before the floods

[Originally posted at NOW]

The UN estimates at least 10,000 Syrian refugees living in tents in Lebanon will soon face flooding.

The center of the unofficial Nahiriyeh camp, near the Beqaa town of Bar Elias (NOW/Alex Rowell)
BAR ELIAS, Lebanon – Arriving at what locals call the “Nahiriyeh camp,” erected on a rectangular patch of gravelly sand hidden among the agrarian fields of the central Beqaa Valley, NOW briefly received a hero’s welcome on Thursday morning. The residents – Syrian refugees from Qusayr and elsewhere in Homs Province – crowded around the car, eagerly asking if we had come to hand out aid. The hope in their eyes quickly drained when we said we were only journalists, and most walked away, heads bowed, muttering under their breath. Those who stayed wasted no time in reeling off a long list of grievances: serious healthcare needs they couldn’t pay for; children denied places at schools; dangerously unclean drinking water; lack of diapers for newborns.

And yet, unenviable as living conditions for Nahiriyeh’s several hundred residents already are, they are soon to get much worse. It has begun to rain in Lebanon in the past fortnight, and though predictions of the harshest winter in a hundred years may be unreliable, snow will nevertheless cover much of the Beqaa in the coming winter months, which is grim news for the more than 270,000 Syrian refugees that the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has accounted for in the agricultural plain. Especially vulnerable are the more than 80,000 refugees UNHCR estimates are living in what it calls informal tented settlements (ITS), which are makeshift camps in all but name (unlike Jordan and Turkey, Lebanon does not officially have Syrian refugee camps). Of these settlements, UNHCR says 12% are located in flood-prone areas, which means at least 9,600 refugees will be living in flooded tents once the rain season gets fully underway.

Nahiriyeh’s residents will be among them. Invited inside the home of Umm Ahmad, a warm-spirited grandmother from Qusayr, NOW saw few means by which the family of eight would be able to escape the rain and snow. The roof comprised cardboard box panels supported by wooden beams. The walls were carpets held in place with nails. The floor was a mat thrown over an uneven, cracked layer of concrete; unprofessionally put in place by the refugees themselves. The only furniture, such as it was, consisted of a ring of uncomfortably thin mattresses, functioning as seats, children’s play areas, and beds. Asked how she planned to cope with the coming winter, Umm Ahmad could only laugh: “What you see is what we have.”

Nor were things better in Umm Muhammad’s slightly larger dwelling around the corner. Here, the roof had been fashioned out of woven rice sack material, some of which had begun to fray already. “Look at this,” she told NOW as her children looked on silently. “When it rains, this place is going to fill up.”

In anticipation of these humanitarian disasters-in-waiting, UNHCR and its NGO partners are building on the experiences of the past two winters since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, and have been working on a so-called ‘winterization’ plan since the summer, according to UNHCR spokesperson Joelle Eid.

“In the Beqaa, we have around 280 informal settlements at risk of flooding,” Eid told NOW. “As soon as you have a lot of rain, the floor turns into mud, and those tents are at risk of flooding.” One planned response involves identifying all flood-prone locations, and then re-locating the refugees within them either to shelters or to Lebanese host families (who would then receive compensation from UNHCR), wherever possible.

A parallel initiative, which Eid told NOW has already started, is the distribution of “sealing kits” to refugees – that is, materials with which flood-prone homes could be sufficiently fortified to keep out the wet. Moreover, Eid added that distribution of winter-specific aid, such as warm clothing, blankets, mattresses, and heating fuel “will start in the coming weeks.”

However, Nahiriyeh’s residents – who say they are burning cardboard indoors to stay warm at night – are unconvinced they will see much aid come their way.

“We’ve been promised many things for the winter, but so far there has been nothing.”

Luna Safwan contributed reporting.