A curious conjuncture of convoy, conflict and criticism

10 May

 


by Grant Morgan

Auckland, New Zealand

10 May 2012

Yesterday there occurred one of the curious conjunctures by which history teases humanity.

On 9 May, the Viva Palestina Arabia convoy carrying aid to Gaza crossed the Turkish border into Syria. According to emails leaked to a Syrian opposition paper,(1) convoy organiser Amer Nazir had promised that the Assad regime “will provide us complete protection and security” during their passage across strife-torn Syria.(2)

That very same day, the premier pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat featured an interview with the commander of the Free Syrian Army, colonel Riad al-Asaad. The colonel warned that his rebel army “will not stand idly by” while the regime’s forces continue their “killings, arrests and shelling despite the presence of [UN] observers”.(3)

So unrolled the day’s curious conjuncture. A resumption of military operations was flagged by the insurgent colonel, who noted that the Free Syrian Army’s “goal is to target military vehicles”. Meanwhile those same military vehicles, according to a convoy organiser, are going to provide “complete protection and security” to the Gaza aid mission traversing Syria.

There is no doubt that the Free Syrian Army, and the mass democracy movement challenging the Assad dictatorship, are solidly on the side of Palestinians in their long struggle for national liberation. In the fog of war, however, there is unlimited scope for unintended bloodshed. Moreover, the region is awash with fiercely competing state players looking for ways to stage deadly provocations and pin the blame on their opponents.

We can only hope and pray that the convoyers crossing Syria don’t become expendable pawns on someone’s geopolitical chessboard.

Yesterday, senior officials and army officers of the Assad regime feted the convoyers as they entered Syrian soil and then travelled the short distance to the port of Latakia, which has suffered 246 killings during the democracy uprising.

Unless Viva Palestina Arabia charters a ship from Latakia to Egypt, the convoy must next drive through a region dominated by Homs. This city has been most cruelly battered by the heavy weapons of regime forces, with 5,775 people slaughtered. Before reaching the relative safety of Jordan, hundreds of kilometres lie ahead of the convoyers, with their final leg skirting close to Daraa, where 1,490 people have died in Syria’s turmoil.(4)

Already the Assad regime is exploiting the Gaza convoy for its own ends.

SANA, the regime’s media agency, declared yesterday: “The convoy is organised by a group of Europeans who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people and Syria and headed by the British MP George Galloway.”(5)

In effect, Assad’s media is painting the convoy as being “in solidarity” with Syria’s oppressive rulers as well as with oppressed Palestinians.

According to SANA, at a state reception attended by such dignitaries as the governor of Latakia and the ruling Baath Party’s local secretary, a “spokesman” for the convoyers stated: “What is taking place in Syria is a Syrian affair and we are guests of the Syrian people and respect their right to determine their destiny without foreign interference.”(6)

The mayor of Latakia (left) welcomes convoy manager Kevin Ovenden to Syria

 

On that day of curious conjunctures, 9 May, Syria’s state media reported a speech by George Galloway in Beirut, Lebanon. As SANA put it, “Galloway reiterated his absolute rejection of any foreign intervention in Syria’s internal affairs”.(7)

While talk of “foreign interference” being a driver of the uprising is a core theme of the Assad regime, it’s categorically rejected by the rebel military commander. Colonel Riad al-Asaad insists that the Free Syria Army has not received financial or material assistance from foreign countries, relying instead on help from Syrian citizens.(8)

So many friends of Palestine have criticised Viva Palestina Arabia’s decision to route the convoy through Syria that Galloway has been compelled to respond publicly. “I don’t understand the purpose of those criticisms,” the British MP said in a speech yesterday. “We travel through all countries that lead to Palestine.”(9)

Yet critics say there are alternative routes to Gaza which don’t have the downsides of traversing Syria.

Rosario La Higuera, in Argentina, wrote: “They could have gotten a boat from Venice to Alexandria, they could have flown to Egypt and bought supplies there, but have gone against all advice even the advice of those they were working with and lost a great deal of support. Its so very sad.”(10)

Neil Sammonds, Amnesty International’s researcher on Syria, made this appeal to Viva Palestina Arabia: “I urge you not to travel via Syria where the people bravely protesting more than 40 years of the al-Assad regime are suffering crimes against humanity and grinding impoverishment.”(11)

Helen Dayem, in Egypt, says the Syria route provides Assad with “positive media” while “risking the safety” of convoyers. Mary Rizzo, in Italy, worries about “the danger of a false flag operation” during the Syria crossing.(12)

John Hurson, who travelled from London to Gaza on Viva Palestina’s 2010 convoy, rejects the notion that the current convoy is not taking sides in the Syrian conflict: “By going into Syria, they ARE taking sides.”(13)

Timur Khan, who had left Bradford with the current Gaza mission, announced with “much regret” in Istanbul that “I will not be continuing my journey with viva palestina through Syria, due to irreconcilable differences with the convoy’s leadership.”(14)

And it’s old news by now that Viva Palestina Malaysia and Kia Ora Gaza withdrew from the convoy shortly before departure due to the Syria route.

The unprecedented wave of criticism coming from friends of Palestine is causing strains among the convoyers. Fra Hughes, a Gaza activist from Ireland, recently wrote: “Would those who disagree with the proposed convoy route please stop attacking the convoy. I understand and share some of your concerns however we would appreciate your support at this difficult time for all of us here.”(15)

On a human level, most critics sympathise with Hughes and the other convoyers, who are seen as committed humanitarians risking life and limb to help break the siege of Gaza.

Despite this sympathy, however, the criticism continues, driven by concerns that the Syria route is causing harm to the worldwide Gaza convoy movement and the 1.5 million Palestinians under siege in the Mediterranean enclave.

So is the torrent of criticism causing a strategic rethink by Viva Palestina Arabia’s leaders? To date, any evidence of second thoughts does not appear to have yet surfaced.

But perhaps it’s just too soon to tell?

Notes

(1) The leaked emails are contained in the comments following the article “George Galloway’s Convoy through Syria”, The Syrian Sun, 6 May 2012.

(2) This email from Amer Nazir was dated 17 March 2012. It was addressed to a prospective convoyer who, in the end, decided not to go.

(3) Caroline Akoum, “FSA to resume military operations – FSA commander”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 9 May 2012.

(4) E.N.N., “14,122 martyrs in 407 days (15/03/2011-27/04/2012)”, 6 May 2012.

(5) “Humanitarian Aid Convoy Heading to Gaza Arrives in Lattakia”, SANA – Syrian Arab News Agency, 9 May 2012.

(6) While SANA did not name the convoy “spokesman”, he is believed to be Kevin Ovenden, Viva Palestina Arabia’s senior strategist and manager.

(7) “Galloway Reiterates Rejection of foreign intervention in Syrian Affairs”, SANA – Syrian Arab News Agency, 9 May 2012.

(8) Caroline Akoum, “FSA to resume military operations – FSA commander”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 9 May 2012.

(9) “Galloway Reiterates Rejection of foreign intervention in Syrian Affairs”, SANA – Syrian Arab News Agency, 9 May 2012.

(10) Comment by Rosario La Higuera on the Facebook page of Margaret Green, 7 May 2012.

(11) Comment by Neil Sammonds following the article “George Galloway’s Convoy through Syria”, The Syrian Sun, 6 May 2012.

(12) Comments by Helen Dayem and Mary Rizzo on Kia Ora Gaza’s Facebook group, 9 May 2012.

(13) John Hurson’s comment on the Facebook page of Fra Hughes, 9 May 2012.

(14) Comment on Timur Khan’s Facebook page, 30 April 2012.

(15) Comment on the Facebook page of Fra Hughes, 9 May 2012.

One Response to “A curious conjuncture of convoy, conflict and criticism”

  1. Lilia Patterson May 11, 2012 at 1:53 am #

    To the organisers of the Viva Palestina convoy, now at risk as a result of the descent to chaos in Syria, as a result of the Assad state terrorism being inflicted upon the Syrian, Kurdish and Palestinian residents as part of the regime’s military siege, of the country, and in suppport of the Kia Ora’s statements to avoid complicity in supporting or providing PR opportunities for a criminal regime, that performs war crimes against its own people, including Palestinians I would like to point out the article below in relation to official statements by Palestinians from Gaza to demonstrate that they have very clearly disassociated themselves, without a shadow of a doubt, from the Assad regime.

    Therefore anyone who remains even slightly, remotely under the mistaken belief that the Palestinians of Gaza, under the Hamas leadership are remotely friends with the Assad regime, they need to please think again, because this is not what was stated by the Hamas representatives in public in Cairo, shortly after the Hamas office in Damascus was closed down, last year for ‘security’ reasons, causing the representatives of Hamas from Syria, to re-locate to Egypt, instead:

    “On Friday, the head of the Hamas government in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, declared his support for Syrian people AGAINST President Bashar al-Assad.

    “I salute all people of the Arab Spring, or Islamic winter, and I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform,” Ismail Haniya told worshippers at a mosque in Cairo.

    The worshippers shouted back: “God is great” and “Syria! Syria!”

    The remarks reflected the deepening split between Hamas and Mr Assad”.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-17192278

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