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2012 REVIEW: THE MIDDLE EAST

FOR the best part of 25 years, events in the Middle East have been among my main preoccupations as a journalist.

A woman holds her daughter during yet another air strike by Syrian army forces against the city of Aleppo  Photograph:  AFP/Getty
A woman holds her daughter during yet another air strike by Syrian army forces against the city of Aleppo Photograph: AFP/Getty

Be it the Palestinian intifada of the 1980s, the Gulf War of 1991 or the Iraq conflict of 2003, during these and many other crucial moments I have had a ringside seat to some of the region's most tumultuous events.

In all that time, though, I find it difficult to recall a year in which the news stories I covered had such a profound global and personal resonance as they have done over the past 12 months.

The civil war in Syria dominated the headlines and the early part of the year brought the news that my friend and colleague Marie Colvin, a Sunday Times correspondent, had been killed while covering the fighting around the Syrian city of Homs. Over the years our paths had often crossed in the Middle East. In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Colvin was a regular sight on the streets of East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza as clashes intensified during the second Palestinian al-Aqsa intifada uprising in 2000.

A year later, in 2001, she herself fell victim to the violence, losing her left eye after coming under government fire in Sri Lanka. Once recovered, she chose to return to the world's frontlines wearing a distinctive black eye-patch that made her instantly recognisable.

By the time we next met, again in the Middle East, it was during the Lebanon conflict of 2006 and the patch had become her trademark. I well remember a certain enforced candlelit dinner in a little fish restaurant in the Lebanese coastal town of Tyre, which miraculously had remained open despite the bombardment by Israeli forces that had left nearby buildings smouldering and blacked out the town's electricity supply. "This makes you about as blind as I am," quipped Colvin in her usual dry, self-deprecating way from across the table through the flickering darkness.

Marie Colvin's death last February deprived journalism of one of its finest war correspondents and starkly illustrated the indiscriminate violence with which most ordinary Syrians are now confronted every day.

During my last trip to the region that was brought home forcefully when I met some Syrian opposition rebel fighters and those fleeing the fighting.

"Assad's soldiers fought like crazy men," pointed out one young rebel fighter I met deep in the pine forests that cover the snowy windswept hillsides of the frontier between Turkey and Syria. As he spoke, his agitated eyes, peering out from holes in his black balaclava, attested to the traumatic experience he and his comrades had undergone during a recent battle in the northern Syrian village of Ain al-Baida. At the height of the fighting, 50 rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), with less than 30 guns and a few remaining bullets between them, had tried desperately to hold back hundreds of Syrian government troops and tanks.

Even at that low point in March, as the regime launched a major offensive in the north of the country, the FSA fighters remained defiant. "It's Bashar or me," insisted one. "I will keep fighting until we win or I am dead. If Assad steps down and offers free and fair elections, then I would happily put down my gun."

Today, as a new year beckons, it seems that the tide may just be about to turn in the opposition's favour with even President Bashar al-Assad's long time ally, Russia, finally admitting that the rebels will most likely oust him. In the meantime, the suffering of the civilian population goes on.

Earlier in the year, I met some of those civilians who had decided they could no longer stay inside Syria. In a setting reminiscent of a second world war French resistance mission, I joined Syrian opposition activists as we waited for two hours one night at an abandoned farmhouse, hidden from view of the Turkish army watchtowers and Syrian patrols on either side of the frontier that straddles the Orontes river. Out across the river, a rickety little rowing boat slipped silently across the water, silhouetted in the moonlight.

For those on board, freedom and safety were almost within reach. Behind them lay the hell of weeks on the run, dodging army patrols, snipers, landmines and the dreaded "ghost gangs" – "shabiha" in Arabic – who kidnap, torture and kill at the Syrian regime's behest.

"A few nights ago, we brought some women and kids across, but just before they arrived at the crossing point, one of the women stepped on a mine that blew her left leg off," said Mustafa, one of the activists who ran this lifeline network of escape routes. "You can't begin to imagine the fear, the state of the children and the problems we had getting her over the river."

And so the suffering goes on in Syria – and in the coming year it will doubtless get worse before it gets better.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the shock waves of the Arab Spring uprisings continue to create instability, hope and anger in equal measure.

In Egypt, the struggle for greater freedom goes on following the fall of the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak. Week in, week out, Cairo's Tahrir Square has become a rallying point for those seeking change in the country. Most recently it has seen a standoff between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Mursi on the one side and, on the other, more secular, liberal, left-wing and Christian activists, who see Mursi's rule as little better than that of Mubarak. It was Mursi's decision to pass a decree granting himself sweeping new powers that sparked the latest protests across Egypt and led to a stand-off with the country's judiciary.

Egypt, it seems, still has some way to go before the fallout from its Arab Spring revolution subsides and the country can get on with fully realising its new-found sense of freedom.

At least, though, freedom has been tasted in Egypt – unlike in the Gaza Strip, where more than a million-and-a-half Palestinians remain hemmed in on a slither of land blockaded by the Israeli army and navy.

In this interminable battle of political wills, Palestinians and Israelis have their own respective narratives of victimhood. One of the greatest difficulties facing any reporter of this conflict is the extent to which these dual narratives, and the bloodshed that accompanies them, tend to blur the specifics of each individual tragedy. In watching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unfold, it is all too easy to see it purely in geopolitical terms and forget that at its heart lie the lives of millions of ordinary people, which are lived on the edge.

Towards the end of this year, Gaza was once gain subjected to an Israeli military bludgeoning after fighting broke out following the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, chief of Hamas's armed wing, the al Qassam Brigades.

For the moment, a fragile ceasefire remains in place and while the ceasefire deal may not have earned Hamas all that it wanted, Israel has committed to easing the blockade that was imposed to break the Islamist group and to end the kind of "targeted assassinations" that killed Jabari.

Also, after years of isolation, a succession of Arab VIPs have rushed to Gaza to show their solidarity as Israeli warplanes were striking their targets, and the leaders of Hamas were treated with careful respect by Egypt – something unthinkable in the days of ousted president Mubarak.

As if events in Gaza were not enough for Israel to worry about, though, earlier in the year Israelis were issued with gas masks as the drum-beat of war between the Jewish state and Iran reached a crescendo.

Like some apocalyptic Groundhog Day, it was an eerie re-run of those times back in January 1991 when the countdown to war with Iraq got under way and Israel braced itself for the worst.

At the end of 2012, the standoff between Israel and Iran remains tense and unpredictable, as do the situations in Gaza, Egypt and Syria. In all of these places, as elsewhere across the region, there is no question that what we have witnessed over the past 12 months are events that have marked a considerable shift in the Middle East's balance of power. I have no doubt that the year ahead will be just as tumultuous.

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