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September 13, 2012

The West Will Have to Compromise on Syria

Posted on 09/13/2012 by Juan

Søren Schmidt writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:

Syria is neither Egypt nor Libya – and the conflict can therefore not be solved as it was in Egypt and Libya respectively.

The conflict in Syria worsens with each day that passes, and by now more than 20,000 people have been killed. At the same time, the parties are more keenly opposed than ever. The regime will have to go in the long run, but nobody knows how to get rid of it and get started on a democracy.

In Egypt, Mubarak was defeated by the mobilization of large masses of people demonstrating in Tahrir Square. In the confrontation between the regime and the masses of people, it was the regime that blinked first. The military quite simply did not have the stomach to beat back so many people, and in one fell swoop the regime’s authority vanished.

In Libya, Gaddafi was so isolated in his own country that the Libyans were able to defeat him militarily with a little help from the West.

But neither of these solutions can be applied in Syria, for two reasons.

First of all, the situation in Syria is a proper civil war between the country’s Sunni majority (65%) and the Alawi minority (10%) that the Assad clan belongs to; while the remaining minorities (Christians, Druze, Kurds and Shia: 25%) either support the regime or keep themselves on the sidelines. Since the conflict can not be described, as it was in Egypt or Libya, only as a conflict between the regime and the people, but also between two parties, each of which represents an important social force, the opposition is not able to challenge the regime through mass mobilization.

The close cooperation between the Syrian opposition and the Muslim Brotherhood as well as Saudi-Arabia has only worsened the problem and reinforced the Alawites perception that they are fighting with their backs to the wall. Add to this that the opposition has not been receptive to the desire of the Syrian Kurds to have their particular non-Arabic identity respected and, finally, that the opposition has failed to formulate a policy that would rally the urban middle class to its cause. Therefore mass mobilization will not be what topples the regime in Damascus.

The alternative to mass mobilization is a long, arduous fight to defeat the regime by military means. However, without outside help this will become a lengthy affair, since the regime has significant resources and a strong will to fight back. An external intervention force would also most probably have to count on being attacked by Alawite militias, while at the same time having to defeat the regime’s forces.

But that is not all: Syria is an important link in the so-called resistance alliance, which in addition to Syria consists of Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah in a deterrence alliance against Israel. Syria’s alliance partners will therefore do whatever they can to prevent pro-Israel, Western powers from taking out an important link in this alliance.

The diplomatic ad hos group of countries, the so-called “Friends of Syria,” – did not want participation by Iran, and has instead embraced traditional foes of Iran like Saudi-Arabia and Qatar. This has, naturally, reinforced the Iranian perception that the fight against Assad is also a fight against Iran. While the West sees the fight against Assad as a fight for democracy, the Iranian regime see it rather as a geo-political fight against them. For this reason, a military solution cannot break the Gordian knot either. At least not without laying most of Syria waste in the process.

In this situation there seem to be two possibilities. Either the parties can continue the current civil war, and when exhausted eventually, perhaps many years hence, agree that a compromise would be better – or they can reach that same compromise now, before the destruction becomes more extensive, the number of dead increases further and the sectarian hatred becomes too entrenched.

However, this will demand some new thinking:

First of all, the Alawites (and the other minorities) must have guarantees that the fall of the regime will not be at their expense. Words and paper are easy, but the only actor who may credibly guarantee that minority interests will be secured after the fall of Assad is the Syrian military. Not the civilian security apparatus, but the part of the Syrian Army that still sees itself as a national institution and not just as an extension of the regime. The Syrian military should therefore be a party to any agreement concerning a transition from the present to a new government (as was also the case in Egypt and in Tunisia whose militaries also played an instrumental role in the transition). The only influence on the military apart from the present regime is Iran (and to some degree Russia).

Secondly, the West has to distance itself from the regional conflict between Iran and Israel, which has as its root cause that the Israelis continue to relate to their neighbors by means of military domination rather than finding a solution that all parties can live with. Said in another way: Israel has yet to accept the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state. As long as that remains the case, Israel will be seen as an enemy by Hamas and Hezbollah, which Iran for its part will insist on supporting. But there is nothing forcing the West to be hitched to the Israeli wagon in the conflict with Iran. After all, the West wants democratization in the Middle East and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. The conflict between Israel and Iran ought therefore not to be allowed to hinder the inclusion of Iran in the attempt to find a solution for Syria.

The Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi, has recently suggested that Egypt, Turkey, Saudi-Arabia and Iran get together to find a solution to the Syrian tragedy. The West ought to support Morsi’s initiative and replace romantic, revolutionary notions with a pragmatic approach to the Syrian people’s wish for democracy, and at the same time decouple its policy from Israel’s self-inflicted conflicts with its regional neighbors.

Søren Schmidt is Associate Professor at Aalborg University in Denmark


Anti-Islam film: What we know

An obscure slapstick film said to be entitled Innocence of Muslims or Life of Muhammed has been cited as the cause for riots at US diplomatic posts in Egypt and Libya.

But the existence of the purported filmmaker, Sam Bacile, allegedly a 52-year-old Israeli-American real estate developer, has not been proven.

In interviews with the AP news agency and the Wall Street Journal, a man calling himself “Sam Bacile” said he had raised about $5m to produce the film. He also was quoted describing Islam as “a cancer”, and claimed he had raised money from “about 100 Jewish donors” to make the video.

But the interview subject did not even give the same age during his two known press interviews, as he told the AP he was 56.

The man said the amateur, two-hour-long film had involved dozens of actors and was produced in California in 2011. But new reports suggest neither any prior social media presence by the director nor any IMDB page for the film.

The director of the California Film Commission – which issues permits for films that are shot in the state, told the Huffington Post that no permit was ever granted to someone by the name “Sam Bacile”.

‘Desert Warrior’

The trailer for the film – which itself is so far unavailable to the public – portrays Islam’s Prophet Muhammad as a fraud and a womaniser, and depicts him having sex. The entire film has only been shown once in public, at a theatre in Hollywood, said the source who identified himself as “Bacile”.

He also explained he made the film because “after 9/11 everybody should be in front of the judge”, AP reported. “Even Jesus, even Muhammad.”

But actors who participated in the filming now say they had no idea the film was even about Muhamad or Islam. The original casting call was reportedly for a film called “Desert Warrior” by director Alan Roberts.

And all the film’s religious references were actually dubbed after the original shooting.

“Bacile” is now reportedly in hiding, even though reports suggest that the name is merely cover for a larger group, or a pseudonym for someone who may be neither Israeli nor Jewish – but who cited such an identify to inflame tensions.

One of the actresses who says she was tricked into being in the film says “Bacile” told her on set that he was Egyptian, and that he spoke Arabic to other men present.

Reuters has reported that Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox church issued a statement condemning some Egyptian Christians living aboard who it said had financed “the production of a film insulting Prophet Muhammad”.

In Egypt and Libya, public anger at the video spilled over on Tuesday, leading to the death of the US ambassador in Benghazi, Libya and the evacuation of embassy workers in Cairo.

Spread on social media

How did an obscure film trailer come to have international ramifications? It was first posted on YouTube by a user called “sam bacile” in July 2012, and has received about 450,000 views to date.

The trailer began to get more attention in September. On September 4, the same user posted a version dubbed in Arabic, which has garnered tens of thousands of views.

Morris Sadek, a Coptic Christian born in Egypt but who lives in the US, told AP he had been promoting the film on his website. He also tweeted a link to the trailer on September 9.

Sadek, the head of the National American Coptic Assembly, is known for his vehemently anti-Islam views, and told the Wall Street Journal that “the violence that it [the film] caused in Egypt is further evidence of how violent the religion and people are”.

Terry Jones, the Florida pastor whose burning of Qurans in 2011 spurred riots across the Muslim world leading to several deaths, also reportedly promoted the film.

The Arabic version of the trailer received heavy media coverage in Egypt last week, including by controversial hardline TV host Khaled Abdallah, who reported on the film on September 8.

A clip of the show was posted to YouTube on September 9, where it has received almost 400,000 views so far.

“The operation behind this film appears to be extreme Egyptian Copts who want to discredit the Morsi government and create a provocation,” journalist Max Blumenthal told Al Jazeera.

“They oppose the revolution and are aligned with Christian right groups who have an apocalyptic, theocratic agenda and who are inciting against Muslim-Americans,” Blumenthal said, adding, “They put Muslims in the US in danger, they put Copts in Egypt in danger, and they’re putting US diplomats in danger.”

YouTube clip blocked

The Afghan government on Wednesday temporarily blocked YouTube in an effort to discourage people from watching the clip. YouTube also blocked the video in Egypt, agency reports said.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, the company said: “We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions.

“This can be a challenge because what’s OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere.

“This video – which is widely available on the web – is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube. However, given the very difficult situation in Libya and Egypt we have temporarily restricted access in both countries.

“Our hearts are with the families of the people murdered in [Tuesday’s] attack in Libya.”

Observers say Google has grown more averse to removing videos. After its 2006 acquisition of YouTube, it was accused of censorship in several high-profile controversies.

“They’re squeezed on all sides,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a fellow at the New America Foundation. “But because of pressure from a lot of people who feel they made the wrong decisions, they now generally err on the side of keeping things up.”

In recent years, Google has used technology to filter out videos in certain countries to comply with local regulations.


Reading as Witness

Samar Yazbek’s US Tour click on link

I am in the middle of reading Samar Yazbek’s A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution (trans. Max Weiss, available next month), and it is very possibly the most painful book-experience I have ever had. Every few pages, I am so overwhelmed that I need to put the book down and stare out the window.

I am usually a fairly hardy reader: My husband resented me for giving him Elias Khoury’s award-winning Yalo (2000), trans. Humphrey Davies (2009), which unrelentingly explores the nature of — and relationship between — torture, violence, and story. I feel a bit cold-hearted to say it, but I appreciate the book’s art. Algerian author Anouar Benmalek’s Abduction, trans. Simon Pare (2011), is based on a true story. The book piles horror atop horror. But it’s a discussion of horror, a look at horror.

Because of the level of craft and shaping in those books, I was able to read them at a critical distance. Even though they discussed (real, and real-seeming) horrors, they also gave me a sort of philosophical…enjoyment, I suppose.

A Woman in the Crossfire is not shaped. This is not because it’s nonfiction: If you read Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, you’ll find that Ahdaf Soueif’s revolution diary received careful and thoughtful shaping. Perhaps this is all the shaping Yazbek could manage. Or perhaps it’s her diary’s most fitting form.

Yes, yes, books about horrors — let’s say Primo Levi’s If This is a Man can be pleasurable readerly and philosophical experiences. But reading A Woman in the Crossfire is not pleasurable in any straightforward way. Or at least not in the first 130 pages.

I suppose, in many other books of witness, there is a pleasure in seeing “how things turned out” and “learning from the experience” and having a catharsis of one’s own.

But Crossfire has not “turned out,” of course. It feels like a writer’s thoughtful but hurried diary smuggled out of a situation that’s currently ongoing. It’s not quite news; it’s not quite art. We are listening to witness testimonies along with Yazbek. We hear about a fight with her daughter, about how Yazbek woke up in the middle of the night screaming. We follow her, stumbling, into prison. We follow her, stumbling, back out again.

Somehow, reading this feels like I, too, am now participating.

Of course, when I write that, it feels ridiculous.  I am not participating.  Perhaps I have learned something (although I already had a pretty strong sense that one should neither give PR assistance to Bashar al-Assad nor sell him fancy shoes or weapons). But mostly, I have shared in some people’s pain. Is there some point to secretly, in my own home, sharing in people’s pain? I don’t know. But once you’ve started, and you’ve found that you care about these people — these characters, these people — it’s also difficult to stop.


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