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P U L S E “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Dershowitz

Aleppo is our Guernica — and some are cheering on the Luftwaffe

Imagine Guernica. On April 26, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, the Basque town was bombed for three hours by Hitler’s Luftwaffe in support of Francisco Franco’s fascist regime, leaving over 1,600 people dead. Picasso immortalized the episode in a celebrated painting, Neruda wrote poems about it, and it became an enduring metaphor for people’s suffering in war.

Now imagine a different response to Guernica. Imagine people applauding the bombings, reproaching the victims, and slandering the witnesses. If you can imagine that, then you know Aleppo.

Aleppo — one of the last major rebel strongholds — is on the verge of collapse. Backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Lebanese Hezbollah, and US-equipped Iraqi militias, the Syrian regime army is advancing from the south; from the east, the Islamic State (IS) is rampaging ahead; and, exploiting the stretched rebel defences, the Kurdish YPG is sneaking in from the north. All have been assisted, directly or indirectly, by the relentless attrition of Russian bombs.

But as the conflict moves toward a grim denouement, its mounting toll has elicited a curious response. Many in the west, including prominent liberals, have used the logic of lesser-evilism to welcome this outcome. But to sustain this argument, they’ve had to battle the stubborn resistance of facts.

The balance of atrocities could not be clearer. Consider these facts:

The UN has stopped counting the dead in Syria. But even before the regime’s August 2013 chemical attack, which killed more than 1,400 civilians, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, special investigator for the UN Human Rights Council, had found the regime responsible for eight of the nine massacres perpetrated until then; a year later, even after the rise of IS, the equation remained unchanged. Despite IS’s extreme violence, Pineheiro noted, the regime “remains responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties, killing and maiming scores of civilians daily”. Since its entry into the war, Russia has surpassed the regime’s kill rate; it has also helped ISIS expand its territory by targeting the rebels fighting it.

But if the balance of atrocities is clear, their moral implications have not been as acutely felt. This in part has to do with the muddled way the story has been reported. On Sunday, when one of Hollywood’s most politically active and humane figures weighed in to condemn the media for “misleading the public on Syria”, one could only welcome the intervention.

Except, Mark Ruffalo, the Oscar-nominated star of Spotlight, was not indicting the media for failing the people of Syria; he was condemning it for being insufficiently sympathetic to the regime and Russia. He was recommending to his 2.23 million Twitter followers an article by Boston Globe columnist Stephen Kinzer in which he alleges that the “American press is reporting the opposite of what is actually happening”; that it unfairly describes everything Russia and Iran do as “negative and destabilizing”; and it fails to report that in the Assad regime and Russia’s assault on Aleppo, its inhabitants are “finally see[ing] glimmers of hope”. Kinzer’s basis for these claims? A comment “on social media” and the opinion of a “Beirut-based analyst” (in reality a pro-Hizbullah activist who is a contributor to the Russian news outlet RT and the Iranian supreme leader’s personal news site).

To compensate for its fact deficit, Kinzer liberally sprinkles his article with straw men. He claims that journalists are misleading the public by describing Jabhat al-Nusra, as “moderates,” not as “the local al-Qaeda franchise”. As a matter of fact, no one refers to Nusra as “moderates”, and a Nexis search of major newspapers reveals virtually no article that doesn’t refer to it without mentioning its al-Qaeda affiliation.

This article was a sequel to another, published three days after Russia started a series of attacks on MSF-run hospitals, which was boldly titled: “On Syria: Thank you, Russia!” In it Kinzer prescribed that “Russia’s policy should be ours: prevent the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s government, craft a new regime that would include Assad or his supporters, and then work for a cease-fire.” However, to accede to the opposition’s demand for a cease-fire, he insisted, would be to “guarantee continued war”. In a subsequent TV interview, Kinzer lauded the foreign policy wisdom of Donald Trump. (Similar sentiments have also been expressed by his Irish counterpart, Patrick Cockburn of The Independent).

Ruffalo wasn’t the only one promoting this nonsense. Beyond the agoraphobic netherworld of internet conspiracists, it was also warmly received bybestselling authors, Daily Show producers, liberal academics, Pulitzer Prize-winners, and think-tankers.

Why do bien pensant liberals like Ruffalo fall for such dross? Ideological blinkers? Or has dissent become all about aesthetics? It seems at any given moment maintaining an adversarial posture is more important than substantive engagement with an issue. Why bother with details when one can derive them from general principles? And if the reality of an issue contradicts one’s preconceived notions, then reality itself must be brought into question. Shooting the messenger is always a reliable option. But dressed up as criticism of “the mainstream media”, “the establishment”, or “Washington”, even a full-throated defence of fascism acquires the sheen of fearless truth-telling.

There are few things more commonplace than an Oedipal disdain for one’s own government. In this solipsistic worldview, one has no need to understand the dynamics of a foreign crisis; they can be deduced remotely. If you hate your own government then, by virtue of being in its bad books, a Putin or an Assad becomes an ally.

Conversely, if people elsewhere are rising up against their far more repressive states, their cause is tainted because of a sympathetic word they might have received from your government. And all the images of agony do not add up to a tear of sorrow as long as they are relayed by a hated “mainstream media”. Indeed, victims are reproached for eroding ideological certainties by intruding into our consciousness through their spectacular suffering. (Kinzer, unsurprisingly, resents the media’s “obsession with daily suffering”.)

Trapped in the vortex of these paranoid fantasies, these anti-humanist do-gooders have failed to notice that what they consider a brave dissent is actually official US policy. A hint of the administration’s thinking on the subject is offered by two of Obama’s former advisors on Syria — Philip Gordonand Steven Simon. Both have penned op-eds showing their preference for Assad. The administration’s record confirms this. Since the beginning, the administration withheld meaningful support from the Syrian opposition, but now it has explicitly acceded to a Russian plan to preserve Assad. And Assad is winning.

Courage used to mean the ability to stand up for something, regardless of the consequences. It now means standing down from principle and letting others bear the consequences of one’s “difficult” decisions.

Aleppo is our Guernica — and too many are cheering on the Luftwaffe.


‘Poetry Under Attack: An Evening in Support of Mohammad al-Ajami

Mohammed-Ibn-al-Dheeb-al-AjamiIn October 2013, al-Ajami’s 15-year prison sentence — ostensibly for a 2010 poem that criticized Qatar’s emir — was upheld as “final.”

At the time, al-Ajami’s lawyer, Najib al-Naimi, still held out hope for a pardon from the emir. But more than a year has passed with no sign of a pardon.

Still, al-Ajami is not forgotten, and on Feb. 27, and poets — includingImtiaz Dharker, Sabrina Mahfouz, and John Paul O’Neill — will mark two years since al-Ajami’s sentence was reduced from life in prison to 15 year.

The event is set to begin at 7 pm, with doors opening at 6.30pm. It will be held at Amnesty International UK, The Human Rights Action Centre, 17-25 New Inn Yard, London EC2A 3EA

The event is free but people are asked to reserve a place online.

Al-Ajami was arrested in November 2011 after the YouTube publication of his “Tunisian Jasmine,” a poem that praised Arab uprisings and criticised governments across the region. The case against him was ostensibly about the 2010 poem that criticized the emir, but many believe authorities are punishing al-Ajami for his Jasmine poem.

Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s free translation of the Jasime Poem, which was read at an event in support of the poet in San Francisco:

Jasmine Revolution Poem

By Mohammad al-Ajami Ibn al-Dhib

Prime Minister, Mohamed al-Ghannouchi:
If we measured your might
it wouldn’t hold a candle
to a constitution.
We shed no tears for Ben Ali,
nor any for his reign.
It was nothing more than a moment
in time for us,
and dictatorial,
a system of oppression,
an era of autocracy.
Tunisia declared the people’s revolt:
When we lay blame
only the base and vile suffer from it;
and when we praise
we do so with all our hearts.
A revolution was kindled with the blood of the people:
their glory had worn away,
the glory of every living soul.
So, rebel, tell them,
tell them in a shrouded voice, a voice from the grave:
tell them that tragedies precede all victories.
A warning to the country whose ruler is ignorant,
whose ruler deems that power
comes from the American army.
A warning to the country
whose people starve
while the regime boasts of its prosperity.
A warning to the country whose citizens sleep:
one moment you have your rights,
the next they’re taken from you.
A warning to the system—inherited—of oppression.
How long have all of you been slaves
to one man’s selfish predilections?
How long will the people remain
ignorant of their own strength,
while a despot makes decrees and appointments,
the will of the people all but forgotten?
Why is it that a ruler’s decisions are carried out?
They’ll come back to haunt him
in a country willing
to rid itself of coercion.
Let him know, he
who pleases only himself, and does nothing
but vex his own people; let him know
that tomorrow
someone else will be seated on that throne,
someone who knows the nation’s not his own,
nor the property of his children.
It belongs to the people, and its glories
are the glories of the people.
They gave their reply, and their voice was one,
and their fate, too, was one.
All of us are Tunisia
in the face of these oppressors.
The Arab regimes and those who rule them
are all, without exception,
without a single exception,
shameful, thieves.
This question that keeps you up at night—
its answer won’t be found
on any of the official channels…
Why, why do these regimes
import everything from the West—
everything but the rule of law, that is,
and everything but freedom?


The Salam School

March 8, 2014 § Leave a comment


This was published at the National.

Syria is my father’s country, where I spent an important part of my young adulthood, where my son was born. Living there was inspiration for my first novel (though it’s set mainly in London). In fact, I fell in love with the country – with its enormous cultural and historical heritage, its climatic extremes, and its warm and endlessly diverse people. Of course there were moments – for example, visiting a broken man who’d been released after 22 years imprisonment for a ‘political offense’ – when I felt like getting the next plane out. And before too long I did move on, because a stagnant dictatorship was no place to build a future.

Then in 2011 the revolution erupted. This instant of hope was followed by a counter-revolutionary repression of unprecedented ferocity. How to respond? For a long time I wrote and spoke to anyone who would listen on one theme: the necessity of funding and arming the Free Army – civilian volunteers and defectors from Bashaar al-Assad’s military. Nobody did arm them, not seriously, and as a result the Free Army lost influence and Islamist factions filled the gap. Assad’s calculated manipulation of sectarian fears and hatreds produced a Sunni backlash. Al-Qa’ida franchises set up emirates near the Turkish border, and the West increasingly understood the Syrian drama not as a battle for freedom, but as a security issue. In illustration of this fact, I was stopped at Edinburgh airport as I started my most recent trip to the Turkish-Syrian border, in December, and questioned under the UK’s Terrorism Act. “Which side do you support?” they asked me. I explained there are many sides now, but the question seemed to be either/or: either the regime or the jihad – and support for the (genocidal) regime was the answer which ticked the ‘no further threat’ box.

They also asked why I was going. The answer: I was lucky enough to know a group of committed and talented Syrian-Americans, including Chicago-based architect and writer Lina Sergie Attar, interviewed below, founder of the Karam Foundation. Karam delivers aid and opportunity to war-struck Syrian communities, and I was on my way to participate in its Zeitouna programme.

How do you act usefully in the face of a tragedy which unfolds on an incomprehensible scale? Syrians and their friends were forced to address this question as Assad’s genocidal repression transformed the popular revolution into a civil war, and as an unthinkable third of the population were made refugees. Every city except two has crumbled in whole or in part under bombardment. Ancient mosques and churches have been reduced to dust. The country’s multicultural social fabric appeared to dissolve.

storytellingSyrians inside the country were propelled into actions they would have formerly found inconceivable: selling a car to buy a Kalashnikov, leaving a teaching job to join a militia, abandoning a proud home for a tent by a border fence. Some have discovered themselves as beasts driven by fear or prejudice: torturing children in dungeons, raping women at checkpoints, slitting old men’s throats, and firing artillery, scud missiles and sarin gas at their neighbours. Many others have revealed unsuspected reserves of compassion, courage and creativity. I’ve met some of these extraordinary ordinary people. A man, for instance, whose immediate family was annihilated in bombing, who now publishes newspapers for adults and children because he believes the right to self-expression is the only important thing left. A man who stays on after his family fled to run a free bakery without which many would starve. A nurse who serves (unpaid of course) in field hospitals, the blood never dry on his hands, who hasn’t dared cross a checkpoint to visit his mother in over a year.

“It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little,” wrote 19th Century clergyman Sydney Smith. “Do what you can.” Hazar Mahayni is a Syrian-Canadian pharmacist, a widow in late middle age bursting with energy and good cheer. In October 2012 she also became the organising intelligence behind the Salam School for refugees in Reyhanli, on the Turkish side of the border. This school was the site for December’s Zeitouna activities.

The school is a rented one-storey villa, with new walls to make more classrooms, a small olive grove, and even a menagerie containing rabbits, hens and two goats. It serves 1200 children who crowd the classes in three three-hour shifts, the youngest first. The demographic stretches from the Damascene bourgeoisie to the poor peasantry, but most are from the rural north, the governorates of Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo.

There are over 700,000 refugees in Turkey, some in camps, others living in towns and cities. Turkish prime minister Erdogan’s government has been much more generous than others in the region, allowing Syrians to set up schools, businesses and charities. In Reyhanli I visited a new orphanage and the Watan wool workshop, which sells knitwear produced by refugee women. Just as they are inside the country, Syrians are organising themselves for survival. In the Salam School, a man interrupted my classes twice to ask, first, which children had no fathers or whose fathers had no work, and second, which children had no gloves.

DSCI0217The last is a necessary question because the Levantine winter is bitterly cold – a dry, bone-deep, biting sort of cold. A winter storm struck while I was there, and children froze to death in the snow-covered camps on the Syrian side. The children in Reyhanli are slightly better off. Depending on their resources, they live in rented houses, rooms, shops or warehouses, often separated from the next family by only a curtain. But most refugees have no school to attend. Very young and ragged children in open-toed sandals beg at the traffic lights.

The Salam School’s children are as noisy, as full of tears and laughter, as children anywhere, but many are traumatised or simply lacking care. In one class, a heavy boy called Abdullah got into three fist fights in the first five minutes. I put him outside for a while, then brought him back and focussed some attention on his work. This was enough to make him smile and cooperate.

The school has a warm, humane, and Islamic atmosphere. I witnessed one instance of Muslim obsessive-compulsive disorder, when a small girl leapt to show a teacher a picture she’d drawn of Cinderella. “I’m glad to see you’ve given her a long skirt,” the teacher said in a kindly tone. “But you should have put a scarf on her head too.” Otherwise the environment was openminded, tolerant and cheerful. One drawback is that everyone (as far as I could see) is a Sunni Muslim – nothing unusual for the rural areas, but city kids used to live in more mixed neighbourhoods. And this isn’t the school’s fault, but the demographics of Assad’s expulsion.

Our days began with revolutionary chants (“The revolutionary generation welcomes you!”) and Quranic recitations. The teachers teach what they can of the Syrian curriculum, stripped of its hagiography of Assad pere and fils and of the propagandistic ‘Nationalism’ subject. Corporal punishment (standard in the old education system) is forbidden, but old habits die hard and it still sometimes occurs. Management and teachers are refreshingly open and honest about these challenges.

Hazar says it’s been difficult to involve the teachers – trained  to follow orders in Assad’s system – in collective decision making, but that now they’re making headway. She sees the development of cooperative self-organisation as a revolutionary cultural process every bit as necessary as winning the physical battles.

The staff includes men who have participated in the actual warfare, like Ustaz Ahmad from Banyas, the coastal city where Assad’s shabeeha militia committed throat-slitting massacres. Ahmad slipped away because he was wanted at checkpoints (“They’re still looking for me,” he laughed. “They think I’m still there…”) and joined the Free Army on Jebel al-Akrad. His group ran out of ammunition and then out of food, so he came to Turkey twenty days before I met him.

Or there was the teacher whose husband was once an officer in the national army. He defected because he didn’t want to murder his neighbours. He was captured. Seven months later he died under torture. His body was thrown in a mass grave.

Given that the teachers themselves are traumatised and have lost almost everything, it’s remarkable that so many can smile – more than in an average British school. A teacher called Abdul-Jabbar wins the prize for the most infectious and enchanted smile, something like a flock of birds raising the spirits of all around.

I was in the school for a week as part of the Karam Foundation’s Zeitouna project. Six months ago a five-member core delivered workshops in the tented classrooms of Atmeh camp, just inside Syria. This time our numbers were up to 40 volunteers, and included obvious foreigners, and this time too al-Qa’ida franchises are kidnapping people in the border areas, so Karam decided for our safety we should work on the Turkish side. A series of fortuitous circumstances established a relationship with the Salaam School.

DSCI0027Max Frieder’s Artolution organised large-scale canvas painting (I saw it done but still couldn’t understand how the hands of hundreds of babbling children created pictures that made coherent sense) while the AptART team involved the children in designing and painting a mural for the school wall. The result was impressive, something every child will remember in future years – an uplifted face on a background of calligraphed phrases (In the name of God the Compassionate the Merciful, Cooperating for a Better Future, Love, Hope, Dignity…), upraised hands, grinning faces, and the towers and minarets of a cityscape.

There were workshops in football, calligraphy, digital photography, trust games and journal writing. Game-inventor Rory O’Connor workshopped his wonderful Story Cubes, and left hundreds of these imaginative tools behind to liven Reyhanli’s cold nights. The dental hygiene workshop distributed toothbrushes, while the dental team (all Syrian-Americans) made themselves unpopular by extracting over a hundred teeth daily.

Mine was a storytelling workshop based on the notion that a story needs six things: hero, assistant, problem, secondary obstruction, solution, and conclusion. Among the children’s chosen protagonists were Robin Hood, Batman, my brother the martyr, my father the martyr, and (most often) Sponge Bob. Among the problems to be solved were a dinosaur eating people, a car hitting a pedestrian, my house being shelled, and my cousin stuck in prison.

The activity gave them a way to exercise their fantasy and also to process their real-life stories. And every child has one. When you ask why they came to Turkey, they answer “because Bashaar kept on shelling us,” and then go into specifics. Because we haven’t experienced it, we must imagine here what ‘shelling’ means – not a word in a news story or an element of fantasy-drama but the actual ceiling coming in, a home transformed suddenly into sky cracks and screams. This is what these small children are so matter of fact about, though their eyes flicker and adjust as they speak.

DSCI0059There were stories everywhere I turned. You don’t need a fixer to find victims on the Turkish border, you just ask any man or woman on the street. Even to the last moment, to the cab driver who took me from my friend’s place in Antakya to the airport. Abu Ali was from Lattakia and he happened to know my family. He and his 15-year-old son were arrested together. “They beat my son until he was nearly dead. They beat me until I wished I were dead.” In a cell with 50 others and a hole in the floor as a toilet, which they had to use in front of each other, and nobody was able to wash in the two months Abu Ali was there. Two months of beatings, insults, humiliation, and near starvation. Then father and son were released, for which he thanks God profusely, because “so many die in their prisons.”

This horror has displaced two million outside the country, almost six million inside, and made Syrians the boat people of the decade. While we were there one of our Syrian-American dentists learnt that his nephew had died when the boat he’d hoped would smuggle him to Europe capsized in the winter Mediterranean.

Our work at the Salam School was one drop in a red ocean of suffering which will expand so long as the regime and its backers are permitted to continue their scorched earth policy. Five thousand more refugees leave Syria every day. It puts me in mind of a less optimistic quote, from Henry Thoreau: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

Interview with Lina Sergie Attar

DSCI0066Tell me about the Karam Foundation.

Karam is a non-profit organization founded in 2007. Karam means generosity, and its mission is to spread generosity across the world. Although most directors are Syrian-American, our work was first focused on international aid projects. After 2011, we focussed on Syria’s humanitarian crisis. Karam raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in aid. In 2013, Karam launched a new initiative called Zeitouna.

So what does Zeitouna do?

Zeitouna is a mentorship program for displaced Syrian children. Artist Kinda Hibrawi and I decided to bring them creative mentors to instill a sense of hope. Millions of children have been displaced in the last two and a half years. They have lost everything: their homes, their friends, their communities, even their innocence. Some of them have been displaced for over a year and a half. The lucky ones attend overcrowded, understaffed schools. This is the environment that Zeitouna works within.

zeitouna 2Last year we organized two missions: in the summer, in the Atmeh camp in Syria, and in the winter, the Salam School. We also raised enough funds to build a playground and soccer field in Atmeh, install heating in the Salam School, and send thousands of winterization packages into Syria.

What does Zeitouna mean to the children?

The experience has a profound effect on both children and mentors. I met girls who love science and math and want to become doctors and engineers. It’s important to encourage these girls to stay in school and pursue their dreams despite the hardships. We create powerful bonds with the children. They are the hopes of the future and the ones who will eventually return and rebuild Syria as they desire.

What’s next?

We are planning Zeitouna Summer 2014. Our mission is to reach as many as possible while building lasting bonds with those we have already worked with.


Inside Assad’s Torture Chambers – Syria

via Pulse

As If…

November 30, 2013 § Leave a Comment

the people of Kafranbel understand the game far better than most professional analysts

the people of Kafranbel understand the game far better than most professional analysts

In an article for the National, the wonderful Amal Hanano writes against the illusion that perpetuating the Assad regime can lead to anything other than continuing and expanding war.

In Ambiguities of Domination, political science professor Lisa Wedeen examined the Syrian regime’s rule of domination under then-president Hafez Al Assad.

She noted a dual role for Syrians: both propping up the regime’s propaganda and at the same time subverting its power via the symbols and rhetoric of everyday life and popular culture. This seminal work, published in 1999, a year before Al Assad junior took power, explained to outsiders the inner mechanisms of an authoritative regime. Its relevance is significant today under the shadow of Hafez’s son Bashar and with the fate of a blood-soaked Syria, now in ruins.

In a particularly powerful chapter entitled Acting As If, Wedeen writes: “Power manifests itself in the regime’s ability to impose its fictions upon the world.” The complicity of the people within this imposition enforces the regime’s power of domination. In other words, the regime’s power is mainly constructed by the people’s enacted participation in that very construction.

According to Wedeen: “The politics of acting ‘as if’ carries important political consequences: it enforces obedience, induces complicity, identifies and ferrets out some disobedient citizens …”

Indeed, one of the fundamental ways the Syrian people functioned in the police state was by “acting as if”. Acting as if nothing was going on as Hama was pummeled in 1982. Acting as if they loved the leader even though they were terrified of him.

The tragedy of Bashar Al Assad’s rule is that his father’s construct of complicity has, over the past 32 months, bled far beyond Syria’s borders to encompass the entire region and international community.

As world leaders discuss the merits of the Syrian opposition attending Geneva 2 peace talks without preconditions, they flip the narrative of the revolution. A narrative in which Mr Al Assad is upgraded from a brutal dictator that deserves no more than a cell at The Hague to a potential “partner” in the transitional peace process.

The latest demeaning analysis offered to Syrians is to act “as if” Mr Al Assad maintaining power would end the brutal war that was unleashed by Mr Al Assad himself. Governments act as if dragging the Syrian opposition to the negotiation table without any preconditions will result in a political solution to a raging war. World leaders act as if Mr Al Assad’s cooperation in dismantling his chemical weapon stockpiles is reducing the amount of bloodshed, even as the cluster bombs and scud missiles continue to fall onto civilian populations.


Kafranbel amplifies Amal Hanano's words

Kafranbel amplifies Amal Hanano’s words

As the slated 2014 Syrian presidential election approaches, “Syrians will have their voices heard at the ballot box” is the current refrain of Assad loyalists. As if presidential elections can even be a possibility in a country where over seven million people are displaced. And Mr Al Assad himself acts as if his nomination is not even problematic, to say the least.

For what purpose is all of this acting “as if”? To save Syria from the very regime that created this catastrophe in the first place?

The act of “acting as if”, like the fable about the emperor and his non-existent clothes, twists lies into elaborate truths to the point where even well-intentioned people, including Syrians themselves, are left to wonder: “Should Assad stay?”

Faisal Al Yafai, writing in these pages, approaches the “unthinkable question” of Mr Al Assad remaining in power to save Syria, arguing “all of that could be worthwhile if it ends the conflict”. True, but the most important word in that sentence is “if”.

While Al Yafai rightly points out that no one has any good ideas to end the protracted bloody war, the idea of Mr Al Assad staying in power may just be the worst one.

Most Syrians are worn out by the gruelling violence that has taken a toll on all aspects of life. Most Syrians want peace and stability. If faced with a sincere choice – Mr Al Assad remaining in power in exchange for a ceasefire, the release of all political prisoners, opening humanitarian and medical aid corridors into Syria, and beginning the long process of refugee return – most Syrians would swallow the bitter pill and choose Mr Al Assad. This choice is the result of being left alone to fight two enemies armed by foreign forces with virtually no support. It is a choice of despair.

It is also an unfairly framed choice for one simple reason: Mr Al Assad will never uphold his end of the bargain. Syrian history, old and new, is a reminder of how the Assad regime deals with the people’s dissent. Both father and son have displayed their relentless tactics of retribution. (See Hama, 1982. Or Syria, 2011-2013.)

Making a judgement call based on the grim Syrian present – well over 100,000 dead, thousands in torture cells, millions of displaced and refugees, foreign fighters and extremists battling for foreign ideologies and agendas, mass destruction of cities, towns and villages, an out-of-touch political opposition that is corrupt and impotent, and millions of exhausted Syrians who just want it all to end now – is simply a convenient and careless cop-out.

It’s easy to look at this list of tragedies and claim that saving what’s left of Syria should be the only priority and argue that preconditions to the negotiations will only ensure more stalemate and bloodshed.

Merely glancing at the present is not only naive, it’s immoral. History tells a different story. Stories of mass murder and destruction 31 years ago in Hama, stories of thousands of torture and rape cases, stories of boys whose fingernails where ripped out because they wrote “freedom” on their school walls, stories of enforced policies of “Assad or we scorch the country”, and more recently “Kneel or starve”. Those stories document the despicable and undeniable truth of this regime.

We live in dark times when tyrants are hailed as saviours and martyrs are called terrorists.

History repeats itself – as Hama did before Daraa, and Hafez before Bashar. History also bears witness to the simple fact that sooner or later, every tyrant’s rule ends. In fact, tyrants have fallen over the centuries of our collective civilisation, on this very land called Syria.

Perhaps we will not be able to rejoice soon (or not even for decades) that the Assad regime is finally finished. That will not change one fact: asking for him or his regime to stay will not save lives. Instead, this decision will take more Syrian lives. Thousands more lives.

Deceptive options and skewed choices can be framed as powerful persuasions, as the “last hope” and the “moral choice”. These “solutions for the Syrian conflict” mock the Syrian people’s heavy sacrifices, bloody history, and desire for a peaceful future of freedom and dignity.

If the world has now decided to act “as if”, this complicit world should know that the Syrian people ended that charade 30 months ago. That was their unambiguous choice.

Beyond the dead, tortured, and displaced people; beyond the destroyed cities and scorched landscapes; beyond all what we have lost; does the world really expect Syrians to go back to acting “as if”? As if they loved the illegitimate leader in Damascus? As if the tyrant’s clothes were not soaked with the people’s blood? As if the lies had become the truth? As if history had never unfolded in the terrible ways it did?

As if nothing had happened at all?

Amal Hanano is the pseudonym of a Syrian-American writer

On Twitter: @AmalHanano


On Monsterphilia and Assad

October 25, 2013 § Leave a Comment

My latest for Guernica Magazine.


Earlier this month, the British street artist Banksy produced a video on Syria that attracted over five million viewers in three days. At a time of intensifying state repression, the target of Bansky’s satire was not the regime in Damascus but its opponents.  By contrast, the most watched video from the chemical attack in August, showing a traumatized young survivor, managed only half a million hits in over a month.

Six weeks after the attacks on Ghouta that killed hundreds of civilians, regime forces have choked off food supplies to the targeted neighborhoods. Survivors of the chemical attack are now facing the threat of starvation. Children have been reduced to eating leaves; clerics have issued fatwas allowing people to eat cats and dogs.

The belated discovery of the Syrian conflict by “anti-imperialists” after the US government threatened war inspired impassioned commentary. The strangulation of its vulnerable population has occasioned silence. But dog whistles from issue-surfing provocateurs like Banksy are unexceptional; they merit closer scrutiny when they come from respected essayists like David Bromwich.

In a recent front-page article for the London Review of Books, Bromwich identifies many rogues in the Syrian drama: Barack Obama, John Kerry, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, “the jihadists”.  But conspicuously absent is Assad’s Baathist regime. Vladimir Putin is the closest Bromwich admits to a hero. The Syrian people are denied even a cameo.

When the Yale literature professor uses a tautology like  ”anti-government insurgency” to refer to Assad’s opponents, it is reasonable to assume intention. The word “government” conveys a certain benign authority; and when it is also said to be opposed by the universally reviled “jihadists,” then there is only one place a bien pensant reader can invest sympathy—and its not with the opposition.

Bromwich’s elegant prose barely conceals his clunky polemical apparatus. The validity of his claim—that the Obama administration was engaged in illegal aggression against Syria until Putin intervened—hinges entirely on his treatment of the events of August 21.

“Nobody doubts that an attack took place,” writes Bromwich. But “nobody yet knows with reasonable certainty who ordered it.”

The words are carefully chosen. It is true, nobody knew with reasonable certainty who ordered it—but it had been established beyond reasonable doubt who carried it out. One can perhaps dismiss the conclusions of British, French and German intelligence agencies given their earlier record of failure. But by early September even independent munitions experts and Human Rights Watch had ruled out the possibility that anyone other than the regime could have carried out the attacks.

To understand the absurdity of Bromwich’s dodge, consider the napalming of a school in Aleppo a week after the sarin attack. The bomb was dropped from a jet; and since only the regime possesses airpower, the responsibility for the attack was easy to establish. But as in Ghouta, no one could know “with reasonable certainty who ordered it”. Nor was it relevant.

Upholding the fiction that the responsibility for the attack remained in doubt, in a September 9 radio interview, Bromwich chided the US government for assuming Assad’s guilt even though no “international body” had confirmed it. Bromwich was no doubt aware that the Assad regime had agreed to the UN inspections on the strict condition that they would not assign blame. The inspectors’ remit was confined to investigating if CW were used. Days before Bromwich’s LRB article appeared, the inspectors confirmed the use of sarin and, though their remit excluded identifying perpetrators, they also established the make and trajectory of the delivery system. It left no doubt as to the regime’s responsibility.

Facts, however, rarely sway beliefs. Evidence might point to Assad’s responsibility. But for Bromwich, Assad “was winning the war and such a move was plainly suicidal, his arrival at such a decision is hard to make sense of.”

Harder perhaps than the regime’s indiscriminate use of barrel bombs, cluster munitions, and ballistic missiles; or the bombing of civilians queuing at breadlines that Human Rights Watch documented on 20 separate occasions; or the case of 13-year-old Hamzah al Khateeb whose body was returned to his family badly bruised, with burn marks, severed genitals, and three gunshot wounds days after he was arrested at an anti-Assad protest.

This incredulity is disingenuous.   “Making sense of” is precisely what Bromwich was doing when in the Huffington Post article he advised Congress to ask Obama:

Whether the entry into Syria on August 17 and 19 of US-trained guerrilla forces of the Free Syrian Army, numbering more than 300 — and the passage of those forces through Ghouta about the time of the chemical attack, as documented in the Jerusalem Post on August 23 — did, or did not, make them targets of the attack; and if not, what information about the activity of the forces leads to this conclusion.

Not only did the regime not use sarin; it used it for a reason. Freud called this the logic of dreams.

But lest anyone doubt Bromwich’s fairness, he also finds it “hard to make sense of” the claim that the rebels carried out the attack. Though, for the sake of balance, he puts them in the “possession of some chemical weapons”—because “there are reports.” The reports in fact originated on an obscure website called Mint Press in a highly implausible story, and had been debunked by this author in the New Republic, by Robert Mackey in the New York Times, and Dan Murphy in the Christian Science Monitor. A week before Bromwich wrote his article, even the report’s own author disavowed it.

Bromwich, however, was not daunted. In a bravura performance, he turned the dubiousness of his source into the measure of its validity. He alleges that the administration’s case blaming Assad “was effectively discredited in less than a week, but only below the radar of the mainstream press and policy establishment.”  It doesn’t occur to Bromwich that the criticism might have been too absurd to receive mainstream traction. So absurd, in fact, that the one source Bromwich does name also belatedly repudiated it. In a Facebook message to his followers, the journalist Gareth Porter, wrote:

in truth I cannot come up with an explanation that I can document. I can talk about seemingly contradictory facts, theories, possibilities, ideas, and I can throw in a lot of interesting observations, but in the end, it is still something I cannot make sense of.

For this reason, Porter was “letting go of this issue” because he “can only write what my conscience and my analytical instincts allow.”

Bromwich’s conscience however is made of sterner stuff. In none of Bromwich’s articles is there a mention of Syrian victims. The man who rightly bristles at the persecution of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden is silent on the peaceful political activists, humanitarian workers, journalists, doctors and lawyers tortured or disappeared by the regime; or the tens of thousands of political prisoners rotting in Assad’s jails. No mention of the mutilated dissidents, tortured children, napalmed schools, leveled cities, gassed neighborhoods or bombed breadlines.

Bromwich, who is willing to give Assad the benefit of every doubt, is unforgiving when it comes to his opponents. He invariably paints them in a negative light. “Syria has already largely disintegrated,” says Bromwich.

The government and its Alawite and Christian supporters have secured the west, the Kurds are in the northeast, and the Islamist rebels are in the east (where the al-Nusra Front has already begun to enforce sharia law)

No mention here of the nation-wide Local Coordination Committees, or the vast network of non-violent civil society groups; no word on the head of the Syrian National Council George Sabra, a Christian, or the opposition’s first ambassador to France, an Alawite; omitted too are Christians who support the uprising. Bromwich is unaware that the most eloquent voice of the revolution, the novelist Samar Yabek, is an Alawite.  He wouldn’t tell you that the jihadists have been in open conflict with the nationalist Free Syria Army (FSA) for over a year. Nor would you learn how the conflict assumed its increasingly sectarian character.

Such ignorance would be bad enough. But Bromwich compounds it by reprising tropes from the right’s “war on terror” discourse. In his ecumenical approach to sourcing, he approvingly quotes Tea Partier Rand Paul and the rightwing shock jock Rush Limbaugh. The fact that their opposition to US foreign policy might derive partly from their antipathy toward Muslims and their ideological opposition to the ‘socialist’ president was seemingly no barrier.

Paul is no pacifist; he has suggested that Assad “deserves death” for his use of chemical weapons. And Limbaugh is a cesspool of venomous opinion on everything from migrants, minorities, the disabled, to—of course—Muslims. Why Bromwich would feel that quoting them would strengthen his argument is mystifying. But it might explain where Bromwich picked up his rebels-with-sarin conspiracy theory. After the story debuted on an obscure conspiracy site, it was Limbaugh who first amplified it. (Bromwich also described an attack on a regime checkpoint in the historic Christian town of Maaloula as an “attack on Christians”, a claim rejected by the town’s residents).

The mix of nativist isolationism and Kissingerian realism that Bromwich espouses was perhaps better articulated by Sarah Palin: “Let Allah sort it out”.

Such indifference to massive state repression would sound inhuman if Bromwich weren’t careful to cover it up with the magic phrase “both sides”. It allows him to assert moral superiority while obfuscating context and scale. True, elements of the opposition have committed crimes; some of them horrific. They must be condemned. A just cause does not excuse criminality (though the collapse of law and order does make them inevitable).

Only someone with no moral perspective or sense of proportion would compare the regime’s wholesale criminality with the retail crimes of the opposition. The actions of an individual or a group in a diffuse, uncoordinated and disorganized opposition merely reflect on the perpetrator; the crimes of the regime, with its functioning hierarchies and chains of command, reflect policy.

The Baathist regime has a monopoly on airpower, armor, artillery, ballistic missiles, and unconventional weapons. It is confronted by a diffuse, poorly equipped opposition, whose members were forced by the regime’s brutality into picking up arms. But in Bromwich’s reading this becomes a contest between a beleaguered Assad and “jihadists” backed by the American goliath. And though he has made no reference to the Syrians’ right to self-determination, he generously pronounces the regime in Damascus “sovereign” — a “sovereign government” that is facing the threat of “violent overthrow”. The real victim, it turns out, is Assad.

Bromwich is of course entitled to oppose intervention – it is a perfectly respectable position. Who wouldn’t be leery after the disastrous and unprovoked war in Iraq; or the ongoing bombings of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia? After the lies that led to a war that resulted in at least 461,000 unnecessary deaths (perhaps more), it is natural to feel betrayed. There is good reason also to be skeptical of humanitarian conceits that might be used to justify foreign intervention. It certainly makes sense to be dubious about a media that gave warmongers a pass.

But these lessons could be overlearned. If a boy cries “wolf!” while being set-upon by a wolf pack, then fixating on his propensity for lies will not conjure away the threat. Memory can distort sight; it can’t override it. Where skepticism hardens into cynicism and dogma precludes context, ignorance and apathy parade as virtues. Bromwich and the anti-imperialists forget that in Iraq only the possession of unconventional weapons was being alleged; in Syria they have actually been used. In Iraq pretexts had to be manufactured for intervention; in Syria their abundance has done little to encourage action. It is one thing to distrust the government and quite another to extend this skepticism to the supposed objects of its humanitarian concern.

The threat of a US intervention was momentary; it passed. But the people who had shown little concern for protecting Syrians from Assad went to unusual lengths to protect Assad from the US. Though only a handful openly embraced Assad, many opted for a subtler approach, focusing exclusively on the opposition, caricaturing it, amplifying its failings and erasing its suffering. They manufactured doubt to exculpate the regime. Uri Avnery has derided this tendency as “leftist monsterphilia” – one that in times of crises turns otherwise sensible people into apologists for tyrants.

It is no accident that Syrians have received such little sympathy. Western citizens usually sympathize with perfect victims; moral ambiguity dissuades many. Such ambiguities have been reinforced by the regime’s sophisticated PR campaign and the dog whistles of friendly ideologues. Together they have heaped insult upon injury and drained the reservoirs of potential sympathy.

With over 100,000 killed by conventional weapons, sarin was the least of Syrians’ worries. The international drama over the use of CW has obscured the fact that recent developments have left Assad fully in control of his conventional arsenal with no red lines — real or imagined — constraining him. Syria might see bleaker days yet. But as the abandoned and vulnerable population is subjected to intensified repression, the world will have to worry about protecting them not just from the regime’s killers, but also the calumnies of the monsterphiles.

– Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a political sociologist and the author of the forthcoming The Road to Jerusalem: American Neoconservatism and the Iraq War (Edinburgh University Press). Twitter: @im_pulse


Al-Bayda: Anatomy of a War Crime

An excellent report from Channel 4 on the al-Bayda massacre, one of hundreds of massacres in Assad’s Russian-backed genocide.

Doing the Rounds

August 26, 2013 § Leave a Comment

familiarSo much lazy thinking. Here’s an agit-prop picture doing the rounds, the sort to appeal to the George Galloway crowd. And here’s my comment: “Except it isn’t familiar. In one case they wanted to invade and used chemical weapons as an excuse. There were no chemical weapons. In the other case a genocide has been going on for over two years, they don’t want to invade, don’t even want to arm the people resisting, they don’t have the economic power or pliant international scene to do so even if they wanted; and chemical weapons not only exist, they have been used on a vast scale. Oppose potential US air attacks against Assad bases if you like, but don’t insult the victims of genocide while you’re doing it.”

Another one doing the rounds is this supposedly very clever letter: short guide

A Short Guide to the Middle East. And here’s Idrees’s response to that:

“To the hundreds of people who’ve been passing this fatuous bit of village-idiocy around, let me explain a few things:

1) States, like individuals, balance competing and contradictory interests. Like you, after two of your friends brawl, they don’t disown one to please the other.

2) States are not unitary, self-aware entities, whose interests are constant and indivisible. Like you, they carry in them multiple impulses and their attitudes towards others change based which impulses predominate under a given circumstance.

3) You might resent the tendency to treat the east as somehow exceptional and throw words like “orientalism” around, but like bad breath, you only notice it when others others have it. (Or perhaps the US is really a middle eastern country since it treated Communism as the ultimate evil but allied itself with Stalin to defeat Hitler; and then with right-wing Germans to defeat Communism. It was allied with France, yet supported Algerian independence. And so on ).

4) You have very little regard for facts. (Obama is anti-Sisi and is backing the Muslim Brotherhood? Really?)

5) Since you expect that states should be as one dimensional as Ayn Rand characters, you are unfit to comment on the Middle East or international affairs.”


A Tribute to Helen Thomas

July 21, 2013

Sadly the renowned journalist Helen Thomas passed away on Saturday at the age of 92. In the following two videos we see Helen help Colbert roast Bush at the legendary White House Correspondents’ dinner in 2006 and, in 2010, in a Real News interview, we see her defend herself admirably after her resignation. For more of Helen on the Real News see here or for more on her passing see the following by Ralph Nader: There will Never be Another Helen Thomas.



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