ISIS: Hassan/Weiss versus Cockburn

March 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

isisThe review below was published at the Guardian. Unfortunately the heart of the review was cut from the published version. I’ll put it here first of all, because it shows that Patrick Cockburn actually makes stuff up in order to defend Assad and Iran and to slander the Syrian people. Here it is:

“There is no alternative to first-hand reporting,” he nevertheless opines; and “journalists rarely fully admit to themselves … the degree to which they rely on secondary or self-interested sources”. Which brings us to the question of Cockburn’s reliability. In the book he states, in early 2014, “I witnessed [Nusra] forces storm a housing complex … where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.” This alleged massacre was reported by Russian and Syrian state media (Russia is Assad’s imperial sponsor, providing his weapons and defending him at the Security Council); yet international organisations have no record of it. But Cockburn’s original report of the incident, in a January 28, 2014 column for The Independent, states that, rather than witnessing it, he was told the story by “a Syrian soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali”.

And now here’s the whole thing:

ISIS feeds first on state dysfunction, second on Sunni outrage. In Iraq – where its leadership is local – Sunni Arabs are a minority displaced from their privileged position by America’s invasion. Their revanchism is exacerbated by the sectarian oppression practised by the elected but Iranian-backed government. In Syria – where most ISIS leaders are foreign – Sunnis are an oppresssed majority, the prime targets of a counter-revolutionary tyranny headed by mafias but claiming and exploiting Alawi sectarian identity.

Under other names, ISIS first grew in Iraq as it would later in Syria, by exploiting resistance to occupation, American in one case, that of a delegitimised regime in the other. Drawing on research by the Guardian’s Martin Chulov as well as their own, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan show how Syria’s regime collaborated with Iraqi Baathists and Salafist extremists, facilitating the passage of bombers to Iraq who would do more to precipitate civil war than to shake off American occupation. This was a message to America to leave Syria alone.

Popular disgust and the US-backed Awakening movement eventually drove al-Qaida out of Sunni Iraq. The jihadists waited; their moment returned when peaceful Sunni protests were repressed by live fire in 2013. Heading a Baathist-Islamist coalition, ISIS then captured huge swathes of the country and set about its reign of terror.

Weiss and Hassan have produced a detailed and immensely readable book. Their informants include American military officials, American, Jordanian and Iraqi intelligence operatives, defected Syrian spies and diplomats, and – most fascinating of all – Syrians who work for ISIS (these are divided into such categories as politickers, pragmatists, opportunists and fence-sitters). They provide useful insights into ISIS governance – a combination of divide-and-rule, indoctrination and fear – and are well placed for the task. Hassan, an expert on tribal and jihadist dynamics, is from Syria’s east. Weiss reported from liberated al-Bab, outside Aleppo, before ISIS took it over.

Cockburn’s book, on the other hand, is more polemic than analysis. While Weiss and Hassan give a sense of the vital civil movements which coincide with jihadism and Assadism in Syria, Cockburn sees only an opposition which “shoots children in the face for minor blasphemy”. He concedes the first revolutionaries wanted democracy, but still talks of “the uprising of the Sunni in Syria in 2011”. The label doesn’t account for (to take a few examples) the widespread chant ‘The Syrian People are One’, or Alawi actress Fadwa Suleiman leading protests in Sunni Homs, or Communist Christian George Sabra leading the Syrian National Council.

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What Price Assad’s Rehabilitation?

March 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

Bente Scheller, Middle East Director of Heinrich Böll Stiftung and author of the excellent The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game: Foreign Policy Under the Assads, asks if the West is prepared to pay the high political and financial costs of rehabilitating Assad.

A rehabilitation of Syria would come at an exorbitantly high price, politically as well as financially. How much is the West prepared to pay?

Photo: Beshr Abdulhadi. This image is licensed under Creative Commons License.

If you cannot overthrow the tyrant, co-operate with him – after four disastrous years in Syria this seems to be the conclusion the international community has arrived at. While back in 2011 Bashar al-Assad’s days appeared to be drawing to a close, a growing number of people are now suggesting to see him as part of the solution, as illustrated recently by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura in Vienna.

The more methodical and brutish Syria’s dictator disregards human rights, the more he seems to assume the role of a potentially reliable partner in the eyes of some. That is primarily due to the Islamist terror army ISIS. Albeit there are few atrocities with civilian victims the regime is not responsible of committing and although it commits these crimes to a much greater, deadlier extent – Assad is readily seen as the “lesser evil”.

The implication that the situation in Syria could be pacified through a co-operation with Assad in the battle against terrorism is as plain as it is ill-conceived when it comes to the actual implementation. The fight against ISIS requires three things: the means, the will and a strategy.

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Images, Ethics, Action: Online Video, Human Rights and Civic Activism in Syria

March 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

Thomas Keenan moderates a discussion with our friends, the great Yassin al Haj Saleh and Eliot Higgins (Brown Moses), on the situation in Syria.

We live in a world where images of violence and atrocity regularly flow from battlefields and streets in conflict, and circulate with increasing velocity. Whether they are intended to terrorize, shock, expose wrongdoing, “raise awareness,” or simply show what’s happening — and whether they are made by journalists, fighters, activists, citizens, or even satellites and surveillance cameras — they appear before us and ask us to respond. They raise not only political questions, but ethical ones as well. They are ultimately addressed to public opinion, and their fate is uncertain. Do they end in action, engagement, avoidance, prejudice, empathy, revulsion, memory or oblivion?

This discussion focused on images from the war in Syria, and explored a range of things to do with them.

A Critical Exchange with Reese Erlich on Syria, ISIS & the Left

March 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

Reese Erlich is a foreign correspondent with GlobalPost and reports regularly for National Public Radio (NPR), the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC), and Radio Deutsche Welle. His reporting has earned him multiple awards over the years. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors declared September 14, 2010, “Reese Erlich Day” in honor of his investigative work. “Mr. Erlich,” the resolution read, “exhibits the finest qualities of…reporters willing to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

He is also a friend of mine. We met in the home of our mutual friend Stephen Kinzer. Kinzer wrote the Foreword to Erlich’s book Dateline Havana: The Real Story of US Policy and the Future of Cuba and when Erich was in Chicago in early 2009 to discuss the book, Kinzer hosted a gathering for him in his home in Oak Park. It was a fabulous evening, and Erlich and I stayed in touch. A few months later he was in Iran, reporting on the historic protests that convulsed the Islamic Republic following its June presidential election. He wrote some of the very smartest stuff about those dramatic events. Erlich is a dyed–in–the–wool New Leftist who cut his teeth at Ramparts, the iconic magazine of 1960s radicalism, but he took many of his fellow leftists to task for the utter myopia they displayed amidst the events in Iran that summer. His essay “Iran and Leftist Confusion” was bang-on and desperately-needed. He also provided a healthy corrective to the pervasive narcissistic blather about Iran’s Green movement being a Twitter revolution.

A couple years on, when his book Conversations with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence and Empire came out, I set up an event for Erlich at Chicago’s No Exit Cafe. And in 2013, when Erlich and Norman Solomon (his co-author on the 2003 book Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You) did a speaking tour to mark the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, I set up an them for them in Denver.

In Erlich’s latest book, Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect​, he criticizes me and my colleague Nader Hashemi for advocating humanitarian intervention to end the criminal starvation sieges in Syria. He reached out to me before the book went to print, asking me to read this section and send him feedback. We had sharp disagreements about Syria, but I appreciated his spirit of generosity and friendship. In this same spirit, I was happy to host him once again in Denver for a talk on his new book. But I was also keen to sit him down for a critical exchange about his book for the video series that our Center for Middle East Studies produces.

Our conversation reflects both my deep respect for Reese’s work and also my serious disagreements with him. It is a spirited and critical (in the best sense) exchange between two leftists with different perspectives on one of key issues of our time.

Our World: Rojava

March 4, 2015 § 1 Comment

Is the Middle East’s newest country a territory called “Rojava”? Out of the chaos of Syria’s civil war, mainly Kurdish leftists have forged an egalitarian, multi-ethnic mini-state run on communal lines. But with ISIS Jihadists attacking them at every opportunity — especially around the beleaguered city of Kobane, how long can this idealistic social experiment last? From the frontlines to the refugee camps, Mehran Bozorgnia filmed in Rojava for the BBC’s Our World and has gained exclusive access and a revealing snapshot of Syria’s secret revolution.

Progressive Except For Syria? Take The Test!

February 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

We’ve experienced those who are Progressive-Except-For-Palestine. And now we’re experiencing the Progressive-Except-For-Syria syndrome. Are you worried you may be a sufferer? The ‘We Write What We Like’ blog has invented a self-diagnostic test. Here are the first ten questions:

For the rest, visit the page here.

A Leftist Syrian Point of View

February 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

“I am afraid that it is too late for the leftists in the West to express any solidarity with the Syrians in their extremely hard struggle. What I always found astonishing in this regard is that mainstream Western leftists know almost nothing about Syria, its society, its regime, its people, its political economy, its contemporary history. Rarely have I found a useful piece of information or a genuinely creative idea in their analyses. My impression about this curious situation is that they simply do not see us; it is not about us at all. Syria is only an additional occasion for their old anti-imperialist tirades, never the living subject of the debate … We, rank-and-file Syrians, refugees, women, students, intellectuals, human rights activists, political prisoners … do not exist … But honestly I’ve failed to discern who is right and who is left in the West from a leftist Syrian point of view … Before helping Syrians or showing solidarity with Syrians, the mainstream Western left needs to help themselves. Their views are totally misguided, and the Syrian cause was only a litmus test of their reactionary and decadent perspectives.”  – Yassin al-Haj Saleh

Read the full interview here.

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