Fighting Daesh at the Frontline Club

Alongside BBC correspondent David Lloyn; Richard Spencer, Middle East editor of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph; Shiraz Maher, author of Salafi-Jihadism:The History of an Idea; and Azadeh Moaveni, author of Lipstick Jihad and Honeymoon in Tehran – I was part of this panel discussing Daesh, Nusra, Assad, Saudi-Iran, and the West. (It was also the first time I saw a finished copy of our book Burning Country).

Mind-forged Manacles

A shorter version of this ran in The Nation earlier.

51bnetm1ygl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Over a decade back, while working for an ad agency in Islamabad, I met a recently divorced young woman. The woman had grown up in the US but had submitted to her parents’ wishes when it was time to marry. Soon after the wedding, however, she discovered something amiss. The marriage could not be consummated—her husband was gay. It would be four years before she was allowed to drop the pretense and ask for a divorce.

In traditional society, marriage is a fraught prospect. It is more than the union of two individuals: for the political elite, it’s an influence multiplier; for the economic elite, it’s a corporate merger; and for the have nots, it’s a bid to have. The personal, as it were, is the political—and the social—and the economic.

The transactional character of these unions is rarely acknowledged. Material concerns are sublimated into the concept of ‘honor’, which masks marital dysfunction and serves as caveat emptor. Divorces, consequently, are rare, and divorcees disdained. Many women endure bad marriages for fear of the stigma that attends divorce.

Central to Rafia Zakaria’s The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan is the story of her aunt Amina, who, after her husband takes a new wife, decides to stay in a polygamous marriage rather than suffer a divorcee’s fate. Distraught and humiliated, Amina initially returns to her parents and contemplates divorce. But her parents’ anguish and community pressure eventually make her submit and she returns to the indignity of her husband’s divided affections.

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No need for conspiracy: US seeks ‘regime preservation’ in Syria

by Charles Davis
obama-assad-1
The problem I have with Seymour Hersh’s latest thinly and anonymously sourced conspiracy theory about Syria is not that I find it implausible that the U.S. government would conspire to preserve the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad — by, in part, passing it intelligence on “jihadists” through a third party — but that we already know this is the case and need not rely on the word of a chatty “former adviser” to the Pentagon who happens to be friends with a famous journalist.

The real problem for Hersh and others like him these days is that ever since the Arab Spring came to Syria in 2011 they have cast in terms of conspiracy, abandoning class analysis to suggest it was, from the start, or damn near close it, a U.S-Israeli plot to effect regime change, not the predictable and indeed predicted result of authoritarian neoliberalism, poverty and the closing off of any means for Syrians to achieve meaningful reform through politics or pacifism.

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From Deep State to Islamic State

deep1This piece was published at Newsweek Middle East edition.

In 2011, according to the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey, “living in a democracy” was the most important desire for 92% of respondents. A mere four years later, however, 39% of Arab youths believed democracy would never work in the Arab world, and perceived ISIS, not dictatorship, as their most pressing problem.

Powerful states seem to share the perception, bombing ISIS as a short-term gestural response to terrorism, re-embracing ‘security states’ in the name of realism – concentrating on symptoms rather than causes.

How did the bright revolutionary discourse of 2011 turn so fast to a fearful whisper? Jean-Pierre Filiu’s “From Deep State to Islamic State” – a passionate, sometimes polemical, and very timely book – examines “the repressive dynamics designed to crush any hope of democratic change, through the association of any revolutionary experience with the worst collective nightmare.”

For historical analogy, Filiu evokes the Mamluks, Egypt’s pre-Ottoman ruling caste. Descended from slaves, these warriors lived in their own fortified enclaves, and considered the lands and people under their control as personal property. Filiu sees a modern parallel in the neo-colonial elites – militarised elements of the lower and rural classes – who hijacked independence in Algeria, Egypt, and Syria (and, in different ways, in Libya, Iraq, Tunisia and Yemen).

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The Syrian Jihad

listerThis was published at the National.

Security discourse dominates the international chatter on Syria. Most Syrians see Assad as their chief enemy – he is after all responsible for the overwhelming proportion of dead and displaced. But the Syrian people are not invited to the tables of powerful states, who are in agreement that their most pressing Syrian enemy is ‘terrorism’.

There is disagreement on who exactly the terrorists are. Vladimir Putin shares Assad’s evaluation that everyone in armed opposition is an extremist, and at least 80% of Russian bombs have therefore struck the communities opposing both Assad and ISIS. North of Aleppo, Russia has even struck the rebels while they were batttling ISIS. This wave of the ‘War on Terror’ – now led, with plenty of historical irony, by Russia and Iran – uses anti-terror rhetoric to engineer colonial solutions, just as the last wave did, and ends up promoting terror like never before.

There is no question that the moderate Syrian opposition exists, in the form of hundreds of civilian councils, sometimes directly elected, and at least 70,000 democratic-nationalist fighters. In a recent blog for the Spectator, Charles Lister, one of the very few Syria commentators to deserve the label ‘expert’, explains exactly who they are.

Lister’s book-length study “The Syrian Jihad”, on the other hand, focuses on those militias, from the Syrian Salafist to the transnational Jihadist, which cannot be considered moderate. It clarifies the factors behind the extremists’ rise to such strategic prominence, amongst them the West’s failure to properly engage with the defectors and armed civilians of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in 2011 and 2012.

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Debating Syria’s Future: Landis, Ghadbian, Whitson, Gelvin

This panel discussion on Syria’s future was held on 23 November in Denver at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). It featured Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch, James Gelvin of UCLA, Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma, and Najib Ghadbian of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. I chaired and moderated. As I say in my introductory remarks, the questions explored in the discussion include:

  • How does Russia’s intervention in Syria change the equation?
  • How might the Paris attacks impact the geopolitical calculus—with France and Russia upgrading their assault on ISIS and the gap between Washington and Moscow regarding Syria’s future seemingly shrinking?
  • What might come of the Vienna peace talks set to begin in January?
  • Is Syria as a nation-state over? If so, what will emerge in its aftermath?
  • How can the carnage in Syria be brought to an end?

Watch:

Gilbert Achcar schools RT on Syria

This is what happens when RT makes the mistake of inviting an actual Middle East expert. Gilbert Achcar of SOAS breaks the channel’s truth embargo and explains Syria‬ to an audience which is otherwise only exposed to the ramblings of miscellaneous truthers and conspiracy nuts. Unlike John Pilger who went on RT to sing a love song to Vlad Putin, Achcar reminds the audience that the channel is merely a mouthpiece for the Russian state and that the state that destroyed Chechnya can’t possibly be expected to do anything humane in Syria.