Toward a People’s History of the Syrian Uprising—A Conversation with Wendy Pearlman

October 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

In the increasingly disfigured debate about Syria, it is scarcely even remembered that it all began as a popular uprising—indeed, as a nonviolent and non-sectarian one whose goals were dignity, justice, and freedom from a one-family mafia torture state in power for more than four decades.

Wendy Pearlman is out to set that record straight and explain why the Syrian uprising happened in the first place.

Pearlman, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University in Chicago who serves on the faculty of the university’s Middle East and North African Studies Program, is the author of Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life from the Second Intifada and Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement.

For the last two years Pearlman has been working on a book that she conceives as something of a people’s history of the Syrian uprising. She has interviewed more than 150 Syrian refugees in Jordan and Turkey about their experiences in the uprising and war. Along the way, she has published a series of powerful articles, among them “Love in the Syrian Revolution”, “Fathers of Revolution” and “On the Third Anniversary of the Syrian Uprising”.

In September, our Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver had the pleasure of co-hosting Pearlman (along with the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy) for a pair of presentations about her book-in-progress. While she was in Denver, I conducted this interview with her for our Middle East Dialogues video series:

Can the revolution in Syria survive an imperial carve up?

October 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

by Mark Boothroyd

The situation facing the Assad regime is dire. Having lost almost every major battle it has fought with the armed rebels for over a year now, it is facing crises on every front. Since March it has lost control of the entire province of Idlib to the Jaysh Al-Fatah coalition. In Aleppo, the Fatah Halab coalition are on the offensive and gradually liberating districts of the city from the regime, while last month the regime’s only ground supply route to the city was temporarily severed by rebels. In the south the Southern Front continues to pressure the regime around Daraa, and is advancing in Quneitra province, while rebels in Lattakia continue to mount incursions into the regime loyalist province.

Rebel advances in Idlib province May 2014 – May 2015 Credit: Archicivilians

Rebel advances in Daraa province May 2014 – May 2015 Credit: Archicivilians

Assad is facing a manpower shortage as tens of thousands of Syrians flee regime held areas to escape conscription and deteriorating living conditions. Refugees who left Syria recently describe being unable to live, as regular electricity and water cuts, and the rising price of food and rents makes the situation unbearable.

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Are There Things Money Shouldn’t Be Able To Buy?

October 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

Michael J. Sandel is an American political philosopher and a professor at Harvard University. He is best known for the Harvard course “Justice”, which is available to view online, and for his critique of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice in his first book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982). He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002. His book Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy appears in the list muse top 100 political science books list.

Uncomfortable Facts

October 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

russian bombsTwo stories in one day which you would expect to disrupt the faux-anti-imperialist narrative, but which probably won’t. Narratives stand high above facts, after all.

First, ISIS claims responsibility for a suicide attack which killed Saudi soldiers in Aden, Yemen.

Second, according to this article, printed in full below, Israel has agreed to provide intelligence on the Syrian opposition to Russia, to help it with its bombing runs. In return Russia promises to stop weapons flowing through Syria to Hizbullah, and to tolerate any Israeli bombing of Syria. The last paragraph says that Tzipi Livni, Israel’s former Foreign Minister, “has called for direct cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah in order to protect Israeli interests.”

UPDATE: My friend Elizabeth Tsurkov says this: “Israel is simply ensuring that it can bomb Hizbollah/Iranian targets without being shot down by Russian jets of S-300 systems. There’s no indication anywhere that Israel is sharing intel with the Russian regime on this issue. … Middle East Monitor is a site that it known to fabricate stories.” She may well be right about the source, and about the intelligence sharing. But Russian-Israeli military cooperation is increasing, not only in Syria.

Mainstream and leftist opinion – often guided by a cabal of ageing orientalist white men (Cockburn, Fisk, Bromwich, Glass, etc) – will continue to hold that Saudi Arabia controls ISIS and Russia is lined up with Assad and Iran in a confrontation against the Zionist West, which is intent on Assad’s downfall. These useful idiots are smoothing the way for the fascist-imperialist axis.

Meanwhile Russian fire falls on Syria’s liberated cities, striking the Free Army in Homs and Jaysh al-Fateh in Idlib, Hama and Lattakia, striking also buildings used by self-organising civilian revolutionary committees and Byzantine ruins outside Kafranbel. Dozens of civilians have been murdered. One in  twenty of Russia’s strikes have targetted ISIS.

It seems regime/ Iranian ground offensives will follow, particularly in northern Homs and the areas of Hama and Lattakia near the regime’s coastal stronghold. The aim is to shore up Assad’s collapsing regime in the fifth of Syria he retains. The larger hope is to destroy the opposition, leaving only Assad and ISIS standing. Then the West may more openly back Assad to take the rest of the country back.

The imperialist assault will undoubtedly extend the war in time and expand it in space. The coming months may see grievous setbacks for opposition forces. In the end, however, Russian bombs will not be able to alter the demographic reality any more than Assad’s bombs or the Iranian militias could before. Assad is running out of fighting men; foreign troops, however many arrive, can extend but not win his war. And not only the opposition militias but the majority of the Syrian people too will refuse to cooperate with any plan envisaging regime survival. For them Assad, not ISIS, is the supreme evil, and with good reason: Assad’s forces are responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilians killed and driven out.

Beyond that, Russia’s economy shrank by 5% last year. Russia isn’t strong so much as it is constantly appeased. But Syria’s fighters are in no mood for appeasement. When the Russians first walked into Afghanistan, when the Americans first walked into Vietnam, they thought their operations would be easy and brief…

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Anti-Imperialism 2.0: Selective Sympathies, Dubious Friends

October 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

by Charles Davis

The new imperialism is caring a bit too much about the suffering of people who are being brutalized by a regime which is not currently an ally of the United States – and the new anti-imperialism is not giving a damn at all, solidarity that extends beyond the border permissible only if the drawing of attention to their plight could not possibly be used as ammunition by the “humanitarian” militarists of the American empire. The world, in this view, is divided into but two camps: those with America and those against it, with the good anti-imperialist’s outrage dialed up if the atrocity can be linked to the United States, as well it should be, but dialed down to total silence if it’s not.

This is, of course, the “anti-imperialism” of the reactionary, in more than one sense: How a person of the left responds to a pile of dead women and children is in effect dictated by how the U.S. government itself responds, the advocate of the poor and forgotten consigning foreigners to their fate – “not our problem, pal,” as one popular liberal congressman essentially put it on cable TV – if their interests have the misfortune of being perceived as aligned with America’s, the left’s commitment to internationalism abandoned for an inverted form of muddled nationalism that sees U.S. imperialism as not just one factor to consider in a complex world, but the only factor relevant in how we in the imperial core should view what happens on the rest of the globe. And if your cause is sullied by the perception it’s America’s cause too? The leftist sounds just like that liberal who sounds like Pat Buchanan: Sorry, pal, if you wanted our solidarity you should have been born somewhere that better lends itself to a black-and-white anti-imperial critique.

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A masterclass in sophistry: Patrick Cockburn on the Russian intervention in Syria

October 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

by Gilbert Achcar

A recent 2-part series on Syria in The Independent by Patrick Cockburn, one of the most influential journalists on the subject, is a masterclass in sophistry that illustrates why the conflict is so misunderstood. A closer look is therefore instructive.

On October 2, in an article titled “Syria crisis: The West wrings its hands in horror but it was our folly that helped create this bloodbath”, Cockburn writes:

Reaction to Russia’s military intervention in Syria shows that the lack of knowledge of the Syrian political landscape on the part of Western political leaders and media is hindering the adoption of more constructive policies. During the past four years, over-simplifications and wishful thinking have prevented any realistic attempt to end the civil war, mitigate its effects or stop it from spreading to other countries.

Since 2011 the departure from power of President Bashar al-Assad has been prescribed as a quick way to bring an end to the conflict, although there is no reason to believe this. There are no quick or easy solutions: Syria is being torn apart by a genuine, multi-layered civil war with a multitude of self-interested players inside and outside the country. If Assad dropped dead tomorrow, Syrians in his corner would not stop fighting, knowing as they do that the success of an opposition movement dominated by Isis and al-Qaeda clones such as Jabhat al-Nusra would mean death or flight for them and their families.

Sophism 1: Those in the West who have been calling for Assad’s departure as a condition for bringing an end to the conflict meant it as part of a “national reconciliation” and “managed transition,” not as Assad “dropping dead tomorrow,” of course.

Today there are four million Syrian refugees, mostly from opposition areas being bombarded indiscriminately by government forces. But this figure could double if the more populous pro-government areas become too dangerous to live in.

In the past, this was not likely to happen because Assad always controlled at least 12 out of 14 Syrian provincial capitals.

Sophism 2: In other words: don’t let more populous areas slip out of government control lest they get “bombarded indiscriminately by government forces” (a welcome acknowledgement of the obvious truth) and end up sending more refugees! « Read the rest of this entry »

Did the West ignore a Russian offer for Assad to step down as President?

September 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

by Brian Slocock


A story published in the Guardian on 16 September entitled “West ‘ignored Russian offer for Assad to step down as President’” has evoked considerable excitement on both sides of the Atlantic. The story is based on a claim by former Finnish President and UN Diplomat Martti Ahtisaari that the West failed to respond to an overture made in February 2012 by Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin. According to Ahtisaari, Churkin, in a private conversation suggested a means for resolving the Syrian crisis:

He said: ‘Martti, sit down and I’ll tell you what we should do.’ “He said three things: One – we should not give arms to the opposition. Two – we should get a dialogue going between the opposition and Assad straight away. Three – we should find an elegant way for Assad to step aside.”

The Guardian seems to have felt the need to “sex up” these comments, turning them into a “3-point plan”. (Of course this plan already existed, in the form of the Arab League initiative of 22 January 2012, of which more below).

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