Michael Provence, director of the Middle East Studies Programs at the University of California, San Diego, explains the origins and evolution of the Syrian conflict in an excellent new production by Alternate Focus.
The Syrian government has has tried with great determination and dexterity to fragment the society and to exploit sectarian differences and class differences to prevent the emergence of a secular nonsectarian nationalist opposition. Michael Provence is the director of the Middle East Studies Programs at the University of California, San Diego. His research focuses on the colonial and post-colonial Arab world, particularly popular insurgency and nationalism, and he has travelled and lived in many countries in the region including Lebanon and Syria.
This video is not suitable for children nor for those of a nervous disposition. I include myself in the latter category. At first I couldn’t watch it, then I made myself do so in order to hear the words. Before the usual “Freedom? You want freedom?” the torturee is forced to declare that Bashaar al-Asad is his ‘lord’ (the Arabic word ‘rabb’, which means God). The violent (but very small) protests which have swept the Muslim world in response to a ridiculous low-budget smear of the Prophet Muhammad are in part the expression of a deeply humiliated people who remember Western support of Zionism and Muslim dictatorships, Western invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and so on. They are in part the result of the failure of Arab and Muslim dictatorships to build functioning education systems, and a symptom of a profound and generalised despair that requires wounded symbols through which to manifest itself. Most importantly, they are signals of an opportunistic power play by the extreme right-wing Salafist minority. It’s a case of extreme right-wing Islamophobes, Zionists, Coptic extremists and American Republicans on the one hand and extreme right-wing Islamists on the other, feeding off each other. The furore has made the ridiculous anti-Islam film a Youtube hit. Nobody would have heard of it had Egyptian Islamists not publicised it, and had the American ambassador to Libya, apparently a friend of the Arabs who was critical of US policy on Palestine, not been murdered. As with all the episodes in the ‘culture wars’, it’s an enormous diversion from the really serious issues. The torture video here was first pointed out by the Syrian activist Wissam Tarif. He asked a simple question. Where are the furious demonstrations against this blasphemy? Why have no Syrian embassies been burnt following the repeated bombing of mosques and churches, the murder, rape, torture and humiliation of tens of thousands of Syrian Muslims?
In this piece, first published at Open Democracy, Yassin al-Haj Saleh and Rime Allaf, two of Syria’s brightest intellectuals, discuss Robert Fisk’s moral and professional collapse.
The international media has not always been kind to Syria’s revolutionary people. For months on end, many of the latter turned themselves into instant citizen-journalists to document their uprising and the violent repression of the Syrian regime, loading clips and photos taken from their mobile-phones to various social networks; still, the established media, insinuating that only it could really be trusted, covered these events with an ever-present disclaimer that these images could not be independently verified. Since the Damascus regime was refusing to allow more than a trickle of foreign media personnel into the country, chaperoned by the infamous minders, what the Syrians themselves were reporting was deemed unreliable.
Nevertheless, an increasing number of brave journalists dared to sneak into Syria at great personal risk, reporting the same events which activists had attempted to spread to the world. For the most part, experienced journalists were perfectly capable of distinguishing between straight propaganda from a regime fighting for its survival and real information from a variety of other sources. Overwhelmingly, ensuing reports about Syria gave a voice to “the other side” or at least quoted opposing points of view, if only for balance. In some cases, journalists found no room to cater for the regime’s claims, especially when reporting from civilian areas under relentless attack by Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
It was from the wretched Homs district of Baba Amr, under siege and shelling for an entire month, that the late Marie Colvin, amongst others, testified on the eve of her death under the regime’s shells about the “sickening situation” and the “merciless disregard for the civilians who simply cannot escape.” Like her, most of those who managed to get into Syria have testified about the regime’s repression of a popular uprising, even after the latter evolved to include an armed rebellion.
You book some tour, receive some award, get an event invitation. “They love me! They really love me!” you think. Or maybe “Woah, cool! I always wanted to go to Murmansk!” All of a sudden, out of nowhere, you start getting letters from Arizona: “Dude, we’re trying to have a picket line here, you’re seriously treading on our turf! Boycott racism!” Panicked, you call your agent: “But I just wanted to make music!” Your agent, being payed to be in contact with the corporeal world tells you how it is: “We’ll have to loose some revenue, but let’s donate this concert’s proceeds to these people’s organizations!”, better yet “let’s buy activists off with free tickets!” Without much debate, you happily pack your bags and head off in your private airplane to the Congo. After all, what do you know about politics?
Of the millions of people who have risen up in revolt across the Arab world these past 19 months, few have suffered as much for their courage as the revolutionaries fighting the Assad dictatorship in Syria.
The decision of Bashar al-Assad’s regime to use the full force of his security forces against what was a largely peaceful protest movement has transformed the uprising into a full blown civil war, in which up to 20,000 people have died.
Yet the Syrian revolution – in the eyes of some on the left – lacks legitimacy. The uprising is denounced as a Western plot, a CIA- or Israeli-backed conspiracy to overthrow a regime that defends the Palestinians. Those fighting Assad’s troops on the ground are condemned as stooges of outside forces – variously Saudi Arabia, the US, Israel and Al Qaeda, among others.
In the West, open support for Assad has been mostly confined to hardline Stalinists or a minority of Assad loyalists among the Palestinian movement. Most on the left initially took a version of what has been called the “third way” – support for the revolution, combined with opposition to imperialist intervention from the West.
But over the last few months, this “third way” has begun to crack apart.
Prominent British leftists Tariq Ali and George Galloway have come out stridently in opposition to the insurrectionary aims of the uprising, claiming that the revolution has been taken over by reactionaries and arguing that a negotiated settlement with the regime is the only answer. Ali, in an interview with Russia Today, said the choice was between a “Western imposed regime, composed of sundry Syrians who work for the Western intelligence agencies…or the Assad regime.” Galloway, the left populist MP best known as a campaigner against the Iraq war, goes even further, denouncing the Syrian resistance for not accepting the peace plan advanced by the UN.
Much of this left-agonising about the Syrian revolt reflects the legacy of Stalinism, which led many to identify leftism with various despotic but “anti-imperialist” regimes that opposed the West and oppressed their own people in equal measure. But others on the left not weighed down by the legacy of Stalinism echo Galloway’s attitude over Syria. John Rees, until a few years ago a leading member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, wrote last month that he was in “broad agreement” with Galloway and Ali.
Two of our favorite people — Ralph Nader and Christopher Lydon — join in a typically stimulating conversation on Radio Open Source.
Ralph Nader on Main Street can still see the flatbed trucks hauling textile machinery out of his hometown in the 1950s, his high school years. The work of Winsted and New England mills was bound for the Carolinas and Georgia, then Mexico and Asia. In 1900 there’d been 100 factories and machine shops in Winsted, making useful things for the world — cloth to clocks. In Ralph’s boyhood, a factory worker could raise a family on one paycheck in a 6-room house with a 2% V.A. mortgage, and drive a second-hand car. Then as now the green hills of northwest Connecticut were a breezy walk or bike ride away. “You could hear cows mooing one minute, and the milk would be in glass bottles on your doorstep a few hours later…”
One hot summer day in 2011, the residents of the beleaguered Homs neighborhood of Al-Khaldyeh were struggling to identify the bodies of two men. There was something unusual about the bodies even by the now morbidly gory Syrian standards. They were merely skeletons with worn-out fatigues, and a few personal belongings. The unearthing of their bodies was collateral damage to a stray bomb. They had been blown out of their unmarked shallow makeshift grave by the shells of the Syrian army against the rebellious neighborhood. The residents decided the belongings were clearly from the 1980s, the military fatigues were Palestinian. The story of Syrian Palestinians – like that of most Syrians – is one of many tucked-away skeletons that are thrown into the open, unannounced yet badly needing to be addressed.
Syria is home to some half a million Palestinian refugees, the great majority of whom were born into a dictatorship that oppresses them and its own people in the name of Arab unity and steadfastness in the face of Zionism and imperialism. Their imagined and lived geographies could not be farther apart. They know the streets of Homs, Aleppo, Deraa, and Damascus like the palms of their hands. Their schools, named after their villages and towns in Palestine, hoist the flag of the United Nations.
Last year I had my unpleasant run in with the UKBA. Because my bank balance had fallen below the required minimum of £800 in the final months of my PhD, the UKBA refused to renew my visa and I was asked to leave. The grounds for rejecting my visa were that I couldn’t meet the UK’s ‘maintenance’ requirements, even though I had been in the country for over 7 years, paid taxes, and contributed to the economy in myriad other ways. More importantly, I had just been hired as a senior lecturer at a UK institution of higher learning, so my capacity to earn wasn’t in any doubt. In the end I had to appeal the decision, go through months of uncertainty, and finally have the decision over-turned only after a campaign in my support by leading academics and intellectuals. The Scotsman and BBC Scotland were also immensely helpful in publicising my case. I thought my case was outrageous enough; but now a couple of thousand others find themselves in a similar situation thanks to the UKBA’s decision to withdraw the London Metropolitan University’s license to sponsor foreign students. In the video below you can hear some of them. Worse, Professor John Tulloch, a respected UK academic, a 7/7 survivor, has also been stripped of his British passport because of an absurd technicality.
In pandering to the xenophobic right, the government is gambling with the future of British Higher Education. This is madness at a time when a collapsing economy could really benefit from the money that foreign students bring in. Earlier this year 68 chancellors, governors and university presidents had written to David Cameron, warning him against the strict immigration policies that were going to lead foreign students to go elsewhere, costing the British economy billions. Universities are feeling the strain and the government is trying to place the burden for the lost revenue on home students, who are now made to pay exorbitant fees for degrees. This usually means the diminution of choices for students as they come under pressure to chose profitable disciplines. Social sciences and humanities inevitably suffer. The collapse began under New Labour, when education funding was slashed and top-up fees were introduced. Academic performance became less important than economic viability; highly regarded institutions such as Middlesex University’s philosophy department were shut down because they were no longer seen as being profitable enough. Things are now much worse. Universities spend more time marketing to a dwindling pool of students, academics spend more time chasing grants, managers spend more time searching for superfluous academics to lay off. It’s dog-eat-dog. It is unclear how bad things will get before those in authority reconsider the wisdom of their current policy. Academics have certainly done nothing to engender such reappraisal. The unions are compromised and for now most are just busy fending for themselves.
Also worth reading are Craig Murrays immensely important observations on the LMU scandal.