Help Syria Now, Tomorrow May Be Too Late

People fight here with absolute defiance because they realise that a big massacre awaits them if the regime succeeds in regaining control over the area. Those who are not killed immediately will be arrested and tortured savagely. The options of the people are to either die resisting the aggression of a fascist regime or to be killed by this same regime in the worst way possible. People shudder with fear, and I myself shudder, at the thought that this regime might rule us again.

From the besieged East Ghouta, in the Damascus countryside, Yassin al-Haj Saleh appeals to leaders of public opinion in the West. Published by the Guardian.

Dear friends,

Three months ago, I left the city of Damascus, where life had become too oppressive, to go to the “liberated” area of East Ghouta. An area that had 2 million inhabitants before the uprising, East Ghouta is now populated by only around one million. It was a base from which the rebels headed towards the capital, but is now completely besieged by the regime’s forces due to renewed support from Russia and Iran, and the arrival of Iran-sponsored Iraqi and Lebanese militias. During the past three months, I have personally witnessed the staggering lack of arms, ammunition, and even food for the fighters. Many of them would get two meals a day at most, and their situation would have been immeasurably worse had they not been local residents, protecting their own towns and families, and living off their own kin.

The cities and towns that I have seen or lived in during these months are subjected to daily and random air strikes and mortar and rocket shelling. Victims, mostly civilians, fall every day. In a centre for civil defence where I lived for a month I used to see all the bodies brought in. Some were indistinguishable remains, others belonged to children, and among the victims was a six-month fetus lost by a terrified mother. Not a single day passed during that month without victims; two or three usually, but nine on one day, 28 on another, and 11 on a third.

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Politics not Theology

DSCI0206This was published by the National. If you’d prefer to read my tense choices, before the subediting process, read this version here.

I live in Scotland, where I am witness to the continuing legacy of Protestant-Catholic communal hatred, despite the theological indifference and general irreligiosity of the populace.

The hatred is most commonly activated by the Rangers-Celtic football game. (In his great novel “Kieron Smith, Boy”, James Kelman brings it viscerally alive through the mouth of a Glaswegian child.) It is manifest too in Orange Order marches and schoolyard slurs. It intersects with the gang violence of the ‘schemes’. Most of the time, of course, it’s absent, or it emerges as friendly competitiveness rather than actual conflict, but you can bet your last communion wafer that it would blossom into something much fiercer if, in the event of political crisis, a divide-and-rule tyrant were to send Catholic militia in to pacify restive Protestant areas, or vice versa.

Like Scotland’s sectarians, Syria’s Alawis are usually largely secular and ignorant of their own theology (at least they were – a war-driven religious revival is touching them as well as the Sunnis). Over the last four decades Alawi religious scholars have been assassinated or otherwise silenced by the Assad regime as it sought to render the community entirely dependent on the Ba‘athist state. Most Alawis (by no means all) continue to support Assad because they have no other community leadership. Add to this that many have relatives working in the security forces, and so fear a loss of privileges and even violent revenge when the regime falls. Alawis also remember their historical marginalisation by the Sunni majority, and therefore fear majority rule.

As in Iraq, Palestine-Israel, or Northern Ireland, the conflict in Syria is not about theology but about group fears and resentments. Ultimately, it’s about power. Communal tensions are the result not of ancient enmities but of contemporary political machinations. And nothing is fixed in time. Syria’s supposedly ‘Sunni rebellion’ (which contains activists and fighters of all sects) becomes more or less Islamist in response to rapidly-changing political realities. A few months ago, for example, Islamist black flags dominated demonstrations in Raqqa, in the east of the country; now Raqqa’s demonstrations are as likely to protest Jabhat an-Nusra, the extremist militia which nominally controls the city, as the regime. This isn’t an Islamist rebellion but a popular revolution. As in Egypt, if the Islamists oppress the people or fail to deliver, they too will be revolted against.

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Obama won’t end the drone war, but Pakistan might

My latest article for Al Jazeera:

The CIA and the Pentagon have dwarfed the State Department in both resources and influence…

The CIA is likely to resist any shift in policy that mandates relinquishing such power. But unless the conflict between the CIA’s institutional imperatives and US national interest is resolved, blood will continue to spill and the world will grow more dangerous.

This unresolved tension is also manifest in the ambivalence of presidential rhetoric. Last month, Obamalaid out his new national security strategy in a magnificent soliloquy. But in aiming for Hamlet, Obama delivered Gollum.

You can read the rest at Al Jazeera.

China Radio International

Follow this link to hear me and Stephen Zunes discussing the situation in Syria on China Radio International. (Due to a timezone confusion, I was asleep until two minutes before this hour-long broadcast, which took place between 3 and 4 in the morning, my time.)

How Pakistan Can Stop Drone Strikes

This article appeared at The Atlantic.

Nawaz SharifThe picturesque valleys of Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan are overlooked by the immense snowcaps of Nanga Parbat. At more than 26,000 feet, it is the world’s ninth tallest mountain, but for alpinists it is a challenge far greater than Everest. It’s a rare mountaineer who is unaware of its reputation as “the killer mountain.” The notoriety derives from its deadly avalanches and crevasses, but the death that was visited on a group of climbers last month took a much different form. Eleven mountaineers were killed when militants affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban entered their basecamp and unleashed a deadly fusillade.

The assailants claimed the slaughter was retaliation for a June 7 drone strike that killed the Taliban deputy leader Waliur Rehman. Unlike the mountaineers, Pakistan was braced for the attack. Only the location came as a surprise.

Earlier in the month, when the newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took office, he had used his inaugural address to ask the U.S. to refrain from further attacks in Pakistan. It took less than 48 hours for the CIA to ignore his demand and launch the deadly strike that killed nine, including the Taliban leader. Pakistanis were incensed. It was more than a breach of the country’s sovereignty; it was also an intervention in its politics and an invitation to further violence.

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