We Break It, You Own It: Putin’s Syria Strategy

putinSharp analysis from Thomas Pierret, published first at the Global Observatory.

Some Western observers of Russia’s recent intervention in Syria are convinced President Vladimir Putin is making a mistake—and, following wisdom often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, one should never interrupt an enemy while they are making a mistake. By committing its own forces to the defense of beleaguered dictator Bashar al-Assad, some believe that Moscow is about to bog itself down in Syria the same way Washington got stuck in Iraq. However, proponents of this view should be wary the joke might well be on them.

First, although difficult times certainly lie ahead for Russia in Syria, Putin’s intervention will make the conflict more destructive, destabilizing, and intractable, hence more detrimental to all parties. Second, the way Moscow defines success in Syria is hardly comparable to the stabilization-oriented approach adopted by the United States-led coalition in Iraq. Instead, by trying to destroy mainstream insurgents, Putin aims to reshape the Syrian war in a way that would leave Western countries with no other option than to supplement Russia as the protector of Assad.

Russian intervention in Syria will make the war deadlier and heighten the refugee crisis spreading across the region into Europe and beyond. Although they have carried out some precision airstrikes against rebel headquarters, Russian forces have made a greater use of unguided ammunitions, including cluster bombs designed to wreak havoc over vast swaths of territory. As scores of these fail to explode, they will continue to kill civilians who will accidentally set them off years after the end of Russian operations. Russian attacks are not more discriminate than Assad’s, but they are far more powerful. Consequently, they have provoked new displacements of populations in regions whose inhabitants were already used to intensive shelling and bombing, such as the northern countryside of Hama province.

Continue reading “We Break It, You Own It: Putin’s Syria Strategy”

The Dictator’s Last Night

gaddafiAn edited version of this review appeared in the Guardian.

Colonel Gaddafi – “the Brotherly Guide, the miracle boy who became the infallible visionary” – possessed a character so colourful it begged entry into fiction. Yasmina Khadra – pseudonym for Algerian ex-military man and bestselling writer Mohammed Moulessehoul – obliges here in “The Dictator’s Last Night”, a title to be fitted alongside such great dictator novels as Marquez’s “The Autumn of the Patriarch” or Vargas Llosa’s “The Feast of the Goat” (the latter set in the last hours of the Dominican strongman Trujillo). Although Khadra matches neither the epic scale nor the experimental virtuosity of those two, his writing here is compulsive, funny, powerfully emotional, and often sinuously intelligent.

For his last night, the “untameable jealous tiger that urinates on international conventions to mark his territory” is confined to a disused school in Sirte, the sky aflame with NATO bombs and rebel bullets, his generals either fleeing or collapsing from exhaustion.

Like Hitler in the bunker he rails against his people’s betrayal – “Libya owes me everything!” – against the West which so recently feted him and, with no irony at all, against his fellow Arab autocrats, those “pleasure-seeking gluttons.”

Khadra’s imagining of him is probably pretty accurate: bullying, mercurial, grandiose, containing an egomaniac’s contradictions – self-obsessed but craving approval, ruthless but oversensitive. It’s “my full moon, nobody else’s,” he declares, and “Everything I did worked.”

Gaddafi remembers his poor Beduin beginnings, fatherless and disturbed, and his struggles against “the barriers of prejudice”. He was spurned when, as a young officer, he proposed marriage to a social superior. The reader sympathises with the humiliation – until shown the nature of the dictator’s later response. Gaddafi’s voice careers from sentimentality to brutality and back, and at first the reader’s heart follows.

Continue reading “The Dictator’s Last Night”

Interview with Saud Alsanousi

SaudI interviewed Kuwaiti novelist Saud Alsanousi for the National. My earlier review of his novel “The Bamboo Stalk” is here.

Born in 1981, Kuwaiti writer Saud Alsanousi won the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) for his novel “The Bamboo Stalk”. A warm and generous interlocutor, here he speaks about otherness, his ‘method-writing’ approach to characterisation, and his aversion to the ‘shock method’…

RYK: Why did you choose the half-Kuwaiti, half-Filipino Isa/Josè as your hero?

SA: Since my childhood I’ve been interested in the image of the other. The other was always seen negatively, whether he was a Westerner, an east Asian, or an Arab from beyond the Gulf. And in turn the West, the Asians, and the Arabs saw us as the other. Of course I rejected their negative image. At the same time I realised that some of it was true – we Kuwaitis had social problems, we were closed in upon ourselves, we didn’t know any culture except our own. We always think we’re right and the other is wrong, socially, religiously. Through reading and travel I discovered that the world was much bigger than us, that we weren’t the axis of the whole universe.

How could I approach the topic in writing? I thought a novel would be better than journalism, because a newspaper article is a brief phenomenon, whereas when a reader follows the life story of a character through a novel, day by day and page by page, he builds a relationship with that character, he really engages with him.

And why Josè specifically? Previous stories about ‘the other’ have focused on the West. We already know the West looks down on us, how Hollywood depicts us, and we’re used to it. Instead I wanted to concentrate on those some may consider our inferiors. I chose the lowest class, those who serve us in shops and hospitals. I wanted to imagine how they see us. Of course, the hero had to be half-Kuwaiti in order to gain intimate access to a Kuwaiti household. My first idea was to make him half-Indian, but the problem with that was that he wouldn’t look foreign enough. He could pass easily for a Kuwaiti. But Josè looks east Asian, and is judged by his appearance.

RYK: How did you set about building the character?

SA: I only talk for myself, but I found that research by reading and watching documentaries wasn’t nearly enough. It produced only cold information, and when I wrote the result looked like a tourism brochure.

So I travelled to the Philippines and lived in a simple house in a traditional village. I wore their clothes. I ate their food and I breathed their air. And I met a lot of expatriate workers in Kuwait, not just Filipinos, and listened to their problems.

I embodied the character. I’m not exaggerating when I say that when I came back home, from the moment I arrived in the airport, I wasn’t Saud Alsanousi but Josè Mendoza. I saw my own country through the eyes of a stranger. From May 2011 to May 2012, while I was writing, I continued to be Josè. I visited the places he would, I rode a bike like him, I tuned my satellite to the Filipino channels, even if I didn’t understand the language. And I surrounded my workspace with bamboo. I could only write the character by embodying it.

RYK: The novel’s themes are human, social, even spiritual. What is your aim in writing? Why do you write?

SA: Let me start with “The Bamboo Stalk.” We don’t know anything about the Filipino. We see him working in Starbucks – that’s it. We know nothing about his cultural and intellectual wealth, his history, his struggle against Spanish colonialism, nor about the social peace in his country despite the presence of three religions. It’s because we don’t know his background that we deal with him in this stereotypical and disrespectful way. And because we don’t know the other, we don’t know our own place in this world.

Continue reading “Interview with Saud Alsanousi”

“India,” “Secularism,” and Its Dissenting Authors Or “Der Āyad, Durust Āyad, but is this even an arrival”?

by Huma Dar

“Prominent writers in India are collectively protesting what they consider an increase in hostility and intolerance, which they argue has been allowed to fester under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, by returning a prestigious literary award.”

Referring to attacks against Muslims, including the killing of a man who had been suspected of slaughtering a cow, he said, “This is not the country that our great leaders had envisioned.” (Ghulam Nabi Khayal, Sahitya Akademi Award, 1975)
The newsfeed on most South Asian social media has been deluged by articles like the one in The New York Times above. However, one has to wonder what kept these literary “stars” from this praiseworthy gesture of returning their State-given awards when the Gujarat pogroms were going on in 2002, or against the pogroms that followed the demolition of Babri masjid in 1992/3, or against the genocide of Sikhs around 1984, or heck, against the ongoing genocide in Indian Occupied Kashmir or that of Dalits…
My apologies for this query, which despite seeming cynical at first blush, is actually a probing of the very problematic and exceptionalizing notions of “India as a nation” and “Indian secularism” that these authors and poets valorize, explicitly or implicitly, through this joint gesture of returning their awards or through their separate oeuvre at large. It is precisely these twin concepts of unprobed “Indian secularism” and even more foundationally, the unproblematized, dehistoricized, and normalized idea of “India as a nation” (see The Indian Ideology (2012) by Perry Anderson for a resounding deconstruction of this) that are the fecund incubating grounds of much violence – violence which is Brahminical, colonial, and Islamophobic at the core. This is true not only with regard to the acts of spectacular violence, like the mob lynching of Muhammad Ikhlaq in the current context of Dadri, at the contemporary moment of Modi-fied India, but also for the billion and one banal acts of quotidian casteist, colonial, and communal violence that fertilize the roots of the phenomenon in modern India. This is especially true for the comparably spectacular violence of the allegedly “secular” contexts – the genocidal violence of the Indian state in Kashmir, Punjab, Hyderabad, Assam, Manipur, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, in every Dalit basti et al – that preceded the current Hindutva regime (and co-exist at any given time). In fact, it can be argued that the exceptionalization of India not only papers over much of this epistemic violence by making it invisible but actually enables it by helping it elide scrutiny. Thus no gesture of protest, however “well intentioned” it might be, will bear fruit until and unless the very problematic exceptionalism that undergirds the allegedly “secular India” is deconstructed.

Continue reading ““India,” “Secularism,” and Its Dissenting Authors Or “Der Āyad, Durust Āyad, but is this even an arrival”?”

Let’s Talk About Genocide: Shoot to Kill – Israel’s New Phase of Genocidal Policy

The most recent report from the Palestinian Health Ministry relates that 44 Palestinians have been killed by Israel’s army, police and settlers, since the beginning of the month- in the past 18 days. 11 of them were children under 18 years of age. All 44 have been shot, most during demonstrations, least while wielding a knife, and others while standing in the street being Arab.

The most disturbing aspect of this new wave of extrajudicial executions is of course the latter, in which random Palestinian citizens of Israel are attacked in the street  by random Jewish citizens if identified to be Arab. In the best case scenario, they are just humiliated and brutally beaten, in the worst case they are shot multiple times by hysterical police officers.

Continue reading “Let’s Talk About Genocide: Shoot to Kill – Israel’s New Phase of Genocidal Policy”

“Hands Off Syria” Applies to Russia Too—An International Statement

The following statement was authored by Gail Daneker of Friends for a NonViolent World, Brian Slocock of the Syria Solidarity Movement, UK, and the blogger and activist Clay Claiborne

 

“Hands Off Syria” Applies to Russia Too

As people and groups from many countries, united by a common commitment to peace, justice and human rights, we condemn the military offensive that began with air strikes launched by Russia in Syria on 30 September 2015 and accelerating subsequently.

While the Russian government has said that these operations were directed against the Islamic State (ISIS), most were on areas with no ISIS presence. The focus of the Russian military offensive appears to have been on opposition communities in the northern Homs region, a continuing center of resistance to the Assad Regime.

The victims of the Russian aggression on 30 September were predominantly civilians, including many children. Humanitarian conditions were dire in the area before Russia launched its offensive because it has long been under siege by the regime for its resistance. Continue reading ““Hands Off Syria” Applies to Russia Too—An International Statement”