Stop pretending that you can’t do anything to save Syrians

This open letter was first published at the New York Review of Books.

The UN says it has run out of words on Syria, but we, the undersigned, still have some for the governments, parliamentarians, electorates and opinion leaders of the powers on whom the international legal order has hitherto depended.

The world is a bystander to the carnage that has ravaged the lives of Syrians. All has happened in full view of a global audience that sees everything but refuses to act.

Through Russian obstruction and western irresolution, the UN Security Council has failed to protect Syrians. To the extent that it has been able to pass resolutions, they have proved ineffectual. All they have done is provide a fig leaf to an institution that appears moribund. Perhaps conscious of the stain this might leave on its legacy, the UN has even stopped counting Syria’s dead. After seven years, these nations appear united only in their apathy.

It will be redundant to list the nature and magnitude of all the crimes that the Assad regime has committed against Syrians, aided by local and foreign militias, by Iranian strategic and financial aid, by Russian airpower and mercenaries—and by international indifference. The world that watched and averted its eyes is its passive enabler.

Syrians were shot and killed in broad daylight for protesting injustice. They were imprisoned, tortured and executed. They were bombed and shelled. They were besieged, raped and humiliated. They were gassed. They were Adisplaced and dispossessed.

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Frankenstein in Baghdad

This review was first published at the New Statesman.

frankensteinBaghdad, 2005. Occupied Iraq is hurtling into civil war. Gunmen clutch rifles “like farmers with spades” and cars explode seemingly at random. Realism may not be able to do justice to such horror, but this darkly delightful novel by Ahmed Saadawi – by combining humour and a traumatised version of magical realism – certainly begins to.

After his best friend is rent to pieces by a bomb, Hadi, a junk dealer, alcoholic and habitual liar, starts collecting body parts from explosion sites. Next he stitches them together into a composite corpse. Hadi intends to take the resulting “Whatsitsname” to the forensics department – “I made it complete,” he says, “so it wouldn’t be treated as trash” – but, following a storm and a further series of explosions, the creature stands up and runs out into the night.

At the moment of the Whatsitsname’s birth, Hasib, a hotel security guard, is separated from his body by a Sudanese suicide bomber. The elderly Elishva, meanwhile, is importuning a talking portrait of St. George to return her son Daniel, who – though he was lost at war two decades ago – she is convinced is still alive.

In what ensues, some will find their wishes fulfilled. Many will not. After all, the Whatsitsname’s very limbs and organs are crying for revenge. And as each bodily member is satisfied, it drops off, leaving the monster in need of new parts. Vengeance, moreover, is a complex business. Soon it becomes difficult to discern the victims from the criminals.

This loping, murdering, free-floating metaphor for events escaping their intentions, for violence gaining its own momentum, won Ahmed Saadawi (also an acclaimed poet, screenwriter and filmmaker) the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Detective story and satire as well as gothic horror, “Frankenstein in Baghdad” provides a tragi-comic take on a society afflicted by fear, and a parable concerning responsibility and justice.

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Syria’s Opposition Should Support Kurdish Autonomy

This was published first at The New Arab.

ocalan
‘There is no life without the leader’. PYD militants raise Abdullah Ocalan’s picture in Raqqa

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is a Marxist-Leninist turned authoritarian-anarchist (yes, that is an oxymoron) Kurdish separatist party-militia at intermittent war with the Turkish state. The Democratic Union Party, or PYD, is a PKK-offshoot set up while Abdullah Ocalan was hosted in Syria by Hafez al-Assad. Given its focus on the war against Turkey rather than civil rights in Syria, the PYD was usually tolerated by the regime.

As the revolution began liberating territory in 2012, Assad forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas without a fight, handing them over to PYD control. Thereafter the PYD monopolised arms and aid money, repressed opposition parties, and shot at protestors.

At the same time, it won an undoubted national victory for the Kurds. After decades of enforced ‘Arabism’, locals finally policed their own neighbourhoods and children were taught in their mother tongue. Through the commune system, the PYD also promoted a measure of local democracy. The allocation of 40% of commune seats to women is evidence of the party’s impressive commitment to gender equality.

As well as the PYD’s avowed secularism, the fact that its territories were not subjected to Assad’s scorched earth inoculated them against penetration by transnational jihadists. The PYD’s political innovations, meanwhile, won the admiration of many leftists and anarchists in the west. Sadly this support was often uncritical, and generally ignored similar democratic self-organisation experiments in the liberated but heavily bombed territories beyond PYD rule.

At first, the PYD governed Syria’s three Kurdish-majority areas, that is the Afrin, Kobani and Jazira cantons. These areas (collectively called Rojava, or Western Kurdistan) are non-contiguous. Kurdish autonomy could work there, but not statehood.

The PYD, however, was able to take advantage of both Russia’s war on the rebels and the American-led coalition’s war against ISIS to join up and expand its territory. In February 2016, in alliance with Russia, the PYD captured Tel Rifaat, Menagh, and surrounding areas close to Afrin. These Arab-majority towns were governed by civilian local councils and defended by non-jihadist rebels. Both people and rebels were driven out by Russian air power (Russian bombs destroyed all three of Tel Rifaat’s health centres during the assault) accompanied by the PYD’s troops on the ground. Next, in July 2016, the PYD captured the Castello Road leading into Aleppo, assisting the Assad regime’s siege on the city and eventually its fall (in December) to Assad’s Iranian-backed militias.

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Militant Buddhist-Nationalism and the Rohingya Tragedy

This was first published at the National.

rohingya refugees1The Rohingya Muslims are currently the world’s most persecuted minority. Since last year at least 625,000, over half the total population, have fled slaughter in Myanmar (also known as Burma). This is only the latest wave in a series of killings and expulsions starting in 1978. The UN calls it a ‘textbook example’ of ethnic cleansing.

Two recently-published books provide necessary background to the Rohingya tragedy. Francis Wade’s “Myanmar’s Enemy Within: the Making of a Muslim Other” contextualises events politically and historically. Azeem Ibrahim’s “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” covers similar ground while, as the title suggests, convincingly arguing that Myanmar “stands on the brink” of genocide,  a crime defined by the UN as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

The Rohingyas have been designated as ‘Foreigners’ since 1978. The Myanmar state today describes them either as Indians imported by the British or as recent illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Both books dispute this revisionism. Ibrahim begins Rohingya history as far back as 3,000BCE, when Indo-Aryan people arrived in what is now Arakan (or Rakhine province), while Wade presents evidence of an 11th Century CE Muslim community composed of stranded Indian, Arab and Perisan sailors.

Ibrahim’s account of ancient and colonial history is the most detailed. Rohingyas lived alongside Rakhine people who were connected linguistically and religiously to the Burman, the dominant ethnicity in today’s Myanmar. Though Arakan was influenced by the ancient Burmese kingdom, it wasn’t conquered until 1784. Over the next four decades 30,000 Muslims fled Burmese-Buddhist rule, until the British annexed Arakan in 1826. Burma – with Arakan and its Rohingyas attached – won its independence in 1948.

The Rohingyas entered the new state at a disadvantage. Their loyalty to the British during the 1942 Japanese invasion had sparked conflict with the Rakhine. Nevertheless they participated in national life. Some joined the army and others served in parliament. They were included as an ethnic group in the 1961 census.

In 1962 Myanmar’s military seized power. At this point Wade’s book takes the lead in describing the rage for national homogeneity motivating these Burman generals, in a country where minority groups make forty percent of the population. The army waged wars to subdue the Shan, Kachin and Karen peoples, amongst others. In the 1960s, it expelled Indian and Chinese residents.

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