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

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:

Why Iranian Dissidents Support the Nuclear Deal—In Their Own Words

Mahmoud-Dolatabadi
Iranian writer Mahmoud Dolatabadi, author of such books as The Colonel, which has been banned in Iran. (International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran)

In my new article for In These Times magazine I discuss the important International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran report High Hopes, Tempered Expectations: Views from Iran on the Nuclear Negotiations, which features interviews with an array of Iranians—former political prisoners, filmmakers, political scientists, civil rights lawyers, playwrights, journalists, actors, economists, novelists, publishers, theater directors (some of them belonging to two or more of these categories, former political prisoner being the most common)—about the nuclear agreement.

Go here to read the article. If you tweet it, please give the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran a shout-out (@ICHRI).

Memories of Galeano’s Fire: My Afternoon with the Late Uruguayan Writer

eduardo-galeanoMy heart has been heavy since learning over the weekend of the death of the radical and marvelously lyrical Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, whom I had the enormous pleasure of meeting some 20 years ago.

Galeano was an iconic literary and intellectual figure of the Latin American Left, but his work has a global footprint. Arguably among the most influential books of the second half of the 20th century, his landmark 1971 Open Veins of Latin America has been translated into more than a dozen languages and sold over a million copies. It stands with Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, and Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers, in the pantheon of anti-colonialism and Third Worldism. Hamid Dabashi calls Galeano a “creative voice of an alternative historiography, a mode of subaltern thinking and writing before a number of Bengali historians made the term globally popular.” Continue reading “Memories of Galeano’s Fire: My Afternoon with the Late Uruguayan Writer”

What Do Syrians Want? The Syrian Freedom Charter

Syrian-Freedom-Charter-logo‎Planet Syria – كوكب سوريا‎ has declared tomorrow — 7 April — a global day of solidarity with the people of Syria. In the spirit of this important effort, I present the following interview with Talal Barazi, Program Associate with the Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria (FREE-Syria), a civil society development and humanitarian support organization, about the Syrian Freedom Charter, a momentous initiative inspired by the South African Freedom Charter.

The Syrian Freedom Charter is a national unity document based on tens of thousands of face-to-face interviews with Syrians, in every governorate of the country, about what kind of society they want. Over the course of a year, a team of over a hundred activists assembled by FREE-Syria and the Local Coordination Committees (LLC) of Syria, completed more than 50,000 surveys.

How did the South African Freedom Charter influence the Syrian Freedom Charter?

Syrian-Freedom-Charter-logo‎Planet Syria – كوكب سوريا‎ has declared tomorrow — 7 April — a global day of solidarity with the people of Syria. In the spirit of this important effort, I present the following interview with Talal Barazi, Program Associate with the Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria (FREE-Syria), a civil society development and humanitarian support organization, about the Syrian Freedom Charter, a momentous initiative inspired by the South African Freedom Charter.

The Syrian Freedom Charter is a national unity document based on tens of thousands of face-to-face interviews with Syrians, in every governorate of the country, about what kind of society they want. Over the course of a year, a team of over a hundred activists assembled by FREE-Syria and the Local Coordination Committees (LLC) of Syria, completed more than 50,000 surveys.

How did the South African Freedom Charter influence the Syrian Freedom Charter?

The Syrian Freedom Charter used the South African Freedom Charter as a model from which to work. The biggest influence the South African Freedom Charter had on the Syrian counterpart was in the idea. We also leveraged the expertise of a university professor who was involved with South Africa’s ANC for more than 30 years, and other experts with experience in other conflicts (Ireland, South America). In the final analysis, we consider the Freedom Charter a national unity document, in which the vision of the Syrian people is the only component. We also used the format of the South African predecessor to lay out the vision of the Syrian people.

How representative is the Freedom Charter? The introduction refers to Syrians “from our diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and religious sects”. How much of a cross-section of Syrian society does the document represent? Were Syria’s minority communities genuinely included? Can you provide some numbers?

As a document of national unity, the target number of surveys for the Freedom Charter was done proportionally based on districts, not based on ethnicities or religious sects. To get a proportional representation of all districts, we looked at the percentage each district made up of the total population, and set our goal for each district, proportionally, based on that. We did work in areas with prominent minority presence such as Sweida, a governorate known for the high presence of Druze, and Hassaka, a governorate with a large number of Kurds. The work was harder in predominantly Alawite areas and Damascus proper.

With that, we see that 50% of people chose not to disclose their ethnicity, and 36% of people chose not to disclose their religious beliefs. Below are the graphs for the demographic questions.

EthnicityReligionAge-GroupHow would you respond to the argument that the sentiments and ideals expressed in the Freedom Charter represent only a thin layer of Syrian society — an elite sector that is educated, westernized, urban, and/or living in exile — and that the sectarian violence the country has descended into is a more realistic reflection of popular sentiments and political loyalties? This view has been advanced by Joshua Landis, for example, but it’s widely shared across all sorts of ideological boundaries.

There is nothing elitist about the Freedom Charter — in fact, it is truly “the voice of the people.” The Freedom Charter represents the opinions of ordinary Syrians — more than 50,000 — the majority of whom live inside Syria under abysmal conditions imposed by the Assad regime and other militarized groups. The actual surveys were conducted at the grassroots level. Activists surveying in a specific district were locals of the district. 99% of surveys done were completed inside Syria and in neighboring countries that currently host a large number of refugees. The only precondition for surveys was that respondents be Syrian, without regard to ethnicity, religious affiliation, political affiliation, or social/economic status.

There’s a lot of discussion now of finding a political solution in Syria some sort of negotiated settlement. Of course that’s not a new idea, but for a while it seemed to have receded from the horizon with the failure of the Geneva process, the exasperated resignation of both Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi as Special Envoy for Syria, and the seemingly intractable geopolitical deadlock over Syria. Recently, however — with the new geostrategic equation created by the intervention against ISIS the push for a political solution is being revived. Various proposals have been floated, and virtually all of them involve Assad staying in power in some form. So my question for you is: the Freedom Charter doesn’t directly address the issue of political transition how to get from the current moment to the political order outlined in the document but from your point of view is there ANY scenario in which it would be acceptable for Assad to remain in power, or does the Freedom Charter necessarily preclude that?

For more than three years, Syrians have taken to the streets in both nonviolent and armed resistance to state what they do not want. The goal for the Freedom Charter was to express to the world what Syrians do want. The document does not discuss the transition period, nor the current situation; it is purely a statement of what Syrians are demanding. The Freedom Charter articulates the desires and goals of the Syrian people, not the process to achieve them.

With regard to the political process, FREE-Syria certainly advocates nonviolent solutions. However, the Assad regime has proven, through the failed initiatives of Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, that it is not prepared to pursue a political process. Rather, the regime has and continues to use deadly force, including chemical weapons, against civilians, particularly children. We do not foresee a future in which Assad or those regime supporters with blood on their hands can play a lasting role in a peaceful, democratic Syria.

For more on the Syrian Freedom Charter, go here. For more on ‎Planet Syria‘s global day of solidarity with the Syrian people, go here.

A Critical Exchange with Reese Erlich on Syria, ISIS & the Left

Reese Erlich is a foreign correspondent with GlobalPost and reports regularly for National Public Radio (NPR), the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC), and Radio Deutsche Welle. His reporting has earned him multiple awards over the years. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors declared September 14, 2010, “Reese Erlich Day” in honor of his investigative work. “Mr. Erlich,” the resolution read, “exhibits the finest qualities of…reporters willing to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

He is also a friend of mine. We met in the home of our mutual friend Stephen Kinzer. Kinzer wrote the Foreword to Erlich’s book Dateline Havana: The Real Story of US Policy and the Future of Cuba and when Erich was in Chicago in early 2009 to discuss the book, Kinzer hosted a gathering for him in his home in Oak Park. It was a fabulous evening, and Erlich and I stayed in touch. A few months later he was in Iran, reporting on the historic protests that convulsed the Islamic Republic following its June presidential election. He wrote some of the very smartest stuff about those dramatic events. Erlich is a dyed–in–the–wool New Leftist who cut his teeth at Ramparts, the iconic magazine of 1960s radicalism, but he took many of his fellow leftists to task for the utter myopia they displayed amidst the events in Iran that summer. His essay “Iran and Leftist Confusion” was bang-on and desperately-needed. He also provided a healthy corrective to the pervasive narcissistic blather about Iran’s Green movement being a Twitter revolution.

A couple years on, when his book Conversations with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence and Empire came out, I set up an event for Erlich at Chicago’s No Exit Cafe. And in 2013, when Erlich and Norman Solomon (his co-author on the 2003 book Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You) did a speaking tour to mark the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, I set up an them for them in Denver.

In Erlich’s latest book, Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect​, he criticizes me and my colleague Nader Hashemi for advocating humanitarian intervention to end the criminal starvation sieges in Syria. He reached out to me before the book went to print, asking me to read this section and send him feedback. We had sharp disagreements about Syria, but I appreciated his spirit of generosity and friendship. In this same spirit, I was happy to host him once again in Denver for a talk on his new book. But I was also keen to sit him down for a critical exchange about his book for the video series that our Center for Middle East Studies produces.

Our conversation reflects both my deep respect for Reese’s work and also my serious disagreements with him. It is a spirited and critical (in the best sense) exchange between two leftists with different perspectives on one of key issues of our time.

Israelpolitik, the Neocons and the Long Shadow of the Iraq War—A Review of Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s book ‘The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War’

This essay first appeared in The Drouth (‘The Thirst’), a quarterly magazine published in Glasgow (Issue 50, Winter 2014/2015). I wrote it in December 2014.

The Road to Iraq book coverThe Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War
By Muhammad Idrees Ahmad
Edinburgh University Press
£19.99

Reviewed by Danny Postel

I was reluctant to review this book. With all the dramatic developments in the Middle East today—the ISIS crisis, the siege of Kobanê, the deepening nightmare in Syria, the escalating repression in Egypt, the fate of Tunisia’s democratic transition, the sectarianization of regional conflicts driven by the Saudi-Iranian rivalry—delving back into the 2003 invasion of Iraq seemed rather less than urgent. It’s hard enough just to keep up with the events unfolding day-to-day in the region. Reading—let alone reviewing—a detailed study of the internal processes that led to the United States toppling Saddam Hussein over a decade ago seemed remote, if not indeed a distraction.

But I’m glad I set these reservations aside and took the assignment. This forcefully argued and meticulously researched (with no fewer than 1,152 footnotes, many of which are full-blown paragraphs) book turns out to be enormously relevant to the present moment, on at least three fronts:

  • ISIS emerged from the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq, which formed in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. Without the 2003 invasion, there would be no ISIS as we know it—and the region’s political landscape would look very different.
  • The US Senate report on CIA torture has brought back into focus the rogues gallery of the Bush-Cheney administration—the same cast of characters who engineered the 2003 Iraq invasion. This book shines a heat lamp on that dark chapter and many of its protagonists.
  • There is talk of a neoconservative comeback in Washington. This thoroughly discredited but zombie-like group are now angling for the ear of Hillary Clinton, who might be the next US president. Ahmad’s book provides a marvelously illuminating anatomy of the neocons, which has lessons that apply directly to this movement’s potentially ominous next chapter.

The central question Ahmad attempts to answer is: Why did the 2003 Iraq War happen? In one of the book’s most valuable sections, felicitously titled ‘Black Gold and Red Herrings’, he goes through several prevalent explanations/theories and takes them apart one by one: Continue reading “Israelpolitik, the Neocons and the Long Shadow of the Iraq War—A Review of Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s book ‘The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War’”

Solidarity is not a Crime: Statement from the Minnesota Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria (Minnesota CISPOS)

As members of an organization committed to peace and justice, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria (CISPOS), it was disheartening for us to see an article in Huffington Post that falsely alleges that we are working “in sync with neocon warhawks to produce and sustain a perpetual state of U.S. war.” Coleen Rowley and Margaret Sarfehjooy’s article “Selling ‘Peace Groups’ on US-Led Wars” does not provide insightful analysis and is constructed on unfounded claims.

The article is fallout from the widespread controversy in the peace movement over how to respond to the brutal war in Syria.

Many anti-war pundits and activists have bought into U.S. propaganda that the U.S. is actively supporting the Syrian rebels to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria. They point to the 1997 Project for a New American Century plan for regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. They believed Hillary Clinton in 2012 when she said the Assad regime must go and that the international community stands with the Syrian people.  In fact…the U.S. has given very little training, small weapons, and funds to very few rebel groups.  Congress recently dropped $300 million for the Syrian rebels from the defense bill, almost completely cutting what the Syrian opposition already saw as paltry support from the U.S.  On the other hand, the CIA has long had a working relationship with Assad, sending him numerous terrorist suspects to torture as part of their rendition program. Assad has provided Israel with a secure border.

Continue reading “Solidarity is not a Crime: Statement from the Minnesota Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria (Minnesota CISPOS)”

Should We Oppose the Intervention Against ISIS? An Exchange of Views

Reposted from In These Times

 

Should We Oppose the Intervention Against ISIS?

Most U.S. leftists say yes. But voices we rarely hear—Kurds and members of the Syrian opposition—have more ambiguous views.

ISIS (or ISIL, or the Islamic State) sent shock waves through the Middle East and beyond in June when it seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The organization has now laid claim to a swath of territory “stretching from Baghdad to Aleppo and from Syria’s northern border to the deserts of Iraq in the south,” in the words of Patrick Cockburn, author of The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising.

In August, the United States assembled an international coalition (eventually including more than a dozen countries) to conduct a campaign of air strikes on ISIS positions in Iraq, coordinating with Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Then, in October, the coalition expanded the intervention into Syria, coordinating with Kurdish fighters on the Syrian-Turkish border and Free Syrian army forces.

American progressives have been relatively uniform in opposing the intervention against ISIS. But to most Kurds and many Syrian activists, the intervention is more welcome. Turkish and Syrian Kurds along the border watch the battles against ISIS from hilltops, breaking out in cheers and chanting, “Obama, Obama.” Within the Syrian opposition, one finds a range of perspectives—some support intervention, others oppose it, and many, like the Syrian leftist intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh, are torn. In late September Saleh told me, Continue reading “Should We Oppose the Intervention Against ISIS? An Exchange of Views”

Sectarianization: Steven Heydemann & Joshua Landis on the Trajectory of the Syrian Nightmare

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to interview two of the leading Syria experts in the world, Steven Heydemann and Joshua Landis, about the “big picture” of the Syrian conflict and the wider crisis engulfing the Middle East today, as part of the CMES Conversations series produced by the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. Landis, while best known as a blogger and commentator on Syria, is an historian. Heydemann is a political scientist who has written an influential study of Syrian politics covering the years 1946-1970.

The two interviews offer contrasting perspectives, but both take us several steps back from the news cycle and place the events unfolding in the region today in a wider historical, comparative and global lens. This was the focus of the forum that brought them to Denver, “Sectarianization: ISIS, the Syrian Conflict & the Future of the Middle East”. Sectarianization will be a central focus of our  in the coming months, and is the theme of the book my colleague Nader Hashemi and I are currently co-editing (our last book being The Syria Dilemma).

Steven Heydemann is Vice President of Applied Research on Conflict at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). He’s the author of Authoritarianism in Syria: Institutions and Social Conflict, 1946-1970, the editor of War, Institutions and Social Change in the Middle East and co-editor of Middle East Authoritarianisms: Governance, Contestation, and Regime Resilience in Syria and Iran.

Our interview revolves largely around Heydemann’s far-reaching report “Syria’s Uprising: sectarianism, regionalisation, and state order in the Levant”, published by the European think tank FRIDE. Have a look:

Joshua Landis is Associate Professor in the College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma, where he is also Director of the Center for Middle East Studies. Widely regarded as one of the leading Syria experts in the world, he is the former President of the Syrian Studies Association. He writes and edits the widely-read blog Syria Comment.

Our interview revolves principally around two of his recent articles: “The Great Sorting Out: Ethnicity & the Future of the Levant” and “Why Syria is the Gordian knot of Obama’s anti-ISIL campaign”. Have a look:

Betrayal & Ambivalence: Syrian Activists Wrestle with ISIS, Intervention & the Fate of Their Country

When Dissent magazine recently invited me to write an article on ISIS and intervention, I thought to pick the brains of various Syrian activists, writers and intellectuals. The correspondence that ensued became the article, which appeared on the Dissent blog yesterday. Here’s my introduction:

Conspicuously absent from the debate about ISIS and U.S. intervention—both in the mainstream and in the leftosphere—are Syrian voices. ISIS and U.S. officialdom occupy center stage, leaving the perspectives of Syrian civil society activists and writers out of the equation. While hardly surprising, this omission is troubling.

In an attempt to remedy this imbalance, I asked several Syrians—longtime activists and intellectuals from a range of backgrounds, including Kurdish, Palestinian, and Assyrian Christian—what they think about the ISIS crisis and Western intervention.

Read the full article here.

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