Of Monsters and Men

This is my review of Yassin al Haj Saleh’s book The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy. It first appeared in The New Arab

Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution over six years ago, there has been a determined effort to smother it both literally and figuratively. There is the ceaseless attrition of bullets, bombs, torture, starvation and poison gas; there is the relentless subversion of truth through erasure, distortion, slant and fabrication. But in defiance of the terror, through myriad betrayals, regardless of the slander, and in the face of global indifference, the revolution survives. Every time the violence ebbs, the revolutionary flag returns to the street borne by crowds chanting the same slogans that reverberated through earlier, more hopeful days. Even in the absence of peace, besieged neighbourhoods have elected local councils, provided social services, educated children, treated the wounded and fed the needy. Under impossible circumstances, the people who stood up against one of history’s most murderous regimes persist.

saleh-impossible-revolution-final-rgb-webYou would know none of this if your only window into the Syrian conflict is the western media or, worse, its Kremlin counterpart. Syria, for all one can tell from their coverage, is about ISIS atrocities, Al Qaeda gains, Coalition bombings, regime advances, Russian resurgence and CIA manoeuvres. It is a geopolitical chessboard in which Syrians are mere pawns, denied agency, except in violence; denied humanity, except in victimhood.  When earlier this week the UN war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte resigned over the Security Council’s inaction, she saw fit to add: “everyone in Syria is bad now”. She said this at a time the news of the execution of media activist Bassel Khartabil was becoming public, Idlib University was holding free elections, Saraqib and Eastern Ghouta were electing local councils and volunteers from the Syrian Civil Defence were risking lives to rescue victims of the regime’s relentless bombings. For del Ponte and her ilk, these people might as well not exist.

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Culture and Imperialism

A version of this first appeared in The National.

During the Cold War there was an attempt by both major powers to instrumentalise art as a means of ideological domination. The artistic landscape was fraught with political landmines. Artists had to navigate this terrain with caution. Some became willing instruments of policy, some were coerced into it, some made expedient compromises—but many were snared unwittingly.

The eastern bloc’s means of control were explicit, hence better known. They were exemplified in the persecution, fear, and exile suffered by the likes of Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mendelstam, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. They have also been fictionalized in popular films like Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others.

Less known however are the means that the ‘free world’ used to engineer a favourable intellectual climate. Decidedly more tolerant of dissent than its eastern counterpart, the west developed a system of rewards and exclusion to amplify favourable voices and marginalise critical ones.

This vast apparatus was orchestrated and conducted by the analytical wing of the CIA, which in its halcyon days relied on Ivy League recruits, often with backgrounds in the humanities. Erudite and urbane, these recruits were seen as the ideal candidates to erode the seductive appeal of Soviet communism. They could counteract it through a strong anti-communist line that emphasized the western ideals of freedom and openness.

finks_cvfFinks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers is Joel Whitney’s riveting account of the CIA’s machinations to enlist some of the world’s leading writers in this ideological contest. Part literary history, part investigative journalism, the book unravels hitherto unknown details about the CIA’s vast cultural offensive.

Whitney’s story pivots around The Paris Review, a highly regarded literary publications best know for its series of interviews with literary giants such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, Thornton Wilder, and Vladimir Nabokov, and fiction and poetry from the likes of Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, Philip Larkin, V.S. Naipaul and Philip Roth.

But in 1953 when it was launched, one of The Paris Review’s three co-founders, the novelist Peter Mathiessen, was working for the CIA and using the magazine as cover. George Plimpton, the Review’s other co-founder, was also aware that the magazine’s benefactor, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), was heavily funded the by the CIA. The CCF sustained The Paris Review by mass purchasing its copies, syndicating its content, and paying extra for material that aligned with Cold War imperatives. The CCF also tried to influence the magazine editorially. This despite the fact that the Paris Review wasn’t even part of the large stable of magazine’s that CCF directly funded and controlled.

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Russia Today and the post-truth virus

A video is circulating of a woman revealing “the truth” on Syria that is being withheld from us by “the mainstream media”. The woman is introduced as an “independent Canadian journalist”. She is said to be speaking  “at the UN”. The date is December 9, 2016. The video has become viral.

Eva Bartlett, the woman in the video, writes for various conspiracy sites including SOTT.net, The Duran, MintPress and Globalresearch.ca. But more recently she has emerged as a contributor to Russia Today. And though her wordpress blog is called “In Gaza”, and though she has a past in Palestine solidarity work, unlike the people of Gaza, she is a strong supporter of Assad and she uses language to describe Assad’s opponents that is a virtual echo of the language Israeli propagandists use against Gazans.

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This is the “I ❤️ Bashar” bracelet that “independent” journalist Eva Bartlett wore on her visit.

Bartlett was recently a guest of the Assad regime, attending a regime sponsored PR conference and going on a tour of regime-controlled areas herded no doubt by the ubiquitous minders (the regime only issues visas to trusted journalists and no visitor is allowed to travel without a regime minder). On her return, the regime mission at the UN organised a press conference for her and three members of the pro-regime US “Peace Council” (The organisation has the same relationship to peace as Kentucky Fried Chicken has to chicken). In the press conference they all repeated the claims usually made by the regime’s official media SANA and by Russia Today: all rebels are terrorists; there is no siege; civilians are being held hostage; the regime is a “liberator” etc.

So a conspiracy theorist with a blog who briefly visited Syria as a guest of the regime is declaring that everything you know about Syria is wrong. That you have been misled by everyone in the “MSM” from the New York Times to Der Spiegel, from the Guardian to the Telegraph, from CNN to Channel 4, from ABC to BBC, from CBS to CBC; that human rights organisations like Physicians for Human Rights, Medicins Sans Frontiers, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch; that international agencies like the UN and ICRC—they are all part of a vast conspiracy to malign Bashar al Assad. And the truth is only revealed on “alternative” media like the Kremlin’s own Russia Today! (watched by 70 million people a week according to its own claims)

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A Child’s Innocence and the Dogs of War

A 7-year-old girl from Eastern Aleppo has become a lightning rod for pro-regime and pro-Kremlin trolls after tweeting about life under the bombs in Aleppo

by Amr Salahi

In the past two months seven year old Bana Al-Abed has drawn global attention for her tweets from besieged East Aleppo, which is today under ferocious assault from Russia and regime forces, aided by Iraqi, Lebanese and Iranian militias. Hundreds of people have been killed in the past week, and according to her Twitter account, Bana’s house was destroyed on November 27. She has also seen other people, including one of her friends, killed.

Bana’s account, twitter.com/AlabedBana, was managed by her mother, Fatemah, and before it was shut down on December 4, it had 199,000 followers. The identities of Bana and her mother were verified by Twitter and the account had received a great deal of supportive interaction. Harry Potter author JK Rowling sent Bana electronic copies of her books on learning that she was a fan.

However, this seven year old girl whose life is at constant risk from airstrikes and artillery fire has been subjected to constant abuse from supporters of Russia and the Assad regime. The trolling attacks on Bana’s account come in various forms, ranging from crude death threats to accusations of forgery. Another account (twitter.com/alabed_banana) has even been set up to caricature it.

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Robert Fisk’s crimes against journalism

Bullets and bombs it seems aren’t the only things doctors in Syria have to fear; they also have to endure the poisoned pens of regime friendly journalists.

A version of this article first appeared on The New Arab. It has since been updated with three case studies of Fisk’s journalistic malpractices. 

The Syrian war has been deadly for healthcare services. Physicians for Human Rights (P4HR) has recorded 382 attacks on medical facilities of which 344 were carried out by the regime and Russia; they were also responsible for 703 of the 757 medical personnel killed in the war. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both condemned their targeting of hospitals “as a strategy of war”.

In its report to the UN Human Rights Council last September, the Independent Commission of Inquiry into Syria wrote that the “pattern of attacks [by pro-regime forces], and in particular the repeated bombardments, strongly suggests that there has been deliberate and systematic targeting of hospitals and other medical facilities during this reporting period”.

The report adds: “Perhaps nowhere has the government assault on medical care been felt more strongly than in the opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo city and governorate, where at least 20 hospitals and clinics have reportedly been destroyed since January. By October 7, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) had recorded “at least 23 attacks on eastern Aleppo’s eight remaining hospitals since the siege began in July”.

In this context when one of Britain’s more celebrated war correspondents—a person known for his acerbic diatribes against docile western journalists—enters Aleppo and sees a destroyed ambulance righteous fury is sure to erupt. And Fisk doesn’t disappoint. There is the familiar bombast of superlatives. Things are “ghostly”, “ghastly”, “frightening”, and “horribly relevant”.

But it is the object of Fisk’s fury that is a surprise. Fisk is not angry at an ambulance being bombed. Indeed, he heavily implies that the bombing was merited. Fisk devotes much of the article to implicating the Scottish charity that donated the ambulance. In his curious legal brief against medical aid, Fisk’s allies are not facts but suggestion, insinuation and innuendo. His method is insidious and part of a pattern. It merits closer scrutiny.

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Workings of the Myth

How stereotyping abets ISIS and the authoritarian state

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Aftermath of Iraqi Army’s battle with ISIS

by Bente Scheller

Brussels, Paris, Istanbul, Baghdad, Nice: The attacks in recent months have claimed the lives of hundreds of people. Whether the so-called “Islamic State” (Daesh/ISIS) admits to being responsible for the attacks or whether investigations reveal its delinquency is of secondary importance: in the words of Achim Rohde, ISIS has become the regularly reappearing “enemy of humanity” (Rohde, 2016).[1] Several levels come together in the assessment of the risk that this enemy—as its predecessor al-Qaida before it— poses to Western societies: a fundamental fear trickles into everyday life, a fear of a hardly calculable force that arbitrarily accepts civilian victims and explicitly targets them; and that fear melds with Islamophobia and racism. This amalgam ensures that the fight against terrorism is oftentimes defined by populist responses that detract from practical political decision, decisions that are not always easy to promulgate.

The lack of a widely accepted definition of terrorism leaves it open to subjective interpretation. Right-wing movements invariably mobilize against the unassimilable  “other”. The more alien and violent the depiction of the “other”, the easier it becomes to distance oneself and to construct one’s own moral superiority by demonising the “other”.

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Glenn Greenwald’s Sympathy for the Devil

After five years of equivocation on Syria, Glenn Greenwald has finally taken a stance. He is attacking Syria’s leading dissident who spent 16 years in Assad’s notorious prisons for his left-wing politics, whose two brothers were abducted by ISIS, and whose wife was disappeared three years ago.

Greenwald’s charge? That Yassin al Haj Saleh doesn’t mention Obama in his criticisms; and that in an interview with The Intercept Saleh accuses most leftists of being Assad sympathisers without naming them.

Does Yassin omit Obama in his criticisms?

“Nothing could diminish the despicable crime the Obama administration has committed against Syria and its population. And history will not forget this for a long time. ”

Yes, those are Yassin’s words. He has never been shy to indict Obama or the rest of the world.

Does Yassin criticise leftists without naming them?

Yassin names and shames them where necessary. But when he is talking about general trends he has no obligation.

But let me oblige Greenwald and name one prominent leftist who is objectively pro-Assad: Glenn Greenwald.

Sorry Glenn, but that common throat clearing preamble—”Of course Assad is bad but…”—will give you only limited protection when you devote your entire time to maligning and attacking the regime’s opponents.

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