Trump, the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry and the Geopolitics of Sectarianization

US President Donald Trump (R) looks at a defence sales chart with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House on March 20, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Nader Hashemi and I have an essay titled “Playing with Fire: Trump, the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry, and the Geopolitics of Sectarianization in the Middle East” in the Mediterranean Yearbook 2018published by the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed). We examine the deterioration of sectarian relations in the Middle East in recent years, with a focus on the escalation of the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry. We show how the Trump administration in particular has exacerbated these already volatile dynamics and suggest a shift in the policies of Western governments toward the region aimed at defusing the sectarianization process. Download the PDF.

Woodward’s Book Should Kill the Myth of a Pro-War Coup Against an Antiwar President

The unhinged, racist demagogue with a non-interventionist mindset is being undermined by the liberal-neoconservative Deep State because he refuses to to let the CIA kill Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator with a massive body count that is none of our business.

It’s a popular notion among those with a soft spot for reactionary isolationists, the notion, popularized by a founding editor of The Intercept, that Donald J. Trump is engaged in an internal war with the U.S. empire. The U.S. president, of course, campaigned on escalating every conflict he would inherit, but he had nice things to say about a once and future CIA partner and his bloody war on terror; confusingly, this meant he was — relative to those looking to start WWIII by saying Russian imperialism is bad — an antiwar lesser evil

In power, Trump has bombed a couple empty Syrian regime targets, sure, but as his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, recently suggested, those strikes were, in effect, an effort to make U.S. condonation, if not de facto U.S. support, of the Assad regime’s scorched-earth total war more palatable. “If they want to continue to go the route of taking over Syria, they can do that,” Haley remarked, “but they can not do it with chemical weapons.”

Trump’s unwillingness to deep-six Bashar purportedly stood in stark contrast to Hillary Clinton, who campaigned, let us suppose, on bunker-busting Damascus and Moscow in order to achieve regime change for Syrian al-Qaeda. As The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald explained on Democracy Now! a few weeks after Trump took office:

The CIA and the intelligence community were vehemently in support of Clinton and vehemently opposed to Trump, from the beginning. And the reason was, was because they liked Hillary Clinton’s policies better than they liked Donald Trump’s. One of the main priorities of the CIA for the last five years has been a proxy war in Syria, designed to achieve regime change with the Assad regime. Hillary Clinton was not only for that, she was critical of Obama for not allowing it to go further, and wanted to impose a no-fly zone in Syria and confront the Russians. Donald Trump took exactly the opposite view. He said we shouldn’t care who rules Syria; we should allow the Russians, and even help the Russians, kill ISIS and al-Qaeda and other people in Syria. So, Trump’s agenda that he ran on was completely antithetical to what the CIA wanted. Clinton’s was exactly what the CIA wanted, and so they were behind her. And so, they’ve been trying to undermine Trump for many months throughout the election. And now that he won, they are not just undermining him with leaks, but actively subverting him.

That Trump’s “agenda” was a) coherent, and b) “completely antithetical to what the CIA wanted” was, at the time, a bizarre thing to argue. Some CIA officials, like many others, have surely recognized that the president of the United States is a reckless buffoon, but it is not because he is at war with the agenda of an intelligence community that he has gifted a record-high budget and a blessing to largely do as it pleases. In Syria, the alleged inspiration for an unprecedented deep-state coup d’état, Trump has been killing loads of Syrians — has been bombing mosques — with about as many objections from the deep state as from the anti-imperialists who learned to love the war on terror, which is to say: none at all.

When U.S. munitions have fallen on the regime of Bashar al-Assad (popularly shortened to “Syria”), the strikes have been, from the perspective of those who don’t support Assad or Trump but hate their critics more, blessedly cosmetic. But that is not, according to a new book from veteran journalist Bob Woodward, because Trump is instinctively opposed to Iraq 2.0 (not to be confused with the ongoing U.S. air war, in Iraq).

Per The Washington Post:

After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical attack on civilians in April 2017, Trump called Mattis and said he wanted to assassinate the dictator. “Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them,” Trump said, according to Woodward.

Mattis told the president that he would get right on it. But after hanging up the phone, he told a senior aide: “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.” The national security team developed options for the more conventional airstrike that Trump ultimately ordered.

The takeaway here is not that Trump is committed to regime change, but rather that he is constitutionally militaristic, impulsive and, as recognized by everyone around him, an idiot child — one who would soon forget why he wanted to kill the fellow head of a pathetic but deadly personality cult, likely by the time of his next Fox News-induced, white nationalist temper tantrum.

The U.S. president, an adult man, is no doubt aware that Bashar al-Assad is still alive, having just sent a delegation of U.S. intelligence officials, who purportedly want to overthrow them both, to meet with their regime counterparts in Damascus. General Mattis, it seems, correctly gauged that the president was simply mad and raving on the toilet, as is his wont.

It is not the first time, however, that generals have undermined a whimsical urge to steal the day’s headlines by starting another war: the U.S. president earlier floated the idea of invading Venezuela, to the chagrin of all the beribboned figures with whom he has chosen to surround himself. These are neither heroes nor coup-plotters, those natsec establishment types who challenge or on occasion ignore a mentally unfit president’s impulsive desire to kill, but people who have freely chosen to associate with Trump because they are generally pleased by his agenda, including a willingness to let the military and intelligence community manage their own affair; his outbursts are an unpleasant cost of what is by and large business as usual.

Deranged, it always was, to believe a U.S. “deep state” would seek to regime-change such a compliant U.S. president as Donald J. Trump because he wouldn’t given them Assad’s head on a platter. It is poetic justice, if not all that funny, for it to be revealed that it was Trump himself who wanted to knock off, however briefly, Clinton’s “reformer.”

Those who have spent years now arguing for the existence of a deep divide between Trump and the military-industrial complex, so large as to spur a coup — over Syria, incredibly, where the preservation of the regime in Damascus has long been the establishment consensus, with varying degrees of transparency — ought to be seen as no less dangerously clownish than the president they compulsively defend, from enemies real and imagined.

Charles Davis is a journalist in Los Angeles whose work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets such as The Daily Beast, The Guardian and The New Republic.

I Was Born Twice

hasanThese are extracts from Hasan Almossa’s as-yet unpublished book “I Was Born Twice”. Hasan is the founder of Kids Paradise, an NGO supporting vulnerable people and implementing sustainable projects in Syria.

My notebook

Dear reader

More than once, you will read the phrase, “I wrote in my notebook.” So what is this
notebook?

Unlike human beings, who usually have only one name, the notebook goes by many. However, there is a common thread between this notebook and human beings. Both go through different phases.

In each phase, the notebook was gradually shaped, growing like a plant until I managed to transfer it into this book so that it wouldn’t be lost, as had happened several times before. But now the notebook’s spirit has been captured in the book, forging a telepathic link with my memory that tried to save everything while only a little remained.

As narrow as a palm, and as small as a child, my notebook began its journey in life: I
used to put it in my pocket so I could jot down what people asked me. I also wrote down names and addresses of patients and the injured, so I could follow up with them.

As I wrote more and more, so my notebook grew. I wrote about war, common sayings and poems, and it also featured some stories. I wrote about pain as it was lived by ordinary people. I did not aim at publishing while I was writing, but rather I wrote to remember people’s pain, to follow up on their stories, and to solve their problems. Later, I started gathering the sorts of details that most media outlets cannot focus on. And yet these are important details.

Even though I was recording such details so as never to lose them, my notebook was lost more than once, such that I could not get it back. In 2015, I lost it for good, so I tried to collect the fragments of information still in my memory, as well as some things I’d written on small sheets of paper. With every name I wrote, I tried to restore my notebook. But many questions would pop into my thoughts without answers.

What happened to the one who’d dreamed of going to Europe? Did he ever arrive, or was he trapped in a prison on his way, or did he disappear inside the big whale’s belly of the ocean?

What happened to that woman who came with her injured son? Is he still alive, or has he died and left his mother wandering through a cruel life?

What happened to the old man who was asking for a prosthetic leg? Did he ever get it, or does he still live with a cane?

What about the girl whose father promised her a new eye while she was riding in the ambulance? Did she ever get a new eye, or was her father only trying to soothe her pain?

What about that family who sold all of their property to travel to Europe? Did the human trafficker keep his promise and help them to reach Germany?

The act of reorganizing the information in my notebook brought up thousands of
questions and put me in front of hundreds of unforgettable stories. Many of these stories were too painful to document, and I was afraid, too, that my bag would become as heavy as mountains. There are too many graves in exile: solitary graves, group graves, and lost graves. It was hard for me to put the destruction of past, present, and future in my bag and sleep beside it. I needed to sleep so I could continue my work, yet how could I sleep alongside all these tragedies?

And so I was sleepless beside these human tragedies. I often wished a bullet had ended my life so that I didn’t have to witness these stories I carry.

The buzz of the bullet stays with me: for three months, its buzz kept visiting me from
time to time. I wished to sleep or, as we call it, go to a minor death, in order to comfort my tired soul. Others wished to relax forever and turn to the real Death.

In these pages, I wrote what I felt, what my pen could write, and what I felt obliged to record.

Continue reading “I Was Born Twice”

Left-Wing Orientalism: The Curious Case of Patrick Cockburn

The following is an excerpt from an interview with me and my collaborator Nader Hashemi that will be published soon by the excellent online magazine Qantara.de. The interviewer is Emran Feroz, a journalist based in Germany, founder of the Drone Memorial, a virtual memorial for civilian drone strike victims, and author of a book on drone warfare. The interview revolves around our recent book Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, in which we challenge the new conventional wisdom in Western media and policy circles that attributes the violence engulfing the Middle East today to “ancient hatreds”. We call this sectarian essentialism a new form of Orientalism. In this section of the interview we’re responding to a question about the pervasiveness of this sectarian narrative across the ideological spectrum.

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Versions of the sectarian narrative can be found on the right, in the center, and on the left. The New York Times columnist and establishment sage Thomas Friedman, for instance, claims that in Yemen today “the main issue is the 7th century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad — Shiites or Sunnis”. Barack Obama asserted that the issues plaguing the Middle East today are “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia”. A more vulgar version of this view prevails among right-wing commentators. The former cable television host Bill O’Reilly has remarked that “the Sunni and Shia want to kill each other. They want to blow each other up. They want to torture each other. They have fun. … This is what Allah tells them to do, and that’s what they do”.

 

This is hardly surprising, given the anti-Muslim prejudice so pervasive on the right. What is surprising is to find people on the left trafficking in the sectarian narrative. Take the case of Patrick Cockburn, the influential Middle East reporter for The Independent. Cockburn has consistently framed the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms — using language like “sectarian blood-letting” and “demons” — and even criticized others for downplaying sectarianism. He did this from very early on, seeing sectarianism as immanent even during the nonviolent popular demonstrations of 2011, which were notably devoid of sectarian slogans and involved Syrians of multiple religious backgrounds/identities. The Syrian conflict became sectarian, but it didn’t start that way and, contra Cockburn, its sectarianization was by no means inevitable. In his chapter in our book, the anthropologist Paulo Gabriel Hilu Pinto demonstrates how the Assad regime pursued a deliberate strategy of sectarianizing the conflict through the use of sectarian pro-regime militias and the “selective distribution of violence” to punish specific sub-groups of protesters; and by releasing various jihadis from Syria’s prisons, to poison the well and produce a “preferred enemy”. Continue reading “Left-Wing Orientalism: The Curious Case of Patrick Cockburn”

Morbid Symptoms: A Conversation with Gilbert Achcar

Danny Postel and Gilbert Achcar at After-Words bookstore in Chicago, 10 July 2018

Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with the Lebanese scholar Gilbert Achcar for a conversation about the complex situation in the Middle East and various myths about the region that permeate the global leftosphere. The conversation was recorded for the podcast of Chicago DSA, the Chicago chapter of Democratic Socialists of America.

Achcar has been called “one of the best analysts of the contemporary Arab world” (Le Monde) and “the preeminent Marxist scholar of the region” (CounterPunch). He is Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at SOAS, University of London. His books include The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder (2002), Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007), The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives (2010), The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (2013), Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism (2013), and Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (2016).

Forum on Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy

On June 6, I moderated a panel discussion in Chicago on Yassin al-Haj Saleh‘s momentous book The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy. The event was presented by Haymarket Books, the volume’s North American publisher (it’s published in the UK and worldwide by Hurst). The panelists were Wendy Pearlman, author of We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled: Voices from Syria; Lina Sergie Attar, co-founder of the Karam Foundation; Firas Aladai, director of the film Winter; Sarah Hunaidi, an activist and co-host of the Hummus for Thought podcast; and Behzad Tehrani with Haymarket Books. The discussion starts a few minutes into the video. Sorry for the uneven audio quality. Turn the volume up!

Are there really “no good guys” in Syria?

A version of this article first appeared in The New Arab

Following the Syrian regime’s recent chemical attack on Douma, US, Britain and France took swift but symbolic action to destroy three chemical weapons facilities. The action was not universally lauded. For Syrians it was too little too late; for isolationists and “anti-imperialists”, the 15,201st US airstrike on Syria since September 2014 was a “dangerous escalation” in a war where there were “no good guys”.

“There are no good guys”—or “everyone is equally bad”—has become a trope used by many otherwise decent people to absolve themselves of moral guilt for being bystanders to injustice. (The indecent on the other hand pronounce Assad the “lesser evil”, if not outright supporting him). The trope relies on a disciplined will to ignorance, unreasonable doubt, and manufactured uncertainty. It has been aided by a post-truth paranoia where cynicism passes for scepticism and all inconvenient facts expire into a haze of competing claims. “We can’t really know”!

But are facts really that elusive? And is it really impossible to tell good from bad?

Syria in fact is the most closely observed conflict in history, every aspect of which has been investigated, researched, filmed, documented, and reported on. The picture that emerges is not equivocal. In the judgment of the UN Commission of Inquiry on the war in Syria the regime is responsible for “the crimes against humanity of extermination; murder; rape or other forms of sexual violence; torture; imprisonment; enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts”.

Let us now look at the balance of atrocities.

Continue reading “Are there really “no good guys” in Syria?”