The West’s Syria policy has been shaped by media missionaries

A version of this appeared in The National:

nationalThree beheadings have compelled the US into an action that nearly 200,000 gruesome deaths had failed to precipitate.

Last Monday, the US launched a bombing campaign in Syria putatively aimed at the extremist jihadi group ISIL. Also targeted were some “Al Qaeda-linked” organisations. The strikes killed many members of Jabhat Al Nusra (JAN) and Ahrar Al Sham (AS). Both groups are hardline, but their focus is regional. Neither threatens the US; both fight ISIL. But for the US, according to one administration official, it is all “a toxic soup of terrorists”.

Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad concurs. State media quoted him as supporting any international effort to combat “terrorism” in Syria. For weeks, his regime had been volunteering itself as an ally to the US in its “war on terror”, a status that it had enjoyed under George W Bush. Damascus was once a favoured destination for CIA rendition flights.

It is possible it got its wish. The Syrian opposition, which western polemicists habitually describe as “US-backed”, received no warning of the attacks. Assad and Iran did. Syria’s UN representative Bashar Ja’afari was personally briefed by Samantha Power. The Free Syria Army (FSA) learnt of the attacks from the news.

If JAN and AS have ended up in the same “toxic soup” with their rival ISIS, then it has much to do with poor intelligence and an impoverished media discourse.

Continue reading “The West’s Syria policy has been shaped by media missionaries”

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Politics not Theology

DSCI0206This was published by the National. If you’d prefer to read my tense choices, before the subediting process, read this version here.

I live in Scotland, where I am witness to the continuing legacy of Protestant-Catholic communal hatred, despite the theological indifference and general irreligiosity of the populace.

The hatred is most commonly activated by the Rangers-Celtic football game. (In his great novel “Kieron Smith, Boy”, James Kelman brings it viscerally alive through the mouth of a Glaswegian child.) It is manifest too in Orange Order marches and schoolyard slurs. It intersects with the gang violence of the ‘schemes’. Most of the time, of course, it’s absent, or it emerges as friendly competitiveness rather than actual conflict, but you can bet your last communion wafer that it would blossom into something much fiercer if, in the event of political crisis, a divide-and-rule tyrant were to send Catholic militia in to pacify restive Protestant areas, or vice versa.

Like Scotland’s sectarians, Syria’s Alawis are usually largely secular and ignorant of their own theology (at least they were – a war-driven religious revival is touching them as well as the Sunnis). Over the last four decades Alawi religious scholars have been assassinated or otherwise silenced by the Assad regime as it sought to render the community entirely dependent on the Ba‘athist state. Most Alawis (by no means all) continue to support Assad because they have no other community leadership. Add to this that many have relatives working in the security forces, and so fear a loss of privileges and even violent revenge when the regime falls. Alawis also remember their historical marginalisation by the Sunni majority, and therefore fear majority rule.

As in Iraq, Palestine-Israel, or Northern Ireland, the conflict in Syria is not about theology but about group fears and resentments. Ultimately, it’s about power. Communal tensions are the result not of ancient enmities but of contemporary political machinations. And nothing is fixed in time. Syria’s supposedly ‘Sunni rebellion’ (which contains activists and fighters of all sects) becomes more or less Islamist in response to rapidly-changing political realities. A few months ago, for example, Islamist black flags dominated demonstrations in Raqqa, in the east of the country; now Raqqa’s demonstrations are as likely to protest Jabhat an-Nusra, the extremist militia which nominally controls the city, as the regime. This isn’t an Islamist rebellion but a popular revolution. As in Egypt, if the Islamists oppress the people or fail to deliver, they too will be revolted against.

Continue reading “Politics not Theology”

Politics not Theology

DSCI0206This was published by the National. If you’d prefer to read my tense choices, before the subediting process, read this version here.

I live in Scotland, where I am witness to the continuing legacy of Protestant-Catholic communal hatred, despite the theological indifference and general irreligiosity of the populace.

The hatred is most commonly activated by the Rangers-Celtic football game. (In his great novel “Kieron Smith, Boy”, James Kelman brings it viscerally alive through the mouth of a Glaswegian child.) It is manifest too in Orange Order marches and schoolyard slurs. It intersects with the gang violence of the ‘schemes’. Most of the time, of course, it’s absent, or it emerges as friendly competitiveness rather than actual conflict, but you can bet your last communion wafer that it would blossom into something much fiercer if, in the event of political crisis, a divide-and-rule tyrant were to send Catholic militia in to pacify restive Protestant areas, or vice versa.

Like Scotland’s sectarians, Syria’s Alawis are usually largely secular and ignorant of their own theology (at least they were – a war-driven religious revival is touching them as well as the Sunnis). Over the last four decades Alawi religious scholars have been assassinated or otherwise silenced by the Assad regime as it sought to render the community entirely dependent on the Ba‘athist state. Most Alawis (by no means all) continue to support Assad because they have no other community leadership. Add to this that many have relatives working in the security forces, and so fear a loss of privileges and even violent revenge when the regime falls. Alawis also remember their historical marginalisation by the Sunni majority, and therefore fear majority rule.

As in Iraq, Palestine-Israel, or Northern Ireland, the conflict in Syria is not about theology but about group fears and resentments. Ultimately, it’s about power. Communal tensions are the result not of ancient enmities but of contemporary political machinations. And nothing is fixed in time. Syria’s supposedly ‘Sunni rebellion’ (which contains activists and fighters of all sects) becomes more or less Islamist in response to rapidly-changing political realities. A few months ago, for example, Islamist black flags dominated demonstrations in Raqqa, in the east of the country; now Raqqa’s demonstrations are as likely to protest Jabhat an-Nusra, the extremist militia which nominally controls the city, as the regime. This isn’t an Islamist rebellion but a popular revolution. As in Egypt, if the Islamists oppress the people or fail to deliver, they too will be revolted against.

Continue reading “Politics not Theology”

Afghans to Obama: Get Out, Take Karzai With You

Patrick Cockburn writes of the impotency of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s seven years in power. Karzai was at the State Department this week for a meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari to discuss a joint strategy against terrorism, though the visit was inconveniently soured by the killing of as many as 100 Afghan civilians or more by US military strikes. However awkward, Karzai refused to allow the this symbolic display of ‘unity’ pass by and expressed his gratitude for Clinton “showing concern and regret” and added that “we hope we can work together to completely reduce civilian casualties in the struggle against terrorism.” Yet on Friday he adopted a markedly different tone to the media and demanded an end to US air strikes. With elections looming clearly Karzai recognises the political implications of his past grovelling and schmoozing with the Americans. Biting the hand that feeds you springs to mind.

When President Hamid Karzai drove to Kabul airport to fly to America earlier this week, the centre of the Afghan capital was closed down by well-armed security men, soldiers and policemen. On his arrival in Washington he will begin two days of meetings, starting today, with President Barack Obama and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari about their joint efforts to combat the Taliban. Karzai is also to deliver a speech at the Brookings Institution think tank on “effective ways of fighting terrorism.”

The title of his lecture shows a certain cheek. Karzai’s seven years in power since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 have been notable for his failure to prevent their resurgence. Suppose the president’s motorcade this week had taken a different route and headed, not for the airport, but for the southern outskirts of Kabul, he would soon have experienced the limits of his government’s authority. It ends at a beleaguered police post within a few minutes’ drive of the capital. Drivers heading for the southern provincial capitals of Ghazni, Qalat and Kandahar nervously check their pockets to make sure that they are carrying no documents linking them to the government. Continue reading “Afghans to Obama: Get Out, Take Karzai With You”

In Israel, detachment from reality is now the norm

An excellent article by Patrick Cockburn about the growing isolation of Israeli society from the crimes of its own state and the creeping intolerance of internal dissent, developments that spell gloom for the Palestinians.

I was watching the superb animated documentary Waltz with Bashir about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. It culminates in the massacre of some 1,700 Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in south Beirut by Christian militiamen introduced there by the Israeli army which observed the butchery from close range.

In the last few minutes the film switches from animation to graphic news footage showing Palestinian women screaming with grief and horror as they discover the bullet-riddled bodies of their families. Then, just behind the women, I saw myself walking with a small group of journalists who had arrived in the camp soon after the killings had stopped.

Continue reading “In Israel, detachment from reality is now the norm”