ARTE aired another remarkable documentary last night (for the other one, see previous post), this on the uprising in Homs, Syria, and which was shot over a two-year period by Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki. It won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival (English title: Return to Homs). It may be viewed for the next week on ARTE’s website here (90 minutes, version française).
Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category
France 5′s weekly news magazine “Le Monde en face” had a very good two-part documentary on Qatar two nights ago—on its transformation from an obscure patch of desert to a veritable regional power and with near global reach—, by investigative journalists Vanessa Ratignier et Pierre Péan, and which may be viewed on the France 5 website until next Tuesday: “Qatar: la puissance et la gloire – 1995-2008” (part 1) and “Qatar: trahisons et double jeu – 2008-2013” (part 2)—both 53 minutes and followed by a 15-minute discussion, “Faut-il avoir peur du Qatar?,” with two specialists of that accidental country and its megalomaniacal ruling family. The documentary touches on, among other things, the slave-like conditions afflicting the bulk of the mainly Asian labor force there, which was the subject of my post “Qatar: modern-day slavery” last September, in which I insisted on the utter unfitness of Qatar to be hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
À propos, The Guardian reported this week that “[m]ore than 500 Indian workers have died in Qatar since 2012,” and to which may be added the 382 Nepalese workers who have died there during the same period. The Qatari World Cup organizing committee announced last week that workers building the stadiums—but not those building other infrastructure—would be held to higher standards, but with the kafala system remaining unchanged. This is BS to mollify foreign critics. When it comes to the conditions of migrant labor, nothing will change there. Qatar needs to be stripped of the 2022 World Cup. Spread the word on Twitter and everywhere else: #StopQatar2022!
My Facebook and Twitter feeds have had numerous articles and other links of late on the catastrophic situation of Syrian refugees. I can hardly bear to read about this, as I find it so painful and heart-rending. And particularly as we know that the situation will only get worse, with the oncoming winter, the ongoing collapse of the Syrian state, and likelihood that the civil war will continue for years to come. There is already starvation, with a dispatch last week by Patrick Cockburn calling it “[t]he biggest emergency in the UN’s history.” Cockburn concludes with this
In rebel-held areas the situation is much worse. Food is in short supply and government salaries and pensions, however inadequate, are not being paid. A recent graduate from the University of Damascus, writing for IRIN, the UN news agency, said that there are few doctors in the besieged town of al-Hajar al-Aswad in south Damascus – and those that remain say that mothers are too undernourished to produce breast milk for babies and there is no powdered milk available.
One doctor said adults “are getting by on small amounts of seasonal stocked traditional Syrian foods like olives, thyme and marmalade – and in some cases cats and dogs”. He expected adults to start dying of starvation in the near future.
Dying of starvation in Syria…
And then there’s the effect of the war on education, with “Syrian children…suffer[ing] the ‘sharpest and most rapid’ decline in education standards in the history of the region,” according to a report released on December 13th by UNICEF, the UNHCR, World Vision, and Save the Children.
And, pour mémoire, there is the massive rape crisis afflicting Syrian women in the refugee camps, which I had a post on earlier this year…
This post on the CNN website lists NGOs and their US 800 numbers for those wondering “[h]ow to help Syrian refugees.” And this video clip by Amnesty International cleverly publicizes the issue, skewering the leaders of the European Union, “The Apathetics,” in the process for their pathetic offer to resettle a whopping 0.5% of Syrian refugees within their borders.
On the question of resettling refugees from the Syrian war, there is a particular urgency for Syria’s half-million-odd Palestinians (e.g. here and here; my photos here), who have been there since 1948 but do not have Syrian citizenship, thus rendering them stateless. Syria treated the Palestinians better than any other Arab state, even more than Jordan. But at least Jordan gave the Palestinians citizenship—albeit second class—and thus a passport. Being stateless—not having a passport issued by a recognized state—is a disaster for those in that situation. As I have learned in recent years from Palestinian-Syrians who carry the Syrian issued Palestinian refugee travel document (below), most of the world is closed to them. It is almost impossible for Palestinians from Syria to obtain visas for any Arab state. Any. The Arab world (plus Turkey) is, in effect, off limits, even for short visits. E.g. the brother of a Palestinian-Syrian friend works as an engineer in the oil sector in Algeria but it took him years to obtain a visa to enter that lovely country to take up his job with a US company there. And my friend, from a well-to-do family in Damascus and who worked herself for a European company in the city—so no money problems—, has never been able to get a visa from the Algerians to visit him. To comprehend how full of shit the Arabs are when it comes to the Palestinians, one may look no further than here: of their refusal to grant citizenship to even those who were born and raised in their countries and to refuse entry to Palestinians from elsewhere. The Egyptian MB government did open the doors to Syrian Pals but then treated them like dirt (e.g. here), and now they’re being pushed out. The countries that Syrian Palestinians may visit—that do not discriminate against them when it comes to visas—are the EU Schengen area (the UK, which is not in Schengen, is difficult), the USA, Canada, Mexico, and various Latin American states. The US is particularly generous toward the Syrian Palestinians, so I have been reliably informed.
In view of the disastrous situation of stateless Syrian Palestinians, it would behoove the European Union, US, Canada, Latin American states, Australia, and whoever else to simply decide to absorb the entire Syrian Palestinian population, to settle all of them within their borders and with a fast track to citizenship, and with those with family ties in any of these states going to where they have those ties. The situation is urgent and it would be almost unconscionable to do otherwise. Convene an international conference and just do it. With that, I wish all a Merry Christmas.
UPDATE: William R. Polk has an exceptional article, dated December 10th, on The Atlantic website, “Understanding Syria: From Pre-Civil War to Post-Assad.” The lede: How drought, foreign meddling, and long-festering religious tensions created the tragically splintered Syria we know today.
This is a 3½+ hour, four-part documentary on the history of Jewish-Muslim relations—from the 7th century to the present—by French filmmaker Karim Miské. Parts 1 and 2 aired on ARTE last night and may be watched here (for one week at least). The documentary is quite good and with an impressive number of francophone and anglophone academic and other specialists interviewed. I noted in the credits that the film received the support of the cultural services of the US embassy in Paris. Parts 3 and 4 will air next Tuesday (and which will be on ARTE’s website linked to above).
The latest NYRB has a must read essay by Malise Ruthven on anthropologist and Islam specialist Akbar Ahmed‘s latest book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, published by Brookings. Money quote:
As an anthropologist with deep knowledge and direct experience of tribal systems, Akbar Ahmed demonstrates in The Thistle and the Drone how richly Tolstoy’s thistle metaphor [of 19th century Russia's wars with the tribal peoples of the Caucuses] applies to contemporary conditions in regions, distant from urban centers, where clans resist the writ of government while also engaging with it. He points to their “love of freedom” to act without external constraints, as well as “egalitarianism, [and] a tribal lineage system defined by common ancestors and clans, a martial tradition, and a highly developed code of honor and revenge—these are the thistle-like characteristics of the tribal societies…. Moreover, as with the thistle, there is a clear correlation between their prickliness, or toughness, and the level of force used by those who wish to subdue these societies, as the Americans discovered after 9/11.”
Ahmed is especially troubled by the use of drones against Muslim tribal groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, but his analysis of the nature of the state and its relation with tribal peoples has application far beyond the condition of Muslim tribal societies. As he sees it, the use of unmanned aircraft as a leading counterinsurgency weapon has morphed into a campaign against tribal peoples generally, with the US president disposing of “Zeus-like power to hurl thunderbolts from the sky and obliterate anyone with impunity… Flying at 50,000 feet above ground, and therefore out of sight of its intended victims, the drone could hover overhead unblinkingly for twenty-four hours, with little escaping its scrutiny before it struck. For a Muslim tribesman, this manner of combat not only was dishonorable but also smacked of sacrilege. By appropriating the powers of God through the drone, in its capacity to see and not be seen and deliver death without warning, trial, or judgment, Americans were by definition blasphemous.”
There’s this fascinating passage on the Saudi Arabia-Yemen borderlands, and notably the Asir region
Ahmed, by contrast, sees ethnicity or tribal identity as the crucial factors in the recruitment of the hijackers. “Bin Laden,” he states, “was joined in his movement primarily by his fellow Yemeni tribesmen,” ten of whom came from the Asir tribes… Indeed the only one of the nineteen hijackers without a tribal pedigree was Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian architect who led the operation and had much to do with its planning.
The Asiri background is highly significant because of the region’s history. For centuries the terrain, which is divided between rugged highlands with peaks rising to nine thousand feet and the coastal plain, or Tihama, was riven by tribal conflicts, as in the Caucasus and Waziristan. Like the Pukhtun clans of Waziristan, the Yemeni tribes of Asir are organized in “segmentary lineages” (i.e., prone to splitting) without formal leaders. The clans tended to quarrel among themselves when not coalescing in the face of outsiders. In 1906 the charismatic scholar-king Sayyed Muhammad al-Idrisi, connected to the Sufi or mystically oriented Sanusiyya order in North Africa, was invited to settle disputes between these warring tribes. His rule was in many ways similar to that of Shamil in the Caucasus, as described by those Russian observers, better informed than Tolstoy, who recognized that his diplomatic skills were as impressive as his military ones.
Al-Idrisi’s domain grew rapidly as tribes, attracted by his reputation for piety and justice, rallied to his cause against the Ottomans. After backing the Allies in World War I, he hoped that the victors would reward him by preserving Asir’s independence. All such hopes were dashed, however, following his death in 1922, when the region came under the sway of the reinvigorated tribal empire created by the emir of Nejd, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, founder of modern Saudi Arabia. In his aggressive drive for territorial expansion (which included expelling the Hashemite rulers of Mecca), ibn Saud swallowed up most of the region, leaving the southern part to al-Idrisi’s inveterate enemy, the imam of Yemen. Some 400,000 people are believed to have been killed in the course of this conflict.
The Saudi annexation was followed by an invasion of religious clerics who imposed their narrow Salafist practices on Asiri society. Asiri males were known as the “flower men” from the flowers they wore in their hair (an indication perhaps of their status as cultivators rather than nomads). Even their turbans were adorned with flowers, grasses, and stones. Asiri women were clothed in spectacular explosions of color, their headdresses glittering with coins and jewelry. The Saudi clerics forced young males to remove their “un-Islamic” locks and headgear as well as the traditional daggers that symbolized their masculinity. The women were obliged to adopt the niqab (full facial veil) in place of the traditional headscarf.
In short, says Ahmed, while Western countries were appeasing the Saudis in order to secure their oil supplies, the Saudis were systematically destroying the Yemeni-Asiri culture. During the 1960s this process was exacerbated by the civil war that brought into Yemen 70,000 Egyptian troops who used poison gas alongside conventional weapons. Represented in the West as a Spanish-style conflict between “progressive” republicans backed by Egypt and “reactionary” royalists supported by Saudi Arabia, the war was really a conflict between tribal systems that had been drawn into supporting different sides.
Ruthven’s essay may be read in its entirety here.
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The Guardian has an article with accompanying 9½-minute video on Qatar’s World Cup “slaves”: the migrant workers in that accidental country who are forced to work for no pay while building the stadia and other infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup, which Qatar was amazingly, incredibly chosen by FIFA to host. The Guardian has been on a tear on the issue over the past week, with one article asserting that “Qatar World Cup construction ‘will leave 4,000 migrant workers dead’,” and another asking “How many more must die for Qatar’s World Cup?” (See also the Qatar 2022 coverage in the excellent blog The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.)
Qatar may pledge to reform its migrant labor practices but it won’t. Just as it won’t end the Kafala system of tying foreign workers to employers, confiscating the former’s passports, and requiring exit visas (and which does not only concern manual laborers from poor countries; e.g. see the article in yesterday’s Libération on what it’s like to work for Qatar Airways). Qatar won’t change on this score—nor will other states of the Arabian peninsula—because the master-slave mentality is almost inscribed in its cultural DNA (see my previous blog posts on this theme here, here, and here). To expect Qataris—or Saudis, Emiratis, etc—to voluntarily change their ways on this—and in the absence of democracy, a civil society (and with independent trade unions), or anything even halfway resembling the rule of law—would be akin to politely asking an antebellum Mississippi plantation owner to free his slaves, pay them correctly, offer decent working conditions, etc. For this reason alone, FIFA needs to strip Qatar of the 2022 tournament and award it in extremis to a worthy country (if UEFA countries are eligible, England or Turkey; if not UEFA, Australia or the US).
What a batshit crazy decision to award the tournament to Qatar. It is clearly unreasonable to be playing sports in 50°C temperatures—air conditioned stadiums or not (and what happens when people are not in the stadium? where will the masses of fans spend their free time?)—and shifting the tournament to the winter will almost certainly not happen—regardless of what FIFA and UEFA are saying on this today—, as it will come in the middle of soccer season in Europe and conflict with the Winter Olympics. Qatar is simply unfit to be hosting the tournament. In addition to the labor issues and climate, the country only has one city worthy of the name—and which has no public life to speak of—, the distractions and amusements for the fans—notably bars and members of the opposite sex in abundance—will not be available (at least not in the quantities necessary for a month-long happening of this scale), and the prospects for cultural friction will be considerable (can one imagine the tens of thousands of rowdy, beer-swilling English, German, etc fans on the streets of Doha or Al Rayyan for three whole weeks—with nothing to do between matches and thus bored out of their minds—, and crossing paths with the hordes of Saudis who are certain to descend on the emirate for the event?). Forget it, Qatar just doesn’t have what it takes to be hosting the World Cup. Even Mongolia would be a better choice. The campaign to strip it of the tournament is apparently gaining steam in FIFA. Très bien.
UPDATE: Business Insider has a post on the “11 reasons why the Qatar World Cup is going to be a disaster.” One pertinent point about scheduling the tournament in the winter is that it will conflict with the final phase of the American football season, thereby dramatically reducing the level of interest in the US—a major FIFA growth market—and wreaking havoc with the television contract there. And a World Cup elimination match would almost certainly fall on Super Bowl Sunday. Just can’t see FIFA doing this. Or the Fox Broadcasting Company agreeing to it.
2nd UPDATE: It appears to be open season on Qatar this week, as the BBC website has a piece up on how “Qatar 2022 World Cup organisers [are] ‘appalled’ by work conditions.” They’re shocked, shocked!
3rd UPDATE: The Business Insider piece above links to an item about the possible price tag of Qatar 2022, which could be as high as $220 billion. Even if it’s only half that—though one supposes it will likely be far more—, this is, objectively speaking, an obscene amount of money to be spending on a one-month sporting event. One may easily come up with a list of more socially, economically, and humanly useful ways such a sum could be spent. All the stadiums and related infrastructure built for the event will give a new dimension to the term “white elephant.” This has long been a problem for major international sports events—particularly the Olympics—and looks to be a big one for Brazil next year (e.g. see the NYT article earlier this week on the stadium under construction in Manaus and, more generally, the social movement in that country against the diversion of economic resources that hosting the event necessitates). The fact is, the World Cup and Olympics tend not to be a good economic deal for the hosting country—when a not downright bad one (e.g. Montreal 1976, Athens 2004)—, and particularly if that country is not among the world’s richest. Now Qatar may be flush but it is simply unconscionable to be blowing that kind of cash building sports stadiums and gleaming infrastructure that will eventually be swallowed up in the sand.
Hugh Roberts has an excellent review essay in the latest LRB on four books on the “Arab spring” in Egypt. It’s one of the best analyses I’ve read on what’s happened in that country over the past three years. I was going to have some money quotes with commentary but will pass on that. Just read the whole thing. You won’t regret it.
UPDATE: Eills Goldberg, who’s one of the better political science MENA specialists around, has a lengthy analysis on his blog comparing the coups in Egypt (2013) and Chile (1973). (September 19)
The rebel/Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaida linked) takeover of Maaloula last week and effort by the Syrian army to take it back have been getting a lot of coverage (e.g. NY Times here, Patrick Cockburn in The Independent here, WaPo here). If one doesn’t know it, Maaloula is the mainly Christian (Melkite Greek Catholic and Antiochian Greek Orthodox) town some 50 km north of Damascus where Aramaic is spoken, one of only three such localities in the world left (all in that corner of Syria). What a goddamned tragedy. If Maaloula is seriously damaged or destroyed, it will be yet another crime against humanity—against the historical patrimony of the world—in that country (e.g. see the video here). I visited Maaloula in May 2010, with a former student/now friend in Damascus named Souraya, her mother, and a family friend of theirs from Maaloula (and native Aramaic speaker). As it happens, I saw Souraya just the other day, for the first time since that Syria trip, as she is now in Paris. Life in Damascus—where she’s lived all her life except for a few years of higher education in Paris—had become too difficult (she was working for a large Western corporation that closed its offices there; in terms of her politics, she is an uncompromising supporter of the regime). Following events in Syria by the minute (via numerous iPhone apps), she told me that the entire Christian population of Maaloula fled the town when it was invested by the rebels, mainly to Damascus (including the family friend of hers whom I met). The Sunni residents of Maaloula behaved poorly toward their Christian neighbors when the rebels arrived, so Souraya informed me, though the nearby Sunni village of Ayn al-Tina gave the fleeing Christians refuge. So we’re not talking about a black-and-white sectarian conflict here.
Here are some photos I took of Maaloula during my visit there, on May 25 2010.
Above: Heading out from Damascus.
Above: The footpath to the church and monastery on the other side of the mountain.
Alain Frachon, éditorialiste et chroniqueur du Monde, a eu une bonne analyse il y a dix jours de la puissance américaine—ou plutôt, de son absence—dans le Moyen Orient. Un passage clé
Barack Obama, le contraire d’un homme à la gâchette facile, s’apprête à sanctionner par la force l’emploi de l’arme chimique en Syrie. Au Proche-Orient, l’épisode renforcera dans leurs convictions tous ceux – ils sont nombreux – qui diabolisent l’Amérique : quoi qu’il arrive, coupable de tous les malheurs de la région !
Elle tirerait les fils des tragédies en cours. Cheftaine du monde occidental, elle manipulerait, corromprait, intimiderait ou séduirait les uns et les autres avec toujours le même sinistre et noir désir : priver les Arabes de la maîtrise de leur destin.
L’Amérique en éternelle puissance suzeraine du Proche-Orient ? C’est un mythe, une légende. Mais ils sont plus partagés que jamais.
Exemples. La presse du Caire accuse les Etats-Unis d’avoir propulsé les Frères musulmans au pouvoir pour mieux asservir l’Egypte – les éditorialistes ne précisent pas comment. La propagande de Damas affirme que Bachar Al-Assad est victime d’un complot américano-israélo-djihadiste – Washington, Al-Qaida et Israël coalisés pour en finir avec le seul régime qui tienne tête aux Occidentaux. Sur le Net, une rumeur incrimine l’hypocrisie prétendue de Barack Obama : le président américain, voyez-vous, n’attendait qu’un prétexte, celui de l’attaque chimique du 21 août, pour intervenir en Syrie…
La légende de la surpuissance des Etats-Unis – et de son président – ne s’embarrasse pas des faits. Elle les ignore. Elle est l’une des formes d’une maladie que l’Organisation mondiale de la santé (OMS) a oublié de traiter dans la région : la “complotite”.
La complotite : un dérangement psychologique, voire une maladie mentale. Je l’ai dit depuis longtemps.
Un passage sur l’Egypte
De même que la capacité des Etats-Unis à exercer une influence sur la situation en Egypte s’est avérée largement “surestimée”. A plusieurs reprises, les Américains ont mis en garde Mohamed Morsi contre sa dérive autoritaire, sectaire et suicidaire. Sans succès. Passé le coup d’Etat du 3 juillet, ils ont supplié le nouveau “patron” de l’Egypte, le général Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi, de ne pas aller à l’affrontement avec les Frères musulmans. Là encore, sans le moindre succès.
Aucune des pressions exercées par Washington n’a intimidé les généraux égyptiens. Pas même la menace esquissée, et restée en suspens, d’une interruption de l’aide militaire de 1,3 milliard de dollars accordée chaque année au Caire depuis 1979.
Le texte entier de la chronique se trouve ici.
A US intervention, that is. If it indeed happens, which is now looking uncertain in view of the current vote count in Congress. On verra. But if it does happen, what will be the reaction in the Arab world? On this, Marc Lynch has an important article in FP. Money quote
Despite the intense efforts by these Gulf states [Saudi Arabia, UAE] over the past two years to build public support for the Syrian opposition, Arab public opinion remains sharply divided over what to do about Syria and broadly hostile to American military intervention regardless of views on other issues. The one thing which seems to unite this fragmented and intensely divided Arab public is a rejection of American meddling. Forgetting Iraq may be one of the 10 Beltway Commandments, but Arabs have not agreed to move on. Arab leaders may harp on American “credibility” and the costs of not acting, but those sentiments likely do not extend far beyond regime circles. It is exceedingly difficult to find any trust in American intentions or positive views of America’s role in the region — and hard to imagine how U.S. military strikes would change those views for the better. As former Al Jazeera boss (and strong supporter of NATO’s Libya intervention) Wadah Khanfar put it, “this strong desire to eradicate the regime will never be translated into support for American military intervention.”
One may object that there was practically no opposition on the “Arab street” to the intervention in Libya, though to which one may counter that Libya was an exception in view of the universal hatred of Qadhafi across the Arab world, by regimes and peoples alike. And the Libya intervention had a clear—if not explicitly stated—objective and by which success could be measured—regime change—, and that could be accomplished by physically terminating the ra’is. Syria is different, obviously, as regime change is not the US goal—and could not be achieved even if it were—and the probability of a successful intervention, however “success” is defined, is minimal at best. And the US, which is already in a minority internationally on the question, is sure to be vilified ever more in the Arab world. So an eventual Syria intervention really is looking like a fool’s errand.
And then there’s the attitude of the US military, which will carry out the eventual intervention bien entendu. On this, Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major-general and former commandant of the U.S. Army War College, has an op-ed in WaPo, “A war the Pentagon doesn’t want.”
Also worth reading in WaPo is a post by Max Fisher on “A terrorism expert’s Twitter rant about how we get Syrian rebels all wrong.” The expert, who is no dummy, is Charles Lister, head Middle East analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre. His bottom line: Syria is “immensely complex” and one must not forget this.
Columbia University’s Richard Betts has an article on the Foreign Affairs website—its most viewed at the moment—on “Pick[ing] your poison: America has many options in Syria, none are good.”
Continuing his campaign for a US intervention, Hussein Ibish has written an “Open letter to Congress on Syria,” in which he argues that “US credibility, not only in the Middle East, but globally, requires military action in Syria.” Peut-être.
Finally, I must link to this tribune in Le Monde of a week ago by the great Syrian intellectual Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, “Il faut une bonne fois pour toutes mettre fin à la dynastie Al-Assad en Syrie.” To my knowledge, al-Azm has never been exiled from Syria. Until now. With views like this, he probably won’t be going home anytime soon.
UPDATE: Marc Lynch posted on FP the other day “A Syria reading list,” offering “a selection of some of the most useful books [emphasis his] for making sense of what’s happening in Syria now and what might be coming.” Very useful. Lynch writes that
The very best book for all this is probably Patrick Seale’s sadly out of print The Struggle for Syria: a definitive, highly readable account of an earlier era of regional proxy wars over Syria. I’m shocked that it doesn’t seem to be available at an affordable price, but get your hands on it if you can.
I entirely agree. It’s a great book. I’ve read it twice—and touted it in a post last year.
That’s what Patrick Cockburn says it is, in an absolute must read piece in The Independent. The lede: “History teaches us that limited Western intervention can only inflame this complex war and will do nothing to bring peace.”
In a somewhat similar vein, Ignace Leverrier, in a post on his “Un œil sur la Syrie” blog on Le Monde’s website, says “Non aux frappes symboliques et de bonne conscience. Oui aux frappes utiles en Syrie.” Pour l’info, Ignace Leverrier is the nom de plume of a French ex-diplomat with extensive experience in the Arab world (and who is an arabisant).
Also en français, geopolitical commentator Bernard Guetta—whom I like, even if I don’t have to agree with him 100% of the time—informed his France Inter audience this morning (which included me) that “La messe syrienne n’est pas forcément dite.”
And if one didn’t see it, Vali Nasr had an op-ed in yesterday’s NYT—and with which Bernard Guetta would certainly agree—on “Forcing Obama’s hand in Syria.”
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Paris-based grand reporter Christopher Dickey has an “Open letter to President Obama” in TDB that has been making the rounds (on my FB timeline and email inbox), in which he cautions the president that “Syria is not our war.” The lede: “Assad has learned from history that what doesn’t kill him will make him stronger. President Obama, you need to understand that lesson too.” Dickey then enumerates the many US military interventions—limited and not—that have ended in fiasco or engendered perverse consequences, though covers his rear in acknowledging the few that have yielded positive results (e.g. Bosnia, Kosovo), but which he says were exceptions to the rule. There’s a certain amount of fallacious reasoning here, as the fact that Lebanon 1982-84, Libya 1986 etc etc didn’t work out as the US had intended does not ipso facto mean that such will be the case in Syria next week (or even later today, who knows). Every case is specific. There is no hard and fast rule. Iraq 1991 and Afghanistan 2001—”good” interventions in my book—were not Iraq 2003 (bad). And the West militarily intervening in Syria in 2011-12 (bad idea, I insisted) was not the same as Libya 2011 or Mali 2013 (good). And the latter two have worked out okay so far (oh, of course Libya is still a mess—how could it not be?—but the psychotic Qadhafi regime is gone, and for that alone the intervention was worth it).
But Syria 2013 may be different from 2011-12. I don’t know. I’ve been totally opposed to intervening there—and this is at least the 337th time I’ve said it—but, as I argued two days ago, the latest chemical attack may have changed the equation, that now something may have to be done, though I have no idea what that something should be. It has become tedious and boring to say that there are no good options in Syria and that a Western military strike—which will necessarily be limited—may not only not work but make things worse (not to mention go horribly wrong, by accidentally killing a lot of civilians). But the argument of Bernard Guetta (to which I linked on Thursday) and others that the costs of inaction may now outweigh those of a limited military strike—and with all its risks and uncertainties—is not one I can dismiss.
In regard to an eventual intervention, there are three issues that need to be laid to rest. One has to do with international law. David Rieff in TNR the other day asserted that a US intervention, in the absence of a UNSC resolution, would be “illegal.” Legality, shmegality. Or, to borrow from David Ben Gurion, um-shmum! Seriously, who gives a caca about the United Nations Security Council?! It is, of course, nice to have the green light from the UNSC when intervening militarily somewhere—to have the benediction of the “international community” (i.e. to have Russia and China in one’s corner)—but it hardly matters one way or the other, in that no state is going to forswear military intervention outside its borders in the face of a UNSC veto, nor will there be any legal consequences for that state if it does what it does against the wishes of the UNSC. And does anyone (in America or Europe) seriously argue that the US (and France etc) should have its action thwarted by a Russian or Chinese veto?
Secondly, on US congressional approval. I’m not going to get into a legalistic-type argument here—and US law, unlike international, is an important consideration for a president—except to assert that a president should not need prior congressional authorization for a limited military operation somewhere, particularly if it doesn’t involve ground forces. Generally speaking, Congress—or parliament elsewhere—should be consulted if the US (or UK, France, etc) plans a limited operation but must not have a veto (as was the case in the British House of Commons yesterday). On this matter—of foreign policy—, I am a longtime believer in the supremacy of the executive over the legislative.
For more on these issues, see U of Chicago Law School prof Eric Posner’s piece in Slate, “The U.S. has no legal basis to intervene in Syria: But of course that won’t stop us.” And on the British vote, see Alex Massie’s commentary in The Spectator, “On Syria, parliament has voted to have no policy at all.”
Thirdly, the question of public opinion. Those arguing against an intervention in Syria have been citing polls showing large majorities of Americans opposed to the idea. Likewise in France and the UK. It’s only normal that public opinion would be reticent on this score (there is no rhyme or reason for any middle American or citoyen lambda in France to favor bombing Syria). But presidents (or prime ministers) cannot be guided by polls when making such decisions. And while the public in its majority may have the right instincts on military interventions, it doesn’t always (e.g. polls in 2003-04 showed majorities supporting the Bush administration’s action in Iraq). A president (or PM) has to do what he thinks in the national interest, not what some polls tells him.
UPDATE: Fred Kaplan at Slate weighs in on “Obama’s gamble,” arguing that his “seeking congressional approval for his Syria strike was risky and right.”
2nd UPDATE: David Rothkopf at FP has an analysis—which I do not necessarily share in its entirety—of “The gamble,” in which he enumerates the “five big consequences of the president’s call to let Congress decide about America’s Syrian intervention.”
3rd UPDATE: On the French position, Hubert Védrine has a must read interview in the JDD, in which he asserts, entre autres, that “La pire des solutions à ce stade serait d’adresser un signal d’impunité au régime syrien, mais aussi à d’autres puissances et d’autres groupes dangereux.”
4th UPDATE: For more on the French position, see Yochi Dreazen’s piece in FP, “Paris Match,” in which he describes “how France became America’s favorite—and sometimes only—shooting buddy.”
5th UPDATE: Steven A. Cook, whose analyses I respect, has an op-ed in WaPo explaining why he no longer supports intervention in Syria.
And specifically to Western leftists. Beirut-based blogger Sean Lee—who was unknown to me until today—has a terrific, must read “open letter on Syria to Western narcissists” on his blog, The Human Province. No quotes, just read the whole thing (it’s not long). And particularly if you are a Western (or non-Western) leftist. Or even a non-leftist (Western or non).
It looks like it’s going to happen. Some kind of Western military intervention seems imminent. I have been resolutely opposed to the idea from the outset, though suppose they (the US-UK-France) now have to do something following the latest chemical attack. Bernard Guetta made the case in his commentary this morning on France Inter, “Pourquoi l’inaction ne serait pas une option en Syrie.” He makes four points: if the West does not launch some kind of military action now, the Syrian regime will interpret the inaction as a green light to employ CWs with impunity, the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra & Co will be reinforced in the face of Western passivity, the Iranian regime will lose all fear of the US and accelerate its nuclear program, and Vladimir Putin will feel vindicated in his dissing of Obama and the Europeans, and likely up the ante as a consequence.
Good points. Monsieur Guetta is likely correct. But I’m still thinking of Edward Luttwak’s op-ed in the Sunday NYT, “In Syria, America loses if either side wins,” in which he argues that American policy should be to continue the stalemate in Syria. Money quote
This strategy actually approximates the Obama administration’s policy so far. Those who condemn the president’s prudent restraint as cynical passivity must come clean with the only possible alternative: a full-scale American invasion to defeat both Mr. Assad and the extremists fighting against his regime. That could lead to a Syria under American occupation. And very few Americans today are likely to support another costly military adventure in the Middle East. A decisive move in any direction would endanger America; at this stage, stalemate is the only viable policy option left.
If/when Obama launches an attack, it will likely be in pursuit of this strategy: to send Bashar al-Assad a message by hitting him hard for a few days—as Bill Clinton did in Iraq in 1998—but not degrading the Syrian army enough to dramatically shift the balance to the Islamist-dominated armed opposition.
Will surgical strikes work? As reported in FP, “a former U.S. Navy planner responsible for outlining an influential and highly detailed proposal for surgical strikes…has serious misgivings about the plan”… Oh well.
On the dilemmas of what the US should do, George Packer has a great piece in The New Yorker, “Two minds on Syria,” that absolutely nails it.
So what should the objective in Syria be? Patrick Cockburn in The Independent says that “Only a peace conference, not air strikes, can stop further bloodshed.” I’m dubious that such is possible but hope that Cockburn’s plan will ultimately be pursued.
For his part, CUNY poli sci prof Rajan Menon, in a National Interest piece from April that’s back up on its website, offers his ideas of “How to end the war in Syria.”
And Hussein Ibish, whose views on MENA I invariably share—though not 100% always—, argues, in an essay in NOW, that America should “Go strategic in Syria.”
In a useful commentary on the European Council on Foreign Relations website, Anthony Dworkin et al of the ECFR enumerate and examine “Eight things to consider before intervening in Syria.”
Back to the question of CWs, Le Monde has translated into English its headline reportage of three months ago, “Chemical warfare in Syria.” À propos, Foreign Affairs has republished a commentary from April by Ohio State political scientist John Mueller, that carries the unfortunate title “Erase the red line: Why we shouldn’t care about Syria’s chemical weapons.” As the piece won’t be freely accessible on FA’s website forever, here it is
The rebels in Syria could be excused for wondering what U.S. policy toward them might be. At times, President Barack Obama has implied that the United States can’t do much to help them because none of them has been gassed. By threatening “enormous consequences” should the Syrian regime use chemical weapons, he seemed to be saying that the first chemical attack would bring the Americans running in, guns blazing. Although understandable, that is likely to be a substantial misreading of the message coming out Washington.
The notion that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets or shrapnel came out of World War I, in which chemical weapons, introduced by the Germans in 1915, were used extensively. The British emphasized the weapons’ inhumane aspects as part of their ongoing program to entice the United States into taking their side in the war. It is estimated that the British quintupled their gas casualty figures from the first German attack for dramatic effect.
As it happened, chemical weapons accounted for considerably less than one percent of the battle deaths in the war, and, on average, it took over a ton of gas to produce a single fatality. Only about two or three percent of those gassed on the Western front died. By contrast, wounds from a traditional weapon proved 10 to 12 times more likely to be fatal. After the war, some military analysts such as Basil Liddell Hart came to believe that chemical warfare was comparatively humane — these weapons could incapacitate troops without killing many.
But that view lost out to the one that the British propagandists had put forward — that chemical weapons were uniquely horrible and must, therefore, be banned. For the most part, the militaries of the combatant nations were quite happy to get rid of the weapons. As the official British history of the war concludes (in a footnote), gas “made war uncomfortable … to no purpose.”
To be sure, some armies occasionally still saw a purpose. Iraq made extensive use of chemical weapons in its 1980-88 war against Iran (to little outside protest). Their effectiveness in killing in that conflict remains a matter of some controversy. According to Iranian reports, of the 27,000 Iranians gassed through March 1987, only 262 died.
Other episodes in that war — in particular, Baghdad’s chemical attack on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 — have been held up as examples of the extensive destructive potential of chemical weapons. It is commonly contended that 5,000 people died as a result of the gas attacks. But the siege on the city took place over several days and involved explosive munitions as well. Moreover, journalists who were taken to the town shortly after the attack report that they saw at most “hundreds” of bodies. Although some of them report the 5,000 figure, this number is consistently identified as coming from Iranian authorities, an important qualification that was often lost in later accounts. The Iranians apparently also asserted that an additional 5,000 were wounded by the chemical weapons, even though experience suggests that any attack that killed 5,000 would have injured vastly more than that. Iraqi forces also used chemical weapons on other towns in the area. In two of these attacks, the most extreme reports maintain that 300 or 400 might have been killed. According to all other estimates, under 100 died. And most of those accounts figure that the death toll was under 20.
Back in the West, as the Cold War came to an end, the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” was coming into vogue. Earlier, the term had generally been taken as a dramatic synonym for nuclear weapons or weapons of similar destructive capacity that might be developed in the future. In 1992, however, the phrase was explicitly codified into American law and was determined to include not only nuclear weapons but chemical and biological ones as well. Then, in 1994, radiological weapons were added to the list. (The 1994 rendering also brought explosives into the mix. As a result, under this law almost all weapons apart from modern rifles and pistols are considered weapons of mass destruction: Revolutionary War muskets, Francis Scott Key’s bombs bursting in air, and potato guns would all qualify.)
A single nuclear weapon can indeed inflict massive destruction; a single chemical weapon cannot. For chemical weapons to cause extensive damage, many of them must be used — just like conventional weapons. As a presidential advisory panel noted in 1999, it would take a full ton of sarin gas released under favorable weather conditions for the destructive effects to become distinctly greater than those that could be achieved with conventional explosives.
The muddling of the concept of weapons of mass destruction played a major role in the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq. That campaign was mainly justified as a way to keep Saddam Hussein from obtaining uniquely destructive weapons. At least in the first instance, this meant chemical weapons, which Iraq had already shown itself capable of developing. Initial support for that war was impelled by the WMD confusion, and many analysts fear that alarm about chemical weapons could lead the United States into another disaster in Syria if they become the game changer that the Obama administration has proclaimed them to be.
Those fears are probably misplaced. The Iraq War, like the war in Afghanistan, was a response to 9/11. In the decade before those two wars, U.S. policy toward conflicts around the world had been primarily humanitarian. The United States did get involved sometimes, but rarely showed a willingness to sacrifice American lives in the process. Policy, then, was a combination of vast proclamation and half-vast execution. In Bosnia and Haiti, for example, intervention on the ground was held off until hostilities had ceased. Bombs, but no boots, were sent to Kosovo, and in Somalia the United States withdrew its troops as soon as 19 soldiers died in a firefight.
Although 9/11 disrupted that pattern, in its wake the United States has returned to limiting its involvement in conflicts around the world. Overall, we have not really witnessed the rise of a new militarism in the last couple of decades, as some analysts have suggested. The intervention in Libya was strained and hesitant, and Washington has showed little willingness to do much of anything about the conflict in neighboring Mali that was spawned by the Libyan venture. It seems unlikely, then, that chemical weapons in Syria — however repugnant they may be taken to be — will notably change that basic game.
Aliaa, the nude revolutionary. This is a 52-minute reportage (en français; regardez ici) I watched on LCP (French C-SPAN) this evening on Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, the courageous—or maybe imprudent or reckless, depending on one’s perspective—Egyptian university student and blogger, who famously posed nude for her blog in October 2011, to make a statement about freedom and the status of women in her country. I’m not sure if her method was the right one but can only admire her attitude and spirit—and which is certainly more admirable than that of certain secular Egyptian intellectuals these days. It was pretty clear when she posted her pics that her days in Egypt were numbered and, sure enough, she is now living in Sweden, where she enjoys refugee status. It’s doubtful she’ll be going back to Cairo anytime soon. Triste Égypte.
I’ve had only one post on Egypt of late, exactly a month ago, though which does not signify that I haven’t been following events there closely. I’ve read numerous good articles and analyses on the place over the past several weeks and have intended to post some of them, but haven’t gotten around to it. And now some of what I would have put up has gotten a little old. Let me post just one piece here, which I read today and think is particularly on target: “The great collision: Egypt’s descent into chaos,” by Rueul Marc Gerecht, in the August 5th issue of TWS.
Some have been comparing what’s happening in Egypt right now with Algeria in 1992. I have something to say about this. Will try to write on it soon, inshallah.
This film opened in New York City yesterday, so I read. I saw it a couple of months ago here in Paris. I’ve never seen a documentary like it (well, actually I have; see below). I was floored by it. It left me speechless. It’s about what happened in Indonesia in 1965-66, after the overthrow of Sukarno, when 500,000 to one million members and supporters of the Indonesian communist party—who were mainly ethnic Chinese—were massacred by the (US-backed) regime of General Suharto. Like any geopolitically knowledgeable person I of course knew about the massacres and their scale but not the details, of how they were carried out or of their historical memory in Indonesia. After seeing the documentary, one knows all about it and then some. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer spent two years in Medan—the largest city in Sumatra—, interviewing and filming some of the perpetrators of the massacres there: local criminals and thugs who were recruited into the regime’s paramilitary youth organization, Pemuda Pancasila. The men, who are getting up there in age, regret nothing. Au contraire, they’re proud of what they did. They willingly—almost gleefully—talked of how they went about selecting the victims and then tortured and executed them (mainly by strangulation and demonstrating the method, which looks efficient indeed; a fine way to save on ammunition, and with no blood). They had great fun speaking about and playacting their deeds. No shame. And their reputations are well-known, not only locally but nationally. They’re tied in with government officials, even ministers, as the film shows, and with their actions in 1965-66 given positive recognition, recounted on television talk shows, etc. As one journalist observed (not in the film), it’s as if Hitler and his accomplices had survived and then gotten together fifty years later to act out their favorite scenes of the Holocaust before a movie camera, and were celebrated in Germany today. As for families of the victims, they maintain a low profile. No demands for justice or retribution, as they know what would likely happen to them were they to make an issue of it.
That’s as much as I’ll say about the film, which absolutely has to be seen to be believed. For more, see this very good essay on the NYR Blog by Francine Prose, “Indonesia’s happy killers.” And for those who read French, there’s this lengthy and informative interview with Joshua Oppenheimer on the Allociné website. The film’s website is here.
Seeing the film reminded me of a similar one that I saw in 2006, ‘Massaker’, by German filmmaker Monika Borgmann and (her Lebanese husband) Lokman Slim, on the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. The documentary consisted of interviews with six former militiamen in the Lebanese Forces, now in their 40s, who participated in the massacre. The men were interviewed separately, indoors, and from the torso down—i.e. no faces, as they feared retribution if their identities were known. Of the six, only one expressed even an inkling of regret for what he did. They all spoke in matter-of-fact detail and without remorse of the killing they perpetrated over those three days in September ’82—of babies, children, women, elderly people—, of women they gang raped before murdering, and other such acts. Listening to their accents (in dialectical Arabic, which I won’t say I understood too well), it was clear they’re of modest social origins, probably from villages in Mount Lebanon. It was a bone-chilling documentary—and which hardly anyone saw (and no one I know), as it didn’t receive the same attention as ‘The Act of Killing’ presently is. A few of the Paris critics reacted negatively to the film, calling it voyeuristic and amoral. I ignored them. As with ‘The Act of Killing’, it is an important document, as it shows something about the behavior of human beings which, given the right conditions and circumstances, could happen anywhere.
UPDATE: TNR has an article (July 29th) on “The making of a surprise hit documentary about genocide: Joshua Oppenheimer on ‘The Act of Killing’.” And the July-August issue of Film Comment has an interview with Oppenheimer.
2nd UPDATE: Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch, has an op-ed—well worth reading—in the NYT on “Indonesia and the act of forgetting.” (February 28, 2014)
3rd UPDATE: The NYT has an article on how the “‘Act of Killing’ film fails to stir Indonesia.” (March 2, 2014)
[update below] [2nd update below]
I’ve been closely following events in Egypt since the weekend and, with the army’s destitution of Morsi last night, reading as many instant analyses as I can. In view of the limited time I can devote to this—I can’t be on all fronts—, I am privileging those by academic specialists of Egypt—and political scientists in particular—, all of whom I know personally, professionally, or by reputation. Most are prudently analyzing the situation and underscoring the grave situation Egypt finds itself in—and in every possible domain—and that could well degenerate. Here are some recommended articles (by people who are smart and knowledgeable, and whose views on this I trust).
One sharp analysis I just read—and with an on target assessment of US policy—is by Marc Lynch in FP, “Downfall in Cairo.” The lede: “Morsy is out. The military is in. But it doesn’t look good for anyone.”
Nathan Brown has a typically first-rate commentary in TNR, “Where does the Muslim Brotherhood go from here? Reckoning with Morsi’s failure.” He also had another piece yesterday, this in Foreign Affairs, “Redoing the Egyptian Revolution: How to get the transition right this time.”
Also in Foreign Affairs is a must read ‘letter from Cairo’ (datelined Sunday) by Ashraf Khalil (a journalist), “The irony of Tahrir Square.”
Another essential piece in Foreign Affairs, dated June 27th, is by Mara Revkin, a Yale law school student currently interning at Human Rights Watch’s Cairo office, “The Egyptian state unravels.” The lede: “Meet the gangs and vigilantes who thrive under Morsi.” The dramatically rising level of insecurity and criminality in Egypt has been one big factor in the popular rage against the government (and which was underscored this morning by Gilles Kepel on France Inter).
As for Human Rights Watch, see its latest statement, “Egypt: Judge government on respect for people’s rights.”
If one didn’t see it, Samer Shehata wrote, in an NYT op-ed yesterday, of the dilemma the political crisis in Egypt is posing for many political science types (myself included) and intellos, “In Egypt, democrats vs. liberals.”
On this question, I highly recommend Joshua Keating’s FP post yesterday, “Can a coup ever be democratic?,” in which he discusses an important article (that was unbeknownst to me) by law professor Ozan Varol in the Harvard International Law Journal.
I await the instant analyses of other specialists (including a couple of friends), that I will post illico when they’re up, inshallah.
UPDATE: Annie in the thread below has linked to a very good commentary on what’s happening in Egypt, “On Sheep and Infidels.” by Sarah Carr, a half-Egyptian blogger in Cairo (and whose blog, Inanities, is on the blogroll to the right). I was going to post it separately but Annie beat me to it. (July 9)
2nd UPDATE: Hussein Ibish has an excellent, spot on commentary in NOW, “How NOT to write about Egypt,” in which he makes waste of certain pundits and talking heads—e.g. David Brooks and Noah Feldman—who have had particularly inane columns and op-eds on Egypt over the past week. (July 9)
Le Monde’s Culture & Idées supplement dated May 25th has a very interesting interview with Syria specialist Souhaïl Belhadj, who is the author of a new book on the Ba’athist regime. Belhadj offers one of the more interesting analyses I’ve read lately of the Syrian civil war. Bottom line: the regime is resilient and not likely to collapse anytime soon. Voilà the full text
Depuis le déclenchement de la révolution syrienne, en mars 2011, la focalisation des médias sur les acteurs de l’insurrection et les difficultés rencontrées par les journalistes pour se rendre à Damas ont relégué l’étude du régime au second plan. La publication de La Syrie de Bachar Al-Assad. Anatomie d’un régime autoritaire (Belin, 464 p., 25 €), un ouvrage de Souhaïl Belhadj, 37 ans, docteur de l’Institut d’études politiques de Paris, arrive donc à point nommé. L’auteur, qui a séjourné en Syrie de 2003 à 2011, propose une analyse du pouvoir syrien, qui se démarque (more…)
Patrick Cockburn has a must read piece on the LRB website on the war in Syria and its threat to the Middle East. This is one of the best analyses I’ve read on the subject. The bottom line: neither the regime nor the opposition can win. And the war there is not going to end anytime soon.
BTW—and contrary to popular belief—, the Sykes-Picot agreement—which is in the title of Cockburn’s article—was never implemented (at least not as intended by Sykes and Picot).