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Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category

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Adam Shatz, contributing editor at the London Review of Books and visiting professor at the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University—and dear personal friend—, has a must read essay/personal reflection in the latest issue of The Nation (dated August 4th) inspired by his fifteen-odd years of reporting on the Middle East and North Africa. The essay is a revised version of the Hilda B. Silverman Memorial Lecture, at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, that Adam gave this past May, and which he fraternally sent me for comments beforehand. It’s typically excellent. As for watching the lecture—as the above image indicates one may do—this will apparently be possible sometime this fall.

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In my post of three days ago on the Iraq catastrophe, I made two simple comments/assertions. I want to make a third: ISIS won’t attack Baghdad, let alone take the city, and certainly not Najaf or Karbala. They may be crazy but they’re not that crazy. A fourth comment/assertion tant que j’y suis: In the hypothetical event that ISIS does pose a serious threat to Baghdad or to Iraq’s oil sector, the US will intervene—with bombers, drones, even some troops. The pressure on Obama to do so will be overwhelming—and there is no way that he will sit by while all of Iraq becomes a mega-terrorist state. Point barre.

Here are some worthy articles I’ve read over the past few days:

On a website called PandoDaily, the self-styled “war nerd” Gary Brecher—which may or may not be a nom de plume—has an interesting and original analysis (June 16th) telling you “everything you need to know about ‘too extreme for Al Qaeda’ I.S.I.S.” (h/t Dwayne W.).

Iraqi sociologist Sami Ramadani, who lectures at London Metropolitan University—and was a refugee from the Saddam Hussein regime—, has a fine and salutary tribune (June 16th) in The Guardian on “The sectarian myth of Iraq.” The lede: We coexisted peacefully for centuries, and need neither brutal dictators nor western intervention.

Scott Long, who has worked on human rights in MENA for many years—and notably on LGBT issues for Human Rights Watch—has a post (June 16th) on his blog on “ISIS in Iraq: Real atrocities and easy fantasies” (h/t Adam S.).

Posting on The New Yorker website (June 17th), Lawrence Wright examines “ISIS’s savage strategy in Iraq.”

Writing in Foreign Policy, Aaron David Miller has a spot on analysis (June 16th) in which he asks “Who lost Iraq?” The lede: That depends on whether you ever thought it could be won.

Also writing in Foreign Policy (June 17th), Georgetown University doctoral student Nick Danforth correctly informs the reader that “There is no al-Sham.” The lede: Militants in Iraq and Syria are trying to re-create a nation that never existed.

In his piece Danforth links to an article he wrote for The Atlantic last September, in which he very correctly tells people to “Stop blaming colonial borders for the Middle East’s problems.” The lede for that one: Plenty of other countries have “artificially drawn” borders and aren’t fighting. Here’s the real problem with Europe’s legacy in the region.

À suivre.

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A total disaster. I don’t even know how to think about it. The core states of the Arab world—Iraq, Syria, Egypt—are swirling down the drain. Imploding. And there’s not much outside powers can do about it. Just two comments. First, however the wars in Iraq and Syria play out there will not be a redrawing of borders or a formal breakup of those states. It won’t happen. Sykes-Picot is not dead. On this, I entirely agree with Gregory Gause’s post last month on the Monkey Cage blog. Second, I have zero tolerance for bloviators in the US who are using the Iraq catastrophe as a club to bash the Obama administration and its policy toward the region. Let it be clear: Obama’s Middle East policy can in no way be held responsible for what’s happening in Iraq. Or in Syria. If one wants to play the blame game, one needs to go back to those who committed the original sin in Iraq in 2003. On this, The New Yorker’s John Cassidy got it exactly right in a post on Friday, “The Iraq mess: Place blame where it is deserved.” Money quote

If Prime Minister Maliki, whom the United States eventually settled on as its favored Iraqi leader, had made a serious effort to reach out to the Sunnis and the Kurds, rather than acting like a sectarian ward heeler, the departure of U.S. forces might not have created the political stalemate and institutional power vacuum that the jihadis, first in Anbar Province and now in Nineveh and Saladin, have exploited.

None of these things happened, but the greatest mistake was the initial one. In invading Iraq and toppling Saddam, the Bush Administration opened Pandora’s Box. Given what has happened since 2003, it is almost comical to read the prewar prognostications of the neocons and paleocons for what would happen after Saddam was gone. There was talk of turning Iraq into a democratic model for other Middle Eastern countries—making it another Turkey, or even a Jordan, with a Hashemite restoration. Today it is faced with the prospect of a bloody dismemberment into three sectarian mini-states: the Sunnis in the west and northwest; the Kurds in the northeast; and the Shiites in the center and the oil-rich south. (It’s unclear where Baghdad, a city divided along religious lines, fits into this picture.)

The irony is painfully acute. Eleven years ago, in response to a terrorist attack by a group of anti-American religious fanatics, the United States invaded an Arab country with hardly any jihadis, or very few of them, to overthrow a secular dictator. Today, with much blood and money having been spent, northern and western Iraq is full of jihadis, and the U.S. government is figuring out how to prevent them from overrunning the rest of the country.

Also in The New Yorker are commentaries by Dexter Filkins, “In extremists’ Iraq rise, America’s Legacy” (June 11th) and “Wider war” (June 23rd issue). See also Filkins’ April 28th Letter from Iraq: “What we left behind.” The lede: An increasingly authoritarian leader [Nuri al-Maliki], a return of sectarian violence, and a nation worried for its future.

Now Filkins does pin some responsibility on the Obama administration for the failure to conclude a status of forces agreement with the Iraqis in 2011. But in a piece in Politico (June 15th), Colin H. Kahl, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East during the first three years of the Obama administration, asserts that “No, Obama didn’t lose Iraq: What the president’s critics get wrong,” and in which he explains why a SOFA could not be negotiated with the Iraqis.

Other worthy pieces I’ve come across over the past few days:

Marc Lynch, writing in Monkey Cage, “How can the U.S. help Maliki when Maliki’s the problem?” (June 12th)

The FT’s David Gardner, “Iraq’s implosion reflects Syria’s lost national narrative” (June 13th). The lede: Maliki’s sectarianism and corruption has enabled itinerant gangs to claw their way back.

LSE professor Toby Dodge, writing in The Guardian (June 13th), “Iraq doesn’t have to fall apart: It can be reformed.” The lede: The advance of Isis is the result of terrible decisions made since 2003. Iraqis themselves must chart a new course if the state is to survive.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan, “After Mosul: If jihadists control Iraq, blame Nouri al-Maliki, not the United States” (June 11th).

À suivre. Évidemment.

MoS2 Template Master

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This is the latest film by Iraqi Kurdish/naturalized French director Hiner Saleem, who directed the well-regarded ‘Vodka Lemon‘—which I have yet to see—, ‘Kilomètre Zéro‘, and ‘Si tu meurs, je te tue‘—which I did see (both good). I greatly enjoyed this one. It’s a genre Western set in Iraqi Kurdistan in the aftermath of the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime. I’ll let Variety’s fine critic Jay Weissberg, who saw the pic at Cannes last year, describe it

The opening sequence shows off Saleem’s deliciously picaresque humor, as independent Kurdistan’s first legal hanging is derailed by faulty equipment. If the scene feels like a Western set in a flea-bitten Mexican border town, the comparison is apt, since the helmer plays with parallels emphasizing the rudimentary infrastructure of the newly autonomous nation and the entitlements of regional warlords. Reluctant policeman Baran (intense-eyed, charismatic Korkmaz Arslan) wants to give up the force, but a brief return home to mother convinces him he needs to get away.

Baran is transferred to a godforsaken settlement near the Turkish frontier, where smuggling is the accepted way of life. Local kingpin Aziz Aga (Tarik Akreyi) offers the lawman protection in exchange for looking the other way, but the upstanding Baran isn’t interested in dealmaking. While unsympathetic to the smugglers, he gives clandestine support to a team of female Kurdish freedom fighters trying to get medical supplies to needy comrades.

The romance angle comes courtesy of returning schoolteacher Govend (Golshifteh Farahani), back in town after convincing her family she’s not ready to be married off quite yet. Frozen out by local parents uninterested in having their kids educated, she’s also a target for Aziz Aga’s salacious crew, which looks to humiliate the independent woman. Baran comes to her defense and gets involved when word gets back to Govend’s father that his daughter is immoral.

The pic’s ungainly title is derived from “Pepper Land,” the name of the local saloon and the only gathering place in this one-horse town. For Saleem, telling his story in an oater format allows him to indulge in a fair amount of genre play along with the Western genre’s longstanding openness to upending gender stereotypes. Govend is the victim of a smear campaign, yet she’s also unwilling to forgo her independence — the joy of freedom beaming from her face while heading back to town and away from the family makes clear her self-confidence and unwillingness to compromise. Adding all-women freedom fighters furthers the femme-empowerment message.

Enjoyable storytelling and sympathetic performances run throughout the story, though for sheer laugh-out-loud absurdism, nothing beats the healthy self-mockery of the opener. A calculated sparseness in the setting acts as a unifying force, especially when scenes tend to have a self-contained feel that doesn’t always create a sense of flow. Visuals favor Sergio Leone-style closeups along with stunning landscapes featuring pink-tinged sunsets and ravines like Utah canyons, showcasing Kurdistan’s natural beauties. Music features a smile-inducing mix of tunes ranging from Elvis to Western twangs to rockabilly, tied together by the multitalented Farahani’s own playing on the steel hang.

Second degré absurdism underlies the whole film, e.g. “sheriff” Baran playing Bach and Elvis in his “one-horse” Kurdish village and the all-female detachment of Turkish Kurdish (obviously PKK) guerrillas. But the pic also takes on more serious themes, such as archaic codes of honor, patriarchy, and forced marriage, which is what the protag Govend resists. And, it should be said, the sublime Golshifteh Farahani is more beautiful than ever, rien à dire. Another theme: the determination of the intrepid, incorruptible Baran to impose the authority of the state and rule of law, here on the outlaw tribal potentate Aziz Aga. French reviews of the film are mostly tops (and particularly those of Allociné spectateurs), as is critic Deborah Young’s in The Hollywood Reporter. Trailer is here. So thumbs up to this one! À ne pas manquer.

While I’m at it, I should mention an Afghan film I saw last fall, ‘Wajma (An Afghan Love Story)’, directed by Barmak Akram, which also deals with patriarchy and archaic codes of honor, but not among tribespeople or villagers but in the educated, urban well-to-do class, here in contemporary Kabul. It’s a bleak, depressing film, and does not offer a very positive image of Afghan society—as I tweeted after seeing it—but is well done and may be seen. Hollywood reviews (good to mixed) are here, here, and here, French reviews (mostly tops) here, trailer is here.

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Patrick Seale R.I.P.

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He died yesterday. At 84, from brain cancer. Patrick Seale was one of the premier Middle East journalists of the past five decades. I was, as I wrote in a post exactly two years ago, a decades-long admirer of his work, despite his decades-long apologetics for the Syrian Ba’athist regime and disagreement with a number of his views on and interpretations of Middle East geopolitics. His 1965 classic The Struggle for Syria: A Study in Post-War Arab Politics, 1945-1958 is one of the best books I’ve ever read on the Middle East (it’s unfortunately out of print; I liked this one so much that I read it twice, and then bought a copy when Yale University Press briefly brought it back in print in the late ’80s). And his weighty biography of Hafez al-Assad, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East, is also up there with the best (this one is still in print). His massive biography of Riad el-Solh I haven’t read. Un de ces jours…

Though I admired his work I probably wouldn’t be writing this post if I hadn’t known Patrick personally. We first met in 2008, here in Paris, where he lived for many years. He invited me to his well-appointed flat in the 16th arrondissement and I invited him in turn to speak in a graduate-level class I was teaching on the modern Middle East. The students greatly appreciated his talk, so they told me, and found him engaging and amiable, which he was.

Seale was naturally best known for his writing and commentary on the Middle East but less so for that on France. À propos, he was a co-author of a book on the May 1968 events that I consider to be the best on the subject in English, and to which I have devoted a blog post.

The Lebanese journalist Michael Young, learning of Seale’s terminal illness, had a fine—though not entirely uncritical—tribute to him a week ago, that one may read here.

UPDATE: Historian Bruce Maddy-Weitzman posted this comment on my FB page

Young’s review pointed to an important point – Seale’s increasing penchant, as time went on, to emphasize conspiracy theories to explain events. One of the worst examples is in the Asad biography, where he explains the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war as a case of a brilliant Israeli deception by manufacturing a crisis to lure Nasser into Sinai so that his army could be smashed and Israel could grab territory. It was such a brilliant ruse, he said, that even the Israeli public believed that it was in mortal danger. This was the classic explanation in the Arab world after the war about what had happend – Arab governments have no agency and no responsibility for what happens.

It was indeed the case that Seale had a penchant for conspiracy theorizing, at least in regards to Israel. E.g. Michael Young mentions Seale’s suggestion that Abu Nidal may have been an Israeli agent, which, to put it mildly, didn’t make a lot of sense—and which no serious observer of the Middle East took seriously. À propos, Martin Kramer related an anecdote to me several years ago of Seale’s visit to Jerusalem circa 1995, during which Kramer asked Seale if he really, honestly believed what he wrote in his 1992 book, Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire, about Abu Nidal doing Israel’s bidding, to which Seale smiled and shrugged, indicating that he either didn’t take his speculation too seriously himself or had no evidence whatever to back up it—apart from what Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), his principal informant for the book, told him—, so wouldn’t insist. In 2008 I asked Seale himself about some of what he wrote in the Abu Nidal book but he had forgotten the details.

A particularly vicious, mean-spirited, mendacious “obituary” of Seale posted on a blog called Syria Promise has been making the rounds since yesterday, in which it is claimed, among other things, that Seale knew no Arabic. This is bullshit. Seale’s books on Syria each contain six pages of bibliographic references in Arabic. There is simply no way he could have written those books—and particularly The Struggle for Syria—without a good command of Arabic (reading at least). And he spent the first 15 years of his life in Syria—where, it stands to reason, he would have acquired at least some knowledge of the language—and was a student of Albert Hourani’s at Oxford, under whose stewardship he would have no doubt perfected his linguistic skills (on this, see the obits in Al-Arabiya and The Guardian). As for this Syria Promise blog, it has but one post—the nasty one on Seale—, indicating that it was created specifically for this purpose. And the blog’s author gives no hint as to his or her identity. What an abject, cowardly S.O.B.

2nd UPDATE: Martin Kramer has a remembrance in Commentary of “Patrick Seale in Israel.” As it happens, the anecdote I recounted above was a little off on the date and place.

3rd UPDATE: Adam Shatz has a remembrance of Patrick Seale, published in MERIP. (May 1st)

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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).

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#StopQatar2022

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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!

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Al Zaatri refugee camp, Mafraq, Jordan, February 25 2013 (Muhammed Hamed/Reuters)

Al Zaatri refugee camp, Mafraq, Jordan, February 25 2013 (Muhammed Hamed/Reuters)

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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.

2nd UPDATE: The Lebanese website NOW has a report (May 15, 2014) on how “New restrictions leave Syrian Palestinians trapped in Lebanon.” Outrageous.

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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).

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Islamabad, February 25 2012 (Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

Islamabad, February 25 2012 (Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

Saudi Arabia: the Evil Kingdom. I’ve said it before and will say it again.

Ruthven’s essay may be read in its entirety here.

Protest against US drone attacks, Sanaa, January 13 2013 (Photo: AFP)

Protest against US drone attacks, Sanaa, January 13 2013 (Photo: AFP)

US drone strikes in Yemen. (New America Foundation)

US drone strikes in Yemen. (New America Foundation)

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Qatar: modern-day slavery

Qatar (photo: Construction Week)

Qatar (photo: Construction Week)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

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.

Migrant workers, Doha (© 2011 Sam Tarling)

Migrant workers, Doha (© 2011 Sam Tarling)

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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)

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Maaloula

Maaloula, September 7 2013 (photo: SANA)

Maaloula, September 7 2013 (photo: SANA)

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.

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Above: Heading out from Damascus.

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A fine restaurant on the outskirts of Maaloula, where we had lunch before heading into the town.

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There are no doubt more churches per capita in Maaloula than in Tulsa, Oklahoma…

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Above: The footpath to the church and monastery on the other side of the mountain.

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Melkite priest. We listened to his mass in Aramaic (sounds like Hebrew).

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Looking west. Lebanon is maybe ten km past the hill.

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Back in town, on the other side of the mountain.

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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.

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Tahrir Square, Cairo, July 7 2013 (photo: Khaled Desouki/Getty Images)

Tahrir Square, Cairo, July 7 2013 (photo: Khaled Desouki/Getty Images)

[update below]

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.

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© The Economist

© The Economist

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.”

À suivre.

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

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.

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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).

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Aleppo after army shelling, August 26 2013 (AMC/AP Photo)

Aleppo after army shelling, August 26 2013 (AMC/AP Photo)

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.

À suivre.

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450px-Aliya_Mehdi_-_علياء_مهدي

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.

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