Resources about Syria

An image distributed by the opposition Shaam News Network, August 23, 2013, shows a relative mourning a family member killed during an alleged chemical attack in the eastern Ghouta area on the outskirts of Damascus

An image distributed by the opposition Shaam News Network, August 23, 2013, shows a relative mourning a family member killed during an alleged chemical attack in the eastern Ghouta area on the outskirts of Damascus

Bombings killed 80 people yesterday in Iraq, the country the US and UK saved ten years ago. The night before that war started, President Bush spoke on TV and turned his ferrety eyes toward the Iraqi people.

We will deliver the food and medicine you need. We will tear down the apparatus of terror. And we will help you build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free. In a free Iraq there will be no more wars of aggression against your neighbors, no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, no more torture chambers and rape rooms. … We will not relent until your country is free.

That worked out so well. Iraq, where the news is mostly bad, doesn’t get much press anymore. The UN says violence killed 1,057 in the country last month. Putting all that in separate news stories — 20 dead Monday, 40 Tuesday, and so on — would only confuse readers, leave them wondering what day it was and why the headlines never seem to change, just the ads. Better not to bother them. Anyway, the old imperialists knew the truth about these things. To colonize is to forget, because after that anything that happens on the soil reflects your own crimes. And while it is permitted to know others, it is dangerous to know yourself.

In that spirit, the US and the UK are now lurching toward intervening in Syria. It’s so reassuringly changeless, how these things happen: the long delays, the agonizing reappraisals, the moral quandaries, the TV debates, and then the red line crossed and suddenly the bombs are falling. It’s like the line from Hemingway: “”How did you go bankrupt?” “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

Syria confuses me and leaves me in despair. I don’t know what to do; I’m not even sure what to feel anymore. Perhaps others are in the same darkness and uncertainty, particularly at this eleventh hour while the cruise missiles are being made ready. I don’t claim to know anything. But I can share some readings that left a few things less confused for me, in the hope that somebody else may make a sense of them that I’m denied. I don’t agree with everything here. And if you have other readings that taught you something and that you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.

Free Syrian army soldiers help a fighter wounded by a Syrian army sniper, Aleppo, 2012: AP

Free Syrian army soldiers help a fighter wounded by a Syrian army sniper, Aleppo, 2012: AP

General resources

Syria Deeply, a news aggregation site for all things related to the conflict, is “an independent digital media project led by journalists and technologists, exploring a new model of storytelling around a global crisis.” On Twitter at @syriadeeply.

The opposition: Under the acronyms

Some overviews of the factions:

Economist,Who are the Syrian opposition?” (June 2013)

BBC, “Guide to the Syrian opposition” (transcript of a broadcast, March 2012)

Elizabeth O’Bagy, “Syrian opposition fragmented by choice,” Gulf News  (July 2012; O’Bagy is an analyst at the ominously named Institute for the Study of War)

Who are the Syrian opposition?Global Post (November 2011) 

A more detailed account: “The Syrian File: The Role of the Opposition in a Multi-Layered Conflict,” a report by Cinzia Bianco for the Istituto Affari Internazionali (June 2013)

Chemical attack and intervention

What happened in the last few days? What happens next?

Julian Borger, “Syria Intervention: Key Questions Answered,” Guardian UK (August 28)

Frank Ledwidge, “Syria intervention: The 5 questions MPs should ask,” Guardian UK (August 28)

Omar Dahi, “Chemical attacks and military interventions,” Jadaliyya (August 2013). “It is hard to avoid the hopeless feeling that Syrians have lost almost all agency over their collective future….Whatever actions take place, continuing to claim them in the interests of the Syrian people is simply an exercise in public relations and deception.”

Musa al-Gharbi, “Toxic discourse on chemical weapons,” Your Middle East (August 27; from SyriaReport.net, a pro-Assad website).  It is disquieting that these chemical weapons incidents seem to occur at these critical moments of progress for the regime, when the rebels find themselves in desperate need for more assistance.”

Juan Cole, “At Hussein’s Hearings, U.S. May Be on Trial,” TruthDig (2005). Cole recently drew attention again to this article on how the US both abetted and alibi’ed Saddam’s chemical slaughter in Iraq, back when his regime was an ally. It’s particularly relevant today.

Citizen journalism image from the Media Office Of Douma City: a man mourns over a dead body following an alleged chemical attack in Douma, August 21, 2013

An image distributed by the Media Office Of Douma City shows a man mourning over a dead body following an alleged chemical attack in Douma, August 21, 2013

Blogs

Razan Ghazzawi is a friend, feminist, and sterling human rights activist, arrested repeatedly for her brave part in the anti-Assad struggle. Her blog is worth reading in its entirety. For a sample, a recent post, “Back,” lyrically describes her return to the beleaguered country after months of absence.  

Maysaloon is a well-known Syrian blogger who writes mostly in English. For recent posts, see “Airstrikes on Syria” and “A rant for Syria” (“That’s how it always is in Syria, we never hear of good news until it’s too late”). Also read “How to Square a Circle“: “One can oppose Assad and still support the Palestinian cause, not because of a contradiction but because the issue is one and the same. It is a sense for justice which makes the death of all innocent people equally outrageous, and whether it is Gaza or Homs that is being bombed, the condemnation of those doing so should not be subject to geopolitical convenience.”

Syria Freedom Forever is a blog, partly in English and partly in Arabic, run by Joseph Daher of the Syrian Revolutionary Left Current. See an interview with him on the site, “Imperialism, Sectarianism, and Syria’s Revolution.”

A man carries a wounded girl, after an explosion targeting a military bus in the Qudssaya neighborhood of Damascus, June 2012: AFP

A man carries a wounded girl, after an explosion targeting a military bus in the Qudssaya neighborhood of Damascus, June 2012: AFP

Other articles

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, “How to Start a Battalion (in Five Easy Lessons),” London Review of Books (February 2013). “Last November, under pressure from the Americans, and with promises of better funding and more weapons from the Gulf nations, all the opposition factions met in Doha. A new council was created, called the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. … But the promised flow of weapons never materialised: there were small amounts of ammunition, but no major shipments.” 

Aslı Ü. Bâli and Aziz Rana, “Why There Is No Military Solution to the Syrian Conflict,” Jadaliyya (May 2013).  “But the failure to take diplomacy seriously underscores a profound moral hazard generated by the international community’s prevailing framework. While basic international commitments to provide humanitarian assistance … have been honored in the breach, external actors fulfill and exceed their pledges of military support.”

David Bromwich, “Stay out of Syria!” New York Review of Books  (June 2013). “The untold story of Syria concerns something beyond the atrocities on both sides. It has also to do with the sinews of war—the financial motive and muscle that keeps it going.” 

Patrick Cockburn, “Is it the End of Sykes-Picot?London Review of Books (May 2013). “By savagely repressing demonstrations two years ago Bashar al-Assad helped turn mass protests into an insurrection which has torn Syria apart. … The quagmire is turning out to be even deeper and more dangerous than it was in Iraq.”    

Bassam Haddad, “The Growing Challenge to the Syrian Regime and the Syrian Uprising,” Jadaliyya (June 2013). “Divisions within the Revolution: It was bound to happen. And we are simply witnessing its tip: growing opposition to the militant opposition, on similar ethical grounds used to critique the regime.”

Bassam Haddad,  “Perpetual Recalculation: Getting Syria Wrong Two Years On,” Jadaliyya (March 2013).  “If I had a dollar for every time someone wrote about the “End Game” in Syria during the past eighteen months . . . .”

Bassam Haddad, “The Idiot’s Guide to Fighting Dictatorship in Syria While Opposing Military Intervention,” Jadaliyya (January 2012).  “It is one thing for analysts living outside Syria to oppose and condemn foreign intervention (which this author does unequivocally). It is another to assume that all those calling for it in Syria under current conditions are part of a conspiracy.  … Imperialism is not always the issue for everyone. To not recognize this is to lose the fight against imperialism.”

Syrian men carry a wounded protester who was shot during an anti-regime rally in Dael on the outskirts of Daraa, October 2011: AFP

Syrian men carry a wounded protester who was shot during an anti-regime rally in Dael on the outskirts of Daraa, October 2011: AFP

Amal Hanano, “The real me and the hypothetical Syrian revolution,” Jadaliyya, Part 1 (February 2012) and Part 2 (March 2012). “Our real names have been swallowed by our pseudonyms; our real faces have disappeared from our profile pictures — replaced with flags, historical figures, or composites. We erased the key components of our identity to use our voices in a way they have never been used before. We encoded ourselves so we would stop speaking in codes. To call things by their real names, things like murder, torture, rape, repression and humiliation. And to call for what we never thought we would dare to in our lifetimes: freedom, justice, and dignity.”

Peter Harling and Sarah Birke,The Syrian Heartbreak,” MERIP (April 2013). “There was a distinctive sense of national pride in Syria. … Syrian pride, too, fostered a strong national identity and a calm self-assurance, even among Palestinian refugees, chased from what is now Israel.”

Yusef Khalil, “Why the left must support Syria’s revolution,” Socialist Worker (April 2013), and “Understanding Syria’s revolution,” Socialist Worker (July 2013).  “The vital question facing the Syrian opposition is how to get aid from sources that can provide what the revolution needs, including weapons, while maintaining independent Syrian decision-making. This is a tough question to answer, but not impossible. But those who support the regime because they claim the uprising is being manipulated by the West are dishonest.”

Ghayath Naisse, “Prospects for Syria’s Revolution,” Socialist Worker (March 2013). “The traditional left in Syria, as well as regionally and internationally, has a miserable and opportunistic position towards revolutions … During the last three years of revolutions in our region, there has been a realignment of the left … This mirrors to some extent — without exaggeration — the realignment of the international left after the First World War.”

Yassin al-Haj Saleh, “Open Letter,” Syrian Observer (July 2013). “Every now and then we hear from American and Western politicians that there will be no military solution for the Syrian conflict, but where is the political solution?”

Citizen journalist image, provided by Lens Young Homsi, shows buildings destroyed by Syrian government bombing and shelling, in the Jouret al-Chiyah neighborhood of Homs, July 2013.

Citizen journalist image, provided by Lens Young Homsi, shows buildings destroyed by Syrian government bombing and shelling, in the Jouret al-Chiyah neighborhood of Homs, July 2013.

Finally

A friend showed me a poem by Mahmoud Darwish a few months ago: “Iraq’s Night Is Long,” published in 2008, the year he died. There is not enough poetry to confront the prevalence of catastrophe in this world. What he wrote for Iraq will have to do for Syria, for now. The wreckage is so hard to distinguish, and I doubt that he would mind.

Iraq, Iraq is blood the sun cannot dry
The sun is God’s widow above Iraq
The murdered Iraqi says to those standing at the bridge:
Good morning, I am still alive.
They say: You are still a dead man searching for his grave …

Who is killing whom in Iraq now?
Victims are shards on the roads and in words
Their names, like their bodies, are bits of disfigured letters
Here prophets stand together unable to utter
The sky’s name and the name of the murdered

Iraq, Iraq. So who are you in the presence of suicide?
I am not I in Iraq. Nor are you you
He is none but another
God has abandoned the perplexed, so who are we?
Who are we? We are nothing but a predicate in the poem:
Iraq’s night is long
Long!

Translated by Sinan Antoon, from Athar al-Farasha (Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2008)

Mahmoud Darwish, drawn by Ismail Shammout, 1971

Mahmoud Darwish, drawn by Ismail Shammout, 1971

The rape of the jock: A-jad, manhood, and “Iran 180″

At Electronic Intifada, Benjamin Doherty excellently investigated the megaweird San Francisco Pride crèche of Ahmadinejad being sodomized by a nuclear warhead. To summarize what he’s found: something called Iran 180 sponsored the float. It’s a “movement of  people and organizations who have come together as a unified voice to demand a 180 by the Iranian government on their pursuit of nuclear weapons and the treatment of their citizens.” As you would expect from that, it’s not a movement at all: discouraged that anti-Iran rallies outside the UN “attract fewer attendees and even less press, the New York Jewish Community Relations Council decided to act and formed a new coalition called Iran 180.” They found the language of human rights instrumental to their cause:

A petition on basic human rights for women, minorities, unions, media, journalists, political opposition, juveniles, and more, helped generate interest from some non-traditional allies such as the NAACP and 100 Hispanic Women.

Not to mention the Korean American Community Empowerment Council and the United Haitian American Society.  Most of the groups undoubtedly signed on with no particular idea what they were endorsing, except that it all sounding like a Good Idea.  As Ben notes, it’s a fine case of “astroturfing” — “advocacy in support of a political, organizational, or corporate agenda, designed to give the appearance of a ‘grassroots‘ movement” (merci Wikipedia). Two PR firms spearheaded the 2010 launch, one of them a division of Burson-Marsteller, notorious for refurbishing the images of evil dictators and other miscreants.

That scowing, hook-nosed Ahmadinejad puppet is the staple of Iran 180’s street theater. One of the lead groups writes, “The popularity and presence of this puppet made it a useful tool for Iran 180 … The press had a catchy photograph and Iran 180 had a hook” — the latter a Freudian slip, no doubt. Ben found additional photos of the SF Pride float. On the left, Mahmoud drops his pants to let the warhead in; on the right, he fellates it:

They’re obsessed with the Ahmedinejad-is-a-fag theme. Here’s a UN demo with A-jad in red heels (it’s Human Rights Day, December 10, which I never knew also celebrated the fashion-challenged):

And here they’re staging a gay wedding between A-jad and Bashar Assad, under a chuppa, with Qaddafi as witness:

What the hell is the point of all this iconography? Any residual irony is wasted in the case of Assad, who is known for many awful things but not especially for homophobia. Is this supposed to change the minds of gays somehow? I find it hard to imagine any homo stumbling on this touching scene and feeling the urge to blast away those Persian centrifuges, or rain destruction on Damascus.

Surely, instead, he’d think he’d wandered into the long-postponed wedding of Frankenberry and Count Chocula.

The whole bizarre display seems torn from the discredited writings of Raphael Patai, the Israeli-American Orientalist whose dissection of “The Arab Mind” (and, by extension, Middle Eastern masculinity in general) became an ur-text underpinning Abu Ghraib. As Seymour Hersh wrote:

The notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives in the months before the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq. … [Patai’s] book includes a twenty-five-page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression. “The segregation of the sexes, the veiling of the women . . . and all the other minute rules that govern and restrict contact between men and women, have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world,” Patai wrote. …  The Patai book, an academic told me, was “the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior.” In their discussions, he said, two themes emerged—“one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation.”

Putative insults directed at the sexualities of US enemies in the region are legion. There was, and is, for instance, a longstanding rumor that Yasser Arafat was gay and died of AIDS, spread by neoconservatives with glee. Unlike most rumors, it’s possible to pinpoint this one’s source with some precision. Ion Pacepa, chief of foreign intelligence in Ceauşescu’s Romania, defected to the US in 1978, and later composed his memoir, Red Horizons, while under CIA protection. In it, he claimed that secret microphones caught Arafat making love to his male bodyguard while visiting Bucharest.  The book is full of wild stories, and this particular propaganda gem had a two-birds usefulness for the US: it impugned not only Arafat for screwing a man, but Ceauşescu (notoriously puritanical) for tolerating it. The CIA called his book “an important and unique contribution to the United States,” and it should be read as such, along with other important and unique fabrications such as the histories of Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch.

As I’ve written here about “outing,” deploying anxieties about homosexuality to defame or shame people simply means manipulating — and endorsing — homophobia. This is true whether the object is Ahmadinejad, Assad, or Rick Perry.

On looking at this stuff, though, I have to note what bad propaganda it is. Is Burson- Marsteller (“the world’s biggest PR company,” apparently) any good at what it does? Ben quotes the Guardian on its mind-molding feats: the firm

was employed by the Nigerian government to discredit reports of genocide during the Biafran war, the Argentinian junta after the disappearance of 35,000 civilians, and the Indonesian government after the massacres in East Timor. It also worked to improve the image of the late Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu and the Saudi royal family.

Its corporate clients have included the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, which suffered a partial meltdown in 1979, Union Carbide after the Bhopal gas leak killed up to 15,000 people in India …

Hmm.  Nobody much doubts anymore that Nigeria’s, Argentina’s, and Indonesia’s dictators were guilty of murder; while if I remember my 1989 rightly, Ceauşescu and his brand went the way of the Edsel and New Coke.  Three Mile Island pretty much ended the nuclear industry in the US — and so on. If I were Ahmadinejad, I would take comfort from this record of ineptitude and sip my Coke Classic in peace of mind.

Nicolae on trial: I demand to speak to the Grand National Assembly and Burson-Marsteller right now

The Ahmadinejad puppet clearly derives from old anti-Semitic imagery. But the point of Nazi propaganda was to frighten people. (Jeffrey Herf’s study of wartime anti-semitic posters is a thoroughly disturbing guide.) The Jew appeared as monstrous threat, individuality always dissolving in collective, conspiratorial menace:

"The Jew: Inciter of the War, Prolonger of the War." 1943 Nazi poster, from Jeffrey Herf, "The Jewish Enemy"

“The Jew: Inciter of the War, Prolonger of the War.” 1943 Nazi poster, from Jeffrey Herf, “The Jewish Enemy”

It’s horrific, but it worked, a gross demonology that actually did incite and prolong the war. It wouldn’t have occurred to them to depict the Jew as schlemiel. This Ahmadinejad — sexually passive, his pants down, generally pathetic — has nothing threatening about him. There is no great propaganda value in portraying the dictator of Iran as Woody Allen. Even when he tries to scare, the effect is unconvincing:

Such is the dreaded Mad Bomber, the feared Hitler of the Gulf, and the worst he can do is wave one of Dorothy’s ruby slippers at you? Even in the unmanly corridors of the Arab Mind (how many times have we been told in the last decade that “Showing the sole of your shoe has long been an insult in Arab culture”?) this guy is considerably less alarming than Imelda Marcos.

This failure points, I think, to a larger and partly disabling ideological contradiction in our world of post-colonial wars. It’s a point often made that the Nazis brought back colonial methods  — of disenfranchisment, dispossession, and murder — to the European homeland. Yet in order to do so, in order to overcome the moral and material barriers to such a slaughter on nearby soil, they needed to conjure a threat more comprehensive and capable than the colonial Other, generally shown as impotent, backward, and helpless minus the mission civilisatrice. They needed the tropes of far-reaching conspiratorial power, the Enemy within, that came from anti-Semitic paranoia. Only that kind of fearsome, concocted foe could gin up a comfort-fattened populace to the hardships of total war — not to mention the horrors of mass murder.

That ’70s Paranoia: Big Mullah, Little White Man

In the interminable battles with brown people that constitute American foreign policy at the start of the millenium, though, these tropes aren’t functional. Brown people, after all, are born schlemiels and born bottoms; so intrinsic to the West is the contempt for their competence and capacities that it’s hard to impute the requisite menace to them.  The late 20th century saw various attempts to elevate the Arab or the Ayatollah to the power and dignity of World Enemy, based mainly on the conspiratorial connection with oil; these sinister plotters kept hatching destructive cabals in clandestine secret hideouts, like Tora Bora, OPEC, or the UN.   But those enemies, like Ahmadeinejad, kept lapsing back into their appointed role in the Western imagination, as buffoon.  The propaganda around the last Gulf War was illustrative of the contradiction. On the one hand, Colin Powell and Tony Blair and the rest assured us that Saddam Hussein was a universal monster who put everybody in jeopardy, with poised weapons forty minutes’ flight from Paddington. On the other, keeping up support for the war meant promising this would be an easy kill; the poor joker couldn’t possibly hold out in his bunker for more than a week, and we’d be welcomed with flowers while opponents withered like kudzu in the desert. Memorably, neither was true.

It’s quite telling that, although there’s a bomb on the Ahmadeinejad float, the droopy A-jad isn’t the one wielding it. Instead, he’s the one raped by it. Iran, in the imagery, is the party getting nuked.

How strange … or is it? Could this be a last Freudian slip in Iran 180’s unconscious repertory? After all: the one universally known but unspeakable secret in the current furor over Iran’s nuclear program is: there’s already one nuclear power in the region. Günter Grass presumed to mention this fact in a recent poem, and got hit by the intellectual equivalent of Desert Storm for his presumption (though the controversy did contribute to investigations of how Germany furnishes Israel with submarines to carry its nuclear arsenal).

After Ben published his piece, Iran 180 posted, miraculously, an apology on its Facebook page.

In June 2011, Iran180 participated in the San Francisco Pride Parade … The performance mocked the Iranian regime’s homophobia and was intended to raise awareness of the continued persecution of the LGBTQ community in Iran. As our followers know, drawing attention to the plight of Iran’s LGBTQ community is a priority for us. While the float was largely well received by onlookers, there were elements of the performance that unfortunately crossed the line and were clearly inappropriate. For that we sincerely apologize and have taken steps to ensure that this will not happen again.

But what line, exactly, did they cross? Is this an unlikely acknowledgement that rape and racism are bad? Or are they recognizing that, inadvertently, they gave too much away?

Syria: A new massacre in Homs?

The Guardian reports growing concern that Syrian army units surrounding the rebellious city of Homs are planning a masive attack and massacre.  It quotes, for instance, Syrian blogger @Maysaloon:

I think we’re either going to see a massacre in Homs, or a war involving #Syria at some point. This situation cannot last for long.

Here, also from the Guardian, is an informative map sketching where and when protests in Homs have taken place during the revolution:

Meanwhile, the NYTimes points to severe splits between the opposition Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, a rebel force operating from across and around the Turkish border.

Leave it to the bloodthirsty dictators and Beaver

photo courtesy of Sultan al-Qassemi, Yousef Kayyali, and Ozzie and Harriet Nelson

From left to right: Bashar al-Assad, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi (complete with hair), Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi, and Hafez al-Assad, getting ready to go out on the lawn and make some Smores.

Damn your soul, Hafez!

On the subject of danceable revolutionary songs, this Syrian protest tune — complete with singalong by demonstrators in the devastated city of Homs — has a nice rockabilly sway. It takes true courage amid the slaughter there to keep one’s heart, and carry a tune.  Complete with subtitles.