Saturday, June 9, 2012

Five Things to Read About Syria

A friend emailed me yesterday, "I'm trying to figure out what we should support in Syria.  Can you suggest anything to read?"

I have been worried about that myself.  Some of the more inane leftists here in the Bay Area have suggested that the Syrian government is not committing grave human rights violations, not massacring civilians, that it's simply a U.S.-supported "contra war" against a left-wing regime.  Though there's plenty of precedent for skepticism, it seems clear from reports of neutral people on the ground that that's not the case.  All the armed groups are probably committing atrocities but the government is certainly responsible for a lot of them, and has the biggest arsenal and army to do it with.

Nevertheless, I'm positive that U.S.-NATO led invasion or bombing will only make the situation much worse, and build support for the Assad regime.  So what is happening and who should we be supporting?

Here are a few things I found enlightening, though I could sure use your recommendations for more.  I'm going to ask Rayan El-Amine (cofounder of Left Turn, now living in his native Lebanon) to write a tutorial for us.

1. Syrian Opposition Divided Over Arms and Intervention 

Afra Jalabi is a Syrian-born Canadian journalist, a nonviolence activist and a member of the Syrian National Council.  I heard her speak at the Arab Women's Conference in March and was very impressed.  This is a video interview with her, and there's also a transcript.

…So there are many people … in the opposition, even on the ground, they feel that if there won't be intervention, external intervention, then let the people defend themselves. However, some of us, including myself, believe this is a dangerous option, because you have a civilian population that is not trained militarily, and that arming civilians would actually create further chaos.
You can also watch a video of Afra Jalabi speaking at Friends for a Nonviolent World conference.

2.  Back from Syria, Journalist Anand Gopal Warns Protesters "Face Slaughter" by Assad Regime

I heard Anand Gopal on Democracy Now after he returned from a week in Syria.The comment that really made me sit up and listen was this:
I had a lot of questions about the nature of the insurgency in Syria. And, you know, of course, the U.S. and the West are supporting, at least in word supporting, the insurgency. So I was coming at it with a very skeptical and critical mind. We went over the border, basically crawling under a barbed-wire fence and hiking over mountains for a long period. But when I got into Syria, what I found was completely different from what I expected, in that in every town and village, it was essentially the entire population was mobilized in support of the revolution. I mean, you had from little children to old people. Really, I’ve never seen anything like that before. And it showed to me the extent to which the revolution had a—has a mass, democratic popular base, and Assad doesn’t.

3.  Arab-American Media: Don't Turn Syria Into Another Lybia

From New American Media:
Editorial Note: Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s assault on the besieged city of Homs has left what human rights groups say are as many as 7000 dead, including American journalist Marie Colvin and French photojournalist Rémi Ochlik. The assault is the latest in a now 12-month old civil conflict pitting the autocratic ruler against rebels determined to end his decade-long presidency. Representatives from over 70 nations have now gathered in Tunisia for a “Friends of the Syrian People” meeting, which includes former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Anan and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. At issue is what kind of intervention, if any, should be taken. New America Media asked members of the Arab American media for their views.

4.  The State of the Struggle: Revolution and Counter-revolution in the Arab World

By: Lamis Andoni and Nora Barrows-Friedman (June 20, 2011)
Lamis Andoni is a veteran journalist covering the Middle East for over 20 years. She has worked for several Arab and Western publications and media outlets, most recently as a Middle East editor at Al Jazeera TV.
Nora Barrows-Friedman is a journalist, writer, and radio producer. She is a staff reporter and editor with The Electronic Intifada, and her work appears in Al Jazeera English,, Inter Press Service, and other outlets. She has been reporting from Palestine since 2004.
The brutal Syrian regime’s reaction to the popular protests has ended once and for all the argument, popular among the pan-Arab nationalists, Islamists and even some circles of the Left, that raising questions about the regime’s human record would weaken its position vis-à-vis American and Israeli threats.

5. On the perils of sectarianism in Syria 

As the Syrian tragedy becomes increasingly painted in sectarian terms, author Robin Yassin-Kassab asks why so many Syrians, including leftists, liberals and secularists, continue to ignore the issue. It is time, he argues, to break this taboo once and for all.
Good historical perspective, going back to the Sykes-Picot agreement outlining British and French spheres of influence after World War I.

6.  Saving the nonviolent revolution in Syria: For a credible strategy

Sadek Jalal al-Azm et al , Jane Mansbridge and Chibli Mallat, Sunday 26 Feb 2012
Willing countries can accelerate the process of delegitimizing Asad by surrendering the Syrian embassies to the SNC [Syrian National Council] as a far more legitimate representative of Syria than its present envoys. This measure will also promote defections in those embassies and in the Syrian diplomatic services. Should governments decide that giving up the embassy is too much under international law, they can provide serious logistics to help the SNC be the dominant voice on the world scene. 
 Sadek Jalal al-Azm is the leading public intellectual of Syria and is emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Damascus. Jane Mansbridge is Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values at Harvard Kennedy School. Chibli Mallat is a Lebanese lawyer and law professor, and the Chairman of Right to Nonviolence, an international NGO based in the Middle East.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Some Readings for the Lugubrious (Bahrain, Occupy and More)

I’ve been shamefully lackadaisical in my blogging habits the last few weeks. I was searching for a word to describe my sluggishness and I thought of lugubrious. I wrote it down. Then I realized I had no idea what it really meant. For all I know, it could mean boring or suntanned. Looked it up. The online dictionary (which could be lying to me – oh, no!) says it means “Mournful, dismal, or gloomy, especially to an exaggerated or ludicrous degree.”

That’s actually probably pretty accurate to describe my politico-emotional state. When I overcome my lugubriosity I am going to write a psychology paper defining the range of “politico-emotional” experience which will henceforth be known as the KatRap scale. Okay, here’s something truly creepy – when I googled “politico-emotional,” the only things that came up other than articles on containing the word “emotional” were pieces about Jews’ relationship to Zionism. Which I wasn’t even about to start talking about.
But back to my own politico-emotional dis-ease. It’s all down to Occupy, of course. If I wanted to be media fashionable, I could blame it on the arrogance and self-absorption of (parts of the) Black Bloc. That would be partly accurate. But it would be equally accurate to blame the supercilious preaching that is giving Nonviolence a bad name. I could also blame the professional left, who make everyday activism sound – and feel – like drudgery and then wonder why no one wants to do it.

But at bottom, I’m just deeply disappointed in Occupy. As I’ve said before, I don’t think it’s dead, not by a long shot. I expect them to come roaring back and maybe stronger and more unified than ever. But I’m disappointed that the things I predicted have come true, at least temporarily. Sure, I forecast that crackdowns and COINTELPRO would scare and drive people out of the streets. I said that if they did not deal with the divisions within their movement, the movement would fray. In my meaner moments, I might have thought, “You who act like no one ever built a movement before, you just wait, the things that got us are going to get you too.”

But I didn’t mean it. This is a time when it’s no fun being right. I might have been jealous of this well-timed movement with its thousands of people willing to sit through five-hour meetings day after day, but I was totally rooting for it. Deep down I hoped they WERE right, that our experience meant nothing, that they had discovered something completely new that would enable them to outplay, outwit and outlast the 1% and its henchmen.

Because I believe Another World Is Possible, I know Another U.S. Is Necessary, and I am more than ready for it.

So I’ve been unable to think of anything interesting, uplifting or relevant to say. I just want to walk around moaning, “Oh, Occupy, Occupy, why have you forsaken me.” And the news out of Syria and Israel has not been exactly invigorating either.
This week, though, was a good one in Bahrain.
Two acquaintances of mine were released from prison after being held for several weeks: Zainab al Khawaja (@AngryArabiya), daughter of hunger striking political prisoner Abdulhadi al Khawaja and a leader of the youth movement, and Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Zainab was arrested for staging a protest during the Formula 1 Grand Prix (that’s a car race) to bring attention to her father’s case and other imprisoned activists. She was sentenced to one month, but then was not released even after her sentence was up. Nabeel was arrested three weeks ago when he returned from a trip to Lebanon. He was charged with “"inciting illegal rallies, and with “defaming” Bahrain's security forces through his Twitter account. He was released on bail.

The other good news is that Abdulhadi al Khawaja ended the hunger strike he began on February 8 (110 days). He was said more than once to be close to death, and was force-fed by prison doctors on numerous occasions. His life sentence, along with the sentences of 14 other activists, was set aside last month but the activists were not released on bail pending a new trial. Al Khawaja was convicted by a military court for his role in the country’s pro-democracy protests.

While looking for news about the releases, I stumbled on a very good article on Al Jazeera English. It was a discussion between Nabeel and several other activists, published the day after his arrest. They were discussing “The story that is not being covered,” and they got into a lot of specifics I found fascinating. They brought up:
  • the changing role of women in Bahraini political life
  • the effects of such high quantities of tear gas in a densely populated area without trees
  • whether they expect the Sunni to join the revolution or have a parallel one
  • the changing conditions for Sunni due to the rising numbers of foreign-born citizens
  • whether the regime will agree to become a Saudi “vassal state” and whether that will push the opposition to accept direct aid from Iran
  • how the movement is changing the artistic scene
The article is long, candid and in-depth and I wish that I had had the opportunity to read it before I went there.
While checking the Twitter feed, which I haven’t even had energy (or time) to do recently, I actually found a couple other things that cheered me up:

10 Documentaries for Those New to Activism”  -- full disclosure, this one is posted on the website of the controversial Occupy Oakland media collective, which was publicly expelled for inappropriate comments about a Palestinian Occupier. Nonetheless, it recommends some wonderful films, many available for free, and some which sound like exactly what I need. (I’m heavily into documentaries these days. Call it a hunger for truth.)

A New Resource for Occupy: Dreaming In Public
"Among the growing range of books on the Occupy movement Dreaming in Public will stand out for one simple reason. It is of the movement, not about it. It is an account of the thinking and creativity of the movement rather than a narrative of events or an observer analysis."
Just what I need, another book about Occupy.  But sounds great.  Thanks to @JenAngel for calling it to my attention.

And @LaurenRiot of Oakland Occupy Patriarchy, wrote a trenchant and well-articulated piece about why it’s legitimate for those responding to police killings in Oakland to do things that are not endorsed by the families of the victims. She begins,
“Somewhere in Oakland right now, the next Alan Blueford is doing something innocuous. Maybe he's getting ready for a date or brushing his teeth or watching TV. He has no idea that one day the Oakland Police will murder him.”
Let your fingers run not walk to “For Those Who Will Be Next.” 

The Pen is Mightier than the Lugubrious Bug.