Archive for February 2016
This is my latest article for al-Araby al-Jadeed/ the New Arab.
The first fact is this: the Kurds have suffered a terrible historical injustice. The Arabs were rightly enraged when Britain and France carved bilad al-Sham (the Levant) into mini-states, then gave one of them to Zionism. But the post-Ottoman dispensation allowed the Kurds no state at all – and this in an age when the Middle East was ill with nationalist fever. Everywhere the Kurds became minorities in hyper-nationalist states.
Over the years an estimated 40,000 people have been killed in Turkish-Kurdish fighting, most of them Kurds. In the late 1980s, Saddam Hussain’s genocidal Anfal campaign murdered somewhere between 50 and 200,000 Iraqi Kurds. In Syria, where Kurds formed about 10% of the population, or around two million people, it was illegal to teach in Kurdish. Approximately 300,000 Kurds (by 2011) were denied citizenship by the state, and were therefore excluded from education and health care, barred from owning land or setting up businesses.
While oppressing Kurds at home, President Hafez al-Assad (Bashaar’s father) cultivated good relations with Kurdish groups abroad. This fitted into his regional strategy of backing spoilers and irritants as pawns against his rivals.
I was talking alongside journalists Anne Barnard and Borzou Daragahi, and aid worker Dalia al-Awqati, on KCRW, a Californian radio station. The discussion concerns the Munich theatre and the effects of the military onslaught on Syrian civilians. If you follow this link you’ll hear it. I come in between 20.40 and 27.15.
There’s an urgent need for discussion between revolutionary Syrians and Syrians who are scared of the revolution. The two sides need to hear each other. Alawis and others have good reason to fear aggressive forms of Islamism and the possibility of generalised ‘revenge’ against their community when the regime falls.
The TV argument below, of course, is not the discussion required. On the revolution’s side, for a start, there’s me, resident in Scotland and not at all a ‘proper’ Syrian revolutionary. And on the other side is an outright propagandist called Ammar Waqqaf, a deliberate purveyor of misinformation and a slanderer of the Syrian people.
Where are the serious representatives of anti-revolution Syrians? The ones who are able to recognise the genocidal slaughter and displacement suffered by their Sunni neighbours? The ones who don’t (pretend to) consider an imperialist invasion of the country to be an expression of sovereignty? The sad truth is that such people are silenced and eliminated by the regime, which has silenced and eliminated oppositional or just independent Alawis over decades.
The shouting starts at 4.37.
This was published at al-Araby al-Jadeed/ the New Arab.
I recently gave a talk in a radical bookshop in Scotland. The talk was about my and Leila al-Shami’s “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War”, a book which aims to amplify grassroots Syrian revolutionary voices and perspectives. My talk was of course critical of the Iranian and Russian interventions to rescue the Assad regime.
During the question and answer session afterwards, a young man declared: “You’ve spoken against Iran. You’ve made a good case. But the fact remains, Iran is the protector of Shia Muslims throughout the region.”
In reply I asked him to consider the Syrian town of al-Qusayr at two different moments: summer 2006 and summer 2013.
During the July 2006 war between Israel and Hizbullah, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese fled south Lebanon and south Beirut – the Hizbullah heartlands where Israeli strikes were fiercest – and sought refuge inside Syria. Syrians welcomed them into their homes, schools and mosques. Several thousand were sheltered in Qusayr, a Sunni agricultural town between Homs and the Lebanese border.
It made no difference that most of these refugees were Shia Muslims. They were just Muslims, and Arabs, and they were paying the price of a resistance war against Israeli occupation and assault. That’s how they were seen.
Their political leadership was also widely admired. The kind of people who would resist the pressure to pin up posters of Hafez or Bashaar al-Assad might still raise Hassan Nasrallah’s picture. During the 2006 war, very many Syrians of all backgrounds donated money to the refugees and to Hizbullah itself. The famous actress Mai Skaf was one such benefactor.
How quickly things changed. By 2012 Mai Skaf was embroiled in an online war with Hizbullah. “I collected 100,000 liras for our Lebanese brethren who fled the July 2006 war to Syria,” she posted on Facebook, “bought them TV sets and satellite dishes to follow what was happening in their countries, and bought their children shoes and pajamas. Now I am telling Hassan Nasrallah that I regret doing that and I want him to either withdraw his thugs from Syria or give me back my money.”
I’m very happy to be published at al-Araby al-Jadeed, or the New Arab, which has attracted some very on-point political and cultural voices, in both languages.
Syria is entering its darkest stage yet. Intense Russian bombardment and Iranian-backed militias have almost encircled rebel-held Aleppo. The city’s last hospital has been hit by a Russian airstrike. In the liberated south too – where provincial elections were recently held – the revolution is being driven back. Hundreds of thousands of new refugees are fleeing, seeking shelter in caves or under trees. Several refugee camps have also been bombed.
Russia is winning the country back for Assad, supposedly for the sake of stability. But the notion that the revolutionary areas of the Arab world can return to stability under the old security states is every bit as a-historically nostalgic and supernatural as the Islamist idea that the Muslims can return to peace and justice under a medieval caliphate.
The Arab revolutions erupted for a reason – because, over decades, the regimes had failed their people economically, politically, socially and culturally. The regimes collapsed inevitably – are still collapsing – under the the weight of this historical failure.
Faced with a democratic uprising and incapable of genuine reform, Syria’s Assad regime provoked a civil war. Five years later it has lost four-fifths of the country, a reality which massive imperialist intervention – the Iranian-organised trans-national Shia jihadists on the frontlines and the Russian bombers overhead – is only now changing.
The excellent Books pages at the National have published an extract from our book “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War” (now available in the US too). Before the extract comes an introduction to the book and the situation.
The revolution, counter-revolutions and wars in Syria are terribly misunderstood, particularly in the English-speaking West, by policy makers and publics alike. There are many shining exceptions, but in general poor media coverage, ideological blinkers and orientalist assumptions have produced a discourse which focuses on symptoms rather than causes, and which is usually unencumbered by grassroots Syrian voices or any information at all on Syrian political and cultural achievements under fire.
The consequent incomprehension is disastrous for two reasons – one negative, one positive.
First, the exponentially escalating crisis in Syria is a danger to everybody – Syrians and their neighbours first, but Europe immediately after. Russia’s terror-bombing is creating hundreds of thousands of new refugees. Meanwhile there’s good reason to believe President Putin is funding far-right anti-immigrant parties across Europe. It is very possible that this year’s flood of refugees will re-establish Europe’s internal borders, destroying the ‘Schengen’ free movement area, seen by some as Europe’s key political achievement since World War Two. With eleven million homeless, traumatised people on the eastern Mediterranean, terrorism is sure to increase. And the long-term geopolitical consequences of allowing, even facilitating, Russia, Iran and Assad to crush the last hopes of democracy and self-determination in Syria will create a still more dangerous world for our children. Yet European heads are being buried in the sand. Some still imagine a peace process is underfoot.
And the positive reason. Amidst the depravities of war, Syrians are organising themselves in brave and creative ways. The country now boasts over 400 local councils, most democratically elected, as well as tens of free newspapers, radio stations, women’s centres, and an explosion in artistic production. We shouldn’t just be feeling sorry for Syrians, but learning from them too. Their democratic experiments are currently under full-scale international military assault. They may be stamped out before most non-Syrians have even heard of them.