Thursday, July 16, 2015

Syria questions and answers

What does the Iran deal mean for Syria?
Many liberal and mainstream voices are talking up the "historic" Vienna deal allowing Iran to continue its nuclear proliferation as some kind of "triumph of diplomacy", simply because the two sides actually reached an agreement.

The deal has been welcomed by Bashar al-Assad and greeted with dismay by the Syrian opposition and rebels. The economic benefit to Iran, and relaxation of control on its arms trade, will boost Russia and China's weapons (and fuel) sales to Iran and its proxies. This can only benefit Tehran's Damascus partner, who will reap that benefit in increased firepower and increased finance - which will be felt by the Syrian civilians on whom Assad's bombs fall day by day. Aron Lund spells it out here, and Hassan Hassan here.

This is quite a post by the Syrian in exile blogger "Maysaloon", on the "progressive"/Pan-Arabist betrayal of humanity in supporting the Iran deal. Here is the final paragraph:
I'm sorry that Syrians are inconvenient, that we're not being killed by the right type of enemy for you people. I'm sorry we haven't received your stamp of approval. Pan-Arabists are cheering a deal with Iran, because, as they keep reminding us, Israel is the real enemy; Palestine the real goal. Never mind the untold misery, guts and excrement that we are being forced to crawl through in the name of this mythical liberation that hovers on our horizon like a promised paradise for the wretched of the world. Syria is "complicated". Syrians are only to be felt "sorry for", like the victims of some flood or an earthquake. From your glass towers in Dubai you intellectual pan-Arabists can toast a deal with Iran, and celebrate the fact that nothing has been allowed to deviate your attention from the lofty goal of "liberating Palestine".
Are Kurds ethnically cleansing non-Kurds in Rojava?
Relating to my recent post on Patrick Cockburn's lies, here a Kurdish writer refutes the concerted media smear (originating from Turkish and Gulf spin doctors) that Kurdish forces in Syria are "ethnically cleansing" Sunni Arabs. I have seen several vague allegations (similar to Cockburn's) about the Kurdish YPJ/YPG militias under the political control of the PYD party mistreating non-Kurds - but I have seen not one single credible article detailing actual instances of these. And there are credible accounts of non-Kurds afraid of the Kurds - but no stories showing that this fear is grounded in experience rather than in rumours spread via partisan media sources.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, the best source of casualty statistics, recorded a total of 67 civilians killed by the PYD's forces in the first half of 2015 - 67 too many, but less than killed in Coalition air strikes, a twentieth of the number killed by IS and al-Nusra, a tenth of the number killed by Syrian rebel groups. There is no record that any of these 67 were acts of deliberate ethnic cleansing rather than collateral deaths in war zones. (To get a sense of the scale of the war zone: PYD forces are engaged on a frontline of about 300 miles; the Maginot Line in WWII was 200 miles long.) In short, it is probably a myth that Syrian Kurds are committing ethnic cleansing.

Does ISIS really control a half of Syria?
From October, lots of Western media sources started claiming ISIS control a third of Syria's land. In May, when Palmyra fell, the Guardian, Fox and others said it controlled more than 50% of the country, based on claims from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. But is this true?

Patrick Cockburn, whose account always leans towards the Damascus government's slant, notes that "these proportions are a little deceptive because the government still holds most of Damascus, the main cities and the roads linking them". The further caveat, though, is that the areas allegedly controlled by ISIS to make up that 50% include very sparsely populated areas,  where there is actually no ISIS presence at all.

As was clear from maps of its advance in 2014, ISIS's m.o. is that of what Deleuze and Guattari called the "nomadic war machine": moving in flows along routes such as roads and oil pipelines without attempting to occupy the empty spaces in between,
moving away from the center, creating a new center, departing and returning, ebbing and flowing in relation to no one central point... consuming flesh, and committing violence [along the way].
The Caliphate is a "state" which ignores conventional state borders. It operates up-close and not at a distance.

Thus more accurate maps of the Syria battleground - such as those produced by the Institute for the Study of War - do not shade in the un-occupied zones behind the IS lines. This ISW map shows recent changes in the Syrian theatre:

A simpler version of this map was used by Liz Sly of the Washington Post here. What the map shows is Assad controls a lot of urban territory and the Caliphate controls key strategic sites, but in terms of territory IS controls far less than a third and nothing like 50% of Syria.

What's going on in Yarmouk?
Back in May I posted a long piece on Yarmouk, the site which exemplifies the suffering brought about by Assad and his frenemies ISIS - and which exemplifies the indifference of the Western left to this suffering. The sad fact is that nothing has improved since then, and in fact things have worsened.

Most media sources still recite the figure of 18.000 left in the camp (less than a tenth of the original population), but the PLO is saying there are only 7,000 left, with deaths to starvation and untreated illness and with more residents fleeing (some to other Palestinian communities and camps around Damascus, many of which are on the frontline of fighting and little safer). This heart-breaking piece in the Guardian chronicles life in Yarmouk.

Why have the US trained so few rebels?
There has been a lot of crowing about desultory US attempt to train Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. For many, this has been taken as evidence there are no good guys left: no "moderate" rebels. Kyle Orton explains why this is wrong:
Why it was expected that the rebels would abandon their fight against Assad—whom they are after all rebelling against in defence of their families—to become the U.S.’s Arab JSOC force is not clear.
Hassan Hassan adds: "even those who have joined the programme will be treated as mercenaries by fellow rebels as long as the focus is ISIL not the regime." As Kyle argues, "the failure of this program is a feature not a bug". It is an indicator of Obama's wrong strategy, not his failed strategy.

What about the refugees?
The lack of concern about what goes on in Syria from the Western left is contrasted to its noble concern about the refugees in the Mediterranean. Syrians now account for a third of Mediterranean migrants and up to 60% of refugees arriving in austerity-crippled Greece, for instance. Tory politicians have tried to downplay the Syrian dimension by highlighting Africans or claiming these are "economic migrants". Leftists, human rights advocates and liberals have rightly challenged this.

However, the next step from this should be obvious: addressing the refugee crisis means addressing the Syria crisis. It is shameful that pro-refugee voices are not also speaking out on what causes the refugee crisis. It is the Assad regime, and especially his airstrikes, which is doing this. This Syria UK post makes the argument and sets out what we can do to stop it. And we do need to stop it, before it's too late.


Also read: Kellie Strom "Never again, and again, and again"; Hassan Hassan "Between bombs and butchery".

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Assad v ISIS? Patrick Cockburn's economy with the truth

assad cartoon iranwire mana neyestani
IranWire/Mana Neyestani via Vox

Assad over Daesh?

There is a growing consensus that the fight in Syria is between ISIS and Assad. Given a choice between these two evils, a growing number of voices say that Assad is the lesser evil and that the West should back him to defeat Daesh.

For instance, Alison Pearson in the Mirror, spoke two years ago in a Jordanian refugee camp to escapees from Assad's chemical attacks. Now, she thinks that we should cuddle up to the perpetrator of these war crimes:
Two years on I still believe Assad to be a vile, nasty bully. But now, rather than bomb him I think it’s time to bond with him. With him and every tin pot dictator like him, if they can bring back some stability to a region so insecure and chaotic it has become the perfect breeding ground for Islamic State.
Politicians too talk this talk. Conservative Julian Lewis said in parliament that
In 2013, the Government wanted to remove Assad without helping al-Qaeda or similar groups that later became Daesh. Now we apparently want to remove Daesh but without helping Assad. Those two things are incompatible. It is a choice of two evils.
Labour's Peter Hain similarly thinks we should "liaise" with Assad's military to stop ISIL:
As Syria Solidarity UK argue here, Lewis' "choice of two evils" is a false choice.

Assad has killed and continues to kill far more people than Daesh ever has or probably ever will. The overall death toll in Syria is now around a quarter of a million: over a hundred a day every day. Civilians killed by the regime are around half of this; the Violations Documentation Centre, for example, has named over 80,000 civilians killed by the state, mainly in airstrikes, since the start of the conflict. Since the start of 2015 alone, government forces have killed 8509 people, two-thirds of them civilians, compared to ISIS, which has killed 1490 in Syria, two-thirds of them civilians. Why liaise or "bond" with killers on this scale? 

Support for Assad is support for Daesh

From Archicivilians, via Not George
Assad has done more than anyone else, not to defeat Daesh but to build them up. Kings College expert Peter Neumann a year ago in the LRB laid out the detailed story of how and why Assad did this. In December, NBC's careful analysis of regime strikes catalogued in the IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center's (JTIC) database showed that the government has been largely ignoring ISIS in order to defeat other rebel groups:
JTIC's data shows that [Assad's] counterterrorism operations — more than two-thirds of which were airstrikes — skew heavily towards groups whose names aren't ISIS. Of 982 counterterrorism operations for the year up through Nov. 21, just 6 percent directly targeted ISIS.
The same NBC report also quoted other rebel groups claiming to have experienced co-ordination between ISIS and the regime against specific rebel outfits - which has been reported again and again by other sources. Last month, for instance, the Guardian reported instances of this kind of co-operation, alleged both by the US and by major rebel groups.

In short, there is no "choice of two evils": they are working together. And, crucially, there is a third choice, the right choice: a free, democratic, secular Syria. Although under-supported and out-gunned, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has started to gain ground in southern Syria in recent weeks, and in the North is advancing side by side with the YPJ/YPG, the Syrian Kurdish militia, which tenaciously defends the large liberated zone of Rojava.

Patrick Cockburn's dishonesty

Who's Lying About Syria's Christian Massacre?
From The Daily Beast
One of the voices influencing this growing complacent consensus on the alleged "choice of two evils" is Patrick Cockburn. I have long been a respectful reader of Cockburn, who has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades now.

However, his reportage relating to Syria has been marred over the last two years by systematic distortion in favour of the Assad regime narrative. In March this year, Robin Yassin-Kassab, in a book review written for the Guardian but only published after its main points were removed, documented several incidents where Cockburn has been economical with the truth in relation to Syria. You should read it in full here.

Yassin-Kassab's colleague Muhammad Idrees Ahmad in May provided extremely detailed further documentation of Cockburn's outight dishonesty. (I have taken the illustration above from there.)

I won't repeat their careful allegations here, but instead turn to two recent Cockburn articles. The first is in the highly esteemed London Review of Books of 2 July and has been repeatedly recommended to me on social media. 

Cockburn in the LRB: slandering the Kurds

The article is not without its merits, including a compelling description of how the ISIS war machine works and how it recruits ordinary Sunni Muslim men. However, it distorts the truth in a number of ways. 

First, Cockburn repeatedly refers to Kurdish sectarian violence. The article opens with the spectacle of Arab and Turkmen refugees fleeing the advance of the Kurdish YPJ/YPG. In fact, numerous observers have testified to Kurdish Rojava hosting large numbers of Sunni, Turkmen, Christian and other refugees who have fled Assad, ISIS or both. Cockburn does not mention a specific instance of ethnic cleansing or eviction, but simply alludes to it happening. Cockburn's only concrete example actually refutes his claim:
as we drove away from the front, we saw a family of Arabs carrying their belongings back to their house in an otherwise deserted village. They waved with exaggerated enthusiasm at our vehicle, as if uncertain about how they would be treated by the victorious Kurds.
An enthusiastic wave is interpreted as fear; returning Arabs to Kurdish-liberated land are somehow meant to tell us Arabs are oppressed by Kurds.

(Cockburn also mentions torture of a Kurdish Sunni Islamist militant at the hands of the Kurdish Regional Government, i.e. the autonomous government of Kurdish Iraq; he doesn't inform his readers that the KRG has absolutely nothing to do with the Syrian Kurds.)

The main thrust of the article is to claim that ISIS is enormously powerful, perhaps invincible, and will be almost impossible to eradicate.

Cockburn: advocate for Assad?

The LRB article barely mentions Assad, apart from this, on a Sunni recruit to ISIS:
He is somebody with a deep hatred of the Assad regime who joined the organisation that was most able to fight against it.
This claim is of course untrue, not only because it ignores the regime's complicity in the rise of ISIS (see above) but the fact that ISIS in turn does not attack the regime. The NBC analysis cited above makes this clear:
Around 64 percent of verifiable ISIS attacks in Syria this year targeted other non-state groups, an analysis of the [JITC] database showed. Just 13 percent of the militants' attacks during the same period — the year through Nov. 21 — targeted Syrian security forces. That's a stark contrast to the Sunni extremist group's operations in Iraq, where more than half of ISIS attacks (54 percent) were aimed at security forces.
Cockburn wrote a follow-up piece in the Saturday Independent. This takes up the story precisely here, with the idea that Assad is the key alternative to ISIS. Cockburn approvingly quotes the Tory Julian Lewis' "choice of evils" nonsense. He presents a superficially "realist" argument for conditional co-operation with Assad to destroy ISIS.

Cockburn does not mention the extent to which Assad's fighting force is depleted and completely dependent on foreign fighters - including regular and irregular Iranian forces and Lebanese Shia forces (including Hezbollah), Afghan fighters from Fatimiyun Brigade and so on; as well as Syrian units now commanded by Iranian officers (mainly from the IRGC). Support for Assad against IS is de facto support for Iran and its proxies. And Iran has been a source of instability and sectarianism in the region for some time, as well as being a regime not much less murderous than IS.

Cockburn's argument is also predicated on the insistence that all Syrian rebels are essentially sectarian Salafi jihadists little better than ISIS and that Sunni sectarianism is their key driver and therefore all non-Sunnis rally to Assad. The imposition of a matrix of sectarianism ("ancient tribal rivalries") is a staple of Western orientalist simplification of the politics of the Middle East.

Cockburn's narrative systematically erases the tenacious persistence of non-jihadist rebel groups, who are gaining ground on some fronts. His narrative systematically erases the support of sizable numbers of Allawites and other minorities for rebel groups and for the Kurds (see note below). His narrative systematically erases the existence of resilient Kurdish resistance to both Assad and jihadism, as well strengthening co-operation between the Kurds and Sunni groups. His narrative is essentially dishonest.


Tuesday, July 07, 2015

7/7 Ten Years On

As a London resident, I took the 7/7 attacks personally. 

I had moved to London in 1991, during a period of intense IRA bomb attacks on London. Later in the 1990s, as the Irish Troubles moved towards their uneasy Good Friday resolution and the bombing slowed, I watched London relax, loosen its tension. 

On 7 July 2005, four bombs heading to the four compass points from the transport nexus of Kings Cross, which so many Londoners pass through each day, destroyed that. The attacks were attacks on Britain as a liberal democracy, but also on London as a messy, mongrel, cosmopolitan city. 

The responses to the bombing, and especially extraordinary acts of quiet heroism from ordinary people, showed us the best of London. 

The mayor, Ken Livingstone, by video link from Singapore, where he was fronting our 2012 Olympic bid, gave a speech which captured so well what most Londoners felt. Early in the speech, he said this:
This was not a terrorist attack against the mighty and the powerful. It was not aimed at Presidents or Prime Ministers. It was aimed at ordinary, working-class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old. It was an indiscriminate attempt to slaughter, irrespective of any considerations for age, for class, for religion, or whatever... 
And he concluded:
Finally, I wish to speak directly to those who came to London today to take life.
I know that you personally do not fear giving up your own life in order to take others - that is why you are so dangerous. But I know you fear that you may fail in your long-term objective to destroy our free society and I can show you why you will fail. 
In the days that follow look at our airports, look at our sea ports and look at our railway stations and, even after your cowardly attack, you will see that people from the rest of Britain, people from around the world will arrive in London to become Londoners and to fulfil their dreams and achieve their potential. 
They choose to come to London, as so many have come before because they come to be free, they come to live the life they choose, they come to be able to be themselves. They flee you because you tell them how they should live. They don't want that and nothing you do, however many of us you kill, will stop that flight to our city where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another. Whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail.
7/7 helped change my attitude to the security arm of the state. As a libertarian, I had been antagonistic to all forms of policing and surveillance. I remain suspicious, but knowing how little stands between me (and my family) and terrorist attacks has led me to feel that civil liberties might not always be as important as I thought.

In the days after the attacks, we saw the incompetence and casual racism that led to the killing by police of Jean Charles de Menezes, one of those people who came to London to be themselves. And we saw a liberal community that seemed to care more about his single death than the 52 killed by the terrorists.

We saw even the Sun newspaper acknowledging the multicultural, multi-faith reality of the victims, with the face of Shahara Islam being one of the iconic symbols of the awful attack. And we saw bigots calling for and carrying out revenge attacks on ordinary Muslims, or on people they thought might be Muslims.

I had only recently started blogging, and the politics of these contradiction helped define the project of this blog. The religiously rooted fascist, anti-human, anti-democratic, anti-urban and anti-multicultural ideology behind the 7/7 attacks needs to be fought literally, but it also needs to be fought politically.

And sometimes the hardest and most important political struggle is not with the jihadi fascists themselves, but with the varieties of leftist, liberal and "realist" thought which explain away, apologise for, negotatiate with or accommodate to terrorist ideology.

We need a politics that defends what the terrorists sought to destroy, that celebrates our profane freedoms. A politics that brings communities together around our common stake in the future and our children's future. A politics that neither rushes to blame the other, nor attempts to explain away evil through moral relativism or vulgar materialism. A politics that sees the moral outrage in terrorism, but also understands the need to analyse the context in which terror thrives. A politics that takes seriously the open question of how much freedom can we let go of in order to defend freedom. In short, a difficult politics.