Gilbert Achcar: Syria and the Arab Uprisings

Gilbert Achcar, author of “The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprisings” and Professor of Development and International Relations at SOAS, sat down with Danny Postel, Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver for a discussion of the Syrian Civil War in the context of the Arab Uprisings.

The interview was filmed at the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver on May 12, 2014.

ISIL affirming their Salafi Jihadi credentials

This is statement by the ISIL spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-’Adnani, seeks to affirm the Salafi Jihadi credentials of the ISIL and reasons for their differences with Al-Qaeda and their official affiliate Jabhat al-Nosra (the latter accused of deviating from the Salafi methodology):

So what has changed to cause the leadership of Al-Qāʿidah to cause us grief, and to label us as the descendants of Ibn Muljim, and to label us as Khawārij?! Fear Allah regarding your selves! Fear Allah regarding the Mujāhidīn! What is your evidence for this that you incite people against them, you cause their blood to flow, you work for the destruction of their State and standing in its way! Tell us, by your Lord, what is your evidence?! 

Events in Gaza and managing the Syrian uprising

This article is a good overview of events in the Middle-East region, with focus on the recent Israeli onslaught on Gaza. It is the case that events in Syria should be placed in this regional and global context, which the article does very well:

All this while Cameron and the kings posed as champions of democracy in Libya and Syria. The nauseating hypocrisy is summed up by Britain’s William Hague. Six days into the assault on Gaza, which as a great friend of Likud he backs above and beyond the call of his office, he proclaimed that the British government would now recognise the latest umbrella group of the Syrian opposition. It’s the one which the West – Britain and France above all – has with Gulf allies spent months ensuring is safely politically aligned. If they get their way, the fruit of the appalling fighting in Syria will be a government still more amenable to the West. We expect the Western media and politicians to fall silent about their double standards. The movement in solidarity with the Palestinian people and with the mass of Arabs cannot.

Mouath al-Khatib’s changing rhetoric

Below is a translation (translation via ‘The Arabist‘) of of an article by Haitham al-Man’a (written in As-Safir). It is an important article as it highlights the shift in rhetoric by Mou’ath al-Khateeb (head of the recently formed opposition coalition). Darbuna is the website of Mou’ath al-Khatib and features some of his previous articles and sermons:

Doha and Its Sisters

Haitham Manaa, as-Safir,

For more than two months, and all those who passed through the Syrian National Council, from founders, resigners, members, associates, and missionaries for membership headed to Doha to rescue this body from intensive care — which the doctor, Eric Chevallier, failed to do on his own. Neither the group photo with President Hollande, nor the injection of funding and diplomatic support was enough.

The American pragmatic mentality was more subtle when it took some of the ideas proposed by Riad Seif and reformulated them in a way consistent with a radical departure from the National Council story. Hilary Clinton announced that the product had expired, and it was now necessary for an induced birth and Caesarian section to take place for a newborn heir to succeed a brother that did not take advantage of the oath of allegiance he received from the Gulf, Turkey and the West, who did not win people over, and who did not develop a political discourse befitting the destructive violence that the country is suffering from.

Perhaps the first weak point of the old National Council was in its blind support for one idea: getting armed and importing arms for military groups. This idea failed due to its single mindedness or by making its political horizon too short-sighted and immediate.

Ahmad Mouaz al-Khatib’s words were taken as auspicious, as he talked about politics and religion and did not talk about violence and weapons. However, it was not long before we received really frightening information and testimonies as a clear article in the Syrian National Coalition confirms. Mr. al-Khatib is rectifying what he forgot in this inauguration speech, saying that he wants European recognition and financial support for the coalition, and going on to add that when political recognition takes place, this will make the coalition act like a government and then it will acquire weapons and this will solve the problems.

In a second message published two days ago, Mr. al-Khatib reveals his opposition to the National Charter approved in Cairo, affirming that “the Cairo document was not adopted in any way. I was among many of our brothers who rejected it and issued a statement that I will be the first person to withdraw when there is an item that contradicts the creed of the enduring Umma.”

Of course, here he is talking about the desacralization of public action by considering human beings to be responsible for their actions and affirming equal citizenship between all Syrians, as both of those items are rejected by some Islamists.

Despite the ambiguous relationship between the Council and the Coalition, the vagaries of the relationship between the Arab League and what the new project accumulated, despite the fact that the Council took the lion’s share (38 of the Council members, five of whom resigned) at the expense of the rest of the present and absent factions of the opposition, despite the absence of [Lakhdar] Brahimi’s mission, and the absence of the Geneva meeting, most Arab countries were silent about this in the Cairo meeting and tried to keep up appearances. However, as one attendee said, “They said what they had to say and ignored us, and we said what we had to say in a way that didn’t compel anyone.”

France is providing another example of the cacophony that it is directed toward Syria. The Defense Minister ruled out direct recognition, in Cairo the Foreign Ministry delegation contented itself with offering support without recognition, and President Francois Hollande offered recognition in a caricatural form, saying: “Today I declare that France recognizes the Syrian National Council [sic — here the author surely means the Coalition, not the SNC] as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and as the future government of a democratic Syria, allowing it to bring an end to Bashar al-Assad’s regime.” There is no printing error here, Hollande is recognizing the Council after it removes al-Assad, giving proof of his meticulous and profound observation of the Syrian issue!

The ambiguities of the Doha text are many, and rejecting dialogue and negotiation was not in need of a political body. That is a task for warriors. The problem is that there are those who want to dictate to the Syrians what to do and force them to do what they want and turn them into yes-men, as Issam al-Attar said.

Before the conference, al-Khatib said that negotiation is a religious and political duty. After Qatari generosity, the imam discovered that his fatwa was mistaken, since he has one merit, but Ford and Chevallier have two.

Selection of Syrian news and commentary websites

There are many websites covering Syrian affairs and many of these are relatively recent. Below is a selection that I found useful (I will be posting more resources, in future posts):

  1. Syrian Parties‘ is a new website and is still in its beta stage. The website collates and monitors Arabic commentary and sources across the internet. It is also building a database on Syria’s political landscape, including new political parties that only emerged after the uprising. At the moment it is limited but it is already a rich resource.
  2. Syria Politic‘ also monitors and collates information. The website’s editors have access to news sources within Syria (to be fair, when relaying any news item reaching them, they often make clear that they cannot verify the veracity of the sources or the authenticity of what is reported) and highlight issues dealing with sectarianism and the emergence of Salafi Jihadi groups in Syria (both either treated superficially or completed ignored by most Arabic new stations). For example, they reported the presence of Abu-Basir al-Tartousi (A Syrian Salafi writer, that has some following within Salafi Jihadi circles) in Syria. Overall the website is more closer to the ‘National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change’ and critical of the militarising of the uprising and those calling for external interventions.
  3. Syria News‘ is an established news portal (established in 2005) based in Damascus. It is also one of the few news portals that seriously attempts to verify what it reports and cites official and reliable sources, whether regime or opposition factions. It also boldly publishes opinion pieces that are supportive of the uprising. In one opinion piece, for example,  its author (Abdul-Karim Anis) describes the regime as criminal and the necessity of overthrowing it, while also providing a critical and constructive perspective on the uprising’s trajectory.

Nothing new from the Guardian’s email leaks

The Guardian has published excerpts from a series of emails that it claims belong to Bashar al-Assad and his inner-circle. It is difficult to vouch for the authenticity  of the emails but suspicion remains, considering that anything relating to events in Syria has long since become difficult to verify, considering the proxy-war between competing powers and their different aligned media outlets. Of course, in such a situation, reports from Amnesty International are the best source for reliable information. The organisation has recently published a report that documents the extent of regime repression.

As for these emails, then they depict what are almost parodies of the detached dictator and a wife with a panache for expensive shoes and household ornaments/furniture. The Guardian has now published a full feature on the emails and if authentic, do not offer much new, other than showing a sincere loyalty to Bashar al-Assad from his wife’s family, despite being from the city of Homs. The Guardian sought to make it salient, even a main reason for publishing the emails, that it demonstrates the involvement of Iran in advising Bashar al-Assad on possible manoeuvres (Iranian diplomats in Damascus were specifically noted) though this is nothing new and we also know the Iranian regime gives economic aid to Syria, to bypass the crippling sanctions. However, the Guardian wishes to further allude to fighters and an armed presence in quelling the uprising, though not related to the leaks, but then states Iran and Hezbollah’s denial:

Iran and Hezbollah have been accused throughout the year-long uprising of providing on-the-ground support to the regime crackdown, including sending soldiers to fight alongside regime forces and technical experts to help identify activists using the internet. Iran and Hezbollah both deny offering anything more than moral support.

The Guardian, specifically Simon Tisdall, has a history with this type of journalism.

US, Saudis and Russia Vie for Influence in Post-Assad Syria

Real News have published an insightful interview with Hamid Dabashi (see below), that focuses on the geopolitics of the Syria crisis. He correctly articulates the issue as not a humanitarian concern with the repression of Bashar al-Assad, as it is often framed, and the place of the Syrian opposition within this geopolitical proxy war.

The full series of interviews with Hamid Dabashi, on Syria, can be accessed here …

The Syrian Observatory: The Inside Story

Asa Winstanley has published an excellent investigative piece on the ‘ The Syrian Observatory’, an organisation that has become a source of information for many mass-media outlets. The more recent split within the organisation, reported by the Guardian, can find some root in different political camps of the Syrian opposition – those opposing and supporting a NATO led intervention in Syria:

While both Abdulrahman and Azzawi stress their work is not influenced by political allegiances, their respective political positions correlate with a greater dispute between Syria’s opposition groups on the question of foreign intervention and the military option.

The campaign led by Azzawi to discredit Abdulrahman seems to come on the heels of a major fallout between the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria (NCB). A controversial Cairo agreement struck in December between Haytham al-Manna of the NCB and SNC head Burhan Ghalioun collapsed on the very question of foreign intervention and the militarization of the uprising. The letter attacking Abdulrahman surfaced a few weeks after.

To access the full report please click here …

False binaries on Syria

Al-Jazeera has published an insightful article by Bassam Haddad responding to those painting the uprising in Syria in binary terms i.e. either supporting the Syrian regime or the calculating regional and global powers, seeking a war by proxy, for their own regional designs. While intervening nations, specifically the US regime, are driven by imperialist agendas, it would be disingenuous to paint those protesting to be motivated in achieving these designs or that the regime is indeed orchestrating its crackdown to counter these objectives, rather than remaining in power to dictate its own terms.

Rather the full knowledge of the terms of intervention should direct a position that is both supportive of those revolting against a dictatorship but while opposing any military intervention led by these same external actors:

In other words, Syria is being used by various powers, including the United States and Saudi Arabia and their chorus, as an occasion to accomplish their own objectives in the region – reactionary ones, to be sure, in terms of the interests of most people in the region as the decades behind us attest, and as the current uprisings against the “fruits” of such objectives make clearer even to some skeptics. That does not mean, that we should withdraw our opposition and halt the struggle against dictatorship in Syria. It only serves to remind us how not to do it