middle east, politics

Yasser Al Haji’s Syria

Published on Embassy Magazine, April 3rd, 2013

The recent resignation of Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the main opposition group in Syria, is a sign of the protracted nature of the bloody conflict in that country.

The United Nations estimates that around 70,000 people have died in the uprising since its inception in March 2011. Syrian journalist and activist Yasser Al Haji says that things are much worse in the country than most Westerners realize, and that the UN estimate is conservative at best.

“The world powers, including Canada, are doing nothing,” Al Haji said in a lecture March 20 organized by Carleton University’s Centre for Media and Transitional Societies. “Most Syrians don’t want foreign intervention, but just give us some weapons and we’ll defend ourselves.”

Al Haji worked for state news media until the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began.

He slammed the foreign media’s portrayal of the Syrian revolution as a “civil war.”

“The damage done by the Free Syrian Army is limited,” he said. “When did AK-47s ever destroy the infrastructure of whole towns?”

Al Haji said that he was one of many Syrians who didn’t want to see a peaceful movement “escalate into a military uprising,” but he stressed that ordinary Syrians were “forced to take up arms.” Indeed, it’s highly difficult to argue with Al Haji on the point that a non-militant revolution has any serious traction in Syria when faced with the merciless brutality of the Assad regime.

“People holding cameras or phones in marches can get their hand shot off,” he said. “The snipers aim for that.”

Al Haji, who is also an organizer with the Local Co-ordination Committees of Syria opposition network, noted that reports of sectarian violence and Islamist extremism in Syria have also been “highly exaggerated.” He said that the fear of persecution against Christians in a post-Assad Syria is ridiculous, and that almost no Christians have died at the hands of the opposition so far.

“All the extremist groups in Syria right now are not more than a few hundred,” he said. By contrast, Assad’s Syrian Arab Army has used cluster bombs. The UN will investigate whether chemical weapons have been used in the conflict.

‘Too much blood’

Anas Marwah, a Carleton student, was in the audience at the talk. He visited Syria last December. A Syrian himself (his father is an executive member of a Syrian opposition group), Marwah echoed Al Haji’s depictions of the conflict.

“I saw a man on a motorcycle get his head blown off by a bomb even though he was far away from where the bomb landed,” Marwah said. He noted that the usage of cluster bombs and other types of explosives is evidence that the regime’s killing of its own people is anything but targeted.

Al Haji’s presentation also included a slideshow with photos of the devastation in Syria. The term “Arab Spring” seem an ill-fitting description when juxtaposed with the mass carnage depicted by the presentation. In fact, one can argue that there is no “Arab Spring” in Syria, but rather a kind of “Arab Nightmare.” Families of several dozen have been wiped out by a single air strike.

Al Haji said that he’s worked with around 200 foreign reporters in the past two years or so, and that it’s impossible for any of them to stay for a long time in Syria. The reports end up painting a picture that’s often incomplete. In other words, it’s hard for anyone to really understand the type of suffering inflicted upon the Syrian people.

“There’s too much blood,” said Al Haji, who’s skeptical that the conflict will be resolved diplomatically. He said that the least Syria’s supporters can do is send more weapons to the opposition. “We need more anti-aircraft weapons to protect ourselves from the air power of the regime.”

When asked whether the weapons will fall into the wrong hands and flow across borders (much like what happened in Libya), Al Haji answered that there are ways that intelligence agencies can make sure that military aid is delivered in a controlled fashion.

Some pictures in Al Haji’s slideshow were of bombed-out buildings on both sides of streets that stretched block after block. They looked like stills out of a science fiction film set in post-apocalyptic times. For Syrians still stuck in the centre of this destruction, the end of the world may seem more than an abstraction.

middle east, politics

On Robert Fisk

Published on: Embassy Magazine, January 24th, 2013

Veteran British foreign correspondent Robert Fisk criticized the Harper government’s policy on the Middle East at a public lecture Jan. 22 in Ottawa.

“I regard Mr. Harper as your personal problem, not mine,” said Fisk, who spoke to a packed auditorium of about 500 people at Carleton University. He was in Ottawa as part of a Canadian lecture tour hosted by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.

Having spent more than 30 years covering the Middle East for The Times and The Independent newspapers of Britain, Fisk’s knowledge of the region commands respect. Although many across the political spectrum may take issue with some of his political views, few doubt the breadth of Fisk’s experience.

This, of course, makes his harsh words toward the Harper government even more powerful. Aside from characterizing the current government’s approach to foreign policy as something “straight out of the Bible,” Fisk also pointed out that the Canadian government lacks imagination and vision when it comes to the Middle East.

“You will find that Western nations in general, their leadership, continue to follow Washington,” he said, “and as long as Washington does whatever Israel wants, which it largely does, there isn’t going to be any change.”

Fisk was of course alluding to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, a problem that continues to plague the region, driving many of the afflicted toward anger and violence. To Fisk, this is the tragic, but prevalent nature of the relationship between the Western world and what it knows as the Middle East.

“The problem is that most of the dictatorships over the years in the region have been supported by us democrats,” he said. Because of this, when Western politicians like George Bush or even Barack Obama speak of “freedom” and “liberation,” the Arabs of Iraq and Palestine, among other places, have a very different perception of those terms than the rest of us.

Their vision of the “West” is an entity that delivers its form of “democracy,” no matter how principled and cogent in theory, through bullets and bombs. For Fisk, it is a bloody way to illustrate what is to him, and many others, an elemental truism: any form of democratic governance in the Arab world must arise indigenously.

The Arab Awakening

So among a largely tragic and self-admittedly “pessimistic” interpretation of events in the Middle East, Fisk views the Arab Awakening (his preferred term) as a “positive development.”

“The term Arab Awakening was the title of George Antonius’ great 1938 book,” Fisk said.

He pointed out that the book was written at a time when Palestine was crumbling out of Arab hands, largely thanks to British policy, or, as Fisk would have it, “British deception.” Britain’s inability to deliver on the promise of Arab sovereignty in return for Arab opposition to the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century reminds one that current trends in the Middle East are not without historical precedence.

Fisk noted that the Arab Awakening has less to do with technology and social media than anger and education.

“When I went to Egypt in the past three or four years, as I often have done over the past 36 years, I find a population that knows more about the outside world,” he said. “Not just through Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, but because they’ve travelled.”

Fisk also said that the conditions of higher education in places like Egypt, even under dictatorship, improved drastically. This, combined with a better sense of the outside world, he noted, created an inevitable cosmopolitanism that made it easier for those in the Arab world to have a collective vision. In other words, they began to realize that things did not have to be the way they were.

Though current developments in Egypt, Syria, and other post-revolt nations have not been encouraging, the relatively cynical Fisk said that Arabs still see the Arab Awakening as a generally happy signal. He’s not the only one with this mindset. But for someone who has witnessed large-scale carnage, from the Lebanese civil war to present-day Syria, hope for a brighter future is not easy to come by.

“I lost my crystal ball a long time ago,” he lamented.

Fisk’s criticisms of the Syrian opposition have drawn anger from those who would otherwise agree with him on most other things. He has been quick to stress the “jihadi” elements in the Syrian opposition, along with its chronic corruption and use of violence, while also pointing out that Bashar al-Assad may not fall as inevitably as most would expect. His writings on the matter have elicited accusations that he has fallen for the “conspiracy theories” promoted by pro-Assad circles: a charge that Fisk flatly denies.

Having been in Hama during Hafez al-Assad’s great bloodletting in February 1982, no one can deny that Fisk knows what the tyrannical dynasty of Syria is capable of. But in typical Fisk fashion, he reminded the audience that while Western powers support the at least partially “jihadi” opposition in Syria, France is leading an offensive against similar groups in Mali.

If nothing else, one can draw from Fisk’s vast experience and knowledge the tiring (but worthwhile) reminder that foreign policy has always had more to do with circumstance and convenience than with conviction.

middle east, muslims, obama, politics, war on terror

Islamists vs. Liberals: a simplistic portrayal of the future

Published on: Embassy Magazine, September 26th, 2012 (with slight revisions)

To Canadian foreign correspondent Hadeel Al-Shalchi, coverage of the Arab Spring by Western media tends to gloss over certain complexities.

“The term ‘Arab Spring’ itself is sort of a slogan,” said Al-Shalchi, a Reuters journalist based in Tripoli, Libya. She spoke to an audience of about 100 people at Carleton University last Wednesday in a lecture organized by the Centre for Media and Transitional Societies.

“The Arab Spring is comprised of a number of different conflicts, each with its own regional dynamic and implications,” she said. For example, the major framework of analysis and speculation that many analysts use when talking about these conflicts, be it in Egypt or in Syria, tend to boil down to the “Islamists versus Liberals” paradigm.

To Al-Shalchi, this type of reductive phrasing saves time and space, but is a weak tool for understanding the real situations in those Arab countries experiencing social and political turmoil. Indeed, she is right.

The ascent of Muslim political parties in Egypt and Tunisia, and the involvement of extremist militias in the Libyan and Syrian uprisings have experts worrying about the future of the Arab Spring.

Fear that powerful parties like the Muslim Brotherhood will impose theocratic rule and eclipse the aspirations of a liberal democracy are probably not wholly uncalled for. The problem, however, is not this and other similar concerns, but rather in the way such concerns are expressed in many major media outlets.

In other words, what does one really mean when one invokes the “Islamists versus Liberals” framework of analysis? The trouble with these terms is that they mean different things to different people.

Canadian political theorists like Charles Taylor and Nader Hashemi have pointed out this problem of definition time and time again. Hashemi says that the term “secularism” has had very different manifestations in Turkey, for example, than in France. Both societies have had their own experiences with political religiosity, and both have come up with unique ways of neutralization.

Nor are Middle Eastern societies neatly divided into liberals and Islamists, each with its own set of predictable sociopolitical behaviors. Al-Shalchi spent a substantial amount of time on the ground in post-Mubarak Egypt, and noted that many so-called liberals ended up voting for Mohammed Morsi, the “Islamist” candidate.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is the only political entity in Egypt with a coherent vision for the future,” Al-Shalchi said. “Those who are more left-leaning and liberal-minded did not consolidate themselves after the fall of Mubarak, and fell out of the race in many ways.”

She then noted that she was disappointed as a Canadian that the Harper administration has not engaged effectively with the Arab Spring, and has made a number of “questionable” policy decisions. Unfortunately, she did not elaborate on what these decisions were when asked to do so.

Nonetheless, one can delineate along general lines why there may be hesitancy on the part of the Canadian government when dealing with Muslim majority countries. Prime Minister Harper has publically expressed his concerns with international “Islamicism,” and the purported threats it poses to Canadians.

The success of Islamist political parties (the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is also the main opposition group in Syria, anchoring the Syrian National Council) across the Middle East in the past year-and-a-half probably don’t serve to quell Harper’s concerns.

Whatever the merits of such an assumption, it should be noted that the Arab Spring, a push toward general democracy and civil engagement, is a good thing for those frightened of violent groups in religious garb.

Vali Nasr, the dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has pointed out that the best way to treat religious parties who are upset with the status quo is to channel their momentum into the official political process.

For decades, organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood have been banned in their respective countries by dictators. Chances for armed political resistance only increases under such circumstances. But when incorporated into the electoral system of democratic representation, “Islamist” platforms and agendas are exposed to the public for scrutiny. A dialogue between the elected and those who do the electing can actually occur.

Naturally, when put under the pressures of social democracy, organizations such as the Brotherhood has to take into account those with differing views and beliefs, who also make up a substantial portion of the population. All this undermines the simplistic paradigm of a strict “Islamists versus Liberals” dichotomy, which boxes complex peoples into categories, and, as Al-Shachi pointed out, don’t correspond very much with reality.