Author Archives: Helena

Notes as the imperial will starts to collapse

In 1997, I had the good fortune to move with my family to a place sufficiently far from the hype-soaked, MIC-funded confines of Washington DC that a person could actually have real conversations in public about issues like the Palestine Question without immediately being accused of being a traitor, or an anti-semite, or worse. Our Member of Congress here in Virginia’s 5th district is currently Robert Hurt, a pleasant but fairly good-old-boy-ish Republican who first won the seat in the Tea Party-inspired upheaval of 2010.

On Thursday, I was part of a 20-person citizen delegation organized by the indefatigable peace activist David Swanson that went to see Rep. Hurt, with the two goals of (1) pressing him to express his own position on the possibility of a US military attack on Syria and (2) expressing our own opposition to such an attack. (A fairly good local-news report of the meeting is here.) On the first point, Hurt said he “remained to be convinced of the need for the attack”, but he would “listen to the president and hear the administration’s briefings with an open mind.” During the meeting, I pressed him to listen to the admin’s briefings with a critical mind, as well, and not to be afraid to ask for questions and clarifications. He said he would. This seems all the more important in light of Rep. Alan Grayson’s account in today’s NYT of just how unsatisfactory he found the briefings that he was given on the subject, in his role as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Grayson, a Democratic member from South Florida, has emerged– along with libertarian-inclined Rep. Justin Amash of Wisconsin– as a leader of the DontattackSyria movement. (Any US citizen reading this who has not yet signed the petition there should do so asap.) All the more surprising because, as MJ Rosenberg has noted, Grayson had previously had something of a reputation as an AIPAC dupe.

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Asad’s survivability, and US MSM

David Sanger in NYT today:

How did Mr. Obama find himself in this trap? Partly, it was an accident of history: in the early, heady days of the Arab uprisings, no one bet that Mr. Assad would survive this long, in a country where his Alawite sect is a minority.

Not true. Of course, responsible analysis of foreign affairs is not a casino, so what analysts do is not “bet” on possibilities; rather, they make their best assessment based on the knowledge/experience base they have and their powers of analysis. On that basis, since the beginning of the uprising in Syria, I have expressed my judgment that Pres. Asad has had much stronger support in Syrian public opinion than, for example, former Pres. Mubarak had; and that all the pundits saying “Asad won’t last until ‘the end of 2011’,” or whatever other timeframe they put on it, were ill-informed and wrong.

In 2011, based on my many decades of experience analyzing and writing about matters Syrian, I was able to have my views heard in Washington a tiny bit– at two small think tanks. Did David Sanger or any other wellpaid participant in the MSM ever seek my views, or those of other analysts who, also knowing a lot about Syrian internal affairs, voiced the same conclusions? No. Instead, they all just kept quoting the same denizens of the media-Beltway bubble (with the ‘quoting’ often led by people at the so-called ‘Washington’ Institute for Near East Policy, which is actually the AIPAC-spawned Institute for NEP… not designed to be a source of cool, impartial analysis or policy advice.)

This bubble/echo-chamber mentality among the MSM and the rest of the along-the-Acela-line elite had consequences. In April 2012, one mid-level official in the U.S. diplomatic machine told me in exasperation, “We never imagined that Asad would still be in power this long! We were convinced he would be out by the end of 2011.” I reminded this person that I had warned all along that Asad’s regime had more popular support and political resilience than the other regimes that had toppled the previous year.

Anyway, all this is just for the record at this point. But please, don’t let David Sanger get away with his claim that “in the early, heady days of the Arab uprisings, no one bet that Mr. Assad would survive this long.” I was there, David Sanger, and I was presenting my analysis. It was just that you– and too many others like you– weren’t paying attention.

Crucially, if more people in the U.S. power elite had tried to really understand the dynamics inside Syria, the Obama administration would not have taken the step, in August 2011, of declaring that “Asad has to go before there can be any intra-Syrian negotiations.” It is that position, steadfastly hewed to by the administration since then, that has condemned the Syrian people to two additional years of wrenching internal struggle and horrific levels of destruction of their infrastructure and their society.

Kerry’s road to nowhere

So PLO negotiator Saeb Erakat and Israeli minister Tzipi Livni have met in Washington, shaken hands, and agreed to sit down and talk some more… and this is considered an achievement by Secretary of State Kerry? Give me a break. Twenty years ago, negotiators from the PLO and the Israeli government who had considerably stronger mandates and positions than these two people were sitting down in Oslo and Stockholm and were far deeper into negotiators than these two are today. (Those Oslo-launched talks continued for many years but with rapidly decreasing momentum. In the Oslo agreement the two sides signed on Sept. 13, 1993, they agreed that they would conclude their final-status peace agreement in May 1999. We are now 14 years and 3 months behind that deadline– which was missed primarily because of the machinations of Israel’s PM at the time, a man named B. Netanyahu. Meantime, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, has nearly tripled since 1993….)

In today’s WaPo, David Ignatius tries to present the ‘best case possible’ as to why this time around, the talks convened by Sec. Kerry will ‘succeed’. It is a sad and pathetic attempt.

He writes:

Skepticism about Kerry’s project is nearly universal, and it’s understandable when you look at the graveyard of past negotiations. But some interesting dynamics beneath the surface should make observers cautious about premature burial announcements.

What Kerry has done, in effect, is get the two sides to grab hold of a stick of dynamite. If they can’t defuse it within nine months through an agreement, it’s going to blow up: The moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank would collapse; militant Palestinians would take statehood to the United Nations, probably this time with broad European support; an angry Arab League would withdraw its peace initiative. It would be a big mess for everyone.

Riiiiight. Like the Obama administration’s last big attempt to use the ‘threat’ of a big-bang deadline to scare reluctant negotiators to reach agreement worked so well? I refer, of course, to the threat of a government-spending sequester if Congressional negotiators failed to reach agreement on a budget. That worked really well, didn’t it? No reason to think a similar big-bang deadline threat will work any better on the Palestine issue, now.

This time, the scenario that threatens is one that might be seen as a ‘big mess’ by liberal Zionists and all that top rank of PLO leaders who have been living high on the US/EU payroll for the past 20 years… But, ahem, those two groups of people are not ‘everyone’. (Actually, David, in case you hadn’t noticed, the situation in which many millions of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and the extensive Palestinian diaspora have been living for several decades now can certainly be characterized as an existing and chronic ‘big mess’. Protection for the 500,000 stateless Palestinian refugees in Syria, anyone?)

I don’t know how much slack I want to cut Ignatius for a piece that, at its best looks like a piece of lazy, access-ensuring backscratching. But really, I think he knows better than to come out with some of the statements he makes today.

Like this one: “If they fail this time, it will cost the parties dearly, probably Israel most of all. That provides harsh leverage for Washington.” Oh come on. This week, AIPAC just lazily rippled a little of its congressional muscle on two issues: increasing the pressure on Iran, and continuing U.S. support for Egypt’s coup-committing military. If there’s any kind of a showdown between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration, you think Obama would be in any mood to exercise “harsh leverage” on Israel? Get real.

And then, there is this stunning assessment from Ignatius: “The borders question is, at bottom, an Israeli political issue.” Whaaaat? Like, um, it has no particular consequence for the Palestinians?

The reason I think this is a lazy, access-ensuring article is that David appears not to have either talked to anyone except ‘special envoy’ Martin Indyk (whom he describes as “a longtime friend”), or to have done any thinking of his own as he composed the piece. As I know well, David has a lot of “longtime friends” he could have talked to– including many Palestinians, who could have set him right on many issues. But hey, maybe he was hurrying to get to the beach so just doing stenography for his buddy Indyk seemed like the easiest and quickest way to get today’s column written.

Stenography is not, of course, anything like the writing of a broadly informed and well argued opinion piece. But it does have a value, if it helps reveal what the policymakers are thinking. Maybe this is the money-quote from David’s piece: “An intriguing option for Kerry is a settlement that leaves unresolved some especially difficult issues, such as the status and division of Jerusalem.”

So it seems that Indyk and Kerry are not really insisting on concluding a final-status, i.e. conflict-ending, full peace agreement, at all. Which was, let us recall, what Israel and the PLO absolutely both committed themselves to concluding, back in the Oslo Agreement of 1993. So now, the relationship between the two parties seems less robust than it was 20 years ago… and what Kerry is aiming for, at best, is a renegotiation of the terms of the ‘interim self-government deal’ they reached at Oslo that year.

What a deeply tragic farce.

Meantime, the concrete continues to get poured in new emanations of Israel’s appalling, 19th-century colonial settler project throughout East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. Israel continues to maintain its tight, life-denying siege around Gaza. Jerusalem’s ancient and proud society of Palestinians continues to get squeezed extremely hard. Young Israeli conscripts continue to operate the cattle-pens known as ‘crossing points’ throughout the West Bank. The PLO/PA, lacking anything like sovereignty status, remains quite unable to offer its own, Palestinian, land as a safe haven to Palestinian refugees facing terrible assaults– from both sides– in Syria’s civil war…

And western governments continue their bizarre practice of financing Israel’s continued operation of all aspects of its military occupation of Palestine. Which means, basically, that it looks as if it can go on forever. Truly a diplomatic road to nowhere.

Thinking about Egypt, and how it affects Palestinians

Events have been moving very fast in Egypt– and they continue to do so. Right about now, longtime ‘liberal’ icon Mohamed ElBaradei is being sworn in as PM of the new, coup-birthed order in Cairo. (Update: Or not… )

My instincts from the beginning were to be very wary of the ‘popular’ movement that started gathering in large numbers on Cairo’s streets last weekend. Yes, I knew that the youthful-idealist movement Tamarrod had gathered large numbers of signatures on their ‘Recall the president’ petition (though the real number of genuine, unique signatories will never be known.) Yes, I knew that the elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, and his government had made many, very serious mis-steps throughout their 12 months in office. Several of my friends have expressed great public enthusiasm about the popular, anti-Morsi movement.

But still.

Still, there were always many indications that this ‘popular movement’ was not all it was pretending to be. There was evidence of it being connected to a deliberate, lengthy, and well-funded campaign of defamation against Morsi, as Issandr Amrani has well documented. There was evidence of significant funding for the ‘popular’ movement, whose bilingual laser lightshows, fireworks displays, etc.,took a page right out of the theatrics  of the (also Saudi- and U.S.-backed) March 14 movement in Lebanon… And when, after the coup, the supply of gasoline and fuel oil suddenly resumed, it seemed very clear that the military-industrial complex in Egypt had previously been hoarding supplies to sow nationwide eco-social mayhem, in a page right out of the anti-Mossadegh coup of 1953.

I recall the discussion that Bill the spouse and I had with longtime MB spokesman Dr. Esam El-Erian in Cairo in June 2011, when he warned: “Without a change in the policies of Saudi Arabia, these current revolutions won’t succeed… In Egypt, Saudi Arabia is the main force of counter-revolution.”

Now, Borzou Daragahi and Heba Saleh have done a great job reconstructing some of the lead-up to the coup, in this article in the Financial Times.

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Syria: The genocide risk, and no-fly zones

There are so many disturbing aspects to Pres. Obama’s decision to start providing weapons to the Syrian opposition(s) that it is hard to know where to start in commenting thereon. Perhaps, with the completely unclear, unsubstantiated nature of the allegations Obama’s spokesperson made regarding the Asad regime’s use of chemical weapons? Obama’s administration hasn’t even bothered, as Pres G.W. Bush did back in February 2003, to make any public presentation of the ‘evidence’ on which it bases its allegations. Do the president and his team take us all for mindless morons who will follow wherever he leads, or do they think we somehow don’t deserve to see the ‘evidence’ that they claim to have? … Or, do they know that the ‘evidence’ they have is all so flimsy and inconclusive that, once exposed to the light of day, it would do nothing to validate the president’s decision to take a huge step up the escalation ladder regarding Syria?

… Alternatively, should I make the point– that Marc Lynch, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Juan Cole, and others have already made– that we have heard no public exposition of any kind at all from the President or any of his top-level advisers of what the sought-for strategic end-point is for this latest extremely troubling and escalatory step? How, Mr. Obama, can you assure Americans or anyone else that this latest American escalation will not end up leading us all into a quagmire in Syria of exactly the same kind that, seven years ago, you rightly saw as having been the case with the U.S. military action against Iraq?

… Well, other people have made all the above arguments– and many other good ones, too. I want to concentrate here on two other, little-discussed aspects of the Syrian situation: First, the real and mounting risk of genocide in Syria– one that is being advocated, and mobilized around, by numerous hardline factions within in the same ‘opposition’ constellation that Obama now supports. And second, the disutility/absurdity of the whole notion of a ‘safe haven/ no fly zone’ that is now reportedly being discussed and planned for.

Let’s start with the risk of genocide.

On the risk of genocide in Syria.

Both ‘sides’ in Syria have been guilty of committing great violence against the other side and against far too many of the ordinary citizens caught up in the cross-fire. But only one side contains people who are openly engaged in sectarian/religious hate-speech and on occasion actual genocidal actions against members of other targeted groups. These are the takfiris: the hard-line Sunni fundamentalists from Al-Qaeda, Jabhat Al-Nusra, and myriad other loosely allied groups in the opposition who openly call for the killing of Shiites simply because they are Shiites, as well as of Christians, Alawites, and other non-Sunnis.. and even of anyone in their own (Sunni) community who disagrees with their own hardline views of the world.

Takfir, for those readers not familiar with the notion, is the act of denouncing someone else as a non-believer or an apostate. And that denunciation in and of itself, in the takfiri worldview, not only allows but also frequently mandates that the person(s) thus denounced be killed. The term takfiri could be translated as “denouncer”, but that would be too soft a term. The takfiris now in action in broad swathes of Syria  are genocidaires-in-waiting, like the genocidaires of Rwanda in the months leading up to April 1994. And like those genocidaires, these takfiris are disseminating their hate propaganda as widely and publicly as they can, trying to ramp up the level of fear and hatred in every way, including of course on the Internet.

Takfirism is a real and present danger wherever the black banners of these hate-filled extremists can be seen. It is what lies behind acts such as the blowing up of a Shiite mosque (and, reportedly, numerous other anti-Shiite actions) in the eastern Syrian village of Hatla last week. Takfirism was behind the shooting of the (Sunni) boy in Aleppo last week, on the mere grounds that he had “taken the name of the Prophet in vain.” Takfirism was behind the desecration of the Mar Elias church in Qusayr by some rebel bands, before the town was retaken by government forces ten days ago. Other examples abound.

I have heard many people here in the United States saying things, over the past few weeks, like “The Shiites and the Sunnis have been fighting each other for ever… Don’t blame America for everything that happens between them.” These kinds of arguments are either woefully ill-informed, or just plain dishonest. Yes, there have been many periods of tension between Shiites and Sunnis in the past (as well as tensions between Muslims and Christians in the Arab world), and these tensions seem to be a steep upswing right now. BUT the following facts also need to be borne in mind:

  1. On many occasions in recent years, our government has indeed taken actions that exacerbated tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in the region. Much of the policy pursued by the U.S. occupation administration in Iraq had the effect (intended or not) of essentializing and deepening the differences between the two groups, and turning politics inside Iraq and far beyond it sharply toward sectarianism and away from ‘national’ or more broadly humanistic forms of identification. Much of the policy pursued by the U.S. regarding Iran has been based even more intentionally on whipping up anti-Shiite fears and hatreds among the Sunni-dominated governments of the Arab side of the Gulf. The United States is not an innocent actor in these matters.
  2. Historically, Sunni-Shiite relations have frequently gone through periods when they are not very acute, or even considered by many Muslims to be very important. The number of Shiite-Sunni marriages in countries that contain both populations has often been fairly high. And even today, inside Syria, a large portion of the country’s Sunni citizens continue to side with the government and fight in the national army. If this was not the case, given the fact that Sunnis make up around 75% of the national population, there is no chance that the regime could have survived this long.
  3. The argument that ‘Sunnis and Shiites have been fighting for ever and we can’t do anything about it’ is one that, in the Syrian context, seems to put equal responsibility for sectarian hate-mobilization on both the government and the opposition side. But this is not the case. On the opposition side, there is a clear, visible, and significant portion of the opposition fighting forces that are mobilized and seek to mobilize others overwhelmingly on the basis of inter-sect hatred. On the government side there is no such mobilization (and also, no evidence of hate-based acts like desecrations or genocidal mass killings.)

My understanding of Obama’s Syria policy for the past two years is that the president has been blown about by competing winds– probably starting off with a baseline reluctance to get drawn into a repeat of the Iraq quagmire, but never quite figuring how to do so. This, against stubborn background aspects of Washington policymaking such as:

  1. Nearly thirty years of solid anti-Asad agitation (pere et fils), and the resulting tough anti-Syrian sanctions from Washington.
  2. The campaign that Hillary Clinton successfully waged, back in the summer 2011, to get Obama to declare that ‘Asad has to go’, and to make that– rather than the achievement of a negotiated settlement among Syrians— the top priority of U.S. policy towards Syria.

So now, it is Hillary’s husband who, using the crudest kinds of appeals to a version of Obama’s ‘manhood’, has pushed Obama over the precipice of promising direct U.S. military support for the Syria rebels. This is a position from which he will now find it hard to back down, even if he wants to. Make no mistake, this escalation of the climate of confrontation and tension in and regarding Syria has set in train consequences that are extremely hard to predict… but none of them will be good. Violence, as we all know (or surely, should know by now?), only begets more violence. And Obama’s decision to pour U.S. weapons into Syria is definitely an act of escalation and violence. Escalation, that is, over and above the previous policy of merely colluding with and quietly aiding Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan as those powers worked together to funnel weapons and foreign fighters into Syria.

By not standing up firmly against escalation, and by not committing himself fully and robustly to pursuit of a negotiated settlement, Obama has made himself almost a prisoner of the forces urging more violence. There are people in the Syrian opposition who have never wanted violence. There are others who got tempted by it a while back, but who now express a strong desire to see the conflict and its resulting destruction brought to an end. The voices and political strength of all these Syrians would have been bolstered if Obama had come out foursquare in favor of a negotiated settlement. As it is, his most recent decision has left them sidelined, and has given considerable new momentum to the men of violence– all of them, on both of the ‘sides’ in Syria.

On the anti-government side, I know that the stated policy of the CIA and its buddies in the Special Ops command has been to try to find non-extremist fighting forces in the Syrian opposition and try to strengthen them (in good part by promising them better capabilities, now including arms), thereby– or so the argument goes– reducing the power of the real takfiris. This is a fool’s game. Even after many months of the CIA and its buddies working in Turkey and Jordan to try to figure out the ever-shifting who’s who in the Syrian opposition, and to unify the allegedly non-extreme portions of the ‘Free Syrian Army’, it is clear that that effort has failed. The takfiris are stronger than ever. No-one in Washington (or in Incirlik or Amman) can be sure that arms funneled in to the Syrian opposition over the next few months won’t end up in takfiri hands.

Moreover, by succumbing to the first round of the FSA people’s blackmail (“You have to give us weapons, otherwise the takfiris will stay stronger than us!”), the stage has only been set for the next round of FSA blackmail, and the ones coming after that, too. No amount or types of weapons will ever be sufficient for these people’s demands. (And they have already been shown to have had their own supply, in some places, of CW agents like sarin. So what else can they possibly want?)

Indeed, what they most likely want is for the United States and NATO to enter the fighting directly and win their war for them, which is what the oppositionists in Libya back in 2011 achieved so brilliantly, and with such disastrous effects both for the people of Libya and for the safety and security of a broad swathe of Africa.

… Which is why we need to come, very soon, to a serious consideration of this whole business of a ‘no-fly zone’. But before I get to that, just a couple more points about the risk of genocide.

Firstly, we now know that there is a very present risk of genocide inside Syria, as has already been foreshadowed by the wide and systematic dissemination of hate-propaganda, and by the commission of numerous actual acts of hate-based violence that have stemmed from that propaganda (and that have, in turn, been actively glorified by many of those same propaganda organs.)

Secondly, we know that whenever widespread genocides have occurred in recent history, this has always happened in the midst of war and armed conflict. War and armed conflict provide the circumstances of massive social upheaval in which killing your neighbors just because of who they are, rather than because of anything they have done, can come to seem ‘normal’, or even admirable. In normal, peaceful countries, there may be individual hatemongers, or even broad networks of them. But the hatemongers cannot get a whole population caught up with their propaganda except in circumstances of continuing and destructive conflict.

Thus, if we want to prevent the eruption of a full-blown genocide in Syria, the best way to achieve this is by working 24 hours a day to de-escalate tensions, to conclude local ceasefires wherever and whenever possible, and to work with all parties for a negotiated, longterm peace.

On ‘no-fly zones’:

Of Washington’s three experiences with the imposition of a no-fly zone, the two that occurred in the Middle East are the ones with which I’m most familiar. That is, the pair of NFZ’s that the George H.W. Bush administration imposed on Iraq in the immediate aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, in early 1991, and the one that some NATO powers imposed on Libya in March 2011.

The Iraqi NFZ’s were established with a clear and somewhat persuasive purpose: To deny the Saddam regime the ability to use airpower against the two opposition movements that had arisen in the north and south of the country in the very last days of Desert Storm– in response, it needs to be noted, to the explicit call that Pres. Bush broadcast, to “the people and army of Iraq” that they should rise up and overthrow their president. Briefly, what happened was that in the north and south of the country, large-scale insurrections did almost immediately result. As soon as it was able, the Saddam regime moved in to crush them, which it did without mercy. But the armed forces of the same U.S. president who had called for the insurrection, which were poised on the southern borders of Iraq, never lifted a finger to help the besieged insurrectionists. They stayed south of the border because of decisions made in Washington (and also, at the advice of their hosts in Saudi Arabia.) The best that Washington felt it could do was try to deny to the Iraqi military the right to use airpower in their bloody putting-down of the insurrections. Washington claimed that Security Council resolution 688, which expressed grave concern about Saddam’s anti-insurrection moves, gave it a mandate to impose the no-fly zones. But anyway, back in 1991 the Soviet Union was in the throes of falling apart, and China was still much weaker than it is today; so no effective challenge was mounted to  the US’s imposition of the NFZ’s.

The one in Northern Iraq was more far-reaching than the one in the south. In the south, the Iraqi air force was still allowed to use helicopters. In the north, both choppers and fixed-wing aircraft were prohibited. In both zones, maintaining the NFZ involved the US (and its ever-willing junior partner the UK) using a significant amount of offensive force against Iraqi air-defense installations. The wielding of the NFZ weapon against the Saddam regime went hand-in-hand, throughout the 1990s and right until 2003, with the imposition of ever-tougher economic sanctions against the country. The sanctions were tied to the allegations about Iraq’s development and possession of various forms of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, including chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons; and they had a devastating effect on nearly all Iraqis– except for those within the northern NFZ, who were exempted from many portions of the sanctions and who were able to (re)build some fairly robust social institutions throughout the Kurdish-populated parts of the north.

In a sense, in Iraq, the imposition of NFZ’s in April 1991 was a fallback position from the other, more aggressive policy that some people urged, of sending the U.S. military marching from Saudi Arabia all the way to Baghdad and toppling the regime there and then. The NFZ applied in Northern Iraq probably did save lives. It is hard to say, of course, how many additional lives might have been saved if Pres. Bush had NOT issued that completely reckless earlier call on the people and army of Iraq to rise against their rulers.

The NFZ regime in Iraq did nothing to provide any longterm resolution of the country’s many remaining problems of grossly abusive governance. But along with the sanctions regime, the Iraqi NFZ’s froze in place a political situation of political dictatorship for another 12 years; and meanwhile, the sanctions killed an estimated 500,000 or more Iraq’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens. Not at all a humane situation.

The NFZ that a portion of NATO applied against Libya in March 2011 also had an ostensible ‘humanitarian’ goal: Namely, the ‘saving’ of the population of Benghazi which, Washington claimed, was in imminent danger of being massacred. As I wrote on this blog at the time, there were alternative mechanisms being actively explored at the time, primarily by the African Union, to negotiate a de-escalation of the tensions around Benghazi; and an African Union delegation was just on its way to Benghazi to launch this negotiation just as NATO announced its decision; and it turned back.

(I wish that now, just two years later and in light of all the terrible violence and social/political breakdown into which Libya has fallen since then, some officials in Washington might wish they had given the African Union delegation a bit more time to do its work? But actually, I don’t think that any American officials from Obama on down have yet shown any sign that they’ve learned anything useful from the tragic experience of Libya.)

In Libya, as we know, the U.S. and its allies took hold of the original, limited Security Council resolution (1973) calling for “all necessary means” to be used to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas from attack by the Qaddafi regime and pushed their implementation of it way beyond its original wording and intent, to undertake airborne military actions in support of the opposition as the opposition gathered around Tripoli and overthrew the regime. (This was seen as yet another great victory for, and vindication of, airpower. Of course, since the only people with boots on the ground were the ill-disciplined, internally competing Libyan militias, they are the forces that have been controlling the country ever since.)

The leaderships in China and Russia both felt they had been seriously misled by the western powers when they agreed to the terms of resolution 1973. They are not about to repeat that mistake. (And they are also both much more significant players on the world scene today than they were back in 1991.) The chances that these two governments would sign off on any kind of NFZ resolution regarding Syria are zero. If the United States and the dwindling number of governments that remain in its so-called ‘Friends of Syria’ group of countries want to establish an NFZ inside Syria, absent any enabling resolution from the Security Council, this will be– and will be treated as– an act of war. And if, as the recent reports in the WSJ had it, the plan is for the NFZ to be established just north of Syria’s southern border with Jordan, then evidently the military power of neighboring Israel will be a factor in the situation…

And then, what would be the strategic goal or end-game of any US-backed NFZ in Syria– whether in the north or the south? Would it, as in Libya, be simply a hasty way-station or act of political legerdemain on the way to supporting the rebels in a campaign to capture Damascus? Or would the creation of an NFZ be intended as  a less overtly ‘strategic’ move, but one that would create a kind of buffer zone within Syria in which the opposition forces could– along with their families, rest and regroup?

If it’s the latter, then the external forces protecting that ‘safe haven’ with their airpower would have some hard questions to answer. primarily, these two:

  1. What kind of opposition forces would be protected within the havens (see ‘takfiris‘, above)?
  2. How, by acting solely from the air, would the U.S. or its allies police the haven and ensure that takfiris or other men of violence would not terrorize the population inside the haven and/or continue their campaign to topple the regime in Damascus (and then, perhaps, continue on to ‘liberate’ Golan, and then Palestine)?

The idea of creating safe havens inside Syria in which the much-abused remnants of the country’s civilian population can be ‘protected’ by the actions of well-meaning foreigners may sound very appealing. The political realities of any such project are horrendous. Let’s hope that just as much thought is being put into the complex politics of any such move before it is undertaken, as is reportedly being put into doing the logistical planning for it.

The Hizbullah factor in the Syrian conflict

Practically all westerners looking at the influence that Hizbullah’s entry into the Syrian conflict has been having on the conflict have focused wholly on the military role that Hizbullah’s very well-trained and highly motivated fighters have played on the battlefield, especially in helping bring about the Syrian government’s reassertion of authority on Tuesday night, in Qusayr. But having studied Hizbullah’s development and SOP’s in Lebanon over the course of many years (see e.g. here and here), I suspect that the main impact its involvement has on events in Syria could well be in civilian affairs– that is, if the Baath Party and its allies are open to receiving coaching from Hizbullah’s civilian-affairs cadres on how to organize and build resilience in traumatized communities in times of war, then that could make all the difference.

During both of Hizbullah’s “definitive” battles against the (militarily very much stronger) IDF, in 1996 and 2006, it was the strength of the party’s civilian mass organizing that allowed it to “win”: In both cases, the Israeli government’s key war aim was to inflict such terrible losses on all Lebanese citizens that they would turn against Hizbullah; and in both cases, the effectiveness of the civilian mass base and the network of strategic alliances that Hizbullah had previously built up ensured that those bullying– one could even say openly terroristic– tactics pursued by the Israeli leaders were completely ineffective (even, very counter-productive) at the political level. In both cases, Hizbullah emerged from the Israeli assault politically stronger than it had been prior to the assault, and with its core military infrastructure unbroken.

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Visser on the 10th anniversary of Iraq invasion

Reidar Visser has an intriguing blog post today, titled, “To Hell with Iraq: Ten Years of Western Ignorance, Incompetence, and Bureaucratic Madness”. In the post, this experienced analyst of Iraq’s internal politics (and the author of my company’s 2010 publication A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005-2010) makes this important argument:

The suggestion that the Iraq War served as inspiration for the Arab Spring comes across as ahistorical in the extreme. By 2006, the Arab world had largely concluded the war in Iraq was a disaster. If anything, by the end of 2010, with sectarian fronts hardening in Iraq again, this impression had only grown stronger. In fact, a cogent argument in the opposite direction can plausibly be made: If it hadn’t been for the increased sectarian polarization in Iraq under the Obama administration, the Arab Spring – a natural result of stale authoritarian regimes crumbling under their own weight –  might  well have taken on a less sectarian direction, with fewer opportunities for regional states like Iran and Qatar to fish in sectarian waters.

In his blog post, Visser reflects with his usual wisdom on the extremely tragic situation that Iraqis have lived through over recent years– and that they continue to live through today, ten years after Pres. George W. Bush’s invasion of their country. He also writes in the post about the sad toll that the past few years have taken on him personally.

In what Visser writes about Iraq it is probably appropriate– since Pres. Barack Obama is still in office– that he places particular emphasis on the serious mistakes that he sees Obama as having made in Iraq policy since he came into office.

He writes:

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Iraq, Palestine, and America’s fetishization of ‘constitutions’

I watched BBC World News as long as I could tonight. It was the dreadful Katty Kay on again. In the story on the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, her guest was– L. Paul Bremer! Oh my goodness, the BBC are such lapdogs, these days. So Kay gave Bremer (and he took) every opportunity to whitewash the effects of the invasion and subsequent ten years of U.S. military occupation of Iraq… At the end, he said the thing he was “proudest of” regarding the years he spent as the U.S. pro-consul in Iraq, was that “Iraq now has the most liberal and progressive constitution of any country in the Arab world.”

This, on a day in which at least 65 Iraqis were killed in vile, sectarian bombings that demonstrated to everyone worldwide (if this still needed demonstrating to anyone?) that the country still has very deep, unresolved issues of internal political difference that plague the lives of all of its 33 million people.

So a “constitution”– that is, a piece of paper with words on that at one point in time  a certain number of “parliamentarians” who were elected in complex circumstances and under the jackboot of the occupying force signaled their support for, but that the ruling powers transgress on a daily basis, anyway– is supposed to somehow make all this terrible and continuing grief worth while?

Americans have such a strong capacity to fetishize constitutions! It is almost unbelievable. I mean, even though Bremer was talking to the representative of a (nominally) British news outlet, he somehow thought everyone around the world would join him in seeing that a “constitution” in Iraq could be counted as a signal achievement?

Britain, I note, has never had a constitution– and nor have a number of other countries. In some of them (e.g. Israel), internal conflict is deepseated but is managed in ways other than through recourse to a constitution. In others, including Britain, the internal conflict is not so deep; but when it occurs is generally fairly effectively managed through a plethora of other national institutions.

For Americans, I think, having a constitution is one of the only things, really, that draws and keeps this disparate group of settlers and immigrants all united. That probably accounts, at the domestic level, for the high regard in which the idea of a “constitution” is held. (Even if the constitution in question denied the vote, at the time of adoption, to women, indentured people, enslaved people, and native Americans… ) And then, Americans at the official level are so solipsistic that they think that whatever they value for themselves, must be ipso facto, valuable for everyone else, too!

But I bet that more than a few of them also see the whole idea of trying to foist  “constritutions” and “constitutionalism” off onto captive peoples as an alternative to actually resolving the deep issues of national sovereignty and self-determiation, as more than a little bit attractive. (Plus, how many American people’s careers have been made, or substantially  enhanced, by the wor they have done in “training” Iraqis in the finer points of constitution-writing?)

The other main example I’m thinking of in this regard is Palestine. Remember how, back in 1993-94, the PLO and the Israelis agreed that there would be created in the occupied Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank a “Palestinian Interim Self-Governing Authority” that would perform certain functions in some parts of the OPTs on an interim basis, pending the conclusion within the next five years of a final status peace agreement (between the PLO and Israel, I not– and NOT between the PISGA and Israel)?

Well, very soon indeed after that interim agreement was reached at Oslo, two things happened. One was that everyone started treated the PISGA– soon renamed the “PA”– as if it were a Palestinian government. The other was that many otherwise fine people in the Palestinian movement started getting very engaged and tied up in knots over fine points to do with the constitution of the PISGA— as if it were, indeed, a government!

Meantime, as we know, Israeli control over all the OPTs continued; additional settlers were systematically pumped into the OPTs; and the lives of the OPT Palestinians became more and more thoroughly curtailed an controlled by the Israeli occupying authorities.

What a dangerous distraction that whole exercise in “constitutionalism” turned out to be… In Palestine, as in Iraq.

At the Paris International Cookbook Fair

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Gaza Kitchen at the Paris International Cookbook Fair, 2013

Today is the second day of the Paris International Cookbook Fair, which is taking place all around me in the Salles du Carousel, at the Louvre. It’s been pretty exciting to be here representing the team that put together the fabulous Gaza Kitchen cookbook. This morning I went to a talk given by the main Fair organizer, Edouard Cointreau of Gourmand International magazine. He made the very important point that producing a cookbook is ALWAYS a team effort– and that has very much been the case with Gaza Kitchen!

I wish that Maggie Schmitt and Laila el-Haddad, the co-authors– or at least, one of them– could have been here too! But sadly, both of them have smallish babies at home to look after. (Last year, in addition to birthing the book, each of them also had a new baby. Wonderful babies! Fabulously talented and capable women!) Laila, Maggie, Juan Alarcon the graphic designer, and I as publisher formed the core of the Gaza Kitchen team,

Gaza Kitchen at the Paris Cookbook Fair

Gaza Kitchen at the Cookbook Fair

But all of us (especially I) have had a lot of other people we’ve needed to draw on throughout the project. When Ed was talking about teamwork this morning, he said that some cookbook projects have 30 or even 50 photographers working on them! That made me even more admiring of Laila and Maggie, who between the two of them produced ALL the content in Gaza Kitchen… the recipes, the photographs, and the info-boxes. And the quality of their photographs certainly holds up to the best of what I’ve been seeing here. In fact,because the photos have not been extensively “styled”, to me that makes them even better.

Talk business at the Paris Cookbook Fair

Talking business at the Paris Cookbook Fair

There have been two main benefits to being here. One has been that I have learned a LOT here! I wish, actually, that I had come last year, or two years ago, when we were still planning the project. There is a huge display on the upper level, showing many hundreds of cookbooks that have been published around the world in the past year or so: An invaluable learning tool. Then, there are all the displays on the floor of the exhibition hall… and the talks that are scheduled throughout the day in two or three different venues. Finally, many of the presenters and other attendees whom I’ve met here have been generous with their advice and their interest.

The other big advantage of being here is that I’ve been able to make some fabulous contacts… I’ve had two fairly solid expressions of interest from people who are considering buying foreign-language rights to the book; and a couple of good leads to other possible rights deals.

Some other big points from Ed Cointreau’s talk this morning on ‘Trends in Global Cookbook Publishing’, in brief, were as follows:

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United Airlines mag in contortions over Palestinian food…

I’m in Paris. I brought Laila el-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt’s fabulous book The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey here, to the Paris International Cookbook Fair. So what do I discover in the seatback pocket on my flight over from Washington? A multi-page series in the United Airlines seatback mag that’s about the “wonderful” food scene in Jerusalem.

Hilariously (or not, depending on your POV), it says this

what’s long been considered Israeli food– hummus, falafel, mixed grilled meats, fresh chopped salads– is in fact cuisine borrowed from the local Levantines.

These dishes have “long” been considered Israeli food… By whom? And for how long? Longer than, say, 65 years?

And then are those mysterious “local Levantines”. There are a number of references to these strange creatures throughout the article, which was written by someone called Wendell Steavenson. But zero references to Palestinians or even “Arabs”… just denatured, completely de-cultured “Levantines”.

I could understand, maybe, an Israeli magazine publishing something parochial and silly like this. But the seatback mag of a major American airline? And one that flies to large numbers of destinations around the world– including, more than a dozen in Arab countries? Really, United Airlines, this is pathetic.