Devastating Beirut Explosion: An Accident or Something More Sinister?

By Stephen Lendman

Global Research, August 05, 2020

On Tuesday, a massive explosion rocked Beirut, Lebanon’s port area.

Scores were killed, thousands wounded, dozens of people missing, along with widespread destruction and damage.

According to Lebanese authorities, around 2,700 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate were stored in a port area warehouse for six years without proper safety precautions — an unacceptable ticking time bomb.

The material is used in agricultural fertilizers and dynamite. Its detonation is believed to have caused what happened, perhaps by a negligent spark.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun convened the country’s High Defense Council to discuss how to deal with the disaster.

Lebanon’s Daily Star reported that rescue workers dug through rubble overnight searching for bodies and survivors, adding:

The high death and injury toll is expected to rise. A two-week state of emergency was declared.

The port of Lebanon and surrounding areas resembled the aftermath of a powerful bomb blast.

At least three Beirut hospitals were destroyed, two others damaged, a devastating blow to the city’s hard-pressed healthcare system when thousands injured from the blast need treatment, including surgery.

According to the Red Cross, dozens of wounded people are in critical condition. The organization is providing treatment for non-critical injuries.

President of Beirut’s Order of Nurses Mirna Doumit said what happened was a “catastrophe” to Lebanon’s “already bleeding” healthcare system, adding:

“I don’t find words to describe what happened. It’s like we are in a horror film.”

American University of Beirut’s Nasser Yassin said Lebanon needs international help to cope with what happened, adding:

“Like many issues for the last few months, we’ve seen the Lebanese government not taking the right decisions when it comes to the economy, or finances or social issues.”

“And I can imagine that this disaster, this catastrophe, will be dealt by the way Lebanese people do – relying on themselves and the support of their communities.”

According to Germany’s GFZ geosciences center, Tuesday’s blast was the equivalent of a 3.5 magnitude earthquake.Beirut Is Burning: Rebellion Against the Elites Has Commenced

A personal note: I experienced an earthquake of this magnitude over half a century ago in San Diego, CA.

I was in my 10th floor’s office at the time. Everything shook violently for what seemed like an eternity.

It was only around a minute or two. On the phone at the time, my initial reaction was to get under my desk to avoid falling ceiling debris that didn’t happen.

Damage reported in the city was minor. I, others in my office, and family feared something serious was happening, fortunately not so.

Major destruction and damage in Beirut affected around a four-square-mile area. It was heard and felt scores of miles distant from the port of Beirut.

An investigation was initiated to determine the cause and who bears responsibility.

Import traffic was diverted to the port of Tripoli. Most likely what happened was caused by negligence, not terrorism or another form of attack. The fullness of time will tell more.

Ammonium nitrate was responsible for deadly explosions in Tianjin, China (2015), North Korea’s Ryongchon rail station (2004) Toulouse, France (2001), Galveston Bay in the port of Texas City (1947), Oppau, Germany (1921), and Faversham, UK (1916).

The port of Lebanon is the country’s import/export hub. Vitally needed wheat supplies stored there were destroyed.

Massive destruction and damage,  along with the loss of essential food supplies dealt a major blow to already dire economic conditions in the country.

While negligence most likely was responsible for what happened, possible sabotage or something as sinister can’t be ruled out.

Lebanon has the misfortune of bordering Israel. According to the Netanyahu regime, Hezbollah controls the port of Beirut.

While no obvious Israeli fingerprints are on what happened, Tuesday’s blast was reminiscent on February 14, 2005.

At the time, a powerful car bomb blast killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 20 others, scores injured.

The blast left a 30-foot-wide/six-foot-deep crater. Syria, then Hezbollah, were falsely blamed for what happened, four Hezbollah members wrongfully indicted by a Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) in the Netherlands.

Israel was responsible for what happened, targeted killings one of its specialties.

At the time, Hezbollah-intercepted Israeli aerial surveillance footage and audio evidence showed Hariri’s route on the day of his assassination.

Criminal law expert Hasan Jouni called its evidence compelling.

North Lebanon Bar Association head Antoine Airout said “revelations by Hezbollah (were) very serious and objective.”

Syria and Hezbollah had nothing to gain from what happened. Israel clearly benefitted, including by false accusations against its enemies.

At the time, Middle East journalist Patrick Seale said “(i)f Syria (or Hezbollah) killed (Hariri), it must be judged an act of political suicide…hand(ing) (their) enemies a weapon with which to deliver (a destabilizing) blow.”

Israel’s fingerprints were all over what happened, Hezbollah falsely blamed.

While vast destruction and damage in Beirut on Tuesday most likely was caused by negligence, possible Israeli (or US) involvement can’t be ruled out.

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Award-winning author Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago. He can be reached at lendmanstephen@sbcglobal.net. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG)

His new book as editor and contributor is titled “Flashpoint in Ukraine: US Drive for Hegemony Risks WW III.”

http://www.claritypress.com/LendmanIII.html

Visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com.

Featured image is from Syria NewsThe original source of this article is Global ResearchCopyright © Stephen Lendman, Global Research, 2020

“Whoever would lead the Middle East must control Syria” (Patrick Seale) – “It’s Syria Stupid”

Via The Ugly Truth

iransyria

JERUSALEM POST – Analysis: In post-nuclear agreement Middle East, ‘It’s Syria, stupid!’

Informed commentaries have stressed, somewhat justifiably, Iran’s benefits from the nuclear agreement with the P5+1 powers. Yet the agreement is, in many ways, formal confirmation of regional developments that have occurred since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Arab Spring. These changes have not only transformed Iran into a legitimate player in the regional system, but also into a potential partner in the international campaign against Islamic State (IS) and other jihadist Sunni organizations such as al-Qaida, Jabhat al-Nusra and others. [Actually its the Axis of Resistance -Iran, Syria and Lebanese Resistance who are fighting ISIL and Nusra Front, while the so called “international campaign” are doping arms to them]

Also, concerns over the emergence of a Shi’ite [ Resistance] Crescent in the Middle East extending from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon, including the Shi’ites in Iraq and the Alawites in [SECULAR] Syria, are not new: King Abdullah of Jordan voiced such concerns as early as 2004.

The issue of Iranian influence involves two elements, one unknown and one hidden. The real extent of Iran’s influence on Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana’a is not known. We can only speculate that intelligence circles have much more credible information than do social networks or the media. What is important to remember is that many players on both sides of this field are invested in portraying an image of Iran’s role in the region that accords with their own interests. Israel and Saudi Arabia have strategic, geographic and ideological interests in magnifying the threat of a nuclear Iran, while the United States (undoubtedly joined in this by Russia and China, and possibly by the Gulf States bordering on Iran, such as Oman) has the opposite interest of downplaying this threat.

History is familiar with the analogy of the 1938 Munich Agreement, in which Chamberlain and the West capitulated to Hitler but failed to prevent World War II. Yet history is also familiar with efforts to demonize the enemy that were subsequently understood to be exaggerated, if not outright baseless. 

Nasser waving to crowds in Damascus, Syria, October 1960

For example, Israel and the West turned Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s into the Hitler of the Arab world, and according to Israeli intelligence and media sources of the period, the influence of Egypt and Nasser’s pan-Arabism pervaded the entire Arab world, including Iraq, Syria and distant Yemen. Subsequent historiography of the period shows that Nasser’s capabilities were much more limited than the grandiose powers ascribed to him. An assessment of Iran’s true power and regional influence must surely be sober rather than demagogic.

The latent dimension of Iran’s regional influence involves the future of Syria. The keystone of Iran’s strategy in the Arab Middle East is its capacity to support Bashar Assad’s regime. The Iranian-Syrian alliance, which has been in place for over three decades (with a brief interruption during the Gulf War), has become a major axis of regional politics. 

This is not a “natural” alliance in the respect that it is based on Iran’s cooperation with an Alawite minority [SECULAR] regime rather than a broad Shi’ite social foundation. Syria’s significance stems from its geo-strategic location in the heart of the regional system, rather than from any economic resources that it offers. “Whoever would lead the Middle East must control Syria,” wrote esteemed journalist and historian Patrick Seale in the 1960s.

Indeed, harking back to 1950s when Syria became the focus of global and Arab Cold War struggles, at least five powers have competed for control over Syria since the outbreak of the civil war there in 2011: Iran and Russia (through the Alawite regime), the West (through the Free Syria Army), and two jihadi Sunni organizations – IS and Jabhat al-Nusra.

In view of the highly unreliable information from the field, it is difficult to predict what will happen in Syria, or whether it will maintain its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Clearly, Iran’s success in preserving Syria’s Alawite government would be a significant accomplishment and reinforcement of the radical Shi’ite alliance in the region. Assad’s fall, on the other hand, would be a fatal blow to Iran’s regional influence by creating a vacuum in the Shi’ite [Resistance] Crescent, and would also weaken Hezbollah as well as Iran’s influence in Iraq. We can borrow from then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s famous 1992 phrase “It’s the economy, stupid,” and state with equal gusto that in post-nuclear-agreement Middle East, “It’s Syria, stupid!”

Since the Western alternative in Syria now appears to be less probable, the West, including Israel, faces a dilemma regarding whether to support Syria – backed by the demonized Iran – or to bet on an alternative regime, with the risk of chaos, anarchy and even territorial changes. Turkey and Saudi Arabia would prefer to get rid of Assad at all costs, while Egypt has decided to prop up the Assad regime. Indeed, one may wonder whether the potential rise of IS or another radical Islamic entity in Syria might be an even more destructive scenario than the Iranian “threat.”

River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian 

  

The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Blog!

Daraa 2011: Syria’s Islamist Insurrection in Disguise

Global Research, July 05, 2015

SYRIA-CONFLICT

“I have seen from the beginning armed protesters in those demonstrations … they were the first to fire on the police. Very often the violence of the security forces comes in response to the brutal violence of the armed insurgents” – Jesuit priest Father Frans Van der Lugt, January 2012, Homs Syria

“The claim that armed opposition to the government has begun only recently is a complete lie. The killings of soldiers, police and civilians, often in the most brutal circumstances, have been going on virtually since the beginning.” – Professor Jeremy Salt, October 2011, Ankara Turkey

“The protest movement in Syria was overwhelmingly peaceful until September 2011” – Human Rights Watch, March 2012, Washington

A double story began on the Syrian conflict, at the very beginning of the armed violence in 2011, in the southern border town of Daraa. The first story comes from independent witnesses in Syria, such as the late Father Frans Van der Lugt in Homs. They say that armed men infiltrated the early political reform demonstrations to shoot at both police and civilians. This violence came from sectarian Islamists. The second comes from the Islamist groups (‘rebels’) and their western backers, including the Washington-based Human Rights Watch. They claim there was ‘indiscriminate’ violence from Syrian security forces to repress political rallies and that the ‘rebels’ grew out of a secular political reform movement.

Careful study of the independent evidence, however, shows that the Washington-backed ‘rebel’ story, while widespread, was part of a strategy to delegitimise the Syrian Government, with the aim of fomenting ‘regime change’. To understand this it is necessary to study the outbreak of the violence in Daraa, in March 2011. Central to that insurrection were shipments of arms from Saudi Arabia to Islamists at the al Omari mosque.

In early 2011 Syrians were well aware of a piece of history few western observers would remember: a strikingly similar Islamist insurrection took place in the town of Hama, back in 1982. Yet this was crushed within weeks by the Syrian Arab Army. Reviewing this conflict is useful because of the myths that have grown up around both insurrections.

US intelligence (DIA 1982) and the late British author Patrick Seale (1988) give independent accounts of what happened at Hama. After years of violent, sectarian attacks by Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, by mid-1980 President Hafez al Assad had ‘broken the back’ of their sectarian rebellion, which aimed to impose a Salafi-Islamic state. One final coup plot was exposed and the Brotherhood ‘felt pressured into initiating’ an uprising in their stronghold of Hama. Seale describes the start of that violence in this way:

‘At 2am on the night of 2-3 February 1982 an army unit combing the old city fell into an ambush. Roof top snipers killed perhaps a score of soldiers … [Brotherhood leader] Abu Bakr [Umar Jawwad] gave the order for a general uprising … hundreds of Islamist fighters rose … by the morning some seventy leading Ba’athists had been slaughtered and the triumphant guerrillas declared the city ‘liberated’ (Seale 1988: 332).

However the Army responded with a huge force of about 12,000 and the battle raged for three weeks. It was a foreign-backed civil war, with some defections from the army. Seale continues:

‘As the tide turned slowly in the government’s favour, the guerrillas fell back into the old quarters … after heavy shelling, commandos and party irregulars supported by tanks moved in … many civilians were slaughtered in the prolonged mopping up, whole districts razed’ (Seale 1988: 333).

Two months later a US intelligence report said: ‘The total casualties for the Hama incident probably number about 2,000. This includes an estimated 300 to 400 members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s elite ‘Secret Apparatus’ (DIA 1982: 7). Seale recognises that the Army also suffered heavy losses. At the same time, ‘large numbers died in the hunt for the gunmen … government sympathizers estimating a mere 3,000 and critics as many as 20,000 … a figure of 5,000 to 10,000 could be close to the truth’ He adds:

‘The guerrillas were formidable opponents. They had a fortune in foreign money … [and] no fewer than 15,000 machine guns’ (Seale 1988: 335). Subsequent Muslim Brotherhood accounts have inflated the casualties, reaching up to ‘40,000 civilians’, and attempting to hide the vicious insurrection by claiming that Hafez al Assad had simply carried out a ‘civilian massacre’ (e.g. Nassar 2014). The then Syrian President blamed a large scale foreign conspiracy for the Hama insurrection. Seale observes that Hafez was ‘not paranoical’, as many US weapons were captured and foreign backing had come from several US collaborators: King Hussayn of Jordan, Lebanese Christian militias (the Israeli-aligned ‘Guardians of the Cedar’) and Saddam Hussein in Iraq (Seale 1988: 336-337).

The Hama insurrection helps us understand the Daraa violence because, once again in 2011, we saw armed Islamists using rooftop sniping against police and government officials, drawing in the armed forces, only to cry ‘civilian massacre’ when they and their collaborators came under attack from the Army. Although the US, through its allies, played an important part in the Hama insurrection, when it was all over US intelligence dryly observed that: ‘the Syrians are pragmatists who do not want a Muslim Brotherhood government’ (DIA 1982: vii).

In the case of Daraa, and the attacks that moved to Homs and surrounding areas in April 2011, the clearly stated aim was once again to topple the secular or ‘infidel-Alawi’ regime. The front-line US collaborators were Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. The head of the Syrian Brotherhood, Muhammad Riyad Al-Shaqfa, issued a statement on 28 March which left no doubt that the group’s aim was sectarian. The enemy was ‘the secular regime’ and Brotherhood members ‘have to make sure that the revolution will be pure Islamic, and with that no other sect would have a share of the credit after its success’ (Al-Shaqfa 2011). While playing down the initial role of the Brotherhood, Sheikho confirms that it ‘went on to punch above its actual weight on the ground during the uprising … [due] to Turkish-Qatari support’, and to its general organisational capacity (Sheikho 2013). By the time there was a ‘Free Syrian Army Supreme Military Council’ in 2012 (more a weapons conduit than any sort of army command), it was two-thirds dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood (Draitser 2012). Other foreign Salafi-Islamist groups quickly joined this ‘Syrian Revolution’. A US intelligence report in August 2012, contrary to Washington’s public statements about ‘moderate rebels’, said:

‘The Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood and AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq, later ISIS] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria … AQI supported the Syrian Opposition from the beginning, both ideologically and through the media’ (DIA 2012).

In February 2011 there was popular agitation in Syria, to some extent influenced by the events in Egypt and Tunisia. There were anti-government and pro-government demonstrations, and a genuine political reform movement that for several years had agitated against corruption and the Ba’ath Party monopoly. A 2005 report referred to ‘an array of reform movements slowly organizing beneath the surface’ (Ghadry 2005), and indeed the ‘many faces’ of a Syrian opposition, much of it non-Islamist, had been agitating since about that same time (Sayyid Rasas 2013). These political opposition groups deserve attention, in another discussion. However only one section of that opposition was linked to the violence that erupted in Daraa. Large anti-government demonstrations began, to be met with huge pro-government demonstrations. In early March some teenagers in Daraa were arrested for graffiti that had been copied from North Africa ‘the people want to overthrow the regime’. It was reported that they were abused by local police, President Bashar al Assad intervened, the local governor was sacked and the teenagers were released (Abouzeid 2011).

Yet the Islamist insurrection was underway, taking cover under the street demonstrations. On 11 March, several days before the violence broke out in Daraa, there were reports that Syrian forces had seized ‘a large shipment of weapons and explosives and night-vision goggles … in a truck coming from Iraq’. The truck was stopped at the southern Tanaf crossing, close to Jordan. The Syrian Government news agency SANA said the weapons were intended ‘for use in actions that affect Syria’s internal security and spread unrest and chaos.’ Pictures showed ‘dozens of grenades and pistols as well as rifles and ammunition belts’. The driver said the weapons had been loaded in Baghdad and he had been paid $5,000 to deliver them to Syria (Reuters 2011). Despite this interception, arms did reach Daraa, a border town of about 150,000 people. This is where the ‘western-rebel’ and the independent stories diverge, and diverge dramatically. The western media consensus was that protestors burned and trashed government offices, and then ‘provincial security forces opened fire on marchers, killing several’ (Abouzeid 2011). After that, ‘protestors’ staged demonstrations in front of the al-Omari mosque, but were in turn attacked.

The Syrian government, on the other hand, said that armed attacks had begun on security forces, killing police and civilians, along with the burning of government offices. There was foreign corroboration of this account. While its headline blamed security forces for killing ‘protesters’, the British Daily Mail (2011) showed pictures of guns, AK47 rifles and hand grenades that security forces had recovered after storming the al-Omari mosque. The paper noted reports that ‘an armed gang’ had opened fire on an ambulance, killing ‘a doctor, a paramedic and a policeman’. Media channels in neighbouring countries did report on the killing of Syrian police, on 17-18 March. On 21 March a Lebanese news report observed that ‘Seven policemen were killed during clashes between the security forces and protesters in Syria’ (YaLibnan 2011), while an Israel National News report said ‘Seven police officers and at least four demonstrators in Syria have been killed … and the Baath party headquarters and courthouse were torched’ (Queenan 2011). These police had been targeted by rooftop snipers.

Even in these circumstances the Government was urging restraint and attempting to respond to the political reform movement. President Assad’s adviser, Dr Bouthaina Shaaban, told a news conference that the President had ordered ‘that live ammunition should not be fired, even if the police, security forces or officers of the state were being killed’. Assad proposed to address the political demands, such as the registration of political parties, removing emergency rules and allowing greater media freedoms (al-Khalidi 2011). None of that seemed to either interest or deter the Islamist insurrection.

Several reports, including video reports, observed rooftop snipers firing at crowds and police, during funerals of those already killed. It was said to be ‘unclear who was firing at whom’ (Al Jazeera 2011a), as ‘an unknown armed group on rooftops shot at protesters and security forces’ (Maktabi 2011). Yet Al Jazeera (2011b) owned by the Qatari monarchy, soon strongly suggested that that the snipers were pro-government. ‘President Bashar al Assad has sent thousands of Syrian soldiers and their heavy weaponry into Derra for an operation the regime wants nobody in the word to see’. However the Al Jazeera suggestion that secret pro-government snipers were killing ‘soldiers and protestors alike’ was illogical and out of sequence. The armed forces came to Daraa precisely because police had been shot and killed.

Saudi Arabia, a key US regional ally, had armed and funded extremist Salafist Sunni sects to move against the secular government. Saudi official Anwar Al-Eshki later confirmed to BBC television that his country had sent arms to Daraa and to the al-Omari mosque (Truth Syria 2012). From exile in Saudi Arabia, Salafi Sheikh Adnan Arour called for a holy war against the liberal Alawi Muslims, who were said to dominate the Syrian government: ‘by Allah we shall mince [the Alawites] in meat grinders and feed their flesh to the dogs’ (MEMRITV 2011). The Salafist aim was a theocratic state or caliphate. The genocidal slogan ‘Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave’ became widespread, a fact reported by the North American media as early as May 2011 (e.g. Blanford 2011). Islamists from the FSA Farouq brigade would soon act on these threats (Crimi 2012). Canadian analyst Michel Chossudovsky (2011) concluded:

‘The deployment of armed forces including tanks in Daraa [was] directed against an organised armed insurrection, which has been active in the border city since March 17-18.’

After those first few days in Daraa the killing of Syrian security forces continued, but went largely unreported outside Syria. Nevertheless, independent analyst Sharmine Narwani wrote about the scale of this killing in early 2012 and again in mid-2014. An ambush and massacre of soldiers took place near Daraa in late March or early April. An army convoy was stopped by an oil slick on a valley road between Daraa al-Mahata and Daraa al-Balad and the trucks were machine gunned. Estimates of soldier deaths, from government and opposition sources ranged from 18 to 60. A Daraa resident said these killings were not reported because: ‘At that time, the government did not want to show they are weak and the opposition did not want to show they are armed’. Anti-Syrian blogger, Nizar Nayouf, records this massacre as taking place in the last week of March. Another anti-Government writer, Rami Abdul Rahman (based in England, and calling himself the ‘Syrian Observatory of Human Rights’) says:

‘It was on the first of April and about 18 or 19 security forces … were killed’ (Narwani 2014). Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad, himself a resident of Daraa, confirmed that: ‘this incident was hidden by the government … as an attempt not to antagonize or not to raise emotions and to calm things down – not to encourage any attempt to inflame emotions which may lead to escalation of the situation’ (Narwani 2014).

Yet the significance of denying armed anti-Government killings was that, in the western media, all deaths were reported as (a) victims of the Army and (b) civilians. For well over six months, when a body count was mentioned in the international media, it was usually considered acceptable to suggest these were all ‘protestors’ killed by the Syrian Army. For example, a Reuters report on 24 March said Daraa’s main hospital had received ‘the bodies of at least 37 protestors killed on Wednesday’ (Khalidi 2011). Notice that all the dead had become ‘protestors’, despite earlier reports on the killing of a number of police and health workers.

Another nineteen soldiers were gunned down on 25 April, also near Daraa. Narwani obtained their names and details from Syria’s Defence Ministry, and corroborated these details from another document from a non-government source. Throughout April 2011 she calculates that eighty-eight Syrian soldiers were killed ‘by unknown shooters in different areas across Syria’ (Narwani 2014). She went on to refute claims that the soldiers killed were ‘defectors’, shot by the Syrian army for refusing to fire on civilians. The Washington based group Human Rights Watch, referring to interviews with 50 unnamed ‘activists’, claimed that soldiers killed at this time were all ‘defectors’, murdered by the Army (HRW 2011b). Yet the funerals of loyal officers, shown on the internet at that time, were distinct. Even Rami Abdul Rahman, keen to blame the Army for killing civilians, said ‘this game of saying the Army is killing defectors for leaving – I never accepted this’ (Narwani 2014). Nevertheless the highly charged reports were confusing, in Syria as well as outside.

The violence spread north, with the assistance of Islamist fighters from Lebanon, reaching Baniyas and areas around Homs. On 10 April nine soldiers were shot in a bus ambush in Baniyas. In Homs, on April 17, General Abdo Khodr al-Tallawi was killed with his two sons and a nephew, and Syrian commander Iyad Kamel Harfoush was gunned down near his home. Two days later, off-duty Colonel Mohammad Abdo Khadour was killed in his car (Narwani 2014). North American commentator Joshua Landis (2011a) reported the death of his wife’s cousin, one of the soldiers in Baniyas.

Al Jazeera, the principal Middle East media channel backing the Muslim Brotherhood, blacked out these attacks, as also the reinforcement provided by armed foreigners. Former Al Jazeera journalist Ali Hashem was one of many who resigned from the Qatar-owned station (RT 2012), complaining of deep bias over their presentation of the violence in Syria. Hashem had footage of armed men arriving from Lebanon, but this was censored by his Qatari managers. ‘In a resignation letter I was telling the executive … it was like nothing was happening in Syria.’ He thought the ‘Libyan revolution’ was the turning point for Al Jazeera, the end of its standing as a credible media group (Hashem 2012).

Provocateurs were at work. Tunisian jihadist ‘Abu Qusay’ later admitted he had been a prominent ‘Syrian rebel’ charged with ‘destroying and desecrating Sunni mosques’, including by scrawling the graffiti ‘There is no God but Bashar’, a blasphemy to devout Muslims. This was then blamed on the Syrian Army, with the aim of creating Sunni defections from the Army. ‘Abu Qusay’ had been interviewed by foreign journalists who did not notice he was not Syrian (Eretz Zen 2014).

Journalist Nir Rosen, whose reports were generally against the Syrian Government, also criticised the western consensus over the early violence:

‘The issue of defectors is a distraction. Armed resistance began long before defections started … Every day the opposition gives a death toll, usually without any explanation … Many of those reported killed are in fact dead opposition fighters but … described in reports as innocent civilians killed by security forces … and every day members of the Syrian Army, security agencies … are also killed by anti-regime fighters’ (Rosen 2012).

A numbers game was being played to delegitimise the Syrian Government (‘The Regime’) and the Syrian Army (‘Assad loyalists’), suggesting they were responsible for all the violence. Just as NATO forces were about to bomb Libya and overthrow the Libyan Government, US voices began to demand that President Assad step down. The Brookings Institution (Shaikh 2011) claimed the President had ‘lost the legitimacy to remain in power in Syria’. US Senators John McCain, Lindsay Graham and Joe Lieberman said it was time ‘to align ourselves unequivocally with the Syrian people in their peaceful demand for a democratic government’ (FOX News 2011). The big powers began to demand yet another ‘regime change’.

In June, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton dismissed the idea that ‘foreign instigators’ had been at work, saying that ‘the vast majority of casualties have been unarmed civilians’ (Clinton 2011). In fact, as Clinton knew very well, her Saudi Arabian allies had armed extremists from the very beginning. Her casualty assertion was also wrong. The United Nations (which would later abandon its body count) estimated from several sources that, by early 2012, there were more than 5,000 casualties, and that deaths in the first year of conflict included 478 police and 2,091 from the military and security forces (OHCHR 2012: 2; Narwani 2014). That is, more than half the casualties in the first year were those of the Syrian security forces. That independent calculation was not reflected in western media reports. ‘Watchdog’ NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, along with US columnists (e.g. Allaf 2012), continued to claim, well into 2012, that Syrian security forces had been massacring ‘unarmed protestors’, that the Syrian people ‘had no choice’ but to take up arms, and that this ‘protest movement’ had been ‘overwhelmingly peaceful until September 2011’ (HRW 2011a, HRW 2012). In fact, the political reform movement had been driven off the streets by Salafi-Islamist gunmen, over the course of March and April.

In June reporter Hala Jaber (2011) observed that about five thousand people turned up for a demonstration at Ma’arrat al-Numan, a small town in north-west Syria, between Aleppo and Hama. She says several ‘protestors’ had been shot the week before, while trying to block the road between Damascus and Aleppo. After some negotiations which reduced the security forces in the town, ‘men with heavy beards in cars and pick-ups with no registration plates’ with ‘rifles and rocket-propelled grenades’ began shooting at the reduced numbers of security forces. A military helicopter was sent to support the security forces. After this clash ‘four policemen and 12 of their attackers were dead or dying. Another 20 policemen were wounded’. Officers who escaped the fight were hidden by some of the tribal elders who had participated in the original demonstration. When the next ‘demonstration for democracy’ took place, the following Friday, ‘only 350 people turned up’, mostly young men and some bearded militants (Jaber 2011). Five thousand protestors had been reduced to 350, after the Salafist attacks.

After months of media manipulations, disguising the Islamist insurrection, Syrians such as Samer al Akhras, a young man from a Sunni family, who used to watch Al Jazeera because he preferred it to state TV, became convinced to back the Syrian government. He saw first-hand the fabrication of reports on Al Jazeera and wrote, in late June 2011:

‘I am a Syrian citizen and I am a human. After 4 months of your fake freedom … You say peaceful demonstration and you shoot our citizen. From today … I am [now] a Sergeant in the Reserve Army. If I catch anyone … in any terrorist organization working on the field in Syria I am gonna shoot you as you are shooting us. This is our land not yours, the slaves of American fake freedom’ (al Akhras 2011).

Notes:

Abouzeid, Rania (2011) ‘Syria’s Revolt, how graffiti stirred an uprising’,Time, 22 March

Al Akhras, Samer (2011) ‘Syrian Citizen’, Facebook, 25 June, online:https://www.facebook.com/notes/sam-al-akhras/syrian-citizen/241770845834062?pnref=story

Al Jazeera (2011a) ‘Nine killed at Syria funeral processions’, 23 April, online:http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2011/04/20114231169587270.html

Al Jazeera (2011b) ‘Deraa: A city under a dark siege’, 28 April, online:http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/04/2011427215943692865.html

Al-Shaqfa, Muhammad Riyad (2011) ‘Muslim Brotherhood Statement about the so-called ‘Syrian Revolution’’, General supervisor for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, statement of 28 March, online at: http://truthsyria.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/muslim-brotherhood-statement-about-the-so-called-syrian-revolution/

Allaf, Rime (2012) ‘This Time, Assad Has Overreached’, NYT, 5 Dec, online:http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/02/06/is-assads-time-running-out/this-time-assad-has-overreached

Blanford, Nicholas (2011) ‘Assad regime may be gaining upper hand in Syria’, Christina Science Monitor, 13 may, online:http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2011/0513/Assad-regime-may-be-gaining-upper-hand-in-Syria

Chossudovsky, Michel (2011) ‘Syria: who is behind the protest movement? Fabricating a pretext for US-NATO ‘Humanitarian Intervention’’, Global Research, 3 May, online: http://www.globalresearch.ca/syria-who-is-behind-the-protest-movement-fabricating-a-pretext-for-a-us-nato-humanitarian-intervention/24591

Clinton, Hilary (2011) ‘There is No Going Back in Syria’, US Department of State, 17 June, online: http://www.state.gov/secretary/20092013clinton/rm/2011/06/166495.htm

Maktabi, Rima (2011) ‘Reports of funeral, police shootings raise tensions in Syria’, CNN, 5 April, online: http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/meast/04/05/syria.unrest/

Crimi, Frank (2012) ‘Ethnic Cleansing of Syrian Christians’, Frontpagemag,29 March, online: http://www.frontpagemag.com/2012/frank-crimi/ethnic-cleansing-of-syrian-christians/

Daily Mail (2011) ‘Nine protesters killed after security forces open fire by Syrian mosque’, 24 March

DIA (1982) ‘Syria: Muslim Brotherhood Pressure Intensifies’, Defence Intelligence Agency (USA), May, online: https://syria360.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/dia-syria-muslimbrotherhoodpressureintensifies-2.pdf

DIA (2012) ‘Department of Defence Information Report, Not Finally Evaluated Intelligence, Country: Iraq’, Defence Intelligence Agency, August, 14-L-0552/DIA/297-293, Levant report, online at:http://levantreport.com/2015/05/19/2012-defense-intelligence-agency-document-west-will-facilitate-rise-of-islamic-state-in-order-to-isolate-the-syrian-regime/

Draitser, Eric (2012) ‘Unmasking the Muslim Brotherhood: Syria, Egypt and beyond’, Global Research, 12 December, online:http://www.globalresearch.ca/unmasking-the-muslim-brotherhood-syria-egypt-and-beyond/5315406

Eretz Zen (2014) ‘Tunisian Jihadist Admits: We Destroyed & Desecrated Mosques in Syria to Cause Defections in Army’, Youtube Interview, 16 March, online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQ8awN8GLAk

FOX News (2011) ‘Obama Under Pressure to Call for Syrian Leader’s Ouster’,29 April, online: http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2011/04/29/obama-pressure-syrian-leaders-ouster/

Ghadry, Farid N. (2005) ‘Syrian Reform: What Lies Beneath’, Middle East Quarterly, Vol 12 No 1, Winter, online: http://www.meforum.org/683/syrian-reform-what-lies-beneath

Haidar, Ali (2013) interview with this writer, Damascus 28 December. Ali Haidar was President of the Syrian Social National Party (SS NP), a secular rival to the Ba’ath Party. In 2012 President Bashar al Assad incorporated him into the Syrian government as Minister for Reconciliation.

Hashem, Ali (2012) ‘Al Jazeera Journalist Explains Resignation over Syria and Bahrain Coverage’, The Real News, 20 March, online:http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=8106

HRW (2011a) ‘We’ve never seen such horror: crimes against humanity by Syrian Security Forces’, Human Rights Watch, June, online:http://www.hrw.org/reports/2011/06/01/we-ve-never-seen-such-horror-0

HRW (2011b) Syria: Defectors Describe Orders to Shoot Unarmed Protesters’, Human Rights watch, Washington, 9 July, online:http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/07/09/syria-defectors-describe-orders-shoot-unarmed-protesters

HRW (2012) ‘Open Letter to the Leaders of the Syrian Opposition, Human Rights Watch, Washington, 20 March, online:http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/03/20/open-letter-leaders-syrian-opposition

Jaber, Hala (2011) ‘Syria caught in crossfire of extremists’, Sunday Times, 26 June, online: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/world_news/Middle_East/article657138.ece

Khalidi, Suleiman (2011) ‘Thousands chant ‘freedom’ despite Assad reform offer’, Reuters, 24 March, online: http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/24/us-syria-idUSTRE72N2MC20110324

Landis, Joshua (2011a) ‘The Revolution Strikes Home: Yasir Qash`ur, my wife’s cousin, killed in Banyas’, Syria Comment, 11 April, online:http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/the-revolution-strikes-home-yasir-qashur-my-wifes-cousin-killed-in-banyas/

Landis, Joshua (2011b) ‘Syria’s Opposition Faces an Uncertain Future’, Syria Comment, 26 June, online: http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/syrias-opposition-faces-an-uncertain-future/

MEMRITV (2011) ‘Syrian Sunni Cleric Threatens: “We Shall Mince [The Alawites] in Meat Grinders”’, YouTube, 13 July, online:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bwz8i3osHww

Nassar, Jessy (2014) ‘Hama: A rebirth from the ashes?’ Middle East Monitor,11 July, online: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/articles/middle-east/12703-hama-a-rebirth-from-the-ashes

Narwani, Sharmine (2012) ‘Questioning the Syrian “Casualty List”, 28 Feb, online: http://english.al-akhbar.com/content/questioning-syrian-%E2%80%9Ccasualty-list%E2%80%9D

Narwani, Sharmine (2014) Syria: The hidden massacre, RT, 7 May, online:http://rt.com/op-edge/157412-syria-hidden-massacre-2011/

OHCHR (2012) ‘Periodic Update’, Independent International Commission of Inquiry established pursuant to resolution A/HRC/S – 17/1 and extended through resolution A/HRC/Res/19/22, 24 may, online:

http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/CoISyria/PeriodicUpdate24May2012.pdf

Queenan, Gavriel (2011) ‘Syria: Seven Police Killed, Buildings torched in protests’, Israel National News, Arutz Sheva, March 21

Reuters (2011) ‘Syria says seizes weapons smuggled from Iraq’, 11 March, online: http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/11/us-syria-iraq-idUSTRE72A3MI20110311?hc_location=ufi

Rosen, Nir (2012) ‘Q&A: Nir Rosen on Syria’s armed opposition’, Al Jazeera,13 Feb, online: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2012/02/201221315020166516.html

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Salt, Jeremy (2011) Truth and Falsehood in Syria, The Palestine Chronicle, 5 October, online: http://palestinechronicle.com/view_article_details.php?id=17159

Sayyid Rasas, Mohammed (2013) ‘From 2005 to 2013: The Syrian Opposition’s Many Faces’, Al Akhbar, 19 March, online: http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/15287

Shaikh, Salman (2011) ‘In Syria, Assad Must Exit the Stage’, Brookings Institution, 27 April, online: http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2011/04/27-syria-shaikh

Sheikho, Youssef (2013) ‘The Syrian Opposition’s Muslim Brotherhood Problem’, Al Akhbar English, April 10, online: http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/15492

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Seale, Patrick (1988) Asad: the struggle for the Middle East, University of California Press, Berkeley CA

van der Lugt, Frans (2012) ‘Bij defaitisme is niemand gebaat’, from Homs,13 January, online: https://mediawerkgroepsyrie.wordpress.com/2012/01/13/bij-defaitisme-is-niemand-gebaat/

Wikstrom, Cajsa (2011) Syria: ‘A kingdom of silence’, Al Jazeera, 9 Feb, online: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/02/201129103121562395.html

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New media and the changing narrative on Palestine

 

Please Sign the Palestinian Declaration Here

New media and the changing narrative on Palestine

Victoria Brittain

 

 Monday, 05 May 2014 15:01

Victoria Brittain

I want to dedicate this paper to the great journalist and writer on the Middle East, Patrick Seale, who died last week – for decades he set an example of writing counter-narrative, and generously gave help and encouragement to others trying to do so. 

First I want to mention the great strategic importance placed on media by Israel’s government and its allies.

Second I discuss what I call the intellectual guerrilla war of new media in the Anglophone world.

Third I illustrate this war with some examples of the challenges to the iconic and powerfulNew York Times in this new struggle.

Fourth I examine the rising tide of activism on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions in US campuses and the role of the new media’s fearless and professional Palestinian writers in creating this new moment of global popular struggle.

1. The western press’ long-standing compliant relationship with the official Israeli version of progressive dispossession of the Palestinian people over more than 60 years has been exhaustively explored in countless excellent books – and new work on this subject comes out all the time. (Nothing is better however than the seminal 1983 book by Professor Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle, the United States, Israel and the Palestinians, which, like his Manufacturing Consent with Edward Herman published five years later, goes to the heart of the power relations behind the media’s historic compliance.)

Thirty years on from these books Israeli leaders and their western allies and media associates are having to work much harder and spend very large sums of money in the fight to maintain their dominance of the narrative. The Israeli government and its friends are certainly doing that spending at home as well as abroad – with mixed results.

Only last month, for instance, the US billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who strongly backs Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, spent $5m to buy a small right wing religious paper in Israel,Makor Risho, adding to his overwhelming media strength inside Israel with the successful free paper Israel Hayom. (Within Israel this has been harshly criticised from both right and left.)

And, to reach the outside world, for more than a decade the Israeli government has systematically organised students and others in semi-military mode to flood the Internet withhasbara material, as anyone who has ever written anything critical of Israel’s government knows.  Union of Israeli Students “covert units” within Israel’s seven universities have engaged in online public diplomacy and been part of the Prime Minister’s public diplomacy arsenal.

Meanwhile, Brand Israel was conceived and launched with a multi-million dollar budget and top international PR companies to promote an image of Israel via culture and tourism (including maps where Palestine did not exist) in Europe and the US. The map mistake brought them a great deal of criticism, while the heavy handed attempts to frame Operation Cast Lead in Gaza or the attacks on the Mavi Marmara peace flotilla as justified, largely backfired internationally. But still the basic Israeli political narrative has dominated in the west. And one illustration of the lengths the government and its allies go to control that narrative emerged some years ago in an Electronic Intifada report on systematic amending of Wikipedia entries on Israel.

2. Against this powerful current in recent years a modestly-financed series of initiatives in new media has begun a kind of guerrilla intellectual war challenging the old dominance.

Dents in the old master-narrative of Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East, and with no interlocutor among the Palestinians, who threaten its existence, are visible in many areas. Here are just three recent examples and their effects.

One was the BDS movement’s adroit seizing on a movie star’s promotion of a product made in an illegal West Bank settlement, with a web-based campaign that went viral. Significantly, the company – SodaStream – saw a 14% slip in its share price in the first quarter of 2014 after its PR debacle with the movie star Scarlett Johansson. Business will have taken note: working in settlements = toxic for share price.

Another is the feverish series of public rows in universities in the US over academic boycotts of Israeli universities, and peaceful student protests about house demolitions, the apartheid Wall, and other injustices faced by Palestinians.

Third was the NYT decision earlier this year to publish an article on its prestigious op-ed page by the prominent Palestinian BDS activist Omar Barghouti. The NYT, because of its iconic status in US journalism and politics, is a particular focus of the intellectual war I look at below.

The SodaStream factory in Ma’ale Adumim illegal settlement had been there 20 years before it became a world-wide story and Johansson had to pull out of her support for the British charity Oxfam when she chose to continue supporting SodaStream despite the controversy. And the Palestinian civil society call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions was ten years old before it reached the current stage of involving university governors and state legislators in the recent attempts to silence student opinion and action. Barghouti’s book on BDS was published in 2010 and had been mainly ignored by mainstream media.

Where did this change in attitudes and actions come from? Not from any Palestinian political leaders, but the effect of many foreign visitors to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and a multitude of grass roots media initiatives, mainly by younger Palestinian academics, journalists, writers, film-makers, and lawyers. They have been unified by the BDS campaign launched in 2005, and have now created a moment of a popular street struggle based on morality, legitimacy, and justice.

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Campaign has shifted the dynamics of power away from empty diplomacy and moved the battle for Palestine into the realm of global awareness and public participation in a struggle for liberation. The US rapper Jasiri X at Qalandya checkpoint reflects just this.

Everywhere the Internet has shifted the balance of power in journalism as compared to, say, 20 or 30 years ago. It is simply no longer necessary to work for a large media organization in order to have a decent-sized readership or a voice that will be heard. There are journalists, commentators and activists from around the world who have never been employed by a large media organization who have amassed thousands, or tens of thousands, or even more Twitter followers – more than many if not most of the full-time reporters and columnists for those established media organizations.

In a world where media organizations are financially struggling and are desperate for online buzz and traffic, these independent journalists and activists can have real leverage. Large media organizations need them.

In the last decade or so, the Internet has of course made available a vast amount of information on almost every corner of the world. This is true of Palestine like everywhere else. But what is different about the Palestine case is that a number of websites and blogs, mostly written in English by a young generation of highly educated Palestinians, now produce a consistent and fearless body of reporting and analysis which is reaching new audiences – as in the SodaStream case – and, with the help of YouTube, nurturing the new readiness of US students to face harsh sanctions for protest action.

I’ll mention just a few of the new media initiatives whose work I think is creating this consistent counter-narrative around Palestinian issues, particularly in the US and UK: Al Shabbaka,Electronic Intifada, Yousef Munayer’s Jerusalem Fund/Palestine CentreJadaliyyaThe Palestine Chronicle by Ramzy Baroud. The blogs of Omar Barghouti on BDS, and of the Nazareth-based British journalist Jonathan Cook, are part of this same mosaic, as are The Real News and Al Monitor.  Mondoweiss, Israeli-based 972, and Tikun reach in particular a significant US Jewish audience, which is one of the areas where whole new debates are under way and old certainties in attitudes to Israel are eroding. Other independent leftist media outlets that frequently write about Palestine, such as Counterpunch, and Al Jazeeraare part of this shifting picture, which is also beginning within US major media outlets.

3. One strand of this is a tireless scrutiny of the New York Times. The paper’s bureau chiefs and reporters on Israel/Palestine are invariably based in West Jerusalem and some have had personal connections with Israel (for example: former bureau chief Ethan Bronner’s sonserved in the IDF ). The Washington DC-based Jerusalem Fund/Palestine Centre, theElectronic Intifada and Mondoweiss systematically launch detailed challenges to the NYTreporting. They take on the NYT professionalism – making dents in the credibility of the key US paper of record, and having these critiques amplified by an incalculable number of new media links.

Here are three recent examples of this scrutiny, among many others:

First: The passing of the new law that allows Israel to detain African migrants without trial for a year was reported like this:

Here is Haaretz’s headline, Knesset Okays Dentention of Migrants without Trial 

Here is the LA Times’ headline, Israel passes law aimed at deterring African migrants 

Here is the AFP’s headline, Israel passes law to detain illegal African migrants

Here is the NY Times’ headline, Israel: Law Reduces Migrant Detention

 

Second, in the combative tone of the EI:

“It will not be news to regular readers of The Electronic Intifada that The New York Timessystematically excludes all except token Palestinian voices from its coverage. But under the regime of Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren, the silencing of Palestinians has plumbed new lows.

 

On 29 November, the Times published a story by Isabel Kershner about a Jerusalem photo exhibit put on by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees.

 

The exhibit showcases some of UNRWA’s unique archive of photographs of Palestinian refugees since the Nakba. In the Times article, as Adam Horowitz noted on Mondoweiss, Kershner does not quote a single Palestinian. Instead, as Horowitz writes: “For some reason Isabel Kershner gives more space to Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor to denounce the exhibit than to UNWRA staffers to explain it. And, of course, the article ignores actual Palestinian refugees altogether.”

 

Third, on the massive displacement of Bedouins and the demolishing of their villages in the Negev, the EI’s Ali Abunimah was in action again on December 1, 2013 :

“The Times published what appears to be its first ever story about the Prawer Plan.

 

On 30 November, protests all over historic Palestine against the plan, were met with Israeli police brutality and, according to eyewitnesses, unprovoked police violence (including on a 14 year old child), as I reported in a post earlier today.

 

But Kershner presents what happened as being the fault of protesters:

“In scenes reminiscent of the Palestinian uprisings in the West Bank, protesters hurled stones at police forces, burned tires and blocked a main road for hours near the Bedouin town of Hura in the Negev. The police used water cannons, tear gas and sound grenades to disperse the demonstrators.”

 

It’s hardly surprising that Kershner follows a purely official Israeli narrative, because she only quotes Israeli officials: police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, justice minister and war crimes suspect Tzipi Livni and the Israeli prime minister’s office.

In this – the only article published by the Times on the Prawer Plan – Kershner cannot find a single Bedouin who will be directly affected to speak to.”

 

Abunimah’s entertaining anecdote about his chance encounter with the NYT’s former Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner – a sideline in a long interview about his important new book (The Battle for Justice in Palestine, Haymarket, Chicago) – neatly illustrates what a raw nerve EI’s reporting has hit at the NYT, although it is never acknowledged.

But things are changing in parts of the NYT that are not the Jerusalem bureau.

Last month (ie April), Mondoweiss revealed that the NYT went along with an Israeli gagging order on the arrest and incommunicado detention in a windowless cell without a bed, of Palestinian journalist Majid Keyyal on his return from a conference in Lebanon. For the NYTJerusalem bureau chief going along with the gag was “analogous to abiding by traffic rules.” However the NYT public editor, Margaret Sullivan did not see it quite like that and wrote an article about the gag that said, “I find it troubling that The Times is in the position of waiting for government clearance before deciding to publish.” And giving credit to EI, which broke the gagging order several times, Sullivan made it clear that she, if not the bureau chief, understood how important a story this was for Palestinians.

Earlier this year Jonathan Cook wrote an account of his experience of how the tide at theNYT has changed in a decade. A commentary he wrote back then for the International Herald Tribune (now the International New York Times) argued that Israel’s wall that was then just starting to be built in the West Bank was really a land grab.

“The paper then received the “largest postage in our history”, as an editor told me – possibly not surprising as the US Anti-Defamation League had urged its followers to complain and had even published a template letter of condemnation on its website to help them. The result: the paper published a whole page of letters attacking me and dropped me as a writer.”

Cook noted a more recent avalanche of letters following three articles on BDS in both the NYT and INYT in late January 2014: one was the Omar Barghouti article already referred to and the other two were by NYT staff Jodi Rudoren and Roger Cohen attacking BDS, the former implicitly and the latter explicitly.

As Cook put it,

“What’s so different this time is that the INYT’s letters page is dominated by readers backing Barghouti and attacking Rudoren and Cohen. Not only that, but the arguments used to support BDS are intelligent and well-informed, while the few letters attacking BDS sound tired and formulaic.

The fact that the NYT has allowed the BDS debate into its pages is a triumph for the cause. That its international sister publication (and the NYT website) has then allowed its letters page to be dominated by BDS supporters is another small landmark.”

In fact the NYT has also had some strong anti-settlement editorials. It seems that as the Israeli government becomes even more extreme in its racism and settlement expansion policies – so vivid in the unending pictures of the Wall – the NYT has been more open to criticizing government policies – even as it continues to shut out Palestinian perspectives in its reporting. The Sunday Magazine also went against the general news line by publishing a long, good piece on popular resistance at Nabi Saleh.

The new media websites I’ve mentioned also publish the kind of exclusives which come from extremely good sources and which used to be the preserve and pride of powerful western media like the NYT. For instance, the recent very important story by NY based Professor Joseph Massad on the Abbas/Dahlan rivalry and its corrupt Egyptian links, which appeared on Al Jazeera’s website for a few hours before being summarily removed, was promptly re-published by the Electronic Intifada with a commentary by Professor Massad explaining the exchanges with Al Jazeera. It went viral.

4. There is a wide impact from new media’s leading writers in these overlapping networks making appearances as authoritative commentators on US TV, as well as in academic conferences and meetings such as those hosted by The Palestine Fund in Washington, and available live-streamed across the world. Where once there was a clean sweep in discussing Israel/Palestine for familiar US government-line faces, like Dennis Ross or Aaron David Miller (who are still of course fixtures in these debates), now you see, among others, academic lawyer Noura Erakat, an Al Shabaka adviser, or Nadia Hijab, one of its founders, or Ali Abunimah, founder of the Electronic Intifada, prolific author of books and articles, or Omar Barghouti, or the novelist and poet Susan Abulhawa,  (see her on YouTube with Alan Dershowitz, and unforgettably demolishing Israeli judge Itamar Marcus. This too went viral.)

This new strand of narrative has not, of course, much affected the business-as-usual official western government and mainstream media narrative of “two-state solution” and “peace process” etc. And recently, when the NYT reported “Israeli settlement plan derails peace talks, Kerry says,” in a straight news piece quoting Kerry’s Senate testimony, it did not take many phone calls of complaint to have the headline transformed into, “Mideast Frustration, the sequel”. The rewritten version of the piece that then appeared had a soft historical intro, and also contained a new quote from Aaron David Miller lamenting Kerry’s statement as no good for peace. Mondoweiss had both versions of that piece, and some trenchant commentary on the web, very rapidly. In addition it gave a link to the long NYT piece detailing both Israel’s sharp rejection of Kerry’s point, and a State Department comment rowing back from the Secretary of State’s criticism of Israel.

These torrents of debate and information are running through US college campuses as never before since the Vietnam years. The official responses have become even more extreme than the cancelled lectures, lost jobs, and ruined careers, which openly pro-Palestinian US-based academics have sometimes suffered. (And behind those are the shadows of the far heavier prices paid in the iconic US court cases of prominent Palestinian/Americans such as Professor Sami El Arian, and the board of the charity Holy Land Foundation. One of these extreme cases ended with an indefinite house arrest, the other with prison sentences between 15 and 65 years.)

In recent months the responses to student and faculty peaceful pro-Palestinian campus activities, from North-Eastern in Boston, to Michigan, Florida, California, and Colombia (to name but some), or to the open support for BDS from academic institutions such as the American Studies Association and the Association for Asian American Studies have had an air of panic and hysteria. For leafleting or peaceful protests Students for Justice in Palestine groups have been suspended, some interviewed by police, some placed on academic probation, some facing disciplinary charges and others obliged to attend re-education training led by university administrators.

Israel’s response has been twofold.  As Israeli journalists have noted, they have employed the tried and tested tactic of negotiations for “interim agreements,” into which Secretary of State John Kerry was most recently lured. According to a Haaretz report, in addition to “advancing the peace process with the Palestinians [to] stave off a large portion of the boycott threats,” other tactics include “a massive PR campaign against pro-boycott organizations,” filing “legal suits in European and North American courts against organizations that are proponents of the BDS movement,” lobbying for the creation of new laws under which more people can be prosecuted for boycotting Israel,  and finally stepping up surveillance of BDS supporters, which would involve operations by the Mossad and Shin Bet.

Perhaps the official over-reacting is not so surprising given that ASA added 700 new academic members after its boycott call, and new academic names penned opinion pieces in numerous US media outlets supporting ASA’s vote.

Meanwhile, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support has reported 100 cases of legal threats, intimidation and suspected surveillance of activists on campus. Efforts to legislate against academic boycotts have been tried in seven states and the US Congress, including bills in Illinois and New York. All but one has failed, and the one failure, Maryland, was a very watered down initiative.

As I said earlier, this new activism of a young generation in the US has largely come out of the multiplicity and consistency of a new media narrative confidently mushrooming from a new generation of educated Palestinians.

In parallel, and feeding off this Palestinian narrative, young US Jewish communities too are producing dissident writing, on websites I have referred to earlier, and books of extraordinary reporting like Max Blumenthal’s Goliath or a mea culpa like Noam Chayut’s The Girl who stole my Holocaust.

All of this begins to change the terms of debates on these issues far beyond what we can see on campuses these days. Washington and Tel Aviv have not yet changed any policies as a result of this intellectual struggle, and the NYT is still largely stuck in its old self-referential certainties. But the moment reminds me of many such media seminars and conferences in the years when apartheid began to crack. They contributed to media change. The powerful media that had supported the white regime in South Africa began to realize that they were telling losers’ stories and missing the analysis of the future. Palestinian new media writers today show the world a different future.

A short version of this paper was given at the Palestine International Forum for Media and Communication, Istanbul, April 23, 2014. This article was first published onopendemocracy.net

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Patrick Seale: Israel put pressure on America to help them overthrow the axis of resistance


Patrick Seale: Israel put pressure on America to help them overthrow the axis of resistance

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Grim Prospects for the Middle East in 2013

by Patrick Seale Released: 01 Jan 2013





The coming year is unlikely to be a happy one for the tormented Middle East. Although some dictators have fallen and many Arabs are now demanding their rights, there is no escaping the fact that the balance sheet of the past two years remains profoundly negative. In no country of the Arab Spring is there as yet any convincing sign of peace and reconciliation, of good governance, of a better standard of living for ordinary people, of an enhanced sense of citizenship, let alone of genuine democracy.

Some countries have suffered more than others. In Syria, the cries and tears of the martyred population — the tens of thousands killed, the hundreds of thousands wounded, maimed, starving and displaced — weigh heavily on the conscience of the world. Yet there is no end to the agony. To quote UN envoy Lakhdar al-Brahimi, Syria is in danger of descending into hell, if it is not there already.

Individual Arab countries are not the only casualties. The Arab political order has been dealt massive blows, and remains in great disarray. What does this mean? It means that the ability of Arab states to work effectively together has been greatly reduced. They find it difficult to affirm their independence from predatory foreign powers or defend Arab causes in the international arena. The Arab voice today carries little weight.

Some Arab countries have acquired great wealth, but it is no exaggeration to say that the Arabs as a whole — seen as a block of like-minded people sharing a language, a history and a system of beliefs — are not in much better shape than they were more than sixty years ago when Arab Palestine was lost to the Zionists in 1947-48, and when the Arab world was comprehensively defeated by Israel in 1967.

Why do I hold these pessimistic views? Look at the evidence.

• Two major Arab countries, Syria and Iraq — each of whom once had a critical role in defending Arab interests — today face fragmentation and dismemberment, even the possible loss of their national identity. We are witnessing nothing less than the redrawing of the map which created these states out of Ottoman provinces after the First World War.

• Another curse from which the Arabs are suffering is the flare up of hate between Sunnis and Shi’is. These brothers in Islam — worshiping the same God and honouring the same Prophet — behave today like irreconcilable opponents. Nothing has weakened the Arabs more than this fraternal feud, and nothing has brought greater joy to their enemies.

When, in 2003, the United States disbanded the Iraqi army and outlawed the Ba‘th party — the two key institutions of the Iraqi state — it brought down the state itself, triggering a Sunni-Shi’i civil war in which hundreds of thousands died and millions were displaced. Two results of the conflict were particularly disastrous: First, the poison of sectarian conflict spread throughout the Arab region. Secondly, Iraq, under Shi’a leadership, lost its traditional role of serving as a counterweight to Iran. The resulting upset in the balance of power aroused fears among some Gulf Arabs of Iranian domination.

For independent observers, such as myself, these fears were greatly exaggerated, but they have had the unfortunate consequence of causing many Gulf Arabs to view Iran as an enemy rather than a partner — and to turn to the United States for protection. No doubt, American and Israeli propaganda against Iran have played their part.

• Egypt, the traditional leader and most populous of all Arab countries, lives under the shadow of bankruptcy. Its economy is on its knees. Tourism and foreign investment have dried up. Fertility rates, which should have been controlled from the 1950s onwards, were allowed to soar. Over-population has robbed much of the population of any reasonable prospect of a better life. Dependence on American aid, and on American-controlled institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, has greatly restricted Egypt’s ability to pursue an independent foreign policy in the Arab interest.

• The Palestine cause, central to Arab pride and identity, is all but lost. The two-state solution is virtually extinct. The Arabs face the prospect of a devastating defeat, completing that of 1948. Rich Arab states have failed to use their leverage with the United States and Europe to demand justice for the Palestinians. Another reason is Palestinian disunity. A third is the rise in Israel of fanatical religious-nationalists determined to create a Greater Israel in which Palestinians would either be corralled like serfs into isolated bantustans or driven off the land altogether.

Israel has been able to steal Palestinian land, spurn peace, prevent any expression of Palestinian statehood, dominate the region militarily and strike its neighbours at will, for one principal reason: It has enjoyed the limitless support of the United States. Although elected for a second term, President Barack Obama still seems reluctant to confront pro-Israeli forces which have achieved great influence in the United States, not least in the U.S. Congress. Yet the paradox is that many Arabs still turn for protection to the United States! This is folly. The Arabs must break loose from American apron strings and learn to defend themselves.

What New Year resolutions would I dare to recommend to Arab leaders?

First, do everything possible to heal the crippling Sunni-Shi‘i rift, which gravely weakens the Arab world. An early move would be to summon a grand conference in Mecca of ulema of all sects and tendencies — and keep them there until they hammer out their differences.

Secondly, protect what is left of Syria — and its central role in containing Israel. Stop the killing by bringing the regime and its opponents to the negotiating table, whether they like it or not. There is no military solution to the crisis. The only way to end the orgy of destruction is to impose a ceasefire on both sides, halt the delivery of funds and weapons to the regime and the rebels, isolate murderous extremists in both camps, and mobilise the United States and Russia, as well as the European Union, Egypt, Turkey and Iran, in support of a political transition. The key issue is not whether President Bashar al-Asad stays or quits. At stake is the preservation of a unitary Syrian state. This must be done to protect Syria’s unique historical heritage, its state institutions, its ancient minorities, and its vital regional role in defence of Arab independence.

Thirdly, demand justice for the Palestinians even if it means threatening a breach with the United States and the expulsion of American bases from the Gulf.

Fourthly, start a strategic dialogue with Tehran. Enmity between Arabs and Iranians is a profound mistake. Only an Arab-Iranian partnership – a partnership between equals based on mutual trust and mutual interests — can protect the vital Gulf region from the dangers of war and from the ambitions of external powers.

It is probable that only a radical rethink of current policies, attitudes and alliances will rescue the Arab world from the dark pit in which it finds itself. But which Arab leader will dare undertake such a task?

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).

Copyright © 2013 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global

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Released: 01 January 2013
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Obama’s Big Foreign Policy Headaches


by Patrick Seale Released: 08 Jan 2013

Viewed from Europe, American foreign policy would seem to be in a frightful muddle. President Barack Obama’s new team, which takes office later this month, will be confronted with a host of difficult issues. The team will include John Kerry at State and Chuck Hagel at Defence, if their appointments are confirmed by the Senate.

Hagel, a distinguished independent thinker, is already facing a fierce smear campaign by pro-Israeli sympathisers on the grounds that he is not pro-Israeli enough. The outcome of the battle will show the extent to which the United States can free itself from Israeli shackles, restoring its battered reputation and freedom of action in the Middle East.

The many severe challenges facing America include what to do in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Yemen (as well as whether to continue the ‘targeted killings’ by drone strikes which have aroused furious anti-American sentiment in several countries), not to mention relations with China and Russia. Dealing with these problems will require hard and radical thinking — and no doubt, in some cases, a painful change of course.

Take Afghanistan? Is the United States pulling out after Dec. 31, 2014, or not? Afghan President Hamid Karzai is due at the White House in the coming days. He will want to know what future protection he can expect from the United States. He will certainly have in mind the fate of President Najibullah, butchered by the Taleban when they captured Kabul in 1996 after the Russians departed.

Today, no one can deny that the security situation is deteriorating. Every other day brings news of young Afghan soldiers turning their guns on their Western trainers, of Taleban infiltrators killing Afghan soldiers in their beds. Most Afghans — especially those who live in the countryside — are a conservative people, devoted to their religion and their tribal traditions. They want an end to the wars which have devastated their country. They want the foreign infidels out.

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 — somewhat reluctantly — in response to cries for help from local Communists who had seized power and killed President Daud, only to find themselves confronted by an anti-Communist uprising. The Russian occupation lasted ten grim years, 1979 to 1989, causing much loss of life on both sides. It was ended sensibly by President Gorbachev, when the Soviet Union itself faced collapse.

Capturing Kabul in 1996, the Taleban butchered President Najibullah who had presided over the last years of the Russian occupation. Then in 2001 — to avenge Al-Qaida’s devastating attack on New York’s Twin Towers on 11 September 2001 — the United States invaded Afghanistan and drove out the Taleban, who had mistakenly given Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaida house room.

America’s Afghan war has now lasted nearly 12 years. It has claimed tens of thousands of lives, including many innocent victims of indiscriminate bombing, and disrupted life in much of the country. It has cost billions of dollars, contributing to America’s crippling deficits. It is now blindingly obvious that most Afghans do not want the Americans there. Yet President Obama is said to be pondering whether to leave 6,000 or 10,000 or 20,000 troops behind. Their fate would not be enviable.

It would surely be better for the United States to withdraw altogether in 2014, while putting its full weight over the next two years to promoting an inter-Afghan settlement. This would involve bringing together all the local forces and factions in a large Loya Jirga or tribal council. Regional powers with a stake in Afghanistan’s future must be brought in too, notably Pakistan and India, Iran and the Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan, as well as China and Russia. Qatar (which has opened a Taleban office in Doha) and Saudi Arabia may also have a mediating role to play. It would be wise for the United States to stay well in the background, if not out of the Afghan debate altogether.

In his first term of office, Obama missed the chance of negotiating a ‘grand bargain’ with Iran which would have stabilised the vital Gulf region. Instead, blackmailed by demented threats to attack Iran from Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu — which risked dragging the United States in on Israel’s side — Obama imposed on Iran the most crippling sanctions ever imposed on any country. This was surely a grave mistake. It has inflicted pain on ordinary Iranians and aroused great anger against America. It has yet to be proved that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. Instead, Israeli warmongering and international sanctions risk triggering a devastating war, which no one in the region wants except for some Israeli fanatics. The heart of the problem is that Israel intends to prevent any of its neighbours acquiring a deterrent capability so as to give itself the freedom to strike them at will. This is not a formula for harmony in the turbulent Middle East. The United States must understand that a regional balance of power rather than Israeli military supremacy is the best way to keep the peace.

America’s gravest problem is that Israel, its closest ally, is turning into a far-right racist statelet, imposing undemocratic laws at home and oppressive policies towards its captive Palestinians. The Israeli election of January 22 is likely to bring to government dangerous religious nationalists — such as Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party — which advocate the immediate annexation of 60 per cent of the West Bank, dooming the two-state solution to final extinction. These policies are in blatant contradiction with U.S. values and interests.

The great question of Obama’s second term is whether he can regain control of America’s wayward ally and rein in its dangerously self-destructive policies. It will not be easy but it must be done for the sake of both the United States and Israel — and for the peace of the entire region.

Syria poses yet another painful dilemma for the United States. Obama committed himself early on to President Bashar al-Asad’s overthrow — largely under Israeli pressure to weaken and isolate Iran. But the United States has belatedly woken up to the fact that Bashar’s fiercest enemies are Islamic extremists close to al-Qaida — the very terrorists the U.S. has been fighting across the world! An extremist victory could turn Syria into another Afghanistan.

The only way out of the dilemma is for the United States to join Russia — as well as Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and some excitable European countries — in imposing a ceasefire on both sides as a necessary precondition for a negotiation. This will hopefully lead eventually to some sort of national reconciliation and a peaceful transition of power. There is no other sensible way out of the Syrian tragedy.

The world will be watching to see whether Obama’s team can clear its head of outdated notions and seek to resolve conflicts rather than inflame them.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).

Copyright © 2013 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global

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Saudi-Syrian Relations: A Historic Divide

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Syrian President Bashar Assad (R) and Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz (L) descend by escalator from their aircraft upon their arrival at Rafiq Hariri international airport, Beirut 30 July 2010, during an official visit. (Photo: AFP – Joseph Eid)
Published Saturday, February 4, 2012
The increasingly adversarial relationship between Saudi Arabia and Syria is the rule rather than the exception. The two influential Arab states have often found themselves in opposing camps regionally and globally.
In his biography of Hafez Assad, Patrick Seale casually recounts that when the founder of the current Saudi state King Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud was on his deathbed, he warned his sons to “keep your eye on Syria” to protect Saudi interests. Whether this “legend,” as Seale termed it, occurred or not is unknown. What is true, however, is that Saudi Arabia and Syria have had their interactions with one another marred by adversarial interests, with fleeting moments of cooperation, since that fateful warning by the late Saudi king.

on Saturday, the current Saudi king, Abdullah Ibn Abd al-Aziz, cancelled the kingdom’s al-Janadriyah festival ostensibly in solidarity with the Syrian people. Earlier last month, reports by the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai revealed that Saudi Arabia may recognize and fund the Syrian National Council (SNC) in an effort to have current Syrian President Bashar Assad removed from power as he attempts to survive an on-going, widespread uprising. The news broke only one day after the Arab League, pressured by Saudi Arabia, announced its decision to suspend its monitoring mission in Syria.

 Subsequently, the League suppressed the mission’s report and transferred the matter to the UN Security Council.

It seems that Saudi Arabia has banked on the end of Assad’s rule. The Saudi monarchy certainly hopes that a new government will emerge and that any government which emerges afterward will be more appeasing to Saudi interests. But, they also are working to ensure the transitional process does not plunge the region into turmoil.

The Struggle for the Middle East

Ever since the formation of the modern nation-states of Syria and Saudi Arabia, the relationship has always been turbulent. In the grand geopolitical power struggle, both countries commonly found themselves on opposing sides, each representing diametrically opposing ideologies that clashed within their borders or through proxies in Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere.

Syria prides itself as a secular republic and a bastion of Arab nationalism, with close ties to Russia. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is a reactionary monarchy and embodies itself as a caretaker of Islam, while having an extensive bond with the US and Western Europe. True, the rhetoric of the two countries may not correspond with their practice, but the ideological narratives they superficially embrace are in conflict, and much of their foreign policy aims have been at odds.

Particularly in the 1950s and the 1960s, with the rise of Gamal Abdul Nasser’s pan-Arabism and the divide created by the Cold War, Syria and Saudi Arabia were firmly situated in rival camps. Each of these nations hosted the other’s opposition, exported competing propaganda, and developed opposing alliances. Yet, they did work together when they needed to.


This struggle played out in major events. Notably, Saudi Arabia, with Jordan and the US, backed a coup that dissolved Syria’s union with Egypt in 1961. That coup was short-lived. Baathist took over in 1963, which reignited the animosity between Saudi Arabia and Syria.

It was not until after the 1967 war, with the death of Nasser and the ascendancy of Hafez Assad, that relations significantly warmed up. King Faisal, the son-successor to Abdul-Aziz and a fierce opponent to Nasser, steadily sought to attract Syria with financial aid, offering more than US$1 billion annually.

This seemingly tepid relation was cut short during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Assad’s regime faced an assertive Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and was spurned by Sadat’s peace with Israel. Despite Syrian objections, Saudi Arabia did not expel MB leaders residing in the kingdom nor were the Saudi steadfastly against Egypt’s peace initiatives.

Syria’s alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran, which blossomed during the Iran-Iraq War while the Saudis allied with Saddam’s Iraq, furthered tensions. The civil war in Lebanon permitted some respite as Saudi Arabia and Syria sporadically cooperated to preserve their respective interests. Their competing policies toward Iran and Lebanon, seeded during this decade, in many ways shaped relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia in the following decades.

Half-Men and Good Smells in the Air

The 90’s can be argued as the quintessential golden age for Saudi-Syrian collaboration. Both shared power over Lebanon after Taif. Iran was less of a threat at that time since American forces maintained a heavily presence in the Gulf. Also, neither Saudi Arabia nor Syria were interested in undermining the other politically.
This era of mutual understanding came to a dramatic end during the reign of Bashar Assad, with Lebanon being the primary cause. In particular, the assassination of business tycoon and politician Rafikk Hariri, who had Saudi-Lebanese citizenship and was near to the Saudi monarchy, was the breaking point. The Syrian military presence, which had been stationed in Lebanon since 1976, was forced out of Lebanon. It did however maintain and enhance its alliance with Hezbollah, a Lebanese resistance organization the Saudis thoroughly loathed.

The relationship continued its descent during the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, and its allies, had hoped that Israel would be able to annihilate Hezbollah. Yet, it survived 34-days of bombardment and was able to stop Israeli soldiers from advancing far into Lebanese territory, boosting its regional popularity, as well as Assad’s.

Assad’s confidence came across during a speech to celebrate the “victory,” in which he dubbed, without naming names, the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia as “ half-men.” Soon after, Syrian influence reasserted itself politically in Lebanon to the irritation of the Saudis.

The following two years saw the lowest point between Damascus and Riyadh. High-level contacts between the two powerful states were practically non-existent.

Furthermore, America’s belligerent policies brought Syria and Iran closer together. The destruction and occupation of Iraq by Anglo-American forces alarmed the Islamic republic and the Syrian regime, both fearing they would be next. Not surprisingly, the apprehension over security brought them ever-nearer, along political, economic, and military levels.

Syria’s closeness with Iran unnerved the Saudis. Tehran had re-emerged as the central threat to the Gulf with Iraq out of the picture. Despite their own frustration toward Syrian policies, Saudi leaders were equally uneasy over completely isolating or majorly destabilizing Syria, viewing such extreme acts as counter-intuitive. Assad’s regime had perfectly positioned itself at the core of major regional issues, such as those pertaining to Palestine or Iraq. Without Syria’s willing participation, Saudi Arabia would not have been able to further their interests in the region.

In order to break the dangerous impasse in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria began to soften their stances. Various leaked American diplomatic cables, obtained through WikiLeaks, illuminate how Saudi-Syria interactions between 2009-2010 changed. High-level visits were encouraged by the Saudi’s new long-term approach to challenge Iran by ending Syria’s isolation. This, in turn, led to “a good smell in the air” regarding expectations for the future.

The Syrian Uprising and Saudi Arabia

The outbreak of numerous regional uprisings radically changed everything. Most Arab governments and monarchies unexpectedly were confronted by their own population. The uprisings’ nature and vitality compelled governments to reconsider much of their foreign and domestic policies, at least on the surface, in vain attempts to placate a discontented public. It was also an opportunity for governments to realign themselves, or settle old scores.

Ironically, Syria supported the Gulf intervention to quash Bahraini protests, conceivably hoping to curry favor from Gulf countries for challenges it was facing domestically.

The protests in Syria, fueled by brutal attempts by the Assad regime to repress it, grew considerably larger over time. After months of silence, the Saudis condemned the violence by the regime and recalled their ambassador from Damascus. King Abdullah, offering a rare, blunt, and public criticism of another Arab country’s domestic affairs, called on Syria to end its “killing machine.” Likewise, the Saudi authorities turned a blind eye to Syrian demonstrations against the Assad regime within the kingdom. This was quite extraordinary considering Saudi authorities rarely allow public demonstrations, let alone ones conducted by expatriates.

The Saudis view events in Syria as a historic opportunity to enhance their own strategic position. Their main concern is Syria’s relationship with Iran. Saudi Arabia hopes this relationship will be severed by the arrival of a new government, hence the current flirtations with the SNC as a potential alternative.
Certain doubts arise when considering questions regarding the SNC’s lack of a comprehensive representation with the protesters on the ground, or its level of legitimacy with the Syrian public. These doubts are heightened when recognizing that Saudi Arabia has been relentlessly attempting to guide the spread of democratic aspirations under their own terms.

The SNC is a broad organization, composed mostly of Syrian oppositional groups based outside Syria. It has a larger ratio of political religious groups such as the MB, which has historical links with Saudi Arabia. In turn, members of the SNC have been trying to attract Saudi backing since the formation of the organization, frequently sending messages of gratitude and compliments to the Saudi monarchy.
Interestingly, the Syrian regime has not directly confronted the Saudi monarchy. Rather, it has criticized other countries for supporting the opposition and the protests. Perhaps, this is an indication that the Syrian regime still perceives that the situation as salvageable, unwilling to entirely burn the bridge with Riyadh.

These moves by the Saudis may not be as successful as they hope. Haytham al-Manna, a representative of another competing oppositional group, the National Coordination Committee (NCC), noted in an interview with Al-Akhbar, that religious-political organizations like the MB are supported by about “10 percent of Syrian society.”

In another interview with Al-Akhbar, al-Manna stated, “In the Gulf there is a campaign against the Iranians. This might mean that the Gulf countries will try to turn Syria into a battleground against Iran. But we refuse to become the victims of a war by proxy. We want democracy and freedom in Syria. We do not want to be used by any other power for their interests.”

A recent Foreign Policyreport also emphasized increasing worries towards SNC by other oppositional groups. In one particular statement by a defected Syrian soldier who joined the Free Officers Movement (FOM), he described the MB as “malignant” and said that the FOM “has a limited relation with the SNC because they are controlled by the Muslim Brothers.”

Whatever maneuvers the Saudis have planned, history has shown that efforts to bring Syria into their sphere have not borne fruit. Such actions are even more likely to fail now as most of the Syrian public are suspicious of any attempt that undermines their path for liberty and self-determination.

Undoubtedly, Saudi-Syrian relations are in store for more struggles, whether the Assad regime endures or collapses.

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Patrick Seale Journalist and Syria expert

(Dalia Haider | Syria Today )

How would you describe the situation in Syria since the unrest started in mid-March?
The Syrian uprising seems to have been inspired, at least in part, by the general spirit of revolt which has spread across the whole region, scoring notable successes in Tunisia and Egypt. As in these two countries, the Syrian disturbances were powered by the coming of age of a new generation of young people. Many of these young people had gone to school or university only to discover on graduation that there was no work for them. Youth unemployment has been a major motor of all the Arab uprisings.

An additional factor, particular to Syria, has been the harsh conditions in the countryside as a result of four years of drought. The government does not seem to have responded adequately to the plight of the farming population. Ordinary people, struggling to provide for their families, felt neglected. The rural poor were strikingly present at Dera’a and elsewhere. They have provided the foot soldiers of the uprising.

One should add that after several decades of highly centralised power and of one-party rule, young and old in Syria have a thirst for greater political freedoms and for a less rigid control by the regime over society.

All these factors, together with the ostentatious display of wealth of a corrupt elite, have created an explosive situation which diehard opponents of the regime, many of them living abroad, have been able to exploit for their own political ends.

Is there a chance to find a political solution to the crisis?
Without a political solution, the country risks slipping into something like civil war, with a breakdown of law and order, arbitrary killings and the ever-present danger of sectarian conflict. If such a situation were to occur, everyone would suffer without exception. A political solution is therefore essential.

The government has expressed its wish for a national dialogue. But for such a dialogue to take place and for it to be meaningful the ground needs to be prepared and the right atmosphere created.

The violence in the street must end, political prisoners must be released, the protest movement must be allowed to name its own spokesmen for the dialogue, and their safety guaranteed. Above all, the regime must discipline its security forces [who violate orders]. An urgent priority must be to improve prison conditions, which are said to be deplorable.
If these measures were taken and explained to the public, a measure of calm could be restored and a dialogue might then be possible.

The lifting of the state of emergency needs to be implemented, not merely done as a formality. The judiciary should be given far greater independence. Some measure of freedom of expression must be allowed. The political monopoly of the Ba’ath Party should be ended and other parties allowed to be formed and to canvass for support. A vigorous and transparent campaign should be launched against corruption and the guilty brought to trial. Economic opportunities should be open to all, and not only to a favoured elite.

Above all, the president himself should address the nation and explain and promote his reform agenda, in order to win support for it.

What do you think of the media coverage of the unrest in Syria?
A striking feature of the crisis has been the absence of reliable information about the situation. No one outside Syria really knows in detail what is happening. This has allowed all sorts of rumours to circulate, some of them plainly false. This is because the regime has forbidden foreign journalists from entering the country. This prohibition has backfired against the government in many ways, as it has allowed the protesters to influence opinion outside the country by means of Facebook and videos taken by mobile phones, and so forth.

As a result, foreign opinion does not believe government statements, while the opposition has been given the opportunity to spread stories of gross abuses by the security services – some of which are true, but others may be false or exaggerated.
The regime would be well advised to allow a few journalists into the country as well as representatives of humanitarian organisations, so that they can judge the situation for themselves.

What do you think of a possible Islamic takeover in Syria?
There is no doubt that an Islamic opposition exists, of which the most active is probably the exiled Muslim Brotherhood and its local supporters. But I do not believe that they would be able to seize power. Syria has a tradition of secularism and of mutual acceptance. This tradition did not emerge by accident. It was necessary for social peace precisely because Syrian society is a complex mosaic of sects and ethnicities. Christians and Muslims in their various sects tend to be pious and God-fearing, but they are not fanatical. This is the best barrier to a takeover by any one extremist faction.
What would be the best and the worst scenario for Syria in the coming months?
The worst scenario would be some form of civil war, which would cause great misery for everyone, inflict huge damage on the country, ruin its reputation and greatly curtail its external influence.

The best scenario would be for men of goodwill, inside the regime and outside of it, to unite in order to create a model Syria – a country in which freedom, tolerance and prosperity were able to flourish. This can be done. Syria has many assets, not least its friendly, hospitable and intelligent people, its great cities of which Damascus and Aleppo are outstanding examples, its unique archaeological sites, and much else besides. There is hardly a foreign tourist that has not returned home full of gratitude and admiration for the wonders Syria can offer.

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Hafez Assad’s biographer: Syria won’t abandon Iran

Roee Nahmias

In special interview, British journalist Patrick Seale tells Ynet Israel deluding itself if it believes Damascus will sever ties with Tehran. Peace between Jerusalem and Damascus possible only in framework of comprehensive deal that will include Palestinians, he says, adding that ‘Netanyahu is doing the exact opposite of what is needed’

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MALTA – He spent numerous hours with the Syrian leader who was closest to signing a peace agreement with Israel, and saw the hopes of Mideast peace fade before his eyes. Now, 10 years later, British journalist Patrick Seale warns of further deterioration: According to him, the Netanyahu government is not showing a desire to achieve peace and Turkish PM Erdogan is strengthening the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis.

Seale, who penned two books on Syria and its deceased leader Hafez Assad – The Struggle for Syria (1965) and Assad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East (1988) – spoke to Ynet in Malta during the Valdai Discussion Club conference.

Since the death of Assad the father, Seale has distanced himself from the regime in Damascus, but he still visits the country on occasion.

‘Historic ties.’ Iran’s Ahmadinejad (L) and Bashar Assad (Photo: AP)

Seale does not see a concrete threat of a war between Israel and Syria, despite current Syrian President Bashar Assad’s belligerent rhetoric, but he does not rule it out either. He says the Israeli government is a cause for concern not only in the Middle East, but in the West as well. According to Seale, the settlement enterprise poses a grave threat to western interests.

He claims a resolution to the Israel-Syria conflict is possible only if it coincides with a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

“Assad wants peace; he has said this a thousand times,” Seale says. “Full normalization (of Israel-Syria relations) can only transpire in the framework of a comprehensive agreement that will include the Palestinians. Don’t expect him (Assad) to abandon the Palestinians, or Iran for that matter.”

According to the British journalist, it does not appear as though the Syrians or Netanyahu believe a peace agreement is possible.

“You saw Netanyahu planting a tree in the Golan Heights. Unfortunately, Israel has adopted its old security doctrine. I recommend that Israel realize the urgent need for the establishment of a Palestinian state, which will be the key to its integration into the region and the normalization of its relations with the Arab and Muslim world,” Seale says.

“The solution is so clear, but they are doing the exact opposite.”

Terror, he says, has become a global threat on the West, and the only way to defeat it is by solving the Mideast conflict, “but he (Netanyahu) doesn’t want to.”

“The current Israeli government does not want an agreement. It wants ‘greater Israel’,” he says, referring to the ongoing construction in the West Bank’s Jewish settlements.

Seale rejects the notion that Hafez Assad would not have approved of the strengthened ties between Damascus and Tehran, saying “for Syria, the relations with Iran are historic. They go back 30 years, and they are very tight.” 

‘Wants greater Israel.’ Netanyahu (Photo: AFP)
The journalist says Syria feels even stronger now that it has Turkey on its side. “This is very dangerous for Israel. I think there is a regional atmosphere of deterioration,” he says.
Seale notes that Hafez Assad was the “architect” of Syria’s relations with the Islamic Republic.
“Even prior to the revolution in Iran, the Persian Shah’s enemies were based in Damascus,” he says. “Syria and Iran need each other. They don’t agree on everything, this is clear. Israel and the United States don’t agree on everything either.”

Seale mentions that during his recent visit to Lebanon, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would not sit still if Israel were to attack Lebanon. “Therefore, Israel must reexamine its security doctrine, according to which ‘we must be stronger than any regional (group of countries).’ This only increases the hostility,” he claims. 

‘Syria feels stronger.’ Erdogan poster in Lebanon (Photo: Reuters)
“I believe that if Israel attacks Lebanon or Iran, other countries may be dragged (into the conflict),” Seale says. When asked about the Scud missiles Syria has reportedly transferred to Lebanon, the journalist says, “Where are they – the Scud missiles? There is no proof of this. But if Israel attacks Lebanon there is a chance Syria will be dragged in. There is an alliance between Iran, Syria and south Lebanon, and you cannot ask Syria to abandon this alliance.”

Ahead of the publication of the findings of a UN investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, western and Mideast countries, particularly Israel, fear that a civil war may break out.

The UN tribunal is expected to indict high-ranking Hezbollah operatives in the 2005 Beirut bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others. The Shiite group said such a development would cause tensions to boil over.

“Everyone wants to avoid steps that may destabilize Lebanon, which has suffered enough,” Seal says. “Lebanon and Syria have mutual interests. This must be respected. I think we’ll see a sort of compromise, but it’s hard to predict.”

Seale does not believe Hezbollah will resort to violence following the publication of the investigation’s findings. “Hezbollah has a smart leadership which does not want to rule Lebanon; it wants to control Lebanon’s Shiites, who make up some 35-40% of the population,” he claims.

According to the journalist, Syrian President Bashar Assad “wants to create a modernized country; develop it economically, educationally and scientifically.

“(Assad) wants to open up to the West; this is why he recently visited Paris. He has a lot more work to do in the fields of civil rights and freedom of expression, but he’s moving in the right direction in such a hostile region,” Seale says.

Published:  12.17.10, 14:46 / Israel News
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SEALE: Israel’s dangerously battered image

Link

– October 17, 2009

The admiration which Israel’s early state-building once aroused in many parts of the world has turned into angry impatience, outrage, even contempt, says Patrick Seale.
by Patrick Seale, Middle East Online – 16 October 2009

torn Israeli flag
In international politics, image counts. A country’s reputation, the aura it projects, the esteem in which its leaders are held — these are as important as its armed services in providing protection for its citizens. Most politicians know that soft power, skillfully used, can be at least as effective as blood-drenched hard power.

This is a lesson Israel appears to have forgotten. Its pitiless treatment of the Palestinians, whether under occupation on the West Bank or under siege in Gaza — not to mention its repeated assaults on Lebanon, its 2007 raid on Syria and its relentless sabre-rattling against Iran — have done terrible damage to its image.

The admiration which its early state-building once aroused in many parts of the world has turned into angry impatience, outrage, even contempt.

Few outside Israel itself — and outside the shrinking ranks of its diehard supporters in the United States and Europe — would today be prepared to defend its arrogant militarists, its fanatical land-grabbing settlers, its racist politicians.

Astonishingly, there is no sign that Israel’s political leaders have understood the magnitude of the problem or are doing anything serious to address it. On the contrary, they are busy digging deeper into a hole of their own making.

Turkey’s sudden cancellation this week of a major air force exercise with Israel was a salutary wake-up call. Evidently, Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan found it necessary to cancel the drill because of the widespread hostility to Israel among Turkey’s population. He has had to take Turkish public opinion into account. Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu spelled out the reasons in diplomatic terms: “We hope that the situation in Gaza will improve…and that will create a new atmosphere in Turkish-Israeli relations…”

To offend the Turks is no small matter. Israel cannot afford to ignore the warning or sweep it under the carpet. Turkey has for many years been Israel’s main regional strategic partner — indeed its only one since the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979. Losing Turkey could turn out to be the worst setback Israel has suffered for a very long time.

Turkey’s army is the largest in the region; so is its industrial base. Its GDP, at over $1,000bn (in 2008) dwarfs that of the oil producers, whether Arab or Iranian, and is four times larger than Israel’s own. In recent years, Turkey has greatly improved its relations with Iran and with neighboring Arab states — Syria in particular — and is emerging as the wise “big brother” of the greater Middle East. It has offered to mediate local conflicts and is attempting to spread stability and security all around it.

From the moment Israel started hammering Gaza last December, it was clear that its insane war was a grotesque mistake, which would end up fuelling nothing but hate, and might even delegitimize Israel in the eyes of much of the world. The Goldstone report has now driven a giant nail into the coffin of Israel’s reputation by finding that, in Gaza, there was evidence that Israel “committed actions amounting to war crimes, and possibly crimes against humanity.”

Instead of agreeing to carry out an independent investigation into these charges, as the UN mission demanded — before the matter was referred to the Security Council for prosecution at the International Criminal Court — Israel launched an all-out attack on Goldstone and his report. It used all its diplomatic clout to get the report discredited as biased and its examination deferred.

Not only is Judge Richard Goldstone an eminent international jurist with a towering reputation for integrity and fairness, but he is also a Jew and a self-proclaimed Zionist. He won praise for exposing the crimes of South Africa’s Apartheid regime and for his scrupulous work as chief UN prosecutor in Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

So anxious was he to be even-handed that, before accepting to head the Gaza fact-finding mission, he insisted that the mandate be expanded to include Palestinian rocket attacks against Israeli civilians. Indeed, his report found evidence that Palestinian armed groups also committed war crimes, as well as possible crimes against humanity.

Israel’s propaganda war on the Goldstone report has proved both wrong-headed and self-defeating. Among its victims is the hapless Mahmud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority who, under pressure from both Israel and the United States, agreed not to press for an immediate examination of the report by the Security Council. Recognizing his mistake, he has since tried to backtrack, but his leadership has been severely dented.

The result has been to undermine and weaken Palestinian moderates — such as Abbas — whom Israel, one might have supposed, would want to strengthen, and with whom it would seek to negotiate. But does Israel want peace? Does it want to negotiate? Or does it, on the contrary, seek to radicalize the Palestinians so as to avoid serious negotiations until it has seized more territory?

Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s extremist foreign minister, has given the game away by declaring that there can be no peace with the Palestinians for several more years. In refusing to freeze settlements or engage in negotiations, what Lieberman and his boss, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, are doing is to challenge not just peace-loving opinion around the world, but also — first and foremost — U.S. President Barack Obama.

The Israeli right-wing and its neo-conservative supporters in the United States have launched a frontal assault on a central goal of Obama’s foreign policy, namely a two-state solution of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. To undermine Obama, they have not hesitated to mount a vicious campaign of incitement against him. He is depicted as a Nazi, a Muslim and a Jew-hater. His Nobel Peace Prize has been mocked.

Israel is here venturing on very dangerous ground. So far, Obama has sought to persuade rather than to threaten. In his dealings with both Iran and Israel, he has tried to reach agreement by accommodation. With Iran, he has achieved some progress — breaking a 30-year long stalemate — and no doubt more progress will follow. With Israel, he has met a stone wall.

Israel should reflect. Obama’s patience is not endless. Losing Turkey is one thing. To risk losing America is quite another.


Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.

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