Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Save yourself the trouble of reading about Syria...

Many years ago, while working as a waiter, I was taught the secret to carrying a tray full of overfull drinks across a crowded room without spilling. It's simple: don't look at the tray.

The problem is this: if you're looking at the drinks while you're walking, you'll try to compensate for the movement of the liquid in the glass based on what you see. And it won't work. Because all you're seeing is the liquid moving in response to things that have already happened. To avoid this, you simply look away – focus on where you're headed, and your hand will automatically compensate for whatever's happening on the tray.

I've been repeatedly reminded of this over the last few days as the pundit class (professional and amateur) have continuously tried to reanalyze the constantly changing calculus surrounding Syrian use of chemical weapons and the world's response. Every event, large or small, prompts a new wave of analysis that, interestingly enough, always seems to confirm whatever they said previously.

But I'm sure that's just a coincidence.

Confirmation bias aside, thanks to cable news, the internet, twitter, text messaging, Skype, and everything else, most of these pundits think they're looking at what's happening, but all they're looking at is what has already happened. I'm reminded of Walter Benjamin's description of the Angel of History (famously quoted in Benedict Anderson's "Imagined Communities”)
A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
As the pundits seek to analyze the continuous flow of chaos and information, their inevitable fallback is the certainty of their own deeply held positions.

So, towards that end let me save you the trouble of reading any analysis of the US and its actions in relationship to Syria today (and possibly tomorrow). Here are most of your possible op-eds and analysis pieces:

1. Obama is terrible and everything he does is terrible! (a.k.a. "this is bad for Obama”). It's a nice, easy, and convenient approach that always has a guaranteed audience. The articles practically write themselves. All you need to do is look at whatever happened yesterday and explain: Whatever Obama did was the absolute worst possible thing he could've done and/or Whatever happened is the final step in Obama’s inevitable failure as a president

2. Obama is great and everything he does is great! This has two basic variations:
(2a.) Everyone else is playing checkers and Obama is playing 10 dimensional chess - he is always ahead of the curve and always has his next dozen moves plotted out in advance.
(2b.) In a chaotic situation where no one has control and none of the choices are good, Obama is such a genius that he always picks the best possible option

3. War is never the answer! This has two subcategories:
(3a.) Obama hates war and is trying to avoid it
(3b.) Obama is just like Bush and desperately wants us to go to war

4. Violence is the only language these guys understand! We must intervene because of (choose any or all of the following)
(4a.) Iran
(4b.) Israel
(4c.) Chemical Weapons

Additional elements that can be included as needed:

  • The rebels are really Al-Qaeda/cannibals
  • The rebels were the ones who did the gassing
  • Oil pipeline across Syria

So there you have it. Pick one and stick with it no matter what anyone else tells you.
(Keep in mind; it’s much more important to know what a schmuck at CNN, Fox News, the Washington Post, or Politico thinks about this than…say…a Syrian.)

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Syrian Diaspora: Echoes of the Past

Yesterday morning, out of the blue, I was reminded of a compilation of music released by my friend Ian Nagoski, a music historian and collector of rare vinyl.

The compilation, “To What Strange Place”, is a collection of recordings from the Ottoman-American diaspora, painstakingly assembled from dozens of century-old 78rpm records recorded or released in the Little Syria district of NYC between 1916 and 1929.

I was struck by the sad cyclical nature of the situation. A century ago, as the violence and chaos of the collapsing Ottoman empire swept through the region, millions of refugees - Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Jews, Greeks, Turks, Roma, Druze, Circassians, Arabs and other ethnic minorities - flowed out of the former Ottoman Empire in waves, settling across the Middle East, Eastern & Western Europe, North Africa, and the US.

Ian’s compilation reintroduces us to voices from that outmigration, vital portions of American culture and history that were subsequently scattered by the Great Depression and assimilated by the end of the Second World War. Among the traditional love songs and folk melodies there are songs of loss and longing where pain, sharp as a needle, pierces the heart of the listener with no regard for barriers of time or language. These recordings were made when the scars were still fresh on the hearts of the singers who oftentimes lost everyone they loved and everything they owned.

"Groung" by Zabelle Panosian, was recorded in 1916, just months after the worst of the Armenian genocide, and she sings,

Crane, hast thou not news from our country?

Crane, whence dost thou come? I am servant of thy voice.

Hasten not to thy flock, thou wilt arrive soon enough! 

Crane, hast thou not news from our country?

Hasten not to thy flock, thou wilt arrive soon enough! 

Crane, hast thou not news from our country?

The song Andouni ("Homeless"), sung by Armenag Chah-Mouradian (Another Armenian) is also clearly about the loss of home:

My heart is like a house in ruins 

The beams in splinters, the pillars shaken 

Wild birds build their nests where my home once was... 

Although Armenag's version of Andouni featured on “To What Strange Place” is not available online, several other versions of this powerful iconic song can be found - including this one, which includes a full English translation.

Another striking song from this period Rast Gazel,Faryadi Figan" (“Wailing, Moaning”) by Hafiz Saadeddin Kaynak can be listened to here (along with two other songs from the compilation).

 The compilation also features a version of Sayyid Darwish's famous song "Zuruni Kulli Sana Marra." performed by Zaki Murad, an Egyptian Jew. It was recorded in Cairo, but it was released in the 1920s by a record label in Little Syria. The opening lyrics were used as the closing lines to Mahfouz's novel "The Palace Walk".

"Visit me once each year,for it's wrong to abandon people forever."

So here we are again...

Another wave of refugees

If you want to help the Syrian refugees, you can give to the UNHCR here.
Or you can give to  Mercy Corps here.
If you're interested in supporting Ian's work as a music historian and preservationist, you can purchase his entire discography directly from him here. It's 14 records of amazing music on a single USB drive.
There's also a short documentary on his work and his label, "Canary Records" that's worth a watch:

(Thanks to Ian for his comments and suggestions on this blog)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Some Follow-ups to Yesterday's "What to do on Syria?" Blog

As a follow-up to yesterday's blog post, I wanted to add some additional thoughts, as well as mentioning a few additional news items that crossed my radar.

Several other news sources have cited hints of Iran's internal discontent over Assad's use of chemical weapons. In particular, Iranwire posted some very interesting interviews with the various Iranians on the topic of Syrian chemical weapons and US intervention.
In spite of all this, let me be perfectly clear: I'm not suggesting that what I proposed yesterday would be easy. In spite of Iran's deep opposition to the use of chemical weapons, the loss of the Assad regime would be a major strategic blow to their standing in the Middle East. Iran has a long history of close relations with Syria, particularly post-1979 revolution, when Syria was one of the only countries in the Middle East to wholeheartedly support the removal of the Shah. Furthermore, Syria’s support during the Iran/Iraq war was vital to Iran's survival against Saddam Hussein’s assault. If Iran participated in the removal of Bashar Assad they would essentially be stabbing a longtime ally in the back.

For more information on the deep and complex relationship between Syria and Iran I highly recommend "Syria and Iran" by Jubin Goodarzi. It's extremely detailed and very dense, but quite rewarding.

Additionally, there would certainly be resistance to this idea within Saudi Arabia, the US, and among many of the Syrian rebel groups. If Iran is involved in the process of removing Assad, establishing a cease-fire, and restructuring an interim governmental authority there is the very real possibility that they could retain much of their deep organizational influence in a post-Assad Syria (indeed, they are unlikely to participate if this is not the case). Saudi Arabia, in particular, has been spending huge amounts of money to support many of the different rebel factions, and will not take kindly to anything less than a maximum return on that investment. Also, anti-Iranian sentiment is strong among many of the Syrian rebel groups, no small part due to the active presence and ruthless brutality of the IRGC  Quds Force soldiers who have been training, coordinating, and leading Syrian forces in their fight against the rebels.

Persuading Iran to participate in the negotiated removal of Assad and his inner circle will also take more than simply presenting convincing evidence of the regimes culpability in the use of chemical weapons, it will also be crucial that the US establish its own credibility on this issue. If the White House wants to be taken seriously on the unacceptability of chemical weapons it should make a formal apology for US involvement in the Iraqi use of chemical weapons against Iran. Interestingly enough, last week released CIA files finally acknowledged what everyone has known for decades: the United States was complicit in facilitating Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons.

Given that this has been publicly acknowledged, it seems like a relatively small step for the US to issue a formal apology, which would do nothing but help our case against Assad and his chemical weapons usage. Furthermore, an apology of this nature would also strengthen the credibility of the US position against potential Iranian development of nuclear weapons capacity.

In related news, it looks like even the suggestion of US strikes has inspired a recent wave of regime defections, including some very high-profile individuals.

Also worth noting is Russia's shift to a “payment-up-front” system for major Syrian arms purchases, which suggests that they are not particularly confident in the Assad’s staying-power or ability to pay its bills on a long-term basis.

Monday, September 2, 2013

What to do on Syria.

The intractable conflict within Syria has finally reached a point where it is no longer possible for it to be ignored on the world stage. Certainly, it should've been addressed a long time ago in some fashion, but many of the parties outside of the country (on both sides of the conflict) have gained substantial benefits from the protracted conflict. 

Russia has been significantly enriched by arms sales at the expense of the Syrian government, while at the same time enjoying a prominent position on the global stage where they can flex the power of their position on the United Nations Security Council. Russia loves to publicly say "no" to the US - it makes them feel like they matter.

The US and Israel have also seen some significant benefits from this drawn-out stalemate - Hezbollah has suffered more casualties over the last two years then over the previous ten, and has been severely restricted in their ability to carry out anti-Israel activity. Additionally, although they have been receiving dramatically increased amounts of arms and funding from Iran, their resources are largely tied up in Syria at the moment. Furthermore, they have alienated many of their constituents in Lebanon with their insistence on direct engagement in a conflict that has nothing to do with Israel.

Iran's gains from the conflict are less clear, but they are deeply invested in the situation, partially due to the potential loss of one of their few stalwart allies in the Arab world, and partially due to the very real possibility that this conflict in Syria is simply a precursor to a larger region-wide Shia/Sunni conflict. (note: Although the Allawite sect of Islam has only been formally affiliated with Shia Islam for less than a century, thanks to the careful relationship-building of Hafez Assad, particularly following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, most of the Muslim world sees little or no difference between Allawites and the rest of the Shia community.)

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are also deeply invested in the conflict, though the benefits to them have more to do with long-term regional power. A weakened or collapsed Syrian state would, by extension, diminish Iranian influence in the Arabian Peninsula, thereby providing opportunities for the continued growth of Saudi and Qatari power.

How, then, can this horrible situation be resolved?

Although no options are ideal options, there is a clear and (I feel) attainable path forward.

Right now, Pres. Obama is engaged in a two-pronged persuasion campaign - he's attempting to convince the United States Congress that the Syrian government was directly and unequivocally responsible for the massive use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburbs on August 21. He is also, to a lesser extent, attempting to convince the American people that this is the case, and that it merits a clear response.

Although this course of action is, of course, necessary for the strategic path that he has chosen, Obama is working to convince the wrong people. A best-case scenario resolution for this entire situation is attainable, and the key to all of this is Iran.

The number one goal of the White House right now should be to present clear and convincing evidence of the Assad regime’s deliberate large-scale usage of chemical weapons against civilian populations.
Regardless of the tactical necessity for Iranian support of the Assad regime, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for high-level political, military, and religious officials in Iran to disregard the magnitude of Assad’s actions, particularly given their own experiences, and the deep physical, emotional, and psychological scars that much of the population still bears from their own encounters with chemical weapons.

A convincing case can then be made that Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons is clear grounds for his negotiated removal, and responsibility for his removal falls squarely in Iran’s lap. Assad, and most of the members of his senior leadership (i.e. family) would need to leave the country and go into exile, presumably in Iran or Russia (there's probably nowhere else on the planet where they'd be safe). Negotiations surrounding this issue will provide all active military groups (on all sides) a reasonable justification for a temporary cease-fire on the ground.

This is a win-win for many of the involved parties, particularly because it removes the specter of a zero-sum game from the conflict. If mid-level military Syrian leadership was actively engaged in the process of removing the high-level military leadership it would provide them with some measure of credibility in the eyes of the Syrian rebel groups. Similarly, if a temporary cease-fire holds, it could provide some measure of reassurance to the minority Allawite communities that this conflict was, at its core, a rejection of Assad’ legitimacy as a leader, rather than a sectarian war.

Certainly, any state that Syria will find itself in post-Assad is going to be a horrible one. There are substantial numbers of hard-line Islamists, many of whom are foreign fighters, and many of whom will see a resolution of this type as an unacceptable compromise. Additionally, there are civilian victims on both sides who will never be able to forgive the things they've suffered at the hands of the rebels and the Syrian government. The intensity and ruthlessness of the conflict is staggering, with casualty numbers that can only be estimated and the refugees returning from neighboring countries will face an overwhelming task of reconstruction.
In spite of that, there is still the possibility that this conflict can be slowed or stopped. The alternative is a continuously growing Shia/Sunni sectarian war that could ultimately stretch from Lebanon to Pakistan.

The question, then: is this possible?

There is some cause for optimism. Last week Iranian president Rouhani stated that the use of chemical weapons in this conflict was unacceptable and that the world should take immediate action to ensure that it did not happen again. A few days later, former Iranian president Rafsanjani publicly stated that he believed the Syrian regime was responsible for the chemical weapon usage (though the statement was taken off of the Internet within hours of being made). Additionally, Sultan Qaboos of Oman recently visited Iran to discuss a variety of issues. The country of Oman is one of the few regional entities enjoying excellent relations with both the American and Iranian governments, and the Sultan has served as an intermediary in conversations between the two countries in the past.

If Iran can take the lead in negotiating an abdication of leadership by Assad and a formal cease-fire on the part of the Iranian military and Hezbollah, then Turkey and Jordan will certainly be willing to come to the negotiating table to ensure compliance with the cease-fire on the part of the various Free Syrian Army groups that they are connected with. Some participation on the part of Saudi Arabia would be necessary to obtain cease-fire compliance by many of the hard-line Islamist groups, and some of those groups (particularly the al-Nusra Front and other groups with affiliations to Al Qaeda in Iraq) might refuse any cease-fire negotiations altogether, but even this limited transformation is dramatically better than what we see on the ground right now, and may well be a best case scenario for the entire conflict.

Even marginal stabilization would provide an opportunity for engagement by UN peacekeeping forces, and though it cannot be denied that some entities would use the cease-fire as an opportunity to rebuild their capacity for a future conflict, it's important to remember that every day that passes without shots being fired increases the odds that the next day will also pass without shots being fired.