Posts Tagged With: Syria

Refugee Hospitality and Humanitarian Action in Northern Lebanon: between Social Order and Transborder History

English Version: http://urd.org/Refugee-Hospitality-and

This short essay will discuss the social spaces which, in times of crisis, turn into host environments for refugees and displaced people, and where humanitarian programmes are implemented. It argues that the “hosting spaces” that populate the media and NGO reports which tackle refugee influxes are constructed with direct and indirect purposes. Hospitality, thus, becomes the official rhetoric which governments, UN agencies, NGOs, and international media adopt to speak of the consequences of conflict while preserving their moral aura and a convenient social order. The folkloristic idea of “host spaces”, inhabited by displaced people in the wake of emergency crises, helps domestic political actors and humanitarian agencies to preserve the social order that allows them to continue their activities and implement their agendas.

French Version: http://urd.org/L-hospitalite-envers-les-refugies

Cet article aborde la question des territoires qui, en temps de crise, se transforment en terres d’accueil pour réfugiés et déplacés, et où des programmes humanitaires sont mis en œuvre. Il soutient que ces « terres d’accueil », dont parlent les médias traitant de l’arrivée de réfugiés et les rapports des ONG, sont d’une certaine manière « fabriquées » à des fins directes et indirectes. L’hospitalité se transforme ainsi en une rhétorique officielle que le gouvernement, les agences des Nations unies, les ONG et les médias internationaux adoptent pour parler des conséquences du conflit tout en préservant leur aura morale et un ordre social bien commode. L’idée folklorique de « terres d’accueil », habitées par des populations déplacées à la suite de crises, aide en effet les acteurs politiques nationaux et les agences humanitaires à maintenir en place l’ordre social, ce qui leur permet de poursuivre leurs activités et de mettre en place leurs stratégies.

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Enhanced local coordination for effective aid provision: the case of Lebanon (September 2016)

The Policy brief I co-authored with UN Habitat (Beirut) and the ‘Issam Fares Institute (American University of Beirut) is finally out.

Here below its summary and the link to access it.

Lebanon’s refugee crisis has highlighted the need for much closer coordination among the various organisations and local authorities involved in the response. A new study has laid the groundwork for a series of recommendations, set out in this briefing, on how national, local and international humanitarian actors can work together more effectively to enhance urban refugee responses in Lebanon and perhaps in other countries. In the context of a protracted urban crisis, this briefing argues that humanitarians will only be able to ensure their responses are sustainable and meet needs on the ground if they work closely with local authorities.

Available online at: http://pubs.iied.org/17373IIED/

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Child Protection or Security Agendas? NGOs address the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon (Estella Carpi & Chiara Diana, March 2016)

March 1, 2016

by Estella Carpi and Chiara Diana

http://www.youthcirculations.com/blog/

     In the wake of the massive influx of refugees from Syria to Lebanon (2011-2014), some international NGOs have intervened in specific regions of Lebanon to prevent Lebanese and Syrian youth from “radicalizing” themselves and joining armed groups. In the presence of security and political risks, these NGOs play a sizable role in territories that often become destinations for refugees and migrants. We recognize their work as an effort to “neutralize” social spaces by stifling any factor causing local instability. 
     In this framework, youth quickly come to be addressed as objects of concern but rarely as subjects of decision-making and aware action. Our study seeks to unpack international NGOs’ discourses about children’s vulnerability and protection, which are generally formulated according to universalized conceptions of childhood. This research is aimed at understanding the space between global security agendas, child protection, and humanitarian action. Finally, our study shows the controversial character of humanitarian agencies that alternate between depoliticizing younger generations and complying with the social order established by local power holders.

Armed young boy in the Syrian War

Armed young boy in the Syrian War

Syria’s conflict is impacting neighboring countries in myriad ways. Since the conflict started in 2011 as a result of several anti-government street protests and the consequent heavy shelling of the opposition areas, more than one million Syrians fleeing violence and political persecution arrived in Lebanon. Among these Syrians are those who are registered with United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and in search of social and legal protection.

Refugee influxes are generally considered to pose diverse challenges, ranging from the political to the socio-economic. Here, we choose to focus on the humanitarian programs meant to prevent North Lebanon-based children from joining armed groups currently combating in Syria. An example of these is Disarmament–Demobilization–Reintegration programs (DDRs) directed by international NGOs at 15-18 year-old youth. These programs target childhood in a bid to avert suitable conditions for armament.

Through ethnographic research, semi-structured interviews with two large international NGOs, and in-depth interviews with local residents (both Syrians and Lebanese) in North Lebanon, our study primarily focuses on the Akkar region and the city of Tripoli.

Child protection map of north Lebanon

Child protection map of north Lebanon

The research we are presently conducting unpacks international NGOs’ discourses about children’s vulnerability and protection, discourses formulated according to universalized conceptions of childhood. It also demonstrates the controversial character of humanitarian agencies that alternate between depoliticizing young generations and complying with the social order established by local power holders.

 Informal refugee camp next to the Syrian border. 'Akkar (North Lebanon), 2013. Photo taken by Estella Carpi.

 Informal refugee camp next to the Syrian border. ‘Akkar (North Lebanon), 2013. Photo taken by Estella Carpi.

A number of international NGOs[1]attempt to dissuade children who resettled in Lebanon from joining combating factions – especially the several armed Syrian opposition brigades—while prompting their families to send them to school and lead a “decent life.” Some of these NGOs provide vocational training to 14 and 15 year-old teenagers who dropped out of school in an attempt to discourage them from joining armed factions. “If the youth have education and professional skills, they won’t fear for their income and they won’t feel hopeless. That’s how they end up warring or even becoming suicide bombers,” an NGO worker affirmed during an interview.

Similarly, another international NGO offers common school programs to Syrians and Lebanese children and youth, as the education and overall future of both communities are jeopardized. Indeed, young men from both nationalities are in fact recruited in takfiri (Salafi ideology) armed groups combating in Syria. As “beneficiaries,” both Syrian and Lebanese children do not need to be “infantilized,” that is to say, emptied of their political afflatus. In any situation of conflict and violence, they are always defensible since they are presumed to never have individual viewpoints. While here we are not promoting practices which would simply place blame on children and youth, we rather seek to highlight that the youth are the easiest vessels of humanitarian sympathy and generosity (Rieff 2002: 26), and this belief often leads to the humanitarian misconceptions of childhood that we will illustrate below.

Informal refugee camp next to the Syrian border. 'Akkar (North Lebanon), 2013. Photo taken by Estella Carpi.  

Informal refugee camp next to the Syrian border. ‘Akkar (North Lebanon), 2013. Photo taken by Estella Carpi.

Although the Syrian government criminalized the recruitment of children by armed forces and non-institutional groups in 2013, such legal protection measures continue to be disregarded by all warring sides. As mentioned above, employment is considered the most effective dissuasive factor to avoid war recruitment. As a 2015 livelihoods assessment indicates (Save the Children and UNICEF 2015), families are struggling to meet their basic needs and feel they have no other alternative than putting their children to work, marrying off their daughters, and allowing their children to join armed groups. Moreover, official work permits are unlikely to be obtained nowadays for the Syrians who have relocated to neighboring nations. Without work permits, those working illegally risk imprisonment, fines, return to refugee camps, or even deportation to Syria. In addition, some children live in areas without functioning schools, as they have mostly been bombed by the Asad military aviation. Joining an armed group remains one of their few available options (HRW 2014: 2).

Nevertheless, it seems to be quite difficult to gather reliable and detailed information about recruitment efforts inside Syria and in the neighboring countries. Indeed, war recruitment is a strategy that is inherent neither to Jihadist groups nor to Lebanon. For instance, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, a child labor assessment found that 30% of children interviewed had been approached for recruitment (UNICEF 2014). Therefore, in the whole region affected by the Syrian crisis, joining presents benefits to children. Children who join armed groups can in fact receive monthly salaries of up to US$400. Others participate without pay in order to join family members or friends, or because they have suffered on a personal level at the hands of one of the warring parties and desire to exact revenge.

There is also very limited information about the willingness of children and young boys to join and serve armed groups in Syria today. However, generally, it has been noted that many children and adolescents are abducted and conscripted at an early stage. They latter turn into loyal fighters (Depuy and Peters 2010: 67). Likewise, young people recruited by government forces, or informal groups of government-affiliated thugs–Asad’s shabbiha in Syria—are often told that they are protecting their families and homes against “terrorists” who oppose the government. In this sense, indoctrination in governmental armed groups becomes a continuation and expansion of state propaganda.

Children militarily recruited by the “Islamic State”

Children militarily recruited by the “Islamic State”

Reflecting media biases, international NGOs likewise maintain a number of misconceptions about the children they aim to serve. In fact, Syrian refugee children are homogeneously represented as vulnerable. They are quickly classified as innocent victims and impartial, with little opinion about the current conflict. More specifically, according to the analysis we have conducted so far, the misconceptions of the international NGOs are threefold. The first misconception resides in the definition of childhood and child vulnerability, influencing how need and aid are imagined. Indeed, the translation of “vulnerability” variously refers to local conceptions and ways of being addressed in Lebanon. “Vulnerable people” in Lebanon are often referred to with the expression “mustad’afun,” which literally means “the weakened.” This particularly stresses the political agentivity behind the low status and miserable condition of the individual. In other words, individuals are not weak per se, but they have been weakened by historical processes, usually started by political foes.

The second misconception of the international NGO apparatus lies in the standardization of age-focused individual rights and social categories as a result of a universalization of western cultural standards. Indeed, childhood is not approached as a relative process that varies according to culture and context, but rather as a fixed age range.

Thirdly, the NGOs addressing children tend to view regional sectarianism and violence as innate characteristics of Lebanon and Syria and as the very cause of conflict, thereby ignoring the territorial political issues and their connections to the whole region. Nevertheless, the lack of a constructive sense of citizenship and engaged civic participation are certainly not to be blamed on the international NGOs’ action per se, but rather on the longstanding state abandonment and state hostility in the northern Lebanese region, in addition to the widespread use of violence as an instrument to pursue political goals and elitist privileges.

NGO language and implementation strategies thus largely influence and reify the category of “children in need,” who, in the Lebanese context, are merely associated with war and displacement. In brief, youth quickly come to be addressed in terms of objects of concern and rarely subjects of decision-making and aware action.

Syrian primary school for refugee children, Tripoli (North Lebanon). Photo taken by Estella Carpi, 2013.  

Syrian primary school for refugee children, Tripoli (North Lebanon). Photo taken by Estella Carpi, 2013.

As our current analysis indicates, the international NGOs that operate in North Lebanon believe they can act in a social void, one in which armament and recruitment are regarded and addressed as motivated simply by the ongoing conflict in Syria and hardly ever correlated to longstanding social rifts and unresolved political issues–sometimes not associable with community frictions–which concern the local residents to greater extent.

From a local perspective, the children who join the activities promoted by these NGOs are not viewed in the same way as those exposed to higher risk of being recruited or voluntarily recruiting. According to the in-depth interviews that we conducted thus far with Tripoli’s residents connected to armed groups in Syria, the families whose children join the international NGOs’ activities are generally affluent or plugged in international networks. This local perception is noteworthy, as it illustrates how non-beneficiaries view addressed vulnerability as an empowered condition, as the privileged social status of some social groups. The parents collaborating with these NGOs are therefore believed as unwilling to send their children to fight, not being themselves prone to political violence.
On the one hand, our interlocutors have so far expressed perplexity about the external–essentially “western”–way of conducting studies on this issue. In an interview conducted in Tripoli, two Lebanese, ‘Abdallah and Walid, recounted, “international NGOs lack direct access to local communities, and end up addressing families that are not much prone to let their children fight in Syria and that have not been politically oppressed. How can they imagine having tangible results?”
On the other hand, the local interviewees who were neither addressed nor approached by international NGOs highlighted how their children were not “manipulated” to undertake violence for the parental cause, but rather they reasserted that childhood is integral part of the parental effort to implement local and regional social justice. The recruitment of young boys in armed groups, across Lebanon as elsewhere, is a product of much complex social factors which are not simply associable with “evil adult recruiters” or structural features. While international law wants to see adults as conveyers of an inherently and unchangeably “violent culture,” it aprioristically tackles children as unaware perpetrators and objects of manipulation (Rosen 2010: 50), therefore detachable from the local predominant culture and society in which they grow up. To the same extent, these international NGOs tend to believe that the institutional and cultural environments they are able to provide structurally enable children to start a better life, or at least protect them against armed violence on a sustainable basis.

While international humanitarianism is unlikely to see any act of the child as an expression of local culture and therefore “blameless,” the violence of adults is deemed as inherent to the cultural pattern at hand. This marks the epistemological contradiction which underlies the NGO efforts to foster an unconditioned primary depoliticization of children in North Lebanon. At the antipodes of a conception of childhood as politically engaged and aware beyond their exposition to war recruitment, international human rights protectors are overlooking a much more needed protection for children exposed to state and non-state terrorist attacks in schools and public spaces. This clearly points to a close correlation between child recruitment prevention and the generalized concerns of international security apparatuses. Our study will provide insights on how such global politics concerns are addressable through the ongoing NGOization of Lebanon.

Works Cited

Depuy, K. E., Peters, K. (2010) War and Children. A Reference Handbook, Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Security International, in the Contemporary Military, Strategic, and Security Issues.

Human Rights Watch (2014) Maybe We Live, and Maybe We Die. Retrieved from:https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/06/22/maybe-we-live-and-maybe-we-die/recruitment-and-use-children-armed-groups-syria

Rieff, D. (2002) A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. With an Afterword on Iraq, New York City, NY: Simon & Schuster Publishers.

Rosen, D. M. (2010) “Social Change and the Legal Construction of Child Soldier Recruitment in the Special Court for Sierra Leone”, in Childhood in Africa, an Interdisciplinary Journal, Issue 1, Vol. 2, p. 48-57.

Save the Children and UNICEF (July 2, 2015) Small Hands, Heavy Burden. How the Syria Conflict is Driving More Children into the Workforce. Retrieved from:http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/RS102356_CHILD%20LABOUR%20%285%29_low.pdf.

UNICEF (2014) Assessment of the Situation of Child Labor among Syrian Refugee Children in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Estella Carpi is presently a Research Fellow at Lebanon Support (Beirut) and a Research Consultant for the New York University (Abu Dhabi). She received her PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Sydney (Australia), with a research project on the social response to humanitarian assistance in Beirut’s southern suburbs and in the Akkar villages (Lebanon). In the past she also worked as a researcher at Trends Research & Advisory – Abu Dhabi, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) – Cairo, and the International Development Research Center (IDRC) – Cairo, mostly focusing on social development, welfare, NGOs, and humanitarian emergencies in the Middle East. She has lectured extensively in the Social Sciences in Italy, Lebanon, and Australia. After studying Arabic in Milan and Damascus (2002-2007), she wrote her MPhil dissertation in Linguistic Anthropology on the everyday speech in contemporary Lebanon (2008). To access all her publications: https://nyuad.academia.edu/ESTELLACARPI.

Chiara Diana is a Research Associate for the French Center for Economic, Juridical, Social Studies and Documentation (CEDEJ, Egypt). In 2015, she received her PhD in History from the Institute for Research and Studies on Arab and Muslim World (IREMAM) and the Aix-Marseille University (France). Her thesis research is a socio-history of social and political construction of childhood in Egypt during the Mubarak era (1981-2011). In the past, she taught at the Aix-Marseille University and the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris). Her current research interests include childhood and youth in Arab countries, activism and political socialization of young generations in revolutionary, post-revolutionary and conflict contexts. Her latest work is entitled “Children’s Citizenship: Revolution and the Seeds of an Alternative Future in Egypt” in Herrera Linda (ed.) and Sakr Rehab, Wired Citizenship: Youth Learning and Activism in the Middle East. New York: Routledge (2014). To access her publications:https://univ-amu.academia.edu/ChiaraDiana.

[1]The NGOs included in the present study will remain anonymous in order to protect the identity of their beneficiaries and their specific territories of intervention.

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A dialogue with the “Islamic State”?

Something I wrote in December 2015, in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. An excerpt was published in al-Jazeera a couple of weeks ago. The Al-Jazeera text is followed by the full (unpublished) original English version. Then I’m posting the full Italian version, which  was published in Osservatorio Iraq on March 1, 2016. 

daesh_bandiera

Machiavellians and ordinary youth in Syrian civil war

 

ISIL is likely to be dismantled militarily, but who will address the diverse grievances of its former militants?

 

To counter the ideals of the self-declared Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the long-run and to identify potential negotiation partners, it is necessary to rethink the mainstream understanding of Sunni violent extremism and highlight its human and pragmatic features. Religious ideology is not the only driving force behind militancy.

In 2013, while in Syria, I got to know Abu Khalid, a rebel commander who was fighting in Ras al-Ayn for a Muslim Brotherhood-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigade (one of the so-called Shields). Later on, Abu Khalid pledged his military support to the al-Nusra Front, linked to al-Qaeda in Syria.

When Abu Khalid is asked about his reasons for siding with the al-Nusra Front, the pragmatic considerations – that is to say, for example, how the FSA’s corruption slowed down the overthrowing of the Asad regime – are greater than his commitment to al-Qaeda’s dogmatic tenets.

Total chaos

 

Paradoxically, Abu Khalid is now profiting from taking foreign hostages: he turned out to be after the money, just like the corrupt FSA, which was the target of his criticism.

The kidnapping business under the auspices of the al-Nusra Front has most likely upgraded his stature, something not possible under the FSA. He is also fully aware of his limited options in northern Syria, where the al-Nusra Front has almost wiped out the FSA.

Just like the clan leaders in Syria and Iraq – first under the Baath regimes, and then under ISIL – Abu Khalid sought protection and empowerment under the shadow of the umpteenth ruling party. It is worth remembering that the United States-backed Sunni tribal councils (also known as Sahawat or Awakening) were largely successful in crushing al-Qaeda’s insurgency in Iraq between 2007 and 2008, only because al-Qaeda had started challenging their interests – as in reconstruction contracts and illegal revenues – thus prompting Sunni tribal fighters to defect from al-Qaeda’s ranks.

However, Washington left them unemployed a few years later, when its troops started withdrawing from Iraq, and failed to integrate the defected Sunni tribals in the security apparatus due to the resistance of Nouri al-Maliki’s pro-Iranian central government.

The result was that many of these former tribal members rejoined insurgent groups. Numerous Iraqi tribes have remained neutralrejecting the US’ attempts to revive the Sahawat to fight ISIL, and they have their good reasons to do so in absence of long-term guarantees.

On the other hand, pragmatism might be understood as a call for a new patronage system between central governments and tribal leaders, which is one of the aspects of patriarchal autocracy the Arab youth rose up against in 2011. However, the most progressive Syrian activists have long been sidelined by the militarization of the uprising, and are unable to destabilise the ISIL territories.

Young people clearly are playing a crucial role in ISIL. Counterterrorism centres are obsessed with profiling “radicalised” youth. Nonetheless, even in Syria, the red lines between “moderate” and “radicalised” youth are particularly blurred.

No distinction for the Western powers

 

In 2011, during the peaceful phase of the Syrian uprising, I met a young Syrian musician in southern Damascus. We were chatting about politics and he touched upon the former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, praising him as a fearless mujahidin who fought the Americans in Iraq.

He was passionate about a musical genre that originated in the US, but this did not prevent him from admiring Zarqawi, who would have despised his love for haram music. In his neighbourhood and in Syria in general, many young men went to fight for their “just cause” in Iraq during the US occupation.

If the musician, too, had gone to Iraq in those years, he could have become an ISIL militant. Would he have shown no regret in giving up on Western music – the same music that earned him a significant audience in Syria? As noted by some “terrorism” scholars, behind the balaclava, a jihadist is still a troubled human being.

The fascinating story of a young Syrian citizen journalist from Deir Az Zor is worth pondering: He saw his three best friends joining ISIL, and despite that, he kept meeting them secretly for a chat over a cigarette from time to time.

I got to know his story a few months ago. He still considered the militants as his friends, being aware that the reasons why they started fighting for ISIL were only partially ideological. They were given weapons, started earning a salary and found their own destructive redemption from the failure of the Syrian uprising they took part in.

However, they were not ready to spend the rest of their lives under the “Caliphate” and, later on, they managed to flee Syria. The journalist is now “exiled” in Turkey, fearing arrest at the hand of ISIL. He is deeply opposed to the Russian offensive on his city, which has resulted into the death of many civilians. In the end, even his friends could have remained trapped inside the country and died under the air strikes.

Unfortunately, international powers rush to conclusions when tracing the above-mentioned red lines between “moderates” and “radicals” in the conviction that shelling the militant youths and their families will eradicate ISIL from the region.

Their “civilised” response to ISIL brutality is merely a military one. No one seems to take into consideration the diverse array of motivations that pushed all these men to join “radical” factions, whether it was a voluntary choice and how they would act in times of peace.

Jihadists and local tribes will remain actively involved in the Syrian-Iraqi insurgency once the anti-ISIL war trumpets fall silent, unless they become the targets of far-sighted policies and are granted tangible benefits. After ISIL, young militants will keep fighting under a different banner for their “just cause” against foreign occupations and brutal dictatorships.

The mainstream opinion leaders have portrayed ISIL – and other “radical” groups – as an embodiment of absolute evil, while leaving out of the equation the social, political, ethical and economic variables. ISIL is likely to be dismantled militarily, but who will address the diverse grievances of its former militants?


Reasoning about a dialogue with the Islamic State

By Andrea Glioti

Shelling the “caliphate” is not going to work security-wise, socially and politically. The response should be instead based on a diversified political approach to the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq: an approach aimed to establish a unified anti-IS front in Syria and another one possibly involving dialogue with some components of IS in Iraq. In order to counter the ideals of this organisation in the long-run, it is also necessary to reshape the mainstream understanding of Sunni jihadist movements and highlight their human and pragmatic features.

Warmongering and bogeymen

If you had the disgraced idea of following the news in the last months, you have probably noticed the renewed war hysteria that has dominated the aftermath of the Paris attacks. In a few days the talk-shows were flooded with self-declared experts asserting the Western moral duty to defeat the self-declared Islamic State.

A new fully-functional bogeyman has taken the stage, definitely more effective than the communist bogeyman of the Cold War, since IS is a perfect embodiment of cultural, religious, social and ideological otherness with regards to the mainstream European contemporary zeitgeist. In other words, broadly speaking, waging a war on Muslim second/third-generation unemployed youth mobilized under the cloak of religious fanaticism (and migrants in general) has a wider mass appeal than waging a war against your communist neighbour, with whom you possibly had in common the same income and ethnicity. Not only that, when the war is against IS, you have Russia and the US in the same bed (albeit with divergences).

Warmongering against IS is even more appealing than George W. Bush’s war on terror: in the aftermath of 9/11 the US administration failed to convince its critics that attacking Afghanistan and Iraq was conductive to global security, as both governments were not directly involved in the WTC massacre (in the case of Iraq the casus belli was completely fabricated). In the case of IS, on the contrary, the followers of al-Baghdadi are constantly bragging about their responsibility for attacks. They also control a State no one dares to recognize. In the eyes of many Europeans, the US-led coalition, France and Russia are waging a war to defend their “art of living” (as president Hollande phrased it) and the civilians trapped in Syria are no more than collateral casualties to make sure European teenagers can return to safely attend concerts.

Security wise, a response that is exclusively centred on shelling the “caliphate” is not going to work. Even with boots on the ground, the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan stand as a reminder that resistance movements are going to survive despite the presence of militarily advanced occupiers. Back home, in Europe, suicide bombers will keep retaliating for the air raids, lone wolf attackers are not going to stand idle after the collapse of IS and training camps will be easily set up elsewhere, as it always happened. The counterterrorism rhetoric feeds arm dealers rather than providing a long-term securitisation.

The Syrian context: solving the conflict first

IS is not seen as an autochthonous organization in Syria, the leadership is an Iraqi one and many Syrians compare it to an occupying force. Its rise was made possible by the military escalation of the Syrian uprising and it would have never emerged outside of this context.  The IS leadership knows it well and this is why they forge alliances with local tribes, prompt Syrian rebel groups to surrender and pledge allegiance (baʻyah), and force local women to marry their fighters. It is all about “Syrianising” the base of IS supporters. If the world powers do not come around a table to unify the opponents of IS, it might be soon too late to defeat socially this organization, as it will have become Syrian enough to be perceived as a local resistance movement against Asad and the international airstrikes.

This leads us to the urgent need to reach a settlement in Syria and make the battle against IS a priority on both sides (rebel groups such as the al-Qaʿidist Nusra Front have collaborated with IS in several occasions, while the Syrian regime has concentrated its offensives on the opposition, regaining international legitimacy as the lesser of two evils in light of the uncontested rise of the “caliphate”). A nationwide ceasefire requires the armed opposition’s sponsors to overcome their divergences (for example, the US and Turkey need to reach a compromise and allow the Kurdish-led Popular Protection Units (YPG) to be part of a larger unified anti-IS front). Morally, the ousting of Asad should be part of the settlement, because you cannot expect people to drop their weapons and accept that the icon of the repression they stood up against remains in power, after almost five years of displacements and massacres. The crackdown of an Islamist uprising between 1976 and 1982, when Hafez al-Asad ordered to butcher much less civilians, has left deep scars in the Syrian social fabric, as it is clear to anyone who had a talk with a family that lost its relatives in those years; in certain regions the war has been in fact a recrudescence of some never-healed wounds.

Having said that, judging from the latest Russian intervention, it is self-evident that five years of atrocities have not prompted Asad’s allies to give up on him. Furthermore, the latest military developments seem to herald a debacle of the opposition in northern Syria. Although it implies a fair dose of realpolitik, the permanence of Asad might be accepted for the time being to speed up conflict resolution.

However, this  should be balanced by a set of concessions on the part of the regime, such as the release of political prisoners, the dropping of politically-motivated charges issued against Syrian expatriates and the engagement of all the so-called “terrorist” groups except IS in the transitional phase. In fact, to expect the opposition to come to terms with the staying of Asad in power and exclude the Nusra Front (possibly under the guises of its ally Ahrar ash-Sham) from the negotiations table is just wishful thinking. Only when a largely inclusive political settlement will be finalised on a national scale, the focus could be shifted towards IS to form a unified front.

The Iraqi context: engaging with the Baʿthists

The Iraqi case is a different one, IS is the last output of the Sunni jihadist resistance to the American invasion and the consequent empowerment of Iranian proxies. The followers of al-Baghdadi (previously known as the followers of Abu Musʻab az-Zarqawi) have been active in Iraq for more than ten years and they definitely have a stronger support base than in Syria. Even the term (Sahawat) used by IS to disparage its Sunni jihadist rivals in Syria is telling of its Iraqi nature, in a reference to the Sunni tribal militias supported by the US to counter al-Qaʿidah during the occupation.

To some extent, the “caliphate” stands for a comeback of what Saddam Hussein and the Iran-Iraq war represent in the memory of some Sunni Arabs: the containment of Shiʻa political expansionism. The presence of numerous former Iraqi Baʻthist officers in the echelons of IS (in some cases apparently entrusted with laying down the blueprint of the “caliphate”‘s efficient security apparatus) should stand as a reminder of the less visible components of this organisation. The Army of the Naqshbandi Order – a largely Baʻthist Sufi militia led by Saddam’s former aide ʻEzzat ad-Duri, therefore doctrinally at odds with the IS Salafi interpretation of Islam – has also repeatedly collaborated with the Islamic State.

The relationship between the Islamist and the Baʻthist elements within IS is a troubled one not exempt from internal strife, but it could be worth establishing contacts with the latter in order to split the organisation and open a political dialogue. It would be challenging to convince takfiri zealots that they should tolerate other religious communities, but Baʻthists are driven by political calculations: their cooperation with al-Qaʿidah in Iraq (AQI), under the US occupation, has always been a marriage of interests. Furthermore, this relationship traces its roots to the pragmatic Islamicisation of the Saddam regime in the nineties, which resulted in the cooptation of Sunni Islamists to serve the establishment without renouncing to Baʻthist secularism. Is it then so unconceivable to reach out to this component within IS and try to compensate for the idiocy of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the indiscriminate anti-Baʻthist purges that have exacerbated the rifts of the Iraqi society over the past 12 years? In the end, history is rich of examples of resistance movements (IRA,ETA) that were largely demilitarized through compromises and not violence alone.

Jihadists and tribes under the banner of…pragmatism

I think it is also time to stop analysing Sunni jihadists exclusively under the prism of religious ideology, as if it were the only driving force behind their affiliation to certain factions. This would also help us to identify other potential negotiation partners.

In 2013, while in Syria, I got to know Abu Khalid, a jihadist commander with mixed Arab-Kurdish roots who was fighting in Ras al-ʻAyn (north-eastern Syria) in a Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigade funded by the Muslim Brotherhood. In January 2013, when clashes erupted between the rebels and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)-allied YPG, according to the account of a Syrian colleague of mine with no jihadist sympathies, Abu Khalid was raising proudly the Alaya Rengîn Kurdistan flag, eager to reassure the Kurds despite fighting against a Kurdish faction.

Later on, he started showing a completely different attitude towards Kurdish cultural rights. In June, Abu Khalid was sitting in the same tent while I was arguing with a member of the hardline group Ansar ash-Shariʻa, who was affirming that the Kurds are not to be considered a distinct people and Arabic is a divine (samawiyyah) language inherently superior to Kurmanji. I turned to Abu Khalid and asked him what was his stance on this and he just said: “I agree with him.”

Later on, Abu Khalid pledged his military support (munasarah) to the Nusra Front, a group known for stifling ethno-religious diversity under the fist of Pan-Islamism, in what seemed to confirm the path of “radicalisation” taken by numerous opposition fighters or, in his case, the apparently utilitarian nature of his initial support for Kurdish rights.

However, when Abu Khalid is asked about his reasons for siding with the Nusra Front, the pragmatic dimension overwhelms his commitment to al-Qaʻidah’s dogmatic tenets (what is known as ʻaqidah in Islamic terms). “I’ve dealt with the leadership of the (“US-approved”) (FSA), they kept most of the funds for themselves and told us (fighters): ҅Make do with what you have (dabbir halkun)!ʼ The majority of these colonels are now in Europe. I’ve seen so many thefts committed by FSA members…If only they were organized like Daʿish when they seized the oil fields in 2013, Asad would be long gone! With the Jabhah (Nusra Front) it’s different: they pay each fighter 100$ per month, cover your rent if you’re married and they don’t steal. Unlike the  FSA, which has been infiltrated repeatedly by the regime and the PKK, their security apparatus is strong,” Abu Khalid told me in a recent conversation. Although his claims on plundering are disputed by similar reports on the Nusra Front, a widespread resentment against the corruption of  US-backed “moderately” Islamist factions such as the Syria Revolutionaries Front has indeed increased the popularity of hardliners in northern Syria.

Regardless of the credibility of Abu Khalid’s accusations – quite common among the Syrian armed opposition – each time we talked his apology of the Nusra Front was never based on the group’s call for global jihad but rather on pragmatic considerations (that is to say, for example, how the FSA’s conduct slowed down the overthrowing of the Asad regime). As far as I know from him, Abu Khalid is now profiting from the trade of foreign hostages, he turned out to be after the money, just like some of the US favourite rebels. Since his brigade used to be supported directly by the Muslim Brotherhood, Abu Khalid’s closer ties with the Nusra Front might be also a consequence of the warm relationship between one of the major regional sponsor of the Brotherhood, the Qatari royal family, and the al-Qaʿidah Syrian affiliate.

In response to this pragmatic interpretation of a jihadist behaviour, some would argue that “radical” Islamists tend to dissimulate their “true nature” in front of Westerners. This occurs in certain circumstances, but Abu Khalid was rather explicit in voicing his more controversial opinions (on the Kurds, for example) and, once, he even admitted having smuggled foreign fighters (muhajirin) into Syria only to regret that when they joined IS later on. During my experience in Syria, in 2013, those who were passionate about the global jihad call did not dissimulate their views in front of me: in the same conversation, the above-mentioned Ansar as-Shariʿa member told me about his ambition to establish an Islamic emirate in Lebanon. In another occasion, an Ahrar ash-Sham chief stationed in al-Hawl (north-eastern Syria) was particularly vocal of his support for al-Qaʿida and its allies in Mali, who took over large swathes of this country in 2012.

In the case of Abu Khalid, the kidnapping business under the auspices of the Nusra Front has most likely upgraded his status, something that was not possible under the FSA. He is also fully aware of his limited options in northern Syria, where the Nusra Front has almost wiped out the FSA. Similarly to what numerous clan leaders did in Syria and Iraq, under the Baʿth first and then under IS, Abu Khalid sought protection and empowerment under the shadow of the umpteenth ruling party.  With regards to this, it is worth remembering that, in what was one of the few calculated moves during the occupation of Iraq, the US army banked on the expedience of some Sunni tribes  and prompt them to defect from al-Qaʿidah and join the Sahawat starting from 2005. They basically supplied local clans with money and guns to secure their mobilization power, being aware that al-Qaʿida had started challenging their interests (reconstruction contracts, illegal revenues). The Sahawat were largely successful in crashing the al-Qaʿidist insurgency between 2007 and 2008. However, Washington left them unemployed a few years later, when the American troops started withdrawing from Iraqi cities, and failed to integrate them in the Iraqi security forces due to the resistance of the pro-Iranian central government. The predictable result was that many of these former Sahwa members re-joined insurgent groups.

IS controls Sunni Arab-majority tribal regions between Iraq and Syria, but the international community has not prioritised the formation of anti-IS clan-based brigades. The initiatives against the Islamic State have been limited to US-sponsored training programs for minor Syrian “moderate” rebel groups, a US-backed coalition of Kurds, Arabs and Syriac Christians known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, whose credentials among the Arab population are yet to be verified, and the Russian intervention in support of those State actors (the Iranian and the Syrian regimes) whose crimes are partially responsible for the “radicalisation” of Sunni Arab paramilitary actors.

Numerous Iraqi tribes have remained neutral rejecting the US attempts to revive the Sahawat to fight against IS and they have their good reasons to do that in absence of long-term guarantees on their role in a post-conflict context. The US commitment to the stability of Iraq – and that of its allies who invaded and ravaged the country in 2003 – cannot be limited to ad hoc interventions conceived to address emergencies. An inclusive approach towards the tribes is a complicated issue, the world powers will need to negotiate it with the future Syrian transitional government and Baghdad, to prevent any indiscriminate form of State retaliation against those clan members who joined IS.

Jihadists like Abu Khalid and many Syrian and Iraqi tribal leaders who pledged allegiance (baʿyah) to the “caliphate” do not care about ideology, their loyalty can be easily “bought” with a combination of privileges and fear. In the south of Syria, in the eastern countryside of as-Swaydaʼ, for example, the Arab tribes loyal to IS are still allowed to make business with local arm dealers.

Pragmatism might be legitimately understood as a call to establish a new patronage system between central governments and tribal leaders, which is one of the aspects of patriarchal autocracy the Arab youth rose against in 2011, but the most progressive Syrian activists have long been sidelined by the militarisation of the uprising, thus being currently unable to destabilise the IS territories.

Humanised young jihadists

Speaking about the youth, it clearly plays a crucial role also among the IS militants. Counter-terrorism centres are obsessed about tracing the profiles of this “radicalised” youth. Nonetheless, it remains challenging to single out “abnormity” and condemn unilaterally a crowd of misfits that might resemble too well the large segments of “ordinarily” disillusioned youth in European societies. The Islamic State, after all, is a clear anti-system magnet for young Western foreign fighters. Even in Syria, the red lines between “moderate” and “radicalised” youth are particularly blurred because of a wide range of factors.

In 2011, during the early phase of the Syrian uprising, I met with a young Syrian musician in al-Hajar al-Aswad (southern Damascus). We were chatting about politics and he touched upon the figure of az-Zarqawi, praising him as a fearless mujahid who fought the Americans in Iraq. He was passionate about a musical genre that originated in the US, but this did not prevent him from admiring az-Zarqawi, who would have despised his love for haram music. In al-Hajar al-Aswad, and in Syria in general, many young men went to fight for their just cause in Iraq during the US occupation. If the musician had gone to Iraq in those years, he could have become an IS militant. Would he had shown no regret in giving up on Western music, the same music that earned him a significant audience in Syria? As noted by some “terrorism” scholars, behind the balaclava, a jihadist is still a troubled human being with multifaceted interests.

Recently, I read the story of a young Syrian citizen journalist from Deyr az-Zawr I happen to know personally, who saw his three best friends joining IS and, despite that, he kept meeting them secretly for a chat over a cigarette from time to time. He still saw them as his friends, being aware that the reasons why they started fighting for IS were only partially ideological. They were given weapons, started earning a salary and found their own destructive redemption from the failure of the Syrian uprising they took part in. However, they were not ready to spend the rest of their lives under the “caliphate” and, later on, they managed to flee Syria.

The journalist is now “exiled” in Turkey, fearing an arrest at the hand of IS. He is deeply opposed to the militant group, but he equally rejects the Russian airstrikes on his city, which have resulted into the death of numerous civilians. In the end, even his friends could have remained trapped inside the country and been considered legitimate targets of the airstrikes.

On the contrary, the international powers are particularly expedite in tracing the above-mentioned red lines between “moderates” and “radicals” in the conviction that shelling the militant youths and their families will eradicate IS from the region. Their “civilised” response to the IS brutality is a merely military one. No one seems to take in consideration the diverse array of motivations that pushed each individual to join the “caliphate”, whether it was a voluntary choice and how they would act in times of peace.

Conclusion

IS is already running a State and, in spite of its propaganda, is arguably more interested in preserving its territories than conquering the whole world. The idea of opening a channel for negotiations with some components of this organisation is abhorred by the international community, even though world diplomats are accustomed to shake hands with a great deal of suite-dressed criminals. Therefore, the war on the Islamic State is about preserving a global order rather than an ethical one.

The leading assumption is that IS should not be normalised like any other violent State actor, even though it is already a de facto State. The paradox is that, at least in the Western circles, IS is often compared with a Nazi regime that must be destroyed to circumscribe its expansion, so actually with a fully fledged State entity. Let’s suppose IS was similar to Nazi Germany – an approximate parallelism for a set of reasons, including how it came into existence – then what leads us to believe that an uncompromising approach will limit the damages? If Nazi Germany had been split into factions to engage some of them in diplomatic talks and water down its regime’s ideology well before the war, Europe might have been spared millions of deaths. In particular, there is still a rich historical debate on how WWII could have been avoided and no agreement on a preemptive attack against Hitler as the only viable option. If the Treaty of Versailles (1919) was harsh on Germany upon the conclusion of WWI and it allowed Hitler to capitalise on social discontent, then post-Saddam Iraq has been harsh on the Baʿthists and it as allowed IS to capitalise on the grievances of Sunni Arabs. There is always room for learning from history.

On the contrary, when Putin hints at the use of nuclear warheads against IS, he reminds us of one of the worst ever epilogues of a conflict started under the motto of defending “freedom”. When the French Government feels entitled to enforce emergency laws and enhance surveillance tools, we are all losing the same “freedom” its jets claim to be fighting for in Syria and Iraq. Are we really willing to live in a police State for the sake of the illusion of eradicating IS – and what lies behind it – in a military confrontation?


Un dialogo con lo “Stato Islamico”?

di Andrea Glioti

Bombardare il sedicente Stato Islamico (IS) non può essere una soluzione, sul piano della sicurezza, socialmente e politicamente. La risposta dovrebbe essere basata invece su un approccio politico diversificato, a seconda del contesto, siriano o iracheno: un approccio mirato a creare un unico fronte anti-IS in Siria e un altro improntato al dialogo con alcuni componenti IS in Iraq. Al fine di contrastare gli ideali di questa organizzazione nel lungo termine, è anche necessario mettere in discussione la rappresentazione mainstream dei movimenti jihadisti sunniti e sottolineare i loro tratti umani e pragmatici.

Guerrafondai e spauracchi

Se avete avuto la sventurata idea di seguire le notizie negli ultimi mesi, avrete notato la rediviva isteria interventista che ha fatto seguito agli attacchi di Parigi. In pochi giorni i talk-show sono stati inondati di esperti (autoproclamatisi tali) fautori del presunto dovere morale occidentale di sconfiggere lo Stato Islamico.

Un nuovo spauracchio completamente funzionale è salito in scena, sicuramente più efficace dello spauracchio comunista della guerra fredda, in quanto IS è una perfetta incarnazione di alterità culturale, religiosa, sociale e ideologica rispetto allo zeitgeist dominante dell’Europa contemporanea. In altre parole, generalizzando, dichiarare guerra ai musulmani disoccupati di seconda/ terza generazione (e ai migranti in generale) mobilizzatisi sotto le spoglie del fanatismo religioso garantisce un gradimento di massa ben più ampio di una guerra contro il tuo vicino comunista, con il quale è probabile tu avessi in comune reddito ed etnia. Non solo, quando la guerra è contro IS, anche la Russia e gli Stati Uniti  condividono lo stesso letto (con le dovute divergenze).

Fare i guerrafondai contro IS riscuote più popolarità della guerra al “terrorismo” di George W. Bush: in seguito agli attentati dell’11 settembre, la Casa Bianca non era infatti riuscita a convincere i suoi critici che attaccare l’Afghanistan e l’Iraq avrebbe consolidato la sicurezza globale, poiché nessuno di questi due governi era coinvolto direttamente nel massacro del World Trade Center (nel caso dell’Iraq il casus belli venne completamente inventato). I seguaci di al-Baghdadi, invece, sono alquanto trasparenti nel rivendicare gli attacchi perpetrati e controllano uno Stato che nessuno osa riconoscere. Agli occhi di molti europei, la coalizione guidata dagli Stati Uniti, la Francia e la Russia stanno conducendo una guerra per difendere la loro “arte di vivere” (riprendendo le parole di Hollande) e i civili intrappolati in Siria non sono altro che vittime collaterali per assicurarsi che i teenager europei tornino ad assistere ai loro concerti in sicurezza.

Sul piano della sicurezza stessa, una risposta incentrata esclusivamente sui bombardamenti non può funzionare. Anche in caso si decida di inviare delle truppe via terra, l’ Iraq e l’Afghanistan servono da monito sulla sopravvivenza dei movimenti di resistenza a dispetto della presenza di occupanti miltarmente avanzati. In Europa, la replica ai raid aerei continueranno a essere gli attentati e gli attacchi dei cosiddetti lupi solitari non cesseranno certo con il crollo del “califfato”. Nel post-IS, i campi di addestramento dei militanti verranno facilmente allestiti altrove, come è sempre accaduto. Un circolo vizioso in cui la retorica dell’anti-terrorismo nutre i trafficanti d’armi piuttosto che garantire sicurezza.

Il contesto siriano: la priorità di risolvere il conflitto

IS non è visto come un’organizzazione autoctona in Siria, la leadership è irachena e molti siriani lo paragonano a una forza occupante. La sua ascesa è stata resa possibile dall’escalation militare della rivoluzione siriana e non sarebbe stata possibile al di fuori di tale contesto. I vertici ne sono consapevoli, ed è per questo che stringono alleanze con le tribù locali, costringono gruppi di ribelli siriani ad arrendersi e giurare fedeltà (ba‘yah), e obbligano le donne siriane a sposare i loro combattenti. Si tratta di una vera e propria “sirianizzazione” della base di sostenitori. Se le potenze internazionali non riusciranno a unificare gli avversari di IS, potrebbe essere presto troppo tardi per sconfiggere socialmente tale entità, poiché sarà diventata abbastanza siriana da essere percepita come un movimento locale di resistenza contro Asad e i bombardamenti internazionali .

Di qui la necessità urgente di raggiungere un accordo di pace in Siria e rendere lo smantellamento dello Stato Islamico una priorità su entrambi i fronti (gruppi ribelli come gli al-qaʿidisti del Fronte Nusra hanno collaborato con IS in diverse occasioni, mentre il regime siriano ha concentrato le sue offensive sull’opposizione, riguadagnando legittimità internazionale in qualità di male minore di fronte alla crescita incontrastata del “califfato”). Un cessate il fuoco su scala nazionale passa per il superamento delle divergenze esistenti tra gli sponsor dell’opposizione armata (per esempio, gli Stati Uniti dovrebbero convincere la Turchia a permettere il coinvolgimento delle Unità di Protezione Popolare (YPG) curde nella lotta all’IS). Sul piano morale, la cacciata di Asad dovrebbe essere parte della soluzione, perché non si può pretendere che la gente getti le armi e accetti che l’icona della repressione contro cui è insorta resti al potere, dopo quasi cinque anni di sfollamenti e massacri. L’insurrezione soffocata nel sangue tra il 1976 e il 1982, quando Hafez al-Asad ordinò il massacro di molti meno civili, ha lasciato cicatrici profonde nel tessuto sociale siriano, come è chiaro a chiunque abbia conosciuto una famiglia che ha perso i suoi parenti in quegli anni; in alcune regioni la guerra è stata di fatto una recrudescenza di alcune ferite mai rimarginate.

Detto ciò, a giudicare dall’intervento russo, è evidente che cinque anni di atrocità non hanno spinto gli alleati di Asad ad abbandonarlo. Gli ultimi sviluppi militari sembrano inoltre preludere a una debacle dell’opposizione nel nord del Paese. Anche se implica una buona dose di realpolitik, la permanenza di Asad potrebbe essere momentaneamente accettata, a patto di accelerare la risoluzione del conflitto.

Tuttavia, la permanenza del raʼis dovrebbe essere controbilanciata da una serie di concessioni da parte del regime, come il rilascio dei prigionieri politici, l’archiviazione dei capi d’accusa di natura politica emessi nei confronti degli espatriati siriani e il coinvolgimento di tutti i cosiddetti gruppi “terroristici” nella fase di transizione, con l’eccezione dello Stato Islamico. Non si può infatti pretendere che l’opposizione accetti la permanenza di Asad e, allo stesso tempo, l’esclusione dal tavolo dei negoziati del Fronte Nusrah (possibilmente sotto le sembianze “presentabili” del suo alleato Ahrar al-Sham). Solo quando un accordo politico senza “esclusi” sarà finalizzato su scala nazionale, l’attenzione potrà essere spostata verso la formazione di un fronte coeso anti-IS.

Il contesto iracheno: rivolgersi ai ba’thisti

Il caso iracheno è diverso, IS è l’ultimo prodotto della resistenza sunnita jihadista all’invasione americana e al conseguente rafforzamento degli alleati iracheni dell’Iran. I seguaci di al-Baghdadi (precedentemente noti come seguaci di Abu Musʻab az-Zarqawi) sono stati attivi in ​​Iraq da più di dieci anni e qui godono di una base di sostegno più consolidata che in Siria. Persino il termine (Sahawat) utilizzato da IS per denigrare i suoi rivali jihadisti sunniti in Siria tradisce la natura irachena del movimento, in riferimento alle milizie tribali sunnite foraggiate dagli Stati Uniti per contrastare al-Qaʻidah durante l’occupazione.

In un certo senso, il “califfato” è il ritorno di ciò che Saddam Hussein e la guerra tra Iran e Iraq rappresentano nella memoria di alcuni arabi sunniti: il contenimento dell’espansionismo politico sciita. La presenza di numerosi ex-ufficiali baʻthisti iracheni ai vertici di IS (ai quali, in alcuni casi, sarebbe stata affidata la progettazione dell’efficiente apparato di sicurezza del “califfato”) dovrebbe ricordarci le componenti meno visibili di questa organizzazione. L’esercito dell’Ordine Naqshbandita – una milizia sufi in gran parte baʻthista, guidata dall’ex-braccio destro di Saddam ʻEzzat ad-Duri, e pertanto agli antipodi dottrinali con l’interpretazione salafita dell’Islam propria dell’IS – ha più volte collaborato con lo Stato Islamico.

Il rapporto tra la componente islamica e quella baʻthista di IS è problematico e non esente da conflitti interni, ma si potrebbe tentare di stabilire dei contatti con quest’ultima al fine di dividere l’organizzazione e aprire un dialogo politico. Sarebbe difficile convincere dei fanatici takfiriti a tollerare le altre comunità religiose, ma i baʻthisti sono spinti da calcoli politici: la loro cooperazione con Al-Qaʻidah in Iraq (AQI), sotto l’occupazione statunitense, è sempre stata un matrimonio d’interesse. Inoltre, tale relazione affonda le sue radici nell’islamizzazione pragmatica del regime di Saddam negli anni novanta, che aveva portato alla cooptazione dei movimenti islamici sunniti al servizio delle istituzioni senza rinunciare alla laicità baʻthista.

E’ così inconcepibile mettersi in comunicazione con questa componente di IS e cercare di compensare l’idiozia di Operazione Iraqi Freedom e le purghe anti-baʻthiste che hanno esacerbato le divisioni della società irachena nel corso degli ultimi 12 anni? In fondo, la storia è ricca di esempi di movimenti di resistenza (IRA, ETA) che sono stati ampiamente demilitarizzati attraverso una serie di compromessi.

Jihadisti e tribù sotto la bandiera del … pragmatismo

Credo sia anche giunto il momento di smettere di analizzare i jihadisti sunniti esclusivamente attraverso il prisma dell’ideologia religiosa, come se fosse l’unica forza motrice dietro la loro affiliazione a determinate fazioni. Ciò faciliterebbe inoltre l’identificazione di altri potenziali partner con cui avviare dei negoziati.

Nel 2013, mentre mi trovavo in Siria, ho avuto modo di conoscere Abu Khalid, un comandante jihadista di origine arabo-curda che stava combattendo nella cittadina nordorientale di Ras al-ʻAyn in una brigata dell’Esercito Siriano Libero (Esl) finanziata dai Fratelli Musulmani. Nel gennaio del 2013, quando si erano scontrati i ribelli e le Unità di Protezione del Popolo (Ypg) affiliate al Partito dei Lavoratori del Kurdistan (Pkk), Abu Khalid aveva issato orgogliosamente la bandiera Alaya Rengin del Kurdistan, desideroso di rassicurare i Curdi, a dispetto della battaglia che lo vedeva contrapposto a una fazione curda. A riferirmelo era stato un collega siriano privo di simpatie jihadiste.

In seguito, Abu Khalid aveva iniziato a mostrare un atteggiamento completamente diverso nei confronti dei diritti culturali dei Curdi. Un giorno di giugno, Abu Khalid era seduto nella stessa tenda dove avevo intavolato una discussione con un membro del gruppo fondamentalista Ansar ash-Shariʻa, il quale sosteneva che i Curdi non dovessero essere considerati un popolo distinto e l’arabo fosse una lingua divina (samawiyyah) intrinsecamente superiore al Kurmanji. Mi ero voltato verso Abu Khalid e gli avevo chiesto cosa ne pensasse. “Sono d’accordo con lui,” era stata la sua risposta.

In seguito, Abu Khalid ha concesso il suo sostegno militare (munasarah) al Fronte Nusrah, un gruppo notoriamente dedito a soffocare il pluralismo etno-religioso nella morsa del panislamismo, a conferma apparente del percorso di “radicalizzazione” comune a numerosi combattenti dell’opposizione o, nel suo caso, della natura utilitaristica del suo supporto iniziale per i diritti dei Curdi.

Tuttavia, quando ad Abu Khalid viene chiesto perché si sia schierato con la Nusrah, la dimensione pragmatica prevale su una devozione pressoché inesistente ai principi dogmatici di al-Qaʻidah (ciò che è noto come ʻaqidah in termini islamici). “Ho avuto a che fare con i vertici dell’Esercito Libero (supportati dagli USA), si sono tenuti la maggior parte dei soldi e a noi (combattenti) hanno detto: ʻArrangiatevi (dabbiru halkun)!ʼ La maggioranza di questi colonnelli sono finiti in Europa. Ho visto tanti di quei furti commessi da membri dell’Esl…Se solo fossero stati organizzati come Daʻish quando avevano preso il controllo dei pozzi petroliferi nel 2013, Assad se ne sarebbe già andato da tempo! Con la Jabhah (il Fronte Nusrah) è diverso: pagano ogni combattente 100$ al mese, oltre all’affitto di chi è sposato, e non rubano. A differenza dell’Esercito Libero, che è stato più volte infiltrato dal regime e dal Pkk, il loro apparato di sicurezza è solido,” questo è quanto mi ha detto Abu Khalid in una conversazione recente. Anche se le accuse di razzie non risparmiano solitamente nemmeno la Nusrah in Siria, il risentimento diffuso contro la corruzione delle fazioni “moderatamente” islamiche appoggiate dagli USA come il Fronte dei  Rivoluzionari di Siria ha di fatti aumentato la popolarità delle formazioni più radicali nel nord del Paese.

Indipendentemente dalla credibilità delle invettive di Abu Khalid – abbastanza comuni tra i gruppi dell’opposizione armata – ogni volta che ho avuto occasione di affrontare l’argomento, la sua apologia della Nusrah non è mai stata fondata sull’appello del gruppo al jihad globale, ma piuttosto su considerazioni pragmatiche (vale a dire, per esempio, su come il comportamento dell’Esl abbia rallentato il rovesciamento del regime di Asad). Da un po’ di tempo a questa parte, Abu Khalid è dedito a trarre profitto dal commercio di ostaggi stranieri, ciò che gli interessava era il denaro, paradossalmente, proprio come alcuni dei ribelli sostenuti da Washington. Considerando poi che la sua brigata era un tempo finanziata direttamente dai Fratelli Musulmani, i legami più stretti di Abu Khalid con la Nusrah potrebbero essere anche una conseguenza delle ottime relazioni consolidatesi tra la famiglia reale qatarina – uno dei maggiori sponsor regionali dei Fratelli – e la filiale siriana di al-Qaʻidah.

In replica a una simile interpretazione pragmatica del comportamento di un jihadista, c’è chi obietterebbe che i gruppi islamici “radicali” tendono a dissimulare la loro “vera natura” agli occhi degli osservatori occidentali. Ciò avviene senz’altro in alcune circostanze, ma Abu Khalid è sempre stato piuttosto esplicito nell’esprimere le sue opinioni più controverse (sui curdi, per esempio) e, una volta, ha persino ammesso di aver facilitato l’ingresso di combattenti stranieri (muhajirin) in Siria, per poi pentirsi delle sue azioni nel momento in cui questi si sono arruolati nello Stato Islamico. Durante la mia esperienza in Siria, nel 2013, coloro su cui faceva presa il messaggio del jihad globale non dissimulavano certo le proprie opinioni al mio cospetto: nella conversazione sopracitata, lo stesso membro di Ansar as-Shariʿa mi aveva parlato della sua ambizione di fondare un emirato islamico in Libano. In un’altra occasione, un leader di Ahrar al-Sham di stanza ad al-Hawl (nord-est della Siria) era stato particolarmente esplicito nel suo sostegno ad al-Qaʿidah e alleati in Mali, in seguito alla loro conquista di buona parte del Paese nel 2012.

Nel caso di Abu Khalid, il business dei sequestri sotto gli auspici della Nusrah ha molto probabilmente innalzato il suo status, cosa che non era possibile nelle fila dell’Esercito Libero. E’ anche pienamente consapevole delle sue opzioni limitate nel nord della Siria, dove gli al-qaʿidisti hanno quasi spazzato via l’Esl.

Analogamente a come si sono comportati numerosi capi clan tribali in Siria e in Iraq, prima sotto il partito Baʿth e poi sotto IS, Abu Khalid ha perseguito protezione e potere all’ombra dell’ennesimo ente governante. A questo proposito, vale la pena ricordare che, in una delle poche mosse calcolate durante l’occupazione dell’Iraq, l’esercito statunitense aveva fatto affidamento sull’opportunismo di alcune tribù sunnite e le aveva indotte a disertare al-Qaʿidah e unirsi alle Sahawat a partire dal 2005. In pratica, i clan locali erano stati armati e foraggiati con l’intento di assicurarsi il loro potere di mobilitazione, nella consapevolezza che al-Qaʿidah aveva già iniziato a ledere i loro interessi (contratti per la ricostruzione, introiti illegali). Le Sahawat erano in gran parte riuscite a sedare l’insurrezione al-qaʻidista tra il 2007 e il 2008. Tuttavia, Washington le aveva lasciate senza lavoro qualche anno più tardi, quando le truppe americane avevano iniziato a ritirarsi dalle città irachene, senza riuscire a integrarle nelle forze di sicurezza irachene a causa della resistenza del governo centrale filo-iraniano. Il prevedibile risultato è stato che molti di questi ex-miliziani delle Sahawat sono tornati nelle fila degli insorti.

Lo Stato Islamico controlla regioni tribali a maggioranza arabo-sunnita sia in Iraq che in Siria, ma la comunità internazionale non ha prioritizzato la formazione di brigate su base clanica per combattere tale organizzazione. Le iniziative si sono limitate a programmi americani di addestramento a beneficio di gruppi ribelli siriani “moderati” minoritari, una coalizione di curdi, arabi e cristiani siriaci nota come Forze Democratiche Siriane, anch’essa sostenuta dagli USA, le cui credenziali tra la popolazione araba sono ancora tutte da verificare, e infine l’intervento russo a sostegno degli stessi attori statali (il regime siriano e quello iraniano) i cui crimini sono in parte responsabili della “radicalizzazione” degli attori paramilitari arabo-sunniti.

Numerose tribù irachene sono rimaste neutrali respingendo i tentativi statunitensi di ricreare le Sahawat per combattere IS, e hanno le loro buone ragioni per farlo in assenza di garanzie di lungo termine sul loro ruolo in un contesto post-bellico. L’impegno degli USA per la stabilità dell’Iraq – e quello dei loro alleati che hanno invaso e devastato il Paese nel 2003 – non può essere limitato ad interventi ad hoc in situazioni d’emergenza. Un approccio inclusivo nei confronti delle tribù è una questione complessa, le potenze mondiali dovranno infatti negoziarlo con il futuro governo di transizione siriano e con Baghdad, onde evitare forme indiscriminate di ritorsione contro i membri del clan che si sono uniti allo Stato Islamico.

I jihadisti come Abu Khalid e molti dei leader tribali siriani e iracheni che hanno giurato fedeltà (baʿyah) al “califfato” non si preoccupano degli aspetti ideologici, la loro affiliazione può essere facilmente “comprata” con una combinazione di privilegi e terrore. Nel sud della Siria, nella campagna orientale di as-Swaydaʼ, ad esempio, alle tribù arabe alleate di IS viene ancora permesso di fare affari con i trafficanti d’armi locali.

Il pragmatismo potrebbe essere legittimamente interpretato come un appello a ristabilire un nuovo sistema clientelare tra governi centrali e leader tribali, che è uno degli aspetti dell’autocrazia patriarcale contro cui la gioventù araba era insorta nel 2011, ma gli attivisti siriani più progressisti sono stati da tempo marginalizzati dalla militarizzazione della rivolta, essendo così attualmente incapaci di destabilizzare i territori dell’IS.

Giovani jihadisti umani

Rimanendo in tema di giovani, questi giocano chiaramente un ruolo cruciale anche tra i militanti dello Stato Islamico. I centri antiterrorismo sono ossessionati dalla necessità di tracciare i profili di questa gioventù “radicalizzata”. Tuttavia, resta difficile individuare i tratti “anormali” e condannare unilateralmente una folla di disadattati che potrebbero assomigliare troppo bene a quelle ampie fasce di giovani europei “ordinariamente” disillusi. Lo Stato Islamico, dopo tutto, è un chiaro magnete anti-sistema per i giovani combattenti occidentali. Anche in Siria, le linee rosse tra giovani “radicalizzati” e “moderati” sono particolarmente offuscate a causa di una vasta gamma di fattori.

Nel 2011, durante la prima fase della rivoluzione, ho incontrato un giovane musicista siriano ad al-Hajar al-Aswad (sud di Damasco). Stavamo chiacchierando di politica e aveva accennato alla figura di az-Zarqawi, lodando le sue qualità di mujahid intrepido battutosi a difesa dell’Iraq ai tempi dell’occupazione americana. Era appassionato di un genere musicale che ebbe origine negli Stati Uniti, ma questo non gli impediva di ammirare az-Zarqawi, il quale avrebbe disprezzato la sua passione per tale musica haram. Ad al-Hajar al-Aswad, e in Siria in generale, molti giovani andarono a combattere per la loro giusta causa in Iraq durante l’occupazione statunitense. Se il musicista si fosse recato in Iraq in quegli anni, sarebbe potuto diventare un militante di IS. Davvero non avrebbe rimpianto l’abbandono dello stesso genere di musica occidentale che gli aveva assicurato un seguito significativo in Siria? Come notato da alcuni studiosi di “terrorismo”, dietro il passamontagna un jihadista è pur sempre un essere umano tormentato con molteplici interessi.

Di recente, ho letto la storia di un giovane cittadino giornalista siriano di Deyr az-Zawr, che ha visto i suoi tre migliori amici arruolarsi nell’IS e, nonostante ciò, ha continuato a incontrarli in segreto per una sigaretta in compagnia di tanto in tanto. Li vedeva ancora come i suoi amici, nella consapevolezza che le ragioni per cui si erano uniti allo Stato Islamico erano solo in parte ideologiche. Avevano ricevuto delle armi e uno stipendio, e avevano trovato la propria redenzione distruttiva dal fallimento della rivoluzione siriana a cui avevano partecipato. Ciononostante, non erano pronti a passare il resto della loro vita sotto il “califfato” e, in seguito, sono riusciti a fuggire dalla Siria.

Conosco di persona il giornalista, è attualmente “esiliato” in Turchia, il timore di un arresto per mano dell’IS gli impedisce di tornare. E’ profondamente contrario a tale organizzazione, tanto quanto agli attacchi aerei russi sulla sua città, che hanno causato la morte di molti civili. In fin dei conti, anche i suoi amici sarebbero potuti rimanere intrappolati all’interno del Paese ed essere considerati bersagli legittimi dei bombardamenti.

Al contrario, le potenze internazionali sono particolarmente celeri nel tracciare le sopracitate linee rosse tra “moderati” e “radicali”, nella convinzione che bombardare i giovani militanti e le loro famiglie sradicherà lo Stato Islamico dalla regione. La loro risposta “civilizzata” alla brutalità di IS è meramente militare. Nessuno sembra prendere in considerazione le varie motivazioni che hanno spinto ogni individuo ad aderire al “califfato”, se si è trattato di una scelta volontaria e come si comporterebbe in tempo di pace.

Conclusione

IS è già uno Stato funzionante e, a dispetto della sua propaganda, è probabilmente più interessato a preservare i suoi territori che conquistare il mondo intero. L’idea di aprire dei negoziati con alcuni componenti di questa organizzazione è aborrita dalla comunità internazionale, nonostante i diplomatici siano abituati a stringere la mano a un gran numero di criminali in giacca e cravatta. Pertanto, l’obiettivo della guerra allo Stato Islamico rimane la preservazione di un ordine globale piuttosto che quella di uno etico.

La supposizione principale è che IS non debba essere normalizzato come qualsiasi altro attore violento statale, anche se è già uno Stato de facto. Il paradosso è che, almeno nei circoli occidentali, lo Stato Islamico viene spesso paragonato a un regime nazista che deve essere distrutto per arrestarne l’espansione, quindi in realtà a un’entità statale pienamente formata. Supponiamo che IS sia simile al Terzo Reich – un parallelismo approssimativo per una serie di ragioni, tra cui le circostanze d’origine – cosa ci porta a ritenere che un approccio senza compromessi possa limitare i danni? Se la Germania nazista fosse stato spaccata in fazioni per coinvolgere alcune di queste in trattative diplomatiche e diluire l’ideologia del suo regime ben prima della guerra, l’Europa avrebbe potuto risparmiarsi milioni di morti. In particolare, vi è ancora un nutrito dibattito storico su come la Seconda Guerra Mondiale avrebbe potuto essere evitata, e nessun consenso sull’attacco preventivo contro Hitler come l’unica opzione praticabile. Se il Trattato di Versailles (1919) aveva messo in ginocchio la Germania al termine del primo conflitto mondiale e aveva permesso a Hitler di capitalizzare sul malcontento sociale, l’Iraq del dopo-Saddam è stato duro con i Baʿthisti e ha consentito a IS di capitalizzare sull’insoddisfazione degli arabi sunniti. C’è sempre modo di imparare dalla storia.

Al contrario, quando Putin allude all’utilizzo di testate nucleari contro IS, ci ricorda uno dei peggiori epiloghi di sempre di un conflitto iniziato sotto il motto della difesa della “libertà”. Quando il governo francese si sente autorizzato a introdurre le leggi d’emergenza e potenziare gli strumenti di sorveglianza, stiamo tutti perdendo la stessa “libertà” in nome di cui vengono dispiegati i suoi aerei caccia in Siria e in Iraq. Siamo davvero disposti a vivere in uno Stato di polizia solo per illuderci di sradicare lo Stato Islamico – e ciò che vi giace dietro – in un confronto militare?

Categories: Al-Jazeera, Iraq, jihadismo, Medio Oriente, Siria, Syria, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Flussi migratori e compassione europea: a quando informazione e sostenibilità? (by Estella Carpi, October 2015)

migrants2

Da Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations

Sembra esser stata soprattutto la foto di Aylan, il bimbo siriano di origini curde affogato nelle acque turche sulla spiaggia di Bodrum il 2 settembre, insieme alle ondate di profughi che tentano il passaggio dall’Europa orientale – provenienti soprattutto da Siria, Iraq e Afghanistan – ad avere finalmente ridestato il pubblico occidentale dal suo torpore rendendo spaventosamente tangibile il limite umano al quale ci hanno condotti le crisi politiche transnazionali e le controversie dell’assistenza umanitaria “nord-sud”.

Sull’onda degli studi di Lili Chouliaraki, il fenomeno che abbiamo di fronte è quello che potrebbe essere definito come l’emergere di un nuovo “spettatore ironico” della sofferenza altrui; l’utente del vocabolario compassionevole del “Facebook like”, che auto-celebra e pubblicizza i propri atti di carità, e scambia il consumo etico per solidarietà informata e sostenibile. Ancora una volta, la solidarietà effimera coltivata nell’ambiente mediatico, e la compassione di massa verso l’astratta moltitudine dei “disperati”, troppo raramente reclama la storicità degli eventi, e racconta le loro tristi storie per attivare le nostre intenzioni e difenderle.

Ancora una volta, la solidarietà che poco s’interroga sul perché del rapido passaggio dall’indifferenza alla compassione pubblica è promossa in termini di stile di vita, e non di una mentalità civico-politica davvero informata e reattiva.

Dopo la diffusione dell’immagine del corpo esanime del piccolo Aylan, i media europei hanno dato maggior spazio alla discussione degli aiuti informali e formali che le popolazioni forniscono ai profughi, e le proteste civili organizzate per esprimere lo spirito di solidarietà e accoglienza presenti nell’Unione europea. Iniziative che, finché l’emergenza colpiva soltanto il panorama mediorientale, non erano state attuate a pari livello.

La compassione pubblica suscitata dalla “crisi dei profughi” – un  appellativo,peraltro, capace di coprire insieme cause politiche e responsabilità esterne alla radice di tale crisi – si è ora per fortuna trasformata in motore di assistenza transnazionale, oltrepassando la mera compassione da spettatori in poltrona.

Un’educazione “sentimentale”, come la chiamava Richard Rorty, sarebbe forse utile nelle scuole europee per coltivare un sentire condiviso nelle nuove generazioni e offrire un terreno comune di condivisione ed empatia. Se da un lato, infatti, è indispensabile che la sensibilità verso la differenza non sia data per scontata e che ci venga dunque insegnata, dall’altro lato, come si può evitare che la cultura dei diritti umani, di cui il cosiddetto “nord globale” si fa paladino, resti effimera tanto quanto l’interesse pubblico verso il disperato fenomeno di esodi e dispersioni? La sponsorizzazione dei diritti umani, che ha già da tempo assunto la fisionomia del liberalismo di stampo occidentale e paternalismo terzomondista, stenta ad offrire una migliore spiegazione delle ragioni alla radice di tali crisi nel marasma mediatico odierno.

Il cittadino europeo medio ha dimostrato ancora una volta di mobilitarsi e affrontare il proprio incontro con i profughi/migranti in termini squisitamente umanitari e in relazione a uno stato di eccezione ritenuto temporaneo, restando tra l’altro restio ad affrontare la fase successiva fatta di richiesta di diritti.

Nel caos dei mesi di agosto e settembre, il temporaneo ripristino dei controlli di frontiera in Germania e Austria, la costruzione del muro al confine serbo–ungherese, e lo sgambetto teso a un profugo siriano dalla giornalista ungherese Petra Laszlo, sono segnali evidenti di un rafforzamento delle frontiere non solo materiali, ma anche morali nei paesi più toccati dalle ondate migratorie. Tali episodi sembrano significare ben più che un’ingente “crisi di profughi”: sembra trattarsi piuttosto di una vera e propria crisi delle interazioni e degli incontri umani.

Inoltre, i recenti sviluppi hanno dimostrato che i paesi Ue non possono far fronte da soli a tali flussi migratori, e l’impegno da parte dell’Onu diventa quindi sempre più radicato al loro interno. La sfida maggiore consiste nella necessità improvvisa di integrare la convenzionale risposta umanitaria, offerta all’interno di strutture di accoglienza popolate da residenti intenzionati a divenire stanziali, con percorsi per l’accoglienza di quei migranti che a volte restano per pochi giorni, o addirittura per poche ore, prima di proseguire verso la destinazione desiderata. La gestione di quello che potremmo chiamare un “transito d’emergenza”, specialmente in Italia, Grecia, Serbia, e Ungheria, è ancora un ambito ignoto alle organizzazioni umanitarie europee, e ha richiesto l’apertura di nuove sedi locali di alcune grandi organizzazioni non governative internazionali come World Vision, Islamic Relief e Action Aid.

La vera sfida in ambito europeo è riconsiderare radicalmente l’approccio verticale nord-sud e comunque ‘occidente-centrico’ perpetrato nel nome degli storici stendardi della responsabilità internazionale morale, che ha gradualmente ridotto le politiche umanitarie e di cooperazione allo sviluppo a meri strumenti di sicurezza internazionale. L’altra sfida è quella di capire di essere tutti quanti soggetti e attori di uno stesso ordine geopolitico integrato. Prendere atto di tutto questo non solo risparmierebbe molte vite, ma potrebbe probabilmente evitare molti degli  “effetti collaterali” dei ciclici conflitti internazionali.

La realizzazione dei diritti di asilo e protezione in materia d’immigrazione, in quanto diritti umani convenzionalmente riconosciuti, non dovrebbe dipendere dal carattere effimero di sfuggenti e non sempre pienamente informate solidarietà sociali. La vera scommessa sarà continuare a sostenere e implementare tali diritti quando l’attuale compassione di massa verrà meno dopo la foga ‘emergenziale’ di questi mesi.

Categories: Africa, Europe, Middle East | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beyond Legal Definitions: Migrants and Refugees as Ungraspable Categories (by Estella Carpi, August 2015)

Beyond Legal Definitions: Migrants and Refugees as Ungraspable Categories. The Syrian Kurdish Exodus and the Lebanese Akkaris.

Beyond Legal Definitions: Migrants and Refugees as Ungraspable Categories. The Syrian Kurdish Exodus and the Lebanese Akkaris.

August 20, 2015

Social Science Researcher at TRENDS Research & Advisory

Migrants are definable as people who spontaneously choose to leave their country and build a better life elsewhere. Before their departure, migrants are therefore able to ask for information about their destination and what opportunities they may have there. Moreover, they remain free to go back to their home country whenever needed or desired. The United Nations defines a ‘migrant’ as an individual who has resided in a foreign country for longer than one year regardless of the causes, voluntary or involuntary, and the means, regular or irregular. Nevertheless, at the international level, no universally accepted definition for “migrant” exists.

Conversely, refugees have no other choice but leaving their country because they are persecuted, tortured, being their life somehow jeopardised if they remained in their home country. In specific, Article 1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention spells out that a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”. In such cases, the very reasons behind refugee influxes are political and human rights, safety and security, rather than individual and collective economic upgrading. People’s departure is mostly unexpected and unplanned due to warfare or natural disaster. Their journey towards the so-called “host-countries” is full of risks, yet in relentless search for protection and safety. In most cases, refugees, unlike migrants, cannot return unless the political and social scenario back home changes in their favour.

If those described above are the de facto and legal defining conditions according to which we are supposed to distinguish a migrant from a refugee, the latest flows of people on the move throughout the Middle East point to a less clear-cut category of mobile populations. In the cases of Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey, and Lebanon, which will be discussed later, the 1951 Geneva’s Refugee Convention has not been ratified by the governments: thus, until the time individuals seeking refuge do not receive their official status from UNHCR[1] (or UNRWA[2] in the case of Palestinians), they are to be legally considered asylum seekers or forced migrants. Even once they obtain the official documentation, refugees fear repatriation and detention, in that UNHCR and UNRWA simply clinched bilateral agreements with most of the Middle Eastern governments hosting the newcomers, as they are not signatories to the 1951 Convention. This explains the chronic indoor life that many refugees, other than the Palestinians, lead to be able to reside in the Middle East.

Yet, international law’s regulations and the orthodox language of the human rights campaigns seem to create more confusion in addressing changing and blurred mobile groups of people, by engendering a gap between real needs, rights’ achievement, and programs meant to addressing social and political issues on the basis of forced and non-forced migrations. It is how “forced” such migration flows are which increasingly become ungraspable. As mentioned above, international law does not contemplate cases in which people who are not subjected to persecution are eligible for such a legal status. However, it became evident that people, even when not directly persecuted or personally endangered, still find themselves in the condition to have no other choice than leaving, as the Syrian exodus is currently proving. Consequently, speaking of and tackling migrants as a different category from refugees – and vice versa – becomes misleading on a pragmatic and a legal level, rather than ensuring rights and meeting needs appropriately.

For instance, in the first instance, UNHCR did not consider external compelling reasons for migration as mandatory criteria for registering refugees from Syria. In Lebanon, the rash policy of considering anyone coming out of Syria as aprioristically eligible – as potentially subjected to persecution by one of the warring parties – led to a daunting and premature shortage of aid which the humanitarian agencies were supposed to provide, as well as to an unbelievable number of registered refugees (now 1,172,753) until the January 2015 tightening of the new Lebanese immigration laws.

Therefore, to make up for resources’ waste, UNHCR subsequently introduced refugee status cancellation policies in accordance with the Lebanese government when registered families or individuals did not collect their assigned aid packages more than three times in a row. In this regard, it is worth mentioning that Syrian refugees often reported the lack of successful communication between them and aid providers. Many of them therefore found themselves in extreme need of assistance after being cancelled from the UNHCR list. In a nutshell, the random registration of refugees at the outset of the refugee crisis, and the consequent UN compensation policy to make aid suffice for all, have unavoidably been perceived as aggressive policies by the refugees, for whom such measures were standing for the carelessness of the international community.

A further example is provided by the paradox that defining an individual as ‘economic migrant’ rather than ‘refugee’ can mean denying her/him access to the process of applying for asylum. Likewise, those who do not have the status of asylum seeker can legally be returned to their country of origin whenever the latter is considered safe. The distinction inevitably leads legal institutions to introduce a list of countries from which either only asylum seekers or economic migrants can come. For example, countries ridden by longstanding conflict like Syria are viewed as merely producing influxes of refugees and not economic migrants. The complexity and differentiation of the types of mobility that the Syrian political crisis has gradually given birth to goes here unheeded.

It is of use to recall that many Syrians were undergoing political harassment and persecution from the side of state institutions in the 1970s and later, who were therefore fleeing to neighbouring and western countries in the capacity of ‘economic migrants’ rather than ‘political refugees’. The lack of officially declared emergencies, and the unwillingness to deal with the Hafez al-Asad regime at an international level at that time, influenced the definition and the management of Syrian people’s mobility in those years, in a bid to depoliticise or simply undercut the matter for the sake of regional and international stability.

A further suitable example nowadays is offered by the North-Eastern region of Syria, the semi-independent area which is co-ruled in practice by Bashar al-Asad’s regime and the Syrian Kurdish Party PYD (Democratic Union Party), despite the highly controversial relationship that these two political actors have intertwined.

Especially in 2013, two years after the outset of the Syrian uprisings taking place across the whole country, Syrian Kurdistan produced big flows of ‘refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’ altogether towards the neighbouring Turkey and Iraq. A large number of those who fled into Iraqi Kurdistan (where over 90% of Syrian refugees are now Syrians Kurds) and Turkey – where segments of their families were already living – should properly be defined as ‘economic migrants’, if the very reasons for their migration were considered. Indeed, the traditional inhabitants of Syrian Kurdistan had long been neglected by the central state’s services, and the regime’s politics of meeting the Kurds’ needs and granting Syrian citizenship to many of them only at the beginnings of the Syrian revolution (April 2011), were primarily aimed at averting a greater turmoil, therefore limiting the use of force to curb the popular protests in these areas. Similarly, the regime’s aviation has never bombed the Kurdish-majority areas since 2011, except for the territories presently held by the so-called Islamic State (mainly al-Hasake’s governorate).

Aside from chronic poverty, hence, longstanding lack of social services, schools, and roads, and the decreasing presence of basic goods, electricity, and clean water during the ongoing conflict, Syrian Kurdistan mostly became a region of spontaneous migration rather than refugehood caused by indiscriminate political persecution and bombing against the local population (i.e. the Hama governorate in central Syria). Nonetheless, the life conditions of the average Kurdish Syrian citizen were dire to the extent at which migrations towards an unknown future and a refugee-camp life in Turkey or Iraq were still considered as a better option.

In sum, the Syrian Kurdistan region, called in Arabic “Rojavà”, has long been neglected by the Syrian central state as well as by international media before the Syrian crisis. The mechanic and aprioristic association of Syrians with refugee influxes in the Middle East and elsewhere, operated from outside, has also induced many Syrian Arabs and Syrian Kurds living in this region to abandon their homes and look for a better life outside of the country. The use of the refugees’ label and the livelihoods at their disposal – the emergency aid supposedly destined only to the war-stricken – have turned out to be great assets for disadvantaged people desiring to find a job and a higher economic status far away from home.

Likewise, many among the older date Syrian migrants in Lebanon decided to leave their previous life of exploitation and social marginalisation to opt for a more hopeful life in Europe or elsewhere. Their Syrian passports have helped them to pursue their mobility purposes and concretely move towards an economic betterment and a “life of dignity” only in times of regional emergency.

The typical phenomenon of viewing refugee status as opportunity, whenever the international community legally acknowledges an emergency and its political consequences, also appeared in recent times with chronically poor Lebanese citizens, especially from the Akkar region, which is deemed as the poorest in Lebanon. Akkar’s residents started “capitalising” the miserable status of Syrian refugees to comply with their own very needs and legitimate desires of migration. In this regard, it is worth mentioning the drowning of seventeen Akkaris from the village of Fneideq who had bought fake Syrian passports in order to be shipped towards the Australian coasts. After the tragic episode, Akkar’s roads were blocked as a sign of “protest and solidarity, to express our frustration… When will we redeem ourselves from chronic poverty and deprivation?!”.[3]

Neither the status of economic migrant nor that of refugee seems to be able, per se, to redeem diversely needy people, as long as such international labels remain embedded in the increasingly laborious applicability of legal definitions, the way in which the latter discipline the material management of people’s mobility, and the predominant political order which is strategically upheld by these labels.

While law should sort out social issues on the basis of social justice and overall security, its recurrent submission to international politics keeps on labeling departures, resettlements, continuous movements, personal decisions, and human lives at its will. Nothing more ungraspable. Nothing more fruitlessly ambitious.

[1] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

[2] United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

[3] Quotations taken from in-depth interviews undertaken 13 October 2013, in Lebanon.

Categories: Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Abused Politics of “Minorities” and “Majorities”: Quantifiable Entities or Shifting Sites of Power? (by Estella Carpi, May 2015)

PAKISTAN_-_protesta_donne_contro_discriminazione

(Photo taken from: http://www.asianews.it)

http://humanityjournal.org/blog/the-abused-politics-of-minorities-and-majorities-quantifiable-entities-or-shifting-sites-of-power/

THE ABUSED POLITICS OF “MINORITIES” AND “MAJORITIES”: QUANTIFIABLE ENTITIES OR SHIFTING SITES OF POWER?

Scholars, pundits, opinion-makers, and the general public too often agree that the primary concern to address today in the contemporary Middle East is religious diversity and the need to protect religious minorities. As a result, the so-called religious minorities have gradually come to constitute a fundamental feature of state politics. They are usually depicted and discussed as unchangeable entities presenting coherent political assets in international affairs, as well as analytical categories through which a more immediate understanding of the Middle Eastern scenario is finally possible.

This analysis will argue that the constructed character of religious minorities and majorities has too often been disregarded in international politics. It will employ historical examples as holistic explanatory notions for civic privileges or deprivations, or to stress amity or enmity that have been awarded to religious minorities.

In the effort to trace the emergence of the language surrounding “minorities,” historian Benjamin T. White in 2011 associated the history of minorities with the historical formation of nation-states in the Middle East. He unearthed how a language of minorities only emerged in the 1930s with French bureaucracy, which was still dominating the country at that time: the central state presence in people’s everydayness was intensifying. The use of the term “minority” increased, in particular, in the post-French mandate Syria (1940s). Once state, in the modern Middle East, began to more fully represent the people, all “groupable” societal component collectively began to perceive themselves in terms of frustrated minorities or accomplished majorities. Arguably, this was in order to feel more included and entitled to services and benefits. It is inescapable, in fact, that representativeness implies per se cohesion and sameness.

In what Pierre Bourdieu would name the “informational capital” around the Middle East, confessional labels are attributed to diverse popular wills. This, for instance, deceivingly led us to think that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was actually in need of a Shiite regime, in that the national population is predominantly Shiite. And that Syria, from 2011 onwards, underwent an unprecedented political crisis because the ruling regime is from the Alawite minority, and, as such, it cannot rule undisturbed over a Sunni majority. Or, again, how many times have knowledge producers argued that the mainly Shi‘a-populated Bahrein needs a Shiite regime to stop local discontent and meet the reiterated requests for freedom once for all? Or also that the ruling power in Iran keeps the country stable because there is a Shiite coalition there ruling over a Shiite-majority population?

In the capacity of beings craving historical understanding, we constantly feel like we owe consciousness to our past: the quick association of majority with domination and, likewise, minority with subordination, risks shadowing the shifting sites of power that underly societal relations. The Syrian revolution offers a perfect case in point, in that it has prematurely been portrayed by several media as a “civil war,” as well as a confessionally biased demand for greater freedoms coming from the Syrian Sunni majority. The interpretation according to which the Sunni majority protesting could result in the oppression of the minority groups living within the state boundaries, would obscure the actual distribution of power within Syrian society. Such a biased interpretation of social facts is said to have resulted in poor international solidarity for the protesters in Syria with respect to the Egyptian or the Tunisian revolution.

Indeed, the alternately scant or deep empathy that the international community has developed towards particular political causes or military interventions in the Middle East is often dictated by the alleged need to protect the “primordial” minorities populating the region. In this regard, the gnoseological minority-majority dyad is employed to describe homogenizable religious as well as ethnic groups. For instance, speaking of Kurds as a minority is highly misleading: in the palingenetic effort to repoliticize the minority concept and explore the present life conditions, the Kurds and groups alike should simply be described as “oppressed.” Yet they constitute a heterogeneously oppressed or disempowered population of approximately 30 million people majorly distributed between Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. The nation-state boundary logic has forced them to be described in minority terms. Similarly, it is the invasive presence of the state in the Middle East—generally a Leviathan entity using divide-and-rule strategies – that has triggered a longing for secessionism and identity-defined independence in particular religious or ethnic groups.

A further example has been provided by the violence used by Da‘esh (ISIS) against the ethnic and religious groups who inhabit the Arab Jazira—the ancient Upper Mesopotamia extended between Syria and Iraq—which has led people to talk of the importance of protecting religious minorities, and therefore using religion as a mere gnoseological instrument. In fact, the populations attacked by Da‘esh nowadays are Muslim as well. Like Christians, Muslims are killed on a daily basis. The killed ones, hence, are those who are simply refusing, in many forms, to live under the caliphate. Their “numberization” has long served political intentions and fears. And here lies the fallacy of ‘’religion’’ meant as an empty category that we can fill with any meaning, but still massively capable, however it is interpreted, to shape events and raise different collective sentiments.

In the examples provided above, identity politics trumps any other gnoseological understanding of the Middle East’s changing scenario, by departing from the idea that “minority identities” are objectively something, and can be filled up with a fixed political content. In other words, religious and ethnic groups are spoken of as if they owned a pseudo-national imagination and an identity-shaped attachment to their territory. Therefore, neither Christians under Da‘esh nor the Kurds are seen as simply reacting to state-owned power, or to any entity where power is temporarily located.

History has clearly shed a revealing light on how the international community, and not only politicians, have increasingly used the expression—and consequently adopted the strategy of—”protecting minorities.” It is the colonial protection of minorities in the Middle East that turned socially heterogeneous groups of religious believers into separate bodies. By doing so, they further exposed them to the risk of massacres or civic inferiority whenever prevailing political interests and material circumstances do not allow the traditional protectors to defend such “minorities.” Paradoxically, such outsider protectors tend to rush over to allegedly fight on behalf of domestic groups in the historical context in which the latter have actually grown.

Furthermore, the common myth on which the international and domestic understanding of the Middle East relies is that such reified religious categories are permanently at odds with one another. If we look at the historical roots of what is depicted as a chronic regional enmity, the protection of minority communities has always been leverage for western sway in the Middle Eastern region. Like the case of the French protecting the Christians in Syria and the Maronites in Mount Lebanon, especially during the fight against the British-supported Druzes in the 19th century.

The political use of the notions of minorities and majorities in the epistemic construction of the Middle East is therefore ideological work still encrusted with colonial nuances. And this is certainly not peculiar to the Middle Eastern scenario. In fact, some social groups, smaller in terms of numbers with respect to the ethnic or religious majority living within the same nation-state, have not developed their own sense of properly constituting a “minority.” For example, the Asian communities in Chile are mostly represented as migrant groups in the news and in the literature concerning them. By contrast, Bolivian and Peruvian migrants in Chile are spoken of as “minorities”, in that they migrated from countries against which Chile had fought a regional war in the 19th century. This further confirms the political use of the majority-minority Manicheism.

Religious labels have also been used by governors, common people and scholars as a way to point to proximity or distance in terms of political purposes. The Christian Greek Orthodox, who, unlike other Christian groups, used to be more willing to accept a Syrian Arab nationhood over the 1930s, exemplify this phenomenon, as they had tellingly been called the “cousins of Islam,” being the Muslims the vast majority among Syrian nationalists. Thereby, the commonality of a political cause was leading the Muslims to find linguistic expressions of religious proximity to describe their Christian Orthodox fellows.

The political is obviously only one dimension of the polyhedric character of this ancient all-encompassing concept of religion, which is largely adopted in social and political sciences to advance gnoseological analyses. We should rather reclaim “religion” as a constructed human way of naming an immense range of practices, beliefs, theological tenets as well as contradictory human behaviors related to this realm of meanings.

Certainly, the abused description of “Middle Eastern exceptionalism” does not lie in anirremediable and almost innate division of the region into monolithic religious or ethnic minorities, purportedly conveyers of self-evident identity politics. But rather lies in the allogenous and endemic incapacity to cultivate better gnoseological strategies to know the Middle East and speak of it.

Categories: Lebanon, Middle East, Syria | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dr. Tim “Asad” Anderson: the abuse of academia to spread out propaganda

SYRIA-CONFLICT-AUSTRALIA

 

Part I

 

My name is Andrea Glioti, I’m the journalist who intervened at Dr. Tim Anderson’s talk at Sydney UNI “Why I went to Syria” on March 6 (2014), an event promoting a blatant apology of the Syrian regime under the pretext of “counter-information”. A professor of political economy, Tim Anderson (https://www.facebook.com/timand2037?fref=ts) has been part of a delegation led by the Wikileaks Party and the Asadist activist group “Hands Off Syria”, which paid its homage to the Syrian regime during a visit of solidarity in December 2013. This is a response to some of the absurdities I heard about the Syrian conflict and, apart from the single case of Anderson, it addresses several points continuously raised by the so-called “anti-imperialist left”. It would be actually fair to rename this ideological stubbornness on Syria as a Stalinist-Soviet approach, if we were between the 1950s the 1960s, Anderson and his likes would be probably denying the Hungarian and Czech revolts ever took place. If we were in the Spanish Civil War, they would probably defend the Soviet decision to crush the anarchists. As long as a government sits in the anti-American camp (no matter the hypocrisy of Syrian foreign policies in this regard), it doesn’t really matter if it tortures leftists in its own prisons. Dr Anderson and his likes claim to hold the truth on what’s going on in Syria, this truth could be sum up in a Western-backed plot denying any sort of agency to the Syrians who took the streets in 2011. In their eyes, they’re only puppets, they would have never risen up after more 40 years of authoritarianism , they needed the Zionist-Salafi-American trust to give them a green light.
I’m an Arabic speaking Middle Eastern politics graduate, who has been covering Syria from inside the country for 10 months between 2011 and 2013 and I spent the rest of the time between Turkey and Lebanon, mainly in the border regions, where most of the Syrian refugees are located. I’ve worked with a wide range of media including “corporate” and “leftist” magazines (The New Internationalist, the German TAZ, the Swiss-German WOZ fall in the second category), being a freelancer, therefore I don’t even fit into the category of mainstream corporate media. Having said this, the sources Dr Anderson relied upon during his presentation could hardly be considered “independent” sources of information, despite his efforts to present them as such: Russia Today, in the words of Putin, reflects the views of the Kremlin, just like the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reflects the views of the pro-Syrian (regime) 8 March coalition. Among the sources quoted there was also Mother Agnès de la Croix, a Palestinian-Lebanese nun closely related to the Asad regime (http://pulsemedia.org/2012/08/21/dead-journalists-and-sister-agnes-mariam/) and the French far-right (http://vicinoriente.wordpress.com/2012/05/20/la-monaca-di-assad/). Anderson’s talk was covered by the Iranian Press TV: if the station’s anti-US biases were combined with a minimum degree of professionalism, then my intervention wouldn’t have been censored, after I raised several critical points Anderson intentionally ignored.
Notwithstanding the political biases of Western and Gulf media [the focus on Syria in contrast with how Bahrain has been overlooked and the role played by certain American media in advocating war on Iraq in 2003, despite the lack of any evidence on its chemical arsenal, just to quote two examples], the solution is not to take at face value the version of events provided by pro-Syrian regime sources to come up with a credible alternative narrative. Journalism is about verifying facts, a strong ground-driven knowledge of the context you’re talking about, a reliable network of local contacts and, ideally, some fluency in the local language (Arabic): all these aspects were totally absent in Dr Anderson’s conference.

While retaining the right to be skeptical about the Western media’s coverage of Syria, everyone should bear in mind that the main reason of the conflicting news reports coming from this country is the restrictive context journalists are forced to operate in: while based in Damascus in 2011, I had to pretend being a student to avoid being monitored 24/h by security forces, my Brazilian colleague Germano Assad has been detained in confinement for five days under the only accusation of being a journalist. I have been denied access to Syria in 2012 and told I was not welcome there anymore on the grounds of the interviews I conducted with local political dissidents. I’m sure this was the reason, because of the content of the questions posed to my colleague Assad under interrogation. This is just an idea of what you have to endure as a Western journalist, if you’re not there on an official parade organized through government press visas. It goes without saying that Syrian journalists “enjoy” a much worse treatment: one of my personal acquaintances had to leave Syria recently, after having been tortured and put on trial for “working without a license” and “spreading lies”. Let us not forget WHY it is so difficult to work in Syria and inform about the ongoing events.

Going back to Anderson’s talk, first of all, you don’t claim to show support for one “nation”, if you only sat for pastries with Asad, that’s not showing solidarity with the “Syrian people”, that’s an official delegation voicing its support for a Government.
During my stay in Syria I had the chance to walk around without any escort, both in Damascus in 2011 and in the province of Hasakah in 2013: this clearly makes the difference from an official visit to Damascus (actually, to a certain extent, it makes the difference even in comparison to some other journalists, who have only been escorted into Syria by rebel brigades). As a matter of fact, Anderson didn’t meet with anyone from the opposition, neither from the armed factions nor from the civil peaceful movements (and there are lots of peaceful activists still active in Syria… http://www.syriauntold.com/en) .

There was a lot of talk on US imperialism and Zionism: could Anderson provide any actual evidence that the US have been willing to overthrow Asad? All the red lines have been crossed (including the use of chemical weapons), three years have passed and I haven’t seen any intervention. If they really wanted, they could have done it much earlier. This picture of Asad as a staunch anti-American also stands in contradiction with the rapprochement between Washington and Damascus in 2010, marked by the appointment of ambassador Robert Ford. The position of the US on the Syrian events has been largely stumbling, due also to the fact that they didn’t receive any green light from the Israelis. Did Anderson bother to listen to Rami Makhluf- Bashar al-Asad’s cousin and one of the most influential business figures in Syria- when the revolt started in 2011? He said clearly that the Israeli security was dependent on the permanence of the Asad regime.
If you brand the Asad regime as an anti-Zionist vanguard, then you probably disregard some historical facts: no offensive was launched against Israel since the October war in 1973; Hafez al-Asad’s Syria was willing to reach a peace agreement with the Israelis in 2000, on condition of the return of the occupied Golan Heights and a renewed access to the Sea of Galilee, hence a pragmatic approach concerned about national sovereignty rather than the Palestinian cause; Palestinians were slaughtered by far-right Lebanese Christian militias in cooperation with Syrian troops in the massacre of Tel Zaatar during the Lebanese civil war; the PLO has been at odds with the Syrian regime for a long time, since the latter was not willing to jeopardize its national interests for the sake of the Palestinian cause (See what the socialists have to say about this http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2000/06/assa-j16.html). I would also suggest Anderson and his likes read more on the so-called Red Line agreement between Israel and Syria during the Lebanese civil war, a deal brokered by Kissinger to share regions of influence (http://www.merip.org/mer/mer236/syria-lebanon-brotherhood-transformed#_5_).
The Israeli officials maintained an extremely low profile position on Syria during the events and why on earth should they have pushed for the removal of Asad, if he kept the Syrian-Israeli border quiet for forty years? They look more worried about a new unknown diverse galaxy of rebel groups controlling the border, whereas they know exactly what to expect from Asad. Have a look at what Noam Chomsky had to say about the Israeli stance on Syria (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MQeGHoiPj4&feature=youtu.be Is he too part of the corporate media?): he clearly points at the fact that, if the Israelis wanted to support the opposition, they could have just opened another front on the Golan. Such a move would have weakened the Syrian army by opening a new front in the South: a much less costly option to support the armed opposition than an open scale offensive on Damascus. But nothing like this happened and Anderson still define it as a regime from the “Resistance” axis.

Until now, the Syrian regime is enforcing a devastating siege on the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, because part of its inhabitants joined the rows of the opposition. I have been collecting evidence of the first anti-regime demonstrations in Yarmuk on my blog since June 2011 (in Italian https://mabisir.wordpress.com/2011/06/28/2-blogging-five-months-of-revolution-inside-syria-5-6-june-2011-golan-to-yarmuk-palestinians-joining-the-syrian-uprising/), when Palestinian protesters were shot at for chanting against the exploitation of the Naksa day at the hands of Ahmad Jibril’s PFLP-GC: in that case, the demonstrators voiced their indignation, after several residents of the camp were literally “thrown” in front of the Israeli rifles at the border in order to divert the attention from the Syrian uprising. Khaled Bakrawi, a Palestinian activist from Yarmuk, was killed under torture in the Syrian prisons in September 2013: he took part in the Naksa march and was outspoken about the way the Syrian regime had exploited the fervor of the Palestinian youth, despite having been himself wounded by the Israelis at the border (http://budourhassan.wordpress.com/2013/09/15/death-under-torture-in-syria-the-horrors-ignored-by-pacifists/).
I personally know several Palestinian leftist dissidents unknown to the media who had to leave Syria or ended up in its jails, but I cannot name them, as it might affect their upcoming trials or their return to Syria in the future. One of the most famous ones, Salameh Kaileh, a marxist Palestinian (http://links.org.au/node/2841), had to flee to Jordan after having been arrested and detained in 2012. Was he an Islamist too? Perhaps a Zionist?
Has Anderson ever read how the Palestinian anarchist Budour Hassan has totally debunked the claims of those who portrait Damascus as a champion of the Palestinian cause (http://budourhassan.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/analysis-the-myth-of-palestinian-neutrality-in-syria/)? What about the experience of Omar ‘Aziz, a Syrian anarchist who returned to his country upon the outbreak of the uprising to help organizing the first local revolutionary committees in Barzeh, which are considered “some of the most promising and lasting examples of non-hierarchical self organization” (http://tahriricn.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/syria-the-life-and-work-of-anarchist-omar-aziz-and-his-impact-on-self-organization-in-the-syrian-revolution/)? He died because of a heart attack in February 2013, after having been detained for three months in the Adra prison. During his talk, Anderson mentioned a visit to Adra, blaming the “radical Islamists” for the constant shelling, but I doubt he ever asked about whom is detained in the local prison, didn’t he?

A comparison with Afghanistan and its pre-Taliban empowerment of rural classes was made in the introduction and Anderson repeatedly labeled the Syrian regime a “socially inclusive” Government. This means he didn’t even bother to check the map of the areas controlled by the opposition: basically a wide portion of the countryside is in the hands of the rebels. Why? Because the uprising was more popular among the rural outcasts, namely those who have been impoverished by Bashar al-Asad’s shift towards neoliberalism and those who have been always marginalized under the Ba’th, like the Kurds living in the Northern countryside (See another Syrian socialist perspective on the “inclusiveness” of the regime’s economic policies http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article3380). Although it wouldn’t be objective to argue that the social gap in Syria was as wide as the Egyptian one, for example, the Syrian case is remote from “social inclusiveness”, it looks more like an economy controlled by a gang of affiliates and tycoons like Rami Makhluf, who are the antithesis of social justice.
Anderson depicted the uprising in Aleppo as led by religious fundamentalists, but he didn’t mention at all that a vast segment of the urban classes who sided with the regime are actually part of the Syrian bourgeoisie, epitomized by Aleppo’s traders. Did the so-called “anti-imperialist left” embrace a moral struggle to defend the urban upper classes against peasants, on the basis of the length of the beards of some of these peasants, who are homogeneously branded as “Islamists”? In July 2011, I visited a group of metalworkers in their workshop in Qadam (Southern Damascus), they were all taking part to the protests, one of them was a Syrian in his twenties with a degree in computer science he was never able to use: his father passed away and he had to seal shawarma machines to cover the expenses of his young brother living with him. This young graduate was also a hip hop singer from the group Refugees of Rap and we recorded a track together called “The Age of Silence” (Zaman as-Samt) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umQ3xGj4E2Y), which deals with the drive behind the protests. Is the “anti-imperialist left” supposed to empathize with the demands of this kind of marginalized urban youth or to side with the ruling classes?

Was the regime “socially inclusive” towards 2 to 4 million Kurds, who are mostly secular minded? Not at all. In 2013, I’ve spent five months in the province of Hasakah, a region affected by chronic poverty, despite its natural resources. The history written by the Ba’th is made up of racist Arab settlement policies confiscating wide shares of Kurdish lands in Hasakah (the so-called al-Hizam al-Arabi, the Arab Belt policy). The regime has also abided by a census conducted in 1962, who stripped off the Syrian citizenship thousands of Syrian Kurds. Even though the Kurdish regions are rich of oil, all the refineries were built in Homs and Banyas to impede the economic empowerment of rural peripheries.
During Anderson’s talk, I heard him praising “elections” and “pluralism” under the Ba’th and I confront this with the story of one of my close acquaintances in Hasakah, whose nails have been removed under torture on the grounds of its affiliation to the Yekiti Kurdi Parti. Is this the pluralism he’s talking about? Or is this pluralism about the Minister of Reconciliation Ali Haidar, the secretary general of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), that Anderson mentioned in the ridiculous attempt to provide evidence that other political forces are tolerated inside the Ba’thist government? Is Anderson aware that from 2005 until 2012, despite the dissident history of Antoun Saadeh’s party, its Damascene branch has been part of the National Progressive Front established by the Ba’th to create an umbrella of loyal parties behind the facade of pluralism? Is he aware that Ali Haidar has recently endorsed the candidacy of Bashar al-Asad for the upcoming presidential elections? I personally know some SSNP members, who quit the party, after they realized to which extent it had become involved in the recruitment of pro-government militias (shabbiha) in 2011.

As I said during my intervention at the talk, I attended several demonstrations both in Damascus and in the suburbs of the capital in 2011: I heard no sectarian slogans, saw children and women taking part to the uprising and witnessed live fire opened on demonstrators by security forces. Peaceful protesters were even beaten up in front of my eyes as soon as July 2011 in the Old City (in Italian https://mabisir.wordpress.com/2011/07/27/6-blogging-five-months-of-revolution-inside-syria-in-italiano-proteste-nel-centro-di-damasco-se-rimaniamo-fino-a-domattina-saremo-mezzo-milione-27-luglio-2011/), in the center of Damascus. My colleague Germano Assad has been prevented by government supporters from filming this demonstration, he had to escape after they started shouting at him: “This is not Syria!”. This is just an example of the state of denial some regime supporters live in, when it comes to recognizing the occurrence of peaceful protests: one of the attendants of Anderson’s talk, a Syrian who claimed to have lived in the Old City, insisted he never saw any protest in that part of Damascus. The aim is to deny protests ever took place, then to deny massacres occurred (as this was what Anderson’s conference was all about): it reminds me of the attitude of Holocaust’s deniers, or that of those Lebanese Phalangists who assert their party never slaughtered Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila. No matter the extent of evidence and accounts you gather, they will keep denying. In the end, their angle of view is identical to the one adopted by the Syrian State television: I remember very well the cameramen of al-Ikhbariyya filming the empty streets of Barzeh (Damascus) patrolled by security forces, while they were perfectly aware that a demonstration was going on a few blocks away.

I used to know personally one of the peaceful protesters who were chased by regime supporters in that occasion in the Old City: he died in 2013, after taking up weapons to fight the regime in Aleppo. Should we consider him as a terrorist as well? On which moral ground are we denying protesters the right to take up arms? One of the points raised during Anderson’s talk was that protesters were indeed armed since the beginning of the revolt. This was definitely the case in some regions, like Idlib, where demonstrators from Jisr ash-Shughur took up weapons to defend themselves as early as June 2011: I wrote about it and I criticized the way some Western media denied the presence of armed elements (http://www.majalla.com/eng/2012/04/article55230561), but I don’t understand why Syrians should be condemned for having resorted to violence against a brutal security apparatus.

 

Part II

 

The main argument used by Anderson to advocate support for the Syrian regime was the stereotypical juxtaposition between an allegedly secular government and a radical Islamist opposition. When I stressed the genuine roots of the Syrian uprising, the only answer Anderson could provide was: “Well, I don’t deny there have been mistakes committed by the police (what a nice euphemism for forty years of “mistakes”), but could you name one secular/non Islamist brigade in the opposition?” The premise of such response is that, as long as they’re Islamists, it’s perfectly fine to kill them. Islamists have been on the Middle Eastern “stage” for almost one century, they’re still there despite what happened in Hama, but Anderson (and numerous other Islamophobic “analysts”) still perceive them as a cancer implanted by Western agendas to be uprooted with violence. I wonder whether Anderson has ever argued the same about Hamas and Hezbollah on their resistance against Israel, weren’t they to be condemned on the grounds of being Islamist forces? If the West was to keep looking at Hezbollah through the lens of its original plan for the establishment of an Islamic republic in Lebanon and the abductions of foreign civilians carried out in the ’80s by the party’s first embryos, no one would have imagined to see the Shi’a militia accepting its current role in the Lebanese electoral system. The same goes for the recent prospects for US negotiations with the Talibans in Afghanistan, which were completely unforeseeable after 9-11. Then, why are we to rule out the possibility that some of the jihadist groups fighting in Syria today might change their position and accept to engage in parliamentarian politics later on?
What about the Iraqi resistance under American occupation? Has Anderson paid attention to the fact that most of the insurgents were actually jihadists and many of them are currently fighting against the Syrian regime? Are they to be considered “fallen heroes of anti-imperialists” suddenly turned into “NATO-backed mercenaries”, even though nothing changed in their ideological background?

Furthermore, Anderson made no reference whatsoever to what has been written on the ties between Damascus and a wide range of Islamist Sunni militant groups previously active in Lebanon and Iraq, now fighting on the side of the Syrian opposition, including Fatah al-Islam (http://wikileaks.org/gifiles/docs/214642_analysis-for-edit-syria-throws-fatah-al-islam-under-the-bus-.html) and Ghuraba’ ash-Sham (http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/radicals-are-assads-best-friends). It was also completely omitted the fact that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the militia responsible of the worst atrocities committed in Syria in the name of jihadism, has actually spent more time fighting other rebel factions than the regime and its headquarters are rarely targeted by air raids. There has been plenty of accusations from different political and military factions with regards to the ties between Damascus and ISIS ( https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=508278592619820&set=a.473931262721220.1073741828.473917376055942&type=1&theater, https://twitter.com/JadBantha/status/421263028978343936/photo/1, http://hawarnews.com/index.php/component/content/article/43-2013-02-24-21-16-12/7835-2013-11-13-12-04-59, http://claysbeach.blogspot.com.au/2014/01/bashar-al-jihad-is-isis-child-of-regime.html), whose rise perfectly suits the Syrian State media’s relentless efforts to portray the uprising as an Islamist one since its early phases. During my stay in Syria in 2013, I gathered local witness accounts on Ahmad Muhammad “Abu Rami”, the former Syrian military intelligence chief in Rmaylan (North-Eastern Syria), who allegedly joined the rows of the al-qa’idist Jabhat an-Nusra in November 2012. I also spoke with a former Syrian security official in Ras al-‘Ayn, who confirmed me how easily certain rebel brigades were infiltrated by figures known for their ties with the regime.
In addition to this, Anderson failed to mention how the regime granted amnesty to some of the top-leaders of the Islamist opposition back in May 2011 (including for example the Islamic Army’s Zahran ‘Allush), a few months after the outbreak of the uprising, in a move which could hardly be seen as “coincidental”, as it contributed to the sectarian drift of the revolt.

This is not meant to say that the Syrian regime and the Islamist hardliners share the same agenda and the latter ones do not aim at overthrowing the government; it also remains challenging to evaluate the truthfulness of certain reports, even when they’re built on intelligence sources, but we should bear in mind that they are often as credible as the reports putting the blame exclusively on the Gulf for the rise of radical Sunni groups. What is unquestionable, in my opinion, is the completely misleading portrait of Damascus as a champion in the struggle against Islamism in the light of its historical connections with Islamist networks.
These historical connections include the Syrian support for Hamas, Hizbullah, the Amal Movement (a group established with the explicit purpose to crush Lebanese communists), the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and several other Islamist groups. If the Syrian regime was a promoter of secularism in the region, then it should have restricted its support to secular anti-Zionist militant groups. If the Syrian regime were secular, then it shouldn’t allow Lebanese and Iraqi Shi’a militants to fight on its side against Sunnis, or did Islamism suddenly become an exclusively Sunni phenomenon? If the Syrian regime were secular, it wouldn’t have supported the ethnic “cleansing” (tathir, in the words recorded on video of one of the perpetrators, https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/nownews/pro-regime-militant-speaks-of-cleansing-banias) of Sunnis in Bayda and Baniyas in May 2013. If the Syrian regime were secular, the Constitution wouldn’t prevent a Christian from becoming the president of the republic until now just like it wouldn’t state that “Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) is a fundamental source of legislation.” (http://www.al-bab.com/arab/docs/syria/syria_draft_constitution_2012.htm). If the Syrian regime were secular, Alawis wouldn’t dominate the intelligence branches to the extent that their coastal dialect is mocked in every single joke on the security forces.
Having said that, I honestly don’t understand the point of defending a regime on the ground of its alleged secularism, if we take a look at how history is rich of examples of authoritarian secular rule such as the Reign of Terror in post-revolutionary France, Kemalist Turkey and the Soviet Union.

Another aspect of the rise of Islamist factions in the opposition Anderson and his likes fail to grasp is where “money and guns” come from or, to put it clearly, they know where they come from, but they consider this an outcome of the Islamist ideology of all the insurgents. They seem to ignore the reality of those fighters who had to turn to an outward version of Islamism to catalyse financial and military support: this was the case of the Farouq Brigades from Homs, that quickly became the equivalent of a franchise capable of attracting Qatari funds and, for this reason, it started to attract a wide range of groups under its name (http://www.arab-reform.net/sites/default/files/empowering%20the%20democratic%20resistance.pdf). This didn’t mean there was an Islamist unified vision among all the groups gathered under the Farouq brand, whose Islamist outlook might well have been as pragmatic as the Salafi-looking beard grown by the Farouq’s young commander Abdul-Razzaq Tlass, upon his rise to fame. During Anderson’s talk, when I mentioned the Farouq Brigades as an example of a non-Islamist group, I probably failed to make clear that this was not meant to claim that they are secular, but that their Islamist facade has been pragmatically motivated rather than related to an uncompromising commitment to the establishment of an Islamic state. It is the same pragmatism which led Hezbollah to accept funds from Qatar – a State with whom the party could hardly share any political and religious identity – for the reconstruction of war-ravaged Lebanon following the Israeli aggression in 2006. It is the same pragmatism which saw Hamas, on the other hand, receiving Iranian funds, regardless of their political and religious affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.
As the Syrian conflict kept growing in intensity, securing funds became a crucial factor behind the mushrooming of Islamist hardline factions, in comparison with the initial “low cost” peaceful phase almost void of sectarian drifts. In 2013, I spoke with a Syrian journalist who visited the Eastern Ghuta (Damascus) between March and April and he reported to me how Free Syrian Army soldiers had a daily limit of around 30 bullets (the figure might be higher, but the point was that their ammunition was limited), whereas the Islamic Front could count on unlimited ammunition. This obviously led to an increased number of fighters joining the ranks of the Islamist factions. In June 2013, I travelled towards al-Hul (Southern al-Hasakah) on a truck driven by a Kurdish rebel fighting on the side of ISIS and Ahrar ash-Sham: he kept joking about his beard and how he had to grow it to be accepted among jihadists, while promising to go back drinking arak as soon as the war was over. The umpteenth confirmation of how pragmatism was often a priority at the expense of the ideological drive.

As a matter of fact, there are few groups with a distinct leftist stance within the rows of the opposition: one of these exceptions are the recently formed Factions of the People’s Liberation (Fasa’il Taharrur ash-Sha’b https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=sR5wcCzLyzo), set up in Duma in March 2014. These groups saw the light in the explicit attempt to counter both the regime and the most obscurantist forces of the opposition, but their capabilities are clearly limited due to lack of funds.
Anderson thinks he can wave the banner of anti-imperialism from the pulpit of his lectures in Australia, but he doesn’t seem to care about the fate of those real Syrian anti-imperialists, who are perishing on the ground without receiving a single cent from the Gulf monarchies. It would have been enough to use the funds wasted on the Wikileaks delegation’s trip to Damascus to relief the budget of the Factions of the People’s Liberation, if the aim was to support popular resistance, but Anderson’s farce is more about “copy pasting” Hugo Chavez’s quotes on Asad to feel the revolutionary vibes on Facebook.

Another paradox of Anderson’s unconditional support for secularism against Islamism is that he resorts to the good-for-all-purposes scaremonger of Christian persecutions to back the Asad regime, so that when I mentioned the Farouq Brigades, I got reminded the way “they expelled Christians from their neighbourhoods in Homs”. First of all, to argue that Christians were evicted on the basis of their faith and not as a result of the conflict is an assumption even contested by Catholic sources (www.catholicculture.org/news/headlines/index.cfm?storyid=13804). Secondly, Anderson and other “minorities-obsessed” scholars take for granted that Christians are always persecuted because of their religion, while dismissing the possibility for some of them to have been targeted as collaborators of the regime or because of their affluence (for example, the wealth of some urbanized Syriacs was behind their kidnappings in Hasakah and Qamishli in 2013): the implicit premise to this discourse is that Christians are all innocent, they never took sides (not a single word is spent on the loyalist stance of most Syrian clerical institutions throughout the uprising) and they are suddenly in need of Western assistance to escape Islamic zealots. When the idea that Middle Eastern Christians are in need of protection was part of the French Mandate’s search for legitimacy, it was despised by “anti-imperialists” as colonialist propaganda, whereas now it is at the core of the concerns they happen to share with pro-Asad Western fascist and Catholic circles (with whom they also share sources like Mother Agnès de la Croix). As the French scholar Thomas Pierret wrote on his Facebook page, after the hypocritical indignation aroused by the displacement of Armenians from Kassab at the hands of Syrian rebels among the same people who turn a blind eye on the regime’s daily use of barrel bombs on the neighbourhoods of Aleppo controlled by the opposition, “whoever cares more for an Armenian from Kassab than for a Sunni from eastern Aleppo is a racist”.

During his visit to Syria, Anderson claims he had the chance to witness the coexistence between Christians and Muslims under the shelter of the regime, thus envisaging a future of religious persecutions, if the opposition will ever take over the country. First of all, this is a distortion of Syrian history, where there is absolutely nothing proving a higher rate of anti-Christian violence before the Ba’thist coup in 1963. Anderson went on specifying that most of the rebels are actually foreigners, an allegation common among Asadists returning from government-sponsored tours of Syria, where they never met with one single opposition fighter, just like Anderson did. I personally met with combatants from a wide range of anti-government factions in Lebanon, Turkey and Syria, and the overwhelming majority of them were Syrians, including the hardliners from Ahrar ash-Sham , Ghuraba’ ash-Sham and Ansar ash-Shari’a. Most foreigners fight within the rows of ISIS and they advocate a brutal form of Islamic autocracy Syrians are unfamiliar with: when the militants of this group vandalized a church in Raqqa, its Syrian residents took the streets to protest against religious intolerance, but they didn’t certainly call for the return of the regime. Of course, all of this was not mentioned in Anderson’s talk, where the message needed to remain “foreign Islamists make up most of the opposition and they pose a threat to the Ba’thist religious tolerance.” This was actually the same message conveyed by a Syrian woman who stood up to intervene during Anderson’s talk, when she accused the opposition of organizing protests from inside the mosques, thus suggesting the movement was already an Islamist one since its outbreak. As usual, it went completely ignored the fact that mosques were used by all protesters, regardless of their political and religious beliefs, because of the ban on unauthorized public gatherings. Over these years I spent covering the Syrian uprising, I never met someone who obtained a government license to organize a rally against the regime.

During the conference, there was also room for some racist remarks on the Bedouin roots of the Gulf sponsors of the opposition, as Anderson reported, laughing at the comments of a Syrian government official on their status of camel riders/shepherds (I cannot recall the exact words, but it was definitely a stereotypical racist joke on Arab Gulf tribes). As if it wasn’t enough to resort to Islamophobia under the guise of secularism and religious tolerance, Anderson turned to blanketing the (Sunni) Arab tribes as a bunch of rural barbarians, probably ignoring the fact that millions of Syrians are clan members with kinship links in Gulf countries.

Lastly, Anderson attempted to prove Syria never witnessed an uprising by asserting that “no revolution has ever targeted schools and hospitals and prevented kids from education.” Such assertion implies the absurd claim that the government forces have never targeted schools and hospitals. In addition to this, Anderson ignores all the initiatives launched in opposition-held areas to support education, civil society and local projects, despite the continuous bloodshed (http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/04/education-aleppo-syria-war.html?utm_source=Al-Monitor+Newsletter+%5BEnglish%5D&utm_campaign=23ea4fcada-January_9_20141_8_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-23ea4fcada-93102377). In 2013, I visited several times the city of Ras al-Ayn (North-Eastern Syria), when it was still under joint Arab-Kurdish control without any presence of the regime: no one told me of kids prevented from going to school and the hospitals and the small clinics were actually struggling to function, thanks to the voluntary efforts of the doctors affiliated to the rebel militias. Unfortunately, most of these armed groups were prioritizing the arms trade over the availability of medicines and I wrote about this issue (https://mabisir.wordpress.com/2013/05/16/free-syrian-army-neglects-health-sector-in-ras-al-ayn-sere-kanye/), but I was also aware that the same hospitals could not be used to heal wounded protesters when they were controlled by the regime. The reality is much more complicated, if you verify it on the ground, but what you get from Anderson is just that the rebels are medieval bogeymen targeting schools and hospitals.

In conclusion, if some of you had the patience to read through all of this, my personal advice is to remain sceptic of those scholars who abuse their academic positions to spread out ideological propaganda on issues they are completely unfamiliar with. If I happen to spend two weeks during a phase of political turmoil in Cuba, a country Anderson is probably more knowledgeable than me about on the basis of his experience, I would remain aware of my ignorance on Cuba and wary about claiming to hold the truth on the unfolding events. I would expect Anderson and his likes to do the same. Thanks.

I also welcome every Syrian who lived through the uprising to express his/her indignation at Anderson’s denial of his/her efforts to depose the current regime.

Categories: Arab Gulf, Israel, Kurdistan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Volgograd bombings shed light on Russia’s “Chechen” approach to Syria

ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH Investigators work at the site of a blast on a trolleybus in Volgograd December 30, 2013. A bomb blast ripped a trolleybus apart in Volgograd on Monday, killing 14 people in the second deadly attack in the southern city in two days and raising fears of further violence as Russia prepares to host the Winter Olympics. REUTERS/Stringer (RUSSIA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CRIME LAW DISASTER TRANSPORT) TEMPLATE OUT


Investigators work at the site of a blast on a trolleybus in Volgograd December 30, 2013. A bomb blast ripped a trolleybus apart in Volgograd on Monday, killing 14 people in the second deadly attack in the southern city in two days and raising fears of further violence as Russia prepares to host the Winter Olympics. REUTERS/Stringer

An article I originally wrote for WOZ Die Wochenzeitung, which was not published in the end. A shorter version was published in Italian for Europa Quotidiano on 19 January 2014. The subheading of the Italian version emphasizes the role of the Gulf monarchies in backing al-Qaeda factions in Syria, which is a bit of a simplification, in my opinion (the reality is more nuanced, some Gulf rulers are not particularly supportive of Islamist factions, in some cases it’s more about private Gulf citizens, religious preachers, etc.). The English version I wrote for WOZ went deeper in analysing the similarities between Chechnya and Syria. I am copying both texts below. 

(January 8, 2014) Between the 29th and the 30th of December 2013, two twin blasts hit the Russian city of Volgograd, resulting in the death of 33 people and 85 injuries. Most analysts link the bombings to a backlash of the Russian stance on Syria: in particular, the speculations hint at the involvement of the Saudis, on the basis of the meetings held between Putin and the Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan in August 2013. According to the content of the talks leaked to the Russian press and the Lebanese daily As-Safir, Bandar was turned off despite the set of economic, political and military deals offered to the Kremlin, including the containment of a Chechen insurgent network financed by Riyadh, in exchange for the end of the Russian support for Bashar al-Asad.

After the Americans – the historical ally of the Gulf kingdom – failed to fulfill their promise to intervene militarily against the use of chemical weapons in Syria in August 2013 and they reached a nuclear agreement in November with Iran – regional nemesis of Saudi Arabia – the Volgograd bombings look like the tail strike of an isolated Riyadh.

However, the interests served by the Volgograd bombings stretch to include even the opponents of Riyadh, the Syrian regime and Moscow. Russia might have preferred to fight the Chechen mujahidin in Syria rather than back home, but it would be naive to assume the Kremlin didn’t expect a blowback “bred” in the Syrian training camps.

In an op-ed published on January 2 on the website Ra’i al-Yawm (Today’s Opinion), the veteran editor in chief of the pan Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi, Abdul-Bari ‘Atwan, points out how the Syrian opposition has actually been weakened by the Volgograd attacks, which are likely to set the so-called “War on Terror” rather than the replacement of Bashra al-Asad as the priority of the upcoming Geneva II peace talks (scheduled on January 22). The negotiations are in fact due to happen in a tense regional situation dominated by the escalation of al-Qa’ida-linked attacks in Lebanon, the al-qa’idist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ad-Dawla al-Islamiyya fil-‘Iraq wa Bilad as-Sham, known in English as ISIS) persistent sway over Northern Syria and its recent conquest of the city of Fallujah in Western Iraq. This means that the vision of Damascus and Moscow on the Syrian uprising, which equates it to a foreign-backed destabilization of the regional security, is likely to prevail.

‘Atwan suggests that “those who planned the bombings might have taken [the blow to the Syrian opposition] in consideration.” In relation to this, it ought to be reminded that the strongest battalion of Caucasian mujahidin – the Army of Migrants and Supporters (Jaiysh Muhajirin wa al-Ansar) led by the emir Abu Omar as-Shishani, who is a Chechen from Georgia – has recently merged into ISIS. This latter faction has been accused of having been infiltrated by the regime from all sides: Syrian activists, the Western-friendly armed rebels of the Free Syrian Army, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and even the Salafi Islamic Front (al-Jabhat al-Islamiyya), which is currently fighting a newly erupted war against ISIS. During my stay in Syria in 2013, I gathered witness accounts on Ahmad Muhammad “Abu Rami”, the former Syrian military intelligence chief in Rmaylan (North-Eastern Syria), who allegedly joined the rows of the al-qa’idist Jabhat an-Nusra in November 2012. Numerous Jabhat an-Nusra’s fighters subsequently joined ISIS after its rise to prominence in 2013. The ties between the Syrian regime and the al-qa’idist networks in Iraq at the time of the US occupation are also a matter of fact, and some of the commanders of the major Islamist factions active in Syria today have been “surprisingly” granted amnesty in May 2011, a few months after the outbreak of the uprising. All these factors bring grist to the mill of a Syrian-Russian coordination to stage a false flag attack in Volgograd.

As usual, the truth is exclusively known behind the curtains of intelligence circles, but the Volgograd bombings should convince more observers of the large extent to which the Chechen wars (1994-2009)- and the Caucasian separatism in general- shaped the Russian policies on Syria. As already observed by the Brooking Institution Senior Fellow Fiona Hill in a piece appeared in Foreign Affairs in March 2013, Putin crushed the Chechen insurgencies to prevent what he envisaged as a Balkanization of Russia. And Syria doesn’t look that different to him: it needs the Russian support to maintain national integrity and crush an Islamist-led rebellion, since the Americans would probably behave like in Afghanistan and Lybia, supporting a regime change at the cost of seeing “terrorists” in power.

In February 2012, I met in Istanbul ‘Ammar al-Qurabi, one of the most televised figures of the Syrian opposition, and he confessed me how Georgia was crucial to any shift in the Russian position on Syria already in 2011. Qurabi met with a delegation of Duma representatives in November 2011 and he was told that the US was required to stop interfering in the Russian interests in Georgia.

There are also some striking similarities between the Caucasus and Syria in the religious radicalization of the rebels, as Wahhabism was not popular in Chechnya until the Gulf sponsors started to channel ideology and funds into the Caucasian battlefields. Syria and Chechnya were home to a wide range of moderate Sufi schools, until the Gulf monarchies exported their brand of orthodox Islamism in a bid to support armed resistance. The most well-known Chechen emir fighting in Syria nowadays, ISIS Abu Omar al-Shishani, is believed to be sponsored by the Kuwaiti Salafi preacher Hajaj bin Fahad al-‘Ajmi.
Even the security solution (al-hall al-amniyy) adopted in Syria to crush the uprising has clearly resembled the atrocities committed by Moscow in dealing with the Caucasian insurgents: Chechen families were prevented from burying their dear ones killed by the Russian army and the snipers were regularly deployed to “enforce” this ban. In June 2012, the Syrian director Haytham al-Haqqi wrote for the Pan Arab daily Al-Hayat that it would be enough to replace “Syrian” with “Chechen” in the official statements of the Russian FM Sergej Lavrov to realize that it’s the same old discourse: “the army is legitimately intervening to rescue civilians from terrorists.”

 

Le Olimpiadi di Sochi e la “Syria connection” degli attentati in Russia

L’ombra delle monarchie del Golfo – finanziatrici di al Qaeda in Siria – dietro la nuova ondata di attentati nel sud della Russia

Il 17 gennaio un nuovo attentato ha causato il ferimento di 14 persone a Makhachkala, in Russia, nella repubblica meridionale del Dagestan, una delle roccaforti degli insorti islamici caucasici insieme all’Inguscezia e alla Cecenia. L’attacco fa seguito alla doppia esplosione di Volgograd (29-30 dicembre), che ha causato la morte di 33 persone e 85 feriti. Il tutto a ridosso dei giochi olimpici invernali in programma a Sochi dal 7 febbraio.

La maggioranza degli analisti riconducono gli attentati alla posizione della Russia sul conflitto in corso in Siria: in particolare, i sospetti puntano in direzione di un coinvolgimento saudita, sulla base degli incontri avvenuti tra agosto e dicembre tra Vladimir Putin e il capo dell’intelligence saudita Bandar Bin Sultan. Secondo quanto è stato rivelato al quotidiano libanese As-Safir il 21 agosto scorso, i tentativi del principe Bandar di porre fine al sostegno russo del regime di Bashar al Assad sarebbero infatti falliti, nonostante le offerte economiche, militari e politiche comprendessero la neutralizzazione di una rete di ribelli ceceni finanziata dalla petromonarchia.
Gli attentati di Volgograd sembrerebbero pertanto il colpo di coda di un’Arabia Saudita isolata, tradita dall’alleato storico statunitense, venuto meno alle sue promesse d’intervento militare in Siria a seguito dell’uso di armamenti chimici in agosto e riconciliatosi con l’arcinemico di Riyad, l’Iran, tramite l’accordo sul nucleare siglato a novembre.

Tuttavia, gli attentati di Volgograd e del Dagestan giocano paradossalmente a vantaggio di Mosca e Damasco. Sebbene alla Russia non fosse dispiaciuto “delocalizzare” il conflitto caucasico in Siria, divenuta catalizzatore di centinaia di mujahidin russi unitisi alle file dei ribelli, il Cremlino aveva di certo tenuto in conto il ritorno in patria dei combattenti.

In un editoriale del caporedattore del quotidiano panarabo Al-Quds al-Arabi, Abdul-Bari al ‘Atwan, pubblicato il 2 gennaio sul sito Ra’i al-Yawm (L’Opinione del Giorno), si sottolinea come l’opposizione siriana esca indebolita dagli attentati di Volgograd: la priorità degli imminenti negoziati di Ginevra II (22 gennaio) è infatti diventata la guerra al “terrorismo” piuttosto che la deposizione di Bashar al Assad, in un contesto regionale dominato dagli attentati di matrice qaedista in Libano, dalla persistente influenza dei qaedisti dello Stato islamico dell’Iraq e del Levante (Isis l’acronimo inglese) nel nord della Siria e dalla loro recente conquista della città di Fallujah, nell’Iraq occidentale.

Ciò significa che la visione di Mosca e Damasco sulla rivoluzione siriana, ridotta a destabilizzazione della sicurezza regionale finanziata da varie potenze internazionali, potrebbe avere la meglio al tavolo dei negoziati. Come suggerito da ‘Atwan, lasciando supporre un coinvolgimento di forze alleate al regime siriano, «chi ha pianificato la realizzazione degli attentati potrebbe aver tenuto questo [danno inflitto all’opposizione siriana] in considerazione».

Al di là dell’identità dei perpetratori, nota esclusivamente alle sfere dell’intelligence internazionale, gli attacchi verificatisi in Russia ricordano la stretta connessione tra il separatismo caucasico e la posizione del Cremlino sulla Siria. Come già osservato dalla studiosa Fiona Hill della Brookings Institution, in un articolo pubblicato da Foreign Affairs a marzo del 2013, Putin guidò la repressione della seconda insurrezione cecena (1999-2009) spinto dalla convinzione di lottare contro la balcanizzazione della Russia. Ai suoi occhi, la Siria non è poi così diversa: necessita il sostegno di Mosca per preservare l’integrità territoriale e reprimere una rivolta guidata da “terroristi” islamici.

Il 29 febbraio 2012, a Istanbul, Europa aveva appreso da ‘Ammar al Qurabi, uno dei volti televisivi più noti dell’opposizione siriana, come la Georgia – e quindi il Caucaso in generale – fossero cruciali ai fini di un cambiamento della posizione russa sulla Siria già dal 2011: nel corso di un incontro con Qurabi del novembre 2011, la delegazione della Duma aveva infatti posto tra le condizioni la fine delle interferenze statunitensi in Georgia.

Tra Cecenia e Siria, non sfuggono poi le somiglianze nella radicalizzazione religiosa dei ribelli. L’ortodossia wahhabita – corrente ultraconservatrice dell’islam nata in Arabia saudita – non era affatto diffusa nella repubblica caucasica finché le monarchie del Golfo non hanno iniziato a sostenere la causa dei mujahidin: la Siria e la Cecenia erano al contrario terreni fertili di numerose correnti moderate di sufismo.

Attualmente, stando a quanto riportato da uno dei massimi esperti di Siria, il professor Joshua Landis, il principale comandante ceceno attivo in Siria, l’emiro dell’Isis Abu ‘Omar al Shishani, viene finanziato dal predicatore salafita kuwaitiano Hajaj bin Fahad al ‘Ajmi. Il regime siriano sembra poi aver trovato una fonte d’ispirazione anche nelle tecniche repressive adoperate da Mosca: alle famiglie cecene veniva infatti impedito di seppellire i familiari uccisi dall’esercito russo, pena la morte incombente dai cecchini appollaiati sui tetti.

Il 16 giugno 2012, il regista siriano Haytham al Haqqi ha scritto in un articolo pubblicato dal quotidiano panarabo Al-Hayat che basterebbe sostituire il termine “siriano” con “ceceno” nelle dichiarazioni sulla Siria del ministro degli esteri russo Sergej Lavrov per accorgersi di come si tratti dello stesso vecchio discorso: «L’esercito è legittimato a intervenire per salvare i civili dai terroristi».

Categories: Arab Gulf, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Siria | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Assessing humanitarianism in Lebanon with a practitioner (by Estella Carpi, June 2013)

http://tabsir.net/?p=2165

Thu 27 Jun 2013

clothes distribution in Tripoli, showing the Syrian opposition flag; photograph by Estella Carpi

A practitioner and a researcher assess humanitarianism in today’s Lebanon

By Fiorenzo Conte and Estella Carpi

In our combined effort of providing the perspectives of the practitioner and the researcher, we would like to take as a point of departure Italian scholar Roberto Belloni’s theses according to which humanitarianism, on the one hand, ends up being the short-term substitute for development, and, on the other, tends to reproduce the same cleavages it tries to overcome.

Humanitarianism as a short-term substitute for development

While conducting research and grounded humanitarian work in Lebanon, we have noticed how humanitarianism, while providing increasing quantity of aid, avoids addressing the root causes of Lebanese chronic poverty, administrative anarchy and recurring war-like events. Predominantly Western and Gulf countries have focused their attention on managing the symptoms of the malaise without effectively addressing its causes and hence engaging in the long term.

The humanitarian needs in Lebanon are surely huge for both Syrian refugees and long neglected Lebanese host communities. With the massive influx of Syrian refugees since August 2011, the Lebanese community, living in the poorest regions, has felt the pinch. Indeed, many residents are currently trying to tackle increased expenditures and a drop in income caused by a variety of factors: the closure of the border and the consequent inaccessibility to Syrian cheaper goods through the usual border-cross smuggling; fierce competition in the labor market that has been increased by the presence of Syrian workers; a deteriorating security situation; and reduced access to the agricultural lands strewn with landmines (1).

The situation for Syrians is similarly grim: according to a recent report, more than 50% of Syrian refugees and Lebanese returnees live in substandard conditions, as Lebanese host communities are no longer able to absorb new flows of refugees in their houses. The vast majority cannot afford their medication for chronic-diseases, while others are foregoing hospital-level care because of the prohibitive cost and insecurity conditions. Many of them do not even have enough food to meet their families’ nutritional needs.


bread provided by NGOs to Syrian refugees in the aid kit in Wadi Khaled (Akkar); photograph by Estella Carpi

While some of these needs were not preventable, as they are inherently related to the Syrian conflict (i.e. interruption of trade and smuggling with and through Syria), widespread insecurity and an abysmal lawlessness stem from the structural weakness of the Lebanese state in asserting its control (meant as monopoly of violence) over the entirety of its territory. The state, however, neither asserts its authority, nor does it offer sufficient basic services. Feelings of abandonment, lack of authority and economic precariousness in Lebanese realities – like Tripoli and Arsal – end up feeding the militia culture, triggering, therefore, a recurrent spiral of violence.

The paradoxical result of this flimsy post-war order led in fact the Lebanese of the peripheral regions to access basic services, such as healthcare, in Syria before the recent violence broke out. The international community has always been happy with simply patching up, while the deep root causes of the generalized malaise could wait longer. In this sense, humanitarianism is the short-term substitute for development in Lebanon: foreign powers still hold political sway in the domestic scenario while apparently preserving the neutrality of the humanitarian aid. This disguising mechanism gives birth to a fake apoliticization of the foreign humanitarian market, while the latter is not marginal at all to local political realities. Many humanitarian organizations have therefore abandoned previous local development projects in Lebanese areas that have been less targeted by the Syrian migration flow, and have consequently joined the humanitarian efforts meant to deal with the Syrian crisis. Such a dynamic is often dictated by the direction into which donors’ funds are channeled, since emergency relief is constantly prioritized with respect to challenging development plans.

In a nutshell, humanitarianism is actually the answer to failure in development policies, and, as such, it has been proving that emergency plans just serve its purpose of refreshing funds and commitment for the humanitarian structures.

Humanitarianism reproduces the same cleavages it tries to overcome

Humanitarian providers in Lebanon, with their way of operating, tend to reproduce the same cleavages that pre-existed the crisis humanitarian actors aim at alleviating. There are two cleavages that humanitarianism is reproducing, and they are stigmatized in a “national” – sometimes depicted as “ethnic” – opposition: one is that between Syrians and Lebanese; another cleavage between the central state and pseudo-feudal decentralization of administrative power and resource management is also identifiable among the “side effects” of how humanitarianism is locally implemented.

In Lebanon, Syrian refugees and Lebanese returnees are considered by humanitarian organizations as the primary victims of the Syrian conflict. The funds allocated for the Syrian emergency in Lebanon are therefore earmarked for intervention that primarily or exclusively targets Syrian refugees. Syrian refugees, however, do not officially live in refugee camps – where implementation is so far refused by the Lebanese government – and are therefore scattered across different regions in Lebanon. Either hosted or as rent payers. They are mainly concentrated in the poorest Lebanese regions due to greater life affordability.

Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities, thus, actually share a similar condition of poverty, exclusion and marginality. Nonetheless, they differ in one dimension: the first are formal recipients of aid, the second are occasional recipients of aid. This divide has inevitably created tensions. Moreover, the way humanitarian programs have been implemented has ethnicized the human needs of such areas: the fact that every kind of assistance is provided according to the “ethnic category” – or, in any case, the specific social group – one qualifies for, has rendered eligibility a watershed between who is entitled to be helped and who is not. This is definitely not a humanitarian side effect. By so doing, the humanitarian programs address beneficiaries by labeling them in a unilateral way and ignoring the variegated spectrum of their experiences of deprivation and neglect. In other words, these programs totally ignore the process behind the attribution of social labels to potential beneficiaries, and condemn the latter to survive within – and weirdly in the name of – the spot they occupy in the taxonomical pyramid of aid for Syrians, Lebanese affected by war, Palestinians, Iraqis, Sudanese and so forth. Hence, the humanitarian programs feed into such cleavages with their modus operandi – that is to say, working on the basis of categories – by establishing who is entitled to what and consequently engendering further tensions.

The Syrian influx also feeds into underlying inter-confessional tensions: some segments of the Christian community do not hide their fear of the Sunni influx (the majority of the Syrian refugees is in fact Sunni). Likewise, some residents in Alawite villages in Akkar perceive more tension now among their neighbors, who are allied with or against the Asad regime. With the economic situation deteriorating and Syrian migrant workers being an easy scapegoat for the generalized malaise, Lebanese from other sects are taking the matter into their hands, while cases of military raids and mob violence against Syrians are multiplying. The humanitarian response has failed to alleviate such tensions and, on the contrary, it has inflamed them by allocating the most visible part of aid (household items, food vouchers, blankets) almost exclusively to Syrian refugees. If, on one side, it is not the duty of humanitarianism to end local violence, on the other, it should not even fuel such tensions by identifying the local capacities for peace.

To its credit, humanitarian organizations have tried to channel as many resources as possible through the Lebanese public service: in the case of healthcare, for example, primary health care centers have improved both for Syrians and Lebanese. The support for Syrians is also based on the principle of equal treatment: Syrians pay as much as Lebanese to access any basic service. The fundamental caveat however remains, as aid was mobilized and allocated only when Syrians arrived, and Lebanese perceive that they were not, once again, the priority. The resentment and the sense of abandonment that the several areas of Lebanon receiving Syrians today have developed throughout the past century cannot be eradicated now, but should carefully guide humanitarian actors in the planning of their programs.

From the point of view of the humanitarian practitioner, the challenge lies in the search for eligibility criteria unlikely to create tensions. The latter are a material imperative, as the amount of resources that the humanitarian structure can benefit from is limited, and is, thus, bounded to differentiate between who is entitled and who is not to access services. Apparently, newly designed programs, as affirmed by UNHCR in Qobayat (Akkar) last February, are increasingly reflecting the moral logic of humanitarianism, according to which the needy beneficiaries should be addressed through assigning to them a unique moralized and victimized identity. Nonetheless, even the humanitarian modus nominandi dealing with homogenized categories of beneficiaries would still generate frictions, in that the beneficiaries unavoidably carry a diversified experience of historical neglect, war trauma, eviction and deprivation. Besides the fact that the access to some Lebanese areas is still filtered by local leaders that distribute resources through a confessional – and sometimes ethnic – network, the humanitarian structure, while concealing this material compromise behind the human label of universal assistance, keeps implementing projects as though it acted in a social void, deprived of past tensions and present social frictions, de facto fueled by the way aid itself is distributed and people get selected (2).

This apparent apoliticization of the humanitarian actors towards the conflict in which they are working serves to implicitly blame internal actors for not being able by themselves to dismantle the pseudo-tribal social structures of several Lebanese rural towns, which still impinging on humanitarian dynamics proposed by the internationals that, after a local social renewal, from their perspective, would run smoothly.

The second reason for contending that the humanitarian assistance tends to recreate and reassert the cleavages that it is supposed to dismantle – in the name of neutrality – is the local decentralization in administrative terms, certainly not leading to major coordination and better resources management in Lebanon. In order to operate, humanitarian agencies, most of the time, have to comply with the regulations imposed by the local leader and a sort of commissioner – in Arabic respectively mukhtar and mas’ul – who usually are the people in charge of managing all local affairs. This tendency often ends up legitimizing the corrupted dusty structure of pseudo-tribalism and nepotism, all along present in Lebanese society. This feeds an anti-state vicious circle.

In light of this, Lebanese areas that have always been neglected have suddenly hosted a massive presence of non-state actors, often international, importing standardized models of emergency planning from outside, and, at the same time, not aiming at supporting reformist internal tendencies and winking at pseudo-tribal local leaders that have interests in monitoring the aid distribution process. Thereby, small Lebanese villages are thrown into the bipolar schizophrenia that leads them, on the one hand, to desire an administrative modernization in marginalized contexts that have not been addressed by the Lebanese state yet; on the other, external actors basically feed the feudal structures that, in some cases, local people would like to liberate themselves from . The humanitarian actors instead seem to show “cultural respect” – and therefore detachment – whenever it turns useful to them in political terms, as they can access some areas just through local mediators, not always appreciated by the local community.

Thus, humanitarianism as implemented by international structures, both eastern and western, seems to lead to the reproduction, nay reinforcement, of the social, confessional and, in some cases, ethnic cleavages present in Lebanese society. Aid, therefore, unfortunately turns into a paradoxical factor of international supremacy and interference, feeding into internal cleavages while advocating for their elimination. Yet, such a compromising supremacy is pragmatically paraded as humanitarianism.

(1) Rapid Assessment of the Impact of Syrian Crisis on Socio-Economic Situation in North and Beqa’, 2012, UNDP Lebanon.
(2) Interviews conducted throughout 2012 and 2013 in the Akkar towns of Halba, el Bahsa and al ‘Abdeh (North Lebanon).

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