Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Syrian Labyrinth

The Syrian Labyrinth
Book Review
Dispatches From The Edge
Conn Hallinan
Oct. 13, 2014

Inside Syria:” The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect “ by Reese Erlich
Forward by Noam Chomsky
Prometheus Press, New York 2014

Reese Erlich’s informative and insightful book “Inside Syria” brings to mind the Greek myth of a vast maze under the palace at Knossos, with one exception: King Minos’ labyrinth on Crete concealed a single Minotaur, Syria is teeming with the beasts.

Erlich has spent almost three decades reporting from the Middle East, and he brings his considerable knowledge of the region into this analysis of the Syrian civil war. A winner of the Peabody Award and the Society of Professional Journalists explanatory journalism award for “Inside the Syrian Revolution,” Erlich combines on-the-ground reporting with an encyclopedic background in the region’s history. It is a combination that is particularly useful for a subject as complex and nuanced as the current war, one that has gradually drawn Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Iran, and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, along with the U.S., France and Britain.

The mainstream media generally considers history an afterthought, which explains why it does such an awful job reporting on the Middle East. Journalists like Erlich, Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn understand that the history of the region and current events are one and the same, a sort of paraphrase of William Faulkner’s observation that history is as much the present as the past.

While understanding the historical context of a story is a pretty good rule of thumb for producing competent journalism in general, that is particularly so in the Middle East, precisely because many people think they know about that past. Didn’t they see “Lawrence of Arabia”? Read “Exodus”? Or—God help them—read the mainstream press or watch television news?

The book begins with the initial revolt—“The Uprising That Wasn’t Supposed to Be”—and then backs into broader historical context, including a chapter on T.E. Lawrence (if this particular period is of interest to readers, they also might consider picking up Scott Anderson excellent book, “Lawrence In Arabia”). How Syria was created, and the imperial machinations of her architects, Britain and France, is essential to understanding not only the internal dynamics of the country, but its place in the region. The current hostility between Turkey and Syria has roots that reach back almost a century. If you want to understand Lebanon—a key player in the Syrian civil war—knowing how it was created and the strategies of ethnic division that France employed to maintain its colonial grip on this small but strategically placed country is essential.

The book covers Syrian history without bogging the reader down. This is, after all, a report on the on-going civil war. But Erlich does not glide over the important details, including how the U.S. camel first put its nose under the tent. Two chapters cover the period just after World War I, the impact of World War II, and the appearance of the Assads in 1970.

Erlich maintains that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s economic “reforms” helped impel the current uprising. Adopting neoliberal policies, Assad sold off state-owned enterprises—generally to regime allies and insiders—and opened the economy to outside competition. The result—aided by a long-running drought—was growing impoverishment and lots of unemployed youth. Joblessness and economic crisis is a volatile mix and needs only an “incident” to set it off. That happened in March 2011 in the southern city of Daraa, when Syrian security forces brutally attacked peaceful demonstrators.

After laying the historical groundwork for his reporting, Erlich follows with a detailed chapter on the 2011 uprising.

While Erlich has a clear point of view—he detests dictatorship and neo-colonialism in equal measure—he is a careful and thorough reporter. His discussion of the use of chemical weapons is a case in point. Erlich carefully unpacks the evidence that the Assad regime used Sarin gas and finds that some of it has been exaggerated or even possibly fabricated. Which doesn’t mean the Damascus regime is innocent. His discussion weighs the charges on all sides and concludes that we really don’t know. What we do know is that U.S. intelligence didn’t think the evidence against Assad was a slam-dunk, a fact that the Obama administration deliberately obscured. It is a fascinating treatment of the subject—there were several incidents involving the use of chemical weapons, not just the most horrendous at Al-Ghouta that killed several hundred people—and a good example of Erlich’s diligence as a reporter.

His chapters on “the Uprising begins,” and “Who Supports Assad” are a must for anyone trying to figure out who is who in this complex tragedy. Erlich details the various factions, how they interlink and how they differ, and why the U.S. policy of arming “moderate forces” is doomed to failure. These chapters are essential for understanding the internal dynamics of the two sides, which are more like a Rubik Cube than two opposing poles. The book includes an invaluable appendix on the groups involved, as well as a useful timeline of the current uprising.

Syria is part of a much larger picture, and its strategic placement—bordering Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon—means what happens in Damascus doesn’t stay in Damascus. Why is Iran backing Assad? Is this all about religion? (Hint: nope). What will this mean for the 30 million or so Kurds trying to form their own country? Do all the Kurds want to form a country, and, if they do, what will moving that particular piece on the Middle East chessboard do? How might this affect the on-going fight by the Palestinians to form their own country?

The Syrian civil war has morphed into a proxy battle with Iran and Russia on one side, and the U.S., Gulf monarchies and some NATO members on the other. While the battle is not over religion per se, religion greases the movement of arms and aid. “To the pious go the guns,” writes Erlich, which means that adherence to the reactionary brand of Islam favored by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies is a litmus test for whether you get arms and ammunition. It is not an atmosphere in which the American’s favored “moderates” can thrive.

Erlich says the White House recognizes that the “ultra-right wing Islamic groups” like the ISIS, Al-Nusra, and the Islamic Front are growing at the expense of the less extreme or secular groups and at one point considered simply “re-defining” the extremist Islamic Front as “moderate” so it could send aid to that organization.

Because Erlich is one of those old-fashioned journalists who believes that you need to talk to the principals involved, the readers get an opportunity to listen to what Kurds and Palestinians have to say. This combination of street interviews, suite discussions— he beards the U.S. State Department in Foggy Bottom—and historical background makes for a thoroughly engaging read. While he generally keeps his distance, Erlich injects himself when needed, or when he wants the reader to know that this is his opinion, not God’s. He also has a sense of humor. There is a wonderful moment when he gets off a bus in Gaza to be met by Hamas officials.

His final chapter—“U.S., Russia, and outside powers”—discusses the international dimensions of the civil war—virtually anything major that happens in the Middle East, with its enormous oil and gas reserves, has an international dimension—and what ought, and ought not, be done, to solve it.

The Obama administration is slipping into a quagmire that some have even compared to Vietnam. That analogy is probably flawed, but it should still gives us pause—for one, Vietnam demonstrated that air wars don’t work unless you have reliable allies on the ground. Once again, the U.S. is at war. Once again, the U.S. is ignoring international law and choosing to use military force over diplomacy. Once again there is a logic at work here that leads to yet another dark tunnel of escalation.

In 1966 journalist Robert Scheer wrote a small book, “How the United States Got Involved in Vietnam,” that undercut the popular narrative about Communist aggression and toppling dominos. The book shattered the official paradigm and gave the infant anti-war movement ammunition for its confrontation with the administration of Lyndon Johnson. Erlich’s “Inside Syria” has similar heft and should be widely read, because we are once again at war without the slightest idea of where it leads or what its ultimate goals are.

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Let A Thousand Poles Bloom

Shanghai Cooperation Organization

“Let A Thousand Poles Bloom”

Dispatches From The Edge

Sept. 29, 2014

 

At the very moment that the Americans and their allies are trying to squeeze Russia and Iran with a combination of economic sanctions and political isolation, alternative poles of power are emerging that soon may present a serious challenge to the U.S. dominated world that emerged from the end of the Cold War.

 

This past summer, the BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—created an alternative to the largely U.S. controlled World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) added 1.6 billion people to its rolls.

 

The BRICS construction of a Contingent Reserve Arrangement will give its member’s emergency access to foreign currency, which might eventually dethrone the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. The creation of a development bank will make it possible to by-pass the IMF for loans, thus avoiding the organization’s onerous austerity requirements.

 

Less than a month after the BRICS’ declaration of independence from the current strictures of world finance, the SCO—China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—approved India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia for membership in the organization. It was the single largest expansion of the economic cooperation and security-minded group in its history, and it could end up diluting the impact of sanctions currently plaguing Moscow over the Ukraine crisis and Teheran over its nuclear program.

 

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization began as the Shanghai Five in 1996, and five years later became the SCO. Even before the recent additions, SCO represented three-fifths of Eurasia and 25 percent of the world’s population.

 

A major focus of the SCO is security, although the countries involved have different agendas about what that exactly means.

 

Russia and China are determined to reduce U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) presence in Central Asia to what it was before the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. The SCO has consistently rebuffed U.S. requests for observer status, and has pressured countries in the region to end U.S. basing rights. The U.S. was forced out of Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan in 2006, and from Manas in Kyrgyzstan in 2014.

 

“At present, the SCO has started to counterbalance NATO’s role in Asia,” says Alexei Maslov, chair of the Department of Oriental Studies of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, and the new members, he says, want in to safeguard their interests.

 

Given the current confrontation between NATO and Russia over the Ukraine, and tensions in the East China Sea between the U.S., Japan, and China, Moscow and Beijing may not agree on a number of issues—in 1969 they came to blows over a border dispute—but they are on the same page when it comes to limiting Washington’s influence in their respective backyards.

 

Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Chang Wanquan said last year “China is ready to work with Russia to…expand the scope of bilateral defense cooperation.” Last month Russia’s Chief of Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov declared that, “Russia is ready to make joint efforts with China to lift the relationship to a new high.” China has been supportive of Russia in the Ukraine crisis.

 

For Iran, SCO membership may serve as a way to bypass sanctions currently pounding the Iranian economy. Russia and Iran signed a memorandum in August to exchange Russian energy technology and food for Iranian oil, a move that would violate U.S. sanctions. But Moscow—already weathering sanctions that have weakened its economy—may be figuring that there is little more the U.S. can do and still keep its European allies on board. Russian counter sanctions on the European Union (EU) have shoved a number of European countries back into recession, and the EU is worried that Russia will turn east and Europe will lose much of its Russian market share.

 

To a certain extent, that is already happening. When the 2,500-mile “Power of Siberia” pipeline is completed in 2018, it will supply China with about 15 percent of its natural gas, Russia’s Rosneft and China’s National Petroleum Corporation are jointly exploring oil and gas reserves in the arctic, and the Russians have also offered China a stake in the huge Vankor oil field in East Siberia. Since January 2014, some 30 percent of Russian oil exports have gone to Asia.

 

Teheran is reaching out to Beijing as well. Iran and China have negotiated a deal to trade Iran’s oil for China’s manufactured goods. Beijing is currently Iran’s number one customer for oil. In late September, two Chinese warships paid a first ever visit to Iran, and the two countries navies carried out joint anti-piracy and rescue maneuvers.

 

For India and Pakistan, energy is a major concern, and membership in the oil and gas rich SCO is a major plus. Whether that will lead to a reduction of tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad over Kashmir is less certain, but at least the two traditional enemies will be sitting down to talk about economic cooperation and regional security on a regular basis.

 

There are similar tensions between SCO members Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan over borders, and both countries, plus Tajikistan, have squabbled over water rights.

 

Most SCO members are concerned about security, particularly given the imminent departure of the U.S. and NATO from Afghanistan. That country might well descend into civil war, one that could have a destabilizing effect on its neighbors. Added to that is the U.S.-NATO-Gulf monarchy jihad against the Assad regime in Syria, a conflict that is raising yet another generation of mujahedeen that will some day reappear in their home countries—some of them SCO members—trained and primed for war.

 

From Aug. 24 -29, SCO members China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan took part in “Peace Mission 2014,” an anti-terrorist exercise to “subdue” a hypothetical Central Asia city that had become a center for terrorist activity. The drill involved aircraft, 7.000 troops, armored vehicles, and drones, and according to China’s Chief of Staff, Fang Fenghui, was aimed at the “three evil forces of terrorism, separatism, and extremism.”

 

The problem with General Fang’s definition of “terrorism” is that it can easily be applied to minorities or local groups with legitimate complaints about their treatment by SCO member governments.

 

China has come down hard on Turkic speaking Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province, who have been resisting marginalization by China’s dominant ethnic group, the Han. Uyghur scholar IIham Tohti was recently sentenced to life imprisonment for “separatist activity.”

 

Beijing has also suppressed demands for independence or more autonomy by Tibetans—who it also labels “separatists” –even though China has no more a claim over Tibet than Britain did to India or Ireland. All of them were swept up by empires at the point of a sword.

 

The BRICS and the SCO are the two largest independent international organizations to develop over the past decade, but there are others as well. In Latin America, Mercusur—Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela—is the third largest trade grouping in the world. Associate members include Chile, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. Mexico and New Zealand have observer status. The newly minted Union of South American Nations (USAN) includes every country in South America, including Cuba, and has largely replaced the Cold War relic, the Organization of American States (OAS) that excluded Havana. While the U.S. and Canada are part of the OAS, they were not invited to join USAN.

 

What role these new organizations will play internationally is not clear. Certainly sanction regimens will be harder to maintain because the SCO and the BRICS create alternatives. South Africa, for instance, announced that it would begin buying Iran oil in the next few months, an important breach in the sanctions against Iran. But being in the same organization does not automatically translate into having the same politics on international questions.

 

The BRICS and the recent Israeli invasion of Gaza are a case in point. China called for negotiations. Russia was generally neutral (but friendly toward the Netanyahu government, in part because there are lots of Russians in Israel). India was silent—Israel is New Delhi’s number one source of arms. South Africa was critical of Israel, and Brazil withdrew its ambassador

 

In comparison, NATO was generally supportive of the Israeli actions, Turkey being the odd man out. There is more political uniformity among NATO countries than there is among SCO and BRICS nations, although there is growing opposition in the ranks of the European Union (EU) over Washington’s hard line approach on the Ukraine. The U.S. does $26 billion in trade with Russia, the EU $370 billion. Russia also supplies Europe with 30 percent of its natural gas, although that reaches 100 percent for countries like Finland. Most EU countries—the Baltic nations and Poland being the exceptions—see little percentage in a long, drawn out confrontation with Russia.

 

These independent poles are only starting to develop and it is hardly clear what their ultimate impact on international politics will be. But the days when the IMF, World Bank, and U.S. Treasury could essentially dictate international finances and intimidate or crush opponents with an avalanche of sanctions are drawing to a close.

 

The BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are two nails in that coffin.

 

 

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Free Speech Movement: The Musical

FSM: The Musical
Daily Planet
Conn Hallinan
Oct. 3, 2014

FSM: A Play With Music About A Moment That Changed America”
Book by Joan Holden
Music & Lyrics by Bruce Barthol & Daniel Savio
Directed by Erin Merritt
Musical Direction Daniel Savio

History plays present their own particular challenges. On one hand, the story is driven by the sequence of events in the real world. On the other, the drama has to engage an audience. The twain rarely meet. But Joan Holden’s FSM, under the able direction of Erin Merritt, with music and lyrics by Bruce Barthol and Daniel Savio, pulls off the still more daunting job of creating an evening of theater that entertains both those for whom the events include their own life stories and those for whom it is ancient history.

Subtitled “A play with music that changed America,” FSM covers a four month period in the fall of 1964 when students took on the University of California at Berkeley over the right to speak and organize on campus. There is a little bit of tongue-in-cheek in the title, and Holden wisely does not try to turn the “Battle of Berkeley” into the Second Coming. But, at the same time, she understands that something unique happened in those fall days when virtually the entire student body came together to confront the powerful and wealthy Board of Regents, and win. That victory has echoed down the years, helping to propel the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, and battles around racism, South Africa, and Gay liberation. .

Commissioned by Stagebridge, an Oakland-based theater company of older adults, the play was written with the 50th anniversary of the FSM in mind. It was performed before packed audiences during a weeklong celebration on the Berkeley campus. Many in those audiences had taken part in the events the play portrayed, which made them both enthusiasts and critics. And, Lord, those FSMers can quibble and debate, just like they did a half-century ago.

The arc of the story runs from the initial arrest of Jack Weinberg in Sproul Plaza, and the subsequent sit-in around the police car in which he was being held, to the key vote in the Academic Senate that finally broke the back of the University administration. Those four months were enormously complex, in part because the FSM itself was such a heterogeneous collection of ideas, tactics and political beliefs, ranging from Communists to conservative Republicans. Nor is it taken out of context. Its antecedents in the civil rights movement are abundantly clear, and the depiction of the sexual politics among the activists presages the arrival of Woman’s Liberation groups a few years later. The complexity of the differences within the various groups—students, faculty, and administration—and their varying certainties and ambivalence, all come into play as Holden refuses to reduce her characters (with very few exceptions: J.Edgar Hoover, for example) to one dimensional mouthpieces for an Idea. The play does an admirable job of reflecting that mosaic without losing sight of the dramatic narrative. As someone who took part in those events 50 years ago, I was continually surprised at how accurately the play managed to reflect the highs and lows of the struggle.

But FSM is hardly a didactic documentary. Holden, a long-time playwright for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, brings lots of energy, humor, and action to the stage, and Barthol’s and Savio’s music is engaging, even moving. When the students are packed into Sproul Hall awaiting arrest, they sing “Carry Us Away,” a song that mirrors both their determination not to give in and their fear at what is to come. It was one of the play’s most powerful moments.

FSM moves back and forth between the events of 1964 and current interviews with veterans. Older actors sit and talk about what their characters did after 1964, while the young actors who portray their younger selves stand silently behind them. The cast of 19 plays multiple roles—43, to be exact—and there always seems to be a crowd of protestors (fraternity hecklers, angry citizens, etc.) on stage.

Director Erin Merritt choreographs a visually arresting montage that keeps the action clear as actors segue from character to character. Stagebridge actors (Abe Bernstein, Patricia Long Davis, Charmaine Hitchcox, Lynne Hollander, Bill Liebman, Merle Nadlin and Miyoko Sakatani) capably portrayed many of the older characters, with Bay Area notables Dan Hiatt (as the grown-up “small town boy” and a clearly conflicted Clark Kerr) and the SF Mime Troupe’s Ed Holmes filling out the senior tier of the intergenerational cast. Brady Morales-Woolery’s portrayal of one of the FSM’s major leaders—or spokesman, as the FSMers repeatedly insist—Mario Savio, sometimes borders on the eerie. Morales-Woolery gets Savio’s body language and speaking cadence down almost perfectly (yes, yes, quibble, quibble). Heather Gordon is particularly effective as the sorority girl turned activist, and the cohort of younger actors, all professionals (Lucas Hattan, Andrew Humann, Danielle Gray, Jeremy Kahn, Damion Matthews, Brandon Mears, Adrienne Walters and the SF Mime Troupe’s Lisa Hori-Garcia), ably embodied the passion of the characters “workin’ in the movement.”

So, is it history or theater? Both. The question is: can it play Peoria? Probably not, but FSM is bigger, more entertaining, instructive and engaging, than just a play whipped up for a 50th anniversary. On its own, the production is dramatic and fun, the music catchy, and Karla Hargrave’s simple but engaging sets make it the kind of low-cost production that would do well in university towns.

FSM is not just nostalgia or, in the end, a play about a specific historical event. It is about how people come to commit themselves to something, despite the pressures of everyday life. It is not about activists, but how people become activists. The song “Workin’ in the Movement” picks up the excitement of that commitment, but also the strain it puts on people’s personal lives. But the decision to come together and resist is a formula for how to build a better world. That particular message is bound by neither time nor geography.

As the director notes in her introduction to the play, “The promise of 1964 remains to be fulfilled 50 years later.” Indeed, it does. Free speech is still under attack. Racism, inequality, sexism, homophobia, and war plague the nation. But FSM presents a hopeful solution: convince people to commit themselves, pack the plazas, and take the bastards on.

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