Ruins at Zamalka, Ghouta, Syria, 22nd Feb 2018

Tell me how this ends

In January 2017, following Donald Trump’s inauguration, his national security staffers entered their White House offices for the first time. One told me that when he searched for the previous administration’s Middle East policy files, the cupboard was bare. “There wasn’t an overarching strategy document for anywhere in the Middle East,” the senior official, who insisted on anonymity, told me in a coffee shop near the White House. “Not even on the ISIS campaign, so there wasn’t a cross-governmental game plan.”

Rob Malley, President Barack Obama’s senior Middle East adviser and Harvard Law School classmate, denied the charge. “That can’t be true,” the fifty-­five-­year-­old scholar insisted when we met in his office at the International Crisis Group in Washington. “We provided comprehensive memoranda to the incoming team, though we can’t know if they read them. We definitely had a long one on Syria, on all aspects of the conflict.”

I have observed the Syrian conflict off and on since it began, in 2011, filing stories from Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Palmyra, the Turkish border, and other zones of contention. But the story as seen from inside Syria seemed as incomplete as the Trojan War without the gods. In the conflagration’s eighth year, I flew to the Olympian heights of Washington to ask the immortals what they were doing while an estimated half million of Syria’s twenty-­three million inhabitants were dying, millions more fled the country, and some of civilization’s most precious monuments were destroyed…

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Destruction in Homs

Syria: A Savage Peace

Workmen throughout Syria are erecting bronze, stone, and concrete statues in what the government calls “liberated areas.” Some of the monuments are newly cast, while others have been in storage since the conflict began in 2011. At that time, protesters in rebellious cities like Dera’a and Homs were desecrating the sculptures of longtime president Hafez al-Assad, his successor Bashar, and Bashar’s older brother, Bassel, the designated heir who died before ascending the throne. It was perhaps an omen of the rebellion’s destiny that popular legend had a massive bust of Hafez in Idlib killing two demonstrators as it crashed to earth. Seven years on, the effigies, like the regime they embody, are back. The war isn’t over, but the postwar era has begun.

Outright victory remains elusive. The Syrian army controls about 60 percent of the land and 80 percent of the resident population of about 16.5 million people, leaving three sectors of the country yet to be “liberated”…

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Brexit, Brexit Everywhere

I’ve just returned to Britain after many months away, and it’s as if I never left. When Rip Van Winkle woke up from his 20-year slumber, he encountered a world altered beyond recognition. The United Kingdom, however, is mired in the same debate that has raged for years over how and whether to sever its ties to the European Union. The fracas that dominated the airwaves, newspapers and public discussion a year, even two years, ago has not budged. The crisis is no nearer resolution than it was when a slim majority voted to leave the European Union in the referendum of June 2016. Spokespeople for the Brexit faction are still demanding that Parliament implement the people’s will, while their opponents warn that departure on any terms harms the country more than staying in. Both have a case, but nothing is moving.

The discussion should be reasoned and thoughtful, but it isn’t. Instead, Parliament is staging a show, asserting its authority over the executive as it hasn’t done since Tony Blair turned the House of Commons into a rubber stamp for his Labour government’s policies. The House of Commons has become a circus with Speaker John Bercow playing ringmaster to unruly clowns, wild beasts and high-wire acts. Only the Liberal Democrats are united on the issue, standing firmly to Remain, but they have only 11 seats in Parliament. Within the two major parties, loyalties have evaporated. Brexiteers and Remainers sit on both Labour and Conservative benches. Moreover, extreme Brexiteers are voting with extreme Remainers to block the terms for withdrawal that Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with the other 27 members of the European Union. They don’t want to keep Britain in a European customs union, especially when it will have no say on its rules. The Remainers who voted against May don’t like her deal for the opposite reason: Its rejection, they believe, will force either a general election or a second referendum to reverse the outcome of the first. Add to that the confusion over whether the physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland should be restored and jeopardize peace in the north, and you have a free-for-all that no one predicted during the 2016 referendum campaign.

The bloodshed has spread from Parliament to the pubs and the peaceful homes that Englishmen ostensibly regard as their castles. My own family, which is fairly evenly divided, allowed passions to rise so high over Christmas that we banned the topic from the dinner table. The irrepressible Stanley Johnson, father of two Conservative members of parliament famed for their conflicting stances, told me his Christmas was more fraught. Son Jo had resigned as a government minister because he favors Europe, and older son Boris quit as foreign secretary to lead the Brexiteers against May. Each boy is adamant that his way is the only way. Stanley, as he was about to carve the turkey, asked his offspring, “Which is it to be, boys, breast or thigh?”…

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Too late to be lucky

December 7 was the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and of the birth thirteen years earlier of Noam Chomsky. Pearl Harbor led to American global dominance at the same time as Chomsky’s insights into the nature of language were beginning to have an impact on linguistic theory, philosophy and psychology. Chomsky is also an outspoken critic of his country’s foreign policy. Expanding his critique of B. F. Skinner’s and W. V. O. Quine’s behaviourist determinism to the political realm, he has developed a libertarian and socialist vision of free will, opposition to concentrations of private and state power, and resistance to the abuse of power at home and abroad.

Throughout his adult life, from his moral opposition to America’s invasion of Vietnam to his country’s more recent adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, Chomsky has argued that the US behaves much as its Spanish, British and French imperial predecessors once did. Moreover, he notes, the US has employed the same moral language to cover what appear to be global atrocities. Like Marlow in Heart of Darkness, he believes, “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much”. Those Chomsky has consistently condemned must feel that he has looked into it too damned much…

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Free Austin Tice

The Enduring Search for a Missing American Journalist in Syria

Debra and Marc Tice left Beirut last week without their son. It was a disappointing, if unsurprising, end to their eighth trip to the Lebanese capital in the six years since Austin Tice, a freelance journalist and law student, vanished while covering the war in Syria. The Tices knocked on doors, hosted a press conference and applied for Syrian visas to plead for the Syrian government’s assistance in freeing their captive son. Their meetings in Beirut produced little more than sympathy, their dignified presentation to the press corps received minimal coverage and the Syrian government did not grant them visas.

Now, they anticipate their sixth Christmas at home in Houston without the eldest of their seven children. Austin Tice’s disappearance and prolonged captivity constitute a mystery that cries out for a solution. It began with his decision in 2012, just before the summer vacation preceding his final year at Georgetown University’s law school, to publicize the suffering of the Syrian people…

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Marie Colvin Dedicated Her Extraordinary Life to Describing “What Really Happens in Wars”

The extraordinary life of war reporter Marie Colvin would have merited a biography even if she had survived the Syrian army’s bombardment of Homs in February 2012. Long before her fatal trip into the city’s rebel-held Baba Amr quarter, producers had proposed turning her life into an action-packed movie. It was only after her death that two films, a documentary and a drama, appeared. Now, Lindsey Hilsum has written the book “In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin,” and it is one of the best biographies I have read about any journalist. Colvin’s trajectory, personal as much as professional, was fascinating by any standard for the passion and turmoil that shadowed her from birth to untimely death. This is a great story, well told.

The controversy surrounding Colvin’s death partially overshadowed her achievements in life. Her family, friends, and Syrian opposition believe that the Syrian government assassinated her by targeting the Homs Media Center, where she and other correspondents were sending vivid reports of civilian suffering. Yet countervailing narratives persist. One is that the insurgents put journalists in harm’s way to create Western martyrs for their cause. Another is that Colvin and 28-year-old French photographer Rémi Ochlik were unlucky casualties of a military campaign that took thousands of civilian lives.

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Saudi Consulate doors Istanbul

Seeing Khashoggi’s Fate as a Death Foretold

The killing of Jamal Khashoggi was a death foretold from the time his comments on Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and effective ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, reached the royal court. Princes do not tolerate what they perceive to be insults, especially from commoners. In an absolute monarchy, the difference between criticism and treason does not pertain. Khashoggi, for years a loyal subject of the monarchy, dared to suggest that his country refrain from devastating its smaller neighbor, Yemen, and permit the kingdom’s inhabitants a measure of freedom. That was enough for his liege lord to perceive him as an enemy of his person and of the state. The official Saudi line denies the crown prince’s complicity in Khashoggi’s death, but it would have been understood by members of the Saudi government that if Khashoggi continued, others would follow. The Western powers that have played a decisive role in the Saudi kingdom throughout the past century should not be shocked at what happened to Khashoggi. His death is one of many they have ignored since Abdulaziz Ibn Saud founded the kingdom in the Arabian Peninsula and named it for his family.

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World War Two’s Covert Ops Are Failing in the Post-War World

Before President Barack Obama authorized clandestine operations to defeat Syrian President Bashar al Assad in 2013, he asked the CIA to write the history of its secret wars. The classified document, say those who have read it, is a record of failure from Albania to Cuba to Angola to Nicaragua. Yet Obama went ahead with the covert program for Syria, which the CIA ran from Turkey and Jordan. Like its predecessors, Operation Timber Sycamore failed. It neither toppled Assad nor prevented Salafi jihadi fanatics from dominating the Syrian opposition. President Trump cancelled the program in July last year, but he is not immune to the siren call of another secret war – in his case, against Iran with as much chance of a positive outcome as Syria.

Why the fascination with arming foreign insurgents and proxy armies to fight wars that the US won’t fight itself? “We’re busily training, you know, local troops to fight local militants, why do we think we have this aptitude for creating armies?” Andrew Bacevich, a retired army colonel and author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East, once told me. “I don’t know. It sure as hell didn’t work in Vietnam.” Two reasons stand out. One is that, as Bacevich explained, insurgencies are wars “on the cheap,” not only in dollars but in assuring the public that American soldiers’ lives are not in danger. It is also a midway point between invasion and doing nothing. And most American presidents, faced with an opportunity to undermine rival states, want to do something.

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Print, the legend – The life of an American newspaperman

“Hold the front page!” Editors have no doubt shouted those fabled words more often for Seymour Hersh than for any reporter living. Hersh – known to friends and colleagues as “Sy” – is a legend of my trade, born appropriately in that great newspaper town, Chicago, scene of sufficient political corruption and police brutality to sustain a dozen dailies. From his exposure of the My Lai massacre in 1969 and other war crimes by American forces in Vietnam to his recent accounts of official disinformation about Syria, Hersh broke from the pack to tell tales most of his colleagues avoided but which the public needed to know.

What a story. What a life. It’s hard to read this book without a tinge of envy and a lot of admiration for a poor kid from the South Side who watched friends go off to Harvard in the 1950s while he stayed to support his Polish-Jewish mother by running his late father’s dry cleaners. When his twin brother Allan finished his PhD and brought their mother to San Diego, Sy took an English degree and went to the University of California’s law school. Having been expelled for indolence, he got a job with the City News Bureau in Chicago, the windy city’s equivalent of Britain’s Press Association, where he learn the trade. The morning editor made young Hersh scrub his desk, and his beat involved reporting high school basketball scores. “Nonetheless,” he writes, “I was smitten.” Having been drafted into the army for six months of Stateside training in 1960, he returned to work on a suburban weekly, got fed up working for people he did not respect – a recurring theme in his career – and started the rival paper Evergreen park/Oak Lawn Dispatch with a few friends. “My idea of a solid story then was one that found a way to praise an advertiser”, Hersh admits.

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Injustice: The Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five

The Unjust Prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation Five

“For the law holds, that it is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer,” wrote Sir William Blackstone in 1765, expressing a fundamental principle of Anglo-Saxon justice. Miko Peled, in “Injustice: The Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five,” his exhaustive study of the U.S. government’s case against five defendants from a friendless minority, demonstrates how American justice has deviated so far from Blackstone that the courts can convict a hundred innocents for one who is guilty. “Injustice” portrays a modern version of Franz Kafka’s “Trial” in which five Palestinian-Americans confront the character Joseph K.’s dilemma: “K. was living in a free country, after all, everywhere was at peace, all laws were decent and were upheld, who was it who dared accost him in his own home?”

The FBI, the Treasury Department, and other assorted police forces in Texas and California accosted them with raids on most of their family houses early in the morning on July 26, 2004. The criminal trial against the Holy Land Foundation Five — or HLF 5, as the five Arab-Americans became known, a reference to the Islamic charity they founded in 1990 — opened exactly three years later. It culminated in a hung jury. The retrial in Dallas federal court began in September 2008, and included unprecedented testimony from “Avi,” the pseudonym assumed by an Israeli intelligence agent whose qualifications the defense was unable to probe. Judge Jorge Solis, although he instructed jurors that they were allowed to weigh the agent’s credibility in light of his anonymity, nonetheless brushed aside the defendants’ right under the Sixth Amendment “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” Nothing in the U.S. Constitution until then permitted conviction by anonymous accusations, but the court convicted all five men.

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