Notes on isolation, from those who know it well

The window was sealed behind a sheet of solid steel. The door was locked. Thick chains bound one arm and one ankle. The room was bare apart from a thin foam mat for a bed and a plastic bottle to pee into. I was alone.

That was the summer of 1987, when Hizbullah was holding me hostage in Lebanon. They had many other hostages, but I didn’t see them. In fact, I saw no one. When a guard came into the room, I had to put on a blindfold so that I couldn’t identify him. The only conversations I had were a few interrogations, when I was also blindfolded. The questioning involved threats and verbal abuse, but mercifully no torture. As unpleasant as they were, they broke the monotony. The rest of the time left me thinking, remembering, imagining. One way of relieving the loneliness was to pretend that one or another of my children was with me, each on a different day. I made chess pieces out of paper labels on water bottles to play with each one. Sometimes I let them win, or they beat me outright.

Although I never saw daylight, I was acutely aware of time. Every morning when I woke, I reminded myself of the date and thought, “This is day ten (or whatever other number it happened to be) of my captivity – and my last.” The only idea that sustained my morale was that somehow I would escape. After 62 days, I did.

Now, there is no escape. Where would I go? Most of the planet is locked down.

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Julian Assange

Free Julian Assange!

By depriving the WikiLeaks founder of his freedom, prosecutors in the US and Britain are intimidating journalists—and abetting torturers, war criminals, and kleptocrats everywhere.

If WikiLeaks did not exist, the public would know much less than it does about what government and politicians are doing in its name.

When a 35-year-old Australian named Julian Assange launched WikiLeaks with a few like-minded friends in 2006, he little knew what exposing malfeasance would cost him. The WikiLeaks model was simple: provide a safe repository for documents showing state and corporate wrongdoing while guaranteeing anonymity for the leaker. Newspapers were not necessarily safe for whistle-blowers, as British civil servant Sarah Tisdall discovered in 1983 when London’s The Guardian caved in to a court order and handed over documents that identified her as the source for its story on US cruise missile deployment in the UK. She went to prison for four months and lost her job…

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Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at the funeral of Qasem Soleimani's father.

Reflections on the Life and Death of an Iraqi Militant

They buried Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi in Najaf, Iraq, on Jan. 8. Although Ibrahimi was born far to the south in Basra province, Najaf was the chosen resting place for the reputed martyr. Najaf houses the Imam Ali mosque, an ancient and beautiful shrine in honor of Shiite Islam’s original martyr, Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law. It attracts pilgrims from all over the Shiite world, many of whom in the future will no doubt be guided to Ibrahimi’s grave. The pilgrims will be reminded that American missiles killed the militia leader better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Al-Muhandis died in the early hours of Jan. 3 at Baghdad International Airport along with the man he had gone to greet, Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. His assassination, perhaps more than Soleimani’s, increased local hostility to the U.S. presence in Iraq even among those opposed to Iranian interference in their domestic affairs. Unlike Soleimani, al-Muhandis was Iraqi, albeit with close familial and professional ties to Iran, and a government official. To Iraqis, the killing of al-Muhandis is equivalent to taking out Lt. Gen. Daniel Hokanson, director of the U.S. Army National Guard. The difference is that, while most Americans have never heard of Hokanson, every Iraqi knew about Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis…

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March of Ukraine's Defenders on Independence Day in Kyiv, 2019

What Are David’s Options When Goliath Makes Geopolitical Reality?

The old year’s parting present to 2020 is a gaggle of what the Russians call “frozen conflicts” across the globe. Any one of them may unfreeze in the year ahead, bringing bloodshed and exile to innocents and threatening an already precarious world order. In some, the balance of forces is so disproportionate that the weaker party has no options but to bow to strength. The Goliaths of Russia and India, among others, dictate terms to the Davids of Ukraine and Pakistan. The people of tiny Hong Kong are standing up to China, but for how long? Who will defend Hong Kong if China abolishes the former British colony’s “one country, two systems” status? For that matter, would NATO prevent Moscow from seizing more Ukrainian territory than it already has? Would the United Nations defend Pakistan if India expels the Muslims of Kashmir, as Burma did the Rohingya Muslims?

This was not how it was supposed to be. As the Second World War was ending in June 1945, the new United Nations published its charter in San Francisco. The first sentence of the charter’s first article promised “to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace.” Strength of the kind Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had used to subjugate weaker nations was outlawed. International law and justice were to replace a system where might made, if not right, then reality…

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Khaled Khalifa. Photo Credit Aiham Dib

Scheherazade in a Syrian Cell

Khaled Khalifa is Syria’s biographer, much as Gore Vidal declared himself America’s. While Vidal gave fictional life to Aaron Burr, Abraham Lincoln, William Randolph Hearst, and other American deities, Khalifa avoids real names: no Assad, father or son, only “the President”; no Baath, only “the Party”; Alawis are “the other sect,” Sunnis “our sect.” Yet their presence dominates the lives of his imagined characters, as in the real Syria.

Known in the Arab world primarily as the author of scripts for television and film, the fifty-five-year-old Khalifa has published five novels in Arabic, three of which have been sensitively translated by Leri Price. The first to appear in English was In Praise of Hatred, a complicated García Márquez–like chronicle of an unnamed, decaying family with aristocratic pretensions enduring the clandestine war between security forces and Islamist militants that erupted in Aleppo in the late 1970s. With its labyrinthine souks, decrepit stone palaces, medieval monuments, and heterogeneous populace, Aleppo serves as an apt setting for In Praise of Hatred’s unraveling mystery…

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Protestors Plaza Baquedano, Santiago, Chile, 22 October 2019. Photograph by Carlos Figueroa.

A Rebellious World Is Taking It to the Streets

Demonstrators were out on the streets when I returned to France last week, most of them peacefully protesting but enough burning cars and smashing windows in central Paris for the police to deploy water cannons and tear gas. The latest outbreak marked the first anniversary of a movement, les gilets jaunes or yellow vests, outraged by President Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to increase the tax on diesel that fuels most vehicles in rural areas. Although Macron swiftly withdrew the tax, protests have continued in Paris and elsewhere every Saturday since. Participation dwindled, but the anniversary riot showed that the yellow vests are not going away. In this, they stand with the mainstream of protests all over the world.

The number of countries experiencing mass protest is growing, as government after government defends a status quo that many people, especially the young jobless, reject. It doesn’t always take much to start a riot. Indians came out over the price of onions. Indonesians marched through their capital to reject Islamist-inspired legislation to prohibit sex before marriage. In Haiti, a starving populace rioted against the rising cost of fuel. Bolivians are protesting a disputed election. A subway fare hike was all people in Chile needed to vent their anger and suffer at least 26 deaths at the hands of security services. Hong Kong’s residents rejected a proposed law to permit automatic extradition of suspects to mainland China and, when Chief Executive Carrie Lam belatedly backed down, expanded their demands to include elections by universal suffrage and amnesty for arrested demonstrators. In Spain, the government’s refusal to consider independence for Catalonia or to release nationalist leaders sparked demonstrations that paralyzed Barcelona. In Iraq, people were just fed up with years of corruption, neglect and Iranian domination. Iranians mobilized to resist increased gasoline prices in their oil-rich, but sanctions-hit country.

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With American Help, Lebanon Once Again Nears the Abyss

Lebanon needs change. The people demand it and even some of the leaders know it. But US involvement threatens that possibility.

“The switch from peace to a state of war,” wrote Lebanese novelist Hassan Daoud in 2006 when Israel was invading Lebanon, “is the fastest transition of all.” Lebanon, which managed to keep the Syrian war from spreading to its territory for eight years, is now bracing for another switch. More than a quarter of the population has descended on the streets in all large cities demanding an end to government corruption. Protesters from all the Christian and Muslim sects are blockading Parliament and major roads and denouncing government ministers as “thieves.” The prime minister has resigned, but no one has emerged to form a new government. Lebanon is teetering under popular dissent against a grotesquely crooked system and an $86 billion national debt (150 percent of GDP) that makes it the third-most-indebted nation on earth.

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President Erdogan

Turkey may have stepped into its own ‘endless war’ in Syria

“The Turks have always pursued an unhappy policy in regard to native populations,” wrote German Gen. Erich Ludendorff of his World War I Ottoman allies. “They have gone on the principle of taking everything and giving nothing. Now they had to reckon with these people (Kurds, Armenians and Arab tribes) as their enemies.” The Turkish army, driven out of Syria after four centuries in 1918 by the British and “native populations,” is back. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s involvement in Syria reverses the policy of the republic’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, that kept Turkey out of the Arab world. Ataturk looked westward and saw the futility of returning to lands that had rejected Turkish rule.

That arrangement worked for Turkey until 2011, when the uprising in Syria opened the way to foreign interference. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were backing assorted militias in their effort to depose Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Erdogan would not be left out. His border with Syria offered the most extensive terrain for infiltrating fighters and war materiel. Moreover, his Justice and Development Party had a long friendship with Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose attempt to depose al Assad’s father, Hafez al Assad, in 1982 ended with the infamous massacre in Hama. Erdogan looked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots to play a leading role in the resistance to the younger al Assad. In 2012, a Syrian former Cabinet minister told me that Erdogan had asked al Assad to put Muslim Brothers into his Cabinet. When al Assad refused, the former minister said, Erdogan made clear that he would back all efforts to remove the president and replace him with Islamists…

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Beirut City

Avoiding War in the Middle East Could Begin in Lebanon: A Scenario

Israel’s new government, whatever form it ultimately takes, can move toward ending one war right now without firing a shot. At a stroke, Israel only has to offer to withdraw from a mere 5,000 acres of scrub that U.N. mediator Terje Roed-Larsen once called “a worthless piece of land.” In this sequence of events, Israel’s war with Hezbollah, which has brought it nothing but grief since its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, would be over. And there would be a bonus for Israel: Iran would lose the strategic threat of thousands of Hezbollah rockets pointed at Israeli cities.

Deft diplomacy could then dismantle, one by one, other areas of confrontation between Iran and its adversaries — among them Iran’s nuclear program, the Yemen war and U.S. sanctions against Iran — that threaten to engulf the United States in a regional war.

Let me explain…

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Kashmir

The Question That Never Gets Asked About Kashmir

In 1998, the CIA subjected India to strict surveillance to ensure it was complying with its commitment not to test nuclear weapons. The agency used satellites, communications intercepts and agents to watch the nuclear facility at Pokhran in Rajasthan state. India could not detonate warheads, which would inevitably lead Pakistan to follow suit, without the United States knowing in advance. Or so the United States thought.

Washington went into shock on May 11, 1998, when Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced that his country had just detonated not one, but five nuclear warheads at Pokhran. “India is now a nuclear power state,” Vajpayee declared. R. Jeffrey Smith reported two days later in The Washington Post that CIA analysts responsible for monitoring India’s nuclear program “had not expected the tests and were not on alert, several officials said. They were, according to one senior official, asleep at their homes and did not see the (satellite) pictures until they arrived at work in the morning.” U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby called the negligence “the biggest failure of our intelligence-gathering agencies in the past 10 years or more.”

Pakistan responded by testing five of its nuclear bombs on May 28. Pandora’s box was wide open, threatening mass destruction to the Asian subcontinent if the Pakistani and Indian armies squared off along the Line of Control that separated their forces in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir. That happened a year later when Pakistani paramilitaries masquerading as indigenous Kashmiri rebel jihadists penetrated the Line of Control in Kashmir’s Kargil region. The Indian army confronted them, and U.S. intelligence detected Pakistan moving tactical nuclear weapons onto the battlefield. American diplomat Bruce Reidel wrote in his informative book, Avoiding Armageddon: America, India, and Pakistan to the Brink and Back, “The last war that India and Pakistan fought, over Kargil, threated to expand to a nuclear conflict.” It didn’t go nuclear, following U.S. President Bill Clinton’s demand that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif withdraw his forces. It was a close call…

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