Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Puzzling Over Syria: a conference & talk on Israel/Palestine and Syria

A conference on February 4th in Decatur, GA featured “rock star” panelists, knowledgeable, articulate, even entertaining on a subject that doesn't readily lend itself to such.  Awakening Our Hearts and Minds: A Critical Perspective on Israel/Palestine and Syria. This is not a thorough review of the conference but more a collection of impressions. A talk on Syria by journalist Reese Erlich, a week later added further to my notes. My attendance at these events was motivated by a lack of knowledge about the situation in Syria. I'm more confident in my sense of what's happening in Israel/Palestine. This conference and talk confirmed much of that and added more detail.

Injustice, death and destruction are hardly cheerful subjects. As the biblical phrase has it, “We who increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow” (edited slightly for patriarchal language). Plenty of that to go around at this gathering. The idea that Israeli strategy is to make life so miserable for Palestinians that they will give up and leave, all while stealing the best of their land, pretty much sums up the Israel/Palestine part of the meetup, what one participant termed, systemic “structural violence”. The Syrian is more difficult to summarize but the conclusion that outside forces cannot, should not, focus on regime change, that this task is for the Syrian people and that the evolution of democracy in this troubled area needs to be nurtured not force fed, particularly by those whose democratic credentials are far from bonafide, ie, Russia and the United States.

More than one of the panelists used the term “narrative”, how stories that support various factions are put forth to undermine resistance, the most powerful of course dominating discourse. Critical thinking is the tool that can sort through all this, the dominators obviously preferring simple adoption of their story. One example was the “savior” narrative of MLK which undermines resistance by promoting waiting for the savior as opposed to doing something, acting. MLK was a figurehead but he certainly didn't act alone. There were thousands of ordinary but heroic citizens laying the ground for and supporting his leadership. Who benefits from the story? That is the question that dissecting the narrative should answer. Racism, oppression and militarism are strengthened when they are not dissected nor resisted. Ella Baker is cited as a woman of color who broke with the NAACP over its exclusion of women and young people from the microphone. The Black Panthers evolved out of SNNC and Black Lives Matter learned from the Palestinian struggle. This latter group's manifesto is well worth reading, one of the panelists insisted.

The racist narrative is one of presumed white superiority and inferiority of the dark-skinned, violent, threatening, less intelligent etc; Blacks in the U.S. and Palestinians in Israel are the frequent victims of this narrative. Instances of the many injustices in both places were given by people with personal experience, from the routine racism in Ferguson, Missouri to the separate laws and enforcement for Israelis and Palestinians and the complete lack of rights for Palestinians in the occupied territories. The so-called security wall that Israel has constructed, as President Carter pointed out in his book Peace or Apartheid, has far more to do with land confiscation than with security. 85% of the wall is on Palestinian land. The international court has concluded that Israel is perfectly entitled to build a wall on its borders but to extend that wall over Palestinian land and resources is a violation of international law. Jews who have immigrated from dark skinned countries find that white privilege is operant in Israel as in the U.S. The wall is a separation wall aimed, in part, to reduce the “threat” of Palestinian unity. The West Bank and Gaza are kept separate for this same reason. What Israel is accomplishing by law in the West Bank, it is accomplishing by war in Gaza. A historical outline was laid out in support of this assertion, obviously at odds with the official Israeli narrative. This included the Israeli take-over in the late 40s, the various wars, how Gaza came under Israel's occupation, the several Intifadas, their genesis and brutal Israeli reaction.

Israel was founded on inequality by religion, segregation, supremacy. Palestinians who live in Israel proper(!) are second class citizens with a separate set of discriminatory laws written for them. Four hundred Palestinian children are imprisoned by Israel. Israel routinely violates treaties to which it is a signatory. Their military courts have a 99% conviction rate. Specious arguments are carefully concocted to claim that international law does not apply to the occupied territories. U.N. Reports document routine torture and disproportionate punishment, like breaking the arms of children who throw stones. Indefinite detention without charge is also routine. The non-violent resistance as embodied in the BDS (Boycott, disinvestment and sanctions) movement is under attack in the U.S. with attempts to make it illegal in some states.

For white people, revolution begins internally. What are the lies and myths and what do I get out it? Look at your community and ask, what can I do here? White nationalism is a reaction to an arising awareness that threatens empire. Position your self with the oppressed, recognize the oppressor in your self,... “we” (U.S.) took native land, enslaved blacks, suppressed minorities, women, unions etc;

The Trump Administration takes a hodge-podge of contradictory positions. Trump claimed he'd purge the establishment, then appoints establishment and extremist anti-democratic figures, from Wall Street to Breitbart, mostly to oversee departments they think shouldn't even exist. He opposed the war on Iraq yet is going to “kick butt” all over the middle east. His threat to label the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists, like many macho U.S. foreign policy decisions, will encourage the most militant factions in that organization. The Brotherhood has been observing parliamentary procedure for many years, accepting electoral outcomes instead of resorting to violent opposition.

As the so-called Arab Spring spread to Syria the government predictably cracked down. The most successful locale was the uprising in Alleppo. Unfortunately, within a year a movement for dignity degenerated into violent factions dependent on outside support. Isis, Al Qaeda and other extremist groups took over. When the U.S. sends arms to “moderate” rebels they are either hi-jacked by extremists or delivered, as prearranged. Two cease fires have failed, a third, brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran, excluding the U.S., is currently fragile but holding. A bewildering array of groups fight each other inside Syria while an equally bewildering array of outside groups throw their support to factions that have a hard time keeping track of just who they're fighting. Russia has definite investment in the Assad regime while the U.S. backs opposition groups that are its deadly enemies in other contexts. It should not be forgotten that the Eurpoean colonial powers divided much of this land, as was done in Africa, creating borders that served their interests, not the people who lived here.
In the broader “war on terror” the U.S. heavily relies on violence, going after leadership with drones and other assassination techniques. Persuasive studies have shown this approach to be ineffective, overall, for groups remain active despite these killings. The tit for tat, Hatfield and McCoy scenario repeats throughout history by those who don't study it. Non-violent conflict resolution, a skill we need if we are to survive the nuclear and WMD age, goes begging, the players all too wedded to macho display to recognize this fundamental error.

One of the obstacles to positive work is that Muslim NGOs could be worked with more productively but an irresponsible media will often sloppily report attempts and scare off funders. These NGOs are trusted to go into war zones and do dangerous aid work but are not invited to the policy table. About half of Syria's population has been displaced, most locally but many also abroad. That's eleven million ordinary citizens. Much of this misery evolves out of the disastrous Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq. The right likes to pretend that if only Obama were tougher, had done this or that, we would have been successful but this is sheer fantasy. It is more than an old saw that violence begets violence. The U.S. has shorted its refugee pledge in dollars by 40% yet spends $12 million a day funding violence in Syria. As stated above, much of the get-tough military aid ends up in the hands of those it was meant to be used against, if anyone can keep track of that. Erlich claims that a $ trillion has been spent by the U.S. between Afghanistan and Iraq. What do we have to show for that monstrous expenditure? Iran is now more influencial in the area than before the invasion, the U.S. less. By that measure, the whole thing is one big failure. Keep in mind that those expenditures are taxpayer monies while the oil profits that emerge as the real justification for all that spending, to the degree that there are any, given the chaos, are completely privatized, not funneled to the taxpayer but to the corporations who, let's face it, rule. This is standard throughout the history of colonialism and empire.
Alleppo is back in government hands, thanks to Russian intervention and mercenary troops, except for Kurds holding one small area. There are widespread human rights abuses on all sides. The Shia/Sunni divisions do not really account for the divisions in Syria for they have a long history of peaceful coexistence. It is more related to different factions vying for position though some warlords attempt to use perversion of religion to manipulate their followers. It is also used by outsiders to oversimplify the conflict.

According to journalist Reese Erlich ( the players who wanted to invade Iran instead of Iraq during the Bush Administration are now at the helm under Trump. The lessons of history are being ignored once again, apparently, even those most recent lessons that have nearly bankrupted the country. It feels like one of those tragic moments in history where the exact wrong actors favor the exact wrong action, perpetuating the long sad march of folly. 

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