Saturday, July 28, 2012

Syrian wheel of fortune spins China's way

[This is my most recent piece for Asia Times.  It can be reposted if AT is credited and a link is included to the AT site.]

The question before the People's Republic of China (PRC) leadership is how badly it misplayed its hand on Syria. Or did it? Certainly, the solution advocated by Russia and China - a coordinated international initiative to sideline the insurrection in favor of a negotiated political settlement between the Assad regime and its domestic opponents - is a bloody shambles.

As articulated in the Annan plan, it might have been a workable, even desirable option for the Syrian people as well as the Assad regime.

But Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey were determined not to let it happen. And the United States, in another case of the Middle Eastern tail wagging the American dog, has downsized its dreams of liberal-democratic revolution for the reality of regime collapse driven in significant part by domestic thugs and opportunists, money and arms funneled in by conservative Gulf regimes, violent Islamist adventurism, and neo-Ottoman overreach by Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Erdogan.

But a funny thing happened last week. The Assad regime didn't collapse, despite an orchestrated, nation-wide assault (coordinated, we can assume, by the crack strategists of the international anti-Assad coalition): a decapitating terrorist bombing in the national security directorate, near-simultaneous armed uprisings in the main regime strongholds of Damascus and Aleppo, and the seizure of many of Syria's official border crossings with Iraq and Turkey.

The border adventures revealed some holes in the insurgents' game, as far as showing their ability to operate independently outside of their strongholds to hold territory, and in the vital area of image management.

Juan Cole of the University of Michigan laid out the big picture strategic thinking behind some of the border seizures on his blog, Informed Comment:
If the FSA can take the third crossing from Iraq, at Walid, they can control truck traffic into Syria from Iraq, starving the regime. The border is long and porous, but big trucks need metalled roads, which are few and go through the checkpoints. Some 70% of goods coming into Syria were coming from Iraq, because Europe cut off trade with the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad. The rebels are increasingly in a position to block that trade or direct it to their strongholds. [1]
According to an Iraqi deputy minister of the interior, the units that seized the border were perhaps not the goodwill ambassadors that the Syrian opposition or Dr Cole might have hoped for:
The top official said Iraqi border guards had witnessed the Free Syrian Army take control of a border outpost, detain a Syrian army lieutenant colonel, and then cut off his arms and legs.

"Then they executed 22 Syrian soldiers in front of the eyes of Iraqi soldiers." [2]
They reportedly also raised the al-Qaeda flag.

The forces participating in the operation at the Turkish border crossings were also an interesting bunch - and certainly not all local Syrian insurgents, as AFP reported:
By Saturday evening, a group of some 150 foreign fighters describing themselves as Islamists had taken control of the post.

These fighters were not at the site on Friday, when rebel fighters captured the post.

Some of the fighters said they belonged to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), while others claimed allegiance to the Shura Taliban. They were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, rocket launchers and improvised mines.

The fighters identified themselves as coming from a number of countries: Algeria, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates - and the Russian republic of Chechnya… [3]
The operation also had a distinct whiff of Taliban-at-the-Khyber-Pass about it, as the fighters looted and, in some cases, torched more than two dozen Turkish trucks, to the embarrassment of the Erdogan government.

Aside from occupation of frontier posts by the kind of hardened foreign Islamist fighters that, before Bashar al-Assad's removal became a pressing priority, served as the West's ultimate symbol of terrorism run amok, things have gotten quite lively at the Syria/Turkish border.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Alexander Cockburn, RIP

Out, brief candle.

I felt considerable surprise and sorrow in learning of the death of Alexander Cockburn.

He was instrumental in getting me started as a writer. I owe him a great debt of gratitude for his interest and encouragement, and the platform that he and Jeffrey St. Clair have given me at the Counterpunch website and newsletter.

When I wrote, I sometimes imagined Alexander Cockburn as the reader at my shoulder.  I think it made me a better, bolder, and more honest writer.

However, the biting sense of loss has more to it than the disappearance of a sympathetic interlocutor, or the knowledge that, despite having reached his “allotted threescore and ten” and burdened by the physical and emotional miseries of a two-year battle with cancer, Alexander Cockburn had plenty left in the tank when he passed on.

Of course, he had more polemics left to write, articles to edit, contributors to nurture.  

But I was also brought up short by the thought, if Alexander Cockburn isn’t around to do these things, who will?  Who, in these difficult times, has the talent, the knowledge, the experience, and his miraculous combination of engagement, detachment, humor, invective, and generosity to fill the void?  

Guess we’re on our own now.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Shi Fang Photos

I wrote an article touching on the Shi Fang incident, which I expect will go up on Asia Times shortly.  In the article, I referred to various Weibo postings, but didn't link to them or otherwise identify them with the idea that I didn't want to take the chance of complicating the situation of critics/citizen-reporters et. al. by associating them with the hot button "washing China's dirty linen in the international arena" issue.

Judging by what I read today, the "settling of accounts after the autumn harvest" seems to have started.  In other words, the central government allowed the incident to be reported in considerable, and considerably inflammatory detail.  But now, dissidents and activists who are trying to use the incident to acquire some political traction are being hassled and/or detained and some of their posts are being deleted.

For historical purposes, I'm putting up an album of pictures from one of the Weibo sites as a single image.  More than press reports, it gives a pretty clear idea of what happened, and why the incident has ignited anger and revulsion across China.  Unfortunately, the image loads up in microscopic form.  When I get the time, I'll fiddle with the image and see if I can blow up the individual pictures.