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Syria’s proxy war


What began in Syria as another civil uprising of the Arab spring against an established government has grown into a multi-dimensional war, drawing in first the region, then the world.

A few days after the Syrian army took Qusayr, in early June, the influential Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi described his grim vision of a Muslim world dominated by “Persians and Shia”: “The guide of the Revolution … Ayatollah Khamenei will fulfil his dream of delivering a sermon from the pulpit of the Umayyad Mosque [in Damascus] to announce that he [has] achieved Islamic unity, which he has long promised. He will descend from the pulpit with much pomp to wipe the head of a poor child to show the ‘tolerance of the powerful’ [toward Sunnis]. Then he will stand next to … Syrian Sunni scholars, with their white turbans, as there are always people like the mufti Ahmad Hassun who are ready to serve. He will [raise their hands] high, while cameras record this historic moment” (1).

In a speech the same day, Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hizbullah, justified sending fighters to Syria while recognising that although “a large part of the Syrians [support] the regime”, many were probably against it. He felt this internal conflict was secondary, since “Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and the entire region are targeted by [a] US-Israeli-Takfiri scheme” (2) that must be resisted at all costs, which meant rushing to help the Assad regime.

As a US official wrote in a report by the International Crisis Group (3), “a Syrian war with regional consequences is becoming a regional war with a Syrian focus.” A new cold war is dividing the region, like the original, which set Nasser’s Egypt, allied with the USSR, against Saudi Arabia and the US in the 1950s and 60s. But times have changed. Arab nationalism has declined, sectarian positions are hardening, and there is even doubt over the future of the states and frontiers created after the first world war.

Syria, with its tens of thousands of dead, millions of refugees, and severely damaged industrial infrastructure and historic heritage, is the main victim. The hopeful dream of the spring of 2011 has turned into a nightmare. Why have the Syrians been unable to do in Damascus what the Egyptians did in Cairo?

The Egyptians were able to overthrow Mubarak relatively easily. The elite and social classes with ties to the clique that held power never really felt their privileges were threatened, let alone their physical safety. After the revolution, businessmen, senior army officers and intelligence service directors calmly changed sides. Only a few were brought to trial, slowly and with great reluctance. And Mubarak’s departure did not upset the regional geopolitical balance. The US and Saudi Arabia were able to adapt to changes they had not wanted but which did not threaten their interests, as long as they were able to channel those changes.

Hopes of a transition faded

It is different in Syria. From the start of the conflict, unrestricted use of force by the intelligence services gained the regime precious months in which to organise. The regime encouraged the militarisation of the opposition, escalation of the conflict, and even sectarianism, in order to scare large sections of the population; minorities, the bourgeoisie and the urban middle classes were already frightened by the extremist language of some opposition groups and the influx of foreign fighters reported by the regime.

As the atrocities continued, hopes of a transition without calls for revenge faded, and relatively large sections of society rallied to the regime, fearing for their safety in the event of an Islamist victory. The West had been invoking Islamist bogeymen for years, which made that prospect all the more frightening, and lent credence to the Assad regime’s challenge to France: “Why are you helping the same groups in Syria that you are fighting in Mali?”

The regime also used Syria’s strategic position as leverage to elicit support from its main allies, Iran and Russia, which have surprised the world by intervening in the conflict with far more determination than Arab or western countries.

Syria is the only Arab ally that Iran has been able to count on since the 1979 revolution. Syria stood by it in difficult times, especially during Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980, when all the Gulf countries sided with Saddam Hussein. Given Iran’s deepening isolation over the last few years, the harsh sanctions imposed by the US and the EU, and the continued risk of military intervention by Israel and/or the US, Iran’s involvement in Syria, while not morally justifiable, is a rational strategic decision, and unlikely to be reversed by its new president, Hassan Rohani. Iran has done everything it can to rescue its ally, from granting credit to Syria’s central bank to supplying oil and military advisers.

Call for jihad

Iran’s involvement has led it — with the approval of Russia — to encourage Hizbullah to become directly involved in Syria. Hizbullah could argue that thousands of Islamist fighters, from Lebanon and other Arab countries, are already there, but direct involvement can only worsen tensions between Sunni and Shia (armed clashes have since increased in Lebanon) and embolden radical Sunni preachers.

The conference in Cairo on 13 June held in support of “our Syrian brothers” called for jihad. Mohammed Morsi took part and, though he had until then been cautious on Syria, announced that Egypt was breaking off diplomatic relations with the Assad regime. Anti-Shia rhetoric, even from moderate sheikhs, grew louder. Hassan al-Shafii, representative of Al-Azhar, the major institution of Sunni Islam based in Cairo, asked: “What is the meaning of Hizbullah’s interference [and spilling of] innocent blood in Qusayr? It is a war against Sunnis, it is Shia sectarianism” (4).

Russia’s involvement is not just a whim of Vladimir Putin, but a reassertion of its international importance. An Egyptian diplomat said: “The West is paying the price for its attempts to marginalise Russia since the end of the USSR. Despite Boris Yeltsin’s goodwill, Nato has expanded right up to Russia’s borders.” For two years, “the West has been suggesting to Russia that it should simply adopt the West’s line [on Syria]. That was not a realistic proposition.”

Wary since Libya

The way in which the UN Security Council resolution on Libya was distorted to legitimise military intervention also made Russia wary, and other countries too: Brazil, China, India and South Africa have expressed reservations over resolutions on Syria presented at the UN by the West. The fall of the Assad regime would be unacceptable to Russia: it would be a victory for Islamists and could stir up Muslims within the Federation, among whom Russia claims Wahabist propaganda is being disseminated.

Compared with the determination of Russia and Iran, external support for Syria’s opposition has been fragmented, erratic and incompetent, hardly a vast Saudi-Qatari-American-Israeli-Salafist conspiracy. Each country has been doing its own thing and helping its own clients, providing aid to some and refusing it to others. The absurdities reached a peak this April when Qatar funded the imposition of Ghassan Hitto, a US national, as prime minister of Syria’s “interim” government. Interference from rich Gulf businessmen not subject to any form of control adds to the confusion (5).

It is difficult to see what is really going on with so many different groups and combat units (katibas), all deceptively labelled “Islamists”, a term that makes it possible to ignore their strategic and political differences (6). Jabhat al-Nusra, which claims to be a branch of Al-Qaida, worries the West as much as it does Saudi Arabia, which fought a war to the death against Al-Qaida at home between 2003 and 2005. This apprehension is also felt within Salafist organisations: Nader Bakkar, the media-savvy spokesman of Egypt’s biggest Salafist party Al-Nour, wants to cut the ground from under Al-Qaida’s feet: “What we are asking for is a no-fly zone. So that the revolutionaries can win the war themselves. We are urging people in Egypt not to go to Syria; the victory must be won by Syrians alone.”

This confusion has been encouraged by the diffidence of the US, which though keen to see the Syrian regime fall, is reluctant to embark on another Middle East adventure after its failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The change in Washington’s outlook is exemplified by Richard Haass. As one of the brains behind the Republican Party’s foreign policy he worked with President George W Bush. Now head of the influential Council on Foreign Relations in New York, he has just published a book called Foreign Policy Begins at Home: the Case for Putting America’s House in Order, which argues that internal problems, from the deterioration of the transport system to the lack of skilled labour, are preventing the US from exercising global leadership.

President Barack Obama has decided to supply weapons to the Syrian rebels. The pretext is the Syrian army’s use of sarin gas — a controversial affair with no independent enquiry as yet (7) — which, according to the US, has killed about 140 of the 90,000 victims of the conflict to date. But how should the decision be interpreted?

Syria has become a regional and international battlefield, and neither camp will accept the defeat of its champion. After the Syrian army’s success at Qusayr, the US wants to prevent the regime from gaining a complete victory, though such a victory is highly unlikely since much of the population has become radicalised and, with nothing more to lose, strongly rejects the regime. But the desires of the US will probably not turn into large-scale intervention, no-fly zones or the commitment of ground troops. If the military balance is maintained, the stalemate will continue, as will the death and destruction, and the risk that the conflict will spread across the region.

Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon have been caught up in the conflict; Iraqi and Lebanese fighters, Sunni and Shia, find themselves on opposing sides in Syria. The international insurgency highway (8) is bringing fighters, weapons and ideas into Syria from as far as Afghanistan and the Sahel. As long as the external protagonists continue to see the conflict as a zero-sum game, Syria’s people will suffer and the whole region is in danger of being dragged in.

via Syria’s proxy war – Le Monde diplomatique – English edition.

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The Plot to Block Internet Freedom


The Internet has created an extraordinary new democratic forum for people around the world to express their opinions. It is revolutionizing global access to information: Today, more than 1 billion people worldwide have access to the Internet, and at current growth rates, 5 billion people — about 70 percent of the world’s population — will be connected in five years.

But this growth trajectory is not inevitable, and threats are mounting to the global spread of an open and truly “worldwide” web. The expansion of the open Internet must be allowed to continue: The mobile and social media revolutions are critical not only for democratic institutions’ ability to solve the collective problems of a shrinking world, but also to a dynamic and innovative global economy that depends on financial transparency and the free flow of information.

The threats to the open Internet were on stark display at last December’s World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai, where the United States fought attempts by a number of countries — including Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia — to give a U.N. organization, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), new regulatory authority over the Internet. Ultimately, over the objection of the United States and many others, 89 countries voted to approve a treaty that could strengthen the power of governments to control online content and deter broadband deployment.

In Dubai, two deeply worrisome trends came to a head.

First, we see that the Arab Spring and similar events have awakened nondemocratic governments to the danger that the Internet poses to their regimes. In Dubai, they pushed for a treaty that would give the ITU’s imprimatur to governments’ blocking or favoring of online content under the guise of preventing spam and increasing network security. Authoritarian countries’ real goal is to legitimize content regulation, opening the door for governments to block any content they do not like, such as political speech.

Second, the basic commercial model underlying the open Internet is also under threat. In particular, some proposals, like the one made last year by major European network operators, would change the ground rules for payments for transferring Internet content. One species of these proposals is called “sender pays” or “sending party pays.” Since the beginning of the Internet, content creators — individuals, news outlets, search engines, social media sites — have been able to make their content available to Internet users without paying a fee to Internet service providers. A sender-pays rule would change that, empowering governments to require Internet content creators to pay a fee to connect with an end user in that country.

Sender pays may look merely like a commercial issue, a different way to divide the pie. And proponents of sender pays and similar changes claim they would benefit Internet deployment and Internet users. But the opposite is true: If a country imposed a payment requirement, content creators would be less likely to serve that country. The loss of content would make the Internet less attractive and would lessen demand for the deployment of Internet infrastructure in that country.

via The Plot to Block Internet Freedom – By Julius Genachowski and Lee C. Bollinger | Foreign Policy.

via The Plot to Block Internet Freedom – By Julius Genachowski and Lee C. Bollinger | Foreign Policy.

The End Of Antibiotics? How Resistant Bacteria Put The World’s Entire Medical System At Risk


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PARIS – The combination of the Arab Spring and the economic crisis in southern Europe has led to a quiet panic spreading in hospitals across the Mediterranean Basin.

“With the disorganization of medical services, the number of infections resisting most known antibiotics has literally exploded,” says professor Patrice Nordmann, chief of the bacteriology-virology-parasitology department at the Bicêtre Hospital in Paris, and head of the Epidemiology and Biochemistry of Emerging Resistance Mechanisms unit at the Inserm (National Institute of Health and Medical Research).

But beyond the Mediterranean sources for the spreading bacteria, such as Greece, Spain and North African countries, is a new reservoir of host countries. In Rotterdam, Netherlands, for example, more than 3,000 patients have been infected by strains of enterobacteria resisting multiple treatments. In Great Britain, while staphylococcus aureus had been spectacularly curtailed for ten years, health authorities have identified new bacterial waves, imported from India through low-cost medical tourism.

In France, the National Sanitary Surveillance Institute recently signaled ulltra-resistant strains of Acinetobacter baumannii, whose part in nosocomial diseases spread in medical facilities went from 3% in 2008 to 11% in 2011, causing death in 17% of cases. More worrying: cases of resistant infections are not limited to hospitals anymore. “A tsunami is to be expected,” warns Nordmann.

He is not the only one to think so. The acceleration of the phenomenon also worries the World Health Organization (WHO). Its Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan calculated that 440,000 cases of tuberculosis (out of a total 8 to 10 million globally), stem from a multi-resistant strain, which has killed at least 150,000 people in at least 64 countries. In a 2012 report, the organization shared its fear of a “return to the times when antibiotics did not exist.” In other words, medical pre-history.

“The risk of a paralysis of modern medicine is real,” confirm experts from the French Strategic Analysis Center, in a November report sent to the Prime Minister’s office. No antibiotics would mean no more surgery, organ transplantation, chemotherapy, or therapeutic barriers to stop the spreading of diseases.

Therapeutic dead-ends

Eight decades after the discovery of penicillin, which inaugurated the era of modern medicine, will Darwinism rear its destructive head? “Overconsumption of antibiotics, encouraged by their free circulation in some countries, forces bacteria’s natural resistance mechanisms to select the most adapted genes for survival in over-asepticized environments,” explains Patrice Nordmann. In view of bacteria’s reproduction speed, the time necessary for these mutations is extremely short. Rudimentary microbes that couldn’t survive ten years ago are now about to become real juggernauts.

“There is no reason today for this race to stop. If we do not act now, mankind must prepare to face an apocalyptic scenario where modern health systems could be destroyed,” says Richard Smith, professor of Health System Economics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Overconsumption is not only the product of uncontrolled prescriptions: according to the WHO, at least half of the antibiotics produced in the world are administered in prevention to livestock. Forbidden in Europe since 2006, this practice goes on in the United States where four out of five antibiotics consumed are used to fatten cattle.

The vertiginous decline of research into new antibiotics does not help: less profitable for the “Big Pharma” than treatments for chronic pathologies, the number of marketing authorizations granted by the Food and Drug Administration — the American sanitary authority — went from 16 for the 1983-1987 period, to only two in the last five years.

Even worse: no new treatment has been proposed for ten years against “superbugs”, or multidrug-resistant bacteria.

This race against the clock can be an incentive for research in new therapeutic approaches. At France’s Pasteur Institute for example, the laboratory headed by Jean-Marc Ghigo studies the metabolism of bio-films in order to invent surgical tools and hospital material on which bacteria would be unable to attach itself.

As for the Strategic Analysis Center, it recommends developing research in phage therapy, a nearly 100-year-old discipline, once overtaken by the rise of antibiotics. With the help of bacteriophage viruses, it can target pathogenic agents with extreme precision while protecting “friendly” bacteria in the human flora.

“The harmless bacterium Vibrio can thus become cholera’s enemy by acquiring a choleric toxin gene from a bacteriophage,” the authors predict. Three clinical trials are going on in the United States, in Belgium and in the United Kingdom, but the need to regularly update the phage cocktails according to targeted bacteria render the regulation more complicated. Yet the risks of the current situation could accelerate the process: Richard Smith assesses the annual cost of antibiotics resistances at $55 billion in the United States alone.

Read the article in the original language.

Photo by – Fabio Veronesi

via The End Of Antibiotics? How Resistant Bacteria Put The World’s Entire Medical System At Risk – All News Is Global |.

via The End Of Antibiotics? How Resistant Bacteria Put The World’s Entire Medical System At Risk – All News Is Global |.

Asmaa, The Last Free Woman Of Gaza


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GAZA – They have almost all left: Bachar for Sweden, May for Spain, Imad for Tunisia, Mohamed for Qatar, Assad for Egypt, Adham for Belgium. Moustapha, Asmaa’s brother also left for Belgium, while Mohamed Matar, aka Abou Yazan, the leader of the short-lived March 15 Movement, that tried to bring the Arab Spring to Gaza, has gone to Germany.

Too much repression from Hamas, too much disappointment from waiting for an intra-Palestinian reconciliation that never came. Too much suffering, too many wars and hardships, but most of all – the Israeli blockade.

A hope that has died and a future that is dead-ended, especially for young graduates. So many young people have left, but Asmaa stayed — determined, courageous, as combative as ever.

If there should only be one person left, it should be her. “I could have gone too, but I love Gaza, and Europe bores me. Over there, I am nothing, and there is nothing to change. I need challenges, fights to fight and causes to defend.”

Asmaa leaves our meeting like she arrived, by foot, her hair uncovered, wearing a jean and not caring one bit about what others think. While she was telling me her story, she chain-smoked and pointed to the beach below the hotel.

This is where everything happened, during the summer of 2009. She was walking on the beach with a group of young men and women. The morality police arrived, took the boys to jail. Asmaa was released, but her passport was confiscated.

In 2007, shortly after the Palestinian civil war, Asmaa, a journalist since 2001, was in South Korea for a journalism course. During her stay, she wrote an article in the form of an open letter to her uncle, a senior military leader for the Hamas. The article, entitled “Dear Uncle, Is This The Homeland We Want?” criticized the movement’s extremist Islamist views. In response, her uncle threatened to kill her.

In Oct. 2009 “before the Arab Spring,” she says, she founded the Iss Ha (Wake Up) movement with around 20 friends. “Our objective was to fight against the Hamas’ Islamization of the Gaza strip.”

The next year, the group of young activists walked the streets of Gaza carrying a huge ballot box demanding Palestinian elections – which are still eagerly awaited.

The number of arrests increased, and so did harassment. In Jan. 2010, Asmaa was arrested with others. “We were guilty of demonstrating our support to the revolution against Mubarak!” She spent eight hours in jail, humiliated, beaten by policewomen who accused her of “not being Muslim.”

In Nov. 2010, the police closed the Gaza offices of the Sharek Youth Forum, a UN-funded NGO that organizes camps and after-school programs for Palestinian children and youths. Eighteen activists were arrested and severely beaten. From then on, protests and arrests became a regular thing. In March 2011, Asma is thrown in prison and violently beaten by police officers.

Too many threats

Asmaa El-Ghoul is a 30-year-old free-lance journalist and writer. She writes for the Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam but mostly, she blogs relentlessly, with absolutely no taboo. She writes about forced islamization, the “honor crimes”, corruption, human rights violations and about woman rights. “If you want to be able to write about these subjects honestly, you have to be in the streets too,” she says.

The arrests and punishments keep coming. Death threats, by phone, by mail and on her blog continue to increase. “We will kill you, we will break your bones, burn you with your son.”

But the awards keep coming too. Last October she was given honored with a “Courage in Journalism” award by the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Before that one she received a similar prize given by the Dubai foundation and an award by the Anna Lindh Foundation for her “commitment to freedom of expression and her courage in facing repression.”

Asmaa El-Ghoul uses this international recognition to find fortitude, to give her strength in her new fights. The latest of these fights is emblematic of the rampant islamization of Gaza.

In Jan. 2013, the board of the Al-Aqsa University in the Gaza strip decided that social and family pressure to insure that all women dress “properly” wasn’t enough. The board voted to impose a dress code on female students – saying that from the next semester it would be mandatory for them to wear “clothes that respect the customs and traditions of the Palestinian society.” These clothes include a headscarf (hijab), and a loose-fitting ankle-length robe (jilbab).

Asmaa does not feel concerned by this – she got rid of her headscarf in 2006. However, she feels responsible for the girls of Gaza who refuse to wear the Islamic uniform.

She has stopped blogging for a while now. She received too many threats. “If after my son, they start threatening my six-months old daughter, I will go nuts.”

She also now tries to be less provocative – has stopped smoking on the beach or in the street. “Sometimes I feel like I am alone in the middle of a storm,” she says.

She is writing a book on Gaza and continues to write articles, mostly for Al-Monitor. Talking about freedom, it’s like an illness for her, she says. “An illness I’ll have all my life, but an illness I love.”

Read the article in the original language.

Photo by – Asma Al Ghoul

All rights reserved ©Worldcrunch – in partnership with LE MONDE

via Asmaa, The Last Free Woman Of Gaza – All News Is Global |.

via Asmaa, The Last Free Woman Of Gaza – All News Is Global |.

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