A very well informed piece from a usually reliable source:
by Aron Lund, for Syria Comment
Is the FSA losing influence in Syria? How many people are in the FSA? Is the FSA receiving enough guns from the West, or too many? Will the FSA participate in elections after the fall of Bahar el-Assad? What is the ideology of the FSA? What’s the FSA’s view of Israel? Is Jabhat el-Nosra now bigger than the FSA? What does the FSA think about the Kurds? Who is the leader of the FSA? How much control does the central command of the FSA really have over their fighters?
All these and similar questions keep popping up in news articles and op-ed chinstrokers in the Western media, and in much of the Arabic media too.
They all deal with important issues, but they disregard an important fact: the FSA doesn’t really exist.
The original FSA: a branding operation
The FSA was created by Col. Riad el-Asaad and a few other Syrian military defectors in July 2011, in what may or may not have been a Turkish intelligence operation. To be clear, there’s no doubting the sincerity of the first batch of fighters, or suggest that they would have acted otherwise without foreign support. But these original FSA commanders were confined to the closely guarded Apaydın camp in Turkey, and kept separate from civilian Syrian refugees. Turkish authorities are known to have screened visitors and journalists before deciding whether they could talk to the officers. While this is not in itself evidence of a Turkish intelligence connection, it does suggest that this original FSA faction could not, how shall we say, operate with full autonomy from its political environment.
From summer onwards, new rebel factions started popping up in hundreds of little villages and city neighborhoods inside Syria, as an ever-growing number of local demonstrators were provoked into self-defense. The most important recruiting tool for this nascent insurgency was not the FSA and its trickle of videotaped communiqués on YouTube. Rather, it was Bashar el-Assad’s decision to send his army on a psychotic rampage through the Syrian Sunni Arab countryside. As the corpses piled up, more and more civilians started looking for guns and ammo, and the rebel movement took off with a vengeance.
While the new groups almost invariably grew out of a local context, and organized entirely on their own, most of them also declared themselves to be part of the FSA. They adopted its logotype, and would often publicly pledge allegiance to Col. Riad el-Asaad. As a branding operation, the FSA was a extraordinary success – but in most cases, the new “FSA brigades” had no connection whatsoever to their purported supreme commander in Turkey. In reality, what was emerging was a sprawling leaderless resistance of local fighters who shared only some common goals and an assemblage of FSA-inspired symbols.
The heyday of the FSA was in early/mid 2012, when new factions were being declared at a rate of several per week. But by mid-2012, the brand seemed to have run its course, as people soured on Col. Asaad and his exiles. The FSA term slowly began to slip out of use. By the end of the year, most of the big armed groups in Syria had stopped using it altogether, and one by one, they dropped or redesigned the old FSA symbols from their websites, logotypes, shoulder patches and letterheads. Their symbolic connection to the FSA leaders in Turkey was broken – and since no connection at all had existed outside the world of symbols, that was the end of that story.
The FSA brand name today
Today, the FSA brand name remains in use within the Syrian opposition, but mostly as a term for the armed uprising in general. It’s quite similar to how a French person would have employed the term “La Résistance” during WW2 – not in reference to a specific organization fighting against Hitler, but as an umbrella term for them all. With time, many people inside and outside Syria have started to use the FSA term to distinguish mainstream non-ideological or soft-Islamist groups from salafi factions. The salafis themselves used to be divided on the issue, but they aren’t anymore. The more ideological ones (like Jabhat el-nosra and Ahrar el-Sham) never used it, but at the start of the uprising, others did (like Liwa el-Islam and Suqour el-Sham).
One can’t disregard the fact that many Syrian opposition fighters will casually refer to themselves as FSA members, or that some armed factions actually self-designate as “a brigade of the FSA”. But that does not mean that they belong to some Syria-wide FSA command hierarchy: it’s still just a label, typically intended to market these groups as part of the opposition mainstream.
With time, then, the generally understood definition of the FSA term has gradually narrowed from its original scope, which encompassed almost the entire insurgency. Today, it is understood to apply mostly to army defectors (ex-Baathists), non-ideological fighters, and more moderate Islamists. But the dividing line is not really a question of ideology or organization, it is political. The FSA label is increasingly being used in the media as shorthand for those factions which receive Gulf/Western support and are open to collaboration with the USA and other Western nations.
That still doesn’t describe an actual organization, but at least it’s closer to a working definition of what the “FSA” would mean in a Syrian opposition context – a definition that can’t really decide what it includes, but which clearly excludes most of the anti-Western salafis, all of the hardcore salafi-jihadis, and, for example, the Kurdish YPG militia. Read the rest of this entry »
Vieux Farka Touré and the music of Mali: “spreading the news of what has happened to us and what is still happening”
From Chicago magazine:
By Kevin McKeough
Since the late, legendary Ali Farka Touré first brought the music of Mali to widespread attention in the mid-1980s, the western African nation’s musicians have beguiled listeners worldwide with their trance-inducing guitar patterns and Arabic flavored keening. Tragically, Mali has received more attention lately for the violent conflict in the country’s northern region, which encompasses part of the vast Sahara Desert. After Islamist extremists recently seized control of a large part of the area, including the storied city of Timbuktu, and committed numerous human rights violations, in January France sent soldiers into its former colony to drive out the militants. While the French military has retaken most of the area, the situation remains unstable both in northern Mali and in the south, where the country’s military has deposed two successive governments and reportedly is engaging in harsh repression.
Vieux Farka Touré, Ali Farka Touré’s son and a world music star in his own right, was performing Friday, Feb. 22, at the Old Town School of Folk Music. C Notes contacted Touré, who lives in the Malian capital, Bamako, to gain his perspective of the travails afflicting his country and how he and other Malian musicians are responding.
What are your thoughts about the Islamists’ invasion of northern Mali and France’s efforts to drive them out of the country? My thoughts are the same as everyone in Mali. The invasion of the Islamists was hell on earth. It was a nightmare unlike anything we have ever experienced. We are very grateful to President Hollande and the French for their intervention. For the moment at least they have saved our country.
How have these disruptions affected you personally? I am safe and my family is safe. But there is great uncertainty in Mali today. Nobody knows what we can expect in the next years, months or even days. So it is very bad for the spirit to be living in this kind of situation.
What’s your reaction to the Islamist invaders banning music in the areas they controlled? I was furious. It broke my heart like it did for everyone else. It was as though life itself was taken from us.
You were part of an all-star group of Malian musicians who recently recorded the song “Mali-ko” in response to the conflict. Please talk about the project and why you participated in it. Musicians in Mali play a very important role in society. We are like journalists, telling people what is happening. We are also responsible for speaking out when there are problems, and we are responsible for lifting the spirit of the nation. So that is why we made “Mali-ko.” Fatoumata [Diawara] organized everyone and we all spent some time hanging out in the studio and doing our little parts. It was a very nice project. I’m happy with the result and I’m happy that it got a lot of attention in the United States and in Europe.
Aside from the song, what role do you think musicians can play in responding to the situation in Mali? We can do what we are already doing—we are going everywhere we can around the world and spreading the news of what has happened to us and what is still happening. Equally, we must continue to entertain our people and keep them proud to be from Mali. For Malians, music is the greatest source of pride so we must work very hard to keep that pride alive. Right now it is not easy for people to be proud and have faith.
What do you think needs to be done in Mali? First and most importantly, we need to continue to drive out all the militants from our country. There is no future for Mali with terrorists living amongst us. Period. Also we must move quickly to engage in free and open elections to restore the faith and the legitimacy of our country in the eyes of the world and its people. These two things are the most critical at this time.
Your music resembles your father’s but has its own distinct quality. Can you talk about what you’re trying to do in the music, how and why you combine traditional and contemporary styles? With my music I try not to think very much about what I am doing. I just let myself be open to inspiration and it will take me where I need to go. So I am not thinking “for my next album I must do a song with reggae, or I must do an acoustic album because this will be good for my career” or anything like that. I think all artists are like lightning rods for inspiration and you must be open to it or it will not strike you. If you try to do something artistic it will not be as good as if you just let inspiration decide what you are doing. So my style is just based on what influences me and what inspires me.
For a country with a small population, Mali has produced a large number of internationally recognized musicians. Why do you think the country has so many excellent musicians? This is the mystery that everyone wants to understand. I do not know for sure why there are so many big international stars from Mali. But I know this: We take our music very, very seriously. It is at the core of our culture and it is the definition of Mali as a people. There is no Mali without Malian music. So I think this inspires many young people to try to become musicians. Maybe everywhere in the world has this kind of talent but there is not as strong a push for everyone to develop their talents in music. But honestly, I don’t know. We are lucky for this great richness of talent. That is for sure.
Kevin McKeough is a contributing music critic for Chicago magazine
See also ‘The Hendrix of the Sahara’
By Tom Cashman
Tom is a long-standing socialist, Labour Party member and Unite activist (on the Unite EC until last year). In September this year he participated in a ‘Labour2Palestine‘ visit to Ramallah, Jerusalem and other parts of what should be the state of Palestine. As someone who does not demonise Israel and has for many years tended to support the two states position, Tom’s pessimistic conclusion must be taken seriously. He starts off with a brief plug for the excellent film Five Broken Cameras:
Why is the left quiet about Pussy Riot? Панк-молебен “Богородица, Путина прогони” Pussy Riot в Храме
“It was a sin against God and God is judging it; and all Christians should know this…
“For the Orthodox Church, like for Muslims, of course the authorities and the church are understood as one thing. Our Ideal is the unity of the church and the authorities, and unity of the people and the authorities.
“in this way, we are decidedly different from the west. I think attempts in the west to seperate the spiritual sphere and secular sphere is a historical mistake. Such a division is not characteristic to any civilisation except the west” – Vsevolod Chaplin, Senior Priest, Spokesman of the Russian Orthodox Church and advocate of harsh punishment of Pussy Riot.
Above: The three members of the Pussy Riot band — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich — rejected charges of hooliganism for performing a “punk prayer” in Moscow’s main cathedral against Vladimir Putin’s return as president.
A group of brave, smart, peaceful but militant young women confront a thuggish, authoritarian President and a corrupt church hierachy and have already been jailed without trial for five months: what’s not to like about Pussy Riot?
Yet the “left” has, on the whole, been strangely reticent about supporting them: why?
A number of possible explanations present themselves:
1/ They are anarcho-feminists and conceptual artists, not leftists.
2/ (Following on from #1): they have no clear demands or programme.
3/ They already have celebrity support from the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Peter Gabriel and Stephen Fry.
4/ Much of the western “left” is actually rather sympathetic to Putin, because he’s part of the pro-Assad/Iranian axis that they, more or less openly, support. Many of them also seem to have a built-in predisposition to support dictators and to despise any form of democracy.
5/ Pussy Riot are being done not just for “hooliganism” against the Putin regime, but also for “religious hatred” – a concept that much of the western “left”, having discovered the joys of Islamic fundamentalism, now supports (in the sense of agreeing that insulting and/or criticising religion is Bad and should be illegal). The semi-literate SWP blogger Lenny “Seymour” Tombstone, for instance, recently coined the term “theophobia” and meant it as criticism (in his case, of Christopher Hitchens). Pussy Riot are nothing if not “theophobic.”
Objections #1 and #2 don’t really stand up, given that much the same could be said of the “Occupy” movement that most of the far-left had no hesitation in supporting. #3 has also never been a problem for the “left” before now: the so-called Stop The War Coalition, for instance, is very happy to accept ‘celebrity’ endorsement.
Which leaves us with #4 and #5: almost certainly the real reasons. And despicable ones at that.
Support Pussy Riot!
Here’s what they now face seven years in jail for doing (the “punk prayer”):
What’s going on with Pussy Riot, explained, here.
Good(ish) piece by Suzanne Moore in the Graun, here.
The nearest thing there is to an “official” Pussy Riot site, here.
Juan Cole (Informed Comment) writes:
Free Syria exists along Syria’s borders with Turkey and Iraq. The Free Syrian Army, somewhat to my surprise, is beginning to take and hold territory, acting more like a conventional army than like a guerrilla movement. Admittedly, the territory is in the boondocks. But these boondocks are crucial because they control border areas and roads between Syria and Turkey on the one side, and Syria and Iraq on the other.
There is an old saying in the military that everyone wants to be a strategist but real men want to do logistics. That is, “The aspect of military operations that deals with the procurement, distribution, maintenance, and replacement of material and personnel.” Border crossings are pivotal to this sector of war-making.
The significance of the FSA taking Abu Kamal, the border crossing with Iraq along the Euphrates road, is that 70% of the goods coming into Syria were coming from the Iraq of PM Nouri al-Maliki, who had refused to join a blockade of Syria because of his new alliance with Iran. But al-Maliki’s attitude is irrelevant if the revolutionaries have Abu Kamal. This development is a nightmare for the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq, since it is fighting a low-intensity struggle with its Sunnis, who predominate in the areas abutting Syria. If Sunni fundamentalists in the FSA hook up with their Iraqi counterparts, that is trouble for al-Maliki and Iran. And, Iraqi Sunnis can now more freely export arms and goods to their Syrian co-religionists.
The taking of the checkpoints with Turkey gives the FSA freer access to the arms and other goods provided to them by Qatar and Saudi Arabia via Turkey (and with some oversight from the US Central Intelligence Agency, which isn’t involved in supplying arms but is interested in influencing to which groups they are given).
Al-Arabiya tv of Dubai (admittedly anti-al-Assad and Saudi-owned) showed scenes from Izaz, in Aleppo governorate, of fighters who said they had taken the border town and chased away the Syrian army troops. They showed three smoldering tanks that they said they had destroyed.
I was surprised that the rebels can now destroy tanks with such ease. They must have been provided with very powerful land sophisticated rocket-propelled grenades, as good or better than the ones Hizbullah used on Israeli tanks in 2006 to such devastating effect. I imagine that Russian RPG-29s are freely available in the international arms market, and Qatar and Saudi Arabia could buy quite a lot of them for their friends. The Saudis may also have American-made FGM-148 Javelins in their arsenal, and are now sharing.
The Qataris are alleged to have provided effective RPGs to the fighters of Zintan in Libya, allowing them to neutralize Qaddafi’s army, and then retake Zawiya and come into Tripoli. Of course, they had help from NATO, the planes of which also were destroying tanks and rocket-launching trucks when they were out in the open. In Syria the fighting is going more slowly because the rebels lack any sort of air support. Their RPGs may give regime helicopter pilots pause about flying against them, however. The rebels claim to have shot down a helicopter gunship last week.
But beyond this technical capability (which seems to have reached a new level of effectiveness quite suddenly), the FSA is likely benefiting from low morale in the Syrian army and substantial desertions and defections on the part of the foot soldiers and even tank crews. (Some of the demoralization comes from not being enthusiastic for the regime, which seems clearly to be faltering. Some comes from being Sunnis serving a regime that increasingly is deploying Alawite Shiite ‘ghost brigades’ against Sunni villagers.)
In Damascus, regime forces chased the rebels out of the downtown Midan area, and fighting raged in other neighborhoods. The rebels set fire to the main police HQ. Witnesses reached by journalists by telephone spoke of bodies piling up in the streets. The regime is trying to clear the capital of civilians, calling on them to flee, so its armor and artillery can get a clear shot at the FSA guerrillas.
But if the FSA is able to defeat and execute the Syrian military at Abu Kamal, the regime’s ability to come back in strongholds such as Midan does not do it much good. Logistics.
If it is true that the Russian ambassador to France said Friday morning that Bashar al-Assad is ready to step down ‘in a civilized manner,’ it is a sign that even he sees the logistical writing on the wall. (Don’t have confirmation as of this writing.)
The refugee problem is growing by leaps and bounds. Thousands of Syrians are said to be streaming into Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. (Jordan has maintained its open border policy and is setting up camps for the Syrians, contrary to what I mistakenly reported yesterday [note to self: twitter is unreliable if not corroborated]. Even before the recent, dramatic events, the UNHCR was reporting that the number of refugees seeking assistance had tripled since April, to 120,000. If the regime and the fighting are emptying out Damascus, that number could easily grow by a factor of 10.
Reports speak of the refugees lacking bread. Any major conflict situation produces problems of child abandonment and rape. There is a great deal of human suffering going on in Syria, and it will be a challenge to a world community already suffering compassion fatigue and undergoing continued economic hardship at home.
Jim Denham adds:
Meanwhile, Assad’s supporters in the UK insist that what we are witnessing is “a new form of colonisation by the West” At least over Libya, most of these people pretended to support the rebels. Over Syria they more or less openly back Assad, if only as a ‘lesser evil’:
- TARIQ ALI says we are witnessing in Syria a new form of re-colonisation by the West, like we have already seen in Iraq and in Libya.
Many of the people who first rose against the Assad regime in Syria have been sidelined, leaving the Syrian people with limited choices, neither of which they want: either a Western imposed regime, “composed of sundry Syrians who work for the western intelligence agencies.
The only way forward, in the interests of all Syrians, says Ali, is negotiation and discussion. But it is now obvious that the West is not going to let that happen because they are backing the opposition groups who are against any negotiation.
From the increasingly loony so-called “Stop The War Coalition” website.