In Time of Pandemic, Praise for the UN

by Richard Falk

The following article, by JWE Board Member Richard Falk, is crossposted from his blog, Global Justice in the 21st Century:


The UN Secretary General Promotes Global and Human interests

(Director General of WHO Guides Us)

Points of Departure

In recent years, the UN has seemed weak, almost irrelevant to many of the most disturbing global developments. It failed to stop genocide in Rwanda (1994) and Myanmar (2017-19), it has failed over several decades to end Israeli apartheid that is victimizing the Palestinian people and find peace for Israelis and Palestinians, it authorized a limited humanitarian protective use of force in Libya that immediately turned into an unauthorized and unlawful regime-changing intervention by NATO in Libya that brought ongoing chaos to the country, it has unacceptably stayed on the sidelines throughout Syrian and Yemeni ordeals as strife, massive civilian displacement, intervention, along with repeated crimes against humanity, were making a mockery of international humanitarian law, and it watched while disastrous fires burned out of control in the Amazon rainforest and Australia.

The UN is not an autonomous organization, and cannot be faulted for its failures, but its members can. The UN is essentially a political club run for the almost exclusive benefit of its member sovereign states, themselves largely controlled by its most powerful members. This control is exercised by way of funding, voting procedures, and informal modes of exerting influence within the Organization. The UN Charter provides a constitutional framework, which if it could engender compliance, would produce major, desirable, and fundamental global reforms, but the Charter says one thing, while international relations continue to operate according to the logic of militarism and geopolitics.  As well, there are some internal tensions written into the Charter, which contains unworkable procedures for taking account of changes in international life, including amending the text. This has given the UN a partially frozen image responsive to the realities of 1945, but increasing out of sync with the world of today.

During the Cold War the inability of the UN to fulfill its promises with respect to peace and security were largely explained by reference to paralyzing encounters between ‘the free world’ and ‘the Soviet bloc.’ Yet, after the collapse of the Soviet Union when a new consensus emerged among Permanent Members of the Security (P-5) not much changed. Many governments showed that they wanted to uphold sovereignty rights rather than be held internationally accountable according to standards set by human rights treaties or by reference to international law. The United States, in particular, insisted on freedom of geopolitical maneuver for itself and its allies, while pushing hard for accountability when dealing with adversaries. It became clear that a weak UN was consistent with the political priorities of almost all of its members, some sovereignty-oriented, a few geopolitically-oriented. At the same multilateralism, based on mutual benefit and global bargains gave the UN a useful role in facilitating global cooperation for the first fifty or so years of it existence, yet surprisingly not in the last 25 years up to the present.

These structural explanations of UN weakness were reinforced by cyclical political changes in the governing style of many important states. The rise of ultra-nationalist reactions to the failures of neoliberal globalization as post-Cold War and post-industrial capitalism revealed its predatory characteristics if not somewhat tamed by countervailing forces accentuated the state-centric framework of international relations that was implicitly hostile to any sources of authority external to the national political order. The kind of political leaders that were elected in dominant countries (U.S., UK, Brazil, India, Japan) exemplified this inward autocratic turn that was particularly opposed to global governance that accorded prominence to the United Nations. It reinforced autocratic trends in middle power democracies (Philippines, Turkey), as well as the embrace of ultra-nationalism by important non-democratic autocracies (Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt).

The UN Speaks for the Peoples of the World

Against such a background, it might come as a surprise that the UN has played an important role since a crisis awareness unfolded as the COVID-19 challenge became global in scope and severe in depth. The first sign of UN significance was the extent to which governments, the media, and the public looked to and depended upon the World Health Organization (WHO) for information and guidance. Although the WHO was not one of the political organs whose work is generally regarded as indicative of the success or failure of the UN as a world organization, it was ‘a specialized agency’ within the UN System that long had gathered and disseminated information about health issues, and performing vital roles for countries that lacked sophisticated national health services of their own.

What the COVID-19 experience made clear was the importance of information to virtually every person and governmental body on the planet, and the degree to which the WHO and its Director General were quickly established as a valued source of reliable and trustworthy information. The geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. and China, as well as a variety of conspiracy theories explaining the outbreak of the disease cloud our understanding of origins and nature of threat, and what to do about it. This sense of confusion is heightened by lots of huckstering claims being made on behalf of exotic products that purport to strengthen immune systems and resistance to the disease, as well as calls to adopt untested preventive tactics and unconventional treatments. Given such considerations, establishing public trust and informational reliability become paramount goals, and WHO and Tedros Adhanan Grebreyerus, its Director General, have risen to the occasion, gaining media credibility and worldwide respect.

The dramatic highpoint of WHO came on March 11th when this expert UN body officially declared that the Coronavirus disease causing a worldwide health crisis was a pandemic. Such a declaration was quickly adopted by governments, media, and publics around the world, escalating preventive efforts in the form of lockdowns, travel restrictions, self-isolation, and social distancing overnight. It was a tribute to the quasi-authoritative status on such matters that WHO achieved along with the recognition that no other comparable source of guidance or pronouncement existed in the world. What is more, the WHO determination came after a persuasive show of reluctance to alarm the world prematurely by invoking the incendiary word ‘pandemic.’ In retrospect, it is obvious that pandemic is to health what genocide is to human rights. Where the language of pandemic is appropriate, it is crucial to have such conditions authoritatively identified, and where conditions do not warrant arousing global alarm it is as important to refrain from inflammatory language. Also, relevant is that despite the diversity of perspectives in the world, no serious effort has been made to challenge the WHO’s pronouncement. This is an impressive defiance of the ultra-nationalist mood that has previously dominated policymaking in the last five or so years, and exhibited distrust and disrespect for the UN and its pronouncements.

A second reason that the UN has achieved an enhanced reputation during this period is that the voice of António Guterres, the UN Secretary General, has seemed to articulate proposals that transcend statist and geopolitical orientations, and take their cue from ideas about the wellbeing of humanity, as well as in support of global interests, rather than put manifest nationalistic approaches involving exclusions, walls, and militarized boundaries. So far national and geopolitical leaders have responded to the Guterres call for the suspension of economic sanctions or even more radically, for ‘a global ceasefire’ with silence. Geopolitical actors, especially the U.S. are unwlling to acknowledge the inappropriateness of maintaining sanctions and coercive diplomacy during the pandemic, but neither are such governments likely to criticize the Secretary General openly for speaking out, although arguably his reselection for a second term may have been placed in doubt. In this sense, Guterres has given renewed credibility to the idea that the head of the UN is the world’s leading moral authority figure, a position previously probably most widely accorded to Pope Francis, but with less global outreach as speaking on behalf of the Catholic Church.

What this pandemic has already made clear to many persons is the need for a normative global discourse when it comes to health, which as suggested here, means trust, reliability, and comprehensive and useful information, as well as moral leadership that is not being provided by either states or geopolitical actors. The UN stepped forward to fill this discursive gap in a manner that has already had an impact. Of course, whether a health crisis of pandemic proportions is a stepping stone to normative globalism on other issues can be hoped for, but is far from assured. In fact, there are reasons to be skeptical. Despite the magnitude of the pandemic crisis, the most geopolitical tinged organ of the UN, the Security Council, has not even spoken out to date, much less responsibly performed its cardinal role as guardian of the peace and security of the peoples of the world. If global governance reflected rationality and humane values, rather than hegemonic and nationalistic values, this Coronavirus authoritative discourse at the UN should be directly transferable to climate change, the overall ecological agenda, and fashioning a humane response to migrations flows. Such UN learning and adaptations outside the health domain seems doubtful at this point as doing so would amount to mounting successful challenges to the geopolitical discourse that has controlled the UN since its inception.

If for Health, Why Not Climate Change, Biodiversity, Migration?

It had been previously evident that global cooperation was needed to address climate change and related ecological issues, and the UN did provide auspices for the Paris Climate Change Agreement in 2015, which has lagged subsequently, being a casualty of ultra-nationalist dismissal of global policy priorities and Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from further participation in the agreement, the leading per capita source of carbon emissions. There is no doubt that the pandemic has demonstrated the pragmatic benefits of a cooperative approach, as opposed to reliance on competitive national interest approaches to addressing problems causing serious harm and threats of truly global scope. The same benefits of cooperation evident in relation to a pandemic exist with respect to climate change and biodiversity, and to some extent more dramatically, as the dangers of such scientifically established trends are more knowable and menacing, while becoming less reversible than are singular events such as an outbreak of the COVID-19 disease.

Despite this, health is more amenable to a global approach than climate change or biodiversity even though the latter concerns possess a global reach that is beyond reasonable doubt. Perhaps the most salient difference relates to time/space characteristics. The pandemic is here and now, with people dying the world over on a daily basis digitally portrayed in real time, while the impacts of climate change and biodiversity, although certainly having present impacts, are perceived as being largely situated in the future or in mostly geographically remote and limited locales, thus remaining abstract and without mobilizing capability to arouse the general public, and for this reason tend to become controversial, scorned and rejected by those whose material interests or religious outlook might suffer from timely adjustment. Perhaps, even more explanatory than reference to the interests at stake, is the related issue of the psychological relevance of concreteness. A Coronavirus infection threatens with lethal immediacy the body of every individual inhabiting the planet, and by now most persons know someone who has suffered from the disease. COVID-19 is not a matter of a dispersed threat such as arises from global warming or the seemingly remote threat that arises from the destruction of rainforests or a lessening of biodiversity. Finally, the authority of the UN with respect to health does not encroach upon traditional spheres of territorial sovereignty as is the case with peace and security and with the regulation of private and public sector activity that does harm to the environment. Even the Paris Agreement did not attempt to regulate military causes of carbon dissemination or impose remedies for non-compliance with national pledges to reduce carbon emissions.

Concluding Observations

In conclusion, there is much to learn from the pandemic even at this early stage, and possibly, as time passes a more impressive learning curve will become evident in reaction to the spread and prolonged character of this health crisis. There is little doubt that many governments will learn the lessons of the last war, and be better prepared with respect to the availability of adequate medical facilities to address future large-scale epidemics, including pandemics. And maybe, if civil society activism is alert to the opportunity, some spillover effects will occur leading to a renewed readiness of governments to cooperate for the sake of promoting global interests and protecting global public goods, and in the process reinvigorating the UN as a necessary site of authority, information, cooperation, and institutional legitimacy. It is also quite possible that the UN will be quickly remarginalized as private sector and governmental energies are focused on economy recovery in forms that benefit big constellations of capital and finance.

One additional cautionary observation seems appropriate. What the WHO and the SG of the UN have so far done during the health crisis, while worthy of headlines, posed no direct challenge to sovereignty or geopolitics. It is discursive with no behavioral or direct policy claims, although investing the crisis with the stature of a pandemic did have distinct, and perhaps profound effects, on national responses and public awareness. The grounds for low expectations is strengthened by the failure of the Security Council to step forward with initiatives or even commentary. The Security Council’s discursive silence is rather startling under the circumstances, failing even to encourage recourse to global mechanisms fostering regional and global cooperative responses. The fact that this most statist dimension of the UN had nothing to offer in the face of a global emergency of unprecedented globality and severity offer a guide to what the UN can and cannot do. Such a failure is less that of the UN as an institutional matrix than it is of the nature of geopolitically managed global governance, which has used the Security Council as a subsidiary instrument of control. Furthermore, health has an apolitical essence that is associated with the widespread belief in the sacredness of life, and thus offers resistance to the kind of cost/benefit thinking that is much weaker when the concerns are about economic activity or the sovereignty and security priorities of militarized states.  

Photo credit: Image by Chickenonline from Pixabay   

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“Commonsense on Syria” series opens with a strong start

Just World Educational’s Commonsense on Syria project is off to a powerful start, with the first online Zoom webinar taking place on March 25, followed by the second on March 28. Eight more sessions are planned for the 10-session, one-month project, each focusing on different areas of concern and specification in relation to Syria, the ongoing conflict and the role of foreign powers.

To attend the upcoming eight sessions, interested participants only must register once. You can do so at this link:

You can also explore the resources collected by Just World Educational for additional background at this link:

Engaged, interested audience

The Commonsense on Syria series has seen an engaged, active
audience with high levels of interest in the topic and a significant number of
questions about both facts and interpretations. Just World Educational even had
to expand its Zoom webinar account in order to accommodate all of the
participants interested in taking part in these sessions, indicating the
appetite of attendees for critical, open discussion about Syria.  

This series was originally envisioned as a series of public
talks as well as private meetings with think tanks and U.S. officials. Due to
the COVID-19 global pandemic, it has been moved online, providing the
opportunity for a broad audience to engage with incisive analysis and important
perspectives about Syria and U.S. “regime-change” wars.

Audience members have included a wide range of individuals
interested in Syria, including people who are active in the Palestinian rights
movement, the anti-war movement and other social justice movements, as well as
educators, researchers and academics. While the Zoom webinar platform differs
from that of Zoom meetings in that it is set up for presentations rather than
discussions with the audience, the Just World Educational team reviews
questions that are sent in via the program’s chat function.

After each webinar, we ask participants to complete a survey with their assessment of the program, and during each session, they are offered the opportunity to participate in several polls that appear on each person’s screen.

Session 1: Introduction to Syria and its history

The series launched on March 25 with our first session, “Introduction to Syria, its people, and history pre-2011,” moderated by Just World Educational President Helena Cobban – who has also researched and written widely on Syria – with two speakers, Prof. Joshua Landis and Amb. Peter Ford. This session was framed to provide a historical basis that could prove helpful in understanding current political issues and later developments in Syria over the past decade.

Amb. Peter Ford was the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Syria
between 2003-2006. Ford went on from there to be the chief representative of
the head of the UN agency UNRWA to the Arab world. In that capacity, he
traveled throughout the Arab world, including on a number of occasions to
Syria, which is host to more than 500,000 UNRWA-registered Palestinian

Prof. Joshua Landis is the Sandra Mackey Chair and Director,
Center of Middle East Studies and Arabic at the University of Oklahoma. Landis
has published widely on Syria and is the publisher of (and a frequent writer
at) the “Syria Comment” blog.

Prof. Joshua Landis during Session 1, March 25.

This introductory session was attended by 109 people,
including 103 who attended using the Zoom app on either desktop or mobile, and
six who joined via telephone call-in. Attendees were asked to register in
advance for the session and were asked optional questions, including where they
were registering from. While 87 of this group answered those questions, 77
indicated they were in the United States, while 10 people said they were
attending from four other countries.

Amb. Peter Ford during Session 1, March 25.

During the session, participants were asked several polls
before and during the discussion with Amb. Ford and Prof. Landis. JWE President
Helena Cobban guided the discussion with introductory remarks and a series of
probing questions designed to draw out areas of interest in relation to Syria’s
long-term history and provoke meaningful comment and discussion. As she did so,
she presented these polls, and their results, to the attendees.  

74 participants answered our poll asking if they had ever
been to Syria. The numbers reflected a range of experiences. While the majority
– 46 – said that they had never been, 14 had visited once or twice, five less
than 10 times and nine greater than 10 times.

When asked about how they receive information about Syria
and news and developments there, the answers reflected a variety of takes.
People were allowed to choose more than one answer, and the largest group – 42-
cited “alternative” media sources like Truthout and Common Dreams. 37 said that
they relied on mainstream, corporate media like the New York Times and
Washington Post, while the same number looked to specialized Syria or Middle
East news sites like Syria Comment or Middle East Eye. 22 got their news from
Facebook, 14 from Twitter, and 14 from other sources.

Questions from audience members indicated that many were
enthusiastic about future sessions, with participants asking for more
information about U.S. involvement in Syria historically and at present, the
situation of Palestinians in Syria, and the Syrian government’s relationship
with Israel, in terms of the latter’s occupation of the Golan and its
involvement in regime-change initiatives.

The full video of the session can be viewed online here:

Responses to the optional survey following the session were
overwhelmingly positive. When asked to rate the educational/informative score
of the webinar, the average result was 4.3 on a scale of 1 through 5.
Participants were even more likely to indicate their enthusiasm to attend further
events in the series, with a score of 4.8 on a scale of 1 through 5.

Audience members had a wide range of comments about their
interest in the Commonsense on Syria series, including:

“I’m Syrian, so I’m interested how the west hears about us and how they can get a balanced reporting of what’s happening there.”

“We need more of this kind of discussion on Syria and other places that are not in the “News” like Cuba, Iran, Ukraine, Yemen and Venezuela.”

“I want to know more about the geopolitical situation: Who is China and Russia backing? Who is sitting on the fence, the situation in the Turkish/Greek border, and why certain countries are more important.”

This expressed desire for a deeper interpretation of the events often portrayed in the news was also reflected in the Commonsense on Syria program’s second session, “The Syrian Uprising in the context of the Arab Spring.”

Session 2: Syria and the Arab Spring

Convened on March 28, this webinar was hosted by JWE President Helena Cobban and once again featured two speakers, Prof. Richard Falk and Vanessa Beeley. Prof. Falk is a world-renowned expert on international law who spent six years, 2008-14 as the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories. He also serves as a member of the JWE Board.

Vanessa Beeley is a British journalist who has reported from
Libya, Syria and elsewhere. Beeley was a finalist for the 2017 Martha Gellhorn
Prize for Journalism, and her groundbreaking work from Syria has been endorsed
by John Pilger and other leading investigative reporters.

Ms. Beeley joined directly from sanctions-hit Damascus,
leading to some technical challenges when her connection cut off partially
through the discussion. Amb. Ford, our panelist from the previous session,
stepped in for part of the discussion. However, she was later able to rejoin
the webinar. Sanctions, and the importance of ending U.S. and other countries’
unilateral coercive measures against Syria, was one area of agreement that
stood out for both Prof. Falk and Ms. Beeley.

Ms. Vanessa Beeley during Session 2, March 28

This session involved a lively exchange of ideas guided by JWE President Cobban, who drew the speakers’ attention to several issues, including the role of foreign intervention in Syria from 2011 forward, the origins of the Syrian conflict, and potential points of positive action for citizens of Western countries.

Prof. Richard Falk during Session 2, March 28

While the participants expressed areas of sharp disagreement, the exchange was respectful and elucidating throughout.

The full video of the session is available here:

Here, 106 participants joined the webinar using the Zoom app
on desktop or mobile. 99 of these attendees answered the question of where they
were attending from, with 85 joining from the U.S. and 14 from six other

Once again, polls were deployed throughout the discussion to
gather information about audience members’ ideas and thoughts about Syria and
the information being presented. When asked if they could name any Syrian
opposition movements or leaders they admired, 59 participated in the poll. 30
said they were not familiar enough to name any, 19 said that they knew of them
but did not admire them, while 7 each said that they admired the YPG/SDF, or
other movements or leaders.

Participants were heavily critical of U.S. and NATO military
intervention in Syria. Of the 63 that answered a poll, 51 opposed it in 2014
through the present day, 7 said it was necessary at the time but regrettable,
three said it should have ended a while ago, while only 2 said that this
intervention was positive and timely.

In the discussion about moving forward for Syria, poll
respondents expressed a strong desire for a positive solution. Of the 50 who
responded to a poll asking if it was possible to ramp down or end the war in
Syria while President Bashar al-Assad remained in power, 43 answered
affirmatively, with only seven answering in the negative.

After the session, participants in the evaluation were once
again overwhelmingly positive. On a 1 through 5 scale, they rated the
informative/educational value of the webinar at 4.3. They indicated a strong
likelihood to participate in future sessions, with a 4.5 average rating on a
1-5 scale.

Audience comments were once again illuminating:

“Helped confirm my perception that most of what we hear about Syria is wrong.”

“Reinforced my belief in the confusing complexity of the situation.”

“That the complexity of the situation renders most of the corporate media commentary on the subject consistently inadequate and wrong.”

“I understand better why activists have conflicting views!”

The Commonsense on Syria series will continue on April 1 with session 3, “U.S. policy toward Syria.” The session will feature Ms. Mona Yacoubian, a Senior Advisor to the Vice President for Middle East & Africa at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Her work centers on conflict analysis and prevention in the Middle East, with a specific focus on Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. In 2019, she served as executive director of the Congressionally-appointed Syria Study Group, which USIP was mandated to facilitate.

Registration for this and all other sessions is available at
this link:

Read more about the series at this JWE blog post, and learn more at our resource page:

We look forward to welcoming you as we continue the conversation about Commonsense on Syria.

The post “Commonsense on Syria” series opens with a strong start appeared first on Just World Educational.

Richard Falk’s amicus brief to the International Criminal Court

Richard Falk, Just World Educational Board Member and international law scholar, filed an amicus curiae brief with the International Criminal Court on March 16, 2020. The brief argues that the jurisdiction of the Court extends to the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, by virtue of the accession of the State of Palestine to the Rome Statute.

Amici were directed to submit briefs to the Pre-Trial Chamber strictly focused on the question of the court’s jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity in the occupied Palestinian territories. In the brief, Falk provides a detailed analysis of each sector of the occupied Palestinian territories. In conclusion, he emphasizes: “it is submitted that the object and purpose of the Rome Statute, the underlying goals of the Court, internationally recognised human rights principles and norms, and the promotion of global justice necessitate that an investigation be immediately opened, encompassing the entirety of the occupied Palestinian territory.”

Read the full brief below or download the PDF:


Photo credit: OSeveno, Wikimedia Commons

The post Richard Falk’s amicus brief to the International Criminal Court appeared first on Just World Educational.

JWE to launch webinar series on Syria March 25

We are delighted to announce that on March 25, we’ll be launching a web-based educational program, “Commonsense on Syria.” This series of 10 webinar sessions aims to expand the discourse on Syria here in the United States (and elsewhere) by presenting interactive, web-based panel discussions among people with real expertise on Syria. Our panelists will represent a range of views, including views that have been un- or under-represented in Western corporate media over the past decade.

“Commonsense On Syria” will run biweekly, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, from March 25 through April 25. Each session will start at 1 pm New York Time and will last 45-60 minutes.

The full schedule of the 10 sessions is given below. Registration is required for each session: it is currently open for the first two sessions. Click on the links to register:

The first session of the series, March 25, will be “Introduction to Syria, its people, and history pre-2011” and will feature two great experts:

** Amb. Peter Ford, who was the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Syria, 2003-2006. Ford went on from there to be the chief representative of the head of the UN agency UNRWA to the Arab world. In that capacity he traveled throughout the Arab world, including on a number of occasions to Syria, which is host to more than 500,000 UNRWA-registered Palestinian refugees.

** Prof. Joshua Landis, who is the Sandra Mackey Chair and Director, Center of Middle East Studies & Arabic at the University of Oklahoma. Landis has published widely on Syria and is the publisher of (and a frequent writer at) the “Syria Comment” blog.

JWE President Helena Cobban, who has also researched and written widely on Syria, will be moderating the discussion.

The schedule for the entire series is currently planned to be as follows. Check back here frequently to see details of the additional panelists as they are confirmed (and to see any changes in the schedule that may arise.)

Date Topic
Mar. 25 Introduction to Syria, its people, and history pre-2011
Mar. 28 The Syrian Uprising in the context of the Arab Spring
April 1 US policy toward Syria
April 4 Western media’s role, including on the chemical weapons issue
April 8 Israel’s role in Syria
April 11 Syria in the region
April 15 Syrian refugees & IDPs
April 18 Palestinian refugees in Syria
April 22 Sanctions & their effects on reconstruction
April 25 Negotiations over constitutional reform.

The post JWE to launch webinar series on Syria March 25 appeared first on Just World Educational.

Two big powers arm-wrestle in Syria. Neither one is the United States.

by Helena Cobban

The following article, by JWE President Helena Cobban, is crossposted from Just World News:

It is just as well that, when he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin March 5, Turkey’s President Rejep Tayyip Erdogan did not look up to his right. If he had, he would have seen towering over him a lofty statue of Russia’s Catherine the Great, who in the 18th century sheared Erdogan’s Ottoman forebears of much of their European territory and many of their rights in the shared Black Sea.

The deal that Erdogan and Putin concluded in Moscow was less devastating than what Catherine imposed on the Ottomans. But it nonetheless represented a considerable setback for the ambitions Erdogan had been pursuing in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. For many years Turkey has provided arms and other support to the Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists of the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) network who control most of the enclave, as well as political support to their quest to overthrow the Syrian government.

Under the terms of the Moscow Agreement, Turkey agreed to pull back some of the troops it had sent into Idlib over the past month and to participate in joint Turkish-Russian patrols along two of the enclave’s strategic highways that HTS had controlled until early February. This pushes HTS and those civilians under its sway into a much smaller area than they previously enjoyed.

The Moscow Agreement was reached one week after the Russian Air Force, which commands all the airspace of northwestern Syria from its base at Khmeimim, used bunker-buster bombs to blast a Turkish expeditionary force heading south to reinforce crumbling HTS positions. The Russian strikes killed dozens of Turkish soldiers and wounded many more.

That February 27 incident was devastating for Erdogan, who has faced mounting criticism at home for the bombastic and expensive policy he has pursued in Syria since 2011. In the days that followed, he tried to win support for his Idlib campaign from fellow NATO members in Europe and the United States, but he failed. For NATO, acting inside Syria was clearly an “out-of-area” operation. (The U.S. response was fairly muddled. The administration’s “Special Representative for Syria”, Amb. James Jeffrey, briefly traveled through a Turkish-controlled border point for a photo op inside Idlib and promised that Washington would send “ammunition” to help the fighters there. That promise was immediately shot down by the Pentagon.)

Erdogan was also careful to assign blame for the fatal air-strikes not to Russia but (quite implausibly) to Syria’s own, much less capable, air force. And to assuage his supporters’ desire for vengeance he authorized a military pummeling of Syria’s front-line positions, inflicting large numbers of casualties on ground fighters of the Syrian and allied forces—but not the Russians.

Moscow has had a close military and political relationship with Damascus since the 1960s and has long had a military presence in the country at the invitation of its government. But for a fateful 48 hours after February 27, the Russian military did nothing to help defend the Syrian positions round the Idlib enclave. That pause indicated that serious discussions were underway in Moscow over the extent of Russia’s commitment to Syria. Some members of Russia’s political elite have warned that Syria might become an Afghanistan-like quagmire for the Russian military. Others, including those close to the military, have described it as a useful testing-ground for Russian military systems as well as a way to continue asserting Russian interests in, and relevance to, the broader Middle East.

After the 48-hour pause, Russian air operations resumed in Idlib, and over the days that followed the Syrian and allied ground forces regained control of areas they had briefly lost during the pause. Meantime, Ankara was conducting intense contacts with governments around the world—including Russia. Erdogan’s first choice was reportedly to invite Putin to come meet him in Ankara. But he soon bowed to reality and obeyed the call to travel to Moscow instead. There, he held nearly six house of talks with Putin before signing the Moscow Agreement under the Catherine the Great’s stern gaze.

For Americans watching the geopolitical kaleidoscope shift at a sometimes confusing speed in Syria, it is crucial to try to understand the motivations of the many forces intervening there, as well as to learn about the limits of such interventions by outsiders and the benefits (as well as the costs) of a principled realism in such situations.

In Moscow and Ankara, two strongly nationalistic leaders, both endowed with a wily realpolitik-style realism as well as a strong dose of paranoia, perform an intriguing and complex diplomatic dance around each other… and the benighted civilians of Idlib and the rest of Syria are tightly entangled in that drama.

For Erdogan, the past few years have forced him to set aside the goal he pursued aggressively in Syria from 2011 through late 2014: that of toppling President Bashar al-Assad and replacing him with a ruler more in line with his own militantly Islamist way of ruling. In 2014, the eruption of the world-threatening ISIS caliphate in the heart of the movement Erdogan had tried to build in Syria caused a recalibration– though he remained quite happy to work closely with the Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups that preceded HTS, and then with HTS itself. As of now, he has probably concluded that toppling Assad is impossible; but he clearly still aims to retain de-facto control over whatever portion of the Idlib enclave he and his allies can hold onto.

Erdogan has also viewed Syria through the lens of his audacious project of using Turkey’s crucial strategic location to play NATO (and Europe in general) off against Russia. Last year, Turkey took delivery of its first shipment of the Russian S-400 missile-defense systems that Erdogan had ordered in 2017. For a NATO member, this was a breathtaking purchase; and it caused Washington to dial back considerably on plans to deploy advanced F-35 fighter planes to Turkey.

Inside Syria, Turkey has clashed both with Russia (over Idlib and more broadly) and with the United States—primarily over Washington’s support for the Kurdish-led “Syrian Defense Forces” (SDF) in northeastern Syria, which Erdogan judges, correctly, to be linked to Turkey’s own Kurdish-separatist insurgents.

Erdogan has also, in 2015 and more recently, cynically used the issue of the millions of refugees generated by Syria’s lengthy civil war as a tool to put pressure on Europe. In 2015-16, he “succeeded” in winning promises of 6 billion Euros of annual aid from Brussels to help him deal with Syrian refugees inside Turkey, on condition he cease pumping them west into Bulgaria and Greece, as he had in 2015. This past February 29, Turkish government bodies started pumping refugees west once again, in an attempt to win European support for Erdogan’s military expedition in Idlib. But he failed to get that, succeeding only in winning promises that they would consider increasing their humanitarian aid to Turkey.

For Putin even more than for Erdogan, his policy toward Syria has involved balancing many competing goals. After Erdogan decided in summer 2011 to reverse his years-long courtship of Assad and go all-in on the regime-change project for Syria, the dilemma that Putin faced in trying to balance Moscow’s relations with the two now-warring parties sharpened dramatically.

For any Russian leader, the country’s relationship with Turkey is important. For Putin, its numerous dimensions have included not only the potential for splitting NATO but also for riling the West in other ways, and the need (in a time of uneasy relations with Ukraine) for Russia to maintain good relations with as many other Black Sea neighbors as possible.

But Russia’s position in Syria also remains crucial. In summer 2015, the Russian military speedily built and equipped the advanced air-force base at Khmeimim, south of Lattakia. Together with the Russian naval base at Tartous, Khmeimim represents the most significant overseas base-complex maintained by the armed forces of Putin’s resurgent Russia. Within Syria, Russia wields considerable political-diplomatic heft, as well as military heft. Over the past few years, its diplomats have helped Assad negotiate de-escalation (surrender) deals with oppositionists in numerous parts of the country, enabling his government to reassert control of the vast majority of the country’s people.

At the global level, Russia has been less able to aid the Syrian government. Russia was unable to prevent Pres. Trump from throwing his support behind Israel’s annexation of Syria’s Golan. It has failed to break the stranglehold that U.S. sanctions have placed on Syria’s ability to rebuild from the destruction of the civil war. And though it worked intensively with the UN’s Special Representative for Syria, Geir Pedersen, to convene a broad gathering in Geneva last October, to negotiate a final resolution of the internal differences among Syrians that sparked the civil war, that initiative failed to gain legs.

Nevertheless, as the events in Moscow on March 5 revealed, Putin’s Russia has continued to increase its power with the tangled geopolitics of Syria. In the Moscow Agreement, Putin and Erdogan vowed to continue to support both the all-Syria peace process and the fight against terrorists in Syria. Americans and everyone else who wants to see an end to the misery the civil war has inflicted on Syria’s people should support them.

The post Two big powers arm-wrestle in Syria. Neither one is the United States. appeared first on Just World Educational.

Evasions, Accidents, Engagements, and Fulfillment: An Autobiographical Fragment

by Richard Falk

The following piece, by JWE Board Member Richard Falk, is crossposted from his blog, Global Justice in the 21st Century:

[Prefatory Note: this post is something new for me, an autobiographical fragment written at the request of an online listserv as a suggestive model for academics at the start of their careers as diplomatic historians. I publish it here. It was found unsuitable for publication by the group that made the initial solicitation for unspecified reasons. Maybe because my work and career were not relevant to the scholarly life of a diplomatic historian, maybe because I seemed too flaky professionally to serve as a heuristic model, maybe because what I wrote risked an angry reaction from those who have weaponized anti-Semitism as (mis)defined by the IHRA definition, maybe because…a hundred other good reasons, including what was most plausible, least paranoid, that I was in a different lane when it came to a scholarly career, making my condensed narrative a waste of time for aspiring diplomatic historians. If the filter for assessing submissions, I might have rejected on this last basis, but maybe not. It might have depended on what I ate that day for breakfast! In any event, here it is in the spirit of ‘love it or leave it.’]

Evasions, Accidents, Engagements, and Fulfillment: An Autobiographical Fragment

 All through adolescence I was an unmotivated student who underperformed while nurturing the illusion that I was a good enough athlete to shape a life around my love of sports. Fortunately, when I was given my big and only chance, a major baseball league tryout with the then NY Giants, back in 1946 still playing in my home town, I failed miserably. Had I succeeded, even barely, I would have happily marched off into the sunset of minor league baseball for the rest of my physically active life, maybe if lucky playing with a Chattanooga farm club. Since sports were not to be, in characteristic middle-class style, I drifted, which in my case meant college after high school.

Because my father was a loyal alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania, I was admitted, but it didn’t take me long to make the gatekeepers nervous. Living away from home was more than I could then handle, and I soon found myself on academic probation at the end of my freshman year, the first of my many wakeup calls. I pulled myself together, helped by a couple of studious roommates, and ended up doing well enough to get into Yale Law School three years later, and this time without any privileged access, yet still not knowing what I wanted out of life except that I didn’t want to fail. I also was rather sure that I didn’t want to be a practicing lawyer in the manner of my father and could not hope to become a nationally high ranked tennis player as my mother was, and so I was still adrift, yet with at least this recently acquired resolve to work enough to be a respectable student.

For someone with my wayward inclinations, Yale’s law school curriculum lent me cover. I sought out the least vocational subjects being offered, finding such course as the ‘Mathematical Foundation of World Law,’ ‘Ideological Differences and World Law,’ and the pioneering international law offerings of two famous professors, Myres McDougal and Harold Lasswell. To make sure no Ivy law firms would show interest in me I focused my attention on the law of India, being rewarded with a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Lucknow upon graduation. Again, fortunately, I was rescued by an unlikely benefactor, the U.S. State Department, which cancelled the Fulbright program to India that year to punish the Indian government for not paying for some wheat it had earlier purchased some years ago. I was left with neither a job nor something worth doing, and then rescued from potential freefall and doldrums by a small miracle—the person teaching international law at Ohio State University became unexpectantly too ill to meet his scheduled classes, and the law school, having students already registered for these courses, was desperate enough to hire me for the year.

Arriving in Columbus with little sense of what it meant to teach, let alone teach a law course, I was immediately alarmed by being assigned several courses that I had never taken as a student, including one technically demanding course on the procedural complexities of the practice of law before federal courts. Almost the first day I was on the sprawling campus, a strange unexpected feeling of certitude took hold that took me by surprise. I realized that I had almost by accident landed where I really wanted to remain for the rest of my life. Given the chance to perform (my only position of excellence was as an actor in school theater productions), free to do what interested me, with summers without any fixed duties, no real boss and only a few hours a week of scheduled classroom appearances. From the start, I couldn’t believe I was actually being paid to live this kind of privileged, idyllic life. Of course, later on, this rose-tinted sense of academic life was strongly challenged from time to time, but never too seriously, and through my sixty plus years of teaching and writing the glow has never disappeared, and looking back I feel as blessed as I did that first day walking across the OSU campus.

And my luck didn’t run out. I was invited to stay on the law faculty after my visiting year expired, which I happily chose to do with the sense that I would be happily committed to this OSU world for as far ahead as I wanted to look. While learning slowly to live as an adult in Ohio, so different from my earlier life in the East, especially Manhattan, I began to discover and enjoy hinterland America, with its more casual sense of life, learning, and community. After a few years of teaching at OSU, I was given a Ford Foundation Fellowship for ‘young law teachers,’ a year of residence at a leading law school. I chose Harvard, partly because it was not Yale, and I wanted a different jurisprudential experience, and partly because I thought living in Cambridge would be enjoyable, and it was. Although the Harvard Law School Dean at the time, Erwin Griswold, a somewhat fearsome figure cut in a Calvinist mode, let me know in our one and only meeting, that he was not pleased having me hang around with no defined academic purpose, insisting that I work for a degree if I wanted his welcome at the law school, which I thought needed. Being perhaps too spineless, I submitted, although I realized that such a conventional degree-seeking mission was not what Ford intended with this program. So be it, I took courses and exams, eventually satisfied the thesis requirement, and finally received a doctoral degree that was never of use, or even a source of pride.

While at Harvard, I learned more from fellow graduate law students and non-law faculty than I did from the influential professors on the HLS faculty, especially those in my field who were feuding with my Yale international law mentors, and did not look approvingly at my jurisprudential outlook. I did benefit from fellowship and the progressive outlook of several others in more or less my position, and made lifelong friendships with Georges Abi-Saab, perhaps the most distinguished European/Arab international jurist of his generation, and Saul Mendlovitz, a stimulating academic entrepreneur and world order visionary, who put together a talent group of likeminded scholars from around the world in a project badly named the World Order Models Project, which for several decades met a couple of times a year in all parts of the world with a manifesto to promote peace, justice, and sustainability for all peoples inhabiting the planet. It hardly needs pointing out that after a period of raised hopes, history didn’t cooperate, and the post-colonial world has fallen on hard times with respect to human solidarity, rule of law, and ecological wisdom.

After Harvard, more than content to be back in Columbus, a few years later, I received an offer from Princeton that far exceeded my career expectations and was unjustified by my rather thin and unimpressive CV. The offer was packaged as a one-year visiting appointment with light teaching and ample time for research, and came tied to a long-term enticement. I was informed that there was a vacant chair in my field of specialization (international law) for which I qualified, and if I could gain passage through the recruitment process at Princeton the path to an appointment was clear. After some hesitation because I realized that my acceptance of the offer would be the death knell of a captivating romantic relationship, which was already complicated. I accepted the Princeton offer, and the relationship ended, but not only for that reason.

From the moment of my arrival at Princeton, I had a double sensation of not quite believing I had been invited to enter such hallowed academic ground and that I somehow didn’t quite belong in such a rarefied atmosphere. I felt that I was not exactly an imposter but could never altogether overcome my sense of being a permanent outsider, especially in relation to Princeton’s strong feelings for its traditions, which included some erasures, including its unforgiveable slowness to admit African Americans, Jews, and women. Such feelings of ambivalence lingered despite my forty years of engagement that were positive in almost every professional sense, and I never lost the sense of being privileged beyond any early expectation to teach talented students, enjoy the fellowship, and often the friendship, of eminent colleagues, and daily benefit from the generous resources of my endowed chair and the exceptional staff support that eased the routine burdens of my life over the four decades. I often felt inwardly embarrassed by not feeling more grateful to Princeton for its professional help, and faulted myself for not mustering more institutional loyalty and identification.

In some respects, my early years were from Princeton’s perspective a honeymoon period in which I was welcomed as a valued member of the academic community, appointed to important university committees and invited to take part as a speaker at a variety of campus occasions. This changed as soon as I was seen as more of an activist, and approached international law from the perspective of a disenchanted citizen. This turn coincided with the widespread student disenchantment with the Vietnam War, and the accompanying ‘culture wars’ of the 1960s. Angry alumni singled me out for blame because of my more visible opposition to the war, alleging that I was brainwashing their children by undermining not only Princeton traditions, but patriotism and religion, as well. For a few years, The Princeton Alumni Weekly rarely had an issue without at least one letter critical of my views and impacts on students. All the while, I was mostly amused, being quite aware that it was the students who were radicalizing me, not the other way around. In this period, especially as it became respectable to be opposed to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, my public image brightened.

I was rather frequently invited to be an expert witness both in the U.S. Congress, and in trials of anti-war activists who claimed that their acts of civil disobedience were justified as attempts to uphold international law that followed from the logic of the Nuremberg Principles and from ideas of citizen responsibility for implementing international criminal law. As was my nature, I did not let this identity as an engaged citizen distract from my scholarly and professional commitments. I chaired several committees on war, law, and intervention for the American Society of International Law, and managed to edit a four-volume series, International Law and the Vietnam War, that brought together the best scholarly work pro and con various legal aspects of the ongoing war. I gave many talks in this period at universities, including even at the main war colleges, and wrote opinion pieces for mainstream media.

Yet in this period I did begin to lose academic credibility in some circles. For some, my activism tarnished the image of the teacher/scholar being neutral, not an advocate, especially not for controversial causes, that is, critical of U.S. foreign policy or accompanying liberal internationalism. For others, it was my more visionary writings, challenging the grip on thought within the academy exerted by Machiavellian, Kennanist, and Morgenthauian realists. In contrast, my writing was ignored by the most influential academic members of the international community, and even more so by the Council on Foreign Relations, the grooming venue for both Kissinger and Brzezinski. My work, if not dismissed, as ‘utopian,’ or at minimum, ‘idealistic,’ was treated as relevant to policy debates within the beltway. Such an epistemological stance put me at the margins of both scholarly work and that of policy wonks, and did so even more definitively than did my forays onto the public square, which seemed regarded as manifestations of prolonged adolescence.

Once again, lady luck was my companion. I had gone to Stanford, to be a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 1968-69 as the Vietnam War was winding down, although campus activism was still rather feverish. My proposed project at the Center had been to write up in book form this combination of academic and activist involvement with the Vietnam War, but then in my first week in residence I went to the communal water cooler for a drink, and got into a conversation with a Stanford physicist who changed, almost, my life, and certainly my intellectual agenda for the year. He was passionately convinced and convincing that a growing world population as yoked to industrial civilization was overrunning the carrying capacity of the earth. I dropped my Vietnam project, and tried to produce a study of the increasingly toxic interplay of population growth, resource depletion, environmental pollution, and the war system. As I was trying to devise a framework for such work, a NY Times correspondent came to the Center, interviewing me among several others. He devoted his feature story to my project, and for the first and last time I was showered with invitations from major publishers, ending with a contract to publish with Random House. The book published in 1971 under the title This Endangered Planet: Prospects and Proposals for Human Survival received a polite reception, but disappointed the publisher who wanted a more popular treatment of these themes, stressing especially the case against further increases in the world population. In retrospect I am mildly proud of the book. I feel it was mildly prophetic, and might be worth revising if I were a decade or so younger. In an updated version I would stick with the framework and basic argument, but would be more sensitive to the clashes, and potential harmonies, of technology, ethics, and spirituality.

Part of my Princeton experience, because it lacked a law school and I was never drawn to the technical sides of law and lawyering, was to move toward an embrace of the cognate fields of international relations, foreign policy, and what were being called ‘security studies.’ My stance, was counter-realist, progressive, and non-Marxist. An interest in the interplay of religion and politics gave rise to my interest in the Iranian Revolution and the struggle between Palestinians and Jews about the future of Palestine/Israel. These issues got me into much hot water, distancing me much further from the Western mainstream, and engendering harsh forms of pushback. No more invitations from Congressional committees or to deliver prestigious lectures under prominent auspices. I was largely undaunted, continued my writing and teaching, and felt sustained by those who supported my political and academic waywardness. As the years proceeded, Princeton in political science became more infatuated with quantitative methods and formal modeling, which left me cold. For personal reasons, reaching the age of 70, I retired from Princeton, and with my Turkish wife went West with part time appointments for both of us in the Global Studies Program at the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California. It was a joy to be in the West where friendship counted and the blue skies were addictive, and most of all, where academic life was more communal, not just publishing and perishing. By the end of a couple of years in Santa Barbara we had more friends than I managed to gather in my forty years at Princeton.

Despite ‘retirement,’ I never retired in substance, style, and engagement. To my astonishment, I was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to be Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine in 2008, a position that carried some influence and prestige but no salary and lots of work and travel. I felt challenged, but hesitant to be in the line of fire. Throughout the next six years, I was smeared by militant Zionist NGOs, and their followers, regularly receiving death threats and hate mail along with more carefully orchestrated defamatory attacks. Yet I persisted, receiving more credit than I deserved from those sympathetic with my political viewpoints. I was highly critical of Israel from the perspective of international law and human rights, as well as my growing tendency to ‘see’ with the eyes of those being victimized. I came to value my experience as SR, learning what the UN could and couldn’t due, enjoying the pomp and circumstance of annual reports to the Human Rights Council in Geneva and to the General Assembly’s Third Committee in New York City. I prepared several reports each year, and was much in demand by many groups around the world that were devoted to the Palestinian struggle. I continued my academic connections with UCSB during this period, but being targeted by Zionist groups made the once welcoming university administrators wary of my presence, but we continued to find enough deep friendships at the university and in the community to make our life satisfying as divided annually between Santa Barbara and our Turkish seaside home in Yalikavak. In Turkey, also, I found opportunities to teach, and received more opportunities to lecture or take part in conferences than I was willing . In fact, in this period, my reputation seemed to rise elsewhere in the world in ways somewhat proportional to its fall in North America, and it doesn’t require a fully functioning brain to tell why.

My main work in this period of limited teaching has been to continue a blog on global justice issues that was a challenging birthday gift from my daughter ten years ago and to write up my life in the form of a memoir tentatively titled Being Progressive in America. The title may strike some as self-serving. The memoir mainly attempts to depict my slow coming of age politically and intellectually, seeking a place within the academic community, while taking an active part in several ongoing political struggles, often adopting controversial positions that enabled me to combine social activism with scholarly contributions. Whether I can find a publisher foolish enough to take on a 900 page plus text remains in limbo, but I will try, perhaps splitting the present manuscript into two separate books, a life fracture that I can live with.   Whatever becomes of this undertaking, it has allowed me to sum up my life to myself. Whether my trials and tribulations will interest to others remains unknown, and likely unknowable.

As I tried to suggest, I have been fortunate in pursuing an academic career, greatly enriched by taking full advantage of some lucky and accidental developments. I enjoyed teaching and writing throughout, and although sometimes chided for not trying to be more prudent in expressing my views or for engaging in too many controversial events, I am glad that I was throughout my professional life more responsive to my conscience than to my career ambition to be taken seriously in the corridors of wealth and power. I have no regrets about the path taken, and probably was empowered to do so, by a robust tradition of academic freedom at Princeton. I might not have fared as well at a less secure academic institution, and certainly not in an array of countries with autocratic leaders where academic critics are singled out for repression, or worse. In my 90th year, I have the hope that many others, taking account of variations of personality and training, will seek to make the world a better habitat as well as help their students become knowledgeable and engaged, finding their own ways to feel, think, and act as progressive public intellectuals.

The present near panic brought about by the spread of the COVID-19 is a lethal form of globalization that may help us realize that we cannot wall off the world outside the boundaries of our particular political communities, and never could, as the global epidemics of earlier centuries demonstrate. With climate change, nuclear weapons, extreme poverty, and ecological neglect menacing the future, we are challenged to awaken to the intermix of risk and opportunity that will make or break humanity in the course of coming decades. The primary challenge of the moment is to throw off the autocrats and demagogues that have taken over so many countries in the world by charming the masses or through the persecution of women and men of conscience. It is a struggle worth waging.

Photo credit:, License: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

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Foreign jihadis playing a big role in Syria’s Idlib

by Helena Cobban

The following article by JWE President Helena Cobban is crossposted from Just World News.

The thousands of highly motivated foreign fighters at all ranks of the fighting forces that  control Syria’s Idlib enclave pose a particular challenge to policymakers worldwide trying to deal with the bitter fighting in the enclave and the humanitarian crisis that has resulted from it. (Many of these foreigners have also brought their children with them, as I’d noted here.)

Col. Myles Caggins, the spokesperson for the U.S. military group that has been fighting ISIS in northeastern Syria and Iraq since 2014, is one of the few Western officials who have openly acknowledged the challenge posed by the foreign fighters in Idlib. Most Western leaders and pundits have avoided any discussion of the issue at all, talking instead only about the humanitarian emergency in Idlib—and doing so in a way that ignores the often harsh control that foreign and Syrian extremists exercise over the civilians in the enclave and the aid flows into it.

This makes the blogging of a young Iraqi-British man called Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi particularly valuable. On his blog, Tamimi presents numerous interviews with key foreign jihadis—currently, mainly those operating in Idlib, though earlier he had also interviewed numerous foreign ISIS fighters and organizers in eastern Syria and Iraq. On his English/Arabic/French blog, Tamimi shares a wealth of detail from what these foreign fighters tell him.

Since February 13– and during some periods of very intense fighting in Idlib– Tamimi has recorded interviews with seven foreign jihadis who play significant roles in the public and administrative life of the enclave. All of them work more or less closely with the al-Qaeda-affiliated (and genocidal) Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) faction that has controlled most of the enclave since 2017. They had all come to Syria to join the “jihad” there during the early years of the armed insurgency that erupted against the Syrian government in 2011. They have thus now been in the country for several years and have attained positions of some responsibility in the HTS-led administration of Idlib.

Three of the seven interviewees were Egyptians. The other four came from the United States, France, Germany, and Chechnya. Some described their role as working within the “Shari’a court” system that HTS has established in Idlib. Some described their role as “doing jihad through media work”. One, Ali Shishani (“Ali the Chechen”), talked openly about the work his military-training and -support organization has played fighting on the front-lines. Nearly all of them seemed confident expressing detailed appraisals of the strategic situation and challenges within the enclave.

I’m guessing Tamimi conducted most of these interviews by phone or via a messaging app. Here is a quick digest of what we can gain from reading them. (The photos are all from Tamimi’s blog.)

Interview with Bilal Abdul Kareem

Bilal Abdul Kareem, who grew up in New York, is one of the more notorious of the pro-HTS propagandists.

Tamimi wrote on his blog February 13:

Of the various muhajireen (i.e. foreigners who have come to the territories held by the insurgent groups in Syria), Bilal Abdul Kareem- an American convert to Islam- stands out as perhaps the most well-known working in the realm of media, running an outlet called On the Ground News that provides live coverage of events in northwest Syria (Idlib and its environs), interviews with a variety of people in that region, and general social media updates from other parts of Syria and the world…

As Bilal and I both agreed in a conversation prior to this interview, working in the media realm means talking to and interviewing, if one can, people whose viewpoints one may not agree with or dislike. Thus, while Bilal has his own clear perspective on events (i.e. he is supportive of the armed fight against the Syrian government and believes it is a cause of the Ummah- the global Muslim community), that is not the same as being a ‘propagandist’ for a particular faction… I found Bilal to be polite and engaging: far preferable to a lot of the social media noise created by distant observers who have not been on the ground.

In the interview, Abdul Kareem expounds at great length on the humanitarian and political situation inside Idlib, but he doesn’t say anything particularly new or interesting. At the end, though, he opines that the  U.S. government’s “Caesar” Act, that placed harsh sanctions on the Syrian government, has also had harsh effects on the residents of Idlib.

Interview with Sheikh Abu al-Yaqdhan al-Masri

Abu al-Yaqdhan is a 48-year-old cleric, originally from Egypt, who described his trajectory in Syria in these terms:

I migrated to al-Sham [Syria] in 2013 and my work has been connected with the Shari’i aspect in its different forms. I joined Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya when I arrived to Syria as I worked with them in the Shari’i sector in the city of Aleppo for around four years then I joined the merger of Syrian factions in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham after the fall of Aleppo city and I remained with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham for two years then I have been working in da’wa in the military sectors in an independent sense until the present time.

He says of the Idlib enclave: “In this small portion of the liberated Syrian north the best of the mujahideen, of the muhajireen, and displaced and the inhabitants of this area who reject the rule of Bashar al-Assad have gathered.” Asked about the deteriorating military situation in the enclave, he says: “the solution lies in the factions returning to the military option and true interest in military force and not relying on international understandings.”

He seems to have a fairly other-worldly view of the balance of forces on the ground in Syria:

The one who considers the current situation sees a collapsed regime in Damascus, for the Assad regime is suffering from military break-up and a great economic crisis and security breakdown and administrative deterioration, while we in Idlib possess human and material resources that enable us by the grace and force of God to reach Damascus, and we are only lacking fear of God (Almighty and Exalted is He), giving the bow to the one who knows how to shape it and activating those powers.

Interview with Talha al-Masir (Abu Shu’aib al-Masri)

Tamimi notes that al-Masir, an Egyptian, is just one of many non-Syrian “muhajir” men who have traveled to Syria to help run the shari’a court system that HTS has set up there. (This interview, like the next one described, carries no portrait of the interviewee. It is possible that, in line with extremist-jihadi injunctions against idolatry, the interviewee chose not to supply one?)

In the interview, Masir says:

I came to Syria at the end of 2012, and I worked in the Shari’i field connected with the jihad like Shari’i courses, the judiciary, studies in ‘Ilm and inciting to jihad, while participating with the mujahideen in their blessed course.

I participated with Ahrar al-Sham then Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and then as an independent. Then in the recent time the focus of the field activity has become on encouraging sincere efforts that work to reform the general situation of the jihad and the Syrian revolution in order to resist the campaign of the enemy that is assaulting the liberated areas.

In the interview, Masir calls the Syrian government  by the very sectarian name “the Nusayri enemy.” He calls for “Moving from merely defending to defending and carefully planned attack” and says, “whoso is able to stand with the mujahideen of al-Sham [Syria] by his sword, tongue or wealth, let him take the initiative to do that, for the believer is to the believer like the edifice strengthening each other.”

Explanation of HTS’s principles by another Egyptian cleric in HTS

In this post, Tamimi provides a translation of a document recently released by Abu al-Fatah al-Farghali, an Egyptian cleric who remains inside HTS. It affirms HTS’s inviolable principles (thawabit) that will not be compromised upon and cannot be violated by any HTS member. Tamimi notes that this document, “is in keeping with earlier HTS teachings such as the rejection of democracy (cf. here) and secularism.”

Tamimi also provides here his own interesting comparison between HTS and the Taliban in Afghanistan. HTS, he notes,

mirrors the Taliban in being a militant Islamic movement that wants to be taken seriously by international actors, giving supposed assurances to them that its territories will not be used as a launchpad for ‘external operations‘, and having as the first ideal goal the establishment of an Islamic government over the entirety of the main country of its operation. However, these points do not entirely exclude the prospect of transnational jihad in the long-run.

(This chimes with my own commentary on HTS’s current “prettification” campaign, as described here.)

The French media activist: Interview with Moussa al-Hassan

Tamimi introduces this interview by noting that, “there are multiple people of foreign origin working in the realm of media in the insurgent-held areas of Idlib… One of these people is Moussa al-Hassan, who describes himself as an independent French reporter and is of the social media outlet called Nouvelles En Direct Du Terrain (‘Live News From The Field’).” In the interview, Hassan expressed his frustration with the strategic ineptitude of the HTS-led rebel forces:

They have not known how to adopt an effective military strategy that can allow them to stop the offensives. Their military capabilities are largely inferior to the armies. Therefore they should have applied a guerrilla approach on several fronts instead of confronting the army directly, as is the case until today…

The rebels have never before had an attack force as is the case today. The number of combatants is far more elevated. The factions possess a lot of financial means. The innovations of armoured vehicles as well as remote-guided drones: all this is new for the revolution. But despite that, they are unable to resist. The military and political errors of the rebels have unfortunately allowed the regime to reach the gates of Idlib.

Hassan noted (correctly) that, “Since the start of the revolution, Turkey has been an important factor for the rebels. It is the only country that has directly supported the rebellion and has accommodated more than 4 million Syrian refugees on its soil.” His view of what could end the crisis in Idlib and the rest of Syria was, “I do not think there will be a solution to this crisis if it is not through the fall of the regime of Bashar al-Assad.”

The Muhajir War Correspondent: Interview Number 2

Tamimi tells us that Abdussamed Dagül is a German muhajir of Turkish origin who serves as a war correspondent in Idlib, and who has recently interviewed HTS leader Abu Muhammad Al-Jolani.

In an earlier interview with Dagül, published in July 2019, the muhajir had told Tamimi that he came to Syria in May 2014 to do media work for the jihadis. He told Tamimi a lot about the organization of the rebel forces in Idlib at that time and about the key role that Turkey played in supplying them with arms, ammunition, and heavy-weaponry support (through their surrogates.) He also talked about his experienced in earlier battles in other parts of Syria.

In his most recent (February 24) interview with Tamimi, Dagül confirmed that:

Yes of course HTS is doing the main fighting and puts in the most military strength into the defensive battle against this military offensive, but to say that only HTS is working would be unfair. NFL [the Turkish-directed “National Front for Liberation”] is putting also manpower and especially ATGM [anti-tank guided missile] strikes in which disables the enemy from moving their tanks and vehicles freely on the frontline.

Malhama Tactical: Interview

This blog-post records an interview Tamimi conducted February 26 with a man with the nom-de-guerre Ali Shishani, which almost certainly means he is a Chechen. Shishani is described as the current leader of Malham Tactical, which Tamimi describes as:

perhaps the best known training outfit in the northwest of Syria, providing assistance to the insurgent groups operating in Idlib and its environs. Malhama Tactical has been known to have a particularly close working relationship with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the leading insurgent group in the northwest region.

Asked about his  life and work in Syria, Shishani told Tamimi:

Much can be said about our life in jihad. But speaking generally, our life here is the life of independent foreign volunteers, with all its advantages and disadvantages.

Activity of Malhama Tactical (MT) is primarily aimed at increasing the combat effectiveness and tactical level of the fighting units of the Mujahideen, bringing them to a higher level and we have succeeded in it over the years of our work. It was mostly done in terms of the level of regular fighters, but not commanders – because the commanders of local Mujahideen with whom we worked do not take advanced training courses and do not accept our advice, unfortunately.

During our instructor activity, more than five thousand fighters have passed our training courses, including the well-known special unit “Red Bands” [special unit of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham]. We provide training courses in different military fields.

Later, Shishani says that half of the members of MT are muhajirs (foreign fighters), and half are local Syrians. He also makes it very clear that MT’s work goes far behind just training:

our organization periodically played a significant role in fights on the fronts… Our team also conducted both independent and joint special operations with other groups against Assadists, including a special operation in the aerial reconnaissance base in Aleppo. Our organization also carried out artillery reconnaissance and coordination of artillery fire of local factions during the offensive campaigns against Assadists, and introduced new methods of reconnaissance and correction for local factions.

We also worked in the field of air defense and shot down an Assad regime aircraft in August 2019… As for the factions with which we work. Most of all we worked with HTS.

He described Turkey’s role as, “a helper of the Syrian people, both humanitarianly and militarily. Not everything is perfect, but we hope that Turkey will live up to the hopes of the Mujahideen and the Syrian people.” He argued that he key to success for the Syrian jihadis is that,

if all the Syrian factions unite completely both militarily and politically, having left all past differences and work together with the Turkish army, then it will be possible to fix everything and return the lost territories, and turn the tide of the entire Syrian jihad.

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Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ is a flawed, ahistorical plan with major health consequences

by Alice Rothchild

The following piece, by JWE Board Member Alice Rothchild, is crossposted from Mondoweiss:

The Trump administration plan for Israel/Palestine, ironically titled “Peace to Prosperity: a vision to improve the lives of the Palestinian and Israeli people,” is a flawed, ahistorical document that is basically a gift to the Israeli government, affirming and giving international blessings to much of the status quo. The document is framed in classic Israeli hasbara: Israelis are peace loving, Palestinians are plagued by violence and terrorism. The struggle is described as intractable, a clash of religions and cultures, that can only be solved by ignoring history and international law and proposing technocratic solutions to political problems and issues of social justice. 

The release of the plan coincided with snarky comments from its authors clearly involving attempts to belittle Palestinians – White House senior advisor Jared Kushner told CNN, if Palestinians reject the plan, “they’re going to screw up another opportunity like they’ve screwed up every other opportunity that they’ve ever had in their existence.” He also said on PBS, “Look, they played the victimhood card. Now, it’s like they want their rights. They want a state[…]Basically what we’re saying to the Palestinians is put up or shut up.”  

Meanwhile, in Gaza the health system is on the verge of collapse. Unemployment has reached nearly 50 percent, the per-person ratio of doctors and nurses has dropped, more than two-thirds of households are food insecure, and just three percent of Gaza’s aquifer water is safe to drink, according to official statistics and aid agencies. 

More than 400,000 university graduates are unemployed. Seventy percent of those under age 30 cannot find work. Back in 2016 Sara Roy of Harvard University’s Centre for Middle Eastern studies warned, “innocent human beings, most of them young, are slowly being poisoned by the water they drink and likely by the soil in which they plant, all with the knowledge and acquiescence of the world community.” Water is contaminated by sewage, salinization, bacteria, and military contamination.  In Gaza this is especially acute for the victims of sniper fire. Bone and tissue biopsies have shown that 83 percent of patients seen by Medicine Sans Frontier in Gaza have infections. “Of those with infections, 62% have multi-resistant organisms like MRSA (methicillin-resistant staph aureus).” Many doctors have left for well-paying jobs abroad.  Medicines, medical supplies and equipment are in short supply. Many of the thousands of people who have been injured by gunshot wounds (while exercising free speech) are at risk of losing limbs, “because the surgeons, medications and supplies needed to prevent amputations are unavailable.”  There is no need to “play the victimhood card,” when two million people are objectively victims of collective punishment and a brutal siege.

Another Trump administration strategy is to bully Palestinian leadership into submission, from defunding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) which supplies care to millions of Palestinian refugees, to removing support for a major tertiary care hospital in East Jerusalem.  Trump also recently stopped all USAID funding to the West Bank and Gaza. UNRWA clinics in the past few years have made major strides with family-based health teams, cooperation within team groups, the use of e-health medical records, the focus on pregnancy and pre and post-natal care and non-infectious chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension and dental care.  Nonetheless, physicians see 70-150 patients per day with two to four-minute visits, there are increasing shortages of medications and a very bureaucratic and inadequately funded system. (Non-emergency cases, like hernia repair, are not covered by UNRWA). Refugee, as well as non-refugee patients in the occupied territories, face a mushrooming fragmentation of their health care “non-system” with care provided by UNRWA, the Ministry of Health, NGOs, and private clinicians with duplications, gaps, and chaos complicated by the priorities of international aid groups and donor agendas. 

Palestinians receive food aid at an aid distribution center run by United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on September 4, 2018. The United States halted all funding to the United Nations agency that helps Palestinian refugees. (Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA Images)

Other countries and institutions are attempting to close the financial shortfall.  The 2018 and 2019 budgets for UNRWA were $1.2 billion for their work in the occupied Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.  With the $500 million in Trump budget cuts, UNRWA launched the #Dignityispriceless campaign to raise money for health and education. Gulf States provided $200 million for essential services and the EU and Saudis provided funding to upgrade buildings that are often dilapidated and desperately in need of renovation and repair. Japan committed approximately $11.15 million for food assistance and a school for 1,000 students in Gaza, and a sewer system in the West Bank. Despite the Emergency Appeal for the West Bank and Gaza, UNRWA was forced to downgrade programs like community mental health and mobile clinics. UNRWA is also responsible for water and sewer infrastructure in the refugee camps, but the funding has not kept up with population growth. 

For 2020, UNRWA has called for at least $1.4 billion for essential services and assistance for projects across the Middle East. Beyond Israel/Palestine, they face daunting needs in Syria, a political crisis in Lebanon, and increasing demands in Jordan. “Many of the 5.6 million registered Palestinian refugees live in 58 camps across the Middle East,” and under international law they are entitled to certain rights such as decent health care, housing, and education.  

The World Bank has also stepped in with a new grant of $9 million “to improve Palestinian early childhood development. The project will expand coverage and quality of services for Palestinian children from gestation until age five.” Predictions by the 2018 Human Capital Index reveal that “a Palestinian child born today will only be 55 percent as productive when she grows up as she could be if she enjoyed complete education and full health.” The project will support prenatal care for pregnant women, adequate child nutrition and growth monitoring, as well as early learning opportunities that are crucial to a child’s development.

In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the U.S. has officially sanctioned the growth of Jewish settlements with the rush of land grabs as Jewish settlers grow ever more aggressive and the very existence and rights of refugees are questioned. This creates rising levels of poverty, depression, and hopelessness while Israeli attacks continue along with increased levels of resistance and militancy.  This produces a steady rise of mostly young men injured and killed by Israeli guns and a stressed health care system unable to meet the escalating needs. 

In addition, public health threats are mounting, from the lack of potable water and massive environmental contamination from military detritus and Israeli spraying of pesticides in Gaza, to the lack of drinking and agricultural water, pollution from settlements and unregulated industrial zones, and severe restrictions in movement and access in the West Bank. 

In the Trump/Kushner plan, there is no recognition of the Nakba, (Catastrophe) – the Palestinian experience of the 1948 Arab/Israeli War, scant mention of the realities of ethnic cleansing, settler colonialism, occupation, siege, or Israeli aggression and duplicity. Oslo failed because of “waves of terror and violence.” Palestinian refugees are mentioned in passing as “pawns” of the powers that be. They are also discussed as the other half of the Jewish refugee problem, an apparent attempt to balance these issues and vaguely hint at the benighted idea that in 1948 a refugee exchange occurred, thus taking this pressing concern off the table.  The plan notes, “The Arab-Israeli conflict created both a Palestinian and Jewish refugee problem.” Gaza is described as “a very complicated situation,” the humanitarian crisis solely due to Hamas and its violence and corruption. The views on Jerusalem, (“The State of Israel has been a good custodian of Jerusalem. During Israel’s stewardship, it has kept Jerusalem open and secure.”) can only be described as alternative and perhaps delusional facts. Claiming that Israel has “already withdrawn from at least 88% of the territory it captured in 1967,” must mean that Kushner is counting the Sinai in his calculations, which is not particularly relevant to this conversation. 

While there is language in the proposal that acknowledges the yearning of Palestinians for self-determination and a better future, and phrases like, “Peace should not demand the uprooting of people – Arab or Jew – from their homes,” the underlying message is clear.  Israeli expansionist and security concerns are paramount, the Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank will remain, the new truncated, mini State of Palestine will be demilitarized and fragmented, the lack of territorial contiguity will be solved by “pragmatic transportation solutions,” “transportation corridors,” and other sleights of hand. Everything will be fine if Palestinians stop resisting, Israel retains massive military and economic superiority, is allowed to continue to expand its borders, and the international community pours billions into the region. Refugee compensation is dismissed in favor of economic assistance. Palestinians must give up their “culture of incitement.” And so on. There is no mention of Israeli culpability or vast military superiority and aggression. Why ever would this be acceptable to Palestinians and their leadership, however damaged that leadership may be?

The utter failure to resolve these issues, to end the occupation and siege, to contain the rightward swing of Israeli politics, to recognize the political and human rights of Palestinians, will be part of Trump’s sordid legacy. An emasculated mini-state is not the answer to these life and death matters.

This plan cannot possibly be supported by those who care about a viable future for Israelis and Palestinians and by those who understand the realities on the ground. In this time of rising autocrats, fascistic and racist policies, and profound disinformation, governments and their institutions are failing. The need to be educated about this crucial corner of the Middle East and to support a strong boycott, divestment, and sanction campaign to create political and economic pressure and to challenge the current discourse is ever more acute. 

Alice Rothchild is a physician, author, and filmmaker who has focused her interest in human rights and social justice on the Israel/Palestine conflict since 1997. She practiced ob-gyn for almost 40 years. Until her retirement she served as Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Harvard Medical School. She writes and lectures widely, is the author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience, On the Brink: Israel and Palestine on the Eve of the 2014 Gaza Invasion, and Condition Critical: Life and Death in Israel/Palestine. She directed a documentary film, Voices Across the Divide and is active in Jewish Voice for Peace. Follow her at @alicerothchild

Photo credit: Patients at the MSF clinic in Gaza. (Doctors without Borders/Medicins sans Frontieres)

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Julian Assange and Latin America

by Rick Sterling

The following article, by JWE Board Member Rick Sterling, is crossposted from Resumen Latinoamericano.

In mid-January, I went to London England to research what is happening with Julian Assange. We could not visit him. He is in Belmarsh Maximum Security prison and even his lawyers could only see him for two hours over the entire previous month.  This despite the fact he is facing extradition to the USA and possible life imprisonment.

On Saturday, January 19, we took the London metro to the end of the line, and then walked a couple miles to Belmarsh prison. We joined the dedicated supporters who demonstrate in support of Assange every Saturday. On special occasions, there is a major event with hundreds or thousands of participants. But every Saturday, rain or shine, there is an action supporting Assange during the afternoon in front of Belmarsh Prison and in the evening in Trafalgar Square in downtown London.

The dedicated supporters of Assange are strikingly international and Latin American. The organizer of the Belmarsh action was Cristina, a Brazilian woman who has lived in England for 20 years. The person with the megaphone was Clara, who left Chile after the 1973 Pinochet coup. With a Chilean accent, she explained to passersby, “Julian Assange is one of the greatest journalists of our day. He must be freed. Julian, we love you!” Elise, originally from Colombia, was yet another Assange supporter. We met other impressive individuals who are dedicating part of their lives to supporting Julian Assange. There was Larry from Australia. Six months ago Larry arrived in England to do anything he could to support Julian. There is Reiko, a young woman of Japanese descent.  After Julian was taken to Belmarsh Prison his supporters set up a tent camp on the avenue in front of the prison. Supporters stayed there round the clock until the tents and bicycles were confiscated by authorities.

Progressive leaders of Latin America are also supporting Julian Assange. The former president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, took the brave and bold step of granting Julian Assange asylum in the Ecuador Embassy. That was his safe haven from arrest for seven long years. Correa even granted Julian Ecuador citizenship in an attempt to block the US from seizing him.

Unfortunately, the next Ecuador government succumbed to US bullying and bribery. Suddenly there were “problems” with Julian staying in the Embassy. While huge protests against the unpopular Lenín Moreno government took place in Ecuador, the Ecuador embassy in London made life increasingly difficult for Assange. They allowed a private contractor, paid by the US, to spy on him 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, including during meetings with his attorneys. In April 2019, the Ecuadoran government revoked Julian Assange’s Ecuadorian citizenship and asylum and allowed British police to seize him. He is now imprisoned at Belmarsh Maximum security prison pending an extradition hearing.

In addition to Rafael Correa, numerous other Latin American leaders have spoken out for Julian Assange. Former Brazilian President Ignácio Lula da Silva criticized the arrest of Julian Assange as “an attacked on freedom of expression.”

Evo Morales, former president of Bolivia, has said, “We strongly condemn the detention of Julian Assange and the violation of freedom of speech. Our solidarity is with this brother who is persecuted by the US government for bringing to light its human rights violations, murders of civilians and diplomatic espionage.”

Mexican President Lopez Obrador has called for Assange to be released, noting that Wikileaks has “demonstrated how the world system functions in its authoritarian nature.”

The support for Assange is well placed. He and the Wikileaks team have exposed US meddling, manipulations and worse in Latin America. As Julian Assange explained in his introduction to the book The Wikileaks Files, “Perhaps no region in the world demonstrates the full spectrum of the US imperial interference as vividly as Latin America.”

Chapters of the book synthesize important findings in the nearly 2.5 million US State Department records and cables. As Assange says, “The cables demonstrate  a smooth continuity between the brutal US policy in Latin America during the Cold War and the more sophisticated plays at toppling governments that have taken place in recent years…the use of USAID and ‘civil society’…pursuing ‘regime change’ in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Haiti.” The cables reveal the intensity of US intervention against Venezuela and that the State Department over-ruled the conclusion of their embassy in the 2009 Honduras coup. The embassy was explicit that the overthrow and kidnapping of President Zelaya was a coup, but this was downplayed in Washington.

The cables confirm corporate influence in US foreign policy. For example, the US Embassy in Quito sought to prevent Ecuador from developing its own pharmaceutical industry to replace expensive US drugs.

Julian Assange is an Australian journalist whose “crime” is that he led a group which broadcast information that US authorities did not want revealed. Secretary of State and former CIA Director Mike Pompeo has called Wikileaks a “hostile non-state intelligence agency bent on the destruction of the United States.” That is not true. US policies do not have to be based on intervention, aggression, violations of international law and hypocrisy. In fact, most US citizens, as well as Latin Americans, are hurt by these policies.

In Argentina, former president and current Vice President Cristina Kirchner has said, “In the upside-down world, false news circulates freely and those who reveal the truth are persecuted and imprisoned.”

It is crucial for press freedom that Julian Assange be freed and NOT extradited to the US.

For background and latest news, see

Rick Sterling is a journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area

Photo credit: Julian Assange with Ecuador’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ricardo Patiño in the London embassy in 2014. David G Silvers/Cancillería del Ecuador (Creative Commons)

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Weaponizing Lawfare in The Philippines

by Richard Falk

This piece is crossposted from Global Justice in the 21st Century, the blog of JWE Board Member Richard Falk.

[Prefatory Note: The following text is the transcript of my presentation by video transmission to a Forum held in Manila on February 21, 2020 in support of Senator Leila De Lima who has been detained in prison for many months on spurious charges of drug trafficking. Such a case is an example of ‘weaponizing law’ (regressive lawfare) to carry out the anti-democratic policies of a fairly elected autocrat, which in the case of Rodrigo Duterte, despite leaving by now a long trail of blood-stained abuse, retains an approval rating of more than 80%. As in the United States, we ask the question that prompted the leading thinkers in ancient Athens to abandon democracy—‘how can we trust the citizenry if they are drawn to support demagogues whose policies are self-destructive for the political community?” If not, the people, then whom? Surely, not the financial oligarchs. Plutocracy is not the answer.]

Weaponizing Lawfare in The Philippines

 Good Afternoon:

I salute those who have convened and are participating in this International Forum on Lawfare, and wish that I could have been with you in person to share this experience directly rather than addressing you from a distance. The title of the conference accurately identifies the core of the challenge facing the people of the Philippines: ‘Weaponizing the Law v. Democratic Dissent.’ The prolonged detention and framing of Senator Leila M. de Lima, not only a brave and dedicated political figure, but an elected member of the Senate of the Philippines, is a shocking reminder of how abuses of power occur in a country that claims to be a constitutional democracy.

Senator de Lima’s tragic saga, gives an anguished concreteness to the challenge being mounted by the President Rodrigo Duterte’s Government against freedom of expression and associated right of political dissent. What this pattern represents, above all, is the distorted application of law and the manipulation of basic institutions of government. This means, in practice, that law does not serve its proper role of protecting citizens against abuses by the state, but rather functions as an instrument of naked power deployed by the state against notable critics and opposition figures, including person elected to the highest offices in the land. Under these circumstances law becomes an instrument of the authoritarian designs of an oppressive political leader. Such a leader views criticism not as part of the essential give and take of a political democracy, but rather as an impermissible assault on his leadership, almost reducing political leadership to a menacing call for unquestioning obedience on the part of citizens. Even elected members of the most prominent legislative and judicial institutions of the country are commanded to obey or expect harmful consequences. It is against this background that I wish to offer some thoughts on ‘lawfare’ as a weapon of the powerful, displacing law from its appropriate role as a source of restraint that ensures the just exercise of power. Under autocratic leadership lawfare can function as an inquisitorial tool, as here, for the suppression of Senator de Lima, a deservedly revered and until detained, a leading legislative presence in The Philippines.

There are four preliminary observations that I wish to make:

–first, what is happening in The Philippines is taking place, in a variety of formats throughout much of the world; it is a global trend that threatens not only democracy, but the protection of human rights, the constitutional structure of government based on checks and balances, the dignity of individual citizens, and the independence of persons elected to serve in government; law is being deployed as a weapon of government to be used against the citizen, especially against persons with political credibility and high national stature as is the case with Senator de Lima;

–secondly, such repressive uses of law by leaders is not new, although its widespread and flagrant use by democratically elected governments that enjoy popular support among the citizenry is a rather new and deeply disturbing phenomenon, especially in the current setting of ultra-nationalist backlashes against neoliberal globalization that along the way gave rise to mass support for political demagogues in a series of countries in different parts of the world, suggesting its systemic character;

–thirdly, and most significantly, lawfare as such should not be uncritically condemned, but rather its use as a means to deny basic rights should be unconditionally exposed, opposed, and rejected. The manipulation of lawfare to serve regressive ends is particularly perverse, considering that lawfare has the potential, when properly deployed in the pursuit of justice.

To illustrate this duality I offer a current example drawn from recent European and North American experience. Criminalizing as hate speech or anti-Semitism criticism of Israel’s policies and practices is a clear case of regressive lawfare, but recourse by Palestine to the International Criminal Court to investigate allegations of Israeli criminality is illustrative of progressive lawfare. It is important to distinguish between these contradictory roles of law—as repressive and as emancipatory. The Palestinian BDS Campaign seeks boycott, divestment, and sanctions as lawful resistance against the apartheid practices of the Israeli state, and in my view, this is a nonviolent political campaign that convincingly relies on legal claims of Israeli wrongdoing to strengthen the pursuit of justice..

–fourthly, having made this conceptual point about the two faces of lawfare, in this presentation I will focus on its negative dimensions in ways that pertain to the case before us. I precede this assessment with a short observation about being attentive to lawfare’s progressive relevance to Senator de Lima’s plight.

Civil society activism can also claim to invoke the law to undermine the legitimacy of an abusive governing process. Many years ago, during the Marcos reign of power in The Philippines, I worked closely with Walden Bello to organize a session of the Permanent Peoples Tribunal in Brussels that listen to the testimony of witnesses and carefully documented the crimes of the Marcos government as perpetrated against the citizenry of the country. The proceedings of the tribunal produced a devastating record of abuse of state power, which when published, helped prepared the atmosphere for what later became the People Power Movement of the 1980s. In terms of lawfare, this civil society initiative was an example of progressive lawfare. Similar tribunal initiatives have been undertaken in many settings around the world to exhibit the abusiveness of government, especially when conventional means of judicial address are unavailable. I believe such a civil tribunal format might possess a similar potential in the present context if formal legal defense procedures now being pursued by a team of highly respected lawyers should fail to restore the rights, win freedom and fully exonerate Senator Leila M. de Lima in a manner that allows her to resume her legislative duties.

The  Distinctive Challenge of Regressive Lawfare in the Context of Constitutional Democracy

The reliance by autocracies on repressive lawfare is neither surprising nor new, although this terminology was not previously used. Whether the autocratic political form is monarchical, fascist, or communist the use of law to impose its will on society occasions little commentary as it is taken for granted that such a governance style is a common and integral feature of all anti-democratic forms of governance. For constitutional democracies the story has been much different in the past, and thus recent developments raise profound concerns about the future of democracy given recent assaults on its respect for fundamental rights. We should not exaggerate. There have been regrettable aspects of constitutional legal orders that have relied on repressive uses of law, for instance, apartheid South Africa, which possessed a constitutional framework to validate its exploitation and oppression of non-whites, and their exclusion from civil rights. Racism was seen as so much part of the South African political system as to occasion little distinct commentary on its repressive uses of law beyond the realization that overcoming such structural lawfare depended on achieving a radical political transformation. Piecemeal corrective measures would not rid South Africa of the political virus of apartheid, only a total repudiation of the ideology and practice of apartheid could restore the rule of law for all South Africans regardless of their skin color.

In recent years, especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, national security discourse in the United States has been a battleground for contesting ideas about how lawfare was used and misused. National security hawks contending that according due process protection to those suspected of terrorist activities was ‘lawfare’ that interfered with national security imperatives requiring reliance on ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques to obtain the information needed to protect the citizenry against terrorist threats. In sharp disagreement, civil libertarians invoked law and civil rights to oppose and denounce the demonization of Muslims and the accompanying denial of rights to those accused of criminal activities that supposedly endangered national security. This reliance on law as distinct from negative lawfare was also highly critical of the government’s slight of hand– officially calling ‘torture’ enhanced interrogation, and thus evading condemnation for lawlessness. Only apologists for torture allowed themselves to be manipulated.

The struggles between defense lawyers and government lawyers at the Guantanamo prison facility is one phase of this wider drama in which what is at stake is how far the law is bent to serve the purposes of a constitutional state that claims to be dealing with grave threats to its security. It has long been affirmed, and generally tolerated, that in times of war, law is silent, or almost so, and yet it is also true that anti-war activists have increasingly challenged such silence by insisting on the applicability of law regardless of circumstances.

The mass internment of Japanese, as a group, with legal residence in the West Coast, for alleged national security reasons at the start of World War II after the Pearl Harbor attacks, was a fundamental abuse of individuals rights to due process by the U.S. Government, but upheld by the majority of judges in the US Supreme Court, which lent its legal authority and prestige to this negative instance of lawfare. To this day, Japanese internment remains a major regrettable departure from the rule of law in the United States but is considered, not entirely accurately, as an exception, later gathering apologies and expressions of regret from presidents and other political leaders. This kind of departures from the rule of law in wartime, although to be opposed in defense of democratic values, is something different and less serious than the lawfare tactics of autocratic leaders seeking to stifle dissent and discredit opposition in state/society relations. These tactics, if successful, engulf all branches of government, having the effect of disabling democracy altogether. The regressive impact of such lawfare extends beyond the concrete abuse of an individual, however prominent. Such tactics intimidate many more than they punish, and thereby act to pacify society as a whole at the very time when the citizenry needs to be mobilized to protect the integrity of a political system that safeguards rather than punishes participation by the citizenry, including dissent and opposition.

A further somewhat ambiguous dimension of lawfare can be seen in the imposition of punishment via the application of law to surviving leaders of the losing side in a war, as was the case after World War II at the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials of German and Japanese leaders accused of committing international crimes. Should the one-sidedness of such uses of law, so-called ‘victors’ justice’ be regarded as one category of regressive lawfare, or is the punishment of individuals who perpetrated terrible acts be treated as a contribution to constructing a global rule of law, and thus should be viewed as an instance of flawed, yet still progressive lawfare. This is an example of the ambiguity of lawfare in concrete circumstance. Lawfare can be viewed either positively or negatively depending on overall context and the motivations behind invoking and perceiving law. Let me be clear. There is no ambiguity in relation to Senator de Lima’s case. It is without doubt an extreme instance of negative lawfare.

What we have seen around the world with the emergence of such leaders as Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, and Duterte is this new phenomenon of democratic electoral procedures elevating and even sustaining anti-democratic leaders despite their abuse of positions of preeminent authority to obstruct and punish those in the opposition by manipulating law and even the most basic government institutions to serve the purposes of power at the expense of justice. This is not a matter of deference to security claims made under wartime pressures and contexts of national emergency, although such pretexts are generally relied upon, presumed, and greatly exaggerated, even absent such security threats. Autocrats tend to explain and justify why a controversial particular action is taken by fictitious reasoning or why a formerly respected person is made to seem guilty by distorting normal legal practice. These tactics involve deliberate manipulations of law and government procedures, including the erosion and subversion of the vital independence of legislative and judicial institutions to cripple opposition politics by criminalizing its leading opponents. In the process, if unopposed and persistent, the very status of a constitutional political order is drawn into question.

There are those in the United States who view Trumpism as pre-fascist, or worse, and fear that his reelection in 2020 would mean the de facto replacement of democracy with fascism. In the recent impeachment process, we observed a polarized and Congress divided along partisan lines as to the application of diverse forms of lawfare, with the Democrats using impeachment as an intended and seemingly responsible reaction against severe abuses of power, in effect, a legal instrument designed in exceptional circumstances to rid the country of a profound threat to its system of government. In opposition, the Republicans stand firm behind their autocratically inclined leader, condemning recourse to impeachment as regressive lawfare, placing party discipline above fidelity to the rule of law and their oath of office to uphold the Constitution. This major setback for the rule of law in America ominously warns us that even in long established political democracies opportunistic politics can overwhelm constitutional protections against abuses of state power.

When addressing the realities that have been discussed these past days, it seems clear that we are in this case seeking to protect not only Senator de Lima, but the people of The Philippines as a whole against regressive lawfare. There is little ambiguity when dissent is muffled by criminalizing the dissenter, as here, although the real and unworthy motivations for such accusations are hidden beneath clouds of false and inflammatory accusations of criminality, as here.

In a deeply disturbing resemblance to the Trump impeachment experience, Senator de Lima has also been victimized by Duterte partisanship in the Senate, including being deprived of the opportunity to serve the people who her elected her to office for a term that does not expire until 2022. While detained in prison she has been denied the right to vote on legislative issues and to participate in debates. She has even been removed from her role as Chair of the Committee on Justice & Human Rights in apparent retaliation for accusing the Duterte policies of unlawful extra-judicial executions of persons accused of dealing in drugs. While acting against Senator de Lima, she was attacked in unspeakably vulgar terms by Duterte partisans in language that was a vicious form of character assassination. This Forum by calling wider public attention to this abuse of Senator de Lima by all branches of government is based on the hope that the resilience of Filipino constitutionalism will come even now to the rescue not just of a single individual but in a manner that restores confidence that the rule of law can function under the altered conditions of political democracy in The Philippines.  

What Can Be Done

Responding to regressive lawfare as effectively as possible depends, in the first instance, on assessing the context, above all the degree to which executive authority, judicial independence, and legislative autonomy are operating within constitutional limits. If the deviation from adherence to the rule of law is partial, exceptional, and seems reversible, then a maximum effort should be made to make intelligent use of formal legal procedures as provided. Such professional lawyering should be supplemented, to the extent possible, by media coverage and the engagement of academic experts that exposes the political nature of any misuse of law, arousing a responsive public opinion. Such extra-legal pressure in a political system that maintains its claims of democratic legitimacy can be effective in persuading wavering judges and conformist legislators to do the right thing, and at least refrain from doing the wrong thing.

The challenge is more difficult where the institutions of government have been repeatedly subverted by the autocratic leader, and especially under conditions where the opposition media has been eliminated or cowed into submission, and popular protest activity is being met by harsh police tactics. Of course, such assessments should take account of nuances and the extent to which a leader seeks to avoid being nationally and internationally branded as an abusive autocrat.

Unfortunately, at the present time the overall political atmosphere makes resistance to lawfare more difficult as the combination of ultra-nationalism and right-wing populist leadership has become widespread, including in several countries previously considered reliable custodians stalwarts of liberal constitutionalism. In gentler times, international efforts to mount petition campaigns by prominent citizens around the world in defense of a ‘political prisoner’ were often successful, and still may be worthwhile

in a case of this sort where such a respected and prominent elected official is being victimized by such a crude recourse to lawfare. Autocracy is almost always a matter of degree, especially if free elections remain. If opposition politics are tolerated, then it remains possible sometimes to challenge the system effectively, as happened recently in Turkey when a much watched election of the mayor of Istanbul was won by a political leader in an opposition party. This, in turn, may lead the government to restore some liberal features of governance, which some commentators claim has modestly happened in Turkey in recent months. Autocrats prefer to act in the dark, using their control over media and supporters to smear opponents. Senator de Lima’s case is an extreme example of law gone wrong, a pattern of injustice being challenged to the extent possible by courageous and highly professional lawyers, but this may not be enough. Other course of action, including progressive lawfare, should be under consideration if further attempts to render justice on behalf of Senator de Lima do not succeed.

I would mention a few additional possibilities that deserve careful evaluation, and possible adoption, especially if human and financial resources are available:

–enlisting the support of nationally and internationally respected NGOs, encouraging the preparation of a public report on abuse of rights and regressive lawfare in The Philippines; Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have often been effective over the years in documenting abuse, and exerting some leverage;

–filing allegations via Special Rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, including the SR for the Right to Freedom of Expression,   to evaluate these multiple abuses, reporting to the 47 governments in an open session of the Human Rights Council, passing a resolution, and sending a letter of allegation to the government of The Philippines are steps worth consideration; in this regard, it is relevant to note that The Philippines is an elected member of the Human Rights Council, and likely does not want its reputation tarnished within the institution;

–explore the possibility of organizing an international civil society tribunal, possibly outside the country, along the lines of such an initiative taken during the Marcos presidency or possible modelled on the Iraq War Tribunal of 2005. Autocratic leaders are allergic to procedures that document their abuses and crimes, and pass judgment based on the conscience of moral authority figures, the testimony of victims, and the opinions of legal experts. The subsequent published and disseminated proceedings of such a tribunal can become a valuable mobilizing instrument of progressive lawfare;

–less formally, yet along the same lines, would be the preparation of a dossier on Senator de Lima’s experience that could be shared confidentially with sympathetic political leaders around the world.

Concluding Comment

It is definitely a positive sign of a degree of democratic resilience in The Philippines that a conference of this kind can be organized and go forward. It will be a test of sorts as to whether the Duterte government will extend its use of regressive lawfare to uphold the suppression of dissent and criticism. In my reading of the legal briefs and documents pertaining to Senator de Lima’s case, I am convinced of her innocence and her victimization. I believe that the impact of this Forum will help determine whether bringing her terrible experience to light will induce the Manila government belatedly to salvage its international reputation to some extent by dropping charges. She has been fortunate to have the benefit of an outstanding Chief of Staff, Fhillip Sawali, who works in coordination with Senator de Lima’s well-respected team of lawyers. Senator de Lima also has the high-profile support of such international admired warriors of human rights and democracy as Walden Bello. I fervently wish Senator de Lima a deservedly bright future in her struggle, which iss also a struggle for the soul of the country. It has been a privilege for me to have this opportunity to participate in this Forum. I wish you all the best for now and in the future. 

Photo credit: Alex Nuevaespaña, Public Relation and Information Bureau (original here), Senate of the Philippines

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