Saturday, December 28, 2013

"I'm gonna tell God everything."

This heartbreaking Twitter message from 
a three-year old Syrian child before he died.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Federal Reserve Banking -- A Facebook Colloquy

Blogging is going the way of scrapbooks, a relic of bygone days not likely to be seen or appreciated by future generations. But in the same way that other generations saved magazine clippings, event tickets, dried pressed flowers and other mementos -- carefully taping or pasting them into the pages of an album -- personal blogs are a repository of memories from the opening days of the Web. That is the context of this otherwise inconsequential blog post.  


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Syria -- Assad May Remain

This report gives me, and I'm sure everyone else, mixed feelings.  Assad and his fellow-Alawites live in one of the world's roughest neighborhoods and are fighting for survival. The fact that he and they are in control in Syria is an accident of history.

I'm not an academic, but I have read enough to know that calling Alawites a branch of Islam is like calling Unitarian-Universalism a branch of Christianity. The statements have more to do with politics than theology. By building a formidable military and allowing a mixture of ethnic and confessional groups to co-exist, even flourish in Syria, the Assad family has prevailed by playing off super-powers both East and West against each other since the end of Colonial domination. In many ways his methods of maintaining control have not been importantly different from those of other countries in the region -- and yes, that includes Israel. So far, this is a movie with mostly bad guys.

Exclusive: West signals to Syrian opposition Assad may stay
Amman, Dec 18

(Reuters) - Western nations have indicated to the Syrian opposition that peace talks next month may not lead to the removal of President Bashar al-Assad and that his Alawite minority will remain key in any transitional administration, opposition sources said. 
The message, delivered to senior members of the Syrian National Coalition at a meeting of the anti-Assad Friends of Syria alliance in London last week, was prompted by rise of al Qaeda and other militant groups, and their takeover of a border crossing and arms depots near Turkey belonging to the moderate Free Syrian Army, the sources told Reuters. 
"Our Western friends made it clear in London that Assad cannot be allowed to go now because they think chaos and an Islamist militant takeover would ensue," said one senior member of the Coalition who is close to officials from Saudi Arabia. 
Noting the possibility of Assad holding a presidential election when his term formally ends next year, the Coalition member added: "Some do not even seem to mind if he runs again next year, forgetting he gassed his own people." 
The shift in Western priorities, particularly the United States and Britain, from removing Assad towards combating Islamist militants is causing divisions within international powers backing the nearly three-year-old revolt, according to diplomats and senior members of the coalition. 
Like U.S. President Barack Obama's rejection of air strikes against Syria in September after he accused Assad's forces of using poison gas, such a diplomatic compromise on a transition could narrow Western differences with Russia, which has blocked United Nations action against Assad, but also widen a gap in approach with the rebels' allies in the Middle East.

The civil war pits Assad and many Alawites, backed by Iran and its Shi'ite Muslim allies, against Sunni Muslim rebels supported by Turkey, Libya and Sunni Gulf Arab states.
Unlike in Libya in 2011, the West has ruled out military intervention, leaving militant Islamists including al Qaeda affiliates to emerge as the most formidable rebel force, raising alarm among Washington and its allies that Syria, which borders Israel and Iraq, has become a center for global jihad. 
Saudi Arabia and Turkey, however, believe that tackling militants is less of a priority, with Sunni power Riyadh in particular furious at what it considers U.S. appeasement of Assad and his Iranian Shi'ite backers. Riyadh sent only a junior diplomat to the Friends of Syria meeting in London.

Also signaling differences with Washington, opposition activists in Syria have said that Turkey has let a weapons consignment cross into Syria to the Islamic Front, the rebel group that overran the Bab al-Hawa border crossing last week, seizing arms and Western equipment supplied to non-Islamists.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Street Children -- Not What You Think

This re-tweet by Issandr el-Amrani of a blog post by Amira El Feky is not what most readers expect. The term homeless is used carelessly by most of us who think we know what it means.  Some small minority who have experienced homelessness have some understanding, but for those growing up literally living and working on the streets, especially children, it is a different universe of reference.

I know nothing about Ms. El Feky other than what I am about to blog, but she has insights that ring disturbingly clear and her work deserves to be more widely recognized and imitated.  Her blog is entitled STREET GIRLS – بنات شوارع, subtitled NOTES FROM MY RESEARCH ON FEMALE STREET CHILDREN IN EGYPT.  Here is her post linked by Issandr el-Amrani:

Sleeping in the street: “I could stay awake for three days”
By Amira El Feky
All names have been changed as to protect the identities of the research participants.

When I began interviewing female street children about their lives in the street, I was interested to learn how they spend their days, what sort of violence they might exert or be subjected to, how they make a living and what they are afraid of. My questions addressed their day- and night-time activities in the street. It was only after a few weeks that I became aware that I had not sufficiently focused on the hours during which street children sleep.

Most of us are the most vulnerable when asleep. Our eyes are closed, our ears do not pay much attention to what is going on around us. Being so vulnerable, we need to be safe to go to sleep. This is why, although we use the street on a daily basis and we are not afraid, we would never consider sleeping in it. We resort to a safe place, to our home, where our vulnerability does not subject us to immediate danger. Children who sleep in the street rarely have this choice.They must find ways of creating safe spaces where they can sleep. In the street, a lot of effort goes into planning the hours of sleep, an effort that is unknown to most non-street people. When I realised how substantially important being unharmed while sleeping had to be for the children and when I began to ask more questions, I found that there were different ways in which my research participants dealt with the issue of sleep.

“I would never be fast asleep”

Some girls, like Yasmin (16), explained that it was practically impossible for them to relax and actually rest when asleep.

I didn’t sleep right. In the street, I had a very light sleep. If somebody would touch me like this [touches her arm], I would immediately wake up. […]I would be aware of myself. I would never be fast asleep, so I could feel everything.

For the sake of her safety, Yasmin denied herself what many other people take for granted. In the street, she had no chance to have a night of restful sleep and to gain energy for the next day without being anxious about whether she would be harmed by potential predators. Yasmin explained to me that, after months in the street, she had the first night of real sleep in a shelter, where she knew that she would not be harmed. Before that, she could not afford deep sleep, as it meant being completely exposed to potential assaulters.

“I would sleep next to a woman”

A very common way of being able to sleep in the street is to not sleep alone but next to another person or with a group. Fayza (14) explained to me that it was the company of another woman that made her feel safe at night.
A: Were you afraid when sleeping in the street at night?
F: No. I would sleep next to a woman.
In order for Fayza to be able to ‘let go’ and come close to what most non-street people do, which is sleep without constant fear, she had to find a guardian whose mere presence protected her in the street. The woman she was sleeping next to did not actually protect her from assault. She did not physically defend her and yet she made Fayza feel safe.

However, seeking this kind of protection can come at a high price. Salma (14) had to pay 20 Egyptian Pounds per night to be able to sleep under a bridge with an adult woman and other street children (this equals a monthy rent of 600 EGP, for which one would be able to rent a room or an apartment in Cairo). Dalia (14) would sell paper tissues for another woman, just to be able to sleep next to her.
A: How did this go with the paper tissues?
D: She [a woman sleeping in a tent in Tahrir Square] would give them to me and I would sell them for her.
A: Did you give her all the money?
D: Yes.
A: But what was in it for you?
D: Nothing was in it for me. She […] let me sleep next to her.
Sleeping next to somebody else constitutes in itself a means of protection. Many girls believe that it is the presence of other people that decreases their vulnerability and that protects them while they are asleep, and they are willing to pay for this protection.

“I could stay awake for three days”

Before Dalia (14) moved to Tahrir, she was living on the North Coast of Egypt, near Damietta. In order to protect herself, Dalia decided not to sleep during the night at all.
A: You also told me that sometimes you would stay up at night and sleep during the day. Why?
D: So that nobody can harm me.
A: Can you only be harmed at night?
D: Yes, during the day nobody can do anything to me.
A: How did you manage to stay awake?
D: There are screens on the beach, you find them everywhere on the beach. Screens and people sitting in front of them. I would stay with them until six o’ clock in the morning.
Every night, Dalia would go to one of the open-air cinemas on the beach to watch films and to stay awake. In her opinion, sleeping made her vulnerable, especially when she slept during the night. During the day, she felt protected by the presence of passersby and other street children. At night, anything could happen. Dalia lived like this for months, turning her daily rhythm around and being awake only at night.

Yasmin (16) did not go to the cinema every night but she, too, saw the benefit of staying awake at night and found her own way of doing so.
A: How did you manage to stay awake?
Y: Just like that. I could stay awake for three days or five days.
A: Did you take pills to stay awake?
Y: Yes, I would go and buy them from the pharmacy. I would tell them “I want a pill because I’m working in the street. I need to be awake all the time” and I would get it.
Yasmin who was not very interested in drugs, who never smoked or drank in the street, resorted to a rather drastic measure to keep herself from falling asleep. She began using stimulants that did not give her any satisfaction except the ability to stay awake for days. It is hard to comprehend how her decision to take drugs must have affected her.

Sleep is so relevant and most non-street people are so unaware of it. When talking about street children, one often discusses the seemingly most obvious problems, such as poverty, aloneness or the exposure to violence. The actual deprivation of sleep is hardly discussed nor seen as an immense challenge in the lives of children and adults who sleep in the street. However, the physical and psychological distress caused by sleep deprivation was of substantial relevance in the lives of the girls who participated in my research. Their insights showed me quite plainly that street children are the most distressed when non-street people are the most relaxed. While we look forward to a good night’s sleep, many children in the street fear their own tiredness. Apart from the discomfort of sleeping on a piece of cardboard on a pavement or in a public garden, sleep time is always also the time of danger and vulnerability, rather than of relaxation and letting go.

Something tells me this young woman is studying the tip of an iceberg. I was a big fan of Slumdog Millionaire and The Kite Runner, both of which allow the viewer to glimpse worlds not unlike those described here. But the everyday lives of the characters, somewhat glamorized in those films, are even more grim than we want to believe. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Anderson's "Lawrence in Arabia" -- Book Review

What is being called a civil war in Syria is much more than what that term usually indicates. That conflict is better understood as a microcosm of historic rivalries with roots in the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Russ Wellen's review of a new book about T.E. Lawrence gives the reader a richer appreciation of this ancient battleground.  I have taken the liberty of re-posting it here.
Ignored at Our Own Peril
By Russ Wellen

The name Lawrence of Arabia was bestowed upon T.E. Lawrence as if he were an earl, such as Mountbatten of Burma, not by the British crown, though, but by journalist and showman Lowell Thomas, who helped turn the man into a myth. Lawrence’s popularity and legend ebbed and flowed in the decades following World War I. But it kicked into another gear when, twenty-seven years after Lawrence’s death, David Lean directed his epic biopic Lawrence of Arabia. In recent years, Lawrence’s legacy has once again undergone a resurgence.

One reason is his fight with and for the Arabs of today’s Saudi Arabia. Openly and militarily, to free the Arabs from the Ottoman Empire; secretly and diplomatically, to try to make the British honor their initial promise of the Arabs’ right to self-determination. The extent to which the British (and French) prevailed in denying this right against lonely voices such as Lawrence’s is viewed today as helping sow the seeds for the discord and tyrannies that have plagued the Middle East ever since, culminating, of course, in the US invasions and sieges of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Another reason can be filed under the category of irony: the commanders of those very US operations were apparently influenced by Lawrence’s guerilla war tactics. In the words of Major Niel Smith, formerly of the US Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center, Lawrence was the “patron saint of the US Army advisory effort in Afghanistan and Iraq.” General David Petraeus disseminated a briefing of Lawrence’s titled “Twenty-Seven Articles” and John Nagl, coauthor of the 2006 US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, said: “What Lawrence gave us was an appreciation of [working] through our local allies…And also a sense of the independence of thought and action that is required both for good insurgent leaders and, in many cases, for good counterinsurgency leaders.” Thus the innovative tactics Lawrence developed for insurgency were flipped to counterinsurgency.

A third reason Lawrence’s story strikes a chord today is that his life and autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, present a case study in that modern plague, post-traumatic stress disorder.

In Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Doubleday, 2013), veteran journalist Scott Anderson makes Lawrence’s timeliness abundantly clear. In the process, he also sheds some light on other Westerners in the Middle East who could be characterized as independent actors. These include Aaron Aarohnson, the Zionist agronomist who helped make what would later become Israel habitable, and American William Yale, who spearheaded Socony’s cold-blooded plunder of the Middle East’s oil before he became a diplomat. But, we will focus on Lawrence, to whom the bulk of the book is devoted, and provide a broad outline of his quest for Arab self-determination.

How did Thomas Edward Lawrence, an English archaeologist with a passion for medieval history, come to be embraced by natives of Arabia’s Hejaz region, which contained religious sites Mecca and Medina, and play such an outsized role in history?

To begin with, Lawrence was supremely driven. Here’s how he spent his last summer at Oxford: to survey nearly all the Crusader castles in Syria, he journeyed over 1,000 miles across its deserts and mountain ranges with temperatures reaching 120 degrees on foot. Forewarned that he’d be met with threats of bodily harm, Lawrence instead found that he was overwhelmed with hospitality. His physical toughness can be traced back to a stern Christian mother with a penchant for severe physical punishment, which Lawrence prided himself on enduring without a whimper.

After Oxford, Lawrence returned to Syria for a British Museum archaeological dig. While helping to discover an important temple, he also got a first-hand look at the decline of the Ottoman Empire. The British government soon enlisted his familiarity with the region in a map-mapping expedition to route possible paths of attack by the Ottomans and Germans in the event of war, which soon broke out.

Drawing back from Lawrence to view the big picture of World War I, Anderson adds his own eloquent voice to the chorus that has lamented the futility of the Great War.
[S]tripped of all its high-minded justifications and rhetoric, at its core this war had many of the trappings of an extended family feud, a chance for Europe’s kings and emperors—many of them related by blood—to act out old grievances and personal slights on to the heaped bodies of their loyal subjects. In turn, Europe’s imperial structure had fostered a culture of decrepit military elites—aristocrats and aging war heroes and palace sycophants—whose sheer incompetence on the battlefield, as well as callousness toward those dying for them, was matched only by that of their rivals.
Because the Ottoman Empire was a weak link among the Central Powers (which, besides the German Empire, also included the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Kingdom of Bulgaria, as opposed to the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia), the British saw the Middle East theater as an opportunity to make gains significantly more marked than the mere meters measured out at Marnes or Ypres. Thus did they make the decision to aid the Arabs in their rebellion against the Turks, stoking Arab dreams of a greater Arabia including Syria to the north.

When Emir Hussein, tribal and religious leader of the Hejaz, indicated a willingness to join forces with the British, Lawrence determined that his dynamic son, Faisal ibn Hussein, was perfectly poised to act as the Arabs’ military leader—with Lawrence as liaison. Aside from his knowledge of the language, love of the people, and physical toughness, what made Lawrence such a good candidate to co-direct the Arab rebellion? Anderson explains:
[W]arfare in early-twentieth-century Arabia bore striking similarities to that in fourteenth-century Europe. [Lawrence] found many of the features of the Arabian battlefield instantly recognizable, and certainly far more familiar than to a professionally trained officer steeped in Napoleonic or even current Western Front precepts.
In addition, Lawrence demonstrated a first-rate strategic mind. For example, in the early years, the British were intent on capturing Medina. Lawrence’s plan for accomplishing that was light years ahead of the British military mind. Anderson again:
The proper strategy going forward, in Lawrence’s new estimation, was to keep the Turks settled into Medina almost indefinitely. [Thus] the Arabs could take their rebellion into Syria and pursue the same strategy there: ceding the larger garrison towns to the Turks while they roamed the countryside striking at soft spots of their choosing, constantly disrupting the enemy supply lines until the Turkish presence was limited to an atoll of armed islands amid an Arab-liberated sea. [Emphasis added.]
Lawrence also advocated beginning an operation with small, mobile forces of elite warriors and recruiting others along the way, after which, “the local recruits could melt back into their villages as those in Lawrence’s party scattered in search of a safe haven.” What does that sound like? Oh yeah, the Taliban, for one.

Enter dilettante British diplomat Mark Sykes, of whom Anderson writes that “it’s hard to think of any figure who, with no true malice intended and neither a nation nor an army at his disposal, was to wreak more havoc on the twentieth century.” Along with French diplomat François Georges-Picot, he authored the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divvied up the Middle East between Britain, France, and Russia. In the agreement’s first edition, Iraq was awarded to Britain, Syria to France, and Constantinople to Russia.
Lawrence’s heart sank at how ready and willing the Triple Entente was to brush aside the Arabs’ role in the war against the Turks and to cut the string from which it had dangled the carrot of Syria. The ever-irreverent Lawrence said, “I’m not working for HMG [His Majesty’s Government] but for Sherif [Emir Hussein].” He would write that he was trying “to defeat not merely the Turks on the battlefield, but my own country and its allies in the council-chamber.’”
If you have seen Lean’s movie, you may recall how central Aqaba, a port in Sinai, was to Lawrence’s legend. The Turks’ last important outpost on the Red Sea, it was also a jumping-off point from which the British and Arabs could carry the fight to Syria. On the way to Aqaba, Lawrence mounted multiple strikes with his small, mobile forces and, approaching from inland, surprised the Turks, who were defending against an expected attack by the Royal Navy. This victory not only energized the British military command, it vastly increased Lawrence’s strategic credibility.

Then the British issued the Balfour Declaration, throwing its support behind the idea of a national home for Jews in Palestine. It constituted yet another threat to the English-Arab partnership along with the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Lawrence’s reaction was that “if a Jewish state is to be created in Palestine, it will have to be done … and maintained by force of arms amid an overwhelmingly hostile population.”

As you can see, despite the impasse at which the Triple Entente and the Central Powers found themselves, the British, as well as the French, remained intent on reaping the spoils of war. Anderson writes:
Given this stunning lack of progress earned at such horrific cost, it might seem reasonable to imagine that the thoughts of the various warning nations would now turn toward peace, to trying to find some way out of themes. Instead, precisely the opposite was happening.
You may be familiar with this dilemma, if on a less apocalyptic scale than World War I, from the lack of results achieved by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. In “contemplating all the lives already lost, the treasure squandered, how to ever admit it was for nothing?” asks Anderson. He answers his own question: “Since such an admission is unthinkable, and the status quo untenable, the only option left is to escalate.”

After all, “defeating one’s enemies is only half the game…payment of war reparations into the victor’s coffers, the grabbing of a disputed province here or there … seemed rather picayune in view of this conflict’s cost.” Instead, both in spite of and in light of all the losses, what was now “required was greater commitment—more soldiers, more money, more loss—to be redeemed when victory finally came with more territory, more wealth, more power.”

The end was soon near for the Central Powers and would begin in a locale distant from the battlefields of Europe—Syria. The British military swept up the Palestinian coast and encircled the whole Turkish army, which it now sought to crush. Meanwhile, on the way to Damascus, Lawrence’s Arab forces engaged in an orgy of railroad and bridge destruction. As is often the case when armies are on the run, their backs serve as tempting targets to ruthless effect. In retaliation for brutalities by the Turks, Lawrence allowed his men to massacre 4,000 fleeing Turkish troops, as well as commit other atrocities before finally arriving in Damascus.

But, writes Anderson, “Everything T.E. Lawrence had fought for, schemed for, arguably betrayed his country for turned to ashes in a single five-minute conversation between the prime ministers of Great Britain and France.” David Lloyd George “took aside a visiting Georges Clemenceau and bluntly outlined just what Britain wanted in the Middle East: Iraq and Palestine. In tacit exchange, although Lloyd George would always deny it, France would have free rein in Syria.”

Under French supervision, Faisal would be permitted to administer Syria, but, adding insult to injury, he was boxed out of Palestine and Lebanon, thus denying the Arabs access to ports—in other words, it was the Sykes-Picot Agreement on steroids. That was Lawrence’s cue to depart the scene. Though utterly disillusioned he would rouse himself to return to the fray and fight for Arab independence at the Paris Peace Conference.

As Faisal’s counselor, Lawrence lobbied British statesmen and even sought to ally with Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, calling for Jews to be welcomed by Arabs into Palestine. But to no effect—Lawrence may have helped win the war but, as Anderson points out, he had “lost the peace.” But, oh, what France and England inherited. In Syria, Faisal rebelled against the French and, in British Palestine, tension between Zionists and Arabs erupted into violence. Meanwhile, Faisal’s father Hussein’s reign in the Hejaz was ended by Wahhabist Ibn-Saud, under whose watch oil was discovered and whose name was given to an Arabia which his house rules to this day.

Lawrence enjoyed one last hurrah when, in 1920, Lloyd George called on Winston Churchill to help reshape the British Middle East at the Cairo Conference. In fact, Lawrence helped one of Hussein’s other sons, Abdullah, to establish his own government in what became Jordan.

Wrapping up, Anderson writes that “it’s hard to imagine that any of this could possibly have produced a sadder history than” the “catalog of war, religious strife, and brutal dictatorships that has haunted not just the Middle East but the entire world.”

Meanwhile, for the rest of his life, Lawrence “was to feel stained by what he had seen and done during the war, and in his struggle to ever ‘feel clean’ again, repeatedly looked to self-abnegation and violence against himself … as recompense for his sins.” Anderson diagnoses Lawrence as suffering from PTSD, with that messy mix of what soldiers were subjected to, what they witnessed, and what they did (which has come to be known as moral injury). In Lawrence’s case, this incorporated everything from torture and an apparent rape he experienced at the hands of the Turks to those he personally killed to Turkish forces he ordered mowed down by machine guns to the massacres he either encouraged or condoned.

Lawrence in Arabia is the type of nonfiction book that, because of the fantastical nature of the tale and the author’s gift for storytelling, appears to be part of a plot to make serious fiction obsolete. Its deficiencies are negligible: too few maps too broadly drawn, some question about whether or not the stories of the others he chronicles enhanced or distracted from his narrative. At least one, though, that of Aaron Aaronsohn and his sister, in part because it was new to this reader, was riveting.

To reiterate, Lawrence in Arabia is a tale of betrayal, though not just the betrayal of the Arabs by colonial powers. Swimming against the current of his myth, it must be stated that Lawrence too was a betrayer—of humanity itself—by overseeing the commission of what amounts to war crimes. While his importance should never be sold short, the time has come to discontinue mythologizing him, as well as many, if not most, of those honored as war heroes.

Other reviews have been published by the NY Times and Washington Post. But this one by Russ Wellen, without the same big audience, strikes me as more in-depth.  If I were the book reader I once was I would get the book and read it, but in retirement I cheat and read the reviews instead. 

Wrapping up, here is the final scene from the movie.

Why the Kurds are Beating the Islamists

Excellent post at Josh Landis' blog...
“Why Syria’s Kurds are beating Al Qaeda,”
By Balint Szlanko
The Kurds of Syria have been in the news lately. Fighting—and beating—Al Qaeda-allied groups and other rebel militias in their struggle for Syria’s northeast, in the past year they have in effect set up their own ministate inside the country. Here is why they are winning.

  1.  Unified command and control structures. Unlike the rebel militias, the Kurdish armed group, the Yekineyen Parastina Gel (People’s Protection Units) or YPG, is controlled by a single general command. This allows it to effectively operate on a frontline more than 120 miles long by transferring people and other assets relatively easily to where the need arises and to coordinate operations effectively. Contrast this with its enemies, the mainly Arab rebels: they are splintered into at least six major groups (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Nusra Front, Ahrar al Sham, the Kurdish Islamic Front, the Tawheed Brigade, and the Free Syrian Army, itself an umbrella organisation of smaller groups) that have a patchy record of coordination. Indeed, some of the rebel groups that fight together against the Kurds have often fought each other elsewhere 2. 
  2. Superior tactical skills and discipline. It’s hard to be entirely sure of this because YPG commanders provide journalists with only limited access to their operations. That said, the YPG frontline positions and checkpoints I have seen tended to look well-organised with properly dug trenches and positions for machine-guns, snipers and spotters. Their checkpoints tend to have sandbags for protection, rather than blocks of cement, which are easier to transport and set up but give less protection against gunfire because they tend to splinter upon the bullet’s impact. There is also evidence that the YPG receives training from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group that has decades of experience fighting the Turkish state. I met one PKK trainer in a town under YPG control who said he was teaching the YPG battlefield tactics. 
  3. Wide popular backing. The YPG’s political master, the Democratic Union Party or PYD, is not without its share of controversies and has plenty of detractors among the Kurds. But with only the YPG standing between the Islamists and the Kurdish towns, the militia is currently receiving plenty of genuine support from the population. This includes not only Kurds but Arabs and Christians, too, many of whom have much to fear from the rebels. The Kurdish areas are full of pictures of the YPG’s fallen, and funerals often turn into big celebrations that are not staged (though certainly encouraged). Contrast this with the enemy’s position: some of the rebel groups are feared, despised or even hated in the areas they control, partly because of the insecurity and corruption that have often followed them, and because the oppression some of the more extreme groups have instigated.
  4. A powerful ideology. The YPG subscribes to a secular nationalism that has historically been highly effective as a force for mobilisation and war. Kurdish nationalism, which has so far been denied its own state, has a huge number of followers in the area and is less controversial than the ideology many rebels have subscribed to, political Islam. The Kurds’ ideology is also effective in that it doesn’t work to the exclusion of others: relations with the region’s minorities, Sunni Arabs and Christians, have so far been mostly good, thanks to the common enemy. Nationalism, of course, can easily turn into paranoid xenophobia, but so far there is not much evidence that this is happening.
  5. A relatively open political system. The PYD has been often accused of cracking down on its political opponents and there is evidence that this has indeed been the case. That said, the political structure of the Kurdish autonomy is the most open in Syria right now, giving positions not just to the dominant PYD, but to its main political rival, the Kurdish National Council (itself an umbrella group of parties). In the recently announced temporary administration not just Kurds but also Christians have taken up positions. This helps ensure that representation—and therefore legitimacy and mobilisation—are on a far more solid ground than under the stifling dictatorship of the regime areas and the chaos of the rebel-controlled towns.
  6. A good road network. The geographical shape of the Kurdish autonomy is in some sense unfortunate, being very wide and with a depth of only a few miles in places. Yet this also a source of luck, as there is a good paved road along the entire length of the area. This allows easy transport of troops and other assets from one part of the war zone to another. The entire of length of the autonomy can be travelled in half a day.
  7. Access to fuel. Hasakah province is said to contain about 60 per cent of Syria’s (meagre) oil wealth. Not all of this is in Kurdish hands and most of the oil rigs are not working at the moment. That said, there is some refining going on, which provides the YPG with a reliable source of fuel for its trucks.
  8. A safe and intact home front. The Kurds have so far avoided a clash with the government, which means they haven’t had to worry about airstrikes and artillery shelling. Many of Syria’s rebel-controlled cities, towns and villages have been reduced to rubble with little or no electricity and little food. These shortages always effect the civilians more than the fighters, but they still make it much harder to fight a war. They also tend to cause corruption and infighting, which the Kurds have so far been able to avoid.
  9. Clever strategy. Many of the factors mentioned above stem from this. The Kurds have simple and clearly defined war aims—protecting and governing their own territories—and are focusing on the essentials to achieve this: running a single, well-organised security force, keeping hostiles—the Islamists and the FSA—out and compromising with those—the government—who present no immediate danger. They have also avoided looting and terrorising their own towns, unlike their opponents.

To be sure, the Kurds still face an uphill struggle. They are under embargo from all sides: the border crossings into Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan are closed, and until they can figure out the politics with their neighbours they will remain closed. This puts huge pressure on them economically and militarily. It is unclear where the YPG gets its weapons from but being under lockdown can’t be good. In this context, the recent capture of the Yaroubiya crossing into Iraq proper is a big success, because for the first time it gives them access to a non-hostile state. 
The Kurds also face a well-supplied and dedicated—indeed fanatical—enemy that is unlikely to give up easily, though the recent government offensives in the west might refocus the rebels’ attention. The Kurds also have an odd relationship with the Syrian government, based essentially on a common enemy, the rebels. But this is not a real allience and could easily tip over. With the Syrian government still in control of an airfield and an artillery base in the middle of the Kurdish autonomy, things could quickly get ugly if that relationship breaks down.

This assessment reflects the same conclusions one gets looking at Jenan Moussa's report and photos from Allepo in April. Even without a translation of the words, the photos carry a positive air that makes the above conclusions seem right.

Go to this link and look long and hard at the pictures. Just seeing the role of women in uniform  and seeing their faces sets this group apart from other extremists in that conflict.

Kurdish female fighters posing near the front line in an abandoned house.

Christmas Card by Banksy

Text on Card:

The people of Bethlehem are asking for our help.

Towering walls and militarized fences now encircle Bethlehem, turning the 4,000-year-old city into a virtual prison for its Palestinian Christian and Muslim citizens. Bethlehem has only three gates to the outside world, all tightly controlled by Israeli occupation forces.

Israel has confiscated almost all the agricultural land in the area for illegal settlements, making it impossible for many Palestinian farmers to continue tending their land. Outside the town, the fields where shepherds once watched their flocks are being filled by Israeli housing blocs and roads barred to the descendants of those shepherds.

“It is unconscionable that Bethlehem should be allowed to die slowly from strangulation,” says South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Bethlehem’s residents increasingly are fleeing Israel’s confining walls, and soon the city, home to the oldest Christian community in the world, will have little left of its Christian history but the cold stones of empty churches.

Though most Americans don’t know it, we are directly involved in Israel’s strangulation of Bethlehem. Fortune Magazine and other analysts consistently rank the Israel lobby as one of the most effective special interests in Washington; Americans give Israel over $8 million per day. In its just over 60 years of existence, Israel has received more US tax money than any other nation.

As we seek peace and joy for the world, it is time to reconsider an expenditure that perpetuates injustice, tragic violence, and conflict. Please help.

For more information:
Cards available at this link.

>>  The link is dated last year.
>>  It is still active.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Johnny and George Huynh -- Another Chapter

This video is part of the backstory.
The main content follows below.

I'm going to tell you a story.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

Two years ago, I was standing in Dorchester, in a rough neighborhood, and I saw the #19 bus drive by.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

I knew immediately that it was no ordinary bus. This was a special bus. It was a bus that is a symbol of hope for many from Boston.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

I know that bus all too well. I took one just like it for six years. It was the bus to Boston Latin School.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

I was in Dorchester because I'd spent months working on a series about the #19 bus, which travels through many neighborhoods of struggle.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

But once a day, that bus transformed into the charter bus to Boston Latin School, one of the great symbols of hope in this city.billy_baker 2 hours ago

At that moment, I was looking for hope. I had seen some rough things. A lot of people who saw no end to their struggle.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

And I wanted to end the series on a positive note. When I saw that bus go by, I knew immediately that I had found my story.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

I rode the bus for a while, talked to the kids on it, went fishing for the right story for this series.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

Then one day I met a man named Emmett Folgert, who runs the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, and he told me he had the perfect kids.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

Emmett Folgert is a lot like Boston Latin School. He lowers a ladder down into a pit for kids who have nothing, and helps them climb out.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

So one day, I went to Emmett's office and met the kids, two brothers named Johnny and George Huynh.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

They were quiet. They didn't quite know what was going on. But Emmett told them that their story was important. They agreed to share it.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

I spent weeks with Johnny and George. I went to school with them. I went home with them. I ate dinners with them. Slowly, they opened up
billy_baker 2 hours ago

Their home life was extraordinarily difficult. Their parents had come from Vietnam and their father had fought alongside the US.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

After the war, they went through incredible struggle, finally making their way to the US in 1992. But their problems did not end.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

There were cultural problems. There were mental health problems. There were problems in the marriage. And there were huge money problems.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

But they had three children, Johnny and George, and an older sister.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

The kids grew up inside that struggle. Food was always short. So was money. They had nothing. I've never seen anything like it.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

Shortly before I met the boys, their father had taken his own life. He jumped off the Tobin Bridge in Boston.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

That left them alone with their mother. She didn't speak English. They didn't speak much Vietnamese. They were alone in their own house.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

Their mother had a mental disability, so they raised themselves, and they did it right. They got themselves up, got to school, and got A's.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

Watching these kids make good from almost nothing was the most special thing I've ever seen as a journalist.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

The opportunity to share their story was a great privilege. And it got a huge response. Huge. I wasn't the only ones touched by them.billy_baker 2 hours ago

Here's a link to the article I wrote: And here's a link to the video @laurenfrohne made:

They were worried about having money to buy the paper, so the night before, I took them to the Globe and let them pull it off the press.billy_baker 2 hours ago

After the story ran, our story was just beginning.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

I stayed close to the boys, partly out of an obligation, but mostly because I cared about them. They inspired me. And they were fun.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

But I also became something of a mentor to them. Freed from my constraints as a journalist, I could step into their lives and help.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

They had little cracks to fill, crazy things I never had to think of. I paid for prom tickets and Christmas gifts and dinners.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

They paid me back in so many ways, mostly by just keeping their head down and doing their work, like they had always done.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

When I first met them, Johnny was a junior and George was a sophomore. Johnny graduated last year and went to UMass-Amherst.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

I drove Johnny to college and bought him a dorm fridge. These are the cracks I'm talking about. George came along for the ride.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

And Emmett Folgert became a mentor to me, teaching me how to mentor. Stay on them, he'd say. Stay in touch. Ask questions. So I did.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

As college time rolled around for George, I became involved. I helped him with his essays. Did the sort of stuff a parent would do.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

And George was shooting high. Very high. His grades were outstanding. His story was compelling. He wanted to go all the way to the top.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

Which brings us to today. Today is a very special day for George. A day he's worked his whole life to get to.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

We've been trading texts all day. We were both nervous. He had applied for early acceptance to his dream school. At 5 p.m., he would hear.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

As 5 rolled around, I started pacing around the Globe. I went to get coffee. I bit my fingernails.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

I told him that no matter what happens, he had done all he could. And we'd go to dinner regardless. Either way, we had to celebrate.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

Shortly after 5, he texted me: I GOT IN. I was sitting at my desk, and I started crying.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

These boys are the nearest I've ever come to that thing we call The American Dream. But this was too much. George got into Yale.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

Rather than continue blabbering at my desk, I've retreated to the cafeteria to share this story.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

On Facebook, George wrote: "Yale University!!!! Thank you to everyone who's helped me get here!" I wrote: "You got there on your own, bud."
billy_baker 2 hours ago

I have a tough time putting their story into words. It's about hope, sure. But it's about helping yourself. These boys did. We all can.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

So now I'm going to stop crying at my computer, I'm going to sneak out the door, then I'm going to take George out to celebrate.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

Sorry for flooding you with this experiment. But it's a story about what's right when we spend too much time writing about what's wrong.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

So I'm going to head down Dot Ave. to Geneva Avenue, one of the toughest streets in Boston, and take George out. He deserves it.
billy_baker 2 hours ago

I'll check back in later with some photos and updates. I'm so proud of this kid I can't even stand it. He's getting a big hug.