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Postmortem: The Battle over Trade Promotion Authority

What do trade politics portend for 2016?

By Ardevan Yaghoubi

On Monday, President Obama signed Trade Promotion Authority, also known as ‘fast track’ or ‘TPA’. Trade Promotion legislation is a mechanism that allows the Executive branch to conclude negotiations on trade agreements and bring them to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

Trade politics makes for strange bedfellows. And yet the Trade Promotion Authority fight had surprisingly little to do with trade. In fact, international trade has widespread support from the American people and even more popularity among political and economic elites. Many of the nays on TPA from both sides of the aisle went to great lengths to couch their votes as ‘I support trade in principle, but…’. This signals that these Representatives’ main concern wasn’t trade; it was something else. Yet the otherwise-mundane TPA bill—an authority given to every President since FDR, excepting Nixon—became a lightning rod for Democratic opposition in the House of Representatives, leading to an embarrassing few days of headlines for President Obama as his Congressional supporter Nancy Pelosi voted against the bill.

So rather than a genuine dispute about trade agreements, the battle over TPA should rather be seen as the opening bout before November’s pay-per view event: the 2016 election. The signals we can pick up from the fight on Capitol Hill are cross-cutting, but unambiguous:

  1. Republicans have their house in order — don’t expect a repeat of 2012.
  2. Hillary can withstand the left-wing challenge — but there will be blood.

Let’s start on the right.

Within days of the Republican clawback of control in Congress last November, the voices began swirling: trade will be the Republican lodestar. Influential Republicans, sitting and former, found harmony in repeating the mantra of trade. Seven months later, the GOP credibly showed it can govern. Paul Ryan, Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee that oversees fast track, felt first-hand in 2012 the pain that party strife can cause when he lost his bid to become Vice President. No doubt this had compelled him to shepherd the stray members of his flock, including Tea Partiers opposed to ‘Obamatrade’, towards legislative pragmatism. Just comparing ‘hashtags’ for a moment — the ubiquitous ‘Obamacare’ vs the comical-sounding ‘Obamatrade’ — gives an indication of the change in Republican strategy. GOP leadership was able to clamp down on internal opposition, make the concessions required, and find an ally across the aisle, President Obama. In short, Republicans made themselves seem like a reasonable party.

This about-face from the last six-plus years demonstrates quite clearly that Republicans have learned from the failures of 2012 and 2014 and are gearing up for 2016 with a vengeance. The way the GOP coalesced around the principle of free trade, then found the legislative means to accomplish it, should be a warning sign to Democrats. Republicans could not unite on theory or practice in 2012: Mitt Romney was arguably undone by his party, not vice-versa, and President Obama capitalized by running a great campaign. But we can learn from the events of the past few weeks in Congress to expect less internal chaos from Republicans, not more, despite the numerous candidates vying for the ticket. Nonetheless, the still-dominant, but on the evidence false, impression is still that the Republican party is too ideologically divided to present a meaningful challenge in the next Presidential campaign.

The clearest sign that Republicans are unified, tactically savvy, and out for blood flew under the radar of most political observers, but it was a veritable dog whistle for those who have followed the trade debate from the start.

The way the bills were framed by Senate negotiators and House leadership meant that TPA could be forced through over Democratic opposition. And that’s exactly what happened. TPA is now become law after a few nail-biting sessions in Congress. In the House vote, no one knew where Pelosi would ultimately come down. Her meandering speech started off by asking for more time and a slower process. Bucking the President, she reluctantly said she would not vote for Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a side-bill that was meant to garner Democratic support, as it provides redress for workers displaced by trade.

So the bargain made by bipartisan negotiators was clear: Democrats would get TAA while Republicans would get support for TPA. Pelosi put a bullet in the deal not by getting her bill and then cynically reneging on TPA, but by voting down TAA! Other Democrats quickly piled in — TAA was voted down handily — and Republicans had a snap choice to make. After TAA, a fig leaf to Democrats, was unceremoniously swatted away, Republicans could have delayed voting on TPA itself. That’s what Pelosi was signaling to Boehner: take TPA off the floor, meet me halfway, and then I’ll bring Democrats on board.

Her strategy was poorly considered.

Instead, Republicans drove the trade truck right through the House. They announced the vote on TPA would go forward, even though there were implicit guarantees they wouldn’t hold a vote. TPA passed, 219-211 in the House, and after some wrangling in the Senate, the bill was delivered to the President and signed into law.

A neutral political observer would see that Republicans set up Democrats and the Administration for embarrassment by bringing the vote in the House so soon. On Monday of that week, it is fair to say that the White House and most trade watchers did not expect a vote in the House on Friday; by Wednesday, Obama was visiting the Congressional ballgame to ask for Pelosi’s help. By forcing the President’s hand, Republicans hedged their bets for a win-win, knowing that they would ram TPA through even if Democrats would try to torpedo the vote. Republicans couldn’t control the outcome, but they managed the opportunities in their favor. In all likelihood, the GOP was well aware that something like this turn of events could happen — and they were perfectly happy to push the button anyway. It fits with the broader Republican strategy to take credit for TPA in the Presidential campaign, win back the White House, and erase Democrats’ substantive and reputational achievements in TPP and TTIP.

The shrewd Republican handling of the minefield of trade politics should alert Democrats preparing for 2016. The opposition come November will present a challenge, one that perhaps isn’t sufficiently appreciated yet. But Democrats can take heart from the fact that nominee-in-waiting Hillary Clinton has shown she can handle the challenge from the left wing of her party with composure.

The TPA fight shows that the Sanders-DeLauro wing can cause real damage, but they can’t bring a knockout punch. At the time, the failure of TPA in the House seemed like a big scalp for left-of-center Democrats, led by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro. The populist Democrats who opposed TPA are now patting themselves on the back for what was, in legislative terms, a win that they let slip through their fingers. It is also questionable whether progressive energies are being misused against a trade deal negotiated by a Democratic President. For Pelosi, her reputation as the best vote-sniffer of her generation must be in question as Democrats shuffle their leadership in the Senate with an eye towards the next election cycle.

As for Hillary, she was able to contort—but not contradict—herself by taking the line that she would wait to evaluate the merits of the trade deal, which she promoted vociferously as Secretary of State. As temporarily incredulous as this was, it proved to be a smart strategy, and she survived the onslaught. Now, as TPA passes and the TPP is finalized, candidate Clinton can say she either supports the agreement, or finds genuine issue with particular chapters and provisions. It also helps that she doesn’t have to vote on the TPP and therefore can remain ambiguous until absolutely necessary. Regardless of which option she takes — one presumes that it will be the latter, given that her foreign policy calling card  — Hillary has made it clear that she’s nimble enough to duck the punches of a Sanders, O’Malley, or even a Warren.

For both Republicans and the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary, all signs from the arena of trade politics show that they have learned from the failures of recent years.

Welcome to 2016, everyone.

WINNERS:

President Obama (Still got it).

Hillary (Unscathed).

Paul Ryan (We Passed a Bill!).

LOSERS:

Bernie Sanders (Hillary shadowboxes the socialist).

Nancy Pelosi (Opportunistic opposition undoes optimum outcome).

Ted Cruz (Harvard law grad thinks TPA is unconstitutional).

Ardevan Yaghoubi is a project assistant for the Global Business and Economics Program of the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank. He is a graduate of New College, Oxford and the University of Chicago. 

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Gay Marriage and the Breakthrough in Biblical Interpretation

Thanks to Steve Wade, we now have a glimpse of the next stage of human rights. Christian Evangelicals take heed!

—W. J. T. Mitchell, Editor

joke

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Syrian Civil War: Anonymous Film Collective Sheds Light on Conflict

Moustafa Bayoumi hears from Abounaddara, a group of Syrian filmmakers who take us beneath the surface of the conflict. 

The video consists of a single shot of a young woman in a nondescript room. The camera is fixed close to her face as she describes how the Syrian military press-ganged her younger brother into the service one night, dragging him off to the military academy in Homs. “He was fragile,” she says. “His whole life he never made a decision for himself.”

Click here to read more at The Nation.

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Biometrics, or the Power of the Radical Center: An Update

The following, by Nitzan Lebovic, is an update to the author’s essay “Biometrics, or The Power of the Radical Center,” published in the current issue of Critical Inquiry (Summer 2015).

In the coming weeks the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, will once again consider the next stage in the establishment of a national biometric database. The process involves a formal recommendation by the minister of foreign affairs, another vote by the ministerial Committee for Biometric Affairs and the Knesset’s Committee for Science and Technology, leading to a vote in the Knesset, all of which will take place very rapidly. This will mark the end of a two-year period, during which a pilot program was to examine the utility and function of the type of biometric database requested by the Israeli Ministry of the Interior, ultimately addressing the question of whether one was needed. The pilot program, which the government initiated after members of the public and concerned professionals demanded further research, has failed to accomplish its brief, producing no justification for the establishment of such a database. Nonetheless, the Biometric Authority established jointly by the office of the prime minister and the Ministry of the Interior in 2013 continues to press for approval of a “universal” database that would store information on every Israeli citizen.

(Photo by Tomer Appelbaum)

Furthermore, the infrastructure needed by such a database is already in place, and recently the head of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Space announced the intention to erect, in parallel with the universal database, a governmental genetic database. (The announcement was given at the IATI [Israeli Technology Industries] Biomed 2015 conference, and was reported by Gali Weinreb in the Israeli economics magazine Globes, 18 May 2015:  http://www.globes.co.il/news/article.aspx?did=1001037487.) According to the Biometric Database Law (2009), the biometric database will be made available to police forces, military police, the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), the Israel Secret Intelligence Service (Mossad), and the Ministry of the Interior. Tellingly, biometric data from members of the security and secret services will not be included in the database (as reported by Dror Globerman for the blog Nexter, 2 Mar. 2014: http://www.mako.co.il/nexter-internet/security/Article-d4d1bd0684b2441006.htm).

The short report below is based on a recent position paper by a group of experts in Israel, under the supervision of the Digital Rights Movement (“An Analysis of the Concluding Pilot Report, by the Biometric Authority,” first draft, 15 June 2015,http://www.digitalrights.org.il/files/reports/DRM_report.pdf. Edited by Zvi Devir). The position paper commented on the recent “Concluding Report” submitted by the Bioemtric Authority to the government, in an attempt to finalize the legislation of the database, alongside the shift to biometric smart ID cards (The Biometric Database Management Authority, “A Concluding Report,” signed by the director of the Authority, MR. Gon Kameni, 23 Feb. 2015, http://www.biodb.gov.il/publications/Pages/Periodic-report.aspx). The position paper was submitted to the Israeli state comptroller on 15 June 2015.  It will be submitted to the Knesset, as part of a final, concentrated effort to present to legislators what the Biometric Authority and the government were trying to hide from them. The material for this report includes more than seventy pages detailing basic problems with the biometric pilot project, which included intentional violations of civil rights and a vague attempt to prepare the database for future use by the security forces. The bottom line for the investigation is that the Biometric Authority and its representatives made every possible effort to silence criticism and hide results that did not fit their end goal or the public image they wished to promote. The conclusions of the report—though not couched in theoretical terms—are very similar to those of the article published in Critical Inquiry 41 (Summer 2015), titled “Biometrics, or the Power of the Radical Center,” http://www.jstor.org/stable/full/10.1086/681788.

As the authors contend in the opening to their “An Analysis of the Concluding Pilot Report,” “The Biometric Authority did not comply with its brief and did not conduct a transparent and authentic ‘pilot’ program, as required by the court; it did not carry out the research needed to establish the need for a biometric database, nor did it search for alternatives.” Two paragraphs after this harsh assessment of the authority’s negligence, the authors offer further criticisms that imply a degree of calculation in that negligence: “The way the authorities treated critics of the database was undemocratic and unreasonable. Instead of opening lines to a productive dialogue, which would have assuaged some of the concerns of their opponents . . . the authorities chose to slander critics and ignore those with opinions differing from their own, electing not to learn from those with outstanding professional qualifications” (“Analysis of the Concluding Pilot Report,” p. 1).

I do not intend, in this short update, to explore the function, theory, and possible results of the biometric database. The article in the summer issue of CI does all that. But I do want to emphasize a few details, chief among them some recent developments. I also hope to show that the current debate about the database proves once again how far the radical center is willing to go— sacrificing norms, proper constitutional conduct, and finally security itself—to eliminate objections, professional and ideological, from left and right.

The position paper that the group of experts submitted opens by tracing the experience of the past two years. They mention the series of public protests; appeals to the supreme court; critical assessments published on websites, in public letters, and in professional articles, all of which attacked the basic assumption of the government—represented by the minister of foreign affairs at the time, Meir Sheetrit—that a biometric database was needed on top of smart IDs. As countless experts tried to explain to government representatives, the information on biometric identification cards is based on algorithms that codify biological identifiers, and that encrypt the information in a way that makes it extremely hard to reproduce, copy, or forge the information.  Nevertheless, Sheetrit, and the Biometric Authority he established, insisted on ignoring such interventions and kept promoting a view that identified smart or biometric identification cards with a biometric database, and waived the larger part of the encryption capability (that protects privacy) in favor of a simpler, universal system.

In stark contrast to the claims of the Biometric Authority, which insisted that “many states . . . have established, during the past few years, biometric databases for both national identification cards and passports, as well as for drivers licenses” (“Concluding Report,” chap. 3.8), not a single country has created the type of database the Israeli government is attempting to establish; the Israeli database is meant to enable, say, a police officer or a border patrol officer to identify an individual rather than to merely verify an individual’s identity. For that reason, the Israeli database is the only one that includes actual biological information, rather than encrypted information meant for the purpose of verification alone. Even Portugal, the only Western state to have established a biometric database, encrypts all its information and reduces its activity to just one of the two options. In short, the Israeli authority is attempting to create an unprecedented biometric database that violates basic constitutional rights and denies that it does so. Furthermore, as internal discussions during the early legislation process demonstrated (see the article in CI for details), the exceptionally wide infrastructure of the database seems to surpass the regular and reduced function of similar databases in favor of a stated, albeit vague, “security” examination. When the state comptroller asked the Biometric Authority for records of the discussion addressing its basic task and general aims, the answer he received was: “The documents could not be found” (“Analysis of the Concluding Pilot Report,” p. 20).

 (Photo by Bloomberg)

Imprecise or wrong information was offered in response to arguments concerning the system’s vulnerability. For example, in contrast to the formal claim according to which the system is physically separated from other systems (“Air Gap,” ensuring a full separation from the public internet or any local area network; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_gap_(networking)) and therefore protected from infiltrations of all kinds and sharing of information, a quick search shows that the separation is only one of networks, and that civilian and commercial companies (the Israeli phone service “Bezek” for example) control it (“Analysis of the Concluding Pilot Report,” p. iv). Due to an emphasis on “security” for both military and police purposes, a large number of agencies and official offices are expected to use the database; this expectation undermines any possibility of protecting the information to begin with.

The two-year term of the pilot project is scheduled to end in June 2015. At that time, the Israeli government will be asked to approve the activation of the fully functional national database. During the past few months a series of private and public bodies have criticized one of the basic assumptions regarding the database. The legal advisor to the Committee for Biometric Affairs itself chimed in, pointing out that the creation of biometric identification cards does not necessitate the establishment of a database (“Analysis of the Concluding Pilot Report,” p. 3). Even the advisory committee that was established in June 2013 to assess the progress of the pilot program criticized its activities, pointing out that no effort had been made to compare the proposed system with any other comparable system abroad (“Analysis of the Concluding Pilot Report,” p. 5). For reasons never disclosed, publication of the state comptroller’s report was postponed by the Biometric Authority and the minister of foreign affairs. This drove the state comptroller—usually considered to be a convenience-appointment for Prime Minister Netanyahu—to announce that the authority’s own report was “full of substantial gaps” and to ask the government to postpone the legislative process (Ilan Lior, “The State Comptroller Warms from ‘Substantial Gaps’ in the Biometric Database; asks to Postpone the Legislation,” Haaretz 15 Apr. 2015, http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/education/1.2614722).

The list of critics did not end there. A special report by Shin Bet criticized the authority’s failure to secure the information; it mentioned that the pilot program had taken its database live after a security supervisor resigned and six months before hiring the security officer whose duty it was to protect the system from hackers. Furthermore, the Law, Information and Technology Authority within the ministry of Justice criticized the repeated failures of the Bioemtric Authority to answer the criteria detailed in the Privacy Law of 1981 (“Analysis of the Concluding Pilot Report, p. 7).

The Biometric Authority aggressively took on its critics, accusing the state comptroller of “issuing a report without consulting the relevant bodies” and arguing at the same time that “all of the state comptroller’s complaints were addressed to his full satisfaction” (“Concluding Report,” p. 42). At the same time, the authority refused to make public both the report it had sent to the comptroller’s office and the comptroller’s response; nor has it explained why an official whose complaints had been fully addressed felt it necessary to air those misgivings in a dramatic announcement to the media. The authors of the position paper declared that not only had the Biometric Authority “failed to comply with the agreed-upon timeline,” but its numerous failures were “concealed from the public and the severity of the failures was concealed from the supervising bodies” (“Analysis of the Concluding Pilot Report, p. 45).

All of this demonstrates the need to oppose the recent extension of power by ideologues of a digital “soft control,” democratic political centrism, and efficiency. Those who would grow executive power do not seem to mind rolling back public oversight, and give little thought to the individual’s own rights over his or her body. If Israel’s biometric database is approved in June 2015, it will become the largest, most comprehensive database in the world. Well after Michel Foucault offered his comments on the growth of a panoptic state, two centuries of criminal research will yield a network devoted to tracing an entire population’s movements and actions in the public sphere.

Epilogue: on 22 June 2015—a week after the submission of the position paper (“Analysis of the Concluding Pilot Report”)—the state comptroller announced that the full and harsh report about the biometric pilot program is expected later during the day (Ilan Lior, “The State Comptroller’s Report about the Biometric Database: ‘The Data is Not Enough to Determine if it is Needed,’” http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/mevaker/1.2667068). The minister of internal affairs, Silvan Shalom, announced immediately the extension of the pilot program until March 2016 (Ilan Lior, “Hours Before the Publication of the State Comptroller’s Report Silvan Shalom Announced the Extension of the Pilot Period,” http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/education/1.2666631).

The news of the delay is undoubtedly positive for critics of the database and of the surveillance state, but the expectation is that once this period has ended, it will be confirmed in its current—if somewhat more secured—form.

Nitzan Lebovic is an Assistant Professor of History at Lehigh University. 

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Charleston Shooting: A Long History of Racism

All the pieties about racial solidarity and harmony in Charleston, South Carolina in the wake of the appalling massacre at “Mother Emanuel” church should be tempered with Dave Zirin’s crucial reminder of the history of this church and its long history in the struggle against racism.
—W. J. T. Mitchell, Editor

Charleston’s ‘Mother Emanuel Church’ Has Stared Down Racist Violence for 200 Years

By Dave Zirin

The more you read about Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, otherwise known as “Mother Emanuel,” the more awe you feel for its historic resilience amidst white-supremacist terror.

This church is now known as the scene of a massacre, which is being investigated as a “hate crime.” Nine are dead, but this institution will not fall. We know this because it has stood tall amidst the specter of racist violence for 200 years. Next year, in fact, was to be the 200th anniversary of the founding of the church. It was 1816 when the Rev. Morris Brown formed “Mother Emanuel” under the umbrella of the Free African Society of the AME Church. They were one of three area churches known as the Bethel Circuit. This means that a free church in the heart of the confederacy was formed and thrived 50 years before the start of the Civil War. It had a congregation of almost 2,000, roughly 15 percent of black people in what was, including the enslaved, the majority-black city of Charleston. Because the church opened its doors to the enslaved and free alike, services were often raided by police and private militias for violating laws about the hours when slaves could be out among “the public.” They were also raided for breaking laws that prohibited teaching slaves to read at Bible study sessions. (It was at one of these Bible study sessions that the shooter opened fire Wednesday night, after sitting among the people for over an hour.)

Click here to read more at The Nation.

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Writing the Story Backwards: Patrick Cockburn’s “Take” on Syria

Reposted from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/05/27/who-s-lying-about-syria-s-christian-massacre.html

by Muhammad Idrees Ahmad​​

Patrick Cockburn, the Irish foreign correspondent for The Independent, has an eclectic following. He is admired by Noam Chomsky and Rand Paul; and last December, when he won the British equivalent of a Pulitzer for his coverage of Syria and Iraq, the judges declared his journalism in a “league of its own” and wondered “whether the Government should [consider] pensioning off the whole of MI6 and [hire] Patrick Cockburn instead.”Cockburn is conscious of his exalted position. He frequently admonishes his colleagues against the distortions born of “political bias and simple error.” In his recent book, The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution, he declares, “there is no alternative to first-hand reporting”. He adds: “Journalists rarely fully admit to themselves or others the degree to which they rely on secondary and self-interested sources.”

Journalists rarely admit such things—even those as self-aware as Cockburn is. Consider this gripping, first-hand account of the slaughter of religious minorities by the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra that appears on page 89 of his book. “In Adra on the northern outskirts of Damascus in early 2014, I witnessed [Nusra] forces storm a housing complex by advancing through a drainage pipe which came out behind government lines, where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.” Cockburn was witnessing a war crime.

But there is a problem. The atrocity may or may not have and it seems unlikely that Cockburn witnessed it.

Before Cockburn published the first edition of his book in August 2014 and promoted himself to the status of witness, he had devoted only two articles to Adra; neither mentions him witnessing a massacre. Indeed, according to the first—published in his January 28, 2014 column for The Independent —Cockburn arrived in Adra after the alleged incident and was told the story about rebels advancing through a drainage pipe and massacring civilians by “a Syrian [regime] soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali.”

The story about a massacre in Adra, allegedly carried out by Islamist rebels, was briefly reported on before disappearing in a swirl of contradictory claims. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have no record of it. The Russian broadcaster RT covered it, but used fake pictures, which it subsequently had to withdraw.

I first reported on Cockburn’s discrepancy in an article for The National and in a review of his book for In These Times. Cockburn corresponded with the latter’s editor last March. In an email sent on March 20, the editor offered him a chance to clarify if he had witnessed a different incident in early 2014 that also met the description given by Abu Ali? Cockburn never replied. (He also did not reply to requests for comment for this article.)

Cockburn’s apparent need to embellish might make sense if one looks at the main argument of his book. For him, Bashar al-Assad is at war with jihadi terrorism; the West has erred in supporting his opponents; and to support the opposition is to support ISIS.

To support this contention, Cockburn in his book quotes “an intelligence officer from a Middle Eastern country neighboring Syria” who tells him: “ISIS members ‘say they are always pleased when sophisticated weapons are sent to anti-Assad groups of any kind because they can always get the arms off them by threats of force or cash payments.’”

It is understandable why Cockburn would grant an intelligence officer anonymity, but what reason might there be for extending anonymity to the officer’s country? Could it be that the “country neighboring Syria” is Iraq, or Iran—both key Assad allies?

For over a year, Syria’s nationalist rebels have been at war with ISIS, which expanded mainly by seizing territory that they had earlier liberated from the regime. ISIS has led a war of attrition against the anti-Assad rebellion, assassinating its leaders, harassing its fighters, and disappearing civil society activists. Starting on New Year’s Day 2014, a rebel coalition led by the Free Syria Army (FSA), the Islamic Front (IF), Ahrar al-Sham (AS)—and even Jabhat al-Nusra—united to drive IS out of Idlib, Deir Ezzor, and parts of Aleppo and Damascus.

But far from applauding the rebels for confronting ISIS, Cockburn lumps them in with the moderates, noting at the time that “the bitterly divided rebels are fighting their own civil war in which 700 people have died in recent days.” That the fighters are divided along ISIS/anti-ISIS lines, and that ISIS captured and executed 100 of the Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham rebels during its retreat, gets barely a mention. “The internecine warfare in the highly fragmented rebel movement”, he writes, “will further discredit them at home and abroad.”

By contrast, Cockburn takes a generous view of the regime’s belated and brief confrontation with ISIS. He has pronounced Assad’s army its “main military opponent”, deserving of western support. But facts tell a different story. According to a Carter Center study, the regime has spared ISIS in 90 percent of its attacks; and an IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center (JTIC) study finds that in 2014, the regime targeted ISIS in only 6 percent of its attacks (ISIS in turn directed its fire on the regime in only 13 percent its operations).

For Cockburn, the situation in Syria is stark: you are with the regime or you are with the terrorists.

This isn’t Cockburn’s only apparent omission. During the battle for Kobani, Cockburn briefly elevated the Kurds to the status of “the main military opponents” of ISIS, a position he usually reserves for the Assad regime. When the siege of the town was finally broken on January 26, the main Kurdish resistance force, the YPG, issued a statement thanking “brigades of the Free Syrian Army who fought shoulder to shoulder with our forces.” But Cockburn, who has dismissed the existence of nationalist rebels such as the FSA as “pure fantasy,” he ignored the Kurds’ own nod to their allies.

In his January 28 column, Cockburn credited U.S. airstrikes with helping the Kurds defend Kobani but made no mention of the FSA. Instead, he reported that, according to General James Mattis, “the time for supporting ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels had passed”. He added: “The Syrian armed opposition is increasingly under the control of ISIS and its rival, the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra” and that overthrowing Assad would only “benefit ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.”

On February 8, Cockburn again dismissed Syria’s nationalist opposition (“these barely exist outside a few pockets”). This time he used a statement by Joe Biden as evidence that jihadists, backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, were dominating the anti-Assad opposition. (Biden did not exclude the presence of a non-jihadist opposition, but Cockburn did.) Cockburn then criticized the U.S. for “trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad whose army is the main military opponent of ISIS.”  The Kurds were already out of the picture.

Meanwhile the Kurds and the FSA continued their advance on Kobani and by February 19, according to the BBC, they had taken 240 of the surrounding villagesand were advancing on the strategic town of Tal Abyad.

On February 24, Cockburn made a glancing reference to the YPG advance without any mention of the FSA. The next day, he gave fuller coverage but framed the story as the first evidence of “military cooperation between the Syrian Kurds and the U.S. … continuing in offensive operations.” He used the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the same source as the BBC, but, unlike the BBC, made no mention of the FSA fighting alongside the Kurds.

The omission is telling.

On March 19, when Cockburn concluded a five-part series for The Independent on life under ISIS, he complained that “the U.S. and its allies are not giving air support to the Shia militias and the Syrian army, which are the two largest ground forces opposing ISIS.” (As a matter of fact, against the wishes of its regional Sunni allies, the U.S. has been providing air support to Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias,whose sectarian oppression was one cause of Sunni disillusionment and the rise of ISIS.)

Yet even as he presents the Syrian Army as a nemesis of ISIS, Cockburn hasn’t reported on a single instance where, since at least the start of the year, the regime has successfully confronted ISIS. More bizarrely, to emphasize “the importance of ground-air co-operation” in the fight against ISIS, he cites the example of Kobani, where Assad’s forces had no presence and where American air support helped the YPG—and the FSA—repel an ISIS offensive.

Perhaps Cockburn is loath to support the opposition because it now has a large Islamist component (a troubling development, no doubt). But Cockburn appears remarkably unconcerned about extreme Islamism when he is calling for airstrikes in support of the Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq.

For Cockburn, the situation in Syria is stark: you are with the regime or you are with the terrorists. He is an enthusiast for the war on terror—Bashar al-Assad’s war on terror. He criticizes the U.S. for excluding from its anti-ISIS coalition “almost all those actually fighting ISIS, including Iran, the Syrian army, the Syrian Kurds and the Shia militias in Iraq.” “The enemy of our enemy”, he insists, “must be our friend”—and those who reject this formula are “glib” and “shallow”.

Not being glib or shallow, Cockburn apparently cedes little to reality. On January 7, he used the Charlie Hebdo attacks as an occasion to admonish the West to end its war against Assad, a potential ally in the confrontation with Islamic extremism. On the same day, a 17-page report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was leaked which confirmed that the regime had used chemical weapons in Idlib and Hama.

On February 8, when Cockburn reprised his criticism of the West for “trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, whose army is the main military opponent of ISIS,” the regime launched a particularly savage series of bombings in Douma,killing up to 250 civilians.

On March 19, Cockburn criticized “the U.S. and its allies” for “not giving air support to the Shia militias and the Syrian army, which are the two largest ground forces opposing ISIS.” The Violations Documentation Centre (VDC) confirmed 17 deaths under regime torture on the same day. Two days earlier, Amnesty International had published a report on the regime’s latest chemical attack in Idlib, which killed an entire family and affected up to 100 people.

On April 12, when Cockburn made his latest case for befriending Assad, theregime killed 102 people using barrel bombs and fuel air explosives. Targets included an elementary school where rescuers found two female teachers still seated, their heads severed by the blast.

This is not Cockburn being unlucky with his timing. In Syria, over the past three years, regime atrocities have been a daily occurrence. A call for befriending Assad will have unfortunate juxtapositions on any day. The thing that is rare, however, is for Cockburn to acknowledge an atrocity that is committed by the regime rather than by its opponents.

For that reason, April 14 was notable. For the first time in over a year, citing Human Rights Watch, Cockburn reported on a regime war crime (another chemical attack). The last time Cockburn had mentioned a regime atrocity was on March 20, 2014, when he spoke about the August 2013 chemical attack in the context of describing the naiveté of Syrian civil activists. Close to 70,000 people were killed in between, the overwhelmingly majority by the regime.

According to the VDC and the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the regime is responsible for close to 95 percent of all verified civilian deaths. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, special investigator for the UN Human Rights Council, has concluded that before the August 2013 chemical massacre, the Assad regime had already perpetrated at least eight major massacres (the rebels, too, were responsible for at least one massacre).

This equation remains unchanged. Pineheiro noted last September that despite ISIS’s extreme violence, the Assad regime “remains responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties, killing and maiming scores of civilians daily.” Physicians for Human Rights estimate that of the 610 medical workers killed in Syria since the beginning of the uprising, the regime was responsible for 97 percent of the deaths, 139 of whom died by torture or execution.

For a journalist to acknowledge all this, and still pronounce the regime a lesser evil deserving of friendship and military support can’t be easy. Cockburn seems to deal with it by turning a blind eye to the regime’s ongoing slaughter of civilians. He is helped in this by the obtrusive barbarism of ISIS, which uses spectacle in the place of scale to force media attention. ISIS has been a godsend for the regime; it has helped divert attention from its crimes—and regime-friendly journalists have obliged in the deflection.

Consider Cockburn’s cheery report on a “peace deal” in Tal Kalakh from June 2013. He writes that the town “changed sides at the week-end,” from the rebels to the regime after it “forged a peace deal,” though the “exact terms of the deal are mysterious.”

The mystery is resolved later in the article, when Cockburn reveals that the deal “appears to have been brokered by leading citizens of the town who did not want it to become a battleground again. The devastating destruction at Qusayr when it was stormed over two weeks by the Syrian army and the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah gave a sense of urgency to the final negotiations.” He gets to inspect the “cache of weapons on show by the army—a few mortar bombs, rockets and explosives”; they are “not very impressive.”

In other words, a heavily outgunned town surrendered to a superior, more ruthless, regime force. All the same, Cockburn walks through the town and finds that “soldiers and civilians looked relaxed.” He mocks the “pro-rebel Al-Jazeera Arabic” for claiming that “smoke was rising from the town;” Cockburn “did not see or smell any.” He even gets to speak to “a local FSA commander” (at that point, Cockburn was still acknowledging the FSA), who tells Cockburn that he changed sides “because of general disillusionment with the uprising.”

Only later are we told: “Listening to [the FSA rebel] impassively were Syrian army officers.”

Cockburn gives no indication that he is troubled by the officers’ presence while he interviews a surrendered soldier.  Far from it. The trip leads him to conclude: “The only way to bring the political temperature down is by local ceasefires and peace deals.” Syria would be at peace, in other words, if all Syrians just re-submitted to regime rule.

Cockburn is only following the precedent of his colleague Robert Fisk who, in August 2012, after a massacre of 400-500 people in Daraya, rode a Syrian Army armoured personnel carrier to the scene, interviewed survivors—“in the company of armed Syrian forces”—and concluded that, contrary to initial reports, “armed insurgents rather than Syrian troops” were responsible for the massacre.

Veteran war correspondent Janine di Giovanni, however, visited the town unaccompanied and interviewed survivors without the menacing presence of the Syrian Army. They told di Giovanni that the massacre was carried out by the regime, a conclusion corroborated by Human Rights Watch.

Tal Kalakh wasn’t the only instance of Cockburn’s creative reframing. Last month, when ISIS made a push for the Yarmouk Refugee Camp, he reported it thusly: “The takeover by ISIS of part of Yarmouk Camp in southern Damascus, a city that has been under siege by the group for two years, may mean that its commanders believe it is better to attack here than engage in a battle of attrition at Tikrit.”

From the article, readers would be hard-pressed to learn that the camp has endured a crippling siege by regime forces since July 2013. The article gives the impression that Yarmouk’s troubles began with the arrival of ISIS. Cockburn zooms out from the immediate situation in Yarmouk to speak of Damascus being under ISIS siege. (There is no mention, either, of the barrel bombs the regime has been dropping on Yarmouk). Before ISIS intervened in April 2015, in the 21 months of the regime’s siege on the camp, Cockburn mentioned Yarmouk in only two of his articles (on January 29 and January 30 last year)—the same number he devoted to the alleged massacre in Adra.

At their best, journalists exhume truth, as Seymour Hersh did after the massacre in My Lai. At their worst, they try to bury it, as Seymour Hersh did after the massacre in Eastern Ghouta.  Six months after a clumsy attempt at mass-crime revisionism, Hersh blurbed Cockburn’s book. Generous praise from Hersh would once have counted as an honor; after Syria, it may be read as an indictment.

Cockburn, however, is not like Hersh or Fisk. He never embraced the conspiracy theories around the massacres in Houla, Daraya, or Eastern Ghouta. Occasionally he even mentions regime crimes. His accounts in these instances are straight and unvarnished. Adra was his only apparent Brian Williams moment.

But as one astute commentator observed following the Williams affair:

Usually…there is no reason to lie because almost any story can be given an appearance of truthfulness by judicious selection of the facts…there are an infinite number of facts and it is the judgement of the journalist that decides which are significant or insignificant…in a sense, all stories are written backwards, beginning with the writer’s “take” on what matters and only then proceeding to a search for facts that he or she judges to be important.

The commentator was Patrick Cockburn—the journalist with an immutable “take”.

Elsewhere, Cockburn has complained that “those who purvey the most destructive lies in the media will seldom be identified or punished.” Indeed, sometimes they are rewarded. Despite the stark disproportion between the realities on the ground in Syria and Cockburn’s coverage, his reputation hasn’t suffered. He wins journalism awards; audiences receive him with credulous awe; the media eagerly seeks his expertise. He is a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books (a once respectable publication that has become overly hospitable to conspiracist clickbait).

That Cockburn has received awards instead of scrutiny is an indictment of the British journalism establishment. It shows that those bestowing honours either share his prejudices or are too ignorant to notice them. It’s time for them to make amends.

– Muhammad Idrees Ahmad (@im_pulse) is a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling (Scotland) and a co-editor of PULSE. He is the author of The Road to Iraq: the Making of a Neoconservative War.​

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What Do Syrians Want? The Syrian Freedom Charter

by Danny Postel

Resposted from: http://pulsemedia.org/2015/04/06/what-do-syrians-want-the-syrian-freedom-charter/

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Planet Syria – كوكب سوريا‎ has declared today — 7 April — a global day of solidarity with the people of Syria. In the spirit of this important effort, I present the following interview with Talal Barazi, Program Associate with the

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Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria (FREE-Syria), a civil society development and humanitarian support organization, about the Syrian Freedom Charter, a momentous initiative inspired by the South African Freedom Charter.

The Syrian Freedom Charter is a national unity document based on tens of thousands of face-to-face interviews with Syrians, in every governorate of the country, about what kind of society they want. Over the course of a year, a team of over a hundred activists assembled by FREE-Syria and the Local Coordination Committees (LLC) of Syria, completed more than 50,000 surveys.

How did the South African Freedom Charter influence the Syrian Freedom Charter?

The Syrian Freedom Charter used the South African Freedom Charter as a model from which to work. The biggest influence the South African Freedom Charter had on the Syrian counterpart was in the idea. We also leveraged the expertise of a university professor who was involved with South Africa’s ANC for more than 30 years, and other experts with experience in other conflicts (Ireland, South America). In the final analysis, we consider the Freedom Charter a national unity document, in which the vision of the Syrian people is the only component. We also used the format of the South African predecessor to lay out the vision of the Syrian people. 

How representative is the Freedom Charter? The introduction refers to Syrians “from our diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and religious sects”. How much of a cross-section of Syrian society does the document represent? Were Syria’s minority communities genuinely included? Can you provide some numbers?

As a document of national unity, the target number of surveys for the Freedom Charter was done proportionally based on districts, not based on ethnicities or religious sects. To get a proportional representation of all districts, we looked at the percentage each district made up of the total population, and set our goal for each district, proportionally, based on that. We did work in areas with prominent minority presence such as Sweida, a governorate known for the high presence of Druze, and Hassaka, a governorate with a large number of Kurds. The work was harder in predominantly Alawite areas and Damascus proper.

With that, we see that 50% of people chose not to disclose their ethnicity, and 36% of people chose not to disclose their religious beliefs. Below are the graphs for the demographic questions.

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How would you respond to the argument that the sentiments and ideals expressed in the Freedom Charter represent only a thin layer of Syrian society — an elite sector that is educated, westernized, urban, and/or living in exile — and that the sectarian violence the country has descended into is a more realistic reflection of popular sentiments and political loyalties? This view has been advanced by Joshua Landis, for example, but it’s widely shared across all sorts of ideological boundaries.

There is nothing elitist about the Freedom Charter — in fact, it is truly “the voice of the people.” The Freedom Charter represents the opinions of ordinary Syrians — more than 50,000 — the majority of whom live inside Syria under abysmal conditions imposed by the Assad regime and other militarized groups. The actual surveys were conducted at the grassroots level. Activists surveying in a specific district were locals of the district. 99% of surveys done were completed inside Syria and in neighboring countries that currently host a large number of refugees. The only precondition for surveys was that respondents be Syrian, without regard to ethnicity, religious affiliation, political affiliation, or social/economic status.

There’s a lot of discussion now of finding a political solution in Syria  some sort of negotiated settlement. Of course that’s not a new idea, but for a while it seemed to have receded from the horizon with the failure of the Geneva process, the exasperated resignation of both Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi as Special Envoy for Syria, and the seemingly intractable geopolitical deadlock over Syria. Recently, however — with the new geostrategic equation created by the intervention against ISIS  the push for a political solution is being revived. Various proposals have been floated, and virtually all of them involve Assad staying in power in some form. So my question for you is: the Freedom Charter doesn’t directly address the issue of political transition  how to get from the current moment to the political order outlined in the document  but from your point of view is there ANY scenario in which it would be acceptable for Assad to remain in power, or does the Freedom Charter necessarily preclude that?

For more than three years, Syrians have taken to the streets in both nonviolent and armed resistance to state what they do not want. The goal for the Freedom Charter was to express to the world what Syrians do want. The document does not discuss the transition period, nor the current situation; it is purely a statement of what Syrians are demanding. The Freedom Charter articulates the desires and goals of the Syrian people, not the process to achieve them.

With regard to the political process, FREE-Syria certainly advocates nonviolent solutions. However, the Assad regime has proven, through the failed initiatives of Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, that it is not prepared to pursue a political process. Rather, the regime has and continues to use deadly force, including chemical weapons, against civilians, particularly children. We do not foresee a future in which Assad or those regime supporters with blood on their hands can play a lasting role in a peaceful, democratic Syria.

For more on the Syrian Freedom Charter, go here. For more on ‎Planet Syria‘s global day of solidarity with the Syrian people, go here.

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