Category Archives: War

Syria’s Medical and Humanitarian Nightmare: Interview with Dr. Zaher Sahloul

Danny Postel

Since their days as medical school classmates, Bashar al-Assad and Zaher Sahloul have followed rather different paths: one became a war criminal; the other, a humanitarian advocate.

Dr. Sahloul is the immediate past president of and a senior advisor to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a humanitarian and advocacy organization that provides medical relief to Syrians and Syrian refugees. Last year, SAMS served 2.5 million patients in five different countries. (The organization’s vital work is featured in the recent documentary film 50 Feet from Syriawhich is available on Netflix.)

Dr. Sahloul is also the founder of the American Relief Coalition for Syria, a coalition of 14 US-based humanitarian organizations working in Syria. He is an Associate Clinical Professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine and is a practicing physician in pulmonary and critical care medicine. He has written about the medical and humanitarian crisis in Syria for Foreign Policy and the Huffington Post, among other outlets.

I conducted this interview with Dr. Sahloul for the Middle East Dialogues series produced by the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies on April 26 — less than 48 hours before the Assad regime’s airstrike on the MSF-supported pediatric hospital in Aleppo that killed dozens of patients and doctors, including one of the city’s last remaining pediatricians.

Go here to volunteer with the Syrian American Medical Society (you do not need to be a doctor or medical professional) and here to donate to the organization.

Originally published on Pulse

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The Seductive Killing Screen

Rachael Thompson

 

In 2008, the Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS) uploaded a video of a missile strike conducted by an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to youtube.com. The one minute 18 second video has 2.7 million views as of May 2013. Anyone with an internet connection can watch short, tightly edited videos that include munitions strikes resulting in death. A typical UAV video is a low-contrast dark grey video image in a small video window. The subject of the video is an incomprehensible mass of swirling pixels that vanish in a flash. For example, watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNNJJrcIa7A. An interested audience member can follow links to more videos of strangers being blown up by Predator, Reaper, and Apache helicopters. Over and over again, I can watch little rectangles dissolve in clouds of black. Devoid of narration or text, the videos are ambiguous. The formal qualities of the videos produce a sense of texture and little else. If many people thought the events of 11 September 2001 felt more like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie than real life, UAV videos are more like the peeping tom’s camera shoved in a hole in a bathroom wall that seduce the viewer to looking closer at scenes of killing.

In her description of haptic cinema, Laura U. Marks describes a way of viewing that “puts the object into question, calling on the viewer to engage in its imaginative construction. Haptic images pull the viewer close, too close to see properly, and this itself is erotic.” The pixelated textures of UAV videos obscure the gruesome imagery of people being blown to pieces. There is no blood, no body parts, no fire.  Instead, the viewer sees incomprehensible shapes and textures that appear, disappear, and swirl around in a sea of grey pixels. In this seductive way, UAV strike videos pull the viewer in, face close to the screen, and seduce him or her into watching intimate scenes of horrific violence. UAV kill videos are a dirty thrill that can be accessed from the comfort of your home. 

Drones operate in a curious space of both distance and proximity. The distant war is brought incredibly close to drone operators and image analysts. In a Benjaminian sense, drones are the ultimate form of mechanical reproduction. Drones bring their subjects closer but completely remove the authenticity of the subject. Benjamin calls the “aura” of movie stars the “phony spell of the commodity.” The subjects of drone strikes often have the “spell of the terrorist.” For long shifts, drone operators and image analysts watch video feeds from areas where the US government has decided there might be terrorists. The operators may observe the same family over the course of several days or weeks watching for suspicious activity or waiting for the women and children to leave before a strike is ordered. Watch the video again. How do the operators on the kill chain know what they are looking at? How do operators sort through the hours and hours of collected footage to determine with the certainty that allows them to end a life that the person they are looking at is a terrorist? The interpretation of the images is already partially determined by the controllers of the image-making technology.

The United States is engaged in multiple conflicts where the use of UAVs is, as Leon Panetta famously quipped, “the only game in town.” Much has been written and said about the use of UAVs, including investigations of the moral and legal implications of fighting wars from a distance, the benefits to United States military personnel, and, to a much lesser extent, the physical and psychological impact on drone-monitored communities. One comparison that is frequently made is that operating UAVs is like playing a video game. The implication is that UAV operators can behave like video game players and detachedly kill enemies. While the apparatus of a UAV does share similarities with a video game such as screens, buttons, and joysticks, the experience of looking is quite different.

UAV operators resist the comparison between their job and video games. Instead, they comment on the closeness they experience in the course of performing their jobs. In the New York Times, UAV operators talk about watching families for hours, getting to know their routines, and perhaps even coming to identify with them a little. In addition, UAV operators feel a sense of closeness with their deployed counterparts. UAV camera technology allows the operator to have a strong sense of being-there through visual proximity. They watch over troops. They communicate with troops on the ground during take-offs, landings, and strikes. While people on the ground have a limited view, a UAV operator appears to have unlimited visibility. From their seats in remote US locations, UAV operators appear to have access to an all-seeing eye, but instead, they actively participate in the imaginative construction of terrorists.

When you are looking for terrorists, everyone can be a terrorist. The choice to send drones to a particular place to look for particular behaviors constrains what can be apprehended by drone operators. In one particularly vivid account recounted by Gregory in his 2011 article “From a view to a kill: Drones and late modern war”, drone operators who were providing air support for ground troops identified a group of people as militants, possibly Taliban. A strike was authorized. In the aftermath, the targets turned out to be women, children, and families. Jonathan Landay (2013) utilizes US intelligence reports to sharply contrast the Obama administration’s discourse of precision with the deaths of people who were inaccurately identified as terrorists. Landay identifies the following inconsistencies of precision: groups targeted were not on a list of terrorist groups prior to the 9-11 attacks, many who are killed are unidentified individuals, approximately half of the people killed in attacks Landay reviewed were not al Qaeda but simply determined by the US military to be extremists, and finally, drone operators have difficulty making identifications when men dress similarly and openly and routinely carry weapons. 

Mechanically recorded images are not mere documents; they are framed in multiple ways. Drone images are framed first by the choice of where to deploy them. The images are then framed by what the administration and military hope to find. The operators of drones are on the hunt for terrorists and therefore they find terrorists everywhere they look. Viewers are drawn into the seductive killing screen to see whatever they want to see in these mechanically produced and reproduced images of more anonymous deaths conducted by an increasingly barbaric state.  

Rachael Thompson is a MA candidate in communication at University of Colorado Denver. Her research interests include media erotics and vernacular media texts. She is particularly interested in texts that cross boundaries and create discomfort.

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June 17, 2013 · 8:43 pm

Hugo Chávez and the Middle East: Which Side Was He On?

 

Danny Postel

 

Most of the postmortem commentary on Hugo Chávez has focused on his domestic legacy in Venezuela, his wider regional legacy within Latin America, and what we might call his hemispheric legacy—his “special relationship” with the United States. And for good reason: these were the principal realms in which he operated during his fourteen years as Venezuela’s president (1999–2013), and it is for his accomplishments in these domains that he will be remembered and the Chávez Era (it was, to be sure, an era) will be evaluated.

But there’s a less discussed dimension of the Chávez legacy that I’d like to examine briefly: his relations with the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, a story whose significance became more salient with the onset of the momentous changes the region has been undergoing over the last few years—not merely since the “Arab Spring” or Arab revolts starting at the end of 2010 but going back to the upheaval in Iran in the summer of 2009.

But, first, let me be clear that I admire a great deal of what Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolution accomplished in Venezuela. As Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research points out, the Chávez government

reduced poverty by half and extreme poverty by 70 percent.  Millions of people also got access to health care for the first time, and access to education also increased sharply, with college enrollment doubling and free tuition for many. Eligibility for public pensions tripled.

And it’s significant that Chávez did all of this through the ballot, not the bullet. He was elected and reelected repeatedly, and by wide margins. I’ve praised the experiments with alternatives to neoliberalism in Venezuela, suggesting that other movements around the world study and learn from them. I’ve even been taken to task for being too pro-Chávez.

It’s precisely because of these positive accomplishments that Chávez’s record on the Middle East and North Africa is so disconcerting.

Chavez-AhmadinejadChavez-Qaddafi2
Chávez had been an enthusiast of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad since the latter became Iran’s president in 2005. In 2006, while Ahmadinejad presided over a massive escalation of repression against dissidents, trade unionists, and human rights activists in Iran, Chávez awarded him the Order of the Liberator medal, the highest honor Venezuela bestows on foreign dignitaries. In June of 2009, as millions of Iranians took to the streets to ask Where Is My Vote? Chávez was among the first world leaders to congratulate his ally in Tehran on his reelection, and the Venezuelan foreign ministry issued this statement:

The Bolivarian Government of Venezuela expresses its firm opposition to the vicious and unfounded campaign to discredit the institutions of the Islamic Republic of Iran, unleashed from outside, designed to roil the political climate of our brother country. From Venezuela, we denounce these acts of interference in the internal affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, while demanding an immediate halt to the maneuvers to threaten and destabilize the Islamic Revolution.

This provoked widespread dismay and appeals to Chávez from Iranians, many of whom sympathized with the ideals of the Bolivarian Revolution, to stop supporting their reactionary president. Those appeals, alas, went ignored, further damaging the standing of the Venezuelan leader among progressive Iranians.

 

“Complicated”

“In Egypt, the situation is complicated,” Chávez pronounced during the Tahrir Square protests that brought down Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. He remained conspicuously silent on the Battle of Cairo, one of the great democratic uprisings of recent times, remarking merely that “national sovereignty” should be respected.

But silent he was not as the Arab revolts spread to Libya and Syria; he spoke out emphatically in support of Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar Assad. Chávez had been chummy with the Libyan leader before the 2011 uprising against him; in 2009 he regaled Qaddafi with a replica of Simón Bolívar’s sword and awarded him the same Order of the Liberator medal he’d bestowed on Ahmadinejad. “What Símon Bolívar is to the Venezuelan people,” Chávez declared, “Qaddafi is to the Libyan people.” As the Libyan revolt grew and Qaddafi went on a rampage of slaughter, Chávez was one of a handful of world leaders who stood by him: “We do support the government of Libya.” That support, as one observer noted, was “politically costly and proved to be an embarrassment to many of Latin America’s erstwhile revolutionaries who now share a vision of a democratic future.”

“How can I not support Assad?” Chávez asked last year as the body count in Syria approached sixty thousand. While the regime bombed bread lines and hospitals, Chávez shipped upwards of 600,000 barrels of Venezuelan diesel to his ally in Damascus. Meanwhile, the Chávez-inspired Bolivarian Alliance for Latin America (ALBA) denounced a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution that condemned the Assad regime for the horrific massacre of over one hundred noncombatants, including forty-nine children. The UN resolution, ALBA protested, was an attempt to “interfere in Syria’s internal affairs.”

Chávez’s support for despotic and murderous regimes isn’t limited to the Middle East; he also hailed Zimbabwe’s dictator Robert Mugabe, the late Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin, and Alexander Lukashenko, the repressive Belarusian leader known as “Europe’s last dictator.”

These international alliances raise troubling questions about Chávez’s judgment and legacy (a legacy that awaits, and deserves, a thorough historical reckoning along the lines of Perry Anderson’s magisterial retrospective on Brazil’s Lula), especially for those of us who do admire many of the Bolivarian Revolution’s accomplishments.

Some of Chávez’s defenders chalk these unsavory alliances up to realpolitik calculations that a Third World leader has no choice but to make in dealing with a global hegemon hell bent on undermining all alternatives to its dictates. But this only goes so far. Lula’s foreign policy involved lots of deals and alliances—the Brazilian-Turkish attempt to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue, for instance—but, unlike Chávez, he never defended the repressive domestic policies of the Islamic Republic or denounced Iran’s democratic movement.

A group of Iranian leftists who support the goals of the Bolivarian Revolution made this point in an open letter to Chávez. “To us,” the letter reads, “it is possible for the Venezuelan government to have close diplomatic and trade relations with the Iranian government without giving it political support—particularly where domestic policy is concerned. Above all, endorsing its labor policy is in complete contradiction with your own domestic policy.”

Dealing with ambiguity has never been a particular forte of the Left. Yet assessing the legacy of Hugo Chávez requires nothing so much as a sense of ambiguity. I thus find Bhaskar Sunkara’s observation that the Bolivarian Revolution contains “both authoritarian and democratic, demagogic and participatory” elements most refreshing. I know from personal conversations with countless progressives that ambivalence about Chávez, particularly on the international front, runs deep—but the critical conversation has yet to reflect that ambivalence.

Theorizing Chávez’s international relations—examining the ideological affinities between his left-wing populism and the right-wing populism of Ahmadinejad, exploring patterns between his domestic and foreign policies, comparing his international dealings with those of other progressive leaders in the Global South—remains to be done. I don’t think any complete reckoning with the legacy of this historic political figure can be complete without confronting these questions, thorny though they may be.

Rather than draw any grand conclusions on this phenomenon, though, I’d love to hear what thoughtful admirers of Chávez like Ernesto Laclau might have to say on the subject. Perhaps we can enter into a critical dialogue on this theme.

 

Danny Postel is the associate director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He is the author of Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran (2006) and the coeditor, with Nader Hashemi, of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (2011).

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Filed under Arab Spring, Danny Postel, Libya, Revolution, War