OCCUPY SYRIA NOW!

alby Arthur Dent

The missile strike against an Assad regime air base was a “limited” and “proportional” response to chemical weapons. That is the opposite of what U.S. allies should be saying. One might as well stress that it was militarily pointless since the warnings given enabled those planes not grounded for repairs to escape.

The real point was explained by the International Red Cross – there is now an “international armed conflict” between the United States and the Syrian regime. Pretending that will not end in invasion and occupation does not prevent the far right and the pseudo-left jointly mobilizing against it, helped by “opinion leaders”. Pretence only delays understanding why we must fight.

For domestic reasons the U.S. government needs to maintain ambiguity. It was elected on an isolationist “America First” platform in a country where most “opinion leaders” are actively hostile to getting involved in another war and where much of the “mainstream” mass media has recently been devoted to deranged conspiracy theories appealing to the intelligence agencies to do their patriotic duty by undermining the elected government who are supposed to be in collusion with the Kremlin. But U.S. allies should help by clarifying that we are ready to fight.

Typically Australia just echoes whatever the latest U.S. pronouncement happens to be, obediently switching positions whenever the U.S. does. Usually such switches are executed more smoothly than the latest one, in which U.S. policies were reversed over a few hours and Australian policies followed immediately but pathetically maintaining the same ambiguity when the opposite is needed.

The U.S. policies for Syria followed for the last few years have been completely absurd. Inaction has resulted in half the population displaced, nearly half a million killed, millions of refugees throughout the region and a serious threat to European unity. Even distant Australia has been affected by the increased terrorist threat resulting from the callous Western indifference to the slaughter. Cowards have attacked muslims here instead of actually fighting our common enemy.

Things can only get worse the longer intervention is postponed. Safe Zones to protect the displaced civilian population were required long ago and must be implemented soon.

The Srebrenica massacre in the Bosnian war occurred in a “safe area” protected by U.N. armed forces under Security Council resolution 819. About 100,000 were killed in the Bosnian war until a NATO occupation force of 80,000 ended it. Two decades later there are still some troops supporting an international “High Representative” supervising the two competing governments.

The Syrian war has been left to fester for so long that it is much more savage and will require a much larger occupation force for much longer. There is no question of “peace enforcing”. There is no peace to enforce. Making peace requires international forces able to kill people and blow things up until other armed forces surrender and are interned.

Only the U.S. has the logistics capacity to maintain such a force. Other countries will be expected to pay for it as well as contribute to it.

The longer it is delayed the more it will cost, to the world as well as it already has to the Syrian people. Australia should help speed things up, not add to the confusion.

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Syrian Coalition welcomes Trump’s action against Assad regime’s “airbase of death” – as do all democrats and genuine leftists.

The Syrian Coalition calls upon our people and their active forces to close ranks and unite into one political, military, and popular front to confront the new challenges, combat terrorism in all its forms, and make every effort to topple the criminal regime of tyranny and sectarianism and work on the establishment of a democratic, pluralistic state.

syrian revolution

Press Release
Political Committee
Syrian Coalition
April 7, 2017

The Syrian Coalition welcomes the strikes the United States launched on Shaerat airbase from which airplanes took off to carry out the horrific war crime of gassing our people, including women and children, in the town of Khan Sheikoun. The Coalition sees in these strikes the beginning of change where the words of US messages, for the first time, were translated into action to punishment perpetrator of the crime. It also sees in them a turning point in the American position on Syria as the Trump administration, unlike its predecessor, did not allow the murderous regime to continue its crimes of using internationally banned weapons.

The US strikes have sent strong messages to backers of the Assad regime, especially Iran and Russia, to stop playing tricks with the fate and blood of the Syrian people and attempting to gain the upper hand in Syria. They have sent messages that the United States will not allow any more breaches of international law and the disregard for international resolutions as well as the most heinous, terrorist acts against civilians and children.

The Syrian Coalition expresses its support for the action taken by President Trump and his intention to answer the cries of the Syrian people and children. The Coalition also supports President Trump’s calls for the formation of an international coalition of the civilized world to confront and work on deposing this deadly backward regime; contribute to the efforts to reach a just political solution; and continue the fight against forces of terrorism in all its forms, including the Assad regime and its allied sectarian militias.

The Syrian Coalition stresses that the Assad regime bears full responsibility for exposing our country to various types of domination, occupation, mandate, and destruction. The Coalition expresses hope for the continuation of the new US position to lead to the imposition of a no-fly zone; the neutralization of the military bases the Assad regime uses to target civilians; putting an end to the crimes being committed by the Assad regime and its allies; achieving a just political solution that puts an end to the Syrian tragedy and in which the head of the regime and his clique do not have any position or role to play; and help bringing them before the International Criminal Court.

The Syrian Coalition today calls upon our people and their active forces to close ranks and unite into one political, military, and popular front to confront the new challenges, combat terrorism in all its forms, and make every effort to topple the criminal regime of tyranny and sectarianism and work on the establishment of a democratic, pluralistic state.

How the Syrian revolution has transformed me (Budour Hassan)

The following is reprinted from Budour Hassan’s blog Random Shelling.

Comments welcome.

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The world revolves around Palestine, or so I thought until 2011.

The Palestinian cause, I argued, was the litmus test for anyone’s commitment to freedom and justice. Palestine was the one and only compass that must guide any Arab revolution. Whether a regime is good or bad should be judged, first and foremost, based on its stance from the Palestinian cause. Every event should somehow be viewed through a Palestinian lens. The Arab people have failed us, and we inspired the entire world with our resistance.

 

Yes, I called myself internationalist. I claimed to stand for universal and humanist ideals. I blathered on and on about breaking borders and waging a socialist revolution.

But then came Syria, and my hypocrisy and the fragility of those ideals became exposed.

 

When I first heard the Syrian people in Daraa demand a regime reform on 18 March 2011, all I could think about, subconsciously, was: “If the Egyptian scenario happens in Syria, it would be a disaster for Palestine.”

I did not think about those who were killed by the regime on that day. I did not think of those arrested or tortured.

I did not think about the inevitable crackdown by the regime.

I did not greet the incredibly courageous protests in Daraa with the same elation and zeal I felt during the Tunisian, Egyptian, Bahraini, Yemeni, and Libyan uprisings.

All I could muster was a sigh of suspicion and fear.

“Assad is a tyrant and his regime is rotten,” I thought to myself, “but the subsequent results of its fall might be catastrophic for Palestine and the resistance.” That sacred axis of resistance meant to me back then much more than the Syrian lives being cut short by its defenders.

I was one of those whose hearts would pound when Hassan Nasrallah appeared on TV. I bookmarked loads of YouTube videos of his speeches and teared up while listening to songs glorifying the resistance and its victories.

And while I supported the demands of the Syrian protesters in principle, I did so with reluctance and it was a conditional support. It was not even solidarity because it was so selfish and always centered around Palestine.

I retweeted a blog post by an Egyptian activist calling on Syrians to carry Palestinian flags, in order to “debunk” regime propaganda. The Syrian people took to the streets defending the same universal ideals that I claimed to stand for, yet I was incapable of viewing their struggle outside my narrow Palestinian prism. I claimed to be internationalist while prioritizing Palestinian concerns over Syrian victims. I shamelessly took part in the Suffering Olympics and was annoyed that Syrian pain occupied more newspaper pages than Palestinian pain. I was too gullible to notice that the ordeals of both Syrians and Palestinians are just footnotes and that the breaking news would become too routine, too dull and unworthy of consumption in the space of few months.

I claimed to reject all forms of oppression while simultaneously waiting for the head of a sectarian militia to say something about Syria and to talk passionately about Palestine.

 

The Syrian revolution put me on trial for betraying my principles. But instead of condemning me, it taught me the lesson of my life: it was a lesson given with grace and dignity.

It was delivered with love, by the women and men dancing and singing in the streets, challenging the iron fist with creativity, refusing to give up while being chased by security forces, turning funeral processions into exuberant marches for freedom, rethinking ways to subvert regime censorship; introducing mass politics amidst unspeakable terror; and chanting for unity despite sectarian incitement; and chanting the name of Palestine in numerous protests and carrying the Palestinian flag without needing a superstar Egyptian blogger to ask them to do so.

It was a gradual learning process in which I had to grapple with my own prejudices of how a revolution should “look like,” and how we should react to a movement against a purportedly pro-Palestinian regime. I desperately tried to overlook the ugly face beneath the mask of resistance worn by Hezbollah, but the revolution tore that mask apart. And that was not the only mask torn apart, many more followed. And now the real faces of self-styled freedom fighters and salon leftists were exposed; the long-crushed Syrian voices emerged.

How can one not be inspired by a people rediscovering their voices, transforming folk songs and football chants into revolutionary chants? How can one not be taken aback by protests choreographed in front of tanks?

 

The Syrian geography was much more diverse and rich than that promoted by the regime and the official narrative collapsed as Syrians from the margins reconstructed their own narratives. The Syrian rainbow had many more colors than those permitted by the regime. And Syrians could raise their voices in places other than football stadiums, using their famous victory chant in public squares and streets to curse Hafez al-Assad, the “eternal leader.”

 

If Hafez al-Assad’s name could only be whispered with trembles before 2011, people at last could vociferously curse him and his son, shaking both the physical as well as the symbolic hegemony of this dynasty to its foundations.

 

I could not remain neutral as Syrians redefined the feasible and stretched the boundaries of people power, albeit briefly, during those early months of fatal hope.

Wouldn’t remaining impartial have been an act of treason to anything I claimed to stand for? How could I possibly read out Howard Zinn’s quote “You cannot be neutral on a moving train” to those sitting on the fence on Palestine, while I was doing the same on Syria? The Syrian revolution crumbled the fence from under me. I rediscovered my voice thanks to the mass mobilization I witnessed in Syria. I would listen to clips from Syrian protests, memorize their chants, and repeat them in Palestinian protests. Thinking of the fearlessness of Syrians would immediately make my voice louder and help make me overcome any slight semblance of fear.

 

You do not choose the nationality into which you were born but you don’t have to be bound by its shackles.

My Syrian identity, my sense of belonging to the Syrian revolution, was not forced onto me. I chose to adopt it. I never stepped foot in Syria. It was not until 2013 that I first met a Syrian not from the Occupied Golan Heights in the flesh, face to face. My main way of connecting with Syrians was and remains through social media and Skype. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel Syrian and completely identify with the struggle.

Until 2011, my talk about breaking borders and internationalist solidarity was but a soundbite, mere rhetorics. Thanks to the Syrian uprising, I finally understood what solidarity is really about.

 

I always expected people to support the Palestinian cause without imposing conditions, without preaching or lecturing, without dictating. When the Syrian uprising erupted, I acted exactly like those armchair preaches demanding a jasmine revolution from Palestinians, constantly asking us about the New Gandhi and MLK. But as the revolution went on, I could finally comprehend the true meaning of solidarity from below, a solidarity that is unconditional yet also critical. I saw how people like martyr Omar Aziz applied horizontal self-governance in some of the more conservative and traditional neighborhoods, and I learned from his model.

I learned the meaning of communal solidarity and Palestinian-Syrian togetherness from the Palestinian residents of Daraa refugee camp: they risked their lives to smuggle bread and medicine and break the siege on the rising city of Daraa. It was not just a humanitarian act; it was a political statement and the beginning of the formation of an identity, that of the Palestinian-Syrian revolutionary.

 

Khaled Bakrawi, a Palestinian refugee from Yarmouk, and Zaradasht Wanly, a Syrian youngster from Damascus, were both injured by Israeli occupation forces during “return marches” to the Golan Heights in 2011. Both Khaled and Zaradasht were murdered by the Syrian regime: the former was killed under torture, the latter was shot dead during a peaceful protest.

 

Syrians marched in solidarity with Gaza amid the rubble of their houses destroyed by Syrian regime air strikes. The Syrian Revolutionary Youth put out posters against the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the Naqab when most of the group’s members were in hiding, jails, exile, or graves.

Such is the solidarity of the oppressed which Syrians turned from rhetorics to practice. How can one not admire it?

 

If the Second Intifada in October 2000 shaped the political consciousness and national identity of an 11-year-old girl who had just left her tiny village to move to the city; the first wave of the Syrian revolution in March 2011 rebirthed a woman making her more confident steps in Jerusalem. Jerusalem, my city, the one I chose to call home, could not by any means be liberated by the oppressors of my people, of Syrians. Jerusalem’s spirit cannot be hijacked by those bombing a hospital carrying its name.

Far from struggling to reconcile my Palestinian and Syrian identity layers, The Syrian uprising made me even more committed to the struggle for Palestinian liberation: the liberation of the land from the occupier and the liberation of the cause from dictators and bandwagoners.

 

And while I parted company with people I once regarded comrades because of their support for the Syrian regime, I also gained new, lifelong friendships that have imbued my world with warmth and strength.

 

I owe so much to the Syrian revolution, which re-created me. I have no status or self-importance or willingness to speak on behalf of anyone, let alone on behalf of the Palestinian people, but I personally owe an apology to the Syrian people. I should have never hesitated in supporting their just cause. I should have never privileged geopolitical concerns over Syrian lives; and I should have never been so naively deceived by the propaganda of the resistance axis.

I owe an apology to a people who, for decades, were trodden upon, silenced, and humiliated in the name of my own cause; to a people whose only encounter with “Palestine” was in a prison dungeon carrying this name; the people who were blamed and mocked for being so docile yet when they did rise up, they were abandoned.

I owe an apology to a people who are blamed for a carnage committed against them, just as we have been, and who have been betrayed by an opposition pretending to represent them, just as we have been, too. I owe an apology to a people cynically called upon to bring an alternative to the Assad regime and Islamists while bombs and missiles fall on their heads. Those same people asking “Where is the alternative?” ignore that Syrians who were ready to offer a progressive vision have either been jailed, killed or displaced by the regime.

One would think that Palestinians know the cynicism behind the question of alternatives that they wouldn’t pose it to another oppressed people fighting to build everything from scratch.

 

Yet despite contradictions, Palestinians and Syrians do share the same yearning for freedom, the same burning desire to live in dignity and the dream to walk in the streets of the Old City of Damascus and the Old City of Jerusalem.

The road we shall cross to get there, though, is not the one that the regime and Hezbollah saturated with Syrian corpses, but one paved with the hands of Palestinian and Syrian freedom fighters: by people who know that their freedom is always incomplete without the freedom of their sisters and brothers.

 

Daesh, the (pseudo) Left, and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution

“The role of socialists is not to counterpose themselves to democratic revolutions, which gave rise (in Egypt) to the first democratic government, and (in Syria) to emancipatory projects such as networks of local councils against the existing state, but to take the democratic side against tyranny”.

My response: WHY for heaven’s sake does this even have to be stated?

The reason is because of the general failure to understand that ‘socialists’ who side with tyrants are not worthy of the name, and that the pseudo-left which has been dominant for decades needs to be called out. I wish the reviewer had used that term rather than seeming to accept that one can oppose democratic revolution and still be on the left.

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The following book review is published with permission of Syria Solidarity UK.

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Khiyana: Daesh, the Left, and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution, ed. Jules Alford and Andy Wilson, published by Unkant, London.

Review by Clara Connolly

This book should be required reading for every leftist, as an antidote to the growing mountain of ignorant comment on the subject of Syria. The title Khiyana (betrayal) is an accusing cry; the book is a trenchant denunciation of the Western Left for its abandonment of the principles of internationalism and solidarity in favour of an alignment with the ‘anti imperialist’ camp, a hangover from the geo-politics of the Cold War.

Assad An-Nar, like most of the authors, situates himself on the Marxist left, and his prefatory chapter could be considered a direct response to Tariq Ali’s infamous dismissal of the Arab Spring in What is a Revolution? (Guernica, Sept. 2013). He sets his critique in the context of the changing nature of revolution in an age of global neoliberalism, where post colonial states are collapsing because neoliberal policies have slashed the limited social protections they used to offer. In this world, he says, the principles of self emancipation and of collective and democratic struggle are ‘ideas in search of a subject.’ Ideas about democracy, socialism, and anti-imperialism used to run in the same direction, but now they are counterposed.

With the collapse of the progressive moment of secular Arab nationalism, Islamist organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood can rise beyond identity/sectarian politics in resistance to tyranny. Though not necessarily opposed to neoliberalism, they are the voice of those who are excluded from its benefits. Hezbollah’s current role in Syria shows that such movements can swing between revolution and counter revolution without moving in a socialist direction.

The role of socialists is not to counterpose themselves to democratic revolutions, which gave rise (in Egypt) to the first democratic government, and (in Syria) to emancipatory projects such as networks of local councils against the existing state, but to take the democratic side against tyranny. Instead the left has responded by either supporting their favourite dictatorships (the neo Stalinists) or by re-hashing theories of ‘permanent revolution,’ i.e. insisting that revolutions can only end in socialism or defeat (the Trotskyists). Yes, he says, a democratic revolution is possible in these countries, but the outcomes are uncertain; the socialist left, while recognising its marginal role, should not condemn itself to irrelevance by denouncing the struggles for democracy because they are not socialist. Instead he urges the left to make the ‘democratic wager,’ in hope that the outcomes lead to more collective forms of struggle. There is little to lose for socialists, he believes, since neoliberalism has led worldwide to the fatal weakening of working class self-organisation.

The subsequent chapters examine and demolish the standard left myths about the Syrian revolution: the ‘jihadist’ nature of the ‘rebels’; the selective anti imperialism which admires Rojava but has no time for similar experiments in local democracy elsewhere in Syria; the role of regional imperialisms like Iran and Russia in propping up a monstrous regime; and above all the lies and distortions peddled by the institutional left (Stop the War Coalition, and the éminence grise of left journalism like Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, and Seymour Hersh) who place the national interests of states they consider to be in the ‘axis of resistance’ above solidarity with the struggles of the oppressed in those countries.

In a short review I can refer only to two further articles in the core of the book; but I cannot resist a passing mention of the glorious satirical piece by M Idrees Ahmad, The Anti-Imperialist Guide to Inaction in Syria. Anyone familiar with debate on Syria will recognise the strategies he lists: ‘Don’t defend Assad, attack his opponents; sympathise selectively; functional doubt where straight denial is risky; defend peace and sovereignty; champion the minorities; talk about ISIS, not Assad; talk about refugees but not the cause of flight,’ etc. Most of these strategies are shared with the establishment and the extreme Right.

Mark Boothroyd describes the responses of Stop the War Coalition (STWC) to Syria, in a case study that echoes the critique in the preface. It has consistently viewed developments through its relation to the US and the UK. In a multi polar world system with competing imperialisms, it persists in viewing events through the prism of the Cold War. The agency of Syrians is erased altogether.

In 2013, STWC opposed the proposed intervention of the UK and when this proposal was defeated in Parliament, it claimed victory; but Boothroyd claims that if the West had really wanted to intervene in Syria it would have done so—its actual strategy is to let the country bleed. I think he underestimates the power of popular protest in democratic countries, and the degree to which STWC was able to tap into post Iraq war weariness. But he is right in pointing out that STWC has missed a trick in failing to expose the real cruelties of the Western role.

In its weaker response to the 2015 intervention against ISIS, STWC has consistently refused to allow oppositional Syrians on its platforms—who have opposed the Coalition campaign against ISIS as useless and counter-productive, but have also proposed more positive measures for the protection of Syrian civilians. Once again, its failure to listen to Syrians has weakened its moral stance even in its own terms—in opposing its own Government.

It could have been different, he believes: the anti war movement could have risen beyond its current ethnocentric, isolationist positions to meet the challenge of changing times, and been a movement to build solidarity with the revolutions in the Middle East.

In The Rise of Daesh in Syria, Sam Charles Hamad attacks the myth of Saudi funding and support for Daesh; instead, in a detailed study, he convincingly shows their deadly rivalry despite their similar ideologies. He demonstrates the origins of Daesh in post invasion Iraq, and its nurture by the sectarian regimes in Iraq and Syria. He shows, by tracing its sources of income, how it is self sustaining. Finally he argues that the current tactics of the west, in fighting Daesh from the air but hampering the oppositions in their fight against the sectarian regimes of Assad and Maliki, are counter-productive. And the left’s narrative is complicit in this.

The book, and particularly its opening chapter, is weakened by a failure to examine more closely such terms as ‘democracy’ and ‘emancipation,’ given their ambivalent history among Marxists; and to analyse the demands of the revolution—Freedom Justice and Dignity—in more detail. This is particularly the case since there is little discussion of class, and no accounts of the role of women in the Syrian revolution, nor of the role of Western women’s peace groups or feminists in relation to Syria. My own recent experience of organising solidarity events with Syrian women suggests that the hostility to, and silencing of, Syrian voices is much less prevalent among feminist organisations than in the left as a whole. The ‘democratic wager’ which is urged upon us might be weighted more favourably with the inclusion of women activists, within Syria and in the West.

When the impossible becomes the inevitable: my memory of the struggle against apartheid

I retired from work, at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, last week. The following is my final blog post as an on-going Public Service employee.

Feel free to add a comment at the museum’s blog site.

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On reflecting on the campaign of solidarity in Australia with the South African oppressed people, it reinforced my view that identifying with, and supporting, the oppressed and those struggling for freedom, is a core left-wing value. It was not just on the issue of South African apartheid that we did this, but on Vietnam too. The left supported the Vietnamese people against US imperialism, just as we supported the South African people against the apartheid regime. Other examples are our solidarity with the Czech and Polish rebels.

It is incomprehensible to me that people and groups that do not support the Syrian people in their struggle against the Assad regime can be in any sense left-wing, no matter how they self-identify and no matter what ‘left’ sounding slogans they shout.

Anyway, here is my final blog post at work.

* * * *

The museum’s Memories of the Struggle exhibition highlights the part played by Australians in solidarity with South Africans against the apartheid regime. It resonates with scores of thousands of us who actively took part in the struggle as grass-roots activists.

From the late 1960s and for most of the 1970s, I was one such activist in Melbourne. I lived and breathed the kind of left-wing politics that opposed apartheid and supported regime change and democratic aspiration there. If I wasn’t printing out and handing out leaflets about it, and sometimes writing them, I was attending working-bees where people designed and made placards and banners for street protests. And, there was hardly a demonstration on the issue in Melbourne that I didn’t attend. To me, it was part of a global revolutionary struggle. (The same applies to the Vietnam War, which loomed larger because of the policy of conscription for the war, and the greater violence against the Vietnamese).

Of course, not all of the Australian opponents of apartheid identified with the left and only a small minority were communists like me. It’s worth noting that while nearly everyone opposed the apartheid system in principle back then, there was strong opposition to Nelson Mandela, who was seen as a communist and a terrorist. He was certainly close to the South African Communist Party and his Spear Movement struck terror into the hearts of the fascists running the regime. To be opposed to apartheid in principle was fine, but to want to do something about it in practical solidarity was ‘going too far’.


Fast forward several decades and in 1994 Mandela is the elected and acclaimed President of a new era in South Africa, one free of apartheid and one in which all people have equal voice in elections. Despite serving 27 years in prison, he properly urges reconciliation rather than revenge. What a man! Governments whose leaders were not forthcoming with solidarity when it was needed now applaud him. The Australian governments of Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke are among the proud exceptions. Celebrities like Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor pose for photos with him. How things change.

That’s what happens when you have History on your side. When the reactionaries, who can seem so powerful, are revealed as the paper tigers that they essentially are. If proof is needed of the maxims that ‘the people make history’, and that ‘wherever there is repression there is resistance’, then South Africa under apartheid provides it. At times, it seemed a hopeless uphill battle. But don’t they all? Until they are won. And then what once seemed impossible suddenly seems inevitable.

When Mandela was released from prison in February 1990, I was so thrilled and overwhelmed that, after my regular fitness run up Mount Ainslie, which rises 800 metres above Canberra, I wanted to repeat the run immediately. I was on such a ‘high’ and carried along by the adrenalin of Mandela’s release and the excitement of South Africa’s prospects as a democracy. Thereafter, running up and down Mount Ainslie twice without stopping became my ‘Mandela Run’.

Their victory was our victory – and my victory too.


Fast forward again, and around 2010 I find myself pondering Mandela’s future. He is now in his early 90s and I feel an urge to write to him, to let him hear from an Australian activist, rather than a leader or celebrity.

I want to share some anecdotes with him – things I experienced directly – and I want to ask him for an autographed photo as a memento.

Sorry, but I can’t find a copy of my letter to him. But from memory, it told him of the following.

At my university in the early 1970s, we had a Chancellor who was on the board of Imperial Chemical Industries which, among other things, manufactured explosives and munitions in South Africa. A mass meeting of a thousand students demanded his resignation. Eventually we won and the Chancellor resigned before his term expired. But what a struggle. We occupied the Administration Building, blockaded the Council members, held mass meetings at least twice a week. And the authorities cracked down severely on us for our lawlessness. Or was it for our effectiveness? John Gorton as Prime Minister had declared that “We shall tolerate dissent so long as it is ineffective”. The student ring-leaders were identified, arrested, fined, suspended from university, lost our Education Department studentships and three of us – yours truly included – gaoled at Pentridge, without sentence or rights of appeal – for contempt of court. (It’s not easy being red).

I wanted Nelson Mandela to know that, in the west, our movement was not just about ‘sex and drugs and rock music’, as it has been condescendingly displayed in popular culture, but about real struggle, repression and resistance. Just as we brought the Vietnam War home in our protests, so too we related the oppression of the apartheid system to our own local targets whenever possible.

I wanted Mandela to know of the police violence deployed by State governments against anti-apartheid protestors. The petite university student, a young girl with whom I was friendly, being thrown face first into a pole by a burly policeman three times her size. The blood pouring from her smashed nose. The State Secretary of the Labor Party in Victoria having a baton thrust into his eye and nearly losing the eye. We knew we were in for a hiding whenever the police started removing their identification badges from their uniforms. Some of the worst police violence I have witnessed took place on protests against apartheid. They were clearly on orders to intimidate us, and batons and boots were their main weapon. But it didn’t work. We knew that the repression we experienced was minor compared to that of our brothers and sisters in South Africa.

I was arrested on one of the demonstrations and convicted of assaulting police. My only regret is that I am unable to explain on official forms that ask whether one has any criminal convictions that my crime was to try to stop a policeman pulling down an anti-apartheid banner held by the front line of a street march. I pushed him with force from behind. Technically: guilty. C’est la vie: c’est la lutte.

I wanted Mandela to know of the funny things too. Like the way in which one of my mates in Brunswick, who worked with my dad in a factory, would come to my place before a demo and we’d listen to Eric Burdon’s album, ‘Every one of us’. It featured an interview with an African-American ex-serviceman talking about racism. It inspired us in our passion, reinforced the sense that we were part of an international movement, and lifted our morale as ‘soldiers’ in a struggle.

And there was the time we tried to stop the Springbok rugby team – when Bob Hawke to his great credit as President of the ACTU intervened against the team’s visit. The police were brutal that day in 1971 but the thousands of assembled protestors at Olympic Park were determined to run onto the field and stop the game. The police cordon around the oval was holding out until it was broken when a group of police moved together to arrest people. I was standing with a comrade who saw the opportunity and said to me, “Quick, Barry! We can jump the fence onto the oval!” We ran forward, together, but at the last moment I lost my nerve. My poor comrade leapt onto the oval only to be grabbed by police. That comrade, incidentally, was Ian MacDonald, later to become a Minister in the State Government of New South Wales.


So I told all this, and more, to Nelson Mandela – ‘Comrade Mandela’ – in my letter.

After a month or so, I received a reply. It was from his secretary, who said that Mandela was now too frail to keep up with such correspondence and no longer sent out autographed photos.

However, the letter had been read to him in full.

And he had liked it.

To me, that was all that mattered.

Syria: links

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Nothing much happening at Strange Times so I’m hoping to kick-start some new links to information and analysis – and discussion – about Syria.

Hoping to set this up as a separate page soon. But for now… contributions welcome.

Just to start things off:

  • The ceasefire, which some people regarded as doomed to failure before it had even started, has been working, in the main, for nearly six weeks now. It has provided breathing space, with parts of Syria under rebel control able to commence reorganisation of their localities. For the first time in years, Syrians have been able to take to the streets again demanding the regime’s overthrow. Some humanitarian aid is getting through where needed, but this is still a problem area in places where the regime is obstructing aid delivery – and further isolating itself (and strengthening the case for miltiary intervention on the side of the pro-democratic forces).
  • Assad is increasingly isolated, with Putin looking for a way out and supporting the UN transitional plan; a plan that means the end of Assad’s rule.
  • The next round of talks might happen within a week. The co-ordinator for the Higher Negotiation Committee has said that there is no international will, especially from the US, which means that the rebels continue to want greater international involvement and support, especially from the US.
  • As the talks progress and the regime remains more intransigent and isolated, the need for some form of military ‘boots on the ground’ will become more acceptable as a way of resolving the situation and allowing the transition’s timetable to be followed in an effective way. A ‘coalition of the willing’ will be required to ensure that the terms of the transition are enforced, and that the Syrian people will be able to assert their sovereignty in free and fair democratic elections as aimed for in the timetable.

 

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The battle for democracy

David McMullen wrote a very good post last month at his new site, Different Wavelength, and has given me permission to republish it below.

Among the best sites for keeping tabs on democratic progress or otherwise are:

Freedom House

Human Rights Watch

Reporters without borders

Amnesty International

Electronic Frontiers

Transparency International

(Let me know of any that should be added to the list!)

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We have had quite a bit of progress on the democratic front in recent decades although there are still some very big and serious challenges.

Let us look first at the progress. Latin America is no longer run by military dictators and they are becoming the exception in sub-Saharan Africa. Then of course there is eastern Europe where most countries are now democracies.

However, the picture is still pretty grim when we consider the continuing extent of tyranny.

In Russia, democracy is more formality than substance and most the other states of the former Soviet Union are rather dodgy or downright nasty.

China is a police state. Dissidents are jailed. The Internet as we know it does not exist. Lots of western news sites are blocked. There is no Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. And they employ an army of censors taking down anything taboo. And by the way, North Korea only exists because of Chinese support.

Then we have the Middle East. It has more than its fair share of tyrannies and authoritarian governments. At the risk of seeming perverse, I would suggest that the present civil war in Syria could indeed be a bright spot on the democratic front. This will depend on the Western powers recognizing that their inevitable intervention can only end the civil war if it brings democracy.

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