For Syrian Artist, a War for the Heart

Syrian artist Wissam al-Jazairy got his degree right in the nick of time—for a revolution.

The Damascus-born artist graduated from New Bulgarian University in Sofia in October 2011, seven months after the nonviolent protest movement against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad started gaining strength in his homeland.

The young artist returned home and got involved immediately, producing political works that joined a number of international exhibitions in support of the anti-Assad movement.

Things were looking up for anti-government activists at the time. Two long-running dictators had fallen from power in Egypt and Tunisia. But in Syria, the regime crackdown gave rise to an armed rebellion—spawning a terrible conflict that has taken tens of thousands of lives over the past two-plus years. 

Much of Jazairy’s work reflects the brutality of that experience.

Communicating over Facebook from Jordan, Jazairy said the conflict in Syria has two sides—a political side and a more humanitarian side. “What really matters to the artist is the human part,” he said, describing it as the “metaphysical” component of the conflict.

Soviets' 'Abhorrent' Practice of Punitive Psychiatry Returns

Attributes of the Soviet system have been returning to Russia gradually, one by one, since Vladimir Putin assumed power in late 1999—from symbolic (such as the memorial plaque to Yuri Andropov and the Stalinist national anthem) to very tangible ones, including media censorship and political prisoners. This week, the Russian authorities have returned to one of the most horrid and frightful practices of the Soviet era: punitive psychiatry.

Is Netanyahu the Last Martian?

In his influential 2003 book, the American foreign policy thinker Robert Kagan declared that “Europe is turning away from power” and “entering a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity” while the United States “remains mired in history.” It was, he wrote, as if Americans were from Mars and Europeans from Venus, so differently did they view the world, not least the value of projecting force to achieve foreign policy goals.

What if Israel is the only Martian state left? What if the US is now looking longingly at the Venusians and thinking about joining them? What if the international community, always a bit of a fiction, has decided that it is tired, seeks an exit from history, and thinks that it has found the ticket out: to start believing the unbelievable about Iran, Russia, and the United Nations?

If so, the conjuncture would be radically new and dangerous. Israel, mired in history, would be in danger of becoming diplomatically isolated over time, cast aside as the price paid by the aspiring Venusians for their entry ticket to the desired (but non-existent) post-historical paradise? 

Libyan Prime Minister Kidnapped

This can’t be good: Terrorists just kidnapped Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan from the luxury hotel in Tripoli where he and many other government officials live.

Seems they grabbed him to retaliate against an American Special Forces raid greenlit by the Libyan government against suspected Al Qaeda member Abu Anas al-Libi.

If this isn't unprecedented, it's close. I don’t recall ever hearing about a prime minister being kidnapped from any country.

This comes right after the fall of the last Islamist government in North Africa, so I guess the region was due for some bad news. Good news streaks don’t tend to last very long in that part of the world.

Here is a picture of him in captivity (scroll down). I doubt this will end quickly or well, but Libya is a strange and unpredictable place.

UPDATE: Okay, so it did end quickly and well, sort of. I went to bed and Zeidan was kidnapped. I woke up and he was free.

This incident is all but certain to change things in Libya. In which direction, though, is anyone's guess. It could mark the beginning of the end of the militias, or the beginning of their takeover of the civilian government. Kidnapping the prime minister is not going to just be a blip that everybody forgets ever happened.

My Latest Wall Street Journal Book Review

My latest book review for the Wall Street Journal is up. This one is about Matthew Levitt’s Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God.

Until 9/11, no terrorist organization had killed more Americans than Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group: From the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, which killed 241 Marines, to the 1996 detonation of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. airmen, Hezbollah's anti-American curriculum vitae was long and bloody. Today it remains an efficient global terror operation, having executed bombings on four continents, built a presence on six and even branched out to drug trafficking.

Despite this record, Hezbollah (the "Party of God" in Arabic) is still viewed in some quarters as little more than a parochial Lebanese political party with an armed wing charged solely with resisting an Israeli occupation that ended 13 years ago, on May 25, 2000. It's this myth that Matthew Levitt explodes in "Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God." The author, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former FBI counterterrorism analyst, narrates the full history of the organization in absorbing detail with an emphasis on its 30-year history of terrorism. While scholarly in tone and approach, Mr. Levitt's book delivers suspenseful and even terrifying blow-by-blow accounts of the most infamous of Hezbollah's attacks. He can't dramatize all of them, though, because there are too many—far more than most people realize, because until now no one had bothered to document them in one place.

Hezbollah traces its origins to Iran's 1979 revolution. The mullahs knew that unless they aggressively exported their theocratic ideology after the revolution, Iran risked becoming, in the words of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, just "an ordinary country." So the regime created Hezbollah as the overseas branch of its own Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—the tip of an Iranian imperial spear.

The group first coalesced in 1982 in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, as a loose confederation of Shia Islamist cells under various names. By the mid-1980s it had become a more formal organization. Lebanon, with its large Shia population, was the perfect place for Tehran to export its revolution, and the early 1980s, in the midst of civil war and Israeli occupation, was the perfect time.

Hezbollah cut its teeth in Beirut, first by destroying the U.S. Embassy in 1983, then by deploying suicide truck bombers simultaneously against American Marines and French soldiers on peacekeeping missions in October of the same year. "The Marine barracks bombing," Mr. Levitt writes, "was not only the deadliest terrorist attack then to have targeted Americans, it was also the single-largest non-nuclear explosion on earth since World War II."

Read the rest in the Wall Street Journal.

Cuba is Funded

My Kickstarter campaign to send me to Cuba has successfully funded. Here is a public thank you to everyone backing this project. I'll send personal emails to everyone shortly.


The Holodomor Symphony

Stephan Maria Karl is a young Austrian composer who is currently writing a symphony about the Holodomor, the famine-genocide of 1932–1933 that took the lives of some 3 to 4 million Ukrainians. He resides in Salzburg. The interview was conducted in German.

How did a young Austrian composer decide to write a symphony about a famine-genocide in Ukraine in 1932–1933?

An artist can inspire the public and get it to question its assumptions, either through the sheer aesthetic force of his work or by means of the self-reflective process that his work induces. And if art can affect the individual, then it can also affect society. An ethically grounded artist who knows this has an obligation to create in full cognizance of the impact his art can have.

Final Kickstarter Push

Fewer than 24 hours remain in my Kickstarter campaign to send me to Cuba.

I've reached my minimum threshold, but this trip is going to cost a bit more than I expected, and money is always tight for me anyway, so if you can pitch in a few dollars I'll sure appreciated it.

Besides, if you want a full-color dispatch pack e-book from Cuba, backing my Kickstarter project is the only way to get one. It won't be available anywhere else at any other time, so it's now or never.

Many thanks to everyone who has pitched in so far!

Spendthrift Greeks Demand More Reparations from Germany

Should the Greek government pursue a claim for reparations from Germany because of the atrocities suffered by Greece during World War II? That is the question that is dominating the headlines, not simply in the European Union but also in the US, which should probably concentrate on its own dismal affairs these days.

Normally, I’m not one to suggest the past be buried along with the bodies. Germany had a lot to account for some seven decades ago, and no doubt that’s why Dimitris Avramopoulos, Greece’s foreign minister, told Parliament that his country will “exhaust every means available” to soak the Germany of today, which has nothing to account for.

Protectionist Policies Stagnate Mercosur Countries

Once upon a time, Brazil promoted a regional customs union called Mercosur, the Market of the South, that was envisioned as the foundation for South America to become a first-rate power in the global economy. Launched in 1994, Mercosur initially embraced Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, Brazil’s “southern cone” neighbors, and in 2012 incorporated oil-rich Venezuela. With five member nations, this regional market has annual trade of more than $850 million in goods and services. But the problem is that trade within Mercosur is not growing, and the rules of the customs union are protectionist against imports from non-members and hostile to trade liberalization. As a result, Mercosur has come to a halt.

The UN’s Important Work

The Middle East certainly is keeping the United Nations busy these days. Of course, the world body’s human rights offices have been working hard to sustain more than two million refugees of the Syrian war. All these people are “housed” in hodgepodge camps in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Hunger and disease are rampant.

So, early this month the United Nations refugee agency managed to convince at least 15 other countries to begin taking in Syrian refugees.

“A high-level” meeting “in Geneva on the Syrian humanitarian crisis wrapped up today with agreement on urgent international action to mitigate the immense economic and social impact on host countries neighboring Syrian refugees,” the United Nations said in a statement.

Overall, the UN notes, more than one-third of Syria’s 23 million people are displaced from their homes.

The ‘White Widow’ and the Allure of Radicalism

Interpol has issued a “red notice” warrant for 29-year-old Samantha Lewthwaite, the so-called “White Widow” of Jermaine Lindsay, one of the four suicide bombers who launched the 7/7 suicide attacks on London in 2005 in which 52 people were killed and hundreds more injured. The warrant noted “the danger posed by this woman, not just across the region, but also worldwide” but stopped short of directly linking her to the al-Shabab massacre in Nairobi. The Kenyan authorities have issued contradictory claims regarding her involvement in that attack; she may or may not have led the assault or facilitated it.

The Fall of Tunisia's Islamists

Ennahda, the Tunisian Islamist party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, has been forced from power by an overwhelming secular opposition.

I didn’t know this was going to happen, but I had a pretty strong sense that it would. Tunisia is a modern, pluralistic, civilized place. It’s striking liberal compared with most Arab countries. A person couldn’t possibly show up in Tunis from Cairo and think the two are remotely alike. Egypt is at one extreme of the Arab world’s political spectrum, and Tunisia is at the other.

The Islamists won less than half the vote two years ago, and the only reason they did even that well is because Ennahda ran on an extremely moderate platform. They sold themselves to voters as Tunisia’s version of Germany’s Christian Democrats.

It was a lie, of course, and once Tunisians figured that out, support for Ennahda cratered.

The assassination of leftist politician Mohamed Brahmi this summer pushed the country over the edge. Ennahda didn’t kill the guy. A Salafist terrorist cell did the deed. But Ennahda has been playing footsie with the Salafist fringe while the rest of the country recoils in horror, so Ennahda is getting blamed too.

Unlike in Egypt, the Islamists weren’t thrown out by force. Tunisia doesn’t have an Egyptian-style military that’s big and powerful and ideological enough to occupy the country and rule it through a junta. Also unlike in Egypt, Tunisia has a critical mass of secular citizens who won’t put up with even a whiff of theocracy.

The other reason Ennahda’s partial victory was possible two years ago is because they had an organizational advantage after the dictator Ben Ali fell. They had the mosques while the secular parties had nothing. And since the Islamists were smart enough to pretend to be moderates, they managed to get moderate people to vote for them.

That’s over now. In the meantime, the liberal and leftist parties have had a lot more time to get organized and merge into larger entities so they can avoid the vote splitting that hurt them so much last time. When a single religious party squares off against dozens of secular parties, it doesn’t take a political or mathematical genius to figure out which will get the most votes.

Tunisia is the one and only Arab Spring country that I’ve been cautiously optimistic about. Libya is too much of a mess, Egypt was a lost cause begin with, and Syria is in worse shape than Bosnia in the mid-1990s. Tunisia, though, is doing as well as could be expected.

And get this: now that Ennahda is out, not a single post-Arab Spring country is ruled by Islamists. All of them are secular now.

Postscript: Only a few days left in my Kickstarter campaign. If you'd like an e-book version of my dispatches from Cuba, pitch in and you shall have it. My first dispatch pack from a communist country will never be available anywhere else.

In War, Syria's Revolutionary Art Speaks for Itself

Artist: Tammam Azzam 


With over 120,000 people killed in Syria in under three years, sometimes it seems like there’s no words to describe the brutality of the war — which may be why Syrians are turning to other forms of expression.

The Facebook page “Syrian Revolutionary Art” is dedicated to collecting Syrian works that engage the conflict in their homeland, which began as a peaceful uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011. I touched base with the people running the page, and they let me show you some of the pieces. All of the artists are Syrian, although only two of those included below are still in the country.

"Causes may vary, but the Syrian citizen is the same."
(This is a play on words from the old Arabic saying:
"Causes may vary, but death is the same.)

Artist: Wissam Al Jazairy

Is Europe with Russia or with Putin?

The task of restoring democracy and safeguarding human rights in Russia is a task for Russian citizens and no one else. But it would help if our friends and neighbors in Europe stopped, in effect, supporting Vladimir Putin’s regime by lending it international credibility and allowing its crooked officials access to the European banking system. This was the essence of the arguments put forward by a delegation of Russian opposition members—including the author of this blog—invited to address a European Parliament hearing in Brussels earlier this week.


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