Being that it’s Gramsci’s birthday and all, here’s a little exercise in pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will:

1) To those who said the fire was extinguished, we see today that even in the birthplace of the Arab uprisings where it was said to have succeeded the most (“it is relatively stable and has transitioned to liberal democracy”) that the original grievances that led to the Tunisian uprising of 2011 have yet to be resolved. Political change has not translated into economic and social justice, and political change has not placated the population, particularly those on the periphery who started the protests. This may be an obvious point, but…

2) Given the outcomes of the uprisings in other countries (civil wars, failed states, resurgent authoritarianism) many thought that Tunisians were at least happy to have the aforementioned relative stability and to have avoided chaos. But this Fear of the Alternative was not enough to justify mass unemployment and circumvent protest. The government is trying its hardest to use the specter of ISIS at the Libyan border to discourage dissent, claiming that only ISIS will benefit from any ‘chaos’ that results from protests. But the protests have continued unabated despite the state’s attempts to scare people with the ISIS boogeyman trope.

3) The latest uprising started because of a man being denied a government job and electrocuting himself in protest, and one of the main demands of the protesters is more government jobs, which the government has already promised it will work on. It’s very interesting that public sector jobs are the only work people living in peripheral cities and towns in Tunisia can fathom. It’s as if Capital has rendered all these people totally useless and irrelevant, and their only hope of socially reproducing themselves is through the safety and security of a job in the government bureaucracy. I’m not quite sure what this means, perhaps others will be able to analyze this development better than I could, but it’s definitely noteworthy.

4) For the post-uprising countries that are going through civil wars, these events are instructive. After years of bloodshed and corpses, most people will certainly be content with a return to normalcy, even if that normalcy entails mass unemployment and a lack of economic and social justice. But Tunisia shows that, even in the best-case scenario, the original contradictions are still present, the legitimate grievances have yet to be addressed, and the people can only be placated with normalcy for so long if that normalcy entails the status quo of economic degradation and alienation. Even if the wars end and historic compromises are struck that seem unfathomable today, even if we return to a pre-uprising order with a little more liberal democratic flavor, it seems the region will be in it for the long haul until economic and social justice is achieved. And that’s a positive development. Once again, Tunisia leads the way.



Homs is famous for its iconic black stones. This is not a recent phenomenon: I remember reading a 17th century travelogue by Damascene traveler Fadl Allah al-Muhibi al-Dimashqi where he specifically mentioned how all the buildings were made of a particular type of black stone that he had never seen before. Along with Homs’s clock tower and the residents’ penchant for humor, the black stones of Homs became one of the symbols of the city.

The Homsi poet Nasib Arida wrote a tribute to his hometown titled “O Homs, O Mother of Black Stones.” Born in 1887, Arida emigrated to Brooklyn, New York in 1905 and was one of the founders of the Arab-American literary society The New York Pen League, of which Gibran Khalil Gibran would later become a member. It was during his time in New York that he wrote “O Homs, O Mother of Black Stones.” The poem is memorialized in the song below.

In 2015, to be Syrian is to be living in an absurdity. The world has not abandoned Syrians, as is often said. It has ganged up on them.

Borders that were thought to be done away with were rebuilt. The nation-state, supposedly in its dying days, has reemerged with revanchist ambitions. Old political alliances between states—remnants of the Cold War—that were thought to be dwindling have been solidified to an unprecedented historical extent, with catastrophic results. The forces of extreme Salafist reaction, weakened and without much popular appeal a mere five years ago, have set up shop in Syrian towns and cities, manifesting itself in its most brutal form to date as the Islamic State. The red line of chemical weapons —which killed hundreds in a suburb of Damascus in 2013 —has been been replaced with a green light for barrels filled with explosives, dropped from helicopters on civilian neighborhoods.

Being Syrian means being sentenced to death for being a free software developer. Being Syrian means being compared to “rabid dogs” by a US presidential candidate. It means being blamed for the attacks in Paris and having to deal with the subsequent backlash despite the fact that not a Syrian nor a refugee was involved in any of the attacks. Being Syrian means that you may be one of the thousands who have been killed by an “industrial scale” torture machine run by your government. In 2015, being Syrian means analogies can be drawn between your situation and the situation of Jewish refugees in 1938 or Japanese-Americans who were interned during WWII. Being Syrian means having to confront dictatorship, imperialism, racism, the nation-state system, and Islamist reactionaries.

Of course, we don’t all experience this. Apart from the vitriolic rhetoric against Syrians in the west, I am at a distance from all this, at least physically. I am not a refugee nor am I anywhere near the conflict. Usually, there is a benefit to being at a distance. In a letter from 1931, Walter Benjamin wrote that he was, “[l]ike one who keeps afloat on a shipwreck by climbing to the top of a mast that is already crumbling. But from there he has a chance to give a signal leading to his rescue.” That’s how I once imagined my situation. The distance gave me the ability to find ways out that others couldn’t see, I thought. But now I see no opportunities to give any signals that lead to rescue. This quote used to bring me solace in the darkest of times. Now I can’t help but read it and remember the manner in which Benjamin himself died, and how no one came to his rescue.

The world in its entirety has declared war on Syrians—and it is conjuring up every weapon it has at its disposal to use against them.

“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”
Bertolt Brecht

This is one of my all-time favorite protest videos from Syria. It took place in Aleppo on March 22, 2013, supposedly well-after the civil uprising phase ended. But even as the uprising increasingly took on an armed character, mass politics still existed. You can even see a few local armed rebels participating. But it’s the content of the chants that really makes this a beautiful protest:

“Mortar, another mortar
You are shelling your own people you traitor
I don’t care about all the shelling anymore
I have my freedom, it appeals to me”

“Syria really is for everyone, we don’t have any sectarianism here.”

Despite what the revisionists say, in 2011 a real radical social movement emerged. Against overwhelming odds, that social movement survived for months. It has all but been extinguished now. Those who participated in have either left the country, been killed, been imprisoned, or they simply grew disillusioned and joined an armed group. Nevertheless, despite all the machinations of foreign and local powers to stamp out this revolutionary spirit, this movement will re-emerge at some point in the future, for the social contradictions that spurred it have yet to be resolved. Resignation and despair may win in the short or medium-term. The civil war may continue unabated for a long time. A Lebanon-style sectarian power-sharing solution may be imposed on it from the outside, and elite politics may govern the country for a time. But no matter how dark things get, I am confident that this social movement will come into prominence once more, just like it did this year in Iraq after 12 years of invasion and civil war, in Lebanon after a century of sectarian elite politics, and in Palestine after 67 years of displacement and occupation. Victory is not inevitable: none of these movements have achieved victory yet. But it is necessary that we discern what is a step in the right direction and what is not, and to see through the haze of the dark times.

Many media outlets would have you believe that the Assad regime’s fall is imminent. This is due to the latest opposition offensive in Idlib province whereby a coalition of rebel groups have captured Idlib city and then proceeded to capture the symbolic and strategic town of Jisr ash-Shughur. New life has apparently been breathed into the anti-ISIS, anti-Assad opposition due to increased coordination between Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar.

The fall of the Syrian regime is not imminent. Assad’s forces are stretched thin and he is probably weaker than ever before in relative terms. Yet, his “core” provinces of (central) Damascus, Homs, and Latakia are, at this point, not under threat. Assad keeps a presence of troops in regions he considers peripheral in the hopes that he will one day rule all of Syria again. In al-Hasakeh province, for example, largely controlled by the Kurdish PYD party at this point, his troops retain a small presence in the main urban centers of Qamishli and al-Hasakeh city. Idlib can be viewed in a similar vein. Many of its residents are fervent opponents of the Assad regime and enthusiastically joined the uprising. Its locals put up fierce fights in villages and towns across the province in order to expel Assad forces and were largely victorious. It is for this reason that Assad’s forces mainly holed up inside Idlib city.

Idlib province is important in that it is adjacent to strategically important areas (such as Latakia and Hamah). Indeed, the capture of Jisr ash-Shughur brings the opposition much closer to Latakia. But Idlib province is not itself of intrinsic strategic value to the regime. I do not believe that Syria is imminently or even inevitably headed for partition. But, if it were, hypothetically, Idlib would not be one of the provinces that the regime would fight for. An Assad statelet would be comprised of Damascus, Homs, Tartus, Latakia, and probably Hamah. If any of these places were under threat, that would be cause for the regime to sound the alarm. The capture of Idlib city and Jisr ash-Shughur can possibly be read as a step towards that, yet, we need not overstate it as a leap. It is a small step. Defeating the regime in one of the areas it considers peripheral is very different than defeating it in one of its core provinces.

However, whereas the capture of Idlib can be read as largely symbolic, this symbolism should not be written off. While it may not be the greatest threat to the regime, opposition control of Idlib—particularly the city—can have great strategic value if the opposition makes use of the opportunity to show that they can effectively and inclusively govern. Thus far, the opposition has largely failed at attempts at self-governance. This failure is in no small part due to the difficulty of political organizing under aerial bombardment. But political vacuums left by the regime have been filled either by the chaos of rule by competing militias, or the austere tyranny  of ISIL. Thus, both tropes used by the regime to refer to the opposition—“armed gangs” and “Takfiri militants”—have largely become self-fulfilling prophecies. We should not underestimate the rhetorical and symbolic value this has for the regime and its effect on everyday Syrians’ views towards the rebellion.

Jabhat al-Nusra participated in the latest military operation in Idlib. The Islamist battalions were generally dominant in the battle. This obviously should be cause for concern. But more than this, militia rule in Idlib, no matter the political bent, would be a failure. Even the most secular of brigades can be chauvinistic and corrupt political rulers. The fear regarding political governance of opposition areas is not only the prospect of Islamicization, but also the prospect of rule-by-militias generally.

Perhaps the residents of Idlib will succeed in preventing this. The fact that many of the participants in the Idlibi battles are natives to Idlib, particularly members of Ahrar al-Sham and other smaller, local Idlibi groups, is a sign that Idlib may not inevitably be headed towards governance by militias. A spokesman for Ahrar told The Wall Street Journal that while cooperation with Nusra would continue, matters of governance “would be turned over to the city’s residents eventually.” While this does not sound very promising, this is an indication that there may be some pressure—from below as well as from outside—to hand over political control to civilian residents.

The prospects seem bleak given the nature of the groups involved and the persistence of aerial bombardment from Assad’s air force, but a civilian and locally governed Idlib would indeed be a strategic blow to the regime in terms of what the alternatives to its rule are. While it may be naive to think that civilian residents can wrestle political power away from battle-hardened militias, the embeddedness of some of the militants in local society suggests that it may not be as unlikely as it has been in other areas, as fighters may be more responsive to local concerns and demands.

Yesterday, at a panel on Syria in New York, amidst all the talk about military strategy, literature on civil wars, whether Assad would “really go” or not, Lisa Wedeen, author of the book on Hafez Asad’s cult of personality Ambiguities of Domination, said something that no one really asked about or questioned but, nevertheless, really resonated with me.

First, she implored people to stop treating ISIS and the Assad regime as separate phenomena. Their military-oriented fascism are actually manifestations from the same “ecology of cruelty,” she said. The latest Der Spiegel article on the origins and structure of the Islamic State lends much credence to such assessments.

She then juxtaposed this to the uprising at its outset, where, she said, many Syrians cultivated “novel forms of togetherness.” The initial movement, its protests, its chants, its coordination committees, were no doubt revolutionary in method and in form.

But this romantic juxtaposition has always led to problems for me. Were we naive to think civilian coordination committees could win out against these ruthless authoritarians? Could such forms of collective action actually defeat tyrants with expert knowledge in torture and an endless supply of jail cells?

Yes, Wedeen suggested. We were naive to think that. Our present situation is a testament to that. But, she concluded, ‘without those attempts at collective action, nothing would ever get undone.’

For advocates of social change, a naive outlook can be devastating. Realistically assessing your situation and position relative to the powers that be is necessary for any social movement that wants to win and have a chance at making changes on more than a simply discursive level. However, there is only one attribute that guarantees that social change will never occur and that the status quo will forever be perpetuated—defeatism.

700 people are feared to have drowned in the Mediterranean this week off the Libyan coast.

Some things to keep in mind:

1) It is because of Fortress Europe that migrants attempt this perilous journey. If Europe opened its borders to migrants, no migrant would have to take this enormous personal risk and not one person would drown in the Mediterranean. If you think asking Europe to open its borders to refugees is unreasonable, I say to you that at least 1500 people at the bottom of the Mediterranean sea in 2015 alone is much more unreasonable.

2) It is because of global structural inequality perpetuated by the ruling classes that migrants feel that their only chance at making a decent living is by moving to Europe.

3) It is because of local authoritarian regimes that many migrants find the conditions of their home country unbearable and would rather risk death for the chance of having a better life than live another moment in oppression, war, or destitution.