xenophobia, China backlash, coronavirus, covid-19

Pandemic Provokes Xenophobic Backlash Against China

Reprinted with permission fromGlobetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

On March 25, the foreign ministers of the G7 states failed to release a statement. The United States—the president of the G7 at this time—had the responsibility for drafting the statement, which was seen to be unacceptable by several other members. In the draft, the United States used the phrase "Wuhan Virus" and asserted that the global pandemic was the responsibility of the Chinese government. Earlier, U.S. President Donald Trump had used the phrase "Chinese Virus" (which he said he would stop using) and a member of his staff was reportedly heard using the slur "Kung Flu." On Fox News, anchor Jesse Watters explained in his unfiltered racist way "why [the virus] started in China. Because they have these markets where they eat raw bats and snakes." Violent attacks against Asians in the United States has spiked as a consequence of the stigma driven by the Trump administration.

Quite correctly, the World Health Organization's Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for "solidarity, not stigma" in a speech given on February 14, long before the virus had hit Europe or North America. Ghebreyesus knew that there would be a temptation to blame China for the virus, in fact, to use the virus as a weapon to attack China in the most repulsive way. His slogan —solidarity, not stigma—was intended to sharply demarcate an internationalist and humanist response to the global pandemic from a narrow bigoted and unscientific response to the virus.


SARS-CoV-2, which is the official name for the virus, developed in the way many viruses develop: through the transmission between animals and humans. There is as yet no firm consensus about where this virus developed; one suggestion is that it developed in the west end of the Hunan Wholesale Sea Food Market in Wuhan, in China's Hubei province, where wild animals are sold. A central issue is the expansion of agriculture into forests and hinterlands, where humans have a greater chance to interact with new pathogens, such as SARS-CoV-2. But this is not the only such virus, even though it is undoubtedly the most dangerous to humans. In the recent period, we have seen a range of panzootic avian flu such as H1N1, H5Nx, H5N2 and H5N6. Even though H5N2 was known to have originated in the United States, it was not known as the "American virus" and no-one sought to stigmatize the United States for it. The scientific name was used to describe these viruses, which are not the responsibility of this or that nation; the arrival of these viruses raises the more fundamental question of human encroachment into forests and the balance between human civilization (agriculture and cities) and the wilds.

The naming of a virus is a controversial matter. In 1832, cholera advanced from British India toward Europe. It was called "Asiatic Cholera." The French felt that since they were democratic, they would not succumb to a disease of authoritarianism; France was ravaged by cholera, which was as much about the bacteria as it is about the state of hygiene inside Europe and North America. (When cholera struck the United States in 1848, the Public Bathing Movement was born.)

The "Spanish Flu" was only named after Spain because it came during World War I when journalism in most belligerent countries was censored. The media in Spain, not being in the war, widely reported the flu, and so that pandemic took the name of the country. In fact, evidence showed that the Spanish Flu began in the United States, in a military base in Kansas where the chickens transmitted the virus to soldiers. It would then travel to British India, where 60 percent of the casualties of that pandemic took place. It was never named the "American Flu" and no Indian government has ever sought to recover costs from the United States because of the animal-to-human transmission that happened there.

China and the Coronavirus

In an important article published in the medical journal The Lancet, Professor Chaolin Huang wrote, "The symptom onset date of the first patient [of SARS-CoV-2] identified was December 1, 2019." Initially, there was widespread confusion about the nature of the virus, and whether it could be transmitted from human to human. It was assumed that the virus was one of the known viruses and that it was mainly transmitted from animals to humans.

Dr. Zhang Jixian, director of the Department of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine of Hubei Province Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, was one of the first doctors to sound the alarm about the novel coronavirus pneumonia outbreak. On December 26, Dr. Zhang saw an elderly couple who had high fever and a cough—symptoms that characterize the flu. Further examination ruled out influenza A and B, mycoplasma, chlamydia, adenovirus and SARS. A CT scan of their son showed that something had partially filled the interior of his lungs. That same day, another patient—a seller from the seafood market—presented the same symptoms. Dr. Zhang reported the four patients to China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention of the Jianghan District of Wuhan. Over the next two days, Dr. Zhang and her colleagues saw three more patients with the same symptoms who had visited the seafood market. On December 29, the Hubei Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention sent experts to investigate the seven patients at the hospital. On February 6, Hubei Province recognized the valuable work done by Dr. Zhang and her team in the fight to identify and reveal the virus. There was no attempt to suppress her work.

Two other doctors—Dr. Li Wenliang (an ophthalmologist from Wuhan Central Hospital) and Ai Fen (chief of the department of emergency treatment at Wuhan Central Hospital)—played a significant role in trying to break through the confusion to bring clarity toward the new virus. In the first days, when everything seemed fuzzy, they were reprimanded by the authorities for spreading fake news. Dr. Li died of the coronavirus on February 7. Major medical and government institutions—the National Health Commission, the Health Commission of Hubei Province, the Chinese Medical Doctor Association and the Wuhan government —expressed their public condolences to his family. On March 19, the Wuhan Public Security Bureau admitted that it inappropriately reprimanded Dr. Li, and it chastised its officers. Dr. Ai Fen was also told to stop spreading fake news, but in February she received an apology and was later felicitated by Wuhan Broadcasting and Television Station.

The provincial authorities knew about the new virus by December 29. The next day, they informed China's Center for Disease Control, and the following day, on December 31, China informed the World Health Organization (WHO), a month after the first mysterious infection was reported in Wuhan. The virus was identified by January 3; a week later, China shared the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus with WHO. It is because China released the DNA that immediate scientific work took place across the planet to find a vaccine; there are now 43 vaccine candidates, four in very early testing.

China's National Health Commission assembled a team of experts from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences; they conducted a series of experiments on the virus samples. On January 8, they confirmed that the novel coronavirus was indeed the source of the outbreak. The first death from the virus was reported on 11 January. On January 14, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said that there was still no evidence of human-to-human transmission, but they could not say with certainty that limited human-to-human transmission was impossible.

A week later, on January 20, Dr. Zhong Nanshan said that the novel coronavirus could be spread from human to human (Dr. Zhong, a member of the Communist Party of China, is a famous respiratory expert and a leading person in the fight against SARS in China). Some medical workers were infected by the virus. That day Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang instructed all levels of government to pay attention to the spread of the virus; the National Health Commission and other official bodies were told to begin emergency response measures. Wuhan went into full lockdown on January 23, three days after human-to-human transmission of this virus was established. The next day, Hubei province activated its Level-1 alert. On January 25, Premier Li assembled a coordinating group. He visited Wuhan two days later.

It is unclear if China could have done anything different as it faced an unknown virus. A WHO team that visited China from February 16 to 24 praised the government and the Chinese people in its report for doing their utmost to stem the spread of the virus; thousands of doctors and medical personnel arrived in Wuhan, two new hospitals were built for those infected by the virus, and various civic bodies went into action to assist families under lockdown. What the Chinese authorities did to stem the rise of the infections—as a major new study shows—was to put those infected in hospitals and those who had been in touch with them into quarantine. This targeted policy was able to identify those who had been in the chain of infection and thereby break the chain.

The World and China

The Indian state of Kerala's Health Minister K. K. Shailaja followed the rise of the cases in Wuhan and began emergency measures in this state of 35 million people in India. She did not wait. What China was doing taught Shailaja and her team how to respond. They were able to contain the virus in this part of India.

The United States was informed about the severity of the problem early. On New Year's Day, Chinese Center for Disease Control officials called Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while he was on vacation. "What he heard rattled him," wrote the New York Times. Dr. George F. Gao, the head of the Chinese CDC, spoke to Redfield days later, and Dr. Gao "burst into tears" during the conversation. This warning was not taken seriously. A month later, on January 30, U.S. President Donald Trump took a very cavalier position. "We think it's going to have a good ending for us," he said of the coronavirus. "That I can assure you." He did not declare a national emergency till March 13, by which time the virus had begun to spread in the United States.

Others around the world were as cavalier. They were like the French politicians of 1832 who felt that France would not be affected by "Asiatic cholera." There was no such thing as Asiatic cholera in 1832, but only cholera that would harm people with poor hygienic systems. In the same way, there is no such thing as a Chinese virus; there is only the SARS-CoV-2. The Chinese people showed us the way to confront this virus, but only after some trial and error on their part. It is time to learn that lesson now. As the WHO says, "test, test, test," and then carefully calibrate lockdowns, isolations, and quarantine. Chinese doctors who developed expertise in fighting the virus are now in Iran, Italy, and elsewhere, bringing the spirit of internationalism and collaboration with them.

On March 4, Dr. Bruce Aylward, who led the WHO team to China, was interviewed by the New York Times. When asked about the Chinese response to the virus, he said, "They're mobilized, like in a war, and it's fear of the virus that was driving them. They really saw themselves on the frontlines of protecting the rest of China. And of the world."

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He has written more than twenty books, includingThe Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World(The New Press, 2007), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South(Verso, 2013),The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution(University of California Press, 2016), and Red Star Over the Third World(LeftWord, 2017).

Du Xiaojun works as a translator and is based in Shanghai. His research is in international relations, cross-cultural communication, and applied linguistics.

Weiyan Zhu is a lawyer based in Beijing. She is interested in social and political issues.

Belligerent Trump Adviser Bolton Escalates Confrontation With Iran

Belligerent Trump Adviser Bolton Escalates Confrontation With Iran

On Sunday, May 5, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton announced that the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force had begun to make their way from the Mediterranean Sea toward the coastline of Iran. Iran, Bolton said, had made “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.” He was, characteristically, not specific. It was enough that Bolton—who has a history of hazardous statements—had made these comments from the perch of the White House in Washington, D.C. “The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime,” he said rather incredibly. After all, what is the arrival of a massive war fleet on the coastline of a country but a declaration of war?

On his way to Europe, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the “indications and warnings” included actions by the Lebanese political formation Hezbollah. Once more, Pompeo said he would give no evidence: “I don’t want to talk about what underlays it.”

It did not help that last month Iran faced devastating floods in the country’s northeast and southwest. The damage is estimated to cost $2.5 billion. Countries that want to send financial support toward the flood victims cannot do so as a result of the U.S. sanctions on financial systems, says the Iranian Red Crescent Society. This is why in-kind aid has been the only thing that has been permitted into the country, with China sending tents and Austria sending blankets. But even in-kind aid, including from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, was blocked due to the U.S. sanctions. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter, “Iranian Red Crescent can’t receive any funds due to illegal US sanctions. US should own up to its ECONOMIC TERRORISM.”

On Wednesday, May 8, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani will go on television and the radio to announce his country’s response to the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and to the harsh new sanctions’ regime.

The United States had permitted Russian and European firms to do work on Iran’s nuclear energy sector. Five waivers had been given to help four Iranian facilities—at the Bushehr nuclear power plant, the Fordow enrichment facility, the Arak nuclear complex and the Tehran Research Reactor. Pompeo allowed three waivers to be extended for 90 days (half the length of the previous waivers) but disallowed two. The two that were not renewed include one to Russia, which had swapped Iranian enriched uranium for Russian raw yellowcake, and one to companies that operate in Oman to store heavy water from Iran. Both Russia and Europe are not happy with this situation. Iran has refused to stop enrichment, which is essential to its nuclear energy program—legal under the terms of the 2015 agreement. It is likely that Rouhani will affirm Iran’s right to continue to enrich uranium for its power reactors.

The journey of the USS Abraham Lincoln through the Red Sea comes as the U.S. government tries to tighten its sanctions regime against Iran. Any country that buys Iranian oil, the United States now says, will be liable to have sanctions placed against it. The five countries most vulnerable to further U.S. sanctions are China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey. India, Japan, and South Korea have said that they would try and abide by the new, and harsh, U.S. sanctions. China and Turkey have made it clear that they will not follow the U.S. lead.

Iran’s deputy oil minister Amir Hossein Zamaninia told Iranian state media that his ministry will oversee the sale of Iran’s oil into the “gray market.” The U.S. sanctions, Zamaninia said, are “illegal,” and therefore Iran is entitled to use all kinds of methods to circumvent them. The “gray market” includes loading tankers with Iranian oil—often sold at deep discounts—and then allowing them to alter their signals as they go out into open water. Congestion of tankers on the world’s waters makes it difficult to monitor which tanker has actually come from which port. But even if Iran sells oil on the gray market, the volumes will drop significantly, and this will impact Iran’s external revenues.

In April, the International Monetary Fund projected that Iran’s economy would likely slide downhill by six percent in 2019. The main reason for this continued slide is, of course, the U.S.-led sanctions that have whittled away at Iran’s budget and at the confidence of its people. Iran’s macroeconomic situation is hurt by large-scale budget deficits—projected to reach over $14 billion this year—and the flooding of the market with Iranian rials—so that money supplied grew by over 20 percent. Serious problems of capital flight and of tax evasion dog Iran’s prospects. Kazem Delkhosh, the deputy head of the Iranian parliament’s economic commission, estimates that about 40 percent of the country’s income is hidden from the tax authorities.

Last month, Iran’s senior leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged his Iraqi counterparts to “make sure that the Americans withdraw their troops from Iraq as soon as possible because expelling them has become difficult whenever they have had a long military presence in a country.” Iran and Iraq have—since the U.S. war against Iraq in 2003—deepened their ties. Close economic links, including roadways and a potential train, have made both countries dependent on each other (Iraq, despite U.S. pressure, imports Iran’s oil). Khamenei referred to the 5,200 U.S. troops who remain in Iraq. Bolton has said that these troops are there to “watch Iran,” a phrase that has been widely mocked after Trump used it earlier this year.

The war of words has escalated into dangerous territory. In April, Trump’s government called Iranian military forces “terrorists.” In response, the Iranian parliament retaliated. Defense Minister General Amir Hatami put a bill forward that would allow Iran’s government to respond to the “terrorist actions” of U.S. forces. It was not clear how Iran would respond, although the bill suggested that the response could be political and diplomatic rather than military.

The U.S. government has said that Iran might target U.S. troops in Iraq or elsewhere in the region. These are likely the “indications and warnings” of Bolton. There are tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Gulf. The U.S. military hardware that encircles Iran is lethal. Late last year, the Iranian government—feeling hemmed in by this military noose—proposed that it could strike U.S. forces at al-Udeid Air Base (Qatar), al-Dhafra base (United Arab Emirates) and Kandahar base (Afghanistan). “They are within our reach,” said Amirali Hajizadeh, who heads Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ air brigade. As if to provoke Iran further, in March of this year, the United States signed a deal with Oman to use its ports at Salalah and Duqm for military purposes.

In his last State of the Union address, Trump said, “Great nations do not fight endless wars.” The United States has tried to push a new deal in Afghanistan and has tried to withdraw from the conflict in Syria. Neither of these withdrawals will be easy.

But if the United States strikes Iran, there is no doubt that the wars from Lebanon to the border of India will become endless. There is no question that Iran—much weaker militarily than the United States—will use its advantages to strike the United States inside Afghanistan and to urge its allies to strike U.S. forces in the Gulf and across North Africa. Iran’s population is deeply patriotic and would see any U.S. strike as one against the Iranian people and not just against the Iranian government. It is unlikely that the United States will find any significant allies amongst the Iranians. A war against Iran at this time would be a war against a stretch of the world that has seen too many wars in recent times, that would like to open the door to peace. Trump—with Bolton and Pence—seek to provoke a war. These are dangerous men with a dangerous agenda.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He has written more than twenty books, including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (The New Press, 2007), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013), The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016) and Red Star Over the Third World (LeftWord, 2017). He writes regularly for Frontline, the Hindu, Newsclick, AlterNet and BirGün.

This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

There’s A Massive Humanitarian Crisis Unfolding In Asia: The Plight Of The Rohingya

There’s A Massive Humanitarian Crisis Unfolding In Asia: The Plight Of The Rohingya

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.


Relief workers for International agencies sit with me in Dhaka (Bangladesh). They are talking about the difficulties faced by the Rohingya people who have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh over the past several months. Over 650,000 people from the Rohingya community came into Bangladesh since August 25 of last year. This is a torrent of desperate people, a community threatened with extinction for the past seven decades. The refugee camps near Cox’s Bazaar are overcrowded and dangerously unhygienic. Already there is an outbreak of diphtheria, with indications of severe health challenges to come. According to the World Health Organisation, half of the refugees are malnourished and anaemic, while a quarter of the children suffer from acute malnutrition. A logistical worker for a relief agency tells me that in his three decades in this work he has never seen anything like this.

Matters are worse in Thailand, where an unknown number of Rohingya refugees have been sold into slavery (estimates suggest that 500,000 slaves work in various industries in Thailand). Many of those sold into slavery work on fishing boats, particularly in the prawn fishing industry. It is said that the price of the enslaved person now is a mere 5% of what it was in the 19th century. Indeed, the slavery does not begin when the refugees leave Myanmar. UN officials report that in the encampments where the Rohingya have gathered in Sittwe, the port city capital of Rakhine state inside Myanmar, ‘people smugglers are very active in the camps.’

Stunningly, it is now said that a quarter of the Rohingya people have been ejected from Myanmar, with large numbers internally displaced in what amount to concentration camps. Marixie Mercado of UNICEF visited some of these camps, even the ones that are hard to reach such as Pautaw township. ‘The first thing you notice when you reach the camps is the stomach-churning stench,’ Mercado recalls. ‘Parts of the camps are literally cesspools. Shelters teeter on stilts above garbage and excrement. Children walk barefoot through the muck. One camp manager reported four deaths among children ages 3 to 10 within the first 18 days of December.’ There are about 60,000 children in these camps, totally isolated and with ‘high levels of toxic fear,’ said Mercado.

Why this is happening

On September 19 of last year, Myanmar’s civilian leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi broke her silence about the atrocities against the Rohingya people. But her speech was filled with evasions of all kinds. She did not say the name Rohingya, afraid that its utterance would somehow give legitimacy to this community’s claim to being part of Myanmar’s social fabric. She said, oddly, that her government did not know exactly what was going on in Myanmar, that she would need to ‘find out why this is happening.’

But what is happening has been clear to Myanmar’s military and its civilian authorities for seven decades. There has been a careful campaign to ensure that the Rohingya, who live in northern Rakhine (previously Arakan) State, are firstly denied citizenship and then denied the ability to make a living. Massacres have been punctual, with the intensity having escalated since the 2012 pogrom. Aung San Suu Kyi would perhaps be best informed of the character of the violence if she visited the village of Yan Thei, where on October 23, 2012, the police and the Rakhine extremists colluded to destroy the village. In the melee, the extremists and the police took the lives of 28 children, 13 under the age of five, most of them hacked to death.

It is not enough to blame the extremist Buddhist monks and the Rakhine militants for this violence. The Myanmar state has been complicit in this violence from its inception. It has, for reasons of bigotry and religion, targeted the one minority group (the Rohingyas) that had not armed itself to fight for its right as a minority group (unlike the Karen and Shan peoples). The military and the civilian elite, including Aung San Suu Kyi, have used the defencelessness of the Rohingya as a way to define their nationalism. They have recently used the West’s War on Terror rhetoric to target this Muslim community.

The party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has closely collaborated with the extremist groups from Rakhine State since the 1980s. While the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi positioned themselves internationally as beacons of democracy and human rights, the party and its leader developed close ties with the extremist Rakhine political factions (Arakan League for Democracy, then the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party and the Arakan National Party). Aung San Suu Kyi has relied on people such as Aye The Aung and Aye Maung, both extreme Rakhine nationalists. These are men who deny the existence of the Rohingya, calling them Bengalis and demanding their expulsion to Bangladesh.

A UN report from 2010 shows that the poverty rate across Myanmar is at least 26%, with poverty most acute in rural areas (84% of the poor live in the Burmese countryside). Rakhine State, where the Rohingya live, is one of the poorest parts of Myanmar, with every second child suffering from acute malnutrition. The poverty rate in Rakhine State is a startling 78%. Both the Rohingya and the Rakhine peoples—the latter being used by the State as cannon fodder against the former—survive with meagre resources.

Rather than address this problem, the military and the civilian leaders have made it a habit of pointing their fingers at the extremely poor Rohingyas. It is as if these landless agricultural workers and small farmers are the cause of poverty in Myanmar and not its victims.

War On Terror

For the past two decades, the government in Myanmar has used the war on terror rhetoric adopted from the West to define the Rohingya. They are painted as Muslim extremists, although what truly defines them is their defenceless poverty. It was helpful to the generals of Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi that a Rohingya extremist born in Karachi (Pakistan) and raised in Mecca (Saudi Arabia)—Ata Ullah—formed the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and began armed operations against the state and the Rakhine population. This group has almost no roots in the Rohingya population. But it is a convenient foil for Myanmar’s state and for its Buddhist extremists. They point to it as evidence of al-Qaeda and use it to continue the ethnic cleaning operations ongoing in Rakhine State.

The wave of refugees waits for May to July, when the Andaman Sea is relatively calm. It is then that they will try to get to Bangladesh and Thailand. More people will leave Myanmar this year. ‘We fear we will be wiped out’, said Tun Khin, speaking for his Rohingya community.

I am sitting with the Bangladeshi photographer and writer Shahidul Alam in central Dhaka. He has given me the Drik calendar for 2018 (it is called When Buddha Looks Away). It has pictures by Alam of the Rohingya community from the camps in Bangladesh. The text with the pictures bristle. Alam writes, ‘If the world indeed has a conscience then the time is now to demonstrate that we, as a people, cannot, will not, stand by while one of the greatest injustices of modern times continues to take place on our watch. Even if we fail to make ourselves accountable, our children and our children’s children will ask us how we could have let it happen and we will never have an answer. It is a question that will haunt us all our lives.’

It is already haunting the Rohingya people. And the aid workers.

Vijay Prashad is the chief editor of LeftWord Books (leftword.com) and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is the author of Red Star Over the Third World (LeftWord, 2017) and The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016), among other books. 


For Children All Over The World, 2017 Was Defined By War

For Children All Over The World, 2017 Was Defined By War

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

War is defined by noise. It is earthshattering. The sounds of exploding bombs and gunfire, of screams and pain: these are the aural coordinates of battlefields. The modern battlefield is not defined by remoteness. The new battlefield is often in the middle of a city, where fighters of all kinds move between destroyed houses to capture streets and hold neighborhoods. Families that cannot flee the battle get stuck in the midst of it. The sounds become normal, the movement of the earth a fact of life. There is a cold-blooded vocabulary for this. The bursts of sound energy are known as Impulse Noise and what the victim suffers from is Acoustic Trauma.

Worse are the shattering sounds and force of aerial bombardment. Jets can be heard in the distance, the whistle sound of the bombs as they fly to the earth, the unsuspected explosion that could be so close that it feels like one’s life has ended. The gap between thunder and lightening is a little like the gap between the whistle and the thunderous explosion. That time is a time of clenched teeth and prayer. No one, not even the most devoted atheist, is capable of being without god amidst the sounds of war.

Nor is reason the governing instinct in a war zone. Across the trenches of World War 1 in Europe a cat named Felix ran from the German to the English lines carrying messages of hope from one working-class fighter to another. When the officers heard of this, rather than smile at its charm they had the cat executed for treason. The English poet Heathcote Williams wrote of this ‘peace cat,’ one of the fifteen million souls that died in that war, ‘who’s barely ever mentioned/ but whose bloodstained paw-prints/are a lone, feline testament/to war’s absurdity.’ This is only one kind of absurdity, for war is itself – as Williams implies – an absurdity.

As war creeps from the trenches of abandoned fields into cities, it destroys the worlds of civilians. Bombs fall from the sky as fighters run from building to building. Between Dresden (Germany), where Allied fire bombing killed 25,000 German civilians in 1945, and Operation Phoenix (Vietnam), where US soldiers and their South Vietnamese allies killed over 45,000 Vietnamese civilians between 1968 and 1972, the idea of mass death by aerial bombardment or execution became normal. It is now normal to have armies enter a country and bomb it viciously or to enter into towns and villages to execute those suspected of being the enemy. All this is now normal. It is everyday life in Afghanistan.

War on Children

In the midst of such normality are children, many of whom not only grow up with the ferocious sound of bombs going off, but also see death before them when their lives have not yet begun. Entire generations in Afghanistan have come to this world surrounded by death, just as a generation in Iraq, in Syria and in Libya, in the broken parts of the Great Lakes region of Africa and in the wounded areas of Myanmar know too much of the sounds of gunfire and the images of death. Children are often in the crossfires of astoundingly loud days and nights. Their trauma is evident in the drawings done by children in refugee camps. Flashes of light and explosion are drawn at a very large scale. The impossibility of representing the noise is clear to the young artists. But it is what is so central to their ordeal.

A few days ago, the UN Children’s Agency (UNICEF) reported that the lives of over 220,000 children in eastern Ukraine are impacted by the proliferation of lethal weapons – including mines – in the area. ‘It is unacceptable that places where children could safely play less than four years ago are now riddled with deadly explosives,’ said Giovanna Barberis, the head of UNICEF in Ukraine. Every week, one more Ukrainian child is victim to these weapons. A few days after UNICEF made these numbers public, the United States government decided to sell lethal weapons to the government of Ukraine. US arms dealers will make close to $42 million in this sale. It will, most likely, ramp up a conflict that requires a negotiated settlement rather than more fighting.

UNICEF’s representative in Yemen – Merritz Rilano – said that the situation in that country is appalling, with one million children infected with cholera. What is striking is that 80% of the Yemeni population now needs humanitarian aid, but the impact on children has been especially stark – Geert Cappelaere, the regional director of UNICEF, said in November, ‘Yemen is one of the worst places on earth to be a child.’ Famine, cholera, and aerial bombardment: there is no worse fate. And yet, in the midst of all this, the West continues to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE – the two countries that have led the war in Yemen. Britain and the United States are the leading merchants of war for these Gulf countries that continue this near genocidal war against Yemen.

Merchants of Death

All this would make one scratch one’s head. These wars seem so distant from the mundane lives of those who live in the West – bewildered by the complexity of the politics in Yemen and in Ukraine, eager for simple solutions, undone by the scale of the problem. What does this have to do with me, asks the innocent person in the West? I neither am author of these conflicts nor am I a beneficiary of them?

The innocent person is correct. But the finger does not point to the average person, who is certainly not directly culpable for these atrocities. But the fingers do point at the arms dealers, most of them based in the West, who have made trillions of dollars on war over the course of the past several decades.

From Sweden comes the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which shows – conclusively – that the arms dealers are making a great deal of money on conflict, and these arms dealers are familiar – even household – names in the West. Lockheed Martin, the world’s leading merchant of death, had sales of $40.8 billion last year – 10.7% more than in 2015. Boeing, which had sales of $29.5 billion, and Raytheon, which had sales of $23 billion, follow Lockheed Martin as leading arms dealers in the world. Each of these firms is based in the United States.

Arms sales by US-based companies rose by 4% to $217.2 billion in 2016. Firms from the United States amount to 58% of the total arms sale of the top 100 arms dealers on the planet. Other firms of note include BAE systems of the United Kingdom ($23 billion in sales) and Northrup Grumman ($21.4 billion in sales).

Western arms dealers are by far the greatest purveyors of violence in the world.

These are companies that sell weapons to countries that can ill-afford to buy these weapons systems and to countries that are in the midst of fratricidal wars. Seven of the top ten arms dealers are based in the United States, while the rest are British, Italian, French or Trans-European (Airbus). These are the countries that are the most sanctimonious in the United Nations when it comes to war – selling weapons to all sides often, making money from pain, while preaching to the world about how belligerence should be avoided.


Afghan children run around playing a game called eagle (aaqab). The children are little birds – perhaps pigeons – while one child is the eagle who preys on them. Above their head swiftly moving is the Predator – a drone made by the San Diego based firm of General Atomics (the 46th largest arms dealer in the world). It is the real eagle. They are the real pigeons. The children say that they know the sound of the drone, the buzz of its propellers, the scent of danger in the air.

A song plays nearby. It is Nazia Iqbal singing, ‘My love you are far from me. These drones target you. I am helpless. I can’t stop them. My tears drop from my eyes like water from a spring.’

The US war on Afghanistan has been going on for over sixteen years, with immense amount of weaponry used to devastate the country. War has entered the nervous system of the Afghans, become normal and endless. Generations cannot imagine life without war. It has entered the songs and their games. It is the price paid by ordinary people around the world for the profits of the merchants of death.

Vijay Prashad is the chief editor of LeftWord Books (leftword.com) and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is the author of Red Star Over the Third World (LeftWord, 2017) and The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016), among other books. 


Saudi Prince’s Tantrum Has Global Impact

Saudi Prince’s Tantrum Has Global Impact

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

What ails the royal court of Saudi Arabia? The Crown Prince—Mohammed Bin Salman—has arrested 11 rich and powerful princes and about 200 businessmen. These men of great wealth and might are being held in the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh. Their assets are being seized in stages. Among these men is Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the richest men on the planet—whose holdings include Twitter and Citigroup, and Miteb bin Abdullah (Minister of the National Guard), Adel Fakeih (Minister of Economy and Planning), Bakr bin Laden (head of the Saudi Binladin Group) and Mohammed al-Amoudi (a businessman with substantial holdings in Ethiopia).

A tremor has gone through the hundreds of princes. Who is next? Will the Crown Prince’s loyal forces come for them next?

Why has the Crown Prince MBS—as he is known—arrested these men of great wealth and power? Was he afraid of a palace coup against him and his father, King Salman? It is certainly the case that the Crown Prince has arrested men who controlled sources of power (such as the National Guard) that were not seen to be loyal to his side of the palace. Having taken control of these forces, the Crown Prince has now made sure that there are no armed guards capable of undertaking a coup against him and his father. Military power is now consolidated around MBS.

The arrest of Alwaleed bin Talal and al-Amoudi suggests that this is also a crackdown on corruption in the Kingdom. Alwaleed bin Talal boasts of his billions, but there is ample evidence that when he has been caught flatfooted in a trade, he has turned to the Saudi banks for liquidity. It is pretty clear that he has used Saudi royal funds to stay afloat. He had trouble with his United Saudi Bank and with his investments in Teledesic and Planet Hollywood. Al-Amoudi, meanwhile, has been surrounded by the whiff of corruption over his investments in Ethiopia (his large farms and his gold mine). There is about $33 billion of personal wealth in the Ritz Carlton. Will the Crown Prince be able to take some of this money towards his project—Saudi Vision 2030?

Saudi Arabia’s attorney general Said al-Mojeb said that about $100 billion has been ‘misused through systematic corruption and embezzlement.’ He hopes that these arrests and the investigations that continue will result in the return of some of this money to the treasury.

A week before the arrests, Saudi Arabia hosted an investment conference attended by IMF chief Christine Lagarde and various bankers (including HSBC head Stuart Gulliver and SoftBank chair Masayoshi Son). At this conference, the Saudis presented their Vision 2030 plan to cut subsidies, increase taxes and offer its oil company—ARAMCO—to an initial public offering (IPO) sometime next year. The Saudis hope to raise $2 trillion in the IPO, a figure that is four times larger than the record-breaking Alibaba IPO in 2014.

Collapsed oil prices, largely by Saudi Arabia’s aggressive oil sales, have hurt the balance of payments in this oil-dependent monarchy. The kingdom is now running deficits of around $100 billion per year. The IMF has estimated that Saudi growth is ‘close to zero,’ with limited prospects for improvement in the future.

The Vision 2030 document—about which I wrote last year—was crafted by the consulting firm McKinsey. The prescriptions in the document called for diversification of the Saudi economy, a cut in public sector employment and a decrease in low-wage guest workers. The Saudi royals found this plan to be far too difficult to implement. The government tried to cut wage and benefits for the ministers and for public-sector workers. Discontent pushed the government to roll back these cuts in April 2017. To discourage guest workers is impossible, since the Saudi workforce is neither willing to do the low-end jobs nor does it have the skills to do the high-end jobs. There are too many structural barriers for the easy implementation of Vision 2030.

Which is perhaps why the Crown Prince decided to unveil his plans at the investment conference for the construction of a new city—NEOM. This city, which will extend across the Egyptian and Jordanian borders, will be powered by wind and solar energy. It is intended to be a global hub for innovations of various kinds. To build this city, the Saudis will plan to invest $500 billion and seek support from outside investors. The SoftBank Vision Fund’s Son called this a ‘fantastic opportunity’ and planned to invest in it. Others will follow. But there is a quixotic element to this plan. It looks good on paper but will once more rely upon a work force that comes from elsewhere, including other parts of the Arab world (such as Lebanon). There is no plan for a domestic high-tech workforce to be created for this tech-hub. That means that the fundamentals of Saudi Arabia’s economy will remain the same and its structural crisis will not be averted.

Which is perhaps why the Crown Prince attacked the clerics and the obscurantism in the kingdom. He made clear that before 1979 Saudi Arabia was not as backward looking and that this backward looking culture and strangled the possibility of modern education from creating a modern workforce. Of course, this obscurantism is not accidental. It has been a key part of Saudi ideology, which the Saudis exported across the Islamic world. To undo the power of the clerics without a major upheaval in the Kingdom is unlikely. Will the Crown Price dare to arrest the obscurantist clerics that oppose his new vision?

There is incoherence in the Crown Prince’s vision. On the one hand he wants to weaken the hold of the obscurantist clerics, but on the other hand he has taken a hard line against Iran—the very position that fans the flames of obscurantism in the Kingdom. It is sectarianism that is tinder for the clerics, a sectarianism that drove Saudi Arabia’s failed policies in Iraq, Qatar, Syria and Yemen. The Crown Prince’s sectarian wars have not succeeded. He has failed to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria and failed to pacify the Yemeni people. He has failed to bring Qatar to heel and failed to lessen Iran’s power in Iraq. His tantrum over Lebanon has resulted in a serious political crisis in that country, but it will not succeed in weakening Hezbollah. All this only provides fodder for the obscurantists inside Saudi Arabia. Allowing women to drive is of course an important forward step, but it is hardly going to break the power of the obscurantist clerics over Saudi society.

ISIS has been defeated in Syria and Iraq. Iran is certainly more powerful in the region than ever before. Saudi Arabia does not like the way the geo-politics have turned out. Its tantrums from Qatar to Lebanon will not, however, change its position of weakness. The termites of corruption and social waste within the Kingdom have set its economy in a negative direction. These arrests as well as the attack on Lebanon are signs of great vulnerability in the royal household. It is unlikely that there will be any major collapse of the monarchy or a coup against the current king. This is unlikely. What is more likely is that Saudi Arabia—unable to move towards its Vision 2030—will create more mayhem in the region and create chaos inside its own society.

It is remarkable how this nation of 33 million has so easily been taken hostage by the whims of its Crown Prince and his phantasmagoric agenda.

Vijay Prashad is the Chief Editor of LeftWord Books (leftword.com) and the Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is the author of 20 books, the most recent being The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution(University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday.


World’s Largest Humanitarian Crisis Largely Ignored By Western Media

World’s Largest Humanitarian Crisis Largely Ignored By Western Media

Reprinted with permission fromAlterNet.

A day ago, a Saudi jet fired on a convoy of cars in Mawzaa district, Yemen. The strike is reported to have killed at least twenty civilians, many from the same family. These cars carried families who were fleeing renewed fighting near the city of Taiz in southwest Yemen. “Nowhere in Yemen is safe for civilians,” said Shabia Mantoo of the UN’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR). This incident, like others before it, says the UNHCR, “demonstrates the extreme dangers facing civilians in Yemen, particularly those attempting to flee violence, as they disproportionately bear the brunt of conflict.”

Saudi Arabia has made no official statement about the incident. It is likely that the Kingdom’s Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT) will study the evidence available. Earlier atrocities have been looked at by JIAT, and – in an April 2017 report – they have admitted culpabilty for many of them. But in each case, the Saudi government says that it was either ‘unaware of the presence of the hospital’ that it struck or that civilian areas were being used by the anti-Saudi Yemeni coalition as military bases. It is impossible to deny the weight of evidence that shows Saudi bombardment of civilian areas – schools, hospitals, markets and residential areas. But they hesitate to take full responsibility.

The Arab world’s richest country, Saudi Arabia, went to war against the Arab world’s poorest country in 2015. In this period, Yemen – with a population of 25 million – has been substantially destroyed. The United Nations has been tracking the scale of the atrocity. The numbers are bewildering. Close to 20,000 people have died in this war, at least half of them civilians. The numbers of those injured could not be tabulated as half of Yemen’s hospitals and medical centers do not work. This means there is no accurate measure of those who come in to be treated.

Life for the survivors, thus far, has been perilous.  For them, time drags on. The war continues endlessly. Suffering intensifies. Ancient maladies reappear. Amongst them is famine. Last week, the UN’s Special Envoy for the Secretary General for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh was in New York. He addressed the Security Council about the situation in Yemen. Mr. Cheikh said that 20 million of Yemen’s 25 million people are affected by the war. Most of them have little access to water, sanitation, hygiene and food. Seven million of them – including 2.3 million children under the age of five – are on the ‘cusp of famine.’ There are now 320,000 suspected cases of cholera in the country, with 1,700 confirmed deaths because of that disease.

Reports have come out of Yemen thanks to a combination of UN personnel, a few intrepid journalists, and Yemenis who have been trying to make their case – unsuccessfully – to the international community. When the UN tried to take three BBC journalists on an aid flight from Djibouti to Sana’a, the Saudi-backed forces prevented its arrival. Ben Lassoued, who works at the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yemen, said, ‘It’s unfortunate and partially explains why Yemen, which is one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, is not getting much attention in international media.’

Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria are each in the throes of a man-made famine, with twenty million people starving to death. No humanitarian intervention has been possible. There has been little concern from the powers that be. Pictures on social media of rail-thin children evoke pity, but no action. The UN has only been able to raise 43 per cent of the $6.27 billion it urgently needs to prevent the famine in these four countries. The United States has contributed $1.9 billion to this effort. But this is a fraction of what the US arms industry has been making by selling arms to Saudi Arabia, resupplying it as it bombs Yemen into famine. Most recently, when US President Trump visited Saudi Arabia, the US sealed a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. This deal is in addition to a $350 billion arms sales agreement over ten years.

In other words, the United States is fueling a conflict that has resulted in war crimes and famine. It is responsible – by proxy – for this devastation.

In 2016, a UN panel of experts concluded that the Saudi war on Yemen documented grave violations of human rights that were “widespread and systematic.” What is most chilling in that report is the documentation of Saudi strikes on transportation routes (both sea and air), storage facilities for holding food (including an Oxfam warehouse for food aid) and a water project funded by the European Union. The panel noted that it “documented three coalition attacks on local food and agricultural production sites.” In 2015, Saudi aircraft destroyed the cranes and warehouses in the Yemeni port city of Hudaydah. With 90 per cent of Yemen’s food imported, the destruction of this infrastructure has been catastrophic. These strikes by the Saudis on food transportation and storage as well as on water purification plants have produced famine conditions in Yemen.

Mr. Cheikh’s report to the UN Security Council did not lift the rhetoric of its members. They sat silently. China’s ambassador – Liu Jieyi – is the President of the Security Council for July. He said that the mute members “do see eye to eye with each other on the gravity of the situation” and that they support a “political solution as the only way to end the conflict in Yemen.” Three UN-brokered peace talks have failed, with both sides rejecting the latest round in August of last year. Talks set to start in May of this year faltered. Discussions began in Oman, with confidence building measures on the table. The UN offered to give the port city of Hudaydah to a neutral country for oversight. Neither side could agree on who should take charge of this crucial city.

UNICEF’s Justin Forsyth went before a subcommittee of the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. He noted that the crises in places such as Yemen deserve immediate attention. Funds for relief must be provided and a political solution to the crisis must be found. Neither the funds nor the political solution seems possible in these times. These wars seem endless. Their tragedies increase geometrically. But nonetheless Mr. Forsyth suggested that more is needed. “Conflict, extreme climate events like drought, environmental degradation, climate change, loss of livelihoods and poverty,” Mr. Forsyth said, “all underpin these looming famines and crises. Unless we address these causes we will continue to get recurrent crises.”

Mr. Forsyth was bold to raise these deeper challenges. He left out some: an economic model that favors income inequality and that displaces human labor for machines and a callous disregard for the suffering of vast areas of the world that have not been able to move out of the shackles of colonial-era poverty. Still, the Senators nodded their heads. They are sagacious.

But then they move along. There are arms deals to cut. There are donors to talk to. So much to do in a day. So difficult to concentrate on every problem in the world. So hard to digest these stories of suffering. Perhaps an extra oxycodone with the next cup of coffee?

Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday.

‘Our City Is In Ruins’: Crushing Wars Are Raging On In Syria And Iraq With No End In Sight

‘Our City Is In Ruins’: Crushing Wars Are Raging On In Syria And Iraq With No End In Sight

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

On 10 July 2017, Iraqi’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived in the city of Mosul to declare it liberated from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, spokesperson of the Iraqi forces, told Iraqi television, “Their fictitious state has fallen.”

Prime Minister al-Abadi has been a senior member of one Iraqi government after the other since the illegal US invasion and occupation of that country in 2003. He was dismayed by the privatization plans of the US Viceroy in Iraq, Paul Bremer, and he participated in the lawsuit against the US mercenary army – the private company called Blackwater. At the same time, al-Abadi participated in governments led largely by his Islamic Dawa Party (which he joined in 1967 at the age of fifteen). This party has overseen – with US aid and encouragement – the breakdown of Iraqi society. The brutality of the US invasion and occupation as well as the sectarian policies of the Islamic Dawa Party drove the creation of ISIS in 2006 and then its expansion by 2014. This is a man with a front-row seat for the unraveling of his country.

What did al-Abadi see when he looked across the expanse of Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities? He would have seen not only the violence visited by ISIS upon this historic city – including destroying a large part of its Great Mosque of al-Nuri – but also the destruction of the city by this current onslaught that has lasted nine months. A million civilians fled Mosul; many thousands of civilians have been killed. They live in nineteen emergency camps – each wanting in basic needs. “The levels of trauma we are seeing are some of the highest anywhere,” said Lise Grande of the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq. “What people have experienced is nearly unimaginable.” The UN requested nearly $1 billion of the international community. It has received just over 40 percent of what is required. With oil prices down, Iraq simply does not have the revenue to rebuild this destroyed city. It will need help.

Humanitarianism wars are easier to fund than the humanitarian peace.

“Our city is in ruins,” said Ayman who lives in the western part of Mosul. “They have treated us like we are absolutely nothing.” Who is the “they” in Ayman’s statement? ISIS surely, but also the Iraqi military and its US allies.

Ayman’s statement appears in an Amnesty International report that was released on 11 July – At Any Cost: The Civilian Catastrophe in West Mosul. It is a careful report, but with a point that should not be ignored. Amnesty suggests that the United States and the Iraqi forces “carried out a series of unlawful attacks in west Mosul.” The report further says, “Even in attacks that seem to have struck their intended military target, the use of unsuitable weapons or failure to take other necessary precautions resulted in needless loss of civilian lives and in some cases appears to have constituted disproportionate attacks.”

The United States government attacked Amnesty for its conclusions. Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend said, in Washington, “I reject any notion that coalition fires were in any way imprecise, unlawful or excessively targeted civilians.”

Airwars, the group that studies aerial bombardment, shows – in a new report – that the US aerial bombardment of western Mosul increased by 21 percent in the past month, with the munitions concentrated on certain neighborhoods. This has led, Airwars says, to increased civilian deaths. Chris Woods of Airwars says, “The speed and intensity of these attacks – which the US now describes as a war of ‘annihilation’ – have placed civilians at far greater risk of harm. Heavy weapons also continue to be used on densely populated areas. The consequences are inevitable.” Lt. General Townsend has not commented yet on the Airwars report. The term “annihilation” is chilling.

The numbers put out by Airwars are deflated. “It is highly probable,” the report notes, “that the death toll is substantially higher than this Airwars estimate, with multiple reports referencing thousands of corpses still trapped under the rubble.” Reports from the ground suggest the use of illegal weapons – including white phosphorus (although the US has denied this) – as well as “horrific scenes of bodies scattering the streets.” It will take a great deal of investigation to piece together the full-scale of the human tragedy first in the ISIS capture of Mosul and then in the US-Iraqi assault on the city.

Al-Abadi would also know that ISIS was able to expand in 2013 and 2014 partly because the Iraqi government crushed any attempt by ordinary Iraqis to get a better deal. A major political uprising from 2011 brought together groups such as the Union of the Unemployed of Iraq with the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. Their demands were for the recreation of their destroyed society, for an economy that benefits Iraqis and for a political project that unifies the people and does not tear open sectarian divides. The government did not listen to them. The path of nonviolent resistance was blocked in 2011, and then sent backwards when Iraqi security forces massacred peaceful protestors in al-Hawija in April 2013. After the massacre, ISIS scouts came into al-Hawija to recruit fighters. They said, “You tried the peaceful route. What did it bring you? Now come with us.” Many did. Al-Hawija remains in ISIS hands. In fact, after the apparent death of ISIS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of al-Hawija – Abu Haitham al-Obaidi – declared that he was the new caliph. His forces are arrayed in the western part of al-Hawija, ready for a major battle.

Little wonder that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – Zeid al-Hussein – said that “dialogue between communities needs to begin now to try to halt the cycle of violence.” Much water has slipped under the bridge. Not only the history of the brutality of the US invasion and occupation – which razed many of the cities in Anbar Province such as Fallujah and Ramadi – but also the ruthlessness of the Iraqi government as well as of the US-Iraqi war on Mosul. The way one fights a war suggests to the defeated the terms of the future. A brutal war can only mean that there will be no real “dialogue” to prevent precisely the “cycle of violence.”

ISIS fighters fled Mosul for other parts of Iraq as well as for Syria. The battle is far from over. US aerial assaults on the Syrian cities of Raqqa, Hasakah and Deir Ezzor continue, increasing with great ferocity. Airwars suggests that the number of civilian deaths from the US-led air war in Syria is at the highest it has been for a long while. What is most startling is the assertion by Airwars that “casualty events attributed to the [US-led] Coalition in Iraq and Syria outpaced those reportedly carried out by Russia in Syria” for the sixth consecutive month. That means that the civilian toll from US airstrikes has been greater than the casualty toll from the Russian strikes. Yet it is the latter that gets the attention by the Western media, while the former is largely – if not entirely – ignored. There is a theory, as I have written about previously, that Western bombing is benevolent, whereas Eastern bombing is malevolent. This seems to operate for the Western media.

US bombing in Raqqa has hit civilian infrastructure – including internet cafes and swimming pools, shops and mosques. There are reports of civilians being killed as they flee Raqqa. Lt. General Stephen Townsend, who derided Amnesty’s allegations about war crimes in Mosul, told the New York Times’ Michael Gordon a few days ago, “And we shoot every boat we find. If you want to get out of Raqqa right now, you’ve got to build a poncho raft.” This is a violation of the UN’s 1981 Protection of Asylum-Seekers in Situations of Large-Scale Influx.

Meanwhile, the de-escalation zones continue to be formed in Syria to the great relief of the population. It is the only glimmer of hope in the region. Most of these de-escalation zones are in western Syria, with the most recent declared along the Jordanian border, including the provinces of Dara’a, Quneitra and Sweida. The UN Refugee Agency – UNHCR – said that 440,000 internally displaced people have returned to their homes during the first six months of this year. Over 30,000 Syrians who had left the country have now returned home. Some of these ceasefires relied upon discussions between Iran and Qatar. It is clear that one of the reasons for Saudi Arabia’s annoyance with Qatar is that it has participated actively in the creation of these de-escalation zones. Expansion of this zone is essential for the well-being of the people.

It would be valuable if this example of the de-escalation zones would set the ethical foundation for peace-making in Iraq as well as in northeastern Syria. Total warfare wins battles, but it can often prolong the war.

Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday.

Why Trump’s Saudi Diplomacy Promotes Islamic State

Why Trump’s Saudi Diplomacy Promotes Islamic State

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

As news came that Saudi Arabia and six other countries had cut ties with Qatar, I called an acquaintance who retired from the Qatari foreign service. ‘What do you think of this mess,’ I asked him. He was reticent to talk. ‘I fear an invasion from Saudi Arabia,’ he said.

I thought this was an exaggeration. Saudi Arabia had, as we both knew, forced the previous emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, to abdicate in 2013 and give way to his son, the current emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Tensions had long been apparent between Saudi Arabia and its tiny neighbor and these had been resolved each time. Why would there be fear of an invasion?

News now comes that the Turkish parliament has approved the deployment of its troops to Qatar to guard against any such eventuality. In 2014, after the abdication of the previous emir, Turkey began construction of a base in Qatar. The next year, Turkey’s ambassador to Qatar, Ahmet Demirok, said his country would maintain 3,000 troops at the base. There are now a few hundred troops. More are to follow in the days ahead.

Meanwhile, a considerable number of troops from the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units have moved to the Iraqi-Saudi border over the past two days. This story was first reported by the Iraqi journalist Haidar Sumeri on June 6. ‘Qatar is being unfairly accused,’ said the Iraqi government. These troop deployments are not insignificant.

Perhaps the talk of a Saudi invasion is not as idle as I had thought.

Patrons of the Muslim Brotherhood

Turkey and Qatar’s cooperation began in 2007, but escalated in the past few years. The Turkey-Qatar Military Cooperation Agreement (March 2015) is the most comprehensive strategic alignment of these two countries. It suggests that the two states are united against ‘common enemies.’ Who these enemies are is not spelled out clearly.

What is clear is that both Turkey and Qatar, patrons of the Muslim Brotherhood, find that they are being isolated by the Saudi-driven Arab agenda in the region. The overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi in 2013, the abdication of the former emir in Qatar, the 2014 Israeli war against Hamas in Gaza, the defeat of the Turkish-Qatari proxies in Libya and the gradual isolation of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood suggested to both Qatar and Turkey that closer cooperation and coordination was necessary. The Military Cooperation Agreement came at the end of this slow process of the defeat for the Qatari-Turkish agenda in West Asia and North Africa.

The Qatari diplomat was the one to alert me in late 2015 to the increasingly close ties between Turkey and Qatar. He suggested both countries feared that their regional agenda was close to being vanquished. Saudi Arabia had cemented its ties with the new leader of Egypt, General Sisi, and its allies in Libya and Syria seemed to have the wind in their sails. The death of the old Saudi monarch in 2015 led to the ascension of the new king, Salman, who shortly thereafter confidently went to war against the poorest Arab state, Yemen. It was hoped that this military intervention in Yemen would result in a quick victory for Saudi Arabia, cementing its domination of the region. If Saudi Arabia had attained its goals in Yemen, then it would truly have sent a message to its enemies, Qatar and Turkey, as well as Iran.

But victory in Yemen has been elusive. The Russians intervened in Syria in 2015 and the West conducted a nuclear deal with Iran that same year. Suddenly, Saudi fortunes appeared to alter. Iran’s confidence returned and the Syrian war appeared to now move in the direction of the government of Bashar al-Assad and his Russian as well as Iranian partners. Saudi Arabia’s economy tanked and there was now talk of major restructuring of its oil industry. King Salman and his son appeared near humiliation.

By the close of 2015, the Saudi agenda appeared to be in disarray while Qatar and Turkey appeared to be fearful of the Saudis. Turkey, badly battered by its miscalculation in Syria, began to rely on Qatar’s natural gas revenue to stabilize its economy and leaned on Qatar to open discussions with Russia. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, went to the United States, brought more weapons and attempted to forge a new kind of Arab NATO against both Iran and the patrons of the Muslim Brotherhood, namely Turkey and Qatar. It is this attempt by the Saudis from the end of 2015 that has now resulted in this dramatic step to isolate Qatar.

 What Do the Saudis Fear?

There are two reasons why Saudi Arabia wishes to put pressure on Qatar. First, the Saudis have long worried about the prospects of an Islamic theory of rule that rejects monarchs. Iran’s current ruling ideology, vilayat-e faqih, is deeply anti-monarchical. It suggests that the jurists should rule the country, not a king. In this, the Iranian political theory is much like that of a liberal democracy, although here the law is not seen as secular but Islamic. Iran, therefore, provides a republican alternative to Saudi Arabia’s Islamic monarchy.

The Muslim Brotherhood is also anti-monarchical. Its largely professional membership want their bourgeois privileges to be translated into the political domain. Both Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood threaten not only Saudi Arabia, but all the monarchs in the region (with the exception of Qatar, whose emir is able to maintain his role as ruler with the Brotherhood’s ideology). No wonder then that the UAE’s leaders have also been apoplectic about the Brotherhood.

Second, Qatar has over the course of the past several decades developed closer ties to Iran. The two countries share the world’s largest natural gas field of 9,700 sq. kms. ‘Geography cannot be changed,’ said Iran’s Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif in reference to the new tension in the Gulf. He understands that the proximity of Qatar with Iran, and the shared natural gas field, means that Qatar cannot afford to fully break with Iran, as Saudi Arabia would like. Evidence of the closeness of Qatar and Iran came last year when the two countries collaborated to bring about town and city level ceasefires across Syria. This move disturbed the Saudis who, despite the hopelessness of their case, would like to see the Syrian war continue so as to overthrow Assad. Further evidence came when Morsi was the president of Egypt. He was the first Egyptian head of government to travel to Iran since 1979. Do not underestimate the role of the Saudis, alongside the Egyptian military, in bringing down Morsi.

Close ties between Iran and Qatar have long been an irritant to the Saudis. They have now decided to increase the pressure on their small neighbor in order to break those ties.

Trump’s Chaos

When Trump was in Saudi Arabia, he joined with General Sisi and King Salman to place his hands on a glowing orb at the newly created counterterrorism center. These men seemed obsessed with Iranian power. It was, bizarrely, seen as the main ‘terrorist’ threat in the region. ISIS was demoted from the post of the main enemy. The Egyptians and the Saudis suggested in the margins of this meeting that Qatar was a funder of the terrorists.

What was amusing at that time about these statements is that Saudi Arabia has been implicated, alongside Qatar, for its role in the financing of terrorists. Some of these terrorist groups, such as Jaish al-Islam and ISIS, are far more diabolical in the region than Iran. But Trump, carrying the Israeli agenda on his shoulders, seemed entranced by the Saudi-Egyptian-Israeli axis. Isolation of Iran ran along the grain of the agenda of his own team. If this meant that Qatar had to be drawn in, well, so be it despite the fact that Qatar hosts one of the largest U.S. military bases in the world.

No easy solution is possible for this standoff. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir said Saudi Arabia sees ‘Qatar as a brother state, as a partner.’ As members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, these two states are part of a defensive pact. The current attack on Qatar threatens the Council’s existence and pushes Qatar away from the Gulf States toward closer ties with Iran. Iran has reached out to Qatar with promises of food aid and of opening its airspace freely to Qatari aircraft. ‘We are not prepared to enter the Iranian camp.’ said the Qatari diplomat, ‘but we are being pushed into it.’

The ISIS attack on Tehran’s parliament certainly complicates a complicated picture. The implications of that attack are as yet unclear. It might be just another terrorist attack by a non-state group or it could be a message to Iran that more such attacks might follow. A muted Qatar and Iran would be an adequate outcome for Saudi Arabia if the kingdom is unable to overthrow the governments in both.

The detritus of the Iraq and Syrian wars has now spread further south. It has already produced great problems in Turkey. Now those problems have traveled into the Gulf itself.

Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

Major Arab States Leave Syrian Refugees ‘Out In The Cold’

Major Arab States Leave Syrian Refugees ‘Out In The Cold’

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

The Arab League summit opened Wednesday in Jordan. Heads of government and state of 22 countries in West Asia and North Africa have assembled in the Dead Sea, a fitting name for a body that has struggled to be relevant in the conflicts that bedevil the region. Egypt’s Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, the Secretary General of the League, said at the threshold of the summit that Arab governments should ‘work in every possible way to play a more active role in major crises.’

Aboul-Gheit, who mentioned Libya and Yemen as two examples, was more circumspect on Syria. What role the Arab states might play as a bloc here is unclear. Aboul-Gheit’s own Egypt is now fully behind the government of Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab states remain settled on the view that Assad has to resign. It is this divide not only on Syria, but also on Libya and Yemen that has made it impossible for the Arab League to drive an agenda. It is revealing that the ministers have indicated that ‘Arab solidarity’ is a priority for them. It would only be a priority if it were so threadbare.

Inside Syria

Fighting inside Syria continues with grave implications for its population. Gains by the Syrian Arab Army, the government’s force, and its proxies had been swift in the past few months. These forces seized Aleppo and opened a corridor all the way down to Damascus, as well as taking Palmyra from ISIS and other towns in southern Syria. An overstretched army, with little chance of revitalization from new recruits, left Damascus vulnerable. A motley group of rebels from the extremist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (which includes the al-Qaeda army) and the Faylaq al-Rahman forces dashed into parts of central Damascus. Heavy arms fire in central squares and along avenues of the city shocked residents, who had assumed that these parts of the city were not vulnerable to rebel advances.

Three explanations for this rapid advance have been put forward. First, that the Russians and Iranians as well as sections of the Syrian government are eager to get to Raqqa before the Turks and the United States. The deployment of forces in that region—and not in Damascus—left the city under threat. Nonetheless, the Syrian forces in the city rapidly beat back the rebels to their strongholds, such as in the enclave of Jobar and Eastern Ghouta. Second, that the Russians are eager for the Syrian government to make some kind of arrangement with the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, which Damascus is loathe to do. Somehow the Russians opened the door for this small advance to send a message to Assad that the political process needs to be taken seriously. Third, that the Gulf Arabs pushed their rebel proxies to strike inside Damascus before the Geneva V negotiations to show that they remain relevant on the ground. These are not mutually exclusive explanations, nor is one able to verify them fully. Intelligence services that spread these stories are less interested in what is happening than in how they want others to understand the events. It is a battle over narratives.

The Americans

It is reasonable to suggest that the Syrian civil war is effectively over. The battles will continue, but any real change in the balance of forces is not foreseeable. The war ended when Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States turned their backs on their various proxy armies inside Syria. Over-extension in Yemen, financial problems and failure of its proxy to make gains soured Saudi Arabia’s attempt to overthrow Assad. Turkey’s internal problems, its anxiety over Syrian Kurdish advances on its border and Turkish business interests with Russia pushed it to make a deal with the Iranians and the Russians. The United States, which had provided the most aggressive diplomatic push for the rebels, found it impossible to create a ‘moderate’ rebel army. The Russian entry into Syria in 2015 made a US ‘full spectrum domination’ strike on Syria impossible. Jordan closed its border, which made a southern rebel front impossible.

Without these external backers, the various rebel factions—including the extremist groups—can no longer hope to seize Damascus. This is why the High Negotiations Committee’s lead negotiator at the Geneva V talks—Mohammed Sabra—said, ‘There can be no real and viable political solution without the presence of the Americans.’ He did not, I believe, suggest that the Americans have to bomb Damascus. The full weight of reality has now swept through the political arm of the armed opposition. But what they would like is for the United States to push—once more—for their agenda:  namely, that Assad must resign and that the members of the Assad government must be tried for crimes against humanity.

Sabra, who is a lawyer, was a member of the opposition’s technical team for the 2014 Geneva talks. He is one of the leaders of the Syrian Republican Party, formed—it should be said—in 2014 in Istanbul with the encouragement and assistance of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party. The Muslim Brotherhood ties between the Turkish and Syrian parties are clear. That US President Donald Trump had considered a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood should send a message to Sabra of the impossibility of his position. He has few real allies in the White House.

Nonetheless, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations—Nikki Haley—made some sharp comments about Assad that echo Sabra. Assad is a ‘big hindrance in trying to move forward’, Haley said Wednesday. That sounded a great deal like the ‘Assad must go’ formula of the Obama administration. But then Haley stumbled—‘I’m not going back into should Assad be in or out. Been there, done that, right, in terms of what the US has done.’ This is not what Sabra and his friends would like: namely vacillation on Assad’s future role in Syria.

The Iranians

Curiously, Ambassador Haley said that the United States wants to make sure that ‘Syria can no longer be a safe haven for terrorists’ and that ‘we’ve got to get Iran and their proxies out.’ It demonstrates a distinct lack of strategic honestly to make such a statement, when the United States relies upon Iran to bolster the Iraqi army in its assault on Mosul. To link ‘Iran’ with ‘terrorism’ is an old Israeli trick, but one with little credibility when it comes to Iran’s actual operations on the ground.

Iran and Qatar have just conducted a deal to break terrible, intractable sieges on a number of Syrian towns. Iran has also been urging Assad and his government to stay at the negotiating table and to make real concessions to the opposition. Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani, who was in Moscow early this week, has urged the players to return to Astana (Kazakhstan) for another round of discussions after the Geneva V meetings ended inconclusively. The Syrian opposition initially came to Astana, but then refused to participate in those talks. But it was at Astana last year that the Syrian government and opposition agreed to a major ceasefire—brokered by Iran, Russia and Turkey—that remains the basis for the present ceasefire regime. UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura recently called on Iran, Russia and Turkey to ‘undertake urgent efforts’ to strengthen the ceasefire. These three countries have played an important role in trying to pressure the Syrian government and the opposition to hold their fire and to widen the safe zones already in existence in Syria. Haley’s statement is far from the reality of the situation in Syria.

The Arabs

The Arab League’s politics on Syria has become almost entirely symbolic. It refused—once more—to fly the Syrian flag in its row of flags. There will be clichéd discussions on the conflict, with words thrown about between those who remain rhetorically committed to Assad’s departure and those who insist that he is part of the process. Meanwhile, there will be no discussion about the plight of the actual Syrians.

Syrians who flee their country either go into refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon or else seek asylum in the West. Where are the Gulf Arabs and other rich Arab states? They have not offered to welcome the millions of Syrians who are bereft. In 2014, Amnesty International produced an important report—Let Out in the Cold—that pointed to the failure of the Arab states to welcome even one Syrian refugee. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are not signatories of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, so they are not legally obliged to follow international law for their migrants.

Those Syrians who do find their way to the GCC states enter the web of the kafala or sponsorship system, where the rights of the migrants are minimal. GCC countries prefer to provide funds to the UN and others so that the refugees remain outside their fortress. ‘Assad must go’ is an easier slogan for them to chant than ‘Syrian refugees are welcome here.’

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.


Trump’s Obscene War Machine

Trump’s Obscene War Machine

Reprinted with permission fromAlterNet.

A month into his presidency, Donald Trump announced that he would increase U.S. military spending by $54 billion. To do this, Trump said that he would cut the exact amount from the non-military, namely social, programs. The announcement came at the National Governor’s Association, which is made up of state leaders who have to bear the brunt of the federal cuts.

Money for homelessness, poverty, starvation, and drug addiction will dry up, leaving state authorities with the paralytic duty of watching more and more of their residents wake up to the American nightmare. This is the old ‘guns vs. butter’ scenario taught to young students in elementary economics classes. If economics is a matter of choices over scare resources, and if budgets are a way to project your values, then Trump has made his views clear – guns matter more than butter.

The ‘guns vs. butter’ problem is not idle. The National Priorities Project looked at the $54 billion budgetary increase to the military and concluded that this increase itself is more than the discretionary budgets of the following U.S. federal government agencies:

  • Department of Homeland Security ($48 billion)
  • Housing and Urban Development ($38 billion)
  • Department of Energy ($30 billion)
  • Department of Justice ($29 billion)
  • Department of State ($29 billion)
  • Environmental Protection Agency ($8 billion)

It is truly stunning to see the amount of public resources spent on the U.S. armed forces as compared to what it spends on diplomacy and even on homeland security. Trump has said he would cut programs such as the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to fund the increase. The total outlay for these three agencies is $781 million. It is the cost of ten MV-22 Ospreys, one of which – at the cost of $75 million – had to be destroyed during Trump’s ill-fated Yemen raid this January.

The United States already leads the world in military spending. At around $600 billion per year, which is half the U.S. discretionary budget, the United States spends more than the combined military budgets of the next seven countries. That means if you add the total military spending for China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan, then you are still a few billion dollars short of the U.S. military budget. It is appropriate to mention that Trump’s increase in the military budget – by $54 billion – is itself eighty per cent of the total Russian military budget.

The scale of military spending is beyond obscene. Each Tomahawk Cruise Missile that the U.S. sends into Syria or Iraq costs $1.41 million. The cost of the U.S. bombing in Syria from August 2014 to January 2017 has been $11.4 billion – with an average daily cost of $12.7 million. More money has been spent bombing Iraq and Syria than is spent for environmental protection. No other country comes close in terms of expenditure on the military, in terms of the hardware available to the military and in terms of the global reach of the military as a result of aircraft carriers and overseas bases. There is no question that the United States military is the most destructive force on the earth.

We Never Win a War

But of course having the most deadly military does not mean that you can win wars. Wistfully Trump told the governors that in his youth the United States used to win wars.

“When I was young, in high school and in college, everybody used to say we never lost a war. America never lost,” whispered Trump. “Now,” he said mournfully, “we never win a war.”

Trump’s sense of history is very poor. But it is of a piece with his general ideology – to Make America Great Again. It was once great. It is no longer great. But was America really able to once win wars?

Born in 1946, Trump was in high school when the war on the Korean peninsula went into a stalemate. The United States did not win that war. The armistice of 1953 merely divided the country. There is still no final peace settlement. In fact, the war is technically ongoing. There are 83 American bases in South Korea, and the bill for these installations is over $1 billion per year (South Korea pays an additional $867 million, about forty per cent of the cost).

When Trump was in college, the United States entered Vietnam, where it would leave in ignominy in 1975. No real wars have been won by the United States in Trump’s lifetime. Even World War II was not won solely by the United States. The Soviet Union’s immense sacrifices on the eastern front and the colonial troops valiant battle across North Africa, South-East Asia, and Europe should not be underestimated. The ‘Greatest Generation’ is not only American. That is a grotesquely narrow view of World War II. Trump is right, however, that the United States does not win wars – neither in Afghanistan nor in Iraq.

Trump believes that the United States has not won the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq because of a lack of funding for the military and because of too many human rights restrictions on the nature of combat. But perhaps the American problem in combat has got nothing to do with money or rules – for, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. far outspent its opposition and it did not follow international norms of war or its own Army Code of Conduct. Massive aerial superiority combined with regimes of torture and night-raids did not win any of these wars.

What Trump does not acknowledge is that wars are not won by firepower and brutality alone, but they are won by being able to make a moral claim against an adversary. Thus far, the United States has fought wars of conquest and occupation – where the moral superiority of the occupier is impossible to establish. It was so hard that in 2002 even a U.S. marine told me that he sympathized with the Afghans – “if someone invades my city,” he said, “I’d take up arms and fight a guerrilla war.” The illegitimacy of the wars is not something that occurs to people like Trump. You will win battles with better weaponry, but you won’t win wars that way. Wars are won on the moral plane, not on the battlefield.

As the U.N. resolution on decolonization noted in 1960, “The process of liberation is irresistible and irreversible.” You can have the best guns, but you can’t destroy the human longing for freedom.

Strikingly, it does not occur to the liberals either. During his speech to Congress, Trump singled out Carryn Owens, the widow of U.S. Navy Special Operator Ryan Owens, who died in Trump’s Yemen raid in the village of Yakla. After the speech, Van Jones, CNN analyst and a former Special Advisor to Barack Obama, said, “That was one of the most extraordinary moments in American politics. Period.” There was no room for Jones to mention the illegitimacy of the US role in Yemen. The U.S. provides arms to the Saudis who are bombing one side of the conflict in Yemen. The Saudis are also effectively using al-Qaeda fighters in parts of Yemen as their ground forces. At the same time as the US is indirectly supporting al-Qaeda via Saudi Arabia, it conducts a raid into a village in late January and massacres dozens of civilians (for more context, see my column from February 8).

Yemen’s foreign minister – Abdul Malik al-Mekhlafi – of the Saudi (and U.S.) backed Yemeni government condemned the U.S. attack on Yakla as “extrajudicial killings.” There was no mention by establishment liberals such as Van Jones of the illegal nature of the raid. Nor did he demand a “Benghazi-scale” investigation of the Yakla raid. Nor did he condemn the way Trump used the death of Ryan Owen to bolster his desire to increase military spending. None of that was on offer. Establishment liberals are as complicit as the Trump administration in such atrocities as the killing of civilians and the inhumane expenditure on military hardware rather than social goods.

The “military industrial complex” has metastasized into each section of the U.S. government, into each Congressional district. It is like Stage 4 cancer – rigid to the bones of American institutions. The obscenity of it cannot be questioned because of the fog of patriotism. To be a patriot is measured not based on your commitment to end hunger and illiteracy amongst your people. Rather it is measured based on your commitment to give your people a gun in their hands and to make sure your military is funded beyond imagination. Countries are hollowed out by such poor distribution of their resources and by imperial wars that can never be won.

Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

IMAGE: Georgian servicemen attend an opening ceremony of U.S. led joint military exercise “Noble Partner 2016” in Vaziani, Georgia, May 11, 2016. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

What It Feels Like To Be Targeted By Trump’s Muslim Ban

What It Feels Like To Be Targeted By Trump’s Muslim Ban

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

Nothing is like the tension of a passport that is hated—this one from Syria. Inside the passport is a sticker from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In bureaucratic language, it says, welcome to the United States. Everything about it suggests finality. The colors, the texture, the expensive look of this little instrument of statecraft. How much effort it takes to get this sticker! How many forms to be filled out, how many interviews, how many questions.

Your country vanishes before your eyes, its cities crumble before the horrid energy of armaments. Your modest expectations dissolve. You were a geologist, a respectable but ordinary job. You worked for the oil industry. You have few politics. You wanted a decent life. You are a good man.

You stand in line, waiting. The official in Istanbul airport says, sorry. The Americans don’t want you anymore. They hate your passport.

You step aside. You weep. Your wife is in America. She received asylum last year. Your son is there. He is two years old. They live in Long Beach, California. You wonder, why is it called Long Beach? Does it have a long beach? Or is Long the name of a distinguished person? These are the kinds of thoughts you have. You don’t want to think of anything else. You want to hide inside a tunnel, your emotions bottled up, dissolving your hopes like acid on chalk.

Your name is Nael Ziano. You have a DHS stamp in your passport. Today is January 29. You did not know that U.S. President Donald Trump would sign an executive order that would dig a deep moat between your desires to see your family and their longing to have you with them. A Turkish television crew catches your tears. You are not ashamed to cry. You have spent the past few years in Gaziantep, Turkey, working with other Syrian refugees for the International Organization of Migration. You were their lifeline. Now you are your own.

Courts from Brooklyn to Boston offer rulings on the executive order. These are haphazard decisions. Some agree with the president. Others disagree. There is no harmony. No one knows what this means. Everyone is confused. U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security have no clear guidelines. There are seven countries on the list. Your dismembered, bleeding country is there too. Your passport is hated. The moat gets deeper.

You met your wife at the University of Damascus. She studied chemistry. You loved rocks. And you loved cars. Anything with wheels. Anything that moves. It is a funny thing, to like rocks—which move so slowly—and cars, which move so much faster. But now, at Istanbul airport, you want to move. But you are stuck. The pace is glacial. Your son loves cars, too. He likes to play with buses and cars. He wants you to be in a car. He wants to show you the rocks he has found in Long Beach.

Protests at American airports gives you hope. You see people, thousands of them, shouting, “Let them in.” You realize that you are one of “them.” They want you to come in. You want to hug your family. They want you to hug your family. Your friends, like blind mice, rush here and there to get someone to take your case seriously. “Let them in,” but “them” is made of many—students from Iran, mothers from Iraq, a doctor from Libya, a geologist from Syria. Ibtisam Mahmoo Hussein (Iraqi), who lives in Oman, cannot visit her 91-year-old mother in a Las Vegas hospital. Samira Asgari (Iran) cannot take up her postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School. A hundred thousand visas were dissolved in Trump’s whims.

Your friends find the last human beings in the U.S. political system. They listen carefully. They see that there is real injustice here. You went through the legal channels, faced all the vetting and then—because of time—fell into a trench. You were reduced to your passport, and since it is hated, you were hated. One U.S. agency confounds another. This is chaos. Trump is not draining the swamp, he is muddying the waters.

You try to board this flight and then that. Turkish Airlines to Los Angeles and Lufthansa to Boston. But nothing works. You are trapped. Your home is with your family. You want to drive to them. You want the borders to dissolve and the seas to part. But you are too tired for that. Moses had god on his side. You have your friends. But they are not god.

The media calls. Journalists speak with great sympathy. They can feel your authentic pain. You are not pretending. But the media cannot part the sea. They are also tired. In all the chaos of the Trump days, they are disoriented. They can only report things in bursts. This happened. Then this happened. Then that happened. People are tired. Before they can discuss the first outrage, three more have happened. They will forget you soon. You are getting smaller and smaller. It is exhaustion, surely, but also amnesia. No one will make a film about your tragedy.

Your name is Nael Ziano. You were born in 1984. You have a Syrian passport. It has a stamp from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. You want to live with your wife and son in Long Beach, California. You have simple desires. But there is a moat that divides you. You have so little strength.

Suddenly, a federal judge offers a verdict. This judge, James Robart, had volunteered for refugees before he sat on the bench. Community service does deepen compassion. Trump maligns him on Twitter. The judge does not care. He does not answer to the president. Your flight leaves in half an hour. You have already been told you cannot board. You are distraught.

The U.S. border patrol tells the airlines to let you board. You board. It is unimaginable. The plane flies over the Mediterranean Sea. You look down. You see a speck in the water. You wonder if it is a dinghy. Already this year about 300 migrants, fleeing war and starvation, have died in those waters. Last year, 5,000 people—people like you—perished there.

Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

IMAGE: Nael Zaino with his sister-in-law Katty al-Hayak at Boston Logan, seconds after he appeared from Customs and Border Protection. Photo by Anais Surkin.