Must-Reads on the Middle East
Three books present different views on Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.
The East Bay has a strong culture of political resistance. We take pride in our history of opposing U.S. military interventions, from Vietnam to the Middle East. In January, some 100,000 people marched against Trump in Oakland.
Now that we have President Donald Trump—I still have trouble writing those words— it’s all the more important to educate ourselves about countries where the United States is fighting aggressive wars.
I’ve reported from the Middle East since 1986, including six trips to Syria, seven to Iran, and six to Iraq. People often ask me, “What the hell is going on over there?”
These books on the Middle East represent different views on a complicated but vital topic.
Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in the Syrian Kurdistan by Michael Knapp, Ercan Ayboga, and Anja Flach (Pluto Press, 2016)
Revolution in Rojava provides a comprehensive analysis of the uprising in the Kurdish region in northern Syria. The Democratic Union Party, or PYD, an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, in Turkey, has established an autonomous government, which sides neither with Assad nor the Arab rebel groups. The book authors are strong supporters of the PYD.
The PYD has established local governing councils and militias in a region stretching along Syria’s border with Turkey. The councils include Kurds, Arabs, Christians, Yazidis, and other ethnic/religious minorities. They seek to have women hold at least 40 percent of leadership positions and participate in an all-women’s militia.
In a region dominated by right-wing political Islam groups and corrupt dictators, the Rojava experiment offers a secular, leftist alternative.
Revolution in Rojava does an excellent job in explaining the ideology of the PYD as developed by jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. The local councils elect representatives to various higher councils, which in turn govern the entire region. They seek to minimize ethnic/religious conflict by guaranteeing representation to various constituencies.
The revolutionaries operate in wartime conditions fighting off attacks from the Islamic State, Assad’s military, and an invading force from Turkey. Nevertheless, the book offers far too rosy a picture. The PYD tolerates no real opposition from other Kurdish parties and promotes cult worship of Ocalan.
The PYD has also allied with the U.S. military, receiving arms and supplies from the Pentagon. It remains to be seen if that is a tactical alliance driven by wartime necessity or a long-term strategy that will ally the Kurds with U.S. imperialism.
Revolution in Rojava is written in a semi-academic style and can be a tough read. You may get lost in the seemingly endless list of councils and organizations. But the book provides excellent background information about this important but little understood struggle.
Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq by Sarah Glidden (Drawn and Quarterly 2016)
In Rolling Blackouts, author and artist Sarah Glidden applies graphic novel skills to explanatory journalism. The book contains hundreds of cartoon frames depicting her visits to Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. The content of the graphics are written like a first-person magazine article, interweaving interviews with salient historical facts about the region.
Glidden uses a seemingly simple structure. She follows two freelance reporters from Seattle as they interview officials and ordinary people. Glidden records the interviews to create the cartoon captions. The result is a compelling and readable account of the very complicated politics of those countries.
For example, Glidden tells the story of an Iraqi Kurd accused of ties to terrorists who was deported from the United States while his wife and children stayed in Seattle. Glidden presents the case against him based on court documents. Then we meet the man himself to get his side of the story. It’s right out of the radio show This American Life but in muted color drawings.
The graphic format of the book and Glidden’s compelling storytelling make this book particularly appropriate for people unfamiliar with the region’s politics and culture.
Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant by Emile Hokayem (Routledge, 2013)
Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant is important for those who want to understand the military interventionist viewpoint. Emile Hokayem is a senior fellow for regional security at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, a major Washington, D.C. think tank. His beltway perspective provides the book’s insights as well its major failings.
Hokayem effectively debunks some popular myths about the Syrian civil war—for example, that the United States and Israel instigated the uprising against Assad. Israel considered Assad a reliable and stable force in the region, keeping the Israeli-Syrian border free of conflict despite the 44-year dispute over Israel’s seizing of Syria’s Golan. The Obama administration only called for Assad’s overthrow in the middle of 2011, months after the uprising began.
Hokayem also shows that the civil war is being fought for political and economic power, not religion. Some Western analysts and journalists have incorrectly characterized Syria as an example of a supposed age-old war between Sunni and Shia. Hokayem writes: “Syria’s current uprising initially appeared rooted in dissatisfaction that was not primarily religious in character and driven by elements of society that did not identify primarily or solely by sect.”
Hokayem, however, accepts the parameters of the Washington debate on Syria: The United States must intervene militarily on some level to bring peace, stability, and democracy to the region. The differences revolve around tactics: arm and train pro-Western rebels or engage in direct military action such as no-fly zones, safe zones, and increased use of U.S. combat troops.
For Hokayem, the concept that the United States should not intervene at all never emerges as a serious alternative. Writing about the Syrian opposition, he admits that “a sizeable segment [of Syrians] disapproved on principle of any Western action, fearing it would taint and undermine their struggle. . . .” But he quickly moves on to discuss the arguments for creating a no-fly zone.
In later writings, Hokayem makes his pro-hawk views explicit. In a Foreign Policy article, he supports the Western military attack on Libya while denouncing Obama’s Syria policies as bankrupt, because he dithered and sold out Syrian rebels. He even criticizes UN, U.S., and Russian diplomatic efforts to forge a peace settlement.
As long as decision-makers and analysts such as Hokayem are formulating policy based on military intervention, turmoil will continue in the region. While nonintervention and robust diplomacy seeking political solutions may sound naïve in Washington’s corridors of power, they are far better than the current policies of perpetual war.
This report appears in the March edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.
Published online on March 10, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.