As Syria’s Revolution Sputters, a Chaotic Stalemate

 TORN BY WAR The view from a mosque in Homs, Syria, that has served as a rallying point for insurgents.  Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
TORN BY WAR The view from a mosque in Homs, Syria, that has served as a rallying point for insurgents. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

By Anne Barnard in The New York Times

ANTAKYA, Turkey — It was a victory that President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents had dreamed of: Insurgents seized a key army base in northern Syria after more than a year of trying. But the mood in this Turkish border town, flooded with Syrians who have fled both government bombings and extremist insurgents, was more bitter than celebratory.

The assault this month was led by the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s arm in Syria, which claimed the spoils. By contrast, many of the first Syrians to rise up against Mr. Assad in 2011 — civilian demonstrators and army defectors alike — followed the battle from the sidelines here, unable to enter Syria under threat of death from the extremists of Nusra and its rival group, the Islamic State.

As Syria’s war heads toward its fourth year, the complex battleground is increasingly divided between the government and the extremists, leaving many Syrians feeling that the revolution on which they gambled their lives and livelihoods has failed.

Different insurgent groups battle one another, even as they fight against Mr. Assad’s forces and his allies, foreign Shiite militias. A chaotic stalemate reigns in a war that has killed more than 200,000 people and wounded one million.

In northern and eastern Syria, where Mr. Assad’s opponents won early victories and once dreamed of building self-government, the nationalist rebel groups calling themselves the Free Syrian Army are forced to operate under the extremists’ umbrellas, to go underground or to flee, according to Syrian insurgents, activists and two top commanders of the American-financed F.S.A. groups.

Read more at The New York Times

Why Merav Michaeli Is Upbeat About the Israeli Left

 Photograph via flickr
Photograph via flickr

Merav Michaeli, the Israeli journalist and women’s rights activist-turned-Knesset member for the Labor Party, is a sign of hope for a progressive future in Israel. Last Tuesday, she tried to convince an exclusive crowd of worried Jewish leftists gathered in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that there was hope for the upcoming elections and for the future of a democratic Israel. The talk was sponsored by the progressive Zionist organization Ameinu, and also included journalists, professors, high-ranking members of the New Israel Fund and Encounter, along with representatives from Hillel, Habonim Dror, and others. What followed was a passionate, sometimes heated, and surprisingly optimistic discussion of the future of the Jewish State and the role American Jews can play.

*The first question asked was about the nationality bill, the controversial proposed law to officially declare Israel the “Nation-State of the Jewish People.” This question proved an easy one—since there is no Knesset, there will be no nationality bill. When there is a new Knesset, its makeup will likely be so different that it won’t even be proposed again.

*On the coming elections slated for March 17: Though the mood in the room suggested I was not alone in hearing virtually nothing but terrifying predictions of a rout by the right and another term for Netanyahu, if not a first term for the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home Party’s Naftali Bennett, she was hopeful. For the first time in a long time, she said, there was actually a good chance a center-left coalition headed by her Labor Party will take power, meaning Labor leader Isaac Herzog and not Bibi Netanyahu would be Prime Minister. “The feeling towards Netanyahu right now, there is so much grudge and hatred, people are sick of him. His approval ratings are very, very low,” she said.

To capitalize on this, Labor is busy forming a center-left bloc of parties that will include the recently-fired former justice minister Tzipi Livni and former defense secretary and chief of staff Shaul Mofaz to give Herzog an additional vote of confidence among the public. Though the political climate in Israel is notoriously quick to change, polls show that if the election were held today, this coalition would win the majority of votes. The goal, she said, is to create, “One address for people who want to restore a more democratic Israel, one that works towards narrowing gaps in society.”

Read more at The Jewish Daily Forward

Brave New Turkey

Gobierno de Chile [CC BY 3.0 cl (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/cl/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey Gobierno de Chile [CC BY 3.0 cl], via Wikimedia Commons

By Andrew Finkel in The New York Times

ISTANBUL — Freedom House, the democracy watchdog, earlier this year downgraded the Turkish press from being “partly free” to “not free.” Now it may have to create a new category: “not free at all.”

On Sunday, Dec. 14, Turkish police raided the headquarters of Zaman, the country’s most widely circulated daily, and a major television station, taking into custody at least 24 people, including the paper’s editor-in-chief and the station’s director. (The editor has since been released.) They were detained on suspicions of “establishing a terrorist group.” But the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said the raids smacked “of political vengeance.”

A decade ago Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Turkey’s prime minister, was the most likely candidate to lead the Islamic world. He had managed to keep Turkey out of the 2003 Iraq War, was grooming it for membership in the European Union, and was getting on with economic reform. Ordinary Turks were feeling prosperous, proud and hopeful. So why is the Turkish government now going off the rails when it has been perfectly popular doing the right things?

Today Mr. Erdogan is the president, and his style is in-your-face confrontational. He is revered by enough people to get his party re-elected, but many others loathe him (remember the protests in Gezi Park?), and some of his eccentricities have made him a favorite of headline writers. Like a potentate of some Sacha Baron Cohen parody, he has had a presidential palace with over a thousand rooms built for himself. No one knows how much it cost: The government agency responsible for the construction says the sum is a state secret because its disclosure would damage the economy.

Read more at The New York Times

George Stinney’s Conviction Tossed Out … 70 Years After Execution

 George Stinney in 1944. Credit SC Department of Archives and History, via Associated Press
George Stinney in 1944. Credit SC Department of Archives and History, via Associated Press

By Jesse Wegman in The New York Times

Seventy years after he was executed in South Carolina, George Stinney’s conviction was vacated by a state judge Wednesday on the grounds that he had not received a fair trial.

Stinney, a 14-year-old black boy, was arrested in March 1944 for the murder of two white girls in Clarendon County, S.C. In less than three months, he was tried, convicted and put to death.

He was the youngest person to be executed in the U.S. in the 20th century. Reports from the execution chamber said he was so small that the jolt of electricity knocked the mask from his face.

In a 28-page order, Judge Carmen T. Mullen — who heard testimony on the case in January — did not rule on the merits of the murder charges against Stinney, but found that there were “fundamental, constitutional violations of due process” across the board.

Indeed, nothing about Stinney’s case came close to meeting basic constitutional requirements.

He was arrested without a warrant and questioned without a lawyer.

The lawyer eventually appointed to defend him was a tax commissioner who had never before represented a criminal defendant.

The only evidence against him was the word of the local police chief who said he had confessed.

Stinney’s entire capital trial lasted three hours. His lawyer neither cross-examined the prosecution’s witnesses nor called any witnesses for the defense.

The jury — all white in a county that was almost three-quarters black — convicted and condemned him in 10 minutes. There were no appeals.

Read more at The New York Times

The Eric Garner case’s sickening outcome

 Pallbearers carry the casket of Eric Garner at Bethel Baptist Church following his funeral service, Wednesday, July 23, 2014, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (John Minchillo/AP)
Pallbearers carry the casket of Eric Garner at Bethel Baptist Church following his funeral service, Wednesday, July 23, 2014, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (John Minchillo/AP)

Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post

I can’t breathe.

Those were Eric Garner’s last words, and today they apply to me. The decision by a Staten Island grand jury to not indict the police officer who killed him takes my breath away.

In the depressing reality series that should be called “No Country for Black Men,” this sick plot twist was shocking beyond belief. There should have been an indictment in the Ferguson case, in my view, but at least the events that led to Michael Brown’s killing were in dispute. Garner’s homicide was captured on video. We saw him being choked, heard him plead of his distress, watched as no attempt was made to revive him and his life slipped away.

This time, there were literally millions of eyewitnesses. Somebody tell me, just theoretically, how many does it take? Is there any number that would suffice? Or is this whole “equal justice before the law” thing just a cruel joke?

African American men are being taught a lesson about how this society values, or devalues, our lives. I’ve always said the notion that racism is a thing of the past was absurd — and that those who espoused the “post-racial” myth were either naive or disingenuous. Now, tragically, you see why.

Garner, 43, was an African American man. On July 17, he allegedly committed the heinous crime of selling individual cigarettes on the street. A group of New York City police officers approached and surrounded him. As seen in cellphone video footage recorded by an onlooker, Garner was puzzled that the officers seemed to be taking him into custody for such a piddling offense. He was a big man, but at no point did he strike out at the officers or show them disrespect.

Read more at The Washington Post

The Laws That Killed Eric Garner

From Ferguson to Staten Island, America’s Failure of Justice

No Justice, No Peace: Demonstrators protest a grand jury’s decision not to indict a New York police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.
No Justice, No Peace: Demonstrators protest a grand jury’s decision not to indict a New York police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.

By Jay Michaelson in The Jewish Daily Forward

My hands are quaking with rage right now, but I will choose to write rationally. I can’t believe this has happened again, and happened here, in my own backyard.

“This” being a grand jury failing even to indict a white police officer for killing an unarmed black man. Not even a trial. Not even a public hearing of the evidence.

And this time with a video of the entire incident, which is your moral responsibility to watch.

But I fear that my own city is soon to be engulfed in violence, and the violent people are right. So for that reason, I will try, if I can, to take refuge in reason, and in law.

It’s true that the forces that killed Eric Garner include white supremacy, racism, anger, violence, fear, a broken criminal justice system, a broken healthcare system, and ignorance. And yet another overreacting white police officer.

But I want to focus on law, because it’s something we can do something about. Right after the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, after all, the Bible famously goes into a thousand tiny details of mishpatim, laws. By detailing everything from rules of evidence to the damages for a stolen lamb, the book of Exodus makes a strong claim: that the lofty moral imperatives of Sinai only have meaning if they are translated into just laws. The God is in the details.

American law, however, helped kill Eric Garner – and it will kill more black men like him in the future. Specifically, there is a lethal nexus between judicial deference to police officers on the one hand, and the expansion of police power on the other. Each alone is problematic, but together, they make justice nearly impossible.

Read more at The Jewish Daily Forward