2013: My Books

Unless I do some pretty quick reading over the next two days, I think I’m able to compile a complete list of the books I’ve read over the last year!  I’ve managed to extend my record of 38 books last year to 41!  I’ve also increasingly branched into reading non-fiction, largely around historical or political topics though also some science as well, but I’m making sure to keep up the fiction as well.  Like last year, I’ve compiled the books into two lists: in order by date read and my enjoyment of them.  I’m beginning to wonder whether it might be better to have two separate lists for the fiction and non-fiction, as it’s so difficult to compare the two forms.  I’ll bear that in mind for 2014.  For now, here they are:

Order Read

  1. Twilight (2005) – Stephenie Meyer
  2. New Moon (2006) – Stephenie Meyer
  3. Eclipse (2007) – Stephenie Meyer
  4. The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era (2012) – Liu Noueihed and Alex Warren
  5. Breaking Dawn (2008) – Stephenie Meyer
  6. American Gods (2001) – Neil Gaiman
  7. Brave New World [re-read] (1932) – Aldous Huxley
  8. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (2011) – Owen Jones
  9. Cloud Atlas (2004) – David Mitchell
  10. The Bridge (1986) – Iain Banks
  11. Teach Yourself Islam (2003) – Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood
  12. Heart of Darkness (1902) – Joseph Conrad
  13. Death on a Longship – Marsali Taylor (2012)
  14. The Great Powers 1814 – 1914 (1992) – Eric Wilmot
  15. Romeo and Juliet (1597) – William Shakespeare
  16. Doctor Who: The Witch Hunters (1998) – Steve Lyons
  17. The Thief of Time (2000) – John Boyne
  18. Gaia: A New Look At Life on Earth (1979) – James Lovelock
  19. Fight Club (1996) – Chuck Palahniuk
  20. Battle Royale (2000-2005) – Koushun Takami
  21. Hamlet (1603) – William Shakespeare
  22. Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) – George Orwell
  23. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) – Mark Haddon
  24. Consider Phlebas (1987) – Iain Banks
  25. Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky (2009) – Bertrand M. Patenaude
  26. Paradise Lost (1667) – John Milton
  27. The Great Gatsby (1925) – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  28. The Turn of the Screw (1898) – Henry James
  29. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) – Muriel Spark
  30. Oliver Cromwell (1991) – Barry Coward
  31. The Decline of the English Murder and other Essays (1965) – George Orwell
  32. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) – James Hogg
  33. Waiting For Godot (1953) – Samuel Beckett
  34. Cloud 9 (1979) – Caryl Churchill
  35. The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) – Oscar Wilde
  36. Richard III (1592) – William Shakespeare
  37. Ishi’s Brain: In Search of the Last “Wild” Indian (2004) – Orin Starn
  38. Pride and Prejudice (1813) – Jane Austen
  39. The Wasp Factory (1984) – Iain Banks
  40. The Casual Vacancy (2012) [re-read] – J. K. Rowling
  41. Road to Referendum (2013) – Iain Macwhirter

Order of Enjoyment

  1. Cloud Atlas (2004) – David Mitchell
  2. Brave New World [re-read] (1932) – Aldous Huxley
  3. The Bridge (1986) – Iain Banks
  4. The Casual Vacancy (2012) [re-read] – J. K. Rowling
  5. Road to Referendum (2013) – Iain Macwhirter
  6. The Great Powers 1814 – 1914 (1992) – Eric Wilmot
  7. The Great Gatsby (1925) – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  8. Consider Phlebas (1987) – Iain Banks
  9. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) – James Hogg
  10. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) – Mark Haddon
  11. Pride and Prejudice (1813) – Jane Austen
  12. Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) – George Orwell
  13. Death on a Longship – Marsali Taylor (2012)
  14. Doctor Who: The Witch Hunters (1998) – Steve Lyons
  15. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) – Muriel Spark
  16. The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era (2012) – Liu Noueihed and Alex Warren
  17. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (2011) – Owen Jones
  18. Waiting For Godot (1953) – Samuel Beckett
  19. Gaia: A New Look At Life on Earth (1979) – James Lovelock
  20. The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) – Oscar Wilde
  21. The Wasp Factory (1984) – Iain Banks
  22. Ishi’s Brain: In Search of the Last “Wild” Indian (2004) – Orin Starn
  23. The Decline of the English Murder and other Essays (1965) – George Orwell
  24. Battle Royale (2000-2005) – Koushun Takami
  25. Cloud 9 (1979) – Caryl Churchill
  26. Oliver Cromwell (1991) – Barry Coward
  27. Hamlet (1603) – William Shakespeare
  28. Richard III (1592) – William Shakespeare
  29. Teach Yourself Islam (2003) – Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood
  30. Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky (2009) – Bertrand M. Patenaude
  31. American Gods (2001) – Neil Gaiman
  32. Paradise Lost (1667) – John Milton
  33. Heart of Darkness (1902) – Joseph Conrad
  34. The Turn of the Screw (1898) – Henry James
  35. Romeo and Juliet (1597) – William Shakespeare
  36. Twilight (2005) – Stephenie Meyer
  37. The Thief of Time (2000) – John Boyne
  38. Breaking Dawn (2008) – Stephenie Meyer
  39. New Moon (2006) – Stephenie Meyer
  40. Eclipse (2007) – Stephenie Meyer
  41. Fight Club (1996) – Chuck Palahniuk
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2013: Qatari Emir Abdicates Throne

A bit late on this, but it’s a story which will fall under the radar despite being hugely significant so I thought I’d better mention it.  Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani* of Qatar has handed over power to his 33 year old son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.  Knowing little about Qatar, most of my information is what I’ve read from other journalists – but I’ll try to summarise why this is such an important development.

Firstly, you need to examine the context this occurs in.  The region is recovering (well, with some exceptions) from the greatest political and social upheaval since achieving independence from European colonialism.  Since 2011 four Arab dictators have been forced from power – Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Gadaffi and Yemen’s Saleh – in generally violent circumstances.  This is a region in which leaders tend to grip onto power for as long as possible, where virtually every leader leaves office either through their own natural death, a coup or an uprising.  The peaceful transfer or rotation of power is rare.  Which is one reason why this story is so surprising.

Why did he make such a decision?  I’m not sure anyone really knows, yet.  Is it an attempt to quell potential discontent by presenting a younger, more in touch leader – one who it will take time for the populace to become disillusioned with?  Does he feel he could achieve more behind the scenes?  Is he simply tired?  I have no idea.  Marc Lynch discussed the issue well in this article.  But what I think is more significant is the potential impact this could have, not just upon Qatar but the region as a whole.  Qatar has played an outspoken role in supporting uprisings in Libya and Syria – it currently reportedly supplies weapons to Islamists fighting the government in Syria.  Qatar has also played a role in helping Egypt with its continuing economic crises.  The Arab Spring can therefore be seen as having been an opportunity for the small country to become a big player in the region.  While most analysts think foreign policy will remain consistent for the short term, Sheikh Tamim could take Qatar’s influence in many different directions.

Another question is whether the perhaps inevitable political liberalisation might occur under this younger leadership.  Freedomhouse’s Freedom in The World 2013 report awarded Qatar a political rating of 6/7 and a social rating of 5/7, giving it the overall rating of 5.5 and grade of ‘not free’.  While a very bad rating, this does actually make Qatar one of the freer countries in the region; Iraq, Iran the United Arab Emirates and Yemen rate 6/7,  while Saudi Arabia and Syria rate the rock-bottom score of 7/7.  It’s not an impossibility that Qatar’s regime may decide upon a slow process of liberalisation.  Since 2006 there have been plans to hold the country’s first legislative elections and while this hasn’t yet happened – and while this body would have few real legislative powers – it would be a start.

Basically, I know nothing.  Except the fact that anything could happen.

*Still working on memorising that.

Economic Depression and Authoritarianism (Musing)

Just been musing, as one does, on the current trend in the world towards authoritarianism.  Of instability and the rise of the far-right in Europe, of defeats for freedom in Russia, Egypt, Syria, Mali, Iran, and increasing authoritarianism in countries like Venezuela, Ukraine, Turkey. I don’t know, perhaps reading this article* has just left me particularly gloomy, but there seems a tough fight ahead for democracy around the country.  I vaguely wrote about this earlier this year.  And I was wondering – this is just me musing – how much of a link there could be between economic depression and increasing authoritarianism in countries. I think there is an undeniable link between economic problems and a growth in right-wing movements, as cultural tensions increase and immigration becomes more unpopular.  But is there a link with the behaviour of the governments which are actually in power?

If we look at history, the best example would be the Great Depression in the early 1930s.  I’ve only studied Germany in great detail, but I know that the economic crisis Germany faced was a significant, if not the major reason the Nazis came into power.  They were able to exploit distrust in official establishments, offer a solution, offer hope.  Of course other factors were also important, and perhaps crucial, such as the aftermath of the First World War, Germany’s newness to democracy, etc.  However, I would presume that the growth of fascism elsewhere was also at least partly linked to the Great Depression.

If we assume that there is a link between economic depression and authoritarianism – or even just say that democracy struggles in these conditions – then we can at least agree that the impact now is less than in the 1930s.  I often remind myself of this if the world ever seems particularly hopeless – it was even worse back then, but we got through it.

Another significant reason there’s been an increase of authoritarianism that’s worth noting, in my view, is the aftermath of the Arab Spring.  Dictatorships around the world have released how real and present a threat their own people pose to them and have consequently taken action to further oppress their people.  Davies’ J Curve suggest that the most stable states are either democratic or totalitarian, so these dictatorships have taken the route of further oppression to stay in power.  This does not mean that democracy is weakening but that it is growing strong enough to absolutely terrify the few remaining dictators.  Of course, the Arab Spring was arguably a result of economic stagnation across the Middle East and North Africa, so there could be another link with economic depression.

As I said, these are just musings – I’m sure there are probably quite a few flaws in my arguments.

*That article really makes you loath Putin, doesn’t it?

The Syrian Civil War: Two Years On

Arab SpringTwo years ago today, on the 15th March 2011, small-scale protests were held in the southern city of Daraa in Syria in response to the imprisonment and torture of young students for writing anti-government graffiti.  A small event in a small city which in normal circumstances would be insignificant, but, by this point, two Arab dictators had been swept from power by popular protests in Egypt and Tunisia, unrest was brewing in Yemen and Bahrain, and a civil war had broken out in Libya.  This was part of the Arab Spring revolutionary wave, a new generation’s chance to claim freedom in a region infamous for brutal dictatorships and human rights abuses; a revolution which Syria’s government, headed by President Bashar al-Assad, was determined to prevent affecting his own country.

He failed.  As any thinking person could have perceived simply from the events of the last few months: oppression does not stop a popular uprising.  Perhaps Assad had hoped for a repeat of the Hama Massacre of 1982, an undocumented brutality by the Syrian regime which quelled an Islamic protest in the city of Hama, estimated to have killed tens of thousands.  In this age of the internet and mass communications truths cannot be hidden, and within days the protests had spread across the country.  The government responded, predictably, with bullets.  The protesters responded, predictably, with bullets of their own.

Syrian War Today

A crude war map of the current situation, taken from Wikipedia. Green represents government-held cities, brown those by the opposition and blue where the situation is unclear.

Two years on, what began as a peaceful protest has erupted into a full scale civil war, estimated to have claimed the lives of over 70,000 people and caused over 1 million Syrians to flee the country, in addition to 2 million who are internally displaced.  The country’s population was no more than 21 million before the war.  Unlike in Libya, where NATO had a UN mandate to intervene which brought about the downfall of Colonel Gaddafi, the international community has not become involved.  This is largely due to divisions: the West would like to see the Assad regime fall, partly because of humanitarian reasons but also due to his alliance with Iran.  However they are reluctant to do anything which could cause the situation to become anymore unstable; the horrific ethnic violence which resulted from the Iraq war is still fresh in recent memory.  A ‘Friends of Syria’ group has given the opposition political support; words and little else.  Only Qatar and Saudi Arabia are openly arming the opposition, and I highly doubt they are doing so in the name of democracy.  Furthermore, Russia and China both have strategic interests in Syria and have thus far refused attempts to take action against the Syrian government.  Their roles as permanent members on the UN Security Council has meant no resolutions against the regime can be adopted.

There is, however, a sign things are changing.  Recently both Prime Minister Cameron of the UK and President Hollande of France have suggested the possibility of arming the Syrian opposition – even if it means going against an EU arms sanction.  I can appreciate the dangers of such action, that it could cause more suffering and deaths, and that the weapons could fall into the arms of Islamic extremists.  My own personal belief is that both these things will happen anyway; the longer the stalemate goes on, the more people will die, and an Islamic group called the Al-Nusra Front has assumed massive influence in opposition-held parts of Syria – the Syrian people, abandoned by the world, have understandably turned to such groups.  The Assad regime is finished – of that there is no doubt.  Arming the rebels will bring the inevitable end to the war closer, in the long run resulting in fewer deaths and preventing Islamist groups from gaining any more influence.

Another interesting, small point to note is that the Syrian opposition, under the umbrella group ‘Syrian National Coalition’ – which has recognition from half of the world – has taken Syria’s seat in the Arab League.  The Arab League has taken a surprisingly anti-tyranny stance during the Arab Revolutions, considering its reputation as a kind of ‘Despots Club’ in the past.

I wrote in my 2013 predictions that the Assad regime would collapse this year.  This is no closer to a reality now than it was back in January and, while I am absolutely certain his government will not survive this war, he has surprised everyone by clinging onto power where others have not.  No one knows when, or how, this conflict will end.  Most analysts agree that the capture or death of Assad and the complete unraveling of his regime would probably not end the violence.  Wartime alliances would collapse – most likely the Free Syrian Army, the largest opposition armed group, would turn against the Al-Nusra Front.  The conflict already has an unsettling ethnic element, as Assad’s government is comprised largely of Alawites, whereas the rebellion has its core within Sunni Muslim groups.  Villages have turned upon each other, resulting in horrific massacres.  This could become far worse.  Syria could even collapse entirely and become a failed state like Somalia or Western Sahara.  It will be a long time before Syria sees stability once again.

Syria: Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War

As you will have no doubt heard – due to the fact that the media has finally cottoned on to the horrors occurring – there is a vicious and bloody civil war being fought in the country of Syria.  Unrest began in March 2011 after demonstrations against the Assad regime broke out as part of the Arab Spring uprisings.  The regime responded in the form of tear gas, bullets, shells, warplanes, and recently, cluster bombs.  Violence spiraled in a series of massacres and resistance from a growing rebellion army, dragging the country into the largest civil conflict in the country’s history.

The Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 after a rebellion was launched by Fascist forces, led by General Francisco Franco and aided by the established Fascist dictatorships in Europe, sought to topple the democratic left-wing government.  The war raged for three years between the ‘Republican’ forces and the ‘Nationalist’ forces, and by 1939 the Nationalists had taken control of the country, imposing a military dictatorship which would last for decades.

There are many similarities between the two conflicts in some ways, and differences in others, but enough similarities to be worth commenting on.  Whether Syria will be one of many cases where history is repeated remains to be seen, but hopefully this post will explore where these repetitions may occur.  As ever, I am not an expert and there are merely my own views – as misguided they may possibly be.

Both the Spanish Civil War and the Syrian Civil War, from a Western Liberal perspective, can be interpreted as a war between freedom and tyranny.  The lines blur, as they always must in wars, but overall this seems to be the case.  In Spain the combatants were the democratic (to begin with) Republican government and the dictatorial, Fascist Nationalists.  There is little doubt that, having seen the atrocities in Spain’s totalitarian government under Franco, which was to follow, the Nationalists were not on the side of freedom.  With the Republican government increasingly becoming a puppet of the Soviet Union, almost entirely dependent on Soviet support, it is debatable whether this side could be considered the side of ‘freedom’, but as the war began the Republicans were certainly fighting in the defence of democracy and freedom.

Syria is more clear cut.  The regime of Bashar al-Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, has ruled Syria for nearly four decades.  The government’s rule has been characterised by brutal oppression; Syria is a country where mass imprisonment and torture are commonplace.  An Islamic revolt occurred between 1976 and 1982, culminating in the mostly undocumented Hama massacre which razed the city and killed tens of thousands of people.  In retrospect, this can be seen as a sort of blueprint by the government in handling civil unrest.  Assad’s regime is undeniably on the side of oppression and tyranny.  The rebellion to oust him began as mass protests by hundreds of thousands of Syrians across the country, and the rebel army which followed is dedicated to fighting for a free, democratic future.  Yes, there are extreme factions within the rebellion – most worryingly Islamic jihadists – whose growing influence is a cause for concern, but I believe a majority of the fighters would reject their views.

Another similarity, which in my view is the strongest, is how both wars rapidly became a proxy war.  A proxy war is the situation where a major power, or often two major powers, instigate or support sides in a conflict which the power itself if not directly involved in.  I’ve already mentioned how the Spanish Civil War became a proxy war, with the Nationalists supported by the Fascist dictatorships of Germany, Italy and Portugal, and with the Republicans supported by the Communist Soviet Union.  This level of support on the Fascist side extended deeply.  The Guernica bombing is a famous example of German intervention, and over 10,000 German soldiers fought in the war.  Italy’s level of support went further, with over 60,000 Italian soldiers fighting on the Nationalist side, as well as in the form of aid such as warships, ammunition and over 700 warplanes.  The Fascist powers of Europe were desperate for a Nationalist victory as this would further isolate the dwindling democratic powers of Europe – namely Britain and France.

Support for the Republicans came almost exclusively from the Soviet Union, whose motives were more halting the spread of Fascism than to install Communism in Spain.  Its level of support was also large, with many thousand Soviet soldiers fighting for the Republicans and large amounts of aid being sent.  The Republicans also received aid from Mexico, though this was nowhere near comparable to the amount provided by the European dictators.

The attitude of what would today be perceived as ‘The West’ was one of non-intervention.  In fact, many officials in Britain were open about their desire for a Nationalist victory, as this was seen as preferable to a potential spread of Communism.  Britain, France and the USA pledged to not become involved in the war, limiting their role to that of sending humanitarian aid.

This was similar to the situation in Syria in many ways.  Although to not as great a degree or from as many sources, much military and logistical aid is making its way to the opposing sides in the Syrian conflict.  The regime’s most outspoken backer is Iran, which sees its unusual alliance with the secular dictatorship as a way of maintaining influence in the Middle-East and applying pressure onto Israel.  The regime is also, more covertly, receiving aid from Russia – both politically and militarily.  Russia’s political support of Syria, due to its presence on the UN Security Council, has prevented any meaningful international intervention in the conflict, thus giving the Assad regime the opportunity to clamp down on resistance without interference.  Russia is also a large supplier of arms to the regime, despite international condemnation.

Support for the rebellion comes from an even stranger source; the highly oppressive Gulf States – most significantly Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  The rebellion in Syria is being fought, mostly, for freedom and democracy, so it may at first appear odd that these Islamic Monarchies are supporting the movement, but their motivations are down to politics.  Fiercely opposed to Iran, the Gulf states see this as an opportunity to sever Iranian influence upon the region.  Democracy would be an unfortunate side-effect to this goal.

Dark green shows countries which have recognised Syria’s opposition. Light green shows countries which have officially supported the opposition.

Very much like in the Spanish Civil War, the role of ‘The West’ has been minimal.  Although there is clear vocal support from most democracies towards the rebel movement, most governments are unwilling to become involved without a legally-binding resolution from the UN, which is currently being blocked by Russia and China.  To date France, Turkey, the UK and Spain have recognised the ‘Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces’ as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and, along with the USA, have been providing non-lethal aid – including communications equipment.  Turkey is also allowing its territory to be used by rebel fighters to organise and supply.

However, although there are many similarities between the Spanish Civil War and the Syrian Civil War, there are also many differences.  One significant difference is the root of each conflict.  The Spanish Civil War began as an armed insurgency and coup attempt by the Nationalist Forces, whereas the Syrian Civil War began as a popular uprising against President Assad’s regime and the armed elements followed later.  From my perspective this gives the rebel factions in Syria more legitimacy than those in Spain had, as they are actually fighting for the will of ‘the people’ (but not all).

The forms of warfare are also different.  The war in Spain was fought in trenches, land battles and with heavy aerial capabilities from both sides.  The rebels in Syria are far more disadvantaged: they’re fighting a guerrilla war across the cities and country side of Syria, fighting street by street and making minimal gains against the regime’s artillery and air-power.  The role of warplanes is significant in both conflicts, but in Syria this role is far more one-sided with the air virtually dominated by Assad forces.

The war in Syria has not attracted the number of foreign volunteers to join the rebellion as would be expected.  The most significant volunteer movement from abroad would be the emergence of Islamic Jihadist groups, whose numbers make up over 5,000 fighters.  This pales in comparison to the 32,000 volunteers who joined the Republicans in Spain to fight against Fascism.

And finally, although the most difficult at present to judge, is the direction in which the war is flowing.  The Nationalists made steady gains all throughout the Spanish Civil War and were heading towards a victory from early on.  The situation in Syria, being far from conclusion, can only be predicted.  Although the regime has an upper hand in virtually every respect, it is gradually being pushed back in all areas of the country be rebels.  Despite this, the war is currently in a state of stalemate.  Most analysts and observers do not believe the Assad regime will survive, however, due to the wide opposition to it both domestically and internationally.  It appears likely that both wars will be won by the rebellion and end in revolution, but where in Spain this was a triumph for Fascism, in Syria this will, it is hoped, be a triumph for democracy.

In conclusion, there are both many similarities and differences between the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 and the Syrian Civil War of 2011-present.  It may be futile to explore the similarities, or it may also give an indication of the direction Syria as a country will go during the war and after.  It is said that history repeats itself, and I believe this is and will increasingly be one of those instances.

Back in Tahrir Square

Image

After watching scenes of jubilation from Cairo’s Tahrir Square – the focus point for protests during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution – following the resignation of President Mubarak, I thought scenes like this would become confined to history books; hopefully to be remembered as the day Egypt won its freedom. Yet here we are, 22 months later, back in Tahrir Square, as the Egyptian people must still fight for their liberty.