A Gay Girl in Dumbasscus, or, That One Time I Accidentally Met a “Syrian Lesbian Blogger.”

This June, to the month, marks the ten year anniversary of a story that took world news headlines by storm for about a week. It was my original intention to write about this on the exact anniversary of the exposure of it, but as I have work to do and am about to embark on a move, I figured I might as well do it now while I have time. It is also the kickoff of Pride month, a time I used to enjoy now thoroughly corrupted by neoliberal normies, obnoxiously woke ‘queer’ hetrosexual larpers, and megacorporations into something more cringe than valuable. So, while I have time, what better way to start off Pride Month than talking about that time I met Amina Arraf, the famous Syrian Lesbian blogger who changed the world…by being exposed as a heterosexual man from Georgia. A guy, it turned out, I had met the month before the story dropped and whose wife I had known for almost a year.

Lets reel it back to late April, 2011. I was a first year doctoral student at the University of St Andrews and still, at that time, based in the namesake town in Fife, Scotland. I had returned from an amazing road trip with friends to the Isle of Skye where we hiked the Old Man of Storr up its more challenging frontal face. After this I was given the charge I needed to complete the work I had to do early, and so by the end of the month I was newly free and took a rail trip down to London for a few days to visit with the friends I had living there (I had previously lived in London before moving up north).

The last day of my time in London two things happened simultaneously. My bank card decided to lock my account for some random mistaken reason which I cannot recall the specifics of today-leaving me with only the remaining cash in my pocket for my train trip back to Fife…and a massive windstorm descended on the UK and Scotland in particular. ‘No problem,’ I thought, ‘I’ll be back home in St Andrews where I can mooch off friends until the bank fixes this issues and unfreezes my account in a day or two.’

But the windstorm put paid to those plans. The historic and distinctive Forth Bridge, which was the only way the east coast rail line can go north of Edinburgh, was closed due to how intense the windspeeds were around it. The last station the train would stop at was Edinburgh itself. And while it is true that in slightly over a year I would be living in Edinburgh along with quite a few other people I knew, neither I nor they had moved there yet. With my bank card locked and about five pounds and change in my wallet, I frantically called people on a blackberry (remember those?) with a dying battery in a time before phone chargers on trains were common asking who they knew in Edinburgh. It is my favorite city in the world so the prospect of wandering its streets all night did not horrify me, but during a horizontally-cutting-rain-windstorm? No thanks. Surely there was a couch I could crash on. Fortunately, someone remembered an acquaintance from our program, Britta, and sent me her phone number. She, to my eternal gratitude, picked up and agreed to give me her address and let me crash overnight at their place.

Using my last handful of currency to hail a short cab ride (I’m normally a walker but once again, that weather) I made it to their place where I met, for the first time, Britta’s husband Tom. A guy about a decade older than me who I was happy to find shared some interests with myself about medieval history and Middle Eastern/Central Asian stuff in particular. We all got along well and they even covered some of my food costs since I had no money on me. I promised I would pay them back soon. I charged my phone at their place and slept on their couch.

The next day the bridge was open again, I was able to redeem my partially cancelled tickets and finish the train ride to coastal Fife, lucky to have been able to get through all of that without having to weather the experience on the street.

Fast forward about a month and a half.

Something one needs to know. St Andrews has one of the top Syria Studies programs in the world. Also, the Arab Spring had just begun and was gradually starting to mutate (already in Libya and just starting in Syria) into civil wars for some countries. Syria was big in the news for the first time since the Yom Kippur War for normies. While I was not part of the Syrian studies center or anything like that, Britta was, as well as a friend of mine whose book I previously reviewed on here before. So when the world media was taken by stories about the kidnapping by state security forces of the mildly famous author behind the blog ‘A Gay Girl in Damascus’, I turned to some people I knew for some local updates. My friend Francesco told me that the Electronic Intifada had looked into this blog and suspected it was a hoax, so I went back to ignoring the story save as a cautionary tale about how easily led along the media can be by potboiler stories. Something that would become enormously clear yet again in another part of the world about a year later.

Anyway, a few days after this rise of the blogger Amina Arraf to international headlines, the other shoe dropped. The Guardian had exposed the whole thing as a charade. An American man living in Edinburgh was Amina Arraf. Certain details, like if his wife knew or what purpose, salacious or ideological or both, this blog was meant to serve, were up to question. I was texted the news by friends that morning and I thought they were joking about who it really was, considering that they might be alluding to the fact that the blogger fit the demographic of a guy we knew about in Edinburgh. But upon reaching the office I saw the interview with the news on streaming video and….yup, that was him.

Needless to say that because this was us and not most people once about 5 minutes of shock had faded we naturally and pretty much immediately came to find it incredibly fucking funny. It must have been terrible for the women ‘Amina’ was cyber-romancing, of course, but for us it was the capstone event of what had already been a wild and wacky year.

Both Tom and Britta disappeared after that. I heard Edinburgh University kept him on so he could finish his dissertation, but on the down-low. Britta, despite not being the blogger, just ghosted St Andrews and I have no idea whatever happened to either of them. Needless to say, I still owe them a couple GBP.

Obviously, I didn’t make this post to rag on them as they were perfectly nice to me. But 10 years after this event and we really do live in “Amina’s” world to some degree. People have taken to adopting oppressed identities that often do not belong to them in order to live some kind of vicariously interesting life. Much more importantly, Syria became a magnet for attracting strange North Atlantic pathologies. It would become the regime change cause-du-jour for a bizarre alliance of woke liberals, anarchists, neocons, and the like. A group I have taken to calling Anarcho-Neocons as a shorthand term. Hillary Clinton famously mentioned that regime change in Syria was her top priority in all three general election primary debates in the run up to 2016. Jihadists and European social justice missionaries stood side by side at rallies in Germany demanding that ‘we must do something.’ People whose connections to the country were either tenuous or nonexistent became intense advocates for knowing what is best for that land and how to bring it about. And, Turkey, the U.S., the Gulf States, and Israel, having failed to topple the government in Damascus ten years on now, have resorted to punishing and dangerous sanctions in order to cripple the country and prevent its rebuilding. And considering the enormous amount of foreign recruits and support masquerading as grassroots revolutionaries in Idlib Province today and through the ‘moderate rebel’ movement in general this past decade, I can really think of no more perfectly symbolic figure for the whole tragic farce than Amina.

And after all, she was arguably the first victim in a long line of those who fell to the ‘Assad Must Go’ curse.

The Washington Treaty of 1871 and Sovereignty Today

kearsarge vs alabama

USS Kearsarge sinks CSS Alabama off the coast of Cherbourg, France in 1864

There is the temptation among American Civil War buffs to view that conflict as a purely American affair. Brother fought brother and everyone was American, etc. But this assumption is just as wrong as if you to assume that the Syrian or Congolese Civil Wars have little outside involvement.

From the beginning, the governments of Britain and France pulled heavily for the Confederacy. They saw the emerging industrial and commercial might of the United States as a grave threat to their Atlantic supremacy and the order they had barely established after the Crimean War with Russia. With the US distracted by what would become the bloodiest conflict in all of its history, France seized the opportunity to install a puppet regime in Mexico. After the Trent Affair in 1861 (when British ships were boarded and Confederate agents on them arrested in international waters) Britain upped the ante, sending threatening noises of war and violating neutrality by building blockade runners stocked with weapons shipments which would slip into Gulf ports such as Mobile Bay and New Orleans. This in turn would shape the Union naval strategy for the rest of the war, with David Farragut’s famous battles being the actions to close those ports.

Despite Gladstone’s and Queen Victoria’s southern sympathies, once the Emancipation Proclamation was declared after the Union victory at Antietam in 1862, general British public opinion turned against the south. But the rich business of economically and logistically aiding the Confederacy continued among the entrepreneurs of the Liverpool dockyards. Confederate agents remained extremely active in Canada, and even planned (though did not execute) a biological warfare attack by infecting New York City army hospitals with Yellow Fever.

In light of this dangerous situation, only one power expressed open support for the Union cause. The navy of the Russian Empire sent squadrons of warships to dock in both east and west coast ports of the United States should Britain or France get any ideas about attacking the strung out Union blockade. Sealed orders on board the Russian flagship contained instructions that should any outside power attack the United States during the war against secession, the Russian fleet was to sail and engage said power’s naval forces. Tsar Alexander II was not about to let Anglo-French meddling deprive him of potential allies all around the world.

After Gettysburg and Vicksburg the attractiveness of supporting the Confederate cause abroad dried up. And yet those British built commerce raiders with their British cannons continued to wreak havoc on the US whaling and trading ships. The CSS Alabama-the most effective commerce raider in all of history to this day-was a particular sensation in the press. It was finally sunk, as pictured above, by the sloop of war USS Kearsarge after an intensive hunt throughout Europe.

But the end of the war in 1865 did not bring an end to the international repercussions of that conflict. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was ready for another war against Britain on the charges of the immense damage its ships and weapons had done-even if in Confederate hands. He considered the war to have been effectively over more than a year before it finished-and its prolongation a direct result of British interference. Britain, therefore, should pay the costs of the Union for late 1864 and 1865.

Meanwhile, in the now occupied south, US forces under General Sheridan began their own weapon smuggling operation to the forces of Benito Juarez who were fighting the French backed Hapsburg pretender in charge of the occupation of Mexico. The tide had already turned in Mexico’s favor, but the new weapons surely sped things up. Rather than overtly violating neutrality, US forces tended to simply leave weapons stockpiles at certain places on the border and then disappear, expecting that in the night Mexican agents would come, cross the border, and take them without anyone ‘knowing’ otherwise. Two could play at the cloaked interference game.

The French were eventually driven from Mexico. But the economic reparations demanded by the United States on Britain remained, poisoning relations between the two countries, who had remained steady rivals since 1775, with little to no respite even further.

But then came the Franco-Prussian War, the rise of an immensely powerful German state, a major economic and industrial boom in Russia, and several naval arms races between Britain and France. Britain could no longer blithely sit on the top of the world, uncaring as to its relations with other major powers. As the furthest away power, the US represented the safest option to begin a re-orientation of British policy. With the Americans agreeing to drop their more outlandish claims and also paying reparations for events like the Trent Affair, Britain agreed to pay damages and acknowledge guilt related to the neutrality violations of British built commerce raiders. Since then, the two countries have enjoyed quite amicable relations by and large, with the notable exception of a major breakdown in the 20s and early 30s in the aftermath of the failure of Wilsonian idealism.

So, what does the Washington Treaty of 1871 have to do with us today? Well, functionally, quite little. But I would like to float the idea that in the case of the Syrian Civil War the issues of outside backing of internal rebel movements is once again a major issue in great power diplomacy. Russia plays a much more direct role supporting the government, but remains committed to stopping its allies from being overwhelmed by foreign-supported forces. Meanwhile, in the United States and other countries, a backlash is growing in the general public to a policy which is increasingly clear should never interfered in the first place, and failing that, is backing the wrong side. Like the Union, the Syrian government is a flawed but multicultural organization, like the Confederacy the rebellion in Syria belongs overwhelmingly to a much narrower demographic. While the rebellion in Syria is much more justifiable than the southern rebellion was, it has come with time to be if anything even more scary and destabilizing for its region. Meanwhile, the US now plays the role of 19th Century Britain, its people increasingly coming to look with horror over who they are backing while the policy elites blithely continue on an expensive course of confirmed failure. Motivated as much by personal sympathies as strategic concerns, if not more so, as the recently declassified Hillary Clinton emails strongly imply.

In our extremely globalized world, upholding national sovereignty, particularly of small and weak states, seems almost an antiquated idea. But perhaps it is time to realize that quite often it can serve big power interests. I am not so naive to believe that strong countries will not interfere with the internal politics of smaller ones. There are in fact many instances where this serves vital strategic interests. But I do think it is time to make it something people think upon as a dangerous action one should only pursue in extremity-and this means there should be repercussions. Russia is doing to the Ukraine what America, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia do to Syria. It doesn’t like the government so it plays brinksmanship with rebel forces as its allies. Rwanda has decades of experience with similar actions in the Congo. These turn into frozen conflicts that simply drag out suffering on the ground, as per Secretary of War Stanton’s presumption of British actions in the 1860s.

My favorite aspect of Cold War history to study when it comes to diplomacy is the Non-Aligned League. I do wonder if there could be such a small-state-in-hotspot alliance in the future. A league of nations who might share little in the way of domestic structure or big power friends but remain committed to domestic sovereignty against outside interference. The fact remains that nations like Syria and Ukraine could make quite good cases for reparations from other nations for neutrality violations in internal conflicts. Even though the great powers could never be forced to pay, the mere PR of such a move might grant small states a bit of a reprieve in today’s world as journalists picked up on the story. It would certainly make them more sympathetic.

Plus, rather than pay it itself the United States could always split the difference between Saudi Arabia and the Clinton Foundation to get the money for its reparations to Syria.

Anyway, have a musical number. Maybe one day they will write one that replaces Georgia with Donetsk or Raqqa.