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His charm could be offensive: The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaking at the UN in September. Should we believe him?

While waiting to hear Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's much anticipated UN speech in September, I read a brilliant essay, "Islamists Assemble", by Michael Weiss on the news website Now Lebanon. His subject was the splintering of Syria's fractious opposition and the coming internecine battle between Bashar al-Assad's enemies, amid fading hopes that President Obama's promise of red lines and hints that "Assad must go" meant anything much.

Much has been made of the fractious nature of the Syrian rebels — the bewildering number of names and groups fighting on different fronts; the atrocities some of them have committed; the reported acts of ethnic cleansing; the public beheading of pro-regime fighters and soldiers. Weiss drew a vivid picture of the galaxy of Islamist groups vying for supremacy as they fight the regime, fight Christians, Kurds and Alawites, and fight among themselves.

Suddenly, I was reminded of Camillo Berneri, a youthful obsession of my university days. Berneri was an Italian anarchist and intellectual who lived a tumultuous life in the interwar period and mixed with the leading Italian anti-Fascist thinkers of his generation-Piero Gobetti, the Rosselli brothers and Ernesto Rossi. 

His writing style was terse and clear. His knowledge was encyclopaedic. He had studied with Gaetano Salvemini, the great Italian historian who eventually migrated to the United States to escape fascism and taught at Harvard.

Berneri lived in exile, mostly in Paris, though he was periodically arrested and expelled for agitating and plotting with other anarchists. He was an undesirable, yet a towering figure among exiled intellectuals and anti-fascist activists. And like so many of his generation, he was gripped by the ideological fervour — and fractiousness — of socialism and its many splinters.

What Berneri had to do with Syria becomes evident when one looks at his untimely death. Like so many other young European leftists of his time, Berneri rallied to the cause of Republican Spain in the aftermath of General Franco's uprising against the Popular Front government. And like many of his comrades, he was felled by the bullets of an opponent from his own ideological galaxy. Berneri died in Barcelona, in 1937, shot by the local Stalinist police, not killed by the fascists. Others would meet a similar fate. 

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Yossarian's Child
November 4th, 2013
2:11 PM
Stimulating article. I would, however, suggest that the parallel with the Spanish Civil War we should adopt is that of Stalin. Both sides are supported by our adversaries. Let us provide just enough weapons to ensure one side take years to win and ideally let them fight on in perpetuity. For the West the prospect of Iran and Saudi fighting an endless proxy war in Syria is the best result.

stefano sodano
November 2nd, 2013
12:11 PM
Mr Ottolenghi is bloody right. Amen

Robert Hunt
November 1st, 2013
9:11 PM
Dear Mr. Ottolenghi, You like many who supported the Communist takeover of Spain and Portugal seem to have conveiniently forgotten their history. When Roosevelt and the rest of his crowd took over in the U.S. the Soviets were carrying out the largest genocide of the century, until their acolytes in china took power, aided by the same Roosevelt clan. Roosevelt's first action in foreign policy was to recognize the Communists in Russia while they were butchering 9 to 11 million Catholics in the Ukraine. Of course, killing Catholics is for the good of the world, which is why the Communist slaughters are never mentioned in the press. Since you and I know the Communist reporters, of the Western press gathered with their KGB masters and agreed to cover up the greatest crime till the Chinese slaughter in 59-61. Everyone likes to forget Christ has been the major enemy of the socialists for two hundred years, and his followers have suffered under every socialist regime. General Franco, smelling the hatred which would bring genocide to Spain and Portugal, rose to defend Christ against the Communists. Even now, after we have witnessed the Communists, in China, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Cambodia, still their intentions in Spain are taken as pristine. This can only be done by a true believer. General Franco saved Spain from a genocide worse than the Ukraine, because the strength of belief in Spain would have meant killing half the population, not a third. When will the Communists when they write about the twentieth century admit, their own crimes? Sincerely, Bob

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