The Stakes of Syrian Soccer and Language Without Meaning: The Week in Global-Affairs Writing

The highlights from seven days of reading about the world

Syrian football supporters display a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the 2018 World Cup qualifying football match between South Korea and Syria.
Syrian football supporters display a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the 2018 World Cup qualifying football match between South Korea and Syria. (Mohd Rasfan / Getty)

The Autocrat’s Language
Masha Gessen | New York Review of Books
“When I was a young journalist, I went back to my country of birth to work in my native language. In the early 1990s, Russian journalists were engaged in the project of reinventing journalism—which itself had been used to perform the opposite of conveying reliable information. Language was a problem. The language of politics had been pillaged, as had the language of values and even the language of feelings: after decades of performing revolutionary passion, people had become weary of the very idea of passion. So the new Russian journalists opted for language that was descriptive in the most direct way: We tried to stick to verbs and nouns, and only to things that could be directly observed. It was the journalistic equivalent of the hardware store: If the shape of a word could not be clearly described and its weight could not be measured, it could not be used. This kind of language is good for describing things that are in front of your eyes and terrible for conveying the contents of your mind or heart. It was constraining.”

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North Korea’s Consistently Apocalyptic Propagandists
Hannah Beech | The New Yorker
The prickliness of North Korea’s messaging also can be read as an evolutionary strategy, akin to a hedgehog showing its spines to protect its pink underbelly. ‘Even with its nuclear program, North Korea is a weak country with an outdated military and a very small population,’ Andrei Lankov, a professor of Korean studies at Kookmin University, in Seoul, told me. ‘The only card they hold is to appear completely irrational and unpredictable. When they say they will wipe South Korea and the U.S. off the map, this propaganda gives an image of crazy zealots, who could do anything. They want the world to believe this image.’ In asymmetric warfare, belligerent propaganda—not to mention nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles that may one day reach the U.S. mainland—is a useful tool.”

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How a Woman in England Tracks Civilian Deaths in Syria, One Bomb at a Time
Greg Jaffe | The Washington Post
“‘I try not to listen because it makes the images more disturbing,’ she said.

This is her second year of doing this, an almost daily routine since Haddad, 45, became one of the first analysts for Airwars, an eight-person nonprofit group started with a simple question: Exactly how many civilians were being killed in the American-led air campaigns in Iraq and Syria?

Was it even possible to know?

The usual sources of such information—reporters, the United Nations, and human rights groups that traditionally monitor civilian deaths—have been largely absent from the battlefields, especially after a series of kidnappings and beheadings of journalists and aid workers in Syria.”

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The Dictator’s Team
Steve Fainaru | ESPN
“Sometime within the next 36 days, when Syria plays its next match, Khatib must choose between two great evils that plague the modern world.

If he rejoins Syria, he will be team captain and the most important player in his country's quest to make the World Cup for the first time. He will also represent a government that—along with nerve gas, torture, rape, starvation and the bombing of civilians—has used soccer as a weapon to promote its murderous rule.

If he continues his boycott, he'll be aligned with a complicated movement that began with peaceful demonstrations and has since splintered to include al-Qaida and ISIS. ISIS has used soccer as a backdrop for some of its most heinous crimes, including the 2015 bombings at the Stade de France and a 2016 bombing at a youth soccer match in Iraq that killed 29 children.”

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Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and How Democracies Dies
Gideon Rachman | Financial Times
“However it is the similarities in the Trump and Erdogan approaches to the media and the courts that should be most chilling for Americans. Mr Trump is famous for calling the mainstream media ‘the world’s most dishonest people’ and for his denunciations of ‘fake news’. Mr Erdogan is at war with much of the Turkish media. Mr Trump denounced a ‘so-called judge’ who ruled against his travel ban for refugees. Mr Erdogan is contemptuous of the Turkish constitutional court and had two of its members arrested last year.

The critical difference between the Turkish and American presidents, however, is that Mr Erdogan has succeeded in taking his country a long way down the road to autocracy. The Turkish president has repressed the media and the judiciary in ways that should be impossible in the US.”

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The Dangerous Lives of Undercover ISIS Informants
Igor Kossov | Foreign Policy
“Rekani met Agent 45, a Kurdish informant, in 2008 when they both served in the Iraqi military. The agent reached out to Rekani in August 2014, saying he wanted to provide information. In an interview, Agent 45 said his motivation to help was simple: ‘There was one reason — we don’t like Daesh,’ using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

As a generator repairman, he had the opportunity to travel throughout the city, covertly learning about Islamic State checkpoints and gatherings. He also noted movements of Islamic State trucks and warned the coalition in advance of the movement of large convoys, making them easy targets for airstrikes.”