Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 1, 2013

Were Saudis and careless rebels responsible for the East Ghouta deaths?

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm

Back in May 25, 2012, the village of Houla in Syria suffered a massacre in which 108 people were killed, including 34 women and 49 children. The initial reaction was to condemn the Shabiha, an Alawite militia fanatically committed to the Baathist cause. But three days later Rainer Hermann, the Middle East correspondent for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, wrote an article blaming the rebels. Within hours it seems, every “anti-imperialist” website began crossposting his article or citing it as proof that a false flag operation had been mounted to discredit the progressive and secular government under siege by jihadists.

Eventually Hermann’s article proved false, but not a single website issued a correction. All this was swept under the rug.

History seems to be repeating itself with the publication of Dale Gavlak and Yahya Ababneh’s article in Mint Press News on August 29, 2013 that alleges something almost akin to involuntary manslaughter. It clears the Baathists of using chemical weapons against the rebel-controlled East Ghouta suburb of Damascus but does not quite amount to a finger-pointing false flag piece like Hermann’s. They claim instead that some rebels were mucking about in a tunnel that was stockpiled with chemical weapons and accidentally knocked one (or more) over. I guess the best analogy would be drunk driving or firing a rifle into the sky on New Year’s Eve and hitting someone leaning out the window of a high-rise.

Despite letting off the rebels with a light sentence, Gavlak and Ababneh do share one thing in common with Hermann. The entire report is based on what eyewitnesses told them. There might be future revelations that contradict what they have reported (leaving aside John Kerry’s obviously vested interest account) but until that happens the least we can do is take a very close look at the article.

Brown Moses has already taken a shot at that, drawing upon military experts who could look at the incident from the standpoint of his blog, namely to identify weapons being used by the rebels and the Baathists. The emphasis is obviously technical. I don’t want to repeat any of the points made there and will be looking at the article from the angle of plausibility, even though some of what I will say will inevitably overlap with the analysis there.

I want to start off by saying a word or two about the authors. Dale Gavlak is not an investigative reporter. Instead, he appears to be a well-traveled journeyman with no particular political agenda. He has written for the ultraright Washington Times but the articles betray no bias that one might expect given the venue. Mint Press describes Yahya Ababneh as a “Jordanian freelance journalist…currently working on a master’s degree in journalism.” Mint Press issued a clarification some time after the article appeared, identifying Ababneh as being the sole on-site interviewer in East Ghouta.

The first interviewee was the father of one of the rebels who died in the accident:

“My son came to me two weeks ago asking what I thought the weapons were that he had been asked to carry,” said Abu Abdel-Moneim, the father of a rebel fighting to unseat Assad, who lives in Ghouta.

Abdel-Moneim said his son and 12 other rebels were killed inside of a tunnel used to store weapons provided by a Saudi militant, known as Abu Ayesha, who was leading a fighting battalion. The father described the weapons as having a “tube-like structure” while others were like a “huge gas bottle.”

Now I would have expected a disclaimer at the end of the article stating that names had been changed to protect the innocent, as the old TV show “Dragnet” would put it. But there is none. In a town infested with the sort of people who have by all accounts killed a 14 year old boy for saying that he wouldn’t even give Muhammad a free cup of coffee, what is the likelihood that Abdel-Moneim would identify himself as a “snitch” on the Saudi-backed jihadists? Hmmm.

Now, it is evident that the authors do cloak the identity of another interviewee:

A well-known rebel leader in Ghouta named ‘J’ agreed. “Jabhat al-Nusra militants do not cooperate with other rebels, except with fighting on the ground. They do not share secret information. They merely used some ordinary rebels to carry and operate this material,” he said.

“We were very curious about these arms. And unfortunately, some of the fighters handled the weapons improperly and set off the explosions,” ‘J’ said.

Now I hate to ask impertinent questions but since everybody died in the accident, how does J know that they handled the weapons improperly?  I try to imagine the “ordinary” FSA rebels down in the tunnel getting into a sort of giddy state after drinking one too many strong cups of tea and then began playing catch with the missiles, like the Three Stooges. “Hey, Hassan, go out for a slant pass…Hut Hut.” Is this an accurate portrait of people fighting for their lives?

Gavlak and Ababneh write: “Doctors who treated the chemical weapons attack victims cautioned interviewers to be careful about asking questions regarding who, exactly, was responsible for the deadly assault.” Is that so? Which doctors? What is the likelihood that doctors taking their lives into their hands by working in East Ghouta, particularly in a situation where they could fall ill from exposure to sarin in the clothing of the people they were treating, would warn against identifying the source of the attacks? It does not make any sense.

Except for the four paragraphs cited above, there is nothing in the article that can be described as on-the-spot investigative reporting. In fact, the second half of the article is boilerplate reporting cobbled together from other sources about the Saudis riling up an otherwise serene population, making it worth their while to go fight the government for pay. As the authors put it: “More than a dozen rebels interviewed reported that their salaries came from the Saudi government.” Much of it reads like a script for the next James Bond movie, with Prince Bandar the arch-villain.

They refer to a Daily Telegraph article about secret Russian-Saudi talks with Bandar offering Putin cheap oil in exchange for dumping Assad. If he didn’t play ball, he’d sic Chechen jihadists on the Sochi Olympics. The article was written by one Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (with a name like that, he’s gotta be British) who is best-known for writing conspiracy tales about Bill Clinton, including one that the Oklahoma City bombing was a secret government plot in which Timothy McVeigh was just a fall guy, like Lee Harvey Oswald. He claims that ATF agents were warned not to go to work that day. The fact that a reporter for the Daily Oklahoman interviewed two ATF agents as they emerged from the rubble does not enter the equation. Now I have no idea what the Mint Press reporters consider leading edge investigative reporting but I wouldn’t go near Evans-Pritchard with a ten-foot pole, something I consider more risky than playing catch with a sarin-laden missile.

Of course, our intrepid reporters give a nod to Carla del Ponte, who I have already identified as about as trustworthy as Donald Rumsfeld. That they can end their article with a reference to her allegation that the rebels are using chemical weapons rather than the Baathists tells me that they don’t really give a hoot about journalistic integrity. Why they wrote such a load of crap is something for other people to figure out.

I just want to conclude with some comments on the role of FAIR, the liberal media watchdog I once supported strongly, donating hundreds of dollars in years past. On their blog, Jim Naureckas recommends a look at the Mint Press article. And immediately after the Houla massacre, FAIR staffer Steve Rendall took the FAZ false flag article seriously. Now they do issue pretty useful articles from time to time, but my recommendation to these comrades is to leave their Islamophobia at home unless they want to tarnish the reputation of a nonprofit that relies on the good will of its donors.

17 Comments »

  1. I missed the part where Steve Rendall is Islamophobic. What is Proyect referring to?

    Comment by Calvin Miner — September 2, 2013 @ 8:38 am

  2. 1This is a comment I made on UK Left Unity site. It was supposed to go under the Gilber Acher post but went under one from Workers Power by mistake but no matter both resolutions are the same in essence:

    The Stalinised and poisoned British Left is once again collaborating with fascistic elements, even to the point of marching shoulder to shoulder with them outside embassys, in the brutal dismemberment of a nation. It happened when the Serbian Stalinist Milosovic recruited the fascist irregulars of the Bosnian Serbs to enact a brutal land grab from Bosnia as they broke up Yugoslavia and of course it happened when Stalin signed his pact with Hitler and the two of them each took a slice of Poland and Hitler’s concentration camps got a little closer to their intended destination.

    Unfortunately mealy mouthed resolutions such as this and previous examples are not themselves principled just because they claim to support the Syrian Revolution but are actually designed to appease the Stalinist appeasers by welcoming the Parliamentary vote to abandon the Syrians to Assad’s gasses.

    If we are sincere supporters of the Syrian Revolution, and clearly there are a good number of people in Left Unity who would rather be carrying a garlanded Assad through the streets for a heros welcome than be that, then how in all good consciense can we welcome the outcome of this vote? We support your revolution Syrian people but you must be martyred to our ideological purity because the British Left, whilst it abhors the use of poison gas, cannot under any circumstances sully its hands by supporting any action against it especially imperialist action. Hypocrisy.

    If a limited strike is ordered that degrades the military instrument that is being used to smash the revolution and commit genocide then how can we possibly protest that? No, of course we cannot, not without shouldering the blame for Assad’s next atrocity and the next and the next as the foolish New Labour Milliband must surely now do. The British Parliament voted against action not because it is anti-imperialist, the notion is absurd, but because it sees no strategic interest for the UK in Syria unlike Libya where there is plenty of oil and they were happy to stop the lunatic Gadaffi from flattening Benghazi. Far from being an anti-imperialist vote it was in reality racist and backed by the Tory far right and UKIP as well as notorious New Labourites albeit from the Brown wing who have supported every other imperialist intervention since the year dot and are usually inveterate cheer leaders for the Cruise Missile Left.

    Our position or the position of principled socialists should have been all along that the imperialist intervention we oppose is the vicious arms embargo of the US/EU that is preventing the Syrian from defending themselves whilst the crypto fascist Russian imperialist oligarchs arm Putin and the Gulf states arm the Islamists and Jihadis. We should have been warning the Syrians people not to expect any help from the imperialists, and we would have been correct given Friday’s vote, as they have very little interest in the fate of Arabs. We should have advised them to rely on their own strength, the support of their Arab brothers and of the international working class or at least that part of it that is not rotten with the cancer of Stalinism or rotten pacifism. Even now Obama has opened the possibility for Congress to block any action and if he can he will take it. The republic far right will ask for a ridiculous and impossible full scale invasion but only as an excuse not to vote for Obama’s proposed surgical strikes. They are far more interested in embarassing a `liberal’ president than saving Syrians.

    In the very unlikely event that there is a limited intervention the left’s position should be not to protest it but to advise the Syrian people to take advantage and up their struggle to oust Assad whilst bewaring false friends who have stood by whilst 100,000 have been killed and millions turned into refugees.

    Left Unity: reject the Stalinised Putin-appeasing Poison Gas Left but also reject the appeasers of these appeasers. Give your unconditional support to the Arab Spring and the National Democratic Syrian Revolution. Demand the lifting of the arms embargo, organise political and physical solidarity and don’t protest alongside Assad’s fans and Putin’s thugs on any more anti-intervention `protests’ or celebrations. Let us continuously point out the hypocrisy and self-serving nature of imperialism of course but the fact that growing contradictions have forced a thoroughly reactionary social force for strategic reasons to do something mildly progressive for once should not turn us into unthinking ideologues who oppose it for the sake of their own saintly purity.

    Comment by David Ellis — September 2, 2013 @ 10:04 am

  3. Look pretty tricky to deploy these kinds of weapons accidentally?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 2, 2013 @ 1:10 pm

  4. Are you in favour of US attacking Syria? I have read two posts by you. You are going after what you call “Anti Imperialist Left”.

    But It is not clear if you are supporting Obama’s coming attack on Syria.

    And what do you want to happen in Syria? A peace conference as advised by Patrick Cockburn involving all the major parties ?
    Or more war ?

    Comment by Jit — September 2, 2013 @ 5:28 pm

  5. I cannot speak for Louis of course and wouldn’t try but in my comment above at #2 I have tried to outline what the position of the left should be. It should not protest any US intervention designed to degrade Assad’s capacity to crush the revolution but it should not either create illusions that imperialism will come to the aid of the Syrians either. There is every chance Congress will veto and Obama will accept the veto. Our independent policy should be to give physical and unconditional political support to the Syrian National Democratic Revolution and oppose the only Western imperialist intervention that there has been in Syria so far: the vicious EU/US arms embargo that is preventing the Syrian people from defending themselves whilst the crypto fascist Russian imperialist oligarchs arm Assad and the Gulf states arm the Jihadis.

    In Britain unbelievably the Stalinised left is celebrating the vote in parliament that decided that Syrians are no more worthy than badgers to exist on this earh.

    Comment by David Ellis — September 3, 2013 @ 9:37 am

  6. >> It should not protest any US intervention designed to degrade Assad’s capacity to crush the revolution >>

    So a leftist is now supporting US attack on Syria now. And how do you determine a particular intervention is only degrading Assad and not killing Syrians?

    Syrian National Democratic Revolution ? The reason the Syrian regime is still surviving is because of the predominant jehadi opposition. And they are not democratic. You are talking about opposition supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

    Syrian regime is backed by maybe 50% of population because they fear the Jehadi opposition more than the Assad regime.

    So anyone on Left who is opposing Syrian Intervention is now a Stalinist in your opinion. Does that mean Asa’ad Abukhalil and Medialens are stalinists now?

    I wouldn’t be surprised if you guys will be indistinguishable from neocons in a few years.

    Comment by Jit — September 3, 2013 @ 12:05 pm

  7. Does that mean Asa’ad Abukhalil and Medialens are stalinists now?

    No, they are not Stalinists. There is no more Stalinism today to speak of. But there is a tendency to rally around rotten dictatorships in the name of “progressive values” as there was in 1938 or so. With Stalin there was at least the reality that capitalism had been overthrown in 1917 and that he defended socialized property relations in the way that a trade union bureaucrat fights to maintain a closed shop. But applying this logic to Syria is utterly bizarre given the social and economic realities:

    http://www.meforum.org/3529/assad-syria-revolution

    Paradoxically, in the past, the Sunni rural population had been one of the regime’s foremost mainstays. It was one of the main partners in Syria’s ruling coalition of minorities and the periphery, led by members of the Alawite community, who were in turn headed by the Assad dynasty. This coalition served as the basis for the Baath revolution of March 1963, and later as the basis of support for the “Corrective Movement” and for Hafiz al-Assad’s seizure of power in November 1970.

    With the passage of time and especially from the beginning of the 2000s, it seemed as if the Syrian regime had ceased reflecting Syrian society. The regime even seemed to have turned its back on the rural areas and the periphery. Beginning in 2006, Syria experienced one of the worst droughts the state had ever known with the damage felt most intensely in the Jazira region of northeastern Syria and in the south, especially in the Hawran region and its central city of Dar’a.

    These regions were also adversely affected by the government’s new economic policies, which aimed at changing the character of the Syrian economy from a socialist orientation into a “social market economy.” The aim of these policies, led by Vice Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari, was to open Syria to the world economy, encourage foreign investment, and promote activity in the domestic private sector so as to ensure economic growth and enable the regime to cope with its domestic and economic challenges: rapid growth of the population, backward infrastructure and lack of advanced industry, over-reliance on agriculture, etc. The new policy was backed by Bashar al-Assad, who seemed to have underestimated the importance of the Baath party’s socialist ideology as well as its institutions and networking, mainly in the periphery. One conclusion to be drawn from the negative reactions to this policy in the periphery was that while the Syrian regime did indeed manage to preserve its image of strength and solidity during the first decade of the 2000s, its support base was considerably narrowed. It lost the broad popular support that it had enjoyed among the Sunni population in the rural areas and the periphery after it turned its back on them.[3]

    Comment by louisproyect — September 3, 2013 @ 1:29 pm

  8. Louis, do you think that this account and interpretations from Daniel Pipes’s outfit is credible? I mean, it could be. But it is Daniel Pipes.

    Comment by David Green — September 3, 2013 @ 6:10 pm

  9. David, did you forget to include a link? I am not sure what you are referring to.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 3, 2013 @ 7:16 pm

  10. Jit wrote:

    “4.Are you in favour of US attacking Syria? I have read two posts by you. You are going after what you call ‘Anti Imperialist Left’.”

    Why don’t you try reading some of the stuff here with the tags “Libya”, “bourgeois revolutions”, and “Pham Binh” as well as looking for the phrase “anti-anti-imperialism” to get caught up to speed on positions around here. It might do you some good before you shove your tootsies back beyond your tonsils . . . .

    Comment by Todd — September 3, 2013 @ 8:19 pm

  11. http://www.meforum.org/3529/assad-syria-revolution

    Louis, it’s the link in your post.

    Comment by David Green — September 4, 2013 @ 1:24 am

  12. Here is some of the trash, dated as it is, that Eyal Zisser, the author of the quote on the Pipes website, is capable of writing.
    http://www.jcpa.org/brief/brief4-2.htm

    Comment by David Green — September 4, 2013 @ 1:33 am

  13. The analysis of class forces in Syria by Zisser is absolutely correct, whatever website it appears on. In fact it is pretty much the same thing that Jadaliyya editor Bashar Haddad has written below. Zisser is of course not a guide to revolutionary action but his grasp of social reality in Syria is quite trustworthy :

    http://www.merip.org/mer/mer262/syrian-regimes-business-backbone

    By the late 1990s, the business community that the Asads had created in their own image had transformed Syria from a semi-socialist state into a crony capitalist state par excellence. The economic liberalization that started in 1991 had redounded heavily to the benefit of tycoons who had ties to the state or those who partnered with state officials. The private sector outgrew the public sector, but the most affluent members of the private sector were state officials, politicians and their relatives. The economic growth registered in the mid-1990s was mostly a short-lived bump in consumption, as evidenced by the slump at the end of the century. Growth rates that had been 5-7 percent fell to 1-2 percent from 1997 to 2000 and beyond.

    After Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father in 2000, the architects of Syria’s economic policy sought to reverse the downturn by liberalizing the economy further, for instance by reducing state subsidies. Private banks were permitted for the first time in nearly 40 years and a stock market was on the drawing board. After 2005, the state-business bonds were strengthened by the announcement of the Social Market Economy, a mixture of state and market approaches that ultimately privileged the market, but a market without robust institutions or accountability. Again, the regime had consolidated its alliance with big business at the expense of smaller businesses as well as the Syrian majority who depended on the state for services, subsidies and welfare. It had perpetuated cronyism, but dressed it in new garb. Families associated with the regime in one way or another came to dominate the private sector, in addition to exercising considerable control over public economic assets. These clans include the Asads and Makhloufs, but also the Shalish, al-Hassan, Najib, Hamsho, Hambouba, Shawkat and al-As‘ad families, to name a few. The reconstituted business community, which now included regime officials, close supporters and a thick sliver of the traditional bourgeoisie, effected a deeper (and, for the regime, more dangerous) polarization of Syrian society along lines of income and region.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 4, 2013 @ 1:41 am

  14. That after the collapse of the Soviets the Syrian regime transmogrified into a pathetic Nation State utterly beholden to IMF & World Bank proscriptions has not ever been vigorously disputed by anybody.

    After all, it’s more or less the same path Yeltsin & his predecessors took in Russia.

    Zisser’s analysis could be virtually overlaid onto the Libya as well as it too went through the same inexorable pathetic transmogrification that would be expected amidst the hubris of triumphant American imperialism.

    That Cuba avoided this post-Soviet path only goes to show the difference between a State born in popular revolution that earnestly broke from capitalism with ideological roots versus these semi-socialist states that once enjoyed Soviet support vis-a-vis US Imperialism’s military bulkhead in the Mid-East — Israel.

    Given these facts, the idea that a Marxist Revolutionary would back Assad or Ghadaffi just yesterday in this epoch is as repugnant as the idea of a Marxist Revolutionary backing Putin today.

    The fools backing Putin et al today are ultimately quacks like Paul Craig Roberts, whose most popular venue has changed from CounterPunch.org to PrisonPlanet.com where he’s currently revered like the New Messiah by every Christian Conspiracist New Age Gold Hoarding, M.R.E. eating, Doomsday Prepper, reactionary fucktard who wouldn’t exist without the collapse of the Left that followed the collapse of the Soviets insofaras what Left Liberals & Trade Unionists never really understood is that their paradigm only existed while there was a really “actually existing socialism” in the form of the USSR.

    Ironic, isn’t it, that despite all the anti-communist machinations of the American Trade Union Bureaucracy their actual political strength was actually buttressed by the last vestiges of Bolshevik Revolution, which ultimately was only a giant trade union that managed to take state power.

    Meanwhile the idea that these last vestiges of Bolshevism are somehow still on display in Assad’s Syria, or Khadaf’s Libya or Putin’s Russia do such violence to global class realities that poor old Trotsky would be spinning like a trummel in his grave.

    If one wants to really study the class origins of the FSA and their thoroughly proletarian cadre against their thoroughly despicable adversaries — then one can only conclude that if a thoroughly miserable prick like John McCain (who wouldn’t be alive without the humanitarian instincts of Vietnamese Bolsheviks) advocates arming the FSA & lobbing cruise missiles into Assad strongholds — then I’m one Red Diaper baby who advocates destroying Assad’s assests but regrets it’s possibly too little too late for fuck’s sake since the cream of the revolutionary crop is likely wasted & now it’s quite possibly degenerated into a proxy war quagmire like Lebanon in the 80′s where only the toilers suffer ad nauseum.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 4, 2013 @ 3:47 am

  15. >> It should not protest any US intervention designed to degrade Assad’s capacity to crush the revolution >>

    `So a leftist is now supporting US attack on Syria now. And how do you determine a particular intervention is only degrading Assad and not killing Syrians?’

    I did not say I would support it I said I wouldn’t protest it. If anybody can make a mess of this operation it is the imperialists either by incompetence or for self-serving reasons trumping their supposed altruism. I say the rebels should take advantage of any intervention by Obama to consolidate and up the pressure on Assad. No doubt as soon as the refugees start coming home the people in the areas still controlled by Assad will tear him a new one and will not be remotely interested in Obama’s discussions. In the meantime beware as always false friends which the imperialist assuredly are and demand the lifting of the arms embargo that has prevented Syrians from defending themselves whilst Putin arms Assad and the Gulf states supply the Jihadis.

    Comment by David Ellis — September 4, 2013 @ 1:46 pm

  16. The other reason I don’t say I’d support it is because it is far from clear that there will be an intervention and I don’t want to create illusions in imperialism but urge Syrian rebels to continue to rely on their own strength. The only intervention so far after all has been the arms embargo and zip whilst 100,000 have died and millions turned into refugees.

    Comment by David Ellis — September 4, 2013 @ 1:53 pm

  17. My favourite part of this alleged “scoop” is the claim that there is a female fighter serving with a jihadist unit. They also seem rather unfamiliar with the geography of the area, regarding Ghouta as a town, when it is a region containing several towns. As a result we have no idea of where the alleged incident is supposed to have taken place.
    Its also a very incoherent piece for something supposedly overseen by a professional journalist (Dale Gavlak is a woman, by the way) – so much so that some of the sites that have republished it have rewritten the text to make it clearer.

    Comment by magpie68 — September 6, 2013 @ 10:38 am


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