Every so often the name of a town or neighborhood in Syria becomes a symbol of left divisions over the 3-year long civil war. First there was Houla, where a massacre of local villagers opposed to the dictatorship was blamed on the rebels, fueled by bogus reporting from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Next there was Ghouta, the Damascus suburb that once again involved a massacre of rebel sympathizers—this time by sarin gas. From the low—Mint Press—to the high (or at least, one-time high)—Seymour Hersh—the effort of the Baathist left once again has been directed toward turning the victim into the criminal. The latest incident involves Yarmouk, a neighborhood of a half-million Palestinian refugees that has been reduced to the aged, the ill, and those economically incapable of moving out of range of Baathist bombs and missiles.
I was planning to write about Yarmouk at some point down the road but decided to put it on the front-burner after a storm broke out in the comments section of Mondoweiss under a couple of articles written as rebuttals to an article that appeared there in the name of the Cornell chapter of the Students for Justice in Palestine. The article adopts the talking points of the Baathist left:
And fourth, we do not forget the US and Gulf role in militarizing the small bright hopeful protests which began in the spring of 2011 across Syria, snuffing out those fires of hope in a deluge of sectarianism, foreign proxies, and destruction. Nor do we forget that it was the Free Syrian Army, the brand-name for the “milder” of the Western-armed gangs which have rampaged across Syria, along with Jabhat al-Nusra and other reactionary militias which went into Yarmouk a year ago. It was their decision to enter the camp in late 2012 which led to the subsequent violence and its emptying out, with its people now in global scatter, some literally drowning in the Mediterranean.
A Facebook friend has told me that Max Ajl, a graduate student in the Cornell development sociology department, wrote the statement. Since Ajl has been an ardent “anti-imperialist” for some time now, this made perfect sense. It also suggests to me why Jacobin, another enterprise he is involved with, has also published a bunch of nonsense about the Arab revolt. It is all the more puzzling in the case of Jacobin since the editorial positions are generally a lot closer to Dissent than Global Research. One imagines that Ajl has powers of persuasion that work wonders on those who are relative newcomers to Marxism.
In discussing Yarmouk, I don’t want to focus too much on refuting the particular talking points of the Baathist left, such as Syria’s right to drop barrel bombs on the neighborhood since there are “terrorists” among the civilian population—an argument recycled from the Zionist trash bin—but instead take up the broader question of whether Syrian rebels have anything in common with the Palestinians. I intend to answer an article written by Jonathan Cook that appeared on Mondoweiss and perhaps a dozen other websites titled “The false analogy of Syria and Palestine”. I didn’t bother replying to Cook when the article came out in November since I had better things to do at the time but will do so now since it is pertinent to the Yarmouk controversy.
Cook starts off by falsely accusing me of being a “diehard interventionist”, a charge that many people accept largely on the basis of my stubborn resistance to Baathist lies. In their mind, pointing out the obvious flaws in the facts and logic of a Mint Press article or Seymour Hersh’s reporting proves that I have been consulting on war plans with Samantha Powers. Since I was in the Trotskyist movement in the 1960s, when Maoists used to recycle Vishinski’s Moscow Trial accusations, such smears roll off my back like water from a duck’s.
Cook’s exercise in prolixity was prompted by an observation made in my article that was mostly about the sarin gas controversy that he totally avoided:
With his long time commitment to the Palestinian cause, [Cook] seems to have trouble understanding that those under attack in Homs or Aleppo have much in common with those living in Gaza. While he is obviously trained enough to understand and communicate the plight of one group of Arabs, another group gets short shrift because it is perceived as inimical to the interests of peace.
Let me take up Cook’s objections to analogizing Syria with Palestine one by one.
Gaza is not like Syria because Palestinians live under a belligerent occupation, not in a unified, if failing state run by a dictator.
Any idiot understands that Syria is a unified state that emerged out of the post-WWII decolonization upheaval, unlike Palestine that was cheated out of statehood. But I was referring to cities and not states: “those under attack in Homs or Aleppo”. Right? My point was that Bashar al-Assad was using collective punishment against civilians who were “harboring terrorists”, just as the IDF did in Gaza. How could he not understand this? Well, I suppose that this goes hand in hand with labeling me an “interventionist” in the complete absence of evidence.
Now it seems that Yarmouk has joined Homs and Aleppo as a site of what the US military referred to as destroying a town in order to save it during the Vietnam War. Last week Baathist helicopters dropped barrel bombs on Yarmouk apartment buildings. This was the result:
Here’s the result of IDF bombing in Gaza:
I’ll let you decide whether my comparison is valid.
Cook adds that “external intervention” might apply to Gaza but not to Syria:
The comparison with Gaza is also unhelpful because it is possible to be in favour of external efforts to remove the occupation in Gaza without that also requiring us to be in favour of external efforts to overthrow the state apparatus in Syria.
This argument should be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for speciousness if they had such an award (given the amount of times Thomas Friedman has walked off with an award, maybe they do.) Nobody on the left is in favor of “external efforts to overthrow the state apparatus in Syria.” We are, however, in favor of internal efforts. Of course Hizbollah, Iran and Russia don’t count as “external efforts” to overthrow the “internal efforts” to overthrow the Baathists. In a bravura performance of sophistry, Cook makes the case for reinforcing Baathist rule:
Also to be addressed is the paradox that for the Syrian government to negotiate safely it needs to ensure its strength within the global system of nation-states; but with such strength it has less interest in making concessions to the rebels. This is a paradox that relates to the current world order. We may not like that order, but it is the only one that exists at the moment.
This dodgy statement is basically the negotiating position of the Syria-Iran-Russia alliance and we should make no mistake about it. “To ensure its strength within the global system of nation-states” is a formula for continued Baathist domination of its subject population as Cook admits (“it has less interest in making concessions to the rebels”). At least when you read someone like Pepe Escobar or Robert Fisk, you don’t have to put up with such circumlocutions.
Like most of the analysis proffered by the Baathist left, Cook’s article has the musty odor of having been written during the mass hysteria around Obama’s “red line” bluff:
Syria is caught in a power game, with the US and Saudi Arabia trying to keep Iran and its ally Syria weak on one side, and Iran desperately trying to keep its few remaining allies, among them Syria, as strong as possible in its battle against efforts by Israel and the west to undermine its sovereign integrity. Ignoring this as the main framework for understanding what is happening in Syria inevitably leads to erroneous analysis and faulty solutions.
As I pointed out in the months immediately following the Ghouta massacre, American imperialism had zero interest in “regime change” and would likely do nothing more than fire off some missiles and then resort to the status quo ante. But even I could not have predicted the turn against all the rebels that coincided with the thaw with Iran. It has been Syria and Iran that the USA wants to keep strong, rather than weak. President Rouhani has made it very clear that Iran is open to Western business, a ploy adopted by al-Assad (and Qaddafi) years ago and one that leads to mass discontent so powerful as to unleash a revolution.