Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 26, 2015

Seymour Hersh vindicated on sarin gas attack? Not really

Filed under: journalism,Syria,Turkey — louisproyect @ 6:44 pm

Fethullah Gülen: should we take his newspaper reports at face value?

As I pointed out in my article on “Baathist Truthers”, most members of the amen corner simply operate on a different basis than Marxism. Their method can be described as conspiracism and has a long history on the left. In its latest permutation, it boils down to a bastardized form of “investigative journalism” in which there is an almost obsessional need to find out the key piece of documentation—a Wikileaks cable, etc.—that will finally prove that the USA is responsible for everything bad that has happened in Syria rather than acknowledge it as the result of a bitter conflict over rival class interests. Syrian society? Don’t bother me with such irrelevancies, our conspiracists would maintain. The only thing that matters are CIA plots.

You get the same thing with Ukraine. From the minute the Euromaidan protests erupted, they were looking for the “proof” that the USA was behind the unrest. A phone call made by State Department Official Victoria Nuland was to blame, not corruption or police brutality. In such a schema, the Ukrainian or Syrian workers were marionettes sitting motionlessly on their behinds until the puppet-master began pulling their strings.

It should be mentioned that it is not just people on the left who have upheld conspiracy theories about Syria. Antiwar.com, a popular website run by Justin Raimondo who was the San Francisco coordinator of Proposition 187 that would have banned undocumented workers from using health care, public education, and other services in California, can usually be counted upon to spread the latest talking points of the conspiracist left.

As a key element of conspiracism, the false flag narrative crops up over and over. Early on, Global Research’s Tony Cartalucci was reporting that it was not Baathist snipers firing on peaceful protests but men recruited by the CIA or Saudi Arabia to make the progressive, tolerant and democratically elected Baathist state look bad.

Of course, the most infamous use of the “false flag” argument was that advanced on behalf of Bashar al-Assad immediately after the sarin gas attack in East Ghouta in August 2013. Ever since Assad surrendered his chemical weapons and began relying on impeccably clean conventional weapons to level apartment buildings and everybody who lived inside them, there hasn’t been much discussion about who was responsible.

But the topic reared its ugly head in the Oct. 23-25 weekend edition of CounterPunch with Peter Lee’s article “Hersh Vindicated? Turkish Whistleblowers Corroborate Story on False Flag Sarin Attack in Syria”. On most topics, Lee can be counted on to present logical arguments based on hard data but like most non-Marxists on the left, he makes a fool out of himself when it comes to Syria.

For example, his “proof” that Turkey mounted a false flag operation in cahoots with al-Nusra and ISIS relies on the testimony of sworn enemies of the ruling AKP:

I find the report credible, taking into full account the fact that the CHP (Erdogan’s center-left Kemalist rivals) and Today’s Zaman (whose editor-in-chief, Bulent Kenes was recently detained on live TV for insulting Erdogan in a tweet) are on the outs with Erdogan.

“On the outs”? That is like saying that Abe Lincoln was on the outs with Jefferson Davis. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been jailing Kemalist politicians and military men for years now. None other than chief conspiracist Eric Draitser considers Erdoğan to be the head of a “country that has given over to violence as a political tool, repression and censorship as standard government practice.” If you were a member of a party that was being hounded into submission by the Turkish ruling party, wouldn’t you be willing to make things up to embarrass Erdoğan or even to make him step down? This is especially true given the Kemalists’ own sleazy modus operandi. This is a party, after all, that backed one coup after another and that tortured and killed leftists and Kurds with a zeal that would make the typical Arab dictator green with envy.

Let’s assume that these sources are worth listening to for the moment. Do their reports make any sense? Lee offers up an article in “Today’s Zaman” in its entirety as evidence. This is the newspaper of the Gülen movement that has built charter schools in the USA to further its credibility with a wing of the ruling class whose favor it is attempting to curry. It shares the AKP’s goal of liquidating the Kemalist party. The relationship between the Kemalists, the AKP, and the Gülenists is quite byzantine. Prosecutors and judges sympathetic to Gülen were instrumental in railroading Kemalists to prison on behalf of the AKP. Now that the Kemalists have been tamed, the same prosecutors and judges are involved in cases being made against AKP leaders for corruption as the NY Times reported on February 26, 2014:

Many of the prosecutors and investigators in both cases — the corruption inquiry and the old military trials — are followers of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher who lives in exile in Pennsylvania. The adherents in his network were once partners in Mr. Erdogan’s governing coalition, but the government now considers them a “parallel state” to be rooted out through purges of the police and the judiciary.

A circular firing squad indeed and not conducive to impartial reports on sarin gas or much of anything else.

Basically, the Zaman report recapitulates the details of an arrest made in Adana, Turkey in May 2013, two months before the attack in Ghouta. In a nutshell, a group of 13 al-Nusra front members in Turkey had conspired with AKP officials to send sarin gas to Syria that would be used in a false flag operation meant to provoke the USA into a “regime change” invasion of Syria:

Taking the floor first, Erdem stated that the Adana Chief Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into allegations that sarin was sent to Syria from Turkey via several businessmen. An indictment followed regarding the accusations targeting the government.

“The MKE [Turkish Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation] is also an actor that is mentioned in the investigation file. Here is the indictment. All the details about how sarin was procured in Turkey and delivered to the terrorists, along with audio recordings, are inside the file,” Erdem said while waving the file.

Erdem also noted that the prosecutor’s office conducted detailed technical surveillance and found that an al-Qaeda militant, Hayyam Kasap, acquired sarin, adding: “Wiretapped phone conversations reveal the process of procuring the gas at specific addresses as well as the process of procuring the rockets that would fire the capsules containing the toxic gas. However, despite such solid evidence there has been no arrest in the case. Thirteen individuals were arrested during the first stage of the investigation but were later released, refuting government claims that it is fighting terrorism,” Erdem noted.

Over 1,300 people were killed in the sarin gas attack in Ghouta and several other neighborhoods near the Syrian capital of Damascus, with the West quickly blaming the regime of Bashar al-Assad and Russia claiming it was a “false flag” operation aimed at making US military intervention in Syria possible.

For Lee, this reporting “supports Seymour Hersh’s reporting that the notorious sarin gas attack at Ghouta was a false flag orchestrated by Turkish intelligence in order to cross President Obama’s chemical weapons ‘red line’ and draw the United States into the Syria war to topple Assad.”

If you have access to Nexis, you can check out what other newspapers were saying at the time.

To start with, the cops who arrested the 13 men reported that the two kilograms of sarin gas were going to be used against government offices in Turkey, not targeted at Syria. “The reports claimed that the al-Nusra members had been planning a bomb attack for Thursday in Adana but that the attack was averted when the police caught the suspects.” (Cihan News Agency, May 30, 2013) Things get even weirder as the same article indicates that the AKP blamed Syria for recent attacks by the terrorists. Now, there’s something you don’t see every day. Al-Assad using the al-Nusra Front in terrorist attacks on Turkey. Oh, by the way, the agency responsible for this rather incoherent article is also a Gülenist property, just like Zaman.

It should be stressed that this same news agency never claimed that ISIS was supposed to be the beneficiary of sarin gas supplied by some conspiracists either inside or outside the Turkish government. Instead it claimed that it was Ahrar al-Sham. So what’s the big deal, some might ask. They are Islamists, after all. Well, maybe so but Ahrar al-Sham was a bitter rival of ISIS so much so that it was targeted by the latter in suicide bombings. Well, who cares about such petty details when you are trying to make a bigger point, even if it is mindless conspiracism?

Later on the authorities changed their story. There was no sarin gas but only the ingredients that go into its manufacture.

But even if there was, what possible connection could that have with the East Ghouta attack that left over a thousand Syrians dead? Unless you are Mint Press that wrote at the time that the sarin gas seeped out from a storage area under rebel control due to an accidental breakage of containers, you need to be able to weaponize the stuff. This means having the technical means to construct rockets, delivery systems and the quantity of sarin gas required to disperse over a wide area.

This does not even get into the question of why al-Nusra would be involved in a “false flag” operation to precipitate a massive US intervention. Unlike the FSA, this group could not count on a free-fly zone or any other supposed benefit of intervention. It was considered a far more deadly enemy than the Baathists and one that the US has already targeted in lethal raids. I suppose that because all of these groups are “rebels” in one sense or another, it was easy for Hersh and anybody else in the amen corner to paper over the differences. Such sloppiness is endemic to the conspiracy-minded.

In April 2014, Elliot Higgins and Dan Kazseta wrote a Comments are Free piece in the Guardian taking issue with Seymour Hersh’s LRB article that remains as current as ever.

After mustering a wealth of video evidence that Baathist Volcano rockets were the means of delivery, the authors pose seven issues that had to be addressed. It is a total shame that none of the conspiracists in Assad’s amen corner has the scruples or intelligence to deal with them. Instead they would rather circulate the incoherent Gülenist press or rely on Seymour Hersh’s unnamed sources in spookworld. You are asked to take his word even if one CounterPunch contributor had this to say about him: “When there are serious political repercussions in the Middle East from Hersh’s much-read pieces, it would help for him to know better what he’s talking about.”

Firstly, sarin is difficult to make. Anyone who claims otherwise is oblivious to both history and chemical engineering. Germany, the US and the former Soviet Union took years to perfect the process. Its production requires a number of complex steps and the ability to handle highly dangerous chemicals at very closely controlled high temperatures and pressures. There is no evidence anyone has come up with any sort of streamlined method to manipulate the molecules to make sarin.

Second, quantity. Perfecting the process isn’t enough – there is a difference between making a spoonful and enough for the August attacks, which would have needed about half a ton. This assumes a scale only reached by big state production programmes. To put it in perspective, the one verified example of non-state production of sarin was the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan. Their many millions of dollars, very large purpose-built manufacturing facility and highly qualified staff got them the ability to make single batches of perhaps 8 litres of short shelf life Sarin. The alleged Aleppo plant wouldn’t need to be the size of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in the US, but it would have needed to be closer to that than the size of a house.

Third is the choice of weapon. Of the panoply of chemical warfare agents available to modern science and engineering, sarin is one of the hardest to make. So why was this one chosen? Even its nerve agent kin, Tabun and VX, are arguably easier to produce; mustard or lewisite are easier and use less technology. Numerous toxic industrial chemicals which might “fly under the radar” of non-proliferation regimes could be used as weapons. So why pick the hardest?

Fourth, economics. To make this operation work it is going to take a lot of highly trained people, raw materials, and specialised equipment, as well as a facility. It would cost many tens of millions of dollars. When the rebel factions are so stretched for resources, does it make any sense to spend, say, $50m on a weapon of limited utility? Lavish expenditure must raise a paper trail somewhere; there would be order books and receipts. Let’s see them.

Fifth is logistics. You don’t turn precursor material magically into sarin: you need about 9kg to end up with 1kg of sarin. This stuff has to come from somewhere, but where? Hersh omits these details, as do most of the alternative narratives. It is simply assumed that things like phosphorus trichloride and thionyl chloride just get summoned up in vast quantities without someone noticing. Most commentators on this issue have also forgotten about something called conservation of mass. If you use 9kg of material to synthesize 1kg of sarin you end up with 8kg of waste, rather a lot of which is very dangerous, smelly and corrosive. This waste stream has to go somewhere, and someone will notice. There are also the logistics of getting a lot of sarin into rockets and getting those rockets from Aleppo to Damascus.

Sixth, concealment. How do you hide all of this? The building, the supply chain, the people, the money, and the very smelly waste stream. Where are they? They need to be concealed not just from the Syrian regime but from other rebel factions, western intelligence agencies, the Russians, and perhaps even your own people who might desert, get captured or say silly things on YouTube videos. There is deathly silence from Aleppo and we only find out about it from Hersh?

Lastly is the specificity of the product. There are important physical clues found in the traces of sarin at the impact sites of the 21 August rocket attack. One of these is the presence of hexamine, a chemical with no history of use in nerve agent production. But hexamine can be used as an acid scavenger, and thus its presence could be explained due to its use as an additive to the sarin. This idea has been reinforced by both the admission of the Syrian regime that they used hexamine as part of their formula, and by Syria’s declaration to the OPCW of an inventory of 80 tonnes of hexamine, specifically as part of their chemical weapons program. Surely, as an uncontrolled substance, they could have omitted it from their declarations. But they didn’t. Hexamine in field samples plus hexamine in Syrian inventories, plus an admission that hexamine was in their recipe, seems a compelling case for tying the Sarin in the field to the Syrian regime. How would an Aleppo-based rebel factory somehow come up with the same exact idea?

Taken cumulatively, all these points add up to a very high degree of improbability. Isn’t it more probable that the Sarin came from the people who confessed to having a Sarin factory, fired from areas controlled by the government 2km away from the impact sites, in munitions the government had been using since 2012?

October 17, 2015

Patrick L. Smith: the latest inductee into the Baathist hall of shame

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

Patrick L. Smith

In 2014 I submitted an article titled “Treason of the Intellectuals” to Critical Muslim, a journal co-edited by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Ziauddin Sardar. It was rejected because of Britain’s strict libel laws. You can read it here, however: http://louisproyect.org/2014/06/04/i-run-afoul-of-stringent-british-libel-laws/. It examined how a number of high-profile scholars and journalists including David Bromwich and Seymour Hersh have lent themselves to the Baathist cause. After reading Patrick L. Smith’s article in Salon.com titled “Putin might be right on Syria: The actual strategy behind his Middle East push — and why the New York Times keeps obscuring it”, I decided that an addendum was necessary. Smith is both a veteran journalist and a scholar, having written for the International Herald Tribune and served as a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong. Yale University published his latest book “Time No Longer: After the American Century” so the fellow is no slouch.

I have learned, however, that such recognition is no guarantee against being a bullshit artist. In an interview given to Smith on Salon.com, Perry Anderson—one of the most celebrated Marxist authors of the past half-century—told Smith that “Stalin remained a communist who firmly believed that the ultimate mission of the world’s working class was to overthrow capitalism, everywhere.” I guess in his dotage Anderson has forgotten everything he ever wrote about Trotsky. No wonder Smith, who is a Putinite sufficient enough to embarrass Mike Whitney, would find Anderson’s “Marxism” to his tastes.

In another Salon.com interview that has the same character as Charlie Rose interviewing Bill Gates or Stephen Spielberg, Smith sat down with Stephen F. Cohen. You can imagine the tough questions he posed to the professor emeritus whose decline has been as steep as Anderson’s.

Smith grills the professor emeritus like Mike Wallace turning the heat up on a corporate polluter, right? Er, not exactly:

Smith: The Ukraine crisis in historical perspective. Very dangerous ground. You know this better than anyone, I’d’ve thought.

Cohen: Our position is that nobody is entitled to a sphere of influence in the 21st century. Russia wants a sphere of influence in the sense that it doesn’t want American military bases in Ukraine or in the Baltics or in Georgia.

I suppose in a realpolitik sense, Cohen is completely right. If the USA can have a base in Guantanamo, why can’t Russia protect its own interests in Ukraine and Syria? That’s the way it goes. If the USA can pulverize Allende’s Chile using its military as its hit man, why can’t Putin use his air force to make sure that his naval base in Tartus is defended? All’s fair in love in war (but maybe not in socialism.)

Turning now to Smith’s latest dreck, it is the sort of article that should be studied in journalism school for those with their heart set on writing for Newsweek or Time—in other words, the kind of places where people like Smith, Robert Parry and other converts to the Kremlin’s foreign policy have worked for decades. Written as a critique of the NY Times, Smith adopts many of its own dodgy techniques but on behalf of its nemesis Vladimir Putin. Since so much of the left is fixated on putting a plus where Thomas Friedman or Nicholas Kristof put a minus, it makes perfect sense that Smith would take a whack at the NY Times. My advice to aspiring journalists is to keep an independent class perspective no matter how difficult that is in such trying times.

Contrary to the NY Times, Smith feels that “Very simply, we have one secular nation [Russia] helping to defend what remains of another [Syria], by invitation, against a radical Islamist insurgency that, were it to succeed, would condemn those Syrians who cannot escape to a tyranny of disorder rooted in sectarian religious animosities.” Breathtaking, simply breathtaking.

Is Smith aware that the Russian Orthodoxy has blessed this intervention?

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 1.56.15 PM

Furthermore, a state has obligations beyond being “secular”. Leaving aside the question of how secular Syria was, it was a family dynasty that ruled through terror. Bashar al-Assad’s father came to power in a coup, after all. After he died, his son was offered in 2000 to the Syrian people through an uncontested referendum in which you could vote either yes or no. The Baathist election officials reported 99.7% of voters voted for him, with a turnout of 94.6%. Can you fucking imagine that? Salon.com, which runs articles 35 times a year screaming about election irregularities in the South (which it should) now features one that winks at this kind of demonstration “election”. Joan Walsh should be ashamed of herself.

For Smith, the Baathist selling point is that its bureaucracy exists:

The Assad government is a sovereign entity. Damascus has the beleaguered bones of a national administration, all the things one does not readily think of as wars unfold: a transport ministry, an education ministry, embassies around the world, a seat at the U.N. In these things are the makings of postwar Syria—which, by definition, means Syria after the threat of Islamic terror is eliminated.

So amusing to see such naked worship of the accomplished fact. The same litmus test could have been applied to Pinochet’s Chile or Suharto’s Indonesia.

Like so many on the left, using the term charitably, Smith views Obama as being just as intransigent as George W. Bush, maybe more so:

We can demonize Putin, Russia, Iran, Assad or anyone else we like. We lose in the end, because we destroy our capacity to see and think clearly. What we are doing in Syria today is Exhibit A.

Russia and its leader as Beelzebub is an old story. Obama, after his fashion, has simply bought into it. This is now irreducibly so, and the implications refract all over the place: Ukraine and the prospects for a negotiated settlement, Washington’s long-running effort to disrupt Europe’s extensive and complex interdependence with Russia. The unfolding events in the Middle East weigh heavily against any constructive turn in American policy on such questions.

If you read between the lines of this sort of inside-the-beltway prose, you understand what both Smith and Stephen F. Cohen yearn for, namely a kind of understanding between major powers over how to divide up the world into spheres of influence after the fashion of Yalta and Potsdam. If you are unlucky enough to be born a Sunni in Syria or a Ukrainian but outside of Donetsk or Luhansk, tough luck. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. Learn to live with it unless you want to get blasted to hell like the Chechens.

Showing that he is up to speed on the amen corner, Smith refers his readers to Thomas Harrington, the Trinity professor who blames Syria’s current woes on a 1996 article written by neocons. I have already dealt with Harrington’s nonsense here: http://louisproyect.org/2015/10/13/an-exchange-with-a-member-of-the-baathist-amen-corner/

He also cites Gary Leupp, another professor who writes for CounterPunch (and in the process throws scholarly standards out the window). Apparently Leupp believes that “the bulk of the peaceful protesters in the Syrian Arab Spring want nothing to do with the U.S.-supported armed opposition but are instead receptive to calls from Damascus, Moscow and Tehran for dialogue towards a power-sharing arrangement.” Looking for a citation on that? Don’t hold your breath. Leupp just made it up. After all, the ends justify the means. If you are writing propaganda to keep a blood-soaked dictatorship in power, why not assert that “the bulk of the peaceful protestors” are receptive to calls from Damascus, Moscow and Tehran. Frankly, I haven’t read such brazen bullshit outside of Rupert Murdoch’s NY Post editorial page.

But nothing tops this: “Thank you, professor. Now we know why the flow of refugees runs toward secular, democratic Europe and not areas of the nation Assad has lost to rebel militias.” Maybe that’s because Assad’s air force has the most puzzling tendency to drop bombs on the homes of people living in such areas. If you want background on that, have a look at Picasso’s “Guernica”.

October 10, 2015

The idiot’s guide to writing an anti-imperialist article about Syria

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

From left to right: Mike Whitney, Pepe Escobar, John Wight

Do you want to join the ranks of the leftist journalists who number in the thousands at this point covering the West’s brutal attack on progressive, peace-loving, pluralistic and clean-shaven Syria? If you agree with me that Mike Whitney, Eric Draitser, Pepe Escobar, Robert Fisk, John Wight, Patrick Higgins, Adam Johnson, and Shamus Cooke need some more help in preventing “regime change” in Syria at the very least and thermonuclear world war as the most extreme outcome, let me advise you on how to write an article that is certain to be published in all the right places.

To start with, don’t worry about plagiarism since this sort of article is not likely to appear in a peer-reviewed journal. When it comes to making the case for Baathist rule, the sky’s the limit.

An Introduction

To start with, you need an opening paragraph. Feel free to use mine:

Once again, the United States is saber-rattling over Syria, demonstrating that Barack Obama will not be satisfied until there is a puppet government in Damascus that is willing to open up the country to penetration from multinational corporations and to host NATO military bases as a beachhead for an attack on Iran and then on Russia. This is part of a new Cold War that has been brewing since the mid-1990s when neo-conservatives decided to liquidate the pole of opposition to Western banks and corporations in those parts of the world that were aligned with Russia.

For credibility’s sake, you need to include a disclaimer close to the beginning that reads something like this:

This is not to say that Bashar al-Assad has been a paragon of leftist virtue. As is commonly understood, he has adopted neoliberal reforms that were forced upon him by sanctions and other forms of economic pressure by Western banks and corporations. He has also jailed opponents of his government unfortunately. If Syria were not under the sorts of pressure that other independent-minded governments had been submitted to, the amount of political prisoners would certainly be reduced.

As long as you say something along these lines, nobody can accuse you of being a Baathist tool (not that such a charge could possibly be made by anybody who was not on the payroll of the CIA.)

Once you get the intro out of the way, you can get down to brass tacks. Using Google, it is not too difficult to dredge up all the talking points that make an article such as this so attractive to Jacobin editor Max Ajl.

Google “Syria proxy war” (2,400,000 results):

Close to the top of the results set, you will find a piece that the Angry Arab wrote for Huffington Post in 2014. Since it is important to find at least one Arab who is not on the Baathist payroll to make excuses for President Assad, it is probably a good idea to cite Mr. Angry rather than plagiarize him. He writes:

There are thousands of reasons for the Syrian people to protest against a family dictatorship that has controlled much of their lives since 1970 but the civil protest movement did not erupt by itself, the Western media narrative notwithstanding. Concurrent with the protest movement that erupted in 2011, Turkey and Gulf regimes had already set up armed rebel groups to help bring down a regime.

You’ll note that Mr. Angry adds the necessary disclaimer: “There are thousands of reasons for the Syrian people to protest against a family dictatorship that has controlled much of their lives since 1970” but then he deftly proceeds to focus on how Turkey and the Gulf regimes were lurking in the background ready to exploit some understandable discontent. Back in the 1960s, this is the sort of analysis heard frequently from college presidents facing a student strike or occupation. Yes, there were some reasons for students to be unhappy about the war but outside agitators from SDS came in and fomented violence—curse their eyes.

Google “Syria beheading” (842,000 results):

It is essential to document the tendency of the rebels to chop off peoples’ heads. This sort of ghastly image is worth a thousand words even though in the interests of good taste it is probably a mistake to show a head rolling about on the ground. Now most of these results will obviously be referring to ISIS. This does present some problems since some “humanitarian intervention” ZioNazis have written articles in places like the NY Review of Books pointing out that Assad turned a blind eye to ISIS when it was getting a foothold in Syria. I wouldn’t worry too much about this. Nobody cares if you say that the Mossad and the CIA are mainly responsible for ISIS. Consult Global Research on this. They have a vast database of such articles.

But your best bet is to find anything that connects al-Nusra to beheading since the FSA has joined forces on occasion with the group against the Baathist military. This allows you to make an amalgam between al-Nusra, the FSA and beheading. What could be more useful?

You might want to refer to an article titled “Nusra Terrorists Behead 40 in Syria” that appeared in Al-Alam. Now Al-Alam is part of Iran’s state-owned media but I wouldn’t worry about this too much. Most readers will accept the report at face value since they are prepared to think the worst of a group that brought down the WTC and that wants to destroy our progressive, peace-loving, pluralistic and clean-shaven way of life.

Google “Syria CIA” (28,100,00 results):

You really hit the jackpot with this one, an embarrassment of riches. There are so many ways to go that your only problem is finding which material is best for discrediting those fighting Assad, who must be likened to the Nicaraguan contras, RENAMO, UNITA and all the other CIA assets from the Reagan era.

But be careful that some malcontent does not bring up the Baathist participation in the CIA rendition program. You have to watch out for comments on your article that might have graphic references to the necessary treatment of stubborn jihadist scum being called to order in a Syria prison:

  • waterboarding,
  • “rectal feeding”—i.e., feeding by rape; liquidating entire solid-food meals, inserting it into detainees rectum via IV, and pumping it into the large intestines,
  • rape threats with broomsticks,
  • “ice water baths,”
  • standing sleep deprivation; sleep deprivation for up to 180 hours,
  • threats with buzzing power drills
  • threats to kill family members and rape mothers

Your best bet is to have the people running the website where your article appears to delete them without skipping a beat. The obvious intention of these creeps is to make the Middle East’s only progressive, peace-loving, pluralistic and clean-shaven government look bad and we can’t have that. You might even reference Christopher Hitchens’s encounter with waterboarding. He didn’t like it very much, I admit, but he did survive the experience after all.

Google “Syria wikileaks” (1,770,000 results)

This goes hand in hand with the search above. For most of your potential readers, any way that you can work the CIA or secret cables revealed by Wikileaks into your article helps you make your overall point even though of course most of them have made up their minds that the opposition to Syria is rotten to the core long ago. As is the case in this type of work, repetition is essential. Why else would Trivago run ads 10 times an hour on CBS during prime time on many popular shows?

I would point you to an article that Robert Naiman wrote for Truthout, a website whose editorial board he sits upon. It is actually a chapter from a book on Wikileaks by Verso that I received a review copy for a while back. The title of the article is “WikiLeaks Reveals How the US Aggressively Pursued Regime Change in Syria, Igniting a Bloodbath”, one that suits the predominantly conspiracist mindset of much of the left that like Naiman wisely prefers to the retrograde and irrelevant Marxist theory some antediluvians prefer.

Wikileaks refers to a 2006 cable written by a Bush administration official that was in line with the “regime change” orientation that led to the disastrous war in Iraq. Even though the Obama administration that Naiman urged a vote for in 2008 and 2012 abandoned that policy and sought a new orientation to Iran, it is still useful to cite the cable since the entire purpose is to represent US foreign policy as a one-note affair that rules out reorientations such as Nixon’s trip to China, etc.

Again it is necessary to ward off complaints from ZioNazis who will try to embarrass you by referring to articles that appeared before the Arab Spring along the lines of the March 26 2009 NY Times: “With Isolation Over, Syria Is Happy to Talk” or even after the revolt in Syria broke out in early 2011 when Hillary Clinton referred to Bashar al-Assad as a “reformer”. Your best bet is to dismiss such reports as disinformation carefully intended to lull us into believing that “regime change” was not being plotted in Washington.

The Conclusion

You should include the following points:

–Russian intervention is designed to bring the war to an end. It is only through a muscular application of force that the jihadist threat can be overcome. It might make sense to refer to the WWII alliance between the USSR and the USA, as Putin has done. Many of your readers will be inclined to think of the Syrian rebels as the modern-day equivalent of the Japanese and German last-ditch resistance to the allied war machine. Surely, there is a much more calibrated approach by the Russians even if a bunch of hospitals had to be leveled in rebel-controlled areas. You can always say that if the USA bombed a Doctors without Borders hospital in Kunduz, why make a big deal about Russia?

–Stress civilized values and the need to preserve them. You might want to borrow some of Christopher Hitchens’s lofty prose from the early 2000’s. He really knew how to make the case for preserving Enlightenment values:

We know that the enemies of our civilization and of Arab-Muslim civilization have emerged from what is actually a root cause. The root cause is the political slum of client states from Saudi Arabia through Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere, that has been allowed to dominate the region under U.S. patronage, and uses people and resources as if they were a gas station with a few flyblown attendants.

Indeed, there is at least one veteran leftist who is clearly channeling Christopher Hitchens (let’s hope he goes easy on the whiskey and smokes):

In particular the Saudi gang of corrupt potentates, sitting in gilded palaces in Riyadh, have long been dredging a deep well of hypocrisy as part of the US-led grand coalition against IS and its medieval barbarism. A state that beheads almost as many people in public as IS, the oil-rich kingdom’s status as a close Western ally is beyond reprehensible.

(John Wight, “The West and ISIS”)

The Russia-ISIS shuffle

Now I don’t have any easy answers for this but in terms of what Mr. Wight wrote, you might want to think about how to handle a rather delicate matter, namely the general perception that Russia is not attacking ISIS but the other groups that are more interested in getting rid of Assad than in building a Caliphate based on a medieval model. Your best bet is go on the offensive and claim that such groups are just as bad even if it involves stretching the truth. You might even break the truth here and there. A readership that has been reading Global Research, Jacobin and WSWS.org for the past few years has been softened up to the point that it would probably believe that the FSA intends to invade the USA and convert Bill Maher to Islam at the point of a gun.

October 5, 2015

A closer look at Jabhat al-Nusra

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 9:58 pm

Jabhat al-Nusra fighters

On September 27th I tweeted this in response to someone else’s 140 character revelation that American-trained “moderate” rebels had traded weapons to al-Nusra in exchange for safe passage into Syria: “Good. I hope they use it to blast the Syrian military to hell.”

As some of you may know, I have little use for Twitter except as a place to forward links to my blog. It is simply impossible to express complex ideas in 140 characters. My tweet was nothing much more than a wisecrack but some like Jacobin’s David Mizner interpreted it as me “celebrating the delivery of US arms to Al Qaeda.”

For Mizner, Patrick Higgins, Adam Johnson, Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn and David Bromwich, there is a prima facie basis for lumping all those who fight against Assad as “jihadist”. Since the FSA has collaborated with al-Nusra against the Baathist military, this is proof positive that it is an accessory after the fact. Of course, you will find no acknowledgement in all of their writings that the FSA and al-Nusra have done more to combat ISIS until the more recent period than the Baathists. In a May 2015 al-Monitor article, the conflict between Nusra and ISIS was clearly established:

Several areas of West Qalamoun have been witnessing since two days, a fierce wave of raids conducted by Jabhat al-Nusra against IS strongholds and checkpoints, and clashes erupted between both groups.

As a result of the campaign, dozens of IS members, including leaders and emirs, were arrested. On the first day, about 47 members were detained, according to sources.

For many in the Baathist amen corner, there is an incentive to put Nusra in the foreground since any identification with al-Qaeda is bound to summon up images of 911, bin-Laden, shoe bombers, Sharia law, forced wearing of the hijab, bans on smoking and drinking—in other words all the things that get the vigilant attention of Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, and Christopher Hitchens when he was alive.

Ten years ago political Islam was more acceptable than it is today for obvious reasons. When jihadists were sticking it to the marines in Fallujah, it was a cause for celebration. In 2004 Mike Whitney took the side of the insurgents there without questioning their political or religious beliefs. Apparently reports such as the one that appeared in the November 10, 2004 Washington Post did nothing to persuade Whitney or anybody else in the amen corner to support the marines:

In Fallujah, [foreign fighter] Abu Thar was assigned to a group called Monotheism and Jihad. The group is headed by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who has asserted responsibility for many of the most extreme terrorist strikes in Iraq, and who last month allied his group with al Qaeda.

Can you imagine Mike Whitney praising anything called Monotheism and Jihad today? Well, maybe if it was based in Seattle and was blowing up Starbucks, he might.

For reasons having to do with my unwillingness to take anything at face value, I never found the presence of al-Nusra in Syria to be a game changer. If the FSA was willing to work with them, more power to them.

But the recent torrent of pro-Assad propaganda prompted by the Russian entry into the war and the bombing of towns that are supposedly under the control of “al-Qaeda” convinced me to take a closer look at al-Nusra. If my taking a closer look at the group condemns me as a jihadist sympathizer, so be it. I have been called worse things over the years.

If you are looking for the typical al-Qaeda type sectarian terrorist attack, wouldn’t it make sense to look for something in the Nexis database with the keywords “Nusra mosque bombing Syria” as I just did? If you don’t have access to Nexis, try Googling it. What you will discover is that the preponderance of articles close to the top reveals this incident:

An explosion in a mosque in northern Syria killed 25 members of al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, including one of its leaders, as they attended Ramadan prayers, a monitoring group said on Friday.

Director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) Rami Abdel Rahman said the death toll could rise as dozens of civilians were also injured in the explosion during Iftar prayers in the city of Ariha.

“Twenty-five members of Al-Nusra Front, including a leader of the jihadist group, died in an explosion inside a mosque in the city of Ariha, in Idlib province,” the Britain-based observatory said.

Of course, if car bombs were going off in front of Alawite or Shi’ite mosques in Syria, you’d expect Robert Fisk to report it. What about beheading? This is the sort of thing, after all, that got Obama and Putin to start raining bombs on Syrian villages, after all. Well, Robert Fisk did report that Nusra beheaded seventy Baathist soldiers back on October 29, 2014. This is the only reference to such an atrocity I could find. However, it is significant that his article does not refer to any media account that puts the blame on Nusra. Perhaps he was embarrassed that the only source of this news was the Daily Mail, a newspaper that editorialized in favor of Mussolini and Hitler in the 1930s and that has lost seven lawsuits since 2001 over bogus reporting.

If the ultimate goal of Jabhat al-Nusra is to create an Islamic state based on Sharia, there’s not much relevance to what it is doing today, which is indistinguishable from all the other militias in Syria—namely to defeat the Syrian army until the Baathist state is overthrown. It is also worth noting that Iran, the supposed arch-enemy of al-Nusra, is also an Islamic state based on Sharia law. I guess some Islamic states are more equal than others.

Since Hassan Hassan’s book on ISIS is so highly regarded, I thought it would be worth it to check out his March 4, 2014 article on Nusra that appeared in The National. Titled “A jihadist blueprint for hearts and minds is gaining traction in Syria”, it describes a group that is anything but fanatical:

The strategies derived from [Islamist theoretician] Abu Musab’s guidelines to win hearts and minds are largely four-fold: provide services to people, avoid being seen as extremists, maintain strong relationships with communities and other fighting groups, and put the focus on fighting the regime.

Throughout Syria, Jabhat Al Nusra is known to be a pragmatic group that does not impose its ideology in liberated areas and can even turn a blind eye to those who have to deal with the regime for daily needs. In one statement, Jabhat Al Nusra’s leader warned his followers: “Beware of being hard on them. Begin with the priorities and fundamentals of Islam, and be flexible on the minor parts of religion.”

Abu Musab heralded the rise of what he called “the third generation of jihadis”, which is exactly what we may be witnessing now. By the first and second generations, he means the jihadists in Afghanistan and Iraq who committed grave mistakes that undermined jihad.

As it turns out, Patrick Cockburn—one of the grand Poobahs of the amen corner—wrote about Nusra in his new book “The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution,” that is about as dodgy as Fisk’s recycling of the Daily Mail.

In Adra on the northern outskirts of Damascus in early 2014, I witnessed [Nusra] forces storm a housing complex by advancing through a drainage pipe which came out behind government lines, where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.

Writing for the Daily Beast, Idrees Ahmed put Cockburn’s reporting under a microscope where it belongs. He wrote:

Cockburn was witnessing a war crime.

But there is a problem. The atrocity may or may not have happened, and it seems unlikely that Cockburn witnessed it.

Before Cockburn published the first edition of his book in August 2014 and promoted himself to the status of witness, he had devoted only two articles to Adra; neither mentions him witnessing a massacre. Indeed, according to the first—published in his January 28, 2014, column for The Independent —Cockburn arrived in Adra after the alleged incident and was told the story about rebels advancing through a drainage pipe and massacring civilians by “a Syrian [regime] soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali.”

The story about a massacre in Adra, allegedly carried out by Islamist rebels, was briefly reported on before disappearing in a swirl of contradictory claims. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have no record of it. The Russian broadcaster RT covered it, but used fake pictures, which it subsequently had to withdraw.

For the sordid details on Cockburn’s account of Adra, read Idrees Ahmed’s article here.

October 3, 2015

War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength

Filed under: journalism,mechanical anti-imperialism,Syria — louisproyect @ 11:50 pm

Screen Shot 2015-10-03 at 7.48.05 PM

September 19, 2015

Baathist truthers

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 7:52 pm

In the course of responding to the amen corner for the past couple of weeks over the Syrian refugee crisis, it dawned on me that it is not only an ethical lapse that we are dealing with but a theoretical one as well. Largely as a function of its narrow focus on US foreign policy and the sort of revelations we associate with Seymour Hersh type investigative reporting, Wikileaks, etc., there is zero interest in how Marxism can relate to events taking place within Syria. The country becomes a kind of black box where reductionism is taken to such an extreme degree that everything is bracketed out except what the CIA or other Western imperialist agencies are up to. Tunnel vision is perfectly suited to Baathist state terrorism.

When the protests erupted in Syria in 2011, I tried to get as much information as possible about the social and economic conditions that spurred people into action. Although I disagreed with Jadaliyya’s Bassam Haddad on some questions, I found his analysis of the agrarian crisis most useful, especially “The Syrian Regime’s Business Backbone” that appeared in the Spring 2012 Middle East Report. It was a reminder that the Baathist state was socialist in name only:

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.

But within the first month of the protests, others were searching for a CIA connection since Syria was perceived as an ally of Russia, Venezuela, Cuba and Iran—four countries that to varying degrees represented an “anti-imperialist” pole of attraction. When I kept urging one old friend to look at websites that took the side of the anti-Assad revolt, he told me that he did not have time for that. Meanwhile, he was obviously keeping track of what Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk and Tariq Ali were writing with no problem. In essence, what you had was a total refusal to examine all sides of a political question because “our obligations were to oppose imperialism”. Basically it was the same kind of intellectual laziness and lack of backbone that allowed most of the left to defend the Moscow Trials in the late 1930s.

As the years and bloodletting wore on, a “truther” mentality set in that was not that different from the “911” type. “False flags” were constantly being referred to as if the USA was planning to invade Syria and impose a sectarian Sunni state in the same way that George W. Bush imposed a sectarian Shiite state in Iraq. Blaming Assad for the Sarin gas attack in East Ghouta was like the WMD propaganda campaign in 2002. Or like 911 since Dubya supposedly needed that as a casus belli.

Even today, you have warnings about “regime change” in places like WSWS.org no matter what Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly I. Churkin stated: “This is something we share now with the U.S. Government: They don’t want the Assad Government to fail. They want to fight ISIL in a way that won’t harm the Syrian government.”

Instead of examining class relations, the left became amateur sleuths anxious to prove once and for all that the USA has been using Syrian rebels as puppets to bring down the Assad dictatorship. Influenced by the musings of ex-CIA agents such as Ray McGovern, there was a search for incriminating evidence that would allow the scales to fall from the public’s eyes and rouse it to pressure politicians to end the “war on Syria”. If only they knew. The dedication to this cause is almost as impressive as what you get from those arguing that burning jet fuel was incapable of bringing down the WTC.

Just as is the case with 911 truthers, the Baathist left shares links to the same articles that get repeated endlessly in places like Jacobin, Mint Press, DissidentVoice or Information Clearing House. I would venture to guess that the items reviewed below have been recycled hundreds of times already by the Baathist left and there is no sign that their shelf life will expire any time soon. And to what end? To justify the killing of countless more Syrians. And how is this possible? The answer: you have to objectify and dehumanize human beings, the function of a left gone mad. As a political response to mass murder, it is exactly the same as how most Israelis view the destruction of Gaza.

What all of these items below have in common is that they are based on some revelation of a top-secret or nearly top-secret memorandum or diplomatic initiative that proves once and for all that the USA was behind the “war on Syria”. Once they are exposed, they are picked up by a myriad of websites dedicated to the Baathist cause. In some ways, the websites that carry out this task are similar to the hired trolls who work in a basement in Moscow on Putin’s behalf. I am not sure whether doing this kind of work for pay is sleazier than doing it for free.

US refusal to accept a deal that would have removed Assad from office

Three days ago the Guardian reported on the revelation made by former president of Finland Martti Ahtisaari that when the aforementioned Vitaly Churkin proposed a deal three years ago that would have resulted in Assad stepping down in exchange for peace, the USA, Britain and France said no.

Writing for CounterPunch, Peter Lee considered this “an instance of neoliberal ass-covering, as if the Western allies were just waiting for Assad ‘to fall’” while Information Clearing House, a reliably pro-Assad website, reposted the Guardian article with the obvious intention of showing how Putin stood for peace and the West for war. Then there is David Swanson of Lets Try Democracy who concludes: “peace has been carefully avoided at every turn.” (http://davidswanson.org/node/4914)

The only problem is that Churkin was not the ultimate authority on such matters. Much closer to Putin and certainly speaking for him, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated just four months later: “We will not support and cannot support any interference from outside or any imposition of recipes. This also concerns the fate of Bashar al-Assad.”

The other thing that was obviously of zero interest to Peter Lee, David Swanson or Assad’s pals at Information Clearing House was the feelings of the Syrian opposition. Clearly, what the plan entailed was a Yemen type solution in which Assadism without Assad would continue. If you could see things through the eyes of people who had been tortured in Assad’s jails, you could understand why they would resist a solution that left the Syrian army and police intact especially since it had just gone through the ordeal of seeing its nonviolent supporters shot down in the streets by government snipers for the better part of a year. Maybe the protesters didn’t understand that they were CIA puppets and that decrying torture only benefited ExxonMobil and Chase Bank.

One might understand why the rebels are of no consequence to some. As an indistinguishable mass of bearded takfiri inimical to our values of freedom and tolerance, they have to be stopped before they come here and carry out more Charlie Hebdo type attacks. FSA, ISIS, al-Nusra Front—it’s all the same. That’s why it was so beneficial when Patrick Cockburn advised Parliament that jet bombing attacks against the terrorists had to be coordinated with Assad. Can’t you see Christopher Hitchens smiling benignly down from heaven (or up from hell) now that his message to an errant left has finally been vindicated?

Wikileaks regime change memo from 2006

This one is in heavy rotation in all sorts of places, from Global Research to Glenn Greenwald. This State Department had outlined a series of measures that could destabilize the Assadist dictatorship ranging from influencing members of the military to stirring up the Kurds.

What it does not include is any reference to exactly what posed the biggest threat to Assad five years later: a peaceful mass movement calling for democracy and an end to the sort of robbery that characterized the big businesses aligned with the regime, starting with Rami Makhlouf who controlled 60 percent of the Syrian economy.

Nor was there any consideration of a shift in US foreign policy that coincided with the arrival of Barack Obama into the White House in 2008. On March 26, 2009 the New York Times reported:

Only a year ago, this country’s government was being vilified as a dangerous pariah. The United States and its Arab allies mounted a vigorous campaign to isolate Syria, which they accused of sowing chaos and violence throughout the region through its support for militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

It is not just a matter of the Obama administration’s new policy of engagement. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France led the way with a visit here last September. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was said to be furious at the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, welcomed him warmly in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, this month. Photographs of the two men smiling and shaking hands have been on the front pages of all the major Arab newspapers, along with frequent headlines about the “Arab reconciliation.”

One might safely assume that if the rabble had not taken to the streets in March of 2011, there would have been a rapid march toward fulfilling the “new policy of engagement” alluded to above. Indeed, even with the death of 225,000 Syrians, the Obama administration has shown an impressive determination to go full speed ahead with a realigned foreign policy that sees Iran and the Baathists as having a common interest in bringing stability to the region.

Judicial Watch release of US Intelligence Report that shows the USA was in cahoots with ISIS

Ever since this document appeared on the rightwing Judicial Watch’s website got the Baathist juices flowing. Seumas Milne, a diehard supporter of the gangsters in Damascus, wrote:

A revealing light on how we got here has now been shone by a recently declassified secret US intelligence report, written in August 2012, which uncannily predicts – and effectively welcomes – the prospect of a “Salafist principality” in eastern Syria and an al-Qaida-controlled Islamic state in Syria and Iraq. In stark contrast to western claims at the time, the Defense Intelligence Agency document identifies al-Qaida in Iraq (which became Isis) and fellow Salafists as the “major forces driving the insurgency in Syria” – and states that “western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey” were supporting the opposition’s efforts to take control of eastern Syria.

(Milne was joined by David Mizner, a pinhead over at Jacobin who wrote essentially the same article, as is common practice in such circles. Jacobins Mizner, Patrick Higgins, and Max Ajl are part of a Twitter network that includes the imbeciles who organized the “Zizek must be destroyed” panel discussion at the Left Forum two years ago. If they organize something like this again, maybe they can invite Bhaskar Sunkara to speak although that might not sit well with fellow editor Sebastian Budgeon whose admiration for Zizek is boundless.)

As is universally true when dingbats like Milne consult such documents to bolster their Baathist talking points, they omit anything that would undermine their case. Do they think that people lack the ability to read critically? It is astonishing that a reputable paper like the Guardian would hire someone who wouldn’t cut the mustard at a Murdoch newspaper at least on the basis of professionalism. Milne says that the Intelligence Report “effectively welcomes” the growth of a formation like ISIS. But the concluding paragraph of the report states:



What could possibly have allowed Milne to describe anything like this as “effectively” welcoming the emergence of ISIS? Do the words “Grave Danger” mean something different to him than they do to the average person? Where is George Orwell when we need him to unravel such doublethink when “effectively welcome” and “a grave danger” go together?

Since the report was only a draft and heavily redacted, it is open to different interpretations. If ISIS were such a “grave danger”, why would “the west” support it? It does state that Qatar, Turkey and “the west” support the opposition but if so, why does it conclude with a dire warning about the jihadist threat to Iraq and Western interests?

But that’s the problem you run into when everything turns on a top-secret memo whose author is unnamed and unaccountable. When Seymour Hersh kept referring to his sources inside the intelligence community, there was no way to validate their claims. It was their word against any detractors who came along that found their story to be pure bullshit.

The report also claims that the Muslim Brotherhood was one of the main participants in the armed opposition but this is utter nonsense. A couple of its members were represented in the official Syrian opposition in exile but it has never been a “driving force” as the report asserts.

If you want to read a serious analysis of how ISIS came into being, I recommend Peter Neumann’s article in the April 2014 London Review of Books, a journal that has published Seymour Hersh, Tariq Ali, Charles Glass, and David Bromwich on Syria. As these four individuals are part of the amen corner, rest assured that the LRB is no friend of the Syrian opposition. Neumann wrote:

The most significant, long-term consequence of Assad’s policy arose from the opening up of Syria to international jihadist networks. Before he turned his country into a transit point for foreign fighters, Syrian jihadists had been largely homegrown. If international links existed, they were to neighbouring countries. Al-Qaida had always had prominent Syrians as members – the strategist Abu Musab al-Suri, for example, or Abu Dahdah, who was sentenced to a lengthy prison term in Spain – but they had fled the country in the early 1980s, and there is no evidence that they directed jihadist activities inside Syria, sought to organise them, or even showed any interest in doing so. The terrorism experts were not entirely wrong, therefore, in believing that – for some time at least – Syria was outside al-Qaida’s orbit.

This changed in 2003 when Assad allowed the jihadists in his country to link up with Zarqawi and become part of a foreign fighter pipeline stretching from Lebanon to Iraq, with way points, safehouses and facilitators dotted across the country. With the active help of Assad’s intelligence services, Syria was opened to the influx – and influence – of experienced and well-connected jihadists from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen and Morocco, who brought with them their contact books, money and skills. Within a few years, the country ceased to be a black spot on the global jihadist map: by the late 2000s it was familiar terrain to foreign jihadists, while jihadists from Syria had become valued members of al-Qaida in Iraq, where they gained combat experience and acquired the international contacts and expertise needed to turn Syria into the next battlefront.

The Washington Post article that alluded to a billion dollars spent on the armed opposition to Assad

Adam Johnson of FAIR, Patrick Higgins of Jacobin, and countless others have linked to this article that like the ones cited above amounts to some kind of “smoking gun” that proves the USA has been involved in “regime change”. Referring to the article, Higgins lamented the fact that “the United States launched a full-scale war against Syria, and few Americans actually noticed.”

I guess Higgins is stunned by the monumental expense but maybe he isn’t aware that a billion dollars is chickenfeed when it comes to supporting military adventures. Experts in the field estimate that Iran spends $6 billion per year to prop up the Syrian dictatorship. Syria spent $2.5 billion on its military in 2011, the last year for which data exists. You can safely assume that it has doubled given the escalation of the violence. So if it was $5 billion, Iran and Syria have spent 44 times as much on warfare than those it has been trying to kill.

One might think that people like Adam Johnson would be more motivated to scrutinize media reports since after all a media watchdog employs him. As is always the case, you need to evaluate multiple reports to gauge whether the USA was involved in what Higgins called “a full-scale war” and that he himself referred to as “intervening” in Syria in “measurable and significant ways.” Perhaps they have a subscription to the WSJ over at FAIR. If they do, Johnson should have been doing his homework before writing such a stupid article. On January 26th of this year, Adam Entous reported:

It didn’t take long for rebel commanders in Syria who lined up to join a Central Intelligence Agency weapons and training program to start scratching their heads.

After the program was launched in mid-2013, CIA officers secretly analyzed cellphone calls and email messages of commanders to make sure they were really in charge of the men they claimed to lead. Commanders were then interviewed, sometimes for days.

Those who made the cut, earning the label “trusted commanders,” signed written agreements, submitted payroll information about their fighters and detailed their battlefield strategy. Only then did they get help, and it was far less than they were counting on.

Some weapons shipments were so small that commanders had to ration ammunition. One of the U.S.’s favorite trusted commanders got the equivalent of 16 bullets a month per fighter. Rebel leaders were told they had to hand over old antitank missile launchers to get new ones—and couldn’t get shells for captured tanks. When they appealed last summer for ammo to battle fighters linked to al Qaeda, the U.S. said no.

All sides now agree that the U.S.’s effort to aid moderate fighters battling the Assad regime has gone badly. The CIA program was the riskiest foray into Syria since civil war erupted in 2011.

Now I don’t care if Higgins and Johnson believe this or not, or for that matter, whether they think the refugee crisis was caused by Nicholas Kristof, but if you don’t take the trouble to account for data that contradicts your thesis, you better get out of the journalism business and look for a job with Rupert Murdoch who is always on the lookout for people who know to twist the truth into a pretzel.

September 11, 2015

Is Europe exporting jihadists to Syria?

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:20 pm

Max Ajl: he thinks so

So does he

It should be patently obvious at this point that a large-scale propaganda offensive on behalf of the Baathist killing machine is taking place. Just as the August 2013 sarin gas attack in East Ghouta prompted a tsunami of articles warning about Obama’s “red line”, two years later we are witnessing the same phenomenon around the refugee crisis. In the hundreds of thousands of words from the “anti-imperialist” left, you can find virtually none that puts the blame where it properly belongs—at the doorstep of the bloodstained despot in Damascus.

In a Telesur article titled “Can Images of Refugees Speak?”, Jacobin editorial board member Max Ajl draws from the same dubious Washington Post article that fellow propagandists Patrick Higgins and Adam Johnson relied upon to make the case that an American “war on Syria” is to blame for the refugee crisis.

However, Ajl goes one bold step further in bending the facts—or maybe breaking them—to suit his ideological aims. He advises his readers that the dreaded terrorists who poured into Syria to join ISIS from Europe were not acting on their own. They amounted to agents of European governments:

However, some remedies might be called for. It is Europe which freely exports reactionaries to Syria [emphasis added], something it could consider ceasing.

According to the most conservative numbers from the Brookings Institute, at the very least over 900 French foreign fighters have invaded Syria. Over 650 Belgians, 500 from the United Kingdom, and at least 300 from Germany as well. Europol estimates an overall sum of perhaps 5,000. They are likely not joining the leftist Kurdish militia.

I paused over this passage and wondered what Ajl had in mind. Was he saying that the European security forces were lining up fanatics to go build the caliphate that is beheading Christians? I tried to imagine a cop at the airport security gate in Orly spotting a guy in black fatigues with a turban on his head and a beard down to his belly-button. After he pulls him aside for interrogation, the guy shows him an official letter from the Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure stating that he had been cleared to wreak havoc in Syria. After seeing this, the cop pats him on the back and sends him on his way.

After I posted a brief note about Ajl’s foolishness on Facebook, Dick Gregory (a British socialist and not the elderly Black comedian) referred me to another article that claimed Europe was exporting terrorists alongside BMW automobiles and Pinot Noir. This time it was Tariq Ali writing for the chichi London Review of Books, a periodical that mixes learned essays on Gothic cathedrals with long and tendentious defenses of the Baathist killing machine.

Written in Short Cuts last January, Ali’s article was an attempt to sum up the Charlie Hebdo killings that he linked to jihadists traveling to the Middle East from France and elsewhere. Apparently, they got clearance at the airport just as Ajl believes:

They sought comfort in the mosque. Here they were radicalised by waiting hardliners for whom the West’s war on terror had become a golden opportunity to recruit and hegemonise the young, both in the Muslim world and in the ghettoes of Europe and North America. Sent first to Iraq to kill Americans and more recently to Syria (with the connivance of the French state?) [emphasis added] to topple Assad, such young men were taught how to use weapons effectively.

Leaving aside the question of how you “hegemonize the young”, a most infelicitous formulation, you have to admire Ali’s journalistic sleight of hand mastered over decades writing opinion pieces in the liberal British press. The use of passive voices in “Sent first to Iraq” and “taught how to use weapons” glosses over the identity of who abetted the jihadists. Was it a mosque somewhere or was it the French security forces? And look how clever Ali is by putting a question mark after “with the connivance of the French state”. This sort of rhetorical question gives him the wriggle room necessary to answer someone like me by saying that it is only a possibility. I suppose the Murdoch press might have influenced Tariq Ali with formulations such as “Do police have good reasons to fear Black youth?” or “Do Europeans have the right to defend their way of life against refugees from the Middle East?” (Zizek apparently takes the second rhetorical question to heart.)

I wrote Ali a note that challenged him on this matter:

Hey, Tariq

Max Ajl, the Jacobin editorial board member largely responsible for their Baathist propaganda, has a piece in Telesur that has this peculiar formulation with respect to how Europe is to blame for ISIS: “It is Europe which freely exports reactionaries to Syria, something it could consider ceasing. According to the most conservative numbers from the Brookings Institute, at the very least over 900 French foreign fighters have invaded Syria.”

I found it odd that a country that bans the hijab in public schools is at the same time “freely” exporting jihadists. This would make a great topic for an enterprising investigative journalist to take on–someone like Seymour Hersh. But then again Hersh seems more interested these days in shoring up Bashar al-Assad in the LRB.

Speaking of the LRB, just after I posted something about all this on FB a friend brought my attention to something you wrote in LRB, the august journal targeting serious and thoughtful people: “Sent first to Iraq to kill Americans and more recently to Syria (with the connivance of the French state?) to topple Assad, such young men were taught how to use weapons effectively.”

That is really quite a clever device you used to make it sound like Europe was “freely” exporting jihadists but you are seasoned enough as a propagandist to put a question mark after “the connivance of the French state”.

Too bad that people like you, Patrick Cockburn, Charles Glass, David Bromwich and other A-List journalists and intellectuals care so little about digging beneath the surface. Cockburn, Glass and Bromwich can at least be understood as being a bit too close to ruling class institutions like the Independent newspaper, ABC news, and Yale.

What’s your excuse?

Tariq wrote me back a most outraged note that did not bother to defend his yellow journalism: “You were a pathetic sectarian when you stood up and denounced the NLR’s ‘sell-out’ when we relaunched. You’re still pathetic with your stupid conspiracies and denunciations. So go screw yourself and don’t bother me again.“

Odd that he would bring up my criticism from 15 years ago of NLR’s Perry Anderson writing that Francis Fukuyama had more interesting things to say than most Marxists. He really knows how to reopen an old wound. I suppose that Ali would prefer that the unwashed masses take everything that the NLR prints to be the gospel truth. No thanks.

September 7, 2015

Syrian refugees and the amen corner

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 4:52 pm

Over the past four years I have noticed that just after Bashar al-Assad is pilloried in the bourgeois press for some atrocity or another, his amen corner in the USA and England rises to the occasion publishing one article after another warning that this was preparation for a George W. Bush type “regime change” operation, making analogies between Assad being accused of using sarin gas in East Ghouta and Saddam Hussein supposedly building nuclear weapons. I often had the feeling that if the war in Iraq had not occurred, the amen corner would be at a loss for words.

In the latest go-round, the misery of Syrian refugees has been turned by some into the fruit of a “war on Syria” conducted by Barack Obama rather than the result of four years of scorched earth tactics of the sort that have leveled Gaza and Chechnya. We are told that if the USA had not funded “takfiri” (terrorists), Syria would have remained a peaceful beacon of Enlightenment values in the Middle East even if its democratically elected president (after all, he did get 88.7 percent of the vote in the last election) was forced to use discretionary powers against fanatics of the sort who cry out “Alluah Akbar” in the most off-putting manner, especially when they have the audacity to aim machine guns at helicopters bombing street markets.

The image that has generated the most “the West has to do something” type commentary is that of the drowned son of Abdullah Kurdi. Poor Kurdi blames ISIS and Bashar al-Assad for forcing his family to take the risky exodus to Europe over the open sea, and especially the latter for having him tortured in a Baathist prison for five months. Surely Mr. Kurdi should have understood that President al-Assad was forced to take draconian measures because of all those Nicholas Kristof op-ed pieces in the NY Times.

Although there have probably been hundreds of “the CIA did it” articles, I want to single out four for special attention since they appear in high-profile “legitimate” publications rather than the usual latrine of Global Research or WSWS.org.

The first appeared in Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a NY media watchdog that has not covered itself in glory since the war in Syria began. For instance, longtime contributor Jim Naureckas wrote on September 1, 2013 that the Mint Press account of the East Ghouta sarin gas massacre might be credible, an act of howling stupidity given the subsequent unraveling of the Mint report.

Adam Johnson

Perhaps the young FAIR contributor Adam Johnson has had the misfortune of being Naureckas’s intern at one point since that might explain his breathtakingly asinine article “The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the ‘Do Something’ Lie” that claims that the USA has been “intervening” in Syria all along. Johnson cites a Washington Post article titled “Secret CIA effort in Syria faces large funding cut” to prove his point, the same article that Patrick Higgins alluded to for identical reasons in a feckless Jacobin piece.

As is often the case with people like Johnson and Higgins, there is some doubt whether they carefully read the articles they are citing to make their case. That is the only explanation for them linking to the Washington Post article that states: “In the past two years, the goal of the CIA’s mission in Syria has shifted from ousting Assad to countering the rise of extremist groups including al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL.” I suppose it doesn’t matter much to the amen corner that the CIA has not been very interested in ousting al-Assad since 2012 when you are trying to make the larger point that it did so in the past—even of course if that this was not true as well.

Despite the feeble attempts to turn Obama into a “regime change” proponent, there was evidence all along that he was nothing of the sort as I pointed out in a CounterPunch commentary on Higgins’s article:

To start with, there was never any intention by Barack Obama to launch a “humanitarian intervention” in Syria whatever people like Nicholas Kristof or Samantha Power sought. On October 22nd, 2013, the NY Times reported that “from the beginning, Mr. Obama made it clear to his aides that he did not envision an American military intervention, even as public calls mounted that year for a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from bombings.” The article stressed the role of White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough, who had frequently clashed with the hawkish Samantha Power. In contrast to Power and others with a more overtly “humanitarian intervention” perspective, McDonough “who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical.” The Times added, “He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria.”

Furthermore, it is unfortunate that Johnson lacked the intellectual curiosity to follow up on the Washington Post article, which he interpreted as proof positive that the USA was ramping up its “regime change” policies. Five minutes of investigation on the Internet revealed that there was less there than meets the eye according to Vice, a generally reliable voice of critical minded journalism:

“There’s a dribble, a small trickle of fighters, maybe 150 soldiers a month,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “But there’s not enough of them to make a difference.”

Charles Lister, a visiting fellow with the Brookings Doha Center—and an expert on FSA activity in southern Syria—agreed. “So far, because this training effort has been on such a small scale, it doesn’t appear to have a qualitative impact on conflict dynamics inside the country.”

Beyond manpower, there’s also the issue of arms; the earthbound FSA is seriously outmatched by the Syrian Air Force. Rebels have been asking for anti-aircraft missiles for more than a year, and at the top of their wish list are shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, the “MANPADS,” that can shoot a plane out of the sky.

I would only add that if the USA was bent on regime change, the first thing it would have done is arm the rebels with MANPADS but as Landis observed in this article, “America cannot let MANPADS into Syria because they will be used against Israeli planes someday.” Considering that the largest American rally ever for the Syrian uprising invited Berkeley professor Hatem Bazian to be its keynote speaker, I can understand the fears. Bazian, a Palestinian, after all was targeted for firing by the Israel lobby because of his support for BDS.

I suppose that Adam Johnson has a different approach to media analysis than I do. His preferred method is to comb through the newspapers finding every shred of evidence that he can to buttress his case—sort of the way that paralegals do on behalf of an attorney defending someone charged with murder. I don’t think that John Reed or IF Stone operated that way but that was in a different country and besides the wench is dead.

Vijay Prashad

In a CounterPunch article dated September 4, 2013, Vijay Prashad refers to “Regime Change Refugees: On the Shores of Europe”. If you didn’t read past the title, you’d think that this the refugees have been fleeing American jets that have been bombing Baathist strongholds like Damascus in order to punish the social base of the government after the fashion of German V-2 rockets raining down on London during WWII. Somehow that eluded me.

Prashad contends that imperialism is largely responsible for the suffering of Syrians and other peoples of North Africa and the Middle East, a position that I find incontrovertible:

The West believes that it is acceptable for it to intervene to influence the political economy of the Third World – to force IMF-driven “reforms” on these states.

That certainly is true but it is too bad that Prashad does not make the necessary connection as did his fellow Marxmailer Patrick Bond in a 2010 book titled “Confronting Global Neoliberalism”:

Developments that Syria has experienced during Bashar al-Assad’s regime (2000-) are evidence of a qualitative transformation of the Syrian state. The growing influence of pro-reform factions and their participation in the political process since the 1990s has come to determine the course of economic development and state reform under Bashar. While the old guard, embodied in the Ba’ath Party, has resisted the fast pace of reform, a neoliberal logic has been dominant in shaping a wide range of political, legal and institutional reforms. Bringing together the emerging factions of the ruling class, along with the pro-reform Ba’athists, Bashar al-Assad has been engaged in the remaking of the Syrian state and economy. Unlike his father, Bashar did not hesitate to get help from the IMF and the World Bank. In fact, his minister of finance is an ex-World Bank economist. From this point of view, the period of his rule is quite significant, especially in terms of the impacts this new path of economic development has on the process of class formation.

Prashad does not seem to think that the Baathist dictatorship has much to do with the mass exodus from Syria that he blames exclusively on Western imperialism: “Our outrage at this callous death should drive us deeper into a politics that calls for a drawdown of the violence in Syria and for a serious peace process in Libya, that forces us to be resolute in our fight against IMF and NATO destruction of societies and states.” You would think that a much-awarded professor like Vijay Prashad would endeavor to appear impartial by at least making a concession or two to the reality that places like Aleppo have been turned into something looking like Stalingrad in 1943 and that it was helicopter barrel bombs and MIG missiles that turned this once great city into something looking like this, not NATO:

Then there is Charles Glass writing an article titled “The Syrian Refugee Crisis Will Transform Middle East Politics” in Intercept, the online magazine launched by EBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar and edited by Glenn Greenwald. Charles Glass is an old hand at media spin on behalf of the torture state as I discussed here: http://louisproyect.org/2014/10/22/charles-glass-on-the-improving-situation-in-syria/ and here http://louisproyect.org/2014/06/04/i-run-afoul-of-stringent-british-libel-laws/,

Charles Glass

Mercifully brief, the article identifies “jihadists” as the cause of the exodus even though 7 times as many Syrians have been killed by the Baathists than by ISIS.

A friend of mine in Aleppo, who refuses to leave despite the battles in his once beautiful city, told me over the telephone, “You have sent hell to us.” That is, he blames me as a Westerner for putting the jihadis in his midst. The day cannot be far off when the jihadi militants, like the poor refugees whom they and the regime have displaced, will bring that hell back to us.

Suffice it to say that Glass has zero capability of acknowledging that this “once beautiful city” has become a hell largely because of regime artillery and air strikes. And with respect to “jihadis” bringing that hell “back to us”, this is ironically the prophecy about a possible blowback made by Diana Johnstone in today’s CounterPunch in an article on the refugee crisis. Referring to obstacles to their being welcomed, she warns darkly about how they can be a Trojan Horse:

There is another reason that many European citizens feel less than enthusiastic about welcoming hundreds of thousands of unknown foreigners into their communities. The Islamic State has openly boasted of sending terrorists into Europe among the refugees, with the clear intention of committing violent acts to destabilize the West.

As you will recall, Johnstone had nice things to say about Le Pen a while back. The moral and intellectual decay continues apace.

Yesterday, while researching the question of Syrian refugees, I discovered that one version or another of her quote above appeared in a number of ultraright venues including this one: ISIS SMUGGLER: ‘WE WILL USE REFUGEE CRISIS TO INFILTRATE WEST’ 4,000 covert terrorists already in place ‘awaiting’ orders.

I should add that the article appeared in World Net Daily, a fetid journal that offers up reader polls that have asked: “What do you think of U.S. government inviting Muslim cleric who disparaged dead Navy SEALs at their own funeral?” It was founded by Joseph Farah, a rightwing nut who was deeply involved in the campaign to prove that Obama was not born in Hawaii. Apparently he also believes that soybeans cause homosexuality. Nice.

June 5, 2015

Is the U.S. contemplating a nuclear attack on Russia?

Filed under: conspiracism,journalism,nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 9:08 pm

Screen shot 2015-06-05 at 11.37.30 AM

Any normal person looking in on the latest World Socialist Web Site would pee in their pants. US officials consider nuclear strikes against Russia? Holy shit, this is serious business.

The question, of course, is whether the WSWS.org can be taken at face value. Some radicals of my acquaintance do take it at face value. A FB friend and Marxmail subscriber who is a professor of sociology frequently links to their articles. Another professor who was a houseguest for a few days told me that he prefers checking WSWS every day because it is more reliable than the NY Times. The site is also popular with college students who like to cite it in essays, according to my wife who works in the CUNY system.

It is easy to understand its appeal. Basically it is a press digest that is spiced with radical-sounding interjections. It also appears authoritative since it quotes the mainstream media. Taking the above article on nuclear strikes against Russia as an example, it states:

Most provocatively, a report published by the Associated Press yesterday reports that the Pentagon has been actively considering the use of nuclear missiles against military targets inside Russia, in response to what it alleges are violations of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.

Unfortunately, these people did not take the trouble to identify the reporter but a minute or two of searching revealed that Robert Burns, the AP specialist on nuclear matters, wrote it.

Furthermore, Burns’s reporting is based totally on the testimony of a Defense Department official named Robert Scher to Congress. Quoting WSWS.org quoting Burns:

Robert Scher, one of Carter’s nuclear policy aides, told Congress in April that the deployment of “counterforce” measures would mean “we could go about and actually attack that missile where it is in Russia.”

Now you can actually read Scher’s testimony here. The only reference to a “counterforce” is the following. “The ICBM force complicates the planning of any adversary contemplating a disarming counterforce strike by vastly increasing the required scale of such an attack.” This sentence can be found as part of Scher reviewing American nuclear weapons policy that he describes as a “Triad”, with ICBM’s as the first leg. In other words, all he was doing is recapitulating Washington’s long-standing policy of using a vast arsenal of nuclear missiles so as to make retaliation a complex task.

Reading WSWS.org, you would get the impression that Washington had developed a brand-new (or revival) of a “first strike” strategy that would be used to destroy missiles in Russia that the White House viewed as inimical to its interests—like Bush’s “preemptive” strike against Saddam Hussein’s non-existent WMD’s. But if you read Scher’s testimony, it is clear that he is simply recapitulating policies that have been around for decades.

Furthermore, Burn’s quote of Scher (“we could go about and actually attack that missile where it is in Russia”) cannot be found in his testimony, nor can it be found in Nexis, an authoritative database of newspaper articles I continue to have access to as a Columbia University retiree.

In other words, Burns was making an allegation about what Scher said that is not supported by the Congressional record.

My understanding is that the World Socialist Web Site is staffed by a dozen or so people who do nothing to build the fucking mass movement but see their job as writing this kind of sloppy bullshit that is badly in the need of a fact-checker. My understanding is that their cult leader owns a printing press with non-union labor. You’d think he’d have enough dough to put one on staff.

May 14, 2015

Seymour Hersh, Saudi Arabia and the truth about al-Qaeda

Filed under: indigenous,Islam,journalism — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

Since I don’t have access to retired intelligence agency officials either in the USA or Pakistan, I am not in a position to judge most of Seymour Hersh’s 10,000 word article in the LRB but I do want to weigh in on one paragraph:

A worrying factor at this early point, according to the retired official, was Saudi Arabia, which had been financing bin Laden’s upkeep since his seizure by the Pakistanis. ‘The Saudis didn’t want bin Laden’s presence revealed to us because he was a Saudi, and so they told the Pakistanis to keep him out of the picture. The Saudis feared if we knew we would pressure the Pakistanis to let bin Laden start talking to us about what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaida. And they were dropping money – lots of it. The Pakistanis, in turn, were concerned that the Saudis might spill the beans about their control of bin Laden. The fear was that if the US found out about bin Laden from Riyadh, all hell would break out. The Americans learning about bin Laden’s imprisonment from a walk-in was not the worst thing.’

As should be obvious, Hersh is repeating a claim that he has made for some time now and that is embraced by most of the left, at least that part of the left that views Saudi Arabia as behind al-Qaeda. The words “what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaida” resonates with perhaps 30,000 articles that have appeared in places like WSWS.org et al. It is part and parcel of an analysis that Saudi Arabia used al-Qaeda as a proxy in Syria and that its ultimate goal was war with Iran, its Shi’ite enemy.

You can read a 2007 New Yorker article in which Hersh argues along those lines:

To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

Really? Hadn’t Hersh noticed that the USA had spent trillions of dollars installing and then bolstering a Shi’ite government in Iraq that had close ties to the Iranian clerics? Was Maliki a secret Sunni? Who knows? Since Hersh has a way of unearthing conspiracies, maybe there’s an article he wrote somewhere that identifies Maliki as a secret Sunni operative.

This is not to speak of Osama bin-Laden’s attitude toward US relations with Saudi Arabia. Has Hersh forgotten what turned bin-Laden against the USA? It was the presence of American (as well as British and French) troops in the spiritual heart of Islam that apparently led to the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qaeda was in fact a dagger aimed as much at the Saudi royalty as it was American interests. That is why, of course, Osama bin-Laden was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1991.

In addition, Hersh does not seem to be aware that the Saudis fought a pitched battle against al-Qaeda militants in May of 2005 that left 18 dead in a 3-day battle. Furthermore, the violence has continued up until this day. Just this month the Saudi police arrested a number of al-Qaeda members for their role in organizing a suicide bomb attack in Riyadh.

Maybe the confusion is that some Saudi businessmen have given money to jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda, and that a number of the 9/11 terrorists had Saudi citizenship. If that is the criterion for judging “Saudis” to be behind al-Qaeda, then you might as well claim that “America” was aiding the Sandinistas since Tecnica brigades regularly brought tons of equipment to Nicaragua in the 1980s and even provided volunteers to government agencies—including me. I never would make such a claim myself but then again I don’t write for the New Yorker Magazine and other blue chip journals (except CounterPunch.)

Perhaps the confusion is over the actual national identity of bin-Laden and the 9/11 “Saudi” terrorists. Yes, it is true that they had Saudi citizenship but their relationship to the ruling families is not what it might appear.

The bin-Ladens were originally from Yemen and had a strong sense of identity with the Qahtani tribe that was based there and that resented the Adnan tribe that dominated the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Yemeni connection was very strong in al-Qaeda, according to Akbar Ahmad, the author of “The Thistle and the Drone”, 95 percent of al-Qaeda was Yemeni or Saudis who were born and raised in Yemen, particularly the Asir region. Ten of the 9/11 attackers were ethnically tied to the Asir tribes, including Mohammad Atta—the mastermind. The 9/11 Commission stated that a number of the men who formed the reserves for the attack were Yemenis as well.

If you want to learn more about the Yemeni connection, I strongly recommend Ahmad’s book that argues that tribalism rather than Islam explains the particularly violent revenge motif that runs like a red thread through Sunni-based jihadi movements globally. He explains that the tribes of Asir are largely nomadic and trace their origins to the Qahtanis.

The royal family in Saudi Arabia that was descended from the Adnans annexed the Asir region in 1934 through a bloody war that cost the lives of 400,000 people. The annexation was followed by an invasion of Saudi clerics who forced their Wahhabi beliefs on the conquered tribesmen. Ahmad’s description of the vanquished Asiri tribes is striking:

The Asir men wore skirt-like apparel revealing much of their legs, and they went without socks. Famously known as “flower men”, they kept their hair long and adorned it with flowers. Even their turbans were decorated with flowers, grass and stones.

An Asiri tribesman

Within decades the Asiri tribes were forcibly assimilated into the dominant Wahhabi/Adnan culture just like American Indians being forced to become “white”.

Although he was from a different part of Yemen originally, Osama bin-Laden’s father felt at home in Asir. He was there to lead a construction crew that was building highway 51 from the north into Yemen with Saudi funding. Although he got rich, the Asiris got nothing from the oil wealth that was lubricating Saudi society. In 1980 the province had only 535 beds for 700,000 residents. The Asiris regarded the Saudis as arrogant and resented their vulgar displays of wealth.

In 1979 the resentment boiled over into an armed takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. 127 Saudi cops were killed and 117 Asiri rebels died as well in the fighting. A further 63 were beheaded after being captured.

Like the Chechens, another conquered people, the Asiris soon found international outlets for their anger. In the 1980s it was the primary recruiting ground for foreign fighters joining the Afghan resistance. Many of them would go on to join the group that bin-Laden formed in 1988: al-Qaeda. In the following decade, these militants would form the backbone of the resistance to the Saudi royal family and its American backers.

I doubt that any of this would be of interest to Seymour Hersh who thrives on reductionist conspiracy theories but if you are in the least bit curious about such realities, I urge you to read Akbar Ahmad’s very fine study of tribal Islam.

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