Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 24, 2014

A short history of the Syrian revolution

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 8:50 pm

As Syrians commemorate the first anniversary of the chemical attacks, we the undersigned, stand in solidarity with the millions of Syrians who have been struggling for dignity and freedom since March 2011. We call on the people of the world to act in support of the revolution and its goals, demanding the immediate end of the violence and the end of the illegitimate Assad regime.

August 21st marks the frst anniversary of the chemical attacks on Eastern Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus. Several hundred people, including many children, died within minutes of the attacks. A few hours later, the Syrian regime launched a massive media campaign accusing the opposition of perpetrating the attacks. The regime and its allies knew they wouldn’t be able to win the heart and minds of people around the world but they could confuse them and tarnish the image of the revolution. That has been the regime’s strategy since the beginning of the uprising. Even renowned journalist Seymour Hersh became a victims of said strategy. He wrote a long article where he argued al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliated group, of being behind the attack. The intention of the terrorist organization, he explained, was to blame the regime and trigger Western intervention that would ultimately topple Assad. His argument was not only implausible but also illogical. Knowing it would be the target of any Western airstrikes, al-Nusra threatened to kill anyone showing support for intervention. In the following months, a number of independent organizations and experts showed that only the Syrian regime could have planned and executed the chemical attacks in al-Ghouta. Despite overwhelming evidence of the Syrian army’s role in the attacks, the regime was able to turn the table, reshuffe the cards, and even gain a certain respectability in international arenas, after agreeing to surrender its chemical arsenal. The unraveling of events and the debates surrounding the chemical attacks are paradigmatic of the Syrian tragedy and the regime’s ability to effectively manage its horrific war against Syrians.

Progressive intellectuals, concerned citizens, and humanists were shocked on August 21st but they felt powerless. Their neutrality, under the pretext that both sides are evil, and their silences and inactivity allowed the Syrian regime to isolate and besiege the Syrian revolution. As the revolution became increasingly invisible, the regime’s narrative became more hegemonic. Many progressive intellectuals dismissed the revolutionary struggle of several hundred thousands Syrians in a myriad different arenas, and portrayed the situation as a civil war between Shia and Sunnis, a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or a violent conflict between global Jihadists and a regular army. As the revolution became unthinkable, the regime propaganda turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sadly, in such a conjuncture the silence of progressive intellectuals became a license to kill Syrians.

The dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons program was very good news for Israel and the West but a tragedy for most Syrians. It means a despotic regime could use all types of what is euphemistically referred to as conventional weapons against its population, as long as it cooperates with the West. Tens of thousands of Syrians were killed in a thousand different ways by conventional weapons after August 21, 2013. This new chapter in the Syrian conflict created confusion in the West and parts of the Arab World. In Syria however, people who endured the Assad family’s rule for more than forty years, are aware the root of the problem is dictatorship. This confusion affected many cultures and political groups. For example, in the weeks following August 21st, the anti-war movement in the US and Europe demonstrated against potential airstrikes that were to target Syria, but was silent about Assad’s siege of entire neighborhoods, and other atrocities. Syrians living in besieged areas were puzzled by these movements political alignment with the regime. How can anyone dismiss the siege of around 20,000 Palestinians in Yarmouk camp for more than a year and the starvation to death of 128 residents? While certain Western and Arab journalists argue that the main issue is the increasing number of al-Qaeda sympathizers in Northern Syria, many secular and pious inhabitants in Aleppo, Azaz, Anadan, and other cities in the North think about how to escape the terrifying death of explosive barrels dropped on them by Assad’s cruel war machine. Often times, pilots drop a second bomb on the same location, a few minutes later, to kill rescuers and cause more damage. While professionals in humanitarian assistance discuss useless strategies to compel Assad to distribute UN aid more fairly, poor families who never received assistance from the regime, leave their villages and seek better opportunities elsewhere. For some of them the journey ends in al-Zaatari camp in Jordan where the most unfortunate who can’t buy blankets will be powerless as they watch the freezing body of their child gesticulate before surrendering to a treacherous death. While self-described impartial observers argue the problem in Syria is not the regime’s monumental savagery but ISIS’s medieval barbarism, most Syrians know this is a false dichotomy and both forms of violence are cruel and should end. While progressive intellectuals explain in Manichean fashion, that neutrality in Syria’s turmoil is the preferred position because both sides of the conflict are war criminals, Syrian activists feel such a stance is based on false equivalence and a flawed logic. Their struggles cannot be equated to the regime’s collective punishment of entire cities or the killing of revolutionaries after long and painful hours of torture in a dark cell at the Palestine Branch of military intelligence.

Creating confusion is part of Assad’s brutal war against Syrians but it is always combined with other strategies. To kill the revolution, the Syrian regime pursued four strategies: 1) militarization of the revolts through a six-months long campaign of violent repression of peaceful protests 2) islamization of the uprising by targeting secular groups and empowering Jihadists, 3) sectarianization of the conflict through the recruitment of an increasing number of Shia fighters from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Afghanistan, coupled with the targeting of Sunnis cities and villages, and 4) internationalization of the war by inviting Iran, China, and Russia to play a central role in the conflict and consequently inciting the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to use Syria as a battleground against these forces.

Since the first week of the protests the Syrian regime launched a massive campaign of repression by kidnapping and torturing intellectuals and peaceful activists. The goal was to delegitimize the uprising by arresting or killing the most experienced grassroots activists. During this initial period, the regime killed between 6,000 and 7,000 protesters. Assad was sending a clear message: either the end of the protests or military confrontation. While the frst option was preferred, the regime didn’t mind the militarization of the revolt since it felt only a minority would fight, and the uprising would quickly lose legitimacy, and would therefore be easily crushed. It is in this context that revolutionaries started forming the first brigades of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The initial role of the FSA was to defend protests in certain neighborhood. It gradually evolved into a regular army whose aim was to liberate and protect various areas. It was a vicious cycle since the violence of the regime and the cruelty of its intelligence apparatuses pushed for increased militarization of the revolt.

Second, in parallel to its campaign of incarceration, torture, and assassination of journalists, human right activists, and protesters, the regime released more than a thousand jihadists from the notorious Sednaya prison, many of whom became leaders in the largest factions of the Islamic Front, al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). These groups gradually isolated and weakened the already decentralized and heterogenous FSA. Activists working with the revolutionary councils, journalists, and the FSA fighters found themselves fighting on two front: the regime and ISIS. ISIS rarely fought the regime and focused instead on taking over areas already liberated by the revolutionaries in Northern Syria. It was arresting, torturing, and publicly executing activists and innocent civilians. While Jihadists were fighting and suffocating secular struggles, the Assad regime played the terrorism card very effectively, claiming the vast majority of its opponents belong to al-Qaeda and its offshoots. Domestically, the regime used this narrative to scare secular groups and religious minorities and effectively neutralize them. Internationally, the regime’s effort to tarnish the image of the revolution and present it as a sectarian war was also successful. It didn’t matter that the FSA was actually fighting ISIS, while the regime hardly ever targeted its headquarters in the liberated North. In January 2014, the entire opposition declared war to the terrorist group, which cost the lives of 8000 to 9000 fighters so far. The regime’s official position about fighting terrorism didn’t deter it from buying oil from al-Nusra Front in Mayadin, an eastern city close to the Iraqi borders. Despite these facts and the regime’s reluctance to fight ISIS, Assad was increasingly seen in the West as the only effective barrage against Jihadists, while the revolutionaries were depicted as extremists or affiliated to al-Qaeda. Assad’s media war reinforced al-Qaeda Manichean narrative, according to which Syria is the first line of defense of Islamic values and the Mecca of global jihadism. Saudi Arabia and Qatar played a central role in backing the most reactionary Jihadist groups and in facilitating their journey to Syria.

Third, Assad ordered his militias to massacre Sunnis civilians in Darayya, Baniyas, and Houla, to provoke a Sunni reaction and interpellate sectarian impulses on both sides. It wasn’t long before al-Nusra and ISIS jumped on the opportunity to turn the revolution into a sectarian confict by killing Shiite civilians in Aqrab and Hatla. Once again the revolutionaries were caught in-between unable to stop an infernal spiral towards sectarianism. Iran, the regime’s main ally understood that the only way to maintain its hegemony in the region was to impose a sectarian logic to the confict. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar played the exact same role from the other side. Iran provided weapons and logistical assistance early on, while the Hezbollah sent fighters initially covertly, and overtly since May 2013. Iran claims the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is fighting extremists in Syria and protecting Shiite holy sites, an argument it is now using in Iraq. Despite the support of Iran and Hezbollah, Assad was unable to stop the revolutionaries’ advances in several regions in 2012-13. The regime sought the support of Nuri al-Maliki, Iran’s protege in Iraq, who responded promptly by sending more than 10,000 Shia fghters. These takfri death squads, whose violence is only matched by Al-Nusra and ISIS, fght under the banners of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas. Their sectarian rampage is well documented in places such an-Nabek, Homs, and Damascus.

Finally, the Syrian regime prospered under advantageous regional and international contexts codified by a common interest to end the momentum of the Arab revolts. The group of countries who unabashedly call themselves “the friends of Syria” have crucified the Syrian revolution a thousand time. This group includes countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, France, and the United States, some of which are as totalitarian as the Syrian regime, and yet they claim to support a revolution for freedom and dignity. In reality, these countries have their divergent agendas, but what they had in common is hatred toward the Syrian regime and fear from a successful revolution that would have lasting impact on their respective societies, and more generally on the world order. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, funded the most fundamentalist groups and sought their allegiance because of their destructive impact on the terrain. By strengthening various Salafist and Wahhabi groups, they created rivalry, but perhaps more importantly, they prepared the terrain to destroy nationalist and progressive struggles. After initially supporting the Syrian regime for several months in 2011, Saudi Arabia felt it would gain more by pushing for militarization and jihadist holy wars, thereby sending a clear message to the populations of the Arabian Gulf about the high cost of starting a revolt there. In the past three years, Saudi Arabia showed, on multiple occasions, that it can repress violently any populations with aspiration for freedom as it did in Bahrain or Qatif in Saudi Arabia. It also built a tripartite alliance with like-minded regimes, Egypt and Algeria, and openly declared its intensions to suppress the Tunisian and Yemeni revolutions after temporarily crushing the Egyptian revolution. The government of Erdogan played a more subtle role in undermining the revolution. While it welcomed many refugees for pragmatic reasons, it was more interested in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood than helping Syrians establish an authentic democracy. Finally, the United States and Europe were more worried about scoring points against Iran, the security of Israel, and regional stability to maintain a smooth flow of oil, than any real democracy in Syria or the Arab World. The Syrian stalemate was actually not a bad option for the West and Israel since it involved an open war between al-Qaeda and its offshoots on the one hand, and Hezbollah and Iran on the other, all of whom are despised by the West.

Despite the complexity of the Syrian situation and the large number of players involved in the conflict, what is taking place in Syria is quite simple: people rose up to overthrow a tyrant. The past three years have shown that ruling elites in the West and the Arab World have done everything to crush the Syrian Revolution. They have done so either through a complicit silence, a well orchestrated campaign that tarnished the image of the revolution, the funding of the most reactionary factions, or barring refugees from reaching Europe or the US. No government was genuinely willing to help Syrians in their struggle. While some Syrians believed their salvation would come from the West, the vast majority had no such illusion as the slogans and songs of the revolution had amply shown. The banners created by activists in Kafranbel are indicative of such popular mood. One of the banners they were holding in 2011 read, “Down with the regime, down with the opposition, down with the Arab and Islamic nation all together. Down with the security council, down with the world. Down with everything!”

The first anniversary of the chemical attacks is an occasion to reaffirm the importance of the revolution not only for Syrians but for the entire Arab World. The Syrians’ struggle against dictatorship, global jihadism, and western imperialism should not be viewed as local or even regional. It is part of an insurrectionary moment where the world has become the battlefield. The new development in Iraq, among other developments, have shown that the fate of the Syrian revolution will have tremendous implication on the new world order. The struggle of Syrians for dignity, freedom, and self determination cannot therefore be delinked from the Palestinian historic rebellion against Zionism, Egyptian women struggles against military despotism and sexual harassment, the Bahraini courageous uprising against totalitarianism, the Kurdish battles for justice, and the Zapatista and other indigenous populations’ resistance against racism and neoliberalism. Failure to stop the counter­revolutionary wave in Syria will have tremendous repercussions on the revolutions in Egypt, Yemen, or Bahrain. A successful revolution in Syria however would unleash long-repressed revolutionary aspirations in the Arab world and beyond.

Signatories

  • The Global Campaign of Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution
  • Syrian Revolution Bases of Support
  • MENA Solidarity Network-US

July 20, 2014

Robert Parry’s folly

Filed under: journalism,Russia,Syria,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm

Robert Parry

Robert Parry is part of a cadre of investigative journalists who have put themselves at the disposal of the Kremlin on the matters of Syria and/or Ukraine. Like Walter Duranty who justified Stalin’s policies to NY Times readers in the 1930s, we see Parry, Seymour Hersh and Robert Fisk using journalistic tricks of the trade to make Putin seem like an innocent victim of a worldwide conspiracy involving the CIA, NATO, George Soros-type NGO’s, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, NY Times op-ed writers, and other miscreants bent on… Bent on what exactly? In the 1930s Stalin was defending state-owned property for the same reason that Jimmy Hoffa fought against Bobby Kennedy’s investigation of racketeering in the Teamster’s Union. The union was Hoffa’s source of wealth and power. As such it was in his in own class interests to keep the union strong.

But what exactly does that have to do with Putin? Russia is the third largest recipient of Foreign Direct Investment in the world after the USA and China so such an alleged conspiracy would in effect be breaking down an open door. Just three days ago RT.com reported: “Current Rosneft and Exxon projects unaffected by sanctions – Rosneft CEO”. The article points out:

Rosneft has strong links with both the US and UK oil industry.

Rosneft has even made moves into the Western hemisphere, and owns about 30 percent of an ExxonMobil oil field in the Canadian province of Alberta.

Rosneft accounts for 40 percent of Russian oil output, and also has strong partnerships with Norway’s Statoil and Italy’s Eni.

Rosneft is an oil company. Gazprom, a gas exporter as its name would imply, has the same kind of mutually beneficial relationships with their Western counterparts as the Christian Science Monitor reported on May 2nd:

Although the European Union has imposed its own tough sanctions on 48 Russian individuals, Gazprom is arguably where daylight exists between the Obama administration and the EU on the issue of penalizing Moscow for its actions in Ukraine.

The numbers make it clear why. Russia is the EU’s third-biggest trading partner, after the U.S. and China; in 2012, bilateral EU-Russian trade amounted to almost $370 billion. The same year, U.S. trade with Russia amounted to just $26 billion.

For all of the rhetoric about the inevitable clash between Russia and the West, there is no evidence that it has anything to do with economics. I defy anybody to find an article prior to the crisis in the Ukraine that refers to Russia as inimical to capitalist interests. All you need to do is look at one of those advertising supplements in the NY Times that appears every year or so to confirm this. You know the kind I am talking about, the one that has articles to the effect of Russia being an open door for investors.

It is only when some unfortunate group of peoples finds itself on the wrong side of Russian foreign policy that the rhetoric about a new Cold War bubbles up once again. For Parry and company, there are never any legitimate grievances in a place like Syria or Ukraine. What you get is an “outside agitator” theory in which the natives become restless after a phone call from a Virginia Nuland or a Saudi prince. Russia is entitled to support any military action to put down these fifth columns until law and order is restored. In many ways, the excuses made for the iron fist are the same as Israel’s in Gaza. It is no surprise that both Bashar al-Assad and more recently Abdel Fattah el-Sisi align themselves with Russia over Islamic “extremism” and vice versa.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has made a startling intervention in Egypt’s political turmoil by backing its defence minister for the presidency, before an election has even been declared.

Whether the minister, the newly promoted Field Marshal Abdulfattah el-Sisi, will stand for president in elections scheduled for later this year is the biggest talking point in Egyptian politics, with elements of a personality cult already forming around him.

His aides have consistently denied reports that he has already made a decision, but Mr Putin chose to ignore that while welcoming him on a visit to Moscow.

“I know that you have made a decision to run for president,” Mr Putin said. “That’s a very responsible decision: to undertake such a mission for the fate of the Egyptian people. On my own part, and on behalf of the Russian people, I wish you success.”

Turning now to Parry’s article, “Airline Horror Spurs New Rush to Judgment”, you are struck by his use of the trump card—the unnamed Spooks who really know what is going on. In other words, we are up against the same tried and true method of Seymour Hersh.

Regarding the shoot-down of the Malaysian jetliner on Thursday, I’m told that some CIA analysts cite U.S. satellite reconnaissance photos suggesting that the anti-aircraft missile that brought down Flight 17 was fired by Ukrainian troops from a government battery, not by ethnic Russian rebels who have been resisting the regime in Kiev since elected President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown on Feb. 22.

Oh really? Well, I am told that some CIA analysts view Vladimir Putin as the recipient of Joseph Stalin’s brain in experimental surgery conducted by a Martian who landed on earth in 1990 determined to save the universe from George Soros and Samantha Power. Who told me that? Sorry, I must keep my sources confidential. Okay, just this one time I will divulge my source. It is Herman Goldstein, my neighbor who read it in an investor’s newsletter out of Corpus Christi, Texas. Mums the word.

Parry continues:

According to a source briefed on the tentative findings, the soldiers manning the battery appeared to be wearing Ukrainian uniforms and may have been drinking, since what looked like beer bottles were scattered around the site. But the source added that the information was still incomplete and the analysts did not rule out the possibility of rebel responsibility.

No, this is Parry and not Onion.com. I love the bit about beer bottles scattered around the site. You’d think that he would have mentioned vodka in order to make it sound more plausible. The last time I read anything this ridiculous was when Mint Press reported on rebels playing around with sarin gas containers causing an accident that cost the lives of hundreds in East Ghouta. Those Ukrainian troops and Syrian rebels, just like Bluto and Otter getting into trouble in “Animal House”.

Much of Parry’s finely honed investigative reporting talents, burnished at Newsweek no less, are turned to casting doubt on the possibility that the separatists had a ground to air missile capable of reaching 33,000 feet.

I wonder if Parry needs some brushing up on Google since a brief search would reveal that such missiles not only exist but have been used previously. Last Monday a missile brought down a Ukrainian military transport, the AN-26, from a height of 21,000 feet—far beyond the reach of a MANPAD. Well, who knows? I suppose if Parry had learned of this, he would have blamed drunken Ukrainians as well.

To drive his point home, Parry refers to the sarin gas incident that supposedly was a false flag operation intended to justify an American “regime change” invasion of Syria that would have put the FSA in power. Yes, I know. It sounds ridiculous at this point with so many articles referring to the White House’s preference for Bashar al-Assad over any and every rebel but let’s follow Parry’s tortured logic since it is clear that so many of our “anti-imperialists” will take him at his word.

Despite the war hysteria then gripping Official Washington, President Obama rejected war at the last moment and – with the help of Russian President Putin – was able to negotiate a resolution of the crisis in which Assad surrendered Syria’s chemical weapons while still denying a hand in the sarin gas attack.

Actually, there was no “war hysteria” in Washington, or more specifically in the White House. An astute analysis of Obama’s designs appeared in the NY Times on October 22nd 2013, written when the alarums over a looming war with Syria were at their loudest. It stated “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. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria.”

Well, no matter. The NY Times is the boss’s newspaper and we should never believe whatever it prints. We are far better off with someone like Robert Parry who spent a decade writing for Newsweek. Wheeling out his heavy artillery, he refers his readers to an unimpeachable source:

In watching Obama’s address, I was struck by how casually he lied. He knew better than almost anyone that some of his senior intelligence analysts were among those doubting the Syrian government’s guilt. Yet, he suggested that anyone who wasn’t onboard the propaganda train was crazy.

Since then, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has revealed other evidence indicating that the sarin attack may indeed have been a rebel provocation meant to push Obama over the “red line” that he had drawn about not tolerating chemical weapons use.

Well, Seymour Hersh revealed no “evidence” at all. Evidence would be like something presented to a jury in a murder trial, like a bloody knife or tampered brakes on a car. All Hersh did was assure his readers that Bashar al-Assad was pure as the driven snow because someone who worked for the CIA told him so.

For those who want to read genuine investigative reporting instead of this “unnamed sources” crapola from Parry or Hersh, I refer you to Elliot Higgins, aka Brown Moses, who as far as I know, never worked for Newsweek.

Sy Hersh’s Chemical Misfire

Two munitions were linked to the Aug. 21 sarin attack: a Soviet M14 140 mm artillery rocket with a sarin warhead and a previously unknown munition that appeared at multiple locations. Since the sarin attack, eight separate examples of the previously unknown type of munition have been filmed and photographed in the Jobar, Zamalka, and Ein Tarma suburbs of Damascus, an example of which is shown below.

    • The munitions are used by Syrian government forces and are known as “Volcanoes.”
    • The term “Volcano” is also used for a smaller improvised rocket used by pro-government forces.
    • The type of Volcano used in the Aug. 21 attack comes in three known types: A chemical and explosive type are both launched from a two-barrel launcher, while a large explosive type is launched from a single-barrel launcher.
    • The explosive type has been used since November 2012, while the first known instance of the chemical type being used was June 2013.

I suspect it is exactly this kind of analysis—based on evidence—rather than the specious use of unnamed sources that will ultimately reveal who is responsible for the downing of the Malaysian jet.

June 18, 2014

An Obama-Al Qaeda axis against Syria and Iran? Really?

Filed under: Iraq,Jihadists,Syria — louisproyect @ 8:44 pm

640x392_10705_260855 copy

On November 8th 2013, an article of mine titled “Why Obama Did Not Make War on Syria” appeared on CounterPunch. I imagine it was this kind of article that would incite email complaints recently to the good folks at CounterPunch along these lines as I learned from them:

Another violent message regarding “crypto zionist” Louis Proyect who deserves to be stabbed in the neck. He seems to incite these sorts of messages.

Likely the same individual wrote a comment on my blog as “killudeadkike”: “Louis Proyect = cypto-Zionist faggot White Nationalist.”

I suppose if I had been writing the same idiotic article as everybody else in 2013 about how Obama was preparing to invade Syria as stage one in a war on Iran, I wouldn’t be getting hate mail. But I’d rather get hate mail than write stupid bullshit like this:

Obama is hypocritically invoking international law to justify the escalation of a war that Washington has pursued in large measure through terrorist bombings carried out by its proxy forces in Syria. The operational alliance between the US and Al Qaeda underscores the criminal character of US foreign policy and the political fraud of the so-called “war on terror.”

That’s from the World Socialist Website. (http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/05/01/syri-m01.html) If you do a search on “Syria” and “al Qaeda” there, you will find 71 articles all making the same point, as if American imperialism was in cahoots with Islamic fundamentalists.

These sorts of people made every effort to link the FSA to jihadists even as it was becoming clearer that they were mortal enemies. ISIS first gained a foothold in Raqqa, a city that had been liberated by the FSA and then fell to jihadist control.

A New Yorker magazine article described the tension that existed from the outset. Ironically, the jihadists were with the Jabhat al-Nusra front who would be superseded by the even more reactionary ISIS fighters. It was written exactly a month before the idiotic WSWS.org article appeared. Any socialist website that was reporting on Syria should have had an obligation to be aware of what was going on in Raqqa unless of course your only goal is to write cheap propaganda. The article titled “A Black Flag in Raqqa” describes a tense situation:

“There is no moderate Islam or extremist Islam,” the Jabhat member said calmly. “There is only Islam, and Islam is under attack in the West regardless of whether or not we hoist the banner. Do you think they’re waiting for that banner to hit us?” he said.

Abu Mohammad, an older man in a tan leather jacket and a white galabia (a loose, floor-length robe), interjected: “What we’re saying is, put the flag above your outposts, not in the main square of the city. We all pray, we all say, ‘There is no god but God,’ but I will not raise this flag.”

“This is an insult to people who died for the revolutionary flag,” said Abu Abdullah, a former English major at the university.

Some pundits are now attacking Obama for not having backed the “moderate” opposition in the FSA as if the USA ever had any interest in seeing a mass movement of Syrian “hicks” who had gotten pissed off at neo-liberalism running the government. Unlike most people content to write propaganda, I made a real effort to understand what the Syrian opposition stood for. That included a trip to Washington in September 2012 to cover a major rally in support of the revolution. You would think from reading the WSWS.org crapola that Senator McCain would be the featured speaker. Instead the people who spoke had a lot more in common with those who protested the invasion of Iraq, including the keynote speaker Hatem Bazian, a Palestinian professor from the U. of California. As I wrote at the time:

At San Francisco State University in the late 1980s, Bazian became the first Palestinian to be elected president of SFSU Associated Students and the Student Union Governing Board. He was the first student to win a second term as president in the history of SFSU. The election came as a result of a united front formed under the Progressive Coalition that brought together all the students of color organizations on a common platform and a joint political strategy.

At the national conference United States Student Association (USSA) held at UC Berkeley in 1988, Bazian co-lead a major walk-out that culminated in the organization adopting a progressive board of directors structure granting by a 2/3 vote at least 50% of the Seats to Students of Color.

Bazian was elected as a Chair of the National People of Color Student Coalition (NPCSC) and an executive board member of the USSA. In both, he took the lead on affirmative action, access to education, anti-apartheid efforts on college campuses, and the Central American Solidarity Movement. He authored resolutions, which were adopted by the USSA national conference in 1991 calling for cutting US aid to Israel and imposing sanctions for its sales of military equipment to apartheid South Africa.

But none of this would matter to the “anti-imperialist” propagandists. They were determined to paint the opposition to Bashar al-Assad as equivalent to the Afghan rebels that Reagan supported. They had persuaded themselves that Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi were on the front lines resisting imperialism like the Vietnamese in the 1960s but with Putin’s Russia serving the same role as the former Soviet Union. So what if this was a fantasy. When you are in the business of writing propaganda, the truth should not get in the way.

At the very time articles about Obama’s war on Syria and Iran spearheaded by jihadists were reaching a crescendo during Obama’s “red line” bluster, the NY Times reported that his administration had begun to tilt toward Syria and Iran:

“We need to start talking to the Assad regime again” about counterterrorism and other issues of shared concern, said Ryan C. Crocker, a veteran diplomat who has served in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.”

“Whether they are dismayed by the way things played out in Egypt or by the growth of Al Qaeda in Syria, the worm has turned in the Middle East in the minds of American foreign policy makers,” said William McCants, an expert on jihadist movements and a former senior adviser at the State Department. “It seems we are back to counterterrorism as a guiding focus for American policy.”

As we now know, the rapid progress made by ISIS in Iraq had drawn the USA and Iran even closer. The USA has reintroduced boots on the ground in Iraq for no other reason than to defend the Shi’ite government from jihadists. There is every likelihood that this is the first step in an escalating violence that could include drone strikes and aerial bombardment. Of course, if you had been paying close attention to Syria from the beginning, this eventuality would have been predictable as the LA Times reported on March 15, 2013:

The CIA has stepped up secret contingency planning to protect the United States and its allies as the turmoil expands in Syria, including collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes, according to current and former U.S. officials.

Of course none of this registered on those who were predicting World War Three with the US Marines and al-Qaeda leading a joint attack on Syria and Iran as if it were a reenactment of “Lawrence of Arabia”.

Believe it or not, there are still some benighted souls who still believe this fiction, most egregiously Mike Whitney who is far more knowledgeable about the American economy (even when he is wrong) than he is about the Middle East.

In a rather febrile article titled “The ISIS Fiasco: It’s Really an Attack on Iran” on today’s CounterPunch, he tries to convince his readers that Iran remains the main target.

Whitney wonders why ISIS is running wild in Iraq. The answer must be that Obama is secretly pulling their strings:

When was the last time an acting president failed to respond immediately and forcefully to a similar act of aggression?

Never. The US always responds. And the pattern is always the same. “Stop what you are doing now or we’re going to bomb you to smithereens.” Isn’t that the typical response?

Sure it is. But Obama delivered no such threat this time. Instead, he’s qualified his support for al-Maliki saying that the beleaguered president must “begin accommodating Sunni participation in his government” before the US will lend a hand. What kind of lame response is that?

Now I would not want to ascribe motives to Whitney of the sort that I have had to endure from people like “killudeadkike” but I wonder if this means he would have been assuaged by a few drone strikes here and there against the terrorists instead of just a “lame response”. But then again, I have to remind myself that Whitney is a man of peace (except when it comes to the well-placed barrel bomb of course.)

The only conclusion that Whitney can draw is that the US is secretly backing ISIS in order to pressure Maliki into including more Sunnis into his government rather than marginalizing them, a policy that everybody still connected to reality understands is the cause of the revolt in Mosul.

Although I have some major differences with Patrick Cockburn, I think he is more reliable on the topic of Sunni resistance than Mike Whitney:

In December 2012 the arrest of the bodyguards of the moderate Sunni Finance Minister, Rafi al-Issawi, by the government led to widespread but peaceful protests in Sunni provinces in northern and central Iraq, Sunni Arabs making up about a fifth of Iraq’s 33 million population. At first, the demonstrations were well-attended, with protesters demanding an end to political, civil and economic discrimination against the Sunni community. But soon they realised that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was offering only cosmetic changes and many stopped attending the weekly demonstrations.

Meanwhile, we’ll know soon enough whether the USA is secretly egging on jihadists against Shi’ite governments in the Middle East and Iran. We already know that drone strikes are continuing on a daily basis against Islamic radicals all around the planet so it would be remarkable if ISIS were to be spared especially when Iraq’s largest oil refinery is under attack. Some experts describe the war in Iraq as the “biggest petroleum heist in history”, a real calamity for its people:

That makes this the biggest petroleum heist in history. And we’re supposed to believe that the oil bigwigs didn’t know anything about this before the war? What a crock! I’ll bet you even money the CEOs and their lackeys figured out that Saudi Arabia was running out of gas, so they decided to pick up stakes and move their operations to good old Mesopotamia. That’s why they put their money on Bush and Cheney, because they knew that two former oil men would do the heavy lifting once they got shoehorned into the White House.

Oh, I almost forgot. The guy who wrote this article is none other than Mike Whitney.

June 8, 2014

Tariq Ali on images from Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 10:09 pm

June 7, 2014

Syria and The National Interest

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 4:32 pm

Flynt and Hillary Mann Everett: the only two people who have written both for Monthly Review and Irving Kristol’s The National Interest

Consider this the latest installment in an ongoing series on the right-left convergence. Just yesterday Idrees Ahmed, the author of a devastating critique of Sy Hersh’s articles blaming the rebels for the sarin gas attacks in Syria, brought my attention to an article in The National Interest by Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett titled “A Middle East Tragedy: Obama’s Syria-Policy Disaster” that has appeared in one form or another at least a thousand times over the past four years.

Conversely, there is no polling or other evidence suggesting that anywhere close to a majority of Syrians wants Assad replaced by some part of the opposition. Indeed, the opposition’s popularity appears to be declining as oppositionists become ever more deeply divided and ever more dominated inside Syria by Al Qaeda-like jihadis. Just last year, NATO estimated that popular support for the opposition may have shrunk to as low as 10 percent of the Syrian public.

To give you an idea of the meretricious character of this sort of punditry, the ‘estimated’ link in the paragraph above is to an article in http://www.worldtribune.com, a website that was launched by one of Reverend Moon’s editors at the Washington Times. A 2003 New Yorker magazine article on the World Tribune indicates its willingness to play fast and loose with the facts:

Aficionados of the Drudge Report may have noticed several striking headlines recently linking to stories from the World Tribune, an enterprise with a title as grand and ambitious as it is unfamiliar. One such story last week began, “U.S. intelligence suspects Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction have finally been located.” The apparent scoop—of stop-the-presses significance—was unsigned, and billed as a “special to World Tribune.com.”

So things come full circle. Friends of the Syrian dictatorship write articles “proving” that al-Assad has the support of 90 percent of the population based on lies that appear in a website that was a key backer of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.

For those of you who keep track of Yoshie Furuhashi’s MRZine, a website that has the tacit approval of MR éminence grise John Foster Bellamy, you might recall that the Leveretts were regular contributors there for a few years, making the case for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Now that a “reformist” has replaced Ahmadinejad, the MR outlet’s enthusiasm has dimmed.

But who could have predicted that the Leveretts would eventually end up writing articles for The National Interest, a magazine that was ostensibly as far from the Monthly Review weltanschauung as can be imagined?

Irving Kristol was to The National Interest as Paul Sweezy was to Monthly Review. He launched the magazine in 1985 as a leading voice of neoconservatism. Kristol, like Sweezy, was a radical in the 1930s but aligned with the Trotskyist movement. He was one of a number of CCNY leftists who turned to the right under the impact of the Cold War. You can find out about all these renegades in a good documentary titled “Arguing the World”. (Available as a DVD from Netflix or from Amazon streaming.)

George W. Bush awarded Kristol the Medal of Freedom in 2002, the highest non-military citation. This was in gratitude for his support for American imperialist interventions going on since WWII and especially for his avid support for the “war on terror”.

So given the support for intervention in Syria by the likes of Republicans like John McCain and hawkish Democrats like Hillary Clinton, why would The National Interest be publishing articles that could have appeared just as easily on MRZine, Global Research or any of a dozen other “anti-imperialist” websites?

To start with, it is necessary to understand that The National Interest has evolved. It is no longer an advocate of Wilsonian crusades for democracy at the point of a bayonet. Instead it has taken its stand with the libertarian wing of the Republican Party that hews to the “isolationist” policies of Senator Robert Taft. Such Republicans were invited to speak at Ralph Nader’s right-left conference in Washington on May 27th.

It is not hard to figure out the magazine’s orientation given a number of the editors now ensconced there. For example, Andrew Bacevich is a contributing editor and John Mearsheimer is a member of the advisory board. Bacevich, a career military man and scholar, has become a high-profile opponent of the Bush era full-tilt “war on terror” as well as Obama’s “limited” drone program. As a hard-core realist, Bacevich understandably could come to the conclusion that “Except to Syrians, the fate of Syria per se doesn’t matter any more than the fate of Latvia or Laos.” In other words, Bacevich is just as US-centric as those he battles against, except on the opposite side of the ledger. Where men like LBJ argued that it was necessary to intervene in Vietnam so as to make sure falling dominoes do not reach Omaha, Bacevich takes the position that we should let the dominoes fall where they may since they will never reach Omaha. In either case, we are dealing with thinking squarely within the walls of Foggy Bottom.

Mearsheimer is best known as a critic of the “Israel Lobby” but has also weighed in on the “antiwar” side during the “red line” furor after the sarin gas attack in Ghouta. In a panel discussion on PBS, he made the case for non-intervention:

I think that the United States has no strategic interest in this particular case. Our core strategic interests are not at stake. There’s no compelling moral case for intervening in Syria. And, very importantly, it’s not clear that using military force is going to do any good.

Like Bacevich, Mearsheimer is thinking in terms of “the national interest”. Since Henry Kissinger, the 20th century’s Metternich, is the magazine’s honorary chairman, naturally this is its dominant perspective. When Irving Kristol was running things, the magazine championed interventionism since the Cold War was naturally in America’s “interest”. Now that the Cold War is over and Russia is capitalist and the beneficiary of major investments by Exxon-Mobil and BP, it is necessary to be more “nuanced”. A scalpel rather than a broadsword is necessary. What any of this has to do with the class struggle is anybody’s guess, of course.

I don’t want to appear cynical about the Leveretts but I wonder to what extent their advocacy for Iran and Syria is a mixture of business and pleasure. Hillary Mann Leverett is the CEO of The Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis, a consulting firm that will certainly earn big bucks trading on the husband and wife’s close ties to Tehran. If you go to the company’s website, you’ll get a good idea of what they are up to. Doug Arent, their executive director, spoke at a “Champions of Change” White House symposium. He made the case for fracking, a technique that will promote the use of natural gas, an energy source he regards as beneficent as solar power. Here are the Leveretts arguing against EU sanctions on Iran, something that will cut off the supply of natural gas. No wonder these people are working overtime on Iran and Syria’s behalf. There’s money to be made.

With allies like the Leveretts and The National Interest, the antiwar movement in the US has the wind in its sails, all the more so given recent reports that Obama’s war threats against Bashar al-Assad had been empty bluster all along. Robert Ford, who resigned recently as the US Ambassador to Syria, testified to that in a CNN interview. It has also been widely reported that Hillary Clinton favored arming the rebels early on but was overruled by President Obama. You can be assured that these reports will have little impact on an “anti-imperialist” left that has convinced itself that the White House remains poised to carry out a Bush-style attack on Syria.

For such good people are quite sure that they are following in the footsteps of the antiwar movement of the early 2000s that mobilized millions against Bush’s “war on terror”. Does it matter that over the past four years, the Obama administration has shown little interest in such a war, refuses to supply anything more than light arms, and—most importantly—acts to block the shipment of MANPAD’s from Libya and other sources, the only weapons that could have made a difference?

I can share their opposition to American intervention since I have learned over the past 50 years or so that nothing good ever comes out of it. Where I stand apart is over the question of how to regard the Syrian revolution that they hate like a vampire hates holy water. In their mind, the plebeian masses who demonstrated against Baathist tyranny in early 2011 and then took up arms when peaceful protest was no longer possible are the moral and political equivalent of the Nicaraguan contras that Irving Kristol championed. Who can help them understand that the same politics that shaped The National Interest in 1986 continues to shape it today? Namely, the commitment of the US ruling class to choose oligarchic capitalist rule over proletarian opposition, either peaceful or armed. I have almost given up trying.

June 5, 2014

Palestinians in Palestine still overwhelmingly against Assad

Filed under: Palestine,Syria — louisproyect @ 12:49 pm

Palestinians in Palestine still overwhelmingly against Assad.

June 4, 2014

Should the left be buoyed by the Syrian election?

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 10:02 pm

Ever since the war in Syria began, there has been a constant effort by the pro-Baathist left to prove that the dictator has the overwhelming support of the people.

Typical was the embrace of the 2012 Doha Poll that supposedly reflected a 55 percent desire that Bashar al-Assad remain in office. That led Jonathan Steele to tell Guardian readers that “Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know from western media”. If you took a few minutes to analyze the polling methodology, you’d discover that only 98 non-expatriate Syrians took part in the survey and that by definition they were on the Internet, from which the results were tabulated. In other words, if you were a farmer or a truck driver from Idlib with nothing more advanced than a cell phone, your opinion did not count.

Much to my dismay, political science professor and journalist Vijay Prishad has been beside himself over the Syrian elections. In the past, he has cultivated an image of being a careful and neutral observer of Syrian politics but the election results have somehow intoxicated him like a bottle of champagne. On twitter, where serious analysis goes by the wayside to begin with, he is jumping up and down like a delegate to an American presidential conventionScreen shot 2014-06-04 at 4.32.55 PM:
It is really hard for me to figure out how Vijay’s mind works. As someone who was a member of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador in the early 80s, I came to understand the role of demonstration elections as Noam Chomsky put it. Before El Salvador, you had demonstration elections in Vietnam as well. I am sure that Vijay would understand how such rituals enforce hegemonic control but apparently if an ally of the USSR—sorry, I meant Russia—mounts the demonstration elections, there is an entirely different attitude. Our role then becomes to hail them as representing the popular will.

There are some Middle East experts who are a bit less credulous on such matters than Vijay. The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies issued a report that concluded:

An ACRPS opinion poll of Syrian refugees and displaced persons in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and within Syria along the Syrian-Turkish border found that 78% of respondents view the June 3 presidential elections planned by the Syrian regime to be illegitimate. In contrast, only 17% of the respondents accepted the legitimacy of the 2014 presidential elections in Syria, with a further 5% of the respondents declining to give an opinion. The ACRPS survey is unprecedented in both scope and scale.

A total of 5,267 respondents, coming from 377 population centers inside and outside official refugee camps registered by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), took part in the survey. The sampling procedure adopted a multi-staged clustered approach to allow for a proportional distribution of surveys as per geographic distribution. The final margin of error for the survey findings is an estimated ±2%.

Screen shot 2014-06-04 at 4.42.15 PM

In a way, the polling was superfluous. Just ask yourself how someone ends up as a Syrian refugee. What areas have been bombed, gassed, and shelled to the point where flight is the only solution? Is it in Homs that has been leveled to the ground or the rebel controlled sections of Aleppo that was also the victim of a scorched-earth policy? Think about it.

Even more to the point, the left is not just interested in elections but the circumstances in which they take place. For example, can an election be held during a civil war and where the only place to vote is under government control? Also, what access to media do potential voters enjoy, among whom there were potential voters for Bashar al-Assad’s opponents? If the ruling party has complete control over TV, radio, and the newspapers, what are the possibilities for informed choice—something that I think would have mattered to Vijay who complained bitterly about Modi’s victory in India. Finally, and most importantly, many Syrians might have voted for al-Assad out of war-weariness. Seeing no possibility of his being overturned through a revolutionary struggle, they cast a vote in the hope that somehow a better life can be realized. This is what Reagan called “saying uncle” when he was supporting the contras in Nicaragua. Except when it comes to Syria, it is the counter-revolution that is in power.

As disappointed as I am in Vijay’s tweets, I can’t say that I was disappointed in Ajamu Baraka’s article hailing the Syrian elections that could have been written by the Syrian Foreign Ministry since this is exactly what could be expected from a pro-Baathist hack.

One of the interesting connections between the soft left and the hard left around both Syria and Ukraine has been their willingness to form a propaganda bloc while differing on a host of other questions, including the need to vote for Democrats. Ajamu Baraka is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a think-tank that overlaps to a large degree with the Nation Magazine, a lynchpin of Democratic Party liberalism. Despite this, his article could have appeared on the Party for Socialism and Liberation website, a group that practically defines fire-breathing anti-imperialist rhetoric.

I thought that Baraka’s summing up of recent history was quite revealing:

There was a time when this position would have been clear to the peace and anti-war, anti-imperialist progressive and left movements in the U.S. and the West. But over the last two decades, with the ideological infiltration of the left by liberalism, social democracy and the rightist tendencies of “anti-authoritarian” anarchism, the resulting political confusion has seen a consistent alignment of the left with the imperial project of the U.S. – from the attacks on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia through to attacks on nationalist projects throughout the global South, from Libya to Syria. Since the last gasp of anti-imperialism solidarity represented by the massive marches in opposition to the illegal attack on Iraq in 2003, the peace, anti-war and anti-imperialist movements have been in relative disarray.

I was particularly intrigued by the reference to the “rightist tendencies of ‘anti-authoritarian’ anarchism”, an indication that Baraka might be checking in on websites like Tahrir-ICN that have been consistently opposed to the Baathist goons. Describing themselves as in favor of a “free and self-governed society based on tolerance, equality and openness, the society in which the social side is placed above the mercantile”, these anarchists and autonomists do not see themselves as servants of any state, least of all one drenched in blood and torture as Baathist Syria. When I put Vijay Prashad and Ajamu Baraka next to the young people associated with Tahrir-ICN, I can begin to understand why Daniel Guerin became an anarchist.

In terms of the peace, anti-war and anti-imperialist movements being in relative disarray, I would say a large part of that is the result of it tail-ending President Obama during the early years of his first term, the sort of behavior encapsulated by Progressives for Obama. Many of these people came down with buyer’s remorse when they discovered that Obama was the next Herbert Hoover rather than FDR but it would have been better if we hadn’t started off like this:

Tanya Dawkins: How are you feeling about the domestic human rights movement right now?

Ajamu Baraka: I’m feeling pretty good, even though we have some very real challenges as a movement. The election of Barack Obama provides opportunities as well as some very interesting political challenges. Under the Bush Administration, the targets of our advocacy, organizing, and education work were pretty clear. With Obama’s election and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, we find ourselves struggling against the tendency some might have to believe that we can relax and just engage in quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

I have no idea why Baraka was feeling “pretty good” at the time although I guess that was universal at the IPS. Phyllis Bennis, his colleague at IPS, has been on the stump for years now warning about Obama’s war plans for Syria, as if he is going to show up on an aircraft carrier anytime soon with his testicles protruding through a flight suit. For such people everything becomes another Iraq even when it has become crystal-clear that the Obama administration has zero interest in seeing “regime change” in Syria. Even the idiots at Moon of Alabama understand that when they post articles like Syria: Obama To Work With Assad?

In her most recent musings on the war in Syria, Bennis tells us:

The Obama administration should support United Nations decision-making, international law and diplomacy instead of military force, and make good on its frequent acknowledgment that “there is no military solution in Syria.” That means no US military strikes or threats of strikes, and an end to all other military involvement, including arms shipments. This is a point of principle, not timing—because even if efforts for a cease-fire, arms embargo and diplomacy do not succeed immediately, we know that US military involvement will only make things worse.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not Obama has ever really been about “military force”, one wonders why Bennis didn’t understand what a threat he was to peace in the first place. Bennis once again:

This election is not about supporting or withdrawing support from Obama; it’s about keeping the worst from gaining even more power than they already have, so we can get on with the real work of building movements. If you want to call that the “lesser-evil” theory, fine.

Yeah, Bennis, that’s what it was: the lesser evil. Except maybe not so lesser after all.

My position in 2008 was to oppose Obama–the independent party to the left you voted for was up to you. My position in 2011 was to support those people in the Middle East whether or not the government they struggle against was aligned with Russia or not. History will record that some of the most vociferous enemies of the Syrian revolution were some of the same people urging a vote for him in 2008 (and like Bennis, once again in 2012). Make of that what you will.

I run afoul of stringent British libel laws

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 3:02 pm

1930s Portrait Of Man With Gag In Mouth

Last week I found out from Robin Yassin-Kassab that the article I had written for the forthcoming issue of Critical Muslim had to be dropped upon the instructions of Hurst Publishers. My article as well as one taking on George Galloway was considered to be an invitation to a libel suit.

British libel law favors the accuser since the burden of proof falls on the author of an article. In other words, Hurst would have had to spend money on a legal defense aimed at showing my article did not defame someone like Yale professor David Bromwich who has developed a second career as a Bashar al-Assad apologist (okay, go ahead and sue me now, motherfuckers.)

I think that Robin was a lot more upset than me. I expect very little from print publishers and generally prefer to write for online publications. In fact, despite my profound admiration for the work that Robin and co-editor Ziauddin Sardar as well as my willingness to write for them in the future, my blog gets far more traffic than the print edition of CM. To this date, the Unrepentant Marxist has gotten 3,595,480 views and averages about 40,000 per month. For some writers, a print publication is proof that you are a real writer—something that amounts in my eyes to the diplomas the Wizard of Oz hands out to Dorothy’s companions. Looking at the op-ed page of the NY Times on most days, I can say that being in print is no guarantee that you have something to say.

In any case, here is the article. You be the judge.

The Betrayal of the Intellectuals on Syria

by Louis Proyect

Now in its bloody third year of warfare against its own population, the Ba‘athist dictatorship in Syria has reached a level of criminality that demands comparison with Franco’s Spain. How and why some of the West’s most prominent intellectuals continue to make excuses for Bashaar al-Assad demands an answer. Here I hope to provide such an answer, as well as to recommend an alternative intellectual and moral approach.

In 1927 Julian Benda wrote Trahison des Clercs, a book best known through its English translation “The Betrayal of the Intellectuals”. Aimed at French and German intellectuals of the 19th and 20th century, Benda—a Jew—sought to answer why so many had succumbed to racism and nationalism. His primary target was Charles Maurras, who despite writing his first scholarly article for a respected philosophy journal at the tender age of 17, ended up as the leading ideologist for Action Française, the magazine of a fascist group of the same name that backed the treasonous Vichy regime.

There are two closely related factors that help to explain how Western intellectuals have taken up the cause of a dictatorship that arguably ranks below Vichy in terms of its indifference to the norms of civilization and human rights. Firstly, there is a tendency to see the Syrian dictatorship through the prism of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was perceived rightly or wrongly as the major benefactor of radical third world regimes. That Putin’s Russia has nothing to do with the Soviet Union and that the Syrian economy had been restructured to conform to IMF guidelines does not discourage some from acting as if nothing has changed. Secondly, there is a strong tendency toward Islamophobia. When ISIS, spurned even by al-Qa’ida, was revealed to have the same relationship to al-Assad as Vichy had to Nazi Germany, the treasonous intellectuals continued to link the rebels with ISIS.

The New York Review of Books

Arguably, the New York Review of Books and its counterpart the London Review of Books have served as latter day equivalents of Action Française, serving propaganda for a vicious dictatorship that has little connection to its self-flattering image as a beacon of human rights.

Even when the title of an NY Review article foreshadows a condemnation of the Ba‘athists, the content remains consistent with the “plague on both your houses” narrative that pervades this intellectual milieu. In a December 5th 2013 article titled “Syria: On the Way to Genocide?”, Charles Glass ends up echoing the talking points of more openly Ba‘athist elements:

The introduction of chemical weapons, which have been alleged to have been used not only by the government but by the rebels as well, was only the most dramatic escalation by combatants who seek nothing short of the annihilation of the other side.

As is so often the case, the use of the passive voice allows the writer to condemn the rebels without any evidence. “Alleged to have been” leads to the obvious question as to who is responsible for the allegation. Was it Vladimir Putin? Assad’s propaganda nun Mother Agnes Mariam? Inquiring minds would like to know.

On August 20th 2012 Glass penned another article for the Review titled “Aleppo: How Syria Is Being Destroyed” that portrayed the rebels as a wanton mob invading the civilized city. He wrote:

While the urban unemployed had good reason to support a revolution that might improve their chances in life, the thousands who had jobs at the beginning of the revolution and lost them when the Free Army burned their workplaces are understandably resentful. There are stories of workers taking up arms to protect their factories and risking their lives to save their employers from kidnappers.

Since Charles Glass is a Middle East analyst for NBC News, it is not surprising that he can allude to ‘stories’ of workers taking up arms against the rebels to protect the bosses. NBC is a subsidiary of General Electric, and naturally its analyst will find arguments for preserving Ba‘athist rule. You can do business with al-Assad, but the plebian rebels might be as difficult to deal with as the Libyan militias.

Glass was in the graduate program of the American University in Beirut, but did not complete his PhD. His best-known work is “Tribes With Flags: A Dangerous Passage Through the Chaos of the Middle East”, a title redolent of Orientalism. In a March 22nd 2011 NY Times column, Thomas Friedman adopted Glass’s thesis to explain why the natives might not be ready for self-rule:

[T]here are two kinds of states in the Middle East: “real countries” with long histories in their territory and strong national identities (Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Iran); and those that might be called “tribes with flags,” or more artificial states with boundaries drawn in sharp straight lines by pens of colonial powers that have trapped inside their borders myriad tribes and sects who not only never volunteered to live together but have never fully melded into a unified family of citizens.

Libya and Syria were unfortunate enough to be the kinds of ‘artificial states’ that were unsuited for democracy.

While Glass could never be considered a world-class intellectual, NY Review regular David Bromwich occupies a rather lofty perch at Yale University, where he is Sterling Professor of English. A Sterling Professorship is the highest academic rank at Yale, awarded to the elite’s elite. It has nothing to do with silver but is named after John William Sterling who graduated in 1864 and founded the white shoe New York law firm Shearman & Sterling. He bequeathed a ten-million-dollar endowment to feather the nest of superstar academics like Bromwich, who combines an academic career with less than stellar analyses of current events.

Bromwich wrote an article for the NY Review on June 20th 2013 titled “Stay out of Syria!” It was a collection of pro-Ba‘athist talking points.

While directed against NY Times editor Bill Keller’s urging that the US conduct an Iraq-style invasion, a position that was likely to offend the sensibilities of the NY Review’s readers and even more likely to never happen, Bromwich slid easily into slander against those who were forced to take up arms against a vicious dictatorship.

Our Sterling Professor takes the word of ‘qualified investigator’ Carla Del Ponte, a UN commissioner who denied the Ba‘athists had deployed sarin: ‘This was used on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities.’ This is the very same Del Ponte investigated for prosecutorial misconduct for her role in the aftermath of the Yugoslavia wars as the Guardian reported on August 18th 2010:

“Some of the witnesses had referred to pressure and intimidation to which they were subjected by investigators for the prosecution,” said a statement from the judge in the Seselj case. “The prosecution allegedly obtained statements illegally, by threatening, intimidating and/or buying [witnesses] off.”

One Serbian witness said he was offered a well-paid job in the US in return for testimony favourable to the prosecution.

Bromwich makes sure to mention the crazed rebel who took a bite out of a dead Syrian soldier’s heart. Among those whose goal it is to make al-Assad seem reasonable by comparison, this singular act of a shell-shocked fighter has taken on iconic proportions. We must conclude that in our Yale professor’s moral calculus, the act of firing rockets originally intended to pulverize battleships or hydroelectric dams into tenement buildings is a normal way of conducting warfare, analogous perhaps to prizefighting.

The NYRB occupies a unique space in American belles lettres. Through its pages academics can address a broad audience about important matters on a weekly basis. It was launched by Robert Silvers and a few close friends during a strike at the New York Times in the winter of 1962-63. Previously Silvers held editorial posts at the Paris Review and Harper’s. As the Vietnam War and student radicalization penetrated American consciousness, the magazine regularly featured Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, and even ran an article by Andrew Kopkind backing Chairman Mao’s dictum that ‘morality, like politics, flows from the barrel of a gun.’ This was accompanied by a do-it-yourself diagram of a Molotov cocktail.

As Silvers and his staff grew older and wealthier, and as the 1960s radicalization faded, the magazine, with American liberalism, shifted toward the center – no longer a sounding board for the McGovern wing of the Democratic Party but just another voice recognizing the inevitability of Clinton-style neoliberalism.

If Silvers ever feels the need to defend himself against charges that the magazine is giving backhanded support to al-Assad, he points to the occasional article decrying rights violations in Syria, such as Annie Sparrow’s February 20th 2014 piece on the polio epidemic she describes as a ‘a consequence of the way that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has chosen to fight the war—a war crime of truly epidemic proportions.’ While nobody would gainsay the need for such articles, they are undermined by mendacious reporting of Glass and Bromwich which almost makes the case for the crimes of ‘truly epidemic proportions’.

The editors are reflecting the foreign policy imperatives of the Obama administration, which decided long ago that the preservation of Ba‘athist rule served American interests. Elite opinion is very sensitive to America’s role as hegemon, the first line of defense for liberal civilization. Just as it once decided that this meant holding the line against Communism, it now sees Islamic extremism as the first enemy.

For all the hysteria over looming American intervention in Syria, if it does come it’s more likely to strike jihadist elements of the rebel forces than the dictatorship. On March 13th 2013, the Los Angeles Times reported:

The CIA has stepped up secret contingency planning to protect the United States and its allies as the turmoil expands in Syria, including collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes, according to current and former U.S. officials.

‘Extremists’ might be interpreted to encompass every fighter not conforming to the Obama administration’s definition of “moderate”, almost certainly including those who cry “Allahu Akbar” on destroying a regime helicopter.

The London Review of Books

The London Review of Books came into existence in 1979 under circumstances akin to the magazine that served as its midwife. During a yearlong lockout at the London Times and the Times Literary Supplement put on hold, a TLS editor and others launched the LRB. As they put it jocularly on the LRB website, the magazine “appeared marsupially in the New York Review of Books” until May 1980, when it ‘jumped out of the parental pouch and became a fully independent literary paper’.

Like Robert Silvers, the current editor of the LRB is of advanced years. Born in 1938, Mary-Kay Wilmers started off as a secretary despite having an Oxford degree—a common fate for women in a sexist industry. Wilmers once described herself as ‘being captivated by the left, but not of it’. And compared to the NYRB, the LRB is practically Bolshevist. It caused a major stir by publishing the Walt/Mearsheimer attack on the Israel lobby. Sadly, when it comes to Syria (and Libya), its favoured authors can barely be distinguished from Glass and Bromwich.

Wilmers told the London Times (October 18th 2009): ‘I’m unambiguously hostile to Israel because it’s a mendacious state. They do things that are just so immoral and counterproductive and, as a Jew, especially as a Jew, you can’t justify that.’ Like many on the left who have taken up the Palestinian cause, she cannot make the connection with the war in Syria where al-Assad has killed far more Palestinians than Israel over the past three years.

The LRB published a very lengthy and conspiratorial article by Hugh Roberts on November 27th 2011 asking “Who said Gaddafi had to go?” Roberts argued the dictator had substantial support and would have retained power were it not for NATO intervention. Again, Roberts – Edward Keller Professor of North African and Middle Eastern History at Tufts University – had impressive academic credentials.

Hisham Matar, a Libyan writer whose debut novel “In the Country of Men” was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, wrote the LRB to question how Professor Roberts could be untroubled by Gaddafi’s hanging of student protesters from the gates of their university. Matar was perplexed by Roberts’s focus on Gaddafi’s words rather than his deeds.

With an air of ethnocentric contempt he disregards the will of the Libyan people. Indeed, he even disapproves of calling the deposed leader a dictator, and offers Gaddafi’s comical Green Book the respectability of a serious political theory that, according to Roberts, ‘drew many ordinary Libyans into a sort of participation in public affairs’. Really? What ‘sort of participation’ was possible when every independent agency and organisation was subdued?

The first and last LRB article in solidarity with the Syrian revolution appeared on March 1st 2012, by novelist and aid worker Jonathan Littell. Littell writes about a young man named Abu Bilal with whom he lived for a few days. He followed Bilal around as he filmed funerals, the wounded, and the dead. He concludes:

The Western media rarely use these sources, apparently thinking that in the absence of one of their own reporters, these videos of horror ‘cannot be verified’. But these images, sometimes shaky, taken as close as possible to the atrocities, constitute something precious, and those who film them risk their lives every day. As Abu Slimane, an activist from Baba Amro, told me one night, ‘Our parents were enslaved by fear. We have broken down the wall of fear. Either we conquer, or we die.’

While several other useful articles appeared in 2012, the LRB’s sharp turn against the rebels the following year was signaled by Patrick Cockburn’s June 6th “Is it the end of Sykes-Picot?”, circulated widely on the pro-Ba‘athist left as incontrovertible evidence of the revolution’s failure.

The Sykes-Picot reference is key since it places Cockburn’s analysis within the framework of International Relations, an academic discipline concerned with statecraft, war, and diplomacy. The actual people on the ground fighting against dictatorship are placed in the background, if seen at all.

From that point on, LRB articles proved increasingly hostile to the revolution, even viewing the bloodstained Ba‘athist tyranny as a lesser evil.

Tariq Ali wrote against intervention in Syria on August 28, 2013, prompted by Obama’s “red line” rhetoric, an empty threat given the discussions underway with Iran. Ali made points that had been made repeatedly by Russian and Iranian state TV outlets:

The Obama administration and its camp followers would like us to believe that Assad permitted UN chemical weapons inspectors into Syria, and then marked their arrival by launching a chemical assault against women and children, about fifteen kilometres away from the hotel where the inspectors were lodged. It simply does not make sense. Who carried out this atrocity?

One wonders if Ali has ever visited the website of Brown Moses, the British blogger who proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the sarin-laden rockets originated from regime bases. At very least one would expect an intellectual on the editorial board of Verso (Ali) to consider arguments – facts, indeed – contrary to his own.

The Obama administration had already entered into negotiations with Iran and was about to break with Saudi Arabia on its support for the rebels—as provisional as it was. Assad was willing to use sarin because he knew a thaw was in the works between America and Iran, and that there was little reason to worry about intervention. His foot-dragging on the elimination of chemical stocks is evidence of how comfortable he feels on this score.

Tariq Ali’s LRB blog piece was a prelude to Seymour Hersh’s “Whose Sarin?”, which made news everywhere. Although Hersh is much more of a journalist than an academic or intellectual, the imprimatur of the LRB gave this questionable attempt at investigative reporting more traction than it deserved. It was originally submitted to the New Yorker magazine, where Hersh is a regular contributor. When the editors found it unworthy of publication, Hersh shopped it to the LRB.

Considering Hersh’s storied reputation as the man who broke the My Lai massacre story in 1969, it’s a sorry sign of the general approach to Syria that his standards are abandoned in this case. He relies heavily on unnamed sources in the intelligence community who assure him that the rebels were not only capable of producing sarin but had actually used it. It was up to Eliot Higgins, the Brown Moses blogger, to set Hersh straight in a December 9th 2013 Foreign Policy article. Citing weapons expert Dan Kaszeta, Higgins points out that the amount of sarin required to devastate East Ghouta demands a much larger production infrastructure than the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult needed to produce several liters for its 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway. Since far more gas was used in the Syrian massacre, it would have required a factory and dozens of trained workers—a ludicrous scenario considering the chaos in Syria. On the other hand, you could apply Occam’s razor and realize that the simplest explanation is correct, namely that Assad had the means and the motivation to break the back of stubborn resistance in the poor suburbs of Damascus.

Oddly enough a 2009 article by Hersh in the New Yorker (one the editors found acceptable) foreshadowed the rapprochement between Washington and its erstwhile adversaries:

Assad’s goal in seeking to engage with America and Israel is clearly more far-reaching than merely to regain the Golan Heights. His ultimate aim appears to be to persuade Obama to abandon the Bush Administration’s strategy of aligning America with the so-called “moderate” Arab Sunni states—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan—in a coördinated front against Shiite Iran, Shiite Hezbollah, and Hamas.

Obama’s recent willingness to tilt toward Iran is one more illustration of Kissinger’s observation that America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.

Slavoj Žižek

A professional philosopher, author of such thorny texts as “Hegel and the Infinite: Religion, Politics, and Dialectic”, and lauded by Verso publicists as the Elvis of Marxism, few would question Žižek’s clout as both a major ivory tower figure and a public intellectual. There are few men who can switch from Lacan to “The Matrix” with such ease. Perhaps an inflated sense of his own prowess is the only explanation for Žižek’s shameful musings on Syria.

On September 6th 2013, as solidarity with the Ba‘athist dictatorship was reaching fever-pitch in the foolish expectation that Obama would launch an Iraq-style invasion, the philosopher penned “Syria is a Pseudo-Struggle” for the Guardian. The outlet made perfect sense since this supposedly liberal newspaper features Jonathan Steele and Seumas Milne, ideologues whose opinions on Syria are scarcely distinguishable from Russian and Iranian media. Along with Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn at the Independent, the voices of British liberalism have acquitted themselves poorly.

Directed against (non-existent) military intervention, Žižek’s article is laced with slander against the Syrian people. For so many of the “anti-war” intellectuals and journalists, it seems mandatory to brandish the dove in one hand while plunging a dagger into the back of the rebels with the other. Like Ali and Hersh, he is agnostic on the source of the sarin attack, referring to Bashar al-Assad as ‘(allegedly) using poisonous gas against the population of his own state’.

He continues: ‘It seems that whatever remained of the democratic-secular resistance is now more or less drowned in the mess of fundamentalist Islamist groups supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with a strong presence of al-Qa’ida in the shadows… there are no clear political stakes, no signs of a broad emancipatory-democratic coalition, just a complex network of religious and ethnic alliances overdetermined by the influence of superpowers on the other.’

Žižek holds up the “good” Arabs in Egypt who constitute ‘a strong radical-emancipatory opposition’ to oppose the “bad” ones: ‘As we used to say almost half a century ago, one doesn’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows in Syria: towards Afghanistan.’

Context is entirely missing from Žižek’s calculation. In Egypt, there has been relative freedom for “civil society”— tenuous but real openings both before and after Tahrir Square. In such an environment, it was possible for ‘radical-emancipatory’ voices to be heard. In Syria such voices are certainly present (if only the media would hear), but snipers aimed their rifles at the heads of peaceful protesters from day one, and the struggle became militarized by necessity. Additionally, the sectarian nature and strategy of Ba‘athist rule meant that the opposition would be susceptible to its own forms of sectarianism. The blame for this should be put at Assad’s feet, not at those desperately trying to overthrow his tyranny.

Joseph Daher, a member of the Syrian Revolutionary Left Current and far more qualified to speak about his own country than Žižek with all his laurels, responded on the Syria Freedom Forever blog (18/10/2013), specifically on the supposed Talibanization of Syria:

Beginning of October and in September, different FSA brigades voted to expell ISIS from the city of Homs and Idlib. Joint Command of the “Free Syrian Army and the forces of revolutionary movement” issued a statement few weeks ago asking all foreign fighters in Syria to leave (pro-regime and Al-Qa’ida sisters), and promises to work on the revolution’s values of “freedom, dignity and social justice” and to “retain the independent Syrian decision” from foreign states.

It should be noted that anti-revolution intellectuals have said little about the opposition’s struggle with ISIS (which intensified in early 2014), no doubt because it challenges their reductionist analysis in which such “radical-emancipatory” voices as the Local Coordination Committees are ignored. It is also a function of the profound Islamophobia of an intellectual constellation which recycles the rhetoric of Christopher Hitchens, but on behalf of Syria, Iran, and the Kremlin instead of the Bush White House.

Robert Dreyfuss and the Nation Magazine

While journalist Robert Dreyfuss and the Nation don’t occupy the Olympian heights of a Slavoj Žižek, they certainly reach many in the academy who consider the magazine a reliable liberal alternative to the mass media.

The Nation has usually been content to editorialize about American intervention in Syria, using the Iraq war as an example of what could go wrong. There is also regular commentary on the humanitarian disaster, for which they do blame the dictatorship. All this is par for the liberal course.

But most of the heavy lifting has been left to Dreyfuss, author of “Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam”. Dreyfuss sees the CIA and Mossad’s fingerprints on every Islamism.

The worst of many dreadful Dreyfuss columns is “The United States Must Abandon All Support for the Syrian Rebellion” (06/09/2012). Like Žižek’s piece, it recites the alleged crimes and misdemeanors of a rebellion that never lived up the magazine’s expectations.

Dreyfuss poses a rhetorical question:

More and more, the Syrian rebellion is being reinforced by a flow of militants from Sunni Iraq, including its most radical Islamist elements who, in 2006–07, led the Al Qa’ida–type Islamic Emirate of Iraq. Does the United States really want to get embroiled in a region-wide Sunni-Shiite war?

Such an odd question to pose. It makes one wonder if Dreyfuss is a careful reader of the NY Times, a newspaper that despite other faults can be relied upon to convey elite opinion. On October 13th 2013, when the Nation, the LRB, et al were most alarmed about a Bush-style “regime change” adventure in Syria, the Times reported on the aversion to that scenario in the White House. The entire article is a challenge to Dreyfuss’s analysis, especially this:

Denis R. McDonough, the deputy national security adviser and one of the biggest skeptics about American intervention in Syria, was promoted to White House chief of staff. Mr. McDonough had clashed frequently with his colleagues on Syria policy, including with Samantha Power, a White House official who had long championed the idea that nations have a moral obligation to intervene to prevent genocide.

Ms. Power came to believe that America’s offers of support to the rebels were empty.

“Denis, if you had met the rebels as frequently as I have, you would be as passionate as I am,” Ms. Power told Mr. McDonough at one meeting, according to two people who attended.

“Samantha, we’ll just have to agree to disagree,” Mr. McDonough responded crisply.

While researching this article, I made a startling discovery – thanks to Wikipedia, the people’s research tool par excellence. It turns out that Dreyfuss was once a member of Lyndon Larouche’s organization, a movement as close to classical fascism as any ever seen in the US. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dreyfuss served as director of Middle East Intelligence for “Executive Intelligence Review”, a LaRoucheite journal. Lyndon Larouche commissioned him to write his first book, “Hostage to Khomeini”.

Is there any consistency between the Dreyfuss of today and that of 35 years ago? I would argue that there is. The Larouche movement is characterised by conspiracy theories, all directed toward convincing the gullible that nefarious forces are out to sap the vigor of American civilization. Numerous articles in “Executive Intelligence Review” promote the idea that Muslim extremists are (always) witting or unwitting tools of the West. On January 18th 2002 the magazine claimed that the Mossad created Hamas, a conspiracy theory developed originally by Dreyfuss. It dovetails neatly with all the false flag narratives about the Syrian rebels gassing their own.

In “Devil’s Game”, Dreyfuss laid out a perspective that later became widespread when a section of the left took to demonizing Arab and Muslim fighters as pawns of imperialism:

In the early 1980s Israel supported the Islamists on several fronts. It was, of course, supporting the Gaza and West Bank Islamists that, in 1987, would found Hamas. It was, with Jordan, backing the Muslim Brotherhood war against Syria. In Afghanistan, Israel quietly supported the jihad against the USSR, backing the Muslim Brotherhood-linked fundamentalists who led the mujahideen. And Israel backed Iran, the militant heart of the Islamist movement, during its long war with Iraq.

In the intellectual universe Dreyfuss inhabits, there is no greater insult than to be a CIA or Mossad asset. Anti-revolution leftists oscillate between this sort of (never evidenced) smear against the Syrian rebels, and viewing them as inimical to “American interests”. Whatever this lacks in intellectual coherence they seek to compensate for through repetition and vehemence.

Michael Neumann

After surveying the rubbish-strewn landscape of Ba‘athist apologetics, it’s a relief to discover that at least one highly qualified academic has bucked the trend. In 1968 Michael Neumann was a senior at Columbia University and deeply involved in the antiwar movement. Like the best of that generation, he never gave up his principles as he pursued his career. He is a full professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, where he started his career in 1975. Despite specializing in ethics, Neumann’s sense of right and wrong flows much more from his antiwar activism than from Plato.

There needs to be a clear distinction between the pseudo-politics of bearing witness, of “supporting” something and “taking a stand”, and the politics of trying to have some effect, however tiny, on the world. This distinction has largely been lost.

I’ve come to feel that serious politics focuses on facts, not theories. No theory is needed, only the facts and some mom-and-pop ethical principles that people can only pretend to reject. And serious politics needs to be brutally realistic and brutally mindful of priorities. Suppose, for example, freedom and democracy really do conflict with helping the poor? Too many leftists won’t even accept the reality of the dilemma, let alone say that helping the poor is more important. I have no time for such people.

Neumann is a long-standing critic of Israel. He is a supporter of the BDS movement, wrote a book, “The Case Against Israel”, and after the bloody 2008-2009 IDF assault on Gaza, asked the Israeli government to remove his grandmother’s name from the Vad Yashem holocaust memorial.

Many pro-Palestinian activists, however, willingly echoed Ba‘athist narratives on Syria. Among them is Jonathan Cook, who has written three books on the Palestinian struggle, and who endorsed Seymour Hersh’s sarin conspiracy. Cook’s moral and intellectual lapses likely stem from the false premise that Israel regards the Syrian regime as a mortal enemy, and from the fact that a Palestinian splinter group in Syria—the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command— serves the Assad regime. What was Neumann’s take on this?

I feel these people are deeply misguided, unforgivably so, but their position is at least entirely understandable.

It’s quite simple, though someone like Cook won’t admit even to himself some parts of what he knows. The Palestinians are screwed on the ground; they can’t fight Israel. Israel has absolutely no incentive to make peace and is now so powerful that it is virtually immune from international pressure. Until very recently the best hope for the Palestinians was that Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, could make things uncomfortable enough for the Israelis that peace had at least a slight chance. So naturally Cook et al. hang on to that hope.

This might be quite a dilemma – can you support a monster like Assad even to help the Palestinians? – except that the hope is dead as a doornail. Even if Assad escapes with his skin, he will be no use to anyone, and Hezbollah is only going to get weaker as its lifeline degenerates. If Cook and others faced this, they wouldn’t disgrace themselves through their sneaking support for the ‘admittedly brutal’ Syrian regime.

My final question to Michael Neumann was how he had arrived at his views on Syria. Like me, Neumann was regular contributor to Counterpunch, the website run by Alexander Cockburn whose publishing arm midwifed “The Case against Israel”. While Counterpunch could never be mistaken for the NYRBooks, it does publish some writers who would not be out of place there. Neumann answered:

First of all, there are three basically pro-Assad strains in Counterpunch. The first, as I suggested, is Cook’s. The second involves a bunch of “old Syria hands”: Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn and Patrick Seale. These old farts loved their days in Damascus (and Beirut) and won’t let go. The realities are best captured by this unforgettable piece: A Eulogy for the Damascus Bourgeoisies. I’ll assume these superannuated journalists are of no great interest to either of us. Their views don’t have much to do with the general Counterpunch outlook.

Yes, you could say I went through an evolution, starting quite a few years ago. I suppose two factors were the main cause of my change.

For one thing, I came to believe, like much of the world, that the US was weak. Like much of the world, I believe it lost, hands down, in Vietnam and Iraq, and will certainly lose in Afghanistan. I’m prepared to argue that these were military defeats. This of course doesn’t square with Counterpunch’s incurably American idea of American power, and consequently of American menace.

Second, I came to be associated through personal connections with a Syrian/Lebanese/Egyptian milieu. Since the Western left, properly speaking, hasn’t achieved anything in living memory, I came to find this milieu and of course the world it derived from a lot more interesting than the left. The Middle Eastern people also seemed much closer to reality, and that reality despite everything holds out a tiny bit of hope. Politically, the record suggests that the West is simply a lost cause.

The result is a real difference in outlook between me and most Counterpunch types, not to mention the bright lights of the Review of Books world. Most of these people have no idea what’s happening in Syria because they’re not interested: they’re only interested in each other and their sins-of-the-West obsessions. The very idea that there should be some genuine happenings in Syria is for them a non-starter, because, far more than the colonialists before them, they see Middle Eastern people as incapable of agency: these “Arabs” are just pawns in the terribly important games of America and an imaginary “anti-imperialist” block.

I support the Syrian revolution because I’ve actually tried to learn something about it, in detail. I have the luxury of having been able to spend maybe four hours a day looking at a wide range of sources from inside (or just outside) Syria, for about three years. On my blog I refute some of the sillier things people say about events.

Here are a few things I know that most Counterpunch people don’t.

The Syrian uprising is the most thoroughly popular revolution we’ve seen in ages, perhaps since 1789. It has not “fragmented” into hundreds or thousands of groups; it was never a united movement and it never had a vanguard. It is to a large extent poor, young, rural and socially conservative. The fight is not a proxy war because no one is obeying any external actors, whose support is piddling. As for the notion that the US supports the revolution, or has some oily agenda that would involve supporting it, that’s ossified thinking when the US is awash in oil.

Then there’s the fear that the revolution will bring radical Islamists to power. That’s nonsense: once Assad falls, everyone will be united against the extreme Islamists: the Saudis, Qatar, the Russians, the Iranians and Iraq, the Israelis, the West, the Kurds, and Turkey, not to mention secular Syrians. The extremists, whose hard core is indeed largely foreign, will lack both the supplies and the support to survive. The many teenage Syrians who joined up solely to fight the regime will deplete their own units.

As for the rest, yes, of course, many of the revolutionaries don’t hold Counterpunch values. But if we learned anything from Marx it would be that ultimate objectives aren’t even on the agenda until the historical conditions are in place. In Syria as in many other Middle Eastern countries, secularist regimes have brought nothing but bloody disaster, so that progress can come only via Islamist regimes. This is far preferable to Assad. It doesn’t matter what Assad may have done or supported or represented in the past. For one thing, as I said earlier, he’s finished. For another, the idea that we have a dilemma between ruthless realism and starry-eyed idealism is absurd. Whatever Castro may think, Assad isn’t Castro and he isn’t Father Stalin. He’s a rather typical spoilt Middle Eastern male who’s been crossed, and turned into a full-out monster. He has no cause and advances no cause. If you’re going to back a regime that sodomizes with broken bottles, castrates children and inserts rats in women’s vaginas, maybe you should ask yourself what you’re hoping will be achieved. The left doesn’t ask that because it’s become a stranger to the very idea of achievement. All it wants is to have, in newspeak, its “narratives” confirmed, and it confirms them by making stuff up. That’s why I prefer reading and writing for Middle Eastern people, or at least in what I conceive to be their interests.

Noam Chomsky addressed the question of intellectual responsibility in the NYRB in 1967, when the magazine was far less reflective of the inside-the-beltway consensus. His starting-point was an article on the same question by Dwight Macdonald in the 1957 “Politics” magazine. Macdonald had left the American Troskyist movement over what he perceived as its Stalinist-type authoritarianism. According to Wikipedia, he ‘denounced Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union for first urging the Poles to rebel in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and then halting the Red Army outside of the borders of Warsaw as the German Army crushed the Poles, liquidating its leadership.’ Considering the resemblance of places like Yarmouk and Homs to the Warsaw Ghetto, one imagines that if Macdonald were alive today, he too would be speaking out.

Macdonald certainly would have agreed with Chomsky’s dismissal of the claim that the Syrian revolution was a plot hatched in Langley, Virginia. In an interview conducted by Mohammad al-Attar on July 13th 2013, Chomsky succinctly described how Assad forced the revolution into taking up arms:

I don’t think the Syrians made a choice. It happened in the wake of the regime’s repressive response. Syrians could either have surrendered or taken up arms. To blame them is akin to saying that the Vietnamese made a mistake responding by force when their US-backed government started committing massacres. Sure, the Vietnamese made a choice to arm themselves, but the alternative was to accept still more massacres. It’s not a serious critique.

The comparison with Vietnam is key. For a left that lives in the past, when the Soviet Union defended countries struggling against imperialism, even if as fecklessly as Stalin, the support of Putin’s Kremlin for the Ba‘athist slaughter somehow becomes warranted. This willful neglect of historical change would be like someone supporting Bush’s war on Iraq because he was a member of Abraham Lincoln’s party.

It’s a tragedy for the left intelligentsia that so many who came of age in the 1960s, like Tariq Ali, cannot understand how much the Vietnamese peasant and his Syrian brothers and sisters today have in common. Like the Vietnamese struggling to break the chains of colonial rule, the Syrians are trying to remove a dictatorship as accommodating to imperial designs as the one in Saigon. How gladly the Ba‘athists suppressed Palestinians in Lebanon and tortured rendered suspects for the CIA.

In the 1960s the left was vigilant to tell the truth about American foreign policy. In many ways, the responsibility of intellectuals today is exactly the same as it was back then, but is made more difficult by the tendency of some to automatically put a minus where Samantha Powers or Nicholas Kristof puts a plus. Our obligation is to tell the truth independently of the geopolitical chess game. When a section of the left opts for blind loyalty to Syria, Russia and Iran (as the “silent majority” fell in step behind Nixon), it forfeits its right to speak in the name of social justice. If you apply the guidelines Chomsky made in the 1967 article to today’s world, you will be able to distinguish the truth from the lie.

IT IS THE RESPONSIBILITY of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment. Not so, however. For the modern intellectual, it is not at all obvious. Thus we have Martin Heidegger writing, in a pro-Hitler declaration of 1933, that ‘truth is the revelation of that which makes a people certain, clear, and strong in its action and knowledge’. Americans tend to be more forthright. When Arthur Schlesinger was asked by The New York Times in November 1965, to explain the contradiction between his published account of the Bay of Pigs incident and the story he had given the press at the time of the attack, he simply remarked that he had lied; and a few days later, he went on to compliment the Times for also having suppressed information on the planned invasion, in “the national interest”.

When so many leftist intellectuals today have decided to act on behalf of what they so wrongly perceive to be “the national interests” of Syria, up to the point of circulating lies after the fashion of Arthur Schlesinger, we have our work cut out for us. It is in our interest and that of the Syrian people not to shirk that duty.

April 8, 2014

Seymour Hersh as Dorian Gray

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:07 pm

Like his last article for the London Review of Books,  Seymour Hersh’s latest continues to demonstrate that he is no longer a trenchant and truthful investigative reporter. Instead the portrait of a decaying and sloppy propagandist is taking shape, just as damning as the one that caught up with Dorian Gray. While Gray recoiled in horror from what he saw, it is likely that Hersh will persist in his ways since so many of his fans are also committed to demonizing the Syrian rebels and rallying around the “axis of good” in Syria, Iran and Russia. With this 77 year old reporter so badly in need of correction, it is almost tragic that none will be made.

To start with, he likens Barack Obama to George W. Bush as if the rhetoric about “red lines” were to be taken seriously. Hersh believes that he was held back by “military leaders who thought that going to war was both unjustified and potentially disastrous.” I often wonder if people like Hersh bother to read the NY Times or—worse—read it and choose to ignore it.

In fact there was zero interest in a large-scale intervention in Syria in either civilian or military quarters. All this is documented in a NY Times article from October 22nd 2013, written when the alarums over a looming war with Syria were at their loudest, that stated “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. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria.” In other words, the White House policy was and is allowing the Baathists and the rebels to exhaust each other in an endless war, just as was White House policy during the Iran-Iraq conflict.

These pacifist military leaders, Hersh assures us, were suffering sleepless nights over Turkey’s bellicose role in the region.

‘We knew there were some in the Turkish government,’ a former senior US intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence, told me, ‘who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria – and forcing Obama to make good on his red line threat.’

With all these unnamed military leaders and spooks at his beck and call, who are we to question Hersh’s analysis? I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t put much store in unnamed inside-the-beltway sources after putting up with Judith Miller’s “reporting” in the NY Times back in 2003:

Having concluded that international inspectors are unlikely to find tangible and irrefutable evidence that Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration is preparing its own assessment that will rely heavily on evidence from Iraqi defectors, according to senior administration officials.

I understand that most people on the left are willing to take Hersh’s word at face value but I suppose that is to be expected when they are also partial to RT.com and Iran’s PressTV. Like the Obama voter who takes Rachel Maddow by the loving spoonful, these “radicals” find their bliss in media outlets that do not pass the smell test.

Last December Scott Lucas (http://eaworldview.com/2013/12/syria-special-chemical-weapons-conspiracy-wasnt-seymour-hershs-exclusive-dissected/) surmised that the senior intelligence official Seymour Hersh relies on could very well be F. Michael Maloof. Here’s why. Maloof wrote an article for the ultraright World Net Daily in mid-September 2013 that stated:

In a classified document just obtained by WND, the U.S. military confirms that sarin was confiscated earlier this year from members of the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, the most influential of the rebel Islamists fighting in Syria.

The document says sarin from al-Qaida in Iraq made its way into Turkey and that while some was seized, more could have been used in an attack last March on civilians and Syrian military soldiers in Aleppo.

The document, classified Secret/Noforn – “Not for foreign distribution” – came from the U.S. intelligence community’s National Ground Intelligence Center, or NGIC, and was made available to WND Tuesday.

It revealed that AQI had produced a “bench-scale” form of sarin in Iraq and then transferred it to Turkey.

And here’s something from Hersh’s first article in the LRB:

By late May, the senior intelligence consultant told me, the CIA had briefed the Obama administration on al-Nusra and its work with sarin, and had sent alarming reports that another Sunni fundamentalist group active in Syria, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), also understood the science of producing sarin. At the time, al-Nusra was operating in areas close to Damascus, including Eastern Ghouta. An intelligence document issued in mid-summer dealt extensively with Ziyaad Tariq Ahmed, a chemical weapons expert formerly of the Iraqi military, who was said to have moved into Syria and to be operating in Eastern Ghouta. The consultant told me that Tariq had been identified ‘as an al-Nusra guy with a track record of making mustard gas in Iraq and someone who is implicated in making and using sarin’. He is regarded as a high-profile target by the American military.

Can you tell the difference? I can’t.

And to bring things full-circle, it is very likely that the impeccably reliable F. Michael Maloof, who clued Hersh in on the rebels’ possession of WMDs, was the same guy who tipped off Judith Miller. In a June 7, 2004 article New York Magazine article on Miller’s reporting, Franklin Foer described the Miller-Maloof connection:

Miller is said to have depended on a controversial neocon in Feith’s office named Michael Maloof. At one point, in December 2001, Maloof’s security clearance was revoked. In April, Risen reported in the Times, “Several intelligence professionals say he came under scrutiny because of suspicions that he had leaked classified information in the past to the news media, a charge that Mr. Maloof denies.” While Miller might not have intended to march in lockstep with these hawks, she was caught up in an almost irresistible cycle. Because she kept printing the neocon party line, the neocons kept coming to her with huge stories and great quotes, constantly expanding her access.

I suppose that in some sense Maloof would figure prominently in both Miller and Hersh’s “reporting” since what we were dealing with back in 2003 and today is an obsession with jihadists. The very same hysteria over al-Qaeda in Iraq is now manifested over the war in Syria. In 2003 that hysteria served to fuel a horrible war; now it serves to stigmatize and isolate Syrian rebels who are victims both of Baathist bombs and jihadist violence.

Apparently, just at the point Obama was ready to unleash a massive military attack on Syria, another reliably pacifist military figure stepped in at the last moment just like a Royal Canadian Mountie untying a damsel in distress from the railroad tracks:

At this stage, Obama’s premise – that only the Syrian army was capable of deploying sarin – was unravelling. Within a few days of the 21 August attack, the former intelligence official told me, Russian military intelligence operatives had recovered samples of the chemical agent from Ghouta. They analysed it and passed it on to British military intelligence; this was the material sent to Porton Down. (A spokesperson for Porton Down said: ‘Many of the samples analysed in the UK tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.’ MI6 said that it doesn’t comment on intelligence matters.)

I’m sorry. I bow down before the Great Investigative Journalist who uncovered the My Lai massacre 46 years ago, but how can anybody take this kind of bullshit seriously? Russian military intelligence operatives had recovered samples of the chemical agent from Ghouta. Really? We are supposed to take the word of the Russian military that is the prime supplier of weapons and ammunition to the Baathist regime? If I submitted an article to LRB that assured its readers that climate change was a fiction based on the assurances of a scientist who had received $100,000 from coal industry lobbyists, wouldn’t the editor fall on the floor laughing hysterically? Then how in the world does Seymour Hersh’s ludicrous citation of a Russian military operative pass muster?

The remainder of Hersh’s article paints Turkey as a kind of middleman between Libyan shipments of MANPAD’S and Syrian rebels:

Washington abruptly ended the CIA’s role in the transfer of arms from Libya after the attack on the consulate, but the rat line kept going. ‘The United States was no longer in control of what the Turks were relaying to the jihadists,’ the former intelligence official said. Within weeks, as many as forty portable surface-to-air missile launchers, commonly known as manpads, were in the hands of Syrian rebels. On 28 November 2012, Joby Warrick of the Washington Post reported that the previous day rebels near Aleppo had used what was almost certainly a manpad to shoot down a Syrian transport helicopter. ‘The Obama administration,’ Warrick wrote, ‘has steadfastly opposed arming Syrian opposition forces with such missiles, warning that the weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists and be used to shoot down commercial aircraft.’ Two Middle Eastern intelligence officials fingered Qatar as the source, and a former US intelligence analyst speculated that the manpads could have been obtained from Syrian military outposts overrun by the rebels. There was no indication that the rebels’ possession of manpads was likely the unintended consequence of a covert US programme that was no longer under US control.

This would lead you to believe that the USA stood by (“no longer in control”) over arms shipments to Syria, especially the deadly manpads that might bring down a civilian airline, heaven forbid. I know that there is a good chance that Hersh does not read the NY Times, but it seems just as likely that he shuns the Wall Street Journal, which reported on October 17, 2012:

U.S. officials say they are most worried about Russian-designed Manpads provided to Libya making their way to Syria. The U.S. intensified efforts to track and collect man-portable missiles after the 2011 fall of the country’s longtime strongman leader, Moammar Gadhafi.

To keep control of the flow of weapons to the Syrian rebels, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar formed a joint operations room early this year in a covert project U.S. officials watched from afar.

The U.S. has limited its support of the rebels to communications equipment, logistics and intelligence. But U.S. officials have coordinated with the trio of countries sending arms and munitions to the rebels. The Pentagon and CIA ramped up their presence on Turkey’s southern border as the weapons began to flow to the rebels in two to three shipments every week.

In July, the U.S. effectively halted the delivery of at least 18 Manpads sourced from Libya, even as the rebels pleaded for more effective antiaircraft missiles to counter regime airstrikes in Aleppo, people familiar with that delivery said.

Okay, you understand this? The WSJ is saying that America intensified efforts to control manpad’s right after the fall of Qaddafi. Not only that, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar—the three Sunni arch-demons responsible for arming the bearded, “Alluah Akbar” yelling, Sharia law endorsing jihadists formed a joint operations room early this year in a covert project to block the delivery of at least 18 Manpads sourced from Libya, even as the rebels pleaded for more effective antiaircraft missiles. In other words, Hersh is lying. Actually, I don’t know if he is lying or whether a combination of advancing age and a partisan zeal for the Baathist dictatorship has convinced him to avoid reading sources that undercut the propaganda goals he seeks to advance. In any case, it is not a pretty picture—one that Dorian Gray would recoil from in horror.

Sources:

Hersh’s latest LRB article: http://www.lrb.co.uk/2014/04/06/seymour-m-hersh/the-red-line-and-the-rat-line

Scott Lucas’s responses:

http://eaworldview.com/2014/04/syria-hersh-chemical-weapons-conspiracy-insurgents/

http://eaworldview.com/2014/04/syria-special-dissecting-hershs-insurgents-chemical-weapons-attacks-sequel/

Brown Moses responses:

http://brown-moses.blogspot.com/2014/04/seymour-hershs-volcano-problem.html

http://brown-moses.blogspot.com/2014/04/what-does-seymour-hersh-knows-about.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGLULD3LksI

Paul Woodward response:

http://warincontext.org/2014/04/06/seymour-hershs-alternate-reality/

March 26, 2014

Return to Homs

Filed under: Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:22 pm

“Return to Homs” has the distinction of not only being the first documentary made about the Syrian revolution but also being a work of great sensitivity, political insight and courage. I saw it last night at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the annual New Directors/New Films Festival and urge New Yorkers to see a screening at 9pm tonight at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center. (The festival is jointly produced by MOMA and Lincoln Center.)

It is fairly easy to understand why this would be the first major documentary to emerge after three years of war. To start with, it is not easy to gain entrance to Syria through the normal channels. One must assume that director Talal Derki, a Syrian who lives in Germany, came across the border “illegally”. And once he was there, he took great risks in filming in an extremely dangerous location. From August of 2011 to August of 2013, he was on the front lines of the action in Homs with Syrian fighters being wounded or killed all around him, including some of the young men featured prominently in his film. But perhaps the key reason is that American documentary filmmakers, despite tacking to the left, saw little motivation in taking up the cause of “jihadists”. Not long after the early halcyon days of the Arab Spring, a consensus arose that the rebels were no better than the regime that they sought to overthrow. So naturally it would take a Syrian filmmaker to step forward and make the case for his oppressed countrymen. Abandoned by most of the world, including the left, it is up to the Syrians themselves to determine their own future.

In the opening scenes of “Return to Homs”, we meet the two young principals, star soccer goalkeeper Abdul Basset Saroot and media activist Ossama al Homsi. Both are paradigmatic figures. Basset leads mass rallies in the spring of 2011 in the streets of Homs using the distinctive Syrian call-and-response style. Meanwhile, Ossama is everywhere with his Sony video camera capturing the people as they dodge the snipers’ bullets while protesting peacefully. One might easily surmise that Ossama was a member of a Local Coordinating Committee, a grass roots network of young activists who used Youtube and social media to get the word out.

After Baathist killers cut down one too many peaceful protesters, the young men in Basset and Ossama’s circle decide to arm themselves and defend the movement. Ossama, however, feels that this is a mistake. Peaceful protest must prevail against all difficulties. Basset makes the case that most Syrians made, however. Even though taking up arms created its own risks, it was being forced upon them. They had no choice.

Once that decision was made, Homs became a living hell. Armed with nothing more powerful than AK-47’s and RPG’s, Basset and his comrades stood off tanks, jets, and heavy artillery. In excruciating detail, we see entire blocks of apartment houses turned into rubble, including those of Basset and Ossama. We see them in their former living rooms and kitchens, gazing at the wreckage. Ossama looks in vain for a filter for his Sony and only manages to retrieve a coffee mug. Both young men find themselves on the run as the siege of Homs tightens it grip. A sense of desperation develops even though Basset and the other young fighters vow to fight on despite all odds. In thinking about an analogy for their situation,  cities like Leningrad and Stalingrad during WWII, when Hitler’s forces killed both by bullet and by starvation, came to mind.

On February 12, 2014 the NY Times reported on the extraordinary achievement of “Return to Homs”. Using professional digital cameras and some Sony Handicams, the sort of modest device you bring with you on vacation, director Talal Derki and his fellow Syrian co-producer Orwa Nyrabia covered the critical phases of the struggle in Homs using their electronic gear in the same way that John Reed used his typewriter in Mexico and Czarist Russia. So modest were their means that they even lacked a credit card to pay for the registration fees at the Sundance Film Festival. Fortunately the organizers waived the fee.

When in Homs, they recharged their phones and laptops from car batteries and portable gasoline generators. They risked their lives to sneak past army checkpoints, and when things turned too deadly to continue, they taught Basset and his comrades how to use the Handycams. The footage was then smuggled out.

Of particular interest was the willingness of two veterans of the American film industry to show solidarity with Orwa Nyrabia when his life was in danger:

Mr. Nyrabia was detained at the Damascus airport on Aug. 23, 2012, and later accused of making a film with a terrorist. He was held for three weeks by military intelligence in an underground prison, he said, thrown together with 84 younger Syrians, most of them conscripts apparently reluctant to shoot fellow Syrians. “They had blinked before shooting,” he said.

His fellow inmates were deferential, Mr. Nyrabia said. “They wouldn’t make me queue for the bathroom because I was considered very old.” [Nyrabia is 36!]

Mr. Nyrabia, who now lives in Berlin, attributed his release to pressure on the Syrian government from international publicity about his disappearance. A group of prominent filmmakers and Hollywood celebrities including Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, along with members of 24 international and American cinema associations and unions, signed a petition demanding that the Syrian authorities free Mr. Nyrabia.

While Syria’s government routinely ignores demands by Western political leaders, Mr. Nyrabia said, “when it’s De Niro or Scorsese, that’s embarrassing.”

It is too bad that the American left has less interest than such luminaries in showing such solidarity.

One can only hope that general distribution of “Return to Homs” might help to change some minds. It is about as powerful a testimony to the heart and soul of one of the great revolutionary struggles of the past half-century, as determined in its own way as the Vietnamese fight to rid its country of colonialism. When you see a young man like Basset with no military training  challenging a tank with nothing more than a machine gun, you understand that freedom is more precious to him than life itself.

In the Q&A, director Talal Derki mentioned that his next film will be about Syria’s struggle against a new threat that is as inimical to freedom as the Baathist dictatorship: the Islamic fundamentalists of ISIS and similar militias. Since he will be at the Q&A tonight as well, I urge New Yorkers to try to make to Lincoln Center. It will be your film experience of the year.

 

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