Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 28, 2013

David Bromwich’s miscues on Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 10:38 pm

David Bromwich, a Yale literature professor, is one of my favorite political commentators, with an especially keen eye on Barack Obama’s cynically plutocratic policies.

That being said, I do have a bit of a bone to pick with him over an article of his on the New York Review website titled Stay out of Syria. Since the magazine has been a champion of “humanitarian interventions” in the past (Michael Ignatieff pushed for making war on Iraq early on there, and before that the magazine was Serbophobia, Inc.), it is of some note that they are publishing such an article. It goes hand in hand, I supposed, with Dissent Magazine’s laptop bombardier Michael Walzer urging the president to continue with a “dithering” approach.

Of course, if the intention is to avoid an Iraq-style invasion, nobody can question the wisdom of staying out—even though there are no signs that after two years American imperialism has any interest in supporting the “moderate” rebels whose leader has said: “Iran’s possession of nuclear capabilities poses no threat to any Sunni but it will be a formidable deterrent to the evil powers that are rushing madly upon the Muslim World.”

To some extent, the analytical errors in David’s article are probably a function of relying on the bourgeois press, which reflecting the “dithering” approach of the president is keen to find any excuse to allow the status quo to continue.

For example, David echoes the al-Nusra Front = al-Qaeda line that is dominant in the US press. I would recommend that he pay closer attention to alternative journalism that incorporates a far more sophisticated understanding of the “jihadist” problem, Scott Lucas’s Enduring America Worldview in particular.

Scott’s treatment of the al-Qaeda linkage is indispensable.

For weeks, we have noted how the media and “experts” have used one paragraph from the statement of a leader of the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra — ripping it out of context of the rest of the statement, let alone developments on the ground or an understanding of the Syria conflict — reducing the group to the simplistic tags of “Al Qa’eda-linked” or “Al Qa’eda affiliate”.

For the full story, go here.

David’s warnings about the jihadist threat in Syria are based on a McClatchy’s article by Nancy Youssef titled “Middle East in turmoil 10 years after Iraq invasion that officials said would bring peace” that calls attention to a leaflet distributed by al-Nusra Front rebels that urged the residents of Raqqa, the first provincial capital to fall to anti-Baathist rebels, to “beware of democracy”, giving one the impression that the city had become some kind of menacing lair of bearded fanatic, Sharia-ruled dictatorship.

In fact the city belies this image, if you read a recent article in the New Yorker Magazine by Rania Abouzeid reporting from Raqqa. Despite Jon Lee Anderson, the magazine does let a useful item slip by from time to time. Despite the Islamist warnings about democracy, the city appeared to be far freer than those under Baathist rule, as this debate over the Islamist black flag would indicate:

“With this banner you have cleaved us from our country Syria,” Abu Moayad said. “Why is it here? We are not an Islamic emirate; we are part of Syria. This is a religious banner, not a country’s flag.”

The Jabhat member leaned forward and looked the older man in the eyes. “This is a lack of self-esteem, something we were conditioned to feel toward our religion by a regime that didn’t let us practice it,” he said. “Do you know how many people a day come to offer loyalty to us, to try and join us?”

At that, Abu Moayad lost his temper. He stood up, moved a few steps across the room toward the young masked man, and wagged a finger in his face: “The Syrian revolution rose up to step on Bashar’s neck, but I swear I am with Bashar against this flag!” he yelled. “That is how strongly I feel about it! You are causing fitna [internal divisions]!”

The young man remained seated. “What did you do for the revolution?” he asked.

“I used to transport ammunition smuggled from Iraq to towns in Raqqa province.”

“That’s great, thank you,” said the Jabhat member. He seemed slightly taken aback by an answer he didn’t appear to have expected. “But why do you say that this flag will cause fitna and all of the problems of the Free Army—the thieving and the looting—aren’t fitna?”

The comment only enraged Abu Moayad. “Whoever wrote this is a Zionist!” he said, grabbing the black-banner leaflet out of Abu Noor’s hands.

David also ensures us that the talk about Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons amounts to Judith Miller type reporting in the build-up to the war in Iraq.

On April 26, for example, a story by Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt was entitled “White House Says Syria Has Used Chemical Arms.” The factual substance of the article was ambiguous, and its headline might more accurately have read: “Chemical Weapons Used in Syria. US Uncertain of Source.”

Well, in just over a month we are a lot more certain about the source. A long and very detailed article in Le Monde makes the case that al-Assad has been using chemical weapons even if earlier reports of Sarin gas were unfounded.

In the northern part of Jobar, which was struck by a similar attack, General Abu Mohammad Al-Kurdi, commander of the Free Syrian Army’s first division (which groups five brigades), said that his men saw government soldiers leave their positions just before other men ‘wearing chemical protection suits’ surged forward and set ‘little bombs, like mines’ on the ground that began giving off a chemical product.

The blogger Brown Moses, whose articles on weaponry in the Syrian civil war are highly regarded, provided even more confirmation.

Now of course the fact that the Baathist dictatorship is using illegal weapons is no excuse for an Iraq-style invasion of Syria but it behooves those writing about Syria to avoid making facile comparisons with Bush’s war. The simple fact is that the opposition to al-Assad is not the kind that American imperialism trusts, no matter if John McCain sits down with it. To get a real idea of what policy-makers have in mind, it’s worth taking a look at a recent article in the LA Times. This appears to be the form that “humanitarian intervention” will take, using the same kind of excuses about Sharia law, oppression of women, etc. that were made for going into Afghanistan. It is of some interest that the LA Times cites Amnesty International, an outfit that spread the Hill and Knowlton “throwing the babies out of the incubators” hoax that led to the first Gulf War. Amnesty, of course, is one of the NY Review’s favorite human rights authorities.

CIA begins sizing up Islamic extremists in Syria for drone strikes

The strategy is part of the agency’s secret contingency planning to protect the U.S. and its allies as the violence there grows. Some militants in Syria are seen as closely linked to Al Qaeda.

March 15, 2013|By Ken Dilanian and Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — 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.

The increased U.S. effort comes as radicalized Islamic fighters have won a growing share of rebel victories. The State Department says one of the strongest militias, Al Nusra Front, is a terrorist organization that is indistinguishable from the group Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Amnesty International reported Thursday that some Syrian opposition fighters routinely executed captives and suspected informants, although the group said Assad’s security forces were even more brutal.


  1. …interesting insights to be sure.
    But what does it mean? What US assets ? they don’t belong there or anywhere in the MENA. i wouldn’t trust anything AI said or did. i’ve no problem with a secular country as it has been more or less. The Bathhists whatever is better than the Zionists
    i think the long run is to break Syria up make it possible for the Zionists to continue their land grab.
    now to read the other links ~
    thank you for bringing all of this to us.

    Comment by Darwin26 — May 29, 2013 @ 2:01 am

  2. The fact that the conflict is still continuing is probably indicative of a political as well as military problem for the resistance to Assad. After having issued premature pronouncements of Assad’s demise in the US and Europe for over a year, the US and European media is now reporting that Assad is more entrenched than originally believed. Why is this? It is tempting to blame Russian arms and Hizbullah fighters, which may be true, but my leftist and sociological bent leads me to believe that the resistance has failed to persuade a large enough segment of the populace to support them in their ambition to remove Assad. Of course, one can fall back upon the security apparatus as a explanation, but the security apparatus was, in the end, incapable of saving Mubarak and Ben Ali. My inquiries over at the North Star as to the political programme of the resistance in terms of distinguishing between people and groups within Assad controlled areas that can be reached and those who cannot, “die hards” in the old CCP parlance, don’t get much of a response. One can readily come up with historical examples of political movements and regimes supported by substantial contributions that collapsed because of their political deficiencies, the KMT and the South Vietnamese readily come to mind.

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 29, 2013 @ 4:55 pm

  3. Richard, it is very difficult to get a handle on the political/military situation from afar. I used to rely heavily on C.J. Chivers’s reports in the NY Times but he seems to no longer be covering Syria. I think that events are rapidly spiraling out of control in the Middle East along Barbara Tuchman lines.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 29, 2013 @ 5:00 pm

  4. I post the following excerpt without the resources to research the background of the person who posted it or the publication in which it is printed. He or she purports to have been involved in the protests against Assad.. You might find it interesting. It is worth reading in its entirety, and comes across as credible:


    “To us, a rebel fighting against tyranny doesn’t commit the same sort of crimes as the regime he’s supposed to be fighting against. He doesn’t loot the homes, businesses and communities of the people he’s supposed to be fighting for. Yet, as the weeks went by in Aleppo, it became increasingly clear that this was exactly what was happening.

    Rebels would systematically loot the neighborhoods they entered. They had very little regard for the lives and property of the people, and would even kidnap for ransom and execute anyone they pleased with little recourse to any form of judicial process. They would deliberately vandalize and destroy ancient and historical landmarks and icons of the city. They would strip factories and industrial zones bare, even down to the electrical wiring, hauling their loot of expensive industrial machinery and infrastructure off across the border to Turkey to be sold at a fraction of its price. Shopping malls were emptied, warehouses, too. They stole the grain in storage silos, creating a crisis and a sharp rise in staple food costs. They would incessantly shell residential civilian neighborhoods under regime control with mortars, rocket fire and car bombs, causing death and injury to countless innocent people, their snipers routinely killing in cold blood unsuspecting passersby. As a consequence, tens of thousands became destitute and homeless in this once bustling, thriving and rich commercial metropolis.”

    I’m not naive. I understand that wars and revolutions are violent. But, if true, the “rebels” have failed to follow the commonly known principles associated with successful revolutionary armies. Indeed, in this instance, it can be argued that these “rebel” forces shouldn’t be acknowledged as revolutionary at all. Perhaps, my references to the armies of the pre-1949 CCP are tiresome, but they sought to firmly establish themselves as an army of the people by acting as such, and eventually did so.

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 29, 2013 @ 7:24 pm

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