I have no trouble understanding why so much of the left supported Bashar al-Assad from the very beginning of the Syrian revolt that began in March of 2011. It was a no-brainer. On one side you had the Venezuelan and Cuban governments throwing their full support behind the Baathists and on the other side there was Samantha Power and John McCain calling for “regime change”.
The analysis went something like this. The CIA was behind the Syrian protests and no matter how many times the protesters said they were for human rights and democracy, there was always lurking behind the scenes Saudi and Qatari money and Wahhabi politics. Furthermore, the real target of the Syrian insurgency was not just the Baathist government. Once a beachhead was established, the next targets would be Hizbollah in Lebanon and Iran. Using “moderates” in the FSA and the more obvious jihadists like those affiliated with al-Qaeda, US foreign policy would achieve its ultimate goal—to weaken Soviet (sorry, I meant Russian) influence in the Middle East—the last barrier to NATO and American hegemony.
Now, as it turns out, none of this was true. In a sense, it was a “no brainer” but only understood that such an analysis did not require a brain but rather some nimble fingers that could navigate Global Research, WSWS.org et al on a daily basis. Despite the hysteria that arose last September about Obama’s plan to make war on Syria in order to achieve Samantha Power type “regime change”, the net result has been a coalescing of Syria, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and the USA against ISIS, arguably the only genuine jihadist group operating in the region. To try to explain or explain away ISIS does require a nimble brain and nimble fingers. Some on the “anti-imperialist” left continue to view ISIS as a CIA tool. For them there is no medication that is powerful enough to cure such delusions.
When I received email from Vijay Prashad announcing a series of articles on ISIS for the The Hindu, I was very curious to see what he had to say. I hadn’t been following Vijay all that closely since he had made some serious analytical mistakes, at least in my opinion (who else?). He had written a number of articles predicting a regional settlement of the war in Syria, the best hope for an intractable situation. No such luck, needless to say. Following him on Twitter, I was dismayed to see him give credit to the report that there had been a landslide victory for Bashar al-Assad in the last “election”. I don’t tend to pay much attention to tweets, but conveyed my displeasure to Vijay (I am sure he did not lose any sleep over this.)
After reading the first article (The Pendulum of the Islamic State), one cannot help but conclude that ISIS and the al-Nusra front are operating in concert against the Syrian army:
Intense fighting along the belt that links Mhardeh and Houla suggests that IS and its allies (including its fractious cousin, Jabhat al-Nusra) have the ability to threaten the western coastal towns of Tartous and Latakia. The Syrian Army was able to block an al-Nusra and IS advance toward the largely Christian town of Mhardeh. Tension remains high as morale in the IS soars.
I am not quite sure what the adjective “fractious” indicates. It is a synonym for grumpy, something that would describe me but in political terms—I have no idea. More to the point, isn’t it the case that al-Nusra is aligned with al-Qaeda that expelled ISIS? And isn’t the case that ISIS has drawn many of al-Nusra’s fighters if for no other reason that it has ample arms and money?
For those who stick with al-Nusra, a group that at least has the merit of having fought against the Baathists if nothing else, the costs are significant. When al-Qaeda leader Abu Khaled al-Suri came to Syria to make peace between ISIS and other rebels, he was killed by an ISIS suicide bomber in Aleppo. Something tells me that given such a background, the term “allies” does not apply to al-Nusra and ISIS. Since Vijay is based in the region, maybe he is privy to information we have no access to. Let’s hope he can shed some light.
Chugging along with this article, I was struck by Vijay’s assertion that the US was “egging on” the rebels’ Southern Front to seize Damascus. And what would be the leverage they need to accomplish such a task? Vijay observes: “The U.S. trains Syrian rebels in the deserts of eastern Jordan.” I don’t know what use any kind of training would be to foot soldiers facing an air force that can launch missiles filled with 400 pounds of TNT. Maybe the training involves reading some Maoist tracts about the importance of a fighting spirit. Who knows?
And finally there’s this. Vijay feels that as long as there is economic inequality, the threat of jihadism will arise. He writes:
Political reforms need to be on the cards. So too must an alternative to the economic agenda pursued in both Iraq and Syria since the mid-2000s. Under U.S. pressure, the Assad and al-Maliki governments pursued neo-liberal policies that increased inequality and despair.
Well, look, I don’t think that any kind of pressure had to be applied to Bashar al-Assad. That would be like breaking down an open door. The Baathists adopted neo-liberal policies for the same reason that Mubarak did. The Syrian bourgeoisie existed on the basis of the classic “crony capitalism” that made the poor suffer so that both the Sunni and non-Sunni elite in Damascus could continue to live high on the hog. They didn’t need any pressure from the USA to screw the plebian masses of the provincial capitals and the countryside. They did it all by themselves.
Moving right along to the next article, Metastasis of the Islamic State, I was struck by this explanation of how ISIS gained such battlefield prowess: “The Syrian war allowed the IS fighters great battlefield experience, and helped them draw in jihadis from around the world (including India, according to a July 23 report to the U.N. Security Council).” Battlefield experience? Really? With who? Surely not the Syrian army.
In fact ISIS’s main battles were with the FSA that had been battered for well over two years before ISIS emerged as a fighting force. If you had been the target of barrel bombs and 400 pounds of TNT missiles for that length of time and starved of weapons and other material aid, it is unlikely that you would be able to put up much of a fight especially when the Syrian army and ISIS were involved in a two-front pincer attack. If there were any significant battles between the Syrian army and ISIS until very recently, I don’t know of them. Maybe Vijay has information that would shed light on this question or maybe he was simply saying that ISIS became a formidable force operating against the FSA. I hope not.
Finally, there’s The geopolitics of the Islamic state. Since the whole question of geopolitics intrigues me, sort of the same way that an ingrown toenail does, I wondered where he would be going with this. After reading it, I am afraid that the wheels spun off the old Prashad wagon.
To start with, Vijay states that “ISIS entered the Syrian war in 2012 as Jabhat al-Nusra (the Support Front).” Is that so? That would indicate one of two things, either that it split from al-Nusra Front or that al-Nusra transformed itself into ISIS, which is obviously not the case. The origins are a bit more complex. At one time the al-Nusra Front was receiving funding from ISI (Islamic State in Iraq) but on April 8, 2013 Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi announced that the only authorized fighting group (in a manner of speaking) would be ISIL. Al-Nusra was now persona non grata. Furthermore, getting funding from ISI does not indicate that it was a branch of ISI. I know that some of this can seem quite arcane but it really has to do with the need for clearer lines of demarcation, which are badly needed when writing about jihadists.
Vijay puts a lot of the blame for the viral outbreak of jihadism in Syria at Turkey’s doorstop:
The West’s backing of the rebellion provided cover for Turkey’s more enthusiastic approach to it. Intoxicated by the possibility of what Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutog˘lu favoured as “neo-Ottomanism,” the Turkish government called for the removal of Assad and the emergence of a pro-Istanbul government in Damascus.
As someone who has followed Turkish politics rather carefully over the years, I find this analysis dubious. I think that the more likely explanation is AKP sympathy for their co-religionists. For example, when Turkey backs flotillas to Gaza, is that an expression of “neo-Ottomanism”? The more likely explanation is that the Anatolian elites have much in common ideologically and in class terms with formations like the Muslim Brotherhood. It would most certainly want to see its member parties prevail in Gaza and Egypt but why drag the Ottoman Empire into the equation?
Showing that he has been keeping up with Seymour Hersh, Vijay writes: “Turkey opened its borders to the ‘rat-line’ of international jihad, with planeloads of fighters from Libya and Chechnya flying into Turkey to cross into Syria to fight for ISIS and its offshoots.” Wow, pretty exciting. This would make for a good episode on Showtime’s “Homeland” but I think it would work more as fiction than fact.
What source would Vijay recommend for verifying that “planeloads” of jihadists poured into Turkey en route to Syria other than the sad and discredited Seymour Hersh? Would it be the English-language version of Al Akhbar in Lebanon where Vijay reports from occasionally? A Turkish newspaper reported:
According to English edition of Lebanese al Akhbar newspaper, thousands of jihadists are coming from Jordan to Turkey by through the air. The terrorists who come to the Yayladağ region of Hatay province of Turkey are being transferred to the Latakia region of Syria. It’s reported that thousands of jihadists transferred to Turkey during the non-stop transportation operations for weeks.
Syrian sources speaking to Aydınlık confirmed the transportation of the terrorists through the mentioned routes. They also stated that according to their sources, there is a huge discomfort in the Turkish state regarding the related issue.
Wikipedia describes al-Akhbar as “pro-Hezbollah”. If that is the case, I would take its reporting with a grain of salt especially in light of what transpired with one of its most well-known reporters. Once again from Wikipedia:
[Max] Blumenthal left Al Akhbar in June 2012 in protest at Al Akhbar’s coverage of the Syrian civil war. In an interview with The Real News he said that “It was too much to have my name and reputation associated with open Assad apologists when the scale of atrocities had become so extreme and when the editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar was offering friendly advice to Bashar al-Assad on the website of Al-Akhbar, you know, painting him as this kind of genuine, earnest reformer who just needed to get rid of the bad men around him and cut out some of the rich oligarchs who happened to be his cousins, and then everything would be fine. That was ridiculous.”
I would only hope that Vijay Prashad take some inspiration from Max Blumenthal in future reporting from the region, especially since he too has written for Al Akhbar.