Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 7, 2015

Syrian refugees and the amen corner

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

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

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

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

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

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


Adam Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vijay Prashad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Glass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. “World News Daily”

    “World Net Daily.”

    Comment by Poppa Zao — September 8, 2015 @ 2:32 am

  2. Diana Johnstone in CounterPunch (http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/04/24/disillusion-with-the-euro-and-europe/) in April 2012:

    “If “the right” is defined first of all by subservience to finance capital, then aside from Sarkozy, Bayrou and perhaps Joly, all the other candidates were basically on the left. And all of them except Sarkozy would be considered far to the left of any leading politician in the United States.

    This applies notably to Marine Le Pen, whose social program was designed to win working class and youth votes. Her “far right” label is due primarily to her criticism of Muslim practices in France and demands to reduce immigration quotas, but her position on these issues would be considered moderate in the Netherlands or in much of the United States. Even she stressed that the immigration problem, as she saw it, was not the fault of the immigrants themselves but of the politicians and the elite who brought them here. The main tone of her political message was resolutely populist, attacking the “Paris elite”. Demagogic, yes, often vague and playing fast and loose with statistics, but a model of reason compared to the utterances of the “Tea Party”. Her political challenge was to hold onto her father’s ultra-conservative constituency while wooing discontented low income voters. She apparently won more working class votes than Mélenchon.”

    Hmm, a xenophobic, far-right demagogue who rails against “the elite” and defends moderate social programs. Sounds to me awfully like a fascist. And every French leftist—both back in 2012 and still today, especially today—understands that Le Pen is a fascist, not “basically on the left.”

    Then again, I am not surprised to hear this, considering this is coming from someone who thinks Assad is a leftist too.

    This serves as a reminder that opposition to finance capital is a necessary but *not sufficient* criterion for leftism. The Tea Party, at least rhetorically, opposes “subservience to finance capital” too.

    It is the dissemination of this superficial definition that is only more rapidly facilitating the red-brownification of the Left.

    Comment by Ben Norton — September 8, 2015 @ 3:37 am

  3. Well, this bunch sure does its cherry-picking. Out of all the gruesome mindnumbing deaths that occur daily, caused by the Assad regime, this bunch (including Greenwald) does seem to highlight the alleged FSA crimes and the confirmed Nusra crimes and so on. For me it would take a sharp eye to pick those deaths out of the sheer volume of bloody toddlers, blown-up school teachers, dead priests etc. I seriously think they must be getting the heads up from those professionals at Al Akhbar or something. Druze leader just killed by Assad? Forget about it. Druze killed by Nusra? Heads up boys!
    I’m not even sure that Josh Landis, who I find thoroughly disgraceful, would go that far in bias. And he has personal reasons for being cozy with Alawites.
    Adam Johnson is such a tw*t. He’s using the billion dollar failure of the Obama administration to *prove*massive involvement that no Syrian, especially not the FSA seems to see. Also, he seems to think No Fly Zones are an “Act of War” even though acts of war are committed daily by Assad regime on a mind-numbing scale.

    Comment by mui — September 8, 2015 @ 11:56 am

  4. I agree that many of the Syrian refugees are from those neighbourhoods carrying out an Islamic rebellion in Syria. In the Lebanon Islamic relief is delivering the food etc to the Syrian refugees. It should be noted that for many people, rather than being the ultimate evil, ISIS have been the only relief from misery and displacement. People conveniently forget that over a million Iraqi refugees fled to Syria after the US murderous genocide carried out in Iraq. Some of those who conveniently forget this fact are the cruise missile left who want to pretend imperialism is in no way responsible for the current problems in Syria.

    Syria’s plight is that of a nation with a particular place in the world imperialist system. The Syrian pound is not the safe haven currency of choice for example! Also Syria is heavily reliant on agriculture and very prone to drought and changing food prices. We forget that the rebellion against Assad was as much an economic issue as an ideological one. Under pressure from the IMF Syria spent the noughties privatising key segments of the economy, which resulted in increasing wealth inequality, with misery at one side and enrichment at the other. Not even Proyect can make a case for Syria being an imperialist nation! Add the economic problems to the Iraqi situation spilling over into Syria and you have the perfect recipe for disaster capitalism, or in this case disaster imperialism!

    So the imperialist vultures had Syria under their economic heel.

    On the other side Syria’s political history meant that it didn’t sit well with the number one imperialist gangster on the block, i.e. the USA. It therefore also didn’t sit well with the main European powers.

    So when Syria got into these problems following the world economic crash of 2007 (a factor strangely lacking from much analysis – Does anyone remember that economic crash incidentally?) the imperialist nations saw an opportunity to cause problems for a long time foe. They had managed to turn a small rebellion against Gadaffi into a full scale nation disassembling exercise, one foe down a few others to go.

    We only have to look at the hypocritical reaction of the imperialists and their servile lackeys in the media and on the cruise missile left in relation to the Arab spring to see the West have motives, behind every imperialist prejudice lies imperialist interest! So in Bahrain we see solidarity with the thugs in charge, in Syria we are told the evil thugs must be crushed!

    What strikes me is that despite all the pressure the Assad government remains in place. This is almost bordering on a miracle. This is more of an indication of his popularity in Syria than the fact he won the election with 88% of the vote! Getting rid of Assad and putting either Islamists or Proyect Puppets in place means you have a minority government in charge, who will have to be more widely ruthless than Assad. This minority government will have to massacre anyone who disagrees with it and kill all political opponents or frighten then into submitting. A bit like the little talked about Egypt. And when that happens the cruise missile left, the good little imperialist servants that they are, will be silent on the matter.

    But perhaps the greatest perversion is in relation to the refugee crisis. The imperialists and the cruise missile left are using this misery to garner support for further bombing campaigns in Syria. They are arguing that if we only got rid of Assad a year ago none of this refugee crisis would have occurred. One tactic has been to give the impression that the only refugees are Syrian ones, anyone who isn’t a Syrian refugee is basically leeching scum who can sod off back to where they came from.

    The reality is that the imperialist carnage unleashed in the name of the ‘war on terror’ has caused more displacement than any other factor, apart from the economic factor. Imperialist war on one side and imperialist economics on the other. A combination that now sees the greatest level of displacement possibly in human history! Marx and Engels did warn that imperialism would lead to what they called social dumping!

    Imaging that Assad is the specific problem and fetishising this is the product of liberalism in all its superficiality.

    Down with Imperialism!

    Comment by Simon Provertier — September 9, 2015 @ 5:56 pm

  5. What strikes me is that despite all the pressure the Assad government remains in place. This is almost bordering on a miracle.

    I wouldn’t call this miraculous:

    If not for their air force, the Baathists would have been history at least 3 years ago.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 9, 2015 @ 6:10 pm

  6. I am not denying that Assad is a thug or has carried out numerous massacres. But you have to go beyond liberal superficiality even in the face of such undoubted thuggery. Now I remember in Libya that Gadaffi, on the orders of the imperialists incidentally, would torture Islamists as part of the war on terror. It was the price for Libya being taken off the regime change list. If I were an Islamist I would want to kill Gadaffi! Gadaffi was a victim of imperialism though, between the rock and the hard place so to speak. He knew the gangsters would get rid of him one day but in the meantime he had to dance to their tune. US imperialism is gangsterism period.

    Assad is in a similar position, he was being hosted by the British prime minister, the Queen, US officials etc not so long ago because he promised to crush the Islamists as part of the less than successful ‘war on terror’. But he, like Gadaffi, knew that while being ordered to crush Islamists as the price for his life the Imperialists would still have him on their target list. The war on terror carried out by Assad obviously made him a target of resentment by the Islamists in his own country and outside. Assad’s willingness to carry out imperialists orders created the internal divisions in the country, or exacerbated them. Syria is always at the mercy of imperialism and its shoddy interests. Undoubtedly an oppressed nation by any measure.

    It isn’t that the imperialists don’t want rid of Assad it is more that the cost benefit calculation isn’t quite at the right point yet.

    Assads thuggery has worked for Bahrain, Egypt and is working in the Yemen (though the cruise missile left is less concerned by this thuggery). Bombing the shit out of people does get results of sorts I accept that. Though it never solves problems, at least not without creating more!

    The point really is that none of this should hide us from the fact that Assad has huge amounts of support from within Syria, just as the Israeli public may cheer when their government bombs Gaza into submission. It should not hide us from the fact that imperialism has poured petrol onto a fire and turned whatever the rebellion was against Assad into a viscous civil and sectarian war, with wannabe born to rule puppets ready to use the devastation to their advantage.

    In Syria, given the situation, your puppets will carry out massacres and political repression with even more gusto than Assad has managed. At least Assad has to bear in mind Western imperialist interests when deciding what to do. When your puppets are in charge there will no no such pressure, they will carry out massacres with the full support of the imperialists and will be able to do it with impunity. And you will remain silent when that happens.

    The enemies of imperialism eventually pay for their crimes, the friends of imperialism end up dying in their beds surrounded by luxury.

    You display a rather objectionable hypocrisy. You have nothing against thuggery per se, in fact given your deafening silence on the thuggery of others I can only conclude in some circumstances you openly support thuggery. This is another liberal trait.

    Comment by Simon Provertier — September 9, 2015 @ 7:54 pm

  7. Simon,

    Do you just make this stuff up?

    Fascist methods of control, mass killings, rape as a weapon, torture [55,000 pictures of 11,000 dead Syrians] A country all but destroyed by a stated, no bragged, policy of “Bashar al-Assad or we burn the country” and here you come leading that famous anti-imperialist chorus, The Apologists, singing “But the [US, not Russian] imperialists made him burn the country”

    And obviously, if he got 89% of the vote, down from 97% in 2 previous elections, why should we question the count? Just because he would barrel-bomb hospitals, use mass torture, burn people alive, starve Yarmouk, and kill small children with sarin, that doesn’t prove we can add election fraud and vote rigging to the list.

    You so-called “Leftists” that call Assad’s election valid and his government legit really scare me. I don’t want to see you anywhere near state power in my future.

    Particular given your attitude towards the heroic uprising of the masses in Libya and Syria. Just lead my the nose by the imperialists, it that it?

    And Louis, thank you for the excellent take down of 4 turds at once.

    Comment by Clay Claiborne — September 10, 2015 @ 6:29 am

  8. […] been part of the Baathist amen corner for the longest time, with staff member Adam Johnson writing some of the worst offal outside of ZNet, Salon or […]

    Pingback by Bill Blum channels Donald Trump | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 24, 2016 @ 8:20 pm

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