Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 29, 2015

Andrew Cockburn joins the Baathist amen corner

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:39 pm

Andrew Cockburn

I always react with a mixture of anger and sadness when I come across the first article by a respected investigative journalist that is filled with Baathist talking points. When it comes to Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk and Seymour Hersh, I know what to expect at this point. When I spotted an article in the latest Harpers by Andrew Cockburn that was titled “A Special Relationship: The United States is teaming up with Al Qaeda, again”, I had a feeling that he would be the latest A-List reporter to go that route since the pressure on the academy and the media is most acute right now. If you stop and think about it, the war fever that has attached itself to Vladimir Putin’s adventure in Syria is not that different from what we saw in 2002 except in this go-round it is the Kremlin rather than the White House that quickens the laptop bombardier’s pulse.

Since Cockburn’s article is behind a paywall, I recommend that you read it in your local library since a penny spent for a magazine that costs $6.99 to read this crappy article is a penny ill-spent.

The first part of Cockburn’s article rehashes the support that the Reagan White House gave to the Islamists fighting against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, an affair about which there should be no controversy. What is controversial is Cockburn’s claim that Obama is reprising Reagan’s mission but in Syria rather than Afghanistan.

He singles out al-Nusra, the group that holds the Al Qaeda franchise in Syria, as carrying on in the bloodthirsty vein of Afghan rebels under Osama bin Laden’s command. As a sign of how bestial they are, Cockburn points to their killing members of the Druze faith in Idlib province last spring. What he fails to point out, however, is that Sunnis were killed as well. According to Scott Lucas the killings had more to do with al-Nusra’s determination to seize some abandoned houses that they planned to use as frontline defense against both Assad’s army and ISIS. When a Druze family claimed ownership of the properties, a heated argument led to a confrontation that finally ended in a machine gun attack on nearby houses that resulted in the death of 23 innocent people. The Tunisian commander who led the al-Nusra unit was relieved of his duties while the group publicly repudiated and denounced what most commentators describe as an isolated incident.

Now, none of this excuses al-Nusra, a group that most certainly does not share the goals of the revolutionary movement that emerged in Syria in 2011 but in terms of its overall record in Syria, it is far less savage than the regime as I explained in an earlier post.

Cockburn, like most pro-Assad journalists, has a talent for writing evasively. When I came across these sentences, I wondered how much effort he put into defying attempts to corroborate what he wrote:

A few months before the Idlib offensive, a member of one CIA-backed group had explained the true nature of its relationship to the Al Qaeda franchise. Nusra, he told the New York Times, allowed militias vetted by the United States to appear independent, so that they would continue to receive American supplies. When I asked a former White House official involved in Syria policy if this was not a de facto alliance, he put it this way: “I would not say that Al Qaeda is our ally, but a turnover of weapons is probably unavoidable. I’m fatalistic about that. It’s going to happen.”

I just went through 54 articles in Nexis to find any report such as the one described above. The results: none were found. Now it might be there but you would think that a seasoned reporter such as Cockburn would have taken the trouble to identify the date it was written—unless he wanted to defy any attempt to debunk his claims. In terms of the “former White House official”, you are straying into Seymour Hersh territory and the less said the better.

To buttress his case, Cockburn cites a Joe Biden speech given at Harvard that blames America’s allies for being bad guys: “They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” Well, since Biden does not seem to be aware that al-Nusra and Al Qaeda were the same thing, I am not sure how much stock to put in this gaffe-master’s analysis. More to the point, a serious analysis of al-Nusra would not be based on Biden’s words but independent and respected scholarly sources.

In fact, Saudi Arabia—the supposedly most fanatical Wahhabi element in the entire equation—does not support al-Nusra. Instead it backs other Islamist and Salafi units, especially Jaysh al-Islam, the group whose leader Zahran Alloush was killed by a Syrian air force attack this week. Whatever problems Jaysh al-Islam has, and they are considerable, it is not al-Qaeda. Maybe this is a difference without a distinction to someone like Andrew Cockburn but if you are serious about analyzing the Syrian civil war, you’d better get your facts straight.

For a more astute analysis of Jaysh al-Islam, I recommend Hassan Hassan who is a respected analyst of the Syrian rebel groups as opposed to Andrew Cockburn who appears to know next to nothing. In an article titled “The Army of Islam Is Winning in Syria“, Hassan makes a case for seeing such a group and al-Nusra differently:

But today, Salafi-leaning insurgents are the single most dominant force in liberated areas. Liwa al-Islam, which is the central player in the Army of Islam, now dwarfs both the FSA and radical militias such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, which long played a prominent role in the region. These groups had coordinated with each other through a Damascus military council, but Ahrar al-Sham pulled out of the council shortly after the merger, issuing an angry statement that criticized “the hegemony of certain factions and the exclusion of [other] effective ones.”

These developments, however, are not all bad news. The rise of Salafi-leaning rebel groups offers an opportunity to combat the real extremists — al Qaeda-linked groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which have recently started wreaking havoc in Syria’s north and east by fighting among themselves and against more moderate groups. Syria is no longer witnessing a struggle of moderates versus extremists, but of extremists versus both moderates and religious moderates. While recent developments are a setback for the FSA, they also have marginalized the truly radical factions.

As might be expected, Cockburn has it in for the Muslim Brotherhood that he regards as “the ideological ancestor of the most violent Islamist movement of the modern era.” According to Cockburn, this group was designated by the Obama White House to be its trump card in the Arab Spring—this despite the fact that its chief ideologist Sayyid Qutb was an “inspiration” to the young Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al Qaeda. Furthermore, Qutb’s call for a resurrected caliphate obviously must bear some responsibility for the birth of ISIS.

One hardly knows what to make of this prosecutorial attack on the Muslim Brotherhood except to wonder why General Sisi did not call Cockburn in as an expert witness for the prosecution’s case against the deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. After sliming the Muslim Brotherhood for its ideology, Cockburn fails to say a word about its actions. Now that the dust has settled in Egypt, it should be obvious that it was the most legitimate government the Egyptians had in a generation and whose worst offense was perhaps putting too much trust in the army.

Like most in the Baathist amen corner, Cockburn views the civil war in Syria as a proxy attack on Shia power, something that was plotted in advance by the Bush era neocons. He writes:

Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, testified on Capitol Hill that there was a “new strategic alignment” in the Middle East, separating “extremists” (Iran and Syria) and “reformers” (Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states). Undergirding these diplomatic euphemisms was something more fundamental. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who returned to Riyadh in 2005 after many years as Saudi ambassador in Washington, had put it bluntly in an earlier conversation with Richard Dearlove, the longtime head of Britain’s MI6. “The time is not far off in the Middle East,” Bandar said, “when it will be literally God help the Shia. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough.”

Whenever I read such an analysis, I rub my eyes in astonishment. Doesn’t Cockburn know that the current regime in Baghdad, whose anti-Sunni policies laid the groundwork for ISIS, is there because Bush made war on Sunni power? Was he asleep in 2004 when the US Marines were laying waste to Sunni-dominated Anbar province just as American, French and Russian bombers are doing today?

In order to establish the case that Obama approached Syria with the foreign policy imperatives of Saudi Arabia in mind and in much the same way Reagan intervened in Afghanistan (it was obviously impossible to make the same case by referring to Iraq where the White House aligned with the Shia bourgeoisie), Cockburn draws upon the expertise of Sir Richard Dearlove, a former MI6 official (what makes him and Hersh so drawn to men who have made a career out of misdirection and outright lies?)

Dearlove is a curious sort. He is both a supporter of the Henry Jackson Society that became infamous for its backing of Bush’s war in Iraq and a “senior advisor” to the Monitor Group that Wikipedia describes as “a consultancy and private equity firm which has been implicated in undertaking PR work for Libya and Muammar Gaddafi.” Sounds like a character in a Le Carre novel.

Citing Dearlove, Cockburn connects the usual suspects (Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) to ISIS:

Some in intelligence circles suspect that such funding is ongoing. “How much Saudi and Qatari money—and I’m not suggesting direct government funding, but I am suggesting maybe a blind eye being turned—is being channeled towards ISIS and reaching it?” Dearlove asked in July 2014. “For ISIS to be able to surge into the Sunni areas of Iraq in the way that it’s done recently has to be the consequence of substantial and sustained funding. Such things simply do not happen spontaneously.” Those on the receiving end of Islamic State attacks tend to agree. Asked what could be done to help Iraq following the group’s lightning assaults in the summer of 2014, an Iraqi diplomat replied: “Bomb Saudi Arabia.”

This is probably the most absurd paragraph in this awful article that violates just about every journalistic standard and that could be used in a journalism school as an example of what to avoid (except for the fact that these are exactly the skills you learn to prepare you for a job in the bourgeois press.)

Does Saudi funding and ideology explain the rise of ISIS? Maybe the next time Patrick Cockburn gets together with his older brother, he can clue him in on what allowed ISIS to get a foothold in Anbar province:

The swift rise of Isis since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became its leader has come because the uprising of the Sunni in Syria in 2011 led the Iraqi Sunni to protest about their political and economic marginalisation since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Peaceful demonstrations from the end of 2012 won few concessions, with Iraq’s Shia-dominated government convinced that the protesters wanted not reform but a revolution returning their community to power. The five or six million Iraqi Sunni became more alienated and sympathetic towards armed action by Isis.

Patrick Cockburn does write a lot of bullshit but on this rare occasion he spoke the truth.

The final paragraph of Andrew Cockburn’s miserable article will be a depressing reminder of how so much of the left that was on the front lines opposing Bush’s war in Iraq now sounds exactly like the Islamaphobes of those days (Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, Kenan Makiya, Norman Geras). This might even have been written by people with no pretensions of being on the left, sounding as it does like a Thomas Friedman op-ed piece or even the sort of thing that Dick Cheney might have come up with:

Things are clearer on the ground. Not long ago, far away from the think tanks and briefing rooms where policies are formulated and spun, a small boy in the heart of Nusra territory was telling a filmmaker for Vice News about Osama bin Laden. “He terrified and fought the Americans,” he said reverently. Beside him, his brother, an even smaller child, described his future: “To become a suicide fighter for the sake of God.” A busload of older boys was asked which group they belonged to. “Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda,” they responded cheerfully.

Suicide fighter…Osama bin Laden…For the sake of God.

And god help us when Andrew Cockburn, Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk and Seymour Hersh are all sounding as if they are angling to be guests on the Bill Maher show. It is enough to make you wonder if the ghost of Christopher Hitchens has taken over their miserable souls.


  1. Louis, you do understand that international politics is not picking baseball teams, it is an immoral dichotomy.
    On the one hand you have the NATO countries, who are now being shown by multiple sources to be funding Daesh and who have a history of neoliberally dismembering Middle Eastern states to fill the coffers of Wall Street.
    On the other hand, you have the Russians, Iranians, and Chinese backing Assad, who is a monster but not a neoliberal.
    There is no third choice here.
    If the West was serious about the FSA, they would be working to get them recognized by the UN ASAP as at least an observer party, if not a full-fledged government with borders, a post office, and a bank. Yet they are noticeably not. I wonder why?
    The tone of this debate has some eerie similarity with the lead-up to the Iraq invasion. Back then, Christopher Hitchens was trying to argue with Tariq Ali on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman (http://www.democracynow.org/2003/12/4/tariq_ali_vs_christopher_hitchens_on) that the Americans were doing something fantastic because “I’m a journalist, and it pleases me to see the reopening of the free press, the publication of the first newspaper on the streets is by the Iraqi Communist party.” Now obviously Hitchens was being a little more than optimistic considering his private meetings with Paul Wolfowitz and a robust speech before the Bush White House on the eve of the invasion. I highly doubt that the anti-Putin Left is playing at the same game but I do think that there is a touch of political naiveté at play here.

    Comment by Andrew Stewart — December 30, 2015 @ 12:46 am

  2. On the other hand, you have the Russians, Iranians, and Chinese backing Assad, who is a monster but not a neoliberal.

    Andrew, you need to begin reading outside the CounterPunch/DissidentVoice/WSWS.org universe. You should start with scholarly journals like the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) that was launched in the 1960s by radical academics. These people, unlike Vijay or Patrick Cockburn, not only read Arabic but are frequently Arabs. You have to ask yourself why in the dozens of people who write for CounterPunch/DissidentVoice/WSWS.org about Syria, there are so few Arabs unless, of course, they are part of the Shia propaganda network but even then underrepresented. You might want to start with an article by Bassam Haddad’s “The Syrian Regime’s Business Backbone”. Haddad is the editor of http://www.jadaliyya.com/ and very much on the left. He wrote:

    After 1982, the informal state-business partnerships continued to flourish. Big businessmen got a variety of special privileges, including commissions for projects in the public sector, tax exemptions and trade protections for certain goods. The partnerships matured in the late 1980s and came to exercise disproportionate influence on economic policy. The salient institution was originally called the Guidance Committee, a body made up of state officials and “private” businessmen tasked with devising economic policy over and above the committees that drafted nominally socialist five-year plans. “Private” had acquired a new meaning because many of these businessmen were themselves state officials or their relatives or partners. With makers and “takers” of policy staffing the same enterprise, or sometimes inhabiting the same corporeal frame, corruption in economic policymaking hit an all-time high. In the 1990s, the nucleus of this scheming was the office of Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Zu‘bi. Most state officials who went into business opted for quick profit, which guided them in the direction of trade, rather than industry, and toward urban, rather than rural, areas. Along with many others, the Zu‘bis prospered mightily, as did the Khaddams (‘Abd al-Halim was then vice president) and the Tlasses (Mustafa was then defense minister), running car dealerships and hawking upscale consumer products. The new magnates, notably Rami Makhlouf, the nephew of the president’s wife, also got high returns from tourism, free trade zones and, later, telecommunications.

    By the late 1990s, the business community that the Asads had created in their own image had transformed Syria from a semi-socialist state into a crony capitalist state par excellence. The economic liberalization that started in 1991 had redounded heavily to the benefit of tycoons who had ties to the state or those who partnered with state officials. The private sector outgrew the public sector, but the most affluent members of the private sector were state officials, politicians and their relatives. The economic growth registered in the mid-1990s was mostly a short-lived bump in consumption, as evidenced by the slump at the end of the century. Growth rates that had been 5-7 percent fell to 1-2 percent from 1997 to 2000 and beyond.

    After Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father in 2000, the architects of Syria’s economic policy sought to reverse the downturn by liberalizing the economy further, for instance by reducing state subsidies. Private banks were permitted for the first time in nearly 40 years and a stock market was on the drawing board. After 2005, the state-business bonds were strengthened by the announcement of the Social Market Economy, a mixture of state and market approaches that ultimately privileged the market, but a market without robust institutions or accountability. Again, the regime had consolidated its alliance with big business at the expense of smaller businesses as well as the Syrian majority who depended on the state for services, subsidies and welfare. It had perpetuated cronyism, but dressed it in new garb. Families associated with the regime in one way or another came to dominate the private sector, in addition to exercising considerable control over public economic assets. These clans include the Asads and Makhloufs, but also the Shalish, al-Hassan, Najib, Hamsho, Hambouba, Shawkat and al-As‘ad families, to name a few. The reconstituted business community, which now included regime officials, close supporters and a thick sliver of the traditional bourgeoisie, effected a deeper (and, for the regime, more dangerous) polarization of Syrian society along lines of income and region.

    full: http://www.merip.org/mer/mer262/syrian-regimes-business-backbone

    If you want more resources outside the CounterPunch/DissidentVoice/WSWS.org universe, you might consult this:


    Or this:


    Comment by louisproyect — December 30, 2015 @ 1:28 am

  3. I’m not denying you the moral high ground you are so obviously trying to stand on, I am looking for the party at the UN who is going to put these folks into power as the legally-accepted and recognized state power. If you want to have morals, fine, but legal recognition is the basis of my question. So who is going to give these folks a seat in the UN?

    Comment by Andrew Stewart — December 30, 2015 @ 4:29 am

  4. Andrew, you do understand that international politics is not class struggle, it is cheerleading various bourgeois forces from afar.

    Comment by Gordo — December 30, 2015 @ 3:40 pm

  5. Andrew, sorry to put it this way, but you appear to have little idea what you’re talking about:
    “Louis, you do understand that international politics is not picking baseball teams, it is an immoral dichotomy.”
    Exactly. It is about class struggle. Read here about the class basis of the Syrian uprising: https://mkaradjis.wordpress.com/2013/09/24/syrian-revolution-class-against-class-basis-of-uprising/
    “On the one hand you have the NATO countries, who are now being shown by multiple sources to be funding Daesh and who have a history of neoliberally dismembering Middle Eastern states to fill the coffers of Wall Street.”
    The idea that NATO is “funding Daesh” is not only absurd but moreover is not backed by a shred of evidence anywhere, despite your obscure claim about “multiple sources.” It seems odd to me that 15 months after the onset of US bombing of Syria, some people *still* haven’t noticed that the US is bombing Daesh, not Assad; moreover, as well as Daesh, the US has also bombed Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, other Islamists, and even FSA, just never Assad or his Iranian and allied Shiite sectarian backers and mass killers.
    “On the other hand, you have the Russians, Iranians, and Chinese backing Assad, who is a monster but not a neoliberal.”
    Assad’s regime is certainly neo-liberal, and it was precisely Assad’s neo-liberal reforms that set off the revolution based among the most impoverished in the towns and countryside, while Assad’s base remains among the big bourgeoisie who did well out of these ‘reforms”
    “There is no third choice here.”
    Between what? Between the fascist dictatorship and the 30,000 odd Daeshis based almost entirely in the backward east of the country? What about all the people who have actually been fighting Assad all thrse years (which for the most part has not included Daesh) and who have also been doing most of the fighting against Daesh?
    “If the West was serious about the FSA, they would be working to get them recognized by the UN ASAP as at least an observer party, if not a full-fledged government with borders, a post office, and a bank. Yet they are noticeably not. I wonder why?”
    Probably because the West has never been serious about the FSA. Where in the world did you get the idea that it was, or that anyone here would think so? The West is serious about regime preservation in Syria. It has “backed” the FSA occasionally and intermittently with an eye-dropper. You wonder why? Because the US opposes revolutions against capitalist dictatorships, that’s why, ABC.
    “The tone of this debate has some eerie similarity with the lead-up to the Iraq invasion. Back then, Christopher Hitchens …”
    Huh? What “lead-up” are you talking about? The US has been at war in Syria for 15 months. Just not on the side that the “anti-imperialists” predicted.

    Comment by mkaradjis — January 1, 2016 @ 1:48 pm

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