Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 4, 2016

Assessing Caesar’s torture photos: a reply to Rick Sterling

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 8:44 pm

Close followers of the Syrian struggle against the Baathist dictatorship have probably grown accustomed to the “false flag” arguments of its apologists who see every regime massacre as an incident staged by the CIA et al to undermine the regime with the most prominent case being the sarin gas attack on East Ghouta in August 2013.

In the latest go-round, Rick Sterling of the misnamed Syria Solidarity Coalition has written a 30 page dossier titled The Caesar Photo Fraud that Undermined Syrian Negotiations that begins by referring to past “false flag” conspiracies with this at the top of the list:

In Gulf War 1, there were reports of Iraqi troops stealing incubators from Kuwait, leaving babies to die on the cold floor. Amnesty International incorrectly “verified” the false accusations.

As is so often the case with the Baathist amen corner, there is very little introspection. If this was such a blatant lie (and it was), why did the father of the current dynast in Damascus hook up with the USA, Saudi Arabia and other demonic powers against Iraq? Putting 7,500 troops at the disposal of the imperialist invasion force, Hafez al-Assad calculated that it might ingratiate him with the likely victors. He was correct. After standing up for the feudal lords of Kuwait, he was rewarded with renewed diplomatic relations with Britain and an easing of tensions with the USA that clearly recognized the importance of having an “anti-imperialist” government on its side as the NY Times reported on September 15, 1990:

The main purpose of Mr. Baker’s visit, American officials insisted, was symbolic. By meeting with President Assad, Mr. Baker sought to draw attention, particularly in the Arab world, to the fact that one of the most hard-line Arab nationalist regimes is joining the American-led multinational coalition against Iraq.

Syria’s participation legitimizes that coalition in Arab eyes in a way that no other country could, American officials say. The Administration has been worried from the start that President Saddam Hussein would break out of the boycott by convincing the Arab public that he is really fighting the Americans and just a few Arab ”lackeys.”

So in a war that really set the tone for the next invasion of Iraq in 2002, Bashar’s daddy was indispensable for selling the war to the Arab world, arguably with much more force than the stealing incubators bullshit. You might say that in this instance the true flag was a lot more damaging than the false flag.

Sterling’s goal is to debunk the notion that a former Syrian army photographer code named Caesar had 55,000 photographs documenting the torture and killing of 11,000 detainees by the Syrian security establishment when he defected to the USA two days before peace talks were to begin on January 20, 2014 and thusly undermining them. Not that photos of dead Syrians who had been tortured in prison would make much difference to a world inured to Baathist savagery.

The burden of his proof is that a HRW report in December 2015 admitted that nearly half the photos are of dead Baathist soldiers. But what does this have to do with the close study of the photos that did reveal torture? Attempting to discredit the original report conducted by the Carter Ruck Inquiry Team, Sterling claims that the accusations that these were victims of “death in detention” or “death by torture” or death in “government custody” are almost certainly false.

However, the Carter Ruck report makes no such claims. In fact, it is rather clear that only 835 corpses were examined in depth by the forensic team. And of those, just 20% showed evidence of inflicted trauma while 30% were “equivocal”. Meanwhile, another 42% showed emaciation. So basically, Sterling is knocking down a straw man. The report is very measured in its analysis and makes none of the extravagant claims that Sterling imputes to it.

Apparently, Assad’s goons had a weakness for strangling people just like mafia gangsters. The forensic team reported:

Neck images of 19% of individuals showed non-specific injuries and 16% showed evidence of ligature marks on the neck. In the opinion of the forensics team these ligature marks would be consistent with fatal or non-fatal ligature strangulation. The marks did not appear to be consistent with execution by hanging and in one case a characteristic ligature was in place.

Here are a couple of photos that the forensic team viewed as evidence of torture and starvation meted out to prisoners of the dictatorship people like Rick Sterling apologizes for:

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 2.20.32 PM
Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 2.20.52 PM

I invite everybody reading this article to check out the Carter Rucker report for yourself and draw your own conclusions about its validity. It certainly holds up a lot better than Sterling’s amateurish conspiracy-mongering.

To give you a real insight into how Sterling tries to taint the findings, he invokes the CIA as a co-conspirator of the Carter Ruck investigation. He states that Caesar was introduced to the investigators by someone referred to as his “case officer” by David Crane, its chairman. This leads Sterling to conclude that Caesar was in the company of a CIA agent, which does not seem that far-fetched. What that has to do with a photograph of strangling marks on someone’s neck is open to question. Getting up a full head of steam, Sterling points out that Crane is a professor at Syracuse University “where the CIA actively recruits new officers despite student resistance.” Plus, everybody knows their basketball team is always up to infractions of one sort or another.

Yeah, that CIA. You can never trust anybody who has any dealings with those bastards, especially a government that participated in George W. Bush’s extraordinary rendition program that led to the kidnapping of a Canadian citizen named Maher Arar who was hauled off to Syria in 2002 where he was tortured for a year just like the men depicted in the Carter Ruck photos. Fortunately for him, pressure forced Bashar al-Assad to release the falsely accused “terrorist” who told CounterPunch readers what he had to endure:

This moment is still vivid in my mind because it was the first I was ever beaten in my life. Then he asked me to open my left hand. He hit me again. And that one missed and hit my wrist. The pain from that hit lasted approximately six months. And then he would ask me questions. And I would have to answer very quickly. And then he would repeat the beating this time anywhere on my, on my body. Sometimes he would take me to a room where I could, where I was alone, I could hear other prisoners being tortured, severely tortured. I remember that I used to hear their screams. I just couldn’t believe it, that human beings would do this to other human beings.

Now what kind of government would allow someone kidnapped by the CIA to be tortured in its prisons for a year like this to serve Bush’s “war on terror”? Surely, this too must be a “false flag” operation to discredit the only government in the Middle East supposedly committed to democracy, religious tolerance, ethnic diversity and kindness. Oh, I know. The same kind of government that would deploy 7,500 troops in partnership with Saudi Arabia and the USA against Iraq in 1990.

Finally, on the question of whether the photos were used to sabotage the peace talks alluded to earlier in this article. Sterling claimed that they were used as a trump card to bolster opposition demands that Assad resign. Once again the intransigent jihadists with backing from the USA would keep the war going. That, at least, is what Sterling would have you believe. But is there any truth to his claim that demands that “Assad must go” were strengthened by the photos, thereby torpedoing a chance for peace? That is only possible if you base your information on what you hear from RT.com or Press TV.

The NY Times reported less than a month after the photos were released:

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 3.33.24 PM

The Syrian opposition coalition on Wednesday presented its most detailed vision yet of a political transition to end Syria’s conflict, in a 24-point plan that, strikingly, made no mention of President Bashar al-Assad or his ouster, while outlining strong requirements for human rights and justice in a future Syria.

The proposal, detailed in a document presented to the Syrian government’s delegation during peace talks here, marked a shift in tone for the opposition group, which has long insisted on Mr. Assad’s departure as the starting point for a political resolution to the conflict.

The shift was bold yet risky, coming as the opposition delegation has managed for the first time to persuade several representatives of armed rebel groups to attend the Geneva talks. It carried the risk that the fighters, whose trust the exile opposition coalition seeks to gain, would feel betrayed by the omission of a demand for Mr. Assad’s ouster.

Opposition members said they hoped the proposal would help ease the fears of Syrian fence-sitters — by signaling that Mr. Assad’s opponents want to avoid a state collapse like that in Iraq following the American-led invasion in 2003 — and warm relations with Russia, the Assad government’s strongest backer. Russia has long said it is not committed to Mr. Assad personally but rejects making his ouster a precondition for political transition.

“We would really like to open new channels with the Russians, and it is very important for us to meet with them,” said Abdulahad Astepho, a member of the opposition delegation, adding that the group hoped to meet with the Russian deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, after talks with the American undersecretary of state for political affairs, Wendy Sherman, on Friday.

Now, of course, none of this matters to the likes of Rick Sterling. He has no interest in developing an intelligent and honest portrait of Syrian realities. Like all cheap propagandists who have preceded him in a dismal five years of lying, his only interest is in covering up a torturing, murdering, thieving bunch of gangsters who make the mafia look tame by comparison.


  1. My gosh, Louis, why is it that nearly everybody who was a Trotskyist “true believer” is ultimately turned into a right-wing apologist? It’s embarrassing for those of us who have read and profited from your thoughts five years ago. I was in the YPSL 1958-59 in Berkeley, but realized, when I went to SWP meetings in SF Hunter’s Point, that there were more FBI/proto COINTELPRO types there than there were real people at the meetings. So, everyone has to adapt. I adapted. But It’s amazing you are so stupid to have been duped and deluded 10 years later.
    Anyway, we are so disappointed in you. My friend Gilles d’Aymery, expressed his disappointment and frustration about your ‘turning’ to me before he died last year.
    You are turned, Louis Proyect. Bought and paid for. Like Juan Cole and those other ass-holes. It’s obvious Louis. It’s obvious. Bitter disappointment. But let it be known to everybody.
    Here, a factual characterization of those you “support.” But, you don’t support them really, Louis, do you? It’s only for so-much-a-month. You support “Louis”.
    Baathists are Marxist and secular. Perhaps you didn’t notice. But, your analyses of the war in Syria are so lacking in reason, that it is impossible to believe that it is not bought-and-paid-for propaganda.
    Very sad, and painful, Louis.

    Comment by Pat McClung — March 6, 2016 @ 1:24 pm

  2. Pat, you seem to be even older than me. I hope that you are not dealing with Alzheimer’s issues but the article you linked to is about ISIS, a group that has pretty much benefited from Assad’s genocidal war against the Syrian rebels who are more interested in getting rid of a family dynasty that supported Bush’s first Gulf War than building a caliphate:


    In terms of the Baathists being “Marxist”, I can only say that you speak out of very deep ignorance. The ideology is an obscurantist nationalism influenced deeply by Zaki al-Arsuzi who was more into Bergson than Marx. Just look it up after you take your Aricept.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 6, 2016 @ 2:18 pm

  3. louis –

    a friend told me the unrepentant liberation interventionist is at again. i have a few suggestions:

    1) read the article you are criticising. even the title to your attack is untrue. in two different points in the report i acknowledge that torture happens in syria. that is just one of many basic inaccuracies.

    2) go to syria, talk with people on the street and observe. you will find that many syrians like their government and leader. including people who are not baath party supporters. here is one:
    fyi the author is son of an american woman who has lived his entire life in syria, is NOT a baath party member. he is member of one of the alternate competing parties.

    3) then go to turkey, infiltrate into nusra (al qaeda) or isis territory. you will be able to observe how great it is. how liberated. for women and marxists. then, before they decapitate you, you might want to repent.

    – rick

    Comment by Rick Sterling — March 6, 2016 @ 8:42 pm

  4. Actually, the only reference to Assad torturing people, as far as I can tell, was followed immediately by the explanation that “Ugly and brutal things happen in war times”, which I discount as the kind of excuse that John Wight made for Assad by referring to the allies firebombing Dresden in the same vein. It is written in bad faith and intended to operate as an escape clause in communications such as this. As far as your invitation to go to Syria and talk to people is concerned, this is highly unlikely because my views precede me. I would likely be hauled off to a dungeon like the unfortunate Maher Arar and tortured for a year or so. Not everybody is like you or these people who get the red carpet treatment:


    In the meantime, a movement known as the European Solidarity Front for Syria has become active. It unites numerous extreme right-wing groups from across Europe under the flag of the Assad regime. This brown solidarity front organises pro-Assad demonstrations and has already sent several delegations to Damascus, each of which has been received by the Syrian government in the national parliament.

    One of these delegations paid the regime a visit shortly after the chemical weapon attacks in September 2012. Led by Ouday Ramadan, it also included Stefano de Simone and Giovanni Feola, leaders of the neo-fascist movement CasaPound, as well as Fernando Rossi, an ex-senator from the Italian Communist Party, who sought to close ranks with the radical right wing because of his support for Gaddafi and subsequently for Assad. This “poison gas delegation” was officially welcomed by the Syrian head of parliament Jihad Allaham, Prime Minister Wael al-Halqui, Information Minister Omar al-Zoubi and Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad.

    As far as Turkey is concerned, I have been there twice and can tell you that everybody I know hates Erdogan and whose opinion was not at all changed during the time that he would have gotten the same sort of red carpet treatment in Syria that you get.


    “From now on, Turkey will continue walking on the same road” as Syria, “sharing a common fate, history and future,” Mr. Davutoglu said at a joint news conference. “We are going to walk hand by hand and work altogether to revive our region as a center of civilization.”

    Turkey’s tensions with Syria began to ease in 1998 with Syria’s ouster of the P.K.K. leader Abdullah Ocalan. Syria’s recent offer to give asylum to 1,500 P.K.K. rebels if they renounce their armed conflict was another sign of improving relations.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 6, 2016 @ 9:11 pm

  5. Louis – Following are two quotes from the article in question:

    “There may be some photos of detainees who died in custody after being tortured, or who were simply executed. We know that this happened in Iraqi detention centers under U.S. occupation. Ugly and brutal things happen in war times. But the facts strongly suggest that the ‘Caesar’ account is basically untrue or a gross exaggeration.”

    “Bodies were picked up by different military or intelligence branches. While some may have died in detention; the big majority probably died in the conflict zones. The accusations by ‘Caesar’, the Carter Ruck report and HRW that these are all victims of “death in detention” or “death by torture” or death in ‘government custody” are almost certainly false.”

    Your title is a lie. Please change it. A faulty analysis is one thing; making accusations that are clearly untrue is beneath you. Or is it?

    Comment by rick sterling — March 8, 2016 @ 10:07 pm

  6. Rick Sterling says: “Your title is a lie”.

    So, you are NOT saying that the torture photos are a fake?

    I am confused!

    I know many people who are survivors of horrendous tortures by our Iranian regime; most likely the same torture techniques the theocratic regime has exported and are now used in Syria, including rape. Are you saying that the Syrian regime is NOT torturing people?! If this is your claim, then you are clearly a shill for that genocidal regime. We in the region know our fascists and their methods. You, on the other hand, are covering for them. Is there any deceit beneath YOU?

    Comment by Reza — March 8, 2016 @ 11:43 pm

  7. He asked me to change the title of the article, which I did. I suppose he has no disagreements with the body of the article so maybe as the psychiatrists say we are making some progress.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 9, 2016 @ 12:21 am

  8. Louis,

    Thank you for the clarification.

    Still … The trick this guy is hoping we’ll miss is an old one. In the American popular culture it has come to be known as the ‘Cochran Defense’: cast doubt on any piece of evidence presented, or attack the presenter of the evidence. Thereby, and strategically importantly, focus the attention on the minutia, so you can divert the attention from the big picture.

    But we’re not blind to the big picture. The enormity of the crimes the Assad family has committed against the Syrian people is well documented, and we in the region know it well. People like this guy, and his cohorts, are despicable creatures whom we shall not forget. We are not falling for that old trick. This guy, as you have illustrated, is a shill for a fascistic regime. Plain and simple. No minutia can ever cover that picture.

    Comment by Reza — March 9, 2016 @ 12:49 am

  9. Louis –

    Unfortunately you replaced one misleading and inaccurate title with another. Nowhere in my article/report is it suggested the photos are ‘fake’. On the contrary, one of the report conclusions says “While the photos are real, the “Caesar” story of 11,000 victims of torture and killing is substantially false.” Can you not tell the difference between what I actually say and what you purport?

    Apparently you think I am a blind supporter of the Syrian government and everything they have ever done. That’s another falsehood. I don’t support everything the Syrian government does.

    Nor do I like Maher Arar and his reactionary Muslim Brotherhood.

    It’s revealing that you think highly of the Carter Ruck Report. I guesss you have not read what the CSM writer said about it. A link to that article is in my report if you care to look.

    You claim that in February 2014 the Syrian opposition reversed position and dropped the precondition that ‘Assad must go’, relying on one NYT article. Do you believe everything you read in the NYT? If you were following news a little more you would know that the Saudi supported “High Negotiations Committee” is STILL trying to insist on ‘Assad must go’ .

    I suggest you review your blog title and change it once again. You could say that I claim the Caesar story is fraudulent or substantially false. That is what I claim with evidence to back it up. You could try to pick apart some more of the 12 issues I present. It seems your ideological blinders get in the way of seeing reality or subtlety. That means you have a hard time writing something that is accurate.

    Comment by rick sterling — March 12, 2016 @ 2:04 am

  10. Okay, I changed the title again. Changing it matters much less to me than the body of my article just as long as you don’t ask me to title it “Bashar or the country burns”.

    “Apparently you think I am a blind supporter of the Syrian government and everything they have ever done. That’s another falsehood. I don’t support everything the Syrian government does.”

    I would say that percentage-wise your support for Assad is about equal to the percentage of votes he gets in Syrian elections.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 12, 2016 @ 2:15 am

  11. […] to depict the so-called Caesar photos documenting 11,000 of Assad’s torture victims as bogus. I already dealt with this matter on March 2016. Sterling tries to discredit the Syrian who smuggled out the photos by pointing out […]

    Pingback by The counter-offensive against Ashley Smith | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 6, 2016 @ 9:13 pm

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