Adam Johnson, a staff member of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, has an editorial in the latest Nation Magazine titled “Pundits, Decrying the Horrors of War in Aleppo, Demand Expanded War” that warns about the possibility of the Omran Daqneesh photo being exploited by people such as Nicholas Kristof and Joe Scarborough to persuade Obama to create a no-fly zone that might lead to a confrontation with Russia, as if Obama had any interest at this point in removing Assad. As the Rand Corporation advised the Pentagon early on, the worst possible outcome for American interests in Syria would be the removal of Assad.
Johnson also brings up Libya as an example of what would happen to Syria if a NATO intervention was repeated. Considering the fact that Libya’s homicide rate was 902 up to this point in 2016, one imagines that people living in Darayya and East Aleppo might welcome such an intervention. If you read the article carefully, you will get the real message, however. For Johnson the worst consequence of a Libyan-type intervention is that it would produce a “failed state” under jihadist control. It would be much better to have someone like Assad in power, even if he has killed seven times as many of his countrymen as ISIS. After all, it is much better to be die from a secular-minded barrel bomb than a religious fanatic’s sword.
Furthermore, for all of his baleful warnings about the need to stop American intervention, there is not a single word in the article about the intervention that is taking place right now against ISIS and one that would be escalated against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the rebranded al-Nusra. The USA has already bombed al-Nusra using the excuse that a group called Khorasan has been conspiring to launch 9/11 type attacks in the USA, even though such a group likely does not even exist. If and when the Syrian rebels took their marching orders from John Kerry to physically separate themselves from al-Nusra, that would give the F-16s free rein to blow the group to smithereens, even if involved massive collateral damage to civilians as is happening now in ISIS-controlled areas.
This is not the first time that Adam Johnson has written an article about how the USA might exploit the image of a Syrian boy to launch a George W. Bush style “regime change” operation. On September 5, 2015, he penned an article titled “The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the ‘Do Something’ Lie” that was essentially the same as the latest except focused on the three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, one of many drowning victims trying to cross the Mediterranean in the hope of escaping the Baathist hell. And like the latest article, it is mainly written to make the case for Assad as a lesser evil: “If the West removes Assad, then what? Will the tens of thousands of radical, medieval wahabbists that have flooded in simply go away?” Has Adam Johnson ever noticed that these wahabbists had a de facto non-aggression pact with Assad? He probably did but like all Baathist propagandists, he chose not to acknowledge it. I suppose that’s what you might expect from someone like Rick Sterling or Mike Whitney but when it comes from a member of FAIR that was created to offer an alternate to the mainstream media, it is quite disappointing. One must conclude that Johnson is okay with mainstream reporting as long as the provenance is Russian.
It doesn’t come as much of a surprise to see Johnson’s Islamophobic drivel in The Nation, considering the tilt toward the Kremlin engineered by the husband-and-wife tandem of Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen. Cohen has been a regular guest on the John Bachelor radio show on WABC for quite some time, where he offers up RT.com talking points that the ultraright host seems to lap up. Given the fondness for Putin in a wide swath of the ultraright, including Donald Trump, such a pairing is not that atypical. Stanley Heller, a peace activist, must have taken plenty of Dramamine before listening to the latest Cohen-Bachelor tête-à-tête so we must tip our hat to him for reproducing some of the more eye-opening quotes from the Sovietologist professor emeritus. Cohen told Bachelor:
Who do you think will come to power in Damascus? The best scenario is the chaos in Libya that came after Mrs. Clinton thought it was a great idea to assassinate Qaddafi. This is the worst scenario, and this is what the Russians believe: it’s either Assad in Damascus or the Islamic State in Damascus.
In other words, Cohen said in two sentences exactly what Adam Johnson was trying to say in thousands of words. Less is better, especially when it is bullshit.
Cohen followed up with this gem of political analysis: “I can tell you that Israel accepts that alternative and they are supporting Russia. They don’t want the Islamic State in Damascus, Israel doesn’t.” That must have closed the deal with John Bachelor whose most frequent guest besides Cohen is Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations who makes Alan Dershowitz sound like Norman Finkelstein by comparison.
Proceeding now from the ridiculous to the ridiculouser, we are confronted once again by the “false flag” analysis that has cropped up repeatedly on the left every time the Assad dictatorship is charged with one atrocity or another. It got started very early on when Baathist snipers began firing on peaceful protests. Some on the left, speaking liberally, claimed that it was actually Mossad or CIA operatives on the rooftop who were doing the killing as a way of creating bad publicity that would legitimize a “humanitarian intervention” triggered by a Nicholas Kristof op-ed piece. For example, Webster Tarpley, a certifiably psychotic ex-member of Lyndon Larouche’s fascist cult, wrote an article about the sniper attacks for RT.com titled ‘CIA, MI6 and Mossad: Together against Syria’ that might serve as a template for everything that has followed.
The latest examples revolve around the photo of Omran Daqneesh, which the further reaches of the Baathist amen corner believe is staged. Simon Wood wrote about this in a CounterPunch article that basically reprised an article on the Off-Guardian website that was created to counter what they see as the Guardian’s bad journalism. Instead of doing their own reporting, Off-Guardian functions mostly as an aggregator of RT.com reporting and other outlets tapped in to the conspiracy theory veins of Global Research, Moon of Alabama, et al.
Titled “MSM using pro-al Nusra ‘media center’ as source for war-propaganda”, the unsigned Off-Guardian article starts off by referring to Omran and his family “allegedly” sustaining minor cuts and bruises when their building was “allegedly” bombed by pro-Assad forces. It notes that an AP report that was picked up by the Guardian and other “pro-intervention” newspapers admitted that “neither he nor the rest of his family sustained anything but superficial cuts and bruises.”
Unsurprisingly, the Off-Guardian missed the point of the photo entirely. There are thousands of photos of maimed corpses from places like Homs, Darayya and East Aleppo that I have seen over the past five years but only this one went viral in the bourgeois press. It became iconic because the boy has a lost and forlorn expression on his face, not because he was missing a limb. For reasons that would be lost on someone as crass as the Off-Guardian author, it resonated with people in the media business because they have children. He was a “stunned and weary-looking boy” as the AP put it, not the victim of major injuries. People reacted to the photo because of its poignancy. In a way, the photo was widely disseminated for the same reason that the African-American woman in a long, flowing dress facing the cops in Baton Rouge was. It captured the imagination of the public. Since I doubt that the people associated with Off-Guardian have an clue about the power of imagery, it follows that they would try to use the fact that the boy only had minor injuries as proof of a “false flag”. These people are predictable, if nothing else.
We must add, however, that Off-Guardian did not bother to correct the lead paragraph that referred to Omran and his family sustaining nothing but “superficial cuts and bruises.” In fact, the boy’s 10-year-old brother Ali died the next day from injuries received from the Russian bombing attack but why would they want to update their article whose sole intention was to serve up Baathist propaganda? And they have the chutzpah to set themselves up as superior to the Guardian.
Things go downhill rapidly in the article. It condemns the Aleppo Media Center for taking the photo as it wrote favorably about al-Nusra killing some Baathist soldiers. I suppose if I lived in a city that had been reduced to rubble through barrel bombs and missile attacks, I might celebrate the killing of soldiers on the side of those responsible for the death of so many children like Ali Daqneesh.
Without actually coming out and calling the incident staged, Off-Guardian finds something fishy going on:
We’re also a bit curious about why the AP report claim the video was made Wednesday night, when it was uploaded to Twitter at 13:52 BST Wednesday afternoon, which would equate with 15:52 in Aleppo. Is this a time-zone anomaly? But then there’s the added confusion of the Tweet itself, which seems to say pretty clearly that the vid was made on Sunday evening.
For others even more shameless than Off-Guardian, that’s exactly the charge. The Moon of Alabama, which is about as ghoulish as any Baathist website out there, not only fixates on the time discrepancy but offers up other evidence of a conspiracy: “The amount of red colored substance on the boy and the man do not correspond to the amount one would expect from even a minor head wound. There are also no bandages applied or anything else that could have been used to stop an actual head wound from bleeding.” Where in god’s name do these people come from? No matter what problems Bertolt Brecht had ideologically, I am sure he would be disgusted to see how a song from “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny”, a sardonic musical about the rise of Hitler, would end up as the title of a website that makes excuses for the genocidal regime in Damascus.
Finally, there is a desperate attempt to smear the Aleppo Media Center as somehow being connected with the beheading of a Palestinian youth named Abdullah Issa because one of its members Mahmoud Raslan had been identified as the photographer. Since Raslan had been photographed with Nour al-Din al-Zenki, some of whose members committed the war crime, the Baathist amen corner was anxious to tarnish anybody involved with the photograph.
However, there was a bit of a problem. According to the Guardian it was not Raslan who was responsible for the viral photo but another member of the Aleppo Media Center, a videographer named Mustafa al-Sarout. Indeed, the “photo” was not a photo at all but a screen shot of the video as the Guardian article makes clear.
Even though Raslan was not necessarily the photographer, Off-Guardian made the amalgam between the Aleppo Media Center and Nour al-Din al-Zenki the following day in an article titled “An ID for ‘Mahmoud Raslan’”, who is portrayed as a member of Nour al-Din al-Zenki. Leaving aside the uncertainty as to who took the photo, is it really necessary to discredit the photo because of who took it?
We don’t know what Raslan’s connection is to Nour al-Din al-Zenki, other than that he appears in the same photo with some of its fighters–in all likelihood before the beheading. Maybe he should have been able to predict the war crime taking place in the future as depicted in the movie “Minority Report”.
More likely, given the tight quarters of East Aleppo where activists and fighters and civilians live in constrained spaces under continuous air attacks from Syrian and Russian jets and are forced to rely on each other for survival, does it come as any big surprise that Raslan might have been seen in such a photo?
Basically Off-Guardian, Moon of Alabama, Simon Cross, Adam Johnson and every other person writing Baathist propaganda made up their mind in 2011 that Bashar al-Assad was “one of us”, a progressive nationalist standing up for democracy, secularism and economic development against hordes of what Johnson called “radical, medieval wahabbists”. Anything that goes against that ideological agenda has to be swept under the rug whether it is the death of Omran Daqneesh’s brother or the de facto alliance between Assad and the “radical, medieval wahabbists” against Syrians seeking nothing more than the right to express themselves freely and to not be victimized by a mafia bourgeoisie that had the same relationship to the Assad dynasty as the Nicaraguan rich had to Somoza.
Missing from the conspiracy-minded bullshit from Adam Johnson et al is any acknowledgement of the class relations that led to the uprising, a dynamic that owed much more to economic inequality than how to interpret the Quran. Let me conclude with an article I keep coming back to and which helped shape my thinking on Syria early on:
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.
Successive years of scant rainfall and drought after 2003 produced massive rural in-migration to the cities — more than 1 million people had moved by 2009 — widening the social and regional gaps still further. Major cities, such as Damascus and Aleppo, absorbed that migration more easily than smaller ones, which were increasingly starved of infrastructural investment. Provincial cities like Dir‘a, Idlib, Homs and Hama, along with their hinterlands, are now the main battlegrounds of the rebellion. Those living in rural areas have seen their livelihoods gutted by reduction of subsidies, disinvestment and the effects of urbanization, as well as decades of corrupt authoritarian rule. The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings motivated them to express their discontent openly and together.
There have been no significant defections, however, from the ranks of big business, at least not in Damascus and Aleppo. It is not just presidential blood relatives like Makhlouf who have remained loyal. Other major players hailing from the above families have stood firm by the regime, financing its orchestrated mass rallies and public relations campaigns, as well as helping to float the Syrian currency. Most malcontents limit themselves to spiriting capital out of the country and expressing private wishes for regime change. Those who do back the uprising do it quietly and extremely carefully, highlighting the fealty of their counterparts.
The moguls know very well that their fate is bound up with that of the regime by virtue of intertwined investments and also their years of self-enrichment at regime behest. To switch sides would thus be an enormous gamble on the opposition’s forbearance. Big business’ support is not solely responsible for the regime’s resilience, but it would have been difficult for the regime to hold out in Damascus and Aleppo had these monied interests explicitly thrown their lot in with the protesters. The regime-business alliance took shape over decades, and it is unlikely to snap until the very last moment. Public defections by big businessmen would be a fair indicator that the regime’s days are numbered. Until then, all eyes are on the battlefield.