Like vampires drawing the shades, the Baathist amen corner is doing the best it can to discredit Ashley Smith’s illuminating article on Syria that appeared in the August 26th CounterPunch. The first salvo was from Off-Guardian, the website that has the chutzpah to “correct” the liberal British newspaper by serving up unhealthy dollops of RT.com. One imagines that they are okay with 21 journalists being killed since Putin took power in 2000 because as everybody knows they were trying to subvert the public order and we can’t have that.
Next up was Vanessa Beeley who is infamous for her attacks on the White Helmets that she regards as the advance guard of a NATO “regime change” operation in Syria. Like most of these nitwits, she would probably be warning about an invasion until every last Syrian opponent of Assad, either armed or unarmed, had been exterminated. Her article not only trashes Smith but Terry Burke and Andy Berman who have also written articles calling attention to the obvious, namely that certain “leftists” have the same relationship to Assad that an earlier generation had to Joseph Stalin. That earlier generation could at least be excused for believing rather irrationally that it was defending socialism. But the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party of Bashar al-Assad? That’s like being taken in by the National Socialist German Workers Party of Adolph Hitler. There’s more to socialism than a word, after all.
Beeley’s article appeared on the 21st Century Wire, an outlet that describes itself as being inspired by Zero Hedge. That makes perfect sense, of course, since one of Zero Hedge’s three contributors quit recently, complaining “I can’t be a 24-hour cheerleader for Hezbollah, Moscow, Tehran, Beijing, and Trump anymore. It’s wrong. Period. I know it gets you views now, but it will kill your brand over the long run. This isn’t a revolution. It’s a joke.”
I hadn’t planned on responding to the counter-offensive but Rick Sterling’s article in today’s CounterPunch was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It is really unbelievable. This guy has written 18 articles defending Assad compared to the one by Ashley Smith and he is squealing like a stuck pig. It is even more grotesque when you consider that the ratio overall on CounterPunch is probably a hundred to one favoring Assad, with people like Sterling, Mike Whitney, Pepe Escobar, Andre Vltchek, John Wight, et al, repeating the same talking points.
Imagine if the ratio was reversed. Jeff St. Clair trips out on some bad LSD and is visited by three Syrian ghosts. Afterwards in Ebenezer Scrooge fashion he begins publishing Sam Charles Hamad, Idrees Ahmad and Michael Karadjis instead of the Baathist amen corner. One day deciding that some balance was necessary, he publishes a Rick Sterling article. Does anybody in their right mind think that any of us would raise the kind of stink that he, Beeley and Off-Guardian raise? Their defensiveness is just a reflection of their ideological insecurity. I wouldn’t want to find myself in the position of defending a snake like Assad but they seem to thrive on it. Some conspiracy-minded people might think they are getting paid to write such crap but I think the best explanation is political confusion rooted in the Stalinist tradition. In their case, the disease is terminal.
Sterling’s article begins with the one and only correction that might have been made to Smith’s, his reference to Assad’s “massacre of some 400,000 Syrians”. In fact that is the total number killed on either side, whether combatant or non-combatant. In my view, it would be very difficult to ascertain the exact number of casualties given the chaotic situation but nonetheless one thing can be stated with certainty. The responsibility for this horrible blood-letting rests on Assad’s shoulders. When his snipers fired on peaceful protests in 2011, the opposition was left with no alternative except to defend itself. This point is obviously moot in Sterling’s eyes since Assad could do no wrong. Tell that to the parents of the 13-year old protestor Hamza al-Khateeb who was picked up by Assad’s cops in Darayya in May 2011 and whose dead body was left on his parents’ doorstep with bullet wounds in both arms, burns across his body, a broken neck, and his genitals cut off.
As expected, Sterling blames the rebels for the Ghouta sarin gas attack citing Robert Parry and Seymour Hersh as experts. Since both Parry and Hersh are diehard supporters of the Syrian government, it is a bit hard to take this seriously. Instead of going into tedious detail refuting the absurdity of their reporting, let’s just consider this. Taking them at their word, the Syrian rebels had the capability of launching rockets at long distances that carried poison gas capable of killing thousands of people in 2013 but only used them in a “false flag” operation to spur regime change.
These are the same rebels vilified by Sterling as capable of unspeakable evil because of their “Salafist” beliefs. And since 2013 they haven’t fired any missiles at government-held territory? We are told by Sterling and company that the rebels cut off the head of a 12-year old Palestinian boy just for fun and now they won’t use sarin-laden rockets to devastating effect? Something doesn’t add up here and it certainly isn’t the articles of Sterling, Parry, Hersh and company.
Next he admits that Assad took part in the CIA extraordinary rendition program but seems to excuse it because Maher Arar, one of its victims, received an official apology and $10 million from the Canadian government that was part of the abduction. The real question, of course, is why an “anti-imperialist” government would ever work with the CIA—something that is beyond Sterling’s pay grade to explain.
From there it is on to Sterling’s clumsy attempt 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 that the chairman of the investigating committee was a Syracuse professor and everybody knows that at this college “the CIA actively recruits new officers despite student resistance.” So in the previous paragraph Sterling has nothing to say about Assad collaborating with the CIA to torture abductees while in the next one he introduces a red herring about Syracuse University that has nothing to do with the photographs of mutilated Syrians who were abducted into the same torture chambers as Maher Arar. Unbelievable.
Moving right along, Sterling makes the case that Assad is actually quite popular, referring to a Jonathan Steele article that commented on a 2012 poll, which indicated that 55 percent of Syrians wanted him to remain in power. Actually Steele’s article was not very accurate. In fact, the number was based on 98 people who lived in Damascus and who responded to an online survey. Since at the time only 18 percent of Syrians had Internet access, it is hard to take such figures seriously. The polling company admitted that the poll was not intended to be representative of all Syrians. Pollsters, including them, believe that any survey based on less than a thousand people cannot be expected to produce accurate results. Then again, people like Sterling are not very interested in accuracy so naturally he would swear by its findings.
Further proof of Assad’s popularity was supposedly his victory in the 2014 elections when he racked up 88.7 percent of the vote. Well, he ran virtually unopposed but why would that matter if you were staging a demonstration election? Even Robert Fisk was not taken in by this charade, informing Independent readers:
Twenty-four candidates originally presented themselves for the presidency but they were whinnied down to the lonely three for the elections, including – deus ex machina – Bashar himself. So will historians interpret all this as a political punch by the president to match the military victories which his armies – including rather a lot of Hezbollah fighters and Iranian Revolutionary Guards – have clocked up?
In terms of “socialist” Syria, Sterling sounds like he has visited one Potemkin Village too many: “Syria was largely self-sufficient with a semi-socialist state apparatus including free health-care, free education and large industries 51% owned by the state.” When Bashar al-Assad’s father was running the show, some of this might have sounded plausible even if you take into account that state ownership is not the same thing as socialism.
But when the son took over the family dynasty, new policies in line with IMF wisdom were instituted. Foreign investment was encouraged and neoliberalism became the order of the day. Unemployment reached 20 percent and subsidies were cut off to those most in need—the rural poor.
Those that had connections to the family dynasty did extraordinarily well. Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin, controls foreign investment completely. He also owns Syriatel, the largest telecommunications company in the country. The Financial Times estimates that he controls 60% of the Syrian economy, with a focus on telecommunications, oil and gas, construction, banking, airlines and retail. The Makhloufs have come up in the investigations around the Panama Papers. If your idea of socialism is a mafia state with the wealthiest man hiding his assets in tax havens, you obviously haven’t been reading Karl Marx. In fact I doubt that Sterling has ever read Marx or Engels by the way he refers to Syria as “semi-socialist”. Countries are never “semi-socialist”. They are capitalist with welfare state provisions but Syria dispensed with them early on in Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Reese Erlich, a journalist whose latest book is regarded by some supporters of the Syrian revolution as a backhanded defense of the Baathist dictatorship, sized up the Syrian economy in October 28, 2011 as one hardly corresponding to Sterling’s Hallmark Card version of “semi-socialism”:
Syria’s big business elite is closely intertwined with the ruling Baath Party through financial and family ties. Disloyalty to the government can mean not only loss of lucrative government contracts, but political isolation and even jail.
Conflicting attitudes towards the Assad government date back to economic changes that began in 2004, when Syria shifted from a centrally managed economy to a more privatized one. The business elite benefited as the government allowed creation of private banks, insurance companies, and an airline.
The growth of large corporations in turn spurred creation of small-and medium-sized companies such as the marketing firm owned by Rana Issa. Government policies created economic growth and loyalty among business leaders.
But the new liberalization policy also amplified Syria’s system of crony capitalism, leading to charges of widespread corruption.
Demonstrators have singled out Rami Makhlouf, for example, a cousin of President Assad and owner of the country’s largest cell phone company. Critics say he’s made tens of millions of dollars due to family connections.
Bouthaina Shaaban, a top adviser to the president, admits that corruption remains a serious problem in Syria. “Rami Makhlouf isn’t the only one who made money in the past period,” she says in an interview at the presidential palace. “There are many people, big capitalists, who made a lot of money.”
That’s the reality of Syria today: barrel bombs and people making a lot of money. That a section of the left ended up serving as its hired guns is something that history will judge harshly.