Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 26, 2017

Other Russias

Filed under: Russia — louisproyect @ 10:22 pm

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Largely through connections made through Russian Reader blogger Thomas Campbell, I have learned about important developments involving the Russian left that defy the stereotype of Russian opposition to Vladimir Putin as neoliberal snakes. To be sure, such snakes exist but the Western left has an obligation to keep abreast of our comrades there, who are opposed to capitalism just as much as us. In addition to Thomas Campbell’s blog, another important asset is the journal n+1 that largely because of the presence of co-founder Russian émigré and Marxist Keith Gessen (Masha’s brother) on the editorial board has a pipeline to the Russian revolutionary movement that makes it indispensable to our ongoing political enlightenment.

It was through an introduction to Keith Gessen made by Thomas Campbell that I learned of a tour by Kiril Medvedev, the revolutionary socialist poet, journalist, activist and–most distinctively–translator of Charles Bukowski. n+1 published Medvedev’s “It’s No Good“, a book whose $16 price tag goes against capitalist rationality, just as does every word in his Molotov Cocktail of Russian literature.

The good news is that n+1 has now published another voice of the Russian left: Victoria Lomasko, the author of Other Russias, which was translated by the good Thomas Campbell. Vika is an artist and activist whose work reminds me both artistically and politically of Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis”. Satrapi’s work was a comic book after the fashion of Harvey Pekar but Lomasko’s is much more text with powerful illustrations to make key points such as the ones shown below that come from the chapter on Pussy Riot.

Like Medvedev and Pussy Riot, Lomasko is “one of us”. In one of her chapters, she describes Russian protests marked by a large antifa contingent that was countering a phalanx of Russian nationalists who can only be described as Richard Spencer with a Russian accent. Far be it from me to try to penetrate the thick skulls of the Putinite left in the USA and England, but with Trump clearly trying to emulate Putin’s authoritarian ways it is high time to familiarize ourselves with the thinking of the Russian left that has been dealing with this crap for the longest time.

Vika is coming to New York the day after tomorrow and her tour begins with her speaking at Columbia University on February 28th, NYU (3:30 PM, Jordan Center, 19 University Place, 2nd Floor) on March 2nd, and at the n+1 offices on March 3rd (7:30pm, 68 Jay Street #405, Brooklyn). She will also be having an art opening at Ortega y Gasset Projects in Brooklyn on March 4th.

Information on other stops on Vika’s American tour can be found here. It includes engagements in Pittsburgh, Seattle and Portland.
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February 24, 2017

In Defense of Amnesty International’s report on mass killings in the Saidnaya prison

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 6:34 pm

(A guest post by Brian Slocock)

The publication of Amnesty International’s recent report documenting the mass executions that are taking place in Saidnaya prison in Syria has generated a torrent of responses from the Syria Extermination-Denial band.

One of them, broadcast on the Russian Sputnik channel spin-off “Hard facts” has veteran Assad cheerleader John Wight interviewing former British ambassador to Syria Peter Ford, a figure whose credentials might appear to give him some credibility.

In the space of some 11 minutes, both parties managed to avoid engaging with the detailed analysis and evidence provided in the 48-page Report. Instead they produced a lot of flannel about the sins of Amnesty and the ominous “timing” of the Amnesty report ­ they don’t have the courage to openly assert that Amnesty released the report in order to sabotage the Syrian peace process – probably because it’s so patently absurd – but the dog whistles are there aplenty for their intended audience.) If we strip away all this padding we are left with four objections to the Amnesty case

  1. All Amnesty’s witnesses are anonymised
  2. Saidnaya could not possibly hold the number of prisoners Amnesty claim
  3. The Amnesty report relies on the “discredited” Caesar torture documentation.
  4. Some business about Amnesty getting the date of Saydnaya’s emergence as the country’s main political prison wrong

We can pass over the fourth ­ it’s trivial and more suggestive of clutching at straws than anything else (although it is useful to have Ford’s confirmation that the large Saydnaya complex has been Syria’s “main political prison” “for “many years” before 2006, acknowledging the long and continuous history of political repression in the country.

On the first of the remaining points: Of course the witnesses insist on being anonymous – if they weren’t they would face the prospect of themselves or family members joining the victims whose fate they are testifying to. Wight comments that the Amnesty report “would not stand scrutiny in a court of law”. But no one is in a court of law. Amnesty is aware of the identity of its witnesses, and has interviewed them, they have no obligation to expose them to mortal danger just to meet some spurious test of veracity set up by Wight.

On the second point, Ford says that “none of the authors of the report have actually been to Saydnaya, but I have – I had occasion to go to Saydnaya numerous times”. However, this dramatic claim to eyewitness authority quickly evaporates when he adds “I did not enter the prison”. (So what exactly he was doing there? It seems an unlikely sightseeing destination)

Despite his rather limited (if oft repeated) engagement with Saydnaya, Ford claims that his sighting of the building allows him to assert that it is “literally impossible” for it to hold the 10-20 000 prisoners that Amnesty claims. His assessment is that it could hold “only about one-tenth that number”.

It’s possible to test that assertion by calculating the dimensions of Saydnaya from satellite photos. The main Saydnaya “red building” comprises 3 wings, each of which is about 90 x 20 metres, with. 3 – 4 floors. giving it a total capacity of about 18 000 square metres. The second “white building” where both detentions and executions take place, seems to be on two levels, adding another 4000 square metres of capacity. After allowing for essential functional space – offices, torture chambers, staff canteens, gallows ­ it would seem reasonable to estimate that something like 20 000 square metres is available for detention facilities. If Ford’s estimate that Saydnaya only holds 1000-2000 prisoners were true, then that would make it a very comfortable place indeed (it would meet the British Certified Normal Accommodation standard – something very few British prisons do.) But Saydnaya is in Damascus not Wandsworth, and very different rules apply there.

Intense overcrowding is a well-known feature of political prisons, an integral part of breaking prisoners’ spirits. There is plenty of testimony from Syria, and from other counties, that densities of less than 1 square metre per prisoner are often imposed. Human Rights Watch has collected testimony of densities as high as 3 prisoners per square metre. That would allow Saydnaya to hold the numbers Amnesty suggests; and certainly their figures are far more realistic than Ford’s. As Ford says, “when you get this basic fact wrong, you have to question the veracity of the rest”.

Point three: Ford suggests that Amnesty’s case is seriously undermined by their reference to the well-known “Caesar” portfolio of torture photographs, commenting that they have been discredited by the work of “a very good investigative journalist by the name of Rick Sterling, and also by Human Rights Watch. Sterling, however, is not an “investigative journalist” of any standard but a pro- regime publicist, whose article on the Caesar portfolio is a clumsy set of misrepresentations of the evidence and its interpretation. Ford lifts his account of the HRW review of the Caesar material straight from Sterling, claiming that it established that “46% of the photos showed dead Syrian soldiers, victims of car bombs, and other jihadist violence, and there was no evidence that the others were the victims of any particular form of detention.” This is a rampant distortion of HRW’s finding: true, they discovered that as a forensic photographer for the Syrian military authorities, “Caesar” was assigned to take several types of photographs: detainees who died in custody; dead soldiers and others who died in violent attacks; and photographs of the sites of the attacks: 54% of his photos were of dead detainees; 46% fell into the other two categories. As HRW noted, the range of Caesar’s photographs confirmed him to be to be an official a forensic photographer, reinforcing his credibility.

Moreover, the different categories were clearly distinguishable, and HRW was able to carry out an analysis of the dead detainees which produced detailed evidence that they had either been killed or died of malnutrition. They documented 6786 detainee deaths, and were able to identify which branch of the security services was responsible for each case. They also managed to locate several relatives of the dead who were able to identify them, despite their physically degraded conditions. No one who has seen these photos – as I have – could doubt that they had died as “victims of a particular form of detention”. In short, the HRW analysis demonstrates almost the exact opposite of what Sterling (and Ford) claim.

If this feeble mish-mash is the best Assad’s “counsels for the defence” can muster, then no one with a functioning intellect is going to take them seriously.

Bitter Harvest

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 5:39 pm

Socialism Betrayed? Inside the Ukrainian Holodomor

“Bitter Harvest”, opening today at the AMC 25 Theater in New York is the first narrative film treatment of one of the 20th century’s greatest human disasters, the death by famine of millions of Ukrainians due to Stalin’s forced collectivization. The Ukrainians call this the Holodomor. The subject matter alone would make this film worth seeing, no matter your take on what is arguably a highly-charged question for many on the left. Beyond that, it is a dramatically compelling film about the life of a prototypical young Ukrainian from this period, a young man named Yuri (Max Irons, the son of Jeremy) who is torn between the peasant life of his native village and the allure of cosmopolitan Kiev where several his friends have gone to become part of the socialist experiment. For Yuri, Kiev is a place where he can also develop as an artist under the tutelage of instructors imbued with the revolutionary fervor of the pre-Stalinist USSR.

Filmed in the agricultural heartland of Ukraine, “Bitter Harvest” begins with a depiction of the daily lives of peasants that in the 1920s followed patterns that had existed for hundreds of years. It is circumscribed by the growing season, the harvest, religious observations and festivals. Considering the deep roots of Ukraine’s agrarian society, there would be clashes with the new communist authorities under the best of circumstances.

Read full article

February 23, 2017

The Developing Mood in the US

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 7:32 pm

An unprecedented ferment is developing around the country. That’s what we’ve been hearing from people we’ve talked with around the country. New Orleans The mood there is symbolized by the 7-10,000 …

Source: The Developing Mood in the US

February 21, 2017

Donald Trump’s team of con men drafts a peace plan for Ukraine

Filed under: Trump,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 8:58 pm

Felix Sater, a key player in a Ukrainian peace plan, once spent time in prison for attacking a commodities broker with a broken margarita glass

For most people on the left, there was unquestionably a preference for Donald Trump’s foreign policy in the 2016 election especially with respect to Russia and more particularly taking its side against Ukraine. Just as was the case with Syria, anybody that Obama or Clinton supported even if only rhetorically was the enemy of the left. This meant that Ukraine became as much of a symbol of evil as the “jihadists” in Syria. Granted that Trump is about as articulate as a garden rake, his reply to George Stephanopolous of ABC News on the Russian takeover of Crimea must have warmed the cockle of the hearts of people like Stephen F. Cohen:

I’m going to take a look at it. But, you know, the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were. And you have to look at that also. Now, that was under, just so you understand, that was done under Obama’s administration. And as far as the Ukraine is concerned, it’s a mess and that’s under the Obama administration, with his strong ties to NATO.

So with all of these strong ties to NATO, Ukraine is a mess, Crimea has been taken. Don’t blame Donald Trump for that. And we’ll do better. And yet, we’ll have better relationship with Russia. And having a good relationship, maybe. And having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing.

Now, admittedly it is pretty hard for me to get inside the head of people like Cohen, Mike Whitney and Boris Kagarlitsky but I wonder what they make of the report in yesterday’s NY Times about a “peace plan” Trump’s cohorts have put together. The amateur hour group of diplomats include Michael D. Cohen, who is Trump’s personal lawyer; Felix H. Sater, a business associate who helped Trump look for deals in Russia; and Andrii V. Artemenko, a Ukrainian legislator who is part of a political opposition movement that is taking its cue from Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort.

Artemenko claims that he has evidence of corruption in President Petro O. Poroshenko’s administration, something that does not strain credulity. And it might even confirm that old saw “it takes a thief to catch a thief” since Artemenko spent time behind bars in a Kiev jail in the early 2000s for an embezzlement conviction. He maintains that he was framed for political reasons. Who knows?

Artemenko is obviously aspiring to be the new Yanukovych, the former president who fled to Russia as the Euromaidan protests made him dispensable, even to his own Party of Regions. At a gathering of his party on March 29, 2014 delegates voted to expel Yanukovych and senior members of his government, including prime minister Mykola Azarov, the head of the Ministry of Revenues Oleksandr Klymenko, deputy prime minister Serhiy Arbuzov, minister of the Department of Energy Eduard Stavytskyy, and the head of the Donetsk Oblast Administration Andriy Shyshatskyy. To my knowledge, Victoria Nuland was not in touch with the delegates who voted to boot these people from their pro-Kremlin party.

If ex-con Artemenko seems a bit dicey, he is small potatoes compared to Felix H. Sater, who seems to have stepped out of a “Sopranos” episode. He acted as a middle-man, conveying Artemenko’s peace plan to Trump. It should be mentioned that the plan is not quite what you’d expect from a tool of the Kremlin, at least on the face of it. It calls for the withdrawal of all Russian forces from eastern Ukraine and leasing Crimea to the Russians for 50 to 100 years, as if it were real estate. Since Russia claims that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine, it is not clear what the first plank is meant to accomplish.

Sater, a Russian Jew who came to the USA as a political refugee, was involved with Trump in real estate deals for the better part of a decade. His ties to Trump were first reported by the NY Times in a December 17, 2007 article.

Before Sater got involved with real estate, he was a stockbroker. In 1991, he was celebrating at El Rio Grande, a midtown NYC restaurant, with a friend who had passed the stockbroker’s exam that day. He was also feeling good about the $3,000 commissions he made at work earlier. A bit lubricated from one too many cocktails, Sater got into a beef with a commodities broker at the bar that quickly escalated. According to NY Times, “he grabbed a large margarita glass, smashed it on the bar and plunged the stem into the right side of the broker’s face. The man suffered nerve damage and required 110 stitches to close the laceration on his face.”

Sater went to prison for this assault and was banned from selling stock. That did not get in the way of him forming a stock brokerage with two partners not long after his release. It was basically a “pump and dump” firm that sold securities at inflated prices based on false information. In the mid-90s, there were so many of these criminal enterprises that you needed hired muscle from the Mafia to protect your turf as if you were a crack dealer. In 1995, Edward Garafola, a soldier in the Gambino crime family, tried to extort money from Sater, who hired Ernest Montevecchi, a soldier in the Genovese crime family, to lean on Garafola to back off.

In 1998, the law caught up with Sater. He was charged with money laundering and stock manipulation. Two years later, there was another indictment that named him as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in a $40 million scam involving 19 stockbrokers and members of four Mafia families. He never went to prison for his crimes, apparently because he cooperated with investigators.

Under ordinary circumstances, people like Artemenko and Sater would never be taken seriously by an American president but we are now operating under extraordinary circumstances. When Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and his one-time campaign manager give these two whack jobs the kosher stamp of approval, this tells you that we are not in Kansas anymore. It is likely that Trump lent them his ear since he has had ties to organized crime for most of his career.

Wayne Barrett, the long-time Village Voice investigative journalist who died this year from a lung ailment, exposed Trump’s mafia ties in a 1991 bio titled “Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Deals, the Downfall, the Reinvention”. For a recap of Barrett’s findings, I recommend an article written by fellow Trump biographer David Cay Johnston that appeared in the Politico on May 22, 2016 under the title “Just What Were Donald Trump’s Ties to the Mob?” Johnston writes:

FBI agents subpoenaed Trump in 1980 to ask about his dealing with John Cody, a Teamsters official described by law enforcement as a very close associate of the Gambino crime family. The FBI believed that Cody previously had obtained free apartments from other developers. FBI agents suspected that Cody, who controlled the flow of concrete trucks, might get a free Trump Tower apartment. Trump denied it. But a female friend of Cody’s, a woman with no job who attributed her lavish lifestyle to the kindness of friends, bought three Trump Tower apartments right beneath the triplex where Donald lived with his wife Ivana. Cody stayed there on occasion and invested $500,000 in the units. Trump, Barrett reported, helped the woman get a $3 million mortgage without filling out a loan application or showing financials.

In the summer of 1982 Cody, then under indictment, ordered a citywide strike—but the concrete work continued at Trump Tower. After Cody was convicted of racketeering, imprisoned and lost control of the union, Trump sued the woman for $250,000 for alteration work. She countersued for $20 million and in court papers accused Trump of taking kickbacks from contractors, asserting this could “be the basis of a criminal proceeding requiring an attorney general’s investigation” into Trump. Trump then quickly settled, paying the woman a half-million dollars. Trump said at the time and since then that he hardly knew those involved and there was nothing improper his dealings with Cody or the woman.

This is par for the course. The real estate industry and the mob are joined at the hip in New York. My building was created under the Mitchell-Lama law that was intended to create affordable housing for middle-class people in exchange for tax breaks for the developer, which in my case was the DeMatteis company. The NY Times reported on December 26, 1991:

New York City has revoked a $1.2 million contract with a major construction company that officials say concealed and altered reports about possible ties to organized-crime figures.

The contract was awarded in July to the Leon D. DeMatteis Construction Company of Elmont, L.I., to supervise the building of a $67 million jail annex on Rikers Island. But in a decision made public this week, the city said the company had withheld “troubling” information about its business associations and had submitted an altered copy of a report concerning its possible ties to reputed organized-crime figures.

Now this is the way that business is done in New York. But did anybody anticipate that the White House would be following the rules of the NY real estate game after January 20th? Donald Trump is using his political office to make money. People who have convinced themselves that he is ideologically driven to create a fascist state that will mold people according to some master race schema are deluded. Trump has about as much ideological conviction as the Home Shopping Network.

Even Putin, who is as big a crook as Trump, feels that this “peace plan” does not pass the smell test. Immediately after the NY Times reported on it, he dismissed it as absurd. As I said before, he denies that there are Russian troops in Ukraine. He also insists that Crimea is now part of Russia. Even as articles continue to be churned out on why the Deep State seeks to oust Trump because of his friendliness to Russia, there is scant recognition that the peace plan for Ukraine might signal a policy much more like Clinton’s than people like Stephen F. Cohen might have anticipated. Keep in mind what Nikki Haley, Trump’s Ambassador to the UN, said about the conflict:

The United States stands with the people of Ukraine, who have suffered for nearly three years under Russian occupation and military intervention. Until Russia and the separatists it supports respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, this crisis will continue.

Eastern Ukraine, of course, is not the only part of the country suffering because of Russia’s aggressive actions. The United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea. Crimea is a part of Ukraine. Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine. The basic principle of this United Nations is that states should live side by side in peace.

Showing more clarity than leftist supporters like Stephen F. Cohen, Putin ordered state media to back off from their fawning coverage of Trump. This is probably a reaction to Haley’s comments at the UN as well as concerns about FBI investigations into the contacts that Trump’s advisers had with Russia during and after the 2016 campaign. The peace plan crafted by Artemenko and sponsored by Sater was designed to end the sanctions against Russia. Given the fecklessness of their efforts, which are consistent with the overall ineptitude of the Trump White House, it appears that the sanctions will remain in place for the foreseeable future.

Russia is in dire straits now economically, just as is the USA. Their problems are related to falling oil prices while ours are more complex. Although economist Nick Eberstadt is a neoconservative, his article for the echt-neocon Commentary Magazine titled “Our Miserable 21st Century” gives you a sense of how bad things are:

Between late 2000 and late 2007, per capita GDP growth averaged less than 1.5 percent per annum. That compares with the nation’s long-term postwar 1948–2000 per capita growth rate of almost 2.3 percent, which in turn can be compared to the “snap back” tempo of 1.1 percent per annum since per capita GDP bottomed out in 2009. Between 2000 and 2016, per capita growth in America has averaged less than 1 percent a year. To state it plainly: With postwar, pre-21st-century rates for the years 2000–2016, per capita GDP in America would be more than 20 percent higher than it is today.

For both the USA and Russia, a quick fix would be to eliminate its military starting with nuclear weapons. Costa Rica disbanded its military in 1948 and the country has been better off for that, with worries about counter-revolutionary coups being put to rest as well as helping to afford a welfare state some compare to Sweden’s.

The USA spends 600 billion dollars per year on the military while Russia spends a tenth of that. Since Russia’s population is less than half of ours, that would still represent a considerable savings. Instead what we can expect is a ratcheting up of military expenditures as Trump brandishes the sword against China, Iran and maybe even Russia. The world is confronted by what Haile Selassie described as war and rumors of war, words that Bob Marley put to music.

On “Sixty Minutes” last Sunday there was a segment on North Korea’s “threat” to the USA with a top American officer on duty in South Korea, an African-American no less, reassuring his African-American 60 Minutes interviewer that if Kim Jong-un used nuclear weapons, his country would be “wiped off the map”.

In the Junius Pamphlet written one year after the outbreak of WWI, Rosa Luxemburg said:

Friedrich Engels once said: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” What does “regression into barbarism” mean to our lofty European civilization? Until now, we have all probably read and repeated these words thoughtlessly, without suspecting their fearsome seriousness. A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means. This world war is a regression into barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the annihilation of civilization. At first, this happens sporadically for the duration of a modern war, but then when the period of unlimited wars begins it progresses toward its inevitable consequences. Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration – a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war. This is a dilemma of world history, an either/or; the scales are wavering before the decision of the class-conscious proletariat. The future of civilization and humanity depends on whether or not the proletariat resolves manfully to throw its revolutionary broadsword into the scales. In this war imperialism has won. Its bloody sword of genocide has brutally tilted the scale toward the abyss of misery. The only compensation for all the misery and all the shame would be if we learn from the war how the proletariat can seize mastery of its own destiny and escape the role of the lackey to the ruling classes.

These words are as relevant today as they were just over a century ago.

February 19, 2017

Deep State, Deep Confusion

Filed under: conspiracism,Deep State — louisproyect @ 9:20 pm

Googling “Deep State” and “Donald Trump” will return 833,000 links, with most posing the question of whether the CIA and other government agencies operating beneath the radar are working to unseat the president. While this concern has been expressed even before he took office, it spiked after Michael Flynn was fired by Trump for lying about whether he discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak. For most on the left, their hatred for “Deep State” tactics trumps their hatred for Donald Trump. Glenn Greenwald probably spoke for most in a Democracy Now interview:

One of the main priorities of the CIA for the last five years has been a proxy war in Syria, designed to achieve regime change with the Assad regime. Hillary Clinton was not only for that, she was critical of Obama for not allowing it to go further, and wanted to impose a no-fly zone in Syria and confront the Russians. Donald Trump took exactly the opposite view. He said we shouldn’t care who rules Syria; we should allow the Russians, and even help the Russians, kill ISIS and al-Qaeda and other people in Syria. So, Trump’s agenda that he ran on was completely antithetical to what the CIA wanted. Clinton’s was exactly what the CIA wanted, and so they were behind her. And so, they’ve been trying to undermine Trump for many months throughout the election. And now that he won, they are not just undermining him with leaks, but actively subverting him. There’s claims that they’re withholding information from him, on the grounds that they don’t think he should have it and can be trusted with it. They are empowering themselves to enact policy.

As should be obvious, there is a strong affinity between people like Greenwald and the Baathist amen corner. These people don’t understand how ridiculous it is to refer to the CIA trying to achieve regime change in Syria for 5 years. If the CIA was truly intent on removing Assad, it would have not acted with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar (the three nations supposedly most committed to such goals) to block the shipment of MANPADs to Syrian rebels as the Wall Street Journal reported on October 17, 2012:

U.S. officials say they are most worried about Russian-designed Manpads provided to Libya making their way to Syria. The U.S. intensified efforts to track and collect man-portable missiles after the 2011 fall of the country’s longtime strongman leader, Moammar Gadhafi.

To keep control of the flow of weapons to the Syrian rebels, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar formed a joint operations room early this year in a covert project U.S. officials watched from afar.

The U.S. has limited its support of the rebels to communications equipment, logistics and intelligence. But U.S. officials have coordinated with the trio of countries sending arms and munitions to the rebels. The Pentagon and CIA ramped up their presence on Turkey’s southern border as the weapons began to flow to the rebels in two to three shipments every week.

In July, the U.S. effectively halted the delivery of at least 18 Manpads sourced from Libya, even as the rebels pleaded for more effective antiaircraft missiles to counter regime airstrikes in Aleppo, people familiar with that delivery said.

Reading between the lines, the Pentagon and the CIA only “coordinated” with the Sunni states to get its foot in the door. Without having a presence on Syria’s borders, it never could have been able to block the shipment of weapons that could have made the country a graveyard for MIGs and armored helicopters. That would have been the best way to facilitate a no-fly zone, by removing air power from the equation. There is little doubt that “regime change” could have taken place if the USA had not intervened.

Others like Alistair Crooke, a former British diplomat writing for the Putinite Consortium News, emphasize Trump running afoul of the Deep State for seeking détente with Russia:

Initially (and perhaps it still is so), Trump’s start point was détente with Russia. In terms of his aim to transform America’s foreign policy, that made sense. And one can understand why President Trump might be treading somewhat slowly on Russia, in the wake of the Deep State coup against Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and the continuing attrition aimed against the President, but simply, were he to pursue his son-in-law’s plan, Trump will be handing over his foreign policy to the neocons.

I always get a chuckle out of the notion that Trump and the neocons are mortal enemies. Do you know who co-wrote Michael Flynn’s “The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies”? Does the name Michael Ledeen ring a bell? A profile on Flynn in the New Yorker Magazine revealed that much of the book is practically plagiarized from Ledeen’s sorry body of books and articles. Ledeen is the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This is about as neocon as you can get with founder Clifford D. May now serving as President, who is also a member of the Henry Jackson Society, an outfit that is infamous for supporting the war in Iraq. Here is Ledeen on the countries posing the greatest threat to the USA:

It’s no coincidence. Russia, Iran and North Korea are in active cahoots. They are pooling resources, including banking systems (the better to bust sanctions), intelligence and military technology, as part of an ongoing war against the West, of which the most melodramatic battlefields are in Syria/Iraq and Ukraine.

To judge by their language, the leaders of the three countries think the tide of world events is flowing in their favor. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered an ultimatum to the West, saying that Iran’s war against “evil” would only end with the removal of America. Russian President Vladimir Putin marches on in Ukraine, blaming the West for all the trouble, and the North Koreans are similarly bellicose.

They are singing from the same hymnal. And they aim to do us in.

Right, they aim to do us in. So it turns out that the guy that Flynn is most closely allied to ideologically is ten times scarier than Hillary Clinton. If you still have doubts about Flynn’s close ties to Ledeen, I recommend The New Yorker profile linked to above. It states:

Flynn and Ledeen became close friends; in their shared view of the world, Ledeen supplied an intellectual and historical perspective, Flynn a tactical one. “I’ve spent my professional life studying evil,” Ledeen told me. Flynn said, in a recent speech, “I’ve sat down with really, really evil people”—he cited Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Russians, Chinese generals—“and all I want to do is punch the guy in the nose.”

Get that, people? Flynn said he’d like to punch a Russian in the nose. People get confused over Flynn’s ideological core beliefs by missing that his interest in Russia is solely based on its usefulness against ISIS. Just because he favored a united military front against ISIS, it does not mean that he has the same affinity for the Kremlin that someone like Stephen F. Cohen has. Just remember that the USA and Stalin were allied against Hitler. You know how far that went.

Even the NY Times got in the act, sounding a bit like Glenn Greenwald. In an article titled “As Leaks Multiply, Fears of a ‘Deep State’ in America” co-written by Amanda Taub and Max Fisher, there are concerns that the USA is becoming more like Egypt and Turkey where you had an elected president (Morsi) toppled by a deep state and another (Erdogan) overcoming the Kemalists, who are in many ways the deep state paradigm. For Taub and Fischer, the main worry is the leaks that Washington insiders are channeling to the Washington Post and the NY Times. Trump, of course, loved such leaks when they were used against Hillary Clinton. Now he is beside himself with anger. He has announced plans to have financier Stephen A. Feinberg conduct a review of the agencies responsible for such leaks and perhaps recommend a clean sweep that might look like Erdogan’s purge of the Gulenists who had become embedded in the military, police, universities and courts just like the Kemalists before them.

There is always the possibility that the campaign to dump Flynn had other motives besides his supposed tilt to Assad and Putin, even if there is scant support for such an analysis. CounterPunch editor Jeff St. Clair weighed in:

In an administration where prevarication has gone pathological, are we really to believe that Flynn was fired for not fully briefing Mike Pence on his calls with the Russian ambassador? Perhaps Flynn was canned for a simple reason, namely that he was in over his head, like most of Trump’s inner circle. Like many intelligence officers, Flynn is a professional paranoid, seeing conspiracies everywhere he looks. This can be a useful psychological trait in a field agent, but it can prove disastrous in an administer. Consider the case of spy-hunter James Jesus Angleton, one of the most wretched figures in the history of the CIA, whose mental collapse led him to see Soviet agents on every barstool and bus bench in DC.

Probably the most intelligent analysis of the Deep State was written for The Nation by Greg Grandin. Titled “What is the Deep State?”, it makes many very good points especially about the tendency for it to become a pet hobbyhorse of the conspiracist left. He writes:

Much of the writing frames the question as Trump versus the Deep State, but even if we take the “deep state” as a valid concept, surely it’s not useful to think of the competing interests it represents as monolithic, as David Martin in an e-mail suggests. Big Oil and Wall Street might want deregulation and an opening to Russia. The euphemistically titled “intelligence community” wants a ramped-up war footing. High-tech wants increased trade. Trump, who presents as pure id wrapped in ambition motived by appetite, wants it all—which makes him both potentially useful and inherently unstable, simultaneously a product and target of the deep state. In 1956, C. Wright Mills wrote that “the conception of the power elite and of its unity rests upon the corresponding developments and the coincidence of interests among economic, political, and military organizations.” If nothing else, the “Trump v. Deep State” framings show that unity is long gone.

In my view, trying to understand the concept as it applies to the USA is made more difficult by the political terrain that inhibits the growth of political parties tied to a social class. In a typical parliamentary system, you can have dozens of parties that speak for clearly delineated segments of society even if they use rhetoric that aspires to the universal. For example, there have been parties that cater to the interests of the landed gentry, the manufacturers, the urban petty bourgeoisie, the workers and even fractions within each distinct class formation, especially in France and Italy–always referred to in my high school civics classes as places where it is impossible to get things done.

When you form a government based on a parliamentary majority, you typically bring in loyalists from the winner or a coalition of parties. In the USA, there is an extreme tendency to homogenize politics with Obama’s “team of rivals” setting the tone for the bipartisanship over an 8-year period. The Democrats are obviously more committed to this type of governance but even the Republicans have reached “across the aisle”. When he was a Senator, John Kerry chastised Republicans for failing to be more like Reagan, who supposedly “put politics aside” to work with the Dems, especially “Tip” O’Neill. Within the state apparatus, there are bureaucrats who are less interested in party politics than advancing their own career goals. Given Trump’s open hostility to this machinery that operates within the narrow framework of Democratic-Republican centrism, you can expect resistance just as you would in a corporation that has a new CEO bent on shaking things up. As someone who has worked in places like Goldman-Sachs, I can assure you that the same internecine battles that are taking place in the American state apparatus also take place in the corporate world where sharp elbows are a fact of life.

To a large extent, the torrent of abuse directed against Trump from CNN, the NY Times and Washington Post as well as the leaks are rooted in the desire of all the Democrats and a growing number of Republicans like John McCain to return to the status quo ante. It is not so much Trump’s programs that stick their craws but his utter lack of the talents and experience that are need to shepherd the world’s biggest imperialist power in a period marked by economic decline and instability. Trump is under siege not from the “deep state” but by the professional political class and their servants in the media who would much prefer someone like Mike Pence to run the country. In other words, like Trump on “The Apprentice”, they desperately want to see him fired even if they are incapable of mounting a serious resistance to those of Trump’s choices who were not hoisted on their own petard like Flynn.

The challenge for the left in this period is to stake out and define its own identity and goals when much of the country will be mobilizing because of initiatives taken by Democratic Party officials, labor unions, university presidents, mainstream environmental organizations, et al. Without going too far in making such an analogy, it might be possible to see the current period as having something in common with the late 50s as the USA began thawing from McCarthyism. The winds of change were generally being fanned by groups such as SANE, the NAACP and the UAW. As the civil rights and student movement began to pick up speed, the demands became sharper and the independence from liberal politics became more pronounced. By 1967, there was a feeling that if the radical movement could break out of its confines and connect to the working class, it would be possible to have a revolution in the USA. That, of course, was an over-projection. But given the failure of the American economy to satisfy the expectations of a working population that can remember when the country was “great” (for those fortunate enough to get a union job), things can get very polarized rapidly. As Lenin put it, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” Even if it is only apocryphal, it makes a lot of sense.

February 17, 2017

Irada

Filed under: Ecology,Film,india — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm

I have been a fan of Bollywood movies for many years. Since they are geared to ordinary people rather than international film festivals, there is a premium on story-telling and a disdain for the irony that has become so dominant in Hollywood films. This is not to speak of the song and dance routines that punctuate the films, which for me are far more enjoyable than anything in “La La Land.”

If you are a fan of Bollywood films like me or if you’d like to sample one of the more interesting examples, I recommend “Irada” that opened today at the AMC Empire 25 theater in NY. This is a detective story named that pits its hero Arjun Mishra (Arshad Warsi), who is a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Lieutenant Columbo, against a powerful chemical company boss named Paddy Sharma (Sharad Kelkar). Like probably most chemical companies in India, his is dumping carcinogenic waste products into the groundwater of Bathinda, a Punjabi city.

When Sharma’s massive industrial complex is blown to bits in an apparent act of sabotage, Mishra is called in to investigate. He is summoned to the office of Chief Minister Ramandeep Braitch (Divya Dutta), where she tells him to wrap up the case as quickly as possible. She is anxious for him to not look too closely into the company’s dealings for fear that he will discover that she is helping to cover up Sharma’s toxic waste dumping that has turned Bathinda into a virtual cancer epidemic.

The Chief Minister and just about everybody else in a position of power is beholden to him in the same way that Louisiana elected officials are in the pocket of BP and other polluters. If the idea of the BRICS countries is to catch up with the West, you wonder why such a prospect ever became embraced by part of the left. With people like Narendra Modi functioning as India’s Bobby Jindal, the Indo-American governor of Louisiana, perhaps there is a different model worth embracing.

Inspector Mitra hooks up with two allies in his lonely search to find out the truth. He is aided by the widow of an investigative journalist who was murdered by Sharma’s goons and the father of a seemingly healthy and athletic young woman who developed Stage Four lung cancer after swimming daily in a Bathinda river.

Unlike most Hollywood detective movies that rely on brute force, Mitra is much more old-school. In a way, the film is a throwback to the days of Dashiell Hammett with most scenes involving the sympathetic characters trying to figure things out rather than car chases or shootouts.

I imagine that the film hit a responsive chord in India, especially in Punjab. The film, despite its Bollywood aesthetic including two songs, is not escapist. Just consider what a Punjab newspaper reported in 2013:

The Tribune, October 14, 2013
Govt sleeps as toxic waste poisons water in Punjab
Umesh Dewan/TNS

Notwithstanding claims of the Punjab Government and the state Pollution Control Board (PPCB) that emphasis is being laid on ensuring clean and green environment in the state, the practice of discharging domestic waste and untreated industrial effluents into drains, rivulets and water channels continues unabated in Jalandhar and Kapurthala.

The worst affected is the Kala Sanghian Drain, which originates from Bullandpur village in Jalandhar and goes to Chiti Bein, which finally connects with the Sutlej.

In Kapurthala, untreated sewage waste is polluting Kali Bein. Same is the fate of Wadala Drain. It merges with Kali Bein, which finally falls into the Beas. Pollution of drains and rivulets has also started affecting groundwater. This has started affecting he health of people in many parts of Jalandhar and Kapurthala.

Apart from skin diseases, a number of cancer deaths have also been reported in many villages of Jalandhar. Intake of polluted water is said to be the main cause behind rising number of cancer cases in these areas. Though, the PPCB has tightened the noose around the tanneries at the Leather Complex and electroplating units in Jalandhar, the violation of anti-pollution norms continues.

The problem

Out of about 200 electroplating units in Jalandhar, many do not have effluent treatment plants (ETPs). The result: Toxic chrome effluents are discharged into Kala Sanghian Drain.

It is being claimed that electroplating units send effluents to the Common Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) at Ludhiana for treatment, but there are reports that many units continue to discharge untreated effluents into Kala Sanghian Drain. There are about 60 tanneries in Leather Complex.

Kapurthala has a sewage treatment plant (STP) with total capacity of treating 25 million litre discharge per day (MLD). Since the plant is not properly functional, the discharge of untreated domestic waste into Kali Bein goes on. Untreated domestic waste of some areas also finds its way into Wadala Drain. Lakhs of fish were found dead in Kali Bein at Sultanpur Lodhi in April this year.

The promises

Sewage treatment plants (STPs) were to be set up in Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Nawanshahr and Hoshiarpur. Industrial units had to send effluents to the CETP, Ludhiana, or had to install their own ETPs. On February 28, 2008, it was announced that Kala Sanghian Drain would be made pollution-free within one month, but there has not been much improvement five years down the line.

On May 18, 2011, some Rajasthan residents came to Jalandhar to lodge a protest with the administration saying the 45-km Kala Sanghian Drain was polluting the Sutlej and ultimately the Indira canal that carried water to several districts of Rajasthan.

The reality

The Punjab Effluent Treatment Society (PETS) has set up a 5 MLD CETP at Leather Complex for the treatment of toxic waste, while the old CETP (1.5 MLD) is non-functional. The installed capacity of tanneries at leather complex is about 8.8 MLD.

PPCB Senior Environmental Engineer SP Garg said the PETS had initiated the process to re-commission the old CETP at the Leather Complex. “The capacity of the new CETP is being increased from 5 MLD to 6 MLD. We are hopeful that work will be completed by October 31,” said PETS Secretary-cum-Director Ajay Sharma.

Garg said board officials kept conducting surprise checks on tanneries and action was initiated whenever any violation was noticed. Kapurthala MC Executive Officer and President had been prosecuted for not been able to ensure that the STP operated properly and achieved desired standards, he added.

Jalandhar needs to have STPs with a combined capacity of 235 MLD. At present, two STPs (100 MLD and 25 MLD capacity) are functional at Pholriwal. A 50 MLD STP is coming up Opposite the Leather Complex, whereas two STPs of 25 MLD and 10 MLD capacity are being set up along the Hoshiarpur Road and the GT Road in Jalandhar. Phagwara has an STP of 20 MLD capacity, while two other STPs of 8 MLD capacity each are being set up. In Nawanshahr and Hoshiarpur, 6 MLD and 30 MLD STPs are coming up. The deadline for the commissioning of all STPs is March 31, 2014.

Health hazard

Consumption of polluted groundwater has left a large number of people suffering from various diseases, including cancer. Gazipur, Allowal, Badshapur, Mehmuwal Mahla, Kohar Kalan, Athola, Mandala Chana, Gidderpindi, Bahmania, Madala, Isewal and Namajepur villages in Jalandhar district are the worst-hit. Bulerkhanpur, Sidhpur, Sunra, Chaka, Ahmedpur and Mallu villages are among the worst-affected in Kapurthala.

Tumour and cancer cases, besides stomach, eye, skin and respiration problems are common among residents of Jalandhar villages that fall in the vicinity of Kala Sanghian Drain.

Jarnail Singh of Badshapur village said: “There had been eight cancer deaths in the village. Residents of other villagers are also suffering from various ailments. The state government has completely failed to check pollution of groundwater.” Inhabitants of many other villages also claimed that the people were suffering due to consumption of polluted water.

Seechewal’s take

According to environmentalist Seechewal, the discharge of Kala Sanghian Drain goes down to Chitti Bein, then to the Sutlej and finally to Harike headworks, from where drinking water is supplied to the Malwa region. Polluted water poses a serious risk not only to the aquatic life, but also to humans.

Till all STPs were in place, the Jalandhar Municipal Corporation should make arrangements to segregate silt from untreated waste at different points, so that less polluted water was discharged into the drains, he said. “An STP has been set up in Kapurthala at a cost of Rs 12 crore, but it is non-functional. The entire domestic waste goes into Kali Bein, which is really unfortunate,” he added.

(To be continued)

The sorry state of rivers

CHANDIGARH: Punjab ranks 23rd among states and UTs in environment performance index benchmarked by the Planning Commission in its 2012 report. The poor ranking is in sharp contrast with the commitment made by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal in October, 2010 that all state rivers will be cleaned by November 30, 2011. The Shiromani Akali Dal manifesto for the last Assembly polls promised “clean air, water, sky and land (saf paun, pani dharti and akash)”. It had also spelled out a 5-point programme. Nothing has changed: The Sutlej continues to be a major victim, the Ghaggar is a repository of chemical waste, as toxins are dunked into the subsoil water at various places. The result is stark: most rivers and choes remain polluted. Government sources cite the lack of funds for handling pollution. For instance, they say, the state government identified 45 towns and cities from where untreated effluents flow into either rivers or nearby choes. Safely created dumps would have taken care of solid waste. But the government doesn’t have funds to set up treatment plants. –TNS

In Dubious Battle

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:11 pm

Steinbeck’s Red Devils

When I received email from a publicist announcing the premiere of a film based on John Steinbeck’s “In Dubious Battle” directed by and starring James Franco that opens on Friday, February 17th, I knew at the outset that this would not be in the same league as John Ford’s 1940 masterpiece “The Grapes of Wrath”. Everything I have heard from Franco in the past five years or so persuades me that outside of acting he overestimates his talents, whether it is writing poetry or teaching classes in the NYU film school. If he wants to become a renaissance man, it would probably be best for him to stick to projects he is qualified for, like being named the face of Gucci’s men’s fragrance line.

Like most people I suppose, my knowledge of Steinbeck is based on “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men”, a novella I read in high school. The publicist provided a synopsis of the film: “In the California apple country, nine hundred migratory workers rise up against the landowners after getting paid a faction of the wages they were promised. The group takes on a life of its own—stronger than its individual members and more frightening.” I said to myself that even if Franco makes a mess of this Steinbeck story, it would still be worth watching for the subject matter alone. Guess what. I was wrong.

Steinbeck’s novel was based on historical events. In the early 1930s, farmworkers in California fought pitched battles with the agribusinesses we became familiar with in the 1960s when the UFW was fighting to organize farmworkers in the lettuce fields and grape vineyards.

The earlier strikes were organized by the Communist-led Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU). Franco stars as Mac McLeod, a Communist organizer who has taken raw CP recruit Jim Nolan (Nat Wolff) under his wing. The two of them head off to the fictional Torgas Valley, where they begin working at an apple orchard owned by Bolton, an old-school capitalist pig reminiscent of C. Montgomery Burns on “The Simpsons”. Not long after starting work, they learn with the rest of the men that their pay will been cut from 25 to 20 cents per hour. They can take it or leave it. Robert Duvall, a long-time Republican outlier in Hollywood, was cast as Bolton. No method acting preparation was required from someone who belonged to a labor-hating political party.

Read full article

February 16, 2017

Syria, Water and the Fall from Eden

Filed under: Syria,water — louisproyect @ 7:05 pm

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-2-04-31-pm

According to some scientists, the water that covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface predated the birth of the planet. Its originated as ice particles floating in outer space more than 4.6 billion years ago even before the birth of the sun. When scientists explore the outer regions of space today in the hope of finding an inhabitable planet, one of the first things they look for is the presence of water. For some of the wealthiest and most powerful men on earth, including Tesla’s Elon Musk, they represent the possibility of a refuge from a dying planet where war and environmental destruction threaten a sixth extinction. It is a supreme irony that Syria, which was part of the Fertile Crescent that gave birth to the earliest civilizations, is a microcosm of the very processes that threaten the planet as a whole.

The Euphrates and Tigris rivers that originate in Turkey and flow southeasterly into Syria and Iraq were critical to fostering the growth of early civilization through the use of irrigation that has been a double-edged sword even to this day. Despite serving the needs of agriculture, irrigation leads to salinization and hence the ruin of the very activity it was designed to support. The earliest agricultural collapse in Mesopotamia (ancient Greek meaning between two rivers, specifically the Euphrates and Tigris) occurred around 4000 BC, once again between 1300 and 900 BC, and then once more again around the seventh and eighth centuries AD.

Salinization is a problem for large-scale agriculture based on irrigation but particularly in semi-arid regions like Syria. All naturally occurring water, including from rainfall, contains salts. but it would be much less of a problem in places like Great Britain where heavy rainfalls wash away the salt deposits that remain in the soil from irrigated sources. In Syria, the salt accumulates and forces the farmer to constantly search for fresh supplies, digging deeper and deeper to draw from the groundwater. Like every nation on earth, including the USA, the aquifers are not an inexhaustible supply. Once our Ogallala aquifer is exhausted in the American Midwest, it will take 6,000 years to replenish. In search of groundwater, farmers dig deeper and deeper wells just as energy corporations do in offshore waters such as the Gulf of Mexico when they search for new oil deposits. In the case of both water and oil, such drilling has costs to the environment. Against the threat of “peak oil” (whether the hypothesis is true or not), there are alternative energy sources. On the most fundamental level, there is no alternative to water.

Even if Syria had the same precipitation levels as Great Britain (as it happens, Syria has higher levels than most nations in the Middle East), it would still be facing the same dilemmas that modern agriculture faces everywhere. Monoculture production of cash crops like cotton and wheat (the two largest farming goods in Syria) is heavily dependent on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that can seep into rivers and lakes leading to all sorts of illnesses, including cancer. In volume one of Capital, Marx described the growth of capitalist agriculture as a curse:

All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress toward ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility…Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.

An examination of the contradictions of Syrian agriculture bears this out in spades. While it is not the only cause of the revolt that began in March 2011, it is an important part of the class divide between the crony capitalists based in Damascus and the rural poor. This includes those who were forced to leave the land and crowd into the neglected neighborhoods of Homs, Aleppo and Damascus itself. One of those suburban areas that became an epicenter of the struggle is Wadi Barada that was newsworthy for putting the water question into sharp relief. As is so often the case with mainstream reporting on Syria, there is very little context to make sense of Assad’s charge that the rebels in Wadi Barada sabotaged Damascus’s water supplies. This accusation has been repeated in hundreds of pro-Assad websites that have ritually used every opportunity to slander the rebels. In writing this article, I hope to supply the context for the still unfolding Wadi Barada events as well as help understand the broader social and economic challenges that Syria faces under continued Baathist rule. This is a dictatorship that has yet come to terms with the water and farming cul-de-sac and surely never will.

In 2007 Transaction Publishers came out with journalist Francesca de Châtel’s Water, Sheikhs and Dam Builders: Stories of People and Water in the Middle East, an indispensable guide to the Syrian story as well as those of other countries in the Middle East and North Africa that in one way or another are pursuing unsustainable water and farming policies. While I strongly recommend purchasing the book, an alternative would be to read the articles on her website that were expanded upon in her book. Trained as an architect, the Dutch journalist lived in Damascus from 2006 until 2010, where she worked as the managing editor and editor-in-chief of Syria Today. While there, she began writing about water issues in Syria and the region.

Chapter one of her book is titled “The Death of the Garden of Eden”, an allusion to the four rivers mentioned in Genesis, including the Euphrates and Tigris. Since the story of Adam and Eve is likely based on Sumerian mythology, there is little doubt that the Fertile Crescent was a garden of Eden in antiquity. How it fell from grace has little to do with God but the problems of irrigation that have haunted the region for millennia. The epigraph for this chapter that precedes the current crisis has a prophetic quality:

There is no more rain, but there are more and more people. We forget that we are living in the desert here and that more than a quarter of the Syrian population now lives in Damascus. We have no water anymore and our Barada River cries. In the plain, in the Ghuta, it’s the same thing: there used to be five large springs there that fed the crops. They have all dried up.

–Nizar Hussein, agricultural engineer, Barada & Awaj River Authority, Damascus, Syria

The Barada River was indispensable to the rise of Damascus as the crown jewel of the Arab world. Its name is reflected in the tormented suburb Wadi Barada that means Barada Valley. In 1834 a British traveler described Damascus as “a city of hidden palaces, of copses, and gardens, and fountains, and bubbling streams.” The Barada river was “the juice of her life,” a “gushing and ice-cold torrent that tumbles from the snowy sides of Anti-Lebanon” (the mountain range that borders Lebanon and Syria.)

Converging with the Barada River were springs to the north of Damascus, including Ain el Fije that was home to the pumping station allegedly blown up by rebels or tainted by diesel fuel—the story shifts from one Assadist website to another. The various water sources flowed into the city via seven canals that were built during or before Roman presence in the region. For many, the well-watered wonders of the city were paradisiacal.

Today they are much more infernal as de Châtel writes:

I crossed one of the seven canals of the Barada, the Manias. Today its riverbed, which winds between and beneath the medieval town and skirts the thick city walls, little more than an open sewer. A thin sliver of water trickles between garbage and rotting vegetables, and a foul stench rises up from the river.

Now only untreated sewage flows through the canals to irrigate the Ghuta referred to in the epigraph above—the area that housed the very same villages that Assad attacked with Sarin gas in 2013. At the time the Assadists blamed the rebels for an alleged “false flag” incident in the same fashion they are now accused for cutting off Damascus’s water supply.

Today the Barada is no longer used to irrigate the farmlands surrounding Damascus, only to supply the faucets of the city’s burgeoning population. When de Châtel was gathering the material for her book a decade ago, Barada and Ain el Fije had already ceased to meet the needs of Damascus. By the 1990s, the water deficit had risen to 40 percent. In the plains around Damascus, the shortage was felt most acutely by farmers who depended on irrigation, particularly in Ghuta.

The Syrian government hoped to alleviate water shortages in the countryside by persuading farmers to use drip irrigation rather than traditional methods. While it succeeded to some extent on pilot projects, it was constrained by a couple of factors. It required a capital investment that many poorer farmers could not afford and relied on wells that had already begun to run dry. This was felt most keenly by the farmers of Wadi Barada whose water sources had been diverted to Damascus. As these farmers found it more and more difficult to stay afloat economically, they moved into the overcrowded city and thus became another element in the vicious cycle that was impoverishing the countryside and city simultaneously.

For the newly arrived, Damascus bore little resemblance to the glossy image of the city drawn by Assad’s defenders. High-rises sprang up like mushrooms to accommodate families but without proper sanitation, water supplies and ventilation. During the 1980s, half of Damascus lived in squalor. As the city expanded outwards, Ghuta was swept into its maw and began to have the character of Paris’s banlieues. Trees were felled and farmland was turned into empty lots for the cheap housing geared to the poor. One can assume that the fierce resistance of Ghuta to this day stems from such neglect. Accompanying a water department official named Nizar, de Châtel reports on what she saw there:

We drove out of the village and found ourselves in the desert. A few houses were dotted around, slapped together with rough concrete blocks and splatters of cement. They lay in a wasteland: flat, gray soil, barren and infertile. A few pumps could be seen in the fields. But there was no water to pump. “This was the middle of the Ghuta Oasis,” said Nizar. “These were all apricot orchards. As far as the eye could reach. Look at it now!” I asked what the farmers here did now, as there was nothing to live off anymore. “They go to the city to find work. Anywhere. And in the winter they hope and pray for rain.” I was speechless, it seemed unbelievable: acres and acres of desolation, punctuated only by gnarled tree stumps.

When de Châtel asks Nizar why the government was doing nothing to address the situation in Ghuta, he replied: “1 will tell you a secret: the Arab governments have no idea about long-term planning. They have no vision, no plan. In Syria, we are all sleeping. And maybe, just maybe, the day when the water really runs out and we face a disaster, we will wake up.” One might surmise that Nizar was speaking for most Syrians when he described such a feckless government that not only lacked a vision for the water crisis but the country’s well-being in general.

In a kind of perfect storm, the water crisis reached catastrophic dimensions in 2010 when a drought cut deeply into the country’s already depleted supplies. In 2014, Peter Gleick, the director of the Pacific Institute, a think-tank devoted to water resources, wrote an article titled Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria that considered the possibility that the 2011 revolt was indirectly related to climate change.

Starting in 2006, Syria experienced drought conditions that lasted for the next five years and that was described by one expert as the “worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.” In July 2008, the Minister of Agriculture candidly admitted to a UN gathering that the drought was “beyond our capabilities as a country to deal with”. Between 2006 and 2009, around 1.3 million Syrians living in the eastern farming belt were hammered by the drought and among them 800,000 lost their livelihoods and basic food support. By late 2011, the UN estimated that the drought grew to affect up to three million people—about one out of seven citizens.

As is generally the case, it is impossible at this point to prove that climate change created a specific catastrophe such as the Syrian drought or the superstorm Sandy that devastated the American northeast in 2012. However, Gleick is a highly credentialed scientist who is in a position to make an informed judgment on what was taking place in Syria. If there was no smoking gun to show that the drought was a product of climate change, there was certainly enough circumstantial evidence to say that Syria’s future was guarded at best. Like the journalist Francesca de Châtel, Gleick honed in on the springs of Ain el Fije:

In a more focused hydrologic assessment, downscaled climate change data from transient experiments with regional climate models were used to assess the potential effects of climate change on water availability in the area of the Figeh spring system near Damascus (Smiatek et al. 2013). This water system is one of the largest springs in the world and serves as the drinking water source for nearly three million people. The analysis focused on differences in annual, seasonal, and monthly temperature, precipitation, and water availability measured as spring discharge between present climate (taken as the 1961–90 average) and two future periods (2021–50 and 2070–99), and identified potentially serious reductions in water availability from increased evapotranspiration demand and decreased precipitation. The relative change in mean discharge for the climate ensemble showed a decrease during the peak flow from March to May of up to 220% in the period 2021–50 and almost 250% in the period 2069–98, compared to the past climatic mean. Decreases of this magnitude would have dramatic effects on local water availability. [emphasis added]

Considering the terrible shape of Damascus’s water today, a decrease of 220% in only four years is a forecast of certain doom. Even under the best of circumstances, such a prognosis requires drastic action and a transformation of the Syrian state that would not be guaranteed of success. We can conclude, however, that the Assad dynasty is the ruling class least capable of solving such problems. As the water department official Nizar put it, “Arab governments have no idea about long-term planning. They have no vision, no plan.”

It is also a crowning irony that the two most militarily powerful countries in the world—the USA and Russia—both have presidents that are solidly in the Baathist corner. If Obama never entertained the possibility of “regime change”, Assad can now rest assured that Trump and Putin have given him their blessings as a fellow combatant in the “war on terror”. In addition to their support for arguably the bloodiest dictator in the 21st century, Trump and Putin are also distinguished as being the most high-profile climate change denialists in the world. Trump has called global warming a “hoax” and Putin is on record as stating that “an increase of two or three degrees wouldn’t be so bad for a northern country like Russia. We could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up.”

But what would be the impact on Syria if there was an increase of two or three degrees? It would be catastrophic and arguably one even greater than Assad has visited on the country in six years of war. Military conflict can always come to an end but reversing climate change is far more difficult, especially when the USA and Russia are ruled by men who are averse to reducing greenhouse gases.

Until the rise of capitalism (and capitalist agriculture in particular) in the Middle East and North Africa, traditional societies were adept at conserving water. The qanat, a Persian word, was an ancient system of wells and tunnels that delivered groundwater to villages and farms. It originated 3,000 years ago in a region bordering eastern Turkey and Iran. In ensuing centuries, the technique spread as far as China. The rise of Islamic empires is directly related to this engineering breakthrough. As Arab armies swept toward the West, they brought their knowledge of qanat with them. In Morocco, they became known as khettaras and as madjiras in Spain, the etymological origin of Madrid. When Spain colonized the New World, it brought the technology with it—one good thing amidst all the evils. The qanat can be found in Mexico, Chile and even in the early settlement of Los Angeles, a city that is famous for its appropriation of water in an arid terrain—not unlike Damascus.

For the ancient civilizations of the Middle East and North Africa, water was a precious resource that was husbanded mostly for the production of food. There was no concept of agricultural commodities produced for foreign markets. As such, it was much easier to strike a balance between the needs of a city like Cairo or Damascus and that of the countryside where the peasantry dwelled. Water was the source of life, not cash. Water was so precious that the Persian word for irrigation—abad—became part of many city’s names such as Ahmedabad, which means “irrigated by Ahmed”, a notable who funded the creation of a qanat.

The ancient qanats have fallen into disrepair for the most part. They have been replaced by wells and motor pumps that rely on diesel fuel that became ever increasingly more unaffordable for Syria’s peasantry. Unlike the qanat that rested upon a balance between a settled population and an existing resource, the wells that have spread across Syria like locusts leave nothing behind in their wake except cash and saline deposits.

In the final chapter of her book, Francesca de Châtel profiles some people working to solve Syria’s water crisis. Though neither of them are Syrian, they were deeply committed to the country’s future well-being.

A Dutch anthropologist named Joshka Wessels returned to the abandoned qanats to see if she could make them work once again to the advantage of farmers and townspeople. De Châtel accompanied her to Qara, a small village 100 kilometers north of Damascus to examine her projects.

Wessels is supervising a team of construction workers helping to restore a qanat that had fallen into disrepair. Unlike the wells, they do not rely on machinery. Gravity is used to transport water from higher levels, usually from the sides of mountains or hills, to settlements below. Even though the work has not been completed, the village is enjoying twice the supply of water it once had.

Her team has identified ninety abandoned qanats in Syria and she expressed hope that the breakthrough at Qara could be replicated elsewhere. Within four years of the publication of de Châtel’s book, those hopes would be abandoned in the chaos of Assad’s war on his countrymen.

There was another man in Syria who sought to promote a more appropriate technology. Father Paolo dall’Oglio was a Jesuit priest and founder of a religious community grouped around the Monastery of Mar Musa in the north of Damascus. When Father Pablo came to Mar Musa, it was in the grips of desertification owing to overgrazing, exhaustion of groundwater and the other ills that plagued the Syrian countryside.

He accepted that water was in short supply and sought ways to maximize the impact of what could be tapped from the surrounding area. His first approach was “modern”. He dug wells like everybody else but soon discovered that it produced far too little for his needs. To supplement the water from the wells, he built a small retaining dam at the top of the valley where the monastery was located. Working with local plants, the monks at Mar Musa began to restore the traditional plants and fruit in conformity with an eye to environmental sustainability. By 2001 Mar Musa had become a model for the rest of the country. He had come to the conclusion that water was key to Syria’s survival but only if it obeyed this guideline: “The solution to the water problem is to either make it expensive, or to make it scarce. When water flows freely from the tap, it is taken for granted.”

Besides being a champion of environmental justice, Father Paolo was a partisan of the Syrian revolution. Assad exiled him in 2012 for his advocacy. Ignoring threats to his life and safety, he returned to Syria a year later only to be kidnapped and likely killed by ISIS in Raqqa, the capital of its bogus Caliphate.

Turning now to more recent events, we must consider Wadi Barada as the final and most brutal convergence of water and warfare.

On December 24, 2016, a bomb destroyed the water station there that was fed by the Ain al-Fija spring referred to above. The Assad dictatorship has accused the rebels of setting off the bomb as the ultimate terrorist tactic while they blame Syrian aerial bombardment for the damage. The best appraisal of who is at fault can be found on the BellingCat website of Elliot Higgins that relies on still photos and videos meant to demonstrate that the water station was the “collateral damage” of Syrian aerial bombardment.

As is so often the case with regime propaganda, there have been conflicting accusations against the rebels who either poured diesel fuel into the water supplies to make it undrinkable or set off a bomb to cut it off at the source. More recently the diesel contamination has not been alluded to in government propaganda.

Obviously, the goal should be to repair the water station as soon as possible to get the water flowing again. With government control of Wadi Barada, it would seem reasonable that maintenance crews would be welcome by both sides in the conflict because everybody must understand that without water they are doomed.

That being said, the Wadi Barada Media Center Facebook page points to disturbing signs that the dictatorship does not consider this the higher priority. Although it is in Arabic, an activist named Amr Sahali has taken the trouble to summarize the latest findings there:

Maintenance teams were sent in by the regime, under an agreement with the rebels, to repair the spring four days ago. The Wadi Barada Media Centre has been reporting throughout this time that whenever the teams go in, the regime starts bombing again and they flee. One of the maintenance teams’ cars was damaged and another was burned by the regime’s bombing – these are the same maintenance teams sent in by the regime. Basically, the regime-sent maintenance teams are being protected by the rebels and attacked by the regime. This info isn’t enough for a complete rebuttal of course, but it’s useful to have. There are English language reports about this on their page (you’ll have to scroll down) and videos showing the teams at work and the burning car: https://www.facebook.com/Wadi.Barada

When the Syrian revolution began, Assad’s supporters warned: “Assad or we burn country”. With the slow exhaustion of water that helped to fuel the uprising and now the much more aggressive and total assault on the water supply for 1.6 million Damascenes, it appears that their dark prophecy is finally taking place.

 

We need communism

Filed under: anti-capitalism,socialism — louisproyect @ 3:52 pm

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