Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 25, 2019

Charles Glass writes an obituary for the revolution he helped to kill

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 11:05 pm

Charles Glass

For the past 8 years, the quantity of pro-Assad propaganda has been oceanic. Even after his obvious military victory, some of his publicists continue to repeat the talking points they have made since 2011. Among them is Charles Glass, who has articles in the prestigious February 2019 Harpers magazine and the most recent NY Review of Books that pay lip-service to the reality that the country is ruled by a dictator. Clearly, liberal magazines would hold someone like Vanessa Beeley at arm’s length but put down the welcome mat for someone like Glass who was ABC News chief Middle East correspondent from 1983–93 and would never be caught dead writing obvious regime propaganda. Recently, Verso Books published his Syria Burning: A Short History that will be a companion piece to their publication of arch-Assadist Max Blumenthal’s The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State Fueled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS and Donald Trump. Given Tariq Ali’s long-standing affinity for the butcher of Damascus, it is not surprising that such books are being foisted on an unsuspecting public.

The Harpers article, titled “Tell Me How This Ends”, is behind a paywall but you are entitled to download one free article a month even if it is crapola like this one. Like nearly everything Glass has written about Syria, the article relies heavily on American government officials or think-tankers but not a single Syrian. Like Seymour Hersh, Glass likes to throw his weight around as someone privy to the inside dope of unnamed sources in high places. In the first paragraph, we hear from a “national security staffer” who, after insisting on his anonymity, told him “There wasn’t an overarching strategy document for anywhere in the Middle East. Not even on the ISIS campaign, so there wasn’t a cross-governmental game plan.” The thing to understand is that the interest of people like Glass and all these other men writing for the NYRB, the LRB, the Nation, et al is in the national interest. They consider themselves advisers to the state in the same way that Walter Lippmann was to LBJ and are anxious above all to keep the interests of the USA protected. The misery imposed on Syria is not nearly as important as the waste of American money in a losing venture and the ability of Putin to outsmart Obama in geopolitical gamesmanship.

Like most of the Assadist propagandists, Glass is bent on making the case that Sunni sectarianism was present from the earliest days of the movement against Assad. Relying on the word of former American Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, he describes a major escalation by the popular movement:

Ambassador Ford detected a turn in the Syrian uprising that would define part of its character: “The first really serious violence on the opposition side was up on the coast around Baniyas, where a bus was stopped and soldiers were hauled off the bus. If you were Alawite, you were shot. If you were Sunni, they let you go.” At demonstrations, some activists chanted the slogan, “Alawites to the grave, and Christians to Beirut.”

You get the same thing with Macron supporters like Bernard-Henry Lévy reporting that “some” Yellow Vest activists were chanting “Death to the Jews”. In fact, the slogan “Alawites to the grave, and Christians to Beirut” was first (and only) reported by the International Christian Concern (ICC), a group whose president had earlier served 11 years with the Campus Crusade for Christ. The ICC published a report in early 2011 that gave credence to the idea that “Christian service has flourished remarkably in Syria” and that Syria is “a model Arab country when it comes to freedom of worship.”

With respect to Baniyas, we must begin with the Syrian military assault on the city in May 2011 when Baathist troops killed four women in a small all-women protest. Tony Shadid, a real reporter unlike Glass, reported in the NY Times:

A resident in Baniyas said by phone that protesters there had carried olive branches and red and white roses to hand to soldiers if the troops entered the city, but by evening they had not. He estimated that the crowd numbered at least 7,000, many of whom chanted for freedom, for the government’s fall and for the military to lift its siege of Dara’a. “Peaceful, peaceful,” he quoted them as chanting, “our demands are patriotic.”

So where did this business originate about a bus being stopped and Alawite soldiers being taken out and shot, while Sunnis were let go? If you have access to Nexis-UNI, as I do as a Columbia retiree, you can find the single occurrence of such a report:

“State television has blamed the weekend killing of six soldiers and 10 Syrian labourers returning from Lebanon in a mini-bus on armed gangs determined to destabilise the country.”

–The Irish Times, May 10, 2011

State television? That says it all. Glass got this report from Robert Ford, who was not in any position to render judgement on this incident from his Damascus embassy. Maybe he just passed along to Glass what he saw on Assad’s TV station. Do you expect Charles Glass to actually go to Baniyas to interview Syrians who had to put up with tanks and machine guns? Naah. It is much more pleasant to be in a Damascus hotel with a well-stocked bar.

Glass considers Assad as a “lesser evil” especially for Syrians.

The Assad regime’s strategy for dealing with civil disobedience, popular mobilization, and general strikes may have been ineffective, but the regime knew how to handle armed insurrection. And Salafist fighters terrified many Syrians who, while dismissive of Assad, did not welcome his replacement by religious fanatics with long beards.

So, Harpers readers pondering these words might shrug their shoulders and accept Assad as more “reasonable” than his foes, at least on the basis of his being clean-shaven and certainly not a fanatic except when it came to torturing and killing anybody who challenged his dictatorship. Left out of this equation, however, was the religious fanaticism of the Alawites and their Iranian and Hezbollah allies.

The Alawites, at least those that did not join the struggle against Assad, were organized as the Shabiha, a death squad that painted the slogan “Assad or the country burns” everywhere. For them, anybody who opposed the dictatorship was a Wahhabi who had to die. In the very month that the revolution began, March 2011, the Shabiha drove through Latakia on trucks with machine guns and killed 21 peaceful protesters.

Meanwhile, Iranian intervention in Syria is obviously motivated by a desire to extend the Islamic Republic’s Shiite influence, mixed with baser motives such as absorbing Syria economically. As for Hezbollah, their leader Hassan Nasrallah referred to the Sunnis in Syria as “takfiri” (fanatics) who would destroy their shrines if given half a chance so it was necessary to launch a preemptive strike. This is more or less the same thing you got from Shabiha member Abu Jaafar who told The Star, a Lebanese newspaper: “We got money and arms from our government to fight those Wahhabi radicals who will force my wife and daughters to wear the veil and will close all wine shops.”

Referring to the sarin gas attack on East Ghouta in 2013, Glass adopts an agnostic attitude. He quotes James Clapper, Obama’s national intelligence director as saying that the case against Assad was not a “slam dunk”. After Obama worked out a deal to allow Assad to get rid of his chemical weapons in exchange for not being attacked by the USA and France, chemical attacks continued with “blame placed on each side by the other”, in Glass’s words. Naturally, as Glass intended, this is meant to convince Harpers readers that nobody knows what really happened in Syria.

It is likely that most of these readers have never read or even heard of Eliot Higgins’s Bellingcat, which has consistently used open source data to establish Syrian guilt. But probably the most authoritative reporting on the use of chemical attacks came recently from the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute, which blamed Assad for 98 percent of the chemical attacks as the Washington Post reported. By citing Clapper and by mentioning that both sides blame each other, Glass effectively leaves the question of blame up in the air. For me, the likelihood of Syrian rebels cooking up sarin gas, a task that can be carried out in your kitchen sink according to Seymour Hersh, is belied by the evidence of the factory the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo constructed in order to produce the quantity necessary for their terror strike on a Tokyo subway. By most calculations, this is far less than that used in East Ghouta.

The Aum Shinrikyo factory

There are other questionable claims made in Glass’s article like blaming Libya for most of the potent weaponry that was used against the dictatorship, Glass went to a news source not usually associated with credibility:

The supply chain became public after the September 11 murder of US ambassador Christopher Stevens in the Benghazi compound. Media outlets, including Fox News, reported that ships delivered TOWs, surface-to-air missiles, and other high-tech weaponry from Libya to the port of Iskenderun in southern Turkey.

The TOWs from Benghazi shifted the balance on the ground in favor of the rebels, especially the better armed and highly motivated jihadis. Assad’s tanks and helicopters were no longer invulnerable.

Your best bet is to check out the Bellingcat website for a breakdown on TOWs (Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided), which does not mention Libya at all. Most of these weapons came from American allies, such as Saudi Arabia but only after 2014. The idea that Benghazi was supplying Syrian rebels with weapons comes mainly from rightwing media, which was interested in making the Obama administration look bad. Keep in mind that the Benghazi/Syria connection was important for making the case that the USA was in cahoots with jihadis in the region. In addition to Fox News, the National Review and the American Conservative spun this unlikely tale. Ironically (or maybe not so ironically), the author of the American Conservative article was none other than Gareth Porter, who generally makes these kinds of jihadi-gonna-get-your-mamma talking points in leftist publications.

Nonetheless, there was a Libya-Syria weapons connection early on but it was hardly a conspiracy hatched by the USA and its allies in the region. Libyans did get their hands on Gaddafi’s surface-to-air missiles and were desperate to get them into the hands of Syrians who were defenseless against Assad’s helicopters and MIGs. You’d think, based on Glass’s reporting, that the USA would have facilitated such a transfer given Obama’s supposed desire for “regime change”. But that’s not what happened at all as the WSJ 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.

If the CIA had not intervened with these jihadi-loving states to keep Manpads out of the hands of the Syrian rebels, the war probably would have ended 5 years ago at least.

I will be briefer with Glass’s NYRB article that is also much briefer than the Harpers article (contact me if you want a copy since it is behind a paywall.) This is much less of a look back at the war and much more about what the title of the article calls a “savage peace”.

Showing an utter lack of historical background, Glass believes that the utter destruction wreaked by Assad might have an unintended benefit: “Syria may eventually benefit from the disappearance of its archaic industrial plants, as Germany’s coal and steel industries did after World War II, by starting anew with modern machinery.” This is laughable. Germany relied on massive investment made possible by the Marshall Plan but who will open up their pocketbooks for a mafia state like Syria that even Glass admits in this article is hobbled by corruption. It would be like providing aid to Somoza after the 1977 earthquake in Nicaragua, most of which ended up on the black market.

Glass faults the West for not being willing to help Syria get back on its feet again: “Countries that dispatched billions in weaponry have become parsimonious about rebuilding—this applies as much to Russia and Iran on the government’s side as to the US, Britain, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on the opposition’s.”

Maybe Glass has not heard about a possible funding source that might be tapped:

The firm at the centre of the Panama Papers leak serviced a string of companies for a top financier in Bashar al-Assad’s government in the face of international concern about corruption within the Syrian regime.

Documents show Mossack Fonseca’s links to Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of the Syrian president, who was described in US diplomatic cables as the country’s “poster boy for corruption”.

Washington imposed sanctions on Makhlouf in February 2008, saying he was a regime insider who “improperly benefits from and aids the public corruption of Syrian regime officials”. It blacklisted his brother Hafez Makhlouf in 2007.

The documents show, however, that the Panamanian firm continued to work with the Makhloufs, and in January 2011 it rejected the advice of its own compliance team to cut ties with the family as the crisis in Syria began to unfold.

Documents show a Mossack Fonseca compliance officer wrote: “I believe if an individual is found on a sanction list then this is a serious red flag and we should make every effort to disassociate ourselves from them.”

Though Mossack Fonseca was not legally bound to comply with US sanctions, it had an obligation to react to EU measures imposed in May 2011 and extended to the British Virgin Islands (BVI) in June of that year. It took until September 2011 before the partners finally agreed to resign from Makhlouf’s companies.

In a further twist, the documents reveal that thanks to lobbying by the British bank HSBC, Makhlouf was able to keep his Swiss bank accounts open throughout the opening rounds of a civil war in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions forced to flee their homes over the past five years.

So strange that so much of the left could cozy up to Assad in light of all this. One supposes that if he had been backed by Washington instead of Moscow, he’d be public enemy number one. That’s the kind of left that can distinguish between right and wrong, and good and evil—the criterion once used for judging whether someone on trial for murder could be let off on the grounds of insanity. However, in this instance, it is not Assad who was insane since clearly he was acting on the basis of capitalist self-interest. Instead, it is our pathetic left that has written drivel like Glass’s that needs to be put in a padded cell in Bellevue if they still existed.


  1. Louis, I really appreciate your clear and truthful writing on the Syrian Civil War, “invasion by Washington proxies” (sic), counterrevolution, dictatorship, state crimes against humanity, and out-and-out tragedy for the Syrian people. I also commend your absolutely correct condemnation of dictatorship regardless of its degree of popularity with “the left” (what’s that, anyway?) or “the right,” or “the democracies” (to use an old 20th century term), or “the Russians” (whether good, bad, indifferent, communist, capitalist, oligarchic, or any combination of these). Also, I think it is articles like this one that are the most praiseworthy results of your personal practice of Marxism — and your felicitous proficiency at scholarly political research, and direct jargon-free prose — for the public good. You’re a real mensch.

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — February 26, 2019 @ 12:49 am

  2. Thank you Louis for this expose. As always, a necessary intervention.

    A very small point, related to a slightly bigger point:

    Small point: The Arabic word ‘takfiri’ actually means un-pious (or, heretic).

    Bigger point: It is pretty rich for Hezbollah leader to refer to Sunni Muslims as un-pious. The Sunni’s were the first and original Muslims. Shiite Islam came later. So, naturally it’s the Shiite’s who are considered ‘heretics’ in most of the Muslim world. I will, however, leave that fight to the practicing super-pious. I’m just saying …

    And, as for Nasrallah’s claim that, “Wahhabi radicals … will force my wife and daughters to wear the veil and will close all wine shops,” well, that’s super rich! That’s what Hezbollah’s sponsors in Iran have done to our wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, etc. So, if he is truly against forced hijab, he should share that concern with his Iranian backers.

    The same with all the wine shops, which were closed in Iran and remain so. (BTW, I wasn’t aware that Hassan Nasrallah would be worried about wine availability.) Ironically, in Iran you can have all kinds of liquor *delivered* to your house (this didn’t happen before the revolution), and everybody knows that the IRGC (Revolutionary Guards) are in control of almost all contrabands entering the country as well as their distribution. Just like in countries where alcohol is sold legally, there’re great profits to be made selling alcohol in Iran too. In a country suffocated by bizarre medieval social rules dictated by the state, you can bet the demand for alcohol (as well as hard drugs, from which the state also draws huge profits) are always on the rise.

    Comment by Reza — February 26, 2019 @ 12:52 am

  3. ‘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.’

    And why do you think the U.S. did not want the rebels to have portable anti-aircraft missiles?

    Comment by Markus W — February 26, 2019 @ 5:27 am

  4. And why do you think the U.S. did not want the rebels to have portable anti-aircraft missiles?


    Who knows? My guess is that it saw Assad as a lesser-evil but needed to keep the war going to undermine Syria socially and economically. This kind of big-power behavior is not unique to Russia. During the war in Vietnam, we used to refer to Russia doling out military aid to the Vietnamese with an eye-dropper.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 26, 2019 @ 12:59 pm

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