Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 21, 2019

The Douma Gas Attack: What’s the Evidence It was a False Flag?

Filed under: Counterpunch,Syria — louisproyect @ 3:26 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 21, 2019

On April 7, 2018, a chlorine chemical attack reportedly left 43 people dead in Douma, a city of over 100,000 people in the Ghouta region to the east of Damascus. I use the word reportedly since Assad and Putin both denied a day later that anybody had died. Propaganda networks for the two leaders called the grizzly video evidence for such an attack as a carefully staged performance akin to how some conspiracy theorists describe the Apollo moon landing. Among the outlets arguing for a “false flag” incident was One America News Network, an ardently pro-Trump cable news station that was granted a permanent seat in the White House’s news briefing room and whose White House Correspondent, Trey Yingst, was one of the top five most called upon reporters covering the Trump Administration. Not to be outdone, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson opined: “All the geniuses tell us that Assad killed those children, but do they really know that? Of course they don’t really know that. They’re making it up. They have no real idea what happened.”

Continue reading

June 18, 2019

Fact-checking Max Blumenthal

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 10:33 pm

From page 156 of “The Management of Savagery”:

In September 2012, the Times of London reported that “a Libyan ship carrying the largest consignment of weapons for Syria since the uprising began has docked in Turkey and most of its cargo is making its way to rebels on the front lines.” The shipment, which included SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles and rocket-propelled grenades, was likely a part of a wider CIA operation to arm Syria’s rebels.


Reading this would give you the impression that the CIA was funneling SAM-7 missiles to Syrian rebels. It is entirely possible that there were SAM-7 missiles on the ship but contrary to Blumenthal’s account, the CIA would have made sure that none of them would get past the border into Syria.

The Wall Street Journal reported just one month after the London Times article cited above:

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.

June 1, 2019

Was the Douma chlorine gas attack a “false flag”?

Filed under: conspiracism,Syria — louisproyect @ 9:34 pm

Did jihadis do this rather than Assad?

Starting in May 2013, I have written 84 articles about sarin gas attacks in Syria, with another 9 dealing with the chlorine gas attack in Douma. So, whether you agree with my analysis or not, you’d have to accept that I have spent more time than the average person looking closely at one of the major issues dividing the left: whether all these attacks were “false flags” intended to justify an American regime change operation in the same vein that WMD’s were used by Bush, Cheney and Powell to drag us into Iraq. For people like Max Blumenthal, Jonathan Cook, Seymour Hersh, Robert Fisk, Theodore Postol, Vanessa Beeley, Eva Bartlett, Gareth Porter, and dozens of others, time has stood still. In 8 years of asymmetric warfare in which aerial bombardment has virtually annihilated the opposition to Assad, nothing has changed. We are still in the same situation as we were in 2013 when Obama was making empty threats about “red lines”. The “false flag” brigades are still at it, with the latest flare-up occurring over a leaked OPCW document that tries to make the case that the death of dozens of men, women and children in Douma on April 7, 2018 was not a result of a helicopter dropping weaponized chlorine tanks on a tenement but being placed there by jihadists who hoped to persuade Donald Trump to go to war because some working-class Sunnis were gassed to death. Yes, I know, this is an idiotic proposition but it is necessary to debunk it.

This propaganda offensive is taking place at the very moment when Syrian and Russian jets are bombing Idlib, the last piece of territory out of the dictatorship’s control, into oblivion. The NY Times reported on the situation there yesterday:

Over a quarter-million people have been displaced in the past month and 160 people have been confirmed killed, the United Nations said on Thursday, warning of an impending disaster if the violence is not stopped. Officials say the actual number of dead is much higher than 160.

Video footage of the bombardments, and of dead and injured children being pulled from the wreckage of homes, has flooded social media. In one, a small girl screams as she tugs at the arm of her brother, trapped under rubble. In another, a teenager pulled from a crushed building is told that his brother, lifeless beside him, is sleeping.

As has taken place in Aleppo and East Ghouta before, bombs have been dropped on hospitals. Since Blumenthal and company tend to regard the people living in Idlib like Netanyahu regards those in Gaza, none of this matters. In the war against jihadist, al-Qaeda, Salafist terror, only final victory will guarantee peace and the possibility of Bashar al-Assad moving forward with Baathist socialism.

On May 13, British academic Tim Hayward got his hands on a leaked OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) document written by one Ian Henderson, a former employee of the agency. In essence, Henderson argues that the two chlorine tanks found in Douma could not have been dropped from the air because the physical evidence of both the damage done to the tanks and to the buildings was not reproducible through computer models. Hayward and his small group of pro-Assad academics then launched a campaign to get the word out. Among the websites pushing hardest to absolve Assad are Moon of Alabama, Off-Guardian, World Socialist Website, Grayzone, and Consortium News—mainstays of “false flag” conspiracy-mongering confederacy of dunces.

One of the first reporters to jump on Hayward’s whistle-blowing bandwagon was Peter Hitchens, the British conservative and brother of Dubya’s chief “leftist” supporter Christopher Hitchens. Writing for the Daily Mail, Hitchens uses an argument that you have heard 10,000 times from the left:

I ask again and again why the Syrian state would choose to use poison gas in a battle it had all but won, when using poison gas was probably the only way to ensure American backing for the Syrian rebels. Why do so when with the aid of Russian airpower and Iranian and Hizbollah ground troops, it had turned the tide of the war already? What possible calculation could lead it to such a course?

If Christopher Hitchens supported a war on the basis of a WMD “false flag”, brother Peter supported Assad’s war against his own people using arguments found in the conspiracist left. Of course, it should be understood that the rightwing and the Assadist left are in total agreement about the jihadi menace to Enlightenment Values. David Duke, the LaRouche cult, Tucker Carlson, Ann Coulter, and the entire European far-right have all been keen on establishing Assad’s innocence.

Writing for CounterPunch on May 29th, British Palestinian solidarity activist Jonathan Cook claimed that Henderson’s report indicated that the Douma attack “ was very possibly staged, a false-flag operation by…al-Qaeda groups.” He adds that “It was vitally important that the OPCW reached that conclusion — and not only because the west has an overarching ambition for regime change in Syria.”

Most people familiar with American foreign policy probably understand that if the USA was really interested in “regime change”, it would have not taken 8 years to achieve its goal.

Keep in mind that after a sarin gas attack took place in Khan Shaykhoun a year earlier, Donald Trump’s decision to fire missiles at Shayrat air force base in Syria had little impact. To start with, the runway was not damaged—something that was never even part of the plans—and jets and helicopters took off a few hours afterward. According to Wikipedia, even the Russian defense ministry said that the “combat effectiveness” of the attack was “extremely low” and that only 23 missiles out of 59 fired hit the base, destroying six aircraft. It did not know where the other 36 landed. Russian television news, citing a Syrian source at the airfield, said that nine planes were destroyed by the strike but that they were inoperative at the time.

This time Trump did not even bother with a slap on the wrist.

Grayzone’s Aaron Maté allowed Theodore Postol to weigh in on Henderson’s report. Postol is a retired MIT professor who has been a consistent supporter of Assad’s innocence. He has relied on the chemistry knowhow of Maram Susli, better known as the Partisan Girl. To put it bluntly, she is a fascist who has appeared on David Duke’s podcasts. I guess that’s the sixth degree of separation between Grayzone and David Duke.

Postol reprises Henderson’s findings along the same lines found on most of these conspiracy-mongering websites:

That is to say: somebody was firing rockets and mortars; some of them landed on the roof of this building, one of them landed on the roof of this building. It produced a hole. And somebody else came along and hauled the cylinder to this location and stuck it through the hole and tried to make it look like there was a scene that was created where the cylinder fell, caused the hole, and then it happened to be sticking through the hole. Well it turns out when you do the mathematical calculation that’s not what would occur — this cylinder would just pass through pass through the roof.

This is the same Postol who concluded that it was Syrian rebels who launched a sarin gas attack in East Ghouta in 2013 and followed that up with another false flag narrative about a sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun two years ago. When a missile was found in the ground at Khan Sheikhoun, he came to the conclusion that it was placed there just like the chlorine tanks in Douma. He wrote, “If this is in fact the mechanism used to disperse the sarin, this indicates that the sarin tube was placed on the ground by individuals on the ground and not dropped from an airplane.” His analysis drew from the Partisan Girl’s vast reservoir of chemistry knowhow (odd that an MIT professor emeritus never thought of consulting colleagues from his own institution.) Eliot Higgins and Dan Kazseta offer a useful rebuttal to Postol here.

Much of the focus on Douma has been on computer modeling, engineering ABC’s, photos of damaged ceilings and chlorine tanks, etc. What’s missing is any engagement with the people who were most impacted by this incident, the Syrians themselves.

Based on Postol’s account above, try to imagine what might have taken place in that building in Douma. To start with, the hallways were filled with people desperately fleeing a bombing attack. Accepting Postol’s version of the timeline, jihadists entered the building sometime before that morning and climbed the stairs with two tanks full of chlorine, each one weighing between two and three hundred pounds according to one chemical company. One tank was on a terrace just beneath the roof and the other was resting on a bed on a top floor apartment. So if you assume that it took a couple of men to transport these tanks up the stairs without attracting any attention, you probably have a dim view of Syrian working people. If “jihadis” would risk being identified as willing to kill men, women and children in order to get Donald Trump to bomb an air force base just for show, you have lost the ability to see Syrians as part of the human race. Only those so degraded by “Salafist” ideology would kill their supporters in such a manner. Frankly, the real degradation is that taking place is on the Assadist left, which has reached the point of no return advancing a theory this deranged.

Whenever I hear these tales about jihadis being so open to killing their own supporters, I wonder if those who advance them might be basing them on what Bill Maher has wisecracked about the Quran or a version of the Orientalism that Edward Said wrote about—the fanatical Arabs who don’t value life because their reward is in heaven. Indiana Jones versus al-Nusra, that sort of thing.

One more thing about the tanks. There is clear evidence of them being weaponized through a a metal harness with three key features: lugs for lifting them, tail fins at the rear to improve their aerodynamic performance, and a wheel assembly (presumably for maneuvering them out of helicopters. So, in addition to hauling these 300 pound tanks to the top of an apartment building without being noticed, you’d have to fashion the metal parts to give them the appearance of the actual bombs that Assad has used. This means finding a machine shop in Douma that would keep its role in this “false flag” incident a secret. As you can see from the picture of one of the tanks used in Douma, this is not a trivial matter:

I should add that the image above came from the conspiracy-mongering Off-Guardian’s media library. Apparently, it never entered the minds of these geniuses to consider how difficult it would be to construct such a harness from scratch. Then again, there was always Seymour Hersh with his belief that sarin gas could be cooked up in your kitchen.

Finally, there is the question of why the jihadis had never used such chlorine bombs to attack Damascus if they had the capability of building them. For men so indifferent to human life, especially their own supporters, why wouldn’t they have been willing to kill Alawite infidels? After all, Douma is very close to downtown Damascus and was deemed necessary by the Baathists to crush because it had been in mortar duels with the regime since the war began.

All you need to do is search for articles in Lexis-Nexis on “Douma”, “Damascus”, “Chlorine”, and “attack”, and you will not find a single article pointing to chlorine gas attacks emanating from rebel-controlled suburbs.

For that matter, your best bet is to have a look at probably the most comprehensive report on chemical attacks in Syria prepared by the Global Public Policy Institute titled “Nowhere to Hide: the Logic of Chemical Weapon Use in Syria”. I realize that this recommendation will be ignored by the Aaron Matés and Ben Nortons of the world who are likely being paid to write the garbage they write.  But for those not corrupted by rubles, it is a very informed presentation of the facts.

They were able to identify 336 confirmed chemical attacks in Syria. Of those, 98 percent were attributed to the regime and the other 2 percent to ISIS. While sarin gas is more deadly, chlorine is very useful because it has been tacitly accepted by the USA as legitimate weapon given the slap on the wrist at Shayrat air force base. The GPPI report lays out in some detail how chlorine is weaponized:

In the case of improvised air-delivered chlorine munitions, Syrian regime forces went through multiple phases of development. The available evidence suggests that chlorine barrel bombs are delivered almost exclusively via the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) fleet of Mi-8/17 transport helicopters. Again, we can see the influence of designs for conventional improvised munitions used by the same units from the same platforms. The initial attempts at developing air-delivered chlorine munitions in the spring of 2014 very clearly drew upon conventional “barrel bomb” designs used by government forces since August 2012: instead of high explosives and shrapnel, industrial gas vessels were lodged inside metal drums, occasionally wrapped with detonation charges to ensure rupture and the dispersion of the gas. Eventually, regime engineers developed a simpler, more functional munition design by using a welded steel “cradle” to convert a single, usually yellow, standard industrial chlorine canister into a crude but functional munition. The complete contraption features stabilizing tail fins, two “eyes” for easier loading and transportation, and two small sets of wheels that make it easier for the munition to roll off – two at a time – a ramp installed in the back of Mi-8/17 “Hip” helicopters. No explosives are needed, as the high-pressure canister – or its valve – are expected to rupture on impact. This design appears to have superseded all previous chlorine barrel bomb variants and has been in exclusive use since late 2016. Remnants of this type have since been recovered from dozens of sites across Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, and rural Damascus, including the site of the 7 April 2018 Douma attack.

Of course, none of this happened according to Assad’s propagandists at Grayzone, Consortium News, and other propaganda outlets. Probably the only other craziness that matches this is 9/11 Trutherism. It is no accident that Tim Hayward’s gang of conspiracy-mongers includes people like Vanessa Beeley who in addition to smearing the White Helmets as jihadis like Max Blumenthal does, believes that the attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was a false flag, that al-Qaeda wasn’t behind the 9/11 attacks, and that there are NATO “sleeper cells” living in suburban America that have infiltrated the anti-war movement. She has appeared onstage alongside holocaust deniers and has been interviewed for far-right German magazines. This information was furnished by Chris York in the British edition of Huffington Post titled “’Whitewashing War Crimes’: How UK Academics Promote Pro-Assad Conspiracy Theories About Syria”. It will help you understand how these loathsome, degraded, and cynical apologists for war crimes operate.

 

April 14, 2019

Fact-checking Max Blumenthal

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 1:04 am

clown blumenthal

UPDATE

I have discovered that the quotation is annotated but, unlike any book I’ve ever seen from a reputable publisher, it is not indicated by a number that can be tied back to the footnote or endnote. Instead you go to the end of the book and you get something like this:

Screen Shot 2019-04-17 at 7.18.55 PM

The quotation in question is at p. 160 and references a Kevork Almasian who Blumenthal describes as someone not making a secret of his support for the Syrian government, the understatement of the century. I probably underestimated the depths to which Blumenthal had stooped since Almasian’s Youtube channel is filled with links to Vanessa Beeley et al. This is a sample video:

By comparison, Stephen Gowans is the gold standard of Syrian analysis since at least his references are to the NY Times and other established outlets–even if they are out of context. It is impossible to establish how much of a base Anas al-Ayrout had in Baniyas since you cannot gauge the number of people listening to his speech. I imagine that every town in Syria that rose up against the government had Islamists but the only indication that can be found describing it as under an Islamist pall stems from Almasian’s obviously pro-regime video editing.


Earlier this evening I received a bootleg copy of Max Blumenthal’s new Verso book “The Management of Savagery” and turned immediately to chapter six, which is about the Syrian revolution. Without wasting any time, Blumenthal smears the revolution as a Salafist assault on religious tolerance on the first page:

On March 18, 2011, in the town of Baniyas, an area with a mixed population of Sunnis and Alawites near the loyalist city of Tartous, within wider protests, a Sunni crowd gathered to make their demands clear. From a balcony atop a mosque, Anas al-Ayrout, a hard-line Salafist cleric, belted out the list of dictates: “We demand, first, banning [gender] mixed schools!” Ayrout bellowed into a megaphone, sending gales of applause through the all-male crowd. After calling for improving local electricity, the preacher demanded that the government “re-allow women wearing niqab [full face covering] to teach in schools.” The ultra-conservative religious demands were followed by calls that were familiar to reformist demonstrations: release political prisoners and cease arresting protesters.

The first question I had was the provenance of the quote. Since it was not footnoted, I had to spend some time trying to track down where and when Anas al-Ayrout “belted out” a list of dictates. The first step was to Google the words being quoted.

No luck. Try for yourself.

The next step was to consult Nexis-Uni. As a Columbia University retiree, I have access to this global database of newspapers. Nothing remotely resembling this quote turned up.

Obviously, if you are intent on making a serious case that the revolt against Assad was Salafist from the get-go rather than a clown show, you’d make an effort to either footnote the quote or to at least indicate where it can be found. But Blumenthal obviously had something else on his agenda, namely to defame a movement that in its infancy was all about democracy rather than theocracy.

This is the kind of journalism I would expect from Stephen Gowans or Tim Anderson but I would not expect Verso to publish their garbage. Evidently, it is Blumenthal’s garbage that they want to foist on the market. Does Verso have a fact-checker? I would think that a publisher that aspires to be the first place a serious left scholar would seek out might take more care in vetting the text that comes their way. Now, it is true that Tariq Ali puts forth the same kind of shoddy, fact-free statements on Syria but isn’t there anybody at Verso that has some scruples?

Maybe they wanted to make a fast buck because Blumenthal has a reputation on the left, even if it is mostly tarnished beyond repair at this point. Perhaps word will get out to the Verso management that this new book has hardly taken the USA by storm as indicated by the attendance at a recent Blumenthal reading. (I believe the gentleman in the pink shirt asleep in the back row is Ron Unz.)

 

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.

November 2, 2018

A Private War; Under the Wire

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 2:45 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 2, 2018

On February 22, 2012, London Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin and her photographer Paul Conroy were in the ground floor of a multi-story building in Baba Amr, a neighborhood in Homs, Syria, that was being used as a press center when a shell scored a direct hit that left her dead and Conroy badly wounded. Two new films are focused on their experience as the last foreign journalists reporting from Homs that was the first of the liberated areas to be reconquered by the regime mostly as a result of the asymmetric warfare that has drowned the revolution in blood. “A Private War” that opens in NY, Washington, and Los Angeles theaters today (screening information: https://www.aprivatewarfilm.com/) is a narrative film with biopic elements hoping to explain how a 56-year old woman with bad knees could have ended up in such a precarious situation. “Under the Wire”, a documentary that opens at Village East Cinema on November 16th, is much more Paul Conroy’s story and serves as a complement to the narrative film. Watching the two in tandem will remind you of the need for an independent press that is committed to telling the story of people under siege, particularly the women and children who Colvin made it her life’s mission to defend through her journalism.

Continue reading

June 1, 2018

Vogue Magazine in hot water again for puff piece on Mideast tyrants

Filed under: journalism,Saudi Arabia,Syria — louisproyect @ 2:43 pm

NY Times, May 31, 2018
Vogue Arabia Hails Saudi Reform, Ignoring Jailed Activists
By Megan Specia

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is putting women in the driving seat — and so are we.”

That’s how Vogue Arabia described its June cover, which features a glamorous woman behind the wheel of a classic car, parked in the desert.

But the problem for some has been which woman the magazine decided to put in the driver’s seat in an issue that “celebrates the women of the kingdom and their wide-reaching achievements,” but makes no mention of the country’s most recent crackdown on women’s rights activists.

Princess Hayfa bint Abdullah al-Saud — one of the late King Abdullah’s 20 daughters — sits behind the wheel, even as some prominent female activists who fought for the right for Saudi women to drive remain locked behind bars.

In mid-May, at least 11 activists were arrested and labeled “traitors” by the Saudi government, a move that surprised many as the country is just weeks away from allowing women to drive. Some of the activists have been released, but others remain detained.

On June 24, Saudi women will legally be able to drive for the first time. But critics say the Vogue coverage fails to highlight some Saudi women whose activism helped draw international attention to the issue, and who now face persecution.

The issue does feature Manal al-Sharif, one of the Saudi activists who took part in the 2011 protests against the restrictions and was later arrested for the action, but does not mention the latest arrests.

Twitter users were swift in their reaction, calling out Vogue Arabia for what some saw as an oversight.

Continue reading

In March 2011, Vogue magazine published, for the benefit of its 11.7 million readers, an article titled “A Rose in the Desert” about the first lady of Syria. Asma al-Assad has British roots, wears designer fashion, worked for years in banking, and is married to the dictator Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has killed over 5,000 civilians and hundreds of children this year. The glowing article praised the Assads as a “wildly democratic” family-focused couple who vacation in Europe, foster Christianity, are at ease with American celebrities, made theirs the “safest country in the Middle East,” and want to give Syria a “brand essence.”

Vogue’s editors defended the controversial article as “a way of opening a window into this world a little bit,” conceding only that Assad’s Syria is “not as secular as we might like.” A senior editor responsible for the story told me the magazine stood by it. A few weeks later, the article and all references to it were removed from Vogue’s website without explanation. In August, The Hill reported that U.S. lobbying firm Brown Lloyd James had been paid $5,000 per month by the Syrian government to arrange for and manage the Vogue article.

For all the controversy, the article’s author, former French Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck, did manage to spend some one-on-one time with both Asma and Bashar al-Assad, an exclusive many journalists might have killed for. Today, as the world watches for cracks in the Assad regime and in the Assad family, Buck’s interviews are an increasingly important tool for understanding the man at the top of Syria and the woman next to him.

Sadly, Vogue’s piece of the Syrian puzzle has been almost entirely scrubbed from the internet. But, somehow, the text can still be found at a website called PresidentAssad.net, a gif-filled but meticulously updated fan page to the Syrian dictator. The site is registered to a Syrian man living in Rome named Mohamed Abdo al-Ibrahim. A personal site for Ibrahim lists him as an employee of the Syrian state-run news agency.

Continue reading

May 22, 2018

An extraordinary meeting on Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm

Anand Gopal

Last night I attended a meeting on “From Syria to Palestine: The Fight for Justice” in Brooklyn that was extraordinary on a number of levels. To start with, it was attended by at least 80 people, standing room only. It was also marked by a high degree of unity with groups focused on Syria or Palestine endorsing the event alongside those on the left like the ISO and the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins. Finally, there was a talk by Anand Gopal on the people of Saraqib, a town that epitomizes the 7 year resistance to Assad. My impression is that Stanley Heller of the Connecticut-based Promoting Enduring Peace played a major role in pulling this together. For this, we are in his debt.

Since the chairperson, a Palestinian woman who did a great job of keeping things in order and whose name I unfortunately did not record, instructed the audience that recording the talks was strictly forbidden for security reasons, I will try to summarize the proceedings since they should be of great interest to those of us who are in solidarity with the Syrian people.

Before the first speaker, Emerson College professor Yasser Munif, arose to took the mike, I sat next to him and told him that it was a shame that meetings like this were not being held in 2011. Almost as if to be answering me, when he took the mike he pointed out that Syria is going to be a long, epochal struggle and that until the conditions that created the uprising are overcome, it will continue. Although he was as eloquent as usual, he spent no longer than about 5 minutes making his presentation.

He was followed by Ramah Kudaimi, a Syrian-American like Munif, who works for the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. As such, she was the ideal person to speak about the connections between the slaughter taking place on the border between Gaza and Israel and the destruction of Yarmouk, a home to over 100,000 Palestinian refugees when the war started. She insisted that unless you understood how Netanyahu, al-Sisis and Assad were motivated by the same hatred of the Palestinians, you’ll never understand the dynamics of the struggle in the Middle East.

The final speaker was Anand Gopal, who is as gifted as a speaker as he is a writer. I have known Anand as a cyber-friend since 2012 but this was the first opportunity to meet him in person.

With telling photos and video clips, he described the resistance to Assad in Saraqib, a place he has traveled to a number of times since 2012. In addition to his reporting on Syria, Anand is the author of “No Good Men Among the Living” that consists of profiles of a broad cross-section of the Afghan people, including a former Taliban fighter. The book was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2015 and deservedly so.

In contrast to Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn, who have never spent time in a place like Saraqib, Anand was determined to find out what made such people begin protesting in 2011 and to endure horrible onslaughts from the regime ever since. This was not something easily done since unlike Fisk and Cockburn, he could not get a visa to travel to Syria. So instead, he used to go to Turkey and get rides to the border with Syria to gain access to the Idlib region where many of the small and medium sized farming cities and towns rose up. Once he arrived at the border, he’d climb beneath a chain-link fence and follow a trail of white stones that led to Saraqib. Those stones had been painted by activists in Saraqib to make sure that he would not step on a landmine.

Saraqib is a town of about 35,000 people. When news of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt reached this farming community in the boondocks, people began protesting every Friday. Like other ordinary citizens becoming active politically for the first time, their demands were rudimentary: democracy and the removal of Bashar al-Assad.

Before 2011, Saraqib did not have a single newspaper but afterwards at least 5 newspapers took off, as well as a radio station. They were used to exchange ideas in a kind of grass roots democracy that not only threatened Assad but every dictator in the region. That is why someone like General al-Sisi is an ally of both Assad and Netanyahu against the Syrian and Palestinian masses.

When the protests came under attack from Assad’s snipers, local activists had an intense debate over whether to arm themselves or not. Many had bad memories of the murderous assault on Hama in 1982 that left at least 20,000 dead over less than a month. But when the sniper attacks escalated, they were left with no other choice except to form six brigades led by six of the key activists in Saraqib, including people who had argued against armed self-defense.

The regime went after Saraqib with a fury, sending in tanks that destroyed many homes. Anand reports that the Baathist troops went from door to door, killing anybody who had not fled to safety. Many were set on fire, including a man whose charred corpse was shown in one of Anand’s photos.

Despite the ferocity of the attacks, the town managed to run its own affairs. Like other such towns and cities, a local council was formed that took care of what might sound like mundane affairs, such as garbage collection and the distribution of bread that was a staple of the Syrian diet and made in a state-controlled bakery. Once the town was liberated, the workers at the bakery continued running it in close coordination with the local council.

This reminded me of a discussion taking place on FB between me and a number of FB friends who likened the formation of food co-ops, etc. in the USA as a form of incipient dual power. This is an idea that has some currency on the left, especially as part of nominally Marxist theories advanced by Richard Wolff, Peter Marcuse, Eric Olin Wright, et al. In my view, dual power arises in a revolutionary situation when an armed working class, farmers and small proprietors have assumed the social and economic leadership of a city or town after the old order has been sent packing. This occurred during the Paris Commune, the Bolshevik revolution, the Spanish Civil War and even in Syria despite the absence of a socialist leadership. In order for such people to live, they need water, food, medical care, and policing against counter-revolution. You cannot suck the institutions of dual power out of your thumb. They are linked to revolutionary struggles and have nothing to do with blueprints for a socialist future.

Into this liberated but chaotic community, the Islamists finally made their entry in early 2013, four of whose leaders Anand interviewed. Their most senior organizer was a man who had devoted himself to teaching prisoners like himself to reject both democracy and socialism. There was not much in the way of socialism in Saraqib but there was plenty of democracy.

The Islamists very quickly became a counter-force to those in Saraqib who had zero interest in a caliphate. The only way they gained a foothold was through their organizational cohesion that had been developing for decades. Unlike the locals, these were men who were organized as the Muslim Brotherhood or even as al-Qaeda. They had the inside track to arms and money from wealthy private citizens in Qatar, Kuwait and Turkey. As such, they were a powerful seductive force even if the people of Saraqib valued their new-found freedoms.

Eventually, al-Nusra (the affiliate of al-Qaeda in Syria) became the most powerful Islamist group in the region. When someone made the idiotic comment during the Q&A that the USA funded al-Nusra, Anand explained that they consciously rejected foreign assistance since that would make them dependent on sources that could easily change their mind. Like ISIS, they relied on taxation to finance their operations.

In one of the more dramatic video clips shown by Anand, we see two groups in the middle of a street arrayed against each other, one chanting in favor of a non-sectarian state and the other calling for a caliphate. Eventually, al-Nusra tired of those in the town unwilling to bow down before them and surrounded the house of the FSA commander in order to arrest him. When word went out about what was going on, a march on the house to defend the commander began only to be dispersed by al-Nusra’s machine gun fire. This too is revealed in a video clip shown by Anand that gives the lie to the Assad versus al-Qaeda version of what has been taking place over the past seven years.

In his concluding remarks, Anand stressed the tripartite political division in Syria that is denied by Max Blumenthal, Vanessa Beeley, et al. You have 1) Assad; 2) the Islamists and 3) the people. Our job is to find ways to solidarize with the people that includes reviving an antiwar movement based on the need to concentrate on who is responsible for most of the killing: the regime and the foreign entities intervening against the people. Stopping the violence has always allowed civil society to emerge and thus reconstitute itself as the legitimate voice of a people with the same goals they have had for the past 7 years: to live in freedom and dignity, enjoying the country’s wealth on an egalitarian basis.

During the Q&A, someone asked what we can do concretely to help the Syrian people. Someone in the audience replied that this meant opening the door to Syrian refugees, most of whom were like the people of Saraqib. When Donald Trump cut off support for the Syrian rebels, which was being dispensed with an eyedropper under Obama, and then of the White Helmets, he demonstrated his affinity with all of the tyrants in power in the Middle East.

I am not sure what will happen next with the Syrian Solidarity Movement but this meeting was an auspicious first step.

 

 

May 18, 2018

Ann Coulter on Syria and Gaza

Filed under: Palestine,Syria — louisproyect @ 2:07 pm

E.M. Forster: “Only Connect” (epigraph to Howard’s End)

May 8, 2018

Steve Ellner, Syria, and the “leftist utopians”

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 4:50 pm

Steve Ellner

On today’s ZNet, there is an article by Steve Ellner titled “Support for Governments Under Imperialist Siege” that begins:

A recent post of mine on the situation in Syria (http://steveellnersblog.blogspot.com/2018/04/in-conflict-in-syria-there-doesnt-seem.html) led to some interesting and critical comments coming both from those who felt I was too hard on Assad and Russia and those who felt I was letting them off the hook. The position I presented reflects my view of the current situation worldwide. As is often the case, the issue of Syria has to be placed in a broader, in this case global, context. Contextualization is fundamental for the achievement of an objective analysis and evaluation of the Syrian government and others that confront U.S.-promoted intervention, put forward an anti-imperialist discourse, and (in some cases) raise socialist banners, such as Nicaragua, Venezuela and Libya under Gaddafi.

As far as I know, there were no “critical comments” on his blog about letting Assad and Russia off the hook, where this ZNet post originated, nor on Twitter. In fact, it is very likely that the only critical comments to ever appear were mine on Facebook where he invited comments on the first article titled “Regarding the Conflict In Syria, There Doesn’t Seem to Be Any Good Guys”. I started off by calling it unadulterated horseshit and when he insisted that I offer some constructive criticisms, I warned about the usefulness of categories like “Good Guys” or “Bad Guys” and provided a link to something I wrote on the economic roots of the Syrian revolution.

In the next day or so, a thread developed with me responding to the toxic Assadist arguments of British economist Alan Freeman and Stansfield Smith, a former Marxmail subscriber and self-styled Cuban revolution supporter who made the same kinds of points you can read in Telesur or Granma most days. After seven years of writing about Syria, I have grown weary of dealing with such people and unfriended Ellner. I had toyed with the idea of writing a critique of his first article but decided I had better things to do. But since his follow-up article is almost certainly a response to what I told him on FB, I decided to answer him now.

In the more recent article, there is possible reference to me as a “leftist utopian”:

“Leftist utopianism” takes an all-or-nothing approach. It thus refrains from attempting to determine the relative seriousness of the errors of progressive governments, and ends up condemning all of them as sell-outs. Such an intransigent position is excessive. Thus, for instance, criticism of the populist policies of progressive governments that go overboard in providing handouts to non-privileged groups cannot be given the same weight as the privatization of strategic sectors of the economy carried out by the right.

If you’ve read my article on “Nicaraguan Contradictions”, you’ll realize that there is nothing “all-or-nothing” about my approach. I argued for taking a dialectical approach to the Ortega government that includes recognizing the benefits it has provided to poor campesinos. In comparing Ortega to Juan Perón, I hoped to convince my readers that left caudillos can make the same kind of difference to the working class that social democratic governments in Europe have made. Perhaps Ellner had Dan La Botz in mind whose “socialism from below” politics and obvious affinity with Samuel Farber are totally different from mine as my defense of the Bolivarian revolution should make clear.

But nobody from the ISO or New Politics offered comments on Ellner’s defense of Assad that appeared in his first article, only me. Let me now turn to that article but not before stating at the outset that Ellner appears to have very little background on Syria or the Middle East. He certainly is a highly-regarded expert on Latin America—and deservedly so—but in the 7 years he has been blogging, the only time he has referred to Syria has been mostly to warn about Trump and Hillary Clinton’s saber-rattling. Except for that, you can read this blithely unaware post from September 26, 2014:

At this point does anybody doubt that ISIS has the resources and willpower and is ruthless and deceptive enough to have used chemical weapons in Syria last year and then blame the Assad government? The United States came close to bombing Syria after accusing the Assad government of employing chemical weapons. Why doesn’t the corporate media revisit that incident in light of what we now know about ISIS? Conclusion: If you want critical analysis, you’re not going to get it from the corporate media.

Since he was obviously referring to the East Ghouta sarin gas attack in 2013 that supposedly crossed Obama’s red line, wasn’t he aware that ISIS had no presence to speak of in the agricultural belt surrounding Damascus? ISIS had a foothold in the north of Syria in places like Palmyra and Raqqa but had been driven out of the south by the FSA and other militias who saw them as Assad’s accomplices. Furthermore, if ISIS had sarin gas, why hadn’t these used it to repel the Shiite militias in Iraq or Assad’s? It is one thing for Ellner to pose insipid questions but it is another for him to not invest in the 15 minutes it would have taken to get up to speed on them before embarrassing himself on his blog.

Returning to the article titled “Regarding the Conflict In Syria, There Doesn’t Seem to Be Any Good Guys”, it starts with an attack on Ramah Kudaimi who had appeared on Democracy Now shortly after Donald Trump had ordered a missile strike on four buildings involved with chemical weapons R&D after the chlorine gas attack on Douma on April seventh.

Because Kudami focused more on Assad’s war crimes than Trump’s show of force (that was preceded by a phone call to the Kremlin and that cost not a single life), Ellner deduced that this meant that “her argument was a cover for support for greater U.S. intervention in order to topple the reviled Assad regime.” Why? It seemed that “Her basic point was that one-shot airstrikes are not enough.” Here is what she actually said:

Once in a while, as Trump did last year, as then Trump did this year, they’ll bomb a regime target—really an empty airfield, an empty chemical weapons factory—and then say, “See, we want Assad gone.” And yet, again and again, their actions have proven that, in fact, they want regime preservation.

Well, isn’t that obvious? Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg that he had no interest in regime change and just before the Douma chemical attack, Trump had cut off all military aid to the rebels. He followed that up this month with cutting off all aid to the White Helmets. So, instead of recognizing the facts that are staring him in the face if not tweaking his nose, Ellner warns darkly about regime change. I suppose this is the direct result of reading Telesur propaganda for 7 years and studiously avoiding anything written by the Syrian or Arab left. When you are fed a steady diet of lies, naturally you will repeat them especially since everybody knows that the Venezuelans and the Cubans are really “Good Guys” in all this.

Ellner is irked that the “commercial media” does not refer to the Islamic Front in Douma as “Bad Guys”, thus implicitly making you feel that if you were clued into their evil, mustache-twirling character, you might have seen the need to subdue them by any means necessary even if it entailed the collateral damage of civilians succumbing to chlorine gas. Too bad that Americans and Brits rely on the warmongering commercial media that a philosopher-king like Steve Ellner can easily debunk:

Typical of the disarray of the anti-Assad forces, the Islamic Front has spurned ties with other rebel organizations grouped in the Syrian National Coalition. Furthermore, the trajectory of the Islamic Front is characterized by extreme factionalism. In addition, Islamic Front leaders have articulated Sunni extremism and abhorrence for Shiites (who they call “Zoroastrians”!) and opposition to democracy. The commercial media tends to gloss over these details.”

In fact, the Islamic Front has been pilloried over and over again in the commercial media, including the Guardian that has the reputation of being the most fiercely committed to regime change. In a December 25, 2015 article, it referred to one of its leaders in the same terms as Ellner:

Alloush’s early propaganda videos were overtly sectarian, urging the expulsion of Shias and Alawites from Damascus. Assad belongs to the Alawite minority, which is nominally part of Shia Islam, and who are considered heretics by Sunni extremists. He was also opposed to the Islamic State terror group, and lost many fighters in battles against the militants.

CNN, another commercial media regime change advocate, made identical points on December 12, 2013, citing Aron Lund, an expert on the various jihadist groups who regarded the Islamic Front as “hardline Islamists influenced by the Salafi school of thought. They want a theocratic state, and are opposed to secularism and Western-style democracy — although they’ve said they can imagine having some sort of elections in a framework of Sharia law.”

In fact, nobody I consider a co-thinker is “for” the Islamic Front. Even the people who are supposedly the worst warmongers like John Kerry saw them as legitimate targets of American bombing.

Ellner concludes this tendentious article with a call for the left to support democracy in Syria but oppose the withdrawal of Russian bombers and foreign fighters from Iran (and implicitly Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan as well.) But isn’t it this intervention that helps to preserve the Baathist dictatorship? How could Ellner not understand this?

I will be briefer with Ellner’s follow-up article that makes an amalgam of Venezuela, Cuba, Libya and Syria as putting forward an “anti-imperialist discourse” and raising “socialist banners”. Yes, we should never forget those beautiful socialist banners held aloft by Bashar al-Assad, whose cousin Rami Makhlouf controls half the nation’s wealth and hides his profits in Panamanian banks. Isn’t Ellner aware of this? I would have thought that someone who writes scholarly articles referring to permanent revolution in Venezuela would have had a more rigorous approach to these questions but when it comes to the Arab world and North Africa, nothing much surprises me after 7 years of foolishness from journalists and academics alike.

Primary to Ellner’s distinction between Russia and China on one side and the USA and its partners on the other is that the BRICS powerhouses are not imperialist, thus making their intervention kosher as opposed to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003:

But the fact of the matter is that neither of these two countries behaves like the pre-World War I European powers described by Lenin, nor like the U.S. since 1946. Neither Russia nor China has military bases scattered throughout the world and both have provided political and economic support for progressive governments such as Venezuela. Furthermore, China’s and Russia’s bilateral economic deals may favor their own interests but do not attach strings fostering dependence, as in the case of the IMF, World Bank and Washington.

Actually, Lenin referred to Czarist Russia as imperialist even though it had not a single military base outside its borders and was decidedly third-rate economically compared to Great Britain. I dealt with the question of Russia as imperialist in 2014 and see no reason to take Ellner seriously on this matter, especially since he doesn’t bother to supply any data. A serious scholar like Michael Roberts makes sure to back up his arguments but apparently Ellner views his blog as a place for idle musing.

As for Lenin, this is what he wrote:

Have the socialists of France and Belgium not shown the same kind of treachery? They are excellent at exposing German imperialism, but, unfortunately they are amazingly purblind with regard to British, French, and particularly the barbarous Russian imperialism. They fail to see the disgraceful fact that, for decades on end, the French bourgeoisie have been paying out thousands of millions for the hire of the Black-Hundred gangs of Russian tsarism, and that the latter has been crushing the non-Russian majority in our country, robbing Poland, oppressing the Great Russian workers and peasants, and so on.

—The European War and International Socialism, 1914

If Lenin was alive today, I am sure he would have regarded the Russian aerial bombardment of East Aleppo last year as being just as barbarous.

Ellner takes the “ultra-pragmatists” to task as well. This is the Vanessa Beeley/Max Blumenthal/ANSWER coalition wing of the Assadist left that insists that the rest of the left “should refrain from leveling criticism of any nature at progressive governments under siege.”

All that is well and good but what is “progressive” about Syria? That is what Ellner must address. Just because Syria is ruled by something called the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, it does not mean that it has much in common with Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. People like Ellner really need to brush up a bit on the political economy of Syria. There are vast amounts of literature on the topic but obviously outside of his comfort zone. I recommend the two-volume “Syria: from Reform to Revolt”, edited by Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zintl, that I cited extensively in my article on the economic roots of the Syrian revolution. I also recommend Michael Karadjis’s blog “Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis” that is distinguished by its careful, scholarly approach. I particularly recommend his take on the situation in East Ghouta titled “Ghouta: Issues Behind the Apocalypse: Armed and civil rebellion, Class and Islam” written in March. I also recommend Omar Hassan’s article “The origins of the criminal Assad dynasty” that appeared in the Marxist Left Review last summer, a journal published by Socialist Alternative in Australia. It debunks the idea that there is something “anti-imperialist” about Syria.

Finally, I recommend Tony McKenna’s article in the latest edition of the International Socialist Review, the ISO’s journal. Titled “Revolution and counterrevolution in Syria”, it is the most comprehensive article that will help you get your bearings on a topic that is so poorly understood by the left, including Steve Ellner. Like Ellner, McKenna discusses the two poles of opinion on Syria but one much more rooted in the history of the Marxist left rather than dubious distinctions between utopian/pragmatist or—even worse—good versus bad:

The issue of the Syrian revolution offers up the single most important challenge to the radical and revolutionary Left in many decades. It has provided a test for Marxist thinkers and activists that we have not known the like of since Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the workers’ and students’ councils which emerged in the context of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. And there is a level of parity between these two revolutions in the way the radical Left has responded to both.

The year 1956 provoked a fissure in the radical Left, with many of the old Communist parties of Europe cleaving to the party line and supporting the forces of the USSR. The irony that the Soviet Union was actually murdering the forms of popular, working-class democracy—the soviets—on which it was founded was lost on much of the higher levels of the party bureaucracy, which received both funding and direction from Moscow. But towing the Stalinist line was about more than just material gain and position. The Stalinist bureaucracy had arisen out of the ashes of the proletarian revolution in Russia—and reached its ghastly fruition in a period of revolutionary retreat more broadly. Revolutionary outbreaks of the working class in Germany, Hungary, Italy, and China had all been crushed (sometimes with the active collusion of the Stalinist state), and in the wake of this there lingered a pervasive sense of despair.

The palliative was provided, somewhat perversely, by the existence of the Stalinist state itself. Though it had murdered much of the original Bolshevik vanguard, though it treated the Russian working class with the utmost brutality, it nevertheless decked itself out in the colors and idiom of the proletarian revolution. It presented itself to the world not as a bureaucratic aberration whose power was premised on the wreckage of the worker’s democracy, but as a lonely and fateful entity carrying forth the proletarian flame at a time of the most abiding darkness.

In the aftermath of World War II such a sense of things was heightened. The successful establishment of a genuine worker’s democracy was not forthcoming, and in its absence many communist radicals clung to the image of the non-capitalist USSR as the next best thing, as a challenge to Western hegemony, and the true carrier of the communist tradition. Even Trotsky—who had maintained a lonely and noble opposition to Stalinism for which he would pay with his life—had developed a theoretical justification that would support such a perspective. He and his followers argued that—as Stalinism abolished capitalist social relations in countries by invading them and placing Stalinist bureaucracies at their helm—what the USSR was in fact doing was forming new workers’ states albeit in a “deformed” guise.

If one had to give a brief explanation of Stalinism’s ideological pull then, one could do worse than say it was first and foremost a council of despair—the conviction that socialism could be imposed by an external power from above in a period when the living, breathing possibility of a revolution awakening from below was felt to be either negligible or nonexistent. Of course this was a delusion that worked against the grain of the most fundamental dictum of all Marxist thought—“the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes.”

But what was perhaps even more problematic was that the Left—large sections of which had spent many years orientating themselves toward Stalinism as a form of pseudo salvation from above—was increasingly not equipped to attend to revolutionary upheavals when they did break out from below. So when the USSR suppressed the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the Communist Party of Great Britain along with a large swathe of Marxists and communist activists, applauded Moscow.

At the same time, however, from this rump—ossified by tradition—a key element began to break away. There were mass resignations and expulsions. Those Trotskyist groups, usually miniscule, maintained their noble opposition to Stalinism and decried the events of Hungary. More broadly, a “new left” began to cohere, one that tended to operate in terms of a more humanistic, anti-Stalinist vision of Marxism. Many such figures gathered around the journal New Left Review. In the 1960s, as these elements began to develop new theoretical perspectives, it must have seemed like a kind of springtime on the left, an airing out of all the dusty, accumulated dogma of ages, the chance to breathe in a new, fresher air.

Decades later, it is notable, with regards to Syria, how depressingly monotone the current Left seems to sound. Almost across the board, its leading figures seem united in the conviction that, though the Assad regime itself is not an unqualifiedly good thing, it nevertheless represents the most progressive force on the ground and is preferable to its adversaries. Slavoj Žižek, for instance, argues that the opposition shows “no signs of a broad emancipatory-democratic coalition, just a complex network of religious and ethnic alliances,” and that any secular resistance has been “more or less drowned in the mess of fundamentalist Islamist groups.”50

Tariq Ali draws the inevitable conclusion51 from such a perspective—“If you want to fight ISIS, you should be going in and fighting alongside Russia and alongside Assad.”52 Ali is a serious Marxist thinker—part and parcel of that new left of the sixties, which emerged very much in opposition to Stalinism and its emissaries in the European communist parties. In addition, Ali has also been an excellent chronicler of the development of Islamophobia in the context of the ongoing Western military interventions in the Middle East over the course of the last fifteen years.

And yet, one can’t help but feel the logic that underpins his analysis of the Syrian upheaval has both Stalinist and Islamophobic connotations—albeit that he remains oblivious to them. It has Islamophobic connotations in as much as it helps blur the shades of differentiation within the opposition into a single tone of uniform extremism—all those who fight under the banner of Islam are understood as ISIS-influenced combatants or their ilk. And once one has established this—has understood that the forces from below are irredeemably incapable of rising toward more progressive forms of social organization and social struggle—then the door is open to a Stalinist-like logic, an inevitable and fatalistic last resort. The despair that comes from faithlessness in popular power is neatly amended by the masochistic desire for an external force to step into the breach and impose some form of order from above. Enter stage left—Assad and his Iranian and Russian cronies.

 

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