Talks by three of the contributors to Khiyana: Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution, which has a chapter by me as well. I still have some copies of the book that I will be happy to send you for $15, plus mailing. That will allow you to avoid dealing with the Dark Empire, ie. Amazon.com. Contact me at email@example.com for more information.
May 17, 2016
April 29, 2016
N+1 is a journal that is often cited alongside Jacobin in those effusive articles about the young lions of Marxism. I subscribe to both of them even though I can best be described as a toothless geezer on the edge of the pride.
My preference is for N+1 because its Marxism operates more behind the scenes. Too much of Jacobin reads like a plenary talk at a Historical Materialism conference while N+1 is where I learned about the Russian socialist, poet and rock musician Kirill Medvedev who translated Bukowski’s work into Russian—a man after my own heart.
With my expectations for N+1 set so high, I was rather disappointed with the editorial statement in the most recent issue titled “Bernie’s World: What does a left foreign policy look like?” that repeated many of the talking points of the “anti-imperialist” left about Syria. One can certainly understand why the editors would fall short on Syria. With so many other smart magazines like the London Review of Books and Harpers publishing articles that could have been lifted from RT.com, it is difficult to swim against the stream. After all, Bashar al-Assad’s genial, clean-shaven and well-groomed manner is so much easier to take than the unfathomable, bearded “Alluah Akhbar” yelling men in fatigues who would surely launch an attack on the American homeland if given half a chance. If Vogue Magazine was willing to do a profile on the Syrian president and his lovely wife a while back, who are we to quibble? After all, being photogenic compensates for bombing hospitals.
The N+1 editors are generally okay with Sanders except on foreign policy. They fret over his suggestion that the US strengthen its ties to Saudi Arabia and Qatar since the two countries are “major donors of the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (also supported by the US) and the Islamic State.”
Well, this is all wrong. In fact, Qatar insisted that it would only give money to al-Nusra if it severed its ties to al Qaeda. When negotiations broke down in 2015, the group continued to finance its own militias in Syria the way it always has, through donations by sympathizers in various Sunni countries, including Qatar. Does this mean that Qatar backs al-Nusra? Only in the sense that the USA backed the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s when most of its funding “came from the USA”, especially from Boston’s South End.
Furthermore, the USA does not support al-Nusra. It has bombed the group repeatedly, always making the excuse that it was after the Khorasan—a nonexistent group that supposedly had plans to launch 9/11 type attacks in the USA.
As for Saudi Arabia, it is not supporting ISIS (once again making a distinction between the state and individuals acting on their own initiative) no matter what Patrick Cockburn, Seymour Hersh and Robert Fisk write. ISIS has declared the royal family to be infidels and has already launched armed attacks from within Iraq. You can read about the growing threat to the Saudi establishment by recruits to the Islamic State who are killing wantonly as the March 31, 2016 NY Times reported:
The men were not hardened militants. One was a pharmacist, another a heating and cooling technician. One was a high school student.
They were six cousins, all living in Saudi Arabia, all with the same secret. They had vowed allegiance to the Islamic State — and they planned to kill another cousin, a sergeant in the kingdom’s counterterrorism force.
And that is what they did. In February, the group abducted Sgt. Bader al-Rashidi, dragged him to the side of a road south of this central Saudi city, and shot and killed him. With video rolling, they condemned the royal family, saying it had forsaken Islam.
I recommend two new books on Syria that will clarify the role of such jihadist groups in Syria. One is titled “Burning Country” co-authored by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami. The other is “Khiyana”, a collection of articles including one by me but the more relevant one is titled “The Rise of Daesh”, written by Sam Charles Hamad. His research is thoroughgoing and essential for getting past the stereotypes of Saudi Arabia being Dr. Frankenstein to the monster of ISIS:
One of the forces that received generous Saudi funding was the secular nationalist FSA-affiliate Liwa Shuhada Suriya (Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade) led by Jamal Maarouf. Far from Saudi’s funding Daesh when the FSA and Qatar and the Turkish funded Islamic Front launched an offensive against Daesh it was led by a FSA coalition called the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front led by Jamal Maarouf. The weapons they used against Daesh on the frontlines were paid for by Saudi Arabia.
The only hard line Salafist group that Saudi has funded is Jaish al-Islam (the Army of Islam) which was a merger of several different Salafi forces initiated by Saudi’s to attempt to deflect both Syrian and foreign Salafi recruits away from the growing threat of Jabhat an-Nusra (which at that time was still what Daesh called itself in Syria before its split). The reason for this was that Jabhat al-Nusra, as with all al-Qaeda ‘franchises’, espouses a virulent and violent anti-Saudi theology and politics.
If given a choice between Sanders and Clinton, the N+1 editors prefer the Bern since nobody could have been worse than Clinton who “sank an early peace deal in Syria to deepen the US proxy war”. This is a reference to the breakdown in talks between her and the Russians in 2012, with Finnish diplomat Martti Ahtisaari, who was involved with the talks, blaming Clinton. His revelations made quite a stir last year around this time in the left and liberal press. For example, the Guardian reported: “Russia proposed more than three years ago that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, could step down as part of a peace deal, according to a senior negotiator involved in back-channel discussions at the time.”
But no peace deal was in the offing, especially one in which Assad would step down in a Yemen-type solution that would leave Assadism without Assad intact. How do I know? Because the Russians said so:
The Kremlin denied a claim by a senior negotiator [Martti Ahtisaari] Wednesday that Russia had offered in 2012 to make Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down in an “elegant way”, saying it never called for regime change.
“I can only once more repeat that Russia is not involved in changing regimes. Suggesting that someone step aside – elegantly or not – is something Russia has never done,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists, quoted by TASS state news agency.
The only other thought I would offer is on the editors’ survey of the Vietnam antiwar movement, which I had significant involvement with.
They criticize the movement for failing to “anchor itself within the party structure”, a clear reference to becoming a wing of the Democratic Party:
But as Daniel Schlozman details in When Movements Anchor Parties, the antiwar movement failed both to anchor itself within the party structure and to create a lasting alternative coalition. No national elected official came out of the movement. On its own, the movement fragmented and radicalized, beset by Nixon’s repression on the one hand and by faltering strategies on the other. The distinction from the labor movement in the 1930s is enormous. At that time, organized labor, gaining in strength and numbers, weighed working outside the Democratic Party against negotiating with the party for legislative gains and legitimacy. Labor chose the latter strategy. The result was the passage of the National Labor Relations Act and the election of officials who declined to send in troops when workers occupied factories. (This is not to diminish the costs, over time, of being so close to the Democratic Party and blandishments of power, but the benefits were significant.) Nothing comparable occurred with the antiwar movement. By the time its electoral reforms delivered a candidate — George McGovern of McGovern-Fraser — it was too spent a force to work with the candidate. In 1972, McGovern suffered what was then the worst electoral defeat of the postwar era, until Mondale outdid him in 1984.
As it happens, the question of the Democrats and labor organizing in the 1930s is very fresh on my mind after having written about Sanders’s “political revolution” in early March. It turns out that the Mayor of Chicago in 1937 was a Democratic “friend of labor” who was backed by the Communist Party and as such would ostensibly be loath to attack workers. However, when steel workers went on strike, Edward Kelly ordered an attack by the cops that left 10 people dead on Memorial Day. Another 28 were wounded, 9 of them permanently disabled. And Roosevelt, the great friend of labor, was content to utter these words about the police massacre: “A plague on both your houses”.
The Vietnam antiwar movement kept the Democratic Party at arm’s length because it was led by the Trotskyists of the SWP who had a much more class-based understanding of the Democrats than the CPUSA. To make a long story short, the CP, which worked with the SWP and the pacifists in a kind of tripartite coalition that the N+1 article alludes to, was always trying to get the coalition to follow the lead of Eugene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy or George McGovern. If it had been successful, there never would have been a Moratorium or any other mass demonstration. You can take my word on that.
I must say that I got a chuckle out of this wind-up by the editors on the Vietnam antiwar movement:
The narrow demand to end the war in Vietnam meant that once the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, the movement had little left to pursue beyond the sunlit quadrangles and back-patting panel discussions of academic life.
Back-patting panel discussions of academic life? Hmmm. Not exactly. Most of the people who provided both the brains and the muscle of the movement were social workers, librarians, cabdrivers, waiters, computer programmers and the like. There were a few figureheads at the top like Noam Chomsky and Douglas Dowd who taught at elite schools but you’d hardly find them at “back-patting panel discussions of academic life”.
Finally, there is some hope in the final paragraphs of the N+1 editorial embodied in its critique of Noam Chomsky who they regard as an exemplary antiwarrior but fault on the basis for a certain kind of kneejerk reaction to conflicts overseas:
Chomsky’s American antistatism — bracing and helpful as it has been — sometimes makes other kinds of internationalism difficult. If the temptation facing one set of political figures is to wake up every morning wondering whom to bomb next, the temptation facing the left is to keep one’s hands clean; to withdraw from the world, taking up an older but no less simplistic approach to foreign policy, isolationism à la George Washington and Ron Paul.
As it happens, the Ron Paul outlook is hegemonic on the left. It boils down to putting a minus where your ruling class puts a plus as Leon Trotsky noted in a 1938 article titled “Learn to Think”. It is the orientation of the libertarian Antiwar.com as well as 99 percent of the material that appears on CounterPunch, Salon, ZNet and other radical or liberal websites.
The only problem with this approach is that it fails to engage with the class struggle inside a country where rebels find themselves on the other side of the barricades from someone like Bashar al-Assad getting pilloried by Nicholas Kristof, et al. We should not develop an orientation to the conflict in Syria based on an NY Times op-ed but on the class forces in motion. That requires reading what the Syrian left has to say, starting with someone like Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a communist who spent 16 years in a Syrian prison:
Perhaps that explains the convergence of right-wing Westerners who were never critical of the colonialist project and continue to believe in the civilizing mission with communists of the transferring scientific consciousness type who are still nostalgic for the Soviet Union, no less a prisonhouse of nations than Tsarist Russia was in the words of Karl Marx.
It is not in concepts like tyranny, despotism or even totalitarianism that we find an explanatory model for the Assad regime. But rather in the concept of colonialism, and its most brutal models in particular. Models based on genocide as it manifested itself in the new world hundreds of years ago and in Russia between the two world wars.
April 25, 2016
As it happens, on the same day I posted my article “Taking the Baathist Garbage Out”, Seymour Hersh gave an interview on RT.com (naturally) with the customary “regime change” warnings.
Pay careful attention to 4:15 in the Youtube clip below where Hersh refers darkly to American support for “moderate” rebel groups aligned with the dreaded Sharm al-Sharma that actually was in favor of Sharia law and expelling all Christians and Alawites from Syria.
As it happens, there is no such group and the closest anything comes to this garbled formulation is something called shawarma, a kind of shish kebab popular in the Middle East.
Shawarma on pita bread: no threat to Alawites
Instead, he was speaking about Ahrar ash-Sham, a group that was brought up in the course of a podcast interview of Robert Ford by Stephen Sackur of the BBC. Ford had been ambassador to Syria but was unhappy with the White House’s failure to arm the rebels adequately. This failure led to the rapid growth of ISIS that had an abundant supply of powerful weapons it had seized in Iraq after the Shiite-dominate military had fled Anbar province.
Ford was put on the defensive by Sackur, who tried to smear the “moderate” Syrian rebels by pointing out that they were often involved with Ahrar ash-Sham in joint military actions against the Syrian army. Ford stood his ground pointing out that while insisting on a pluralist post-Assad society in Syria, he distinguished between ISIS and al-Nusra on one side and Ahrar ash-Sham on the other.
As it happens, the leaders of Ahrar ash-Sham were among the Islamist prisoners released by Bashar al-Assad in 2011 in order to unleash the sectarian dynamic that would endear him to people like Hersh, Cockburn, Fisk et al. They preferred the clean-shaven man in a necktie even though his regime would cause Suharto or Pinochet to look benign by comparison. Most of Ahrar ash-Sham’s funding comes from Qatar and Kuwait with the USA not only having zero connections to them, but going so far as to consider designating them as a terrorist group.
In a perfect world, groups such as Ahrar ash-Sham would play a much more minor role in the Syrian struggle. It has gained a foothold for obvious reasons:
- When the Syrian version of the Arab Spring commenced, Assad set in motion the killing machine that would force his victims to take up arms if only to protect neighborhoods from marauding bands of pro-regime gangs that were raping, torturing and killing civilians. These very localized self-defense militias came under pressure to get heavier weaponry after the Baathists began using tanks, heavy artillery and air power in a scorched earth campaign against Aleppo, Homs, and the suburbs of Damascus. In order to procure weapons, it was necessary to approach states such as Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey—all of which had an Islamist agenda. The net result was that the peaceful and democratic process that had begun in the Spring of 2011 was forced into the background even if it has not disappeared. As Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami point out, there are 400 democratically elected councils in Syria today that adhere to the original vision of 2011.
- The Syrian countryside, which is the heartland of the revolution, is socially conservative. Poor people, as is the case in just about every underdeveloped country, tend to be religious. Islamist groups therefore operate in relatively fertile ground. For people like Seymour Hersh, this is anathema. Sharia law, cries of “Alluah Akbar” on the battleground, beards, etc. are far more frightening than a barrel bomb or a sarin gas attack (Hersh made an appearance today on the dreadful Democracy Now radio show repeating his canard that the rebels gassed their own families in East Ghouta 3 years ago.)
Based on this litmus test, the logical choice would be to support Israel against Hamas, a group that was spawned by the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza. If you are terrified by Ahrar ash-Sham, you might as well be terrified of Hamas who at least understood what side was worth supporting in Syria:
Leaders of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas turned publicly against their long-time ally President Bashar al-Assad of Syria on Friday, endorsing the revolt aimed at overthrowing his dynastic rule.
The policy shift deprives Assad of one of his few remaining Sunni Muslim supporters in the Arab world and deepens his international isolation. It was announced in Hamas speeches at Friday prayers in Cairo and a rally in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas went public after nearly a year of equivocating as Assad’s army, largely led by fellow members of the president’s Alawite sect, has crushed mainly Sunni protesters and rebels.
In a Middle East split along sectarian lines between Shi’ite and Sunni Islam, the public abandonment of Assad casts immediate questions over Hamas’s future ties with its principal backer Iran, which has stuck by its ally Assad, as well as with Iran’s fellow Shi’ite allies in Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.
“I salute all the nations of the Arab Spring and I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, visiting Egypt from the Gaza Strip, told thousands of Friday worshippers at Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque.
“We are marching towards Syria, with millions of martyrs,” chanted worshippers at al-Azhar, home to one of the Sunni world’s highest seats of learning. “No Hezbollah and no Iran.
“The Syrian revolution is an Arab revolution.”
April 24, 2016
Members of the Baathist amen corner
Back in 1979, just having dropped out of the SWP after 11 years and resolving to put politics behind me, I found myself like an old Dalmatian responding to the sound of the firehouse bell. Where was the fire? It was in Central America.
Picking up the Village Voice on a weekly basis that year started out mostly as an exercise in finding out which novelist was breaking new ground but by 1980 I began turning first to Alexander Cockburn’s Press Clips column for its debunking of articles by pro-Reagan NY Times reporters like Stephen Kinzer.
I also began to rely heavily on the investigative journalism of Seymour Hersh and others who had made their reputation reporting about Vietnam. When he broke the story of the My Lai massacre, antiwar activists like myself were relieved that our work became a lot easier because of the horrors he revealed.
The role of investigative journalists in that period was inextricably linked to the Cold War. While most of us from either a Trotskyist or New Left background felt little identification with the Kremlin, our main focus was on Washington and its imperialist designs on El Salvador, Angola, and other places that fit neatly into the USSR versus USA scheme of things. There were some who went so far as to back Soviet intervention even when it was problematic at best. For example, both the Spartacist League and Alexander Cockburn supported the Soviet military in Afghanistan.
Fast forwarding to 2016, we find a most curious realignment. Stephen Kinzer, who wrote filthy propaganda about how the Sandinistas were responsible for a toy shortage in Nicaragua, is now one of Bashar al-Assad’s top propagandists in the USA while Seymour Hersh writes articles accusing the Syrian rebels for carrying out a My Lai-like massacre in East Ghouta just to provoke an American intervention.
When you have a convergence between one of the early 1980s top journalistic villains and heroes, something very odd is going on. I would suggest that it can be explained by the Spartacist/Cockburn line on Afghanistan except that it is being advanced on behalf of a Russia that has no connection to the Cold War except for those on the left for whom time stood still. Maybe because Putin was in the CP once upon a time, this means that he should be given critical support. Who knows?
After five years of Baathist state terrorism, the failure of the heroes of the 1980s, including Noam Chomsky who swears by Patrick Cockburn, is unprecedented. You would have to go back to the Moscow Trials, when the Nation Magazine and the NY Times were defending Stalin, to see such a failure of both intellect and ethics.
If you monitor the left press both online and in print for the Baathist amen corner’s latest output, you can feel swamped. I suppose I am a bit of a masochist to wade through this material but maybe it is the lasting influence of Alexander Cockburn’s Press Clips column that keeps me at it. If only he could have been willing to see the Kremlin with as much alacrity as he saw Washington and wrote on that basis, the Syrians would have far more friends on the left than enemies today.
Speaking of enemies, three articles appeared on my radar screen recently that epitomize the treachery of the left on Syria. Two of them appear on Consortium News, a website launched by Robert Parry in 1995. Parry was a hero in the 1980s, exposing the Nicaraguan contra cocaine traffic in the USA. Now his website is devoted to spewing lies about Syria even if most of the reporting on American subversion in places like Brazil or Venezuela is reliable.
The other article appeared on Truthout, a website that like Consortium is generally reliable except on Syria. I have it bookmarked and check it every day for items that are well-researched and well-written but when it comes to Syria, all bets are off.
On March 31, an article by Daniel Lazare titled “How US-Backed War on Syria Helped ISIS” appeared on Consortium. Lazare was a member of the Workers League in the early 70s (the predecessor to WSWS.org) and obviously retains some of its ideological baggage. I say that as someone who was a great admirer of Lazare for a number of years. I just checked the Marxmail archives and discovered my crossposting of a number of his articles.
The article takes issue with the report that the Syrian army allowed ISIS to take over Palmyra, the city that it has retaken with an intense Russian air attack. Consistent with the belief that outside powers have the right to bomb Syria with impunity, Lazare faults the USA for not joining Russia in its air attack on the jihadists: “So the U.S. and its allies helped Islamic State by tying down Assad’s forces in the north so that it could punch through in the center. But that’s not all the U.S. did. It also helped by suspending bombing as the Islamic State neared Palmyra.” He adds, “The U.S. thus incentivized ISIS to press forward” because it had not bombed ISIS forces “while they were traversing miles of open desert roads” as the NY Times put it. Apparently Lazare would have liked to see the USA engaging in the same kind of turkey shoot that its bombers engaged in as Saddam’s defeated army was straggling home to Iraq back in 1991.
It is so bizarre to see an anti-imperialist like Lazare get worked up over the USA being insufficiently bellicose in Syria. Apparently, when it comes to bombing ISIS, imperialism can play a progressive role.
Turning to the immigrant crisis in Europe, Lazare writes:
But as much everyone would like to blame it all on Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and others of that ilk, none of this is really their fault. To the contrary, the West’s disastrous Syria policy is entirely the creation of nice-guy liberals like Barack Obama. Desperate to appease both Israel and the Sunni oil sheiks, all of whom for various reasons wanted Assad to go, he signed on to a massive Sunni jihad that has turned Syria into a charnel house.
With death estimates now running as high as 470,000, which is to say one person in nine [the idea that Syria had a population of less than five million is as big a joke of everything else in Lazare’s article], the idea that massive violence like this could remain confined to a single country was absurd to begin with. Yet Obama went along regardless.
Like everybody else in the Baathist amen corner, Lazare’s circumlocution on the Syrian bloodbath refuses to put the blame on Bashar al-Assad. The Independent, a newspaper that features the pro-Assad columns of Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn and that can not possibly be mistaken for the Washington Post or the NY Times, reported on October 7, 2015 that Assad has killed seven times as many civilians as ISIS so if Lazare is upset over Syria turning into a charnel house, he might want to direct his polemical ire against the man whose cause he has so squalidly taken up.
On April 20, another rotten Consortium article cropped up, this time by Jonathan Marshall who like Parry had a distinguished investigative journalism career before his brain turned to rot over Syria. He wrote a book on the drug trade in Lebanon that was published by Stanford University Press, a prestigious academic press. But his article “How The New Yorker Mis-Reports Syria” is a sleazy bid to bolster a blood-soaked dictatorship that has the same relationship to Assad that Christopher Hitchens had to the Shiite sectarian regime that George W. Bush installed in Iraq: blatantly apologetic.
Adopting a herculean task, Marshall attempts to defend Bashar al-Assad’s March 30, 2011 speech that states:
And I am sure you all know that Syria is facing a great conspiracy whose tentacles extend to some nearby countries and far-away countries, with some inside the country. This conspiracy depends, in its timing not in its form, on what is happening in other Arab countries.
While there is ample evidence that the USA had supported anti-Baathist forces inside Syria during the Bush administration, Marshall has little to say about the policy of the Obama White House. As has been graphically illustrated in the Jeffrey Goldberg article based on interviews with Obama, there was a rejection of “regime change” after he took office.
Furthermore, despite citing a Wikileaks cable that pointed to anti-Baathist efforts prior to Obama’s presidency, Marshall failed to refer to one that highlighted relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia, its supposed arch-enemy once he took office. This was dated October 1, 2009 when supposedly the USA was preparing a proxy war on Syria, with Saudi Arabia as its most reliable ally:
Thu Oct 01 00:00:00 +0200 2009
Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad’s unexpected attendance at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) opening, and his lengthy meeting with King Abdullah on the margins, has encouraged speculation about further Saudi-Syrian rapprochement and its potential regional implications. Post contacts describe media reports of the meeting as largely accurate, noting that Lebanese government formation, Palestinian reconciliation, and Asad’s invitation to King Abdullah to visit Damascus dominated the agenda.
The cable is borne out by a NY Times article titled “With Isolation Over, Syria Is Happy to Talk” dated March 26, 2009. It is the kind of article that people such as Jonathan Marshall deftly sidestep.
Only a year ago, this country’s government was being vilified as a dangerous pariah. The United States and its Arab allies mounted a vigorous campaign to isolate Syria, which they accused of sowing chaos and violence throughout the region through its support for militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.
Today, Syria seems to be coming in from the cold. A flurry of diplomatic openings with the West and Arab neighbors has raised hopes of a chastened and newly flexible Syrian leadership that could help stabilize the region. But Syria has its own priorities, and a series of upheavals here — including Israel’s recent war in Gaza — make it difficult to say where this new dialogue will lead.
It is not just a matter of the Obama administration’s new policy of engagement. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France led the way with a visit here last September. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was said to be furious at the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, welcomed him warmly in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, this month. Photographs of the two men smiling and shaking hands have been on the front pages of all the major Arab newspapers, along with frequent headlines about the “Arab reconciliation.”
You can read a slew of articles like this between 2009 and 2010. They coincide with the now suppressed Vogue puff piece on the reformer Bashar al-Assad and his glamorous wife. It was only when the Syrian people had the impudence to demand social justice and an end to repression that “the conspiracy” was revealed. Apparently when people began protesting peacefully in the streets of Syria, it was all a plot to remove a wise and benign president who had after all received 99 percent of the votes in the last election.
To bolster his case that Assad was not all that bad, Marshall cites Joshua Landis who retweeted the reference. Landis wrote just after Assad gave the March 30, 2011 speech that “For those who continue to believe in the possibility of reform and not regime-change, this speech was reassuring.” Mind you, this is the same Joshua Landis who wrote in a 2005 NY Times op-ed: “For Mr. Assad to help the United States, he must have sufficient backing from Washington to put greater restrictions and pressure on the Sunni majority.”
It is utterly beyond the purview of someone like Jonathan Marshall to cite an Arab leftist such as Bassam Haddad. The Baathist amen corner consists almost exclusively of Western commentators whose Orientalism is palpable.
Turning to the final entry in the rogue’s gallery, there is a very long article in Truthout by John Hanrahan titled “As in Libya, Avaaz Campaigned for Syria No-Fly Zone That Even Top Generals Opposed” that is directed against a campaign mounted by a group launched by Moveon.org in 2007. I personally have problems with no-fly zones but recognize that it is understandable why people being bombed mercilessly might ask for help wherever they can get it, even if the USA never had any attention to implement one as was indicated in the Jeffrey Goldberg article. In fact, if there was simply an across-the-board non-intervention policy by the USA, Assad would have been overthrown long ago. When the USA intervened to block the shipment of MANPAD’s into Syria early on, it meant that the Syrian air force would have free reign.
After 3500 words on Avaaz’s past campaigns, Hanrahan follows the same path as many pro-Assad “investigative reporters”, both professional and amateur, have trod. In a section titled “Avaaz Has Long Favored No-Fly Zone in Syria, Based in Part on the Dodgy Sarin Gas Story”, he cites arch-propagandist Robert Parry of the abovementioned Consortium and an outfit called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) that was founded by ex-CIA agent Ray McGovern. I dealt with the VIPS report not long after the sarin gas attack:
The sources for VIPS’ [a group led by Ray McGovern] most sensational claims, it turns out, are Canadian eccentric Michel Chossudovsky’s conspiracy site Global Research and far-right shock-jock Alex Jones’s Infowars. The specific article that Giraldi references carries the intriguing headline “Did the White House Help Plan the Syrian Chemical Attack?” (His answer, in case you wondered, is yes.) The author is one Yossef Bodansky—an Israeli-American supporter of Assad’s uncle Rifaat, who led the 1982 massacre in Hama. Bodansky’s theory was widely circulated after an endorsement from Rush Limbaugh. A whole paragraph from Bodansky’s article makes it into the VIPS letter intact, with only a flourish added at the end.
That’s some kind of investigative journalism going on there, just the kind of thing they probably teach to RT.com reporters before they start their job.
Hanrahan also cites Charles Glass, another charter member of the Baathist amen corner, as well as Adam Johnson, FAIR’s resident Assadist, and Patrick Cockburn who is definitely for a no-fly zone but only for the Kurds. All these people plagiarize each other, making the same bogus arguments based on faulty data over and over and over again. If they are supposed to be telling the truth about Syria, god help us.
Like Parry, Hersh, Cockburn, Salon’s Patrick L. Smith, Charles Glass, Kinzer and other Baathist fan boys, John Hanrahan has been a reporter for the bourgeois press—in his case the Washington Post. Whatever they learned in journalism school obviously gave them the skills they need to turn out bullshit in the “alternative” media.
Hanrahan’s credits are listed beneath the article, including this: “He has written extensively for NiemanWatchdog.org, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.” Among its fellows has been Dexter Filkins, Hodding Carter, and Anthony Lewis. So the sleazy Ivy League school knew what they were doing when they lined up Hanrahan to write for them.
Probably the most depressing thing about Hanrahan is his involvement with ExposeFacts, a website that includes Barbara Ehrenreich on its editorial board. Does she have an idea of the crap that is coming out in the name of a website she is associated with? My guess, probably not. I had a momentary urge to see what she has written about Syria but did not want to feel any more disgusted than I am right now.
April 21, 2016
“Khiyana: Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution” is required reading, especially for those on the left who never thought that there was a revolution to begin with. For the past five years at least, a debate of sorts has raged on the left about Syria. Unfortunately, the side that implicitly or explicitly supports Bashar al-Assad has simply refused to engage with those on the other side. They pretend that the Syrian people do not exist just as they pretend that the supporters of the revolution do not exist. For the hardened ideologues of the more degraded “anti-imperialist” subculture, we are seen as CIA or Mossad agents even though many of us have been active on the left for decades or longer.
Ultimately, this is the result of bracketing out the class relations within Syria that practically beg for a Marxist analysis. With so much of the left either determined to see the conflict as one involving states rather than class, the results are predictable and all the more so when the rebels are reduced to an undifferentiated clot of “jihadis” or “extremists”. For those willing to see beyond the stereotypes, Khiyana is a good place to start—a book that belongs on shelf next to Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami’s “Burning Country”.
In broad brush strokes, the book functions as an analysis of the unfolding struggle within Syria as well as a source of critiques of those on the left whose “anti-imperialism” has been built on shaky foundations, namely a refusal to examine the struggle on its own terms or relying on material that distorts it beyond recognition. With that in mind, I would like to focus on two of the book’s key articles.
Sam Charles Hamad’s “The Rise of Daesh in Syria—some Inconvenient Truths” is a fifty-two-page analysis of the Islamic State that effectively debunks the claim that Saudi Arabia is responsible for the rise of the Islamic State. To give you an idea of the need for such a rebuttal, consider the results of a Google search on “Saudi Arabia” and “ISIS” that reaches into the stratosphere: 16,700,000. At the top of the list is an article that is typical. Titled “Saudi Arabia Admits to John Kerry That It Created ISIS… But There is a Twist”, it appeared on the Zero Hedge website, one of the Internet’s prime conspiracy theory outlets. Like most conspiracists, these people are always looking for the gotcha quote or secret document that finally exposes The Truth. In many ways, it is the same kind of mindset that gets fixated on the temperature it takes for aircraft steel to melt. Zero Hedge sees a quote from a 04/20/2016 FT.com article as proof positive that Saudi Arabia created ISIS in response to Obama’s intervention in the region.
After the Iraqi city of Mosul fell to a lightning Isis offensive in 2014, even the late Prince Saud al-Faisal, the respected Saudi foreign minister, remonstrated with John Kerry, US secretary of state, that “Daesh [Isis] is our [Sunni] response to your support for the Da’wa” — the Tehran-aligned Shia Islamist ruling party of Iraq.
Contrary to conspiracy-monger spin-doctoring, al-Faisal was only making an uncontroversial observation that Daesh got a foothold in Mosul only because the Shi’ite sectarian ruling party was oppressing Sunnis. To assume that “our response” means a confession of guilt by the Saudi monarch is first class idiocy but par for the course.
If you take the trouble to read Hamad’s article (and you should), you will understand the true relationship between not only the Saudi state and Daesh but the state and jihadi type groups in general, including al-Qaeda and its franchise in Syria, the al-Nusra front. Despite the tendency to assume that such Wahhabist groups are spawned by Saudi Arabia because it is a Wahhabist theocracy, Hamad produces a mountain of evidence showing that groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda are its deadly enemies.
As opposed to most on the left who sling around terms like Salafist or Wahhabist interchangeably, Hamad takes considerable trouble to root them in the region’s history with the sort of erudition that is necessary to separate fact from fiction. To start with, Wahhabism is a current within Salafi Islam, a revivalist movement that sought to ground worship in the beliefs and practices of first generation Muslims, the as-Salafiyyah (pious forefathers). Mohammad al-Wahhab was an 18th century cleric who allied with the Al-Saud clan that eventually created the forerunner of the modern Saudi state. Warlike from the beginning, it attacked the Shia and Sufi sects as kuffar (unbelievers). So far this sounds just like ISIS, right?
Only if you do not understand that for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Saudi royal family is kuffar as well. That should be obvious at the outset from his belief that he is the new Khalifa, or steward of the Caliphate. The goal of ISIS is to create an Islamic state that honors no national boundaries. As such all states in the Middle East have to be subsumed under its authority, including Saudi Arabia. Muslims will belong to the new Caliphate, not any particular state nor take orders from the government that rules it. In a word, it is anti-national.
In November 2014 al-Baghdadi recorded an audio message declaring his intention to liberate the Saudi people from the Saloul, a derogatory name for the ruling family. Daesh threatened to invade Saudi Arabia from its redoubt in Anbar province. The Saudis placed sufficient weight in this threat to construct a 600-mile wall of the sort that Donald Trump could only admire. Like Trump, the Saudi royal family was deathly afraid of Islamic extremists. Unlike Trump, the Saudi fear was rooted in reality.
Despite Saudi efforts to thwart Daesh, the group has launched guerrilla attacks along the border with Iraq near the city of Arar that involved suicide bombers. But the more serious threat comes from Saudi citizens who have joined Daesh. The attacks are directed against Shia worshippers with the hope of sparking a sectarian war such as the kind that has been tearing apart Iraq and Syria.
Even more contrary to the dominant “anti-imperialist” narrative on Saudi Arabia, the Saudis have supported groups in Syria that have no connection to either ISIS or al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate. Specifically, when Daesh and the FSA had a pitched battle in Deraa province, the FSA used weaponry supplied by the Saudis.
The same patterns exist for Qatar and Turkey, two other nations that have the reputation for being responsible for Daesh. Both have instead donated funds and arms to either secular nationalists or Islamists who have been the target of Daesh savagery. As opposed to the reductionist tendencies of the Assadist left, there is an abundance of evidence that such countries have an affinity for the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that was ousted by a military coup in Egypt three years ago for allegedly promoting an Islamist takeover. So who do you think the Saudis backed? The secular-minded military of course. Class always trumps confession, after all.
Hamad concludes his article with an astute observation on the responsibilities of the left today:
Clearly an entity like Daesh, as with all forms of chauvinist it ultra-sectarian Salafi Jihadism, represents a wider phenomenon within the Arab and Sunni Islamic world, but this phenomenon will not be confronted by supporting an order whose brutality, nourishes the roots of these kind of fascistic entities. The order is itself fascistic. These forces feed off one another—the exterminatory logic of Daesh is fed by the continued sectarian slaughter being carried out by the Assad regime, Iran and Russia, while the logic of the Assad regime, with its appropriation of the ‘war on terror’ is most forcefully reinforced by Daesh.
There is a third alternative. And it’s this alternative that the conspiracy narratives about Saudi funding, CIA plots, Gulf proxies and Western-backed rebels, truly seek to obscure. As with the Sahwat against Daesh’s predecessors in Iraq, the Syrian rebels are the only force capable of tackling Daesh and its more destructive root cause, Assad. That is why it is an imperative for all who support these revolutionary forces to expose these craven narratives for what they are.
It is those “craven narratives” that are the subject of Assad an-Nar’s “Socialism and the Democratic Wager”, a forty-page article that serves as a kind of introduction to the articles in Khiyana.
In addition to its critique of Baathist loyalists in Russia, Britain and the USA, it offers a useful theoretical framework for understanding the Syrian revolution, one that differs sharply from the Trotskyist theory of permanent revolution that the author argues is a disservice to the democratic revolution sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. Whatever one makes of the critique, surely there must be an acknowledgement of the failure of those schooled in Trotskyist politics to understand the process—starting with Tariq Ali.
The first paragraph sets the tone for the article’s ambition, which is to re-orient the left to MENA reality:
The narcissism of the left is so thoroughgoing that it now conceives revolution and counterrevolution in terms of its own worn obsessions rather than proceeding from events. Thus the left has become largely irrelevant to the calculations of those actually engaged in revolution. But we proceed differently. Contemporary revolution calls for a reassessment of everything the left has come to believe because the raison d’etre of the left is to serve the social revolution, and this now positively demands such a rethink. Therefore this essay is unashamedly about the contemporary left and its impasse.
In the section titled Permanent Revolution, the article hones in on a theory that practically defines Trotskyism, namely one that started out as a way of understanding the struggle against Czarism that culminated in a socialist revolution but eventually became a kind of universal categorical imperative to be applied to the colonial revolution.
The author argues that the theory has been falsified by events. Colonialism disappeared across the planet without necessarily being the outcome of a 1917 type socialist revolution. Even in the 20s and 30s, countries like Mexico and Turkey were acting independently of imperialism but under a bourgeois leadership. (The article does not mention it but both nations gave political asylum to Leon Trotsky.)
If your condition for providing solidarity is based on conformity to Trotsky’s theory, naturally there will be a tendency to denigrate struggles that don’t measure up to his lofty standards. Although the article does not mention Tariq Ali, this certainly describes his sneering attitude toward the Arab Spring:
In September 2013, just a month after East Ghouta had been attacked with sarin gas by Assad’s military, Ali took to the pages of Guernica to pose the question “What is a Revolution?” His standards are exacting:
The notion that the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) is the carrier of a Syrian revolution is as risible as the idea that the Brotherhood was doing the same in Egypt. A brutal civil war with atrocities by both sides is currently being fought. Did the regime use gas or other chemical weapons? We do not know with certainty. The strikes envisaged by the United States are designed to prevent Assad’s military advances from defeating the opposition and re-taking the country. That is what is at stake in Syria.
Whatever else may or may not be happening in Syria, it is far removed from a revolution. Only the most blinkered sectarian fantasist could imagine this to be the case.
You’ll note the utter disregard for what the Muslim Brotherhood meant for Egyptian society–an attempt to have a democratically elected government for the first time in its history. This rather “blinkered sectarian”, if you will, dismissal of a genuine opening for a more democratic phase that the working class and social movements could use for its own advantage was a clear indication that there was not much difference between Ali and the more exotic forms of Trotskyist sectarianism found in the post-Healyite netherworld. This is not to speak of his sarin gas obfuscation. For Ali, Seymour Hersh, Robert Parry et al, the preferred narrative was a “false flag” operation that accepted the possibility that rebels would kill their own women and children in order to spark an American intervention—a cynical excuse for Assad’s savagery widely accepted if not trumpeted by his fan club worldwide. It subtly points to a racist interpretation of Arab fanaticism, namely that they don’t value human life as much as the West.
As opposed to this kind of schematic ultimatism, the Khiyana article restores the question of democracy to its proper place in Marxism. The concluding paragraph is a challenge to the left:
Today we live in the era of democratic revolutions with uncertain consequences. The last four decades or so of neoliberalism was responsible for the decomposition of the working class shaped by the post-war years of economic boom, resulting in its fateful dissolution as a collective subject, though a cursory examination of the balance sheet at least indicates that neoliberalism cannot unravel its own contradictions or the deeper contradictions of global capitalism. The left needs to decide whether to wager on the social and political upheavals of the neoliberal era or stand back and wait for the real world to decide to conform to the old theories. We must make the democratic wager. If the contradictions of the present lead to more collective forms of social struggle then we win. If it does not work, that would prove that socialism had become a utopia and we must simply plunder what we can. Like Pascal’s wager on faith, we win either way.
There is much more than can be said about this article that seeks not only to identify the key issues in the Middle East in general and Syria in particular. It throws open a window and allows some fresh air in to defog the cloistered chambers of a Marxism that has grown stale with dogma and its own rectitude. I promise that even if you don’t agree with the author, it will challenge to think more deeply about a conflict that like Spain in the 30s and Vietnam in the 60s forces the left to confront difficult issues with openness and bravery. Nothing short of this will serve us over the long haul for human emancipation.
Khiyana is available from Amazon.com. I also have a few copies left that will not require a sales tax, nor will go toward enriching Jeff Bezos. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
April 13, 2016
On February 27th of this year, an article by scholar and journalist Idrees Ahmad titled “Aleppo is our Guernica — and some are cheering on the Luftwaffe,” a timely analogy with the Spanish Civil War. Continuing with that analogy, we can say that we now have the counterpart of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia in Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami’s Burning Country, a work that gives a voice to the Syrian revolutionaries who are the political and moral descendants of the brigades that took up arms against Franco in the name of democracy and social justice. Unfortunately, the type of solidarity that the left offered to Spain’s freedom fighters 80 years ago is sorely missing today, a result of much of the left seeing revolutionary Syrians as jihadist stereotypes refracted through an Orientalist lens rather than as flesh-and-blood human beings.
April 12, 2016
Below is an excerpt from the first article collected by editors Jules Alford and Andrew Wilson in the newly published “Khiyana: Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution”. Titled “Socialism and the Democratic Wager”, this 41 page article by Assad an-Nar deserves to be published separately as a pamphlet since it takes head on (and most eloquently so) the issues that have divided the left for the past five years.
In addition to that article, there are others by people who have been writing in support of the Syrian revolution for the past five years, including me. The table of contents and excerpts from the book can be read here: http://ammarxists.org/khiyana/
I should mention that the word Khiyana is Arabic for treason, a word that resonates with the title of my article “Betrayal of the Intellectuals on Syria” that begins with a reference to Julian Benda’s La Trahison des Clercs, or “Treason of the Intellectuals”.
The book cost $15 and can be ordered from Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/Khiyana-Daesh-Unmaking-Syrian-Revolution/dp/0992650968) but I also invite you to buy a copy from me. Not only won’t I charge sales tax but the proceeds will go to Syrian Solidarity groups rather than a scumbag like Jeff Bezos. Drop me a line with your particulars at email@example.com and I will give you the Paypal information.
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The anti-Stalinist left should be used to the fact that large sections of the left are susceptible to Stalinist illusions. A crucial issue is how a lack of confidence among people in their own ability to unite in struggle has intersected with Stalinism’s alarming ability to reinvent itself since the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Though the Soviet Union disappeared, the ideological illusions it created have clung on. Marx long ago observed that if you wished to abolish religion you would also have to abolish the material conditions that gave rise to religious illusions. The material conditions that generate the need for people to look for substitutes for their agency—distress and oppression on the one hand, married to feeling relatively powerless, on the other—all of that continues to exist in late capitalism both because of, and despite the miscarriage of concrete utopia.
Instead of genuine internationalism we have the dominance reverse ersatz internationalism, where swathes of the left dream of a new edition of the Congress of Vienna, but with Vladimir Putin leading proceedings along with who else one may ask? Perhaps Marie Le Pen? General Sisi? Those who rule in Tehran and currently lock up and kill trade unionists? Or someone who knows how to deal with troublesome Muslims as Putin did he second Chechen war, over a decade before lending Assad his aid and experience in laying waste to whole towns and cities? To pose the question is to reveal how reactionary the answer is.
The dangers of campism are ever-present, and so the temptations or dangers of reverse-campism, can unwittingly lead sections of the left into their own specific campist positions. This problem reflects the complexity of contemporary late capitalism. There is no immunity to a dilemma arising from real contradictions, and which demands of the left respect for the complexity of the world as the prerequisite of analysis. For example it is understandable that supporters of the Syrian revolution will support any robber or bandit who is willing to help protect them from genocide. We understand that the interests of the robber or the bandit do not coincide with the revolution. If they did there would be absolutely no risk or price to be paid for accepting their aid. As the situation is, the problems of the revolution dictate that you would probably be a fool not to accept the aid offered despite the risks: we are discussing a real revolution no matter what the charlatans on the left say. Nevertheless we also see supporters of the Kurds appeal to the same logic—a logic that has partly led to, and reinforced the fragmentation of the left today. It is a difficulty that admits of no easy answers but again suggests scrupulous analysis of the geopolitical situation without succumbing to the merely geopolitical is a bare minimum for left politics. For example the support of any news source that challenges Russia or Iran but may perhaps be inflected by seemingly modest anti-Shia sectarianism can affect those who lose their critical faculties and hatch into something darker, say, uncritical support for Saudi foreign policy in the region.
In the case of the Syrian revolution, campism’s logical development is the complete denial of the agency of the revolutionary sections of Syrian society. The dominance of the ‘proxy war’ narrative and the idea that ‘the Saudi’s’ (or ‘Qatari’s’ or whoever) are behind everything, has flourished on the left like a stubborn Syria prejudice. But leftists and socialists should be very careful using the term ‘proxy war’. To begin with it is a term used by those who favour stability over revolution. It is the ‘view from the top’, originating in policy circles, right wing or liberal think tanks, elite universities and so on before migrating to the pages of the ‘serious° bourgeois broadsheets and employed to obscure the domestic social and political struggles of the region and opponents of the revolution outside the region. It is associated with the reduction of revolutions across the MENA to the interests of lesser and greater powers, the competing hierarchy of nation states, as well as bolstering the conspiracy theories of existing states like; for example, the absurd charge that Morsi’s ascendancy was part of a Qatari plot against the Egyptian nation. Have various powers tried to intervene in the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary war in Syria? Yes. Does this mean the struggle in Syria can be reduced to a ‘proxy war’? Emphatically not. Very simply to believe the struggle in Syria is reducible: to a ‘proxy war’ is to view the events of the last five years upside down. The wider jostling of states like Iran and Saudi Arabia is real enough but the Syrian struggle cannot be reduced to this deadly sub-imperialist conflict.
The idea that revolutions in this situation cease to exist and become instead ‘proxy wars’ reflects the same ‘view from the top’ that regards the masses as more or less useful pawns mobilised in the cause of someone else’s struggle. As a fundamentally elitist idea it obscures analysis in an expedient, conservative fashion and turns aside from the real complexity and tragedy embodied by real struggles. Geopolitics should be understood in terms of revolutions and social conflict, not the other way around. The fact that Marxists have largely not had a coherent analysis of these vast and tragic social upheavals does not justify turning away from these events in the hope that something better than reality will turn up to vindicate our theories. Such a ‘guide’ to life, such theory deserves to die horribly. Revolutions do not cease to be social upheavals simply because they do not subscribe to theoretical schemes concocted a century ago. Theory that does not illuminate beyond the bewitched circle is not worth a candle. The absorption of the language of Realism and the view from Mount Olympus is not a sign of the sophistication of today’s socialists but a symptom of their decrepitude.
March 29, 2016
Since support for the Assad killing machine is generally associated with Putin worship and Stalin nostalgia, Jacobin continues to surprise by publishing the kind of crap you’d expect to read on WSWS.org or Global Research but not in a magazine that is in the DSA/Dissent Magazine neck of the woods. There were hopes that the magazine might have wised up at this point but Greg Shupak’s article on ISIS persuades me that the editorial board is still covered in muck—at least on this question.
Titled “The Case Against Bombing ISIS” (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/03/isis-united-states-iraq-syria/), Shupak repackages all the hoary source material that has appeared already on Jacobin, Salon (courtesy of Patrick L Smith), Counterpunch, DissidentVoice, Information Clearing House, Moon of Alabama, Consortium News, VoltaireNet, Veteran’s Today, Infowars and countless other websites that echo RT.com and Press TV.
Shupak states: “a Democratic president helped produce the conditions for ISIS’s rise in Syria.” Gosh, that’s news to me. I always thought it was Assad releasing jihadists out of prison, barrel bombing the FSA while ignoring ISIS, and generally creating a sectarian logic that was responsible but then again why would we want to assign any blame to someone who was profiled in Mademoiselle Magazine, got a red carpet treatment from Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth, and received 90 percent of the vote in Syria. Yeah, I know. It was an election that excluded opposition parties but nobody’s perfect.
To prove his case, Shupak dredges up material that has been used ad infinitum. He cites the generally reliable Aron Lund on the growth of Islamism in the Syrian revolt but a careful reading of the article must single out a key phrase: that “secular activism” is being “squeezed out of the uprising entirely”. This is the problem with the passive voice. It fudges over agency. Who is doing the squeezing? In fact, it was the Baathists who began killing protesters and other members of “civil society” in 2011—if you want to call that “squeezing”. By killing young activists who sought human rights and economic justice, a vacuum was created for militants who were more Islamist in their outlook. This was exactly what Assad sought. By representing himself as a democratically elected secular leader, he could hoodwink the left into believing that he was the “lesser evil”.
Far less authoritative is a classified intelligence document that Shupak cited. It first appeared on Judicial Watch, a rightwing website that like many others, including David Horowitz’s Front Page, supports Assad. As is always the case from the amen corner, Shupak claims that the article reveals that the West and its allies supported the growth of a Salafist movement that could “isolate the Syrian regime” . I have yet to see a single one of these articles refer to the last paragraph that states such a development would have “dire consequences” for Iraq as well as constituting a “grave danger” for both Syria and Iraq. Does any of this matter for the Greg Shupaks of the world who traffic in Orwellian double-think? Doesn’t he care about journalistic integrity? After all, he teaches this shit to students. Apparently not. The ends justify the means even if you are a media studies professor.
He cites General Martin Dempsey as an expert on how America’s allies were funding ISIS but most serious analysts of the region point out that this group is largely self-funding, a result of taxing citizens unlucky enough to be under its control. (Not to discredit Dempsey, but this is the General who Seymour Hersh claims was disobeying Obama and collaborating with Russia in the war on ISIS—not exactly someone with no skin in the game as they put it.) It hardly bolsters Shupak’s case when he tells us that Vice President Biden “said the same thing”. You might as well say that Pee Wee Herman said the same thing. Testimony from his panel of experts concludes with Joshua Landis, who believes that 80 percent of American weapons have ended up in al-Nusra’s hands in Syria. This is the same Joshua Landis who advised NY Times readers in 2005 that “For Mr. Assad to help the United States, he must have sufficient backing from Washington to put greater restrictions and pressure on the Sunni majority.” I guess that’s another way to describe putting “the squeeze” on the riffraff. Fortunately for the USA, Assad was only too happy to oblige. He, like Gaddafi, participated in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program that resulted in men being kidnapped under legal cover and sent off to be tortured in Libya and Syria.
The idea that the USA is still set on “regime change” in Syria can only be maintained by a cynical avoidance of the facts. The same CIA upon whose behalf Assad tortured kidnapping victims had a training program for Syrian rebels that required them to sign a contract promising that their weapons would not be used against Baathist troops. This was a 500-billion-dollar program that fell apart not long after it was initiated. Who knows where the money went? Certainly not for MANPAD’s that could have made Syria a graveyard for the MiG’s that were bombing working class apartment buildings, open air markets, schools, hospitals and the like. Only 60 men completed the training. For a government that was supposedly determined to topple Assad, the Obama administration certainly did not act that way. Of course, people who had been paying careful attention to Syria knew all along what Obama would reveal to Jeffrey Goldberg: he had no intention of removing Assad.
Obama, unlike liberal interventionists, is an admirer of the foreign-policy realism of President George H. W. Bush and, in particular, of Bush’s national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft (“I love that guy,” Obama once told me). Bush and Scowcroft removed Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait in 1991, and they deftly managed the disintegration of the Soviet Union; Scowcroft also, on Bush’s behalf, toasted the leaders of China shortly after the slaughter in Tiananmen Square.
One can understand why Jacobin would publish such garbage. We realize that most leftists are tinged with Islamophobia. Given the constant barrage of propaganda against immigrants from the Middle East, the popularity of Bill Maher, the glee of Sanders supporters over Islamophobe Tulsi Gabbard joining his campaign, the nonstop propaganda campaign against Syrian rebels in a wide spectrum of the left that is essentially warmed over Christopher Hitchens will likely have the effect of the ringing of a bell for Pavlov’s dogs. Please excuse me for my refusal to salivate.
March 15, 2016
Jeffrey Goldberg, the unctuous Zionist liberal and diehard supporter of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, gained extraordinary access to President Obama for an Atlantic Magazine interview titled “The Obama Doctrine”. This 20,000-word document has been hailed by Patrick Cockburn as evidence that Obama has “turned his back on Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies”. If that is the case, one might expect to see him, Patrick L. Smith, Robert Parry, Seymour Hersh, Robert Fisk, Tariq Ali and David Bromwich on the unemployment line soon.
Although the prospects of wading through 37 pages of an article consisting of these two stroking each other’s ego filled me with dread, it behooved me as a chronicler of the Syrian debacle to lift up the rock and see what’s crawling around.
To start off, it confirms what I have argued for the longest time. Samantha Power, who was widely regarded as an aggressive “regime change” proponent who had Obama’s ear, was regarded as a king-sized annoyance by Obama who would only consider intervention if it improved the corporate bottom line. Rescuing impoverished Syrian farmers and shopkeepers fighting for their lives and a better future for their children was not even worth considering.
Referring to her book “A Problem from Hell” that defended a liberal interventionist “right to protect” policy that supposedly he agreed with, Obama rebuked her for advocating a war that was not in America’s interest from a realpolitik standpoint:
Power sometimes argued with Obama in front of other National Security Council officials, to the point where he could no longer conceal his frustration. “Samantha, enough, I’ve already read your book,” he once snapped.
The clash should have been obvious to anybody closely following White House foreign policy as I reported nearly two years ago. I seemed to be the only person who had read a NY Times article from October 22nd 2013 that stated “from the beginning, Mr. Obama made it clear to his aides that he did not envision an American military intervention, even as public calls mounted that year for a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from bombings.” The article stressed the role of White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough, who had frequently clashed with the hawkish Samantha Power. In contrast to Power and others with a more overtly “humanitarian intervention” perspective, McDonough “who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria.”
Within the thousands of articles in CounterPunch, DissidentVoice, Salon, ZNet, World Socialist Website and Global Research warning about Obama following in the footsteps of George Bush, there was a fundamental flaw they shared. They got the name right but only partially:
Obama, unlike liberal interventionists, is an admirer of the foreign-policy realism of President George H. W. Bush and, in particular, of Bush’s national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft (“I love that guy,” Obama once told me). Bush and Scowcroft removed Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait in 1991, and they deftly managed the disintegration of the Soviet Union; Scowcroft also, on Bush’s behalf, toasted the leaders of China shortly after the slaughter in Tiananmen Square.
This is the same Brent Scowcroft who deftly parried Ali G.’s advice that the US of A bomb Canada ‘cuz they wasn’t expectin’ it. Perhaps this is what inspired Obama to study his example. On a more fundamental level, Obama’s foreign policy boiled down to the precept he passed on to anybody who would listen—but privately: “Don’t do stupid shit.” I am sure that Bill Maher was one of the people Obama shared this wisdom with. I can just see the two high-fiving each other and braying like jackasses.
Almost sounding like Trump and Rubio, Obama went after Hillary Clinton when she wrote an article in the August 2014 Atlantic urging military aid to the Syrian rebels. According to Goldberg, Obama became “rip-shit angry” but afterwards made up with her, the woman he probably understood would carry on the Clinton/Bush/Obama legacy of neoliberalism and realpolitik. It boiled down to this. Obama had no interest in toppling Assad because he did not see him as a threat to American security. In fact, although Goldberg does not mention it, the Syrian dictator had collaborated with the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program, had gotten the red carpet treatment from Obama’s counterpart Tony Blair and even been written up with his wife in Mademoiselle magazine as the Middle East’s Beautiful Couple. More like the people who would have been invited to the White House than bombed.
Goldberg analyzes Obama’s retreat from the “red line” stance he took after the Baathists used sarin gas in an attack on Ghouta in August 2013 as one dictated by a fear of “going it alone”. It seemed that his allies had little interest in a war on Syria. Also, his Director of National Intelligence James Clapper entertained the idea that the rebels might have gassed themselves in a “false flag” operation. Had he been reading Global Research? I wouldn’t put it past him. This is the same James Clapper who had a “huge concern” that ISIS would exploit the refugee crisis to sneak terrorists into Europe and who lied to Congress in 2013, telling it that the NSA does not collect private data. In other words, just the sort of person who Obama would take at his word.
What’s missing from Goldberg’s account, however, is the more obvious explanation for Obama’s misgivings. It might jeopardize the rapprochement with Iran that was in its early stages. In September 2013, when all the usual left websites were besides themselves over the possibility of Obama invading Syria to impose “regime change”, he was on the telephone with Iran’s president discussing how to move things forward as the Guardian reported:
Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani held the first direct talks between American and Iranian leaders since the 1979 Islamic revolution, exchanging pleasantries in a 15-minute telephone call on Friday that raised the prospect of relief for Tehran from crippling economic sanctions.
Speaking at the White House shortly after the historic call, Obama said his discussion with Rouhani had shown the “basis for resolution” of the dispute over Iran nuclear programme.
At least for me, this carried a lot more weight than anything else. The White House had made up its mind that a tilt toward Iran was in its interest. Why overthrow Assad and alienate a country that had already proved itself as a flexible partner back when Oliver North was hammering out deals to supply weapons to the Nicaraguan contras?
For Obama’s critics on the interventionist right, his inaction was a blow to American credibility. Such “dithering” made the USA look weak and indecisive. But this is a shallow analysis. In fact, Obama’s stance was bold and decisive. He had decided that it was in America’s interest to have friendly relations with Iran and he would go to any lengths to ensure success. If he antagonized the Republican Party in the process, that would matter little since they had already shown a tendency to put a minus wherever he put a plus.
This pretty much covers what Obama had to say about Syria but I do want to conclude with some brief words about Libya, which factored heavily in his decision to stay out of Syria. As we have heard thousands of times from the Baathist amen corner, this “failed state” was reason enough to defend Assad, who like Gaddafi knew how to keep the jihadi rabble in line. Never forget that the two were entirely open to torturing them on behalf of the CIA. Waterboarding would learn ’em out of sharia law, you betcha.
Speaking now of the Libyan intervention, Obama says “It didn’t work.” An interesting observation but what does it mean? Keep in mind that the “anti-imperialist” left always thought that after Gaddafi was toppled, Libya would become something more or less like Panama after Noriega was overthrown—a vassal state that could reliably carry out American designs in the region like building up AFRICOM. (Of course, they never bothered to go to the AFRICOM website where Gaddafi’s high military command was held in high regard by their American counterparts for their willingness to collaborate.)
Yes, I suppose things turned out to be a disaster in Libya since it is anything but a tool of American interests. Widely regarded as an expert on what “went wrong” in Libya, Horace Campbell put it this way:
There is not a week since October 2011 when oil executives from Europe have not complained about insecurity in Libya. Although the Libyan ‘government’ has established a Petroleum Facilities Guard with 18,000 men to protect oil production, there are constant statements about ‘insecurity’ in Libya among European oil companies. According to the Financial Times, “Heavily armed militias are invading oilfields, locals demanding jobs are blockading facilities, and protests are closing down export terminals. And then there are the regional concerns in the wake of the attack on an oil facility in neighbouring Algeria earlier this year.”
Unruly natives demanding jobs are blockading facilities? Time to civilize ‘em with a Krag, I’d say.
Obama worried that if Assad was overthrown, Syria would become a mess like Libya with Islamic militias running around threatening law and order and creating a hostile environment for foreign investors. Who can blame him since Libya is a mess by any standard? And most of all, a place where it is dangerous to walk down the streets with out of control trigger-happy militias on the loose.
Just look at the murder rate. Since the militias declared open season on each other in 2014, 4,275 people have been killed. That’s nearly 32 out of every 100,000 people annually. There is of course an issue over whether this litmus test might be applied to Venezuela that has nearly 3 times as high a murder rate but this does not matter so much since the deaths are not accompanied by cries of God is Great, a sure sign of a failed state. This is not to speak of Syria that supposedly is fighting the Good Fight so that it does not end up like Libya, a rather puzzling proposition in the light of the proportional losses it would have suffered in the last two years if it was the size of Syria: 134,000.
At any rate, I will be taking up these questions at a future date when I have had a chance to do some necessary research. I will say at this point, however, that Libya like every other state in MENA is sharply divided by ethnic and religious differences, often masking a more fundamental class divide. In my view, the best way out of this impasse is building a revolutionary left like the kind that emerged in the wake of the Russian revolution of 1917 or the Cuban revolution of 1960. That task is not furthered by writing apologetics for Baathist barbarism, even if there were Cold War-encouraged delusions that Gaddafi or the Baathists were our kinds of peeps. These sorts of beliefs have been endemic on the left for much too long and it is about time we started with a clean slate.