Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 12, 2020

The rancid politics of the Douma false-flag brigades

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 8:40 pm

Medal of Freedom awardee and Syria false flagger speaks out

Almost a year ago, a group of pro-Assad academics in England organized as the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media and led by the odious Tim Hayward posted a report on their website written by former OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) employee Ian Henderson. It was a highly technical rebuttal to the official report, which concluded that dozens of Syrians living in Douma were killed by gas released from a weaponized chlorine tank dropped by a regime helicopter.

Delivered as a series of bullet points, Henderson’s report concluded:

  1. In summary, observations at the scene of the two locations, together with subsequent analysis, suggest that there is a higher probability that both cylinders were manually placed at those two locations rather than being delivered from aircraft.

“Manually placed” could have only meant one thing. Even though Henderson stopped short of stating it, the pro-Assad academics said it for him. This was a “false flag” intended to provoke American intervention. Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, they concluded that jihadis planted the chlorine tanks. Part of the conspiracy also involved killing dozens of Douma residents beforehand just to lend an air of realism to the staged event, like in a Hollywood film: “As we have previously noted, if the Douma attack was staged the only plausible explanation for the deaths of the victims is that they were murdered as captives by the opposition group in control of Douma at the time.” Most recently, one of Hayward’s henchmen went so far as to claim that they used a “gas chamber”. 

Eventually, another “whistleblower” turned up, an ex-OPCW employee first identified as “Alex”. He eventually turned out to be one Brendan Whelan. Like Henderson, Whelan stuck to the technical details that he presented to a conference organized by Wikileaks in October 2019. Wikileaks has also been posting leaked OPCW documents intended to absolve Assad of the Douma chemical attack. As part of the propaganda offensive by Wikileaks, an open letter was signed by former OPCW director José Bustani, Noam Chomsky and Richard Falk. They hoped that  their good names would help draw attention to “alternative hypotheses on how the alleged chlorine munitions came to be found in the two apartment buildings.” It is sad that these model citizens’ reputations will be stained forever by serving such filthy ends.

Grayzone has joined the British academic Assadists and Wikileaks in a tripartite propaganda campaign, posting and commenting on leaked material. As you probably know, Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton were well-known opponents of Assad but had a change of heart after Blumenthal had an all-expenses paid trip to Moscow for the purpose of celebrating RT’s anniversary. Once he returned, he started writing articles of the kind that he formerly denounced. Some people believe that he is getting paid by Russia to write propaganda. I have no proof one way or another.

Adding to these fairly high-profile outlets, there are other defenders of Assad who rally around the OPCW leaks. They include individuals like Jonathan Cook and Robert Fisk, as well as websites such as Mint Press, Off-Guardian, Consortium News and Moon of Alabama.

For the most part, the debate around Douma has been focused on technical issues such as whether there was forensic evidence of chlorine gas poisoning or whether the placement of the weaponized chlorine tanks was consistent with a helicopter attack or not. Much of it has been probably far too arcane for the average leftist to absorb. The best of it has originated from Eliot Higgins’s BellingCat or from Brian Whittaker’s articles on https://al-bab.com/. I have written a number of articles myself that are focused on the objective factors that make a false flag unlikely, such as the difficulty of securing weaponized chlorine tanks, but will take a look at Douma from a different angle today.

I want to show how the entire notion of a “false flag” runs counter to the agenda of the Trump administration that could care less about Syrians being gassed. In fact, Douma had been subject to three chlorine gas attacks in 2018 prior to the one that left over 40 people dead. Not a peep was heard from the White House before then. All told, there have been 336 chlorine gas attacks in Syria and 98 percent of them have been linked to the dictatorship.

Only once has the USA retaliated and that was after the attack on Douma in 2018, when Trump authorized a missile attack on buildings in Damascus that were supposedly part of its chemical weapons development program, as well as some air bases. Since chlorine can be purchased by practically anybody involved with sterilizing swimming pools and the like, the missile attack was mostly for show. The Economist reported that the USA contacted Russia in advance just to make sure that it didn’t become collateral damage. NBC News described it as an “empty gesture”, especially since the advance warning allowed the dictatorship to evacuate its war planes and helicopters to safety.

The propaganda offensive around Douma is based on the notion that Donald Trump is bent on “regime change”, whereas in fact he had zero interest in such a project. The only reason he retaliated after the Douma gas attack was to show that the USA was still capable of unleashing a well-orchestrated military offensive even if it was pulling its punches. The false-flaggers fail to acknowledge that Trump never had a problem with Baathist rule in Syria. Unlike George W. Bush, who was determined to topple it in Iraq, Trump never saw Syria as a threat to American interests except perhaps for Iran’s presence.

Keep in mind that Trump marched to the tune of a different drummer. Instead of listening to Max Boot or William Kristol, he was attuned to the commentary on Fox News that is for the most part on the same wave-length as Grayzone, et al. This should be obvious from the red-carpet treatment afforded Max Blumenthal during his appearances on Tucker Carlson’s show. But you might be surprised by how extensive sympathy for Assad was not only on Fox News but other rightwing media voices that Trump took to heart.

Just the other day, Trump awarded Rush Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom. I bet you didn’t know that Rush was a false-flagger in good standing. Here he is in 2013 (as shown in the YouTube clip above) blaming the rebels for using sarin gas on their own supporters in East Ghouta:

And then late last night, early this morning, I run across this piece by Yossef Bodansky. And I look him up, find out who he is, just shared his resume with you, and his story, his article here is that there is evidence, mounting evidence that the rebels in Syria did indeed frame Assad for the chemical attack. But not only that, that Obama, the regime, may have been complicit in it. Mounting evidence that the White House knew and possibly helped plan this Syrian chemical weapon attack by the opposition.

Just four days after the April 7, 2018 Douma attack, Ann Coulter called the experts who blamed Assad a bunch of liars.

Steve Doocy: shares the concerns of Grayzone, et al

Although the name Steve Doocy might not ring a bell, he is one of the hosts of Fox and Friends, the morning talk show that Trump starts his day with. Just a few days after the Douma chlorine attack, Doocy said, “I was reading this morning in Newsweek … that apparently this group called the White Helmets, … there are stories that they staged bodies to make it look like there was a gas attack.”

Glenn Beck, a former Fox TV star who went on to form his own media company called TheBlaze TV, was also caught in the act of  false-flagging. On April 17, 2018 his website posted an article titled “The war machine springs to life over Syria,” a title that sounds like it might have appeared on Grayzone. It stated:

Are these so-called “moderate rebels” morally capable of using poison gas on civilians, children especially? You bet they are. These are proven head-choppers, supported by the US, who have publicly posted numerous videos of themselves beheading children. Morals are not part of their framework or this war.

Plus, the gas war crime certainly serves their interest more than it does Assad’s at this time.

Between the two suspects, it’s far more likely that the increasingly desperate jihadists, who are clearly losing the fight at this point, would use any and every method at their employ to their advantage.

Finally, you have Michael Savage who is probably the most ardent supporter of Donald Trump on talk radio. He, like the others, drew the line on bombing Syria. Here he is in a scathing attack on what he called a “Potemkin raid”:

It was not just the Fox News talking heads that rejoiced in Trump’s repudiation of neoconservative-type warmongering. There were probably hundreds of articles from the left that saw him as a welcome departure from both George W. Bush and Barack Obama interventionism.

Gareth Porter, a perennial false-flagger, wrote an article for Middle East Eye titled “US intervention in Syria? Not under Trump” that was subtitled: “The Trump administration may recognise that the Syrian army is the only institution committed to resisting terrorism in its country.” Specifically:

The US military leadership was never on board with the policy of relying on those armed groups to advance US interests in Syria in the first place.

It recognised that, despite the serious faults of the Assad regime, the Syrian army was the only Syrian institution committed to resisting both al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

It seems likely that the Trump administration will now return to that point as it tries to rebuild a policy from the ashes of the failed policy of the Obama administration.

Dave Lindorff, a long-time contributor to CounterPunch with impeccable anti-imperialist credentials, chimed in as well with an article titled “Trump does something right for once”. It celebrated his announced withdrawal of 3,000 troops from Syria—a bit prematurely. But it did give him credit for at least making such an announcement that included this provocative encomium: “Hell, I’ll be the first to endorse him for a Nobel Peace Prize!”

Although American policy in Syria is still filled with contradictions, there is little doubt that Trump has given Putin carte blanche to have his way. Idlib is being bombed to oblivion, while the Max Blumenthal’s of the world are warning about American intervention being prepped by another false flag.

In yesterday’s Grayzone, there’s an article by the halfwit Aaron Maté that recapitulates all of the false flag themes that have been oozing out of the pores of the pro-Assad “left” for the past two years. One thing in particular caught my eye. He wrote:

Alex revealed that a delegation of three US officials visited the OPCW at The Hague on July 5th, 2018. They implored the dissenting inspectors to accept the view that the Syrian government carried out a gas attack in Douma and chided them for failing to reach that conclusion. According to Steele, Alex and the other inspectors saw the meeting as “unacceptable pressure.” In his statement to the UN Security Council, Henderson confirmed that he attended the meeting.

I mean, for fuck’s sake, they implored? Who authorized them to do so when clearly the Trump administration was well on its way to washing its hands of the entire resistance to Assad. A year before that delegation showed up at OPCW headquarters, Trump had cut off all funding to the rebels as the July 19, 2017 NY Times reported:

President Trump has ended the clandestine American program to provide arms and supplies to Syrian rebel groups, American officials said, a recognition that the effort was failing and that the administration has given up hope of helping to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The decision came more than a month ago, the officials said, by which time the effort to deliver the arms had slowed to a trickle.

It was never publicly announced, just as the beginnings of the program four years ago were officially a secret, authorized by President Barack Obama through a “finding” that permitted the C.I.A. to conduct a deniable program. News of the troublesome program soon leaked out.

In light of all the evidence that Trump has zero interest in a military intervention in Syria of the kind that Obama mounted in Libya, why do Wikileaks, Tim Hayward’s gang and Grayzone continue to act as if it is 2002 and Colin Powell is making speeches about WMD’s in Iraq? After 9 years of asymmetrical warfare in Syria that has included the bombing of hospitals, chemical attacks, the torture and murder of captive rebels by the thousands in Syrian prisons, the starvation siege of places like Aleppo and East Ghouta, these contemptuous apologists for mass murder like Max Blumenthal, Tim Hayward, and Julian Assange flunkies continue to act as if they are heroic antiwar activists and investigative journalists. In fact, they are swimming with the tide. The reality is that they are likely acting on the basest of motives that might include payoffs from the Kremlin and an intoxication with strongmen like Assad and Putin that only a psychiatrist could explain.

January 5, 2020

Fisking Douma

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 10:39 pm

Robert Fisk

All of Robert Fisk’s bad habits come into play in a recent Independent op-ed piece titled “The Syrian conflict is awash with propaganda – chemical warfare bodies should not be caught up in it” that is part of the aggressive propaganda campaign trying to absolve Bashar al-Assad from the chlorine gas attack in Douma last year. Along with Fisk, two other British journalists have been making a huge stink over alleged OPCW cover-ups. One is Jonathan Steele, who works for the liberal Guardian newspaper and the other is Christopher Hitchens’s brother Peter, who works for the rightwing Mail on Sunday. Their articles on Douma rely heavily on two OPCW whistle-blowers, Ian Henderson and “Alex”, who spoke at a conference sponsored by Courage Foundation, which is closely tied to Wikileaks. Since Julian Assange has been a long-time supporter of Assad, it is no surprise that his allies are doing everything possible to prove that jihadis organized a “false flag” in Douma in order to give the USA an excuse to bomb Syria.

Fisk starts off with an anecdote about a conversation he had with a NATO officer after giving a talk on the Middle East to European military officials in the Spring of 2019. After his talk, one of the officers cornered and then told him, “The OPCW are not going to admit all they know. They’ve already censored their own documents.” This kind of insider-knowledge should be familiar to anybody who has read Seymour Hersh for the past 8 years, until he became damaged goods to the LRB or any other reputable periodical. Just refer to some spook or General on the QT and you’ll wow your readers even if what they tell you cannot be verified. Unlike Hersh, Fisk couldn’t even get his informant to provide the usual “false flag” story. He writes, “I could not extract any more from him. He smiled and walked away, leaving me to guess what he was talking about.”

Luckily for Fisk, the NATO officer phoned him a few months later and said that he was not talking about the Henderson report. But, you might ask, what then was he talking about. Well, who knows since his informer then “immediately terminated” their conversation?

Apparently, it was Alex who once and for all established that the OPCW was in cahoots with the CIA in trying to make the unblemished Bashar al-Assad look like a war criminal. (Perhaps Fisk wasn’t aware that Douma had been attacked with chlorine gas three times already in 2018. He evidently saw no need to report about it since so few people died. So what if they were sick enough to be hospitalized? That’s what you deserve for living in a city that stubbornly resisted the dictatorship.)

The most damaging item in Fisk’s article turns once again to the chlorine tanks that were found in the upper floors of the apartment building where more than 40 dwellers were found dead on the lower floors:

Alex also said that a British diplomat who was OPCW’s chef de cabinet invited several members of the drafting team to his office, where they found three US officials who told them that the Syrian regime had conducted a gas attack and that two cylinders found in one building contained 170 kilograms of chlorine. The inspectors, Alex remarked, regarded this as unacceptable pressure and a violation of the OPCW’s principles of “independence and impartiality”.

I have no idea how informing the OPCW that two chlorine gas cylinders had been found amounted to “unacceptable pressure.” They had been widely acknowledged by the OPCW leadership on one side and the whistle-blowers on the other. They only differed on where they came from. The leadership said they came from a helicopter and the whistle-blowers said that jihadis carried these five-hundred pound tanks from some undisclosed location into the building and then up six stories in full view of the Douma population. You’d think that if this was the case, the dictatorship would have found someone from Douma to verify that a false flag did take place. Keep in mind that Assadists are making the case that these devilish jihadis released the gas in order to provide the necessary victims that Donald Trump needed to justify bombing some buildings in Damascus. Of course, if Trump was truly trying to punish Assad, he wouldn’t have cut off all aid to the rebels long before the Douma attack.

Ironically, the Independent article contained a video that had nothing to do with Fisk’s false flag bullshit. It was captioned “Syria war: At least 16 killed in ‘beyond sadistic’ missile attack on camp for displaced people” and depicted a slaughter in Idlib. For all we know, some of the dead might have come there from Douma. The day after the chlorine gas attack, those who were still living boarded buses and went to Idlib, a Gaza-like hellhole that was home to all the poor people who Assad wanted to quarantine from his religiously tolerant, state-socialist paradise.

Civilians gather next to a fragment of a ground-to-ground missile fired by Syrian regime forces (AFP via Getty Images)

The Independent covered the displaced people tragedy on November 21, 2019. Headlined with the same caption found beneath the video clip in Fisk’s article, it was the sort of reporting that the cynical and degraded reporter is no longer capable of:

The Syrian regime bombarded a camp hosting displaced people and a maternity hospital in the country’s northwest on Wednesday, killing at least 16 people, the vast majority of whom were women and children.

Dozens were injured and at least eight children and two women were thought to have been among those killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

Large parts of the camp were burnt and several fire brigades were called to the scene, with rescuers warning on Thursday that the death toll was expected to rise as more people succumbed to severe burn injuries.

The regime fired at least two ground-to-ground missiles, which caused “significant damage to the camp as well as the burning of tents of displaced people”, SOHR reported.

Fisk is no longer capable of such reporting because he became embedded in the dictatorship’s army in the same way that people like Judith Miller became embedded back in 2002. What a disgrace.

January 2, 2020

The Worldwide Church of Bashar al-Assad

Filed under: comedy,Syria — louisproyect @ 2:23 pm

December 29, 2019

Theodore Postol: Assad was responsible for deadly chlorine attack in Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 12:03 am

WHAT HAPPENED IN DOUMA? SEARCHING FOR FACTS IN THE FOG OF SYRIA’S PROPAGANDA WAR

That dropping chlorine gas canisters might be a terror weapon and not a “kill” weapon makes sense. Unlike sarin, which is a colorless, odorless liquid that often kills its victims even before they know they’ve been attacked, chlorine, at least as it’s been used in improvised munitions in Syria doesn’t usually kill; its victims can smell, see, and sometimes even hear it coming, and they run as fast as they can in the other direction. Many Syrians living in rebel-held areas, prepped by rebels or aid workers, know that chlorine is denser than air and quickly sinks, which is why it might find its way so easily from the roof down to the basement. The presence of chlorine might also explain something Abo Salah, the Douma Revolution cameraperson, had told me. The apartment attack site is only 150 meters from the huge tunnel I’d seen by the emergency medical ward and close to an entrance to that tunnel. The toxic gases, he said, “leaked to the main medical center via the tunnel, which contained hundreds of families fleeing the shelling.”

The trajectory taken by chlorine gas and its cloying visibility might also explain why, according to Nasser Hanan, most of his family had run back inside the building to their deaths. When I showed videos of the canisters to Theodore Postol in Boston, he was immediately certain that both had been launched from the sky by the Syrian military and that any “brouhaha” from the Russians to the contrary could be safely ignored. Postol, professor emeritus of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy at MIT, is a controversial figure in Syria analysis. Earlier in the conflict his work querying accounts from the OPCW and the UN about the use of sarin in two infamous gas attacks made him deeply unpopular among many Syria analysts, including Higgins, who felt that his analysis wrongly let Assad off the hook for war crimes. Postol, however, has many years of experience analyzing munitions, including the relative efficacy of Saddam Hussein’s SCUD missiles and U.S. Patriot anti-missiles during the first Gulf War. More recently, together with his late colleague Richard Lloyd, he’s devoted considerable attention to the development of improvised munitions in Syria, including chlorine canister bombs. When I showed him the Douma footage, he immediately concurred with the analysis of internet investigators like Higgins, with whom he often ferociously disagrees. The canister, he reckoned, would have weighed around 250 pounds and carried about 120 kilos of chorine. But it landed in an entirely unexpected way. Since the concrete-and-steel-mesh roof wasn’t very strong, the bomb punched a hole in the ceiling. The effect was as if the nose of the canister had been deliberately rammed into the external wall, so as to point gas directly into the room below, creating a gas chamber. That room would have filled with chlorine in one or two minutes. Drawing on Forensic Architecture’s modeling of the building onto which it fell, Postol estimated that the chlorine gas would have poured out into the upper floor at a magnitude several hundred times higher than a lethal dose, its density much greater because the release occurred in an enclosed space. As it made its way down into the two floors below, its density would have decreased, but still would have been much more than enough for a lethal dose.

When it filled the building, the chlorine would have spilled out via open windows and doors and then drifted along the street, like a thick fog, at much lower concentrations. As it sank through the building, the residents hunkered down in the basement would have smelled it too. Many likely ran headfirst onto the street, only to be confronted by a chlorine gas cloud forming all around them. Instinct and training likely kicked in; since chlorine is thicker than air, the instructions they’d been given would have been to head for the roof. Under most circumstances, this would have been excellent advice, like the injunction to workers at the World Trade Center on 9/11 to stay put at their desks, but in this case, it failed the residents of Douma. As they ran back upward through the building, they’d have been rendered unconscious very quickly and dead within minutes. Delivered at that kind of dosage — thousands of milligrams per cubic meter — chlorine could easily have caused the frothing at the mouth, skin burns, and damaged corneas observed by medical workers, as well as the horrible smell and breathing difficulties of which residents complained. It also makes sense of what the motorbike rider had told me: that the whole street had been affected by the foul odor. To panic and terrorize the population was, after all, what this was for.

The murderous result, concluded Postol, was “a very peculiar set of circumstances” and a terrible twist of fate. If the building had had been larger with a firmer roof, the balcony canister would probably not have fallen through; even if it had broken open and begun dispersing its payload, the chlorine would have wafted off into the open air and likely not injured anyone. If the roof had been even weaker and the canister had fallen right through onto the third floor, its valve might not have opened at all, like the one on the bed. But because of the way the canister punctured the concrete, its valve snapped so as to spew the contents directly into the enclosed space below. A lot of stars would have had to align for something like this to happen, just as the former OPCW inspector had said. But in this case, they did.

[Postol no longer holds these views, a clear indication that anything he says had to be taken with a grain of salt.]

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November 22, 2019

Douma, Chlorine Gas and Occam’s Razor

Filed under: Counterpunch,Syria — louisproyect @ 10:47 pm

Jonathan Steele makes the case for Bashar al-Assad’s innocence

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 22, 2019

Regrettably, I must again answer a CounterPunch article that portrays the Douma chlorine gas attack as a false flag. It relies on the testimony of “Alex”, another OPCW whistleblower who agrees with Ian Henderson. (For his safety, the Courage Foundation felt it necessary to conceal his last name. Since nobody has assassinated a single Assad supporter in the West, let alone beat one up in the past eight years, this measure seems specious.) Unlike Henderson, Alex was a member of the official Fact-Finding team and therefore spoke with more authority. In a November 15th CounterPunch article titled “The OPCW and Douma: Chemical Weapons Watchdog Accused of Evidence-Tampering by Its Own Inspectors”. , Jonathan Steele promotes Alex after the fashion of Jonathan Cooke and Ian Henderson only five months ago.

Jonathan Steele was the former chief foreign correspondent for the Guardian. He had an opinion piece in The Guardian dated September 21, 2018 titled “If ending Syria’s war means accepting Assad and Russia have won, so be it.” It refers to Russian planes dropping leaflets urging Idlib rebels to surrender. One supposes that if they ignore the leaflets, the bombs that Russian jets are dropping on Idlib hospitals might do the trick. Indeed, it was the chlorine gas attack of April 7. 2018 that convinced Douma’s rebels and their supporters to pack their bags and relocate to Idlib, a Gaza like enclave for Syria’s outcasts.

I first became aware of Steele’s politics back in 2012 when he cited a Doha poll expressing support for Assad, once again in an opinion piece for the Guardian. The poll revealed that 55% of Syrians wanted Assad to stay, motivated by fear of civil war. If you took a few minutes to analyze the polling methodology, you’d learn that only ninety-eight Syrians living inside the country took part in the survey. To participate in the poll, they had to be on the Internet. In other words, if you were a farmer or a baker from the countryside with nothing more advanced than a flip phone, your opinion did not count.

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October 16, 2019

The Cave

Filed under: Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

This Friday, “The Cave” opens at the Metrograph in NYC at 9pm. Directed by Feras Fayyad, who will be on hand for the Q&A, it tells the story of the main hospital in East Ghouta that was forced to operate below ground in order to escape relentless Russian aerial bombardment. It is focused on three women who chose to work in dangerous conditions and with none of the blandishments a medical profession affords. Their heroism is a reminder that the Syrian revolution brought out the best of the people even if people like Tulsi Gabbard would have you believe that their ambition was to impose sharia law and carry out a new 9/11 attack.

Dr. Amani Ballour is the hospital’s manager. Not only does she have to contend with Russian warplanes, she also to put up with patriarchal attitudes among the men she is serving. Early on, we see her trying to explain that since East Ghouta is under siege, he won’t be able to get the medication his wife needs from the hospital pharmacy. He replies that if it were a man who was managing the hospital, the medication would be available.

“The Cave” was directed by Feras Fayyad, who also directed “Last Men in Aleppo” in 2017, a documentary about the White Helmets that can now be seen on Amazon for $3.99. In my CounterPunch review of that film, I pointed to its value as a corrective to the propaganda offensive mounted by the likes of Max Blumenthal and company:

Despite the bleak situation faced by Syrian rebels and the dead certainty that Assad will remain in power, there are leftists who will greet the release of “Last Men in Aleppo” in the same way they greeted “The White Helmets”–as a propaganda film designed to burnish the reputation of a group serving al-Qaeda’s interests in Syria. In articles by Vanessa Beeley, Rania Khalek, Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal, you get the same talking points that you get in RT.com. The White Helmets are creatures of the USA and Britain designed to make Assad look bad, just like those “false flag” sarin gas attacks.

Seeing “The Cave” can be a wrenching experience since so much of it is devoted to the suffering of people, most of them children, who are brought into the hospital for emergency treatment. We see the three female doctors working under impossible conditions as the roar of Russian jets penetrates to the underground hospital they serve.

Unlike other documentary filmmakers, Fayyad’s lived experience made him uniquely positioned to capture the human drama of first responders in Aleppo and female physicians in East Ghouta. Like them, he was part of the most powerful revolutionary upsurge of the 21st century. If any proof was needed of the threat it posed to the rich and the powerful, it is the scorched earth policy of Assad and his Russian allies that shows the need for throttling the infant in the cradle.

In March 2011, Bashar al-Assad began cracking down on the country’s nascent pro-democracy movement. Because he had made a film about an exiled Syrian poet, Fayyad was arrested, imprisoned and tortured for 15 months. The dictatorship not only jailed protestors but anyone seen as even slightly sympathetic to their cause.

Fayyad was an eye-witness to the savagery of Syrian prisons. “One of the things that you heard all the time was the torture of women and children. And women would be tortured mostly because they were women. The regime was using women as tools of war, to intimidate and attack its opponents. I came out of prison destroyed, angry. As a male growing up in a family of strong women, this was very personal for me. I felt that someday I had to use my voice as a filmmaker to speak out.”

Since East Ghouta was under siege, Fayyad was forced to recruit a film team that would work under his direction from afar. Filmed in East Ghouta between 2016 and 2018, when a regime chemical attack precipitated an exodus to Idlib by the doctors and their patients, “The Cave” makes the audience feel close to claustrophobic and frightening underground environment. The primary subjects of the film rarely venture to the surface, where the risk of being killed by a Russian warplane is very high.

Most of their lives is spent in artificially lit rooms with cellphones the primary connection to the outside world, including Dr. Amani’s poignant phone calls to her father. By showing both their harrowing experiences as emergency room attending physicians and their quotidian existence preparing meals, celebrating birthdays (there is no cake, only popcorn) and trading friendly jibes, we can connect with them as complex characters. Fayyad says, “Of course, the bombings and terrible events that happen are powerful and important to capture. But I also wanted to shine a light on the small, quiet details of each day – things that at first glance may seem unimportant but that, when looked at with more care, are actually the things that make us human.  That enable us to survive.”

October 1, 2019

Follow the Money

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 12:14 am

A shadowy group that supports Syrian dictator Bashar-al Assad is giving thousands of dollars to far-right activists, conspiracy websites, YouTube personalities, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange — all under the guise of an award for “uncompromised integrity in journalism.”

The Association for Investment in Popular Action Committees, an umbrella nonprofit based in the San Francisco Bay area, ostensibly exists to raise awareness of “social justice issues that are key to sustainable world peace.” In practice, that has meant bolstering public support for the Assad regime, which has rewarded the group and one of its main fronts, the Syria Solidarity Movement, with visas and access to top officials in Damascus.

The association is now rewarding its fellow travelers, a number of whom joined its treasurer at a state-sponsored conference this month, addressed personally by Bashar al-Assad, to promote “solidarity with the workers and people of Syria.”

“The Serena Shim Award for Uncompromised Integrity in Journalism honors non-mainstream journalists who continue to tell challenging truths in difficult times,” states a website the group set up. The award is named after a U.S. woman who worked for Press TV, an Iranian government television outlet, and died in a 2014 car accident while reporting from Turkey. “The funds provided by this Award enable these courageous journalists to continue their work in an environment that penalizes them for their clarity of vision and willingness to expose the powerful,” the award website states.

While obscure, and not to be confused with the “AIPAC” that supports the state of Israel, the association behind this latest journalism award made headlines for their generosity just last year, when former Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich disclosed that he’d been paid $20,000 to speak at a 2017 pro-Assad conference in the United Kingdom. Kucinich was running for governor at the time of the admission, which helped cost him the race.

“On the campaign trail Dennis has refused to condemn Assad,” former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, a Democrat, said at the time. “What we now know goes further. Dennis wasn’t just defending Assad out of conviction, he was also being paid by a group that has been a vocal cheerleader for this murderous dictator.

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September 21, 2019

Scathing review of Max Blumenthal’s “Management of Savagery” and Verso’s standards

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 1:17 pm

From the September 20, 2019 Times Literary Supplement

Apparently, the jpeg below is difficult to read. Therefore, I am posting text beneath it that should be clear.

Blame game
A problematic approach to the modern Middle East
by LYDIA WILSON

Max Blumenthal
THE MANAGEMENT OF SAVAGERY How America’s national security state fueled the rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump
400pp. Verso. £18.99. 978 I 78873 229 1

It is easy to blame the United States for many of the world’s ills: easy because of the availability of evidence. It is also easy to overstate your case, with misleading or one-sided examples —the trap that Max Blumenthal falls into in The Management of Savagery. Fortunately, what many will see as propaganda, sketching the role of the US in the recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, tips sufficiently and with enough regularity into full-scale conspiracy to allow any careful reader to dismiss it. A spot of fact-checking quickly furthers the case against it. Less happily, this book raises serious questions about the reputation of its publisher, Verso. Did no one care to send the manuscript out for checking?

Detailed analysis of all the errors would require a short book in itself, so a small sample will have to suffice. Charles Lister is a researcher of Syrian opposition groups; he is seemingly targeted in these pages, and the following mistakes all occur over just four pages dedicated to him. The Amnesty report Blumenthal quotes, “revealing” Lister’s apparent knowledge in 2015 of an extremist sheikh’s actions, is from 2016 and not 2014 (ie he didn’t know). Blumenthal claims David Cameron relied on an article written by Lister in the Spectator (in November 2017), despite the fact the article came out after Cameron’s speech. There is a mistake in the order of events between the US sending anti-tank weapons to opponents of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and the US Democrats asking Congress for money to do so. The money was actually authorized for training, not weapons. There is the author’s reporting of an argument Lister made for sup-plying weapons to groups “like Zinki” —though Zinki had been removed from the approved list by Lister by this point. Blumenthal uncritically reports the claims by a Pentagon spokesman that Aleppo had been held by Jabhat al-Nusra, despite the fact this was corrected later by CENTCOM (US Central Command). There is the claim, made twice, that Lister did his research in Riyadh (he is at one point described as being at “a luxury hotel in Riyadh”): in fact the first and only time Lister went to Saudi Arabia was in 2017, many years after the research detailed by Blumenthal.

Then there is the author’s treatment of opinions he disagrees with, his tendency to attack the person rather than the content of what they are saying. At one point he refers to the “vehemently anti-Russian Washington Post correspondent, Anne Applebaum” — surely in order to impugn the credibility of Applebaum’s husband (Rudoslaw Sikorski). He appears less demanding of his own sources, by contrast, neglecting, for example, to mention that Kevork Almasian, who claims that the rural protests in Syria were from the beginning dominated by Islamists, works for the far-right party AfD in Germany and for the Kremlin-backed think tank Katehon, created by the fascist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin; in fact, Almasian’s name is buried in footnotes, as are many others who agree with Blumenthal. They do not receive the same level of scrutiny in the text.

Blumenthal’s portrayal of the notorious chemical attack on East Ghouta in Syria in 2013 uses long-debunked myths — emanating from both the Syrian regime and Russia — to claim that Assad did not carry out the attack; the author apparently ignores all the evidence amassed to counter his claim. When he does praise the US, it is for the wrong reasons. He calls President Obama’s response to East Ghouta, brokered by Russia, of backing down from military intervention in return for Assad’s promise to dispose of Syria’s stock-pile of chemical weapons, a “rare example of de-escalation in a war zone”. This ignores the fact that killings by Assad’s regime went up when it became clear that the US was wary of intervention, not even in the face of war crimes and Obama’s own “red line”. Blumenthal’s take on the chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun in 2017, which prompted a rare intervention by Western powers, assumes a different line: he simply sketches a conspiracy almost by innu-endo, referring airily to “an unusual procedure for the treatment of sarin victims” (“splashing water on writhing children … White Helmets treating victims without gloves”), rather than directly meeting the challenge of refuting the abundant evidence of the attack.

Perhaps the most absurd position Blumenthal forces himself into is his vilification of those seeking to intervene for humanitarian reasons, a standpoint “enabling them to mask imperial designs behind a patina of ‘genocide prevention”‘. How terrible it must be to be the kind of person who wants to prevent genocide, or, in the case of Syria, the “crime of extermination” according to the UN (because genocide is against one specific group of people and Assad was found guilty —by the Human Rights Council — of targeting a whole country). Blumenthal continues: “With this neat tactic, they [the interventionists] effectively neutralized progressive anti-war elements and tarred those who dared to protest their wars as dictator apologists”. This description extends to the late Labour MP Jo Cox, a “self-proclaimed feminist”, in Blumenthal’s description, who, with this position of “military humanism”, fuelled the civil war and thus the refugee crisis and thus the far right, which, the author almost seems to imply, gave rise to her own murder. What we should say about dictators is an awk-ward question for Blumenthal, who, in his lengthy analysis of Syria, neglects to analyse Assad’s role in the carnage (over 90 per cent of civilian deaths in Syria over the past eight years have been attributed to the Syrian president’s forces and his allies). Further, he omits to discuss the champions of this dictator: there is barely a mention of Russia’s and Iran’s bolstering of the brutal regime, let alone their direct participation in the civil war, despite Syria occupying the majority of The Management of Savagery (a rare example comes when Russia is praised for “rolling back jihadist insurgents” — Assad’s own excuse for the interminable violence). For Blumenthal, it would seem, intervention is only bad when conducted by the US and its allies; the US alone destabilized the Middle East, and no one else bears any responsibility at all.

A major weak point in the argument, even on Blumenthal’s own terms, is the lack of coherent explanation for this thirst for foreign invasion. Why does the endless parade of Americans in this book, from across the political spectrum, hunger so insatiably for war? The confusion partly arises out of the author’s failure to define the blanket terms he uses: “imperialist” and “neoconservative” (even “neocon democrat”) ambitions are bandied around as if these in themselves were powerful enough concepts to explain everything.

Another mistake Blumenthal falls into in every aspect of his analysis is more common to Western commentaries on the Middle East: denying any agency to the people on the ground. There is no credence given to the fact that Syrians themselves protested and took up arms against Assad for their own reasons, and not just to fulfil America’s foreign policy agenda (Blumenthal takes care to refer to the “Western-backed opposition to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad”). Similarly, in his analysis of Libya, Blumenthal’s denial of the rebels’ stated aims of gaining basic democratic rights leads him to rely on evidence from the Gaddafi family to depict the apparent stability and harmony of the country before Western arrogance took a hand. He seems blind to the motivations of the millions of Arabs desperate to see the back of the Libyan dictator.

Publishers, especially those with illustrious histories, have a responsibility for what they put their stamp on, and with this book Verso has torn a hole in its reputation. The overarching argument shoehorns history into unrecognizable shapes; the fact-checking has clearly not been as it should; even the copy-editing seems to have been skimped on, judging by the number of typos. But even more worrying than these basic failures in publishing a meaty, non-fiction book is the apparent lack of concern about the controversy surrounding the author himself. As the NYRB Daily noted last year (October 16, 2018), Blumenthal’s views on Syria “completely flipped” in 2015. Having previously been critical of Assad’s Russia-sponsored regime, he seemed to have performed a volte-face. Blumenthal now regularly retweets pro-Kremlin sources. Targets of his Twitter comments include an eight-year-old girl (Bana Alabed) living in rebel-held Aleppo, who ran an account of the siege with her mother. According to Blumenthal: “Alabed & the White Helmets [were building] on a grand tradition of pro-war psy-ops” in their first-hand reports.

A comprehensive list of rebuttals to an earlier article of Blumenthal’s with similar views was collected at the blog Hummus for Thought (October 5, 2016). It began with an impassioned plea from the Syrian Marcell Shehwara for readers to start listening to Syrians themselves, rather than dismissing them as stooges, as Blumenthal does. There are many similar take-downs of Blumenthal’s work online. It doesn’t take much digging to realize how many people question the author’s work.

Verso’s choice to continue to publish Max Blumenthal (see also the Verso-published The 51 Day War: Resistance and ruin in Gaza, 2015) therefore seems perverse, casting doubt on the entire stable of authors in this field. There are also the moral implications of this book: there is the danger that such arguments can be used by others to legitimize violence against secular and humanitarian actors in a number of theatres of conflict, thus fuelling the conflicts themselves.

 

July 26, 2019

Max Blumenthal’s “The Management of Savagery”: a review

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 2:26 pm

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Not long after George W. Bush invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, a number of leftists signed up with his “war on terror”. Many added their names to the 2006 Euston Manifesto that proclaimed: “Terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology is widespread today. It threatens democratic values and the lives and freedoms of people in many countries.” Among the most prominent supporters of Bush’s wars was Christopher Hitchens who wrote an article for Slate in 2007 not only defending the use of the term Islamofascism but endorsed ultra-rightist David Horowitz’s attempt to organize “Islamofascism Awareness Week” on American campuses. Most on the left disowned Hitchens and company because the USA was making war, as it does in most cases.

But occasionally, the “war on terror” is prosecuted by another super-power. When the Arab Spring came to Syria in March 2011, you found the same kind of Eustonian willingness to support military intervention against Islamic fanatics but this time it was on behalf of Vladimir Putin who was supposedly defending a sovereign government under attack from bearded, sharia-law supporting Salafists. Hitchens defended all sorts of war crimes against such people, writing “Cluster bombs are perhaps not good in themselves, but when they are dropped on identifiable concentrations of Taliban troops, they do have a heartening effect.” Meanwhile, latter-day versions of Hitchens make the same kinds of excuses for barrel bombs and absolve Bashar al-Assad of all chemical attacks. When it comes to “defeating al-Qaeda”, anything goes.

While Max Blumenthal is certainly not Christopher Hitchens’s equal either as a writer or an intellectual, he certainly aspires to be Christopher Hitchens of today. When Hitchens made up his mind to back Bush’s wars, he took great pains to explain his evolution. By contrast, Blumenthal has never said a single word about his own mutation. For example, in July 2012, he wrote a resignation letter to Al-Akhbar because he was fed up with the pro-Assad newspaper:

I was forced to conclude that unless I was prepared to spend endless stores of energy jousting with Assad apologists, I was merely providing them cover by keeping my name and reputation associated with Al Akhbar. More importantly, I decided that if I kept quiet any longer, I would be betraying my principles and those of the people who have encouraged and inspired me over the years. There is simply no excuse for me to remain involved for another day with such a morally compromised outlet.

Not long after Blumenthal went to a banquet to celebrate RT.com’s anniversary, all such articles went into a memory hole. Instead, he became one of Assad’s biggest supporters on the left, joined by Ben Norton who, while a mutant himself, at least offered a lame explanation. Can such conversions be explained by Kremlin gold? I think such speculation is unwise, especially since it doesn’t account for genuine reconsiderations of one’s political views. Assuming that Blumenthal’s were genuine, you only wonder why he never bothered to account for them unless he worried that they would sound as lame as Norton’s.

This year Verso published Blumenthal’s “The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State Fueled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump”. While the first half of the book covers the obvious horrors of American intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, the underlying goal is to demonstrate that Syria is just another “regime change” operation that the author hopes to forestall. You’d think that after 8 years with the regime still intact, it might be obvious that this was never the goal but let’s leave that aside. Since there is no reason for this review to question the chapters on Iraq and Afghanistan upon which we are in agreement, I will focus on the second half of the book that basically reprises what Blumenthal has written after his “road to Damascus” conversion.

One of the more dramatic examples of Blumenthal I versus Blumenthal II can be found in the beginning of Chapter 9, titled “Collateral Damage, Indirect Benefits” in which he recounts a visit to the Zaatari refugee camp in 2013. After a few words describing the miserable conditions, he concludes this passage with a leitmotif found throughout his book, namely that Assad’s opponents were jihadists:

Among the few able to leave were two young men I witnessed walking past a Jordanian intelligence station toward the Syrian border. When my guide asked them where they were going, one responded simply, “To make jihad.”

The article he wrote for Nation Magazine in 2013 after his visit to Zaatari had the opposite intention, namely to help his readers understand why refugees call for American intervention. Titled “We Just Wish for the Hit to Put an End to the Massacres”, there’s not a single word about jihadists. Instead, there is this:

None of the dozens of adults I interviewed in the camp would allow me to report their full names or photograph their faces. If they return to Syria with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad still intact, they fear brutal recriminations. Many have already survived torture, escaped from prisons or defected from Assad’s army. “With all the bloodshed, the killing of people who did not even join the resistance, Bashar only wanted to teach us one lesson: That we are completely weak and he is our god,” a woman from Dara’a in her early 60s told me.

The next step after portraying Zaatari as a viper’s nest of jihadists is to cite a Northeastern professor named Max Abrahms who led a polling team to discover why Syrians became refugees. It revealed that most were fleeing Islamic terrorists rather than the dictatorship. In 2015 and 2016, Abrahms interviewed 130 refugees and discovered that a mere 16 percent blamed Assad for their flight.

Abrahms is a member of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy that cheered on George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq as well as Israel’s nonstop war on the Palestinians. Writing for National Review, Abrahms defended the IDF’s brutal crackdown on the West Bank in 2002, calling it language that the terrorists could understand.

In 2010, Blumenthal blasted the very same Washington Institute for Near East Policy for helping to launch an Islamophobic crusade. Apparently, it is acceptable to take Abrahms at his word when it is the Kremlin rather than Washington dropping the bombs. It also helps that this former West Point lecturer on terrorism concurs with Blumenthal’s demonization of Syrian rebels. When Abrahms wrote in Foreign Affairs that “Assad’s main enemies in Syria have been dangerous extremists, no matter how many governments fund them, train them, or arm them,” he was on Blumenthal’s side even if his politics were indistinguishable from Netanyahu’s.

Perhaps the only hint that Blumenthal was ever opposed to Assad comes in the beginning of Chapter 6 (The Next Dirty War) where the first paragraph alludes to Assad’s “repression and cronyism”, as well as the neoliberal policies associated with Assad’s first cousin, the billionaire Rami Makhlouf. Once that paragraph is out of the way, he can concentrate on the main purpose of the chapter which is to demonstrate that early on the revolt used sectarian violence against the well-meaning President, who despite all these sins, was supported by 55 percent of the population according to a Qatar poll taken in 2012. The poll was exploited in a broad propaganda offensive that year to legitimize Assad. While his 88.7 vote totals in 2014 might raise eyebrows, how can you question the findings of a Qatari poll? After all, Qatar was widely regarded as an Islamist state.

There was a sleight-of-hand in Blumenthal’s reference to 55 percent of Syrians backing Assad. Fifty-five percent of Syrians would be about 11 million people but it turns out that only 97 took part in the poll since it was limited to those who had Internet access and a deliberately small sampling at that. With 53 among the 97 Syrians reached saying they did not want him to resign (not exactly a ringing endorsement), it hardly buttresses Blumenthal’s case for Assad. Perhaps the best opinion poll would have been free elections but that would have risked the family dynasty being ousted and thus strictly out of the question. As his supporters’ graffiti made clear, the choice was either Assad or burning down the country. It turned out that they got both.

To make the connection between the Taliban and Syrian rebels, Blumenthal wastes no time. Immediately after the perfunctory reference to class divisions in Syria, he introduces us to a Salafist bogeyman who is supposed to symbolize everybody opposed to the regime, namely Anas al-Ayrout, a cleric in the seaport town of Baniyas who was opposed to mixed-gender classes and called for ending the ban on niqab, the full-face veil.

For a more balanced treatment of Baniyas, I recommend “Cities in Revolution: Baniyas”, a 34-page report that presents an entirely different portrait of al-Ayrout. Despite the fact that he held conservative religious views, he was not a sectarian. In one of the first protests in Baniyas, this was his role:

The demonstration was unorganized at first, and within a few moments, Maher al Masri, climbed on the shoulders of his freedom and began chanting as well, with people falling in behind him. The protesters moved unbothered until they reached the bus depot of the city. At that point, a number of protesters attacked an Alawite bus worker and damaged his truck. Ayrout, however, intervened immediately and ensured reparations were paid to the bus owner. Ayrout then emerged chanting, “Sunni, Alawi, we all want freedom” and the protesters repeated after him until they reached the intelligence security headquarters in the city.

What was the response of the dictatorship’s supporters? A few days later, a pro-Assad militia stormed into the town and carried out mass arrests. The last mass protest took place on May 5, 2011. Led by women, they were confronted by the military and intelligence forces who shot many peaceful protestors. Dozens were arrested, many of whom are still detained if they were fortunate enough not to be murdered in prison. The town remained restive. In the next round of protests in 2013, the dictatorship went even further. According to the UN, between 300 to 450 people were killed. None of this is reflected in Blumenthal’s chapter. Instead, he reports on how a single Alawite fruit vendor was killed in Baniyas—a sad but not unexpected reaction to the bloodbath Sunnis suffered. Blumenthal was simply repackaging what Syrian media was saying at the time, namely that the military was on a mission to clear out “the terrorists”.

After repeated slaughters such as this, the opposition to Assad finally saw the need to take up arms to defend the mass movement. Once weaponry became available from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Pentagon, a “proxy war” erupted that, according to Blumenthal, “began to look more and more like Afghanistan in the 1980s.” This is the central argument of “Management of Savagery”. Washington supposedly sought to replace Assad with a “pliant, pro-Western Sunni government, like the kind that ruled Jordan.”

Since it is clear that Blumenthal is unfamiliar with Marxism, the failure to identify the class alignments in Syria should be expected. Contrary to his analogy with Jordan (or Iraq for that matter), there was no significant social support for “regime change” among the country’s elite. The Sunni bourgeoisie was one of the mainstays of an economic and political elite that was united in its hostility toward the rural and the young urban opposition whatever their religious beliefs.

Joseph Daher, a Syrian Marxist, wrote an article titled “Assad Regime Still Reliant on Fractions of the Sunni Bourgeoisie” that explains why the division in Syria was more about class than faith:

The Asad-Makhluf cartel could include external actors into their ‘asabiyya[ii] (group solidarity or social bond) such as Mohammad Saber Hamsho, who is still a prominent Syrian Sunni businessman in the country. A few years prior to the uprising in 2011, he became a powerful political and economic figure as a result of his association with Maher Al-Asad, the brother of Bashar, following his marriage with Maher’s sister in law. He was ‘elected’ as deputy in Parliament in 2003 and 2007 (Donati 2013: 40). Before the uprising, many other examples of old fashioned Sunni state bourgeoisie turned into private entrepreneurs existed, such as former Minister of Defense Mustapha Tlass and sons (owners of MAS Group, a chain of different commercial and semi-industrial companies) and the sons of former Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam (owners of Afia, one of the country’s largest food firms, which produces food conserves, olive oil and bakery products) (Matar 2015: 110). These new businessmen became prominent in the economic life of Syria, increasingly taking over the positions occupied by traditional bourgeoisie.

They had class interests in common with the family dynasty that ruled Syria. Those who were gunned down in Baniyas, Homs, Aleppo, and Ghouta suffered from the “neoliberalism” Blumenthal referred to in a single sentence at the start of Chapter six. Their class interests were the same as those who protested throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. In some cases, the elite was Sunni and the underclass was Shi’a. In other cases, the non-Sunnis were on top. In all cases, the only way to make sense of the conflict was to examine class relations, something that is of little interest to a conspiracist-minded journalist.

In her chapter in Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zintl’s “Syria: from Reform to Revolt”, Syrian scholar Myriam Ababsa describes the desperation of the underclass that is never mentioned once in “Management of Savagery”. In the agricultural heartland of Syria, drought had left the peasantry in ruins. In 2009, 42 percent of Raqqa governorate suffered from anemia because of inadequate nutrition. Deepening the distress, farmers were forced to use polluted river water to irrigate their crops, which led to widespread food poisoning.

Poverty forced small-scale farmers, herders and landless peasants to stop sending their children to school. According to the UN, school enrollment decreased in eastern Syria by 70 percent after April 2008, leaving illiteracy rates at much higher levels than the well-off urban neighborhoods that backed Assad. Up to 220 villages were abandoned in the rural Hassaka governorate.

These modern-day versions of the Joad family ended up in the outskirts of Aleppo, Damascus and other major cities. They either entered the informal economy or scraped by in low-paying jobs just like Latino immigrants to the USA. When the Arab Spring came to Syria, they rose up alongside the young urban activists who simply wanted freedom. None of them cared about whether women should be able to wear full-face veils or not. They wanted food on their tables, school for their children, and the right to speak out without being tortured or killed by snipers. Blumenthal certainly understood this when he wrote about the Zaatari refugee camp in 2012 but calculated that his career was more important than telling the truth. Ironically, it has been his unseemly propaganda work for Assad that has lost him writing gigs now that much more of the left is aware of the dictatorship’s depravity. Why Verso would find it in their interest to publish this book is another story altogether, except to consider the possibility that Tariq Ali’s own pro-Assad loyalties might have mattered more than book sales.

While most victims of Assad’s scorched earth tactics died because of bombs or bullets, the chemical attacks tend to get the biggest headlines although they only account for less than 1 percent of the fatalities. Those who try to absolve Assad of these attacks always repeat the same defense, namely the illogic of using such weapons when he has such a one-sided battlefield advantage. What’s missing from this calculation is the psychological effect of chemical weapons that terrorize everybody opposed to Assad into submission whether they are the target or not. If he is willing to defy public opinion and risk empty threats of reprisals from the West, such attacks are as key to his strategy as bombing hospitals or any other measure meant to punish civilians in rebel-controlled areas.

Like all other defenders of the dictatorship, Blumenthal regards such attacks as “false flags” intended to justify “regime change”. In reviewing the aftermath of the sarin gas attack in East Ghouta six years ago, he credits the OPCW for preempting Obama’s empty “red line” threats:

The Syrian opposition had banked everything on American intervention, but to their dismay, diplomacy wound up winning the day. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov rescued Obama from the interventionists, arranging a last-minute deal that required the Syrian government to dispose of its entire stock of chemical weapons under the supervision of the OPCW. The agreement was a rare example of de-escalation in an era of permanent war. For its successful destruction of the Syrian chemical stocks, the OPCW was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

Among the four people serving on the OPCW committee overseeing investigations is one José Bustani, a Brazilian diplomat who was at one time the director general of OPCW, the highest position in the organization until he was forced out. The circumstances of his removal buttress Blumenthal’s characterization of it as a trustworthy UN Agency. In 2002, Bustani was negotiating with Iraq join the OPCW, thus allowing its inspectors full access to Iraq’s purported “chemical weapons arsenal”. If Bustani had succeeded, this would have impeded the Bush administration’s war plans, by removing one of their “weapons of mass destruction” pretexts. When John Bolton got wind of Bustani’s efforts, he demanded his resignation. In a phone conversation between the two men reported in The Intercept, Bolton is quoted:

“You have 24 hours to leave the organization, and if you don’t comply with this decision by Washington, we have ways to retaliate against you.” After a moment’s pause, Bolton specified the consequences of not resigning: “We know where your kids live. You have two sons in New York.”

Given the OPCW’s integrity and independence, it should be the ultimate judge on whether Assad was responsible for using sarin gas in East Ghouta in 2013 and a chlorine attack in Douma last year that left 43 dead. While it is out of the OPCW’s purview to assign blame, the report on East Ghouta implicitly held the dictatorship responsible. The Russians deputy foreign minister Sergei A. Ryabkov stated: “We think that the report was distorted. It was one-sided. The basis of information upon which it is built is insufficient.” There was the same response to the chlorine gas attack in Douma. Not guilty.

Blumenthal goes so far as to say that the only traces of chlorine found in Douma were the same as those that could have originated from household cleaners or swimming pools. He even credits Robert Fisk’s version of what took place, based on what a doctor told him. The truth was that no chemical attack had taken place at all and that jihadis had manufactured evidence to create the illusion of one, just as some conspiracy theorists view the Apollo Moon landing as a staged event.

Despite the fact that the “good” OPCW helped to avert American intervention after East Ghouta, it became “bad” after a leaked report from a former OPCW employee claimed that the weaponized chlorine tanks were placed in the building where 43 people died as a “false flag” rather than dropped from a helicopter. Recently, Blumenthal’s Gray Zone endorsed the leaked document, thus rendering the account found in “Management of Savagery” of a faked massacre as fraudulent. This is consistent with the journalistic tendency of the Assadist left to throw stuff against a wall to see what sticks.

If the purpose of “Management of Savagery” is to educate the world about the need to resist Salafist proxy wars against a secular government with broad support, it would behoove the author to take account of the state of the Middle East following the almost total victory of the Baathists in Syria.

If the acid test is only whether American interests were thwarted, such a balance sheet will be so narrowly circumscribed that it will be next to useless. Much of Blumenthal’s analysis of Syria is based on the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood that he lumps together with ISIS, al-Qaeda, the FSA and any other armed group that opposed Assad. To be consistent, he’d have to support General al-Sisi’s “war on terror” in Egypt that took the form of a bloodbath coup against President Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who died of a heart attack during a kangaroo court hearing last month. Under al-Sisi, Egypt has put the military in charge in the same way it was under Mubarak. Political rights are non-existent and subsidies to the poor have been slashed.

In 2016, al-Sisi stated that “Our priority is to support national armies, for example in Libya to assert control over Libyan territories and deal with extremist elements. The same with Syria and Iraq.” Given both dictator’s resistance to Salafist elements, their affinity makes perfect sense. Given Assad’s close ties to Russia, there is another basis for shared diplomatic and political interests. Last year, Putin signed a Strategic Partnership Treaty with Egypt that should have gratified Max Blumenthal even if its benefits were lost on the Egyptian working class.

Finally, there is Saudi Arabia, the arch-demon in Max Blumenthal’s worldview. What is the current relationship between the main sponsor of jihadi terrorists worldwide and the Baathist dictator that it was supposedly bent on overthrowing? It has joined other Middle Eastern monarchies and dictatorships in re-establishing ties to Syria. After Assad regained control of 90 percent of his country, the Sunni states decided to mend their fences with the Alawite President in the interest of stability. This should not come as any great surprise since the Sunni rich in Syria never had a problem with Assad in the first place, so why should they?

July 23, 2019

For Sama

Filed under: Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 6:18 pm

Opening on Friday at the Quad in New York and at the Laemmle in Los Angeles, “For Sama” is a documentary filmed and directed by Waad al-Kateab, the young mother of Sama, a baby girl born during the siege of East Aleppo. Waad was married to Hamza al-Kateab, the head doctor at the only still-functioning hospital–the other 8 had been bombed into oblivion by Syrian helicopters and Russian jets. With his medical credentials, it would have been easy for Hamza to pick up and move to another country where he could have enjoyed a comfortable life with his family. Instead, Waad and Hamza remained because even under the darkest days of the siege, they continued to believe in the original goals of the Syrian revolution, namely to live a life without fear of being jailed, tortured or killed. Like millions of others, they were determined to overthrow  corrupt, mafia-like family dynasty. The film is titled “For Sama” because as Waad says in the final minute of the film, it was worth enduring all their suffering in the hopes that her children and those of other Syrians could realize their dream.

Despite the crushing of the resistance in East Aleppo and the regime’s apparent reconquest of most of Syria, the dictatorship has an uncertain future. In an important article for the New York Review of Books titled “Between Regime and Rebels: A Survey of Syria’s Alawi Sect”, Elizabeth Tsurkov reveals how even the most reliable base of the dictatorship has gotten so little out of this hollow victory:

Although Alawis are overrepresented in the ruling elite, this does not translate into any alleviation of their generally deprived circumstances. Those with ties to the ruling family, whether through tribal or business dealings, are rich, while most Alawis live in underdeveloped villages. Unlike the Sunni underclass, which largely resided in rebel-held territory, Alawis—who cannot afford to emigrate, enroll in university to defer their service, or bribe their way out of military service (or into noncombat posts)—reside entirely in regime-held territory, where the draft is imposed and enforced through routine raids and at checkpoints. “Many Alawites would love to be exempt from military service,” said Kheder, the university student,“but they cannot afford it so they go [and serve].

“The rural areas lost so much,” he added. “Every family hangs the pictures of their martyr with neon lights around the photo. You could count at least ten to fifteen martyrs in every neighborhood of every village.”

Using what appears to be rudimentary film-making tools (a hand-held Sony semiprofessional camera), Waad has made one of the finest documentaries about this generation’s Spanish Civil War. If there is any place on earth that resembles Guernica, it is East Aleppo that was the victim of the same kind of asymmetric warfare Franco unleashed on the Spanish democracy. For anybody who still has lingering doubts about the kind of brutality to which the dictatorship resorted, her footage of aerial bombardment will leave you cringing.

Since her place was with her husband, the sight of the dying and the dead being brought to his emergency ward will also leave you feeling overwhelmed. Most of the victims appear to be children rather than militia members. When a helicopter drops a barrel bomb that spews ball bearings and steel fragments in a 360 degree pattern, it is almost inevitable that children playing in the street will end up as a casualty.

Despite all the suffering, there is a feeling of solidarity and hope that pervades the film as Hamza, Waad and their friends and comrades celebrate weddings, birthdays and other get-togethers that demonstrate their stubborn belief in keeping liberated East Aleppo together.

Waad and Hamza buy a house with a garden in the backyard. When a missile lands next door, the plants he has begun to grow are casualties as well. Seeing the glass as half-full, a necessity for life in Aleppo, he brushes aside the debris and waters the surviving plants. Like their baby daughter, the plants are a symbol of fertility and a better future.

Despite the bleak situation facing Syrians inside and outside the country, “For Sama” is a wake-up call to the solidarity movement that the struggle continues. The film is a closing of the curtain on the last act of the revolution but given the failure of the regime to provide a decent life to its people, even those that supposedly are his main base of support, it is inevitable that a new revolution will arise phoenix-like out of the ashes.

In the press notes, Waad makes her statement:

This is not just a film for me –it’s my life. I started capturing my personal story without any plan, just filming the protests in Syria on my mobile phone, like so many other activists. I could never have imagined where my journey would take me through those years. The mix of emotions we experienced – happiness, loss, love – and the horrific crimes committed by the Assad regime against ordinary innocent people, was unimaginable… even as we lived through it.

From the beginning, I found myself drawn to capture stories of life and humanity, rather than focus on the death and destruction which filled the news. And as a woman in a conservative part of Aleppo, I was able to access the experiences of women and children in the city, traditionally off limits to men. That allowed me to show the unseen reality of life for ordinary Syrians, trying to live normal lives amid our struggle for freedom.

At the same time, I continued living my own life. I married and had a child. I found myself trying to balance so many different roles: Waad the mother, Waad the activist, Waad the citizen journalist and Waad the Director. All those people both embodied and led the story. Now I feel those different aspects of my life are what gives the film its strength.

I want people to understand that, while this is my story and shows what happened to me and my family, our experience is not unusual. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians experienced the same thing and are still doing so today. The dictator who committed these crimes is still in power, still killing innocent people. Our struggle for justice is as relevant today as it was when the revolution first began.

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