Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 23, 2020

Aaron Maté and Moon of Alabama slander Anand Gopal

Filed under: conspiracism,jingoism,Syria — louisproyect @ 7:39 pm
Anand Gopal

As part of my daily rounds of checking the conspiracist “left”, I make sure to include a visit to Moon of Alabama, a website that grew out of Billmon’s Whiskey Bar from the early 2000s. Most of what appeared there before 2011 was unobjectionable, just as was the case with Seymour Hersh or Robert Fisk’s reporting from the Middle East. When the civil war began in Syria, there was little engagement with its cause. Instead, we were told that this was a new “regime change operation” based on bogus reports about WMD’s. It didn’t matter that Assad was really using sarin gas. Moon of Alabama posted dozens, maybe hundreds, of articles claiming that such reports were “false flags” intended to provoke a full-scale invasion that would replace Assad with rebels linked to al-Qaeda. It didn’t matter that the CIA prevented the FSA from getting its hands on MANPAD’s shipped from Libya. Even after 9 years of asymmetric warfare that left the opposition to Assad huddled and defenseless in Idlib, Moon of Alabama continues to warn darkly about American intervention even if Trump cut off funding to the rebels right after taking power.

Generally, I don’t comment on Moon of Alabama (MofA) since it has little sway outside the Assadist cocoon. However, when I noticed that it had made common cause with Aaron Maté, Max Blumenthal’s mini-me next to Ben Norton, over an Anand Gopal article in The New Yorker, I decided to speak up. Once upon a time, the Grayzone crew—Blumenthal, Norton, and Maté—might have had a shot at being published in legitimate magazines like the New Yorker but after becoming indistinguishable from MofA, they are a sideshow. I suppose the rubles compensate for the illegitimacy but one will never know until we get a chance to see their tax returns that are probably more closely guarded than Trump’s.

The MofA blogger, some guy in Germany named Bernhard, and Maté both objected to this paragraph in Gopal’s article:

The U.S.-led coalition waged its assault on Raqqa with exacting legal precision. It vetted every target carefully, with a fleet of lawyers scrutinizing strikes the way an in-house counsel pores over a corporation’s latest contract. During the battle, the coalition commander, Lieutenant General Stephen J. Townsend, declared, “I challenge anyone to find a more precise air campaign in the history of warfare.” Although human-rights activists insist that the coalition could have done more to protect civilians, Townsend is right: unlike Russia, America does not bomb indiscriminately. The U.S. razed an entire city, killing thousands in the process, without committing a single obvious war crime.

Missing from their denunciation of Gopal as making the unforgiveable sin of absolving the USA from “committing a single obvious war crime” is any engagement with the central point of his article, namely that the American rules of war legitimize war crimes.

Behind a paywall (contact me if you need a copy), the article makes clear that the USA has entered a new mode of war-making that is conducted from the air, using guided missiles, drones and bombers beyond the reach of conventional anti-aircraft weapons that make it possible for our military to kill thousands without a single casualty on our side. These paragraphs will make Gopal’s logic clear even though anybody with an IQ over 80 could have figured out his point from the paragraph above:

During the summer of 2016, residents of Tokhar, a riverside hamlet in northern Syria, gathered every night in four houses on the community’s edge, hoping to evade gunfire and bombs. This was the farthest point from a front line, a mile away, where U.S.-backed forces were engaging ISIS fighters. Every night, a drone hovered over Tokhar, filming the villagers’ procession from their scattered homes to these makeshift bunkers. The basements became crowded with farmers, mothers, schoolgirls, and small children. On July 18th, at around 3 a.m., the houses exploded. Thick smoke covered the night sky. Limbs were strewn across the rubble. Children were buried under collapsed walls.

People from surrounding villages spent two weeks digging out bodies. The coalition, meanwhile, announced that it had destroyed “nine ISIL fighting positions, an ISIL command and control node, and 12 ISIL vehicles” in the area that night. Eventually, after reports surfaced that many civilians had died, the coalition admitted to killing twenty-four. When a colleague and I visited, a year after the raid, we documented at least a hundred and twenty dead civilians, and found no evidence that any isis members had been present near the four houses. A mother told me that some small children were obliterated, their bodies never found.

“We take all measures during the targeting process . . . to comply with the principles of the Law of Armed Conflict,” U.S. Marine Major Adrian J. T. Rankine-Galloway said. The essence of this legal code is that militaries cannot intentionally kill civilians. It is true that no one in the chain of command wished to massacre civilians that night—not the pilot or the targeteers or the lawyers. The U.S. points to this fact in calling the Tokhar incident an error, regrettable but not illegal. Yet, though it is reasonable to invoke intention when referring to the mind-set of an individual—this is the idea behind the legal concept mens rea—it seems odd to ascribe a mental state to a collective actor like an army or a state. It is clear, however, that the coalition could have foreseen the outcome of its actions: it had filmed the area for weeks, and intelligence indicating that the village was populated would not have been difficult to gather. During the coalition’s campaign against ISIS, it often based its bombing decisions on faulty assumptions about civilian life; in Mosul, it targeted a pair of family homes after failing to observe civilians outdoors over the course of a few afternoons. Iraqis typically avoid the blazing midday heat. Four people died. The Law of Armed Conflict excuses genuine errors and proscribes intentional killing, but most American warfare operates in a gray zone, which exists, in part, because the law itself is so vague.

Unlike Gopal, Bernhard and Maté only know Syria from afar. Perhaps Maté has visited Damascus as well but if he did, he probably stayed at the same kind of 5-star hotel Blumenthal stays at when he is on one of his junkets. Over lunch a few years ago, Anand told me that he learned Arabic just so he could be able to conduct interviews with people living under the dictatorship. He also didn’t come in on jets landing at the airport in Damascus. Instead, he snuck under barbed wire at the Turkish border and followed painted stones to avoid land mines as he wended his way toward a village that opposed Assad. That is a real reporter as opposed to the corrupt, mendacious, low-rent writers at Grayzone and Moon of Alabama who will have about as much chance getting paid for writing an article in a legitimate magazine as I have winning the NY Marathon in 2021.

November 4, 2020

Robert Fisk’s wrong turn

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 10:02 pm

Robert Fisk, 1946-2020

Like most people on the left, I relied heavily on five journalists after George W. Bush unleashed his war on terror: Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald, Seymour Hersh, Patrick Cockburn, and Robert Fisk. After 2011, I was dismayed to see that all of them—to one degree or another—had begun to serve the war aims of the Assad dictatorship. To a large degree, this was a function of their tendency to superimpose the experience of Iraq on Syria. The West was bent on “regime change”, just as it was in 2002. You also had WMD type propaganda that justified intervention. In Iraq, the claim was that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons. Correspondingly, every time Assad was accused of launching a chemical weapons attack, they insisted that was another attempt by the USA to provide an excuse for a full-scale intervention. Finally, just as you had American reporters embedded with the military in Iraq, you also had reporters embedded with the military in Syria. Unfortunately, in this instance some were embedded inside Assad’s military.

Like Judith Miller, Robert Fisk, who died last Friday at the age of 74, never saw the parallel between his own fearless defiance of imperialism in covering Iraq and Judith Miller’s obsequious service to George W. Bush. As is the case with all five reporters, they made a terrible mistake in failing to see Syria on its own terms.

The first dispatch by Fisk from Syria in the Independent is dated March 31, 2011 and can hardly be regarded as regime propaganda, especially indicated by the last paragraph: “Syria needs to be renewed. It does need an end to emergency laws, a free media and a fair judiciary and the release of political prisoners and – herewith let it be said – an end to meddling in Lebanon. That figure of 60 dead, a Human Rights Watch estimate, may in fact be much higher. Tomorrow, President Bashar al-Assad will supposedly tell us his future for Syria. It had better be good.”

Just about a year later, Fisk showed the first signs of disaffection from the rebels. On March 9, 2012, he writes a column comparing Homs to Srebrenica. He edges toward a both sides are bad narrative: “In Srebrenica, more than 8000. In Homs? Well, if all Syria has lost 8,000 souls in a year, Homs’s sacrifice must be far smaller. But then the UN statistics do not appear to include the thousands of Syrian army casualties. Government soldiers were also killed in Homs.”

On July 22nd, he writes an article that begins to drift away from the evidentiary. A young Syrian shows up in Beirut and tells another Syrian that women have been raped outside the city of Homs – one estimate puts the number of victims as high as 200 – and the rapists are on both sides. An anonymous source… On both sides… You get the picture? He is veering toward unsubstantiated anecdotal material, not what you’d expect from a top reporter.

A month later, on August 23, 2012, he begins to rely on the Syrian army for what’s going on in Aleppo.

Many of the soldiers, who were encouraged to speak to me even as they knelt at the ends of narrow streets with bullets spattering off the walls, spoke of their amazement that so many “foreign fighters” should have been in Aleppo. “Aleppo has five million people,” one said to me. “If the enemy are so sure that they are going to win the battle, then surely there’s no need to bring these foreigners to participate; they will lose.”

Three days later, he follows up with another article titled “Those trying to topple Assad have surprised the army with their firepower and brutal tactics”. It refers to rebels capturing a member of the shabiha, Assad’s paramilitary death squad, who is stripped naked and hanged. Then his corpse was pelted with shoes and decapitated. His source for this atrocity tale? Syrian army files.

It should be said that throughout 2011 and 2012, he continues to report on the savagery of the dictatorship so it is understandable why many on the left would regard Robert Fisk as a reliable source of news at the time, including me as I recall.

But by the middle of 2013, the tune changes radically. In an article titled “As the US wants to arm ‘nice Syrian rebels’ we must remind ourselves that weapons are not just guns. They are about money; Hardware will end up in the hands of al-Qa’ida”, we end up with the dominant theme of the pro-Assad propaganda network, namely that Assad was dealing with a terrorist Salafist menace.

The US doesn’t plan to send weapons to the horrid rebels, mark you – not to the al-Qa’ida-inspired al-Nusra Front whose chaps film themselves eating Alawites for YouTube videos, barbecue the heads of captured Syrian troops and murder 14-year-old schoolboys for blasphemy. Only to the nice rebels, the Free Syrian Army deserters who are battling the forces of Assad darkness in the interests of freedom, liberty, women’s rights and democracy.

Anyone who believes this knows nothing about war, killing, barbarity and, especially, greed. Because weapons are not just guns. They are currency. They are money. They are saleable commodities the moment you send them across any border. Their value in US dollars, pounds sterling, Syrian pounds or Qatari dinars is infinitely more important than their use in battle.

What can you say? This lurid opening is designed to alienate Fisk’s civilized British readers that any weapons ending up to defend Syrians from Assad’s killing machine will end up willy-nilly in the hands of al-Qaeda. This crosses the border into Vanessa Beeley-land. In August, Assad launches a sarin gas attack on East Ghouta, which prompts Obama to threaten a retaliation for him crossing the red-line. What’s Fisk’s response? To warn that an intervention would mean that the US is fighting on al-Qa’ida’s side. I too would have been opposed to intervention but I would not have made an amalgam between the revolutionary forces and al-Qa’ida.

A month later, Fisk writes the first of his “false flag” articles, this time finding reasons why Assad could not have been involved with the sarin gas attack. Using the same dubious reporting methods of fellow reporter laureate Seymour Hersh, he tries to impress readers with his insider access. If your source is a spook or a government official, how can you not be telling the truth? He writes:

Nevertheless, it also has to be said that grave doubts are being expressed by the UN and other international organisations in Damascus that the sarin gas missiles were fired by Assad’s army. While these international employees cannot be identified, some of them were in Damascus on 21 August and asked a series of questions to which no one has yet supplied an answer. Why, for example, would Syria wait until the UN inspectors were ensconced in Damascus on 18 August before using sarin gas little more than two days later – and only four miles from the hotel in which the UN had just checked in? Having thus presented the UN with evidence of the use of sarin – which the inspectors quickly acquired at the scene – the Assad regime, if guilty, would surely have realised that a military attack would be staged by Western nations.

This meme has been seen a hundred thousand times in reporting on chemical attacks in Syria. Why would Assad provoke the USA? The answer should be obvious. It never did anything worse than bomb an air field but only after warning a Russian officer that the attack was pending. The next day all its warplanes were involved in new bombing runs. Then, another time pissing off Trump to the extent that he fired some Tomahawk missiles into government buildings that had no effect whatsoever on Assad’s war-making capabilities.

I can’t exactly remember why but a year or so ago, I got so annoyed with something Fisk wrote about Douma that I sent snail-mail to the Independent c/o Fisk, giving him a piece of my mind. To my surprise, he wrote back in a tone reminding me of a professor chastising a student who cheated on a final. It’s really too bad that these people with inflated reputations like Robert Fisk, Seymour Hersh, Noam Chomsky, and Stephen F. Cohen received such adulation. What happens is that your ego gets so inflated that you can’t take criticisms to heart. To be a radical journalist like John Reed, you need to have much more ties to the mass movement. For people like Fisk, I’m afraid that after 2011, his only connections were to the Syrian military and the bars in Damascus’s four-star hotels.

October 22, 2020

Noam Chomsky jumps the shark on Syria

Filed under: Chomsky,Syria — louisproyect @ 10:51 pm

One might say that Noam Chomsky can be excused for stupidity since he is now 91 and clearly a victim of the aging process, as are eventually all of us. However, when it comes to Syria, he has speaking foolishly since 2015. I say “speaking” since he seems to have the lost the ability to write substantive articles. Most of the pearls of wisdom are plucked from interviews with his fans at myriad websites. Like fellow professor emeritus Stephen F. Cohen, whose “articles” in The Nation were transcribed from chats with far-right WABC personality John Bachelor, anything “written” by Chomsky is a transcription.

The first sign that not all was right was an interview he gave at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics in 2015.

You’ll find him saying that Russian intervention in Syria could not be considered imperialism because Assad invited him in. With that benchmark, the American intervention in Vietnam was not imperialism either, since it was “invited” in by the South Vietnamese government. He condemns Saudi Arabia for supporting “the jihadi movement” but doesn’t bother to consider the Iranian and Hizbollah intervention since ostensibly their Shi’ite fundamentalism is benign. Like many on the left, including me, Chomsky was speaking against American intervention. It’s too bad that he reduced everybody opposed to Assad as inevitably coming under the authority of “jihadis”. Perhaps if the CIA had not intervened in 2012 to block the shipment of MANPAD’s to the FSA, the rebels would have been a position to create a new government that met with Chomsky’s approval.

Two years later, after Assad’s air force used a sarin gas missile in Khan Sheikhoun that killed 92 people, Chomsky stuck his foot in his mouth again. Speaking at UMass Amherst on April 13, he told the gathering that “actually we don’t [know what happened]”. He invoked Theodore Postol, whom he regarded as “one of the most sophisticated and successful analysts of military strategic issues”. He was satisfied that Postol had reviewed the White House Intelligence Report “in detail” and tore it “to shreds.”

It turns out that Postol turned in an article expanding on his initial reaction to Khan Sheikhoun to a journal titled Science & Global Security, upon whose editorial board he sits. After doing the peer review that such journals must follow, they decided to reject it. A statement on their website states:

To ensure the high standards of editorial control, integrity, and rigor that this journal has always sought to maintain, we conducted an independent internal review of the editorial process for this manuscript. This review identified a number of issues with the peer-review and revision process. As a result, the editors have decided to withhold the publication of this article to examine whether the editors can rectify the problems that we identified.

One doubts that this matters much to Chomsky since his esteem for Postol transcends scholarly norms, especially when it comes to the nasty jihadis in Khan Sheikhoun. Why bother getting upset over 92 of their supporters being gassed to death, when they might have received funding from Saudi Arabia.

More recently, Chomsky has gotten involved with “investigations” proving that the chlorine gas attack in Douma in 2018 was a “false flag”. 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.

In a recent gaffe-filled interview with Grayzone’s Aaron Maté, he tries to take the high ground as a free speech absolutist and anti-imperialist. Grayzone has published numerous articles absolving Assad and Chomsky seemed happy to carry their water. In the interview, Chomsky was indignant that the UN Security Council voted against hearing testimony from José Bustani, the former head of the OPCW who has joined the Wikileaks Douma “false flag” brigade.

Chomsky saw a pattern here. There was a nefarious conspiracy to silence whistleblowers who, after all, were only corroborating what an expert in the region had already established. Chomsky told Maté, “Well what happened certainly arouses very severe suspicions. The OPCW came out with a report blaming Syria for a chemical attack. Reporters like Robert Fisk and others thought it was pretty shady at the time, but didn’t know.”

Actually, it was Fisk’s reporting that was shady and it only shows how out of touch Chomsky was to uphold it. Richard Hall, a former editor at the Independent, where Fisk’s reporting appears, took to Twitter to debunk Fisk’s reporting:

Robert Fisk is allowed access to Douma before OCPW inspectors are allowed in. Doesn’t speak to any witnesses of the attack, only a doctor who didn’t see it, but says everyone “knows what happened.”

Fisk seems perplexed why victims of the attack did not hang around in Douma when the government took over the area. And doesn’t seriously deal with the fact that those who stayed behind might not be able to speak freely.

Fisk is among a handful of journalists given regular access by Syrian government. He and others are shepherded in on minded trips when it is useful for the government. Journalists who do make it in and write something that counters the government narrative are not allowed back.

Fisk notes in his piece that he was granted access to the site before chemical weapons inspectors. As were a number of other journalists who — let’s be generous here — toe the government line. That feels like an attempt to muddy the waters ahead of an independent investigation.

As for Douma itself, the whole notion of a “false flag” can only be maintained by assuming a scenario that defies reason. If you believe that bearded bad guys manually placed chlorine tanks in a Douma apartment building on April 7, 2018, you must be able to answer such questions:

  • If the Jaish el-Islam (the Army of Islam that controlled Douma) was capable of weaponizing chlorine gas tanks, why wouldn’t they have used them in confrontations with Assad’s military especially since it was closing in on them in 2018? According to Tobias Schneider and Theresa Lütkefend of the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute, there have been 336 chemical weapons attacks in Syria since 2012. They attribute two percent of them to ISIS and all the rest to the dictatorship. A search in Nexis for “chlorine & attack & Syria” in Lexis-Nexis will return 5,404 articles sorted by relevance. After a review of the first twenty-five, I found not a single one referring to rebel usage. You’re welcome to work your way through the remaining 5,379.
  • Procuring chlorine tanks might have been relatively easy, but how could Jaish el-Islam construct the fins, harness, axis, and wheels that are necessary for both loading into and then dropping them from helicopters? If you are going to frame Assad, you’d better be in a position to replicate the weapon he has been using for at least five years. Would Henderson and Alex argue that the pictures of the two weaponized chlorine tanks seen in the OPCW report were photoshopped? If not, how do you construct the fins, harness, axis and wheels from scratch? Did Jaish el-Islam make them in a machine shop? As someone with a night school diploma in lathe and milling machine from my days colonizing industry, I can tell you that this is not an easy task during constant bombardment and electrical blackouts.
  • The Jaish el-Islam had to use a pneumatic drill or sledgehammers to create large holes in concrete ceilings or find apartments that had them already. If the apartment already had a hole, what accounted for the rubble on the floor beneath it? And what about the attention such tools would draw during a heavy-duty penetration of concrete ceilings? The racket would be enough to awaken the dead. Furthermore, what would their neighbors make of them hauling 300-pound chlorine tanks to the building and up the stairs? Clunkety-clunkety-clunk. Anybody spotting them would figure out that they were up to no good, especially since Douma tenement buildings were not likely to have rooftop swimming pools in need of sterilization.
  • To make sure that the forty to fifty people who were to become sacrificial lambs in this unlikely false flag operation, the Jaish el-Islam had to prevent them from fleeing from the bottom floors, where they had taken refuge. But what if they tried to flee the minute chlorine gas was detected? If anybody escaped, wouldn’t they finger Jaish el-Islam ? How would Jaish el-Islam not lose all support immediately? The Jaish el-Islam might have been authoritarian, but it was not about to risk its reputation killing innocent civilians, especially those they were supposed to be protecting. Groups like the Jaish el-Islam were not the same as ISIS, after all. In Idlib today, there are frequent protests against hard-core Islamist groups. Less than a month ago, hundreds of people in Idlib protested against the self-proclaimed National Salvation Government, an affiliate of the Jaish el-Islam . Not a single person was injured or killed. By the standards of Baathist or ISIS rule, they are enjoying freedoms that remain as tangible gains of the revolution that began in 2011.

I tried to raise these questions with Chomsky in an email. He showed zero interest in engaging with the problems raised by a false flag. Back in 1967, he wrote an article in the NY Review of Books titled “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”. It was about how subservient intellectual culture was to power. I guess when the power is Russian or Syrian, it’s not as bad as if it was American. Here he is, now in his 90s, chatting it up with Grayzone, some of the most rapacious and cynical supporters of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping on the left. Grayzone goes so far as to deny repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. This would disqualify them in my eyes for an interview. Maybe Noam’s standards are lower than mine, despite his infinite self-regard.

Maybe Chomsky should reread “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” to get his head straightened out. It’s never too late.

October 3, 2020

Grayzone’s latest pro-Assad propaganda

Filed under: mechanical anti-imperialism,propaganda,Red-Brown alliance,Syria — louisproyect @ 8:51 pm

Ben Norton and Aaron Maté: inept propagandists

Unlike people who were in solidarity with the Syrian revolution, the Assadists of Grayzone continue to act as if it were August 2013 and the only obstacle to Obama launching an invasion of Syria after the sarin gas attack in East Ghouta was their propaganda. Here we are 7 years later and the revolution lies in tatters, with what’s left of the rebels huddled in Idlib barely able to survive against hunger, COVID-19 and continued asymmetric warfare. Perhaps the only explanation for Grayzone’s assembly line of horseshit is someone paying them handsomely to churn it out.

On September 23rd, Ben Norton wrote a nearly 4,300 word article titled “Leaked docs expose massive Syria propaganda operation waged by Western govt contractors and media” that begins: “Leaked documents show how UK government contractors developed an advanced infrastructure of propaganda to stimulate support in the West for Syria’s political and armed opposition.” To make sense out of this sentence, you have to replace the word stimulate with simulate. There was  never any real support for the Syrian rebels whose plebeian roots hardly recommended themselves to President Obama who told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in a 2016 interview:

When you have a professional army that is well armed and sponsored by two large states—Iran and Russia—who have huge stakes in this, and they are fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict …The notion that we could have—in a clean way that didn’t commit U.S. military forces—changed the equation on the ground there was never true.

After starting a new job at Salon in January 2016, Norton began to write pro-Assad propaganda, most likely because it was consistent with the liberal magazine’s Islamophobic orientation. Keep in mind that Salon, The Nation, Alternet, et al, viewed Syrian rebels as bearded, head-chopping, sharia-law supporting fanatics so it made sense that an ambitious young careerist would drop his past anti-Assad views since they were not commercially viable. At the time, Pham Binh nailed Norton in an Medium piece titled “Benjamin Norton Sheds Positions and Causes Like a Snake Sheds Skin” that included links to articles and Tweets that he deleted after January 2016. These were typical:

In the second Tweet, you’ll notice a shout-out to Max Blumenthal who shared Norton’s anti-Assad politics until they interfered with his career.

Norton’s investigation reveals that a clandestine PR campaign in the UK was behind the major media’s support for the White Helmets:

The files confirm reporting by journalists including The Grayzone’s Max Blumenthal on the role of ARK, the US-UK government contractor, in popularizing the White Helmets in Western media. ARK ran the social media accounts of the White Helmets, and helped turn the Western-funded group into a key propaganda weapon of the Syrian opposition.

What planet were Norton and Blumenthal living on? You didn’t need a cabal of PR operatives to be sympathetic to the White Helmets. Unless you were part of the “axis of resistance” network loyal to Damascus, you understood that the White Helmets were volunteers rescuing people from caved-in buildings that had been barrel-bombed. People from Grayzone joined bottom-feeders like Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett to smear them as a wing of al-Nusra. In a darkly comic turn, Beeley accused them of muscling in on their turf. The conspiracist website Moon of Alabama called them out in an article titled “Syria – The Alternet Grayzone Of Smug Turncoats – Blumenthal, Norton, Khalek” that accused them of plagiarizing Vanessa Beeley:

Blumenthal knows this well. His piece about the “White Helmets” for Alternet Grayzone was obviously sourced (if not plagiarized) from earlier work by Vanessa Beeley and other authors at the above sites.

Being accused of plagiarizing Vanessa Beeley is tantamount to being accused of dumpster-diving to get someone’s left-over McDonald’s Whopper.

Grayzone’s methodology is extremely crude and typical of people lacking a class analysis. You search for support from the CIA, the National Endowment for Democracy, George Soros’s Open Society and, where it is found, you charge those taking their support guilty of being involved in a “color revolution”, tools of imperialism, etc. To be consistent, you’d have to line up with Michel Chossudovsky’s “Global Research” that, using Grayzone’s Inspector Clouseau-type detective work, wrote off the entire Arab Spring as a CIA plot:

It is hardly a speculative theory then, that the uprisings were part of an immense geopolitical campaign conceived in the West and carried out through its proxies with the assistance of disingenuous organizations including NED, NDI, IRI, and Freedom House and the stable of NGOs they maintain throughout the world. Preparations for the “Arab Spring” began not as unrest had already begun, but years before the first “fist” was raised, and within seminar rooms in D.C. and New York, US-funded training facilities in Serbia, and camps held in neighboring countries, not within the Arab World itself.

In 2008, Egyptian activists from the now infamous April 6 movement were in New York City for the inaugural Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM) summit, also known as Movements.org. There, they received training, networking opportunities, and support from AYM’s various corporate and US governmental sponsors, including the US State Department itself. The AYM 2008 summit report (page 3 of .pdf) states that the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, James Glassman attended, as did Jared Cohen who sits on the policy planning staff of the Office of the Secretary of State. Six other State Department staff members and advisers would also attend the summit along with an immense list of corporate, media, and institutional representatives.

It is hardly a speculative theory then, that the uprisings were part of an immense geopolitical campaign conceived in the West and carried out through its proxies with the assistance of disingenuous organizations including NED, NDI, IRI, and Freedom House and the stable of NGOs they maintain throughout the world. Preparations for the “Arab Spring” began not as unrest had already begun, but years before the first “fist” was raised, and within seminar rooms in D.C. and New York, US-funded training facilities in Serbia, and camps held in neighboring countries, not within the Arab World itself.

In 2008, Egyptian activists from the now infamous April 6 movement were in New York City for the inaugural Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM) summit, also known as Movements.org. There, they received training, networking opportunities, and support from AYM’s various corporate and US governmental sponsors, including the US State Department itself. The AYM 2008 summit report (page 3 of .pdf) states that the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, James Glassman attended, as did Jared Cohen who sits on the policy planning staff of the Office of the Secretary of State. Six other State Department staff members and advisers would also attend the summit along with an immense list of corporate, media, and institutional representatives.

Unlike Grayzone, Marxism assesses insurgent movements on a class basis. If we didn’t, we’d never be able to explain why Lenin got on board a German train in 1917 destined for the Finland Station. Or, let Leon Trotsky put it all together:

In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat. This rule applies just as much to the war period as to the period of peace.

Let’s turn now to Aaron Maté’s September 29th article “The Grayzone’s Aaron Maté testifies at UN on OPCW Syria cover-up”. It starts, “At an Arria-Formula Meeting of the United Nations Security Council, Aaron Maté of The Grayzone delivers remarks on the OPCW’s ongoing Syria scandal.” You’d get the impression that the UN Security Council called the meeting, which is exactly the impression that he wants to convey. However, if he explained at the outset what an “Arria-Formula” meeting was, the game would be up.

Arria-Formula meetings can be convened by any single member of the Security Council, are open to non-members of the council and conducted on an informal basis. It turns out that this one was courtesy of Dmitry Polyanskiy, the First Deputy Permanent Representative of Russia Flag of Russia to the UN. What? You were expecting someone from the UK or the US? Don’t you know that they are biased. You can only rely on the Russians, whose impartiality is unquestionable. Just ask Grayzone.

Besides Maté, testimony was heard from OPCW “whistle-blower” Ian Henderson and retired MIT professor Ted Postol. So, basically the Russians set up an informal meeting that allowed three people to echo and rubber-stamp the position that Assad did not use chlorine gas in Douma.

There’s something grotesque about this exercise. In the minds of people like Norton, Blumenthal and Maté, they are the moral equivalent of Robert Fisk and Julian Assange in 2003 who tried to expose the “weapons of mass destruction” lies that Bush used to invade Iraq. Does anybody in their right mind think that Donald Trump ever had any “regime change” intentions in Syria?

Instead, Maté, realizing how absurd such a threat now appears 9 years after the war in Syria began (it only took a couple of months for Bush to invade after Colin Powell’s UN speech), believes that his efforts might help end the sanctions against Syria, which admittedly are hurting the Syrians—even those who fought against him.

Assad clearly didn’t plan ahead. He assumed that ties with Russia would have been enough to compensate for any economic measures taken against his dictatorship. Syria stated that it will enter into new trade agreements that will help get the economy off its death-bed. With Russia clobbered by sanctions and sinking oil prices, Syria’s future looks bleak

Meanwhile, Assad and Putin have refused to end the blockade of international aid coming into Idlib, where there are millions of Syrians opposed to his dictatorship. The only way they’d permit aid to come in if it was distributed from Damascus. This is like relying on Somoza to distribute relief supplies equitably to Nicaraguans after the earthquake hit in 1972.

Most people understand that the Syrian government is a mafia state that caters to the needs of Assad’s cronies except when they, like his cousin Rami Makhlouf, keep a bit too much of the loot hidden in his favorite offshore bank.

With few prospects of the economic crisis easing up, there are already protests by the Druze, a sect that stood apart from the revolutionary movement for the most part. Middle East Eye reported in June:

The collapse of the Syrian pound in recent months has caused prices to skyrocket and created widespread hardship for many Syrians. What began as protests against deteriorating living conditions on Sunday eventually descended into anti-government calls.

On Tuesday, dozens rallied in Sweida for the third day running, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group.

Men and women massed near the main provincial government headquarters before marching through the streets chanting anti-Assad slogans, according to a video released by Suwayda24.

The financial crisis in Syria has been exacerbated by a coronavirus lockdown and international sanctions.

However, speaking to MEE on Monday, one protester said that the government was primarily to blame for the economic problems.

“The deliberate practices of the regime over the past nine years have led to a complete economic collapse and crazy increases in prices and starvation of civilians,” a demonstrator who wished to be identified as Rayan told MEE.

Another article appeared in June, this time in The Independent, that suggested the Alawites, Assad’s main base of support, might soon be joining the Druze:

In the beauty salons of the Syrian regime stronghold of Tartus, the wives of army officers quietly chatter about readying their fake identity cards and passports.

In case Syria and its battered economy completely collapse, they whisper to one another, they may have to flee at a moment’s notice.

Disillusion with the government of President Bashar al-Assad is running high in the seaside city.

“We used to love the president, and we were a strong supporter of al-Assad,” says Suzan, 31, who works at a salon and is a member of the Alawite Muslim sect which Mr Assad hails from. “He has protected us from the terrorists, but he is now starving us.”

Across the country, from regime territory to the rebel-held north, Syrians are barely surviving as the currency has tumbled and food prices have soared. Suzan, once an ardent government supporter, describes how an unprecedented financial crisis gripping the country has even hit the well-off in the Mediterranean city, largely spared the horrors of Syria’s nine-year civil war. There, residents fear the worst is yet to come. On Wednesday the US enforced its toughest sanctions yet on Syria, targeting 39 individuals and companies including, Mr Assad and his wife Asma.

Even before the restrictions bite, Suzan says in the poorer districts of the Alawite stronghold, the economic crisis had already translated into poverty, hunger and lawlessness. Just last week, Suzan’s own house was burgled.

“Theft is widespread, someone entered our house a couple of days ago, but he only stole food from the kitchen and left,” she tells The Independent. “Many types of medicines are unavailable.”

She said some people were planning protests against bad living conditions and behind closed doors, mounting anger was directed at the president himself.

“There is a limited amount of bread for each family, which is not enough anyway. People cannot cope.”

May 15, 2020

Syria: From National Independence to Proxy War

Filed under: Counterpunch,Syria — louisproyect @ 4:35 pm


Ever since the civil war began in Syria in early 2011, the left has largely ignored the social and economic circumstances that led to a conflict costing over a half-million deaths and the migration—internal and external—of half the population. The tendency was to see Syria as a piece on a global chessboard with “the axis of resistance” fending off attacks from the West. There was lip-service to the idea that Syrians had legitimate grievances against the government early on, but by the end of 2011, the “anti-imperialist” consensus was that the rebels were jihadists interested more in fighting unbelievers than inequality.

To my knowledge, the first attempt at an analysis of the internal class contradictions appeared in 2015. Long-time Syria scholar Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zintl edited a collection titled “Syria from Reform to Revolt: Volume 1: Political Economy and International Relations”. (A second volume never appeared.) I found this book invaluable in writing an article titled “The Economic Roots of the Syrian Revolution”. My goal was to demonstrate that a rural agrarian crisis provided the fuel for an uprising. An article by Myrian Ababsa provided statistics that revealed the depths of misery that led to the revolt. In 2009, 42 percent of Raqqa governorate suffered from anemia owing to a shortage of dairy products, vegetables, and fruit. Malnutrition among pregnant women and children under five doubled between 2007 and 2009. That was the cause of the conflict, not Saudi desire to impose shariah law on the country.

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May 12, 2020

The Syrian fascist whose word Max Blumenthal would have us believe

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 5:09 pm

Markus Forhnmaier (l), a member of the neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Kevork Almassian (r), an important source in Max Blumenthal’s “Management of Savagery” supposedly attesting to the jihadist character of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad

A couple of days ago, I spotted an article on the Asylum – Misinformation website about a Syrian living in Germany named Kevork Almassian, who was supposedly being deported to Syria in violation of his right to asylum. As the name of the website would indicate, this was not true. When you hear the term “right to asylum”, the first thing you think of is that this poor refugee opposed to the dictatorship might get sent back to Syria where he would be tortured or killed.

As it happens, Almassian was a fierce Assad loyalist who must have told some bullshit story about being the target of jihadis, thus forcing him to seek refuge in Germany. Who knows what kind of subterfuge he used to win asylum in Germany but it has become clear that he had connections with the country’s burgeoning fascist movement. After gaining asylum, it didn’t take long for him to get jobs working for the neo-Nazis, his latest for Björn Höcke, the AfD chairman in the state of Thuringia, where the party is widely viewed as a Nazi threat.

Clearly, there is an affinity between Almassian and AfD over their Islamophobia, a key ingredient of all fascist movements in Europe today. In the article about Almassian, we learn that he used his asylum status to help send the true political refugees back to Syria where they would be tortured or killed. In concert with AfD, Almassian has mounted a propaganda campaign to “expose” Syrian refugees as coming from Afghanistan and other countries. The scare quotes in this Tweet should give you an idea of what he was up to:

In 2015, he came to Switzerland for a conference, after which he traveled to Germany where he hoped to convert a business visa into a residence permit. When that failed, he applied for asylum. I strongly suspect that he used his fascist ties to help influence their cronies in the immigration bureau. Within days of his arrival he was pictured drinking beer with Markus Frohnmaier, an AfD activist who he would serve as social media director before long—his first job with the fascists. (See photo above)

Apparently, his ties to the German fascists predates 2015. Articles referencing Almassian appeared in a right-wing military magazine run by Manuel Ochsenreiter, a far-right journalist who was implicated in planning a firebomb attack on a Hungarian cultural center in Ukraine meant to compromise Ukrainian nationalists. He also visited Almassian in Syria in 2014.

You might even conclude that Almassian’s operation in Germany was the fruit of an alliance between high levels of Assad’s government and the AfD. There is ample evidence that the European fascist movements all shared a fondness for Bashar al-Assad, from Golden Dawn to the National Front in France.

When the war turned decisively in Assad’s favor, the AfD sought the deportation of Syrian refugees and to re-establish Syria as a safe country of origin. To help make their case, Almassian was critical. Not only did Almassian and the German fascists concur on booting Syrian refugees out of the country, they were part of the broad network of propagandists absolving Assad of using chemical weapons. After the sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun, one of their MPs issued a statement of solidarity with the “legitimate Syrian president”.

In an interview in 2016 with the radical right-wing newspaper Sezession, Almassian made talking points consistent with what you might read in “anti-imperialist” publications like Consortium News, 21st Century Wire or Grayzone. He claimed that Aleppo had to be besieged in order “to spare human lives”. He also claimed that there was never a democratic revolution, but that it was dominated from the start by religious radical forces.

Most principled people trying to write an account of the Syrian disaster would probably not want to use Almassian as a source. His Islamophobic YouTube videos are the sort of thing that might be referenced in a book by someone like disgraced ex-academic Tim Anderson’s “The Dirty War on Syria”.

Would you ever expect a footnote crediting Almassian in a Verso book? When I began reading the Asylum – Misinformation article, the name Almassian rang a bell. After a few minutes, I realized that Max Blumenthal had cited him in “Management of Savagery” in order to smear the Syrian revolution as a plot designed to topple Assad and replace it with one friendly to Western imperialism.

In preparing a review of Blumenthal’s book, I learned that Verso does not have fact-checkers. That in itself might not be a problem as long as the author has some credibility, like David Harvey or Mike Davis. But by 2017, Blumenthal had the well-earned reputation of being a cynical, crude, conspiracy-mongering has-been who took a turn toward Russia and Syria for cold cash. I personally didn’t think that was the explanation. Instead, I wrote this off as his inability to see politics in class terms.

In chapter six of “Management of Savagery” titled “The Next Dirty War”, Blumenthal does not even give lip-service to the idea that the revolution was hijacked by Islamists backed by Saudi Arabia. Instead, it sprang from the womb with nefarious intentions.

On the very first page, he makes the case that the protests in Baniyas were typical. Since a Sunni cleric named Anas al-Ayrout made a speech demanding the banning of mixed gender schools, this proved that the protests were intended to turn Syria into Saudi Arabia. To back this up, Blumenthal refers to an Almassian YouTube video in his endnotes with this bland assurance:

Almasian, a Syrian-Armenian refugee in Germany, has produced a series of English-language videos  that provide a corrective to Western media characterizations of the Syrian conflict. While he makes  no secret of his support for the Syrian government,  he has relied on primary sources like video of Ayrout’s sermons in Baniyas, which were faithfully translated.

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.

This, of course, went against the grain of the kind of supposed Sunni sectarianism that Blumenthal hoped to expose. On the same page, he refers to another Almassian YouTube video that supposedly represents activists in Homs chanting “We are all jihadists! We will exterminate Alawites!” Perhaps trying to fend off critics who might find Almassian problematic, to say the least, Blumenthal’s endnote adds that the chant was also referenced in a white paper at the Open Source Center, which he describes as a “CIA intelligence center”. How telling that the anti-imperialist relies on the word of the primary imperialist institution in the world with a long and undistinguished history of using the Big Lie. By June 2012, the white paper’s publication date, it was clear that the USA had little interest in throwing its weight behind poor farmers and their young urban cohorts seeking to create a democracy in the Middle East. Assad was always the lesser evil as the Rand Corporation pointed out in a workshop they convened in 2014:

Key Findings

Workshop participants felt that prolonged conflict was the best descriptor for the situation in Syria as of December 2013, but momentum seemed to be leaning toward regime victory.

Negotiated settlement was deemed the least likely of the possible scenarios.

Regime collapse, while not considered a likely outcome, was perceived to be the worst possible outcome for U.S. strategic interests [emphasis added].


May 5, 2020

The Grayzone and the facts of the Ltamenah gas attacks

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 6:26 pm

Aaron Maté and Max Blumenthal

As a rule of thumb, the Syrian dictatorship’s chemical attacks only become a cause célèbre when there is a significant loss of life. For the better part of 8 years, Assad has dropped barrel bombs on hospitals, fired missiles into working-class tenements, starved rebel supporters into submission and generally pursued what are commonly understood as war crimes. It is only when chemical weapons are used, and, more importantly, result in a significant loss of life that American presidents get on their high horse.

The first incident occurred on August 21, 2013 in Eastern Ghouta when up to 1,729 poor people opposed to the dictatorship died from a sarin gas attack. This incident set the pattern for Assad’s apologists that continues to this day. People such as Seymour Hersh, Theodore Postol, David Bromwich, Robert Parry, Patrick L. Smith and Tariq Ali all came to Assad’s rescue, arguing that he had no motive to use sarin gas. There was a cruder battalion following these distinguished gentlemen who emphasized the “false flag” narrative, which made the case that the rebels gassed their own supporters in order to give Obama an excuse to implement “regime change”. Names like Vanessa Beeley, Eva Bartlett, and David Icke come to mind. Despite Obama bending over backwards to allow the “normal” war crimes to continue, this crowd was always on the lookout for the next incident that would allow them to posture as peace activists over the dead bodies of Syrian civilians.

The next incident occurred on April 4, 2017 in the town of Khan Shaykhun, this time when Donald Trump was in the White House. Once again it was a sarin gas attack that left 89 dead and more than 541 injured. Once again, the false flag brigades went to work, acting as if Trump’s retaliatory strike on a Syria airbase were the opening round of WWIII. In reality, the dictatorship only got a slap on the wrist. The missiles that Donald Trump fired on Shayrat air force base 3 days later had little impact. To start with, the runway was not damaged—something that was never even part of the plans—and jets and helicopters took off a few hours afterward. According to Wikipedia, even the Russian defense ministry said that the “combat effectiveness” of the attack was “extremely low” and that only 23 missiles out of 59 fired hit the base, destroying six aircraft. It did not know where the other 36 landed. Russian television news, citing a Syrian source at the airfield, said that nine planes were destroyed by the strike but that they were inoperative at the time.

Probably the most widely covered attack took place in Douma on April 7, 2018. This time it was chlorine gas that cost the lives of 40-50 people huddled in the lower floors of a tenement. Since chlorine is heavier than air, it descends downward with devastating effects. This was not the first chlorine gas attack in Douma. There were three earlier attacks that made lots of people sick but without any deaths. Indeed, there have been hundreds of chlorine gas attacks in Syria that might have killed a few people but nothing that would prompt the White House to act. In my view, Trump had to retaliate once again in Syria to “save face”. After he bombed a couple of buildings, people like Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal made it sound like Trump was LBJ escalating the war in Vietnam. Somehow, Trump’s decision to cut off all support for the rebels that year must have escaped them.

On April 8 this year, the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) released a report that concluded that the dictatorship had used both sarin and chlorine gas in Ltamenah on three different occasions in 2017, just around the time that Khan Shaykhun was attacked. Frankly, I don’t remember having much of a reaction at the time since this was one of those “low-keyed” affairs that only left 60 people hospitalized. Sure, a doctor did die from a chlorine bomb that fell through the roof of his hospital but that’s hardly something to write home about.

Leave it to Grayzone to push the “false flag” conspiracy bullshit once again, this time relying on an OPCW whistleblower who, despite his CV, seems to be an even bigger idiot than Max Blumenthal and Aaron Maté, who prefaced his attack on the findings.

Like all these people from Tariq Ali to Vanessa Beeley, the whistleblower cast doubt on the dictatorship’s culpability since it was winning the war:

They didn’t use sarin during the desperate times when they had their backs to the wall and were close to being overrun by opposition groups; but for some reason chose a time when they were back in control.

Somehow the whistleblower must have forgotten that Assad used sarin gas in Eastern Ghouta in 2013, when he was on the ropes. And, then again, this asshole probably is sure that the jihadi were ready to kill 1,729 of their supporters on the gamble that Obama would intervene. I remember during the Vietnam War when the NLF was accused of using its soldiers as cannon-fodder because “Oriental” people did not put the same value in human life as us civilized Westerners. Some things don’t change when it comes to what Edward Said called “Orientalism”.

Next, he questions the efficacy of the attack since Assad “did this by supposedly dropping a couple of sarin bombs on fields; agricultural lands in the middle of nowhere.” Is this guy for real? In the middle of nowhere? WTF?

The OPCW puts the attack into context. Contrary to the whistleblower, this was a hotly contested area:

The Idlib Governorate (together with parts of Hama Governorate, north of Hama city) was effectively under the control of a number of rival factions, rather than a single group, since it fell to armed groups in 2015 and throughout 2017. The area was regarded as the front line between the territories controlled by the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic to the south and the land to the north, and known generally as the “Greater Idlib Region”. The strategically vital M5 highway goes from Aleppo in the north, southwards through Saraqib just outside of Idlib, Khan Shaykhun to Hama city, then onto Homs city, the capital Damascus, and all the way to the border with Jordan.

Specialists in military operations consulted by the IIT concur that controlling the M5 highway is an important objective for military operations in the area as it connects major cities including Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo. When the Syrian Government recaptured eastern Aleppo city in late 2016, the highway’s strategic value further increased. Since at least 2012, there have been reports that villages and cities along the M5 highway were constant targets for conventional air strikes, as well as (more sporadically) chemical weapon attacks.

For Christ’s sake, even the Russian media understood the importance of the M5 highway in 2017. This is from the Interfax News Agency in Moscow, dated September 13, 2017:

The national reconciliation committee in the Syrian province of Rif Dimashq met with the opposition to discuss the unblocking of the M5 highway linking the country’s northern and southern regions, the Russian center for reconciliation of opposing sides in Syria told Interfax.

“In the Rif Dimashq province, the national reconciliation committee held a meeting attended by representatives from the armed opposition group Jaysh al-Islam to discuss how to open the section of the M5 road [between] Harasta al-Basal [and] Muhayam al-Vafedin,” the center said.

Like the other whistleblowers, but even more explicitly, he describes the chemical attacks, at least the two days in which sarin was used, as a “false flag”:

This, if intended to support the assertion that Syrian sarin was implicated, or that staging by the use of “spiking” chemicals was unlikely, is bordering on ludicrous. What possible reason could there be for the staging organizers, supporters (or advisors) to provide anything other than chemical samples carefully prepared by using the same precursors and sarin synthesis pathway as the well-known Syrian method? That chemistry has for many years been no secret; it is universally known and (apart from the use of hexamine as the acid scavenger) one of the “standard” ways of making sarin. That immediately defeats the “chemical marker” argument presented by the IIT. It is quite staggering that this argument has been taken seriously by any qualified or competent scientists.

Reading this malarkey, I wonder if maybe Blumenthal and Maté wrote it themselves since it is so detached from the chemical realities of sarin gas. If anything, it is the same crapola Seymour Hersh came up with to absolve Assad in 2013. He told CNN on December 9, 2013, “It’s not hard to make sarin. You could mix it in the backyard. Two chemicals melded together.” This, of course, begs the question—if it is so easy to make, why haven’t the rebels used it except to kill their own supporters? Are they pacifists when it comes to Assad’s military? I don’t think so, especially al-Nusra.

There’s some devastating gaps in the logic of this chemistry not being a secret. You can say the same thing about the atom bomb. It is not that there’s a “secret” to it. Rather, it is a function of being able to create the infrastructure in which the bomb and the explosives can be assembled.

While sarin gas is easier to put together than an atom bomb, this picture of the laboratory used by the Aum Shinrikyo cult for their terrorist attack on Tokyo subway passengers might give you some idea of how ludicrous the whistleblower sounds:


Overhead view of the Satyan-7 chemical weapon facility. (Wikipedia)

Finally, in addition to the OPCW report, I urge you to read Eliot Higgins on the Ltamenah attacks just below. Unlike me, he did not let the relative absence of a significant death count lull him. On April 21, he offered a summary of the OPCW report with a recap of his findings in 2017. This will give you an idea of how Eliot Higgins gets taken seriously while people like Blumenthal and Maté are viewed as dumb and dumber.

Thanks, Russia

November 2017 led to a number of significant developments in the investigation into the nature of Syria’s Sarin bombs, ironically due to the Russian Federation’s attempts to defend its Syrian allies against allegations of Sarin use.

In early November 2017, the OPCW FFM had released a report on their investigation into a number of chemical attacks, including the March 30, 2017 attack in Al-Lataminah. This report included photographs of debris recovered from the site of the Al-Lataminah attack, including measurements of various debris. One of the pieces of debris measured and photographed included not one, but two filling caps recovered from the site of the March 30 attack:

This proved significant, as the filling cap recovered from Khan Sheikhoun had also been measured:

It was also possible to see that both sides of the caps were identical in design, and with the measurements, exactly the same dimensions:

It was now possible for us to state categorically that the design and dimensions of the filling caps recovered from the March 30 attack in Al-Lataminah matched perfectly with the filling cap documented at the Khan Sheikhoun impact site, which the OPCW-UN JIM report had described as “uniquely consistent with a Syrian chemical aerial bomb.”

The next major clue in our investigation was provided by the Russian Federation. In a November 2, 2017 press conference responding to the OPCW-UN JIM report on Khan Sheikhoun, the Russian Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Defence, and the Ministry for Industry and Trade presented various information that they used to claim the Khan Sheikhoun attack was not the responsibility of the Syrian Arab Republic. During that presentation, they displayed a slide with a diagram of two Syrian chemical bombs, the M4000 and MYM6000:

Remarkably, the Russian Federation had just provided the first public details on the nature of these two types of bombs, including details of the internal mechanisms of the bombs, and measures of the width and length of the bombs that would prove to be crucial in identifying the type of bomb used in Syria’s 2017 Sarin attacks. The top two images of the diagram showed an MYM6000 chemical bomb before and after the filling process was completed. The filling process was described in a June 2017 Mediapart article by a former member of the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC):

“It also meant that engineers from the SSRC also had to design bombs that were specific for sarin, and which were quite different to ordinary munitions. “On the outside, they resemble conventional bombs of 250 and 500 kilos of TNT,” explained one of them. “But inside they were totally different, divided into two compartments. The first, at the front, carried the DF. The second, at the rear, [contained] the isopropyl and hexamine. This mixture is stirred together by a stirring rod that can be activated by sort of crank at the rear of the bomb. When the two compartments are filled up, a technician winds the crank which advances the stirring rod to the point it breaks the wall of mica. The sarin synthesis reaction is set off inside the bomb, placed under a cold shower and maintained within a very precise temperature range which is controlled by a laser thermometer,” continued the former SSRC source. “After which, all that’s left is to introduce, in the allocated hold at the point of the bomb, the explosive charge and detonator – altimetric, chronometric or other – and to place the bomb under the wing of the plane. The load must be very precisely measured. If it is too big, the heat given off can cause the decomposition of the product, or the formation of a cloud of gas too far from the ground, which would render it ineffective. In principle, a 250-kilo bomb contains 133 litres of sarin, a few kilos of TNT and a ballast to preserve the aerodynamic characteristics of the weapon. A 500-kilo bomb contains 266 litres of sarin. The ideal altitude for the explosion of the bomb is about 60 metres.”

April 17, 2020

Assad or We Burn the Country

Filed under: Counterpunch,Syria — louisproyect @ 6:30 pm


Sam Dagher’s “Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed” is the definitive chronicle of a tragic war that has left the country in the state described by Tacitus: “where they make a desert, they call it peace.” As for the title, it originates from the graffiti that Assad’s militias painted on walls everywhere. “Assad or We Burn the Country.”

Left in shambles by a senseless war, about 83 percent of Syrians live under the poverty line. A half-million people died in the fighting. That would be equivalent to more than seven million people in the USA. Meanwhile, more than six million Syrians were internally displaced, with another round five million going into exile. This was the necessary price, it seems, for preserving a family dynasty that began in 1971.

Sam Dagher was among the three most capable reporters covering the war. Two others succumbed far too early in their careers. N.Y. Times reporter Anthony Shadid died in 2012 at the age of 43, a result of an asthma attack brought on by walking behind horses. His asthma attack was in turn the result of putting himself into the care of smugglers who customarily used horses to enter and leave the country. If only Shadid had agreed to write the same kind of puff-pieces others have written about al-Assad, none of this would have been necessary. Then, there is Marie Colvin, who was a victim of one of Assad’s barrel bombs in Homs in 2012. Her mistake was being embedded with the rebels rather than al-Assad’s military. After a day in the field, you could always return to a four-star hotel in Damascus for cocktails.

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April 12, 2020

How both American and French imperialism supported Assad in 2011

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 9:20 pm

(In chapter 12 of Sam Dagher’s “Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria”, there’s a telling discussion of how both the USA and France were anxious to keep Assad in power. This was before the killing machine became too obvious to prettify. Part of the PR campaign for the dictator included a puff piece in Vogue magazine. In addition to that, there’s the eye-opening mention of how Bernard Kouchner, France’s foreign minister, former head of Doctors without Borders, and a symbol of imperialist regime change, was on board with keeping ties to the dictatorship. If you read the bullshit from Max Blumenthal, Seymour Hersh, Tariq Ali, Julian Assange, et al, you’d get the impression that there were plans to topple Assad militarily and that the burgeoning protests were a cat’s paw to accomplish that end. Dagher is a brilliant reporter and I once again urge getting his book for the all-round best chronicle of the disaster in Syria.)

By then, Asma’s [Mrs. Bashar al-Assad] touch was everywhere, both at home and in shaping Syria’s image abroad. She completely remodeled the Assad family residence in Malki where Bashar and his siblings grew up, did the same for an old presidential mansion, and fixed up the Assads’ summer home in Latakia with the help of a famous British landscape architect.? She spent a few million US dollars on abstract sculptures. In March 2011, as protests were kicking off and turning violent, Vogue magazine had a whole spread on her titled “Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert.” The main photo was of her wrapped in a red-wine-colored pashmina and standing on top of Mount Qasioun at twilight, with Damascus visible below. Joan Juliet Buck, the writer who flew in for the piece right after Asma’s return from Paris, spent time with her and Bashar and the children at home playing and eating fondue and later singing carols at the annual Christmas concert of the children’s choir they supported.


Photo from Vogue Magazine article on Mrs. Assad that can be read here

“This is how you fight extremism—through art,” Bashar told Buck during the concert. “This is the diversity you want to see in the Middle East.”

The article depicted them as the modern and tolerant Middle East power couple who nurtured and protected minorities like Christians. Bashar also made sure that he repeated to Buck what he often told foreigners: he had studied eye surgery because “it’s very precise… and there is very little blood.”

The article was the idea of one of Asma’s aides at the Trust, a friend from her London days. He approached the New York public relations firm Brown Lloyd James, which already represented several high-profile clients in the Middle East. The firm’s principal, Peter Brown, was friends with Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.

Two months after the article came out and as the regime’s crackdown became bloodier, Brown’s firm sent another Asma aide a memorandum with advice on “crisis communications.”

The firm claimed that the US government “wants the leadership in Syria to survive,” despite the strongly worded condemnation of the violence by President Obama in April and the executive order he signed at the end of that month imposing sanctions on Bashar’s brother, Maher, his cousin Atef Najib, and mukhabarat chief Ali Mamlouk. It said that these were warning shots to prod Bashar to stop killing protesters and implement credible reforms. But the firm said the window was closing fast, as US media coverage was intensifying and officials like Senator John Kerry were beginning to reassess their positions.

Brown Lloyd James recommended drastic changes in the way the regime was articulating its reform agenda. The reform program needed “a face or brand,” Bashar must communicate more often with more “finely tuned messaging,” Asma must “get in the game” and do “listening tours,” and a reform “echo chamber” must be developed, especially in foreign media, focusing on Bashar’s desire to conduct reform in “a non-chaotic and rational way.”

Refocusing the perception of outsiders and Syrians on reform will provide political cover to the generally sympathetic US government, and will delegitimize critics at home and abroad,” concluded the firm.

The PR firm was very close to the mark in its portrayal of the prevailing thinking and mood among officials in Western capitals, at least in the first few weeks of protests in Syria.

France’s ambassador to Syria, Eric Chevallier, was one of these officials. Syria was Chevallier’s first posting, in 2009; he was a medical doctor by training and had until then worked mostly in international humanitarian assistance with the French government, as well as various NGOs and UN agencies. He accepted the Syria mission at the urging of his longtime mentor and current boss, foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, also a physician turned politician. The forty-nine-year-old Chevallier combined French charm and boyish good looks with a businesslike, practical approach to diplomacy.

To veteran French diplomats with long experience in the Middle East, Chevallier was the new kid on the block. From their perspective, he was impressionable and too eager to cozy up to Bashar and members of his inner circle, including the Tlasses.

Chevallier was interviewed for Vogue’s March 2011 piece on Asma. “I hope they’ll make the right choices for the country and the region,” he told the writer about Bashar and Asma in December 2010.

While Chevallier appeared to his detractors like an enthusiastic promoter of the Assad couple, he believed he was simply advancing his country’s policies in Syria. France was among the first in the West to bet on rehabilitating the Syrian regime and Bashar, with strong encouragement from Qatar’s superrich ruling family. The Americans, the British, and others started to reengage with Bashar after France had already made overtures, sending Sarkozy to visit Damascus in 2008 and frequently hosting Bashar and Asma in Paris. Some thought that the French had moved too fast, but France believed it had a national-interest stake in trying to steer Bashar in the right direction.

“There were two ways for them to lead the country: stick to his father’s regional alliances and family policies, or try to move forward toward a more open society, stable foreign policy, and being part of the solution in the region instead of being the problem,” argued Chevallier.16 The day after the fall of French ally Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Chevallier sent a cable to Paris from Damascus.

“Could we have a rose revolution in Damascus?” he wrote in the subject line, alluding to the damask rose. Chevallier reported that many Syrians were transfixed by what was happening in Tunisia, but it was too early to predict whether the country was going down a similar path

April 8, 2020

Daraa, March 2011: the birth of a people’s revolution

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 9:52 pm

(The events described below are found in chapter 9 of Sam Dagher’s “Assad or We Burn the Country”. Like the NY Times’s Anthony Shadid, Dagher was one of the few seasoned, Arab-speaking, professional journalists on the ground in Syria. Unlike Patrick Cockburn and Robert Fisk, he was not interested in triangulating between the dictatorship and the masses. It has now been just over 9 years since the events he describes below took place. Although I have been following events in Syria very closely over the past 9 year, I wasn’t prepared for the level of detail and the deep insights Dagher provides. In March 2011, the people one activist in Daraa described as “high school dropouts, laborers, farmers” decided to challenge the mafia state that Dagher analyzes in the chapters preceding this one. I use the term mafia advisedly. Syria was run by a family of gangsters who used their power to get rich. For those of you who only know Syria as a desolate piece of real estate fought over by Turkey, Russia, et al, this reporting is essential since it will give you an idea of the pent-up revolutionary anger that will explode again sooner or later.)

Notwithstanding these resentments, over the years the regime built a sizable class of loyalists and cronies in Daraa who held senior posts in the Baath Party and government in Damascus and were granted concessions and privileges locally. These people were generally older tribal leaders and businessmen. The regime never imagined a rebellion could start in Daraa, or the “Baath’s southern citadel and bastion,” as it was called in propaganda. Hardly any attention, though, was paid to the youth, the impoverished, and those who were enraged about the wide gap between rich and poor and the practices of the police state and mukhabarat.

When protests erupted in Tunisia in December 2010, Aswad and other regime opponents in Daraa started meeting clandestinely. They were joined a few times by the Damascus-based Mazen Darwish and some of his colleagues.

“We used to say to each other, ‘Let’s go eat mlaihi,” said Mazen, referring to a traditional Daraa dish of lamb and warm yoghurt on a bed of bulgur. “As we ate we discussed how we could take advantage of what was happening around us. We wanted to have a civil and peaceful revolution against the regime. You want to call that a conspiracy? Sure.”

Nobody spoke about Bashar’s departure. The discussion was centered around the same issues that Mazen and his friends were talking about in Damascus: ending the state of emergency, releasing political prisoners, and freeing political life and media, among other things.

Aswad and some twenty other veteran opponents in Daraa, many of them elderly and previously imprisoned by the regime, tried to air these demands on March 15 in front of the city’s main courthouse, but they backed off when they saw the number of heavily armed security force personnel swarming the area.

That same day, some 200 people, mostly young men and women, marched through the alleyways and souks of Damascus’s old quarter chanting for freedom and dignity in response to a call to protest on Facebook. The whole thing barely lasted thirty minutes before security forces and pro-regime thugs dispersed the crowd and arrested protesters. The following day, March 16, saw the demonstration for the release of political prisoners organized by Mazen and his colleagues outside the Ministry of the Interior in Damascus. A few activists came up from Daraa to take part and added their demand for the release of the boys who had sprayed the graffiti. Protesters were viciously attacked by pro-regime thugs and many were arrested.

On March 18, activists and regime opponents in Daraa were hesitating until the last minute about whether to protest or not after Friday prayers, given the heavy security presence in the city and the way Mazen and others had been violently dealt with in Damascus.

Aswad, who was not a particularly religious man and rarely prayed or went to a mosque, was home with some of his like-minded friends when his phone rang. It was a relative.

“Things have kicked off in Al-Balad!” said the excited relative and hung up.

Aswad understood that a protest had started in the city’s old district, called Al-Balad. He and the others got into their cars and drove toward the protest.

In other parts of the city, men were returning home from Friday prayers at their neighborhood mosques. (Women usually prayed at home and prepared lunch.)

Word of the protest was spreading, but it had not yet reached the home of eighteen-year-old Sally Masalmeh, who was among those eager for what many in the Arab world were calling thawra, or revolution, to come to Syria, too. Not far from Sally’s home lived Malek al-Jawabra, a young man she did not know at the time but would meet a few years later in circumstances that neither of them could have ever imagined.

Malek, a twenty-one-year-old law student, was getting off his motorbike as his cousin Ahmad rushed toward him.

“Do not you know what happened?” said an excited and breathless Ahmad.

“No,” said Malek, alarmed.

“A protest left the Hamza and Abbas mosque and it has reached the Omani mosque,” said Ahmad.

“Okay, let’s go!” said Malek.

Malek restarted his motorbike and Ahmad hopped on behind him.

By the time they arrived, several hundred people were on the street outside the Omani mosque, a city landmark that was more than a thousand years old. It was built with the area’s distinctive dark volcanic rocks and had a clock-tower-like minaret. More people kept arriving. There were a lot of teenagers and young men. They were the most fired up. There were also many fathers with their sons and a few elderly people in tribal dress, but not a lot. There were no women, but things would soon change.

It was more of an impromptu gathering than an organized protest, and even had a carnival-like air. People whistled, cheered, sang, and clapped. “Hurriyeh, hurriyeh!” (“Freedom, freedom!”) they shouted. Malek and his cousin joined in.13 There were no real political slogans or even articulate demands. Many people were there because they hoped this could pressure the mukhabarat to release the boys who had sprayed the graffiti.

There was one thing, though, that almost everyone present that day had in common: a sense of collective exhilaration and liberation. A people unshackled.

They were finally speaking out after being told all their lives to keep their mouths shut and mind their own business—otherwise they and their families could get into real trouble.

Ba’ad el your-n ma fi khoul” (“No more fear after today!”) they shouted that day in Daraa. Nobody covered their faces. People held up their cell phones and took photographs and videos. It felt like emancipation after decades of servility.

“Young men, calm down, just write down your demands and we will read them,” said a voice over a loudspeaker coming from inside the Omani.

One hour earlier, Bashar’s cousin and mukhabarat chief, Atef Najib, had summoned the mosque’s influential imam, Ahmad al-Sayasneh. He wanted the respected and well-liked cleric to pressure the crowds to go home. “Sheik Ahmad, all your demands will be met in a week, God willing, but we want you to calm people down,” Najib told Sayasneh, adopting a conciliatory tone in total contrast to his earlier belligerence .

“I have nothing to do with what’s going on,” said the blind, sixty-five-year-old cleric, who wore a white embroidered skullcap.

“No, they will listen to you,” insisted Najib.

Sayasneh came back to the mosque and told protesters massed outside to hand him their demands so he could pass them on to local officials.

“Liars, liars, liars!” was the crowds’ answer to the call for calm. “Thieves, thieves, thieves!”

As the pleas for them to disperse persisted, the chants became more animated and bold.

“Down with Atef Najib! The people want to topple the governor! The people want to tear down corruption!”

The crowd kept swelling. By afternoon, there were several thousand people clogging the street in front of the Omani. They moved toward the provincial government headquarters on the north side of the city, a section called Al-Mahata. They hoped more people would join the protest as it made its way down the hill from the mosque toward Al-Mahata. The more-organized and politically minded in the crowd even thought they could present the governor with a set of written demands.

The crowd passed a metal archway with a portrait of Bashar in the middle.

Some looked up and began chanting: “The people want to bring down the regime!”

“No, no, no! The people want to reform the regime,” shouted others in the crowd, hoping to drown them out. There was a large contingent who advocated for more-measured change focused on ending corruption and releasing prisoners.

The chant grew louder and louder: “The people want to reform the regime!”

In the meantime, Najib called Damascus and the regional mukhabarat headquarters in Suwayda to send him reinforcements to deal with the protest. He had already mobilized all the forces at his disposal in Daraa, including regular police, military police, and civil defense. The uniformed forces were divided into packs, each commanded by one of Najib’s mukhabarat henchmen, all in plainclothes. Many wore tracksuits and sneakers and carried pistols.

As protesters came down the hill and reached an area called Al-Karak, they were met with a hail of tear gas cannisters fired by these forces. People responded by throwing rocks and stones at them. A couple of vehicles belonging to the security forces were quickly surrounded, and after their occupants had fled, the cars were smashed by angry protesters determined to press ahead.

A cat-and-mouse game ensued, with protesters trying to go down the hill and security forces pushing them back up again. Some protesters were caught by security forces. These unlucky ones were beaten, trampled on, kicked, dragged on the pavement, and then bundled into mukhabarat vehicles parked at the bottom of the slope. This only made protesters angrier and more defiant. Fire trucks tried to repulse the crowd by hosing people down, but that did not work either. By late afternoon the reinforcements that Najib had asked for reached Daraa, streaming in by helicopter and bus.

“That’s the big boss,” said some Daraa residents as they spotted a swarm of helicopters touching down briefly inside the city’s soccer stadium and then taking off again.22 They thought that perhaps it was Bashar himself coming to Daraa to calm things down.

Shortly thereafter, masked gunmen in black began arriving at the scene of the standoff with protesters. They were members of an elite security force never previously seen in Daraa.

Some protesters started shouting “Allahu akbar!” (“God is greatest!”) to try to give people courage and make them hold their ground. Others honked the horns of their motorbikes. People burned tires and threw large rocks at the security forces to try to thwart them.

Malek and his friends and relatives watched from the side. The black-clad forces started shooting in the air. The barrage of gunfire lasted a few minutes. Many protesters scurried back up the hill. Others were determined to stand firm and even charged forward.

Sharpshooters among the black uniformed forces were now perched on a hilltop overlooking the scene. There was more gunfire, this time more intense and sustained. Most of it was still into the air, but some of it was now being aimed directly at the crowd. Malek could see people being hit in their legs and arms. Then he saw his relative Mahmoud al-Jawabra collapse to the ground. Another man standing nearby also fell. Mahmoud was hit in the neck. His T-shirt was soaked in blood. He was dead.

“One guy has DIED!” people began shouting as they frantically rushed up the hill toward the Omari mosque.

A couple of people carried the bodies of Mahmoud and the other man, who was killed with a shot in the head. They bundled them into cars and sped away. Malek fled on his motorbike with his cousin.

People scattered as the black-uniformed forces chased them. There were more forces waiting for protesters on the hilltop next to the mosque. They were surrounded from all directions. The cars with the two dead men were stopped. Security personnel snatched the bodies and arrested everyone.

Malek and his cousin escaped, but two other relatives were arrested. Everyone found on the streets that day was swept up by security forces.

“They just killed people like that—impossible!” said Sally when the news reached her home.

Her family, like many Daraa residents, did not know whether a protest was going to come out for sure that day. Yes, the situation was tense after the arrest of the boys, and yes, everybody was wondering when protests would start in Syria, like in other countries, but nobody thought people in Daraa could overcome their fears and take to the streets, just like that. And for people to be killed on the first day was also hard to fathom for Sally and others who were not yet born when Hafez crushed the rebellion against his regime.

Sally had a connection to the two slain young men. Mahmoud al-Jawabra’s mother was related to Sally’s mother. Sally casually met Mahmoud at a few family gatherings. His father had died when he and his siblings were very young. He was the eldest. He dropped out of school to support his family and later opened a small grocery store. He was a well-liked young man; many in Daraa knew him because he played for the local soccer team. The other man, Husam al-Ayash, was the brother of one of Sally’s friends. He also came from a poor family. Like many in Daraa, he had gone recently to the Gulf to work and had come back to Daraa to get married before leaving again.

“God help us all,” said Sally’s mother as the family gathered in the living room. “We are not going to get off easy—it’s going to be just like Hama,” she added, referring to Hafez’s siege and destruction of the rebellious city in central Syria in 1982. The older generation had never forgotten Hama.

The next day, elders from the tribes to which the Ayash and Jawabra families belonged went to meet with Bashar’s cousin Najib. He was ready to hand over the bodies of the two dead men on this condition: They should be buried quickly and quietly without any elaborate funeral processions or protests.

Some of the elders were loyal to the regime and were eager for damage control. They did not want to drag the names of their tribe and family further into the camp of those seen as agitating against the regime. They assured Najib that they would carry out his orders.

In the meantime, hundreds of people flocked to the homes of the two dead men. Elders arrived with the bodies and informed the grieving families of their deal with Najib. Heated exchanges broke out at both homes. How could they make such an agreement with Najib? Younger members of both families saw the fallen men as martyrs. They were determined to hold a fitting funeral. At the Jawabra home the arguments turned into scuffles, with some young men destroying a traditional funeral tent set up outside the house, where condolences were to be received during the mourning period. They said that no condolences would be accepted before a proper funeral procession and burial.

Eventually the youth in both families prevailed over the tribal elders. From the first moment, the struggle against the regime was a standoff between the younger generation that wanted to challenge and break free from fear and tyranny, and the older generation that still remembered Hafez and the heavy price he made Syrians pay for defiance.

The Ayash and Jawabra families agreed that the funeral processions bearing the coffins of the two young men would meet outside the Omani mosque, there they would merge and head toward the cemetery. The bodies were wrapped in blankets and placed in open coffins carried by relatives. Women ululated and threw rice grains and splashed rose water at the large procession as it passed by, rituals reserved for special occasions.

Sally stood on the balcony of her home facing the Omani. Many other women did the same. Some were on the street in front of their homes. Custom prevented them from going to the cemetery with the men, but they were eager to participate in their own way, too. Thousands of men joined the combined procession, and as their numbers swelled a massive anti-regime protest emerged.

“We sacrifice our soul and blood for you, martyr,” people chanted as they clapped and pumped their fists in the air.

“He who kills his own people is a traitor!”

Sally was determined to catch up with the procession as it headed toward the cemetery. She did not want to miss a thing. She told her mother that she was going to her aunt’s house, which was near the cemetery, and ran out the door before her mother could stop her.

From the rooftop of her aunt’s house Sally saw a sea of young men, children, and some elders moving toward the cemetery. They must have been in the tens of thousands.

“Revolution, revolution against tyranny and aggression!” they chanted in one voice.

That day—March 19, 2011—Republican Guard general Manaf Tlass was at his base in the mountains around Damascus. He had barely slept the night before as he and his aides tried to gather information about events in Daraa and decide what precautionary measures they needed to take in Damascus, which was a mere sixty miles away from the southern city.

What Manaf pieced together was that, on March 18, Atef Najib had called his cousin Hafez Makhlouf, who headed one of the mukhabarat branches in Damascus to let him know that he needed help to break the protest.32 Hafez agreed with other mukhabarat chiefs, including Jamil Hassan, who commanded the Air Force Intelligence Directorate, to immediately assemble a strike force and fly it down to Daraa to deal with the protest. Manaf concluded that those who had opened fire on protesters must have belonged to this force.

The shoot-to-kill orders given were in keeping with Hafez Makhlouf’s bloody tendencies and disdain for average Syrians. Hafez, who turned forty at the start of the uprising, was the second of the Makhlouf sons after the eldest, Rami. Unlike his business-mogul brother Rami, Hafez rarely appeared in public and most Syrians did not know what he looked like. He had miraculously survived the 1994 car accident that killed Bashar’s older brother, Bassel. Hafez’s slight-build, clean-cut appearance, and calm persona belied a murderous megalomaniac, according to those who interacted with him.

Following the death of the two protesters, Bashar and his brother, Maher, and their cousin Hafez decided on March 19 to dispatch more forces to Daraa, as well as two senior mukhabarat officers, Hisham Ekhtiyar and Rustum Ghazaleh, to establish a crisis cell there to deal with the situation. Ekhtiyar and Ghazaleh, a Daraa native, were given firm instructions to do whatever it took to restore order in Daraa and prevent the situation from escalating any further. Bashar also sent civilians, including his deputy foreign minister and Daraa native Faisal al-Mekdad and another Baath Party apparatchik who was from Hama, to speak in a more conciliatory tone.

“His excellency [Bashar] considers Daraa to be in the forefront in its loyalty to the regime… He was shocked and so were we about what happened,” Ghazaleh told the Daraa elders and officials he had summoned to the local Baath Party headquarters.

The next day, March 20, Bashar called Manaf at the base. It was their first contact since the deaths in Daraa. Bashar decided to follow the advice of hard-liners like his brother, Maher, and cousin Hafez on how he should deal with Daraa, but he still wanted to sound out other people close to him. Maybe there were other ways to bring the situation under control. Maybe he was missing something or was not being given the full picture by the hard-liners. He also wanted to see where everyone stood on what just happened in Daraa —who was in favor of a tough response and who was not.

“What’s your decision?” Bashar asked Manaf.

“My decision is that you throw Atef Najib in jail and sack the governor. Go down to Daraa tomorrow and make peace with the people,” said Manaf. He told Bashar that families of the dead should be generously compensated and all those detained in Daraa, including the boys who had sprayed the graffiti, should be released immediately.

“What do you know about the dead?” asked Bashar.

“They were killed during the protests. They’re not from powerful families, but still you should go down and be conciliatory,” said Manaf. Manaf explained that this would quickly bring the situation under control—the idea being that Bashar’s gesture would mean a lot to Daraa’s people, who were seen within the regime as simple and emotional tribal folk.

“These are generous and good-hearted people,” said Manaf.

“Okay,” said Bashar before ending the call.

Back in Daraa, events were moving fast. After the burial of the two young men killed on the first day of protests, angry youth were determined to stay on the streets to defy regime forces. They decided to head to Sahet al-Saraya, or Serail Square, in the northern section of the city, Al-Mahata. They wanted to organize a sit-in there in front of the provincial government palace, Baath Party headquarters, and other symbols of authority located around the square.

“To the Mahata, to the Mahata!” they shouted after the funeral. They were immediately confronted by security forces. More people were shot dead and many more were wounded or arrested.

Sheik Sayasneh, the Omani mosque’s blind cleric, pleaded with protesters not to go to the government square and to stay in the city’s old section, Al-Balad, so they wouldn’t provoke further violence by regime forces. He told them they could have their sit-in at the mosque and make their demands from there. Surely there was enough respect for the mosque’s sanctity that security forces would not breach its threshold so easily. It would offer protesters some measure of protection from the deadly force being deployed on the streets.

Many accepted Sayasneh’s offer and moved to the mosque. But there was a limit to his ability to control people, given that this was still a spontaneous outpouring of popular anger and frustration led by the youth, with no clear leader and objective.

“This was a people’s revolution, not a revolution of the educated and the elite,” said Sally Masalmeh. “There were all sorts of people among us: high school dropouts, laborers, farmers, and so on. The youth were the hardest to control.”

Arguments broke out between sons and fathers, who wanted to hold back their children from risking their lives on the streets.

“Why should we listen to you? You were the ones who brought us to this miserable state,” sons told their fathers.

“Why did you not rise against Hafez? Why did you just watch him hand power to Bashar?”

Very quickly the Omani mosque and its courtyard turned into a base for protesters. They decided to set up a field hospital there to treat those wounded in ongoing confrontations with security forces. The city’s hospital was far away, and the nearby small clinics were reluctant to take in the wounded, fearing it could expose them to punishment by the regime. The only option was to set up the makeshift hospital at the mosque. Pharmacists and Daraa residents donated surgical packs, portable oxygen machines, stretchers, medicine, and other supplies.

This was an opportunity for some women who wanted to take a more active role in the uprising. Those with medical training and experience headed to the mosque courtyard to help. Sally had completed first aid and CPR training the previous summer, so she went, too, despite attempts by her parents to stop her.

“You could count the girls on one hand,” said Sally. “We wanted to help in any way we could. All the taboos were starting to crumble.”

There were still limits, though. All the women left at sundown, and only men spent the night at the mosque to keep the sit-in going. Foam mattresses and blankets were brought to the prayer hall. People took turns sleeping. They were starting to get more organized. They formed a media committee. They wrote their demands on cutouts of white bedsheets and hung them on the mosque’s outer wal1.

These demands included the following:

“End the state of emergency” which had been in place since 1963.

“Release prisoners of conscience.”

“Freedom of expression, freedom to protest.”

“Fight corruption and provide jobs to recent graduates.”

“Raise the minimum wage and salaries, and reduce taxes and improve living standards.”

The revolution that Sally and other young Syrians were watching unfold across the region had finally come to Syria, at least to Daraa.

While a revolutionary spirit gripped the city’s south side around the Omani mosque, there was a different mood on the opposite side of the city, where the regime was in control. At the Baath Party’s local headquarters off Serail Square, the mukhabarat commanders dispatched by Bashar huddled with Daraa officials and tribal notables loyal to the regime. The mukhabarat chiefs made it clear that the mosque sit-in could no longer be tolerated. It was March 22, now three days since the protesters they called “terrorists” had taken over the mosque. The children who were detained for spraying the graffiti had been released the day before, after many had endured horrific torture.

The president, Bashar, agreed to sack Daraa’s governor and review the protesters’ other demands, and as such those inside the mosque should leave at once, demanded the mukhabarat chiefs through mediators. Protesters scoffed at what the regime cast as major concessions. They knew that the governor had no real power and was conveniently being made the scapegoat. What about the one with the real power, the security chief and Bashar’s cousin, Atef Najib? What about all the people who had been killed and detained since March 18? They did not trust the regime.

One of the main mediators between the regime and protesters in the mosque was Muwafaq al-Qaddah, a Daraa native and rich businessman based in the United Arab Emirates. He was a self-made man who had built his fortune starting as a traveling salesman. Qaddah was among those courted by Bashar and encouraged to invest in Syria when Bashar launched his economic liberalization. Like most other businessmen, Qaddah partnered on several projects with Bashar’s cousin Rami Makhlouf. Despite his regime links, Qaddah was generally well respected and liked in Daraa. He was a local farmer’s son who had gone to the Gulf and done well.

Qaddah could not say no when Bashar asked for help in ending the standoff in his hometown Daraa. He immediately flew to Damascus and headed down to Daraa. There he was told to coordinate with the office of Bashar’s brother, Maher, who was overseeing the crisis cell in Daraa and was monitoring the situation hour by hour. One of Maher’s crony businessmen, Mohammad Hamsho, was friends with Qaddah. The two would keep in touch throughout the emergency.”

On the evening of March 22, Qaddah met for hours with protesters at the Omani mosque. Past midnight he thought there was a breakthrough. The protesters agreed to leave the mosque on condition that all those arrested since March 18 would be immediately released. The fate of those missing—dead, alive, or held by the regime—would also be ascertained. All other demands were subject to future discussions.

It was very late already. So Qaddah and his entourage got into their cars to head back to the crisis cell on the other side of the city to inform its leaders about the deal that they had just struck with the protesters.

As the peace delegation left the Omani mosque, the entire city was plunged into darkness. Streetlights were extinguished and power went off in all homes. Cellular phone service was also cut.

Sally was asleep. She was in bed next to her mother. Her father was still up in the living room.

Suddenly the crackle of heavy gunfire pierced the silence and darkness.

“Oh my God! Could they be storming the Omani?” said Sally as she jumped out of bed.

She ran into the living room. Her two younger brothers were already there with her father. Her mother came out from the bedroom.41

The mosque was a few hundred meters from their home. They could hear everything. The gunfire grew louder and more intense and sustained. It sounded like machine guns. The booms of explosions rang through the air.

Sally and her siblings started to cry. Her brothers wanted to run back to the mosque and be with their friends who were there. Her tearful mother barricaded their way and locked the front door. They would die if they stepped outside.

Allahu akbar, people of Daraa! Help us, we are being slaughtered!” cried a man over the mosque’s loudspeaker. “Persevere, my brothers—stay in your place, we will be victorious. We do not have weapons, we are peaceful.”

And then, addressing the security forces: “You killers, you mercenaries.”

Indeed, all the shooting was done by regime forces: not a single bullet was fired from inside the mosque. There were only cries for help and shouts of defiance.

As regime forces closed in on the mosque, they started chanting: “With our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, O Bashar!”

A doctor and a medic who rushed over to the mosque in an ambulance were both shot dead by regime sharpshooters hunkered down on adjacent roofs. At least six people inside the mosque were also murdered, and many others were wounded.

Bashar’s cousin Atef Najib entered the mosque after it was taken over. He wore military fatigues and carried an assault rifle. He stood in the courtyard and began shooting in the air.

“You sons of bitches!” he shouted as he emptied one magazine after another.

He was surrounded by dozens of armed men, mostly in plainclothes. They were laughing, smoking cigarettes, and back-slapping one another .They looked like gangsters. Many spoke with the distinctive accent of Bashar’s Alawite sect.

“We killed them,” one of them announced before joining the others in a trancelike chant: “God, Syria, and Bashar!”

When the news reached Qaddah, he was stunned. He felt betrayed. He had been used as bait by regime forces. They were preparing the assault even as he was inside the mosque assuring protesters that a deal could be worked out and that their demands regarding detainees could be fulfilled. Qaddah called Maher al-Assad’s associate Hamsho from the crisis cell command center to express his anger.

Shortly after, Maher himself called back and asked to speak to Qaddah. He was on speakerphone. All the mukhabarat commanders who had overseen the storming of the mosque were sitting around and could hear Maher, too.

“So, Muwafaq, I heard you shit in your pants—ha ha ha!” said Maher as he laughed uncontrollably.

The next day Bashar and Manaf spoke again by telephone.

“How can this carnage happen?” demanded Manaf. “This is unreal. I thought Muwafaq Qaddah was your emissary and was negotiating on your behalf.”

Bashar said Qaddah was being played by the protesters who, he claimed, were armed and dangerous and part of a foreign conspiracy. He said he had spoken to his brother, Maher, and cousin Hafez Makhlouf before the order was given to storm the mosque.

“We had no choice but to nip this whole thing in the bud,” Bashar said.

After the call this thought occurred to Manaf: “They have wasted no time in taking the Hama manual out of the drawer.”


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