Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 16, 2019

The Cave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 1, 2019

Follow the Money

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 12:14 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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September 21, 2019

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

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 1:17 pm

From the September 20, 2019 Times Literary Supplement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

July 26, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 23, 2019

For Sama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the press notes, Waad makes her statement:

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

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

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

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

June 21, 2019

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

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

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 21, 2019

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

Continue reading

June 18, 2019

Fact-checking Max Blumenthal

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 10:33 pm

From page 156 of “The Management of Savagery”:

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


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

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

U.S. officials say they are most worried about Russian-designed Manpads provided to Libya making their way to Syria. The U.S. intensified efforts to track and collect man-portable missiles after the 2011 fall of the country’s longtime strongman leader, Moammar Gadhafi.

To keep control of the flow of weapons to the Syrian rebels, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar formed a joint operations room early this year in a covert project U.S. officials watched from afar.

The U.S. has limited its support of the rebels to communications equipment, logistics and intelligence. But U.S. officials have coordinated with the trio of countries sending arms and munitions to the rebels. The Pentagon and CIA ramped up their presence on Turkey’s southern border as the weapons began to flow to the rebels in two to three shipments every week.

In July, the U.S. effectively halted the delivery of at least 18 Manpads sourced from Libya, even as the rebels pleaded for more effective antiaircraft missiles to counter regime airstrikes in Aleppo, people familiar with that delivery said.

June 1, 2019

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

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

Did jihadis do this rather than Assad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

April 14, 2019

Fact-checking Max Blumenthal

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 1:04 am

clown blumenthal

UPDATE

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

Screen Shot 2019-04-17 at 7.18.55 PM

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

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


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

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

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

No luck. Try for yourself.

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

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

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

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

 

February 25, 2019

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

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 11:05 pm

Charles Glass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–The Irish Times, May 10, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Aum Shinrikyo factory

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

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

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

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

Nonetheless, there was a Libya-Syria weapons connection early on but it was hardly a conspiracy hatched by the USA and its allies in the region. Libyans did get their hands on Gaddafi’s surface-to-air missiles and were desperate to get them into the hands of Syrians who were defenseless against Assad’s helicopters and MIGs. You’d think, based on Glass’s reporting, that the USA would have facilitated such a transfer given Obama’s supposed desire for “regime change”. But that’s not what happened at all as the WSJ reported on October 17, 2012:

U.S. officials say they are most worried about Russian-designed Manpads provided to Libya making their way to Syria. The U.S. intensified efforts to track and collect man-portable missiles after the 2011 fall of the country’s longtime strongman leader, Moammar Gadhafi.

To keep control of the flow of weapons to the Syrian rebels, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar formed a joint operations room early this year in a covert project U.S. officials watched from afar.

The U.S. has limited its support of the rebels to communications equipment, logistics and intelligence. But U.S. officials have coordinated with the trio of countries sending arms and munitions to the rebels. The Pentagon and CIA ramped up their presence on Turkey’s southern border as the weapons began to flow to the rebels in two to three shipments every week.

In July, the U.S. effectively halted the delivery of at least 18 Manpads sourced from Libya, even as the rebels pleaded for more effective antiaircraft missiles to counter regime airstrikes in Aleppo, people familiar with that delivery said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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