Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.”


February 29, 2020

The clash between Assad and Erdogan’s militaries

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 2:22 pm

(A guest post by Omar Sabbour that appeared originally on Facebook. Omar is an independent Egyptian writer and activist.)

So let’s assess what Turkey’s almost unchallenged destruction of the regime today (exposing how much of a paper tiger it really is when it can’t rely on Russian warplanes to bomb civilians out of an area before they take it) means:

it means that Russia has been bluffing for a long time, as many of us long suspected, and the fears of a ‘war with Russia’ (yet alone a war between US and Russia) were based on a fundamental overestimation of Russian military capabilities. It is the US which has created the image of a behemoth out of Russia in Syria by coordinating airstrikes with it for years while blocking anti aircraft weaponry from regional allies to the rebels on the ground.

So, it could be said that Turkey couldn’t do the sort of thing it seemingly has done with incredible ease today years ago because of simultaneous US and Russian opposition (both of which still exist – there is little doubt in my mind that US today is also unhappy with Turkey’s actions; the US has since 2017 sent signals that ‘al-Qaeda held’ Idlib should collapse). Now it is argued that Turkey could step in because of the vaccum left by the partial US withdrawal from the arena, in a way that it couldn’t before when both US and Russia were active. In other words, ironically it was the US presence, not the Russian one, that was the main factor that stopped Turkey doing this kind of thing before.

But what would have been the cost to Turkey if it went ahead anyway years ago to do the sort of thing it did today – both US and Russia be damned? Would the US have shot down Turkish warplanes? Doubt it. International isolation, even though Turkey would’ve simply been carrying out the theoretical anti-Assad position of the US (even if this was of course opposite to the actual US policy of opposing taking out the regime militarily)? What would have happened? US would go to support YPG? Happened anyway. Turkey isolated/disliked in Western capitals? Happened anyway.

Would the adopted Turkish trajectory, basically allying with Russia and making quid pro quo exchanges of rebel territories for Kurdish ones have been necessary if it acted early on against regime, calling US bluff, and insisted on forcing itself into the fight against ISIS, ensuring US/YPG didn’t get all the spoils?

There’s no question that there were the sort of things that were considered by Turkish policymakers. There were a variety of options available to them: from ignoring US objections and providing MANPADs to FSA before Russia’s intervention, to the more direct option of intervening itself, as took place today.

Instead, Turkey took the most cautious and conservative approach – underplaying its cards vis a vis Russia and wasting massive leverage, especially when opposition was spread across the country. And for what? What gains did it achieve by this policy?

I wrote a (unpublished) piece a few months ago saying that Turkey had to go it alone against *both* US and Russian objections in Syria. Some might have thought this was too far-fetched but today perhaps shows that it wasn’t.

Main mistakes:

– Abiding by US diktat on giving anti-aircraft defences to rebels since 2012 onwards (abandoned *eight* years later)

– Refusing to seriously support FSA against ISIS in 2013/14

– Leaving fight against ISIS mainly to US/YPG afterwards

– Underplaying leverage (post-2016) and making uneven deals with Russia of surrendering rebel territories to regime in exchange for being able to act against YPG. With today’s events, it’s questionable even if it was necessary for Turkey to clear Euphrates Shield (i.e. Aleppo for Al-Bab) and Olive Branch (East Idlib for Afrin) with Russia beforehand.

– In any case, exchanges were not even (though of course Turkey cared about Kurds first and foremost) and furthermore, Turkey continued to pacify northern rebel front outside of the framework of these exchanges, as part of ‘deescalation agreements’ which would be completely ignored by Russia. As well as the direct surrender of places like Aleppo and East Idlib, this meant the indirect aiding of fall of places like Eastern Ghouta, Dara’a, Homs countryside by freezing northern rebel front and allowing regime to focus fully on each area one at a time.

– Finally, taking waaaaay too long and allowing regime to completely trample on Sochi agreement on Idlib (ever since regime capture of Khan Sheikhun quite a long time ago) even though Turkey had by now run out of ‘exchanges’ to make with Russia. In short, Turkey kept sending Russia signals that it will acquiesce to regime to take more territories, even though this violated Sochi, but the regime/Russia just wouldn’t stop.

The recent events will be portrayed as Turkey being aggressive/expansionist in Syria vis a vis regime. In reality, Turkey has actually bent over backwards to please Russia, ignoring its violations of the agreed de-escalation zones in 2017, then its violation of Sochi specifically since 2018, even though the anti-Kurdish bargains to be made with Russia had been completed and Turkey was not gaining anything in return for letting Russia/regime violate their agreements and seize territory.

Even today, Turkey has avoided saying that it was Russia who bombed it (even though it almost certainly was and it isn’t the first time) and has even let Russian warships through the Bosporus. I also have doubts that the current level of Turkish escalation against regime will be a protracted thing, I think it’s meant to send a strong message to Russia (better late than never) with the aim of reaching a new/old political accommodation in Idlib, though I certainly hope I’m wrong. Some of the more excited folks are saying that Turkey can even escalate to take out the regime in Damascus. I doubt that though as there are simply no rebel forces on the ground who can advance in south Syria to take advantage. In other words, two years too late.

The more realistic question is which scenario Turkey will take:

  1. Declared scenario: Turkey will back serious FSA offensive that pushes back regime to Sochi lines and reverse all recent gains (still a serious endeavour). Of course, Russia unlikely to sit by idly and will try and destroy everything that rebels try to take, so there’s that consideration (unless Turkey intervenes with its own airforce, for example with NATO defensive cover)
  2. Pragmatic scenario: Turkey will back more limited offensive that takes back some territories but leaves regime with gains
  3. Maximalist/’punishment’ scenario: Turkey will push a very strong offensive that pushes back regime to beyond Sochi lines, probably encompassing parts of Greater Idlib (east of M5) and Northern Hama exchanged with Russia as part of Afrin offensive. Such an offensive (this could have different details, at its fullest extent it could encompass assaults on imagine if it took the cities of Hama and Aleppo) would probably cause a massive fear of regime collapse and may bring Russia to compromise on Assad. This I think is the only scenario which actually has a chance of resurrecting “political solution” but on record Turkey is not ambitious enough to attempt it. Of course however, Russian airforce may go even crazier than it already has if Turkey attempted this, again, absent Turkish airforce/NATO deterrence.
  4. Pessimistic scenario: Turkey deescalates after sending message and regime actually continues to take more territory (which it actually is currently doing in South Idlib)

In conclusion, Turkey alone, through acting unilaterally, can bring a change in equilibrium which can end the Syrian war. At most optimistic, an expanded (“punishment”) campaign for Eastern Idlib, Northern Hama (maybe even Hama city) and Aleppo would result in a regime panic and perhaps a transition. Hypothetically, a surprise offensive on something like Aleppo for instance, if successful, would be such a shock that it would probably force a Russian agreed transition. Realistically though, a reversal of recent gains back to Sochi lines would still be a very significant achievement; it would likely result in a freezing of the war – at least on the part of Assad/Russia until they hope that Erdogan loses power in Turkey, leaving them to try again, Which is why, naturally, a full out offensive to beyond Sochi lines would be the most efficient way of bringing war to close – question is if Turkey has a) the ability (can it deter Russian airforce, or if not, can its own military capacities nonetheless enable rebels to advance?) and b) the willingness to do it.

February 12, 2020

The rancid politics of the Douma false-flag brigades

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 8:40 pm

Medal of Freedom awardee and Syria false flagger speaks out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve Doocy: shares the concerns of Grayzone, et al

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 5, 2020

Fisking Douma

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

Robert Fisk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 2, 2020

The Worldwide Church of Bashar al-Assad

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

December 29, 2019

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

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 12:03 am


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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

November 22, 2019

Douma, Chlorine Gas and Occam’s Razor

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

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


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

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

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

Continue reading

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: Kevin Coogan,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.

Continue reading

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

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.


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