Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category
September 24, 2014
By Stephen Gowans
Part of Washington’s legal defense of its violation of Syrian sovereignty in launching airstrikes against ISIS targets on Syrian soil is self-defense against the Khorasan Group, an organization whose name US officials hadn’t uttered until a few days ago and which Syrian rebels say they’ve never heard of and which appears to have no independent existence apart from al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, which cooperates militarily with CIA-directed rebels seeking to overthrow the secular nationalist government of Bashar al-Assad.
On September 20, US officials publicly expressed concern about the Khorasan Group, which they described as an offshoot of the Nusra Front. US officials told reporters that “Khorasan had emerged in the past year as the cell in Syria that may be the most intent on hitting the United States or its installations overseas with a terror attack.” 
Yesterday, US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes announced that Khorasan “had very clear and concrete ambitions to launch external operations against the United States or Europe.” He added that there “was actual plotting that was ongoing from Syria.” The September 23 airstrikes, carried out by the United States and a coalition of Arab crowned dictatorships, were in part, Rhodes said, “aimed to disrupt that plotting.” 
To give its violation of Syrian sovereignty legal cover, the United States declared that it was acting at the request of the Iraqi government in connection with Iraq’s right of self-defense against aggression by ISIS, and that its actions were therefore consistent with the UN Charter. The airstrikes were also congruent with international law, insisted Washington, as a matter of self-defense against the Khorasan Group, which it said was plotting against the United States.  Neither defense is cogent since Washington rejected coordination with the Syrian government and refused to seek its assent to carry out air strikes on its territory.
Despite Washington pointing to Khorasan as a group with an independent existence apart from the Nusra Front, it appears to be indistinguishable from the latter. The alleged leader of the group, Muhsin al Fadhli, is a longtime al Qaeda operative. Since the Nusra Front is al-Qaeda’s official franchise in Syria, it follows that Fadhli is working with Jabhat al-Nusra. Moreover, US officials acknowledge that Khorasan and Nusra Front “are intertwined.” 
Both Jahbat al-Nusra and ISIS were censured by the UN Security Council this summer for gross, systematic and widespread abuse of human rights . Nevertheless, the United States hasn’t officially declared the Nusra Front to be a target of its mission to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS. This shows that protection of human rights does not underpin the US anti-ISIS campaign, notwithstanding expressions of concern about the plight of the Yazidis, ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Instead, Washington’s real motivations are linked to the divergent goals of the two al-Qaeda progeny. The Nusra Front’s ambitions are limited to Syria, and its immediate aim of toppling the country’s secular nationalist government meshes with US objectives. ISIS, in contrast, has larger territorial ambitions, which clash with US domination of the Middle East, particularly its informal control of Iraq’s oil. Hence, ISIS, which is against US foreign policy interests, falls within the crosshairs of the US military campaign, while the Nusra Front, which works (for the moment) in directions which compliment US goals in Syria, is ignored, despite a human rights record which is as deplorable and barbaric as that of ISIS (and the United States, if the matter is taken further. Watch the testimony of US soldiers about the conduct of US forces in Vietnam and Iraq to see that barbarity isn’t unique to ISIS and the Nusra Front.)
Still, there’s a loose string. US warplanes and drones struck several bases and an ammunition warehouse belonging to the Nusra Front, according to the New York Times. Almost five dozen Nusra fighters were killed. 
If the Khorasan Group is a part of the Nusra Front, and not a separate organization, the apparent contradiction in the United States excluding the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria as an official target of its war on ISIS, while at the same time attacking it, goes away. It also explains why rebels have never heard of the organization. 
What remains unclear, however, is why the United States attacked Nusra Front targets. Does Khorasan indeed exist as a wing of al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise? Was it plotting attacks on Western targets? Were US airstrikes directed specifically at this wing?
Whatever the case, one leader of a rebel group under US sway objected to the strike on Nusra targets on grounds that al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise is “a loyal partner in the battle against Mr. Assad.”  Numerous press reports have pointed to US-backed rebels cooperating with al-Qaeda in Syria. One veteran observer has argued that there is no dividing wall between “America’s supposedly moderate opposition allies” and ISIS and the Nusra Front.  It’s all one movement, no part of it secular, and all parts of it, including the misnamed “moderate” rebels, are overwhelmingly Islamist. 
That the Nusra Front is a loyal partner of US-backed rebels means that the alleged Khorasan leader Muhsin al Fadhli has been an important part of Washington’s war on Assad. Fadhli was close to Osama bin Laden. According to the Wall Street Journal, he “is a senior al Qaeda facilitator and financier” who “has an extensive network of Kuwaiti jihadist donors who have sent money to Syria through Turkey.” 
While US warplanes were bombing Nusra Front targets and US-backed rebels were objecting to US attacks on their loyal al-Qaeda partner, Israel was intervening on behalf of the Nusra Front by shooting down a Syrian warplane that was attacking Nusra positions on the Syrian-controlled Golan Heights. Al-Qaeda fighters have captured most of this territory. 
The Syrian aircraft had strayed about a half mile into territory of the Golan Heights under Israeli control (legitimately belonging to Syria but occupied by Israel since 1967), and had turned back when Israeli forces shot it down. That the Syrian warplane had no aggressive intention against Israel was clear in its quickly retreating into Syrian airspace.
The absence of aggressive intent was also clear from the context: With its hands full fighting Islamist proxies of the United States, Turkey, Jordan and the US-backed Gulf oil tyrannies, Syria is in no position to undertake a war with Israel, and, indeed, is no position to do so even under the most favorable of circumstances. It should have been clear to Israeli commanders that the pilot had made an error, and likely was clear. All the same, it would appear that Israel couldn’t resist an opportunity to lend a hand to al-Qaeda—not to mention al-Qaeda’s Western and Arab allies of convenience—in their battle against a government they all deplore for their own reasons: Israel, because the Assad government is anti-Zionist; al-Qaeda and Turkey, because it is secular; and the United States and its Arab puppet dictators, because it is nationalist and refuses to be integrated into the US-dominated global economic order.
But for the support of Russia and China, Iran and Hezbollah, Syria stands alone against a US-led club of imperialists, their democracy-abominating Arab clients, a Zionist colonial settler regime, and Islamist fanatics, who brazenly dub themselves Friends of Syria, but parts of which are in reality enemies of secularism and the other part enemies of national independence and self-directed development.
Imperialists, royalist dictatorships, an apartheid settler regime, and jihadists who seek to make the Koran their constitution, are as far away from democrats as could possibly be, which makes the spectacle of their invoking democracy as grounds for their war on Syria’s secular nationalist government—topped off now by the violation of Syrian territory by the United States and its Arab janissaries—a matter of revulsion and egregious hypocrisy.
1. Mark Mazzetti, Michael S. Schmidt and Ben Hubbard, “U.S. suspects more direct threats beyond ISIS,“ The New York Times, September 20, 2014.
2. Siobhan Gorman and Julian E. Barnes, “U.S. feared al Qaeda group targeted in Syria was plotting terror,” The Wall Street Journal, September 23, 2014.
3. Somini Sengupta and Charlie Savage, “U.S. invokes Iraq’s defense in legal justification of Syria strikes,” The New York Times, September 23, 2014.
4. Julian E. Barnes and Sam Dagher, “Syria strikes: U.S. reports significant damage in attacks on Islamic state, Khorasan,” The Wall Street Journal, September 23, 2014.
5. UN Security Council Resolution 2170 (2014). http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2014/sc11520.doc.htm
6. Ben Hubbard, “Startling sight where blasts are the norm,” The New York Times, September 23, 2014.
7. Gorman and Barnes.
9. Patrick Cockburn, cited in Belen Fernandez, “Book review: The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising,” The Middle East Eye, September 3, 2014.
10. Ben Hubbard, Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. pins hope on Syrian rebels with loyalties all over the map”, The New York Times, September 11, 2014.
11. Gorman and Barnes.
12. Joshua Mitnick, “Israeli military shoots down Syrian aircraft,” The Wall Street journal, September 23, 2014.
By Stephen Gowans
Political Islam has a long history of cooperating with Western imperialism at certain times and in certain places, and of turning against it at other times and in other places. For example, Osama bin Laden cooperated with the United States to overthrow a progressive pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan, and then launched a jihad against the domination of the Middle East by the United States. Many Palestinians were sent to Afghanistan in the 1980s by the Muslim Brotherhood to struggle against the atheists in Kabul (much to the delight of Israel) only to return to join a Palestinian national liberation struggle against Israel in the ranks of Hamas.
What separates the rebels in Syria that the United States and its allies arm, train, fund and direct from those it seeks to degrade and ultimately destroy is not a secular vs. Islamist orientation. Even the so-called “moderate” rebels are under the sway of Islamist thinking. Instead the dividing line between the good “moderate” rebels and the bad “extremist” rebels is willingness to cooperate with the United States and the region’s former colonial powers. The “good” ones are under the control of the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies, or aren’t, but are working in directions that comport with Western foreign policy goals, while the “bad” ones are working in ways that frustrate the attainment of the foreign policy objectives of the West. In other words, one set of rebels is cooperating with Western imperialism while the other frustrates it.
The “moderate” Syrian rebels who US officials are counting on to battle the Islamic State as part of the Obama administration’s plan to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS comprise dozens of groups which report directly to the CIA  and are under the sway of Islamist thinking.  According to General Abdul-Ilah al Bashir, who led the Free Syrian Army before its collapse at the end of last year, the CIA has taken over direction of the rebel force and FSA groups now report directly to US intelligence. 
The groups are run from military command centers in Turkey and Jordan, staffed by intelligence agents of the United States and the Friends of Syria, a collection of former colonial powers and Sunni crowned dictatorships. The command centers furnish the rebels with arms, training, and salaries. The United States provides overall guidance, while Turkey manages the flow of rebels over its border into Syria, and Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states provide much of the funding. 
The centerpiece of the CIA-directed rebel grouping is the Hazm Movement, formerly known as Harakat Zaman Mohamed, or Movement of the Time of Muhammad. It is strongly backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, and by key Muslim Brotherhood supporters, Qatar and Turkey. 
The US-backed rebels cooperate with the Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda operating in Syria,  which the UN Security Council denounced this summer along with ISIS for their “gross, systematic and widespread abuse of human rights”  but which the United States has left out of its war on the Islamic State, even though its origins and methods are the same as those of ISIS, and its goals similar. Accordingly, the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria will continue to coordinate operations with CIA-directed rebels, unhindered by US strikes.
Aron Lund, a Syria analyst who edits the Syria in Crisis blog for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, deems the idea of the moderate secular rebel a myth. “You are not going to find this neat, clean, secular rebel group that respects human rights…because they don’t exist.” 
Andrew J. Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who follows Syrian events, points out that most of the rebels backed by the United States come from “rural, Sunni areas where Islamist thinking has long held sway and often colors their thinking.”  They are not moderate fighters for secular liberal democratic values.
Veteran foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn echoes these views. In his new book, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising (OR Books), Cockburn observes that there is “no dividing wall” between “America’s supposedly moderate opposition allies” and ISIS and the Nusra Front. 
While US officials and Western mass media promote a false narrative of two sets of rebels occupying opposite ends of two different axes—Islamist vs. secular and extremist vs. moderate—the most relevant axis may be one defining the groups’ orientation toward the West.
Reflecting the ideology of their al-Qaeda progenitor, the Nusra Front and ISIS seek to bring historically Islamic regions under Sunni Islamist political control, which means the ejection of the United States and its local marionettes, the destruction of secular regimes, and the elimination of local “heresies”, including Shia Islam and its heterodox Alawi offshoot, to which Syrian president Bashar al-Assad belongs.
The CIA-directed rebels, in contrast, appear to have a more moderate attitude to the United States, and are open to working with Washington and its Arab and NATO allies. Hassan al-Hamada, a leader of one of the CIA-directed rebel groups says, “We want to be hand in hand with the West, and for the future of Syria to be with the West.” 
The word “moderate,” then, appears to have but one meaning—a willingness to work with the United States, under the direction of the CIA, and in cooperation with Western imperialism…at least for now.
1. Patrick Cockburn, “Syria and Iraq: Why US policy is fraught with danger,” The Independent, September 9, 2014.
2. Ben Hubbard, “U.S. goal is to make Syrian rebels viable,” The New York times, September 18, 2014.
5. Suhaib Anjarini, “Harakat Hazm: America’s new favourite jihadist group”, Al Akhbar English, May 22, 2014.
7. UN Security Council Resolution 2170 (2014). http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2014/sc11520.doc.htm
8. Ben Hubbard, Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. pins hope on Syrian rebels with loyalties all over the map”, The New York Times, September 11, 2014.
10. Belen Fernandez, “Book review: The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising,” The Middle East Eye, September 3, 2014.
By Stephen Gowans
Indications of a new phase in Washington’s longstanding policy of regime change in Syria are emerging in US planning to expand its campaign against ISIS. The Pentagon envisions a multi-year campaign of air strikes inside Syria and assistance to anti-Assad fighters to destroy the Islamic State. But given US policy to topple the government in Damascus, it seems unlikely that the planned campaign will restrict itself to ISIS targets alone. What’s more, Washington has recently accused Syria of hiding chemical weapons, possibly signalling its intention to use concealed WMD—and the threat of chemical weapons falling into the hands of ISIS—as a pretext to expand its target list from ISIS to Syrian forces.
For weeks, Western leaders have delivered two messages about ISIS, one loudly, and the other, not so loudly. The louder message is that ISIS is an unprecedented threat. US defense secretary Chuck Hagel called the Islamist group “an imminent threat to every interest we have” and “beyond anything that we’ve seen.”  Quietly, however, US officials have said the very opposite. On August 22, the Pentagon press secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby, admitted that ISIS does not have “the capability right now to conduct a major attack on the U.S. homeland.”  The same day, the FBI and Homeland Security Department announced that there are “no specific or credible terror threats to the U.S. homeland from the Islamic State militant group.”  Similar assurances were provided recently by US president Barack Obama, who acknowledged that “he hasn’t seen any ‘immediate intelligence’ to suggest Islamic State could carry out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.”  Still, the mass media have emphasized statements that draw attention to ISIS as a medieval menace (Obama) worse than al-Qaeda (Hagel) that must be destroyed (US secretary of state John Kerry). 
Washington insists that destroying the Islamic State means US air strikes against ISIS-strongholds in Syria—and violation of Syrian borders. Obama, and the United States’ top soldier, Martin Dempsey, have warned that ISIS cannot be defeated without military action against Islamic State targets in Syria.  For weeks, US surveillance aircraft have been searching for ISIS leaders inside Syria, “developing intelligence on the group’s strongholds” and “collecting intelligence on Islamic State operations inside Syria that could be potential targets.” 
Now, it appears that Washington is on the cusp of pressing ahead with its planned campaign of military action. The New York Times has reported that “Pentagon planners envision a military campaign” to destroy ISIS “in its sanctuary inside Syria” that could last “at least 36 months.”  According to The Wall Street Journal, airstrikes would support anti-Assad fighters unaligned with ISIS, who would be bankrolled by $500 million in US funding, and backed by a global coalition, including the UK and Australia, that would “provide a range of assistance, including humanitarian aid and weapons.” These countries could also join the United States in an air-war over Syria. 
There are reasons to suspect that a US-led military intervention in Syria would not stop at ISIS targets.
First, regime change in Damascus is a long-standing US policy, antedating the Arab Spring. Cables released by Wikileaks showed that US funding to the Syrian opposition began flowing under the Bush administration in 2005, if not before, long before uprisings erupted against the Assad government.  Largely forgotten is that the Bush administration dubbed Syria a member of a “junior varsity axis of evil,” and toyed with the idea of making Assad’s Syria the next target of a US military intervention after Iraq.  The idea that Washington seeks Assad’s ouster as part of a program of democracy-promotion cannot be seriously accepted, especially not in light of unwavering US support for crowned dictatorships in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia which brutally suppressed Arab Spring uprisings there. Washington’s steadfast support of Egypt’s military dictatorship, which crushed peaceful protests against a military coup that ousted the elected president, also reveals that Washington’s publicly stated reason for seeking regime change in Syria—that Assad is a dictator who violently suppressed peaceful protestors and who must therefore be removed in an act of solidarity with the plural-democracy-loving Syrian people—is a complete sham.
Second, the provision of $500 million in funding to “Syrian boots on the ground” would likely amount to increased support for one group of Islamists seeking the overthrow of secular society in Syria by another. Fighters strengthened by an infusion of US aid would not stop after destroying ISIS, if indeed, they didn’t simply ally with them, or more likely, if ISIS members simply transferred allegiance to the US-backed Islamist militant groups.
Third, in recent days, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, has begun making noise about the Assad government allegedly “harboring undeclared chemical weapons.” Playing on ISIS-related fear-mongering, Power pointed to the risk that “there are chemical weapons left in Syria,” and that “we can only imagine what [ISIS] would do if in possession of such a weapon.”  Little may develop from this, but it is suspiciously close to the pretext used by Washington to invade Iraq in 2003.
The real danger posed by ISIS is to Arab states, not to the US, a point conceded by Obama. “The dangers that are posed by (ISIS) are more directed at them (the Arab states) right now than they are at us,” he said.  To be sure, ISIS has posed a threat to the Syrian Arab Republic, one Washington was prepared to overlook, if not nurture. But now that the Islamic State threatens Iraq and possibly Saudi Arabia, Washington, along with its British and French allies, are beating the drums of war—and quite possibly, using the opportunity presented by the Islamic State to escalate their campaign of aggression against Syria.
1. Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper, “U.S. isn’t sure just how much to fear ISIS,” The New York Times, August 22, 2014.
2. Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper, “US isn’t sure how much to fear ISIS,” The New York Times, August 22, 2014.
3. Eileen Sullivan, “FBI: No credible threats to US from Islamic State,” The Associated Press, August 22, 2014.
4. Patrick O’Conner, Dion Nissenbaum and Carol E. Lee, “Obama to spell out strategy to defeat Islamic state,” The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2014. Glen Greenwald (Americans now fear ISIS sleeper cells are living in the U.S., overwhelmingly support military action,” The Intercept, September 8, 2014) unpacks the reasoning of US officials to show that they cannot possibly regard ISIS as a threat to the vital interests of the United States. US officials say that ISIS cannot be destroyed by airstrikes alone, but at the same time, they say they’re not prepared to commit US ground forces to a military campaign to destroy the Islamist group. If they’re not prepared to undertake action that, by their own analysis, is necessary to eclipse the threat, then it must be that they understand the threat to be less compelling than they’ve led the public to believe it is. Indeed, Washington’s official pronouncements that ISIS does not constitute a threat to the US homeland corroborate the conclusion.
5. Dion Nissenbaum, “U.S. considers attacks on ISIS in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2014.
6. Felicia Schwartz and Dion Nissenbaum, “U.S. eyes wider action on Islamic state,” The Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2014; Carol E. Lee, Dion Nissenbaum and Jay Solomon, “U.S. sets goal to ‘destroy’ Islamic militants,” The Wall Street Journal, September 5, 2014.
7. Dion Nissenbaum, “U.S. considers attacks on ISIS in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2014.
8. Eric Schimitt, Michael R. Gordon and Helene Cooper, “Destroying ISIS may take years, U.S. officials say,” The New York Times, September 7, 2014.
9. Patrick O’Conner, Dion Nissenbaum and Carol E. Lee, “Obama to spell out strategy to defeat Islamic state,” The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2014.
10. Craig Whitlock, “U.S. secretly backed Syrian opposition groups, cables released by Wikileaks show”, The Washington Post, April 17, 2011.
11. Moshe Ma’oz, “Damscus vs. Washington: Between the ‘Axis of Evil’ and ‘Pax Americana’”, in Bruce Cumings, Evarand Abrahamian and Moshi Ma’oz. Investing the Axis of Evil: The Truth about North Korea, Iran and Syria. The New Press. 2004.
12. Rick Gladstone, “Syria may have hidden chemical arms, U.S. says”, The New York Times, September 4, 2014.
13. Jay Solomon, “Arab states skeptical of U.S. plan to combat Islamic state militants,” The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2014.
By Stephen Gowans
One of the roles of leading politicians and top officials of the state is to enlist public support for policies which serve the goals of the upper stratum of the population from whose ranks they sometimes come and whose interests they almost invariably promote. When these policies are at odds with the interests of the majority, as they often are, the mobilization of public consent is possible only through deception. The deception is carried out through prevarication, equivocation, and fear-mongering, crystallized into misleading narratives which the mass media can be reliably counted on to amplify. So it is that Western officials have ramped up a campaign of deception to provide a pretext for military intervention in Syria to combat ISIS but which may very well serve as a Trojan horse to escalate the war on the Syrian government.
The foundations of the campaign were laid in March, when US officials began warning that Islamists bent on launching strikes against Europe and the United States were massing in Syria.  The campaign kicked into high gear with ISIS’s territorial gains in Iraq and the organization’s beheading of US journalist James Foley. Now US officials say they are contemplating air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria.
To justify the possibility of an air-war in Syria, US officials employ nebulous language about safeguarding US “security interests,” but neglect to spell out what those interests are or how they’re threatened. US defense secretary Chuck Hagel calls ISIS an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” adding that ISIS “is beyond anything that we’ve seen.”  Hagel doesn’t say how ISIS is a threat to even one US interest, let alone all of them, while his elevation of ISIS to a threat “beyond anything that we’ve seen” is transparent fear-mongering. Clearly, ISIS’s brutality in Iraq, its beheading of Foley, and its ability to seize and control territory, have been no more shocking than what has transpired in Syria, where ISIS and its fellow Islamists have carried out equally bloody displays of depraved cruelty, while seizing and controlling sizeable swaths of Syrian territory, amply assisted by members of the US-led Friends of Syria.
Hagel also invokes 9/11, suggesting that ISIS “is more of a threat than al Qaeda was before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.”  Invoking 9/11 invites the conclusion that without airstrikes on Syria to eliminate ISIS, that an attack on the United States on an order greater than 9/11 is a serious possibility, if not inevitable. France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, also points to 9/11 to buttress the case for airstrikes, noting that “The attacks in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, cost $1 million. Today, we estimate the Islamic State has several billions.” The obvious conclusion Fabius wants us to draw is that ISIS will launch thousands of 9/11s.  The implied conclusion, however, is no more credible than the implied conclusion that the United States is on the brink of vaporizing the planet because it now has a nuclear arsenal that is vastly greater than the tiny one it had when it atom-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Capability does not necessarily equate to motivation or action. What’s more, the “FBI and Homeland Security Department say there are no specific or credible terror threats to the U.S. homeland from the Islamic State militant group.” 
General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered his own contribution to the emerging campaign of fear-mongering. Dempsey observed that ISIS aspires to absorb “Israel, Jordan, Kuwait and Syria into its caliphate.”  This is manifestly beyond ISIS’s capabilities, and merits no serious discussion. Dempsey nevertheless adds that if ISIS “were to achieve that vision, it would fundamentally alter the face of the Middle East and create a security environment that would certainly threaten us in many ways.”  This is tantamount to saying “If Haiti had an arsenal of 200 thermonuclear weapons and an effective anti-ballistic missile defense system it would certainly threaten us in many ways.” What’s important here is the word “if.” If Barack Obama was a woman he would be the first female US president. If ISIS has the capability of absorbing a large part of the Middle East into a caliphate, it would be a threat to US control of the Middle East. But ISIS does not have this capability. Still, even if it did, it would not be a threat to US security, but to the security of Western oil industry profits.
For its part, The Wall Street Journal suggested that James Foley’s beheading was reason enough to warrant US airstrikes on Syria.  Yet beheadings, carried out by ISIS and other Islamists in Syria, and those carried out by US-ally Saudi Arabia against its own citizens, have hardly galvanized Washington to action. Washington’s Saudi ally “beheaded at least 19 convicted criminals since Aug. 4, nearly half of them for nonviolent offenses, including one for sorcery.”  These beheadings have been passed over by Western leaders in silence. They certainly haven’t been invoked as a reason to launch air strikes on the Saudi tyranny.
Also passed over in silence by the same Western states is the brutal, misogynist, medieval character of the anti-democratic Saudi regime, one of the principal “Friends of Syria.” In contrast, The New York Times reported that “The president and his top cabinet officials have all denounced the Islamic State as a medieval menace,” adding that US “Secretary of State John Kerry said the group should be destroyed.”  What the newspaper didn’t point out was that Saudi Arabia is just as much a “medieval menace” yet no US president or secretary of state would ever use this language to describe their ally, nor, more importantly, undertake a campaign to eliminate the medieval regime. This underscores the reality that Washington bears no animus toward medieval menaces—not when, as in the case of Syria, they operate against the government of a country targeted for regime change, not when they govern a source of immense petrochemical profits on terms favourable to Western oil companies, and not when, as in Afghanistan in the 1980s, they fight against a progressive, pro-Soviet government.
Washington’s campaign to mobilize public opinion for air strikes on Syria, then, has nothing whatever to do with eradicating medieval menaces. Nor has it anything to do with preventing the rise of a caliphate in the greater part of the Middle East, since ISIS hasn’t the capability to accomplish this aim. Even if it did, the rise of a caliphate is a matter for the people of the Middle East to decide, not Western powers. Lastly, until ISIS achieved startling territorial gains in Iraq, Washington was perfectly willing to allow, indeed, even to foster (what it now calls) “the cancer” of ISIS to “metastasize” throughout Syria. It expressed no apprehensions then about ISIS launching 9/11-style attacks on the United States, and did nothing to stop the flow of money to the anti-Assad group from supporters based in countries that make up its Friends of Syria (read Friends of US Imperialism) coalition. Warnings of an ISIS-engineered 9/11-style attack are, therefore, pure fear-mongering.
In light of the above, we ought to ask whether, once launched, a US air-war in Syria will expand its target list from ISIS to Syrian government forces? Is the campaign to mobilize public support for an air war against ISIS in Syria a Trojan horse to escalate the war on the Assad government, and on a broader level, against the interlocked Hezbollah-Syria-Iran resistance against US domination of Western Asia?
1. Eric Schmitt, “Qaeda militants seek Syria base, U.S. official say”, The New York Times, March 25, 2014.
2. Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper, “U.S. isn’t sure just how much to fear ISIS,” The New York Times, August 22, 2014.
3. Dion Nissenbaum, “U.S. considers attacks on ISIS in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2014.
4. David Dauthier-Villars, “France calls for action to cut off ISIS money supply”, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2014.
5. Eileen Sullivan, “FBI: No credible threats to US from Islamic State,” The Associated Press, August 22, 2014.
6. Mazzetti and Cooper.
7. Mazzetti and Cooper.
9. Rick Gladstone, “Saudi Arabia: Executions draw rebukes”, The New York Times, August 21, 2014.
Maliki’s “anti-Sunni policies have blown up in his face — literally”–Former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, January, 2014
By Stephen Gowans
The armed rebellion in Iraq is a broad-based attempt by Sunnis to press for the resolution of legitimate grievances against a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad which has marginalized them and treated them as second class citizens. Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government reacted to largely peaceful Sunni demonstrations earlier this year with mass arrests, torture and violence. This sparked an armed rebellion, of which ISIS, the Islamist group which has dominated Western media coverage of the conflict, acts as only one part of a larger alliance of Sunni rebel organizations. The Iraqi army has met the armed rebellion with barrel bombs and indiscriminate shelling of residential targets, including a hospital in Fallujah.
Maliki’s policies have marginalized Iraq’s Sunni minority politically and economically. He has targeted Sunni politicians for arrest, manoeuvred to transform political power into a Shiite monopoly, and alienated ordinary Sunnis, who say they’re discriminated against in housing, employment, and education. Sunnis complain of being treated as second class citizens.
Sunni frustration with Maliki’s policies boiled over into mass demonstrations in five major cities last January. Tens of thousands of Sunnis participated. The Maliki government met the protests with violence (killing 51 protesters at one demonstration) and invoking anti-terrorism laws to scoop up protesters in mass arrests. According to Human Rights Watch, “detainees reported prolonged detentions without a judicial hearing and torture during interrogations.” The rights organization cited multiple abuses by Iraqi security forces, including the rape of female prisoners.
It was Baghdad’s draconian crackdown on peaceful protests that sparked the armed rebellion, not the aspirations of ISIS, the formerly al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebel group which aims to carve a Sunni Islamist state out of parts of Syria and Iraq. Baghdad’s response to the armed rebellion has been no less draconian than its response to the largely peaceful demonstrations. Earlier this month, government forces “abandoned previous pledges not to harm civilians” and began to indiscriminately shell parts of Fallujah, including a hospital and residential areas, which had been captured by Sunni rebels. Human Rights Watch reported that “indiscriminate government attacks have included the use of barrel bombs, dropped from helicopters, on populated areas of Fallujah.” The attacks have “caused civilian casualties and forced thousands of residents to flee.” The rights group also says that Maliki’s forces have “illegally detained, tortured and extra-judicially executed an unknown number of” Sunnis since the conflict began in January.
It’s small wonder, then, that Sunnis regard Iraqi security forces as “an occupation army” and as “a foreign force in their own country.”
While early reports of the uprising reduced the armed rebellion to an ISIS campaign, it has become clear that ISIS is only one part of a broad-based and co-ordinated Sunni armed struggle. Human Rights Watch reported last month that “11 armed opposition groups are fighting in Anbar,” the Sunni-majority province of Western Iraq which borders Syria. These include fighters affiliated with Anbar’s tribes. Veteran foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn points to “Jaish Naqshbandi, led by Saddam Hussein’s former deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, former members of the Baath party, the Mukhbarat security services and the Special Republican Guard,” as groups that are also involved in the armed rebellion. “It is these groups,” reports Cockburn, “rather than ISIS, which captured Tikrit.” The New York Times’s Tim Arango and Washington Post’s Joby Warrick have also reported that the rebellion cuts across a number of Sunni groups, encompassing tribal militias and former Ba’ath Party members, as well as ISIS.
In many respects Iraq’s Sunni rebellion resembles the conflict in neighboring Syria. A protest movement quickly transforms into an armed rebellion, with armed Sunni jihadists assuming a highly visible role on the ground, and the government facing accusations of using mass arrests, torture, barrel bombs, and indiscriminate shelling against rebel forces and civilians. Of course, there are important differences, too, but the differences are not so large as to warrant the vastly different ways in which Damascus and Baghdad are treated by Western state officials and mass media.
To begin, there has been a tendency to try to minimize the role played by Islamist takfiri elements in the Syrian rebellion in favor of emphasizing the largely illusory “moderate” rebels, while in the Iraqi case, the role played by non-takfiri Sunni militants has been downplayed in favor of presenting the rebellion as an almost exclusively ISIS affair.
What’s more, Maliki has never been subjected to the demonization Assad has endured at the hands of Western state officials and mass media. And yet, much of what Assad has been accused of to warrant his demonization has been done by Maliki too. First, there’s the matter of the Iraqi prime minister failing to resolve Sunni grievances through discussion, negotiation, and inclusion, preferring instead to use anti-terrorism laws to target Sunni leaders for arrest and to try to repress mass demonstrations. Second, there are the reports of the Iraqi army’s indiscriminate shelling of residential areas and use of barrel bombs against the civilian population. Even Human Rights Watch, an organization which is linked to the US foreign policy establishment and tends to go easy on US allies, has raised the question of whether Maliki’s security forces have committed serious violations of the laws of war. Yet none of this has received more than passing mention in Western media, and no mention at all by Western state officials, who have loudly denounced Assad for the same behavior.
Similarly, the Western mass media have demonized ISIS for destabilizing Iraq, but not for destabilizing Syria. Their use of the label “terrorist” is reserved for ISIS when the organization operates in Iraq (against a US client) but not when it operates in Syria (against an officially designated enemy.) So it is that the Wall Street Journal could run an opinion piece titled “The terrorist army marching on Baghdad” when it’s inconceivable that the Journal, or any other Western newspaper, would run an opinion piece titled “The terrorist army marching on Damascus.”
ISIS and other Jihadi groups in Syria are armed and funded by reactionary Arab regimes, including the feudal tyrannies of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, all warmly embraced as allies by Washington, despite their complete contempt for democracy. According to Wall Street Journal reporters Adam Entous and Julian E. Barnes, Qatari officials have assured Washington that Islamist militants in Syria can be eliminated once they’ve served the useful purpose of toppling Assad, yet, while Assad remains president, ISIS in Syria is safe from US attack. By contrast, as part of a coalition to redress legitimate Sunni grievances in Iraq against a US satellite government, ISIS has become a target of possible US air strikes.
If ever there were an example of governments (and mass media) dishonestly invoking charges of terrorism to justify a war against people with legitimate grievances, this is it. As one tribal leader of a Sunni rebel tribal council in Anbar put it: “It is an exaggeration and an attempt to stop the revolution against the Maliki government to say that ISIS is leading the fight. This is a rebellion against the unfairness and marginalization” of Sunnis by Baghdad.
It’s also a demonstration of Western double-standards and the complete bankruptcy of the official Western discourse on antiterrorism, human rights, democracy and the Arab Spring.
Ukraine and How the West Treats Comparable Events in Satellite and Non-Satellite Countries Differently
By Stephen Gowans
The uprising in Ukraine represents a struggle between the West and Russia to integrate Ukraine economically, and, ultimately, militarily, into their respective orbits. I take no side in the struggle. All the same, each side wants me, and you, to take sides. Since I live in the West, and have greater exposure to the pronouncements of people of state in the West, and to the Western mass media than I do to their Russian counterparts, I’ll concentrate herein on analyzing Western efforts to shape public opinion to support the Western side of the struggle.
First, a few points by way of background.
• Ukraine is divided nationally between ethnic Ukrainians, who are concentrated in the West, and Russians, who are concentrated in the East, and especially in Crimea. Russians in Crimea and the East lean toward integration with Russia, while ethnic Ukrainians in the West tend to resent Russia’s historical domination of Ukraine.
• Crimea, a peninsula jutting into the Black Sea, is the home to the Russian Black Sea fleet. The current president, Yanukovych, extended the Russian lease on the naval base.
• Russian gas bound for Europe transits Ukraine.
• Russia does not want Ukraine to be integrated into NATO, which it views, for sound reasons, as an anti-Russian military alliance.
For the West, integration of Ukraine into its orbit means:
• Expansion of Western business opportunities.
• Growing isolation of Russia, one of the few countries strong enough to challenge US hegemony.
• Influence over transit of Russian gas exports to Europe.
• Military strategic advantage.
It’s instructive to contrast the treatment by Western states and mass media of the uprising in Ukraine with the concurrent uprisings in Egypt (which the West opposes) and Syria (which it supports.)
The Syrian uprising, contrary to its depiction by Western forces as a battle for democracy, is the latest, and most violent, eruption of an ongoing Islamist insurgency dating back to the 1960s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts to oust the “infidel” non-sectarian Arab nationalist government. The insurgency has since mutated into one dominated by salafist, takfiri, and al-Qaeda-aligned fighters backed by hereditary Muslim tyrannies, the Qatari and Saudi royal dictatorships, and former colonial powers, Turkey, France and Britain. The Western narrative makes obligatory references to the Syrian government as a “regime”, complains about its authoritarian nature, insists the insurgency springs from the peaceful protests of pro-democracy activists, and celebrates the “moderate” rebels. The moderate rebels are, in the main, Muslim Brothers. To be sure, they’re moderate compared to the Nusra Front and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but they’re not the secular liberal- or social-democrats so many in the West would like to believe they are.
In contrast, the uprising in Egypt against a military dictatorship that ousted an elected Muslim Brother as president is treated very differently. The dictatorship is not called a “dictatorship”, nor even a “regime”, but neutrally, a “military government.” The Muslim Brothers, who have taken to the streets in protest at the coup, and have been gunned down and locked up for their troubles, are not called “pro-democracy activists”, as the Muslim Brothers in Syria are, or even moderate rebels, but an “emerging Islamist insurgency.” Nor is the dictatorship which shot them down and locked them up called a “brutal” dictatorship. The Egyptian dictatorship calls the insurgents “terrorists”, which is dispassionately noted in Western news reports, while the Assad government’s depictions of Syrian insurgents who set off car bombs in crowded downtown streets as terrorists is dismissed as patent propaganda. Egypt’s military dictatorship has banned political parties, tossed political opponents in jail on trumped up charges, and arrested journalists. Over the weekend the Egyptian military killed somewhere between 50 and 60 demonstrators. This is mechanically documented in major Western newspapers. There are no calls for Western intervention.
The recent events in Ukraine are treated very differently. The deaths of a few rioters in Ukraine sparks fevered media coverage and denunciation in Western capitals, while the president’s attempts to quell the disorder by invoking laws restricting civil liberties is treated as a major assault on human rights. Compare that to the relative silence over the deaths of many more demonstrators in Egypt and the suspension of all political liberties in that country. If we should be exercised by the state of affairs in Ukraine, surely we should be incensed on a far grander scale by the state of affairs in Egypt.
Foreign governments stand in relation to the West as satellites, in which case they’re called allies, or non-satellites, in which case they’re “enemies”, or, if they’re large enough, “rivals.” Comparable events in any two countries will be treated in Western mass media differently and using different language depending on whether the country is a satellite (ally) or non-satellite (enemy or rival). Hence, in Syria (a non-satellite) an elected government (elected, to be sure, under restrictive conditions) is called a “regime” headed by a “dictator”, while in Egypt (a satellite) a military-appointed government is not called a “regime” but a “government” and the de facto head of state (a dictator) is simply called “the head of the military.” In Egypt, an emerging insurgency led by Muslim Brothers and Islamist fanatics is called “an emerging Islamist insurgency”, but in Syria, an insurgency reignited by Muslim Brothers and now dominated by Islamist fanatics is called a “rebellion against dictatorship.” In Ukraine (a non-satellite so far as the government goes ahead with plans to align itself with Russia and not the EU) a crackdown on dissent which is mild compared to the crackdown in Egypt (or Bahrain or Saudi Arabia or any other Gulf monarchy satellite of the United States) is treated as a major transgression on human rights, one warranting some form of Western intervention. However, no intervention is called for to stay the hand of Egypt’s military. Through the deft use of language and selective emphasis and silence, Western states concoct and spread through the mass media an understanding of events in far off places that comport with the pursuit of their own interests (which, more narrowly, once you parse them out, are the interests of their wealthiest citizens as a class.)
Efforts to integrate Ukraine into the EU are motivated by the desire of Western states to secure advantages for their economic elite, while efforts to integrate Ukraine into Russia are aimed at garnering benefits for Russian enterprises and investors. The interests of the bulk of Ukrainians do not, however, enter into the equation. Their role is simply to produce wealth for investors—Russian or Western or both—while doing so for as little compensation in wages, salary, benefits and government services as possible to allow the investors to make off with as much as possible. The interests of the bulk of Ukraine’s citizens lie, neither with the EU nor Russian elites, but with themselves.
By Stephen Gowans
A report sponsored by one of the Syrian insurgency’s major weapons suppliers claims to provide “new visual corroboration that Mr. Assad’s government is guilty of mass war crimes against its own citizens.” Based on photos of dead detainees said to be taken by a defector from the Syrian military, the report alleges that Syrian forces engaged in widespread torture.
While the allegations may be true, there is considerable room for skepticism.
First, and foremost, the photographs on which the report is based have not been independently verified.
Second, the driving force behind the report is Qatar, which has been energetically engaged in efforts to bring down the Syrian government. Part of that effort has been to supply Syrian and foreign jihadists– themselves the target of torture accusations–with arms.
Third, there are three reasons the Qatari emirate might have an interest in traducing the Syrian government with phony allegations.
• To strengthen assertions that Assad must step down, preventing any deal at the Geneva II conference that might leave him in place.
• To provide a pretext for direct intervention by Western military forces into the Syrian conflict.
• To divert attention from the brutal war crimes (including mass executions, beheadings and eviscerations) carried out by the insurgents, now under investigation by Navi Pillay, the United Nations human rights chief.
Of course, we can’t be sure that the financing of the torture allegations report is a stratagem to gain the upper hand in the Syrian conflict, but as The New York Times acknowledges in an understatement, the funding of the project by one of the insurgents’ principal backers is “likely to raise questions.”