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The Myth of Syria’s Moderate Rebels

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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 [1] and are under the sway of Islamist thinking. [2] 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. [3]

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. [4]

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. [5]

The US-backed rebels cooperate with the Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda operating in Syria, [6] which the UN Security Council denounced this summer along with ISIS for their “gross, systematic and widespread abuse of human rights” [7] 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.” [8]

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.” [9] 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. [10]

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.” [11]

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.
3. Cockburn.
4. Hubbard.
5. Suhaib Anjarini, “Harakat Hazm: America’s new favourite jihadist group”, Al Akhbar English, May 22, 2014.
6. Hubbard.
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.
9. Hubbard.
10. Belen Fernandez, “Book review: The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising,” The Middle East Eye, September 3, 2014.
11. Hubbard.

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September 19, 2014 at 9:50 pm

Posted in ISIS, Political Islam, Syria

Pentagon Planning Points to Possible Anti-Syria US Military Campaign

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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.” [1] 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.” [2] 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.” [3] 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.” [4] 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). [5]

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. [6] 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.” [7]

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.” [8] 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. [9]

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. [10] 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. [11] 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.” [12] 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. [13] 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.

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September 8, 2014 at 11:24 pm

Posted in Syria

Western Leaders Fear-Monger to Mobilize Support for Air-Strikes on Syria

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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. [1] 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.” [2] 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.” [3] 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. [4] 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.” [5]

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.” [6] 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.” [7] 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. [8] 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.” [9] 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.” [10] 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.

8. Nissenbaum.

9. Rick Gladstone, “Saudi Arabia: Executions draw rebukes”, The New York Times, August 21, 2014.

10. Nissenbaum.

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August 24, 2014 at 11:08 pm

Posted in ISIS, Syria

If Maliki’s a good guy, then so is Assad

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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.

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June 17, 2014 at 1:22 am

Posted in Iraq, Syria

Ukraine and How the West Treats Comparable Events in Satellite and Non-Satellite Countries Differently

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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.

Written by what's left

January 27, 2014 at 11:32 pm

Posted in Egypt, Syria, Ukraine

Qatar’s Questionable Syrian Torture Allegations

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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.”

Indeed.

Written by what's left

January 22, 2014 at 5:14 pm

Posted in Qatar, Syria

Under-Reported UN Investigation Points to Rebel Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria

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By Stephen Gowans

It can’t be said that the media failed to mention it altogether, because The New York Times made passing reference to it on December 12 (Chemical Arms Used Repeatedly in Syria, U.N. Says).Other media outlets did too. They just didn’t give it much coverage.

The ‘it’ was the finding of the UN inspector mission in Syria that chemical weapons were used on two occasions against Syrian soldiers and on one occasion against soldiers and civilians (presumably by insurgents.)

This is the same mission whose report on the August Ghouta incident is now widely misreported in the Western media to have strongly suggested that the Syrian army was responsible for the gassing deaths of hundreds. In fact, while the UN report concluded that a chemical weapons attack had occurred, it did not assign blame for the attack, and noted that physical evidence at the site had been manipulated, complicating whatever inferences one cared to make about who the perpetrators were.

The mission’s final report—presented to the UN Secretary General on December 12 – explores a number of other incidents in which chemical weapons were allegedly used.

The inspectors corroborated three of four Syrian government allegations that its troops had been gassed. In one of the alleged incidents (on March 19 at Khan Al Asal) civilians were also gassed. That incident “reportedly resulted in the deaths of 25 people and injured more than 110 civilians and soldiers,” according to the UN report.

Given that Syrian soldiers were the targets of these attacks, it seems very likely that insurgent forces were responsible. Of course, that’s by no means certain. It’s possible that the soldiers were exposed to sarin after mishandling their own weapons. But the balance of probabilities favors the view that the insurgents were the culpable party.

Had UN inspectors concluded that chemical weapons were used against insurgents and civilians, killing two dozen and injuring over 100, it is nearly certain that this would be the top news story in Western media for days to come. However, given that the report points, instead, to the insurgents using chemical weapons, and not Syrian forces, it has been given little play.

The New York Times limits to three paragraphs its reporting on those elements of the UN report that point strongly to the culpability of insurgent forces, and reporters Somini Sengupta and Rick Gladstone take pains to minimize the mission’s findings, noting that “verification was impossible” and that in the Jobar and Ashrafiah cases “the report said, chemical weapons may have been used on ‘a relatively small scale against soldiers’” (emphasis added).

In fact, the relevant conclusions from the report, reproduced below, evince more certainty than Sengupta’s and Gladstone’s use of “may” acknowledges.

• “The United Nations Mission collected credible information that corroborates the allegations that chemical weapons were used in Khan Al Asal on 19 March 2013 against soldiers and civilians.”

• “The United Nations Mission collected evidence consistent with the probable use of chemical weapons in Jobar on 24 August 2013 on a relatively small scale against soldiers.”

• “The United Nations Mission collected evidence that suggests that chemical weapons were used in Ashrafiah Sahnaya on 25 August 2013 on a small scale against soldiers.”

Interestingly, the report reveals that the UN team felt that most of the French, British and US allegations against Syria lacked sufficient information and credibility, and so were never investigated. On the other hand, the mission found all four of Syria’s allegations to be sufficiently credible to investigate, and corroborated three of them.

Table 1This suggests that in most instances, the allegations made by the Western powers were propaganda-driven, and were intended to manipulate public opinion through the innuendo effect—the tendency of people to regard allegations as fact, especially if viewed to come from a credible source. The UN mission, however, had other ideas about how credible these sources were.

Also under-reported is the investigative work of Seymour Hersh, who in a December 8 online article for the London Review of Books, titled Whose Sarin?, revealed that Washington had “evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity.”

According to Hersh, the Joint Chiefs of Staff “concluded that the rebel forces were capable of attacking an American force with sarin because they were able to produce the lethal gas.”

On the other hand, Hersh revealed that Washington had no evidence that the Syrian army was responsible for the August 21 Ghouta attack.

The New Yorker and Washington Post, which usually run Hersh’s investigative reporting, refused to publish his story. With the UN report offering credible evidence that the insurgents have used chemical weapons, it’s difficult to attribute the media outlets’ rejection of the Hersh story to concerns about the credibility of Hersh’s reporting. It’s more likely that they, along with media outlets who are underplaying the UN report, are trying not to draw too much attention to the use of chemical weapons by insurgents.

Table 2

Written by what's left

December 14, 2013 at 12:56 am

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria

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