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.”
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.
This 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.
By Stephen Gowans
David Cohen, a US Treasury Department undersecretary, took pains in The Wall Street Journal (December 10) to point out that despite the sanctions relief provided for in the November interim nuclear agreement between Tehran and the P5+1 , that the US-led economic war on Iran continues largely unabated. Cohen’s message is that the relief package “is economically insignificant to Iran,” while US-led oil sanctions, trade disruptions, and efforts to isolate Iran from the US banking system—which remain in place despite the deal—continue to hobble Iran’s economy.
I warned in an October article that no matter how it looked on the surface, an accord with Iran would represent an insignificant concession by Washington, a point Cohen confirms. The reality, however, has not been widely grasped, and the deal has been misconstrued in many quarters as a possible precursor to a detente and normalization of relations between the West and Iran. Cohen dashes this illusion.
Washington estimates that Iran “will stand to receive $6 billion to $7 billion in relief” over the agreement’s six-month term but lose “about $30 billion in oil revenue” as a result of continued “oil, financial and banking sanctions.” In other words, the relief package will mitigate the impact of sanctions, but only mildly—and the remaining sanctions will continue to bite deeply.
What’s more, the insignificant level of sanctions relief comes on top “of the roughly $80 billion Iran has lost since early 2012 because of US and European Union oil sanctions, and of the nearly $100 billion in Iran’s foreign exchange holdings that are mostly restricted or inaccessible due to U.S. financial and banking sanctions.”
Cohen reminds us that the US economic war has badly battered Iran’s economy. GDP contracted by five percent last year. Inflation is running at about 40 percent. And Iran’s currency, the rial, has lost 60 percent of its value against the US dollar in the last two years. For Tehran, the prognosis is grim. And sanctions relief—what little there is—is insufficient to brighten the outlook. The economy continues to shrink.
Cohen says Washington will continue to make Iran’s economy “suffer,” maintain the “pressure,” keep “Iran’s oil revenues depressed,” and ensure that “latent interest in trade” with Iran will be held back by bullying anyone “who thinks now might be a good time to test the waters.”
No matter how far Tehran goes in the final negotiations in limiting its nuclear program, it’s unlikely the West will abandon its efforts to bring about regime change in Tehran, or relinquish economic warfare as a regime change tool. Sanctions are likely to be a permanent feature of US policy on Iran, ending only when, and if, US foreign policy goals are brought to fruition and a Western oriented, pro-foreign investment regime comes to power in Tehran.
That’s because Washington’s ambitions go beyond depriving Iran of an independent means of producing nuclear fuel and preventing it from securing the theoretical capability of mounting a nuclear self-defense, to changing its economic and foreign policies. This can be seen in the reality that the US-led economic war didn’t begin in response to Iran enriching uranium. It began when Iran extricated itself from the US orbit by overthrowing Washington’s puppet, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1979. Ever since, Washington has deployed sanctions to prevent Iran from:
• Building ballistic missiles;
• Supporting Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad;
• Exercising influence in the Middle East;
• Exporting arms;
• Dealing with unrest and subversion at home (stoked by the misery created by Western sanctions);
• Monitoring and censoring domestic internet communications. 
So, even if Iran agreed to give up uranium enrichment altogether and to permanently shut-down its Arak heavy-water reactor, Tehran’s support for Palestinian and Lebanese resistance organizations, its backing of Syria, and its predilection for promoting local enterprise and maintaining state-owned enterprises at the expense of foreign investors, would continue to evoke US hostility.
As Cohen points out, the idea that Washington has suspended its punishing economic war on Iran is an illusion. Until Iran’s independence from US domination is brought to an end, Washington’s war on Iran’s economy—and its people—will continue.
1. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France) plus Germany, also known as the E3/EU+3, E3 referring to the United States, Russia and China and the EU3 denoting the three largest countries of the EU: Germany, France, and Britain.
2. Kenneth Katzman, “Iran Sanctions”, Congressional Research Service, July 26, 2013.
By Stephen Gowans
In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, hosannas continue to be sung to the former ANC leader and South African president from both the left, for his role in ending the institutional racism of apartheid, and from the right, for ostensibly the same reason. But the right’s embrace of Mandela as an anti-racist hero doesn’t ring true. Is there another reason establishment media and mainstream politicians are as Mandela-crazy as the left?
According to Doug Saunders, reporter for the unabashedly big business-promoting Canadian daily, The Globe and Mail, there is.
In a December 6 article, “From revolutionary to economic manager: Mandela’s lesson in change,” Saunders writes that Mandela’s “great accomplishment” was to protect the South African economy as a sphere for exploitation by the white property-owning minority and Western corporate and financial elite from the rank-and-file demands for economic justice of the movement he led.
Saunders doesn’t put it in quite these terms, hiding the sectional interests of bond holders, land owners, and foreign investors behind Mandela’s embrace of “sound” principles of economic management, but the meaning is the same.
Saunders quotes Alec Russell, a Financial Times writer who explains that under Mandela, the ANC “proved a reliable steward of sub-Sahara Africa’s largest economy, embracing orthodox fiscal and monetary policies…” That is, Mandela made sure that the flow of profits from South African mines and agriculture into the coffers of foreign investors and the white business elite wasn’t interrupted by the implementation of the ANC’s economic justice program, with its calls for nationalizing the mines and redistributing land.
Instead, Mandela dismissed calls for economic justice as a “culture of entitlement” of which South Africans needed to rid themselves. That he managed to persuade them to do so meant that the peaceful digestion of profits by those at the top could continue uninterrupted.
But it was not Mandela’s betrayal of the ANC’s economic program that Saunders thinks merits the right’s admiration, though the right certainly is grateful. Mandela’s genius, according to Saunders, was that he did it “without alienating his radical followers or creating a dangerous factional struggle within his movement.”
Thus, in Saunder’s view, Mandela was a special kind of leader: one who could use his enormous prestige and charisma to induce his followers to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good of the elite that had grown rich off their sweat, going so far as to acquiesce in the repudiation of their own economic program.
“Here is the crucial lesson of Mr. Mandela for modern politicians,” writes Saunders. “The principled successful leader is the one who betrays his party members for the larger interests of the nation. When one has to decide between the rank-and-file and the greater good, the party should never come first.”
For Saunders and most other mainstream journalists, “the larger interests of the nation” are the larger interests of banks, land owners, bond holders and share holders. This is the idea expressed in the old adage “What’s good for GM, is good for America.” Since mainstream media are large corporations, interlocked with other large corporations, and are dependent on still other large corporations for advertising revenue, the placing of an equal sign between corporate interests and the national interest comes quite naturally. Would we be shocked to discover that a mass-circulation newspaper owned by environmentalists (if such a thing existed) opposed fracking? (Journalists will rejoin, “I say what I like.” But as Michael Parenti once pointed out, journalists say what they like because their bosses like what they say.)
Predictably, Saunders ends his encomium to the party-betraying Mandela, the ‘good’ liberation hero, with a reference to the ‘bad’ south African liberation hero, Robert Mugabe. “One only needs look north to Zimbabwe to see what usually happens when revolutionaries” fail to follow Mandela’s economically conservative path, writes Saunders.
At one point, Mugabe’s predilection for orthodox fiscal and monetary policy was a strong as Mandela’s. Yet after almost a decade-and-a-half of the Western media demonizing Mugabe as an autocratic thug, it’s difficult to remember that he, too, was once the toast of Western capitals.
The West’s love affair with Mugabe came to an abrupt end when he rejected the Washington Consensus and embarked on a fast-track land reform program. Its disdain for him deepened when he launched an indigenization program to place majority control of the country’s mineral resources in the hands of black Zimbabweans.
Mugabe’s transition from ‘good’ liberation hero to ‘bad’, from saint to demon, coincided with his transition from “reliable steward” of Zimbabwe’s economy (that is, reliable steward of foreign investor and white colonial settler interests) to promoter of indigenous black economic interests.
That’s a transition Mandela never made. Had he, the elite of the imperialist world would not now be flocking to South Africa for Saint Mandela’s funeral, overflowing with fulsome eulogies.
By Stephen Gowans
It seemed almost inevitable that on the new day Western newspapers were filled with encomia to the recently deceased South African national liberation hero Nelson Mandela that another southern African hero of national liberation, Robert Mugabe, should be vilified. “Nearly 90, Mugabe still driving Zimbabwe’s economy into the ground,” complained Geoffrey York of Canada’s Globe and Mail.
Mandela and Mugabe are key figures in the liberation of black southern Africa from white rule. So why does the West overflow with hosannas for Mandela and continue to revile Mugabe? Why is Mandela the good national liberation leader and Mugabe the bad?
A lot of it has to do with the extent to which the liberation projects in South Africa and Zimbabwe have threatened white and Western economic interests—hardly at all in Mandela’s South Africa and considerably in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
The media-propagated narrative is that Mandela is good because he was ‘democratic’ and Mugabe is bad because he is ‘autocratic.’ But scratch the surface and economic interests peek out.
Land ownership in South Africa continues to be dominated by the white minority, just as it was under apartheid. What land redistribution has occurred has been glacial at best. In Zimbabwe, land has been redistributed from white colonial settlers and their descendants to the black majority. South Africa’s economy is white- and Western-dominated. Zimbabwe is taking steps to indigenize its economy, placing majority control of the country’s natural wealth and productive assets in the hands of blacks.
The centrality of economic interests in the Western demonization of Mugabe are revealed in York’s complaint about Mugabe’s plan to indigenize Canadian-owned New Dawn Mining company, a process which would force a few wealthy Canadians to surrender a majority stake in the mining of Zimbabwe’s mineral wealth. In York’s view, an African government giving its people an ownership stake in their own economy is unthinkable, but many wealthy countries, including Canada, have done the same.
Mandela, in contrast, rejected calls to nationalize South Africa’s mines, accepting Western and white domination of the country’s economy as a bedrock principle of sound economic management.
And so it is that Mugabe, the redistribtor of land and mineral wealth away from the descendants of white colonial settlers and foreign owners to black Africans is seen as devil incarnate in a Canadian newspaper that concerns itself with reporting the news from the perspective Canadian corporate interests. Canadian business wants the world to be open to profit-taking, and doesn’t care for governments that stand in their way. York reflects that bias. And Mandela didn’t get in the way of it.
Recycling the usual myths that make up the anti-Mugabe demonology, the Globe and Mail propagandist writes that Zimbabwe’s economic difficulties are due to Mugabe’s mismanagement, not to Western sanctions, erroneously describing sanctions as limited to travel restrictions on Mugabe and his closest associates. This overlooks Washington’s Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, which has blocked financial assistance to Zimbabwe from international lending institutions, a major impediment to the country’s economic development. It’s as if York blamed the Soviet Union’s crippled post-WWII economy on communist mismanagement, eliding Operation Barbarossa and the Nazi invasion from history. In this, York follows the standard operating procedure of the Western propaganda system, attributing a country’s economic troubles to mismanagement and not the sanctions that cause them.
As to the democrat vs. autocrat dichotomy, it is a propaganda contrivance. It’s what Western governments and media use to legitimize leaders who protect Western corporate interests and demonize leaders who threaten them.
By Stephen Gowans
Reading Paul Krugman’s New York Times column today, A Permanent Slump?, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that the IMF, Larry Summers and Paul Krugman, had belatedly discovered an idea that Paul Sweezy, a Marxist economist who died in 2004, had elaborated on decades ago, namely that stagnation is the normal state of contemporary capitalist economies.
…the case for “secular stagnation” — a persistent state in which a depressed economy is the norm, with episodes of full employment few and far between — was made forcefully recently at the most ultrarespectable of venues, the I.M.F.’s big annual research conference. And the person making that case was none other than Larry Summers. Yes, that Larry Summers.
Summers is a Harvard economist whose career has included stints as chief economist of the World Bank, US Secretary of the Treasury and chief economic adviser to US president Barack Obama.
Krugman paraphrases Summers:
We have, he suggested, an economy whose normal condition is one of inadequate demand — of at least mild depression — and which only gets anywhere close to full employment when it is being buoyed by bubbles.
The idea that financial bubbles have counteracted the economy’s slide into permanent stagnation was also explored by Sweezy. But he cited other countervailing effects, too, including military spending, and in the post-war period, pent-up demand and the building of the interstate highway system, with its concomitant boom in the construction of the suburbs and expansion of the automobile industry.
Krugman concludes that “the evidence suggests that we have become an economy whose normal state is one of mild depression, whose brief episodes of prosperity occur only thanks to bubbles and unsustainable borrowing.”
Sweezy, I think, would have agreed, but added that the tendency to stagnation is hardly new, but has been an enduring characteristic of contemporary capitalist economies, traceable to their internal logic.