The Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University
The Canadian Peace Congress
“Gowans’ book is a timely and indispensable resource for those seeking to understand recent events in Syria.” EVA BARTLETT
“”Washington’s Long War on Syria” is a well-researched and highly readable account of why the United States has launched a major crusade to overthrow the Baathist government in Damascus. Needless to say, the story it tells is completely at odds with the US-sponsored fairy tale about a brutal dictator crushing a democratic protesters, leaving noble Americans no choice but to ride to the rescue. In fact, the Damascus government is far more democratic than the opposition, which, as Stephen Gowans shows, is composed almost entirely of Islamic fundamentalists and thoroughly dominated by Al Qaeda and its allies and offshoots. These are groups that the US supposedly opposes due to their role in 9/11 but which in fact it has used as a tool for dislodging the Assad government. Gowans is a thorough researcher and top-notch writer with a deep knowledge of the Syrian situation and that of the broader Middle East.” – DAN LAZARE
“Stephen Gowans paints a very clear portrait of the Syrian Arab Republic, and documents the extensive efforts from the Pentagon to bring it down. With the mainstream media spewing regime change propaganda 24-hours a day, Gowans’ book is a must-read. It tells the true story of the Syrian people and their struggles for independence and development, a story that desperately needs to be heard. This book would make even the most ardent interventionist question Washington’s policies. Gowans tells truths that are so deeply hidden in western countries, but yet are so vital in understanding world events.” – CALEB MAUPIN
“The war over Syria has been, in truth, a fight for control over the global economic and political order—a last, failing stand for a declining American empire to forestall the current shift toward a new global balance of power. Unlike so many hastily-written books on Syria that miss this point, Stephen Gowans’ work will prove to be an essential primer on the Syrian conflict for years to come. A must read.” — SHARMINE NARWANI
Pentagon Leads Over 300,000 Troops in a Rehearsal for an Invasion One Week after the White House Announces It’s Considering Military Action against North Korea
March 13, 2017
By Stephen Gowans
The United States and South Korea are conducting their largest-ever military exercises on the Korean peninsula , one week after the White House announced that it was considering military action against North Korea to bring about regime change.  The US-led exercises involve:
• 300,000 South Korea troops
• 17,000 US troops
• The supercarrier USS Carl Vinson
• US F-35B and F-22 stealth fighters
• US B-18 and B-52 bombers
• South Korean F-15s and KF-16s jetfighters. 
While the United States labels the drills as “purely defensive”  the nomenclature is misleading. The exercises are not defensive in the sense of practicing to repel a possible North Korean invasion and to push North Korean forces back across the 38th parallel in the event of a North Korean attack, but envisage an invasion of North Korea in order to incapacitate its nuclear weapons, destroy its military command, and assassinate its leader.
The exercises can only be construed as “defensive” if undertaken as preparation for a response to an actual North Korean first-strike, or as a rehearsed pre-emptive response to an anticipated first strike. In either event, the exercises are invasion-related, and Pyongyang’s complaint that US and South Korean forces are practicing an invasion is valid.
But the likelihood of a North Korean attack on South Korea is vanishingly small. Pyongyang is outspent militarily by Seoul by a factor of almost 4:1,  and South Korean forces can rely on more advanced weapons systems than can North Korea. Additionally, the South Korean military is not only backed up by, but is under the command of, the unprecedentedly powerful US military. A North Korean attack on South Korea would be suicidal, and therefore we can regard its possibility as virtually non-existent, especially in light of US nuclear doctrine which allows the use of nuclear weapons against North Korea. Indeed, US leaders have reminded North Korean leaders on numerous occasions that their country could be turned into “a charcoal briquette.”  That anyone of consequence in the US state truly believes that South Korea is under threat of an attack by the North is risible.
The exercises are being carried out within the framework of Operation Plan 5015 which “aims to remove the North’s weapons of mass destruction and prepare … for a pre-emptive strike in the event of an imminent North Korean attack, as well a ‘decapitation’ raids targeting the leadership.” 
In connection with decapitation raids, the exercises involve “US Special Missions Units responsible for the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, including SEAL Team Six.”  According to one newspaper report, the “participation of special forces in the drills…may be an indication the two sides are rehearsing the assassination of Kim Jong Un.” 
A US official told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency that “A bigger number of and more diverse US special operation forces will take part in this year’s … exercises to practice missions to infiltrate the North, remove the North’s war command and demolish its key military facilities.” 
Astonishingly, despite participating in the highly provocative exercises–which can have no other consequence than to rattle the North Koreans and place them under imminent threat—the South Korean ministry of national defense announced that “South Korea and the US were keenly monitoring the movements of North Korean soldiers in preparation for possible provocations.” 
The notion that Washington and Seoul must be on the alert for North Korean ‘provocations’, at a time the Pentagon and its South Korean ally are rehearsing an invasion and ‘decapitation’ strike against North Korea, represents what East Asia specialist Tim Beal calls a “special sort of unreality.”  Adding to the unreality is the fact that the rehearsal for an invasion comes on the heels of the White House announcing urbi et orbi that it is considering military action against North Korea to bring about regime change.
In 2015, the North Koreans proposed to suspend their nuclear weapons program in exchange for the United States suspending its military exercises on the peninsula. The US State Department peremptorily dismissed the offer, saying it inappropriately linked the United States’ “routine” military drills to what Washington demanded of Pyongyang, namely, denuclearization.  Instead, Washington “insisted the North give up its nuclear weapons program first before any negotiations” could take place. 
In 2016, the North Koreans made the same proposal. Then US president Barack Obama replied that Pyongyang would “have to do better than that.” 
At the same time, the high-profile Wall Street-directed Council on Foreign Relations released a task force report which advised Washington against striking a peace deal with North Korea on the grounds that Pyongyang would expect US troops to withdraw from the peninsula. Were the United States to quit the peninsula militarily, its strategic position relative to China and Russia, namely, its ability to threaten its two near-peer competitors, would be weakened, the report warned. Accordingly, Washington was adjured to refrain from promising Beijing that any help it provided in connection with North Korea would be rewarded by a reduction in the US troop presence on the peninsula. 
Earlier this month, China resurrected Pyongyang’s perennial proposal. “To defuse the looming crisis on the peninsula, China [proposed] that, as a first step, [North Korea] suspend its missile and nuclear activities in exchange for a halt in the large scale US – [South Korea] exercises. This suspension-for-suspension,” the Chinese argued, “can help us break out of the security dilemma and bring the parties back to the negotiating table.” 
Washington rejected the proposal immediately. So too did Japan. The Japanese ambassador to the UN reminded the world that the US goal is “not a freeze-for-freeze but to denuclearize North Korea.”  Implicit in this reminder was the addendum that the United States would take no steps to denuclearize its own approach to dealing with North Korea (Washington dangles a nuclear sword of Damocles over Pyongyang) and would continue to carry out annual rehearsals for an invasion.
Refusal to negotiate, or to demand that the other side immediately grant what is being demanded as a precondition for talks, (give me what I want, then I’ll talk), is consistent with the approach to North Korea adopted by Washington as early as 2003. Urged by Pyongyang to negotiate a peace treaty, then US Secretary of State Colin Powell demurred. “We don’t do non-aggression pacts or treaties, things of that nature,” Powell explained. 
As part of the special unreality constructed by the United States, Russia, or more specifically its president, Vladimir Putin, is routinely accused by Washington of committing “aggressions,” which are said to include military exercises along the Russian border with Ukraine. These exercises, hardly on the immense scale of the US-South Korean exercises, are labelled “highly provocative”  by US officials, while the Pentagon-led rehearsal for an invasion of North Korea is described as routine and “defensive in nature.”
But imagine that Moscow had mobilized 300,000 Russian troops along the Ukraine border, under an operational plan to invade Ukraine, neutralize its military assets, destroy its military command, and assassinate its president, one week after the Kremlin declared that it was considering military action in Ukraine to bring about regime change. Who, except someone mired in a special sort of unreality, would construe this as “purely defensive in nature”?
1. “THAAD, ‘decapitation’ raid add to allies’ new drills,” The Korea Herald, March 13, 2017; Elizabeth Shim, “U.S., South Korean drills include bin Laden assassination team,” UPI, March 13, 2017.
2. Jonathan Cheng and Alastair Gale, “North Korea missile test stirs ICBM fears,” The Wall Street Journal, March 7, 2017.
3. “S. Korea, US begins largest-ever joint military drills,” KBS World, March 5, 2017; Jun Ji-hye, “Drills to strike N. Korea taking place,” Korea Times, March 13, 2017.
4. Jun Ji-hye, “Drills to strike N. Korea taking place,” Korea Times, March 13, 2017.
5. Alastair Gale and Chieko Tsuneoka, “Japan to increase military spending for fifth year in a row,” The Wall Street Journal, December 21, 2016.
6. Bruce Cumings, “Latest North Korean provocations stem from missed US opportunities for demilitarization,” Democracy Now!, May 29, 2009.
7. “THAAD, ‘decapitation’ raid add to allies’ new drills,” The Korea Herald, March 13, 2017.
8. “U.S., South Korean drills include bin Laden assassination team,” UPI, March 13, 2017.
10. “U.S. Navy SEALs to take part in joint drills in S. Korea,” Yonhap, March 13, 2017.
11. Jun Ji-hye, “Drills to strike N. Korea taking place,” Korea Times, March 13, 2017.
12. Tim Beal, “Looking in the right direction: Establishing a framework for analyzing the situation on the Korean peninsula (and much more besides),” Korean Policy Institute, April 23, 2016.
13. Choe Sang-hun, “North Korea offers U.S. deal to halt nuclear test,” The New York Times, January 10, 2015.
14. Eric Talmadge, “Obama dismisses NKorea proposal on halting nuke tests,” Associated Press, April 24, 2016.
16. “A Sharper Choice on North Korea: Engaging China for a Stable Northeast Asia,” Independent Task Force Report No. 74, Council on Foreign Relations, 2016.
17. “China limited in its self-appointed role as mediator for Korean peninsula affairs,” The Hankyoreh, March 9, 2017.
18. Farnaz Fassihi, Jeremy Page and Chun Han Wong, “U.N. Security Council decries North Korea missile test,” The Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2017.
19. “Beijing to host North Korea talks,” The New York Times, August 14, 2003.
20. Stephen Fidler, “NATO struggles to muster ‘spearhead’ force to counter Russia,” The Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2014.
March 7, 2017
By Stephen Gowans
The White House is considering “possible military action to force regime change” in North Korea, another in a long succession of threats Washington has issued against Pyongyang, piled atop unremitting aggression the United States has directed at the country from the very moment of its birth in 1948.
In addition to direct military action from 1950 to 1953 against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the country’s official name), US aggression has included multiple threats of nuclear annihilation, and the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons into South Korea until 1991. Re-deployment is now under consideration in Washington.
Most US nuclear threats against Pyongyang were made before North Korea embarked upon its own nuclear weapons program, and constitute one of the principal reasons it did so. The country’s being declared an original member of the Bush administration’s Axis of Evil, along with Iraq and Iran, provided an additional impetus.
US aggression against Gaddafi’s Libya, after the Arab and African nationalist leader abandoned his country’s nuclear weapons program in a failed effort at an entente with the West, only affirmed Pyongyang’s view that its decision to acquire a nuclear deterrent was sound and imperative. To make Gaddafi’s blunder would be to commit suicide.
North Korea has additionally been menaced by annual US-directed war games involving hundreds of thousands of troops, carried out along North Korea’s borders. While US officials describe the twice yearly assembling of significant military forces within striking range of the DPRK as routine and defensive, it is never clear to the North Korean military whether the US–directed maneuvers are defensive exercises or preparations for an invasion. Accordingly, the exercises are objectively minatory.
US officials have described Russian war games along Russia’s western border as “provocations” and as a sign of Russian “aggression.” One US official said, “The Russians have been doing a lot of snap exercises right up against the borders, with a lot of troops. From our perspective, we could argue this is extraordinarily provocative behavior.” And yet when US and South Korean troops do the same, right up against North Korea’s borders, their actions are deemed routine and defensive. (Threats made routinely, it should be noted, do not become non-threats simply because they are routine.)
On top of military aggression, the United States has added economic aggression to its decades-long quest to bring about regime change in North Korea. For almost seven decades Washington has led a campaign of economic warfare against the DPRK, designed to do what economic sieges are always intended to do: make the lives of ordinary people sufficiently straitened and miserable that they rise in revolt against their own government.
While the United States struts around the globe as the self-proclaimed champion of democracy, while counting kings, emirs, sultans and military dictators among its closest allies, it has imposed sanctions on North Korea for the most profoundly undemocratic reason. A US Congressional Research Service 2016 report, “North Korea: Economic Sanctions,” enumerates a detailed list of economic penalties imposed on North Korea for having the temerity to operate a “Marxist-Leninist” economy contrary to Washington’s Wall Street-approved economic prescriptions. Hence, the United States wages economic warfare on people in other lands because it doesn’t like the decisions they make about how to organize their own economic lives (and more to the point, because those decisions fail to comport with the profit-making interests of corporate America, the only sector of the United States whose voice matters in US policy.) What could be more hostile to democracy—and more imperialist—than that?
The US decision to consider military action against North Korea to force regime change may be considered a response to Pyongyang’s “threats,” but the DPRK, regardless of its bluster, has never posed a threat to the physical safety of the United States. It is far too small (its population is only 25 million) and too weak militarily (its annual defense spending is less than $10 billion, swamped by the Himalayan military outlays of its adversaries, from South Korea’s $36 billion to Japan’s $41 billion to the United States’ $603 billion), to pose a significant threat, or even a derisory one. Moreover, it is totally devoid of the means to convey a military force to US soil, lacking long range bombers and a capable navy.
To be sure, Pyongyang may have developed ICBMs capable of reaching the United States, and it may have acquired the know-how to miniaturize nuclear warheads that can be carried atop them, but the notion that Pyongyang would undertake an offensive strike against the United States is risible. Doing so would be tantamount to a porcupine tangling with a mountain lion. Since porcupines have no hope of defeating mountain lions, and would be mangled in the attempt, they avoid confrontations with them. They do, however, have self-defensive quills—the equivalent of North Korea’s nuclear arms and ballistic missile programs—to deter mountain lions, and other predators, from tangling with them.
North Korea is often criticized for being a garrison state, closed off to the outside world, yet its insularity can be understood as an imperative of surviving as an independent, sovereign state, in a world in which the United States insists on exercising global “leadership” (i.e., denying other countries their sovereignty) and using its military supremacy to coerce the world to fall into step behind its leadership of the global economy.
Washington has been waging a cyber-war against North Korea, which it is speculated may be responsible for a string of missile test launch failures which recently plagued the DPRK’s missile program, and additionally explains why the country’s leadership is chary about openness. You don’t facilitate sabotage of your own country by opening up to a hostile government that is committed to your demise. And should there be any illusions about what Washington’s intentions are, consider the words of John R. Bolton. In 2003, Bolton was the US under secretary of state for arms control. Asked by New York Times’ reporter Christopher Marquis what Washington’s policy on North Korea was, Bolton “strode over to a bookshelf, pulled off a volume and slapped it on the table. It was called ‘The End of North Korea.'” “‘That,’ he said, ‘is our policy.'” North Korea’s nuclear arms and missile programs have nothing whatever to do with Washington’s desire to bring about the end of North Korea, since this has been US policy since 1948, the year the DPRK was founded, long before Pyongyang embarked on developing nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them. Instead, the reasons for Washington’s hostility lie in economics and Pyongyang’s refusal to submit to US leadership.
Next month, South Korea will significantly increase the rewards it pays to defectors from the north who treasonously disclose state secrets or surrender military equipment. High-ranking North Korean officials will receive $860,000 for defecting and selling out their compatriots, while pilots will be offered the same to fly their warplanes to South Korea. Sailors who surrender their warships to Seoul will also receive $860,000. At the same time, payouts from $43,000 to $260,000 will be handed to North Korean military personnel who defect, if they bring with them lesser weapons, such as tanks or machine guns.
South Korea, in contrast to the much-threatened North, is a US neo-colonial appendage which hosts tens of thousands of US troops on its soil, ostensibly for protection against the DPRK, even though North Korea is weaker militarily than its peninsular counterpart, has less advanced equipment and weapons systems, and its military outlays are only one-quarter of Seoul’s. South Korea denies itself sovereign control of its own military, yielding to de jure US command in times of emergency, and de facto US control otherwise. This reflects the history of the country. It began as a regime of collaborators with the Japanese, who shifted their collaboration to their new American overlords at the end of the Second World War. Meanwhile, to the north, it was guerrillas who fought Japanese colonization, and committed their lives to the manumission of Korea from foreign control, who founded the government in Pyongyang. Then as now, one half of the Korean peninsula exhibited a prickly independence, while the elite of the other half kow-towed to an imperialist behemoth (in contradistinction to a grassroots guerilla movement in the south that sought, unsuccessfully, to throw off the yoke of oppression by collaborationist governments and their US suzerain.)
South Korea’s hostility to its pro-independence northern neighbor, along with the United States’ nearly seven full decades of overt aggression against the DPRK, is directly responsible for the North Korean state’s closed, garrisoned, and authoritarian character. The country’s anti-liberal democratic orientation is not an expression of an ideological preference for police state rule, but an adaptation to a geopolitical reality. The nature of the North Korean state, its military strategy, and its nuclear weapons and missile programs, are consequences of its ideological commitment to independence intersecting with the difficulties of charting an independent course in the midst of hostile and much stronger neighbors whose US patron insists on North Korean submission.
When the infant Bolshevik state was surrounded by enemies who were stronger than the Bolsheviks by many orders of magnitude, Lenin argued that allowing the revolution’s enemies freedom of political organization would be self-defeating. “We do not wish to do away with ourselves by suicide and therefore will not do this,” the Bolshevik leader averred. North Korea’s voluntarily making over itself into an unrestricted liberal democracy—an open society—would likewise imperil the Korean nationalist project and amount to a self-engineered demise.
The DPRK is also criticized for being an economic basket-case, though its economic travails are almost invariably exaggerated. Nevertheless, nearly seven full decades of economic warfare and the imperatives of maintaining a military strong enough to deter the aggression of hostile neighbors and their imperialist patron must necessarily take a toll. Trying to bankrupt the DPRK by imposing on it trade sanctions, working to cut Pyongyang off from the world financial system, and maneuvering the country into a position where it has been forced to spend heavily on self-defense to survive (Pyongyang allocates an estimated 15%-24% of its GDP to defense compared to South Korea’s 2.6% and the United States’ 3.3%), and then attributing its economic difficulties to its “non-market” economy, as Washington has done, is dishonest in the extreme.
Perhaps it’s a measure of how bellicose the United States is that its threats of war are treated as sufficiently routine that they can be casually mentioned in the press without arousing much attention or protest. According to one calculation, the United States has been at war for 224 of its 241 years of existence. Against the background of its unceasing and devoted worship of Mars, Washington’s review of the merits of becoming embroiled in yet another war makes the latest eruption of belligerence an accustomed spectacle. This may explain the quietude with which the possibility of US military action against North Korea has been met. Contributing to the quiescence is the reality that war with the DPRK would require no direct participation from the vast majority of US citizens, short of their applauding from the sidelines. This, combined with North Korea’s total demonization, makes military action (should it be carried out) easy for the US public to accept, or at least to push it to the margins of its awareness.
The revelation that the White House is considering military action against its long-standing victim was casually tucked away in a Wall Street Journal article, and was thought so inconsequential as not to merit inclusion in the headline. Instead, the article’s headline mentioned that North Korea had fired “four ballistic missiles into waters off coast, South Korea says,” in keeping with the portrayal of the DPRK as a signal menace. Accordingly, the announcement of a considered US military strike on North Korea could be positioned as a legitimate response to an alleged North Korean provocation, rather than North Korea’s test firing of ballistic missiles being presented more reasonably as a legitimate reaction to nearly seven full decades of US belligerence.
Some liberals, worried by the increased tempo of US saber-rattling against Pyongyang, adjure Washington to negotiate a peace treaty with the DPRK, in exchange for North Korea undertaking Gaddafi’s folly and dismantling its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. The idea that the United States reciprocate is never considered and is seen as Quixotic. The preferred arrangement is one of a nuclear weapons apartheid where the United States and its subalterns keep their nuclear arms as a “self-evident” necessity of self-defense and a bulwark against “nuclear blackmail,” while the rest of the world is expected to voluntarily submit to the nuclear weapons blackmail of the United States and the established members of the nuclear weapons club.
However, almost equally Quixotic is the idea that the DPRK will relinquish its nuclear arms and the means of delivering them. The United States has unintentionally created conditions which make a North Korean nuclear weapons program almost inevitable, and perfectly sound from Pyongyang’s point of view. For a nuclear deterrent not only forces Washington to exercise extreme circumspection in the deployment of its military assets against the DPRK, it also allows Pyongyang to reduce its expenditures on conventional deterrence, freeing up resources for its civilian economy. Nuclear weapons are cost-effective. This thinking is implicit in North Korea’s “Byungjin policy, “the “two-track program’ of building the economy and nuclear weapons, defined in the resolution adopted by the 7th Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party in May as its ‘permanent strategic course.’”
James Clapper, the former head of US intelligence, told the Wall Street-directed foreign policy think tank, The Council on Foreign Relations, to forget about negotiating a nuclear deal with Pyongyang. “I think the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause,” said Clapper last October. “They are not going to do that. That is their ticket to survival. And I got a good taste of that when I was there about how the world looks from their vantage. And they are under siege…So the notion of giving up their nuclear capability, whatever it is, is a nonstarter with them.
“So an Iranian kind of negotiation that would put a cap or suspend is not—your experience in diplomacy is that it’s not likely to happen,” he was asked.
Clapper replied; “I don’t think so.”
Publication date April 17.
Now available for pre-order.
“Stephen Gowans paints a very clear portrait of the Syrian Arab Republic, and documents the extensive efforts from the Pentagon to bring it down. With the mainstream media spewing regime change propaganda 24-hours a day, Gowans’ book is a must-read. It tells the true story of the Syrian people and their struggles for independence and development, a story that desperately needs to be heard. This book would make even the most ardent interventionist question Washington’s policies. Gowans tells truths that are so deeply hidden in western countries, but yet are so vital in understanding world events.” – Caleb Maupin
When in the summer of 2011 US President Barack Obama demanded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down, it was not the first time Washington had sought regime change in Damascus. The United States had waged a long war against Syria from the very moment the country’s fiercely independent Arab nationalist movement came to power in 1963. Assad, and his father Hafez al-Assad, an “Arab communist” in the view of hardliners in Washington, were committed to independence, both for Syria and the larger Arab world.
Washington sought to purge Arab nationalist influence from the Syrian state and the Arab world more broadly. It was a threat to Washington’s agenda of establishing global primacy and promoting business-friendly investment climates for US banks, investors and corporations. Arab nationalists aspired to unify the world’s 400 million Arabs into a single super-state, strong enough, wealthy enough, and large enough to allow Arabs to chart their own course, in politics, economics, and diplomacy, free from the interference of foreign powers.
Washington had also waged long wars on the other leaders of the Arab nationalist movement, including Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, often allying, as in its war on Syria, with political Islam. By 2012, only one pan-Arabist state remained in the region—the self-proclaimed Den of Arabism, Syria.
In Washington’s Long War on Syria, Stephen Gowans examines the decades-long struggle of Ba’ath Arab Socialists, political Islamists, and US imperialists for control of Syria, the last redoubt of secular Arab nationalism.
“Gowans’ book is a timely and indispensable resource for those seeking to understand recent events in Syria.” Eva Bartlett
“The war over Syria has been, in truth, a fight for control over the global economic and political order—a last, failing stand for a declining American empire to forestall the current shift toward a new global balance of power. Unlike so many hastily-written books on Syria that miss this point, Stephen Gowans’ work will prove to be an essential primer on the Syrian conflict for years to come. A must read.” —Sharmine Narwani
“Gowans is a thorough researcher and top-notch writer with a deep knowledge of the Syrian situation and that of the broader Middle East.” – Dan Lazare
December 19, 2016
By Stephen Gowans
“A substantial body of research conducted over many decades highlights the proximity between western news media and their respective governments, especially in the realm of foreign affairs,” writes Piers Robinson, Chair in Politics, Society and Political Journalism at the University of Sheffield. “For reasons that include overreliance on government officials as news sources, economic constraints, the imperatives of big business and good old-fashioned patriotism, mainstream western media frequently fail to meet democratic expectations regarding independence.” Robinson’s study of news coverage of the 2003 US-UK war on Arab nationalist Iraq found that mainstream media reinforced official views rather than challenged them. 
One of the ways in which the mainstream media reinforce official views is by characterizing foreign governments which reject the United States’ self-proclaimed role as leader of the global order as violating Western democratic norms, regardless of whether they do or do not. At the same time, foreign governments which categorically reject Western democratic norms, but which agree that the United States “can and must lead the global economy” (as the 2015 National Security Strategy of the United States insists) are treated deferentially by the Western press. “We give a free pass to governments which cooperate and ream the others as best as we can,” a U.S. official explained,  a statement of modus operandi which applies as much to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and other Western news media, as it does to the US government.That there exists a glaring double-standard on democratic norms, under which lies a consistent standard of demonizing governments which reject US primacy while refusing to demonize governments that do not, is exemplified in a recent juxtaposition.
On December 18, US secretary of state John Kerry was in Riyadh, rhapsodizing about “His Majesty King Salman,” the head of an absolutist state which is the very antithesis of Western democratic norms. It “is good to have solid friends” in the Saudi monarchy, said the United States’ top diplomat. The “United States partnership with Saudi Arabia is, frankly, so valuable,” added Kerry. The “relationship between our countries remains strong in every dimension. It is a relationship that’s been a priority for President Obama and myself. We’re partners, but we’re also friends.” 
The US government’s friend and partner is a tyranny which crushed a 2011 Arab Spring uprising for democracy that erupted on the Arabian Peninsula, while sending tanks into Bahrain to crush a related uprising there. Saudi authorities suppressed a movement for democratic rule by executing the uprising’s leadership, relying on decapitation as the favored method of liquidating democratic trouble-makers. The regime practices an official misogyny that goes so far as to deny women the right to drive automobiles. Saudi clerics propagate worldwide an austere, hate-filled, anti-Shia strain of Islam that, along with Muslim Brotherhood ideology, inspires Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and Jabhat al Nusra. And the House of Saud, the family dictatorship which tyrannizes the Arabian Peninsula, has not, for one second, tolerated the slightest democratic challenge to its autocratic and sectarian rule.
In short, Salman—good friend and partner of US presidents and secretaries of state, to say nothing of US arms dealers, the CIA, US oil companies, and New York investment bankers—is a dictator and a strongman who uses Western-supplied tanks to crush calls for democracy and leads a regime that is aptly characterized as a dictatorship. If ever these terms have been used by the mainstream media and US government officials to refer to the head of the Saudi state and the government he leads, I’m not aware of them. Yet these terms fit to a tee.
On the very same day Kerry was paying tribute to the anti-democratic strongman in Riyadh and celebrating the bonds of friendship between the United States and the despot in Riyadh, an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, titled “The Dictator Who Stole Christmas.”  Therein Wall Street Journal editor Mary Anastasia O’Grady, a practitioner of journalism for the world’s “freest press,” labelled the subject of her article a “strongman” at the head of a government she called a “regime” and a “dictatorship.” O’Grady’s broadside was not targeted at an absolute monarch but at the president of a republic. It concerned not a leader who had assumed his role as head of state through hereditary succession, but through an election no one of an unbiased mind thought was coerced or unfair. Astonishingly, the alleged dictator O’Grady was writing about was Nicolas Maduro, the president of Venezuela, who was elected on April 14, 2013, defeating opposition candidate Henrique Capriles (much beloved by the Wall Street Journal and other Wall Street-types) in a free and fair election. The democratically-elected Maduro, according to O’Grady, contrary to what you and the Venezuelans who elected him may think, is a dictator and strongman who leads a regime.
That O’Grady can so easily label Maduro as an aberration from Western democratic norms in egregious contradiction of the facts only underscores “the proximity between western news media and their respective governments,” as Robinson put it, or the propaganda role played by the mainstream media on behalf of US foreign policy. This should remind us that other leaders of governments, who, like Maduro, govern with the consent of their people, but who refuse to kowtow to the international dictatorship of the United States, have also been demonized in the same manner, namely as dictators and strongmen at the head of regimes, not governments. The most salient current example of this style of propaganda is the depiction of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad along the same lines.
The depiction is completely undeserved, and is a reflection of US distaste for governments which insist on self-determination and sovereignty, instead of submission to its international dictatorship (which the mainstream media euphemize as the “Washington-led global order,” and Washington as “American global leadership.”)
Washington’s hostility to the Assad government is ideological, and is unrelated to the Syrian government’s response to the Islamist insurrection which broke out (afresh, given that similar insurrections have plagued Syria since the 1960s) in March, 2011, in no small measure helped along by the United States. Washington has conspired to oust the government of Bashar al-Assad since at least 2003, when it launched a vicious campaign of economic warfare against the country with the intention of undermining popular support for the government by making life miserable for ordinary Syrians. Soon after Washington began to conspire with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, historically the main internal opposition to the secular Arab nationalist governments of Bashar al-Assad, and his predecessor, Hafaz al-Assad, to resume jihad against secularism in Damascus. 
The Muslim Brothers, and their ideological descendants, the Islamic State, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, and the other Al Qaeda spinoffs, allies and auxiliaries which make up the main armed Syrian opposition, hate the Assad government because it is secular and non-sectarian, and because it rejects the Brotherhood tenet that the Quran and Sunna, the latter the record of the Prophet Muhammad’s actions and sayings, are a sufficient (and coming from God, perfect) legal foundation for Syrian society, jurisprudence and politics.
For its part, Washington hates the Syrian government for three reasons, which can be summed up in the three major goals of the Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party, the party Assad leads: unity of the Arab nation, which threatens US domination of the petroleum-rich Middle East and North Africa; freedom from foreign domination, a position that is inimical to the principle, expressed in multiple US strategy documents that “American leadership” is “indispensable,”  “U.S. leadership is essential,”  and that the United States “will lead the world” ; and socialism, a form of economic organization Washington abhors, to the point that it has been willing to carry out economic warfare against its practitioners with the explicit intention of coercing its abandonment.
For example, US president Eisenhower approved economic sanctions against Cuba, anticipating “that, as the situation unfolds, we shall be obliged to take further economic measures which will have the effect of impressing on the Cuban people the cost of this Communist orientation.”  Similarly, the reason some US sanctions have been imposed on North Korea is listed as either “communism”, “non-market economy” or “communism and market disruption,” according to the United States Congressional Research Service.  In other words, the US government believes it has a right to dictate to the people of other countries how they can organize their own economic affairs and to punish them by carrying out campaigns of economic warfare—and sometimes worse—if they fail to comply.
In short, Washington is hostile to the Syrian government because Damascus safeguards its sovereignty, insists on self-determination, and in its Arab nationalist aspirations, challenges US hegemony over the Arab world. “Syria,” Assad told an Argentine journalist, “is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.”  Washington abhors independent states.
Prior to 2012, Assad governed with the consent of the people obtained in a presidential referendum. While this fell short of the multi-candidate presidential elections favored in the West, it was far more democratic than the hereditary succession that brought the king of Saudi Arabia and emir of Qatar, key U.S. allies in the war against Syria, to power in their countries. In 2012, Assad led efforts to move Syria closer to Western-style representative democracy, amending the country’s constitution to transform presidential elections into multi-candidate contests. Assad stood for election against other candidates and won handily. This was not unexpected, since he is popular.
On the eve of the Islamist insurrection’s most recent outbreak, in March 2011, Time magazine reported that even “critics concede that Assad is popular” and that he had endeared himself, “personally, to the public.”  A week after the eruption of violence in Daraa, Time’s Rania Abouzeid would report that “there do not appear to be widespread calls for the fall of the regime or the removal of the relatively popular President.”  Moreover, the demands issued by the protesters and clerics did not include calls for Assad to step down. And the protests never reached a critical mass. On the contrary, the government continued to enjoy “the loyalty” of “a large part of the population,” reported Time.  Over a month after the outbreak of violence in Daraa, the New York Times’ Anthony Shadid would report that the protests fell “short of the popular upheaval of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.” 
That the government commanded popular support was affirmed when the British survey firm YouGov conducted a poll in late 2011 showing that 55 percent of Syrians wanted Assad to stay. The poll received almost no mention in the Western media, prompting the British journalist Jonathan Steele to ask: “Suppose a respectable opinion poll found that most Syrians are in favor of Bashar al-Assad remaining as president, would that not be major news?” Steele described the poll findings as “inconvenient facts” which were suppressed because Western media coverage of the events in Syria had ceased “to be fair” and had turned into “a propaganda weapon.” 
Hence, in 2011 Syria was closer to the Western model of democracy than virtually any other Arab country, and was certainly closer to Western-style democracy than were Washington’s principal Arab allies, which were all monarchical or military dictatorships.
Nevertheless, just days before flying to Riyadh to praise the Saudi dictatorship and wax rhapsodic about the strong bonds between King Salman’s regime and the United States, John Kerry offered remarks on Syria in which he referred repeatedly to the Syrian government as a regime.  Descriptions of Assad in the mainstream media as a dictator and strongman are commonplace.
The Syrian government is not a regime. Syria is a multi-party representative democracy headed by an elected president. Its leader is neither a strongman nor a dictator, anymore than is Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro. While the US government may not like the Arab nationalist orientation of the Syrian government as a repudiation of Washington’s self-appointed role as leader of a global order, this does not make the Assad government a dictatorship headed by a strongman. Syria, on the contrary, is closer to Western democratic norms than virtually any other Arab country, and is far closer to those norms than are the monarchies, sultanates, emirates, military dictatorships and settler colonial religious tyrannies which constitute Washington’s principal Middle Eastern allies.
If the Western mainstream media need to denounce heads of state as dictators and strongmen and foreign governments as dictatorships and regimes, they will find the list of their own governments’ strong allies and partners teeming with suitable candidates. Of course, asking them to draw from this list is to expect too much. They won’t. As Robinson notes, mainstream media are “overly deferential to the political and economic order.”  The reason why is that as large businesses themselves, owned by wealthy investors, news media are integral parts of the very same political and economic order they profess to police, but which they, in reality, defend, justify and promote. Labelling democrats dictators, and ignoring the dictatorships of allies, is simply part of the ideological role Western news media play to defend and promote the foreign policy interests of the interlocked US political and economic elite.
1. Piers Robinson, “Russian news may be biased—but so is much western media,” The Guardian, August 2, 2016
2. Craig Whitlock, “Niger rapidly emerging as a key U.S. partner,” The Washington Post, April 14, 2013
3. Joint Press Availability with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir; Secretary of State John Kerry; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 18, 2016 , http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2016/12/265750.htm
4. Mary Anastasia O’Grady, “The Dictator Who Stole Christmas,” The Wall Street Journal, December 18, 2016
5. See my “The Revolutionary Distemper in Syria That Wasn’t,” what’s left, October 22, 2016
6. Remarks of President Barack Obama-State of the Union Address as Delivered,” January 13, 2016, whitehouse.gov/SOTU.
7. Mission Statement, FY 2004-2009 Department of State and USAID Strategic Plan.
8. National Security Strategy, February 2015.
9. Louis A Perez Jr., “Fear and loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US policy toward Cuba,” Journal of Latin American Studies, 34, 2002, 237-254.
10. Dianne E. Rennack, “North Korea: Economic Sanctions,” Congressional Research Service, October 17, 2006. http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/crs/rl31696.pdf
11. President al-Assad: Basis for any political solution for crisis in Syria is what the Syrian people want,” http://www.syriaonline.sy/?f=Details&catid=12&pageid=5835
12. Rania Abouzeid, “Sitting pretty in Syria: Why few go backing Bashar,” Time, March 6, 2011.
13. Rania Abouzeid, “Syria’s Friday of dignity becomes a day of death,” Time, March 25, 2011
14. Nicholas Blanford, “Can the Syrian regime divide and conquer its opposition?” Time, April 9, 2011
15. Anthony Shadid, “Security forces kill dozens in uprisings around Syria”, The New York Times, April 22, 2011
16. Jonathan Steele, “Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know from western media,” The Guardian, January 17, 2012
17. Remarks on Syria; Secretary of State John Kerry; Washington, DC, December 15, 2016, http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2016/12/265696.htm
How an evidence-free CIA finding alleging Russian interference in the US election was turned into an indisputable ‘truth’
December 17, 2016
Updated December 18, 2016
By Stephen Gowans
Only a few days ago the New York Times acknowledged that the CIA finding that the Kremlin hacked the Democratic National Convention’s computers with the intention of influencing the US presidential election was based, not on evidence, but conjecture. Today, the newspaper’s reporters have forgotten their earlier caveats and have begun to treat the intelligence agency’s guess-work as an established truth.
Emblematic of the newspaper’s approach of acknowledging the uncertainty of many intelligence assessments only to quickly throw caution to the wind to embrace them as certain facts, was a December 15 report by Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo in which the two reporters wrote that the “hack influenced the course, if not the outcome, of a presidential campaign.”  The sentence is astonishing for not only stripping the CIA finding of its immanent uncertainty, but in venturing well beyond the intelligence agency’s judgement to aver what no one could possibly know, namely, whether the release of DNC e-mails influenced the presidential campaign.
That it did, and at Clinton’s expense, is, of course, the conclusion the Democrats, if not a faction of the US ruling class associated with the Clintons, would like the US public to arrive at. In this, the New York Times has provided signal assistance as the unofficial propaganda arm of the US ruling class’s Democratic Party wing. Yet, we don’t even know if the DNC e-mails were hacked let alone by agents of the Russian government. One alternative explanation is that the e-mails were leaked by someone inside the DNC. Nevertheless, Goldman and Apuzzo claim to know far more than anyone could possibly know: that the CIA’s analysis is true despite the agency’s own admission of uncertainty and that, additionally, the Russian government intended to influence the outcome of the campaign and that its efforts bore fruit.
New York Times reporters Julie Hirschfeld Davis and David E. Sanger were slightly more circumspect than the omniscient Goldman and Apuzzo, but nevertheless wrote of “Russia’s efforts to influence the presidential election,” as if this is not a matter of conjecture but established fact. They also mentioned Trump’s refusal “to accept Moscow’s culpability,” as if Moscow’s culpability is indisputable.  Sanger is a member of the Wall Street-directed foreign policy think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, of which most members of the Obama cabinet are also members, as were occupants of the most significant offices of the US state, going back to at least the Carter administration.  The CFR is likely the body through which the anti-Trump faction of the US ruling class organizes itself.
Let’s recall how much uncertainty underlies the CIA finding which the New York Times now accepts as fact, in the same way the newspaper quickly accepted as fact an equally tentative, and evidence-free US intelligence finding that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in its war against Al Qaeda and the Islamist group’s allies, offshoots and auxiliaries. Today, “Assad’s use of chemical weapons” is bandied about in the Western media as if it were an incontrovertible fact, belying the reality that the US intelligence finding on the matter was based on belief, not evidence, and that there was, by Washington’s own admission, no “smoking gun.” What’s more, the idea that the Syrian military would use chemical weapons, which are less effective than conventional arms, when doing so would have crossed a redline drawn by Washington, and invited a more muscular US intervention in Syria, never made sense.
The US newspaper of record reported that “two Russian hacking groups” were “found at work inside the D.N.C. network,” “Cozy Bear” and “Fancy Bear.” Cozy Bear, according to the newspaper, “may or may not be associated with the F.S.B., the main successor to the Soviet-era K.G.B” (emphasis added.) Fancy Bear, it turns out, also may or may not be associated with the Russian government, in this case, “the G.R.U., Russia’s military intelligence agency.” Nevertheless, the New York Times revealed that both groups are “believed” by Washington to be Russian government operations (though they may or may not be.) 
How was this belief arrived at? Through a process the New York Times describes as attribution, “the skill of identifying a cyberattacker.” This is a fancy way of describing conjecture. Attribution is “more art than science,” the newspaper concedes, while acknowledging that it “is often impossible to name an attacker with absolute certainty.”  Finding water with a divining rod, and predicting the future with a Ouija board, are also more art than science, and both involve the process of attribution, the skill of identifying hidden water and hidden events, though it is often impossible to find water, and foretell the future, with absolute certainty. Divination and CIA analyses apparently have much in common.
Given that the CIA analysis appears to be more art than science, and more conjecture than evidence, how do we get from the multiple agnostic claims that a) the Russian government may or may not have initiated a cyberattack against the DNC; b) it’s impossible to say with certainty that it did; and c) it’s all guess work, to a definite declaration, as appeared in the New York Times on December 13? “Russian cyberpower invaded the U.S.”
The FBI began investigating the allegation that Russia meddled in the election over the summer.  The bureau doubted “the CIA had a basis for coming to (its) conclusions.”  As a consequence, the organization refused to “sign on to the public statement attributing the hacking to Russia.” 
The reasons for the FBI scepticism were outlined by the New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti and Eric Lichtblau on December 11. The reporters wrote that the CIA’s conclusion “is based on “circumstantial evidence…that others,” namely, the FBI and the CIA’s sister intelligence organizations “feel does not support firm judgments.”  “People familiar with the hacking investigation long have said that…it would be difficult to prove in court,” added the Wall Street Journal’s Shane Harris.  Intelligence “findings are more grounded in analysis” wrote Harris, as opposed to “the evidentiary standards the FBI typically uses.”  One of the “core realities of intelligence analysis,” reported Mazzetti and Lichtblau, is that they “are often made in a fog of uncertainty…based on putting together shards of a mosaic that do not reveal a full picture, and can always be affected by human biases.”  Echoing this, Washington Post reporters Ellen Nakashima and Adam Entous wrote that officials “are frequently looking at information that is fragmentary. They also face issues…that (make) it hard – if not impossible – to conclusively detect the Kremlin’s elusive fingerprints.”  (Note that in this sentence the truth of what is to be proved in already assumed, namely, that the Kremlin’s fingerprints are present—it’s just difficult to detect them.)
In short, the FBI “wants facts and tangible evidence.” The CIA “is more comfortable drawing inferences.” The FBI thinks “in terms of…can we prove this.” The CIA makes “judgment calls.” High confidence for the CIA “doesn’t mean they can prove it.” 
Other intelligence agencies, apart from the FBI, also doubted the CIA’s judgment call.
The CIA analysis “fell short of a formal U.S. assessment produced by all 17 intelligence agencies,” reported the Washington Post, owing to “disagreements among intelligence officials about the agency’s assessment.”  One disagreement related to the absence of “specific intelligence showing officials in the Kremlin” directing the hacking. It seemed that the people the CIA suspected of carrying out the hack were not employees of the Russian government. 
This called into question an earlier, October 7, finding from the Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In a joint declaration, the US intelligence czars said they were “confident that the Russian Government directed the … compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations.” But the intelligence community’s confidence didn’t rest on direct evidence. Nothing tied the suspected hackers to the Kremlin. The finding was, instead, based on a belief—“that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities” and that “the alleged hacked e-mails … are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts.”  In other words, the intelligence community had no proof.
The October 7 statement also referred to the hacked e-mails as “alleged,” suggesting that despite its claimed confidence, Washington wasn’t even sure the DNC servers were hacked. The e-mails could have been leaked from within.
It is a reality of everyday life that decisions are made in the face of uncertainty. We can’t always defer action until evidence accumulates. For this reason, the US intelligence community’s efforts to arrive at a judgment based on fragmentary evidence and analysis is perfectly reasonable. But once decisions that are, in effect, working hypotheses become received doctrine—when “the DNC servers may or may not have been hacked, and the Kremlin may or may not be the perpetrator” becomes — “Russian cyberpower invaded the U.S,” as the New York Times put it— the process degenerates into propaganda.
None of this is to acknowledge the sheer hypocrisy of the US government accusing the Kremlin of interfering in the US election when no other country has as extensively meddled in the electoral outcomes of foreign countries as has the United States. The New York Times offered a token admission of US culpability. “The United States, too, has carried out cyberattacks, and in decades past the C.I.A. tried to subvert foreign elections,” wrote Eric Lipton, David E. Sanger and Scott Shane.  A few days later, Sanger expanded on US subversion of foreign elections. It “is worth remembering that trying to manipulate elections is a well-honed American art form,” Sanger noted.
The C.I.A. got its start trying to influence the outcome of Italy’s elections in 1948, as the author Tim Weiner documented in his book “Legacy of Ashes,” in an effort to keep Communists from taking power. Five years later, the C.I.A. engineered a coup against Mohammad Mossadegh, Iran’s democratically elected leader, when the United States and Britain installed the Shah.
“The military coup that overthrew Mosaddeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government,” the agency concluded in one of its own reports, declassified around the 60th anniversary of those events, which were engineered in large part by Kermit Roosevelt Jr., a grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt.
There were similar interferences over the years in Guatemala, Chile and even in Japan, hailed as a model of post-World War II democracy, where the Liberal Democratic Party owes its early grip on power in the 1950s and 1960s to millions of dollars in covert C.I.A. support. 
Since World War II, Washington has grossly interfered in the elections of 30 foreign countries. Over the same period, the US government has attempted to overthrow more than 50 foreign governments and attempted to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders–different means to accomplish the same end, namely, interfering in the politics of foreign countries. 
And while in decades past it may have been that the “CIA tried to subvert foreign elections,” as the New York Times acknowledges, what isn’t mentioned is that in recent decades foreign election meddling has been transferred to the US government-funded National Endowment for Democracy. The organization’s first president acknowledged that the NED’s role is to carry out overtly the task of influencing foreign elections that the CIA had once done covertly. The NED has been active in attempts to influence electoral outcomes in Serbia, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere. The NED interferes in the elections of countries in which the sitting government has refused to fall in behind the United States as self-appointed leader of the international order, preferring self-determination and sovereignty. So Washington has manoeuvred to install biddable governments in these countries that are amenable to acquiescing to US leadership, which is to say, submitting to the international dictatorship of the United States.
None of the foregoing is to suggest that Washington is getting its comeuppance. On the contrary, there’s no evidence that Russia intervened in the US election, much less that the DNC servers were hacked. (A group of former US intelligence officers believe the e-mails were leaked. )
The incident should remind us that the US government often makes allegations on the basis of nothing more than conjecture, which “can always be affected by human biases,” as the New York Times concedes,  or political pressure, as the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq affirms. No less worthy of our attention is the reality that the mass news media have agendas which comport with the interests of their owners, that their owners belong to the economic elite, and that the economic and political elites are intertwined. This explains why the mass media act as conduits of propaganda through which evidence-free intelligence findings are regularly disseminated to the public to manufacture consent for, or at least acquiescence to, elite agendas; Iraq’s non-existent WMD are emblematic of a fiction attributed to an intelligence “failure” that was used as a casus belli to rally support for war.
One can only guess—like the CIA guessing at who leaked the DNC e-mails and why—that there is a struggle within the US ruling class over the outcome of the US election, with the faction to which the Clintons belong resolved to prevent Trump from becoming president, or, at least, undermining his presidency. The reasons are likely due to intolerance of Trump’s promised departures from core US foreign policy tenets, especially his professed desire to treat Russia as a partner rather than adversary, his repudiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and other heterodoxies.
1. Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, “U.S. faces tall hurdles in detaining or deterring Russian hackers,” The New York Times, December 15, 2016
2. Julie Hirschfeld Davis and David E. Sanger, “Obama says U.S. will retaliate for Russia’s election meddling,” The New York Times, December 15, 2016
3. Laurence H.Shoup. Wall Street’s Think Tank: The Council on Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics, 1976-2014, Monthly Review Press, 2015
4. Eric Lipton, David E. Sanger and Scott Shane, “The perfect weapon: How Russian cyberpower invaded the U.S.,” The New York Times, December 13, 2016
6. Mark Mazzetti and Eric Lichtblau, “C.I.A. judgement on Russia built on swell of evidence,” The New York Times, December 11, 2016
7. Ellen Nakashima and Adam Entous, “FBI and CIA give differing accounts to lawmakers in Russia’s motives un 2016 hacks,” The Washington Post, December 10, 2016
8. Shane Harris, “Donald Trump fuels rift with CIA over Russian hack,” The Wall Street Journal, December 11, 2016
9. Mark and Lichtblau
10. Shane Harris, “Donald Trump fuels rift with CIA over Russian hack,” The Wall Street Journal, December 11, 2016
11. Harris, December 11, 2016
12. Mazzetti and Lichtblau
13. Ellen Nakashima and Adam Entous, “FBI and CIA give differing accounts to lawmakers in Russia’s motives un 2016 hacks,” The Washington Post, December 10, 2016
15. Adam Entous, Ellen Nakaskis, and Greg Miller, “Secret CIA assessment says Russia was trying to help Trump win White House,” The Washington Post, December 9, 2016
17. “Joint Statement from the Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Election Security,” October 7, 2016
18. Lipton, Sanger and Shane
19. David E. Sanger, “Obama confronts complexity of using a mighty cyberarsenal against Russia,” The New York Times, December 17, 2016
20. William Blum, “The Anti-Empire Report,” No. 146, November 6, 2016
21. Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, “US Intel Vets Dispute Russia Hacking Claims,” Common Dreams, December 15, 2016
22. Mazzetti and Lichtblau
October 22, 2016
Apparently, the US Left has yet to figure out that Washington doesn’t try to overthrow neoliberals. If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were a devotee of the Washington Consensus–as Counterpunch’s Eric Draitser seems to believe–the United States government wouldn’t have been calling since 2003 for Assad to step down. Nor would it be overseeing the Islamist guerilla war against his government; it would be protecting him.
By Stephen Gowans
There is a shibboleth in some circles that, as Eric Draitser put it in a recent Counterpunch article, the uprising in Syria “began as a response to the Syrian government’s neoliberal policies and brutality,” and that “the revolutionary content of the rebel side in Syria has been sidelined by a hodgepodge of Saudi and Qatari-financed jihadists.” This theory appears, as far as I can tell, to be based on argument by assertion, not evidence.A review of press reports in the weeks immediately preceding and following the mid-March 2011 outbreak of riots in Daraa—usually recognized as the beginning of the uprising—offers no indication that Syria was in the grips of a revolutionary distemper, whether anti-neo-liberal or otherwise. On the contrary, reporters representing Time magazine and the New York Times referred to the government as having broad support, of critics conceding that Assad was popular, and of Syrians exhibiting little interest in protest. At the same time, they described the unrest as a series of riots involving hundreds, and not thousands or tens of thousands of people, guided by a largely Islamist agenda and exhibiting a violent character.
Time magazine reported that two jihadist groups that would later play lead roles in the insurgency, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, were already in operation on the eve of the riots, while a mere three months earlier, leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood voiced “their hope for a civil revolt in Syria.” The Muslim Brothers, who had decades earlier declared a blood feud with Syria’s ruling Ba’athist Party, objecting violently to the party’s secularism, had been embroiled in a life and death struggle with secular Arab nationalists since the 1960s, and had engaged in street battles with Ba’athist partisans from the late 1940s. (In one such battle, Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father, who himself would serve as president from 1970 to 2000, was knifed by a Muslim Brother adversary.) The Brotherhood’s leaders, beginning in 2007, met frequently with the US State Department and the US National Security Council, as well as with the US government-funded Middle East Partnership Initiative, which had taken on the overt role of funding overseas overthrow organizations—a task the CIA had previously done covertly.
Washington had conspired to purge Arab nationalist influence from Syria as early as the mid-1950s, when Kermit Roosevelt, who engineered the overthrow of Iran’s prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh for nationalizing his country’s oil industry, plotted with British intelligence to stir up the Muslim Brothers to overthrow a triumvirate of Arab nationalist and communist leaders in Damascus who Washington and London perceived as threatening Western economic interests in the Middle East.
Washington funnelled arms to Brotherhood mujahedeen in the 1980s to wage urban guerrilla warfare against Hafez al-Assad, who hardliners in Washington called an “Arab communist.” His son, Bashar, continued the Arab nationalists’ commitment to unity (of the Arab nation), independence, and (Arab) socialism. These goals guided the Syrian state—as they had done the Arab nationalist states of Libya under Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq under Saddam. All three states were targeted by Washington for the same reason: their Arab nationalist commitments clashed fundamentally with the US imperialist agenda of US global leadership.
Bashar al-Assad’s refusal to renounce Arab nationalist ideology dismayed Washington, which complained about his socialism, the third part of the Ba’athists’ holy trinity of values. Plans to oust Assad—based in part on his failure to embrace Washington’s neo-liberalism—were already in preparation in Washington by 2003, if not earlier. If Assad was championing neo-liberalism, as Draitser and others contend, it somehow escaped the notice of Washington and Wall Street, which complained about “socialist” Syria and the country’s decidedly anti-neoliberal economic policies.
A Death Feud Heats Up With US Assistance
In late January 2011, a page was created on Facebook called The Syrian Revolution 2011. It announced that a “Day of Rage” would be held on February 4 and 5.  The protests “fizzled,” reported Time. The Day of Rage amounted to a Day of Indifference. Moreover, the connection to Syria was tenuous. Most of the chants shouted by the few protesters who attended were about Libya, demanding that Muammar Gaddafi—whose government was under siege by Islamist insurrectionists—step down. Plans were set for new protests on March 4 and March 5, but they too garnered little support. 
Time’s correspondent Rania Abouzeid attributed the failure of the protest organizers to draw significant support to the fact that most Syrians were not opposed to their government. Assad had a favorable reputation, especially among the two-thirds of the population under 30 years of age, and his government’s policies were widely supported. “Even critics concede that Assad is popular and considered close to the country’s huge youth cohort, both emotionally, ideologically and, of course, chronologically,” Abouzeid reported, adding that unlike “the ousted pro-American leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, Assad’s hostile foreign policy toward Israel, strident support for Palestinians and the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah are in line with popular Syrian sentiment.” Assad, in other words, had legitimacy. The Time correspondent added that Assad’s “driving himself to the Umayyad Mosque in February to take part in prayers to mark the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, and strolling through the crowded Souq Al-Hamidiyah marketplace with a low security profile” had “helped to endear him, personally, to the public.” 
This depiction of the Syrian president—a leader endeared to the public, ideologically in sync with popular Syrian sentiment—clashed starkly with the discourse that would emerge shortly after the eruption of violent protests in the Syrian town of Daraa less than two weeks later, and would become implanted in the discourse of US leftists, including Draitser. But on the eve of the signal Daraa events, Syria was being remarked upon for its quietude. No one “expects mass uprisings in Syria,” Abouzeid reported, “and, despite a show of dissent every now and then, very few want to participate.”  A Syrian youth told Time: “There is a lot of government help for the youth. They give us free books, free schools, free universities.” (Hardly the picture of the neo-liberal state Draitser paints.) She continued: “Why should there be a revolution? There’s maybe a one percent chance.”  The New York Times shared this view. Syria, the newspaper reported, “seemed immune to the wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab world.”  Syria was distemper-free.
But on March 17, there was a violent uprising in Daraa. There are conflicting accounts of who or what sparked it. Time reported that the “rebellion in Daraa was provoked by the arrest of a handful of youths for daubing a wall with anti-regime graffiti.”  The Independent’s Robert Fisk offered a slightly different version. He reported that “government intelligence officers beat and killed several boys who had scrawled anti-government graffiti on the walls of the city.”  Another account holds that the factor that sparked the uprising in Daraa that day was extreme and disproportionate use of force by Syrian security forces in response to demonstrations against the boys’ arrest. There “were some youngsters printing some graffiti on the wall, and they were imprisoned, and as their parents wanted them back, the security forces really struck back very, very tough.”  Another account, from the Syrian government, denies that any of this happened. Five years after the event, Assad told an interviewer that it “didn’t happen. It was only propaganda. I mean, we heard about them, we never saw those children that have been taken to prison that time. So, it was only a fallacious narrative.”
But if there was disagreement about what sparked the uprising, there was little disagreement that the uprising was violent. The New York Times reported that “Protesters set fire to the ruling Ba’ath Party’s headquarters and other government buildings…and clashed with police….In addition to the party headquarters, protesters burned the town’s main courthouse and a branch of the SyriaTel phone company.”  Time added that protesters set fire to the governor’s office, as well as to a branch office of a second cellphone company.  The Syrian government’s news agency, SANA, posted photographs of burning vehicles on its Web site.  Clearly, this wasn’t a peaceful demonstration, as it would be later depicted. Nor was it a mass uprising. Time reported that the demonstrators numbered in the hundreds, not thousands or tens of thousands. 
Assad reacted immediately to the Daraa ructions, announcing “a series of reforms, including a salary increase for public workers, greater freedom for the news media and political parties, and a reconsideration of the emergency rule,”  a war-time restriction on political and civil liberties, invoked because Syria was officially at war with Israel. Before the end of April, the government would rescind “the country’s 48-year-old emergency law” and abolish “the Supreme State Security Court.” 
Why did the government make these concessions? Because that’s what the Daraa protesters demanded. Protesters “gathered in and around Omari mosque in Daraa, chanting their demands: the release of all political prisoners…the abolition of Syria’s 48-year emergency law; more freedoms; and an end to pervasive corruption.”  These demands were consistent with the call, articulated in early February on The Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page “to end the state of emergency in Syria and end corruption.”  A demand to release all political prisoners was also made in a letter signed by clerics posted on Facebook. The clerics’ demands included lifting the “state of emergency law, releasing all political detainees, halting harassment by the security forces and combating corruption.”  Releasing political detainees would amount to releasing jihadists, or, to use a designation current in the West, “terrorists.” The State Department had acknowledged that political Islam was the main opposition in Syria ; jihadists made up the principal section of oppositionists likely to be incarcerated. Clerics demanding that Damascus release all political prisoners was equal in effect to the Islamic State demanding that Washington, Paris, and London release all Islamists detained in US, French and British prisons on terrorism charges. This wasn’t a demand for jobs and greater democracy, but a demand for the release from prison of activists inspired by the goal of bringing about an Islamic state in Syria. The call to lift the emergency law, similarly, appeared to have little to do with fostering democracy and more to do with expanding the room for jihadists and their collaborators to organize opposition to the secular state.
A week after the outbreak of violence in Daraa, Time’s Rania Abouzeid reported that “there do not appear to be widespread calls for the fall of the regime or the removal of the relatively popular President.”  Indeed, the demands issued by the protesters and clerics had not included calls for Assad to step down. And Syrians were rallying to Assad. “There were counterdemonstrations in the capital in support of the President,”  reportedly far exceeding in number the hundreds of protesters who turned out in Daraa to burn buildings and cars and clash with police. 
By April 9—less than a month after the Daraa events—Time reported that a string of protests had broken out and that Islam was playing a prominent role in them. For anyone who was conversant with the decades-long succession of strikes, demonstrations, riots, and insurrections the Muslim Brotherhood had organized against what it deemed the “infidel” Ba’athist government, this looked like history repeating itself. The protests weren‘t reaching a critical mass. On the contrary, the government continued to enjoy “the loyalty” of “a large part of the population,” reported Time. 
Islamists played a lead role in drafting the Damascus Declaration in the mid-2000s, which demanded regime change.  In 2007, the Muslim Brothers, the archetypal Sunni political Islamist movement, which inspired Al-Qaeda and its progeny, Jabhat al Nusra and Islamic State, teamed up with a former Syrian vice-president to found the National Salvation Front. The front met frequently with the US State Department and the US National Security Council, as well as with the US government-funded Middle East Partnership Initiative,  which did openly what the CIA once did covertly, namely, funnel money and expertise to fifth columnists in countries whose governments Washington opposed.
By 2009, just two years before the eruption of unrest throughout the Arab world, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood denounced the Arab nationalist government of Bashar al-Assad as a foreign and hostile element in Syrian society which needed to be eliminated. According to the group’s thinking, the Alawite community, to which Assad belonged, and which the Brothers regarded as heretics, used secular Arab nationalism as a cover to furtively advance a sectarian agenda to destroy Syria from within by oppressing “true” (i.e., Sunni) Muslims. In the name of Islam, the heretical regime would have to be overthrown. 
A mere three months before the 2011 outbreak of violence in Syria, scholar Liad Porat wrote a brief for the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, based at Brandeis University. “The movement’s leaders,” the scholar concluded, “continue to voice their hope for a civil revolt in Syria, wherein ‘the Syrian people will perform its duty and liberate Syria from the tyrannical and corrupt regime.’” The Brotherhood stressed that it was engaged in a fight to the death with the secular Arab nationalist government of Bashar al-Assad. A political accommodation with the government was impossible because its leaders were not part of the Sunni Muslim Syrian nation. Membership in the Syrian nation was limited to true Muslims, the Brothers contended, and not Alawite heretics who embraced such foreign un-Islamic creeds as secular Arab nationalism. 
That the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood played a key role in the uprising that erupted three months later was confirmed in 2012 by the US Defense Intelligence Agency. A leaked report from the agency said that the insurgency was sectarian and led by the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of Islamic State. The report went on to say that the insurgents were supported by the West, Arab Gulf oil monarchies and Turkey. The analysis correctly predicted the establishment of a “Salafist principality,” an Islamic state, in Eastern Syria, noting that this was desired by the insurgency’s foreign backers, who wanted to see the secular Arab nationalists isolated and cut-off from Iran. 
Documents prepared by US Congress researchers in 2005 revealed that the US government was actively weighing regime change in Syria long before the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, challenging the view that US support for the Syrian rebels was based on allegiance to a “democratic uprising” and showing that it was simply an extension of a long-standing policy of seeking to topple the government in Damascus. Indeed, the researchers acknowledged that the US government’s motivation to overthrow the secular Arab nationalist government in Damascus was unrelated to democracy promotion in the Middle East. In point of fact, they noted that Washington’s preference was for secular dictatorships (Egypt) and monarchies (Jordan and Saudi Arabia.) The impetus for pursuing regime change, according to the researchers, was a desire to sweep away an impediment to the achievement of US goals in the Middle East related to strengthening Israel, consolidating US domination of Iraq, and fostering open market, free enterprise economies. Democracy was never a consideration.  If Assad was promoting neo-liberal policies in Syria, as Draitser contends, it’s difficult to understand why Washington cited Syria’s refusal to embrace the US agenda of open markets and free enterprise as a reason to change Syria’s government.
To underscore the point that the protests lacked broad popular support, on April 22, more than a month after the Daraa riot, the New York Times’ Anthony Shadid reported that “the protests, so far, seemed to fall short of the popular upheaval of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.” In other words, more than a month after only hundreds—and not thousands or tens of thousands—of protesters rioted in Daraa, there was no sign in Syria of a popular Arab Spring upheaval. The uprising remained a limited, prominently, Islamist affair. By contrast, there had been huge demonstrations in Damascus in support of—not against—the government, Assad remained popular, and, according to Shadid, the government commanded the loyalty of “Christian and heterodox Muslim sects.”  Shadid wasn’t the only Western journalist who reported that Alawites, Ismailis, Druze and Christians were strongly backing the government. Times’ Rania Abouzeid observed that the Ba’athists “could claim the backing of Syria’s substantial minority groups.” 
The reality that the Syrian government commanded the loyalty of Christian and heterodox Muslim sects, as the New York Times’ Shadid reported, suggested that Syria’s religious minorities recognized something about the uprising that the Western press under-reported (and revolutionary socialists in the United States missed), namely, that it was driven by a sectarian Sunni Islamist agenda which, if brought to fruition, would have unpleasant consequences for anyone who wasn’t considered a “true” Muslim. For this reason, Alawites, Ismailis, Druze and Christians lined up with the Ba’athists who sought to bridge sectarian divisions as part of their programmatic commitment to fostering Arab unity. The slogan “Alawis to the grave and Christians to Beirut!” chanted during demonstrations in those early days”  only confirmed the point that the uprising was a continuation of the death feud that Sunni political Islam had vowed to wage against the secular Arab nationalist government, and was not a mass upheaval for democracy or against neo-liberalism. If indeed it was any of these things, how would we explain that a thirst for democracy and opposition to neo-liberalism were present only in the Sunni community and absent in those of religious minorities? Surely, a democratic deficit and neoliberal tyranny, if they were present at all and acted as triggers of a revolutionary upsurge, would have crossed religious lines. That Alawites, Ismailis, Druze and Christians didn’t demonstrate, and that riots were Sunni-based with Islamist content, points strongly to the insurrection, from the very beginning, representing the recrudescence of the long running Sunni jihadist campaign against Ba’athist secularism.
“From the very beginning the Assad government said it was engaged in a fight with militant Islamists.”  The long history of Islamist uprisings against Ba’athism prior to 2011 certainly suggested this was very likely the case, and the way in which the uprising subsequently unfolded, as an Islamist-led war against the secular state, only strengthened the view. Other evidence, both positive and negative, corroborated Assad’s contention that the Syrian state was under attack by jihadists (just as it had been many other times in the past.) The negative evidence, that the uprising wasn’t a popular upheaval against an unpopular government, was inhered in Western media reports which showed that Syria’s Arab nationalist government was popular and commanded the loyalty of the population.
By contrast, anti-government demonstrations, riots and protests were small-scale, attracting far fewer people than did a mass demonstration in Damascus in support of the government, and certainly not on the order of the popular upheavals in Egypt and Tunisia. What’s more, the protesters’ demands centered on the release of political prisoners (mainly jihadists) and the lifting of war-time restrictions on the expression of political dissent, not calls for Assad to step down or change the government’s economic policies. The positive evidence came from Western news media accounts which showed that Islam played a prominent role in the riots. Also, while it was widely believed that armed Islamist groups only entered the fray subsequent to the initial spring 2011 riots—and in doing so “hijacked” a “popular uprising”— in point of fact, two jihadist groups which played a prominent role in the post-2011 armed revolt against secular Arab nationalism, Ahrar- al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, were both active at the beginning of 2011. Ahrar al-Sham “started working on forming brigades…well before mid-March, 2011, when the” Daraa riot occurred, according to Time.  Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, “was unknown until late January 2012, when it announced its formation… [but] it was active for months before then.” 
Another piece of evidence that is consistent with the view that militant Islam played a role in the uprisings very early on—or, at the very least, that the protests were violent from the beginning—is that `”there were signs from the very start that armed groups were involved.” The journalist and author Robert Fisk recalled seeing a tape from “the very early days of the ‘rising’ showing men with pistols and Kalashnikovs in a Daraa demonstration.” He recalls another event, in May 2011, when “an Al Jazeera crew filmed armed men shooting at Syrian troops a few hundred metres from the northern border with Lebanon but the channel declined to air the footage.”  Even US officials, who were hostile to the Syrian government and might be expected to challenge Damascus’s view that it was embroiled in a fight with armed rebels “acknowledged that the demonstrations weren’t peaceful and that some protesters were armed.”  By September, Syrian authorities were reporting that they had lost more than 500 police officers and soldiers, killed by guerillas.  By late October, the number had more than doubled.  In less than a year, the uprising had gone from the burning of Ba’ath Party buildings and government officers and clashes with police, to guerrilla warfare, involving methods that would be labeled “terrorism” were they undertaken against Western targets.
Assad would later complain that:
“Everything we said in Syria at the beginning of the crisis they say later. They said it’s peaceful, we said it’s not peaceful, they’re killing – these demonstrators, that they called them peaceful demonstrators – have killed policemen. Then it became militants. They said yes, it’s militants. We said it’s militants, it’s terrorism. They said no, it’s not terrorism. Then when they say it’s terrorism, we say it’s Al Qaeda, they say no, it’s not Al Qaeda. So, whatever we said, they say later.” 
The “Syrian uprising,” wrote the Middle East specialist Patrick Seale, “should be seen as only the latest, if by far the most violent, episode in the long war between Islamists and Ba’athists, which dates back to the founding of the secular Ba‘ath Party in the 1940s. The struggle between them is by now little short of a death-feud.”  “It is striking,” Seale continued, citing Aron Lund, who had written a report for the Swedish Institute of International Affairs on Syrian Jihadism, “that virtually all the members of the various armed insurgent groups are Sunni Arabs; that the fighting has been largely restricted to Sunni Arab areas only, whereas areas inhabited by Alawis, Druze or Christians have remained passive or supportive of the regime; that defections from the regime are nearly 100 per cent Sunni; that money, arms and volunteers are pouring in from Islamic states or from pro-Islamic organisations and individuals; and that religion is the insurgent movement’s most important common denominator.” 
Brutality as a Trigger?
Is it reasonable to believe that the use of force by the Syrian state sparked the guerrilla war which broke out soon after?
It strains belief that an over-reaction by security forces to a challenge to government authority in the Syrian town of Daraa (if indeed an over-reaction occurred) could spark a major war, involving scores of states, and mobilizing jihadists from scores of countries. A slew of discordant facts would have to be ignored to begin to give this theory even a soupcon of credibility.
First, we would have to overlook the reality that the Assad government was popular and viewed as legitimate. A case might be made that an overbearing response by a highly unpopular government to a trivial challenge to its authority might have provided the spark that was needed to ignite a popular insurrection, but notwithstanding US president Barack Obama’s insistence that Assad lacked legitimacy, there’s no evidence that Syria, in March 2011, was a powder keg of popular anti-government resentment ready to explode. As Time’s Rania Abouzeid reported on the eve of the Daraa riot, “Even critics concede that Assad is popular”  and “no one expects mass uprisings in Syria and, despite a show of dissent every now and then, very few want to participate.” 
Second, we would have to discount the fact that the Daraa riot involved only hundreds of participants, hardly a mass uprising, and the protests that followed similarly failed to garner a critical mass, as Time’s Nicholas Blanford reported. Similarly, the New York Times’ Anthony Shadid found no evidence that there was a popular upheaval in Syria, even more than a month after the Daraa riot. What was going on, contrary to Washington-propagated rhetoric about the Arab Spring breaking out in Syria, was that jihadists were engaged in a campaign of guerilla warfare against Syrian security forces, and had, by October, taken the lives of more than a thousand police officers and soldiers.
Third, we would have to close our eyes to the fact that the US government, with its British ally, had drawn up plans in 1956 to provoke a war in Syria by enlisting the Muslim Brotherhood to instigate internal uprisings.  The Daraa riot and subsequent armed clashes with police and soldiers resembled the plan which regime change specialist Kermit Roosevelt had prepared. That’s not to say that the CIA dusted off Roosevelt’s proposal and recycled it for use in 2011; only that the plot showed that Washington and London were capable of planning a destabilization operation involving a Muslim Brotherhood-led insurrection to bring about regime change in Syria.
We would also have to ignore the events of February 1982, when the Muslim Brothers seized control of Hama, Syria’s fourth largest city. Hama was the epicenter of Sunni fundamentalism in Syria, and a major base of operations for the jihadist fighters. Galvanized by a false report that Assad had been overthrown, Muslim Brothers went on a gleeful blood-soaked rampage throughout the city, attacking police stations and murdering Ba’ath Party leaders and their families, along with government officials and soldiers. In some cases, victims were decapitated  a practice which would be resurrected decades later by Islamic State fighters. Every Ba’athist official in Hama was murdered. 
The Hama events of 1982 are usually remembered in the West (if they’re remembered at all), not for the atrocities carried out by the Islamists, but for the Syrian army’s response, which, as would be expected of any army, involved the use of force to restore sovereign control over the territory seized by the insurrectionists. Thousands of troops were dispatched to take Hama back from the Muslim Brothers. Former US State Department official William R. Polk described the aftermath of the Syrian army assault on Hama as resembling that of the US assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004,  (the difference, of course, being that the Syrian army was acting legitimately within its own sovereign territory while the US military was acting illegitimately as an occupying force to quell opposition to its occupation.) How many died in the Hama assault, however, remains a matter of dispute. The figures vary. “An early report in Time said that 1,000 were killed. Most observers estimated that 5,000 people died. Israeli sources and the Muslim Brotherhood”—sworn enemies of the secular Arab nationalists who therefore had an interest in exaggerating the casualty toll—“both charged that the death toll passed 20,000.”  Robert Dreyfus, who has written on the West’s collaboration with political Islam, argues that Western sources deliberately exaggerated the death toll in order to demonize the Ba’athists as ruthless killers, and that the Ba’athists went along with the deception in order to intimidate the Muslim Brotherhood. 
As the Syrian army sorted through the rubble of Hama in the aftermath of the assault, evidence was found that foreign governments had provided Hama’s insurrectionists with money, arms, and communications equipment. Polk writes that:
“Assad saw foreign troublemakers at work among his people. This, after all, was the emotional and political legacy of colonial rule—a legacy painfully evident in most of the post-colonial world, but one that is almost unnoticed in the Western world. And the legacy is not a myth. It is a reality that, often years after events occur, we can verify with official papers. Hafez al-Assad did not need to wait for leaks of documents: his intelligence services and international journalists turned up dozens of attempts by conservative, oil-rich Arab countries, the United States, and Israel to subvert his government. Most engaged in ‘dirty tricks,’ propaganda, or infusions of money, but it was noteworthy that in the 1982 Hama uprising, more than 15,000 foreign-supplied machine guns were captured, along with prisoners including Jordanian- and CIA-trained paramilitary forces (much like the jihadists who appear so much in media accounts of 2013 Syria). And what he saw in Syria was confirmed by what he learned about Western regime-changing elsewhere. He certainly knew of the CIA attempt to murder President Nasser of Egypt and the Anglo-American overthrow of the government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.” 
In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that “the Hama massacre could be understood as, ‘The natural reaction of a modernizing politician in a relatively new nation state trying to stave off retrogressive—in this case, Islamic fundamentalists—elements aiming to undermine everything he has achieved in the way of building Syria into a 20th century secular republic. That is also why,” continued Friedman, that “if someone had been able to take an objective opinion poll in Syria after the Hama massacre, Assad’s treatment of the rebellion probably would have won substantial approval, even among Sunni Muslims.” 
The outbreak of a Sunni Islamist jihad against the Syrian government in the 1980s challenges the view that militant Sunni Islam in the Levant is an outcome of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the pro-Shi’a sectarian policies of the US occupation authorities. This view is historically myopic, blind to the decades-long existence of Sunni political Islam as a significant force in Levantine politics. From the moment Syria achieved formal independence from France after World War II, through the decades that followed in the 20th century, and into the next century, the main contending forces in Syria were secular Arab nationalism and political Islam. As journalist Patrick Cockburn wrote in 2016, “the Syrian armed opposition is dominated by Isis, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.” The “only alternative to (secular Arab nationalist) rule is the Islamists.”  This has long been the case.
Finally, we would also have to ignore the fact that US strategists had planned since 2003, and possibly as early as 2001, to force Assad and his secular Arab nationalist ideology from power, and was funding the Syrian opposition, including Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups, from 2005. Accordingly, Washington had been driving toward the overthrow of the Assad government with the goal of de-Ba’athifying Syria. An Islamist-led guerilla struggle against Syria’s secular Arab nationalists would have unfolded, regardless of whether the Syrian government’s response at Daraa was excessive or not. The game was already in play, and a pretext was being sought. Daraa provided it. Thus, the idea that the arrest of two boys in Daraa for painting anti-government graffiti on a wall could provoke a major conflict is as believable as the notion that WWI was caused by nothing more than the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Socialism can be defined in many ways, but if it is defined as public-ownership of the commanding heights of the economy accompanied by economic planning, then Syria under its 1973 and 2012 constitutions clearly meets the definition of socialism. However, the Syrian Arab Republic had never been a working-class socialist state, of the category Marxists would recognize. It was, instead, an Arab socialist state inspired by the goal of achieving Arab political independence and overcoming the legacy of the Arab nation’s underdevelopment. The framers of the constitution saw socialism as a means to achieve national liberation and economic development. “The march toward the establishment of a socialist order,” the 1973 constitution’s framers wrote, is a “fundamental necessity for mobilizing the potentialities of the Arab masses in their battle with Zionism and imperialism.” Marxist socialism concerned itself with the struggle between an exploiting owning class and exploited working class, while Arab socialism addressed the struggle between exploiting and exploited nations. While these two different socialisms operated at different levels of exploitation, the distinctions were of no moment for Westerns banks, corporations and major investors as they cast their gaze across the globe in pursuit of profit. Socialism was against the profit-making interests of US industrial and financial capital, whether it was aimed at ending the exploitation of the working class or overcoming the imperialist oppression of national groups.
Ba’ath socialism had long irritated Washington. The Ba’athist state had exercised considerable influence over the Syrian economy, through ownership of enterprises, subsidies to privately-owned domestic firms, limits on foreign investment, and restrictions on imports. The Ba’athists regarded these measures as necessary economic tools of a post-colonial state trying to wrest its economic life from the grips of former colonial powers and to chart a course of development free from the domination of foreign interests.
Washington’s goals, however, were obviously antithetical. It didn’t want Syria to nurture its industry and zealously guard its independence, but to serve the interests of the bankers and major investors who truly mattered in the United States, by opening Syrian labor to exploitation and Syria’s land and natural resources to foreign ownership. Our agenda, the Obama Administration had declared in 2015, “is focused on lowering tariffs on American products, breaking down barriers to our goods and services, and setting higher standards to level the playing field for American…firms.” This was hardly a new agenda, but had been the agenda of US foreign policy for decades. Damascus wasn’t falling into line behind a Washington that insisted that it could and would “lead the global economy.”
Hardliners in Washington had considered Hafez al-Assad an Arab communist,  and US officials considered his son, Bashar, an ideologue who couldn’t bring himself to abandon the third pillar of the Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party’s program: socialism. The US State Department complained that Syria had “failed to join an increasingly interconnected global economy,” which is to say, had failed to turn over its state-owned enterprises to private investors, among them Wall Street financial interests. The US State Department also expressed dissatisfaction that “ideological reasons” had prevented Assad from liberalizing Syria’s economy, that “privatization of government enterprises was still not widespread,” and that the economy “remains highly controlled by the government.”  Clearly, Assad hadn’t learned what Washington had dubbed the “lessons of history,” namely, that “market economies, not command-and-control economies with the heavy hand of government, are the best.”  By drafting a constitution that mandated that the government maintain a role in guiding the economy on behalf of Syrian interests, and that the Syrian government would not make Syrians work for the interests of Western banks, corporations, and investors, Assad was asserting Syrian independence against Washington’s agenda of “opening markets and leveling the playing field for American….businesses abroad.” 
On top of this, Assad underscored his allegiance to socialist values against what Washington had once called the “moral imperative” of “economic freedom,”  by writing social rights into the constitution: security against sickness, disability and old age; access to health care; and free education at all levels. These rights would continue to be placed beyond the easy reach of legislators and politicians who could sacrifice them on the altar of creating a low-tax, foreign-investment-friendly business climate. As a further affront against Washington’s pro-business orthodoxy, the constitution committed the state to progressive taxation.
Finally, the Ba’athist leader included in his updated constitution a provision that had been introduced by his father in 1973, a step toward real, genuine democracy—a provision which decision-makers in Washington, with their myriad connections to the banking and corporate worlds, could hardly tolerate. The constitution would require that at minimum half the members of the People’s Assembly be drawn from the ranks of peasants and workers.
If Assad was a neo-liberal, he certainly was one of the world’s oddest devotees of the ideology.
A final point on the origins of the violent uprising in 2011: Some social scientists and analysts have drawn on a study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences to suggest that “drought played a role in the Syrian unrest.” According to this view, drought “caused crop failures that led to the migration of as many as 1.5 million people from rural to urban areas.” This, in combination with an influx of refugees from Iraq, intensified competition for scarce jobs in urban areas, making Syria a cauldron of social and economic tension ready to boil over.  The argument sounds reasonable, even “scientific,” but the phenomenon it seeks to explain—mass upheaval in Syria—never happened. As we’ve seen, a review of Western press coverage found no reference to mass upheaval. On the contrary, reporters who expected to find a mass upheaval were surprised that they didn’t find one. Instead, Western journalists found Syria to be surprisingly quiet. Demonstrations called by organizers of the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page fizzled. Critics conceded that Assad was popular. Reporters could find no one who believed a revolt was imminent. Even a month after the Daraa incident—which involved only hundreds of protesters, dwarfed by the tens of thousands of Syrians who demonstrated in Damascus in support of the government—the New York Times reporter on the ground, Anthony Shadid, could find no sign in Syria of the mass upheavals of Tunisia and Egypt. In early February 2011, “Omar Nashabe, a long-time Syria watcher and correspondent for the Beirut-based Arabic daily Al-Ahkbar” told Time that “Syrians may be afflicted by poverty that stalks 14% of its population combined with an estimated 20% unemployment rate, but Assad still has his credibility.” 
That the government commanded popular support was affirmed when the British survey firm YouGov published a poll in late 2011 showing that 55 percent of Syrians wanted Assad to stay. The poll received almost no mention in the Western media, prompting the British journalist Jonathan Steele to ask: “Suppose a respectable opinion poll found that most Syrians are in favor of Bashar al-Assad remaining as president, would that not be major news?” Steele described the poll findings as “inconvenient facts” which were” suppressed “because Western media coverage of the events in Syria had ceased “to be fair” and had turned into “a propaganda weapon.”
Sloganeering in Lieu of Politics and Analysis
Draitser can be faulted, not only for propagating an argument made by assertion, based on no evidence, but for substituting slogans for politics and analysis. In his October 20 Counterpunch article, Syria and the Left: Time to Break the Silence, he argues that the defining goals of Leftism ought to be the pursuit of peace and justice, as if these are two inseparable qualities, which are never in opposition. That peace and justice may, at times, be antithetical, is illustrated in the following conversation between Australian journalist Richard Carleton and Ghassan Kanafani, a Palestinian writer, novelist and revolutionary. 
C: ‘Why won’t your organization engage in peace talks with the Israelis?’
K: ‘You don’t mean exactly “peace talks”. You mean capitulation. Surrendering.
C: ‘Why not just talk?’
K: ‘Talk to whom?’
C: ‘Talk to the Israeli leaders.’
K: ‘That is kind of a conversation between the sword and the neck, you mean?’
C: ‘Well, if there are no swords and no guns in the room, you could still talk.’
K: ‘No. I have never seen any talk between a colonialist and a national liberation movement.’
C: ‘But despite this, why not talk?’
K: ‘Talk about what?’
C: ‘Talk about the possibility of not fighting.’
K: ‘Not fighting for what?’
C: ‘No fighting at all. No matter what for.’
K: ‘People usually fight for something. And they stop fighting for something. So you can’t even tell me why we should speak about what. Why should we talk about stopping to fight?’
C: ‘Talk to stop fighting to stop the death and the misery, the destruction and the pain.’
K: ‘The misery and the destruction the pain and the death of whom?’
C: ‘Of Palestinians. Of Israelis. Of Arabs.’
K: ‘Of the Palestinian people who are uprooted, thrown in the camps, living in starvation, killed for twenty years and forbidden to use even the name “Palestinians”?’
C: ‘They are better that way than dead though.’
K: ‘Maybe to you. But to us, it’s not. To us, to liberate our country, to have dignity, to have respect, to have our mere human rights is something as essential as life itself.
To which values the US Left should devote itself when peace and justice are in conflict, Draitser doesn’t say. His invocation of the slogan “peace and justice” as the desired defining mission of the US Left seems to be nothing more than an invitation for Leftists to abandon politics in favor of embarking on a mission of becoming beautiful souls, above the sordid conflicts which plague humanity—never taking a side, except that of the angels. His assertion that “no state or group has the best interests of Syrians at heart” is almost too silly to warrant comment. How would he know? One can’t help but get the impression that he believes that he, and the US Left, alone among the groups and states of the world, know what’s best for the “Syrian people.” Which may be why he opines that the responsibility of the US Left, “is to the people of Syria,” as if the people of Syria are an undifferentiated mass with uniform interests and agendas. Syrians en masse include both secularists and political Islamists, who have irreconcilable views of how the state ought to be organized, who have been locked in a death feud for more than half a century—one helped along, on the Islamist side, by his own government. Syrians en masse include those who favor integration into the US Empire, and those who are against it; those who collaborate with US imperialists and those who refuse to. In this perspective, what does it mean, to say the US Left has a responsibility to the people of Syria? Which people of Syria?
I would have thought that the responsibility of the US Left is to working people of the United States, not the people of Syria. And I would have imagined, as well, that the US Left would regard its responsibilities to include disseminating a rigorous, evidence-based political analysis of how the US economic elite uses the apparatus of the US state to advance its interests at the expense of both domestic and foreign populations. How does Washington’s long war on Syria affect the working people of America? That’s what Draitser ought to be talking about.
My book Washington’s Long War on Syria is forthcoming April 2017.
1 Aryn Baker, “Syria is not Egypt, but might it one day be Tunisia?,” Time, February 4, 2011
2 Rania Abouzeid, “The Syrian style of repression: Thugs and lectures,” Time, February 27, 2011
3 Rania Abouzeid, “Sitting pretty in Syria: Why few go backing Bashar,” Time, March 6, 2011
4 Rania Abouzeid, “The youth of Syria: the rebels are on pause,” Time, March 6, 2011.
5 Rania Abouzeid, “The youth of Syria: the rebels are on pause,” Time, March 6, 2011
6 “Officers fire on crowd as Syrian protests grow,” The New York Times, March 20, 2011
7 Nicholas Blanford, “Can the Syrian regime divide and conquer its opposition?,” Time, April 9, 2011
8 Robert Fisk, “Welcome to Dera’a, Syria’s graveyard of terrorists,” The Independent, July 6. 2016
9 President Assad to ARD TV: Terrorists breached cessation of hostilities agreement from the very first hour, Syrian Army refrained from retaliating,” SANA, March 1, 2016
11 “Officers fire on crowd as Syrian protests grow,” The New York Times, March 20, 2011
12 Rania Abouzeid, “Arab Spring: Is a revolution starting up in Syria?” Time, March 20, 2011; Rania Abouzeid, “Syria’s revolt: How graffiti stirred an uprising,” Time, March 22, 2011
13 “Officers fire on crowd as Syrian protests grow,” The New York Times, March 20, 2011
14 Rania Abouzeid, “Arab Spring: Is a revolution starting up in Syria?,” Time, March 20, 2011
15 “Thousands march to protest Syria killings”, The New York Times, March 24, 2011
16 Rania Abouzeid, “Assad and reform: Damned if he does, doomed if he doesn’t,” Time, April 22, 2011
17 “Officers fire on crowd as Syrian protests grow,” The New York Times, March 20, 2011
18 Aryn Baker, “Syria is not Egypt, but might it one day be Tunisia?,” Time, February 4, 2011
19 Nicholas Blanford, “Can the Syrian regime divide and conquer its opposition?” Time, April 9, 2011.
20 Alfred B. Prados and Jeremy M. Sharp, “Syria: Political Conditions and Relations with the United States After the Iraq War,” Congressional Research Service, February 28, 2005
21 Rania Abouzeid, “Syria’s Friday of dignity becomes a day of death,” Time, March 25, 2011
22 Rania Abouzeid, “Syria’s Friday of dignity becomes a day of death,” Time, March 25, 2011
23 “Syrie: un autre eclarage du conflict qui dure depuis 5 ans, BeCuriousTV , » May 23, 2016, http://www.globalresearch.ca/syria-aleppo-doctor-demolishes-imperialist-propaganda-and-media-warmongering/5531157
24 Nicholas Blanford, “Can the Syrian regime divide and conquer its opposition?” Time, April 9, 2011
25 Jay Solomon, “To check Syria, U.S. explores bond with Muslim Brothers,” The Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2007
27 Liad Porat, “The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the Asad Regime,” Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University, December 2010, No. 47
30 Alfred B. Prados and Jeremy M. Sharp, “Syria: Political Conditions and Relations with the United States After the Iraq War,” Congressional Research Service, February 28, 2005.
31 Anthony Shadid, “Security forces kill dozens in uprisings around Syria”, The New York Times, April 22, 2011
32 Rania Abouzeid, “Syria’s Friday of dignity becomes a day of death,” Time, March 25, 2011
33 Fabrice Balanche, “The Alawi Community and the Syria Crisis Middle East Institute, May 14, 2015
34 Anthony Shadid, “Syria broadens deadly crackdown on protesters”, The New York Times, May 8, 2011
35 Rania Abouzeid, “Meet the Islamist militants fighting alongside Syria’s rebels,” Time, July 26, 2012
36 Rania Abouzeid, “Interview with official of Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s Islamist militia group,” Time, Dec 25, 2015
37 Robert Fisk, “Syrian civil war: West failed to factor in Bashar al-Assad’s Iranian backers as the conflict developed,” The Independent, March 13, 2016
38 Anthony Shadid, “Syria broadens deadly crackdown on protesters”, The New York Times, May 8, 2011
39 Nada Bakri, “Syria allows Red Cross officials to visit prison”, The New York Times, September 5, 2011
40 Nada Bakri, “Syrian opposition calls for protection from crackdown”, The New York Times, October 25, 2011
41 President al-Assad to Portuguese State TV: International system failed to accomplish its duty… Western officials have no desire to combat terrorism, SANA, March 5, 2015
42 Patrick Seale, “Syria’s long war,” Middle East Online, September 26, 2012
44 Rania Abouzeid, “Sitting pretty in Syria: Why few go backing Bashar,” Time, March 6, 2011
45 Rania Abouzeid, “The youth of Syria: the rebels are on pause,” Time, March 6, 2011
46 “Can the Syrian regime divide and conquer its opposition?” Time, April 9, 2011
47 Anthony Shadid, “Security forces kill dozens in uprisings around Syria”, The New York Times, April 22, 2011
48 Ben Fenton, “Macmillan backed Syria assassination plot,” The Guardian, September 27, 2003
49 Robert Fisk, “Conspiracy of silence in the Arab world,” The Independent, February 9, 2007
50 Robert Dreyfus, Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Fundamentalist Islam, Holt, 2005, p. 205
51 William R. Polk, “Understanding Syria: From pre-civil war to post-Assad,” The Atlantic, December 10, 2013
54 William R. Polk, “Understanding Syria: From pre-civil war to post-Assad,” The Atlantic, December 10, 2013
55 Quoted in Nikolas Van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Asad and the Ba’ath Party, I.B. Taurus, 2011
56 Patrick Cockburn, “Confused about the US response to Isis in Syria? Look to the CIA’s relationship with Saudi Arabia,” The Independent, June 17, 2016
57 National Security Strategy, February 2015
59 Robert Baer, Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, Three Rivers Press, 2003, p. 123
60 US State Department website. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3580.htm#econ. Accessed February 8, 2012
61 The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 2002
62 National Security Strategy, February 2015
63 The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, March 2006
64 Henry Fountain, “Researchers link Syrian conflict to drought made worse by climate change,” The New York Times, March 2, 2015
65 Aryn Baker, “Syria is not Egypt, but might it one day be Tunisia?,” Time, February 4, 2011
66 Jonathan Steele, “Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know from western media,” The Guardian, January 17, 2012
67 “Full transcript: Classic video interview with Comrade Ghassan Kanafani re-surfaces,” PFLP, October 17, 2016, http://pflp.ps/english/2016/10/17/full-transcript-classic-video-interview-with-comrade-ghassan-kanafani-re-surfaces/