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Zionism, Genocide and the Colonial Tradition in Contemporary Syria

April 2, 2016

By Stephen Gowans

ISIS “is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions.” – US Secretary of State, John Kerry. [1]

“If we had to choose between ISIS and Assad, we’ll take ISIS.” – Former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, now a member of Israel’s Knesset. [2]

The International Association of Genocide Scholars has accused ISIS of carrying out a genocide against Shiite Muslims, as well as Yazidis and Kurds in the Middle East. The Knights of Columbus has expressed concern about the militant Sunni organization’s efforts to expunge Christians from its Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. And US Secretary of State John Kerry has denounced ISIS for its genocidal nature, expressed, he says, “in what it says, what it believes, and what it does.” [3] And yet, if given a choice between ISIS and Assad, Israel—a state which liberally invokes the Nazi anti-Jewish genocide to justify its existence—would take ISIS. At least, that’s what former Israeli ambassador to the United States and Knesset member, Michael Oren, says, and his view appears to be in the mainstream of Israeli strategic thought. Shimon Peres, when he was Israel’s president, anticipated Oren. He said he hoped the Syrian rebels—dominated by Al Qaeda and its progeny—would win. [4]

Al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, controls the Syrian border with Israel [5], and along the Golan Heights, the Israeli military coordinates with the Qaeda militants. [6] Israeli military forces talk of having arrived at “an understanding” with a group Washington and its allies officially condemn as a terrorist organization, and of “familiarity” with Al Qaeda’s “forces on the ground.” The Israeli-Al Qaeda alliance is “extremely tactical,” Israeli military officials say. [7] This hasn’t escaped the attention of the government in Damascus. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Foreign Affairs that the Israelis “are supporting the rebels in Syria.”

It’s very clear. Because whenever we make advances in some place, they make an attack in order to undermine the army. It’s very clear. That’s why some in Syria joke, ‘How can you say that al Qaeda doesn’t have an air force? They have the Israeli air force.” [8]

“Sunni elements…control some two-thirds to 90 percent of the border on the Golan (and) aren’t attacking Israel,” says Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel’s military intelligence, noting that the Qaeda militants “understand who is their real enemy” and it “isn’t Israel.” [9]

Israeli paramedics “patrol the border and provide treatment for casualties they encounter. Once (rebels) are evaluated, some are sewn up and treated on the ground. Others are taken to a makeshift field hospital for basic surgery and recovery. But patients who require extensive surgery are sent to a civilian hospital, Ziv Medical Center, in the Israeli town of Tsflat, about an hour away.” [10] From 2013 to 2015, 1,500 Sunni militants crossed into Israel to receive treatment. [11] Some, if not the bulk of the militants, were members of Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch.

So, if Israel isn’t Al Qaeda’s real enemy, as Yadlin says, who is? And why?

The Axis of Resistance

“There is no doubt that Hezbollah and Iran are the major threats to Israel, much more than the radical Sunni Islamists…” – Amos Yadlin. [12]

The philosopher Thomas Kapitan argues that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be posed in terms of a Western-Arab one, since Israel was created and has been sustained by Western intervention in the Middle East. At the same time, it can be posed as a Western-Islamic conflict, since it involves the implantation of a foreign Jewish state in the heart of the Islamic world. [13]

I would argue that Iran understands the conflict as a Western-Islamic one, Syria as a Western-Arab one, and Hezbollah, as both. The perspectives of these three parties, who make up what has been labelled the “Axis of Resistance,” are anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, and anti-Zionist, though the parties have arrived at these positions from different starting points. The common thread of the alliance is political, not religious. As the New York Times’ Anne Barnard explains, “While President Bashar al-Assad and many security leaders belong to the Alawite sect, related to Shiism, they consider themselves secularists allied with Iran and Hezbollah for strategic and political, not religious, reasons.” [14]

The common political thread which unites the alliance is opposition to Zionism, which is to say, hostility to the idea that a Jewish state can be implanted on territory stolen from, and ethnically cleansed of, its indigenous Palestinian (and largely Muslim) population. Support for Palestinian self-determination is the central political theme of the Axis of Resistance.

In its constitution, Syria declares its enmity to an exclusivist Jewish state constructed on stolen Palestinian territory, and does so in the context of reference to Western colonial intervention in the Arab world. The constitution’s preamble declares that Syria is “the beating heart of Arabism, the forefront of confrontation with the Zionist enemy and the bedrock of resistance against colonial hegemony on the Arab world and its capabilities and wealth.” [15]

Iran’s opposition to Zionism is no less resolute, but has been misconstrued in the West as a military threat rooted in anti-Jewish xenophobia. But as the Washington Post’s Glen Kessler explains, Iran’s Supreme leader Ali Khamenei “has been consistent, stating repeatedly that the goal is not the military destruction of the Jewish state but the defeat of Zionist ideology and the dissolution of Israel through a popular referendum.” [16]

According to Khamenei,

The Islamic Republic’s proposal to help resolve the Palestinian issue and heal this old wound is a clear and logical initiative based on political concepts accepted by world public opinion…We do not suggest launching a classic war by armies of Muslim countries, or throwing immigrant Jews into the sea…We propose holding a referendum with the Palestinian nation. The Palestinian nation, like any other nation, has the right to determine their own identity and elect the governing system of the country. [17]

Hezbollah, formed to repel the 1982 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, to recover Lebanese territory still not returned by Israel (Shebaa Farms), and to safeguard Lebanon from future Israeli aggression, is also committed to the promotion of Palestinian self-determination. Its goal, as explained by its leader Sayyed Nasrallah, “is to topple the Zionist project,” by which he means dismantling the apparatus of the Zionist state established on stolen land and founded on the denial of Palestinian self-determination. [18] Achieving that goal, in Hezbollah’s view, means the return to the Palestinians, the rightful owners, of “all of Palestine…from the (Mediterranean) sea to the (Jordan) river”. [19]

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Palestinian resistance organization, plays a small but important role in the Axis of Resistance. It sees the Arab-Zionist conflict as one that cannot be completed or ended through a two-state solution, but only with the establishment of a secular democracy on all of the land of historic Palestine, with equality for all its people. [20] The historical goal of the PFLP is to have a single democratic state in Palestine. [21] Ahmed Saadat, the group’s jailed leader, says the Middle East conflict can only be resolved through the creation of a state shared by Palestinians and Jews. [22] Significantly, the PFLP, a secular, Marxist, organization, is largely funded by Iran [23], belying the fiction that the Axis of Resistance is based on religious, rather than political, anti-Zionist, viz., anti-colonialist, ties.

The project of dismantling the Zionist state apparatus in Palestine is tantamount to the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. The anti-Zionist project is no more anti-Jewish and aimed at the destruction of Jews than the anti-Apartheid struggle was anti-White and aimed at the destruction of South Africa’s European settler community. At the center of both is the fight against colonialism and for self-determination of indigenous peoples.

Saudi Arabia: Base of Arab Reaction

The perspective of Saudi Arabia, and that of its fellow Gulf tyrannies, is one of “loyalty to neo-colonial and Zionist forces,” a charge levelled by Arab parties in Israel’s Knesset, after the oil monarchs labelled Hezbollah a terrorist organization. [24] Hezbollah’s joining in the fight with Syria, Iran, and Russia against the sectarian depredations and terrorism of Al Qaeda and its offshoots is presumably the underlying reason for the reactionary Arab monarchies’ denunciation of the Lebanese resistance organization.

Hezbollah’s Nasrallah points out that “the only state or entity or existence that ‘Israel’ views as posing an existential threat is the Islamic Republic in Iran.” [25] But why not Saudi Arabia? An Arab and Muslim state–and therefore, if Israeli rhetoric is to be believed, one that ought to be adamantly hostile to Israel–Saudi Arabia has the world’s fourth largest military budget, exceeded only by the defense outlays of the United States, China and Russia. [26] Riyadh spends more per capita on the military than does any other country in the world, including Israel, which is second ranked, and the United States, ranked third. At $81 billion, the Saudi state’s annual military expenditures are over six times greater than Iran’s comparatively meager annual defense budget of $13 billion. Surely, given this significant imbalance, Israel should regard Saudi Arabia as a far larger threat than Iran. What’s more, the military outlays of the Saudi tyranny are five times greater than Israel’s military budget. And Israel spends more on its military than Iran does on its own. How, then, can Iran, but not the Saudi military colossus, be an existential threat to Israel? It doesn’t add up, unless we acknowledge that Saudi Arabia is, as the Arab parties in Israel’s Knesset observe, servants of “neo-colonial and Zionist forces.”

The Arab monarchies have, from their birth, been entangled with Western imperialism and have acted as their local agents in return for protection against their own people. Indeed, the states are creations of the West. The “artificial borders that demarcate their states, were designed by imperialists seeking to build fences around oil wells in the 1920s.” [27] Saudi Arabia is no exception. As Nasrallah observes, the Saud family dictatorship was “established with British support, British money, and British artillery, as part of the British colonial scheme to control” the Arabs. [28] British support for the Saud family tyranny remains as strong as ever. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron had the Union Jack lowered last year to mark the death of the Saudi despot, King Abdullah, emblematic of the utter hypocrisy of the British elite, which ingratiates itself with the head-chopping, misogynistic, Islamist tyrants on the Arabian peninsula, while strutting around the globe at the heels of their US master posing absurdly as champions of democracy.

Today, Saudi Arabia, along with Israel, stands as one of the most important regional allies of the international dictatorship of the United States. And, as protégés of the dictatorship, the Saudi rulers long ago reconciled themselves to the existence of a Jewish state as an outpost of Western imperialism in the middle (literally) of the Arab nation, bisecting its African and Asian spheres. As much as Israel, Saudi Arabia is a satrapy of the United States. It sends vast sums of its oil wealth to US investment banks and spends lavishly on the purchase of US arms; hence, its improbable position as the world’s fourth largest military power despite having a population of only 30 million, less than one-tenth of the United States’.

The dictatorship on the Arabian Peninsula leads from within the region a war against anti-neo-colonial forces which reject the hegemony of the United States and Israel and implacably insist on Palestinian self-determination. It seeks to weaken and undermine these progressive forces by using religion to achieve the profane end of diverting resistance to the Western imperialist project into wars on “apostates” and “infidels.” The infidels and apostates turn out to be none other than the region’s anti-colonialists, either secular nationalists, socialists or communists, or Iranians and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, all of which reject Western intervention in the Arab and Muslim worlds, whether the intervention is direct, or through the proxies of Israel and the Arab monarchies. To obscure these political differences, Saudi-inspired political Islam denounces as infidels the secularists for rejecting the organization of society on the basis of the Qur’an, while the Iranians and Hezbollah are excoriated for “apostasy” because they hold a different view of Islam. Religious questions of infidelity and apostasy are exploited in Machiavellian fashion as a smokescreen to obscure signal political differences and to mobilize the Sunni faithful against progressive forces.

The nature of the Saudi tyranny was acknowledged recently in The New York Times. Reporter Ben Hubbard wrote, “The country was founded on an alliance between the Saud family, whose members became the monarchs, and a cleric named Sheik Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab, whose teachings were used to justify military conquest by labelling it jihad against those deemed to be infidels, most of whom were other Muslims.” [29] Nothing has changed. With Saudi Arabia ensconced in the US empire, Wahhabi-inspired ideologies, such as those adhered to by Al Qaeda and its offshoots, are used to justify military conquest of territories in which there exists strong opposition to US domination and Zionist colonialism, by labelling it jihad against secular infidels (the Syrian government) and apostates (Shiite Iran and Hezbollah.)

Nasrallah points out that Arab and Muslim resistance to Israel has been continually channeled into other projects, to the delight of the Israelis. He questions the priorities of fighters “from all over the word” who joined “the war in Afghanistan” in the 1980s against a Marxist-Leninist government and Soviet military that intervened to prop it up. It is not that he questions the legitimacy of the fight, but he challenges the priority, defining the defeat of Zionist ideology and the dismantling of an exclusivist Jewish state apparatus in the middle of the Arab nation and Muslim world as the single most pressing objective for his co-religionists.

Saudi Arabia took a lead role in propagating Islamism, and “at various times over the past century” Islamists have been “useful allies” of Western powers, Israel, and Arab monarchies.

As one of many examples, during the 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza and the West Bank for years eagerly sent radical young Palestinian Muslims off to Afghanistan to combat the Soviet Army…It did so on the basis of the curious argument that the path of ‘true jihad’ could be found not in resisting the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip, but rather far away in Central Asia. The covert agencies of numerous states were involved in sponsoring this ‘jihad’ not the least of them the CIA and the Saudi and Pakistani intelligence services. Needless to say, the Israeli military occupation authorities and their attentive intelligence services regarded this development with benevolent indulgence, encouraging any movement that fostered the departure of these young radicals and that weakened the unpalatable nationalism represented by the PLO. [30]

After Afghanistan, they “immediately manufactured a new priority for us,” Nasrallah recounts. The Saudis “manufactured a war and invented a new enemy called the Iranian expansion.” He continued: They “implanted the notion that Iran is the enemy in the minds of many Islamic groups, that the priority is confronting the Shia danger, Shia thought and Shia expansion, and that this Shia danger is a bigger threat to the (Muslim world) than Israel and the Zionist scheme.” And yet, the Saudis evinced no hostility to the Shah of Iran, a Shiite, who was “close to ‘Israel’” and one of Washington’s policemen on the beat. [31] Most adherents to Saudi-inspired ideology believe that that fighting apostates and opposing Shiism is more important than opposing Zionist colonialism. [32] This, of course, has pleasing implications for the colonialists and their Western sponsors.

In Nasrallah’s view, the Saudis have cloaked political questions in “sectarian garb.”

“In Egypt today there is a political conflict, a deep polarization. Is this conflict sectarian? It isn’t sectarian but political. In Libya there is a major conflict and deep polarization. Is it sectarian? In Tunisia there is a major political conflict and in Yemen too. Yes, when we come to countries which are marked by religious pluralism and diversity, like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain, the issue becomes a sectarian one when it is, in fact, a political conflict. This conflict is political. Why are you turning it into a sectarian one? They do this intentionally, not out of ignorance. Today, this sectarianism is one of the most destructive weapons in the region.” [33]

“It is not a conflict between religions, but one between one force with a program of resistance” (Iran-Syria-Hezbollah) “and one that is pro-colonialist” (the Arab monarchies.) But they would like to make it seem like a religious conflict.” [34]

The Colonial Tradition

At the root of the conflict in the Middle East is the question of whether an exclusivist Jewish state settled on lands usurped from the Palestinians has the right to exist. The answer is clear: it has as much right to exist as did the Apartheid state of South Africa—which is none at all. This does not mean, however, that Jews should not be welcome in an equal, democratic, state in the territories of historic Palestine. On the contrary, it is unrealistic to expect that the eviction of Jewish settlers from Palestine is a workable solution to the conflict, anymore than it was reasonable to expect that by the 1990s the eviction of European settlers from South Africa was workable. But a single, democratic state, in which all citizens are equal, regardless of religion—given the resonance of this kind of arrangement with widely accepted political principles of equality and the precedent of the dismantling of a racist European settler regime in South Africa—appears to be not only desirable, but imaginable and able to command popular support throughout the world, if it doesn’t already. It’s not global public opinion that stands in the way of ending Zionist colonialism; it is the support Israel garners from Washington as an outpost of US imperialism in the Middle East that is the obstacle.

Finally, the recently WikiLeaks-disclosed e-mails of Hillary Clinton written while she was US secretary of state show that a goal of Washington’s Syria policy is to overthrow the pro-Palestinian Arab nationalist government in Damascus to weaken the Axis of Resistance, and its central cog, Iran. Nasrallah pointed this out publically almost three years ago. “Israel knows that the source or one of the most important sources of the strength of the resistance in Lebanon and Palestine is Syria and of course the Islamic Republic of Iran. For this reason it wants to take out Syria from the equation and corner the resistance in Palestine and Lebanon.” [35]

To accomplish the goal of “taking out” Syria, Israel, a state established in part as a refuge from anti-Jewish genocidal stirrings in Europe, is colluding with organizations pursuing their own genocidal agenda, as part of a larger neo-colonial project of fostering divisions in the Middle East to weaken forces committed to the project of the self-determination of the region’s indigenous people. Europe’s colonial project frequently relied on genocide to clear the way for the mastery of European settlers over indigenous populations. But it is not genocide itself that ought to agitate our minds, but a fortiori, it is its parent, the colonial tradition, of which Zionism itself is an expression, and of which genocide has been one of its accustomed practices, which deserves our resolute opposition.

The greatest holocaust of all was not the one carried out against Jews in Europe by Nazi Germany, though that genocide, accompanied by the systematic extermination of others, including Roma, communists and Slavs, was as obscene as any other. If we have to attach priority to genocide, as is done in capitalizing the anti-Jewish holocaust as the Holocaust, then a much larger genocide, of which there is little discussion if even acknowledgement, has a more compelling claim to this grim mantle—the holocaust of the indigenous people of the Americas. In terms of the number of human beings exterminated, the American Holocaust is perhaps the greatest crime of the European colonial tradition.

Hitler’s regime, it should be noted, represented European colonial ideology and practice in its highest form. Its methods were based on those pioneered by Britain, France and the United States to build vast empires, and Belgium and Portugal, to build smaller ones. What made Hitler reprehensible to the Western mind, was not the brutality of his methods and his racist ideology—for these came directly from the European colonial tradition—but his seeking to build a German empire to the East, thus bringing home to Europe the methods and racism the British had used in India, the French in Africa and Indo-China, and the young United States had used to build a continental empire. Hitler said Central and Eastern Europe, including Russia, would be to Germany what the American West was to the United States and India was to Britain. In Discourse on Colonialism, Aime Cesaire remarked that “What (Westerners) cannot forgive Hitler for is not the crime itself…it is the crime against the White man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonial procedures which had until then been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the ‘coolies’ of India and the ‘niggers’ of Africa.” [36] Nazism was colonialism let loose on Europeans. Viewed from the perspective of the Nazi’s colonial horrors brought to Europe, Westerners may begin to understand the tantamount colonial horrors and oppressions the West visited upon Arabs and Persians and continues through its Israeli outpost to visit upon the Palestinians, to say nothing of the political character of the practices and ideology which Western governments and their allies follow, even to this day, in the Middle East.

1. Matthew Rosenberg, “Citing atrocities, John Kerry calls ISIS actions genocide,” The New York Times, March 17, 2016.

2. Yarolsav Trofimov, “Israel’s main concern in Syria: Iran, not ISIS,” The Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2016.

3. Rosenberg, March 17, 2016.

4. Patrick Seale, “Only a ceasefire will end the nightmare in Syria,” Gulf News, July 26, 2012.

5. Yarolsav Trofimov, “Al Qaeda a lesser evil? Syria war pulls U.S., Israel apart,” The Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2015; Trofimov, March 17, 2016.

6. Isabel Kershner, “Scanning borders, Israel surveys new reality of tunnels and terror,” The New York Times, February 11, 2016.

7. Trofimov, March 12, 2015.

8. “Syria’s president speaks,” Foreign Affairs, January 25, 2015.

9. Trofimov, March 12, 2015.

10. Ashley Gallagher, “Some wounded Syrians seek treatment from Israeli hospitals,” Al Jazeera America, March 18, 2014.

11. Trofimov, March 12, 2015.

12. Trofimov, March 12, 2015.

13. Thomas Kapitan, “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” in Thomas Kapitan ed., Philosophical Perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1997.)

14. Anne Barnard, “Muslim shrine stands at crossroads in Syria’s unrest,” The New York Times, April 8, 2014.

15. http://sana.sy/en/?page_id=1489

16. Glen Kessler, “Did Ahmadinejad really say Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’?” The Washington Post, October 6, 2011.

17. Kessler, October 6, 2011.

18. “Sayyed Nasrallah: Never to leave Palestine, ‘Israel’ scheme toppled in Lebanon,” http://www.english.alahednews.com.lb/essaydetails.php?eid=30020&cid=385#.Vv_xacv2bcs

19. “Sayyed Nasrallah’s full speech on Al-Quds day,” July 10, 2015. http://www.english.alahednews.com.lb/essaydetails.php?eid=29890&cid=564#.Vv_xm8v2bcs

20. “PFLP affirms that PLO membership does not mean acceptance of the ‘two-state solution’”, PFLP web site, retrieved March 2, 2009, http://www.pflp.ps/english/?q=pflp-affirms-plo-membership-does-not-mean-acceptan

21. Paula Schmitt, “Interview with Leila Khaled,” 972 blog, May 17, 2014.

22. “Jailed PFLP leader, “Only a one-state solution is possible,” Haaretz, May 5, 2010.

23. Creede Newton, “Paradise is in the life, not the next: the Marxists of Gaza are fighting for a secular state,” vice.com, February 25, 2016.

24. Trofimov, March 17, 2016.

25. “Sayyed Nasrallah’s full speech on Al-Quds day,” July 10, 2015.

26. Bank of America Merrill Lynch, “Transforming World Atlas,” August 4, 2015.

27. Robert Dreyfuss, The Devi Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, Holt, 2005, p. 99.

28. Full speech delivered by Hizbullah Secretary General Sayyed Nasrallah, on the commemoration ceremony held in honor of Sheikh Mohammad Khatoun, delivered on January 3, 2016. http://en.abna24.com/service/middle-east-west-asia/archive/2016/01/03/728497/story.html

29. Ben Hubbard, “ISIS turns Saudis against the Kingdom, and families against their own,” The New York Times, March 31, 2016.

30. Rashid Khalidi, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood, Beacon Press, 2006, xxx.

31. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s speech on al-Quds Day, July 10, 2015. http://www.english.alahednews.com.lb/essaydetails.php?eid=29846&cid=385#.Vv_yjsv2bcs

32. Radwan Mortada, “Why isn’t the Islamic state fighting Israel?,” Al Akhbar English, August 2, 2014.

33. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s live speech on al-Quds Day, 2013.

34. Workers World, June 1, 2008.

35. Sam Dagher, “Hezbollah says weapons coming from Damascus,” The Wall Street journal, May 9, 2013.

36. Aime Cesaire, Discourse on Colonialism, Monthly Review Press, 2000, p. 36.

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April 2, 2016 at 9:02 pm

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