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The Revolutionary Distemper in Syria That Wasn’t

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.

Forthcoming April 2017 from Baraka Books.

Forthcoming April 2017 from Baraka Books.

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. [1] 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. [2]

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.” [3]

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.” [4] 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.” [5] The New York Times shared this view. Syria, the newspaper reported, “seemed immune to the wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab world.” [6] 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.” [7] 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.” [8] 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.” [9] 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.”[10]

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.” [11] Time added that protesters set fire to the governor’s office, as well as to a branch office of a second cellphone company. [12] The Syrian government’s news agency, SANA, posted photographs of burning vehicles on its Web site. [13] 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. [14]

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,” [15] 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.” [16]

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.” [17] 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.” [18] 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.” [19] 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 [20]; 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.” [21] 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,” [22] reportedly far exceeding in number the hundreds of protesters who turned out in Daraa to burn buildings and cars and clash with police. [23]

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. [24]

Islamists played a lead role in drafting the Damascus Declaration in the mid-2000s, which demanded regime change. [25] 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, [26] 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. [27]

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. [28]

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. [29]

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. [30] 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.” [31] 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.” [32]

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” [33] 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.” [34] 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. [35] 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.” [36]

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.” [37] 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.” [38] By September, Syrian authorities were reporting that they had lost more than 500 police officers and soldiers, killed by guerillas. [39] By late October, the number had more than doubled. [40] 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.” [41]

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.” [42] “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.” [43]

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” [44] and “no one expects mass uprisings in Syria and, despite a show of dissent every now and then, very few want to participate.” [45]

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.[46] 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.[47] 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. [48] 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 [49] a practice which would be resurrected decades later by Islamic State fighters. Every Ba’athist official in Hama was murdered. [50]

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, [51] (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.” [52] 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. [53]

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.” [54]

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.” [55]

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.” [56] 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.

Socialist Syria

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.”[57] 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.”[58]

Hardliners in Washington had considered Hafez al-Assad an Arab communist, [59] 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.” [60] 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.” [61] 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.” [62]

On top of this, Assad underscored his allegiance to socialist values against what Washington had once called the “moral imperative” of “economic freedom,” [63] 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.

Drought?

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. [64] 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.” [65]

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.”[66]

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. [67]

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.

NOTES

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

10 Ibid

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

26 Ibid

27 Liad Porat, “The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the Asad Regime,” Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University, December 2010, No. 47

28 Ibid

29 http://www.judicialwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Pg.-291-Pgs.-287-293-JW-v-DOD-and-State-14-812-DOD-Release-2015-04-10-final-version11.pdf

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

43 Ibid

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

52 Dreyfus

53 Dreyfus

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

58 Ibid

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/

Written by what's left

October 22, 2016 at 2:11 am

Posted in Syria

Tagged with

Our Sieges and Theirs

October 20, 2016

The hypocritical Western heart beats for all except those the US Empire drowns in blood. [1]

By Stephen Gowans

“In Syria almost everybody is under siege to a greater or lesser degree,” observes the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn. [2] Most people, however, think the only siege in Syria is the one imposed on (East) Aleppo by Syrian and Russian forces. But siege as a form of warfare is hardly uniquely embraced by the Syrian Arab Army and Russian military. On the contrary, the United States and its allies have been practicing siege warfare in the Levant and beyond for years, and continue to do so. It’s just that US-led siege warfare has been concealed behind anodyne, even heroic, labels, while the siege warfare of countries Washington is hostile to, is abominated by Western state officials crying crocodile tears.

Here’s how the deception works:

Sieges of cities controlled by Islamic State, carried out by US forces and their allies, are called rescue operations, or campaigns to liberate or retake cities—never sieges. Other sieges—the ones carried out by Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly Al Nusra, which, herein, I’ll call Al Qaeda for convenience—are ignored altogether (which might suggest something about the relationship of Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate to the United States.) And a particularly injurious form of siege—economic sanctions — is presented as a separate category altogether and not siege warfare at all. But sanctions, imposed by rich countries, such as the United States and those of the European Union, on poor countries, such as Syria, are a modern form of siege, and have been called sanctions of mass destruction, in recognition of their devastating character.

View of a heavily damaged neighborhood in Kobane, Syria, which had been targetted by a series of US-led coalition airstrikes. (Alice Martins — The Washington Post)

View of a heavily damaged neighborhood in Kobane, Syria, which had been targetted by a series of US-led coalition airstrikes. (Alice Martins — The Washington Post)

In the Levant, the sieges which are identified as such by Western state officials, and in train, by the Western mass media, are sieges of cities controlled by Al Qaeda, carried out by Syrian forces and their allies. These sieges—which cause hunger, kill civilians, and destroy buildings—are denounced in the West as ferocious attacks on innocents which amount to war crimes. “Russia’s bombardment backing the siege of Aleppo by Syrian government forces,” notes the Wall Street Journal, “has created a humanitarian crisis.” [3] A UN Security Council resolution—vetoed by Russia—has called for an end to Russian bombing of Aleppo. British foreign minister Boris Johnson has mused openly about war crimes indictments against Syria and Russia.

Yet US campaigns to drive Islamic State out of Manbij, Kobani, Ramadi, Fallujah, Baiji and Tikrit, and now Mosul, have also caused hunger, killed civilians, and destroyed buildings. Unlike the Syrian military’s siege of East Aleppo, these campaigns have been celebrated as great and necessary military victories, but have, themselves, created vast humanitarian crises.

Cockburn observes that the “recapture” of “cities like Ramadi, Fallujah, Baiji and Tikrit…would scarcely have happened without the coalition air umbrella overhead.” [4] That is, the cities liberated by Iraqi forces and their US patron were bombed into submission, even though civilians were trapped inside. Iraqi ground forces only moved in after these cities were left in ruins by coalition airstrikes and Iraqi artillery bombardment, as mopping up forces.

Market in Ramadi destroyed by US coalition airstrikes (Ali al-Mashhadani, Reuters)

Market in Ramadi destroyed by US coalition airstrikes (Ali al-Mashhadani, Reuters)

Rania Khalek, writing in the Intercept, points out that “U.S.-backed ground forces laid siege to Manbij, a city in northern Syria not far from Aleppo that is home to tens of thousands of civilians. U.S. airstrikes pounded the city over the summer, killing up to 125 civilians in a single attack. The U.S. replicated this strategy to drive ISIS out of Kobane, Ramadi, and Fallujah, leaving behind flattened neighborhoods.” [5]

To recover Ramadi from Islamic State, Iraqi forces surrounded and cordoned off the city. [6] In addition, the US led coalition bombarded Ramadi with airstrikes and artillery fire. [7] The bombardment left 70 percent of Ramadi’s buildings in ruins. The city was recovered, but “the great majority of its 400,000 people” were left homeless. [8]

Iraqi forces also besieged the city of Fallujah, preventing most food, medicine and fuel from entering it. [9] Militias “prevented civilians from leaving Islamic State territory while resisting calls to allow humanitarian aid to reach the city.” [10] This was done “to strangle Islamic State” [11] with the result that civilians were also “strangled.” Inside the city, tens of thousands endured famine and sickness due to lack of medicine. [12] Civilians reportedly survived on grass and plants. [13] Many civilians “died under buildings that collapsed under” artillery bombardment and coalition air strikes. [14]

The US-led coalition has been bombarding Mosul for months.  US Defense Department

The US-led coalition has been bombarding Mosul for months. US Defense Department

The current campaign to recover Mosul is based on the same siege strategy US forces and their Iraqi client used to liberate Ramadi and Fallujah. US and allied warplanes have been bombarding the city for months. [15] Iraqi forces, aided by US Special Forces, are moving to cordon it off. “Some aid groups estimate that as many as a million people could be displaced by fighting to recapture the city, creating a daunting humanitarian task that the United Nations and other organizations say they are not yet ready to deal with.” [16]

Writer and journalist Jonathan Cook commented on the utter hypocrisy of Westerners who condemn the Syrian/Russian campaign to liberate East Aleppo from Islamist fighters while celebrating the Iraqi/US campaign to do the same in Mosul. Targeting the British newspaper, the Guardian, beloved by progressives, Cook contrasted two reports which appeared in the newspaper to illustrate the Western heart beating for all except those the US Empire drowns in blood.

Report one: The Guardian provides supportive coverage of the beginning of a full-throttle assault by Iraqi forces, backed by the US and UK, on Mosul to win it back from the jihadists of ISIS – an assault that will inevitably lead to massive casualties and humanitarian suffering among the civilian population.

Report two: The Guardian provides supportive coverage of the US and UK for considering increased sanctions against Syria and Russia. On what grounds? Because Syrian forces, backed by Russia, have been waging a full-throttle assault on Aleppo to win it back from the jihadists of ISIS and Al-Qaeda – an assault that has led to massive casualties and humanitarian suffering among the civilian population. [17]

Central to Western propaganda is the elision of the Islamist character of the Al Qaeda militants who tyrannize East Aleppo. This is accomplished by labeling them “rebels,” while the “rebels” who tyrannize the cities the United States and its allies besiege are called “Islamic State,” ISIL” or “ISIS” fighters. The aim is to conjure the impression that US-led sieges are directed at Islamic terrorists, and therefore are justifiable, despite the humanitarian crises they precipitate, while the Syrian-led campaign in East Aleppo is directed at rebels, presumably moderates, or secular democrats, and therefore is illegitimate. This is part of a broader US propaganda campaign to create two classes of Islamist militants—good Islamists, and bad ones.

The first class, the good Islamists, comprises Al Qaeda and fighters cooperating with it, including US-backed groups, whose operations are limited to fighting secularists in Damascus, and therefore are useful to the US foreign policy goal of overthrowing Syria’s Arab nationalist government. These Islamist fighters are sanitized as “rebels.”

Aleppo's rebels, members of the Al Qaeda derived Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

Aleppo’s rebels, members of the Al Qaeda derived Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

The second class, the bad Islamists, comprises Islamic State. Islamic State has ambitions which make it far less acceptable to Washington as an instrument to be used in pursuit of US foreign policy goals. The organization’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, aspires to lead a caliphate which effaces the Sykes-Picot borders, and is therefore a threat, not only to the Arab nationalists in Damascus—an enemy the organization shares in common with Washington— but also to the US client states of Iraq and Saudi Arabia, which Islamic State attacks. The US objective in connection with Islamic State is to push the organization out of Iraq (and out of areas in Syria that can be brought under the control of US-backed fighters) and into the remainder of Syria, where they can wear down Arab nationalist forces.

Syria’s “moderates”—the “rebels”—if there are any in the sense of secular pro-democrats, are few in number. Certainly, their ranks are so limited that arming them, in the view of US president Barack Obama, would make little difference. The US president told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that his administration had “difficulty finding, training and arming a sufficient cadre of secular Syrian rebels: ‘There’s not as much capacity as you would hope,’” Obama confessed. [18] Obama’s assessment was underscored when “a US general admitted that it had just four such ‘moderate’ fighters in Syria after spending $500 million on training them.” [19] Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk dismissed the idea of the “moderates” as little more than a fantasy. “I doubt if there are 700 active ‘moderate’ foot soldiers in Syria,” he wrote. And “I am being very generous, for the figure may be nearer 70.” [20]

Elizabeth O’Bagy, who has made numerous trips to Syria to interview insurgent commanders for the Institute for the Study of War, told the New York Times’ Ben Hubbard that my “sense is that there are no seculars.” [21] Anti-government fighters interviewed by the Wall Street Journal found the Western concept of the secular Syrian rebel to be incomprehensible. [22]

To be clear: Syrian and Russian forces are waging a campaign to liberate East Aleppo from Islamists, whose only difference from Islamic State is that they’re not a threat to the US client states, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It’s “primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo,” US Department of Defense spokesperson Colonel Steve Warren said on April 25, referring to Al Qaeda. [23] Other militant Islamist organizations, including US-backed groups, are also in Aleppo, intertwined with, embedded with, sharing weapons with, cooperating with, and acting as auxiliaries of Al-Qaeda.

Author and journalist Stephen Kinzer, writing in the Boston Globe, reminds us that:

For three years, violent militants have run Aleppo. Their rule began with a wave of repression. They posted notices warning residents: “Don’t send your children to school. If you do, we will get the backpack and you will get the coffin.” Then they destroyed factories, hoping that unemployed workers would have no recourse other than to become fighters. They trucked looted machinery to Turkey and sold it. [24]

The Invisible Sieges

While sieges imposed by US-led forces are hidden by not calling them sieges, sieges imposed by Washington’s Al-Qaeda ally are simply ignored.

“Only three years ago,” notes Fisk, the same Islamist fighters who are under siege today in East Aleppo, “were besieging the surrounded Syrian army western enclave of Aleppo and firing shells and mortars into the sector where hundreds of thousands of civilians lived under regime control.” [25] Fisk observes acidly that the “first siege didn’t elicit many tears from the satellite channel lads and lassies” while the “second siege comes with oceans of tears.” [26]

To the ignored Al Qaeda-orchestrated siege of West Aleppo can be added “the untold story of the three-and-a-half-year siege of two small Shia Muslim villages in northern Syria,” Nubl and Zahra. Those sieges, carried out by Al-Qaeda against villages which remained loyal to Syria’s Arab nationalist government, left at least 500 civilians dead, 100 of them children, through famine and artillery bombardment. [27] The “world paid no heed to the suffering of these people,” preferring to remain “largely fixed on those civilians suffering under siege by (Syrian) government forces elsewhere.” [28]

Wreckage of Manbij in the wake of US coalition airstrikes, June 23, 2016 (AFP Photo/Delil Souleiman)

Wreckage of Manbij in the wake of US coalition airstrikes, June 23, 2016 (AFP Photo/Delil Souleiman)

And then there’s the largely untold story of the 13 year-long siege imposed on a whole country, Syria, by the United States and European Union. That siege, initiated by Washington in 2003, with the Syria Accountability Act, and then followed by EU sanctions, blocks Western exports of almost all products to Syria and isolates the country financially. This massive, wide-scale siege plunged Syria’s economy into crisis even before the 2011 eruption of upheavals in the Arab world [29]—demonstrating that Washington’s efforts to force Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down began long before the Arab Spring. The roots of US hostility to Assad’s government are found in the danger of its becoming “a focus of Arab nationalistic struggle against an American regional presence and interests” [30] – another way of saying that the Arab nationalist goals of unity, independence and socialism, which guide the Syrian state, are an anathema to the US demand—expressed in the 2015 US National Security Strategy—that all countries fall in behind US global “leadership.”

Under US siege warfare, unemployment shot up, factories closed, food prices skyrocketed and fuel prices doubled. [31] “Syrian officials” were forced “to stop providing education, health care and other essential services in some parts of the country.” [32] Indeed, so comprehensive was the siege, that by 2011 US “officials acknowledged that the country was already under so many sanctions that the United States held little leverage.” [33]

Western siege warfare on Syria has blocked “access to blood safety equipment, medicines, medical devices, food, fuel, water pumps, spare parts for power plants, and more,” [34] leading Patrick Cockburn to compare the regime change campaign to “UN sanctions on Iraq between 1990 and 2003.” [35] The siege of Iraq—at a time when the country was led by secular Arab nationalists who troubled Washington as much, if not more, than the secular Arab nationalists in Syria vex Washington today—led to the deaths, though disease and hunger, of 500,000 children, according to the United Nations. Political scientists John Meuller and Karl Meuller called the siege a campaign of economic warfare amounting to “sanctions of mass destruction,” more devastating than all the weapons of mass destruction used in history. [36] When the West’s siege warfare on Arab nationalist Iraq ended in 2003 it was immediately resumed on Arab nationalist Syria, with the same devastating consequences.

According to a leaked UN internal report, the “US and EU economic sanctions on Syria are causing huge suffering among ordinary Syrians and preventing the delivery of humanitarian aid.” [37] Cockburn notes that “Aid agencies cited in the report say they cannot procure basic medicines or medical equipment for hospitals because sanctions are preventing foreign commercial companies and banks having anything to do with Syria.” [38] “In effect” concludes the veteran British journalists, “the US and EU sanctions are imposing an economic siege on Syria as a whole which may be killing more Syrians than die of illness and malnutrition in the sieges which EU and US leaders have described as war crimes.” [39]

A woman rests on a bed next to her malnourished son at a hospital in the Red Sea port city of Houdieda, Yemen.  Meanwhile, a U.S. Navy-backed blockade of Yemen’s ports has left much of the country, the poorest in the Arab world, “on the brink of famine. Reuters

A woman rests on a bed next to her malnourished son at a hospital in the Red Sea port city of Houdieda, Yemen. A U.S. Navy-backed blockade of Yemen’s ports has left much of the country, the poorest in the Arab world, on the brink of famine. Reuters

Meanwhile, a U.S. Navy-backed blockade of Yemen’s ports [40]—in other words, a siege— has left much of the country, the poorest in the Arab world, “on the brink of famine.” [41] Last year, a United Nations expert estimated “that 850,000 children in the country of 26 million” faced “acute malnutrition” as a result of the US-backed siege. The blockade amounts to “the deliberate starvation of civilians,” the UN expert said, which constitutes a war crime. [42] “Twenty million Yemenis, nearly 80% of the population, are in urgent need of food, water and medical aid,” wrote British journalist Julian Borger last year. The siege, also backed by Britain, has created “a humanitarian disaster.” [43]

That Washington protests so vehemently about the humanitarian consequences of Syria’s campaign to liberate East Aleppo from Al Qaeda, while US forces and their allies kill civilians through airstrikes, artillery bombardments and siege-related famine and disease in campaigns to capture territory from Islamic State, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, and Syria’s secular Arab nationalists, invites the obvious question: Why the double standard? Why does the Western heart beat for the civilians harmed in the campaign to liberate East Aleppo but not for the civilians harmed by Western campaigns to bring territory under the control of the United States and its proxies?

The answer, in short, is that Al Qaeda is a US asset in Washington’s campaign to overthrow the Arab nationalists in Damascus, and therefore Washington objects to military operations which threaten its ally. On the other hand, Washington sparks one humanitarian crisis after another in pursuit of its foreign policy goal of coercing submission to its global leadership. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s value to Washington resides in its implacable opposition to the secularism of Syria’s ruling Arab nationalist Ba’ath Party, and its willingness to accept the Sykes-Picot boundaries drawn up by Britain and France after WWI. Thus, the Syrian al-Qaeda outfit limits its operations to working toward the overthrow of secularists in Damascus. Washington is unwilling to accept radical Islamists seizing control of the Syrian state, but is willing to work with Al-Qaeda to eliminate a common enemy.

Washington plays a similar game with Islamic State, by calibrating its military campaign against the bad Islamists, in order to prevent them from threatening Iraq and Saudi Arabia while at the same time using them as a tool to weaken Syria’s Arab nationalist state. US airstrikes have been concentrated in Iraq, reports the Wall Street Journal. The air war focusses on Islamic State targets in Iraq, explains the newspaper, because “in Syria, U.S. strikes against the Islamic State would inadvertently help the regime of President Bashar al-Assad militarily.” [44] Likewise, France has “refrained from bombing the group in Syria for fear of bolstering” the Syrian government. [45] The British, too, have focused their air war overwhelmingly on Islamic State targets in Iraq, conducting less than 10 percent of their airstrikes on the Islamist organization’s positions in Syria. [46] The New York Times reports that “United States-led airstrikes in Syria … largely (focus) on areas far outside government control, to avoid … aiding a leader whose ouster President Obama has called for.” [47] Hence, US-coalition “airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria” have been so limited as to make them “little more than a symbolic gesture.” [48] Fisk sums up the phony war against Islamic State in Syria with a sarcastic quip: “And so we went to war against Isis in Syria—unless, of course, Isis was attacking Assad’s regime, in which case we did nothing at all.” [49]

Consistent with the US approach of employing Al Qaeda as a cat’s paw against Syria’s secular Arab nationalists, any military operation which sets back Al-Qaeda’s campaign to overthrow the Assad government is a blow against a US foreign policy objective. Those who implore the United States to join Russia in a coalition to destroy Islamist militancy in the Muslim world miss the point. Washington only abhors jihadists when they threaten the United States and its satellites; otherwise, the US state embraces militant Islam as a useful tool to be used against secular governments which refuse to submit to the international dictatorship of the United States.

Owing to the harm they inevitably inflict on non-combatants, it is easy to condemn military campaigns to liberate cities occupied by enemy forces. But it is much more difficult to suggest a realistic alternative to using force to extirpate enemies from urban redoubts. Compromise and negotiation? For the United States, compromise means Arab nationalists stepping down and yielding power to US puppets—not compromise, but the fulfillment of US objectives. Washington isn’t interested in compromise. It has declared that it can and will lead the world, which means it is determined to set the rules. But even if there were a willingness in Washington for compromise, why should the United States have a role to play in deciding Syria’s political future? We can’t be true democrats, unless we fight for democracy in international relations. And we can’t have democracy in international relations if the United States and its allies intervene in other countries, enlisting jihadists to carry out their dirty work, in order to have a say in a political transition, once their mujahedeen allies have created a catastrophe.

What’s more, even had Damascus and its Russian ally concluded that the humanitarian consequences of attempting to drive Al Qaeda out of East Aleppo were too daunting to warrant a siege campaign, the day of siege would only be delayed. Were Syria’s secular Arab nationalists to yield power under a US negotiated political settlement, the United States, acting through its new Syrian client, would arrange the siege of the city to crush its former Islamist allies, who could not be allowed to challenge the new US marionette in Damascus. Only this time, the siege would be called a rescue operation, the label “rebel” would be dropped in favor of “radical Islamist terrorist,” the ensuing humanitarian crisis would be duly noted then passed over with little comment, and hosannas would be sung to the US military leaders who slayed the Islamist dragon.

On October 19, a Swiss journalist confronted Assad on civilian deaths in East Aleppo. “But it’s true that innocent civilians are dying in Aleppo,” the journalist said. Assad replied: “The “whole hysteria in the West about Aleppo (is) not because Aleppo is under siege…Aleppo has been under siege for the last four years by terrorists, and we (never) heard a question (from) Western journalists about what’s happening in Aleppo (then) and we (never) heard a single statement by Western officials regarding the children of Aleppo. Now they are asking about Aleppo…because the terrorists are in bad shape.” The Syrian Army is advancing “and the Western countries—mainly, the United States and its allies (the) UK and France” feel “they are losing the last cards of terrorism in Syria.” [50]

My book Washington’s Long War on Syria is forthcoming April 2017.

NOTES

1 Adapted from Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, 1897. “Our bishops scream to high heaven when the Armenians are violated by the Turks, but say nothing about the much worse crimes committed by their own countrymen. The hypocritical British heart beats for all except those their empire drowns in blood.”

2 Patrick Cockburn, “The silent devastation of Daraya: Capture of suburb is a big step toward Assad winning the battle for Damascus,” The Independent, September 8, 2016

3 Anton Troianovski and Amie Ferris-Rotman, “Germany hosts Putin and Poroshenko for Ukraine summit,” The Wall Street Journal, October 18, 2016.

4 Patrick Cockburn, “Iraq’s ‘ramshackle’ Mosul offensive may see Isis defeated but it will expose deep divisions between the forces involved,” The Independent, October 18, 2016

5 Rania Khalek, “US and EU sanctions are punishing ordinary Syrians and crippling aid work, UN report reveals,” The Intercept, September 28, 2016

6 Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt and Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. set to open a climactic battle against ISIS in Mosul, Iraq,” The New York Times, October 7, 2016

7 Patrick Cockburn, “Air strikes on ISIS in Iraq and Syria are reducing their cities to ruins,” The Independent, May 27, 2016

8 Ibid.

9 Matt Bradley, “Iraqi blockade of occupied Fallujah takes toll on civilians,” The Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2016

10 Tim Arango, “In effort to defeat ISIS, US and Iran impede one another,” New York Times, April 25, 2016

11 Matt Bradley, “Iraqi blockade of occupied Fallujah takes toll on civilians,” The Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2016

12 Tim Arango, “Iran-led push to retake Falluja from ISIS worries U.S.” The New York Times, May 28, 2016; Rania Khalek, “US and EU sanctions are punishing ordinary Syrians and crippling aid work, UN report reveals,” The Intercept, September 28, 2016

13 Matt Bradley, “Iraqi blockade of occupied Fallujah takes toll on civilians,” The Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2016

14 Tim Arango, “Iran-led push to retake Falluja from ISIS worries U.S.” The New York Times, May 28, 2016

15 Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt and Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. set to open a climactic battle against ISIS in Mosul, Iraq,” The New York Times, October 7, 2016; Missy Ryan, “Mosul offensive poses key test for U.S. strategy against Islamic State,” The Washington Post, October 14, 2016

16 Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt and Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. set to open a climactic battle against ISIS in Mosul, Iraq,” The New York Times, October 7, 2016

17 Jonathan Cook, “Guardian front page channels Orwell’s 1984,” Jonathan Cook Blog, October 17, 2016

18 Thomas L. Friedman, Obama on the world,” The New York Times, August 8, 2014

19 Patrick Cockburn, “The West has been in denial over how to tackle the threat of Islamic State,” Evening Standard, November 19, 2015

20 Robert Fisk, “David Cameron, there aren’t 70,000 moderate fighters in Syria—and whosever heard of a moderate with a Kalashnikov anyway?” The Independent, November 29, 2015

21 Ben Hubbard, “Islamist rebels create dilemma on Syria policy”, The New York Times, April 27, 2013

22 Nour Malas, “Islamists gain momentum in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, February 27, 2013

23 Sam Heller and Avi Asher-Schapiro, “’The regime can’t be trusted’: Inside Syria’s Aleppo as a shaky truce begins,” Vice, May 5, 2016

24 Stephen Kinzer, “The media are misleading the public on Syria,” The Boston Globe, February 18, 2016

25 Robert Fisk, “No, Aleppo is not the new Srebrenica—the West won’t go to war over Syria,” The Independent, August 4, 2016

26 Ibid.

27 Robert Fisk, “Syria civil war: The untold story of the siege of two small Shia villages – and how the world turned a blind eye,” The Independent, February 22, 2016

28 Ibid.

29 Nada Bakri, “Sanctions pose growing threat to Syria’s Assad”, The New York Times, October 10, 2011

30 Moshe Ma’oz, Bruce Cumings, Ervand Abrahamian and Moshe Ma’oz, Inventing the Axis of Evil: The Truth about North Korea, Iran, and Syria, The New Press, 2004, p .207

31 Nour Malas and Siobhan Gorman, “Syrian brass defect, bouying rebels”, The Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2012.

32 Joby Warrick and Alice Fordham, “Syria running out of cash as sanctions take toll, but Assad avoids economic pain”, the Washington Post, April 24, 2012

33 David E. Sanger, “U.S. faces a challenge in trying to punish Syria”, The New York Times, April 25, 2011

34 Rania Khalek, “US and EU sanctions are punishing ordinary Syrians and crippling aid work, UN report reveals,” The Intercept, September 28, 2016

35 Patrick Cockburn, “The silent devastation of Daraya: Capture of suburb is a big step toward Assad winning the battle for Damascus,” The Independent, September 8, 2016

36 John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “Sanctions of mass destruction,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999

37 Patrick Cockburn, “US and EU sanctions are ruining ordinary Syrians’ lives, yet Bashar al-Assad hangs on to power,” The Independent, October 7, 2016

38 Ibid.

39 Ibid.

40 Maria Abi-Habin and Adam Entous, “U.S. widens role in Saudi-led campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen,” The Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2015

41 Shuaib Almosawa and Ben Hubbard, “A roar at a funeral, and Yemen’s war is altered,” The New York Times, October 9, 2016

42 Shuaib Almosawa, Kareem Fahim and Somini Sengupta, “Yemeni government faces choice between a truce and fighting on,” The New York Times, Aug 14, 2015

43 Julian Borger, “Saudi-led naval blockade leaves 20m Yemenis facing humanitarian disaster,” The Guardian June 5, 2015

44 Maria Abi-Habib, “Islamic State remains unchallenged from its sanctuary in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, August 10, 2014

45 Matthew Dalton, “Reports on Islamic state plans in Europe fueled French move to prepare Syria strikes, The Wall Street Journal, September 15, 2015

46 Patrick Cockburn, “Government has no strategy, no plan and only ‘phantom’ allies in Syria, scathing Commons report reveals,” The Independent, September 22, 2016

47 Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad, “ISIS fighters seize control of Syrian city of Palmyra, and ancient ruins, “The New York Times, May 20, 2015

48 Patrick Cockburn, “Chilcot report: Tony Blair, the Iraq war, and the words of mass destruction that continue to deceive,” The Independent, July 4, 2016

49 Robert Fisk, “I read the Chilcot report as I travelled across Syria this week and saw for myself what Blair’s actions caused,” The Independent, July 7, 2016

50 “President al-Assad to Swiss SRF 1 TV channel: Fighting terrorists is the way to protect civilians in Aleppo,” SANA, October 19, 2016

Written by what's left

October 20, 2016 at 4:49 pm

Posted in Siege, Syria

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