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Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category

Pentagon working on plan to convert the Islamic State caliphate into a US-backed Syrian rebel redoubt

By Stephen Gowans

May 6, 2016

Washington is preparing to mount a campaign to transfer control of Syrian territory currently held by ISIS to rebels who operate under US influence, forming a rebel redoubt from which US proxies can continue to wage war on Damascus, and establishing the foundation of a US puppet state in Syria.

A key to US strategy is the artificial division of the conflict into a part to be resolved by military means, involving ISIS, and a part to be resolved through a political settlement, involving all other rebel formations. Nusra Front, the exception, is to be ignored, and rebranded. As Al-Qaeda’s Syria franchise, it can hardly be embraced openly by the United States, though there is evidence of its being equipped covertly by the CIA.

The designation of non-ISIS rebels as parties to a political settlement follows the shibboleth that the conflict, apart from ISIS’s role in it, cannot be resolved militarily. This may be true, but only because the non-ISIS rebels have been trained and armed by Western states and their regional allies and therefore have a military significance they would not otherwise possess. Damascus’s early efforts to arrive at a political settlement by lifting restrictions on political liberties and amending the constitution went nowhere. This is because the goal of the armed opposition is the replacement of a secular non-sectarian state with one based on a conservative Sunni interpretation of the Qur’an, and because the military backing of powerful Western and regional states offers no incentive for militant Islamists to compromise. At the same time, the reality that the Ba’athist government in Damascus hangs on despite the powerful international forces arrayed against it, speaks volumes about the strong public support it commands. Its political survival, in the fifth year of an open multi-national war against it, and more than a decade after Washington launched a covert program of regime change aimed at purging Ba’athist ideology from the Syrian state [1], would not be possible in the face of widespread opposition from the Syrian public.

US Special Forces are recruiting and equipping Sunni Arab fighters to capture Raqqa, the capital of ISIS’s caliphate. Once captured, the territory will likely remain in the hands of the US surrogates and almost certainly won't be returned to the legitimate Syrian government.

US Special Forces are recruiting and equipping Sunni Arab fighters to capture Raqqa, the capital of ISIS’s caliphate. Once captured, the territory will likely remain in the hands of the US surrogates and almost certainly won’t be returned to the legitimate Syrian government. Instead, it will form the core of a US-puppet regime in Syria.

The objective of sharply distinguishing between ISIS and other rebel organizations is to legitimize a US-led campaign against the former, and to undermine the legitimacy of the Syrian-Iranian-Russian-Hezbollah effort to defend the Syrian state and its loyalists against all other rebel forces, namely, those backed by the US and its allies. We are to believe that it is perfectly reasonable for the US to wage war on the sectarian, terrorist, ISIS, but that Damascus must negotiate a peace with ISIS’s sectarian, terrorist, ideological cousins.

It has been extensively reported in the leading US newspapers, and acknowledged by the US vice-president, that the Nusra Front is armed by US allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. The same newspapers also frequently refer to Western backing of other rebel groups. These groups have been variously described by leading US journalists as working with, enmeshed with, cooperating with, fighting alongside of, and operating under license to Al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, and have been reported to share weapons with it [2]. Both Nusra and other non-ISIS rebel forces are ISIS’s ideological cognates, sharing its ultra-conservative, Saudi-inspired Islamist ideology, but rejecting the idea that a caliphate is the only legitimate form of government. Efforts to arm non-ISIS rebels are coordinated, according to The New York Times, by the CIA. [3] Putting two and two together, if US regional allies are equipping the Nusra Front, and the CIA is coordinating their efforts, then the CIA is arming the Qaeda franchise in Syria, on top of the other rebel groups which operate alongside of it. This likely accounts for why the CIA program is covert, while a parallel $500 million Pentagon program to train and equip rebels who had no ties to Al Qaeda, was not. That program was abandoned, after the Pentagon failed to recruit enough non-Qaeda aligned fighters. [4]

The Syrian government is asked to accept a political dialogue with non-ISIS rebels and to enter into cease-fire agreements with them, while at the same time the United States is to be left free to pursue, with its allies, a military campaign against ISIS—one that involves the injection of Western special forces into Syrian territory and therefore an illegal violation of Syrian sovereignty. That campaign, which is now underway, involves several hundred Western military personnel operating on the ground to recruit and equip Sunni Arab fighters to capture territory in Syria that is now held by ISIS.

It would appear that the strategy has two goals.

• To expand Syrian territory under the control of US proxy forces by capturing territory currently held by ISIS. Once captured, it will be held by US proxies.
• To stop further gains by Syrian-Iranian-Russian and Hezbollah forces against US-backed Islamists by insisting on the cessation of hostilities against them and political dialogue.

As the Syrian government engages in fruitless talks with Western-backed Islamist militants, a US-controlled rebel redoubt will be established in eastern Syria, from which the war on Damascus will continue to be prosecuted. The dialogue is fruitless because the rebels, and their paymasters, are implacably opposed to compromise. Anyone who believes that Washington is honestly trying to foster a peace in Syria (except on its own terms, namely, only if Ba’athist ideology is irrevocably effaced from the halls of power in Damascus) is deluded. Imperialists, as Mao observed, do not lay down their butcher knives to become Buddhists.

In the meantime, Nusra Front will operate under a variety of different names. Indeed, it appears, given the extensive inter-penetration of Western-backed rebels with the Qaeda franchise in Syria, that it already does. This meshes with head of US intelligence James Clapper’s admission that “moderate” means nothing more than “not ISIS” [5]; which is to say, it denotes nothing about a group’s aims or methods, and serves the propaganda function of connoting “good.” “Moderate” rebels, we are to understand, are “good” rebels, even though their aims and methods may be largely indistinguishable from those of ISIS and the Qaeda Syrian franchise they are enmeshed with.

The US can fight rebels, but the Syrian army must pursue a political settlement with them

“The White House,” according to The Wall Street Journal, “has said a political resolution in Syria is ultimately required to resolve the conflict there and to defeat ISIS, which opposes the (government) of President Bashar al-Assad.” [6] ISIS also opposes the Abadi government in Iraq, the Sisi dictatorship in Egypt, and the Saudi dictatorship on the Arabian Peninsula, but the White House isn’t calling for a political resolution in these states. Doing so would open itself to criticism that it is counselling capitulation to terrorism, a stance it would never adopt in dealing with terrorist threats to itself or its puppets but is prepared to adopt to eliminate a government in Syria that, unlike the Iraqi, Egyptian and Saudi regimes, insists on freedom from Western domination.

Privileging local populations over US corporations is a form of lese-majesty against US global primacy. The Ba’athists’ transgressions on the reigning hegemon’s ideology of globalization, a by-word for Americanization, is confirmed in Assad’s insistence that, “Syria is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.” [7] The US State Department complains that Syria has “failed to join an increasingly interconnected global economy” and is aggrieved that “ideological reasons” continue to prevent the Assad government from liberalizing Syria’s economy. The Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation lament that Damascus “dominates many areas of economic activity, and…marginalizes the private sector,” while the U.S. Library of Congress country study of Syria refers to “the socialist structure of the government and economy.” [8] The motto of the governing Ba’ath Party, unity (of the Arab nation), liberty (from foreign domination), and socialism, is light years from the motto Washington would prefer states emblazon on their banners. We embrace atomism, welcome foreign investment, apotheosize capitalism, and are open to US military bases on our territory, is more along the lines of a motto a good member of the “international community” is expected to adopt. You need know little more than the foregoing to understand why Washington insists that Assad and his fellow Ba’athists step down.

For counselling compromise with terrorists, Washington has not been lashed by criticism. Under other circumstances, it would be. But then, the United States has a complicated relationship with terrorism. Terrorism is the use of violence against civilians for political purposes. While Washington is one of the most vociferous opponents of the practice, it is also one of its most ardent practitioners. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, militarily insignificant cities, are egregious examples of terrorism on a grand scale. The terror bombings of German and Japanese civilians during WWII by conventional means, including the fire-bombings of Dresden, Hamburg and Tokyo, aimed at undermining civilian morale, are equally egregious examples of US terrorism in practice. NATO’s terror bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 is a more recent case. U.S. Air Force Lt. General Michael Short’s explanation of the objectives of the 1999 U.S.-led NATO air war on the former Yugoslavia fits the definition of terrorism to a tee. “If you wake up in the morning and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be lying in the Danube for the next 20 years, I think you begin to ask, ‘Hey, Slobo (a reference to the country’s leader at the time, Slobodan Milosevic)? How much more of this do we have to withstand?’” [9] The United States has also used terrorists to advance its foreign policy goals in Afghanistan against secular modernizers supported by the Soviet Union and in Cuba against the communist government in Havana, to name but two cases. Countless more could be adduced. On the other hand, Washington opposes terrorism strenuously when it is used against the United States. In this vein, ISIS is both a useful US foreign policy tool in weakening the Syrian state but at the same time an enemy in threatening the US-allied Abadi, Sisi and Saud regimes, and in challenging US domination of the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Conquering the caliphate

US Special Forces are recruiting and equipping Sunni Arab fighters to capture Raqqa, the capital of ISIS’s caliphate. So far they’ve recruited 6,000 fighters, and about 12,000 are being vetted. [10] The Pentagon has dispatched 250 military personnel to Syria, augmenting 50 who were already there. US allies have also sent special operations forces to Syria, to do “exactly the same thing,” according to US defense secretary Ash Carter. [11]

The introduction of Western ground forces into Syria is an illegal violation of Syrian sovereignty. This has been pointed out by Damascus, Moscow and Tehran, but Western countries, whose state officials are in the habit of sanctimoniously delivering sermons on the rule of law, hypocritically ignore it whenever it suits their purposes. International law is a spider’s web in which to entangle the weak, while the strong merely push through it, their chauvinist and complaisant mass media glossing over the crime.

An ulterior motive

If the United States’ only goal in waging war against ISIS was the organization’s elimination, it would have seized the opportunity to coordinate with Russian forces once Moscow entered the fray, in order to multiply the force of the campaign against the hyper-sectarian Islamist organization, and to hasten its quietus. Instead, Washington let the opportunity pass. More importantly, it would have teamed up with the Syrian army, the single biggest force fighting ISIS.

ISIS cannot be eliminated by air power alone; ground forces are essential. And so, the United States has undertaken to train and equip Sunni Arab fighters to fill the role. The United States has disdained any cooperation with the Syrian army, even though it could readily defeat ISIS with the assistance of US air power. On the contrary, Washington has deliberately refrained from taking steps to weaken the notorious Sunni Arab terrorist group, hoping that continued pressure from the Al-Qaeda offshoot would etiolate the Syrian army and, as a consequence, pressure the Ba’athists in Damascus to step down. [12] That Washington hasn’t taken the obvious route to the elimination of ISIS suggests that defeating the caliphate is not its primary goal. Instead, it has a higher objective and ulterior motive: the transfer of Syrian territory now in the hands of ISIS to biddable US surrogates.

US plan adumbrated

The Wall Street Journal sketched out how the United States will carry on its war against the Syrian state. [13] Reading between the lines, the war will be pursued under the guise of eliminating ISIS, and while this will be the immediate outcome of the war if the campaign is successful, the ultimate objective will be the conquest of Syrian territory held by the caliphate. The war will be pursued on the ground by Sunni Arab fighters trained and equipped by the special operations forces of the United States and its allies. US proxies on the ground—the Sunni Arab fighters recruited and equipped by the Pentagon—will capture territory currently held by ISIS, backed by US air strikes. Once captured, the territory will remain in the hands of the US surrogates. It will not be returned to the legitimate Syrian government, a point that will be overlooked in the celebration of ISIS’s defeat. Instead, it will become a base from which a continuing war will be waged against the pro-independence, secular, non-sectarian, socialist-oriented Syrian state. The conquered territory will be given a high-sounding name, likely conceived and vetted by a high-priced US PR firm, such as Free Syria or the Free Syrian Republic. It will not, however, be free from US domination, or free to put the interests of the local population above those of Washington and Wall Street, or free to foster Arab unity, pursue socialism, or aid Palestinians in their quest for self-determination. It will, however, be free to fill the coffers of Western banks and corporations, free to buy arms from Western weapons manufacturers, free to invite the Pentagon to establish military bases on its territory, free to allow the State Department to meddle in its internal affairs, and free to accept as legitimate the Zionist conquest of Arab territory. In short, it will be free to surrender its sovereignty and join the US empire.

1. Craig Whitlock, “US secretly backed Syrian opposition groups, cables released by Wikileaks show,” The Washington Post, April 17, 2011.

2. Stephen Gowans, “US Plan B for Syria: Give Al-Qaeda More Powerful Weapons,” what’s left, April17, 2016.

3. Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo, “U.S. relies heavily on Saudi money to support Syrian rebels,” The New York Times, January 23, 2016.

4. 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.

5. James Clapper: US Director of Intelligence: http://www.cfr.org/homeland-security/james-clapper-global-intelligence-challenges/p36195

6. Carol E. Lee, “Political unrest tests U.S. influence in Iraq,” The Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2016.

7. Stephen Gowans, “Syria, The View From The Other Side,” what’s left, June 22, 2013.

8. Stephen Gowans, “The ‘Anti-Imperialist’ Who Got Libya Wrong Serves Up The Same Failed Analysis on Syria,” what’s left, January 23, 2016.

9. “What this war is really about,” The Globe and Mail, May 26, 1999.

10. Paul Sonne, “U.S. seeks Sunni forces to take militant hub,” The Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2016.

11. Gordon Lubold and Adam Entous, “U.S. to send 250 additional military personnel to Syria,” The Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2016.

12. Stephen Gowans, “What US Congress Researchers Reveal About Washington’s Designs on Syria,” what’s left, February 9, 2016.

13. Paul Sonne and Julian E. Barnes, “U.S. Cites Better Intelligence for Stepped-Up Airstrikes on Islamic State,” the Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2016.

Written by what's left

May 4, 2016 at 10:19 pm

Posted in Al Qaeda, ISIS, Syria

Tagged with , ,

US Plan B for Syria: Give Al-Qaeda More Powerful Weapons

April 17, 2016

By Stephen Gowans

According to the Wall Street Journal [1], Washington has a Plan B for Syria. If the UN-mediated Geneva talks between the Syrian government and foreign-backed opposition fail to bring about the resignation of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad (i.e., the regime change in Syria the United States wants) Washington will “up the ante” by equipping al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels with more powerful weapons than the CIA, and Washington’s regional allies, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, have already given them. The new weapons would place in the hands of so-called moderate rebels—Islamists who cooperate with, fight alongside of, are enmeshed with, share equipment with, and operate under license to, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria, the Nusra Front—the means to attack Syrian aircraft and artillery. In effect, “upping the ante” would amount to funnelling more powerful weapons to al-Qaeda—an organization Washington claims to be fighting a war on terror against—using the misleadingly labelled “moderate” rebels as an arms conduit.

Syrian rebels 1There are no “moderate” rebels in Syria. “Moderate” is a term of deception used by Washington to sanitize its collusion with al-Qaeda and other Islamists and to foster the appearance of US intervention on the side of the angels. Because Washington can’t give weapons directly to al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise—a group it officially designated as a terrorist organization after it unleashed a string of suicide bombings in Syria, including against civilians [2]—it delivers arms indirectly through allied Islamists groups it dishonestly calls “moderates,” with the mainstream media actively participating in the deception by aping Washington’s use of the term.

As early as 2012, the US Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that the armed opposition in Syria was dominated by ultra-conservative Sunni jihadists, along with the Muslim Brotherhood (which has had a long history of violent insurrection in Syria to overthrow what it sees as the “infidel” and “apostate” non-sectarian secular government in Damascus, and AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq, forerunner of Nusra Front and Islamic State.) [3] Even the Free Syrian Army, touted in the early days of the war by Western media as a secular, moderate group sharply differentiated from the jihadists, in reality hardly lived up to the carefully crafted image bestowed upon it by Western PR specialists to garner the support of Western public opinion. In December 2012, the New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon and Anne Barnard reported that not only did the Free Syrian Army coordinate with al-Qaeda fighters in Syria, it included groups with similar ideologies—that is, with ideologies similar to that of Osama bin Laden. [4] When in 2012 the United States officially designated al-Nusra a terrorist organization, “moderate” fighters launched a protest under the banner “We are all Jabhat al-Nusra.” [5]

Moderates, in the form of secular armed forces, or comprising fighters whose aim is not a constitution based on a conservative Sunni interpretation of the Qur’an, but on democratic principles, are virtually absent, a “fantasy” as US president Barack Obama has called them. [6] With no ready-made secular democratic force on which to build an armed opposition to the Syrian government that would be acceptable to Western populations, the United States tried to manufacture one, not once, not twice, but three times, according to Joshua Landis, a specialist on Syria. Each attempt ended in spectacular failure. [7] The Pentagon abandoned a $500 million program to recruit and train 3,000 “moderate” rebels after managing to graduate only 54 fighters. [8] Obama would tell New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that the idea that there was ever a moderate opposition that was going to overthrow Assad and fight Islamic state “if we just sent a few arms is a fantasy.” [9]

latuff-syrian-rebels47According to US Director of Intelligence, James Clapper, “moderate these days is increasingly becoming anyone who’s not affiliated with ISIL.” [10] Hence, inasmuch as the armed opposition is largely, if not wholly, comprised of ultra-conservative Sunni Muslims, and has been since at least 2012—one rebel leader said the Western concept of secularist Syrian rebel is misguided [11]—“moderate” means a jihadist—just not one who holds an Islamic State membership card. This would include the Nusra Front. Indeed, attempts have been made to label al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise a “moderate” fighting group through rebranding, replacing its name with the Army of Conquest (also Victory Army and Jaish al-Fatah) and then declaring the newly named group “moderate.” (Al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, in fact, is also a rebranding of al-Qaeda.)

That the Army of Conquest is simply a new cloak for al-Qaeda is a reality that’s not difficult to uncover. Supported by US allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, the Army of Conquest “is led by al-Nusra Front…and by the ideologically similar Ahrar al Sham,” according to veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn [12]; is built “around al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, well armed and supported by the region’s Sunni states,” according to Syria specialists Joshua Landis and Steven Simon, writing in the unofficial magazine of the US State Department, Foreign Affairs [13]; “is an alliance of insurgent groups that includes the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, and the hard-line Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham,” according to the Voice of America, the US government’s official propaganda arm [14]; and is a “rebel alliance in which Nusra plays an indispensable role,” according to the Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov [15].

It’s also clear that al-Qaeda’s idea of moderation leaves much to be desired. As part of its attempt to rebrand itself as moderate, the jihadist group has said that it would not automatically massacre people it sees as infidels, such as Syria’s Alawites, Druze and Christians, but would exercise moderation by allowing them to convert to ultra-conservative Saudi Wahhabi-inspired Islam. [16]

Syrian rebel 4The other significant player in the Army of Conquest, Ahrar al-Sham, is an al-Qaeda clone, according to Cockburn, which would make it a clone of al-Nusra itself. [17] The Wall Street Journal’s Nour Malas reports that the organization espouses “an ultraconservative Salafist brand of Islam and feature(s) political agendas and anti-Shiite sectarian rhetoric” and fights “alongside Nusra Front.” [18] In other words, Ahrar al-Sham is al-Nusra in all but name. Still, US secretary of state John Kerry calls the al-Qaeda clone “moderate” because it’s not ISIS or al-Nusra, extending Clapper’s definition of what a moderate is to any Sunni jihadist group that has yet to be designated a terrorist organization, regardless of whether it uses terrorist methods or not, or has the same goals as those that do. “I don’t want to categorize people except hard core like the Nusra Front and the Islamic State,” Kerry said, [19] revealing that the label “moderate” is meaningless and strictly serves a political function of concealing the true nature of the groups Washington has allied itself with in Syria. Ahrar al-Sham’s veridical nature as a violent Islamist organization of the al-Qaeda type hasn’t stopped Kerry from giving it his seal of approval or European diplomats from meeting with its political officers. [20]

Not only are the “moderates” ideologically similar to al-Qaeda, if not direct clones, they are part of the al-Qaeda nexus in all but name. As early as 2012, the paragon moderate rebel group, the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, was reported by the New York Times’ Tim Arango and Anne Barnard to have been working closely with al-Nusra. Not only that, FSA members expressed admiration for the al-Qaeda franchise. [21] Echoing the Times, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Western-backed rebel group cooperated with al-Qaeda in Syria. [22] Indeed, the conclusion drawn by Cockburn that “there is no dividing wall between” ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra “and America’s supposedly moderate opposition allies” [23] is underscored almost daily in the leading US newspapers.

• “Many of the anti-Assad groups aligned with the United States fight alongside the Nusra Front.” New York Times, February 23, 2016 [24].
• “Nusra Front…fights alongside both Western-backed and Islamist rebels.” Wall Street Journal, February 22, 2016 [25].
• Nusra Front “forces are intermingled with moderate rebel groups.” Washington Post, February 19, 2016 [26].
• “The rebel groups that the West considers relatively moderate are … intertwined in places with the Nusra Front.” New York Times, February 12, 2016 [27].
• “Al-Nusra has fought alongside rebel units which the U.S. and its regional allies have backed.” Wall Street Journal, November 20, 2015 [28].
• “CIA-backed Free Syrian army factions and extremist elements such as Nusra Front and Ahrar al Sham…have been collaborating.” Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2015 [29]
• “…insurgents who have been trained covertly by the Central Intelligence Agency…are enmeshed with or fighting alongside more hard-line Islamist groups, including the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate.” New York Times, July 27, 2015 [30]
• “Some of the same groups being backed by Washington are liaising and cooperating with the Nusra Front.” Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2014 [31]

Aligned with, fighting alongside of, liaising with, intermingled with, intertwined with, collaborating with, enmeshed with, cooperating with: In how many ways is it possible to say that the “moderate” rebels backed by the United States and its allies are part of an alliance dominated by al-Qaeda and its offshoot Islamic State—that they are nothing more than al-Qaeda’s foot soldiers?

“U.S. officials said the CIA has trained and equipped nearly 10,000 fighters sent into Syria over the past several years.” [32] In view of the reality that the moderates are mislabelled Islamists who are a part of an al-Qaeda-led alliance and that they “fight under license” to al-Nusra and Islamic State, as Cockburn reports, [33] who has the CIA been training and equipping over the past several years? The answer is clear: al-Qaeda-led jihadists. As Assad observes, “If Obama said the moderate opposition is fantasy, so who do you send the money and armaments to? Reality. You don’t send to the fantasy, you send it to the reality, and the reality are the extremists.” [34]

Hence, the idea that there exist in Syria secular moderates who follow the traditions of the Enlightenment is a con, designed to appeal to Western publics who are more likely to back efforts to aid secular democrats than al-Qaeda-led jihadists. British prime minister David Cameron claimed improbably—to hoots of well deserved derision—that there are 70,000 moderate fighters in Syria, which is indeed true if, like Humpty Dumpty, Cameron uses words to mean whatever he chooses them to mean. He probably meant, moderate fighters are whoever the West and its allies train and equip, regardless of the groups’ ideologies and methods.

Politicians and corporations are no strangers to this sort of definitional legerdemain. The Obama administration insists there are no more than 3,870 US troops in Iraq. Others say there are as many as 5,000. Who’s right? It depends of what definition of “in Iraq” you accept—the commonsense one, or Obama’s. If the number of US troops in Iraq at this moment is simply tallied, then, there are in the vicinity of 5,000 US military personnel in the country. On the other hand, if you mean what Obama, following Humpty Dumpty, means, then, there are indeed 3,870 US troops in Iraq. The key here is to understand that the US president defines “troops in Iraq” as US military personnel in the country minus those rotated in on a temporary basis. [35] The same principle would apply were it claimed that there are no US troops in Iraq, by defining US military personnel as all active US soldiers operating between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers who are over the age of 65. In other words, one can define “troops in Iraq” in whichever way one wants—and Obama does. The same definitional stratagem is used to deceive Western publics into believing that their governments back secular fighters in Iraq who thirst for democracy, by defining the word “moderate,” which everyone believes to mean one thing, and which connotes something desirable, to mean something entirely different, without disclosing the fact that the word is being used in a singular way.

Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk had challenged Cameron’s claim that there are tens of thousands of moderate fighters in Syria, putting the number at closer to 70, on par with the complement of about four dozen moderates the Pentagon was able to recruit despite a $500 million budget that would have been the envy of Croesus. [36]

The US plan, then, to up the ante if the Geneva talks fail to produce a political transition in Syria (i.e., Washington’s desired goal of regime change) by equipping al-Qaeda-led “moderate” rebels with more powerful weapons is a scheme to strengthen al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise militarily. If it is not already clear that rebel groups will pass on US-supplied arms to the al-Qaeda franchise they are enmeshed with, cooperate with, fight alongside of, liaise with, and are ideological similar to, if not clones of, consider this: The rebel group Division 13, which received aid from the United States [37], “had a tacit collaboration with Nusra and even shared with the group some of its ammunition supplies,” according to the Wall Street Journal. [38]

Syrian rebels 2Still, concern that Western-backed rebels may act as an arms conduit to al-Qaeda if Washington carries through on its Plan B ought to go further. Shouldn’t we object just as strenuously to the arming of the so-called “moderates” themselves, since they are virtual replicas of al-Qaeda? They are ideologically similar to, if not clones, of the Sunni Islamist organization, and like al-Nusra, practice sectarian violence and are animated by an intolerant, ultra-conservative Saudi Wahhabi-inspired Islam which they aspire to make the constitutional foundation of a Syrian state. As if to underscore the similarities, in 2012, the West’s “moderate” jihadist darlings declared that “We are all Jabhat al-Nusra.” Arming the “moderates,” then, is equal in effect and principle to arming al-Qaeda. Washington and its allies, including the reactionary Gulf monarchies, have already accoutred al-Qaeda-led jihadists with weapons in Syria, and are now threatening to up the ante by giving their Islamist proxies even more deadly arms if they don’t get their way at the Geneva talks, visiting even more misery, bloodshed and terror than they have already done on Syria.

Washington cares not one iota for the welfare of the residents of this hapless country, long savaged by Western imperialism. On the contrary, it is willing to spill rivers of Syrian blood and foment sectarian terror, through its al-Qaeda-led proxies, in order to overthrow a government that insists on charting its own course to meet its people’s needs in their own way. This is the outcome of the United States’ imperialist project to secure a self-assigned “leadership” position in the Middle East, which is to say, to deny the region’s people the right to determine their own lives and future. Fortunately for humanity, but unfortunately for the US elite, on whose behalf the US imperial project pivots, the targets of imperialist eruptions have often felt it better to fight than to submit, Syrians no less so than the long string of heroes in the service of human progress who have resisted programs of exploitation by fighting back.

1. Adam Entous, “U.S. readies ‘Plan B’ to arm Syria rebels,” The Washington Post, April 12, 2016.

2. C.J. Chivers, “Life with Syria’s rebels in a cold and cunning war”, The New York Times, August 20, 2012; Ben Hubbard, “Islamist rebels create dilemma on Syria policy”, The New York Times, April 27, 2013; J. David Goodman and Nick Cuming-Bruce, “Syria bars 17 Western diplomats and allows increased aid agency presence”, The New York Times, June 5, 2012.

3. 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

4. Michael R. Gordon and Anne Barnard, “US places militant Syrian rebel group on list of terrorist organizations,’ The New York Times, December 10, 2012

5. Mark Landler, Michael R. Gordon and Anne Barnard, “US will grant recognition to Syrian rebels,” the New York Times, December 11, 2012.

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

7. Patrick Cockburn, “Britain is on the verge of entering into a long war in Syria based on wishful thinking 6and poor information,” The Independent, December 1, 2015

8. Eric Schmitt and Ben Hubbard, “U.S. revamping rebel force fighting ISIS in Syria,” The New York times, September 6, 2015.

9. Patrick Cockburn, “Syria conflict: Turkish threats of intervention after Ankara bombing taken seriously by Barack Obama,” The Independent, February 20, 2016.

10. James Clapper: US Director of Intelligence: http://www.cfr.org/homeland-security/james-clapper-global-intelligence-challenges/p36195

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

12. Patrick Cockburn, “Saudi Arabia intervening in the Syrian civil war would risk Russian wrath,” The Independent, February 11, 2016.

13. Joshua Landis and Steven Simon, “Assad has it his way: The peace talks and after,” Foreign Affairs, January 19, 2016.

14. Glen Greenwald, “BBC protects UK’s close ally Saudi Arabia with incredibly dishonest and biased editing,” The Intercept, October 26, 2015.

15. Yaroslav Trofimov, “To US allies, Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria becomes the lesser evil,” The Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2015.

16. Patrick Cockburn, “Syrian conflict: Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front abduct leader of US-backed rebels dealing blow to plans to build moderate opposition to regime,” The Independent, July 30, 2015.

17. Patrick Cockburn, “Egypt plane crash: This attack shows that Russia is hurting ISIS,” Independent. November 7, 2015.

18. Nour Malas, “Terrorist designation beleaguers Syria talks,” The Wall Street Journal, February 10, 2016.

19. David E. Sanger, “John Kerry adds voice to those urging bigger push against Islamic State in Syria,” The New York Times, November 23, 2015.

20. Ben Hubbard, “In Syria, potential ally’s Islamist ties challenge US,” The New York Times, August 25, 2015.

21. Tim Arango, Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad, “Syrian rebels tied to al Qaeda play key role in war,” The New York Times, December 8, 2012.

22. Maria Abi-Habib, “Al Qaeda emissary in Syria killed by rival Islamist rebels,’ Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2014.

23. Belen Fernandez, “Book review: The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising,” The Middle East Eye, September 3, 2014.

24. Neil Mac Farquhar, “Questions linger over Russia’s endgame in Syria, Ukraine and Europe,” The New York Times, February 23, 2016.

25. Jay Solomon, “U.S., Russia agree to implement Syria cease-fire,” The Wall Street Journal, February 22, 2016.

26. Karen de Young, “U.S. Russia hold Syria cease-fire talks as deadline passes without action,” The Washington Post, February 19, 2016.

27. Karen Zraick and Anne Barnard, “Syrian war could turn on the battle for Aleppo,” The New York Times, February 12, 2016.

28. Farnaz Fassihi, “U.N. Security Council unanimously votes to adopt France’s counterterrorism resolution,” The Wall Street Journal, November 20, 2015.

29. Sam Dagher, “Syria’s Bashar al-Assad Tries to Force the West to Choose Between Regime, Islamic State,” The Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2015.

30. Anne Barnard and Michael R. Gordon, “Goals diverge and perils remain as U.S. and Turkey take on ISIS,” The New York Times, July 27, 2015.

31. Sam Dagher, “Militants seize oil field, expand Syrian domain”, The Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2014.

32. Greg Miller and Karen De Young, “Secret CIA effort in Syria faces large funding cut,” the Washington Post, June 12, 2015.

33. Patrick Cockburn, “Britain is on the verge of entering into a long war in Syria based on wishful thinking and poor information,” The Independent, December 1, 2015.

34. 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.

35. William McGurn, “Obama hides his Iraq war,” the Wall Street Journal, April 11, 2016.

36. 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.

37. Dion Nissenbaum, Nathan Hodge, and Sam Dagher, “U.S. rebukes Russia over Syria strikes,” The Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2015.

38. Sam Dagher, “Al Qaeda affiliate attacks Western-backed Syria rebels,” The Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2016.

Written by what's left

April 17, 2016 at 3:19 pm

Posted in Al Qaeda, Islamism, Syria

Tagged with , , ,

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.

Written by what's left

April 2, 2016 at 9:02 pm

What US Congress Researchers Reveal About Washington’s Designs on Syria

Seeing the government in Damascus as too far to the left, Washington has been trying to orchestrate a regime change in Syria since at least 2003

February 9, 2016

By Stephen Gowans

Documents prepared by US Congress researchers as early as 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 is based on allegiance to a “democratic uprising” and showing that it is simply an extension of a long-standing policy of seeking to topple the government in Damascus. Indeed, the researchers made clear that the US government’s motivation to overthrow the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is unrelated to democracy promotion in the Middle East. In point of fact, they noted that Washington’s preference is for secular dictatorships (Egypt) and monarchies (Jordan and Saudi Arabia.) [1] 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 free-market, free enterprise economies. Democracy was never a consideration.

The researchers revealed further that an invasion of Syria by US forces was contemplated following the US-led aggression against Iraq in 2003, but that the unanticipated heavy burden of pacifying Iraq militated against an additional expenditure of blood and treasure in Syria. [2] As an alternative to direct military intervention to topple the Syrian government, the United States chose to pressure Damascus through sanctions and support for the internal Syrian opposition.

The documents also revealed that nearly a decade before the rise of Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra that the US government recognized that Islamic fundamentalists were the main opposition to the secular Assad government and worried about the re-emergence of an Islamist insurgency that could lead Sunni fundamentalists to power in Damascus. A more recent document from the Congress’s researchers describes a US strategy that seeks to eclipse an Islamist take-over by forcing a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Syria in which the policing, military, judicial and administrative functions of the Syrian state are preserved, while Assad and his fellow Arab nationalists are forced to leave office. The likelihood is that if this scenario plays out that Assad and his colleagues will be replaced by biddable US surrogates willing to facilitate the achievement of US goals.

+++

In 2005, Congress’s researchers reported that a consensus had developed in Washington that change in Syria needed to be brought about, but that there remained divisions on the means by which change could be effected. “Some call for a process of internal reform in Syria or alternatively for the replacement of the current Syrian regime,” the report said. [3] Whichever course Washington would settle on, it was clear that the US government was determined to shift the policy framework in Damascus.

The document described the Assad government as an impediment “to the achievement of US goals in the region.” [4] These goals were listed as: resolving “the Arab-Israeli conflict;” fighting “international terrorism;” reducing “weapons proliferation;” inaugurating “a peaceful, democratic and prosperous Iraqi state;” and fostering market-based, free enterprise economies. [5]

Stripped of their elegant words, the US objectives for the Middle East amounted to a demand that Damascus capitulate to the military hegemony of Israel and the economic hegemony of Wall Street. To be clear, what this meant was that in order to remove itself as an impediment to the achievement of US goals—and hence as an object of US hostility—Syria would have to:

o Accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state on territory seized from Palestinians, and quite possibly also Syrians and Lebanese, possibly within borders that include the Golan Heights, annexed from Syria by Israel in 1987 and occupied by Israel since 1967.
o End its support for militant groups seeking Palestinian self-determination and sever its connections with the resistance organization Hezbollah, the main bulwark against Israeli expansion into Lebanon.
o Leave itself effectively defenceless against the aggressions of the United States and its Middle East allies, including Israel, by abandoning even the capability of producing weapons of mass destruction (while conceding a right to Israel and the United States to maintain vast arsenals of WMD.)
o Terminate its opposition to US domination of neighboring Iraq.
o Transform what the US Congress’s researchers called Syria’s mainly publicly-owned economy, “still based largely on Soviet models,” [6] into a sphere of exploitation for US corporations and investors.

+++

US government objections to Syrian policy, then, can be organized under three US-defined headings:

o Terrorism.
o WMD.
o Economic reform.

These headings translate into:

o Support for Palestinian and Lebanese resistance groups.
o Self-defense.
o Economic sovereignty.

Terrorism (support for Palestinian and Lebanese resistance groups)

The researchers noted that while Syria had “not been implicated directly in an act of terrorism since 1986” that “Syria has continued to provide support and safe haven for Palestinian groups” seeking self-determination, allowing “them to maintain offices in Damascus.” This was enough for the US government to label Syria a state sponsor of terrorism. The researchers went on to note that on top of supporting Palestinian “terrorists” that Damascus also supported Lebanese “terrorists” by permitting “Iranian resupply via Damascus of the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah in Lebanon.” [7]

US Secretary of State Colin Powell travelled to Damascus on May 3, 2003 to personally issue a demand to the Syrian government that it sever its connections with militant organizations pursuing Palestinian self-determination and to stop providing them a base in Damascus from which to operate. In “testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 12, 2004, Powel complained that ‘Syria has not done what we demanded of it with respect to closing permanently of these offices and getting these individuals out of Damascus’.”

The Syrian government rejected the characterization of Hezbollah and Palestinian militants as “terrorists,” noting that the actions of these groups represented legitimate resistance. [8] Clearly, Washington had attempted to discredit the pursuit of Palestinian self-determination and Lebanese sovereignty by labelling the champions of these causes as terrorists.

WMD (self-defense)

“In a speech to the Heritage Foundation on May 6, 2002, then US Under Secretary (of State John) Bolton grouped Syria with Libya and Cuba as rogue states that…are pursuing the development of WMD.” [9] Later that year, Bolton echoed his earlier accusation, telling the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Bush administration was very concerned about Syrian nuclear and missile programs. By September 2003, Bolton was warning of a “range of Syrian WMD programs.” [10]

Syria clearly had chemical weapons (now destroyed), though hardly in the same quantities as the much larger arsenals of the United States, Russia and (likely) its regional nemesis, Israel. [11] Citing the Washington Post, Congress’s researchers noted that Syria had “sought to build up its CW and missile capabilities as a ‘force equalizer’ to counter Israeli nuclear capabilities.” [12] It should be noted, however, that the idea that chemical weapons can act as a force equalizer to nuclear weapons is not only untenable, but risible. In WWI it took 70,000 tons of gas to produce as many fatalities as were produced at Hiroshima by a single US atom bomb. [13] To have any meaning at all, the concept of WMD must include weapons that kill massive numbers of people (nuclear weapons) and exclude those that don’t (chemical weapons.) Otherwise, it is a propaganda term used to magnify the non-threat posed by countries seeking independence outside the US orbit which have CW and biological weapons, but which weapons are no match for the United States’ nuclear weapons and are dwarfed by the Pentagon’s own CW and BW arsenals. Deceptively labelling these weapons as WMD, makes a non-threat a large threat that must be dealt with through military intervention and thereby provides a public relations rationale for a war of aggression.

As to the substance of Bolton’s assertion that Syria had a wide range of WMD programs, the CIA was unable to produce any evidence to corroborate his claim. Alfred Prados, author of a 2005 Congressional Research Service report titled “Syria: U.S. Relations and Bilateral Issues,” listed CIA assessments of Syrian nuclear and BW programs but none of the assessments contained any concrete evidence that Syria actually had such programs. For example, the CIA noted that it was “monitoring Syrian nuclear intentions with concern” but offered nothing beyond “intentions” to show that Damascus was working to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. Prados also noted that Syria had “probably also continued to develop a BW capability,” this based on the fact that Damascus had “signed, but not ratified, the Biological Weapons Convention.” Prados conceded that “Little information is available on Syrian biological programs.”

US president George H.W. Bush is responsible for rendering the concept of WMD meaningless by expanding it to include chemical agents. Before Bush, WMD was a term to denote nuclear weapons or weapons of similar destructive capacity that might be developed in the future. Bush debased the definition in order to go to war with Iraq. He needed to transform the oil-rich Arab country from being seen accurately as a comparatively weak country militarily to being seen inaccurately as a significant threat because it possessed weapons now dishonestly rebranded as being capable of producing mass destruction. It was an exercise in war propaganda.

In 1989, Bush pledged to eliminate the United States’ chemical weapons by 1999. Twenty-seven years later, the Pentagon is still sitting on the world’s largest stockpile of militarized chemical agents. US allies Israel and Egypt also have chemical weapons. In 2003, Syria proposed to the United Nations Security Council that the Middle East become a chemical weapons-free zone. The proposal was blocked by the United States, likely in order to shelter Israel from having to give up its store of chemical arms. Numerous calls to declare the Middle East a nuclear weapons-free zone have also been blocked by Washington to shelter Israel from having to give up its nuclear arsenal.

Bolton, it will be recalled, was among the velociraptors of the Bush administration to infamously and falsely accuse Saddam Hussein’s Iraq of holding on to WMD that the UN Security Council had demanded it dismantle. In effect, Iraq was ordered to disarm itself, and when it did, was falsely accused by the United States of still being armed as a pretext for US forces to invade the now defenceless country. Bolton may have chosen to play the same WMD card against Syria for the same reason: to manufacture consent for an invasion. But as Congress’s researchers pointed out, “Although some officials…advocated a ‘regime change strategy’ in Syria” through military means, “military operations in Iraq…forced US policy makers to explore additional options,” [14] rendering Bolton’s false accusations academic.

Since the only legitimate WMD are nuclear weapons, and since there is no evidence that Syria has even the untapped capability of producing them, much less possesses them, Syria has never been a WMD-state or a threat to the US goal of reducing WMD proliferation. What’s more, the claim that Washington holds this as a genuine goal is contestable, since it has blocked efforts to make the Middle East a chemical- and nuclear-weapons-free zone, in order to spare its protégé, Israel. It would be more accurate to say that the United States has a goal of reducing weapons proliferation among countries it may one day invade, in order to make the invasion easier. Moreover, there’s an egregious US double-standard here. Washington maintains the world’s largest arsenals of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, but demands that countries it opposes should abandon their own, or foreswear their development. This is obviously self-serving and has nothing whatever to do with fostering peace and everything to do with promoting US world domination. One US grievance with Assad’s Syria, then, is that it refused to accept the international dictatorship of the United States.

Economic reform (economic sovereignty)

In connection with Syria impeding the achievement of US goals in the Middle East, the Congressional Research Service made the following points in 2005 about the Syrian economy: It is “largely state-controlled;” it is “dominated by…(the) public sector, which employs 73% of the labour force;” and it is “still based largely on Soviet models.” [15] These departures from the preferred Wall Street paradigm of free markets and free enterprise appear, from the perspective of Congress’s researchers, to be valid reasons for the US government to attempt to bring about “reform” in Syria. Indeed, no one should be under the illusion that the US government is prepared to allow foreign governments to exercise sovereignty in setting their own direction economically. That this is the case is evidenced by the existence of a raft of US sanctions legislation against “non-market states.” (See the Congressional Research Service 2016 report, “North Korea: Economic Sanctions,” for a detailed list of sanctions imposed on North Korea for having a “Marxist-Leninist” economy.)

+++

To recapitulate the respective positions of Syria and the United States on issues of bilateral concern to the two countries:

On Israel. To accept Israel’s right to exist as a settler state on land illegitimately acquired through violence and military conquest from Palestinians, Lebanese (the Shebaa Farms) and Syrians (Golan), would be to collude in the denial of the fundamental right of self-determination. Damascus has refused to collude in the negation of this right. Washington demands it.

On Hezbollah. Hezbollah is the principal deterrent against Israeli territorial expansion into Lebanon and Israeli aspirations to turn the country into a client state. Damascus’s support for the Lebanese resistance organization, and Washington’s opposition to it, places the Assad government on the right side of the principle of self-determination and successive US governments on the wrong side.

On WMD. Syria has a right to self-defense through means of its own choosing and the demand that it abandon its right is not worthy of discussion. The right to self-defense is a principle the United States and its allies accept as self-evident and non-negotiable. It is not a principle that is valid only for the United States and its satellites.

On opposition to the US invasion of Iraq. The 2003 US-led aggression against Iraq was an international crime on a colossal scale, based on an illegitimate casus belli, and a fabricated one at that, and which engendered massive destruction and loss of life. It was the supreme international crimes by the standards of the Nuremberg trials. Applying the Nuremberg principles, the perpetrators would be hanged. US aggression against Iraq, including the deployment of “sanctions of mass destruction” through the 1990s, which led to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths, and was blithely accepted by then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as “worth it,” was undertaken despite the absence of any threat to the United States. The deliberate creation of humanitarian calamities in the absence of a threat, as a matter of choice and not necessity, in pursuit of economic gain, is an iniquity on a signal scale. What, then, are we to think of a government in Damascus that opposed this iniquity, and a government in Washington that demands that Damascus reverse its opposition and accept the crime as legitimate?

Whatever its failings, the Assad government has unambiguously adopted positions that have traditionally been understood to be concerns of the political left: support for self-determination; public ownership and planning of the economy; opposition to wars of aggression; and anti-imperialism. This is not to say that on a spectrum from right to left that the Assad government occupies a position near the left extreme; far from it. But from Washington’s point of view, Damascus is far enough to the left to be unacceptable. Indeed, it is the Syrian government’s embrace of traditional leftist positions that accounts for why it is in the cross-hairs of the world’s major champion of reactionary causes, the United States, even if it isn’t the kind of government that is acceptable to Trotskyists and anarchists.

+++

In 2003, the Bush administration listed Syria as part of a junior varsity axis of evil, along with Cuba and Libya, citing support in Damascus for Hezbollah and groups engaged in armed struggle to achieve Palestinian self-determination. [16] An invasion of Syria following the US take-over of Iraq in 2003 was contemplated, but never followed through on after the Pentagon discovered its hands were full quelling resistance to its occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. As an alternative to direct military intervention to topple the Syrian government, the United States chose to pressure Assad through sanctions and by strengthening the opposition in Syria, hoping either to force Assad to accept Israel’s territorial gains, end support for Hezbollah and Palestinian militant groups, and to remake the economy—or to yield power. However, as Congress’s researchers reveal, there were concerns in Washington that if efforts to bolster the opposition went too far, Assad would fall to “a successor regime (which) could be led by Islamic fundamentalists who might adopt policies even more inimical to the United States.” [17]

On December 12, 2003, US president George W. Bush signed the Syria Accountability Act, which imposed sanctions on Syria unless, among other things, Damascus halted its support for Hezbollah and Palestinian resistance groups and ceased “development of weapons of mass destruction.” The sanctions included bans on exports of military equipment and civilian goods that could be used for military purposes (in other words, practically anything.) This was reinforced with an additional (and largely superfluous) ban on US exports to Syria other than food and medicine, as well as a prohibition against Syrian aircraft landing in or overflying the United States. [18]

On top of these sanctions, Bush imposed two more. Under the USA PATRIOT Act, the US Treasury Department ordered US financial institutions to sever connections with the Commercial Bank of Syria. [19] And under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, the US president froze the assets of Syrians involved in supporting policies hostile to the United States, which is to say, supporting Hezbollah and groups fighting for Palestinian self-determination, refusing to accept as valid territorial gains which Israel had made through wars of aggression, and operating a largely publicly-owned, state-planned economy, based on Soviet models. [20]

In order to strengthen internal opposition to the Syrian government, Bush signed the Foreign Operations Appropriation Act. This act required that a minimum of $6.6 million “be made available for programs supporting democracy in Syria…as well as unspecified amounts of additional funds (emphasis added).” [21]

By 2006, Time was reporting that the Bush administration had “been quietly nurturing individuals and parties opposed to the Syrian government in an effort to undermine the regime of President Bashar Assad.” Part of the effort was being run through the National Salvation Front. The Front included “the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that for decades supported the violent overthrow of the Syrian government.” Front representatives “were accorded at least two meetings” at the White House in 2006. Hence, the US government, at its highest level, was colluding with Islamists to bring down the Syrian government at least five years before the eruption of protests in 2011. This is a development that seems to have escaped the notice of some who believe that violent Islamist organizations emerged only after March 2011. In point of fact, the major internal opposition to secular Syrian governments, both before and after March 2011, were and are militant Sunni Islamists. Syria expert Joshua Landis told Time that White House support for the Syrian opposition was “apparently an effort to gin up the Syrian opposition under the rubric of ‘democracy promotion’ and ‘election monitoring,’ but it’s really just an attempt to pressure the Syrian government into doing what the United States wants.” [22]

+++

The US Congress researchers noted that despite “US calls for democracy in the Middle East, historically speaking, US policymakers” have tended to favor “secular Arab republics (Egypt) and Arab monarchies (Jordan and Saudi Arabia.)” [23] They noted too that since “the rise of political Islam as an opposition vehicle in the Middle East decades ago, culminating in the 1979 overthrow of the Shah of Iran, US policymakers have been concerned that secular Arab dictatorships like Syria would face rising opposition from Islamist groups seeking their overthrow.” [24] “The religiously fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood,” which the Bush administration enlisted to pressure the Assad government, had long been at odds with the secular Syrian government, the researchers noted. [25]

Today, Islamic State operates as one of the largest, if not the largest, rebel groups in Syria. A 2015 Congressional Research Service report cited an “unnamed senior State Department official” who observed:

[W]e’ve never seen something like this. We’ve never seen a terrorist organization with 22,000 foreign fighters from a hundred countries all around the world. To put it in context—again, the numbers are fuzzy—but it’s about double of what went into Afghanistan over 10 years in the war against the Soviet Union. Those Jihadi fighters were from a handful of countries.” [26]

Islamic State differs from other militant Islamist opponents of the Syrian government in seeking to control territory, not only in Syria, but in Iraq and beyond. As such, it constitutes a threat to US domination of Iraq and influence throughout the Middle East and north Africa. In contrast, ideologically similar groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, limit the scope of their operations to Syria. They, therefore, constitute a threat to the Syrian government alone, and have proved, as a consequence, to be more acceptable to Washington.

The US government has publicly drawn a distinction between Islamic State and the confined-to-Syria-therefore-acceptable rebels, seeking to portray the former as terrorists and the latter as moderates, regardless of the methods they use and their views on Islam and democracy. The deception is echoed by the US mass media, which often complain that when Russian warplanes target non-Islamic State rebels that they’re striking “moderates,” as if all rebels apart from Islamic State are moderates, by definition. US Director of Intelligence James Clapper acknowledged that “moderate” means little more than “not Islamic State.” He told the Council on Foreign Relations that “Moderate these days is increasingly becoming anyone who’s not affiliated with” Islamic State. [27]

The rebels are useful to the US government. By putting military pressure on Damascus to exhaust the Syrian army, they facilitate the achievement of the immediate US goal of “forcing a negotiated settlement to the conflict that will see President Assad and some his supporters leave office while preserving the institutions and security structures of the Syrian state,” [28] as Congress’s researchers summarize US strategy. Hence, Islamic State exists both as a useful instrument of US policy, and as a threat to US domination and control of Iraq and the broader Middle East. To Washington, the terrorist organization is a double-edged sword, and is treated accordingly. US airstrikes on Islamic State appear calculated to weaken the terrorist group enough that it doesn’t gain more territory in Iraq, but not so much that pressure is taken off Damascus. A tepid approach to fighting the hyper-sectarian terrorist group fits with US president Barack Obama’s stated goal of degrading and ultimately destroying Islamic State, which appears to mean destroying it only after it has served its purpose of exhausting the Syrian army. In the meantime, the anti-Shiite cut-throats are given enough latitude to maintain pressure on Syrian loyalists.

Congress’s researchers concur with this view. They conclude that “US officials may be concerned that a more aggressive campaign against the Islamic State may take military pressure off the” Syrian government. [29] This means that the US president is moderating efforts to destroy Islamic State to allow a group he decries as “simply a network of killers who are brutalizing local populations” [30] continue their work of brutalizing local populations. If he truly believed Islamic State was a scourge that needed to be destroyed, the US president would work with the Syrian government to expunge it. Instead, he has chosen to wield Islamic State as a weapon to expunge the Syrian government, in the service of building up Israel and fostering free market and free enterprise economies in the Middle East to accommodate US foreign investment and exports on behalf of his Wall Street sponsors. [31]

REFERENCES

1. 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.

2. Prados and Sharp.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Alfred B. Prados, “Syria: U.S. Relations and Bilateral Issues,” Congressional Research Service, March 13, 2006.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Israel signed the global treaty banning the production and use of chemical weapons, but never ratified it.

12. Ibid.

13. Stephen Gowans, “Rethinking Chemical Weapons,” what’s left, August 14, 2015.

14. Prados and Sharp.

15. Ibid.

16. Steve R. Weisman, “US threatens to impose penalties against Syrians,” The New York Times, April 14, 2003.

17. Prados and Sharp.

18. Prados.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Adam Zagorin, “Syria in Bush’s cross hairs,” Time, December 19, 2006.

23. Prados and Sharp.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Christopher M. Blanchard and Carla E. Humud, “The Islamic State and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service, December 28, 2015.

27. James Clapper: US Director of Intelligence: http://www.cfr.org/homeland-security/james-clapper-global-intelligence-challenges/p36195

28. Blanchard and Humud.

29. Christopher M. Blanchard, Carla E. Humud Mary Beth D. Nikitin, “Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response,”Congressional Research Service,” October 9, 2015.

30. Blanchard and Humud.

31. Virtually every member of the Obama administration, past and present, is a member of the Wall Street-dominated Council on Foreign Relations, or additionally, has spent part of his or her career on Wall Street. Wall Street was a major source of Obama’s election campaign funding. The strong interlock between Wall Street and the executive branch of the US government is not unique to the Obama administration. See my “Aspiring to Rule the World: US Capital and the Battle for Syria,” what’s left, December 15, 2015.

Written by what's left

February 10, 2016 at 12:58 am

US Role as State Sponsor of Terrorism Implied in US Congressional Research Service Report on Syria Conflict

January 10, 2016

By Stephen Gowans @GowansStephen

The implication of a report written for the US Congress is that the United States is a state sponsor of terrorism in Syria. At the same time, the report challenges widely held beliefs about the conflict, including the idea that the opposition has grass-roots support and that the conflict is a sectarian war between Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect and the majority Sunnis.

Written in October 2015, the report was prepared by the Congressional Research Service, an arm of the United States Library of Congress. The Congressional Research Service provides policy and legal analysis to committees and members of the US House and Senate.

Titled “Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and US Response,” the report reveals that:

1. The Syrian conflict is between Islamists and secularists, not Sunnis and Alawites.

Media reports often emphasize the dominant Sunni character of the rebels who have taken up arms against the Syrian government, while depicting the Syrian government as Alawite-led. What is almost invariably overlooked is that the largest Sunni fighting force in Syria is the country’s army. Yes, the rebels are predominantly Sunni, but so too are the Syrian soldiers they’re fighting. As Congress’s researchers point out, “most rank and file military personnel have been drawn from the majority Sunni Arab population and other (non-Alawite) minority groups” (p. 7). Also: “Sunni conscripts continue to fight for Assad” (p. 12). Rather than being a battle between two different sects, the conflict is a struggle, on the one hand, between Sunni fundamentalists who want to impose their version of Islam on Syrian politics and society, and on the other hand, Syrians, including Sunnis, who embrace a vision of a secular, non-sectarian government.

2. The Syrian Opposition Coalition is dominated by Islamists and is allied with foreign enemies of Syria.

According to the report, the Syrian National Council (whose largest member is the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood) is the “largest constituent group” of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC). The SOC is based “in Turkey and considered to be close to foreign opponents of Assad.” (p. 14) The Muslim Brotherhood seeks to base political rule on the Quran, which it sees as divinely inspired, rather than on a secular constitution.

3. “Political opposition coalitions appear to lack…grass roots support” (p. 27).

This is consistent with the findings of a public opinion poll taken last summer by a research firm that is working with the US and British governments. That poll found that Assad has more support than the forces arrayed against him.

Syrians rally for Assad,  October, 2011.

Syrians rally for Assad, October, 2011.

The survey, conducted by ORB International, a company which specializes in public opinion research in fragile and conflict environments, found that 47 percent of Syrians believe that Assad has a positive influence in Syria, compared to only 35 percent for the Free Syrian Army and 26 percent for the SOC. [1]

An in-country face-to-face ORB poll conducted in May 2014 arrived at similar conclusions. That poll found that more Syrians believed the Assad government best represented their interests and aspirations than believed the same about any of the opposition groups. [2]

According to the poll, only six percent believed that the “genuine” rebels represented their interests and aspirations, while the ‘National Coalition/transitional government,” a reference to the SOC, drew even less support, at only three percent.

Assad has repeatedly challenged the notion that he lacks popular support, pointing to his government surviving nearly five years of war against forces backed by the most powerful states on the planet. It’s impossible to realistically conceive of his government’s survival under these challenging circumstances, he argues, without its having the support of a sizeable part of its population. [3]

4. A moderate opposition doesn’t exist. The United States is trying to build one to act as its partner.

The report refers to US efforts to create partners in Syria, a euphemism for puppets who can be relied upon to promote US interests.

“Secretary of Defense Carter described the ‘best’ scenario for the Syrian people as one that would entail an agreed or managed removal of Assad and the coalescence of opposition forces with elements of the remaining Syrian state apparatus as U.S. partners ….” (emphasis added, pp. 15-16).

Also: The Pentagon “sought to…groom and support reliable leaders to serve as U.S partners…” (emphasis added, p. 23).

To create partners, the United States is engaged in the project of building a “moderate” opposition. According to the report:

“On June 18, Secretary of Defense Carter said, ‘…the best way for the Syrian people for this to go would be for him to remove himself from the scene and there to be created, difficult as it will be, a new government of Syria based on the moderate opposition that we have been trying to build…” (emphasis added, footnote, p. 16).

In the report summary the researchers write that US strategy seeks to avoid “inadvertently strengthening Assad, the Islamic State, or other anti-U.S. armed Islamist groups” (emphasis added.) What’s left unsaid is that armed Islamist groups that are not immediately anti-U.S. may be looked upon favorably by US strategy. However, that “political opposition coalitions…appear to lack grass-roots support,” and that Washington can’t rely on an already-formed moderate opposition but needs to build one, shows that the set of rebels on which the US can rely to act as US partners who will rule with elements of the existing Syrian state in a post-Assad Syria is virtually empty. The conclusion is substantiated by the failure of a now-abandoned Pentagon program to train and equip vetted rebel groups. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the top American commander in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that despite the Pentagon spending $500 million training and equipping “moderate” rebels, only “four or five” were “in the fight.” [4] As the Wall Street Journal observed in late December, moderate rebels don’t exist. They’ve either been absorbed into Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrah al-Sham and ISIS—the extremist terrorist groups which dominate the opposition—or were Islamist militants all along. [5]

5. The United States is arming sectarian terrorists indirectly and possibly directly and covertly.

The report points out that not only has the Pentagon openly trained and equipped rebels, but that the United States has also covertly armed them. According to the Congress’s researchers:

“Then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a September 2013 hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Administration was taking steps to provide arms to some Syrian rebels under covert action authorities” (p. 23).

Also:

“Secretary Hagel said, ‘it was June of this year that the president made the decision to support lethal assistance to the opposition….we, the Department of Defense, have not been involved in this. This is, as you know, a covert action’” (footnote, p.23).

If the United States was prepared to overtly arm some rebel groups, why is it covertly arming others? A not unreasonable hypothesis is that it is arming some rebel groups covertly because they have been designated as terrorist organizations. To be sure, a number of press reports have revealed that rebels who have received training and arms from the United States are operating with terrorist groups in Syria. According to the Wall Street Journal, “insurgents who have been trained covertly by the Central Intelligence Agency…are enmeshed with or fighting alongside more hard-line Islamist groups, including the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate” [6]. Another report from the same newspaper notes that “al-Nusra has fought alongside rebel units which the U.S. and its regional allies have backed” [7]. A third report refers to collaboration between “CIA-backed Free Syrian army factions and extremist elements such as Nusra Front and Ahrar al Sham” [8]. Let’s be clear. Anyone who is enmeshed with and fighting alongside Al-Qaeda is a terrorist.

terroristAccording to Congress’s researchers, weapons the US furnished to selected groups have made their way to jihadists. “Some Syrian opposition groups that have received U.S. equipment and weaponry to date have surrendered or lost these items to other groups, including to extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra” (p. 23).

When you consider that, as The Washington Post reported, “the CIA has trained and equipped nearly 10,000 fighters sent into Syria over the past several years” [9] and that, at best, there are 700, and more likely only 70 “moderate” rebels in Syria [10], then the bulk of the large rebel force the CIA has trained and equipped is very likely made up of Islamist extremists. Concealing this shameful reality from the US public is probably the principal reason the program is covert.

6. Washington wants to contain ISIS, but not eliminate it, in order to maintain military pressure on the Syrian government.

Based on the US coalition’s less than vigorous air campaign against ISIS, many observers have questioned whether the United States is at all serious about eliminating ISIS just yet, and is simply trying to contain it, to keep pressure on the Syrian government. For example, veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk says: “I don’t think the U.S. is serious. Very occasionally, you can hear the rumble of American bombs. But they’re certainly not having much effect.” [11]

One day, soon after Russia began air operations in Syria, journalist Patrick Cockburn noted that “Russian planes carried out 71 sorties and 118 air strikes against Islamic fighters in Syria over the past two days compared to just one air strike by the US-led coalition – and this single strike, against a mortar position, was the first for four days.” [12] After ISIS captured Palmyra, and pushed into Aleppo, the US coalition did nothing to push back the ISIS advance, leading even rebels to question “the U.S.’s commitment to containing the group.” [13] Assad too has expressed scepticism about whether the United States is serious about destroying ISIS, pointing to the terrorist organization’s continued successes in Syria, despite the US coalition’s presumed war against it. “Since this coalition started to operate,” observed the Syrian president, “ISIS has been expanding. In other words, the coalition has failed and it has no real impact on the ground.” [14]

A tepid approach to fighting ISIS in Syria would fit with US president Barack Obama’s stated goal of degrading the Al-Qaeda offspring organization. Destroying it may be an ultimate goal, to be achieved after ISIS has served the purpose of weakening the Syrian government. But for now, the United States appears to be willing to allow ISIS to continue to make gains in Syria. The Congressional Research Service report concurs with this view: It concludes that “U.S. officials may be concerned that a more aggressive campaign against the Islamic State may take military pressure off the” Syrian government (p. 19).

By contrast, Moscow has pursued a more vigorous war against ISIS, and for an obvious reason. Unlike Washington, it seeks to prop up its Syrian ally, not give ISIS room to weaken it. It should be additionally noted that Russia’s military operations in Syria are legal, carried out with the permission of the Syrian government. By contrast, the US coalition has brazenly flouted international law to enter Syrian airspace without Damascus’s assent. It has, in effect, undertaken an illegal invasion and committed a crime of aggression, compounded by its training and arming of terrorists.

Conclusion

The report says that in the absence of grass-roots support for political opposition coalitions in Syria, the United States is relying on a number of tactics to pressure the current government in Syria to step down, including:

• Keeping ISIS alive as a tool to sustain military pressure on Damascus.
• Arming jihadist groups indirectly and (we can assume) directly (albeit covertly) to pressure Assad.
• Seeking to create a moderate opposition that will act as a US partner.
• Trying to co-opt parts of the existing Syrian state to take a partnership role in governing a post-Assad Syria.

The implication of points 1 and 2 is that the United States—as the trainer of, and supplier of arms, to rebels who are enmeshed with and fighting alongside Al-Qaeda in Syria, and in keeping ISIS alive, in order to use these terrorist organizations to achieve its political goal of installing a US-partner government in Syria—is a state sponsor of terrorism.

1. http://www.opinion.co.uk/perch/resources/syriadata.pdf

2. http://www.opinion.co.uk/perch/resources/syriadatatablesjuly2014.pdf

3. “President al-Assad: Russia’s policy towards Syria is based on values and interests, the West is not serious in fighting terrorists,” Syrian Arab News Agency, December 11, 2015, http://sana.sy/en/?p=63857

4. Philip Shishkin, “U.S. weighs talks with Russia on military activity in Syria,” The Wall Street Journal, September 16, 2015.

5. Stuart Rollo,“Turkey’s dangerous game in Syria,” The Wall Street Journal, December 28, 2015.

6. Anne Barnard and Michael R. Gordon, “Goals diverge and perils remain as U.S. and Turkey take on ISIS,” The New York Times, July 27, 2015.

7. Farnaz Fassihi, “U.N. Security Council unanimously votes to adopt France’s counterterrorism resolution,” The Wall Street Journal, November 20, 2015.

8. Sam Dagher, “Syria’s Bashar al-Assad Tries to Force the West to Choose Between Regime, Islamic State,” The Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2015.

9. Greg Miller and Karen DeYoung, “Secret CIA effort in Syria faces large funding cut,” The Washington Post, June 12, 2015.

10. Robert Fisk, “Is David Cameron planning to include al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra in his group of 70,000 moderates?”, The Independent, December 1, 2015.

11. Thomas Walkom, “Journalist Robert Fisk explains why Canada should abandon ISIS war,” The Toronto Star, September 25, 2015.

12. Patrick Cockburn, “Russia in Syria: Air strikes pose twin threat to Turkey by keeping Assad in power and strengthening Kurdish threat,” The Independent, October 28, 2015.

13. Raja Abdulrahim, “Islamic State advances further into Syria’s Aleppo province,” The Wall Street Journal, June 1, 2015.

14. “President Assad’s interview with Russian media outlets, Syrian Arab News Agency, September 16, 2015 http://sana.sy/en/?p=54857

Written by what's left

January 10, 2016 at 2:35 am

In Syria Petition, an Odd “Left’ Abandoned Concrete Analysis for Demagogy

January 5, 2016

By Stephen Gowans

It’s difficult enough for the Left to make any headway against the formidable forces arrayed against it without some of its members abandoning concrete analysis and coherent argument in favor of fantasy and appeal to emotions.

In May 2013, a group calling itself the Global Campaign for Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution promoted a petition which called for “Solidarity with the Syrian Struggle for Dignity and Freedom.” The petition listed Gilbert Achcar, Richard Seymour, Tariq Ali, Vijay Prashad, Norman Finklestein and Ilan Pape among its supporters.

Appearing to equate Islamists seeking a harsh theocratic rule in Damascus to “revolutionaries” linked to the struggles of Palestinians and opponents of neo-liberalism in the West, the petition called on the Syrian president to leave immediately and submit to a peaceful transition. One problem. The petition’s drafters failed to mention that this could only mean surrender to the rule of murderous sectarian fanatics in Damascus, with regrettable consequences for anyone who didn’t share the fanatics’ religious views. Or that the bulk of Syrians didn’t favor this outcome.

Nowhere did the petition mention:

o Takfirism or Wahabbism;
o Political Islam, backed by imperialist powers and their regional allies, as the driving force of the rebellion;
o Washington’s efforts to “build” a US partner who would govern in Damascus;
o The material support Washington provided to anti-Assad forces even in advance of the Arab Spring;
o Constitutional changes the Syrian government made in 2012 in response to the March 2011 uprising to open political space in the country;
o The reality that the largest Sunni fighting force in Syria was, then as now, the Syrian Arab Army;
o The fact that Assad had commanded sufficient popular support to continue in power despite, at that point, two years of war and the concerted opposition of the world’s most formidable powers and their regional allies— hardly a feat to be expected of a government that was oppressing its people.

In place of concrete realities to engage our minds, the petitioners offered honeyed, nebulous, words to play on our emotions. We were to sign up to a romantic vision of heroic revolutionaries struggling for freedom and dignity against an evil dictator in a fairy book world where imperialism; sectarian intolerance; Saudi, Turk, Qatari and US agendas; the Syrian government’s concessions; al Qaeda; and a decades-long struggle within Syria between political Islam and secularism, didn’t exist.

Instead, they asked us to “defend the gains of the Syrian revolutionaries,” but didn’t say who the revolutionaries were or what gains they had won.

They called for “a peaceful transition of power,” but didn’t say to what.

They asked us to “support the people and organizations on the ground that still uphold the ideals for a free and democratic Syria,” but didn’t say who they were or where we could find them, or what a democratic and free Syria would look like (free from what and to do what?)

They said that the rebellion in Syria was linked to “the Zapatista revolt in Mexico, the landless movement in Brazil, the European and North American revolts against neoliberal exploitation,” and “the Palestinians’ struggle for freedom, dignity and equality,” yet they didn’t say how. Was it also linked to the revolt of the southern states against the Union?

And yet while they demanded that “Bashar al-Assad leave immediately,” the Syrian government was the only organization on the ground of any significance, then as now, that (a) (with the constitutional changes of 2012), offered Syria a democratic future of multi-party parliamentary and contested presidential elections and (b) offered freedom from domination by the political agendas of outsiders, both those of the Western powers who seek a US “partner” to govern in Syria and the sectarianism of the West’s retrograde anti-democratic regional allies.

It’s as if in the middle of Operation Barbarossa—Nazi Germany’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union—that a call had been made for Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to leave immediately and arrange “a peaceful transition” so that Russia could “begin a speedy recovery toward a democratic future.” Of course, a call for a peaceful transition would have meant nothing but surrender to the Nazis and their multinational coalition of Italy, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Finland and Spain, with the consequent enslavement of the Slavs. (The United States isn’t the only country that could put together a multinational coalition.)

Likewise, it’s clear that, then as now, Assad leaving immediately would bring al Qaeda-linked organizations to power in Damascus, with carry-on massacres of populations the “revolutionaries” deemed heretics and apostates. Demanding Assad leave immediately and peacefully was a call for surrender to sectarians backed by retrograde despotisms allied to Washington—an odd way to show solidarity with the Syrian people and hardly likely to promote their freedom and dignity.

Of course, much has happened since the petition was drafted in May 2013, and some of petition’s supporters may have changed their views since, but others, including Gilbert Achcar, continue to use demagogic methods, appealing to emotion rather than reason, to authority rather than evidence, taking cover in ambiguities and romantic fantasies, while shunning concrete social, political, military and economic realities.

To anyone who insists on evidence and critical analysis, Achcar and company are a good part of the reason it’s still possible to refer to a “loony left.” For the cautious, they’re suspected of advancing a sinister political agenda under cover of promoting leftist and humanitarian concerns. Neither possibility is pleasant to contemplate.

Written by what's left

January 5, 2016 at 5:25 pm

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The ‘Anti-Imperialist’ Who Got Libya Wrong Serves Up The Same Failed Analysis on Syria

Paris Match: Many people say the solution lies in your departure. Do you believe that your departure is the solution?

Syrian president Assad: What was the result (of NATO policy when they attacked Gaddafi)? Chaos ensued after Gaddafi’s departure. So, was the departure the solution? Have things improved, and has Libya become a democracy? [1]

Updated January 23, 2016
Originally posted December 24, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

For a professed socialist and anti-imperialist, Gilbert Achcar is surprisingly mainstream, in fact, so much so that he could be appointed to a key position in the US State Department and fit in quite comfortably. He replicated the basic understanding of the nature of the conflict in Libya in 2011, as presented by the US government, in his own analysis, and dissents in no significant way from Washington on how to end the conflict in Syria (Achcar and the US president, and, for that matter, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, all agree that Assad must go.)

In 2011, he supported the overthrow of Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi, arguing wrongly, it turns out, that a post-Gaddafi Libya, whatever its faults, would be an improvement on what preceded it, which indeed it is, if chaos, societal breakdown, and various fanatical Islamist armies, including ISIS, vying for control of the country by arms, counts as an improvement. Said Achcar on March 24, 2011: “And if there is no clarity about what a post-Gaddafi Libya might look like….it can’t be worse than Gaddafi’s regime.” [2] It’s difficult to imagine he could have been more wrong. But then he’s in good company. NATO leaders—the architects of the debacle—said the same.

Achcar’s assurance that Gaddafi was an unparalleled evil, thus justifying his extermination without regard to the consequences, paralleled a similarly stunningly wrong prediction offered by supporters of the US-British war on Iraq. That argument held that elimination of the Iraqi leader couldn’t help but improve Iraq’s humanitarian situation—and it relied on a technique Achcar liberally uses of demonizing secular Arab nationalist leaders. Of course, it was not the expunction of Saddam Hussein that promised to ameliorate the humanitarian situation in Iraq but the abandonment by Western powers of their policy of murdering countless Iraqis through economic and conventional warfare in order to eliminate an impediment to their hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East. It is curious that the last remaining leaders of the principal obstacle to Washington’s hegemonic designs in the Arab world, namely, the secular Arab nationalist governments of Libya and Syria, should fall squarely within the sites of both Achcar and Washington; curious because Washington is clearly imperialist, and Achcar says he’s an anti-imperialist. So how is it that the anti-imperialist Achcar and the imperialist US foreign policy establishment see eye-to-eye on so much?

On Libya, Achcar had cast doubt, in error it turns out, on the idea that the uprising had a substantial Sunni Islamist component, dismissing this as a canard originated by Gaddafi to mobilize US support. Gaddafi’s implicating Al-Qaeda in the uprising “was his way of trying to get the support of the West,” Achcar said. [3] We know now that the uprising was, as Gaddafi averred, largely Islamist.

Similarly, Achcar blundered in declaring as preposterous the idea that “Western powers are intervening in Libya because they want to topple a regime hostile to their interests.” [4] As it turns out, Western powers did indeed view Gaddafi’s “resource nationalism” and efforts to “Libyanize” the economy as hostile to the economic interests of Western investors, a group that exercises considerable, if not decisive, influence over Western foreign policy. [5]

One year after then US secretary of state Hilary Clinton declared in connection with Gaddafi’s overthrow that “we came, we saw, he died,” The Wall Street Journal revealed evidence that the Achcar-supported NATO military intervention in Libya was rooted in objections to the Gaddafi government’s economic policies. According to the newspaper, private oil companies were incensed at the pro-Libyan oil deals the Gaddafi government was negotiating and “hoped regime change in Libya…would bring relief in some of the tough terms they had agreed to in partnership deals” with Libya’s national oil company. [6]

For decades, many European companies had enjoyed deals that granted them half of the high-quality oil produced in Libyan fields. Some major oil companies hoped the country would open further to investment after sanctions from Washington were lifted in 2004 and U.S. giants re-entered the North African nation.

But in the years that followed, the Gaddafi regime renegotiated the companies’ share of oil from each field to as low as 12%, from about 50%.

Just after the fall of the regime, several foreign oil companies expressed hopes of better terms on existing deals or attractive ones for future contracts. Among the incumbents that expressed hopes in Libyan expansion were France’s Total SA and Royal Dutch Shell PLC.

‘We see Libya as a great opportunity under the new government,’ Sara Akbar, chief executive of privately owned Kuwait Energy Co., said in an interview in November. ‘Under Gaddafi, it was off the radar screen’ because of its ‘very harsh’ terms, said Mrs. Akbar. [7]

The Journal had earlier noted the “harsh” (read pro-Libyan) terms the Gaddafi government had imposed on foreign oil companies.

Under a stringent new system known as EPSA-4, the regime judged companies’ bids on how large a share of future production they would let Libya have. Winners routinely promised more than 90% of their oil output to NOC (Libya’s state-owned National Oil Corp).

Meanwhile, Libya kept its crown jewels off limits to foreigners. The huge onshore oil fields that accounted for the bulk of its production remained the preserve of Libya’s state companies.

Even firms that had been in Libya for years got tough treatment. In 2007, authorities began forcing them to renegotiate their contracts to bring them in line with EPSA-4.

One casualty was Italian energy giant Eni SpA. In 2007, it had to pay a $1 billion signing bonus to be able to extend the life of its Libyan interests until 2042. It also saw its share of production drop from between 35% and 50%—depending on the field—to just 12%. [8]

Oil companies were also frustrated that Libya’s state-owned oil company “stipulated that foreign companies had to hire Libyans for top jobs.” [9] A November 2007 US State Department cable had warned that those “who dominate Libya’s political and economic leadership are pursuing increasingly nationalistic policies in the energy sector” and that there was “growing evidence of Libyan resource nationalism.” [10] The cable cited a 2006 speech in which Gaddafi said: “Oil companies are controlled by foreigners who have made millions from them. Now, Libyans must take their place to profit from this money.” [11] Gaddafi’s government had forced oil companies to give their local subsidiaries Libyan names. Worse, “labor laws were amended to ‘Libyanize’ the economy,” that is, turn it to the advantage of Libyans. Oil firms “were pressed to hire Libyan managers, finance people and human resources directors.” [12] The New York Times summed up the West’s objections. “Colonel Gaddafi,” the US newspaper of record said, “proved to be a problematic partner for international oil companies, frequently raising fees and taxes and making other demands.” [13] Achcar completely missed this. Worse, he declared the very opposite to be true. He wrote: “The idea that Western powers are intervening in Libya because they want to topple a regime hostile to their interests is just preposterous. Equally preposterous is that what they are after is laying their hands on Libyan oil.” [14]

Normally, a batter who swings and misses three times is thrown out of the batting circle, but Achcar’s strike out didn’t stop either Democracy Now or the Marxist publication Jacobin from recently offering the failed analyst a platform to hold forth on Syria. Achcar was treated fawningly in a Jacobin piece [15], with interviewer Nada Matta treating the US State Department echo-chamber as a docent for the Left. Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now interview with the failed Libya analyst [16] was also overly deferential, given Achcar’s uninspiring record on Libya, though to Goodman’s credit, she did challenge him on his support for NATO’s intervention in the North African country, an intervention which, now that it is widely acknowledged to have produced a debacle, Achcar claims not to have supported. This is indeed true if we accept that “intervention” means whatever Achcar says it means, but as we’ll see, he did support NATO’s intervention in Libya, notwithstanding his rather discreditable attempts since to obfuscate. But there’s another reason why Matta and Goodman might have passed on interviewing Achcar, apart from his egregious failures on Libya: they could have arranged an interview with a US State Department spokesperson and 90 percent of the answers would have been the same.

Having missed the chance to source the US State Department directly, Democracy Now and Jacobin had to settle for Achcar repackaging his failed Libya analysis to delineate a largely US State Department-consistent view of what is happening in Syria and of the kind of agenda the Left ought to support. Just as once he called for the elimination of Gaddafi as the only way to stop what he claimed was an impending massacre, and as the best way to open space for a popular democratic uprising, so too in Syria does he urge the Left to support the elimination of Assad as the only way to stop the war in Syria, and as the best way to open space for a true democratic awakening. A democratic flowering won’t happen in Syria, he says, until ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra take over from Assad and Syrians realize that salafists are as hostile to their interests as Achcar says Assad is. (What Achcar seems completely oblivious to, or doesn’t give a damn about, is that either of these groups coming to power would mean the massacre of Syria’s Alawite, Druze, Kurd, Christian and other minority populations.)

The problem with the view that the only way to bring about democracy in Syria is to first let murderous sectarian madmen run roughshod over the country until Syrians realize they are hostile to their interests is that it ignores concessions the Assad government has already made in response to the uprising to open up political space by abrogating the Ba’ath Party’s status as primus inter pares and opening presidential elections to a multi-candidate slate [17], a development that would seem to be more conducive to the peaceful flowering of popular democratic forces than the bloody and austere theocratic rule of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Achcar also appears to be unaware of polling data that shows that Assad commands more support in Syria than does the armed opposition whose ascension to power he thinks would bring an end to the war. [18] By this fact alone, it wouldn’t. There is a significant opposition to Islamic fundamentalism in Syria. On top of this, Achcar swallows a fiction widely promoted by US officials and Western media that the war in Syria is a sectarian conflict between a Sunni majority and an oppressive Alawite minority. Western media unremittingly describe the armed opposition as predominantly Sunni, an undoubted reality, but hardly relevant, since the opposition’s major opponent, the Syrian Arab Army, is also predominately Sunni. Indeed, it may be said of the Syrian Arab Army that it is the only moderate armed Sunni fighting force in the country. The fundamental fault line in Syria is not between Sunnis and Alawis (or other minorities), but between proponents of a secular, non-sectarian constitution, on the one hand, and a political arrangement based on a Sunni fundamentalist interpretation of the Quran, on the other. Allowing Al-Qaeda affiliates to come to power in Syria would not bring peace to the country, since the Islamists’ rule would hardly be tolerated by the significant part of the population that opposes it and prefers a non-sectarian, secular government. It would also result in the massacre of populations the sectarian fanatics deem apostates and infidels. If Achcar expressed concern about the possibility of a massacre in Libya, and cited this as the basis for his support of NATO intervention in that country, how is it that he can so blithely accept the near certainty of massacres perpetrated by the fanatics he urges Western powers to give serious support to?

Achcar does not dissent from the US foreign policy establishment view on Syria at its most basic level, namely, the demand that Assad step down and for the same reasons the US State Department adduces: Because, says Washington and Achcar, Assad is a brutal dictator who is oppressing the Sunni majority and has lost the legitimacy that would allow him to govern the country peacefully. There is little space between Achcar’s views and the public views of the US government on the Syrian president, the nature of the opposition, and the route to peace, except that Achcar says he has arrived at his positions by taking an anti-imperialist stance. An ostensible anti-imperialist analysis which meshes comfortably with Washington’s position on Syria can be attractive to Marxists and other Leftists who would like to feel mainstream, while assuring themselves that they remain thoroughly Leftist. Therein may lie Achcar’s appeal to Leftist media. He’s like the TV pitchman who peddles a diet which promises rapid weight loss without sacrifice. In the summer of 1914, there were plenty of European socialists who discovered, as Achcar has today, that Marxist views can be forced to fit a Procrustean imperialist bed and made to appear to be Leftist justifications for supporting one’s own bourgeoisie. Lenin, who Achcar claims to have a sound knowledge of, called this social imperialism—socialism in words, imperialism in practice. It’s a label that fits Achcar’s views to a tee.

I believe that a number of Achcar’s positions on Libya and Syria (most, essentially US State Department positions) are mistaken. Below is a look at some of them.

Libya

While his views may have changed since, in the late winter of 2011 Achcar described the Libyan rebels as a progressive force. “What unites all the disparate forces (of the opposition to Gaddafi) is a rejection of the dictatorship and a longing for democracy and human rights,” he said. [19] Of course, we know today that the rebels did not yearn for democracy and human rights, and that the only dictatorship they opposed was a secular one. Neither do the rebels in Syria yearn for democracy and human rights. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US National Security Adviser and a principal figure in the influential Council on Foreign Relations put it: “You know, we started helping the rebels, whatever they are, and they’re certainly not fighting for democracy, given their sponsorship, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.” [20] The preference for the rebels in Libya was, as it is for rebels today in Syria, a dictatorship of the Quran, or at least their version of it. Dismissing the idea that the uprising was Islamist in character, Achcar argued that Gaddafi’s implicating al-Qaeda in the uprising “was his way of trying to get the support of the West” [21]. Achcar was clear on what position the Left should take: We “should support the victory of the Libyan democratic uprising,” [22] he said.

Gaddafi, as it turned out, had a firmer grasp on what was happening in Libya than Achcar did. The late Libyan leader, murdered at the hands of rebels Achcar urged the Left to support, claimed that the rebellion in Libya had been organized by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, and by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which had vowed to overthrow him and return the country to traditional Muslim values, including Sharia law. A 2009 Canadian government intelligence report bore him out. It described the anti-Gaddafi stronghold of eastern Libya, where the rebellion began, “as an ‘epicenter of Islamist extremism’ and said ‘extremist cells’ operated in the region.” Earlier, Canadian military intelligence had noted that “Libyan troops found a training camp in the country’s southern desert that had been used by an Algerian terrorist group that would later change its name to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.” [23]

Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the Libyan rebellion’s most powerful military leader, was a veteran of the U.S.-backed Jihad against the Marxist-inspired reformist government in Afghanistan, where he had fought alongside militants who would go on to form al-Qaeda. Belhaj returned to Libya in the 1990s to lead the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which was linked to his al-Qaeda comrades. His aim was to topple Gaddafi, as the Communists had been toppled in Afghanistan. The prominent role Belhaj played in the Libyan uprising should have aroused suspicions among Leftists in the West that, as Western governments surely knew, the uprising was not the heroic pro-democracy affair Western media were making it out to be. Indeed, from the very first day of the revolt, anyone equipped with knowledge of Libyan history would have known that the Benghazi rebellion was more in the mold of the latest eruption of a violent anti-secular Jihad than a peaceful call for democracy. [24]

“On Feb. 15, 2011, citizens in Benghazi organized what they called a Day of Anger march. The demonstration soon turned into a full-scale battle with police. At first, security forces used tear gas and water cannons. But as several hundred protesters armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails attacked government buildings, the violence spiraled out of control.” [25] As they stormed government sites, the rampaging demonstrators didn’t chant, “We want democracy”, “We want human rights”, or “No to dictatorship,” as Achcar might lead us to believe. Instead, they chanted “‘No God but Allah, Moammar is the enemy of Allah’.” [26]

Achcar vehemently denies that he supported intervention in Libya, but this is true only if intervention is defined as Western boots on the ground. Achcar was clear in 2011 that he was opposed to NATO ground forces entering Libya. But then so too was NATO. What Achcar did support was Western powers arming the opposition and neutralizing the Libyan air force—also NATO’s position.

Achcar’s position on UN Security Council Resolution 1973 establishing a no-fly zone over Libya was an exercise in double-talk. He acknowledged that the resolution could be used by Western powers to pursue their own agendas in Libya. “Now there are not enough safeguards in the wording of the resolution to bar its use for imperialist purposes,” [27] he concluded. All the same, he urged the Left not to come “out against the no-fly zone” but instead to “make sure” the Western powers “don’t go beyond protecting civilians.” How the Left was to do this, once the no-fly zone was in place, was never said, and why anyone would want to stop NATO from carrying on until Gaddafi was toppled was unclear, given that Achcar had described the Libyan leader and his government as thoroughly repugnant and hardly one any self-respecting Leftist should like to see survive. Indeed, it was clear than Achcar fervently hoped for Gaddafi’s demise. Achcar wrote:

“Does it mean that we had and have to support UNSC resolution 1973? Not at all. This was a very bad and dangerous resolution, precisely because it didn’t define enough safeguards against transgressing the mandate of protecting the Libyan civilians. The resolution leaves too much room for interpretation, and could be used to push forward an imperialist agenda going beyond protection into meddling into Libya’s political future. It could not be supported, but must be criticized for its ambiguities. But neither should it be opposed.” [28]

It should not be supported, but neither should it be opposed?! Perhaps, Achcar thought he was being clever. If NATO abused the resolution (as he thought it might) and a disaster ensued he could say “I predicted this, and never supported the resolution.” On the other hand, by counseling the Left not to oppose the no-fly zone, he was effectively calling for the absence of any obstacle to its implementation— in other words, supporting it, while claiming not to.

Achcar vehemently denies that he “supported intervention in Libya,” calling this “a canard.” “I never supported the intervention in Libya” he told Amy Goodman. “This is a falsity which has been spread all the time.” In Achcar’s recounting, “As soon as the siege of (Benghazi) was broken and there was no longer any threat, I said, I mean, I’m against the bombing…” [29] But Achcar’s criterion for when NATO’s bombing (that is, its direct intervention) should end was when the Libyan air force was neutralized, or more specifically when Libyan forces were so thoroughly weakened that they could no longer win a war against the rebels. Explained Achcar at the time: “It remains morally and politically wrong to demand the lifting of the no-fly zone—unless Gaddafi is no longer able to use his air force. Short of that, lifting the no-fly zone would mean a victory for Gaddafi” (emphasis added.) [30]

Achcar, then, did support intervention in Libya, despite all his vehement denials to Amy Goodman. He supported the direct intervention of Western warplanes to neutralize the Libyan air force in order to prevent “a victory for Gaddafi.” This was more than simply supporting a no fly zone to protect civilians. It was supporting bombing (that is, direct intervention) to tilt the war in favor of the rebels. As it turned out, Canadian pilots who participated in the direct intervention acknowledged privately that they were “al-Qaeda’s air force,” [31] supporting rebels who Achcar claimed falsely weren’t Islamists.

As he was railing against the lifting of the no-fly zone until the possibility of a Gaddafi victory was eliminated, and as NATO was intervening directly through a bombing campaign to accomplish this end, Achcar was hypocritically mouthing anti-imperialist shibboleths. “I mean, I’m against…direct intervention, because I know that the United States and its allies, when they intervene anyway, even if it is on the side of a popular revolt, it would be to control it, to try to steer it to their own interests. And that’s why I’m against them intervening directly.” [32] It might be pointed out that there’s no reason to believe that direct intervention is any more likely to be used to control and steer a popular revolt than is indirect intervention. Are rebels who are funded, trained and armed by Washington any less likely to be steered toward satisfying the agenda of their patron than those who receive direct battlefield support? Achcar’s distinction, then, between direct and indirect intervention is confused, to say the least, and on two levels. First, defining direct intervention as only “boots on the ground” is far too narrow. The violation of Libyan airspace by NATO warplanes was clearly a direct intervention, and clearly supported by Achcar. Secondly, indirect intervention is no less driven by imperialist ambition to control the forces on whose side the intervention is undertaken than is direct intervention. Direct or not, it’s still intervention, and it’s not done without the expectation of a pay off.

Syria

In a 17 December 2015 interview in Jacobin, interviewer Nada Matta asked Achcar, “Why are so many in the global Left confused over Syria? The Syrian regime is extremely oppressive and sectarian, and yet the Syrian revolution has not received the support that others have.”

Matta’s question itself reveals confusion over Syria. Embedded within it are a few untenable assumptions: that the Syrian government is a “regime”; that it is “extremely oppressive;” and that it is “sectarian.” But Achcar doesn’t object, and replies this way: Because “those who don’t know the history of the region think that because the Syrian regime is allied to Iran and to the Lebanese Hezbollah, it is anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist.” He then proceeds to tell us that the Syrian government is neither of these things. Indeed, says Achcar, “there is strictly nothing anti-imperialist about the Assad regime.” [33]

One might wonder whether Achcar has invested “anti-imperialism” with the kind of idiosyncratic meaning he’s given the phrase “direct intervention;” perhaps something like, “any government I don’t like cannot be anti-imperialist or anti-Zionist,” irrespective of its actual behavior.

The Syrian government defines itself as anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist, as evidenced by the preamble of the 2012 constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic, written under Assad’s leadership in response to the uprising and ratified by referendum. 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.” [34] One can dismiss this as cant, but explaining why such cant has been adopted by the Syrian government, in a world where the balance of power favors governments that capitulate to imperialist demands and accept the Zionist conquest of Palestine and the Golan Heights, is a far more difficult challenge, and one Achcar fails to rise to. Explaining, too, why Assad is loathed in Israel and opposed by the imperialists, and has been since well before the uprising of 2011—let’s not forget that Syria was designated in 2003 as part of a junior varsity axis of evil by the Bush administration and targeted for regime change—is no less challenging. Still, far from being anti-imperialist, Achcar assures us that the Syrian government is “a purely opportunistic mafia-like regime pursuing its own interest.” [35] Well, every government can be described in more or less the same terms, its interests varying depending on the class that dominates the state, and that this is so should hardly be a foreign idea to Marxists. The Obama administration is clearly a purely opportunistic mafia-like regime pursuing the interests of the dominant financial sector of the US capitalist class. Assad’s government pursues the interests of Syrian Arabs, and secondarily, the Arab nation, and the dominant economic class within it. It is not a Marxist government, privileging the working class; it is a secular Arab nationalist government. Indeed, the Syrian constitution forbids the formation of political parties based on class (as well as religion, gender, tribe, region, race, color and occupation [36]), consistent with a secular Arab nationalist orientation which emphasizes national identification over that of class and other groupings and liberation from the weight of a colonial past and defense against the predations of an imperialist present, rather than defense against capitalist exploitation. Therein may lie the reason the global Left is divided over Syria, namely, because it is already divided over the question of whether its allegiance is to all anti-imperialist governments, regardless of their class character, or only those that are working-class-led (combined with hostility to those that aren’t.)

Achcar further slanders the Syrian government, describing it as “one of the most despotic regimes in the region practicing extremely brutal repression.” [37] I use the word “slander,” not to deny that the Syrian government has been brutally repressive at times. It has been, though one would be hard pressed to name a single government that hasn’t at some point been despotic and brutally repressive in the face of existential threats, not to mention the United States, which has been despotic and brutally repressive even in the face of mild and virtually non-existent threats. During two world wars the United States centralized decision-making authority in the presidency to an extent that made the president a virtual dictator, and interned Japanese, German and Italian citizens, even though the safety of the United States was virtually assured by two vast oceans which separated it from its enemies. US economic, conventional and proxy warfare has been carried out throughout the world to brutally repress socialist, communist and national liberation movements that posed not even the mildest threat to the security of US borders or US citizens. Yet it is doubtful that Achcar would ever unreservedly launch a diatribe against US governments, denouncing them as mafia regimes that have practiced extremely brutal repression, but appears to have no reservations, and if anything, to delight, in unqualified denunciations of the Syrian government, all the while failing to acknowledge that states, by definition, are repressive in one way or another, and the more thoroughly threatened, the more repressive they are; and that, additionally, Syria has faced since its independence an unremittingly precarious security situation, beset by multiple existential threats, from Israel, the West, the reactionary Gulf states, and militant Islam, and multiple attempts by the United States to overthrow governments in Damascus. But even beyond this, what is additionally objectionable about Achcar’s characterization is its obvious hyperbole, since anyone of an unbiased mind will know that the despotic and repressive character of a number of governments in the region, from Saudi Arabia, to Bahrain, to Jordan, to Egypt, and Israel, are at least comparable to that of Syria, if not on an altogether different plane. Achcar is clearly way off base in describing Syria, a republic with an elected president and elected legislature as one of the most despotic regimes in a region that includes the Saudi autocracy, with its official misogyny, decapitations and amputations, and almost total abhorrence of representative democracy.

To the list of failings Achcar sees the Syrian government possessing, we must add its alleged embrace of neo-liberalism. “The Syrian regime has been implementing thorough neoliberal changes over the last 15 years with very visible results,” says Achcar. [38] This, however, hardly fits the reality. Odd would be a neo-liberal regime that wrote the following into its country’s constitution, as the Syrian government has its constitution: “Natural resources, facilities, institutions and utilities shall be publicly owned, and the state shall invest and oversee their management for the benefit of all people.” [39] Equally at odds with Achcar’s characterization of the economic policies of the Syrian government is the following: The U.S. State Department complains that Syria has “failed to join an increasingly interconnected global economy,” which is to say, has failed to follow the neo-liberal prescription of turning over its state-owned enterprises to private investors. The State Department is aggrieved that “ideological reasons” continue to prevent the Assad government from liberalizing Syria’s economy. As a result of the Ba’athists’ ideological fixation on socialism, “privatization of government enterprises is still not widespread.” The economy “remains highly controlled by the government.” [40]

The neo-liberally-inclined Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation are equally displeased. “Hafez al-Assad’s son Bashar, who succeeded him in 2000, has failed to deliver on promises to reform Syria’s socialist economy,” they complain.

Moreover,

The state dominates many areas of economic activity, and…marginalizes the private sector and prevents the sustainable development of new enterprises or industries. Monetary freedom has been gravely marred by state price controls and interference…[H]eavy state intervention, continues to retard entrepreneurial activity… Labor regulations are rigid, and the labor market suffers from state interference and control…[S]ystemic non-tariff barriers severely constrain freedom to trade. Private investment is deterred by heavy bureaucracy, direct state interference, and political instability. Although the number of private banks has increased steadily since they were first permitted in 2004, government influence in the financial sector remains extensive.” [41]

The U.S. Library of Congress country study of Syria refers to “the socialist structure of the government and economy,” points out that “the government continues to control strategic industries,” mentions that “many citizens have access to subsidized public housing and many basic commodities are heavily subsidized,” and that “senior regime members” have “hampered” the liberalization of the economy. [42] This sounds far from neo-liberalism.

If the Syrian government is not anti-Zionist, is not anti-imperialist, and has embraced neo-liberalism, it is difficult to understand how it is that foreign policy decision-makers in Washington have taken such an obvious dislike to it. Surely, a neo-liberal, pro-imperialist, non-anti-Zionist government in Syria would be defended and nurtured by Washington, as other Arab governments of the same ilk have been. That’s not to say that the Syrian government ought to be defended simply because it’s opposed by Western powers and Israel. But if the Syrian government is all that Achcar says it is, how are we to explain the hostility to the Syrian government of the pro-imperialist, pro-Zionist, neo-liberal centers of the world? It’s difficult, then, not to conclude that Achcar has deliberately set out to blacken the reputation of the Syrian government through a series of mischaracterization in order to portray it as the sort of government that Leftists could not possibly support. The problem is that his logic is tortured and premises are mistaken.

Equally tortured is Achcar’s logic with regard to the nature of the Syrian opposition, and equally fallacious are his premises. He pursues his usual tactic of making an argument based on two mutually contradictory claims. “In order to justify their support for the Assad regime, some people argue that the Syrian uprising, unlike other Arab countries, was led by reactionary Islamic forces,” he observes, before telling us: “This again is completely untrue…the basic fact is that there have been popular uprisings across the region.” [43] And yet Achcar grudgingly acknowledges that “Islamic fundamentalist forces (have) managed to become dominant among the organized forces.” [44] The apparent contradiction is resolved by arguing that reactionary Islamist forces did not initiate the uprising, but soon after moved into the vanguard. However, the question of whether militant Islamists were absent at the beginning of the uprising is a moot point, but let’s accept for the moment that they were. In that case, we’re still faced with the reality that the uprising is dominated today, and has been for some time, by al-Qaeda-linked militants. The question of why this is so—Achcar favors the view that it is due to the “weakness of the Left” [45]—is of no relevance whatever to the questions of whether the opposition ought to be supported, whether the global Left in supporting Damascus is confused, and whether Syria will be a better or worse place should the Assad government yield to the reactionary opposition that Achcar urges the global Left to support.

In a further instance of congruence with the US State Department positions, Achcar embraces a sectarian understanding of the conflict in Syria, much favored not only in Washington but in Riyadh as well, which amounts to the invoking of religious identity to mobilize militants for profane ends, in this case, the elimination of a secular Arab nationalist government which stands in the way of almost total US hegemony in the Arab world. Asked by interviewer Matta, “Aren’t the fighters on the ground in their vast majority Syrians who are fighting the dictatorship?” Achcar replies: “They are indeed.” He continues:

It’s out of the question that you could defeat ISIS through any alliance with Russia, Iran and the Assad regime, because that’s precisely what ISIS is pretending, that they are fighting all these people in defense of the Sunnis. So you need people who are seen as representing the overwhelming majority of the Syrian population, who are—who belong to the Sunni branch of Islam, and are seen as such, as representing this. [46]

But the majority of people in Syria are Sunni, including, not only the armed opposition, but also the Syrian Arab Army, and Assad’s wife. [47] The conflict is not one between Sunnis on the one hand and Shiites and Alawis on the other, but between religious fundamentalists, who seek to impose a sectarian religious dictatorship on the country, and non-sectarian Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the army, and are defending a vision of non-sectarian secular government. This isn’t a fight between an Alawite dictatorship that oppresses a Sunni majority, but between non-sectarian secularists and sectarian fanatics.

Compounding their mischaracterizations, Matta and Achcar continually refer to the Syrian government as a dictatorship. This is totally false. Syria is a republic, with authority divided among legislative, judicial and executive branches of government. Members of the legislature are elected. Assad, the president, was elected in a multi-candidate election in 2014. Calling the Syrian government a dictatorship is about as meaningful as defining intervention as nothing more than boots on the ground. It either reveals an ignorance of what’s really going on in Syria, sloppy analysis, or an attempt to mislead.

In addition to his other errors, Achcar embraces a position that Western leaders have tried to advance without success, for lack of evidence, and to much derision. “And that’s the opposition,” says Achcar, “I mean, the only force representing (the Sunnis) is this group of opposition forces, which are fighting Assad and fighting ISIS at the same time.” [48] Anyone who has followed events in Syria since 2011 will know that there is no opposition force of significance fighting both the Syrian government and ISIS, and that efforts to suggest there is have been regularly met with deserved disdain. The latest high profile attempt to propagate this nonsense was that of British prime minister David Cameron who claimed that there are 70,000 “moderate” rebels in Syria. Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk estimates that at best there are 700, and more likely only 70. [49]

Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn writes:

Western leaders have said they do not have to choose between IS and Assad, because there is a moderate opposition prepared to fight both. The mythical nature of this claim was revealed earlier this year when a US general admitted that it had just four such ‘moderate’ fighters in Syria after spending $500 million in training them. Others had either defected to Jabhat al-Nusra or been murdered by it. [50]

Note that just about the only people claiming that there is a moderate opposition prepared to fight both ISIS and Assad are Western leaders and Achcar. Even the CIA estimated that just 1,500 militants “might be labelled moderate, but only operate under license from the extreme jihadists.” [51] And the extreme jihadists are fighting the Syrian Arab Army, not themselves.

But wait! Achcar appears, after all, to agree with Fisk that there are no moderate rebels in Syria fighting both the Syrian Arab Army and militant Islamists. Coming to his senses, he acknowledges that the main battle is between the government and sectarian theocrats: “The end result in Syria is indeed that the situation is dominated by a clash between two…forces: on one side, the regime and its allies, and, on the other side, an armed opposition in which the dominant forces uphold political perspectives that are deeply contradictory with the initial progressive aspirations of the uprisings as expressed in 2011.” [52]

That the main forces in the battle are both, in Achcar’s words, “counter-revolutionary,” means, according to the failed Libya analyst, that at “this moment, there are no prospects whatsoever for a progressive outcome.” [53] Syria getting out from under the yoke of domination by outside forces and eradicating the menace of murderous sectarian fanaticism doesn’t count as a progressive outcome in Achcar’s book. Instead, “the best that can happen,” he says is that “Assad must go.” [54] Predictably, on this score, Achcar agrees with the US State Department.

But with what or who is Assad to be replaced?

On this question, Achcar becomes vague and departs from the US State Department line, but his argument appears to be this: If Assad’s secular, non-sectarian government steps down, it will be replaced by Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. The strength of the Islamist fundamentalists lies in Assad’s oppression of Sunnis (or what Achcar mistakenly sees as such.) With the source of the oppression removed, support for Islamic fundamentalism will dry up, and “people will see the vanity of both camps who have no solutions for the country’s problems.” [55] At that point, a progressive democratic movement will flourish.

To get there, Achcar advocates “serious support to the opposition, giving it the means seriously to defend itself, and again, especially with regard to airstrikes.” [56] Of course, this means serious support to ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist forces. Achcar would rather see Baghdadi in Damascus than Assad. For Achcar, eliminating secular, non-sectarian Arab nationalists is more important than preventing the rise of Sunni jihadists prepared to exterminate en masse apostates and infidels. And this from the ‘anti-imperialist’ who claims to have supported NATO’s direct intervention in Libya out of concern for the possibility that civilians might be massacred by the Libyan air force, but is prepared to support the massacre of the Alawite, Christian, Druze, and Kurdish populations of Syria, as surely these and other minorities would be massacred by the sectarian madmen Achcar urges Western powers to “give serious support to,” backed by a global Left he hopes to seduce to his morally bankrupt and politically offensive views. In this, Achcar is even more repellent than are Western leaders, for even they have no wish to bring the murderous sectarian fanatics of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS to power in Damascus.

To grasp the kind of Syria Achcar is willing to tolerate (easy for him to do, since he’ll never experience the miseries himself) “consider the situation in the province of Idlib, where the rebels rule.”

Schools have been segregated, women forced to wear veils, and posters of Osama bin Laden hung on the walls. Government offices were looted and a more effective government has yet to take shape. With the Talibanization of Idlib, the 100-plus Christian families of the city fled. The few Druze villages that remained have been forced to denounce their religion and embrace Islam; some of their shrines have been blown up. No religious minorities remain in rebels-held Syria, in Idlib, or elsewhere. [57]

The not so charitable view of Achcar is that he deliberately promotes US State Department talking points to the global Left by dressing them up in Leftist language as a way of undercutting opposition to the United States pursuing its hegemonic ambitions around the world. A more charitable view is that he rejects simple binary explanations in favor of recognizing a multiplicity of opposing forces in the Middle East. His schema might include four major forces: (A) secular Arab nationalists; (B) Western powers; (C) reactionary Islam; and (D) popular, democratic forces. In Achcar’s view, the secular Arab nationalists are opposed to B, C, and D; Western powers are opposed to A and D but are willing to collude with C against A and D. And popular democratic forces are opposed to A, B, and C. Achcar, it would seem, is willing to support B against A in the service of D (for example, in supporting NATO against Gaddafi or the West against Assad, to clear the way, in his view, for the eventual victory of popular, democratic forces.) However, if opportunistic alliances are permissible, we might ask why Achcar hasn’t supported secular Arab nationalists against Western imperialism and reactionary Islam in the service of popular, democratic forces? Surely, Western imperialism and reactionary Islam are significant obstacles to “the victory of a popular democratic uprising” whose clearing away might well be desired, especially in Syria where the Assad government has opened space for these very same forces to flourish through a new constitution which allows for multi-candidate presidential elections and ends the Ba’ath Party’s lead role in Syrian society. But Achcar’s deep loathing of secular Arab nationalists leads him, not only to traduce them, serving up false and invidious descriptions seemingly aimed at drawing the Left into his campaign of hatred against them, but to reliably side with Western imperialism against them, as if secular Arab nationalists are holding back the working class from leading a proletarian revolution in the Middle East and must therefore be swept away by Western powers. It’s difficult to say whether this is a crafty effort to mislead the global Left by pushing its hot buttons, or is simply the lunacy of a man in the grips of a naive fantasy. Whatever the case, the old warning should come to mind whenever the failed Libya analyst is invited to hold forth on Syria. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

1. President al-Assad: Syria won’t be a puppet state for the West “full Text”, Syrian Arab News Agency, http://sana.sy/en/?p=20381

2. Gilbert Achcar, “Libya: A legitimate and necessary debate from an anti-imperialist perspective,” Z-Net, March 24, 2011.

3. Gilbert Achcar, “Libyan Developments,” Z-Net, March 19, 2011.

4. Achcar, March 24, 2011.

5. Stephen Gowans, “Gaddafi’s crime: Making Libya’s economy work for Libyans,” what’s left, May 6, 2012.

6. Benoit Faucon, “For big oil, the Libya opening that wasn’t”, The Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2012.

7. Benoit Faucon, “For big oil, the Libya opening that wasn’t”, The Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2012.

8. Guy Chazan, “For West’s oil firms, no love lost in Libya”, The Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2011.

9. Guy Chazan, “For West’s oil firms, no love lost in Libya”, The Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2011.

10. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011.

11. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011

12. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011.

13. Clifford Kraus, “The scramble for access to Libya’s oil wealth begins”, The New York Times, August 22, 2011.

14. Achcar, March 24, 2011.

15. Gilbert Achcar and Nada Matta, “What happened to the Arab Spring?”, Jacobin, December 17, 2015.

16. “Obama Touts U.S. Strikes on ISIL, But Can Military Escalation Make Up for Failed Strategy?” Democracy Now, December 15, 2015.

17. Stephen Gowans, “What the Syrian Constitution says about Assad and the Rebels,” what’s left, May 21, 2013.

18. Stephen Gowans, “Suppose a respectable opinion poll found that Bashar al-Assad has more support than the Western-backed opposition. Would that not be major news?” what’s left, December 11, 2015.

19. Achcar, March 19, 2011.

20. As Assad Makes Gains, Will New U.S. Strategy for Syria Change the Dynamics?” PBS Newshour, June 14, 2013, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/world/jan-june13/syria2_06-14.html

21. Achcar, March 19, 2011.

22. Achcar, March 24, 2011.

23. Stephen Gowans, “Al-Qaeda’s Air Force”, what’s left, February 20, 2012. https://gowans.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/al-qaedas-air-force/

24. Ibid.

25. David Pugliese, “The Libya mission one year later: Into the unknown”, The Ottawa Citizen, February 18, 2012.

26. Ibid.

27. Achcar, March 19, 2011.

28. Achcar, March 24, 2011.

29. Democracy Now.

30. Achcar, March 24, 2011.

31. Pugliese.

32. Democracy Now.

33. Jacobin.

34. “Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic – 2012”, Voltaire Network, 26 February 2012, http://www.voltairenet.org/article173033.html

35. Jacobin.

36. “Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic – 2012”, Article 8:4.

37. Jacobin.

38. Jacobin.

39. “Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic – 2012”, Article 14.

40. U.S. State Department website. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3580.htm#econ. Accessed February 8, 2012.

41. Index of Economic Freedom 2012. http://www.heritage.org/index/country/syria. Accessed February 8, 2012.

42. U.S. Library of Congress. A Country Study: Syria. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/sytoc.html

43. Jacobin.

44. Jacobin.

45. Jacobin.

46. Jacobin.

47. “Mr. Assad’s wife, Asma al-Akhras, comes from a prominent family of Sunni Muslims from Homs.” Neil MacFarquhar, “Assad’s response to Syria unrest leaves his own sect divided”, The New York Times, June 9, 2012.

48. Jacobin.

49. Robert Fisk, “Is David Cameron planning to include al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra in his group of 70,000 moderates?”, The Independent, December 1, 2015.

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

51. Patrick Cockburn, “Britain is on the verge of entering into a long war in Syria based on wishful thinking and poor information,” The Independent, December 1, 2015.

52. Jacobin.

53. Jacobin.

54. Jacobin.

55. Jacobin.

56. Jacobin.

57. Joshua Landis and Steven Simon, “Assad has it his way: The peace talks and after,” Foreign Affairs, January 19, 2016.

Written by what's left

December 23, 2015 at 11:07 pm

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