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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

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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.

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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

Suppose a respectable opinion poll found that Bashar al-Assad has more support than the Western-backed opposition. Would that not be major news?

December 11, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

In the view of Syrians, the country’s president, Bashar al Assad, and his ally, Iran, have more support than do the forces arrayed against him, according to a public opinion poll taken last summer by a research firm that is working with the US and British governments. [1]

The poll’s findings challenge the idea that Assad has lost legitimacy and that the opposition has broad support.

The survey, conducted by ORB International, a company which specializes in public opinion research in fragile and conflict environments, [2] 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 (FSA) and 26 percent for the Syrian Opposition Coalition.

Syria Poll Table 1

At the same time, more see Assad’s ally, Iran, as having a favorable influence (43%) than view the Arab Gulf States—which back the external opposition, including Al Nusra and ISIS—as affecting Syria favorably (37%).

The two Arab Gulf State-backed Al-Qaeda linked organizations command some degree of support in Syria, according to the poll. One-third believe Al-Nusra is having a positive influence, compared to one-fifth for ISIS, lower than the proportion of Syrians who see Assad’s influence in a positive light.

According to the poll, Assad has majority support in seven of 14 Syrian regions, and has approximately as much support in one, Aleppo, as do Al-Nusra and the FSA. ISIS has majority support in only one region, Al Raqua, the capital of its caliphate. Al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, has majority support in Idlip and Al Quneitra as well as in Al Raqua. Support for the FSA is strong in Idlip, Al Quneitra and Daraa.

Syria Poll Table 2

An in-country face-to-face ORB poll conducted in May 2014 arrived at similar conclusions. That poll found that more Syrians believe the Assad government best represents their interests and aspirations than believe the same about any of the opposition groups. [3]

The poll found that 35 percent of Syrians saw the Assad government as best representing them (20% chose the current government and 15% chose Bashar al-Assad). By comparison, the level of the support for the opposition forces was substantially weaker:

• Al-Nusra, 9%
• FSA, 9%
• “Genuine” rebels, 6%
• ISIS, 4%
• National Coalition/transitional government, 3%

The sum of support for the opposition forces, 31 percent, was less than the total support for Assad and his government.

Of significance is the weak support for the FSA and the “genuine” rebels, the alleged “moderates” of which British prime minister David Cameron has improbably claimed number as many 70,000 militants. Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk has pointed out that if the ranks of the moderates were this large, the Syrian Arab Army, which has lost 60,000 soldiers, mainly to ISIS and Al-Nusra, could hardly survive. Fisk estimates generously that “there are 700 active ‘moderate’ foot soldiers in Syria,” and concludes that “the figure may be nearer 70,” closer to their low level of popular support. [4]

Sixteen percent of Syrians polled said that Moaz Al Khateeb best represented their aspirations and interests, a level of support on par with that for Assad. Khateeb, a former president of the National Coalition for Syrian and Revolutionary Forces—which some Western powers unilaterally designated as the legitimate government of Syria—called on Western powers to arm the FSA and opposed the designation of Al-Nusra as a terrorist group. The so-called “moderate” Islamist, who favors the replacement of secular rule with Sharia law, is no longer active in the Coalition or a force in Syrian politics.

Neither is the FSA a significant force in the country’s politics, despite its inclusion in the ORB survey. According to veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn, the FSA “largely collapsed at the end of 2013.” [5] Fisk says that the FSA is “virtually non-existent.” [6]

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

In a 11 December 2015 interview with Spanish media, Assad observed:

[I]f…the majority of…Syrians (oppose me) and you have…national and regional countries…against me, and the West, most of the West, the United States, their allies, the strongest countries and the richest countries in the world against me, and…the Syrian people (are opposed to me) how can I be president? It’s not logical. I’m…here after five years—nearly five years—of war, because I have the support of the majority of Syrians. [7]

Assad’s view of his level of support appears to be largely corroborated by the ORB poll.

The persistence of the myth that Assad lacks support calls to mind an article written by Jonathan Steele in the British newspaper the Guardian on 17 January 2012, less than one year into the war. Under a lead titled, “Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know it from western media,” Steele wrote:

Suppose a respectable opinion poll found that most Syrians are in favor of Bashar al-Assad remaining as president, would that not be major news? Especially as the finding would go against the dominant narrative about the Syrian crisis, and the media consider the unexpected more newsworthy than the obvious.

Alas, not in every case. When coverage of an unfolding drama ceases to be fair and turns into a propaganda weapon, inconvenient facts get suppressed. So it is with the results of a recent YouGov Siraj poll…ignored by almost all media outlets in every western country whose government has called for Assad to go.

Steele reminds us that Assad has had substantial popular support from the beginning of the war, but that this truth, being politically inconvenient, is brushed aside, indeed, suppressed, in favor of falsehoods from US, British and French officials about Assad lacking legitimacy.

Steele’s observation that inconvenient facts about Assad’s level of support have been “ignored by almost all media outlets in every western country whose government has called for Assad to go,” raises obvious questions about the independence of the Western media. Private broadcasters and newspapers are, to be sure, formally independent of Western governments, but they embrace the same ideology as espoused by key figures in Western governments, a state of affairs that arises from the domination of both media and governments by significant corporate and financial interests. Major media themselves are major corporations, with a big business point of view, and Western governments are made up of, if not always “in-and-outers” from the corporate world, by those who are sympathetic to big business.

Wall Street and the corporate world manifestly have substantial interests in the Middle East, from securing investment opportunities in the region’s vast energy resources sector, the construction of pipelines to carry natural gas to European markets (cutting out Russia), access to the region’s markets, and the sale of military hardware to its governments. Saudi Arabia, for example, a country of only 31 million, has the world’s third largest military budget, ahead of Russia [8], much of its spent buying expensive military equipment from Western arms manufacturers. Is it any wonder that Western governments indulge the Riyadh regime, despite its fondness for beheadings and amputations, official misogyny, intolerance of democracy, propagation of the violently sectarian Islamist Wahhabi ideology that inspires Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra and ISIS, military intervention in Bahrain to crush a pro-democracy uprising, and a war of aggression on Yemen?

The research firm also conducted a broadly similar poll in Iraq in July [9]. Of particular interest were the survey’s findings regarding the view of Iraqis on the possible partitioning of their country into ethno-sectarian autonomous regions. A number of US politicians, including in 2006 then US senator and now US vice-president Joseph Biden, have floated the idea of carving Iraq into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish states. Indeed, US foreign policy has long fostered the deepening of ethno-sectarian cleavages in Iraq, and US government officials have long labored to shape public opinion in the West to the view that Iraqis self-identify on tribal, sectarian, and ethnic grounds, to a far greater degree than they identify as Iraqis. If US government officials are to be believed, Iraqis themselves are eager to see their country split into ethno-sectarian mini-states.

But the ORB poll strongly rejects this view. According to the survey, three of four Iraqis oppose the partition of their country into autonomous regions, including majorities in both Sunni and Shiite communities. Only in the north of Iraq, where the Kurds already have an autonomous regional government, is there any degree of support for the proposal, and even there, only a slim majority (54%) is in favor.

Robert F. Worth, in a 26 June 2014 New York Times article [10], pointed to earlier public opinion polling that anticipated these findings. Worth wrote, “For the most part, Iraqis (with the exception of the Kurds) reject the idea of partition, according to recent interviews and opinion polls taken several years ago.”

US foreign policy favors the promotion of centrifugal forces in the Middle East, to split the Arab world into ever smaller—and squabbling—mini-states, as a method of preventing its coalescence into a single powerful Arab union strong enough to take control of its own resources, markets and destiny. It is in this goal that the origin of US hostility to the Syrian government, which is Arab nationalist, and to Iraqi unity, can be found. US support for Israel—a settler outpost dividing the Asian and African sections of the Arab nation—is also related to the same US foreign policy objective of fostering divisions in the Middle East to facilitate US economic domination of the region.

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

2. http://www.opinion.co.uk/whoweare.php

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

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. Patrick Cockburn, “Syria and Iraq: Why US policy is fraught with danger ,“ The Independent, September 9, 2014

6. Robert Fisk, “Saudi Arabia’s unity summit will only highlight Arab disunity,” The Independent, December 4, 2015

7. “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

8. Source is The Military Balance, cited in The Globe and Mail, Report on Business, November 25, 2015

9. http://www.opinion.co.uk/perch/resources/iraqdata.pdf

10. Robert F. Worth, “Redrawn lines seen as no cure in Iraq conflict,” The New York Times, June 26, 2014

Written by what's left

December 12, 2015 at 1:56 am

Aspiring to Rule the World: US Capital and the Battle for Syria

By Stephen Gowans

The idea that the United States has “interests” abroad is an affront to democracy and geography. How can a country have interests, and not only that, but vital ones, in every corner of the world, unless we ignore geography and the idea that the people who live in a place ought to own it, and organize their own affairs? All the same, US leaders regularly pronounce that the United States has vital interests abroad, and that the possession of these interests warrants the “projection of power,” which is to say the establishment of a military presence in a region to intimidate its people and governments to acquiesce to US demands.

Rarely, if ever, is it said what these “vital interests” are. They simply exist, and must be defended. Occasionally, their nature is at least superficially glimpsed, as in the idea that the Middle East is a vital US interest owing to its vast reserves of oil, and that if these reserves were to come under the control of a “hostile” power, the world could be held to ransom. Elements of this view can be traced to the Carter Doctrine and form much of the basis of what is presented as US strategy in connection with the Middle East.

Much has been made of supposed US reliance on the Persian Gulf area for petroleum. But while tremendous profits are made by US-based petroleum corporations that continue to dominate the petroleum industry in this region, the United States is not in fact especially reliant on petroleum imports from the Gulf.

Much has been made of supposed US reliance on the Persian Gulf area for petroleum. But while tremendous profits are made by US-based petroleum corporations that continue to dominate the petroleum industry in this region, the United States is not in fact especially reliant on petroleum imports from the Gulf.

To members of the general public it is likely that this thinking translates into the idea that the United States must interfere in the Arab world to guarantee the security of oil supplies, and thus the US way of life. What this overlooks, however, is that Canada is by far the largest foreign supplier of oil to the United States, accounting for 43 percent of all imports [1], versus just 22 percent in 2012 from six Persian Gulf suppliers, [2] and that the United States itself, is a major producer of oil, third ranked in the world, behind only Saudi Arabia and Russia [3]. Moreover, the United States is on track to become the world’s leading oil producer in just five years [4]. “[I]ncreasing production and declining consumption have unexpectedly brought the United States markedly closer to a goal that has tantalized presidents since Richard Nixon: independence from foreign energy sources” [5]. “The chimera of ‘energy independence’,” observes The New York Times, has begun “to look more tangible” [6].

As a major producer of oil, the United States has never been as dependent on Persian Gulf oil as it is popularly believed—and indeed, has never been dependent on the Persian Gulf for supplies of oil to any significant degree. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s, when consumption began to outstrip domestic supply, that the United States began to import oil from the Persian Gulf. An observation made by the sociologist Albert Szymanski in 1983 is still relevant today. “Much has been made of supposed US reliance on the Persian Gulf area for petroleum. But while tremendous profits are made by US-based petroleum corporations that continue to dominate the petroleum industry in this region, the United States is not in fact especially reliant on petroleum imports from the Gulf.” [7] Indeed,

“until the mid-1970s, very little Middle Eastern petroleum was imported into the United States, even though US transnational corporations had controlled the petroleum consortiums in the area for a generation. During this time, US transnational corporations took the oil out of the ground and sold it to Europe and Japan (as well as to the less developed countries) making tremendous profits, which they in good measure repatriated to the United States.

“In 1976…US petroleum companies in the Middle East exported less than 7 percent of their output to the United States while selling 82 percent to third countries.” [8]

Despite the minimal role the Persian Gulf has played in satisfying North American oil requirements, figures central to US foreign policy have justified US military intervention in the Middle East on the grounds of safeguarding security of supply. Bernard Lewis, an intellectual attached to the enormously influential US foreign policy organization, The Council on Foreign Relations, outlined the reasons for the US military intervention in the Persian Gulf in 1991 in the Council’s magazine Foreign Affairs, with reference to the need to protect the security of the world’s oil supply:

“If Saddam Hussein had been allowed to continue unchecked he would have controlled the oil resources of both Iraq and Kuwait. If the rest of the region observed that he could act with impunity, the remaining Persian Gulf states would sooner rather than later have fallen into his lap, and even the Saudis would have had either to submit or be overthrown. The real danger was monopolistic control of oil—which is a very large portion of the world’s oil.” [9]

Richard B. Cheney, then the US vice-president, invoked a similar rationale in August 2006 to explain the US invasion of Iraq in 2003: “Armed with an arsenal of…weapons of mass destruction, and seated atop 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East [and] take control of the world’s energy supplies.” [10] (Note the false conflation of Persian Gulf oil with the “world’s” energy supplies.)

Since not all of the world’s oil lies in the Persian Gulf, and much of it is found in Russia and North America, the idea that Saddam Hussein could control the world’s oil supply—and threaten the economy and living standards of North Americans—is transparently false. Lewis and Cheney had engaged in deliberate fear-mongering to mobilize public support for illegitimate interventions in the Middle East to bring about the political and economic domination of the region by the United States. The real motivation was not to safeguard the security of energy supplies, but to eliminate a threat to the profits of US petroleum corporations posed by Arab nationalists. In his book Devil’s Game, Robert Dreyfuss paints a picture that doubtlessly agitated the minds of US foreign policy planners.

“The oil monarchies are ruled by royal kleptocracies whose legitimacy is nil and whose existence depends of outside military protection. Most Arabs are aware that the monarchies were established by imperialists seeking to build fences around oil wells. Arabs would gain much by combining the sophistication and population of the Arab centers, including Iraq, with the oil wealth of the desert kingdoms. At the center lies Egypt, with its tens of millions of people and Saudi Arabia with its 200 billion barrels of oil. Uniting Cairo and Riyadh would create a vastly important Arab center of gravity with worldwide influence.” [11]

It is fairly certain that were Arabs to unify, overcoming the artificial political divisions imposed on them by the British Sykes and French Picot after WWI, and overcoming the sectarian cleavages that outsiders have sought to deepen, that more of the benefits of the sales of their petroleum resources would be retained at home, available for their own development, and less would be transferred to accounts of the capitalist class in the United States. There’s no danger that a pan-Arab power in possession of its own resources would blackmail those countries that depend on Middle Eastern oil. Cutting off the supply of oil would destroy the economy of the pan-Arab state, since it would depend on oil sales to earn revenue to import goods and services from the same countries it would presumably be seeking to hold to ransom. Because underdeveloped countries typically rely on the developed world to supply them with a wide range of goods and services, which they pay for with a few agricultural or resource goods, “historically it has been the advanced countries that have been able to effect disciplined boycotts against the poorer countries, far more than the reverse.” [12] What “the less developed countries…are interested in,” observed Szymanski, is “securing significantly better terms of trade for themselves.” [13] But, of course, significantly better terms of trade for themselves means leaner profits for US shareholders and investors. And therein lies the motivation for the United States’ hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East, namely, preventing the natives from throwing off their exploitation by US corporations.

Who Rules America?

Szymanski and others, among them Ralph Miliband (The State and Capitalist Society), G. William Domhoff (Who Rules America?), Thomas Ferguson (Golden Rule) and Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page (“Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Internet Groups, and Average Citizens”), have made that case that US society is dominated politically by a wealthy class of billionaire bankers, investors, and corporate titans. Gilens and Page, reviewing a vast empirical literature on the political influence of various sections of US society, have summarized the research this way: “[E]conomic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” [14] The Gilens and Page analysis comes from academe, but a careful reading of major newspapers furnishes scores of instances that resonate with the duo’s conclusion. For example, The New York Times of October 10, 2015 reported that just 158 families and the companies they own and control, mostly in finance and energy, have contributed half the funds to Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in the 2016 presidential race [15], from which the not unreasonable conclusion can be drawn that just 158 families and the companies they own and control, have an impact on US politics far in excess of their numbers (but not their wealth)—another way of saying that the United States is more a plutocracy than a democracy.

The enormous wealth commanded by members of the US capitalist class allows them to use their money to shape electoral contests, spending just a small fraction of their income. For example, Chicago hedge fund billionaire Kenneth C. Giffen has contributed $300,000 to Republican presidential candidates in the 2016 race, well beyond the capabilities of an average citizen. But Giffen’s contribution represents less than one percent of his monthly income of $68.5 million. [16] The titles of the following articles further point out the role of wealth in shaping US politics: “Hillary, Jeb and $$$$$$” (New York Times, February 21, 2015); “Bloomberg starts ‘Super PAC’, seeking national influence” (New York Times, October 17, 2012); “The businessman behind the Obama budget” (Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2012); “Which millionaires are you voting for?” (New York Times, October 13, 2012); “Close ties to Goldman enrich Romney’s public and private lives” (New York Times, January 27, 2012); “Conservative non-profit acts as stealth business lobbyist” (New York Times, April 21, 2012); “Number of millionaires in Congress: 261” (CBS News, November 17, 2010); “White House opens door to big donors, and lobbyists slip in” (New York Times, April 14, 2012); “Obama sends pro-business signal with adviser choice” (New York Times, January 21, 2011); “Wall Street ties linger as image issue for Hillary Clinton” (New York Times, November 21, 2015); “Obama’s not-so-hot date with Wall Street”(New York Times, May 2, 2012). The last article appears to indicate that limits exist on Wall Street’s influence in Washington (the not-so-hot date) but in point of fact describes US politics as a contest between various factions of the capitalist class to persuade average voters to back their favored candidate. This calls to mind the wry observation that the art of politics is to enable the wealthy to persuade the rest of us to use our votes to keep the representatives of the super-rich in power.

However, the influence of the dominant economic class on politics extends well beyond the electoral arena. Szymanski offers a concise summary of the mechanisms the wealthy use to dominate US politics.

Szymanski on the Theory of the State [17]

There is a wealthy class that dominates the US state and the US government and runs the state in its interest and against the interests of the vast majority of people. There are various ways that the wealthy class is able to dominate the US government even though there are elections in which everyone is eligible to vote. There are at least seven different ways by which the wealthy are able to control the US government. The first four are instrumental mechanisms. The last three are structural mechanisms. Instrumental mechanisms refer to ways in which the rich directly intervene in the US government. Structural mechanisms refer to those conditions that constrain the decision-making process. They operate independent of instrumental mechanisms. Hence, even if wealthy people don’t influence the government, the government is compelled by the ideological environment, the imperative of maintaining business confidence to avert economic crises and military intervention to make decisions in the interests of big business.

There is a wealthy class that dominates the US state and the US government and runs the state in its interest and against the interests of the vast majority of people.

There is a wealthy class that dominates the US state and the US government and runs the state in its interest and against the interests of the vast majority of people.

The direct mechanisms are:

• The placement of wealthy individuals or elite corporate executives in the top policy-making positions in the state.
• The pressure exerted on elected representatives and regulatory commissioners by lobbyists to legislate and rule in favor of business interests.
• Campaign funding. Politicians have to do the bidding of business if they want to receive the campaign funds they need to seriously contest elections.
• The role of key policy-formation groups, including the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Business Council—very powerful, exclusive, private organizations that formulate public policies and are able to transmit them to the government, by putting their people in top positions, holding regular conferences, and sending reports to the government.
There are 7-8 full-time lobbyists in Washington DC for every elected member of Congress. Virtually all work for big business.

Congress people, heads of regulatory commissions, and top generals are recruited by large corporations at the end of their public service careers to work as lobbyists, usually earning more money than they make in public service. Aware of the lucrative possibilities for their post public service careers, they ingratiate themselves with their prospective employers by acting in their interests while in politics, to ensure that they’re later offered remunerative positions.

There are no teeth in laws aimed at limiting the role of money in election campaigns. Consequently, the wealthy are able to spend as much as they want to get politicians who are sympathetic to their interests elected.

Policy-formation organizations are generally composed of two-thirds elite business people and one-third academics and major intellectuals and other influential people. They hold seminars and meetings with government officials, as well as transmit many policy recommendations to the government.

The structural mechanisms:

• Ideological hegemony: The ability of business to put ideas in our heads, so that we think like them, and thereby act the way they want us to act.
• Business strikes: Business’s ability to move outside a jurisdiction if the state’s policies are not conducive to profit-making. Businesses’ freedom to invest their capital as they see fit limits what governments can do.
• Military hegemony: If a government gets out of line and encroaches on business interests the military can take over.
Most people get their news and political values from the major media and educational system. Major media are major private corporations interlocked with major banks. But not only are they major private businesses themselves, they depend on advertising from major businesses. They are, then, doubly dependent on big business. If the media’s content becomes anti-business, sponsors cancel. So how we get our ideas is doubly controlled by big business.

The boards of trustees of universities are generally dominated by business people. Business people also make the major contributions to universities and therefore are in a position to influence what academics study.

Hence, schools and mass media are dominated by big businesses. We get our political values and ideas from the mass media and schools—hence, from big business.

We think our decisions about who we vote for are freely made, but our political ideas and values have been instilled by big business through the institutions of the mass media and education system which it dominates. All mass media and all universities are pro-business.

Suppose a state tripled the minimum wage and gave corporations six months to stop polluting. Business would move to another jurisdiction where wages were lower and there were no laws against pollution. Massive employment would ensue. In the next election, the government would be blamed for the economic crisis. It would lose the election to a right-wing party that would promise to bring jobs back by passing business-friendly legislation. It might propose to abolish the minimum wage altogether and to rescind all laws against pollution.

As long as business is free to invest or not invest—as long as it makes the economic decisions—the government has to structure the environment to serve businesses’ profit-making imperative; otherwise it will face a serious economic crisis. The only way to circumvent this structural constraint is to deny private business the freedom to make economic decisions, which is to say to nationalize them, so that capital cannot be relocated or made idle and is mobilized in the interests of a majority of people, rather than a wealthy minority of owners.

There are only eight countries in the world of say 160 capitalist countries that unremittingly had elections and parliamentary forms from about 1940: Britain, Ireland, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland and Sweden. All others had a dictatorship or military government at some point. Hence, the normal state for capitalist economies is to have military rule. Only the wealthiest capitalist states haven’t had military rule. But when a capitalist country encounters a severe crisis that challenges capitalist rule, it resorts to military rule.

Often the military takes over, and then relinquishes power. When this happens, civilian governments know that if they implement anti-business policies, the military will intervene once again. Hence, they are careful to remain within the bounds of acceptable big business policy. If ever there were a deep crisis in the United States that threatened capitalist rule, US generals would act as their counterparts in other capitalist countries have.

The Council on Foreign Relations

Szymanski cites the elite policy-formation organization The Council on Foreign Relations as one of the principal organizations through which US capitalist class policy preferences are transmitted to the US government. Laurence H. Shoup has recently written a major treatise on the Council, titled Wall Street’s Think Tank, an update of an earlier analysis he co-authored with William Minter, titled Imperial Brain Trust. Shoup argues that the Council is the major organization through which the US capitalist class establishes its agency and direction, becoming a class for itself. As such, it is worth a closer look.

The Council on Foreign Relations is the major organization through which the US capitalist class establishes its agency and direction, becoming a class for itself.

The Council on Foreign Relations is the major organization through which the US capitalist class establishes its agency and direction, becoming a class for itself.

The Council is a private organization with a chairman (for years David Rockefeller, who remains the honorary chairman) and board members (typically billionaires or near billionaires) and approximately 5,000 members, who are selected by the board. The raison d’être of the organization is to bring together intellectuals, prominent business people, leading members of the media, state officials, and top military leaders, into an exclusive club which formulates foreign policy recommendations and promotes them to the public and government. The Council’s interlocks with the US state are extensive. Beginning with the Carter Administration and moving forward to the Obama Administration, Shoup found that 80 percent of the key cabinet positions, which he defined as State, Defense, Treasury, National Security Adviser, and US Ambassador to the UN, were filled by Council members. Presidents (George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton) and vice-presidents (George H.W. Bush and Richard Cheney) were members at the time they were elected to these posts. One president, Carter, became a member after leaving the presidency.

The table below shows how many current Council members have filled key positions in the US state. They were usually members of the Council before they were appointed to these posts:

Secretary of Treasury, 10
National Security Adviser, 10
US Ambassador to the United Nations, 9
Secretary of State, 8
Secretary of Defense, 8
CIA Director, 8
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, 4
Head of the Federal Reserve, 4
World Bank President, 3
President, 2
Vice-President, 2
Director of National Intelligence, 2
Director of the National Security Agency, 1

Seventeen key current and former members of Obama’s administration are members of the billionaire-directed private club: James Jones Jr. (national security adviser); Thomas Donilon (national security adviser); Susan Rice (national security adviser, US ambassador to the UN); Timothy Geithner (treasury); Jack Lew (treasury); Robert Gates (defense); Chuck Hagel (defense); Ashton Carter (defense); David Petraeus (CIA); Robert Zoellick (World Bank); Janet Napolitano (homeland security); John Bryson (commerce); Penny Pritzker (commerce); Ernest Moniz (energy); Sylvia Burwell (health and human services); Mary Jo White (securities and exchange); and Michael Froman (US trade representative.) John Kerry, while not a Council member, is married to near billionaire Teresa Heinz Kerry, who is.

On top of placing its members in key state positions, the Council also directly influences policy by dominating external advisory boards established to advise the secretaries of state and defense and the director of the CIA. The Foreign Affairs Policy Board acts “to provide the Secretary of State, the Deputy Secretaries of State, and the Director of Policy Planning with independent, informed advice and opinion concerning matters of U.S. foreign policy.” It consists of 20 advisers, 18 of whom belong to the Council as members. The Defense Policy Board provides “the Secretary of Defense, Deputy Secretary of Defense and the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy with independent, informed advice and opinion concerning major matters of defense policy.” Fourteen of its 22 members belong to the Council. On September 10, 2009 then CIA Director Leon Panetta announced the establishment of an external advisory board of “distinguished men and women” who would visit CIA headquarters “periodically and offer their views on managing [the CIA] and its relationships with key customers, partners, and the public.” Ten of the 14 advisers Panetta named to the board—the majority—were Council on Foreign Relations members.

The Council is interlocked with other influential foreign policy-related organizations, including the Trilateral Commission (an international version of the Council, reaching beyond the United States to include counterparts in Canada, Western Europe, and Japan), Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group.

Human Right Watch’s co-chair Joel Motley; vice-chair John Studzinski (global head of the investment firm Blackstone); board member Michael Gellert; executive director Kenneth Roth; and deputy executive director Carol Bogert, are all members of The Council on Foreign Relations. A major source of funding comes from Council member George Soros’ Open Society Institute.

The International Crisis Group has extensive overlaps with the Council. ICG Chairman Emeritus, George J. Mitchell, is a Council member, as are the following trustees: Mort Abramowitz; Samuel Berger; Wesley Clark; Thomas R. Pickering; Olympia Snowe; George Soros; and Lawrence Summers. Council members who serve as senior ICG advisers include Zbigniew Brzezinski; Stanley Fischer; Carla Hills; Swanee Hunt; James V. Kimsey and Jessica T. Mathews. Soros and Rockefeller are major sources of funding.

The Council membership includes an assortment of billionaires and prominent business people, including Peter Ackerman (supporter of non-violent overthrow movements and head of the CIA-interlocked Freedom House); Bruce Kovner; Henry R. Kravis; Penny Pritzker; David M. Rubenstein; Frederick W. Smith; George Soros; Leonard A. Lauder; Mortimer B. Zuckerman; Eric E. Schmidt; Stephen Schwarzman; John Paulson; Lloyd Blankfein; Edgar Bronfman Jr.; Jamie Dimon; Louis V. Gerstner, Jr.; and a number of Rockefellers, a Roosevelt, and members of other wealthy families. It also includes a media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, and prominent journalists: Tom Brokaw; Leslie H. Gelb; Robert W. Kagan; Charles Krauthammer; Nicholas D. Kristof; Lewis H. Lapham; Judith Miller; Peggy Noonan; Walter Pincus; John Podhoretz; Dan Rather; David E. Sanger; Diane Sawyer; George Stephanopoulos; and Barbara Walters. Not only does the Council place its members in key positions in the state and in influential civil society organizations, it also co-opts leading media figures to promote the Council’s views to the public.

Antipathy to Public Ownership

Joseph Stalin is reputed to be a monster for causing innumerable deaths as a consequence of decisions he took to defend the Soviet Union against multiple existential threats, not least of which was aggression by Nazi Germany. What category of monster, then, are former US presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who, in the absence of a security threat from Iraq, chose to sacrifice the lives of numberless Iraqis in pursuit of the foreign policy goal of establishing US hegemony in the Middle East to facilitate the accumulation of capital by their country’s economic elite?

Joseph Stalin is reputed to be a monster for causing innumerable deaths as a consequence of decisions he took to defend the Soviet Union against multiple existential threats, not least of which was aggression by Nazi Germany. What category of monster, then, are former US presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who, in the absence of a security threat from Iraq, chose to sacrifice the lives of numberless Iraqis in pursuit of the foreign policy goal of establishing US hegemony in the Middle East to facilitate the accumulation of capital by their country’s economic elite?

Significantly, every country in which the United States has intervened militarily either directly or through proxies, or threatened militarily, since WWII has had a largely publicly owned economy in which the state has played a decisive role, or has had a democratized economy where productive assets have been redistributed from private (usually foreign) investors to workers and farmers, and in which room for US banks, US corporations and US investors to exploit the countries’ land, labor, markets and resources has been limited, if not altogether prohibited. These include the Soviet Union and its allied socialist countries; China; North Korea; Nicaragua; Yugoslavia; Iraq; Libya; Iran; and now Syria. We might expect that a foreign policy dominated by a wealthy investor class would have this character. It would react to the restrictions of communists, socialists and economic nationalists on US profit-making as obstacles to overcome, even at great cost to the lives of others. For example, asked in 1996 about a UN estimate that US-led sanctions had killed 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five, then US secretary of state Madeleine Albright (a Council member) told 60 Minutes that “It’s a hard choice, but I think, we think, it’s worth it.” [18] Italian philosopher and historian Domenico Losurdo has pointed out that the Clinton administration’s murder through sanctions-related hunger and disease of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis is a crime far in excess of any of which Soviet leader Joseph Stalin can been accused, since the deaths attributed to Stalin were the consequences of decisions he took as defensive responses to a permanent state of emergency the USSR faced during his years in power, including the aggressions of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and the Cold War, aggressions which threatened the very existence of the Soviet Union. By contrast, the United States faced no security threat from Iraq. Even so, then US president Bill Clinton chose to sacrifice the lives of numberless Iraqis in pursuit of the foreign policy goal of establishing US hegemony in the Middle East to facilitate the accumulation of capital by his country’s economic elite. [19] If Stalin is portrayed as a monster, then by what greater category of monster must we describe Clinton, or for that matter, George W. Bush, leader of the trumped-up 2003 war on Iraq? It is one thing to take decisions which lead to innumerable deaths in response to significant threats against one’s country, and quite another to kill numberless people in the absence of a threat in pursuit of foreign policy goals related to the profit-making interests of bankers, investors and oil companies.

US Foreign Policy Goals in Syria

We need not tarry too long on the idea that the intervention of the United States and its allies in the struggle in Syria is motivated in any way by considerations of human rights and democracy, since (a) the United States counts as its principal allies in the Middle East, despotic regimes whose disdain for human rights as elemental as the right of women to drive automobiles (in the case of Saudi Arabia) knows no parallel, and yet Washington is perfectly comfortable to dote on these anti-democratic monarchies, emirates and dictatorships, selling them arms, establishing military bases on their territory and protecting them against condemnation in international forums and from the opposition of democratic forces at home; and (b) these same tyrannies are the major supporters, along with the United States, of barbaric, sectarian Sunni jihadists who have butchered their way across Syria for the last four years. When their attacks are directed at Syrians, the brutality of these sectarian fanatics is mechanically noted then passed over quickly by the Western news media, in contrast to the copious coverage afforded to equivalent butchery aimed at Western targets. Hence, the ISIS attack in November of 2015 in Paris was given wide-ranging coverage and elevated to an event of earth-shattering proportions, while similar attacks carried out almost daily in Syria and Iraq, and in Syria by “rebels”, including the non-ISIS Sunni Islamists dubbed “moderates” by the US government, are largely ignored. For example, in August 2013, ISIS, the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and other Islamist fanatics slaughtered more than 200 Alawite villagers, and at the same time kidnapped more than 100 women and children. [20] There was no Western media-orchestrated outpouring of grief for these victims of Sunni Islamist terrorism.

There is a confluence of factors that seem to have conduced to making the Syrian government a target for US-sponsored regime change through militant Sunni Islamist proxies, but two appear to be primary.

Foreign_Affairs_Sept_Oct_2010The first is the status of the Syrian government as the last bastion of Arab nationalism. Arab nationalism threatens the ability of the US corporate class to draw a Himalaya of profits from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf, the traditional range of the Arab nation. Instead of a free flow of profits to the United States, facilitated by Arab kings and emirs who have no legitimacy with their own people and rely on Washington’s support to continue their despotic rule, the proceeds of the sale of the region’s petroleum resources would be used for the region’s own internal development, if Arab nationalist aspirations were brought to fruition. The carriers of the Arab nationalist contagion must, from the point of view of US foreign policy planners, be eradicated.

The second is the existence in Syria of a major role for the state in the ownership and control of the economy. The idea of state control of industry and enterprise is an anathema to the US foreign policy establishment, as well we would expect it to be, given the enormous influence of bankers, investors and major corporations in Washington, in no small measure exercised through The Council on Foreign Relations. US capital is looking for places to export to and invest in. It is no accident that one of the first tasks undertaken by the dictator Washington initially installed in Iraq in 2003, L. Paul Bremer (not surprisingly, a member of the Council), was to remove most restrictions which the toppled Arab nationalist government in Baghdad had imposed on US investors and exporters. Tariffs and duties were abolished; scores of Iraqi enterprises were put on the auction block; much of the economy was opened to foreign investment; foreign investors were allowed to repatriate 100 percent of their profits; and a 15 percent flat tax was established. [21]

Likewise, much of the growing US hostility to China, signaled in the Obama’s administration’s military pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, and the Council’s call for Washington to “balance the rise of China” (which is to say eclipse its economic growth), is based on opposition to the significant role the Chinese Communist Party plays in China’s economy. Saying that Washington is opposed to state economic control is another way of saying that the US foreign policy establishment bristles at restrictions which prevent US investors and businesses from fully realizing the profit potential of Chinese land, labor, resources, and markets. US investors, US business people and US bankers want China as a wonderful source of profits, an aspiration that fails to comport fully with China’s own development strategy.

Similarly Damascus’s significant management of Syria’s economy at the expense of US investors and US corporations has very likely been a major consideration (among others) behind the decision taken by the big business-dominated US foreign policy establishment to attempt to engineer the ouster of Assad’s Arab nationalist government.

Conclusion

It is said that countries have interests, not friends, but is there any democratic or geographically legitimate sense in which they have economic interests on someone else’s territory? Only imperialists have economic interests beyond their own borders, enforced through threat and coercion, and that US state officials regularly invoke the phrase “our vital interests” in other countries in order to justify interventions is a measure of how unabashedly imperialist US foreign policy is. The vital interests the United States claims to have in the Middle East, Asia and Europe are no more valid than the vital interests Nazi Germany claimed to have in Europe, fascist Italy claimed to have in Africa, Imperial Japan claimed to have in East Asia, and Britain claimed to have in Asia and Africa.

An analysis of who exercises sway over public policy making in Washington leads to an inescapable conclusion: US foreign policy has a class content. It is that of bankers, investors and major shareholders of the United States’ key corporations who, through instrumental and functional mechanisms, dominate US public affairs. This class has an interest in unimpeded access to the land, labor, resources and markets of the entire world (and beyond [22]) for purposes of making itself ever wealthier. For this reason, US foreign policy is, and has always been, hostile to the threat posed by the economic self-determination of foreign populations which aspire to control their own wealth-producing assets for their own purposes. This is no less true in connection with Syria, whose government represents the last bastion of an Arab nationalism which is against US corporate control of the Arab heartland, and which plays a significant role in the country’s economic affairs at the expense of private US investors. By contrast with the imperialist character of US foreign policy, the thinking of the Syrian president is democratic and geographically valid: “Syria,” he has said, “is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.” [23] US foreign policy seeks to turn this on its head. In the view of US foreign policy planners, Syria ought to be a US client state which colludes in making the Syrian people work for the economic interests of a parasitic elite of billionaires, wealthy investors, and major shareholders who sit atop US society and aspire to sit atop the entire world.

1. Amy Harder and Colleen McCain Nelson, “Obama administration rejects Keystone XL pipeline, citing climate concerns,” The Wall Street Journal, November 6, 2015.

2. Juan Forero, “Center of gravity in oil world shifts to America,” The Washington Post, May 25, 2012.

3. Juliet Eilperin, “Canadian government overhauling environmental rules to aid oil extraction,” The Washington Post, June 3, 2012.

4. Benoit Faucon and Keith Johnson, “U.S. redraws world oil map,” The Wall Street Journal, November 12, 2012.

5. Clifford Kraus and Eric Lipton, “U.S. inches toward goal of energy independence,” The New York Times, March 22, 2012.

6. Daniel Yergin, “Who will rule the oil market?” The New York Times, January 23, 2015.

7. Albert Szymanski, The Logic of Imperialism, Praeger, 1983, p. 167.

8. Szymanksi (1983), p. 166.

9. Bernard Lewis, “Rethinking the Middle East, Foreign Affairs,” September 1, 1992.

10. Laurence H. Shoup, Wall Street’s Think Tank: The Council on Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics, 1976-2014, Monthly Review Press, 2015, p. 215.

11. Robert Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, Holt, 2005, p. 99.

12. Szymanksi (1983), p. 165.

13. Ibid.

14. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Internet Groups, and Average Citizens”, Perspectives in Politics, Fall, 2014.

15. Nicholas Confessore, Sarah Cohen and Karen Yourish, “The families funding the 2016 presidential election,” The New York Times, October 10, 2015.

16. Ibid.

17. Transcript of audio file containing lecture by Albert Szymanski. The audio file is no longer available on the internet.

18. 60 Minutes, May 12, 1996.

19. Domenico Losurdo, “Flight from history? The communist movement between self-criticism and self-contempt,” Nature, Society and Thought, 2000, 1393): 457-514.

20. Sam Dagher and Raja Abdulrahim, “Russian fighter jet downed in region with diverse mix of rebel groups,” The Wall Street Journal, November 24, 2015.

21. Shoup, p. 220.

22. President Obama … signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (H.R. 2262) into law…recogniz[ing] the right of U.S. citizens to own asteroid resources… http://www.planetaryresources.com/2015/11/president-obama-signs-bill-recognizing-asteroid-resource-property-rights-into-law/

The bill, which can be found on the US Congress website, reads: Sec. 202) This bill directs the President, acting through appropriate federal agencies, to: ….promote the right of U.S. commercial entities to explore outer space and utilize space resources, in accordance with such obligations, free from harmful interference, and to transfer or sell such resources.

23. President al-Assad: Basis for any political solution for crisis in Syria is what the Syrian people want,” http://www.syriaonline.sy/?f=Details&catid=12&pageid=5835).

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November 28, 2015 at 10:45 pm

Violent Islamist Insurgents or Rebels? It Depends on Whether They’re Helping or Hindering the US Plutocracy

November 3, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

“Syria is home to a violent Islamist insurgency. Syria’s jihadists have carried out hundreds of attacks on security forces.” That’s one way of describing what’s going on in Syria, though it clashes with the accustomed view of the Western news media. The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal favor the view that the conflict is one in which rebel militias have taken up arms against a “brutal and vicious” dictatorship which has squandered its legitimacy. In the understanding promoted by the West’s press, Syria is home to a violent civil war where regime forces have carried out hundreds of barrel bomb attacks on civilians, not home to violent Islamist insurgents who carry out attacks on a legitimate government’s security forces.

Yet the view presented at the outset of this article is not so different from the Western news media’s depiction of a little-known conflict in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. In fact, I’ve imported the description of that conflict from The Washington Post and altered it with the lone replacement of the word Sinai by the word Syria. The original reads: “Sinai…is home to a violent Islamist insurgency…. Egypt’s Sinai jihadists…have carried out hundreds of attacks on security forces.” [1]

Laurence H. Shoup, who has written a recent study of the CFR, titled “Wall Street’s Think Tank,” says the Council works on “how to expand profit-making opportunities for US corporations abroad, sometimes by working to weaken or overthrow governments that are standing in the way of expansion of corporate capital.”

Laurence H. Shoup, who has written a recent study of the CFR, titled “Wall Street’s Think Tank,” says the Council works on “how to expand profit-making opportunities for US corporations abroad, sometimes by working to weaken or overthrow governments that are standing in the way of expansion of corporate capital.”

The point of replacing Sinai with Syria is to show that interconnected violent Islamist insurgencies in the same neighbourhood can be—and are—depicted in very different ways. From the perspective of the Western media, there’s a “violent Islamist insurgency” in Egypt, but in Syria there’s a civil war. Unmentioned, though significant, is the reality that Egypt is home to a de facto dictatorship allied to the United States, while Syria is home to a government that zealously guards its independence from US domination.

Egypt’s conflict, according to Western news media, involves violent Islamist jihadists, but Syria’s features rebels. Yet the militias battling the Syrian government are dominated by violent Islamist jihadists, most belonging to al-Qaeda offshoots, or who are “enmeshed” with them, as The New York Times [2] delicately describes the fighters the United States backs under a $1B covert CIA train-and-equip program. [3]

And while the Western news media say Egypt has security forces which are under attack by jihadists, Syria is said to have “regime” forces which attack civilians. Implied in all this is that the government in Cairo is legitimate (it’s fending off attacks on its security forces), while the one in Damascus, which is regularly called a “regime”, is not (it’s killing its own people, we’re told.)

Clearly, when it comes to Syria, Western news media are chauvinistically biased. They present countries within Washington’s orbit in a different light from those outside it; those that are allied with the United States different from those that are not. So while we might expect two parallel conflicts to be described in a commensurate way, using the same language, this doesn’t happen. Instead, we get a civil war, rebels and regime forces in one case, and an insurgency, violent Islamist jihadists and security forces in another.

A related example of Western news media chauvinism is found in the reporting of The New York Times’ David E. Sanger, a member of The Council on Foreign Relations, an elite consensus-forming organization presided over by principals of US finance, banking and industry. In its own words, the Council acts to help shape US foreign policy, provide continuing leadership for the conduct of US foreign relations, and inform a wider audience. [4]

I mention the CFR, and Sanger’s connection to it, for reasons that will become clear in a moment.

Laurence H. Shoup, who has written a recent study of the CFR, titled “Wall Street’s Think Tank,” says the Council works on “how to expand profit-making opportunities for US corporations abroad, sometimes by working to weaken or overthrow governments that are standing in the way of expansion of corporate capital.” [5]

There’s no doubt that the Council has enormous influence in Washington. Since the Carter administration, if not before, the following key US cabinet positions have, in the majority, been filled by members of the billionaire-directed policy organization: State, National Security, Defense, Treasury, Ambassador to the UN, and CIA. Presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush were members, and Carter became one after his presidency. As vice-presidents, Mondale, Bush, and Cheney were members. Joe Biden was once a member. [6]

The CFR is no less strongly represented in the Obama administration. All three of Obama’s national security advisers have CFR pedigrees, as do all of his defense secretaries, as well as secretary of state John Kerry (married to near-billionaire Terisa Heinz, who inherited the Heinz food fortune). Former CIA director David Petraeus is also a member. [7]

Back to New York Times reporter and CFR member Sanger. In a 1 November 2015 article [8] Sanger notes that Washington engages “with some of the world’s most repressive governments” despite its professed commitment to promoting human rights.

Indeed, Washington does engage with many of the world’s most repressive governments, including its allies Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and Israel, even to the extent of establishing military bases on their soil or selling them arms or providing them military aid or colluding in their aggressions or running interference for them in international political forums, or in all of these ways.

But Sanger didn’t have these US allies in mind when he referred to the world’s most repressive governments. Instead, he mentioned just two, neither US allies: Iran and Cuba. Committing a sin of omission, he subtly advanced the misleading view that the world’s most repressive governments belong to the phalanx of countries to which Washington is hostile, drawing a veil over the reality that many of the world’s most repressive governments are key US client states. Worst, their repressions are often amply assisted by Washington militarily, economically and diplomatically, in return for favors to US finance, banking and industry.

For example, Saudi Arabia, a family dictatorship that beheads its citizens for some non-violent crimes, including apostasy, imprisons and flogs bloggers for criticizing the king, and which sequesters women and bans them from driving automobiles, is a source of immense profits to the US banking, finance, resource-extraction and weapons manufacturing industries. Washington dotes on the Saudi tyranny, and the Saudi tyranny dotes on US capital.

By contrast, the government in Damascus, which Washington reviles, offers none of the profit-making attractions so richly bestowed on Wall Street by the Gulf tyrannies. On the contrary, Damascus is the last redoubt of an Arab nationalism that views the vast resources of the Middle East and North Africa as the patrimony of the Arab nation, and which seeks to bring those resources under Arab control for the nation’s own internal development, and not to serve the profit-making imperatives of Western businesses and the personal extravagances of US-allied emirs. In the Wall Street-unfriendly view of Syria’s embattled president Bashar al-Assad, Arab states ought to work for the interests of their people, rather than making their people work for the interests of the West. [9]

This was a view shared by another of the United States’ Arab nationalist bêtes noire, Muamar Gaddafi, and he paid the price for acting on it with his life. “We came, we saw, he died,” crowed then US secretary of state Hilary Clinton, after violent Islamist jihadists, aided by NATO warplanes, did corporate America’s dirty work by removing an Arab leader The New York Times said “proved to be a problematic partner for international oil companies, frequently raising fees and taxes and making other demands.” [10] Gaddafi aroused corporate America’s enmity when he announced, “Oil companies are controlled by foreigners who have made millions from them. Now, Libyans must take their place to profit from this money.” [11] Clinton’s husband and daughter are both CFR members. [12]

The reality that Washington’s demons are almost invariably defiant champions of interests which conflict with Wall Street’s is a reality which will not be included among all the truth that’s fit to print in The New York Times. Nor this: There is, in Syria, a violent Islamist insurgency. It is fuelled by the United States and by some of the world’s most repressive governments through the provision of money, training and arms to jihadist cat’s paws. The insurgents’ aim is to topple a secular government and replace it with a theocratic one. Their backers’ aim is to eliminate an Arab nationalist orientation which lays too much stress on public ownership of the economy and rule in favor of local interests to suit the preferences of US finance, banking and industry.

Not surprisingly, The Washington Post and The New York Times, newspapers organically connected to the US capitalist class, put a spin on foreign affairs that demonizes countries whose policies fail to accommodate the interests of corporate USA. As noted, Shoup writes that the CFR (and so too the interlocked news media, State Department, CIA and Pentagon) work on “how to expand profit-making opportunities for US corporations abroad, sometimes by working to weaken or overthrow governments that are standing in the way of expansion of corporate capital.” When Wall Street-unfriendly governments are confronted by violent Islamist jihadists, backed by Washington and some of the world’s most repressive governments, they’re depicted as “brutal dictatorships” which kill their own citizens. But when the same “rebels” threaten repressive governments that facilitate the profit-making of US corporations, they suddenly become violent Islamist insurgents who attack “security” forces, or in the case of ISIS when it threatens control of oil fields in Iraq, “the world’s gravest threat.”

The description, then, of violent political Islam as comprising either rebels opposing an illegitimate dictatorship or violent Islamist insurgents attacking the security forces of a legitimate government depends entirely on whether the interests of the US plutocracy are facilitated or hindered. The US capitalist class, through its ownership and control of the mass news media and domination of the State Department, Pentagon, CIA and post of National Security Adviser, both shapes US foreign policy it is own interests, and shapes how we understand and think about it.

Of course, an understanding that comports with the profit-making interests of billionaires happens only to the extent we allow it to, and to the degree we docilely follow wherever the mass news media lead us—and only inasmuch as we uncritically parrot its conclusions, adopt its language, and acquiesce to its manipulations.

1. Eric Cunningham, “No survivors after Russian airliner crashes in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula”, The Washington Post, October 31, 2015.

2. 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.

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

4. Laurence H.Shoup. Wall Street’s Think Tank: The Council on Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics, 1976-2014, Monthly Review Press, 2015, p. 69.

5. Shoup, p. 68.

6. Shoup, Chapter 3.

7. Shoup, pp. 98-99.

8. David E. Sanger, “John Kerry is cautious on Human Rights during Uzbekistan visit”, The New York Times, November 1, 2015.

9. http://www.syriaonline.sy/?f=Details&catid=12&pageid=5835

10. Clifford Kraus, “The Scramble for Access to Libya’s Oil Wealth Begins,” The New York Times, August 22, 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. Shoup, p. 98.

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November 2, 2015 at 11:54 pm

Avoiding the Failure of Libya: US Strategy in Syria

September 27, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

While Washington toppled a resource nationalist in Libya who annoyed US oil companies, it failed to install a successor government in a stable environment in which US interests could be effectively advanced. US policy in Syria emphasizes “an orderly political transition” in which Arab nationalists vacate the Syrian state, yielding to anti-nationalist US marionettes. The political transition is to be brought about by proxies, militant jihadists, who the United States and its allies will strengthen enough to weaken and dispirit the current government in Damascus but not enough to topple it and plunge the country into a Libya-style chaos.

Washington’s strategy in Syria is an implicit admission that its direct military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have failed to bring about its desired foreign policy objectives of establishing stable conditions in which pro-US regimes can carry out policies to advance Wall Street’s economic, and Washington’s interlinked political and military agendas, in those few remaining parts of the world that refuse to submit to US hegemony, alternatively described as the international dictatorship of US business interests .

To be sure, the objectives have been partially met. There’s a US-installed regime in Kabul, but the active resistance of the Taliban limits its room to maneuver to advance US goals. Sectarian strife in Iraq, largely the consequence of the divide and rule policies forced upon Iraqis by US occupying forces in the mid-2000s, has produced tension among Iraq’s major ethno-sectarian communities, while Iran competes with Washington for influence in the country. And the US-led (from behind) military operation in Libya—essentially a marriage of NATO air power with al-Qaeda foot soldiers to topple a “resource nationalist” whom US oil companies could no longer abide—has produced a failed state, utter chaos, and no reliable US puppet to take control of the country to reshape it in the interests of corporate USA.

With these failures in mind, Washington has approached the project of purging Damascus of its governing Arab nationalist ideology more judiciously and with greater caution than it approached similar regime change projects in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The strategy is to force a political settlement in which the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his Arab nationalist colleagues step aside, leaving the infrastructure of the Syrian state in place, to be taken over by reliable anti-nationalist US marionettes. The political settlement is to be brought about by forcing a military stalemate between the Syrian government and Islamist rebels. At some point, it’s hoped, the Arab nationalists in Damascus will realize that their situation is hopeless, and sue for a graceful exit.

The key to the strategy is ISIS and other groups of fanatical Islamist militants. They must be allowed to be strong enough to maintain unrelenting military pressure on Damascus but not so strong that they topple the Syrian government. To achieve this delicate balance, ISIS is held in check by a US-led air campaign of containment, while other jihadists are managed through controls on the amount of arms, money and training they receive from their sponsors, the United States, Britain, France, Turkey, and the Gulf oil dictatorships.

The nature of the US strategy has long been discussed openly in major US newspapers. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post have revealed that: “The White House has drawn up elaborate plans for a post-Assad Syria that includes an orderly political transition that keeps the country together and preserves Western interests.” “U.S. officials are hoping for a diplomatic solution to keep national institutions in place.” “The U.S. … wants to keep technocratic elements of the state in place, seeking to avoid a repeat of what happened in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion”. “American policy is not to oust Mr. Assad precipitously, risking an extremist takeover, but to push him to a political settlement.” The United States doesn’t want “wholesale regime change, institution collapse, state collapse (as it) saw in Iraq.” Christine Wormuth, US undersecretary of defense for policy, points to “a political transition that would see Mr. Assad step down while preserving a government structure to avoid chaos.”

Major U.S. newspapers have also revealed that “The (US) end game requires a very careful calibration that doesn’t tip the meter in an unintended way toward groups that could produce the kind of post-Assad Syria that (the United States isn’t) looking for.” Underscoring this point “The Obama administration doesn’t want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests”. “The White House wants to strengthen the opposition but doesn’t want it to prevail.”

Significantly, “The CIA’s mission…has been defined by the White House’s desire to seek a political settlement, a scenario that relies on an eventual stalemate among the warring factions rather than a clear victor. As a result…limits on the agency’s authorities enable it to provide enough support to help ensure that … U.S.-supported militias don’t lose but not enough for them to win.” “Gen. Martin Dempsey, (when he was) chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, (was) particularly outspoken with lawmakers about his concerns that weakening Mr. Assad too much could tip the scales in favor of al Qaeda-linked fighters.”

Washington’s policy of forcing competing forces in Syria to bleed each other into exhaustion is looked upon favorably by the Israelis, who see it as coming straight out of the playbook of setting Arabs against each other, leaving the Zionists free to continue their project of usurping Arab territory as the Arabs descend into a hell of intra-ethnic internecine warfare. This is congenial to the Zionists’ “imperialism by the inch” as novelist Susan Abulhawa terms it. “Israeli officials have told their American counterparts they would be happy to see its enemies Iran, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and al Qaeda militants fight until they are weakened.” Meanwhile, Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York, notes that “This is a playoff situation in which you need both teams to lose, but at least you don’t want one to win — we’ll settle for a tie. Let them both bleed, hemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here. As long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria.”

It seems clear now that US planning for a post-Assad Syria foresees an end to aid to its jihadist allies—the United States “has trained and equipped nearly 10,000 fighters sent into Syria over the past several years” through a covert CIA program—and an intensification of the US campaign against ISIS, if, and when, a political settlement is reached to purge the Syrian state of its Arab nationalist elements. Obama’s choice of words in declaring war on the self-proclaimed caliphate was not insignificant. The US president said that the Pentagon would “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. So far US and allied forces have only degraded the militant group’s capabilities, holding it in check so that it doesn’t grow strong enough to topple the Arab nationalists, while not pressing so hard that ISIS is destroyed. The Pentagon won’t turn to destroying ISIS until its usefulness in advancing the US agenda of forcing a military stalemate and Assad’s exit through a political settlement has been realized. At that point, and only then, will the hammer come down.

The character of the Pentagon’s ISIS campaign is reflected in the complaints of many people, from Assad to Obama’s critics in Washington, that the campaign has been ineffective and seemingly half-hearted. Assad points out correctly that the Syrian Arab Army has borne the brunt of the fight against ISIS, and that the Syrian air force, small by comparison with US coalition forces, flies more missions.

When you follow media reports…you see that the rate of the airstrikes conducted by what they call a coalition against terrorism is sometimes less than 10 strikes a day or a little more…We are talking about a coalition which includes 60 countries, some of which are rich and advanced. On the other hand, the Syrian air force, which is very small in comparison… conducts in a single day many times the number of airstrikes…That’s why we say simply that there is no serious effort to fight (ISIS’s) terrorism, and what is being achieved by Syrian forces on the ground equals in one day what is being achieved by these states in weeks.

Veteran journalist Robert Fisk echoes Assad’s assessment. “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.”

According to US secretary of state John Kerry, “Our focus remains on destroying ISIL and also on a political settlement with respect to Syria.” US strategy might be more aptly summed up this way: “Our focus remains on destroying ISIL eventually and also on a political settlement with respect to Syria to be brought about, we hope, partly by the pressure ISIS and other jihadists can bring to bear on Damascus.”

According to Western dogma, Kerry, along with British foreign secretary Philip Hammond, are champions of democracy, on a moral plane far higher than that on which the Syrian president operates. After all, Assad is a dictator, or so we’re told, whose ‘brutal repression” of “largely” (i.e., not entirely) peaceful demonstrations in 2011 sparked an Islamist rebellion. It’s not clear how a peaceful call for democracy can almost instantly metamorphose into a violent rebellion on behalf of the anti-democratic project of creating a state based on the Quran. But this is not the only reason to question the narrative. The story suffers from another problem.

Islamist rebellions have been an ongoing feature of Syria’s modern history, antedating Bashar al Assad’s presidency. Tensions between secular Arab nationalists on the one hand, and conservative Islamists on the other, have been a staple of Syrian politics. The conflict has often been deliberately stoked by London and Washington, seeking to use political Islam to counter communist and nationalist threats to their domination of the Near East and its immense petroleum resources, no less in Syria than in Egypt (against Nasser), Iraq (against Saddam Hussein) and in Afghanistan (against a leftist, secular, modernizing government committed to eliminating discriminations based on race, sex and property.) Britain and the United States don’t want the populations of Western Asia owning and controling their own natural resources for use in their own interests. As Bernard Lewis put it in a 1992 article in the virtual house organ of the US State Department, Foreign Affairs, the danger to the United States of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was the possibility that it would lead to ”monopolistic control (by Arab nationalists) of (Arab) oil.” Damascus is perhaps the final redoubt of the kind of Arab nationalist thinking that inspired Lewis to call for a rethinking of the Middle East.

Curiously, Kerry and Hammond appear to be able to work themselves up into great fits of outrage over Assad, the “dictator”, who, contrary to the odious appellation Western officials and media have foisted upon him, is not as dictatorial as may be supposed. He was elected in a multi-candidate contest, and Syria has an elected legislature. At the same time, the two Western foreign ministers feel only the warmest regard for Saudi dictator, King Salman, the head of a family of parasites who owes his political position, privileges and immense wealth to hereditary succession and the patronage of his imperialist sponsor, the United States. The West recognizes no limits to its indulgence of the misogynistic, anti-Shia, sectarian, belligerent, democracy-abominating brutes in Riyadh, whose reciprocal indulgence of Western business interests is no less limitless. Apart from facilitating the Western oil industry’s accumulation of profits, the Saudi royal dictatorship uses oil revenues, not to develop the Arab nation as the Arab nationalists would do, but to keep the pipeline of money flowing to New York investment banks and Western weapons companies.

For their services in expanding the wealth of the West’s corporate elite, the Saudi despots get a pass. They can send Canadian-supplied light armored vehicles into Bahrain to violently repress protestors who call for a parliamentary democracy without fear the Canadian government will allow its rhetoric about promoting human rights scuttle future sales of more light armored vehicles to Riyadh. Recently asked to justify his policy of arming a repressive regime, Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper could only lamely reply, “They’re our allies.” This was the same lame defense invoked by US State Department spokesman Mark Toner, when asked by a journalist for his reaction to the jaw-dropping news that Saudi Arabia, which has executed more than 100 people this year, mostly by beheading, has been selected to head a key U.N. human rights panel. “I don’t have any comment, don’t have any reaction to it,” said Toner. “I mean, frankly it’s—we would welcome it. We’re close allies.”

The nature of the blatant hypocrisy that indulges a medieval tyranny while seeking to regime-change an elected president was spelled out clearly in the pages of The Washington Post by a senior US official. “The countries that cooperate with us get at least a free pass. Whereas other countries that don’t cooperate, we ream them as best we can.” We need look no further to understand why the United States and its allies are using jihadists to try to force a political settlement in Damascus that would cleanse the Syrian state of a non-cooperative Arab nationalist ideology while giving a pass to the cooperative Saudi dictatorship to behead and crucify, sequester and veil women, prevent them from driving automobiles and subordinate them to male domination, and illegally invade, bomb and blockade Yemen (amply assisted, incidentally, by Washington and London whose high state figures never tire of singing paeans to the rule of law they have no intention of being bound by themselves.)

To return to Kerry and Hammond, the alleged democrats, and Assad, the alleged anti-democrat, which of the following statements reflects the spirit of democracy, and which reflects the spirit of its opposite, rule of a people without representation from abroad, (the very arrangement that American colonists rebelled against King George III over)?

Assad: For us, the president comes through the people and through elections, and if he goes, he goes through the people. He doesn’t go as a result of an American decision, a Security Council decision, the Geneva conference or the Geneva communiqué.

Hammond: “Assad has to go. He can’t be part of Syria’s long-term future.”

Who is Philip Hammond, a member of the British political elite, resident of a country half a world away from Syria, to say who Syrians can and can’t have as their president?

Hammond’s arrogance, as US policy on Syria, is an affront against both geography and democracy.

Written by what's left

September 26, 2015 at 9:33 pm

Posted in Syria

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