Featured Post

The white-Left Part 1: The two meanings of white

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Juan Cole turns to the Dark Side

Juan Cole has come out with a new book The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East, 1 July 2014 , in which he tells the Arab masses that have been struggling for freedom since 2011 "Better luck next time." Here's a sample:
And two or three decades from now, the twentysomethings of Tahrir Square and the Casbah in Tunis and Martyrs' Square in Tripoli will, like the Havels of the Middle East, come to power as politicians.

We haven't heard the last of the Middle East's millennial generation.
The old state machinery was smashed in Tripoli, while it was left more or less intact in Tunis and Cairo, and the heroes of Martyrs' Square have yet to be decisively overthrown. They may still be a good ways from consolidating state power but nobody has any business throwing in the towel for them. They are still grappling with what state power should look like after 40 years of Qaddafi but it is far too early to lump them in with the others who never really brought down the old state machinery in the first place. But I suppose, acknowledging that the Libyan Revolution is still in play, would over-complicate the narrative that Juan Cole is selling on the Arab Spring, which appears to be "Nice try, better luck next time."

Better luck next time is a cheer entirely acceptable to the bosses. We'll win the next strike. You'll get your freedom next time. There'll be pie in the sky when you die., etc. Hope for the future is a narrative that is acceptable to the bourgeoisie, revolution now is not, and Juan Cole is out to sell books. Perhaps that also explains why he attempts to put a knife in the back of the Syrian people with his "Top 5 Reasons US Aid to “Moderate” Syrian Fighters is Quixotic," published on his blog, informed COMMENT, 28 June 2014, just days before his book was released.

I've learned a lot from Juan Cole over the years and I was a big fan of the principled stand he took in support of the Libyan people. His "Open Letter to the Left on Libya" and his "Top Ten Myths about the Libya War"  were outstanding examples of how bloggers on this battlefield support revolutions.

In the "US Aid ...is Quixotic" piece, Juan Cole takes a turn towards the dark side as he attempts to realign his views on the Syrian conflict with the growing western drumbeat for selling any support for a democratic Syria short in favor of continued Assad rule in the name of fighting terrorism. He also has a very  "America First" attitude when it comes to current dilemma of the people of Syria.

Given the well earned respect Juan Cole commands, I find it necessary to look at this piece in great detail, but before we do that perhaps it is best that we begin where he ends because one gets the feeling that everything else was shaped to support this predetermined conclusion:
I have concluded that the dangers of blowback from US intervention are so great and the danger of an ISIS victory in Syria so unacceptable that the US would be better off not intervening directly in this conflict.
The joke is "the danger of an ISIS victory in Syria" and Iraq, overblown as it is by Juan Cole, is already the result of three years of doing what he advocates, namely, the US "not intervening directly in this conflict," What do they call a policy that keeps doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome?

He is opposed to any US intervention on the side of Syria's democratic opposition because he wants to see the Assad regime prevail in this conflict. He calls this "a moral dilemma" because:
Allowing the regime to survive is extremely unpalatable because it is guilty of war crimes.
Juan Cole's choice of words signal his conclusion. "Unpalatable" means it leaves a bad taste in your mouth but you are willing to shallow it. "extremely unpalatable" means it leaves a really bad taste in your mouth but you shallow it anyway.

He has bought into Assad's argument that the nation will burn without him but he knows that no real political progress can be made in Syria while Assad is in power so the sop Juan Cole throws to the Syrian people is "Better luck next time":
I don’t believe that the Baathists can come back and remain a stable regime over the medium term given their extreme brutality in Homs and elsewhere.
But he doesn't seem to mind too much if they continues to rule and murder at will in this country of 22 million in the 'mean' time.
Since I think their legitimacy has been fatally weakened for the next generation of Syrians,...
Hello! Their legitimacy has already been fatally weakened for this generation of Syrians. That's what this is all about. They have been dying to overthrow what they consider an illegitimate regime. The question at hand is what the rest of us are going to do to help or hinder them? Which side of the barricades do we stand on? Juan Cole stands on Assad's side and that determines the arguments he uses.

The sectarian straitjacket
To lead us to this conclusion Juan Cole uses a number of devices and the first is sectarianism. He sees it the way Assad sees it, as a purely sectarian struggle.  He ignores all the non-Sunni members of the opposition and speaks only of a "moderate" Sunni opposition. This is not surprising. Sectarianism has been one of the chief bulwarks of imperialism long before Sykes-Picot. The pattern of exacerbating Sunni-Shiite differences and ruling with an Alawite elite was a method that the Assads inherited from the French.

The wave of new Arab revolts that started in 2011 were also revolts against sectarianism. The protesters that came out in Tunis, Cairo, Alexander, Tripoli, Benghazi, Damascus and Homs, came from all sects, religions and tribes. They shared a single national aspiration for a more representative state.

This was no less true in Syria where Sunni, Shiite, Alawite, Christian, Kurds, Turks and other Syrians came out onto the streets in their millions to demand the downfall of the regime. Even when the regime answered the people's demands with gunfire and they formed up for self-defense under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, it was formed as a national revolutionary army not a sectarian militia.

Just as the revolutionaries know that sectarian divisions deny them a progressive future, the regime knows that emphasizing and inflaming these divisions is the key to its victory. So at the same time that state TV was saying that the protests were organized by religious fundamentalists and foreign infiltrators, the regime was paying as much as $500 a month to those posting sectarian graffiti. “The Christians to Beirut, the Alawites to the grave” was one of the more common ones. As Assad was claiming his enemies were all terrorists, he was letting jihadists out of jail so they could form the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. He needs jihadists as his arch-enemies. In the beginning Syria had none, so the Assad regime helped to create them by giving amnesty to terrorists, supplying them, funding them, failing to attack them, and sending state security officers to lead them. You should be aware, if you aren't already, that Bashar al-Assad plays a mean underhanded game. Not everything that appears to be from the opposition is from the opposition.

As the body-count climbs and conflict drags on, the regime's attempts to inflame sectarian passions has met with some success and as a result the prospects and morale of the revolutionary forces have been greatly eroded. This does not mean the main struggle in now between Assad and ISIS because they are flip sides of the same coin, secular vs. fundamentalist fascist dictatorship. ISIS arose out of Assad regime and NATO-Russian-Iranian imperialist policies. Their whole existence and operations have been in support of the Assad regime. It is not surprising that Assad gave them safe-haven in Raqqa and refused to attack them for so long. Now Juan Cole has fallen so completely into Assad's trap that he would have us believe that the main thing is to not let ISIS win. Not so. ISIS can only make gains within the chaos of this war and with the connivance of the regime. The main task of the Syrian people remains the one they set for themselves in 2011, the downfall of the regime. The Assad regime must be swept away entirely before freedom and justice can reign in Syria.

Juan Cole doesn't say much about this struggle for freedom and justice. He prefers to frame the struggle in Assad-friendly sectarian terms. His piece is peppered with phrases like "moderate Sunni oppositionists", "Sunni Syrian fighters", and "Sunni opponents". He never speaks of a non-sectarian or non-Sunni opposition to Assad. He begins:
The Obama administration’s fruitless search for effective Sunni “moderate” fighters in Syria continues, with the announcement of a $500 million grant to them for training and weaponry.
This begs the question of whether they have really been looking for fighters to support and it also introduces another of Juan Cole's repetitive themes, namely that the current struggle for a democratic Syria is hopeless. He is a total defeatist with regards to a positive outcome for Syria in the near term. He is resigned to a Syria run by war criminals, either the jihadists or the fascists and in that case he favors Assad. He sees "no moderate Sunni oppositionists" and what he does see is "highly unlikely to defeat ISIS."

The opening sentence is followed by the obligatory finger pointing at Saudi Arabia and "liberal interventionists." "Saudi Arabia" is a favorite whipping boy of Assad, Iranians, Russians and in the West. What is never clear is whether what is being charged happened and if it did happen, was it the result of state policy or of Saudi nationals with money, because for these critics "Saudi Arabia" is a single evil entity.

In Juan Cole's view, Syrian's who have been demanding this kind of support and their stubborn ability to hang in there has nothing to do with driving the a policy shift in favor of military support for Assad's opposition, nor does the fact that they have been the main force fighting ISIS on the ground in Syria. It is being "driven by Saudi Arabia from abroad and by liberal interventionists." This, he says, isn't just bad policy. "It is very bad policy."

Shallow comparisons

He makes a very bad comparison between Syria today and "Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1980s" so that he can accuse the Obama administration of making "the worst mistakes of the Reagan administration." He is attempting to hang this on the shallow connection that both involve providing weapons to insurgents. That is also the basis of the next crack:
Anti-Communist crusading and liberal interventionist imperialism turn out to look an awfully lot alike on the ground.
Another way to say that might be: Gun running is gun running, no matter which side you run guns for. But in the fight for freedom and justice, side matters! The campaign for regime change in Syria flowed from the people of Syria. However other countries respond, whatever outside forces may do or not do, they have been the locomotive driving this thing forward.

Reagan gave the mujahideen MANPADS because US imperialism was waging a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, whereas Obama is being asked to support a genuine democratic revolution against the kind of guy they have always liked to see running countries like Syria. So no matter about the lives it could have saved, even after three years Obama's policy remains "No MANPADS for You!"

Juan Cole needn't worry himself that Obama will change course and really intervene in Syria, the defeatism he projects in this piece parrots Obama's:

when you get farmers, dentists and folks who have never fought before going up against a ruthless opposition in Assad, the notion that they were in a position to suddenly overturn not only Assad but also ruthless, highly trained jihadists if we just sent a few arms is a fantasy.

The $500 million that Obama is proposing and Juan Cole is opposing isn't even appropriated yet and is not likely to be before the fall, and then of course it has to be distributed and put to use. It is at least a year away from producing any trained fighters, and as Juan Cole himself says "$500 million, is simply not enough," so its really a continuation of the same old "too little, too late" support policy and not a shift in policy at all.

Still Juan Cole is opposed to even this for fear that things could spiral out of control and Assad's hold on power be put in jeopardy, so to argue against any military support for the Syrian revolutionaries he adds to his claims that there are is no moderate opposition and they can't win anyway, the very frightening claim that any military help given to them will be used by terrorists against Americans.

He says that while there are plenty of "decent people standing up to a regime guilty of crimes against humanity":
The problem is that they are highly unlikely to defeat ISIS or similar groups on the ground, and that any arms and training given them will also go to ISIS for ultimate use against the United States.
It is not clear why he is so convinced the bad guys will win. In any case, we will address that in a moment. First I want to address the two points that are at the heart of the emotional argument he is making against supporting Assad's democratic opposition:

1) Any arms and training given to them will also go to the jihadists.
2) The jihadists will used them against the United States.

This is a central theme of this essay, repeated over and over again..."Weapons given by the US to ‘moderate’ Sunnis will make their way to the radicals"..."US weapons and ammunition traveled from Shiite Iraqi troops to Sunni extremists in Iraq"..."Training given by the US to “moderates” will be shared with ISIS and other radicals"..."US training helped to produce al-Qaeda"..."special training given Syrian Sunnis by the US will be acquired by members of al-Qaeda affiliates"... and so on.

What worries Juan Cole so much, and has him opposed to providing weapons to people who could save lives with them, is really nothing more than a special case of the more general law of unintended consequences, to wit: Whenever arms are distributed, there is a danger of diversion and whenever large quantities of weapons are supplied to a force there will be leakage. During the Vietnam War, both M-16's and AK-47's could easily be purchased on the black market, heavier weapons also.

Training also gets "diverted. " US training helped to product the Viet Minh. That's the thing about training that any country, company or institution that has invested in training knows, training is portable. It goes with the person trained therefore it can always be alienated to a competitor in the case of business or even an enemy in the case of war.

The main supply of weapons for the FSA and all the opposition fighters have been those "diverted" from Syrian Army stores and plenty of Iranian and Russian trained soldiers have defected to the revolution, so why don't we see Russia and Iran following Juan Cole logic and refusing arms to Assad for fear that any arms and training given to him will also go to the enemy. Since when has that ever been a reason for throwing in the towel in a conflict?

Is Juan Cole also against more weapons for the Iraqi army because their US supplied weapons have already fallen into ISIS hands? There has probably never been a war of any length in which weapons didn't get diverted to the other side but that generally isn't seen as a reason for refusing to supply the side you want to see win.

Law of unintended consequences invoked

This is nothing but the law of unintended consequences being invoked to justify doing nothing. He gives us no good reasons for supplying weapons, like the lives of the children that could be saved if Assad's barrel bombing helicopters could be shot down, and on the other side, he lists every reason against he can think of.  You'd never take a medicine if you only considered the side-effects.

His focus on possible future danger to US people is scaremongering and his failure to mention current benefits to Syrians being bombed now, tell us volumes about his concerns. Fortunately we have a real world test of likelihood that weapons given to insurgents will in turn be used against the US.

MANPADS are the heavy weapon most in demand by the opposition and paradoxically it is the one most feared will be used against the US, to shoot down airliners. But in the 1980s the US did give thousands of MANPADS to jihadists in Afghanistan and as a result of this, in the past 30 years zero US airliners have been shot down with these MANPADS. While the State Department did issue a list of 40 civilian aircraft that had been hit by MANPADS leading to 28 crashes since 1975, most have been in warlike conditions in Asia and Africa involving planes of questionable civilian linage, like the two DC-7s chartered by USAID to spray for locusts over Morocco that were fired upon by Polisario Front fighters in 1988. None have been the much feared attack on innocent US passenger planes.

Juan Cole goes on about the diversion of training:
There is little doubt that any special training given Syrian Sunnis by the US will be acquired by members of al-Qaeda affiliates for use against the US.
Possibly, eventually, but since ISIS seems to fight the FSA more than anyone else, they and the other "Syrian moderates", removing the sectarian blinders from Juan Cole's happy phrase, are the first to suffer blowback from the diversion of US weapons, as has already happened, and would be the first to suffer from any diversion of training. The Assad regime might suffer if things should heat up between him and the ISIS. The Iraqi government is already suffering from a diversion of US arms and training. Next, all the countries and peoples of the region would suffer, and yes, somewhere down the line, the US might suffer.

Juan Cole also uses this discussion to promote the myth that ISIS really is an anti-Assad force and part of his oppostion with claims like:
US-trained moderates will be de facto allies of ISIS, and so will need the latter and will fight alongside them, sharing techniques.
This is out of touch with reality. As these word were being published, the ISIS was fighting the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic State on a number of fronts in Syria. ISIS has a long history of attacking FSA positions, assassinating FSA commanders and murdering or imprisoning FSA soldiers and non-violent revolutionaries alike and Juan Cole calls them "allies."

He seems to be complete unaware of all the information that has come to light that show how the Assad regime has been intimately involved in the creation, funding, commanding and manning of the jihadist opposition. The narrative that Juan Cole is still peddling - that ISIS is the enemy of Assad and part of the rebel alliance - was completely discredited long ago.

There is another word trick Juan Cole uses and its worth mentioning as its a common one. He begins with black and white categories and them invokes shades-of-gray to make whatever point suites him. For example:
1. The Sunni Syrian fighters are not all that wedded to a particular ideology. Several important groups originally operating as part of the pro-Western Free Syrian Army defected to the al-Qaeda affiliates last September, apparently mainly because the latter pay better.
The logic trick of these lines is to take a defining metaphor, because you are either "wedded" or not, and then proving the "not" applies to "Sunni Syrian fighters" because he can point to "several" exceptions.

He says that these groups joined the jihadists because they pay better. That doesn't necessary show a lack of commitment to democracy so much as it may show a commitment to being able to feed one's family and have a decent supply of bullets to shoot while carrying out this essential first step to building a new Syria, defeating the Assad regime on the battlefield. Some who joined ISIS left when they found out that wasn't ISIS's mission.

Now we get to why Juan Cole believes good guys finish last:
Guerrillas need resources and admire winners, so groups with more resources that have more victories will pick up allies over time even if they are horrible groups.
If this is true I don't understand how the Vietnamese won against such a well-funded opposition or is it that Juan Cole thinks Arabs will only fight for resources and victories and not for revolutionary causes? That isn't what the history of this conflict tells us.

While many fighter have defected from Assad's side, in spite of an earlier propaganda campaign claiming otherwise, few if any anti-Assad fighters have switched sides to fight for Assad. By and large the guerrillas of which Juan Cole speaks remain anti-Assad fighters, and while some are willing to join Jabhat al-Nusra [JAN] or ISIS because that group has more resources and victories, they remain dedicated to the cause of removing Assad and will join those groups only if those victories are against Assad. In Syria, JAN has had success in recruiting Syrian's as compared to ISIS with relies mainly on foreign fighters, because JAN fights Assad while ISIS collaborates with him. ISIS has had better success recruiting in Iraq because that conflict has a more sectarian origin and they have been able to ride a wave of Sunni resentment against a sectarian Shiite state.
2. The kind of money the US is offering, $500 million, is simply not enough to allow it to compete with the funders of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. ISIS captured that much just from Mosul banks alone last week. Plus it has Syrian oil fields and enormous influxes of capital from the private business billionaires of the Gulf,
Note the word acrobatics Juan Cole does here to protect Assad. While he goes long about ISIS's "enormous influxes of capital from the private business billionaires of the Gulf" even though other reports say all foreign contributions are less than 5% of ISIS's income, but when it comes the the millions Assad is paying ISIS for oil, we are served up "plus it has Syrian oil fields." Hello! Oil requires a buyer before it can contribute to capital and since the subject is sources of capital to ISIS, wouldn't it be clearer and more accurate and honest to say in addition to the money ISIS steals and extorts, it receives millions from private Arab sources and millions from the Syrian state? That is the truth of what Juan Cole has so artfully hidden above. He continues:
The US will be outspent, and so will fail to keep the loyalty of the moderates it trains,
What an ultra-American view we have. Maybe it is us that should be loyalty to them for a change. Maybe we should be calling for honest and selfless support for this democratic struggle not for Syrian fighters we give some lessons to become loyal to US imperialism.

With his third point we get to why he is so sure the bad guys will win:
3. Civil wars are polarizing. Quite apart from money and resources, it is extremely difficult for a moderate third force to remain moderate.
This reveals how Juan Cole sees the array of forces in Syria. The two main forces are the Assad regime and the jhadists. The democratic (he calls them "moderate") forces that have driven this struggle since it began are now discounted as a "third force." Then he speaks to us of logic.
The Syrian regime has deployed Alawite thuggish gangs of ‘ghosts’ or shabiha against civilian populations, sometimes committing massacres. Alawite Air Force pilots routinely drop petroleum barrel bombs, which are indiscriminate in their impact, on civilian neighborhoods. This logic forces Sunni opponents to match the shabiha for brutality and identity politics.
"This logic?!!!" What logic? I don't see any logic at all. Yes the regime Juan Cole proposes to leave in power in Damascus is a mass murderer who has long used sectarian differences to stay in power. Not limiting ourselves to his "Sunni opponents" why does he think "logic forces" any opposition to be as brutal and sectarian? Does he really think they could even win that way? Does he think, by this "logic" that any struggle for liberation will only end by duplicating the enslavement?
Hence, the most motivated fighters over time have been radical fundamentalists, not open-minded moderates.
Why does he smuggle "open-minded" into it? Because it gives a grain of truth that helps sell the whole statement, "over time" people do tend to be less "open-minded" because with time we all think that we have learned some truths we no longer question, but that does nothing to prove ISIS will gain fighters from the FSA over time.

What does he base this on? Where's the proof? There are FSA fighters today that started out as farmers and dentists four years ago. Doesn't he even listen to his President? By what "logic" has he determined that "radical fundamentalists" are more "motivated" than them?
Many groups once just adherents of political Islam have over time been pushed into the arms of the al-Qaeda affiliates in northern Syria by the dynamics of the battlefield.
Yes, war makes people mean and it brings out the worst, and yet a very bloody 30 year liberation struggle in Vietnam has given birth to one of the most peaceful societies around.
4. Weapons given by the US to ‘moderate’ Sunnis will make their way to the radicals, in part because of corruption. Indeed, US weapons and ammunition traveled from Shiite Iraqi troops to Sunni extremists in Iraq.
And it bears repeating that there is a danger of diversion associated with any weapons distribution. To give a "western" example, I would suppose ones answer to question of whether you should attempt to resupply the fort under attack even at the risk those supplies will fall to the enemy may depend on whether you are in that fort or not.

Juan Cole has a 5th Reason but it really doesn't say anything new, just goes on some more about the danger of training being shared, and this critique has already gone on far too long so I will end it here with this:

Juan Cole has done some brilliant work in the past so it would good of him to heed Yoda's warning "Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny."

Click here for a list of my other blogs on Syria

No comments:

Post a Comment