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Thursday, September 26, 2013

More on ex-journalist Robert Fisk's defense of Assad

Yesterday in Where Robert Fisk's defense of Assad falls down, I critiqued Robert Fisk's thesis, expressed in a recent article in The Independent, that based on new "evidence" from Russia, the M14 rockets used in the 21 August chemical attack weren't sold to Syria and therefore the Assad regime wasn't responsible for the attack.

Near the end of his article he also advances the thesis that Assad couldn't have done it because he would be crazy to do it while the UN inspectors were in town and Assad ain't crazy. This thesis has been advanced so often by the Syrian government, Russian and Iranian diplomats and Assad supporters of all stripes, that I am beginning to believe Assad did do it while the UN inspectors were in town simply because he thought it would make for good cover.

When Robert Fisk advances this thesis, he does it with a flourish worthy of an ex-journalist turned propagandist and he does it in the name of unnamed UN employees:
Nevertheless, it also has to be said that grave doubts are being expressed by the UN and other international organisations in Damascus that the sarin gas missiles were fired by Assad's army. While these international employees cannot be identified, some of them were in Damascus on 21 August and asked a series of questions to which no one has yet supplied an answer. Why, for example, would Syria wait until the UN inspectors were ensconced in Damascus on 18 August before using sarin gas little more than two days later – and only four miles from the hotel in which the UN had just checked in? Having thus presented the UN with evidence of the use of sarin – which the inspectors quickly acquired at the scene – the Assad regime, if guilty, would surely have realised that a military attack would be staged by Western nations.
The fundamental problem with this thesis is that regardless of what some people may think would have happened had Assad dared to use chemical weapons "only four miles from the hotel in which the UN had just checked in," somebody did use chemical weapons under those conditions and we are now in a position to know exactly what did happen.

In summary what did happen was that, in spite of the fact that the UN inspectors were only 4 miles away, Assad was able to keep them out for four days while he continued to bombard Ghouta, thus destroying evidence and killing witnesses. Then, when he did let them in, he was able to severely restrict the time that they had access to the sites. He had already secured an agreement that they would not find fault even before they were allowed into Syria.

One question that no one who advances this thesis as "evidence" of Assad's innocence has yet to supply an answer to is: If Assad was innocent of this crime, why did he first deny that any chemical attack had even taken place while he continued his conventional bombardment of the sites and kept the UN inspectors at bay? If Assad believed the opposition had staged the attack, wouldn't he rather get the UN inspectors in there ASAP and certainly not take any actions that might destroy evidence?

As far as a Western military attack is concerned, there has been no military attack and the likelihood of such an attack is fading with each passing day.

So history now proves that if Assad had thought that carrying out a chemical attack while the UN inspectors were in town carried no unreasonable risks and some advantages, he would be far from crazy. He would be making an entirely correct assessment of the situation; one that has been born out by subsequent events.

Since things have turned out so favourably for Assad in spite of the proximity of the UN inspectors, we have to ask: Would this have required clairvoyance on Assad's part or were there good reasons why Assad might feel confident that, in spite of Obama's year old threat, he would not face military reprisals for using chemical weapons?

In that regards it is interesting to note the comments of Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, only two days before the 21 August chemical attack:
It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favour. Today, they are not. The crisis in Syria is tragic and complex. It is deeply rooted, long-term conflict among multiple factions, and violent struggles for power will continue after Assad's rule ends. We should evaluate the effectiveness of limited military options in this context.

We are helping Syria's neighbours contain the spillover effects that would render our allies and partners less secure. We continue to deliver humanitarian and security assistance to Syria's neighbours as well as non-lethal assistance to the opposition.
Now it must be admitted that, if Bashar al-Assad had read into these comments, from America's top general, no appetite for attacking him and concluded that crossing the fabled "red-line" would not have the threatened consequences, he would quite rationally be predicting the future.

Today Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is quoted giving an assessment of Obama that also undermines the thesis that Assad wouldn't dare use sarin gases because of fear of a military response from the West:
The Syrian president also lambasted United States President Barack Obama, saying that he was “a hesitant and unstable person.”

“He is too weak to launch an aggression against Syria.”
This is the dictator that his defenders argue wouldn't dare make a CW attack for fear of Obama's bombs! Maybe he's not crazy, just reckless.

Just as the real history of events since this chemical attack shows that if Assad thought he could get away with it under the noses of the UN inspectors, he would be thinking quite rationally, they also show that any rebel group that thought staging a "false flag" chemical attack to bring a Western military response would be quite delusional.

In short, this "evidence" of Assad's innocence, being advanced by Robert Fisk and so many other Assad supporters, may sound convincing at first glance but it just doesn't bear up under careful examination.

Still, since few people will look at it critically, it does make for good cover.

Click here for a list of my other blogs on Syria

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Where Robert Fisk's defense of Assad falls down

With the permission and support of the Assad Regime, Robert Fisk of The Independent has been reporting on the conflict in Syria from Damascus and it would appear that he has also adopted the perspective of the regime as well.

In a recent piece in The Independent, he seeks to defend Assad's chemical murder of over a thousand Syrians by implying that the opposition gassed it own people in the vain hope that Obama would do what he said. This is exactly the Assad Regime's view of the attack but Robert Fisk embellishes it with new information from the Russians which he appears to accept uncritically:
information is now circulating in the city that Russia's new "evidence" about the attack includes the dates of export of the specific rockets used and – more importantly – the countries to which they were originally sold. They were apparently manufactured in the Soviet Union in 1967 and sold by Moscow to three Arab countries, Yemen, Egypt and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's Libya. These details cannot be verified in documents,
There is no doubt that Syria has a substantial chemical weapons armoury. Nor that Syrian stockpiles contain large amounts of sarin gas 122mm missiles. But if the Russians have indeed been able to identify the specific missile markings on fragments found in Ghouta – and if these are from munitions never exported to Syria – the Assad regime will boast its innocence has been proven.

In a country – indeed a world – where propaganda is more influential than truth, discovering the origin of the chemicals that suffocated so many Syrians a month ago is an investigation fraught with journalistic perils.
The first thing that should be said about the Russia's new "evidence" is that Russia should have given it to the UN inspectors before they left Damascus at the end of August and in any case, it should have gotten it to them before they issued their report 16 September 2013. To wait until after the UN has issued a report that comes as close to pointing the finger at Assad as they could without actually violating their agreement with the Syrian government not to point the finger, to wait until after the damning report has been issued and them run to the media screaming about "new evidence" is already suspect.

This is what we know about the specific rockets used based on the UN report and the HRW report on the chemical attack. But before we get to that we should remember that for days after the attack, the Russian's claimed that no rockets at all had been used. In fact, they claimed there had been no chemical weapons attack at all and the videos that showed an attack were fake. RT even made the claim, on the day of the attack, that the Assad regime was in control of East Ghouta:
Finally, the region reported to be the site of the poison gas attack by Assad forces, Eastern Ghouta, was re-secured from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra jihadist terrorists, by Government troops in May as part of a major series of rollback victories against the insurgent forces and is not currently a scene of any major resistance to Assad forces
This is so wrong that it challenges the creditability of any later statement by Russia excusing the attack. This is what the Stratfor Global Intelligence Group said about the disposition of forces in East Ghouta in a report they issued on 17 June 2013:
"Syrian loyalist forces are also on the offensive in Damascus and in the south. Having mostly isolated the sizable rebel pocket in the Eastern Ghouta region with the seizure of Otaiba, loyalist forces continue their efforts to reduce the rebel pocket, though they have yet to make much headway."
And the HRW report notes:
the areas in Ghouta where the alleged chemical attacks occurred were shelled by Syrian government forces prior to and after August 21
So we can see that this first Russian report was made out of whole cloth and was one of those imaginary Assad victories that have so many claiming that he doesn't need to use CW because he is already winning without them.

Contrary to the Russian report, East Ghouta is being held by the Free Syrian Army not al Nusra, and contrary to the Russian report, it was not captured by Assad in May and it remains unconquered still, even after months of bombardment and even the CW attack.

When that story could no longer cut the mustard sarin, the Russians bought into the Mint Press story about how rebels in a tunnel bungled a bottle of gas given them by Saudi Prince Bandar and cause all the deaths, still without rockets. Now that story has been completely discredited. So finally they admit that Russian rockets were involved, just as I wrote on the day the UN report came out.

According to the HRW report, which has the most details on the rockets use. Only two types of rockets have been associated with the attack by all investigators. One is an M14 140mm rocket that can carry 2.2 kilograms of sarin and is of Russian manufacture, The other is rather unique design seen only in Syria and seen used only by the Syrian government. It has a much larger payload. It can carry 60 litres of sarin and has a rather unique shape with a 330mm warhead and a 122mm body. The blogger Brown Moses has extensively documented this second type which the UN identifies as a 330mm rocket and Fisk and some others refer to as a 122mm rocket.

Fisk may be confused on this distinction himself because his big "scoop" has to do with the M14, 140mm rockets produced in Plant No. 179 in Russia but he doesn't name them. He then goes on to say that the Syrian government has plenty of the 122mm rockets, but nobody says those rockets came from Russia, they appear to be Syrian made. Then he mucks up the question even further by talking about "the origins of the chemical." This just sows confusion because the article and this controversy is about the origins of the rockets and not the chemicals they carried and nobody that knows anything about chemical warfare would think that the rockets were shipped (in 1967) pre-filled with sarin.

The way Robert Fisk plays fast and loose with the facts, and tries to shift the ground in a way the reader might not notice indicates that he really does believe that "propaganda is more influential than truth."

According to the HRW report, they were able to document 8 of the 330mm sarin gas rockets hitting East Ghouta and seven of the M14, 140mm rockets, hitting West Ghouta. There may be a few unidentified rocket strikes but these 15 are the only ones investigators have documented. Robert Fisk also says "just seven missiles" were of the Russian type.

The Fisk revelations concern only these seven rockets and both the UN report and the HRW report only identify the serial number on one of the rockets. Somehow the Russians are claiming to have information on the dates of export and countries of export of at least three of the rockets, which implies they have the serial nos. of at least three of these rockets which is more than the UN knows. Did Russia have its own investigators on the ground, independent of the UN's? If so when? Fisk speculates "if the Russians have indeed been able to identify the specific missile markings on fragments found in Ghouta" which does sound like they have found new "evidence" not in the UN report.

This is what I find most unbelievable about the Fisk report: He says the Russians claim that "the specific rockets used" were "sold by Moscow to three Arab countries, Yemen, Egypt and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's Libya." The implication is that if they weren't sold to Syria, they must have been acquired and used by the opposition.

If the Russians are trying to say that they never shipped this specific type of rocket to Syria, that is contradicted by other sources, including HRW, which reported:
The 140mm rocket is documented in standard reference materials as being present in the Syrian government’s weapons arsenal. Designed in the 1950s, the Soviet Union transferred 200 BM-14 launchers,[10]the most common launcher for 140mm rockets made by the Soviet Union, to Syria in 1967-1969, presumably along with stockpiles of ammunition including 140mm rockets, according to the database on arms transfers maintained by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).[11]
Fisk doesn't say that the M14 rockets, which Russia produced in vast quantities over many decades, were sold only to Arab countries and only three of those. If he is using the King's English as I understand it, he is saying that those seven rockets were acquired by the rebels from three different countries, and that is what I find hard to believe.

The way it was written, we are being led to think the rebels got the CW rockets from "Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's Libya," but it actually says they came from all three and if we are talking serial nos. and export documents they should know exactly which countries they sold to, not a range of countries.

Assuming the opposition wanted to acquire M14 CW rockets, seven is not a large number, wouldn't they be able to get those from one source with greater security and less trouble? Instead according to the Russians according to Fisk, they judiciously acquired a couple of rockets from every country Russia ever exported them too, and also got the 8 330mm rockets, used only by the Regime from some place else. Now that's incredible!

Assuming some the M14 rockets that landed in Ghouta were sold to "Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's Libya," we then have to assume he held out on the international community when he "gave up" WMD, including delivery systems, in the last decade. Isn't it more likely that when disposing of his CW, he sold or otherwise transferred some of those rockets to Syria. After all, Qaddafi and Assad there as close as thieves. Assad sent Qaddafi weapons to fight his opposition in 2011.

It has also been noted by Jonathan B. Tucker [War of Nerves, Pantheon Books, New York, 2006] That Egypt provided Syria with a small number of chemical weapons and delivery systems in the lead-up to the Yom Kippur War in 1973. So if the Russian/Fisk report that the M14 rockets used in this chemical attack came from Russia via three Arab countries, it is more likely that they were acquired by the Syrian government over time in arms trade with them than covertly by the opposition from three different countries in the last year or so. This possibility doesn't seem to have occurred to Fisk, but then he has taken the road to Damascus.

Of course Robert Fisk gives himself an out saying "These details cannot be verified in documents," which begs the question: Why did he rush to print on the word of the Russians alone.

See also: More on ex-journalist Robert Fisk's defense of Assad

Click here for a list of my other blogs on Syria

Monday, September 23, 2013

Why didn't the EcoSocialism Conference address these 3 things?

I attended the EcoSocialism Conference in Los Angeles on Saturday. The conference was designed build Left unity and to promote:
- the protection and restoration of the health of our planet for ourselves and future generations
- the creation of a society free of exploitation, economic oppression, and profit motive
- a community consciousness whereby we measure our quality of life based on our relationships with each other and nature
According to its mission statement, but a few things I thought should be important items on the agenda never even came up. [except once when I spoke] Here are three that came to mind:

The wholesale destruction, by aerial bombardment of some of the oldest inhabited cities on Earth, and with them the destruction of a world heritage that belongs to all of us.

The biggest humanitarian crisis in 20 years and counting.

The reintroduction of chemical weapons in warfare for the first time in a quarter century

Of course, all of this stuff is happening in Syria and Syria was the elephant in the room and either the plight of the Syria people was being opportunistically sacrificed in the name of Left unity or the majority of the Left, as represented at this conference, just doesn't give a fuck about what is happening to Syria and its people.

Click here for a list of my other blogs on Syria

Desmond Tutu: UN owes it to Syria's children to act

Republished from The Sidney Morning Herald, 24 September 2013. Written by Desmond Tutu.
Noor - not her real name - is a heavily pregnant 22-year-old Syrian with an air of relief about her. Just two weeks ago she arrived, hungry and exhausted, to the Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan, with her three children in tow.

Hunger finally did what continuous violence hadn't so far and forced the family from their home because there simply was no more food to be had. They trudged for five nights to escape their homeland, afraid to travel during the day for fear of shelling.

In the camp, Noor carefully holds her baby, Yazan (also not his real name), who is thin. Too thin. Diagnosed with severe calcium deficiency, Yazan has yet to develop any teeth - despite being more than a year old.

Since the war started in Syria, the country has slowly disintegrated. More than one-third of hospitals have been destroyed, according to the World Health Organisation. According to Save the Children, 3900 schools have been destroyed, damaged or are occupied for non-educational purposes since the start of the conflict.
Syria today is no place for a child and, outrageously, more than 1 million have already been forced to flee with their families to camps and host communities in neighbouring countries. Those are the lucky ones - thousands upon thousands have already been killed. Where is the outrage?

And every child forced out of education, or forced to flee, or whose development is stunted like Yazan's because of this conflict is a thorn in our collective conscience. The international community is not only failing to bring a peaceful end to this conflict but we are compounding that failure by neglecting to address its dreadful consequences. In our failure to ensure that people in Syria are getting the food and basic supplies they need, we condemn children to hunger on top of the horrors of war.

Families trapped inside Syria are today witnessing some of the worst violence yet seen in the 2½ year conflict. Whole families cannot get access to the aid they desperately need and when their voices are heard they tell of a desperate struggle to survive, living under bombardment, the threat of violence and ever-dwindling supplies as the war chokes Syrian cities.

The situation is bleak for families trying to feed their children. Save the Children this week releases a report that shows how a lack of food combined with soaring prices is exposing the children of Syria to a serious risk of malnutrition. Until recently a food exporter, now 4 million Syrians - half of them children - are in need of emergency food assistance. As the destruction continues, this number will grow. Children who three years ago could rely on three healthy meals a day will now go to bed hungry, afraid, and all too aware that they have been abandoned by the world outside. There are already cases of children dying in Syria because they couldn't get enough food or medical support. Where is the outrage?

Even where there is food available, Syrians face an appalling choice: slide into hunger or put themselves in the line of fire. There are widespread reports of people being targeted while queuing for bread. Imagine it: hungry, desperate and under fire.

At the United Nations General Assembly this week, our leaders must recognise the human cost of this war. They must recognise the need to use their global platform to bring the world's attention to this crisis and get agreement for life-saving aid to get to Syria. They must recognise our outrage over how thousands of our bright and innocent children are being flung into the chasm of human hatred.

In Syria, they have an old saying: a narrow place can contain a thousand friends. The children of Syria are in a narrow, dark place. We must be their friends. We must get them help. We must end this war.

Desmond Tutu is Archbishop emeritus of Cape Town.

Click here for a list of my other blogs on Syria

منت برس(Mint Press) تكشف دعمها للأسد.AntiWar.com يقدم اعتذاره.

Originally published here as Mint Press exposed as Assad apologist, AntiWar.com apologizes translated to Arabic by Basel Abdulla.

على مدى ثلاثة أيام عقب الهجوم بغاز السارين والذي قتل ما يفوق ألف سوري،ثلثهم من الأطفال في ريف دمشق في 21 أغسطس-2013,أنكر نظام الأسد حتى حدوث مثال هذا الهجوم. حين بدأت الفيديوهات وشهادات شهود العيان تظهر للعلن، أصبح من الصعب الدفاع عن هذا الموقف، حينها ابتدأ نظام الأسد بالقول "حسناً، لا بد أن المتمردين قد فعلوا ذلك". حركة اليسار،السلام، ولنا فقط، في الولايات المتحدة، مخترقة تماماً وبكثرة من قبل المدافعين عن الأسد، والانتهازيين الآخرين المرتاحين بذلك العمى الذي يغمر أبصارهم ، إذ أن كثيرين منهم انضمّوا بسهولة إلى الجوقة الهاتفة : " دعنا نلقِ اللوم على الضحايا، ونخرج الأسد من هذا المأزق".
أجد ما يفعله هؤلاء القوم خسيساً،يتظاهرون تحت راية الدكتاتور الفاشي،ليزيّنوا قبحه.

واحدة من أكثر النظريات شيوعاً، حول كيفية قيام المعارضة بقصف من يعيش عناصرها بينهم بالغاز، كانت القصة التي نشرت على موقع (منت برس=Mint Press) .هذه القصة،إضافة إلى أنها تعفي الأسد من أية مسؤولية عن الهجوم وتضع اللوم بصورة مباشرة على المتمردين، تلتقي عناصرها مع الملحمة العنصرية ]تشير هذه الملحمة إلى الأعمال الكوميدية الساخرة التي اعتمدت دوماً على تصوير الزنوج كمجموعة من الحمقى[ حيث تتصرف مجموعة من الأغبياء السود غير المدربين بحسب ما يوصيهم بعض اليهود البيض ، والذين يلعب دورهم (اليهود) في هذه الحالة الأمير بندر بن سلطان، حيث انتهى بهم الأمر أن استخدموا الأسلحة بحماقة (أي الثوار).
بعيداً عن الحماقة،الحقيقة حول المتمردين في الغوطة مختلفة تماماً، الحقيقة التي تظهر من خلال دفاعهم عن مجتمعهم وبصورة فعالة على مدى أشهر من القصف بالأسلحة التقليدية الذي عجز عن إلحاق الهزيمة بهم، حتى بعد الهجوم بغاز السارين الذي جاء بعد أسابيع من قصف نظام الأسد،لم يستسلموا للنظام. هذه هي الثورة التي لا تُهزم !
تقول ملحمة المنت برس (Mint Press) أن الأمير بندر قد أمدّ مقاتلي المعارضة ب "عبوات غاز ضخمة" وقد أساؤوا استخدامها في النفق.
"لقد انتابنا فضول شديد حول هذه الأسلحة، لكن لسوء الحظ، تعامل بعض المقاتلين مع هذه الأسلحة بطريقة غير مناسبة وأدى ذلك لانفجارها"
حمقى، مضحكون ! هذا ما سأفكّر فيه على الأقل إذا اعتقدت بروايتكم،وبقدر ما تبدو فكرة تسرب الغاز في مكان وقدرته على قتل الناس في سبعة أماكن مختلفة بعيدة الاحتمال فإن العديد من اليساريين قد صدّقوا ذلك.
لقد انتقدت ما كتبته ال منت برس في التفاصيل، وأدرجت أسباباً متعددة تدعم قناعتي بوقوف الأسد خلف الهجوم بالسلاح الكيماوي في مقالي : من استخدم السلاح الكيماوي في سوريا؟ في الثالث من سبتمبر 2013،كذلك أدرجت لائحة بأسماء المواقع التي أعادت نشر قصة المنت برس وروّجت لها :
( الموقعان المكتوبان بالخط العريض هما من نشر تراجعاً عن المقال)
الدليل بأكمله والذي عرضته قصة منت برس،مبنيٌّ على شهادة بعينها لأفراد مجهولي الأسماء في الغوطة استندت إليها تقارير اثنين من الصحفيين: ديل غافلاك ويحيى عبابنه. لم يقدموا دليلاً ملموساً أو مسجّلاً،عدا ذلك، فالجانب الرئيسي لمصداقية هذين الصحفيين غير المعروفين للجمهور هو كون ديل غافلاك على علاقة مع الأسوشييتد برس.
لدينا الآن هذا البيان الذي أصدرته ديل غافلاك تنفي علاقتها مع ذلك المقال :
"بصورة خاطئة استخدمت منت برس اسمي على رأس مقال تم نشره في 29 أغسطس 2013 يزعم استخدام الأسلحة الكيماوية من قبل المتمردين السوريين.على الرغم من المطالبات المتكررة التي قمت بها مباشرة أو من خلال المستشار القانوني، لم يبدوا أي استعداد للتراجع بإصدار اعتذار ينصّ على نفي كتابتي للمقال. يحيى عبابنه هو المراسل والمحرر الوحيد لمادة الأخبار في منت برس. حتى تاريخه، تستمر منت برس برفضها للعمل باحتراف وأمانة بخصوص الكشف عن المصادر الفعلية لكتابة هذه الرواية.
لم أسافر إلى سوريا، ولم أجرِ نقاشات مع المتمردين السوريين، ولم أقم بكتابة تقرير يمكن أن يُبنى المقال عليه. لم يُبنَ هذا المقال على مشاهداتي الشخصية، ولا يجب الاعتماد عليه على حساب سمعتي الصحفية. هو أيضاً، مقال مزيّف ومضلل بما بُنسب إلي من التعليقات الورادة فيه وكأنها صادرة عني بصورة شخصية ".
موقع (Antiwar.com) وبسبب مصداقيته الكبيرة، أصدر تراجعاً واعتذاراً بالقول :
"يقدم طاقم العمل في موقع (Antiwar.com) أشدّ وأخلص الاعتذار، عن كونه مساهماً في نشر هذا المقال.ونعتذر كذلك ل ديل غافلاك".
سأمضي في البحث عن التراجعات والاعتذارات من الناشرين الآخرين المدرجين في القائمة أعلاه ،وسأشير إلى اسمائهم بالخط العريض قريباً إذا تحلّى هؤلاء الناشرون بنصف مستوى النزاهة الذي يمتلكه AntiWar.com .وأنتظر بفارغ الصبر أن يبدي اليسار موقفه الحقيقي ويطرد من صفوفه أولئك الانتهازيين والمدافعين عن الديكتاتور.
تحديث في 22 سبتمبر 2013: ورد المزيد من قبل ديل غافلاك، استجابة من قبل منت برس، وأيضاً المزيد حول يحيى عبابنه، يتضمن ذلك فرضية احتمال أن يكون المصدر الأصلي للرواية روسيّاً.
بما أن الحقائق أصبحت معروفة، فإنه من المتوقع أن تتلاحق الاعتذرات والتراجعات. اختار موقع FAIR.com بحسب بيانه الذي أصدره، شطب كل المراجع التي تشير إلى ديل غافلاك في روايتهم الحالية:
" دون التطرق إلى اسم ديل غافلاك، ومع الإدعاءات بالتصرف الغير احترافي في مادة منت برس، يوجد سبب لأخذ رواية منت برس بجدية.نترك هذا الموضوع ليحكم التاريخ فيه."

Click here for a list of my other blogs on Syria

Saturday, September 21, 2013

UPDATED: Gilbert Achcar: Full solidarity with the Syrian uprising!

This is a very important talk in understanding the Syrian Revolution from a Marxist perspective.

Full solidarity with the Syrian uprising! | 19 Sept 2013
Gilbert Achcar reflects on the revolutionary processes in the Arab world an insists that socialists must offer complete solidarity to the Syrian uprising at a meeting organised by the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, International Socialist Network and Socialist Resistance - 19/9/13

Published on Sep 20, 2013

This interview of Gilbert Achcar by Terry Conway first appeared in Socialist Resistance on 2 October 2013:
Gilbert Achcar, author of the new book The People Want was interviewed by Terry Conway.

TC: Could you assess the present state of the Arab uprising in general before we focus more specifically on Syria?

GA: What is happening now is a confirmation of what could be said from the start; the fact that what began in December 2010 in Tunisia, was not a ‘Spring’ as the media called it, a brief period of political change during which one despot or another is overthrown, opening the way for a nice parliamentary democracy, and that’s it. The uprisings were portrayed as a ‘Facebook revolution’, another one of these ‘colour revolutions’. I, for one, insisted from the beginning that this was a misrepresentation of reality. What started unfolding in 2011 was a long-term revolutionary process, which would develop over many, many years if not decades, especially if we take into account its geographic extension.

From that perspective, what we have had so far is just the opening phase of the process. In some countries they have managed to go beyond the initial stage of overthrowing existing governments; this was the case in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya – the three countries where the regimes were overthrown by the uprising. And you can see that these countries are still in a state of turmoil, instability, which is usual in revolutionary periods.

Those eager to believe that the Arab uprising has ended or was stillborn focused on the initial victory of Islamic forces in elections in Tunisia and Egypt. Against such doomsayers, I stressed the fact that this was actually unavoidable since elections held shortly after the overthrow of the despotic regime could only reflect the balance of organised forces that existed in these countries. I argued that the Islamic fundamentalists’ period in power would not last long, if we consider the real roots of the revolutionary process.

This long-term revolutionary process is rooted in the social reality of the region, characterised by many decades of stalled development – a higher rate of unemployment, especially youth unemployment, than in any other region in the world over several decades. These were the real basic causes of the explosion, and as long as these causes are not addressed, the process will continue. Any new government which has no solutions to these root problems will fail. It was predictable that the Muslim Brotherhood would fail: in my book The People Want, which was of course written before Morsi’s overthrow in Egypt, I argued that the Muslim Brotherhood would fail inevitably. I wrote the same about Ennahda in Tunisia, which is now faced with a very strong protest movement that puts the future of the government in question.

So there is an ongoing process throughout the region, which, like any revolutionary process in history, has ups and downs, periods of advances and periods of setbacks – and sometimes ambiguous periods. The most ambiguous event in the whole process until now has been the recent experience in Egypt where we saw this huge mass mobilisation against Morsi on 30 June, which was a very advanced experience in democracy by a mass movement asking for the recall of an elected president who had betrayed the promises he made to the people. But at the same time, and here lies the ambiguity of course, you had the military coup and widespread illusions that the army could play a progressive role, including amongst dominant sections of the broad left as well as amongst liberals.

TC: So how does your analysis of the situation in Syria today fit into this overall framework of what is going across the region?

GA: There can be no doubt that what started in Syria in 2011 is part of the same revolutionary process alongside other countries. It is part of the same phenomenon and driven by the same basic causes – of stalled development, of unemployment and particularly youth unemployment. Syria is definitely no exception – in fact it’s one of the most acute cases of social and economic crisis in the region. This came as a result of the neo-liberal policies implemented by the Assads – father and son, but especially by the son since he came to power a dozen years ago after his father’s death.

Syria is a country which has seen massive impoverishment over the last decade, especially in the rural areas; the level of poverty has been rising and reached a situation where almost one third of the population were below the national poverty line, with unemployment on the rise. On the eve of the uprising the understated official figures for unemployment were 15% overall, and more than one third for young people between 15-24 years.

All this was taking place against a background of huge social inequality, a very corrupt regime – where Bashar Assad’s cousin became the richest man in the country, controlling – it is widely believed – over half of the economy. And that’s only one member of the ruling clan – all members of which were gaining huge material benefits. The clan functions as a real mafia, and has been ruling the country for several decades.

This constitutes the deep root of the explosion, in combination with the fact that the Syrian regime is one of the most despotic in the region. Compared to Assad’s Syria, Mubarak’s Egypt was a beacon of democracy and political freedom!

So it was no surprise that after Tunisia and Egypt, Libya, Yemen etc., Syria also went into the movement. And it was no surprise likewise, for those like me who were familiar with the character of the Syrian regime, that the movement could not achieve what it achieved in Tunisia and Egypt through mass demonstrations.

What is specific to this regime is that Assad’s father has reshaped and reconstructed the state apparatus, especially its hard nucleus – the armed forces – in order to create a Pretorian guard for itself. The army, especially its elite forces, is tied to the regime itself in various ways, most prominently through the use of sectarianism. Even people who had never heard of Syria before know now that the regime is based on one minority in the country – about 10% of the population; the Alawites.

With a military that is completely loyal to the regime, any illusion (and there were many illusions in the movement at the beginning) that the regime could be overthrown merely through mass demonstrations was false. It was in a sense inevitable that the uprising would turn into a civil war because there is no way to overthrow a regime of this nature without a civil war.

In the history of revolutions, peaceful revolutions are actually the exception, not the rule. Most revolutions, if they didn’t start with a civil war like the Chinese revolution, led very quickly to civil wars like the French, the Russian, etc.

This said, the Syrian regime is but one of the counter-revolutions that are facing the Syrian uprising, even though it is by far the deadliest. A second counterrevolution is constituted by the Gulf monarchies, the main bastion of reaction in the whole region. These monarchies reacted to the Arab uprising in the only way they could, especially given that their godfather, US imperialism, was not in a position to intervene as a counterrevolutionary force against the uprisings. They tried therefore to co-opt them, to recuperate the movement. And for the Gulf monarchies, this meant striving to turn social and democratic revolutions into movements led by forces which are no threat to them ideologically. That goes for the Muslim Brotherhood which was heavily backed by the Emirate of Qatar as well as for all sorts of Salafists – from the ‘moderate’ to the jihadists – backed by the Saudi kingdom or various Wahhabi-Salafi networks in the Gulf countries.

These monarchies have done their best to help and promote the outcome that is in their interests within the Syrian uprising; that is turning the democratic revolution – which would be a threat to them– into a sectarian war. Here you have an actual convergence between them and the first counterrevolution – that is the regime.

At the beginning what you had in Syria were demonstrations, like everywhere else in the region; organised and led by young people, networking through the social media, very brave mobilisations with clear social, democratic and anti-sectarian demands. But from day one the regime claimed that they were led by Al Qaeda, exactly like Gaddafi pretended in Libya; in both cases, that was a message addressed to the West. They were saying to Washington: ‘Make no mistake – we are your friends, we are fighting the same enemy, we are fighting Al Qaeda, so you shouldn’t stand against us, but support us instead’.

The Syrian regime did more than waging a propaganda war – it let jihadists out of its jails in order to boost the development of this current within the uprising. In the Syrian opposition there is a very widespread belief that that the Al Qaeda groups are infiltrated and manipulated by the regime. This is not a farfetched view actually – there is some level of involvement for sure, even if no one can tell how much.

Then, there is still a third counterrevolutionary force working against the Syrian uprising: it is of course the US – and I would add Israel. The US is counterrevolutionary in the full sense of the term with regard to Syria as it is in relation to all other countries in the region. Washington does not want any state to be dismantled. It wants what it calls ‘an orderly transition’; power changing hands but within a basic continuity of the state structure. In Washington and London, they keep talking about the ‘lessons of Iraq’ and explaining that they were wrong to dismantle the Ba’athist state. ‘We should have kept that state and just removed Saddam Hussein, and if we had done so we wouldn’t have faced so much trouble.’

You may ask: what about Libya? Well, before the fall of Gadhafi, I wrote a long piece explaining that NATO’s intervention in Libya was an attempt to co-opt the uprising, to steer it and manage it while they were involved in negotiations with Saif al-Islam, Gadhafi’s son, who was seen by the West as the good member of the ruling family. They wanted him to get his father to step down in his favour which would have very much suited Washington, London, Paris and the rest. But of course the Libyan uprising went beyond that when the insurrection in Tripoli led to the collapse of the whole regime.

For Syria, Washington very clearly says – even during the recent crisis over chemical weapons – ‘We don’t want the regime to be overthrown, we want a political solution’, what Obama also called a ‘Yemen solution’ one year ago. What did happen in Yemen? The President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, after one year of uprising, handed power with a big smile on his face to the vice-president and remained since then in the country where he still pulls many strings. This is just a mockery, a real frustration for the radical forces in that country. That’s also why it is far from over in Yemen, even if you don’t hear about it in the news here in the West. The movement is going on in Yemen, as it is in Bahrain and all over the region.

It is this sort of solution that the USA wants for Syria. It doesn’t want to intervene militarily like it did in Libya.The recent flare up was because Washington felt under pressure, with its ‘credibility’ at stake after Obama had set down his ‘red line’ regarding the use of chemical weapons. But even when they were contemplating strikes, they explained that they would be very limited strikes which would not affect the balance of forces. The New York Times ran a long article reporting that Israel wished exactly the same: limited strikes that wouldn’t alter the balance of forces within Syria.

Western powers would not lend substantial support – especially military support – to anyone, for they have no confidence in any force among the opposition. As the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, put it in writing: ‘Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides. It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favour. Today, they are not.’

TC: You didn’t mention Russia when you talked about counter-revolutionary forces. Would it be accurate to describe them as the fourth column in this case?

GA: I didn’t mention them because they are obviously a key force propping up the Assad regime. In that sense, Putin’s Russia is part of the first column, not a fourth one.

TC: Is it not true that their involvement has not only an important material effect through their supply of arms to Assad but also an important ideological one in that they disorient some who you would expect to support the uprising?

GA: In the final analysis, the Syrian uprising has very few friends. Even amongst people that one would expect to be friendly to revolutions you can see some hostile attitudes, people taken in by the propaganda of the Syrian regime which portrays the whole uprising as jihadist as well as that of Moscow. And some people look to Russia as if it were still the Soviet Union, even though in terms of its political and social character the United States appears as rather progressive compared to what Putin’s Russia is: an authoritarian government, wild capitalism, a flat income tax rate of 13%, robber barons, and so on. There is much more ground to consider Russia as an imperialist country than an anti-imperialist one.

As for those who believe that the Syrian regime is ‘anti-imperialist’, they just ignore the history of this regime and the sheer opportunism on which it bases its foreign policy. Assad’s Syria intervened in 1976 to crush the Palestinian resistance and the Lebanese left in Lebanon and prevent their victory over the Lebanese far right. In the 1983-5, it waged or backed wars against the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. In 1991, the Syrian regime fought the war against Iraq under US command; it was part of the US-led coalition; from the 1990s until 2004, the Syrian regime was the protector of the neoliberal pro-US Hariri government in Lebanon; and during all these years, the Syrian border has been the quietest and safest of all Israel’s borders. So there is no sense in which the Syrian regime can be described as ‘anti-imperialist’: it is a very opportunist regime which does not hesitate to switch sides and alliances in order to further its own interests.

TC: Could you say something about the balance of forces within the Syrian opposition?

GA: From reports by friends whom I trust and who have visited all the areas controlled by the opposition, the two Al Qaeda groups represent no more than 10% of the fighters, while the Salafists probably represent about 30%. This leaves a majority of forces acting under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner, although part of them are also Islamic-leaning. This is the outcome of the fact that the main sources of funding for Syrian anti-regime forces have been Islamic and based in the Gulf, from the monarchies to various religious networks.

That’s talking about the armed groups – as for the popular resistance, in their vast majority people are not interested in any kind of Islamic state but in the democratic and social aspirations which have been the objectives of the uprising since it began.

TC: Could you say something about how the resistance organises and what its main demands are?

GA: The resistance is very heterogeneous. During the first months of the uprising, the original leaders were, as indeed they were everywhere else in the region, mostly young people networking through the internet. They organised themselves through local coordination committees (LCCs) and elaborated a progressive programme: democratic, anti-sectarian, and secular-oriented. Overall a clearly progressive set of demands, which you could not fail to support if you are on the left.

The second stage was the constitution of the Syrian National Council (SNC) – abroad. This is a major difference with Libya where the National Transitional Council was formed inside the country and recognised as legitimate by most of the Libyan uprising, although even there, there were some problems. The SNC was formed abroad by people who had no real role in the leadership of the uprising itself, but had connections. It was created with the interference of Turkey, and that of Qatar. The Emirate funded the SNC, especially the Muslim Brotherhood who were and are still an important component of this official opposition in exile.

But in the same SNC you could find people who belong to the Syrian left like the People’s Democratic Party, which originates in a split from the Syrian Communist Party. And the LCCs themselves got represented in the SNC and recognised its leadership of the opposition. Here again one can agree with the bulk of the SNC’s programme from a left-wing point of view – it is democratic, anti-sectarian and broadly secular-oriented. Of course we could say it is not social enough but this is not at a radical left leadership, to be sure.

The SNC has now been superseded by the Syrian National Coalition. It remains basically a coalition of forces whose range is similar to that of the forces that were involved in the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings. One shouldn’t forget that in Egypt a well, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists were there, in the uprising, along with liberals and the left.

Then with the militarisation of the struggle, the mutation of the uprising into a civil war which happened progressively from the autumn of 2011 on, we have seen the emergence of hard-line Islamic jihadist groups including two groups working under the banner of Al Qaeda with differences between them, and Salafi groups. Of the two Al Qaeda affiliates, one has mostly fighters coming from outside Syria and the other is mainly Syrian and there are tensions between them. There have been increasing clashes between the FSA, the armed wing of the official opposition, and the Al Qaeda groups.

It is reassuring to see the hard-line jihadists being more and more rejected by the mainstream opposition but one also understands that the latter cannot wage a war on two fronts – they already have enough problems with the very unequal balance of forces between them and the regime. Unfortunately there is no left wing presence in the armed struggle. The radical left in Syria is anyway very marginal. And the broader left has not tried to organise separately within the FSA.

TC: How have the opposition responded to the regime’s attempt to portray them as sectarian?

GA: They have responded in various ways – through statements and proclamations, banners in demonstrations, using the names of Alawite or Christian or Druze figures from history for their Friday mobilisations, etc.

The fact is that there is no possible comparison between the sectarian killings that have been carried out by the regime and its shabbihas – its militias – who perpetrated most mass sectarian killings, and sectarian killings by anti-regime forces. The latter are mostly perpetrated by the jihadists, whom I consider as another counterrevolutionary force.

Of course there are wild reactions from people with poor political consciousness reacting in a sectarian way to the regime’s brutality. Well, what do you expect? This is not an army of Marxist intellectuals facing the regime; it is a popular uprising, and without a political leadership able to educate the people. So there are sectarian actions on the part of the opposition in reaction to the massive sectarianism of the regime. We had the same in the Lebanese civil war with much higher symmetry in sectarian killings between both sides – if that were the criteria, everyone should have equally rejected both sides in the Lebanese civil war.

Of course we should denounce all sectarian acts whenever they happen – and they are actually denounced by the opposition and the FSA. But we shouldn’t fall into the trap of ignoring the difference in scale between the regime’s mass sectarian killings and those perpetrated by anti-regime forces.

TC: What is the relationship with the Kurdish struggle?

GA: Both the regime and the opposition courted the Kurds at the beginning. The regime did this because it didn’t want the Kurds to join the uprising, and the uprising did so because they wanted to get them on board. The SNC included in its programme the recognition of minority rights – not to the extent of acknowledging the right to self-determination – but then that’s not even a unanimous demand of the Kurds in Syria, though of course I would be strongly in favour of defending this right.

The Syrian Kurdish movement seized the opportunity and took control of the Kurdish areas. The dominant force amongst the Syrian Kurds is linked to the PKK, which is dominant in the Turkish-controlled part of Kurdistan and has cultivated links with the Syrian regime over the years. But the Kurds are not directly interfering in the civil war; they are busy controlling their own area, establishing de facto autonomy like what happened in Iraq. I could hardly imagine they would lose this in the future – so that’s an achievement for them. They keep some distance from the civil war apart from clashes with the jihadists every now and then.

TC: How would you describe the situation in the areas controlled by the FSA? Clearly the humanitarian situation is a disaster but how would you describe it politically?

GA: Yes the humanitarian situation is definitely appalling. In many of the areas where the opposition has taken over and got rid of the Ba’athist state, we have seen the creation of local democratic committees, with some form of election. This is definitely positive, but it is somewhat normal when the authority disappears in a locality to try to organise something to replace it. One shouldn’t portray such committees as ‘soviets’ or anything like that – that would be completely over the top. These structures can represent an interesting potential for the future, but for the time being they are but measures of self-organisation in order to replace a vacuum of power created by the collapse of local state agencies.

TC: How would you sum up what the left should be doing with regard to Syria?

GA: It is really important to come out in solidarity with the Syrian uprising and not to be shy about it. If we believe in the right of people to self-determination, if we believe in the right of people to freely elect whoever they want, then even if we had an uprising where Islamic forces were leading, this shouldn’t change our position – as it didn’t for example with Gaza and Hamas, or with the Iraqi resistance which I would remind people was far more under Islamic control than anything you have in Syria.

For all these reasons I think that it is very important to express solidarity with the Syrian revolution, to build links with the progressives among the Syrian opposition, to counter the regime’s propaganda as well as that of Moscow, and to denounce Washington’s and the West’s complicity in the crime against humanity that is perpetrated in Syria.

Click here for a list of my other blogs on Syria

Friday, September 20, 2013

UPDATED: Mint Press exposed as Assad apologist, AntiWar.com apologizes

For three days after the sarin gas attack that murdered over a thousand Syrians, a third of them children, in suburban Damascus on 21 August 2013, the Assad Regime denied that any such attack had even happened. As the videos and eyewitness reports began to come out, that position became untenable, so the Assad Regime started saying "Well then, the rebels must have done it."

The Left and the Peace and Just Us* movement in the United States is so thoroughly infiltrated with Assad apologists, and other opportunists more comfortable in blindfolds, that many readily jumped on this "blame the victims, let Assad off the hook" bandwagon.

I find what these people have been doing, marching under the flag of the fascist dictator and embellishing his trash, despicable.

One of the more popular theories of how the opposition gassed its own people was a story published by Mint Press. This story, in addition to absolving Assad of any responsibility for the attack and putting the blame squarely with the rebels, had many elements in common with the sort of racist saga were the bungling, stupid [sand] niggers, acting at the behest of some rich white Jew, in this case played by the Saudi Prince Bandar, ends up doing themselves in by a stupid accident.

The truth about the opposition in Ghouta is quite different. Far from bungling, their defence of the community has been so through and effective that months of bombardment with convention bombs has failed to dislodge them, and even with the sarin gas attack, followed by weeks more of Assad Regime bombardment, it still has not fallen to the regime! This is the Revolution Undefeated!

The Mint Press saga is that Prince Bandar gave opposition fighters a "huge gas bottle" and they mishandled it in a tunnel.
“We were very curious about these arms. And unfortunately, some of the fighters handled the weapons improperly and set off the explosions,” ‘J’ said.
Idiots! Buffoons! At least that's what I would think if I believed it and as improbable as the idea that a gas spill in one location could kill people in seven locations is, there were many on the Left who did.

I critique the Mint Press story in detail and also listed the many reasons to believe the Assad regime was behind this CW attack in Who Used Sarin in Syria?, 3 Sept 2013, and in that piece I also listed some of the sites that were republishing or promoting the Mint Press story:

AntiWar.com | OpEdNews  | FAIR | InfoWars  | Democratic Underground  | Godlike Productions | Global Research | News Ninja | Daily Kos | Before it's News  | Tea Party Command Center  | Counterpunch | Friends of Syria  | Occupy.com | Religious Liberty Monitoring | Watchmen News | World Socialist Web Site | Democracy and Class Struggle  [Those that have since published retractions are in bold.]

The entire "proof" offered by the Mint Press story was the testimony of certain unnamed people in Ghouta as reported by the two journalists credited with the story, Dale Gavlak and Yahya Ababneh. They offered no physical or recorded evidence. The main offer of credibility for these otherwise unknown reporters was that one, Dale Gavlak has been associated with AP.

Now we have this statement from Dale Gavlak saying that she had nothing to do with this article:
Mint Press News incorrectly used my byline for an article it published on August 29, 2013 alleging chemical weapons usage by Syrian rebels. Despite my repeated requests, made directly and through legal counsel, they have not been willing to issue a retraction stating that I was not the author. Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author of the Mint Press News piece. To date, Mint Press News has refused to act professionally or honestly in regards to disclosing the actual authorship and sources for this story.

I did not travel to Syria, have any discussions with Syrian rebels, or do any other reporting on which the article is based. The article is not based on my personal observations and should not be given credence based on my journalistic reputation. Also, it is false and misleading to attribute comments made in the story as if they were my own statements.
Antiwar.com to its great credit, has issued a retraction and apology, saying:
The staff of Antiwar.com sincerely and deeply apologizes for being a part of spreading this article. We also apologize to Dale Gavlak.
I will be looking for the retractions and apologies from the other publications on the list above and as they come in, I will also highlight their names in bold. If these publications have half the integrity of antiwar.com, they should all be bold soon.

And I am patiently waiting for the Left to find its true self and expel these apologists and opportunists from its ranks.

UPDATE 22 Sept 2013: There is more from Dale Gavlak, a response from Mint Press, and more on Yahya Ababneh including the thesis that the original source for this story might be Russian.

As the facts become know, the retractions and apologies can be expected to start trickling in. We have this statement from FAIR, who otherwise simply choose to strike-through all references to Dale Gavlak in their existing story:
Without Gavlak's byline, and with the allegations of unprofessional behavior on the part of Mint Press News, there's little reason to take the Mint Press story seriously. We leave this post up for the historical record.

Click here for a list of my other blogs on Syria