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

Sunday, June 22, 2014

O'Donnell's good question and Obama's bad answer

"CBS This Morning" host Norah O'Donnell asked President Obama a very good question when she interviewed him about the growth of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or ISIS and its dramatic return to Iraq after a year of growth in Syria:
Would that vacuum exist had we backed the moderate forces in Syria?
President Barack Obama responded:
"Yes, I think this notion that somehow there was this ready-made moderate Syrian force that was able to defeat [Syrian President Bashar] Assad is simply not true, and, you know, we have spent a lot of time trying to work with a moderate opposition in Syria.

"But, as I said yesterday, 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. And I think it's very important for the American people - but maybe more importantly, Washington and the press corps - to understand that."
The correct answer is No, ISIS would probably not be leading the uprising in Iraq if Obama had backed the moderate forces in Syria. President Obama is just wrong when he implies that the Syrian opposition had to battle both the Assad regime and the hard-line Islamic jihadists from the beginning and he is wrong when he says his administration did all it could to help them when it "spent a lot of time trying to work with" some of the opposition forces. The struggle against Assad had gone on for almost a year before these jihadists became a significant factor.

Inspired by the Arab Spring, the Syrian people rose up to overthrow the 40 year old Assad dictatorship. It became an armed struggle because Assad responded to peaceful protests with gun fire. It has been dragging on because while the Syrian opposition has had the numbers, they have lacked the guns. From the very beginning the only military help the Syrian opposition needed or asked for was help with weapons, ammunition and supplies. They have been adamant that if they had the weapons they could do the fighting, no foreign boots needed, no thanks, and if they were allowed modern anti-aircraft defence systems, they could enforce their own 'no-fly' zone.

Free Syria Flag
It wasn't just "farmers dentists and folks" with no military training that took up arms against the regime, tens of thousand of Syrian Arab Army soldiers decided their allegiance to the people precluded shooting them and switched sides. The Free Syrian Army was founded by these defectors. Sometimes whole units and their commanders defected. Obama is just wrong when he implies that the moderate opposition as a whole lacked combat experience and training. They already had plenty of that and got pretty good at passing on their training to civilian volunteers. What they lacked was weapons and ammo. Often they started with what they could walk away with, and that precluded heavy weapons. Later that would be supplemented with those they could capture from Assad's arsenal or purchased on the black market with donor money but they have always been short of weapons and ammo as compared to Assad's forces with their generous Russian and Iranian backers.

Man with MANPADS
The Syrian opposition will tell you that time and time again that this has been the single most important factor stopping them from defeating Assad. They have lacked a consistent supply of small arms and ammunition and they lacked altogether certain important categories of heavy weapons such as advanced anti-tank weapons and man portable air defence systems also known as MANPADS that could offset Assad's military dominance.

The problem of jihadists in Syria is relatively new. This wound has been allowed to fester for more than two years before they were able to infect it the way they have. A hundred thousand people had been slaughtered, many of them by Bashar al-Assad's barrel-bombing air force, while the powers that could stop it looked on and did nothing. Had Assad's moderate opposition received a sufficient supply of arms in the early years of this conflict, it would probably already be over and the Assad regime a subject of history. The jihadist threat represented by ISIS would have never had a chance to grow.

The struggle had gone on for almost a year before al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra {JAN] set off its first car bomb attack on 6 January 2012 and then announced itself 17 days later. Through most of 2012 they remained a relatively small force carrying out suicide and car bombings and killing dozens of people here and there, but their audacity and good supply of weapons continued to attract Syrians from other brigades, JAN was and remains a predominately Syrian group, and it continued to grow. By the end of 2012, JAN had been added to the US list of terrorist organizations.

As for the notion that those who took up arms against the regime are on a fool's errand and President Obama's contention that the thought that they could ever prevail is "a fantasy." Its simply not supported by the history of this conflict. Nobody can deny that in late-2012, early-2013, before Hezbollah intervened with sectarian fanatics that wouldn't defect, Assad was on the ropes, even with all his Russian and Iranian help.

The fact that they have already come to within an inch of toppling Assad without Obama's help shows that it isn't such a fantasy to think that they can do it. How were they to know, in advanced, that the "leader of the free world" would use his power and influence to deny them tools that had become essential in struggle to bring democracy to their country because the dictator had made it an armed struggle?

Syrian city after Assad
If Assad's opposition in Syria had been allowed to acquire, in 3 years, the type of air defence capabilities that Putin's proxies in Ukraine have in as many months. They could bring down Assad's barrel bombing helicopters and jets themselves with no more support. That alone could have changed the whole contour of the conflict. Assad has consistently bombed civilian targets like schools, bakeries, hospitals, play grounds, and apartment building. His almost unchallenged domination of the air, along with his missiles and heavy artillery are by and large responsible for the massive Syrian refugee crisis because Assad uses them to make liberated areas unliveable.

The jihadist group that is causing so many problems now in Syria and Iraq is not Jabhat al-Nusra but ISIS and while both share the al Qaeda outlook, JAN remains dominated by Syrians and participates in the struggle against the Assad regime. In contrast, the much more vicious ISIS is made up mainly of foreign fighters, seems to have a truce going with the Assad forces, and has even been disowned by al-Qaeda leader Zawqawi.

The consequence of doing nothing can be frightful. Here are just two of Obama's missed opportunities to nip this thing in the bud:

1.] Give them an inch and they'll threaten Baghdad: ISIS should never been allowed to take and hold Raqqa.

ISIS didn't come onto the scene until April 2013 when the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, the al Qaeda affiliate established to fight the US occupation of Iraq, announced he was merging ISI with JAN under the new name. The leadership of JAN rejected the merger and continued as an independent group although it is estimated that they lost as many as half their fighters to ISIS.

This was just a month after the combined opposition forces had captured their first provincial capital of Raqqa from the Assad regime. The Jabhat al Nusra and the Free Syrian Army were the lead forces in capturing Raqqa, but soon the dark cloud of ISIS descended on the city.

ISIS should never been allowed to capture and occupy Raqqa, Syria. Sarah Birke visited Raqqa soon after it was liberated and she described the changes in the New York Review of Books, 27 December 2013:
When I visited that month, the city was ruled by a coalition of militias, and it was possible to move around as a woman without a headscarf. I met with an Alawite nurse who worked alongside Sunni peers. And I talked to Abdullah al-Khalil, a prominent lawyer before the war, who as head of the local council continued to pay street cleaners salaries and was trying to secure enough money to keep other services going.

But within two months, ISIS was firmly in charge. The group beheaded three Alawites in the city’s central square, and established sharia courts and policing. Abdullah al-Khalil, the head councilman, was himself kidnapped by ISIS or its allies. Women have been told to cover up, smoking banned, and girls and boys segregated in school. Minorities have been hounded out of the city, and foreign journalists and aid workers are no longer welcome: dozens are currently in ISIS captivity.
ISIS killings in Mosul
The capture of Raqqa by ISIS represented a turning point in this conflict.  Even at that late date, had the moderate rebels received adequate support in their struggle against the ISIS for Raqqa it is likely they wouldn't be leading the capture of Mosul and threatening of Baghdad in Iraq today. There would still be a problems created by the Sunni-Shiite divide the US cultivated to occupy Iraq and its echoes in the current sectarian Maliki government, but it is likely they would have a very different character because it is likely ISIS wouldn't be leading them.

ISIS has been in the position of being able to come back into Iraq and capitalize on and direct Sunni rage against the Maliki government because once it succeeded in throwing the FSA, JAN and other opposition forces out of Ragga and the surrounding area, it was able to establish a safe rear area that allowed it to organize, consolidate forces, train and grow. It became a base camp from which it could slowly grow the areas of Syria under its control, capturing Minberg airbase near Aleppo in August and taking Azaz away from the FSA in September.
ISIS HQ in Raqqa
Apparently, ISIS occupation of Raqqa was okay with Assad because while he had bombed the FSA in Raqqa relentlessly, after there was a "change in management", the clearly marked ISIS headquarters in Raqqa became one of the safest places in Syria. Until this week, neither it nor any of the other ISIS installations or camps around Raqqa have been bombed by Assad's air force.

Why Obama never lifted a finger to prevent the establishment of ISIS in Raqqa is another question and one that will be discussed for years to come. I don't think it would have taken much. ISIS prevailed in the struggle for Raqqa because they were better armed. No shots were fired because when ISIS flexed it muscles the other opposition forces conceded. As always, there were many other factors but that one was decisive. The FSA was starved for weapons particularly heavy weapons, and as Obama pointed out in his comment, they were now fighting a war on two fronts. The ISIS may not have had to worry about Assad's air force, but the FSA did.

2.] ISIS's current success is also blow-back from Obama's failure to strike Assad after the August chemical attack.

If Obama had delivered on his promise to make a serious military strike against Assad for using chemical weapons after the August attack that killed more than 1400 Syrian, it would be much less likely that ISIS would be threatening Baghdad now.

Children of sarin | 21 Aug 2013
My friends in the Syrian American Council tell me that it is hard to over-estimate the negative effect on the morale of the opposition of Obama's failure to take military action even after Assad used "a whole bunch of chemical weapons," itself an indecisive phrase that had no place in an ultimatum. If an army travels on its stomach, a revolution lives or dies on the morale of the masses and it seems entirely too many Syrians had too much faith in Obama and the US so when he reneged on his promise, they took it as a shot to the gut, or rather a knife in the back. I'm told that no battlefield defeat, no new outrage from Assad, had the destructive effect on the fighting spirit of the people against Assad as this one betrayal.

Yarmouk child
Like so many people before them they had to learn the hard way about the gap between US words and actions. It yielded predictable results, some quit the FSA, some dropped out of the struggle altogether, some said fuck Obama and joined the ISIS. The net effect among opposition forces in Syria of Obama's promise to attack Assad if he did what he did and Obama's failure to follow through, was to weaken the FSA and other moderate forces and to strengthen the Islamic extremist like ISIS.

We can only speculate whether what ISIS might call their "August 21st" recruits have played a significant role in this current offensive. It may be a very small one or it could be the factor that has placed them less than 40 miles from Baghdad. What we can say is that it is another in a series of failures to act in the Syrian crisis in such a way as to could have a positive effect on current event, perhaps avoiding them entirely.

President Obama needs to own up to his mistakes with regards to Syria, which range from inaction to closet support for Assad, rather than trying to convince those that see a way to a better outcome that they are living a fantasy because every day Assad's barrel bombs are still killing children and there are things Obama can still do to stop that, like allowing the people Assad is bombing MANPADS.

Fighting ISIS
Now that he is also concerned about the rise of ISIS, he has self-interested reasons for supporting military aid to the Syrian opposition. They are the only force that has been effectively fighting and winning territory from ISIS. Already, in the past week, Syrian opposition fighters have taken advantage of the apparent diversion of ISIS resources to Iraq to free the towns of Tel Sha’ir, Tel Bital, Tel Jijana, Al-Khalifatli and Hawzan from its grip.

Because Obama has refused weapons for the Free Syrian Army and the other moderate forces in Syria and because ISIS has now gotten its hands on stockpiles of the latest US weaponry in Mosul and other Iraq arsenals they have captured, there is the distinct possibility that in future battles between ISIS and the Free Syrian Army, ISIS will have the best US weapons. Now that would be a real embarrassment to President Obama. He should see that the Free Syrian Army and the moderate opposition get the advanced weapons they need, including MANPADS, to defeat both Assad and ISIS. He should stop underestimating Assad's opposition. It is a flame that Assad hasn't been able to stomp out in three years. If Obama sees they get the weapons, I'll personally guarantee, the land of two rivers will no longer be the land of two tyrants.

Click here for a list of my other blogs on Syria


  1. Will you really 'personally guarantee' peace in the region if Obama does what you request? Do you really have all the answers? I have to admit, I've been trying to follow your writings and complicated reasonings on why or why not the US does what it does or doesn't do. It appears to me that you have been claiming Obama as a supporter of Assad, which would mean that he should be opposing ISIS. But you throw in a complication saying Assad is secretly supporting ISIS, which would thus logically make the US an 'undeclared supporter' of ISIS also, which I don't believe is the case. Detesting US expansionism and empire building, my experience has always been to find out which side of a battle the US supports and we most likely should be supporting the other side.
    And now with the US considering returning to clean up the mess they made in Iraq, they find themselves allied with their 'worst enemies', Syria, Iran, and even Russia's Putin who has offered unlimited support to the Iraqi government. Seems like there's more than two sides to this battle.
    I enjoy reading your articles, if just to try to figure out exactly where you are in the Left ... if you are there at all.

    1. "Detesting US expansionism and empire building, my experience has always been to find out which side of a battle the US supports and we most likely should be supporting the other side." This is a really bad and faulty political method, at the root of the problem with much of the "Western" left.

      Those who support the murderous neo-liberal, torture-rendering capitalist Assad regime, or Putin's Russian neo-imperialism, are definitely, absolutely not part of any Left anywhere in the world today. Despite what old crap may be rattling around inside some self-described "leftists" heads.

      The Assad regime is not "national bourgeois anti-imperialist" in character. Giving any sort of support, no matter how indirect or "critical", to the Putin regime, the Iranian Mullah regime, and so forth, is not anti-imperialism. It effects no real opposition to US imperialism, any more than supporting Wilhelmite Germany against Britain manifested opposition to British imperialism 100 years ago. Instead it manifests a bloc - consciously or not - with some highly reactionary political currents.

  2. ISIS are also supporters of Assad. Apparently you haven't been following my writings very closely or you would already know that. Enemy of my enemy is my friend is very faulty political reasoning. You would have supported Hitler in WW2.

    1. He means exactly what you say. In Syria, too, you are neither on the side of Assad, or against him. The picture you paint is that there are so many strange bedfellows in this bed, that it looks like an orgy of the zoo. Not that in reality is not.

      Being too conspiratory, is not reasonable, like US was so much all powerful, that it could even fake 9/11. But also the scenario you propose is to think an opposite absurd. The thing is, that for the most massive state, a few things start to look odd because US has to flip flop sides so fast, that it basically looks like run by clowns, without any prospect of strategic planning.