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Mussalaha (Reconciliation) in Syria

Reconciliation” has become something of a buzzword in Canada, the country of my birth, underpinning much of the mainstream discourse around the historical mistreatment of indigenous people and the future of relations between settlers and natives. One might be surprised to learn that Reconciliation is also a buzzword in Syria, but for rather different reasons. Mussalaha” (تصالح), reconciliation, has been a priority of the Syrian Arab Republic as part of its strategy to end internal strife in Syria since the 2012 constitutional reforms.

There is no denying that the war in Syria has transformed the country, and obviously in many ways for the worse; proud and ancient cities lay in ruins, millions have been forced to flee their residences and the homeland their ancestors have inhabited for centuries, terrorist gangs backed by Syria’s neighbors and by the United States continue to plague the country. Yet, as the war shifts in favor of the Syrian government, there is an ember of hope for the masses of  Syria (though you wouldn’t know it from mainstream media), and that hope is Mussalaha. Mussalaha has played a key role in the Syrian government’s political as well as military victories, and holds important implications that country, and the world’s, future.

The Mythologies of Imperial Divide-and-Conquer

In order understand the significance of this concept, it is necessary to understand Syria’s recent history, as well as to dispel some often-peddled myths about Syria, its people, and its government. Thankfully, due to the tireless work of committed independent journalists, historians, anti-imperialist and solidarity activists, and even some research by traditionally pro-imperialist journals and think-tanks, there is a wealth of evidence to construct a counter-narrative to the one promoted by the imperialists in the US State Department and corporate media.

The narrative which underlies coverage by large corporate conglomerate media usually goes something like this: The government of Syria is a ruthless dictatorship of the Al-Assad family, which hordes power for itself and its political allies in the Alawi religion. In 2011, there was an uprising against this dictatorship by the marginalized Sunni Muslim majority which was violently repressed by the government using chemical weapons and “barrel bombs” (in quotation marks as the term “barrel bomb” has yet to be clearly defined). Faced with great repression, the protesters turned to armed struggle. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, in an elaborate conspiracy, implanted radical Islamist elements into the resistance which led to the growth of modern terrorist organizations like Ahrar Al-Sham, Jahabat Al-Nusra, and Al-Qaeda and ISIS outfits in Syria.

The most comprehensive and richly historicized rebuttal of this narrative is Stephen Gowans‘ recent book Washington’s Long War on Syria (2017), which I will cite extensively (you can read an excerpt of the book here). The first myth Gowans dismantles is the idea that the 2011 protests were a peaceful “popular uprising”, using sources that would certainly not be considered “pro-Assad” by any standard. For example, Gowans quotes an article by Rania Abouzeid published in Time shortly before the 2011 protests, “Even critics concede that Assad is popular and considered close to the country’s huge youth cohort, both emotionally, ideologically and, of course, chronologically.” Abouzeid added that unlike “…the ousted pro-American leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, Assad’s hostile foreign policy toward Israel, strident support for Palestinians and the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah are in line with popular Syrian sentiment.” (Abouzeid, as quoted in Gowans, 2017. Emphasis added.). The same article features interviews with Syrian youth whom express support for Bashar Al-Assad’s political coalition, the National Progressive Front, for implementing fully public education and enforcing secularism.

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An almost iconic photo, a pro-government rally in the city of Saba, Syria,  draws thousands (Reuters, 2011).

On the protests which triggered the so-called “Syrian revolution”, Gowans demonstrates that these were in large part riots led by unpopular organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood who have been trying to topple the secular NPF government, with extensive US support, since the 1980s, and were violent from their outset – attacking public infrastructure and innocent bystanders, as well as, interestingly, calling for solidarity with various Al-Qaeda and proto-ISIS militias in Libya. These groups would go on to form the militias which, composed mostly of foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia to Sweden with covert US and Israeli support, would go on occupy and terrorize vast swaths of Syria.

We should also note the not insignificant fact that western media has propagated the idea that the Syrian government has deployed an arsenal of chemical weapons (in particular Sarin gas) during the course of its military campaign against these forces, including on civilians. What coverage of these alleged attacks ignores is that only one of these alleged attack sites has been subjected to an independent United Nations fact-finding mission (as they are required to be under international law) and the results of that mission were that the the Syrian government did not use chemical weapons. Therefore, all allegations of “Assad gassing his own people” and other such sensationalism are by default presumptions of guilt and should be immediately suspect, especially considering that the Syrian government surrendered its chemical weapons stores in 2013 and that the United States and its allies have blocked any independent investigations of attack sites. Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh (2017) believes this to be intentional, using insider sources from the US military to demonstrate an active campaign to demonize the Syrian government.

Hersh’s allegations are significant, because they come at a time when the US narrative on Syria is quickly unraveling. Several voices close to the US establishment; namely The Century Foundation, the New York Times, and former UN prosecutor Clara Del Ponte, have all had to make admissions that the narrative Gowans’ and other independent researchers and journalists have dedicated to deconstructing is indeed flawed. Sam Heller (2017), writing for the Century Foundation makes perhaps the most dramatic admission. Commenting on US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull funding from covert CIA support for Syrian rebel groups, he writes:

The program was intended to build a moderate rebel force that could apply serious enough military pressure on the regime to force Assad to step aside as part of a negotiated political settlement. But the latter part of that objective, a compelled transition, was always fantasy. As for the “moderate rebel force,” for the last several years much of America’s support has gone to “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) factions that have functioned as battlefield auxiliaries and weapons farms for larger Islamist and jihadist factions, including Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate.

(Heller, 2017. Emphasis added)

This admission of funding outright terrorist forces in Syria (not a “moderate opposition” by any stretch) is a significant victory for peace activists, anti-imperialists, and everyone else who has worked to oppose the demonization of the Syrian state and US-NATO interventionism and warmongering. With the facts now established, we can better appreciate the role Reconciliation plays in Syrian state policy as both a political and ideological struggle against US-backed proxies and sectarianism.

 The National Ministry of Reconciliation and Political Reform

Of course, assuming that all is well and good within the ranks of the Syrian government would be an asinine simplification. The unleashing of the war in (or more accurately “on”) Syria revealed the need for state reforms in order to maintain stability and prevent sectarianism from being instrumentalized by the insurgency. These manifested in the 2012 constitutional reforms, which included removing the Ba’ath Party’s exclusive claim to executive office, expanding parliamentary powers, and creating mechanisms for reconciliation between different ethno-religious groups, including the National Ministry of Reconciliation, led by Dr. Ali Haidar of the opposition party the Syrian Social-Nationalists, and the forthcoming Committee of National Reconciliation. Canadian journalist Eva Bartlett interviewed Haidar in 2014. In the interview, Haidar provides an outline of the philosophy and policy objectives of Mussalaha: 

Reconciliation isn’t that we are making a deal with armed insurgents. The idea is to restore the state of security in Syria. In our work towards reconciliation, we look at two main sectors: One, the insurgents, and the other, Syrian civilians living in areas controlled by the insurgents.

Regarding the insurgents, we differentiate between the Syrian insurgents and the foreign militias. The latter refuse any dialogue with the government and are simply terrorists in Syria. And unfortunately, they are large in numbers and are the leaders of the dominant insurgent groups. The only people we communicate with are armed Syrians, not with the foreign militias.

We encourage armed Syrians to cut any ties with the foreign militias. Then, we negotiate with them on how to reconcile. We’ve been very successful, in many areas, having them disarm and go back to their normal lives. We’ve had thousands of successes.

The second focus is on Syrian society. Syrians are suffering in all respects: their security and safety, the economy, social services, education, the large number of martyrs and injured, the kidnapped, the missing, the internally-displaced… We are trying to find a solution to each one of these cases. That is the deepest meaning of ‘reconciliation’: to return people to their normal lives.

(Haidar, as quoted in Bartlett, 2014. Emphasis added)

From this, we can conclude that Reconciliation is a nationalist project. “Nationalist” not in the sense that it is ethnic or volkish but nationalist in what some might call the “Civic” sense, that is Nationalism as the construction of a community around the State – of unifying the religious, ethnic, and national groups within Syria into a coherent Syrian community which neither submerges or emphasizes these differences, but compliments them. This is a vision, according to Syrian state hagiography, that was first expressed in the 1936 Syrian rebellion and is the guiding vision of the  philosophy of Arab Socialism. This necessarily, as Haidar clarifies, includes expelling foreign fighters and insurgents, but is at its heart an inclusive project.

Dr. Ali Haidar, photographed in his office by Eva Bartlett (2014).

This policy stands in stark contrast to the image of the Syrian government, with Bashar Al-Assad at its head, as a divisive force. But understanding that Syrian state policy is primarily about maintaining social unity and preventing breakdown into sectarianism, it begins to make sense why over 50% of the Syrian population supports the Syrian government and Bashar Al-Assad specifically, why refugees tend to be fleeing from rebel-held territory and have a relatively positive view of the government (a fact I can attest to personally in addition to the linked study) and why refugees have started to return to Syria now that the war has shifted in favor of the government.

Syrian Sovereignty and the Reinvention of the Border

Of course, the concept of a “National” (read: State) Reconciliation might seem outlandish in the framework of neoliberalism, which has increasingly overrun the so called “left”, particularly in North America. Compare, for example, the attitude of the Canadian left to the US “humanitarian intervention” in Grenada in the 1980s to attitudes to the recent  interventions in Libya or Syria. There was no debate along the lines we see today; that maybe anti-imperialism should be sacrificed for the sake of “human rights”, that x, y, or z “third world dictator” had “killed his own people” and thus did not deserve our support, or that we should narcissisticly uphold “our” western models of liberal democracy as the only legitimate form of popular rule.

There are, of course, numerous things worth criticizing about the various parties and formations which made up the 1980s left, but one common position which has proved correct over the last thirty years is the understanding that the construction of centralized, yet ultimately pluralistic, states serve as one of the most powerful tools of decolonization in the contemporary era. This is precisely the kind of state that countries which have made some of the most world-shaking strides in decolonization – China, Algeria, Libya, Zimbabwe, Cuba – have all constructed on socialist foundations.

Mussalaha urges us to harken back to this understanding of what decolonization, self-determination, and democracy means, both in the first world left’s defense of third world states in the crosshairs of American Empire, and in our political programs for our own countries. Of significance in the case of Syria, both in geostrategic and ideological terms, is the existence of internationally recognized borders. The dynamics of “border control” have been precisely what has allowed the Syrian state to win victories and repel US imperialism, its proxies, and ISIS forces, and it has been precisely US efforts to either force open Syria’s borders or to fracture the country into various ethnic enclaves which have allowed the US to exercise undue influence there. While this reality’s universal implications are not the focus of this article, it is worth noting the importance of unitary state power and borders in combating imperial terra nullius.

Syrian Government Rebuilding Aleppo City (Photos, Video)
Syrian workers begin repairing streets in newly-liberated Aleppo, a key area of reconstruction for the Syrian state (SouthFront Database, 2017).

What we can say however, is that the Syrian Reconciliation project requires both a conceptual and spatial recognition of “Syria” as a political unit, which both the sectarian projects of imperialist intervention and the neoliberal discourse of left-liberals both seeks to negate in their reiterations of “ancient” Sunni vs Shia rivalries, “Alawite minority rule”, and other overt focuses on the divisions within Syrian society and exploiting them for regime-change ends (often neglecting actual minority persecution, such as the mass killing of Alawites, Christians, and Shia by opposition forces). This overcoming of sectarian division and the misapplied transference of neoliberal identity politics by left-liberals to political sectarianism to the Middle-east will be elaborated on in Part 2.

 

Conclusion

As the US vision for a fragile, recolonized Syria crumbles and forces like ISIS and Al-Nusra lose ground to the Syrian Arab Army and its domestic and international allies, and the bipartisan warmongers of the US government must begrudgingly concede defeat, I expect that the media of the “international community” (read: US imperialist world order) will produce some combination of weeping and wailing about the defeat of the nonexistent “democratic uprising” against the government and of quiet deflection away from the reality of the failure of a US campaign against another sovereign country. Because, after all, Syria, like Vietnam before it, has proven to the world that the military might of the United States is, in fact, not invulnerable to resistance, and that it can even be overcome. While the rebuilding and reconciling in Syria will take many years to come, the impending defeat of the long war on Syria is an inspiration for the modern age.

References

ABRAHMS, M., D. Sulivan, et al. (2017). “Five Myths About Syrian Refugees“. Foreign Affairs. 

BARTLETT, E. (2014). “As Foreign Insurgents Continue to Terrorize Syria, the Reconciliation Trend Grows.” Dissident Voice. 

GOEL, T. (2017). “Half a million Syrians return home as Syrian gov’t, allies liberate more areas.” Liberation News. 

GOWANS, S. (2017). Washington’s Long War on Syria. Montreal, QC: Baraka Books

HELLER, S. (2017). “America Had Already Lost Its Covert War in Syria – Now its Official“. The Century Foundation. 

HERSH, S. (2017). “Trump’s Red Line.” Die Welt. 

STAFF (2017). “Future Syrian Reconciliation Committee to Comprise Only Syrians – Minister.” Sputnik. 

STEELE, J. (2012). “Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know from western media.” The Guardian. 

WORTH, R. (2017). “Aleppo After the Fall.” The New York Times. 

Categories
ANTI-IMPERIALISM DONALD J. TRUMP EMPIRE GLOBALIZATION IMPERIAL DECLINE NEOLIBERALISM

Trump, Empire, and Syria (or, The Elites Just Bought Another War)

DONALD TRUMP: ANOTHER MAN FOR EMPIRE

“After losing thousands of lives and spending trillions of dollars, we are in far worst shape in the Middle East than ever, ever before. I challenge anyone to explain the strategic foreign policy vision of Obama/Clinton. It has been a complete and total disaster.” — Donald J. Trump, Campaign Speech on Foreign Policy

If anyone retains any illusions that Trump represented a true challenge to the “establishment” which he so vehemently claimed to oppose, it’s time to bury such fantasies alongside the bodies of the victims of the 59 ballistic missiles fired into an airfield outside Homs, Syria. Not only has Trump done nothing to alter the Bush-Obama proxy wars and occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Ukraine, but has escalated the US aggression against Syria, but now potentially in Korea (and I assume, eventually, Iran and Venezuela). Like Bush in Iraq, Trump is lunging into Syria on the presumption that the Syrian government used chemical weapons despite questionable evidence of this. Ironically, this also comes after a recent admission that the United States has used depleted uranium in Syria just as it did in Iraq.

This is in stark contrast to the foreign policy Trump campaigned on, or more precisely the foreign policy many Trump voters thought he was campaigning on. Despite threatening to tear up the Iran Nuclear Deal and bolster support for Israel, as well as the wild suggestion the US station nuclear warheads in South Korea, Trump also made a number of isolationist, even anti-imperialist sounding statements on the campaign trail, which appealed to voters who are  feeling exhausted by decades of imperialist wars. These statements were surprisingly consistent as well, alluding to positions Trump had described in his books, The America We Deserve (2000) and Time to Get Tough (2011). More recently, they also appeared in his tweets:

 

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The Orange Canary now sings a different tune.

What happened to the Trump who wrote these tweets? What happened to the Trump who trashed NATO, sought good relations with Russia, attacked the Clintons for overthrowing Qaddafi, who called the United States “not so innocent”, and promised to build jobs at home instead of sending soldiers aboard? I admit, I entertained the possibility that Trump might make good on these promises, but no longer. It’s  likely that this “progressive Trump” never really existed.Like Nixon and Obama before him, Trump is an opportunist, playing to both working class conservatism (in the form of anti-blackness, xenophobia, and settler-colonial nationalism) as well as more progressive impulses like universal health coverage and, of course, anti-interventionism, positions which are quickly abandoned once the opportunist is catapulted into power.

A possible silver lining in these dark times is that  perhaps now the nebulous “Trump coalition” will shatter into a million pieces. Between trying to push through detrimental health care policy and plunging the United States into another bloody, potentially catastrophic war, Trump has isolated both the working class and rural-dwelling voters who brought him victory and the bourgeois white nationalists who aggrandized him to the public. There may be an opportunity, through the channel of a revived anti-war movement, for the left to recapture the working class in the United States.

It should also be apparent to anyone paying attention now that the media is not a friend of progressives or any critics of US imperialism.  It should be clear that in spite of the aggressive attacks against Trump in major media outlets during the election, that the elites and their propaganda outlets were not really ever concerned with Trump’s xenophobia, his racist and sexist comments, or the likelihood that he is a rapist (and indeed, why would they be?),  these things were only instruments to the transnational capitalists against a figurehead they feared might put a wrench in their otherwise well-oiled war machine by seeking rapprochement with Russia and Syria. Now that Trump has fully committed to their version of Yankee imperialism, press coverage of Trump is glowing with praise. Of eighteen major editorials on Syria in five major papers, not one is critical.

Below is a stunning report featured in The Nation in March of 2017 which darkly foreshadows the pressure Trump must have felt from his wealthy friends and neighbors to have a good war. Trump himself has a vested interest in the war economy, owning significant shares in Raytheon, the manufacturer of the missiles launched at Syria. While reading this, consider that the “wealthy donors/elites” described as pushing for war also likely have controlling interests in the mainstream American media, which now rallies behind Trump’s genocidal ambitions.

WEALTHY DONORS AND MILITARY INTERVENTION

McElwee, Sean, Brian Shaffe, & Jesse Rhodes. 2017. “How Wealthy Donors Drive Aggressive Foreign Policy.” The Nation. 

Since Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency Washington has struggled to get a handle on his administration’s approach to matters of war and peace. In recent weeks, there has been intense focus on the perceived influence of top presidential aide Steve Bannon, who is seen as extremely hawkish on national security matters, especially when it comes to combating Islamic terrorism and confronting China’s rising influence. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that Bannon’s prominence within the administration – highlighted by his appointment to the National Security Council – portends a more bellicose turn in American national security policy.

And despite his purported skepticism of defense spending and aversion to spending cuts, Trump’s new budget bolsters spending for defense by $54 billion while cutting spending elsewhere.

There are undeniable reasons for concern – if not outright fear – about Bannon’s appointment, particularly coupled with soaring military investment. But these worries obscure more systematic – if also more subtle – reasons for the United States’ persistent aggressiveness on the world stage. (After all, American military interventionism long preceded the Trump Administration and continued during the presidency of Barack Obama). Our research suggests that a major, if under-appreciated, base of support for the frequent use of American military force abroad is the enthusiasm of wealthy persons – and especially large political donors.

On several key questions, wealthy people – and, in particular, “elite donors” (those who contribute $5,000 or more, or the top 1 percent of all donors) – are much more enthusiastic about the projection of American force than are American adults. The enthusiasm of the most wealthy and influential private actors in American politics provides a durable reservoir of support for the assertion of American power abroad. Given the profound, and likely growing, influence of political donors in American politics, our findings suggest that strong political supports for American foreign interventionism will remain long after Bannon, and Trump, have departed the executive branch.

Image result for imperialism

These conclusions come from our ongoing research project on the preferences and contribution patterns of big donors. As part of this work, we investigated how preferences toward American military spending and the use of force compared between elite donors, wealthy individuals (those with family incomes of more than $150,000), all donors, and all American adults.

Our analysis drew on a cumulative data file from the 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies surveys. By pooling together multiple surveys, we were able to obtain an unusually large sample of these elite donors, as well as extremely large samples of several other groups: all political donors, individuals with family incomes over $150,000, and all American adults. (Across all surveys, there were 196,000 respondents.) To make the elite donor sample nationally representative, we re-weighted the sample using information from Catalist, a political data firm with information on more than 260 million adults, and the Federal Election Commission.

We also made efforts to ensure that we correctly identified large donors. While it’s unlikely that many people lie about contributing large amounts of money to campaigns — being an elite donor is not exactly a status that most people aspire to — we tried to account for this possibility by dropping from our analysis any self-identified elite donors who were not also validated registered voters. On the whole, our approach allowed us to examine the preferences of elite donors, and other groups, with a great deal of precision.

As a first observation, “elite donors” and wealthy Americans are more supportive of American military spending than are ordinary Americans. When requested to indicate whether they preferred to balance the federal budget primarily through cuts to defense spending, domestic spending cuts, or tax increases, 42 percent of American adults indicated that they preferred defense cuts. But only 25 percent of elite donors, and 36 percent of wealthy Americans, preferred that route.

We found that cutting defense spending was the most popular option for balancing the budget among ordinary Americans, but the least popular option among elite donors. And this is not simply a matter of partisanship — the “elite donors” and wealth Americans in our sample are fairly evenly divided along party lines. Further, within the parties, elite donors are more interventionist (that is, Democratic elite donors are more interventionist than non-donors and Republican elite donors are more interventionist than Republican non-donors).

Graph 1

Elite donors and wealthy Americans also seem to be more sanguine about the United States’ interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among all adults, 60 percent consider the United States’ involvement in Iraq a mistake. But only 52 percent of elite donors do. The opinion gap between adults and elite donors on the United States’ intervention in Afghanistan is even wider. While 43 percent of the general public consider the Afghanistan intervention a mistake, only 27 percent of elite donors do.

Graph2

These findings point to the possibility that elite donors and wealthy Americans might be more favorably disposed to the use of American military force than are ordinary Americans. And, in fact, when it comes to attitudes about hypothetical military interventions, we find similar income- and donation-based effects. For example, while all of the groups in our analysis strongly support the use of American military force to protect allies under attack, elite donors and wealthy Americans are even more enthusiastic than are all American adults. Eighty-five percent of elite donors and 80 percent of wealthy Americans express support for the use of force in these circumstances, compared with 71 percent of adults.

“Elite donors” and the wealthy are noticeably more likely to support a military intervention to prevent genocide (50 percent and 51 percent, respectively) compared to the general public (40 percent). And elite donors and wealthy Americans are also much more likely to express support for military interventions to destroy terrorist training camps. Sixty-four percent of American adults supported this hypothetical; but 80 percent of “elite donors” and 76 percent of wealthy Americans did.

Graph3

Strikingly, we found that elite donors and wealthy Americans are more likely to express support for military interventions to ensure the American oil supply. While just 25 percent of American adults expressed support for such interventions, 35 percent of elite donors did, and nearly half (48 percent) of Republican elite donors did.

Graph4

These attitudinal differences matter. Recent scholarship on representation in politics strongly suggests that large donors and wealthy Americans exercise disproportionate influence on politicians, and that this bias is most notable on matters of national security and foreign policy. One reason that this might occur is that Americans feel less confident in judging debates over foreign interventions and often defer to elites on such matters, especially during conflicts.

Benjamin Page and Jason Barabas compared the foreign policy preferences of foreign policy elites using the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations surveys and found “many differences of 30, 40, and even 50 percentage points compared with the general public.”  Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton find, in their book The Foreign Policy Disconnect, that “contrary to the assertions of many scholars, pundits and political elites,” “collective public opinion about foreign policy is not inconsistent, capricious, fluctuating or unreasonable.”

Rather, they argue, the general public “generally prefers to use cooperative and multilateral means to pursue foreign policy aims.” Kull and Destler also find that elites tend to misread public opinion, and that Americans aren’t isolationist, but rather favor multilateral intervention.

Political scientists Matt Grossmann and William Isaac also found the wealthy are more likely to favor “international intervention, international institutions, foreign aid, and trade agreements.” They found that the wealthy have a disproportionate impact on foreign policy: “affluent support for foreign policy proposals without average support leads to a very high adoption rate (69 percent) compared to foreign policy proposals with only average citizen support (38 percent).”

This applies not only to a more aggressive use of force internationally, but trade policy as well, as donors are more likely to support free trade agreements. In the 2014 CCES, 68 percent of donors contributing $1,000 or more support a US-Korea free trade agreement, compared to 57 percent of the full sample.

Most of the debates about money in politics center around domestic policy: Bernie Sanders’s campaign centered around the way that millionaires and billionaires blocked the progressive agenda. However, our research suggests that elite donors have different views about the global economy and use of force overseas than the general public. Donors often give money to enact that vision, such as the millions Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban have given to shape policy on Israel. Politicians who buck the establishment on trade and military force overseas often find themselves quickly on the defensive. Donors are likely to oppose any attempt by Trump to cloister America from the international community, but they also are unlikely to tap the brakes if he moves the country towards war.

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Anti-Vietnam War cartoon from 1975.
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UNCATEGORIZED

#Aleppo

If I had time, perhaps this post would be better organized and more thought-out. However, given the nature of the news-media cycle and the imperative to be timely, I present this post as-is with the reservation that it may be edited for clarity should the need arise. 
No doubt, this post and position it takes will receive backlash. Firstly, I apologize for the UK-centric aspect of this post. The bulk of the writing is from a UK newspaper, and most of my linked sources are also based in the UK. The unfortunately reality is that the press in the United Kingdom, of all places, seems to have a more critical take on the events unfolding in Syria.
Secondly, I understand that the situation in Syria is contentious and that there may be some “pro-opposition” or “humanitarian” individuals and everyday people who are genuinely concerned based on the coverage of Aleppo. This post is, to some extent, for them.
In the era of the Chilcot Report and Wikileaks, which has demonstrated that the United States and NATO are willing to develop elaborate lies about any government they consider a threat to their hegemony, I cannot readily accept dominant narratives about Syria. 
 The Syrian state has been under direct attack by imperialism for the last two and a half years (although the US and others have been “accelerating the work of reformers” for much longer than that). The forms of this attack are many: providing weapons and money to opposition groups trying to topple the government; implementing wide-ranging trade sanctions; providing practically unlimited space in the media for the opposition while enacting a blackout on pro-government sources; and relentlessly slandering the Syrian president and government. With a few notable exceptions, the western media and governments have  “created this climate that legitimates” a regime change project in Syria.
For example, most western and corporate-owned media claims the Syrian government is responsible for the “vast majority of deaths” from the war against Syria — yet NATO military airstrikes, crippling economic sanctions, and CIA-trained rebels ravage the nation. The lone fact that sanctions have been imposed  by the west is an act of war.

The primary source for these claims is pro-opposition outlet Syrian Observatory for Human rights or “SOHR”. The organization was founded and to this day is operated by one man living in the UK . Rami Abdul Rahman, the man behind SOHR, refuses to disclose his methodology, which led the UN to abandon its reporting of Syrian casualty figures in 2014. Interestingly, dubious as it may be SOHR’s own data shows “In the past year, more Syrian regime forces (17,600) died than civilians (13,000).”

With this in mind, I have provided two samples of an alternative narrative on the war in (or on) Syria, with a focus on Aleppo. It is not my intention to negate the genuine concerns people who are not already self-described anti-imperilaists might have for the people of Aleppo; I have forced myself to resist falling into the cynical notion that liberal concern cannot be directed elsewhere. Instead, by critique is of the “humanitarian” imperialist lens this concern is filtered through to reinforce the legitimcacy of empire and its practices.

EVA BARTLETT

EVA BARTLETTThe following biography is borrowed from Zero Anthropology :

Eva Bartlett is an independent Canadian rights and justice activist and freelance journalist. She has spent years in occupied Palestine, documenting Zionist crimes against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and volunteering with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM).

In November 2008, Eva sailed with the third Free Gaza Movement boat from Cyprus to the Gaza Strip, where she then joined the ISM in accompanying fishermen on the sea and farmers in the border regions (see compilation video here and her blog posts and reporting here). In both cases, fishers and farmers were violently attacked by Israeli army, injured, killed, or abducted.

During the 2008/9 Israeli attacks, Eva and other ISM volunteers accompanied Palestinian medics in Gaza, documenting Israeli crimes, including victims of White Phosphorous attacks and other war crimes. During the November 2012 attacks, Eva documented from a central Gaza Strip hospital.

In 2014, Eva twice visited Syria, for a period of a month, taking testimonies of Syrian and Palestinian victims of terrorism in Yarmouk camp, as well as Homs, Maaloula, Kessab and Latakia. She experienced first-hand the terrorists’ mortars on Damascus, including being shot at by a terrorist sniper. She reported on the Syrian Presidential elections from Lebanon, and re-visited Syrian a week after the elections. She has also interviewed the Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations, Dr. Bashar al-Ja’afari.

Eva has given numerous talks on Palestine across North America, Ireland and Britain, and has also given many interviews. Her website is ingaza.wordpress.com

She is also a founding member of the Syria Solidarity Movement, which advocates for a sovereign Syria and against foreign intervention. She speaks colloquial Arabic and rusty French.

Eva Bartlett’s articles on Zero Anthropology (and highly recommended by Peripheral Thought) include:

  1. Interview with Syria’s Minister of National Reconciliation
  2. The Terrorism We Support in Syria: A First-hand Account of the Use of Mortars against Civilians
  3. Road to Victory: Syria’s Zenobians Stand to Win International Rugby Tournament
  4. Useful Atrocities

Bartlett’s latest exploit is a press conference regarding her work in Syria and the troubling implications of Aleppo coverage:

ROBERT FISK: There is more than one truth to tell in the terrible story of Aleppo

This story originally appeared in the UK Independent. Emphasis is added. I have also linked a relevant talk by Italian journalist Loretta Napoleoni, which Fisk references. 

Western politicians, “experts” and journalists are going to have to reboot their stories over the next few days now that Bashar al-Assad’s army has retaken control of eastern Aleppo. We’re going to find out if the 250,000 civilians “trapped” in the city were indeed that numerous. We’re going to hear far more about why they were not able to leave when the Syrian government and Russian air force staged their ferocious bombardment of the eastern part of the city.

And we’re going to learn a lot more about the “rebels” whom we in the West – the US, Britain and our head-chopping mates in the Gulf – have been supporting.

They did, after all, include al-Qaeda (alias Jabhat al-Nusra, alias Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), the “folk” – as George W Bush called them – who committed the crimes against humanity in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on 11 September 2001. Remember the War on Terror? Remember the “pure evil” of al-Qaeda. Remember all the warnings from our beloved security services in the UK about how al-Qaeda can still strike terror in London?

Not when the rebels, including al-Qaeda, were bravely defending east Aleppo, we didn’t – because a powerful tale of heroism, democracy and suffering was being woven for us, a narrative of good guys versus bad guys as explosive and dishonest as “weapons of mass destruction”.

Back in the days of Saddam Hussein – when a few of us argued that the illegal invasion of Iraq would lead to catastrophe and untold suffering, and that Tony Blair and George Bush were taking us down the path to perdition – it was incumbent upon us, always, to profess our repugnance of Saddam and his regime. We had to remind readers, constantly, that Saddam was one of the Triple Pillars of the Axis of Evil.

So here goes the usual mantra again, which we must repeat ad nauseam to avoid the usual hate mail and abuse that will today be cast at anyone veering away from the approved and deeply flawed version of the Syrian tragedy.

Yes, Bashar al-Assad has brutally destroyed vast tracts of his cities in his battle against those who wish to overthrow his regime. Yes, that regime has a multitude of sins to its name: torture, executions, secret prisons, the killing of civilians, and – if we include the Syrian militia thugs under nominal control of the regime – a frightening version of ethnic cleansing.

Yes, we should fear for the lives of the courageous doctors of eastern Aleppo and the people for whom they have been caring. Anyone who saw the footage of the young man taken out of the line of refugees fleeing Aleppo last week by the regime’s intelligence men should fear for all those who have not been permitted to cross the government lines. And let’s remember how the UN grimly reported it had been told of 82 civilians “massacred” in their homes in the last 24 hours.

But it’s time to tell the other truth: that many of the “rebels” whom we in the West have been supporting – and which our preposterous Prime Minister Theresa May indirectly blessed when she grovelled to the Gulf head-choppers last week – are among the cruellest and most ruthless of fighters in the Middle East. And while we have been tut-tutting at the frightfulness of Isis during the siege of Mosul (an event all too similar to Aleppo, although you wouldn’t think so from reading our narrative of the story), we have been willfully ignoring the behaviour of the rebels of Aleppo.

Only a few weeks ago, I interviewed one of the very first Muslim families to flee eastern Aleppo during a ceasefire. The father had just been told that his brother was to be executed by the rebels because he crossed the frontline with his wife and son. He condemned the rebels for closing the schools and putting weapons close to hospitals. And he was no pro-regime stooge; he even admired Isis for their good behaviour in the early days of the siege.

Around the same time, Syrian soldiers were privately expressing their belief to me that the Americans would allow Isis to leave Mosul to again attack the regime in Syria. An American general had actually expressed his fear that Iraqi Shiite militiamen might prevent Isis from fleeing across the Iraqi border to Syria.

Well, so it came to pass. In three vast columns of suicide trucks and thousands of armed supporters, Isis has just swarmed across the desert from Mosul in Iraq, and from Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour in eastern Syria to seize the beautiful city of Palmyra all over again.

It is highly instructive to look at our reporting of these two parallel events. Almost every headline today speaks of the “fall” of Aleppo to the Syrian army – when in any other circumstances, we would have surely said that the army had “recaptured” it from the “rebels” – while Isis was reported to have “recaptured” Palmyra when (given their own murderous behaviour) we should surely have announced that the Roman city had “fallen” once more under their grotesque rule.

Words matter. These are the men – our “chaps”, I suppose, if we keep to the current jihadi narrative – who after their first occupation of the city last year beheaded the 82-year-old scholar who tried to protect the Roman treasures and then placed his spectacles back on his decapitated head.

By their own admission, the Russians flew 64 bombing sorties against the Isis attackers outside Palmyra. But given the huge columns of dust thrown up by the Isis convoys, why didn’t the American air force join in the bombardment of their greatest enemy? But no: for some reason, the US satellites and drones and intelligence just didn’t spot them – any more than they did when Isis drove identical convoys of suicide trucks to seize Palmyra when they first took the city in May 2015.

There’s no doubting what a setback Palmyra represents for both the Syrian army and the Russians – however symbolic rather than military. Syrian officers told me in Palmyra earlier this year that Isis would never be allowed to return. There was a Russian military base in the city. Russian aircraft flew overhead. A Russian orchestra had just played in the Roman ruins to celebrate Palmyra’s liberation.

So what happened? Most likely is that the Syrian military simply didn’t have the manpower to defend Palmyra while closing in on eastern Aleppo.

They will have to take Palmyra back – quickly. But for Bashar al-Assad, the end of the Aleppo siege means that Isis, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda and all the other Salafist groups and their allies can no longer claim a base, or create a capital, in the long line of great cities that form the spine of Syria: Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo

Back to Aleppo. The familiar and now tired political-journalistic narrative is in need of refreshing. The evidence has been clear for some days. After months of condemning the iniquities of the Syrian regime while obscuring the identity and brutality of its opponents in Aleppo, the human rights organisations – sniffing defeat for the rebels – began only a few days ago to spread their criticism to include the defenders of eastern Aleppo.

Take the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. After last week running through its usual – and perfectly understandable – fears for the civilian population of eastern Aleppo and their medical workers, and for civilians subject to government reprisals and for “hundreds of men” who may have gone missing after crossing the frontlines, the UN suddenly expressed other concerns.

“During the last two weeks, Fatah al-Sham Front [in other words, al-Qaeda] and the Abu Amara Battalion are alleged to have abducted and killed an unknown number of civilians who requested the armed groups to leave their neighborhoods, to spare the lives of civilians…,” it stated.

“We have also received reports that between 30 November and 1 December, armed opposition groups fired on civilians attempting to leave.” Furthermore, “indiscriminate attacks” had been conducted on heavily civilian areas of government-held western as well as ‘rebel’ eastern Aleppo.

I suspect we shall be hearing more of this in the coming days. Next month, we shall also be reading a frightening new book, Merchants of Men, by Italian journalist Loretta Napoleoni, on the funding of the war in Syria. She catalogues kidnapping-for-cash by both government and rebel forces in Syria, but also has harsh words for our own profession of journalism.

Reporters who were kidnapped by armed groups in eastern Syria, she writes, “fell victim to a sort of Hemingway syndrome: war correspondents supporting the insurgency trust the rebels and place their lives in their hands because they are in league with them.” But, “the insurgency is just a variation of criminal jihadism, a modern phenomenon that has only one loyalty: money.”

Is this too harsh on my profession? Are we really “in league” with the rebels?

Certainly our political masters are – and for the same reason as the rebels kidnap their victims: money. Hence the disgrace of Brexit May and her buffoonerie of ministers who last week prostrated themselves to the Sunni autocrats who fund the jihadis of Syria in the hope of winning billions of pounds in post-Brexit arms sales to the Gulf.

In a few hours, the British parliament is to debate the plight of the doctors, nurses, wounded children and civilians of Aleppo and other areas of Syria. The grotesque behaviour of the UK Government has ensured that neither the Syrians nor the Russians will pay the slightest attention to our pitiful wails. That, too, must become part of the story.

About Robert

From his profile on the Independent:

Robert Fisk is the multi-award winning Middle East correspondent of The Independent, based in Beirut. He has lived in the Arab world for more than 40 years, covering Lebanon, five Israeli invasions, the Iran-Iraq war, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Algerian civil war, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the Bosnian and Kosovo wars, the American invasion and occupation of Iraq and the 2011 Arab revolutions. Occasionally describing himself as an ‘Ottoman correspondent’ because of the huge area he covers, Fisk joined The Independent in 1989. He has written best-selling books on the Middle East, including Pity the Nation and The Great War for Civilisation. He was born in Kent in 1946 and gained his BA in English and Classics at Lancaster University. He holds a PhD in politics from Trinity College, Dublin.

FURTHER DISCUSSION

If the US topples the government and turns Syria into a client state, history shows this means infinitely worse conditions for the people. There is no denying this. In the words of Hillary Clinton, it would mean “Killing lots of Syrians“.

In addition to my comments above, we should remember that a majority of Syrians conditionally support the government as does the Syrian left. Since I expect many will retort that parties like the Syrian Unified Communist Party are merely puppets of Assad’s Ba’ath party, we should remember that the left’s token favorites, the Kurdish YPG/PYD fought alongside the Syrian Arab Army in Aleppo

Even if one were to believe the absolute plausible worst about the Syrian government, intervention is unjustifiable. This puts the left in a similar position to Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction” or Qaddafi’s “Viagra-fueled mercenaries“, these are colonial mythologies – “useful atrocities” in the words of Eva Bartlett, that exploit legitimate criticisms and opposition to these governments as justifications for  western imperialism.

Chavez AssadIt is saddening to see the left fall head-over-heels into this deception. Left movements and anti-imperialist governments in Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua (pictured is Hugo Chavez with Bashar Al-Assad) and elsewhere have a much richer understanding of the meaning of solidarity and supporting self-determination for Syria.

Though, to be fair to the western left, the PR/ propaganda campaign against Syria has an extremely effective group advocating through humanitarian seduction- the white helmets. Despite having direct ties to the Syrian opposition (and in particular, Al Qaeda) and receiving generous funding and public relations support from western governments, they present themselves as a “neutral”, “humanitarian” arbiter in the conflict. This has had a particular allure to the “establishment” left such as the NDP in Canada.

To understand the moral hypocrisy of the imperialists and those supporting them in one form or another on “humanitarian” grounds, I will return to the three points of imperialist manipulation of morality as noted by Maximillian Forte which I have used before:

  1. Moral Dualism – Consider the hypocrisy of coverage of the reconquest of Mosul versus the reconquest of Aleppo.
  2. Moral Narcissism – what matters most are words and declarations, the positions that stake. It’s not actions that count, what we say we feel that matters most.This is how the White Helmets can call itself a “humanitarian” force while lobbying for western bombing runs, or how said bombing runs can be called humanitarian intervention.
  3. Demonization – Yet again we hear “Assad forces”, “murderous Assad”, etc.as typical labels by journalists and pundits, stripping away even the nominal objectivity of the corporate press. While some criticisms of Assad are of course valid and deserve due consideration, these kinds of labels are not concerned with a robust critique of the Ba’athist regime, but with decimating it.

It is clear that we are not seeing some sort of exceptional series of events, but instead a project consistent with NATO regime change efforts in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Haiti, Libya, and elsewhere. If you have reached this far in this post and are concerned about the future of the Syrian people, I encourage you to direct the energy you would have put towards supporting the dubious humanitarianism I have described above, and instead put that energy towards helping build the struggle to overthrow colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism. The events in Syria only show that the Empire has no moral high ground; it must be abolished.

Once again, I am indebted to Invent the Future and Zero Anthropology for providing a large number of my links and citations

I also highly recommend the “Non-Fake News Syria Reading List” which includes articles from mainstream sources with a critical perspective on Syria. The document is a collaborative project on Google Docs which anyone can provide comments, feedback, and request to edit. Thanks to Dru Oja Jay for alerting me to the project. 

PERIPHERAL THOUGHT SUPPORTS HANDS OFF SYRIA

“Our objective is to create the broadest possible united front for peace and justice by peace activists and organizations in the U.S. and around the world to fight for an end all violence, intervention and sanctions against Syria, which is now threatening world peace.” – Hands Off Syria Points of Unity

In light of this situation and the viewpoint expressed above,  I am endorsing the Hands Off Syria Coalition in an effort to advocate a just, lasting peace which ensures the self-determination of the Syrian people. I encourage all readers who have had the patience to survive this post to do the same as a first step towards advancing the struggle. Organizational endorsements are especially helpful.

There is, unfortunately, no Canadian equivalent to the Hands Off Syria Coalition, several Canadian signatories have signed the Hands Off Syria statement. Hopefully similar efforts will emerge.

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Hands Off Syria Coalition — Points of Unity Statement