by Sam Charles Hamad and Oz Katerji
Last March, a live performance in support of Syrian first responders by a flashmob orchestra at New York’s Grand Central Station was physically disrupted by a group of six protesters. Within hours, the video of the disruption was uploaded to social media and promoted by an RT employee. Max Blumenthal, a blogger at Alternet, soon released documents that suggested the performance was organized by a pro-Syrian campaign group. In characteristic inversion of reality, RT billed the disruption as a triumph for “anti-war” direct action.
Three participants in the protest have so far been identified: all have links to RT, the Russian state-funded propaganda network now under investigation by the U.S. government for its alleged interference in the last presidential election. Alexander Rubinstein, the man who filmed the protest, is an RT employee, and Taryn Fivek and Sara Flounders, the two protesters, are RT contributors. Blumenthal, who amplified the story, is also a regular on RT.
Fivek was an officer with the International Organization for Migration until she was found to have used the pseudonym Emma Quangel on Twitter to cheer Russia’s actions in Syria and mock civilian suffering. Flounders, a steering committee member of the pro-Assad Syria Solidarity Movement, has graduated from denying Serb atrocities in Bosnia to denying Assad regime atrocities in Syria. Both have limited influence. It is Blumenthal who with Alternet has created an effective beachhead in the US for Kremlin propaganda.
Things were not always thus. In 2012, Blumenthal had publicly resigned as a columnist from the pro-Assad Lebanese daily Al Akhbar, citing as his reason the paper’s publishing of cheerleaders who blamed Assad’s victims and maligned critical journalists. He likened their behavior to that of Israel’s apologists. Blumenthal has now dramatically resurrected himself as an apologist for Assad, a scourge of critical journalists, and a mirror image—by his own logic—of Israel’s apologists.
What happened in between to occasion this dramatic reversal?
The Damascene Conversion
In December 2015, Blumenthal visited Moscow to attend the 10th anniversary of Kremlin propaganda network RT. He returned a changed man. A month later he founded the “Grayzone Project”, billed as an initiative for “confronting Islamophobia”, but in reality a home for Assad and Kremlin-friendly outcasts from leftwing blogosphere (Grayzone’s few Muslim writers quickly departed after they realised its true character).
The emergence of this axis presents a case study in the ideological realignments that are being instrumentalized by the Kremlin with fellow travellers on both the left and the far right. Its mercenary character is betrayed by its sloppy methods.
Take the two articles Blumenthal wrote in September 2016 to signal his metamorphosis. At a time when the brutal siege of eastern Aleppo was escalating into a rampage, the target of Blumenthal’s fury was the White Helmets, a group of volunteer first responders providing rescue and medical services in the besieged zone. (They had already been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, extensively covered by international journalists, and a short Netflix documentary about their efforts would later win an Academy Award.)
The fact that the White Helmets were calling on the international community to impose a no-fly zone to end the bombings by the Syrian and Russian air forces was Blumenthal’s proof that the group was participating in a western regime-change conspiracy. (Never mind military action to stop the regime’s bombings is in line with the wishes of many refugees fleeing Syria, as Blumenthal had himself discovered in his tour of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.)
The group’s filming of the atrocious aftermath of airstrikes on civilians had caused the Kremlin much embarrassment. But the bombs no longer concerned Blumenthal. He was more exercised by the fact that part of the group’s operational costs had been covered by USAID, an agency of the U.S. government. For good measure, he also accused the rescue workers of having al-Qaeda links, despite there being no credible evidence for this.
Blumethal started his calumnies against the White Helmets inauspiciously by confusing the group’s slogan — “to save one life is to save all of humanity,” a verse from the Quran so well-known that Barack Obama quoted it in his 2009 Cairo speech — with a quote from Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.
There was nothing novel about these conspiracy theories. They closely echoed charges made earlier by Vanessa Beeley, a pro-Assad eccentric who writes for 21st Century Wire, a website established by a former editor for Alex Jones’s Infowars. (She too is an RT regular.) Beeley has since charged that Blumenthal’s articles were based on her work. According to Beeley, Blumenthal tasked Rania Khalek with wangling material from her for his polemic. Unsurprisingly, he failed to acknowledge the source.
“What was interesting is that Rania [Khalek] pumped me for information on the [White Helmets] and then Max [Blumenthal] wrote the article,” Beeley claimed on social media. (Khalek would later face heat for promoting one of Beeley’s videos featuring testimony from a White Helmets volunteer obtained under torture).
Blumenthal’s charges indeed often echo Beeley’s, but his articles also coincided with an intense Kremlin campaign to discredit the White Helmets. Russian broadcaster RT hadn’t mentioned the White Helmets once in the first three years of their existence; since the assault on Aleppo started in summer 2016, they published over 40 articles and videos attacking them before the end of the year.)
Blumenthal had first signalled his amenability to the Moscow line in February 2014 when he declared that EU-supporting Euromaidan protesters in Ukraine were fascists and neo-Nazis. He had teamed up with Khalek before to defame another critic of the Putin regime.
Shortly after the Russian annexation of Crimea, RT anchor Liz Wahl famously resigned on-air from what she called “a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin.” Rather than applaud a journalist for resigning from an unsavory mouthpiece on principle (as Blumenthal had once done at Al Akhbar), Blumenthal and Khalek accused Wahl of being a prop in a conspiracy. Her resignation was nothing more than a stage-managed attempt by neoconservatives to trigger a “new Cold War.” Perhaps conscious of the strained evidence (Wahl had informed The Daily Beast’s James Kirchick, a neoconservative RT critic, of her resignation in advance), they allowed six current employees of RT to anonymously dish on her. A day later, RT host Abby Martin (an associate of Khalek’s and likely one of its sources) devoted much of her show to amplifying the article, maligning Wahl by association.
The article delivered for RT, as evidenced by Blumenthal’s appearance in Moscow a year later to participate in an event celebrating the propaganda channel’s ten years on air. In a session on “infowars,” RT anchor Anissa Naoui mentioned the Wahl attack in introducing Blumenthal. The man who a few months later would denounce rescue workers as tainted for receiving aid from a U.S. government agency had gone to Moscow as a guest of a Kremlin-funded mouthpiece. The event was attended by Vladimir Putin and, it has since emerged, that Trump’s disgraced National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had received $40,000 for his appearance there.
It is unlikely that a blogger for a marginal leftwing publication would have been paid a similar sum. But Blumenthal was obliging all the same. RT, he said, was providing an “alternative narrative to the drive to war on Syria” (never mind that the “alternative narrative” is a string of falsehood and disinformation).
Unsurprisingly, Blumenthal’s attack on the White Helmets was warmly received by Assadists and the far left. But the reception was less enthusiastic among Syrians and Palestinians. Blumenthal, who did not include the voices of any Syrians on the ground in besieged Aleppo, or that of a White Helmet rescue worker, was blasted by the Syrian dissident Marcell Shehwaro. (For Blumenthal’s narrative that the White Helmets are merely a front for Islamist radicalism, Shehwaro is, inconveniently, a Christian.) In a blistering open letter, Blumenthal was also disowned by hundreds of Palestinians writers and activists, including those who had formerly praised his work on the Middle East.
Most of that work was founded on reporting about Israeli war crimes and human rights abuses visited upon Palestinians and in assailing Israel’s apologists. But in his descent into apologetics for Damascus and Moscow, Blumenthal has found strange bedfellows. Take Max Abrahms, a staunchly pro-Israel academic known for such pearls of analytical wisdom as: “Palestinian society still places greater value on maintaining peace with the terrorists than with Israel.” Though Abrahms has an embarrassingly limited grasp of the Syria conflict, he has also become a fixture on RT. He now praises Arab dictators as bulwarks against Islamic terrorism (after having once argued at a TED talk the opposite case).
Blumenthal has also endorsed the views of Hawaiian congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a politician who has voted to obstruct Syrian refugees entering the US, and someone whom his own website Alternet has denounced as an “Islamophobe.”
Blumenthal has been particularly vicious toward civilian victims of the Assad regime’s scorched-earth campaign. Targets of his online sallies include 7-year-old Bana al Abed, a young girl whose mother tweeted on her behalf in real-time from bombed East Aleppo, and Anas al Basha, a 24 year old member of the Syrian civil society group Space of Hope who dressed as a clown to comfort traumatized children. When Basha was killed in an airstrike, Blumenthal mocked his death.
But above all, Blumenthal has made Alternet into a reservation for other exiles from truth and decency.
The Memory Hole
Over the past year, Blumenthal has gathered the likes of Rania Khalek, Ben Norton, Gareth Porter and Vijay Prasad to build an echo-chamber of Kremlin-friendly voices deluging propaganda on Syria.
The deceitful nature of this operation, however, is revealed in the Orwellian initiation that preceded it. Members of this group have been furiously erasing their pasts to launder themselves as foot soldiers in the counter-revolutionary information war.
Ben Norton has painstakingly purged his website of past criticisms of Assad (one blogger has captured at least 14 articles that he has since deleted). Rania Khalek has been rehabilitated at Alternet after a nearly two year hiatus that followed an article in which she had reproduced someone else’s work without attribution. The editor’s note marking this sloppiness has curiously disappeared as she has been welcomed back into the Alternet fold. (Here is a cached version of the original note.)
The gang that couldn’t shoot straight has now rallied and directed its indiscriminate fire at Syrian victims, aiming at the White Helmets in particular. But in most instances it has only succeeded in shooting itself in the foot.
Rania Khalek’s travails began after Glenn Greenwald invited her to contribute to The Intercept. She soon delivered a scoop: according to a “UN report”, she claimed, U.S.-EU sanctions were “crippling aid work during the largest humanitarian emergency since World War II”. This was in stark contrast to the UN’s public position, which blamed the Assad regime for blocking 80% of the aid entering Syria. The story was sensational—and, as it turned out, also false. There was no such UN report. The document Khalek cited was an opinion piece written by a member of the British Bankers’ Association, which describes itself as “the voice of banking.” The Intercept had to publish a correction. (Greenwald—a Khalek fan—has continued to defend her.) In another instance, Khalek bizarrely lambasted a statement from Medicins Sans Frontieres that called for the evacuation of “wounded and sick people in severe conditions” because it suggested that besieged Aleppo was besieged. (According to Khalek, it was “armed opposition” preventing the majority of civilians from fleeing rather than a regime-imposed siege ).
Her fake news story, however, was a success in Damascus. The regime’s mouthpiece, SANA News, covered it prominently. And in November, as Aleppo was on the verge of falling, it was revealed that Khalek was featured as a guest in the regime’s PR conference in Damascus. This was too much even for the Electronic Intifada, where she had been an editor. She was forced to resign. After her return from Damascus, as writing and public speaking opportunities started drying up, Khalek became less circumspect in her Assadism, at one point going so far as to promote a video produced by the pro-Assad and far-right activist Vanessa Beeley, who, in direct violation of the Geneva conventions, featured that testimony of a White Helmet extracted under torture. (The video that has been pointedly denounced by Amnesty International.)
Ben Norton followed a similar trajectory. Until he was hired as a blogger at Salon, he had assiduously courted pro-Syrian revolution writers and activists. After joining Salon, however, Norton’s Syria politics underwent a radical transformation. In a kamikaze move, after purging his personal website of criticisms of Assad, Norton collaborated with Glenn Greenwald to co-author a piece for The Intercept taking issue with an article about Kremlin propaganda in the Washington Post. Norton, instead, was fired by Salon. His desultory contrarianism ended when he fell into the safety net of Alternet and his resentments converged on Syria. Norton, like Blumenthal, tried to cast doubt on Russian and regime culpability for the Red Crescent convoy attack and on reports about the regime’s bombing of hospitals in Aleppo. (All claims were false as conclusively shown by a recent UN report.) His name also appears signed to a statement by Vanessa Beeley’s Hands Off Syria Coalition that explicitly supports the Russian bombing of Syria.
In this downward spiral, Blumenthal, Khalek and Norton have now been joined by Gareth Porter, who has the dubious distinction of having pioneered war crime denialism nearly four decades earlier when he tried to absolve the Khmer Rouge for its mass atrocities in Cambodia. In a repeat of his earlier performance, Porter has since tried to cast doubt that what happened in Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, on August 21, 2013 was a chemical attack and smeared the open-source investigations website Bellingcat and the White Helmets for identifying the regime as the culprit in a well corroborated attack on a Red Crescent aid convoy. A comprehensive UN report has since implicated the regime directly, calling the attack planned and deliberate. (Alternet has yet to issue a correction or retraction for any of these stories.)
The same happened again with the case of the siege and forced displacement of the formerly rebel-held Damascus enclave of Wadi Barada, home to the Ain al-Fijeh water springs that provides water for 5.5 million people in Damascus. During the Syrian army’s assault of the besieged enclave, activists gave eyewitness testimony and provided video evidence of a regime bombing attack on the ancient water aquifer, endangering water access for millions of civilians.
The Assad-controlled Damascus Water Authority made bogus claims that Syrian rebels “polluted the water supply with diesel” forcing it to shut off the water supply. Kremlin media outlets dutifully signal boosted this lie, employing their own reporters to try and amplify these claims.
Despite the diesel myth directly contradicting the available evidence, Khalek, Blumenthal and Norton pitched in to further spread the regime’s war crimes denial. The same report that found the regime guilty of the brazen UN aid convoy attack also found the regime guilty of “purposely” targeting the water springs in what amounts to a “war crime” and exonerated the residents of Wadi Barada.
As of yet none of these bloggers have issued a correction or a retraction. In fact, Khalek and Porter doubled down with their war crimes denial and rejected the findings of the conclusive UN investigation.
Porter notoriously also accused New York Times correspondent Anne Barnard of bias for reporting on the massacre of civilians by a regime airstrike in Maraat Numan without drawing a “causal relationship” to “an otherwise unidentified ‘insurgent offensive’ that preceded the strikes.” For Porter, it appears, a journalist’s function is to provide rationalizations for state atrocities rather than reporting on them. (In the piece Porter also appeared oblivious to the timeline of the sustained protests against al-Qaeda in the bombed town.)
An even stranger recruit into Alternet’s click-bait obscurantism is Vijay Prashad, an “anti-imperialist” academic who has graduated from writing for mainstream leftwing publications like The Nation to scribbling for Blumenthal’s alt-left portal. He is a master of the pivot. Though the majority of Syrian refugees cite the Assad regime’s violence as the reason for the flight, Prashad blames the opposition, and calls them “regime change refugees.” And just as Prashad tried to channel sympathy for a slain Palestinian activist into support for scorned Rania Khalek, in an article for Alternet, he also tried to turn the tragedy of the death of Alan Kurdi, the young boy who caught global attention by washing up dead on the shores of Turkey after fleeing Syria, into an argument against the Atlantic Council think tank, which has lately become a target of the Kremlin media’s—and by extension Alternet’s—attacks. According to Prashad, the only barrier to peace in Syria is people who won’t let the mass murderer Assad be.
Like, Blumenthal, Prashad has also used the Palestinian cause to launder his politics. In March he posted a statement on Facebook comparing a pro-Palestinian student group’s decision to withdraw its invitation to Rania Khalek over her pro-Assad position to the killing of a Palestinian activist by Israeli forces. This predictably drew a furious backlash from Palestinian activists.
Since the beginning of the Syrian war, it was clear that the regime would not look favorably upon critical witnesses to what the UN has called its “crime of extermination.” As part of its reputation-laundeirng campaign of late, the regime has begun issuing visas to fringe bloggers such as Khalek, fringe figures such as Vanessa Beeley, or even a Bolivian soap star like Carla Ortiz for its chaperoned tours.
But since Russia joined the war in Syria, RT, has applied a different tack, using its global reach to drown out witness testimonies from the ground. As first responders to regime atrocities, the White Helmets have naturally been the chief target of these attacks.
A more troubling aspect of this realignment however is the manner in which Blumenthal and his crew have instrumentalised Islamophobia in the service of their counterrevolutionary narrative. Just as for Israel’s apologists all Gazan’s are Hamas and Islamic Jihad, for Blumenthal and his band all Syrians who aren’t supporters of the Assad regime are “Al Qaeda.” Indeed, the Alternet crew has criticized the US government’s irresolution in fighting terrorism. All regime and Russian killings on the other hand can be excused—including the targeting of rescuers—because they are all “Al Qaeda” after all. Unsurprisingly, Blumenthal’s work has received gushing praise from leading American reactionaries including Ann Coulter, Pamela Gellar and former KKK leader David Duke. (He has also made an appearance with Fox’s Tucker Carlson, a favourite of white supremacists).
This unabashed Islamophobia has led prominent Muslim contributors to abandon the “Grayzone project”. Grayzone’s publishing record reveals that in a sample of 290 articles, less than 15% are written by Muslims, and many of these were reprints of articles that appeared elsewhere. Of the 15%, a quarter were written by Austro-Afghan freelance journalist Emran Feroz, who now refuses to publish there.
Waqas Mirza, another former contributor, told us that “Grayzone has degenerated into an ugly imitation of that which it professes to oppose. It has not only failed in its own mission but, in the process, demonstrated the urgent need for progressives to reckon with the racism within their own ranks.”
Of Grayzone’s top 15 published authors, 7 are regular contributors to pro-Kremlin media outlets such as Russia Today and Sputnik. It is of course an interesting choice of outlet to appear on for journalists supposedly dedicated to “confronting Islamophobia,” considering the fact that RT frequently provided favourable coverage for racist anti-Islam political candidates Marine LePen, Donald Trump and Geert Wilders.
Their Syria coverage has been even more stark. Starting at the tail end of 2016, Blumenthal has published over a dozen articles attacking the Syrian opposition, attacking medical NGOs working in Syrian opposition areas, denying well-documented and provable regime war crimes. Grayzone project has not published a single article focusing on the Assad regime’s well documented crimes. On the other hand, denialism is a constant feature of this propaganda. Blumenthal and Norton were quick to try to absolve the regime for its chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun and the former called any potential US response “providing al-Qaeda with air support.” (Blumenthal and Norton have also tried to cast doubt on the regime’s responsibility for the 2013 chemical attack, with latter relying for his claim on the impeccable testimony of a pro-Assad Youtube star connected to Alex Jones’s Infowars conspiracy site).
A Warrior is Born
In recent months, Grayzone has entered new territory; no longer content with apologising for war crimes, it now actually celebrates them. Consider the regime/Russian assault on Aleppo, which the UN has labelled a war crime. But Blumenthal, the self-styled “anti-imperialist”, takes a rather different view. For him this slaughter and displacement of civilians was “one of the greatest losses for the empire since the fall of Saigon”, Blumenthal urged the “deep state” (a favourite trope of the so-called “alt-Right”) to embrace a more aggressive “war on terror” against the enemies of “Russia and Iran, and Syria as well, countries which have really no intention to attack the United States, and which are active in the fight against ISIS”. He goes on: “The national security state has completely abrogated what should be its top mission, which is to take on these Sunni jihadist organizations which have repeatedly attacked soft targets in the West and caused chaos. They should be fighting them.”
But since Blumenthal makes no distinction between groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda and Assad’s non-jihadi opponents (he has frequently denied the existence of such rebels), he is really urging the US to engage in a sectarian battle against Sunni Arabs. So much for “anti-imperialism”! (As a matter of fact, such a military campaign is already under way and has seen civilian deaths jump from 80 per month under Obama to 360 per month under Trump). But from the man who openly supported the regime’s Russian-backed offensive against Aleppo none of this should come as a surprise.
The U.S. is already bombing Syria, and the coalition has carried out strikes in support of pro-Assad militias around Palmyra and Deir ez-Zour and against al-Qaeda affiliated opposition militants in Idlib and Aleppo. The only thing that Blumenthal objected to, however, was a volley of missiles against a regime airbase. Trump’s bombing civilians in mosques did not elicit a similar protest. It is no coincidence that during the campaign trail Grayzone bloggers Rania Khalek and Benjamin Norton both endorsed Trump’s foreign policy. The sentiment was also echoed by Alternet’s celebrity backer Glenn Greenwald.
The sectarian rot of these bloggers isn’t even hidden, as evidenced by Benjamin Norton’s faux-media outrage over the use of the word ‘stronghold’. When it comes to Beirut and Hezbollah, Norton is enraged by the use of the word stronghold to describe areas under its control, however in Idlib, the entirety of the population is reduced to a ‘stronghold’ belonging to a terrorist organisation.
Unsurprisingly, these ideologues have found kinship with the reactionary right against what they call “manufactured liberal hysteria“. They are not “anti-war” or “anti-imperialist”. They fully favour Russia and Iranian imperialism in support of Syria’s murderous regime. The resulting hypocrisy is both obvious and almost surreally unrecognizable to Blumenthal and his friends. For them, military interventions in Middle Eastern countries are anathema — unless Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are the ones doing the intervening. They are so concerned about potential military action against the regime that they go to every length to excuse the regime’s actual military actions against civilians. Anyone who consigns an entire population of Muslims to the categories of “extremist” or “terrorist” is an Islamophobe — unless he’s talking about Syria’s opposition, in which case he’s right. And kleptocratic governments that murder journalists, human rights advocates, legalize homophobia and wife-beating and sponsor fascist political parties in Europe are of course to be opposed — unless the government is Russia’s, in which case it is nobly “resisting” American hegemony.
There but for an accident of geography stands a victim, apparently.
As for Blumenthal, he has yet to explain his epiphany. What occasioned his reversal on Syria? Did his conversion coincide with his visit to Moscow? Who paid for his trip? How much was he paid? Who funds Grayzone? How much influence do the funders have on Grayzone’s editorial agenda?
Until he answers these questions, his reputation will remain in a gray zone.