Aleppo in a Time of Monsters

“Alepponica” by Vasco Gargalo

During the Siege of Sarajevo in 1994, when a Bosnian Serb mortar shell landed in a marketplace, killing 68 and wounding 144, US president Bill Clinton, who had campaigned on a promise of “never again” to genocide, threw up his arms. “Until those folks get tired of killing each other over there, bad things will continue to happen,” he said.

Two decades later, confronted with indiscriminate bombings in Aleppo and a starvation siege in Madaya, Barack Obama waxed similarly fatalistic. “The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation”; this, he said, was “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.”

There are no conflicts in the Middle East that date back millennia. The conflict in Syria is just over five years old. Nothing about it is fixed. In its scope and its intensity, in its balance of forces and its cast of characters, the conflict has constantly evolved. The only thing that has remained static, however, is the international response.

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Russia, Trump and the New ‘McCarthyism in Reverse’

Soviet propaganda: “Money, Nuclear Weapons and the KKK” (source:

It is U.S. election season, 2016, and the extremely dumb baseline for presidential-year rhetoric has already been exceeded with gusto thanks to a fake-tanned reality TV blowhard now leading a white nationalist movement as the Republican Party’s nominee. “Could it get even more dangerously silly, though — the discourse?” asks a visitor from a planet yet to be discovered by terrestrial science. Well, this is America, my little green partner: you’re damned right it will.

The how, however, in “how this election will increase the urgency of our desire for an early demise” has come out of far left field. The banal idiocy of the liberal, centrist, and now alt-right debate has been answered by contrarian-left columnists and their invocation of the Cold War witch hunt against allegedly-traitorous alleged communists, except this time it is not right-wing anti-communists being called out for baiting anyone to the left of Joe McCarthy as a red. No, the Soviet Union having collapsed 25 years ago, the roles of left and right have been inverted, and so it is the left-of-center critics of a proto-fascist who risk being outed as rank McCarthyites for criticizing a billionaire’s ties to and fondness for a right-wing authoritarian (one on the verge of a formal partnership with the U.S. war machine).

And with that, the alien craft exits the solar system.

Donald J. Trump, the candidate citing the Cold War as the basis for a new, “ideological screening test” to be imposed on immigrants: a victim of anti-communism? The mere thought of the argument may dull the senses, but it’s an argument that, unlike the USSR, just will not die in the alt-reality of punditry. That matters, not just because bad arguments are bad (certainly they are, but not all are worth rebutting), but because world peace literally depends on it. If the left’s so singularly focused on the worst claim a liberal personality has to offer that it spends more time rebutting than  proposing—explaining that Vladimir Putin is not the head of the Illuminati—we’ll never get around to building a genuinely internationalist movement that rejects conspiracy for a consistent opposition to greedy capitalists and vicious imperialists wherever they may be.

In the meantime; instead: “Democrats Are Redbaiting Like It’s 1956,” informs the online magazine Current Affairs, for example, the article to which the headline is attached arguing that 2016 Democrats “have revived a long-dormant practice: accusing those to their left of being Kremlin operatives, and discrediting their political opponents with allegations of grand KGB conspiracies.”

But Russia isn’t red and neither is the Republican nominee for president. Still, though, we persist as if the KGB still exists, not because those engaging in the discourse are dumb, necessarily, but rather: we’re distracted by the dumbest arguments of the moment, and opposing them, to the point that we’re not making better arguments of our own. To wit: By suggesting, for instance, that Russian hackers infiltrated the Democratic National Committee and leaked unflattering emails to harm a candidate the Russian government has reason to hate — conflated, for purposes of knocking a straw-argument out the park, with the decidedly less common belief that Trump is literally a Russian secret agent — liberal Democrats are “conspiratorially positing that those who disagree with them are either intentionally or unintentionally serving the interests of the Kremlin.”

That argument requires no conspiracy, though: Trump has proposed policies that would serve the interests of the Kremlin — which, like the United States, seeks to promote its interests abroad — just as he and others, like Hillary Clinton, have proposed policies that would serve the interests of Saudi Arabia, Israel, Bahrain and other repressive governments. And, just as the U.S. notices when certain factions abroad are perceived as more amenable to its interests, Russia does as well. This isn’t chemtrails.

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Talking about Syria in Chicago

On a pier poking into the icy turquoise of Lake Michigan, looking back at Chicago’s brutal towers, Leila and I were interviewed on Syria by Jerome McDonnell, an engaging host, for WBEZ’s Worldview. We talked about Razan Zaitouneh, revolutionary councils, imperialist intervention, American policy, Islamism, Robert Fisk, and the farmers and dentists who make history. Jerome McDonnell hosted us again that evening at Chicago University’s International House.

Listen to the 30-minute interview here.

Binet, Hitler and Putin

Putin1This (slightly subedited) was first published at the New Arab/ al-araby al-jadeed.

I’ve just finished “HHhH”, an excellent ‘non-fiction novel’ by the French writer Laurent Binet. It tells the true story of Operation Anthropoid, the assassination of top Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich co-ordinated by the Czechoslovak resistance and the British government.

In the Nazi surveillance agency, the SS, Heydrich was second in command only to Heinrich Himmler (or perhaps he was even more important than his boss – “HHhH” is the German acronym for ‘Himmler’s Brain is Called Heydrich’). He was the highest official in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, and the chief architect of the ‘final solution’ for Europe’s Jews – the Holocaust.

The larger background to the drama of the assassination is Britain and France’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia, the final layer in these states’ disastrous appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s.

Germany had been defeated in World War One. The post-war settlement forced Germany to pay enormous reparations to the victors. This national humiliation was immediately followed by economic collapse and social disorder. Hitler emerged from this context, a strong leader promising to restore German order and pride, identifying enemies domestic and foreign, and lamenting the scattering of the German people across various borders.

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Reporting—and Mis-reporting—ISIS

by Gilbert Achcar

Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi religious minority flee Islamic State fighters by walking towards the Syrian

Most people prefer to keep referring to the self-proclaimed Islamic State by the acronym of its previous name: ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (or, more accurately ‘al-Sham’—Greater Syria—approximately translated by some as ‘the Levant’, with the acronym hence turned into ISIL). On this thus-named ISIS, close to forty books and counting have been hitherto published in English, of which the three reviewed here are the best-selling in the UK.

Of these, Patrick Cockburn’s was one of the very first books written on ISIS. It came out in 2014 under the title The Jihadis Return. The one reviewed here is an updated edition with a new title. It recapitulates the views that the author developed in his coverage of events in Iraq and Syria for The Independent. It is written in a most readable journalistic style by an author who is well acquainted with this part of the world, having covered it for many years (especially Iraq). However, the book contains hardly any references to substantiate its numerous assertions other than Cockburn’s personal testimony, often quite anecdotal.

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I was talking alongside journalists Anne Barnard and Borzou Daragahi, and aid worker Dalia al-Awqati, on KCRW, a Californian radio station. The discussion concerns the Munich theatre and the effects of the military onslaught on Syrian civilians.  If you follow this link you’ll hear it. I come in between 20.40 and 27.15.