Syria and The Intercept: The Case for Editorial Intervention

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The online publication launched by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar recently published what it billed as a major scoop: “Internal United Nations assessments obtained by The Intercept reveal that U.S. and European sanctions are punishing ordinary Syrians and crippling aid work during the largest humanitarian emergency since World War II.” These sanctions were likened by author Rania Khalek to the siege the U.S. imposed on Iraq, which a U.N. report in 1999 said had doubled child mortality in the country, leading to “the death of 500,000 children.”

Khalek’s piece was well received by others who prefer to omit the words “barrel bombs,” “cruise missiles” and “starvation sieges” from their coverage of Syria’s humanitarian crisis, which has seen roughly 500,000 people killed since 2011, the majority, according to the U.N., killed at the hands of the Syrian regime and its allies. Russia’s RT and the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency both amplified the story’s conflation of targeted sanctions against Bashar al-Assad and his top officials with an all-encompassing economic embargo. “US and EU economic sanctions on Syria are causing huge suffering among ordinary Syrians and preventing the delivery of humanitarian aid, according to a leaked UN internal report,” wrote The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn.

The problem for The Intercept and those who reported on its claim is the oft-unwelcome truth among those committed to blaming someone other than Bashar al-Assad for the bulk of the suffering in Syria: The only hint of truth in Khalek’s lede is that Syrians are suffering through the worst war the world has seen since Adolf Hitler’s self-inflicted demise in a bunker underneath Berlin.

To start: What is billed as “Internal United Nations assessments” is but one report that wasn’t internal and, explicitly, does not reflect the view of the United Nations. The Intercept has since acknowledged this in one of the corrections issued at the end of Khalek’s piece: “The report referenced was prepared for the U.N. and does not reflect the U.N.’s official position.”

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The latter clause is perhaps intentionally suggestive: “official,” if you know what I mean. What is not explicitly stated is that the report that was “obtained” was a report available freely online at least four months earlier, authored not by a U.N. official or agency but by an official, Justine Walker, at the British Bankers’ Association, an organization institutionally inclined to favor Western trade with literally whomever, capital and those who possess it not troubled by grave violations of human rights.

Capture4.PNGThat this is not a “U.N. report,” as The Intercept states in its headline, or a “United Nations” assessment, as Khalek states in her lede, is buried all the way back on page three of this banker’s assessment: “The views expressed are entirely those of the author and should not be considered to constitute any official statement.”

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Attributing one view solicited by an organization to the organization as a whole is like suggesting an OpEd from the foreign minister of Iran reflects the institutional take of The New York Times, which after all commissioned it. And yet: The headline, and the lede, persist, admitting a fatal mistake as hard for some as admitting who is chiefly to blame for punishing ordinary Syrians.

Assad’s Man in Oklahoma

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Landis presents his sectarian partition plan to CNN

An astounding range of useful idiots and agenda-driven counter-revolutionaries have propagandised for the genocidal Assad regime in the last five years. Some, like David Duke and Nick Griffin, are honest about their hard-right, Islamophobic and racist politics. Others, including the ‘anti-imperialists’ who support the Russian-Iranian war-on-terror in Syria, and the ‘leftists’ who support the crony-capitalist Assad’s assaults on working-class communities, are much less so. Added to the list is the sectarian orientalist Joshua Landis, who poses as an academic while propagandising for both Assad and ISIS. In an article first published at the Huffington Post, Mohammed Ghanem takes him to task.

Over the past five years, Syria advocates have become well-acquainted with their most vociferous opponents in the American foreign policy debate. These analysts often have a grand theory that causes them to neglect key facts on Syria. They may have a reflexive mistrust of all claims made by the U.S. foreign policy establishment, an undue focus on “realist” theories of global politics, a mistaken belief that the Assad regime is “secular” and “anti-extremist,” or adamant anti-interventionist political views. In the case of University of Oklahoma Professor Joshua Landis, the grand theory is sectarianism.

Last week, I phoned in to a “Wilson Center” briefing that included Landis and was shocked to hear him say “I went through my mind thinking, Could one say that Shiites are better than Sunnis? And ultimately, I decided that this was a losing effort.” This rhetorical device, called paralipsis, seeks to highlight a rhetorical point by emphasizing that it was not mentioned. It usually is only a prelude to mentioning the point later, as it primes the audience to listen for exactly that point.

And indeed, Landis later wished for Iran, the main Shiite power, to win in Syria: “One side has to win…[It’s] more or less a done deal that Russia and Iran are closing this out…Allow it to happen.” Landis also stated, “The United States has been destroying Sunni rebels” in Iraq, while “Russia has been doing the same in Syria,” as if the ISIS insurgents America targets in Iraq can be equated with the civilian hospitals and residential neighborhoods that have borne the brunt of Russia’s air assault in Syria.

It was hardly the first time that Landis has pushed a highly sectarian view of Syria’s opposition; this has been his overarching focus since the conflict began. Just a month into Syria’s 2011 democracy protests, when demonstrators were chanting “One! One! One!” to highlight their diversity, Landis told “The Real News” that “The opposition says there is no threat [of sectarian war]…That’s what the opposition said about Iraq.” And in November 2011, only months before the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report would blame the Assad regime for increased sectarian rhetoric, Landis summarized the conflict to PBS Frontline later that year, “It’s a Sunni versus Alawite thing…The hatred, which had largely dissipated during the Assad years, has now come back with a vengeance.”

Landis, who maintains the blog Syria Comment, is one of the only academics to have focused on Syria’s domestic politics since 2004, and to be fair to him, Syria’s war did become steadily more sectarian with time due to Assad’s practices. Landis was also correct when he predicted in the spring of 2012, when many observers believed Assad was about to fall, that the regime would survive the year and beyond. But Landis’ stellar academic qualifications on Syria do not excuse his consistent distortions of the fundamental nature of the conflict ― always, it should be noted, in a pro-regime direction.

Continue reading “Assad’s Man in Oklahoma”

Notes towards a theory of Max Blumenthal

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As half a million souls have evaporated into smoke, largely at the hands of the Assad regime, Max Blumenthal instructs his readers to be suspicious of the organizations dedicated to putting a lid on the suffering.

He performs this by making a few salient points about the problematic nature of NGOization, funding channels and influence of big powers which tend to haunt aid organizations everywhere, particularly those operating in desperate situations. He goes on to point out that those organizations are toeing the line of Washington’s foreign policy elites who are calling for an NFZ in order to overthrow the regime.  Of course, one needn’t wonder if maybe, just maybe, the countless barrel bombs, cluster bombs, chlorine bombs, thermite bombs and bunker busters may have anything to do with compelling one to calling for an NFZ.

I don’t have to rehearse the criticism made but you can read Scott Lucas’ forceful rebuttal to his piece here and others’ here.

What I’m interested in what went on in his head before he sharpened his pencils. What is the purpose of transforming aid organizations during the time of war and genocide into objects of scrutiny and suspicion? Who does that serve?

The task is made difficult once one recalls that Blumenthal, after all, used to be one of us—that is, on the side of Syria’s democrats and revolutionaries. In 2012, he resigned from al-Akhbar over what he called the “newspaper leadership’s pro-Assad tendency”, pointing out that:

Yet the mere existence of Western meddling does not automatically make Assad a subaltern anti-imperial hero at the helm of a “frontline resisting state,” as Ghorayeb has sought to paint him. Nor does it offer any legitimate grounds for nickel-and-diming civilian casualty counts, blaming the victims of his regime, or hyping the Muslim Threat Factor to delegitimize the internal opposition . . . Besides exploiting the Palestinian cause, the Assad apologists have eagerly played the Al Qaeda card to stoke fears of an Islamic takeover of Syria . . .In joining the Assad regime’s campaign to delegitimize the Syrian opposition by casting it as a bunch of irrational jihadis (ironically, they seem to have little problem with Hezbollah’s core Islamist values), Assad’s apologists have unwittingly adopted the “war on terror” lexicon introduced by George W. Bush, Ariel Sharon, and the neocon cabal after 9-11. Not only have they invoked the scary specter of The Terrorists (gasp!) to justify morally indefensible acts of violent repression . . . “

What bothers Blumenthal today isn’t the somewhat common silence or apologia for Assad and Putin in alt-journalism and left-wing circles, nor is it the ongoing intervention of Russia, Iran and sectarian militias on behalf of a brutal regime. What bothers him is a hypothetical regime change operation undertaken by the United States. These are classic, even caricatural, tropes that he railed against not too long ago.

Enquiring minds wish to know: how can someone who has stood on the side of justice consistently suddenly barbarize themselves this quickly?

 

“The great Indian disaster of 1947 has barely entered the public consciousness. Distance, and a sense of helplessness, presumably account nowadays for this seeming indifference, just as they account for the relative calm that greets the news from Nigeria. What can one do about it, and who cares about dead African babies anyway? Certainly not the New Left: its leaders have not uttered a sound on the subject. But then there is no political mileage to be got out of a conflict which opposes Africans (with some foreign backing) to each other. As for morality, we all know by now what the Realpolitiker of the New Left (not to mention the Old Right) think of such sickly bourgeois sentiments.”—George Lichtheim

If it has been said that the institution of slavery is war and can only be defeated by war, the same can be said about the Assad regime. No serious observer thinks that Assad will cede an inch of power to the opposition without military defeat or threat. The regime has made up its mind about a Final Solution a long time ago. “Assad or we burn the country” as a pro-regime graffiti encapsulates the logic. 

Blumenthal is forcefully aware of all of this. In fact, he’s written about it and has likely concluded that the war of extermination will continue unabated unless there’s some limited form of foreign intervention. 

But he’s grown torn between maintaining an internationalist commitment to Syrian democrats and the fear of being in the bad company of neocons. It’s clear that Blumenthal simply sees no other way—or lacks the confidence to do so—to appear to be in such bad company without compromising himself morally.

Knowing this, he inserts his head and hands into the pillory. Thinking to himself that only by earning the scorn of neoconseratives—whom he could represent as the spear of the backlash—can he turn himself into a victim deserving commiseration and, in his mind, self-exoneration from the guilt of silence. And here’s something he could really believe in. But what he doesn’t know is that in the process he has doubly compromised himself by turning the figure of the neocon into a straw man that can be hung over the head of the defenceless and their advocates in the West.

Hence why I don’t think what he wrote is journalism. It’s an exercise in a sort of secularized Catholic penance for the white man’s burden. In other words, he has contrived an all-too solipsistic performance of self-flaeggelation that has effectively shut Syrians’ voices out, hence why he didn’t interview a single Syrian for his piece. The issue isn’t what Syrians think, the issue is that John McCain happens to agree with some of their demands.

Blumenthal wants to have it both ways. He, and his contemporaries, think they can sustain a politics of Realpolitik while avoiding the impression that they are callous. He wants to maintain the commitment of refusing a compromise with U.S. imperialism in a world far from ideal (such virtue! such courage!) while avoiding an uneasy conscience. Why call for some form of limited intervention when it can fail and perhaps haunt your career forever? After all, it’s only dead Syrians.

 

“I was right to be wrong, while you and your kind were wrong to be right”—Pierre Coutrade

But he sees a bigger payoff with what he’s written. He’s banking on the likelihood that sooner or later the United States and its European allies will intervene to put a halt to the carnage that is tearing not just the Middle-East apart, but at the very fabric of European democracy. In other words, he wants the United States to intervene.

That is the only way he can be redeemed for what he wrote. And when that happens, he’d like to be there to tell us that despite his Machiavellian cynicism that was fiercely criticized, he was right all along. He has crucified himself on the cross, and like the Christ’s body, he carries within him the prospect of redemption. In his mind, he may be wrong but he’s wrong for the right reasons.

Cynical, right?

It is worth noting that Christopher Hitchens took such a gamble too when he decided to support the invasion of Iraq—betraying his own principles and friends in the process. Like Hitchens, he carries a violently contemptuous attitude towards his former comrades whom he derides for their naïveté, principle and “idealism.” Despite adopting the symbols of liberation and inverting the signs, Hitchens after all still considered himself a leftist, even a Marxist, as late as 2010. Because isn’t that an effective prophylactic against an uneasy conscience?

By attacking the only groups and individuals who are committed to the protection of civilians in Syria, Blumenthal has found a target to sublimate and project what he called his “anguish” at the carnival of apologia and conspicuous silence from those on the Left After all, we—those who stress political and arms support for Syria’s democrats—have been fighting a lost battle for the hearts and minds of progressives in the West. Not knowing how to help without committing the Great Apostasy of demanding that the liberal democracies pull their weight around Syria’s democrats, Blumenthal has come to be tired of the despair and discomfort of calling for help from the imperium—who wouldn’t? What he wants instead is to make sense of it all. He wants to give his life and its place in History meaning.

That’s why he thinks it’s 2003. Those were simpler times, when the world was divided between the Good and the Neocon. When opposing your government’s war assured you immunity from moral conundrums. And if you buy the thesis that history does indeed repeat itself, you can avoid ruminating on the constantly terrifying novelty of the present.

Such farce.

Shorn of all substance, all that remains is the affect and optics of interrogating imperialism. But if you look past the optics, you realize that the ontology at play remains deeply entrenched in a colonial unconscious. “We are the prime movers of History” is a fairly therapeutic thought amidst the chaos. 

 

On the Allies We’re Not Proud Of

palestine_solidarity_with_syria-jpg_1718483346This “Palestinian response to troubling discourse on Syria” is most welcome. Most Palestinians at the grassroots have been very supportive of the Syrian revolution. Certain ‘intellectuals’, however,  and even more supposed pro-Palestine activists in the West, have repeated the propaganda talking points of the Assad regime (which has murdered tens of thousands of Palestinians over the years, in Lebanon and in Syria) and its imperialist backers. Over 120 engaged Palestinians reject that discourse here. More and more are signing the statement. (If you’re a Palestinian, you can sign by clicking the link above and going to the end of the text).

We, the undersigned Palestinians, write to affirm our commitment to the amplification of Syrian voices as they endure slaughter and displacement at the hands of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. We are motivated by our deep belief that oppression, in all of its manifestations, should be the primary concern of anyone committed to our collective liberation. Our vision of liberation includes the emancipation of all oppressed peoples, regardless of whether or not their struggles fit neatly into outdated geopolitical frameworks.

We are concerned by some of the discourse that has emerged from progressive circles with regards to the ongoing crisis in Syria. In particular, we are embarrassed by the ways in which some individuals known for their work on Palestine have failed to account for some crucial context in their analysis of Syria.

The Syrian revolution was in fact a natural response to 40 years of authoritarian rule. The Assad regime, with the support of its foreign financial and military backers, is attempting to preserve its power at the expense of the millions of Syrians whom the regime has exiled, imprisoned, and massacred. We believe that minimizing this context in any discussion of Syria dismisses the value of Syrian self-determination and undermines the legitimacy of their uprising.

We also believe that an important consequence of all foreign interventions, including those purportedly done on behalf of the uprising, has been the setback of the original demands of revolution. The revolution is a victim, not a product, of these interventions. It is imperative for any analysis of Syria to recognize this fundamental premise. We cannot erase the agency of Syrians struggling for liberation, no matter how many players are actively working against them.

Though we maintain that the phenomenon of foreign aid demands thorough critique, we are concerned by the ways in which foreign aid has been weaponized to cast suspicion on Syrian humanitarian efforts. Foreign aid is not unique to Syria; it is prevalent in Palestine as well. We reject the notion that just because an organization is receiving foreign aid, it must follow then that that organization is partaking in some shadowy Western-backed conspiracy. Such nonsense has the effect of both undermining humanitarian efforts while simultaneously whitewashing the very crimes against humanity that necessitated the aid in the first place.

Furthermore, we object to the casual adoption of “war on terror” language. Enemies of liberation have historically used this rhetoric to target humanitarians, organizers, and community members. From Muhammad Salah to the Midwest 23 to the Holy Land Five, our community is all too familiar with the very real consequence of employing a “war on terror” framework. Therefore, we reject a discourse that perpetuates these old tactics and peddles harmful and unwarranted suspicion against Syrians.

Continue reading “On the Allies We’re Not Proud Of”

Aleppo in a Time of Monsters

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“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.

Continue reading “Aleppo in a Time of Monsters”

Where are the Syrians in Max Blumenthal’s Article? An Open Letter from Syrian Activist Marcell Shehwaro

Marcel Shehwaro: “Revolt”. Taken during Arab Bloggers Meeting in Jordan by Amer Sweidan.
Marcel Shehwaro: “Revolt”. Taken during Arab Bloggers Meeting in Jordan by Amer Sweidan.

By Marcell Shehwaro

I read Max Blumenthal’s article, which aims to open our eyes to the dangerous hidden reality behind The Syria Campaign. I read it over and over and all I felt was a combination of patronisation and humiliation in detail after detail… Beginning with the focus on who took the photo of Omran and who published it and neglecting the fact that what happened to Omran did actually happen and the boy really was bombed. But of course this detail is marginal… just as marginal as all other Syrian men and women in that piece of writing. All of us are marginal details.

More important now is how to help the killer escape by spreading doubts around all the human rights violations they committed.

My organization is one of the 73 organizations that signed on to suspending cooperation with the UN. The decision was taken and planned as per the following steps. Months and days of dysfunctional coordination with the UN as a result of the political ties of the UN’s offices in Damascus. Let alone the grave failure, that the UN admits to, of dealing with the sieges. The Syrian anger towards this topic was portrayed through many responses, actions, banners and campaigns such as United Nothing. All those are purely Syrians but it seems not important enough for Mr. Blumenthal to mention. Continue reading “Where are the Syrians in Max Blumenthal’s Article? An Open Letter from Syrian Activist Marcell Shehwaro”