A Middle East with No Master

The American abandonment of diplomacy in the Middle East has allowed its clients to pretty much do what they want leading to an ongoing realignment in the region, says Chas Freeman.

By Chas W. Freeman Jr.

Time was, the countries of the Middle East relied on the United States for patronage, protection, and guidance.  Suez taught Israel, Britain, and France that without Washington’s acquiescence, their policies could not succeed.  Egypt’s defection showed Russia the limits of its ability to compete for clients in the region.  It was U.S. leadership that enabled Israel, Egypt, and Jordan to end the state of war between them.

The standing of the United States in the region derived in part from its centrality to diplomacy aimed at finding a formula for peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians and acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy by its Arab neighbors. Except on issues related to Israel, many Arab governments followed America wherever it led. The collapse of the Soviet Union erased Russian influence in the Middle East, as it did elsewhere.

To recall this history is to underscore the extent of the geopolitical changes that have occurred so far this century. The United States no longer enjoys primacy in the Middle East.  The former colonial powers need American military support to intervene in the region, but the countries of the region itself now act independently, confident that they can gain American backing for whatever they do. They do not seem to be wrong about this, judging from U.S. backing for Israel’s wars on its neighbors, Gulf Arab efforts to topple the Asad government in Syria, and the ongoing devastation of Yemen by Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.

In this century, the U.S.-managed “peace process” between Israelis and Palestinians served as a distraction while Israel evicted Palestinians from their homes, annexed their lands, and denied them self-determination. The ever less credible “peace process” ended by severely damaging U.S. diplomatic standing in the region and beyond it. Unilateral U.S. recognition of an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital capped what had come to be seen as the world’s longest–running diplomatic farce.

In the absence of strategy, a desire to sustain relationships in the region by supporting clients’ actions drives U.S. policy. The clients themselves have moved beyond relationship-driven diplomacy and are into transactionalism. The extent to which the U.S. now follows rather than leads its client states in the region is reflected in the Trump administration’s obeisance to Israeli and Saudi hostility to Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA—Iran nuclear deal.)

Meanwhile, minimal commitments of force accompanied by deft diplomacy have enabled Russia to exploit the Syrian tragedy [having been invited into Syria by Damascus] to become the most sought-after external actor in the region’s affairs. Turkey, once outside the region and Russia’s NATO enemy, is again part of the Middle East, this time cooperating with Russia there more often than not.  Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are all cultivating ties with Moscow.  Their objective is to correct over-reliance on the United States by diluting it.  The same purpose inspires their efforts to build markets in China and India and to enlist Chinese and Indian support for their foreign policies.

Ongoing Consequences of U.S. Invasion of Iraq

The U.S. invasion of Iraq thrust that country into anarchy and religious warfare that embittered relations between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the region.  U.S. policies focused on regime change gave Iran political hegemony in Iraq, entrenched its influence in Syria, and consolidated its alliance with Lebanese Hezbollah.  The collapse of order in the Levant spawned vicious new  terrorist movements that spread from Iraq to Syria, Somalia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and the Sahel.

From the outset, Islamist forces in Syria enjoyed support from foreign enemies of the Asad government, including Islamists, the Syrian diaspora, most of the Gulf Arab states, Turkey, Israel, and the United States.  As proxy warfare escalated, an avalanche of refugees from Syria destabilized the EU. Six hundred thousand dead and 11 million displaced Syrians later, Asad remains in the saddle in Damascus.  He has defeated his armed opposition but is beholden to Iran, its Shiite allies in Lebanese Hezbollah, and Russia for this victory. Syria’s agonies are ending in a phony war between the United States and Turkey. Israel, which wanted anarchy or partition in Syria, now struggles to contain a hostile Iranian presence there and in neighboring Lebanon. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states that sought to overthrow Asad must now find a way to live with him.

Misguided American interventions and freelancing by U.S. client states have thus transformed the region’s politics, entrenched anti-Americanism with global reach, and facilitated its spread in Africa and Asia.  The wars that did this – the pacification campaigns in Afghanistan that followed the post-9/11 punitive raid of 2001, the destabilization of Iraq, the overthrow of the Libyan government, and incoherently contradictory policies that supported mutual antagonists in Syria – have yet to end or are ending in American defeat.  No longer the playground of imperial powers, the Middle East is now dominated by religious strife, Arab efforts to roll back US-abetted Persian hegemony, and cynical manipulation of Washington’s policy decisions by U.S. client states.

Four Trends in the Region

Let me conclude with four broad observations about overall trends in the Middle East.

First, religion is back as a driver of history.  Once a contest of nationalisms, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle is now part of the region’s multi-dimensional religious strife.  Both Sunni and Shiite extremists have made violent opposition to Zionism – as opposed to support for the Palestinian cause – a central feature of their ideologies.  This position enjoys broad support in the Muslim world.  Despite common interests with Israel, Arab pragmatists are constrained by Muslim loathing of Zionism in what they can do with it.  Meanwhile, the transformation of Judaism into a racist state ideology by Zionist extremists risks separating Israel from mainstream Jews abroad, who recoil from identification with the so-called “Jewish state’s” perversion of Jewish values and its increasingly amoral and inhumane behavior.  Ironically, however, as Hindutva tightens its hold on Indian politics, India’s Islamophobia is drawing it closer to Israel, which is becoming an increasingly important source of the country’s defense imports.

Second, the rising powers that Middle Eastern countries seek to engage in their affairs are unlikely to meet their expectations. China and India are the fastest growing markets for the Middle East’s energy exporters. But China has assiduously avoided entanglement in the region’s conflicts – whether Israel-Palestine or Gulf Arab-Iran. China is now the major foreign presence in Iraq’s oil sector, a significant investor in Egyptian and Iranian industry, a growing force in engineering management and construction in the Gulf, and a lucrative market for Israeli defense and internal security technology. Indian and Pakistani labor is a mainstay of Gulf Arab economies. But with the exception of an effort to loosen Pakistan’s hold on Afghanistan by investing in the Iranian port of Chabahar, India too is keeping its distance from Middle Eastern politics.

Third, with the exception of the United States, external powers have all declined to associate themselves with Israel’s, Saudi Arabia’s, and the United Arab Emirates’ hysteria about Iran. U.S. policy follows that of Israel in its focus on Iran’s potential to become a nuclear weapons state. Americans remain in denial about our role in expanding Iran’s political sway in the region, which is the principal concern of the Gulf Arabs. Washington’s confused approach to Qatar’s blockade by the Emirates and Saudi Arabia reflects this. The U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA will not be followed by other great powers. It is more likely to isolate Israel and the United States than Iran.

Finally, there is a very real danger that the low intensity conflict now underway between Israel and Iran in Syria and the Gulf Arabs’ proxy wars with Iran could escalate into a major war. One scenario for such a war would be a Saudi-assisted Israeli assault on Iran calculated to drag in the United States or a direct attack on Iran by U.S. forces. This would likely trigger strikes on Israel by Iranian forces and their allies in Syria and Lebanon and efforts by Iran to sabotage Saudi and Emirati oil production. It is unclear how such a war would end. But, having delegated U.S. policy toward Iran to Israel and the Gulf Arabs, the United States is in no position to decide that question or very much else.

Remarks delivered to the Middle East Project by Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. in Washington, D.C. on May 10, 2018.

Ambassador Freeman chairs Projects International, Inc. He is a retired U.S. defense official, diplomat, and interpreter, the recipient of numerous high honors and awards, a popular public speaker, and the author of five books.




Delusions and Genocide: A Reply to Diana Johnstone 

Consortium News published an article on May 4 by Diana Johnstone, in which she critiqued an article by Tony McKenna, who has asked for the right to reply.

Editor’s Note: Consortium News published an article on May 4 by Diana Johnstone called, “Trotskyist Delusions: Obsessed with Stalin, They See Betrayed Revolutions Everywhere.”  In the piece, Johnstone critiqued an article by Tony McKenna, who has asked for the right to reply. We are publishing that reply here, with this disclaimer and notice to our readers that we do not endorse McKenna’s views on Syria. We feel they display a profound misunderstanding of the tragic circumstances in that country. To give just two examples:  McKenna’s assertion that it was the Free Syrian Army and other rebels that drove ISIS out of Syria and into Iraq, while ignoring all the many, more powerful forces arrayed against it, such as Syrian, Russian, Iranian, Lebanese, Kurdish and even American and its allied forces (who to some extent fought against ISIS in Syria), is a gross distortion of what has actually happened. 

The second example shows the essential error of McKenna and those that agree with him:  the failure to understand the nature of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad. His government emerged in the conflict as the far lesser evil to foreign-backed jihadists. Assad has never threatened the West the way ISIS has not only threatened, but attacked it. Assad did not kill Christians, Shia, Yazidi, women and other minorities just because of their identities, the way the jihadists have. McKenna’s assertion that it is Islamophobic to call most rebels in Syria terrorists, while comparing that to Israel labeling all Gazans “Hamas terrorists,” ignores the fact that Gazans and Hamas are resisting an occupation, while ISIS actually ran a particularly brutal occupation of both Syrian and Iraqi territory. He also ignores the role the West and Gulf Arabs played in allowing ISIS to flourish.

 

By Tony McKenna

I read with some interest Diana Johnstone’s recent article in Consortium News – ‘Trotskyist Delusions: Obsessed with Stalin, They See Betrayed Revolutions Everywhere’ (May 4, 2018) which was a response to an article of my own – ‘Revolution and Counter Revolution in Syria’ (International Socialist Review, March 1, 2018).  Johnstone’s article doubles as an attack on me and also a broader ‘critique’ of a ‘delusional’ Trotskyism whose ridiculous ideals have sinister real world consequences; that it to say, they allow said Trotskyists  ‘to align…with U.S imperialism. The obsession with permanent revolution ends up providing an ideological alibi for permanent war.’

In the comments section underneath, the same charge was echoed ad infinitum.  I am – either consciously or unconsciously – a supporter of Western Imperialism, at least with regard to Syria. This is the crux of the issue, and therefore something I’d like to address. 

I do not support US military intervention in Syria. I do not support Israeli intervention in Syria. I was against the recent airstrikes which were launched by the US with backing from Britain and France.   But I am also against the Russian and Iranian military interventions which have taken place in Syria.  The side I am not against – oddly enough for a ‘delusional Trotskyist’ – are the Syrian people themselves.  You know, the same guys who have been strafed, bombed, gassed, burnt, raped, tortured and systematically murdered for a sustained seven year period by their ghoulish dictator and his military apparatus –  in collusion, of course, with the cash, weaponry, troops and planes provided by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

Now I am going to emphasise the role of these latter state actors over others (shock, gasp – even over Western Imperialism!) because they are the ones who, in bolstering the Assad regime, have turned the country into a smouldering, ashen graveyard.  From March 11, 2011, to March 1, 2016, the regime was responsible for 183,827 civilian deaths,which accounts for a catastrophic 94.7 percent of all civilian deaths. UN investigators quite correctly described this as amounting to an ‘extermination’ of the civilian population.  This is the regime which Johnstone and her acolytes rally around.  Progressive, radical ‘anti-imperialist’ politics at their finest and most fragrant, served up in a batch, with that extra special dash of civilian mass murder. 

Then again, perhaps all those dead Syrian civilians were all ISIS sympathisers or the like.  Or even if they weren’t, perhaps those civilians had to be killed as collateral damage because they were harbouring rebels of a sinister Islamic fundamentalist bent in their midst.  That is certainly what Assad tells us. It is what the Russians would have you believe.  Ironic isn’t it?  As we watch, in real time, the murderous military machine of the Israeli state mow down unarmed Palestinian protestors taking part in the Great March of Return, Israeli propaganda feeds us a very similar ideological rationale.  The ‘great march’ protestors were, in reality, ‘violent fundamentalists’.  Or at the very least, they had been infiltrated by ‘violent fundamentalists’, they had been weaponised by Hamas.  

Is there any of us that take such claims seriously?  And yet, in the case of Syria, we are more easily swayed by such an insidious logic, we readily accept it as reality.  We take it as an accomplished fact that the rebels are Islamist fundamentalists, and where and when more secular currents emerge, we take it as given that these will eventually give up the ghost before rabid religious interests.  Is the Syrian, predominantly Muslim population, inherently susceptible to the most rabid strains of Islamic fundamentalism?  Or could it be that it is precisely this type of assumption, with all its islamophobic connotations, which has led to the lack of support for secular forces in their struggle against Assad.

FSA Smashed ISIS

In late 2013 a coalition of rebel forces of many different political shades (some secular, some religiously fundamentalist), led by the secular inclined Free Syrian Army, took a break from the bloody grapple with their murderous dictator in order to smash ISIS to pieces – driving them from Latakia, Idlib, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa, sending the black clad, sword wielding fanatics scurrying back into the Iraqi desert. 

This was little covered in the press, of course, and, generally speaking, the rebels were given scant financial backing internationally as they conducted their heroic rout. In contrast, entities like ISIS are heavily subsidised by powerful foreign interests.  The Russians and Iranians pour billions into the Assad regime.   Locked between the snapping jaws of these snarling leviathans, the more secular inclined forces are given little support, and as a result have had their political presence diminished.

And that is why I support the right of the rebels to get arms from wherever they can. That includes, I am afraid to say, the U.S. state – or indeed any other.  Does that make me a de facto supporter of Western Imperialism?  Let’s consider this.  Just imagine being a member of that harrowing number caught between the Scylla of the fundamentalist extremists and the Charybdis of the Assad regime.  You are fighting for everything you have ever known and what is more you are fighting with meagre supplies against overwhelming forces, and in the most perilous of circumstances.  Surely you would accept arms and money from the devil himself if he offered them, no? For the simplest reason of all.  The alternative is annihilation.

Who is the Idealist?

Johnstone’s whole critique of me rests on the fact that I am some sort of ‘head in the clouds, Trotskyist idealist’ who is naïve to the way the real political forces are played out on the ground.  But in my view she is the idealist, if she somehow imagines that any rebel in that situation – in the face of an Assad regime which is genocidal in its intent and which has been fortified by billions in Russian arms and support – if she imagines that such a rebel should demur from using more effective and up-to-date weaponry, casting it to one side, on the grounds that it has been provided by the U.S. – and instead abandon themselves to the slaughter.  

Then again, I don’t think Johnstone troubles herself to think about the people on the ground all that much.  Methodologically speaking, there is a reason for this, and it is revealed in her piece.  In her account she mobilizes the figure of the Trotskyist as the bogeyman par excellence; she writes of Trotskyism in the following, withering terms: ‘The Trotskyists keep yearning for a new revolution, just like the Bolshevik revolution. Yes, but the Bolshevik revolution ended in Stalinism.’

I know something about Stalinism.  You might even say I wrote the book on it.  And in that book I noted the very opposite from that which Johnstone, and so many others, have glibly asserted; I noted that, in fact, the Bolshevik Revolution did not produce Stalinism from within itself.  In October 1917 the Bolshevik Party had a political mandate which came from the workers, soldiers, students and a significant proportion of the poorer layers of the peasantry. 

Such a mandate was channelled through the ‘soviets’, the workers’ councils which had sprung up in over 300 cities and towns across Russia.  In response to the October Revolution, and let me emphasise this – Western Imperialism – in the form of 14 foreign countries including the US, Britain and France, sent its armies into Russia in order to aid and abet the white counter revolution, as the forces of the ex-monarchy, the industrial capitalists and the dispossessed landowners threw everything they could against the new government in a bloody and protracted three year civil war.  

In that conflict, the Bolshevik bureaucracy, the government, managed to cling to power, barely, but the workers and radical peasants who had provided the democratic basis for that power had been exsanguinated in the furore of the civil war.  The Stalinist dictatorship was the ultimate expression of the centralisation of a bureaucracy which was made bereft of its social basis, a social basis which had withered in the fire of counterrevolution, and isolated and inward looking, that bureaucracy was now only able to retain its power from above – by purely administrative, militaristic and ultimately totalitarian means.

Lenin’s Last Battle

Of course, capitalist ideologues and defenders of the status quo adore the whole Bolshevism inherently leads to totalitarianism–Lenin inevitably begot Stalin, trope.   They do so, not because they have any interest in the historical specificities: the decimation of the industrial proletariat, the destruction of the Soviet democracy, foreign invasion, the movement from revolution to counterrevolution which underpinned that historical process.  They remain breezily unconcerned that the last battle of Lenin’s life was waged against the encroaching bureaucratic influence of Stalin. 

Rather, for them, Bolshevism becomes a cipher.  It represents any radical and popular socialist mobilisation which confronts the capitalist system and condemns such an alternative as inevitably destined to mutate into totalitarianism and gulags.  The inference, of course, is crystal clear; fundamental change is either utopian or dangerous –ergo capitalism is the only game in town.

For all her anti (U.S.) imperialism, for all her hatred of U.S. capitalism, Johnstone shares this sensibility with pro-capitalist ideologues to a tee. For her too, Bolshevism simply led to Stalinism – the historical specificity, the development of the popular revolution, the process of counterrevolution, the civil war – all these processes are either irrelevant or invisible; we are made to understand by Johnstone that revolution per-se ‘is more a myth than a reality’.   Needless to say, such a methodological presupposition bleeds into and thoroughly permeates her analysis of Syria.

For Johnstone, the revolutionary struggle of the Syrian masses is not flagging because they have been pulverized by the forces of a counter-revolutionary state bolstered by Russian imperial power; no the Syrian masses are wanting because just as Bolshevism innately led to Stalinism, so too their struggle must innately and inevitably lead to ‘jihadists taking over the country’. And when you understand, as Johnstone does, that forms of popular power from below are inherently irredeemable, the conclusion flows naturally and easily, and Johnstone does not shy away from stating it.  A country ‘such as Syria’ she informs us, is ‘not likely to be “modernized” without a strong ruler.’

In Bashar al-Assad she has found a strong ruler, a strong ruler indeed.  And a genocidal one.

Tony McKenna is a novelist, journalist and philosopher whose work has been featured by many publications including ABC Australia, The Huffington Post, New Internationalist, The United Nations, NewStatesman, The Progressive and New Humanist. His first book “Art Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective“, was released by Macmillan in 2015, the second a critically acclaimed biography of Joseph Stalin was published the following year, and in 2017 New Haven Publishing brought out his debut novel “The Dying Light“.




An Iranian Viewpoint on the Battle for Syria

A new feature from Iran gives a totally different perspective of the war raging in Syria than Western audiences are used to, explains Rick Sterling.

By Rick Sterling  Special to Consortium News

West against East on the Syrian battle-field, in the newspapers and now on film: A new, full-length action movie, titled “Damascus Time,” gives an Iranian perspective on the battle against ISIS in Syria.

The movie comes from Iranian screenwriter and film director Ebrahim Hatamikia. Two award-winning Iranian actors, Hadi Hejazifar and Babak Hamidian, play father and son pilots trying to rescue civilians besieged and attacked by ISIS forces in eastern Syria. The pilots have come to help the townspeople escape in an aging Ilyushin cargo plane.

Syrian and Iraqi actors play Syrian civilians and ISIS terrorists hell bent on blowing up the plane or using it on a suicide mission against Damascus.

The movie portrays sensational scenes from real ISIS atrocities with a backdrop showing the Syrian desert and famous ruins of Palmyra. The city where civilians are surrounded and besieged is similar to the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor, which was surrounded and attacked by ISIS for years. During that time, the townspeople and soldiers depended on air-dropped food and ammunition to hold off the attackers, as shown in the movie.

Damascus Time”’s starkly sensational scenes are drawn from real ISIS atrocities. The jihadists display a human side, but they are wrapped in sectarianism, hate and violence.

Life’s complexities are demonstrated in the younger of the two Iranian pilots who has left his pregnant wife to be with his father. The mother-in-law of the young pilot bitterly criticizes him for leaving his wife. He tells her it will be his last trip.

While the story is fiction, what it portrays is all too real: Hundreds of thousands of real Syrians and Iraqis have been killed by the unleashing of the ISIS Frankenstein. Ironically, American leaders criticize Iran for being the “leading state sponsor of terrorism.” But in the Syrian war, Iran has been combatting it. Iran is more tolerant than most Westerners think too, as indeed Islam is. How many know for instance that Jews are represented in the Iranian parliament?

Western-backed Extremism

In reality, the U.S. and UK have allied for decades with extremists for short-term political gain. As documented in “Devil’s Game: How the U.S. Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam,”by Robert Dreyfuss, Britain and the U.S. promoted a violent and sectarian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood to undermine the nationalist and socialist policies of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. Starting in 1979, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia promoted the founders of what became Al Qaeda to attack the socialist-leaning government of Afghanistan.

This policy has continued to the present. In the summer of 2012, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency outlined their strategy in a secret document : “THERE IS THE POSSIBILITY OF ESTABLISHING A DECLARED OR UNDECLARED SALAFIST PRINCIPALITY IN EASTERN SYRIA (HASAKA AND DER ZOR).”The U.S. looked favorably on what the document predicts will be the creation of the “Islamic State”: “THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT THE SUPPORTING POWERS TO THE OPPOSITION WANT, IN ORDER TO ISOLATE THE SYRIAN REGIME…”.

Then, in a leaked audio conversation with Syrian opposition figures in September 2016, then Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S., rather than seriously fight Islamic State in Syria, was ready to use the growing strength of the jihadists to pressure Assad to resign, just as outlined in the DIA document.

We know that this was growing, we were watching, we saw that Daesh [a derisive name for Islamic State] was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened,” Kerry said. “We thought however we could probably manage that Assad might then negotiate, but instead of negotiating he got Putin to support him.”

Russia began its military intervention in late September 2015 without the United States, with the Kremlin’s motives made abundantly clear by Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials. But such clear explanations are rarely reported clearly by Western corporate media, which instead peddles the line from officials and think tanks that Russia is trying to recover lost imperial glory in the Middle East.

But Kerry knew why Russia intervened. “The reason Russia came in is because ISIL [another acronym for Islamic State] was getting stronger, Daesh was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus, and that’s why Russia came in because they didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad,” he said in the leaked discussion. Kerry’s comment suggests that the U.S. was willing to risk Islamic State and its jihadist allies gaining power in order to oust Assad.

The Biggest Sponsors

The true “state sponsor of terrorism” is not Iran; it is the West and their allies. Since Iran has been fighting ISIS and other extremists in Syria, it is appropriate that the first feature length movie depicting that battle against terrorism and ISIS comes from Iran.

Hundreds of Iranians have given their lives alongside their Syrian and Iraqi comrades. “Damascus Time” is not the product of Hollywood fantasy; it’s the product of actual human drama and conflict occurring in the Middle East today. “Damascus Time” is fictional but based on a real conflict with actual blood, atrocities, tragedies and martyrs.

The movie is currently being shown at cinemas throughout Iran. In recent weeks it was the second highest ranking movie. A trailer of the film can be viewed here. It should be available for viewing in the West in the near future, unless western sanctions and censorship are extended to culture.

Rick Sterling is an investigative journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

He can be contacted at rsterling1@gmail.com




The Rebuilding of Syria

As the war in Syria winds down the daunting task of resettling refugees and internally displaced people and rebuilding the country faces tremendous obstacles, reports Jeff Klein.

By Jeff Klein Special to Consortium News

During visits to Syria in 2016 and 2018, the devastation from years of war was tragically evident.  Block after block in central Homs had the bombed out look of post-Second World War Berlin. The Old City and historic Souq of Aleppo was in ruins. Passing the Eastern Ghouta region near Damascus, we observed a shell-pocked landscape of ruined and burned out buildings and farms that stretched for miles. In the Palestinian Yarmouk Camp/neighborhood and the southern Damascus suburbs the fighting is still going on between government forces and elements of Daesh (ISIS) and al-Nusra. The result will be comparable devastation after the successful conclusion of combat operations.

On the other hand,  Damascus, modern Aleppo, Hama, Dera’a and the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartus — despite being targeted by rebel mortars and rockets which caused many civilian casualties — have remained largely intact, even as the fighting has taken a steep toll on the exurban neighborhoods and rural towns nearby.

Less well known is the heavy damage to Syria’s industrial infrastructure, particularly in Aleppo. After 2011 anti-government forces occupied the extensive industrial zone outside the city and proceeded to systematically loot the modern factories.  Tens of millions of dollars’ worth of industrial equipment from textile, plastics, chemical and pharmaceutical firms were sold off or simply stolen and shipped across the nearby border to Turkey. What could not be transported easily was destroyed. 

Industrial-sized Destruction

A first-hand view of this devastation was possible during a visit to the Sheikh Najjar Industrial City last month.  Ruined buildings and workshops dotted the landscape in every direction. Hazem Ajjam, General Director of the Chamber of Industry, explained that 90 percent of the factories in the 4400-hectare industrial zone were destroyed or heavily damaged.  The electricity and water systems had been put completely out of operation.  Our briefing took place in a makeshift building near the destroyed shell of the previous chamber headquarters nearby.

The Sheikh Najjar utility systems are about 50 percent restored and up to 500 factories are operating at partial capacity or more. Ajjam estimated that daily production was at about $5 million compared to an output of $25 million per day before the war.

We toured an operating plastics molding factory with new Chinese machinery, an industrial recycling plant producing paper and cardboard (also with Chinese equipment) and a spinning mill with modern hi-tech machinery imported from the Swiss company Oerlikon.  However, most of the factory buildings we passed remained severely damaged and seemed to be out of operation still.

The war has also taken a heavy toll on the Syrian medical infrastructure, which once offered universal free or nearly free treatment.  Elizabeth Hoff, the Norwegian head of the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) in Syria, briefed us at their headquarters in the former Dutch embassy.  She reported that as of the end of 2017 more than half the country’s hospitals, clinics and primary health care centers had been damaged beyond repair or were only partially functioning. This infrastructure could not be easily repaired because international sanctions against Syria blocked the import of critical spare parts and equipment.

The once-thriving Syrian pharmaceutical industry has also been severely impacted by the war.  Hoff estimated that before 2011 Syria supplied about 90 percent of its own medicines and was on the verge of producing even advanced cancer drugs. Most of the pharmaceutical plants were either destroyed or became inaccessible during the fighting. The industry, also hampered by the international sanctions regime, is struggling to regain 30 percent of its pre-war production.  

As the Syrian government has been gaining militarily in recent years, clearing the roadways among the ruins has been relatively prompt and some reconstruction has begun, particularly on historic and culturally important buildings like the Khalid ibn Walid mosque and various damaged churches in Homs and the Umayyad Great Mosque of Aleppo. The main thoroughfares in the old covered souqs in Homs and more recently Aleppo have been largely cleared of rubble and a few shops here and there are open for business. 

Judging by the family crowds at the re-opened cafes at the base of the Aleppo citadel, life is slowly returning to normal in the areas formerly held by the rebels, and once the scene of heavy fighting in 2016.  We met Abdel Hay Kaddour, who had fled his home in East Aleppo when it was occupied by Jihadists and was struggling to rebuild his “boutique hotel” in the Aleppo souq. He kept shaking his head and repeating “Why did they do this to us?”

But rebuilding shattered neighborhoods and housing stock on a large scale has barely begun.  It will be an enormous and costly challenge.  Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has estimated a cost of $400 billion for reconstruction.

 American Money to Destroy, Not Build

Where will this money come from? The U.S. and its allies, which have spent tens of billions to destroy Syria, have largely renounced any responsibility to rebuild the country under its current leadership.  Trump has recently placed a freeze on recovery funds even for the areas of Syria occupied by U.S. military forces and their largely Kurdish allies.  In Congress, the House recently voted a ban on any aid to areas controlled by the Syrian government.

Certainly RussiaIran and perhaps to an even larger degree China will play a key role in Syrian reconstruction through direct investment, large-scale financing on easy terms and partnership with Syrian enterprises.  Rumors that Qatar, which had previously financed extremist anti-government rebels, may do an about face to invest in Syria, possibly as a way to stick it to its Saudi rivals and gain favor with neighboring Iran. Syrian officials have denied this.

But as plans for reconstruction are being formulated, the war itself is far from over. The U.S. still occupies a large swath of territory in the East of the country that contains much of Syria’s oil and gas reserves, while Turkey maintains military control over areas in the north adjacent to its own borders.  And despite recent setbacks, predominantly extremist sectarian rebels still hold out in areas around Dera’a in the south (supported by nearby Israel) and especially in the northwest around Idlib.  Even with decisive government military gains it is unlikely that violence will completely subside in the country for a long time to come.

The Monumental Task of Resettlement

Large-scale resettlement of internal and externally displaced people will also be a huge undertaking. We observed this first hand during a visit to a temporary facility at Herjaleh, south of Damascus, for refugees from recently liberated Eastern Ghouta. Abdul-Rahman al-Khatib, the town’s mayor, told us that there were 21,000 people in the relocation center now. He said that over 300,000 people had cycled through the center previously before most of them had returned to their original homes as the security situation improved and infrastructure was rebuilt.

Al-Khatib readily acknowledged that many of the men in Herjaleh had taken up arms against the government, either voluntarily or by coercion, when the area was under the control of Jaish al-Islam and other anti-government factions. Nevertheless, the families all received temporary housing and food from central soup kitchens, while the children attended UNICEF-funded pre-fab classrooms  For many of them it was the first time they had ever attended school. Mothers were also lined up at an office to get registration documents for their infants and children. Most of the government records from before the war had been intentionally destroyed by the rebel factions and registration of newborn children was impossible while the fighting continued. The children also received what for many were their first inoculation shots. 

We heard from more than one adult and from several children that Herjaleh was “paradise” compared to the battle-scarred region they left – though most also expressed the desire to go home as soon as it was possible.  

According to Russian sources, at least 60,000 residents have already returned to Eastern Ghouta.  No doubt the number of civilians in Ghouta had been inflated for propaganda purposes, as it had also been in Eastern Aleppo, where most of the civilians had stayed when the rebels departed and up to a million more have returned to the city since the end of local fighting.

The resettlement process continues across the country.  Thousands have recently returned to Tadmur/Palmyra, which was twice captured by rebels and twice liberated by the Syrian army since 2015.  The world heritage ruins had been the site of infamous vandalism by the ISIS/Daesh occupiers and its ancient theater the scene of mass executions of captured Syrian soldiers.  The director of the Palmyra museum, Khaled al-Asaad, was captured and cruelly beheaded by ISIS. 

But the war has also caused a significant drain of talented and educated Syrians who will be sorely needed for reconstruction.  Many of them will not be quickly convinced to return to a country that remains in turmoil.

Tourism was once viewed as a promising source of hard currency, with more than 8 million annual visitors accounting for up to 14 percent of the Syrian economy in 2010. It will not soon recover.  Although Syria offers much as a destination with its impressive cultural history and historic monuments, along with an enviable Mediterranean coastline and close proximity to Europe, mass tourism is a distant likelihood in the aftermath of war and possible long-term simmering conflict.

There is also the hard truth that not all of Syria’s economic difficulties can be attributed to the war alone.  Even before 2011, the country was suffering from a rapid population increase that put a severe strain on its ability to provide adequate employment and services to its inhabitants.  Environmental degradation and inefficient management of water resources were further exacerbated by a prolonged drought that forced many farmers off the land and into the impoverished exurban neighborhoods that became incubators of discontent.  The generally more pious and conservative displaced rural population, largely Sunni, became prime targets for

extremist sectarian agitators who exploited their legitimate grievances.

Extreme Inequality

Severe economic and social inequality will also continue to be a destabilizing factor in the country.  Of course, this is not a problem unique to Syria, but the disparities in wealth and lifestyle between Syria’s urban elite and its working and rural classes are extreme.  Amid all the disruption of war luxury cars, expensive clubs and shops are common in the upscale neighborhoods of Damascus, while many ordinary Syrians elsewhere are barely surviving.  The sons of the Syrian elite also frequently have the means to avoid active military service if they choose.

Wages remain painfully low for most Syrian workers.  At the factories we visited in Aleppo employees told me that the typical pay was 45,000 to 100,000 Syrian pounds a month – or about $100 to $240 at the current, albeit depressed, exchange rate.  Hotel workers in Damascus earned around the lower end of that range. 

It’s true, of course, that prices for basics remain low by U.S. standards, but living on those wages, especially for a family, is not easy.  By way of contrast, a good meal in a nice, though not extravagant restaurant in the Old City of Damascus, with wine, beer or arak ran about 8-9000 Syrian pounds per person.  This was cheap for a U.S. visitor but close to a week’s pay for some Syrian workers. A fast-food meal ran something like 1000-1500 Syrian pounds. ($1 is about 500 Syrian pounds.)

A stifling government bureaucracy and widespread corruption are also barriers to healthy economic recovery.  Everyone complains about petty corruption as a routine of daily life, from the slipping of a few dollars to a clerk at the border for a smoother passage, to the payment of larger amounts to get construction or business permits, or bribes to avoid long waiting time at government offices.  Of course, there is a class component to this kind of corruption.  Though it affects all Syrians, it is those with the means to pay that get the benefit; those who cannot simply suffer.

Larger-scale corruption and cronyism in the economic sphere is also much talked about, though harder to document. It is widely believed that family connections and influence are the keys to lucrative business opportunities and the concentration of wealth within a relatively exclusive ruling elite.  This too is a fetter on the economy that comes at a cost to the majority of Syrians and is a source of keen resentment among much of the population.

Finally, there is the issue of democracy and transparency of government. While it is clear that a majority of Syrians hope for a victory by Bashar al-Assad and his government as the surest way to end the war and preserve Syria’s fragile multi-ethnic secular society, a more open and participatory system are crucial for the long-term stability of the country. 

A vibrant civil society with a broadly legal political opposition, the ability of workers and students to organize peacefully and a free press are necessary for the evolution of a truly democratic Syria. Reforms will also help to promote national unity and combat the centrifugal forces of sectarianism and religious extremism. This will be the struggle for the future of Syria as the war winds down and in its aftermath.

Jeff Klein is an anti-war activist who has written and spoken frequently on the Middle East

 




The (Unrecognized) US Contribution to Bloodshed in Syria, Part Two

Bashar Asad sought closer relations with the West but the U.S. was planning to remove him as early as 2006, eventually leading to war in Syria, says As’ad AbuKhalil in the second & last part of this Consortium News commentary.

You can read part one here.

By As`ad AbuKhalil  Special to Consortium News

Bashar Al-Asad did not intend to declare enmity with the U.S. when he took over from his father in 2000. On the contrary, he was keen on impressing Western leaders and governments, and incorporated many of the Western-promoted economic “reforms” ( a mere code word for neo-liberal policies which dismantle state social programs, end subsidies to the poor, and initiate privatization plans which benefit MNCs).

Bashar also continued a previous regime policy of security-intelligence cooperation with the U.S., especially since Syrian intelligence kept comprehensive files on Islamists after their past anti-regime activities (with the support of the Jordanian government by the admission of King Husayn in December 1985). Bashar was keen on pleasing Western powers perhaps in the hopes of obtaining Western investment and political pressure on Israel over the occupied Golan Heights.

Hoping most likely to ingratiate himself with Western powers, Bashar accepted the Saudi peace plan ( or so-called “Arab Peace Plan,” the name which came to then Crown Prince Abdullah bin `Abdul-`Aziz’s mind upon meeting New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman). Bashar not only gave the Syrian regime’s approval, but pressured the Lebanese to approve the plan as well, despite the misgivings of then President Emile Lahoud. The plan was later officially adopted (on behalf of the Arab people) in the Beirut Arab League summit in 2002.

September 11 had hit shortly after Bashar’s ascension to the presidency. A list of U.S. demands was then handed to him by then Secretary of State Colin Powell. The Americans were unhappy with Syrian violations of the cruel, U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iraq, as well as the Syrian regime’s support for Hamas and Hizbullah. At the behest of Israel, the U.S. kept demanding that Hamas be expelled from Syrian territory.

The crisis in U.S.-Syrian relations peaked after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when Washington objected to the Syrian role in allowing fighters—both Islamist and Ba`thist—to cross the Syrian-Iraqi border to attack U.S. troops. One knowledgeable Syrian reporter described to me the Syrian policy at the time. He said Damascus sometimes allowed fighters to slip into Iraq, and other times they would arrest them to please the Americans.

The Syrian regime clearly knew its survival hinged on the failure of the U.S. occupation in Iraq, especially when U.S. officials made it very clear, in the exuberance that accompanied the preparation for the invasion, that Syria and Iran would be next on the U.S. list of regimes to overthrow. It is not clear exactly when the U.S. took the decision to bring down the Syrian regime but it was certainly well before the outbreak of the 2011 Syrian uprising.

Planned in Advance

The U.S. plot against Syria, however, doesn’t imply that the hundreds of thousands of Syrian protesters who took to the streets in 2011 were agents of foreign powers. Far from it: there were real and legitimate reasons for the Syrian people to protest against the regime and to demand real change. The republican Ba`thist coup of 1970 developed in time into a full-blown family dynasty, and the corruption of the regime was pervasive, while the early, (theoretical) ideological championing of the working classes had been long forgotten. And the regime did not relax the hold of the intelligence apparatus. The slight political freedoms promised by Bashar were soon discarded.

But long before Syrians protested, the U.S. government had been planning regime change. Time magazine reported as early as 2006: “The Bush administration has been quietly nurturing individuals and parties opposed to the Syrian government in an effort to undermine the regime of Bashar Assad. Parts of the scheme are outlined in a classified, two-page document that says that the U.S. already is ‘supporting regular meetings of internal and diaspora Syrian activists’ in Europe. The document bluntly expresses the hope that ‘these meetings will facilitate a more coherent strategy and plan of actions for all anti-Assad activists‘”. The document also spoke of supplying “at least one Syrian politician” with money.

It was rather clear as soon as the protests started in 2011 that the U.S. embassy in Syria was heavily involved in the affair. Ambassador Robert Ford was not even trying to hide his active political role (a role that would have gotten any Arab ambassador kicked out of the U.S. if undertaken on U.S. territory). Anti-Hizbullah slogans raised by a few protesters in the first days of the uprising (Hizbullah had not even mentioned Syrian protests at that point) seem to have been the work of a covert foreign operation. Similarly, the sight of anti-Hizbullah demonstrators in recent Iranian protests were so quickly captured and disseminated by Western media and portrayed as the reason for the entire protest, which had its own indigenous causes. It is likely that U.S. heavy involvement in Syrian affairs actually helped the regime and provided it with pretexts to crack down against civilian protests.

The Myth of Obama’s Retreat

We are now accustomed to hearing that the Obama administration had “retreated” from the Middle East. This line was initially produced by Saudi regime propaganda, and then captured by the Saudi/UAE-funded think tanks in Washington before it was adopted by Western media. It is now the official U.S. media and think tank line about Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East. The notion that the Obama administration “retreated” from the region is belied by a record of heavy involvement and expansion of wars in the Middle East and North Africa. Obama expanded all the wars he inherited from the Bush administration with the exception of the occupation of Iraq occupation after objections from Baghdad, though that was partially reversed after ISIS took over large swaths of Iraqi territory. Obama also intensified covert operations, assassinations and drone warfare.

In Syria, Obama ultimately did not refrain from intervening by supplying various rebels with arms, money, and equipment. He just didn’t share the high regard for the jihadists nor did he support direct U.S. intervention that many of his advisors, such as Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, did. The New York Times reported that Gulf regimes received Obama administration consent before delivering arms to Syrian rebels. The notion, later raised, that the U.S. did not notice that Qatar had supplied some Syrian rebels with MOPADs is not believable.

By 2012, the U.S. knew that “most” of the arms shipped from Qatar and Saudi Arabia wound up in the hands of jihadi rebels. The myth of moderate Syrian rebels was almost an inside joke: no one really believed that the rebels were largely moderate nor that they were all controlled either by two woman from Damascus or by men in suits in Istanbul. This fiction was necessary to keep the war going and to win the sympathy of Western public opinion, an effort that was largely successful with the help of heavily funded Western public relations and lobbying firms paid for by Gulf monarchies.

Obama, typically, had it both ways: he would express doubts about the value of arming the Syrian rebels and would question their moderation, while authorizing shipments of money and arms and allowing the CIA and the Pentagon to train those same rebels (after screening them, of course, which amounted to asking each rebel whether he is a moderate or a radical).

The U.S. was heavily involved in the first major operation to arm the rebels and take the Syrian conflict in a bloody direction. The notion that the rebels were all moderate and secular but that they were radicalized by regime oppression was never proven, and it is not even believable. That secular and moderate protesters would suddenly grow beards and adopt the ideology of Al-Qai`dah or its splinter, ISIS, is too absurd a scenario to be taken seriously—but it was a convenient story for Western and Gulf media.

Launched from Lebanon

It was from Lebanon that the U.S. ran its first major operation to aid Syrian rebels and change the nature of the conflict in Syria from protests against the regime to a civil war. When the U.S. saw the regime was not falling as quickly as the Libyan, Tunisian, or Egyptian regimes had, it sought a quick end especially because of Israel’s stake in the outcome. In addition to a Jordan-based operation by U.S. and Saudi intelligence to aid the rebels, major arms smuggling operations were launched through the Lebanese “Fir` Al-Ma`lumat” (a Lebanese intelligence apparatus run by the Hariri family, and managed by U.S. and Saudi intelligence). The Hariri camp’s direct involvement in Lebanon was revealed in intercepted audio tapes in which a Hariri member of parliament, `Uqab Saqr, was heard responding to Syrian rebel’s demands for shipments of arms.

Wisam Al-Hasan (the head of the Hariri-contolled intelligence apparatus) was arming and training militants from Tripoli and the Biqa` region to send to Syria along with large shipments of arms. (The Economist noted his role back in 2013). Al-Hasan’s role was uncovered in Lebanon and he was assassinated in 2012 (his last foreign trip was to Washington, where he met the CIA director himself, David Petreus). Also, Lebanese authorities had intercepted a ship, the Lutfallah II, at the port of Tripoli in north Lebanon. It had a load of arms (from Libya) intended to be transferred to Syrian rebels. Tthe plan was initiated in the UAE and then reached Tripoli, a city was under the security control of Fir` Al-Ma`lumat.

It is highly likely that the U.S. threw its weight behind the regional effort by the GCC, Turkey and Jordan to topple the Syrian regime but the plan changed when the U.S. realized that the fall of the regime was more difficult than expected. Instead, the U.S. did what it has done before: allow various parties to engage in prolonged bloodletting for the benefit of its ally Israel. The U.S. had let the Iran-Iraq war drag on for eight years because it enjoyed watching two countries that it did not favor suffer and be distracted, while it did something similar in Lebanon: allowing the war to drag on for many years.

Furthermore, the story of U.S. involvement in the bloody war in Syria should note its reckless bombing (under the guise of the anti-ISIS coalition), which resulted in a large number of civilian casualties, but was—ironically—far less effective in defeating ISIS than the efforts of foes of the U.S. in Syria.

As’ad AbuKhalil is a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Lebanon (1998), Bin Laden, Islam & America’s New ‘War on Terrorism’ (2002), and The Battle for Saudi Arabia (2004). He also runs the popular blog The Angry Arab News Service. 




The Meaning of Verification in Iran, Syria and North Korea

Ronald Reagan said the US must trust & verify with Moscow. Both Iran & Syria complied with verified accords, yet Trump bombed Syria & pulled out of the Iran deal. What message does this send the DPRK, asks Ted Snider.

By Ted Snider

Donald Trump bombed Syria for allegedly using chemical weapons last month and he has now officially pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement with Iran.

But Syria officially has no chemical weapons and Iran has no nuclear ones. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) verified Syria to be chemical free, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified Iran’s consistent and continued compliance with the JCPOA. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, Syria has no chemicals and Iran has no nukes: that’s what verification means.

Iran

In 2015, Iran, the United States, Germany and all the permanent members of the Security Council (P5+1) signed the JCPOA. Every ninety days, the president of the United States has the opportunity to certify that Iran is implementing the agreement. If Iran is in compliance, the U.S. has to continue to honor the agreement; if Iran is not in compliance, the U.S. can pull out of the agreement. Iran is in compliance. The IAEA has repeatedly verified – in eleven consecutive reports since January 2016 – that Iran is fully complying with their obligations under the agreement.

In the absence of evidence, America has turned to deception and digging up dirt. Not able to discredit the deal, Trump tried to discredit the deal makers. Trump aides hired the private Israeli intelligence agency Black Cube to “get dirt” on key people in the Obama administration who played a role in negotiating the deal. The agency tried to find anything damaging on personal relationships, involvement with Iran-friendly lobbyists or political or personal benefit to the negotiators.

When dirt presumably wasn’t found, the deal killers turned to deceit. Just two weeks before Trump’s most recent opportunity to decertify the deal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed to the world “proof” that “Iran lied, big time, after signing the nuclear deal in 2015.” Netanyahu displayed binders with over 50,000 paper files and a wall of CDs that he said were packed with the proof.

But Netanyahu was more Wizard of Oz than statesman. There was nothing behind the curtain. Netanyahu’s “significant new revelations” were a greatest hits tour of old songs that didn’t sell. The binders and discs contained nothing that the IAEA hadn’t seen and dismissed the first time around. Those old attempts to discredit Iran have been carefully discredited by many experts, including Gareth Porter in his book, Manufactured Crisis.

That Israel tried so hard to find evidence that Iran has worked on a nuclear weapons program in any way since the signing of the JCPOA and found nothing new is perhaps the best proof that Trump needed to certify that Iran is in compliance with all of its obligations under the agreement, rather than pull out of it.

Olli Heinonen, the chief inspector of the IAEA at the time of the JCPOA negotiations – and not someone who was in

any way soft on Iran – said that the IAEA first saw the “significant new” evidence that Netanyahu revealed in 2005. Watching Netanyahu’s revelation, Heinonen could only say, “I just saw a lot of pictures I had seen before.” Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy,  said that, based on first reports of Netanyahu’s presentation, it “has not put into question Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA.” Mogherini said that the final word had to go to the IAEA. The final word was given. The day after Netanyahu’s presentation, the IAEA said that there was “no credible indications” of Iran working on a nuclear weapons program for several years before the JCPOA.

But, as in Syria, Trump accepted the word of a biased source with a significant interest in claiming that Iran has an active clandestine nuclear weapons program over the IAEA’s verification team. Dismissing the IAEA, Trump boasted that Netanyahu’s revelation “showed that I’ve been 100 percent right.” And now, citing only Netanyahu’s presentation as evidence, he dismissed the IAEA’s weapons inspectors and verifications and betrayed an international agreement with a partner who was verified to be in full compliance with its agreements.

Syria

On September 14, 2013 the United States and Russia finalized a Russian brokered agreement on the removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. On January 4, 2016, the OPCW declared the completion of the destruction of all chemical weapons in Syria.

Nonetheless, on April 14, Trump ordered the bombing of Syria because of a claimed chemical attack in Duma, near Damascus. Only days before the missile strikes, Defense Secretary James Mattis said that the U.S lacked the intelligence that Assad was responsible for the alleged chemical weapons attack. Mattis admitted that the U.S. was “still assessing the intelligence… We’re still working on it.”

Days after, however, the U.S. bombed three particular buildings that they claimed housed specific chemicals and chemical production equipment. That’s very precise, specific intelligence. Armed with that proof, why would the U.S. rush to bomb Syria? Why not take that intelligence to U.N. inspectors? Why not hand it over to the OPCW? Why not reveal the illegal Syrian clandestine chemical weapons program to the world?

Russian chemical weapons specialists who were on site found no trace of chemical weapon use. Neither did Red Crescent doctors who treated people. The OPCW inspectors might quickly have answered the question, but their access to the site was delayed by the United Nations department of Safety and Security.

The evidence for Assad’s chemical weapons attack on his own people came from rebel-affiliated and Western-financed groups like the White Helmets. The Trump administration has publicly offered nothing further as evidence despite the precise nature of their bombing.

But investigative journalist Robert Fisk has offered something further. Fisk was the first western journalist to make it to Duma. Fisk heard from no local who knew of a chemical weapons attack. He heard a different version of the story in Duma than the one put out by the White Helmets and accepted by Trump.

The video of victims of chemical attack is real, but the interpretation is false. The suffering is real, but they are not suffering from chemical exposure. They are suffering from oxygen starvation. There was heavy shelling by government forces that night. But on this particular night, there were also strong winds and huge clouds of dust choked the tunnels and basements people were hiding in. The suffering people in the video were struggling from hypoxia, or oxygen starvation. Then a White Helmet “shouted ‘Gas!’” The panic, and the propaganda begun.

When Russia brought seventeen witnesses from Duma to The Hague to testify before the OPCW, the U.S., U.K., and France not only did not listen to the evidence, they boycotted the event. The witnesses from Duma supported the story that Fisk had heard. Each witness was either a victim of that night’s events or a doctor who treated them. Some of the victim witnesses even show up in the White Helmet videos. They all said that there had been no chemical attack: they were sucking in dust, not gas.

The OPCW has verified that Syria has no chemical weapons. The United States and its allies accepted the word of a biased and unreliable source over the OPCW verification team with no additional evidence. They then bombed Syria before they gave the OPCW inspectors a chance to return to Syria. Trump invested in the word of the White Helmets – a group with a significant interest in pinning a chemical weapon attack – over the word of the OPCW, wanting the U.S. to intervene militarily on their side.

North Korea

So what does North Korea understand from this? The North Koreans could learn two things. The first is to be wary of signing deals with America. Both Syria and Iran gave up their programs only to have Trump and America ignore verification of their compliance in favor of biased sources and turn on them: in Syria with bombs and in Iran with pulling out of the JCPOA. How can North Korea confidently agree to give up its only deterrence against American aggression with no assurance that the U.S. will honor a agreement?

The second lesson North Korea could draw from Iran is that, though you may not be able to trust that you can profit from signing an agreement, you can profit by holding off on signing it. In the book, Losing an Enemy, Trita Parsi argued that the difference between sanctions and nuclear escalation is that the former is finite and the latter is not. North Korea knows, as Iran did before, that America will eventually run out of things to sanction. But North Korea will not run out of uranium to enrich or missiles to test. North Korea can outlast the United States unless the United States is really prepared to go to war.

Trumps bombing of Syria and pulling out of the JCPOA with Iran can only reinforce North Korean anxiety that they can’t trust Trump and the U.S. to honor any nuclear disarmament agreement, much as the world needs it.

A version of this article was first published at AntiWar.com.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in U.S. foreign policy and history.




Trotskyist Delusions: Obsessed with Stalin, They See Betrayed Revolutions Everywhere

The trouble with some Trotskyists is they’re always “supporting” other peoples’ revolutions, says Diana Johnstone. Their obsession with permanent revolution in the end provides an alibi for permanent war.

By Diana Johnstone  Special to Consortium News

I first encountered Trotskyists in Minnesota half a century ago during the movement against the Vietnam War. I appreciated their skill in organizing anti-war demonstrations and their courage in daring to call themselves “communists” in the United States of America – a profession of faith that did not groom them for the successful careers enjoyed by their intellectual counterparts in France. So I started my political activism with sympathy toward the movement. In those days it was in clear opposition to U.S. imperialism, but that has changed.

The first thing one learns about Trotskyism is that it is split into rival tendencies. Some remain consistent critics of imperialist war, notably those who write for the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS).

Others, however, have translated the Trotskyist slogan of “permanent revolution” (turning a bourgeois revolution into a working class one) into the hope that every minority uprising in the world must be a sign of the long awaited world revolution – especially those that catch the approving eye of mainstream media. More often than deploring U.S. intervention, they join in reproaching Washington for not intervening sooner on behalf of the alleged revolution.

A recent article in the International Socialist Review (issue #108, March 1, 2018) entitled “Revolution and counterrevolution in Syria” indicates so thoroughly how Trotskyism can go wrong that it is worthy of a critique. Since the author, Tony McKenna, writes well and with evident conviction, this is a strong not a weak example of the Trotskyist mindset.

McKenna starts out with a passionate denunciation of the regime of Bashar al Assad, which, he says, responded to a group of children who simply wrote some graffiti on a wall by “beating them, burning them, pulling their fingernails out.” The source of this grisly information is not given. There could be no eye witnesses to such sadism, and the very extremism sounds very much like war propaganda – Germans carving up Belgian babies in the First World War.

The Issue of Sources

It raises the issue of sources. There are many sources of accusations against the Assad regime, on which McKenna liberally draws, indicating that he is writing not from personal observation, any more than I am. Clearly, he is strongly disposed to believe the worst, and even to embroider it somewhat. He accepts and develops without the shadow of a doubt the theory that Assad himself is responsible for spoiling the good revolution by releasing Islamist prisoners who went on to poison it with their extremism. The notion that Assad himself infected the rebellion with Islamist fanaticism is at best a hypothesis concerning not facts but intentions, which are invisible. But it is presented as unchallengeable evidence of Assad’s perverse wickedness.

This interpretation of events happens to dovetail neatly with the current Western doctrine on Syria, so that it is impossible to tell them apart. In both versions, the West is no more than a passive onlooker, whereas Assad enjoys the backing of Iran and Russia.

Much has been made of Western imperial support for the rebels in the early years of the revolution. This has, in fact, been an ideological lynchpin of first the Iranian and then the Russian military interventions as they took the side of the Assad government. Such interventions were framed in the spirit of anti-colonial rhetoric in which Iran and Russia purported to come to the aid of a beleaguered state very much at the mercy of a rapacious Western imperialism that was seeking to carve the country up according to the appetites of the US government and the International Monetary Fund”, according to McKenna.

Whose “ideological lynchpin?” Not that of Russia, certainly, whose line in the early stages of its intervention was not to denounce Western imperialism but to appeal to the West and especially to the United States to join in the fight against Islamist extremism.

Neither Russia nor Iran “framed their interventions in the spirit of anti-colonial rhetoric” but in terms of the fight against Islamist extremism with Wahhabi roots.

Organic U.S.-Israel Alliance

In reality, a much more pertinent “framing” of Western intervention, taboo in the mainstream and even in Moscow, is that Western support for armed rebels in Syria was being carried out to help Israel destroy its regional enemies. The Middle East nations attacked by the West – Iraq, Libya and Syria – all just happen to be, or have been, the last strongholds of secular Arab nationalism and support for Palestinian rights. There are a few alternative hypotheses to Western motives – oil pipelines, imperialist atavism, desire to arouse Islamist extremism to weaken Russia (the Brzezinski gambit) – but none are as coherent as the organic alliance between Israel and the United States, and its NATO sidekicks.

It is remarkable that McKenna’s long article (some 12 thousand words) about the war in Syria mentions Israel only once (aside from a footnote citing Israeli national news as a source). And this mention actually equates Israelis and Palestinians as co-victims of Assad propaganda: the Syrian government “used the mass media to slander the protestors, to present the revolution as the chaos orchestrated by subversive international interests (the Israelis and the Palestinians were both implicated in the role of foreign infiltrators).”

No other mention of Israel, which occupies Syrian territory (the Golan Heights) and bombs Syria whenever it wants to.

Only one, innocuous mention of Israel. But this article by a Trotskyist mentions Stalin, Stalinists, Stalinism no less than twenty-two times.

And what about Saudi Arabia, Israel’s de facto ally in the effort to destroy Syria in order to weaken Iran? Two mentions, both implicitly denying that notorious fact. The only negative mention is blaming the Saudi family enterprise for investing billions in the Syrian economy in its neoliberal phase. But far from blaming Saudi Arabia for supporting Islamist groups, McKenna portrays the House of Saud as a victim of ISIS hostility.

Clearly, this Trotskyist delusion is to see the Russian Revolution everywhere, forever being repressed by a new Stalin. Assad is likened to Stalin several times.

More About Stalin Than Syria

This article is more about the Trotskyist case against Stalin than it is about Syria.

This repetitive obsession does not lead to a clear grasp of events, which are not the Russian revolution. And even on this pet subject, something is wrong.

The Trotskyists keep yearning for a new revolution, just like the Bolshevik revolution. Yes, but the Bolshevik revolution ended in Stalinism. Doesn’t that tell them something? Isn’t it quite possible that their much-desired “revolution” might turn out just as badly in Syria, if not much worse (jihadists taking over the country)?

Throughout history, revolts, uprisings, rebellions happen all the time, and usually end in repression. Revolution is very rare. It is more a myth than a reality, especially as some Trotskyists tend to imagine it: the people all rising up in one great general strike, chasing their oppressors from power and instituting people’s democracy. Has this ever happened?

For these Trotskyists, this seem to be the natural way things should happen and is stopped only by bad guys who spoil it out of meanness.

In our era, the most successful revolutions have been in Third World countries, where national liberation from Western powers was a powerful emotional engine. Successful revolutions have a program that unifies people and leaders who personify the aspirations of broad sectors of the population. Socialism or communism was above all a rallying cry meaning independence and “modernization” – which is indeed what the Bolshevik revolution turned out to be. If the Bolshevik revolution turned Stalinist, maybe it was in part because a strong repressive leader was the only way to save “the revolution” from its internal and external enemies. There is no evidence that, had he defeated Stalin, Trotsky would have been more tender-hearted.

Countries that are deeply divided ideologically and ethnically, such as Syria, are not likely to be “modernized” without a strong ruler.

McKenna acknowledges that the beginning of the Assad regime somewhat redeemed its repressive nature by modernization and social reforms. This modernization benefited from Russian aid and trade, which was lost when the Soviet Union collapsed. Yes, there was a Soviet bloc, which despite its failure to carry out world revolution as Trotsky advocated, did support the progressive development of newly independent countries.

No Excuse for Bashar

If Bashar’s father Hafez al Assad had some revolutionary legitimacy in McKenna’s eyes, there is no excuse for Bashar. In the context of a global neoliberalism, where governments across the board were enacting the most pronounced forms of deregulation and overseeing the carving up of state industries by private capital, the Assad government responded to the heightening contradictions in the Syrian economy by following suit—by showing the ability to march to the tempo of foreign investment while evincing a willingness to cut subsidies for workers and farmers.”

The neoliberal turn impoverished people in the countryside, therefore creating a situation that justified “revolution”.

This is rather amazing, if one thinks about it. Without the alternative Soviet bloc, virtually the whole world has been obliged to conform to anti-social neoliberal policies. Syria included. Does this make Bashar al Assad so much more a villain than every other leader conforming to U.S.-led globalization?

McKenna concludes by quoting Louis Proyect: “If we line up on the wrong side of the barricades in a struggle between the rural poor and oligarchs in Syria, how can we possibly begin to provide a class-struggle leadership in the USA, Britain, or any other advanced capitalist country?”

One could turn that around. Shouldn’t such a Marxist revolutionary be saying: “If we can’t defeat the oligarchs in the West, who are responsible for the neoliberal policies imposed on the rest of the world, how can we possibly begin to provide class-struggle leadership in Syria?”

The trouble with these Trotskyists is that they are always “supporting” other people’s more or less imaginary revolutions. They are always telling others what to do. They know it all. The practical result of this verbal agitation is simply to align this brand of Trotskyism with U.S imperialism. The obsession with permanent revolution ends up providing an ideological alibi for permanent war.

For the sake of world peace and progress, both the United States and its inadvertent Trotskyist apologists should go home and mind their own business.

Diana Johnstone is a political writer, focusing primarily on European politics and Western foreign policy. She received a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota and was active in the movement against the Vietnam War. Johnstone was European editor of the U.S. weekly In These Times from 1979 to 1990, and continues to be a correspondent for the publication. She was press officer of the Green group in the European Parliament from 1990 to 1996. Her books include Queen of Chaos: The Misadventures of Hillary ClintonCounterPunch Books (2016) and Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western DelusionsPluto Press (2002).




Month in Review: Syria, Gaza, Russia and Tributes to Bob Parry

A look back at the stories in April that made the headlines on Consortium News.

By Joe Lauria

The worsening crises in Syria and Gaza dominated Consortium News’ coverage in April. 

Last month also saw publication of numerous tributes to the late founder and editor of Consortium News, Bob Parry. A memorial for Bob was held in Arlington, Virginia on April 14. Several tributes (from John Pilger, Brian Barger, Joe Lauria and Don North) were posted on the site and a video of the entire event was made available on April 27.

Syria

Donald Trump’s April 14 air strike on Damascus was the focal point of the Syria coverage. In the lead-up to the strike Consortium News zeroed in on two aspects downplayed or totally ignored by corporate media: the legality of the strike and the question of evidence. In the aftermath of the strike, we focused on the continuing lack of proof of a chemical attack in a Damascus suburb—Trump’s supposed casus belli, or as Ray McGovern quipped, a casus belly laugh.

After a supposed chemical attack on April 7 allegedly killed dozens of people in the Damascus suburb, and talk of a U.S. military retaliation stirred in Washington, Consortium News published an appeal by a group of international lawyers on April 11, arguing that the U.S. could only act in self-defense under Article 51 of the U.N. charter or with U.N. Security Council authorization. The Trump administration sought neither.

Instead Trump toyed with the idea of conflict with nuclear-armed Russia in a series of tweets, the most alarming of which was on that very day, April 11: “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”

On the same day, as Trump contemplated his “nice” strike, we also ran an article from University of Illinois Professor Francis Boyle about America’s “Unlimited Imperialism,” based on the teachings of Prof. Boyle’s mentor Hans Morgenthau. The day before, on April 10, Consortium published a piece on the dangers of nuclear confrontation with Russia, as well as an excerpt from Daniel Ellsberg’s new book, “The Doomsday Machine.”

We took a look at America’s Long History of Trying to Determine Who Rules Syria in a column on April 12 by Caitlin Johnstone. The following day a memo to President Trump from the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity was published, urging Trump to obtain evidence of Syrian culpability and follow U.S. and international law before deciding to commit an act of war.

On the next night Trump attacked. We published a quick reaction to the strike, pointing out that chemical weapons inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were due a few hours later to arrive in Syria to begin their work to determine whether chemicals were even used in Duma. By contrast, corporate media wheeled out ex-generals, many with undisclosed military industry contracts, to tout the hardware the U.S. had employed in an advertisement masquerading as news analysis. The issue of evidence and legality was hardly raised in mainstream reports.

In the days following the attack, Consortium News ran pieces from Norman Solomon calling the strike a salute to the “Russia-gate faithful;” first-time writer Barry Kissin wrote on Defense Secretary James Mattis’ 24-hour about-face from opposition to support for the strike; two pieces were published on reports that victims in Duma had suffered from smoke inhalation rather than chemical weapons; and another on the possible role of the White Helmets in the chemical weapons story.

Lawrence Davidson penned a commentary on April 19 exploring the psychological state of leaders who resort to force in the wake of the Syria strike.

A report, special to Consortium News, from Damascus on April 27 described life in the Syrian capital after the defeat of jihadists in nearby Ghouta. The rebels had been firing rockets into Damascus for the past seven years. The same day we ran an interview by Dennis J. Bernstein of weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who refuted U.S. government claims of a chemical attack.

On April 29 we published the first part of an in-depth analysis by As’ad AbuKhalil, his first piece for Consortium, on the U.S. role in Syria from before the crisis, and how mainstream media suppresses American responsibility for the bloodshed there.

Gaza

While the crisis sharpened in Syria, a series of Friday protests inside the border fence separating Gaza from Israel resulted in the Israeli Defense Forces murdering dozens of Palestinian protestors and injuring more than a thousand. Consortium News ran seven pieces on Gaza, including interviews by Dennis J. Bernstein of Diana Buttu, Palestinian Knesset member Haneen Zoabi, Gaza-based journalist Wafa al-Udaini and Max Blumenthal.

Marjorie Cohn wrote a commentary on April 8 in which she argued that Israel should be brought before the International Criminal Court for its actions in Gaza. And David William Pear, examining the plight of Gazans, wrote on April 20 about the difference between “’Worthy’ and ‘Unworthy’ Victims.”

Russia

The site published several pieces on the ongoing deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations and the dangers that entails. Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould wrote an in-depth, two-part series on how neoconservatives grabbed power behind the scenes and targeted Russia.

Ray McGovern covered a story that was completely ignored by corporate media: a criminal referral of Hillary Clinton, James Comey and others in the Russia-gate affair.

Will Porter also wrote on April 18 about increased tension between the U.S. and Russia that would result if a new move by Ukraine to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was realized. And Gareth Porter delved into the mystery of the poisoning of a former Russian double agent that the British government has used to ramp up already tense relations with Russia, without offering any solid evidence.

Martin Luther King Jr.

On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, Margaret Kimberley, of Black Agenda Report, in her first piece for Consortium News, explored how King’s legacy has been betrayed. Don North, a former correspondent for NBC News, recalled how he left the violence of Saigon to arrive in Washington a day later as the riots in reaction to King’s death started to spread. And William F. Pepper, lawyer for the King family, and Andrew Kreig, marveled at a story in The Washington Post that actually reopened the question of who killed King.

 Joe Lauria is the Editor-in-Chief of Consortium News. 




Weapons Inspector Refutes U.S. Syria Chemical Claims

Scott Ritter is arguably the most experienced American weapons inspector and in this interview with Dennis J. Bernstein he levels a frank assessment of U.S. government assertions about chemical weapons use.

By Dennis J Bernstein

In the 1980’s, Scott Ritter was a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps, specializing in intelligence.  In 1987, Ritter was assigned to the On-Site Inspection Agency, which was put together to go into the Soviet Union and oversee the implementation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.  This was the first time that on-site inspection had been used as part of a disarmament verification process.

Ritter was one of the groundbreakers in developing on-site inspection techniques and methodologies. With this unique experience behind him, Ritter was asked in 1991, at the end of the Gulf War, to join the United Nations Special Commission, which was tasked by the Security Council to oversee the disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.  From 1991 to 1998, Ritter served as a chief weapons inspector and led a number of teams into Iraq.

According to Ritter, in the following Flashpoints Radio interview with Dennis Bernstein conducted on April 23rd, US, British and French claims that the Syrian Government used chemical weapons against civilians last month appear to be totally bogus.

Dennis Bernstein:  You have been speaking out recently about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Could you outline your case?

Scott Ritter: There are a lot of similarities between the Syrian case and the Iraqi case.  Both countries possess weapons of mass destruction. Syria had a very large chemical weapons program.

In 2013 there was an incident in a suburb of Damascus called Ghouta, the same suburb where the current controversy is taking place.  The allegations were that the Syrian government used sarin nerve agent against the civilian population. The Syrian government denied that, but as a result of that incident the international community got together and compelled Syria into signing the Chemical Weapons Convention, declaring the totality of its chemical weapons holdings, and opening itself to be disarmed by inspections of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.  Russia was chosen to be the guarantor of Syria’s compliance. The bottom line is that Syria had the weapons but was verified by 2016 as being in 100% compliance. The totality of Syria’s chemical weapons program was eliminated.

At the same time that this disarmament process was taking place, Syria was being engulfed in a civil war which has resulted in a humanitarian crisis.  Over a half million people have died. It is a war that pits the Syrian government against a variety of anti-regime forces, many of which are Islamic in nature: the Islamic State, Al Nusra, Al Qaeda.  Some of these Islamic factions have been in the vicinity of Ghouta since 2012.

Earlier this year, the Syrian government initiated an offensive to liberate that area of these factions.  It was very heavy fighting, thousands of civilians were killed, with massive aerial bombardment. Government forces were prevailing and by April 6 it looked as if the militants were preparing to surrender.

Suddenly the allegations come out that there was this chemical weapons attack.  It wasn’t a massive chemical weapons attack, it was dropping one or two so-called “barrel bombs,” improvised devices that contained chlorine gas canisters.  According to the militants, between 40 and 70 people were killed and up to 500 people were made ill. The United States and other nations picked up on this, saying that this was proof positive that Syria has been lying about its chemical weapons program and that Russia has been behind Syria’s retention of chemical weapons.  This is the case the US made to launch its missile strike [on April 14].

There are a lot of problems with this scenario.  Again, why would the Syrian government, at the moment of victory, use a pinprick chemical attack with zero military value?  It added nothing to the military campaign and invited the wrath of the West at a critical time, when the rebels were begging for Western intervention.

Many, including the Russian government, believe that this was a staged event.  There has been no hard evidence put forward by anyone that an attack took place.  Shortly after allegations of the attack came out, the entire town of Douma was taken over by the Syrian Army while the rebels were evacuated.

The places that were alleged to have been attacked were inspected by Russian chemical weapons specialists, who found zero trace of any chemicals weapons activity.  The same inspectors who oversaw the disarmament of Syria were mobilized to return to Syria and do an investigation. They were supposed to start their work this past weekend [April 21-22].  They arrived in Damascus the day after the missile strikes occurred but they still haven’t been out to the sites. The United States, France and Great Britain have all admitted that the only evidence they have used to justify this attack were the photographs and videotapes sent to them by the rebel forces.

I have great concern about the United States carrying out an attack on a sovereign nation based on no hard evidence.  The longer we wait, the longer it takes to get inspectors onto the site, the more claims we are going to get that the Russians have sanitized it.  I believe that the last thing the United States wanted was inspectors to get on-site and carry out a forensic investigation that would have found that a chemical attack did not in fact take place.

DB: It is sort of like cleaning up a police crime scene before you check for evidence.

SR: The United States didn’t actually bomb the site that was attacked.  They bombed three other facilities. One was in the suburbs of Damascus, a major metropolitan area.  The generals said that they believed there were quantities of nerve agent there. So, in a building in a densely populated area where we believe nerve agent is stored, what do we do?  We blow it up! If there had in fact been nerve agent there, it would have resulted in hundreds or even thousands of deaths. That fact that nobody died is the clearest evidence yet that there was no nerve agent there.  The United States is just winging it, making it up.

One of the tragedies is that we can no longer trust our military, our intelligence services, our politicians.  They will manufacture whatever narrative they need to justify an action that they deem to be politically expedient.

DB: Isn’t it also the case that there were problems with the allegations concerning Syria using chemical weapons in 2013 and then again in 2015?  I believe The New York Times had to retract their 2013 story.

SR: They put out a story about thousands of people dying, claiming that it was definitely done by the Syrian government.   It turned out later that the number of deaths was far lower and that the weapons systems used were probably in the possession of the rebels.  It was a case of the rebels staging a chemical attack in order to get the world to intervene on their behalf.

A similar scenario unfolded last year when the Syrian government dropped two or three bombs on a village and suddenly there were reports that there was sarin nerve agent and chlorine gas wafting through the village, killing scores of people.  Videotapes were taken of dead and dying and suffering people which prompted Trump to intervene. Inspectors never went to the site. Instead they relied upon evidence collected by the rebels.

As a weapons inspector, I can tell you that chain of custody of any samples that are to be used in the investigation is an absolute.  You have to be at the site when it is collected, it has to be certified to be in your possession until the laboratory. Any break in the chain of custody makes that evidence useless for a legitimate investigation.  So we have evidence collected by the rebels. They videotaped themselves carrying out the inspection, wearing training suits that would not have protected them at all from chemical weapons! Like almost everything having to do with these rebels, this was a staged event, an act of theater.

DB: Who has been supporting this particular group of rebels?

SR:  On the one hand, we have the actual fighters, the Army of Islam, a Saudi-backed fundamentalist group who are extraordinarily brutal.  Embedded within the fighters are a variety of Western-trained and Western-funded NGOs such as the White Helmets and the Syrian-American Medical Society.  But their primary focus isn’t rescue, in the case of the White Helmets, or medical care in the case of the Syrian-American Medical Society, but rather anti-regime propaganda.  Many of the reports that came out of Douma originated with these two NGO’s.

DB: You mentioned “chain of custody.”  That’s what was most ridiculous about sending in inspectors.  The first thing you would want to do is establish chain of custody and nail down the crime scene.

SR: I was a participant in the Gulf War and we spent the bulk of that war conducting a massive aerial campaign against Iraq.  I was one of the people who helped come up with the target list that was used to attack. Each target had to have a purpose.

Let’s look what happened in Syria [on April 14].  We bombed three targets, a research facility in Damascus and two bunker facilities in western Syria.  It was claimed that all three targets were involved with a Syrian chemical weapons program. But the Syria weapons program was verified to be disarmed.  So what chemical weapons program are we talking about? Then US officials said that one of these sites stored sarin nerve agent and chemical production equipment.  That is a very specific statement. Now, if Syria was verified to be disarmed last year, with all this material eliminated, what are they talking about? What evidence do they have that any of this material exists?  They just make it up.  

If I had been a member of that inspections team, I would have been able to tell you with 100% certainty what took place at that site.  It wasn’t that long ago that the allegations took place, there are very good forensic techniques that can be applied. We would be able to reverse engineer that site and tell you exactly what happened when.  Let’s say an inspection team had gone in and we found that there was sarin nerve agent. Now, the US government can say, there is not supposed to be any sarin nerve agent in Syria, therefore we can state that the Syrians have a covert sarin nerve agent capability.  But still you don’t know where it is, so now you have to say we assess that it could be in this bunker.

We bombed empty buildings.  We didn’t degrade Syria’s chemical weapons capability.  They got rid of it. We were among the nations that certified that they had been disarmed.  We just created this phantom threat out of nothing so that we could attack Syria and our president could be seen as being presidential, as being the commander in chief at a time when his credibility was being attacked on the home front.

DB: Amazing.  That helps clarify the situation.  Of course, it also leaves us terrified because we are so far away from the truth.

SR: As an American citizen who happens to be empowered with knowledge about how weapons inspections work, how decisions are made regarding war, I am disillusioned beyond belief.

This isn’t the first time we have been lied to by the president.  But we have been lied to by military officers who are supposed to be above that.  Three top Marine Corps officers stood before the American people and told bald-faced lies about what was going on.  We have been lied to by Congress, who are supposed to be the people’s representatives who provide a check against executive overreach.  And we have been lied to by the corporate media, a bunch of paid mouthpieces who repeat what the government tells them without question.

So Donald Trump can say there are chemical weapons in Syria, the generals parrot his words, the Congress nods its head dumbly, and the mass media repeats it over and over again to the American public.

DB: Are you worried that we might end up in a shooting war with Russia at this point?

SR: A week ago I was very worried.  If I am going to give kudos to Jim Mattis it will be because he took the desire of Trump and Bolton to create a major crisis with Russia over the allegations of Syrian chemical weapons use and was able to water that down into putting on a show for the American people.  We warned the Russians in advance, there were no casualties, we blew up three empty buildings. We spent a quarter of a billion dollars of taxpayer money and we got to pat ourselves on the back and tell everybody how great we are. But we avoided a needless confrontation with the Russians and I am a lot calmer today about the potential of a shooting war with Russia than I was a week ago.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio of this interview and the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net.




Amid Missiles and Bombs in Damascus 

In this special report to Consortium News from the Syrian capital, Jeff Klein describes a people getting back on their feet after the defeat of jihadists in Ghouta, while explosives remain a part of daily life.

By Jeff Klein  Special to Consortium News

In Damascus

A loud and persistent booming woke everyone up here in the early hours of the morning on Saturday, April 14. To a visitor from Boston it sounded like Fourth of July fireworks over the Charles River. But this was Damascus and the thunder was from exploding missiles in the long-awaited attack by Donald Trump and his British and French allies. 

The bombardments started precisely at 4am local time and continued for the better part of an hour. Only the timing was a surprise here, as Trump had been threatening a reprisal attack for the alleged use by the Syrian government of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus the previous week.  

By all accounts, most Syrians were unfazed by the missile attack.  There were videos of Damascenes cheering from rooftops as air defense rockets were launched over the city to intercept the US, French and British missiles. 

Trump’s tweet that the attack had been “perfectly carried out” is likely an overstatement. The Russian and Syrian militaries claim that the majority of the incoming missiles were shot down or diverted electronically from their targets, although this is impossible to verify.  But it is being reported that two unexploded missiles were handed over to the Russians for technical examination.

In any case, before and after photos of the alleged military/chemical research center in Damascus show pretty thoroughgoing destruction.  But the US attacks had been so fully telegraphed – there were claims that the Russians were informed in advance of the targets – that the buildings were empty and there were no reported fatalities.

Of course, if these Damascus targets had actually been chemical weapons facilities as charged there would have been massive civilian casualties from the fallout.  There were none.

A ‘Fake’ Chemical Attack

Syrians I spoke to here all derided the chemical attack charge as fake news.  Nearly everyone else I met in the region, of varying political views, shared the same opinion.  In fact it is hard for anyone to fathom why the Syrian army would use chemical weapons when they were on the verge of military victory in Ghouta.  To the question of cui bono?(who benefits) it was hard to avoid the sense that only the so-called rebels and the enemies of Syria could gain any advantage from this alleged chemical attack—such as bringing in Western air strikes.

It was an ironic time for an American to be in Syria.  Arriving on Friday the 13th from Beirut with a group of international activists, including Americans, Canadians, Brits, Irish, Germans, one Swiss and one Dutch, we passed with some tension and delay at the Syrian-Lebanese border. But ultimately we received our visas after some intervention from the authorities in Damascus. 

Our hotel, Beit al Wali, is a beautifully restored Ottoman period mansion in the Bab Touma quarter of the Old City. Syrians had invested heavily in the tourist sector before the war in the expectation of attracting badly needed hard currency, but of course these days there are hardly any foreign visitors apart from a small number of well-to-do Lebanese.

Defending Secular Syria

Bab Touma is a traditionally Christian part of town, but there are also many mosques here, in some cases directly neighboring churches of the 12 Christian denominations said to exist in Syria. Orthodox (Greek, Syrian and Catholic Melchite) are the majority, but there are also Roman Catholic, Maronite, Armenian and even evangelical churches. The restaurants in Bab Touma are frequented by mixed crowds of Muslims and Christians, drinking beer or Arak and smoking shisha (water pipes). Liquor stores and bars are commonplace here.

The morning following the missile attack, after a mostly sleepless night, we were led around the neighborhood by our Syrian translator and guide. Abdul-Razzaq, who had worked in the tourist industry for 25 years, was knowledgeable and professional.

Like many Syrians, Abdul-Razzaq readily acknowledged the need for reforms in the country and is critical of high-level corruption. But he also believes that winning the war is the immediate priority.  He tells us “You don’t argue about what color to paint the walls while your house is burning down.” He adds: “This is not a war of Syrians, but an attack by the enemies of Syria.”  That was a very common sentiment in Syria, but falls into the category of Syrian voices which are rarely heard in the US. 

Our guide seemed to know everyone in the old city. He questioned dozens of people we met on the streets and in the shops on their response to Trump’s missile attack. My Arabic is good enough to understand the questions and answers, so there was no question of mistranslation.  Nor was there any sign of coerced response.

Most locals in Bab Touma were buoyed by the recent government recapture of Eastern Ghouta, where the neighboring rebel-held town of Jobar had been the source of daily rockets and mortars launched against this part of the city.  We were shown many sites of these attacks on the walls and roads of the area, including the locations where people had been “martyred.” More than a hundred Damascus civilians had been killed by these attacks in recent months – of course little reported in the Western press – and the residents were clearly relieved that their town was now safe.

The American Donkey

Compared to this, Trump’s missiles were a minor annoyance.  Nearly everyone ridiculed the attack as a “show” from that American “donkey.”  The atmosphere in the city was much more relaxed than it had been when I visited two years ago, reflecting a string of government military advances since then. 

Of course, the missile attack was also derided by many war cheerleaders of both parties in Washington as “insufficient.” Israel and rebel supporters inside and outside the country expressed their disappointment. Sadly, the justification for the attack was also given credence by many self-described US progressives. Anyone who doubted the veracity of the supposed chemical attack in Duma, or whose first priority was to oppose illegal attacks on Syria has been smeared viciously.  

Pearson Sharp, a reporter for the right-wing libertarian One America News Network and former Trump supporter was accused, in effect, of being a Russian agent by the progressive media for his on-the-scene reporting from Duma; at the same time he was being relentlessly attacked by viewers of his network for being disloyal to Trump.

The evening after the missile attack, hotel Beit al-Wali prepared a festive dinner for us – it was the birthday of Mario, one of the Germans among our group.  Present also was the British journalist Vanessa Beeley, who has exposed much of the phony Western propaganda coming out of Syria – and been vilified for it – together with some locals, including the very colorful Syrian comic who goes by the name of “Treka.”  Treka grew up in Nigeria among the Syrian expat business community there, sports long dreads and speaks in very colloquial but accented English. He defies all stereotypes about Arabs and Syrians. Treka has posted many videos critical of the MSM narrative abroad, and his latest, deriding the claim of the government chemical attack in Ghouta, is here.  

On the Road Back to Damascus

Returning to Damascus on Thursday April 19 after a visit to Aleppo, we were met this time by the roar of jets over the city and the continuous thunder of  bombs and artillery. The Syrian army  and their Russian ally were attacking the neighborhoods and Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk on the southern outskirts of the city.  It was strange to be driving along roads in Damascus less than a kilometer away from the bombing.  Few residents of the capital seemed to pay any attention at all, the nonchalant routine of 7 years of war.

Yarmouk had been long held by elements of terrorist groups Daesh (ISIS) and the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front (now known under the name Jabhat Fateh al-Sham). Nearly all the original Palestinians had long gone, becoming refugees for the second time elsewhere in Syria or in Lebanon.  Some of them were fighting in Palestinian units alongside the Syrian army.

After the recapture of Eastern Ghouta, this was an effort by the government to clear out the last remaining opposition-held zone near the capital. Reports are that the rebels have agreed to evacuate, though as this is being written the air and artillery attacks are continuing.

If Yarmouk is retaken in its entirety it will represent another major military victory for the Syrian government and a key step toward defeating the remains of the armed insurgency.  

In fact, the comprehensive military defeat of the rebels, now overwhelmingly dominated by sectarian religious extremists, remains the principle hope for peace and reconciliation within the country. This was the fervent wish of nearly all the Syrians we spoke with — in the government-held areas to be sure, but this now represents more than 80% of the population.

The task of reconstruction will be immense.  As we drove back to Damascus on Thursday we passed mile after mile of devastated landscape just outside the capital in what had shortly before been territory held by the armed insurgents in Eastern Ghouta. As in Aleppo, rebuilding has already begun, but it will take an enormous amount of resources to complete.  

By rights, the nations who have intervened to destroy Syria – the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Israel – should bear the cost of reconstruction, but this this is unlikely to occur. These same countries have not stopped their attacks on Syria, nor are there any signs that the US is planning to give up its illegal occupation of the east of the country. Nevertheless, justice demands a reckoning.

The reckoning should also include Leftists or progressives inside and outside Syria who enthusiastically echo the MSM propaganda war and even clamor for more attacks in the name of a “revolution” that had ceased to be a plausible reality years ago. 

Not so far back, those who opposed the Iraq War were smeared as supporters of Saddam Hussein, a charge that honest anti-war activists easily dismissed. Today, defending Syria from foreign aggression and advocating the right of Syrians to choose their own future apparently makes one an “Assad apologist” in some Progressive circles. These same commentators seem to ignore civilian casualties from the US-led aerial destruction of Mosul and Raqqa, while rarely even mentioning the ongoing US and Turkish illegal occupation of Syrian territory.

Syria has not been the proudest moment for the international Left.

 

Jeff Klein is an anti-war activist who has written and spoken frequently on the Middle East