Saturday, 6 May 2017

Chomsky and the Syria revisionists: Regime whitewashing & The Left's moral cul-de-sac

Chomsky and the Syria revisionists: Regime whitewashing

 Muhammad Idrees Ahmad:

'Early on the morning of Tuesday 4 April when General Mohammed Hasouri of Syria's Air Force Brigade 50 prepared his Sukhoi Su-22 for take-off, he may not have known that in the age of satellites and smartphones, crucial details of his flight would be recorded.
 The jet's communications were intercepted by Syria Sentry spotters when, using the call-sign "Quds-1", it lifted off from al-Shayrat airbase at 6:26 am local time; CentCom recorded its flight path on its bombing run over the Idlib countryside; and, 12 minutes later, when it delivered its lethal payload on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, multiple witnesses reported the strike, posting videos online (which have since been verified and geo-located.)

 A comprehensive Human Rights Watch report has since confirmed that the regime was responsible for this and at least three other chemical attacks since December as "part of a broader pattern of Syrian government forces' use of chemical weapons".

 The attack killed 92 people and injured many more. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) found the symptoms consistent with exposure to a nerve agent; the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found "incontrovertible" evidence that the agent used was sarin; and, after testing samples of the chemical agent, the French government concluded that the attack was perpetrated by the "Syrian armed forces and security services".

 The Assad regime and Russia responded predictably. They made mutually contradictory claims (Assad: the deaths were staged; Russia: rebels caused the deaths). They were quickly debunked. But after the US government launched 59 Tomahawk missiles on the airbase as a punitive measure, a different formation joined the battle.

 The US missile strike was symbolic; it had little effect on Assad’s military capability. But it did stir the "anti-imperialist" Left out of its somnolent unconcern for Syrian lives. Syrians were now proxies in a domestic battle and the "anti-imperialists" had finally found a Syrian life that mattered: Bashar al Assad's. If the US government was acknowledging that the evidence for Assad's responsibility was overwhelming, then Assad had to be protected and doubt manufactured.

 By April 13, when the noted linguist and contrarian Noam Chomsky took the podium at UMass Amherst, substantial evidence had gathered to implicate Assad in the attack.

 Chomsky, however, insisted that, "actually we don't [know what happened]". To justify his claim, Chomsky deferred to the authority of Theodore Postol, whom he called "one of the most sophisticated and successful analysts of military strategic issues". Postol, he said, has gone through the White House Intelligence Report "in detail" and "just tears it to shreds".

 Ten days later, in Cambridge, Chomsky resumed. He again cited Postol, "a very serious and credible analyst… highly regarded", who has "analyzed closely" and given "a pretty devastating critique of the White House report”.

 If Chomsky's praise for Postol seems suspiciously over the top, there is a reason for it. In an email exchange in the ten days between his two appearances, I had explained to Chomsky that far from being "a very serious and credible analyst", Postol has a reputation for dabbling in zany conspiracism.

 By this time, enough evidence had gathered from multiple independent sources to leave little doubt about Assad's responsibility. But using the method of a climate change-denier, Chomsky elevated one madcap scientist's theories to dismiss all extant evidence.

 Framing it as a contest between the White House and a dissident scientist was useful because it allowed Chomsky to pass his denialism as legitimate scepticism. By shifting the focus from Assad to the White House, he was turning his attempt to exculpate a mass-murderer into a stand with David against Goliath.

 But there was nothing legitimate or principled about Chomsky's denialism. I asked him what he found persuasive about Postol's critique. After many evasions, he replied: "I said nothing about whether his report was persuasive". Why was Chomsky telling audiences to doubt Assad's responsibility, then? Because Postol is "a highly credible analyst", a fact recognised by all except "fanatics who have no concern for fact".

 One such fanatic however was quick to contradict Theodore Postol: Theodore Postol.

 In a frenzy of publishing in the weeks after the chemical massacre, Postol advanced multiple theories to deny Assad's responsibility for the attack:

 April 11: Postol claimed there was no aerial attack and that the rebels detonated a chemical weapon on the ground;

 April 13: Postol claimed the "the sarin release crater was tampered with"; the White House's 11 April Intelligence assessment, like the August 30, 2013, intelligence assessment, was a "false report";

 April 14: Postol claimed sarin could not have been used because video of health workers "roughly 30 hours after the alleged attack" shows them "inside and around the same crater with no protection of any kind against sarin poisoning" (sarin is actually a non-persistent agent that disperses quickly depending on the weather condition);

 April 19: Postol claimed that according to his analysis of wind direction "the alleged attack described in WHR never occurred";

 April 21: Postol says his "estimates of plume directions [were] exactly 180 degrees off" but insists this also proves the same thing;

 April 26: Postol says the Russian claim that the poisoning resulted from a rebel weapon depot being struck from air is plausible and, like Bhopal, the deaths likely occurred from the "combustion of plastics" (he cites the shape of the plumes from the bombing on the morning of 4 April as evidence, even though Russians claimed the bombing didn't happen until five hours later);

 April 27: Postol claims that the "French Intelligence Report of April 26, 2017 directly contradicts the White House Intelligence Report of 11 April, 2017"

 April 28: Postol admits that the French report does not contradict the White House report. He had confused the date and location for a different chemical attack four years earlier.

 Even as "Professor Postol" turned into a ubiquitous reference for the denialists, few noticed that his theories were mutually contradictory: He said it was an on-the-ground detonation - before calling it an aerial attack; he said there was no chemical attack - before calling it plastic combustion "like Bhopal"; he said the attack happened early in the morning - before suggesting that the shape of its plumes proved a Russian theory about a bombing five hours later; he said the wind was blowing southeast, proving the attack "never occurred" - before conceding the wind was blowing northwest, which apparently also proved the attack never occurred; he said the French in their assessment had directly contradicted the White House - before admitting that the French had actually supported the White House in their report, which was now "irrational" and "unsound".

 Postol's facts and analyses appear to change from day to day; but his conviction about Assad's innocence appeared unshakeable.

 Postol appeals to the denialists, not because his arguments are persuasive, as Chomsky's statement about them confirms; they like him because he is a man with credentials giving their conspiracy theories a veneer of scientific plausibility with superfluous tables and diagrams (like the wind direction charts which, by his own admission, were "exactly 180 degrees off").

 Some of the theories Postol scienced up had existed in cruder form on the internet since the day of the attack, debuted on the pro-Assad Al Masdar News by its editor Paul Antonopoulos (who has since been outed as a neo-Nazi) and on Alex Jones' Infowars by the pro-Assad YouTube star Mimi al Laham. Al Laham (aka Partisan Girl) has a history with Postol: In the past he has relied on her expertise ("a solid scientific source") to absolve the regime for its August 2013 chemical attack.

 In a joint appearance with al Laham on Holocaust denier Ryan Dawson's "Anti-Neocon Report" podcast, Postol explained why he found this social media personality with an undergraduate degree in chemistry a reliable scientific source: "I could see from her voice - I didn't know her and still don't know her - that she was a trained chemist."

 Postol's kamikaze act collapsed in embarrassment when, in his eagerness to contradict the White House, he confused the French government's analysis of an attack in April 2013 with its judgment on the Khan Sheikhoun four years later. The French report had mentioned the earlier attack as contextual detail.

 Postol interpreted this as the French providing a different location and delivery method for the attack. Next day he admitted his confusion, but even in the retraction, he confused the French discussion of the 2013 attack as the substance of the report and said responsibility for the latter 2017 couldn't be established solely on the basis of this (which is not what the French had done).

 Chomsky was not unaware of Postol's indiscretions when he spoke in Cambridge. But he didn't let such concerns get in the way of his contrarian posture. He could play dissident and wed his credibility to an unreliable source because in our intellectual culture you never pay a price for errors that are fatal only to others.

 Chomsky's reputation survived his endorsement of Gareth Porter's denialism in Cambodia; his reputation survived the endorsement of Diana Johnstone's denialism in Bosnia; and there is no reason his endorsement of Postol will affect his book sales or deny him public fora. (Nor have his endorsees been affected: Porter has disgraced himself again by blaming Syrian rescuers for the regime's attack on a UN convoy; and Johnstone is currently writing apologia for Marine Le Pen).

 But ideas have consequences. As I wrote elsewhere: "In a time of ongoing slaughter, to obfuscate the regime’s well-documented responsibility for a war crime does not just aid the regime today, it aids it tomorrow. As long as doubts remain about previous atrocities, there will be hesitancy to assign new blame. Accountability will be deferred." That was 2014. Little has changed.


 The paradox of Chomskyian contrarianism is that because it is a bundle of reflexes whose primary stimulus is domestic politics, it sees retreat from principle as less problematic than a lapse in adversarial posturing.

 Chomsky is not the worst offender on the Left; indeed, until August 2013, he even sounded sympathetic to the Syrian uprising. It was the massacre of over 1,400 people in a horrific sarin attack in August 2013 that ironically marked the deterioration in Chomsky's position.

 Now that Barack Obama and John Kerry were on TV inviting public sympathy for the victims, there was nothing radical about standing with the oppressed. In his first appearance on TV after the attack, Chomsky mocked Obama's appeal to the public. Why, he asked, weren't we looking at "the photos of deformed fetuses in Saigon hospitals still appearing decades after John F. Kennedy launched a major chemical warfare attack against South Vietnam, 1961?"

 Such whataboutism is as old as Chomky's references.

 Perhaps conscious of the spurious factual basis for his argument, in his second intervention on the sarin attack, Chomsky turned to deductive logic. "It's not so obvious why the Assad regime would have carried out a chemical warfare attack at a moment when it's pretty much winning the war", he said. If Chomsky finds this not so obvious, then it must be obvious to Chomsky why the Assad regime would bomb hospitals, napalm schools, torture children and starve entire cities.

 (The contention that the regime is "pretty much winning the war" is also doubtful. The regime is actually unlikely to win the war. It has been winning battles with the help of the Russian Air Force, but it can't hold territory without Hizballah, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani militias.)

 Deductive logic more rigorously applied should of course have led Chomsky to also consider that if Postol's theory is correct, then the OPCW, Human Rights Watch, World Health Organisation, Medecins Sans Frontieres, the US government, the British government, the French Government, The Guardian, The Times and the AFP's judgment is incorrect.

 And since they all appear to have reached the same conclusion, there must be coordination among them. But according to Chomsky's logic, this scenario is more plausible than the notion that Assad - with his pattern of chemical attacks - might have carried out another.

 He finds more plausible that rebels would go through the trouble of producing sarin only to use it on their own people, twice! To quote journalist Anand Gopal's response: "that's on the level of Big Foot or UFOs."

 In the years since August 2013, Chomsky has said little about Syria. And to the extent he has, his silences have been more appreciated. Speaking at Harvard in September 2015, Chomsky scolded a Syrian doctor for asking if the US should intervene to protect Syrian civilians. "If you attack Assad, you are undermining resistance to the Islamic State and al-Nusra, who'll then take over," he said: "Is that what you want for Syria?"

 Elsewhere he criticized the "meaningless" US strategy because it wasn't supporting the forces that "are really combatting ISIS": "Iran, PKK, and the Assad regime". In an appearance on UK's Channel 4 News, he claimed IS was now "almost a representative of a large part of Sunni Islam". And where was Chomsky getting all these insights? "One of the main commentators on the region… one who's been most informed and accurate: Patrick Cockburn."

 I wrote to Chomsky to explain that over 90 percent of the Assad regime's military engagements until then had been against Assad's anti-IS opposition, and when citizens in Maarat al Nu'man rose up against al-Nusra, the regime actually bombed the citizens; the Obama administration had been cooperating with Iran politically and militarily since summer 2014 and it had launched over 700 US airstrikes to help the PKK-affiliated YPG break the siege of Kobane; and far from IS representing "a large part of Sunni Islam", surveys showed that it had little support even in major Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

 I suggested that perhaps he shouldn't outsource his Syria analysis to regime-friendly journalists like Patrick Cockburn, who has advised the British government to provide military support to the Assad regime - a regime the UN has accused of the "crime of extermination".

 But far from abandoning Cockburn, Chomsky has drawn on him as an authority to impugn journalists reporting from under the regime's bombs in rebel-held territories. "If reporters go into the rebel-held areas and don't do what they're told," he told his Cambridge audience, "you get your head cut off".

 This would come as news to Clarissa Ward of CNN, Nagieb Khaja of Al Jazeera, and Kareem Shaheen of The Guardian, whose heads are decidedly intact after reporting from rebel-held areas without compromising their independence. (Chomsky of course doesn't even acknowledge the existence of Syrian civil society, intellectuals, activists or heroic journalists like those associated with Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently or Enab Baladi).

 Reporting from rebel-held areas is indeed not easy or without risk: After all the war has caused a complete collapse of law and order. But the main difficultly (as during the siege of Aleppo) is that the regime denies journalists access and - to the extent that they are able to bypass its strictures - they face the threat of its indiscriminate bombs.

 Such details become academic, however, when ideological commitment makes factual accuracy superfluous. Chomsky has been able to argue without any sense of irony that that US involvement in Syria amounts to "imperialism" while the Russian military intervention doesn't.

 Russia, he says, was invited by the Syrian government. I asked him if this means the US intervention in Vietnam was also not imperialism since the US was invited by the South Vietnamese government. That was different, he replied, because the South Vietnamese government was installed by the US. So it wasn't a legitimate government: Does he believe the Assad government is more legitimate? I said nothing about legitimacy, he replied. And so it went.

 To his credit, Chomsky has not been shy to denounce Assad and Putin. This would be meaningful if the inevitable "but" didn't follow, and blame wasn't shifted onto Assad's opponents and their backers. In the past two years Chomsky has ignored years of Russian obstructionism at the UN and elevated a dubious report about an alleged Russian peace offer in 2012 to cast the US, Britain and France as the intransigent parties.

 But the plan that the former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari claims was conveyed to him by Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin on 22 February 2012 was actually the Arab League initiative of 22 January 2012, which was part of the UN resolution that Churkin vetoed on 4 February 2012, even after all his amendments to the first draft were accepted.

 Accountability to Chomsky is an alien concept. He doesn't seek it for genocidaires; nor does he approve of it for propagandists for genocidaires. The man who has remained mostly silent in the face of Assad and Putin's colossal crimes was quick to join a campaign, led by several pro-Assad ideologues, to pressure students who had disinvited a pro-Assad blogger from an event devoted to Palestinian rights.

 He signed an open letter that referred to the blogger's apologia for Assad's "crime of extermination" (UN) (and her record of fabrication) as a "political difference".

 In Chomsky's hierarchy of concerns, it seems a westerner's right to deny genocide is more sacrosanct than a Syrian's right to life and liberty. Chomsky lives in a country where dissent is protected by law, and, in his case, rewarded with stardom and publishing contracts.

 This is why he can't relate to dissidents abroad - unless they are fortunate enough to be persecuted by a US client - who at great personal cost fight for basic rights. In these ideological battles the world is a mere proxy and truth a dispensable artefact. Its dehumanising binaries erase struggling peoples if the regime oppressing them is seen as an objective ally by virtue of being in the bad books of Washington.

 This is not the first time this kind of campism has led large sections of the western Left down a moral cul-de-sac. But few could have predicted that the figure leading this sordid procession one day would be the sage many of us once worshipped.'

Chomsky and the Syria revisionists: The Left's moral cul-de-sac

Friday, 5 May 2017

THE SYRIAN CAUSE AND ANTI-IMPERIALISM

(Red Youth)

 Yassin al-Haj Saleh:

 'I was in Istanbul for about ten days when I met a Turkish communist who explained to me that what was going on in Syria was nothing but an imperialist conspiracy against a progressive, anti-imperialist regime. The Turkish comrade’s talk contained no novel information or analytical spark that could suggest something useful about my country, and everything I tried to say seemed utterly useless. I was the Syrian who left his country for the first time at the age of fifty-two, only to be lectured about what was really happening there from someone who has probably only visited Syria a few times, if at all.

 Incidents like this are repeated over and over in both the real and virtual worlds: a German, a Brit, or an American activist would argue with a Syrian over what is really happening in Syria. It looks like they know more about the cause than Syrians themselves. We are denied “epistemological agency,” that is, our competence in providing the most informed facts and nuanced analysis about our country. Either there is no value to what we say, or we are confined to lesser domains of knowledge, turned into mere sources for quotations that a Western journalist or scholar can add to the knowledge he produces. They may accept us as sources of some basic information, and may refer to something we, natives, said in order to sound authentic, but rarely do they draw on our analysis. This hierarchy of knowledge is very widespread and remains under-criticized in the West.

 There are articles, research papers, and books written by Westerner academics and journalists about Syria that do not refer to a single Syrian source–especially one that is opposed to the Assad regime. Syria seems to be an open book of a country; anyone with a passing interest knows the truth about it. They particularly know more than dissidents, whom they often call into question, practically continuing the negation of their existence which is already their fate in their homeland. Consequently, we are denied political agency in such a way that builds on the work of the Assad regime, which has, for two entire generations, stripped usof any political or intellectual merit in our own country. We are no longer relevant for our own cause. This standpoint applies to the global anti-imperialist left, to mainstream western-centrists, and of course to the right-wing.

 The Western mainstream approaches Syria (and the Middle East) through one of three discourses: a geopolitical discourse, which focuses on Israeli security and prioritizes stability; a culturalist or civilizationalist discourse, which basically revolves around Islam, Islamists, Islamic terrorism and minority rights; and a human-rights discourse, which addresses Syrians as mere victims (detainees, torture victims, refugees, food needs, health services, etc.), entirely overlooking the political and social dimensions of our struggles. These three discourses have one thing in common: they are depopulated (Kelly Grotke), devoid of people, individuals, or groups. They are devoid of a sense of social life, of what people live and dream.

 The first two discourses, the geopolitical and the culturalist, are shared by the Western right as well.

 But what about the left? The central element in the definition of the anti-imperial left is imperialism and, of course, combatting it. Imperialist power is thought of as something that exists in large amounts in America and Europe. Elsewhere it is either nonexistent or present only in small amounts. In internationalist struggles, the most important cause is fighting against western imperialism. Secondary conflicts, negligible cause and vague local struggles should not be a source of distraction. This depopulated discourse, which has nothing to do with people’s lived experiences, and which demonstrates no need for knowledge about Syrians, has considered it unimportant to know more about the history of their local struggles.

 The Palestinian cause, which was only discovered by most anti-imperialists during the 1990s, has paradoxically played a role in their hostility towards the Syrian cause. From their far-off, transcendent position in the imperialist metropoles, they have the general impression that Syria is against Israel, which occupies Syrian territory. Thus, if Syria is with Palestine and against Israel, it is against imperialism. At the end of the day, these comrades are with the Assadists, because Syria has been under the Assad family rule for nearly half a century. Roughly speaking, this is the core of the political line of thinking which can be called ivory-tower anti-imperialism. That Syrians have been subject to extreme Palestinization by a brutal, internal Israel, and that they are susceptible to political and physical annihilation, just like Palestinians, in fact lies outside the clueless, tasteless geopolitical approach of those detached anti-imperialists, who ignorantly bracket off politics, economics, culture, the social reality of the masses and the actual history of Syria.

 This way of linking our conflict to one major global struggle, which is supposedly the only real one in the world, denies the autonomy of any other social and political struggle taking place in the world. Anti-imperialists, especially those living in the allegedly imperialist metropoles, are most qualified to tell the truth about all struggles. Those who are directly involved in this or that struggle hardly know what’s really going on – their knowledge is partial, “non-scientific”, if not outright reactionary.

 During the Cold War, orthodox communists knew the real interests of the masses, as well as the ultimate course of history. This was sufficient reason for a communist worldview to be always in the right, without fail. But this position, which looks down on history, has placed itself in an overly exalted position with relation to the masses and their actual lives, and in relation to social and political battles on the ground. In fact, this position can be accurately described as imperialist: it expands at the expense of other conflicts, appropriates them for itself and shows little interest in listening to those involved or in learning anything about them. The distinguishing feature of most Western anti-imperialists is that they have nothing but vague impressions about the history of our country; they cannot possibly know anything about its potential adherence to –or noncompliance with– “the course of history.” This makes their meddling in our affairs an imperialist intervention in every sense of the word: interference from above; depriving us of the agency and capacity to represent our own cause; enacting a power relation in which we occupy the position of the weak who do not matter; and finally the complete absence of a sense of comradeship, solidarity, and partnership.

 This remains true even when the anti-imperialist left stands with the Egyptian or Tunisian revolutions. It stands by their side on the basis of stereotyped and simplistic discourses that are inherited from the Cold War era. The anti-imperialist comrade is with the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt for the same reason that led him to “resist” alongside the Syrian regime: to stand in opposition to the great amounts of imperialist power that are concentrated at the White House and 10 Downing Street. Whether in Tunisia, Egypt, or Syria, people are invisible, and their lives do not matter. We remain marginal to some other issue, the only one that matters: the struggle against imperialism (a struggle that, ironically, is also not being fought by these anti-imperialists, as I will argue below).

 The anti-imperialist left remembers from the Cold War era that Syria was close to the Soviet Union, so it sides with this supposedly anti-imperialist regime. Consequently, those who resist this regime are “objectively” pro-imperialists. Framing imperial power as something that only exists in the West ascribes to the anti-imperialists a Western-centric tendency, which is no less severe than that of imperialist hardliners themselves.

 The response to this discourse need not be to point out the truth, that the Assadist state is not against imperialism in any way whatsoever. First and foremost, the autonomy of our social and political struggles for democracy and social justice must be highlighted and separated out from this grand, abstract scheme. It should be said that this particular mode of analysis, which belongs to the transcendental anti-imperialism, is a belittling imperialist tendency that should to be resisted. There is no just way, for instance, to deny the right of the North Koreans to resist their fascist regime on the basis of such an abstract scheme. Instead, such a scheme can only serve to silence them, just as their regime does.

 It is absolutely necessary to rebuild an intellectual and political foundation for criticism and seeking change in the world, but metropolitan anti-imperialism is totally unfit for this job. It has absorbed subordinating imperialistic tendencies, and it is fraught with eurocentrism and void of any true democratic content. A better starting point for criticism and change would be to look at actual conflicts and actual relationships between conflicting parties. This could involve, for example, thinking about how the structure of a globally dominating Western first world has been re-enacted in our own countries, including Syria. We have an “internal first world” that is the Assadist political and economic elites, and a vulnerable internal third world, which the state is free to discipline, humiliate, and exterminate. The relationship between the first world of Assad and the third world of “black Syrians” perfectly explains Syria’s Palestinization. Imperialism as such has shifted from an essence that exists in the West to a major aspect of local, domesticated power structures. Ironically, the power elites protecting this neo-imperialism may well draw on classical anti-imperialist rhetoric in order to discredit local dissidence and suppress potential political schisms. This is especially true in the Middle East, the world’s most heavily internationalized region. It is characterized by an extensive and aggressive imperialist presence that is directed mainly at suppressing democracy and political change.

 From this perspective, working to overthrow the Assadist state is a grassroots struggle against imperialism. Conversely, the victory of the Assadist state over the revolution is a victory for imperialism and a consolidation of imperialist relations in Syria, the Middle East, and the world. Meanwhile, thetranscendental anti-imperialists continue to be mere parasites who barely know anything, practically contributing to the victory of imperialism by opposing the Syrian revolution.

 In short, it must be stressed that individual struggles are autonomous, and that their internal structures and histories should be understood, rather than dismissed and subordinated to an abstract struggle that looks down on whole societies and people’s lives. Only then would it be meaningful to state that there is nothing within the Assadist state that is truly anti-imperialist, even if we define imperialism as an essence nestled in the West. Nor is there anything popular, liberatory, nationalist, or third-worldly in the Syrian regime. There is only a fascist dynastic rule, whose history, which goes back to the 1970s, can be summed up as the formation of an obscenely wealthy and atrociously brutal neo-bourgeoisie, which has proved itself ready to destroy the country in order to remain in power forever. As I have just mentioned, in its relationship with its subjects, this regime reproduces the structure of imperial domination; this is a thousand times more telling than any anti-imperialist rhetoric. Significantly, there exists a strong racist predisposition that is inherent to the structure of this neo-bourgeoisie and its ideology, which celebrates materialist modernity (the modernity of outward appearance and not of relationships, rights, values, etc.). This privileged class regards poor Syrians –Sunni Muslims in particular– just like Ashkenazi Jews regard Arab Muslim Palestinians (and even Sephardic Jews, at an earlier time), and just like whites of South Africa regarded the blacks in the last century. The colonized groups are backward, irrational, and savage, and their extermination is not that big of a deal; it may even be desirable. This attitude does not exclusively characterize the Assadist elite. In fact, the regime and its supporters are emboldened by identification with an international symbolic and political system in which Islamophobia is a rising global trend.

 It is well known that the Assadist state has succumbs throughout its history to what can be assumed as imperialist preferences: guarding the borders with Israel since 1974, ensuring stability in the Middle East, weakening the Palestinian resistence independency, treating Syrians as slaves, and destroying all independent political, social, and trade organizations. Indeed, the Assadist state is an integral part of what I call the “Middle Eastern system,” which was founded upon Israeli security, regional stability, and the political disenfranchisement and dispossession of our countries’ subjects. Herein lies the secret of Arab/Islamic exceptionalism with regards to democracy – in contrast to the popular interpretations of cultural critics in the West. Imperialist self-fashioning in such a regime, or the reproduction of imperialism therein, invalidates the conventional notion that imperialist power only exists in America, or in both Europe and America. This suggests that the anti-imperialist left has deep anti-democratic and patriarchal tendencies and suffers from intellectual primitiveness.

 We have our own local anti-imperialist communists who adhere to the Assadist state, the Bakdashists. They are named after Khalid Bakdash, who was the Secretary-General of the official, Moscow-aligned Syrian Communist Party since early 1940s up to his death in early 1990s (his wife WissalFarha inherited his post after him, and their son Ammar subsequently inherited it after she passed away). These communists are exactly those who were faithful followers of the Soviet Union within Syrian communism during the Cold War. Today, Bakdashists are middle-class apparatchiks, enjoying a globalized lifestyle and living in city centers, completely separate from the social suffering of the masses and utterly lacking in any creativity. While a diverse array of Syrians had been subject to arrest, humiliation, torture and murder throughout two generations between the 1970s and the 2010s, Bakdashists have persisted in recycling the same vapid anti-imperialist rhetoric, and have paid nothing in return for their blindness to the prolonged plight of their country. This plight has included a sultanic, patriarchal transformation of the regime, the outcome of which was turning Syria into what I am calling the Assadist state, a country privately owned by the Assad dynasty and its intimates. This demonstrates a clear example of the collusion of transcendental anti-imperialism with domesticated imperialism.

 In the third place, i.e. after stressing the autonomy and specificity of each conflict, and then emphasizing that nothing about the Assadist state is anti-imperialist, the anti-imperialists should be questioned about their own struggle against imperialism. I do not know of a single example of someone from Western anti-imperialist circles who has been subjected to arrest, torture, legal and political discrimination, travel ban, dismissal from work, or deprivation from writing in his “imperialist” country. I believe that these deprivations do not belong to their world at all, and that perhaps they do not know what a travel ban, deprivation from writing, or torture could possibly mean. They are just like the African who does not know what milk is, the Arab who does not know what an opinion is, the European who does not know what shortage is, and the American who does not know the meaning of “the rest of the world,” as in/goes the famous joke in which four people were asked their opinion about food shortage in the rest of the world. I have never heard of an anti-imperialist comrade who is resented, persecuted, personally targeted or subjected to smear campaigns by imperialism. Actual and moral assassination had actually been common imperialist practices until 1970s. This was especially true in the third world, but also true to a certain extent in the West. Names like Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Mehdi Ben Barka, and Angela Davis, among others, come to mind.

 Neither does it seem that these comrades are aware of how privileged they are compared to us Syrians. I do not wish to evoke the guilt of traditional Western leftists. I am merely asking them for humility, to direct their eyes downwards to the laymen in Syria and elsewhere, not towards murderers like Bashar al-Assad and his ilk, and not to a bunch of hypocritical Western journalists who grew bored with London, Paris, Berlin, Rome and New York and now find amusement and a change of scenery in Damascus, Cairo and Beirut– knowing that their monthly multi-thousand dollar salary allows them to live wherever they wish.

 As democratic Syrians, we do not wish upon them that they lose the rights to travel and freedom of speech that they enjoy. But how can they not be required to stand in solidarity with us, we who are deprived of such rights, and to denounce the junta that persists in subjugating us?

 What I am arguing based on the three points discussed above is that, our comrades are making three major mistakes, all of which are unforgivable: they appropriate our struggle against a regime with which imperial sovereignty in the Middle East is perfectly in peace, for an alleged struggle against imperialism to which they are not even remotely close, supporting an extremely brutal and reactionary bloc about which they are utterly clueless. I will conclude that their anti-imperialist tendencies signify a desirable identity-form for these groups, not an actual mode-of-action in which they are engaged. The transcendental anti-imperialist left today is but a small, bigoted sect, which is not only incapable of taking power, but is also arrogant, reactionary, and ignorant. Gramsci deserves better heirs.

 The root of these three mistakes lies, in my view, in the worn-out nature of the essentialist theory of imperialism, which reduces imperialism to Western hegemony. This theory fails to recognize imperialism as a system of international relations that manifests in different ways throughout the various spheres of political and social conflict that span all countries and regions. Syrians live in one of the cruelest forms of this relational system, deprived of political liberties and exposed to a corrupt and criminal junta, which has turned Syria into a hereditary monarchy owned by a dynasty of murderers.

 I mentioned above that there is something imperialistic inherent in leftist anti-imperialism. The Syrian struggle is a good example of this.

 The US administration, along with Russia’s autocratic regime, denies the Syrian struggle an independence from the war on terror. The Obama administration has done everything to avoid doing anything that the Syrians could benefit from in their struggle, even after Bashar al-Assad broke Obama’s red line. Why? Because this administration preferred the survival of Bashar al-Assad –Israel’s favorite candidate for the rule of Syria– to a transfer of power that would not be fully controlled by them. It was not in favor of Syrian citizens steering political change in their country. The United States has been involved militarily in Syria since September 2014, targeting Daesh and al-Qaeda. The anti-imperialists do not seem to object to this war, however, as much as they did when the Obama administration considered punishing Bashar al-Assad for violating the red line (not for killing Syrians, by the way) in August, 2013. This is despite the fact that US officials rushed to say that the strike would be limited; John Kerry stated in London in the beginning of September, 2013 that the potential strike would be an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort!”

 The root of all of this is that the US administration has annexed the Syrian conflict to its own war on terror. It has tried to impose its battle on Syrians so that they will abandon their own battle against the tyrannical discriminatory Assadist junta: This is what imperialism has done.

 In this regard, the anti-imperialist promulgators of the concept of terrorism fail to realize that the war on terror is centered around the state; it is a statist conception of the world order which strengthens states and weakens communities, political organizations, social movements, and individuals. It is furthermore a war in which Bashar al-Assad, who has been in direct conflict with his people for two years, is made partner in a cause that favors the continued domination of the world’s powerful. But perhaps it is not just a matter of realizing or not realizing. There is an inherent statist component in the structure of the anti-imperialist left, which has originated since the Cold War era. This statist quality confirms the observation that the typical anti-imperialist leftist has a geopolitical mindset. Perhaps this is why Trotskyists and anarchists, who are less state-centered and more society-oriented, have stood by Syrians in their struggle.

 In the record of this endless fight against terrorism there has not been a single success, and thus far three countries have been devastated over its course (Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria). Yet this record is not surprising, considering that these imperialist forces are characterized by arrogance, racism, and immunity vis-a-vis the crimes they commit and the destruction they leave behind in foreign societies.

 The anti-imperialist left, just like imperialism itself, has supplemented the Syrian-struggle to something else, “regime change.” From the point of view of anti-imperialist comrades, regime change in Syria appears to be an imperialist plot. This is a hundred times worse than any mistake. This is an insult to Syrians, to our struggle over two generations, and to hundreds of thousands of victims. This is an insult to a struggle that most of these comrades know nothing about.

 I repeat: imperialism, and the Americans in particular, have not wanted to change the regime at any time. Following the chemical massacre in August 2013, they strived to invent reasons not to hurt it, despite the fact that, at the time, they had a very strong justification had they wanted to change –or simply hurt– the Assad regime. The change in Syria is our initiative, and it is our project. Anti-imperialists must consider us agents of imperialism, then. Some are not far from saying so outright – a few months ago, a number of Italian “comrades” attacked an exhibition displaying photographs of the victims of Assad’s killing industry. Otherwise, any change to any regime is a bad thing and serves imperialism. But isn’t that a rather wonderful definition for reactionism?

 Annexation is a fundamental aspect of imperialism, and the anti-imperialist activists who deny the autonomy of our struggle and supplement it to their pseudo-struggle are no different from imperialist powers. The two parties find common cause in the denial of our struggle, our political agency, and our right to self-representation. Practically, they are telling us that they are the ones who can define which struggles are in the right; and that we are not worthy of either revolutions or the production of knowledge. But isn’t that a wonderful definition of imperialism?

 It is worth mentioning that subordinating our struggle for another one is the defining characteristic of the Assadist rule. For almost half a century, and in the name of yet another pseudo-struggle against Israel, the Assad regime has not ceased to suppress the rights and freedoms of its subjects and to crack down on their attempts to assume political agency in their country. Meanwhile, it has showed a great willingness to wage two hot wars inside Syria, the first of which resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, and the second in hundreds of thousands of deaths, up to now. Additionally, subordinating our struggle to something else is also a feature of Islamisms that have worked to appropriate the Syrian struggle for political agency (freedom) in the name of something external to this cause (sharia law, Islamic statehood, and a really imperial caliphate).

 Here we have four specific cases of our cause’s subordination; the American government and its followers, Russia and its followers, and Iran and its followers all making our revolution secondary to endless war against terrorism; the Western anti-imperialist left making our opposition secondary to its struggle against imperialism, understood as something practiced only by Western powers; the Assadist rule making our emancipatory aspirations secondary to a struggle with Israel that it has never been engaged in; and Islamists making our common struggle secondary to their own sectarian leanings. The four cases have one thing in common; a patriarchal view. Each of these powers acts like a archetypal father who knows everything, and decides alone what is proper for us, the little boys. Those who reject being infantilized in this manner are considered ignorant, agents of the enemy, or infidels, deprived of speech and of political action. They may even be deprived of life itself, annihilated by chemical weapons, barrel bombs, starvation, or an organized death industry in prisons and hospitals.

 The basis of these reactionary patriarchal attitudes by our fellow anti-imperialists contains two important issues. The first is the transformation of the communist left and its heirs into the educated middle classes, which is separate from human suffering and incapable of creativity, just like our local Bakdashists. This is in part due to economic transformations in the central capitalist countries, deindustrialization, the decay of the industrial working class, and the emergence of the “campus left,” which does nothing and knows very little despite its position within academia. There is no longer anything revolutionary or emancipatory in the formation of the contemporary left, and it is not engaged in any real conflicts. The second important issue that underpins these patriarchal attitudes is the intellectual maps that have been inherited from the Cold War (knowledge by recollection, following the Platonic method), added to intellectual sterility and a severe lack of creativity.

 Among the main sources of knowledge about Syria for this left are the likes of Robert Fisk, the embedded journalist who accompanied the regime tanks as they stormed Darayya and killed hundreds of its inhabitants. His work later evolved into interviewing notorious murderers such as General Jamil Hassan, of Air Force Intelligence. He publishes his pieces in what are supposedly pro-democratic independent platforms such as The Independent. Another main source of information is Patrick Cockburn, who is Fisk’s partner in friendship with the Assadist junta, and who I doubt knows a single Syrian leftist dissident, just like Fisk. Also in their ranks is Seymour Hersh, who was spoiled by the Pulitzer Prize he had received, becoming fixated on thinking exclusively about “high politics” and seeing nothing down below. In fact, Bashar al-Assad himself is a source of knowledge for this left, as he is frequently interviewed by Western media and visited by delegations from the Western left (and fascists and Western Christian rightists as well), enjoying a status that he had not dreamed of before killing hundreds of thousands of his subjects.

 This left no longer has a living cause of any kind. It merely intrudes upon causes like our own, about which it hardly knows and to which it ultimately does a great deal of harm. This left feels guilty because it lacks nothing, so it directs its disordered anxiety at Merkel, Teresa May, Obama, and Trump. It stands with Bashar al-Assad after it has convinced itself that this vile person is against those Western politicians. It is far less knowledgeable or curious about the fate of Bashar al-Assad’s subjects, about whom it knows nothing other than confused impressions it draws from watching TV or reading newspapers.

 None of the above is to suggest that Western leftists should not interfere in our affairs or should not comment on what we say about our conflicts. We want them to interfere. In turn, we do and we will interfere in their affairs. We live in one world, and universality must always be defended in both analysis and action. What we expect is that they become a bit more humble and willing to listen, less eager to give lessons, and that they develop knowledge that is not based on recollection. We expect them to be democratic, not to make our conflict secondary to others, to take our opinion into account on the subject of our affairs, and to accept that we are their equals and peers.

 Neither am I suggesting that we, the Syrian democrats opposed to the Assadist state, are correct in everything that we say simply because our cause is just, or that we do not accept criticism from others. We want to be criticized and advised, but our critics do not seem to know anything about us or to even be offering criticism or advice. They do not see us at all. Their lofty perspectives render us invisible. Had they been more open over the years to the realities of the Syrian conflict, its dynamics and transformations, they would have been in a better position to synthesize more informed perceptions and to offer more nuanced criticism. Our leftist partners in the West, a multitude of radical democrats, socialists, anarchists, and Trotskyists, have come closer to the grassroots Syrian world and have listened to Syrian narratives. None of them has shaken the blood-stained and pillaging hands of the likes of Bashar al-Assad and the murderers and thieves that constitute his circle.

 We are not simplistic, and we do not reduce our struggle to the single dimension of bringing down the Assadist junta. There is another dimension, the struggle against nihilist Islamic organizations. But only among us, the people who are involved in the Syrian struggle on a democratic and emancipatory basis, can radical democratic politics be formed regarding Islamists. We do not approve of essentialist hatred of Islamists, which may be driven by class or sect, and which is definitely reactionary and most probably racist. The most optimal position for a struggle against Islamism is undoubtedly the revolutionary democratic position that also resists Assadist fascism.

 Having said that, we are not unaware of a third dimension to our struggle, which pertains to various interventions by conventional or emerging imperialist centers; interventions which are carried out either directly or through regional proxies, in the form of states or sub-state organizations. Here, too, we find that the most coherent and radical position against imperialism is that which takes internal, Assadist colonization into account, and takes sides with the weak and disadvantaged, in Syria and the region at-large. Those who think that Bashar al-Assad and his junta are supportive of the struggle against imperialism are insensible fools at best, and anti-democratic racists at worst.

 This three-dimensional struggle defines universality for us, and perhaps for the world as a whole.

 Moreover, I am not suggesting that we have no short-comings, or that what we say about these causes and others should be the final word. We work and we learn. Our greatest shortcoming is that we are dispersed and our forces are unorganized. This has been exacerbated by the conditions of detention and killing under torture, which have mainly targeted the social base of the revolution; by the condition of displacement and the extensive destruction of Syrian society by the tyrannical andsectarianAssadist junta and its imperialist partners; and finally by nihilist Islamist organizations. Our efforts are constantly at odds with the shocking and unprecedented extremes that the Syrian tragedy has reached. But we continue to work.

 In short, for us, Syrian democrats and leftists, the struggle is a fight for independence. First, we seek the independence of our country from colonial powers, which have donned false masks that boast about sovereignty, territorial unity, pluralism, or the war on terror, much like all colonial powers have throughout history. Second, we seek the independence of our struggle from other colonists, who don equally false masks, such as anti-imperialism and also the war on terror, demanding that we stay silent or act as local copies of them.

 This criticism of Western and non-Western anti-imperialist left is both a contribution to the struggle for independence, that is, for freedom, and an effort to own authority over our own discourse. It remains open to partnerships that are based on comradeship and equality.'

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Assad regime supports terrorism: Syrian opposition

Assad regime supports terrorism: Syrian opposition

 'Several Syrian armed revolutionary factions have declared in a joint statement that the Syrian opposition was the country’s main opponent of terrorism while the Assad regime supported the Daesh terrorist group and brought Iran-backed militias into the country.

 The statement was issued jointly by seven groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam and the Al-Rahman Legion.

 “Armed revolutionary factions were the first to fight terrorism… at a time when the regime was protecting areas controlled by Daesh,” the statement read.

 “Five months since the beginning of the Astana peace process and no concrete results have been achieved. The cease-fire has failed to hold. Russia has not lived up to its role as guarantor [of the regime’s adherence to the terms of the cease-fire],” it added.

 Opposition groups asserted that they had accepted the cease-fire on humanitarian grounds, with Turkey serving as guarantor that they would comply with the terms of the truce.

 They went on to cite Iran-backed foreign terrorist groups -- which have been fighting alongside the Assad regime -- as the main reason for rifts in Syrian society.

 “Iran is an occupying enemy that aims to undermine Syria’s identity, society and future. It must be held accountable for its crimes in Syria,” the groups said.

 They went on to say that the cease-fire should be applied without exception to include opposition-held areas and called on Russia to halt its airstrikes and ensure that the Assad regime refrain from breaching the truce.

 The opposition also called on Russia to work on applying UN Security Council resolutions 2118, 2139 and 2156 to allow refugees to return to their homes and political prisoners to be released.

 Moreover, the groups said they would “not cooperate with the regime in any capacity because the regime is practicing the worst kinds of state terrorism against the Syrian people”.'

There is a clear alternative to Assad. To say otherwise is nonsense



 Rime Allaf:

 'One of the oldest, most consistent and most offensive cliches about Syria is that “there is no alternative to Assad".

 That regime loyalists would claim such nonsense is a given. But that it would be repeated ad nauseam by various governments and mainstream media is ludicrous, especially when millions of Syrians have now paid the ultimate price for begging to differ.

 The Syrian opposition did not magically appear in 2011. Civil society movements have attempted to establish dialogue and demand changes for decades, even knowing full well how this notoriously brutal regime was likely to react.

 In fact, much of what happened in the first decade of Bashar Assad’s reign was a precursor to how today’s larger opposition would form itself, because way before the Syrian revolution, there was a Damascus Spring.

 Syrians always had the right to remain silent, and anything they said could and would be used against them, not only in the repressive 1980s and 1990s, but at the turn of the century when the Syrian regime graduated to a new level, becoming the modern era’s first hereditary republic.

 On 10 June 2000 - the day “the eternal leader” died - a parliament of minions changed the constitution in minutes to proclaim: Assad is dead, long live Assad. This blatant, formalised inheritance of power left no room for maneuver, but civil society activism persevered nonetheless.

 In September 2000, 99 Syrian intellectuals, writers and artists published “The Statement of the 99”, a restrained yet incredibly bold open letter to the regime calling for increased freedoms. Published in Al Hayat and circulated in hushed tones by stunned Syrians, it was ignored by Assad as many of those 99 found themselves invited for the infamous cups of coffee in intelligence buildings.

 This warning did not subdue them, and they penned a bolder statement known as “The Basic Document”, this time signed by 1,000 Syrians in January 2001. Demands then were already formulated around the basics of a more democratic and pluralistic system, including freedoms of speech and assembly, democratic practices, open elections, liberation of political detainees, equality of citizens, and independence of the judiciary.

 While this document may seem tame in today’s context, it was a phenomenon and a testament to growing political maturity. As always, their pens were a threat to the regime, and in an interview with Asharq Alawsat a few weeks later, Assad claimed that these signatories thought of themselves as elites but represented no one, and that they were either simpletons or foreign agents hurting the country, a leitmotif from which he never veered.

 The “simpletons” and “foreign agents” dared to continue with the publication of the “National Social Contract” of April 2001, but Bashar Assad was already killing the Damascus Spring, closing the civil society forums and throwing well known dissidents into jail for “threatening state security".

 After relative quiet during the invasion of Iraq, with a state of regime alert palpable all over Syria, the opposition demonstrated its tenacity with its “Damascus Declaration” of October 2005, signed by over 250 figures of whom several ended up in jail.

 When hundreds more signed the brave “Beirut-Damascus Declaration” of May 2006, as dissidents were jailed in Damascus and assassinated in Beirut, the regime’s wrath was fully unleashed on those who dared to question its authoritarianism in Syria and beyond.

 These events, and many other details of serious Syrian activism over the years, have been either forgotten or ignored when discussing the travails of the opposition today as it tries to effect change in the most difficult of circumstances. Adding insult to injury, it is often claimed today that “we don’t know what the opposition stands for” or that its commitments to democracy and pluralism are unclear.

 Yet, it was those same opposition figures, now joined by a new generation of bloggers, activists and revolutionaries, who helped carry the voice of the uprising to those who were willing to listen in 2011, and whose troves of statements and positions are readily available to anyone willing to read them.

 The first major post-uprising document on which most in the Syrian in opposition agreed was the “Cairo Document” of July 2012. In essence, it repeated what Syrian activists had been demanding for years, in very different conditions: democracy, pluralism, equality, good governance and the works.

 Further iterations of all these principles and outlines of transition plans have been issued at various stages of the uprising by different formal groups. To name but a few, the Syrian Coalition issued “Basic Principles for a Political Settlement” in February 2014, and the High Negotiations Committee a “Transition Plan” in September 2016.

 These documents and others have been tirelessly circulated amongst Syrians, delivered to UN officials and governments, and distributed through mainstream and social media. One would have to try hard to miss them - or to miss the multitude of principles and positions which have been issued by increasingly active civil society groups, demonstrating acumen and commitment.

 As the Syrian opposition’s decades-long civil and political struggle continues, there is much room for improvement in both planning and consensus, and accusations of disunity and lack of cohesion, even from exasperated supporters, are routine.

 But Syrians never wanted to replace the regime with another, exchanging one set of leaders with a custom-made alliance supposed to tick everyone’s boxes; the whole point of their struggle, as idealistic as it may have once been, was for transition to an equitable, participative system - not regime change.

 Observing the politics of any senate or parliament true to its name is a reminder that democracy can be chaotic, noisy, adversarial and, at times, infuriating. Having only recently found an open stage to air their similarities and differences, should Syrians be treated like minors, made to parrot lines in unison and show good behaviour before they can be considered as part of an alternative to a genocidal regime?

 Syrian opposition and civil society groups already agree on the fundamental issues and already commit to a transition to democracy, as they have written and declared repeatedly, a transition which takes into account the integration and adaptation of current state institutions into the new system of governance to which they aspire. Demanding much more of them at this stage neither makes sense, nor saves Syrians from unabated horror.

 There are a multitude of reasons why a transition has not yet been approved by those in control, but it is certainly not because there are no alternatives to Assad, and it is certainly not because nobody knows what the opposition’s aspirations are.'

Monday, 1 May 2017

Hama countryside is a stricken area as regime forces destroy everything: local council

Hama countryside is a stricken area as regime forces destroy everything: local council

 'Hama Governorate Council, in a statement issued on Saturday, said the northern countryside is a stricken area, and called on regional powers and the international community to stand with the displaced people who have endured a brutal and deadly aerial campaign for over 60 days.
 The opposition council said the Syrian army and its allied Shiite militias had destroyed the infrastructure, hospitals, schools, shelters and mosques.

 People have no way to survive daily shelling, the statement said.

 The northern countryside of Hama is regularly bombed by the air forces of Syria and its Russian ally.

 Backed by heavy Russian and regime airstrikes, the regime army seeks to expel rebels from the Hama province and to secure the Alawite dominated territory in al-Ghab Plain, local activists say.

 Early Sunday, at least 8 workers in Syria’s leaing rescuing group have been killed in Russian air strikes hit Kafr Zeita town in northern countryside, activists said.

 The 8 volunteers in the White Helmets were killed when Russian targeted their center with vacuum and cluster bombs

 The deadly bombing has out the main hospital in town out of service.

 Last week, the regime army took Helfaya, Soran and parts of Taybet al-Imam towns north of Hama city, expanding its territory along the strategic western highway between Damascus and Aleppo.

 The army has its eyes now set on the town of Morek on the highway crucial to control of western Syria.

 More than 465,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.'

Tribeca Film Review: ‘Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS’



 'The radical terror army known as ISIS operates far less in the shadows than the underground rebels of Al-Qaeda. Yet for most Westerners, the image of the Islamic State remains that of an abstract and rather murky cult of hooligan warriors. “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS,” a powerful and important documentary directed by Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested, is a movie of multiple achievements, and one of them is that it lets you look right into the face of this hydra-headed paramilitary beast. We see footage of ISIS fighters coming into Aleppo, a city already decimated by violence, but the newly arrived soldiers, from the start, have a goon-squad fearsomeness that announces itself as beyond the law. At the risk of sounding like I’m trivializing real-world atrocity, it’s very much like that moment in “The Road Warrior” where the Lord Humungus and his brigade of biker sociopaths first roll in, the recklessness coming off them in waves.

 The movie shows us disquieting footage of a public execution that culminates in an Islamic State soldier bringing down his sword to slice off the head of a civilian (the film cuts away before the carnage). We’re shown an image of what happens to the bodies — they are hung, upside down and headless, for three days, all to send a message to the people. The message is: This is the new law.

 Yet even as you’re recoiling from the horror, Junger and Quested make a point of providing a historical context for it. They show us etchings, from centuries ago, of men being drawn and quartered by the British government, plus photographs of ritual executions in Communist China and of lynchings in America (which, of course, were an integral part of the Southern system of enforcement, and were even treated as public entertainment). Not to mention the lyrics of the French National Anthem (“Let an impure blood soak our fields!”), so redolent of the guillotine.

 The point is that a force of destruction like ISIS doesn’t necessarily represent a new spirit in the world. In many ways, it represents the return of an old spirit. Ever since 9/11, we’ve heard the formulation that a movement like radical Islam emerges out of desperation, out of people who feel like they have few other options and no other hope — an impotence that is then transmuted into rage. (That doesn’t defend it; but it does help to explain it.) “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS” colors in how that dynamic emerges and operates.

 The movie chronicles, with mortifying humanity, the terror behind the terror — in this case, the war declared by Bashar al-Assad, the dictator of Syria, on his own people. According to the movie, Assad, who presides over a government of looters and criminals, looked around in 2011, during the brief insurrection of the Arab Spring, and when he saw the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, he realized he could be next. He knew there was no compromising with the spirit of revolution; if he agreed to “reforms,” that would just weaken his hold. So his strategy became one of ultimate crackdown: sending soldiers into the streets to murder any citizen who defied his decrees.

 We all know the death toll (400,000 Syrians killed), but “Hell on Earth” takes the full measure of the tragedy, and how it has transformed Syria into the chaotic center of a newly evolving global instability. We meet a man named Marwan, cloistered away in a dingy bunker with his wife and four children, where he tries, each day, to shield those children from fear. He is deeply articulate about his misery, his desire to live an ordinary life, and how it has been destroyed. “Hell on Earth” portrays the Syrian citizens, who live in a morass of civil war, with an emotional directness we can’t turn away from, to the point that it’s no longer possible to think of those citizens as “them.” They are us, or could be.

 The movie chronicles how the Islamic State moved into this situation like a group of militant mobsters. They offered people $400 “Forgiveness Cards”: Buy one and your sins against Allah are forgiven, so you won’t be killed. (Then the card expires, and the price goes up.) With ISIS, it was always about profit, going back to when they arose out of the ashes of postwar Iraq — and, emboldened by the missteps of U.S. policy (the de-Baathification that further de-stabilized an already catastrophic situation), were able to seize control of many of the nation’s oil wells, and to loot and sell antiquities: anything to fuel the fortunes of their own power. In Syria, ISIS treated the country as a host body for its parasitical brew of greed, slaughter, and ideological “purity.”

 “Hell on Earth” has a remarkable timeliness that could, and should, be taken advantage of by National Geographic, which produced it, and by any potential distribution partner. Junger and Quested took 39 trips to Syria to make this movie, shooting close to 1,000 hours of footage, and apart from the staggering bravery involved in such an endeavor, the dogged diligence of their mission results in something essential. Junger, the fabled author and journalist (“The Perfect Storm”), has become a much better filmmaker since “Restrepo” (2010), able to weave issues and shattering action into a fluid whole.

 He and Quested look back at the Obama administration’s response to the Syrian crisis, pinpointing how Obama committed a calamitous moral mistake in making his “red line” statement about the use of chemical weapons — pledging an America response if the line were crossed — only to renege on that promise. (Many Syrians had defected from the Army based on his words.)

 Yet President Trump’s “Check out my new military toy!” decision to bomb a Syrian airfield in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons was the fake version of a bolder policy. The film shows us the aftermath of the earlier chemical-weapons attack, and it is indeed gruesome. Junger and Quested, however, summon the ethical courage to suggest that there’s something stunted about the notion that murdering masses of civilians with sarin gas is something the U.S. — led by Trump or Obama — should draw a line in the sand about, but murdering masses of civilians with barrel bombs is simply accepted as business as usual. Chemical weapons, of course, have a special cruelty that’s only heightened by their historical associations, yet “Hell on Earth” says that the whole red-line thing has become a convoluted excuse for America to look the other way.

 You might expect a movie like this one to be depressing, yet “Hell on Earth” explains how the power of ISIS, even as it feeds on the fire of the Syrian crisis, is now in retreat, and may have peaked. Peter Berg, the great reporter-analyst of terrorism, is interviewed in the film and compares ISIS to Napoleon, whom he says was the greatest general of his time yet sowed the seeds of his own defeat by making enemies of everyone. ISIS, Berg claims, has done the same thing, exposing itself to so much global wrath that it’s now shrinking in power.

 Yet the ideology it represents is clearly not going anywhere. Junger and Quested mix in clips of ISIS recruitment videos, which at this point look like they were made for MTV, along with their signature chilling videos of beheadings (once again, the filmmakers stop short of showing actual carnage), which create a specter of warning. According to “Hell on Earth,” the forces that have given rise to ISIS are a mirror image of the death and corruption sowed by leaders like Assad and Saddam Hussein — and, to a degree, by the West’s thorny history of enabling those leaders. That’s why the mass calamity of Syria resonates with such force. It’s a country where any vestige of civil life has been destroyed, and however directly (or indirectly) the rest of the world has colluded in breaking Syria, we now all own it.'

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Sunday, 30 April 2017

Testimony of General Ahmed Tlass on the Syrian Regime and the Repression



  From April 2014.

 'Born in 1961 in the town of Rastan between Homs and Hama, General Ahmed Tlass graduated from the Police Academy with a doctorate in Political Science. After more than 20 years at the head of the police’s financial division in the governorate of Hama, he was in 2008 appointed Director of the Office of Contracts at the Ministry of the Interior in Damascus. He still held this position when he decided, on the 27th of July 2012, to distance himself from a power whose actions he could no longer accept. He is now a refugee in Amman, Jordan, where he testified to François Burgat, researcher at the CNRS at the Institute for Research and Studies on the Arab and Muslim World, and Principal Investigator for the European Council (ERC)-funded WAFAW program (When Authoritarianism Fails in the Arab World).

 Coming from a senior police chief in office at the beginning of the events in Syria, the testimony of General Ahmed Tlass is of particular significance. It shows how, from the beginning of the popular uprising, members of a cell under the authority of the Head of State himself deliberately sought to provoke an escalation of violence. Outside of the usual hierarchy, they ordered to shoot to kill. They organised spectacular attacks to warn off minorities and those thinking of rallying together in protest. They also manipulated information to deter external powers from supporting the revolutionaries.

 "My name is General Ahmed Tlass. I come from Rastan, a small town on the banks of the Orontes, where I lived for a long time and where I saw these events unfold. I was witness in Hama to the burgeoning protest movement. I was in charge of the Office of Contracts at the Ministry of the Interior. Before defecting, I was of course kept informed of events in different cities on a daily basis, especially in Homs which was close to my hometown.

 In my position at the Ministry of the Interior I had more than twenty men under my command. It was through this office that all the contracts relative to the various departments passed. I dealt therefore directly with more than half of the members of government. I studied the contracts, I signed them off, and then I followed through. I worked primarily with the Russians, Iranians and Koreans. I had contacts in French and German companies but without our business ever concluding. I will not expand here, it is not the place, on the countless types of corruption which my men and myself were exposed to. It came from individuals inside and outside of Syria, sometimes working at the Presidential Palace, and could take many forms: money, mobile phones and even cars …

 I am speaking now as a citizen. I witnessed the events that I will speak about both as a simple Syrian and as an officer. I will relay what I saw, what I observed in the course of my duties, the facts that I will now expound.

 What is known as « the explosion of March 15, 2011,” actually began several years ago in Syria. In the months preceding the revolution, writings – leaflets and graffiti – had emerged, either distributed or drawn on walls, around Damascus and on the walls at the Ministry of the Interior. There was no mention of regime change. All people wanted was the implementation of genuine reforms and they demanded the rights and freedoms that they felt deprived of. For a long time in our country, young people and students, between 18 and 30 years old, had suffered from unemployment. They were unable to establish a family life. We had also for a long time, a large population of prisoners. They were not criminals but opponents. Their families did not understand why they had been arrested and they demanded to be released.

 Some members of the intelligence services thought that it would be better to let these demands find expression to ease the tension. They were not in fact unfamiliar with this multiplication of leaflets and posters. Others felt on the contrary, that it was preferable to put an end to a movement that could expand and radicalize as soon as possible. What happened next was that young people were arrested. Not individuals caught red-handed, but activists who were denounced by informers. It was the same in other cities.

 By mid December 2010, these kinds of writings had multiplied. In Damascus, and also in Homs and the rest of the country, leaflets listing their demands had been placed on the walls of schools, shops and mosques. Spontaneous protests were held in several places.

 In early 2011, people gathered on Merjeh Square, near the Ministry of the Interior to demand the release of certain prisoners. Officers came out to talk to them and listen. I was not with them. But from what I was told, they spoke courteously with the protesters, whom they asked to disperse politely. The officers made some promises they did not keep, but, for a time, soothed the resentment. The protesters dispersed calmly once the discussions had ended.

 On February 17 in Hariqa, following the heavy-handed arrest of a young man, shopkeepers and their customers gathered at the entrance of the souk. They took the opportunity to shout out about what they had suffered in silence for a long time, and that they had had neither the courage nor, until now, the opportunity to express.

 Said Sammour, who was the Interior Minister, came to the scene. Although less capable than his predecessor, Bassam Abdel-Majid, he was able to contain the protest movement before it degenerated. The situation ended without violence and quickly vanished from the media.

 The situation became more complicated with the events at Daraa. The death of young people, medical students killed in the night, with bullets or bludgeoned within the university campus of the capital led to widespread anger throughout the country. But who had given the orders to the authors of these murders for them to act as they did?

 I must say a few words here about the decision making process in Syria. Everyone has heard of the Crisis Management Division, established at the beginning of the uprising and placed under the formal authority of the Assistant Regional Secretary of the Baath Party. Everyone also knows that the Syrian Ministry of Defence develops plans regularly to protect the country from aggression. What nobody knows, however, is that there is another instance of decision. It does not officially exist. It does not include the Minister of the Interior, or the Minister of Defence. It never acts in broad daylight but in the shade and this is where the decisions are made.

 It is here that strategy is defined, not with the Crisis Management Division. It consists of officers from different services, selected one by one, by name, who are specifically assigned to their tasks and who work at the Presidential Palace. This committee, if one can call it such, since it has no name, is headed by Bashar al-Assad in person. And it is his will that prevails. When there is no particular emergency, members will use their status and privileges to organize their lives of leisure. I’m sure you understand.

 In the spring of 2011, it would have been possible to contain the protest movement that later developed in the country. But for this to happen it would have been necessary to listen to the protesters’ demands, in Daraa, Homs, Hama, it would have been necessary to bring reasonable answers that would have allowed them to believe in a resolution of their grievances. Instead, violence was used against them. A violence that their behaviour did not justify.

 In Homs, the General Mounir Adanov, Deputy Chief of Staff, and a general named Ali, a deputy director of the Military Security whose name I cannot recall, had been asked to restore order. But some radical Alawite officers, I am sorry to speak in a way that I disapprove, « wanted blood”. The former gave instructions not to open fire unless express orders from them were given. The latter therefore petitioned the local Police Chief, General Hamid Mer’ei. He refused to give them a power that was not in his prerogatives to give. I must add immediately that as a result of his refusal to give the order to fire on the demonstrators, General Adanov and the other General, were later dismissed for « health issues ». Their extremist colleagues had got them, and they were publicly bragging about it.

 General Ali Habib, the Minister of Defence, who had refused to give the army the order to enter Hama, after opposing their entry into Daraa, experienced the same fate for the same reasons. It was said he was “sick ». I saw him afterwards. He was in fine health. All the other advocates within the government of a moderate strategy were gradually marginalized. I could mention here the General Manaf Tlass, but I prefer to say nothing about it because we are parents. In contrast, the « radicals » eager to fight and kill, they all remained in place.

 To illustrate my point, here is what happened in Hama. The people of this city were peaceful and friendly. I know this because I lived and worked there for many years. They refused to resort to arms, the same as the people of Homs and other cities too. Traffickers and traders, whose names I know but I do not want to mention here, offered them weapons at any price that suited them. But they refused. They wanted to make a stand with words and not violence. They had rights and they maintained their claims that they wanted to be heard. They did not want to express themselves in armed confrontation. And they were willing to accept the consequences of their decisions. On July 1st 2011, the day of a huge gathering attended by perhaps half a million people, they unfurled a huge Syrian flag. They also erected a gallows for the « criminal » Bashar al-Assad, which they later removed.

 I was there that day, on the terrace of the local Baath party headquarters, along with the political, administrative, military and security heads of the city. Governor Ahmed Abdel-Aziz was there, a very respectable man, the Commander of the Police, General Mahmoud Sa’oudi, the head of Military Security, Mohammed Muflih and the branch secretary of the Baath. Men responsible for ensuring security were gathered downstairs, in the same building. They watched the protest. The Governor had expressly forbidden anyone to open fire. All the previous protests had been held in peace. In fact, after the demonstrations, young people returned to the protest spots with brooms to clean up the streets.

 The protest happened in front of us without any incident. None of the protesters were armed. But when the crowd reached Orontes Square, about 300 meters from where I was standing, gunfire erupted. According to an investigation by the police to which I had access, it came from twenty people, 22 to be precise from the Military Security, who had been joined by one member of State Security. All were Officers and all were Alawite Kurds. They had been transported to Al-Yaroubieh, then dispatched and hidden in different places. Mohammed Muflih was as startled and angry as I was regarding this unjustifiable intervention. It violated all instructions and it resulted in dozens of deaths. Since none of us had authorized this intervention – who had given the order?

 In Syria, as I have said, there is a state inside the heart of the state. A state at the core of an already sectarian state, from which orders are sent without any respect for the regular hierarchy. In other words, it is not always the leaders of the military and members of the security services that are behind the orders to shoot to kill, which are, in theory, to be obeyed by the men under their authority. During another demonstration in Hama, a man was spotted while in position on the top of a water tower. He fired on the people. Brave young men approached him, captured and delivered him to the Military Security. It was only then discovered that he belonged to the very same service. He maintained that he had received direct orders to act as he did. So, the 23 men I mentioned above were transferred elsewhere without any proper investigation, and most importantly, without being condemned for what they had done. The same thing happened in Homs, a large number of peaceful citizens were killed in identical conditions.

 Young people gathered on April 18 for a sit-in in the centre of the city, at the base of the old clock. All officials involved in security were at the Police Head Quarters, close by. Envoys went to negotiate with those who occupied the square to convince them to evacuate. They were a few thousand demonstrators, between 5,000 and 10,000 perhaps. They refused to leave. In the middle of the night, we held a meeting with General Mounir Adanov, who was already there, to decide what was to be done. We asked the young people once more to leave the square, taking any route they wanted. But while talks continued, officers of mukhabarat jawwiyeh – the Security Service of the Air Force – which had been dispatched from Damascus to « disperse the thugs » began to spray the crowd with bullets. They killed dozens of people. They were obeying orders to shoot on sight that were given by senior security officials.

 Once again we are speaking about invisible forces, but powerful enough to give direct instructions to the members of their organization. These members are agents from diverse intelligence services. They can also come from other departments, such as Education. It is, no more no less, as I have said, a state within the state.

 The members of this « commission » intervene in all areas. For example, while the protests were in their fourth month, the Ministry of Interior started looking for specific policing apparatus. The streets were on fire, but the number of dead still few. We were looking for appropriate methods to deal with the circumstances. We had begun discussions with the Turks who had agreed to sell us plastic shields, metal helmets, batons … for the police and security forces. But despite the fact that the deal was done and that we had agreed on the dispatch of the materials, the quantities and prices, and there were no more signatures needed, I received an order from the Presidential Palace. I was told to abandon the project, drop the Turks and acquire these materials from the Iranians. In fact, at the higher levels there had never been any intention of doing business with the Turkish government.

 So I requested an appointment with the Iranian Embassy in Damascus, that I obtained immediately. Composed of a dozen experts, the delegation that I was leading was met by the Ambassador himself. We met with the entire staff of the Embassy immediately, the political advisors to the military and the cultural attachés. Before we had time to explain the reason for our visit, they told us they were ready to meet our equipment needs, both in terms of quality and quantity, as soon as possible. Nothing could be easier. Manufacturing would be quick, they explained to us in detail, because all weapons produced in their country belonged to the state. The delivery would be immediate, since every day two planes with pilgrims from Iran arrived in Damascus. We also explained that we only needed protective or defensive equipment. We were not looking for lethal weapons.

 The Ambassador, dressed as a Shia cleric and speaking with great authority told us: « You can request anything you want. If you want Ahmadinejad to come in person to Syria, let me know. He will be there the next day. » We were surprised to find that he had knowledge of what was happening in every corner of our country, knowledge at least as detailed as ours. He acknowledged contacts with Bouthaina Shaaban at the Palace. Speaking in the name of his President, he seemed to enjoy an unusual capacity in decision-making, especially for an Ambassador on this kind of subject. It was something I had never seen before, even among Russians. He wanted to give us gifts. I refused. He insisted. I continued to refuse. He then suggested we share a light meal before leaving. I agreed. While we were seated, a woman came in without knocking. She was not wearing the chador, the veil usually worn by Iranian women. She walked around the room, and after exchanging glances with the Ambassador, whom I was sitting opposite, she left without saying a word. I realized later the message that the ambassador had wanted to give us: « You refuse my gifts, but will you refuse everything I can offer you?”

 I must now say a few words about the indiscriminate attacks that occurred in Damascus at the end of 2011 and in early 2012. I can confirm that all these spectacular operations were carried out by the regime. And if not all of them, very nearly all of them. You can take this as reliable and corroborated information. Either way I will only speak here of attacks for which I have first-hand information, transmitted by officers who conducted the investigation. I’m not talking about ordinary officers, but members of the secret cell I mentioned previously.

 The first attack took place December 23, 2011, outside the headquarters of the Kafr Sousseh State Security. Others followed, on March 17, 2012, outside the headquarters of the Air Force’s Intelligence Service, the mukhabarat jawwiyeh, and in front of the Criminal Safety Department.

 Regarding the attack against the Air Force’s Intelligence Service, it should be noted that the building was empty. It was guarded, but in advance of the attack, it had been emptied of its furniture and the occupants evacuated. As surveillance cameras attest, the minibus that exploded in front of its wall was parked there for two days before it exploded… We were presented with the bodies of 25 victims on the television. Two or three, at most, were killed in the attack. Unfortunately they were just passing by. Some residents of the nearby Christian area – Qasaa – had been traumatized by the sound of the explosion. Others were injured by flying glass. But none of them had been killed. As soon as the Minister of the Interior reached the scene with the heads of various intelligence services he inquired to the losses suffered by the Christians. When he heard that no Christians had died in the explosion, he exclaimed: « What, there are no Christians among the victims. That’s impossible – none of them are dead?” as if, in fact, the operation had failed because its objective was to terrorize the community by killing some of its members!

 One of the attacks on the 23 December 2011 had targeted the headquarters of the so-called Far’ al-Mintaqa of the State Security (General Intelligence). Minutes after the explosion, General Rustom Ghazaleh, head of this branch, was on site. State media claimed the operation had killed 45 people, a record. But I can assure you that the majority of people believed to have died at that time were in fact killed elsewhere and otherwise. The operation was carried out on a Friday morning. The explosion occurred at a time when, apart from a few pedestrians, nobody is on the street. There were only two or three officers on duty outside the building. Unlike weekdays, there were no Friday gatherings of detainee relatives, come to request an official document, an early release, a right of access etc. Only the wall of the building in question had been affected and partially destroyed. There is no doubt that that case was also fabricated by the regime. Some officers of the intelligence services say in private that they believe that the order came from Bashar al-Assad himself.

 So where did the bodies come from? They had simply been brought to the scene. A friend of mine told me about a shopkeeper he knew, in Homs, who owned a refrigerated truck. He used it to transport fruit and vegetables. The Mukhabarat found him and ordered him to follow them with his vehicle. They went to the military hospital in the city, which faces the Military Academy, called the War School. He parked his truck inside the hospital and was told to wait. They opened the truck and piled the corpses inside. Then they told him to take the road to Damascus, where he was escorted and where the bodies were delivered. The next day, the attacks began, showing decomposed bodies…

 An officer friend told me: « 80% of us are not with Bashar al-Assad. Everyone knows that the father of Rami Makhlouf was poor and look what he has today, we have nothing to do with the murders, rapes, robberies happening today. What can we do?”

 All young people in Syria can be arrested. Even officers’ sons are not safe. They can be arrested just like the others, sometimes at the checkpoints that protect and separate the different neighbourhoods, sometimes at home. Then, after a few days, weeks or months, their corpses are returned to their relatives. The Mukhabarat respect no law when they search houses and make arrests. What crimes had these kids committed? They were simply protesting peacefully. They only demanded more freedom and more dignity."



Translation by Louise Rosen'