Jacobin and “The War on Syria”

Over on the Jacobin website, you can read a 7,700 word article by Patrick Higgins titled the “The War on Syria” that encapsulates all of the arguments made on behalf of the Baathist state since early 2011 when the left was challenged to take sides on a conflict that according to some reports has killed up to 330,000, and wounded or displaced 13 million. To put that into perspective, if Syria had the same population as the USA, the numbers would have been 4.6 million and 187 million respectively. Whatever your take on Bashar al-Assad, there is probably a consensus on this being a horrible disaster, including Patrick Higgins.

Higgins’s well-worn argument has been repeated across a wide swath of the left, from the Trotskyist far-left to the liberal Salon.com. Using Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi’s “The Syria Dilemma”, a collection of articles that includes a piece by Charles Glass who happens to agree with Higgins, as a convenient launching pad for an assault on the other side in the debate, the article makes the following points:

1. Postel and Hashemi are part of a network of “humanitarian intervention” advocates who have gotten us into messes in Yugoslavia and Iraq.

2. Claims that Baathist military and police snipers firing on peaceful protests caused the formation of the FSA are false. Within the first year, the opposition wanted to militarize the conflict.

3. The USA was eager to see an armed rebellion against a legitimate government and gave the green light to the CIA to launch a secret war of the kind that took place in Nicaragua and Angola, with the clear implication that the FSA amounts to the Syrian “contras”.

4. There is no evidence that the uprising had anything to do with democracy. The primary actors in the opposition are Islamic extremists of the kind that have made places like Somalia a living hell, with no fundamental differences between ISIS and the “moderate” rebels.

5. The primary forces for progress in the region remain the government of Bashar al-Assad, Hizbollah, and Iran who are defending a state rooted in Arab nationalism, state socialism, and secular tolerance of all religions against fanatics funded and egged on by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the USA.

In one form or another, Higgins’s article has appeared probably no less than a thousand times since early 2011 when the overwhelming majority of the left began to view Syria through the prism of the war in Iraq with Barack Obama being cast as having George W. Bush “regime change” ambitions.

As a minority of not quite one but probably no more than a dozen, I pointed out in a CounterPunch article titled “Why Obama Did Not Make War on Syria” that this was utter nonsense. Indeed, just as so much of the left was running around like Chicken Little, it was exactly when Obama was on the phone with Iran exploring a rapprochement—the country that supposedly he was bent on destroying. What is distinctly odd about Higgins’s article is that it ignores the vast geopolitical changes that have taken place around Syria that make his article read as if it was submitted to Jacobin in 2013 when fears about Obama’s “red line” war threats were at a fever pitch. Had Bhaskar Sunkara misplaced the article in a file cabinet somewhere and only stumbled across it in August 2015? I can only wonder.

In fact when Obama did go to war in Syria, it was against the Islamic jihadists of ISIS and not Bashar al-Assad. When 54 “moderate” rebels were vetted to fight against ISIS, they were given strict instructions not to waste a single bullet against Baathist troops. The bogeyman Saudi Arabia has drawn closer not only to Iran but also to Russia, the two nations that are seen as “the axis of resistance” to the evil West. I can go on and on but will only state at this point that it is rather sad to see a serious young journalist putting so much effort into such a long article that is so full of distortions and cherry-picked evidence. It is a reminder that “propaganda” must not be thought of as the work of a lawyer defending a client. You would expect an Alan Dershowitz to do everything he could to make Claus Von Bulow to look good. That is how lawyers make a living, and a good one at that. Radical journalists have to live up to higher standards if we want to be taken seriously, however.

To start with, there was never any intention by Barack Obama to launch a “humanitarian intervention” in Syria whatever people like Nicholas Kristof or Samantha Power sought. On October 22nd, 2013, the NY Times reported that “from the beginning, Mr. Obama made it clear to his aides that he did not envision an American military intervention, even as public calls mounted that year for a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from bombings.” The article stressed the role of White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough, who had frequently clashed with the hawkish Samantha Power. In contrast to Power and others with a more overtly “humanitarian intervention” perspective, McDonough “who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria.”

When “humanitarian intervention” finally did arrive, it did not spark thousands of antiwar activists to take to the streets since it was being directed against the universally despised ISIS and on behalf of the plucky Kurds who were building a new society based on anarchist principles according to some. At the time Jacobin ran an article that warned against outside intervention but only from Turkey, the long-time enemy of the Kurds. It was much less worried about the USA and even castigated it for not delivering arms to the PYD that was defending Kobane. But not to worry, the USA finally stepped up to the plate and acted to save the anarchist experiment.

Talal Raman, a 36-year-old Kurdish fighter, worked on a Samsung tablet, annotating a Google Earth map marked with the positions of the deserted apartment buildings and crumbling villas from where his colleagues were battling Islamic State fighters south of this northern Syrian town. He pinpointed in yellow the positions where his men were hunkered behind a wall, and highlighted in red the coordinates of a building next to a mosque where Islamic State fighters had taken cover.

“Our comrades can see the enemy moving at the GPS address I just sent you,” he wrote in Arabic to a handler hundreds of miles away in a United States military operations room. Then he waited for the American warplanes to scream in.

The tight coordination of American air power with the militia, known as the Y.P.G., from the Kurdish initials for People’s Protection Units, has dealt the Islamic State its most significant setbacks across an enormous strip of northern Syria near the Turkish border in recent months.

NY Times, August 10, 2015

Higgins is far more patient with the Kurdish militia than he is with the FSA:

Amid the brutal sectarian strife across Syria and the Middle East, the PYD’s project in Rojava has over the past year understandably appeared as a spark of hope to many leftists in the West. Their admiration is not misplaced.

But it must still be said that the future of Rojava very much rests on how much room the PYD decides to give to the United States as it considers exploiting the party to deepen divides in Syria.

I don’t know how much more room there is to give in light of the Kurds supplying GPS coordinates. That’s cheek by jowl, isn’t it?

You can bet that if the FSA were supplying GPS coordinates to American jets that were dropping bombs on Baathist troops, you’d see Higgins screaming bloody murder. He is up in arms when the question of “right to protect” comes up in the Postel-Hashemi book but can only say “tut-tut, boys will be boys” when it comes to the biggest projection of American air power anywhere in the world today. In fact, I would bet a small fortune that Higgins is okay with American jets now targeting the al-Nusra front since everybody knows that al-Qaeda must be stopped. That is, everybody who has read their Christopher Hitchens.

Higgins presents an addled history of the war in Syria that is meant to demonize the FSA. He claims that they were champing at the bit to make war, even within the first month of the Syrian protests in 2011 when they slaughtered 120 Baathist cops in Jisr al-Shughour out of the blue between June 3rd and June 6th, according to a BBC article to which Higgins linked. What would be useful to point out, however, is that the BBC was merely quoting Syrian television that had a vested interest in making the opposition look as wantonly bloodthirsty as possible. If Higgins would have us take the word of the BBC on what happened in Jisr al-Shughour, he might have taken the trouble to read and report on a follow-up report from the BBC on the roots of the conflict there:

On 3 June, after Friday prayers, protesters gathered in Jisr al-Shughour to demonstrate against the Syrian government. At least one man was killed. Activists say Baseel al-Masri was shot by government security forces.

Masri was buried the following day. Mohammed Fazo, an activist using a pseudonym, told the BBC around 15,000 people attended the funeral procession. He said he personally witnessed what happened next.

“During the funeral, snipers on the roof of the post office building fired at the protesters,” he said.

This is apparently corroborated by another eyewitness, by the name of Abu Abdulla. “There was indiscriminate shooting at the protesters,” he told the BBC by phone.

But none of this would have been useful to someone serving as a defense lawyer for the Baathist dictatorship, and a cheap one at that. Why make the opposing side look good? Would you have expected Alan Dershowitz to provide a witness for the defense who would testify that Claus Von Bulow admitted to him or her that he was thinking about killing his wife and absconding with her millions? No way.

To back up his claims about what took place at Jisr al-Shughour, Higgins cites Joshua Landis, a scholar who once wrote in the NY Times: “For Mr. Assad to help the United States, he must have sufficient backing from Washington to put greater restrictions and pressure on the Sunni majority.” Well, no matter. After Landis recounts how local protesters became outraged over having been fired upon by government snipers and made their determination clear about using arms if necessary to defend themselves, Landis admits that they had “a compelling argument”. This is not a part of Landis’s article that Higgins would want his readers to track down. I suppose that most people had little patience to read every reference found in a 7,700 word article as I did but something told me from the very start that it did not pass the smell test.

Higgins cites a Washington Post article dated June 12th that alleges that “the CIA has trained and equipped nearly 10,000 fighters sent into Syria over the past several years”, something that prompts him to complain: “In other words, the United States launched a full-scale war against Syria, and few Americans actually noticed.” Well, I don’t know about a few Americans but as someone who reads Global Research, WSWS.org, Salon.com, ConsortiumNews, DissidentVoice, and Jacobin on a fairly regular basis, the notion of America being in a full-scale war with Syria is old news—even if I never bought it. I was much more convinced by The Wall Street Journal that reported in January 2015 on CIA aid in terms at odds with what Higgins claimed:

Some weapons shipments were so small that commanders had to ration ammunition. One of the U.S.’s favorite trusted commanders got the equivalent of 16 bullets a month per fighter. Rebel leaders were told they had to hand over old antitank missile launchers to get new ones—and couldn’t get shells for captured tanks. When they appealed last summer for ammo to battle fighters linked to al Qaeda, the U.S. said no.

Entire CIA-backed rebel units, including fighters numbering in the “low hundreds” who went through the training program, have changed sides by joining forces with Islamist brigades, quit the fight or gone missing.

“We walk around Syria with a huge American flag planted on our backs, but we don’t have enough AK-47s in our hands to protect ourselves,” a leader of the Hazzm Movement, among the most trusted of the trusted commanders, told U.S. lawmakers in a meeting after Nusra’s advances.

That’s some full-scale war. The Journal article was in line with many media accounts. I would recommend to Patrick Higgins that if he wants to be taken seriously, he at least must acknowledge their existence the next time he writes another defense of Bashar al-Assad.

To show that he has a sense of humor, Higgins writes that there is a central contradiction in Syrian politics that belies the notion that a revolution of any kind has been taking place there. When I noticed that the words “central contradiction” were hyperlinked, I followed it up just as I did with every other in the article. Lo and behold, it led to an article by Mao Zedong titled “On Contradiction”. I laughed my head off, especially seeing this in Jacobin. MRZine I could understand but Jacobin with its anti-Stalinist pretensions? Well, maybe Maoism explains Higgins’s susceptibility to what some call Hipster Stalinism. I saw the best minds of my generation—well, maybe the nearly best—destroyed by the Little Red Book 40 years ago. Too bad this nonsense has any currency today. If you want to understand “contradiction”, you are much better off reading David Harvey, not Mao’s watered down Marxism.

A large portion of Higgins’s article is taken up with the task of defending his client against charges of Alawite sectarianism. His arguments are so absurd on the face of it, that there is very little need to bother with them. However, the idea that because Iran funds the PFLP, the Syria-Iran axis cannot be sectarian is so preposterous that something must be said. Once again showing evidence that he doesn’t even read the articles he links to, Higgins neglects to mention that the article he citesIran Increases Aid to PFLP— is clear about the strictly pecuniary basis of these ties:

High-level PFLP sources at home and abroad revealed to Al-Monitor that Iran has resumed its financial and military support for the group in recent months in order to strengthen its alliance with the “Palestinian resistance forces” and not limit itself to only supporting Islamist movements such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

“Following the resumption of Iranian support, there will soon be a dramatic increase in the strength of the PFLP’s military wing, the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, after the internal reorganization of the group is completed,” the sources said.

The PFLP has come out in support of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah’s position on the Syrian crisis. PFLP officials have made pro-regime statements and held Gaza rallies in which participants raised pictures of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

In other words, Iran is paying for the PFLP’s support for Bashar al-Assad after the fashion of Goldman-Sachs or ExxonMobil buying the vote of some politician on corporate taxes. Only a cynic about the Middle East would interpret this as a break with sectarianism. It can better be described as engaging in bribery. In fact the article reports that when Hamas threw its moral support behind the Syrian revolt in 2011, Iranian money dried up. When it ultimately decided to get with the program and oppose the rebels, the money started flowing again. It is quite remarkable that an American leftist can get behind such political horse-trading but if your job is to prepare legal briefs rather than discover the truth, all bets are off.

Attempting to show that he is not a complete Baathist tool, Higgins recommends something called the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change that would like to see democracy and fair play in Syria—bully for them. Perhaps the most useful way of putting the NCCDC into context is to refer to an Al-Akhbar article written in 2011 that described the group as having an outlook that “is out of touch with the prevailing sentiment of the uprising, which seems intent on toppling the regime.” This is a newspaper that Max Blumenthal described as loaded with Assad apologists so one might think that another apologist like Higgins might have been smart enough to avoid trying to con his readers into taking such an impotent formation seriously.

Unable to ignore the obvious realities, Higgins is forced to admit that it was rural poverty that fueled the protests in 2011. But have no fear, our intrepid reporter is sure not to give the revolt more legitimacy than it deserves because it “lacked a vision and, therefore, any revolutionary agent.” Maybe these poor benighted hungry peasants should have been reading The Little Red Book instead of the Quran. That would have assuaged our exacting critic of uprisings against torturing police states, one might hope.

When discussing political Islam’s role in the early stages of the Syrian uprising, Higgins is sure to remind his readers that the “conservative” Muslim Brotherhood was lurking behind every tree, a curse to all progressive-minded and secular governments in the Middle East. So give General al-Sisi some credit, a strongman who knew how to deal with these troublemakers, gaining Bashar al-Assad’s blessing who also understood that state-sanctioned murder gets results.

On his blog, Higgins had a comment about the Brotherhood that pretty much sums up his outlook on Middle East politics:

As for the SNC [Syrian National Council], it was run by a group with leanings to which the American public would not be sympathetic, the Muslim Brotherhood, but it was fronted by liberals.

Don’t you just love the bit about “leanings to which the American public would not be sympathetic”? It is as if he has the PBS donor base in mind. This is the dreary Islamophobic stain across the entire “anti-imperialist” left that reminds me of Christopher Hitchens so much, even as many like Higgins see themselves as antiwar prophets in the wilderness. It is sad that Jacobin would spread such propaganda around so liberally in any number of articles but I suppose you can at least give them credit for not being much worse than the rest of the left when it comes to Syria. It is a kind of political and spiritual malaise that future historians will be at a loss to understand when they look back at the early 21st century. God give them the strength to penetrate through the lies and to serve the greater interests of peace and social justice.

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.