The Left and East Ghouta

While reports filter out of East Ghouta about suffering on a massive scale reminiscent of the siege of Leningrad in 1941, some on the left support Assad’s war crimes because they see them as necessary for winning the war on terror just as Germans supported the war on Bolshevism back then.

Three of Assad’s leading defenders are associated with Alternet’s Gray Zone, a project initiated by Max Blumenthal who was soon joined by Ben Norton and Rania Khalek in churning out talking points for the Baathist dictatorship. Perhaps the rumor mill’s whispers are correct that the Gray Zone has gotten the axe. That would explain why the three have used other mediums to defend a harsh but necessary siege.

Writing for RT, an unimpeachable source, Rania Khalek hopes to answer the question “What the mainstream media isn’t telling you about Eastern Ghouta”. “For years, insurgents in Eastern Ghouta have terrorized and killed thousands of civilians living in Damascus, which you almost never hear about in the West. Instead, mainstream outlets are busy crying out for the west to do something.”

While Max Blumenthal has been mostly silent since Gray Zone’s possible demise, he made sure to endorse Khalek in a tweet: “As Rania explains, those calling for the US to ‘do something’ in Syria omit the fact that it already has – it has spent billions of dollars to arm right-wing death squads and equip their civil society components.”

This prompted CounterPunch co-editor Joshua Frank to tweet back: “Sure but who is dropping missiles in Ghouta? Why can’t we oppose US involvement and also oppose Assad/Iran/Russia slaughter? It’s a complex battlefield yet Khalek’s analysis would have us believe otherwise. She supports the War on Terror as long as they aren’t US bombs. Shameful.” This echoed Jeff St. Clair’s observation in the February 23rd issue of CounterPunch: “Only the most hardened Assadite could look at the carnage in eastern Ghouta from merciless Russian and Syrian airstrikes and not be appalled. I take it as a basic rule that any aerial bombing campaign against cities is a war crime, even if all those hospitals are being hit by ‘accident.’”

Finally, there is Ben Norton who, like Blumenthal, made a 180 degree reversal on Syria that some viewed as pecuniary in motive since his employer Alternet, like most left-liberal on-line magazines, is staunchly behind Assad. In my view, this amounts to vulgar Marxism where everything is dictated by greed or as the catch-phrase in “All the President’s Men” puts it: “follow the money”. A better explanation would be that neither Norton nor Blumenthal were ever that committed to writing against Assad in the first place. To do so on a long-term basis requires a stubbornness that most normal people lack. So call me abnormal.

This time Norton used The Real News Network  to make almost the same points as Khalek, including the words in his title: “What the Media Ignores About the Battle for Syria’s Eastern Ghouta”.“Intense bombing by the Syrian government, in alliance with Russia, has killed large numbers of civilians in Eastern Ghouta, which the Syrian government has besieged for years. Extremist rebels have also indiscriminately attacked civilian areas in Damascus, killing civilians in government-held areas.” So, here we have it. Both sides have been killing people but at least Assad opposes sharia law, is clean-shaven and would never dispatch terrorists to wreak havoc in Park Slope.

It might help to take a look at exactly how many people have been killed on either side. Mark Lowcock, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, wrote a report on the fighting for the Security Council last month  that provides the numbers:

Over 580 people since 18 February are now reported to have been killed due to air and ground-based strikes in eastern Ghouta, with well over 1,000 people injured. At the same time hundreds of rockets from eastern Ghouta into Damascus have reportedly killed 15 people, and injured over 200.

Okay, for every person killed in government-controlled territory, there have been nearly 20 times as many killed in East Ghouta. Now, some might be tempted to dismiss this as imperialist propaganda since the UN is largely viewed on the left as an enemy of the “axis of resistance”. However, I only learned of the report from a British academic named Florian Zollman, who considered it as confirmation that the rebels were no angels. Zollman, another media expert like the Gray Zone 3, has a piece in today’s Monthly Review Online titled “Fake News by Design” exculpating Assad from the slaughter of 116 civilians in 2012 so rest assured that he is no UN tool.

Reading all this material gave me a sense of déjà vu. Where have I heard such arguments before? Was it in a bad dream? Before long, I remembered when. It was back in 2012 when Israel was pounding Gaza from the air after Hamas had fired rockets that had about the same impact on Israel that rebel rockets have on Damascus. Netanyahu claimed the right to self-defense just as Assad does: “Our policy with respect to the Gaza Strip is very clear. Israel won’t tolerate any rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. The IDF will respond to such provocation. Israel holds Hamas responsible for all rocket from the Gaza Strip into Israel. Hamas is obligated to prevent firing.” Did it matter that Hamas rockets were totally ineffective? Who would want to bring that up when you were looking for excuses to support the IDF bombing the hell out of Gaza? Or bringing up the 20 to 1 ratio in civilians killed in East Ghouta? After all, both Hamas and the rebels in East Ghouta were Islamic extremists who deserved what they got.

To show that he wasn’t a beast, Netanyahu dropped leaflets into Gaza warning people to get out of town. Maybe Assad got that idea from him when he dropped leaflets into East Aleppo before it got the same treatment East Ghouta is getting now. He ordered civilians to carry the leaflet in one hand and hold their children in the other as they went on their way. So generous of him. Maybe Hitler wasn’t all bad himself. His air force dropped leaflets in Leningrad during the siege telling Russians that if they disarmed, they’d be spared.

One wonders why Assad didn’t bomb Hamas in the first place since it has been opposed to Assad since 2012, only remaining silent from time to time under pressure from Tehran. In 2012, its leader Ismail Haniya addressed people attending prayers in a mosque: “I salute all people of the Arab Spring, or Islamic winter, and I salute the Syrian people who seek freedom, democracy and reform.”

The Gray Zone 3 all use Palestine solidarity as an excuse for backing Assad. Since Hezbollah is fighting against the rebels, this must mean that the rebels are aligned with Israel. Proof of this conspiracy is that some of their fighters have been treated in Israeli hospitals from time to time. This outweighs Russia’s close ties to Israel that are never mentioned by this part of the left. Putin is on record as stating: “The development of mutually advantageous and constructive relations with Israel in the political, economic, humanitarian and other fields was and will remain the priority of Russia’s foreign policy.” Proof of that is Russia using Israeli-made drones over Syria, part of a 400 million dollar arms deal between the two countries.

Why has East Ghouta become a living hell recently, even more so than in the past? Perhaps this is the result of Assad finally turning to a remaining rebel enclave after final victory in places like Homs and East Aleppo was achieved. Once East Ghouta has been “liberated”, the regime will be free to finally deliver the death blow to Idlib, the last sanctuary for “terrorists” in the country.

Another factor was the totally unexpected advance of the rebels about a year ago that took the Baathists by surprise. That was when rebels overran government positions on the outskirts of Damascus. After Assad achieved victory in East Aleppo in 2015 (even if by Iranian ground troops and Russian bombing), most people—including me—viewed the war as coming to an end. The rebel surge near Damascus last March was accompanied by advances in Daraa, Hama, and even once again in Aleppo. One can understand why the rebels had refused to roll over and play dead. After a ceasefire was agreed to in 2017 at Astana, Russia and Syrian jets continued to pulverize East Ghouta. A regime television reporter in Damascus had been reassuring the audience that life was returning to normal when she flinched at the sound of a rebel rocket landing. The next time she was on the air, she was wearing a flak jacket and helmet.

So clearly the idea was if normalcy was to return to Damascus, East Ghouta would have to become a graveyard first. According to the UN, 1,000 children have been killed in Syria in the last 12 months. In the first two months of 2018, 342 children were killed and 803 were injured in Syria. When children in East Ghouta are trapped under rubble, the only people available to help dig them out are members of the White Helmets that the Gray Zone 3 have denounced as CIA assets, implicitly justifying bombing them as well.

For much of the left, especially the Gray Zone 3, East Ghouta is condemned territory—a haven for al-Qaeda that deserves to be annihilated. Not much research is available on East Ghouta but a few things should be kept in mind. It is part of a belt of mostly agricultural towns and cities that abut Damascus to the east and south. It is like most of the places that rose up against Assad in 2011 and that were largely invisible to the Western press that found Damascus irresistible. After all, it was a place where you could enjoy scotch in a hotel bar, eat at 3-star restaurants, and stroll around in the evenings absorbing local color. Yes, there were people being tortured in Syrian prisons through the CIA extraordinary rendition program but they probably deserved it.

But who would want to spend any time in East Ghouta? This would be like taking a vacation in Paris and spending every minute in the banlieues.

In an article  on the Islamist rebel Zahran Alloush whose militia shared power with the FSA in East Ghouta and who was killed by a bomb dropped by a Syrian jet in 2015, Aron Lund describes the meager circumstances of the Damascus suburbs:

The 14th-century Arab historian Ibn al-Wardi spoke of the Ghouta as an exquisite oasis of flowers, trees, water and bird life—“the fairest place on earth, and the best of them.” A lush agricultural belt around Damascus, it had been the pride of the ancient city for thousands of years. But modern Syria was less kind to the Ghouta. In the 1990s and 2000s, its pastoral beauty was swallowed up by drab concrete slums, asphalt roads and industrial expansion, slowly reducing the Ghouta to an unhappy agglomeration of working-class suburbs, satellite towns and farming villages.

Many inhabitants of the Ghouta and the bulging suburbs of eastern Damascus were new arrivals, escaping from drought-stricken parts of Syria to compete over low-paying, menial jobs. They bristled at the glittering wealth, the class divides and the corruption of the capital. Others were part of the Ghouta’s original population, but among them, too, anti-regime sentiment grew alongside the social crisis of the early 2000s. In conservative Sunni towns like Douma, known for its piety as “the city of minarets,” the Sunni-fundamentalist teachings of Salafism were gaining ground. The Salafists excoriated the secularism of the ruling Baath Party and its rapacious corruption as two sides of the same coin.

It would, of course, have been best if the Syrian rebels had abjured Salafist teachings but this would have been as unrealistic as Nat Turner abjuring the bible when he led a bloody revolt in 1831. As Marx once put it, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

To get the complete picture of East Ghouta, you might read an interview with the head of the local council in Douma, East Ghouta’s largest city, that appeared in the Syrian Observer on March 13, 2014.  While openly admitting that they faced difficulties with people like Zahran Alloush, there was a possibility for democratic control:

The Local Council of Douma is a civil, administrative service institution with an independent legal personality. It is not affiliated with any political or military body and it aims to best regulate and provide civil services and needs of the people.

It is worth mentioning that this was not the first time this was tried here, there were many previous attempts which failed.

The members of the Council were elected dependent on a vision agreed upon by most of the already existent popular activities or services in the city of Douma.

The election was held under the observation of an independent committee, the members of which did not have the right to run or vote.

The revolutionary struggle in Syria certainly had goals that seem quite modest in comparison with the July 26th Movement in Cuba or any other leftist cause I have been involved with over the past half-century. But in order to overthrow capitalism, you need the freedom to organize the workers movement. That is why Marx and Lenin always stressed the need to oppose absolutism whether it took the guise of the Junkers monarchy or Czarism. That the left has lost track of such an elementary need is a terrible deficit. To build a worldwide revolutionary movement that can abolish class rule once and for all, we have to support the right of people to speak freely and to form political parties without fear of being tortured or killed. It is impossible to say how events will unfold in the Middle East and North Africa over the next 25 years or so but if we can’t defend basic liberties such as the kind the Arab Spring demanded, we are useless.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.