So Trump Attacked Assad. What Now?

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By Charles Lister [link not working, hence reposted text below,]

So Trump Attacked Assad. What Now?

Friday’s strike on Syria was necessary and righteous. Here’s what the White House needs to do next.

By Charles Lister

April 07, 2017

After six years of committing unrestrained and uninhibited violence against his own population, the regime of Bashar al-Assad experienced the first pangs of justice early Friday morning Syria time, as 59 American Tomahawk cruise missiles struck the strategically vital Al-Shayrat airbase in the center of the country. Syrian military aircraft, hardened hangars and refueling facilities were among the targets of America’s first explicit attack on the Assad regime.

This was a justified, proportionate and necessary response for what had been a flagrant war crime committed three days earlier, when chemical nerve agents were dropped by planes from Al-Shayrat onto residential areas of Khan Sheikhoun, a town in the Syria’s northwest. As men, women and children alike lost control of their muscles, succumbed to uncontrollable convulsions and began foaming from the mouth and nose, emergency and medical personnel rushed to the scene. They then found their facilities targeted in a series of follow-up bombings, possibly by Russian jets. At least 87 people lost their lives and more than 300 others were injured. This was merely the latest of dozens of chemical attacks conducted by the Assad regime since 2012, the worst of which killed more than 1,400 people east of Damascus in August 2013.

It was that heinous act in 2013, conducted within eyesight of Assad’s own presidential palace, that famously crossed then-President Barack Obama’s self-declared “red line.” That same attack led to Obama’s subsequent decision to back away from the use of force in favor of an agreement brokered by Russia to remove Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles in their entirety, a move that angered America’s Arab allies and effectively ended any potential U.S. efforts to threaten Assad’s rule. At the drop of the hat, overt affiliation with the United States became a politically toxic label that moderate opposition groups sought either to hide or to dissolve.

Recent events have not only demonstrated the clear failure and abrogation of that agreement by the Assad regime, but the presence of Russian troops and possibly also aircraft at the Al-Shayrat airbase appears to suggest that Russia was not only aware of Assad having retained some portion of its chemical weapons, but may also have been in a position to prevent their use.

That the fledgling Trump administration determined it necessary to respond to this latest criminal act represents a significant turning point in the Syrian crisis, though the exact implications remain to be seen. At this point in time, the cruise missile attack on Al-Shayrat remains an isolated punitive act – a warning to Assad and his patrons that brazen war crimes will now be met with military consequences. It is now the heavy responsibility of the Trump administration to ensure that this enforced “red line” be maintained. Reports of localized chlorine attacks on opposition areas of Damascus later on Friday indicated that this new line in the sand may be tested sooner than some may have expected. Punitive military actions are a clear form of deterrence that will only work if further violations are met with the same or a similar response.

A core dynamic at play here pertains to Russia, which was pre-warned of U.S. plans to attack Al-Shayrat but whose entire presence in Syria is predicated on propping up Assad and covering for his criminal actions. In the immediate aftermath of the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, a humiliated Russia was forced to concoct an illogical story, every facet of which was either swiftly disproved or dismissed as laughable by experts and journalists on the ground. With U.S. intelligence now investigating whether Russia had been involved in the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, Russia’s emphatic rhetoric and talk of threats is almost certainly cover for its lack of options and the fact that it finds itself having to blindly protect a global pariah. When the likes of Iran, North Korea and Venezuela are your only true defense, your claims of righteousness are to be taken with a sizeable grain of salt.

Having taken military action, the U.S. has an opportunity to exploit its newfound leverage. Left alone, the Syrian conflict has many more years left, but its consequences continue to worsen, with nearly 500,000 Syrians now dead and 11.3 million others either internally displaced or refugees. Military efforts against ISIS have achieved substantial success, but terrorism remains one of many symptoms of a much broader crisis, the single root cause of which remains the Assad regime. There is simply no way of ignoring that reality.

So what now? Assad cannot and will never put Syria back together again, but partition is not an answer. Foreign intervention for rapid regime change only promises further chaos, but determined U.S. leadership backed up by the credible and now proven threat of force presents the best opportunity in years to strong-arm actors on the ground into a phase of meaningful de-escalation, out of which eventually, a durable negotiation process may result. This is something Obama never understood: his efforts to broker peace failed because he refused even to consider threatening war. Every feeble threat given from an Obama podium effectively amounted to a further emboldening of the Assad regime’s own sense of immunity and its free hand to murder its people en masse.

Bringing peace to Syria will undoubtedly necessitate a further strengthening of the U.S. posture toward the Syrian situation and toward Russia, Iran and other involved states. More military strikes and other assertive acts of diplomacy will be inevitable but if anything is now clear, it is that the U.S. has more freedom of action in Syria than the Obama administration was ever willing to admit. Opponents of limited U.S. intervention who have long and confidently pronounced the inevitability of conflict with Russia are now faced with the reality that Moscow failed to lift a finger when American missiles careered toward Assad regime targets. For now, that discovery was made through a tactical reaction to a brazen war crime, but a holistic strategy must now be developed that treats all threats emanating from Syria as individual components of a single problem: the Assad regime.

Russia’s seat on the U.N. Security Council and its conventional military assets make it appear to be the key obstacle to progress, but Iran is arguably a greater challenge. For Russia, Assad is disposable—an asset to potentially be haggled over at the negotiating table. But for Iran, the survival of the Assad regime remains an existential issue. While Russians privately acknowledge that Syria’s army retains no more than 20,000 offensively capable and deployable personnel, Iran-backed Syrian paramilitary and foreign militia forces may now number over 150,000 men. Some of those groups are designated terrorist organizations, no different legally than al Qaeda or ISIS. As one prominent Russian in Moscow recently told me in Europe, even Russia’s own Spetsnaz special forces have come to respect one such Iran-backed terrorist group – Hezbollah – more than the Syrian Army itself.

Whether Friday’s cruise-missile strike was part of a more holistic strategy or not, the consequences of military action now demand broader strategic consideration. This newly demonstrated U.S. policy of containment and deterrence will be tested and as Trump’s U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley made clear, “We are prepared to do more.” Such statements must be backed up by action, if and when necessary. Assad, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are not about to give up the fight, but they are now dealing with a markedly different and more complex set of assessments. Gone are the days of acting with impunity. Their actions are now under multiple microscopes.

The U.S. must also now seek to engage and manage its own allies in the region, particularly Turkey, which appears to be re-embracing a more overtly pro-opposition stance, only weeks after resuming arms supplies to opposition groups in Syria’s northwest. The Pentagon, which views its impending operation to retake Raqqa—a capital of the dwindling ISIS caliphate—as its top priority and understandably fears being dragged into a broader mission of stabilizing Syria itself. But ISIS is the bastard child of Assad’s misrule: Syria will never be stable while he remains in power and the longer he sticks around, the more extremists will reap the rewards of his brutality by escaping from justice and ensuring their narratives thrive among the disenfranchised.

The choice is not and has never been a binary one between Assad and ISIS, as some have tried to claim. Syria remains a country of many communities and many perspectives. Of a population of roughly 23 million people, no more than 20,000 (0.09 percent) have chosen to join al Qaeda or ISIS, according to privately discussed estimates held by U.S. intelligence officials. Therefore, U.S. policy is best served by securing a future for the remaining 99.91 percent. With newfound leverage and a growing coalition of countries announcing their support for stronger action on Assad, the U.S. has an opportunity now to set Syria on a path towards something better. It will take time and resources, and likely many more risks, but that must surely hold better prospects than leaving the country to war criminals and their blind defenders.

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Charles Lister is senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and author of The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency.

Why the Syrian Revolution’s Victory is Important (5.3)

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[Previous Part 5.2] See:

By lara keller (last updated 1st April 2017)

Why the Syrian Revolution’s Victory is Important (5.3)

The real truth behind the inaction of most Western progressives when it comes to effectively supporting the Syrian Revolution, is that they do not see why it is important. This encourages a climate of doubt and pious exaggerated statements about neo-imperialism, spheres of influence, how many fundamentalist fighters there are, the arms industry, promoting pacifism, overinflating the potential of diplomacy, picking apart reports of atrocities, how unpopular is Assad, “whataboutism” Iraq and Libya, the hypocrisy of some of the backers of the revolution …….. all this throws up a haze that disguises the unflattering shared founding thought that “we do not see that the Syrian Revolution’s success or failure is important to us”.

The Syrian Revolution seems to be incidental to the principal concerns of most Western progressives. The decline of democracy and the decrease in civil rights justified by security threats, combined with a rise in racism and isolationism in the West. The rising inequality around the world with an elite bypassing governments to hoard vast wealth in tax havens. The largely unchallenged global threat of climate change. The exploitation of poorer countries through globalization. The 60 % of the world’s population in severe poverty (despite a recent drop in the cheaper to solve extreme poverty group due to the successful UN Millennium Development Goals initiative). The vast amount of wealth that the arms industry squanders on endless conflicts. Population growth (although the increase in the steepness of its rise is falling) and scarce resources.

So as a perfect Western progressive I would be a green pacifist anti-establishment activist, interested in lobbying international organisations to stop the economic anarchy that hurts the poor. I would be pursuing a hundred projects to raise awareness of a hundred issues. This approach yields slow results if any, and reacts to the world as it is now, rather than dealing with looming crises, that are building strength from these unsolved issues.

The global reactionary elites have solutions for all these issues. Do nothing, and use military force to secure scarce resources. This means there are countries with elites threatened by the demands for necessities by their populations that need countries willing to collaborate with them in genocidal campaigns to suppress these populations, by murder, terror or expulsion.

The genocidal war in Syria performed by the Assad regime supported by Putin’s Russia (an financially by China), against the demands of the Syrian people for representative government, is the first of many wars of this kind. Putin is positioning his regime as the ruthless war machine at the disposal of any dictator in the MENA region who is threatened by demands for representative government. There is no reason why he cannot also become the defender of authoritarian coups in countries struggling to maintain democracy. There are no great ideological illusions that Putin must respect. His services are available to any elite anywhere. The advantage for Putin is the creation of a neo-imperial system that benefits Russian and Chinese elites. Neither country tolerates progressive activists or cares much about outraged public opinion. The West is bad enough, when we think of Vietnam and Iraq, but Putin’s war machine will be much worst.

When Putin and Assad win in Syria, there will be a continued wave of repression inside Syria, with an attempt to expel or neutralise anybody who may threaten the regime’s dominance. Putin’s regime will continue forming closer military links with former West orientated authoritarian regimes in the MENA region. Putin will be emboldened by the passivity of the West in spreading authoritarian influence in Europe. Stirring sectarian tensions in the Baltic States. Supporting far-right groups in Eastern Europe, with campaigning funds and popularity boosting economic projects. All with the financial support of China.

The West is not immune from the degradation of democracy. Power over national economics has been largely removed from democratic elected governments, whose main responsibility is avoiding anything which would rock the under regulated fragile economy. Elections are won by securing the votes of the largest section of the population, with the promise of securing the economy and removing redirecting assets from the currently marginalised group. This is a prime ground for authoritarianism, and there is the Chinese Putin backed regime waiting to play a destructive role.

It matters that the appeasement of Putin and rulers like Assad stops in Syria. Their needs to be a partnership between Western progressives and the ordinary Syrian people. We need each other.

The Way Ahead: How We Can Ensure the Syrian Revolution Wins (5.2)

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[Previous Part 5.1] See:

By lara keller (last updated 31st March 2017)

The Way Ahead: How We Can Ensure the Syrian Revolution Wins (5.2)

The Syrian Revolution began in 2011, and is still fighting the Assad regime six terrible years later. Obviously the Assad regime should have been defeated years ago (as well as the inevitable counter revolution) and the suffering of millions of Syrians greatly reduced.

The relationship between the state and advanced military hardware, is the primary reason why the Syrian Revolution is currently being defeated. George Orwell a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and an observer of the Second World War in the UK, made an acutely prescient statement about this over seventy years ago:

“It is a commonplace that the history of civilisation is largely the history of weapons. In particular, the connection between the discovery of gunpowder and the overthrow of feudalism by the bourgeoisie has been pointed out over and over again. And though I have no doubt exceptions can be brought forward, I think the following rule would be found generally true: that ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance. Thus, for example, tanks, battleships and bombing planes are inherently tyrannical weapons, while rifles, muskets, long-bows and hand-grenades are inherently democratic weapons. A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon–so long as there is no answer to it–gives claws to the weak.

The great age of democracy and of national self-determination was the age of the musket and the rifle. After the invention of the flintlock, and before the invention of the percussion cap, the musket was a fairly efficient weapon, and at the same time so simple that it could be produced almost anywhere. Its combination of qualities made possible the success of the American and French revolutions, and made a popular insurrection a more serious business than it could be in our own day. After the musket came the breech-loading rifle. This was a comparatively complex thing, but it could still be produced in scores of countries, and it was cheap, easily smuggled and economical of ammunition. Even the most backward nation could always get hold of rifles from one source or another, so that Boers, Bulgars, Abyssinians, Moroccans–even Tibetans–could put up a fight for their independence, sometimes with success. But thereafter every development in military technique has favoured the State as against the individual, and the industrialised country as against the backward one. There are fewer and fewer foci of power. Already, in 1939, there were only five states capable of waging war on the grand scale, and now there are only three–ultimately, perhaps, only two. This trend has been obvious for years, and was pointed out by a few observers even before 1914. The one thing that might reverse it is the discovery of a weapon–or, to put it more broadly, of a method of fighting–not dependent on huge concentrations of industrial plant.”

[George Orwell, 1945, “The Atomic Bomb and You”]

The Assad regime was created to be coup-proof with a large brutal security forces. Its military has been supported for decades by the Russians (in the eras of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation) to stand up to the lavishly US backed Israeli war machine. The Syrian military consists of a professional well equipped core that is under strict regime control, backed up by large numbers of less well equipped, less trained and less trusted conscripts (now replaced by foreign Shia militias).

The armed opposition have been woefully under equipped in comparison. The US has even been preventing air defence missiles from reaching the rebels, although they have been supplying anti-tank missiles. The policy of the US Obama administration has followed the old pattern of “containment” that was used in the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s. The US elite have used the Syrian Revolution to weaken revolutionary demands for representative government and weaken Shia Islamist Iran, by enabling the opposition to fight a long war against the Assad regime which they are slowly losing. This could have been ended years ago, before Putin saw it was safe to intervene with direct military support.

Western progressives have helped this “containment” process by giving credibility to the useful illusion that US elites were genuinely interested in the removal of the Assad regime. I resist using the absurd word “ouster” that slips off the lips of anti-war advocates, as it is used as a legal term to describe “the wrongful dispossession of a rightful owner or tenant of property”. Assad is the illegitimate ruler of Syria, a regime that used systematic torture to gain and keep a hold on the country, and which his clique treats as a private estate. The dispossession of the Assad regime cannot be wrong. Progressives should have been calling out the Western elites for their lack lustre support of the Syrian Revolution. They should have called out Western elites over a similar process in Libya, were Gaddafi was removed and then Libya and its revolution was abandoned to the counter-revolution. Progressives have been the unsuspecting accomplices of imperialism, by their actions and their silence.

The Syrian Revolution’s armed opposition needs sufficient weapons to counter, in the words of Orwell, the “tyrannical weapons” of the Assad dictatorship and its Russian backers. A large number of guided anti-tank and surface to air missiles are needed. Clearly these weapons must not be misused by terrorist groups to attack targets outside of Syria. These weapons need guidance systems which cannot work without integrated circuits, which can be made time and GPS-position limited. Attempt to tamper with the electronics and the chips are killed by an internal power source which also triggers if its power level falls below the necessary threshold. These systems have been described for decades, and I expect have been researched. What is lacking is will.

War crimes are being committed by the Assad regime and its Russian allies. These can be deterred by a “No Bomb Strategy” that responds to these crimes by only bombing Assad regime military assets, such as airfields. This can be done by missiles stationed outside of Syrian territory (ie via submarines). In addition the effectiveness of Syrian air defences have been exaggerated as the frequent incursions of Israeli jets into Syria, bombing Hezbollah supply convoys has shown.

Putin’s regime only moved on from suppling the Assad regime to direct military involvement when it was obvious the West was going to allow the Syrian opposition to lose. This calculation can be turned around.

A more effective unified armed Syrian opposition requires that it has Western backers, who trust the central command of the Free Syrian Army to do the job of organising and running it. Like any military organisation the hierarchy supplies arms, training, planning and intelligence to its units, as well as discipline. No effective organised armed Syrian opposition can be formed unless the command structure has access to sufficient resources including arms and training.

An effective civilian administration requires that its Western backers, trust a Syrian National Administration to do the job of organising and running this. It needs to keep as much of the existing Syrian Government structures intact as possible, only removing individuals guilty of serious crimes. The administration needs sufficient resources of food, transport, training, medical supplies and shelter materials. Clearly in the way as a unified armed opposition it needs resources to establish acceptance for its structure.

Establishing security in the widest sense for Syrians both as individuals and groups, is the overriding goal of the revolution.

Removing the Assad regime is only the first step. Ensuring stability is the next problem.

The counter-revolution cannot always be supressed by an effective revolutionary armed force under a central command, because this command can obviously become itself the focus of the counter-revolution. In short the old pattern is that revolutionary army officers amass power and turn from liberators to dictators.

The Syrian Revolution has been establishing local democratic councils, who control local armed units by appointing commanders. These local democratic councils are clearly going to be the initial core of democracy in a post-revolutionary situation. To avoid dictatorship a national army with a central command, needs to share control with local democratic organisations. This can be done in the long term by keeping the local link to armed units, where the responsibility for appointments is shared with the central command. The central command must distribute arms, training and other resources. It must have absolute short term control of the actions of the national army. A parallel national organisation is needed to review the actions of the national army, and intervene if the national army commanders abuse their roles. Its members will come from local democratic councils, who can enforce their decisions through retaking control of the local armed units that form the national army.

Clearly in the same way the civilian administration needs to be composed of local units, with the same means for local democratic councils to control appointments, and review and intervene if there is gross corruption and inefficiency.

Establishing a representative national government now can be achieved, as there is a stable national army and civilian administration capable of providing security in the widest sense for Syrians. There is a network of local democratic organisations, who can ensure the fair election of representatives to the national government.

The resurgence of the economy is needed to provide a focus beyond the current crisis, and to finance the future. Western countries can supply grants and loans, and importantly give a favourable trade access to the genuine exports of the country. Ending political oppression, without lifting economic oppression is a hollow victory.

The history of the Assad regime and the suppression of the Syrian Revolution is a catalogue of incredible anger and fear that has left painfully deep divisions in Syrian society. Culpability for crimes against humanity need to be established, and those responsible put on trial and punished. This will include the Assad regime (who are responsible for the vast majority of crimes) and the opposition. There needs to be a national truth and reconciliation process to expose the more understandable human forces of fear, anger and greed that the Assad regime manipulated and created. There is an urgent need to spread understanding of the motivations and misconceptions of diverse communities and interest groups. Physical mistreatment and economic exploitation needs to be fully catalogued, and compensation paid when a sufficient surplus of assets is available.

Hatred of the Alawite minority is widespread combined with exaggerated ideas of how much this community has benefited from the Assad regime. The pressures for Alawites to conform to community pressure for blinkered regime support is not appreciated. Among minority communities an exaggerated fear of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism has been encouraged by the Assad regime, and needs to be exposed to the truth that this propaganda does not fit reality.

This truth and reconciliation process will create a set of practical security and anti-discrimination measures that provide at least the minimum level of security that meets the fears of Syrian communities.

The next step is a national dialogue to create a set of principles for governance from which a new constitution can be created once sufficient stability has been achieved. The principle of “separation of powers”. In the legal system ensuring police, courts and government are independent of each other, and interaction is both transparent and legitimate. The principle that the “collective and individual rights of the people” are the ruling objective of government. The government’s main job is to ensure “security in the widest sense of personal physical protection, access to sufficient food, adequate health services and comfortable safe shelter” for all Syrians. The principle of “stable transparent and accountable government”. The government must provide information and a free media must be there to report it. Elections must be free from manipulation and intimidation. Candidates need legal protection and access to the media.

The principle of “individual and collective equality”. This must be rigidly maintained from the outset at a sufficient level to avoid destroying the very concept of legitimate government. A government belongs to everyone or no one. The natural goal of a legitimate government is always to increase equality in terms of outcome and opportunity. This can be collective as groups are discriminated against on the false basis of religion, ethnicity or culture. This resentment of this type of discrimination ultimately allowed the Assad clique to establish tyrannical control in Syria. Individuals are discriminated against on the basis of socio-economic class, gender, age, disability and sexuality. The Assad regime has attempted to legitimise itself by claiming it promotes gender and even homosexual equality. The same regime has impoverished the majority outside of the ruling clique, controlled their protests by the threat off systematic torture and murder. As a matter of absolute necessity a legitimate government that replaces the Assad regime will need to surpass the regime in fighting all types of discrimination.

Obviously to any serious observer there are conflicts between the rights expressed in this description of types of securities and equalities. This is the threatening monotonous recurring motif of extreme politics of left and right and up and down. Genuinely mainstream politics is based on ensuring these rights and equalities are given priorities that differ within acceptable limits. Judged by this criteria Western societies are not really moderate.

As an example of this conflict consider societies which prioritise traditional cultural views of men and women, so that being openly homosexual means putting culture in conflict with individual equality. This can be legitimately dealt with by rigorously rejecting violence or exclusion against individuals who break cultural rules. Disapproval is painful but cannot be suppressed, and it is up to the long term process of expanding equality by cultural dialogue. There is a conflict between the right to have as many children as a couple wishes, and the individual rights of these children and the longer term collective right of a society to a sustainable population where the security of the whole population is ensured. A legitimate government seeks to find the right balance of incentives, penalties and cultural persuasion to balance these equalities within an acceptable range.

Once a set of principles has been agreed through dialogue then a detailed constitution can be created. To reach an agreement it will probably be necessary to give a role of influence to a religious or ethical body outside of the directly elected assembly. The current Iranian system gives too much power to the supreme leader and the council who elects him, they effectively preselect the choices of the Iranian people, making democracy a farce. Constructive ethical influence has to be more inclusive than this. To return to Orwell, it is not “nationalism” of a dogmatic political or religious type that is needed, but the “patriotism” of pride in the genuine achievements of a revolution to replace a self-serving dictator with the true government whose civilising influence stretches far beyond the region.

Obviously this process is being formulated by the Syrian Opposition by people far more talented than me. What is needed is a plan that can be understood by everyone, and serve a map for those people struggling to make the Syrian Revolution happen on the front lines.

Western governments can help, by supplying the resources and opportunities the Syrian Opposition needs, and can have a positive influence by giving these resources in return for the Syrian Opposition following the progressive plan it has itself created. Clearly this will always be a “work in progress”, an outline that is being completed over time, and does not need to be polished before starting. The Western progressive public has a more important role in forcing Western governments to support the Syrian Revolution in an effective way of the type described above. This means effective campaigns that motivate people and which ditch dogma. The core of what these means is the subject of the next section.

[Next Part 5.3] See:

The Way Ahead : Why the Syrian Revolution Can Win (5.1)

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[Previous Part 4] See:

By lara keller (last updated 14th April 2017)

The Way Ahead : Why the Syrian Revolution Can Win (5.1)

Can only justify the use of such a pompous verbose title because what needs to be done is so obvious. The maze of political rhetoric that obscures the Syrian Revolution is much more complicated than the reality.

No real discussion of Syria can be started without acknowledging an honest regional historical overview. The shorthand of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA region) stretches from Iran to Morocco.

The power of the dominate Ottoman Empire started to decline after the independence of Greece in the early nineteenth century. In Iran the power of the Qajar dynasty declined due to Russian and British rivalry in the late nineteenth century. In both cases the First World War was the terminal event.

Subsequently overlapping waves of political upheaval have swept the MENA region. There was the wave of European colonialists and Western backed monarchies. Essentially Israel and Saudi Arabia were enabled by Western imperialism in the 1920s and 30s. This was followed by Cold War Soviet backed Left-wing Arab Nationalism (Free Officers of Nasser and Gaddafi, Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party of Aflaq and al-Bitar). There was the rise of modern political Islamism from the late 1960s onwards (Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979).

To global elites the MENA region has historically had oil, geographical strategic importance (on the way to somewhere else) and some potential as colonial land (especially Zionists, British and French). The region has been the target of intense colonialism and neo-colonialism (indirect rule by enabling dependent local dictators). A strong regional elite has also evolved to preserve dictatorships, in a malign partnership with global elites. If by magic “imperialism” (by the West, Russia and China) were to disappear tomorrow, the self-reinforcing system of rule by dictatorship would continue in the MENA region.

The latest wave of political upheaval is essentially different to previous waves. It consists of democratic uprisings for representative government against authoritarianism (2011 Arab Democratic Spring, 2009 Iranian Green Movement). This is a long awaited desperate mass reaction by people in the region who are well aware of the reality of rampant self-serving self-reinforcing dictatorships. The reaction of the West has been sanctimonious and mean.

The MENA region has been enslaved by three techniques that are common to colonialism.

Fragmentation: The creation of divisions between communities where they did not previously exist.

Containment: Encouraging and enabling communities to struggle and fight against each other.

Extremism: Promoting the worst more violent authoritarian and egocentric among opponent insurgent groups.

The division of the Ottoman Empire into new nation states (and the creation of Israel), encouraged the emergence of competing factions based on religious or ethnic identities who could then dominate each other within the confines of absolute borders. These fragmentary countries could also enclose oil resources, which made them dependent on the protection of global powers. It is easy then to encourage conflicts between these fragments (switching allegiances as necessary) to ensure they remain weak, and so that their elites are given a justification to oppress their citizens. If the elites of a country were threatened with political upheaval, then the covert support for the worst of the insurgent groups, means there are more resources available to defeat them or they are easier to corrupt into preserving a modified version of the same dictatorship (Algerian Civil War 1990s).

The apparent unique complication of Middle Eastern politics, is a facet of seeing it at face value, rather than acknowledging the inner mechanisms of colonial, neo-colonial and regional elitist manipulations. Viewed from this point the Middle East is an exaggerated example of what happens elsewhere. It is wrong to explain Middle Eastern politics in the orientalist terms of cultural clashes or imagined historical stagnation; not for moral reasons of multicultural correctness, but because it is not true and not pragmatically progressive.

These colonial techniques work between countries, and within countries. The regime Hafez Assad setup after a coup in Syria in 1970, was based on the predominant principle that it should be coup-proof. There were multiple separated large security forces, who were used to systematically terrorise the population, and could be used on each other if necessary. Divisions within smaller communities were encouraged by giving resources to select elites within minority groups, in return for policing them by exposing dissent. Communities based on religion, ethnicity or even employment (ie army officers) were housed in separate areas within cities. Communities were then encouraged to bully and dominate each other, by giving rights to resources in return for ensuring other communities remained loyal to the regime.

The Assad regime murdered its moderate opponents, but imprisoned its extremist opponents. In 2011 Bashar Assad had thousands of extremist Islamists released from Syrian prisons, so they could assist the expansion of the so called Islamic State’s caliphate in the Sunni border region between Syria and Iraq. This allowed Assad to claim he was fighting Islamic terrorism, rather than the rights of Syrian people to a genuinely representative government. The regime fought the moderate armed rebels and left the Islamic State alone. In the same way Assad has encouraged ultra-Kurdish nationalism in Syria.

At the same time in Syria (and Libya) the counter-revolution is being vigorously encouraged by regional authoritarian regimes. There are the numerous Iranian backed Shia militias fighting for the so called Syrian Arab Army. On the opposition side there is a minority of well-funded fundamentalist Islamic groups which are needed to avoid military defeat in the short term, due to lack of Western support, but ironically justify lack of support in the long term, by allowing the armed opposition to be wrongly smeared as dominated by extremists.

So the essential problem in Syria is getting rid of the Assad regime and replacing it with representative government. Clearly this is not “regime change”. It is the death of a brutal oppressive regime and the birth of a genuine government.

This means creating an effective armed opposition; establishing physical, food, health and shelter security for the Syrian people both as individuals and groups; achieving stability; establishing a representative government; negotiating a peace settlement between Syrian communities; creating an agreed set of principles for governance that balances societal progress with individual and community protection.

The human rights violations of the Assad regime since its creation, let alone since 2011, screams of a deficit of good will. It is insane to rely on the humane instincts of the regime. Nothing will be achieved unless the regime is militarily threatened. Pacifism requires a minimum of decency that the Assad regime has contemptuously failed. The “whataboutism” that compares the Assad regime to the crimes of Saudi Arabia, Israel and Western Imperialism and then concludes that not supporting the Syrian Revolution is “progressive”, lacks any moral substance. These are not competing issues, but the same issue of the gross misrule by elites. This is where the experience of people in the MENA region differs sharply from the insulated rhetoric of the Western hard-left groups.

There are no reasons why the Syrian Revolution cannot win as the enemy is the gross misrule of national, regional and global elites. These elites can be challenged.

[Next Part 5.2] See:

The Iraqi Genocide Never Again (4)

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[Previous Part 3] See:

By lara keller (last updated 14th April 2017)

The Iraqi Genocide Never Again (4)

Iraq is a clear example of bad intervention and ineffective protest. In the 1980s the US encouraged and equipped the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to pursue a war with post Islamic Revolution Iran. Saddam Hussein’s object was a demonstration of power, and the seizure of oil fields (as most onshore Iranian oil fields are near the Iran-Iraq border). This war lasted eight years and killed a million people (around half of them Iraqi).

The US government knew that Saddam Hussein intended to invade Kuwait and gave the appearance of compliance by omission. Sanctions against Iraq started in 1990 after Iraq’s invasion. By February 1991 a US-led coalition had forced the Iraqi army out. Sanctions continued because of the allegation that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction and additionally intended to supply them to terrorist groups. Sanctions continued until 2003 and according to UNICEF half a million Iraqi children died as a result, although this is likely to be an underestimate. An “oil for food” scheme was offered, but only accepted in 1996. Little of this money was used by Saddam for the welfare of Iraqi people.

In highly public speeches in February and March 1991 US President George Bush Snr encouraged Iraqis to rise up against Saddam’s regime by giving the impression of US support. The uprising quickly led to the regime losing effective control of more than two thirds of the country. This rebellion was mostly crushed in a month using helicopter gunships and extensive shelling. It is true that a minority of these rebels were from Shia fundamentalist and traditionalist Kurdish groups. No help was given to any of the rebels and around 60,000 Iraqis died as a result, many tortured to death. No Fly Zones in the North and South of the country were then enforced until 2003. They prevented use of aircraft (more effective in the North) and allowed the monitoring of any ground offensives. This did not prevent Saddam’s ecological and humanitarian vandalism, due to the deliberate draining of the extensive Tigris-Euphrates marshes to punish the rebellious Marsh Arabs.

The Northern No Fly Zone allowed the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region, which was equally split between a traditionalist KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) in the more mountainous north, and the more progressive PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan). In the 1980s Saddam Hussein’s regime had inflicted a genocidal campaign against Iraqi Kurdish areas. Between 100,000 and 180,000 Kurds died. In 1988 as a part of the much larger Anfal campaign a series of chemical attacks were inflicted against Kurds. This included the infamous Halabja attack that killed 5000 mainly women and children were killed with a combination of mustard and nerve gasses.

After the largest anti-war protests in the Western world, there was a US invasion of Iraq in 2003, based on incorrect and essentially contrived intelligence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. The regime was quickly overwhelmed, but the occupation was lengthy and disastrous. Government institutions had been abolished and infrastructure severely damaged. The resulting security vacuum led to sectarian violence, and an extreme Islamist insurgency. The number of civilian causalities has become a political matter, but the most reliable survey appears to be the PLOS Medicine Survey, which concludes that excessive deaths in Iraq between 2003 and 2011 were half a million. The US elite’s policy objective in Iraq appeared to be the creation of the chaos needed to promote a new government compliant to their interests (particularly oil drilling concessions).
This list of events ignores those Iraqis killed by the Saddam Hussein’s security forces, as part of a strategy of instilling fear into the population. Estimates from Iraqi and International human rights groups vary between a quarter and half a million people. In addition the use of torture by the regime was systematic.

The Iraqi Baathists seized power in a coup in 1968. They began taking complete control of the army by effectively merging it with the Baath party. Saddam Hussein removed the existing President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr in 1979. He then purged 500 of the top party members, uniquely insisting the surviving leadership form the firing squads. In an echo of Hafez Assad in Syria he aimed to create a “coup-proof” regime by the use of systematic torture, intrusive security forces and endless informers.

The Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya summarized how Saddam’s regime internalised fear in the Iraqi people:

“The show trials of 1969 (Chapter 2) affirmed the power of the fledgling Baathist state by a stage-managed, intentionally excessive display of cruelty that dramatized the imbalance between victim and victimizer. This came at a time when the state was still weak. After those early experiences, all through the eight gruelling years of war with Iran (Chapter 8), few Iraqis dreamed of publicly protesting the harsh punishments to which they were routinely subjected. For nearly twenty years every Iraqi knew that he or she lived in a torturing state, but the omniscience and omnipotence of the state’s repressive capability lay in the fact that all opposition to it had been crushed—in other words, it lay in the silence and deep secrecy that now surrounded all State operations. Everything was secret where punishment was concerned, from the arrest to the charges, the interrogation, the extraction of the evidence, the trial, the judgment, and the execution of the sentence. If there was a corpse, bearing in its markings that last record of the whole affair, even it was returned to the family in a sealed box. These were the rules of the game in the extraordinarily effective state system described in this book.”

[“The Republic Of Fear: The politics of modern Iraq”, Kanan Makiya, Updated version 1998 (originally published 1989), Introduction: xiv ]

In an echo of Syria, Kanan Makiya complains in the same introduction from the perspective of late 1990s Iraq:

“…. and a veritable American obsession with containing the adversary, as opposed to getting on with the obvious business of helping Iraqis to topple him. This clumsy, unprincipled, hands-on/hands-off policy of a musclebound superpower saved Saddam Hussein in 1994 [aborted build up for reinvasion of Kuwait], just as it saved him from the retribution of ordinary Iraqis at the end of the 1991 war [Kuwait invasion].”

In 1990 Human Rights Watch published an account of the constant stream of reports of human rights abuses from the initial two decades of Iraqi Baathist rule. Extract from “Human Rights in Iraq” 1990:

“But while vociferously denying charges of torture, Iraq has never allowed a private human rights group or United Nations body to visit its prisons and to interview prisoners or victims of torture. In the meantime, voluminous reports of torture committed over the years by Iraqi jailers continue to emerge–reports from victims of torture, from relatives of victims and from others, corroborated in many cases by medical evidence.” [page 58, “Human Rights in Iraq”, 1990, Human Rights Watch]

“Large numbers of persons have unquestionably died under torture in Iraq over the past two decades. Each year there have been reports of dozens–sometimes hundreds–of deaths, with bodies of victims at times left in the street or returned to families bearing marks of torture: eyes gouged out, fingernails missing, genitals cut off, and terrible wounds and burns. The brazenness of Iraqi authorities in returning bodies bearing clear evidence of torture is remarkable. Governments that engage in torture often go to great lengths to hide what they have done by burying or destroying the bodies of those tortured to death. A government so savage as to flaunt its crimes obviously wants to strike terror in the hearts of its citizens and to inflict gratuitous pain on the families of the victims.

Torture has been reportedly used not only against men and women but also against children, either to obtain information from them, to punish them for acts of opposition, or to punish their parents. Kurdish children have been among the victims of detention and torture. A former Baghdad University student, arrested as a sympathizer of the outlawed Kurdish Democratic Party and released in April 1985 after having been tortured, reported that his mother, aged seventy-three, three brothers, three sisters, and five of their children between the ages of five and thirteen were arrested, beaten, and subjected to electric shocks. This witness testified, ‘Infant children are kept in [the] detention center together with their parents. Usually they keep such children in a separate cell next to [the] mother in order to force [the] parent to confess. I saw a five-month-old baby screaming in this state.’

In September and October 1985, some 300 Kurdish children and teenagers were reportedly arrested in Suleimanieh. The bodies of three children were reportedly found afterward on the outskirts of the city, bloodstained and bearing the marks of torture. Some of these children were transferred to a security prison in Baghdad, according to the testimony of a detainee released at the end of 1985, who described in these terms what he saw:
‘Each hour, security men opened the door and chose 3 to 5 of the prisoners–children or men–and removed them for torture. Later, their tortured bodies were thrown back into the cell. They were often bleeding and carried obvious signs of whipping and electric shocks …. At midnight, the security men took another three of the children, but because they were so savagely treated they were taken from the cell to a military hospital. It was clear that the security authorities did not wish them to die like this. However when their wounds healed they were returned to the cell. Some children tried to sleep on the floor. A child who had been in the hospital lay down and finally, we thought, fell asleep. But . . . we knew he was dead. . . . When I was released, there were still some children in our cell. I don’t know what happened to the others.

In January 1987, it was reported that twenty-nine of these children had been executed and their bodies returned to their families, some with eyes gouged out and other marks of torture. Although the Iraqi government vehemently denied these reports, the European Parliament deemed them sufficiently credible to speak out about them. In its resolution ‘on the detention and torture of children in Iraq,’ the European Parliament condemned ‘these crimes which disgrace the government which perpetrates them’ and appealed for ‘the immediate release of all the children and young people detained on the basis of political activities undertaken by their parents or relations.’
That torture is used routinely as a method of political repression in Iraq, and that it frequently involves acts of great savagery, is credited by a wide range of nongovernmental human rights groups as well as the U.S. State Department.”
[pages 62-64, “Human Rights in Iraq”, 1990, Human Rights Watch]

Then there are actions of calculated contempt that echo Bashar Assad’s regime:

“Since 1980 a number of political opponents have been reportedly poisoned. In May of that year, two Iraqis who reached London after detention in Iraq were examined by doctors and found to be suffering from poisoning by thallium, a heavy metal used in commercial rat poison which is odorless, colorless, and tasteless. One, Majidi Jehad, testified before dying that he believed the poison had been given him in an orange-juice drink he was offered at the Baghdad police station where he went to pick up his passport.”
[page 74, “Human Rights in Iraq”, 1990, Human Rights Watch]

To the committed hard-left radical any information that is even shared by the US State Department must be utterly untrue. All human rights groups are secretly in collusion with US elites, and are guilty of the bizarrely labelled “humanitarian imperialism”. By extension any denial from a self-proclaimed revolutionary left regime is true. Such inhumane chauvinism underlines the reality that both the extremes of left and right cannot ever be progressive, and demand equal contempt.

In summary nearly two million Iraqis died between 1980 and 2011 because of the combination of Saddam Hussein’s regime and US (and its allies) policies. Iraq is now a deeply corrupt pseudo democracy, where political blocks fight for power, and reforming political activity is suppressed by violence. External powers Iran, Turkey and the US attempt to influence its politics, while sectarian nationalists and former militia leaders have become powerful politicians.

A powerful example of this is Masoud Barzani the leader of the Kurdish KDP since 1979. In the 1980s the main Iraqi Kurdish parties the KDP and the PUK fought the Saddam’s regime with backing from Iran. In 1996 Barzani invited Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army to join with the KDP in a Kurdish civil war against the PUK. The same Iraqi army who eight years earlier had been conducting genocidal assaults on Kurds in the Anfal campaign, some of which were conducted against KDP areas. In 1983 eight thousand Kurds from the Barzani clan were disappeared and murdered by the Saddam’s regime. The Iraqi army used the opportunity given to them by Masoud Barzani to eliminate opponents to Saddam’s regime in Kurdish areas. Later in the 1990s Barzani aligned the KDP with the Turkish government in the fight against the Kurdish PKK (fighting to create a Turkish Kurdistan autonomous region).

Masoud Barzani is now president of a deeply corrupt Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government. He spouts nationalist Kurdish rhetoric, lives in one of Saddam’s former palaces, and seems more interested in creating a dynasty and stashing away personal wealth. This behaviour is less strange if you consider that Saddam had Kurdish as well as Arab collaborators. The Kurdish “Jash” militias actually worked with the Iraqi army in the Anfal genocide. There had to be an amnesty for collaborators in Iraqi Kurdistan after Saddam was toppled.

In 2010 a journalistic Sardasht Osman wrote a satirical poem “I want to marry Barzani’s daughter”, it begins:

“If I become Massoud Barzani’s son-in-law, we would spend our honeymoon in Paris and also we would visit our uncle’s mansion in America. I would move my house from one of the poorest areas in Erbil to Sari Rash [Barzani’s palace complex] where it would be protected by American guard dogs and Israeli bodyguards ….”

As a result of speaking out he was arrested, beaten, and his body found with two bullet holes through the mouth. In 2013 Human Rights Watch Sarah Whitson said:

“These are dark days for freedom of expression in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Instead of ensuring the justice system investigates high-level corruption, the Kurdistan Regional Government is ignoring its own laws to protect free speech and assembly, and using ‘laws’ that are not in force to silence dissent.”

The history of Iraq in the last 40 years has created a humanitarian disaster, with around 2 million deaths. The blames for this rests with the Saddam Hussein regime and the policies of US (and other Western) elites. The protests of Western progressives have been largely ineffective. The only claim made is that maybe protests stopped a subsequent invasion of Iran. Iraq is still in a chaotic and corrupt state.

The foreign policy of the US and its Western allies, towards Iraq and Iran, is not just random incompetence or inhumanity, but is part of a strategy of “containment” that stretches back to the Second World War. Containment started as a policy response to Stalin’s expansionist Soviet Union, and Mao Zedong’s newly created Communist China. Western Europe and Japan were aided back to democratic health. While in less favoured nations surrounding these communist states, right-wing “anti-communist” dictatorships were enabled. The elites of these dictatorships were dependent on the West, who shared their countries economic wealth with Western elites. When these states failed to keep control, or stopped taking orders they were invaded. Vietnam is a tragic case where the US supported an authoritarian corrupt regime under Ngo Dinh Diem, leaving the communists to portray themselves as true nationalists and progressives. Two million Vietnamese died due to the US genocidal war, which was pursued to the bitter end because successive US administrations could not admit the weakness of the “containment” ideology. A similar “containment” approach was used in the Middle East to “contain” communism, Arab nationalism and fundamentalist Islam. It also explains the muted response to the Arab Democratic Uprising since 2011. Just enough support to allow revolutions to take control, and then be slowly strangled by the counter-revolution backed by established dictatorial regional powers (notably Saudi Arabia and Iran). In the end of course “containment” will lead to a world dominated by the authoritarian governments of China and Russia.

[Next Part 5.1] See:

Orwell Notes on Nationalism (3)

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[Previous Part 2] See:

By lara keller (last updated 14th April 2017)

Orwell Notes on Nationalism (3)

In 1945 George Orwell wrote an essay “Notes on Nationalism”, which is not actually about nationalism. Its target is a broader chauvinism (in the broad non-gender sense). An irrational obsessive exaggerated group feeling, of which “nationalism” is one manifestation and the closest English word for this psychology. He includes many divergent political attitudes, including pseudo progressive ones.

It starts with a reference to Byron’s use of the French word “longueur” in his satirical poem Don Juan. Its contemporary relevance makes it worth quoting:

“I know that what our neighbours call ‘longueurs’
(We ‘ve not so good a word, but have the thing
In that complete perfection which ensures
An epic from Bob Southey every spring),
Form not the true temptation which allures
The reader; but it would not be hard to bring
Some fine examples of the epopee,
To prove its grand ingredient is ennui.”
[ George Byron, “Don Juan, Third Canto”, 1821 ]

By neighbours he means the French. Robert Southey was then the British “Poet Laureate”, and one of the “Lake Poets” school along with Wordsworth and Coleridge. Byron is complaining of his “long” romantic poetic sagas, which although respected lacked authenticity, and so produce boredom in those who see through them. In the same poem Byron pokes fun at the “Lake Poets” flabby high minded utopianism. Their move from infatuation with the radical politics of the French Revolution, to romantic conservatism, he lampoons brilliantly earlier in this poem as: “Their loyal treason, renegado [rebel] rigour, Are good manure for their more bare biography”. In other words for personal gratification they swing passionately from rebellion to the establishment, and shallowly count the strength of their attachment above the nature of object of this attachment.

It is understandable why Orwell was thinking of Byron when he wrote a denunciation of chauvinistic groups in all their forms. Orwell’s and Byson’s complaint could be leveled at the writers of popular sagas like “The Establishment” [by Owen Jones] which provides neither the necessary diagnosis let alone cure.

In Orwell’s essay he uses the word “nationalism” in the sense that “nation” is any overwhelming group feeling. A nation may be a political conviction, a country or a religion. He defines it as:

“Nationalism, in the extended sense in which I am using the word, includes such movements and tendencies as Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism. It does not necessarily mean loyalty to a government or a country, still less to ONE’S OWN country, and it is not even strictly necessary that the units in which it deals should actually exist. To name a few obvious examples, Jewry, Islam, Christendom, the Proletariat and the White Race are all of them objects of passionate nationalistic feeling: but their existence can be seriously questioned, and there is no definition of any one of them that would be universally accepted.”

Orwell describes the mentality of this “nationalism” or rather “chauvinism” as follows:

“Nationalism, on the other hand [as opposed to patriotism], is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, NOT for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality………….He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade. But finally, it is important not to confuse nationalism with mere worship of success. The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it IS the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also–since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself–unshakeably certain of being in the right.”

Fortunately Orwell’s has advice on resisting “nationalism”:

“As for the nationalistic loves and hatreds that I have spoken of, they are part of the make-up of most of us, whether we like it or not. Whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe that it is possible to struggle against them, and that this is essentially a MORAL effort. It is a question first of all of discovering what one really is, what one’s own feelings really are, and then of making allowance for the inevitable bias.”

He describes political “nationalism” as a transfer of group feeling, away from older declining territorial and religious allegiances, towards some other external object, in this case a set of interlocking beliefs.

Orwell describes a number of “nationalisms” of which “pacifism” and “class feeling” are the ones that connect most closely to the contemporary “foul abscess” of the inability of Western left wing progressives to support the Syrian Revolution and more generally the struggle for representative government in the MENA region:

“(iv) CLASS FEELING. Among upper-class and middle-class intellectuals, only in the transposed form–i.e. as a belief in the superiority of the proletariat. Here again, inside the intelligentsia, the pressure of public opinion is overwhelming. Nationalistic loyalty towards the proletariat, and most vicious theoretical hatred of the bourgeoisie, can and often do co-exist with ordinary snobbishness in everyday life.

(v) PACIFISM. The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to the taking of life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States. Moreover they do not as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defence of western countries. The Russians, unlike the British, are not blamed for defending themselves by warlike means, and indeed all pacifist propaganda of this type avoids mention of Russia or China. It is not claimed, again, that the Indians should abjure violence in their struggle against the British. Pacifist literature abounds with equivocal remarks which, if they mean anything, appear to mean that statesmen of the type of Hitler are preferable to those of the type of Churchill, and that violence is perhaps excusable if it is violent enough. …………. All in all it is difficult not to feel that pacifism, as it appears among a section of the intelligentsia, is secretly inspired by an admiration for power and successful cruelty. The mistake was made of pinning this emotion to Hitler, but it could easily be retransferred.”

Contemporary Western progressive “nationalism” combines a dogmatic hatred of the Western ruling classes (“Establishment”) mixed with pacifism, so that any kind of Western military intervention is impossible to accept. Protest is limited to opposing intervention. All failures of intervention are vindications of these protests. As Orwell says the object of the “nationalist” is not progress in the real world, but vindication of his group’s beliefs (his “nation”). These failures of intervention are successes in the mentality of the political “nationalist”.

When measured as progress in the real world, then the kind of political chauvinism that mixes “anti-establishmentism” with “pacifism” (popularized by pundits like Owen Jones) is ineffective. Ordinary people in the MENA region have not been empowered by these protests. The anti-establishment progressives have scored a great victory showing that bad Western intervention does not lead to substantially progressive outcomes. Apart from this nothing.

[Next Part 4] See:

Owen Jones and “progressive” foreign policy (2).

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[Previous Part 1] See:

By lara keller (last updated 14th March 2017)

Owen Jones and “progressive” foreign policy (2).

A highly popular book called “The Establishment” by the fresh faced UK Oxford educated “radical” left journalist, historian and pundit Owen Jones, provides a neat encapsulation of this “foul abscess” when he talks about foreign policy in the MENA region. The book’s main theme deals with the question of how the elites in the UK (“The Establishment”) have subverted democracy in that country. In a characteristic ordering of “progressive” priorities foreign policy is relegated to the last chapter (number 8) before the conclusion. This chapter’s focus is on the UK Establishment’s slavish attitude to the imperialism of the US elites.

I think his subeditor must have been flagging by page 270 (talking about the Penguin 2014 paperback version), as the Second World War and the issue of defeating the evil of Nazism is dismissed in a single sentence: “The modern alliance [between UK and US] was only forged in World War II, when scores of American soldiers were sent to Britain and remained on British soil long after the fall of Hitler.” Scores? In the same way saving Europe from oppression by Stalinist Russia is expressed as: “It was Britain’s post-war Labour [reforming socialist] government under Clement Attlee that brought the country solidly into the US-led sphere of influence by joining Nato in 1949, and under the Conservatives it became a nuclear power in 1952”.

Jones then moves on to Tony Blair’s New Labour government in the UK, and its support for the disastrous US led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the wake of 9/11 terrorist attacks. He describes the threat to civil liberties in the UK as a result of the response to fundamentalist terrorism these invasions partly stimulated. There is eleven pages of this.

The Arab Democratic Spring from 2011 onwards is dealt with briefly in comparison:

“With US power declining, the Establishment dogma behind the special relationship [between US and UK] may be weakening too, as an abortive build up to military action would illustrate. From 2011 onwards, the despotic rulers of the Middle East were challenged by a wave of revolutions quickly labelled the Arab Spring. One such uprising exploded in Syria, but it began to degenerate into a sectarian bloodbath, with Iran helping to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Qatari autocracies bankrolling rebel groups by fundamentalist Islamists. Western states supported Assad’s overthrow. In the summer of 2013, hundreds of Syrian civilians were gassed to death, almost certainly by regime forces. A western military strike appeared inevitable, and the British government recalled Parliament to win legislative backing for such action. But, unexpectedly, the Labour leadership broke ranks with the Conservative-led coalition government. As far as Establishment dogma was concerned they had gone off script. The coalition’s motion on intervention was defeated, marking a near-unprecedented rejection of a government’s position on matters of war and peace.

The vote provoked fury from large swathes of the Establishment. The Sun [a popular reactionary tabloid] ran a front page with the headline ‘DEATH NOTICE’, and the text underneath read: ‘THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP. Died at home after a sudden illness on Thursday, August 29, 2013, aged 67. Beloved offspring of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

And yet, once again, polls revealed just how distant British public opinion was from Establishment dogma. Weary of being dragged by their rulers into disastrous wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, a large majority of voters rejected any British military intervention in Syria. Not only did 72 per cent disagree that the ‘special relationship’ was undermined’, but 67 per cent felt that the special relationship was ‘not relevant’ in the modern age, and we should not be concerned about hurting ‘American feelings’. Nonetheless, support for US power remains an article of faith among the British Establishment.”

[pages 286-287 “The Establishment” Owen Jones Penguin 2014]

Jones presents the UK parliament vote against intervention in August 2013 as some kind of triumph for UK progressive politics against the Establishment’s policy of supporting US imperialism. In reality in August 2013 in the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta around 1000 mostly women and children were killed by the nerve gas Sarin. This war crime was beyond reasonable doubt committed by the Assad regime (the regime started using chemical weapons in Homs in Decemebr2012). It came a year and a day after President Obama’s declaration that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be a “red line”. The massacre openly broke an important moratorium on the use of chemical weapons in warfare, last broken by Saddam Hussein’s attack on Iraqi Kurds and the war with Iran in the 1980s.

What is entirely absent in Jones’ account is the brutality of the Assad dictatorship that has ruled Syria since 1970, and the genocidal war the regime has been conducting against ordinary Syrians since 2011 (regime is responsible for 95+% of all civilian causalities). The Syrian people or their recent history do not appear even briefly in Jones’ summary of the Syrian Revolution.

The short description of the Syrian Revolution he presents is a gross distortion. Assad’s foreign support system includes China, Russia and Iran. The main conflict concerns replacing the Assad elitist dictatorship with a representative government. Sectarianism is one of the tools used by the regime since its creation, they are mainly responsible for it. Most of the opposition are mainstream, with a minority of “fundamentalist Islamists”. Western elites including Zionists do not want the overthrow of the self-serving Assad regime. Neither do they want representative government in the MENA region. In the same way Western elites have promoted its degradation in the West. The vote in the UK parliament was a useful cover for these elites including Obama to do nothing. [See this series of articles starting with for a summary of the Assad regime and the Syrian Revolution.]

Nothing Jones says about Syria is actually true, apart from Qatar being an autocratic monarchy (although it is less reactionary than the rest of the Gulf monarchies, with Saudi Arabia at the apex). Most importantly the vote in the UK parliament against intervention in Syria was actually a triumph for the “Establishment” not against it.

Chapter 8 of “The Establishment” on foreign policy finishes with the contradictory Eurosceptism of much of the “Establishment” and the excessive corporate influence in the European Union. This is something of a non-issue for the UK now after its disastrous Brexit vote in 2016. Naturally Jones has nothing to say about how ordinary people in the European Union, can end the “democratic deficit”. Jones’ book (like many fashionable progressive diatribes) is strong on exposing a long list of selected symptoms, but the anti-climactic concluding chapter “A Democratic Revolution” is weak on solutions.

This general “progressive deficit” of the pseudo Left is at its most prominent and glaring in protest campaigns that involve foreign policy. I look at the human rights history of the Assad regime and the essentially indifferent response of most Western “progressives”, and see part of a “foul abscess” that is a definitive indication of the root causes of their ineffectiveness. The Syrian Crisis is not obviously the cause of this, but has created a symptom that needs urgent attention. Fighting for ordinary Syrians and the Syrian Revolution will do us a lot of good. It is only pride that stands in our way.

[Next Part 3] See:

Progressive Betrayal of the MENA: The foul abscess (1).

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By lara keller (last updated 14th March 2017)

Progressive Betrayal of the MENA: The foul abscess (1).

Looking at what the West calls the Middle East (whose?) and North Africa (MENA) region, it is difficult not be crushed by the flow of reports of destruction, hopelessness and cruelty. The last two decades in particular. In this endless march through the debris of ordinary people’s lives I cannot help but see the misrule of regional and global elites. The “progressives” of the West have in the main the suspicion or for a radical minority the certainty, that this is exclusively the fault of “Western Imperialism”; together with a supporting role from the ubiquitous enemies of culture and religion. Therefore the “progressive” response is the active rejection of any Western action. Its substitute being a useless selective muted outrage.

All outrages and acts of oppression by dictators (monarchies or secular authoritarian regimes) supported by Western elites are loudly denounced by pious Western “progressives”. Other dictators supported by Russia and China are ignored, or mentioned in the margins for the sake of appearances. These denunciations are wasted as they are easily dismissed as sectarian. Even if they were successful, these selected dictatorships would not just dissolve without Western support. There is a fundamental misconception that the conflict between camps of MENA dictators and their superpower supporters have any real substance, beyond one of many means of securing power.

There is something obviously wrong with this lack of “progressive” Western response. It matters because this allows Western elites (“The Establishment”) to get away with an excess of bad intervention and a famine of good intervention in the MENA region. It matters because it is a symptom of something deep seated. It matters because this is a “foul abscess” that demands relief, even if the self-righteous patient is habituated to prescribing the dentist for other mouths.

It is a tragic mystery as to why the majority of “progressives” choose to make themselves the naïve accomplices of oppression. There is a valuable minority who do not, but this dissent within dissent struggles to be heard, above the smears of the hard-left (and in many cases simultaneously hard-right) dictator-philes. These contradictions would I think, have frustrated even George Orwell’s patience. He strongly denounced the hypocrisy of pseudo “progressive” politics in the Europe of the 1930s and 40s. Surely there is a modern Orwell?

[Next Part 2] See:

Assad Is Not Syria. Part 4: Gangster to Genocidal Fraudster.


[Previous Part 3] See:

Assad Is Not Syria. Part 4: Gangster to Genocidal Fraudster.

By lara keller (last updated 8th May 2017)

Syrian Revolution 2011

The sparks that ignited the Syrian Revolution in 2011 are well documented. The torture of 15 teenage boys for spraying “the people want to topple the regime, it’s your turn next doctor” in March 2011 in Deraa caused public outrage. The psychopathic arrogance and lack of any punishment of the security chief in Deraa, Atef Najib a cousin of Bashar Assad, ensured disaster. He is alleged to have said to the boys relatives “men go home and have new children, and if any of you lack the virility to do so, send your wives to my office and I will ensure they leave pregnant”.

The underlying causes have been described in earlier essays. A brutal regime that had ruled since 1970 by the use of systematic torture. The rampant corruption that saw the clique around Assad enriching themselves as ordinary people descended into poverty. The mismanagement of the economy, and failure to respond to population increase, drought and falling oil production. The Arab Democratic uprising that was sweeping the MENA region, was an opportunity that ordinary Syrians were waiting for to rid themselves of the Assad malignancy. The most feared secret police in the region, and a deliberate system of sectarian division and incorporation of a select layer of society, delayed the outbreak of the demands for representative government in Syria.

The violent and duplicitous response of the Assad regime is well documented. At the outset the regime claimed it was popular, and protests were due to Islamic extremists and malicious foreign intervention. Regime thugs were sent to demonstrations to fire on protesters, while the security forces claimed they were being attacked, and joined in the violence against unarmed Syrians.

The well connected but dissent Alawite Syrian author Samar Yazbek described the regime response in an article published August 2011:

“Two huge men entered the room. ….. Then I straightened up and shouted, ‘Where are you taking me?’ He answered calmly, and I heard a certain buzz. ‘For a little drive, to improve your writing.’ I was certain they had decided to arrest me.

….. I did not expect what awaited me to be horrible, despite everything I had read about prisons; I had tried to write about what I had heard and imagined, but all that meant nothing the moment I opened my eyes. ……… The man standing before me opened one of the doors. A sharp buzz started quickly and then ended with slow beats, sad beats like a melody I heard once in a Greek bar. One of the men grasped my elbow and pushed me further in, and kept holding my arm and the open door, and there . . . I saw them. It was a cell scarcely big enough for two or three to stand in. I could not see clearly, but I made out three bodies hanging there, I did not know how! I was bewildered, and my stomach began to convulse. The bodies were nearly naked. There was a dim light seeping in from somewhere, feeble rays for enough vision to discern that they were youths of no more than 20 years old. Their fresh young bodies were clear beneath the blood. They were suspended from their hands in steel cuffs, and their toes barely touched the floor. Blood streamed down their bodies, fresh blood, dried blood, deep bruises visible like the blows of a random blade. Their faces looked down; they were unconscious, and they swayed to and fro like slaughtered animals.

I retreated, but one of the men grabbed me and pushed me, in total silence. One young man raised his head in agony, and the weak light allowed me to see his face.

He had no face; his eyes were completely encrusted. I could see no light in his eyes. There was no place for his nose or even lips. His face was like a red painting with no lines. Red mixed with black.

At that point I collapsed, and the two men lifted me up. For a minute I teetered on a slippery spot, blindly, and it took several moments for me to regain my balance on my feet. I heard one of them tell the other, ‘Man, she can’t take it. Look at her. The closet’s killing her!’

Then that smell gushed out, the smell of blood, urine and faeces. Abruptly they took me out of the cell and opened another, and as they did so, the sounds of screaming and torture came from somewhere. Never had I heard such sounds of pain. They did not stop until we left the passage.

A second cell was opened…..

I asked one of the men, as they tied the blindfold back on me, ‘Are those the boys from the demonstrations?’ ‘Those are the traitors from the demonstrations,’ one of them answered.

My question irritated him. He seized my elbow and squeezed it harshly, until I thought he would break it. I stumbled and fell, but instead of letting me get up, he kept dragging me. I felt a scalding pain in my bones when I thought back on the boys who had gone out to demonstrate. All those smells were in my mouth, and the images from the cells covered the blackness before my eyes. We stopped. They pulled off the blindfold and I saw him sitting behind an elegant desk, and I knew that this was not a nightmare. He stared at me derisively. …… “


Green Progressive (?) Apologist for Assad

This is shocking, the torturers a sick debasement of what it means to be human. What disgusts me to my core, is not Assad and the scum around him, but the response of “progressives” in the West that I once respected.

A representative example of this response is the UK Green Party Politician Baroness Jenny Jones speaking on BBC Question Time panel programme on 5th November 2015 about the Syrian Crisis:

“I have worked [in] and visited Syria many many times, and the fact is that it was an incredibly stable country, considering it was a vile dictatorship and so on, it was actually a very safe stable country, people were repressed but actually they got on with their lives, ermmm, there was a lot of employment, food was cheap, it was a good place to live, and believe me our [Western] bombing has made it one of the worse places on Earth to live [strong audience applause ….]”

In the mid-1990s she got an MA in Archaeology as a mature student, and then spent 10 years working in Syria and other countries in the Middle East as an archaeologist. Her statement on Syria is oddly contradictory, out dated and inaccurate. Her attitude is orientalist and unconsciously racist, evoking the colonial idea that so called “backward” people are better off under dictatorial rule.

The “bombing” she refers to are the airstrikes against the Islamic extremists ISIL, by the US lead coalition, that started in August 2014. ISIL had originated in Iraq among marginalised Sunnis after the US invasion, and infiltrated the mostly rural and sparsely populated east of Syria after the 2011 Syrian Revolution. Aerial bombing against terrorist groups, mostly kills civilians, and is a racist counterproductive anti extremist tactic. It implies that the number of civilians killed is unimportant, as long as some terrorists who may threaten the West are killed. In late 2015 the Assad regime had been conducting a four and half years long campaign of mass murder against Syrians. In September 2015 the Russians had started to add to the indiscriminate bombing of opposition held areas. The Assad regime was responsible for over 90% of the deaths and causalities. Jenny Jones statement that Western bombing against ISIL “has made it [Syria] one of the worse places on Earth to live” is fantastically deranged.

She was wearing a red poppy in memory of those who died defeating Nazism in the Second World War, and a white poppy in memory I assume of those who died pointlessly in the First World War. She has campaigned for a long time for civil liberties in the UK against an increasingly surveillance state, and publicises her attendance of Amnesty International meetings at the UK House of Lords. Some people it seems deserve freedom from repression more than others. This is the racist reactionary dogma that many influential equality minded progressives preach.

The “progressives” in the West have been mostly indecisive and ineffective in helping to end the Syrian Crisis. The hard-left and obsessive anti-war progressives have actively apologised for the Assad regime. The courage of the activists who went out on the streets in Syria knowing what may await them, shines a frightening light on the rotten edifice of Western progressive betrayal.

Polls and Alleged Assad Regime Popularity

The Assad regime has been responsible for mass terror and extortion since the military coup in 1970. It has also been responsible with previous regimes, for some material progress (although this is exaggerated in official statistics) and for putting up a patchy resistance to the territorial expansion of Zionist Israel. Any government has to justify itself to its population. The Assad clique have taken the attitude that Syria is their private estate, in which the population must earn privileges.

The vast majority of Syrians want and deserve far better than the Assad regime. This was true in 2011, and is beyond any reasonable doubt now. This case has been undermined by the lack of reliable polls and election in Syria, where the regime’s laws effectively criminalise any opinion that counters the regime. It claims that the interests of the regime and the Syrian people are synonymous, so that any serious dissent is treason.

The non-profit “Democracy Council” of California partnered with Professor Angela Hawken, of the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, to conduct a study of Syrian public opinion in 2010. This opinion polling was independent of the regime, and was carried out without seeking their permission. Sixty Syrian field workers were trained to conduct 1046 interviews with Syrian adults. This secret “guerrilla polling” is an unorthodox response to a hostile environment, the main problem is that polling in Assad regime’s Syria is so complicated that few polls can be conducted to provide comparisons. Angela Hawkin is now a board member of the “Democracy Council”.

60.5% of participants felt the economic and political situation in Syria was bad or very bad, while 9.7% felt it was good or very good, the rest were neutral. 47.4% felt the situation was going to get worse in the future, while 17% felt would improve. Participants described the most critical issue facing Syria, 22.9% political freedom, 20.3% corruption, 15.7% living standard and 13.4% cost of living (the last two are surely related?). 59.6% felt democracy and human rights were bad or very bad, only 9% felt they were good, while the rest were neutral. On the question of lifting the emergency laws (in force since 1960s) 79.7% were in favour, 5.5% were against and the rest neutral.

[Survey Finding: Syria 2010 Public Opinion Survey, Angela Hawken, Jonathan Kulick et al, Pepperdine University, Report Prepared For Democracy Council Of California, 5th August 2010]

The survey results are weighted by age, sex and province. There seems to be no attempt to adjust for income. The survey reports that 60.5% of participants had access to the internet. Similar but relatively more open societies, are reported by the World Bank in 2010, to have access rates to the internet, of 36.8 % in Tunisia and 21.6% in Egypt. In addition the Assad regime was reluctant to introduce the internet to Syria. It seems reasonable to assume the survey is slanted to higher income Syrians. The results of this survey embarrassed the Assad regime. It seems likely a more representative survey would have been an even greater embarrassment to the regime.

The public opinion survey was repeated in August 2011. Similar questions were asked to 2010, with the addition of some reflecting the Syrian Revolution. Optimism was in the air, with 92% of participants expecting the political situation in Syria to improve in the future. 81.8% felt that democracy in Syria was currently bad or very bad. 85.3% felt human rights in Syria were bad or very bad. 67.4% felt democracy is preferable to any other form of government. 82.6% felt Bashar Assad’s performance as president was poor or very poor. 82% of participants supported the peaceful revolution that began in March 2011. 87.1% wanted the Assad regime to leave power.

[Survey Finding: Syria 2011 Public Opinion Survey, Angela Hawken, Jonathan Kulick et al, Pepperdine University, Report Prepared For Democracy Council Of California, 9th September 2011]

Due to the security situation the number of participants was lower at 551. Access to the internet among participants was 76.9% this time. The argument that this survey represented a wealthier than average segment of Syrian society, more likely to support the elitist Assad regime, is stronger. Therefore the percentage of Syrians wanting the Assad regime to leave power was probably even greater than 87%.

Finding comparison polls has been very difficult. The Qatar Silatech organisation, conducted a poll in partnership with Gallup in 2009, “The Silatech Index: Voices of Young Arabs”, that covered 20 MENA countries including Syria. According to their report:

“Training: Traditionally, Gallup selects local partners who have experience in nationwide public opinion studies. In locations where public opinion polling is a relatively new research activity (for example, Yemen and Syria), extensive training is used to ensure local partners are adequately prepared for the polling work. Gallup conducts in-depth training sessions with local field staff prior to the start of data collection. Topics covered in training include household selection, respondent selection, correct administering of the questionnaire, and other field quality procedures. The training sessions provide examples of best practices and standards required to ensure high quality when data are collected.” [page 124 “The Silatech Index: Voices of Young Arabs”, June 2009]

So data collection is not done by Gallup directly, but relies on local partners. Who this is in the case of Syria is not reported. The Syrian board member of Silatech is Nabil Kuzbari. He has close connections to the Assad clique. US embassy cables leaked by Wikileaks, show that Kuzbari “played an important role in encouraging several European politicians to establish closer ties with Assad”, and was “using his business and banking connections abroad to transfer the president’s assets outside the country” []. It seems very unlikely that “local partners” in Syria would collect data that embarrassed the Assad regime, even if they appeared to be following Gallup’s methodology. According to the section of the report on Syria in 2009:

38% of Syrian youth said 2009 was a good time to find a job. 47% were satisfied with attempts to create high quality jobs, but 49% said they could not afford important job training. 62% said that corruption in business was widespread. No one asked them about government corruption. 71% said “those responsible for their society’s progress maximize the potential of youth in the country”. 67% said children and young people were treated with dignity and respect. According to this report, compared to Egypt and other Levant countries, Syria came first. [pages 34-35, 106-109, “The Silatech Index: Voices of Young Arabs”, June 2009]

The section of this report on Syria is a devious farce.

Polls are important because they expose the level of need for representative government, in countries where elections are manipulated by the ruling elites. Since 2011 an army of apologists for the Assad regime from the left and right have appeared in the Western media, all arguing that Bashar Assad’s state propaganda is true, and that he is wildly popular. They then argue that the Syrian Revolution is a fake, and the West should avoid giving any help to the opposition.

Ambitious journalists and even some academics, have a long and tainted tradition of writing “puff pieces” for dictators, in the Western media. Dr Tim Anderson, a lecturer in political economy at Sydney University, has written an influential book “Dirty War On Syria (2016)”, the book’s introduction states:
“The Dirty War on Syria has relied on a level of mass disinformation not seen in living memory. In seeking regime change the big powers sought to hide their hand, using proxy armies of Islamists, demonising the Syrian Government and constantly accusing it of atrocities. In this way Syrian President Bashar al Assad, a mild-mannered eye doctor, became the new evil in the world. The popular myths of this dirty war that it is a civil war, a popular revolt or a sectarian conflict hide a murderous spree of regime change across the region. The attack on Syria was a necessary consequence of Washington s ambition, stated openly in 2006, to create a New Middle East. After the destruction of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, Syria was next in line.”

Dr Anderson reported a Doha Debate survey on Assad’s presidency in an earlier article on the same subject, “America’s Dirty War on Syria: Bashar al Assad and Political Reform” in 2015:

“A poll in late 2011, funded by Bashar’s enemies in Qatar and so certainly biased, showed that a majority outside Syria wanted the Syrian President to resign because of ‘the regime’s brutal treatment of protestors’. However, and more importantly, it also showed that 51% of Syrians wanted Assad to stay (Doha Debates 2011). When a poll run by an enemy says this we should take notice.” []

In reality a television Doha Debate “This house believes that President Bashar al-Assad must resign” in November 2011, was voted for by 91% of the audience. This was followed up a regional internet based poll commissioned in December 2011 by Doha Debates from “YouGov Siraj”. 1000 people from 18 countries were asked “in your opinion should Syria’s President Assad resign?” 81% said he should go. In Syria there were only 98 respondents, and 55% said he should stay. Comparing this to the Democracy Council guerrilla polling above, this Yougov internet survey is extremely unreliable. Internet penetration in Syria was low, and the minimum sample size should be a thousand for an individual country. [see]

Dr Anderson analysis of this poll is shallow. He misses a fundamental dynamic in describing Qatar’s ruling elite as an enemy of the Assad regime in 2011. The reality was more nuanced and fluid than this, as the Gulf monarchies sought to influence the Assad regime away from Iran and failed. His “America’s Dirty War on Syria” article then mentions two articles by journalists, which mention off hand comments exaggerating Assad’s popularity.

The only other study mentioned is “An internal NATO study in 2013 also estimated that 70% of Syrians supported the President, 20% were neutral and 10% supported the ‘rebels’ (World Tribune 2013)”. This appeared in the US “World Tribune” on 31st May 2013, and relies on unnamed sources at Nato who reported the conclusions of an unseen report to Middle East Newsline. According to the World Tribune article:
“The sources said no formal polling was taken in Syria, racked by two years of civil war in which 90,000 people were reported killed. They said the data came from a range of activists and independent organizations that were working in Syria, particularly in relief efforts. The data was relayed to NATO as the Western alliance has been divided over whether to intervene in Syria.” []

I have not seen any further evidence that this Nato report existed, let alone any information about the quality of the sources. It appears to be little more than hearsay, but is very popular with apologists for the Assad regime.

According to Dr Anderson “The June 2014 Presidential elections were the most authoritative indication of support for Bashar al Assad.” According to the regime, Bashar Assad received 88.7% of the vote, and the turnout was 73.4% of the all eligible voters. There is no reason to believe this election was anymore legitimate than all the previous rigged elections in the Assad era.

Dr Anderson’s Distorted History of the Syrian Revolution

The history of the Assad regime given in the first section of Dr Anderson’s “America’s Dirty War on Syria” article is a straightforward distortion. The technique is used of reversing causality to paint the regime as always responding to terrorist conspiracy (ironically this is a prominent Zionist propaganda technique). The article starts with a contradiction, he rightly states that sovereignty belongs to the Syrian people, but admits the regime he is defending is a one party authoritarian state.

Dr Anderson’s history of the first decade of Bashar Assad’s rule after 2000, casually brushes over the crackdown after the Damascus Spring, in which he says “some of the prisoners were reported as tortured and killed “.

His scholarship fails in describing the “National Salvation Front”, it was not Islamist as he describes, and differed from the Damascus Declaration in that it called explicitly for the peaceful removal of Assad. Dr Anderson talks up the struggles within the Damascus Declaration group over unity. Assad adopted endless delay because he did not face any serious threat to his regime. A popular front was difficult to establish because tactual options were limited, and were not acceptable to all groups.

He states “The Government also moved against some of the signatories [of the Damascus Declaration].” In fact twelve of the founding members were arrested by the regime in late 2007, and only released after a long international campaign.

He then makes some absurd “causality reversing” claims that the Muslim Brotherhood were mainly responsible for the brutality of the security forces of the Assad dictatorship. He says “They [Syrian Muslim Brotherhood] had sat in the Syrian parliament in the 1950s but, since then a fair amount of Syrian authoritarianism has had to do with suppressing their sectarian insurrections, including assassinations and massacres”. In fact the Baathist coup in 1963 lead to the suppression of all opposing voices in Syria, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

Dr Anderson completely airbrushes out the violent repression by the Assad regime of peaceful demonstrations in March 2011. He says only that there was a “burst of political activity” at this time, with opposition groups divided over supporting the government. He boldly states: “What became known in western circles as ‘the opposition’ were mostly exiles and the Islamists who had initiated the violence.” According to Anderson the Muslim Brotherhood then took over the Syrian Revolution, and “By 2013, however, what remained of the LCCs [secular local coordination committees] seemed well embedded with Islamist armed groups, mainly reporting on their casualties”.

His history of the Syrian opposition is seriously deficient. Most of the signatories of the Damascus Declaration joined the Syrian National Council (SNC) when it was formed as a government in exile in August 2011. In November 2012 the Syrian Opposition formed a broader umbrella group the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (confusingly known as the Syrian National Coalition). This included the groups that had expanded inside Syria, the civilian Local Coordination Committees and the Free Syrian Army. The Syrian National Council then left the coalition again in January 2014, because it insisted on a harder line on Assad, who they insisted should step down before any peace talks (in particular “Geneva II Conference on Syria” in January 2014).

The Syrian Opposition have suffered from serious disunity. There are the inevitable pressures of forming a popular front, with divisions of class, race, religion, belief (secular-religious) and location (rural-urban). There are the generational differences, because opposition to the Baathist dictatorship goes back to the 1960s. The Assad regime presents specific problems to any opposition, due to its essential brutal and repressive mentality, assistance from reactionary regional powers and international superpowers, together with the power of its security forces. There were therefore divisions between those who advocated working from within the Syrian government, those who sought to persuade the so called “international community” to provide external help, and those who sought Sunni Islamic religious solidarity. These are arguments of desperation, and the Syrian Revolution has shown that none of them are potential solutions. The continuation of the Assad regime or the violence of the Syrian Crisis are also not solutions. Currently there is no solution.

Dr Anderson (and the army of Assad apologists) brush over the struggle facing the opposition, and present them as having no possibility of shared goals. He even attempts to stir up Islamophobic hype, he writes in his “America’s Dirty War On Syria” article: “Hassan Mneimneh, for the Washington-based ‘Brussels Forum’, noted the real fears in the region of an ‘Islamist winter’, as the Arab Spring had handed the Islamists ‘an unexpected, maybe undeserved, victory’.”

Actually Mneimneh’s article gives informed and convincing reasons why the “Islamist Winter” fear is superficial, and does not ascribe it to fears in the “region” as Anderson asserts. Often in radical revisionist articles on the Middle East, intended for consumption by Western audiences, by both the extreme left and right, you will find numerous references to sources, which on inspection contradict the article’s case. The loss of a few readers willing to research them, is more than overcome by the majority who assume their validity, and pass the articles on as valid to social media. Mneimneh’s March 2012 article is actually highly informative, and provides an education for readers tempted to embrace Dr Anderson’s hard-left faux radicalism:

“Prior to the rise of Islamism in the 1980s, Arab political culture had endured three successive grand narratives: paternalistic (elite) liberalism from the 1920s into the 1940s, populist nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, and revolutionary leftism in the 1970s. None succeeded in delivering promised justice and development. By the early 1980s, instead, an Arab political order of kleptocratic tyrannies coalesced, ruling by intimidation and fear, and reducing much of the population to despair. Islamism — the conceptualization of Islam as the framework that ought to shape or dictate political and social institutions — evolved as the discourse of dissent and opposition against regimes that relied on the receding grand narratives for their legitimacy.” []

Mneimneh goes on to describe Islamism as a protest ideology, with many fluid strands, little substance and an uncertain connection to wider Islam. He identifies the “expansion and integration” of the Arab speaking cultural space in the 1990s and 2000s (through growth satellite television and the internet) as an important factor often ignored by the Western commentators. The article’s argument is summarised:

“To talk of an ‘Islamist Winter’ is premature, even erroneous. Rather than an expansion and consolidation of Islamist doctrine, the Arab Spring is seemingly prompting both divergences within Islamism and the retreat of its radical wing to social conservatism. The liberal challenge to Islamism will continue to reshape it. A redefined Islamism may even attempt to claim large parts of the liberal program, at the exclusion of the social and cultural issues that in fact constitute the protective core for a sustainable democracy. In the crucial battle of the portrayal of the political problématique, the importance of identifying the electoral victories as a success for Islamists, not a success for Islamism, is vital for liberal propositions that have been able to affect the substance of the public discussion but are yet to find powerful proponents for their own viability. In many ways, political culture in the Arab world is fueled by feedback loops through which standing and power are amplified by claims of even greater standing and power. The formulations by the Western media, academy, and world of politics are often recycled into this loop.” []

This summary is the opposite of what Dr Anderson claims that this article actually says, which matters because he references it as an important support for his case.

In plain language in this summary, Mneimneh is saying that the Arab Spring has shown that the radical wing of Islamism has not been able to win or sustain popular support, as increased regimentation does not fit with the popular revolt against authoritarianism. The liberal programme Mneimneh describes as “democracy, development, citizen empowerment, transparency, and pluralism”. Islamism’s core adherence to social and cultural conservatism (rather than political or economic conservatism) is problematic because this can be misused as a justification for censorship and a distraction from deeper issues, which then undermines democracy. Mneimneh concludes that liberals should not obsess about the rise of Islamism, but engage with the substance of public discussion. “The formulations by the Western media, academy, and world of politics” can play a constructive part in this discussion.

Assad Regime Genocide Denial by the Reactionary Hard-Left

Dr Anderson as our exemplar of the reactionary hard-left, highlights the barbarism of the Assad regime since the 2011 revolution, by his criminal denial of the regime’s genocide against Syrians. According to the apologists all major atrocities carried by the Assad regime either did not happen, were legitimate or were committed by the Syrian Opposition as “false flag” operations. In his article “America’s Dirty War on Syria: Bashar al Assad and Political Reform” in 2015 Dr Anderson says:

“The August 2013 chemical weapons incident in East Ghouta was widely blamed on the Assad Government. Yet all independent evidence exposed this as yet another ‘false flag’. I document the propaganda surrounding these atrocities in Chapters Eight and Nine [of the forthcoming book ‘Dirty War On Syria’].” []

Actually on the 21st August 2013, two opposition controlled areas in the Ghouta suburbs around Damascus were attacked by rockets containing Sarin nerve gas, over 1000 civilians mostly women and children were killed. Investigations showed that a weapons grade nerve agent was used, which was delivered by a specially designed rocket system, allegedly only available to the Assad regime. Only the Assad and Putin regimes maintain this was a “false flag” attack. This was exactly a year and a day since President Obama warned the Assad regime in a White House press conference on August 20th 2010, “…. that a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized …. would change my calculus …. would change my equation.” This was a calculated act of contempt that lead to no consequences.

He makes a more assertive claim in another in 2015, “The Dirty War on Syria: Barrel Bombs, Partisan Sources and War Propaganda”:

“In the case of Washington’s claims about the August 2013 chemical weapons attack in East Ghouta, the US Government and some of its embedded agencies attempted to use telemetry and some other circumstantial evidence to implicate the Syrian Army (Gladstone and Chivers 2013; HRW 2013). However, after those claims were destroyed by a range of independent evidence (Lloyd and Postol 2014; Hersh 2014; Anderson 2015), Washington and its media periphery simply kept repeating the same discredited accusations. In the climate of war, few were bold enough to say that the emperor ‘had no clothes’.” []

The sources he quotes for destroying the claim that the Assad regime were responsible for the East Ghouta sarin attack do not support his claim. He references himself and an Assad apologist journalist Seymour Hersh. The “Lloyd and Postol 2014” link refers to a report by the respected MIT science professor Theodore Postol. The report actually examines a limited amount of the evidence about the missiles used to launch the attack, and concludes they could not have been fired from the alleged location. Comparison of range and frontlines at the time, do not mean that they could not have been fired from Assad regime controlled territory. The report has nothing to say about the large quantity and type of weapons grade sarin used in the attack, which was only available to the Assad regime. []

A Syrian military police photographer codenamed “Caesar” started copying photographs of the dead from two military hospitals in Damascus in September 2011. He smuggled out 53275 photographs when he defected in August 2013. The military hospital morgues processed civilians killed by the security forces, as well as dead soldiers. Human Rights Watch received a full set of the photographs. A forensic assessment showed that 6786 were civilian detainees killed by the security forces. They compared reported conditions of detention and torture in Syria to the corpses.

“ ‘We have no doubt that the people shown in the Caesar photographs were starved, beaten, and tortured in a systematic way, and on a massive scale,’ Houry said. ‘These photographs represent just a fraction of people who have died while in Syrian government custody – thousands more are suffering the same fate’. “ []
By December 2015 the Syrian Network for Human Rights had documented the arrest and detention of more than 117,000 people in Syria since March 2011.

Dr Anderson comments on the Caesar photographs in article from 15 October 2015, “The Dirty War on Syria: Barrel Bombs, Partisan Sources and War Propaganda”:

“For the same reason, when the Qatari monarchy (which has invested billions of dollars in the armed attacks on Syria) presents an anonymous, paid witness ‘Caesar’, with photos of numerous dead and tortured bodies, blaming the Syrian Army for ‘industrial scale killing’ (O’Toole 2014; Jalabi 2015), it should be plain that that ‘evidence’ is partisan and unreliable (Smith-Spark 2014; MMM 2014). The fact that this story was presented by a belligerent party just before a Geneva peace conference should give further cause for suspicion. But without genuinely independent evidence to corroborate the witness we have no way of verifying in which year, circumstance or even which country the photos were taken. Those who finance and arm the sectarian groups have slaughtered hundreds of thousands in recent years, in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. There is no shortage of photos of dead bodies. The fact that western media sources run these accusations, using lawyers (also paid by Qatar) to provide ‘bootstrap’ support (Cartalucci 2014; Murphy 2014), merely shows their limited understanding of independent evidence.” []

Dr Anderson’s accusation is that the photographs were faked for profit. Only three of the sources he references are from genuine journalists rather than blogsites (like this one). Dr Anderson confuses the photographs validity with the validity of a report partly funded by Qatar (according to CNN = Smith-Spark 2014). The CNN article he references, actually reports the opinions of the Assad regime that the report is partisan and unreliable.

He then goes on to standard “whataboutism”, which goes to core of the rottenness of contemporary radical “progressive” politics. In reality all MENA and superpower elites are responsible for sectarian chaos and violence in the Middle East, which for them is a mutually beneficial system that harms ordinary people. His Christian Science Monitor link (Cartalucci 2014) urges caution in the treatment of the Qatar report. Dr Anderson ignores more considered reports on the Caesar photographs than the 2014 part Qatar funded “Caesar Report” (to be fair the particular Human Rights Watch report appeared after Dr Anderson’s internet article was written, which could then have been revised).

The Reality of the Assad Regime’s Genocidal War Against Syrians

The Syrian Network Of Human Rights (SNHR) was set up in 2011. There objectives are: “SNHR believes that the main goal for documenting the violations in Syria is to preserve the victims’ rights and hold the criminals accountable for the sake of fulfilling justice in addition to deter those who are thinking of perpetrating similar criminals, support the path of transitional justice, memorialize the memories of the victims, and contribute to the political and social advocacy process.” [] In May 2016 SNHR had 25 full time workers and 70 volunteers working across Syria and neighbouring countries.

The Syrian Network Of Human Rights has analysed statistics for causalities from 2011 to October 2015, the Assad regime is responsible for 95% of civilian deaths (which is 179291 people), 97% of civilian deaths by torture (which is 11501 people), 93% of medical staff deaths (531 people) and 95% of enforced disappearances (67659 people) [see]. By June 2016 the regime was responsible for 11 out of 14 areas besieged, and had caused 98% of deaths due to siege (786 people), the regime and its allies had caused 17145 deaths due to bombing on besieged areas, and had carried out at least 70 chemical attacks [see].

Looking at the causes of death recorded on the Syrian Violations Centre in Syria database, then between February 2011 and February 2017: shelling (32.4%), aerial bombing (27.4%), 19.7% shooting, execution (11%), death by torture 7.2%, other 1.4%, chemical 1%.

According to Dr Anderson in “The Dirty War on Syria: Barrel Bombs, Partisan Sources and War Propaganda”:

“Perhaps the most common and profound error of the western media, reporting on the Syrian crisis, has been the extraordinary reliance on a single person, a man based in Britain who calls himself the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). Many of the stories about Syrian body counts, ‘regime’ atrocities and huge collateral damage come from this man. Yet Rami Abdul Rahman has always flown the flag of the Muslim Brotherhood led ‘Free Syrian Army’ on his website (SOHR 2015).” []

This inaccurate statement is undermined by the reality of the large and diverse Syrian opposition effort to professionally document causalities in the Syrian Crisis. According to Anderson all the armed Syrian Opposition are extremist Islamists who have activists “embedded” with them, that are helping to create false causality statistics . Apparently barrel bombs are acceptable weapons, which the Assad regime air-force are not using randomly to kill and terrorise civilians. Dr Anderson then slightly contradicts himself, by acknowledging the diversity of causality statistics:

“Casualty numbers are typically provided by the British-based ‘Syrian Observatory on Human Rights’ (SOHR 2015), the British-based Syrian Network for Human Rights (SN4HR 2015), or the Istanbul-based Violation Documentation Center in Syria (VDC 2015; Masi 2015). All these centres are allied to the Islamist gangs, but usually maintain some public distance from ISIL.” []

He repeats stories about the few cases where human rights groups have made mistakes (later corrected) to argue that all their reports are propaganda. This technique is used repeatedly in apologist literature, the most common instance being the Kuwait Incubator Amnesty case. A careful investigation of this meme, shows that the Kuwaiti monarchy were promoting information about Iraqi army atrocities and in some cases exaggerating them. Medical staff in a Kuwaiti hospital fled in terror from Iraqi forces, and babies in incubators died as a result, rather than direct action by the soldier removing them from incubators. Amnesty reported the exaggerated story, and then issued a correction. This nuanced reality about the details of one incident are brushed over by apologist propaganda.

Dr Anderson finishes this article on: “So while genuine students of the crisis must revert to principled study of claims and counter-claims, we should also recognise this industrial scale propaganda machine, which is likely to maintain its production into the foreseeable future.” []

If such an industrial anti Assad propaganda machine was producing stories about Assad regime extensive genocidal atrocities that did not exist, then how could this hoax be maintained for over five years? There are a handful of well-known journalists who have taken a pro Assad stance, the most infamous is Robert Fisk. If such a hoax existed, then at the beginning you could expect a few journalists to break ranks and expose the fraud. If this was justified then this exposure would be taken up by the rest of the media. Pro Assad well known journalists or academics for that case, remain a select eccentric group. In addition there is the information about the brutal repressive authoritarianism of the regime that goes back to the 1970s, that contradicts the grand hoax theory of Dr Anderson.

The hoax theory would also have to explain the extensive destruction in urbans areas held by the Syrian Opposition that are evident from satellite imagery. The idea that the “Islamist Gangs” as the apologists like to characterise the armed Syrian Opposition, blew up their own buildings on an industrial scale in part of a “grand hoax” seems crazed. Similarity the idea that the armed Syrian Opposition terrorised millions of Syrians to become refuges in neighbouring countries, surely would have led to thousands of world media interviews from refugee camps exposing this crime. At this point the apologists desperately attempt to conflate ISIL with the armed Syrian Opposition, as refugees do report fleeing ISIL. There is a clear division between ISIL and the Armed Syrian opposition, which is endlessly confirmed by many sources on the ground. This apologist blurring of Islamist with ISIL only works with the almost totally uninformed.

The last line of defence is to claim it is absurd that the Assad regime would attack its own people. Dr Anderson even claims a source referring to Bashar Assad as “Mr Soft”. The reason is the same as it has been since 1970 to rule Syria mainly by terror. Indiscriminate bombing, sniping and shelling creates terror. Assad does not have enough Syrians loyal to him to suppress the Syrian Revolution, and has had to scour the region for Shiite Militias. The strategy has been to encircle areas, and then starve and terrorise. The result is that rebel areas can be cleansed of dissent, as populations are forced to flee. They can then attempt to leave the country as refugees across often closed borders, or move to regime areas if not known activists where they are safe from regime bombing and starvation at least.



Assad is not Syria. Part 3: 2000 to 2010 a wasted decade of chances to avoid disaster.


[Previous Part 2] See:

Assad is not Syria. Part 3: 2000 to 2010 a wasted decade of chances to avoid disaster.

By lara keller (last updated 18th May 2017)

Hafez Assad won an astonishing 99.9% of the votes in the December 1991 presidential referendum. The breakup of the Soviet Union meant Hafez was forced to make diplomatic ties with Western countries, and to lessen the excesses of his repressive regime. Unexpectedly in 1994 his eldest son Bassel died after driving into a barrier at high speed in fog. Hafez suffered from heart disease, and although his apologists denied it, the Assad dynasty needed a successor.

This fell on the less dynamic, less outwardly dominant, ophthalmologist Bashar Assad. He was much less popular within the regime’s macho inner security clique. He was put in charge of an anti-corruption campaign, which targeted the business interests of those who had fallen out of favour, for other reasons. In particular Rifaat Assad, the exiled butcher of Hama, who made a disastrous move towards power in mid 1980s, and was attempting to position himself to replace Hafez.

In 2000 after the death of 69 year old Hafez, and a convenient change in the constitution, the 34 year old Bashar became president. In a subsequent national presidential plebiscite Bashar received 99.7% of the votes on a 95% turnout. Some voters even amplified their show of loyal enthusiasm by marking their voting cards with their own blood.

Bashar who had also been put in charge of introducing the internet to Syria, was seen wishfully by the West as a moderniser. In July 2000 John Daniszewski of the LA Times was one of the few Western journalists to expose the reality, in an eerily accurate article:

“But just because people don’t express their thoughts freely doesn’t mean they’re content. In fact, a growing mood of frustration and hopelessness inside Syria could be one of the most important problems for the untested Assad when he formally assumes the post his father held for 30 years until his death last month. On one hand, some of the brightest minds needed to resuscitate the Syrian economy are leaving, and on the other, a sullen, dissatisfied population could be the seed of popular unrest against what has become the Assad dynasty……………………

At the apartment outside the capital, a woman confronts a foreign journalist. Why, she asks, did Western television stations report on Assad’s death as though the Syrian people were truly sad? ‘Are they stupid, that they actually believe that?’ she asked. ‘The truest or most genuine thing that happened is that many, many people did not go for the funeral,’ she asserted…………………

According to several members of Syria’s ‘lost generation’–those who lived their entire lives under Hafez Assad’s iron fisted rule–they have little faith that his son will bring any real improvement to their lives. ‘Most of my friends, 60% or so, are thinking of leaving the country, because to try to do a commercial project here is hopeless,’ says a computer engineer. ‘Only someone close to the government can make profits, not normal people.’ The intellectual says he has little hope for Bashar Assad. ‘No matter what he intends to implement, the only real change would be to change the whole [clique] that has been running the country, which is not possible,’ he says. ‘They will not permit it.’ As he puts it, those who are in power do not want reform. And those who want reform have no power…………………

The intellectual says he felt insulted by how quickly foreigners welcomed and embraced his country’s new strongman. ‘There is a huge responsibility that must be borne by America for keeping these corrupt regimes in power all over the region,’ he complained. For years, Syrians had lived with the fear that the death of the elder Assad could mean civil war and bloodshed. But many had also become resigned to prolonged stagnation of their country as long as Assad was alive. Now their fear of instability is at odds with the desire for change.”


Hafez Assad had created a regime that narrowed power in Syria to a small clique. Bashar Assad’s rule was insecure, so he narrowed this clique further to members of the Assad family clan.

It was a cousin Atef Najib whose psychopathic arrogance sparked the Syrian Revolution. In March 2011 he was security chief in Deraa, when 15 teenage boys were arrested and badly tortured for spraying “the people want to topple the regime, it’s your turn next doctor” on a school wall. When relatives went to demand the release of the children, Atef Najib is alleged to have said “men go home and have new children, and if any of you lack the virility to do so, send your wives to my office and I will ensure they leave pregnant”. A statement that encapsulates the contempt, brutality and sheer gangsterism of the ruling Syrian clique. Atef was never punished naturally.

In the same city in April 2011, 13 year old Hamza al-Khateeb was tortured to death by Air Force Intelligence, his mutilated body was returned a month later:

“His jaw and both kneecaps had been smashed. His flesh was covered with cigarette burns. His penis had been cut off. Other injuries appeared to be consistent with the use of electroshock devices and being whipped with a cable.” []

According to the Syrian state broadcaster SANA, Hamza was a jihadist killed by the regime whose body had been given the marks of torture after death. No one was punished. In 1969 the Baathist Government passed a farcical law, still in force, saying that the security services could not be prosecuted for any crime, without their permission.

Bashar Assad had continued the brutal regime set up by his father. It is difficult to believe, that many progressives in the West still give credence to Assad apologists’ fantasises about this regime.

In Bashar Assad’s inauguration speech on July 17th 2000 contains a high degree of revealing arrogant and impractical double speak, which should have been a warning to any Western optimist. He says:

“To what extent are we democratic? And what are the indications that refer to the existence or non-existence of democracy? Is it in elections or in the free press or in the free speech or in other freedoms and rights? Democracy is not any of these because all these rights and others are not democracy, rather they are democratic practices and results of these practices which all depend on democratic thinking. This thinking is based on the principle of accepting the opinion of the other and this is certainly a two-way street. It means that what is a right for me is a right for others, but when the road becomes a one-way road it will become selfish. This means that we do not say I have the right to this or that; rather we should say that others have certain rights and if others enjoy this particular right I have the same right. This means that democracy is our duty towards others before it becomes a right for us. ”


This translates to, the Syrian people must respect the corrupt administration, and earn the right to representative government by proving a collective responsibility that far exceeds that of the regime. This is the self-justifying logic chopping of a gangster mentality. He then goes on to explain his often repeated mantra that Syria is not ready for democracy, in the best tradition of colonialists and neo-colonialists everywhere he says:

“Western democracy, for example, is the outcome of a long history that resulted in customs and traditions which distinguish the current culture of Western societies. In order to apply what they have we have to live their history with all its social signification. As this is, obviously, impossible we have to have our democratic experience which is special to us, which stems from our history, culture, civilization and which is a response to the needs of our society and the requirements of our reality.”

There is some truth to Bashar Assad’s statement, in that forms of representative government will differ according to circumstances in particular countries at certain times. But he repeats the right wing Western conception that democracy in the West is due mainly to culture. In reality it had a lot to do with the threat of revolution, manpower needed for colonial wars and the aggressive nationalism of two world wars. The grip of Western elites were loosened when they were forced to engage with the majority of the population to avoid revolution, desertion or invasion. This in turn was a product of less advanced weaponry, which meant that the sheer number of troops was more important than it is now.

There are basic requirements of any representative system which Assad ignores in a long waffle bound speech:

“We have to start immediately to prepare the studies which ensure the change of this reality to the better through improving the administrative systems and their frameworks, through increasing the level of efficiency of the administrative and professional cadres and through putting an end to the state of carelessness, passiveness and evasion of carrying out one’s duty. There is no escape from bringing the careless, the corrupt and the evil doers to justice. This also requires the improvement of the accountability apparatus in the country in order to make it more effective and to support it with the appropriate resources. Here comes the importance of the energized role of your Parliament in correcting the work of different institutions through pointing to the points of weakness and inefficiency and following up the process of correcting it in a positive way. I would also like to stress here the important role of the judicial system and the necessity to support it with the clean and efficient cadres so that it may play its full role in order to achieve justice and guard the freedoms of citizens and the proper implementation of laws. From what has preceded we can notice that the work of institutions is closely linked, the fact that requires also a close link between the mind that governs and organizes the work of each institution such as the institutional mentality, the democratic mentality and transparency that starts in the home and grows or recedes through the circumstances of daily life.”

Bashar states the obvious that parliament and the courts must ensure corruption, oppression and inefficacy are dealt with effectively. He neglects to say this cannot be achieved because the members of parliament and judges are not freely elected or even protected under the Assad regime. There is no free press to tell the people if parliament or the courts are corrupt. These features are fundamental to the working of any representative system, and not just Western democracy.

“Society is the fertile soil in which we sow our seeds; as for the fruits we reap in institutions. Hence, the better the seeds we sow the better and fresher the fruits we reap. The task of the state is to prepare the suitable and appropriate ground for the seeds to grow. It also has to provide the best circumstances for this growth and to guarantee that the fruits remain fresh (which is the most important stage) so that our society may benefit from them; otherwise they will go off and become rotten and a source of illness and disease.”


Bashar shifts the responsibility away from the authoritarian clique who have ruled the country with absolute control, to ordinary people who must work on a “democratic mentality” in the “home”. This speech indicates the empty pious hypocrisy of Bashar Assad. It is worth looking at in detail, because it was a clear message that hope in the new president was wasted. It managed to reassure both the West and the Syrian elite in radically different ways, according to how deeply it was examined.

A “Damascus Spring” followed Bashar Assad’s inauguration. Informal groups began meeting privately, and even sometimes publically in cafes, to discuss political reform. Hundreds of political prisoners were released. The notorious Mazzeh prison in Damascus was closed in November 2000. This stopped abruptly in August 2001 with a clamp down on activists and journalists. Bashar never had any intention of reforming the Syrian dictatorship, and those within the inner clique had no intention of allowing him to lessen their access to the benefits of gross economic corruption that now stretched from Syria to Lebanon.

In 2003 the cynical and destructive invasion of Iraq by the USA had removed the equally repressive Baathist dictator Sadam Hussein. A bloody civil war then erupted between the previously favoured Sunni minority backed by the Saudis, and the Iranian backed Shia majority. This chaos was due to intentional negligence by the Americans. They shunned the Iraqi democratic opposition, and did nothing to empower an effective security force to replace the old regime. The goal was the theft of oil reserves, by the establishment of a new more pliable US friendly dictatorship. Bashar Assad responded to the US invasion of neighbouring Iraq by cynically enabling the flow of Sunni jihadists into the country. Ring wing apologists for Assad forget that there are thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of US soldiers who died due to Bashar Assad’s policy. A similar tactic has been used by the regime to enable so called “Islamic States (IS)” during the current Syrian Crisis. A policy that has resulted in thousands of deaths in Syria and terrorist attacks in the West.

In February 2005 a successful and popular movement to remove Syrian troops and security forces from Lebanon erupted. The Lebanese Independence Intifada or Cedar Revolution, erupted after the Assad regime assassinated Rafik Hariri. He was a popular Saudi backed Sunni politician who had been forced out of power the previous year by the Assad regime.

After consolidating his rule, Bashar Assad cautiously embarked an increased liberalisation of the economy. His father had already largely created a crony capitalist state by privatizing Syria’s economy in the 1990s. According to the gradualist US academic economist Bassam Haddad in “Syria Regime’s business Backbone” in the spring 2012 MERP journal:

“By the late 1990s, the business community that the Asads had created in their own image had transformed Syria from a semi-socialist state into a crony capitalist state par excellence. The economic liberalization that started in 1991 had redounded heavily to the benefit of tycoons who had ties to the state or those who partnered with state officials. The private sector outgrew the public sector, but the most affluent members of the private sector were state officials, politicians and their relatives. The economic growth registered in the mid-1990s was mostly a short-lived bump in consumption, as evidenced by the slump at the end of the century. Growth rates that had been 5-7 percent fell to 1-2 percent from 1997 to 2000 and beyond.

After Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father in 2000, the architects of Syria’s economic policy sought to reverse the downturn by liberalizing the economy further, for instance by reducing state subsidies. Private Banks were permitted for the first time in nearly 40 years and a stock market was on the drawing board.

After 2005, the state-business bonds were strengthened by the announcement of the Social Market Economy, a mixture of state and market approaches that ultimately privileged the market, but a market without robust institutions or accountability. Again, the regime had consolidated its alliance with big business at the expense of smaller businesses as well as the Syrian majority who depended on the state for services, subsidies and welfare. It had perpetuated cronyism, but dressed it in new garb. Families associated with the regime in one way or another came to dominate the private sector, in addition to exercising considerable control over public economic assets. These clans include the Asads and Makhloufs, but also the Shalish, al-Hassan, Najib, Hamsho, Hambouba, Shawkat and al-As‘ad families, to name a few. The reconstituted business community, which now included regime officials, close supporters and a thick sliver of the traditional bourgeoisie, effected a deeper (and, for the regime, more dangerous) polarization of Syrian society along lines of income and region.” []

The US academic Joshua Landis paints a similar picture of the history of the Syrian economy in “The Syrian Uprising of 2011: Why the Asad Regime Is Likely to Survive to 2013” in the MEPC journal:

“Syria met the challenge to liberalize later and more hesitantly than most Middle Eastern states. Bashar al-Asad’s efforts to open up the Syrian economy and copy the ‘China mode’ were bolder than his father’s during the 1990s but remained hobbled by half measures and caution. All the same, he introduced private banking, insurance companies and liberalized real-estate laws. He dropped tariff barriers with neighboring states, licensed private schools, and permitted use of the Internet in an effort to encourage private and foreign investment.

But, even as Asad sought to boost private initiative, he feared its results. To avoid the emergence of a capitalist class that would be largely Sunni and not beholden to the regime, Asad turned to his cousin Rami Makhlouf, who became ‘Mr. Ten Percent’ of the Syrian economy. He assumed a majority stake in many major enterprises and holding companies and ensured that the Asad family maintained control over the economy. Office holders at every rank of the state bureaucracy replicated this model of crony capitalism, exemplified by the presidential family. A new class of businessmen drawn from the progeny of major regime figures — called the ‘sons of power’ (abna al-sulta) — has become notorious for its wealth and economic assertiveness. The result has been an explosion of corruption and public resentment at the growing inequality and injustice of Syrian life.

A new form of crony capitalism, which has failed to provide jobs or economic security to the broad masses, has replaced socialism. Growth has been skewed in favor of the wealthy. The poor, particularly the rural poor, have been abandoned. This was the social sector that provided the original base of support for the Baath party, but it is now up in arms. The wealthy have remained quiet.” []

The regime under Hafez Assad had managed to create further divisions within Syrian society, by increasing inequality and poverty, and neglecting rural areas in favour of urban development.

There were four principal factors that lead to an economic crisis in Syria before 2011

1. Increasingly unaffordable food and fuel prices. Bashar Assad’s regime slashed extensive food and fuel subsidies. At the same time the prices of these commodities were soaring globally, and national production was declining, leading to soaring inflation. As an example fuel oil prices increased by 42% between December 2008 and September 2010 as subsidises were slashed. Similarly wheat prices increased by 30% in 2010 alone.

2. Rising unemployment and population pressure. There have been very large increases in population throughout the MENA region since the Second World War. The population of Syria was 6.3 million in 1970, which rose to 20.7 million by 2010. The birth rate (total births per mother) was on a continuous downward path from 7.6 in 1970 to 3.1 by 2010. Both according to UN statistics. Hence Syria was experiencing a surge in young people needing employment. At the same time the Assad regime was opening the Syrian economy to cheaper foreign imports, while increases in investment were not making up for the job losses. The rate of unemployment and underemployment is much higher that the official Syrian CBS figures. According to the UNDP (using Syrian CBS figures) in 2007, 34% of Syrians were living in poverty, with 12% in extreme poverty. According to the ILO (using Syrian CBS figures) in 2008 11% of Syrians were unemployed, with youth unemployment at 22%. At the same time “underemployment” was estimated at 3 times the official unemployment rate, so this could have effected a third of the population.

3. Drought and dwindling oil. Agriculture in the drier semi-arid regions of Eastern Syria have always been subject to large yearly fluctuations. This feature of the climate means that some years growing any cereal crops is not possible. Drought conditions were particularly bad from 2006 to 2010, with the peak in 2007-2008. The water table had already been depleted by overuse due to government resource mismanagement. The government also slashed subsidises for fertilisers. Perhaps a million Syrians were forced to migrate to the cities, to live in breeze block slums while looking for scarce work. Global warming is a huge threat to the climate of the MENA, but it has been exaggerated to explain the current Syrian Crisis by the Assad regime and its apologists who are also green minded:

“Semi-arid areas around the Euphrates and the Khabur River, where agriculture was banned in favour of grazing, were turned into arable land used for intensive agriculture, at the cost of pumping the water table dry. The drought only brought to light a man-made disaster. And yet, the regime continues to bring diplomats to the north east and tells them it all has to do with global warming!” []

Syria’s oil production peaked at 590,000 barrels per day in 1996, but had fallen by 25% by 2005, and is on a steady decline as oil reserves are exhausted. By comparison Saudi Arabia was exporting over 9 million barrels per days in 2005.

4. Corruption. A semi socialist regime under Hafez Assad was starting to become a neo-liberal authoritarian regime under Bashar. The economy was privatised, but politics remained brutally doctorial. The combination gave rise to massive corruption. Bashar Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf is said to personally control 60% of the Syrian economy on behalf of the Assad clan. According to Transparency International “2008 Corruption Perceptions Index” Syria was the most corrupt country in MENA after Iraq. Under the name of economic liberalization, the Assad regime could use the security system to extort controlling stakes in new and privatised enterprises, block any domestic competition and shrug off the responsibility and cost of the people’s welfare.

In June 1998 a human rights group called “Article 19” published a report “WALLS OF SILENCE, Media and Censorship in Syria”. It describes the beginnings of a hopeful development in Syria:

“In November 1995, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership between the 15 countries of the European Union and 12 southern Mediterranean countries, including Syria, was established by the adoption of the Barcelona Declaration. The primary purpose of this partnership is to enhance trade, political, cultural and other relations between members but it also calls for a commitment from participants to respect fundamental human rights and freedoms. In this they are expected to:

• act in accordance with the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as other obligations under international law, in particular those arising out of regional and international instruments to which they are party;

• develop the rule of law and democracy in their political systems, while recognising in this framework the right of each of them to choose and freely develop their own political, socio-cultural, economic and judicial system;

• respect human rights and fundamental freedoms and guarantee the effective legitimate exercise of such rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression, freedom of association for peaceful purposes and freedom of thought, conscience and religion, both individual and together with other members of the same group, without any discrimination on ground of race, nationality, language, religion or sex. “


This gradualist approach to reform in Syria by the European Union trading economic development for human rights, came to an end in 2005 when the Assad regime assassinated Rafik Hariri in Lebanon. Later attempts were derailed by further human right violations.
In 2005 leading Syrian opposition figures came together to join an initiative by Michael Kilo called the Damascus Declaration:

“But Kilo launched his boldest initiative in 2005 when he set out to unify Syria’s often querulous opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood. He proposed a detailed statement of unity on all the major issues facing Syria and a common platform to tackle them. Kilo wrote the first draft.

The result was the Damascus Declaration.

Syria, the Declaration warned, was at a crossroads requiring an urgent ‘rescue mission.’ In blunt language, it said the monopoly on power by an ‘authoritarian, totalitarian, and cliquish regime’ had torn apart the country’s social fabric, put it on the brink of economic collapse, and led to stifling isolation. Syria’s foreign policy was ’destructive, adventurous, and short-sighted’, especially in Lebanon.

That’s imprisonable language in Syria.

‘The present moment calls for a courageous and responsible national stand,’ the Declaration added. The proclamation represented a huge leap for Syria’s opposition. The Damascus Spring in 2001 had been about ideas of reform. The Damascus Declaration in 2005 was calling for regime change.

The five-page document, boldly unveiled at an unauthorized press conference in October 2005, laid out an alternative vision based on reform that would be ‘peaceful, gradual, founded on accord, and based on dialogue and recognition of the other.’ It acknowledged Islam as the ‘more prominent cultural component,’ but it stipulated that no party or trend could claim an exceptional position. The role of national minorities must be guaranteed, along with their cultural and linguistic rights.” [“Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East” By Robin Wright, 2008]

The regime responded by arresting and harassing signatories. Twelve of these activists were sentenced in 2008 on charges of “weakening national sentiment” and “broadcasting false or exaggerated news”. Eight of the detainees reported being beaten in detention.

Kurds in northern Syria riots were brutally suppressed by the regime that feared growing Kurdish autonomy in Iraq. The regime had created Kurdish resentment by using Arab tribes to suppress Kurds, and that 100,000s of Kurds were denied Syrian citizenship and treated like Palestinians as refugees. Thousands of Kurds were arrested and tortured by the security forces.
In 2010 Human Rights Watch released a report “A Wasted Decade, Human Rights in Syria during Bashar al-Asad’s First Ten Years in Power”, the situation between 2000 and 2010 was summarised:

“Syria’s opaque decision-making process and the lack of public information on policy debates within the regime make it very difficult to know the real reasons that drove Bashar al-Asad to loosen some of the existing restrictions early on, only to clamp down a few months later and to maintain a tight grip ever since. Was al-Asad a true reformer who did not have the capacity early in his reign to take on an entrenched ‘old guard’ that refused any political opening? If so, why has he not implemented these reforms in the ensuing years after he had consolidated his power base and named his own people to key positions? Or was al-Asad’s talk of reform a mere opportunistic act to gain popularity and legitimacy that he never intended to translate into real changes?

There is not enough publicly available information to answer these questions definitively. However, it is clear that after a decade in power, Bashar al-Asad has not taken the steps necessary to truly improve his country’s human rights record. He has focused his efforts on opening up the economy without broadening public freedoms or establishing public institutions that are accountable for their actions. So while visitors to Damascus are likely to stay in smart boutique hotels and dine in shiny new restaurants, ordinary Syrians continue to risk jail merely for criticizing their president, starting a blog, or protesting government policies.” []

[Next Part 4] See: