Send them parasols?

CODEPINK asks: “Why does our President want to take sides and get involved in a civil war? The US is not the target of ISIS, but if we become involved, we will be.”

A lot of Americans these days, some of whom regard themselves as impeccable humanitarians, have formed the conviction that when it comes to the Middle East (or pretty much anywhere else in the world), intervention by the United States — especially military intervention — can do nothing but harm.

President Obama’s concerns about the Iraqi humanitarian crisis and the safety of US personnel can be solved without dropping bombs. Helping the besieged civilians in Iraq should be an orchestrated international effort, not carried out just by the US — the country that unleashed the sectarian turmoil in the first place. (CODEPINK)

Tens of thousands of Iraqis fled from ISIS, taking refuge on a mountain top where they have no food, water, or shelter. How long could anyone survive in these conditions when daytime temperatures often exceed 100F?

By the time CODEPINK’s wished for international effort could be orchestrated, thousands of those in need of help would be dead.


Channel 4 News
spoke to a Yazidi refugee, Barakat al-Issa, who is trapped in the Sinjar mountains: “the situation is very tragic, more than 100 thousand people are trapped in the mountains here, in need of water and food.”

The Americans and Turkish have carried out air drops of aid, but the effort was not sufficient said Mr al-Issa: “They are saying that planes are dropping aid, but this aid is only getting to some 5 per cent of the people who are trapped here, because of the mountainous terrain.”

“People are waiting here for international forces to intervene, in the hope that this will become a safe haven for aid to be delivered.”

“Most of the people here are civilians and they hope a peacekeeping force will come from Iraq or Nato.”

He accused the Islamic State militants of kidnapping at least 500 Yazidi women, whose fate remains unknown, and said that dozens of families had been murdered in the south of the Sinjar mountains as they tried to flee. He also repeated allegations that militants had been seen executing women and children.

To advocate neutrality in this conflict seems indicative of either being willfully deluded about the nature of ISIS or the result of simply not paying attention to what has been happening in Syria and Iraq over the last two years.

ISIS, or the Islamic State as it now prefers to be known, is utterly uncompromising. These men have chosen to fight a war that they will either win or lose — don’t expect them to ever send a delegation of negotiators to Geneva or start talking about how they want to live peacefully side by side with anyone. Coexistence is not part of their vocabulary.

Anyone in CODEPINK who is averse to taking sides should watch the video below — or at least as much of it as they can stomach — to witness how these jihadists whose passion for killing has no limit choose to portray themselves.

Some of the latest military action in Iraq appears to already by paying off but the situation remains dire, as Rudaw reports:

Local officials said today that 10,000 Yezidis who were stranded on Mount Shingal for one week were rescued and settled in the town of Zakho.

Medical teams and aid organizations in Zakho have rushed in to assist the rescued families, said Rudaw reporter.

Ashti Kocher, Zakho’s security chief said that Kurdish armed forces have opened a safe corridor for the Yezidis at Mount Shingal.

“We have also cleared about 30 kilometers of the ISIL forces in order to open a road for those families,” said Kocher, who currently leads a Peshmerga unit at Sinune village near Shingal.

Kocher said that the rescued civilians were transported to the Kurdistan Region through Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) which is under the control of Kurdish forces known as the Peoples Protection Units (YPG).

Barakat Issa, Rudaw reporter on Mount Shingal said that the number of Yezidis stranded on the mountain is higher than initially reported. He said that nearly 100,000 people are hiding on the mountain.

Issa said that in the past few days 60 children and elderly have [died] … of hunger and thirst while there is fear that Islamic militants controlling the town of Shingal and other villages have massacred hundreds of others.

Stephen Walt proposes a course of inaction for the U.S. in the Middle East on the grounds that U.S. intervention never has its desired effects, but he adds this caveat:

[T]his argument would not preclude limited U.S. action for purely humanitarian purposes — such as humanitarian airdrops for the beleaguered religious minorities now threatened with starvation in Iraq. That’s not “deep engagement”; that’s merely trying to help people threatened with imminent death. But I would not send U.S. forces — including drones or aircraft — out to win a battle that the Iraqi government or the Kurds cannot win for themselves.

So the anti-interventionist “humanitarian” perspective is this — if I understand it correctly: we should try to make sure the Yazidi do not starve to death on the mountaintop. If, however, they manage to come back down only later to be slaughtered by ISIS, that’s their problem.

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Syria seen through the eyes of a British journalist and a Dutch jihadist

Emblematic of the feeble condition of Western political thought these days are the indications that there is more agreement about the evil of terrorism than there is about the value of democracy.

Witness an observation made recently by Patrick Cockburn, a British journalist admired by many on the Left, who wrote in The Independent:

The “war on terror” has failed because it did not target the jihadi movement as a whole and, above all, was not aimed at Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the two countries that had fostered jihadism as a creed and a movement.

For those who want to distance themselves from the crude lexicon of Bush and Cheney, jihadism is supposedly a word with less charge, signalling that the term’s user is not on a crusade. Yet under this veneer of objectivity there is sometimes a surprising concordance with the neoconservative perspective.

Over a decade ago, I wrote:

Richard Perle, in quasi-theological terms, posits a “unity of terror.” In the same spirit, an editorial in Sunday’s Jerusalem Post, in reference to the terrorists who killed three Americans in Gaza this week, goes so far as to say:

Whether it was Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or perhaps even al-Qaida itself matters little and in fact tends to distract from what the West knows but often does not like to admit: The tentacles all belong to the same enemy.

Within this conception of terrorism, a phenomenon that is scattered across the globe has been turned into a beast of mythological proportions. The explicit connection is militant Islam, but whether the “tentacles” linking Islamic terrorists amount to concrete connections through finance and organization, or whether we are looking at bonds that have no more substance than a common cause or simply the common use of particular techniques of terrorism, these are all distinctions that the unitarians dismiss as distractions.

Cockburn now writes:

These days, there is a decreasing difference in the beliefs of jihadis, regardless of whether or not they are formally linked to al-Qa’ida central, now headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri. An observer in southern Turkey discussing 9/11 with a range of Syrian jihadi rebels earlier this year found that “without exception they all expressed enthusiasm for the 9/11 attacks and hoped the same thing would happen in Europe as well as the US”.

When a veteran reporter makes this kind of observation, even though he does not identify his source in any way at all, there will be many readers who treat Cockburn’s word (and thus that of an unidentified “observer”) as definitive. In so doing, they ignore the fact that this characterization of the Assad regime’s opponents perfectly mirrors the regime’s own propaganda.

One can treat Assad’s claim that he is fighting terrorists as a statement of fact. Or, one can treat it as a cynical and effective piece of political messaging — messaging one of whose purposes is to corral some sympathy from those in the West who, paradoxically, both vehemently reject the military adventurism that the neoconservatives initiated after 9/11 and yet also fully embrace a neoconservative view of unified terrorism.

When labels like jihadist and terrorist get used with sufficient frequency, the mere fact that the terms are used so frequently solidifies the sense that we know what they mean.

Any label applied to a person, however, calls out for a corrective: the voice of that person — a voice which may reinforce or undermine the stereotypes that repetition has created.

When it comes to the jihadists in Syria, we rarely hear what they have to say about themselves and if Cockburn is to be believed there’s little reason why we should be interested in hearing such individuals speak, since they all think alike and are all enemies of the West.

Earlier this year, a rare glimpse of foreign jihadists in Syria came in the form of an interview with a Dutch jihadist. Speaking in English, he provided a more nuanced picture of what has led young men like him to leave their families and join the fight against the Assad regime. Indeed, he spoke at length characterizing this more as a fight for Syrians than as one against their government.

His is just one voice. To what extent he can be taken as representative of others is open to question. Young men can easily be blinded by their own convictions or become servants of the agendas of others.

But while it’s perfectly reasonable to view with skepticism anyone’s claim that Islamic law would provide the panacea that can heal all of Syria’s wounds, the account that this former Dutch soldier gives of himself suggests to me that he knows his own mind.

He’s the kind of jihadist that both Patrick Cockburn and Bashar al-Assad would have you believe does not exist.

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Syria and the parable of the poisoned arrow

e13-iconA Buddhist scripture recounts a parable in which the Buddha said:

Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and the doctor wishes to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the man does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If he were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.

Translate this to Syria and this parable takes an ugly twist:

Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and he asks a doctor to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the doctor does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If the doctor were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.

The principle, do no harm, applies just as well to politics as it does to medicine, yet it’s a mistake to view this as a choice between action and inaction. If conceived in those terms, the balance will always incline towards inaction because we can’t know the future. We can never say with certainty that our actions will cause no harm.

Yet if we endeavor to do no harm, we have to recognize that inaction has effects. A passive bystander who actually possesses a significant amount of power yet declines to wield it in any meaningful way, is not lacking in agency. More often, he is simply climbing through the moral escape-hatch which every day affords people across the globe some fragile peace of mind: it’s not my problem. I don’t need to worry about it.

In an op-ed for the Washington Post last week, Stephen Hawking wrote:

What’s happening in Syria is an abomination, one that the world is watching coldly from a distance. Where is our emotional intelligence, our sense of collective justice?

When I discuss intelligent life in the universe, I take this to include the human race, even though much of its behavior throughout history appears not to have been calculated to aid the survival of the species. And while it is not clear that, unlike aggression, intelligence has any long-term survival value, our very human brand of intelligence denotes an ability to reason and plan for not only our own but also our collective futures.

We must work together to end this war and to protect the children of Syria. The international community has watched from the sidelines for three years as this conflict rages, engulfing all hope. As a father and grandfather, I watch the suffering of Syria’s children and must now say: No more.

Hawking is clearly frustrated with global inaction, he sees the suffering of the Syrian population as an affront to any conception of universal justice, and he is appealing for the war to end. What he fails to do is propose any course of action which might lead to that outcome.

A theoretical physicist can reasonably claim he is unqualified to outline such a plan. Nicholas Burns, on the other hand, was a career diplomat and was the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs in the Bush administration. We might expect that while appealing for action he would go further than offer a McCainish something must be done.

Burns writes:

There are no easy answers to the Syria crisis. A US-led ground invasion would require something on the scale of the 1991 Gulf War — hundreds of thousands of troops. That’s not in the cards for a president, Congress, and public emerging from two major wars since 9/11. Russia and China continue to shield Syrian President Bashar Assad from international pressure at the UN, going so far as to object to proposals to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid. For now, the main, and mainly vain, hope is UN-led talks for a ceasefire and transition from Bashar Assad’s rule. At its current languid pace, that could take years to materialize.

Washington finds itself in an uncharacteristically weak position to drive events in Syria. President Obama has taken force off the table, refusing to strike last September following Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Obama has still not provided effective, lethal support to moderate rebels or threatened strikes on Assad’s air force if the brutal killings continue. As a result, the United States lacks the leverage and credibility to intimidate Assad. The administration plods along the diplomatic path, remaining a responsible contributor of humanitarian aid but lacking the strength to produce a solution on its own.

The one country that could make a decisive difference to stop the fighting is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But Putin, aligned with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah, prefers to run arms to the Syrian government and serve as Assad’s de facto lawyer in Geneva.
[…]
Putin will never reach a “Srebrenica moment” on Syria. That leaves the rest of us to consider once more — how many more lives will be claimed by Syria’s ceaseless civil war before we are finally shamed to stop the killings?

The question is: how?

Opponents of war, who nowadays seem to be much more concerned about avoiding involvement in other people’s wars than in ending wars — let’s call them the Not-Our-War-ists — seem to commonly have a kind of organic perspective on Syria.

If allowed to, the war will follow its natural course — though no one’s particularly clear about where that leads. In one breath the conflict in Syria involves no “good guys” and thus there is no basis for taking sides. Yet in the next breath, the conflict is driven by external powers and the Assad regime is resisting Western imperialism.

While it’s impossible to construct a coherent picture from these elements, the unifying theme is that Syria must not become another Iraq.

On those terms, since there has been no invasion, no bombs dropped nor cruise missiles launched from American warships, I guess — at least for now — Syria counts as one success story in the campaign to end U.S.-led wars in the Middle East.

While 140,000 have been killed and 6 million Syrians have lost their homes, this hasn’t become America’s war.

If this is mission accomplished, this is the kind of victory that leads to ruin.

So what’s the alternative?

One of the many reasons Americans tend to have a twisted view of war is because the continuation or end of a war has often had so little impact on life in America. Ending a war is a political choice here, but the physical implications play out elsewhere. America and American civilians collectively, face no existential threats.

The day the war ends is not the day the bombs stop dropping because for most Americans during wartime the bombs were always dropping somewhere else. War thus appears to be nothing more than the product of the callous calculations of governments — governments which might just as easily choose to end such wars as they chose to start them.

In Syria, on the other hand, both sides see themselves as facing an existential threat. There can be no return to a status quo ante bellum.

But as much as this is true for the Assad regime, it is not true for its principal supporters. Iran’s future does not depend on its alliance with Syria and neither does Russia’s. And while Hezbollah’s dependence may be the greatest, its involvement in Syria is actually serving to postpone its greatest existential challenge: whether it can ever fully evolve into a political entity, or whether it will always need weapons to compensate for a deficit in its popularity.

Without these three pillars of support, Assad is finished, and everyone knows that all four will not all rise or fall together.

Burns is right that Putin will never reach a “Srebrenica moment” on Syria — but neither will the U.S. and its allies. That moment came and went last August.

So what’s left?

Assad rules Syria from the air and now more than ever through barrel bombs which plummet aimlessly from helicopters. This crude use of power utterly depends on the weakness of his opponent, but that may soon change.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal, quoting Western and Arab diplomatic sources, reported that Saudi Arabia is about to supply Syrian rebel forces with “Chinese man-portable air defense systems, or Manpads, and antitank guided missiles from Russia”.

[I]f the Manpads are supplied in the quantities needed, rebels said it could tip the balance in the stalemated war in favor of the opposition. The antiaircraft and Russian Konkurs antitank weapons would help them chip away at the regime’s two big advantages on the battlefield—air power and heavy armor.

“New stuff is arriving imminently,” said a Western diplomat with knowledge of the weapons deliveries.

Rebel commanders and leaders of the Syrian political opposition said they don’t know yet how many of the Manpads and antiaircraft missiles they will get. But they have been told it is a significant amount. The weapons are already waiting in warehouses in Jordan and Turkey.

Earlier in the conflict, rebels managed to seize a limited number of Manpads from regime forces. But they quickly ran out of the missiles to arm them, the Western diplomat said.

Following the logic that more weapons means more violence, the supply of Manpads would have to be viewed as an unwelcome development. Moreover, no one can plausibly claim that Saudi Arabia has an interest in promoting democracy in the region. Yet assuming that the Manpads do in fact materialize, the most immediate and likely effect they will have is to bring a sudden end to the regime’s use of barrel bombs. Perhaps a broader shift in the balance of power will follow.

An end to this war depends less on finding enough people willing to give peace a chance than it does on changing the status quo.

And while some observers will always be inclined to see nefarious motives in all Saudi actions, their decision at this time, along with Washington’s quiet acquiescence, provides yet another telltale sign of AIPAC’s dwindling power.

The most vociferous opposition to Manpads circulating in Syria comes from Israel — which also happens to be the power that appears most content with a continuing stalemate.

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America’s unremitting self-preoccupation

David Mizner writes: The U.S. government kills a lot of Muslims. With its war against Afghanistan, its sanctions on and wars against Iraq, its drone campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, it’s probably killed more than a million Muslims in the last quarter century. Let’s say a million. That’s more than a 9/11’s worth of corpses every month. And that doesn’t include the killing done by governments the United States props up and arms. Nor does it account for torture, maiming, poisoning, and terrorization. The brutalization of Muslims might be the defining feature of U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War era.

Not many Americans care. Their — our — indifference is both cause and effect of the dominant tenor of antiwar advocacy in the United States. Pundits and politicians tell Americans that we should oppose this or that American war or this or that involvement in another country’s war because it would hurt … Americans. It would cost “us” money. Or put “our” soldiers “in harm’s way.” Or threaten our safety. Or subvert our democracy. Or tarnish our reputation. Or violate our constitution. Rarely mentioned are the bodies ripped apart by the U.S. military monster. Rachel Maddow wrote an entire book opposing U.S. war-making and made only fleeting references to non-American victims.

During the debate over the proposed U.S. bombing of Syria, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni set out to remind us of the human toll of war. Justly taking aim at the expression “boots on the ground,” he pointed out that there would be people in those boots — so far, so good — but didn’t think to mention that Syrian footwear would be similarly inhabited. He went on to say that “the toll of our best intentions and tortured interventions” in Iraq and Afghanistan are thousands of dead, injured, and traumatized Americans.

Of the tens of millions of Iraqi and Afghan victims he wrote not a word. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Americans wars have given entire populations PTSD.

While the overwhelming opposition of Americans to (further) U.S. military intervention in Syria’s civil war was heartening, the rhetoric of some leading opponents was sickening. Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL), warning against intervention from the ostensible left, kept saying that the suffering of Syrians was “none of our business.” In an interview on Democracy Now he wandered into truly dark territory when he seconded the stateswoman from Alaska: “…Palin actually has this right: Let Allah sort it out.”

I’m not suggesting that opponents of war should use only moral arguments; they’re wise to try to appeal to people’s self-interest, and nationalism in pursuit of peace is, if not a virtue, nonetheless preferable to nationalism in pursuit of war. Likewise, antiwar advocates on the Left can’t afford to be finicky about allies: I’d team up with the ideological descendants of Charles Lindberg to try to stop a U.S. military intervention. But nowadays, to listen to the rhetoric of mainstream war opponents is to hear a story in which foreign victims of American wars — almost always people of color — do not appear. The popular way of opposing war draws on the very chauvinism and racism that produce war. [Continue reading…]

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Syria and how the U.S. antiwar movement forgot the spirit of internationalism

Danny Postel writes: The American peace movement has been celebrating what it sees as its victory on Syria. “The U.S. is not bombing Syria, as we certainly would have been if not for a huge mobilization of anti-war pressure on the president and especially on Congress,” writes Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). This represents “an extraordinary, unforeseen victory for the global anti-war movement,” she goes on, one that “we should be savoring.” Robert Naiman of the organization Just Foreign Policy vaunts “How We Stopped the U.S. Bombing of Syria”.

This turn of events is “something extraordinary – even historic,” writes my good friend Stephen Kinzer, coming from a different but overlapping perspective. “Never in modern history have Americans been so doubtful about the wisdom of bombing, invading or occupying another country,” writes the author of the classic Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. “This is an exciting moment,” he rhapsodizes, “the start of a new, more realistic approach to foreign policy.”

The tireless progressive journalist David Sirota, whom I admire a lot, extols “How the Antiwar Majority Stopped Obama.” The opposition of “angry Americans” to the administration’s push for a military strike, he contends, proved “absolutely critical” and is “why there now seems to be a possibility of avoiding yet another war in the Middle East.”

I completely understand this jubilance. And yet it leaves me feeling uneasy.

Let me be clear: I too was against the Obama administration’s proposed military strike on Syria. I thought it strange that after two and a half years of doing essentially nothing about the deepening crisis in Syria, the White House suddenly decided to act with such a sense of urgency that it was unwilling to wait for the United Nations inspection team to complete its job. As if the world should just trust American claims about weapons of mass destruction. That went really well last time.

I also thought chemical weapons were exactly the wrong issue. To paraphrase Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center, why draw a “red line” at the use of chemical weapons but not at 100,000 dead? Or at two and a half years of crimes against humanity? The vast majority of the civilians killed since the Syrian uprising began in March of 2011 have died by means of conventional, not chemical weapons.

I agreed wholeheartedly with the International Crisis Group that the Obama administration’s case for action was based on “reasons largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people,” who “have suffered from far deadlier mass atrocities during the course of the conflict without this prompting much collective action in their defence.”

Hinging its case on chemical weapons turned out to be a huge strategic mistake as well. Russia cleverly short-circuited the Obama administration, taking advantage of the thinness of its case. So Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles will be removed from the equation – then what? The Assad killing machine, which was overwhelmingly nonchemical to begin with, can continue unfettered on its rampage. Chemical weapons issue – solved. The killing fields of Syria – no end in sight.

Given this horrific picture, it’s hard for me to share the peace movement’s triumphalism. Yes, a US military attack was thwarted – good. But is that where the story ends? [Continue reading…]

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Syria beyond the binaries

Jaish al-Islam commanders from  50 insurgent groups who merged on Sunday.

Jaish al-Islam commanders from 50 insurgent groups who merged on Sunday.

I suspect that for quite a few observers there’s something vaguely comforting about the spectacle of the rise of extremism in Syria. Why comforting? Because it reinforces the idea that however bad the Assad regime might be, the alternative seems destined to be worse. On that basis one can take comfort in the belief that the best course of action for those outside Syria is no action at all.

Indeed, the Assad regime itself seems willing to cater to those who want to balance both humanitarian and non-interventionist concerns through facilitating a symbolic intervention by destroying Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. If the Syrian government is sufficiently cooperative in this undertaking it will no doubt earn qualified praise for doing so.

Which brings me to a headline in yesterday’s Washington Post: “Foreign extremists dominate Syria fight“. As if carried away by the sentiment in those words, the security analyst Matthew Aid then reposted the article on Tumblr with an even more sensational headline: “Most Fighting in Syria Being Done by AQ-Linked Militants, Not Free Syrian Army“.

The problem is, neither headline actually reflected the details of the report. No doubt Liz Sly, reporting from Beirut, wanted to convey some sense of Syria being taken over by foreign jihadists, yet the second sentence in her report acknowledges: “The number of Syrians battling to overthrow the regime led by President Bashar al-Assad outstrips by a large margin the thousands of Arabs and other non-Syrian Muslims who have streamed into Syria over the past two years to join in the fight.”

Further in to the report she says that conservative estimates put the number of foreign fighters at between 6,000 to 10,000 — though she fails to put that in context by referring to the estimated size of the fighting opposition: 100,000.

Supposedly, what is happening in Syria can only be comprehended in binary terms: Syrian vs foreign; moderate vs extremist; secular vs Islamist; Sunni vs Allawite. But the overarching effect of the imposition of these simplistic labels is to reinforce the sentiment that Syria is bad news and the less we hear about it the better.

On the other hand, for those who retain an interest in being provided with a more nuanced picture of what’s happening on the ground, there are commentators like Hassan Hassan who are capable of explaining some of the complexity in an ever-changing landscape while underlining the fact that whatever fissures do indeed exist inside the opposition, this remains a fight to topple the Assad regime.

Hassan notes that in the liberated areas of Syria, Salafi-leaning fighters are now dominant and among these the newly formed Jaish al-Islam (“the Army of Islam”) composed of at least 50 groups operating mainly around Damascus, has now displaced the FSA as the strongest rebel force.

The emerging trend, far from that of Syria being taken over by foreign fighters, may actually be going in the opposite direction:

Significant grassroots hostility is building in liberated Syrian areas against foreign-funded extremists and al Qaeda affiliates. These tensions do not always develop into sustained clashes — for almost all rebel groups, toppling the regime is the priority, not fighting extremist forces, which have proved indispensable in the battlefield.

According to an activist based in the northern city of Raqqa, when clashes erupted between the al Qaeda-affiliated ISIS and Ahfad al-Rasoul in August, local residents threw their support behind one or the other side — but the strongest condemnation was for the infighting itself. “When they see the regime’s warplanes shelling the city without a single shot in their direction, they get angry at the fighters who could do something,” the activist explained.

The size of extremist groups is not an accurate indicator of the support for their ideology within Syrian society. Fighting groups are also not ideologically homogenous, as many fighters join groups for their effectiveness on the battlefield and disciple — not their religious beliefs. Ahrar al-Sham members in Daraa, for example, can be remarkably different in terms of religiosity from members in more conservative northern areas such as Idlib or the Aleppo countryside.

The situation inside the country is more fluid and nuanced than many groups’ hard-line slogans would suggest. Moderates can be members of hard-line groups and vice versa. Some groups, such as Suqour al-Sham, include both secular members and Islamist veterans of the insurgency against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. For example, a former judge at Aleppo’s cassation court, a secular Syrian who does not pray, nevertheless supports an Islamic identity to the state.

For this reason, many moderate fighters are more concerned with the foreign networks and leaders than the rank-and-file members of hard-line groups. “We are not too worried about Jabhat al-Nusra,” said one FSA-affiliated officer in the eastern governorate of Deir Ezzor who said he worked in intelligence operations. “Once the fighting ends, we’ll bring them back. We know them. They’re our brothers, cousins, and neighbors — they’re the sons of our tribes. Our true struggle will be against [ISIS] and the Nusra leaders.”

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Mint Press and Dale Gavlak under threat from mysterious ‘third parties’?

No one is safe — not even in Minnesota — from the long arm of Saudi intelligence.

Publish something that offends Prince Bandar bin Sultan and your career might be destroyed, perhaps even your life will be in danger — at least that’s the picture currently be conjured up by Mnar Muhawesh, executive director and editor at large for MintPress News. No doubt these fears resonate with all those lonely individuals who have taken it upon themselves to challenge the political establishment in the United States and the Middle East.

However, whether Mint Press and one of its reporters, Dale Gavlak, have indeed provoked Prince Bandar’s wrath by alleging his involvement in the August chemical attacks outside Damascus, he probably doesn’t need to take any action since the publication and journalist are doing a very effective job at destroying each other.

But let’s backtrack a bit and let Clay Claiborne, in colorful style, sum up how we reached this point:

For three days after the sarin gas attack that murdered over a thousand Syrians, a third of them children, in suburban Damascus on 21 August 2013, the Assad Regime denied that any such attack had even happened. As the videos and eyewitness reports began to come out, that position became untenable, so the Assad Regime started saying “Well then, the rebels must have done it.”

The Left and the Peace and Just Us* movement in the United States is so thoroughly infiltrated with Assad apologists, and other opportunists more comfortable in blindfolds, that many readily jumped on this “blame the victims, let Assad off the hook” bandwagon.

I find what these people have been doing, marching under the flag of the fascist dictator and embellishing his trash, despicable.

One of the more popular theories of how the opposition gassed its own people was a story published by Mint Press. This story, in addition to absolving Assad of any responsibility for the attack and putting the blame squarely with the rebels, had many elements in common with the sort of racist saga were the bungling, stupid [sand] niggers, acting at the behest of some rich white Jew, in this case played by the Saudi Prince Bandar, ends up doing themselves in by a stupid accident.

Dale Gavlak’s name appeared in the byline for that story, but she is currently engaged in a legal fight to have her name removed. She tells the New York Times, that MintPress has “refused ‘repeated demands’ to remove her byline from the article and that she has now retained a lawyer to press her case.”

Earlier, Gavlak issued a statement saying:

I did not travel to Syria, have any discussions with Syrian rebels, or do any other reporting on which the article is based. The article is not based on my personal observations and should not be given credence based on my journalistic reputation.

But now Muhawesh has responded:

Gavlak pitched this story to MintPress on August 28th and informed her editors and myself that her colleague Yahya Ababneh [whose name appears after Gavlak’s on the byline] was on the ground in Syria. She said Ababneh conducted interviews with rebels, their family members, Ghouta residents and doctors that informed him through various interviews that the Saudis had supplied the rebels with chemical weapons and that rebel fighters handled the weapons improperly setting off the explosions.

When Yahya had returned and shared the information with her, she stated that she confirmed with several colleagues and Jordanian government officials that the Saudis have been supplying rebels with chemical weapons, but as her email states, she says they refused to go on the record.

Gavlak wrote the article in it’s entirety as well as conducted the research. She filed her article on August 29th and was published on the same day.

Dale is under mounting pressure for writing this article by third parties. She notified MintPress editors and myself on August 30th and 31st via email and phone call, that third parties were placing immense amounts of pressure on her over the article and were threatening to end her career over it. She went on to tell us that she believes this third party was under pressure from the head of the Saudi Intelligence Prince Bandar himself, who is alleged in the article of supplying the rebels with chemical weapons.

One of the principle websites which helped bring widespread attention to the original MintPress story was Antiwar.com. They have now issued a “Retraction and Apology to Our Readers for Mint Press Article on Syria Gas Attack.”

The staff of Antiwar.com sincerely and deeply apologizes for being a part of spreading this article. We also apologize to Dale Gavlak.

Gavlak’s disavowal of the story is somewhat undermined by an email she sent to MintPress on August 29 and which she shared with Brown Moses Blog:

Pls find the Syria story I mentioned uploaded on Google Docs. This should go under Yahya Ababneh’s byline. I helped him write up his story but he should get all the credit for this.

The New York Times adds:

The dispute over the article has caused even some contributors to MintPress to ask questions about its mission and how it is financed. Steve Horn, an investigative reporter based in Madison, Wis., said in an e-mail that he has decided to cut ties to the news site as a result of Ms. Gavlak’s objections to how her name was used. “I departed because I feel I was misled about the credibility of the article — which I trusted largely because Dale’s name was on it — and because of that, I no longer feel it’s a credible outlet. Frankly, I’m not sure it ever was.”

The thing to not lose sight of here, is that the MintPress story at the center of this fight contained nothing more than rumors.

Rumors can turn out to be true if they lead to an investigation that reveals substantive facts. But this has been the feature of the rebel-instigated-chemical-attack narrative from beginning to end — it has been propelled and propagated without any credible supporting evidence. Moreover, those pushing the narrative have shown an unconscionable lack of interest in evidence, allowing themselves to become enslaved to their own ideological convictions.

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Mint Press, Dale Gavlak, and alternative narratives around the August 21 chemical weapons attacks

For some people, antipathy for and suspicion of the U.S. government is so visceral that their immediate inclination is to believe the opposite of anything a U.S. official might claim.

Since the U.S. was quick to assert that the Assad regime must have been responsible for the August 21 chemical attacks, a knee-jerk reaction was to counter that the attack must have been carried out by rebels in an effort to trigger Western intervention.

This theory still has life even as it becomes increasingly evident that by happenstance or design, Bashar al Assad has been the preeminent beneficiary of the latest turn of events in Syria.

From the outset, this was a theory desperately in need of supporting facts and thus an August 29 report published by Mint Press News was quickly seized upon, among other reasons because included in the byline was the name Dale Gavlak, who has freelanced for the Associated Press.

A few days after the report appeared, the following note was added at the top of the report:

Dale Gavlak assisted in the research and writing process of this article, but was not on the ground in Syria. Reporter Yahya Ababneh, with whom the report was written in collaboration, was the correspondent on the ground in Ghouta who spoke directly with the rebels, their family members, victims of the chemical weapons attacks and local residents.

Gavlak is a MintPress News Middle East correspondent who has been freelancing for the AP as a Amman, Jordan correspondent for nearly a decade. This report is not an Associated Press article; rather it is exclusive to MintPress News.

She has now made it known that on August 29 when she filed the report she also wrote an email which said: “Pls find the Syria story I mentioned uploaded on Google Docs. This should go under Yahya Ababneh’s byline. I helped him write up his story but he should get all the credit for this.”

She didn’t want the byline but she did believe the report deserved credit.

She has now issued the following statement which appears at Brown Moses Blog:

Mint Press News incorrectly used my byline for an article it published on August 29, 2013 alleging chemical weapons usage by Syrian rebels. Despite my repeated requests, made directly and through legal counsel, they have not been willing to issue a retraction stating that I was not the author. Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author of the Mint Press News piece. To date, Mint Press News has refused to act professionally or honestly in regards to disclosing the actual authorship and sources for this story.

I did not travel to Syria, have any discussions with Syrian rebels, or do any other reporting on which the article is based. The article is not based on my personal observations and should not be given credence based on my journalistic reputation. Also, it is false and misleading to attribute comments made in the story as if they were my own statements.

In a word, Gavlak wants to have nothing to do with the story.

It’s not hard to figure out why she now finds this an embarrassment. What’s harder to explain is why she filed the story in the first place.

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The American psyche can be easily manipulated

The “American psyche can be easily manipulated” Sheherazad Jaafari – a press attache at Syria’s mission to the UN – advised an aide to the Syrian president prior to Barbara Walters’ interview with Bashar al-Assad in late 2011. That observation remains just as true now as it was then.

If America’s war on terrorism has turned out to be an abysmal failure in terms of eradicating terrorism, it has nevertheless been extraordinarily successful as an exercise in brainwashing a whole nation. Americans believe in terrorism with close to the same conviction that they believe in God.

“Terrorism” and “terrorist” are absolute terms. There might be small-time crooks but there are no small-time terrorists. The terrorist has become the archetype of evil whose power is treated as almost metaphysical — a threat to whole nations and to a way of life.

Whatever PR advice Assad received early on, it was sound, he took it to heart, and he has remained “on message” even while his international political opponents have become increasingly incoherent.

Assad’s fight is the good fight; the fight that virtually no American dare question: the fight against terrorism.

In Assad’s interview with Fox News which aired last night he said that “80 to 90% of the rebels or terrorists on the ground are Al Qaeda and their offshoots.”

A statement from Michael Clemente, executive vice president of news at Fox News, said that the interview “was conducted with no restrictions on the questions that could be asked,” yet neither Fox contributor Dennis Kucinich nor Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent Greg Palkot, made any serious attempt to question Assad’s assertion.

They could for instance have pointed out that in a conflict that now involves an estimated 1,000 armed groups, the expressions “rebels,” “terrorists,” and “al Qaeda and their offshoots” grossly over-simplify a complex environment. Moreover, within that array of 100,000 fighters only 10% are believed to be linked to al Qaeada.

Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), with its historical ties to the infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Jabhat al-Nusra have both been branded terrorist organizations and al Qaeda affiliates yet in Syria are operating as rivals. Furthermore, the complexity of that rivalry is open to differing interpretations even by close observers.

Mohammed Al Attar writes:

Some tend to the view that there is no great difference between the two, with both functioning as two extremist arms of a main body that is Al Qaeda. Others believe that open confrontation between the two is on its way, driven by a dispute over approach and vision and, moreover, over legitimacy of representation. People tell the story of an Al Raqqa-born Front commander called Abu Saad who joined ISIS in the wake of the dispute between the two groups, after Al Nusra leader Abu Mohammed Al Jolani refused to swear an oath of loyalty to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. Within months, Abu Saad and a group of mujahideen split from ISIS and re-joined the Al Nusra Front in Al Tabaqa. We heard a number of similar stories in the countryside around Idlib and Aleppo of this reverse migration of fighters from ISIS to the Al Nusra Front. Some attribute this to the predominantly Syrian make-up of Al Nusra as opposed to ISIS, while others talk of the revulsion felt by certain mujahideen towards the excessively extreme and uncompromising practices of ISIS. None of this equips us to make a precise measurement of the numbers and strength of the two groups, but it points to a constant movement between them.

Is there any chance that this kind of analysis might be incorporated into an interview with Assad on Fox News? No way!

Assad knows without doubt that with American journalists and in front of an American audience, the terrorism narrative works. Use the label terrorist and supposedly few other details are necessary.

The terrorism narrative also works in the sense that it has effectively shut down intelligent political discourse on the issue inside the United States.

I don’t think that Dennis Kucinich is stupid or utterly naive and he is surely in no doubt that Assad uses the term terrorist as a label of political convenience to vilify his opponents, yet would the former Congressman be bold enough to challenge Assad by referring to “so-called” terrorists? Not likely. Why? Because if anyone on the left talks about “so-called” terrorists, they will swiftly get jumped on for being soft on terrorism. At the same time, someone like Charles Krauthammer, a bona fide neoconservative and general-purpose supporter of American wars, can freely scoff at Assad’s assertions and refer to “so-called” terrorists confident that he is not going to be accused of being soft on terrorism. The American right, having taken full ownership of the terrorism discourse can speak freely, while the left needs to perpetually monitor itself and polish its national security credibility.

Meanwhile, as Assad takes advantage of easy access to a U.S. media short on analysis, witness the contrast between the deferential treatment being offered to a president who has sanctioned mass killing, versus the zealous denouncing of a 26-year old Syria analyst who is guilty of having padded out her résumé and been less than forthright about some of her affiliations.

I refer to Elizabeth O’Bagy, the analyst cited by Secretary of State John Kerry when he asserted in Congress that the majority of Syria’s rebels are “moderates” — an analyst who it turns out does not possess a doctorate. Alongside working for Washington’s Institute for the Study of War, she also worked for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, “which both lobbies in Washington for the moderate Syrian opposition and does humanitarian work inside Syria,” reports Time.

Those vilifying O’Bagy see her as an easy target because the actions she has been faulted for cannot be easily defended, yet these attacks also, and not incidentally, sidestep the issue of the credibility of her analysis of the Syrian opposition.

It’s as though her lack of a PhD reveals much more about her knowledge of Syria than her six trips to rebel-controlled territory taught her. The fact that she can speak Arabic apparently matters much less than that she was hired by the Syrian Emergency Task Force. And to cap it all, she’s 26 — as though we can overlook the fact that plenty of similarly youthful reporters do not have their journalism dismissed on the basis of their age.

O’Bagy’s critics expose their superficiality and hypocrisy by glossing over the precise basis of her expertise which derived from neither academic credentials nor institutional affiliations but the very thing that hardly anyone in Washington possesses when it comes to Syria: on-the-ground experience.

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Blanket thinkers

In Yarmouk camp in Damascus on Saturday, July 14, Palestinians denounced Bashar al Assad and Kofi Annan.

Robin Yassin-Kassab has written an important piece that deserves to be widely read — especially by those who struggle to understand why anyone who is pro-Palestinian should also be pro-Syrian or for anyone who is confused about what being pro-Syrian actually means. PW

Blanket thinkers

By Robin Yassin-Kassab

One of my infantile leftist ex-friends recently referred to the Free Syrian Army as a ‘sectarian gang’. The phrase may well come from Asa’ad Abu Khalil, who seems to have a depressingly large audience, but it could come from any of a large number of blanket thinkers in the ranks of the Western left. I admit that I sometimes indulged in such blanket thinking in the past. For instance, I used to refer to Qatar and Saudi Arabia as ‘US client states’, as if this was all to be said about them. I did so in angry response to the mainstream Western media which referred to pro-Western Arab tyrannies as ‘moderate’; but of course Qatar and Saudi Arabia have their own, competing agendas, and do not always behave as the Americans want them to. This is more true now, in a multipolar world and in the midst of a crippling economic crisis in the West, than it was ten years ago. Chinese workers undertaking oil and engineering projects in the Gulf are one visible sign of this shifting order.

(My talk of ‘infantile leftists’ does not include the entire left of course. Simon Assaf of the Socialist Workers, for instance, understands what’s happening. So does Max Blumenthal. And many others.)

The problem with blanket thinkers is that they are unable to adapt to a rapidly shifting reality. Instead of evidence, principles and analytical tools, they are armed only with ideological blinkers. Many of the current crop became politicised by Palestine and the invasion of Iraq, two cases in which the imperialist baddy is very obviously American. As a result, they read every other situation through the US-imperialist lens.

Qaddafi had opened up Libyan oilfields to Western exploitation, he bought Western weapons, and he tortured rendered suspects for the CIA. Inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, the Libyans rose against the tyranny with incredible courage. When Britain and France, for their own reasons, helped to hasten the end by degrading Qaddafi’s mercenary forces (important but not decisive help – Qaddafi’s fall was effected by a rising in Tripoli and an influx of fighters from the Jebel Nafusa), blanket thinkers very insultingly painted the popular revolution as a foreign plot. Some even retrospectively raised Qaddafi to the rank of anti-imperialist hero. And since the fall of the old regime they’ve done everything they can to paint Libya as a failed state, a site of genocide, a new Iraq. It’s pretty insulting to Iraq as well as to Libya.

The fact that politics and civil society were effectively banned for decades, and the fact that Qaddafi imposed a civil war on his people, traumatising them and causing thousands of young men to take up arms, means that the new Libya faces imense problems. This is not news. Whenever a dictatorship ends violently, all the problems which have been repressed will burst forth. It’s like taking the lid off a steam cooker: all the good and evil in the society, all the intelligence and stupidity that was previously hidden, will spill out. This is not an argument for keeping the dictatorship. Several hundred have been killed in Libya since the fall of Qaddafi, mainly in battles between rival militias. Sometimes this has had a tribal or revenge aspect, but there has been no Iraq-style ethnic cleansing. There is a small separatist movement in the east. Fringe Islamist extremist groups have made a lot of noise. Many of the armed young men are reluctant to give up their arms. But there has been a very successful election. If the new government is able to absorb the militias into a national army and to resolve tribal, regional and other disputes within an accepted political process, Libya can look forward to a much better future. Opinion polls and conversations with Libyans show that an overwhelmingly large majority are happy that Qaddafi has gone and are optimistic about the future. But what does Libyan opinion matter to blanket thinkers?

After 17 months of slaughter in Syria, there is no no-fly zone. The extent of Western and ‘client’ intervention is this: Saudi Arabia and Qatar may be providing a small amount of light weaponry. The Turks may be helping to coordinate the weapons deliveries. The CIA appears to have a few men on the ground watching where the weapons are going and hoping (vainly) to ensure that they’ll never end up in the hands of anti-Zionist militants. On the other side stands a nakedly sectarian regime which considers its people slaves and murders them and destroys their cities with Russian weapons. Imperialist Russia, which has oppressed Muslims in the Caucuses and central Asia, and which bears half the blame for all the Cold War hot wars in Africa, is resupplying the regime with attack helicopters, tank parts and ammunition as the death toll surpasses seventeen thousand. Russia also protects the regime from condemnation at the UN security council. It plays the same role with regards to Syria that the United States plays with Israel. But how do the blanket thinkers see the situation? For them it’s yet another clear cut case of American imperialist aggression against a noble resistance regime, and once again the people are passive tools.

At best they are passive tools. They are also depicted as wild Muslims, bearded and hijabbed, who do not deserve democracy or rights because they are too backward to use them properly. Give them democracy and they’ll vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, and slaughter the Alawis and drive the Christians to Beirut. The blanket thinkers search for evidence of crimes committed by the popular resistance, and when they find them (usually on very flimsy evidence) they use them to smear the entire movement. They demand the resistance negotiate with a regime which has proved again and again that its only strategy is slaughter. They demand that the people remain peaceful as their children are tortured, their women raped, their neighbourhoods levelled. Leftist blanket thinkers do not apply the same criteria to the popular resistance of the Palestinians. It’s Zionists who do that.

To call the Free Syrian Army a sectarian gang is tantamount to calling the Syrian people a sectarian gang. It betrays a willed ignorance of reality. The FSA was formed in response to the sickening violence perpetrated by the Syrian regime, which at this stage is certainly a sectarian gang. Its Alawi military units work with armed Alawi civilians to slaughter Sunnis. This is a disaster for the Alawis and everyone else; it sows the seeds of a potential war which would destroy the country for generations, and it’s one of the first reasons why the regime must go as soon as possible. But the FSA is in reality hundreds of local militias which sometimes cooperate. It consists of defected soldiers (these people are heroes – they fled the army at huge personal risk because they were unable to stomach murdering their people; most soldiers who try to defect are killed before they leave base) and local men who have taken up arms to defend their neighbourhoods. Because the FSA is made of ordinary men, it covers an enormous range of political opinion. Some fighters are disillusioned Baathists, some are secularists, some leftists, some support the Muslim Brotherhood and some are attracted by extremist Wahhabi rhetoric. Some, I’m sure, are criminals, because some of the Syrian people are criminal. Some will be in it in the hopes of financial or sexual profit, because that’s the way people are.

Most are apolitical people, except for the fact that they want to bring down the tyranny. They fight because they have no choice. Of course, there is a huge danger that apolitical people will be easily manipulated by sectarian rhetoric, especially given that their enemy instrumentalises sectarianism. This is certainly a difficult period for revolutions in the Muslim world and internationally. The collapse of leftist thinking and reach, and the shrinking of public debate by dictatorships and consumerism, has left the way open to retrograde forms of religious or nationalist politics. Some of the battle videos labelled ‘Free Syrian Army’ look and sound depressingly similar to jihadist videos from Iraq. But for now it’s mainly a problem of style and ignorance, and it can easily be misinterpreted by an orientalist eye. Most Syrian people are religious, whether we like it or not. But most Syrian people are also aware that a sectarian war would produce no winners. The Allahu Akbar chant expresses a faith which is necessary to overcome the fear of being shot. It doesn’t autmomatically mean ‘Kill the Kuffar’. (But who am I talking to? The Palestinians use religious rhetoric and talk about ‘the Jews’ rather than ‘the Zionists’, and it doesn’t bother the blanket thinkers for a moment).

The longer the necessary fight goes on the more brutalised the people will become, and the more likely that vengeful sectarian voices will dominate. It is the duty of any right-thinking person, leftist or otherwise, to support the oppressed people in their struggle. Anyone who does so, and who respects the Syrians enough to base their comments on knowledge rather than assumption, will have earned the right to offer political advice to the Syrians.

The FSA is inevitably disorganised and outgunned. But it’s a lot more organised than it was a few months ago, and it is liberating territory. It fights with commitment and incredible resilience. Today the battle is in inner Damascus.

And a few days ago it was in the Yarmouk and Palestine refugee camps, which brings me finally to the strange fact that blanket thinkers persist in thinking of the Syrian regime as in some way a threat to Israel. It’s true that Syria helped Hizbullah stand firm, and this is not a small thing. It’s also true that the Syrian regime has massacred Palestinians in Tel Zaatar and other Lebanese camps, that since 1973 the border with the occupied Golan has been quieter than borders with states enjoying peace agreements with Israel, and that Syria has never even tried to shoot at the Israeli planes which have bombed its territory since Bashaar inherited power. But things have become clearer since the uprising began. Rami Makhlouf told the New York Times that Israeli security depended on the Syrian regime’s security.

Paul Woodward at War in Context quotes Reuters on the regime’s recent transportation of chemical weapons: An Israeli official said however the movements reflected an attempt by President Bashar al-Assad to make “arrangements to ensure the weapons do not fall into irresponsible hands”.

“That would support the thinking that this matter has been managed responsibly so far.”

Woodward then comments: So, while the word from Damascus is that “terrorists” armed with “Israeli-made machine guns” conducted the massacre in Tremseh yesterday, the word from Tel Aviv is that Syria’s chemical weapons are nothing to worry about so long as they remain in the responsible hands of the government.

There might be a certain amount of truth in that statement. Still, it’s not exactly the rhetoric one might expect from a representative of an alliance that is supposedly gunning for Assad’s downfall. On the contrary, it reflects the fact that Israel would be much happier to see Assad remain in power.

Here’s a simpler proposition for the blanket thinkers: Hizbullah won victories because it respects its people, because it is of its people. A regime which murders its people and destroys the national infrastructure, which plays with the dynamite of sectarian conflict and puts the whole people’s future in question, would be incapable of winning a victory even if it wanted to.

On Friday tens of thousands protested against regime barbarism in the Palestinian camps of Damascus. Regime forces opened fire, murdering eleven. Many more were dragged from their homes to be tortured in detention. Professional liar and regime spokesman Jihad Maqdisi then described Palestinians as ‘impolite guests,’ outraging Syrians and Palestinians, who are the same people, now more than ever.

Robin Yassin-Kassab writes at Qunfuz and Pulse and is the author of the novel, The Road from Damascus.

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