Saturday, February 24, 2018

Truth wars, continued

This week's theme is truth, lies, and the grey area in between.

Corbyn and the commie
If you're not a regular Little Atoms reader, you should be. Here, Paul Anderson, who knows more about the British left and its Moscow connections than anyone else, punctures the media nonsense around the allegations about Corbyn and the Czech spy. But read right to the end - there's a sting in the tail.

Fake news and the war on truth
First, thanks to AB for introducing me to Coda's disinformation crisis archive. Including: How a Canadian city got sucked into Russia's dinfo war; the Syrians who watch Russian TV; how Russia uses a fake Swedish human rights organisation to spread smears on the White Helmets; how disinfo campaigns use online sexual harassment of women politicians and activists; and the three ways Russia uses useful idiot.

This SPLC article, by Alexander Reid Ross on the Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin's St Petersburg troll factory, is intriguing. Its founder, catering industry mogul Evgeny Prigozhin
is also tied to the conception and funding of a semi-private military company called “Wagner” known to have operated both in Ukraine and Syria under Dmitry Utkin, a man notorious for his “adherence to the aesthetics and ideology of the Third Reich.” Wagner Private Military Company is said to be co-sponsored by the Russian Ministry of Defense and to have participated in the military occupation of Crimea.
While the Kremlin’s propagandists disseminate half-truths, distortions and lies, they rely on sites like Consortium News, Russia Insider, Global Independent Analytics and The Duran to adopt their narratives and “launder” them so that “the original source… is either forgotten or impossible to determine,” according to expert on the far right Anton Shekhovtsov’s latest book, Russia and the Western Far Right. This project utilizes what national security site War on the Rocks calls “‘gray’ measures, which employ less overt outlets controlled by Russia, as well as so-called useful idiots that regurgitate Russian themes and ‘facts’ without necessarily taking direction from Russia or collaborating in a fully informed manner.” 
By election season, the network of “less overt” sites had developed behavior patterns and positions spurred on by the troll factory: they supported the illegal Crimea referendum, denied the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime and denigrated Syria's humanitarian White Helmets. They also often operated as connectors to far-right sites like Breitbart News and conspiracy-theory site, Infowars, which crossposted more than 1,000 RT articles between 2014 and 2017 and published two interviews with [Russian fascist guru Alexandr] Dugin last year.
Such apparent unity of action and intent may have also occurred because the “fake news” sites boosted by the Translation Project have significant audience overlap, as well as institutional crossover. For example, the syncretic site 21stCenturyWire crossposts stories from Consortium News and features interviews with its founder, the late Robert Parry. Created by former Infowars associate editor, Patrick Henningsen, 21stCenturyWire’s archived stories trade in antisemitic Soros and Rothschild conspiracy theories and a battery of Kremlin-supported stories maligning the White Helmets in Syria.
We've seen an ugly example of this sort of thing this week, as the "White Helmets Exposed" Twitter account (promoted by alt-leftists in this scene) has been pushing conspiracy theories about the Parkland shootings that exactly mirror the techniques used to deny Syria atrocities, e.g. claiming the kids are actors funded by Soros:

Meanwhile, Newsweek is in complete meltdown. In last week's round-up, I mentioned that Newsweek had published a damaging and utterly spurious op ed by a Putinist non-entity Ian Wilkie (who describes himself variously as a “terrorism expert,” an “international lawyer,” a “counter-terrorism practitioner” and...“cannabis industry entrepreneur.”, but is barely literate and is incapable of recognising truth); the article was based on either a stupid misreading of or conscious lie about an incoherent out of context throwaway remark by James Mattis at a press release - debunked by Eliot Higgins here. Alex Rowell in the always brilliant al-Jumhuriya calls time on the magazine:
Instead of disowning Wilkie—a man proven incapable of comprehending plain English, who has suggested Mossad was behind the 2017 Sarin attack in Idlib’s Khan Shaykhun (recently confirmed by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to have been the work of the Assad regime, as no serious observer ever doubted)—Newsweek followed up with a second piece by him
In the US socialist magazine New Politics, Stephen Shalom situates Wilkie's falsehoods in the context of the wider alt-left/alt-right conspiracist scene. And John Feffer argues against the forms of denialism about RussiaGate on left and right, targeting Stephen Cohen, Glen Greenwald and Consortium News, among others.

The fascist international 
The far right is increasingly internationalising. Here's Joe Mulhall on some of the international meet-ups coming up, often putting non-fascist ultra-conservatives and Islamophobic populists, the alt-right, pro-Kremlin national Bolsheviks and actual Nazis in the same room, blurring the lines between them. 

Also: Here's Louis Proyect on how Ukraine’s neo-Nazis came to oppose NATO and the European Union. Here's Leon Rogozin on the internationalism of ultra-nationalists in Ukraine. Here's the ADL's profile of the Republic of Florida antisemitic militia that Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz may have been connected to. Here's the ADL's summary of the state of the US far right six months after Charlottesville. Here's Anna Goldenberg on the secret antisemitic fraternities gaining increasing influence in Austria.

Antisemitism, left and right
Anti-Nazis United has a new profile of a social media antisemite up. On the other side, UKIP's MEP Gerard Batten darkly mutters about Jewish lobbyists playing the fascist card, says shechita is “a dreadful Dark Age practice” and claims kosher meat was being sold to non-Jews to keep prices down. And UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge has spoken to a gathering including a fringe far-right group, the "White Pendragons", denouncing a local MP as a "traitor" in quasi-fascist terms. Consistent anti-racists need to scrutinise and call out the antisemitism of the left and of the right (although, as a leftist, I'd say I'd like our side to set itself a higher bar than we set UKIP.)

A couple more examples of the growing convergence between the alt-right and the alt-left. Here's supposedly progressive (but Trump-friendly) Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard meeting with one of Assad's right-wing state clerics, who has called for suicide bombings against the West. And here's Louis Proyect's "The three degrees of separation between Lyndon LaRouche, the left, and the alt-right (part five)" (in which a couple of British Trots make a brief appearance, with just one degree of separation from both the LaRouche cult and several Russian fascists: Alan Freeman, a former member of Socialist Action and co-director of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group, and Richard Brenner of Workers’ Power.

Buccaneer capitalism
Kiril Avramov and Ruslan Trad's investigation of the footprint of Russian private military companies in Syria is absolutely fascinating. Aron Lund's long read, "The Factory", on how the biggest cement company in the world ended up paying millions of dollars to ISIS, is also a riveting account of the political economy of the Syrian dictatorship and war.

The war isn't over
Loubna Mrie has written a really clear and clear-sighted account of what's going on in Ghouta in, surprisingly, The Nation - a really good intro if you are overwhelmed by un-digested news. In New Politics, an interview with the Trotskyist thinker Gilbert Achcar on Syria. James Snell, in the Telegraph, argues it's not to late to stop the slaughter. Among the key points people should bear in mind is this one:
[During the 2016 assault on Aleppo] Russia and the regime used the presence of a small number of fighters from the formerly Al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front (today known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham [HTS]) as a pretext for their attack on east Aleppo, even though there were only a few hundred fighters from this group in the city out of approximately 10,000 fighters overall... Russia has once again used the presence of the Al-Nusra Front as a pretext for the latest attack on east Ghouta, saying that Al-Nusra was using the civilians there “as a human shield”. In fact, it is doubtful today whether there is any armed Al-Nusra presence in Ghouta at all. The two largest rebel groups in East Ghouta are Jaish al-Islam (the Army of Islam) and Failaq al-Rahman (the Brigade of the Merciful). In May last year Jaysh al-Islam signed up to a de-escalation agreement guaranteed by Russia and Failaq al-Rahman followed suit in August.

The Labour Party needs a foreign policy reset
Rabbil Sikdar in Left Foot Forward eviscerates Emily Thornberry's recent ("no white hats", "all sides matter", "at least it wasn't us who killed half a million people in Syria but someone else" [that last one is a paraphrase!]) comments on the Middle East. Sikdar correctly argues that Labour's foreign policy positions are increasingly regressive. Peter Ryley gets Thornberry right here, describing her recent comments as a
pile of sycophantic drivel. Genuflecting to the wisdom of her leader, she talks of Syria without mentioning Assad. Not a word about the man who launched the war. Silence about the person whose forces and allies are responsible for around ninety per cent of the deaths. No mention of his prisons and torture chambers. Nothing. Zilch. War without agency.
Syria Solidarity are rightly saying that
  • We need a Labour policy on Syria that puts a commitment to protecting civilians first.
  • We need a Labour policy on Syria that commits to stopping Assad’s crimes.
  • We need all parties and all members of Parliament to unite in supporting action to end the slaughter in Syria.

 The current position contrasts to the position which Jo Cox took back before her death in 2016:

Friday, February 16, 2018


East West Street
Peter Ryley is always a wonderful writer. Here he reviews Philippe Sands' East West Street, and then veers into a brilliant set of asides about nationalism.

Antisemitism: George Soros
I am fascinated by the way George Soros has become the iconic hate figure for such a wide spectrum, from the arrested anti-capitalists of the pro-Russia left to the Breitbartian and Brexiteer right, along with the anti-democratic nationalist leaders of Hungary, Russia, Poland and Israel. The appallingly dishonest Telegraph article last week by former Theresa May chief of staff Nick Timothy was a good case study in this, and some good articles were written in response - e.g. Adam Barnett in, James Bloodworth in IBTStephen Bush in the NS, Rafael Behr and John Henley in the Guardian. What was depressing about it was that many on the right (Dan Hodges, Eric Pickles, the Campaign Against Antisemitism) rushed to Timothy's defence, even though identical rhetoric from some anonymous Corbynista on a Labour Party Facebook forum would certainly have been used by the same people as ammunition in writing of the whole of the left as antisemitic.

Antisemitism: record attacks, hate mainstreamed
Meanwhile, the CST records that 2017 was the worst year since counting began for antisemitic incidents in the UK. Read about their 2017 incident report here. And in the US, the ADL shows how Holocaust deniers are increasingly making their way into the political mainstream.

The fascist international
Patrick Strickland on why Italian fascists love Assad. Tobias Rupprecht on the geopolitics of Russian Orthodoxy. Bill Weinberg on Cossacks fighting in Syria.

Women's resistance
The brilliant al-Jumhuriya magazine has a powerful interview by Anton Mukhamedov (who recently contributed a guest post to this blog) on the women fighting for Syria's vanished.

Denialism, and countering it
Newsweek, the dysfunctional news outlet, recently published a damaging and utterly spurious op ed by Putinist non-entity Ian Wilkie. Eliot Higgins has written an excellent piece on chemical weapons denialism and Syria for Newsweek in response to it. Louis Proyect fact-checks some Syria denialism by alt-leftist Ben Norton here. Brian T has some questions for some denialist professors here. Olivia Solon continues her reporting of smears against the White Helmets.

The Intercept has published a ghoulishly fascinating analysis of a DM message list that reveals the political culture of Julian Assange's Wikileaks project: casual antisemitism and misogyny, a strong preference for Republicans rather than Democrats, obsessive hatred of Hillary Clinton.

This long blogpost, "Syria seen from the Viewpoint of imperial purity: the crushing narcissism of empire", at anarchist communist blog "Cautiously Pessimistic" is a brilliant analysis of the eurocentrism of some forms of "anti-imperialism", focusing on a recent dreadful article by Patrick Higgins in the usually quite good left periodical Viewpoint. Louis Proyect has also fact-checked Higgins' piece, and another dreadful one by Daniel Lazare.

Shannon Liao on the crackdown on feminism in China.

An interview at Media Diversified with Javaad Alipoor, writer of The Believers are but Brothers.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

How a suicide attack on a civilian convoy was spun into a sectarian conspiracy

This is a guest post by Anton Mukhamedov
Amended 9.02.18

On April 15, 2017, several buses evacuating civilians from the towns of Fu’ah and Kafriya besieged by rebels in Idlib province were rocked by an explosion in the al-Rashideen neighbourhood of Western Aleppo.

Terrorism hasn’t been uncommon during the Syrian conflict, but the attack at al-Rashideen stuck with many as an extra case of cheap brutality. Mostly targeting children escaping Shia-majority towns besieged for years, the act of violence seemed to display a sectarian character and was done almost out of spite. The convoys which were thus stopped several kilometers from their destination in the government-controlled areas were part of the so-called “Four Towns Agreement”, which pretty much traded the majority of the civilian population of rebel-held Madaya and Zabadani for pro-government Fu’ah and Kafriya.

No group has claimed responsibility for the car bomb, but the context makes it probable that either a splinter group from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s more radical wing or a lone radicalised fighter was the author. Ahrar al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the main opposition groups having negotiated the Four Towns Agreement, were accompanying the convoy on that day and lost about twenty fighters in the suicide bombing. A theory circulated among the opposition at the time, implicating the Syrian government which supposedly attempted to divert attention from another case of extreme brutality, the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun eleven days earlier. Nevertheless this theory gained little traction.

Although the tragic day has long been overshadowed by subsequent events of the Syrian war, several families whose children have gone missing either during or in the aftermath of the bombing are still seeking justice. And revisiting the suicide bombing at al-Rashideen to situate it within the Syrian conflict becomes crucial, as pro-Assad activists are instrumentalising the suffering of the families from Fu’ah and Kafriya to push for a sectarian reading of the events of the war and whitewash the crimes of the Syrian government.

The sectarianization of the Syrian conflict
The course of the war much prior to the al-Rashideen attack reaffirmed the violent polarisation between the various religious groups, which, some argue, had almost disappeared as anti-government demonstrations in 2011 united many regions of the country across ethnic or religious lines with calls for freedom. Although minorities have been attacked by various armed factions opposing the Syrian state, we cannot forget that the policies of sectarianization can usually be retraced to actors loyal to the Assad regime, which has exacerbated the country’s divides as a matter of policy.

For instance, about a year after the start of the revolution, one of the deadliest massacres of the Syrian conflict was perpetrated in Houla by fighters allegedly belonging to a pro-government paramilitary usually referred to as the “shabiha”, a survivor even recalling “Shia slogans on their foreheads as they went house to house searching out and slaughtering Sunni families.”

Several Shia extremist groups, such as Hezbollah, which had participated in Assad’s campaign to reconquer Eastern Aleppo during the last months of 2016, have only contributed to reinforcing the sectarian narratives. And later, together with the Iranian state, Hezbollah has been instrumental in brokering the aforementioned “Four Towns Agreement”, which not only constituted a war crime, but was also a way of “realigning the country into zones of influence that backers of Bashar al-Assad [could] directly control and use to advance broader interests”, as The Guardian reports.

Rather than singling out a religious group, these reminders serve to show that the violence often originated in one camp, the same one whose repression of peaceful protests resulted in a nation-wide uprising, which then set the stage for Sunni extremism in many regions of Syria. It also avoids a certain de-contextualisation of extremist violence, which divorces it from artificial attempts of stoking ancient divides.

That’s why, when the Four Towns Agreement was set into motion in April, delayed in part be the infighting among rebel groups, it nearly came as a relief to those civilians whose hometowns no longer promised safety. After all, the sieges of Madaya and Zabadani, but also those of Fu’ah and Kafriya, were described by Amnesty as targeting “densely populated areas, depriving civilians of food, medicine and other basic necessities in violation of international humanitarian law. Besieged civilians have further endured relentless, unlawful attacks from the ground and the air. The systematic use of this policy by the government [and, to a lesser degree, armed opposition groups] has become widely referred to, including by the United Nations (UN), as a “surrender or starve” strategy.”

Even then, the rebel siege of Fu’ah and Kafriya is less attributable to an atavistic hatred of the Shia minority, than to a tactical, albeit cynical, calculation instrumentalizing the fate of the besieged citizens to promote the survival of several rebel-held regions in turn encircled by Assad and his allies.

Controversial reports of a mass kidnapping
Last week, a certain Irish-based Dr Hayes, together with prominent defender of the Assad regime George Galloway, led a series of events in Dublin to draw attention to the families of the al-Rashideen bombing victims. Supported by some Irish deputies including Clare Daly and Mick Wallace, in a hotel right across from Dáil Eireann, the Irish Parliament, the organisers spoke at length about the disappearance of the children from the scene of the suicide attack, but also took time to condemn EU sanctions on the Syrian regime, revealing the actual political nature of the event.

Though the Syrian doctor hosted by the organisers to recount the al-Rashideen bombing gave a rather objective account of the tragedy, he mentioned a “kidnapping” of 54 children, which Hayes himself had transformed into a large conspiracy implicating the White Helmets.

Together with deputies Daly and Wallace in November 2017, Hayes visited the government-controlled Syria as part of an Irish delegation he had personally brought together. Another one of its members, peace activist Edward Horgan, shares the list of 54 children that went missing following the suicide attack, compiled by their families. According to Horgan, who is involved in a project that is trying to put a name on all child casualties of wars in the Middle East, the trip “included visits to Damascus, Homs and Aleppo”. In Damascus they “met a group of survivors from the Al Rashideen bus bombing and got the names of the children killed and the details of those children missing from their friends and relatives. Some of those listed as missing may have been killed because up to ten of the [victims’] bodies could not be identified due to the severity of the blast and burning.”

According to Horgan, “some of Declan Hayes' views on the situation in Syria tend to be very one-sided, so some of what he says and writes should be treated with caution.” In Hayes’ words, the children were not only kidnapped (by the White Helmets, present at the scene to rescue civilians minutes after the attack), but “held hostage in Turkey, the richer children for ransom and the rest to be chopped up for Turkey’s booming human organ harvesting trade”.

The cynical phrasing together with a sectarian narrative, which makes the entire Syrian conflict into a “slaughter of Shias”, does not pay tribute to the victims of a horrendous attack. On the contrary, it politicizes the families’ quest for justice in a perverse and disingenuous way, while maligning the very people who helped them.

In fact, the footage of the attack’s immediate aftermath displays Syrian Arab Red Crescent working hand in hand with the Syrian White Helmets, otherwise known as the Syrian Civil Defense, in order to rescue the victims—evidence enough for Russia Today and bloggers such as Vanessa Beeley to suggest a coordinated ploy. Despite an inscription in Arabic on the side of the White Helmets’ firefighting truck clearly identifying the group as the one based in Urem al-Kubra, a town in Aleppo governorate only 20 minutes away from the scene.

The stories of kidnapping of victims from Fu’ah and Kafriya appear in contradictory reports which mention either 200 or “30 to 40” missing civilians, either “mostly girls” or “young men”. Four days later, according to one source, 150 previously “abducted” victims of the bombing arrived in Aleppo after having been…treated in opposition hospitals, a story corroborated by Amnesty that speaks of “ambulances evacuated the injured to Bab al-Hawa hospital and other field hospitals in Idleb governorate.”

Perhaps the most mysterious of all is a December 2017 report from the Assad government's official Syrian Arab News Agency from December 2017 announcing the release of 15 supposedly kidnapped civilians thanks to “the great efforts exerted by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent”, only this time, instead of Turkey, they had been held in “Aroum”, or Urum al-Kubra, the location of one of Red Crescent’s own bases where they could have been brought by the aid workers themselves.

To clarify this, I reached out to Abd Alkader Habak, a Syrian photographer who was present at the scene at the time of the attack: an image of him rescuing a child from the site of the bombing has gone viral. Contacted via WhatsApp, he told that following the attack, “the wounded were all taken to hospitals inside Syrian territory, but there was a single child who was transferred to Turkey because of the severe injury. About a month ago, the child was brought back to his family by the Turkish Red Crescent and the Syrian Red Crescent. The Turkish Red Crescent was searching for his family until they found her and the child was taken to his family.”

Amidst a brutal and rapidly sectarianising conflict, the events in al-Rashideen were a mind-numbingly horrific incident, but also an extra example of how uncertainty at times of war plays into the hands of those whose credibility depends on their own war crimes being whitewashed.

The truth clouded in smoke
An article written in May 2017, a month after the suicide bombing, mentions the burial of the 52 unidentified victims, possibly confirming Horgan’s suspicions. Still, Amnesty claims that “two close relatives of people missing since the explosion (…) received evidence that suggests that their missing relatives were abducted by the armed group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham”, something which the advocacy group was unable to verify.

“Of course if children are missing,” an activist explains, “we are very concerned for them, as we are for all the children of Syria harmed by whomsoever (most were killed by Assad). In a war situation children separated from family, even for medical care, are always very vulnerable. Sadly some of the missing children may be among the unidentified dead.”

Not getting to the bottom of what happened that day is certainly frustrating, but at least admitting so frankly spares us misleading narratives, which might be just one step away from conspiracy theories smearing rescue workers in a war-torn country. Researching what happened at al-Rashideen on April 15, 2017 reminded me of the words of caution I had heard a little earlier from someone also closely following the conflict: “If your first reaction to what is happening in Syria is not speechlessness, I wonder what kind of person you are.”

When asked about what he could do about the children who went missing in al-Rashideen, Simon Coveney, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade gave his “personal assurance”, that if he was “given something [he] could follow up” regarding the event, he would be “more than happy to do it.”

Perhaps, this is for the best. “We are finding it very hard to verify the true situation but Coveney's Department may be in a position to find out more,” says an Irish activist campaigning for justice in Syria. The information assembled in this piece is far from sufficient to trace an accurate portrait of the sectarianization of the Syrian conflict, but it is enough to call out unprincipled supporters of war criminals, for whom the loss of life in foreign countries matters solely when they are able to integrate it into their own political narrative to fight sectarian battles at home.

Friday, February 02, 2018

A fortnight later

Another round-up of some of the things I've read over the past days.


  • Joan Ryan's parliamentary speech against Hezbollah focused on its threat to Israel and Jews. Syria Solidarity has published an important briefing that highlights a neglected and in some ways more significant indictment of Hezbollah: its role in extensive crimes against Syrian civilians. Read it.
We are all Hezbollah
  • It's always a pleasure to read Padraig Reidy. Here he tells us why he feels sorry for George Galloway.
Does Labour have an antisemitism problem?
  • Marlon Gutman's ballad of Mike Sivier is a brilliant case study in a particularly corrosive form of low-level antisemitism that is all too common on the left.
  • Charles Davis forensically takes apart Redfish, a supposedly "grassroots" lefty citizen media site that turns out to be part of the Russian state.
  • I mentioned "An Investigation Into Red-Brown Alliances: Third Positionism, Russia, Ukraine, Syria, And The Western Left" in a recent edition, but it's been edited and re-blogged at Libcom. It's very long, but it is really valuable. 
Lesser evilism