Behind The Lines
We pull up to Omar, Syria’s largest oil field. It’s an industrial ghost town, a heap of mangled pipes and charred oil tanks. The coalition has claimed part of it as a base. I ask the Kurdish guards if I can talk to the Americans. They say no.
Here the US special forces are just one player in a region full of international fighters. In addition to other coalition troops, there are the Russians and ISIS, many of whom are foreigners, as well as the Afghan Fatemiyoun mercenaries, Shiite refugees recruited by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. And there are the soldiers of fortune of the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian Blackwaterlike private army that is said to have 2,500 fighters in Syria.Here he is talking to Robert Ford about Obama's failed policy:
Ambassador Ford told me he wishes, in retrospect, that he had advised Obama against calling for Assad to step down. Even though the president had said the United States would not impose regime change on Syria, the “nuance in what Obama said…was totally lost.” It wasn’t just opposition activists like Ahmed who were banking on US intervention. Many in the budding armed opposition were certain they would soon receive support from the Americans. Ford insisted to them this would never happen, but “they just wouldn’t believe it,” he recalled. Obama’s statement “in the long run didn’t help anything. It probably made it worse.”
Obama had no plan to push Assad out. At that moment, his administration was busy juggling the NATO no-fly zone in Libya and unrest in Bahrain, where the United States has a major naval base. According to Philip Gordon, a former White House coordinator for the Middle East, Obama’s team believed Assad would be chased out by protests like other dictators were, so they “might as well align the United States on the right side of the conflict.”Here he is with leftist volunteers in Kurdish Rojava:
The international fighters bristle when I point out that the supposedly anti-authoritarian PYD [the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party] seems to control everything in Rojava. Its constitution guarantees freedom of the press and the freedom to organize, but Berzan Liyanî, a Kurdish journalist I’d met, was imprisoned for six months in 2017 on charges of practicing journalism without a license and being part of an unapproved TV channel. He was held in solitary confinement for 45 days in a five-by-seven-foot cell in a “counterterrorism” prison. Later, he was put in a cell with ISIS fighters. His interrogators accused his network of inciting opposition to the local security forces and the self-administration.And taking up the theme of American involvement in Part II:
Initially, the Obama administration had hoped the war would lead to what Alexander Bick, the director for Syria at the National Security Council, called a “wholesale renovation of the government,” in which Syrians friendly to the United States would come together to shape a new government in Damascus. But as the war expanded and more Islamist groups joined the opposition, that idea became “extremely worrying,” according to Bick. “We did not want a military victory by the opposition,” he recalls. Former officials say the White House hoped to press the Syrian government and the rebels into a stalemate, forcing them into UN-led negotiations in which the United States and Russiawould have a high degree of influence. Until then, the United States would provide aid to the rebels, but it would also try to “fine-tune and calibrate the level of assistance to reach that magic temperature of just enough pressure but not so much that it actually spills over into victory,” according to a former senior State Department official with direct knowledge of the issue.
Many inside the government worried that aiding secular rebels would inadvertently benefit the Islamist factions springing up in Syria. In late 2013, what Bick called a “holy shit meeting” was held at the State Department to evaluate the growing relationship between the FSA and Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. “Alarm bells were beginning to go off,” Bick recalls. The two groups seemed to be setting aside their ideological differences to team up against Assad, which complicated the American plan to arm the rebels. “If you’re going to give support to the opposition, you want to be confident that support is going to people that you trust,” Bick says. “You don’t want it filtering into terrorist groups”—or indirectly making them stronger.
Gradually, the Obama administration walked back its goal of speeding the end of the Assad regime, former officials at the State Department, the National Security Council, and the White House tell me. “The terms kept lowering from immediate departure of the entire regime…to a departure of just Assad and his cronies,” says Philip Gordon, the White House coordinator for the Middle East from 2013 to 2015. By the end of Obama’s second term, Bick says, “If Assad and a handful of his advisers had left and been replaced by an Alawite general chosen by Russia, the United States would have been willing to call that a political transition.”Read the whole thing.
I recently re-read two older pieces on the war in Syria and the left. From a hard left perspective, Jamie Allinson in Salvage, in a piece called "Disaster Islamism" from 2017 brilliantly dissected the left's myth of US regime change that Bauer's piece also reflects on. (I haven't listened to it yet, but there's a 2018 podcast by Allinson on the same topic.) From a more right-wing perspective from 2016 Jamie Palmer channels the spirit of Christopher Hitchens in this long read on how Syria exposed the "anti-imperialist" left's betrayal of the Palestinian people and democracy in the Arab world.
Antidote has published a 2016 interview with the recently killed Syrian revolutionary Abdel Basset al-Sarout, entitled "The hope and the tragedy". And, zooming out a bit further, Sam Hamad's latest argues that Libya and Sudan show that the "Arab spring" is still alive.
Syria and the truth war
This is my perennial topic. A short piece: How Trolls and Conspiracy Theorists Spun the Syrian War, by Dan Spinelli in Mother Jones. And a fine longer piece: Bellingcat and How Open Source Reinvented Investigative Journalism, by Muhammad Idrees Ahmad in the NYRB. Here's an extract:
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, for example, has been dismissive of open-source investigations. It was the August 21, 2013, chemical attack on Ghouta, Syria, that first put them at odds. Eliot Higgins, then running an obscure blog named Brown Moses, had quickly gathered data from YouTube videos, satellite imagery, and UN reports to verify the dimensions of the munitions used in the attack and confirm their make and likely trajectory. The rockets matched a model in the regime’s arsenal and the trajectory could be traced back to regime-held territory.
Months later, Hersh published a long story in the London Review of Books claiming that the Obama administration had manipulated evidence and colluded in a false-flag operation to implicate the Syrian regime of President Assad. In making this incendiary claim, Hersh relied on the testimony of an unnamed “former senior intelligence official.” Although central claims in Hersh’s story were soon challenged, he simply redoubled his efforts and published an even longer version, also published by the London Review of Books. That trusty warhorse the “former intelligence official” told Hersh: “We now know it was a covert action planned by [Turkish President Recep] Erdoğan’s people to push Obama over the red line.”
Hersh was demanding the reader’s trust while relying on a single anonymous source whose credibility he could not establish, citing documents he hadn’t seen, making allegations he could not substantiate. He also failed to acknowledge extant evidence that contradicted his story. Higgins, on the other hand, had relied on verifiable data and a robust method to prove beyond doubt that the rockets were of a manufacture used by the Syrian regime and that their trajectory placed their provenance in government-controlled territory. For Hersh’s story to be true, not only did everyone else have to be wrong, they also had to be colluding (since they had all independently reached the same conclusion about the attack); Higgins’s analysis, on the other hand, was based on accessible information and supported by physical evidence, witnesses on the ground, as well as numerous international observers and institutions, including the UN, human rights groups, and the US, British, German, and French governments.Read the whole thing.
The cycle repeated in April 2017, after the Syrian regime launched another chemical attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun (sometimes also spelled Sheikhoun). Hersh presented an alternative narrative that relied on an unnamed “senior adviser to the US intelligence community,” but he got the time of the attack wrong, could not identify the location, and seemed oblivious of the fact that the impact site bore no resemblance to the scene he described. A comprehensive investigation by the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism would corroborate the details of Bellingcat’s open-source analysis, leaving Hersh and his German publishers humiliated. (On this occasion, after the LRB declined to publish his story, Hersh had turned to the German conservative daily Die Welt.) Although Russia had restricted the OPCW’s remit to prevent it from identifying the perpetrator, the UN researchers later confirmed to Reuters that the sarin gas used in August 2013 came from the same regime stock used in Khan Shaykhun.
Flawed but interesting three-part series in The Tablet by Paul Berman entitled "Tales of the Jewish Working Class". Part 1: The Ancient Dream of the Jewish Left; 2: Crackup and Transformation of the Jewish Left; 3: Anarchism and the Multicultural Joys of New York.
The fascist international
A really great piece: The Balkans in Rightwing Mythology, by Adnan Delalić and Patricia Zhubi, in Antidote.
In the NYT: "The Making of a YouTube radical", on one man's online journey into the darkest reaches of the far right. In the New Statesman, Sarah Ditum blogs about this, and how YouTube's algorithms radicalise. (Above is an image from the story, with the guy's watching habits, in this case an InfoWars video of the far right Australian blogger Maram Susli, connected to a story above because she worked with Ted Postol in his chemical weapons conspiracy theories, as defended by Seymour Hersh.)
My friend Otto English has a brilliant two-part piece on our next prime minister in Byline Times: 1. A Role on which the Curtain Never Falls, and 2. Keeping the Show on the Road. I was going to quote an extract, but it's
The hostile environment
Gracie Bradley: From Grenfell to Windrush, state racism kills – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Bethany Morris: Britain’s BAME community will fall through the cracks due to Brexit.
Against left nationalism: Red-brown alliances in Brexit Britain
As ever, Coatesy continues to chart the rise of left nationalism and right-wing national populism. Here he looks at Boris Johnson and the Trumpification of British politics (an issue addressed by Will Davies here). Here he summarises good and (more often) bad left takes on the Peterborough by-election. Here he charts Spiked's unseemly defence of the homophobic Brexit right. Elsewhere, the AWL's guru Sean Matgamna argues that Cotbyn's Brexit position is reactionary, Jim Denham takes apart the lie that Brexit is a working class cause, Seema Syeda on why Len McCluskey's vision of a monolithically white and monolithically reactionary working class is wrong, and the great Eric Lee on why, in the fight for workers’ rights, there are no borders.
Keith Kahn-Harris has a new book out on antisemitism. He's written a bunch of articles related to it: “All the world is a very narrow bridge” — A correction, an apology, a reflection on irony (Repeater), If you are the ‘right kind of Jew’, you’re empowering racists (Jewish Chronicle), How a radical new form of anti-racism can save Labour (The Guardian), Removing certain kinds of Jews from anti-racist protection is wrong (Fathom Journal), and Don’t Fall For Selective Anti-Semites Just Because You’re Their ‘Good’ Jew (The Forward).
Peter Hain and Daniel Levy make a really important intervention in the Labour debate. And David Feldman is illuminating on Hobson, Corbyn, “Imperialism”, and Labour’s Antisemitism Problem.