Sunday, August 11, 2019

What's going on in Syria? A summary of some of the issues of the last two years

This post links to a few important pieces about Syria written over the last year which I have had open in my tabs. First, I wrote the following two paragraphs at the very end of 2017, as part of a post I never finished, and they are still as true now nearly two years later.

A narrative is gaining ground in mainstream accounts that the war in Syria is winding to a close, that Assad has won, and that, although imperfect, his consolidated rule will bring stability and peace back to the country. This narrative is fundamentally wrong. Just as 2016 closed with the horrific siege of East Aleppo,  which captured the public imagination of the West, 2017 closes several months into the equally horrific siege of eastern Ghouta, which has somehow failed to capture that imagination. Yarmouk, Jobar and other liberated zones are also under hellish starvation, siege and bombardment. In the liberated zones, local councils - models of participatory democracy as inspiring as Rojava's - and civil society (including the beleaguered White Helmets) continue to sustain the people, sometimes in the face of oppression by HTS and other Islamist armed groups, who continue to be a focus of resistance for the on-going revolution.

While trumpeting some of its media-focused joint offensives with Russia against ISIS, the regime continues to work hand in hand with ISIS to fight HTS and rebels on other fronts. The regime-controlled zones of Syria are far from havens of peace and security, but a feudal patchwork of gang turfs and protection rackets controlled by the various local and foreign warlords to whom Assad has outsourced defence of his fiefdom. His own forces are depleted, and he is dependent on increasingly violent forced conscription, mercenariesChechen and Ingush guns for hire, Iranian-paid militias, foreign fighters, and permanent Iranian and Russian forces. Territory conquered by the regime from the rebels are bleak places of terrorReturning refugees face forced conscription and imprisonment. Meanwhile, Syrian elites enrich themselves; Chinese and other transnational corporations circle like vultures, eyeing the profits of "reconciliation" and "reconstruction". The US and its allies, while continuing to bomb civilians in ISIS territories, are increasingly disengaging with rebels and with civil society in the liberated zones. The Violations Documentation Centre, the Syrian monitoring group with the most cautious methodology, has recorded the names of over 10,000 Syrians killed in rebel territories in 2017; the Syrian Network for Human Rights has recorded over 9000; the less cautious Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has recorded this number of civilians and a further 14,000 rebel fighters.


How bad was the destruction of Ghouta?
The Atlantic Council has published a detailed report, entitled Breaking Ghouta, on the Assad/Russia bombardment of Ghouta early in 2018. There are detailed sections on siege, access and aid; on chemical weapons; on hospital attacks; on "reconciliation"; and on disinformation. If you can't stomach the whole report, this Sky News item summarises it well.

Is the Syrian revolution over?
This Waging Nonviolence post from a year ago, by Julia Taleb, tells the extraordinary story of the resilience of the Syrian revolution, with the return and continuation of weekly protests in liberated (and some regime) zones, resisting both the regime's bombs and jihadi warlords. And, from December, this piece by Anand Gopal describes life in Idlib, "Syria's last bastion of freedom".

Is Idlib a terrorist haven?
The latest installment in the Assad/Russian disinfo playbook is the claim that Idlib is awash with "terrorists" and in particular "al-Qaeda". Among those who are repeating this claim are Noam Chomsky, Vijay Prashad and David Duke, a bizarre convergence of the anti-neocon left and right around talking points straight out of the post-9/11 war on terror. This piece by Sina Zekavat demolishes that myth.

Does the Assad government really want to fight terrorists?
The worst Sunni jihadi group in Syria is of course ISIS. A big part of the narrative the regime promotes in the West is that the regime is the main opponent of ISIS and that the West should back Assad to stop them. In fact, as close Syria watchers have been saying for a long time, it's not so simple. This piece from October by Maysam Behravesh shows how the regime has used Daesh strategically to try to break the opposition: in October, regime forces transported more than 400 ISIL fighters late Sunday from the desert near the town of Albu Kamal, to get them away from Iranian militias and into Idlib; the previous May, the regime transported as many as 1,600 ISIL fighters and family members from the Hajar al-Aswad district and Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp - an ISIL stronghold in southern Damascus since April 2015 - to the Badiya region, a vast stretch of desert in southeast Syria, from they were free to move more or less wherever they wanted; and in 2017, in a deal brokered by Hezbollah, hundreds of ISIL fighters and their families left, under Syrian military escort, an enclave on the border with Lebanon (where they threatened Hezbollah) for the eastern province of Deir az Zor (where they threatened Kurdish forces instead). So, no, the regime isn't serious about fighting ISIS, just about maintaining its power.

Is it safe for refugees to return?
In October, Assad offered an amnesty to Syrians who have avoided military service or deserted the army (fear of military service is one of the significant drivers of fleeing regime territory, and there are thousands of deserters living below the radar in government held zones). Military police use Barcelona matches as opportunities to raid places where young men might be to force them into the army. In conquered zones, ex-rebels are forced into the regime military to survive. This great piece of reporting by Harun al-Aswad tells the story.

Is America trying to regime change Syria?
This is a fascinating piece by Nafeez Ahmed in Le Monde Diplo. Ahmed looks at a series of unreported US cables from the Wikileaks stash dating between 2011 and 2016 which show that senior defence analysts in the American military establishment were thoroughly opposed to taking steps towards regime change, and in particular against empowering the democratic opposition, preferring a Alawi palace coup that would give a more pliant version of the "stable" status quo. Ahmed's work, in my view, often veers towards conspiracy theory territory, but it is interesting to see that the wingnut "anti-imperialists" who often dig his output have not taken this piece up.

What role do soldiers of fortune play in the Syrian conflict?
One predominant narrative of the Syrian war is of a regular army (the regime's) backed by a conventional superpower (Russia) fighting against a ragtag gaggle of jihadist, Kurdish and other militias - some backed by another superpower (the US). In fact, after eight years of fighting, the regime side is even more ragtag and irregular than the opposition. In particular, mercenaries of various kinds play a major role in shoring up the regime, alongside foreign and local Shia jihadi militias, official Russian and Iranian forces, Hezbollah, criminal gangs and paramilitary forces. This means that sovereignty in regime Syria is no less a patchwork of warlord turf than it is in liberated zones. This post on the blog De Re Miltari, is on soldiers of fortune in Syria. It looks at foreign contractors (including 3,000 Rusian mercenaries), foreign militias (at least 60,000 men whose salaries are paid by Iran, and perhaps twice that), local guns for hire, private armies (include Hezbollah's 8,000-strong force and 50,000 in the Kurdish-led YPG) and other actors. It's an extraordinary picture. This earlier Defense Post article by Kiril Avramov and Ruslan Trad goes into more detail about the Russian private military contractors.


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Friday, August 02, 2019

August sunshine

In this edition, Labour antisemitism, the alt-left, anti-antifa, Ukrainian foreign fighters, Seymour Hersh's senility, Lexit idiocy... and MintPress and Breitbart's war on Bobism.

After Panorama: Labour antisemitism

A couple of very different perspectives. One, very pessimistic, by Liam Liburd "Paranoia, Panorama & My Part in the Downfall of the Labour Party". Another, more optimistic, by Clive Lewis, "I know that Labour can rid itself of antisemitism – here's how". The latter cites That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Antisemitic by the great Steve Cohen, who died a decade ago in March - it's a book everyone should read and I often wonder what he'd make of the current mess. "Jeremy is not antisemitic", by TwllDun, is less optimistic and makes some important points. The Morning Star actually published something semi-decent on the topic, by Phil Katz and Mary Davis - some context on that from Jim Denham.

Everybody loves a tourist: no to the alt-left, yes to antifa

Check out the re-launched Everybody Hates a Tourist blog, which re-opens with an excellent post criticising The Canary. Even better is this piece going through the story of the myth of antifa terrorism. Essential reading. And the third post of the new edition is also good: Why fighting against antisemitism should be at the core of any left wing/anti fascist movement.

On the antifa terrorists issue, Spencer Sunshine has an op ed on Ted Cruz's resolution, arguing that it is a gift to fascists and seeks to stifle the left.

Fingered by MintPress
The pro-Iranian conspiracy theory and fake news site MintPress attacked me, among other Wikipedia editors, in an article juicily entitled "How a Small Group of Pro-Israel Activists Blacklisted MintPress on Wikipedia". The article, by Whitney Webb, basically complains that Wikipedia editors  came to a consensus that MintPress is not a reliable source. My contribution to the conversation was this:
Clearly unreliable as per evidence above. I don't think MediaBias/Factcheck or Newsguard are reliable in themselves but are useful starting points. The former rates MintPress as "biased", its factual reporting as "mixed" and notes two failed fact checks: 1, 2; while the latter gave it a "red" (i.e. fail) rating. FactCheck.org found it to have published a fake story in 2015[58] (see also AFP[59]), and Snopes found it to have published "mostly false" stories in 2015[60] and 2016[61]
Webb's article lists all the editors, including me:
Another user who voted to blacklist MintPress was Bobfrombrockley, who is a supporter of the Syrian opposition in the Syrian conflict and refers to militant groups in the Idlib province, all of which are now affiliated with the terror group al-Nusra Front (now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham), as “moderate Islamist” groups. As was previously mentioned, one of the reasons that MintPress was flagged for blacklisting on Wikipedia was related to our Syrian coverage.

Despite his support of “moderate Islamist” groups, this user responded [in 2006] to the question “What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to combat?” by saying “the literal truth of the Koran.” On his personal webpage, he also describes himself as “a reluctant Zionist, a critical Zionist, some days a borderline anti-Zionist, but a Zionist nonetheless.”
Their evidence for that claim is a screenshot of a 2011 blogpost where I really obviously don't describe myself as such but instead quote Daniel Siedareski saying that (but congratulations on going through a decade or two of posts to find something incriminating). So, I now have my very own tag on MintPress, so far sadly with only one article tagged. Breitbart attacked me in a similar way two years ago, for my edits to pages on anti-fascism ("Antifa Supporters Edit Group’s Wikipedia Page to Downplay Terrorism Categorization"), but put less effort into it. (Note to the people who like doxxing me on Twitter and in comment threads, think about what it means to doxx someone Breitbart has designated as a hostile Antifa supporter.)

Ukraine's foreign fighters return

A good piece by Tim Hume in Vice on far right fighters in Ukraine (HT @FFRAFAction) rightly focuses on the Ukrainian nationalist Azov Battalion, which is fairly well-known in the West for its far right links and international recruitment. But it also highlights fighters from the pro-Russian side too:
Earlier this month, Italian police investigating a network of far-right radicals who had fought in Ukraine uncovered a massive trove of military-grade weaponry, including an 11-foot air-to-air missile and rocket launchers. Since January, returning foreign fighters displaying separatist flags from the conflict have surfaced in France’s violent “yellow vests” protests... 
And in 2017, Swedish neo-Nazis carried out a bomb attack on refugee housing in Gothenburg. According to reports, the attackers had received paramilitary training from an ultranationalist Russian group that recruited and trained volunteers to fight for the separatists... 
far-right foreign fighters who joined pro-Russian separatists saw the battle as defending the separatists’ right to self-determination against Western imperialism. Many were also drawn by a sense of allegiance to Vladimir Putin, lionized by many on the far right as one of the last defenders of a white traditionalist Christian Europe. “On the pro-Russian side, there didn’t seem to be such a coherent ideological agenda,” said Sara Meger, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Melbourne. While most of the foreign fighters on the Ukrainian side were on a spectrum from right to extreme right, those backing the separatist side found themselves fighting alongside a significant number of far-left foreign volunteers, who shared their view of the conflict as “a struggle against U.S. hegemony.”
One of the sources for the article is the investigative website Bellingcat, which is regularly smeared by pro-Russian platforms as biased against Russia, but actually uses its open source investigative methods to look at Ukrainian nationalists too. Ukraine is often overshadowed in discussions about foreign fighters by Syria, a narrative which fits well with mainstream prejudices in the West (and discussions of Syrian foreign fighters tend to reinforce sectarian anti-Sunni narratives, as they ignore the far higher numbers of Shia foreign fighters on the pro-government side).

Seymour Hersh: unreliable source

I only just read this review from last September by Michael Massing of Seymour Hersh's new memoir. These two paragraphs leapt out at me:
Hersh wrote two other articles for the London Review of Books that contested the finding—almost unanimously accepted by the international community—that Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people in 2013; those pieces, too, relied heavily on unnamed sources. Another piece proved too much even for the LRB and eventually ran in the German paper Die Welt; it claimed, again based on anonymous sources, that a 2017 Syrian strike on the rebel town of Khan Sheikhoun was not a sarin attack but a conventional-bombing raid that happened to hit a building containing fertilizers and disinfectants. Both the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had concluded otherwise, insisting that a sarin attack by the Syrian government had indeed occurred. The anonymous sources on which Hersh had relied throughout much of his career were becoming increasingly murky and questionable.
Hersh’s recent reporting has triggered much commentary about whether the great investigator has turned conspiracy theorist. In a searching analysis in the British magazine Prospect, Steve Bloomfield surmises that, “after decades of exposing lies told by the American government,” Hersh seems to have forgotten “that other governments have their own reasons for being mendacious too.” Pressed by Bloomfield in an interview to explain his lack of skepticism about the Syrian claims, Hersh demurred. Not once in Reporter does Hersh take note of Assad’s butchery and the hundreds of thousands of deaths his regime is responsible for. Instead, he observes that Assad’s factual assertions during their interviews “invariably checked out.” From Hersh’s own description, one gets the impression that Assad detected the reporter’s vanity and shrewdly played on it by showing him solicitude and respect. Hersh’s credulous attitude toward the Syrian leader recalls his old colleagues’ deference toward Henry Kissinger. After writing so extensively about the dangers of access, Hersh seems to have fallen prey to them himself.
Toward an Alternative ‘Time of the Revolution’: Beyond State Contestation in the Struggle for a New Syrian Everyday

Antidote republish this great piece by Estella Carpi & Andrea Glioti.

For class politics, against Brexit

A really good piece by Daniel Randall, responding to a Ronan Burtenshaw article. Burtenshaw calls for Labour to "hold the line", i.e. maintain constructive ambiguity over Brexit and not panic, and dismisses calls for Labour to be more assertively pro-EU a part of the "culture wars" and a desertion of the working class. On the culture wars point, Randall replies: 
Burtenshaw must surely realise that those on the left advocating an identitarian culture war are on his side of the argument, not ours. From the anti-migrant vitriol and railing against “rootless cosmopolitans” of Blue Labour’s Paul Embery, who appears on platforms with Nigel Farage, to Eddie Dempsey’s comments on a platform organised by “The Full Brexit”, backed by the Koch Brothers-funded Spiked, that Tommy Robinson supporters are “right to hate” the “liberal left”, and that Labour is now relying on the votes of “liberals” in alliance with “ethnic minorities”, the promotion of an identitarian, nationalist conception of what it means to be “working class” poses a far greater risk to authentically socialist class politics than the possibility of an anti-Brexit turn by Labour. 
Burtenshaw’s fellow Tribune editor Marcus Barnett loudly defended Dempsey over these remarks; if Burtenshaw is concerned to oppose the advocates of “culture war” within the left, he should look closer to home.
and concludes:
Turning against Brexit is not a move away from class politics, but towards them.