Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 27, 2016

Truth is the first casualty of warfare, especially in Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

In yesterday’s Counterpunch, there’s an article by Alex Ray titled “The Death Toll in Syria: What Do the Numbers Really Say?” that might have been expected to incorporate some scholarly rigor given that the author is identified as a “a postgraduate student at the Australian National University and a former student of the University of Damascus.” One assumes that having been a student in a Syrian university, he would have the advantage of reading and writing Arabic, a skill possessed by very few non-Arabic commentators on the Syrian revolution. Of course, given the fact that it was published on Counterpunch, my expectations were lowered somewhat.

But in the very first paragraph when Ray cites Sharmine Narwani as an authority on how the West might be exaggerating the casualties caused by Assad’s scorched earth tactics, my bullshit detector went off immediately. This woman had been described by Max Blumenthal as “the blogger who was nickel-and-diming civilian casualty counts, who was blaming the victims of the Assad regime and who was attacking the international press corps for attempting to gain access to the scene of the Assad regime’s crimes, which reminded me of the Israeli government during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza when they banned reporters from Gaza.” This assessment was made in an interview on The Real News shortly after he resigned from Al Akhbar over its pro-Assad Syria Coverage. Of course, Blumenthal might be suspected of bias since his father worked for Bill Clinton and we know what a wretch he was from Christopher Hitchens’s many articles. To be consistent with the “anti-imperialist” left, you not only have to “follow the money”; you also have to follow the genes.

Whenever I run into an Assadist like Ray citing another Assadist, I wonder if people nowadays read Noam Chomsky even though to some extent he is a patron saint of this kind of geopolitical Manicheanism. If you do read Chomsky, you’ll never find him quoting Edward Herman or John Pilger. What would be the point of that? He instead cites George Kennan, etc. I guess that despite being a postgraduate student, Ray is more comfortable reading only those who are in his comfort zone.

Ray’s article is mostly an attempt to discredit various sources of casualty figures from the war in Syria, including one called Syrian Revolution Martyr Database that has the temerity to include “a quote from the Qur’an, revering martyrs in the service of god (Surah Al-Imran 169-170).” God, what an offense—nearly as bad as yelling “Alluah Akbar” when you shoot down a Baathist helicopter on its way to barrel bomb street vendors.

After several paragraphs of pointing out discrepancies in the statistics recorded by various groups, Ray concludes that they “serve to cast doubt on the narrative that the Syrian government is only a perpetrator of violence and not also a major victim.” Well, of course. Everybody knows that the FSA air force has cost the lives of countless Baathist soldiers as well as rendering the wealthy neighborhoods of Damascus looking like Grozny after Putin got finished with it. Their F-16’s are merciless. Other reports are at variance:

Talk about normal life in Syria after two years of civil war which have killed more than 70,000 people and left five million more destitute and homeless.

Yet in the neighborhood of Malki, a tree-lined enclave of central Damascus, a wealthy group of elite, pro-government Syrians still enjoy shopping for imported French cheeses, gourmet hand-made chocolates and iPad minis in the well-stocked, recently built Grand Mall and in nearby boutiques.

In Malki, sprinklers water the manicured lawns outside their blocks of million-dollar apartments. Maids and drivers cater to their every whim and birds sing in the trees. Fuel for their BMWs and electricity for their air-conditioning is plentiful and the well-guarded streets are free of loiterers.

“Look at this display and you feel all is well, life is good and everything is here,” said an elegantly dressed Hiyam Jabri, 50, as she placed her order at the delicatessen counter in the mall’s main supermarket.

Malki residents continue to enjoy material comforts and abundant supplies of imported goods, even as millions of their compatriots subsist on food handouts.

Continuing with his scholarly rigorous attempt to look at all sides of the casualty question, Ray quotes Sharmine Narwani once again, an article this time that cites an unnamed American diplomat who confided in her that the number of casualties attributed to the Baathist military could not be trusted. He tells her, “How do we know 260 people were killed by the regime in Homs yesterday?” Love that “unnamed” source. Apparently Narwani was an apprentice to Seymour Hersh at one point. Speaking of Homs, I don’t know if it was 26 or 260—and it is almost impossible to know given the chaos in Syria and the complete absence of a centralized civilian or military apparatus that can keep accurate records as well as the refusal of the Baathist dictatorship to keep such records—but all you need to do is look at Youtube clips or photos of Homs to get an idea of what kind of violence was visited on its unfortunate population that had the nerve to demand freedom.

I wish to god that people like Alex Ray could spend one day in a place like Homs but I assume that when he was in Damascus, he was much more familiar with the Malki neighborhood.

The boy also has the chutzpah to quote Robert Fisk on these matters, another unimpeachable source who was as embedded in the Syrian military as Fox News reporters were embedded in the invasion forces in Iraq some dozen years ago or so. While Ray does not bother to provide a link or date for the Fisk article that claims the “good guys” don’t get on casualty lists, it could very well be the Oct. 4 2015 piece titled “Syria’s ‘moderates’ have disappeared… and there are no good guys.” This is the typical pile of stinking horse manure we can expect nowadays from Fisk that asserts:

“American officials” – those creatures beloved of The New York Times – claim that the Syrian army does not fight Isis. If true, who on earth killed the 56,000 Syrian soldiers – the statistic an official secret, but nonetheless true – who have so far died in the Syrian war? The preposterous Free Syrian Army (FSA)?

You can see that Fisk does not even bother to address the question of the de facto non-aggression pact that existed between the fascists in neckties and those with beards. But even more dubious is the business about 56,000 Syrian soldiers being killed. This he claims is an “official secret” that he is only privy to. Once again we are in the realm of the Seymour Hersh School of Journalism, funded by Elmer Fudd and Scrooge McDuck. Here we have Alex Ray delivering lofty observations on  the need for scrupulous reporting on casualties but refers us to a journalist who furnishes unverifiable numbers. Oh well, you have to go by what Robert Fisk says. Like Alex Ray, he is a member in good standing of the Assad cult.

After slogging through the rest of Ray’s shallow propagandistic piece, I did find one paragraph worthy of deeper analysis. He writes:

Emile Hokayem – senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London – is one academic who admits that the statistics issue is problematic for the Western regime-change narrative. Yet he insists on overlooking it, saying “I can understand the controversy about the numbers, but that cannot distract from the bigger picture”.

Once again you are dealing with a failure to document the source. I hope that when Ray writes for scholarly journals he supplies a reference. Of course, writing for Counterpunch might be seen as a vacation from such burdens, even though I tried to supply them during my days there.

It is too bad that Ray neglected to quote Hokayem’s next comment that might have made the reference to the “bigger picture” meaningful. You can find it in a Foreign Policy article titled “The War Over Syria’s War Dead” from January 13, 2016:

The truth is Assad has far superior firepower and is willing and able to inflict much greater casualties, including civilians. It’s part of the Assad strategy. It is a deliberate regime strategy to shift the suffering on neighboring countries and humanitarian agencies, leading to policy proposals where stopping the fighting is the focus rather than a [political] transition.

This is obvious to anybody outside the Assad cult. We are dealing with classic asymmetrical warfare in which one side has an air force, heavy artillery, tanks and a centralized command while the other consists of relatively lightly-armed militias that emerged initially to defend a city or a neighborhood. When the militias became successful at keeping out Baathist death squads, the war rapidly turned into one in which MIG’s, armored helicopters, tanks and artillery turned entire neighborhoods and large parts of a city like Homs or Aleppo into something resembling Grozny or Stalingrad.

People like Alex Ray who write cheap propaganda should be careful not to allow the easy lie to seep into his scholarly work. This is perhaps one of the saddest things about the transformation of a broad swath of the left into cynical bullshit artists in the service of “anti-imperialism”. This intellectual and moral rot will likely not only taint their work in more legitimate areas; it will also make them ineffective in the broader task of transforming society or perhaps even put them in the enemy camp.

1 Comment »

  1. great post

    Comment by mukul chand — May 28, 2016 @ 3:14 am

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