Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 5, 2016

Lessons to be drawn from the ISIS suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia

Filed under: Jihadists,Saudi Arabia — louisproyect @ 3:55 pm

Although ISIS has not taken credit for the suicide bombings in three Saudi cities yesterday, there is little doubt that it was responsible. The targeting of the Prophet’s Mosque in the city of Medina might undermine allegations of an ISIS connection since it is considered the second holiest site for Muslims but only if you have not been following Saudi history for the past several decades. In fact, one of the biggest assaults on the Saudi state prior to this took place in late 1979 when jihadists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the religion’s most holy site. Like ISIS, the heavily armed intruders considered the royal family to be apostates.

After the 1979 rebellion was drowned in blood, a new one began to take shape in the early 2000s around the same grievances, namely that the royal family was a tool of the West. In May 2003 bombs went off at three compounds in Riyadh frequented mostly by Westerners that resulted in 39 deaths and 160 wounded. Among the perpetrators identified by Saudi security forces was Khalid al-Juhani, a Saudi member of al-Qaeda who had promised retaliation for the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

A year later jihadists mounted a suicide car bomb attack on the Saudi Interior Ministry and the Special Emergency Force training center. Although a draconian crackdown in 2005 tended to decrease the number of attacks, there has been a recent upsurge connected to the rise of ISIS as the NY Times reported on March 31 this year:

The men were not hardened militants. One was a pharmacist, another a heating and cooling technician. One was a high school student.

They were six cousins, all living in Saudi Arabia, all with the same secret. They had vowed allegiance to the Islamic State — and they planned to kill another cousin, a sergeant in the kingdom’s counterterrorism force.

And that is what they did. In February, the group abducted Sgt. Bader al-Rashidi, dragged him to the side of a road south of this central Saudi city, and shot and killed him. With video rolling, they condemned the royal family, saying it had forsaken Islam.

Despite an abundance of evidence that both al-Qaeda and ISIS were mortal enemies of the Saudi Arabian theocracy and that the July 4th attacks were consistent with a pattern going back 35 years, there is little doubt that the Baathist left will continue to believe that such groups are proxy forces directed by the Saudi state like pawns on a chessboard.

If you Google “Saudi Arabia, proxy, ISIS” you will end up with 436,000 results. In first place is an article titled “Saudi Arabia Admits to John Kerry that it Created ISIS” that appeared on Zero Hedge, a conspiracist website with both feet planted in the Putin/Assad camp. A runner up in third place is Jennifer Lowenstein’s CounterPunch article that claims “Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the U.S. knowingly aided the rise of ISIS.” You can also find the ubiquitous Charles Glass telling Intercept readers that “To Stop ISIS, Outside Powers Must End Their Proxy Wars in Syria”. While I can go on forever, let me cite one more “expert”. Daniel Lazare, who is capable of trenchant analysis except when it comes to Syria, wrote a piece for the arch-Baathist Consortium News titled “The Saudi Connection to Terror”. Do you think he bothered to cite any of the hundreds of articles about how the Saudi state was on the jihadi shit-list for over three decades? Nah.

In “Khiyana”, a collection of articles that I contributed to, you can read Sam Charles Hamad’s “The Rise of Daesh in Syria—some Inconvenient Truths”, which effectively debunks the claim that Saudi Arabia is responsible for the rise of the Islamic State.

As opposed to most on the left who sling around terms like Salafist or Wahhabist interchangeably, Hamad takes considerable trouble to root them in the region’s history with the sort of erudition that is necessary to separate fact from fiction. To start with, Wahhabism is a current within Salafi Islam, a revivalist movement that sought to ground worship in the beliefs and practices of first generation Muslims, the as-Salafiyyah (pious forefathers). Mohammad al-Wahhab was an 18th century cleric who allied with the Al-Saud clan that eventually created the forerunner of the modern Saudi state. Warlike from the beginning, it attacked the Shia and Sufi sects as kuffar (unbelievers). So far this sounds just like ISIS, right?

Only if you do not understand that for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Saudi royal family is kuffar as well. That should be obvious at the outset from his belief that he is the new Khalifa, or steward of the Caliphate. The goal of ISIS is to create an Islamic state that honors no national boundaries. As such all states in the Middle East have to be subsumed under its authority, including Saudi Arabia. Muslims will belong to the new Caliphate, not any particular state nor take orders from the government that rules it. In a word, it is anti-national.

In November 2014 al-Baghdadi recorded an audio message declaring his intention to liberate the Saudi people from the Saloul, a derogatory name for the ruling family. Daesh threatened to invade Saudi Arabia from its redoubt in Anbar province. The Saudis placed sufficient weight in this threat to construct a 600-mile wall of the sort that Donald Trump could only admire. Like Trump, the Saudi royal family was deathly afraid of Islamic extremists. Unlike Trump, the Saudi fear was rooted in reality.

Despite Saudi efforts to thwart Daesh, the group has launched guerrilla attacks along the border with Iraq near the city of Arar that involved suicide bombers. But the more serious threat comes from Saudi citizens who have joined Daesh. The attacks are directed against Shia worshippers with the hope of sparking a sectarian war such as the kind that has been tearing apart Iraq and Syria.

Even more contrary to the dominant “anti-imperialist” narrative on Saudi Arabia, the Saudis have supported groups in Syria that have no connection to either ISIS or al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate. Specifically, when Daesh and the FSA had a pitched battle in Deraa province, the FSA used weaponry supplied by the Saudis.

Now these hard facts will have no influence whatsoever on the people writing for Salon, LRB, ZNet, CounterPunch, Consortium News, and dozens of other lesser-known blogs and zines. We have reached the point where the truth hardly matters. In Orwell’s “1984”, the world was divided into three superstates which demanded total fealty. We are living in a world today in which there is a wrinkle on Orwell’s narrative. For some, the fealty is not to the motherland but to the one your superstate opposes. You have the same kind of fierce devotion to the “axis of resistance” that Rush Limbaugh listeners once gave to George W. Bush. It is the classic case of putting a plus where the State Department puts a minus. As Trotsky put it in “Learn to Think”:

In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat. This rule applies just as much to the war period as to the period of peace.


April 25, 2016

No, Seymour Hersh, the shish kebab does not favor Sharia law

Filed under: Jihadists,journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 4:17 pm

As it happens, on the same day I posted my article “Taking the Baathist Garbage Out”, Seymour Hersh gave an interview on RT.com (naturally) with the customary “regime change” warnings.

Pay careful attention to 4:15 in the Youtube clip below where Hersh refers darkly to American support for “moderate” rebel groups aligned with the dreaded Sharm al-Sharma that actually was in favor of Sharia law and expelling all Christians and Alawites from Syria.

As it happens, there is no such group and the closest anything comes to this garbled formulation is something called shawarma, a kind of shish kebab popular in the Middle East.

Shawarma on pita bread: no threat to Alawites

Instead, he was speaking about Ahrar ash-Sham, a group that was brought up in the course of a podcast interview of Robert Ford by Stephen Sackur of the BBC. Ford had been ambassador to Syria but was unhappy with the White House’s failure to arm the rebels adequately. This failure led to the rapid growth of ISIS that had an abundant supply of powerful weapons it had seized in Iraq after the Shiite-dominate military had fled Anbar province.

Ford was put on the defensive by Sackur, who tried to smear the “moderate” Syrian rebels by pointing out that they were often involved with Ahrar ash-Sham in joint military actions against the Syrian army. Ford stood his ground pointing out that while insisting on a pluralist post-Assad society in Syria, he distinguished between ISIS and al-Nusra on one side and Ahrar ash-Sham on the other.

As it happens, the leaders of Ahrar ash-Sham were among the Islamist prisoners released by Bashar al-Assad in 2011 in order to unleash the sectarian dynamic that would endear him to people like Hersh, Cockburn, Fisk et al. They preferred the clean-shaven man in a necktie even though his regime would cause Suharto or Pinochet to look benign by comparison. Most of Ahrar ash-Sham’s funding comes from Qatar and Kuwait with the USA not only having zero connections to them, but going so far as to consider designating them as a terrorist group.

In a perfect world, groups such as Ahrar ash-Sham would play a much more minor role in the Syrian struggle. It has gained a foothold for obvious reasons:

  1. When the Syrian version of the Arab Spring commenced, Assad set in motion the killing machine that would force his victims to take up arms if only to protect neighborhoods from marauding bands of pro-regime gangs that were raping, torturing and killing civilians. These very localized self-defense militias came under pressure to get heavier weaponry after the Baathists began using tanks, heavy artillery and air power in a scorched earth campaign against Aleppo, Homs, and the suburbs of Damascus. In order to procure weapons, it was necessary to approach states such as Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey—all of which had an Islamist agenda. The net result was that the peaceful and democratic process that had begun in the Spring of 2011 was forced into the background even if it has not disappeared. As Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami point out, there are 400 democratically elected councils in Syria today that adhere to the original vision of 2011.
  2. The Syrian countryside, which is the heartland of the revolution, is socially conservative. Poor people, as is the case in just about every underdeveloped country, tend to be religious. Islamist groups therefore operate in relatively fertile ground. For people like Seymour Hersh, this is anathema. Sharia law, cries of “Alluah Akbar” on the battleground, beards, etc. are far more frightening than a barrel bomb or a sarin gas attack (Hersh made an appearance today on the dreadful Democracy Now radio show repeating his canard that the rebels gassed their own families in East Ghouta 3 years ago.)

Based on this litmus test, the logical choice would be to support Israel against Hamas, a group that was spawned by the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza. If you are terrified by Ahrar ash-Sham, you might as well be terrified of Hamas who at least understood what side was worth supporting in Syria:

Leaders of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas turned publicly against their long-time ally President Bashar al-Assad of Syria on Friday, endorsing the revolt aimed at overthrowing his dynastic rule.

The policy shift deprives Assad of one of his few remaining Sunni Muslim supporters in the Arab world and deepens his international isolation. It was announced in Hamas speeches at Friday prayers in Cairo and a rally in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas went public after nearly a year of equivocating as Assad’s army, largely led by fellow members of the president’s Alawite sect, has crushed mainly Sunni protesters and rebels.

In a Middle East split along sectarian lines between Shi’ite and Sunni Islam, the public abandonment of Assad casts immediate questions over Hamas’s future ties with its principal backer Iran, which has stuck by its ally Assad, as well as with Iran’s fellow Shi’ite allies in Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.

“I salute all the nations of the Arab Spring and I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, visiting Egypt from the Gaza Strip, told thousands of Friday worshippers at Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque.

“We are marching towards Syria, with millions of martyrs,” chanted worshippers at al-Azhar, home to one of the Sunni world’s highest seats of learning. “No Hezbollah and no Iran.

“The Syrian revolution is an Arab revolution.”

March 3, 2016

They Will Have to Kill Us First; Timbuktu

Filed under: Africa,Film,Jihadists — louisproyect @ 10:10 pm

Two films dealing with the jihadist takeover in northern Mali will be considered in this review. The first is a remarkable documentary titled “They Will Have to Kill Us First” that opens tomorrow at the Village East in New York; the other is “Timbuktu”, a narrative film that was released in May of 2014 and that can now be seen on Amazon streaming. While “Timbuktu” has garnered a 99 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it is not without its problems. I have to admit that I walked out on it 15 minutes into a press screening two years ago but decided to give it another try in order to survey  such films within a broader consideration of the jihadist penetration of a country whose cultural significance is impossible to exaggerate. In both films, music and its banishment provide the narrative arc.

Directed by Joanna Schwartz, “They Will Have to Kill Us First”, is a profile of a group of musicians who were forced to leave the northern towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal after Ansar Dine (Arabic for defenders of the faith), a group aligned with al-Qaeda, took over. Now they are living in Bamako, the capital of Mali, or in other countries bordering Mali such as Burkina Faso. Drawn to Mali originally to cover the annual Festival in the Desert concert, Schwartz was introduced to Khaira Arby, the “nightingale of the north” who had sought refuge in Bamako. She was the person whose words about being denied the right to sing in her hometown Timbuktu serve as the film’s title.

She also profiles another female star exiled from the north known as Disco to her fans. Her real name is Fadimata Walet Oumar, the wife of a man identified only as “Jimmy” who was a top military leader of the Tuareg insurrection that was in a united front with Ansar Dine at one point. In the tangled political history of Mali, it is necessary to acknowledge that simple divisions between “good” and “evil” were not possible. The central government in Bamako had oppressed the Tuaregs for generations just as Bashar al-Assad had oppressed the Sunni majority. When the Tuareg resistance emerged as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), it found itself tactically aligned with the jihadists of Ansar Dine, a group that was made up of members of the Ifora tribe of Tuaregs and their allies from Algeria and Nigeria. The MNLA was dedicated to carving out a territory much as the Kurds are attempting in Syria and Iraq while Ansar Dine’s goal was to create an Islamic State based on Sharia law in all of Mali. Considering the possibility that the MNLA fueled the flames that led to his wife’s exile, Jimmy struggles between his ideals and the harsh reality they collided with.

Disco’s neighbor in Timbuktu was the guitarist Moussa Sidi who is now living in exile in Burkina Faso eking out a living playing in tiny clubs and at weddings. His wife stayed behind in Gao where she worked as an MNLA activist. Jailed for her beliefs, she remained unrepentant. Unlike her, Sidi was far more interested in music and good times than politics even though as a Tuareg he opposed the oppression his people suffered and remained true to his Muslim beliefs.

Finally, there are the members of Songhoy Blues, a group with no particular connection to the Tuareg struggle who fled to Bamako to escape the violence and tyrannical social norms of the north. They exemplify the Malian esthetic with their blend of American rock, Arabic harmony and Sub-Saharan rhythms. After they came to the attention of Brian Eno, the band toured England to great acclaim.

The film mixes interviews with the various musicians and their performances. It also includes a soundtrack from other Malian musicians including Ali Farka Touré, a superstar guitarist from the north who died in 2006 long before the troubles might have driven him into exile as well.

The climax of the film consists of the musicians on a return to Timbuktu to perform before adoring fans, only made possible by the military defeat of Ansar Dine by the Malian military and French intervention on its behalf. The Tuareg question still remains unresolved.

In the press notes for “They Will Have to Kill Us First”, Schwartz provides an answer to the question “What did the extremist groups do?”:

Extremists imposing Islamic law in Mali’s north were abusing human rights, particularly those of women, and paying families for children to become rebel fighters.

They imposed an extremist version of sharia law: music, football, alcohol and cigarettes were banned. There were cases of summary execution of captured soldiers, instances of lootings, rapes, stonings, beheadings and amputations. Women were forced to be covered and their ability to work was restricted. Men were forced to wear short trousers. Forced marriages happened – with a wife costing less than $1,000. Children were enlisted to fight and their families were paid about $600 or less.

The extremists destroyed ancient shrines, manuscripts from Timbuktu, and Sufi mosques. Radio stations, mobile phone towers and satellites were also destroyed.

This is essentially the conditions described in “Timbuktu” that begins with a scene depicting machine gun fire shattering African statues.

From that point on, the film pits longtime Timbuktu residents trying in their own passive resistance way to live as they have for millennia. They are observant Muslims but resistant to the Wahhabi straightjacket that Ansar Dine is trying to impose on them. We see its chieftan wrangling with a local imam who abjures them from oppressing the people with their harsh rule. When the Salafist states that they are obeying jihad, the imam replies that he too is for jihad but only within in his own heart as he struggles to avoid evil.

In a most telling scene, Ansar Dine morality police are sent out on a mission to find out the source of music that has been banned, just like soccer and long pants for men. When they track down the culprits, they are not sure what to do since the words of the singers accompanying a jaunty tune has to do with glorifying Allah rather than chasing after the opposite sex. It doesn’t matter. They are arrested and whipped.

The main character in the film is Kidane, a Tuareg herdsman who has stayed behind with his wife and daughter in the desert not far from Timbuktu determined to survive under jihadi rule even as all of his neighbors have fled. To show that he symbolizes Tuareg traditional values, he plays the guitar in his tent to provide the kind of entertainment his people have enjoyed from time immemorial.

Eventually a quarrel with a local fisherman escalates into a violent confrontation that leaves the fisherman dead and Kidane being arrested. His trial by a Sharia court is fairly consistent with the actual practice and arguably a lot less irrational than the other rules imposed on townspeople, including one that forces women to wear gloves at all times even if they are handling fish in the marketplace.

What the film lacks, and to an extent this is true of the documentary as well, is any kind of background on what caused Ansar Dine to be spawned and its ambivalent relationship to the long suffering Tuareg people. By characterizing Ansar militants as a kind of horror movie deus ex machina, and by failing to put its invasion into any kind of context, the film suffers from a certain amount of dramatic flattening. It would have made for a more interesting film if the leader of the jihadists had a back story that explained why he became such a fanatic. Since director Abderrahmane Sissako represented him as an Arab who did not even speak the local language, he remained rather opaque.

That being said, the film is definitely worth watching especially if you are trying to get a handle on the local manifestation of a global problem that some regard as the greatest threat to Western civilization since the days of the Ottoman Empire at its height. Perhaps the one-sided portrayal of the jihadists explains the 99 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. With Arab terrorists and fanatics replacing the Communists and Nazis as evil incarnate, films such as “Timbuktu” satisfy a certain self-righteousness in the intelligentsia. It would have been a far more interesting film if it accurately reflected the true leader of Ansar Dine, who in fact was not an Arab but a Tuareg named Iyad Ag Ghaly who was a native son of northern Mali.

Ghaly was a leader of the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s that foreshadowed the 2012 events depicted in the film. Indeed, his evolution into a hardcore Salafist could have provided a most interesting back story that would have enriched the film, as indicated by a fascinating article that appeared in the March 30 2012 Time Magazine (http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2110673,00.html):

The vitriolic falling out between ag Ghali and the MNLA goes some way to illustrating the complicated tapestry of interests and tensions within the Tuareg rebellion, a topic that swam into focus first after weaponry from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s looted arsenals flooded into the Sahara last year. With thousands of expatriate Tuaregs who worked for Gaddafi’s military forced to flee Libya amid the revolutionary chaos, much of the hardware is thought to have made its way to northern Mali. Desolate and unpoliceable, this swathe of desert and rocky scrub is also home to the regional terror franchise, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. That combination set alarm bells ringing. What, exactly, was the relationship between Tuareg fighters, with access to large quantities of heavy weaponry, and AQIM?

The truth, of course, is complicated. With an eye to U.S. military assistance, economic aid, international sympathy, the Malian government has much to gain by tarring the MNLA with the al-Qaeda brush — but the links are tenuous. True, over the years al-Qaeda emirs “are said to have worked to create some local relationships, both through marriage and transactions with some segments of local Tuareg and Arab communities,” explains Andrew Lebovich, an analyst with the Navanti Group who focuses on Sahelian issues. But “AQIM itself has yet to claim a role in the [Tuareg rebellion], and no overt evidence has been produced to show an AQIM role in the fighting in the north.”

Nor is Tuareg society the best fodder for Islamic fundamentalists. “Tuaregs prefer to worry about enjoying this life rather than… ensuring the perfect afterlife,” a U.S. diplomat wrote in 2009. Tuareg women go unveiled; the menfolk cover their faces but drink and dance. In fact, it is the government in Bamako — rather than the veiled warriors of the north — that may have abetted the terrorists. In 2010, an Algerian diplomat told his US counterpart that someone in the Malian establishment had tipped off AQIM operatives ahead of a combined Algerian-Malian mission against the organization, enabling the terrorists to slip the net. “It looks worse than weakness on the part of the Malians,” the Algerian diplomat growled. “It looks like willful complicity.”

Yet none of this helps explain ag Ghali and his defenders of the faith. “Iyad is a special case,” says Andy Morgan, author of a forthcoming book on the Tuareg and a former band manager of Tuareg rockers Tinariwen. “He has undoubted strengths as a political and military leader, with a perhaps a greater grasp of political tactics and subterfuge than any other Tuareg. [And] he was as much of a hedonist as many of the other [Tuareg] living in Algeria and Libya… apparently, a great fan of cigarettes, booze and partying.” Later, the story goes, ag Ghali underwent a religious re-birth, growing a voluminous beard and getting kicked out of Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, during a diplomatic posting, for consorting with jihadists.

Speaking of Tinariwen:


March 1, 2016

Three different takes on ISIS

Filed under: Jihadists — louisproyect @ 9:35 pm

Gilbert Achar

The Political Quarterly, Vol. 87, No. 1
Three different takes on ISIS
by Gilbert Achcar

The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution, by Patrick Cockburn. Verso. 172 pp. £9.99.

Isis: Inside the Army of Terror, by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan. Regan Arts. 270 pp. £12.99. ISIS:

The State of Terror, by Jessica Stern and M. Berger. William Collins. 385 pp. £14.99.

Most people prefer to keep referring to the self-proclaimed Islamic State by the acronym of its previous name: ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (or, more accurately ‘al-Sham’—Greater Syria—approximately translated by some as ‘the Levant’, with the acronym hence turned into ISIL). On this thus-named ISIS, close to forty books and counting have been hitherto published in English, of which the three reviewed here are the best-selling in the UK.

Of these, Patrick Cockburn’s was one of the very first books written on ISIS. It came out in 2014 under the title The Jihadis Return. The one reviewed here is an updated edition with a new title. It recapitulates the views that the author developed in his coverage of events in Iraq and Syria for The Independent. It is written in a most readable journalistic style by an author who is well acquainted with this part of the world, having covered it for many years (especially Iraq). However, the book contains hardly any references to substantiate its numerous assertions other than Cockburn’s personal testimony, often quite anecdotal.

Yet, what is most questionable about this book is its author’s heavy political bias, which transpires at the end of the preface when Cockburn quotes Vice-President Joe Biden’s statement about the lack of civilians of the ‘moderate middle’ in the ranks of a Syrian opposition which, so says Biden, is exclusively composed of ‘soldiers’. Biden was trying to justify the Obama administration’s refusal to provide the Syrian opposi¬tion with the defensive weapons it requested —primarily anti-aircraft weapons. Patrick Cockburn’s immoderate comment on Biden’s statement is much telling: ‘Seldom have the real forces at work in creating ISIS and the present crisis in Iraq and Syria been so accurately described.’

Any reader familiar with the region would know what to expect from the book henceforward. Indeed, a few pages later Cockburn cites an anonymous ‘intelligence officer from a neighbouring country’ (obviously Iraq, whose Iran-dominated government backs Syria’s Assad) to the effect that ISIS is pleased when sophisticated weapons are sent to anti-Assad groups, because it can always get them by force or cash. In the same spirit, Cockburn explains that he couldn’t fly directly to Bagh¬dad in the summer of 2014 because, he was told, ISIS had obtained shoulder-held anti-air¬craft missiles ‘originally supplied to anti-Assad forces in Syria’—a statement that is doubly untrue as, first, no such weapons were supplied to anti-Assad forces in Syria and, second, the most sophisticated weapons on which ISIS managed to lay its hands are actually those supplied by the US to the Iraqi army, which abandoned them ignominiously in its debacle during the summer of 2014.

This erroneous account is matched soon after by a highly disputable assertion: ‘It is the government and media consensus in the West that the civil war in Iraq was reignited by the sectarian policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad. In reality it was the war in Syria that destabilized Iraq…’ This assertion flies in the face of the well-known fact that the vast mass protests that started in Iraq’s Arab Sunni regions in 2012 and laid the ground for ISIS’s subsequent expansion in those same regions were not about Syria in the least, but about Al¬Maliki’s sectarian drive, which had swung into high gear as soon as the last American combat troops left Iraq.

The truth is that Cockburn can barely conceal his contempt for Iraq’s Arab Sunnis, whom he often lumps together in a homogeneous category ‘the Sunni’, facing a no less homogeneous ‘the Shia’. Thus, he tells us that ‘the Sunni’ are ‘unlikely to be satisfied’ with regional autonomy and a larger share of jobs and oil revenues, and would not be content with less than a ‘full counterrevolution that aims to take back power over all of Iraq’. One is left wondering how an informed author like Cockburn could attribute the fantasy of an excited fringe of Iraqi Arab Sunnis to a whole community. The fact is, however, that he seems to have taken that fantasy for a fait accompli since he asserts that, after ISIS’s offensive in Iraq, the Shia leaders have ‘not grasped that their domination over the Iraqi state… was finished’ and that ‘only a Shia rump was left’—an astonishing overstatement indeed.

Patrick Cockburn’s pro-Assad bias is also blatant in the double standard with which he judges ‘conspiracy theories’ depending on which side they emanate from. Thus, says he, ‘a conspiracy theory much favoured by the rest of the Syrian opposition and by Western diplomats, that ISIS and Assad are in league, was shown to be false as ISIS won victories on the battlefield’. But Cockburn does not tell the reader by which logic ISIS’s victories on the Syrian battlefield were in and by themselves a refutation of the claim by the Syrian opposition and Western diplomats that the Assad regime had favoured ISIS’s establishment and expansion in Syria in order to weaken and discredit the Syrian insurgency.

This claim was made in light of the widespread conviction that Assad’s intelligence services have been manipulating Iraq’s jihadists from the time the US occupied that country in 2003. In any event, the above-quoted categorical dismissal of that ‘conspiracy theory’ stands in striking contrast with Cockburn’s indulgence towards another that is favoured by the opposite side. On the allegation that the resurgence of ISIS was aided by Turkish military intelligence, which he attributes again to ‘one senior Iraqi source’, Cockburn has this to say: ‘This might be dismissed as one more Middle East conspiracy theory, but a feature of jihadist movements is the ease with which they can be manipulated by foreign intelligence services.’ In sum, the ease with which ISIS can be manipulated by intelligence services only applies to Turkish services in Cockburn’s view, not to the Syrian ones.

Cockburn’s contempt for Iraq’s Arab Sunnis is matched by his dislike of the other component of what he calls ‘the new Sunni revolution’, namely the Syrian opposition. His summary of the Syrian tragedy is unashamedly biased against the latter: ‘Syrians have to choose between a violent dictatorship, in which power is monopolized by the presidency and brutish security services, or an opposition that shoots children in the face for minor blasphemy and sends pictures of decapitated soldiers to the parents of their victims.’ With such a Hobbesian description of the options, the barbaric atrocities and crimes against humanity committed by the Syrian Leviathan, composed of the whole range of Assad regime’s armed forces and their allies, are conveniently forgotten while the opposition is reduced to killers of children—even though the Syrian regime has killed far more children than the opposition. The author makes no secret of his personal choice.

Cockburn’s leniency towards the Assad regime even leads him to find ‘some truth’ in one of the latter’s most blatant lies about the early peaceful protests in 2011: ‘The government insists that protests were not as peaceful as they looked and that from an early stage their forces came under armed attack. There is some truth to this, but if the opposition’s aim was to trap the government into a counterproductive punitive response, it has succeeded beyond its dreams.’ Likewise, Patrick Cockburn goes so far as to give credit to a common argument of all authoritarian regimes confronted with popular mobilisations, an argument that is itself steeped in ‘conspiracy theory’. He asserts that ‘the revolutionaries of 2011 had many failings but they were highly skilled in influencing and manipulating press coverage. Tahrir Square in Cairo and later the Maidan in Kiev became the arenas where a melodrama pitting the forces of good against evil was played out in front of the television cameras.’

In conclusion, Patrick Cockburn blames the United States for ‘balking at giving military assistance to those who were fighting ISIS, such as the Syrian army’—meaning the Assad regime’s army, of course. Thus, unlike the knee-jerk ‘anti-imperialist’ circles who reject any form of intervention by Western powers in any situation as a matter of religious taboo, and who abundantly quote Cockburn on Syria, the Independent’s reporter himself thinks that Washington ought to support the Assad regime. ‘If the US had been serious about combating the extremist jihadists, then it would have realized it had little alternative’,he affirms. Of all stances on Syria, the idea that supporting the Assad regime is the best way to fight ISIS—an organisation that thrives on Sunni resentment against the two Iran-backed governments of Damascus and Baghdad as well as against the United States—is the most preposterous indeed.

For a good and serious work on this whole topic with none of the flaws of Cockburn’s, one should read the book by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan—by far the best on ISIS to this date. Both authors are journalists like Cockburn, and write for a variety of publications. Yet their book is a serious piece of research, based on interviews with various actors across the range of parties involved in the tragedy or concerned with it —from US military to Iraqi and Syrian officials or former officials, and to ISIS members —as well as various experts. It is backed by numerous references, including a host of reports from sources ranging from governmental agencies to human rights organisations. The authors’ experience and familiarity with Syria are qualitatively different from Cockburn’s. In their own words, ‘one of the authors is a native Syrian from the border town of Albu Kamal, which has long been a portal for jihadists moving into, and now out of, Iraq. The other author has reported from the Aleppo suburb of al-Bab, once a cradle of Syria’s independent and pro-democratic civil society; today, it is a dismal ISIS fief ruled by Sharia law.’

In the first chapters, Weiss and Hassan describe the rise of Al-Qaeda in Iraq during the disastrous American occupation, its radicalisation into the ‘Islamic State of Iraq’, its subsequent marginalisation when US strategy shifted towards co-opting Arab Sunni tribes and how this was jeopardised by Al¬Maliki’s sectarian policy once freed from the constraints of US occupation. They then explore the duplicity of the Assad regime in dealing with US-occupied Iraq and how this preceded ISIS’s emergence in war-torn Syria. They describe the Assad regime’s direct role in fostering the ‘jihadisation’ of the Syrian insurgency as well as the way it provoked sectarianism by unleashing a criminal sectarian militia; they then assess the role of Iran and its regional proxies in propping up Damascus, how the Arab Gulf monarchies played a key role in promoting that same ‘jihadisation’ and how the corruption of the Syrian opposition by Gulf money facilitated the spread of an ISIS that projected the image of a law-and-order enforcing ‘state’. Finally, they describe the contours of this so-called Islamic State and provide a profile of their fighters and how they are recruited.

This last aspect is central to the book by Jessica Stern, who lectures on terrorism at Harvard, and J. M. Berger, a journalist who has written on American jihadists. Although it is quite substantial, their book reads as if it were written for the For Dummies series, sounding like a briefing for the kind of US security personnel and politicians who would have some difficulty spotting the Middle East on a world map. The inevitable supplements of the genre are there: a glossary that includes definitions of basic terms along with more uncommon ones, and an appendix written by a doctoral student who offers a historical survey covering the fourteen centuries between the founding of Islam and that of ISIS—all in twenty-four pages.

Stern and Berger’s book contains much padding: for example, several pages summarising articles or videos produced by ISIS. It says little on the Syrian and Iraqi context and the role of the US occupation in the emergence of ISIS, with only an occasional hint at the 2003 ‘blunder’ of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. A few interesting insights, such as a comparison between ISIS and other brands of apocalyptic terrorism, are frustratingly short. The book ends with the authors’ policy advice on how to counter ISIS propaganda, not without some platitudes such as the following statement on its last page: ‘King Abdullah of Jordan, who has shown himself to be extraordinarily courageous, argues that fighting ISIS will require the Muslim world to work together.’ Sigh!


December 3, 2015

Turkey and ISIS: separating fact from fiction

Filed under: Jihadists,Syria,Turkey — louisproyect @ 4:11 pm

Showing his characteristic indifference to the facts, John Wight wrote on RT.com (where else?) that Columbia University professor David L. Phillips had revealed that the Turkish government had been “involved in helping ISIS with recruitment, training, and has provided it with intelligence and safe havens and sanctuary.”

However, if you go to the report, which was published on Huffington Post under the title “Research Paper: ISIS-Turkey List”, you need to read the fine print that indicates it was only a list of allegations, something Wight apparently did not do. For example, I can compile a list of allegations that global warming is a hoax but that does not mean that I have proved that it is. Right?

It is just as possible, however, that he read it and decided to sweep it under the rug in order to turn the research paper (more of an aggregation of links)  into some kind of smoking gun proving that Turkey and ISIS were in cahoots. The article, published with the imprimatur of Columbia University’s “Institute for the Study of Human Rights”, clearly says that it is providing a list of allegations. Let me repeat that with emphasis. It is a list of allegations. Also, at the very end of the report it says: Author’s Note: Information presented in this paper is offered without bias or endorsement. (Emphasis in the original.)

One can certainly understand why RT.com would allow a semi-literate propagandist like John Wight to turn “allegations” into proof. As most people in touch with reality understand, Russia Today is a kind of Fox News for the “anti-imperialist” left, providing red meat with the kind of mad abandon found in a typical Bill O’Reilly show.

As a prime example, look at this screenshot from an 11/25/2015 RT.com article titled “Ankara’s oil business with ISIS”. And in particular note that it states “an alleged ISIS leader”. By stipulating “alleged”, one gathers that this item might have easily qualified for Professor Phillips’s list.

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However, the allegation has about as much substance as a Donald Trump speech on Mexican immigrants. It turns out that the bearded guys were owners of a kebab restaurant in Turkey and had nothing to do with ISIS. I guess having a beard makes you eligible for racial profiling in the Russian media.

If there is one thing that Russia and Turkey have in common, it is a shady news media. Many of Phillips’s citations come from ODA TV, an ultranationalist outlet that is about as reliable as Russia Today. For example, as one of the “allegations” there is this video clip “allegedly showing ISIS militants riding a bus in Istanbul.” Other than their long hair and black shirts (but beardless?), there’s not much else to go by. For all practical purposes, they could have been Metallica fans.

When there is a link to a more reputable outlet such as Taraf, a liberal newspaper that has partnered with Wikileaks, it is once again an allegation rather than hard evidence. In one instance, the Taraf article cites Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat, “a founder of the AKP”, who said that Turkey backs ISIS. But you need to dig a bit deeper to understand the nature of the allegation. The article is dated October 12, 2015, just two days after a terrorist bomb killed 100 people at a rally organized by the leftist/Kurdish HDP. While Firat was indeed a founder of the AKP, he had broken with the party and joined the HDP. As such it is not surprising that he would charge the AKP with being an accomplice to ISIS terror.

Of course there is nothing wrong with being a partisan of the Kurdish struggle. Indeed, David L. Phillips is one himself. His book “The Kurdish Spring: A New Map of the Middle East” was published this year with none other than Bernard Kouchner providing a forward.

The choice of Kouchner makes perfect sense in terms of Phillips’s self-description as a “U.S. official” involved with Kurdish affairs. To give you a clear idea of his orientation, this speaks volumes:

Toppling Saddam was a clear priority for President George W. Bush after 9/11. Ambassador William J. Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs (NEA), encouraged me to get involved in Iraq’s political transition. Qubad Talabani, the PUK representative in Washington, arranged my visit to Iraqi Kurdistan in July 2002. I flew to Qamishli, a Kurdish city in Northeast Syria. In a cinder-block building on the Tigris River, a Syrian official served me tea and checked my authorization to transit from Syria to Iraq. Sure enough, my name and passport number were handwritten in his registry. Qubad provided a four-digit code: 3462. The official checked to see if the code matched his registry and issued a letter of passage.

Well, one can certainly understand why John Wight might lean on the authority of David L. Phillips. In an age when the “anti-imperialist” left is channeling Christopher Hitchens’s ghost, such an affinity makes perfect sense.

November 23, 2015

The left’s on again, off again bromance with jihadists

Filed under: Jihadists,Syria — louisproyect @ 10:48 pm

Fallen out of favor

In June 2004 the World Socialist Website published by David North waxed ecstatic over the resistance to the US Marines in the battle of Fallujah:

One resident who spoke to the Los Angles Times described the uprising as a popular revolt against the occupying power. “Every Fallujan who was able to carry weapons participated,” he said. “All of us are mujahedin. No masks will be used anymore by the mujahedin. We are struggling openly. Our relationship with the new Iraqi commander and his people is very good. They did not come on the back of the American tanks. They are our sons.” The Times reporter cited a sign hanging on the gate of a mosque that captured the mood. It read, “We are the soldiers of Muhammad and not the soldiers of Saddam. We love death as you love life.”

Words such as “All of us are mujahedin” and “We are the soldiers of Muhammad” prompt a different reaction today of course. They would cause David North to break out in hives.

The WSWS.org, a pillar of the Baathist amen corner, was not alone. Pepe Escobar, who has the same relationship to Vladimir Putin today as Bill O’Reilly had to George W. Bush, practically has a cow when the subject of jihadists comes up, as Bart Simpson would put it. He hopes that Putin is up to the task of smashing “those mongrel imperial offspring once and for all.” Lovely. I haven’t heard anybody on the left using terms like “mongrel” in quite some time, maybe ever. Those sorts of epithets are usually what comes out of the mouth of an IDF officer or the aforementioned Bill O’Reilly.


Pepe Escobar: bad politics, worse haircut

Back around the time WSWS.org was having a wet dream over Fallujah, Pepe Escobar was ready to join it in an orgy of leftist celebration even if Sharia law prevented booze. In a November 11th 2004 Asia Times article titled “Satan hides in a hospital”, he pulls out all the stops, sounding practically like the kind of pour soul who would be arrested today for aiding and abetting jihadists for comments made on social media.

Apart from a maximum of 1,500 “Arab brothers” – as the Iraqis call them – from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Syria and Tunisia, most of the remaining mujahideen in Fallujah are nationalist Iraqis whose tribal code mandates that they defend at any cost their homes, their families and their city under foreign attack.

They have been preparing for this onslaught for months. And they do have a battle plan – as it was relayed to Asia Times Online by sources in Baghdad. Former or retired Iraqi army officials have always been serious students of Viet Minh tactics and Che Guevara’s theory of the guerrilla foco (center of guerrilla operations).

Do I have to point out that the “Arab brothers” are what they call “foreign fighters” nowadays?

Keep in mind that this breathless paean to the jihadists was written a full four months after Escobar informed his Asia Times readers that they were pretty much the same kinds of people he has it in for today. The title of the article “The Islamic emirate of Fallujah” should make it clear that he understood their Islamist character:

Writers and professors in Baghdad with close family and tribal ties to Fallujah have explained to Asia Times Online the new order. In today’s Fallujah, every military commander is an emir. They may be strident, conservative Salafis, philosophical Sufis, al-Qaeda admirers, former Ba’ath Party army officials, former secret-service agents, or even the average neighbor, a father of six.

If you qualify as an emir, you are a leading member of what is popularly described as “the Iraqi resistance” in control of “liberated Fallujah”, a region off-limits to US troops ever since the United States handed over control of the city in May after a month-long siege.

Along with local imams and tribal chiefs, all emirs are also part of a Shura, a mujahideen council, created last winter and directed by two imams, Abdallah Janabi and Dhafer al-Ubeidi.

These imams may be considered the spiritual leaders of the resistance in Fallujah. Janabi, from the Saad bin Abi Wakkas Mosque, is a true radical: he is the leader of the takfiris – the fiercest warriors, some Iraqi, some from other Arab countries, some voluntary, some linked to Arab groups. Janabi was the first imam in 2003 to call for armed resistance against the occupation of Iraq, and for the summary execution of spies. Dhafer, from the al-Hadra al-Muhammadiya mosque, is a senior to Janabi in the Shura. His fatwas (religious edicts) carry enormous influence.

The aforementioned Abdallah Janabi was the liaison in Fallujah for the militia run by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the bloodthirsty jihadist from Jordan who founded the group that would become ISIS. Later on Abdallah Janabi would become the head of ISIS in Fallujah, and even established a “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.”


Bailed on the jihadists

Let me conclude with exhibit C in the investigation of how the left fell out of love with jihadists. While certainly a more obscure figure than David North or Pepe Escobar, Sukant Chandan deserves to be mentioned for the boldness of execution in carrying out a 180 degree turn. Chandan was on Marxmail briefly in 2008 but he unsubbed after I reprimanded him for posting links to Osama bin Laden’s statements.

He had a blog at the time called O.U.R.A.I.M: ORGANISATION TO UNDERSTAND RADICAL ARAB & ISLAMIST MOVEMENTS (forgive the caps, they are his) whose title speaks for itself. It is a virtual treasure trove of information on jihadist movements with observations such as this sprinkled throughout: “This Islamist leftist rhetoric has inspired annoyance in some left-wing and radical circles in the West. While they might share Bin Laden’s radical comments they perhaps don’t appreciate Bin Laden picking holes in their political strategies and movements so publicly.” You can obviously understand why he would be on a collision course with unrepentant Marxists.

Interestingly enough, the last article posted to O.U.R.A.I.M. is dated October 19, 2010. He must have run out of steam defending Islamism five years ago. Always showing a fondness for Stalinism as well as Salafism, our lad finally allowed his Stalinist side to take over completely like a Marvel Comics character, using his other blog Sons of Malcolm to voice opinions identical to Pepe Escobar et al today. He also is a guest on RT.com and Press TV from time to time. No surprise there. Like so many who have drunk Putin’s Kool-Aid, Chandan shows no signs of restraint. This is typical:

What Russia does: within a few days Russia has been very effective in targeting western-backed armed gangs and have the west and their pathetic hangers on in an utter state of panic and disbelief.

The Global South peoples and countries raise a big hurrah and eagerly await more unity and more alliance building of the people of the region, Russia and others to have an almighty push back on this imperialist death squad project.

If you’re looking for an explanation of why the fellow has fallen out of love with the jihadists, you’ll probably have to wait a long time. Whatever their ideology, these people have something in common with old school Stalinism, an impressive ability to turn on a dime without bothering to make sense out of the turn. You might as well be dealing with a hyena on methamphetamine.



October 22, 2015

Gaddafi and the jihadis

Filed under: Jihadists,Libya — louisproyect @ 2:03 pm

But the bloody joke is on all of us; Gaddafi knew what he was talking about; right from the get-go, he accused the so-called Libyan rebels of being influenced by Al-Qaeda ideology and Ben Laden’s school of thought; no one had taken his word for it of course, not even a little bit. I mean why should we have? After all, wasn’t he a vile, sex-centric dictator hell-bent on massacring half of the Libyan population while subjecting the other half to manic raping sprees with the aid of his trusted army of Viagra-gobbling, sub-Saharan mercenaries? At least that’s what we got from the visual cancer that is Al Jazeera channel and its even more acrid Saudi counterpart Al-Arabiya in their heavily skewed coverage of NATO’s vicious conquest of Libya. Plus Gaddafi did dress funny; why would anyone trust a haggard, weird-looking despot dressed in colorful rags when you have well-groomed Zionists like Bernard Henry Levy, John McCain and Hillary Clinton at your side, smiling and flashing the victory sign in group photo-ops, right?

Ahmad Barqawi, The Future Gaddafi Foresaw: Libya, ISIS and the Unaffordable Luxury of Hindsight


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November 12, 2014

ISIS incubation

Filed under: humor,Jihadists — louisproyect @ 3:21 pm
Dear Nicola Nasser,

You article (https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/the-endgame-of-the-us-islamic-state-strategy/) on how ISIS sprang from the womb of American imperialism is really fascinating:

“The IS was the illegitimate fetus born and nurtured inside the uterus of the US –  engineered political process based on a constitution legalizing a federal system based in turn on sectarian and ethnic sharing of power and wealth.”

I think that your methodology could be the wellspring of a new way of conducting historical research. It could persuade one given to leaps of the imagination that Nazism sprang from the womb of British imperialism since the onerous conditions of the Treaty of Versailles made economic misery in Germany inevitable.

But Lloyd George and Clemenceau were not the original architects of the Third Reich when you stop and think about it. The real blame for the rise of the modern liberal bourgeois democracy was John Locke, the naughty British philosopher whose musings on freedom and property surely must have been intended to midwife the swastika.

Digging deeper into the tentacles of this vast conspiracy, you have to put the blame on Plato and Hellenic imperialism that in many ways was the forerunner of modern fascism. Without Plato, you can’t have Locke. Plato’s Republic with its philosopher-kings–that’s obviously the incubator for “Mein Kampf”.

But why stop there? Without Neanderthal man, there is no Greek “civilization”. They say that Alley-Oop, the headman of the Gubblik tribe of Neanderthals in lower Slobovia, was bent on destroying the planet way, way back in 200,000 BC. From what archaeologists can glean from the relics, Alley-Oop was a bed-wetter whose mom used to beat him over the head with the thigh-bone of a saber-tooth tiger. If there’s any lessons to be drawn from this abysmal tale, it is don’t beat your children with the thigh-bones of saber-tooth tigers.

With a warm embrace,

Louis Proyect

September 7, 2014

A rejoinder to Vijay Prashad on the Islamic State

Filed under: Iraq,Jihadists,Syria — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

Vijay Prashad

I have no trouble understanding why so much of the left supported Bashar al-Assad from the very beginning of the Syrian revolt that began in March of 2011. It was a no-brainer. On one side you had the Venezuelan and Cuban governments throwing their full support behind the Baathists and on the other side there was Samantha Power and John McCain calling for “regime change”.

The analysis went something like this. The CIA was behind the Syrian protests and no matter how many times the protesters said they were for human rights and democracy, there was always lurking behind the scenes Saudi and Qatari money and Wahhabi politics. Furthermore, the real target of the Syrian insurgency was not just the Baathist government. Once a beachhead was established, the next targets would be Hizbollah in Lebanon and Iran. Using “moderates” in the FSA and the more obvious jihadists like those affiliated with al-Qaeda, US foreign policy would achieve its ultimate goal—to weaken Soviet (sorry, I meant Russian) influence in the Middle East—the last barrier to NATO and American hegemony.

Now, as it turns out, none of this was true. In a sense, it was a “no brainer” but only understood that such an analysis did not require a brain but rather some nimble fingers that could navigate Global Research, WSWS.org et al on a daily basis. Despite the hysteria that arose last September about Obama’s plan to make war on Syria in order to achieve Samantha Power type “regime change”, the net result has been a coalescing of Syria, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and the USA against ISIS, arguably the only genuine jihadist group operating in the region. To try to explain or explain away ISIS does require a nimble brain and nimble fingers. Some on the “anti-imperialist” left continue to view ISIS as a CIA tool. For them there is no medication that is powerful enough to cure such delusions.

When I received email from Vijay Prashad announcing a series of articles on ISIS for the The Hindu, I was very curious to see what he had to say. I hadn’t been following Vijay all that closely since he had made some serious analytical mistakes, at least in my opinion (who else?). He had written a number of articles predicting a regional settlement of the war in Syria, the best hope for an intractable situation. No such luck, needless to say. Following him on Twitter, I was dismayed to see him give credit to the report that there had been a landslide victory for Bashar al-Assad in the last “election”. I don’t tend to pay much attention to tweets, but conveyed my displeasure to Vijay (I am sure he did not lose any sleep over this.)

After reading the first article (The Pendulum of the Islamic State), one cannot help but conclude that ISIS and the al-Nusra front are operating in concert against the Syrian army:

Intense fighting along the belt that links Mhardeh and Houla suggests that IS and its allies (including its fractious cousin, Jabhat al-Nusra) have the ability to threaten the western coastal towns of Tartous and Latakia. The Syrian Army was able to block an al-Nusra and IS advance toward the largely Christian town of Mhardeh. Tension remains high as morale in the IS soars.

I am not quite sure what the adjective “fractious” indicates. It is a synonym for grumpy, something that would describe me but in political terms—I have no idea. More to the point, isn’t it the case that al-Nusra is aligned with al-Qaeda that expelled ISIS? And isn’t the case that ISIS has drawn many of al-Nusra’s fighters if for no other reason that it has ample arms and money?

For those who stick with al-Nusra, a group that at least has the merit of having fought against the Baathists if nothing else, the costs are significant. When al-Qaeda leader Abu Khaled al-Suri came to Syria to make peace between ISIS and other rebels, he was killed by an ISIS suicide bomber in Aleppo. Something tells me that given such a background, the term “allies” does not apply to al-Nusra and ISIS. Since Vijay is based in the region, maybe he is privy to information we have no access to. Let’s hope he can shed some light.

Chugging along with this article, I was struck by Vijay’s assertion that the US was “egging on” the rebels’ Southern Front to seize Damascus. And what would be the leverage they need to accomplish such a task? Vijay observes: “The U.S. trains Syrian rebels in the deserts of eastern Jordan.” I don’t know what use any kind of training would be to foot soldiers facing an air force that can launch missiles filled with 400 pounds of TNT. Maybe the training involves reading some Maoist tracts about the importance of a fighting spirit. Who knows?

And finally there’s this. Vijay feels that as long as there is economic inequality, the threat of jihadism will arise. He writes:

Political reforms need to be on the cards. So too must an alternative to the economic agenda pursued in both Iraq and Syria since the mid-2000s. Under U.S. pressure, the Assad and al-Maliki governments pursued neo-liberal policies that increased inequality and despair. 

Well, look, I don’t think that any kind of pressure had to be applied to Bashar al-Assad. That would be like breaking down an open door. The Baathists adopted neo-liberal policies for the same reason that Mubarak did. The Syrian bourgeoisie existed on the basis of the classic “crony capitalism” that made the poor suffer so that both the Sunni and non-Sunni elite in Damascus could continue to live high on the hog. They didn’t need any pressure from the USA to screw the plebian masses of the provincial capitals and the countryside. They did it all by themselves.

Moving right along to the next article, Metastasis of the Islamic State, I was struck by this explanation of how ISIS gained such battlefield prowess: “The Syrian war allowed the IS fighters great battlefield experience, and helped them draw in jihadis from around the world (including India, according to a July 23 report to the U.N. Security Council).” Battlefield experience? Really? With who? Surely not the Syrian army.

In fact ISIS’s main battles were with the FSA that had been battered for well over two years before ISIS emerged as a fighting force. If you had been the target of barrel bombs and 400 pounds of TNT missiles for that length of time and starved of weapons and other material aid, it is unlikely that you would be able to put up much of a fight especially when the Syrian army and ISIS were involved in a two-front pincer attack. If there were any significant battles between the Syrian army and ISIS until very recently, I don’t know of them. Maybe Vijay has information that would shed light on this question or maybe he was simply saying that ISIS became a formidable force operating against the FSA. I hope not.

Finally, there’s The geopolitics of the Islamic state. Since the whole question of geopolitics intrigues me, sort of the same way that an ingrown toenail does, I wondered where he would be going with this. After reading it, I am afraid that the wheels spun off the old Prashad wagon.

To start with, Vijay states that “ISIS entered the Syrian war in 2012 as Jabhat al-Nusra (the Support Front).” Is that so? That would indicate one of two things, either that it split from al-Nusra Front or that al-Nusra transformed itself into ISIS, which is obviously not the case. The origins are a bit more complex. At one time the al-Nusra Front was receiving funding from ISI (Islamic State in Iraq) but on April 8, 2013 Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi announced that the only authorized fighting group (in a manner of speaking) would be ISIL. Al-Nusra was now persona non grata. Furthermore, getting funding from ISI does not indicate that it was a branch of ISI. I know that some of this can seem quite arcane but it really has to do with the need for clearer lines of demarcation, which are badly needed when writing about jihadists.

Vijay puts a lot of the blame for the viral outbreak of jihadism in Syria at Turkey’s doorstop:

The West’s backing of the rebellion provided cover for Turkey’s more enthusiastic approach to it. Intoxicated by the possibility of what Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutog˘lu favoured as “neo-Ottomanism,” the Turkish government called for the removal of Assad and the emergence of a pro-Istanbul government in Damascus.

As someone who has followed Turkish politics rather carefully over the years, I find this analysis dubious. I think that the more likely explanation is AKP sympathy for their co-religionists. For example, when Turkey backs flotillas to Gaza, is that an expression of “neo-Ottomanism”? The more likely explanation is that the Anatolian elites have much in common ideologically and in class terms with formations like the Muslim Brotherhood. It would most certainly want to see its member parties prevail in Gaza and Egypt but why drag the Ottoman Empire into the equation?

Showing that he has been keeping up with Seymour Hersh, Vijay writes: “Turkey opened its borders to the ‘rat-line’ of international jihad, with planeloads of fighters from Libya and Chechnya flying into Turkey to cross into Syria to fight for ISIS and its offshoots.” Wow, pretty exciting. This would make for a good episode on Showtime’s “Homeland” but I think it would work more as fiction than fact.

What source would Vijay recommend for verifying that “planeloads” of jihadists poured into Turkey en route to Syria other than the sad and discredited Seymour Hersh? Would it be the English-language version of Al Akhbar in Lebanon where Vijay reports from occasionally? A Turkish newspaper reported:

According to English edition of Lebanese al Akhbar newspaper, thousands of jihadists are coming from Jordan to Turkey by through the air. The terrorists who come to the Yayladağ region of Hatay province of Turkey are being transferred to the Latakia region of Syria. It’s reported that thousands of jihadists transferred to Turkey during the non-stop transportation operations for weeks.

Syrian sources speaking to Aydınlık confirmed the transportation of the terrorists through the mentioned routes. They also stated that according to their sources, there is a huge discomfort in the Turkish state regarding the related issue.

Wikipedia describes al-Akhbar as “pro-Hezbollah”. If that is the case, I would take its reporting with a grain of salt especially in light of what transpired with one of its most well-known reporters. Once again from Wikipedia:

[Max] Blumenthal left Al Akhbar in June 2012 in protest at Al Akhbar’s coverage of the Syrian civil war. In an interview with The Real News he said that “It was too much to have my name and reputation associated with open Assad apologists when the scale of atrocities had become so extreme and when the editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar was offering friendly advice to Bashar al-Assad on the website of Al-Akhbar, you know, painting him as this kind of genuine, earnest reformer who just needed to get rid of the bad men around him and cut out some of the rich oligarchs who happened to be his cousins, and then everything would be fine. That was ridiculous.”

I would only hope that Vijay Prashad take some inspiration from Max Blumenthal in future reporting from the region, especially since he too has written for Al Akhbar.



June 18, 2014

An Obama-Al Qaeda axis against Syria and Iran? Really?

Filed under: Iraq,Jihadists,Syria — louisproyect @ 8:44 pm

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On November 8th 2013, an article of mine titled “Why Obama Did Not Make War on Syria” appeared on CounterPunch. I imagine it was this kind of article that would incite email complaints recently to the good folks at CounterPunch along these lines as I learned from them:

Another violent message regarding “crypto zionist” Louis Proyect who deserves to be stabbed in the neck. He seems to incite these sorts of messages.

Likely the same individual wrote a comment on my blog as “killudeadkike”: “Louis Proyect = cypto-Zionist faggot White Nationalist.”

I suppose if I had been writing the same idiotic article as everybody else in 2013 about how Obama was preparing to invade Syria as stage one in a war on Iran, I wouldn’t be getting hate mail. But I’d rather get hate mail than write stupid bullshit like this:

Obama is hypocritically invoking international law to justify the escalation of a war that Washington has pursued in large measure through terrorist bombings carried out by its proxy forces in Syria. The operational alliance between the US and Al Qaeda underscores the criminal character of US foreign policy and the political fraud of the so-called “war on terror.”

That’s from the World Socialist Website. (http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/05/01/syri-m01.html) If you do a search on “Syria” and “al Qaeda” there, you will find 71 articles all making the same point, as if American imperialism was in cahoots with Islamic fundamentalists.

These sorts of people made every effort to link the FSA to jihadists even as it was becoming clearer that they were mortal enemies. ISIS first gained a foothold in Raqqa, a city that had been liberated by the FSA and then fell to jihadist control.

A New Yorker magazine article described the tension that existed from the outset. Ironically, the jihadists were with the Jabhat al-Nusra front who would be superseded by the even more reactionary ISIS fighters. It was written exactly a month before the idiotic WSWS.org article appeared. Any socialist website that was reporting on Syria should have had an obligation to be aware of what was going on in Raqqa unless of course your only goal is to write cheap propaganda. The article titled “A Black Flag in Raqqa” describes a tense situation:

“There is no moderate Islam or extremist Islam,” the Jabhat member said calmly. “There is only Islam, and Islam is under attack in the West regardless of whether or not we hoist the banner. Do you think they’re waiting for that banner to hit us?” he said.

Abu Mohammad, an older man in a tan leather jacket and a white galabia (a loose, floor-length robe), interjected: “What we’re saying is, put the flag above your outposts, not in the main square of the city. We all pray, we all say, ‘There is no god but God,’ but I will not raise this flag.”

“This is an insult to people who died for the revolutionary flag,” said Abu Abdullah, a former English major at the university.

Some pundits are now attacking Obama for not having backed the “moderate” opposition in the FSA as if the USA ever had any interest in seeing a mass movement of Syrian “hicks” who had gotten pissed off at neo-liberalism running the government. Unlike most people content to write propaganda, I made a real effort to understand what the Syrian opposition stood for. That included a trip to Washington in September 2012 to cover a major rally in support of the revolution. You would think from reading the WSWS.org crapola that Senator McCain would be the featured speaker. Instead the people who spoke had a lot more in common with those who protested the invasion of Iraq, including the keynote speaker Hatem Bazian, a Palestinian professor from the U. of California. As I wrote at the time:

At San Francisco State University in the late 1980s, Bazian became the first Palestinian to be elected president of SFSU Associated Students and the Student Union Governing Board. He was the first student to win a second term as president in the history of SFSU. The election came as a result of a united front formed under the Progressive Coalition that brought together all the students of color organizations on a common platform and a joint political strategy.

At the national conference United States Student Association (USSA) held at UC Berkeley in 1988, Bazian co-lead a major walk-out that culminated in the organization adopting a progressive board of directors structure granting by a 2/3 vote at least 50% of the Seats to Students of Color.

Bazian was elected as a Chair of the National People of Color Student Coalition (NPCSC) and an executive board member of the USSA. In both, he took the lead on affirmative action, access to education, anti-apartheid efforts on college campuses, and the Central American Solidarity Movement. He authored resolutions, which were adopted by the USSA national conference in 1991 calling for cutting US aid to Israel and imposing sanctions for its sales of military equipment to apartheid South Africa.

But none of this would matter to the “anti-imperialist” propagandists. They were determined to paint the opposition to Bashar al-Assad as equivalent to the Afghan rebels that Reagan supported. They had persuaded themselves that Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi were on the front lines resisting imperialism like the Vietnamese in the 1960s but with Putin’s Russia serving the same role as the former Soviet Union. So what if this was a fantasy. When you are in the business of writing propaganda, the truth should not get in the way.

At the very time articles about Obama’s war on Syria and Iran spearheaded by jihadists were reaching a crescendo during Obama’s “red line” bluster, the NY Times reported that his administration had begun to tilt toward Syria and Iran:

“We need to start talking to the Assad regime again” about counterterrorism and other issues of shared concern, said Ryan C. Crocker, a veteran diplomat who has served in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.”

“Whether they are dismayed by the way things played out in Egypt or by the growth of Al Qaeda in Syria, the worm has turned in the Middle East in the minds of American foreign policy makers,” said William McCants, an expert on jihadist movements and a former senior adviser at the State Department. “It seems we are back to counterterrorism as a guiding focus for American policy.”

As we now know, the rapid progress made by ISIS in Iraq had drawn the USA and Iran even closer. The USA has reintroduced boots on the ground in Iraq for no other reason than to defend the Shi’ite government from jihadists. There is every likelihood that this is the first step in an escalating violence that could include drone strikes and aerial bombardment. Of course, if you had been paying close attention to Syria from the beginning, this eventuality would have been predictable as the LA Times reported on March 15, 2013:

The CIA has stepped up secret contingency planning to protect the United States and its allies as the turmoil expands in Syria, including collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes, according to current and former U.S. officials.

Of course none of this registered on those who were predicting World War Three with the US Marines and al-Qaeda leading a joint attack on Syria and Iran as if it were a reenactment of “Lawrence of Arabia”.

Believe it or not, there are still some benighted souls who still believe this fiction, most egregiously Mike Whitney who is far more knowledgeable about the American economy (even when he is wrong) than he is about the Middle East.

In a rather febrile article titled “The ISIS Fiasco: It’s Really an Attack on Iran” on today’s CounterPunch, he tries to convince his readers that Iran remains the main target.

Whitney wonders why ISIS is running wild in Iraq. The answer must be that Obama is secretly pulling their strings:

When was the last time an acting president failed to respond immediately and forcefully to a similar act of aggression?

Never. The US always responds. And the pattern is always the same. “Stop what you are doing now or we’re going to bomb you to smithereens.” Isn’t that the typical response?

Sure it is. But Obama delivered no such threat this time. Instead, he’s qualified his support for al-Maliki saying that the beleaguered president must “begin accommodating Sunni participation in his government” before the US will lend a hand. What kind of lame response is that?

Now I would not want to ascribe motives to Whitney of the sort that I have had to endure from people like “killudeadkike” but I wonder if this means he would have been assuaged by a few drone strikes here and there against the terrorists instead of just a “lame response”. But then again, I have to remind myself that Whitney is a man of peace (except when it comes to the well-placed barrel bomb of course.)

The only conclusion that Whitney can draw is that the US is secretly backing ISIS in order to pressure Maliki into including more Sunnis into his government rather than marginalizing them, a policy that everybody still connected to reality understands is the cause of the revolt in Mosul.

Although I have some major differences with Patrick Cockburn, I think he is more reliable on the topic of Sunni resistance than Mike Whitney:

In December 2012 the arrest of the bodyguards of the moderate Sunni Finance Minister, Rafi al-Issawi, by the government led to widespread but peaceful protests in Sunni provinces in northern and central Iraq, Sunni Arabs making up about a fifth of Iraq’s 33 million population. At first, the demonstrations were well-attended, with protesters demanding an end to political, civil and economic discrimination against the Sunni community. But soon they realised that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was offering only cosmetic changes and many stopped attending the weekly demonstrations.

Meanwhile, we’ll know soon enough whether the USA is secretly egging on jihadists against Shi’ite governments in the Middle East and Iran. We already know that drone strikes are continuing on a daily basis against Islamic radicals all around the planet so it would be remarkable if ISIS were to be spared especially when Iraq’s largest oil refinery is under attack. Some experts describe the war in Iraq as the “biggest petroleum heist in history”, a real calamity for its people:

That makes this the biggest petroleum heist in history. And we’re supposed to believe that the oil bigwigs didn’t know anything about this before the war? What a crock! I’ll bet you even money the CEOs and their lackeys figured out that Saudi Arabia was running out of gas, so they decided to pick up stakes and move their operations to good old Mesopotamia. That’s why they put their money on Bush and Cheney, because they knew that two former oil men would do the heavy lifting once they got shoehorned into the White House.

Oh, I almost forgot. The guy who wrote this article is none other than Mike Whitney.

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