Will the left hear the cries from Aleppo?

October 19, 2016

In a response to articles by journalist Max Blumenthal, Ashley Smith challenges the view that the Syrian Revolution has been manipulated by the U.S. from the beginning.

THE REGIME of Bashar al-Assad and Russia's air force are pounding the city of Aleppo with a blitzkrieg of barrel bombs and missile strikes, with the aim of clearing the way for Syrian soldiers, Iranian troops and Shia militias from Iran and Iraq to retake the city. The United Nations fears that Aleppo's population of some 250,000 faces an imminent humanitarian catastrophe.

This siege is the culmination of Assad's scorched-earth campaign against the Syrian Revolution that began in 2011 amid the Arab Spring uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East. His counterrevolutionary war is responsible for the death of more than 400,000 people and the displacement of half of Syria's pre-war population of 22 million. Well over 5 million of the displaced have fled the country, the vast majority to surrounding nations in the Middle East, but over 1 million to the European Union.

Yet in the midst of this horror, a section of the American left has attempted to absolve Assad, Russia and Iran of their manifest crimes in Syria and instead blame the U.S. for causing the entire crisis.

Residents of Aleppo rescue children from a burning house after another air strike
Residents of Aleppo rescue children from a burning house after another air strike

The U.S. is, of course, guilty of imperial atrocities throughout the region, including right now in Yemen where it backs Saudi Arabia's brutal war. But in Syria, responsibility for the humanitarian disaster lies squarely at the feet of Assad and his imperialist and regional supporters.

Nevertheless, long-time Assad supporters defend the dictator's barbaric actions. Recently, Stalinist groups like Workers World and their fellow travelers initiated a faux antiwar coalition called U.S. Hands Off Syria. Its statement is pro-war and pro-imperialist--it supports Russia's war in Syria with the justification that Assad invited Russia's military to join in the slaughter.

Tragically, some principled leftists like Rania Khalek, who has a long track record of organizing for Palestinian liberation, have joined the campaign to deflect responsibility for the Syrian nightmare away from Assad and Russia, and onto the U.S. In a recent article that exposes how American sanctions have had a horrific impact on Syrian civilians, Khalek omits the main cause of the humanitarian catastrophe--Assad's counterrevolutionary war.

RECENTLY, JOURNALIST Max Blumenthal has added his name to the growing chorus. Blumenthal has a well-deserved reputation for advocating Palestinian liberation, established through his reporting and his book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.

Back in 2012, he not only defended the Syrian Revolution against the Assad regime, but resigned from the Al Akhbar English website because of its support of Assad. In an open letter titled "The Right to Resist Is Universal," he wrote:

Assad will be remembered as an authoritarian tyrant whose regime represented little more than the interests of a rich neoliberal business class and a fascistic security apparatus. Those who have thrown their intellectual weight behind his campaign of brutality have cast the sincerity of their commitment to popular struggle and anti-imperial resistance into serious doubt. By denying the Syrian people the right to revolution while supporting the Palestinian struggle, they are no less hypocritical than the Zionists who cynically celebrate the Syrian uprising while seeking to crush any iteration of Palestinian resistance. In my opinion, the right to resist tyranny is indivisible and universal. It can be denied to no one.

Yet Blumenthal now argues the exact opposite. In a two-part article for Alternet (part one and part two), he contends that U.S. imperialism manipulated the Syrian Revolution from the very beginning as a vehicle for an Iraq-style regime change.

He further claims that the U.S. has used an international solidarity movement and the humanitarian relief organization known as the White Helmets as "Astroturf" for a media campaign to justify toppling Assad.

BLUMENTHAL NOWHERE explains why he has changed his attitude toward the Syrian uprising. Whatever the reasons, he, like others on the left, HAS failed to come to terms with a complex conflict pitting the revolution against three counterrevolutionary forces.

First and foremost, the pro-democracy uprising was confronted from the earliest stages by the savage violence of the Assad regime, backed up by Russian imperialism and its regional allies, the Iranian government and Lebanon's Hezbollah. More recently, Russia intervened openly with its air force and became a central player in the war.

Second, the revolution has had to take on Islamic fundamentalists. Most obviously, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been more likely to turn its weapons against anti-government rebels than the regime in its drive to establish and strengthen its base in Syria.

The Assad regime contributed to the strength of this counterrevolutionary pole by releasing hundreds of Sunni jihadists from jails in the hopes that they would become a fifth column in the revolution, targeting Syria's ethnic and religious minorities along with the revolutionaries themselves. With Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey backing various fundamentalist forces, Assad has been able to claim he is fighting a "war on terror," while his regime in fact targeted not the jihadists, but the revolutionaries.

The third counterrevolutionary force is the U.S. It supported various Syrian factions and organizations as pawns to pressure Assad into negotiations for an "orderly transition." But contrary to the claims of some on the left, the U.S. withheld critical military support, for example blocking a shipment of anti-aircraft weapons that could have undermined the regime's military advantage.

Then, when ISIS gained strength and threatened to upset the balance of power across the Middle East, the U.S. lost interest in even an "orderly transition" to a post-Assad Syria. The Obama administration has been operating on the basis of a de facto alliance with Assad and Russia and has indicated its willingness to tolerate Assad's continued rule for the sake of a joint war on ISIS and other Islamic fundamentalists.

The revolution has been tragically and horrifically ground down by all three forces of counterrevolution.

Instead of exposing this situation, however, far too much of the left is siding with one of the poles of counterrevolution--many with Assad and Russia, others with Islamic fundamentalism, and still others with the U.S., mainly in the desperate hope that Washington will stop the slaughter.

IN HIS articles, Blumenthal focuses entirely on exposing the U.S., thereby letting the primary agents of counterrevolution in Syria--Assad and Russia--off the hook. He depicts the U.S. as a puppet master, bent on achieving regime change through various means inside and outside Syria.

This depiction doesn't fit the facts. At the beginning of the "war on terror," the Bush administration did hope the invasion and occupation of Iraq would be the first step toward toppling the Syrian regime along with other governments seen as hostile to the U.S.

But even at the height of the Bush Doctrine's plan for American domination, the U.S. collaborated with the Assad regime, sending "war on terror" prisoners via the "extraordinary rendition" program to be tortured for information in Syria's gulags.

And when the occupation foundered in the face of Iraqi resistance, first Bush and later Barack Obama abandoned the strategy of regime change for a new one of balancing between various existing states to maintain some semblance of order in the Middle East. The U.S. went so far as to collaborate with Iran to maintain stability in Iraq and cut a deal with this member of the "Axis of Evil" around its nuclear program.

When the Arab Spring first erupted in Tunisia and Egypt, Obama's first instinct was to support the regimes. Only when the mass movements became overwhelming did the U.S. abandon its decades-old allies like dictator Hosni Mubarak--but only in the interests of preserving the existing state, minus the dictators. In Libya, the U.S. did attempt to hijack the revolution, but when that ended in disaster, the policy shifted away from regime change.

This was especially true in Syria, where Washington's goal at most has been a negotiated settlement that preserves much of the existing regime without Assad. But the U.S. has proved willing to compromise on even this limited aim.

UN special envoy Staffan De Mistura has gone so far as to support Assad continuing on in power during a transition process. And during his wheeling and dealing to achieve the last failed cease-fire, Secretary of State John Kerry--in a statement he quickly retracted, but which reflects de facto policy--offered to coordinate with the Syrian military over bombing runs against ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), formerly the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front.

SO BLUMENTHAL'S assumption that the U.S. is determined to overthrow Assad at all costs is mistaken. But on the basis of that misunderstanding, he attempts to prove that the U.S. manipulated the Syrian revolt from the very beginning.

He goes so far as to claim that the local councils set up by revolutionaries in liberated areas were actually creations of the U.S. state, writing that a department of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) "began setting up local councils in rebel-held territory in Syria. The idea was to establish a parallel governing structure in insurgent-held areas that could one day supplant the current government in Damascus."

This is false. As many accounts of revolution--from Leila Al-Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab's Burning Country to Samer Abboud's Syria to Mark Boothroyd's "Self Organization in the Syrian Revolution" document, the local committees and councils were an outgrowth of the revolutionary process of people in areas where the regime was driven out trying to run their society. Their creation was inspired not by the U.S., but by the Syrian anarchist Omar Aziz.

Blumenthal's further claim that the U.S. is orchestrating the international movement in solidarity with the revolution is just as unconvincing. He identifies The Syria Campaign as the main culprit in this plot and claims it used recent demonstrations from September 20 through October 2 to push for a U.S.-enforced "no-fly zone" in Syria.

This account doesn't square with any experience of Syria solidarity activism, which is far from an internationally centralized effort with a common program.

In fact, a variety of forces with all sorts of political demands called actions in opposition to the massacres that Assad, Russia and Iran are committing in Aleppo. There are revolutionaries who oppose both American and Russian imperialism involved, as well as those who wrongly believe the U.S. could be part of a solution in Syria.

U.S. officials have, in all likelihood, cultivated relationships with The Syria Campaign, just as they did with the expatriate Syrian National Council (SNC) and its successor, the National Coalition, as well as the High Negotiations Committee.

But these bodies have little to do with forces on the ground in Syria, and they certainly don't dictate to the extremely heterogeneous solidarity movement internationally.

In fact, many people active in the movement hold them in contempt. As Gilbert Achcar writes in his book Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising, these formations:

underwent the same extremely rapid descent into corruption that the [Palestine Liberation Organization] had undergone...under the impact of similarly co-optive funding...Palestinian critics of its corruption then called it the "five-star PLO." The SNC and National Coalition are thoroughly deserving of the same nickname--and quite literally, since their meeting are usually held in five-star hotels.

At most, the U.S. has used some of these groups as pawns in negotiating its hoped-for orderly transition. But when it really counts, they are excluded from deliberations so that the U.S., Russia and the regional powers can try to strike a counterrevolutionary peace deal.

IT IS also true that calls for a "no-fly zone" have come from The Syria Campaign and other voices organizing solidarity. Socialist Worker believes such a call is mistaken--the U.S. empire would not enforce a "no-fly zone" to stop the carnage in Syria, but to advance its imperial interests, and would lead to greater violence.

But the calls for a "no-fly zone" have to be understood in the context of the desperate circumstances that exist in Syria today. The primary motive of Syrians who want the U.S. to patrol the skies is for someone to put a stop to the slaughter of people in Aleppo and other besieged cities and areas of the country. It is completely understandable that such a demand would gain ground as the Assad regime and Russia are blowing up hospitals, schools and even humanitarian relief convoys.

And even so, other Syrian revolutionaries and solidarity activists don't support a "no-fly zone." They see the U.S. for what it is: a counterrevolutionary force that wants to preserve the status quo, with Assad or without. And they recognize that a "no-fly zone" would escalate the war, lead to more bombing, kill more innocent civilians and create an even worse situation for the popular movement.

Moreover, truth be told, the U.S. is not about to impose a "no-fly zone" in Syria anyway. Blumenthal and others are making the mistake of believing Hillary Clinton's rhetoric during an election campaign--something that Wikileaks and her own track record of saying one thing and doing another has taught us is profoundly mistaken.

The Obama administration and allies such as British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson are using the threat of a "no-fly zone" as a bargaining ploy to push for more talks. Thus, after all the rhetoric and posturing about Russia's escalating air war, Obama sent Kerry on yet another meaningless mission to Switzerland to negotiate a cease-fire with Vladimir Putin and various regional powers. Of course, this failed.

Actually implementing a "no-fly zone" would risk full-scale war in Syria.

Several years ago, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. Martin E. Dempsey gave a presentation to Obama that estimated as many as 70,000 U.S. military personnel would be needed to take out Syria's anti-aircraft system and then carry out a 24-hour no-fly operation.

Such a move would also bring the U.S. into direct conflict with Russia, which has deployed its most modern anti-aircraft weapons, bolstered its naval presence and just established a permanent army base in Syria. There is no indication that Obama and the foreign policy establishment are ready to risk war with a nuclear-armed power over Syria.

PERHAPS BLUMENTHAL'S most shocking and least convincing claim is that the White Helmets--the humanitarian NGO recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize--is merely a Trojan horse for a U.S. publicity campaign to justify regime change in Syria.

His timing could not be worse. Right now, the White Helmets are pulling dead, dying and wounded Syrians out of the rubble of hospitals and buildings blown up by Russian warplanes and regime artillery in Aleppo.

Now certainly, Syrian revolutionaries have faced the trap of NGOization as the entire left has internationally. This can, in some cases, transform organizations into social service providers, instead of agents of struggle, and in other cases, curtail demands to those tolerated by capitalist and imperial funders.

But it would be wrong to make a blanket generalization about each and every NGO. Just because Blumenthal can find an aid trail that leads back to the USAID doesn't automatically mean the group and its work are an extension of U.S. imperialism and its politics are molded to those of some of its funders. By that standard, Paul Farmer's clinics set up in Haiti through Partners in Health should be dismissed as an American imperialist tool in the country since it works with USAID.

The same point applies to the White Helmets, which is made up some 4,000 Syrians who came together in the face of a humanitarian disaster. Its rescuers have saved an estimated 65,000 people from dying in the rubble caused by the shelling of liberated areas in Syria. As humanitarian activist Franklin Lamb writes:

The accusation that the White Helmets are Western/NATO political implants is another myth and conspiracy theory. As with most conspiracy theories, it begins with facts and proceeds to make imaginary connections that make the whole seem greater than its parts. White Helmet rescuers are not involved in politics but are much like Syria's population in general, including most of the 12 million refugees, who have come to abhor politics. Most are simply too exhausted and numbed by years of witnessing horror, to even listen to postulated political agendas and just want to help their families and fellow Syrians survive the war anyway they can. For some it means daily risking their lives removing concrete rubble at bomb sites in a frantic search for bombing victims who may still be alive.

By contrast, Blumenthal claims that the White Helmets are not neutral, undermine relief operations by accusing the UN of collaborating with the regime, don't operate outside rebel-controlled areas and even collaborate with jihadists. Let's take each of these objections in turn.

First, as Lamb documents, the White Helmets have taken the Hippocratic Oath and proven themselves time and time again by saving people from all sorts of ethnic and religious backgrounds.

Second, Syrians who accuse the UN of collaborating with the regime and compromising its neutrality are absolutely correct. Remember that UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said Assad must be a part of any transition--and indeed, all UN relief operations are worked out in cooperation with Assad's regime. Syrians in rebel areas have every reason to view the UN with suspicion.

Third, if White Helmets don't operate outside rebel-controlled areas, it is for the simple reason that the regime and Russia target them with military strikes, making such operations impossible.

Lastly, Blumenthal's indictment of the White Helmets for collaborating with terrorists is based on one member having appeared with jihadist militia in a photograph. This is simply preposterous and runs against everything else written about the organization.

WORST OF all in Blumenthal's article, he fails to identify the main and obvious cause of the catastrophe in Syria--Assad's counterrevolution.

For example, he writes paragraph after paragraph about how the photo of a young boy, Omran Daqneesh, who was rescued from the rubble in Aleppo, has been used to justify calls for a U.S.-enforced "no-fly zone." But in his zeal to uncover an American imperialist plot in this, he never focuses on the culprits in the attack that nearly murdered Daqneesh: Assad and the Russians.

[Editor's note: Due to an editing error, the preceding paragraph mistakenly stated that Blumenthal never "identifies" those responsible for the Aleppo bombing that injured Daqneesh. It has been corrected to state that Blumenthal never "focuses on" the culprits in the attack.]

This shameful failure to criticize the murderous atrocities of the Assad regime and its international backers explains why many people in solidarity with the Syrian struggle view Blumenthal, Khalek and others as having gone over to the side of the dictatorship. In fact, some on the so-called anti-imperialist left actually do defend the Assad regime, not just as a "lesser evil" to U.S. imperialism, but--if you can believe it--as a secular, elected and even anti-imperialist government.

In response, some Palestinian activists who support the Syrian Revolution have issued a statement urging activists to cease collaboration with--though they aren't named--Blumenthal, Khalek and others who adopt similar positions.

The statement's refutation of Blumenthal's charges about the Syrian struggle is spot-on, but the call to break off any political relationship is mistaken.

First, Blumenthal and Khalek are important allies on the issue of Palestine. We must be able to collaborate with them where we agree, while vigorously rejecting their viewpoint on Syria.

Second, given how widespread their views on Syria are on the left, it is important to engage them in debate, if not to convince them, then at least to reach the people they influence.

Syrian solidarity activists should therefore go and make the case in defense of the original uprising against the Syrian regime and Russia at, for example, forums put on by the U.S. Peace Council, which is currently touring apologists for Assad. We can organize debates about Syria and Palestine at political conferences, and challenge the views put forward by Blumenthal and Khalek in left publications and websites.

This attitude of fighting to win the debate is important. We have to win the left to a genuine anti-imperialism that opposes not just the U.S. empire, but its rivals (and sometime collaborators) as well. As revolutionary socialist Eamonn McCann put it so well in a speech in the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland, we must protest American imperialism's crimes in Iraq, Yemen and beyond, while also challenging Russian imperialism in Syria.

Finally, and most importantly, we must stand in solidarity with genuine liberation struggles from below, regardless of which imperial camp they are challenging. Our slogan is neither Washington, nor Moscow, nor Beijing, nor Damascus, nor Tehran, nor Riyadh, but self-determination for oppressed nations and international socialism.

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