A Response to the “Cruise Missile Left”

By Patrick Higgins (Counter Punch)

SyriaFew things elicit outrage in the United States more than the suggestion that the overseas horrors flooding its news media were actually caused by the United States. I learned this lesson again over the previous week, after publishing an article in Jacobin Magazine arguing that the Syrian “crisis” is not an accident, but rather the result of deliberate US policy aimed at destroying the country. Unhappy with the possibility that they are complicit in, rather than mere concerned spectators of, the horrors unfolding overseas, several writers took to their respective publications and blogs to denounce me. I find the reactions to my piece, undergirded by a touching faith in the honesty and the relative goodness of the US empire, both instructive and symptomatic. I would like here, before a different and thus larger audience, to address some of these criticisms in the hopes of amplifying some crucial points about the war on Syria.

Here are what I consider some of the major points made against me, from two chosen writers, preceded by my original contention:

1 I contend that the United States has launched full-scale war against Syria; others insist the United States has done no such thing.

2 I write encouragingly about a leftist project of Kurdish liberation in Northern Syria while opposing US involvement in Syria and indicting the so-called “Free Syrian Army” brigades for their connections to the US; others insist that this position is hypocritical because the Kurdish militias (the YPG and YPJ) received US aid and air support in its battle for Kobani against the Islamic State (ISIS).

3 I contend that militarization against the Syrian state began in the early months of the uprising, in 2011, when we were told that anti-government opposition was strictly peaceful; others insist otherwise.

4 I contend that Iran does not operate in a sectarian manner because of its diplomatic and military support for Palestine; others insist otherwise.

5 Finally, I write encouragingly about a political opposition body within Syria, the National Coordinating Body for Democratic Change (NCC), under the impression that it might partake in a political settlement following the end of the war on Syria; others dismiss this body as “impotent.”

Perhaps the person most flustered by my article is one Louis Proyect, who first took to his blog and then to CounterPunch to tell the world that there is no way the United States has launched a war on Syria. That’s just not the kind of thing Proyect thinks the US would do, one supposes. Rather, it must be that yours truly has launched a “war on truth.” I cite a report from The Washington Post stating that the US is spending a billion a year for its CIA program for covert operations in Syria. Proyect redirects readers to a Wall Street Journal article in which the claims are much more modest—claims by which Proyect was “much more convinced.” But why? No substantive reason is given, so I will assume Proyect likes this story because it makes the US look better. The story I linked, however, shoehorns the damning details in, and as we are dealing with a state with a long history of launching wars in secret, it is safe to say that the intelligence apparatus would prefer its covert operations launched as low-key as possible.

But there are other ways to think about whether the US has launched a war or whether it is trying to temper one, as Proyect’s faith in the restraint of the US military machine would have it. First, there are US intelligence reports and the words of US officials. It is sufficient for these purposes to cite perhaps the most notorious example, the 2012 memo from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which stated “there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria, and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime.” Proyect and his ilk would like to play this down no doubt, saying it was minor. The head of the DIA Michael Flynn does not seem to think so. The US empowerment of these reactionary forces was a “willful decision,” Flynn stated in a television interview. Well, then.

Second, Proyect himself must explain how such large chunks of Syrian territory have been taken over by armed opposition. In a blog post from 2013, for instance, Proyect tells how democratic activists were overrun by Wahhabis “largely due to jihadist weaponry.” So what’s the story, Lou? Where did the weapons come from? Did they grow on trees? Fall from the sky? Did Bashar, who we are reminded will do everything and anything to maintain his grip on power, arm them to take territory away from him? I am guessing that perhaps the Proyect story is that the Gulf states did it—in which case, I must add: a) those states are US client regimes and b) there is a long record of such arming being preferred US policyuttered by figures beyond Flynn, so we can safely assume, at the very least and best case scenario for Proyect, that the US chose to look the other way while its clients armed reactionary forces. The best case scenario is not promising for the Proyect story. But as I write this, I am forced to wonder about a Marxist—an unrepentant one, at that—who makes nothing of all this, confident that the revealed and stated policy, the investigative journalism, the various reports of arms and training, and facts on the ground, all point in the direction of US restraint. We are talking about covert policy. What kind of evidence is Proyect waiting for? Does he require Obama to throw an official Contra’s Ball for their sacrifices in service of global empire?

Proyect wants to remind his readers that when the US bombed Syria, it did so against ISIS, not the Syrian government. Well, that’s still a war. Leaving that aspect aside, perhaps he doesn’t know that the US has thus far outsourced bombing of Syrian government and its allied forces to its “special” ally in the region, Israel. As the War Nerd recently wrote:

“I’m not saying [a recent strike is] the first Israeli attack inside Syria. Hell no. Israeli forces have attacked Syrian territory hundreds of times in the past few years. But as I’ve pointed out before, every single one of those attacks targeted either the Alawites’ Syrian Arab Army (SAA) or its real backbone, the borrowed infantry of the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah.

“Not once—I repeat, not once—has Israel attacked Sunni militias like Islamic State or Jabhat al Nusra. It’s the weirdest aspect of the whole Syrian war, though you won’t hear much about it from the cowardly US media. As usual, it’s Israel’s domestic press that broke the story on the Israeli military’s de facto alliance with the Sunni ‘rebels’. Haaretz has been reporting for years that the IDF has been ferrying wounded members of sectarian Sunni militias into Israel so they can be fixed up at IDF hospitals and sent back to behead more civilians.”

Amid all of this, I am supposedly a hypocrite for my relative kindness to the YPG and YPJ, with which I am “remarkably patient.” Keep in mind one of Proyect’s charges here, that I am spreading “Ba’athist propaganda,” obviously on the payroll of Rami Makhlouf, nightly dusting off portraits Assads Sr. and Jr. before drifting off into dreams of militant pan-Arab unity. (Keep also in mind that Proyect goes from calling me a Maoist “Hipster Stalinist”—I’ve been called worse things—to comparing me to Christopher Hitchens, who by the way spent 2003 accusing everybody with an ill word to say about the impending imperial bloodbath in Iraq of being Saddam fans.) Playing up my sympathy for a movement for Kurdish liberation might not be the best way to make the accusation of Ba’athism stick. Lending his assistance to the denouncement campaign, the blogger Charles Davis feels I should have acknowledged “U.S. imperialism’s role in propping up what’s billed as the last best hope for the left in Syria” and that the US empire is the “revolutionary project’s best friend at the moment.”

On the charge of the hypocrisy of my position, the blogger Henry Krinkle has already offered the following: “The US collaborates with the YPG because it hopes to co-opt it against Assad and possibly water down its progressive ideology. The US collaborates with the FSA because it is a somewhat reliable proxy army against a counter-hegemonic regime. Thus, the YPG can be supported by anti-imperialists in so far as it remains independent from US influence and designs while the FSA serves US power through-and-through.” Krinkle’s brief post should be read in full.

Anyone who reads my original article can see that I detail the perils of PYD collaboration with the US, information that I hope can be useful to the antiwar movement, whatever may exist of it now and whatever it may become. This means I am clear about what Davis is not when he calls the US Rojava’s “best friend at the moment.” I am clear that the US is backing its NATO partner, Turkey, as it bombs Kurds. I am clear that the forces attacking Kurds on the ground were armed, through intervention, by the US and its allies. Particularly egregious is Davis demanding that I pay respect the way in which “revolutionary space was also created by that opposition: Were it not for the uprising against the Assad regime, that regime never would have made the tactical decision to withdraw from Syrian Kurdistan, whose population it previously repressed.” By uprising, Davis necessarily means the reactionary armed insurgency. It is incumbent on leftists to locate sites of liberation in times of mass dispossession. Out of the genocides of history’s colonial and imperial dis-emancipation have emerged struggles of emancipation. Unless we are Madeleine Albright, it does not follow that we say that the imperial plunder was “worth it.”

The details I share about past PYD cooperation with the Syrian state point to the only reasonable option for the future: a political agreement between both parties, because they will have to live as nations side by side in the long-run, and the United States potentially has the ability to use one against the other. It’s quite simple, really. No need for dangerous mythologies about the productive role of the US in Syria.

Back finally to Proyect, who disputes my claim that militarization against the government began early in the uprising. He presents two issues. First, some of my sources trace back to claims made by Syrian television. Second, an academic I cite, Joshua Landis, says also that there were many peaceful protests violently repressed by the Syrian government. Proyect’s method is convenient. If I present sources either attached to, or sympathetic to, the Syrian government, I am presenting biased sources. If I present sources critical of Syrian government making similar claims, their criticisms of the Syrian government somehow negate the claim in question. It is a lose-lose. To these objections, I will say two things. For the Syrian government’s story about the events in question—killings of government soldiers and cops in the first months of the uprising in Banyas and Jisr al-Shighour—there is video footage that appears to corroborate, as Landis noted in his posts. Landis’s account of peaceful protests and state repression holds no bearing on my claim that there were violent attacks carried out against state officials early in the uprisings, and that this information contradicts the popular narrative about the uprising and the war. And I will do Proyect one better and say that a few of the academics I cite—Thomas Pierret, for instance—are like Proyect and Davis cheerleaders for the war on Syria. Their inclusion is intentional. I wish to show that they know exactly what it is they are cheering on.

Rather than pore further over the details of Banyas and Jisr al-Shighour, I will simply use the opportunity to add more evidence of early opposition violence, ever piling up. Take the testimony offered in a report from Al-Monitor, in the main anti-Assad, about sectarian attacks being carried out against Syrian Alawis in the early days of the uprising, April 2011. In an interview with the article’s author, a pro-government fighter testifies as to why he joined the fighting. Here’s a sample:

“Staiti was among the many I heard called shabiha in Homs and Damascus who said the uprising had not started peacefully, as some claim. He related one incident: ‘On April 15, 2011, a group of men stopped my Alawite friend Nidal Jennud, who used to sell fruits and vegetables at Banias. He was ordered to swear at Bashar Assad and the Prophet Ali. His friend with him did it and was let go after a beating. Nidal swore at Bashar but not at the Prophet Ali. He was cut apart with machetes. Until that day, there were no problems in Banias. This was clearly part of a design against Syria. They hired people to demonstrate at Banias, paying them 5,000 Syrian pounds each [roughly $11 at the time]. Al Jazeera was reporting this as an uprising against the regime. Someone came and bought a Kia Rio from me for 700,000 pounds cash [roughly $15,000]. Two days later, mukhabarat [Syrian military intelligence] people came and asked if that person had bought a car from me. Turns out that Qatar had sent money to pay the demonstrators, but this man bought a car for himself with the money. The idiot who was the middle man in the money transfer went to police to complain that he was swindled. That’s how the story came out.’”

Proyect will dismiss this testimony as exactly something a supporter of the Syrian government would say. Readers of this article are advised to take it more seriously, keeping in mind that the sectarianism of the armed opposition is hardly in dispute nowadays. The change in US propaganda strategy reflects as much, as David Petraeus is now working to normalize the idea of the US arming al Qaeda.

Particularly telling is Proyect’s use of an article I supply about Iran providing weapons to the Marxist-Leninist Palestinian group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). According to Proyect, “Iran is paying for the PFLP’s support for Bashar al-Assad,” which is true enough—but Proyect uses this as “evidence” against my claim that Iran does not operate in a sectarian manner. He misses the point. To say that Iran’s support for Palestine is not principled is not the same as saying it is sectarian. If Iran were using sectarianism as its regional strategy, why would it embark upon support—rhetorical, material, or political—for Palestinians, a majority Sunni Muslim people? It is a strategy that depends not on the division of sects, but rather their unification. This is the opposite of the strategy utilized by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Coordination Council (GCC) countries in general.

There is an aspect of Proyect’s description of Iran worth dwelling on, as it reflects the imperial apologia running through his entire analysis. Proyect compares Iran’s “political horse-trading” to that of Goldman-Sachs and Exxon-Mobile. I find it necessary to point out that the US sanctions against Iran, which have caused so much suffering and privation in the country, have been made in part to prevent Iran from investing its oil revenue into state services instead of US holdings. Moreover, the suffering and privation in Iran is an economic directive of Goldman-Sachs, a pillar of global finance, and Exxon-Mobil, a global oil cartel. We see here how easy it is for Proyect to compare empire with its targets. This “blind spot,” if we can even call it that, transfers to his Syria outlook.

In my original article, I spoke encouragingly about the possibilities arising out of a political body called the National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change (NCC). I think it’s good that they are an organized entity, inside Syria, and emphasize reform and political negotiation rather than the destruction of the state. For Proyect, I do this because I am trying “to show that I am not a complete Ba’athist tool.” He calls them impotent. Well then, what’s the plan, Lou? The excellent blogger Walter Glass had some words about this:

“For his final push, Proyect indicts Higgins’ support for the ‘impotent’ NCCDC because the coalition is not ‘intent on toppling the regime.’ This gets to one of the major questions the Western left faces when looking at Syria, and is a place where I feel the need to be completely unambiguous in my position. If Western leftists such as Proyect would have the rest of us throw our weight behind a regime change project, then the burden is entirely upon them to demonstrate, in great detail, how such a project does not end as another Iraq, Libya, or one of the many other carcasses Western “good intentions” have left in their wake. I’ve read a large amount of literature from the pro-rebel-overthrow-the-regime side, and I’ve never seen anyone attempt anything like trying to meet this burden. I’m willing to be proven wrong about this. They’ll tell you about how awful and brutal Assad is all day long, they’ll torture out all sorts of false equivalencies between the Baathist party and the genocidal settler colony of Israel, they’ll throw out all kinds of grand theories about the illegitimacy of the bourgeois neoliberal state, they’ll even profile the odd Syrian Communist here or there speaking up against the government. But they’ll never tell you how it’s all going to shake out.”

Glass’s post should also be read in full.

And this gets to the heart of the arguments coming from the likes of Proyect and Davis, vanguards of the State Department Left, as my comrade Navid Nasr calls it. Do they wish to paint the rebel forces in Syria, in part or in whole, as revolutionaries? Do they call for further US intervention into the affairs of Syria? If either is the case, they should say so. And in either case, the weight of the evidence is clearly, bloodily against them.

The nature of the attacks on me have forced me to be somewhat polemical, but the issue is of course more urgent than polemical feuds. There is much to be said about the Syrian issue, but let us not mistake this much: this is a US war. For anyone in the US to deny that in 2015, after so much more information has become available, is an undeserved refusal of responsibility for an atrocity.

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