Once again Eastern Ghouta is the epicenter of a confrontation between the White House and Bashar al-Assad. On April 7, medics in Douma, the largest city in the agricultural belt surrounding Damascus, blamed him for authorizing the aerial bombardment of chlorine gas that cost the lives of at least 40 people and injuries to hundreds of others. While chlorine gas has been used in the past by Assad’s air force, it has not had the devastating impact it had this time.
Syria, Russia and Iran dismissed such reports as a “false flag” in which jihadists used fraudulent photos and videos to pressure American imperialism into taking their side in an all-out attack such as the one that took place against Iraq in 2003. For those of a conspiracist bent, this was a con job just like the Apollo Moon landing hoax when film simulations supposedly substituted for the real thing.
In past “false flag” incidents, the scenario was somewhat different. Assad’s camp was willing to agree that the corpses were real but that they had been killed by the jihadi terrorists they supported in order to seduce the White House into a “regime change” operation. This time RT.com filed a report that described Douma as having suffered no attack whatsoever:
The Russian military has found no trace of chemical weapons use after searching parts of Syria’s Douma allegedly targeted by an “attack.” Photos of victims posted by the White Helmets are fake, Russia’s Defense Ministry said.
Experts in radiological, chemical and biological warfare, as well as medics, on Monday inspected the parts of the Eastern Ghouta city of Douma, where an alleged chemical attack supposedly took place on Saturday, the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria said in a statement.
As also happened in the aftermath of the sarin gas attacks in East Ghouta on August 21, 2013 and in Khan Sheikhoun almost a year ago, the White House threatened to retaliate. In 2013, Obama decided to call off a military strike after he was assured by Russia that Assad would agree to relinquish his chemical weapons stockpile. Four days after the Khan Sheikhoun attack, Trump ordered the navy to fire 59 Cruise missiles at the air force base from which the attack was launched. Since Trump tipped off the Kremlin before the missiles were fired and since the base was launching new attacks within a few days, there were some grounds for viewing the missile attack as mostly for show. This go-round Trump tweeted that nice, new and “smart” missiles would be coming. Whether they will have any long-term impact on a war that is largely over is debatable.
And also as has happened in the past, much of the left accepts the “false flag” narrative. In an interview with teleSUR, Max Blumenthal dismissed reports of casualties as untrustworthy because they have been furnished by what he called jihadist-supporting elements such as the White Helmets and the mainstream media. His advice to the audience was to trust the much more reliable Russian media. At the risk of sounding like a reactionary goon, I prefer the NY Times to Sputnik especially for Melissa Clark’s recipes.
It is not just the left that absolves Assad. Despite their overall support for Trump, especially his racism, a number of prominent alt-right figures are disappointed that he has been snookered by jihadi fake news. Among them is Tucker Carlson who spent ten minutes on his Monday night show making the same points as Blumenthal. Carlson is in a budding bromance with Blumenthal because of their shared opposition to the Russiagate investigation. Instead of baiting Blumenthal over his opposition to Israel, he instead found common ground in their shared hatred of fake news dispensing, sharia-law embracing, head-chopping terrorists. Carlson was quite the fire-breathing anti-imperialist:
Trump has to take action in Syria. Everyone nods sagely. That ought to make you nervous. Universal bipartisan agreement on anything is usually the first sign that something deeply unwise is about to happen. If only because there is nobody left to ask skeptical questions.
And we should be skeptical of this. Starting with the poison gas attack itself. All the geniuses tell us that Assad killed those children, but do they really know that? Of course, they don’t really know that. They are making it up. They have no real idea what happened.
Writing for DavidDuke.com, Dr. Patrick Slattery sounded a similar note:
The absolute low point of the first year of the Trump administration was when Trump bombed the Syrian airbase in response to Ivanka crying to her dad about a picture of a baby in a gas mask. It was a hoax then and it is a hoax now. Everything that (((CNN))), (((NPR))), (((NBC))), (((CBS))), (((ABC))), (((PBS))), (((The New York Times))), and (((The Washington Post))) say about Russia, Russian collusion, Syrian gas attacks, Russian nerve agent attacks, and everything else is 100% certified kosher bull honk.
Even the highly respectable (and totally based) Professor Stephen F. Cohen described the alleged poisoning of a Russian double agent as a “false flag.”
In case you are not familiar with “(((“ and “)))”, those are meant to self-identify Jews on Twitter. Slattery has another use for them apparently.
The Bellingcat website is perhaps the only place where you can find fact-based reporting on chemical attacks in Syria. It was launched by Eliot Higgins, a British citizen-journalist who relies heavily on open source material and field reports from the affected areas. In an April 11 entry, there is an attempt to ground the Douma incident in verifiable data such as the characteristic yellow cylinders in which weaponized chlorine gas is delivere. There are also videos of corpses in the basement of a building that was within the impacted area, each with the tell-tale sign of white foam around the nose and mouth. Video one:
Are they another Apollo Moon landing hoax? Judge for yourself.
An earlier chlorine gas attack took place in Douma on January 22. On that occasion, Rex Tillerson warned about the consequences but Trump demonstrated about as much interest in retaliation as he would have in reading a Jane Austen novel. Why this latest incident has provoked saber-rattling is not easy to answer. It is tempting to write it off as a gesture intended to demonstrate that Russiagate is based on a false premise but more likely it is to remind the world of America’s global reach. In any case, the Trump administration has no business bombing Syria, even when the target was ISIS—a massive campaign that somehow escaped the left’s attention. Exterminate ISIS? Why not?
One argument against Assad’s guilt is the often-heard claim that since he was winning the war, why would he use a tactic that would give the USA an excuse to intervene. Perhaps the muted response of both Obama and Trump was enough to persuade Assad’s military to go full steam ahead. One might also ask why Harry Truman decided to drop A-Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki when Japan’s days were numbered. It was Gar Alperovitz who correctly interpreted it as a warning to Russia that the USA was going to become the number one imperial power. So did Assad have a motivation anything like this? I would say that he certainly did. Chemical attacks have a way of educating the population that he will stop at nothing to continue the family’s dynastic rule. Ten years from now as a new revolutionary wave gathers momentum in Syria, perhaps it will be constrained by memories of the brutal measures the regime was ready to take.
While it is true that Assad was winning, a ground attack on East Ghouta would have been costly. The Syrian army has been depleted after 7 years of war and the resistance in an area under rebel control would have been considerable.
Additionally, the lack of a response to the January 22 attack might have convinced Assad that Trump was willing to maintain a hands-off policy especially since sarin gas was not going to be used. In fact, between December 12, 2016 and April 7, 2017 there were a dozen chemical attacks by the Syrian military that except for Khan Sheikhoun went unnoticed not only by the Trump administration but by most of the left. The first and most costly (92 lives) probably mattered the least since the victims lived in ISIS-controlled Palmyra. The Guardian reported:
“Most of the dead were families,” said Ahmad al Hamawi, head of a regional council. “They had built primitive shelters and they ran to them, not knowing it was poison gas. While they were in the shelters the gas entered because of the wind direction, and killed dozens, mostly women and children.”
Why would Trump lift a finger to protect such people? Even if they loathed ISIS, they committed the cardinal sin of living under its control.
These are the poor, obscure and undeserving souls who found themselves in the unenviable position of living in rebel-controlled areas such as East Ghouta. Given so much of the left’s eagerness to superimpose the history of the war on Iraq on Syria, there is little engagement with their class differences. The Bush administration cultivated the loyalties of the Shia bourgeoisie in Basra and Baghdad that was eager to serve American interests. With someone like Ahmed Chalabi stepping up to make their case, this seemed like a match made in heaven (or hell). Chalabi had amassed a $100 million fortune and cultivated close relations with neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz. Unfortunately for the dwellers of East Ghouta and other such boondocks, they had nobody like that to speak for them.
The Sunni poor made the mistake of putting their confidence in men like Ahmed Mouaz al-Khatib who was a college graduate and a one-time imam of a Damascus mosque before assuming the leadership of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. He never would have gotten far with the likes of either Paul Wolfowitz or Barack Obama making outrageous statements such as this:
Appearances may differ but the core is similar, and whether that core is French, British, Russian or American, the ultimate goal is the same; intervention, domination and supremacy and all in the name of human rights.
The facts have proven beyond any doubt that the claws of international politics are tainted and that the world’s super powers are seeking, through the distribution of roles in the open and behind closed doors, to undermine the legitimate interests of the peoples of the world and trade in them by inciting sectarian sentiments, and the examples are plenty: from Syria and the Middle East, to Sudan and Rwanda, to Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The left chose Assad over politicians like al-Khatib. Perhaps al-Khatib’s failure to speak in the name of communism and having had a job as an imam on his CV compromised him. It was the Syrian Communist Party that obviously resonated best with the left with familiar and reassuring words such as these: “Facing this complicated and hard situation, Syria had to request help from the Russian Federation. Moscow provided Syria with the support it needed to resist this barbarous aggression.”
When the history of this tragic war is written, it must take into account the class dimensions of a society that was as sharply divided as Cuba under Batista or Nicaragua under Somoza. Much of the left missed this because it saw Syria through the lenses of the Cold War. As long as Russia supported Syria, that was all you needed to know even if it was not Soviet Russia but a Russia in which strikes are virtually illegal and Putin damns Lenin for executing the Czar. Naturally, Putin would feel a great affinity for Assad who until the Arab Spring was someone Tony Blair would welcome to England on a state visit, where he even met her royal highness. His public image was so polished at this point that Vogue Magazine nearly featured a profile on him and his très chic wife.
The Syrian rebels are generally drawn from the poor, rural and unrepresented majority of the population, the Arab version of John Steinbeck’s Joad family. Despite the tendency of some on the left to see them as sectarians who rose up against a generous Baathist welfare state because it supported a different interpretation of who was the true successor to Muhammad, the revolutionary struggle in Syria was fueled by class hatred.
In agricultural belts like East Ghouta, conditions had become unbearable because a perfect storm of drought, neoliberalism and corruption had descended upon them. Myrian Ababsa, a research fellow in social geography at the French Institute for the Near East in Amman, Jordan described the calamity in a chapter in Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zintl’s Syria: from Reform to Revolt. Two years before the Arab Spring erupted in Syria, 42 percent of the largely agricultural Raqqa governorate suffered from anemia because of a shortage of dairy products, vegetables, and fruit. Between 2007 and 2009, malnutrition among pregnant women and children under five doubled. Under drought conditions, farmers resorted to polluted river water for irrigation. This led to outbreaks of food poisoning stemming from the sewage and chemicals that seeped into rivers in rural areas near Aleppo, Lattakia, and Raqqa.
Suffering from malnutrition and poverty, small-scale farmers, pastoral herders and the landless no longer sent their children to school. According to the UN some schools in the agricultural belt in eastern Syria decreased by 70 percent after April 2008. Illiteracy levels reached 38.3 percent in the Raqqa governorate, 35.1 percent in Hassaka governorate, and 34.8 percent in Deir ez-Zor governorate. More than a third of the population was illiterate, including more than half of the female population. Between 160 and 220 villages were abandoned in Hassaka governorate. With dried up wells, the population could not afford to bring water from private tankers at a cost amounting to $37 per month. These were Syria’s version of the people living in Flint except that they were ready to rise up in defense of their class interests.
Unfortunately for them, they lacked the means to defend themselves from barrel bombs, chemical attacks and a worldwide propaganda offensive that was sandwiched on the right by Tucker Carlson and Max Blumenthal on the left. They certainly deserved better.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.