Apropos my two most recent posts, on Syria in the wake of Idlib and on the US strikes at Homs, Steve Spencer, a friend for close to forty years, emailed his doubts about my defence of Assad’s government and the Russian intervention. With his full consent I reproduce his reservations here, followed by my response. I should preface both with a few remarks. First, Steve is a man of high intelligence and integrity whose anti imperialist credentials are better than mine: see his invaluable work on post colonial Guyana, though this is by no means his only contribution to making this world a better place.
Second, Steve’s reservations echo my own of a mere two years ago. For reasons of serendipity, writer’s drift and simply having nagging questions and time to pursue them I’ve been able to do what few of my peers can do: roll up my sleeves to make sense of what is happening across the middle east. Without those conducive conditions I too, though uneasy with western aggression there, would feel unable to challenge it robustly given seemingly damning indictments against the Syrian and Russian leaderships.
Third, Steve has always had moral courage in spades, and has never been held back by fears of Getting It Wrong. I believe he voices doubts shared by other decent people, few of whom have the free time I enjoy. It’s my further belief that many of these friends are anti imperialist but feel insufficiently clued up to go against a totalitarian tidal wave of manufactured opinion on Syria.
While I want to echo your feelings about the disastrous consequences of the US cruise missile attack, I am still puzzled and unconvinced by your support of Assad, and Russia’s role in the unfolding holocaust. I am always willing to accept that we are being blind-sided as accounts are manipulated and perceptions distorted, we must never blithely accept western media accounts, but in this case Assad has surely got form you seem strangely quiet about the barrel bomb attacks. In 2013 sarin was the most likely poison used killing hundreds in a Damascus suburb. There is some question whether Assad was responsible, but in the aftermath he had agreed to give up his chemical arsenal for destruction, and the Russians carried out the removal of these (forgive me if I have very little faith in this being a rigorous process).
But I will retain an open mind about Assad’s agency in these attacks. According to excellent article by David Edwards (Medialens April 2017)Structural Inclinations – The Leaning Tower of Propaganda: Chemical Weapons Attacks In Ghouta, Syria – the evidence of Assad’s direct involvement may be sketchy – but even if he has not ordered CW this or several other times there is little doubt that he is capable of hideous war crimes.
Now of course, none of this improves the mendacious hypocrisy of US who are guilty as fuck in the manufacture and use of chemical weapons and other WMD, Obama’s ‘red line’ does not seem to apply to the use of white phosphorous or depleted uranium (in Palestine by Israel and Iraq by US ).
It’s without doubt though that Assad has lied continuously; about the use of barrel bombs, and dismissed all rebels as jihadist terrorists, when it seems more than clear that a large number were genuinely anti-government and that hundreds of thousands of citizens are merely caught up in the fray. So I would certainly not discount the possiblility of Assad using chemical weapons – I agree with Noam Chomsky’s summation (5th April) that the “The Assad Regime is a Moral Disgrace”.
As one media professor we interviewed a few years ago (Bob Franklin – now at Cardiff) argued: ‘In times of war the first casualty isn’t truth its complexity.’ Western media are not good at presenting complex fractured narratives of war, and the interests of the media are driven by corporate demi-gods.
I think the problem is to begin envisaging the world through a particular lense . Most of the players involved are war criminals and Assad should not be given a free pass.
My reply, sent within an hour of reading the above, is set out below. In the interests of fairness I’ve not amended it, even to correct typos and misspellings. Much as I’m tempted to restructure it, to better organise my thoughts for comprehensibility, I’ve desisted. On the advice of another friend, Bryan, I have fleshed out my arguments but only by embedding numbered references in that unedited reply. These refer to footnotes added later by me.
Thanks for this Steve. I think your remarks will reflect the views of several friends broadly on the left.
On the barrel bombs we’ve been sold a huge red herring. I hear over and over about these weapons from folk – I don’t say you – who know nothing about ordnance. Here’s Craig Murray (the UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan sacked by Blair for revealing the atrocities of “our friend against Saddam”, Islam Karimov) on the subject. Or to quote my own words from last May, “Suddenly, the acid test to tell good guys from bad is the use of barrel bombs. How easily manipulated we are!” [1.]
More important, though, is the cui bono question. Why would Assad – winning the war against foreign terrorists (yes, I stand by my claim this is no civil war) – use chemical weapons just as the Brussels conference takes place, and just days after Trump’s administration deprioritised ousting Syria’s elected government to focus on the fight against ISIS? It makes no sense except to those brainwashed into believing the man a comic book villain who loves evil for its own sake. On the other hand, when we ask why the terrorists would use them, well, it’s a no-brainer – as America’s latest move so graphically demonstrates. 
Incidentally you come close to misquoting me. As a good sceptic I do not and would not give Assad a “free pass”. What I think, on the back of ample evidence – do at the very least read Tim Anderson’s Dirty War on Syria  – can broadly be summed up as follows:
- Hafaz Assad ran a ruthless Ba’athist state which nevertheless delivered (as had Saddam’s and Gaddafi’s state capitalisms) high levels of welfare and prosperity, and which safeguarded secularism.
- Bashar al-Assad was trying to liberalise, always a dangerous process. The 2011 protestors made clear their distinction between a state they saw as autocratic, and a president who enjoyed high levels of popularity. 
- Well before the Dara incidents of 2011 the US and other imperialisms wanted Assad out. Three reasons. First, desire to reshape the middle east to their benefit by rolling back state capitalism: don’t underrate the privatisation agenda , even before we get to the oil. Second, while Syria is not an oil producer it is strategically placed to pipe oil into Europe, the world’s biggest energy market. Where the west and gulf states wanted a pipeline from Qatar, Assad favoured the pipeline further north, backed by Iran and Russia, running through Homs.  Three, in its determination to assert supremacy in the face of an ascendant Russia and China (and again you misunderstand me if you think I’m backing either, except in the sense we desperately need a counterbalance to US Exceptionalism post 1991)  America is bent on punishing non compliant leaders. To this end it has reduced Iraq and Libya to wasteland and gone down the same road – halted, for now at least, by Russia’s nyet – in Syria. Elsewhere we have the ‘colour revolutions’ that overthrew Zelaya in Honduras, Lula in Brazil and wanted the same re Chavez. We also have a CIA backed Maidan coup ousting Yanukovych to install a semi fascist government in Kiev. 
- Genuine support for the Dara protests evaporated when they were hijacked by foreign mercenaries and jihadists backed, for reasons given in previous point, by western imperialism and – for different but broadly synergistic reasons – Turkey and, same-but-different again, the Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia. That evaporation of support for the protests, and upsurge in support for Assad, is the context in which the latter held elections and won by a landslide. The west has in the main ignored and occasionally ridiculed that result but do we have any evidence it was rigged? 
- I see no third way here. Either Assad’s secular state capitalism survives this onslaught of salafism in bed with imperialism or Syria is reduced to the same situation as other once prosperpous states with high levels of welfare infrastructure. I mean, of course, Iraq and Libya. How clear does the pattern have to be? I do realise of course that it is difficult for progressives to stand against such overwhelming tides of loathing (re Assad and Putin both) but sometimes we have to take a stand. It helps, IMO, to realise that (a) nothing in the mainstream media can be trusted when the stakes are this high, and (b) while it’s highly unlikely Assad and Putin are squeaky clean – how could they be, to survive in their respective political environments? – Western Imperialism has shown itself again and again to be far worse. Offer me a third and equally credible force and I’ll consider backing it. Till then, I see critical but unconditional support for Assad as a basic test of all anti imperialists. Fold on this and we can give up any pretence at aspiring to a better world order.
Finally, I again thank you for expressing what I believe many others on the non aligned left will be thinking. I’d like this debate to be shared more widely. Would you object to my posting your email and this reply? That would still leave space for both of us, and others, to come back with additional comments.
Best wishes, Phil
To which Steve, with characteristic big heartedness but too much modesty – complacency is not a Spencer characteristic, as evidenced by his taking the trouble to voice doubts and questions others keep to themselves – replied:
That’s fine – happy for you to post it whichever way you prefer. I was impressed by your pithy analysis, and I think it is a great antidote for complacent Guardian readers like myself! There is a lot of hard work winnowing fact from fiction and you’re the man for that job.
Footnotes written after, and to expand on, my original reply to Steve:
- Barrel bombs are routinely cited as evidence of the regime’s brutality. Yes, the Syrian Army has used them. No, unless we are consistently pacifist – and if I am right an elected government, nay, a secular state itself, is fighting for its life against western backed invasion dressed as ‘people’s struggle for freedom’ – they are not especially vile, and far less lethal than weaponry routinely used by US and allied forces. On the latter we’re spoilt for choice but let’s single out the depleted uranium ordnance from which Iraqis are still dying cancerous deaths. I groan when intelligent and educated people trot out the barrel bomb canard as though there was something egregiously heinous about these lethal but crude devices. Craig Murray’s remarks deserve the widest circulation.
- I see several competing explanations for the chemical weapons attack at Idlib. In order of likelihood I rank them as follows. One, the terrorists used them because their only hope now of victory is to bring in western forces. To that end they have mounted many false flag ops, encouraged not only by ‘our’ media but Al Jazeera (Qatari owned and a good source on issues – alas this is not one – where the Emir has no stake) and utterly bogus sources like Human Rights Watch and Syrian Observatory on Human Rights (a one-man band run in Coventry by a disgruntled Syrian who left in 2003, has never returned and has Muslim Brotherhood ties). I’ll lose readers if I supply links to all my claims so please conduct research on these outfits, White Helmets too, before doing as Guardian and BBC do in taking them at face value. Two, Syrian forces bombed an ISIS chemical weapons factory to inadvertently release poisons, probably sarin nerve gas. (The instant appearance of partisan ‘experts’ to trash this theory is suspect but more so is the inconsistency of said trashing when US Forces have in the past cited fears of triggering precisely such an outcome as reason for not hitting ISIS in Syria. Friday’s Guardian, while predictably approving the US strikes, writes of “Pentagon insistence that the goal .. was not to destroy chemical weapons .. it took great pains to avoid bombing any sites where chemical weapons may have been stored, for fear of causing civilian casualties“) Note also former CIA chief Philip Giraldi’s ridiculing of the ridiculers on this point. Three, it didn’t happen at all. Daft as this may seem – and I don’t buy it – I can’t rule it out, and certainly accord it a higher likelihood than ‘explanation’ four. Which of course is that Damascus, motivated by a Dr No style Love Of Evil For Its Own Sake, decided – with its forces winning the war, the world’s eyes on Syria, the Brussels Conference underway and the Trump administration having days earlier announced that ousting Assad is no longer a US precondition for settlement – to gas a bunch of kids. As I said the other day, Why, FFS??!!
- Professor Anderson’s book is essential reading. There are other sources – Vanessa Beeley’s work, Jan Oberg’s and that of Anglican priest Andrew Ashdown spring to mind – but no single work is as comprehensive as Dirty War on Syria. It’s around $20 but there are PDFs in circulation. Speaking of sources on Syria, the biggest obstacle to truths simple and complex is the totalitarian hostility to Damascus of ‘our’ corporate and state media. I recommend triangulation to offset western bias (rabidly uncritical) with different biases. That means checking what Russia Today and Sputnik say, as well as alt-left sources like CounterPunch, and media watchers OffGuardian and Media Lens. (By the way David Edwards, the Media Lens editor quoted in Steve’s email, complimented me on one of my first pieces on Syria.)
- Of course media uninterested in complexity at the best of times – and these are hardly that! – make no distinction between Assad Junior and the state he inherited from dad. But Anderson and others offer ample evidence of the Daraa protesters, and Syrians in general, making precisely that distinction. Moreover, as the jihadist grip tightened – aided by American, Saudi and Turkish funding and covert ops – Bashar was indeed criticised by his countrymen – for being too soft; a would be eye doctor unwilling to demonstrate the ruthlessness the old man had shown in facing down the salafist threat to secularism. (While we’re on the subject, I don’t draw so sharp a distinction as Bob Franklin does: truth includes complexity. But that can never, regardless of flaws real or perceived in a country’s leadership, be an excuse for left failure to support it against imperialist aggression.)
- To summarise a piece I posted last year, the fall of the Soviet Union was a disaster for humanity and progressive values. This has nothing to do with support for its rotten bureaucracy or even – at least not directly – its property relations. It has to do with the fact that with no credible alternative to neoliberalism we have since 1991 seen not only capitalism unbridled but, worse, US Exceptionalism unbridled. The IMF’s dealings in Greece and elsewhere, like the criminal invasions of Libya and Iraq, are not to be seen as different from the creeping privatisation of our NHS. Privatisation (except of a sector vital to capital but in itself unprofitable, in which case tax payers are left with the burden until such time as it is made profitable) is the soul of capitalism and imperialism. That alone would account for why state capitalism under Ba’athism had to be destroyed. Worth reading on this subject is Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine (chapters on Iraq and USSR especially).
- The oil pipeline aspects to the west’s GBH on Syria are ignored by corporate media, including imperialist cheerleading Guardian: itself cause for damning to hell and back that faux progressive and truth seeking outlet. That said, and here’s an instance of Franklin’s complexity, some on the left are not only reductionist on the point but anachronistic with it. The pipeline aspect is too big to ignore in understanding this murderous mess but as prime driver it doesn’t fly. Not only are there other reasons the west wanted Assad gone – and would have succeeded, with Islamist ascendancy deemed a price temporarily worth paying, had Russia not felt strong enough and threatened enough to step in – but the Damascene veto of the west’s pipeline comes after 2011. There is ample evidence as far back as Dubya of western intent to install a government in Damascus more to its liking. Here too Tim Anderson is a good but by no means the only starting point.
- It’s common for those who refuse to go along with the uncritical demonising of Russia to be accused of demon worship. (Wish I had a fiver for every time I’ve been called a ‘Putinbot’ – or, even more ludicrous in its sarcastic ignorance of history, ‘comrade’ – and asked how the weather is in Moscow!) My friend is too intelligent to do this but I look askance at the reference to my “support for Russia’s unfolding role in the holocaust”. Am I glad the Russians intervened? You bet! I don’t like it when the most aggressive forces on the planet lay yet another weaker state to waste in the name of democracy but the interests of profit. I do like it when a state less easily blackmailed or bullied by the most dangerous nation on earth says ‘back off buster: here’s one you don’t get a free pass on’. More generally, my views on why progressives should welcome Russian and Chinese ascendance – not with starry-eyed faith in their ‘altruism’ but as offsetting a terrible force that wreaks havoc everywhere – are set out in two key posts. One is my open letter to Owen Jones, the other is Perilous Days.
- In a now familiar inversion of reality, western media cite with impunity Russian ‘aggression’ in Crimea and Ukraine. Few are aware of Nuland’s and McCain’s involvement at Maidan Square. Fewer still know Ukraine’s history, or even basic realpolitik – Russia has a dozen military bases outside her borders, to America’s thousand, and that dozen includes nuclear warheads on the Crimea at risk of capture by fascists – or that America has shown repeatedly (Cuba, Chile, Central America) it would tolerate nothing like NATO’s semi encirclement of Russia.
- The extent of western propaganda’s success in demonising Assad is such that they can safely ignore or, more rarely, ridicule his 2014 win. True, opposition candidates were limited by the realities of war but Syrians still had the option of boycotting that election. Instead they gave the president, who by now had toughened up, a huge mandate. Does anyone have evidence of Syrians dragged at gunpoint to the polls? No, me neither.
More generally, I am dismayed at the ease with which the sheer repetition of unsubstantiated – and in many cases convincingly refuted – accusations against Assad and Putin come to acquire the status of incontestable truth. The single most important example here is the way references are constantly made by media and senior western politicians to the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons when, as with Idlib last week, it is more likely ISIS was responsible. That ease of passing off smear as truth – and as the inclusion of Saudi Arabia on the UN Human Rights Council shows, it is now foolish to accept the UN as neutral and impartial – is dismaying not only in the context of Syria. It points to a nightmare matrix of future manipulation along the lines envisaged all those years ago by Aldous Huxley.
Let me finish by returning to a vital particular. We hear a great deal about Putin and, to lesser degree, Medvedev and Lavrov. But here’s the always impressive Maria Zhakarova, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, on America’s latest act of arrogant lawlessness backed as ever by the UK: