Patrick Cockburn serves up more lies on Syria

Well, the British parliament just voted to enter the air war against ISIS in Syria, having up till now limited its air-strikes to Iraq as part of the US-led coalition. (WP) The Independent boasts that its Patrick Cockburn (assailed as a "media missionary" for the Assad dictatorship by supporters of the Syrian revolution) was invited by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to "brief MPs on the facts about…Syria" ahead of the vote in the House of Commons. By "facts," they actually mean fictions, of course. Putting aside the actual question at hand (that of air-strikes), Cockburn's "briefing" was in fact dedicated to dissing and dismissing the Syrian resistance that is fighting both Assad and ISIS on the ground…

He starts with answering Prime Minister David Cameron's contention that there is a 70,000-strong "moderate" rebel force opposing ISIS. Cockburn (of course) has to line up with the ugly and racist pseudo-left line that the Syrian rebels are "dominated" by ISIS and other jihadists—and (of course) implicitly frames his response in terms favorable to Assad's continuance in power:

"The notion that there are 70,000 moderate fighters is an attempt to show that you can fight Isis and [President Bashar al] Assad at the same time," says Professor Joshua Landis, the director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and an expert on Syrian politics. But he is dismissive of the idea that such a potential army exists, though he says there might be 70,000 Syrians with a gun who are fighting for their local clan, tribe, warlord or village. "The problem is that they hate the village down the road just as much they hate Isis and Assad," he said.

The armed opposition to President Assad is dominated by Isis, the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the ideologically similar Ahrar al-Sham. Some of the smaller groups, once estimated by the CIA to number 1,500, might be labelled as moderate, but only operate under license from the extreme jihadists. Aymenn al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum and an authority on the Syrian armed opposition, says that these groups commonly exaggerate their numbers, are very fragmented and have failed to unite, despite years of war.

Quibbling about the number 70,000 aside, there certainly is a vigorous resistance against ISIS among the Syrian rebel forces which is apparently invisible to Cockburn. And not only can you fight Assad and ISIS at the same time (that's what they are actually doing, thank you), but it is the only way to fight ISIS. Telling the Syrians they must accept rule under one tyrant is hardly conducive to a strong resistance against a rival gang of fascists. As we've said before in response to such dictator-shilling pseudo-left nonsense.

Singling out the most reactionary factions as "dominating" the Syrian rebels is patently dishonest. Even the ultra-reactionary Nusra Front is hostile to ISIS, which is not allied with any faction among the rebel forces. Cockburn does feel compelled to make a perfunctory nod to reality by at least mentioning the Syrian Kurdish forces which are even at this moment launching a major offensive against ISIS—but in the most lukewarm, unenthusiastic and even calumnious terms (not even noting the major offenisve):

The one group that has some claim to be non-sectarian, secular and a powerful fighting force is the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) who claim to number 50,000, but probably total half that. It has been the most effective anti-Isis ground force and, heavily supported by US air strikes, its territory now stretches across northern Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates.

It claims to be non-sectarian and that it does not persecute Sunni Arabs, but sectarian fear and hatred is today so deep in Syria – partly but not entirely because of the atrocities of Isis – that people flee the attack of every other sectarian or ethnic group different from themselves. The Sunni population in Raqqa, Isis's Syrian capital, or in Mosul in Iraq, may dislike Isis, but they are even more terrified of the Kurds or the Shia militias.

So the YPG "claims to be" non-sectarian and secular? Does Cockburn have any evidence to the contrary? in fact, the YPG is militantly non-sectarian and secular—it is at the heart of their ideology. And they are certainly not the "one group" in the Syrian resistance that adheres to principles of secularism and non-sectarianism. Cockburn doesn't mention the recently formed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that unites the YPG with more progressive and secularist elements of the Free Syrian Army. As for the bit about the Sunni Arabs in Raqqa being more afriad of the Kurds than ISIS—how on Earth does Cockburn purport to know this? Is he in Raqqa? Has he even spoken to the civil resistance network that survives in Raqqa even now, getting out the truth about ISIS rule through their website Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently? He certainly didn't mention them in his "briefing." Nothing on their website indicates they fear the Kurds more than ISIS. Even the extremely problematic Amnesty International report that trumpeted dubious claims of YPG attacks on Sunni Arabs didn't go nearly so far as to make such a wildly improbable claim.

UK-based Syrian blogger Leila Al Shami notes the disgraceful love affair between the Assad dictatorship and the British "left" (sic). She reminds us that Corbyn has been the chair of the (poorly named) "Stop the War" coalition for the past four years, and has now appointed the "Stalinist and Putin supporter" Seumas Milne as the Labour Party's communications director—a very bad sign. Al Shami calls out the Orwellian nature of the "Stop the War" moniker:

Over the past few days, demonstrations have been held in London and elsewhere to oppose the UK bombing Syria. The demonstrations were organized by the Stop the War Coalition (STW), an organization which has long adopted a counter-revolutionary position on Syria. Since the start of the uprising in 2011 STW has refused to acknowledge the agency of the oppressed Syrian people struggling against a fascist regime or to support their struggle in any form, preferring to see the current conflict only through a geopolitical lens. Their selective anti-imperialism means they've only ever opposed Western intervention in Syria (even when this was not a reality) and refuse to actively oppose Russian or Iranian intervention. They have never called for any action against Assad or opposed the war he has waged on the Syrian people, raining down barrel bombs and targeting civilian areas with Scud missiles for over four years. It is this war which has been the main cause of civilian deaths in Syria and which has created the vacuum and desperation giving rise to Daesh [ISIS]. These 'progressives' have consistently refused to give a platform to revolutionary Syrians. They have even, shamefully, called the police to remove Syrians present at a recent meeting. Conversely, they give non-Syrian apologists for the Assad regime a voice, people such as the odious George Galloway…

Right, Galloway who was revealed by an e-mail hack three years ago to have been in direct contact with Bashar Assad. "Anti-war"? As we've had too many occasions to say before regarding the Syrian war, Orwell would shit.

OK, as to the actual question of air-strikes… Of course Cameron was way out of line in his statement that those who oppose them are "terrorist sympathizers." (WP) In fact, all too many of them are dictator sympathizers, who favor an alliance with Assad against the "terrorists." But heaven forbid that progressives in the West should actually listen to progressive Syrians. If they did, they might realize the bogus and hypocritical nature of their "anti-war" position. They might even be capable of drawing a distinction between unilateral air-strikes on a populated city (such as just carried out by the French in Raqqa), and air-strikes in support of indigenous forces on the ground—such as those carried out by the US-led coalition at request of the Kurdish forces, to back up their ground offensives against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq.

But even if you oppose any Western military involvement at all on anti-imperialist grounds—fine, that's a defensible position. Just spare us the racist condescension that renders the Syrians and their revolution invisible. Thank you. 

  1. 70,000 “moderate” Syrian rebels? Depends how you count…

    British dissident-left blogger Bob From Brockley cuts through the crap on both sides of the claim of 70,000 "moderate" Syrian rebels and provides a very well-informed alternative text text of what Cameron should have said: 

    Although the situation on the ground is complex, it can be estimated that there are well over 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters…who do not belong to extremist groups.

    The word "moderate" is relative, and therefore pretty meaningless. However, although some of them are far from "moderate", these groups are sharply opposed to Daesh [ISIS] and are credible allies in our fight against Daesh and legitimate partners in building a post-dictatorship Syria…

    At the core of these are some 45,000 fighters in the two main FSA coalitions, the Southern Front and the Northern Free Syrian Army. Among these are the 14 Free Syrian Army units vetted by the CIA. (If you read Arabic, many of these groups are on social media, e.g. the Knights of Justice Brigade or the Falcons of al-Ghab.)

    There are dozens of other groups, making up a further 30,000 fighters or more, some in large effective coalitions, which are on the spectrum towards al-Nusra but which are first and foremost about creating a free Syria. This analysis from the Institute for the Study of War shows which ones are independent (marked in green) or allied to or separable from al-Nusra (marked in yellow).

    Add to these several tribal or ethnic militias, such as the Turkmen regiments (with 3,000 or more fighters) who came to Western notice the other week when they shot a Russian pilot.

    In addition, there are Kurdish fighters. Most of the Kurdish fighters in Syria are part of the YPG/YPJ, the male [actually mixed-gender—WW4R] and female militias of the political party PYD… Estimates of the size of the YPG/YPJ force vary between 25,000 and 50,000, but the more plausible claims are at the lower end of that scale. It has proved to be the most effective and reliable force against ISIS, and it has allied with four major…predominantly Arab groups…in the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF, which…has made important advances in the North, with US support. However, the Kurds are not interested in advancing into non-Kurdish territory, which means we cannot work with them alone.

    Finally, there are a further 15,000 fighters in Islamist-dominated coalitions which have worked with other rebels but are also allied with al-Nusra. It may be possible to work with them, but we need to be very wary.

    We're glad someone is paying attention and cares about accuracy, Bob. Kudos.

  2. Syrians split with Stop the War Coalition —at last!

    Well, this is funny. The Guardian ran an open letter Dec. 9 from former supporters of the UK's Stop the War Coalition, who charge that the group "has lost its moral compass and authority," and is censoring Syrians who dissent from its enthusiasm for Bashar Assad. 

    StWC has repeatedly refused to have anti-Assad Syrian democrats and leftwingers on its platforms at events where Syria is being discussed; whereas it has offered a platform to pro-Assad speakers such as Issa Chaer and Mother Agnes. Moreover, StWC intervened to stop a Syrian Solidarity UK speaker from addressing the Migrant Lives Matter rally in London in April. It has one-sidedly failed to support demonstrations against the escalating Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah military interventions in Syria.

    StWC issues a statement in response, disingenuously protesting: "The STWC has never supported the Assad regime. Just as we never supported the Taliban, Saddam Hussein or Colonel Gaddafi." Of course this is sheer hypocrisy. By mouthing regime propaganda and censoring anti-Assad Syrian voices, they are directly and concretely supporting the Assad regime. 

    Nearly all the signatories to the open letter have surnames indicating they are of Arab or Muslim background. This is very refreshing. StWC has sought to build alliances with British Muslims—and often, it seems, the most reactionary ones. There were even accusations that the UK's Socialist Workers Party (the key formation behind Stop the War) acceded to demands from Muslim conservatives for gender-segregated seating at meetings. Now progressive Arab and Muslim activists are giving them the heave-ho.

    Alas, there seems to be a division between these activists (who continue to oppose British air-strikes in Syria) and local Kurdish activists—who support air-strikes in support of Kurdish ground offensives against ISIS. Kurdish news agency Rudaw reports Dec. 12 that an StWC fundraiser at a London restaurant was protested by Kurds who held a sarcastic banner reading: "Stop the war, destroy the Daesh genocide and rape machine."

    This has some obvious analogies to the situation here in New York City, where the Workers World Party and ANSWER Coalition (equivalent in politics to Britain's SWP and StWC) have long dominated anti-war activism. At the start of the Arab Revolution in 2011, when they organized rallies in support of the Egyptian protesters (with participation from metro-area Arab Americans), we predicted that if the revolutionary wave spread to Libya and Syria, they would be placed in the untenable position of having to openly rally around unpopular dictators (and squander their support with Arab Americans). This has now come to pass, of course. Recent rallies in support of Syrian refugees in New York have not been organized by WWP-ANSWER. On the contrary, they have been organized directly by metro-area Arab Americans and have taken an openly anti-Assad and pro-revolutionary position.

    This is a tremendously salubrious and encouraging development.

    However, as in London, there still seems to be little cooperation between New York area supporters of the Syrian revolution and supporters of the Kurdish struggle and Rojava. Hopefully, dialogue between these two groups will be forthcoming.