The Nation magazine's avid Putin propagandist Stephen F. Cohen was featured in an online audio interview Aug. 17, once again dutifully parroting the Moscow line on Syria and Ukraine. But the Syria discussion reached a unprecedented nadir, even for him: echoing the standard Russian propaganda trick of conflating all rebel forces with ISIS—even as the Syrian rebels are actually fighting ISIS. This is another one to file under "Orwell would shit." But sincere "leftists" who only get their news from places like The Nation will never know they are being lied to. Reads the introductory text for the interview: "Putin needs a decision by Obama now as the crucial battle for Aleppo intensifies. Under his own pressure at home, Putin seems resolved to end the Islamic State's occupation of Syria, Aleppo being a strategic site, without or with US cooperation, which he would prefer to have." What does the Putin-Assad war on Aleppo have to do with the fight against ISIS? Absolutely nothing. ISIS is not in Aleppo. Its attempts to establish an enclave in the city were, in fact, repulsed by the very rebel forces that Moscow and Damascus are now savagely bombing.
A little after 25-minute point he says "Aleppo is forcing the issue. The Russians are going to take this city." He repeats "They're gonna to take it." (sic) He says Obama has made "secret overtures" to Russia to make a deal to cooperate in fighting ISIS… "Russia with its Assad allies and Iran has been doing the destruction of the Islamic state in Syria," he says and Obama, who feared his only foreign policy achievement might be killing Bin Laden, wanted to get in on the Russian war on ISIS. This is the standard Putin line. The U.S. hasn't fought ISIS seriously (despite bombing it steadily for the last two years). It’s the Assad/Russian/Iran alliance that fights ISIS (though those forces overwhelmingly battle other Assad opponents and not ISIS)…
One could go on but there’s a breathtaking error in Cohen’s whole analysis. He claims that the Russians are fed up and they’re going to finish off ISIS by winning the crucial battle of Aleppo. The problem with this thinking is that ISIS isn’t in Aleppo. It was kicked out of the city of Aleppo in 2014. Its forces were pushed away from areas northeast of Aleppo in 2015. Jabhat Fath al-Sham which was an open al-Qaeda affiliate (it's claimed to have broken away) is indeed a power in Aleppo, but ISIS and al-Qaeda are violently at odds with each other. Only the crudest mouthpieces for Assad or Putin claim that in 2016 al-Qaeda and ISIS are the same thing.
I really was shocked by this Cohen interview. I shouldn’t have been. Back last September he had the gall to condemn the entire “Arab Spring,” the 2011 revolutions against tyrannical rule, in an audio interview entitled "Has Russia Been Right All Along about the Arab Spring?" Cohen answers in the affirmative. With more than a tinge of racism he says Putin “warned from the beginning that the Arab Spring with its toppling of governments would not lead to democracy, but would kick over ancient tombstones and release terrible forces, partly in the form of the very radical murderous Islamic type of movement." Still, as hundreds of thousands in eastern Aleppo struggle against the siege and images of devastated Syrian children go viral, this Cohen/Batchelor conversation marks a new low.
Interestingly, the interview was conducted by the very pro-Israel John Batchelor, pointing to a convergence of the American "left" and Zionist right around a pro-Moscow, pro-dictatorship position animated by fear of the Arab masses. We must ask again: Why is the left today so suspicious of revolution?
Also in The Nation Aug. 24 is a piece by Adam H. Johnson of the always-problematic Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) entitled "Pundits, Decrying the Horrors of War in Aleppo, Demand Expanded War." There is more deception just in the headline than dishonest use of the epithet "pundit" (as if this category does not include Cohen and Johnson himself). Note that what is to blame for the horror in Aleppo is just the abstract word "war"—not identifiable parties like Putin and Assad. The thrust of the piece is to argue against a no-fly zone, which is dismissed as a "humanitarian euphemism." You would never know from reading this that the demand for a no-fly zone is not being raised just by stateside "pundits," but by the people of Aleppo. Betrayed by the outside world, the city's residents have even taken to burning hundreds of tires in the streets to create a haze over the city as a hindrance to bombing raids—their own improvised "no-fly zone."
There are certainly problems with a no-fly zone—first and foremost, getting Russia to go along with it, or else risking direct superpower confrontation. But to portray it merely as a demand of "pundits" and "laptop bombardiers" is sickening propaganda.
There are a few dissident voices on the left that need our encouragement. Socialist Worker, publication of the sectarian International Socialist Organization (ISO) which has been wrong about much in the past, now rises to the occasion, calling out fellow leftists for their double standard "anti-imperialism" that is blind to Russian imperial aggression in Syria. The piece, "Anti-imperialism and the Syrian Revolution," has, strangely, also run on Counterpunch—which has literally served as an organ of regime propaganda, actually running a piece earlier this year by Bouthaina Shaaban, official public relations advisor for the Assad regime.
This raises the tactical question of whether it is better to try to pry open Counterpunch to a revolutionary position on Syria (and risk loaning legitimacy to a publication overwhelmingly pro-dictatorship), or to boycott them on principle (and risk abandoning their readers to sinister propaganda).
This question now applies to The Nation as well.