Friday, April 20, 2018

In the time of the multipolar spin

So at the start of 2018 I said I'd do regular (weekly or fortnightly) roundups of essential reading, but it kind of fizzled out after a good start. Here's another go. It's a bit big, as it has about a month's worth of links.

The fascist international

Generation Tedium: Malatesta on the Identitarian movement. Hope not Hate on Generation Shambles.

Fascist internationalism: Josephine Huetlin on the global far right's love affair with Assad. Jason Wilson on the alt-right anti-war movement.

American fascism: Spencer Sunshine, on its 23rd anniversary, on how the far right changed after the Oklahoma City bombing. Also by Spencer: a case study of a neo-Nazi, Jake Laskey of the American Front, and Is the alt-right on its last legs? By Michael Lyons: Insurgent supremacists - on the morphing of the far right. Jason Wilson on far right attacks on the Parkland students.

Democrats and Veterans: Otto English on the tinpot comedy Mosleyites standing in the UK elections (including in Lewisham).

Race and UK politricks: the Windrush Generation and Labour antisemitism

Peter R screens the four Labour parliamentary speeches that made my spine tingle this week: David Lammy on the Windrush injustice and John Mann, Luciana Berger and Ruth Smeeth's personal testimonies of antisemitic abuse.

Hostile Environment: Gary Younge on Theresa May's Windrush stupidity.

Rivers of Blood at 50: Peter R on Enoch's sour legacy.

Rob Marchant argues the current situation in Labour is unsustainable. Peter R on why opposition to "heritage antisemitism" is not enough today. Kellie on why faith in one's own virtue is dangerous. Citizen Sane on the Rothschilds. One short and one long piece by Richard Seymour that I agree with a surprisingly large part of.

On the sad death of Labour internationalism: SyriaUK argue that Labour has lost touch with Robin Cook's legacy.

On Brexit and left and right populism: Max Dunbar in defence of footnotes (on left populism). Peter R on Brexit's looking glass world.

Syria: after the Douma massacre

What happened in Douma and its aftermath? Bellingcat: An open source survey of what we know about the attacks. CBS: "Inside Douma: report from the site of the attack". Guardian"Syrian medics 'subjected to extreme intimidation' after Douma attack" - pro-regime testimony from Ghouta doctors should be treated as under duress.

What's going on in general? The brilliant international journalist Emma Beals has a good post on what's going on in Syria. This is a good interview by Aileen Beaton with Robin Yassin-Kassab.

What can we do? SyriaUK on questions to ask after UK action in Syria, including Is Theresa May in breach of international law?

Resistance and liberation in Syria: Razan Zaitouneh’s “Women in The Syrian Revolution”; Women Now for Development and their achievements in free Ghouta; Hind Majaly, a revolutionary woman from Daraa; Resistance in Harasta; Revolutionary women and civil resistance.

War crimes: Mehdi Hasan on superb form in an important article on why it wouldn't actually matter if Assad was guilty of using chemical weapons in Ghouta.

Fisking Douma: The Times summarises Robert Fisk versus informed commentary. The great Terry Glavin has a superb column on why people want to believe Fisk, issues Sonali Kolhatkar also looks at here. Louis Proyect demolishes Fisk on Douma. More Fisk links via Robin Y-K, or via this unrolled thread.

On the "anti-war" left: The brilliant Leila Al-Shami on the anti-imperialism of idiots. Bill Weinberg blasts their lies and hypocrisy. Also listen to his podcast against pro-war "anti-war" jive.

Armed and civil rebellion, Class and Islam - sophisticated analysis by Michael Karadjis. Kyle Orton on external actors in Syria. From February: Bill Weinberg on the difficult politics of Kurdish and Syrian solidarity in the wake of Afrin. And if you don't have Robin Y-K and Leila Al-Shami's Burning Country then buy the new edition.

Left-right convergence

Alex Reid Ross on how a shared love affair with Assad brings the far right and the alt-left together. Charles Davis on how Max Blumenthal and some pro-Russia trolls forced the SPLC to censor an anti-fascist account of red-brown convergence. Al-Hamra documents Max Blumenthal's Damascene conversion from Assad opponent to Assad apologist.

Disinformation and conspiracy

The Times exposes the UK professors (wrongly called "top") promoting Assadist lies (via Louis P). Chris York on the UK academics fueling conspiracy theories. More on this group from Brian Whitaker, who has been tracking them for some time on his brilliant blog. Here's a Syrian refugee, Mohammad Ali,  on un-friending defenders of Islamophobic conspiracy theorists.

BBC Trending on some of Moscow's disinfo agents, including Vanessa Beeley and Sarah Abdallah. Brian Whitaker delves in to Abdoullah's Hezbollah connections.

This is a bit meta, but Russia is now providing fake news about fake news. The anatomy of a Russian chemical weapons lie. How an obscure California pro-Trump website helped Russian disinformation in Douma. France24 on the fake images of Syria circulating on the internet. Snopes debunks the Douma conspiracy trolls. From back in February, Whitaker again on manufacturing doubt, and how Newsweek helped circulate chemical weapons disinfo.

Otto English on the history of disinfomation. And a must-read by Amar Diwakar on Assadism in the post-truth vortex.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Fact-checking the SPLC on Max Blumenthal, Part 1

UPDATE: 11 April: I have upgraded the verdict on claim #1 to fact after some help identifying the sequence of the interview being quoted there.

In my last post, I quoted from an SPLC report by author Alexander Reid Ross entitled "The multipolar spin: how fascists operationalize left-wing resentment". SPLC since took it down, after pressure from some of the people named in the article, most notably Max Blumenthal, as well as follow up legal threats by a former Sputnik journalist recently qualified as a lawyer, aimed not only at SPLC and the author but also at some other journalists who had nothing to do with the piece.

A Google cache is here, a PDF is here, and an archived version is here. It's been reblogged by CrashFastLouis ProyectMarxBordiga and (stripped of most links) AntidoteZine, and (with archive.org links) Glykosymoritis and Hummus for Thought.

I have heard some contradictory reports on the rigour of the research, so I thought I'd fact check the claims about Blumenthal. My findings are below.

Note, everything in bold below is my added emphasis.

Claim #1: Blumenthal praised RT America and its show "Loud & Clear"

The report text:
The most important anti-imperialist hub on Sputnik... is hosted by Brian Becker... The leader of the Party for Socialism and Liberation [PSL], Becker regularly hosts Fellows of the American University in Moscow on his Sputnik podcast, “Loud & Clear.” 
“Loud & Clear”’s [trans-national far-right figure, Edward] Lozansky-affiliated guests include far-right PR man Jim Jatras, Mark Sleboda of the Dugin-founded Center for Conservative Studies, the Ron Paul Institute’s Daniel McAdams and Alexander Mercouris of the syncretic conspiracist site, The Duran. The program also provides a platform to a variety of explicitly far-right guests, including Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, antisemite Alberto Garcia Watson, alt-right figure Cassandra Fairbanks and militia movement leader Larry Pratt. [Note: the same point about Becker was made in the "Ravings of a Radical Vagabond" post I've linked to before, which covered in exhaustive detail some of the territory Reid Ross dips into here - go to the section entitled "The Strange Case Of Sputnik Radio". This blogpost also exhaustively details Becker's far right links. -B.]
Aside from marginal guests, Loud & Clear can bring on some heavy hitters. During his two appearances on “Loud & Clear” in late 2017, bestselling author Max Blumenthal called the red-brown radio show “the finest public affairs programming” and declared, “I am increasingly turning to RT America for sanity.”

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Islamophobia turns left: Ben Norton and the Grayzone Project

Post updated 9 March to include new material from the SPLC, which covers very similar ground to this post, in much more detail. The next day the SPLC pulled the report after complaints from Max Blumenthal. Glykosymoritis has posted it on his blog here, a Google cache is here, a PDF is here, and an archived version is here. // 18 March: New post on the SPLC report.


One of my main aims in writing this blog over the last few years has been to expose (and, hopefully, counter) the growth of what I now call the alt-left or "querfront" (cross-front) - the convergence between fascist and leftist positions that actively corrodes the left.

When I started blogging, one of the manifestations of this would be a kind of "philo-Islamism" among some leftists, in which Islamism, understood as a form of "resistance" to American-led imperialism, was seen as a viable ally for the left, despite its deeply reactionary, right-wing nature. Since around 2011, left/fascist convergence has more often taken an almost opposite path: enthusiastic repetition of the "war on terror" rhetoric spouted in the previous decade by the vulgar acolytes of Samuel Huntingdon. Now, many "anti-imperialists" justify the slaughter of Syrian civilians because they are "terrorists" or "al-Qaeda headchoppers", and it is increasingly hard to tell these leftists apart from the far right Islamophobes they were so recently the sworn enemies of.
Stop the War leaders, Nazis and Daily Mail Islamophobes find an area of agreement over the White Helmets

A second main aim of the blog has been to explore (and, again, hopefully counter) some of the ways in which trustworthy sources of accurate information - and perhaps truth itself - have been undermined in the internet age. The sponsored propaganda media of authoritarian states have been one of the key mechanisms for that, supported by an online army made up of both paid internet trolls and unpaid ideological believers. Again, the war in Syria has been a key battleground in this, as active disinformation campaigns have been unleashed on the Syrian revolution.

This post is part of an occasional series in which I just collate, in one handy place, key links on some of the key sources used by the online activists of the querfront, particularly in relation to Syria. Today, young American commentator Benjamin Norton. Two extracts to introduce him, a little bit of new stuff, then the list of key links:

Louis Proyect "Putting Ben Norton under a microscope" (June 2016)
When I visited the Verso office in Brooklyn for a panel discussion on Rosa Luxemburg last August, I ran into someone named Ben Norton who I knew vaguely as a critic of the crude “anti-imperialism” that had swept across the left like the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We chatted briefly about our shared political values and his latest career move, which was joining Salon.com as a staff member. I thought this was a welcome addition to a magazine that featured Patrick L. Smith, one of the worst propagandists for the Assad dictatorship to be found anywhere. 
I never would have expected that within six months Norton would end up in the Smith/Cockburn/Fisk camp writing articles reinforcing the dominant narrative on the left that the USA was bent on “regime change” and that the Syrian rebels were reactionary jihadists engaged in a proxy war launched by the West against its perceived enemies in the region. 
[Reviewing] his journalism since early 2016 [shows] how taking the wrong position on Syria inevitably leads to bending the truth, which for a serious-minded journalist is a cardinal sin. Writing for Salon, at least until it remains in business, might pay the rent but what good is that if you lose your soul in the process?
Sam Charles Hamad and Oz Katerji "Did a Kremlin Pilgrimage cause Alternet blogger’s Damascene conversion?" Pulse (August 2017) - this focuses on Max Blumenthal, but has a lot on Norton too:
Over the past year, Blumenthal has gathered the likes of Rania Khalek, Ben Norton, Gareth Porter and Vijay Prasad to build an echo-chamber of Kremlin-friendly voices deluging propaganda on Syria....Ben Norton has painstakingly purged his website of past criticisms of Assad (one blogger has captured at least 14 articles that he has since deleted)....

Until he was hired as a blogger at Salon, [Norton] had assiduously courted pro-Syrian revolution writers and activists. After joining Salon, however, Norton’s Syria politics underwent a radical transformation. In a kamikaze move, after purging his personal website of criticisms of Assad, Norton collaborated with Glenn Greenwald to co-author a piece for The Intercept taking issue with an article about Kremlin propaganda in the Washington Post. Norton, instead, was fired by Salon. His desultory contrarianism ended when he fell into the safety net of Alternet and his resentments converged on Syria. Norton, like Blumenthal, tried to cast doubt on Russian and regime culpability for the Red Crescent convoy attack and on reports about the regime’s bombing of hospitals in Aleppo. (All claims were false as conclusively shown by a recent UN report.) His name also appears signed to a statement by Vanessa Beeley’s Hands Off Syria Coalition that explicitly supports the Russian bombing of Syria.
In this downward spiral, Blumenthal, Khalek and Norton have now been joined by Gareth Porter, who has the dubious distinction of having pioneered war crime denialism nearly four decades earlier when he tried to absolve the Khmer Rouge for its mass atrocities in Cambodia... 
Blumenthal and Norton were quick to try to absolve the regime for its chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun and the former called any potential US response “providing al-Qaeda with air support.” (Blumenthal and Norton have also tried to cast doubt on the regime’s responsibility for the 2013 chemical attack, with latter relying for his claim on the impeccable testimony of a pro-Assad Youtube star connected to Alex Jones’s Infowars conspiracy site).... 
[Updated section] In January 2016, Alternet launched its "Grayzone Project", edited by Max Blumenthal. A new report from the Southern Poverty Law Centre also examines this moment:
Around the same time he went on “Loud & Clear,” Blumenthal appeared on Tucker Carlson’s FOX News show to defend RT — his second time on the far-right show that year. Blumenthal’s RT appearances have been praised by white nationalists like Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr., who murdered three people outside of a Jewish Community Center in 2014, so his courting of the right on FOX drew considerable backlash... 
Blumenthal was not as clear of a spokesperson for Kremlin geopolitics before he appeared at the same RT gala as disgraced former National Security advisor Michael Flynn and the Green Party’s Jill Stein in December 2015. During that occasion, he joined a panel called “Infowar: Will there be a winner” alongside Alt Right anti-Semite Charles Bausman of Russia Insider. A month later, Blumenthal’s pro-Kremlin position crystalized with the founding of the Grayzone Project
Grayzone is a collaborative project also featuring journalist Benjamin Norton, who cosigned the Hands Off Syria Coalition’s points of unity statement along with Beeley and others. After going on “Loud & Clear” with Duginist Mark Sleboda and Infowars regular, Ray McGovern, Norton plugged the Party for Socialism and Liberation on a podcast episode titled “Hands off Syria.” With other Grayzone contributors, Norton has been criticized for downplaying war crimes and helping publicize false theories about rebels contaminating Damascus’s water supply
When reached for comment by email, Norton retorted, “I know your goal is to outlandishly smear anyone who opposes US imperialism and is to the left of the Clintons as a ‘crypto-fascist,’ while NATO supports actual fascists whom you care little about.” 
Grayzone is perhaps best known for Blumenthal’s controversial two-part articleattacking the White Helmets, which brought accusations of plagiarism from Beeley. Grayzone contributor Rania Khalek had, Beeley insisted, “pumped me for information on the [White Helmets] and then Max wrote the article.”
When it launched, Grayzone described itself as "a journalistic initiative that aims to confront Islamophobia". On the current front page, with articles stretching back to October, there appears to be only two possibly Muslim authors (Hamzah Raza, "a sophomore at Vanderbilt University", and another student, Alexander Abbasi), who co-authored the only article which relates to Islamophobia. Most of the other articles (especially those by Patrick Lawrence and Ben Norton) could better be described as promoting Islamophobia (painting Muslims as bloodthirsty extremist/jihadi/Salafi terrorist monsters, and blurring distinctions between ISIS and other armed groups) and/or as promoting an anti-Sunni sectarian narrative (often whitewashing Iranian-backed violence while highlighting Saudi- and Gulf-backed violence).

In the case of Rania Khalek (the only woman contributor on the Grayzone frontpage), Sunni Arabs are described as deeply predisposed towards brutal violence, with "decades" of Salafism conditioning them to welcome ISIS and leap at the opportunity to commit genocide against the Yezidis:
Sunni Islam has always been the dominant religion in the Middle East. Historically it has been the religion of the state. People from minority sects across the region have passed down collective memories of Sunni Islam’s persecution against them (though minorities have on many occasions, particularly during civil wars, turned against one another as well). They say this explains why Shias, Druze, Christians, Alawites and Yazidis are concentrated in the mountains—they were escaping persecution from the dominant state-backed sect in the region.
Not surprisingly, in 2016, with Trump using anti-Muslim rhetoric as part of his electoral campaign, Grayzone would find itself backing him.

Back to Hamad and Katerji:
It is no coincidence that during the campaign trail Grayzone bloggers Rania Khalek and Benjamin Norton both endorsed Trump’s foreign policy. The sentiment was also echoed by Alternet’s celebrity backer Glenn Greenwald. 
The sectarian rot of these bloggers isn’t even hidden, as evidenced by Benjamin Norton’s faux-media outrage over the use of the word ‘stronghold’. When it comes to Beirut and Hezbollah, Norton is enraged by the use of the word stronghold to describe areas under its control, however in Idlib, the entirety of the population is reduced to a ‘stronghold’ belonging to a terrorist organisation...
Norton's reporting gig at Alternet seems to have dried up in late 2017. The Grayzone Project seems to have stopped publishing in December 2017, leading to speculation about what happened to it.



This prompted Blumenthal to announce that Grayzone had moved to The Real News network, known for publishing articles with titles like "9/11 Questions Remain Unanswered: I do know for a certainty that there has been a cover-up of 9/11". As my comrade Al-Hamra noted, according to Alexa, "Alternet has hundreds of thousands of views per month and is ranked 2,923 out of all U.S. websites; 9/11 truther site TheRealNews is ranked 31,634 and steadily declining."



More links:

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Truth wars, continued


This week's theme is truth, lies, and the grey area in between.

Corbyn and the commie
If you're not a regular Little Atoms reader, you should be. Here, Paul Anderson, who knows more about the British left and its Moscow connections than anyone else, punctures the media nonsense around the allegations about Corbyn and the Czech spy. But read right to the end - there's a sting in the tail.

Fake news and the war on truth
First, thanks to AB for introducing me to Coda's disinformation crisis archive. Including: How a Canadian city got sucked into Russia's dinfo war; the Syrians who watch Russian TV; how Russia uses a fake Swedish human rights organisation to spread smears on the White Helmets; how disinfo campaigns use online sexual harassment of women politicians and activists; and the three ways Russia uses useful idiot.

This SPLC article, by Alexander Reid Ross on the Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin's St Petersburg troll factory, is intriguing. Its founder, catering industry mogul Evgeny Prigozhin
is also tied to the conception and funding of a semi-private military company called “Wagner” known to have operated both in Ukraine and Syria under Dmitry Utkin, a man notorious for his “adherence to the aesthetics and ideology of the Third Reich.” Wagner Private Military Company is said to be co-sponsored by the Russian Ministry of Defense and to have participated in the military occupation of Crimea.
And:
While the Kremlin’s propagandists disseminate half-truths, distortions and lies, they rely on sites like Consortium News, Russia Insider, Global Independent Analytics and The Duran to adopt their narratives and “launder” them so that “the original source… is either forgotten or impossible to determine,” according to expert on the far right Anton Shekhovtsov’s latest book, Russia and the Western Far Right. This project utilizes what national security site War on the Rocks calls “‘gray’ measures, which employ less overt outlets controlled by Russia, as well as so-called useful idiots that regurgitate Russian themes and ‘facts’ without necessarily taking direction from Russia or collaborating in a fully informed manner.” 
By election season, the network of “less overt” sites had developed behavior patterns and positions spurred on by the troll factory: they supported the illegal Crimea referendum, denied the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime and denigrated Syria's humanitarian White Helmets. They also often operated as connectors to far-right sites like Breitbart News and conspiracy-theory site, Infowars, which crossposted more than 1,000 RT articles between 2014 and 2017 and published two interviews with [Russian fascist guru Alexandr] Dugin last year.
Such apparent unity of action and intent may have also occurred because the “fake news” sites boosted by the Translation Project have significant audience overlap, as well as institutional crossover. For example, the syncretic site 21stCenturyWire crossposts stories from Consortium News and features interviews with its founder, the late Robert Parry. Created by former Infowars associate editor, Patrick Henningsen, 21stCenturyWire’s archived stories trade in antisemitic Soros and Rothschild conspiracy theories and a battery of Kremlin-supported stories maligning the White Helmets in Syria.
We've seen an ugly example of this sort of thing this week, as the "White Helmets Exposed" Twitter account (promoted by alt-leftists in this scene) has been pushing conspiracy theories about the Parkland shootings that exactly mirror the techniques used to deny Syria atrocities, e.g. claiming the kids are actors funded by Soros:

Meanwhile, Newsweek is in complete meltdown. In last week's round-up, I mentioned that Newsweek had published a damaging and utterly spurious op ed by a Putinist non-entity Ian Wilkie (who describes himself variously as a “terrorism expert,” an “international lawyer,” a “counter-terrorism practitioner” and...“cannabis industry entrepreneur.”, but is barely literate and is incapable of recognising truth); the article was based on either a stupid misreading of or conscious lie about an incoherent out of context throwaway remark by James Mattis at a press release - debunked by Eliot Higgins here. Alex Rowell in the always brilliant al-Jumhuriya calls time on the magazine:
Instead of disowning Wilkie—a man proven incapable of comprehending plain English, who has suggested Mossad was behind the 2017 Sarin attack in Idlib’s Khan Shaykhun (recently confirmed by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to have been the work of the Assad regime, as no serious observer ever doubted)—Newsweek followed up with a second piece by him
In the US socialist magazine New Politics, Stephen Shalom situates Wilkie's falsehoods in the context of the wider alt-left/alt-right conspiracist scene. And John Feffer argues against the forms of denialism about RussiaGate on left and right, targeting Stephen Cohen, Glen Greenwald and Consortium News, among others.

The fascist international 
The far right is increasingly internationalising. Here's Joe Mulhall on some of the international meet-ups coming up, often putting non-fascist ultra-conservatives and Islamophobic populists, the alt-right, pro-Kremlin national Bolsheviks and actual Nazis in the same room, blurring the lines between them. 

Also: Here's Louis Proyect on how Ukraine’s neo-Nazis came to oppose NATO and the European Union. Here's Leon Rogozin on the internationalism of ultra-nationalists in Ukraine. Here's the ADL's profile of the Republic of Florida antisemitic militia that Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz may have been connected to. Here's the ADL's summary of the state of the US far right six months after Charlottesville. Here's Anna Goldenberg on the secret antisemitic fraternities gaining increasing influence in Austria.

Antisemitism, left and right
Anti-Nazis United has a new profile of a social media antisemite up. On the other side, UKIP's MEP Gerard Batten darkly mutters about Jewish lobbyists playing the fascist card, says shechita is “a dreadful Dark Age practice” and claims kosher meat was being sold to non-Jews to keep prices down. And UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge has spoken to a gathering including a fringe far-right group, the "White Pendragons", denouncing a local MP as a "traitor" in quasi-fascist terms. Consistent anti-racists need to scrutinise and call out the antisemitism of the left and of the right (although, as a leftist, I'd say I'd like our side to set itself a higher bar than we set UKIP.)

Alt-right/alt-left
A couple more examples of the growing convergence between the alt-right and the alt-left. Here's supposedly progressive (but Trump-friendly) Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard meeting with one of Assad's right-wing state clerics, who has called for suicide bombings against the West. And here's Louis Proyect's "The three degrees of separation between Lyndon LaRouche, the left, and the alt-right (part five)" (in which a couple of British Trots make a brief appearance, with just one degree of separation from both the LaRouche cult and several Russian fascists: Alan Freeman, a former member of Socialist Action and co-director of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group, and Richard Brenner of Workers’ Power.

Buccaneer capitalism
Kiril Avramov and Ruslan Trad's investigation of the footprint of Russian private military companies in Syria is absolutely fascinating. Aron Lund's long read, "The Factory", on how the biggest cement company in the world ended up paying millions of dollars to ISIS, is also a riveting account of the political economy of the Syrian dictatorship and war.

The war isn't over
Loubna Mrie has written a really clear and clear-sighted account of what's going on in Ghouta in, surprisingly, The Nation - a really good intro if you are overwhelmed by un-digested news. In New Politics, an interview with the Trotskyist thinker Gilbert Achcar on Syria. James Snell, in the Telegraph, argues it's not to late to stop the slaughter. Among the key points people should bear in mind is this one:
[During the 2016 assault on Aleppo] Russia and the regime used the presence of a small number of fighters from the formerly Al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front (today known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham [HTS]) as a pretext for their attack on east Aleppo, even though there were only a few hundred fighters from this group in the city out of approximately 10,000 fighters overall... Russia has once again used the presence of the Al-Nusra Front as a pretext for the latest attack on east Ghouta, saying that Al-Nusra was using the civilians there “as a human shield”. In fact, it is doubtful today whether there is any armed Al-Nusra presence in Ghouta at all. The two largest rebel groups in East Ghouta are Jaish al-Islam (the Army of Islam) and Failaq al-Rahman (the Brigade of the Merciful). In May last year Jaysh al-Islam signed up to a de-escalation agreement guaranteed by Russia and Failaq al-Rahman followed suit in August.

The Labour Party needs a foreign policy reset
Rabbil Sikdar in Left Foot Forward eviscerates Emily Thornberry's recent ("no white hats", "all sides matter", "at least it wasn't us who killed half a million people in Syria but someone else" [that last one is a paraphrase!]) comments on the Middle East. Sikdar correctly argues that Labour's foreign policy positions are increasingly regressive. Peter Ryley gets Thornberry right here, describing her recent comments as a
pile of sycophantic drivel. Genuflecting to the wisdom of her leader, she talks of Syria without mentioning Assad. Not a word about the man who launched the war. Silence about the person whose forces and allies are responsible for around ninety per cent of the deaths. No mention of his prisons and torture chambers. Nothing. Zilch. War without agency.
Syria Solidarity are rightly saying that
  • We need a Labour policy on Syria that puts a commitment to protecting civilians first.
  • We need a Labour policy on Syria that commits to stopping Assad’s crimes.
  • We need all parties and all members of Parliament to unite in supporting action to end the slaughter in Syria.

 The current position contrasts to the position which Jo Cox took back before her death in 2016:



Friday, February 16, 2018

Miscellany

East West Street
Peter Ryley is always a wonderful writer. Here he reviews Philippe Sands' East West Street, and then veers into a brilliant set of asides about nationalism.

Antisemitism: George Soros
I am fascinated by the way George Soros has become the iconic hate figure for such a wide spectrum, from the arrested anti-capitalists of the pro-Russia left to the Breitbartian and Brexiteer right, along with the anti-democratic nationalist leaders of Hungary, Russia, Poland and Israel. The appallingly dishonest Telegraph article last week by former Theresa May chief of staff Nick Timothy was a good case study in this, and some good articles were written in response - e.g. Adam Barnett in politics.co.uk, James Bloodworth in IBTStephen Bush in the NS, Rafael Behr and John Henley in the Guardian. What was depressing about it was that many on the right (Dan Hodges, Eric Pickles, the Campaign Against Antisemitism) rushed to Timothy's defence, even though identical rhetoric from some anonymous Corbynista on a Labour Party Facebook forum would certainly have been used by the same people as ammunition in writing of the whole of the left as antisemitic.

Antisemitism: record attacks, hate mainstreamed
Meanwhile, the CST records that 2017 was the worst year since counting began for antisemitic incidents in the UK. Read about their 2017 incident report here. And in the US, the ADL shows how Holocaust deniers are increasingly making their way into the political mainstream.

The fascist international
Patrick Strickland on why Italian fascists love Assad. Tobias Rupprecht on the geopolitics of Russian Orthodoxy. Bill Weinberg on Cossacks fighting in Syria.

Women's resistance
The brilliant al-Jumhuriya magazine has a powerful interview by Anton Mukhamedov (who recently contributed a guest post to this blog) on the women fighting for Syria's vanished.

Denialism, and countering it
Newsweek, the dysfunctional news outlet, recently published a damaging and utterly spurious op ed by Putinist non-entity Ian Wilkie. Eliot Higgins has written an excellent piece on chemical weapons denialism and Syria for Newsweek in response to it. Louis Proyect fact-checks some Syria denialism by alt-leftist Ben Norton here. Brian T has some questions for some denialist professors here. Olivia Solon continues her reporting of smears against the White Helmets.

Wikileaks
The Intercept has published a ghoulishly fascinating analysis of a DM message list that reveals the political culture of Julian Assange's Wikileaks project: casual antisemitism and misogyny, a strong preference for Republicans rather than Democrats, obsessive hatred of Hillary Clinton.

"Anti-imperialism"
This long blogpost, "Syria seen from the Viewpoint of imperial purity: the crushing narcissism of empire", at anarchist communist blog "Cautiously Pessimistic" is a brilliant analysis of the eurocentrism of some forms of "anti-imperialism", focusing on a recent dreadful article by Patrick Higgins in the usually quite good left periodical Viewpoint. Louis Proyect has also fact-checked Higgins' piece, and another dreadful one by Daniel Lazare.

#MeToo
Shannon Liao on the crackdown on feminism in China.

Radicalisation
An interview at Media Diversified with Javaad Alipoor, writer of The Believers are but Brothers.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

How a suicide attack on a civilian convoy was spun into a sectarian conspiracy

This is a guest post by Anton Mukhamedov
Amended 9.02.18


On April 15, 2017, several buses evacuating civilians from the towns of Fu’ah and Kafriya besieged by rebels in Idlib province were rocked by an explosion in the al-Rashideen neighbourhood of Western Aleppo.

Terrorism hasn’t been uncommon during the Syrian conflict, but the attack at al-Rashideen stuck with many as an extra case of cheap brutality. Mostly targeting children escaping Shia-majority towns besieged for years, the act of violence seemed to display a sectarian character and was done almost out of spite. The convoys which were thus stopped several kilometers from their destination in the government-controlled areas were part of the so-called “Four Towns Agreement”, which pretty much traded the majority of the civilian population of rebel-held Madaya and Zabadani for pro-government Fu’ah and Kafriya.

No group has claimed responsibility for the car bomb, but the context makes it probable that either a splinter group from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s more radical wing or a lone radicalised fighter was the author. Ahrar al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the main opposition groups having negotiated the Four Towns Agreement, were accompanying the convoy on that day and lost about twenty fighters in the suicide bombing. A theory circulated among the opposition at the time, implicating the Syrian government which supposedly attempted to divert attention from another case of extreme brutality, the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun eleven days earlier. Nevertheless this theory gained little traction.

Although the tragic day has long been overshadowed by subsequent events of the Syrian war, several families whose children have gone missing either during or in the aftermath of the bombing are still seeking justice. And revisiting the suicide bombing at al-Rashideen to situate it within the Syrian conflict becomes crucial, as pro-Assad activists are instrumentalising the suffering of the families from Fu’ah and Kafriya to push for a sectarian reading of the events of the war and whitewash the crimes of the Syrian government.

The sectarianization of the Syrian conflict
The course of the war much prior to the al-Rashideen attack reaffirmed the violent polarisation between the various religious groups, which, some argue, had almost disappeared as anti-government demonstrations in 2011 united many regions of the country across ethnic or religious lines with calls for freedom. Although minorities have been attacked by various armed factions opposing the Syrian state, we cannot forget that the policies of sectarianization can usually be retraced to actors loyal to the Assad regime, which has exacerbated the country’s divides as a matter of policy.

For instance, about a year after the start of the revolution, one of the deadliest massacres of the Syrian conflict was perpetrated in Houla by fighters allegedly belonging to a pro-government paramilitary usually referred to as the “shabiha”, a survivor even recalling “Shia slogans on their foreheads as they went house to house searching out and slaughtering Sunni families.”

Several Shia extremist groups, such as Hezbollah, which had participated in Assad’s campaign to reconquer Eastern Aleppo during the last months of 2016, have only contributed to reinforcing the sectarian narratives. And later, together with the Iranian state, Hezbollah has been instrumental in brokering the aforementioned “Four Towns Agreement”, which not only constituted a war crime, but was also a way of “realigning the country into zones of influence that backers of Bashar al-Assad [could] directly control and use to advance broader interests”, as The Guardian reports.

Rather than singling out a religious group, these reminders serve to show that the violence often originated in one camp, the same one whose repression of peaceful protests resulted in a nation-wide uprising, which then set the stage for Sunni extremism in many regions of Syria. It also avoids a certain de-contextualisation of extremist violence, which divorces it from artificial attempts of stoking ancient divides.

That’s why, when the Four Towns Agreement was set into motion in April, delayed in part be the infighting among rebel groups, it nearly came as a relief to those civilians whose hometowns no longer promised safety. After all, the sieges of Madaya and Zabadani, but also those of Fu’ah and Kafriya, were described by Amnesty as targeting “densely populated areas, depriving civilians of food, medicine and other basic necessities in violation of international humanitarian law. Besieged civilians have further endured relentless, unlawful attacks from the ground and the air. The systematic use of this policy by the government [and, to a lesser degree, armed opposition groups] has become widely referred to, including by the United Nations (UN), as a “surrender or starve” strategy.”

Even then, the rebel siege of Fu’ah and Kafriya is less attributable to an atavistic hatred of the Shia minority, than to a tactical, albeit cynical, calculation instrumentalizing the fate of the besieged citizens to promote the survival of several rebel-held regions in turn encircled by Assad and his allies.

Controversial reports of a mass kidnapping
Last week, a certain Irish-based Dr Hayes, together with prominent defender of the Assad regime George Galloway, led a series of events in Dublin to draw attention to the families of the al-Rashideen bombing victims. Supported by some Irish deputies including Clare Daly and Mick Wallace, in a hotel right across from Dรกil Eireann, the Irish Parliament, the organisers spoke at length about the disappearance of the children from the scene of the suicide attack, but also took time to condemn EU sanctions on the Syrian regime, revealing the actual political nature of the event.

Though the Syrian doctor hosted by the organisers to recount the al-Rashideen bombing gave a rather objective account of the tragedy, he mentioned a “kidnapping” of 54 children, which Hayes himself had transformed into a large conspiracy implicating the White Helmets.

Together with deputies Daly and Wallace in November 2017, Hayes visited the government-controlled Syria as part of an Irish delegation he had personally brought together. Another one of its members, peace activist Edward Horgan, shares the list of 54 children that went missing following the suicide attack, compiled by their families. According to Horgan, who is involved in a project that is trying to put a name on all child casualties of wars in the Middle East, the trip “included visits to Damascus, Homs and Aleppo”. In Damascus they “met a group of survivors from the Al Rashideen bus bombing and got the names of the children killed and the details of those children missing from their friends and relatives. Some of those listed as missing may have been killed because up to ten of the [victims’] bodies could not be identified due to the severity of the blast and burning.”

According to Horgan, “some of Declan Hayes' views on the situation in Syria tend to be very one-sided, so some of what he says and writes should be treated with caution.” In Hayes’ words, the children were not only kidnapped (by the White Helmets, present at the scene to rescue civilians minutes after the attack), but “held hostage in Turkey, the richer children for ransom and the rest to be chopped up for Turkey’s booming human organ harvesting trade”.

The cynical phrasing together with a sectarian narrative, which makes the entire Syrian conflict into a “slaughter of Shias”, does not pay tribute to the victims of a horrendous attack. On the contrary, it politicizes the families’ quest for justice in a perverse and disingenuous way, while maligning the very people who helped them.

In fact, the footage of the attack’s immediate aftermath displays Syrian Arab Red Crescent working hand in hand with the Syrian White Helmets, otherwise known as the Syrian Civil Defense, in order to rescue the victims—evidence enough for Russia Today and bloggers such as Vanessa Beeley to suggest a coordinated ploy. Despite an inscription in Arabic on the side of the White Helmets’ firefighting truck clearly identifying the group as the one based in Urem al-Kubra, a town in Aleppo governorate only 20 minutes away from the scene.

The stories of kidnapping of victims from Fu’ah and Kafriya appear in contradictory reports which mention either 200 or “30 to 40” missing civilians, either “mostly girls” or “young men”. Four days later, according to one source, 150 previously “abducted” victims of the bombing arrived in Aleppo after having been…treated in opposition hospitals, a story corroborated by Amnesty that speaks of “ambulances evacuated the injured to Bab al-Hawa hospital and other field hospitals in Idleb governorate.”

Perhaps the most mysterious of all is a December 2017 report from the Assad government's official Syrian Arab News Agency from December 2017 announcing the release of 15 supposedly kidnapped civilians thanks to “the great efforts exerted by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent”, only this time, instead of Turkey, they had been held in “Aroum”, or Urum al-Kubra, the location of one of Red Crescent’s own bases where they could have been brought by the aid workers themselves.

To clarify this, I reached out to Abd Alkader Habak, a Syrian photographer who was present at the scene at the time of the attack: an image of him rescuing a child from the site of the bombing has gone viral. Contacted via WhatsApp, he told that following the attack, “the wounded were all taken to hospitals inside Syrian territory, but there was a single child who was transferred to Turkey because of the severe injury. About a month ago, the child was brought back to his family by the Turkish Red Crescent and the Syrian Red Crescent. The Turkish Red Crescent was searching for his family until they found her and the child was taken to his family.”

Amidst a brutal and rapidly sectarianising conflict, the events in al-Rashideen were a mind-numbingly horrific incident, but also an extra example of how uncertainty at times of war plays into the hands of those whose credibility depends on their own war crimes being whitewashed.

The truth clouded in smoke
An article written in May 2017, a month after the suicide bombing, mentions the burial of the 52 unidentified victims, possibly confirming Horgan’s suspicions. Still, Amnesty claims that “two close relatives of people missing since the explosion (…) received evidence that suggests that their missing relatives were abducted by the armed group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham”, something which the advocacy group was unable to verify.

“Of course if children are missing,” an activist explains, “we are very concerned for them, as we are for all the children of Syria harmed by whomsoever (most were killed by Assad). In a war situation children separated from family, even for medical care, are always very vulnerable. Sadly some of the missing children may be among the unidentified dead.”

Not getting to the bottom of what happened that day is certainly frustrating, but at least admitting so frankly spares us misleading narratives, which might be just one step away from conspiracy theories smearing rescue workers in a war-torn country. Researching what happened at al-Rashideen on April 15, 2017 reminded me of the words of caution I had heard a little earlier from someone also closely following the conflict: “If your first reaction to what is happening in Syria is not speechlessness, I wonder what kind of person you are.”

When asked about what he could do about the children who went missing in al-Rashideen, Simon Coveney, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade gave his “personal assurance”, that if he was “given something [he] could follow up” regarding the event, he would be “more than happy to do it.”

Perhaps, this is for the best. “We are finding it very hard to verify the true situation but Coveney's Department may be in a position to find out more,” says an Irish activist campaigning for justice in Syria. The information assembled in this piece is far from sufficient to trace an accurate portrait of the sectarianization of the Syrian conflict, but it is enough to call out unprincipled supporters of war criminals, for whom the loss of life in foreign countries matters solely when they are able to integrate it into their own political narrative to fight sectarian battles at home.

Friday, February 02, 2018

A fortnight later

Another round-up of some of the things I've read over the past days.

Afrin

Hezbollah
  • Joan Ryan's parliamentary speech against Hezbollah focused on its threat to Israel and Jews. Syria Solidarity has published an important briefing that highlights a neglected and in some ways more significant indictment of Hezbollah: its role in extensive crimes against Syrian civilians. Read it.
We are all Hezbollah
  • It's always a pleasure to read Padraig Reidy. Here he tells us why he feels sorry for George Galloway.
Does Labour have an antisemitism problem?
  • Marlon Gutman's ballad of Mike Sivier is a brilliant case study in a particularly corrosive form of low-level antisemitism that is all too common on the left.
Alt-leftism
  • Charles Davis forensically takes apart Redfish, a supposedly "grassroots" lefty citizen media site that turns out to be part of the Russian state.
  • I mentioned "An Investigation Into Red-Brown Alliances: Third Positionism, Russia, Ukraine, Syria, And The Western Left" in a recent edition, but it's been edited and re-blogged at Libcom. It's very long, but it is really valuable. 
Lesser evilism

Friday, January 19, 2018

Something for the weekend

Can't believe I've kept this up for three weeks in a row now. It'll soon crumble. Today, once again, the main focus is on fascism and the right.

The far right 

1. In my last post, I named 14 people killed by far right activists in the US in 2017. According to a report this week by the ADL, it turns out there were 18 killings. I missed out Charles Davis, killed in July, Jorge Slaughter in June, and Nazis Andrew Oneschuk and Jeremy Himmelmann, killed by a fellow Nazi who converted to Islam, as well as a number of incidents of white supremacists killing people in non-political incidents or killing each other in internal feuds, which means the total using the ADL methodology is actually higher than they state.

Newsweek summarises:
The center counted a total of 34 people killed by domestic extremists, of which 18 were killed by white supremacists, more than double the number from the previous year. In the past decade, right-wing extremism made up 71 percent of extremist-related murders, compared with 26 percent of murders by Islamic extremists. 
The ADL say "The 18 white supremacist murders included several killings linked to the alt right as that movement expanded its operations in 2017 from the internet into the physical world – raising the likely possibility of more such violent acts in the future."

2. Spencer Sunshine has another thorough and important piece up about Steve Bannon and his "washed out" antisemitism - coded antisemitism, far right influences and his influence on the far right scene.

3. This blog has an incredibly long and super thorough account of red-brown alliances and third positionism. If anyone has contact with the author, please ask them to give me a shout, as I'd love to repost bits of it. Coatesy has some good extracts and comments.

4. For one example of red-brown crossover in the pro-Assad scene, meet Tim Anderson of the University of Sydney.

5. At the Institute for Social Ecology website, Steven Henderson has a good piece on alt-right entrism in the Rojava solidarity scene (H/T Spencer).

Labour Party politricks

Although I am generally supportive of Labour moving to the left, I am a bit concerned about some of the results of the recent (19% turnout!) NEC election, as documented in these posts: Rob Marchant on Momentum and antisemitism and Coatesy on new NEC member Yasmine Dar's support for the Iranian regime. For the critical voice within Momentum, check out The Clarion, including this call, from a Lewisham East CLP member, for Thornberry and Corbyn to back workers' rights in Iran. Also: a reminder that Shiraz Socialist has moved, to here (with dreadful orange colour scheme).

Hezbollah in the UK

The CST have a very interesting report on Hezbollah, in advance of a parliamentary debate about banning its political as well as military arm.

Amateur geopolitical commentary

I wrote an extremely long summary on Twitter of the current situation in NW Syria, including the return of ISIS and Turkish aggression against majority-Kurdish Afrin, which has had a surprising number of retweets. Start here if you're interested: