We have our moments of disagreement with the Unrepentant Marxist, which is a healthy relationship between comrades. Regardless of those instances, and there are quite a few, we agree with Louis Proyect about the slimy and altogether lazy output by Max Blumenthal, Ben Norton, and the rest of the Sandalistas. Max, son of Clinton bagman Sidney, plays a game that is far too neat for our skeptical eyes (the fact Louis compares Max to Christopher Hitchens, who double-crossed Papa Sid during the Lewinski scandal 20 years ago, causing pater familias serious legal headaches over alleged perjury, is luscious).
While Proyect’s conclusions are his own, we gladly showcase them so to hit home an important slogan that those lacking gray matter in the Grayzone should learn from African freedom fighter Amilcar Cabral: “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories.”
Euston, We Have a Problem!
Not long after George W. Bush invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, a number of leftists signed up with his “war on terror.” Many added their names to the 2006 Euston Manifesto that proclaimed: “Terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology is widespread today. It threatens democratic values and the lives and freedoms of people in many countries.”
Among the most prominent supporters of Bush’s wars was Christopher Hitchens, who wrote an article for Slate in 2007 not only defending the use of the term Islamofascism but endorsed ultra-rightist David Horowitz’s attempt to organize “Islamofascism Awareness Week” on American campuses. Most on the left disowned Hitchens and company because the USA was making war, as it does in most cases.
But occasionally, the “war on terror” is prosecuted by another super-power. When the Arab Spring came to Syria in March 2011, you found the same kind of Eustonian willingness to support military intervention against Islamic fanatics but this time it was on behalf of Vladimir Putin, who was supposedly defending a sovereign government under attack from bearded, sharia-law supporting Salafists.
Hitchens defended all sorts of war crimes against such people, writing “Cluster bombs are perhaps not good in themselves, but when they are dropped on identifiable concentrations of Taliban troops, they do have a heartening effect.” Meanwhile, latter-day versions of Hitchens make the same kinds of excuses for barrel bombs and absolve Bashar al-Assad of all chemical attacks. When it comes to “defeating al-Qaeda”, anything goes.
While Max Blumenthal is certainly not Christopher Hitchens’s equal either as a writer or an intellectual, he certainly aspires to be Christopher Hitchens of today. When Hitchens made up his mind to back Bush’s wars, he took great pains to explain his evolution. By contrast, Blumenthal has never said a single word about his own mutation. For example, in July 2012, he wrote a resignation letter to Al-Akhbar Newspaper because he was fed up with the pro-Assad newspaper:
I was forced to conclude that unless I was prepared to spend endless stores of energy jousting with Assad apologists, I was merely providing them cover by keeping my name and reputation associated with Al Akhbar. More importantly, I decided that if I kept quiet any longer, I would be betraying my principles and those of the people who have encouraged and inspired me over the years. There is simply no excuse for me to remain involved for another day with such a morally compromised outlet.
Not long after Blumenthal went to a banquet to celebrate RT.com’s anniversary, all such articles went into a memory hole. Instead, he became one of Assad’s biggest supporters on the left, joined by Ben Norton who, while a mutant himself, at least offered a lame explanation. Can such conversions be explained by Kremlin gold?
I think such speculation is unwise, especially since it doesn’t account for genuine reconsideration of one’s political views. Assuming that Blumenthal’s were genuine, you only wonder why he never bothered to account for them (unless he worried that they would sound as lame as Norton’s).
This year Verso published Blumenthal’s The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State Fueled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump. While the first half of the book covers the obvious horrors of American intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, the underlying goal is to demonstrate that Syria is just another “regime change” operation that the author hopes to forestall. You’d think that after 8 years with the regime still intact, it might be obvious that this was never the goal (but let’s leave that aside). Since there is no reason for this review to question the chapters on Iraq and Afghanistan upon which we are in agreement, I will focus on the second half of the book that basically reprises what Blumenthal has written after his “road to Damascus” conversion.
Down the Memory Hole!
One of the more dramatic examples of anti-Assad Blumenthal versus pro-Assad Blumenthal can be found in the beginning of Chapter 9, titled “Collateral Damage, Indirect Benefits” in which he recounts a visit to the Zaatari refugee camp in 2013, describing it as a viper’s nest of jihadists. After a few words describing the miserable conditions, he concludes this passage with a leitmotif found throughout his book, namely that Assad’s opponents were jihadists:
Among the few able to leave were two young men I witnessed walking past a Jordanian intelligence station toward the Syrian border. When my guide asked them where they were going, one responded simply, “To make jihad.”
The article he wrote for The Nation Magazine in 2013 after his visit to Zaatari had the opposite intention, namely to help his readers understand why refugees call for American intervention. Titled “We Just Wish for the Hit to Put an End to the Massacres,” there’s not a single word about jihadists. Instead, there is this:
None of the dozens of adults I interviewed in the camp would allow me to report their full names or photograph their faces. If they return to Syria with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad still intact, they fear brutal recriminations.
Many have already survived torture, escaped from prisons or defected from Assad’s army. “With all the bloodshed, the killing of people who did not even join the resistance, Bashar only wanted to teach us one lesson: That we are completely weak and he is our god,” a woman from Dara’a in her early 60s told me.
Buddy Up with Bush-Era Bastards
The next step is to cite a Northeastern professor named Max Abrahms, who led a polling team to discover why Syrians became refugees. It revealed that most were fleeing Islamic terrorists rather than the dictatorship. In 2015 and 2016, Abrahms interviewed 130 refugees and discovered that a mere 16 percent blamed Assad for their flight.
Abrahms is a member of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy that cheered on George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq as well as Israel’s nonstop war on the Palestinians.
In 2010, Blumenthal blasted the very same Washington Institute for Near East Policy for helping to launch an Islamophobic crusade. (Apparently it is acceptable to take Abrahms at his word when it is the Kremlin rather than Washington dropping the bombs.) It also helps that this former West Point lecturer on terrorism concurs with Blumenthal’s demonization of Syrian rebels.
When Abrahms wrote in Foreign Affairs that “Assad’s main enemies in Syria have been dangerous extremists, no matter how many governments fund them, train them, or arm them,” he was on Blumenthal’s side even if his politics were indistinguishable from Netanyahu’s.
Oh, Well, Maybe I Used to Dislike Bashar, BUT NOW…
Perhaps the only hint that Blumenthal was ever opposed to Assad comes in the beginning of Chapter 6 (The Next Dirty War) where the first paragraph alludes to Assad’s “repression and cronyism”, as well as the neoliberal policies associated with Assad’s first cousin, the billionaire Rami Makhlouf.
Once that paragraph is out of the way, he can concentrate on the main purpose of the chapter, which is to demonstrate that early on the revolt used sectarian violence against the well-meaning President, who, despite all these sins, was supported by 55% of the population according to a Qatar poll taken in 2012. The poll was exploited in a broad propaganda offensive that year to legitimize Assad. While his 88.7% vote totals in 2014 might raise eyebrows, how can you question the findings of a Qatari poll? After all, Qatar was widely regarded as an Islamist state.
The Polling of a Putz
There was a sleight-of-hand in Blumenthal’s reference to 55% of Syrians backing Assad. Fifty-five percent of Syrians would be about 11 million people but it turns out that only 97 took part in the poll since it was limited to those who had Internet access and a deliberately small sampling at that.
With 53 among the 97 Syrians reached saying they did not want him to resign (not exactly a ringing endorsement), it hardly buttresses Blumenthal’s case for Assad. Perhaps the best opinion poll would have been free elections, but that would have risked the family dynasty being ousted, and thus strictly out of the question. As his supporters’ graffiti made clear, the choice was either Assad or burning down the country. It turned out that they got both.
Bananas in Baniyas: Trotting Out Lazy Logic, Guilt-By-Association, and Paranoid Orientalist Narratives
To make the connection between the Taliban and Syrian rebels, Blumenthal wastes no time. Immediately after the perfunctory reference to class divisions in Syria, he introduces us to a Salafist bogeyman who is supposed to symbolize everybody opposed to the regime, namely Anas al-Ayrout, a cleric in the seaport town of Baniyas who was opposed to mixed-gender classes and called for ending the ban on niqab, the full-face veil.
For a more balanced treatment of Baniyas, I recommend “Cities in Revolution: Baniyas”, a 34-page report that presents an entirely different portrait of al-Ayrout. Despite the fact that he held conservative religious views, he was not a sectarian. In one of the first protests in Baniyas, this was his role catalyzing a chant that was taken up by the crowd: “Sunni, Alawi, we all want freedom” and the protesters repeated after him until they reached the intelligence security headquarters in the city.
What was the response of the dictatorship’s supporters? A few days later, a pro-Assad militia stormed into the town and carried out mass arrests. The last mass protest took place on May 5, 2011. Led by women, they were confronted by the military and intelligence forces who shot many peaceful protestors. Dozens were arrested, many of whom are still detained if they were fortunate enough not to be murdered in prison. The town remained restive. In the next round of protests in 2013, the dictatorship went even further. According to the UN, between 300 to 450 people were killed.
None of this is reflected in Blumenthal’s chapter. Instead, he reports on how a single Alawite fruit vendor was killed in Baniyas—a sad but not unexpected reaction to the bloodbath Sunnis suffered. Blumenthal was simply repackaging what Syrian media was saying at the time, namely that the military was on a mission to clear out “the terrorists”.
Let’s Do the Time Warp Again: Insisting It’s Like Afghanistan Circa 1983
After repeated slaughters such as this, the opposition to Assad finally saw the need to take up arms to defend the mass movement. Once weaponry became available from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Pentagon, a “proxy war” erupted that, according to Blumenthal, “began to look more and more like Afghanistan in the 1980s.”
This is the central argument of Management of Savagery. Washington supposedly sought to replace Assad with a “pliant, pro-Western Sunni government, like the kind that ruled Jordan.”
Since it is clear that Blumenthal is unfamiliar with Marxism and therefore clueless on class (or is it classless without a clue?), the failure to identify the class alignments in Syria should be expected.
Contrary to his analogy with Jordan (or Iraq for that matter), there was no significant social support for “regime change” among the country’s elite. The Sunni bourgeoisie was one of the mainstays of an economic and political elite that was united in its hostility toward the rural and the young urban opposition whatever their religious beliefs.