Max Blumenthal and the Rhizomes

In the course of the last two weeks, since the end of the so called “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, over 250,000 people living in East Aleppo have been subjected to an unprecedented barrage of bombing, targeting hospitals, schools, and even the underground shelters they have built to protect themselves from previous assaults.

These events have received widespread attention from the world’s media, which heretofore had been obsessed mostly with ISIS, and one factor contributing to that has been the attention attracted by the civil defence force that operates within opposition areas, known as the “White Helmets. These heroic individuals were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and were the subject of a powerful documentary broadcast to wide acclaim on Netflix.

This has generated fury in the pro-Assad camp because the focus on the White Helmets also means a focus on the desperate situation of the inhabitants of opposition communities in Syria and the criminal efforts of the regime and its allies to crush their spirit. For the past 18 months the pro-regime camp has sought to denigrate the White helmets and anyone who tries to promote public awareness of what is happening Syria.

Recently, they have been joined by someone called Max Blumenthal. I have never heard of Blumenthal but I understand that he is regarded as someone of significance in the US left, and since he has a lot to say about the movement that I am involved in, I feel the need to respond to what he has had to say.

The first thing to note about Blumenthal is his pervasive paternalism. His paternalism towards Syrians has been dealt with very effectively by Marcel Shehwaro of Kesh Malek, who is well placed to express the views of both the victims of the Syrian regime’s oppression and the popular, democratic resistance to it.

Blumenthal extends his paternalism to the international movement of solidarity with Assad’s victims – and that means he is treading on my toes, so I feel entitled to voice a protest which I believe would be shared by the many thousands who have taken to the streets around the world to support Aleppo and the other centres of resistance to Assad and his allies.

Blumenthal says the following about the demonstrations that took place in September-October of this year to protest against the onslaught on Aleppo.

On September 30, demonstrators gathered in city squares across the West for a “weekend of action” to “stop the bombs” raining down from Syrian government and Russian warplanes on rebel-held eastern Aleppo. Thousands joined the protest … Few participants likely knew that the actions were organized under the auspices of an opposition-funded public relations company called the Syria Campaign …  The group is able to operate within the halls of power in Washington and has the power to mobilise thousands of demonstrators into the streets. (my emphasis)

This seems to imply that we were all naïve dupes being led by the nose by some “shadowy” force – I haven’t heard charges like that since the days of the anti-Vietnam war movement, when right wing commentators portrayed us as all as tools of a “shadowy” Communist Party. And they are as nonsensical now as they were then.

Blumenthal professes a fondness for facts, so let me provide a little factual  history .The international Syria solidarity movement emerged initially in  a series of spontaneous actions (mostly flash mobs) that took place  across the world in town centres, high schools and universities in the course of 2011-12. You Tube has a good record of these (its counter says 100, 000 but the real number is probably fewer than that) Most- but not all – were organised by young members of the Syrian diaspora. I think the kudos for being the first organised solidarity group goes to the Toronto-based Like for Syria which was established in January 2011, and has done amazing awareness raising work in the streets of Toronto. This was followed closely by Leeds Friends of Syria, established in the UK later that year.

As the situation in Syria unfolded, it had an impact in the international left and solidarity mileux which began to differentiate between those for whom “anti-imperialism” was a mechanical mantra that would lead them to embrace brutal dictatorships on geopolitical grounds (much like western “realist” policy makers), and those whose anti-imperialism rested on a bedrock of internationalism and support for the oppressed and their struggles.

Argentina : "We support those in struggle across the world" the anti-imperiaism of internationalists The anti-imperialism of internationalists (Argentina)
“We  support those who are in struggle across the world”

 

The first round of global demonstrations for Syria took place in June 2011 and March 2012 (this seemed to worry  the Syrian regime so much that they sponsored  their own “Global March for Syria in 2012) and regular international solidarity events followed. The movement was greatly strengthened by the Declaration of Solidarity issued by the World Social Forum in 2013.That May groups like the Brazilian metalworkers union came on board, and by May 2014, solidarity demonstrations were taking place in 28 cities worldwide, including 3 in Palestine, several across Latin America, in Bucharest, and in Mauritius.

Palestinian Demonstrators at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem 2013Palestinian demonstrators at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem.  May 2014

 

In my own home ground, Britain, members of the Syrian community took part in the first Global campaign in 2012. A broader coalescing of activists emerged in late 2013 in response to a decision by an alleged anti-war movement to host a notorious regime apologist. At the same time numerous individuals were using their moral compasses to chart clear positions of support for the Syrian struggle. Personal contacts developed into Facebook networking, which led to a conference in early 2014 (inspired by a similar conference in in the US) by which point we were ready to “send our love to Syria”.

As our movement consolidated itself we extended our contacts with groups and individuals in Europe and North America and encouraged the formation of similar networks. When the Syria Campaign emerged in the summer of 2014 we were very pleased to see them: they brought to the work on which we were already embarked additional resources and useful media skills (Although we had some significant achievements of our own in that respect). We have worked very positively with the Syria campaign for the past two years in our common cause of enhancing public awareness and promoting support for the besieged people of Syria. We value their contribution immensely – but the grass roots work of building an international network for Syrian solidarity is first and foremost our achievement- and Blumenthal’s attempt to take that away from us in order to construct his petty, distorted narrative is offensive.

The 2016 demonstrations that Blumenthal cites were the latest in this long series of solidarity initiatives. You can track their rich diversity in 41 cities across the world  through this page Once more the work of the Syria Campaign, was helpful, but I doubt that their writ carried much weight in Reykjavik, or with Valencian anarchists.

Max Blumenthal’s problem is that he is stuck in the sand of the last century – in the 21st century social movements do not develop  hierarchically under tree-like “auspices” (despite Blumenthal’s co-thinkers in pro regime circles, who regard George Soros as the Elder behind them all including Occupy Wall Street.). They flourish as largely flat networks – more expressively they are rhizomatic (this reference to the rhizome will be understood by social theorists and gardeners alike, but for those who are neither, a rhizome has been described as “a continuously growing horizontal underground stem which puts out lateral shoots and adventitious roots at intervals.” Yes – that’s just the right metaphor to capture our essential properties (indeed, the Jasmine flower – the symbol of Syria’s Dignity Revolution – is the outgrowth of a rhizome).

dignity-symbolOur first rhizome: the Dignity Revolution

 

Let me offer just one small example of rhizomatic flourishing. Blumenthal, in his tirade against the Syria campaign, links to a Facebook page for a demonstration in Amsterdam, which is being called under the handle #AleppoHolocaust. The earliest manifestation of this handle and its associated logo seems to be a twitter campaign conducted on 30 September. The work of a “shadowy” Syria Campaign? Nope: just another rhizome bursting into the light – a group of Iranians – Iran Arab Spring – opposed to Iran’s intervention in Syria (They also carry posts in Catalan.)

Max Blumenthal presents himself as an intrepid investigative reporter bringing dark deeds to light. Yet he has totally missed the real lifeworld of global Syrian solidarity: just compare his arid, conspiratorial account of our movement with the vibrant reality I have portrayed above.

The reason is not hard to find ­­- Blumenthal is hunting for us in trees, while we are busy cultivating rhizomes.

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The House of Commons’ Contract with Syrians

Just over a week ago – on Wednesday 2nd December ­ – the House of Commons voted to support British participation in the Coalition bombing of ISIS in Syria. The discussion that preceded the vote was lengthy and wide ranging. However its quality was highly variable. Some MPs, like Gerald Kaufmann (a former Shadow Foreign Secretary), demonstrated a clear understanding of the nature of the Assad regime, who he described as” murders” that he “would be delighted to see got rid of”.

There were good contributions from MPs who had visited the region recently: Mary Creagh (Shadow International Development Secretary ) who had visited the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, expressed regrets that she had not voted for action against the Assad regime in 2013 and urged “We need a ceasefire, a political settlement, and a path to democratic elections”; while Natalie McGarry who had visited the Kurdish region of Syria, called for “the creation of a safe no-bomb zone in Syria”.

However other MPs set themselves up as instant “experts” on contentious questions, making snap judgements with very little knowledge to back them up. There was widespread scepticism voiced across the House in the government’s claim of 70 000 moderate armed oppositionists who could follow up coalition bombing and move into areas liberated from ISIS. Jeremy Corbyn drew on the briefing he had been provided by Patrick Cockburn to make an ill-informed reference to “the FSA, which includes a wide range of groups that few, if any, would regard as moderate and which mostly operates in other parts of the country”. But no one seemed to have read the article by Charles Lister, probably the leading expert on jihadist groups in Syria, that provided a detailed catalogue of “moderate” forces in Syria closely tallying  with the 70 000 figure, despite the fact that it had appeared 5 days previously.

In other discussions Syrians were treated like political footballs: Jeremy Corbyn quoted from a letter that had been sent by a Syrian to bolster his case against participation in the Syrian bombing, while  Conservative MP Antoinette Sandbach quoted another letter that had been sent to MPs by Syrians to support her arguments in favour of bombing ISIS in Syria. But neither displayed much interest in the real issue concerning Syrians – that of protection of Syrian civilians from the ravages of the Syrian regime and its allies.

However there was one red thread that ran through many of the speeches – a promise that as much effort would be put into the resolution of the Syrian conflict as into the dropping of bombs on ISIS.

The resolution adopted by the House of Commons stated:

This House … notes that military action against ISIL is only one component of a broader strategy to bring peace and stability to Syria; welcomes the renewed impetus behind the Vienna talks on a ceasefire and political settlement

A similar message was conveyed by Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn:

We all understand the importance of bringing an end to the Syrian civil war, and there is now some progress on a peace plan because of the Vienna talks. Those are our best hopes of achieving a ceasefire that would bring an end to Assad’s bombing, leading to a transitional Government and elections. That is vital, both because it would help in the defeat of Daesh and because it would enable millions of Syrians who have been forced to flee to do what every refugee dreams of—they just want to be able to go home. (my emphasis)

These fine words, and the many like them, will probably be forgotten in the coming months by those who uttered them, but in uttering them the House of Commons has effectively entered into a contract with Syrians:  ­ they have promised them relief from the terrible violence they are currently subjected to, and a clear movement towards a political order in which the aspirations that took them to the streets in 2011 can be realised – freedom, dignity, and democracy.

Will Vienna provide that? I remain highly sceptical, but whatever happens we should hold the House of Commons – especially Cameron, Benn and Corbyn ‑ to their word. if Vienna starts to fail Syrians and their supporters have the right to demand forthright actions that will deliver what has been promised.

The timetable for the Vienna process is lengthy, but there are clear milestones that can be used to track its progress. It promises immediate “confidence building measures”, the first of which is the unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid. To this we can add steps which are self-evident although not spelled out in Vienna: the release of detainees; and an end to the bombing of civilians. Nobody in their right mind could imagine a peace process unfolding without these minimal conditions being met.

But we cannot assume that the orators of last Wednesday will have the attention span necessary to monitor whether or not these things are actually happening. That is a task that must fall to civil society activists in Syria and the solidarity movement internationally.

Let me start that monitoring by reporting what happened in Syria on 2 December 1015 while Parliament was deliberating:

  • 26 civilians were killed, including 8 children: 16 at the hands of the regime and 10 under the impact of Russian bombs
  • 12 Free Syrian Army fighters died in combat with ISIS (not only from the “non-existent” FSA but in a place where according to Corbyn they don’t exist ‑ Northern Aleppo)

Over the coming months I plan to continue tracing the progress of the Vienna plan and  to provide periodic reports on this blog, under the heading Vienna Watch.

Syria: Peace in our time?

In two meetings held in Vienna over the past two weeks representatives from a group of 20 states and international organisations (the “International Syria Support Group”), have drawn up a plan which purports to offer the possibility of a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict. This is being widely hailed, especially by western governments, as some sort of breakthrough that will lead to a rapid resolution of the Syrian situation in the interests of the Syrian people.

The Vienna Process

These meetings were “talks about talks” designed to reconcile the conflicting views of supporters of the opposing sides in Syria: The United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the one hand; and Russia and Iran on the other. The expectation is that on the basis of this agreement, a “Syrian-led” process can follow, with negotiations between the Syrian regime and the opposition.

So far this seems rather deja-vu – it is exactly the same procedure that gave rise to the Geneva communique and the abortive Geneva II negotiations. The latter foundered when the Syrian government delegation refused to discuss anything that hinted of a shift in power away from Asad and the regime signalled its attitude towards “peace” by stepping up military operations during the talks – over the 24 days of Geneva negotiations the Syrian military killed almost 2200 civilians. End of Geneva.

So what will make it different this time? Ostensibly the fact that the Vienna plan has been underwritten by the contending external powers involved in Syria. The assumption is that they will each be able to rein in their protégés and ensure engagement in the process. But Geneva was underwritten by Russia, yet that did not prevent the Syrian delegation tearing up the provisions of the Geneva Communique. Policy makers assume that Assad’s patrons have effective control over the regime – an assumption contradicted by experience. If you doubt that try asking Qadri Jamil – leader of a “licensed opposition” group in the Syrian parliament (a faction of the former Syrian Communist Party), a deputy Prime Minister responsible for Syria’s economic policy, and Russia’s “man in Damascus”, you would think he had a job for life; but in October 2013 he was summarily dismissed from his position for stepping out of line a and has not dared set foot in the country since. Assad clearly believes that his relationship with Russia is one of co-dependency – and he has yet to be proved wrong.

Devil in the Details

Let’s turn to the specifics of the Vienna agreement. The broad principles were outlined in a statement published on 30 October and a more detailed plan and timetable issued on 14 November 2015. In summary this provides as follows:

  1. Immediate “confidence building measures that would contribute to the viability of the political process and pave the way for a national ceasefire”– specifically the provision of access to all parts of Syria for UN humanitarian aid (i.e. the end of regime sieges).
  2. By 1 January 2016, negotiations will begin between a Syrian government delegation and a delegation representing “the broadest possible spectrum of the opposition chosen by Syrians” (This gives the opposition some six weeks to establish an agreed, unified delegation; it represents a shift from Geneva when the Syrian National Coalition was recognised as the representative of the Syrian opposition, and is clearly a victory for Russia’s strategy)
  3. Coincident with the beginning of the negotiations there will be a “nationwide ceasefire” monitored by the UN (excluding “terrorist” organisations – ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra to start with, but others may be added).
  4. Within 6 months (July 2016) the negotiating parties will agree on a framework for “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance”.( i.e. a transitional governing structure)
  5. This structure will then launch a process for drafting a new constitution culminating in the holding of free, UN supervised elections based on this constitution within 18 months (January 2018 ) ­ and Syria’s democratic future will begin (if all goes according to plan).

There are two codicils to this document:

First, all those taking part in this process: must adhere to a set of “fundamental principles”:

  • Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and non-sectarian character;
  • Ensuring that State institutions remain intact
  • Protecting the rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity or religious denomination

Second, The ISSG “reaffirmed the devastating effects of the use of indiscriminate weapons on the civilian population and humanitarian access, as stated in UNSCR 2139. The ISSG agreed to press the parties to end immediately any use of such indiscriminate weapons” (my emphasis).

The principle sponsors of this statement – the US and Russia – make no bones about the fact that the position of Asad in all this has not been resolved, with the West putting out reassuring statements to its constituencies that this means the end of Assad’s rule, while Russia is doing exactly the opposite.

Opposing Scenarios

Let’s look at the opposing scenarios that each believes (or hopes) will unfold.

The United States: The US (or at least Secretary of State Kerry who led the negotiations for the US) believes that the original Geneva provision that a “transitional governing body” must be based on “mutual consent” will exclude Asad from playing any role in Syria’s future, as the opposition delegation will not accept his continued presence. But of course “mutual agreement” cuts both ways, and it allows the regime to block any agreement until they get a formula that suits them.

Russia: Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov is counting on the provision for a “broad spectrum” opposition to include sufficient middle-of-the-road oppositionists to allow a deal to be eventually struck that will allow Asad to remain in place at least until the projected 2018 elections, at which point they hope that he will be able to exploit the fragmentation of the opposition to win a presidential contest. (Russia and the regime are assuming that the new Constitution will be Presidential in structure – something that is not a foregone conclusion.)

But whatever the scenario, Asad and the regime will remain in place at least for the next seven months – longer if their backers allow them to continue blocking an agreement.

Vienna’s Fault lines

Let’s look more closely at some of the absences and fault lines in the Vienna process.

  1. Confidence building”: There are three areas in which the Syrian opposition has sought some degree of relief though participation in negotiations: an end to the slaughter of civilians by the regime; an end to regime sieges; and the release of detainees held in regime prisons. The Vienna process promises to deliver on only one and a bit of them: it has a clear demand on humanitarian access; nothing at all on detainees, despite the fact that this should be a visible and easy to implement “confidence building” gesture; while Vienna references UN Security Council Resolution 2139, which Demanded “that all parties immediately cease all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment…”, its text  contains only a feeble phrase “pressing” for an end to the use of “indiscriminate weapons” Why not a clear call for an end to all attacks on civilian populations, as Fred Hof argues?
  2. The “broad spectrum” opposition. Despite the insistence that this would be “chosen by Syrians”, the parties to the Vienna agreement are rushing to produce their own lists of preferred Syrian oppositionists. Russia tried back in January to construct its own version of a Syrian “opposition” that would sing from its hymn sheet, but with little success. Its effort for Vienna is more modest, relying on fragmenting the opposition by including all sorts of minor groups; its one entirely predictable sleight of hand is to include Qadri Jamil and his group among the “opposition”. (I’ve not been able to verify the authenticity of this reported Russian list – but it looks plausible.) It’s unclear how the final opposition delegation will be determined – oversight of it is in the hands of the UN’s Steffan de Mistura ­ but it’s hard to see how it can be done seriously without some meeting of the principal opposition currents, which may disrupt the timetable.

 While expanding the opposition has been a key strategic objective for Russia, it’s not clear that this will play out as they hope. The most recent gathering of “moderate” oppositionists in Cairo (also in January) declared:

At the beginning of the political process, immediate actions by all of its supporters will be necessary in order to allow it to succeed. This should include the release of all detained, imprisoned, and kidnapped men and women; the ceasing of all war crimes; stopping attacks on civilians and allowing them to live under normal conditions; allowing food and medical relief to reach all of the besieged areas;  … and creating conditions conducive to the return of refugees and the displaced.

The main opposition groups have been divided more by factional and personality conflicts than political differences: if the Vienna process pushes them to some form of reconciliation it could be a significant advance and their common position may not be one which is amenable to compromise with the regime. What is missing, however, is any provision for the representation of civil society voices in the negotiation process or for the presence of the armed opposition (although the Saudis are  said to be pursuing that).

  1. The formula for transitional governance. The Geneva Communique had a clear formula “The establishment of a transitional governing body which would exercise full executive powers. It could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.” This would have meant an immediate end to Assad’s formal powers as President (although not informal channels power), as these would be transferred to the transitional authority. Vienna has very different and strikingly vague formula “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance”. This appears designed to admit as a possibility Russia’s preferred outcome , which would be the creation of some form of “power sharing” government with Assad still occupying the Presidency. While it remains unlikely that many opposition forces could accept this. , this retreat from Geneva must nevertheless be chalked up as another win for Russian diplomacy.
  2. Ensuring that State institutions remain intact” This is a carry-over from the Geneva Communique and in fact represents a slight improvement on that document which referred to the “continuity of governmental institutions … this includes the military forces and security services”. Here the question of which state institutions seems to be left open. This provision reflects the conclusions drawn by the US from their experience in Iraq where a sweeping dismissal of state personnel who had belonged to the Baath party encouraged resistance to the occupation in Sunni areas. Going to the other extreme, US policy makers now naively think that it’s possible to separate the Asad regime from the state it has built up over four decades and maintain one without the other. The Russians know better, and realise that this formula provides Asad with immense leverage, whatever may happen on the constitutional front. But the quote from the Cairo declaration above suggests that the opposition is also aware of this reality, and may well insist on security sector reform being high on any “transitional” agenda.
  3. Foreign presence in Syria: Despite all the talk in the Vienna statement about safeguarding Syria’s independence, there is no provision for the withdrawal of foreign ground forces from the country. That is the price that has had to be paid for securing Russian and Iranian support – and it makes a mockery of the whole process.
  4. The Casting out of “Terrorist” organisations: The provision for a ceasefire explicitly excludes groups identified as “terrorist” ­ namely Da’esh and Jabhat al-Nusra. It permits “offensive or defensive actions” against these groups, which it stipulates “must be defeated”. It also provides that this list can be expanded and assigns to Jordanian intelligence the task of drawing up a shortlist of groups that might be so targeted. It nowhere provides a definition of “terrorist” and reports say that at Russian insistence the Jordanians are not allowed to scrutinise Asad-allied groups in this exercise. Lavrov has made it clear that the Russians want to add further organisations to the list – and the threat of being added  provides Russia and the US with a stick to drive recalcitrant armed groups into submission.

It was always to be expected that Jabhat al-Nusra would be the sacrificial lamb in any deal between the USA and Russia – the US views everything from the perspective of its own domestic security, and cannot see beyond the “al-Qaeda” label; Russia of course is only too keen to eliminate a key anti-Asad force.

Without even broaching the issue of how valid it is to amalgamate Nusra with ISIS, one simple, pragmatic fact is glaringly obvious ­ Nusra has been a key opponent of ISIS; to “defeat” Nusra is therefore to strengthen ISIS (dangerously so if this should drive Nusra into a reconciliation with ISIS).

But more importantly, this gives Russia and the regime a license to do whatever they want militarily. If Russia could bomb anti-regime forces under the pretext of attacking ISIS, imagine what they can do when they are not only permitted, but actively encouraged to attack Jabhat al Nusra, which, unlike ISIS, is spread out across opposition areas. Russia can now launch operations wherever it pleases and claim the mandate of the Vienna agreement to do so. This will also apply to the regime. To top it off, they now has a UN mandate with the adoption of Security Council Resolution 2449, readily endorsed by Russia. (This was a trap long awaiting those who thought that the demand for a UN resolution was some sort of prophylactic against external intervention ­ it was always obvious that once it had lined up the right set of conditions, Russia would be only too happy to add the UN Security Council to its collection of diplomatic trophies.)

This catalogue of cracks in the foundations of the Vienna agreement is nothing short of disastrous. They will almost certainly lead to the collapse of the Vienna process –the only question is how long will it take? Assad  is already back-pedalling on the plan and the regime can be expected to use the cover of Vienna and the UN to press their drive against the opposition. (This is already underway in Idlib). No credible opposition group is going to be able to sit in talks with the regime while this is going on outside the conference hall.

But too many people have investments in the success of the Vienna process – the US State Department, Steffan de Mistura, and the UN, and  the European Union, for this failure to be readily admitted – it is going to be up to solidarity activists and human rights organisations to monitor this process and report its outcomes accurately.

The story of Douma

 Russian bombing of Douma on 7 November photo:
Russian bombing of Douma on 7 November                                   Photo: Abd Doumany Agence France-Presse

Let’s start that task by looking at the recent experience of Douma, in the Damascus countryside, the site of a notorious bombing of the marketplace on 30 October in which 59 people were killed .It seems that the Russians decided to use Douma as a test case for Vienna-style peace making. First they bombarded the city for a week, killing 35 civilians, including 10 children; then on 8 November they suspended their bombing and offered a ceasefire to run for a period of 15 days during which time the siege of the city would be lifted, and humanitarian aid would be allowed to enter. However on the morning of 19 November, when the ceasefire was due to commence, the Syrian airforce launched an attack on the city, killing 15, And the regime “Minister of National Reconciliation”, Ali Haider, declared that there was no ceasefire in effect.

So much for Russia’s leverage over Assad.