Annals of the False Left
Case Studies: The Syria Dossier
Recently (Oct. 16, 2015), a leading publication of the Western (anglophone) left, Counterpunch, published an article, Obama’s Legacy: An Abyss Gazing Back, by one Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, a Nation columnist, that epitomizes what has been conclusively defined as the anti-communist/ imperialist / anti-Russian left. We don’t profess to know the reasons for the publication of this article on CP, a bizarre choice to be sure, but, to its credit, CP apparently altered course and on Oct. 21, ran a strong rebuttal signed by Rick Sterling. In the interest of once again spotlighting the myriad ways in which the slippery anti-communist/ anti-Russian (and objectively) pro-imperialist left crops up in far too many left precincts, we reproduce below both articles. As TGP readers know quite well, presenting both pieces is NOT an attempt on our part to play “objective” with these grave issues. We don’t subscribe to the hypocritical mainstream media’s idea of “objectivity.” Thus we completely support Sterling’s position as the only one consistent with genuine leftist goals and analysis. Ahmad’s screed deserves contempt and the special pail reserved for all insidious, highly toxic propaganda rubbish. That said, we recommend you read it first, before proceeding to Sterling’s counterpoint. Both positions are presented below. —The Editor
Obama’s Legacy: An Abyss Gazing Back
By MUHAMMAD IDREES AHMAD | COUNTERPUNCH
“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster,” warned Nietzsche. “For when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”
Russian tanks rolling into Hama, its airforce bombing Idlib, its missiles flying from the Caspian, its fighters violating Turkish airspace, all of it backed by the familiar language of the “war on terror”, is the abyss staring back at an America that, in search of monsters to destroy, has helped legitimise monstrous deeds. Vladimir Putin can face little resistance bombing ambulances in Idlib when US gunships are incinerating hospitals in Kunduz. Bashar al Assad can get away with murder because, like Netanyahu or Sisi, he has conveniently pronounced his opponents “terrorists”. Syria is Shuja’iyya and Rabaa writ large.
As long as the US carries the dead weight of the “war on terror”, it will have neither the agility to respond to crises nor the moral authority to restrain its wayward—and inadvertent—allies. When Putin volunteered his forces to join a “war on terror” in Syria, Obama had little choice but to assent. Putin, unlike the US, however has targeted mainly anti-Assad forces, some of them “US-backed”. But Washington’s feeble complaints ring hollow when the US has itself set the precedent in targeting anti-ISIS groups. In over a year of bombing Syria, the US hasn’t just targeted ISIS, it has also struck Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham, the Islamic Front at least five times, and even the FSA on three occasions. Meanwhile it has been careful to spare the Assad regime as it wages its own “war on terror” against the Syrian people.
One reason Obama embraced counterterrorism over counterinsurgency is that the latter involves substantial resources, political flexibility, and boots on the ground. Counterterrorism absolves one of such responsibility. One does not have to be attuned to the politics, history or culture of a place to bomb it—as long as one perceives oneself invulnerable to the blowback. Drones, special operations, and local proxies thus became the preferred means of waging war in the Obama administration. The costs were deferred onto the targeted populations. In an infamous policy called “signature strike”, the administration even bombed people, including rescuers and mourners, without knowing their identity, certain that only civilians in the region would be exposed to likely retaliation.
For his two terms in office, this policy ensured that Obama would earn kudos for his successes while the costs of his failures were borne by others. He could project toughness by ordering assassinations from Waziristan to Somalia without ever having to confront an adversary equal in might. If Obama is Kennedy, then his Khrushchev is a teenager in FATA armed with an AK-47 instead of an SS-4 ballistic missile. Obama’s greatest victories have been at the podium: he is a gifted orator. But where his capacity for delivering inspirational homilies is unparalleled, many have sensed invertebracy when it comes to actions. At home and abroad, Obama’s resolve has proved elastic.
Vladimir Putin is made of sterner stuff. But the kudos he has earned for his recent bold moves in Syria is overstated. Putin is no master of the chess board. As his nemesis, the former grandmaster Gary Kasporov notes, Putin is only “good at playing poker with a weak hand against anxious opponents who fold against his every bluff”. Putin’s confidence is merely a function of his opponent’s weakness. Obama betrayed his hand long ago when failed to match hot rhetoric with even modest action. His resolve was tested and was found wanting. Assad brazenly breached his “red line” in August 2013 and, instead of suffering consequences, was rewarded. Confident of American inaction, Assad killed three times as many civilians in the 28 months after the chemical attack as he had in the 28 months prior. Russia and Iran were watching.
The conflict in Syria is often described as a “proxy war” between the US and Russia. Syrian rebels are rarely mentioned without the obligatory prefix “US-backed”. (The regime army on the other isn’t often described as “Russian-backed”.) The backing, though tangible, takes distinctly different forms; and the support that the contending parties have received reflects the character of their patrons. Not used to doing things by half, Russia has supplied the Syrian regime with bombers, gunships, armour, and missiles. The US on the other hand has spent many years trying to ensure that no anti-aircraft weapon would reach Syrian rebels lest it affect its ally Israel’s ability to bomb Syria with impunity (the downing of a Malaysian airliner by pro-Russian militias also underscored dangers). Instead its support has taken the form of non-lethal aid, such as night-vision goggles, satellite phones etc. It took many years before the Saudis were allowed to supply out-dated TOW anti-tank missiles. But so far the US has refrained from passing on any game changing technology.
Part of Obama’s reluctance to act affirmatively in Syria, it is reported, stemmed from his concern that it might undermine delicate negotiations with Iran over a nuclear deal, a deal that he hopes will be his legacy. Obama may have paid a very high price for securing a legacy that is now being humiliatingly unravelled by his own supposed partners. Reuters reports that around the time the nuclear deal was being finalized, the top Iranian commander was in Moscow, lobbying Putin to intervene in Syria to shore up Assad. Several months on, with Russian Sukhois now bombing Hama, thousands of Iranian soldiers have entered Syria to spearhead a regime offensive on beleaguered Aleppo, under Russian aircover. Meanwhile, Obama’s credibility has been further undermined by the Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei announcing a ban on all further negotiations with the US and president Hassan Rouhani telling CNN that, in a call with Putin, Obama had actually welcomed the Russian intervention.
Russian actions in Syria are an act of aggression against the country’s long-suffering people. Yet, beyond mealy-mouthed statements—and the silent hope that Syria would become Russia’s second Afghanistan—the US has done little to challenge this. Indeed, on several occasions, US officials’ commitment to the “war on terror” ideology has obliged them to welcome Russia as a potential partner against ISIS. Little thought is given to the toll this might extract, given Russia’s looser definition of a “terrorist”, and what an emboldened Putin might do next. “In all times and places”, said Hobbes, “nature abhors a vacuum”. The vacuum Obama left in Syria has been filled by Putin. “Right now,” journalist Nancy Youssef overheard a Pentagon official saying, “we are Putin’s prison bitch.” This is Obama’s legacy. But in the character of his inadvertent ally we can now at least recognise: the war on terror is also a war of terror.
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad (@im_pulse) is a Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Stirling. He is the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative war.
Recently CounterPunch published an article Obama’s Legacy: An Abyss Gazing Backwards by Muhammad Idrees Ahmad. It exemplifies the faulty analysis and conclusions of those advocating direct U.S. intervention in Syria, from far right wing neoconservatives to liberals and even some self-styled Marxists.
Because of the dangerous consequences of these assumptions and conclusions, it is important that they be critically examined. We can use the above mentioned article as an example.
The same article with different title was published one week earlier in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) paper “The National”. The title was “Obama’s legacy is tarnished as Putin fills the vacuum in Syria”.
The Syrian “vacuum” is a popular myth promoted by those who want the U.S. to become more aggressive in Syria. In reality the U.S. has very actively aided and abetted the violent opposition in Syria from the start. The Defense Information Agency report from August 2012 confirms that weapons were flowing to the Syrian armed opposition after the overthrow of the Libyan government in Fall 2011. The claim that the U.S. was only supplying communications equipment and other non-lethal supplies in 2012 and 2013 was for public consumption and ‘plausible deniability’. In reality the U.S. was supplying great quantities of weapons. The ‘dark side’ included a huge budget for CIA operations including training and arming the Syrian armed opposition. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and UAE were spending billions annually in support of mercenaries and fanatics trying to overthrow the secular Damascus government. Contrary to what Ahmad says, the US-backed rebels were largely a fiction. Apart from the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), the most effective fighting force was the official Al Qaeda franchise, Jabhat al Nusra. Out of the public view, to the extent it existed, FSA was working closely with Nusra/Al Qaeda.
In a confusing use of terms, Ahmad contrasts “counter-terrorism” with “counter-insurgency”. What he means by “counter-insurgency” is regime change via direct intervention or invasion. What he means by “counter-terrorism” is regime change via coup or proxy army.
Pakistan-born Muhammad Idrees Ahmad suggests that Obama is spineless because he has opted for “counter-terrorism” (proxy armies, drone strikes, etc) instead of “counter-insurgency” (direct U.S. Attacks). This is short-sighted and ahistorical. There is no public desire for another US invasion of another country. This is partly because the Iraq invasion and disaster is still fresh in the public mind. It also follows a pattern from the past: after the defeat of the US invasion of Vietnam, the US reverted to using a proxy army (the Contras) against Nicaragua in the early 1980s.
But warmongers in the media, such as Ahmad, are not the public. More often than not, they reflect the views of their sponsors. It’s no surprise that Ahmad’s article was first published by UAE’s “The National”. The United Arab Emirates is closely allied with Saudi Arabia and vigorously promotes conflict with Iran. A recent expose on the UAE Ambassador to Washington shows the level of corruption in Washington, how easy it is to win influence throwing money around, and the core policy of the United Arab Emirates. This policy is aligned with Israel and opposed to Iran, Syria, Russia. The celebrity ambassador, Yousef al Otaiba, is vigorously campaigning for the U.S. to intervene or attack Syria directly. The subtitle of the article succinctly describes the UAE Ambassador:
“Yousef Al Otaiba is the most charming man in Washington: He’s slick, he’s savvy and he throws one hell of a party. And if he has his way, our Middle East policy is going to get a lot more aggressive.”
What connects Otaiba and Ahmad is the tiny wealthy monarchy known as the United Arab Emirates and promotion of U.S. aggression against Syria.
Ahmad says “Obama betrayed his hand long ago when he failed to match hot rhetoric with even modest action ….[when] Assad brazenly breached his ‘red line’ by using chemical weapons” . This assertion is standard fare for journalists promoting war. In reality the accusation has been largely disproved. The Human Rights Watch “vector” analysis was dubious from the beginning and then entirely discredited. The most thorough investigation concludes the weapons were launched from territory held by the armed opposition. American investigative reporters Seymour Hersh, Robert Parry and Gareth Porter, plus former CIA officer Ray McGovern, have all concluded the attacks were likely by the armed opposition trying to trap the U.S. into bombing Syria. Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, like nearly all mainstream journalists promoting the war, ignores the contrary evidence.
In tandem with “Obama is weak” goes “Russia is strong” or “Russia looks strong” or “Putin looks strong because Obama is weak”. The media warmongers are like kids on a school playground, trying to egg on a fight. Except in this case it’s not a bloody nose at stake; it’s the lives of tens of thousands of Syrians and potentially millions in World War 3.
Ahmad outdoes himself in the charge for war by claiming “Russian actions in Syria are an act of aggression against the country’s beleaguered people.” In contrast with his fantasy, virtually the entire Syrian population are hugely relieved and happy that Russia has started providing air support, modern laser guided weapons and satellite information to help reverse the tide. An American Syrian friend who lives in Latakia recently reported that people in the city were extremely worried in August through mid September with increasing car bombs and jihadi fired missiles coming into the city. They are now starting to feel safe again. The mood has dramatically changed for the better. Another Syrian friend reported that in his home village near Homs, women were ululating in happiness when Russian jet fighters attacked nearby ISIS and Nusra camps.
Those seeking direct US/NATO intervention in Syria describe the conflict as “weak Obama vs strong Putin”. They are unhappy and critical because the proxy army has failed to overthrow the Syrian government. They want direct invasion even if it risks world war. It’s a very dangerous and deluded mindset. Above all it profoundly ignores or distorts the wishes of the Syrian people who have consistently and increasingly made clear they do not support the violent opposition. Two years ago a poll commissioned by NATO revealed that 70% of the population supports the government.
The conflict in Syria shows what happens when international law is ignored with impunity. Both the UN Charter and customary international law prohibit one country using force, directly or by proxy army, against another.
The Syrian conflict shows what happens when the “rule of the jungle” prevails. The “abyss” is not Syrians getting support from Russia and starting to prevail over mercenaries and sectarian fanatics. The “abyss” is the death and destruction of the cradle of civilization caused by clear aggression. The Obama legacy significantly depends on whether he resists or caves in to warmongers such as Muhammad Idrees Ahmad and the Ambassador from UAE.
Rick Sterling is a co-founder of Syria Solidarity Movement. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Note to Commenters
Due to severe hacking attacks in the recent past that brought our site down for up to 11 days with considerable loss of circulation, we exercise extreme caution in the comments we publish, as the comment box has been one of the main arteries to inject malicious code. Because of that comments may not appear immediately, but rest assured that if you are a legitimate commenter your opinion will be published within 24 hours. If your comment fails to appear, and you wish to reach us directly, send us a mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
We apologize for this inconvenience.
Send a donation to
The Greanville Post–or
But be sure to support YOUR media.
If you don’t, who will?