Bombs Are “Civilised”, But Knives Are Barbaric?

At least 212 Syrian civilians were killed in bombings by the US coalition in the Tokhar area of Manbij on Tuesday. Manbij is the scene of fierce fighting between Da’esh and the PKK’s YPG offshoot and allies in the SDF (“Syria Democratic Forces”), which have been conducting a fierce battle to take control of the city since May, with close air support from the US coalition.

The first bombings were indiscriminate, and came at 3am while residents were The strikes levelled a school in Tokhar, a town of 3,500 people. The school was well-known as a site at which displaced people were sheltered. Initial figures reported anything from 65 to 160 people being killed in the attack. Abu Omar al-Manbiji, a local citizen journalist, told Syria Direct that the casualty levels were horrific, even at the lower estimates. “So far we count 124 dead from the attack, and that number could very well increase.” Later numbers put the death toll higher, at at least 212 people (and rising). The US command merely claimed that it “needed to investigate” the claims, remaining silent about the online evidence. 21 civilians were also killed in the Hazawneh quarter of the city.

This wasn’t mentioned much by the coalition, of course. An impassive CENTCOM report breezily claimed that their airstrikes had “struck eight separate [IS] tactical units” around Manbij. How a school full of civilians could be mistaken for a Da’esh tactical unit wasn’t mentioned in the report. The Tokhar region is 15km northeast of the city of Manbij, and far from the battlefield. Mainstream media reports, however, quickly wrote them off as “mistaken” attacks, paying little attention to the fact that a very similar incident in Afghanistan occurred, in which the USAF bombed Kunduz hospital last year. The act was later determined to be a war crime, although the US denied it.

How several separate airstrikes on overtly civilian areas could be written off as a simple error (in the age of intelligence and satellite technology) is also a mystery to many Syrians. Coalition spokesman Col. Chris Garver brushed off the attacks by claiming the US is “extraordinarily careful”. Clearly.

In fact, the YPG has regularly been accused of ethnic cleansing, which has included giving the coordinates of Arab civilian settlements to the coalition in order to force them out of their homes with terror bombings. It’s unclear if this was the cause of today’s incident. Either way, the coalition readily complies with the requests. There are allegations of the YPG pursuing a scorched earth policy during the battle for Manbij.

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Ten more civilians (and four children) were later killed in bombings of the village of Hamira, which is on the outskirts of the city. Al-Zahuna neighbourhood saw 23 civilian fatalities, and the western gate of the city also saw an unspecified number of civilian deaths. Horrific images appeared online, depicting dead children and horrifically mutilated men and women.

Some outlets reported a death toll as high as 320 civilians in 24 hours. If true, coalition airstrikes have killed more people in 24 hours than Syrian regime bombings have killed in four days. This toll also counted civilians killed in Russian bombings in Idlib during the same period (the strikes were supposedly coordinated with the US) which killed 15 people and wounded at least 35. Da’esh is nowhere near Idlib city or its surroundings. Aid raids killing civilians also occurred in Aleppo.

All these deaths, however, were overshadowed by a much smaller incident. On July 19 2016, fighters from the Nour ad-Din az-Zenki Movement captured what was initially thought to be a child soldier fighting for the pro-Assad Palestinian Liwa al-Quds militia in Handarat. The fighter was subsequently beheaded by a member of the group. In a statement the group vowed to punish the men responsible, claiming it was an individual act by the perpetrator.

What followed, however, was more than a little disproportionate. Video footage emerged online of the indecent.  Global media outlets, having long ignored regular regime atrocities in Syria (and showed no less indifference to the Manbij and Idlib massacres) sensationalised the killing of a single person, ignoring the murder of hundreds of innocent people.

More often than not, coverage of the execution was disingenuously used to push an agenda, namely the spurious claim that the anti-regime fighters are inherently evil “US-backed rebels” (a claim beloved of left and rightists alike) despite the Zenki Movement having its US support terminated in 2015. “US-Backed “Moderate” Rebels Behead a Child Near Aleppo”, sneered one of the worst of the offending articles, published in the Daily Beast by one Katie Zavadski.

Not only did the article ignore the fact that the captured fighter was a member of a regime militia, but went out of its way to rave about despicable rebel fighters “on the CIA payroll”, as if to suggest that Assad’s enemies are murderous mercenaries and thus the regime is absolved. Even though the Zenki Movement no longer receives US support.

Not only that, but the article drew comparisons with Da’esh, trying to suggest that a single atrocity means that anti-regime forces are identical to the group (a claim refuted more than once). The use of “‘moderate’ rebels” is no less disingenuous. An uninformed reader would come away with the impression that opposition forces in Syria that don’t follow the Da’esh brand of extremism are non-existent. Which is, of course, the intention of the author. Islamophobic narratives also developed, including deliberate attempts to link the group to Saudi Arabia (and all the internet jargon about “Wahhabi-Salafi CIA NATO terrorists” that such claims imply) and falsely portray these actions as common among Islamic groups.

An article in Gulf News blamed a “US-backed Syrian rebel group”, also ignoring the retraction of US support since 2015. The BBC repeated a claim (almost ad-lib) by the Liwa al-Quds Brigade that the “boy” was an innocent civilian. Not only ignoring the photos of the fighter in their military uniform, but also the group’s history of throwing anyone it can get its hands on into battle. In April 2014, Armenian Baghdig Keshishian was killed fighting for the group in Aleppo.

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CNN went further, quoting Syria’s official state news agency SANA on the group, describing the Zenki Movement as being backed by the “Erdogan regime,” which had “facilitates the entry of terrorist mercenaries to Syria through the Turkish border to carry out these crimes.” The fact that Liwa al-Quds claimed to have launched an offensive at the same time as the boy’s capture was also passed over.

It later emerged that the fighter was no “innocent child” at all, but a 19-year-old regime militiamen, as confirmed by social media posts by his sister. Media outlets that had been quick to sensationalise this incident in order to discredit the whole armed opposition ignored this new development, neglecting to clarify the erroneous information they had previously released.

Why is the killing of a combatant fighting for a barrel bombing regime that has slaughtered hundreds of thousands seen as worse than than the death of 320 or more civilians in bombings? In the age of drone strikes and missile attacks, knives and other weapons are simply seen as “messy”. Face-to-face killings are too close for comfort. When it’s so visibly carried out by a side you support, you (naturally) tend to feel some sense of or guilt. Bombings are another matter; the victims are generally wiped out quickly and you never get to see the gruesome results at at close range.

The rhetoric deliberately changes from horror to in differed when mass murder with drones or airstrikes occurs. To pundits and government officials, dropping a bomb on a group of innocent people (while professing to be hitting military targets) is somehow “clean”, a “surgical strike”. If there are victims, it’s unfortunate. But they’re just “collateral damage”. This language deliberately dehumanises the victims. Reading statements about dead civilians makes you feel as if goods were lost, not human life. Which is, of course, the idea. Keep Americans shielded from the actions of their armed forces by eliminating the humanity from murder, both in terms of rhetoric, and by refusing to air the results of the “surgical” bombardments.

Technology has made the human cost of war catastrophic. A man on a control console can press a button and kill thousands without seeing any of his victims. A pilot can fly his plane over civilian homes and drop his bombs without seeing the mangled bodies buried under the rubble beneath him. But this is no excuse for the world to ignore mass murder depending on the visibility of the victims.

Knife or bomb, a human life is lost regardless of the means. Da’esh members beheading western victims with knives in 2014 cannot he called worse than Assad’s men shooting and bombing over 20,000 children. To say nothing of the fact that killing hundreds of Syrians is infinitely worse than opposition forces executing an armed (adult) member of a regime responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. He was 19, accountable for his actions. He consciously chose to fight for a genocidal regime, and he paid the price.

 

 

 

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The Obama Administration Prepares To Strike The Syrian Opposition?

Secretary Kerry shared several of his thoughts on his administration’s (ostensible) plans for peace in Syria late last month. Speaking in Aspen, Kerry claimed it was crucial to “reach an understanding” with the Russian government. This “understanding” would include the USAF joining the Russian Air Force in bombing the al-Nusra Front. In exchange, President Putin would tell Assad to call off the assaults on rebel groups backed by the US (although he’s under no obligation to do so).

Talks in this regard have been going on for some time, several days ago Reuters quoted Russia’s foreign ministry as claiming that Kerry and Lavrov had actively been discussing the “possibility of Russian-American cooperation in the fight against terrorist groups in Syria”, without giving details.

This was hardly to be unexpected; US strikes have been hitting the al-Nusra Front for some time. These strikes have been incredibly unpopular among Syrians, especially due to US jets sharing the skies with barrel bomb-dropping helicopters in order to conduct them. Further strikes were to be expected.

But then Kerry let on a little more. He went out of his way to condemn Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, two Islamic groups calling for Islamic governance in a post-Assad Syria (and strongly opposed to the Da’esh interpretation of Islamic law). Kerry accused them of carrying out “shocking crimes” against innocent civilians. What’s worse, he lumped Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam alongside Da’esh, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and al-Qa’eda. No mention of Assad, Iran or Hezbollah. In fact, Hezbollah and Iran were removed from the US terror threat list due to the nuclear talks. Is terrorism now defined by political expediency?

This could be brushed off as more US government tough talk or bravado, if it wasn’t for several very interesting lines of his address. After grouping al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam alongside Boko Haram and Da’esh, Kerry claimed that his government’s priority was not just to defeat Da’esh and its affiliates, but also “its imitators”. These words are particularly concerning in the context of his previous remarks, as is what followed:

“There are a couple of subgroups underneath the two designated — Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra — Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham particularly…”

In other words, Kerry condemned two of Syria’s largest, most vociferously anti-Da’esh resistance groups as “subgroups” of al-Nusra and Da’esh. Ahrar al-Sham possesses its own leadership and has clashed with al-Nusra in a number of disputes. Constant proposals for the two to merge as a single group have lead to nothing in the past.

Jaysh al-Islam and the Nusra Front have engaged in vicious infighting in East Ghouta, with hundreds killed on each side. Both have lost hundreds of fighters in their attempts to expel Da’esh from Syria. Kerry’s comments are blatantly untruthful. As Secretary of State, Kerry cannot claim ignorance. His office, and all its employees, are acquainted with the factions of the Syrian conflict in detail.

What makes these remarks all the more alarming is the fact that they came just as Obama proposed striking anti-regime groups such as al-Nusra alongside the Russians. The Russian government claims to be focused on groups like Da’esh and al-Nusra, yet 90% of their strikes are against anti-Da’esh rebel fighters. Even the CIA-backed New Syrian Army (Jaysh as-Souri al-Jdiid) was bombed, a group forbidden from fighting Assad by the Obama administration itself.

The US president just signed up to join Putin’s “crusade“, perfectly content with his actions. Which include dropping white phosphorous on civilians. The USAF already tested the waters in 2014, bombing Liwa al-Haqq in Atmeh, an anti-regime group linked to the FSA. The attack killed several civilians.

The administration’s plan since 2011 has been to foster reconciliation between the regime and the opposition, to preserve the “state institutions”. In short, to prove to the opposition that Assad isn’t going anywhere, and they must treat with him or face the consequences. As well as preventing any game-changing anti-air missiles from getting into opposition hands, Kerry privately threatened to cut off aid to the opposition coalition unless progress was made in forming a “government of national unity” which would retain Assad as president.

When the Jaysh al-Fateh (Army of Conquest) coalition began to make sweeping gains once again, the administration suddenly became concerned about the “threat to US national interests and allies” supposedly posed by the al-Nusra Front (which has never attacked the US in its entire existence) and publicly admitted coordination with Russia. The al-Nusra Front is one of the largest components of the coalition. Add that to the US drones and spies passing intelligence to the Syrian regime and Hezbollah (and Assad boasting that they share information with him) and this doesn’t look good.

The Obama administration’s next move becomes increasingly clear; strike any anti-regime group that refuses to come to an agreement with the regime in order to intimidate the others into capitulation. Hence the disingenuous attempts to link Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham to al-Nusra and Da’esh. Unable to find a pretext for bombing them, Kerry is attempting to create a loophole. Funnily enough, Ahrar al-Sham is labelled as a “terrorist group” in the US 2017 budget. In 2015, US citizen Amin al-Baroudi was formally charged for supplying the group with weapons.

According to the pro-government Russian News Agency (Tass), Kerry will be back in Moscow for talks between July 14-15. Efforts to “combat terrorists” and to promote “the intra-Syrian negotiating process” are at the top of the list. Many Syrians would pay dearly to listen in. Many will pay with their lives if the US officially turns on the anti-regime forces. If their bombing runs are anything like the Russians’, the civilian population will pay dearly too.

 

 

 

 

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The Crocodile Tears of the Republican “Moderates”

There is an increasing phenomenon in America; “moderate” Republicans coming out and claiming that Trump’s statements and actions go against the spirit of the party and what it stands for. From Mitt Romney criticising his “demagoguery and populism” to other high profile figures and party members, some are expressing alleged discomfort with Trump’s bigotry, saying it doesn’t represent them.

Spare us your tears.

For decades the Republican Party has done nothing but vilify visible foreigners (and non-Caucasian Americans alike) as some sort of inherent menace, with an especially strong focus on Muslims after 9/11. From demanding surveillance of every Arabic speaker to claiming that the small number of Muslim terrorists (Da’esh has 30,000 members out of 1.7 billion Muslims) means there’s an inherent “problem” with the religion.

The party has spent decades whipping-up ill-informed, fearful and prejudiced individuals into a frenzy over the supposed threat posed by anyone not white enough (or simply not racist enough) for their liking; politicians (including George Bush) have been re-elected on the premise of fighting “terrorism” by wiping out whole nations.

Then members of this very same political movement want to turn around and claim that their hysterical attempts to incite hatred (often hiding it just below the surface of respectability) have nothing to do with the rise of Trump?

These people spent decades turning the Republican Party into a mass fascist movement. Then a man comes along who openly says what many of them believe (but hid behind finely-worded statements) and they claim that he has no affiliation to them whatsoever? The reason Trump has had such resounding success is because his open racism, misogyny, xenophobia and intolerance have been party policy and rhetoric all along, as the large majority of their followers have understood for decades.

The reason he’s so popular is because he doesn’t hide his bigotry behind wooden rhetoric and meaningless jargon about “national security”, the supposed “threat to Americans” posed by the Muslim community, and more. He just comes out and spews all the hatred that they’re passionately burning with, and they love it. To them that’s “honesty”.

The American Republican Party has become a fascist organisation with a scope and scale that would have put Corneliu Codreanu’s Iron Guard and Ferenc Szálasi’s Arrow Cross Party to shame. The architects of this horrific degeneration are Republicans themselves. The responsibility lies with the party as a whole, from key party members who stir up hate to those who follow them enthusiastically. You cannot strengthen your party by riding off waves of bigotry that appeal to the lowest common denominator of racism, then pretend to be mortified when the movement radicalises and unleashes a monster beyond your control.

Their issue with Trump is less about his vile statements and more to do with the fact that he’s beyond their control; Trump has hijacked the party from under their noses with his successful populism (denying them the chance to take power) and has ruined what remained of the party’s reputation worldwide. To say nothing of defaming the previous leaders in the most vulgar of ways.

If “most Republicans” (as the “moderate Republican line goes) don’t share Trump’s beliefs, and “most Republicans” want nothing to do with his repulsive record, then why has he become the party’s undisputed leader in such a short space of time? Where are the mass protests calling for his ouster, where are the Republicans who should be splitting the party and forming a “moderate” wing?

Even Mitt Romney, the man who the “moderate” Republicans have been trying to turn to, criticised Trump for populism and acting like a demagogue, and said very little about his hateful statements, refusing to offer an alternative solution to the “phoney“. He sat on the fence instead, claiming to be for neither candidate “at this point”. Criticism from his former running mate Paul Ryan was equally muted, with Ryan also claiming that he couldn’t support Trump “at this point”. Silence is complicity.

Am I saying that Republicans who have a genuine aversion to Donald Trump and his ideals don’t exist? No, because this would be a blatant lie. But are they a meaningful force, and have they been doing enough to confront this menace? The simple answer is also no. Many share his beliefs on women, Muslims, immigrants and Mexico. But they’re simply just uncomfortable with the way Trump expresses them, nostalgic for the days in which you could defame whole communities by switching “Muslims” for “Islamists”.

Cruz (who is by all accounts Trump-lite) managed to get 564 nominations in total during the Republican presidential primaries. Trump has received 1068 and counting. The majority of the huge number of American Republicans and their supporters simply support Trump; millions of conservative Americans are behind him. Standing beside the white supremacists, conspiracy theorists and dictator supporters who also stand by him.

The complete radicalisation of the Republican party is the frightening reality that Americans will have to confront when standing against him.

 

 

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Bernie Sanders and Red-Brownism

During the Democratic presidential debate on April 14, the issue of Iraq rose to the fore, as it always does. When asked if Clinton had what it takes in terms of intelligence to be president, Sanders responded in the affirmative (to much applause).

Sanders then added that he does, however, “question her judgement. I question a judgement which voted for the war in Iraq…” This statement culminated in yet more thunderous applause from the audience, especially after the senator described it as “the worst foreign policy blunder” in America’s history.

After some more time spent discussing domestic issues, the argument once again returned to foreign policy and the Middle East. When Wolf Blitzer asked Clinton if she regretted the intervention in Libya (Obama had described failing to deal with the aftermath as his worst mistake in office) Clinton defended the decision, stating that Gaddafi was removed, chemical weapons destroyed, and Libya has prospects for political freedom.

Sanders’ response was shrewd; he described the decision to enact the no-fly zone against Gaddafi in 2011 as a “pretty tough call, like a 51-49 call, do you overthrow Gaddafi, who, of course, was a horrific dictator?” Sanders then claimed that in intervening in Libya, Clinton had displayed the “same type of mentality” that had culminated in the disastrous Iraq war.

In other words, Sanders was comparing the decision to intervene in Libya against Gaddafi (which cost some tens of civilian deaths) to the decision to invade Iraq – which cost nearly 800,000 civilian deaths. This is disingenuous in the extreme, and is a tactic that Sanders has frequently used to justify his glib anti-interventionist stance; that all interventions are inherently bad.

To cover for this statement, Sanders made sure to finish it by claiming that Gaddafi “was a horrific dictator” to cover for his opposition to an intervention which stopped Benghazi being turned into Aleppo. “Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein are brutal, brutal murdering thugs. No debate about that”, stated the senator, apparently believing that recognising the genocidal nature of tyrants makes you beyond criticism when you oppose doing anything to stop them.

His reservations, he claims, are due to the fact that “we didn’t think thoroughly about what happens the day after you get rid of these dictators.” In other words, intervention is an inherently negative thing because there is some chaos when the tyrant is removed from power; Sanders specifically cited the rise of Da’esh in Iraq and Libya to make his case.

The discussion then turned to Syria; Sanders claimed that he, like Obama, was firmly opposed to intervening against Bashar al-Assad and enacting a no-fly zone. He claims the no-fly zone would be a bad thing because it will “cost an enormous sum of money” and risks drawing the US into “endless” conflict in the Middle East.

It’s difficult to see how these stances are significantly different from the stances of hard line conservatives across the world. Many of them are either passively supportive of Bashar al-Assad, or support his regime in the mistaken belief that he protects Syria’s minorities. Or just because they hate Muslims and see Assad’s enemies as radicals that would destroy his “secular” Syria.

They also blanket the armed opposition in Syria and Iraq as being part of Da’esh, claiming him to be the better alternative. Virginia Senator Dick Black (who happens to be Ted Cruz’s former co-chairman in Virginia) is currently in Syria and meeting Assad. He claims that Assad is the best alternative to the “armies of terrorists rampaging across the country”, and Da’esh would take over if he was removed. Cruz himself claimed Obama’s (ostensible) goal of removing Assad risked  “Putting ISIS or al-Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood in charge”. How are these lies any different to the scaremongering espoused by Sanders?

But probably the most appalling statement from Sanders is his claim that a no-fly zone would cost “an enormous sum of money”. This is another despicable right-wing talking point; that the lives of Middle Easterners are irrelevant when compared to domestic interests. Money that could be spent protecting children from having barrels full of shrapnel dropped on them as they sleep should be spent on helping “our own”. More often than not this is just an excuse for not giving a damn about the lives of the Muslim other; those espousing this position never get around to explaining how they should “help” their own people with the huge amounts of money that could supposedly be saved.

This is the fanatical politics of right-wing isolationism and cynicism. No matter how many human beings die, America should make no effort to help them whatsoever; saving their lives wouldn’t be in the interests of “national security”. In the eyes of Sanders, the lives of 500,000 or so Syrians that have been horrifically destroyed (and the lives of those continuing to die as we speak) are nothing; nothing but an inconvenience that would cost “a huge sum of money” if he could be bothered to save them. They’re simply not worth the dollars.

Sanders went on to say once again that “Assad is another brutal murdering dictator” (a sure-fire sign that he was about to justify something awful) but that the fight of the United States is “to destroy ISIS first, and to get rid of Assad second”. I couldn’t think of a more ignorant statement to make when discussing the Syrian conflict. It’s made all the wore by the fact that a serious presidential hopeful, who holds sway over the opinions of millions, is making such damaging statements.

The reason Da’esh exists as such a potent force in Syria is because of Assad. At the start of the 2011 uprising Assad sought to paint the movement as terrorist-led. Difficult, considering the fact that it was a disorganised movement of peaceful protesters. So prisoners linked to ISI (the Iraq-based Islamic State of Iraq) were released from Syrian jails in order to radicalise the uprising with a virulent strain of Zarqawism.

Within two years the group easily took advantage of the ongoing chaos in Syria by moving the group across Syria’s eastern borders and establishing a strong foothold in Deir Ezzor, changing the name of the group to “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”. The brutality and efficiency of the group saw it put down roots in Aleppo, Idlib and other provinces.

All of this was aided by Assad, who sought to turn the uprising into a radical nightmare. He engaged in an active oil trade with the group to boost its coffers. He refrained from bombing their forces and strong points so they could turn their guns on the popular Syrian opposition with impunity.  When the opposition had finally had enough and expelled Da’esh from Idlib, Aleppo and much of Deir Ezzor, Assad made deals with them in an attempt to destroy the Free Syrian Army, aiding their counter attacks against rebel forces in Aleppo with airstrikes that targeted opposition positions.

But probably the most important factor here is the fact that Da’esh has no air force. Assad is responsible for 95% of civilian deaths in Syria; barrel bombs are dropped daily onto civilians, killing thousands. Jets indiscriminately fire rockets into civilian areas, and sectarian militiamen kill Sunni civilians at will. As long as Assad exists, there will be radicalism and extremism in Syria; the mass slaughter of Syria’s children is pushing many into the arms of extremists.

Yet Sanders wants to take out Da’esh (a symptom) and ignore Assad, the cause. Sanders is perfectly fine with Obama’s intervention against Da’esh however; somehow this form of intervention is perfectly acceptable. Currently US jets are doing nothing to stop Assad raining death from the skies, are providing air cover. Despite knowing this, Sanders made sure to emphasise that he opposes a “unilateral” no fly-zone over Syria. In other words, targeting Da’esh is ok. But stopping civilians from being blown up isn’t. At least he’s incredibly consistent.

The words of writer Sam Charles Hamad spring to mind here: “Sanders: one step forward on Palestine, two step backwards on Syria. Many of the Western Palestine Solidarity types who have tacitly and explicitly supported Assad want to dive the oppressed and dived one set of brutalised Arabs from another set of brutalised Arabs. This is the mentality of imperialism and the height of racism.”

Sanders’ actions bring a term to mind that has been increasingly used to describe the rhetoric used by hypocrites professing to be moralisers or ideologues – Red-Brownism. In other words, no matter what their ideological affinity is (be it to the left or to the right) these people are united by two common factors: thinly-veiled fascism under the guise of idealism, and nauseating hypocrisy.

Both are fine with genocidal dictators slaughtering civilians (especially Muslim/Arab ones), both use Da’esh as a bogeyman to justify blanketing all those resisting said dictators as either untrustworthy Islamic fanatics or suspicious militants that should either be left to be be defeated or actively fought against, both claim to support “humanity” and yet selectively support certain groups of oppressed people depending on their world view, you name it. Bernie may have said some lovely things about Palestine, may have criticised Israel, whatever you like… But his hypocrisy is clear.

His cynical support of certain kinds of oppressed people and conveniently chic causes (and neglect of others) makes his nice little statements ring rather hollow. Especially when his historical positions are taken into account; his voting record is just as pro-Israel as Hilary Clinton’s, and he once supported Israel’s bombing of Gaza on the basis that rockets fired from the Gaza strip (which have killed a grand total of 33 people in a decade-and-a-half) are some sort of mortal danger. Over 1200 Palestinians were killed in that single offensive, Sanders claimed Israel merely “over-reacted”.

Indeed, the most nauseating group of Red-Brownists are many (but not all) of the “pro-Palestine” types, the ones who claim to stand with the Palestinian people by opposing Israel. Not because they give a damn about Palestinians, but because they want to fetishise their hatred of Jews and peddle conspiracy theories, from Hitler being a Zionist (Jeremy Corbyn’s faux-leftist crowd are most vocal on this point) to some sort of unholy alliance between Israel and the omnipresent “Wahhabis” as being the root of all evil, in order to divert the discourse from (rightfully) laying the blame at the feet of their beloved Arab dictators (whom they claim are “anti-imperialist” on the basis that they blame America for the consequences of their repressive policies).

Claiming to support freedom for Palestine is chic; they’ll change cover photos, share and post statuses about Israeli violations all day. But when it comes to Assad carrying out similar acts of repression, silence falls. Or active support begins. The Islamophobia and racism (indistinguishable from right-wing bigotry) then emerges; Syrians don’t deserve freedom because Muslims  need a “strong” tyrant, we should “avoid intervening” (yet they back the anti-Da’esh air campaign), Assad’s enemies “hide in civilian areas”… Funnily enough ,the IDF make the same arguments as they flatten packed Gazan neighbourhoods.

Right-wing 2012 Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul criticised Israel, yet claimed that Syrians gassed themselves and their families in the 2013 Ghouta “false flag” attack, in some kind of odd conspiracy in order to induce foreign intervention. One of Sanders’ closest advisers recently claimed an “Israeli false flag op” was responsible. Is there really any tangible difference between this verbal garbage? Listening to these supposedly intelligent people rant is like listening to a lunatic shouting the craziest bits of the internet on television. It’s made all the worse by the fact that some take said lunacy very seriously.

Sanders is no candidate for peace and justice; not only because of his selective opposition to certain conflicts and interventions (depending on what’s popular with his youthful supporters) but because of his active endorsements of others. From describing blowing up children in drone strikes as “not a terribly humane thing to do” in the same tone as one might talk of a euthenised dog, to endorsing the abandonment of Syrian civilians to slaughter in the anti-Da’esh air campaign, and the provision of air cover to Shi’a militias that ethnically cleanse whole Iraqi Sunni communities. Sanders’ foreign policy reasoning is no different from the reasoning of hard line conservatism. There’s a reason Trump supported Sanders’ reasoning on Syria.

Hilary Clinton may not be a paragon of virtue in any way, but at least she has the good sense to realise that you’re going to get nowhere if you don’t deal with Assad. Focusing on nonchalantly bombing Da’esh is like targeting Ion Antonescu’s regime while refusing to fight Hitler. Sanders’ emphasis on forcing Assad to step down as part of a “political solution” (and thus preserving the regime itself) is no different from the catastrophic approach of Obama. Sanders is radically isolationist to the extent that he even opposed training 5000 fighters that would target Da’esh alone.

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Some of the hundreds of Syrian children killed in the Ghouta chemical massacre of August 2013.

He talks often of eventually getting rid of Assad, then does everything in his power to ensure that he stays. Including opposing intervention in Syria in 2013, after the regime gassed some 1729 civilians in the Ghouta chemical massacre. Sanders claimed that protecting “American working families” was more important than protecting children from chemical weapons.

Sanders’ supporters have a duty to look long and hard at what this man really stands for. His historic support of civil rights is indeed praiseworthy. But his foreign policy decisions are more of the same. There is nothing revolutionary or hopeful to be found. Just more selective posturing about human rights while the opposite is practised, more picking-and-choosing of imperialism and mass murder to be for or against, and more disregard for non-American civilian life under the guise of non-interventionism.

 

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Interview With UPI

On April 27 I was featured in a UPI article by Zuhour Mahmoud, discussing the efforts of myself and several journalists and organisations to track down suspected war criminals fleeing to Europe under the guise of refugees (via human leads and social media research).

Many are active intelligence agents and spies under the direction of the Syrian government’s intelligence service, others just see Europe as a retirement home after committing war crimes. Either way, it’s a phenomenon that we really shouldn’t be ignoring. Thanks go to Zuhour from Syria Direct for getting in touch with me and enabling me to share my work.

The full link is here.

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Obama’s Scramble To Rehabilitate Tyrants

President Obama recently completed an unprecedented trip to Cuba from 21 to 22 March, meeting Cuban leader Raúl Castro (brother of the ailing Fidel) and working to establish a new relationship with the communist state. It was the first visit of a US president to Cuba in 90 years, involving a delegation of some 1,200 businesspeople and congressional leaders.

Secret talks had already been conducted in December 2014 that culminated in the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States last July. A significant step, considering the 57-year long sulk the two nations have sat out. To say nothing of the US economic blockade of the country. In February commercial flights to Cuba officially resumed.

The White House said the visit was “another demonstration of the president’s commitment to chart a new course” and by doing so “connect US and Cuban citizens through expanded travel, commerce, and access to information” in order to induce the “normalisation” of relations. Obama met with the Cuban leader, as well as attending a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba’s national team on the final day of the trip.

Although the trip may seem impromptu, the thaw in relations between the US (during the Obama presidency) and Cuba has been a long time in the making. In 2009 Obama loosened travel restrictions on commuting to and from Cuba, focused on American citizens of Cuban descent. Telecommunication restrictions were also lifted, with the aim of giving Cubans greater access to the internet. In May of last year, Cuba was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. In July, the two countries opened embassies.

Some have been lauding this as progress and portraying Raul Castro as a “moderate” who is focused on opening up Cuba and lessening the repressive conditions, including dismantling the “labyrinthine” restrictions faced by ordinary Cubans attempting to deal in trade and private property.

Obama has capitalised on this talking point. When talking to ABC’s David Muir in Havana, the president argued that his intention “has always been to get a ball rolling, knowing that change wasn’t going to happen overnight.” However, he maintained that “coming now would maximize our ability to prompt more change” in the country.

The reason he saw the opportunity for change? “Change is going to happen [in Cuba] and I think that [President] Raúl Castro understands that.” In other words, the premise of the visit is Raúl’s presidency being a catalyst for future change.

Obama took some time to pay lip service to opposing the lack freedoms in Cuba, stating that “citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear” and that Cubans should be allowed to “organize and to criticize their government and to protest peacefully” without facing the threat of arrest. “You’ve got more than 300 million potential American customers and one of the world’s most dynamic cities, Miami, right next door,” Obama warmly added. “America wants to be your partner.”

Obama claims that he’s in Cuba in order to “bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas”, while constantly stressing the fact that this won’t be able to happen “without continued change here in Cuba”.

However, the reasoning may be far less benevolent. The US knows full well that the state of change in Cuba is cosmetic at best. While long-time leader Fidel Castro has ostensibly relinquished power, his elderly brother Raúl has filled his shoes For all intents and purposes, Cuba is still led by the same ageing, reactionary clique.

Cuban dissidents in particular aren’t too happy about Obama’s trip, and rightly so. While Obama may have painstakingly taken every possible chance to wax lyrical about human rights abuses, his visit has done more damage to their cause than anything else. His visit to Cuba is an endorsement of a regime that has done very little to change anything; everything from praising alleged “changes” to friendly meetings with Raúl.

Now the Castro regime (which has been coming under increasing domestic fire for summary arrests of dissidents and restrictions on internet access) has been given a fresh lease of legitimacy, and possibly staying power. When domestic critics slam the regime for authoritarianism, Raúl will simply be able to point to Obama’s visit and condemn them for “interfering” in his reform process. After all, if the president of the free world expresses confidence in him, why shouldn’t they?

Obama’s visit has given the United States no solid gains. No trade agreements were made, the embargo hasn’t been lifted, and Castro took a golden opportunity to grumble about America and defend his human rights record in front of the world’s media outlets. In fact, Obama’s reputation has suffered among Cuban-Americans due to his friendliness towards the Castro regime. On the other hand, Castro was able to keep up his anti-American rhetoric and change very little. In return he struck gold and received an endorsement from the president of the United States.

Cuban activist Ailer González wasn’t too thrilled. Speaking to the Guardian, she angrily voiced her frustration with the visit as she watched it unfold on television.  “What the hell! If you talk of change, change the regime!” Turning to her thoughts on Obama, what followed was probably the most revealing  (and the most incriminating) statement: “This is not reality, it is Obama’s vision of the future. Who does he think he is? A guru? This speech is a gift to Raúl Castro.”

“This way of speaking reminds me of Fidel. Long-winded and dodging the real issues.”

This angry outburst has some basis in reality. From the start of his presidency, Obama has laboured under the genuine belief that he is the president who can bring America’s most unyielding enemies in from the cold, by giving them rhetorical and material support and a variety of concessions (without getting much in return). Obama is determined to secure his legacy as the US president who brought America’s enemies in from the cold, regardless of how many tyrants have to be endorsed. An anti-government protest in Cuba was quickly beaten into submission before Obama’s arrival (and wasn’t discussed when he did arrive).

The Iranian Green Revolution that erupted after the fraudulent 2009 elections was sold down the river in favour of Khamenei’s survival. Prior to the elections, Obama even wrote a letter to the supreme leader, promising no interference. Khamenei dutifully took this as a green light to suppress the opposition. Over 150 people were killed and 4000 arrested before the protests finally fizzled out in February of 2010 as Obama watched impassively; an end to the Iranian regime would have derailed his desire to be the one man responsible for a détente.

The hand extended to Iran was also extended to other regimes too, in spite of how little the US got from Iran in return for protecting Iranian interests in Syria and bowing to Iranian pressure during the nuclear negotiations (as well as providing Iran’s genocidal militias with an air force in Iraq). Before his presidency even began, Obama was reaching out to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad with promising hints of a new relationship between the US and Syria. Despite the fact that Obama was yet to be sworn in, a meeting was held between US representatives and a Syrian delegation (in secret) in Beirut.

The Syrians told the US delegation that Damascus is interested in defusing tensions in the regions, is earnestly pursuing talks with Israel, and wants the Americans to sponsor and participate in these talks. Damascus holds no grudges towards the US administration and believes that the best way to sort out problems is through dialogue.

On 21 February 2009, Kerry and Assad held an official meeting in front of the world’s media outlets in Damascus.  The motivation for Obama’s meeting soon became clear; Kerry placed emphasis on the fact that “Syria could be, in fact, very helpful in helping to bring about a unity government” between the Palestinians and Israel.

This would not only be a “major step forward in dealing with “problems” in Gaza (the Hamas government) but would also “reignite discussions for the two-state solution … I think that Syria indicated to me a willingness to be helpful in that respect.” The meeting between the two came days before Egypt-sponsored talks between Palestinian factions.

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Not only did Obama want to bring Damascus in from the cold, but also to be the US president who finally brought peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Hamas was hosted by the regime in Damascus until 2011, and Syria had some influence on Fatah. Interestingly enough, Kerry described his meeting with Assad as “an important moment of change” for the Middle East. Just as Obama recently praised Raul Castro as an agent of change.

Obama’s hopes were dashed when the Syrian revolution broke out in 2011, and he was obliged to reluctantly call for Assad to step down. Hilary Clinton had still been calling Assad a “reformer” weeks into the revolution, with the regime preoccupied with beating, shooting and torturing protesters.

Even then, the Obama administration was focused on preserving Assad through changes at the top, not in helping Syrians to dismantle it from below.  “There needs to be a change at the top of that government, and there needs to be an effort to engage in genuine dialogue and start on the path of reform”, Clinton said. In 2014, former ambassador Robert Ford insisted that “From the beginning, we have seen the only way out of this conflict is that there would ultimately have to be a negotiation between the opposition and the regime.”

Obama assisted the revolutionary forces in nations like Libya, where Gaddafi’s continued hold on power had no relevance to his strategic interests. Assad was a different matter; ending his bloody campaign of terror would anger his Iranian allies and derail the friendship with Tehran. In the words of Tony Badran:

The administration has made plain that the endgame it wants is premised on continuity of the regime – what it has euphemistically referred to as “preserving state institutions.” In line with this desired outcome, administration officials have also stated that they do not wish to see an outright rebel victory. Needless to say, these preferences are decidedly pro-regime.

Over the past three years, the administration’s choices have been consistent with these desired goals – decisions that have handicapped the opposition’s backers, but not the regime’s. As such, the White House maneuvered to block political and military avenues that the rebels’ state backers like France, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have sought. When these states attempted to bypass the Russian veto at the Security Council, the administration made Moscow its principal partner in Syria.

When Assad crossed Obama’s “red line” and bombed Ghouta with chemical weapons, Obama rehabilitated him by striking a dubious disarmament deal with the aid of Russia.

There is little difference in strategy between Obama’s approach to the Assad regime and approach the the Castro regime. In fact, Cuban dissidents accuse Obama of “undermining” their efforts to end the regime at a stroke. Obama’s claim of caring about human rights while hobnobbing with Raúl Castro is questionable. US presidents paying deference to dictators never ends well, as the approach initially taken towards Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime can demonstrate.

Since Ceaușescu’s speech of 21 August 1968 in which he had condemned the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Romanian president had portrayed himself as a maverick within the Soviet bloc, opposed to the heavy Russian hand. Western leaders loved it, seeing Ceaușescu’s defiance of the Soviets as a divisive catalyst that could culminate in the breakup of the Eastern bloc.

Ceaușescu’s gamble paid off; in 1969 then-president Richard Nixon paid a visit to Bucharest in a show of support for the leader. Nixon was thrilled at the warm reception he received from the crowds, perhaps not paying much attention to the hundreds of Securitate (secret police) hacks watching over the masses to ensure that they applauded diligently.

In 1972, a convention on protecting citizens and their property was signed, Romania received U.S. Export-Import Bank credits. In April 1975, most favored nation (MFN) status was given to Romania, and renewed every year. The renewal allegedly took into account Romania’s human rights and emigration record annually. Which is odd, since Radio Free Europe (managed by the CIA) was regularly broadcasting news of horrendous human rights abuses by Ceaușescu’s Securitate. The enemy of my enemy…

In 1978, Ceaușescu attained his biggest prize yet; a visit to the United States which included spending time with Jimmy Carter at the White House. That same year, Lt. General Ion Mihai Pacepa, the de facto leader of Romania’s Foreign Intelligence Service (DIE, Directia Informatii Externe) defected to the United States, exposing many of Ceaușescu’s secrets.

It turned out that Ceaușescu’s perceived “independence” from the Soviet bloc had been a deliberate ruse; an attempt to reel in lucrative western support and foreign investment for a largely-backward Romania, as well as gain access to western technical and military secrets that could be stolen to enhance Soviet and Romanian capabilities. In 1987 Pacepa published Red Horizons, detailing the efforts of Ceaușescu to use the image of a “reformer” to win westerners’ and minds – and get into their pockets.

“Our experience shows that today the West is commendably eager to encourage the slightest sign of independence within the Soviet bloc”, Ceaușescu told the assembled DIE leaders on February 22 1972. “Let’s take advantage of their eagerness”, added the leader during his speech. “Stop showing a sullen, frowning face and clenched fist to the West. Start making it feel compassion for us, and you’ll see how fast Western boycotts change into maganimity. Let’s present Romania as a Latin island in a Slavic sea…”

Pacepa alleged that even Brezhnev himself had thanked Ceaușescu for successfully duping westerners into believing in Romania’s “independence”. But most importantly, for the benefits it had granted Romania’s industrial espionage methods. He praised Romania’s infiltration of Texas Instruments and the theft of technical secrets, explaining that “Moscow considered it one of the most valuable contributions to the Wawsaw Pact’s military strength.” The use of the stolen technology had led to a “major improvement in the latest Wawsaw Pact military equipment.”

Ceaușescu was eventually overthrown in 1989, after the lifeline extended to his regime had been prolonged for years.During that time, the quality of life for the average Romanian went rapidly downhill when he decided to introduce harsh austerity methods in order to rid Romania of all foreign debt. Food became scarce, blackouts were frequent, and medical care so appalling that 10,000 babies and young children ended up infected with HIV (which the regime declared to be non-existent in Romania). In fact, so slow was the United States in moving against Romania’s MFN status that Ceaușescu withdrew it himself, the year before he was deposed and summarily executed.

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Two photographs extracted from Red Horizons.

Assad painted himself as a “reformer” for over a decade, earning endorsements from both the United States and other hopeful nations. He used those endorsements to shore up his popularity and do little else. Months before the 2011 uprising, he sneered in an interview (for domestic consumption only) that he didn’t “promise” to reform anything. Iran’s new leader Hassan Rouhani was elected on the premise that he was a “moderate” pro-regime official. The killing by Iranian forces and their proxies has continued in Syria, domestic oppression continued, Rouhani was exposed as having boasted of deceiving the west about the Iranian nuclear program.

“The day that we invited the three European ministers [to the talks], only 10 centrifuges were spinning at [the Iranian nuclear facility of] Natanz,” Rouhani said. The negotiations were engaged in because “we needed time.”

Ceaușescu was a “reformer”, Assad is also a “reformer”, as is his ally Rouhani. Now Raúl Castro is being touted by Obama as a “reformer” whom we have no choice but to engage with. If we don’t do business with him then a crucial chance to improve the lives of the Cuban people is supposedly lost. This is a disingenuous in the extreme.

Engaging with such a regime has precisely the opposite effect. Dictators always take attempts at thawing relations as a sign of weakness or exploit them for PR purposes. Or worse, such newfound friendships fill their pockets at the expense of the living standards of their people. More often than not, authoritarian rulers marketing themselves as “reformers” aim to restrict their efforts at change to opening the economy to foreign investment, placating their people and lessening chances of insurrection. Political change is off-limits. After all, Bashar al-Assad opened Syria’s economy, while repressing the “Damascus Spring” opposition gatherings at the behest of his family.

Some have criticised standing against Obama’s engagement with Castro, claiming that isolating an impoverished Cuba is hardly the solution. I agree. However I don’t adhere to this black and white world view; we don’t have to deal in such absolutes. There’s engagement (for example, putting pressure on the regime by quietly encouraging trade, investing in infrastructure programs and encouraging internet access) and there’s staging ostentatious visits of questionable value, and legitimising dictators in front of the cameras. The latter is anything but productive.

Obama’s newest guest this month will be Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev, who will be attending the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington within days. Aliyev inherited the position from his father Heydar, a former KGB member who led Soviet Azerbaijan on behalf of Leonid Bezhnev, suppressing opposition with assistance from the Azeri mafia. Aliyev passed the baton to his son before dying in 2003.

Leaked US diplomatic cables showing that US officials are well aware of the repressive conditions in Azerbaijan (even comparing Aliyev to the fictional “Godfather” who led the fictional Italian-American Corleones crime family). But this hasn’t stopped Obama from praising Azerbaijan’s “young democracy” (in which the results of the elections are decided before the election itself) as far back as 2010, while claiming to be concerned for detained opposition figures.

The courtship of Aliyev’s government clearly goes back some years. That same year, Obama met Aliyev in person at the UN General Assembly. The two posed for photograph, all smiles as they shook hands. Obama claims to have approached Aliyev about human rights issues, but also took the time to “expressed his appreciation” for Azeri support in Afghanistan, despite delivering an impassioned speech about human rights to the assembly the previous day.

Months before their meeting took place, Defence Secretary Robert Gates went to Baku to confer with Aliyev in June. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited in July, carrying a letter from Obama in which he thanks Aliyev for military contributions in Afghanistan. “It is my hope that we will be able to broaden and deepen our relationship in the months and years ahead”, the letter declared.

Aliyev dutifully freed some 148 prisoners (including 12 activists) on March 17 of this year, in an attempt to clean up his image prior to his visit to Washington. However they can be arbitrarily arrested again at any time, and many complain of appalling treatment in police custody. Prominent opposition journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov recently had his six year sentence commuted to a five year suspended sentence, after being charged with spying for Armenia after criticising the regime. Journalist Khadija Ismaylova and human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev are still languishing in jail.

Released opposition figure Leyla Yunus was recently obliged to go in front of the cameras and thank Aliyev for having “liberated” her from the captivity he placed her in. ““Good news from Azerbaijan on human rights”, tweeted the European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, after word of the release of the prisoners. Obama sent a letter to Aliyev in on 5 December, thanking him for his “steadfast support” of the nuclear security program.

In fact it’s rumoured that Mr Aliyev is running short of cash (normally used to buy off critics) due to low oil prices, and is desperate to find some sort of substitute. Pretending to listen attentively to his critics may be part of his new approach. It’s doubtful that he will force his teenage son to sell his nine waterfront mansions in Dubai.

Obama’s final days in office seem to be spent actively trying to bring leaders with horrendous human rights records in from the cold. Despite his claims to be focused on human rights, Obama seems to have placed his mind in the future, being overly preoccupied by attempting to make legacy-defining trips and decisions as opposed to improving anyone’s quality of life by living in the present.