14 April 2017

Gas Attack in Syria: Cui Bono?


In the attached opinion piece, Uri Avnery, Israel’s leading peace activist, brilliantly dissects the question of whether or not Syrian President Bashar Assad had any incentive to launch the recent gas attack on his own people in Idlib, Syria.  In so doing, Avnery ends up with the deeper question of whether President Trump’s recent cruise missile attack on Syria was motivated by serious strategic military objectives or was simply a spasmodic reaction triggered by a toxic concatenation of domestic political interests with yellow journalism.  
Avnery is a self taught man of letters and a sensitive observer of the intersection of contemporary Arab culture with Israeli culture.  He is now in his mid nineties, having emigrated to Israel from Germany in the 1930s.  One of the last remaining prominent advocates of the so-called “Two State Solution" to the Arab-Israeli question, Avnery has an amazing personal trajectory: In his youth, he was a member of the Israeli terrorist organization, the Irgun, he was a hero of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and has served in the Israeli parliament — the Knesset.  Since the 1948 war, sometimes at great personal risk, Avnery has worked tirelessly for peace in the Middle East.  Today he is the spiritual leader of the Gush Shalam peace movement in Israel.  Interested readers can view this video celebrating his amazing bio.

CUI BONO? 
Uri Avnery, 15 April 2017
CUI BONO – "who benefits" – is the first question an experienced detective asks when investigating a crime.
Since I was a detective myself for a short time in my youth, I know the meaning. Often, the first and obvious suspicion is false. You ask yourself "cui bono", and another suspect, who you did not think about, appears.
For two weeks now, this question has been troubling my mind. It does not leave me.
In Syria, a terrible war crime has been committed. The civilian population in a rebel-held town called Idlib was hit with poison gas. Dozens of civilians, including children, died a miserable death.
Who could do such a thing? The answer was obvious: that terrible dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Who else?
And so, within a few minutes (literally) the New York Times and a host of excellent newspapers throughout the West proclaimed without hesitation: Assad did it!
No need for proof. No investigation. It was just self-evident. Of course Assad. Within minutes, everybody knew it.
A storm of indignation swept the Western world. He must be punished! Poor Donald Trump, who does not have a clue, submitted to pressure and ordered a senseless missile strike on a Syrian airfield, after preaching for years that the US must under no circumstances get involved in Syria. Suddenly he reversed himself. Just to teach that bastard a lesson. And to show the world what a he-he-he-man he, Trump, really is.
The operation was an immense success. Overnight, the despised Trump became a national hero. Even liberals kissed his feet.
BUT THROUGHOUT, that question continued to nag my mind. Why did Assad do it? What did he have to gain?
The simple answer is: Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
("Assad" means "lion" in Arabic. Contrary to what Western experts and statesmen seem to believe, the emphasis is on the first syllable.)
With the help of Russia, Iran and Hizbullah, Assad is slowly winning the civil war that has been ravishing Syria for years, He already holds almost all the major cities that constitute the core of Syria. He has enough weapons to kill as many enemy civilians as his heart desires.
So why, for Allah's sake, should he use gas to kill a few dozen more? Why arouse the anger of the entire world, inviting American intervention?
There is no way to deny the conclusion: Assad had the least to gain from the dastardly deed. On the list of "cui bono", he is the very last.
Assad is a cynical dictator, perhaps cruel, but he is far from being a fool. He was raised by his father, Hafez al-Assad, who was a long-time dictator before him. Even if he were a fool, his advisors include some of the cleverest people on earth: Vladimir Putin of Russia, Hassan Rouhani of Iran, Hassan Nasrallah of Hizbullah.
So who had something to gain? Well, half a dozen Syrian sects and militias who are fighting against Assad and against each other in the crazy civil war. Also their Sunni Arab allies, the Saudi and other Gulf Sheikhs. And Israel, of course. They all have an interest in arousing the civilized world against the Syrian dictator.
Simple logic.
A MILITARY act must have a political aim. As Carl von Clausewitz famously said 200 years ago: war is the continuation of politics by other means.
The two main opponents in the Syrian civil war are the Assad regime and Daesh. So what is the aim of the US? It sounds like a joke: The US wants to destroy both sides. Another joke: First it wants to destroy Daesh, therefore it bombs Assad.
The destruction of Daesh is highly desirable. There are few more detestable groups in the world. But Daesh is an idea, rather than just an organization. The destruction of the Daesh state would disperse thousands of dedicated assassins all over the world.
(Interestingly enough, the original Assassins, some 900 years ago, were Muslim fanatics very similar to Daesh now.)
America's own clients in Syria are a sorry lot, almost beaten. They have no chance of winning.
Hurting Assad now just means prolonging a civil war which is now even more senseless than before.
FOR ME, a professional journalist most of my life, the most depressing aspect of this whole chapter is the influence of the American and Western media in general.
I read the New York Times and admire it. Yet it shredded all its professional standards by publishing an unproven assumption as gospel truth, with no need for verification. Perhaps Assad is to blame, after all. But where is the proof? Who investigated, and what were the results?
Worse, the "news" immediately became a world-wide truth. Many millions repeat it unthinkingly as self-evident, like sunrise in the east and sunset in the west.
No questions raised. No proof demanded or provided. Very depressing.
BACK TO the dictator. Why does Syria need a dictator? Why isn't it a beautiful US-style democracy? Why doesn't it gratefully accept US-devised "regime-change"?
The Syrian dictatorship is no accidental phenomenon. It has very concrete roots.
Syria was created by France after World War I. A part of it later split off and became Lebanon.
Both are artificial creations. I doubt whether there are even today real "Syrians" and real "Lebanese".
Lebanon is a mountainous country, ideally suited for small sects which need to defend themselves. Over the centuries, many small sects found refuge there. As a result, Lebanon is full of such sects, which distrust each other – Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Maronite Christians, many other Christian sects, Druze, Kurds.
Syria is much the same, with most of the same sects, and the addition of the Alawites. These, like the Shiites, are the followers of Ali Ibn Abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law of the prophet (hence the name). They occupy a patch of land in the North of Syria.
Both countries needed to invent a system that allowed such diverse and mutually-suspicious entities to live together. They found two different systems.
In Lebanon, with a past of many brutal civil wars, they invented a way of sharing. The President is always a Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni, the commander of the army a Druze, and the Speaker of Parliament a Shiite.
When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, the Shiites in the south were the lowest on the ladder. They welcomed our soldiers with rice. But soon they realized that the Israelis had not come just to defeat their overbearing neighbors, but intended to stay. So the lowly Shiites started a very successful guerrilla campaign, in the course of which they became the most powerful community in Lebanon. They are led by Hizballah, the Party of Allah. But the system still holds.
The Syrians found another solution. They willingly submitted to a dictatorship, to hold the country together and assure internal peace.
The Bible tells us that when the Children of Israel decided that they needed a king, they chose a man called Saul who belonged to the smallest tribe, Binyamin. The modern Syrians did much the same: they submitted to a dictator from one of their smallest tribes: the Alawites.
The Assads are secular, anti-religious rulers – the very opposite of the fanatical, murderous Daesh. Many Muslims believe that the Alawites are not Muslims at all. Since Syria lost the Yom Kippur war against Israel, 44 years ago, the Assads have kept the peace on our border, though Israel has annexed the Syrian Golan Heights.
The civil war in Syria is still going on. Everybody is fighting against everybody. The diverse groups of "rebels", created, financed and armed by the US, are now in a bad shape. There are several competing groups of Jihadists, who all hate the Jihadist Daesh. There is a Kurdish enclave, which wants to secede. The Kurds are not Arabs, but are mainly Muslims. There are Kurdish enclaves in neighboring Turkey, Iraq and Iran, whose mutual hostility prevents them making common cause.
And there is poor, innocent Donald Trump, who has sworn not to get involved in all this mess, and who is doing just that.
A day before, Trump was despised by half the American people, including most of the media. Just by launching a few missiles, he has won general admiration as a forceful and wise leader.

What does that say about the American people, and about humanity in general?

12 April 2017

The Malleable Bi-Partisan Utility of Poison Gas


If there was a centerpiece to Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign for President of the United States, it was her struggle to convince the American people that Donald Trump was congenitally incapable of reacting rationally when surprised by a dangerous international crisis.  She struggled futilely to contrast her experience and gravitas to Trump’s reckless impulsiveness.  In a rational world, the recent Trumpian brain fart of firing  59 cruise missiles (worth about $90 million) at a nearly empty — and forewarned —  Syrian airfield should be a candidate case study to test Clinton’s psychological theory. But it won’t be. Mr. Trump merely did what Ms. Clinton called on him to do (see this video) a few hours prior to the attack.  Moreover, the political response to Trump’s attack has been one of widespread bipartisan support, with particular enthusiasm among senior Democrats [e.g, see 12  3]    

Trump's cruise missile attack was launched in reaction to the unproved (at least the American public has not been presented with the proof of) allegation that President Assad of Syria dropped poison gas bombs on his own people in Idlib province. This link will take you to an official statement of the assertions that now pass for evidence supporting the allegation.  Note the absence of photographic evidence of the mass casualties would attend any attack by weapons-grade sarin gas in a populated area.  

So, Trump’s allegation is a hypothesis taking the form of a narrative.  Bear in mind a “narrative” is simply a story consisting of real or imaginary connected events.  In this case, there are at least two alternative hypotheses, each made plausible in part by the limited nature of this particular gas horror: One alternative hypothesis is that the chemical release was a false flag operation concocted by jihadi rebels to trick the US and its allies to more actively join their war for regime change in Syria.  Another alternative hypothesis is that Assad's Air Force unwittingly bombed a Jihadi ammo dump containing chemical weapons. The rebels have long been suspected of having access to a primitive chemical weapons capability that would be more consistent with the nature of civilian deaths than would be the case if Assad used of weapons-grade sarin gas as suggested by Hillary Clinton and the White House.  The simple fact is that the American people have not been presented with a “slam dunk” proof of which, if any, of these hypotheses is closest to being the truth.  For now, the proof is “trust us."

There is, however, a reason to be suspicious of the government’s claims: Uri Avery, a hero of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, a former member of the Israeli Knesset, and Israel's leading human rights advocate, for example, penned a scathing critique of the White House "narrative."  Moreover, American politicians have a long and sordid history of manipulating public perceptions and constructing “narratives” with regard to the use of poison gas to kill large numbers of defenseless civilians in the Middle East.  The attached article by my good friend Andrew Cockburn offers an important reminder in this regard.   Andrew's subject — poison gas, war in the Middle East, and the malleable bipartisan utility it has offered to cynical US politicians — is a dispassionate warning that is particularly timely, given the hysterical nature of contemporary political debate in the United States.  It is leanly written but chock a block with information about real — not imaginary — events.  It is worth careful study. 


An Inconvenient Truth
In 1988 US officials helped disguise Saddam's chemical attack on Halabja. But when it came time to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, they acted outraged.
By Andrew Cockburn, The Nation, AUGUST 23, 2007
If the United States ever possessed a shred of moral authority for the invasion of Iraq, it came from Halabja, a Kurdish town of about 70,000 people nestling in a bowl in front of the towering mountain chain that fringes Iraq’s northeast frontier with Iran. Halabja was once famous among Kurds as the “city of poets,” and the townspeople were known for their love of books. It is doubtful that George W. Bush had ever heard of the poets, but he did find it useful to know that in 1988 Halabjans were the victims of the largest use of chemical weapons against a civilian population in history, thereby providing inspiration for Bush’s repeated observation that Saddam was “evil” and had “gassed his own people.”
Like Guernica or My Lai, Halabja (in Kurdish, “the wrong place”) suffered an experience of mass murder intense enough to transform the town’s very name into a historical event. That event occurred on the afternoon of March 16, 1988–a cold but pleasant day, with occasional showers, notes Joost Hiltermann in A Poisonous Affair  his comprehensive and powerful delineation not only of what happened that day but of all those who helped bring it about. The day before, Kurdish fighters, with Iranian encouragement and support, had occupied the town after driving out Iraqi government troops. Now the Iraqi air force had returned to deliver Saddam’s response.  (continued)

10 April 2017

Former UK Ambassador to Syria Goes Off Message


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"Trump has just given jihadis a thousand reasons to stage fake flag operations" BBC News