Friday, 7 April 2017

Tell me lies about Syria

We're told that the Syrian civil war is just a proxy conflict between various powers: Bashar al-Assad is the face of an axis of resistance forged by Iran and Russia, while the US and its allies are backing the Islamist rebels as they try to takeover Syria bit by bit. This wrongheaded narrative has become incredibly powerful. The Syrian revolution has been subsumed into a geopolitical analysis of regional players.

The agency of armed groups in Syria has been supplanted for the flows of arms from the Gulf states and the US, the role of Turkey, the militias organised by Iran and the air campaign of Russian fighter jets. The context of the Arab Spring is completely lost, and the left-nationalist character of the uprising is concealed from public view. Instead, the Syrian civil war is just another senseless event, or the proxy struggle between the West and its anti-imperialist foes.

Through this narrow lens the use of poison gas in Khan Sheikhoun is either a false flag operation or just the symptom of the spiralling chaos of war. It looks like the Assad regime and its Russian patrons have resorted to poison gas out of exhaustion. The target is primarily civilian because the basis of the revolution were the elected councils fostered in rebel-held territory. This democratic alternative had to be snuffed out.

At the same time, the Western powers - the US, Britain and France, in particular - have not done much at all to support the Syrian opposition and the cause of a democratic Syria. The political support for the rebels only meant limited supplies of arms and funds, while the US has been happy to collaborate with Russia in bombing Syria. France and Britain have too taken to bombing the country. Yet the West has failed to provide air drops of food aid and take responsibility for the humanitarian fallout.

Although I oppose the West bombing Syria, don't mistake me for a fool who thinks Assad is worth defending. The Syrian regime is responsible for the bulk of deaths and suffering in the country, and it has a long record of collusion with the United States. The Assads sided with the US against Iraq in 1991 and the 'rendition programme' of torturing terror suspects after 2003. There's a reason the Blair government considered bestowing an honorary knighthood on Bashar al-Assad.

Don't tell me the Syrian Ba'ath regime is "anti-imperialist". Hafez al-Assad seized power from Salah Jadid in late 1970 after dragging his heels over the Syrian intervention on the side of the PLO in Jordan. At the time, the PLO was fighting to bring down the Hashemite monarchy and takeover the country. Perhaps fearing a rival Arab nationalist regional power, Assad was not eager to support Yasser Arafat. This is also why Syria would invade and occupy Lebanon in 1976.

The Assad regime sought to clip the wings of the PLO and prevent the Lebanese Left from taking over Lebanon. The Syrian occupation would converge with American and Israeli interests in keeping the Christian Maronites in power and expelling the PLO from Lebanon. Later, Syria would support the US military response to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. This would help bring the Lebanese civil war to an end, as the Iraqi regime would withdraw support for its allies in the war.

The Syrian Ba'ath regime was no more "anti-imperialist" than its rival in Iraq. Both Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad were Soviet clients for many years, before defecting to the American camp. Iraq invaded Iran with full US approval, whereas Syria was more than happy to side with the US when Iraq went off the reservation. Meanwhile Syria has not challenged Israel since it lost the Golan Heights in the Six Day War and failed to recapture the territory in the 1973 war.

As for the claim that the Ba'ath regime is a secular socialist government, Hafez al-Assad rewrote the Syrian constitution to ensure that the president would always be a Muslim and constructed an alliance between the Alawite military leadership and the Sunni capitalist class. The state acted as a means of economic organisation and established a patronage network to sustain itself. This may have meant that the Syrian regime was willing to nationalise industry, but it was also willing to privatise these assets later on.

People continue to claim that the mixed nature of the Assad dynasty means that the state is the only non-sectarian alternative to Islamist barbarism. This fails to take into account the extent of violence and discrimination by the state against the Sunni working-class. Not only has the economy depended upon the exclusion of the Sunni urban and rural poor, the state has routinely repressed non-violent protest and tortured activists. The armed uprising was made inevitable by the regime because the Syrian security forces thought they could win easily.

When faced with an armed resistance the Syrian regime opened its prisons and released thousands of Islamists. Saddam Hussein did the same when faced with the US invasion. The Islamists have played a dual role: providing a strong front line for the rebels, but also acting as a counter-revolutionary agent. These militants may have been the toughest fighters, however, their actions have undermined the support for the revolution. This is all true even without taking into account ISIS and its monstrous actions.

It's hard to see how the civil war could end on just terms. As long as the Assad regime stands its ground, the hope of democracy and freedom in Syria is blighted and the reasons why the uprising happened go unchanged. In many ways, the Syrian opposition has more reason to keep on fighting than to settle in negotiations. The immense suffering in the country is down to the Syrian regime and its allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. For this reason, I suspect and fear that the war may continue to rage for years to come.

Why is Trump bombing Syria

Well, there we have it. The liberal chickenhawks should be cheering Trump's airstrikes against the Syrian regime. They've finally got what they wanted. The Donald has just done what Obama wanted to do back in 2013, though the administration dropped the idea of 'punitive strikes' because it lacked a clear strategy and the support of major allies. By contrast, Trump has no such restraint and has gone ahead anyway. This is a senseless display of state violence and no good will come of it.

Not that this signals a major change in US policy, the Trump administration has made clear it does not support regime change in Syria and the US has been bombing Syria for three years now. What changed last night was the target of the bombing. It was the first time the bombing campaign directly targeted the regime as part of official policy. It may reflect a shift in the struggles over policy in the US government, but not a break with history.

In fact, it is a sign of continuity after Steve Bannon was kicked off of the National Security Council. This is the end result of Michael Flynn being booted out of the administration for not disclosing his meetings with the Russian ambassador. The deviation from the traditional leadership of the Pentagon was not meant to last. Intelligence leaks and a media hysteria have allowed the old order to reassert itself. These 'punitive strikes' are not a humanitarian intervention. Rather the strikes represent the consolidation of Pentagon aims.

It's been apparent for some time now that the US has no coherent strategy in Syria. Obama may have pledged political support for the Syrian opposition. This support was translated into limited supplies of arms and funds. However, the US and its allies could have moved against Assad much earlier. If the Israelis had mobilied forces on the Syrian border, the armed forces would have been split and thus left vulnerable to a rebel offensive. But this never happened.

There is evidence that the Russians floated the idea of Assad stepping down in 2012, but the Americans threw cold water on the idea. The US government was waiting for the regime to cave to the rebel opposition, so it could control the outcome of the war. The problem may have been that the US wanted to see Assad go and keep the Ba'ath regime in place. This is quite similar to the US position on Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War.

Eventually the American ruling class decided it was better to invade and dismantle the entire regime and replace it with a new client state. Al Gore was calling for a US invasion of Iraq in 1998, and in 2003 the Bush administration finally toppled Saddam. It's possible to imagine that the Syrian civil war will conclude with the defeat of revolutionary forces and the emergence of a weak, broken state dominated by Assad and Islamist groups.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Western Hypocrisy Over St. Petersburg Attacks

It was a welcome change to hear the Western media acknowledge that the St. Petersburg bombing might have something to do with Russian foreign policy: the interventions in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria. Yet you will never hear such an angle raised when its an atrocity carried out in an American or a Western European city. In such cases any attempt to explain terrorism would be dismissed as making excuses for violence.

This moral blackmail was not deployed over St. Petersburg. What do we know about the attack? The main suspect Akbarzhon Jalilov, a Kyrgyz national, is accused of killing 14 people and injured 50 others in detonating a bomb in the St. Petersburg underground. Six people have now been arrested. They have been accused of recruiting for ISIS. The suspects are all from Central Asian states. This would fit with the analysis that the bombing was staged in reaction to Russian aggression.

Not only was Central Asia dominated by the Soviet Union, the region was on the frontline in the war in Afghanistan. Once the USSR had invaded Afghanistan, the war aims quickly changed to building a new society and occupying the country for the time being. The United States and its regional allies - particularly Saudi Arabia and Pakistan - established a network of jihadists to fuel the Afghan resistance to the Red Army.

The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan would come to a close by 1989. Gorbachev oversaw the withdrawal and warned the West that the forces they had mobilised in Afghanistan would come back to haunt them. Of course, the network behind Osama bin Laden and the attacks on the World Trade Centre had their origins in the Afghan struggle. The war itself would create a space for Eastern European dissidents to challenge regimes backed by the USSR. This combined with economic factors would bring down the Eastern bloc.

Events in Chechnya would be even more crucial for the terror factor in Russia. As the USSR was dismantled in 1991, Chechen Ichkeria declared independence under the nationalist leadership of Dzhokhar Dudayev. Growing instability and tension in the region would lead to the eruption of armed conflict in North Ossetia, the Chechens feared the presence of the Russian armed forces would be the first stage of mission creep. Dudayev imposed a state of emergency after Russia deployed troops to the border.

At the same time, Dudayev was facing a groundswell of opposition in the fledgling state. This opposition would turn to armed force in 1994. Boris Yeltsin pledged Russian support for the attempt to overthrow the Dudayev government. Yeltsin was desperate to bolster his domestic support in the midst of his disastrous economic reforms. The instability in the Chechen region offered an opportunity. The Russians backed the opposition in order to overthrow Dudayev and crush the example of independence.

However, Dudayev held his own from October to November against the forces Yeltsin had mobilised. Russian armed forces would play a clandestine role, but the Battle of Grozny left the Russian government humiliated after the Chechen independence forces captured a large number of military vehicles and personnel. It was meant to be a swift operation to topple the government. Faced with this, Yeltsin sanctioned the invasion of Ichkeria ostensibly to restore the territorial integrity of Russia.

The Russian army began bombing the Chechen air capabilities and within ten days the invasion was underway. Just as Brezhnev had mistakenly thought the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would be successful within weeks the Russians now thought the Grozny government could be toppled. The war would rage for two years before a ceasefire was signed on Russian terms. Dudayev was assassinated in an 1996 airstrike.

With American help, Yeltsin would survive the Presidential elections of 1996. Estimates of the people killed in the first Chechen war range up to 100,000, along with 500,000 people displaced, in just two years of fighting. A new war would start in 1999 following the apartment bombings in Moscow and the rise of Vladimir Putin. The second war was waged by Russia and its Chechen allies to kill off independent Ichkeria and snuff out the emergent Islamist movement in the Northern Caucasus.

The first aim was secured, but an insurgency continues to this day. Russia has been struck by numerous bombings by Chechen Islamist fighters, and a key reason for the Russian intervention in Syria has been partly to extent the war against those same Chechens - now fighting in Syria alongside the mainstream rebels and an array of jihadist groups. Of course, the main reason has been to back the Assad regime - the only Russian ally in the region.

An honest look at the situation finds that the Russian government relies upon the Islamist threat to  justify its aggression in Syria. Even though Russia has been motivated partly by counter-insurgency in Chechnya, the main targets of Russian bombing have been the Syrian opposition and the civilians living in their territory, not Islamic State or al-Nusra. This in turn is a key factor in the continued threat of terrorism in Russia.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Ken Livingstone don't give a fuck

The furore over Ken Livingstone and his remarks about Hitler and Zionism last year has resurfaced. Finally the verdict is in: Livingstone has not been expelled from the Labour Party for his comments, but he has been suspended for another year. Before all this happened Ken was on the NEC and posed as a key ally to Jeremy Corbyn. Now he is out of the game until the summer of 2018.

The story has been covered as if the Labour Party should have stripped Livingstone of his membership and anything short of this makes them cowards. The Blairites and Brownites have been queuing around the block to hurl dog muck at the Labour leadership. One anonymous MP told the New Statesman: "Years from now, the foul stench of anti-Semitism will become one of the defining characteristics of the Jeremy Corbyn era in the Labour Party. A shameful and totally unforgivable chapter in our history."

Every wing of the British media establishment has taken part in the shit storm around Labour and anti-Semitism – from the BBC and The Guardian to The Telegraph and The Spectator. The Naz Shah scandal, and Ken Livingstone’s unhelpful intervention, is just the latest to be picked up. The British press has manufactured this scandal in a bid to create a crisis and, in turn, undermine the Labour leadership. But this hysteria also represents the high emotional stakes in Israel among the commentariat.

As a critic of the Israeli government, I have defended the Palestinian cause and its supporters against charges of anti-Semitism. And I have defended Ken Livingstone and his loose lips on more than one occasion. Still, I wish Ken had not brought up Hitler and Zionism in the middle of the Shah case. I do not think it was anti-Semitic, though I do think it was reckless and played into the hands of the Blairites.

Ken Livingstone ran into the Shah scandal like a bull into a china shop. Hopefully, we have just  heard the last vase smash against the floor. Plenty of leftists have pointed out the Haavara agreement, the Nazi plans to deport European Jews to Madagascar and elsewhere. However, the facts of Nazi Germany are not really relevant or helpful here. The real controversy is over Livingstone’s use of the term ‘Zionism’ to describe Nazi policy.

Laying out the historical record cannot dispel the outrage (even as much of it phony). The damage is done, sadly. Even before this, Livingstone was rated as an anti-Semite by certain people thanks to the media. Vilification campaigns are successful because it is virtually impossible to resist mudslinging. If you explain yourself, deny the claims or even apologise, you’re screwed. It’s too late. It’s never enough.

In this sense you can understand why Ken Livingstone has not apologise or concede ground, he just fires back against the press and his opponents in the party. Journalists kept asking him: "Do you recognise that you caused offence?" He does not, clearly. Much like the honey badger, Ken Livingstone don't give a fuck.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Marxists Are Not Social Justice Warriors

Everyone hates 'social justice warriors' (SJWs). It's become one of the favourite swearwords used by laptop reactionaries to categorise liberals and the wider left. If you're arguing for a redistribution of wealth and power, you could easily be pigeonholed as a social justice warrior. Anyone concerned with racism, homophobia or the inequality between men and women, can also be pinned with the same label.

It's a way of throwing some dirt over the fence with the hope that it lands on a leftist passing by. Yet the term itself reveals a paucity of understanding (maybe that's the point). Social justice comes out of the Catholic left and liberation theology. It's about compassion for the poor and social equity, basically distributing the goods we have amassed over time without necessarily changing the relations behind the distribution in the first place.

This is where social liberals, progressives and distributists differ to more radical socialists and Marxists. The economic and social problems we have cannot just be corrected by a quick reform, charity, different interpersonal conduct or a change of lifestyle. It's not just that the redistribution of wealth will solve exploitation, the relations of production and forms of ownership have to change too.

Believe it or not Marxism is not about social justice because it sees such a demand as impossible under capitalism. Justice is a moralistic demand in the first place, it presupposes that the system is capable of putting right its own iniquities. Not only is it impossible, the demand for justice fails to account for the fundamental problems of society. It implies that the question can be solved by a simple change.

Some Marxists are completely opposed to moralism and talk of justice. Others might view such demands as a tactical means of advancing a cause. For instance, I wouldn't say that the injustice inherent to capitalism is a reason for black activists to give up on the possibility of holding police accountable for their violence against the black community. It's just convicting police officers for murder is a step forward in a struggle.

Another example would be the labour movement. Some ultra-leftists would say that the attempts by trade unions to improve the wages and working conditions of their members are ultimately conservative, e.g. the unions just end up reinforcing the capitalism system with concessions for workers. So attempts to alleviate the pressures heaped upon working people just end up preventing revolutionary change. This is clearly wrongheaded.

Improvements to living standards can embolden people to push for more than what they've already got. Post-war social democracy in the West laid the basis for future struggles over gender, sexuality and race, thus the social movements of the Sixties and Seventies. The achievements of the counter-culture were later assimilated into the dominant culture, and even the struggles for racial and sexual equality have been co-opted by the neoliberals.

As a result, you can find words like 'intersectionality' and 'privilege' in Hillary Clinton's Twitter feed, but you will never see the word 'working class' (except to disparage the poor). If you remove class politics from the questions of race, gender and sexuality, you end up with neoliberalism with a left-wing face. The answer is to rediscover the importance of class and drop convenient illusions about 'social justice'.

Full Fat Politics

Conservative journalist Peter Hitchens once went on an epic rant against the rising popularity of skimmed milk in corporate coffee chains, but particularly the skinny cappuccinos sold by such franchises. Hitchens is right that the conflation of fat with weight gain has diverted attention away from sugar and its role in the obesity epidemic. He has done well to write about this subject in his column.

There is a great deal of confusion out there and advertising has taken full advantage. The trending support for healthy food - whether 'natural''organic' or even just 'low fat' - has been used to sell many of us barely edible garbage. Even 'low sugar' or 'zero sugar' is just a way of getting us to buy drinks loaded with vast doses of aspartame. Meanwhile the country gets fatter and suffers the results, as the collective anxiety about weight and diets intensifies.

Of course, the popular diets probably succeed in weight loss because they are effectively a form of self-imposed starvation. But this is also why so many people fail to eat well. They try to slim down by eating very little, and inevitably transgress later, only to feel awful about themselves. It's all about the super-ego. And I doubt many people are totally living healthy lifestyles (myself included) in terms of what they eat and how much exercise they ought to be doing (I write as the owner of a Fitbit watch).

Unfortunately, Blighty remains an island of ill-health and bad food. Yet British society continues to follow such celebrity chefs as Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. Cooking programmes are a staple of the viewing diet. One wonders the extent to which people just tune in and never try out the recipes. Perhaps the cooking programmes are just vicarious. I can only speculate about this.

On the one hand, we are bombarded with celebrity-endorsed diets and newly branded 'healthy' food in supermarket isles; while culinary luddites demand that we get on the 'slow food' train and rely on local produce, on the other. It's a rather farcical situation. The fast food culture is just as worrying - and certainly guilty of sugar peddling! - and it leaves us with a political question. If we can't fix our food by personal choice, what do we need to do about at the level of the polis.

On that note, I will defer to the writing of others. I recommend reading Rachel Laudan's article on 'culinary modernism' from last year for a start. Nick Srenicek and Alex Williams have a great section on 'slow' and local food in their book Inventing the Future. These are just starting points for the critically minded.