Iran and Israel: Same shit, different place, phoney war

Palestinian children killed by Israeli bombs 5-7 August 2022.
Iranian children killed by regime from 20 September to 30 September 2022

By Michael Karadjis

On October 13, I read two news items next to each other:

“Iran’s resilient protest movement. Nearly a month after Mahsa Amini died while in the custody of Iran’s morality police, demonstrations have continued to shake nearly 20 cities, even as the government cracks down on protesters and stifles internet access. Human rights organizations estimate that the crackdowns have left nearly 190 people dead—28 of whom were children—while thousands more have been detained or wounded.” 

“Palestinian strikes. Israeli forces killed an 18-year-old Palestinian teenager named Osama Adawi in the West Bank on Wednesday. Adawi’s death is the latest in a spate of clashes between Israeli forces executing raids and Palestinian protesters; so far, over 100 Palestinians living in the West Bank have been killed this year. On Wednesday, Palestinian businesses in east Jerusalem went on strike to protest against the raids.” 

This was October 13, but it could have been literally any other day.

We read every day that Israel and Iran are arch-enemies, and, sure enough, they aren’t friends. Israel continually threatens – for decades – to bomb Iran, it regularly hits Iranian and Hezbollah military assets in neighbouring Syria, and its leaders fiercely campaign against any US attempt to revive the JCPOA or ‘Iran nuclear deal’, signed by Obama in 2015 but scrapped by Trump in 2018. For its part, Iranian leaders regularly make fiery denunciations of the Zionist regime, predictions of its immanent collapse, and somewhat laughable threats to help bring this about.

Yet both are monstrous regimes that deserve to be utterly condemned by anyone with a progressive bone in their body.

For the US and other western imperialist states, Israel’s crimes against humanity, massive violations of human rights, flagrant violation, for many decades, of the most basic rules of international law, its apartheid, its ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people, are met with mild rebuke at best, full-scale encouragement at worst, but whatever the case, ongoing economic, diplomatic and military support and the absence of any kind of sanction; yet for the same powers, Iran’s crimes against humanity, massive violations of human rights, gender apartheid and the like deserve condemnation, economic sanctions and so on.

Unfortunately, this has led a certain section of the western left, especially among those who have a hollow and class-free conception of “anti-imperialism,” to simply reverse the hypocrisy of western leaders, by vigorously denouncing Israel (sometimes to the point of placing the Israel issue at the centre of world politics, in a dangerous tendency), while providing every kind of rationale for the actions of the Iranian theocratic despots, in some cases hailing the mullahs as “anti-imperialist,” and quite often appearing to be sucked in by the hollow support for Palestine expressed by the regime. Many of these people denounce today’s glorious uprising of long-oppressed Iranian women, daily confronted by the bloody regime’s bullets, as a CIA-orchestrated ‘regime-change’ operation or ‘colour revolution’, two of the counterrevolutionary tropes these “leftists” have adopted over the last two decades to condemn people fighting against oppressive and fascist regimes.

Internationalism, by contrast, demands 100 percent support and solidarity at all times to the popular masses fighting for their liberation against all oppressive regimes.       

The fact that both are monstrous regimes yet are engaged in hostility is no contradiction: there is no law that says “good” governments like each other, “bad” governments like each other, and conflict only occurs between “good” and “bad” ones, even if one were naïve enough to believe in such terms; while US president Biden recently claimed that the Ukraine conflict was part of a global conflict between democracy and authoritarianism, no serious person believes such fairy tales (and in any case, how would Biden, who wrongly sees Israel as a democracy, explain its steadfast refusal to provide Ukraine with any of its advanced missile defence equipment?). The world is not in some Manichean conflict between good and bad, and the very concept of good and bad governments is, for the most part, absurd.

Even if we use Biden’s “democracy versus authoritarianism” meme to distinguish between governments which currently are some kind of democracy and do not systematically repress, jail or kill political opponents and those that do (and ignore everything else, such as poor people dying in the US due to lack of health insurance, or state violence against the Black Lives Matter uprising), this would tell us nothing about alliances throughout the world: during the Cold War decades of 1945-1990, the ‘democratic’ US installed, financed, backed and armed dozens of brutal dictatorships throughout Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and even southern Europe. US support today to brutal dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, to the Israeli apartheid regime, to military coups in Honduras, Bolivia and elsewhere, tell us that ‘democracy’ and ‘dictatorship’ are not exports of like from a mother country. 

Comic-book explanations of the conflict

In other words, there is nothing unusual about two brutal regimes being enemies. But why Iran and Israel? One may well ask, since both Israel and Iran have a policy of uprooting and “cleansing” millions of Arabs (in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria) as they strive to dominate the region, and since they are effectively separated from each other by the mass of largely Sunni Arab humanity that they both see as Untermenschen, why can they not be allies rather than competitors in this?

Hostility can have many causes; let’s first knock on the head the comic-book explanations. Some wide-eyed “anti-imperialists” believe that Iran, despite its class nature as a brutal capitalist tyranny, is somehow motivated by genuinely emancipatory, anti-imperialist intentions, and via Hezbollah aims to liberate Jerusalem and the Palestinian people. Others who are less sure about such motivations nevertheless believe this alleged Iranian quest to “liberate Palestine” is a remaining impact, via osmosis, of “the Iranian revolution” some half a century ago, somehow pressuring the mullah-fascists from below to engage in regional “liberation” moves. And the reactionaries and racists running Israel pretend to be in full agreement with these starry-eyed leftist admirers of reactionary mullahs, except rather than term it liberation of Palestine, they tell the world that the mullahs are, for reasons unknown, determined to “destroy Israel” and drive them into the sea.

Of course, all this is the purest of fantasy. The mullahs couldn’t care less if the Palestinians were exterminated, and all the bluster about Palestine is done from a safe distance. So unless any serious observer believes that the Iranian regime is either so emancipatory that it wants to liberate Palestine (while oppressing everywhere else it occupies), or so irrationally imperialistic that it aims, come what may, to conquer Israel through several countries in between and annex it to an Iranian empire, then we can now move beyond the realm of fantasy.

“Rivalry”?

The most common explanation for hostility between various capitalist powers is simply ‘rivalry’. Capitalism is built on competition; national capitalist classes rival each other; their state machines reflect this rivalry with policy. It is never as simple as that, but it is a good basis from which to start. However, state regimes also have to maintain support of their own populations, or at least consensus to rule; and this is achieved through hegemonic ideologies which can be based on ‘nation’, ‘race’, religion or other ideologies, which can take on a life of their own and not always correspond neatly to economic interests abroad. Let’s explore these concepts.

If we look at Israel and Iran and decide their conflict is based on ‘rivalry’ for domination of the Mideast region, there are some problems with a simplistic understanding of this.

If we begin by way of contrast, the region-wide conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran would appear to have a firm basis in ‘rivalry’; both are medium-sized capitalist states in the same region (as is Turkey, which likewise rivals both); both claim to be ‘Islamic’ governments representing the hundreds of millions of Muslims in the region; and therefore, there is a logic to their rivalry, because a larger sphere of influence within the region for one or the other means more trade, more investment, more goods sold, more economic deals and links, more profit. We can say they are engaged in ‘sub-imperialist’ rivalry, which has taken on quite an active form in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen in particular. The fact that one is led by a monarchy allied to the Sunni religious hierarchy and the other is run by the Shia religious hierarchy by no means determines who all their allies are; on the contrary, both act out of ‘national interests’, and countless examples can be given for this. However, it does give them a mobilizational arm when necessary, so a degree of sectarianism can be used when necessary to bolster support in some region or another against their competitor in their geopolitical rivalry.

But can we say the same of Israel and Iran? Israel as a colonial-settler state and mini-imperialist power is in the unusual position of being the absolutely leading economic power of the region (the only indisputably ‘First World’ economy), yet not being able to directly “rival” neighbouring capitalist classes in the region itself, because it is effectively locked out of it. High-tech Israeli capitalism is spread far and wide throughout the rest of the world instead. Unless Israel were ever to allow a just peace settlement with the Palestinians – something which essentially defies the very nature of Zionism – then Israeli trade and investment in the region will remain at its current absolutely negligible and in most cases non-existent level. It can therefore not be engaged in ‘rivalry’ with Iran (or Saudi Arabia or Turkey) at least in this common understanding of the term.

For example, despite having relations with Egypt, alone within the Arab world, for over four decades, Israeli exports to Egypt were under $100 million in 2016–2017 (0.1 per cent of total Israeli exports), and Israeli imports from Egypt were around $50 million a year at that time, a similar percentage; likewise, Israel’s share in Egypt’s total exports of goods in 2016 was 0.3 per cent, and its share in Egypt’s imports of goods was 0.1 per cent. Egypt is 39th in the world in value of Israeli trade ties. This is despite Egypt being a very large country directly bordering Israel. While trade has increased and there is potential for better economic relations via Mediterranean gas politics, none of this could be considered to be part of “rivalry” with Iran, or anyone else in the region; while Egypt and Iran have trade relations, they are geographically distant, trade is small-scale, and as a solidly Sunni country, not a potential part of any Iranian-dominated region. All the same points could be made about Jordan, Israel’s immediate neighbour, which established diplomatic relations with it in 1994: Israeli exports to Jordan around 2017 stood at some $50–100 million per year, about 0.1–0.2 per cent of total Israeli exports to the world, Jordan being Israel’s 51st largest trading partner!

Israeli trade and economic cooperation with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), by contrast, has shot up to $1.4 billion just in the first 7 months of 2022, following the establishment of diplomatic relations in 2020, and the free trade agreement signed this year, the first with any Arab country. Yet interestingly, the UAE also has multi-billion dollar trade ties with Iran, indeed the UAE is Iran’s second largest trading partner, and a major conduit for Iranian economic links with the world in the context of western sanctions. Indeed, despite the popular, but false, analysis in the mass media which suggests the Israel-UAE rapprochement was directed against Iran, the UAE is currently busy upgrading its relations with Iran. But it would take a brave person to decide that Israeli-Iranian conflict is due to “rivalry” merely for the small UAE market; on the contrary, the UAE excels precisely in having excellent relations with both.

Of course, Israel would like the opening provided by the UAE to extend to the major prize, the Saudi market, but currently the value of underhanded Saudi-Israeli trade is around $11,000 per year, basically a grain of sand on a beach in terms of economic value. And in any case, being the main actual rival to Iran in the region, Saudi Arabia’s negligible trade with Israel is hardly due to Iranian rivalry! Rather, while Saudi trade with Iran is valued at some fifty times the value of its trade with Israel, it is still only in the hundreds of thousands; in opposite fashion to the UAE, Saudi Arabia maintains only the most minimal relations, trade or otherwise, with both Israel and Iran (the decade-long daily excitable claims that Israel and the Saudis are forever on the verge of establishing relations notwithstanding). 

A map of Israeli exports to the world shows all this graphically: the entire Middle east is a huge black spot for Israeli exports, rivalled only by Greenland!

Ideological mobilisation

Rather, the essence of the ‘conflict’ – largely a ‘phoney war’ as will be discussed below – is rooted in hegemonic mobilisation: the Zionist and Iranian ethno-theocratic projects both need the “great enemy” of each other to justify themselves. The Iranian “threat” to Israel – whether the “liberatory” or the expansionist-genocidal – is an entirely manufactured threat, but the need for such a major “threat” is crucial to the ideological foundations of the late Zionist state, as it is likewise to the ‘Islamic Republic’ state.

Israel felt so unthreatened by Iran during Iran’s much more “revolutionary” era of the 1980s, just fresh from the revolution and with the firebrand Khomeini still in power, that it armed Iran in its war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and openly advocated Iranian victory, as is extremely well-documented. But following the US destruction of Iraq in 1991, Israel began to vocally declare Iran to be its worst enemy.

According to the article ‘The Forever Threat: The Imminent Attack on Iran That Will Never Happen’, Israel has been making noises about launching an imminent attack on Iran, often “within weeks,” since 1994. For example, on December 9, 1997, “The Times of London headline screamed, ‘Israel steps up plans for air attacks on Iran’. The article, written by Christopher Walker, reported on the myriad “options” Israel had in confronting what it deemed ‘Iran’s Russian-backed missile and nuclear weapon programme’.” The Forever Threat shows dozens of similar headlines from the past quarter century about Israel being ready to attack Iran any day now. When an Israeli attack on Iran is not just generally a possibility but is “imminent” in 1994, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2015 and onwards, we start to get what the title of the article means: it will (likely) never happen because there is no Iranian threat to Israel to require it.  

This continually repeated “imminent” threat, the permanent call on Israelis and the whole region to be on tenterhooks expecting Armageddon any time, the permanency of a state of advanced paranoia, xenophobia and existential “threat” to Israel and the Jews, serves a purpose: Israel may never attack, but the daily threats that it is always around the corner are their own goal.

For many years now, Zionist ideology has been in crisis. The success of the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement; the growing questioning of Israel’s savage treatment of the Palestinians; the obvious contradiction between being a “Jewish state” and democracy; support around the world for Palestinian statehood; are all manifestations of this.

But if Israel and “the Jews” are under existential threat, then Israel and its allies have something with which to homogenise Israeli and Jewish opinion about the need for a Jewish homeland. As the alleged “threat” of another Final Solution coming from the oppressed and terrorised Palestinian “terrorists” looks more and more ridiculous to rational people, what can rescue this charade better than a powerful regional state, with a regime that similarly relies heavily on bloated “anti-Zionist” rhetoric, allegedly developing a nuclear bomb with which to wipe out Israel? Israel had found itself the necessary “new Hitler.”

As for Iran, for how many decades has the “road to Jerusalem” gone through either Baghdad, or Damascus or some other unfortunate Arab capital over the bodies of tens of thousands of Arabs? Iran and its proxy forces can slaughter Arabs in Baghdad, in Ramadi, in Mosul, in Aleppo, in Homs, in Damascus, in Qaysar, and claim to be fighting the great battle for Jerusalem! [and an either ethically corrupt or criminally ignorant section of the western “left” can help spread this literally other-worldly propaganda]. The reactionary ‘Islamic Republic’ regime has also been in a long-term crisis of legitimacy, demonstrated by repeated popular upsurges over the last decade and a half, in every case met with bloody repression. The ideological clap-trap about allegedly being a ‘rejectionist’ state in relation to Palestine is key to the regime’s propaganda arsenal throughout the region, and among a section of its own people.

The Iranian regime of Ahmedinejad was particularly adept at pushing rhetoric to the limits and playing into the hands of Likudnik hawks and neo-con nutjobs. While it is true that his statement that Israel will “disappear from the hand of time” was deliberately mistranslated by Zionist and imperialist hacks to Israel will “be wiped off the face of the Earth,” this mistranslation was made more believable by other vile Ahmedinejad noises and actions: Israel could hardly believe its luck when he organised a Holocaust-denial conference and invited, among others, David Duke, former leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Perfect for Zionist homogenisation: a “holocaust denying regime wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth and is building nuclear weapons to do it with!”

In reality, the geographic distance between Iran and Israel is precisely what makes this propaganda game safe for both. This was also the case for past reactionary Arab dictatorships claiming the ‘rejectionist’ mantle, namely Gaddafi’s Libya and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; the further away, the louder you can bark. This has also been the case with Erdogan’s Turkey for much of the period since 2009.  

It was only the actual contiguity of a Lebanese Shiite population under brutal Zionist occupation in southern Lebanon for over two decades that led to the growth of Hezbollah and thus actual confrontation between Israel and an Iranian-backed force; this was a genuine national liberation struggle, where Iran just happened to be in the right place to be able to gain political credit from afar. But Israel was evicted from Lebanon in 2000 – 22 years ago – and as such Hezbollah has not the slightest interest (let alone ability) in using its position to “liberate Jerusalem” or even to fire a rocket; apart from the 2006 flare-up, the Israeli-Lebanese border has been particularly quiet.

However, the phoney “war” atmosphere requires Israeli strikes when Hezbollah or Iranian-backed forces inside Syria get within striking distance of the occupied Golan. Not because these forces want to use this position to “target Israel” – on the contrary, their presence has only ever been used to kill Syrian people – but because the entire Zionist case that Iran is out to destroy it would go up in smoke if Israel let them be when in “its vicinity” and nothing happened. The fact of the matter is that while Israel has struck Iranian assets in Syria hundreds of times (in open cooperation with Putin’s Russia, which controls Syria’s air defence system and allows all this …), neither Iran nor Hezbollah has ever initiated an attack on the occupied Golan, and possibly only twice have ever even returned fire.

It would certainly be difficult to see Israel’s bombing of Iranian and pro-Iranian targets in Syria as “rivalry” with Iran for influence – economic or otherwise – within Syria. On the contrary, while Israel and Iran agree on one thing – the preservation of the Assad regime, and the crushing of the anti-Assad decade-long uprising – Israel knows well it can never gain any support among the Syrian population – pro- or anti-Assad – as long as it occupies the Syrian Golan Heights. Despite bombing Iranian forces – Assad’s allies – Israel never attempted to aid the anti-Assad forces; there was not a singular instance where Israel bombed Assadist or even Iranian or Hezbollah forces while in active conflict with the opposition. And it is no coincidence that Israeli strikes on pro-Iranian forces have increased precisely as the threat to the regime from the largely defeated rebels has receded; as then Israeli Defence Minister, far-rightist Naftali Bennet put it, “Iran used to be an asset for the Syrians [ie, as long as it was useful in crushing the rebellion] … but now it’s a burden.” Similarly, the opposition has always emphasised the need to recover the stolen Golan and expressed its solidarity with Palestine. Rather, Israel’s key alliance within Syria has always been Assad’s most strategic backer, Putin’s Russia, the main actual rival of Iran for domination over the recovered Assadist state and its resources.

Strategic positioning and competition

Nevertheless, there may have been an element of quiet “rivalry” involved in bombing Hezbollah when looked at closely: for many years, Israel and Lebanon (with Hezbollah in the Lebanese government) have been engaged in hard bargaining over demarcating the gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea (and, ironically perhaps, Assad’s Syrian regime also has a demarcation dispute with Lebanon over the gas in the sea in Lebanon’s north).

Therefore, with the just-signed historic US-negotiated Israel-Lebanon maritime agreement – with a Lebanese government that includes Hezbollah, and led by Hezbollah-allied president Aoun – enabling demarcation of drilling rights in the gas fields of the Mediterranean Sea – there is reason to believe that Israel-Hezbollah “tensions” may relax; indeed, notably, the most recent Hezbollah threat of sabotage action was related directly to pressure on Israel’s position during the bargaining over this treaty. It may be too early to say, but it is notable that, while Israel struck Iranian and pro-Iranian targets in Syria at an unprecedented rate throughout 2022, as of late October there have been no more such attacks since September 17 – some six weeks – the maritime agreement, signed on October 11 and welcomed by Hezbollah and Syria as well as the two signing countries being a possible explanation.   

At a larger level, the ideological positioning, while driven by the requirements of internal hegemonic mobilisation, has also gained a life of its own as a strategic tool for Israel in the region, in Israel’s drive to open up more of the Arab market via avenues such as the Abraham Accords signed between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, further bolstering relations Israel already has with Egypt, Jordan and Oman, and attempting to drive open the Saudi and further Gulf markets. In particular, by drumming up the Iranian “threat,” Israel’s major military and “security” industries aim to profit via cooperation with the military and repressive forces of these regimes.

Ironically, however, that does not necessarily mean most of these regimes do feel “threatened” by Iran – only Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, with a large Shiite minority in the east, and Bahrain, where a Sunni monarchy rules over a disenfranchised Shiite majority, have an Iran problem, and while Bahrain has been in the forefront of rapprochement with Israel, the Saudis, as we have seen, are very much the rearguard, at most, of this move.

Rather, for the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, what they share with Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Assad regime is seeing the regional Muslim Brotherhood (sponsored by Qatar and the Erdogan regime in Turkey) as a strategic enemy: a movement which attempts to combine Islam and democracy, no matter how precariously or dishonestly, which was active throughout the Arab Spring, including in Syria and Egypt, and in Palestine takes the form of Hamas, is considered anathema. Military and security cooperation with Israel serve the purposes of internal and regional counterrevolution (something they have in common with Iran in fact), not just against the MB but against democratic upsurge more generally. But the bogey of a large and powerful state like Iran with a very loud mouth, large armed forces and a supposed nuclear threat makes much better propaganda for bolstering “security” cooperation and profiteering than the threat from below. So Israel needs to continually pose as a regional “anti-Iran” leader, the regional First World military hegemon that can offer “security.”

Indeed, it is hardly surprising that all the Arab regimes that have cozied up to Israel the last few years are identical to those who have cozied up to the Assad regime, re-established relations with both, or always had them: Egypt, the UAE, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman and Morocco, with the Saudis more quietly supporting from behind but refusing to openly budge on either. This fact renders all discussion of Middle East “camps” the nonsense they are, leftover ashes of what was perhaps a partial reality some half a century ago that many still live in: the regional counterrevolution is largely the same camp, with bumps at the edges.   

Longer term, it could be projected that Israel’s ideology of the phoney “Iran threat” could be related to a kind of future strategic competition between Israel and Iran: competition for this very position of regional cop as recognised by world imperialist powers. There is little doubt that Iran’s role in crushing the Syrian revolution, while the US looked on and did deals, and its role in defeating ISIS in Iraq in cooperation with the US, was widely appreciated, but the stripes gained were looked upon with apprehension by Israel. Of course, most readers would say this is far-fetched, which it is, for now: the mantle of regional cop, especially for US imperialism, clearly belongs to Israel. But the emergence of a powerful, relatively ‘modernised’, non-Arab state of 70 million people from imperialist sanctioned isolation to imperialist-blessed prominence, via the nuclear accord and its possible revival, cannot but be seen as a threat to its position by Israel in the longer term.

In this sense, Israeli leaders are not wrong that US-Iranian nuclear negotiations, and the possibility of a new deal, are an existential threat to Israel, but in a very different way to what they claim. If western imperialism’s need to bring Iranian capitalism more fully back into the world capitalist system leads to a deal that allows Iran to peacefully develop nuclear energy, then 30 years of Zionist bluster is out the window and finding a new “threat” of that magnitude will not be an easy task.

Tulsi Gabbard “finally” finds her political home on the hard right: Where she’s always been

Gabbard and Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad
Gabbard at Christians United for Israel conference

By Michael Karadjis

Dedicating an article to a particular US politician may seem overkill, but there are few American politicians that the ‘alt-left’ have lauded as much as reactionary, alt-rightist Tulsi Gabbard, former Democrat representative from Hawaii. For example, here is professional campist and apologist for mass murder, “journalist” Ben Norton, singing her praises back in 2019:

“Yeh I’ve been really impressed by Tulsi Gabbard … she’s really been hitting hard at the regime change war problem … Tulsi [her admirers are all on first name basis with Gabbard] is great because she has made this the key part of her platform.”

This is just one of hundreds, or thousands, of similar examples from the last decade or so. So no doubt they were impressed that Gabbard recently quit the Democratic Party, especially as she began by claiming they were led by an “elitist cabal of warmongers.” However, most of them quoting this – and many did – would have stopped there, embarrassed by what came after (though in many cases still not embarrassed enough to not cite her!). Let’s have a look at more of Gabbard’s resignation speech:

Gabbard resigns from “woke,” “anti-white,” “anti-God” Democratic Party

“I can no longer remain in today’s Democratic Party that is now under the complete control of an elitist cabal of warmongers driven by cowardly wokeness, who divide us by racializing every issue & stoke anti-white racism, actively work to undermine our God-given freedoms, are… hostile to people of faith & spirituality, demonize the police & protect criminals at the expense of law-abiding Americans, believe in open borders, weaponize the national security state to go after political opponents, and above all, dragging us ever closer to nuclear war.”

Have you ever seen a bigger right-wing dog-whistle while still making vague signals to the left? So, Gabbard, the ruling class Democratic party is a hotbed of “anti-white racism”! Hostile to “people of faith”! “Undermines the police”! Believes in “open borders”! Yes, the alt-left, the campist-tankie left, can have her. Of course, none of this is new – anyone who looked knew that Tulsi Gabbard has been an out and out reactionary for years, well, always.

Unlike many, this was too much even for Norton, who now declares her “a right-wing sheepdog [who] cynically tries to lure anti-war people into the GOP.” Yeh, Ben, that’s what we said when you were singing her praises. Norton recently quit the red-brown propaganda-for-tyrants site, Grayzone, apparently because he felt his co-thinker, Max Blumenthal, was taking conspiracist thinking a little far with his conversion to Covidiocy. Will be interesting to see how Grayzone explains their idol’s talk about the dangers of “anti-white racism” and the like.

It’s rather obvious from her resignation which direction she is heading after the Democrats. Earlier this year, Gabbard was invited and spoke to the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where she spoke alongside Glenn Beck at the Ronald Reagan memorial dinner. She declared, not wrongly, that she finally found where she belonged, which helps us understand where her new “home” will be (where in reality it always was).

Gabbard: Apologist for genocidal Assad regime

Gabbard was good at hoodwinking the red-brown, tankie, campist “leftists” because they are not only easily fooled by definition, but also tend to be consciously and defiantly ignorant. One of the issues that really endeared them to Gabbard was her apologism for genocidal mass-murdering Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, who she personally visited in 2017. Her explanation for this was that she was for peace, and therefore it was necessary to talk to everyone involved, including Assad. This was a very thin smokescreen, however, as she propagated almost all Assadist talking points.

She declared herself against an (actually non-existent) “US regime-change war” against Assad, leading tankies to see her as one of them, deciding she was “anti-war”, as in Norton’s quotes about “regime change” above. In reality of course, the only US bombing war in Syria since 2014 has been the air war against ISIS (which destroyed ISIS in Syria), which also hit anti-ISIS Islamist rebels, especially, from the first day, Jabhat-al-Nusra, this US intervention welcomed by the Assad regime. Far from being anti-war, Gabbard accused the US of not bombing them enough. She welcomed the onset of Russia’s terror bombing of Syria on behalf of Assad in 2015, claiming, falsely, that the “US has not been bombing al-Qaeda/al-Nusra in Syria” (the US bombed Nusra targets hundreds of times, killing large numbers of civilians in the process, and often enough, even mainstream anti-Assad rebels), and proceeding to state “but it’s mind-boggling that we protest Russia’s bombing of these terrorists,” despite the fact that the vast majority of Russia’s bombs, and Assad’s bombs, hit mainstream rebels, not “al-Qaeda.”  

Returning from her trip to Assad’s palace, Gabbard made videos calling for an end to the imaginary “US regime change war,” which showed vast footage of the massive, unending destruction of entire regions as far as they eye can see that Assad’s bombing had wrought, implicitly blaming it on the US, or on the anti-Assad rebels, who only had small arms: the cataclysmic destruction in the footage is clearly the work of an airforce and advanced missiles, possessed only the regime and Russia.

According to Gabbard, “If Assad is removed and overthrown, ISIS, al Qaeda, Al Nusra, these Islamic extremist groups will walk straight in and take over all of Syria … they will be even stronger,” sounding identical to Trump, Pence, Gingrich, Bolton or any of the American and global hard right. She claimed “Their message [ie, the message of her Assad regime handlers!] to the American people was powerful and consistent: There is no difference between ‘moderate’ rebels and al-Qaeda (al-Nusra) or ISIS—they are all the same,” claiming it was “a war between terrorists under the command of groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda and the Syrian government.” This shameless grouping together of terrorists and the millions who rose up against Assad is the most typical Assadist talking point: anyone opposed to a regime of torture and mass murder can only be a jihadi. The fact that ISIS fought rebels far more than it ever fought the regime, and the regime also fought the rebels far more than it fought ISIS, and the regime regularly bombed the rebels whenever they were fighting ISIS, is irrelevant to crude propagandists for mass murder like Gabbard.

But of course tankies, campists and red-browns think someone is progressive and anti-war when they support a genocidal tyrant who has killed hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed entire towns and cities throughout his country. Well, each to their own I suppose, so for argument’s sake, let’s go with that.

With exceptions, most of these same tankies and campists and even many red-browns pretend to be very pro-Palestine. It is their one alleged point of honour. If you point out massive repression by an Assad, Putin or Khameini, they can “what about Israel” you in response? “Why doesn’t the US stop Israel?” Since every genuine leftist has supported the Palestinian struggle their entire political lives, and has never stopped condemning the unconditional US support for the regime of occupation, apartheid and ethnic cleansing, this whataboutism is irrelevant and stupid, of course, but it gives them something to say. So, OK, let’s again go with that.

Gabbard: Hard Zionist

It therefore takes a very, very deliberate kind of ignorance to not know that Gabbard is also a hard Zionist (and of course there is zero contradiction between being a Zionist and an Assadist – virtually the entire global far-right achieve that, not just Gabbard). So then why do they extol someone who should be their enemy? Because she’s pro-Putin? Yeh well, so is Netanyahu! The bottom line is, her support for the Assad regime and Putin are far bigger priorities for the alt-left than their symbolic pro-Palestine views. Indeed, given Assad’s murder of thousands of Palestinians in Syria and his destruction of their camps, their support for Palestine while shilling for Assad is not only hypocritical, but also anti-Palestinian.

But let’s look at Gabbard’s well-known Zionism. Here is Gabbard at the Christians United for Israel convention, alongside John Hagee, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and every other kind of hard US reactionary. Here she is in the far-right Breitbart, exclaiming  “Put yourself in Israel’s shoes”, as she defends staying for Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress, where he was invited by the Republican Party rather than by the Obama US government, when nearly 60 Democrat reps boycotted. Gabbard stated that the US-Israel relationship “must rise above the political fray, as America continues to stand with Israel as her strongest ally.” During Israel’s genocidal Operation Protective Edge, Gabbard co-sponsored a congressional resolution that said that Israel exclusively “focused on terrorist targets” and that Israel “goes to extraordinary lengths to target only terrorist actors”!

Not surprisingly, she got a “Champion of Freedom” award at the Jewish Values Gala, held by the World Values Network, founded by Trump supporter Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Here is a photo showing Gabbard with Shmuley and Miriam Adelson, the wife of Sheldon Adelson, another big Trump supporter who believes Palestinians are “a made-up people”.

In 2017, Gabbard co-sponsored H.Res.23, which supports the U.S. policy of vetoing “any one-sided or anti-Israel UN Security Council Resolutions that seek to impose a negotiated settlement on Israel and Palestine.” It also condemns boycott and divestment campaigns and sanctions that target Israel. Then in 2019, Gabbard voted for an AIPAC bill condemning Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS).

Gabbard with her hard-line Zionist friends

Gabbard: Islamophobe extraordinaire and “hawk” on the “war on terror”

One thing Gabbard’s pro-Assad and pro-Israel stances have in common is that they both accord with the very Islamophobic and “war on terror” basis of her politics. Both the Assad regime and Israel leaders, when they mercilessly bomb civilian infrastructure, medical facilities, schools, refugee camps, anything really, and murder with impunity on a daily basis, claim they are targeting “radical Islamic terrorists.” The US and Russia claim the same in their imperialist wars.

Therefore, among other things, for Gabbard this also includes:

  • Being a hard-line supporter of Modi, the BJP and Hindutva chauvinism; Modi had been personally implicated in the murderous anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, which killed around 1000 people. Due to this, for about a decade, the US had refused to give Modi a visa. For Gabbard, this was a “great blunder,” claiming “there was a lot of misinformation that surrounded the event in 2002.”
  • Loving bloody Egyptian tyrant al-Sisi (given that Sisi is allied to both Assad and Israel, this works well), who she visited in 2015, and declared “President el-Sisi has shown great courage and leadership in taking on this extreme Islamist ideology”
Left: Gabbard with India’s Hindu-chauvinist and pogromist leader Modi. Right: Gabbard with bloody Egyptian dictator al-Sisi.
  • While opposing non-existent US “regime change” war, on the “war on terror” Gabbard declares “I’m a hawk.”
  • Calling for a “forever war” against “terrorism”

The rest of her politics isn’t much different, even if she now claims to no longer be a homophobe, and one wonders how long that phase will last given the territory she is openly moving into. Her right-wing baiting about the danger of “anti-white racism” reveals a more reactionary Gabbard than even many of those aware of her real politics realised. For example, Gabbard claimed US could not possibly be a racist country, since Ahmaud Arbery’s killers were found guilty. That was certainly be news to the hundreds of African-Americans murdered by cops and vigilantes where the killers have gone free; apparently, Black Lives Matter was all about nothing.

Several years ago Gabbard refused to sign letter by 169 Democrats opposing far-rightist Steve Bannon being appointed appointed as Trump’s advisor; little wonder she has received praise from Bannon who claimed she “would fit perfectly [in the Trump administration] … She gets the foreign policy stuff, the Islamic terrorism stuff.” As well as praise from Nazis and white supremacists David Duke and Richard Spencer, from the leading right-wing economic/defence/security think-tank the American Enterprise Institute, from Fox News heavy-weight far-rightist Tucker Carlson, whose show Gabbard regularly appears on, really you name it, from almost anyone on the right.

So if tankie and campist leftists want to keep citing Gabbard of all people as an “anti-war” voice in support of Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine or Assad’s genocidal reign of terror in Syria, please go for it: she suits you.

Gabbard on Tucker Carlson show on Russian TV

Putin accuses the West of ‘Satanism’ to justify Russia’s colonial theft of 15 percent of Ukraine

The four Ukrainian regions being annexed to Russia, joining Russia to its previous Crimea conquest, and almost cutting Ukraine off from the Black Sea.

by Michael Karadjis

Interesting that in a 37-minute speech to justify Russia’s brazen annexation of four regions of Ukraine, Putin didn’t mention “Nazis” or “de-Nazification” once, these silly tropes that some gullible western lefties believed. Instead, it was all about the glories of 1000 years Imperial Russia, while appealing to the most reactionary segments of western society with a lot of mystical, religious, traditionalist nonsense like the following:

“They [ie, the western globalists] have already moved on to the radical denial of moral, religious, and family values. Let’s answer some very simple questions for ourselves. Now I would like to return to what I said and want to address also all citizens of the country – not just the colleagues that are in the hall – but all citizens of Russia: do we want to have here, in our country, in Russia, “parent number one, parent number two and parent number three” (they have completely lost it!) instead of mother and father? Do we want our schools to impose on our children, from their earliest days in school, perversions that lead to degradation and extinction? Do we want to drum into their heads the ideas that certain other genders exist along with women and men and to offer them gender reassignment surgery? Is that what we want for our country and our children? This is all unacceptable to us. We have a different future of our own. … This complete renunciation of what it means to be human, the overthrow of faith and traditional values, and the suppression of freedom are coming to resemble a “religion in reverse” – pure Satanism. Exposing false messiahs, Jesus Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount: “By their fruits ye shall know them.” These poisonous fruits are already obvious to people, and not only in our country but also in all countries, including many people in the West itself.”

Indeed, the West is guilty of ‘Satanism’ and all these crimes against traditional religion and morality, and therefore … Russia should annex 15 percent of Ukraine! Because these regions are allegedly populated by Russians (well, most of the population are not ethnic Russians, but the majority of the population have been violently expelled or massacred) and it is the great historic mission of the glorious Russian Nation to lead the Crusade against this moral degeneracy of western society. If Putin thus sounds like any typical far-right US Christian fundamentalist or Trumpist or 21st century European fascist it is no accident, nor is it anything new for anyone watching: Putin has positioned his regime as head of the global far-right for many years now. Not just all this ‘moral’ bullshit, but also on the question of race, nation and ‘civilisation’; for many years he has espoused a version of ‘Great Replacement’ theory, warning the white race and European and Christian culture that it was in danger of disappearing due to immigration of lots of non-Europeans into the European heartland. No wonder he dropped the crap about fighting “Nazis” in Ukraine; while it might have fooled some lefties, his main audience were and are the western far-right, who probably found it a little confusing, especially all those Nazis everywhere in the world who have been waving the Putin flag for years.

If Putin’s hard authoritarian but ‘parliamentary’ state is still far from fascist in its rule inside Russia (as opposed to its murderous colonial rule in Donbas), Putinism is, nevertheless, fascist ideologically. That’s why it’s no surprise that Putin here quotes a genuine historical Russian fascist, Ivan Ilyin, who Putin calls a “true patriot,” with a lot of mysticism about “the spiritual strength of the Russian people.” That’s why today’s leading Russian fascist high priest, Alexander Dugin, praised Putin’s speech to the sky, proclaiming “This is a manifesto of Tradition. I can’t imagine how profound the consequences are. It was an eschatological, religious speech”

This goes together well with the glorification of The Russian Nation and Empire, the centrepiece of his speech he continually returned to. “The battlefield to which destiny and history have called us is a battlefield for our people, for the great historical Russia. (Applause.) For the great historical Russia, for future generations, our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We must protect them against enslavement and monstrous experiments that are designed to cripple their minds and souls.”

While we sometimes hear that Putin wants to restore the USSR, he made it abundantly clear he wanted nothing of the sort. After denouncing the ‘elites’ who dissolved it, he explained “But it doesn’t matter now. … Actually, Russia no longer needs it today; this isn’t our ambition. But there is nothing stronger than the determination of millions of people who, by their culture, religion, traditions, and language, consider themselves part of Russia, whose ancestors lived in a single country for centuries.” Of course, Putin liked the size and shape of the USSR, because it was a very large country where countless other nations and ethnicities were dominated by The Russian Nation; but that had already existed for centuries before the USSR as the Tsarist Russian Empire, Putin’s ideal, his speech full of glorification of Tsars like Catherine the Great, talk of ‘Novorossiya’, the Tsarist Empire’s name for its colonisation of Ukrainian lands, and so on. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, still contained the fiction of an equal union of republics, of peoples, in its name, and that is what Putin hates, has been railing against for years, the original sin of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in recognising the right of self-determination of Ukraine and the other subject peoples of the old Russian Empire, as Putin here denounces “the [Bolshevik] government quietly demarcated the borders of Soviet republics, acting behind the scenes after the 1917 revolution.”

It’s true that this hard right and medievalist ideological rant was peppered with nods to the western left and the former colonial world with his denunciations of western imperialism. Putin quite rightly denounces the West for “the worldwide slave trade, the genocide of Indian tribes in America, the plunder of India and Africa, the wars of England and France against China,” for the “exterminat[ion of] entire ethnic groups for the sake of grabbing land and resources” and so on. Yet he somehow manages to omit the fact that Tsarist Russia was in every sense a key participant in these centuries of colonial expansion, plunder and extermination; the fact that Russian colonialism expanded by land, subjugating nations and ethnicities from the Black Sea to the Caucasus, central Asia and Siberia, rather than by sea, is irrelevant. Indeed, in the 19th century Marx and Engels considered the Russian Empire to be at the very centre of reaction in Europe. Putin does complete somersaults with reality by imagining a centuries-old ‘Russophobia’ by some imaginary collective ‘West’ (for most of these centuries Britain and France were mainly at war with each other, and with other Western states, at least one of which was always aligned with Tsarist Russia) that allegedly wanted to make Russia one of its colonies, but Russia resisted this “by creating a strong centralised state,” ie that of the Tsars.

Indeed it is only due to this Russian colonialism, carried out by this “strong centralised state,” that Ukraine (’Novorossya’) came to be under Russian control (aided in the 20th century by Stalin’s Holodomor in the 1930s, when 4 million Ukrainians were starved to death while its borders were sealed to prevent the starving escaping); and it was only due to Russian colonisation of Crimea and dispossession of its Indigenous Tatar population, finalised once again by Stalin’s genocidal expulsion of the entire Tatar population in the 1940s, that Putin was even able to conduct the previous fake “referendum” under military occupation there in 2014.

Somehow, Putin thinks a good way to fight centuries of imperialism is to be ultra-imperialist, to invade a country and conquer great chunks of it; from the start, this war had nothing to do with NATO, with “Nazis” or any other such nonsense, but has been entirely a war of pure and simple imperialist conquest, of the Black Sea coastline with its vast natural resources and strategic position.

These new “referendums” again take place under brutal military occupation, where those who “vote” essentially have guns to their heads; when the majority of the population of Donbas have fled or been driven out and hence get no “vote” (indeed half the population was already in exile before February, having fled during Russia’s occupation of parts of Donbas in 2014-22); after the Russian military have savagely bombed the Donbas populations for months; where there was not a single instance of Donbas crowds welcoming the Russian invaders as “liberators”; where no polls over the last 8 years have ever shown significant support for joining Russia; where ethnic Russians were just over a third of the population in two of the regions, and considerably less in the other two; and and even then, there is no way of knowing what the actual votes were, even given these entirely manipulated and violent conditions – they are almost certainly pure concoctions, as are all “votes” in “referendums” and “elections” throughout the world under dictatorship, terror and occupation.

Yet some people who should know better have been giving this murderous farce and blatant land theft the benefit of the doubt. We are expected to believe that those that Russia has been bombing into oblivion for months just voted to join their torturer. No doubt, as per Putin, out of fear of the West’s Satanism and gender-bending practices.

On the fantastic tale that “the Ukrainian army killed 14,000 ethnic Russians in Donbas between 2014 and 2022”

By Michael Karadjis

Cataclysmic destruction of Russian-speaking Ukrainian city Mariupol by Russian invasion; Putin claims, ironically, that his invasion aims to “liberate” these people from “genocide”.

We’ve all heard it time and time again. Whether it is an argument in support of Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, or just as often, opposed to it but claiming both sides are equally at fault, we hear that that “the Ukrainian army killed 14,000 ethnic Russians in Donbas between 2014 and 2022.”

Here’s just one example among thousands of examples regurgitated, with never a simple fact-check, all over the left and right media: According to pro-Putin writer Max Parry, “For what the late Edward S. Herman called the ‘cruise missile Left,’ the 14,000 ethnic Russians killed in Donbass by the Ukrainian army since 2014 are ‘unworthy victims,’ as Herman and Noam Chomsky defined the notion in Manufacturing Consent.”

The purpose of this claim is to argue that, while Putin may have over-reacted by going all the way to invading, it was the Ukrainian army most at fault before the invasion. Even if it is admitted that Putin’s invasion is criminal and may have imperialist goals and is only using the plight of the Donbas Russians as an excuse, the claim is that this excuse is genuine.  

Therefore, even many of those who oppose the Russian invasion equally oppose the Ukrainian resistance, and in particular its receipt of arms, because if Ukraine gets the upper hand, it will just continue to do to the “ethnic Russians” what it was previously doing, the same as what Russia is now doing to “the Ukrainians.”

While not quite as colourful as Putin’s claim that Ukraine was committing “genocide” against the ethnic Russians in Donbas, these claims are nevertheless serious and merit clear examination.

…………………………………………………

Let’s look at the claim again:

“The Ukrainian army killed 14,000 ethnic Russians in Donbas between 2014 and 2022.”

Is any of this true?

Yes – the 14,000 figure. Yes, 14,000 were killed in the conflict in Donbas between 2014 and 2022. That’s a terrible figure, and of course many times that number were wounded, the entire region is a dead zone covered by landmines, and some 3.3 million people fled the region (ie before the millions who have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion). But what of the rest?

“The Ukrainian army killed.”

Wrong – two sides were involved in the armed conflict – the Ukrainian army, alongside various irregular Ukrainian militia (often composed of people uprooted from their homes) on one side, and the Russia-backed and armed separatist militia of the two self-proclaimed ‘republics’ in eastern Donbas on the other, backed by Russian troops and mercenaries. Both sides shoot; both sides kill.

“ethnic Russians”

Ethnic Russians are a minority of around 38-39 percent of the population in Donbas, so it is unlikely that all or most killed are “ethnic Russians,” but that is not the point of this part of the assertion. The reason this fiction is inserted is to imply that people were killed “by the Ukrainian army” simply for being ethnic Russians, in a war of targeted ethnic extermination, rather than being victims of the cross-fire between the two sides shooting at each other.

But the other problem with the assertion is the implication that these were 14,000 “ethnic Russian” civilians. In reality, according to the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), the numbers killed in Donbas from 14 April 2014 to 31 December 2021were:

4,400 Ukrainian troops

6,500 Russia—owned separatist troops

3,404 civilians

So, let’s be clear: we are talking about 3,404 civilians, killed by both sides, over 2014-2021.

However, what about the last part:

“between 2014 and 2022.”

Well, yes, if we make the small change to 2014-2021, then this is correct in the abstract.

But the implication here is that there was a continual, ongoing bloody conflict (allegedly all caused by the Ukrainian army incessantly “shelling ethnic Russians”) right up to the Russian invasion. The invasion, in a sense, is simply the continuation of the ongoing bloodshed, at a perhaps slightly higher level; a reaction to it, even if perhaps an overreaction.

In reality, almost all the 14,000 deaths, including almost all the 3,404 civilians, were killed when the open conflict was raging from 2014 till the ceasefire in mid-2015 – that is, during a time when no-one seriously denies the direct involvement (ie, invasion) by the Russian army. Let’s just look at the OSCE Status Reports from 2016-2022.

The OSCE report ‘Civilian casualties in eastern Ukraine 2016’ shows there were 88 fatalities in 2016, including 37 from landmines, unexploded ordinance etc.

The OSCE report on civilian casualties covering 2017 to September 2020 shows 161 fatalities over those almost 4 years, of which the majority (81) were from landmines, unexploded ordinance etc. Note that both sides lay landmines; indeed, the UN has characterised the Donbas as one of the most mine-contaminated areas in the world.

The year by year figures were 87 fatalities in 2017, 43 in 2018, 19 in 2019, and 12 to September 2020.

The OSCE report as of 11 January 2021 reports “The total number of civilian casualties in 2020 stands at 128: 23 fatalities and 105 injuries.”

The OSCE Status Report as of 13 December 2021 reports “since the beginning of 2021, the SMM has confirmed 88 civilian casualties (16 fatalities and 72 injured)” in 2021.

Of these 16 fatalities in 2021, 11 were from the first half of 2021: according to the OSCE Status Report as of 14 June 2021, “Over the past two weeks, the SMM corroborated four civilian casualties, all injuries due to explosive objects. This brings the total number of civilian casualties that occurred since the beginning of 2021 to 37 (11 fatalities and 26 injuries). Again, the majority of the casualties (27) were due to mines, unexploded ordnance and other explosive objects.”

Meanwhile, the weekly OSCE Status Report as of 6 September 2021 reported “a fatality, bringing the total number of confirmed civilian casualties since the beginning of 2021 to 62 (15 fatalities and 47 injuries).” Hence, of the 5 fatalities in the second half of the year, 4 were before September.

From these three 2021 reports, we see a continual decline in fatalities in Donbas: 11 in January-June, 4 in June-September, 1 in September-December.

This trend continued into 2022. The OSCE Status Report as of 7 February 2022 reports “The Mission corroborated reports of a civilian casualty: a 56-year-old man suffering a leg injury as a result of small-arms fire on 29 January 2022 in the western part of non-government-controlled Oleksandrivka, Donetsk region. This is the first civilian casualty corroborated by the Mission in 2022.” In other words, to 7 February 2022, 2 weeks before the Russian invasion, there had been zero fatalities in Donbas in 2022.

Therefore, this is the trend in what Putin calls the “genocide” of the ethnic Russians in Donbas, even taking into account that the Russian-owned armed forces shoot and shell as much as do the Ukrainians, and that perhaps half if not the majority of deaths were due to landmines and unexploded ordinance, laid by both sides:

2016 – 88 deaths

2017 – 87 deaths

2018 – 43 deaths

2019 – 19 deaths

2020 – 23 deaths

2021 – 16 deaths, including:

– 11 deaths (Jan-June)

– 4 deaths (June-Sep)

– 1 death (Sep-Dec)

2022 – 0 deaths (before Russian invasion).

As we can see, the rate of death has continually declined until it reached zero. The Russian invasion, which resulted in thousands of deaths and untold injuries, destruction and dispossession, was “in response” (allegedly) to the zero deaths in Donbas in 2022.

The total number of civilian fatalities from 2016-2022 was therefore 276, about half due to landmines. Of course any number of deaths is far too many, and neither the Ukrainian side nor the Russia-owned side should be excused for violations and war crimes that resulted in civilian deaths.

But as there were 3,404 civilians killed from 2014 to 2022 before the Russian invasion, that means that 3128 of these (92%) occurred in 2014-15, when no serious observer denies the direct intervention of the Russian armed forces, mercenaries and heavy weapons in the conflict.

…………………………………………………………….

The aim of this is not to let the Ukrainian government and army off the hook. Both the Ukrainian army and the Russian-backed separatist militia have committed war crimes (mostly in 2014-15), all of which should be condemned.

There is also room for criticism of the post-2014 Ukrainian government’s virulent Ukrainian nationalism, as a major factor leading to opposition among parts of the Russian-speaking population in the east; the fact that the Maidan was confronted by an anti-Maidan in the east was in itself an entirely valid expression of democratic protest. What was not valid was the almost immediate militarisation of the anti-Maidan by Russian-backed militia, armed by Russia, involving the direct intervention of Russian armed forces, mercenaries and heavy weaponry, arbitrarily seizing control of town halls and chunks of eastern Ukraine.

Indeed, Russian FSB colonel Igor Girkin, known as Strelkov, one of the leaders of the first gang of far-right Russian paramilitaries in Donbas, has admitted that it was he who pulled the first trigger that led to war, stating that “if our unit had not crossed the border, everything would have ended as it did in Kharkiv and in Odesa.”

Simon Pirani argues that neither the Maidan nor the anti-Maidan should be stereotyped as reactionary as they often are by different people, and in fact the “social aspirations” of the two “were very close,” but “it was right-wing militia from Russia, and the Russian army, that militarised the conflict and suppressed the anti-Maidan’s social content.”

It is important to understand that the Donbas is ethnically mixed; according to the 2001 census, ethnic Ukrainians form 58% of the population of Luhansk and 56.9% of Donetsk; the ethnic Russian minority accounts for 39% and 38.2% of the two regions respectively. How ironic that Putin supporters justify the flagrant Russian annexation of Crimea by pointing to the 58% ethnic Russian majority there, when Ukrainians are the same size majority in Donbas! The ethnic Ukrainian population is then evenly divided between primary Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers, but language does not equal ethnicity, and neither language nor ethnicity equal political opinion.

Surveys carried out in 2016 and 2019 by the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin found that in the Russian-controlled parts of Donbas, some 45% of the population were in favour of joining Russia, the majority against. Of the majority against, some 30% supported some kind of autonomy, while a quarter wanted no special status. But in the Ukraine government controlled two-thirds of Donbas, while the same percentage (around 30%) favoured some kind of autonomy within Ukraine, the two-thirds majority favoured just being in Ukraine with no special status (almost none supported joining Russia). Even this should not be read to mean that, therefore, the chunks seized by the separatists are the regions most in favour of autonomy or separation – given the dispossession of literally half the Donbas population, it more likely means a degree of subsequent relocation between the two zones.

Hence neither ethnic composition nor opinion shows the two Donbas provinces are “Russian” regions that favour separation or even necessarily autonomy; they are very mixed in all aspects. The borders of the bits that have been seized therefore (the fake ‘republics’) are entirely arbitrary – there was no basis for these seizures in terms of any “act of self-determination;” and since the armed conflict took off after these seizures, neither can the seizures and the militarisation be justified as necessary armed defence against some violent wave of government repression of the anti-Maidan which had not taken place.

The foreign-backed militarisation of the anti-Maidan on the one hand polarised views on the edges, while on the other driving away the middle, including a large part of the original anti-Maidan civilian population; and the more the far-right and fascist Russian-backed, or indeed actual Russian, political figures and militia came to dominate these ‘republics’, imposing essentially totalitarian control and massively violating the human rights of the local population, the less this had anything to do with any genuine expression of valid opposition to the Ukrainian government’s policies. Alienation from this reality, combined with the war itself, led to literally half the population fleeing Donbas – 3.3 million of the original population of 6.6 million – either to other parts of Ukraine (the majority), or to Russia or Belarus.  

In this context, it was entirely expected that the Ukrainian armed forces would attempt to regain these regions conquered by separatist militia backed by a foreign power; and ‘valid’ in terms of international law, regardless of one’s views on how Ukraine conducted it. Of course, one may well criticise Ukraine’s reliance on purely military means to regain these regions with complex ethnic/regional issues, almost inevitable given that its virulent Ukrainian nationalist stance precluded a more political approach. But to lay the majority of blame on this military response rather than the foreign-backed military aggression it was responding to is hardly logical.

Whatever the case, and whatever one’s views on the relative responsibility of the two sides over these years, the continual and decisive reduction of fatalities, injuries and ceasefire violations between 2015 and 2022 – from 3128 civilian fatalities in 2014-2015 to 0 in early 2022 – puts the lie to not only Putin’s claim that his bloody invasion, with its countless thousands of deaths, millions uprooted and cataclysmic destruction, was in response to “genocide” of “ethnic Russians,” but also to the more subtle plague on both your houses case that the Ukrainian army was waging a relentless war against “ethnic Russians” in Donbas.

Putin’s conquest of southeast Ukraine: Vexed questions of ‘negotiations’, gotcha moments and real imperial interests

Russia’s conquests in southeast Ukraine: Putin’s expanded Russian empire (Source: Al Jazeera, May 12, 2022)

By Michael Karadjis

As Ukraine continues to resist Russia’s horrific aggression and attempt to conquer and annex the south and east of the country, the quantity of arms being supplied to Ukraine by the United States and other western countries has steadily increased. As the country and people suffering from this naked imperialist aggression, the Ukrainians have every right to receive weapons from whoever wants to send them, regardless of the aims of those countries doing so, or the extraordinary hypocrisy of these imperialist powers.

However, much leftist commentary has increasingly seen this supply of arms as evidence of the war becoming a “proxy” war in which Ukraine, rather than fighting for its very existence, is essentially just acting as cat’s paw for an alleged US imperialist aim of waging “war against Russia,” perhaps even aiming to “Balkanise” Russia. A quick review of some left media just the last couple of days brings up an article that labels the Russian invasion of Ukraine a “U.S. war against Russia” which “threatens world peace;” while even in Socialist Worker, which strongly condemns the Russian invasion and certainly cannot be accused of softness on Putinism, we can read that “today any element of a war of liberation against Russian imperialism is wholly subsumed by, and subordinated to, Nato’s war on Russia.”

An important part of this discourse is the claim that supplying arms goes against the importance of “negotiations,”, which allegedly the US and western states are vetoing, along with the assertion that the US aim is to “weaken” Russia rather than just help Ukraine. Some of this is based on a number of ‘gotcha’ moments when one or another representative of the US ruling class said something a little out of line. Yet a serious analysis will demonstrate that these assumptions and alleged dichotomies have no basis in reality, and the more serious US imperial analysts highlight interests and fears that not only show the ‘gotcha’ moments have little to do with western policy, but ultimately state very similar fears to many of these leftist analysts regarding the potential for a dangerously destabilised Russia resulting from a loss of Russian ‘credibility’, and therefore advocate rather similar limits to US support and stress on negotiations.

‘Negotiations’ versus war?

Writing in Counterpunch on April 29, Richard Rubenstein asks: “If Putin now offered a ceasefire in order to negotiate the status of the Donbass republics and to assert other Russian needs and interests, would the U.S. and Ukraine be justified in refusing to talk in order to punish or “weaken” him?” And answers: “Of course not!”

There is just so much unreality in all these discussions that begin with such statements. “Would the US and Ukraine be justified”? The US and Ukraine are two different countries. What the US does is one thing, but Ukraine is under invasion and occupation. Ukraine is fighting for its existence. If it decides it wants to fight on in order to get as much of its country back as it can and to thus have a stronger position at the bargaining table, that is up to Ukraine, not the US or western leftists. If Ukraine decides it cannot handle the superior Russian firepower any longer and is forced to sign a ceasefire with humiliating conditions, that is up to Ukraine, not up to the US or western leftists. Ukraine’s decisions, in other words, should not be subject to the approval of either western imperialism or the western imperial left. Either way, we should simply demand Russia get out.

Now the first assumption in these endless articles spouting the wisdom of “ceasefire and negotiations” and of Rubenstein’s question above is that Russia is dying to negotiate, and has “reasonable” concerns, or as Rubenstein puts it, “other Russian needs and interests,” which apparently exist inside another sovereign state. I wonder if Rubenstein would seek to justify the ongoing US occupation of part of Cuba’s sovereign territory as due to “US needs and interests.” The related assumption is either that Ukraine is opposed to negotiating, or that many in Ukraine, perhaps Zelensky, would be ready to negotiate, but the US is opposed to negotiations or to any concessions to Russia, and is “banning” Ukraine from negotiating or compromising, or by pumping in arms, it is “encouraging” Ukraine to fight and not negotiate.

This scenario, however, is entirely fictional. No-one making these endless statements has ever presented any evidence whatsoever. They just make it up, because it fits their schema that this is a “proxy war” being waged by US imperialism, which is apparently using Ukraine and Ukrainian lives for its (the US’s) “war on Russia,” as opposed to the actual war of conquest being waged by Russian imperialism against its former colony that stares anyone in the face who wants to look.

It is a remarkably western-centric view, even for the always western-centric Manichean “anti-imperialist” left, to imagine that the millions of Ukrainians who have risen up at the grass-roots level in an extraordinary mobilisation to defend Ukraine’s right to exist as a state and nation are not doing so in their own interests but are merely being fooled into being “proxies” for US imperialism’s schemes.

Ukraine has been either negotiating, or offering to re-start negotiations, more or less continually. It should not be obliged to; Ukraine would be in its full rights to simply say Russian troops need to leave Ukraine and there is nothing to negotiate except the pace and logistics of that withdrawal. But it negotiates anyway because of the position it is in. So when western leftists demand Ukraine do something it is already doing, what they really mean is that Ukraine should surrender to Russia’s “reasonable” demands.

So they should come clean – what do these wise western sages demand that Ukraine do to satisfy Russia so that it will allegedly agree to a ceasefire and negotiations? For the most part, they demand Ukraine accepts Russia’s full program of Ukrainian surrender.

Even on paper, Russia’s demands for Ukrainian surrender – no right to join a security alliance of its choice, demilitarisation, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and of Donbas – look remarkably like Israel’s “reasonable” demands for Palestinian surrender, including recognition of annexation by force and the whole package. In both cases, justification for calling such maximum demands “reasonable” derives easily from the view that “there is no such thing as Palestine/Ukraine.” Just as western imperialist leaders reject one and support the other, the western imperial left do exactly the same but merely reverse them. In contrast, the Russian and Israeli leaders of small-scale imperialist states engaged in old-style conquest-imperialism have long had a healthy respect for each other’s projects.

Ukraine’s negotiating proposal: No NATO, no military solutions to occupied regions

But are these “reasonable” Russian demands even what Russia is really waging this war for?  

Let’s take the NATO demand. It is hard to understand why anyone can still think that Russia launched this war due to its alleged “security concerns” about “NATO enlargement.” NATO enlargement took place in 1999-2004, when 10 countries joined, including the only three “on Russia’s borders,” ie, the three tiny Baltic states. The four that have been allowed into NATO at different moments in the last 18 years were small Balkan states nowhere near Russia, often after long and difficult processes.

Ukraine applied to join in 2008, and the accusation that the US is pushing to “expand” into Ukraine is based on the fact that NATO did not say “no” that year, as its charter prevents it saying no to any European country. Yet 14 years later, Ukraine has still not even been given a Membership Action Plan (MAP), to allow it to begin attempting to meet the conditions of membership. No serious observer thinks Ukraine has any chance of being admitted for many years or decades.

But in any case, Zelensky made the major concession on NATO in negotiations just a few weeks into the war. It’s full elaboration as a written proposal was on March 30. The first few points of the 10-point plan are as follows:

Proposal 1: Ukraine proclaims itself a neutral state, promising to remain nonaligned with any blocs and refrain from developing nuclear weapons — in exchange for international legal guarantees. Possible guarantor states include Russia, Great Britain, China, the United States, France, Turkey, Germany, Canada, Italy, Poland, and Israel, and other states would also be welcome to join the treaty.

Proposal 2: These international security guarantees for Ukraine would not extend to Crimea, Sevastopol, or certain areas of the Donbas [ie, the areas currently controlled by Kremlin stooges]. The parties to the agreement would need to define the boundaries of these regions or agree that each party understands these boundaries differently.

Proposal 3: Ukraine vows not to join any military coalitions or host any foreign military bases or troop contingents. Any international military exercises would be possible only with the consent of the guarantor-states. For their part, these guarantors confirm their intention to promote Ukraine’s membership in the European Union.

Note the second point also touches on Russia’s other surrender conditions. One of them, the Crimea issue, is further elaborated on in point 8:

Proposal 8: The parties’ desire to resolve issues related to Crimea and Sevastopol shall be committed to bilateral negotiations between Ukraine and Russia for a period of 15 years. Ukraine and Russia also pledge not to resolve these issues by military means and to continue diplomatic resolution efforts.

If anybody can find any evidence of US “rejection” of Ukraine’s plan, any attempt to “ban” Ukraine from making these concessions, please provide sources. Such evidence will not be forthcoming. In late April, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, far-right Republican Senator Rand Paul accused the Biden administration of provoking the war by “beating the drums to admit Ukraine to NATO.” In his response, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the White House would be open to an agreement that resulted in Ukraine becoming “an unaligned, neutral nation.” “We, Senator, are not going to be more Ukrainian than the Ukrainians. These are decisions for them to make,” Blinken told Paul. “Our purpose is to make sure that they have within their hands the ability to repel the Russian aggression and indeed to strengthen their hand at an eventual negotiating table,” he added. While he saw no sign Putin was ready to negotiate, he said “If he is and if the Ukrainians engage, we’ll support that.”

That is not because Biden or Blinken are great peaceniks or not imperialists. It is simply that the “no negotiations” position imputed to them by many excitable leftists is simply not a position that interests the main body of US imperialism (the odd talking head or armchair warrior notwithstanding).

As opposed to the imaginary and evidence-free view that Ukraine may want to negotiate but the West will not allow it to, others claim (just as wrongly) that Ukraine refuses to negotiate, but the US and the West must negotiate anyway. This is a rather odd demand – since Russia is not invading the US or western Europe, and they are not invading Russia, what exactly is the US supposed to negotiate about?

The point being, of course, that these “anti-imperialists” here reveal themselves as super-imperialists: they are demanding that the US and the West negotiate “on behalf of” Ukraine! So presumably, if the US or France “negotiates” with Putin for Ukraine to cede Crimea and Donbas to Russia, Ukraine should happily accept being divided up by imperialist powers, and this Kissingerian chessboard ‘realist’ geopolitics is now supposedly the essence of an emancipatory leftist position!

Is there a new US aim to “weaken Russia”?  

On a related track, the statement by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on April 25 that the US aims to “see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do these kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine” created great excitement. This is supposedly a declaration either of real, or new, US aims in this war. Now, even if interpreted this way, this would prove nothing about the war of resistance waged by the Ukrainian people against imperial Russia’s attempt to wipe them off the map. Obviously, US imperialism has its own reasons for aiding this resistance (indeed, providing large numbers of the very weapons that it not only did not provide to the anti-Assad Syrian rebellion, but actively blocked others from providing). But if the US aims to weaken Russia via supporting this Ukrainian resistance, that is not a choice made by Ukraine; Ukraine did not invade Russia to give the US an avenue to weaken Russia. Russia invaded Ukraine; if Ukraine’s resistance allows the US to weaken Russia by aiding it, Russia can thank Putin for that.

But in any case, the statement can mean virtually anything; Ukraine simply maintaining its right to existence, or to exist without suffering large territorial losses – a defeat of the aims of the Russian invasion – will weaken Russia. So anyone not advocating a Russian victory over Ukraine could also be considered to be in agreement with Austin. By providing any aid at all since Day 1, the US was helping “weaken Russia.”

Some proclaim that this was not the original US aim, but Austin’s statement heralded a “new” strategic turn in US policy. But if so, they need to explain what has changed in practice. Previously, they claim, the US was aiding the Ukrainian resistance with the aim of helping Ukraine resist the Russian invasion – for its own reasons, of course, but within these confines. Now the US is doing the same thing, aiding the Ukrainian resistance, but with the aim of weakening Russia. Pardon me for being confused about what has changed in practice.

A common claim is that by supplying arms to Ukraine, the US aims to drag out the war, so as to bog down and wear out Russia, the weakening of Russia being paid for by Ukrainian death and suffering. Social media is full of western leftist wits proclaiming “the US will fight Russia to the last drop of Ukrainian blood.” Apparently, the reason millions of Ukrainians are resisting the Russian invasion is not because they don’t want to be overrun by a brutal imperialist power, but because they are unconsciously acting against their own interests, dying for a US aim of weakening Russia. If only they knew what these brave and smart western lefties knew, that their real interests lie in accepting colonial oppression, occupation, massacre and dispossession.

The obvious question arising from this assertion that the US wants to drag out the war to weaken Russia is ‘how can the war end more quickly?’ On the one hand, the assertion could mean that by allowing Ukrainians to better resist Russian conquest, these western arms prevent the rapid end of the war via total Russian victory, with its attendant massacres and war crimes, imposition of a fascistic regime of repression, and annexation of a large part of Ukraine. If these leftists advocate a rapid end of the war via this conclusion, so it is not “dragged out,” they should say so openly and stop beating around the bush.

But if they do not mean this, the only other way for the war to end more quickly and not bog Russia down would be for a dramatic increase in the quantity and quality of arms deliveries to Ukraine, so that it could convincingly and quickly evict Russia from its territory; while Russia would still be somewhat weakened by defeat, at least the war would not drag on, and hence the alleged aim of getting Russia stuck there and drained would not be fulfilled. In that case they should be denouncing the US for not supplying Ukraine arms of sufficient quantity and quality to do this, but only enough to fight on but not win. But it is unlikely they mean this either.

So if the idea is not a rapid end to the war via crushing Russian victory, nor via Ukraine swiftly driving out the invader, then the statement has no meaning, it is merely a piece of cheap rhetoric.

But of course, as tankies become pacifists, it is back to demanding “ceasefire and negotiations.” No rapid Russian victory, no total Ukrainian victory, but also no dragging out the war, because as we know, “negotiations” can end the war. That always works, and no-one ever thought of it before.

All Ukraine has to do is surrender to Russia’s “reasonable demands,” leading to a satisfied Russia calling a ceasefire; or if not, the US must negotiate this surrender “on Ukraine’s behalf.” Leaving aside how much this Imperial Left stance contradicts leftist stances in virtually every other struggle by a nation and people against imperialist aggression, occupation and conquest, how realistic is this ‘strategy’ on its own terms? 

Russia engaged in a war of old-style conquest imperialism

To answer this, how has Russia responded to Ukraine’s proposals in March, discussed above, for no NATO, for neutrality with security guarantees, no joining any military blocs, a 15-year negotiation on Crimea with no military solutions? With what we have seen since – the complete destruction of Mariupol, the Bucha massacre, all the rest of the horror since. The last thing Russia wanted was for Ukraine to call its bluff.

The problem is that this “anti-imperialist” left do not understand the nature of imperialism; or by claiming that Russia is not an imperialist power, but rather just a large capitalist power with average expansionist tendencies, they imagine the same imperialist logic does not apply.

Russia is engaged in a war of late 19th century style imperialist conquest. Obviously, it is not unique in the world as western media claims, we’ve had Israel, Indonesia, Morocco, Turkey and others engage in wars of conquest and annexation in recent decades, greeted by either western indifference, or avid western and especially US support. Pointing out western hypocrisy is politically important as we confront the onslaught of self-serving and laughable propaganda about the world being divided between “democracy and autocracy,” about there allegedly being a “rules-based international order” that no-one ever violated before Putin did, and so on. But fighting hypocrisy does not inform analysis of a concrete situation. These other cases are all of relatively small countries; the largest, Indonesia, was eventually defeated in East Timor (with the aid of a change in imperialist policy, indeed imperialist intervention in defence of east Timor), though not in West Papua. Turkey held back from formal annexation of northern Cyprus which it still occupies; and although it never faced western sanctions, its puppet ‘republic’ is not recognised by any country in the world. Obviously Israel/Palestine is the most globally consequential of these cases.

But this is the first time a major global imperialist power has engaged in 19th century-style ‘direct conquest’ imperialism since 1945. This is not a morality contest here, obviously the US invasion of Iraq was extraordinarily brutal and criminal, but the aim was not conquest as such; and of course both the US and Russia and others have engaged in massive and brutal “interventions” after being “invited in,” but once again this has not been about conquest as such. We need to wrap our heads around this fact.

In late April, Rustam Minnekayev, deputy commander of Russia’s central military district, stated that Russia planned to forge a land corridor between Crimea and Donbas in eastern Ukraine; this is rather obvious anyway – that is why Mariupol had to be conquered and destroyed, being right in the middle and a key port. These are of course Russian-speaking regions, where the ‘liberator of Russians’ slaughtered them. But he went on, noting that “control over the south of Ukraine is another way to Transdniestria, where there is also evidence that the Russian-speaking population is being oppressed.”

In other words, the entire south of Ukraine, its entire Black Sea coast, is Russian imperialism’s aim. Not only linking Donbas to Crimea, but also seizing Odessa and linking Crimea to the Russian-controlled fake ‘republic’ of Transdniestria, which Russia seized from Moldova decades ago (how amazing that a region under effective Russian control is also “oppressing” Russians now!). And if we take the more extreme ‘Eurasianist’ views into account, Moldova – a neutral state, like Ukraine, outside NATO – should probably also be worrying about its existence.

Of course, the enormous mobilisation of Ukrainian resistance has probably put the brakes on the more extreme Russian geographic aims – at this stage it looks like Russia will consolidate the Donbas to Crimea link conquest and will not have the capacity to venture beyond to Odessa – but that doesn’t alter the fact that these are Russia’s aims. And even just consolidating this part of the conquest locks Ukraine out from most of the Black Sea.

The evidence that Russia aims to annex its new conquests can be seen wherein “Russian officials have already moved to introduce the ruble currency, install proxy politicians in local governments, impose new school curriculums, reroute internet servers through Russia and cut the population off from Ukrainian broadcasts” in these conquered regions. Marat Khusnullin, Russia’s deputy prime minister for infrastructure, also stated that Russia intends “to charge Ukraine for electricity generated by the Ukrainian nuclear plant that Russian forces commandeered in the early weeks of the invasion.”

The Black Sea, of course is full of hydrocarbons. Let’s not make things too complicated. Russian imperialism wants them. It certainly doesn’t want its former colony to share any of them, and by cutting it off from most of its sea coast, can effectively blockade it into submission.

Where to now for US policy?

The opinions on where US policy is heading in response to this situation range from ‘the US will continue to escalate until it leads to war with Russia’ to ‘the US will cut a deal with Russia and sell out Ukraine’. The scenario involving the US pressuring Ukraine into making a compromise that is not fully just once it feels Russia has been weakened enough, rather than pushing for full victory, is just as possible, if not more, than the projections of it drifting into war with Russia. Whatever the case, it is clear that the US and other imperialist powers are supporting Ukraine for their own reasons and their interests are not identical.

What then are the US interests involved? Obviously, US imperialism has already ‘won’ due to Putin’s invasion: US ‘security’ hegemony over Europe is now stronger than at any time since the end of the Cold War, NATO is now adding new members, the many years of the Russian-German gas pipeline development have suddenly come to nothing. Obviously, US and western imperialism more generally does not want a Russian conquest of the entire Black Sea; and allowing Russia conquer much beyond where it already held in Ukraine before the invasion would not be good for US or NATO “credibility.” But once that drive is defeated, there may be little appetite to keep backing Ukraine.

The simple fact is that US imperialism has not been in any “war drive” against Russia, and has no interest in one. There were no signs of any US build-up against Russia before the war, and while relations have been tense since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, they have been relatively normal, including a great deal of cooperation in places like Syria. While a certain amount of anti-Russian rhetoric may have characterised some US statements in comparison to the more accommodating Franco-German approach, this can be understood as part of keeping NATO – its tool for hegemony in Europe – “relevant”, in particular among some of the more anti-Russian eastern European ruling elites (and even this had been wearing thin before Putin saved NATO – just a few months ago, a string of east European right-wing populist rulers were increasingly close to Moscow).  

But it is important to not confuse this symbolic US-Russia “rivalry” – related to credibility, the size of the countries, military power, Cold War hangovers – to actual inter-imperialist competition. Their economies are just too different in both character and size for the US to see Putin’s hydro-carbon-based economic fiefdom as a serious global competitor – that award goes to rising, hyper-dynamic Chinese imperialism. And getting bogged down in Ukraine is not conducive to the US ‘pivot to Asia’ where its Chinese rival is based, though for this very reason it may be very much in China’s interests.

Yes, massive quantities of arms have gone to Ukraine, but there have also been clear limits: the US blocking of Poland from delivering warplanes for instance; and a no-fly zone has been placed off-limits by the US and the West from the outset.

One problem with confusing some rhetorical flourishes with US imperialist policy is that each of these ‘gotcha’ moments has been walked back by other US government figures. After Austin mentioned weakening Russia, Press Secretary Jen Psaki explained this simply meant “our objective to prevent that [Russia taking over Ukraine] from happening … but, yes, we are also looking to prevent them from expanding their efforts and President Putin’s objectives beyond that, too.” When Biden said that Putin shouldn’t remain in power, this was immediately hosed down by others in the US government. And when Rep. Seth Moulton stated “We’re not just at war to support the Ukrainians. We’re fundamentally at war, although somewhat through a proxy, with Russia,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates responded “President Biden has been clear that U.S. forces are not and will not engage in a conflict with Russia. We are supporting the Ukrainian people as they defend their country.” Finally, in early May, the US government imposed new limits on the intelligence it shares with Ukraine.

Richard Haas, Thomas Friedman, Eliot Cohen: Voices from the US ruling class

Indeed, we can also find ‘gotcha’ moments of a different kind. On May 9, Biden expressed concern that Putin “doesn’t have a way out right now, and I’m trying to figure out what we do about that.”

This concern – to give Putin some “way out” to avoid the kind of destabilisation that could result from an outright defeat for Russia – is likely much closer to real US imperial interests that the imaginary spectre of the US aiming to “Balkanise Russia”, more likely the very thing everyone wants to avoid. Such concerns are consistent with those expressed in several pieces by leading US ruling class strategists in the serious media. While these strategists do not create US policy, the explanations they give for what US policy should be are not only logical, but also coincide with the very limits of Biden’s approach, and express a number of similar concerns.

The first of these is an article in Foreign Affairs by Richard Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has served in various US governments since the late 1970s, including for Secretary of State Colin Powell in the Bush administration, as Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department from 2001 to 2003 during the lead-up to the Iraq war. So no lightweight. Haas begins:

“In principle, success from the West’s perspective can be defined as ending the war sooner rather than later, and on terms that Ukraine’s democratic government is prepared to accept. But just what are those terms? Will Ukraine seek to recover all the territory it has lost in the past two months? Will it require that Russian forces withdraw completely from the Donbas and Crimea? Will it demand the right to join the EU and NATO? Will it insist that all this be set forth in a formal document signed by Russia?

“The United States, the EU, and NATO need to discuss such questions with one another and with Ukraine now. … To be sure, the Ukrainians have every right to define their war aims. But so do the United States and Europe. Although Western interests overlap with Ukraine’s, they are broader, including nuclear stability with Russia and the ability to influence the trajectory of the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.

“It is also essential to take into account that Russia gets a vote. Although Putin initiated this war of choice, it will take more than just him to end it. He and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will both have to consider what they require in the way of territory and terms to halt hostilities. They will also have to decide if they are prepared not only to order an end to the fighting but also to enter into and honor a peace agreement. Another complexity is that some aspects of any peace, such as the lifting of sanctions against Russia, would not be determined by Ukraine alone but would require the consent of others.”

Discussing several scenarios, Haas sees the scenario in which Ukrainian success reaches the point that it attempts to take back all territory seized since 2014, rather than only territory seized in 2022, as a destabilising outcome:

“… it is near impossible to imagine Putin accepting such an outcome, since it would surely threaten his political survival, and possibly even his physical survival. In desperation, he might try to widen the war through cyberattacks or attacks on one or more NATO countries. He might even resort to chemical or nuclear weapons. … Arguably, these aims are better left for a postconflict, or even a post-Putin, period in which the West could condition sanctions relief on Russia’s signing of a formal peace agreement. Such a pact might allow Ukraine to enjoy formal ties to the EU and security guarantees, even as it remained officially neutral and outside NATO. Russia, for its part, might agree to withdraw its forces from the entirety of the Donbas in exchange for international protections for the ethnic Russians living there. Crimea might gain some special status, with Moscow and Kyiv agreeing that its final status would be determined down the road.”

Discussing the lessons learned from the Cold War and the balance achieved which guaranteed peace (between the superpowers that is), Haas notes that these are consistent with the very limitations of Biden’s strategy:

“From the outset of the crisis, the United States made it clear that it would not place boots on the ground or establish a no-fly zone, since doing so could bring U.S. and Russian forces into direct contact and raise the risk of escalation. Instead, Washington and its NATO partners opted for an indirect strategy of providing arms, intelligence, and training to Ukraine while pressuring Russia with economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.”

From here on “ … success for now could consist of a winding down of hostilities, with Russia possessing no more territory than it held before the recent invasion and continuing to refrain from using weapons of mass destruction. Over time, the West could employ a mix of sanctions and diplomacy in an effort to achieve a full Russian military withdrawal from Ukraine. Such success would be far from perfect, just preferable to the alternatives.”

The second piece was by long-term imperial columnist Thomas L Friedman in the May 6 New York Times. Like Haas, Friedman is no stranger to being hawkish when he believes such a stance is in US interests, but takes a similar view to what actual US interests are in this case.

He also warned that certain US actions “could be creating an opening for Putin to respond in ways that could dangerously widen this conflict — and drag the U.S. in deeper than it wants to be,” which is all the more dangerous given Putin’s unpredictability, and the fact that “Putin is running out of options for some kind of face-saving success on the ground — or even a face-saving off ramp.”

Moreover, for Friedman, the problem is not only Russia, as “President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has been trying to do the same thing from the start — to make Ukraine an immediate member of NATO or get Washington to forge a bilateral security pact with Kyiv” something Friedman clearly sees as against US interests. 

Like Haas, he ultimately thinks that Biden has the right balance:

But my sense is that the Biden team is walking much more of a tightrope with Zelensky than it would appear to the eye — wanting to do everything possible to make sure he wins this war but doing so in a way that still keeps some distance between us and Ukraine’s leadership. That’s so Kyiv is not calling the shots and so we’ll not be embarrassed by messy Ukrainian politics in the war’s aftermath. The view of Biden and his team, according to my reporting, is that America needs to help Ukraine restore its sovereignty and beat the Russians back — but not let Ukraine turn itself into an American protectorate on the border of Russia. We need to stay laser-focused on what is our national interest and not stray in ways that lead to exposures and risks we don’t want.”

While much of the western left sees the US making Ukraine its ‘protectorate’, Friedman sees this as an evil Ukrainian plot which the US must be, and is, on guard against. “But we are dealing with some incredibly unstable elements, particularly a politically wounded Putin. Boasting about killing his generals and sinking his ships, or falling in love with Ukraine in ways that will get us enmeshed there forever, is the height of folly.”

Before moving to the third, more hawkish, piece, it is worth noting that the editorial in the May 19 New York Times makes similar points to Haas and Friedman. While stating that the US goal to help Ukraine rebuff Russian aggression “cannot shift,” nevertheless “in the end, it is still not in America’s best interest to plunge into an all-out war with Russia, even if a negotiated peace may require Ukraine to make some hard decisions.” The editorial warns that “a decisive military victory for Ukraine over Russia, in which Ukraine regains all the territory Russia has seized since 2014, is not a realistic goal. Though Russia’s planning and fighting have been surprisingly sloppy, Russia remains too strong, and Mr. Putin has invested too much personal prestige in the invasion to back down.” Therefore, “as the war continues, Mr. Biden should also make clear to President Volodymyr Zelensky and his people that there is a limit to how far the United States and NATO will confront Russia, and limits to the arms, money and political support they can muster.”

So, apart from the odd gaffe, it seems difficult to find serious US ruling class opinion saying what much of the left is claiming it is saying. Actually, they appear to saying remarkably similar things to each other! Perhaps we can find the evidence in a more serious hawk?

The third piece by Eliot A. Cohen, writing in The Atlantic on May 11, may be such an example. A professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, former Counselor of the Department of State, former editor of The National Interest, the title of his book The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Forcetells us his views on the use military power. Not surprisingly, therefore, this article is more hawkish in tone than those of Haas and Friedman.

Cohen does not necessarily insist Ukraine must take back all territory lost, but he argues that Ukraine must define what its objectives are and that US policy should recognise “it will be up to Ukraine to decide what it wishes to accomplish.” Having borne “the burdens of blood and sacrifice on a scale not seen since World War II” and with a cause “indisputably just,” Ukraine “has every right to decide what it can and cannot accept and strive for.” This is combined with the fact that Russia “has acted with unspeakable barbarity” and these “moral facts” should therefore “modify or even outweigh coolly geopolitical calculations of the European balance of power.” And when the war ends, western objectives should include helping to put Ukraine “in a condition to defeat further Russian aggression.”

Cohen is an unalloyed partisan of US imperialism, but, from this, obviously hypocritical, perspective, we can at least say there appears to be more respect for Ukraine’s self-determination than the more geopolitically-oriented views of Haas and Friedman, with their insistence on distinguishing the US from the Ukrainian interest.

Therefore, it is here we may expect to see some evidence of the alleged US imperialist desire to wage war on, to humiliate, or even ‘Balkanise’ Russia.

In reality, Cohen warns precisely about the dangers involved in Russia’s defeat. He does not want Russia defeated in Ukraine in order to bring it to its knees and humiliate or ‘Balkanise’ it; on the contrary, he argues that while Ukrainian victory is necessary for other reasons, the negative side-effects of this are nevertheless very much against US and western interests.

“But all of this leaves the problem of Russia. … If it is convulsed from within, it is less likely to be dominated by liberals (many of whom have fled the country) than by disgruntled nationalists. Putin may go, but his replacements are likely to come from similar backgrounds in the secret police or, possibly, the military.” And it will be “more than usually difficult to bring it back into a Eurasian order that it, and no one else, has attempted to destroy” with its “utterly unjustified” attack on Ukraine with “its exceptional brutality, the shamelessness of Russia’s lies and threats, and the grotesqueness of its claims to hegemony in the former Soviet states.”

The result will be “the hardest task of American statecraft going forward: dealing with a Russia reeling from defeat and humiliation, weakened but still dangerous.” Indeed, the old Cold Warrior even sees the old Soviet Union as a more “rationalist” enemy, whereas a defeat for Putinist Russia “will be much more like dealing with a rabid, wounded beast that claws and bites at itself as much as it does at others, in the grip not of a millennial ideology but a bizarre combination of nationalism and nihilism.”

Far from wanting to make “war on Russia”, Cohen thinks that apart from strengthening states on Russia’s borders, all the West will be able to do is “hope against hope that the new “sick man of Europe” will, somehow and against the odds, recover something like moral sanity.”

All US and western imperialist wars since 1945 have been against countries in regions of the former colonial world that they aimed to maintain domination of – from Indochina to Iraq and Afghanistan to Panama and Grenada and Nicaragua, and the current drone wars – and the list goes on. Quite simply, there has been no US “war drive” against Russia, not because the US does not engage in war drives, but because post-Soviet Russia has neither been an ideological enemy – quite the opposite – nor powerful enough to be a genuine imperialist rival.

On the contrary, it is Putin’s sudden resort to primitive conquest-imperialism that has thrown the established imperialist modus vivendi between the US, Europe and Russia to the woods, and the western reaction has been crisis management on the run. While the US has, naturally enough, taken full advantage of what Putin has offered them up on a plate by restoring unchallenged US hegemony in Europe via a strengthened NATO, the point is that this is the US goal in itself; there is no US or western interest in massive destabilisation, a huge black hole, in a gigantic country like Russia which, just a few months ago, was plenty lucrative for western capital, and was an integral part of the world capitalist economy.   

Vladimir Putin: Can the God of global fascists and Nazis “de-Nazify” a country?

By Michael Karadjis

Former head of the Ku Lux Klan, David Duke, with Putin’s ‘fascist brain’, Alexander Dugin, discussing how to save the White race

According to Russian president Vladimir Putin:

“The United States continues to receive more and more immigrants, and, as far as I understand, the white, Christian population is already outnumbered … White Christians have become a minority, less than 50 percent now. … Russia is a vast territory, from its western to eastern borders, it is a Eurasian space. But as regards culture, even language group and history, this all is undoubtedly a European space, as it is inhabited by people of this culture. … we have to preserve all this to remain a significant centre in the world.”

Putin’s appeal to “great replacement” theory, his dog-whistle to the “White Christian” world that must be “preserved” lest it become a minority, demonstrates the clear ideological basis of Putin’s status as demi-God to the global far-right, fascist, Nazi and white supremacist movements.

Here’s what David Duke, former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, had to say when leaving Russia after his five-year sojourn there:

“In this holy cause we must share one immutable principle: all people of European descent, no matter where they reside in the world, are brothers. … Russia has always been a bulwark to the East, the frontier of our race, and it is now on the frontline of our current struggle. It is my prayer that Mother Russia be strong and healthy, may Mother Russia be free; may she always be White. When a racially aware Russia and reawakened America become united in our cause, the world will change. Our race will survive and together we shall go to the stars!”

Years later, exploding with joy following former US president Trump’s chummy press conference with his good mate Putin in Helsinki in 2018, Duke lavished praise on Trump and Putin, believing his wish had come true: “Bravo Trump! Bravo Russia! Russia has values America once had and America the values that Communist Russia had!

Similarly, French far-right leader Eric Zemmour claims Putin “restored the state,” “stepped in as the last defender of the Christians of the East”, “defends national sovereignty, the family and the Orthodox religion”, contrasting this to liberal, multicultural French politics.

This may be confusing to some who have recently heard that Putin claims he wants to “de-Nazify” Ukraine by bombing it to bits; propaganda can be quite creative. Perhaps more confusing is that there are fascists and Nazis among the vast array of political forces in Ukraine resisting Russia’s imperialist invasion today and intervention in Donbas earlier.

But these are the inherent contradictions of fascism; always based on extreme nationalism and racism, it is near impossible for fascists to collaborate when their “great nations” are in conflict. Try to imagine a collab between Greek and Turkish fascists, for instance.

Not that we should underestimate the malevolence of the Ukrainian fascist forces; we will come to that below. But as we will also see, they are virtually an anomaly in today’s global fascist climate where to be anti-Putin is a non-starter; virtually the entirety of fascist, Nazi, white-supremacist and ultra-rightist forces everywhere in the world have been strongly aligned to the Putin regime; while the political and military forces Russia has installed in the Donbas region of Ukraine are also overwhelmingly fascist. Anyone considering taking seriously Putin’s rhetoric about “de-Nazifying” anywhere should read on for a reality check.

Material basis of Russian imperialism’s alliance with global fascism

The ideological basis of the alliance demonstrates that it is not simply a matter of expediency as sometimes suggested (eg, that Putin’s alliance with European fascism only represents a convergence of interests against the European Union). Nevertheless, this ideological alliance does relate to the concrete material interests of Russian imperialism as it challenges established imperialist powers.

While it is overblown rhetoric to compare Putin’s authoritarian regime, with its parliamentary façade, and its savage litany of crimes against humanity, to Hitler’s totalitarian dictatorship and the Holocaust, this does not mean there are no parallels. German imperialism had been the loser of WWI, and the victorious ‘Allied’ imperialists imposed the winner-take-all Treaty of Versailles on Germany. The rise of extreme German nationalism embodied in Naziism reflected the struggle of the weaker, defeated, imperialist Germany, alongside weaker Italian and Japanese imperialism, against the dominant imperialist powers of the day. These weaker powers had to rely on direct conquest – unnecessary for British and French imperialism which still owned all the world they had earlier conquered, or US imperialism whose economic hegemony was growing. Extreme reactionary ideologies glorifying the mythical past as the ruling class crushes the masses while mobilising them for military conquest with nationalist, racist and militarist slogans fitted well with the needs of these powers.

In broadly similar fashion, the Russian ruling class emerging from the wreckage of the USSR, now heading a smaller Russian Federation, saw itself as ‘defeated’, given the effective domination Russia had exercised over the USSR. While the USSR was not conceived of as an empire, for the reactionary oligarchic elite that arose on the ashes of ‘communism’, the independence of the non-Russian republics was seen as “loss of empire,” and the mythical past of the ‘Great Russian Fatherland’ of the Tsarist Russian Empire extolled as something to aspire to. Of course, there was no unequal treaty a la Versailles imposed on Russia; while the massive immiseration of the Russian working class was imposed by the dictates of the International Monetary Fund and other western state-connected privatisation ‘experts’, the Russian oligarchy was completely complicit in this gigantic plunder, indeed it was its main beneficiary. However, the economic collapse this partnership-in-plunder led to could domestically be blamed on “the West” alone, as a propaganda device to deceive the masses. While I have argued elsewhere that ‘NATO expansion’ cannot be blamed for Putin’s aggression, in the big picture the retention of a US-led, Cold War relic like NATO, as opposed to a new pan-European security architecture, was a further factor that could be used to harness a new Russian nationalist world-view as the rising capitalist elite around Putin strove to overcome its humiliation and strike out as a new, relatively weak, imperialist power.

The strategic orientation of this new Russian imperialism consisted of a number of planks.

The first, more long-term, was embodied in its far-right ideology of ‘Eurasianism’, the idea of uniting Europe and Asia under Russian leadership, which would entail a defeat of off-shore US imperialism and its current hegemony in Europe. Russia, in other words, as the connection between Europe and China; since the turn of the 20th century, geopolitical strategists from the US, Europe and Russia have seen dominating ‘Eurasia’ as key to world domination. In many ways, one could argue this was slowing occurring; Russia’s domination of natural resources, especially oil and gas, and the pipelines, connected it to energy-hungry European and Chinese imperialism as the grand centre. To some extent this dovetailed with the Franco-German imperial project of a Europe more independent of US imperialism; French and German opposition to Ukraine joining NATO, the Russian gas pipeline to Germany, the active diplomacy they engaged in with Russia and Ukraine to prevent war, contrasted to the more confrontational US approach; for the US, avoiding this EU-Russia imperial consortium had been a strategic aim since the end of the Cold War. Beefing up NATO was a major tool of this US strategy, because providing “security” to European imperialism is the main way the US has continued to exercise hegemony there.

Yet how does this Eurasian conception relate to the second leg of Russian imperial strategy – the tendency of the emerging weaker imperialist power to rely more on traditional imperialist methods of direct conquest, straight land grabs, similar, in some way, to weaker German, Italian and Japanese imperialism in the 1930s? Again, Russian imperialism doesn’t possess the global economic hegemony exercised by US and European imperialism, or that China is gaining. This difference should not be exaggerated; the absurd western rhetoric about Putin overturning an imaginary “rules-based international order” is too laughable to require comment; obviously conquest was a past staple of western imperialism, while Russian imperialism has also quietly expanded economically. But the relative difference has become sharper over Ukraine. Obviously one could point to the criminal US invasion of Iraq to highlight the hypocrisy of current western propaganda, but not only was the sheer hubris of this war widely seen as the onset of decline of US global hegemony, but the argument here is not about levels of morality or invasions and violations of international law as such; the US of course is highly “revisionist” in such matters. Rather, the issue if one of formal territorial conquest/annexation as a characteristic of emerging Russian imperialist expansion, which the US has no need for and which even Iraq did not concern.

Yet by invading Ukraine (rather than just Crimea and Donbas, or small parts of Georgia and Moldova), Putin has destroyed the more gradual advance of the Eurasian project; NATO, and US “security” hegemony over Europe, is now more solid than for a generation, and Russia’s European links have been destroyed, symbolised by Germany’s abandonment of Nordstream. While obviously this is the result of catastrophic miscalculation by Putin, it also signifies a limitation of the Eurasian project in its gradualist form: while domination of oil and gas gives Russia bargaining power, in economic terms it means Russia remains eclipsed as the ‘second world’ natural resource supplier of more powerful European and Chinese imperialism. A revanchist Russian Empire, however, drunk on past glory, and its outsized role as the world’s second largest military power, envisages itself as the leader, the centre, of Eurasia. Therefore, asserting its military superiority was important to its “credibility”; it wasn’t going to allow a third world country like Ukraine to demonstrate any independence from the Fatherland. According to professor Jane Burbank, Ukrainian sovereignty was always a problem to ‘Eurasianist’ ideology, its leading ideologist, Alexander Dugin, calling it a “huge danger to all of Eurasia”. Russian leadership of Eurasia required Russian-led unity of the three ‘core’ ex-Soviet states (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus), and, as a minimum, control of the whole north coast of the Black Sea was an “absolute imperative.” A strategic waterway full of hydrocarbons, Russian imperialism did not plan to share the Black Sea with its former colony.

As such the seizure of the Black Sea coastline from the recalcitrant child represented economic, political, military-gendarme, ‘credibility’ and nationalist-ideological objectives at once.    

Given these specific needs of the weaker, emerging imperialist power, and its ideological emergence from alleged “national humiliation”, it is logical for the deeply reactionary, revanchist regime to cultivate ties to other extreme right, fascist parties around the world, which can act in Moscow’s interests by challenging the western imperialist leaders from the right without challenging the same capitalist system they are all part of. Not unlike the role of western fascist parties as allies of Nazi Germany or fascist Italy.

A third dimension of Russian imperial strategy has been to strike out beyond the former Soviet sphere, to exert power in regions such as the Middle East and Africa; the intervention of the Russian air force on the side of Assad’s genocidal regime has been the most prominent, alongside a smaller scale intervention in the Libyan civil war, and support for various African dictatorships’ military and ‘security’ needs, via the Wagner paramilitary. These armed interventions accompany growing Russia economic penetration, even if at a far lower level than western or Chinese capital; in Syria, Russia grabs significant parts of the economy while entrenching itself in vital infrastructure such as ports and bases.

While the plunder of Syrian resources as ‘compensation’ for aiding Assad is old gunboat-style imperialism, Russia’s gendarme role in aiding the regional counterrevolution has been appreciated by the US and its regional allies, especially Israel and the Gulf monarchies. Given the sharing of Syrian air space with the US air force (which bombed ISIS as Russia bombed the anti-Assad rebels), the Russian role had more a ‘sub-imperial’ character, rather than that of ‘imperial rivalry’ with US imperialism. But the war also entailed a Bush-Cheney-style “war on terror” Islamophobic ideological construct that was very attractive to the global far-right, who almost universally saw the Assad regime as a defender of “western civilisation” against “Islamic barbarism,” the ideology espoused by the Syrian regime itself. So Assad was another key connection between Putinism and global fascism.

Alexander Dugin: Putin’s fascist alter-ego

The alliance between Putin’s far-right, uber-nationalist ‘United Russia Party’ and global fascism should already seem obvious from an ideological perspective; but in any case, relations between the Russian and global far-right are also mediated by Russia’s own crop of far-right ieologues. The most well-known is unabashed leading Russian fascist, Alexander Dugin, “former adviser to Sergei Naryshkin, a key member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party who was appointed Russian foreign intelligence chief in 2016.” While Dugin and Putin are not personally close (indeed Putin appears to be closer to a number of other far-right ideologues), and some of their emphases are different (which however would require a different essay), nevertheless Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics  – which advocates his Russian-led ‘Eurasianist’ empire “from Dublin to Vladivostok” – is “assigned to every member of Russia’s General Staff Academy.” While Dugin lost his position at Moscow State University in recent years, Putin seems to have drawn closer to Dugin’s uber-reactionary positions in the same period. If not strictly Putin’s fascist ‘philosopher king’ as he has been dubbed, he has acted as a kind of fascist alter-ego, a Rasputin-type figure in the background to the Russian elite’s descent into fascistic thinking.

According to one source, “Gestated in anti-communist right-wing activism during the waning days of the Soviet Union, indebted to a specifically anti-liberal and anti-Enlightenment philosophical embrace of authoritarianism, irrationalism, and hyper-nationalism, Dugin dreams of a reborn Orthodox Tsarist state surpassing the borders and spheres of influence as they existed before 1989, of a Novorossiya built not on socialist principles, but fascist ones.” In fact, he criticises traditional fascisms in his 1997 book, Templars of the Proletariat, for moderation; by contrast, in Russia there will emerge a truly “fascist fascism.”

In Foundations of Geopolitics, Dugin asserts that “Ukraine as a state has no geopolitical meaning. It has no particular cultural import or universal significance, no geographic uniqueness, no ethnic exclusiveness;” hence Putin’s view that Ukraine has no right to exist and was merely a communist plot by Lenin to destroy the Russian Fatherland, expressed in a long article, and then in the speech he gave before his invasion of Ukraine, is sourced from his fascist philosopher alter-ego. Dugin’s new Tsarist Empire would be a pre-modern one (while happy to use modern technology for weapons that obliterate large numbers of humans); in Novorossiya, according to Dugin’s The Fourth Political Theory, “everything is to be cleansed off… science, values, philosophy, art, society, modes, patterns, ‘truths,’ understanding of Being, time and space. All is dead with Modernity. So it should end. We are going to end it.” Clearly, the alliance with the western far-right’s war against liberalism, multi-culturalism, homosexuality, feminism, ‘decadence’ and so on is based on common “values.”

White Europe as conceived by Eurasianist fascists.

Dugin, like Putin, had a special love for Trump, who he called “the American Putin,” and he has special relationships with American neo-Nazi Richard Spencer and Trump advisor Steve Bannon. Dugin is a contributor to Spencer’s Alternative Right webzine.

Another source of this Duginite and increasingly Putinite worldview is the Russian Orthodox Church, which promotes the ‘Russian World’ concept, according to which the peoples of the historic territory of ancient Rus are one, including those in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. At the third annual Assembly of the Russian World in November of 2009, Moscow Patriarch Kirill stated that “if we consider the Russian Federation with its present boundaries, then we have sinned against the historical truth and artificially cut off millions of people who are aware of their role in the fate of the Russian World.”

The global far-right and Putin

We will now review the global far-right’s connection to Putin’s regime; hopefully the next sections can be used as a handy guide when Putin supporters pedal out the argument that Putin is fighting “fascism” in Ukraine in the form of the 1000-strong Azov regiment.

Marine Le Pen meets Vladimir Putin in Moscow in 2017 | Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP via Getty Images

Following French National Front leader, Marine Le Pen’s, visit to Moscow in June 2013 at the invitation of State Duma, discussing “issues of common concern, such as Syria, EU enlargement, and gay marriage,” the Front supported the annexation of Crimea, stating that “historically, Crimea is part of Mother Russia.” She visited again in 2017. Her rival on the French far-right, Eric Zammour, reacted to Crimea by proposing a “Russian alliance, the only way to kill both the myth of federal Europe and to finally break away from the American protectorate.”

Similarly, the Nazi-like Jobbik party in Hungary called Putin’s fake Crimea referendum “exemplary.” Leader Gabor Vona visited Moscow in May 2013 at the invite of right-wing nationalists at Moscow State University, where he was hosted by Dugin. The Moscow visit was considered “a major breakthrough” which made “clear that Russian leaders consider Jobbik as a partner.” Bulgaria’s far right Ataka party similarly “insisted that Bulgaria should recognize the results from the referendum for Crimea’s joining to the Russian Federation.”

Not surprisingly, Putin’s Crimea ‘referendum’ – carried out after Russian military occupation forces staged a coup and placed in power the far-right ‘Russian Unity’ party that had received 4 percent of the vote at the previous Crimea elections – did not bother with many international observers. However, Russia did invite a few. Alongside observers from the French National Front, Jobbik and Attaka, the rest of the invitees list – Austrian Freedom Party, Belgian Vlaams Belang, Italy’s Forza Italia and Lega Nord, and Poland’s Self-Defense – reads virtually like a roll-call of the European far-right.

Other European far-right leaders have followed the National Front and Jobbik in their Moscow pilgrimages. In February 2017, three politicians of the German neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany (AfD) “flew to Moscow in a private jet paid for by the Russian government,” at a cost of some 25,000 Euro. This was not the only time Moscow was caught funding far-right parties; the French National Front has also been a recipient of Moscow cash which helped finance its 2014 election campaign.

Another far-right leader invited to Moscow by the State Duma, in March 2018, was Geert Wilders, of the arch-Islamophobic Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV). According to Wilders, “Vladimir Putin is a leader, whatever you think of him. … I applaud him as I applaud Mr. Trump for being leaders, who are standing there on behalf of the Russian and the American people … We lack that kind of leadership in Europe.”

Lega Nord leader Salvini advertising Putin

The Italian far-right is prominently allied to Putin. Mateo Salvini, head of the far-right Lega Nord (Northern League), signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia Party in 2017; he is famous for wearing Putin T-shirts, and even brokered an oil deal with Russia to feed the League’s coffers. Putin lavished praise on Salvini during his 2019 visit to Italy, when Salvini attended a dinner in his honour. In March 2015, head of the neo-fascist Forza Nuova party, Roberto Fiore, attended the “International Russian Conservative Forum” in St Petersburg, along with the ‘League of Lombardy’, a Lega Nord front group, and the Duginite-fascist Italian party ‘Millennium.’

The St. Petersburg “Conservative Forum’ was also attended by the British National Party’s former leader Nick Griffin, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party of Greece, Udo Voigt from the German neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD), Jared Taylor of the American Renaissance, former Ku Klux Klan lawyer Sam Dickson and various other fringe lunar rightists, along with Russian fascists led  by the Putin-connected Rodina (Motherland) party and the Russian Imperial Movement. The Austrian Freedom Party and Serbian Radical Party were also invited but did not make it. The meeting “was adorned by a line from remarks Putin made in 2013 accusing Europe of backing away ‘from the Christian values at the foundation of European civilization’.”

The St. Petersburg forum launched a World National-Conservative Movement (WNCM), to which some 60 global fascist organisations were invited (full list here), an expanded version of the Alliance for Peace and Freedom (AFP), an existing pro-Putin alliance of 20 fascist parties, led by Fiore, Griffin and Le Pen. The AFP itself was invited into the WNCM; the dozens of other extreme right parties not only covered Europe and the US (including unabashed Nazis like the Nordic Resistance Movement, and the US Confederate League of the South), but also further afield, such as the South African white racist Front Nasionaal, the Nazi-inspired Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and Thailand’s viciously anti-democratic National Alliance for Democracy, the ‘Yellow Shirts’.

Alongside Griffin (by then head of the ‘British Unity” group) and the BNP, other British fascists invited were ‘Britain First’ and ‘UK Life League’. Meanwhile, in February 2020, Tommy Robinson, former head of the fascist English Defence League, visited Moscow to give a lecture in St. Petersburg about “The Rape of Britain” (ie, by immigrants, gays, liberals, the EU etc), though some former associates claim he was also looking for Moscow cash. During her own Moscow sojourn, British racist commentator Katie Hopkins declared that “Putin is not the big baddie the media have made him out to be, as she filmed pro-Putin videos from Russia. Putin puts Russia first. And his people love him for it. Far safer than Londonistan.” Not surprisingly, she was also a favourite of Trump.

The presence of Greece’s Golden Dawn – which explicitly displays Nazi symbols, and who sing the Greek version of the Nazi Party anthem – is hardly surprising, given the close alleged ‘historic’ connection between Russian and Greek fascism and ultra-conservative ideologies connected to Orthodoxy. Golden Dawn leader Michaloliakos even received a letter while in prison from Dugin, who “expressed support for Golden Dawn’s geopolitical positions.”  

While US attendance at the St. Petersburg forum was limited to Taylor and Dickson, the US far-right is heavily pro-Putin; not for nothing did David Duke, former head of the Klan, live in Russia for five years (while there he sub-let his apartment to American neo-Nazi Preston Wigginton). Duke believes Russia is “the key to white survival.” In 2014, fellow white supremacist Richard Spencer, who believes Russia is the “sole white power in the world,” invited Dugin to a global conference of the far-right planned to be held in Hungary. Then there’s Matthew Heimbach, founder of the pro-Confederate Traditional Workers Party, who believes “Russia is the leader of the free world” while “Putin is supporting nationalists around the world and building an anti-globalist alliance.” As widely reported, American Rinaldo Nazzaro runs the neo-Nazi terrorist organisation The Base from a Russian apartment. In 2017, far-right commentator Ann Coulter declared that “In 20 years, Russia will be the only country that is recognizably European.” On the Christian fascist end, evangelist Pat Robertson declared that Putin had been “compelled by God” to invade Ukraine.

Just as the marchers at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 chanted “Russia is our friend,” so likewise at a recent white nationalist event in Florida organised by the America First Political Action Conference (AFPAC), racist Nick Fuentes prompted the crowd, “Can we get a round of applause for Russia?” The crowd responded by shouting: “Putin! Putin!”

Then there is the more mainstream, parliamentary, far-right, such as former US president Trump itself, whose Putin connections are well-known. As Ukraine exploded, Trump praised Putin as a “genius.” “Putin declares a big portion of Ukraine independent. Oh that’s wonderful. … How smart is that? And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper. That’s the strongest peace force. We could use that on our southern border.” And of course there’s right-wing ideologue and former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who recently declared “Putin ain’t woke” in an exchange with Blackwater founder, Eric Prince, who agreed that “The Russian people still know which bathroom to use;”  and Trump’s Secretary of State and Christian rightist Mike Pompeo, who declared his “enormous respect” for the “talented statesman;” while Trump’s first National Security Advisor Mike Flynn claimed that after Biden “ignored and laughed at Putin’s legitimate security concerns … President Putin calculated this strategic, historic, and geographic play and made the decision to move.”

Trump loyalist and white supremacist Fox News host Tucker Carlson went full dog-whistle for Putin: “It may be worth asking yourself… why do I hate Putin.. Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia? Did he manufacture a world-wide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity?”

Likewise in Europe, the parliamentary hard-right – to the extent we can distinguish them from the organisations above with genuinely fascist origins – are hard-line Putin’s supporters – from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to Czech president Zeman, idiosyncratic neo-right populist Croatian president Zoran Milanovic, Serbia’s far-right Aleksander Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party, and the Austrian government headed by Sebastian Kurtz, with ministers from the far-right Austrian Freedom Party. Likewise the close pro-Putin links of Nigel Farage and his Eurosceptic UK Independence Party.

This extends around the world, from Modi’s reactionary Hinduvsta regime in India to Brazil’s far-right Trump acolyte Bolsonaro. Both are allied to the US, while India is also geopolitically allied to Russia (above all, balance against China), but the Russia connection is also ideological in the case of its current far-right regime. In Brazil’s case, there is no obvious geopolitical connection to Russia, but Bolsonaro was more pro-Trump than pro-US, leading him into ideological alliance with Putin – Bolsonaro visited Putin on the eve of his invasion and declared he feels “deep solidarity with Russia.”

Fascism in the Donbass

But what of the Donbas? Putin is God to most fascists and Nazis the world over, but in Ukraine the only Nazis are anti-Russia Ukrainians, like Azov, right? In reality, as one source argues:

“On the whole, members of far-right groups played a much greater role on the Russian side of the conflict than on the Ukrainian side.”

Let’s look at some of this galaxy of ultra-nationalist, neo-Nazi, Orthodox-fascist and neo-Cossack parties and militia involved in the ‘separatist’ political and military leadership; of whom most are actual Russians, from Russia, rather than ethnic Russians from Ukraine.

We could start with the preamble to the constitution of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ which calls for the “…establishment of a sovereign independent state, based on the restoration of a unified cultural and civilizational space of Russian World, on the basis of its traditional religious, social, cultural and moral values ​​, with the prospect of becoming a part of “Greater Russia” as halo territories of the “Russian World”. This extreme Russian nationalist vision – in a region where Russians are not even a majority – is highlighted by its double-headed eagle flag – ie, the symbol of Tsarist Russia.

First let’s look at Russia’s leading mercenary gang, its equal to the US Blackwater – the Wagner Group, named by its founder after Hitler’s favourite musician. An extremely vicious militia, but are they fascists? Well, take a look at founder Dmitry Utkin. Pointing to the tattoos on his neck, Idrees Ahmad notes “Those are the Waffen SS rank insignia for a Hauptsturmführer (chief assault leader). And on his chest? That’s the Nazi Reichsadler (imperial eagle) badge.” A candidate to “de-Nazify” Ukraine?

Wagner founder Dmitry Utkin

One far-right unit within Wagner operating in Donbas, known as Rusich, sports a logo featuring the ‘Slavic Swastika’ known as a Kolovrat; one Rusich account shows fighters holding a Valknut flag, which has been appropriated by white supremacists.

The first Russian militias in the Donbas were associated with the Russian National Unity party, a neo-Nazi organisation; here is its swastika logo. The DPR’s first ‘people’s governor’, and founder of the Donbas People’s Militia, Pavel Gubarev, was a member of the RNU. The RNU’s founder, Alexander Barkashov, previously led post-Soviet Russia’s first fascist organisation, Pamyat.

Swastika of the Russian National Unity party

Gubarev has since joined the Duginite ‘Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine’, led by Natalya Vitrenko, “a long-term associate of American right-wing extremist and anti-Semite Lyndon LaRouche.” Vitrenko stepped in to help in Donetsk after Gubarev was arrested.  

RNU is closely associated with the clerical-fascist Russian Orthodox Army, led by Igor Girkin (Strelkov), the DPR’s first ‘minister of defence’. Its motto is ‘Warriors of the faith, brothers of the Great Russia, we will unite the whole Southeast’; they have been connected to serious crimes in Donbas, including murdering non-Orthodox civilians.

Another Russian fascist involved from the outset was the DPR’s first ‘prime minister’, Aleksander Borodai. In the 1990s, he worked for the newspaper Zavtra, run by idiosyncratic fascist Aleksander Prokhanov, who believed Russia was the mystical womb of Aryan civilisation. In 2011, Borodai and Prekhanov launched “Djen” TV, which promoted “anti-Semitism, Russian nationalism, conspiracy theories, homophobia, misogyny, denunciations of the decadence of European civilization, and treatises on the ‘fiction’ of a Ukrainian national identity.” Prokhanov praised Borodai as a true ‘White Russian nationalist’.

Another traditionalist-fascist militia is the neo-Cossack ‘Wolves’ Hundred’, founded during World War II by one ‘Shkuro’, later executed as a Nazi collaborator. According to one Russian ‘Cossack’ in the occupation of Slavyansk town hall in Donbas in 2014: “We don’t want Ukraine. Ukraine doesn’t exist for us. There are no people called Ukrainians. There are just Slav people who used to be in Kievan Rus, before Jews like Trotsky divided us.”

The violent monarcho-fascist Russian Imperial Movement , which aims to re-create the Russian empire and draws inspiration from the ‘Black Hundreds’ of Tsarist Russia, also trained and sent troops to Donbas. The RIM is associated with the most extremist Nazi-style groups in Europe, including the Nordic Resistance Movement and the German neo-Nazi NDP, who have trained in camps in Russia run by the RIM

Then there is the neo-Nazi Russkii Obraz, promoted by Putin to ideologically outgun  nationalist supporters of oppositionist Navalny. Obraz leader Ilya Goryachev “was a fervent supporter of the neo-Nazi underground, the skinheads who committed hundreds of racist murders in the second half of the 2000s.” In 2014, Obraz found a new home when Aleksandr Matyushin of Obraz “helped to terrorise supporters of the Ukrainian state in Donetsk” and became a major field commander.

Other far-right militia include the Interbrigades, connected to the Nazbol ‘Other Russia’ organisation, the Svarozhich, Rusich and Ratibor battalions, which sport the ‘Slavic swastika’, the Sparta Battalion, the Duginite Eurasianist Youth, the Nazi Slavic Union and the racist Movement Against Illegal Immigration.

For all the inevitable hatred between ultra-nationalist fascists in countries in conflict with each other, their similarity occasionally shows through. In July 2015, then DPR leader Alexander Zakharchenko praised Pravy Sector:

“The Right Sector rose and said: “Down with Poroshenko!” I began to respect them. I respect them for two moments: when gays were beaten in Kiev and when they tried to remove Poroshenko. I realized that the Right Sector are the same normal men.”

Various sections of Putin’s global far-right fan club have also fought in Donbas, including Falanga (Polish fascists), Orthodox Dawn (Bulgarian clerical fascists), Legion of St Stephen (Hungarian fascists aligned with Jobbik) and Jovan Šević Detatchment (Serbian Chetniks). While not fighting, the German neo-Nazi AfD has paid high-level visits to the Donbas ‘republics’.

According to Prospect Magazine:

Various far-right Italian mercenaries and ultras (the country’s extremist football fans) are even fighting alongside Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine. Many of those combatants have made contact with a neo-Nazi organisation called Rusich, inspired by Pan-Slavism and a longing to recreate a 21st-century nationalistic version of the USSR. The exchange of personnel goes in both directions: in recent years various Italo-Russians have stood in local elections in Rome for Forza Nuova and another neo-fascist party, Fratelli D’Italia.”

Another Italian fascist group, Millennium, also fought in Donetsk, the group accused of charges “ranging from recruiting, training, and funding foreign mercenaries in Eastern Ukraine, to fighting alongside pro-Russia and nationalist extremists in the region.” Members of the French far-right ‘Eurasianist’ group Unité Continentale have also fought in Donbas.

Active global far-right support for Assad

Alongside the love of Putin generally, global fascism is also specifically enamoured to one of Putin’s major projects independently of Putin: in their support for Syria’s genocidal Assad regime. Everywhere in the world – in the US, everywhere in Europe, in Australia, various reactionary governments from India to Hungary – the far-right, fascists, Nazis, white-supremacists, far-right populists – almost unanimously support Assad.

This involves more than their connections to Putin, or to Assad’s allies in the Nazi-style Syrian Social Nationalist Party (established in the 1930s in admiration of Naziism, it displays its specific kind of swastika). Rather, the global far-right has lapped up Assad’s propaganda that he is fighting a war for civilisation against “Islamic terrorists” and “jihadists,” protecting Christians and minorities. Assad’s “war on terror”, like that of Israel, the US and Russia, is one global war the far-right fully identifies with.

Not surprisingly, both father and daughter Le Pen have been strongly pro-Assad. In 2012,  Jean-Marie Le Pen stated that it was “not abnormal for the Syrian state to defend itself,” so Assad should not be criticised by countries who had fought Nazi Germany! Marine Le Pen in 2015 claimed that Assad is the only person who can rule Syria and save it from chaos. In 2016, former National Front youth leader Julien Rochedy visited Damascus to snap a selfie with his favourite tyrant.

In June 2013, a large delegation of European fascists visited Damascus to express support to the Assad dictatorship. According to Anton Shekhovtsov, the delegation included  

  • Bartosz Bekier, leader of the Polish fascist Falanga (which advocates stripping Polish Jews of their citizenship rights), and Mateusz Piskorski, member of the Samooborona (Self-Defence), Poland
  • Frank Creyelman and Filip Dewinter of Vlaams Belang, Belgium
  • Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, UK
  • Roberto Fiore, leader of Forza Nuova (New Force), Italy
  • Luc Michel, leader of the Parti Communautaire National-Européen and founder of the Eurasian Observatory for Democracy & Elections, Belgium

The delegation met the Speaker of the Syrian People’s Assembly, Mohammad Jihad al-Laham, and the Prime Minister Wael Nader al-Halqi.

Griffin, who declared that the Syrian opposition were “jihadi terrorists”, has continually expressed support for Assad, as has EDL founder Tommy Robinson, far-right British commentator Katie Hopkins (who also praises western propagandists for Assad such as Vanessa Beeley and ‘Partisan Girl’), and Nigel Farage, among other far-right British figures.

May 2016, Assad’s Presidential Political and Media Advisor Bouthaina Shaaban meets another delegation from the fascist European Solidarity Front for Syria

In 2016, Greece’s Golden Dawn MP Ioannis Sachinidis visited Syria and met parliament speaker Muhammad Jihad al-Lahham. Earlier, in 2013, the Greek neo-Nazi Black Lily (Mavros Krinos) claimed it had fighters in Syria supporting Assad, reportedly taking part in the regime’s conquest of Qusayr from the rebels. Black Lilly is a member of The European Solidarity Front, a coalition of far-right European parties “open to all those who love Syria, and support solidarity with President Assad, the Syrian nation and its army.” The neo-Nazi Skandinaviska Förbundet (Scandinavian League) has also sent fighters to Syria.

In early September 2013, an Italian delegation from the European Solidarity Front travelled to Damascus and Tartus “in support of the legitimate government of Bashar Al Assad and the Syrian people.” Alongside Forza Nuova, the delegation included the anti-immigrant CasaPound, “the fascist movement that has brought Mussolini back to the mainstream,” which in September 2015 invited the Syrian regime and the SSNP to its ‘International Congress of identity-solidarity’ in Rome. According to leader Simone Di Stefano, “Under the Assad regime, people can celebrate Christmas openly and women are not forced to wear a headscarf. Of course, we like the ideology of the Syrian state, but we also support what they represent.” In 2016, Forza Nuova chief Robert Fiore wrote that his fascist group “defends Assad and the Syrian people against attacks by ISIS and the USA,” in a post showing FN members holding a pro-Assad banner.

When in 2019, CasaPound visited Aleppo, the Syrian Ministry of Tourism tweeted the visit with the message “Syria is getting its tourism groove back.” CasaPound “expressed their pleasure to experience the fast restoration process and resilience & steadfastness of Syrian people.”

Syrian Tourism Ministry extols the rise of fascist tourism
CasaPound fascist tourists in Syria

Udo Voigt, former leader of the neo-Nazi German NPD, took part in a 2016 Alliance of Peace and Freedom trip to Syria; on his return he noted that he “did not notice any oppression” and therefore “there is no reason to flee,” being an advocate of forcible return of Syrian refugees to Assad. The far-right AfD organised its own “fact-finding” trips to Syria in March 2018 and November 2019, feted by the regime, aimed at proving how “safe” Assad-land is for refugees to return to. The AfD has special links with Assad, via one Kevork Almassian, a Syrian who, curiously, sought asylum in Germany despite being a crazed Assadist, and was given a job in the AfD’s office.

In the US, Richard Spencer, has long argued for courting Assad, who he considers “a civilized person” and “source of stability in this chaotic world.” Even before the war, former Klansman David Duke delivered a speech in Damascus in 2005 on state television, claiming that his country, too, was “occupied by Zionists.” Consistent in his admiration, in March 2017 Duke declared “Assad is a modern day hero standing up to demonic forces seeking to destroy his people and nation – GOD BLESS ASSAD!”

During the 2017 white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, demonstrators proudly wore T-shirts advertising “Bashar’s Barrel Delivery Co.” The white supremacist James Fields who murdered Heather Heyer posted a portrait of Assad with the caption “UNDEFEATED.”

It is quite hard to find any on the US far-right that have not defended Assad, whether in the form of chemical war denialism, slanders of the White Helmets or more general praise for the alleged “defeater of jihadis,” from Alex Jones and his right-wing conspiracist ‘Infowars’, to far-right commentators Ann Coulter, Mike Peinovich , Fox and Friends host Steve Doocy, Tomi Lahren (who sought to remind Trump “that it’s America first”), and of course racist Tucker Carlson. While some mistakenly see Tulsi Gabbard as part of the “left”, in fact her praise for Assad comes from the same place as her strong Zionism, her love for the BJP and her claim to be a “hawk” on the drone wars – ie, right-wing Islamophobia.

Syrian Prime Minister Wael Nader al-Halqi and Nick Griffin. Damascus, June 2013
Roberto Fiore, Syrian Minister of Information Omran al-Zoubi, Nabil Al Malazi. Damascus, June 2013

Of course, the more mainstream right-wing in the US and elsewhere, as opposed to ultra-rightists and fascists, is a mixed bag. While some on the right are anti-Assad because they are anti-Iran, or because they love US military power and see Assad as a convenient target, overwhelmingly rhetorical anti-Assadism was more prevalent among “liberal interventionist” voices in the Democratic Party, while the hard right tended towards the ‘Assad ain’t good but he’s better than the jihadists’ trope.

Trump was forthright pro-Assad in the lead-up to his election, and maintained that position until Assad betrayed him by using sarin gas, leading Trump to launch a theatrical strike which did close to zero damage to the Assadist military; Trump cut off all Obama-era aid to the Free Syrian Army and even to the civil opposition and ensured anyone backed by the US only fights ISIS. Ted Cruz held a similar position, Assad was bad but is the lesser evil to the Islamists he fights. His campaign manager, Dick Black, was more forthright pro-Assad, visiting Assad in Damascus twice. Black and Cruz are associated with the Christian right, many of whom see Assad as a saviour of Christians against “Islamic extremism.” Another hard reactionary, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, also continually called for support to Assad (which didn’t prevent him being very anti-Iran). Then there is old reactionary and Trump ally Newt Gingrich who also reckons “both sides” are as bad as each other. Arch-warmonger John Bolton, whose main policy for 20 years was “attack Iran,” makes an exception with Syria, claiming regime change would result in “al-Qaida” coming to power. Then we have other reactionary neocons and Islamophobe extremists like Daniel Pipes, who penned “Support Assad” against the Islamists, and various ex-neocons like Leslie Gelb who turned to Assad as the shield against terrorism.

Putin, global fascism, Assad and the Israel connection

In 95 percent of the above cases of global far-right support to Assad, these parties, organisations and spokespeople also strongly support Israel and its war against the Palestinian people, for the same reason: Israel is another frontier state in the “war on terror”, a defender of western “civilisation” against “Islamic terrorism.” Given Israel’s nature as an apartheid state, it will be included here as part of the global far-right (as would apartheid South Africa if it still existed), but even for those who don’t accept this, there can be little doubt about the essentially fascistic character of the parties of the Israeli right: former prime minister Netanyahu’s Likud, and other parties of the secular, religious and settler right, such as those of current prime minister Naftali Bennett, and minister under both, Avigdor Lieberman.

Take for example Le Pen and the French National Front/Rally, the Austrian Freedom Party, the neo-Nazi AfD in Germany, Italy’s Lega Nord, Vlaams Belang of Belgium, Geert Wilders’ Dutch Party for Freedom, British National Party, English Defence League (EDL), Katie Hopkins (who called for the arrest of a grieving Palestinian mother whose baby had died from inhaling Israeli police tear gas)  Nigel Farage, Orban, Bolsonaro, the US far-right in almost all its manifestations – are all absolutely pro-Israel, and usually favour the most hard-line Israeli policy against the Palestinians as practiced and peached by the Israeli hard-right (eg, support for the violently far-right Jewish Defence League by Le Pen and by the EDL –even the US government calls the JDL terrorist!).

Lega Nord leader Salvini has promised that, if elected, he would recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as has the German AfD and others. Indeed, just as the AfD has a ‘special relationship’ with Assad via Kevork Almassian, it has a special relationship with Israel via Netanyahu’s son, Yair Netanyahu; after he slammed the “evil” European Union as the enemy to Israel and “all European Christian countries,” he was held up as a “poster boy” by the AfD.

While this may seem problematic given the far-right’s traditional anti-Semitism, the majority the global far-right long ago switched from anti-Semitism to Islamophobia and see Israel, with its hard line against mostly Muslim Palestinians, as a model of the kind of hard anti-immigrant, militaristic ethno-state they fight for, part of their vision of a “Judeo-Christian” Europe “locked in a clash of civilisations against the Muslim world.” Of course, there are exceptions, but these are mostly just genuine throwbacks, actual Nazis or Klansmen (like David Duke), ie, the monkey fringe of the far-right. In any case, Israeli leaders, especially on the Likudnik and allied right, have little problem working with far-right governments and organisations which, despite their love for Israel, still entertain a degree of anti-Semitism.

Even some of the most unrepentant anti-Semites of the Naziesque far-right are concurrently pro-Israel, most prominently Richard Spencer, who describes himself as “a white Zionist,” calling Israel “the most important and perhaps most revolutionary ethno-state,” which he wants for “whites” in the US. He supported Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s “capital,” and was enthusiastic about Netanyahu’s “nation-state” law. He just doesn’t like “globalist” Jews who live in the US, which leads to “white people being dispossessed from this country,” unlike Israeli Jews “who understand [their] identity, who ha[ve] a sense of nationhood and peoplehood.” Not surprisingly, Spencer’s inspiration, Alexander Dugin, holds similar view: “the chief enemy of the Jewish tradition will come from its own house,” from “the mixed multitude, the assimilated people,” just as “in our own community, in a similar way, the chief enemy of the Russian nation are liberal Russians and not the representatives of other groups.” As in classical anti-Semitism, it is the “cosmopolitan” Jew that is the enemy, not the “traditional” Jew attached to the state of Israel.

This more or less total identity of western fascist support for Assad and Israel is not simply an odd parallel, but is ideologically consistent, support for two “frontlines” in their “civilisational” war against “radical Islam.” But in addition, there is a key connection between the two: the Putin regime, which while intervening in Syria to aid Assad’s victory has also cultivated excellent relations with the Israeli right.

From the moment Russia’s Syria intervention began in 2015, Putin and Israeli prime minister and Likud leader, Zionist extremist Benjamin Netanyahu, never stopped having high level meetings – Netanyahu met with Putin more than with any other world leader. In 2018, Netanyahu was one of only two world leaders standing next to Putin in Red Square commemorating the 73rd anniversary of the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany, alongside Serbia’s Alexander Vucic. Netanyahu even produced a massive billboard showing himself with Putin for the 2019 elections. Not surprisingly, both partners were also enthusiastic allies of Trump. Under his rule, Israel authorized the ‘Cellebrite’ company “to sell its mobile phone hacking device to the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, which serves President Putin as a key tool of internal repression and political persecution in the country.”

Election poster on the Likud party headquarters showing Putin and Netanyahu, 2019

Likewise, his equally ultra-rightist successor, and former ally, prime minister Naftali Bennett, was the first “world leader” to make a high level visit to Moscow to meet Putin. Bennett’s first statement following Russia’s invasion merely affirmed Ukraine’s right to sovereignty, but made no mention of Russia. Following US pressure, foreign minister and “moderate” Zionist Yair Lapid issued the official, half-hearted condemnation. But even then Bennett still refused to mention Putin or Russia in subsequent statements; he issued a demand that his ministers say nothing; rejected Ukraine’s calls for arms, and promised to block any attempt by Baltic states to send Israeli-made arms to Ukraine. His equally fascistic minister Lieberman later refused to condemn Russia following the Bucha massacre, claiming “I support first of all Israeli interests.” Earlier, Israel had blocked the US from providing Israeli ‘iron dome’ missile shield technology to Ukraine.

Israel refused the US request to co-sponsor a UN Security Council move to put a motion to condemn Russia to the General Assembly. Again this caused rebuke from Washington, so Israel voted in favour at the General Assembly, where it had no teeth. Bennett explained that Russia understood Israel’s forced stand, as Russia affirmed, promising that this would not affect their cooperation in Syria. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s far-right Likud opposition criticises the government for saying anything at all, advising an even more “guarded” approach.

While Putin is one key link between Israel and the Assad regime (alongside the UAE-Bahrain-Egypt axis), Israel leaders are not shy about their own views. As Assad’s troops reconquered the south in 2018 as part of a Trump-Putin supervised deal, Netanyahu declared “We haven’t had a problem with the Assad regime, for 40 years not a single bullet was fired on the Golan Heights.” His Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot stressed that Israel will allow “only” Assad regime forces to occupy the Golan “border,” while his National Security Adviser, Meir Ben Shabat, declared that Israel has no problem with Assad as long as the Iranians leave. Fascistic defence minister Lieberman noted that from Israel’s perspective, “the situation is returning to how it was before the civil war, meaning there is a real address, someone responsible, and central rule,” as it “is also in Assad’s interest” to keep the occupied Golan “border” calm.

In other words, Israel always preferred Assad to prevail over the uprising; the alliance with Putin is not only because Putin’s air defence system in Syria allows Israel to bomb Iranian assets in the country (Russia and Iran both backed Assad’s victory but are now partially rivals over influence and spoils), as widely claimed.

Actually the Israel-Russia alliance precedes direct Russian intervention in Syria. During Israel’s Gaza blitzkrieg in 2014, Putin declared “I support the struggle of Israel,” while Israel refused to join its western allies in condemning the Russian annexation of Crimea, abstaining in the UN and rejecting sanctions.

Therefore, this alliance must be seen in its broader context: Israel’s own territorial aggression, violation of international law via annexation of other countries’ territory, and justification of occupation, aggression and commission of crimes of humanity on the basis that the Palestinian nation is a fiction, all strongly parallel Putin’s actions and ideological justifications. While allied to the US empire, Israel is a small-scale imperialist power in its own right with similar “revisionist” tendencies to Russia. There is a clear understanding of this affinity within the ruling elites of both countries.

The Ukrainian far-right versus the Russian far-right

While the summary above demonstrates that the global far-right has been overwhelmingly pro-Putin and highlights the nonsense in Putin’s claim to want to “de-Nazify” anywhere, that is not to deny the presence of an aggressive far-right, fascist and Nazi sector among the political and military formations associated with Ukrainian nationalism.   

On the one hand, the far-right – Svoboda, Right Sector and political representatives of Azov – collectively only received some 2.3 percent of the vote in the last Ukraine elections, so there is an extraordinary amount of demonisation in calling Ukraine some kind of “Nazi” cause, equivalent to the racist dubbing of freedom fighters in the Middle East – in Palestine, Syria and elsewhere – as “jihadis.”

On the other, the far-right – in particular the Azov regiment – has played a somewhat greater role on the military front since 2014, a common impact of military action which tends to empower tough guys and nationalists. The far-right Azov Battalion was formed in May 2014 by members of the ultra-nationalist Patriot of Ukraine gang and the neo-Nazi Social National Assembly, which had “engaged in xenophobic and neo-Nazi ideals and physically assaulted migrants, the Roma community and people opposing their views.” It gained a lot of initial support due to the relative disorganisation of official Ukrainian forces when suddenly confronted by the Russian intervention that year.

In November 2014, the government incorporated the Azov Battalion into the National Guard, as a means of controlling, or taming it; the government claims it can no longer act outside the discipline of the armed forces. While perhaps a dubious means, it did separate the armed forces from its political leadership. Ideological cadre including leader Andriy Biletsky had to leave Azov, as they allegedly were no longer able to do far-right work in the Ukrainian military, according to Alexander Ritzmann, a senior adviser at Berlin’s Counter Extremism Project. In 2016 Biletsky founded a far-right political party, National Corps. To get a taste of his views, in 2010 he had asserted that Ukraine’s mission should be to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade against Semite-led Untermenschen.” Separated from his former militia, he set up the ‘Azov Circle’ civil movement and a new militia for internal repression, the National Druzhyna, formed in 2017 from veterans of the Azov Battalion. In January 2018, National Druzhyna “carried out pogroms against the Roma community and attacked members of the LGBTQ community,” under the guise of “restoring order.” These actions by the National Corps militia can easily be confused with the Azov regiment of the National Guard, but should be distinguished.

That doesn’t mean the Azov regiment is now free from fascist influence, but the reality is far from clear. In 2015, Andriy Diachenko, a spokesman for the regiment, claimed only 10-20 percent of regiment members are Nazis as regular non-ideological troops joined. According to Kacper Rekawek from the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo, “year by year, the connections (between the regiment and the movement) are looser.” While these claims may or may not be true, uniforms still sport the Nazi-like Wolfsangel symbol of the original battalion.

In 2018, US Congress passed a bill banning any US arms, training or assistance going to the Azov regiment.

Azov is therefore part of the problem, because its very existence as part of the Ukrainian armed forces is a bigger political problem than its small military reach as such; having a fascist-influenced regiment on the fronts is the best way to drive any ethnic Russians sitting on the fence into the hands of the far-right Russia-owned separatists. The Ukrainian government should indeed be criticised for not disbanding it or more fully severing its connections to the political movement.

However, the vast expansion of military action as a result of full-scale Russian invasion significantly reduces the relative weight of Azov and other fascists, given the “vast popular mobilisation” of millions of Ukrainians – including Russian-speakers – which “has risen up which goes far beyond the state apparatuses” to defend their country’s existence. The Azov regiment is estimated to consist of about 900 fighters; the standing Ukrainian armed forces are 196,000 troops, with another 900,000 reserves!

Regardless, Ukrainian fascists fighting Russia are virtually an anomaly in today’s global fascist climate. The appeals to global far-right solidarity by Ukraine’s Svoboda and Pravy Sector fell on deaf ears in 2014 following Ukraine’s Euromaiden. There was a history of connection between sections of the Russian and Ukrainian far-right before 2014; Svoboda had had observer status in the far-right Alliance of European National Movements (AENM). However, it had already been expelled in 2013, before the Euromaiden, at the initiative of Hungarian Jobbik, which objected to Svoboda’s anti-Hungarian statements.

In any case, in 2014, the AENM declared that the new Ukrainian government had no legitimacy and that it supports Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Most connections between the Ukrainian and European far right ended. “For Ukraine’s radical nationalists the problem with these old and new connections is that many, if not the majority, of Europe’s right-wing radical formations have sympathies for, or even contacts with, Putin’s Russia.” In discussing why previous links with Greece’s Golden Dawn were severed, Andre Tarasenko, Right Sector leader, noted “we cut it because they are with Putin who funds most far-right European parties, like Le Pen.”

On the military front, Azov has had a little more success, with several fascist groups that are anomalous among the far-right within their countries developing links. An article in Newsweek, before the invasion, titled ‘Ukraine’s War Draws U.S. Far-Right to Fight Russia’, claimed “neo-Nazi militias have recruited white supremacists from around the world to join their fight against Russia and advance racist ideology.” Yet the only groups mentioned were, in the US, the Nazi Atomwaffen Division (members of whom were deported from Ukraine) and the racist Rise Above Movement, clearly at odds with the strongly pro-Putin hegemony on the US far-right; Germany’s neo-Nazi Third Path (Der Dritte Weg), differentiating itself from the pro-Putin NPD and AfD; and Italy’s fascist CasaPound.

The idiosyncratic fascists of CasaPound may likewise want to distinguish their position from Forza Nuova, Lega Nord and other pro-Putin Italian fascists by supporting Ukraine, but in reality their position is more ambivalent; “some members of CasaPound have voiced their support for Ukraine in its war against Russia, while others support the Kremlin and have even fought on the side of pro-Russian militants in Eastern Ukraine.” CasaPound has participated in conferences with Azov in Lvov; but has also participated in rallies with other Italian fascists where “the crowd displayed posters hailing Putin as well as waving flags of the DNR” [Donetsk Peoples Republic], and organised a public meeting in Rome with Dugin. Explaining CasaPound’s vision of a new Italian-led Mediterranean, Simone Di Stefano, explained that “Outside the European Union and the Atlantic Alliance, Russia is a fundamental strategic ally for us … I very much appreciate the concept of ‘eternal Russia’ expressed in Dugin’s book.”

Impact of the Russian invasion on far-right support for Putin

The unexpected nature, ferocity and wide-ranging nature of Russia’s outright invasion of sovereign Ukraine has caused considerable anxiety for Putin’s far-right allies, from quite different perspectives. Although most remain cautiously supportive, some have expressed concern while others are torn between Russian and Ukrainian fascism.

On the one hand, the far-right parties that have some tendency towards “respectability,” due to participation in elections, have been humiliated by the sheer blatancy of Russia’s aggression. So, for example, French National Rally leader Le Pen, her rival Zemmour, Italian Lega Nord leader Salvini, Czech president Miloš Zeman and Hungarian prime minister Orban all had to condemn the aggression; though just days earlier they were still claiming the idea of invasion was just a beat-up and that Russia did have legitimate “security concerns”.

Condemning blatant aggression did make them partisans of Ukraine or born-again Russia hawks; rather, they tended to adopt the same position as the pro-Putin “left,” ie, of course we condemn the invasion, so let’s push for negotiations, compromise, no sanctions etc. Le Pen refused demands to destroy election pamphlets that prominently display her with Putin, explaining the invasion had only “partly changed” her view of him; Zemmour claimed that while “Putin is the guilty one, those responsible are in NATO which has not stopped expanding.” While Orban fell in with the EU and NATO consensus on the invasion, he stressed his opposition to sanctions or sending arms to Ukraine.

Some still entirely blame NATO with no criticism of Putin. For example, Alice Weidel, MP of the German fascist AfD, blamed the failure of the West to assure that Ukraine remained neutral rather than “continuously pushing the frontiers of NATO’s eastward expansion,” which was an “insult” to Russia’s great status. Dutch fascist Thierry Baudet of the misnamed Forum for Democracy claimed “Russia didn’t have much of a choice.”

On the other extreme, much of the more hard-line far-right have been attracted to Putin because he is seen as a firm and tough leader who is not scared to throw his weight around to defend “his nation”, “western civilisation” and the like. Hence their unanimous support for Putin’s backing of Assad’s dictatorship against “Islamists.” They feel none of the “respectable” pressures of the first group, but Putin’s invasion is a huge risk due to the stakes involved: an outright victory of Imperial Russia would greatly embolden the admiration he receives from global fascism, whereas a humiliating defeat could equally lead to a massive loss of support. With the Russian army bogged down, thousands of conscripts returning in body bags, the inability to yet conquer any major city, and the disastrous impacts of harsh western sanctions, humiliating defeat is not out of the question.

A third issue is the difficulty of choosing between equally attractive fascist partners. Azov appears to have had some success with its active promotional activities; “it is a larger-than-life brand among many extremists. It has welcomed Westerners into its ranks via white-supremacist sites. Azov stickers and patches have been seen around the globe.” This blends with right-wing oriented soldier-of-fortune types and various macho gun lovers and fascists who just want combat experience, including many who admit they are not going to fight for Ukraine, but for a pure white state, with Ukraine a useful springboard; from where they are in the West, it is simply easier to enter Ukraine to fight than to enter from the other side.

Combined with this is fascist uneasiness with two “white” nations at war. This can lend itself either to supporting Putin’s propaganda about Russians and Ukrainians being “one nation” divided by communists and globalists, or to opposing Putin launching aggression against fellow “whites.” Reportedly there has been discussion on far-right social media platforms about the role of “Jews” in driving two “white” nations to war.

To date though this has not led to a massive swing against Putin by the global far-right, rather confusion, division and nervous watching. Deutsche Welle reports that “some of Germany’s right-wing extremists have long had links to Ukraine’s neo-Nazi Azov militia. Other German neo-Nazis support Russia’s Vladimir Putin. … far-right activists who spent the past two years denouncing the German government and its restrictions to rein in the COVID pandemic, now place their hopes on Russia to champion their values: “When Putin marches through, men will again be men, electricity, and fuel will become cheaper, Islamization will end, and the greens and lefties will all be locked up,” read a chat group message of the ‘Free Thuringians’ extreme-right group. Similarly, the Washington Post reports that “the conflict has exposed a rift among extremists” in Germany, support divided between Russia and Ukraine. “A group called Free Saxony recently told its followers that the conflict was “largely fueled by NATO,” condemning smear campaigns against “friends of Putin.”

Thus, despite various articles with headings like Far right militias in Europe plan to confront Russian forces, concrete evidence is slim. This article reports that “in recent days, militia leaders in France, Finland and Ukraine have posted declarations urging their supporters to join in the fight to defend Ukraine against a Russian invasion” and that “numerous far-right white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups throughout Europe and North America had expressed an outpouring of support for Ukraine, including by seeking to join paramilitary units in battling Russia,” while naming very few.

The most concrete example was from Finland: “Neo-Nazi and white supremacist Telegram users from Finland also encouraged fellow Finns to join the fight alongside Ukrainians … One post said, “the age-old duty of the Finns has been to wage war against the Russians.” But that’s unsurprising – Finland was invaded and occupied by the Russian Empire, and then again by Stalin, leading to Finnish alliance with Nazi Germany against Russia, ie, like Ukraine, there is a history of national conflict with Russia which leads extreme nationalists into conflict with that country.

On the whole, therefore, while the edifice of Putin’s global alliance with fascism has been under strain from opposing pressures, there has been no drastic change to date. A complete Russian victory would almost certainly solidify the alliance and lead to an enormous surge in support for Kremlin-backed and financed fascist and far-right movements globally. In contrast, a humiliating Russian defeat would possibly lead to desertion of a weakened Russia by many fascist groups, and conversely, their long association with Putin, their heralding of him as the great white saviour, may discredit many of these groups and lead them to lose support. This is one more, not unimportant, reason to hope for the defeat of Putin’s bloody gamble in this fascistic far-right version of late 19th century imperialism.

Common sense on Syria’s election circus: Figures released are pure inventions

By Michael Karadjis

Assad bombs his way to election victory

In response to the claim by the Assad dictatorship that it received 95 percent of the vote in its May 26 staged “election” circus, and that the turnout was 78 percent, or 14 million people, critics have pointed to a variety of obvious issues:

And countless more valid reasons to reject the legitimacy of these “elections” under a dictatorship where every expression of dissident thought is ruthlessly crushed in a country with one of the world’s largest and most horrific torture gulags.

The regime almost certainly increased its official percentage of votes, compared to what it would have gained in an actual election, due to all this fraud, manipulation and life-and-death pressure, and only in the sense that there was no-one else to vote for in any case.

However, we do not know how much all this increased the potential vote by; it may have increased it from 30 percent to 60 percent, for example, we simply do not know. All we know are the figures invented by the Ministry of Truth of a tyrannical dictatorship.

Why would anyone believe these figures had any reality at all, even given all the above methods? The most likely way the regime “gained” 95 percent of the votes, and a 78 percent turnout of voters, was by not gaining them at all, via any methods, but by simply making these figures up. Only after having decided on the “election results” in advance did it carry out all its pressure, fraud and so on to at least make it look like voting was real, to give something for its craven international supporters and fake “observers” to cite as “evidence.”

I mean, if you were part of the “electoral” process in Syria and you disputed the figures created by the regime, would you open your mouth? Would you want to stay alive? Or even if you didn’t care, would you want your children to be “disappeared”? Anyone who actually knows anything about the regime knows this is no exaggeration.

A history of dictators getting “99-100 percent” of the vote

After all, if the 95 percent is real, but gained only due to fraud, threats, having no opposition etc, then does that mean that in every other “election” held by the Assad regime (father and son in this hereditary monarchy), the announced figures were also the real results of regime pressure and fraud, rather than inventions of the dictatorship? I mean, did Hafez Assad really get 99-100% in “elections” in 1971, 1978, 1985, 1991 and 1999? Is fraud, manipulation, fear etc that effective?

And if so, then does that mean the hyper-corrupt, blood-drenched tyrant Joseph Mobutu really got 100 percent of the vote in 1970 “elections” in Congo? And again, 99-100 percent in 1977 and 1982 elections? Yes, he was a frightfully bloody tyrant, but did his inept regime really have the ability to force 99-100 percent to vote for him, or was the figure more likely an invention? Did Saddam Hussein really get 99-100 percent of the vote in Iraqi “elections” in 1995 and 2002 due to fear, fraud etc? Did Hosni Mubarak really get 96 percent in 1993 and almost 94 percent of the vote in Egypt in 1999 elections? And of course Ferdinand Marcos really got 89 percent in the Philippines in 1977, and 78 percent really approved Augusto Pinochet’s policies in Chile in 1978? Did 100 percent of North Koreans really go out and vote for Kim Jong-un in 2014 (and of course Kim the father and Kim the grandfather before him in that hereditary monarchy)? Well, perhaps that regime does have the totalitarian efficiency to carry it out.

Isn’t more likely that the consistency of figures around 94-100% (except in a couple of cases when dictators chose lower but still overwhelming figures to try to be more convincing) indicates that these figures are pure inventions, where there is no-one to check (at least, who wants to live)?

How many “voted” in Syria? 14 million or 4 million?

What of the alleged voter turnout of 78 percent? This invention can in fact be disproved with empirical facts. The regime claims this 78 percent voting amounted to 14.24 million Syrians. This is absurd because:

  • This would indicate a Syrian voting population of some 18 million. However, the current total population inside Syria is estimated to be around 18 million people, and some 40-45 percent are under 18, ie, non-voters.
  • Of the pre-war population of some 24 million people, there are now 6.6 million refugees living abroad; that’s why only some three-quarters of this figure now live in Syria.
  • Of these 18 million living in Syria, there were over 5 million living in the northwest under Turkish and/or rebel control as of 2018, including 1.7 million refugees from elsewhere in Syria, but since subsequent regime and Russian offensives pushed the number of refugees up from 1.7 to 2.7 million, or perhaps even a million more than that, the real numbers in the northwest may be much higher; and another 3 million are living in the northeast under the control of the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, including 700,000 refugees. Voting did not take place in either region, and no-one seriously believes that anyone living in these two regions wants anything to do with the regime.
  • Therefore, the absolute maximum number of people – adults and children – living in regime-controlled parts of Syria is 8.5 million, and is likely considerably less.

In response, some regime apologists claim that refugees voted from abroad. If so, then their claim of a voting population of 18 million (out of a total Syrian population, in Syria and abroad, of over 24 million), might make some sense. Even if still inaccurate, given the considerably higher proportion of under-18’s in the population; and even though the regime clearly does not mean this, because it considers most Syrians in refuge ineligible to vote; let’s go with this for argument’s sake.

Some refugees did vote, to be sure. However, if we are to leave out the populations in Syria outside regime control where no voting took place, and add the population under regime control (8.5 million maximum) and in refuge abroad (6.6 million), the total figure, adults and children, comes to some 15 million people, just slightly higher than the alleged voter turnout! Therefore, for this to be true, it would mean not only that virtually every child, from 0-18 years of age, voted in the election inside regime-controlled Syria, but that virtually every one of the 6.6 million Syrians abroad, who fled Assad’s tyranny, also voted (again, from the age of 0 and up)!

While the first criterion is obvious nonsense, how likely is the second, that almost every refugee voted in the “election” circus, and for Assad?

First, there certainly were various pressures applied to refugees to vote (including legitimate concern that the regime would never return their property if they did not vote), and therefore it is likely that more “voted” than really wanted to. However, what is the evidence of the success of this campaign?

This does not leave many “voters” among Syrian refugees in the three largest – by far – host countries.

As for Europe, the country with by far the largest number of Syrian refugees, Germany, also banned the “elections.” Again, while this may have violated the rights of some, the likelihood that this would have made much difference is small – refugees in Europe are overwhelmingly anti-Assad and largely refuse to go home precisely due to his presence in power. Nevertheless, some Syrian refugees in Germany staged this terrific mock election to protest the farce.

And in any case, despite claiming all these votes from abroad and applying pressure to vote, the dictatorship itself makes it almost impossible for most refugees to vote even if they wanted to – registering to vote requires a valid Syrian passport with an exit stamp issued by an official border crossing that show you left the country “legally”!

From all this, it is difficult to work out how many refugees voted – none in Turkey, where the majority of refugees live, a figure ranging between 50,000 and a few hundred thousand perhaps in Lebanon and Jordan combined, none in Germany, and any that voted elsewhere would be among relatively tiny populations of Syrians.

For argument’s sake, let’s be very generous and say 500,000 Syrians abroad voted. Now, of the maximum figure of 8.5 million Syrians living in regime-controlled Syria, let’s first leave out some 40-45 percent who are under 18, and we get a maximum voting population of 5 million. Now let’s take the regime’s word for it that 78% voted (I don’t know why we should, but I guess it is possible with all the methods described above) – that comes to nearly 4 million voters. Add a very generous half million from abroad, and we find that Bashar Assad was “elected” in an “election” involving a mere 4.5 million voters, where the only alternatives were Assad Clone 1 and Assad Clone 2.

Therefore, if the figure the regime cited for the number of voters can empirically be shown to be pure fiction, then obviously the same can be just as true for the numbers who “voted” for Assad.

However, one objection may be that if the regime only has to invent figures, then why go to all the trouble to organise fraud, manipulation, pressure etc? As stated above, impressions count. Trying to make it look like the invented figures could have some truth can be good propaganda – just look at the clownish “journalists” from Gray (Red-Brown) Zone gushing over the Syrian “elections”.

It is also important for internal consumption. Tsurkov sums it up well: “In an authoritarian regime like Syria’s, when the falsification of the results takes place out in the open, elections project the regime’s ability to compel compliance. Elections serve the interests of the regime, signaling to opponents that resistance is futile, encouraging its loyalists and creating a sense that the regime enjoys greater support than it actually does.” Or, as Kristin Helberg writing in Qantara puts it, “the election serves a dual purpose: it forces people to demonstrate loyalty at home and provides legitimacy abroad.”

“Elections” under a dictatorship? Why is this article even necessary?

Wonder who’s going to win?

None of the above discussion should really be necessary. For decades, dictatorships (often, though not always, backed and armed by the US government and military) carried out “election” circuses and declared unbelievable figures for their “victories”, but left and progressive activists in the West denounced such “elections” as fraudulent. It was – and is – elementary common sense that “elections” under a violent dictatorship will not be “free and fair.” To anyone who understands elementary logic, no further explanation is necessary. 

It is a sign of strange times therefore that I even need to be writing this. Because a great range of political activists in the West today from the mechanical and superficial “anti-imperialist” school of thought are praising these “elections” being carried out by the world’s most violent dictatorship, one that has bombed every city in its country to rubble and which holds tens of thousands in horrific torture chambers. For example, this statement by “leftist” western observers that gloriously proclaims the legitimacy and democratic nature of Assad’s election victory. It is true, of course, that every section of the global far-right also praises Assad and his “elections” of course, but it is strange days when a section of the left finds itself in the same boat.

Strange days indeed, when for many being a “leftist” means to shill for a bloody dictatorship that protects a narrow capitalist oligarchy that owns the proceeds of its neo-liberalisation of the Syrian economy in the early twenty-first century; a regime that tortured Islamist “terror” suspects for the US “war on terror;” a dictatorship that Israel’s Netanyahu and other top leaders of the Israeli right see as optimal for Israel’s interests. A misnamed “anti-imperialism” devoid of substance. Yet one might expect even they would prefer to keep their mouths shut rather than engage in public self-humiliation. Not in 2021, it seems.

Building alternative futures in the present: the case of Syria’s communes

On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, and the 10th anniversary of the onset of the Syrian revolution, this re-blogged post by Leila al-Shami sums up neatly what needs to be said. This is re-blogged from Leila’s site at https://leilashami.wordpress.com/2021/03/18/building-alternative-futures-in-the-present-the-case-of-syrias-communes/?fbclid=IwAR166YgrIWloVII4BUQL0vF7AgpUJMyX-uUnsMJ4y_pktFeiwV6W_d1dYuM, and was originally published in The Funambulist.

Leila's blog

Originally published at The Funambulist

“We are no less than the Paris commune workers: they resisted for 70 days and we are still going on for a year and a half.” Omar Aziz, 2012

On 18 March 2021 people around the globe will be commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune. On this date, ordinary men and women claimed power for themselves, took control of their city and ran their own affairs independently from the state for over two months before being crushed in a Bloody Week by the French government in Versailles. The Communards’ experiment in autonomous, democratic self-organisation, as a means to both resist state tyranny and to create a radical alternative to it, holds an important place in the collective imaginary and has provided inspiration for generations of revolutionaries.

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Assad’s 2018 chemical massacre in Douma: Why conspiracy claims make no sense

Images from OPCW report of the fact-finding mission regarding the incident of alleged use of toxic chemicals as a weapon in Douma

by Michael Karadjis

Abstract: Vast numbers of responses to the conspiracy theories absolving the Assad regime of responsibility for the 2018 chemical massacre in Douma have been penned, some of which this article will list for reference. However, this article is not a repeat of this detective work; rather, the core of it is an examination of the absurdity of these assertions, precisely from the point of view of the questions of “who gains” and casus belli that these conspiracists evoke.

On April 7, 2018, the Assad regime launched a chemical attack, dropping chlorine canisters, on the besieged town of Douma, the last remaining part of the opposition-held East Ghouta region which had been under a month-long massive attack by the regime, during which it had reconquered the rest of the region.

The day after the attack, Douma itself surrendered. The regime had now virtually completed its reconquest of all parts of the southern and eastern regions of working-class outer-Damascus, which had been in opposition hands for over 5 years; the only exception was the Yarmouk Palestinian camp, which the regime reconquered in May, but the opposition had already lost Yarmouk to ISIS (despite fierce resistance) in 2015 in any case.

Forty-three bodies were reportedly discovered, and filmed, in one of the apartment blocks onto which the chlorine had been allegedly dropped; however, the Syrian regime and its Russian backers did not allow inspectors from the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to enter the area to carry out inspections until 2 weeks later, during which time the bodies were buried.

When they finally were allowed in, the OPCW inspectors found two “yellow industrial cylinders dedicated for pressurised gas” (which likely contained the chlorine) in the top levels of two apartment blocks, as well as the craters in the roof which they had crashed through. One was apparently intact; the building where the other had released its load is where most of the 43 bodies were reportedly found.

The OPCW released its full report in March 2019, which concluded there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that chlorine had been used, and was the most likely cause of death; that it was likely it came from the spent canister; and though the brief of the OPCW did not include assigning blame, the report did imply that the most likely way the chlorine got into the building was through the crater in the roof above; though it said nothing about aircraft, this is the only possible way it could crash through a roof. As only the regime has aircraft, it therefore implied the regime was responsible.

Yet since that time, the OPCW has been subject to a concerted propaganda campaign, led by the Russian state, which claims the OPCW is guilty of a “cover-up” of alternative explanations, and that either chlorine was not used, or if it was, it was used by the opposition, or even that the rebels merely planted the chlorine canisters in the building, and just killed the civilians themselves, in an elaborate plot to provoke western intervention against Assad.

The claims about “cover-up” are based on the testimony of two former employees of the OPCW. First, Ian Henderson, who was not part of the OPCW investigating team, but a liaison officer between the team and Damascus, sent a memo to the OPCW in March 2019, just before it released its report, claiming that the chlorine canisters could not have been dropped by helicopters, based on an “engineering report” that he had carried out (the OPCW claims he carried out this investigation outside his brief as OPCW employee). Two months later, the fact that the OPCW had not included this in its report was leaked to the world media as a “scandal.”

The OPCW claims it could not do this (apart from it being so late), because attributing blame for the incident was outside its brief. This is because Russia had blocked attributing blame from the OPCW’s investigation; the report makes no mention of helicopters.

Second, “Alex” (subsequently found to be Brendan Whelan), who was a member of OPCW team between April and August 2018, spoke out in October 2019. “Alex” had been a member of the team collecting evidence, but left before the real analysis began. He claimed his alternative view of events (he did not believe the evidence showed chlorine had been used) had been suppressed, and objected to some formulations in the interim report. The final report does modify its language slightly, arguably taking into account some of the objections, but still rejects them overall, with further evidence not yet available before “Alex” had quit.

Other than the constellation of conspiracist media sources led by the Russian state, the “cover-up” story was taken up by, among others, right-wing British journalist Peter Hitchens in the rubbishy tabloid Mail on Sunday; by a group of allegedly “anti-imperialist” leftists in an outfit named ‘Grayzone’ (otherwise known as ‘Red-Brown-Zone’); by far-right Trump-man in Fox News Tucker Carlson; by embedded journalist (for the Syrian military) Robert Fisk in The Independent; by long-term pro-Assad propagandists like Vanessa Beeley, a regular guest at Assad’s throne who writes for the conspiracist site 21st Century Wire.

Just why we should believe two disgruntled former employees of the OPCW over the research of the majority of the professionals in the organisation, and why this majority would decide to collectively engage in a cover-up, is anybody’s guess.

For those who want to understand more of the ins and outs of this ongoing saga, I can only strongly recommend the following sources:

Episode 11 of the BBC’s MayDay series – Canister on the bed: What really happened in the Douma massacre? https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p08z33bp

Scott Lucas – Denying Syria’s Chemical Attacks, Attacking the Inspectors — The Douma Case, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vw_ivOnsXx4

Bellingcat – Unpublished OPCW Douma Correspondence Casts Further Doubt on Claims of ‘Doctored’ Report https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2020/10/26/unpublished-opcw-douma-correspondence-raises-doubts-about-transparency-of-opcw-leaks-promoters

Bellingcat, The OPCW Douma Leaks Part 1: We Need To Talk About “Alex” https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2020/01/15/the-opcw-douma-leaks-part-1-we-need-to-talk-about-alex/

Now, if anyone is actually interested in this issue – and the fate of the victims of Assad’s decade of massacres – chemical and otherwise – then you need to listen, watch and read these sources, especially the first. Then draw your conclusions. If you don’t first do this, then your only interest is conspiracy-mongering.

Some other useful reads:

Life and Death in Douma. Part 1: The Russian narrative

https://magpie68.wordpress.com/2019/12/01/life-and-death-in-douma, for an excellent dissection of the propaganda unleashed by the Russian state allied journalists, and others like Robert Fisk, who was allowed in long before the OPCW was, to “interview” people in front of his Assad regime handlers.

The ‘Useful Idiots’: How These British Academics Helped Russia Deny War Crimes At The UN, good overall run-down by Chris York https://tinyurl.com/yar7vyox

Brian Whitaker, Leaked OPCW documents: what they really show about the Douma investigation, https://al-bab.com/blog/2019/12/leaked-opcw-documents-what-they-really-show-about-douma-investigation

James Harkin, What Happened in Douma? Searching for Facts in the Fog of Syria’s Propaganda War, https://theintercept.com/2019/02/09/douma-chemical-attack-evidence-syria/

Nafeez Ahmed, State Propaganda in Syria: From War Crimes to Pipelines, London: International State Crime Initiative, Queen Mary University of London, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8a59rfq

Casus belli?

However, while my conclusion from all this material is the OPCW report is a fair summary of what occurred, I prefer to look at the overall context than obsess with the detective work.

After all, casus belli is at the heart of the conspiracist argument; they ask, why would Assad want to “risk western intervention” by launching a chemical attack, when he was already winning in East Ghouta? Wouldn’t it be more in the interests of the rebels to stage a “false-flag” attack, get the regime blamed, and thus bring in western intervention to save them?

But why would this be necessary, if, as the far-right/alt-left coalition believe, the US has forever been dying to launch a war on Syria and carry out “regime-change”? After all, even if it were shown that the OPCW was mistaken and that Assad did not really launch that particular chlorine attack killing 43 people, it would not alter the fact that his regime has killed hundreds of thousands of people using every conceivable type of “conventional” WMD for a decade.

In other words, why would the US or rebels need to concoct stories of chemical attacks? Wouldn’t the US already have enough political ammunition with years of Assad levelling entire cities, dropping barrel bombs, cluster bombs, bombing schools, hundreds of hospitals, markets, firing ballistic missiles at apartment blocks and so on?

No? Oh, OK, all this is bad, but the US, for some pacifistic, law-abiding reason, only drew the red-line against chemical weapons, not all the rest. So “the lie about chemical weapons is whipped up to give the US the excuse to bomb Syria.”

Oh? What then of the 30,000 US strikes on ISIS, Nusra/HTS, Ahrar al-Sham, sometimes other Islamists or even mainstream rebels, killing, according to Airwars, anywhere from 6250 to 9,600 civilians, levelling the city of Raqqa? Is all this not “the US bombing Syria?”

Of course, none of this has ever been of any interest whatsoever to the western “anti”-war movement, let alone the far-right/alt-left coalition; for them, it only becomes dangerous US aggression if the US hits some Assad-regime installation for a few minutes a couple of times in 8 years, killing no-one and doing zero damage to Assad’s war machine.

But OK, let’s have it their way, only bombing Assad is bad, as opposed to bombing Syria, which is of no consequence.

So, in that case, if US agents in the media or inside the OPCW or wherever go to all the trouble to concoct a chemical weapons conspiracy hatched by the rebels, just because the US is so desperate to attack Assad but can somehow never find the excuse, then having concocted the excuse, wouldn’t the US perhaps use the opportunity to actually do some damage to Assad’s war machine, rather than hit three buildings in 45 minutes?

The context of the Douma attack

Let’s look at the context of the allegedly “false flag” Assad chemical weapons attack on Ghouta in April 2018.

In March 2018, the regime launched its final campaign to subjugate the long-time rebel-held, working-class East Ghouta region of outer Damascus, at the cost of some 1700 lives in four-weeks, in one of the most relentless episodes of terror bombing in the war. Far from using this horror as an excuse to “make war on Syria” as feverish imaginations believe the US wanted to do forever, throughout this month-long massacre the silence from the US and other western governments was deafening. During this month, top US and Russian generals held high-level discussions twice, where the topic of Ghouta was apparently not even mentioned. The conversation, which focused on Syria, reportedly demonstrated “a clear mutual interest to maintain the military lines of communication.” Defense James Mattis stressed the importance of cooperation with Russia, but noted sadly that issues such as Ukraine and Crimea suggested the Kremlin had other ideas. The Kremlin’s role at the very moment in pulverising Ghouta was not even considered worthy of note.

On March 29, weeks into Assad’s horror bombing of Ghouta, US president Trump announced that “We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS, we’re coming out of Syria very soon. Let the other people take care of it now” – “other people” being the Assad regime. Ghouta? Trump had probably never heard of it. It is true that the Pentagon pushed back on Trump’s rapid withdrawal idea, but not because they thought the US should do anything about Assad or the horrors of Ghouta, but rather simply that “we will continue to support the SDF as they continue to fight against ISIS.”

By early April, Assad had been completely victorious over almost all of the Ghouta region, but one militia, Jaysh al-Islam, was holding out in the suburb of Douma. This is where Assad’s “alleged” chlorine massacre took place. The very next day, Douma surrendered – which seems a reasonable answer to those who ask “what did Assad have to gain?” He gained immediate total victory. Apparently, to the conspiracists, the rebels had gone to all the trouble of concocting a false-flag operation to blame Assad and bring about western intervention, but then didn’t even wait a day for this intervention!

Confronted with yet another rude violation of the US “red-line” against only chemical weapons, despite Trump’s gift to the ungrateful Assad of extreme indifference to the month of slaughter and the announcement that the US was leaving Syria to Assad, Trump decided he needed to launch a “credibility” strike. The casualty-free strike hit three buildings allegedly associated with chemical weapons’ research or storage, with zero impact on Assad’s war machine. It then abruptly stopped. “Mission accomplished” declared Trump after 45 minutes.

Really, US imperialism, allegedly determined come what may to “make war on Syria”, to carry out “regime change” against Assad, helped the rebels concoct a false flag chemical attack in order perform this mere hiccup following Assad’s month-long slaughter of 1700 people?

And getting back to “why would Assad risk a US attack” etc – maybe because he rightly figured the worst would be a rap around the knuckles, a reasonable price to pay for rapid victory and the psychological terror created by chemical weapons attacks. After all, he already had the experience of such a pinprick strike a year earlier.

The Khan Sheikhoun sarin attack in 2017

Douma, of course, this was not the first such incident; the conspiracist set believe all Assad’s chemical attacks have been “false-flags” to bring about this elusive “western intervention”, from the massive sarin attack on East Ghouta in 2013, which killed 1400 people, resulting in, well, nothing, to the sarin attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria in April 2017. The Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute found the Assad regime responsible for 98 percent 336 chemical attacks in Syria; perhaps all of these were mere “false-flags”, which resulted in … zero western intervention.

It is well-worth looking at the case of Khan Sheikhoun, which took place in April 2017, exactly a year before the Douma massacre we have been discussing. The OPCW also later determined that the Assad regime had launched the sarin attack there.

Given the fact the US reacted by bombing Assad’s Shariyat airbase – the first US strike on Assad after nearly 8000 US strikes on Syria at that point, all on non-Assad and anti-Assad forces – does this signify that this was perhaps a “false-flag” operation?

Not even remotely. Again, let’s look at context and casus belli arguments.

In the weeks before Assad’s chemical massacre in Khan Sheikhoun, three prominent US leaders made Trump’s pro-Assad position clear. Trump’s UN representative Nikki Haley announced that the US was “no longer” focused on removing Assad “the way the previous administration was”; State Secretary Rex Tillerson used Assad’s words, declaring that the “longer term status of president Assad will be decided by the Syrian people”; and White House spokesman Sean Spicer declared that “with respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept.”

When Assad took all this encouragement to mean that even sarin could be legitimised, the US had little choice but to strike Assad for the sake of imperial “credibility.” The US back-down on its “red line” in 2013 was exchanged with getting Assad to remove all his sarin. He could use every other type of horrific weaponry in the four intervening years, and the US could not care less, as long as he stayed off chemical weapons. In demonstrating that he had kept some sarin and was even willing to use it, Assad forced the US to launch a credibility strike, despite the very clear intentions of the Trump regime stated just days earlier.

To soften the blow, Trump warned Putin, who warned Assad, so that planes could be moved from the base in time. According to the Russians, some half a dozen out-of-service warplanes were hit. By the following day, the base was again in use bombing Syrians, and Khan Sheikhoun was again being bombed – just not with sarin.

Really? So rebels concocted a “false-flag” attack, the US presumably cajoled and pressured the OPCW to later issue a report falsely blaming Assad, and in response the US launched a pinprick strike whose impact, if any, lasted less than a day? Don’t be silly.

If you want to see bloody US intervention, you just had to look in the same region a few weeks earlier. From any human viewpoint, a comparison between the US bombing of a mosque in a rebel-held region of Aleppo in March 2017 which killed 57 worshippers, and the US strike on the Sharyat airbase a few weeks later, which killed no-one, highlights what a mundane event the second was. The Trump regime never issued any apology for the mosque massacre (claiming anti-Assad HTS “terrorists” might have been using it), and it was welcomed by Trump’s Russian mates. Meanwhile, the number of civilians killed by US bombing of ISIS-held regions in Iraq and Syria in Trump’s first six months was higher than the number killed in Obama’s eight years, yet the conspiracists will tell you the US was supporting ISIS, and/or HTS, and/or the rebels, against Assad!

The follow-up by clarified further that this was a one-off. Tillerson stressed the strike was entirely about sarin and warned “I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today.” Trump stressed that he launched the strike only because Assad used chemical weapons “which they agreed not to use under the Obama administration, but they violated it.” Defence Secretary Mattis stressed that “our military policy in Syria has not changed. Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS.”

National Security Advisor McMaster clarified that he had no concern that the base was being used again the next day, because harming Assad’s “operations from the airfield” was “not the objective” of the strike; and that the US goal, far from “regime-change” (ignore the absurd “regime change” title of the article, which McMaster simply states was up to the Russians), was merely defeating ISIS while also desiring “a significant change in the nature of the Assad regime and its behavior in particular” (note: not a change in the nature of the regime, but specifically of the Assad regime!).

How did the chlorine get there?

While I believe this has established the inherent absurdity of the idea that either Douma or Khan Sheikhoun were conspiracies from the point of view of context and the casus belli argument, there are other ways of demonstrating the impossibility of the conspiracist argument.

In particular, going back to Douma, if the chlorine canisters found in the top section of the buildings were not dropped from the sky, how did they get there? The best take-down I have seen of this issue was that penned by Louis Proyect, in this article on the Douma issue. It is so to the point that I will quote a significant chunk of it here, one more aspect for doubters to consider:

  • Procuring chlorine tanks might have been relatively easy, but how could Jaish el-Islam construct the fins, harness, axis, and wheels that are necessary for both loading into and then dropping them from helicopters? If you are going to frame Assad, you’d better be in a position to replicate the weapon he has been using for at least five years. Would Henderson and Alex argue that the pictures of the two weaponized chlorine tanks seen in the OPCW report were photoshopped? If not, how do you construct the fins, harness, axis and wheels from scratch? Did Jaish el-Islam make them in a machine shop? As someone with a night school diploma in lathe and milling machine from my days colonizing industry, I can tell you that this is not an easy task during constant bombardment and electrical blackouts.
  • The Jaish el-Islam had to use a pneumatic drill or sledgehammers to create large holes in concrete ceilings or find apartments that had them already. If the apartment already had a hole, what accounted for the rubble on the floor beneath it? And what about the attention such tools would draw during a heavy-duty penetration of concrete ceilings? The racket would be enough to awaken the dead. Furthermore, what would their neighbors make of them hauling 300-pound chlorine tanks to the building and up the stairs? Clunkety-clunkety-clunk. Anybody spotting them would figure out that they were up to no good, especially since Douma tenement buildings were not likely to have rooftop swimming pools in need of sterilization.
  • To make sure that the forty to fifty people who were to become sacrificial lambs in this unlikely false flag operation, the Jaish el-Islam had to prevent them from fleeing from the bottom floors, where they had taken refuge. But what if they tried to flee the minute chlorine gas was detected? If anybody escaped, wouldn’t they finger Jaish el-Islam? How would Jaish el-Islam not lose all support immediately?

A note on Jaysh al-Islam

A further point on this militia. Unlike other parts of East Ghouta controlled by more mainstream rebel groups, Jaysh al-Islam, the group in control of Douma, had a particularly bad reputation among other rebels and oppositionists, for running a highly authoritarian regime. For example, it is widely believed responsible for the disappearance, since late 2013, of the Douma Four revolutionary activists.

However, thousands of locals joined the ranks of this militia simply in order to defend the local people from reconquest by the far more repressive and murderous Assad regime. That had nothing to do with Jaysh al-Islam as such; as one civil activist in Douma, who is hostile to JaI, explained: “All the young people join Jaysh el-Islam. This is not out of ideological belief or because they like Alloush, but because they need to fight and not wait around.” On the contrary, it was the partial continuation, in extremely adverse conditions, of some semblance of the popular revolutionary traditions and institutions established in 2002-2003, very often in conflict with the JaI regime itself, that people fought to defend.

As revolutionary activist Firas Abdullah (who remained there for the entire duration of the siege) put it after fleeing Assad’s reconquest: “the dictatorship is one, but it has several colours.” JaI’s repressive rule, in other words, was nurtured precisely by years of Assadist siege, bombing and starvation. But the connection goes further: it was Assad who released Zoran Alloush, JaI’s founder, along with 1000 or so other jihadists, from his dungeons in mid-2011, at the very time he was arresting and jailing thousands of democratic activists, including from Douma. The vacuum of leadership created by Assad’s mass arrests was taken up by people like Alloush.

Yet it is precisely these origins of hard-Islamist currents like JaI – in the Iraqi jihad against the US occupation – that makes any connection between the West and JaI, as implied by these pro-Assad conspiracy theories, inherently unlikely. Indeed, US Defence Secretary John Kerry classified JaI (and Ahrar al-Sham) as “terrorist” groups. While the US did lightly arm various “vetted” rebel groups under Obama – never enough to even hold the line against Assad, but in order to politically co-opt them – no US arms ever went in the direction of JaI. If conspiracists want to claim they did, it is up to them to find the paper trail; they won’t. Whatever limited aid came over the southern Jordanian border in Obama years went to the FSA’s Southern Front, of which JaI was never a member, and in any case was geographically cut off from. In any case, in 2017 Trump ended all military aid to all rebels, and even cut off all aid to democratic councils and civil society in opposition territory. Long before 2018, therefore, the US leadership openly saw all rebels as an enemy, not only JaI.

Moreover, this worked both ways: the idea that JaI would try to bring about western intervention goes against the very grain of this group. Following Assad’s far more mass-murderous chemical attack East Ghouta in 2013, JaI responded to Obama’s alleged threat to strike Assad with this statement:

“What matters to us is the question of: Who will America target its strike against? And why choose this particular time? The Assad regime has used chemical weapons dozens of times and the U.S. did not move a finger. Have they experienced a sudden awakening of conscience or do they feel that the jihadists are on the cusp of achieving a final victory, which will allow them to seize control over the country? This has driven the U.S. to act in the last 15 minutes to deliver the final blow to this tottering regime so it can present itself as a key player and impose its crew which it has been preparing for months to govern Syria.”

No, the anti-western Jaysh al-Islam did not drag massive chlorine canisters up many flights of stairs and break holes in the roof to bring in a US intervention they were opposed to and then surrender to Assad the next day anyway; the entire scenario is nuts.

Briefly on the White Helmets “controversy”

I put controversy in quotation marks because it is only a “controversy” to a particularly hardened wing of alt-left/hard-right wingnuts. I mean, really, one would expect Assadists and conspiracists to slander military formations of the Syrian opposition and even political and civil leaders, but the obsession they have with volunteer first-responders, who put themselves in acute danger – many have died in action – to rescue civilians from the rubble of bombed-out buildings, to save thousands of lives, is a particularly oddball phenomenon.


The spectacle of comfortable, White academics, “journalists” and propagandists living in the West, many seeing themselves as “left-wing” while slandering and spitting on those brown folk dying in the line of fire, is so obscene that it should be self-defeating. Yet living in this anti-solidaristic era, where “left anti-imperialist” is often little more than a badge of honour in the “market-place” of ideas and image, we see thousands of followers line up to join in the obscenity. Whatever gives you a rise I guess, guys.

This White Helmets “controversy” is not the issue of this essay, so what, if any, connection does it have with the chemical attacks controversy? Nothing, necessarily, except that these are two cheap targets of the conspiracist set. However, one connection they attempt to make is the assertion that the White Helmets have been key informants in the “staging” of these “false-flag” attacks.

One allegation is that it was the White Helmets who had filmed the initial Douma footage of those killed in the chemical attack. Yet the footage was originally released by another opposition media centre; as Nafeez Ahmed, in a valuable piece taking on a great deal of this propaganda, explains, the White Helmets “had not even been present at the scene of the incident in the immediate aftermath” (p. 31). He also responds to Scott Ritter, the former UN investigator of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction; Ritter criticised the OPCW’s assessment that sarin had been used in the Khan Sheikhoun attack, for allegedly relying on “none other than the White Helmets” to gain samples (p. 39), since the regime had blocked the OPCW from accessing the site. As Ahmed demonstrates, samples were gained from other sources, including the regime, from which the OPCW established the use of sarin.

Other than recommending several of the vast number of responses to sick the anti-White Helmets propaganda (try this and this and this, especially the first, the full BBC series), my final point will again be from the perspective of, “what does all this aim to achieve anyway?” Whether the claim is that the White Helmets are mere actors not rescuing anyone, or that they do rescue people, but use the footage of their deeds to create propaganda against the regime (because, I suppose, it is not self-evident that bombing the civilian sites from which the White Helmets rescue these people is a war crime?) – really, why would this be necessary?

Anyone with eyes, ears and brains has been able to watch an entire decades-worth of footage or read thousands of accounts by journalists, human rights activists, NGOs, Syrian civil activists, refugees, international organisations and so on to know that the Assad regime has been committing massive crimes against humanity on a daily basis, and has been responsible for well over 90 percent of all killings and war crimes in that country.

For example, according to a UN Human Rights Commission report in 2017:

“Government and pro-Government forces continue to attack civilian objects including hospitals, schools and water stations. A Syrian Air Force attack on a complex of schools in Haas (Idlib), amounting to war crimes, is a painful reminder that instead of serving as sanctuaries for children, schools are ruthlessly bombed and children’s lives senselessly robbed from them. Government and pro-Government forces continue to use prohibited weapons including cluster munitions, incendiary weapons and weaponised chlorine canisters on civilian-inhabited areas, further illustrating their complete disregard for civilian life and international law.”

Or, as the UN Commission of Inquiry on the war in Syria put it, the regime is guilty of the crime of “extermination.”

White Helmets “propaganda” against the regime would, in other words, be entirely superfluous; making the anti-White Helmets propaganda as mindless as it is malignant.

Trump’s record on Syria: Enabler of Assad’s victory, enemy of Syrians

90 percent of Assad’s Reconquista under Trump’s watch

Global heroes of the alt-right

By Michael Karadjis

With US elections approaching, Syrian people wanting to end the 50-year tyranny of the Assad dynasty are looking for any light from either candidate of the US ruling class. The fact that most conclude there is little to be excited about, and search for the tiniest seeming advantage from either side, highlights the plain fact that the US rulers have never had any interest in supporting the Syrian struggle for freedom.

Now that Assad has largely won the so-called ‘civil war’ – mostly a one-sided slaughter he waged against the Syrian people – the only real debate going on is whether a victorious, yet highly unstable, Assad regime can be pushed into some kind of political compromise via a “constitutional commission” process.

Compared to the heady days of one of the vastest and most inspiring popular revolutionary uprisings of the 21st century, having to ponder such questions is dull indeed.

Nevertheless, reality being what it is, these questions can hardly be avoided. Assad’s victory is no ordinary case of a dictatorship successfully cracking down on its people, not wanting to underestimate the terror involved even in such “simple” cases. In Syria, we need to consider the whole Syrian people, not only those forced to live under the dictatorship’s heel in the regions it controls.

Assad’s military victory: Counterrevolutionary stability or ongoing catastrophe?

First, of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million, there are 6.6 million refugees outside the country (of whom 3.6 million are in neighbouring Turkey), over a quarter of the population, plus an equal number internally displaced (IDPs) within Syria. Then there are over 5 million people living in the northwest (Idlib and northern Aleppo regions) still outside of Assad’s control, under what remains of various rebel groups, mostly under Turkish influence, according to a population survey in 2018, which at the time included over 1.7 million internally displaced from elsewhere in Syria; however, further waves of regime and Russian bombing in 2019 and 2020 pushed the number of internally displaced in the northwest to some 2.7 million. Yet even these figures may be low, given the difficulties of establishing clear figures in such catastrophic situations; according to a February 2021 UNICEF report, “Since December 2019, more than 940,000 people have been displaced, in addition to the 2.7 million who were already displaced” – which could mean some 3.7 million are displaced in the region. Then there are another 3 million people, including 700,000 internally displaced, in the northeast, under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the US military, who entered Syria to help the SDF defeat ISIS.

Therefore, around 15 million or more people – two thirds of Syria’s pre-war population – are outside regime control. When we add some 140,000 people estimated to have been incarcerated in Assad’s torture prisons or disappeared, of whom tens of thousands have been killed, and an estimated 670,000 people killed in the war, along with the physical destruction of much of Syria’s infrastructure by years of relentless regime and Russian terror bombing, it becomes clear why Syrians are not ready or able to say “OK, the dictatorship won, we lost, that’s bad, but now there’s no choice but to get on with our lives under counterrevolutionary stability” – any kind of “stability” is impossible under such conditions.

At the very least, those pushing this view – not only Assadists, but other well-meaning people who see the reality of defeat – need to take into account that if it is the interests of “the Syrian people” they are concerned about, then these “Syrian people” are not only the 8 million or so under regime control (even if we assume that these people are content with the situation, a likely erroneous assumption); but also the 6.6 million outside Syria, most of whom will not return with the regime in power, and the 8 million or more living in the northwest and northeast outside regime control.

For those concerned with ameliorating this situation, does a Trump or a Biden in the White House make any difference?

Trump versus Biden?

Various articles indicate that among Syrian exiles in the United States, there is little consensus, and this reflects the fact that the differences are very narrow. This is hardly surprising; there is little difference on many issues.

For example, Trump is clearly worse on Israel/Palestine, having recognised occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s ‘capital”, put forward a anti-peace process that gives everything to Israel, cut off funding to UNWRA, recognised Israeli sovereignty over the illegally stolen Syrian Golan and so on. Yet Biden and Harris are also extremely pro-Israel. No, they may not have recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and they claim to support UN resolutions and the traditional, meaningless, “peace process”, but Biden has also stated he will nevertheless not move the US embassy back to Tel Aviv.

As the Trump and Biden camps are saying very little different in terms of Syria policy going forward, much of the debate inevitably looks at the records of the Obama administration (in which Biden was vice-president) and the Trump administration. And neither offer any inspiration whatsoever. Though my argument here is that Trump is worse, it is understandable that some view Obama more negatively.

Obama’s support for the Syrian opposition was tepid at best; the CIA program to train and equip “vetted” rebels was largely aimed at co-opting and taming them, putting the CIA in a position to pressure them to stop fighting Assad, and enlisting them for the “war on terror” against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra only (the Free Syrian Army – FSA – already fought ISIS, and often Nusra, but resisted dropping the fight against Assad). In other words, bringing real rebel formations around to the same position as the concurrent Pentagon program, which explicitly only armed ex-rebels to fight only ISIS or Nusra and not Assad – but therefore had difficulty finding many real rebel forces to enlist! Further, from 2012, the US placed spooks on the borders to ensure that shoulder-held anti-aircraft weapons (manpads) – the defensive weaponry most needed in a war of aerial slaughter – did not reach the FSA. Above all, Syrians disapprove of Obama’s nuclear deal – the JCPOA – with Iran, believing this encouraged Obama to turn a blind eye to massive Iranian support to Assad.

Those viewing Biden as a better choice might note things such as Trump ending all Obama-era assistance to the FSA and to Syrian civil society organisations, Trump’s view that the only US fight in Syria is against ISIS, the fact that 90 percent of Assad’s reconquest of much of Syria took place under Trump’s watch, the gutting of the Geneva process, and Trump’s overly friendly relationship with Russian Tsar Vladimir Putin, Assad’s main backer. The strongly pro-Assad orientation of Trump’s far-right base of support can also be noted. Trump also signed the ban on travel and migration from seven Muslim countries, including Syria; as Syrian-American Zaher Sahloul points out, “in 2020, fewer than 100 Syrian refugees were resettled in the U.S. compared with 12,500 in 2016.”

However, those who see Trump a better bet, regardless of his motivations, point to things such as Trump’s anti-Iranian orientation (including ripping up the nuclear deal), given Iran’s role as Assad’s second main backer, Trump’s two pinprick strikes on Assadist facilities to enforce the “red line” against Assad’s chemical warfare, which Obama had not enforced in 2013, and the current harsh sanctions imposed on the Assad regime in the post-reconquista phase.

This view, that opponents of Assad should wish for a Trump victory, seems counterintuitive, given Trump’s initial declarations of support for Assad and assurances that his administration was no longer focused on removing Assad “like the previous administration was.” And the idea that any degree of human liberation, in Syria or elsewhere, is more easily achieved by having a far-right, white-supremacist in the White House appears illogical.

But what if Trump’s greater tendency to enforce “red lines” leads him to stumble, by accident, into ousting Assad, or if his anti-Iran policy tipped the scales against Assad even if that were not the intention? Syrians are as entitled as any other oppressed people to exploit the contradictions among imperialist powers and reactionary states. It may place their interests in opposition to those of virtually anyone else in the world, from Palestinians to black and working-class Americans, fighting for their liberation, but that is hardly the fault of Syrians; rather, that would be the fault of those who have waged genocidal war against them, or helped this by ignoring them, slandering them and stabbing them in the back.

Nevertheless, this is a complete illusion. The interests of Syrians fighting Assad are not in the slightest aided by supporting an enemy of human liberation like Trump, neither on the Iran issue, not that of ‘red-lines’, nor on the issue of sanctions.

First let’s look at Trump’s record

In the lead-up to the 2016 US elections, Trump asserted that in Syria, the US should be on the same side as Russia and Assad in “fighting ISIS”, and said the US would cut off any meagre “support” still going to the anti-Assad opposition under Obama.

Trump fulfilled his promise, fully ending the long-dormant CIA program to arm and train some “vetted” rebels. While, as shown above, this program was already tepid and ineffective, its continuation at some level under Obama gave the FSA some room to manoeuvre and occasionally take advantage of the arms, which was too much for Trump: in abolishing it, he declared the program “dangerous and wasteful.”

With this cut-off of aid to the FSA, any US aid to Syrian “rebels” now was only to those who do not rebel: US Central Command spokesman Major Josh Jacques explained: “vetted Syrian opposition groups all swear an oath to fight only ISIS.

Trump also ended US “stabilisation” funding for civil society in regions outside Assad regime control. Trump declared “the United States has ended the ridiculous 230 Million Dollar yearly development payment to Syria,” referring to the Obama-era funding for a vast array of opposition local governance and civil society organisations, independent media and education projects which kept society running in the regime’s absence. The State Department explained that US assistance in northwest Syria was being “freed up to provide potential increased support for priorities in northeast Syria,” ie, to where the fight is only against ISIS rather than the regime.

Thus Trump put an end to all US funding to both the civil and military sides of the revolution.

From the start, Trump declared “We’re there for one reason: to get rid of ISIS and to go home. We’re not there for any other reason.” His secretary of state Rex Tillerson virtually declared Assad an ally: “We call upon all parties, including the Syrian government and its allies, Syrian opposition forces, and Coalition forces carrying out the battle to defeat ISIS, to avoid conflict with one another and adhere to agreed geographical boundaries for military de-confliction.” Assad’s future was declared Russia’s issue, the US agnostic about “whether Assad goes or stays.”

Tillerson’s speech in January 2018 focused on supporting the Geneva process for a “political solution,” but the US no longer expected Assad to stand down at the beginning of a transition phase as under early Obama, or even at its end as under late Obama; rather, Tillerson claimed that Assad could be voted out in a “free election,” which would presumably occur with him in power, though the process may ‘take time” for which he “urge(d) patience.”

Before Obama left office, Assad’s reconquest of opposition-controlled regions had netted iconic democratic revolutionary centres south and west of Damascus such as Darayya, Madaya and Zabadani, and East Aleppo city in the north, by 2016. However, the fact that some 90 percent of Assad’s Reconquista took place under Trump was not accidental or the result of Trump’s alleged “isolationism”: it was based on US-Russia agreement, the fruits of Trump’s pro-Putin politics. In mid-2017, a “new” US strategy was presented by Defence Secretary James Mattis, State Secretary Tillerson and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph F. Dunford Jr., conceding Assad’s control of Syria west of the Euphrates River and most of centre and south. Discussing “a proposal that we’re working on with the Russians,” Dunford noted “the Russians are as enthusiastic as we are.”

How did that play out in different parts of Syria?

The conflict in the southeast desert

We will first turn to the east, where the US was leading an air war against ISIS, in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces. In the northeast, the main US ally was the Kurdish-led Peoples Protection Units (YPG), leading an expanded coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). While leading a just fight for the liberation of the Kurdish people, the YPG/SDF has played an essentially neutral role in the conflict between the Assad regime and the rebellion, making it the perfect partner for the US war on ISIS under both Obama and Trump.

Meanwhile, in the southeast desert, the US was arming and training two “vetted” ex-rebel brigades for the war against ISIS. These brigades had to swear to give up their fight with the regime, but one of them, Shohada al-Qaryatayn, could not stomach this and cut off its relationship with the US-led Coalition due to its pressure on them “to stop the fighting against the Syrian Arab Army”. Coalition spokesman, US Army Col. Ryan Dillon, demanded they return the equipment the US had provided them, warning that otherwise it would bomb them.

The US declared a 55-square kilometre zone around a US base in al-Tanf, a town on the Jordanian border, to be part of the US-Russia-Jordan southern ‘de-confliction zone’ declared to keep the fight focused on ISIS. Several times in May-June 2017, Iranian-led militia entered this zone and were hit by the US. In every case, the US released an identical statement, stressing that although it had hit forces advancing towards the US base inside the zone,

The Coalition does not seek to fight the Syrian regime, Russian or pro-regime forces partnered with them. … The Coalition presence in Syria addresses the imminent threat ISIS poses globally, which is beyond the capability of the Syrian regime to address. … The Coalition calls on all parties to focus their efforts in the same direction to defeat ISIS, our common enemy and the greatest threat to worldwide peace and security.”

Stunningly, the US even gave permission to the Assad regime to bomb inside the US exclusion zone. On June 6, the regime relayed a request to the US military via Russia to bomb the US-proxy force, Maghawir al-Thawra (MaT), inside the US-declared zone, because it had attacked Iranian-backed forces which had entered the zone. So, even though the US itself demands these forces not enter the zone, it does not give permission for its own proxies to attack them, because they are only allowed to fight ISIS. So the US gave permission to Assad to bomb its (the US’s) own proxies inside its own exclusion zone!

Palmyra, east Qalamoun, east Suweida

Meanwhile, Assad’s forces, together with Iranian-backed forces and the Russian airforce, were finally making their own advance to the east against ISIS. This was after many years of Assad waiting as US bombing and SDF ground advances softened up ISIS, during which time Assad had been free to crush the anti-Assad, anti-ISIS rebels throughout the country.

In its first step, US bombing directly supported Assad’s reconquest of Palmyra in March 2017, in coordination with Russia and Iran, Palmyra being the regime’s gateway to Deir-Ezzor.

Over the next few months, from their strengthened position around Palmyra, Assad’s forces took advantage of the US focus on fighting ISIS only, and the US-Jordanian freeze on the FSA Southern Front, to seize significant parts of the eastern Qalamoun and eastern Suweida regions from the rebels, but MAT was not allowed to link up with and support the FSA in this region directly adjacent to al-Tanf (see map):

“ … pro-regime soldiers attacked the overstretched desert rebels roughly 60km southwest of Palmyra … The regime’s assault led to a swift victory. … rebel sources told Syria Direct that the US-led coalition provides support for opposition forces to combat IS but stops short of funding the rebels to attack the regime. “The coalition is a partner of ours in the war against Daesh, but when it comes to fighting the regime and its foreign militias, [the coalition] is not our partner,” Al-Baraa Fares, a MaT spokesman, explained.”

The Pentagon concurred: “We give them [FSA] training and equipment, and they fight against Daesh. That is all. We don’t help them to control an area or fight against the regime … We are not a part of their struggle against the regime.”

Deir-Ezzor

Having directly aided or facilitated Assad’s reconquest of Palmyra from ISIS, and the East Qalamoun, East Suweida and Badia regions from the rebels, surely the US would draw a line against the regime advancing towards Deir Ezzor? Isn’t that why the US was arming and training its own proxies?

In reality, the US had for years been in an unofficial alliance with Assad in the war around Deir Ezzor, which was now out in the open under Trump as US, Russian, Assadist and even Iraqi warplanes bombed the region together, while on the ground this US bombing not only aided Assad’s forces but even Iran-led forces for months in 2017. The widely discussed secret US-Russia deal allowing the US/SDF to take Raqqa and Assad-Russia to take Deir-Ezzor appeared to be borne out in practice.

The Pentagon was open about the fact that its proxy forces were little more than an aid to Assad’s reconquest of Deir Ezzor. As explained by US-led Coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon, if the Assad regime or its allies

“are making a concerted effort to move into ISIS-held areas we absolutely have no problem with that … if they want to fight ISIS in Abu Kamal and they have the capacity to do so, then that would be welcomed. We as a coalition are not in the land-grab business. We are in the killing-ISIS business. … if the Syrian regime wants to … put forth a concerted effort and show that they are doing that in Abu Kamal or Deir el-Zour or elsewhere, that means that we don’t have to do that in those places.”

As Trump tweeted when threatening US withdrawal from Syria in December 2018, “Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there (sic) work.”

East Ghouta, south Damascus, Homs

In March 2018, the regime subjugated the rebel-held East Ghouta region of outer Damascus at the cost of 1700 lives in four-weeks, in one of the most relentless episodes of terror bombing in the war. Throughout this month-long massacre, the silence from the US and other western governments was deafening. During this month, top US and Russian generals held high-level discussions twice, where Ghouta was apparently not mentioned. The conversation, focusing on Syria, demonstrated “a clear mutual interest to maintain the military lines of communication.” Defense Minister Mattis stressed the importance of cooperation with Russia, but noted that issues such as Ukraine and Crimea suggested the Kremlin had other ideas. The Kremlin’s role at that very moment in pulverising Ghouta was not considered worthy of note.

On March 29, weeks into Assad’s horror bombing of Ghouta, Trump announced “We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS, we’re coming out of Syria very soon. Let the other people take care of it now” – “other people” being the Assad regime. Ghouta? Trump had never heard of it. It is true that the Pentagon pushed back on withdrawal, but not because they thought the US should do anything about Assad or Ghouta, but rather “we will continue to support the SDF as they continue to fight against ISIS.”

Assad also subjugated and expelled the people of a number of smaller rebel-held enclaves in part of Homs, Wadi Barada northeast of Damascus, and other parts of South Damascus, which, like East Ghouta, were all within the “west of Euphrates” majority of Syria the US had declared was Assad/Russia’s sphere.

Daraa and the south

Following this, the Assad regime turned its attention south, to Daraa and Quneitra provinces, the revolution’s birthplace, which straddle the Jordanian border and Syria’s Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Daraa had long been held by the FSA Southern Front (SF), the largest military coalition controlled by avowed democratic and secularist forces. Under Obama, the Southern Front had for a time received US and Saudi support via Jordan. However, the Obama administration imposed a series of red lines on the SF beyond which it could not go; one line prevented it moving towards Damascus to link up with the rebel-held outer suburbs in the south and east. This red-line had contributed to the regime’s 2016 subjugation of the southern Damascus town of Darayya. After a certain point, the US and Jordan tightened the screws, insisting the SF drop its fight with Assad and focus entirely on ISIS.

The fate of the Southern Front had already been heralded in July 2017, with the US-Russia-Jordan agreement to make Daraa and Quneitra a “de-escalation zone.” Russia began occupying this zone with US blessing, to guarantee Israel that the regime’s return to the Golan would not be coupled with Iranian or Hezbollah forces, who had to keep away. This “de-escalation zone” converted the US red-line into international policy, preventing the SF from coming to the aid of East Ghouta and the greater Damascus rebellion, helping seal their fate.

Trump’s ending of all military assistance to the FSA helped in turn seal the SF’s fate. As Assad advanced south, the US told the FSA that “you should not base your decisions on the assumption or expectation of a military intervention by us.” Russia worked with the UAE to encourage SF groups to surrender and join the Russian-controlled 5th Corp of Assad’s army; Israel welcomed the offensive, dispensing with a tiny ex-rebel group it had been using as “border”-guards on the stolen Golan. Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, far-right defence minister Lieberman and various other Israeli political and military leaders openly declared their preference to have the Assad regime in power and controlling the Golan. The Trump-Putin-Assad-Netanyahu agreement to destroy the southern front of the revolution was consolidated with Russian military police joining the UN forces in the demilitarised zone, to “monitor implementation of the separation-of-forces agreement.”

Trump’s Russian friends, in other words, are now stationed in Syria to protect both the Assad regime and the Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan!

Idlib and the northwest

Having rolled over most opposition-controlled territory under Trump, all that was left was the northwest, under the control of a range of rebel militia, partially under Turkish influence, and the northeast, under the control of the SDF, backed by the US airforce, military bases and troops.

When Trump came to power, the rebel-held northwest consisted of “greater Idlib,” meaning Idlib province and parts of northern Hama, northern Latakia and west and south Aleppo provinces. This region is connected to the northern Aleppo region along the Turkish border, where rebel militias are more directly under Turkish control, since Turkey entered in 2016 to expel ISIS from the region.

Under Trump’s watch, “greater Idlib” became “lesser Idlib,”, with the loss of around half the region to Assad, including all the Hama, Latakia and west Aleppo regions, and the southern part of Idlib, mostly during the 2019-2020 Russian-led terror-bombing offensive. All the iconic centres of the democratic revolution, which had long resisted HTS as well as the regime – including Maraat a-Nuuman, Atareb, Kafranbel and Saraqeb – were lost to Assad.

While the US did not directly facilitate Assad’s victory here, no discernible opposition to Assad’s gigantic massacre-offensives can be detected, under either US president. If we are to compare, then the short-lived provision of a number of US-made anti-tank TOW missiles to the FSA under Obama appears to have helped an offensive in early 2015 make gains, but this had already petered out by late Obama years; whereas Trump’s cut-off of all aid to both the political and military opposition almost certainly enabled Assad’s reconquest more directly than Obama-era shrugging.

To the extent that some aid has gone to the opposition and the region has not been fully reconquered, this has been largely due to Turkey’s intervention in support of the rebels. Turkey has a direct interest: it has taken in 3.6 million Syrian refugees, and since refugees from other rebel-held zones have flooded into Idlib, there would simply be nowhere else for them to go if Assad fully reconquered Idlib, meaning millions more refugees, which Turkey cannot handle.

Of course, Turkey does its own dealing. Its on and off dealing with Russia aims to facilitate Turkey’s oppressive interventions against the Kurdish populations in Afrin and the northeast, while blocking total Assadist reconquest of Idlib, though at times the same dealing may involve Turkey turning a blind eye to a degree of Assadist reconquest.

Ultimately, though, there is a line: Turkey showed what it is capable of early in 2020, when Assad refused to stop, and Turkey openly attacked regime forces and destroyed thousands of tons of Assadist killing equipment, even bringing down some warplanes – a joyous occasion, but one showing the real potential had anyone ever wanted to rein in Assad.

Either way, it had nothing to do with Trump. For a typical US reaction, the speech to the UN by Trump’s UN representative, Nikki Haley, during one murderous Assad-Putin offensive in August 2018 sums it up: “This is a tragic situation, and if they want to continue to go the route of taking over Syria, they can do that. But they cannot do it with chemical weapons.”

An excellent example of how the bogeyman of “chemical weapons” was used by the US government to inform Assad that literally everything other than chemical weapons goes, including “taking over Syria.”

In reality, despite Haley, even the US probably does not want a total Assadist victory in Idlib, given the massive instability this and subsequent enormous refugee outflows would cause. But beyond occasional harsh words, there is zero on the record of either administration obstructing Assad’s butchery. Following horrendous months-long terror-bombing offensives in early 2019 and early 2020, displacing another 1.4 million people, US national security adviser Robert O’Brian shrugged “the idea that America must do something… we’re supposed to parachute in as the global policeman and hold up a stop sign?”

Actually, the US has intervened in greater Idlib for years – bombing anti-Assad forces. Under Obama, the US had been bombing Nusra/HTS, and sometimes other Islamist rebels, since the day it began bombing ISIS in September 2014.

In early 2017, Trump was intensifying Obama’s war on HTS. In late January, Trump bombed an HTS training camp killing over 100 HTS cadre, as well as allied cadre from the Zinki rebel group, and in early February, the US killed a commander of Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist rebel group in  conflict with HTS, and the US even reportedly struck iconic revolutionary centre Kafranbel. In March 2017, the US bombed a mosque in west Aleppo (allegedly targeting HTS), where 57 worshippers were killed. The Trump regime never issued any apology, and the strike on the mosque was welcomed by Trump’s Russian mates.

These bombings continued till April; they only stopped because, following the US strike on an Assadist air base in early April (see below), Russia, which controls the airspace in that region, told the US their “de-confliction” mechanism would no longer operate in the northwest. Since then, US leaders stress they “absolutely agree” with Russia that “the terrorists” in Idlib “need to be taken care of”, that Idlib is “a magnet for terrorist groups.”

Despite the Russian ban, the US still occasionally bombs jihadist forces in Idlib. The latest strike took place in October 2020, when the US struck a major jihadist meeting, killing members of a range of factions. At one point even the Russians complained about these US strikes on al-Qaida-linked Hurras al-Din. While the local rebels do not see these forces as allies, it is indicative that the only forces the US continues to strike in Idlib are anti-Assad, never pro-Assad, forces.

The Kurds and the northeast

The northeast is somewhat a separate issue, as here the US intervention found its partner of expedience in a force that is neither allied to the regime – though it is far from averse to doing deals with it when it suits – nor with the movement to overthrow it. The SDF gained control over a vast area of northeast Syria for its own ‘Rojava revolution’, and set up an autonomous ‘North Syria Federation’.

Under Trump, the US took off all gloves to smash ISIS, leading to thousands of civilian casualties, but ISIS was indeed largely destroyed. Once the job was done, Trump was ready to get out, issuing “withdrawal” declarations in December 2018 and October 2019. The second time included a nod to Turkey’s Erdogan regime to launch an invasion in the northeast to expel the SDF from part of its territory, a strip along the Turkish border, ethnically cleansing the Kurdish population and committing brutal war crimes. This betrayal appears to have been a Trump whim, hoping to sell Turkey 100 F-35 fighter jets – a deal that ultimately did not eventuate.

Having betrayed its SDF allies, the US then reversed on “withdrawal” and kept 1000 troops in the northeast to protect the oil for the SDF, and signed an agreement with the SDF for a US oil company to invest in oil infrastructure.

When Turkey invaded to US indifference, the SDF felt forced to make a deal with Assad to allow a small number of Syrian troops back into parts of their zone. Far from complaining  about Assad’s latest partial-reconquest, Trump tweeted “Let Syria and Assad protect the Kurds and fight Turkey for their own land … Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!”

For that matter, Erdogan said much the same: he had no problem as long as it was Assad, not the SDF, controlling the region. It is difficult to see how any of this can be spun in a positive way by anyone from any perspective.

But, Trump bombed to enforce the ‘red line’ …

Given this nakedly counterrevolutionary role of the Trump administration in Syria, how do the issues of ‘red-lines’, anti-Iranian policy and sanctions fit into this picture, and do they give Syrians reason to grudgingly support Trump despite the above?

Let’s begin with Trump’s two pinprick strikes on the Assad regime following its use of chemical weapons in Idlib in April 2017 and Ghouta in April 2018. Given Obama’s backing out from his threat the enforce the red-line against chemical weapons following Assad’s massive sarin attack on Ghouta in 2013, Trump’s apparently greater tendency to enforce the red-line, regardless of motivations (US imperial “credibility” etc), may appear an improvement.

Did the US bombing of Assad’s Shariyat airbase in April 2017 – the first US hit on Assad after nearly 8000 US strikes on Syria at that point, all on non-Assad and anti-Assad forces – signify a new US policy?

Not even remotely. In the weeks before Assad’s chemical massacre in Khan Sheikhoun, three prominent US leaders made Trump’s pro-Assad position clear. Trump’s UN representative Nikki Haley announced that the US was “no longer” focused on removing Assad “the way the previous administration was”; Tillerson used Assad’s words, declaring that the “longer term status of president Assad will be decided by the Syrian people”; and White House spokesman Sean Spicer declared that “with respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept.”

When Assad took this encouragement to mean that even sarin could be legitimised, the US had little choice but to strike Assad for the sake of imperial “credibility.” The US back-down on its “red line” in 2013 was exchanged with getting Assad to remove all his sarin. In demonstrating that he had kept some sarin and was even willing to use it, Assad forced the US to launch a credibility strike, despite the very clear intentions of the Trump regime stated just days earlier.

Thus it was Obama’s deal with Assad that created the necessity of a strike this time: Assad had simply not used sarin again in any large enough display during Obama’s reign. We cannot therefore make assumptions about what may have happened if Obama were still president; he may have been forced to do the same as Trump. In fact, when Obama was threatening to enforce his red-line in August 2013, Trump was opposed to any action, as was Bolton, Mattis, Gingrich, virtually anyone in future associated with Trump.

To soften the blow, Trump warned Putin, who warned Assad, so that planes could be moved from the base in time. According to the Russians, some half a dozen out-of-service warplanes were hit. By the following day, the base was again in use bombing Syrians, and Khan Sheikhoun was again being bombed – just not with sarin.

Let’s set this minimalistic strike in context. The first months of Trump saw a massive intensification of the US war on ISIS, and a huge rise in civilian casualties: the number of civilians killed by US bombing in Iraq and Syria in Trump’s first six months was higher than the number killed in Obama’s eight years, including 472 killed by US airstrikes in Syria between May 23 and June 23 alone, the third month in a row that civilian casualties from US strikes topped even Assad’s toll. The massacre of dozens of displaced people in a school in Raqqa highlighted the nature of Trump’s war. The civilian toll from the decimation of Raqqa is likely to be much higher than official figures suggest, and by August, enormous massacres were occurring daily. In this context, a 55-minute hit on a few old regime warplanes, doing zero damage to its war-making capacity, is not even a hiccup.

As we saw above, Trump also escalated the US war on HTS. From any human viewpoint, a comparison between the US bombing of the rebel-held Aleppo mosque in March which killed 57 worshippers, and the US strike on the Sharyat airbase a few weeks later, which killed no-one, highlights what a mundane event the second was.

The follow-up by clarified further that this was a one-off. Tillerson stressed the strike was entirely about sarin and warned “I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today.” Trump stressed that he launched the strike only because Assad used chemical weapons “which they agreed not to use under the Obama administration, but they violated it.” Defence Secretary Mattis stressed that “our military policy in Syria has not changed. Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS,” but Assad “should think long and hard” before using sarin again. National Security Advisor McMaster clarified that if there were to be any “regime change” in Syria, it would be carried out by Russia, not the US; that he had no concern that the base was being used again the next day, because harming Assad’s military capacities was not the aim of the strike; and that the US goal remained defeating ISIS while it also desired “a significant change in the nature of the Assad regime and its behavior in particular.”

So, even after Assad uses chemical weapons, the hardest policy within the Trump regime was for regime character change under Assad, facilitated by Russia.

The lead-up to the second hit, in April 2018, following Assad’s attack on Ghouta with chlorine gas, was similar;  as described above, the Trump’s US government  demonstrated complete indifference as the regime pounded East Ghouta for a month with every conceivable type of “conventional” WMD, as 1700 people were killed. As we saw above, during this terror, Trump announced the US was leaving Syria, as its only concern was ISIS. Ghouta was not even on his radar.

Assad had already been victorious over almost all of the Ghouta region, but one militia was holding out in the suburb of Douma. The day after the chemical attack, Douma surrendered. Confronted with yet another rude violation of the red-line, despite Trump’s gift to an ungrateful Assad of supreme indifference to the month of slaughter, Trump once again launched a credibility strike. The casualty-free strike hit three buildings allegedly associated with chemical weapons’ research or storage, with zero impact on Assad’s war machine. “Mission accomplished” declared Trump after 45 minutes.

Since then, the Assad regime has continued to use chemical weapons, with barely a whisper from Trump.

Trump’s hard line against Iran

Probably the biggest argument in favour of Trump among many Syrians has been his intensely anti-Iranian policy. Trump, so it goes, may not care about Assad, and his stance against Iran may only be driven by imperial US arrogance, but it will have the spin-off effect of weakening Assad. Obama signed the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) which released sanctions on Iran and returned it money the US had long held, so Iran was able to use this money to bolster Assad; and Obama’s determination to get the Iran deal was allegedly a major reason for the US going soft on Assad. Trump’s scrapping of the JCPOA means Iran has less money to bolster Assad. Biden would return to the treaty, again freeing Iran to shower Assad with money and troops.

While the argument is understandable, there are too many holes for it to hold up as any reason to grudgingly support Trump.

Let’s start with the last point. Would Iran be flush with cash to prop up Assad if Biden restored the JCPOA? Probably not, because its economy has crashed due to the huge fall in oil prices over the last year, as well as being hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis. In any case, the point is now moot following the imposition of harsh US sanctions on the Assad regime (see below). In the past, Syria could be prevented from receiving Iranian goods due to US sanctions on Iran (and anyone facilitating Iranian trade); now, third parties can be sanctioned by the US for supplying Syria. But then why would Iran care about that if it is already sanctioned? Ironically, only by abolishing the harsh sanctions on Iran would its incentives to aid Assad be reduced.

Regarding Obama, yes, the timing of the JCPOA was bad for Syrians, if not wrong in itself. The US did not have the right to keep billions of Iranian dollars for decades. The country with the most nuclear bombs on Earth does not have the right to prevent Iran from developing civil nuclear energy. But if the US had illegally held Iranian cash for decades, it could have held it a little longer if it wanted to stop Iran funding Assad. The discourse that Obama was soft on Assad because of his deal with Iran reverses the causality and demonstrates illusions in US imperialism. As can be easily demonstrated, the US never supported the Syrian uprising. This had nothing to do with the Iran deal. Obama could have used the Iran deal as a lever to get Iranian forces out of Syria, but chose not to.

But here’s the thing: under both Obama and Trump, the US was effectively allied to Iranian forces on the ground in Syria and Iraq, with with parallel objectives. In Iraq, the Iranian-backed Shiite sectarian death squads helped the US prop up the US-Iranian joint-venture Iraqi regime against the ISIS Sunni sectarian death squads.

Regarding Syria, let’s talk about the “anti-Iranian” Trump presidency. Throughout 2017 and early 2018, while Trump was facilitating Assad’s counterrevolutionary victory throughout the country, the anti-Iran issue took a back seat in practice, whatever Trump’s rhetoric, as long as Assad needed Iran-backed cannon-fodder to do much of his fighting on the ground. As shown above, during Assad’s reconquest of Deir Ezzor in 2017, US bombing of ISIS not only aided Assadist forces on the ground, but even Iranian forces on the ground.

Only after Assad’s throne was safe, following the crushing of Ghouta in April 2018, was the stage set for Trump to begin dealing with his Iranian issue. So in May 2018 the JCPOA scrapped, sanctions imposed and the anti-Iran rhetoric reached fever pitch.

It is true that Assad’s crushing of Daraa had not yet taken place, but when it did, it was carried out without any need for Iranian troops. As described above, the deal to crush Daraa involved Assad, Netanyahu, Trump and Putin; Russia ensured that Iranian troops were kept distant from the region. Iranian cannon fodder was now superfluous.

As for the ongoing slaughter in Idlib, it has been overwhelmingly Russian terror bombing aiding each Assadist offensive; Iran’s role has been relatively peripheral. In a number of Assad-Russia offensives, Iranian forces were absent, possibly due to the increasing anti-Kurdish alignment of Iranian and Turkish regional interests. Regarding a mid-2019 offensive, researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov writes “Iran is currently not engaged in the campaigns in Idlib for several reasons, including that it does not see the recapture of the province to be of strategic importance and it wants to maintain good relations with Turkey.”

Where Iran retains most strength is in eastern Deir Ezzor near the Iraqi border. But even here, it is increasingly in conflict with Russia, and even with the Assad regime, whose interests in that region line up more with those of Russia over Iran.

The bottom line is this: if Trump’s anti-Iran position was negative for Assad, then how did Assad reconquer most of the country under Trump’s watch?

The problem is giving greater weight to Iran than is warranted. Given the heavy role played by the Iranian regime and its regional proxies in sending thousands of troops to fight for Assad’s regime, many understandably take this a step further and see the Syrian war as primarily a war of Iranian conquest and occupation, with Assad virtually reduced to an Iranian pawn.

However, this Iranian angle is only one aspect of a multi-faceted war, whose dominant aspect remained a war of revolution and counterrevolution where the Syrian people’s main enemy was the Assad regime, with its own massive military machine, which never completely lost its independence to Iran.

One argument is that since Assad’s own Syrian forces became so hollowed out due to mass desertion and reluctance to fight, the armed forces he pitted against the rebels became overwhelmingly these Iran-owned forces. Forcing Iran-backed forces out will therefore leave Assad without an army.

However, this is a case of turning an actual phenomenon – significant desertion among SAA ranks – into an absolute. The SAA does continue to have thousands of Syrian troops, though greatly reduced and with low morale. Moreover, these absolutist views ignore the fact that there is another much greater power that has been central to rescuing Assad – the Russian Empire of Trump’s mate, Vladimir Putin.

Russia’s intervention via aerial mass bombing since 2015 saved Assad – after the Iranian and Hezbollah intervention since 2013 proved incapable of doing so. However, it is often claimed that while Russia supplies the airforce, it does not send ground troops, so Assad and Putin rely on Iran and its proxies to supply cannon fodder.

However, this again turns a core of truth into an absolute. In August 2018, for example, Russia claimed that 63,000 Russian troops had “seen combat” in Syria.

In March 2017, Assad’s forces launched an attack on the US-backed SDF in Deir Ezzor. While the US never touches the regime’s war-making machine when it fights the rebels, it retaliated against this attack on its SDF allies, only to find that it had killed 200-300 Russian mercenaries, of the Blackwater-like Wagner group, embedded with Assad’s forces! If that many Russians died on one day, it suggests significant numbers of Russian ground forces have fought in Syria.

But the Russian factor is bigger than that of ground troops. Russia is the other major power that Assad’s regime depends on militarily, economically and diplomatically. While Russia and Iran both back Assad, they are also rivals in the stakes of dominating post-war Syria. They also attempt to achieve their rival objectives in different ways – while Iran relies on sending in irregular militia under its own control and ideological persuasion (though also building connections with certain sections of the Assadist military, eg, Bashar’s cousin Maher Assad’s 4th Division), Russia aims to rebuild and dominate the Baathist state apparatus which it has worked with for decades.

In doing this, Russia has put significant resources into the Assadist officer corp, building and financing entire sections of the military, notably the 5th Corp and the Tiger Forces. This coincides with Russia’s increasing take-over of significant parts of the Syrian economy, a tightened hold on its military bases and attempts to restrict Iran’s strategic footprint in Syria. In mid-June, for example, Russia took full control of Palmyra Military Airbase  from the regime, expelling all Iranian and even regime forces.

While this rivalry gives the Assad regime the ability to manoeuvre between these two benefactors it also gives Iran’s enemies – the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, some other Gulf states – the same ability to manoeuvre, by putting their money on a Russian-dominated version of Baathist “stability” and/or “political solution” as opposed to the Iran-dominated version. Pushing back Iran does not necessarily mean undermining Assad. 

For example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and al-Sisi’s Egyptian dictatorship are all strongly pro-Assad, and have excellent relations with Russia. While Israel bombs Iranian assets in Syria – taking care to distinguish them from the Assad regime’s assets – it has excellent relations with Russia, which, being in charge of Syria’s anti-aircraft system, is clearly giving Israel the green light; meanwhile top Israeli leaders have for years continually emphasised their support for Assad. In May his year, as Israel launched major strikes on Iranian forces, Israeli defence minister Naftali Bennet told Assad that Iran “used to be an asset for the Syrians, but now it’s a burden.” Even Saudi Arabia, previously a supporter of the Syrian uprising, has moved from ignoring Syria to making noises suggesting quiet support for the Egypt-UAE strategy.

However, while Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt line up very neatly with the Russian preference for Baathist regime continuity (with or without Assad), with some cosmetic ‘reform’, the US and the EU strive for some kind of “political transition”. In reality, ‘reformed Baathist ‘stability’ and ‘political solution’ are different ends of the same equation in the context of Assad’s military victory.

Nevertheless, ‘political transition’ at least offers some degree of greater possibilities than mere ‘reformed Baathism’, and the weapon chosen by the the US and the EU to pressure the regime in that direction is sanctions. So we will now move to Trump’s alleged third advantage, the current harsh sanctions regime.

Harsh sanctions for lame ‘political transition’

It may seem ironic that the US government, after years of facilitating Assad’s victory, began to articulate a firmer-sounding policy on Assad’s future soon after the regime’s mid-2018 reconquest of the south. In November, the US Treasury issued a “shipping advisory” warning third parties (especially Iran and Russia) that they would be subject to US sanctions if they facilitate the shipping of oil to Syria  (notably, the oil sanctions this was based on were issued in August 2011 under Obama). The advisory also noted that the US would prevent any funding for “reconstruction.” The new US special representative for Syria, Jim Jeffrey, outlined that these sanctions will apply until the US sees “irreversible progress in the UN-sponsored political process.”

US rulers had feared the “instability” of revolution more than the instability caused by the regime’s actions, but now with the revolution contained or crushed, this new approach indicates that the US now considers it safe to resume the search for a transition to a less destabilizing version of the regime, achieved “from above.”

The harshness of the new sanctions is balanced by how limited the objectives are. The “political process” Jeffrey refers to concerns Assad’s attempts to block the formation of a “constitutional commission” to re-write the constitution before future elections, the process launched by Assad’s allies Russia and Iran, along with Turkey, at the Sochi conference in January 2018, consistent with UN Security Council resolution 2254 (a resolution endorsed by Russia and China in 2015). Even the regime is officially on board, though it is trying to stall the process. It is somewhat ironic that the US now offers muscle to help push through a Russian-led process.

As the former head of the of the Syrian opposition, Moaz al-Khatib, noted, “the meagre demand of a mere constitutional committee” is a major step down from the key long-term component of the Geneva process, namely “the demand for a transitional ruling body,” which would consist half of regime and half of opposition members, both with right of veto over certain individuals (eg, Assad), tasked with organising elections. This was key to the Geneva process since its inception in 2012, based on a Russo-American understanding of the “political process” under Obama. With the new approach, the regime itself, rather than a transitional body, will be expected to ratify a new constitution and organize “elections”.

In other words, the late Trump administration’s position is “tough” in the context of policy objectives that represent a marked shift towards accommodating the regime. Of course, the US never had any “regime change” policy to begin with. The US had always opposed any collapse of the Baathist regime, and at most had aimed for Assad to “step down,” as Obama requested, leaving his regime intact. As Obama’s State Secretary John Kerry stated in December 2015, the US is “not seeking so-called regime change as it is known in Syria,” and the US and Russia see the conflict “fundamentally very similarly.”

This has been emphasised more clearly under the Trump administration. In November 2018, Jeffrey stressed that the US was committed to a political process that “will change the nature and the behaviour of the Syrian government, [but] this is not regime change, this is not related to personalities.”

Regarding the change in “behaviour,” Jeffrey’s stress was on the removal of  “Iranian-led” forces from Syria, which threaten “our friends in the region, principally Israel.” In June 2020, Jeffrey is still repeating this ‘muscular realpolitik’ approach, asserting that Washington “wants to see a political process, which may not lead to a change of the Syrian regime, but demands the Syrian regime to change its behaviour, not provide “shelter for terrorist organizations” or “a base for Iran.”

This is very different to his attitude to Assad’s other ally Russia; Jeffrey states that “we seek common ground with Russia in order to resolve the conflict in Syria,” calling on Russia to “join efforts to counter Iran’s destabilizing actions and influence in Syria.” Jeffrey bends over backwards to accommodate Russia:

“Our policy is that all Iranian-commanded forces have to leave Syria, along with frankly all other military forces that entered after 2011. This includes the United States, if all of the reports are correct about the Israeli Air Force that would include the Israelis, and it would include the Turks. The Russians entered before 2011, therefore they are exempt.

In other words, the tough-sounding Jeffrey is putting it to Russia that the US supports a conservative, Russian-led process of “political transition,” ie, one which satisfies US-Russian allies like the UAE, Egypt and Israel that the regime is largely preserved as long as Iran is distanced.

While Russia intervened to save Assad’s regime, Putin has no special love for Assad himself, and understands that for its Syria colony to became stable for Russian investment and strategy, the regime needs to engage in some ‘political process’ involving dialogue with the opposition, perhaps broadening the base of an otherwise unstable sectarian regime. The Russian-led “constitutional commission” process, supported by the US, is conservative enough for this purpose: it bridges the gap between the concepts of Baathist regime continuity with cosmetic reform and “political solution.”

In theory, even a controlled ‘political solution’ process could open up Syrian politics for the masses to intervene even if that is not the intention; in practice it may go beyond a reformed Baathist regime. However, whether it or not it does depends on the relationship of forces on the ground, rather than what is written on paper.

With Assad receiving massive backing from Russia and Iran throughout the war, Assad could fight it out to ensure any final deal gave the best terms to the regime. The end result is seen today: the military crushing of the opposition ensuring that it lacks bargaining power; hundreds of revolutionary councils disbanded; thousands of civil leaders murdered in custody; a quarter of the population residing outside the country; and Russian, Iranian, American, and Turkish forces occupying substantial parts of Syria. The “political solution” in this context will likely end up a particularly conservative version.

Returning then to sanctions: what we see is the “blunt instrument” of harsh sanctions, which hurt ordinary civilians far more than the Assadist elite, arriving at the end of a US-facilitated, especially Trump-facilitated, military victory by Assad, in order to now pressure the victorious Assad into a limited “political solution” that preserves as much of the regime as possible.

Caesar sanctions: the good, the bad and the ugly, but bipartisan

However, while my focus is the cynical motivations of Trump, the sanctions debate is of central importance to Syrians; regardless of the reasons for the defeat of the military struggle, its reality means Syrians rightly ask: so what can be done now? To oppose any sanctions in this context means allowing the regime to rule unimpeded, having destroyed its country, killed hundreds of thousands of people, while still holding tens of thousands of political prisoners, leaving a quarter of the Syrian population as refugees and millions more internally displaced, while passing laws to steal their property.

It is here that the recently introduced ‘Caesar’ sanctions – named after the alias of the Syrian regime defector who leaked tens of thousands of photos of detainees tortured and murdered in Assad’s gulag – potentially offer a way forward. Credit for these sanctions goes to the years of democratic activism by Syrians and their supporters pressuring Western governments to take the kinds of actions that many activists have previously pushed for against western-backed repressive regimes.

The Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act puts specific demands on the regime like releasing political prisoners, ending sieges, facilitating return of refugees, and ending bombing of civilians, schools and medical facilities. This removes the dilemma whereby some may consider the US demand for “political transition” none of the US’s business, on the one hand, or view its actual content to be so watered down that it means reformed Assadism, on the other. Who can argue with release of political prisoners?

The Caesar Act sanctions the regime, entities controlled by it, individuals within it, and other active participants in repression (including foreign death squad leaders); the oil and gas industries, military aircraft, and “reconstruction”; and any ‘third-party’ individual entity or state doing business with any of the above.

Support for the Caesar sanctions is very strong among Syrian activists abroad, but not unanimous, because their harshness potentially impacts the civilian population (despite strong clauses allowing humanitarian access and exemptions), due to issues such as of “over-compliance,”dual-use,” the fact that sanctioned regime-connected oligarchs own large parts of the economy and so on. Energy sanctions – already in place before Caesar – are particularly problematic: oil and gas are used in military repression, but also civilian transport and heating of homes. This is a delicate political and ethical issue. There is also a range of views among anti-Assad civil society in regions outside regime control.

Sanctions have a bad record of battering civilians, while elites connected to sanctioned regimes are best-placed to sanctions-bust and live well, even profit, from them. Moreover, there is a rich literature showing that economic sanctions rarely change regime behaviour, let alone lead to regime change. Far from suffering leading the masses to revolt, the everyday struggle for survival takes precedence. Further, by being able to point to foreign sanctions, the regime can attempt to get itself off the hook, even though in reality its massive destruction of civilian infrastructure over a decade is the main cause of civilian suffering, while the recent collapse of the Lebanese banking system was also a major hit to the Syrian economy.

But really, this is a different discussion. Because whether one views the sanctions in a more positive or more negative light, support for them in the US is bipartisan; Trump versus Biden is irrelevant. Far from being “Trump sanctions,” these sanctions, driven by Syrian-American activists, simply took years to get through all the complex processes of US policy making. The act was introduced by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2016 with bipartisan support, and has had bipartisan support at every step through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The fact that it took until December 2019 for Caesar to be finally passed by both houses can in no sense be attributed to Trump.

Where to from here?

With the Caesar sanctions now law, there is no point arguing whether Trump or Biden would be more likely to lift them; both are bound by the law. The law gives the president the power to lift some sanctions if the regime, for example, releases some prisoners, perhaps allowing differing interpretations of the law.

But there is no indication that Biden is likely to be lenient on Caesar. If anything, the re-election of Trump, with his transactional approach, disdain for human rights, ties to regional dictatorships that support Assad, love of Putin and far-right base, would arguably seem more likely to lead to a ‘realpolitik’-type deal leaving the regime intact if Iran is distanced, compared to Biden’s ‘liberal internationalist’ tendencies. Biden’s top foreign policy advisor, Anthony Blinken, stressed that the US would remain in northeast Syria to exert pressure on the regime, and re-engage in the Geneva process, which he accused Trump of leaving to Russia. He also stated that Biden would use re-engagement with Iran “to address broader regional issues, including Syria.”

A western government that actually cared about Syrian people would pursue a strategy focusing more on carrot than stick. Not “carrot” for Assad, but rather, pouring funds into helping people in regions outside regime control build democratic alternative structures, demonstrating to civilians under Assad’s rule that an alternative exists, and providing the means to protect themselves against aerial massacre.  Yet it was Trump that ended the $230 million annual support to civil society in liberated areas, when there were a lot more liberated areas than now.

It is here that Biden perhaps offers the vaguest amount of light, where he promises to “recommit to standing with civil society and pro-democracy partners on the ground” in Syria. If this means a reversal of Trump’s policy, this would be a solid step forward, because only a resurgence of popular struggle offers any way forward in the grim situation.

Of course, neither Trump nor Biden offers much hope for Syrians. But the idea that a thug like Trump might offer just a little better on Syria, in contrast to virtually any other issue in the US or anywhere in the world, has no basis in reality.