16 August 2021 **** Front Page

Serious reporting? Gutter journalism?

By Tapani Lausti

Max Blumenthal, The Management of Savagery: How America 's National Security State Fueled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump. Verso 2019.

I was reading this interesting book by Max Blumenthal when coincidentally his name came up in the context of an Open Letter published by a group of Syrian exiles and their supporters. Although his name was not mentioned in the final version of the letter, according to unofficial information he was originally listed as one of many “disreputable” writers who were described as apologists for President Bashar al-Assad.

The Open Letter drew quite a few critical comments. One comment came from Joseph Massad, professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York. According to Massad among the letter's signatories there are many supporters of US or NATO imperialist intervention in Libya or Syria. In the Open Letter they attack opponents of US intervention in Syria, some of whom are investigative journalists who have exposed major deceptions by the mainstream western media and intelligence agencies.

Massad also speculates that in the US, the Biden administration's commitment to Obama-style imperial bombings of Syria may very well be inclined to venture into full-fledged regime change there as well. The recently published letter might have been intended as a preemptive strike against leftist opposition to an intensified US war on Syria

Be that as it may, of course it is normal to disagree with some opinions and findings of journalists and commentators, but to completely dismiss competent journalists' work as totally useless is incomprehensible. Blumenthal, for instance, in this book offers a well-researched analysis of the United States' role in the Middle East and other parts of the world.

America 's destabilizing role

In the Afterword section of the book Blumenthal writes: “Through covert operations and overt invasions America's national security state had destabilized entire regions, from the Levant to North Africa, unleashed a migration crisis of unprecedented proportions onto Europe and spurred an inevitable right-wing backlash that was unravelling the neoliberal consensus they sought to protect.”

Interestingly, the Open Letter states that “America is not central to what has happened in Syria ”, despite what the “deplorable” writers say. Perhaps Blumenthal's book sheds some light to the question.

With Russian air support the Syrian army was able to push back the Islamist insurgents whose foreign support was also dwindling. Blumenthal writes: “President Assad was winning the diplomatic war as well, having extracted an official reversal on March 30 [2017] of Washington's policy from US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who each declared that the United States would no longer seek regime change in Syria.”

This was a dramatic change compared to the US policy a few years back when then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton pressured UN secretary general Kofi Annan and the UN not to negotiate a settlement to the conflict. Assad on his part had accepted Annan's mediation effort. Of course any settlement would have given Assad breathing space but at least it might have had stopped some of the awful violence on both sides. Also, what has disappeared from the narrative is that originally Assad wanted to be part of the Western camp.

Chemical weapons?

So, when the situation was later becoming desperate for the insurgents, they used their final trump card which meant defying the West's “red line”: the use of chemical weapons. The insurgents staged a fake chemical attack forty-eight hours before Western diplomats were going to meet in Brussels to plan reconstruction efforts in Syria. The drama that followed became major international news as Syrian opposition social media channels showed pictures of a supposed chemical attack on rebel-held territory

Another fake aspect of the drama turned out to be the White Helmets. Blumenthal writes: “Immediately, photos emerged in the media of members of the US and UK-funded White Helmets splashing water on writhing children piled on the back of a pickup truck, an unusual procedure for the treatment of sarin victims. Other outlets showed the White Helmets treating victims without gloves, a procedure that would have exposed rescuers to sarin had it indeed been deployed..”

However, American mainstream media was outraged and demanded that President Donald Trump should order bombing of Syria. Indeed, Trump was willing. Blumenthal comments: “Trump's bombing run won high praise from the military humanists who had been behind some of the Obama administration's most catastrophic regime change operations.”

The arguments about chemical attacks and the role of the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have continued until today.

Uprising or revolution?

One subject of controversy is the nature of the 2011 anti-Assad uprising. It has been described as “a creative and vibrant revolutionary culture that planted the seeds for a new democratic society.”

Blumenthal would probably have liked such an outcome but says that the revolt “presented a wide and often contradictory theatre of demands. At protests led by the idealistic, plugged-in youth that typified the Arab Spring, grievances centered on the repression and cronyism of President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle.”

Blumenthal quotes Haytham Manna, a secular progressive voice of the Syrian opposition who described the scene days after the revolt broke out: “The youth's civil resistance is undeterred by ideology – what they want is simply that democracy be consolidated and that the resources of the country be used for the good of its people—without exception, exclusion, marginalization or discrimination.”

Blumenthal notes that in parts of the countryside protests took on a different flavour. There the religiously conservative Sunni population had been worn down by drought and the gradual collapse of the Ba'athist agrarian reform policies.

The question of refugees

Then there is the question of refugees. Five million refugees were forced outside Syria 's borders, a million fled to Europe. Many of them were escaping repression as Assad's forces took revenge on people who had demonstrated against government policies. But Blumenthal notes that not all refugees fled for the same reason. He quotes the research conducted by Max Abrahams from Northeastern University. Abrahams's research team conducted 130 in-depth interviews with Syrian refugees in camps, transit centers and across the migrant route.

Abrahams told Blumental: “The conventional wisdom was that all the refugees were fleeing from Assad. Part of the Western narrative was that the Syrian conflict was a one-sided genocide.”

According to the data that Abrahams's team collected, only 16 percent of refugees held Assad entirely responsible for their flight. The vast majority – 77 percent – blamed both the Syrian government and the foreign-backed armed groups committed to its overthrow. According to Abrahams many people left because they found the overall situation really dangerous and didn't align with any of the warring parties.

Blumenthal adds that another pivotal factor driving the refugee crisis was the crushing sanctions imposed on Syria by the United States and its allies.

Max Blumenthal's journalism has created controversy. Franco-Lebanese academic Gilbert Achcar who led the drive to gather signatories for the Open Letter accuses Blumenthal of being pro-Assad and describes The Grayzone pages as “gutter journalism”. However, reading Blumenthal's book one does not get an impression of him being pro-Assad. In an interview he gave after a visit to Damascus, Blumenthal describes Syria as a police state. His defenders praise his fearlessness and integrity. Andrew Cockburn, a highly respected journalist, describes Blumenthal thus on the book cover: “One of the finest and most intrepid journalists working in America today.”

 

I have collected articles about Syria Here.

 

 

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