Terry Burke: Russiagate, Syria, and the Left

dezaOnce again, years of experience and research have been poured into an article challenging entrenched narratives on the anglophone institutional left, and once again, fear of retaliation from the purveyors of these entrenched narratives has made this challenge unpalatable even to left and liberal publishers with an obvious interest in countering them.

So, once again, the Antidote Writers Collective is pleased to participate in a decentralized effort to bring this challenge out into the open.

The following was initially published on CounterVortex with the understanding that the website’s publisher would be backed up by cross-posts from sympathetic websites in order to reduce the authoritarian left’s ability to target one vulnerable person with their classic arsenal of trolling, threats, abuse, and lawsuits.

Comrade of the zine Terry Burke has been a dedicated peace activist her entire life and has already heard the worst of it even from former comrades who have unthinkingly taken on Putinist narratives and allowed themselves to be played against the emergence of effective opposition to rising fascism in the United States. We salute her years of persistence and are proud to have her back. Enjoy.
Antidote Zine

Russiagate, Syria, and the Left
Terry Burke
CounterVortex
June 27, 2019

The last major national protest in the US was “Families Belong Together” in June 2018. Hundreds of thousands of people across the country demonstrated against the Trump administration’s policy of separating children and families at the border. People who had never protested before brought their families. It’s now a year later and the situation for immigrant families has only gotten worse. Where is the outrage?

Plans for an ICE raid targeting millions of immigrants. Initiating a military strike on Iran and then canceling it. Environmental policies that disregard climate change. Pulling the US out of treaties. Rising alt-right and nationalism around the world. Ignoring congressional subpoenas. Corrupt, incompetent people heading every federal agency. The list of destructive Trump policies seems endless.

Trump’s recent visit to London brought tens of thousands of protesters into the streets. Where are the protests in the US? Where are the coalitions in the US organizing against Trump’s anti-democratic, inhumane policies? Where is the left?

Part of the problem is the enormous amount of disinformation that has been specifically directed at the left, disinformation that most people don’t recognize. The disinfo uses anti-imperialist language and is posted on “left” and “progressive” sites that usually have nominally accurate stories on Palestine, Israel, climate change, corporate corruption, and other progressive issues. In addition to the disinfo media sites, respected left authors have confused their readers by dismissing Russiagate as a hoax, claiming that Russian interference in the US elections has been greatly exaggerated to provide the Democrats an excuse for Clinton’s loss.

Eight years of steady disinformation on Syria have created a split in the peace movement. The enormous amount of time and energy spent debating Syria could have gone to building the peace movement instead of dividing it. The doubts raised repeatedly about Russian interference and Mueller’s investigation have weakened the opposition to Trump. Some people don’t know which news sources they can trust. Others restrict themselves only to sources that support their ideological line.

Steve Bannon famously said, “The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” That is exactly what has happened. There are thousands of new and unaccountable media organizations on the internet.

As Syria solidarity activists, we have been struggling against extensive, sophisticated disinformation regarding Syria for years—and it’s largely not from the US mainstream media. Syria is not Iraq, where the New York Times helped Bush lead us into war with fake information about WMDs. Syria is not Kuwait, where there were false stories planted about babies in incubators.

The mainstream media articles “demonizing” Assad are fundamentally true: his regime is one of the world’s most repressive, with a police and prison torture system of historic proportions. Unlike Iraq and Iran, and contrary to the propaganda claims, the CIA did not instigate a serious covert regime change operation in Syria. The US efforts in Syria are well documented in Shane Bauer’s recent two-part article for Mother Jones. He writes, “American involvement in Syria has been as fragmented and volatile as the conflict itself.” In this groundbreaking article, he documents how the US has spent billions, initially aiding the Free Syrian Army, but ultimately focused on combating ISIS, forbidding US-backed groups from fighting Assad’s forces.

His article corroborates the stories of anti-Assad Syrians of a genuine uprising against a brutal dictator evolving into a proxy war; of Assad bombing and starving civilians. The Syrian people were caught up in the fervor of the Arab Spring and surprised themselves (and the CIA) by going to the streets in the hundreds of thousands, demonstrating for democracy, overcoming their deep fears of reprisal.

However, most of the peace movement still doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the Syrian people’s eight-year struggle against the Assad dictatorship. There have been so many articles in “progressive” media promoting Assad’s narrative of another US regime change effort that they have buried the voices of Syrians.

The voices of Syrian communists, anarchists, democracy activists, writers, artists, intellectuals, and nonviolence activists have rarely been represented in “progressive” media. The majority of these media’s articles on Syria have been written by non-Syrians and they usually promote Assad’s line that he is protecting his sovereign country from US-backed terrorists.

Research from the University of Washington has shown how dominant the pro-Assad political messaging is from an “echo system” of sites that follow Russian, Iranian, and Syrian government-funded media. Researchers examined Twitter conversations about the White Helmets (a Syrian volunteer rescue group) in the summer of 2017. There were four times as many tweets from the echo system as there were from other media sources. Articles from the echo system claimed the White Helmets were a “propaganda construct,” “crisis actors” who staged events, and “they worked with or were themselves terrorists.”

The UW study noted that this echo system of sites claiming to be “independent” and “alternative” shared the same stories and writers. A few of these sites are Global ResearchRTMint Press NewsSputnik NewsFree Thought ProjectThe Anti-Media21st Century WireVeterans TodayZero Hedge, and many others.

For Syria activists, the UW research wasn’t a surprise. It confirmed our experiences over the last six years, that our struggle to get the truth out was up against a substantial, coordinated disinformation effort. We were familiar with this “echo-system” well before the UW study. While they claim to be “independent,” their political line was almost always the same on Syria, Crimea, Putin, and Trump. They played a role in electing Trump by bashing Clinton, equating Clinton and Trump, going easy on Trump, and disparaging voting.

While the sites claim to be funded by their readers and ads, they actually have very few ads and do not disclose information on their funding sources. In 2013, a former writer at Mint Press News, Joey LeMay, told BuzzFeed News, “It was incredibly secretive.” The article goes on to say there were “barely any ads on the website, and whenever LeMay asked about where they got their money, ‘it was brushed off as a non-issue. I would go home feeling not squeaky clean,’ he said.”

The sites in this echo system have all also posted numerous Russiagate articles. It’s understandable that progressives would question how extensive and effective Russian propaganda was in the 2016 elections. The mainstream media hasn’t examined Russian propaganda that targets the left. The UW research has not been mentioned in mainstream or progressive media. But it’s not an either/or proposition: we can criticize Clinton’s campaign and still acknowledge that Russian interference helped Trump win in an election where Clinton won the popular vote by a substantial margin.

The claim that a few Facebook ads bought with Russian rubles could have influenced the 2016 election may have seemed preposterous back in 2016. However, since then, there have been numerous exposés of Russia’s sophisticated use of social media and information warfare—something we had thought was mainly the province of our CIA.

While Russian disinformation is a new concern for Americans, not so for Europeans. In June 2017 the Washington Post reported that “across the [European] continent, counterintelligence officials, legislators, researchers, and journalists have devoted years—in some cases, decades—to the development of ways to counter Russian disinformation, hacking and trolling.” There have been numerous articles on how Swedenthe Baltic statesFinlandGermany, France, Italy, and others are dealing with Russian cyber attempts to influence elections and sway popular opinion.

When well-known left writers like Glenn GreenwaldMatt TaibbiKatrina vanden HeuvelNorman Solomon, and Max Blumenthal immediately denounced the evidence of Russian interference back in 2016, it had a silencing effect. After that, few well-known left writers pursued the serious possibility of effective Russian involvement. In the two and a half years since Trump’s election, there have continued to be new articles and research on Russian bots, trolls, Twitter campaigns, fake accounts, and continued Russian interference in the EU, but the Russiagate authors have ignored this information. Dark Money author Jane Mayer has also written on how Russia helped elect Trump.

After the release of the highly biased Barr summary which seemed to vindicate them, Chris HedgesGlenn GreenwaldStephen CohenMatt TaibbiAaron MatePaul Street in Counterpunch, and Katie Halper from FAIR castigated the US press for its extensive coverage of the Russia/Trump allegations.

However, they wrote nothing revising their Russiagate-is-a-hoax position after the subsequent release of the redacted Mueller report in April and Mueller’s public statement in May. The Mueller report explicitly documents extensive Russian interference in the 2016 elections, but they have refused to acknowledge this.

Greenwald wrote on April 18 that “the actions in which Trump engaged were simply not enough for Mueller to conclude that he was guilty of criminal obstruction.” After Mueller clearly stated on May 29 that he would not exonerate the president for obstruction of justice, Greenwald wrote a series of articles on Brazil and wrote nothing to correct his earlier misstatements about obstruction.

It is critical to understand that the Russiagate narrative is Trump’s narrative. By insisting for over two years that Russian interference was overblown, these authors have been defending the worst president in US history.

The UW-identified echo system of “alternative” media sites has also had numerous articles promoting Russiagate skepticism and Barr’s disingenuous summary of the Mueller Report. Global ResearchMint Press NewsFree Thought ProjectThe Anti-MediaZero Hedge21st Century WireActivist Post, and others have also continued to argue for the Russiagate conspiracy thesis, despite Mueller’s statement and all the information on Russian cyberwarfare.

Even Fox News occasionally departs from supporting Trump’s position on Russian interference, as summed up in a May 2019 Newsweek headline: “Fox News Legal Analyst Says Mueller Evidence Against Trump ‘Remarkably Similar’ to Nixon, Clinton Impeachment Charges.” But the left’s Russiagate skeptics have not conceded anything. Stephen Cohen recently wrote that Russiagate “is the worst and […] the most fraudulent political scandal in American history.”

The echo system and the Russiagate authors have published very little criticism of Putin’s Russia. They have many articles criticizing the US mainstream media, the corporate ownership of US media, “censorship” by Facebook and YouTube, but nothing on the new law in Russia whereby people can be jailed for fifteen days for “disrespecting” the Russian government online. An open internet in the US means there are thousands of sites with articles criticizing the US, but even one site with critical articles in Russia could result in fines and jail time. The difference is dramatic, and there have been no articles from the Russiagate skeptics on this oppressive law.

It’s rarely mentioned that Hedges has had a weekly show on RT (formerly Russia Today) since June 2016, which is funded by the Russian government. He’s scathing in his criticism of the US, but it’s hard to find his criticisms of Russia. After the Barr summary, he chastised the US press for “one of the most shameful periods in modern American journalism” and somehow never mentions the Russian restrictions on “disrespecting” the Russian government online.

Rania Khalek is also paid by the Russian government. Her site In the Now is one of three that were recently exposed as being owned by RT. Facebook briefly took them down until a small mention of RT’s involvement was placed on the page – a mention most people will never notice.

It is difficult to determine the motivation of the Russiagate writers and the echo system. Kate Starbird at the University of Washington writes about the echo system that “[their] efforts […] consist of diverse individuals and organizations who are driven by a variety of different motivations (including political, financial, and ideological).”

There is a certain amount of hyperbole to the Russiagate articles. The investigation is blamed for “Manufacturing War with Russia,” for “Endangering American Security,” for “Media Malpractice,” for being “This Generation’s WMD,” for “Target[ing] Any Dissent in US,” and so forth. When examining these authors’ lists of articles, one would prefer they had spent as much analysis on the dangers of a Trump presidency as they have spent on promoting their Russiagate thesis.

Stephen Cohen talks about the origins of the allegation that Trump was an agent of the Kremlin. Was it “begun somewhere high up in America by people who didn’t want a pro-détente president?” He suggests that “this originated with Brennan and the CIA.” It is all speculation, with no corroborating evidence.

For a starkly different perspective, consult authoritarianism scholars Sarah Kendzior or Timothy Snyder’s interviews, writings, and videos for detailed documentation of Trump’s dealings with Russia. They have been warning for the last three years about the dangers of the US sliding into autocracy under Trump. They have researched Trump’s ties to Russia in the decades before the 2016 elections and have tried to warn us about what is coming.

Contrast Cohen’s speculation with Snyder’s detailed factual information. Snyder is a Yale historian who wrote The Road to Unfreedom about Russia’s return to an authoritarian government under Putin and the rise of nationalism in Europe and America. He has put together a series of videos to explain what is happening here and internationally. In a concise Twitter thread, he documents fifty very specific reasons (with citations) why Trump owes a debt to Putin. He discusses the people in Trump’s campaign and in the Trump administration: “It is astounding how many of them are more directly connected to the Russian Federation than to the US.”

Kendzior lived in Uzbekistan during its transition from democracy to autocratic rule. When she started covering the Trump campaign in 2016, it reminded her of what she’d seen from the regime in Uzbekistan. Her website and podcast Gaslit Nation, which she presents together with journalist Andrea Chalupa, is an unparalleled source of information about Trump and his Russian connections and crimes. Kendzior and Chalupa advocate impeachment hearings so that the rest of the country can learn about these crimes.

Snyder and Kendzior have no doubts about the Trump-Russia collusion. There are other independent authors and researchers who are documenting and exposing what’s happening. Even without the Mueller report, there is an enormous amount of public information about Trump’s ties to the Kremlin, Russian interference, and the loss of our democracy.

When Syria solidarity activists first read the November 2016 Washington Post article about Russian propaganda influencing the 2016 elections, we were relieved. Finally, the Russian propaganda we had struggled against for years was being exposed! We assumed the propaganda on Syria would also be exposed. We thought the propaganda sites on the internet would be discredited.

We didn’t anticipate that prominent left writers would immediately denounce the Russian propaganda story as the “new McCarthyism” and Russiagate and that they would still be defending this narrative two and a half years later, in the face of so much evidence.

We didn’t understand how difficult it would be for the techies at Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to discern propaganda from the truth and how clumsy they would be in taking down sites, usually with almost no explanation, and occasionally taking down legitimate sites at the same time.

From our viewpoint as Syria solidarity activists, we are still in the same position now as we were in November 2016. Disinformation still dominates the internet. Syrian and Russian planes have been bombing civilians in Idlib for the last month, initially bombing twenty-five hospitals. While Physicians for Human Rights and Amnesty International have condemned the strikes on hospitals, sounding the alarm, there is no international pressure on Russia and Syria to end them. The echo system of media sites is distracting the left with disinformation about Assad’s 2018 chemical attack on civilians in Douma being supposedly “staged” by the rebels.

The persistent Russiagate articles from prominent left writers have many progressives feeling unsure what to believe. It has put us in the strange position of claiming that a former FBI director is more trustworthy than Chris Hedges or Stephen Cohen. But there is much more information validating what Mueller has reported than there is for the Russiagate skeptics and Trump.

There is no easy solution to the problem of massive disinformation on the internet. Certainly, we should be listening to the voices of progressive Syrians, Venezuelans, Palestinians, Ukrainians, Sudanese, not media pages that follow Putin’s line. Information about who is funding web pages would be one step towards transparency. Independent university research labs could evaluate the accuracy of media sites.

Another voice we should be listening to now is the authoritarianism scholar based in St. Louis. Sarah Kendzior says the Trump administration is a transnational crime syndicate masquerading as a government and he should be impeached. It’s time for us to be in the streets.

Terry Burke is an activist with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria (CISPOS) in Minneapolis. Thanks to Comrade Ed Sutton and Antidote Zine for the heads-up. The article has been edited slightly to meet this website’s unwritten standards. Photograph by the Russian Reader, December 15, 2018, Ligovsky Prospect, Petersburg. In Russian slang, the word deza means “disinformation.”

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Syria Is Only Three Syllables

It is pointless to say anything more about the near-total non-reaction of Russians to their government’s ruthless, quasi-genocidal bombing campaign against civilians in Syria, but I will say one last thing before giving up the subject entirely on this blog. It is important for eyewitnesses to important historical events to write down what they saw, heard, and read. Otherwise, decades from now, posterity might be reading about a nonexistent “Russian anti-war movement” during the Putin era.

Anything is possible in our fallen world.

Like Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, and Central Asians, Syrians are viewed as civilizational subhumans by Russians, as “natural-born terrorists” who deserve to be destroyed, as they would put it in the blunt lingo of Russian TV propagandists.

Educated Russians feel solidarity only towards a very limited segment of other Russians and northern Europeans, and even then only under extraordinarily limited circumstances, as witnessed by the self-love and virtue-flagging festival currently underway on the Runet.

The whole point of it is not to save the life of an investigative journalist framed by the police on drugs charges but to show to themselves (and the world) they can “fight back” against their corrupt government, that they are not as bad as they imagine themselves to be and, in fact, really are.

Indeed, Russians can fight back, as has been proven hundreds of times during the last twenty years. But this has been proven not by today’s virtue-flaggers, but by other Russians, Russians who have been fighting for their lives, livelihoods, natural and urban environments, workplaces, you name it. They live in the twenty-first century, too, and so they also have made use of the internet as needed for their campaigns, but their campaigns have had real objectives, and the militants in these campaigns have often been less bashful in their methods.

Look up, for example, anything you can find about the grassroots movement against plans to mine copper and nickel in Voronezh Region, which reached a crescendo four or five years ago. One of the leaders of that protest was an “ordinary” woman who worked at the local produce market. She virtually commanded battalions of other locals, including local Cossacks, in a knock-down, drag-out fight against mining companies and police.

Not surprisingly, these skirmishes have generally garnered much less attention in Russian society at large, the Russian press, and the international press.

It has been easier for all those groups to imagine the Russian provinces as “Putin’s base,” as a wasteland filled with aggressive vatniki, as they are derogatorily called. (The reference is to the humble gray quilted jacket favored, allegedly, by regime-loving proles in Russia’s regions.)

I have spent at least a third of my time on this blog and its predecessor trying to show this is not the case. It is a thankless and nearly pointless business, however, because it is not trendy to care about hicks in the sticks anymore anywhere, so almost no one reads these dispatches.

Putin’s real power bases are and always have Moscow and Petersburg, but you would never know that from the cool spin residents of the “capitals” put on every gesture in the direction of protest they make, even when they are not really protesting anything at all. If anyone has benefited from Putin’s promises of stability and prosperity, it is them, not the hicks in the sticks. But none of this has led to a “bourgeois revolution,” as some were expecting. Quite the opposite has happened.

Of course, there are activists and grassroots politicians in the capitals who are every bit as smart, fierce, and savvy as their counterparts in the provinces, but they do not outnumber them, despite what certain large-scale, protests in the recent past might have suggested.

So, what is up now? Sooner or later, every ambitious Russian with a social media profile and any sights on the west realizes it is not great to look like too much of a conformist. It is okay for Putin to kill Syrian babies by the truckload. Or, rather, it is not okay, but you are only asking for trouble if you protest something a) no one else is protesting, and b) that looks to be really important to the powers that be, so important they would squash you like you a fly if you made a peep about it.

The grassroots “Free Golunov!” campaign is perfect for anyone who wants to pad out their protest resume because a) everyone is protesting it, and b) the real powers that be probably do not care so much about prosecuting Golunov to the full extent of their lawlessness.

At his next public appearance, Putin could well be asked about the case by reporters. If he is asked, I would not be surprised if he said it was a bloody mess that shows how much work needs to be done before Russian law enforcement has been thoroughly purged of corruption.

Heads would then roll, and Golunov would be released as a gesture to the Russian moral one percent’s “yearning for justice.”

People with shaky protest resumes—meaning nearly every member of the intelligentsia in the capitals and major cities—want to jump on a bandwagon that has half a chance of making it to its destination, not light out for the territory with no chance of winning.

On the other hand, the Kremlin could neutralize these virtue-flaggers for good by throwing the book at Golunov, despite the overwhelming evidence he is innocent, and sending him down for fifteen years.

In reality, this sort of thing happens all the time. It happens routinely to “politicals” and ordinary blokes, to businessmen and Central Asian migrant workers, etc. But no one bothers to go ballistic when these people are framed by the wildly unscrupulous Russian police and security services because a) everyone leads really busy lives, and b) these victims of Russian legal nihilism do not have reporters and editors going to bat for them and publishing their names in big letters on the front pages of their newspapers.

What will “rank-and-file” protesters do if, despite their extraordinary efforts, Golunov is sent to prison for a crime he did not do? What will become of their “movement”? Will they up their game? Will they embrace more radical methods to free their beloved here.

Their movement will evaporate in seconds. We will never hear or see any political statements from most of these people ever again because if they can live peaceably with everything done by the Putin regime at home and abroad in their name over the last twenty years except this one thing, they can go on swallowing or, really, ignoring a double and even triple portion of the more of the same until Putin finally keels over thirty or so years from now.

Or they will leave the country. It is not as if they actually give a flying fuck about it. If they did, I would have written a very different outburst than this one. I would have written it a long time ago, in fact. || THE RUSSIAN READER

idlibThe bombing of Idlib is stirring memories of Guernica, as portrayed by Picasso. Photo by Abdulaziz Ketaz. Courtesy of AFP, Getty Images, and the Sunday Times

Syria: Russians refine slaughter in Idlib
Observers say Moscow is using the Syrian province as a kind of Guernica, while casting innocent victims as terrorists
Louise Callaghan
The Sunday Times
June 9, 2019

The fighter jet screamed over the town at about 8.30am, while the family was still asleep in the cool morning air. Mahmoud Ali Alsheikh, his wife and their three children were shaken awake by the first bomb.

Ahmad, the youngest, was 10 months old. His father held him as the second bomb exploded further down their street. His mother, Fatma, 29, held her hands over his ears. Nour and Salah, 8 and 7, crouched next to them.

The next bomb hit the house. Shrapnel ripped into Ahmad’s stomach, killing him. “I was trying to protect him,” said his father, a sweet-maker.

Ahmad was just one victim of Russia’s bombing campaign in Idlib, a rural province in northern Syria where a renewed assault by pro-regime forces has killed at least 347 civilians since the end of April, according to local doctors with the aid group Uossm. Twenty-five medical facilities have been bombed, many of them far from the front lines.

It is a horrifying escalation in a conflict in which Moscow and Damascus have an overwhelming military advantage as the eight-year-old civil war winds down. Analysts suspect that Russia, which has bragged about testing more than 200 new weapons in Syria, is cynically using Idlib to refine the bombing techniques it has developed during the conflict.

“Idlib for the Russians now could be what Guernica was for the Germans ahead of the Second World War. It’s a conflict in which they tested all of their techniques, rolled out their new doctrine,” said James Le Mesurier, a former British Army officer who founded the organization that trains and supports the White Helmets rescue group.

The Nazis’ use of the Spanish town of Guernica for bombing practice in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War allowed them to break new ground in the mass killing of civilians from the air and refine techniques that would later become invaluable to their war machine. The aftermath of the bombing was immortalized in a painting by Pablo Picasso.

For Russia, disinformation techniques have become as vital as military tactics. Moscow and the Syrian regime portray Idlib as a terrorist haven under the control of hardline groups — justifying the bombing campaign on the grounds that they are fighting jihadists.

Russia has put great effort into an online campaign portraying Idlib as a vipers’ nest of terrorists. The truth is more complicated. While groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly an al-Qaeda offshoot, control large swathes of the province, some key towns are held by more moderate rebels.

A rebel counter-attack last week took back several villages from pro-regime forces. But the rebels have no air power.

Mixed in among them — and vulnerable to Russia’s supremacy in the air — are tens of thousands of terrified civilians: both locals and others from across the country who were bused to Idlib when their homes were retaken by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

After ousting rebel forces in much of the country, the regime is now renewing the attack on Idlib, which it has pledged to claw back at all costs.

A ceasefire, negotiated last year in Sochi, the Russian Black Sea resort, is in tatters after an assault by pro-regime forces targeted civilian and rebel targets alike with cluster bombs and barrel bombs. Videos appear to show incendiary weapons being used.

Diplomats say that, for the moment, an all-out military assault on Idlib is unlikely. The aim of the bombing campaign is to wear away at the ceasefire, grind down the rebels and force Turkey — which maintains military observation points in Idlib and backs some opposition groups — to agree to a handover of the province to the regime.

“A full-on assault is not imminent. But I do think the option will be kept on the table so that people can use that as a way of increasing influence,” said a senior western diplomat working on Syria.

Turkey, which is one of the guarantors of the ceasefire, has been outwardly maintaining a balanced relationship with Moscow, even as it reportedly funnels weapons to opposition groups in Idlib.

The Turkish border with Idlib is closed to the tens of thousands of civilians who have fled to it in search of safety. Last week residents told The Sunday Times that entire villages in Idlib’s interior were deserted, and displaced people were camping out in olive groves near the border without food or water.

Among them were the surviving members of Ahmad’s family.

“I don’t know what will happen but I hope the regime won’t advance because they will kill and arrest everyone,” said his father, who was badly injured in the airstrike that killed the baby. “The Assad regime is targeting our town all the time.”

He said his home town, Kafranbel — which used to be famous for its figs and is about 30 miles from the Turkish border — is not controlled by jihadists but by remnants of the Free Syrian Army.

Other locals and analysts confirmed this. But for Russia and the Syrian regime, rebels, jihadists and civilians alike are regarded as terrorists.

“Since the beginning, the Russians, Iran, Assad regime and Hezbollah are saying that,” he said. “Because their military policy is burning and killing everyone who lives in the opposition areas.”

Using Russian state-funded broadcasters and websites, Moscow has muddied the waters of the Syrian conflict by attempting to push the narrative that anyone who is against Assad is a terrorist, and that no news from opposition-held areas can be trusted.

Its disinformation campaign particularly targets the White Helmets, portraying its members as jihadists who stage their work. Slick video content, purporting to show the White Helmets faking chemical attacks by the regime, is often presented as impartial news and shared across the world.

Last month a Syrian government television channel took this technique a step further in a “fake news” comedy sketch that lampooned the White Helmets. A glamorous actress portrayed a crying woman as “White Helmets” staged a fake rescue mission. She later apologized for causing offense but made clear she still believed that attacks and rescues were often faked by the White Helmets.

Impartial observers, who credit the White Helmets with saving many lives and drawing attention to the regime’s atrocities, say there has been no proof that they have faked anything.

Additional reporting: Mahmoud al-Basha

Thanks to Pete Klosterman and the Facebook public group Free Syria for the heads-up. {TRR}

Marrying the Mob

DSCN1068

On Facebook, I regularly push stories about Syria and, especially, Russia’s criminally disastrous involvement there. Unfortunately, it has had no visible effect on any of my Russian Facebook friends with one exception.

I should thank Allah for that many “converts.”

In international politics, marriages of convenience among dictators and wannabe dictators always lead to mayhem and unintended fallout for the innocent bystanders in their immediate vicinity.

Let us pretend, for the sake of argument, that Trump and his campaign really did not collude with Putin and other Russian government officials to sway the 2016 US presidential election.

Even if that were the case, Trump’s overweening admiration for Putin’s style of bad governance has still had catastrophic effects on the country he is supposed to be leading

For someone like me who is all too familiar with the bag of tricks known, maybe somewhat inaccurately, as Putinism, it has been obvious Trump wants to steer the US in a quasi-Putinist direction.

While the republic, its states, and the other branches of government can mount a mighty resistance by virtue of the power vested in them, Trump can still cause lots of damage as an “imperial” president, even if he is booted out of the White House two years from now.

Likewise, Russians can imagine there is a far cry between living in a country whose cities are besieged and bombed by the country’s dictator, and what Putin has been doing in Syria. What he has been doing, they might imagine, mostly stays in Syria, except for Russian servicemen killed in action there, whose names and numbers are kept secret from the Russian public.

In reality, it is clear that the Kremlin’s neo-imperialist turn in Ukraine, Syria, etc., has made the regime far more belligerent to dissidents, outliers, weirdos, “extremists,” and “terrorists” at home.

Over the last five years, more and more Russians have fallen prey to their homegrown police and security services either for what amount to thought crimes (e.g., reposting an anti-Putinist meme on the social network VK or organizing nonexistent “terrorist communities”) or what the Russian constitution does not recognize as a crime at all, such as practicing one’s religion (e.g., Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses do)

Putin has adopted an Assadist mindset, therefore. He, his cronies, and the ever-expanding Russian security services, whose mission is making the paranoia of their superiors come true by meeting quotas of harassed, interrogated, arrested, tortured, jailed and convicted “extremists” per quarter, have come to imagine the only way to avoid the mess in which Assad found himself is to hammer anyone in Russia who sticks their necks out too far, whether intentionally or not, that everyone else will get the clue dissent and even plain difference come with a heavy price tag and reduce theirs to an invisible minimum.

Things were not exactly peachy during the first years of the Putin regime, but they became a hell of a lot worse after the Kremlin invaded Ukraine and went flying off to Syria to save Assad’s bacon from the fire of popular revolution.

As long as Russia remains entrenched in those places, there can be no question of progress on the home front, especially when the vast majority of Russians pretend very hard not to know anything about Syria and their country’s involvement there, and have grown accustomed to the Ukrainian muddle, meaning they mostly avoid thinking about what has really been happening in Eastern Ukraine, too. {TRR}

Thanks to the fabulous Sheen Gleeson for the first link. Photo by the Russian Reader

Postage Stamps and Gunpowder: Syria and the Russian Economy

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Postage Stamps and Gunpowder: How Important Is Syria to the Russian Economy?
The Kremlin has been trying—unconvincingly—to repackage its military campaign in this devastated country as a long-term investment project. 
Yevgeny Karasyuk
Republic
February 27, 2019

The economy was probably the last thing on the Kremlin’s mind when it decided to get involved in a civil war in the heart of the Arab world. But now that Russian military forces have been in the region for several years, the Kremlin has been increasingly trying to spin its support for Bashar Assad’s regime as a sound investment, a contribution to a prosperous trading future between the two countries.

Russia has claimed it is willing to export to Syria anything it can offer in addition to weapons, from wheat to know-how for preventing extremism on the internet. Along with Iran, the country has big plans for taking part in the postwar restoration of Syrian cities and Syrian industry, including the energy sector. Russia’s governors speak touchingly of their readiness to go to Damascus at the drop of a hat to negotiate with the Syrian government.

“When the talk turns to Syria, I immediately catch myself thinking I need these meetings,  I need to see those people again and again, and I need to be useful,” Natalya Komarova, head of the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District said at the Russian Investment Forum in Sochi two weeks ago.

The expenses Russia has incurred during the Syrian campaign are shrouded in mystery. Analysts at IHS Jane’s calculated in October 2015 that Russia could have been spending as much as $4 million a day.  In July 2017, the opposition Yabloko Democratic Party published its estimate of the overall bill: as much as 140 billion rubles [approx. 1.87 billion euros], but this total did not include associated costs, including humanitarian aid. In 2017, according to RANEPA, 84% of Russia’s official total of disbursed humanitarian aid ($19.6 million) went to Syria. What kind of economic cooperation could justify such figures?

It would be pointless even to try and find an answer in recent trade trends between the two countries. Its volumes are negligible. During the first nine months of 2018, Syria’s share of Russia’s exports was 0.09%, while Syria accounted for 0.002% of imports to Russia during the same period. This has always been more or less the case.

trade

“Trends in Russia’s trade with Syria (in billions of US dollars).” The pale violet line indicates Russia’s exports to Syria, while the blue line indicates Russia’s imports from Syria. The data for 2018 is only for the first nine months of the year. Source: Russian Federal Customs Service. Diagram courtesy of Republic

The largest transaction in the history of the economic partnership between the two countries was Moscow’s cancellation of $9.8 billion dollars in debt, 73% of what Syria had owed the Soviet Union. At the end of the 2005 meeting at which this matter was decided, Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin also spoke publicly of the idea of establishing a free trade zone. Subsequently forgotten, the undertaking was mere camouflage for the political bargain reached by the two men, which was and remains support for the Syrian dictator’s regime in exchange for the dubious dividends the Kremlin has received by increasing its influence in the region. It is believed Russian strategic bomber saved Assad, who had already been written off by the west. But explanations of what Russia has ultimately won for its efforts and what its economic strategy might look like have been more muddled and contradictory than before.

In an October 2018 interview with Euronews, Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov avoided directly answering a question about joint economic projects. During his tenure as head of the Russian Export Center, Pyotr Fradkov (not to be confused with his father former PM Mikhail Fradkov, the current head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service or SVR) talked about Russia’s potential involvement in developing the “high-tech segments of Syria’s economy.” A month ago, however, the selfsame Russian Export Center placed Syria at the bottom of its ranking of 189 countries in terms of their favorability for foreign trade.

The Syrian economy, in turn, can currently offer Russia even less. Mainly, its exports boil down to fruit, but in such small and unstable quantities that they cannot seriously compete with deliveries from Turkey. Russia has been promised priority access to the development of natural resource deposits in Syria, which are teeming with oil, natural gas, and phosphates. But the smoldering war and the lack of security guarantees for investments have hampered implementing these plans.

Russian experts pin their hopes on the surviving remnants of industry in the government-controlled areas of Latakia, Tartus, and Damascus. Based on the fact that “the level of production that survived has enabled Assad to almost fully provide himself [sic] with food during five years of war,” Grigory Lukyanov, a political scientist at the Higher School of Economics has concluded the Syrian government “depends on a well-developed business community.”

Syria, however, seemed like a nightmare for investors well before the country was turned into an open wound. “Only a crazy person would go into Syria at his own behest,” Vedomosti quoted a source at a major company that was involved in negotiations with the Syrian government in the summer of 2012. Suffering from international sanctions, Syria proposed that Russian companies take part in construction of a thermoelectric power station in Aleppo. Four years later, one of Syria’s largest cities had been turned into ruins by heavy bombardment.

The Rothschilds [sic], who made fortunes on wars, thought the best time to invest was when blood was flowing in the streets. Their approach might seem to resemble the Kremlin’s strategy. But let’s not kid ourselves: unlike the famed financiers, President Putin is completely devoid of insight when it comes to the economic consequences of his military escapades. Business plans are not his strong suit.

Photo courtesy of Mikhail Klementyev/AP and the Washington Post. Translated by the Russian Reader

Life During Wartime

DSCN5429.jpgRussians at war

 1.
“There’s really no place for self-righteousness in war.”
—Lord Richards, BBC Radio 4, Today, 14 April 2018

Lord Richards said this by way of arguing everyone should give up, permit the butcher Assad to win his genocidal war, and “let the Syrian people [?] get down to the business of rebuilding their country.”

He was immediately followed on the air by a bloke named Frank Gardner, who made the ludicrous claim it was the Russian “intervention” “that prevented Islamic State and the other jihadists from taking Damascus.”

Mr. Gardner was immediately followed on the air by yet another bloke, an MP of some sort, who was just as defeatist, but somehow, unaccountably, thought the “people responsible” for war crimes in Syria “would be held to account.”

Mr. Gardner and the MP was followed by an American teenage girl, apparently a  former member of the Obama administration, who absolved the second coming of MLK, Jr., of all responsibility for the bloodbath.

As if this were not bad enough, the teenage American girl was immediately followed on the air by Sebastian Gorka. Oddly enough, his comments were the most reasonable.

They were immediately followed on the air by the ridiculously ubiquitous Anne Applebaum and another bloke with a posh accent (David Stevenson), who didn’t “want to see an all-out war.”

This entire clown circus was preceded by a nice little chat with a “former” Russian general, whose only purpose was to tell the radio audience, “If you so much as scratch one of our buys, you’ll have all-out war.” (I am paraphrasing.)

All of this was camouflaged by an alleged concern for the “people of Syria,” and yet not a single actual Syrian voice was heard all morning.

What disgusting white freaks.

DSCN5424Russians at war

2.
Predictably, various so-called leftists on my Facebook news feed are in high dudgeon today over the milquetoast missile strikes on a few Syrian military facilities carried out overnight by France, Britain, and the US.

These very same people, some of whom are Russian nationals, have had absolutely nothing to say about Russia’s critical intervention in Syria on the side of the country’s war criminal dictator Bashar Assad for the last two and a half years.

How does that work? Russia gets a free pass because it is . . . what? Building socialism in Syria? On the right side of the conflict? Has been suffering so much since the collapse of the Soviet Union that it has the right to bomb whole cities into rubble and occupy neighboring countries without provocation?

No, Russia gets a free pass, especially from Russian leftists, because 99.9999% of the Russian populace knows quite well that their own homegrown dictator, Vladimir Putin, has certain pet projects that are off limits to criticism and protest.

Destroying Syria is one of those pet projects.

So, they are simply too scared to criticize Russia’s absolutely criminal actions against Syrian citizens in Syria, i.e., against people who have never, so far as I know, harmed any Russians at all, especially not in Russia itself.

Hence, when the so-called west makes a feeble, almost laughable gesture to oppose the Assadist-Putinist-Iranian-Hezbollah massacre in Syria, these Russian and Russophile leftists awake from their usual slumber, happily quoting Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn and other great advocates of “peace in our time.”

It never occurs to any of them, apparently, that this is an absolutely demoralizing, pointless, and impossible stance on the matter. They are leftists who unconditionally support fascists and imperialists, and who support other, world-famous leftists who unconditionally support fascists and imperialists. They are thus leading the international leftist movement down the garden path either to utter destruction or utter irrelevance.

Sanders and Corbyn are dangerous clowns. If you don’t get that, you might not be as politically savvy or as leftist as you imagined you were.

At least, if you feel strongly about the issue, make your own arguments as to why it is okay for Putin, Assad, Iran, and the Hezbollah to slaughter Syrians at will, while it is a crime against humanity to toss a few missiles once a year at a few Syrian military bases and chemical warfare production facilities that were given a week’s notice and thus had happily been evacuated long before the missiles actually struck them.

But, no, amazingly enough, pro-Assadist and pro-Putinist leftists almost never make their own arguments, instead cowering behind the drivel spouted by the likes of Corbyn, Sanders, and Tariq Ali.

DSCN5422.jpgRussians at war

3.
Why would any “progressive” or “anti-authoritarian” leftist in their right mind refuse solidarity to the nine Penza and Petersburg antifacists caught up in an insane frame-up, engineered by the folks at Vladimir Putin’s old stomping grounds, the Russian Federal Security Service (the FSB, formerly known as the KGB), who have accused them of being members of a wholly fictional “terrorist community,” codenamed The Network, and charged them accordingly?

I ask this seemingly nonsensical question because, as I was thinking about the kneejerk reaction of various “anti-imperialists,” Russian leftists, and Russophile leftists to last night’s missile strikes in Syria, it suddenly occurred to me this same mob of righteous Marxists has been as nearly as quiet about the so-called Penza-Petersburg “terrorism” case as it has been about the Kremlin’s war against Syrian civilians and anti-Assad forces in Syria.

Why should that be? What is the connection between these seemingly unrelated events?

The answer is simple. If you pay too much attention to the Penza-Petersburg case and its gory details, you will realize all too quickly that Russia is ruled by a fascist clique of power-hungry ex-KGB lunatics who have somehow persuaded themselves that their greed, corruption, and ultraviolence are a supreme form of patriotism, not an utter degradation of any reasonable notion of governance, justice, and balanced international relations.

Thus, leftists who only get exercised over Syria when the so-called west makes a tiny, milquetoast, one-off gesture of resistance to the Putinist-Assadist-Iranian-Hezbollah killing machine are reluctant to talk too much about the horrifying Penza-Petersburg “terrorism” case and many other similar cases that never make the headlines around the world, since they would reveal too palpably and obviously the natural affinities between Assad and Putin, two dyed-in-the-wool fascists who believe all resistance and opposition to their perpetual regimes is illegitimate, “extremist,” “terrorism,” etc.

If you are an “anti-authoritarian” or “progressive” leftist, however, it will not do to admit you stand for the same things as Putin and Assad cherish, so you just gloss over their crimes before and during the Syrian revolution, and hope no one will notice what violent criminal thugs they have been from day one, and how their violence and thuggery have only been spreading like wildfireacross their own countries and all around the world ever since they came to power.

DSCN5326.jpgRussians at war

4.
God forbid the Russian people should rise up against their own dictator, Vladimir Putin, and the Chinese, Iranians and Hezbollah, say, rushed to help the Russian dictator put down the uprising. Not only would it be extremely humiliating were Chinese warplanes to bomb ancient Russian cities such as Pskov and Vladimir, were terrorists from Hezbollah and Iranian fundamentalists to murder innocent Russian children, women and men, but the whole world would remember how once upon a time not so long ago the Russians themselves helped the bloody dictator Bashar Assad gut and slaughter a grassroots revolution in Syria. Everyone would thus turn their backs—unfairly—on the Russians fighting to the death for their freedom and remain silent until their dictator, ably assisted by the Chinese, Iranian and Hezbollah killers, would force one half of the Russian populace to take flight to other countries, while killing and enslaving the other half. // TRR

Photos by the Russian Reader

___________________________

Never Think of It, Never Speak of It

DSCN4763“Enigma.” Photo by the Russian Reader

“In the last two weeks, one thousand and forty-two people, including about a hundred and fifty-six children, have been killed in eastern Ghouta, in what human-rights groups fear is a final, all-out offensive to retake one of the few remaining rebel-held enclaves in the country. Bombings by Syrian and Russian planes have been indiscriminate, killing civilians, levelling homes, and destroying medical facilities. Bashar al-Assad’s regime—with the full support of Vladimir Putin and the Russian military—have flouted calls for a complete ceasefire.”
Rozina Ali, ‘It’s Raining Rockets’: Deadly New Syrian-Russian Assault Kills Hundreds in Eastern Ghouta, New Yorker, March 8, 2018

What I really don’t understand is why there isn’t an enterprising Russian or group of Russians who would set up a WordPress blog or a special page on Facebook or VK where they could post translations of foreign press articles about the war in Syria like the article quoted, above. If the Russian media either wants to ignore what is happening there or constantly lie about it, that does not mean the war should be of no interest to Russians opposed to dropping Russian bombs on non-Russia men, women, children, residential buildings, and hospitals that have never done any harm to any Russian men, women, children, residential buildings, and hospitals, and that never thought of doing them any harm.

At this point, I really just don’t get it. The collective silence in Russia when it comes to the Kremlin’s and the Russian military’s crimes in Syria is on the verge of the pathological.

There is not much to be said for the efficacy and vociferousness of antiwar movements in the US, UK, Australia, and the other countries that sent soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan, but it certainly cannot be said that there have not been a relatively large number of people in those same countries engaged either in some kind of peacemaking or awareness raising about what trouble their leaders and armies have caused there and the enormities they have committed.

It’s practically a cottage industry, for what it’s worth.

In Russia, on the contrary, it is as if Syria exists literally in a parallel universe with no connection whatsoever to Russians and their daily lives.

Never think of it, never speak of it. TRR

If Wishes Were Horses

DSCN4101There is a good chance this ordinary young Russian woman will be middle-aged by the time Putin finally leaves office. Photo by the Russian Reader

“Syria is a shocking, baffling mess. For ordinary Russians, it is a waste of men and money. For a watching world, appalled by scenes of relentless brutality and cruelty in Ghouta, Aleppo, and a thousand other towns and cities, it is Putin’s mess. It’s up to him to fix it.

[…]

“Putin faces a presidential election on 18 March. If Russia were a functioning democracy, not a corrupt oligarchy, he could be out on his ear.”

I want to make one tiny correction to Simon Tisdall’s otherwise fine, correct sentiments, as published on February 25 in the Guardian. Syria means absolutely nothing to “ordinary Russians.” To be more precise, there is absolutely no empirical evidence whatsoever it means anything to them at all.

If it does mean anything, however, it may not mean what Mr. Tisdall would want it to mean, as evidenced by the 30,000 people who turned out in Voronezh on February 8 for Russian fighter pilot Roman Filippov’s funeral.

Except for singular voices like Igor Yakovenko’s, which I have linked to, above, Russian society and its famed intelligentsia have been ear-shatteringly silent about the Kremlin’s predations on behalf of the Syrian butcher Bashar Assad since they kicked off in September 2015. Although there were fairly large demonstrations, especially in Moscow, to protest the Kremlin’s criminal adventures in Ukraine, there has not been a single notable mass protest in Russia against the Kremlin’s war against ordinary, absolutely innocent Syrians.

The only protest against the Syrian massacre in Russia I know of was a picket that occurred somewhere in Moscow during the last two years, witnessed by almostno one, and attended by almost no one. A reader of my Facebook news feed told me he had heard about it or perhaps even attended it himself. He wrote about it to me by way of saying there were, in fact, protests in Russia against the Kremlin’s Syrian horrorshow.

Try not to laugh or cry after you have read the previous paragraph.

We should thus conclude that most “ordinary Russians” do not care a whit about ordinary Syrians and their hellish ordeal. Or they have bought hook, line, and sinker the Kremlin’s stinky lie that it has been targeting only “terrorist groups” in Syria. It’s one or the other. There isn’t a third option, as “ordinary Russians” like to say.

You should know, however, that the Kremlin enacts this same stinky lie (about “combating terrorists”) on the home front, yet only a few more “ordinary Russians” get worked up about it.

So, the problem is not just Putin and Syria, although were there ever an international tribunal on war crimes in Syria, he and his immediate Kremlin underlings and Russia’s top generals would be the only Russians legally liable to prosecution. Just as collective punishment is outlawed by international law, there really is no such thing as collective guilt.

It is equally true, however, that the vast majority of Russia’s 144 million people have been letting Putin and his satraps do as they please for the last eighteen years without so much as a peep.

You can put this down to state propaganda, the Soviet legacy or whatever you like, but it is a frightening, unmovable fact.

For now, the perennially hopeful would counter me, saying that someday, perhaps soon, things will change.

I would like to count myself among their number, but on March 18 Putin will have himself installed as Russia’s president for life de facto.

Why is this? Because Putin knows that, at this dreadful point in Russia’s history, even if he once again, after his new term as president runs out in 2024, handpicked a successor from his inner circle of loyalists to sub for him as president for six years, so he could reinstall himself as president in 2030, just as he once handpicked Dmitry Medvedev to do the same prestidigation act in 2008, that person probably would have to denounce him and his personality cult sheerly for reasons of political expediency, that is, if the “substitute” president wanted a freer hand in shaping his own administration for good or for ill, much as the Stalinist loyalist Krushchev did after Stalin’s death.

After twenty-four years of Putinism, the country would want the “substitute” president to denounce Putin and all his ways as fiercely as a drunkard wants a drink.

It is just too bad it does not have the will or the means to dismantle the Putinist tyranny now. The consequences of six more years of Putinism for Russia and the world will be dreadful. TRR