FAIR is once again unfair to the Syrian people

Jim Naureckas of an organization called Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, which cares about fairness, and accuracy, in reporting, is curiously convinced that when activists on the ground in Syria say that “None of the areas targeted” by Russia’s bombing campaign “were controlled by IS,” that they are in fact lying. To prove this, Naureckas cites an article from the French wire service AFP, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), an organization FAIR’s own writers concede they would not normally cite as an authoritative source on Syria, indicating that Islamic State militants “shot dead seven men in Rastan.”Months earlier in a place not bombed by Russia.

Aha! The title of the post makes much of this: “No ISISWhere Russia Is Bombing – Except Last Week, When ISIS Was Killing Gay MenThere?” Except, again: There were activists, on the ground, with no apparent incentive to lie, stating quite clearly: “None of the areas targeted” – including “Zafaraneh, Rastan, Talbiseh, Makarmia and Ghanto” – were controlled by IS.

“We have been exposed to a wide range of weapons over the last five years, but what happened today was absolutely the most violent and ferocious, and the most comprehensive in the northern Homs countryside,” a doctor in the town of Rastan told Reuters. Eleven people died, he said, including three children and their dad, when their home was demolished by a Russian ordinance. “It was as if the house never was.”

FAIR doesn’t get around to mentioning such casualties, concerned as it is with proving that the Russians government was telling the truth when it asserted that those it bombed were members of ISIS. It even uses a photo of ISIS executing men accused of homosexuality from another source it would never normally cite, The Daily Mail, to suggest again that the activists are liars – though the photo is from months before, in another city that is not Rastan.

I choose to believe the activists and the doctor who tried to save the lives of those killed as a result of imperialist air power. I choose to believe the article cited by FAIR’s own writer that notes that the “dominant factions in Talbiseh and the nearby town of al-Rastan are tied to the Free Syrian Army,” not the Islamic State. But if FAIR wants to go with SOHR? Sure, let’s go with them. Per Reuters: “While Russia says its raids on Wednesday targeted the Islamic State group, locals in the opposition-held area say the jihadist group has no presence in the region – echoing the assessment of a U.S. official and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.”

Perhaps, in the name of fairness, and accuracy, Naurecakas should amend the post with a devastating correction, as he did one of the last times he wrote about Syria and claimed a regime chemical weapons attack was a false flag. Perhaps, I would suggest, he stop writing about Syria altogether.

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Syria’s rebels are empire’s pawns (except America’s favorite proxy)

Perhaps the most humorous aspect of the latest drivel published by Jacobin in defense of the Syrian regime headed by Bashar al-Assad is the way the “anti-imperialist” author is forced by their own tautological premise to downplay the decisive role that U.S. imperialism has played in defending what appears to be a leftist revolution (with, as always, flaws) currently taking place in Syrian Kurdistan.

It’s understandable, to a degree: as one who also sympathizes with this seemingly left-libertarian project, which the author describes as a “spark of hope to many leftists in the West” – hope that is “not misplaced” – I too have been challenged by the fact that were it not for an extensive air campaign that the United States reluctantly carried out in Kobane, it might very well not exist. But while one can have doubts as to the ultimate wisdom of allying with a nation-state not known for its long-term friendships with left-wing radicals, one can’t deny that thus far that alliance has proved beneficial to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militias, the all-men YPG and all-women YPJ. One can also acknowledge that while it might sully the beneficiaries’ anti-imperialist credentials to accept U.S. aid, those beneficiaries would say that in a world full of bad options they chose the least-bad one available, preferring it to genocide.

The author boxed himself, however, when early in the piece he establishes that if a group is backed by the United States, it follows that it is more reactionary than the group it is being supported against. At this point in the article, the target is “the movement that was labeled revolutionary in Western media, including the Free Syrian Army.” Thus it is written:

“Given that the Ba’ath Party has historically found itself in conflict with both communists and feudal landowners, and the United States supported Ba’athists against communists, it would be safe to assume the any movement the US backs against the Ba’athists would be more akin to feudal landowners, with all of the political and economic baggage that class carries.”

What about those Kurds, though? No group in Syria has so benefited from U.S. imperialism; while the “Contras” of the Free Syrian Army have been forced to ration bullets, the PYD’s militias have suffered no such shortage, despite an embargo imposed by Iraq and Turkey. They are also only groups in Syria that are allowed to actually call-in U.S. air strikes. As Louis Proyect notes, were the FSA given such power the author would be “screaming bloody murder.” But the U.S. gives no such power to other groups in Syria: It has, in fact, bombed every other party involved in the Syrian conflict, from ISIS to Jabhat al-Nusra to a brigade aligned with the FSA – except, notably, the Syrian regime with which it has reportedly been coordinating its air strikes for the last year (the U.S. hasn’t even bombed the regime or any of its allied militias by “accident”).

When it comes to an imperialist power aiding the PYD, Higgins is “remarkably patient,” writes Proyect – amusingly so (Russia’s imperial intervention predictably goes unmentioned). It’s more than just patience, though: it’s revisionism.

Take the battle for Kobane, which was practically lost when the United States, aware of public relations, belatedly agreed to help the Kurds fight off the Islamic State. About this, the author writes: “The US, in addition to dropping bombs, dropped aid finding its way both into the hands of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the fighting unit of the PYD, as well as ISIS.” The inconvenient reality elided here is that, “in addition to dropping bombs” that proved vital in the liberation of Kobane, the US provided lots of aid that more than just meandered its way to the Kurds and ISIS alike. ISIS did indeed claim to have seized one airdrop of arms, sure, but there were multiple drops every day, for months, that were received by the intended recipient: the anti-imperialist Kurds (the drops would “greatly help,” said a spokesperson for the YPG at the time, “and we thank America for this support”). For the author to suggest parity is absurd – and, especially absurd for an anti-imperialist, diminishes the role imperialism has played in propping up a leftist project. The United States is not doing so because its president is the Marxist his conservative critics claim, but because it prefers the Kurds to ISIS the same way it preferred Ho Chi Minh to imperial Japan. Alliances of convenience may be less than ideal, Vietnam a lesson on the transient nature of an empire’s friendship, but even anti-imperialist militias must live in the world we have today. I too prefer it were it not so, but preferable to denial is acceptance of this reality, at least if we wish to ground our analysis – and proposed alternatives – in something approaching the truth.

Rather than acknowledge U.S. imperialism’s role in propping up what’s billed as the last best hope for the left in Syria, the author distorts reality further: it’s the Syrian regime, in his telling, that has made Rojava possible. Indeed, “The space for this revolutionary project was created in opposition to” the rest of the Syrian opposition. There’s some truth to that: early on, there were battles between the YPG/YPJ and other armed opposition groups who suspected the Kurds had nationalist aspirations, not just a desire for autonomy. But that revolutionary space was also created by that opposition: Were it not for the uprising against the Assad regime, that regime never would have made the tactical decision to withdraw from Syrian Kurdistan, whose population it previously repressed (why not focus on more pressing targets and leave Turkey with what is sees as a problem on its border?).

Notice, too, who the YPG thanked for saving Kobane: “the international coalition forces that have provided active support with airstrikes against ISIS,” as well as “Free Syrian Army groups” that continue to fight alongside it to this day. The Syrian regime, by contrast, came under both rhetorical and literal fire: As the Kurds were fighting ISIS, the “Baathist-fascist forces” of Bashar al-Assad – the YPG’s words – launched an attack on their purported friends, killing several militiamen.

You won’t read about that in Jacobin, nor will you find any mention of the fact that the Syrian regime, not its opposition – “moderate” and “jihadist” alike – is responsible for the vast majority of the violence in Syria (you also won’t find much commentary on Syria from any Syrians, who are treated the way The Nation treats Palestinians when it comes to the debate over Israel). One can debate the merits of U.S. policy, and one can certainly oppose U.S. intervention anywhere and everywhere, but when facts pose a challenge to one’s anti-imperialism, it is better to grapple with them, not downplay or omit them. It’s unfortunate that a revolutionary project’s best friend at the moment, however fleetingly, is an imperialist power whose only interest is using revolutionaries as cannon fodder against ISIS, but that reality should lead those of us in the pampered West to undergo a long overdue project of our own: How can we express meaningful solidarity with leftists abroad who are coming under fire from secular and religious fascists alike? A candlelight vigil wouldn’t have saved Kobane. What we shouldn’t do is ignore facts that run counter to our ideological prejudices in the service of neat, simplistic narratives that treat some “U.S.-backed” rebels as more equal than others.

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The criminalization of poverty

I didn’t used to see tents when I moved to Koreatown two years ago, but when the city of Los Angeles revealed that there’s been an 85 percent increase in people living in such makeshift shelters during that time I thought: Yup, I’ve seen it — first there was one, then there was three, then there were entire tent cities. That spurred me to write a story about the problem and the city’s approach to it, which — the occasionally liberal rhetoric of the mayor aside — can be summed up as: What if we just made it illegal to be that damn poor? Today The Intercept published that story. It is my personal opinion that you should read it.

Also, for Inter Press Service, I reviewed a new book, Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle in Iraq. I’d read that too — the book and the review.

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The market finds a way to make looking for a job more terrible

The only thing that sucks more than having a job is not having but needing one — and as I note in my latest piece for The Baffler, there are more people looking for work than there is work to offer, a fact those with the power to hire and fire have exploited to make the job search an even more degrading process that is statistically more likely to entrench self-loathing than lead to gainful employment. Read the piece and maybe give me a job.

Oh, and for LAist I wrote about efforts to legalize street vendors in Los Angeles and critics who say taco trucks attract sex workers. Check that out.

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On the killing of Ezell Ford and the impotence of civilian review boards

The Los Angeles Police Commission said the two LAPD officers who in August 2015 shot and killed an unarmed, mentally man named Ezell Ford acted improperly — and I wrote about how that doesn’t mean a whole lot, unfortunately, given that the commission has no actual power to discipline anyone. Check it out at TakePart.

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Protests and prisons

Last month, I attended a protest outside a Nestlé water-bottling facility in South Los Angeles and spoke to a woman in an orangutan mask who objects to the world’s largest food and beverage company profiting from the out-of-state sale of drought-stricken California’s water. You can read my account here.

Earlier this week, California’s state senate approved a bill that would strictly limit the use of solitary confinement at juvenile detention facilities. When I asked the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to comment on the legislation, I was told that there is no such thing as “solitary confinement” in California, the people who say they experienced it apparently mistaken (the state says the presence of a television, or the ability to take correspondence courses, means one is not truly in isolation). Read my report here.

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A review of ‘Syrian Notebooks’

I read and then wrote things about journalist Jonathan Littell’s account of his trip to Syria in January 2012. Read those things at Inter Press Service.

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