Monday, March 26, 2018

Media Says North Korea's Nukes are Offensive. US Intel Says They're Not

The recent diplomatic breakthrough between the Trump administration and North Korea provides a hopeful opportunity for peaceful resolution to the crisis on the Korean peninsula. Immediately after the announcement, the media went into overdrive to try and undermine the development, worrying more about photographs of Kim Jung-Un than of preventing nuclear war.

This, however, is only the latest iteration in a long history of media reporting which has enabled an aggressive US foreign policy.

While the momentum during the Olympic Games was pushing towards détente, the Trump administration ramped up its “maximum pressure” campaign. Meanwhile, the media constantly reminded its audiences of the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons. A threat not only to the people of the region—but likely even the United States itself.

When faced with such a threat the bellicose posturing of the Trump administration seems perhaps to have been warranted. After all, if the US does not coerce North Korea into denuclearization, what else will protect us?

There is a problem though. This threat is not real. North Korea’s nuclear program—according to official US intelligence assessments—is defensive. Its overall military posture is designed to deter an attack – exactly the kind that Trump has threatened them with.

By falsely portraying North Korea as the aggressor, the press have functioned much in the same way that state-sponsored propaganda would, bolstering an aggressive foreign policy despite the chance that it will descend the world into a possible nuclear war.

The Threat of Deterrence

The most authoritative assessments of US military intelligence have repeatedly concluded that North Korea’s nuclear program is defensive.

The most recent report available, published by the Department of Defense in 2015, concludes that the military capabilities of the North are designed “to deter external attack.” North Korea’s “overarching national security objectives” are to develop nuclear weapons, gain recognition as a nuclear armed state, and thereby establish the “maintenance of a viable deterrent capability.” In terms of “North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” the DoD clearly explains that “DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) leaders see these programs as necessary for a credible deterrent capability essential to its survival.”

A similar assessment is given in the 2013 report. The report notes that the objectives of the North Korean regime “have not changed markedly from those pursued by Kim Jong Il,” the country’s previous leader who came to power in the 1990’s. North Korean leaders have seen “these programs, absent normalized relations with the international community, as leading to a credible deterrence capability essential its goals of survival.”

Despite the public availability of these assessments, the mainstream media continues to portray these programs as offensive.

In a New York Times report from February 13, titled “U.S. Opens Door to North Korea Talks, a Victory for South’s President”, the authors uncritically quote Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, as saying that the current leader of North Korea, Kim Jung-Un, “probably sees nuclear ICBMs as leverage to achieve his long-term strategic ambition to end Seoul’s alliance with Washington and to eventually dominate the peninsula.”

While journalists routinely cite such statements from US intelligence officials uncritically, they eschew the most exhaustive assessments produced by the officials’ own agencies. If the DoD report from 2012 had been consulted, it would have been understood that while in the 60s & 70s the North did have “reason to believe its goal of reunification on its own terms was a possibility”, ever since the 1990s “North Korea has largely abandoned unilaterally enforced reunification as a practical goal.”

On the diplomatic side, the Times article explains that “the Trump administration has long resisted” the approach of peaceful negotiation because it does not want to “be drawn into a negotiation like that of the Clinton administration in 1994, which resulted in a deal North Korea later broke.” This last point is stated plainly as fact.

The secretary of defense for President Clinton at that time, who was directly involved in negotiating that deal, says the opposite.

William Perry explains that while the agreement was “imperfectly implemented” it did in fact “effectively halt the regime’s nuclear progress for a time.” Attempts to iron-out a more permanent agreement, which “were tantalizingly close”, only collapsed when the incoming Bush administration cut-off all dialogue with the North and “abandoned Clinton’s diplomatic plan for his own more confrontational model”, thereby losing “a priceless opportunity.”

Importantly, Perry also says that “while [the North Korean leadership] is evil and sometimes reckless,” it is not “crazy or suicidal.” It knows “that if it launches a nuclear attack, the American response would bring death to the leadership and devastation to its country. … The arsenal achieves its goal only if North Korea does not use it.”

By omitting this crucial context, the Times lends undo credibility to the Trump administration’s approach, and further enables the push towards possible nuclear war.

Hyping the Threat

3 More articles from February, The New York Times’, “Seeing Bounty Abroad, Will North Koreans Change Their Homeland?”, the Washington Post’s, “Did Kim Jong Un’s ‘historic’ missile get a boost from old Soviet weapons?”, and the Washington Post’s, “South Korean president says Olympics have lowered tensions with North”, all paint a similar picture.

In the Times piece, the main explanation of North Korea’s behavior is left to a University professor of Korean studies, who echoes the mainstream consensus when he says that North Korea “remains a menacing nuclear state.” No attempt is made to ask what might explain this seemingly erratic behavior, nor what it would feel like to be in North Korea’s shoes, to have the world’s superpower threaten to “totally destroy” your country. It is simply not considered whether such things have anything to do with those “menacing” defensive nukes.

The Washington Post articles add to the paranoia.

In the first, a vivid description is depicted of “the 75-foot-tall colossus… one of two intercontinental ballistic missiles to appear abruptly on North Korean launchpads last year, and the first with sufficient range to strike cities across the continental United States.”

In the second, the authors similarly describe how “the North has made rapid nuclear progress in recent years, and some experts say the country has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead - the kind of weapon it could use to target the U.S. mainland.” These articles descend to the level of scaremongering because they make no effort to ask why these capabilities are being built. If it was understood that the only way in which these “colossus” missiles would ever threaten “to target the U.S. mainland” is if the Trump administration launches an attack against North Korea first—thus provoking a retaliation—people might have harsher things to say about the administration’s behavior.

History is also turned on its head.

The Post tells its readers that “until recently, relations with North Korea seemed at a crisis point. North Korea was testing nuclear weapons, launching missiles toward Japan, all as President Trump said the United States was ‘locked and loaded’ to respond.” Another Washington Post piece, “The leaders of both Koreas feel like they won gold medals this week”, similarly frames the situation as the US simply responding to North Korean provocations: “After a year of threats, actual and rhetorical, fired from North Korea toward the United States, the sudden burst of inter-Korean diplomacy has turned the focus away from Washington, at least temporarily.”

The most prominent academic scholars say the actual history has been the opposite. Instead, the pattern has been one where a reduction in tensions initiated by the US usually results in a North Korean reciprocation. Conversely, when the US acts aggressively the North tends to respond in kind, usually with some kind of ballistic missile test.

According to one of the most prominent scholars on the subject, Leon V. Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York, “Pyongyang in fact has been playing tit for tat-reciprocating whenever Washington cooperates and retaliating whenever Washington reneges-in an effort to end enmity.”

Indeed, if the Trump-North Korea summit breaks down and the US increases its threats and war-games we can expect to see more missile tests from North Korea in response, and for the media to depict them as aggressive and hostile provocations.

Diplomatic Cover

The way the Washington Post decided to report on the Trump administration’s recent implementation of additional sanctions against North Korea, in “Trump administration unveils sanctions aimed at starving North Korea of resources”, was not to warn against the likelihood that they might undermine the slim opportunities for peaceful negotiations, nor to denounce the negative impact they will have on the wellbeing of the North Korean population—but to help justify the decision.

The sanctions come “as the Trump administration seeks new ways to intensify pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whose increasingly advanced missile and nuclear weapon programs have made the isolated nation the most pressing foreign threat facing the United States.” For this statement to be taken seriously, the reader would have to believe that the North Korean leadership is not only brutal, but downright “crazy or suicidal.”

The article ends with Nikki Haley, the United States’ UN representative, extolling the practice of using economic suffering as diplomatic leverage, while also castigating the North Koreans for refusing to willfully curtail their attempts to defend themselves: “Even though North Korea has yet to end its nuclear and missile programs, we know the sanctions are having a real impact. The regime has less and less money to spend on its ballistic missile tests and less capacity to threaten other countries with those tests.”

The Post takes this account at face-value, offering no criticisms of its accuracy nor of its moral legitimacy. The perception that we have the right to threaten and coerce whoever we want while they do not have the right to defend against this seems to have transcended into the realm of unquestionable and accepted dogma.

The lasting consequence of this kind of reporting is to provide diplomatic cover for the aggressive policies of the US government, helping to justify actions that would likely be condemned if the population had access to the full picture.

It is precisely this type of priming of the narrative that enables pundits to throw scorn upon peaceful negotiations and to favor instead the threatening of aggression and war.

Indeed, it is only with the aid of the mass media that someone like Trump could have gotten away with threatening to “totally destroy” a country for attempting to defend itself, or for people to see military action taken against North Korea – the one thing that does threatens to send nukes into the United States – as necessary to protect the population from nukes.


Steven Chovanec is an independent journalist and analyst based in Chicago, Illinois. He has a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Sociology from Roosevelt University, and has written for numerous outlets such as The Hill, TeleSUR, Truthout, MintPress News, Consortium News, INSURGE intelligence, and others. Follow him on Twitter @stevechovanec.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Trump's Tariffs: A Reimbursement to Campaign Donors

A lot of the debate surrounding Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs misses key points.

Many who have vehemently rejected the measures have exaggerated the harms that are likely to be caused by them. The arguments mainly stem from a desire to safeguard the global economic architecture that has been pursued by decades of previous administrations, commonly referred to as "globalization."

Really, this represents one specific form of global interconnection, one that has been constructed by, and for, the interests of Western economic elites. It has been championed by US administrations because it expands US influence and control throughout the world and the primary beneficiaries are US and allied nations’ corporations. A debate that oscillates either between Trumpian nationalism or this formulation of globalization is a false dichotomy.

In terms of the effects of the tariffs, price raises are likely to be barely noticeable for consumers, while the loss of employment in other affected sectors is likely to outweigh any benefits within the steel and aluminum industries, resulting in a net loss. The main threat though lies elsewhere: that the tariffs will provoke retaliatory measures from trading partners like the EU which will harm export industries. Therefore, they “may help protect the minority of workers in the targeted industries, but at some cost to the majority in others,” as Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), has commented.

But the knee-jerk opposition to anything protectionist is also misguided.

Protecting Profits, Not People

Every major advanced industrial economy rose to its position as a result of government intervention that protected its domestic industries, including the United States. The modern innovation being that the US, after building up its industries using protections, used its global influence to break-down trade barriers worldwide once its companies were in a position to dominate and profit from global competition. This is called “kicking away the ladder” that was used to get to the top.

US-directed liberalization therefore mainly benefitted Western corporate owners at the expense of the masses of working people. It led to massive increases in inequality and consolidation of profits at the top, brutal austerity measures that have shifted costs onto vulnerable populations, and a rise in legitimate anti-establishment grievances that created the conditions for populist demagogues like Trump to win office.

Some form of protectionism might help to alleviate those disaffected by the globalized economy, but Trump is going about it in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons.

While Trump routinely employs worker-friendly language, his policies have been structured specifically to increase the profits of a small group of wealthy business owners and to exacerbate the suffering and marginalization of everybody else.

The examples are far too many to list, but nearly every proposal has followed this basic template. The latest iterations include the Department of Labor (DOL) proposal that would allow employers to take worker’s tips. The administration even tried hiding just how harmful this would be by deliberately scrubbing its own estimates showing billions would be transferred to employers if the rule was approved.

Other DOL proposals seek to allow employers to self-regulate their failures to pay their workers, the predictable results of which do not have to be stated. The infrastructure plan as well was designed to transfer money from the population to investors by funding the rebuilding process through private investment, which will seek to accrue a profit by charging the population with tolls and other user fees, subordinating the rebuilding of infrastructure to the interests of private owners at the expense of the public. Or the massive upward redistribution of wealth that is the tax-cuts, mainly geared toward enriching the already very wealthy. This has been followed up by calls from opportunistic “deficit-hawks” to cut public programs that benefit working people in the name of “budget reform.” This is exactly what Trump’s 2019 budget proposes, exemplified in its “food-box” program that is designed to drastically reduce spending on assistance that helps to feed poor people. Or the current push to deregulate Wall-Street, risking another collapse that will inevitably harm the working-class poor most of all. And the list goes on, and on.

In keeping with this, the steel and aluminum tariffs are essentially a gift to the business-owners who helped to fund Trump’s campaign.

Follow the Money

Political scientists have amassed an authoritative body of research showing that elections in the US are, above all else, competitions between competing financiers. Campaign costs are very high, and the barrier to entry is more than most can afford, therefore influence over electoral outcomes “passes by default to major investor groups” who can bear these costs. Funding is forwarded to candidates from various investor blocs who then compete with each other for control over the state. Campaign funding alone is the dominant determinant of electability. In short, elections are essentially bought.

Candidates therefore must present policy platforms that attract funding from economic elites. Because of this, only the positions that can be financed are presented to voters. This funding acts as a filter which sifts out any platform that is not amenable to the interests of the dominant investors. The innovation in 2016 was that both Sanders and Trump were able to break through this filter.

The pioneer of this research, Thomas Ferguson, has released a new study paper that systematically breaks down the 2016 elections, shedding important new light on this historical phenomenon. Astonishingly, Bernie Sanders was able to establish a genuine grass-roots movement that collectively amassed enough money through small donations from average citizens to seriously contend with the Wall-Street backed Clinton campaign. Clinton only won the Democratic primaries as a result of the DNC manipulations that stemmed this tide of genuine democracy.

In Trump’s case, he was able to act and talk the way he did because he was a billionaire who could fund his own campaign and was therefore not beholden to the traditional Republican investors. “To many spectators,” Ferguson writes, “the truncated range” of discussion amongst the establishment Republican candidates sounded “as though everyone on stage in the debates was in the iron grip of some powerful force blocking normal human speech. This, of course, was because they were.” Trump’s ability to break this spell by opening his wallet was like “throwing open a tomb that had been sealed for ages,” electrifying many Americans who harbored grievances with the status-quo.

But the research points to an influx of corporate funding as being the deciding factor that secured Trump’s victory.

Initially, Trump’s corporate-funding came from traditional Republican donors. Big Pharma, tobacco, oil, and “mining, especially coal mining”—making the push to revitalize coal easy to understand. “Money from executives at the big banks also began streaming in,” though the decisive “torrent” came from private equity and hedge funds. Combined with “oil, chemicals, mining and a handful of other industries,” large private equity firms likely accounted for a “giant wave of dark money” that rushed into the Trump campaign in the final weeks. Deregulation, therefore, has been a top priority of the administration.

The rest came from companies located within the old industrial states that have been gutted by globalization, “from firms in steel, rubber, machinery, and other industries whose impulses to protection figured to benefit from” Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric.

It is not surprising then that Trump has constructed his protectionism to benefit these industries. The likely result of the tariffs, according to Michael Hudson, professor of economics at Peking University in Beijing, will be to enable “the steel and aluminum companies to use their increased profits for share buybacks and to pay dividends,” which is how most of the proceeds from the tax cuts appear to have been utilized so far.

As well, the steel and aluminum companies will be reliant on the tariffs staying in place to maintain their newfound profits, therefore securing their support and funding for Trump’s reelection campaign.

No Alternatives?

But the hodgepodge mixture of investors that make up the Trump coalition are, in Ferguson’s words, “extremely unstable.” They have little in common besides “their intense dislike of existing forms of American government.” “The world of private equity,” for instance, “intent on gaining access to the gigantic, rapidly growing securities markets of China and the rest of Asia,” are “likely to coexist only fitfully with American industries struggling to cope with world overcapacity in steel and other products or facing twenty-first century mercantilist state targeting.” The debate within the administration between “nationalism” and “globalism” is representative of these contradictions.

These, however, are not the only options available.

An alternate possibility, as proposed by the economist Dean Baker, is to formulate a trade policy that embraces globalization in an inclusive way that reduces inequality. His recommendation is to subsidize job creation to help aid domestic industries that have been harmed by trade, therefore helping those who have been most harmed by globalization: the industrial workers. He also advocates eliminating protections for highly paid professions (like doctors) as well as those of government-granted pharmaceutical patents (both of which drastically inflate medical costs). This would help to mitigate the upward redistribution of wealth, while also drastically reducing bloated medical costs that are a major burden to Americans.

Another economist, professor Richard D. Wolff, emphasizes domestic changes that would have an international effect. As Wolff suggests, if domestic enterprises were organized democratically, they would be much less likely to engage in the kind of harmful economic activity that is prevalent today.

For example, if the decisions within the firm were made by democratic vote among all who worked there, rather than by a small group of profit-seeking owners at the top, how likely would they be to decide to shut down their factories, destroy their own jobs, and move production abroad to take advantage of cheap labor?

Indeed, the options are plenty, and not very hard to imagine. Not once the constraints of the current doctrinal orthodoxies are thrown aside, and once policies are crafted with the interests of people in mind, not profit.


Steven Chovanec is an independent journalist and analyst based in Chicago, Illinois. He has a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Sociology from Roosevelt University, and has written for numerous outlets such as The Hill, TeleSUR, Truthout, MintPress News, Consortium News, Insurge-Intelligence, and others. Follow him on Twitter @stevechovanec.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

In Venezuela, It's "Democracy" if US-Backed Candidates Are Empowered, "Tyranny" if They Are Not

The Venezuelan government recently announced its decision to hold presidential elections, which are currently scheduled for May. The Trump administration denounced the move, saying they "would not be free and fair."
Last year, the administration announced an unprecedented escalation of sanctions against the country. This, too, was justified under humanitarian pretexts. The US says its actions are a response to the government's "serious abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms."
US Sen. Marco Rubio has even advocated that "the military of Venezuela must remove [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro" under the justification that "Maduro and his inner circle have destroyed democracy and replaced it with dictatorship."
Within this context, the former CIA director, Mike Pompeo -- who has recently moved into the position of Secretary of State -- admitted in his capacity as head of the CIA that the agency would like to see Maduro overthrown, and suggested last summer that it is working with others in the region to do so. "We are very hopeful that there can be a transition in Venezuela and we, the CIA, is doing its best to understand the dynamic there," Pompeo said, adding, "I was just down in Mexico City and in Bogota [Colombia] a week before last talking about this very issue, trying to help them understand the things they might do, so that they can get a better outcome for their part of the world and our part of the world."
Such actions and statements would not be possible without the humanitarian pretext. But the labelling of the Maduro government's actions as "dictatorial" also serves another purpose.
Within Venezuela, the US has systematically branded any political action it deems unfavorable as an illegitimate and dictatorial move of the government, while labelling actions which help to empower the parties the US looks favorably on as synonymous with the will of the "Venezuelan people." In this way, the US can use its influence over public opinion to pressure Venezuela into taking actions that help to put the US-backed opposition in power.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Without Changing a Stripe, ISIS Morphs from US’s Deadly Enemy to Useful Weapon to Perfect Target

While President Trump has recently hailed the defeat of ISIS, the group has been able to stave-off a complete defeat by retreating to a few, small remaining pockets in Syria.

One of these pockets, located east of the Euphrates along Syria’s border with Iraq, is surrounded by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a grouping of Kurdish militias that are trained and armed by the U.S., and who act as the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition’s leading partner in the fight against ISIS. And while the SDF and the coalition engage in battle with ISIS further south near Abu-Kamal, that is not the case in this pocket to the north. The fighters operating within this area do not have to fear coalition attacks or SDF assaults. Instead, they have been free to conduct their activities unimpeded, despite being surrounded by U.S. allies on the ground and U.S. aircraft overhead.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The US is protecting ISIS to weaken rivals, expand US occupation of Syria

The dominant view of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS), Operation Inherent Resolve, is that its fundamental goal is the defeat of ISIS.

And so, in the wake of the routing of ISIS from Iraq and Syria, the core justification for an ongoing US military presence in Syria is ensuring that no post-mortem ISIS insurgency arises.

That the US is unequivocally opposed to ISIS is simply taken for granted.

Yet a closer look at the history of US involvement shows that counterterrorism has been a lesser concern relative to geopolitical and strategic goals. Whenever the goals of expanding territorial control or weakening rivals conflicts with the goal of opposing ISIS, the entity was either ignored or even empowered in pursuit of these more paramount concerns.

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Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The US [was] Aiding an al-Qaeda Emirate in Syria

[Editors Note: This report is from August 2017. It is now outdated, especially given the Syrian government's operations inside Idlib. Its main purpose was to highlight how the Western powers have been propping up an al-Qaeda safe-haven in Idlib for years, and how it got to be dominated by al-Qaeda in the first place. Hopefully this can help shed further light on the history behind the situation in Idlib, and give the proper context that can help to contextualize the media propaganda regarding it.

Apologies as well for the lack of reports. New reports will be forthcoming very soon- stay tuned :) ]

For years the Syrian province of Idlib has been under the de-facto control of Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria which has now rebranded as Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and allied jihadist groups. Western governments have also been pouring in humanitarian assistance ostensibly to support the beleaguered civilian population.

However, these programs are also bolstering al-Qaeda.

Despite the implications of this, press coverage has been scarce. When it is reported coverge is uncritically supportive.

As Nusra’s control becomes more overt, donors are rethinking their efforts. Yet these organizations have been conducting their operations for years while the same fundamental situation was present: al-Qaeda held de-facto control, and they were helping to prop-up an Islamist emirate with the aid of Western social and administrative assistance.

Promoting Democracy

A coalition of foreign donors, NGOs, and humanitarian organizations are being coordinated and funded outside of the United Nations framework by the United States, and to a smaller extent its European allies. These have seen a steady stream of foreign support enter into Idlib for multiple years now.

The extent and breadth of the aid is quite enormous, ranging from necessary staples such as food and medicine all the way down through “political stabilization assistance”, which essentially consists of US-funded and directed governance and municipality operations which aim to set up a functional and alternate state apparatus that is independent from the Syrian government. This covers everything from distributing subsidized aid, food, and fuel, to the setting up of schools, clinics, and local administrative councils, the paying of municipal salaries, etc., all the way down to garbage collection, road repairs, and infrastructure maintenance. Essentially the social and administrative framework for a functional 21st century industrial society.

It is important to understand the implications of this.

During the Arab Spring protests in Egypt it became clear that the success of the nascent uprising depended largely on its ability to create independent spaces outside of the control of the traditional state-system, where new ideals and values could have room to transform into tangible societal change. If the congregation of protesters were able to organize and administer their own incipient societies within effectively self-governing spaces, they would have to be taken seriously by the authorities and would hold negotiation leverage, having largely extricated themselves from state-dependence.

The same basic principles apply to an outside power attempting to undermine and/or overthrow the government of another state, and such realities are of course understood by the United States as it sets up independent structures under the influence of its proxy militias, aid organizations, and municipality councils.

At core, this is as a modern form of imperialism: the overtaking of another nation’s territories and extricating them under your control. Instead of using colonial armies and viceroys however it is done through proxy guerrillas and NGOs.

This idea has been raised by the esteemed scholar of international relations John J. Mearsheimer, professor at the University of Chicago, who explains that such “democracy promotion” political assistance programs are, fundamentally, a way of ousting foreign leaders and replacing them with pro-US clients.

However, there is a deeper problem inherent to all of this. Namely that Idlib has been under the military control of al-Qaeda and other radical terror groups since it was overtaken from government hands in 2015, and that the United States and its allies are therefore subsidizing the civil-service apparatus of the al-Qaeda militias that operate as the de-facto rulers of the province.

Useful Terrorists

The contemporary situation in Idlib is the product of a joint offensive in 2015 which captured the provincial capital and solidified the province under opposition control.

The takeover was itself the product of an amalgamation of the various opposition factions into tightly-organized military-command structures dominated and led by the hard-line jihadist extremist groups. This was facilitated by the coordinated efforts of the various backers of the opposition, the United States, Turkey, and Gulf monarchies, and exemplifies the level of influence these state-sponsors were able to exert over their proxies.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia officially coordinated assistance to the newly formed Army of Conquest coalition, led by Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham and supported by the various US-backed FSA groups, to assist the effort, while Qatar played a key sponsorship role as well.

However, rebel commanders revealed that it was specifically the influence of the US military operatives overseeing support to the insurgency that facilitated the organization of the “moderates” into a military structure commanded by al-Qaeda-affiliates and their allies. “The US-led operations room[s] in southern Turkey” and Jordan, the commanders told Charles Lister, were “instrumental in facilitating their [Islamists’] involvement in the operation.” Far from barring CIA-backed groups from coordinating with al-Qaeda, as Western officials continually claimed, the US-led operations rooms “specifically encouraged a closer cooperation with Islamists commanding frontline operations.” However, this US-directed alliance between al-Qaeda and the FSA was only really a more overt example of what had been going on for years.

Commenting on this, leading political scientist Dr. Nafeez Ahmed wrote that “in other words, al-Qaeda’s official arm in Syria, and another group closely affiliated with al-Qaeda, were among the “moderate” vetted groups receiving arms and aid from the Gulf states and Turkey, under the supervision of US military intelligence operatives in the field.”

The US and its allies then “dramatically increased [their] levels of assistance and provisions of intelligence” to the opposition, including the introduction of “gamechanging” advanced weaponry such as TOW anti-tank missiles. The British press reported the results of this “were shocking.” The capital of Idlib fell within days.

It was noted by knowledgeable observers that “the jihadist contribution was fundamental to these victories… suicide bombers from JN's [Jabhat al-Nusra’s] fellow al-Qaeda affiliate Jund al-Aqsa played a major role in opening access to the provincial capital of Idlib city.”

This had horrendous, yet not unforeseeable, real-world implications for the surrounding villages. The Century Foundation’s Sam Heller documented how the newly-victorious al-Nusra-Ahrar alliance very quickly “then blazed a path south into the regime’s sectarian heartlandmassacring Alawite villagers and featuring their children in hostage videos.

Revolutionary Idlib

Within Idlib, the extent of who was in control from this point onward was never seriously in question: it has been ruled by al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate in alliance with Ahrar al-Sham.

Militarily the FSA and other armed factions acted as mere auxiliaries of their superiors, wherein Nusra allowed vetted militias to appear as though they were independent so that the influx of CIA-distributed arms and supplies was maintained. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, Research Fellow at the Middle East Forum, says it is arguable that “insofar as some FSA groups have been allowed to exist in the northwest, it is only to ensure the continuation of an aid and arms flow from which Jabhat al-Nusra and its successors have almost certainly taken a slice.” According to Joshua Landis, a highly respected academic specializing in Syria, “the radical militias prey on the weaker ones. They extort arms and money from the CIA-supported factions.”

This relationship, of course, was known to Washington, but support was maintained due to the battlefield success of the al-Qaeda groups. Recently the Trump administration officially ended that support, though analysts report that the “moderates” have been given a six month “grace period” to find other sources of support before the operations rooms supplying them are completely dismantled.

Nusra and its close affiliates, militarily dominant over the other factions, began constructing their vision of a future Idlib.

Writing for the Washington Institute, researcher Fabrice Balanche explains that Nusra “has a consistent ideology and clear political project for Syria… JN [Jabhat al-Nusra] leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani clearly stated his intention to create an Islamic emirate in northwestern Syria.”

It is not surprising then that “the group has used brutal methods similar to those of IS,” the only distinguishable difference being that Nusra’s are not so overtly advertised. Meanwhile, non-Sunni’s and religious minorities were either massacred, forced to convert (and then sometimes still massacred), or were lucky enough to have fled and became refugees. Jihadi militants patrol the streets, routinely arresting civil-society activists and others, “many of whom disappear.”

One of the more fortunate of these activists was able to document a first-hand account of life under Nusra-ruled Idlib, published then by The Nation. “Masked, armed men roam the town. Whole streets are blocked off to protect the leaders of the Islamist militia that rules here,” they write.

Idlib city, once “known for its mosaic of different religions and its tolerance,” now looks very different. Nusra “created an entire apparatus to impose Sharia law,” and “Sharia courts remain the only form of justice." The people simply saw no choice but to accept the rules of al-Qaeda.

“When Nusra took control here in March 2015, Idlib entered a dark tunnel of deprivation. Public education deteriorated, the university was closed, and public debate was stifled.” They note that the situation had improved since then (certainly in part due to the influx of Western aid), but still the people “feel suffocated by their masks, their guns, and their arrogant manner.”

On the subject of governance and civil-society organizations, they are described as essentially a sham, nobody having any real doubts about who holds power.

“Local government is a facade for the Islamists. There is a governor, a mayor, and a Shura, or municipal council, but the supreme body is the Committee of the Fatah Army, which has no contact with residents. It carries out military planning, staffs the front lines, and organizes the fighters. It directs a body called “The Executive Force,” which carries out raids, searches for sleeper cells of the Assad regime or the Islamic State, and generally functions as the all-powerful intelligence agency we are familiar with from the Assad regime.”

Proponents of the humanitarian programs argue that “Islamist and jihadist armed groups hold power at the local level... Yet ultimate decision-making power has typically sat with donor organizations outside the country.” Yet “holding power at the local level” is realistically only a euphemism for a society where terrorist-factions exercise a monopoly on the use of force, arbitrate a totalitarian police-state, control vital infrastructure and resources, impose Sharia courts, and hold final decision-making power backed by the barrel of a gun.

The Respectable al-Qaeda

Within this general framework, Nusra and its partners were smart enough not to be overly aggressive in their interference with the humanitarian aid arrangements. According to Syria analyst Aron Lund, Nusra has been “willing to rule with a light touch by Syrian standards, leaving local aid and governance arrangements in place to avoid a clash with Western nations, humanitarians, and the UN system.”

A key contingent to this was the participation of Ahrar al-Sham, who functioned as a sort of go-between separating Western governments and the al-Nusra militants.

Nusra and Ahrar held a mutually complimentary relationship, enhanced even more by attempts to categorize Ahrar as a more moderate and respectable al-Qaeda-affiliated group that the US should partner with. Within this context, Western governments do not officially classify Ahrar as a terrorist organization, even though it has a near-identical sectarian ideology to al-Nusra and works alongside al-Qaeda in pursuit of the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Syria. The only meaningful ways in which it differs from Nusra is that it has a less centralized management structure and has not pledged direct allegiance to al-Qaeda.

This created a situation whereby the hard-line nature of the rulers in Idlib was sanitized, the “respectable” image of Ahrar in many ways working to balance out the more malevolent picture associated with Nusra’s presence. Opposition supporters pointed to Nusra’s numeric deficiency next to Ahrar to prove its diminutive influence over Idlib, disregarding how Ahrar had historically functioned as “Jabhat al-Nusra’s main enabler and partner,” and how, despite appearances, Nusra was able to “intervene pretty much anywhere in Idlib province without much opposition from whatever groups may be officially controlling a given village or city.”

Al-Tamimi writes that Ahrar’s main problem “has always been its role as an enabler of jihadists,” saying that the group had worked “to bring large numbers of foreign jihadists into the country and undermine local councils and civil society.” Even more strikingly, al-Tamimi says they “played a significant part in enabling the rise of ISIS in Syria in 2013,” their “moderate” portrayal of course only exacerbating their effectiveness in these regards.

This is important because after the takeover of Idlib it was Ahrar that took charge of controlling the only official border crossing with Turkey, Bab-al-Hawa, through which the Western-backed humanitarian assistance is channeled. This arrangement helped to distance Western governments from an appearance of collusion with al-Qaeda’s official arm in Syria, despite the fact that all of the roads leading from the crossing were directly controlled by Nusra.

Much like how the FSA factions maintained a superficial degree of separation from Nusra for the benefit of Western aid, so too was Ahrar able to portray an aura of “respectability” which helped mask the reality that they were not really separate from Nusra and that Western humanitarian assistance ultimately was working toward the benefit of al-Qaeda. In terse, blunt terms, “Thus far, JN [Nusra] has tolerated the work of foreign NGOs and the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs because it needs their social services to help establish its political power.”

Out of Ideas

Despite their implications these programs have enjoyed overwhelming support in the media and among intellectuals. It is generally conceded that they are helpful, moral, and needed, with reluctant admissions that they may have been of some minor benefit to extremists, a point which is usually quickly brushed aside.

The prevalent consensus can be summed up by a recent assessment made by Aron Lund, who concludes that the program’s results “have been mixed at best, with some support also benefiting jihadi groups. Nevertheless, political aid from the UK and other nations has helped pro-Western and democratic strands of the opposition survive inside otherwise inhospitable Islamist-run regions of northwestern Syria.”

One wonders what the response would be if it was proposed that our policy toward ISIS in Raqqa should be to send in massive amounts of aid and set up civil society and governance structures that bolster their control, but which also, fortunately, “help pro-Western and democratic strands survive” within the ISIS-run enclave. Al-Qaeda in Idlib, it must be remembered, only meaningfully differ from ISIS in the less-advertised nature of their brutality.

There are alternatives, of course, which are not considered. The militias and extremist factions are heavily dependent on, and thus influenceable by, their state-sponsors, which also happen to be the United States’ main regional allies. The US could use its superpower status to pressure its allies to stop assisting the armed factions and compel them to negotiate with the Syrian government and abdicate their control of the territories. Threatening to discontinue the assistance they rely upon to administer the province could expedite this. If they refused, intelligence and coordination could be given for Russian and Syrian military action. It would not take long to defeat ill-equipped militants after state-sponsorship has dried up, as was seen with Turkish support in Aleppo, and would certainly be much less brutal and costly to civilians than America’s siege of Mosul, for instance, which had been shocking in comparison to other recent military operations in the region. Priority should be given to non-violence, the cutting off of funding and assistance channels, though eventually Idlib would need to be relinquished to Syria.

The seizure of Idlib from the Syrian state was an illegitimate act of aggression by hostile foreign powers done through dependent proxies, which utilized the support of internationally-recognized terrorist groups without whom the efforts would not have been successful. Returning it to Syrian rule is thus the correct and legitimate option.

Almost forgotten now, under UN Security Council Resolution 2249, the US is obliged to “take all necessary measures… to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by… Al-Nusra Front (ANF), and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al Qaeda.” And as well to “eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Syria,” of which Idlib would certainly qualify, at least according to the leader of the US-led coalition against ISIS, who called Idlib “the largest Al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11.”

This must only be done, however, “in compliance with international law,” i.e., not through illegal interference inside Syrian territory without the permission of the Syrian government or approval of international law. The resolution did not, just to clarify, stipulate the US should coordinate assistance programs to territories under the control of al-Qaeda-official.

Protecting al-Qaeda, Again

Questions regarding these policies have only seriously been raised recently as infighting broke out between Nusra and Ahrar. Nusra for all intents and purposes defeated Ahrar, solidifying its unilateral dominance over the province while taking effective control over the Bab al-Hawa crossing. This overt Nusra control has led donors to rethink their operations. However, after Nusra reopened the crossing regular traffic had continued up until recently when Turkey started to reduce the amount of shipments down to basic necessities and emergency aid, following pressure due to Nusra’s takeover.

But the takeover does not fundamentally transform the situation from what it was before. It is in many ways only a superficial change. While donors are rightfully worried about Nusra siphoning revenue streams from their aid shipments, allowing Ahrar to do the same for years was equally as objectionable yet elicited no such response. Nusra very quickly took advantage of the opportunity to reinstitute some of their more hard-line Islamist decrees, like the banning of tobacco products, and concerns have been raised as they’ve begun to take a more heavy-handed approach toward subordinating civilian councils and controlling administrative processes. Yet this had been happening under the surface for years. It should have been obvious that Nusra was just tolerating the West’s social services and that it would move on them once it felt it had become strong enough, which appears might be happening now. Government officials who are only just now becoming alarmed at this had been enabling all of it while it had been developing for years.

This exposes the deep cynicism and hypocrisy of US officials like Michael Ratney, the State Department’s top official in charge of Syria policy, who described the situation as one fundamentally altered which only now requires action. Ratney said that “everyone should know that [Nusra leader] Jolani and his gang are the ones who bear responsibility for the grave consequences that will befall Idlib,” describing their takeover as “one of the greatest tragedies” to hit Syria’s north that puts the region “in great danger,” saying the United States therefore hopes “to find channels that enable us to deliver humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people without passing through the hands of the Nusra Front and the crossings that have fallen into its hands.”

But “even before the July assault,” a recent LA Times article reports, Nusra had already “demanded a portion of the aid entering its area.” This is not a surprising, given that Nusra controlled the majority of roads and checkpoints throughout the province. The amount of aid that had to be turned over “depends on the number of checkpoints you have to pass and what you’re carrying,” an aid worker told the Times. “Normally for food [Nusra] don’t take so much. They’re merciful. But medicines are highly taxed.” As well, civil society activists have been warning that Nusra “routinely seizes aid convoys and disrupts service provisions,” and that it had “tried to kidnap and kill activists.”

Ahrar, Nusra’s greatest enablers, also reportedly were able to siphon off millions of dollars of revenue from the aid cargos, from “commercial traffic and high-value goods like construction material,” during their run as enforcers of the crossing. One can only assume that the cut taken by Nusra was equally as substantial.

This all, however, is really beside the point. The fact is that even if no revenue was being pocketed in these illegitimate ways the influx of humanitarian aid would still crucially be bolstering al-Qaeda and their allies. Its ultimate end-result is the maintenance of “the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11”, as well as the al-Qaeda members within it.

In a recent piece, Aron Lund says that it is unlikely “that a Tahrir al-Sham-dominated Idlib will receive Western-funded stabilisation and governance aid indefinitely. Neither Americans nor Europeans are interested in bankrolling the civil service of a jihadi emirate, and that is increasingly what Idlib looks like to them.”

Yet the province has looked like that for a long time, and Nusra has been dominating it; the bankrolling of a jihadi emirate is exactly what they have been doing.

It is only now, after Nusra’s role has become so overt as to be undeniable, that questions are being raised. What this shows is not an honest and forthright concern on the part of the US government about aiding terrorist organizations, or caring whether that is objectively the truth or not, but instead only concern for the perception of having been seen to have done so.

In truth, the US government had ample and detailed intelligence regarding the true makeup of the insurgency in Syria going back multiple years now. They understood who was driving it and what the implications were. It was known that in order to have any chance of success at undermining the government in Damascus they were going to have to rely on al-Qaeda and extremist shock-troops to pave the way toward battlefield success and the seizure of important cities and provinces, like Idlib. It is no wonder then that the operations rooms led by the US would instruct their FSA proxies and “encourage further cooperation with Islamists commanding frontline operations” in order to take Idlib.

The US and its allies gave crucial intelligence, organizational, and material support to an insurgent opposition led by al-Qaeda-aligned extremist groups in order to wrest control of Idlib away from Damascus. The byproduct of such a strategy was always going to be the empowerment of those extremist groups who would of course come to hold ultimate military control of the province afterwards, no matter how much influence is taken away from them by outside NGOs administering social goods and services. The empowerment of al-Qaeda groups to the level of military and security supremacy over an entire Syrian province was a foregone conclusion given this set up.

Yet after the fact the continued preservation of these forces through Western-funded social services subsidization, as opposed to a policy of actual counterterrorism, only goes to show the level at which the US state is willing to empower the forces of terrorism in order to achieve imperialistic geopolitical agendas. The level at which these actions are tolerated and/or given ideological cover by the media and intellectual classes only exemplifies how far these have devolved into functional propaganda for state and corporate interests.

The fact that the US has been helping to maintain the largest contemporary safe haven for al-Qaeda, the organization claiming responsibility for the 9/11 terror atrocity, should have been front page news across the country and the topic of an extensive debate. Instead, experts and important agenda-setting journals sanitize the public from these unfortunate circumstances, and people are therefore spared from having to look in the mirror and confront such ugly realities.

Steven Chovanec is an independent journalist and analyst based in Chicago, Illinois. He has a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Sociology from Roosevelt University, and has written for numerous outlets such as The Hill, TeleSur, Mint Press News, Consortium News, and others. Follow him on Twitter @stevechovanec

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Trump Escalates Syrian Proxy War

Back in February, it was quietly reported that the CIA had discontinued its support program to rebels in Syria. A month later, a knowledgeable source from the region disclosed to me that the Trump administration and the Saudi defense minister, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had agreed during their meetings in mid-March for the Gulf states to re-open supply channels to their rebel proxies.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis welcomes Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman to the Pentagon, March 16, 2017. (DoD photo by Sgt. Amber I. Smith)
This was done, the source said, to keep the Syrian government’s army and its allied Russian air force occupied so that the U.S. and its Kurdish allies could continue dividing northern Syria, establishing a zone-of-influence throughout the lands they recapture from the Islamic State.

Concurrent with this was a similar effort in the southeast, where U.S. and Jordanian backed forces have been battling ISIS while attempting to establish control over the border with Iraq. The strategy was to use the fight against ISIS as a pretext for establishing a de-facto occupation of Syrian territory, where in the Kurdish-held regions the U.S. has already established multiple military bases and airfields.

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