Robespierre Monument

'The French Revolution involved great changes in the art of war…'

Month: February, 2016

War Within a War

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Over the past week, the news media have made noise about the unlikely but certainly not unwelcome prospect of an end to the Syrian war. If the general attack on the Syrian state does end, however, it will not likely bring an end to every arena of conflict in Syria. Among those arenas is that of the much-discussed Kurdish liberation movement. Less commonly discussed are Syrian liberation efforts against Israel waged in occupied Golan Heights. In this arena, the substance of colonialism and resistance are being shaped for the future. It is an arena worthy of serious attention, as it informs other aspects of the war, the region, and the information in circulation.

For starters, those Syrian liberation efforts in the Golan account for much of the context of recent propaganda targeting Hezbollah in the Western press. For unbeknownst to far too many Western observers, including those on the left holding a professed interest in the movement against Israeli settler-colonialism, Hezbollah has continued to focus on building a popular movement against Israel even in Syria, where its presence has been controversial.

In order to get a sharper sense of this context—of both Hezbollah’s continued anti-Zionist mobilization and the media crusades against it—it is helpful to begin with Israel’s latest high-profile assassination carried out in Syria.

Israel’s assassination of stalwart Arab resistance figure Samir Kuntar, carried out on December 19th, 2015 in Jaramana of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, was part of a larger Israeli effort to annex the Golan territories once and for all. Since the beginning of the war in Syria, Israel has viewed the consequent destabilization of the country as the perfect opportunity to fulfill these long-held plans. Annexation has been prepared among Israeli state policy-makers, real estate developers, and segments of the Israeli population.

As recently as October of last year, The New York Times reported that “there is a building boom quietly underway” in occupied Golan. The report further noted that there has been established in Israel an “aggressive development goal” for the territories. In charge of these efforts is Israeli minister Naftalie Bennett, who made the promise to “introduce a plan…involving ‘several hundreds of millions of shekels’ to create jobs, housing, schools and transportation in the sprawling, green Golan Heights.” Bennett declared the war itself a “rare opportunity”—one that would in its initial stages be realized through “10,000 new residents…in five years.”

Running counter to the Israeli operation, the Syrian Arab Army and allied Lebanese Hezbollah have been building a national Arab resistance network—of which Kuntar was a crucial part—in these very territories. If Israel’s aim is to remove Arabs from Golan Heights, a principal aim of the SAA and Hezbollah throughout the war has been to remove Israel from Syria for good and for final.

What exactly was Israel trying to accomplish by assassinating Kuntar? Here it is helpful to look into the background of Kuntar himself. The assignment of Kuntar, working with Hezbollah, to an emerging anti-Zionist front in the Golan Heights marked an effective attempt to resurrect and rekindle the ideals for which Kuntar stood for almost his entire life, namely pan-Arab solidarity. It is the nascent movement in Syria embedded in those ideals—at least to the extent they emphasize unity between sects at a time when imperialism is promoting and fomenting divisions between them—that Israel and allied states, ranging from its backer the United States to the Arab Gulf states, hope to destroy.

The Making of a Martyr

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Samir Kuntar was born to a Druze Lebanese family in the village of Abiya in Mount Lebanon. Although the son of a relatively affluent family—his mother a homemaker and his father a chef stationed in Saudi Arabia—the privation he witnessed in the Palestinian refugee camps inspired indignation inside him from a young age onward. In Kuntar’s own words, as part of an interview conducted with Chen Kotes-Bar for The Guardian:

“…My family is Druze, secular and well off. We are three brothers and five sisters. We have a beautiful house that overlooks Beirut, with a view of the airport from the balcony. Occasionally my father took me to Beirut. When I saw the refugee camps, I asked my father what they were. He explained to me, ‘Son, those are Palestinians. The Israelis drove them out of their country, and they’re not allowed to return.”

At age 13, Kuntar joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP); members of the organization picked Kuntar up by car on a daily basis for guerrilla training sessions. In short time, Kuntar was running sophisticated resistance operations against Israel. His first major task ended in arrest at the hands of Jordanian mukhabarat, as he and his comrades had been captured while attempting to cross into Israel via the Jordan River. After 11 months in Jordanian prison, Kuntar was released in 1978. Roughly one year later, he embarked with the Palestine Liberation Army upon the mission that would gain him notoriety in both Israel and the Arab world, carrying a reputation for horror in the former and for heroism in the latter.

The operation, named after Gamal Abdel Nasser, ended tragically in the death of a four-year-old girl, Einat Haran. According to Kuntar, the intent of the mission was to enter Israel by sea and swiftly take hostage three or four adults for the purposes of an exchange and the release of Arab political prisoners held by Israel. Kuntar further discussed the details of the ill-fated mission with Kotes-Bar:

“I tried to calm him with gestures. I said to him, ‘Come.’ He started speaking to me in a mixture of Hebrew and English. He held his daughter tightly. The girl did not make a sound. She was wearing pyjamas. I tried to tell him to leave her there, but he did not understand. I tried telling him ‘come.’ But he did not want to come with me. I understood he was trying to give the police time to arrive. He was afraid.

“My comrade, Muhammad Ali, did not understand why we were waiting. I tried explaining to Haran again, using Arabic and hand gestures. He understood, but he was completely unwilling to come with me. I tried to separate him from the little girl. Then I heard shots outside. It was 2.45am. I said, ‘He is delaying us.’

“I grabbed him in a hurry, with the girl in his arms. I said, ‘Yalla, imshi [‘Let’s go, move it’]. We left the building surrounding Haran, who was holding his daughter in his arms, and went to the beach. Haran kept halting and talking, trying to delay us. But we had to get to the boat. They were waiting for us in Lebanon.

“As we approached the rubber dinghy, we heard a lot of voices. Then shots were fired in our direction. We approached the boat from the rocks, and Ali took Danny on board. That’s when they started to shoot at us really hard. I returned fire, but it wasn’t enough. Ali and Danny got off the boat. I ordered everyone to take a position on the rocks and return fire. Danny was behind us. His daughter was near him. Haran waved at the soldiers and called out to them in Hebrew.

“They continued to fire heavily. I ducked down to put a fresh magazine into my rifle. Haran waved again, while they were still firing, and he was wounded.

“The little girl screamed. That was the first time we heard her. That’s it. I don’t remember anything else.

“The battle continued until around 5.30am. Ahmed was wounded in the forehead. Ali was killed. I took five bullets and lost a lot of blood. I was not focused.

“What happened to the girl? During the interrogation they told me, ‘You must admit that you wounded the girl with your rifle.’ I told them, ‘Write whatever you want.’ I did not see anything and I did not hear anything. It was total chaos there. I was focused on the goal. I don’t mind admitting to things that I did. I don’t want to admit to things that I did not do.”

Through the trial and the subsequent sentencing, Kuntar became the target of an obvious frame-up, with the prosecution claiming that he smashed the young girl’s head with the butt of his rifle. In response to this claim, Zvi Sela, who spent time with Kuntar while serving as Chief Intelligence Officer of the Israel Prison service, upheld firmly his belief in the accuracy of Kuntar’s story, telling Ha’aretz,

“We turned Kuntar into God-knows-what – the murderer of Danny Haran and his daughter, Einat. The man who smashed in the girl’s head. That’s nonsense. A story. A fairy tale. He told me he didn’t do it and I believe him. I investigated the event… and in my opinion there is support for the fact that they were killed by fire from the Israeli rescue forces. You can accuse him all you like, but it was obviously the rescue forces that opened fire.”

While serving in Israeli prison, Kuntar solidified a reputation among the Arab masses as a symbol of vigilant resistance to Zionism. He enrolled in a program to take online course with the Open University of Israel, learning Hebrew and graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Social and Political Science after completing (in Hebrew) a thesis titled “The Contradiction of Democracy and Security in Israel.”

When Kuntar was finally released from Israeli prison in 2008, it was on account of Operation Truthful Promise, the cross-border raid carried out in 2006, during which several Hezbollah soldiers captured two IDF solders. Hezbollah’s original name for the operation was “Freedom for Samir Kuntar and His Brothers.” On July 16, 2008, Hezbollah returned the bodies of the captured IDF soldiers in exchange for Kuntar and four Hezbollah prisoners. Upon release, Kuntar was the subject of an elaborate welcome-home ceremony in Lebanon attended by Hezbollah General-Secretary Hassan Nasrallah. He also visited Iran, where he paid respects to the infamous Hezbollah mujahid Imad Mughniyeh, and Syria, where he received from President Bashar al-Assad the Order of Merit (the highest possible Syrian honor) for his anti-Zionist commitment. The Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas in Gaza, memorialized Kuntar.

Flash forward to 2012, as disaster loomed over Syria as the result of a large-scale and sophisticated proxy war launched by a coalition of NATO-aligned states and Israel assumed its role in the war on the Golan Front, along the border with the southeastern tip of Syria. This development provided Kuntar, working under the provision of the Hezbollah commanders who negotiated for his freedom in 2008, with justification to enter Syria. In late 2012, Kuntar took up a position of command within the nascent Syrian National Defence forces, formed with the coordination of and support from the Syrian Army. His mission was to cultivate a national and popular Syrian resistance to Israeli presence in occupied Golan by training and equipping local Syrians.

On July 1st, 2015, Kuntar appeared on the pan-Arab television station al-Mayadeen and spoke publicly about the current state of affairs in occupied Golan. He and his co-panelists challenged the notion that the anti-Zionist campaign coalescing in occupied Golan was specifically Shi’i on account of Hezbollah involvement, or specific to any sect for that matter—the campaign was, Kuntar noted, a Syrian one. As such, a rebuke to the sectarian logic the war in Syria has seemed to take, in accordance with the classic imperialist strategy of divide-and-conquer.

The Return of Pan-Arab Resistance

This series of events should speak well enough to the political tradition to which Kuntar belongs and to the movement he wanted to build. Although less overtly communistic in his politics than some of his comrades, Kuntar nonetheless places firmly in the history of secular pan-Arabism defined significantly by anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism, the principles through which his bond with Hezbollah was forged. While Israel becomes concerned over the material networks formed on a military basis, it undoubtedly fears the popular component most, along with any possibility that pan-Arab ideology lead back to socialism. After all, Israel and its allies have spent many years trying to undermine any movements that could potentially pose a challenge to imperialist control of regional resources, (especially those in the past that have declared resources the property of the people). The status of support for this resistance from the Ba’ath Party in Syria, which historically represents a vacillating bourgeois tendency tendency in Arab nationalism, will be largely contingent on Syria’s geopolitical position. But Kuntar noted in his interview with al-Mayadeen that the resistance in Golan has been set and could not be reversed even if Israel assassinated him.

With principles of pan-Arab solidarity, foundational for regional unity against imperialist predation, the Druze Kuntar’s relationship with the Shi’i Hezbollah may be seen as organic, in defiance of the fear-mongering propaganda campaign Israel has been promulgating towards Golani residents that the resistance campaign is a cover for the forced establishment of Shi’i hegemony.

In light of heavy sectarian incitement since 2011, Nasrallah’s own rhetorical output has relied increasingly on the theme of unity between the sects. To carry out this message, Nasrallah has often relied on pan-Arabist history, themes, and tropes. When condemning Saudi Arabia for its war on Yemen, for example, Nasrallah shamed the Saudi leadership as Arabs, pointing out their hypocrisy for naming a military operation against Yemen a “storm,” but never having taken anything close to such action on behalf of Palestine. Thus, pan-Arab solidarity has constituted the ideological grounds on which the Syrian National Defense Forces have been cultivated. And so it was this kind of impulse that Israel was seeking to stymie with the assassination of Kuntar, an operation that mirrored the assassination-by-drone-strike carried out by Israel in occupied Golan against Jihad Mughniyeh (the son of the famed Imad) and other Hezbollah operatives in January of 2015.

Members of Lebanon's militant Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah carry the coffin of Lebanese militant Samir Kantar, who was killed in a suspected Israeli air-raid on his home in the Jaramana district on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, during his funeral procession in a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital Beirut on December 21, 2015. Israel's justice minister welcomed the death of Kantar but did not claim credit for the air strike in Syria that killed him, which Hezbollah said was an Israeli raid. AFP PHOTO / ANWAR AMRO / AFP / ANWAR AMRO

Members of Lebanon’s militant Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah carry the coffin of Lebanese militant Samir Kantar, who was killed in a suspected Israeli air-raid on his home in the Jaramana district on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, during his funeral procession in a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital Beirut on December 21, 2015. Israel’s justice minister welcomed the death of Kantar but did not claim credit for the air strike in Syria that killed him, which Hezbollah said was an Israeli raid. AFP PHOTO / ANWAR AMRO / AFP / ANWAR AMRO

These assassinations are one side of a “carrot-and-stick” policy, a revolving door of intimidation and enticement, pursued by Israel in occupied Golan, as stated in an important survey of Israel’s history in Golan published in the Arabic-language newspaper al-Akhbar (which has been offering important reportage and commentary unavailable to the majority of English-speaking audiences). The report states that Israel has on the one hand been assassinating and arresting resistance leaders in the area, and on the other hand offering a series of appeasements in order to co-opt ordinary Syrians living there. But Israel has faced a problem: with each assassination of a resistance leader, popular sentiment only swings further and more forcefully towards the option of confrontation with Israel.

The current Israeli policy in occupied Golan was codified in 1981, when a bill called the “Golan Decision” was passed in the Knesset declaring Golan Heights part of “historic Israel.” From the Madrid “peace” talks in 1991, all the way through the 2000 Camp David accords and the 2007 negotiations in Turkey, Golan became a supposed obstacle to “peace” between Israel and Syria. A frequent reference point in official diplomatic peace attempts between Israel and Syria has been the “land-for-peace” formula. Invariably, the negotiation attempts failed, and Syria continues to refuse the legitimacy of Israel as a matter of official policy.

This refusal explains in part Israel’s actions throughout the war on Syria, as it has bombed Syrian Army or allied positions “hundreds of times,” according to war analyst Gary Brecher. Despite increased Israeli military pressure throughout the war, the Syrian government has persisted in its position on Israel. Faisal al-Makdad, Deputy-Foreign Minister of Syria, told al-Akhbar that current Israeli objectives are to force Syria to give up its role in Palestine and Lebanon; he reiterated that Syria would not give up more territory.

Armed sectarian rebel outfits have proliferated at the Israel-Syria border along the Golan. Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda outfit in Syria, has an especially firm stronghold there, and Daesh maintains an outpost right at the border. Israel has been citing the Syrian Army’s preoccupation with combatting these armed groups as sound justification for future Israeli rule of the area, arguing to both the United States and citizens of Golan that the Syrian state is far too fractured to secure the Golan. The Syrian state has been destroyed, the Israeli argument goes—there will be no liberation, so it is time to stop waiting.

Only aspects of this story have made it to Western press. For example, on January 13th, 2016, Newsweek published an article by Nour Samaha on how “Golan residents find their loyalties tested.” Samaha’s story did contain one of the more devious tactics Israel has been employing in an attempt to gain loyalty from residents: in order to participate in local municipal elections, the occupied Syrians must become Israeli citizens, an option the vast majority of Golan residents have refused since the beginning of Israel’s occupation of the area. As Samaha writes, “according to a Syrian intelligence source, only 667 Golan Syrians have taken the Israeli nationality since 1981 to date.”

But contrary to the picture painted in Newsweek and in The New York Times for that matter, Israel is not simply taking advantage of an opportunity in the form of the war in Syria. Rather, it is actively creating the opportunity by supporting and nourishing the sectarian armed groups with which the Syrian Army finds itself preoccupied. The most intriguing confirmation of this fact came when Israel arrested Druze resident Siqdi Maqdt for “espionage, aiding the enemy during wartime, supporting a terrorist organization, and contact with a foreign agent.” His specific offense was to document through photographs and written reports Israeli contacts with members of Jabhat al-Nusra, information he allegedly passed along to Syrian intelligence officials. Maqt had a resistance history of his own, having spent 27 years between the years 1985 and 2012 in jail on “terrorism” charges. Upon arraignment, Maqdt delivered a simple message to reporters: “I want to bless the Syrian nation, and its proud leader Bashar al-Assad.” Miqdi’s attitude reflects the wider spirit through the Golan now: despite Israel’s mixed approach of strike-and-assuage in order to push Syrians in occupied Golan towards Israel, the pro-Syrian sentiment among Golan residents, the general desire to return to Syria as Syrians, only continues to grow as the organizational capacity of the Syrian National Defence Forces and Hezbollah improves.

Israeli-Saudi Alliance

Hezbollah’s successes in occupied Golan have certainly played a role in the recent push against the organization emanating from the propaganda engines of the US-led bloc in the Middle East. This bloc includes most prominently Israel and Saudi Arabia, their long-term alliance—historically shrouded in dissimulation practiced by both states—an increasingly public affair bolstered by ever-accumulating shared near-term interests in the capitalist-imperialist order.

On December 24th,2015, the staunchly Zionist publication The Jerusalem Post published an analysis celebrating perceived gains made by Israel in a context extending well outside of the territories of the Golan Heights, within wider Arab opinion. “Kuntar killing boosts Israel’s image among anti-Assad forces,” the headline boasted. The article took note of a Syrian journalist, Faisal al-Qassem, whose disapproving Facebook memorial for Kuntar allegedly “generated tens of thousands of likes and shares.” The article also remarked with satisfaction that al-Qassem compared the “’patriotic’ yet murderous” regimes, taken to mean Arab republics such as the Syrian one, unfavorably with “the so-called ‘treacherous’ Arab governments that look out for their citizens,” taken to mean the Gulf states.

The article further conveyed a message from “a Syrian activist who is affiliated with the southern front of the Free Syrian Army,” who allegedly tweeted: “Thank you to the Israeli heroes who killed one of the most wicked terrorists, the murderer of children and babies. Samir Kuntar, rot in hell.” This elation constituted but one part of FSA output on the matter of Kuntar’s death. On December 24th, 2015, the same publication shared news that “members of the Free Syrian Army” released a video on YouTube taking credit for the killing of Kuntar and denying Hezbollah’s claim that Israel was behind the strike. Referring to Hezbollah as “the Party of Satan,” the FSA members asserted that Hezbollah’s claims about Israeli culpability for Kuntar’s death were in fact propaganda claims intended to downplay the achievements of the FSA.

These mixed messages from the FSA—on the one hand, merely celebrating Israeli involvement in Syria for the Kuntar killing, and on the other hand, claiming to have carried out the Kuntar killing in fulfillment of Israeli aims—are par for the course from an organization that functions under a generalized umbrella header without a centralized command structure and without a clear set of political principles. The history of the FSA in southern Syria has, however, been punctuated by reports about contact and even coordination with the IDF. In September of 2014, The Times of Israel reported that FSA members were making entreaties to Israel that the IDF establish an “anti-Assad no-fly zone” in order to “win the hearts of all Syrians.” In April of 2015, the same newspaper reported that the FSA was now sending Israel well wishes for its annual “Independence Day,” going so far as to hope openly that Israel celebrate its 68th anniversary at an Israeli embassy in Damascus.

Such reports coincided with suggestions that Israel would seek to outfit, in occupied Golan, a proxy force on the order of the South Lebanon Army—the organization with which Hezbollah found itself entrenched in combat in South Lebanon until Israel’s forced withdrawal in 2000. The scattered nature of these reports perhaps casts aspersion in many different directions and upon many different claims, chief among them the claim that Israel really is growing in popularity generally throughout the Arab world and that its on-the-ground positive image is not limited simply to the FSA and allied militias.

But one component remains certain: a hallmark of Israeli strategy is to divide Arab opinion, first of all by turning opinion against its most formidable enemies in the region. The identities of those enemies should be clear, despite countless efforts to obfuscate the issue. IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot recently went on the record to say that Hezbollah “today poses the most serious threat to Israel.” On January 14th, The Wall Street Journal confirmed sentiments long ago circulated by Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, that Israel prefers the “Sunnis” to the “Shi’ites.” This sectarian framing is a cover for the real point, which is geopolitical: Israel would like to increase relations with the Gulf states, as the two entities share a closeness with the United States and an animosity towards Iran. (Indeed, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon put it clearly: “If I have to choose between Iran and ISIS—I choose ISIS.”) The Wall Street Journal article quotes Dore Gold, director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry: “Clearly there’s been a convergence of interests between Israel and many Sunni Arab states given the fact that they both face identical challenges in the region.” The price for this alliance will be continued hostility towards the Palestinian cause on behalf of the Gulf monarchies.

Madaya and the New Anti-Hezbollah Propaganda 

True to the needs of this network of interests, a new atrocity-focused “humanitarian” media campaign emerged to target Hezbollah specifically, as opposed to the usual target of these campaigns, the Syrian Army. In one sense, the campaign came as part of a routine, but one example of a larger media habit around Syria in which one round of humanitarian crisis follows another, each additional breakdown demanding with it yet another round of outrage, of calls for some new form of management and intervention, with structural issues like capitalism and imperialism occupying conversational worlds well outside those inhabited by the think-tanks, NGOs, and social scientists in which discursive hegemony around the war is cemented. (Since think-tanks, NGOs and social scientists are crisis managers, it follows that they have a class interest in crises to manage; consequently, there must be democratic pedagogy dedicated to training media consumers to investigate the funding behind campaigns that apparently appear organically out of the ether.) In another sense, the campaign came as the newest addition to the imperial tradition of atrocity propaganda, which reached infamous heights in 1990 with the “incubator babies” testimony of Nayirah al-Ṣabaḥ.

Within the first week of 2016, the major US news conduits were reporting that Madaya—a Syrian town near the Lebanese border—was under a hunger-inducing siege so severe that residents were being reduced to eating leaves. Photographs of starving people—many of them later proven to be false and some of them taken from contexts outside of Syria—were furnished by anonymous activists and run on prominent Internet sources ranging from AJ+ (known for running roughly sixty-second clips on complex subject matters) to VICE News. Everywhere the culprit was the same: the “Shi’ite militia” Hezbollah had cut off Madaya and insisted on using starvation as a weapon of war.

The campaign has caught on in presses aimed at Arab audiences. The Middle East Monitor referred to Madaya as a “concentration camp where Hezbollah starves people to death,” proposing parallels between Hezbollah and Nazis. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood—one of the major forces in the Syrian uprising, especially in the early stages—tweeted out an image of Hassan Nasrallah hiding snake-like behind a young civilian with a target painted on his chest. The image was notable for mirroring one of Israel’s most heavily employed psychological operations during its 2006 war with Hezbollah, which showed Nasrallah “hiding while Lebanese civilians are killed by…explosions” and “the Hezbollah leader behind three bound Lebanese civilians.” The image was, therefore, an appropriate visual for the emergent political relations of the Levant.

Before even addressing the specifics of what we know about the situation in Madaya, it is possible to flag this media campaign as explicitly political in its aims, a far cry from a neutral and purely altruistic bout of awareness-raising. After all, as an ongoing site civil and international proxy war, starvation and siege is all too common throughout Syria. One such siege has been inflicted upon the northwestern towns of Foua and Kafayra. Journalist Eva Bartlett, who has reported from Syria extensively over the past two years, attempted to bring attention to the plight of these towns as far back as August of 2015. Journalist Leith Abou Fadel commented that he and others had worked extensively to bring wider attention of Foua and Kafayra, to no avail. The reason for the lack of receptiveness is clear: Foua and Kafayra are mostly Shi’i towns, their humanitarian crises unambiguously caused by the anti-government rebel forces, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. Their plight is not politically expedient.

In its official response to media allegations, Hezbollah pointed out that these very organizations control Madaya. The relative lack of attention brought to this fact in the flurries of tweets and news articles produced in English about Madaya is perhaps upon first glance rather curious considering how these two organizations had carried out a joint campaign of massacre and forced conversion against Druze populations after their armed takeover over Idlib. Upon a second glance, the omission should not be so surprising, as Ahrar al-Sham has been given editorial space by The Washington Post, where it modeled itself as a “moderate” organization.

Another claim by Hezbollah related food prices in Madaya. On October 18th of 2015, Hezbollah claimed, “tens of trucks” delivered food aid to the besieged town. The armed groups running the town proceeded to monopolize the food supply and hike the prices. On January 15, Foreign Policy published an article addressing the high food prices—the aspect of Madaya’s siege that makes it “different from Fuaa and Kefraya,” in the words of the article—while still pinning the blame on Hezbollah and refusing to consider the accusations against Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the other armed groups controlling Madaya.

The Foreign Policy article additionally pinned blame on the United Nations, labeling the institution at the very moment it was preparing more food aid to go into Madaya “complicit” with the government in Damascus, leading to the unstated conclusion that moral responsibility for the humanitarian crisis of Syria should fall elsewhere (say, the United States or its preferred NGOs). Significantly, the article’s main source of information is the Syria Campaign, an NGO funded by oil and gas industry billionaire Ayman Asfari, himself a Syrian exile based in Britain. The Syria Campaign manages several other projects; at least two of them—Planet Syria and the White Helmets—openly advocate for military intervention in Syria. The White Helmets, publicized as a civilian network, operates largely in “areas in Aleppo and Idlib controlled by Nusra.” Video footage has circulated on the Internet allegedly showing White Helmet members assisting in an execution.

Conspicuously missing from most English-language discussion of Madaya is the extensive evidence that lends credence to Hezbollah’s claims. There exists video footage featuring testimony from Madaya residents corroborating exactly what Hezbollah has been saying: that is, the anti-government fighters fully control the town’s food supply and charge outrageous prices for the most basic of food items. Even footage released by the BBC features Madaya residents yelling at anti-government rebel fighters, “You are not hungry! We are!”

A ground report from Madaya in al-Akhbar further corroborates claims against the rebels. Madaya residents confirmed al-Akhbar that the armed groups control the distribution of food. In addition to Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra presence, the report stated, there is to a lesser extent a presence of the Free Syrian Army and Daesh, the relationship between each of the organizations complicated by the fact that their membership all come from the area. Furthermore, many families wish to leave the town hosting roughly 23, 000, but are prevented from doing so by roughly 600 armed men. One interviewee told the newspaper that members of the armed groups know the family backgrounds of townspeople and commit acts of revenge.

Hezbollah’s official statement also made the claim that a ceasefire agreement had been worked out the rebels in Madaya, but that “external backers” gave orders to stay put. Who are those external backers? This is the kind of question that the better part of Western coverage of Madaya—indeed, the better part of Western coverage of Syria in general—seems designed to ignore or suppress. Humanitarian crises multiply, demanding a reinvigorated emotional response, while the political roots of the crises remain off-limits, or in the case of Madaya are inverted outright. Goebbels would be proud, really.

What is Next?

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As the popular Syrian resistance to Israel, supported by Hezbollah at logistical levels, continues to spread in the occupied Golan, anti-Hezbollah propaganda will continue to flourish in parallel. The prospect of a Syrian front of resistance to Israeli rule clearly worries Zionist state planners for short-term and long-term reasons. On a short-term basis, a successful Syrian resistance will thwart Israeli ambitions to annex Syrian territory. On a long-term basis, it will threaten Israel’s broader regional agenda, particularly on a front Israel had long counted on to be quiet.

As increased attention has been rightly paid to the Palestinian struggle among activist communities in the West over the past decade, it remains crucial to remember a few points. First, that Israel is not exclusively a threat to the Palestinian people—its policies aim to achieve hegemony over the region as whole, slaughtering the heirs to Samir Kuntar by name and face and slaughtering countless other Arabs as a matter of simple imperial course. Second, that Israel’s efforts to destabilize will only sharpen as its political relations with the Gulf States strengthen in a set of bonds. Those bonds are still overwhelmingly formed under the directive of US imperialism. It was not long after Saudi Arabia had announced its “final” decision to invade Syria before backing off and saying it required approval from the “US-led coalition.” This ought to remind us clearly as to the hierarchy of power in the world and allow us to shape our resistance efforts accordingly.

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Between Dictatorships

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Since the United States assumed its current position as leading world power, and especially since the fall of its chief geopolitical rival the Soviet Union, debate has frequently appeared around the international “human rights regime.” An ideological framework with hegemonic reach, the international human rights regime arose out of the blood and ashes of two world wars spanning the first half of the 20th century. Between the specters of racist massacres of minority populations in Europe (eventually to be defined as genocide) and the totalizing warfare created by international aggressions perpetrated by particular states, most damagingly by Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1945, the victorious powers of the second world war developed a basic framework for international moral norms enshrined within and protected by a set of laws. This framework, finding ripest expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the newly formed United Nations in December of 1948, quickly fell into multiple crises of credibility.

The first crisis faced by the new legal system was an internal dispute having to do with its aims: would it aspire to protect minority populations from their own governments, within the borders of sovereign nation-states, or would it primarily seek to protect the sovereignty of nation-states, to safeguard the international peace that had been violated with Nazi Germany’s aggressive, war-making invasions? The answer to this question would determine political power, as the various nation-states defining the newly established “rights”—most prominently, the United States and the Soviet Union—sought to leverage those rights in their geopolitical favor.

The second crisis had to do with the very content and definition of rights—where rights come from, what they should provide and for whom. This debate extended to a contest between “negative” rights and “positive” rights, again forwarded by the United States and the Soviet Union, respectively.

The third crisis arose in relation to the unipolar dominance of the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union. With no challenge to the US definition of rights and its attendant power to enforce that definition, the very idea of “human rights” fell into a performative contradiction wherein the enforcement of human rights itself became further consolidated as a tool for the systematic violation of those very alleged rights by the self-appointed enforcer.

If we seek to untangle the web of contradictions encompassed by the international human rights regime, we ought to return to earlier eras and compare and contrast the respective legacies carved out by the United States and its major challenger, the Soviet Union, on the major questions pertaining to human rights. Here I will examine the origins of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by examining the debates carried out around it by the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union. Then, I will look at the human rights envisaged and enforced by the United States and the Soviet Union on domestic levels. Finally, I will turn to the contemporary use of “human rights” by the United States ideologically, as it utilizes them to erode the authority of the very entities and texts that gave rise to the international human rights regime in the first place, resulting in what Stephen Gowans recently described as the “international dictatorship of the United States.” Above all, I want to use the occasion to wonder what was lost with the fall of the Soviet Union, consequently asking what could be gained by returning to its conception of human rights.

The Origins of the International Human Rights Regime

The exact locomotive for the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains a source of controversy. One part of the debate—that spearheaded by the West and its ideological schemas—highlights the role of key Western individual activists, their impetus allegedly a moral one. A broader thesis, which allows more room for socio-political and historical explanations, points to widespread revulsion at the aggressive military behavior of Nazi Germany, often interpreted as a symptom of global lawlessness.

Earlier articulations in favor of such a declaration, beginning at the close of the First World War with the League of Nations, cited the precedent of the Armenian genocide, carried out by Ottoman authorities amid the collapse of the empire during World War I. The attention to the Armenian genocide was part of the first alleged justification for a global regime of protection against human rights violations: to form an international defense against the destruction of group minorities. (It is worth pointing out that this expressed purpose potentially contradicts the traditional Enlightenment view of human rights as an inheritance, an inalienable prize, the violation of which occurs in primarily an individualistic capacity.)

For its part in addressing this concern, Japan proposed that the League commit itself to racial equality. Despite some level of support from other states, the great powers forcefully put down the proposal. Indeed, the goal of protecting the collective rights of minority ethnic and religious groups fell into disrepute between the most powerful drafters—the United States and Great Britain—once they realized such a norm could be used against them, entrenched as these two nations were in systems of racial hierarchy tailored to colonial ends. For the United States, the concern was largely domestic as it maintained an anti-Black legal regime that facilitated a high prevalence of white vigilante violence against American citizens of African descent within US borders. For Great Britain, the concern was mainly about its policies in its colonial holdings, including but not limited to Ireland and India.

A turning point emerged for the League-led international system with the disposal of the Weimar Republic and the ascendance in Germany of the Nazi Party, headed by Adolf Hitler. Withdrawing from the League of Nations, Hitler announced Germany’s rejection at the organization’s perceived call for the global assimilation of nations. Germany’s new mission would be dedicated to its own nation, to preserving its superior particularities. As described by Mark Mazower, German publications swiftly began the work of cultivating and spreading the new Nazi ideology:

“Within a short time, the implications of this approach were being drawn out in the legal and political science journals of the new Germany. Denying that international law had any validity, jurists in the Third Reich now argued that ‘the nation comes before humanity’. Each racial group, according to some, possessed its own conception of law, making the idea of a global political society a nonsense.”

Mazower quotes one such journal directly:

“[It is not thereby asserted] that the fundamental moral ideas of the German people are also to be considered as binding upon the so-called international community … It should never, and shall never, be our function to convert by example to German legal notions the negro republic of Liberia, or Abyssinia, or Red Russia, in order to construct a genuine society of nations of universal character.”

The race program embraced by Nazi Germany constituted a virulent form of reaction, fomented at both material and philosophic levels. Germany found itself destroyed and indebted after the First World War. The German ruling class embarked on the creation of a new explanation for world misery, adapted from old style liberalism. Traditional blood-and-soil justifications for the nation-state began to mix in syncretic fashion with scientific racism engineered in the United States, a society itself grounded settler-colonial expansion for the sake of a primitive accumulation staked on the extermination of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of African-descended peoples. Germany’s own imperial failures were given scapegoats. Any ideologies and peoples that could be associated with the idea of equality and with the expansion of “rights”—that is, of human rights—allegedly undermined the uniquely tremendous qualities of the German nation. Paradoxically, liberalism was among the new Germany’s targeted ideologies. For liberalism introduced the idea of rights to the modern world made in its image, even if its foundational right to property served as justification for the racist ideologies of the modern world.

Domenico Losurdo has argued that the Nazi ideology embraced by one of Germany’s most widely read and revered philosophers, Martin Heidegger, was also undertaken as an effort to preserve the particularities of the German nation against the universalist ethics of liberalism and its attendant rationalism:

“Modernity is synonymous with subversion, since with its universalist ideologies (liberalism, democracy, communism) it destroys the communitarian and traditional bonds that unite the members of a given people and separates this same people from its territory and history. Inevitably, the critique of modernity ends up also concerning Jews. The black notebooks [by Heidegger] confirm this: present in many countries and attached to urban rather than rural life, Jews are the incarnation of ‘rootlessness’, ‘distance from the soil’ and thus subversion. And again, this attitude is far from surprising to the Heidegger scholar: the 2 October 1929 letter in which the philosopher emphasises the need to oppose ‘growing Judaisation within German spiritual life’, reinforcing this by rooting it in authentically German forces, is already well-known.”

Anti-egalitarianism, used concretely to promote the superiority of the German nation and proposed immunity from the very concept of international law, was thus linked intimately to anti-Semitism. Losurdo emphasizes that Heidegger’s “Judeophobia came at a moment when across the west as a whole, on both sides of the Atlantic, there was a widespread view that the true culprits for the October Revolution were Jews.” In drawing a comparison between the anti-Semitic views of American industry tycoon Henry Ford and those of Heidegger, Losurdo further reminds readers that “the origins of nazism and the ideological motives inspiring it were not exclusively German.” While Nazi reaction desired to destroy liberalism for its theoretical gestures towards equality and rights, its language and ideas would have been inconceivable without liberalism’s paradoxically exclusivist innovations.

Significantly, Losurdo traces the fascist critique of liberalism to Germany’s material devastation, carried out in the name of “imperial universalism” and “universal interventionism,” citing specifically Napolean III’s expansionism and war waged in the name of the “universal” values of “democracy” and of liberal “civilization.” The Second World War ended with a victory for the torch-bearers of that very legacy, even though it was the Soviet Red Army that made the most substantial sacrifices to put an end to the Nazi machine’s relentless race war. When the victorious powers began to plan the new world order, replacing the League of Nations with the United Nations, they established that liberalism would remain the preeminent ideological substructure for the aims of capital, as liberalism—whatever its historic relationship to fascism—had for the moment withstood fascist challenge at both the levels of war and criticism.

The philosophic underpinning for this new world order became the subject of international debate immediately after the war’s end. The substance of those debates reveal the extent to which our contemporary world, insofar as the United Nations serves as a global point of reference, is fundamentally the outcome of an American project. By 1945, the general American desire for “isolationism” had passed. Instead, America would embrace a new universalism in its image. The turn had been presaged in Franklin Roosevelt’s State of the Union address in 1941, in which he declared the “supremacy of human rights everywhere” as the task of the future, “a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our time and generation.”

But as this “supremacy” was being realized through the UN, the new basis for the state of colonial exception to universal human rights was outlined. Britain found itself once again concerned for its policies of racial segregation in South Africa as it yet again balked at the implications for the future. The British leadership still signed on to the project in hopes of enlisting the United States, the emergent superpower with domestic racist policies of its own, as a bulwark of support, seeing plainly that wherever the US went, and whatever it decided to do, it would take the world with it.

Britain’s fears threatened to materialize in several ways. Like Japan before it, China made an intervention, requesting a provision specifically addressing the issue of racial equality. The NAACP used the UN to issue an appeal regarding denial of human rights to African-Americans in the United States. If appeals regarding South Africa were to arise, the leading powers of the UN could point to the organization’s goal not to “impose standards but only to proclaim them.” Soon, however, it became apparent that the relaxed view held by the leading powers towards the plight of Black South Africans did not transfer to the conditions of national minorities in Eastern Europe, where the Soviet bloc stood surest. Human rights were fast becoming the ultimate political weapon. Once more, the final statement would fall to the Americans, who would resolve the nascent contradictions by “posing as defenders of both universal human rights and domestic state rights,” in the words of Mazower, implicitly inscribing within themselves the right to dictate the terms of both categories.

For its part, the Soviet Union abstained from signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, claiming that the rights were “meaningless without a strong central State in charge of health, education and welfare.” It further charged that the West would use the enumerated rights as a pretext to meddle in the internal affairs of the USSR. In response, the USSR pressed a case for the right of national sovereignty. These concerns—the relative importance of economic social rights as well as national sovereignty—would become ideological fault lines during the ensuing Cold War, as the comparative consequences of the rival worldviews naturally played out in the domestic spheres of both states, the USA and the USSR.

The Cold War over Right

The prominence of the Soviet Union opened up space—with the UN often serving as a vessel for propaganda—within which a Marxist critique of liberalism, and its language of human rights, could be mounted. Indeed, the accusations tossed back and forth between the United States and the Soviet Union about “human rights abuses” throughout the 20th century frequently fell into discursive traps. Quite simply, the two countries were speaking two different languages, building arguments upon radically estranged theories. Whereas the United States built a regime on natural law, the Soviet Union constructed one on the basis of class, namely the working class. Whereas the United States prized negative rights and freedom of the individual, the Soviet Union valued positive rights and liberation of the collective. And whereas the United States favored the theory of a diverse marketplace (the wellspring for its theory of democracy), the Soviet Union established its rule on the theory of dialectical materialism. Lying underneath each of these competing notions was the battle between capitalism and socialism.

As Doriane Lambelet writes, “it is crucial that the West understand that the Soviets have a coherent, logically consistent legal theory that shapes their perspective on human rights.” While the rights of the individual emphasized by Western critics of Soviet collectivism are believed by adherents to be naturally endowed, staking their argument on the “natural law” theories of John Locke, practitioners of dialectical materialism determine that rights—if they are to exist at all—are man-created, or to be more accurate, class-created. On this point, Albert Syzmanski quotes Christopher Cauldwell:

“What to the proletarian is liberty—the extermination of those bourgeois institutions and relations which hold them in captivity—is necessarily compulsion and restraint to the bourgeois, just as the old bourgeois liberty generated non-liberty for the worker. The two notions of liberty are irreconcilable. Once the proletariat is in power, all attempts to re-establish bourgeois social relations will be attacks on proletarian liberty, and will therefore be repulsed as fiercely as all men repulse attacks on their liberty. This is the meaning of the dictatorship of the proletariat [emphasis added] and why, with it, there is censorship, ideological acerbity and all the other devices developed by the bourgeois in the evolution of the coercive state which secures its freedom.”

Syzmanski offers an example to illustrate the point, asking in the process, “how does one judge the superiority of right?” Is the right of an upper class doctor to leave to seek higher pay above the right of a worker to receive his services, especially when it is considered that the worker made the doctor’s materially abundant life possible? For adherents to the Western liberal tradition, the answer to the question is likely an axiomatic yes. From the Marxist-Leninist perspective, neither the doctor nor the worker is objectively correct, as they are both acting in their class interests. The normative answer to the question for the Marxist-Leninist thus becomes, the worker is correct, for he belongs to the revolutionary class, the class whose claims in this instance are more progressive on account of that fact that its rule is the imperative of the future. And if the upper class doctor’s perspective had been fulfilled and legitimized by years of bourgeois dictatorial rule (no matter how “democratic” its guises), its standards belonging to the rule of yesterday, the worker’s perspective shall be fulfilled in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

“The dictatorship of the proletariat”—a candid phrase. It may be said simply that the bourgeoisie’s ideology (such as its ideology of “human rights”) arose as an emanation of its class needs and existence. One might add that the proletariat equipped with Marxist theory would, as the final revolutionary class, in fact be the first revolutionary class to recognize ideology as a phenomenon by virtue of thinking outside the world it inherited, and thus be able to shape its own world—“the new world,” so to speak—consciously. (Althusser went as far as to argue that “Soviet humanism” marked a “revisionist” turn away from the scientific principles of Marxism for its incorporation of the humanist ideology of the bourgeoisie, for the language of “rights” and “morals,” two primary pillars of humanism, was a dead-end if it stalled the deliverance of the proletariat’s necessary place as the final class in history.) This honest expression of class dictatorship is in actuality intended as an expression of democracy. Syzmanski explains the logic of one-party rule in the Soviet Union:

“It is… argued that it is possible for a single party to be authentically democratic provided it maintains firm roots among the most respected members of the working class and peasantry, who transmit the sentiments and interests of average working people, through the Party’s apparatus, to its leading bodies and hence to all social institutions. This conception of democracy reverts to the original usage of the term as rule by the people, rejecting the contemporary notion, predominant in Western parliamentary democracies, that popular rule is possible only by the more or less open competition of different political parties in periodic elections. The Marxist analysis of such multiparty parliamentary forms is that they can be easily manipulated, through a wide range of instrumental and structural mechanisms, to serve the propertied class and their economic system, while single party working-class based systems are much more responsive to the needs of working-class people, that is, are authentically democratic in the original sense of the term.”

Furthermore, Lambelet outlines why “human rights activists” and dissidents, so often axiomatically supported in the West, would so often be treated as menaces in the USSR:

“Dissent by individuals targeted at the socialist system is seen as an individual action against the people themselves. Because the collective is more important than the individual, the individual who attacks the collective will of the people must be repressed. Thus, dissent against the system contradicts the most basic tenets of socialism and illustrates the ideological necessity for repressing dissent.”

The “human rights movement” would further be seen, in large sections of Soviet society, as disloyal. If the safeguard of “the dictatorship of the proletariat”—which is how the 1936 constitution explicitly defined the country’s system—was the State, and the dictatorship of the proletariat was the exercised power of the revolutionary working class, the state was therefore not only the guarantor or protector or promulgator of the people’s rights, but their actual deliverer.

What did those rights look like in themselves? And what did those rights look like in contrast to Western liberal rights? In the realm of political rights, sexism and racism were directly addressed, in sharp contrast to the Western liberal tradition that claims to serve individuals as individuals. The 1936 constitution for the Soviet Union established in Article 123 that all races are equal and, more decisively, that “any advocacy of racial or national exclusiveness or hatred and contempt, is punishable by law.” Anti-Semitism, a particularly sinister form of racism in Europe in the early part of the 20th century, was banned at even earlier dates. In 1918, for instance, “the Council of People’s Commissars called for the destruction of ‘the anti-Semitic movement at its roots’ by forbidding ‘pogromists and persons inciting to pogroms.’”

On the question of gender, Article 122 stipulated that “the possibility of exercising these rights is ensured to women by granting them an equal right with men to work, payment for work, rest and leisure, social insurance and education, and by state protection of the interests of mother and child, prematernity and maternity leave with full pay, and the provision of a wide network of maternity homes, nurseries and kindergartens.” Similar in spirit, Article 137 established that “women have the right to elect and be elected on equal terms with men.” The progressive rights afforded to women dovetailed with newly won rights for the sundry nationalities that fell under Russian rule, dating back to the pre-revolution days of the Tsar and the Russian Empire.

By the time the Soviet government was established, over one hundred and fifty nationalities fell under its administration. In Central Asia, most of those nationalities held strongly onto feudal and overall patriarchal attitudes towards women’s rights. The trick for the Soviet authorities was to undermine patriarchal practices that held women back as a class without launching an ideological assault on the prevailing Islamic belief system, obviously held to esteem by its adherents. A secular education program was implemented alongside traditional Islamic teaching. According to Anna Louise Strong’s The Stalin Era, in Muslim territories, women “set up welfare clinics where native women unveiled in each other’s presence.” In these spaces, “the rights of women…were discussed.” Additionally, “big public trials were held of husbands who murdered wives; the pressure of the new propaganda gave the death sentence for what old custom had not considered a crime.” Yet, Islam was not attacked as such; rather, the freedom of religion was regarded as a crucial aspect of the right to national self-determination, which would become a defining right of the new Soviet Republic in contrast to the lexicon of rights propagated throughout the West. Upon assuming power, the Bolsheviks issued a statement to Muslim nations:

“Muslims of Russia, Tartars of the Volga and the Crimea, Kirgiz and Sarts of Siberia and Tukestan, Chechens and mountain Cossacks! All you, whose mosques and shrines have been destroyed, whose faith and customs have been violated by the Tsars and oppressors of Russia! Henceforth your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions, are declared free and inviolable! Build your national life freely and without hindrance. It is your right. Know that your rights, like those of all the peoples of Russia, will be protected by the might of the Revolution, by the councils of workers, soldiers, peasants, deputies!”

Perhaps the most defining feature of the Soviet system of rights was its emphasis on positive rights rather than negative rights. In contrast to the Western system of rights, which foregrounded the right of the individual from violations of the state (violations of speech, religion, the press, etc.—failing to acknowledge the relative usefulness of these rights depending on social class and the ownership of media production), the Soviet system played up the importance of the right of individuals to certain social goods and standards of living. Article 118 of the 1936 Soviet Constitution guaranteed all citizens “the right to work,” along with “the socialist organization of the national economy, the steady growth of the productive forces of Soviet society, the elimination of the possibility of economic crises, and the abolition of unemployment.” Article 119 ensured “the right to rest and leisure” and “the reduction of the working day to seven hours for the overwhelming majority of the workers, the institution of annual vacations with full pay for workers and employees and the provision of a wide network of sanatoria, rest homes and clubs for the accommodation of the working people.” None of this is to say that the Soviet system forewent negative rights altogether. Personal property was sharply distinguished from private property, and Article 128 affirmed that “the inviolability of the homes of citizens and privacy of correspondence [were] protected by law.”

The updates contained in the 1977 Soviet Constitution were partially caused by abandonment of the political leadership of founding principles of the Soviet state—above all, there was lost a fidelity to the philosophy of dialectical materialism. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” was removed from the Constitution, replaced by the phrase “All People’s Government.” Vestiges of the founding principles nonetheless endured, in particular the emphasis on positive rights and social welfare. In fact, the breadth of those rights increased on account of the growth of the country’s productive forces. Article 18 protected the rights of the environment, of the need to “make scientific, rational use of the land and its mineral and water resources, and the plant and animal kingdoms, to preserve the purity of air and water, ensure reproduction of natural wealth, and improve the human environment.” Article 21 pressed for the replacement of human labor with machines. Cultural rights, the deservedness of every human being to the splendors of art, were enumerated, and world peace was listed as an ultimate goal. We should not be allowed to forget that, despite the fact that war in its various forms will be inevitable so long as class war is necessary.

The Global Dictatorship of the United States

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In 2010, it was reported that the population of the City of Fallujah in Iraq was suffering from chillingly low rates of infant mortality and shockingly high rates of cancer, leukemia, and deformation, exceeding even “those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.” The suspected culprit behind the rates is depleted uranium and white phosphorous. Concurrently, the nearby Palestinian people find themselves under a sixty-plus year assault, perpetual targets of assassination and siege. In the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian population languishes in an imperial cage, on their every side either insurmountable walls or harsh sea, with colonial snipers and hovering drones watching their movements to ensure they stay packed like herd animals on the sliver of earth allotted to them. They live in the ruins of refugee camps. The conditions of both these people, the Iraqis and the Palestinians, are owed to the newest overlord of world order: the United States, which purports to continue the old civilizing dream so coveted by Napoleon III before it.

The United Nations, would-be watcher of transgressions against human dignity, was in fact from its beginnings a creature of the hegemonic United States, but never more so after the demise of its Soviet critic. The right of nations to self-determination—a notion protected by national sovereignty—fell out of favor. To prove the point, we need not look further than the UN’s consecration of Zionism, which leads us to the ongoing torment against the Palestinians. (To see evidence of how anti-colonial movements sought to use the UN against the imperialists that created it, we need look no further than UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, which declared Zionism a form of racism and received support from the majority of the world.) Ironically, the Soviet Union counted itself as the first nation to recognize the independence of Israel. When the United States and Israel embraced one another as allies, the new Soviet campaign against Zionist reaction and world imperialism began. And unsurprisingly, the Palestinian position within the UN decreased considerably after the loss of the Soviet Union.

In the face of this empire and its human rights industry, the shadow of the Soviet critique sometimes still appears. The question is asked: how can the arbiter of human rights not only allow the violations against the peoples of Iraq and Palestine, but actually commit them? The United States stands indicted for hypocrisy and “double standards,” they say. But the indictment is myopic. For this empire pursues not double standards, but a single one, destroying its challengers and celebrating its accommodators. After all, if you make the rules, why should you feel compelled to follow them?

Again, as part of that shadow of the Soviet critique, anti-colonial campaigns are waged in the UN arena, with perhaps less vigor than the days of old, but no less importance. And in deciding the UN’s role in the world, the politics of genocide returns in places as disparate as Rwanda, Bosnia, and Sudan. Within the UN, the questions of who killed whom, and how, and how many, are disputed, and while the answers to the question presented as a purely moral venture, the endeavor is entirely political. In the end, the hegemonic determiner of truths will be the decider of right and wrong and the ultimate enforcer of rights. As such, old questions about power and human rights linger. Which right shall reign supreme and lead the way to peace in this world, the global protection against genocide or the protection of sovereignty against imperial aggression? Far too often it is forgotten that our assigned cautionary tale, Nazi Germany (“assigned” insofar as the extermination of the native peoples of North America is not our benchmark, for reasons of politics and historical happenstance), stood guilty of both.

Added to the suffering of Iraq and Palestine is the recent dismemberment of Libya and Syria. The language of genocide was invoked to justify the “responsibility to protect” (“R2P”) Libyans as the claim was furnished in Western media that the Libyan government was planning a city-razing extermination campaign in the eastern city of Benghazi. The actual life-saving military campaign, carried out by NATO with the United States playing a typically pivotal role, revealed the contradiction that had come to dominate the heart of the US’s role as self-anointed savior to the subjugated and violated multitudes, albeit belatedly, after the war’s finish and the Libyan government’s overthrow. NATO, supposedly assigned to a life-saving mission, carried out and enabled many massacres of its own—including massacres specifically targeting a minority population, in this case Black and sub-Saharan African. The attention typically paid to anti-Black racism by progressive outlets amounted to precious little in an instant.  In August of 2011, at the tail end of the bombing campaign, The Independent reported that, in the words of an interviewee, “any black African in Libya is open to summary arrest unless he can prove that he was not a member of Colonel Gaddafi’s forces.” And how did they “prove” they are not members of Colonel Gaddafi’s forces? Exactly. As debate raged around the NATO intervention and the “people’s revolution” it was supposedly saving, the needs of potential and imagined victims hid the fate of actual victims, an unspeakable propaganda crime for which nobody was made to pay after the media apparatus moved on from its Libya triumphalism to the next subject of NATO interest. 

The fate of Libya was, of course, part of a pattern of which Palestine and Iraq were also part. Syria became added to the list as it was reported that, from 2011 onward, the United States was covertly arming “rebel fighters” to carry out attacks against the Syrian government. Perhaps more than ever, the right to self-determination had fallen by the wayside. Based on new political realities—again, in a world without the Soviet Union—the United States had made what appears to be a final decision on the direction of human rights in the world, away from national sovereignty and towards the protection of threatened populations, the truth of those threats decided by none other than the United States. Observing this state of affairs, and noting openly the US policy to arm and train rebel fighters against his government, Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Ja’afari made reference to a commitment on which the US had apparently turned its back, one contained in a document the US had also helped to bring into existence:

“The UN has lost its credibility. The UN has lost a lot of the principles of its founding fathers. The UN of today has nothing to do with the UN of the Charter. This is why everybody has forgotten about the Charter; people do not speak of the Charter. They don’t speak about sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence, equality among members. Now they speak about the rule of law, human rights, the environment — because this is very dear to the heart of the private sector: money — partnerships. Now the Secretary-General is focused on partnerships, because he wants to privatize the United Nations.

“The budget of peacekeeping operations is three times higher than the regular budget! Rather than extinguishing the conflicts, and decreasing the number of peacekeeping operations, we have increased the peace-keeping operations. We have right now 36 special political missions, aside from 15 peacekeeping operations. Twenty years ago, we didn’t have any special political missions. This is a new phenomenon. By the way, the special political missions and the peace-keeping operations are not in the Charter. These are some of the ways they are deviating from the Charter itself. Together they consume $7.9 billion per year. And they are solving nothing.”

Re-deploying the old method of using the United Nations as a propaganda forum in which to mount anti-colonial or postcolonial arguments, Jaafari traces his own critique back to the system that triumphed (for the time being) when the Soviet Union folded, that is, capitalism. The new language for human rights, he suggests, is about profits. Saving lives, as it were, has become the latest major money-making scheme.

With “human rights” turned into profits, the void left by the Soviet challenge to the capitalist definition of right becomes more obvious than ever. The Soviet Union once preserved that challenge not simply by presenting arguments at the United Nations, but by offering material backing to actualize broader principles such as national liberation, itself a marker for self-determination. And in Palestine, Iraq, Libya, and Syria (to make only a beginning for a much longer list) self-determination is what continues to be so stringently denied. Lost is the right for a nation to decide what the word “right” even means. Without that ability, whatever other rights we may discover or create become gambits for the powerful, when it is the powerful whose caprices the concept of “human rights” should be designed to prevent if the phrase is to have any meaning at all.

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b021122w 22th November 2002 NATO Summit Meeting in Prague, Czech Republic North Atlantic Council Meeting at the level of Heads of State and Government. Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council Summit Meeting. – General View

Anti-Imperialism at a Crossroads

As the United States and its NATO coalition planned and executed a bloody proxy assault against Syria, it was exceedingly difficult for a time to find media outlets providing much-needed skepticism about the “revolution” packaging the Western media apparatus had assigned the war. And for that time, Russia Today—as the propaganda outlet of a counter-hegemonic state—provided exactly that service. But as the scope of US-led regime change operations increased, so did the size of the refugee population, adding even more urgency to questions around refugees. As the United States and Europe violated the sovereignty of postcolonial Middle Eastern states at will, they raised their own borders more vigilantly than ever, eager to keep out the “barbarian hordes.” Right-wing culturalist tropes began to be raised about the ostensible threat the dispossessed masses of the Middle East posed to the “traditional values” of “Western civilization.” Among the leading perpetrator circulating those tropes has been Russia Today. Here we see plainly another one of the largest vacancies left by the demise of the Soviet Union.

In the era of the Soviet Union, the flag of anti-imperialism was carried ably by the Soviet bloc, placing the cause firmly into a framework including also anti-racism, the right to self-determination of oppressed nations, and above all, socialism. While there is currently no shortage of movements and even states still upholding these values, it helps us to remember that the bourgeois Russian state that secured power by means of long-percolating counterrevolution, does not reliably propagate such values, even if it differs from the United States dramatically as a social, economic, and political formation. “Health scare in Denmark as refugees bring back diphtheria after 20yr absence,” reads one recent RT headline, framing refugees as a diseased alien force threatening the literal health of the European body politic. Another recent RT article decries “feminist apologetics” for “sexual assault” carried out by “Muslim refugees,” instructing European men to reclaim the masculinity that is the core of Europeanness.

This is fascist ideology spread by RT as a scapegoat, a result of the Russian bourgeoisie’s refusal to lay direct blame for groups like Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra on the highest culprit: the United States. Vladimir Putin has come close enough to naming the US, implying that he certainly knows full well how it works and why. In 2014, at the Valdai International Discussion Club, Putin said: “Do you really not understand who is fighting in Syria? They are mercenaries, mostly. Do you understand they are paid money? Mercenaries fight for whichever side pays more. So they arm them and pay them a certain amount. I even know what these amounts are.” But as time has rolled on, the Russian bourgeoisie has pursued a line suggesting the Daesh is out of control of the US, which might have interests of its own in destroying the organization. Although it has objectively served as a counterweight to the US regime change operation in Syria, preserving pieces of a state the US has sought to destroy, the Russian state’s true interests lie at the moment in quite simply upholding sovereignty and the international system at its most elementary level—an aim that in itself ought to be supported in opposition to US lawlessness—and not in confronting either imperialism or capitalism as such, as workers’ states would seek to do.

The result has been at times politically confusing. On the one hand, liberal imperialists have generally been relatively welcoming to refugees, showing public concern for their plight, after having spent years cheering on the destructions of their home countries in the name of “progressive” movements. When they have not opted outright for the role of cheerleader, liberal imperialists have effectively forestalled holistic critique of US imperialism in the age of Obama, and in the process short-circuited militant oppositional movements, insisting that an unapologetic rejection of the US campaigns in Syria and Libya is a disgraceful denial of the “agency” of supposed movements we might otherwise help bring to victory by signaling virtuous concern on the internet. On the other hand, the media role of organizations like RT in fomenting opposition to imperialist regime change threatens to embolden among anti-imperialists nativist elements in the United States and Europe, which reject regime change not out of internationalist solidarity with its victims, but out of a fear that violations of sovereignty threaten cultural homogeneity. Consequently, right-wing “anti-imperialists” are often anti-refugee.

In order to reclaim the internationalist and anti-imperialist legacy bequeathed by Marxism-Leninism, it will be necessary to reiterate and explain that right-wing “anti-imperialists”— Third Positionists, American constitutionalists and libertarians, and so on—are in fact not anti-imperialist at all, only appearing to be anti-imperialist in the face of left media networks in service to the interventionists, from ’68 leftist intellectuals such as Bernard Henri-Levy to old-style Yankee crusaders for the White Man’s Burden such as John McCain. The concretization of regime change as official policy comes out of the demands of finance capital, but there is nonetheless an ongoing debate within imperialism about how it should be managed. It must be kept in mind, for example, that right-wing libertarians in the United States, while objecting to regime change doctrine, wish to save the United States, not to put an end to the settler-colonial prisonhouse of nations built on genocidal property claims. This serves as a major distinction from the goals of communists, one that is often played out at the US-Mexico border, where the defenders of US “sovereignty” form minutemen brigades either killing migrants from Latin America, their homelands torn asunder by US-managed drug wars and coup d’etats, or delivering them to the federal government, which proceeds to throw them in concentration camps. (This scenario points to another contradiction to navigate: “sovereignty” for empires versus sovereignty for empire’s targets.)

The debate within imperialism transpires within the walls of US governance itself. Seymour Hersh’s article “Military to Military” shed a light on this dispute, revealing a miniature mutiny on the part of the US military against the White House and the CIA on Syria policy: “Barack Obama’s repeated insistence that Bashar al-Assad must leave office – and that there are ‘moderate’ rebel groups in Syria capable of defeating him – has in recent years provoked quiet dissent, and even overt opposition, among some of the most senior officers on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.” Members of the Joint Staff, it turned out, had been troubled by the policy to “ignore” the intelligence produced on the political character of the organizations that the US was funding, arming, and training on the ground, and instead wanted to assist the Syrian government in combatting groups like Daesh. This objection mirrored earlier internet memes in which US soldiers, their faces hidden, held up signs declaring that they would not serve in Syria on behalf of al Qaeda, insisting that such a mission does not at all correspond to the reasons why they signed up. Central to this objection is a naïve (but logical from a soldier’s perspective) belief in the stated mission of the US military—a voluntarist belief that the mission has in fact been corrupted by bad apples. When the objection to US support for Israel arises from within the military, those bad apples may be defined as the Zionists, Israelis, Jews, and their lobbies; in the case of support for Deash, the bad apples may be Muslims generally (perhaps Obama specifically, his birth certificate perhaps still believed to be questionable), or Saudi Arabia, or Turkey. In either case, the bad apples corrupt the mission of all-American WASP good ol’ boys.

The duty of communists is to construct a deeper critique to build a truly revolutionary movement. The foundations of capitalism and private property, and all the forms of oppression and exploitation they have engendered, shall be targeted at root, and eradicated. And the world system and the discourses that capitalism created, around statehood and the rule of law and human rights, will only begin to be replaced when its leading agent has fallen. The serious dialectical materialist thinks as an anti-humanist, knowing full well that humanism and its human rights regime is an invention of the bourgeoisie, for the bourgeoisie. But how the dialectical materialist acts depends on the conditions. The wholesale destruction of human rights in general will be neither possible nor desirable until the conditions which necessitate them are overthrown. In the mean time, proletarian movements may use them without tailing them or depending on them.

The experiences of 20th century actually existing socialism provide us lessons, advice, anchors, to carry out our duty. And for our current dilemma and future dilemmas, the answer will lie in neither liberal interventionism nor nativist reaction, but international socialism.

More suggested reading: “Vulnerable Dignity, Enchained Rights: On a Suggestion by Maximilian Forte,” Red Maistre: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=10855