John Pilger on Latin America: the attack on democracy

An unreported war is being waged by the US to restore power to the privileged.

Beyond the sound and fury of its conquest of Iraq and campaign against Iran, the world's dominant power is waging a largely unreported war on another continent - Latin America. Using proxies, Washington aims to restore and reinforce the political control of a privileged group calling itself middle-class, to shift the responsibility for massacres and drug trafficking away from the psychotic regime in Colombia and its mafiosi, and to extinguish hopes raised among Latin America's impoverished majority by the reform governments of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.

In Colombia, the main battleground, the class nature of the war is distorted by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the Farc, whose own resort to kidnapping and the drugs trade has provided an instrument with which to smear those who have distinguished Latin America's epic history of rebellion by opposing the proto-fascism of George W Bush's regime. "You don't fight terror with terror," said President Hugo Chávez as US warplanes bombed to death thousands of civilians in Afghanistan following the 11 September 2001 attacks. Thereafter, he was a marked man. Yet, as every poll has shown, he spoke for the great majority of human beings who have grasped that the "war on terror" is a crusade of domination. Almost alone among national leaders standing up to Bush, Chávez was declared an enemy and his plans for a functioning social democracy independent of the United States a threat to Washington's grip on Latin America. "Even worse," wrote the Latin America specialist James Petras, "Chávez's nationalist policies represented an alternative in Latin America at a time (2000-2003) when mass insurrections, popular uprisings and the collapse of pro-US client rulers (Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia) were constant front-page news."

It is impossible to underestimate the threat of this alternative as perceived by the "middle classes" in countries which have an abundance of privilege and poverty. In Venezuela, their "grotesque fantasies of being ruled by a 'brutal communist dictator'", to quote Petras, are reminiscent of the paranoia of the white population that backed South Africa's apartheid regime. Like in South Africa, racism in Venezuela is rampant, with the poor ignored, despised or patronised, and a Caracas shock jock allowed casually to dismiss Chávez, who is of mixed race, as a "monkey". This fatuous venom has come not only from the super-rich behind their walls in suburbs called Country Club, but from the pretenders to their ranks in middle-level management, journalism, public relations, the arts, education and the other professions, who identify vicariously with all things American. Journalists in broadcasting and the press have played a crucial role - acknowledged by one of the generals and bankers who tried unsuccessfully to overthrow Chávez in 2002. "We couldn't have done it without them," he said. "The media were our secret weapon."

Many of these people regard themselves as liberals, and have the ear of foreign journalists who like to describe themselves as being "on the left". This is not surprising. When Chávez was first elected in 1998, Venezuela was not an archetypical Latin American tyranny, but a liberal democracy with certain freedoms, run by and for its elite, which had plundered the oil revenue and let crumbs fall to the invisible millions in the barrios. A pact between the two main parties, known as puntofijismo, resembled the convergence of new Labour and the Tories in Britain and Republicans and Democrats in the US. For them, the idea of popular sovereignty was anathema, and still is.

Take higher education. At the taxpayer-funded elite "public" Venezuelan Central University, more than 90 per cent of the students come from the upper and "middle" classes. These and other elite students have been infiltrated by CIA-linked groups and, in defending their privilege, have been lauded by foreign liberals.

With Colombia as its front line, the war on democracy in Latin America has Chávez as its main target. It is not difficult to understand why. One of Chávez's first acts was to revitalise the oil producers' organisation Opec and force the oil price to record levels. At the same time he reduced the price of oil for the poorest countries in the Caribbean region and central America, and used Venezuela's new wealth to pay off debt, notably Argentina's, and, in effect, expelled the International Monetary Fund from a continent over which it once ruled. He has cut poverty by half - while GDP has risen dramatically. Above all, he gave poor people the confidence to believe that their lives would improve.

The irony is that, unlike Fidel Castro in Cuba, he presented no real threat to the well-off, who have grown richer under his presidency. What he has demonstrated is that a social democracy can prosper and reach out to its poor with genuine welfare, and without the extremes of "neo liberalism" - a decidedly unradical notion once embraced by the British Labour Party. Those ordinary Vene zuelans who abstained during last year's constitutional referendum were protesting that a "moderate" social democracy was not enough while the bureaucrats remained corrupt and the sewers overflowed.

Across the border in Colombia, the US has made Venezuela's neighbour the Israel of Latin America. Under "Plan Colombia", more than $6bn in arms, planes, special forces, mercenaries and logistics have been showered on some of the most murderous people on earth: the inheritors of Pinochet's Chile and the other juntas that terrorised Latin America for a generation, their various gestapos trained at the School of the Americas in Georgia. "We not only taught them how to torture," a former American trainer told me, "we taught them how to kill, murder, eliminate." That remains true of Colombia, where government-inspired mass terror has been documented by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and many others. In a study of 31,656 extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances between 1996 and 2006, the Colombian Commission of Jurists found that 46 per cent had been murdered by right-wing death squads and 14 per cent by Farc guerrillas. The para militaries were responsible for most of the three million victims of internal displacement. This misery is a product of Plan Colombia's pseudo "war on drugs", whose real purpose has been to eliminate the Farc. To that goal has now been added a war of attrition on the new popular democracies, especially Venezuela.

US special forces "advise" the Colombian military to cross the border into Venezuela and murder and kidnap its citizens and infiltrate paramilitaries, and so test the loyalty of the Venezuelan armed forces. The model is the CIA-run Contra campaign in Honduras in the 1980s that brought down the reformist government in Nicaragua. The defeat of the Farc is now seen as a prelude to an all-out attack on Venezuela if the Vene zuelan elite - reinvigorated by its narrow referendum victory last year - broadens its base in state and local government elections in November.

America's man and Colombia's Pinochet is President Álvaro Uribe. In 1991, a declassified report by the US Defence Intelligence Agency revealed the then Senator Uribe as having "worked for the Medellín Cartel" as a "close personal friend" of the cartel's drugs baron, Pablo Escobar. To date, 62 of his political allies have been investigated for close collaboration with paramilitaries. A feature of his rule has been the fate of journalists who have illuminated his shadows. Last year, four leading journalists received death threats after criticising Uribe. Since 2002, at least 31 journalists have been assassinated in Colombia. Uribe's other habit is smearing trade unions and human rights workers as "collaborators with the Farc". This marks them. Colombia's death squads, wrote Jenny Pearce, author of the acclaimed Under the Eagle: US Intervention in Central America and the Caribbean (1982), "are increasingly active, confident that the president has been so successful in rallying the country against the Farc that little attention will shift to their atrocities".

Uribe was personally championed by Tony Blair, reflecting Britain's long-standing, mostly secret role in Latin America. "Counter-insurgency assistance" to the Colombian military, up to its neck in death-squad alliances, includes training by the SAS of units such as the High Mountain Battalions, condemned repeatedly for atrocities. On 8 March, Colombian officers were invited by the Foreign Office to a "counter-insurgency seminar" at the Wilton Park conference centre in southern England. Rarely has the Foreign Office so brazenly paraded the killers it mentors.

The western media's role follows earlier models, such as the campaigns that cleared the way for the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and the credibility given to lies about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The softening-up for an attack on Venezuela is well under way, with the repetition of similar lies and smears.

 

Cocaine trail

 

On 3 February, the Observer devoted two pages to claims that Chávez was colluding in the Colombian drugs trade. Similarly to the paper's notorious bogus scares linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda, the Observer's headline read, "Revealed: Chávez role in cocaine trail to Europe". Allegations were unsubstantiated; hearsay uncorroborated. No source was identified. Indeed, the reporter, clearly trying to cover himself, wrote: "No source I spoke to accused Chávez himself of having a direct role in Colombia's giant drug trafficking business."

In fact, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has reported that Venezuela is fully participating in international anti-drugs programmes and in 2005 seized the third-highest amount of cocaine in the world. Even the Foreign Office minister Kim Howells has referred to "Venezuela's tre mendous co-operation".

The drugs smear has recently been reinforced with reports that Chávez has an "increasingly public alliance [with] the Farc" (see "Dangerous liaisons", New Statesman, 14 April). Again, there is "no evidence", says the secretary general of the Organisation of American States. At Uribe's request, and backed by the French government, Chávez played a mediating role in seeking the release of hostages held by the Farc. On 1 March, the negotiations were betrayed by Uribe who, with US logistical assistance, fired missiles at a camp in Ecuador, killing Raú Reyes, the Farc's highest-level negotiator. An "email" recovered from Reyes's laptop is said by the Colombian military to show that the Farc has received $300m from Chávez. The allegation is fake. The actual document refers only to Chávez in relation to the hostage exchange. And on 14 April, Chávez angrily criticised the Farc. "If I were a guerrilla," he said, "I wouldn't have the need to hold a woman, a man who aren't soldiers. Free the civilians!"

However, these fantasies have lethal purpose. On 10 March, the Bush administration announced that it had begun the process of placing Venezuela's popular democracy on a list of "terrorist states", along with North Korea, Syria, Cuba, Sudan and Iran, the last of which is currently awaiting attack by the world's leading terrorist state.

http://www.johnpilger.com

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Everybody out!

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Between twin barbarisms

After six years of war, Syria’s moderate rebels are broken and marginalised. And now, as Bashar al-Assad has wished for so long, al-Qaeda extremists are leading the insurgency.

On 9 February, a grey-bearded and balding Syrian rebel commander wearing military dress appeared in an internet video calling for greater unity among the forces opposing President Bashar al-Assad. This was unremarkable. Syria’s rebel groups frequently issue unity statements, merge units and create umbrella groups – many of which, like the fruit of the medlar tree, turn rotten before they turn ripe.

Yet the message from Hashem al-Sheikh – a native of Aleppo imprisoned by Assad in 2005 for his jihadi beliefs and then released along with other Islamist prisoners in 2011 in an attempt to poison the nascent uprising against the regime – was hugely important in the context of the Syrian Civil War: it signalled the potential subsuming of the entire Syrian opposition to radical and reactionary forces, and to al-Qaeda in particular.

In the video, Hashem al-Sheikh announ­ced the creation of a powerful, extremist-dominated entity known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), or the “Committee for the Liberation of the Levant”.

One of the main groups that joined the new committee is Nur al-Din al-Zenki, a corrupt and brutal Islamist movement that was once backed by the CIA as a “vetted organisation”, though this designation was later revoked. In July last year, five months before Aleppo fell to Assad’s forces, the group’s members were filmed beheading Abdullah Tayseer in the eastern part of the city. Tayseer was a 13-year-old boy whom they accused of fighting for the regime.

Far more significant was the folding into HTS of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), which until July was known as Jabhat al-Nusrah – and which represented al-Qaeda on the ground in Syria. JFS, comprised mainly of local fighters, had earned a degree of popular support among civilians because of its fighters’ valour and lack of corruption. The rebranding was an attempt by its leaders to recast it as a broader part of the overall uprising, and to capitalise on ordinary Syrians’ hatred of Islamic State (IS), which is widely seen as having usurped the revolution and diverted its aims.

Consequently, al-Qaeda has pursued an audacious line of messaging that seeks to portray the group in Syria as a responsible actor that follows a “middle path” between acquiescence and extremism. The corollary is clear: that it is both authentic and organic. “JFS is not a fringe group that exists on another planet,” wrote a spokesman, Mos­tafa Mahamed, shortly after it rebranded in 2016. “It is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people.”

The creation of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is a further coup for al-Qaeda in its quest for legitimacy within the Syrian opposition. Because Hashem al-Sheikh, the HTS leader, has never been part of JFS, the group can more credibly intertwine itself within the much wider movement. Indeed, Sheikh declared that HTS is not an umbrella organisation, and neither does it represent the continuation of any particular fighting force. It is a merger that dissolves the individual identities of its constituents, bringing them together in a wholly new entity.

Even so, its messages bear all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda. Sheikh’s first speech as leader was deeply sectarian; he declared Shias “the enemy”, cursed Alawites (the heterodox sect to which Assad belongs) and called for hostilities against the “forces of Zoroastrianism” (used in this context as a pejorative reference to Iran).

The elevation of Hashem al-Sheikh also throws a spotlight on the tensions within Ahrar al-Sham, one of the most powerful and well-armed of all the anti-Assad forces. Despite holding various extremist beliefs, the Islamist group has been influential and prominent within the Syrian uprising. Sheikh was one of the founding members of Ahrar al-Sham and, until his defection last month, one of its leaders.

Ahrar al-Sham is now split into two factions – those who favour greater pragmatism (and, along with this, compromise and moderation) and those who are doggedly doctrinaire. It faces other challenges, too, because HTS has adopted an aggressive posture towards rival anti-Assad forces. In recent weeks its fighters, targeting the Free Syrian Army, Ahrar al-Sham and other units, have sought to consolidate control over the entire province of Idlib in north-western Syria, near the border with Turkey. This is the most significant rebel redoubt in the country after the fall of Aleppo.

“Al-Qaeda is eating us,” an official with the US-backed moderate rebel group Fastaqim told the Washington Post last month, explaining why his fighters had joined an alliance with Ahrar al-Sham despite its more hardline views.

The consolidation among the rebel groups, and the drift towards greater extremism, stem directly from what happened in Aleppo late last year before it was finally reclaimed by Assad’s army. When regime fighters, aided by Iranian-backed militias and Russian troops, managed to encircle and besiege eastern Aleppo, Assad enacted an already tried and tested policy: submit or starve. For months, hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped inside the city survived on dwindling supplies while Syrian and Russian warplanes dropped barrel bombs and bunker busters capable of ­destroying underground medical facilities.

So great was the suffering that, when the regime made its final push on Aleppo just before Christmas, rebel pockets crumbled much faster than anyone had predicted. After an evacuation deal was agreed, tens of thousands of civilians moved into the rebel-held Idlib, to the west. A minority went to regime-controlled parts of Aleppo.

The shifting dynamics of the war present a significant challenge for Syria’s beleaguered and dwindling revolutionaries, who find themselves caught between the twin barbarisms of Assad and the jihadist groups. Although there remains an alphabet soup of groups operating in Syria, few have any significance. In Idlib, the only groups realistically capable of commanding authority or administering rebel-held territory were JFS and Ahrar al-Sham. With the latter in free fall, it seems that the spoils will go exclusively to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

This marks a dangerous pivot in the Syrian Revolution. The pragmatic aspects of the opposition are being overtaken by a bullish and avowedly jihadist movement that is not only dogmatic in its approach to scripture, but also not prepared to abide minorities. The ascendency of HTS heralds an end for the opposition’s backers in both the West and the Gulf, who will shy away from supporting an alliance that so brazenly incorporates a former al-Qaeda affiliate. Already, the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have suspended support to moderate rebel groups, fearing that supplies will fall into the hands of extremists.

“There is now a strong likelihood that [this] will be remembered as the moment when Western and Arab states turned away from the Syrian opposition, sealing its  fate,” Aron Lund, a fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at St Andrews University, noted recently.

 

***

 

The extremist hijacking of the rebellion is precisely what Assad wanted. For years he tried to portray everyone opposed to his regime as a terrorist, arguing that they were inspired first by the Muslim Brotherhood and then by al-Qaeda and IS.

It was a deft move. When the protests began in 2011 as a principally secular and student-led movement, Syria’s Ba’athists faced an existential threat. As had occurred elsewhere in the Arab world, the international community was on the side of the revolutionaries. The Assad regime had to find a way to make the opposition unacceptable to the West. Over a long period and after much suffering, it has succeeded in achieving precisely that, by peeling progressives away from the opposition and fomenting the jihadist threat within.

Radical groups are now consuming those that have otherwise evaded the regime, a number that grows smaller by the day.

A report published last month by Amnesty International describes the methodical extermination campaign waged by Assad against peaceful activists detained in his most disreputable prison – Sednaya, where Sheikh was once held. The report documents how up to 13,000 people were hanged in the prison between 2011 and 2015, usually after severe beatings and torture.

“The victims are overwhelmingly civilians who are thought to oppose the government,” the Amnesty report states. “Since 2011, thousands of people have been executed in mass hangings, carried out at night and in the utmost secrecy.”

The executions are believed to happen in groups of 50 at a time. It is thought that a further ten prisoners die every day under torture, or from the squalid conditions ­inside Sednaya, including malnutrition, overcrowding, poor sanitation and lack of medical care.

Assad’s destruction of the civilian component from the opposition has, perversely, helped his standing in the international community. He is now able to cast himself as the last guarantor of Syria’s delicate and secular social palimpsest, a particular contrast to the millenarian mania of Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

The full extent of his rehabilitation became apparent last month when the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, signalled a potential change in UK government policy while giving evidence to the House of Lords select committee on international relations.

“It is our view that Bashar al-Assad should go. It’s been our long-standing position. But we are open-minded about how that happens and the timescale on which that happens,” Johnson said. This included an acceptance that Assad should be allowed to run for the presidency again. The statement marked a dramatic shift in British policy towards the conflict since it first began. “I have to be realistic about how the landscape has changed,” Johnson said.

Donald Trump has spoken repeatedly of his fears about the terrorist threat emanating from Syria: he wants to confront extremists operating in the ravaged country. Against this backdrop, it is easy for Assad to present himself as a beleaguered, secular president fighting a jihadist insurgency.

Since winning back control of Aleppo in December, Assad has seemed more emboldened than at any other point in this long conflict. The regime is concentrating its efforts nearer to Damascus. A five-week bombardment allowed the regime to retake Wadi Barada, a highly strategic area about ten miles north-east of Damascus that is one of the capital’s sources of water, in late January. Assad is now focusing on Ghouta, another district near the capital, where the regime’s forces are alleged to be using chlorine bombs as chemical weapons against the besieged population.

Given the recent military gains, can ­Assad achieve his stated aim of restoring government control over the whole of Syria? That remains an altogether more challenging and ambitious task, not least in the east, where IS remains strong.

Though it is tempting to believe reports that IS is in terminal decline, this belies the facts. The group is under pressure in Iraq and is losing territory in Mosul, its main stronghold in the neighbouring country. It is likely that Iraqi forces will eventually recover all their territory, driving IS back into its Syrian redoubts.

But the social and political dynamics in Iraq are different from those in Syria, where IS is not only more entrenched but is facing a weaker, less cohesive adversary. Assad is already stretched and fighting on multiple fronts. He cannot afford to divert significant forces to fighting Islamic State, nor is he inclined to do so. Indeed, he is now almost entirely dependent on external support. Not only did he require Russian assistance in Aleppo, but there was much broader support from Shia militias such as Hezbollah, as well as elite Iranian forces. Whereas Russia’s involvement has diminished since Aleppo was recaptured, the Iranians are now far more heavily invested – emotionally and religiously – in the conflict. Within days of Aleppo falling, one of Iran’s most senior army commanders, General Qasem Soleimani, was pictured in the city.

By contrast, Assad is yet to visit. His chief priority remains the capture and control of what has been termed “useful Syria”, the spine of economically important cities and towns running along the western frontier from Deraa, near the border with Jordan, all the way up to Aleppo.

While Kurdish troops have made gains against Islamic State in Syria, they lack the firepower and resources needed to overcome the group decisively. Given the Turkish government’s immutable opposition to empowering Kurdish forces, this is unlikely to change. And IS has demonstrated its resilience and capacity to adapt.

It is sometimes easiest to think of the various moving parts of the Syrian conflict as the air inside a balloon: squeeze one part, and you merely move the air elsewhere. Although Russian and Syrian forces were successful in retaking the historic city of Palmyra last year, once they turned their attention towards Aleppo IS returned. Its destruction of Palmyra’s cultural heritage was more intense during the second occupation than when it previously controlled the city. (Syrian soldiers and their allies recaptured Palmyra a second time early this month.) Yet IS has also made smaller gains in other areas, such as the eastern province of Deir az-Zour, where its fighters pushed through regime lines and encircled a military airbase.

These are ominous lessons for military planners in Damascus, suggesting that the residual influence of groups such as Islamic State and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham will continue to resonate for years to come.

The fall of Aleppo may well have marked a turning point in the Syrian conflict – but only towards a more draconian and jihadi-led armed opposition.

Shiraz Maher is an NS contributing writer, a member of the department of war studies at King’s College London and the author of “Salafi-Jihadism: the History of an Idea” (C Hurst & Co)

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda