I’m impressed. Hardly has the nation had time to wake up from the New Year revelries and there is the redoubtable Nick Cohen, scourge of dictators everywhere, announcing his decision to leave his friends and family and exchange his pen for a rifle in order go off to Syria to fight for the anti-Assad opposition. It really is a noble and inspirational example of internationalism to all of us in these self-interested, cynical times, to witness a humble journalist prepared to repeat Orwell’s example and put his own life on the line on behalf of people he has never met or seen.
No wait, it appears that I read the piece too quickly, perhaps as a result of my own late night. I now see that Cohen does not actually intend to go himself: what he is actually arguing is that ‘the West’ should ‘intervene’ in Syria and that it has a ‘moral duty’ to do so. What does this duty stem from? First of all the Assad regime, like Saddam’s, is so barbaric that it belongs to the category of radical evil. Thus Cohen quotes from a ‘pro-democracy activist’ named Hamza Fakher, who provides him with the kind of atrocity-porn that has often preceded calls for Western ‘interventions’ in the past:
“‘The repression is so severe that detainees are stacked alive and kicking in shipping containers and disposed off in the middle of the sea,’ he told me. ‘It is so bad that they’ve invented a new way of torture in Aleppo where they heat a metal plate and force a detainee to stand on it until he confesses; imagine all the melting flesh reaching the bone before the detainee falls on the plate.”’
Yes, just imagine that. I have no idea who Hamza Fakher is, beyond the fact that he is communications manager for the Strategic Research and Communication Centre, which was founded in 2010 (ie. before the current unrest) in order to promote ‘a better informed public discussion of Syria which can influence the agenda of decision makers’.
Nor do I have any way of knowing whether the Syrian security forces are actually torturing people in this way. But given previous propaganda fabrications such as the Iraqi-troops-throwing Kuwaiti-babies-into-incubators that accompanied the first Gulf War and the more recent Saddam-feeds-prisoners-into-shredding machines myth perpetrated by Ann Clywd and others, I can’t help feeling a little sceptical.
Not that there is any doubt that the Syrian security forces torture people. Take the case of Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen who was ‘rendered’ by the United States to Syria in 2002, where he was held and tortured for ten months, though he later turned out to be entirely innocent. Arar was one of various detainees during the ‘Global War on Terror’ who were shipped off to Syria by the Bush administration for similar treatment, following the rationale explained by CIA agent Robert Baer, who once explained that:
“If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again — you send them to Egypt.”
Why was the world’s most powerful liberal democracy sending people off to be tortured by a Middle Eastern dictatorship that it routinely accused of ‘sponsoring terrorism’, supporting Hezbollah etc? Best not to ask, and Cohen certainly doesn’t, as he fulminates against the ‘totalitarian’ Assad regime, and the equally ‘totalitarian’ opponents of Western military intervention who have ‘blood on their hands’ because they refuse to support yet another ‘humanitarian intervention’ to overthrow his regime – an intervention that would almost certainly result in the deaths of many more people.
What form would this ‘intervention’ take? Quoting a strategy paper written by the ‘anti-totalitarian’ writer Michael Weiss from the Henry Jackson Society, Cohen argues that American, French and British air power might be used to help Turkey establish a safe area in northern Syria. Leaving out the numbers of people who would be killed in a Libya-style bombing campaign in Syria – something that never features in the calculations of the Jacksonites – Weiss’ proposals are extremely flaky, reckless and based on the flimsiest of hypothetical scenarios.
Even the mainstream, pro-establishment – but far better informed – US thinktank Stratfor, which has no moral reservations about the deployment of American power anywhere, nevertheless doubts that direct Western intervention could even be effective in bringing down Assad’s regime.
None of this features in Cohen’s moral indignation, which as always, owes to more to his vindictive and obsessive vendetta against ‘the left’ than to any understanding of Syria or the Middle East. He suggests misleadingly that the opposition to Assad consists only of civil disobedience and passive resistance, completely ignoring the existence of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which has carried out numerous attacks against the Syrian security forces. One minute he is in Menachem Begin mode, warning that ’a failed state and nest for terrorism will sit on the edge of the Mediterranean‘ if the West does not take action.
Then he is comparing the Assad regime to apartheid, on the grounds of Assad’s largely Allawi Muslim support base – an utterly false and meaningless comparison that has no other purpose except to demonstrate some kind of continuity between Cohen’s distant past as some kind of leftist and his Hitchens-like transformation into a liberal interventionist. For the same reason Syria is also Spain 1936, since:
As in the Spanish civil war, when Britain and France preached non-intervention while Hitler and Mussolini sent arms and men to help Franco’s fascists, so the “international community” does nothing in Syria today while Iran and Hezbollah pour in Shia troops to slaughter civilians. Contrary to Syrian state propaganda, Sunni terrorists from al-Qaida are not in Syria to fight back against the regime just yet. But I cannot see them staying out for long.
How does Cohen know who is or who is not in Syria? The answer is that he doesn’t, and for all his moral outrage, it is doubtful whether he cares enough to find out. For him the great war against totalitarianism never goes further than the bar or the offices of the Observer and Standpoint.
There was a time when I quite liked his writings in the late nineties. He was one of the few mainstream journalists who saw into the dark heart of New Labour, and his writing was often sharp and witty. Now I can’t help imagining him, puffed up with moral outrage, as he brings the New Year in by leaning up against the bar and reaches for another glass of Henry Jackson, to cheer on yet another insane and reckless war in which it is always other people who must kill and die, so that he can feel that his life has some meaning.
And I really don’t see anything very morally uplifting in such behaviour.
I just see a posturing, vacuous jerk.
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