Notes From the Margins…

Nick Cohen: anti-fascist fighter

  • January 02, 2012
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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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4 Comments

  1. Erica Blair

    2nd Jan 2012 - 12:04 pm

    I wonder if Hamza Fakher (the clue is in the name) is Nick’s new Hassan Butt?

    http://www.socialistunity.com/butt-er-butt/

    • Matt

      2nd Jan 2012 - 4:13 pm

      I don’t know anything about him Erica. The info on the Strategic Research and Communication website says that he was a journalist. But he appears to have good connections, whatever his intentions and political background.

  2. Susan Dirgham

    2nd Jan 2012 - 12:48 pm

    Hi Matt,
    I was pleased to read this analysis of the Nick Cohen article. Good to know there are other people in the world as shocked by it as I was. I attempted to add a comment, previewed it, posted it, but couldn’t find it this morning when I checked. So I suspect I was ‘censored’ by Guardian, though can only guess why since many other people had same opinion as me. I’ve put my comment on my blog, but will copy and paste it below. Would value your opinion. Thanks! Susan

    I was appalled at (what I believe to be) the outrageous lies in this article and at the war-mongering. It was Winston Churchill who said that “truth is the first casualty of war”, wasn’t it? I am sure he wasn’t just referring to the propaganda of Hitler’s Germany.

    I taught English at the British Council in Damascus for two years and was impressed by the hundreds of Syrian people I met, many of whom worked for the government. They were not a people and it was not a society capable of the actions described by Cohen. Now in Australia, I get to watch a lot of Syrian satellite TV; I recommend it for anyone who wants a reality check on what is happening in Syria. Syrians are not demons or ogres; in recent weeks they have been out in the street at huge rallies protesting against sanctions and the threat of foreign intervention. They are crowds like any crowds of reasonable people in any country wanting to be in control of their own affairs and having reason to trust the president to see them through this crisis more than any alternative offered by the opposition. Unfortunately, Al-Jazeera, now the propaganda tool of the emir of Qatar and extremist clerics, has confused so many in the world with its smear campaign against Syria; because it is seen as a trusted source, its distortions and fabrications get repeated in our media.

    I visited Damascus in April and learnt first hand of the killings of soldiers and civilians then. The so-called revolution has not armed recently in order to survive. In April, there was an ambush of soldiers near Banyias which left 9 soldiers dead; it is quite well-documented. Also, the brother-in-law of a good friend was killed on 17th April along with his two teenage sons and a nephew. They were targetted by armed men on a public holiday when they were moving house; presumably they were killed because their car had army number-plates. Their bodies were apparently mutilated.

    Much of this sort of violence would have been incited by the calls of extremist clerics, such as Sheik Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and Adnan Al-Arour. The fatwa issued by Qaradawi for people to overthrow the ‘heretical’ government was issued in March. Al-Arour doesn’t ‘mince words’ in regard to the violence he supports for the cause. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bwz8i3osHww&feature=related Their calls to kill are abhorrent, but Nick Cohen is making a similar call, really; the rhetoric differs, that is all.

    I was encouraged by many of the comments on this page. Not every Guardian reader is taken in by the crudest war propaganda .

    • Matt

      2nd Jan 2012 - 4:24 pm

      Thanks for this Susan. Always interesting to hear from someone with some firsthand experience of Syria who isn’t calling for a cruise missile onslaught. Personally I’m not particularly sympathetic to the Assad regime, even though I don’t wish to join in the highly-politicised demonisation of Syria by the likes of Cohen, John Bolton, Danielle Pletka et al. As far as I’m concerned it’s a dictatorship, and I’m always pleased to see dictators fall. I remember the Hama massacre carried out by Assad’s father and some of the atrocious actions carried out by Syria in Lebanon. I don’t doubt that the current regime has unleashed vicious repression over the last year, some of which may fall into the category of crimes against humanity, even if it is clear that the opposition is not the Gandhiesque civil resistance that Cohen makes it out to be. But not for the first time, humanitarian rhetoric is being used in an utterly Machiavellian way in order to justify a war that is essentially dictated by Western geopolitical objectives (especially regarding Iran), and which would almost certainly make the situation worse.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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