Life isn’t always easy for Steve Sweeney, International Editor of the Morning Star. Earlier this year he was detained and interrogated by Turkish police when he landed at an Istanbul airport.
Thoughts of what had happened to Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate six months before in the same city flashed through his mind.
The Morning Star – quite rightly – is highly critical of the Erdoğan regime in Turkey.
But when it comes to regimes that the paper approves of — “anti-imperialist” Venezuela or Syria, for instance, or “socialist” China, Steve’s job is a lot easier. Most of the time he just re-writes the regimes’ propaganda.
Thus pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong are “black-shirted rioters” causing “carnage” (Sept 16) in an “orgy of violence” (Sept 30) while the “vast majority” of Hong Kong citizens “events dwarfing the anti-China protests … as thousands sang the national anthem celebrating the foundation of the People’s Republic of China.”
But perhaps Steve’s easiest recent gig was a piece published on 19 September, snappily entitled “Former Jihadist base discovered near site of disputed chemical weapons attack, Syrian army claims”.
It turned out this referred to the Assad regime’s chemical attack on the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017 , during which at least 87 people were killed, many of them children. The shocking photographs of the massacre, which had obvious parallels with the even more devastating sarin attack on Eastern Ghouta in 2013, caused international outrage and provoked the Trump administration into engaging in a (very limited) military retaliation against the Assad regime.
The UN-backed Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and virtually all reputable observers, have long been satisfied that the Khan Sheikhoun attack was the work of Assad’s forces.
But Steve now tells us: “The Syrian army claimed … to have uncovered a former jihadist military base near the site of a disputed 2017 chemical weapon attack … Mr Assad dismissed claims he had used sarin on his own people as ‘100 per cent untrue’ while the Russian government insisted it was a fabrication.’”
Well, that should be good enough for anyone.
Especially as the Syrian army’s discovery of the site included “scores of various weapons and combat outfit(s) of militants.”
This account is similar to a conspiracy theory written shortly after the attack by Seymour Hersh. In fact Steve closed his piece by noting that: “Award-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh accused the US government of lying about the incident. He compared it to the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident which triggered increased military intervention in Vietnam.”
Hersh’s version of events is that the regime carried out an airstrike on a building in Khan Sheikhoun where a jihadist meeting was taking place. This strike accidentally hit a store of “fertilizers, disinfectants and other goods” held in the basement of the building, releasing a chemical cloud that resulted in the deaths.
Although the cloud had “neurotoxic effects similar to those of sarin”, it wasn’t sarin. Trump was “warned by the US intelligence community that it had found no evidence that the Syrians had used a chemical weapon”. Trump, however, wasn’t interested in evaluating the intelligence objectively but simply “wanted to bomb the shit out of Syria”.
The trouble with Hersh’s account is that it was based on information supplied by one anonymous “senior adviser to the American intelligence community” whose credentials cannot be checked, and it differs from all other accounts, including even those (at the time) of the Assad regime and the Russians.
It flies in the face of much more reliable evidence, notably the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which confirmed the use of sarin at Khan Sheikhoun.
Additionally, Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat answered Hersh’s arguments, in detail, immediately after the article first appeared in the German paper Die Welt.
Seymour Hersh is, indeed, an award-winning journalist, but most serious observers judged his piece on the Khan Sheikhoun attack to be a sign of his declining powers and judgement.
Finally, its worth noting that Steve’s piece also includes the obligatory attack on the White Helmets: “The [Syrian] army official claimed the cave could also have been used by the White Helmets. The pseudo-humanitarian group has a history of filming footage of staged attacks in a bid to provoke reaction against Mr Assad.”
The role of Putin and Assad in promoting conspiracy theories has been exposed time and again (probably most authoritatively by Olivia Solon in the Guardian on December 18 2017). The White Helmets play two roles within Syria. The first is their rescue work: providing an ambulance service, fire service and search and rescue in conflict areas where infrastructure has been decimated.
The second role is the documentation of what is taking place within the country via handheld and helmet cameras.
“This is the thing that has annoyed not just the Assad regime and Russian authorities but a lot of the propagandists who work in their orbit,” said Amnesty International’s Kristyan Benedict, a crisis response manager who specialises in Syria.
Their footage has helped organisations like Amnesty and the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre corroborate testimony they receive from people in Syria via phone, Skype and WhatsApp.
It allows them to check the aftermath of airstrikes to see whether civilians were targeted and whether there was any military presence or checkpoints. No-one except Kremlin stooges and Canary-type conspiracy theorists now doubts the bona fides of the White Helmets.
That really was a lazy day in the office, Steve. But Mr Assad (and, no doubt, Mr Putin) should be grateful.
Stephen Wood adds
The “British road” to political decay
One aspect of Andrew Northall’s article in Solidarity 518 was not covered in Jim Denham’s comprehensive response on the issue of antisemitism.
That was the old Communist Party “British Road to Socialism” strategy, now called “Britain’s Road to Socialism”.
Andrew says: “This simply means it includes advocating a left progressive government with Labour at its core which would implement policies which challenge the wealth and power of the capitalist class and which acts in the interests of working people. Not a million miles from the AWL’s concept of a Workers’ Government.”
But the idea of a “Workers’ Government” is several thousand miles to the left of the programme of the Communist Party of Britain. The BRS was first published in 1951, with the approval of Stalin. It has gone through various iterations since.
The BRS based its argument on the state-monopoly capitalism (stamokap) thesis. Following the Second World War there was a fusion of big business with the state. A cartel-like state intervened to protect and to benefit the monopolies. A “progressive alliance”, for “people’s” or “advanced” democracy, was possible with smaller capitalists who resented that cartel-state.
The BRS has paid lip-service to the idea the emancipation of the working class by the workers themselves, but focuses on the protection of “national sovereignty” and forming a “people’s democratic alliance” or “anti-monopoly alliance” against state-monopoly capitalism.
The BRS has served the CPB’s agitation against the EU as a great alliance of state-monopoly capitalism, against which to defend smaller-scale British capitalism.
At the same time the CPB General Secretary Robert Griffiths describes Russia and China in the Morning Star as “independent-minded states” somehow escaping the “stamokap” label.
The BRS as a strategy envisages gradual changes in parliamentary arithmetic, eventually producing a Labour government spurred on by a number of “Communist” MPs to progress through stages of “advanced democracy” to socialism.
This vision of de-fanging capitalism tooth by tooth would be anathema to the genuine socialism of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, whose names the CPB hypocritically use.
In contrast to a perspective of gradually repurposing the existing state, the AWL base our idea of a Workers’ Government on writings such as this from Max Shachtman (in the Fight for Socialism, 1946):
“What would be the programme and purpose of a Workers’ Government? Would it simply be to put the workers in the offices now occupied by capitalist politicians and bureaucrats? [No]. A Workers’ Government must have a basically different principle if it is to discharge its great obligation to those who placed it in power.
“To the evils of capitalism, it must oppose social progress and human welfare. To the interests of a ruling minority, it must oppose the interests of all humanity”.
The call for a workers’ government is a call on the organised working class to break from capitalist politicians of all types, to strive for independent political representation, and to fight for our representatives to take power, forming a government which is accountable to the working class and will carry out working-class policies.