Sunday 22nd of April 2018

democracy in the sickness bay...


media spray

The Western liberal order is not in crisis because of Russian disinformation campaigns and electoral interference. Western democracies must take responsibility for a crisis that, ultimately, is homegrown – nurtured by its leaders’ own failure to confront effectively the challenges of globalization.




MADRID – Four days before the United Kingdom’s 1924 election, the Daily Mail published a letter purportedly written by Comintern Chairman Grigori Zinoviev, calling on British Communists to mobilize “sympathetic forces” in the Labour Party to support an Anglo-Soviet treaty and to encourage “agitation-propaganda” in the armed forces. The letter was found to be fake – forged by anti-Bolshevik White Russians or perhaps Britain’s own secret service – but not before it caused the defeat of the UK’s first Labour government.

(Gus: as an aside, on this site, I have hinted that the JFK assassination might have been done by "White Russians" using connections within the US government and "the mob"..


Today’s Russian disinformation campaigns, part of the Kremlin’s hybrid war against Western democracies, seem to have much in common with the infamous Zinoviev letter. But is their impact really comparable? Would Western democracies really look different today without Russian subterfuge?


According to Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United States, Russian electoral interference and manipulation, if left unchecked, could pose an “existential threat” to Western democracies. In other words, an autocrat ruling over an impoverished country with an oil-addicted economy smaller than that of Brazil is supposed to be capable of bringing down the world’s major democracies.

France’s own presidential election last year seems to challenge Araud’s reading. Russia’s cyber-campaign against the centrist Emmanuel Macron – meant to aid the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen – included everything from the publication of baseless claims that Macron is gay to the diffusion of fake documents claiming that he has an offshore bank account. Yet, today, Macron is France’s president, and Le Pen is struggling to rebrand her party.

This is not to say that Russia cannot be a dangerous spoiler. Nor is it to diminish the risks of social media warping users’ view of reality by facilitating the spread of biased and even outright false news (though many experts believe that the Internet is far more effective at producing “slacktivism” than actual political mobilization).

But the Western liberal order is not in crisis because of Russia. Western democracies must take responsibility for a crisis that, ultimately, is homegrown – nurtured by its leaders’ own failure to confront effectively the challenges of globalization.

The most worrying feature of the 2016 US presidential election was not the Russian trolls and bots that attempted to sow opposition to Hillary Clinton. Rather, it was that 61 million American citizens blindly believed the flagrant lies of Donald Trump, the most uneducated and mendacious presidential candidate in US history. It did not help, of course, that Clinton – enabled by an obstinate Democratic Party establishment – ran a weak and visionless campaign that ignored the mounting anger of millions of voters who felt left behind by globalization.

Moreover, it was not Russian President Vladimir Putin who created the ethical crisis afflicting Western capitalism. That was achieved by US bankers, who, taking advantage of deregulation and financial interconnectedness, misguided the global economy to the 2008 financial meltdown. US politicians then refused to implement adequate new banking regulations, much less punish those who had caused the crisis and profited handsomely along the way. In Europe, similar ethical and political failures in response to globalization have fueled widespread support for populists of the right and left.

Populist parties once confined to the political fringe did not win nearly half the vote in Italy’s recent election because of Russian disinformation campaigns. They won because of mounting anger toward a corrupt political establishment that has failed to address major economic problems, from financial instability to high youth unemployment. Italy’s persistent regional inequalities were also on vivid display: whereas the prosperous north favored the anti-immigrant League party, the more populist Five Star Movement received most of its support in the poorer south.

Putin may benefit from such electoral outcomes, but that doesn’t make him responsible for them. National politicians – from the Brexiteers to Trump – are the ones espousing divisive policies, refusing to acknowledge the importance of cooperation and ethics in policymaking, lambasting traditional elites and state institutions, and praising autocrats, including Putin himself. The campaign slogan of Italy’s League party – “Italians first” – could not be a more direct tribute to Trump’s nationalist approach.

Media have served to reinforce these narratives. Yes, Russians have been found to be behind some of the “fake news” spread via social media. But in the UK, for example, tabloids owned by Rupert Murdoch and Jonathan Harmsworth, better known as Lord Rothermere, did much more to sow opposition to the European Union before the Brexit vote.

History, too, has played a role. The Euroskepticism of Eastern Europe’s “illiberal democracies” reflects deep-seated religious and authoritarian traditions, which have impeded these societies’ internalization of the EU’s post-modern culture of secular tolerance and universal values. Poland’s combination of fierce anti-Russian sentiment and extreme religious nationalism illustrates this dynamic.

The fact is that the West is beset by deep social inequalities, reinforced in recent decades by poorly managed globalization. At the same time, its political establishment has become increasingly disconnected from the public, much as it did in interwar Europe – a development that fueled the rise of fascism and populist authoritarianism. This dynamic is particularly apparent in the EU, where many decisions are in the hands of a distant and unaccountable bureaucracy lacking in sufficient democratic legitimacy.

Russia does not pose an existential threat to Western democracy. The Soviet Union represented a far more formidable challenge, and it ended up collapsing under the weight of its own economic failure. Russia’s internal problems – not just economic stagnation, but also demographic decline – are of a similar scale.

But this does not mean that Western democracy is safe. To protect it, Western leaders must confront their own shortcomings. That means upgrading institutions, improving democratic accountability, reducing economic and social inequality, and striving to ensure that globalization works for all.

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Ben-Ami is a former diplomat and politician on the Israeli left, who now works in conflict resolution. He’s supported Israel’s socialist, democratic, and green party Meretz, and clearly hews to a certain left-oriented worldview. But his conviction—similarly voiced by Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and others—that the problems of the West are borne first and foremost from material inequality and top-down injustice, betray a troubling paucity of thought. In fact, Ben-Ami’s prescription of what ails the West, while on the right track, doesn’t go nearly far enough due to being restrained by the strictures of postmodern liberal orthodoxy.

Ben-Ami’s principal point is well taken. Clearly things were not all sunshine and roses until Vladimir Putin waltzed in with a leer and ruined the whole enterprise. Clearly there has been considerable degradation of our democratic institutions; populaces have been beset by kleptocratic elites who promote the interests of multinational corporations and geopolitical strategies above those of their own citizens. Free trade and its “democratic” sellouts on both sides of the aisle are killing middle America. Ben-Ami is right that, whether under the guise of patriotic sloganeering, enraged condemnation of Russian troll farms, or the assumed moral superiority of the West, the script of the media and political establishment is almost entirely unconvincing. More and more are realizing that an endless game of political whack-a-mole with a new bad guy every few years doesn’t have any ultimate prize except for those running the game.


Western elites have failed their societies and are now trying to pass the buck to the corrupt kleptocrats of Russia—that’s all true. But the West’s supposed “universal values,” which are in fact highly subjective Lockean ideologies and “secular tolerance,” were rotten foundations to begin with. Instead of championing “democracy” and the principles of material improvement in and of themselves, we should be promoting a return to a virtuous society, in which economic health is linked to familial and religious health. Ben-Ami in effect takes the red-pill but only ingests a half dose.

Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others. He covered the fledgling U.S. alt-right at a 2014 conference in Hungary as well as the 2015 New Hampshire primary, and also made a documentary about his time living in the Republic of Georgia in 2012. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website


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designed "to fail"...

Russia has vetoed a US-sponsored resolution on the alleged chemical incident in Syria in a UN Security Council vote. The draft was designed to fail and thus “justify” unauthorized action in Syria, Russia’s UN envoy said.

“If you made a decision to carry out an illegal military endeavour, we hope that you will come to your senses. You will be responsible for it yourselves,” Russia’s envoy to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, warned.

The US-sponsored resolution has received 12 votes in favor, two against and one abstention. As Russia used its veto right, the resolution was not adopted. The Russian-sponsored resolution did not get the minimum nine votes needed to pass, with six votes for, seven against and two abstentions.

Russia then proposed another resolution, based on an earlier draft by Sweden, which voices support for the new OPCW probe into the Douma incident. The UNSC meeting was suspended for consultations, on Sweden's request, before putting the resolution to vote.


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monbiot looses his marbles...

by Tim Hayward

George Monbiot is an influential journalist, and his words on Syria over the past seven years will have carried weight in shaping public opinion. Some critical readers, however, have been concerned. For while Monbiot has declared himself morally opposed to military intervention, and is demonstrably aware of how the media can manipulate news reports, he has repeatedly published statements – in his weekly Guardian column and on Twitter – that lend significant support to key interventionist arguments. His position is premised on acceptance of the mainstream narrative about the war in Syria. Not only does he defend this, in the face of serious questions about it, he even criticises – at times with some hostility – its questioners.

I have sought to understand the reasoning that has brought Monbiot to the position he holds with such apparent moral certainty and factual assurance. This inquiry falls into three parts: in the first I trace his public thinking about Syria and the war until the end of 2016; in the second I discuss some of his responses to critics concerning the verifiability of knowledge claims about certain events of 2017; in the third I analyse more closely the moral stance that Monbiot has adopted. In each part I show how the public could have been misled about the basis and morality of foreign policy on Syria.

Before 2011, Monbiot had not written about Syria, but he had demonstrated awareness of United States involvement in regime change interventions elsewhere. In 2001 he had written about a training camp in the United States that had for 55 years been turning out regime change operatives, the number of whose victims dwarfed those of officially designated terrorist organisations (‘Backyard Terrorism’). In 2002 he wrote deploring how the officially independent Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was in reality vulnerable to manipulation by the US State Department (‘Chemical Coup d’Etat’).[1] In 2003 he foresaw that the USA looked like invading other countries after Iraq, and Syria was potentially high on the list. He feared there might be ‘No Way Out’ of instability and conflict in the Middle East ‘until the oil runs out.’ 

Nor was he under any illusion that the choice of US presidents would ever be other than between ‘The Bad or the Terrible’. For none was very likely to ‘take on the corporations which have bought the elections, and challenge the newspapers and television stations which set the limits of political debate.’[2]

In sum, Monbiot’s writings prior to 2011 indicate a clear awareness of the US having the means, the opportunity, and a motive to stimulate a regime change war in Syria. One would expect this awareness to provide some critical perspective on events as reported by those media organisations that, as he says, ‘set the limits of political debate’. One would also expect his intimate acquaintance with the British establishment to leave him under no illusions about the depth of transatlantic synergies in matters of war.

Monbiot’s first Guardian article on Syria appeared in September 2011. It comes on the heels of several articles in the Guardian during August 2011 bearing titles like ‘Bashar Al-Assad’s Fall Is Inevitable’ and ‘the end of Assad is near’. The Guardian was evidently supportive of intensifying efforts to hasten ‘the inevitable’. Monbiot, however, was not an overt advocate of military intervention, and his article discusses economic sanctions. On the face of it, he offers morally serious, and sombre, reflection:

‘I would rather not be writing this column. To argue against the course of action I’m discussing is to tolerate collusion with a murderous regime. To argue in favour is to risk promoting wider human suffering. The moral lines are tangled and the progressive response is confused…’

He suggests that the ‘obvious means of resolving this question is to ask the Syrian people what they want’. He follows this suggestion by reporting that ‘there is no clear consensus’: ‘Of the three opponents of the Assad regime I’ve consulted,’ he tells us, ‘two are in favour of wide-ranging sanctions, one is against.’ He had consulted Ghassan Ibrahim, a business advisor living in London since 2002, Samir Seifan, a business economist and consultant who left Syria around 2011, and Chris Doyle, a British opposition sympathizer writing for the Guardian in London. So two expat businessmen and a British man were relied on as proxies for the Syrian people. 

On that basis, Monbiot concludes, in a posture of apparent humility, that he finds himself in an ‘unusual place for a polemicist. There is no right answer.’

In fact, he has not shown there is no right answer, for given that nobody did ask the Syrian people, it cannot be ruled out that they could have been overwhelmingly againstsanctions. What Monbiot has done – intentionally or otherwise – is prevent this option even being considered. His very construction of the question – ‘should sanctions be supported, given that they will do some harm to the population’ – tacitly begs the more fundamental question, ‘are sanctions in principle justified at all?’ The possibility that they are not is constructively excluded from discussion. By taking that question as settled in advance, Monbiot treats concerns about Syrian people’s welfare as a matter for moral trade-offs. A strong counter-argument would accord them instead a priority of commitment as a matter of human rights.

Nor is it the only question begged in his article, as Monbiot will have been aware. He will have been aware because, prior to writing the article, he had taken the unusual step of appealing to his readers to send in their views. Between them, their comments in response offered a wealth of very valuable thoughts. For instance: ‘surely the first issue is “what is to be achieved?” Without knowing what you want, it is hard to tell whether sanctions would achieve it.’ 

Given the risk that ‘Syria will collapse into a violent sectarian civil-war’, Monbiot is cautioned, ‘before proposing a solution surely one should outline what one wishes to prevent first?’ Furthermore, someone suggests, ‘we don’t have a clear idea of who is involved in the protests.’ Another notes that ‘there are no great calls for sanctions or outside interference from the protestors’, and more emphatic is the reader who claims the Syrian people have ‘made it abundantly clear that they do not want the west’s help or involvement as they consider it an internal matter.’ In any case, a crucial question about objectives ‘is whether or not the democratic forces inside the country are in a position to replace the existing regime and whether or not those forces are asking for sanctions to be imposed.’ 

Readers also caution about taking a one-sided view: ‘I’m no fan of Assad, but as with Libya, the reporting in the west about the violence in Syria has been blatantly lopsided. There have been many brutal killings by the anti-government forces as well.’ Not least, there is the question why it is even Syria we are so concerned about: ‘why not start with the countries we aid the most? … Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are as bad, if not worse, and we actively aid them. Which should be our first concern?’

In short, already in 2011, members of the public were setting out concerns that have continued to animate critics of the West’s approach to Syria to this day. Yet Monbiot’s article disregarded them. It presented as a simple fact that the country was in the grip of a ‘murderous regime’, because, Monbiot claims, it ‘has killed some 2,600 Syrian people since March.’ In fact, the source he cites for this claim alleges that 88 people had died in detention in Syria since March, while reporting also a UN estimate of a total of 2,200 deaths on all sides in the widespread violence at large. 

So the cited article’s content does not actually support Monbiot’s gloss of it. The level of deaths in custody is certainly not something to make light of, but a responsible journalist would be careful to avoid conflating that specific concern with a quite distinct concern about the far greater numbers dying on all sides at a time of armed insurgency in civilian areas. Still, perhaps Monbiot feels justified in aggregating the various numbers cited because his point is that all the deaths are in some way the fault of ‘Assad’s murderous regime’. The question then is how had he come to form such a definite and damning view by September 2011.

It is evident, from all his writings and tweets relating to Syria, that Monbiot takes information from his Guardian colleagues. Yet by September 2011 it was public knowledge that not all of them were entirely reliable. 

In the critical period of the initial protests in Syria, at a time when public opinion was first being formed, the Guardian’s correspondent there, said to be in Damascus, wrote under the pseudonym Katherine Marsh. She authored 36 Guardian articles on Syria between 21 March and 9 May 2011. One was entitled ‘A Gay Girl in Damascus becomes a heroine of the Syrian revolt’. This introduced to the public one Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari, and Marsh gives a wealth of factual information about this heroic blogger said to be writing from the same town as Marsh herself, Damascus. 

As later came to light, however, ‘Amina’ was in fact a fictional character generated from an IP address accessed by an American couple then based 3000 miles away in my town, Edinburgh! The husband was a literature student and the wife was doing postgraduate research on the Syrian economy. Obviously a lot more could be said about that story, but what is noteworthy here is the doubt it raises about Marsh’s journalistic standards – and those of the Guardian too, given that three other Guardian writers had also meanwhile written purportedly factual reports about the Gay Girl.[3] 

Worse, though, is that the pseudonymous ‘Marsh’ had produced much more serious disinformation during her short but historically critical time at The Guardian. Near the very start of trouble in Syria, on 12 April, she had posted a sensational and inflammatory story alleging ‘Syrian soldiers shot for refusing to fire on protesters’. This story exercised a lot of influence on public opinion, being amplified also on social media via 812 tweets and 4457 FB direct links.[4] Yet it was revealed to be false.[5]

Monbiot can have been in no doubt, then, that the Guardian was capable of publishing unreliable accounts of Syria and of retaining unreliable journalists. He would certainly know to be discerning regarding which colleagues to rely on. While some – like the dubious Marsh – were pushing a strongly anti-Assad message, others, like the Senior Foreign Correspondent Jonathan Steele, were still engaging in more dispassionate reporting, with articles like that of 17 January 2012 pointing out that ‘Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know from western media’.[6] Has Monbiot ever cited or recommended articles on Syria by Jonathan Steele?[7] If not, it would be interesting to know why not.

In February 2012 Monbiot was to tweet about grim reports of a genocide in Homs. These are from an article, ‘Syrian siege of Homs is genocidal, say trapped residents’, filed in the name of three Guardian colleagues who based most of it on a skype call with activist Karam Abu Rabea. This informant, we could read in The Independent, was an organiser of the Local Coordinating Committee, ‘an activist group whose purpose is to publicise the uprising’. 

Given that the source is not an independent observer, a conscientious journalist would ask how his testimony could be verified. In fact, there were major open questions at the time, and they have been more fully fleshed out since, about who exactly was responsible for what.[8] Furthermore, it is in no way to diminish the suffering of people in Homs at that time to question the characterization of events there as genocide.

A rather uncritical attitude to reports from Homs is further shown in Monbiot’s next two mentions. One is his commendation of a piece by Martin Chulov on 16 February 2012: ‘‘They are pushing Syria into a religious war that they will certainly get‘, reports Chulov, thereby depicting committed sectarian fighters as being ‘pushed’ into a sectarian conflict that they give some appearance of seeking out.[9] On 22 February, when the reporter Marie Colvin was killed in Homs, Monbiot tweeted about ‘Assad’s forces murdering anyone who moves’. 

While sympathy for the death of a fellow journalist is understandable, this accusation goes beyond what had been ascertained, either in relation to the specific case or as a more general proposition. Colvin’s clandestine entry into the country to embed with insurgent fighters on active operations had put her at definite risk; the suggestion that she was targeted answers to no clear rationale, and no evidence is offered to support it.[10] Nonetheless, Monbiot tweets: ‘Colvin’s murder yet more evidence of total war fought by Assad in Homs. Dumbfounded that anyone can deny it.’ The questions to have dumbfounded Monbiot, it appears, came from the independent press monitors at MediaLens concerning casualty figures released by the opposition. Monbiot cites an article by Rupert Read by way of response. 

Read’s article actually confirms that the estimates of deaths due to bombing are likely exaggerated, while also admitting a more general uncertainty about casualty counts. It nevertheless offers this extraordinary non sequitur in condemnation of MediaLens: ‘human beings killed by enemies of the western imperium don’t matter as much to MediaLens as human beings killed by the western imperium.’[11] Does Monbiot really think this good journalism? 

The next significant incident Monbiot comments on publicly coincides – as did the previous one – with a major international vote due to be taken on action relating to Syria. This was the incident involving chemicals in Ghouta in August 2013. The allegations were the subject of debate in the UK parliament, where significant doubts about them were aired (as I discussed in an earlier blog post) and they have since been analysed with great scrupulousness in a guest post by Paul McKeigue who estimated the likelihood Syrian government responsibility as disappearingly small. Yet Monbiot responds to sceptical interlocutors on Twitter in a manner to which I have since become personally accustomed: 

Depressing to see fellow opponents of bombing getting grassy knoll about @hrw, due to its report fingering Assad govt for chemical weapons’ (1:45 AM – 13 Sep 2013)

The ‘grassy knoll’ trope would be a metonymic suggestion of conspiracism on the part of critical questioners. Sadly, however, the reliability of reporting by HRW (Human Rights Watch) on Syria is deservedly, like that of Amnesty International too, the subject of criticism.[12]

A particularly unexpected dimension of Monbiot’s moral world came into view in February 2014 with an article comparing Al Nusra with the International Brigades that went to Spain to fight Franco. Monbiot writes:

Last week a British man who called himself Abu Suleiman al-Britani drove a truck full of explosives into the gate of Halab prison in Aleppo. The explosion, in which he died, allowed rebel fighters to swarm into the jail and release 300 prisoners. Was it terrorism or was it heroism? Terrorism, according to many commentators.

And, according to Monbiot, which was it? 

‘It’s true that he carried out this act in the name of the al-Nusra Front,’ he admits, ‘which the British government treats as synonymous with al-Qaida.’

So terrorism then? 

Monbiot says this:

should we not be celebrating this act of extraordinary courage? Had David Cameron not lost the intervention vote, and had al-Britani been fighting for the British army, he might have been awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.’

So Monbiot thinks that Al Qaeda affiliates engaging in demonstrable acts of terrorism (and if the released prisoners were themselves terrorists, likely increasing its scale) are heroes worthy of British honours? 

I literally have nothing to say in response to this.

Monbiot himself fell silent about Syria for a prolonged period.[13]

Towards the end of 2016, the final weeks of the siege of Aleppo saw him tweeting in this vein: ‘Assad and Putin’s destruction of #Aleppo and its people is a crime beyond reckoning’ (30 Nov 2016). Despite the assuredness of his hyperbolic opinion, though, once the siege of Aleppo ended in December, Monbiot fell silent about Syria.

Did Monbiot notice that there was no massacre in Aleppo, that fighters were allowed to leave with families and weapons, and that for the remaining civilian population their departure was a cause of relief and celebration?

Monbiot did not publicly comment on Syria again until Spring 2017. By then, I had learned of my colleague Paul McKeigue’s studies of the earlier chemical attacks in Syria, which suggested powerful reasons for scepticism about the government’s responsibility for them. So I was taken aback to find Monbiot – who I had presumed well aware of the need for a critical perspective on such matters – was aggressively attacking people who voiced scepticism about this new alleged chemical attack at Khan Sheikhoun. 

In my innocence, I wrote him an open letter on the subject, which I posted on my blog. That letter, readers’ comments, and a rejoinder to Monbiot’s own tweeted response, are here and here.

It hadn’t occurred to me to doubt Monbiot’s good faith or question his motivations, and I was quite convinced that engaging in serious debate could bring together some meeting of minds. That never happened. I regretted this, but left the matter lie.

Then on 15 November 2017 Monbiot produced a column for the Guardian with the title ‘A lesson from Syria: it’s crucial not to fuel far-right conspiracy theories’. 

He was attacking sceptics about chemical weapons allegations. His readiness to apply the ‘conspiracy theory’ slur is something I had already called out in an earlier post and a presentation at a Media On Trial event.

Others were as concerned as me about his persistence on this tack. Philip Roddis wrote of his bemusement at how Monbiot ‘repeatedly shows himself prepared to suspend his critical faculties – while projecting that very sin on his opponents’. Jean Shaoul was frank in deploring this ‘thoroughly lazy and dishonest’ propaganda presented as a defence of democracy and free choice. 

The award-winning former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook, writing on ‘Syria, “experts” and George Monbiot’, expressed his dismay at ‘what has become an ugly habit with Monbiot’, namely, of adopting ‘the role of Witchfinder General’: for Monbiot, it seems, listening to ‘a ballistics expert like Ted Postol of MIT, or an experienced international arms expert like Scott Ritter, or a famous investigative journalist like Seymour Hersh, or a former CIA analyst like Ray McGovern, is apparently proof that one is an atrocity denier or worse.’

Meanwhile, public debate was somewhat intensifying around the White Helmets, an organisation funded by UK, US and other governments and embedded in opposition-held areas of Syria. The White Helmets organisation is the primary source of information that the Western media shares about events on the ground in Syria. While the organisation’s personnel are lauded as heroes in the Western mainstream, based on the evidence of its own video production operation, many ordinary members of the public find its outputs unconvincing and too conspicuously propagandistic.[14]

In December, Reporters Without Borders – an organisation that is supposed to defend press freedom – took the extraordinary step of lobbying the Swiss Press Club to dis-invite a speaker with known critical views about the White Helmets. To the Club’s credit, this was rejected, and the presentation by Vanessa Beeley can be viewed here.

As if in response to the rising profile of critical perspectives on the White Helmets, The Guardian commissioned a piece called ‘How Syria’s White Helmets became victims of an online propaganda machine’, from a lifestyle journalist called Olivia Solon, in California. 

This was widely perceived as an attempt to discredit the critics – notably Eva Bartlett and Vanessa Beeley – and to explain away their influence as a product of Russian propaganda! A number of us sought to reply to that piece, but the Guardian declined to publish any of our responses, or even allow comments on its own site. (Bartlett was to put out her own reply here, and Beeley responds here. 

I highlighted my own concerns in a post on ‘The Guardian, White Helmets, and Silenced Comment’. John Schoneboom criticises Solon’s hitpiece as ‘astonishingly shabby’, and Mike Raddie emphasises the importance of resisting such attacks. UK Column Newsclosely analyses the attack on independent critical journalism.

From America Philip Roddis considers it ‘a fact-lite hatchet job’, and Brandon Turbevillecalls it ‘perhaps one of the most ridiculous propaganda pieces of the year’, while James Corbett in Japan is decisive in declaring Solon’s article the fakest fake news story of 2017!)

Monbiot, however, was apparently determined to press the charge against critics that they are instruments of a Russian disinformation machine: out of the blue, he tweeted a hostile message to myself and colleague Professor Piers Robinson. Here is what he said, and alongside it you can see what I tweeted in response.


It is interesting to compare the reception of these tweets (particular as my Twitter following was less than 1% of Monbiot’s in size). The numerous comments under Monbiot’s tweet were predominantly critical of it, with the two exceptions being from Eliot Higgins and Oz Katerji. (Higgins has featured in my posts before, as here; and Katerji I shall have something to say about shortly.)

In the wake of Monbiot’s smears, several critical responses followed, including in articles by Caitlin Johnstone and Philip Roddis. MediaLens criticised Monbiot’s ‘disreputable behaviour’. 

Jonathan Cook was forthright: ‘Monbiot is not only a hypocrite, but a bully too’. OffGuardian’s Catte wrote ‘George, if you’re reading this, it’s you, not Hayward and Robinson, who has disgraced himself here.’

In short, among former Guardian readers, and even its own former journalists, the frustration at Monbiot’s stance was palpable. This reflects a widespread concern that is shared by the section of the public that has been taking a close interest in the media’s coverage of Syria.

The unreliability of the media is a concern also for academics. Some of us have become very troubled that the historical record of events relating to the war in Syria may be subject to serious distortion as a result of misleading media accounts; we are concerned that political analyses and humanitarian strategies may meanwhile be misdirected by misleading information. Quite generally, we believe, there is a need for impartial and independent monitoring of reports of the kind that peer-reviewed academic research is supposed to provide. For that reason we created the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media.[15]

The creation of the working group seems to have ruffled feathers in some quarters. The erstwhile Guardian journalist Brian Whitaker was quick to publish an article with the apparent intention of discrediting it, as his title indicates: 

‘The Syrian conflict’s anti-propaganda propagandists’. 

When the group added members to its International Advisory Board, Whitaker evidently saw it as his further public duty to warn the public that the ‘Russia-friendly “Syria propaganda” group names more supporters’.[16] For his efforts, Whitaker earned the admonishment of Jonathan Cook, with a swingeing reply about ‘The authoritarians who silence Syria questions’.

He criticised his old colleague for ‘using every ploy in the misdirection and circular logic playbook to discredit those who commit thought crimes on Syria, by raising questions both about what is really happening there and about whether we can trust the corporate media consensus banging the regime-change drum.’ He detects at work ‘transparently authoritarian instincts of a political and media elite – and of supposedly “liberal” journalists like Whitaker and Monbiot – to silence all debate, all doubt, all counter-evidence.’

Meanwhile Monbiot (on 10 February) had tweeted to our attention a piece by an anonymous blogger demanding answers from “the professors” to five questions that were, in my opinion, rather specious. My response to Monbiot was that if he wanted a debate with us, then let us have it properly, not via tweets or using anonymous proxies. Instead of accepting an invitation to serious debate, however, Monbiot continued to goad us on Twitter – conduct I still find frankly surprising.

When, two days on, he put out a link to Channel 4’s 2016 supposed ‘factcheck’ of Eva Bartlett’s critique of the media coverage of Aleppo, I pointed out Eva had been vindicated on her most important claims.

At this point, Oz Katerji entered the conversation. Although I’d had no prior dealings with this journalist, he launched into some astonishing invective:

you egregious, shameless liar … you’re a war crimes denier who busies himself slandering victims of war crimes. Others may choose to treat you with respect, I will treat you the way you deserve to be treated, the same as any neo-Nazi or Holocaust denier.

What stunned me all the more was that Monbiot, instead of being embarrassed by this rowdy ally of his, actually commended that I should ‘[g]et past his rough language and listen to him. He’s telling you things you need to hear, for your own sake.’

Now it makes me uncomfortable when people tell me what I need to do for my own sake, but I can take advice, so I decided to listen to Katerji. I quickly discovered that he has caught the attention of quite a few influential people. He moves in circles that get him seen in photos shaking hands with the head of the White Helmets (who in turn has been photographed with leading US/UK politicians), and he has been photographed in a friendly encounter with convicted ISIS recruiter Anjem Choudary. 

He has spoken at the invitation of Baroness Janet Royall at the House of Lords, and chatted on Twitter afterwards with Hamish de Bretton-Gordon about how they are getting MPs onside with their view on Syria. 

Apparently he may have been a ghostwriter for the 15 year-old Muhammad Najem who has lately been broadcasting from Ghouta; and we see him posing too with Bana Alabed(which found me idly wondering if he could have been involved in supplying the colloquial English language competence that is so evident in the tweets from the Bana Twitter account).


Where I recalled actually seeing Katerji before, though, was in this video from a Stop the War meeting where he is aggressively heckling Jeremy Corbyn – because, he later explained, Corbyn was ‘ignoring war crimes in Syria’ and ‘refused to call for Assad to step down’. 

This was October 2016, when Aleppo, according to Katerji, was at risk of being ‘wiped off the map’. So the Labour party was morally complicit in ‘ethnically cleansing East Aleppo’. In Katerji’s view what was happening in Aleppo was genocide. He criticises Corbyn for wanting a negotiated political settlement; he criticises Stop the War for opposing a No Fly Zone[17] and for being against American intervention. 

In another interview, Katerji reaffirms his advocacy of ‘enforcement of a no-fly-zone in Aleppo, as well air and naval strikes on military installations being used by the Assad regime’.

So what is it that Monbiot would have me learn from Katerji? Is it about the morality of foreign policy? Or is it about the facts on the ground in Syria? Thinking about these questions helped pull into focus some serious concerns I have about Monbiot’s own position.

(1) Is Monbiot’s moral posture on Syria coherent? Regarding Katerji’s take on moral questions, a striking thing is that he fervently advocates military intervention for regime change. Given that Monbiot has always pronounced himself opposed to military intervention, why would he think to have me schooled by such a vociferous and implacable advocate of it? In fact, the content of Monbiot’s writings does lend fulsome support to the arguments of interventionists, including, recently, by going out on a very precarious limb to defend the Western narrative about the White Helmets. 

The effect of Monbiot’s approach is to give his readers the impression that one can in principle be morally opposed to war on Syria, and yet have no strong moral argument to dissuade those who are in favour of it.[18] Monbiot does not offer principled objections to intervention in general. On the contrary, in this 2004 article he defends military intervention as a matter of humanitarian principle. So it remains to be clarified what exact reason of principle would support his posture of opposition to it in the specific case of Syria. The practical import of his writings on Syria, in fact, has been very much to bolster the case for intervention that others overtly press. 

This is why I engaged with him over his rush to judgment about Syrian government responsibility for the chemical incident at Khan Sheikhoun in 2017. He cannot credibly deny that this attribution was questionable, if only because so many people no less intelligent or informed than himself formulated very clear questions. Instead of addressing these, however, he criticised sceptics for ‘denying a mountain of evidence’, appealing to Higgins as an authority in the matter.[19] When Paul McKeigue offered a critical assessment of the available evidence, Monbiot dismissed it out of hand. His posture thus rests on his confidence in his own understanding of facts.[20]

(2) Are Monbiot’s factual assumptions credible? Was it then about facts, rather than morality, that Monbiot would have me learn from Katerji? Monbiot did mention that listening to him would help me be less cut off from reality. Given that my purely vicarious experience of realities in Syria comes only from testimony of people from government-held areas, I was eager to learn what Katerji could relay from civilians in opposition-held areas. 

It turned out to be rather less than hoped, but I did track down some short video clips of a trip he made across the Turkish border to a refugee camp. He shows several seconds of a car journey in Idlib province where, he tells us, ‘life goes on normally’, although he does not show us that happening or interview anybody. Back at the refugee camp, he interviews an Ahrar al-Sham fighter who tells us that although they have lost the battle for Aleppo, they have not lost the war. 

Katerji does not mention that his interlocutor is from a salafist faction close to Al Qaeda which, were it ever to have won the war, would not have ushered in the progressive new constitutional order that the peaceful Syrian activists had hoped for in 2011. Fighters like these had turned the schools in opposition areas into headquarters for operations that included shelling residents of government-held Western Aleppo and imprisoning, torturing and killing residents caught in the Eastern enclave with them. So when Katerji rightly mourns how the kids in refugee camps have no access to education and are a ‘lost generation’ his moral outrage could, I think, be misdirected. 

The reality of the refugee camps and of the suffering in them is undeniable. What Katerji makes of it, however, is quite another thing. He interviews some men and boys who say their greatest goal in life is to remove Assad. He wants us to think they ‘speak for Syria’. But this is a misleading proposition on demographic, journalistic, political, moral, and ideological grounds. If there is a section of the population that would prefer an Islamist state in Syria over the current secular constitution, it is not a majority; and to suggest that ‘getting rid of Assad’ is a priority for the mass of people living in Syria now is to be in denial about how they have become obliged to look upon him as their protector, regardless of whether they had otherwise wanted him to remain president.

To suggest to an audience in the West that what the Islamist fighters want is freedom or democracy or dignity, as it would understand these terms, would not be honest. Honesty would also commend being clear that the very fact of these interviews refutes the premise of Katerji’s earlier attack on Corbyn: the civilians and even the armed opposition in East Aleppo were not ‘wiped out’ by government forces: they were escorted out in green buses (and even allowed to take their arms with them). There was no ‘genocide’.

So I remain unclear what exactly Monbiot would have me learn from Katerji about either the moral or material dimensions of the reality in Syria. That would lead me to suggest, once again, that it is best for people to make their own arguments for themselves.


In this final part I shall attempt to analyse the arguments that Monbiot has himself set out in the course of his writings and comments.

Monbiot adopts a moral posture of opposition to military intervention in Syria. He does not, however, endorse arguments of principle against military intervention in general. In fact, he rejects them, and he would not criticise an intervention provided it was appropriately triggered. It follows that he is not opposed to military intervention in Syria as a matter of principle. It is just that the conditions would have to be right.[21] The conditions would be those set out according to principles of Just War Theory.

Already in 2002, ahead of the Iraq invasion,[22] Monbiot had explained his view that military intervention for the purpose of regime change is permissible if the criteria of Just War are met.

Monbiot has generally been doubtful whether all of those conditions are met in the case of Syria: avoidance of harm to civilians, for instance, or a sufficiently clear chance of success, could be hard to ensure; and he also thinks the question of legitimate authority for enforcing regime change requires some clarification in international law. But those are conditions that could potentially be met if would-be interveners had sufficient political will. For the likelihood of success can be improved through enhanced military commitment, avoidance of harm to civilians can be met by concentrating lethal force against combatants, and legal treaties can be amended.

There is a crucial condition, however, that does not depend on anything would-be interveners do, and it either holds ex ante or it just does not hold. This is the requirement of a just cause.

Because just cause is an essential requirement of a just war, any argument that appears to establish it has great significance. It is not like the other requirements that can potentially be met with a practical work around. A just cause for military intervention is exactly what a great many of Monbiot’s statements relating to Syria have tended in substance to assert.

He has inveighed repeatedly and forcefully against Assad’s ‘murderous regime’, deeming it impervious to political dissuasion from a strategy of violent oppression of the Syrian people.[23] By comparison, his contingent opposition to intervention could appear little more than a moral scruple to be politely acknowledged. Certainly, Jonathan Cook thinks the net effect of Monbiot’s half-hearted opposition to military intervention has served to minimise the public sense of any real objection to war.[24]

So it becomes clear why people who oppose war have reason to feel dissatisfied with Monbiot’s position, even though he can truthfully declare himself opposed to war, in the qualified terms he does.

It is time to analyse the grounds of that dissatisfaction and bring this discussion to some conclusions. In Part 1 we saw how Monbiot repeatedly asserts claims in relation to ‘Assad’s regime’ that substantially affirm a just cause for military intervention; in Part 2 we saw that Monbiot is prepared to go to great lengths to defend that affirmation. Some people will be convinced by his arguments; others of us are not. There are two arguments I want to advance on behalf the sceptical position. The first is a strong one, I believe, whereas the second is unanswerable.

My first argument has to do with the burden of proof. Any appeal to just war principles proceeds in recognition that the burden of proof rests on the party that is contemplating recourse to war. For such a momentous course of action there must be great seriousness of deliberation. It should not be informed by simplistic, frivolous, partial or slippery arguments; it should certainly not be an occasion for jeering or sneering at people who differ in their views. 

This is why those of us who have recently been in disputes with Monbiot on Twitter have tried to urge him to come with us to a more appropriate forum for a more suitable sort of debate. The fact that he has declined our invitation does not necessarily imply that he thinks a serious debate would not go well for him, but it very directly serves to show that we are right to say there are unanswered questions. For we are putting questions and he is offering no answer to them. Monbiot is not obliged to respond, but he cannot claim that certain putative facts are established beyond dispute simply by denying the dispute. That is just not how disputes are settled!

So my first argument is that the burden of proof rests with him and, since he has not discharged it, he cannot claim to be right in the view he holds. But to show he cannot claim it has been proven is not to show that it cannot be proved. This is where the second argument comes in.

My second argument does not rest on showing Monbiot has failed to rebut some reasonable objections. The argument is that a Just Cause for foreign military intervention in Syria has not been proven for the reason that it cannot be proven. It cannot be proven because the principle of just cause cannot be applied to the situation in Syria.

The criteria of a just war apply in a situation where a people can legitimately take up arms against the forces of an aggressor. In the context of intervention, the taking up of arms is vicarious, but it is still done for the protection, and on behalf, of the people under threat. The point, then, is that before we can apply just war criteria, we have to have a situation that they can apply to: there has to be a threatened people and a threatening force.

In the case of Syria, a very elementary question concerns the identities of the two parties. Monbiot invariably insists that Bashar Al Assad is the aggressor, and on this basis Monbiot supposes that, if and when the Just War conditions are met, intervening against Assad is permissible. Yet an elementary fact is that Assad is not and could not conceivably be an aggressor single-handedly. Assad and his government have an army; that army is drawn from the Syrian people; and that body of Syrian men and women has remained loyal for seven hard years of fighting. So the very first question any would-be interventionist must ask is this: under what conceivable conditions could that body of loyal Syrian men and women be regarded as an aggressor against the Syrian people? 

The only thought that prevents the question being a purely rhetorical one is that there are armed sectarians who would answer it by asserting a right to speak for the Syrian people even without their assent – as we saw Katerji’s Ahrar al-Sham fighter does. I assume Monbiot would not endorse this answer.

I don’t know what Monbiot thinks about the Syrian army. I am not aware of his ever having explained where the Syrian army stands in his framing of the situation in Syria. I have not been able to track down any mention by him of it.

My argument is that sufficient reason for opposing military intervention against “Assad” is that he is literally not an aggressor against the Syrian people, and nor could his government or ‘regime’ be. For the possibility of even arguing there is a just cause of intervention in Syria, it would have to be claimed that the Syrian Arab Army is an aggressor against the Syrian people.

I cannot conceive how anyone could decently make such a claim.

The Syrian government and the people living under that government in Syria take the view that foreign military intervention in the Syrian Arab Republic would be illegitimate under any circumstances whatsoever. Syria has the rule of law under a constitution, and, imperfect as it may be, its imperfections are for Syrians to deal with. Both international law and human morality are on their side.

To suggest there is any justification for foreign powers to intervene for the purpose of ‘regime change’ in Syria is to mislead the public. Because I believe Monbiot has suggested just that, I have felt an obligation to engage in this extended critical analysis of his contribution to public opinion formation about Syria.