Archive | May 18th, 2020

The Daily Maverick’s propaganda exacerbates media’s current woes

Branko Brkic, founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Maverick. Public service journalism as espoused by The Daily Maverick is less about the real people of this country than it is about their own agenda, says the writer.

By Ayanda Mdluli  

The media is under threat – from tightened purse strings, shrinking newsrooms and reduced magazine pages to the ever-declining readership as jaded audiences switch to news streams they trust (like social media), or simply switch off. 

In effect, the media itself is a threat to its future. This is borne out on the pages and on the screens of publishers across the world, with South Africa having had its fair share of “narrative fixing”. The use of media to shape particular narratives to achieve desired outcomes is an age-old profession, and it looks like it will remain a well-subscribed one for years to come. This was evidenced, yet again, by the sterling piece of propaganda that landed in my inbox (forwarded by a colleague) yesterday morning.

Propaganda, for those who need reminding, is a persuasive technique largely using media channels to convey information that provokes an emotional response in the reader, and which then achieves a particular outcome or agenda. The art of persuasion. 

Shout loudly enough from the ramparts and tell a lie enough times, and it starts to sound like the truth. History has enough examples for us to be have learned from, but because life gets busy and time moves on, we soften and forget what happened until, bang, it appears right before our eyes again. 

While I have written several pieces this year about the tactics of some of my colleagues in the media, sometimes all it takes is a small event to truly bring things into focus. That was yesterday’s Daily Maverick article, courtesy of the sting in the tail Scorpio division, about the e-Learning contract in the Eastern Cape that will give students the ability to actually learn something. 

Instead of focusing on the dire plight of education across this country and looking into what this contract will actually mean to the people of the Eastern Cape, the author (Pieter-Louis Myburgh) chose to head his so-called “investigative, public-service journalism” piece with a title designed only to capture eyeballs in the digital realm. 

Use Iqbal Survé’s name enough times in headlines and opening paragraphs for search engines to pick up on, and any publisher would reap the benefit of additional eyeballs. Because, let’s face it, this is exactly what is going on here, along with a clearly orchestrated battle campaign to annihilate the doctor and his businesses and all their employees by casting enough doubt out there to persuade people of a different “truth”.

Yes, I know I work for Dr Survé. I also know I have been allocated the co-cheerleader role along with Business Report’s editor. However, I want it known that while I respect Dr Survé and the titles I work for, I am my own man. I am free to think and write what I want, and these are my thoughts and no one else’s.  Have we got that clear everyone?

Moving on…

The aforementioned article tried very hard to, yet again, cast aspersions on businesses linked to the Sekunjalo Group. Having exhausted (for now) direct attacks on AYO Technologies, which in 2019 saw that group lose a contract that endangered several hundred employees due only to reputational damage caused by agenda-driven media houses and nothing to do with the actual service delivery, the Daily Maverick has turned its attention to specific companies within the group.

The “story” published yesterday had zero substance, was largely circumstantial and suppositional with much of Scorpio’s conjecture refuted even by the parties it interviewed and who were quoted in the article. 

The awarding of the contract was legitimate and will serve to truly help people. Twitter woke up to this fact too, questioning the point of this so-called investigative piece. 

Whilst we are competitors in business, this type of journalism that masquerades as the truth and being for the good of the country is dangerous for the profession as a whole. 

As I opened with, all media is under threat.  We all require revenue to drive our publishing houses to pay us.  We all need audiences to read what we have to say.  But never has it been more important for us as media to put aside our differences and unite in a common goal to ensure that we have a profession to come back to after lockdown, a profession that others can look up to, depend on and trust. 

Public service journalism as espoused by the Daily Maverick and displayed in the article to which I refer here, is less about the real people of this country than it is about their own agenda to take on Independent Media by taking out its head.

Articles that have little to no substance and that rely on the parent brand’s market positioning line to lift them into veracity, are the very types of “journalism” that continue to drive audiences away. 

It’s time for a new era in journalism. Covid-19 and the subsequent global economic meltdown has taught me that people are less interested in the sting in the tail than they are about balancing life and the scales of justice. That is where we should all be weighing in on the truth going forward.

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Maternity ward massacre shakes Afghanistan and its peace process

Newborn children who lost their mothers during the yesterday's attack lie on a bed at a hospital, in Kabul, Afghanistan May 13, 2020. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

By: Orooj Hakimi, Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Hamid Shalizi  

KABUL – After struggling to get pregnant for years, Zainab, 27, gave birth to a baby boy on Tuesday morning at a small hospital in the southwestern corner of Kabul. She was overjoyed and named the boy Omid, meaning ‘hope’ in Dari.

At around 10 a.m. (0530 GMT), an hour before she and her family were set to return home to neighbouring Bamiyan province a three-hour drive away, three gunmen disguised as police burst into the hospital’s maternity ward and started shooting.

Zainab, who rushed back from the washroom after hearing the commotion, collapsed as she took in the scene. She spent seven years trying to have a child, waited nine months to meet her son and had just four hours with him before he was killed.

“I brought my daughter-in-law to Kabul so that she would not lose her baby,” said Zahra Muhammadi, Zainab’s mother-in-law, unable to contain her grief. “Today we’ll take his dead body to Bamiyan.”

No group has claimed responsibility for the massacre of 24 people, including 16 women and two newborns. At least six babies lost their mothers in an attack that has shaken even the war-torn nation numbed by years of militant violence.

“In my more than 20-year career I have not witnessed such a horrific, brutal act,” said Dr. Hassan Kamel, director of Ataturk Children’s Hospital in Kabul.

The raid, on the same day that at least 32 people died in a suicide bomb attack on a funeral in the eastern province of Nangarhar, threatens to derail progress towards U.S.-brokered peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

President Ashraf Ghani condemned the attacks and ordered the military to switch to offensive mode rather than the defensive tactics it adopted while U.S. troops withdraw from the country after a long, inconclusive war.

The Taliban, the main militant group, has denied involvement in both attacks, although trust among officials and the broader public has worn thin. An offshoot of Islamic State is also among the suspects: it admitted it was behind the Nangarhar bloodshed.


Muhammadi, the mother-in-law, said she saw one of the attackers firing at pregnant women and new mothers, even as they cowered under hospital beds.

“We gave him the name Omid. Hope for a better future, hope for a better Afghanistan and hope for a mother who has been struggling to have a child for years,” she told Reuters by telephone in Kabul.

The gunmen then turned to target the cradle where Omid had been asleep. As the sound of bullets reverberated through the ward, Muhammadi said she fainted in fear.

“When I opened my eyes, I saw that my grandson’s body had fallen to the ground, covered in blood,” she recalled, as she wailed with grief.

The Kabul attack began in the morning when gunmen entered the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital, throwing grenades and shooting, government officials said. Security forces had killed the attackers by the afternoon.

The 100-bed, government-run hospital hosted a maternity clinic run by Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French name Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Just hours before the attack, MSF had tweeted a photo of a newborn in his mother’s arms at the clinic after being delivered safely by emergency caesarean section.

On Wednesday, the group condemned the attack, calling it “sickening” and “cowardly”.

“Whilst fighting was ongoing, one woman gave birth to her baby and both are doing well,” MSF said in a statement. “More than ever, MSF stands in solidarity with the Afghan people.”

Deborah Lyons, head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, condemned the hospital assault in a tweet. “Who attacks newborn babies and new mothers? Who does this? The most innocent of innocents, a baby! Why?”


In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday condemned the two attacks, noted the Taliban had denied responsibility and said the lack of a peace deal left the country vulnerable to such violence.

Pompeo also described the stalled peace effort, which planned for intra-Afghan peace talks to begin on March 10, as “a critical opportunity for Afghans to … build a united front against the menace of terrorism.” Talks have yet to start.

The Pentagon declined to comment on Ghani’s stated intent to restart offensive operations, saying only that the U.S. military continued to reserve the right to defend Afghan security forces if they are attacked by the Taliban.

Relations between the government in Kabul and the Taliban movement, which was ousted from power in 2001 by a U.S.-backed assault in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, are already frayed, and Tuesday’s events will make any rapprochement harder.

“There seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban in ‘peace talks’,” Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib said in a tweet.

For Afghanistan, the hospital attack also risks further disrupting a healthcare network that is creaking amid the challenges of dealing with the new coronavirus pandemic.

More than a third of the coronavirus cases in Kabul have been among doctors and healthcare staff, Reuters reported in early May.

The high rate of infection among healthcare workers has already sparked alarm among medics and some doctors have closed their clinics. At least 5,226 people have been infected by the coronavirus and 132 have died, according to the health ministry.


The attack has shaken the small medical community in Kabul to its core.

Nurses and doctors who survived the hospital attack said they were in shock, and resuming duties would be an emotional challenge on top of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

“Last night I could not sleep, as scary scenes of the attack kept crossing my mind,” said Masouma Qurbanzada, a midwife who saw the killings.

“Since yesterday my family has been telling me to stop working in the hospital, nothing is worth my life. But I told them ‘No, I will not stop working as a health worker’.”

Officials at MSF said they were working to try to normalise operations and had received support from other hospitals to treat dozens of infants and adults wounded in the attack.

Some medics at the hospital, however, said it would be hard to move on.

“The gunmen blew up a water tank and then started shooting women. I saw a pool of water and blood from the small gap of a safe room where some of us managed to lock ourselves,” said a nurse with MSF, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“I saw patients being killed even as they begged and pleaded for their life in the holy month of Ramadan. It is very hard for me to work now.”

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This virus may never go away, says WHO emergencies expert

WHO emergencies expert Mike Ryan File photo: Reuters

By Emma Farge and Michael Shields 

Geneva – The coronavirus that causes Covid-19 could become endemic like HIV, the World Health Organisation said on Wednesday, warning against any attempt to predict how long it would keep circulating and calling for a “massive effort” to counter it.

“It is important to put this on the table: this virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities, and this virus may never go away,” WHO emergencies expert Mike Ryan told an online briefing.

“I think it is important we are realistic and I don’t think anyone can predict when this disease will disappear,” he added. “I think there are no promises in this and there are no dates. This disease may settle into a long problem, or it may not be.”

However, he said the world had some control over how it coped with the disease, although this would take a “massive effort” even if a vaccine was found – a prospect he described as a “massive moonshot”.

More than 100 potential vaccines are being developed, including several in clinical trials, but experts have underscored the difficulties of finding vaccines that are effective against coronaviruses.

Ryan noted that vaccines exist for other illnesses, such as measles, that have not been eliminated.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus added: “The trajectory is in our hands, and it’s everybody’s business, and we should all contribute to stop this pandemic.”

Ryan said “very significant control” of the virus was required in order to lower the assessment of risk, which he said remained high at the “national, regional and global levels”.

Governments around the world are struggling with the question of how to reopen their economies while still containing the virus, which has infected almost 4.3 million people, according to a Reuters tally, and led to over 291,000 deaths.

The European Union pushed on Wednesday for a gradual reopening of borders within the bloc that have been shut by the pandemic, saying it was not too late to salvage some of the summer tourist season while still keeping people safe.

But public health experts say extreme caution is needed to avoid new outbreaks. Ryan said opening land borders was less risky than easing air travel, which was a “different challenge”.

“We need to get into the mindset that it is going to take some time to come out of this pandemic,” WHO epidemiologist Maria van Kerkhove told the briefing.Reuters

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American anti China propaganda

World scientists meet to fight novel coronavirus

US says Chinese hacking vaccine research

by: Agence France-Presse

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation and cybersecurity experts believe Chinese hackers are trying to steal research on developing a vaccine against coronavirus, two newspapers reported Monday.

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security are planning to release a warning about the Chinese hacking as governments and private firms race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times reported.

The hackers are also targeting information and intellectual property on treatments and testing for COVID-19.

US officials alleged that the hackers are linked to the Chinese government, the reports say.

The official warning could come within days.

In Beijing Foreign Affairs ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian rejected the allegation, saying China firmly opposes all cyber attacks.

“We are leading the world in COVID-19 treatment and vaccine research. It is immoral to target China with rumors and slanders in the absence of any evidence,” Zhao said.

Asked about the reports, President Donald Trump did not confirm them, but said: “What else is new with China? What else is new? Tell me. I’m not happy with China.”

“We’re watching it very closely,” he added.

A US warning would add to a series of alerts and reports accusing government-backed hackers in Iran, North Korea, Russia and China of malicious activity related to the pandemic, from pumping out false news to targeting workers and scientists.

The New York Times said it could be a prelude to officially-sanctioned counterattacks by US agencies involved in cyber warfare, including the Pentagon’s Cyber Command and the National Security Agency.

Last week in a joint message Britain and the United States warned of a rise in cyber attacks against health professionals involved in the coronavirus response by organised criminals “often linked with other state actors.”

Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre and the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said they had detected large-scale “password spraying” tactics — hackers trying to access accounts through commonly used passwords — aimed at healthcare bodies and medical research organisations.

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Including Lebanon … an Iranian military message to the region’s defense ministers

Source: Islamic Republic of News Agency – IRNA

The Chief of the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Major General Mohammad Bagheri, sent telegrams to defense ministers and chiefs of staff of the armed forces in the countries of the region, stressing “the Iranian armed forces are ready to transfer their expertise in the field of fighting the Corona virus to countries of the region.”

In his telegrams to the countries of Iraq, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Syria and Lebanon, Major General Bagheri declared, “the readiness of the armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran to exchange and transfer experiences in the field of fighting the Corona virus to these countries,” according to the Iranian news agency, IRNA.

He referred to “the successes of the Islamic Republic of Iran in confronting the Corona virus,” noting “the broad role of the Iranian armed forces in the operations to combat and confront this dangerous virus in the country.”

The Chief of the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces stressed that “failure to properly and scientifically confront this disease can accelerate its spread and endanger the health of its people.”

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Iran talks about new wonders … Party B, Saddam Hussein and ‘Israel’

Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, Ali Shamkhani, attacked the German government for its decision to ban the Lebanese “Hezbollah”.

Shamkhani said in a tweet to him on Twitter: “He unveiled one of the new wonders. What is surprising is that the vendors of Saddam’s chemical weapons, which caused collective massacres, today defend human rights and have classified the heroes of Hezbollah among their terrorist list. The terrorist ISIS did not reach Europe because it met an unprecedented resistance. “

He added, “ISIS did not reach Europe because it was unable to pass the resistance wall, and how good it is for today to unveil the main aspects of terrorism supporters.”

The Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, has condemned the German government’s decision to consider the Lebanese “Hezbollah” a “terrorist organization”.

Mousavi said that the German decision comes in the context of the goals of the Zionist entity and America, warning the German government not to bear the negative repercussions of its decision to combat the real terrorist groups.

The first Iranian comment on Germany’s decision to classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization

Damascus: Berlin’s decision regarding Hezbollah is unjust and a medal of honor

And the German Ministry of the Interior announced last Thursday that it had taken a decision to ban the Lebanese “Hezbollah” on its soil and classify it as a “terrorist organization”, while German police raided the same day to arrest people belonging to the party, which has become banned according to German laws.

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COVID-19 Planning: Is It Time to Nationalize Big Pharma?


Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Pharmaceutical corporations make billions providing drugs to help improve some people’s lives, in much the same way that privately-run hospitals provide care to those who can afford to pay. But Big Pharma is not a caring industry. Big Pharma has done some truly despicable things over the past hundred years or so. This is why Big Pharma and the management of our health should not remain in the hands of huge corporations. It is high time that we bring vital private health industries under democratic public ownership. This is the only way to remove the perverse financial incentives that places profit before human need.

Of course, Big Pharma and their political enablers would like us all to believe that they should have even more power over our health services. This essay therefore aims to put the lie to this self-serving propaganda. It will do so by initially bursting the bubble on the ways that Big Pharma PR to deflect attention away from its profiteering through propaganda work. It will debunk some of the nonsense surrounding the ostensibly humanitarian actions undertaken by two corporate giants meddling in the politics of global health: the first is the world’s largest vaccines company, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which happens to be the only pharmaceutical giant that has committed to making any COVID-19 vaccine that they develop “affordable” for all. The second is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a non-profit corporation which is controlled by Bill Gates — a philanthropist whose personal wealth has, with the help of tax loopholes, doubled over the past decade. By examining the activities of these two corporations in relation to health profiteering both before and during this ongoing pandemic, this essay will prove beyond all reasonable doubt that there is no reason to be optimistic that corporations can be trusted to promote the best interests of humanity.

Selling Big Pharma: The Good Ship “SS Hope”

Big Pharma’s flagrant disregard for human life has already been the subject of many exposés. Yet the only thing that really seems to improve is the industry’s ability to funnel record-breaking sums of money into the pockets of politicians, doctors, regulatory agencies, and journalists to help them flog their often dangerous and many times unnecessary pharmaceutical wares. To be generous to all involved, the unhealthy fixation with using propaganda to shield Big Pharma’s activities from democratic scrutiny rather than addressing inadequacies is hardly new. Take for example, the late 1950s when psychological warfare experts enlisted the support of Big Pharma and the weapons industry in donating medical supplies to the globe’s poor. Project HOPE was the name given to this enterprise and the bulk of their work was undertaken in public by Dr William Walsh, a medical doctor, but other better known voices involved included C.D. Jackson (an executive vice president at the Time-Life Corporation and a former psychological warfare advisor to President Eisenhower), Frank Pace, Jr., (the president of defense contractor General Dynamics), John T. Connor, (the president of pharmaceutical giant Merck & Company), and George Meany (the right-wing head of the AFL-CIO).

With Big Pharma stumping up medical supplies and much more beside, the long voyage of SS Hope – the converted war ship delivering all this aid for Project HOPE — was a propaganda coup par excellence for the US national security state. Moreover, its aid efforts were aimed not just at winning the hearts and minds of foreign subjects, but also the domestic audience too. The domestic element of this strategy eventually paid handsome dividends in projecting the pharmaceutical industry from the regulatory gaze of the state. In lieu of any meaningful democratic reform of the pharmaceutical industry, actual change has been supplanted by ‘hope’ for change. ‘Hope’ provides a critical weapon in the industries ongoing efforts to divert public attention their systemic profiteering. Thus, Project HOPE is still busily promoting their novel brand of medical diplomacy across the world; and even before the coronavirus pandemic burst forth from Wuhan they were proud of their longstanding humanitarian operations covering the world which even included their having a base in this fateful city. Although Project HOPE are controversially still funded by weapons manufacturers like General Dynamics, their board room now only has room for representatives of Big Pharma: current dignitaries serving in this capacity includes Merck’s current CEO (Richard Clark), the former CEO of GlaxoSmithKline (Charles Sanders), and two representatives from Quest Diagnostics – the company that was involved with the ongoing cervical smear scandal in Ireland.

 Putting GlaxoSmithKline on Trial

One key question that should be at the forefront of any discussion of the health outcomes promoted by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is whether they have been involved in any activities that may be construed as endangering public health. And on this issue you don’t have to look too far to find evidence of wrongdoing. Earlier this year it was reported that the European Court of Justice had decided to support a disputed decision made by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority that fined the drug-maker £37.6 million. As the article in the Financial Times noted, the Court “found that the pay-for-delay deals had deprived the NHS of significant price reductions, after the average price of a GSK drug dropped by 70 per cent over two years after independent generics were introduced to the market.” (Pay-for-day referring to the practice of paying off rival companies to prevent them launching cheaper copycat versions of drugs after their patent expires.)

In other news, last year GSK was implicated in a tax scandal in the UK; while earlier in the year another article in the Financial Times pointed out how the UK Serious Fraud Office had “closed its investigations” into GSK which the paper observed only sought to highlight the Office’s inability (rather unwillingness) “to prosecute individuals whose companies have been linked to criminal activity.” This political decision to offer a reprieve to the company is a itself a crime as the Fraud Office had initially opened its criminal investigation into GSK shortly after the Chinese authorities had accused GSK of earning hundreds of millions of pounds “in ‘illegal revenues’ by bribing hospitals and officials to buy its medicines.” These criminal actions in China led to £300 million fine; while GSK’s CEO Sir Andrew Witty of six years standing was slapped on his wrists too and had “his total pay temporarily cut almost in half (to £3.89 million). Making matters worse instead of listening to their employee who blew the whistle about GSK’s involvement in bribery, the company’s immediate response was to attack the whistleblower and to dismiss the allegations as an unfounded “smear campaign.”

Crime seems to pay, or at best goes barely punished; and certainly few positive lessons were being learnt at GSK as, just two years prior to the Chinese scandal, GSK had to pay $3 billion “in fines for promoting its best-selling antidepressants for unapproved uses and failing to report safety data about a top diabetes drug”. This was, and still is, the largest fine of its kind in US history. As the New York Times states:

“Prosecutors said the company had tried to win over doctors by paying for trips to Jamaica and Bermuda, as well as spa treatments and hunting excursions. In the case of Paxil, prosecutors claim GlaxoSmithKline employed several tactics aimed at promoting the use of the drug in children, including helping to publish a medical journal article that misreported data from a clinical trial.

“A warning was later added to the drug that Paxil, like other antidepressants, might increase the risk of suicidal thoughts in teenagers. Prosecutors said the company had marketed Wellbutrin for conditions like weight loss and sexual dysfunction when it was approved only to treat major depressive disorder.

“They said that in the case of Avandia, whose use was severely restricted in 2010 after it was linked to heart risks, the company had failed to report data from studies detailing the safety risks to the F.D.A.”

As the press explained at the time, GSK chief executive Sir Andrew Witty desperately “sought to portray the illegal actions as part of the company’s past.” Reporters also noted that despite the size of the fine GSK would be unlikely to amend their ways because it was well understood that the billions in profits derived from their illegal activities far exceeded the size of their fine.

As another illustration of the way that GSK’s corporate executives who overeee such criminal activities seem to be rewarded not punished we might take the related example of Tachi Yamada, who between 1999 and 2006 served as the chairman of Research and Development at GSK. In 2006 Yamada then became a senior advisor to a private equity firm (Frazier Healthcare) and was headhunted to become the President of Global Health Programs for the Gates Foundation. But his past GSK misdemeanours followed Yamuda to the Gates Foundation and within a year of starting work at the philanthropic foundation a US Senate Report highlighted how the esteemed scientist had acted to silence a renowned diabetes researcher for daring to suggest that users of GSK’s highly profitable diabetes drug (Avandia) had a high risk of heart disease. Jacob Stegenga, the author of Medical Nihilism (Oxford University Press, 2018) summarises this sickening episode in this way:

“When secrecy of evidence about harms of medical interventions is threatened by vigilant researchers, manufacturers can respond belligerently. Rosiglitazone [trade name Avandia], again, provides a good illustration. John Buse, a diabetes researcher, gave two talks arguing that rosiglitazone may have cardiovascular risks. GlaxoSmithKline executed an orchestrated campaign to silence him. This plan appears to have been initiated by the company’s head of research [Tachi Yamada], and even the chief executive officer was aware of it. The company referred to Buse as the ‘Avandia Renegade,’ and in contact with Buse and his department chair there were threats of lawsuits. Buse responded to the company with a letter that asked them to ‘call off the dogs.’ Later Buse expressed embarrassment that he caved in to the pressure of GlaxoSmithKline. By 2007, the year that Nissen’s metaanalysis was published, the FDA [US Food and Drug Administration] estimated that rosiglitazone had caused about 83,000 heart attacks since coming on the market in 1999.” (p.149)

Thankfully Buse’s scientific career was not entirely derailed by this smear campaign, and in 2008 he was elected to serve as the President of the American Diabetes Association. Justice however was still some way off, and it would not be until July 2010 that an FDA advisory committee to finally take concrete action based upon Buse’s early warnings wherein they recommended “a recall” of Avandia and placed severe restrictions on its availability.

Just a few months later GSK made the news again (for all the wrong reasons) when it had to pay the US government $750 million “to settle civil and criminal charges that it manufactured and sold adulterated drug products.” Afterwards, in another case revolving around an issue first raised in 2012, in 2016 a former GSK biostatistics manager took the decision to file a whistleblower lawsuit “accusing the drug maker of firing him for alleging dodgy study data was used to tout the effectiveness of a smoking-cessation product.” While in 2018 it was reported that a former GSK sales representative in India had initiated legal action against the company after being sacked for trying to expose the culture of bullying and bribery. Therefore, considering all the problems that GSK has encountered with following any form of regulatory guidance, they were probably relieved when Dr Jesse Goodman, the former Chief Scientist for the US Food and Drug Administration (2009-2014) resigned from his position of authority at the FDA so he could join GSK’s illustrious board of directors.

 Pharma Philanthropy?

In the turbulent world of Big Pharma, chief executives are changed as often as corporations face public crises of democratic accountability. But the one thing that always remains the same is their relentless pursuit of profits. In 2017 Sir Andrew Witty vacated his position at the head of GSK after nine years’ service (at the time drawing an annual salary £6.7 million) to be replaced by Emma Walmsley, who only last December joined the board of directors of the Microsoft Corporation. Witty was subsequently shunted sideways into another industry, which runs parallel to Big Pharma, private health. Witty became the President of America’s largest health insurer, UnitedHealth Group. This gargantuan insurer is the former employer of Britain’s arch-health privatiser-in-chief Simon Stevens — the current CEO of the National Health Service (NHS). With the pandemic now upon us, last month Witty was granted a leave of absence from UnitedHealth so he could join the World Health Organization’s (WHO) ongoing efforts to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.

While it is true that the largely US-funded WHO always had the potential to help coordinate an international response to this deadly pandemic, Witty’s secondment to their ranks merely emphasizes the organizations increasing reliance on Big Pharma. One of the most notable individuals steering the agenda of the WHO in recent years has been Bill Gates — a man who first linked up with Witty and Tachi Yamada in 2008-09 to combat neglected tropical diseases in the poorest parts of the world. Yet as the poor already know, humanitarian efforts, when driven by the pay checks of the tax-avoiding super-rich like Gates rarely end up serving the interests of the working-class.

The collaboration between the Gates Foundation and Big Pharma was initiated in 2009 when the foundation organized a project to “study the cost and feasibility of incorporating HPV vaccines, produced by Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, into India’s public sector immunisation programme.” However, the trial which set about vaccinating 14,000 adolescent girls from poor families soon ran into trouble when seven of the girls died shortly after receiving the vaccine. In all likelihood the vaccine was not the cause of these deaths, but the ensuing public anger led to a formal investigation which did reveal a rather dark side to the whole affair. In 2013 the Financial Times reported:

“In August, an Indian parliamentary committee set up to probe the issue concluded the PATH [Program for Appropriate Technology in Health] project was a clinical trial in all but name and that the organization had used ‘subterfuge’ to avoid the ‘arduous and strictly regulated process’ of such a trial.

“The committee report said many of the girls’ consent forms had apparently been signed by school principals and hostel wardens, and expressed scepticism that the girls’ parents were fully briefed on the pros and cons.

“The committee also found there was no rigorous process to track adverse events, leading to ‘gross underreporting’. It came down hard on Indian government agencies for alleged dereliction of duty.”

The parliamentary committee made the additional claim that GSK were lining their own corporate pockets with their so-called aid. They explained that the “sole aim” of the project had been “to promote the commercial interests of HPV vaccine manufacturers, who would have reaped windfall profits had PATH been successful in getting the HPV vaccine included” in India’s immunisation protocols. Linsey McGoey, author of No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy (Verso, 2015), argues that the “most alarming” aspect of this so-called trial was that the overseers’ of the Foundation project “did not implement any system for recording major adverse reactions to the vaccines,… something legally mandated for large-scale clinical trials.”

As this controversy was raging in India, local non-profits like the All India Drug Action Network made useful political interventions into the intense public debate. In 2010, the Network said that, in addition to the aforementioned ethical concerns, the one issue that was regularly ignored was the importance of promoting cervical cancer screening which “is almost non-existent in India.” To make matters worse, in 2018 the Network also explained that there is still “a lack of evidence” that the HPV vaccine “is effective and cost-efficient.” Yet despite that fact that the importance of screening is well understood, many health activists are concerned that there is a worrying decrease in its use (this includes in the UK). This needs to change, and even Dr Vivien Tsu, the Director of PATH’s controversial HPV vaccine project now emphasises the need for more screening. In fact only last year Dr Tse co-authored an academic paper (financed by the Gates Foundation) that determined “that immediate implementation of HPV testing has the potential to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of women in India who are beyond the target age of HPV vaccination”.

But even on the fairly uncontroversial issue of promoting cervical smears in India, US-based agencies (including the Gates Foundation) managed to undermine scientific protocols and public trust again. Thus, screening research undertaken in India between 1998 and 2015 resulted in the unnecessary sacrifice of 254 women’s lives because research agencies “exploited local regulatory weaknesses and economic and social inequities” in a process that has been referred to as “ethics dumping”. This meant that “effective methods of screening for cervical cancer were therefore withheld from 141,000 women in areas where it was known to be of high incidence and prevalence.” The sickening nature of this systemic exploitation are sadly nothing new. In her 2006 book The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs on the World’s Poorest, Sonia Shah wrote that given all the incentives that the Indian government has made for foreign investors…

“…the potential for abuse of research subjects in India appears nearly unlimited. But if in the past government officials tolerated ethical lapses because most experimentation was oriented toward public health goals, no such trade-off exists today, for the modern body hunt in India proceeds by the logic not of public health but the profit-driven needs of distant drug companies.”

The ongoing HPV debacle in India is not the first time that corporate powerbrokers have tried to force their ‘help’ upon the poor, but it has had lasting effects upon many people’s faith in both Big Pharma and in vaccines more generally. In this regard, it is understandable that billions of people across the world have little trust in huge corporations to look after their health needs. This is why it is so vital that socialists continue to raise the popular demand that the powerful and largely unaccountable corporations that dominate our health landscape be nationalised and run under democratic control by the workers themselves. This is critically important because fear of vaccines is dangerous for us all, as vaccines represent a critical health intervention that, despite the rampant profiteering on the part of corrupt elites, continues to serve the needs of the majority of humanity. So, when Big Pharma persist in subverting democratic norms by failing to develop drugs in an open and transparent manner they are damaging trust in medicines. It is clear that we must take away their monopoly powers over the life-saving vaccines that we do need.

One of the most insightful writers on the philanthropic abuses of Bill Gates in India is the Mumbai-based journalist Sandhya Srinivasan. She has written eloquently about the Gates Foundations scandalous involvement in all manner of interventions from the HPV nightmare through to their Malthusian-inspired efforts to regulate the fertility of the poor. Writing in 2014 she states that the Gates Foundation’s aim in India is…

“…to install a public health model driven by private corporations, and revolving around the use of privately-owned technological interventions, a ‘magic bullet’ for each disease. While such a model is incapable of delivering public health, it is geared to deliver a private profit.”

As history shows, pharmaceutical companies have a reputation for burying awkward results from clinical trials on drugs which show harm to human life. In a sane world clinical trials would be conducted by scientists who are financially independent from pharmaceutical corporations. This is rarely the case. Independent scientists of course continue to do their best at critically scrutinizing all available research (although much remains hidden by corporations) to make evidence-based recommendations as to the efficacy of various drugs and treatments. Often-times this leads to sharp disagreement and debates, and an important example of this is provided by recent meta-analyses of the health effects of the HPV vaccine.

On one side of this ongoing controversy are HPV vaccine advocates, many of whom work closely with the very corporations and foundations (GSK, Merck, and Gates) that seek to continue expanding the global use of the vaccine. While on the other side we have independent scientists, who have drawn attention to serious shortcomings in the manner in which the decision was made to roll-out HPV vaccines; and in doing so highlight the fact that their meta-analyses of HPV trials raise serious concerns about adverse health impacts associated with HPV vaccines. With billions of dollars of profits at stake, the unfortunate response to these reasonable if challenging questions about HPV vaccines has been to attack the messenger. This has involved launching a witch hunt against HPV critics which, amongst other things, has involved accusing critical scientists of being anti-vaxxers. Such smears are about as far from the truth as one can get. (For more on this read Peter Gøtzsche’s incisive book Vaccines: Truth, Lies and Controversy.)

 Viral Profiteering: How Disease Breeds Greed

Profiteering takes many forms but perhaps the most despicable of all is pandemic profiteering, and getting to the root of the history of this matter is more important than ever. In an opinion piece for the New York Times Gerald Posner, the author of Pharma: Greed, Lies and the Poisoning of America (Simon & Schuster, 2020), reminds us how profits trumped human need during the 1976 swine flu outbreak. He explains how for “several months, four drug firms — Merck’s Sharp & Dohme, Merrell, Wyeth, and Parke-Davis — refused to sell to the government the 100 million [vaccine] doses they had manufactured until they got full liability indemnity and a guaranteed profit.” This wouldn’t be the first or last time that profiteering obscured access to life-saving drugs.

The story of the anti-viral drug Oseltamivir (known as Tamiflu), a treatment that is still reaping millions for Big Pharma despite the fact that it was initially developed (as often is the case) by public researchers at the expense of ordinary taxpayers, is also revealing. Tamiflu profits keep flowing even though the considered evidence suggests that the anti-viral is next to useless. Tamiflu is the brand name drug produced by Roche and Gilead Sciences. The other related anti-viral that is manufactured by GSK to combat flu symptoms is Zanamirvir (brand name Relenza), and it too does next to nothing except make huge sales. The release of both drugs for sale is mired in controversy. As Sid Wolfe and his coauthors noted in their book Worst Pills, Best Pills: A Consumer’s Guide to Avoiding Drug-Induced Death or Illness (Pocket Books, 2005):

“Zanamirvir was reviewed by the FDA’s Antiviral Drug Advisory Committee on February 24, 1999. This committee of 17 outside experts was asked by the FDA: ‘Does the information presented by the applicant [Glaxo Wellcome] support the safety and effectiveness of zanamirvir for treatment of influenza?’ The committee voted 13 to 4 that it did not.” (p.755)

This democratic and evidence-based decision did not please GSK profit-makers who immediately dispatched a furious and threatening letter to the FDA, who then capitulated to the pharma bully and approved the useless drug. The seventeen-page letter that had such a dramatic impact upon the FDA was written by James Palmer (who after 2000 assumed the position of GSK’s second in charge of Research and Development working under Tachi Yamada). In his warning Palmer made it clear that refusal to approve zanamirvir would endanger global efforts to stockpile drugs needed to respond to a future pandemic. Thus, as a direct result of this letter the lead biostatistician who oversaw the FDA’s independent review, Michael Elashoff, was removed from his duties. Soon after this shameful episode the FDA decided to neglect organizing an independent scientific review of Tamiflu and simply approved it for use. Of course like zanamirvir there was never any “convincing evidence that Tamiflu prevents influenza complications or reduces the spread of influenza to other people.” On the contrary, as the Director of Emergency Care Research at the US National Institutes of Health states: “Tamiflu often gives you some of the very symptoms you are trying to relieve, and at best will shorten your misery from influenza by a day.” Little wonder that many people remain unconvinced by the sincerity of Big Pharma’s efforts to help those other than their shareholders, especially during times of global crisis. This dire situation is aptly summed up by Peter Gøtzsche who notes:

“During the ten years leading up to WHO’s pandemic declaration of 2009, scientists associated with the companies that were to profit from the WHO’s ‘pandemic preparedness’ programmes, including Roche and GlaxoSmithKline, were involved at virtually every stage of the development of those programs. Roy Anderson, a prominent British epidemiologist and adviser to both the WHO and the UK government, gravely warned a BBC radio audience [in May 2009] that only Relenza and Tamiflu would prevent a catastrophe on the scale of the 1918 influenza pandemic. At the time, Anderson was receiving £116,000 per year from GlaxoSmithKline, manufacturer of Relenza. By declaring a pandemic and linking the response to Tamiflu stockpiling, the WHO could not have done a better job of promoting Roche’s interests.”

In fact, Sir Roy Anderson had joined GSK board of directors in October 2007 and remained there until May 2018.

Pandemic UN-Preparation in the UK and US

When it comes to the huge pharmaceutical corporations that dominate the world of “Big Pharma organized crime” we should not be too surprised to find their dirty fingers dug deep within the public health sector. The British government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, who prior to taking up this prestigious appointment had been a President of Research and Development at GSK, is a case in point. Another high-profile individual overseeing the Tories pandemic ‘response’ is Jonathan Van-Tam who previously held senior positions at GSK, Roche, and Aventis Pasteur. Currently he is the UK’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England. This is the same individual who acted as the chair of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threat Advisory Group (NERVTAG) that oversaw “Exercise Cygnus” in late 2016. Exercise Cygnus was the pandemic-training exercise that demonstrated to the world that the NHS was totally unprepared for any future pandemic. As the Daily Telegraph revealed: “Minutes from a NERVTAG meeting held in the wake of Cygnus show that Dr Van Tam agreed to write to the Department of Health to repeat the committee’s concerns over the NHS stockpile of personal protective equipment.” But surprise, surprise, it turns out that this advice was never acted upon. In reality, Exercise Cygnus was undertaken specifically to demonstrate how well our health services “would cope with a major influenza outbreak with a maximum national death toll of 500,000.” This is exactly the situation we are facing today.

Ultimately, however, the underlying reason why the British government was so ill-prepared for this pandemic is because the Tories initial ‘response’ was to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of people’s lives through the so-called ‘herd immunity’ strategy. In many respects this implicit tolerance of mass mortalities is a central part of any privatised health care system: those who are wealthy enough and can afford treatment and those who can’t… well, they die. This was emphasised in an article published in the New Statesman which stated that the British government’s “planning documents – which date from 2005 to 2018 but are mainly based on the 2011 ‘Influenza Preparedness Strategy’ – suggest that Britain may in fact have been prepared, just for the wrong outcome.” That is, the Tories were wholly reliant on the initial plans first devised disgracefully by New Labour, plans which only ever planned to “mitigate rather than suppress” the impact of any pandemic.

Gates to the Rescue?

In contrast to almost all governments across the world, which failed to prepare for the type of pandemics they knew were just around the corner, in January 2017 a new group was formed in a last ditch attempt to overcome these serious problems. This was an initiative launched at an annual meeting of billionaires at the World Economic Forum in Davos which was called the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). Early founders included the governments of Norway and India, the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust. The billionaires present at Davos however weren’t so keen to part with their own wealth, and by December 2018 CEPI were still $250 million short of their initial $1 billion funding target. It seems unlikely that capitalists will ever act to protect the public good: with a pandemic now in full deadly affect CEPI is still short of money — although last month they received a $150 million boost from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a country which is still pursuing a war on Yemen with the active support of the British government.

As it turns out CEPI’s founders were fully aware of the difficulties of getting capitalists to plan to prevent mass fatalities, and at its launch, Sir Jeremy Farrar (the head of the Wellcome Trust)[19] stated that

“…there has not been until CEPI came along, not been an ability to take those things forward when there’s no commercial drive, when there’s no market incentives, when there is no way of selling that, of making a profit. And the Coalition is determined to change that, to make sure that we have vaccines for everything that we are going to need.”

Three years later, on March 30, 2020, leading members of CEPI published a report in the New England Journal of Medicine concluding that: “A global financing system [that CEPI aims to be] that supports end-to-end development and large-scale manufacturing and deployment, ensures fair allocation, and protects private-sector partners from significant financial losses will be a critical component of future pandemic preparedness.” The stand-out part of this statement emphasized the protection of corporations from financial losses. This is a fitting priority given that the lead author of this article (Nicole Lurie) is married to the former FDA boss turned current GSK board member Jesse Goodman. Thus, considering CEPI’s professed ambitions it is appropriate that GSK’s former President of Global Vaccines is a Strategic Advisor to CEPI’s CEO. Further illustrating the pernicious way in which Big Pharma’s interests weigh heavily upon CEPI’s potentially useful activities, in late 2018 Medecins Sans Frontieres pulled out of the Coalition citing concerns that it’s revised policy “no longer guarantees that the vaccines CEPI funds will be made available at an affordable price.”

In the US context, pandemic preparedness has, like in Britain, a nearly non-existent priority in government circles. “Crimson Contagion” was the code-name for President Trump’s pandemic preparation project which was carried last year and was overseen by longstanding corporate lobbyist Robert Kadlec, an individual who presently serves as the US Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. Like in Britain the results of this secretive training exercise “drove home just how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated the federal government would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed.” Unsurprisingly, nothing was done to address this problem. Kadlec once worked closely with current CEPI board member Rajeev Venkayya in drafting the government’s 2006 Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act – a relationship that developed while Kadlec was serving as the Director for biodefense on the Homeland Security Council.

Like other Big Pharma executives, Rajeev Venkayya is well immersed in the controversies swirling around powerful vaccine manufacturers. Thus, after working on biodefense issues for the US government he became the head of vaccine delivery projects at the Gates Foundation (where he worked under Tachi Yamada), and then moved on to employment at Takeda Pharmaceutical – Japan’s largest drug manufacturer. Takeda has not been immune from the lurid crime of health profiteering. In April 2014 they made international headlines when a $9 billion fine for punitive damages was levied against Takeda and Eli Lilly “for concealing possible health risks linked to their blockbuster diabetes drug Actos.” So, when Christophe Weber, Takeda’s new CEO arrived in post at exactly this moment of global notoriety, he drew upon his years of experience in leading executive positions at GSK. Later that same year celebrated his first success when it was announced that the proposed $9 billion fine had been reduced to a paltry $36.8 million!

That profit-seeking individuals like Venkayya can flit so easily between the shadowy world of the national security state, foundations, and Big Pharma is disturbing, but especially so for conservative conspiracy theorists. But there is no conspiracy at work, as in each instance we should appreciate that such revolving doorways exist precisely because their abiding interests remain the same. All are united in their promotion of capitalist interests at the expense of human life. This helps explain why President Obama’s chose Sylvia Mathews Burwell, a former President of the Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program to serve as the US Secretary of Health and Human Services. Burwell is a millionaire, who after her tenure in this high-ranking government position then joined the board room of one of America’s leading health insurers (GuideWell Mutual Holding Corporation) where she remains to this day.

Whether Democrats or Republicans the one thing that unites them is the profit motive, and so on the other end of the corporate political spectrum we might look at one of Burwell’s Republican forerunners, Tommy Thompson, who served as the US Secretary of Health and Human Services (holding this post between 2001 and 2005) under President George W. Bush’s administration. A focus upon Thompson is interesting in the context of the current crisis because when he retired he freely admitted that what worried him most was the threat posed by a human flu pandemic which, as he put it, could take the lives of up to 70 million people. “This is a really huge bomb that could adversely impact on the health of the world,” he said at the time. Yet on his watch, which overlapped and oversaw the biodefense efforts undertaken by Venkayya and Kadlec, his department…

“…and the Pentagon spent $14.5 billion to safeguard national security against largely hypothetical biological threats like smallpox and anthrax, even as they pursued a penny-pinching strategy to deal with the most dangerous and likely ‘bioterrorist’: avian influenza. The administration’s lackadaisical response to the pandemic threat (despite Secretary Thompson’s personal anxiety) is only the tip of the iceberg. Over the last generation, writes Lancet editor Richard Horton, ‘The U.S. public-health system has been slowly and quietly falling apart.’”

This was the opinion of socialist historian Mike Davis, author of The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu (The New Press, 2005), who went on to add:

“Under Democrats as well as Republicans, Washington has looked the other way as local health departments have lost funding and crucial hospital surge capacity has been eroded in the wake of the HMO [Health Maintenance Organization] revolution. (A sobering 2004 Government Accounting Office [GAO] report confirmed that “no state is fully prepared to respond to a major public-health threat.”) The federal government also has refused to address the growing lack of new vaccines and antibiotics caused by the pharmaceutical industry’s withdrawal from sectors judged to be insufficiently profitable; moreover, revolutionary breakthroughs in vaccine design and manufacturing technology have languished due to lack of sponsorship by either the government or the drug industry.”

So, the current healthcare problems facing the world were hardly unexpected; instead they were planned for by a dangerous economic system that is only programmed to care for its own profits.

 Pandemic Self-Care and the Fight for Democracy

Although this essay has only touched upon the full extent of the criminal corporate profiteering that takes place under the guise of delivering health care for all, what should be apparent is that this cannot be allowed to continue. Time and time again corporations have been found guilty of the most heinous of crimes, and capitalist politicians of all flavours have been sedated by their gifts and soothing assurances that they have amended their bad old ways. Big Pharma have had their chances to change and they have failed.

In the early 1980s, John Braithwaite undertook the task of interviewing scores of the most powerful executives in the pharmaceutical industry and therein gave the world a horrifying insider’s view of the world of Big Pharma. This exhaustive research led to a book titled Corporate Crime in the Pharmaceutical Industry, which documented the “abominable harm which group decision-making in the pharmaceutical industry has caused on many occasions.” Yet although it is enlightening to explore the specific wrongdoings of corporate leaders it is vital that we delve below the level of such superficial symptoms so we can understand the underlying causes of such destructive practices. Braithwaite therefore observes that…

“… most corporate crimes in the pharmaceutical industry cannot be explained by the perverse personalities of their perpetrators. One must question the proclivity in an individualistic culture to locate the source of evil deeds in evil people. Instead we should ‘pay attention to the factors that lead ordinary men to do extraordinary things’. Rather than think of corporate actors as individual personalities, they should be viewed as actors who assume certain roles. The requirements of these roles are defined by the organization, not by the actor’s personality.” (p.2)

The required cure which flows from such a systemic view of corporate crime is that the political and economic system itself must be changed, although it wouldn’t hurt if a few of the worst perpetrators of the pharmaceutical atrocities against humanity were punished too. Ultimately this must involve eradicating capitalism (to use a medical term) and replacing it with a democratic and socialist alternative.

But in order to prepare the way for achieving such revolutionary goals we must demand immediate reforms that can inoculate our body politic from the draining depredations of Big Pharma. A pandemic continues to wreak havoc across our planet, and under no circumstances can the proponents of Big Pharma be allowed to continue with business-as-usual. We urgently need a health system that can meet the needs of the global working-class and that cannot be delivered by the status quo. This means we must organize to seize control of Big Pharma’s assets so that their potentially life-enhancing knowledge and resources can be turned to the immediate goal of serving real human needs. Corporations must be democratically run by workers for workers, a process which will need to expend to other industries too. This will be a difficult task and in many situations will require the construction of new and democratic mass organizations of the working-class, but if we are to learn anything from this pandemic then it must be that the only people who are capable and willing of steering us through this current crises will be ourselves, the global working-class.

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How Economic Misery Helped Fuel the Syrian War


Ever since the civil war began in Syria in early 2011, the left has largely ignored the social and economic circumstances that led to a conflict costing over a half-million deaths and the migration—internal and external—of half the population. The tendency was to see Syria as a piece on a global chessboard with “the axis of resistance” fending off attacks from the West. There was lip-service to the idea that Syrians had legitimate grievances against the government early on, but by the end of 2011, the “anti-imperialist” consensus was that the rebels were jihadists interested more in fighting unbelievers than inequality.

To my knowledge, the first attempt at an analysis of the internal class contradictions appeared in 2015. Long-time Syria scholar Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zintl edited a collection titled “Syria from Reform to Revolt: Volume 1: Political Economy and International Relations”. (A second volume never appeared.) I found this book invaluable in writing an article titled “The Economic Roots of the Syrian Revolution”. My goal was to demonstrate that a rural agrarian crisis provided the fuel for an uprising. An article by Myrian Ababsa provided statistics that revealed the depths of misery that led to the revolt. In 2009, 42 percent of Raqqa governorate suffered from anemia owing to a shortage of dairy products, vegetables, and fruit. Malnutrition among pregnant women and children under five doubled between 2007 and 2009. That was the cause of the conflict, not Saudi desire to impose shariah law on the country.

Although published in 2018, another collection first came to my attention a month ago. Titled “Syria: From National Independence to Proxy War” and co-edited by Linda Matar and Ali Kadri, the book overlaps somewhat with the earlier volume. There are articles by Raymond Hinnebusch and Myrian Ababsa. There is also the same scholarly attention to statistics that help make the case that economic misery fueled the war. Since the hardcover is $83.99, it targets university libraries just like the earlier volume that cost $158.60. I was only able to read both books through access to the Columbia library. It is a shame that those without such connections will likely never be able to afford books that are essential in developing a class rather than a geopolitical understanding of what took place in Syria.

Since both Linda Matar and Ali Kadri have written for Global Research, your natural tendency would be to anticipate that most of the articles in their collection would have to do with the “proxy war.” You’d expect copious references to Wikileaks and articles by Max Blumenthal. To my great astonishment, the book is a broadside against the same neoliberal policies that the earlier volume details.

There is a real sense of cognitive dissonance in the collection. In the introduction, the authors echo the geopolitical narrative alluded to above:

Our hypothesis was, and remains, that Syria—the real home of culturally diverse working people—underwent an imperialist assault before and during the Arab Spring to tear it asunder. In standard political economy parlance, US-led imperialism breaks down geographic barriers to subvert and re-articulate less developed modes of production, to unweave their social fabric and re-weave them into the social fabric of US capitalism.

However, in the same introduction, they say that Assad “capitulated to the competing interests of comprador-merchants willing to dismantle the country and sell it as scrap metal.” Matar’s article in the collection is titled “Macroeconomic Framework in Pre-conflict Syria.” It is unlike anything that ever appeared in Global Research:

Macroeconomic reforms shrank the middle class, the government’s traditional social base of support, and widened the income gap between rich and poor. The government reduced its education and health spending and lifted the social safety nets that initially prevented individuals from falling into poverty. Very few had the privilege to enjoy wealth, education and health. The majority struggled to make a decent living on daily basis. Independent researchers estimated that the unemployment rate ranged between 15 and 20 per cent in 2010. In 2007, the poverty rate was 33.5 per cent. And in rural areas, it reached 62 per cent. The total number of people who were under the upper poverty line (90 Syrian pounds per individual per day) was more than six million in 2007.

That’s quite a mouthful from a Global Research contributor, but not one so nearly as startling as one by Nabil Marzouk, who is none other than an employee of the State Planning Commission in Syria. Titled “The Syrian Conflict: Selective Socioeconomic Indicators,” the article buttresses Matar’s with statistics that leave no doubt. Despite the reputation it once had as an anti-imperialist stronghold, Syria was a country that cared little about its working-class and peasantry. Marzouk writes:

Income was the weakest component of Syria’s Human Development Index. Many factors have led to poor incomes amongst Syrians, among which have been weak institutions, rising inequality, the rent-based structure of the economy, and the introduction of neoliberal economic policies. It is worth noting that wages’ share of net domestic product—in current prices—declined from 40.5 per cent in 2004 to about 33 per cent in 2010, at production factor cost. If we compare the results of the household expenditure survey in 2009 with that of the labour survey in 2009, we see immediately that the average wage covered only 32 per cent of necessary family expenditures.

So, that’s what someone in the State Planning Commission on the Baathist party payroll says. If your wage only covered 32 percent of necessary family expenditures, wouldn’t you revolt? Considering the precarious state where most working people are in the USA, one can easily imagine that they too will rise up at some point. As Robert Fitch once said, vulgar Marxism explains 90 percent of what happens in the world. Hunger drives people to struggle, not outside agitators the Saudis fund.

Of keenest interest to me was the article titled “The Political Economy of Thermidor in Syria: National and International Dimensions” by Max Ajl, a Development Sociologist at Cornell University. I ran into Ajl at some leftwing conference about a decade ago and exchanged pleasantries. That is before I became persona non grata on the left for opposing Assad.

In 2011, Ajl became an editorial board member of Jacobin with the authority needed to give the green light for Global Research type articles about Syria. They were bereft of any considerations of the class contradictions within the country. Typical was Asa Winstanley’s “Syria: The Revolution That Never Was” that accused the “brutal Saudi tyranny” of waging a proxy war. This analysis joined Jacobin at the hip with other conspiracy-mongering outlets.

In 2017, Sunkara gave Ajl his walking papers since Jacobin began publishing a different kind of article, like an interview with Yassir Munif. This platform allowed him to describe Assad as the head of a “totalitarian, sectarian, and, more recently, neoliberal regime.”

It must have agonized Ajl to suffer for his pro-Assad beliefs, especially since for other people like Max Blumenthal, they provided a handsome income. In a soul-searching session with fellow Assad supporter Justin Podur, an associate professor at York University, Ajl sounded like he was in a persecuted minority:

And so, what we can see since 2011, are a variety of almost formulaic attacks on the left in Syria: “the left isn’t doing this on Syria”; “the left is all Putinites”; “the left is supporting genocide”; “the left has a double standard”; “the left should supply the same standard of Palestine to the Syrian conflict”; “the left is inadequately supporting the revolution”. And at the same time, we have so-called news coverage saying that whatever is occurring in Syria has no foreign help, is not getting support from the US government, there are no sectarian elements, and so forth.

Perhaps, as a result of operating in a more rigorous academic framework, Ajl had to pivot toward a serious analysis of Syrian society rather than the run-of-the-mill “anti-imperialist” platitudes. Thank goodness he did, since his article is first-rate. (Downloadable from Researchgate.)

As with all the other contributors to the collection, Ajl does not connect the dotted lines between the economic misery in Syria and the uprising. For all I know, he might still believe that they are Saudi proxies. However, the research he did in uncovering the agrarian crisis stands on its own and reflects his political growth.

Thermidor describes a rightward retreat from a revolution with Napoleon being the paradigm. It is the term that Trotsky used to characterize Stalin. In this instance, Ajl is describing the neoliberal turn that took place in Syria under Hafez al-Assad and that continued under his son’s rule.

While Syria never had a socialist revolution, it did have a sizable left that pushed the country into adopting a genuinely anti-imperialist foreign policy and progressive measures among the most generous in the Middle East. Of course, as was the case in Libya, there were no democratic institutions that could defend them in the long run. While it was clearly beyond the scope of the article, there were signs early on that the Assad dynasty and its Makhlouf family allies were constructing an oligarchy superimposed on the relatively radical foundations. Ajl describes this arrangement as a “social pact” that became exhausted when the dictatorship decided to cater to the class interests of wealthy farmers just as Stalin and Bukharin did in the 1920s. The use of the term Thermidor in the title of the article was most appropriate.

Wealthy farmers got easy credit, and those with small holdings were on their own. As agriculture became geared to the market rather than family needs, irrigation was necessary just as it is in the Central Valley in California. To fuel the pumps for irrigation, it takes a major investment that only wealthy farmers could afford. Ajl writes about the poor peasantry’s distress:

What were the consequences of these policies? In eight villages in Idlib, Hama, and Hasakah provinces in 2000, the percentage of immiserated groups amongst the total agricultural households reached 34–37 per cent. Furthermore, the official statistics on agricultural households without land indicate that from 1981 to 1994, the number of landless rural households had doubled, from 11,224 to 22,860.80 These rural people were concentrated in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, and Hasakah. This number is in addition to leasers or sharecroppers farming less than two hectares, who numbered some 110,000. There is reason to think these trends continued and heightened. Furthermore, poverty is concentrated in this segment of the rural population. Surveys found that in the early 2000s, 77 per cent of the poor in the countryside did not own land, but owned other assets, such as livestock—primarily, sheep, cattle, and poultry. Thus, there was a massive sector of the Syrian marginal rural poor who relied on livestock for their well-being, particularly in the country’s more arid Northeast—the centre of poverty. This was before the drought of 2008 but, it should be noted, after the drought of 1999, leaving a population perched on the precipice of absolute penury.

Such was the fate of a majority of Syrians before 2011. With nine years of war in front of them, the suffering grew exponentially. People already forced into the barest of circumstances soon found themselves facing barrel bomb attacks, starvation sieges and chemical gas attacks. No wonder so many decided to take a chance fleeing across the Mediterranean in barely sea-worthy boats or treks through Eastern Europe facing xenophobic cops and gangs.

If the term Pyrrhic victory ever had an application, surely it describes Assad’s over the plebian masses. In the process of crushing the revolution, he left the country moribund. In pursuing his narrow interests, he has even turned against his cousin Rami Makhlouf who was the country’s wealthiest man. Perhaps, it is a case of closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. Makhlouf kept billions stashed away in banks that were in Mossack Fonseca’s portfolio. If the Syrian government had simply enforced a progressive tax, that money could have helped the poor farmers and spared the country a bloody civil war.

If you read Sam Dagher’s “Assad or We Burn the Country“, you will concludes that Assad was as crazed in his own way as Stalin. He saw everyone as a possible threat, including Manaf Tlass, the head of his praetorian guard. Lately, Makhlouf has taken to YouTube to plead his case against possible seizure of whatever assets he has not concealed.

This spectacle reflects the rot and instability in the foundations of a dictatorship that survived a 9-year civil war only through genocidal-like violence and reliance on Russian military prowess. In pursuing victory at all costs, Assad has left the country fractured and prostrate, like a carcass being torn apart by rival factions, including the Iranians who helped keep Assad in power. Even with his control over most of the country, he still lacks the manpower to pull Idlib into his prison-like state.

The conditions can only worsen. With Russia and Iran suffering from a decline in oil prices, they are not able to bail out the country. On top of that, the coronavirus advances on a devastated country whose medical facilities were pulverized by war.

While the reports have an apocryphal quality, there have been repeated rumors that Putin is tired of Assad. There’s some question as to who would replace him if the rumors were true. In a country that lacks democracy, there is little opportunity for men and women to rise to essential posts based on talent alone. In a mafia-like state, where cronyism is the rule, the future is dim indeed.

Posted in SyriaComments Off on How Economic Misery Helped Fuel the Syrian War

The economic roots of the Syrian revolution

With the major media and the leftwing of the Internet flooded with articles interpreting the fall of East Aleppo as a decisive Baathist victory and likely the end of the Syrian revolution, an article on the roots of the revolution might seem behind the curve. However, the contradictions of the Syrian economy that led to a revolt in 2011 have only deepened over the past five years and will likely keep the country locked in violent conflict until they are resolved. Despite the vain hopes of the pro-Assad left that the country can return to a development model advanced in the name of socialism, the outlook for Syria is extremely bleak as long as the country is locked into global capitalist property relations. For that matter, all our futures are bleak on that score, even in the most prosperous imperialist nations. Waking up to that reality is admittedly very difficult for a left that is lagging behind world historical developments that make socialism—real socialism—more necessary than ever.

The material for this article will be drawn from sources that have only become available recently:

  1. A chapter in volume one of the newly published Syria: from Reform to Revolt, edited by Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zintl, titled “The End of the World: Drought and Agrarian Transformation in Northeast Syria (2007-2010)” by Myriam Ababsa, who is a research fellow in social geography at the French Institute for the Near East in Amman.
  2. Dara Conduit’s article The Patterns of Syrian Uprising: Comparing Hama in 1980–1982 and Homs in 2011 that appears in the latest issue of the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 44:1. Conduit is a PhD candidate at Monash University working on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
  3. Shamel Azmeh’s article Syria’s Passage to Conflict: The End of the “Developmental Rentier Fix” and the Consolidation of New Elite Rule that appears in the latest issue of Politics & Society, Vol. 44(4). He is a lecturer in International Development at the University of Bath where his research focuses on the interaction between international trade agreements and flows of products, capital, and workers through global production networks/value chains.

As might be expected, Conduit and Azmeh’s articles are behind a paywall. If you would like to read them or Ababsa’s chapter, contact me at

Does it seem a bit odd that such articles have only begun to appear five years into a war that has polarized world politics, including that on the left? Azmeh puts it this way:

Syria’s descent into conflict is receiving growing scholarly attention. On their own, the sectarian and geopolitical interpretations of the Syrian conflict provide us with little understanding of the roots of the conflict. Recent studies have started to unpack the political economic and socioeconomics aspects of the conflict, highlighting issues such as the economic reforms in the 2000s, rising inequality, and climate change. This article aims to contribute to this growing literature by placing these issues in a broader analysis of Syria’s political and economic institutions.

I concur with this completely. Although my knowledge of the Middle East does not begin to approach that of the authors listed above, from the very start I sought out “a broader analysis of Syria’s political and economic institutions” finding Bassam Haddad and Gilbert Achcar essential. Unfortunately for most of the left, anything beyond “sectarian and geopolitical interpretations” was to be gingerly avoided. No matter how hard I tried to convince old friends and comrades to read what the Syrian left had to say, it was to no avail. Why try to understand class relations in Syria when John McCain or Samantha Power were on record as being for Assad’s removal?

There has been nothing (unfortunately) like a solidarity movement for the Syrian revolution as there was for revolutionary movements in Central America in the 1980s. Back then, I tried to get up to speed as rapidly as possible after joining the Committee in Solidarity with El Salvador and later when serving on the board of Tecnica. I read Robert Armstrong, George Black and found Robert G. Williams particularly useful. Williams made the case that an expanding fast food market created a demand for beef that Somoza and his cattle ranching henchmen met by throwing peasants off their land. While I have always understood that it was mainly the rural poor who rebelled against Assad, it was only after reading the three articles above that it became crystal-clear that the power and endurance of the struggle against the Baathists has much more in common with the Central American struggles against latifundias in the 1980s. That so much of the left is unable to understand this indicates a decline in Marxist thinking that could be very well related to the weakness of the left in general. If we line up on the wrong side of the barricades in a struggle between the rural poor and oligarchs in Syria, how can we possibly begin to provide a class struggle leadership in the USA, Britain or any other advanced capitalist country?

Understanding Syria economically means first of all understanding the importance of agriculture. While there is a tendency to see all countries in the Middle East as arid, Syria has depended for many years on agricultural exports. Under Ottoman rule, Sunni sheikhs owned vast land holdings and enjoyed a feudal-like grip on the peasants.

To start with, the state ruled by Hafez al-Assad was committed to raising the standard of living in the countryside as a way of providing a social base for a dictatorship. While not disposed (obviously) to break with capitalist property relations, he adopted measures that had a surface resemblance to traditional Soviet type states from radical land reform that encroached upon the traditional elites to promoting heavy state ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, especially oil as Azmeh states:

Nonetheless, to maintain the stability of the new regime, Assad had to deliver on the socioeconomic front, especially in rural areas that were the main constituency of the Ba’ath party. During the 1970s in particular, Assad expanded the state-led developmental model in Syria. This included large investment in state-owned enterprises; large public infrastructure projects such as dams, roads, and energy projects; investments in agriculture; a large expansion in spending on health and education; and a large electrification program in rural areas. It also included the gradual expansion of a large subsidies system that covered basic food products, energy, agricultural inputs, fertilizers, and machinery. These changes ushered in a rapid expansion in agricultural production.

Funding for development came from a variety of sources, including oil. Starting in 1968, Syria became an oil exporter utilizing a recently completed pipeline connecting the relatively oil-rich northeast fields to the Mediterranean port of Tartous. Another source was aid from wealthy states in the region and the Soviet Union. Billions of dollars helped to create jobs in the public sector, provide health services, guarantee free education, and ensure that working people had access to cheap energy and food. With respect to food, state support for farmers made sure that “strategic” crops like cotton were available for export and that food for the dinner table could be depended on.

With such emoluments in place, they could guarantee social peace especially when the secret police could be relied upon to pick up malcontents and heave them into a jail cell where they would be tortured for months and even years. In addition, nominally independent institutions like political parties, trade unions, student associations and women’s groups were depoliticized by attaching them to the Baathist machine and depoliticizing them. Clearly, Assad the elder had studied the USSR in the same way that fellow Baathist Saddam Hussein kept the collected works of Stalin on his bookshelf.

Unfortunately, this state of affairs was not sustainable over the long haul. While the “peak oil” hypothesis is debatable, there is no debating the fact that there was a limited supply of oil in Syria while the population continued to grow. Between 1970 and 2011, it expanded from 6.1 million to 22 million. The end of the Cold War also punished Syria by cutting off a source of external funding and a market for its exports, particularly agricultural.

Hafez Al-Assad was convinced that neoliberal reforms were needed but bureaucratic inertia and private sector suspicion of the “socialist” government’s intent kept them limited in scale. When his son took over in 2000, the Baathist elites were ready to dump “socialism”, such as it was, and join the rest of the capitalist world in letting free markets reign (as long as it was understood that those with connections to the inner sanctum were given the inside track.)

Bashar al-Assad was confronted by harsh realities. By the end of the decade, Syria was destined to become an oil importer. In 2004, Nibras Al-Fadel, an economic adviser to Assad, told the newspaper Al-Hayat:

The factors that make economic reforms in Syria inevitable are mainly internal. . . . the first issue is the pressure on the labour market which is not going to subside for the next ten years at least. Absorbing this pressure will require a growth rate of 6 percent at least which is double the current rate. At the same time, the exhaustion of oil reserves and Syria becoming a net oil importer will mean, with other factors remaining equal, a drop in GDP, living standards, and in the revenues of the state. Thus, the current economic trends are going in a direction that is opposite to what is needed and this is a time-bomb in the heart of the Syrian economy and society. We only have few years to dismantle this bomb.

Using the kind of double-talk associated with Middle East strongmen, Assad announced the introduction of a “social market economy” in 2005 that drew from the neoliberal bag of tricks including the promotion of foreign investment, liberalizing trade and ending subsidies for workers and for farmers. Medical care was now fee-based and a ceiling put on public employment. Despite Assad’s reputation on the left as an enemy of “globalization, the EU is Syria’s largest trading partner with €3.6 billion worth of EU goods exports to Syria and €3.5 billion of Syrian exports to the EU.

In the early part of Assad’s reign as family dynast, conditions favored his reforms. Oil prices, at an all-time high, meant that countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia were eager to pour billions into the tourist trade, real estate, leisure activities, communications, and financial services—exactly the kind of enterprises that made Baathist insiders like Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf fabulously wealthy.

It was the growth of quite impressive “improvements” to Damascus that must have wowed Baathist tools such as Charles Glass and Robert Fisk. Shamel Azmeh writes:

Government spending on infrastructure reflected the bias toward the areas where such projects will be located. In Damascus, investments increased in the rich areas of the city such as Mazzeh, Dummar, Kafar Souseh, Malki, and Yafour, including traffic tunnels, improvements to roads and pavements, “beautification” projects including tree-lined streets, green lawns (highly unsuitable to hot summers in the semiarid climate of Damascus), new multicolor night lighting systems, among other accessories. In the absence of investments in public transportation, such spending favored car owners. Whereas cars were a state-controlled “luxury” good in earlier periods, the liberalization of imports led, between 2003 and 2007, to a 122 percent increase in the number of private cars in Syria—although from a low base—almost half in the city of Damascus. At the same time, the number of public transport buses did not increase. Controlling the exclusive dealership rights for key car companies became an important area of competition for the new economic elite.

Such changes impressed the media in Syria that became the dictator’s handmaidens. Journalist Ibrahim H’Medi wrote in 2006: “Syria no longer looks like Cuba or North Korea”. Not surprisingly, it was such changes that endeared the Assads to Vogue Magazine that was all set to publish an article titled “A Rose in the Desert” that begins:

Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic–the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She’s a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement. Paris Match calls her “the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.” She is the first lady of Syria.

Syria is known as the safest country in the Middle East, possibly because, as the State Department’s Web site says, “the Syrian government conducts intense physical and electronic surveillance of both Syrian citizens and foreign visitors.” It’s a secular country where women earn as much as men and the Muslim veil is forbidden in universities, a place without bombings, unrest, or kidnappings, but its shadow zones are deep and dark.

One supposes that Monthly Review’s Yoshie Furuhashi was swept off her feet by the couple’s animal magnetism since she wrote not long after the Arab Spring began in Syria: “the president of Syria has a weapon in the obligatory media war accompanying any protest in a geopolitical hotspot these days, which neither any other Arab regime nor the Islamic Republic of Iran can claim: his undeniably charming wife Asma. Perhaps not altogether inconsequential in the age of celebrities.”

Things might have been going great in Damascus but in the hinterlands, not so well.

Myrian Ababsa’s chapter in Syria: from Reform to Revolt is focused on the northeastern provinces of Raqqa, Hassaka and Deir ez-Zor (collectively known as the Jezira), the poorest regions of Syria where most of the country’s farmers were impacted by a severe drought and government assaults on the social gains implemented in the early 70s.

Constituting 40 percent of Syrian territory, the Jezira produced 70 percent of the wheat. In the 1950s, it enjoyed something of a boom as Aleppo merchants invested in the cotton industry. Just as is the case with cotton farming everywhere, irrigation without draining the land and monoculture led to the impoverishment of the soil.

The drought that began in 2007 only increased the already existing misery. Up to 75 percent of the farmers in the Jezira suffered total crop failure of the sort that John Steinbeck depicted in “Grapes of Wrath”. Since wheat production relied on underground wells, a shortage of rain led to an increase in the price of a well. In Raqqa, the cost of a new well in 2001 was 16,000 euros—well beyond the capability of a small farmer to afford.

Herdsmen were also impacted. With insufficient water for cattle and goats, livestock had to be sold at 60 percent below cost. As fodder prices rose by 75 percent in January 2008, the flocks were decimated by half.

Not only were agricultural supports removed by the dictatorship; fuel was no longer subsidized. The price for a gallon of gasoline rose by 350 percent. This meant that motor pumps, so essential to drawing water from underground wells, became difficult to afford. All in all, the economic institutions that had been created by Hafez Al-Assad and abolished by his son came together in a perfect storm with the advent of a crippling drought.

The conditions of life in the Jezira could not be more distinct from the paradise enjoyed by the Damascus yuppies—both Alawite and Sunni—that were benefiting from a neoliberal boom. Ababsa writes:

The drought put an end to decades of development in the fields of health and education in the Jezira, and the sanitary situation became dramatic. In 2009, 42 percent of Raqqa governorate suffered from anemia owing to a shortage of dairy products, vegetables, and fruit. Malnutrition among pregnant women and children under five doubled between 2007 and 2009. To complicate matters, vegetable and fruit growers in dry northern Syria used polluted river water to irrigate their crops, causing out breaks of food poisoning among consumers, according to environmental and medical experts. Experts pointed out that the problem stemmed from sewage and chemicals allowed to reach rivers in rural areas near Aleppo, Lattakia, and Raqqa.

As they were suffering from malnutrition and lack of income, small. scale farmers and herders and landless peasants stopped sending their children to school. According to a UN needs assessment, enrollment in some schools in eastern Syria decreased by 70 percent after April 2008. This decrease reversed decades of literacy efforts and school creation in the Jezira, where the illiteracy rates were the highest in the country: 38.3 percent in Raqqa governorate, 35.1 percent in Hassaka governorate, and 34.8 percent in Deir ez-Zor governorate. More than a third of the active population was illiterate, including more than half of the female active population. Between 160 and 220 villages were abandoned in Hassaka governorate. The wells dried up and the population could not afford to bring water from private tankers at a cost of 2,000 SYP per month (about 30 euros).

When the latter-day versions of the Joad family left their farms and migrated to the cities, they tended to end up in the suburbs of Aleppo or Damascus where they struggled to find employment or entered the informal economy—in other words peddling fruit on the street. Or perhaps they would seek refuge in a city like Homs that was in the agricultural heartland and hardly a city to be profiled in Vogue magazine. Dara Conduit takes a close look at what happened in Homs after the influx of new residents with barely a pot to piss in.

Homs is Syria’s third largest city, midway between Damascus and Aleppo. It is the capital of the Homs Governorate, which has played a major role in agriculture. It contributed 79 percent of almond production and 23 percent of poultry. The Homs Chamber of Commerce proudly referred to itself as the breadbasket of Syria.

It was in Homs that Assad’s economic restructuring had its greatest and most damaging impact. As the largest capital of a drought-affected province, it became a major destination from both the west and from the Jezira to the east. Conduit reports that Homs was the third poorest province in the country and the capital city strained under the pressures of a massive influx of the desperate and the practically homeless. Between 2008 and July 2009, the government provided food assistance to 3037 affected households. Researchers discovered that six percent more residents of Homs were unable to cover basic food expenses than the average Syrian rate.

So naturally, Homs would be on the leading edge of the revolution as Conduit writes:

As a result, the unrest in Homs began in suburbs that had absorbed new rural migrants displaced from the country’s north-east or the wider province. These were urban areas once part of agricultural land and now surrounding the historic city. The clear demarcation of suburbs in Homs by socioeconomic and religious grouping made the city’s dynamics easily observable. Data on the frequency of protests between 28 September and 28 October 2011 showed that the suburbs on the city’s fringe experienced ‘near daily’ protests, including Al-Waer, Bab al-Amr, Inshaat, Ghouta, Deir Ba’albeh, Bayadeh and Khaldiyeh. Bab al-Amr was once an agricultural area on the outskirts of the city that grew most of the city’s fruit trees. By 2011, it was a ‘slum’ on the urban fringe that became ‘synonymous with the revolution’. Azzawi observed of Bab al-Amr: ‘the people there are very poor and very vulnerable, they feel that this regime put them so badly below the edge of poverty. So they are the real powers that are moving the acts of uprising in Homs’. The only exception to this pattern was Bab Houd, within the walls of Homs’ old city, which also experienced protest. The evidence therefore implies that those involved in the initial protests in Homs at the start of the 2011 uprising were citizens largely excluded from the Syrian social contract.

It is exactly people such as this, the poor and displaced rural folk who streamed into the suburbs of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs in the hope of finding a roof over their heads and food on their table who became the social base of the Syrian revolution.

God help us when so much of the left is clapping like trained seals when Russian bombers destroy their hospitals and force them to run through gauntlets of Hizbollah and Iranian militias that stand over them like the Wehrmacht soldiers stood over the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. Comrades, we are in deep trouble when the left lacks the ability to discriminate between right and wrong and between the oppressor and the oppressed. It is time to build a new left that has once and for all learned to put the Stalinist legacy into the ashbin of history where it belongs.


Syria: From National Independence to Proxy WarIn “Counterpunch”

Hamid Dabashi, Vijay Prashad, Syria, and the leftIn “mechanical anti-imperialism”

Jill Stein, the South Front and the lesser evilIn “Syria”Comments (15)


  1. Thanks for this. What a pity so many leftists refuse even to countenance a narrative at odds with their own blind allegiance to a certain geopolitical analysis. I doubt Marx would have made this mistake.Comment by michael yates — December 14, 2016 @ 11:43 pm
  2. As you know, I appreciate this analysis, but I’ve never believed that Assad was a defensible figure. Numerous examples abound, such as his policies in Lebanon in the 1970s, and the Hama massacre, documented by Fisk, oddly enoughComment by Richard Estes — December 15, 2016 @ 8:54 pm
  3. […] „The economic roots of the Syrian revolution“ von Louis Pryect am 14. Dezember 2016 auf seinem … ist ein Überblick über mehrere neuere Analysen der ökonomischen Ausgangssituation im Syrien vor 2011 – nicht zuletzt rund um Assads Rede von 2005, mit der er die Schaffung einer sozialen Marktwirtschaft ankündigte […]Pingback by LabourNet Germany » Nach Aleppo: Es gibt nur zwei Gruppierungen in Syrien, die man unterstützen kann – die Menschen, die unter dem Krieg der Imperien leiden. Und die kleine Linke, kaum größer als in der BRD — December 16, 2016 @ 9:44 am
  4. Excellent analysis Louis. Thank you once again.Rich WoodOn Wednesday, December 14, 2016, Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist wrote:> louisproyect posted: ” With the major media and the leftwing of the > Internet flooded with articles interpreting the fall of East Aleppo as a > decisive Baathist victory and likely the end of the Syrian revolution, an > article on the roots of the revolution might seem behind th” >Comment by Richard Wood — December 17, 2016 @ 5:38 am
  5. Here is an interesting link to the roots of Alawite control of Syria in the first place. by Curt Kastens — December 17, 2016 @ 6:31 pm
  6. No, as Aleppo burns an analysis of the economic roots of the Syrian revolution does not seem behind the curve. Who would want to go brass tacks anyway? The Marxist who opposed the candidate who opposed Assad should repent and put two and two together.Comment by lawrencepd — December 17, 2016 @ 6:46 pm
  7. Lawrence, you don’t seem to understand that Marxists oppose bourgeois candidates as a matter of principle.Comment by louisproyect — December 17, 2016 @ 6:48 pm
  8. Yes, too many so called left activists have totally lost the ability to analyse situations via a class analysis….
    There have been other economic/social analysis of the Syrian uprising, for example this piece published almost 3 years ago by Piergiorgio Moro — December 17, 2016 @ 11:33 pm
  9. I think so much of what you write here is true, especially about weakness of Marxist thinking.Comment by steve — December 19, 2016 @ 4:01 pm
  10. My view of Syria changed when I saw a segment of the Left flock to the mass murderer Duterte for his anti U.S.views.Comment by steve — December 19, 2016 @ 4:03 pm
  11. A series of anecdotes and an appeal to liberal economic theories is what qualifies as Marxist analysis now?Comment by Alessandro — December 20, 2016 @ 6:01 pm
  12. Alessandro, this is not Twitter here. If you are too intellectually challenged to express yourself at length, perhaps you can go back to high school and complete your studies.Comment by louisproyect — December 20, 2016 @ 6:07 pm
  13. Fabrice Balanche, : ‘In the Western media, the term “useful Syria” is sometimes used to describe the portion of the country between Aleppo and Damascus, which the regime has spent most of its efforts trying to reconquer. By extension, the eastern provinces are essentially regarded as “useless Syria,” at least in military terms, leading many to wonder why Bashar al-Assad continues to insist on retaking them along with every other inch of the country. Yet the east is hardly useless to him — in addition to producing most of Syria’s ​​cereals and cotton, it is home to the bulk of its oil and gas wealth.’ Yet, he says, the eastern regions were always marginalised by the state.Comment by Matthew Jackson — January 5, 2017 @ 1:37 pm
  14. […] As far as I know, there were no “critical comments” on his blog, where this ZNet post originated, nor on Twitter. In fact, it is very likely that the only critical comments to ever appear were mine on Facebook where he invited comments on the first article titled “Regarding the Conflict In Syria, There Doesn’t Seem to Be Any Good Guys”. I started off by calling it unadulterated horseshit and when he insisted that I offer some constructive criticisms, I warned about the usefulness of categories like “Good Guys” or “Bad Guys” and provided a link to something I wrote on the economic roots of the Syrian revolution. […]Pingback by Steve Ellner, Syria and the “leftist utopians” | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 8, 2018 @ 4:50 pm
  15. […] (A second volume never appeared.) I found this book invaluable in writing an article titled “The Economic Roots of the Syrian Revolution”. My goal was to demonstrate that a rural agrarian crisis provided the fuel for an uprising. An […]Pingback by How Economic Misery Helped Fuel the Syrian War • The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights — May 15, 2020 @ 4:46 pm

Posted in SyriaComments Off on The economic roots of the Syrian revolution

Syria: The Revolution That Never Was


What has happened in the Arab world since December 2010?

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What has happened in the Arab world since Tunisian icon Muhammed Bouazizi burned himself to death in protest in December 2010?

A series of popular uprisings, each feeding off the next, swept the region. From Morocco to Oman, there were varying degrees of protest against ossified regimes, demanding everything from the downfall of the regime to more simple reforms.

But we can now say with confidence that none of these uprisings has constituted a revolution. Of course, the immense struggles and sacrifices that people have made may yet sow seeds for the future.

But what is a revolution anyway, if not a struggle to completely transform the state and society? The closest any of the uprisings has come to revolution has been in Tunisia, which still faces immense internal problems.

As my colleague at the Electronic Intifada Ali Abunimah has put it, Egypt is now back behind square one. The generals’ bloody coup regime is fulfilling its junior contractor roll as part of the brutal Israeli siege on Gaza far more effectively than they managed under Muhammed Morsi. The first elected Egyptian president was kidnapped by the military and now sits in their dungeons, awaiting the outcome of a farcical show trial.

Libya is an absolute disaster. Brutal militias now run the country, gunning down demonstrators, and kidnapping government ministers and security officials at will. The same militias ethnically cleansed an entire town of black Libyans and still blocks their return. These are the fruits of the NATO “liberation” campaign of bombs, which was foolishly supported by even some leftists.

I was always against NATO bombing of Libya. But if I look now back at some of my reactions on Twitter in the early part of 2011, it’s clear I, too, was over-optimistic about Egypt and elsewhere. I, too, spoke in favor of the early demonstrations against the Syrian regime, notwithstanding fears from the beginning that they would be hijacked.

Like many others, I hoped for positive change to the sweep the region. As well as the inherent value of such a change in itself, a free Arab world is best placed to confront Israel’s apartheid regime. The road to Jerusalem runs though Arab capitals, as the late Palestinian leader George Habash used to emphasize.

The American imperial power and its clients and allies were caught off guard and seemed paralyzed. But, spurred on by the Israeli-Saudi tag-team that leads the counter-revolutionary forces of the region, the hegemon soon rallied its forces and wasted little time engaging in covert operations.

And so I come to the missing part of this picture: Syria.

To say Syria is now a disaster is a massive understatement. This is a sectarian civil war which could continue for a decade if the regime’s enemies, led by the brutal Saudi tyranny, continue to wage their proxy war on the country.

The mostly widely-relied-on body-count, that of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (a group which is close to armed rebels, and whose reliability I have questioned in the past), now states that 120,000 Syrians have been killed. The Syrian Observatory claims that the majority of these are combatants — and the majority of those on have been on the pro-Assad side.

The fact of this imbalance is conveniently ignored by western media reporting, which continues with its untenable narrative about a revolution of unarmed Syrian protesters which only took up arms after being shot down by the evil Assad regime.

If that was true, why do even the Syrian Observatory’s figures not bare this picture out? There was never a revolution in Syria.

As I have said, that is also true of other countries, but there are important differences.

Firstly, pro-Western dictators like Ben Ali and Mubarak were resting on their laurels, and failed to cultivate a significant popular base. (Presumably, they foolishly thought they could rely on their American and European funders not to sell them down the river. How mistaken they were.)

This is why, for example, in the early part of 2011, you never saw anything more than small handfuls of cowed government workers in pathetic little pro-Mubarak demonstrations.

But what a difference in Syria. Yes, the regime is dictatorial and ruthless. But from the beginning of the uprising, which initially only demanded “reform,” Syria was split. Along with large anti-Assad demonstrations, there were equally huge pro-Assad demonstrations.

When demonstrations supporting a brutal tyrant are attended on such a massive scale, you shouldn’t fool yourself with the farcical BBC theory that tens of thousands of people were “forced” onto the streets.

By now, there are no demonstrations of significance on either side, and these pro-Assad mobilizations occurred before he committed some of his worst crimes. But there is no doubt this popular support freed his hand for further (and often indiscriminate) military crackdowns on the “terrorist” groups.

This is a tyrant who has (as strongly implied by UN weapons inspectors) used chemical weapons against civilians, and who has bombed whole areas indiscriminately in his fight against armed groups. And yet, Assad has a genuine support base which, almost by default, is only growing as the armed insurgents fighting him become more and more openly aligned to fanatical groups like al-Qaeda.

The always questionable “Free Syrian Army” is disintegrating, with many of its members either joining the al-Qaeda-aligned brigades such as the Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham — or even defecting back to the regime. Astonishingly, some leaders in these supposedly “moderate” brigades now no longer want Assad to leave power.

One recently told the Guardian’s reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad that: “I need Bashar [al-Assad] to last for two more years . . . It would be a disaster if the regime fell now: we would split into mini-states that would fight among each other. We’ll be massacring each other — tribes, Islamists and battalions . . . There will be either Alawites or Sunnis. Either them or us. Maybe in ten years we will all be bored with fighting and learn how to coexist . . . In ten years maybe, not now.”

As this sectarian hatred shows, they were never moderate anyway. Which explains why so many “FSA” units have now joined groups pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawarhari (formerly Osama bin Laden’s number two).

And herein lies the second key to the mystery of Assad’s continued support base (polarized as it is): the alternative is considered by many normal people in Syria and in the region as a whole, to be far worse.

Armed takfiri fanatics, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, now control large parts of the Syrian countryside, even as the regime’s forces are making steady gains. The only “revolution” with any current prospect of succeeding is an al-Qaeda revolution. And of course, that is no revolution at all.

This is the “revolution” which, apparently unnoticed by its Western cheerleaders, expelled Syrian Christians wholesale from the town of Qusair, long before the Lebanese resistance party Hezbollah began its divisive intervention in support of the regime there.

This is the “revolution” whose supposedly moderate “Free Army” brigades fought with al-Qaeda groups who invaded Syrian areas which they considered strongholds of the wrong religion or sect. FSA units fought with Jabhat al-Nusra when it invaded the historic Christian-majority town Ma’loula in September (until they were fought off by the regime).

The exiled and nominal head of the FSA, Salim Idriss (who is quite openly armed and funded by France, the UK and US) participated — apparently in person — in a joint FSA-al-Qaeda invasion of Latakia villages in August. This was a purely sectarian slaughter of at least 190 Alawite civilians, with not even a pretence of a military target.

An eyewitness related to the Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele: “When we got into the [Latakia-area] village of Balouta I saw a baby’s head hanging from a tree. There was a woman’s body which had been sliced in half from head to toe and each half was hanging from separate apple trees. It made me feel I wanted to do something wild.”

Idriss described this campaign as one of their “important successes and victories that our revolutionaries have gained”. Some victory.

In a November 2011 article, most controversial at the time, renowned Palestinian academic and intellectual Joseph Massad wrote that Syrians “must face up to the very difficult conclusion that they have been effectively defeated, not by the horrifying repression of their own dictatorial regime which they have valiantly resisted, but rather by the international forces that are as committed as the Syrian regime itself to deny Syrians the democracy they so deserve… the struggle to overthrow Asad may very well succeed, but the struggle to bring about a democratic regime in Syria has been thoroughly defeated.”

Unfortunately, today we can see that Massad was both right and possibly even over-optimistic.

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