Caitlin Moran: How not to talk about Syria.

This is a guest post by amie

I look eagerly to Caitlin Moran for sisterly cackle and trenchant observation; I join with gusto in silly giggles and belly laughs. Slight heartsink with her ill judged boycott Twitter stance, now almost forgotten . But when I got to read her Yom Kippur day Times column, (14th Sept) it reaped a resounding “Down” on my CW chart. It is devoted to Syria. Caitlin has questions. One: She feels “discombobulated by the lack of Syrian opinion…Where are the Syrian politicians, opinion writers and academics- why is the debate not being shaped largely by what these people think, fear and believe? How come I know what Piers Morgan thinks about Syria- but not Syrians themselves? “

So Caitlin, oblivious to the culture of iron censorship through terror in Assad’s country, seeks the resident Syrian Caitlin Moran to inform her. None of the myriad personal accounts on blog, twitter and youtube are up to the job. Nor do the many op-ed columns by actual Syrians count: they don’t make it onto the Caitlin Celebrity Watch matrix. Idris of the FSA doesn’t even qualify for a “Down” on CW, even when he earns New York Times’ “quote of the day” for declaring:

“All of this initiative does not interest us. Russia is a partner with the regime in killing the Syrian people. A crime against humanity has been committed, and there is not any mention of accountability.” — Gen. Salim Idris, a rebel leader, on an agreement that calls for Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons to be removed or destroyed

This is but a trifle: the serious damage to my warm feelings for the woman who told us How to be a Woman comes from the epiphany she reaches from an article by one William Polk, an article which she calls “brilliant.”

“Syria” she can now tell us, “ is a crisis sprung from mass migration and climate change and the effects of regional wars, not just Assad’s viciousness.” She recounts Polk’s version of a drought from 2006-2008 for which the UN begged aid, and which evil USAID rejected. This, concludes Caitlin, is Syria’s “root problem”, not Assad.

Quick question here from me: If so, what accounted for the 1982 Hama massacre by Assad’s dad, some, ooh, 24 years before root cause drought?

So, then on to Caitlin’s question arising out of said epiphany:

“What if aid agencies were among the most powerful forces on Earth?”

Leave aside the countless recent books that argue aid is a hindrance not a help. Ever since the agro- economic /climate obfuscations made by the Darfur apologists to avoid having to confront the deep rooted historical racism of an imperial Arab power towards fellow black Muslims: “It’s simply nomads vs farmers over scarce resources” – I am sceptical of the good faith of this kind of analysis.

But where Caitlin earns the mother of all Downs is for her uncritical passing over the ghastliness of the rest of Polk’s “brilliant” article.

The brilliant Polk (who wikipedia tells me is a relic of the Kennedy administration) also likes asking questions:

“As a historian, dealing as one always does, with incomplete information, I have made it a rule when trying to get at the “truth” in any contentious issue to ask a series of questions among which are who benefits from a given action and what would I have done in a given situation? “

I doubt historians ask what they themselves would have done, and as for “who benefits?” – that question is much more likely to herald the latest conspiracy theory. And lo: Polk reveals it’s the rebels who would gain from using chemical weapons by terrorising supporters of the regime, especially the “pathetic Palestinian refugees .. pouring out their camps in yet another “displacement.” [This seems an odd emphasis, possibly explicable with reference to Polk’s authorship of Backdrop to Tragedy: The Struggle for Palestine (1957)]

And no conspiracy would be complete without…Polk says of Israeli intel on regime use of chemical weapons, that we know Mossad habitually lies about intel. It did so during the 67 war, and now in furtherance of Israel’s “long standing goal” to break up Syria, just as it “actively sought regime change” in Iraq.


“Finally, Israel is believed to have used poison gas in Lebanon and certainly used white phosphorus in Gaza in 2008.”

The only source I can find online for the Lebanon poison gas slur is one Wayne Madson, described on wikipedia as a conspiracy theorist. All other sources are reposts of Madson, onto the sites of, well, conspiracy theorists Rense and David Icke.

Over to the genuinely brilliant Hadar Sela (not CWatch material, Caitlin, but editor of the outstanding forensic analysis of BBC Watch) for a brisk fisking of the most egregious claims in Polk’s article:

“White phosphorous is not classified as a chemical weapon when used in its permitted form as a smoke screen – as it was during Op Cast Lead.

Col. Richard Kemp has been Tweeting about this a lot in the past few days. As he says, the British army (& other Western forces) uses White Phosphorous as a smoke screen too.

Israel did not use ‘poison gas’ in Lebanon in 2006 or on any other occasion. “Believed” by whom? Unless Polk has proper credible evidence from a named source, then all he is doing is engaging in libellous mud-slinging. We had soldiers on the ground during the latter part of that war – you wouldn’t fire chemical weapons when your own troops were in the arena. I personally know tens of Israelis who were in Lebanon at the time and my son-in-law was with the artillery corps unit who were doing the firing of shells into Lebanon. I’ve never heard of any use of chemical weapons and believe me, you wouldn’t be able to keep something like that quiet in Israel, where everyone is in the army and everyone talks.

As far as I know Israel doesn’t have any chemical weapons at all. Certainly none of my family’s many former combat soldiers was ever trained in their use. As I’m sure you can imagine, with our collective memory of the use of gas in the Holocaust, Israelis are rather sensitive to that issue.

Polk is very sloppy on ‘facts’ – which he seems to have mostly gathered from such unreliable sources as the Guardian:

“For many years, Israel is known to have directed a major communications effort against Syria. Its program, known as Unit 8200 is Mossad’s equivalent of NSA.”

8200 is an IDF intelligence unit – it is not a department of the Mossad, which is a separate agency, and it gathers intelligence on all fronts – not specifically Syria.

“Two things should be borne in mind on these reports: the first is that Israel has had a long-standing goal of the break-up or weakening of Syria which is the last remaining firmly anti-Israeli Arab state.”

A ridiculous assertion – Israel has no designs regarding ‘breaking up’ Syria. In fact, it’s rather a case of ‘better the devil you know’ and we know the Assad regime very well, so were familiar with the status quo until March 2011 under which Assad kept the border quiet and we could predict his every move. The fall of the Assad regime would mean uncharted territory as far as Israel is concerned – as we are already seeing in the Golan where part of the border area is controlled by the opposition.

“It also explains why Israel actively had sought “regime change” in Iraq.”

No we didn’t. In fact we warned the Americans of the consequences.

” First, who gains by the action. I do not see what Assad could have gained from this gas attack. ”

Well, Assad has just gained at least another 6-12 months in guaranteed power for a start. The West isn’t going to let him fall whilst attempts to bring Syria’s chemical weapons under control is going on because if he did fall before that goal was achieved, they would have no chance of finding/collecting those weapons, which would be quickly taken over by goodness knows who among the rebels.