Rania Khalek: The US Empire Is Using the Legal System against Max Blumenthal
By Slavia Zilber-
What is your position on the Syrian War? What did cause you to change your narrative from an anti-Assad government journalist to a pro-Syrian (Assad) journalist?
Rania Khalek: Well, I don’t know if either of those descriptions would be accurate. I think at the beginning of the Syrian War I like a lot of people was mostly consuming the Western media narrative about it. And by 2013/2014, it started to become clear that the US was playing a really dirty game in Syria and was funding and arming groups that everybody is now calling terrorists and jihadists. But back then we were calling them moderate rebels. This is a game the US has played before in many other countries. I stayed silent on the issue for quite some time because Syria was such a controversial topic on the left. You were not rewarded for speaking out on the issue – really on either side –, you were punished for it. But particularly speaking out against what the US was doing would provoke a really nasty response and a smear campaign. And so I just keep my mouth shut for a little bit. I was mostly focused on Israel/Palestine. But then my own family lives in both Syria and Lebanon and they became personally at risk because of what the US was doing. And then also the Democratic campaign of Hillary Clinton once she became the nominee in 2016 made me even more fearful about what might happen in Syria because she was promising a no-fly zone. So I became increasingly vocal against US intervention in Syria and what the US was doing.
I wouldn’t call myself pro-Assad. I would say I am pro keeping the Syrian state intact because I think, when it comes down to it, when you destroy the government and all its institutions, you ultimately break down law and order. It leads to chaos and a power vacuum and what we saw in much of Syria which is extremist groups taking over. In many cases, these were extremist groups the US was funding. So this is my position on Syria.
My position is against US intervention, against the US arming and funding of death squads which is what was taking place and for the people of Syria determining their own future without interference from America.
You said on Unauthorized Disclosure that you visited Syria two years ago. What has, judging from what you have seen, changed? And could you please also address the impact of US sanctions on Syria.
So yes, I visited Syria last month. And that was the first time back in two years. And what was really striking to me was: Last time I was there was 2017 and now it is 2019. And in those two years, the US has mostly stopped funding and arming extremist groups to try to weaken the Syrian government. And as a result, you have seen the Syrian government able to take back much of the territory that these extremist groups took over because these groups no longer have weapons and they had to negotiate with the government and leave or they were beaten militarily. And what I saw in much of Syria now is there is no more fighting. It’s much safer. There aren’t mortars falling everywhere. There aren’t bombs dropping. Life has gone back to normal for a lot of people. So that’s a positive aspect. Once the US stopped intervening is when things actually got better in Syria in terms of safety on the ground because the fighting stopped whether it was through military defeat or through negotiation. That’s one.
But the second thing I noticed that was different is the impact of US sanctions. They are doing serious damage to Syria and to Syrians. The economy has been destroyed. It’s impossible to recover. You have a lot of areas in Syria that were destroyed because of the war. Now people can’t rebuild their homes because they can’t get materials or they don’t have money to rebuild. The value of the Syrian currency has gone down dramatically to the point where it is practically worthless. And it is changing all the time which makes it really difficult to plan for the future. When you go around Syria, you have to carry lots of cash with you because it is so worthless to buy anything. There is no real economic future in Syria because people can’t rebuild the economy.
And what you are seeing, as a result, is that people are leaving the country. Now it’s not because of the fighting or because it’s not safe. They are leaving the country because they have no economic future there. They have no jobs, no job security. That’s really unfortunate because you are seeing an ongoing brain drain in Syria. Because what happens in cases of war or economic stagnation and destruction is that the professional class leaves: doctors and lawyers, people who have the means to go to Europe, America or the Golf, just to go somewhere where they have better job security. So when I went back, I reached out to a lot of the contacts that I have in Syria to meet up with them, see how things are going and at least half of them are outside of the country now. And most of these people are artists or doctors or lawyers.
It is really unfortunate because even though the physical war on Syria has winded down dramatically this economic war on Syria is absolutely crippling the country. And it is in a much less noticeable way so it doesn’t get talked about. And it is not something the US is only doing in Syria. This sort of economic terrorism if you will is having a similar impact on Venezuela. It is having a similar impact in Iran. And it is actually killing people in these places because, at the end of the day, when a country has US economic sanctions imposed on it, even if the sanctions are not targeting food and medicine, ultimately international companies and banking institutions won’t do business with countries like Syria or Venezuela or Iran. They don’t want to deal with the legal penalties and fees that will be imposed on them if they happen to accidentally violate US sanctions. So, as a result, it makes it more difficult to get medicine and food and fuel into the country. So you also see shortages that actually hurt people like cancer patients who can’t get their chemo treatment because there is a lack of the medication that you need for chemo in the country. It is really a disaster.
You mentioned the reaction to your work. Could you please talk about the media coverage of Syria in general? Do you see a parallel to the reaction to Max Blumenthal’s work? What about his arrest and the charges he is facing?
Me and my colleagues like Max have always got against the grain and challenged media coverage whether it’s the issue of Palestine which is covered horribly in Western media or whether it’s the issue of the war in Syria which is one of the worst covered conflicts I have ever seen as far as the media is concerned where reality is literally turned upside down. And the reaction to us basically stating the factual nature of what is happening and telling the truth about the US’ doing and exposing the lies around the regime-change wars has been an endless and relentless campaign of smears and libel and assault on our reputations and attempts to get us fired and de-platformed, attempts to deny us work, to put pressure on anybody who wants to give us work, to make it difficult for us to make a living as journalists. That has been the reaction.
And it’s been so brutal to the point that Max Blumenthal was recently arrested on false charges that were brought by Venezuelan opposition activists for his coverage at his outlet The Grayzone Project exposing the Venezuelan opposition board’s ties to the US, its ties to oil companies and just the dirty game they have been playing against the Venezuelan government and the negative impact that’s had on Venezuelan people. And this stems from Max’s coverage of the Venezuelan opposition’s attempts to take over the Venezuelan embassy in Washington DC where they basically placed the activists, who were inside the embassy trying to protect it from the opposition, under siege. It was a right-wing mob of Venezuelan activists who were 24/7 outside the Venezuelan embassy preventing food and water from getting inside. Max was outside covering it and he helped deliver some of these items peacefully to the people who were inside calling themselves the Embassy Protection Collective. And as a result, the Venezuelan opposition activists pressed a false charge of assault against Max and he will be proven correct in the long run. Ultimately, the DC police came and arrested him in a pretty violent way. He had to spend time in jail, he was denied access to a lawyer. So what you have here is US authorities acting on behalf of a right-wing opposition that they are trying to put in power against a journalist. If this happened in a place like Venezuela, you would see endless coverage on the US media calling Venezuela an authoritarian state. But in this case, I haven’t seen any mainstream coverage of Max’s arrest at all. I have seen some support on Twitter which is good because at the end of the day this is an attack on journalism.
And this is what happens to journalists who expose what the US empire is doing in other countries. You are attacked in so many different ways. In the case of Max, they are using the legal system against him. These charges are false and they will be proven to be false. But what this does is it’s an attempt to discourage and suppress free speech and journalism because, if other journalists see this happening to Max, then they might be less likely to tell the truth or be honest or even put any resources into exposing what the US is doing in these countries. And the same goes for me. When people see the reaction to me, that I am being smeared all the time as an Assadist, as pro-genocide, as a dictator lover, when you see this happen to someone over and over again, if you say it about someone enough times, some people start to believe it. And other people who don’t believe it might stay quiet and not say anything and not speak up themselves. Why would they want to have that smear campaign targeted at them?
It was reported that what sparked the protests were the increased fees for WhatsApp. So that was merely the tip of an iceberg. There are far greater issues that are making people go out on the street.
Exactly, people have legitimate reasons to be on the streets in this country. It is not an easy place to live. And it’s the kind of place where you really do see these people who are millionaires and billionaires. They live such lavish lifestyles. It’s very in-your-face. Their children are all over Instagram traveling the world, showing off their yachts and their cars and their nice jewelry and their nice clothes. It’s literally because their families, kind of mafia families that own the country, have stolen from the public coffers and have made money off of corruption. The whole system here is based around corruption. It is almost like it’s impossible not to be corrupt if you are in the Lebanese government. It is almost like everyone from the street cleaner to the person at the top engages in some sort of corruption because that’s how the system functions. So people have had enough of that.
And I think it’s an anger we are going to be seeing more of because this is something that is a global issue: You have this globalized economy where this neoliberal order has been imposed on everybody, but it hit the developing world and the Global South the hardest. So you see protests in places like Chile as well as Lebanon as well as Iraq. In Iraq also, you’ve got people protesting against corruption and then dying as they are protesting. But then Iraq is also a place where people get nervous because the US …
Everyone is always scared about what role the US is going to play, especially after we saw what happened in the so-called Arab Spring where you had protests in places like Libya and Syria quickly turn into attempts to overthrow governments that turned into an absolute disaster, led by the US and the Gulf states. So there is a fear among the people and a sort of caution about what the US might be doing behind the scenes or how this might play into the war between Israel and Hezbollah, if Israel might be trying to take advantage of what is happening behind the scenes or Saudi Arabia or these countries that have over and over again intervened and made things worse. So you have a lot of that fear here in this region whenever protests break out.