Assad’s Useful Idiots
By Jess HillSeptember 11, 2012
How prominent commentators from the ‘anti-imperialist’ left have twisted the public discourse on Syria and, in the process, provided intellectual cover for the Assad regime.
It was the first weekend of August, and on the highway leading out of Damascus, Syrian tanks rumbled northwards towards Aleppo. As 20,000 government troops mobilised outside the city, Syrian bomber jets shattered the shopping district of Salahedin, a rebel stronghold. Just metres away from the fighting, a Reuters reporter found a local couple, shaking with fear. "Just to hold power he is willing to destroy our streets, our homes, kill our sons," cried Fawzia Um Ahmed as she waited for a car to take them to safety.
In Sydney that weekend the sun was out, and so were hundreds of Syrian Australians. In a rally organised by a group called 'Hands off Syria', they marched through the city, brandishing posters of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and signs that read, "Thank you Russia and China 4 Vetoes" and "Let the whole world hear: Syria is our Nation, Bashar is our Leader".
"He's a doctor, he studied in England," 'Naja' told TruthNews in a broad Syrian-Australian accent, adding that President Assad had been 'democratically elected' by 75 per cent of Syrians. "He doesn't kill his people. We've got militants in Syria. They're terrorists."
Flanked by cheering Assad supporters, Dr Tim Anderson, a senior lecturer in political economy at Sydney University and a member of Hands Off Syria, made an impassioned speech in support of the Syrian president. "People in this country are very ignorant about what's going on in Syria," he began.
"That's not a crime in itself. But what is unacceptable is the unethical use of this ignorance… Those people saying Assad must go, they have no ethical basis to make that sort of claim," he continued, cheered by the crowd. To this, he added: "They haven't understood that it's the foundation of the post-colonial era… that a people have a right to self-determination."
Hang on a minute. Isn't the Syrian opposition fighting the Assad regime for its right to self-determination?
Don't try to make sense of this logically; think ideologically.
Anderson is among the ideologues who believe there is no greater enemy than American imperialism. That means the Syrian uprising poses a grave threat to the 'Axis of Resistance' — Iran, Syria and Hezbollah — which, according to them, is the only force blocking America's imperialist ambitions in the Middle East. If Assad falls, they believe it is America, Israel and Saudi Arabia that have the most to gain.
This ideological war is being fought at varying levels of sophistication by leftists with far greater influence than Dr Anderson, such as The Guardian's associate editor and columnist Seumas Milne, award-winning journalist John Pilger, military historian and intellectual Tariq Ali and British MP George Galloway.
At first glance, it might seem indulgent to slip from reporting on the facts, to reporting on the reportage. Many of us would like to ignore these commentators. Increasingly, however, journalists reporting from Syria are being driven to despair as their reporting is dismissed as propaganda by anti-imperialist ideologues who claim to know 'the truth'. Many Syrians I've spoken to are also aware that their fate is connected to how the conflict is reported.
Using tactics that vary from the overt to the insidious, these ideologues are willfully twisting the narrative on Syria to score points against the 'imperialist West'. In the process, they are excusing and providing intellectual cover for the Assad regime. What's worse, their 'truth' is filtering into the mainstream, with many in the public convinced that the conflict in Syria is now little more than a proxy war between the world's great powers.
This is not to say that hawks who are cheering for intervention in Syria aren't guilty of peddling their own kind of propaganda — they are. But right-wing hawks don't typically claim to be champions of the oppressed. Those mentioned above do, and in the same breath, happily undermine a civilian-led uprising against a remorseless dictator, all because said dictator is (on paper, at least) opposed to Israel and the United States.
"It's a dreadful moral and political capitulation," says Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. "It surrenders all other leftist values to a reductive, hyper-simplistic, anti-Western stance which makes all regimes opposed by the West worthy of support by default… That means supporting fascist right-wingers, as long as they have the right enemies."
Syria has been one of the hardest conflicts in living memory to report on, largely because of the extreme restrictions imposed by the Assad regime. Earlier this year, I wrote about how these restrictions were making it immensely difficult for reporters to sort fact from propaganda, and how important it was that we maintain a critical eye on both sides ('Syria's Propaganda War', April 12).
Now the fog of the Syrian war is providing cover for conspiracy theories which are published as fact with increasing frequency.
Here in Beirut, the worst offenders in this category write for the leftist Hezbollah-friendly newspaper, Al Akhbar. In his scathing letter of farewell to the paper, former columnist Max Blumenthal decried its opinion pages as "a playpen for dictator enablers".
Many other media outlets in the Middle East deserve this epithet. But there are too many to cover here. Instead, let's focus on ideologues that most egregiously distort views on Syria in the West.
HERE'S THE STORY THEY'RE PEDDLING: The Syrian revolution may have been started by peaceful protesters, but those people have long since been sidelined by a radical Sunni-Islamist insurgency. These radical insurgents are armed by and fighting at the behest of the United States and its allies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who want to remove the anti-imperialist Assad regime in order to weaken Iran. It's all part of the imperialist project that began with the attacks on September 11, 2001, and just as evidence for Saddam Hussein's WMDs was fudged in order to justify the 2003 invasion and occupation, the Assad regime is being framed for civilian atrocities to justify another invasion.
Let's be clear: In 2003, evidence of WMDs was concocted, and the war was sold to the world in 'humanitarian' terms. Many — most — in the media utterly failed to hold the Bush Administration to account. The few politicians, journalists and activists who did — including the ideologues I criticise here — were widely denounced, vindicated only after the invasion had gone ahead and Iraq was in flames. They — and we — should be angry about the way they were ignored.
But this is not 2003. For these ideologues to frame the Syrian uprising as a sequel to the Iraq invasion is deceptive.
The Arab world has changed since 2003. In an epoch-changing string of events known as the 'Arab Spring', large numbers of Middle Eastern citizens suddenly shifted the blame for their misery away from foreign interference, and on to the dictators who had (with foreign help) been subjugating them for decades.
But for old left-wing paternalists like The Guardian's Seumas Milne, the only Arab citizens who've become empowered are those that have deposed dictators friendly to America, like Egypt's former president Hosni Mubarak. The Syrians fighting to depose President Assad, an American enemy, aren't empowered — they're just cannon fodder for a new installment of the Great Game.
"For Syrians who want dignity and democracy in a free country," he writes, "the rapidly mushrooming dependence of their uprising on foreign support is a disaster — even more than was the case in Libya".
(In fact, most Libyans actually don't regard foreign intervention as a disaster; this recent Gallup poll found that 75 per cent approved of NATO's military intervention — a sentiment I found to be widely held myself when in Tripoli recently.)
No word from Milne on whether Assad's dignity is similarly compromised by reliance on foreign assistance — his reliance on Russia for heavy arms, on Iran for financial aid, and on both Russia and China for diplomatic vetoes. Apparently that's just a matter of sovereignty.
In Milne's analysis, neither Iran, Russia nor China are to blame for Syria's 'descent into darkness', either. The blame for this he lays on the Saudis and the Qataris who are funding the smuggling of light arms across the border, the United States, whose agents are coordinating the smuggling, and on the Turks providing safe haven to the Free Syrian Army.
"The sharp increase in arms supplies, funding and technical support from the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others in recent months," Milne writes, "has dramatically boosted the rebels' fortunes, as well as the death toll". This statement is not wrong on its own — and this is the key to Milne's sophistry. Using omission and innuendo, he builds fallacious arguments by relating just one side of the story. Here, for instance, the Russian weaponry Assad is using to bomb his own people doesn't even warrant a mention by Milne. Nor does the massive financial life-support the Assad regime receives from Iran.
The fact is that whenever a centre of geopolitical power grows unstable, foreign powers compete for influence. Syria is no different. Would a regime-change in Syria suit the West and its allies? It might, or it might not — especially if the end result is a triumphalist Sunni regime on Israel's border. Would the maintenance of the dictatorial Assad regime suit Iran and Russia? Without question. But through Milne's ideological lens we see only the malignant interests of the Western powers — not those opposed to them.
British MP George Galloway takes Milne's rhetoric and turns it up to 11. Since June, Galloway has had a regular segment on the Beirut-based channel Al Mayadeen, which is said to be partly funded by President Assad's tycoon cousin, Rami Makhlouf; the head of the news division is, incidentally, married to President Assad's communications advisor. In this segment, aptly titled "Syrian Rebels are Servants of the Crusaders", Galloway rants: "You must know who I'm talking about — people who are based in Paris, based in London, based in Istanbul," he says. "They are servants of the Crusader powers. That is why they are asking the Crusaders to bomb them — because the Crusaders are asking their servants to ask them to bomb them."
Galloway wants a political transformation in Syria, he earnestly tells his audience, and President Assad does too. Assad accepted the Kofi Annan peace plan, he says; the only ones who rejected peace were (drum roll) "the Crusaders, and their political allies in the Syrian revolutionary camp".
Yes, President Assad accepted the Kofi Annan peace plan — then repeatedly violated its conditions by refusing to withdraw from population centres, continuing to fire heavy artillery at civilians and maintaining a policy of mass arrests. The opposition also violated the ceasefire, but Kofi Annan himself blamed the eventual failure of his peace plan primarily on the Syrian regime.
Despite Annan's assessment, however, The Guardian's Seumas Milne is adamant that the real bogeyman in the Syrian situation is the West and its allies in the Gulf.
"Only pressure for a negotiated settlement, which the west and its friends have so strenuously blocked, can now give Syrians the chance to determine their own future — and halt the country's descent into darkness," he writes.
Put simply, if the West would just stop trying to engineer regime change in Syria, President Assad would, with some pressure from his allies, happily negotiate an end to the crisis with the opposition — the same opposition he's denounced for months as 'terrorists'.
That's not the view of Syria's foreign minister, Walid Muallem, who recently declared that the Syrian regime would only consider negotiating with the opposition after the 'rebels' had been purged from Syria. In other words, Syria's opposition would need to lay down its arms and accept whatever retribution the Syrian regime decided to mete out before negotiation with an opposition group — approved by the Syrian regime — would even be considered.
Clearly incensed by his colleague's spin, The Guardian's Middle East editor, Ian Black, wrote a withering rebuke two days later:
"The cartoon book claim that "the west" (conspiring with compliant Arabs) has malevolently blocked an agreement that a principled Russia tirelessly supported does not stand up to scrutiny."
Black refers to a UN resolution that was drafted by Britain in July that "repeated the call for a 'Syrian-led political process' (language supported by Russia). Nowhere did it advocate forced regime change". This resolution also excluded international military action. Both Russia and China vetoed it.
BUT LET'S LEAVE MILNE AND THE GUARDIAN aside for now, and move on to one of the Left's leading lights, the influential British Pakistani intellectual Tariq Ali.
Earlier this year, Ali was adamant that President Assad must step down, and his allies must pressure him to do so. However, when Ali was interviewed recently on the Kremlin's news network, Russia Today, he was unabashed in his binary, conspiratorial projection of the choice facing Syrians.
"Many of the people who first rose against the Assad regime in Syria have been sidelined, leaving the Syrian people with limited choices, neither of which they want: either a Western imposed regime, composed of sundry Syrians who work for the western intelligence agencies, or the Assad regime."
Never mind that Ali, for accuracy's sake, might have replaced the term 'sidelined' with 'tortured and killed by the regime', 'fled into exile', or 'imprisoned en masse'. Nobody with Ali's knowledge of military history would present the potential outcomes of Syria's chaotic civil conflict so simplistically — unless they had an ideological barrow to push.
But when it comes to binary and conspiratorial projections, Ali has form. "Whatever the final outcome, the Libyan people have lost," he wrote in April 2011, just two months into the uprising. "The country will either be partitioned into a Gaddafi state and a squalid pro-west protectorate led by selected businessmen, or the west will take out Gaddafi and control the whole of Libya and its huge oil reserves."
The success of Libya's democratic transition may be debatable, but only the most blinkered ideologue would say the West has now taken control of Libya (oh, hi George).
But Ali wasn't the only commentator who was proven wrong on Libya. After the revolution, it was commonly expected that Qatar, having contributed both blood and USD2 billion in treasure to the uprising, would simply install its proxies, the Muslim Brotherhood, at the head of Libya's new government.
And they sure gave it a red-hot go. In Tripoli, campaign posters and billboards for the Muslim Brotherhood far outnumbered those of its competitors. But it turns out there was a real democratic process in Libya, and no amount of money was enough to buy the Libyan vote. In the July election, Libyan voters shocked the world by rejecting the Muslim Brotherhood for the party led by the moderate Mahmoud Jibril, former chief of the National Transitional Council.
The moral of the Libyan story is that just because you fund a revolution, doesn't mean you own it.
Of course, as the Qataris tried to do in Libya, foreign powers will try to co-opt the revolution in Syria. But could the West just impose its own handpicked regime onto the Syrian people, as Tariq Ali so confidently asserts? That's a question The Global Mail posed to David Wearing, founder and co-editor of the New Left Project.
"The [Syrian National Council] were being set up as our allies, but they've proved to be something of an incoherent joke and are apparently now being ditched, so no joy for Washington there," he says. "Perhaps by setting up training and operations bases and controlling the flow of arms, the US and its allies can pick winners within the Syrian opposition. But again there is the fact that the opposition is rooted in the country, fundamentally. Their autonomy cannot easily be stolen."
"Either way, it does not follow that Western assistance equals Western control. Showing that requires better and more information/proof than anyone on the left has provided so far."
But who needs proof when you can feel the truth? American satirist Stephen Colbert defines this as "truthiness": the kind of truth that doesn't just roll over and surrender to proof, or logical examination.
And on no other topic have the ideologues been more 'truthy' than on the Houla massacre.
IT CAN TAKE JUST ONE EVENT AND A HANDFUL of people to transform a pile of evidence into a morass of doubt.
For example, in November 2009 climate-change deniers leapt triumphantly onto an illegally obtained cache of emails between climate scientists in England and the United States. The deniers insisted they proved that scientists had been manipulating temperature data to fake the extent of human-induced global warming. The ensuing scandal was dubbed 'Climategate' and it rocked the very foundations of climate science research.
Seven months and four independent reviews later, the climate scientists in question were cleared of any wrongdoing and their research was found to be wholly intact. But Climategate had already done its work. It was a PR disaster because it raised huge question marks over the veracity of the science, put a respected university's credibility on the line, and provoked death threats against climate scientists.
One event, and a handful of people.
On May 25 this year, 108 people, including 83 women and children, were murdered inside their homes in the Syrian village of Taldou in Houla.
Two days after the massacre, Channel 4's Alex Thomson accompanied a group of U.N. monitors to the area. As their van pulled into the village, it was mobbed by people "shouting and crying in a mixture of shock, relief and anger". Thomson was shown children recovering from gunshot wounds and fragments from Syrian army shells. He spoke to "scores of people" who all said the same thing:
The Syrian army started shelling the village in response to anti-regime demonstrations after Friday prayers. After hours of intensive shelling, around 100 shabiha (the regime's civilian militia) arrived from Shia/Alawite villages surrounding Houla. From mid-afternoon that day until early the next morning the shabiha went from house to house, killing the men, women and children inside.
The Houla massacre shocked the world. Everywhere the headlines read: Has the time for intervention finally come?
Then on June 6, one of Germany's leading daily papers, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) published an article claiming it was not the shabiha who committed the Houla massacre, but the very rebels who had blamed it on the regime. Filed from Damascus and based on information "gathered by opposition members from the region", the report claimed the massacre was committed by 700 members of the Free Syrian Army, who had travelled to Houla from nearby towns. They were assisted by local residents, who targeted the victims because they had converted to Alawi and Shia Islam and had refused to join the opposition.
The anti-imperialist ideologues and Assad apologists pounced on the FAZ report with the enthusiasm of climate deniers on an email cache. This was their big chance to prove the Assad regime was being framed, WMD-style, to justify a Western-led military intervention.
On June 20, journalist and former war correspondent John Pilger bet all his chips on FAZ, denouncing all other reports on the Houla massacre as "raw propaganda". "The threats against Syria, coordinated in Washington and London, scale new peaks of hypocrisy," he raved in the New Statesman. "Contrary to the raw propaganda presented as news, the investigative journalism of the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung identifies those responsible for the massacre in Houla as the 'rebels' backed by Obama and Cameron. The paper's sources include the rebels themselves."
On July 16, Tariq Ali told Russia Today the FAZ report was further proof that the Syrian National Council and its supporters were deliberately carrying out atrocities so they could be blamed on the regime. "A journalist on the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung some weeks ago explained what had happened in the Houla massacre and was denounced."
One week later, another German newspaper, Der Spiegel, sent two journalists to Houla to see if there was any truth to the FAZ report. They were the first foreign journalists to arrive in the village since Channel 4's Alex Thomson. Over two days, they interviewed several eyewitnesses and relatives of the victims, all of whom blamed the killings on the shabiha. One eyewitness also pointed out that since several of the victims' houses were located between two Syrian army checkpoints, it would have been impossible for several hundred rebels to move between the houses undetected. All those interviewed insisted there had never been any Shiite or Alawite families in Houla, just as there were no Sunni families in the surrounding Alawite villages.
Der Spiegel wasn't the first to challenge the FAZ report's claim that the victims were mostly Shia and Alawite, however. In the days immediately following the massacre, Alex Thomson visited the Alawite villages surrounding Houla. None of the villagers he interviewed said anything about Alawite or Shia victims. One imagines that if their co-religionists had been killed by the Free Syrian Army in a nearby village, they might have heard about it.
On August 15, after several weeks of investigation, the U.N. released its final report: government forces and the shabiha were responsible for the Houla massacre. Read the report. The evidence is incontrovertible.
The FAZ report was clearly based on misinformation. But have Pilger or Ali issued any mea culpas for providing cover for the Syrian regime? No. And we shouldn't expect any, for the same reason that climate deniers didn't apologise for slandering scientists exonerated after Climategate.
Let's be clear. The mission of the ideologues is not to reveal the truth about what's happening in Syria. Their mission is to campaign against Western intervention. A key strategy in that campaign is to discredit events that may justify intervention in the minds of the public. The Houla massacre threatened to do just that. If they provide intellectual cover for the murderous Assad regime in the process, that's a small price to pay for preventing Western intervention, which they're convinced would be an even greater disaster.
Thanks to the recalcitrance of ideologues like Pilger and Ali, many people are still unsure about who is to blame for the Houla massacre. At the very least, it can now be referred to as 'contested' — a propaganda win for the Syrian regime and its supporters.
LAST YEAR, WHEN ANTHONY SHADID WAS FIRST PLANNING to sneak into Syria, he wrote an email to his editors at TheNew York Times explaining why the story was worth risking his life for. "It's just nuts," he wrote. "I feel like no one there is telling the truth now. We have to get the details."
In February this year, Shadid's determination to get the truth cost him his life. More than 30 professional and citizen journalists have died covering the conflict in Syria, and every time a journalist goes into Syria they have to face the very real and terrifying prospect that they may die there. Not many journalists can match Shadid’s piercing insight, but most are going in for the same reason: to find out what's going on.
The ideologues I've addressed here prefer to wage their propaganda campaigns from offices located thousands of miles away from the war in Syria. Taking cynical advantage of the fog of war, they distort the facts on Syria to make them fit their bogus ideological framework.
It's an approach that's driven a deep faultline through the Left. "Anti-imperialists are right to be concerned about Western involvement (in Syria)," says New Left Project editor David Wearing. "(And) of course, Western lefists must focus on Western power because we can affect that. But still, we have to offer an accurate account of the situation.”
Here's what we know. The Assad family has ruled Syria like its own personal colony for decades. Just like the foreigners that ruled Syria before them, they have been a distant elite, treating Syrians not as citizens but as tools of the state. Many of those Syrians have risked everything to reject the Assad regime, and since the very beginning Assad has responded with bullets and bombs. His promises of 'democratic reform' have been a fiction, just like they always were.
Whatever is to become of Syria, those genuinely engaged in trying to "halt the descent into darkness" will only be hindered by those whose ideological agenda is more important than seeking and presenting the truth.
For his part President Assad says he has no intention of stepping down. He says he's fighting an international conspiracy.
And who among the ideologues could argue with that?