Back to Reality in Syria

Fantasies of Revolution


Looking back in history, it is easy to scoff at the thinly-veiled justifications of European, British, and American imperialism. Today, regime change by Europe, Britain, and the U.S. relies on some iteration of the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). This doctrine asserts that the “lesson learned” from events of genocide and ethnic cleansing in the 20th century, such as the European Judeocide in World War II and the Rwandan genocide in 1992, is that Western nations should be prepared to intervene militarily in cases of genocide and war crimes in order to prevent these horrors from happening again.

The Libyan and Syrian wars, part of the “Arab Spring” of 2011, exemplify how this doctrine works and how critical propaganda is to the war effort. As the protests spread across Libya and Syria, Qaddafi and Assad were demonized, the opposition presented as homogenous, democratic, and tolerant, and calls grew across the political spectrum, including from prominent leftists, for NATO to support the protesters militarily. Of course, no one should support the crimes of dictators and we should reject their claims that the protesters were foreign agents. However, the stories circulated by Libyan and Syrian activists have turned out to be nonsense as well, not unlike the blatant lies during the the first war in Iraq and the even more lie-filled second war in Iraq.

At this point, the propaganda surrounding the war in Libya has been thoroughly debunked, with the U.K. government going so far as to issue a mea culpa in 2016 for its role. Unfortunately, the racist lies about black mercenaries, false allegations of mass rape by Qaddafi’s soldiers, and the unfounded accusations of genocide had already resulted in regime change. Without the six-month-long NATO air campaign, the rebels, who brutally sodomized and murdered Qaddafi, would not have been able to take over the country. As some analysts discussed how Libya could be “On the path to democracy,” militia groups conducted widespread and vicious war crimes, including the ethnic cleansing of Tawargha, a city of 40,000 black Libyans. Perhaps if these events were discussed at the time, we would not be surprised to see migrants and refugees from other parts of Africa sold in open slave markets.

In Syria, we have yet to see the same kind of honesty. Divisions in the opposition to the Assad government were willfully ignored and the weakness of the left-wing and liberal opposition to the Assad government was never acknowledged. Any mention of hardline Islamic factions was routinely portrayed as propaganda coming from Damascus or as racism from Western commentators who dared to disagree with “authentic” Syrian voices. Western media made out the protesters to be far more democratic, liberal, and Western-oriented than was reported in the media, as renowned journalist Patrick Cockburn noted recently:

That this wasn’t obvious to everyone at the time is partly a result of the way foreign commentators exaggerated the role of new information technology. Protesters, skilled in propaganda if nothing else, could see the advantage of presenting the uprisings to the West as unthreatening ‘velvet’ revolutions with English-speaking, well-educated bloggers and tweeters prominently in the vanguard. The purpose was to convey to Western publics that the new revolutionaries were comfortingly similar to themselves, that what was happening in the Middle East in 2011 was similar to the anti-communist and pro-Western uprisings in Eastern Europe after 1989.

While the Assad regime bears full responsibility for the atrocities it committed to repress the early protests and during the civil war, the mainstream view of the early opposition to Assad as exclusively nonviolent is at least debatable. Once the opposition officially took up arms in July 2011, under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), it was portrayed as a moderate, secular force. This claim quickly became suspect. The FSA began organizing flows of weapons and fighters in November 2011 from the Islamist militias that had overrun Libya. By 2012, reports confirmed that hardline opposition militias received weapons shipments and salaries for their fighters from the Gulf States, largely through the Turkish border and facilitated by U.S. covert operations.

Today, a mountain of evidence shows that the moderate FSA was more of front for hardline islamist militants to receive Western backing than an independent force. Through a FOIA request in 2015 the conservative group Judicial Watch released a 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency Report that stated “The Salafist, Muslim Brotherhood and AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria” and that AQI “supported the opposition from the beginning.” The report went on to predict the establishment of a “salafist principality” that would erase the border between Iraq and Syria, which was proven to be correct when ISIS was established in 2014. According to U.S. Special Operations Forces, the differentiation between the FSA and al-Nusra (AQI rebranded) was impossible because “they are virtually the same organization.” In 2016, the Pentagon admitted that the moderate rebels it had spent $500 million training defected to jihadi groups as soon as they crossed the border from Turkey to Syria. Shortly after this, a video surfaced showing fighters from a CIA-sponsored “moderate” rebel group beheading a child of about 12 years old with a knife. Unsurprising then that the commander of the Free Syrian Army recently said he stands with his “ISIS brothers.”

Skepticism of militias armed, funded and trained by the Gulf monarchies, Turkey, and U.S. intelligence services should not be expected from the mainstream. CNN went so far as to hire an Al Qaeda propagandist to film an award-winning documentary that whitewashed these jihadi groups. Anyone who questioned the prevailing narrative was viciously smeared, including the legendary Seymour Hersh. However, it has been the shoddy coverage by many leftist outlets, especially Jacobin Magazine, that has been the most shocking.

This year Jacobin has published a string of stunningly ignorant pieces that ignore the reality in Syria in the name of ephemeral “solidarity.” In January 2017, Jacobin Magazine refers to opposition held areas as “liberated” and refers to “revolutionary councils” of “workers.” The author claims that the jihadi groups Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, which used caged Alawite civilians as human shields for their armored vehicles, support a “democratic transition.” Two weeks later, Jacobin falsely claimed that moderate rebels took Aleppo, ignoring the widely reported fact that Al-Nusra was at the forefront of the rebel force that seized the city as well as the war crimes the UN accuses the rebels of committing in Aleppo. In February, Jacobin stated that the U.S. has “done a lot more to preserve the regime these past 5 years,” despite the fact that Syria has seen perhaps the most expensive covert CIA program in history. In April, Jacobin absurdly claimed that there was “no clear condemnation of Russian and Iranian intervention in Syria,” and blamed Washington for not giving the jihadi rebels access to “anti-aircraft weaponry.”

It is difficult to admit to being fooled by the same “Responsibility to Protect” propaganda deployed in Libya. The crime of the U.S. funneling weapons to extremist jihadi groups that terrorized Syrians and Iraqis is being covered up by left outlets continuing to whitewashing the Syrian opposition. Worse, the U.S. left’s failure to confront the truth about Syria legitimizes the claims of neocon interventionists as to the necessity of billion-dollar covert operations. As Carla del Ponte, head UN prosecutor for war crimes in Syria, bluntly stated this week when she resigned from her post, “In Syria, everyone is bad. The Assad government is committing terrible crimes against humanity and using chemical weapons. And the opposition, that is made up only of extremists and terrorists anymore.” It is time for the left to come back to reality.

Thor is a graduate student in economics at the Sciences Po Paris. His work normally focuses on water pollution issues in Switzerland. You can find more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @thormakai.

Gabrial is a Guest Contributor to Progressive Army.

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