[update: here is a link to the OPCW report regarding responsibility for the 2014 chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghoutta: https://www.opcw.org/sites/default/files/documents/2020/04/s-1867-2020%28e%29.pdf ] Now that we’ve put Syrian voices first in explaining how the revolution first came about, we should discuss western involvement in Syria through this period. American involvement in Syria in the past decade has not been honorable, but it is not what people think. As with Spain during the 30s, America in 2011 rejected an active foreign policy, having elected Barack Obama in part because he had voted against the war in Iraq. As in Spain the result was the crushing of a progressive movement and a genocide at the hands of an authoritarian ruler. In previous episodes, my focus was on Syrians, but now I want to discuss what America's response to the Arab Spring in Syria reveals about us, as a nation and as a socialist movement. The weaknesses that reveal themselves in this discussion are crippling our movement, and to be free of them we have to begin the discussion. Let's begin.
Up until 2011 Bashar al-Assad was considered a potential partner in the region. His father Hafez had helped the US to fight Saddam Hussein in the first gulf war, and as is well known, Bill Clinton used to have terrrorism suspects sent to Syria to be tortured (https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2008/07/31/the-long-dark-war). Sam Dagher remarks on this permissive attitude: “After the Second World War, successive US administrations viewed the newly independent states of the Levant and Arabian Peninsula, including Syria, mainly through the prism of the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. Washington’s priorities were to secure oil supplies and find a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Few of the Middle East’s rising tyrants knew how to exploit this broader geostrategic game better than Hafez al-Assad. By the mid-1970s, Hafez, who was busy enshrining a cultish dictatorship in Syria, received military aid and support from the Soviet Union at the same time that he was getting recognition and financial aid from the US and its rich Gulf Arab allies. There was an unspoken but well-understood quid pro quo with Washington: Hafez was free to do everything he needed to do to maintain his iron grip at home as long as he never waged war against Israel after 1973. Jimmy Carter later called Hafez a ‘strong and moderate’ leader.” Throughout the US’ occupation of Iraq, Bashar al-Assad had allowed foreign Islamist extremists to enter Iraq through Syria. There they joined with Al-Qaeda agents who were being funded by Iran and managed by Qassem Suleimani. When Obama was elected into the office of the President of the United States, Bashar correctly saw an opportunity. “For him [Bashar al-Assad] the real prize was not France or Europe but the United States, where a more momentous change of guard and opportunity occurred. A young senator named Barack Obama had become America’s first black president. Obama regarded Iraq’s invasion as a disastrous mistake and wanted to get out as quickly as possible. He wanted to make a clear break with Bush’s policies, to change America’s image as the world’s sheriff and a cowboy who shoots first and asks questions later. Obama had priorities beyond Middle East regime change. The way Bashar and his allies saw it, Obama seemed like a realist, someone who was not going to hector them about reform and human rights but potentially accept that each country had its particular circumstances and situations… Obama wasted no time in trying to secure Bashar’s and, by extension, Iran’s cooperation in Iraq. He dispatched John Kerry to Damascus in February 2009. The gentlemanly Kerry, a longtime senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, already had one thing in common with Bashar: a towering presence. And to try to develop a personal rapport with Bashar, Kerry came with his wife, Teresa Heinz.” (pp. 147,149). By all accounts John Kerry was completely won over by the Assad charm offensive: “Toward the end of his stay in Damascus, Kerry met Michel Duclos, the French ambassador. Kerry, a fluent French speaker, said he believed he finally had a deal with Bashar on stopping the infiltration of foreign fighters to Iraq and sharing the identities of Al-Qaeda operatives. ‘This is a man we can do business with,’ an upbeat Kerry told Duclos. Kerry was totally beguiled by Asma and Bashar, observed Duclos.” (p. 151). Sam Dagher’s excellent history of the Syrian Revolution, Assad or We Burn the Country, focuses on the decision making process within the Assad regime, which Dagher had special access to through interviews with Manaf Tlaas, close friend with Bashar al-Assad from childhood and the son of Mustapha Tlass who was Hafez al-Assad’s old comrade from their days as cadets in the military academy. Dagher tells how the French government was trying to prepare Manaf to take power in order to keep the regime in place, in case Bashar was rejected by the Syrian ruling class the way Mubarak had been in Egypt, and how despite Manaf’s arguing for reforms as a response to the protest movement, Bashar and company decided to resurrect the Hama manual.
During the course of the Spring and Summer of 2011 it became clear that the Assad regime intended to use intense violence against protesters, and this created a feedback loop whereby harsher methods inspired bigger protests inspiring harsher methods. The Obama administration, not wishing to lose their partner in Syria, asked Assad to cede power to someone else in his ruling click. Because of Sam Dagher’s work interviewing Manaf Tlass, we know that the French intelligence agencies were grooming Tlass to take over there. Tlass was chosen because he opposed using violence against protestors, preferring to negotiate reforms. If Assad had obeyed Obama’s plea, which was clearly not going to be backed up with serious action, the Baath party would have remained in control of Syria, much as the ruling clique in Egypt remained in power after Mubarrak stepped down.
One of Obama’s proudest achievements was the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The bulk of US forces, some 140,000 troops, left Iraq in December of 2011. In the next few years, Obama tried desperately to avoid America re-engaging militarily in the region despite the emergence of ISIS over this period. In 2012 ISIS murdered the journalist Jim Foley. In 2013 they killed the journalist Steven Sotlof. In 2014 as ISIS militants gained territory within striking distance of an American diplomatic mission in Erbil, Obama finally authorized limited air strikes against ISIS targets. By that point, American inaction regarding the group was read by regular Iraqis as America supporting ISIS. Richard Stengel, former editor of Time magazine and Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs under Obama, cites polling of Iraqis in 2014: “A majority of Iraqis - Sunni and Shia - actually thought that the U.S. had created ISIS. I asked one intelligence officer why this was. He smiled and replied that most Iraqis say ‘We have seen what you are capable of when you invaded us, and the fact that you are not doing it to them must mean that you are on their side.’” (p. 119).
In reality, starting in 2012 America had two different programs to arm Syrian rebels, in order to fight ISIS. Syrian rebels, with the exception of a few dozen people, rejected this aid because it came only if the recipients promised not to fight the Assad regime, which Obama hoped to normalize relations with. Most of this military aid went to the Kurds, who have been fighting alongside US forces against ISIS. The main way that the US intervened during the course of the revolution, was the CIA setting itself up as a middle man between rebel groups and Saudi Arabia to ensure that the rebels never received anti-air weapons that could stop the regime’s vicious targeting of civilian areas, though they did receive some anti-tank weapons (Mark Boothroyd: Who are the Syrian Rebels? The Genesis of the Armed Struggle in Syria. From Khiyana, pp. 59-63, 49; Abouzeid, p. 259)). In an interview with Rania Abouzeid, Hamza Shemali, the leader of the Hazm group that received support through the CIA under a program named Sycamore Timber, complained that though their network provided the US with good information about the whereabouts and activities of ISIS leadership, but that the US did nothing with the intelligence, a state of affairs that persisted until 2014 (pp. 273, 313). Hamza Shemali comments: “On September 23, 2014, after years of watching the ascendancy of Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State, America’s military directly intervened in Syria’s war, striking Islamic State positions and lobbing missiles toward eight locations in Idlib and Aleppo held by the Nusra-affiliated Khorasan Group. The United States had launched its war on ISIS in Iraq on August 8, and expanded it into Syria the following month. Many Syrians wondered why the United States waited until Islamic State was at the height of its power to attack it… In early November, Nusra fighters easily routed Hazm from its main stronghold in Idlib Province, seizing Hazm’s cache of US-supplied weapons, including TOW antitank missiles. The base fell without a fight, and the hundreds of Hazm fighters either escaped to Aleppo, defected to Nusra, or were detained.” (pp. 313-314). If anyone imagines that this financial aid affected the political loyalties of the Syrian resistance, consider that in 2014 when the US began conducting airstrikes against targets in Syria, this very group that received funding from the US loudly criticized the attacks while the Assad regime cheered for them (https://syriadirect.org/news/syria-direct-news-update-9-24-14/). “Various rebel groups condemned US-led airstrikes on the Islamic State and other extremist targets within Syria on Tuesday and Wednesday. Harakat Hazm, a moderate-leaning rebel coalition that has received aid from the United States, called the strikes an act of “aggression towards national sovereignty” in a press release widely circulated Tuesday on social media websites… Meanwhile, the pro-government news network Damascus Now hailed the strikes on Wednesday as a historic moment, in which “happiness was etched on the faces of the majority of Syrians, because they found international support towards eradicating a cancer which has been rooted in the diseased Syrian body,” referring to the rebels.”
Obama’s hands off attitude about Syria represented well the prevailing mood of the country. The Iraq was was such a debacle that few on the right or left could afford to recommend more military engagement. This is surely the only way to explain how a nation that had rallied to the Global War on Terror could watch its journalists get slaughtered by a rising authoritarian Islamist extremist organization and not clammor for national defense. But in 2013 an event occurred that would test the nation’s pacifist resolve, and then all the left wing supporters of Bashar al-Assad would once again command the national spotlight.
On the 21st of August, 2013 the Assad regime used Sarin gas to murder nearly 1400 people in the Ghouta, which again was the neighborhood that led the rebellion against the French in 1925 and again in 1945. Just this past April, this is in 2020, a group of inspectors from UN’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found conclusively that Bashar AlAssad was responsible for the chemical attack in Ghoutta in 2013. They were the first body of inspectors to be granted the authority to assign culpability for this terrible crime. The report is not published yet, but it’s main findings have been reported to the press. Because certain bad actors have made the argument that Syrian rebels perpetrated this terrible crime, it's worth laying out the evidence we have even without the UN’s new report in detail. Bellingcat is an international group doing investigative journalism using the latest technology (https://www.bellingcat.com/resources/2020/01/14/bellingcat-is-hiring-editor-europe-based-part-time/). From publicly available news sources they were able to identify military units who were actively engaged in operations near the Ghouta, within range to deliver the Volcano rockets that conveyed the Sarin Gas and immediately benefiting militarily from the strikes (https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2014/07/15/identifying-government-positions-during-the-august-21st-sarin-attacks/). Specifically, Bellingcat was able to confirm eye witness accounts of a group of 15 armored vehicles that took advantage of the immediate aftermath of the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta to seize the nearby Jobar neighborhood. Because every detail of the attack has been subject to a misinformation campaign, we must point out that the nature of the agent used was verified from 12 samples taken a week after the attack, that the remnants of a Volcano missile found at the center of the attack confirm its use as a conveyance (https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2014/07/10/facts-that-have-entered-the-public-domain-about-sarin-syria-and-hexamine/). Further, the Syrian government admitted to owning a stockpile of Hexamine and Isopropyl Alcohol, both items that have to be stored separately until the last moment. After mixing of these components, the resulting Sarin compound cannot be stored beyond a very short term before it eats through any container. Therefore, the facilities required to refine Sarin Gas are likely beyond the means of rebels under siege who lack powdered milk and tea (Majd al-Dik, p. 255). The stories one has to tell to imagine rebels using such an advanced weapon border on science fiction, imagining secret labs in Iraq or smuggling through Turkey, not to mention that the support of the Syrian people has always been essential to the success of the revolution; this is also the article where Belingcat addresses Ted Postol’s attacks on their work, attacks which cite conspiracy theorists who regularly appear on Alex Jones (https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2018/06/21/know-hexamine-syrias-sarin/). Countering the ongoing information war against the Syrian people requires vigilance, and Bellingcat delivers: here’s an article from January of this year further debunking conspiracy theories around the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons (https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2020/01/23/the-opcw-douma-leaks-part-3-we-need-to-talk-about-a-false-flag-attack/ and https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2018/08/30/russian-chem-disinfo-idlib/). Bellingcat has been closely following the regime’s use of chemical weapons on the Syrian people, including four such occasions since 2018 (https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2018/03/15/syrian-forces-bombard-eastern-ghouta-chemical-weapons-fourth-consecutive-time-since-beginning-2018/). People who said that the Syrians gassed themselves were folowing a long tradition of misinformation stretching back to Guernica, where the Nazi’s murdered hundreds of people intentionally bombing civilian areas and Franco said the people of the town had burned down their own buildings.
The left responded as though the US was about to invade Syria. Their unfortunate response was to spread Russian disinformation about the chemical attacks, slander the Syrian democratic resistance and protest against the US doing anything at all about the slaughter of the Syrian people, even as those Syrian people clamored for a no-fly zone (https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/lefts-hollow-anti-imperialism-over-syria). Since then there have been verifiably half a million Syrian civilians murdered by Assad and around 7 million more forced to flee. The Lebanese Political Scientist and Professor of Middle East Studies at the American University of Paris, Ziad Majed blessed us in 2014 with his deep book “Syrie, La Revolution Orpheline.” If you can read French, you should get a copy. It’s short. And good. The translation here is my work, not the official translation. He comments: “Starting in March of 2011, the Syrian revolution was the object of multiple vilification campaigns coming from various quarters in the Arab and Western world. These included nationalists, right and left. These attacks contributed to the eclipse of the Syrian people and their aspirations. This was exactly what the Assad regime wanted. One must distinguish among these enemies of the revolution. On the one hand were those who pretended to be neutral and would not condemn the crimes of the regime. On the other hand were those, no doubt considering themselves better informed, who theorized gravely about a vast colonialist conspiracy against the “resistance” regime. Still others felt the need to disfigure the meaning of the revolution, to dehumanize Syrians and transform them into “naturally violent” creatures with whom one could not empathize. With racism and xenophobia they refused to recognize Syrians’ rights to live in liberty and dignity.” (Ziad Majed, Syrie la Revolution Orpheline, p.147 - translation mine)
Sadly, many of the left commentators who fueled this frenzy of lies and anti-solidarity are still with us, and they are not to be trusted. From my perspective as someone who at that point was an active participant in the antiwar movement, here are some of the highlights from the left press during that shameful period.
In September of 2013 Slavoj Zizek wrote for the guardian that the Syrian revolution was a pseudo-struggle that lacked emancipatory potential. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/06/syria-pseudo-struggle-egypt
Tariq Ali in 2013 in the London Review of Books repeated Russian and Iranian talking points about the attack somehow not serving Assad, but at the same time insinuates that maybe the US did the attack? Because the US wants an excuse for war? (https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/august/on-intervening-in-syria). But Ali’s piece was just a prelude to what Seymour Hersh published there in December of 2013. Hersh became famous for his work uncovering the Mai Lai massacre in 1969, but he disgraced his legacy in this article when citing unnamed sources he claimed that Syrian rebels had manufactured Sarin gas and then used it on themselves (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v35/n24/seymour-m.-hersh/whose-sarin).
The World Socialist Website, which I hate to drag like this just because their such an easy target, but first wait, remember when we talked about Capital and there was this socialist group who said that Ta Nehisi-Coates was a bourgeois reactionary? That was the World Socialist Website. [Full quote: “American society is increasingly polarized—not between races, but between classes. In this context, the class basis of the upper-middle class’s obsession with racial and identity politics becomes clearer. This is the reactionary political essence of groups like Black Lives Matter, authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates, and academics like Keeyanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who push racial politics to better fleece the working class members of their “own” racial groups, and the working class overall.” https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/10/07/pers-o07.html] Anyway, in 2013 they wrote a lack of thinking piece claiming that the whole opposition movement to Assad was a western backed insurgency, and that the chemical weapons attack was being used as an excuse to extend US empire over the energy resources in Syria. (https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/03/21/pers-m21.html).
It should be no surprise to anyone familiar with them that the Party for Socialist Liberation was declaiming supposed US attempts at regime change in Syria going all the way back to 2005 at least. I guess that’s when they started publishing online (https://www.liberationnews.org/tag/syria/page/16/). Throughout 2012 and in the months before the Sarin attack in Ghouta, the PSL was organizing protests against US intervention in Syria. On the day after the attacks, they simply published a link to Russian state TV where Brian Becker was calling this atrocity a staged provocation. The ANSWER coalition is the leading antiwar coalition in the US, formed just after September 11, 2001: ANSWER is really just a front group for the Party for Socialist LIberation. So far I can’t see that their blatant support for the genocidal Bashar al-Assad and parroting of Russian propaganda has lost them an audience on the left, as it should.
In the early 70s Willis Carto made a name for himself popularising holocaust denial (https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/holocaust-denial). Max Blumenthal is a journalist who has been published in the New York Times and The Nation, and he is the Willis Carto of Syrian genocide denial (https://hummusforthought.com/2016/10/05/list-of-rebuttals-to-max-blumenthals-anti-syrian-article/). As late as 2019 he and Rania Khalek visited Assad controlled territory in an attempt to rehabilitate the genocidal regime (https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/junket-journalism-shadow-genocide-190914121639788.html). Mainly Blumenthal publishes these days on a Russian propaganda site called The Gray Zone, which is named after a concept in Russian military theory that involves spreading disinformation to tear down democratic institutions. Katie Halper stans Max Blumenthal. Here’s a tweet by her from November 2019:
These people have told endless lies about the Syrian opposition, and named their online news site “Grayzone” after Russian misinformation operation. They cannot be trusted to tell the truth, and should have no place in our media.
Code Pink led protests against US intervention in Indiana in 2013 with messaging that makes one think they just reused the same signs they had used to protest the Iraq war, as though Iraq and Syria were not distinct in time and space. The protest signs they carried said that they wanted no war based on lies. I guess if you’re a hammer every problem is a nail. (https://www.politico.com/story/2013/09/syria-vote-protests-096415).
I could continue in this vein for a very long time, but I think that’s enough for one podcast. Suffice it to say, that these “antiwar” activists prefered that Assad be allowed to massacre his people, and they won. As we described in our discussion of the Ukraine, the inability of the US left to see through Russian propaganda, which in the case of Syria so neatly dovetailed with all of the priors that American leftists have about US intervention, that gullibility towards Russian propaganda is still very prominent on the left because as a movement we never came to terms with how wrong we were about Syria.
These left writers have to be discussed in the context of US action against Syria because they share the responsibility for Obama’s inaction. What’s truly breathtaking in all of this, is that the US left and the Trumpist right wing seem to agree that Obama literally funded and created ISIS (https://theintercept.com/2018/01/29/isis-iraq-war-islamic-state-blowback/ & https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3734124/He-founded-ISIS-Trump-claims-Obama-deserves-credit-creating-Middle-Eastern-terror-army-names-crooked-Hillary-founder.html). The truth is that Obama’s slow, late and halfhearted fight against ISIS allowed them to come about, but that lame response was exactly what the far left wanted of Obama. It didn’t stop them from labeling him an imperialist. But I don’t blame Obama for ISIS.
It’s closer to the truth to say that ISIS was created by the Assad regime. First of all, Bashar al-Assad’s regime had allowed foreign Islamist extremist fighters to enter Iraq throughout the US occupation, feeding an insurgency there that was funded by Iran. Then as the Assad regime was murdering and jailing peaceful protestors en masse in 2011, it released nearly 1300 Islamists from Sednaya Prison (BC, p.120; Hensman, p. 268; Dagher, p. xix). This was a clear repetition of its tactics in Hama in 1982 when it first murdered peaceful leadership and then used the militant tendency in the Muslim Brotherhood that remained as an excuse to slaughter civilians. Over the course of the revolution, the regime regularly ceded territory to ISIS whilst using ISIS as an excuse to bomb civilian areas (Dagher, pp. 373,374), America throughout the last decade of fighting has imagined it can fight ISIS and keep the regime; this is patently false. In 2015, as Russia began bombing centers of civilian population in Syria, NATO withdrew its Patriot Missiles from Turkey (BC, p.229). That summer Assad bragged publicly that the US voiced public opposition to him but supported him in private (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-assad-idUSKCN0ZG28G). Assad’s army was so diminished by 2016 that the army that was fielded to take back Aleppo consisted in 80% foreign fighters, mainly from Iran (p. 233). Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami note: “On 17th July 2016, following weeks of Russian bombing and ground attacks by Iran-backed militia, the regime captured the Castello Road and thereby placed the liberated city under siege. Russian and Assadist planes upped the war on hospitals, hitting six medical facilities in 24 hours (on 23 and 24 July). The US administration had nothing to say about this. On the contrary, President Obama approved a proposal to coordinate American airstrikes with Russia, against Jabhat al-Nusra… America watched or actively collaborated as Russia, Iran and Assad drove Aleppo into the abyss.” (pp. 227,228). In 2017 the new President Donald Trump was forced by his wife Melania to watch videos of victims of a terrible gas attack by the regime in Khan Sheikhoun. Always impulsive, and moved by the images, Trump ordered that the airbase the attacks originated from be bombed. The air base was given 24 hours warning, so it was evacuated. No one was killed, and the base was operational within another 24 hours. In October of 2019 the US withdrew troops from NorthEast Syria that had been fighting ISIS with Kurdish forces there. Turkish forces promptly invaded, overwhelming formerly Rojavan territory and facilitating the release of ISIS fighters from a jail that Kurdish forces had to abandon to mount a defense against the Turks. Throughout the past decade the US has pursued a policy in Syria that tried to de-escalate the conflict with Russia, maintain the stability of the Assad regime and fight ISIS without fighting the root causes of ISIS. It’s not an honorable record, but at no point did the US instigate protests or give arms or soldiers to a coup attempt. As of this writing the US and Europe have declined to support their NATO ally Turkey in fighting back against Russian and Syrian forces who have been tightening a noose around free Syrians in Idlib. That is the sum of the US’ involvement in Syria that we can know.
The left hysteria about the Syrian resistance being Islamist Extremists was a sharp 180 degree turn from their rhetoric regarding terrorism during the course of the Iraq war. The line that came down to all of us from Susan Sontag and Noam Chomsky was that the September 11 attacks were our come-uppance for the history of US imperialism (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/12/stranger-in-a-strange-land/302349/). So far as I can tell very few committed leftists ever stop to think that maybe a terrorist act cannot really be justified in this way. At some point the terrorist attacks became uncool for the left, and that point was when ISIS and Alqaeda began fighting against Bashar al-Assad.
The self-same people who would have cheered the resistance of Al-Qaeda to the US occupation in Iraq went on to insist that “terrorists” in Syria did not deserve the protection of Europe and the US. The result today is that there is no resistance to the narrative of the war on terror. Yassin al-Haj Saleh comments:
“The priorities of the powerful are the powerful priorities. When the US decides the War on Terror is a priority, it becomes an international priority. With this has come a significant transformation; namely, the securitization of politics, whereby politics becomes focused on security operations and confronting terrorist groups or their sleeper cells. What we have here is not a war fought between conventional armies and international coalitions; nor potentially severe political conflicts; but rather the granting of carte blanche to intelligence agencies to treat immigrants and the citizens of other states, particularly those from the Middle East, in a manner that turns them into right-less and homeless Homo Sacers (to borrow Giorgio Agamben’s concept). The Arab Middle East was avant-garde in this sense of securitizing politics; it is after all a paradise for genocidaires, the deprivation of rights, and immunity for crimes; it represents the future of the world in the age of the War on Terror. Today, the world’s political prisoners are Islamists, where yesterday they had been communists…Moreover, mass extermination and fascism are not accidental developments happening far away “over there” in the Middle East. They are a structural product of an international system that has made the War on Terror its grand narrative, and made state violence the antidote. In other words, there is much political evil in the Western and international diagnosis of terrorism as the core political evil. The Obama administration treated Daesh as a greater evil, and worked to recruit Syrians to fight it on condition that they didn’t fight the regime responsible for 90% of the Syrian death toll; an example illustrating how true it is that terrorism is always the evil, and “the state” always the antidote, even when the latter is privatized and genocidal. In effect, the administration denied Syrians’ moral and political agency, their right to decide their own enemy and their country’s greater evil. This is fundamentally anti-democratic; indeed, it is a perpetuation of Assad’s unrestrained criminality by other means.” (The Impossible Revolution, p. 223).
The left in the US and Europe has won the argument against empire, at least temporarily, by covering over the crimes of Russia and Syria. And now the reigning global order is one where state actors can target civilians with impunity, and this is very bad news for people who don’t have a state power to protect them, like refugees. It is somehow acceptable in the US left to take an attitude of sympathy toward refugees, but at the same time show absolutely no care whatsoever for the circumstances that created those refugees. For instance, almost no one who advocates for Syrian refugees on the US left decries the crimes of the Assad regime or calls for action against it. As Rohini Hensman notes regarding the wave of global sympathy that followed the publishing of the image of Aylan Kurdi, a three year old Syrian refugee whose body washed ashore near a Turkish resort:
“Since the picture of Aylan hit headlines across the world, 6 children have been killed in Syria every day -- the majority from barrel bombs and missiles from Syrian government aircraft. But their bloodied and blown apart corpses don’t make the front page of any newspaper. None of the other 10,000 children killed in the fighting have. What broke my heart this week was a cartoon by Neda Kadri, a Syrian artist, that pictured Aylan in heaven being welcomed by children: ‘you are so lucky Aylan! We’re victims of the same war but no one cared about our death.’” (Nolan, 2015, p.I)... the only viable solution to the refugee crisis would be to end the violence that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. That is, however, easier said than done. Ending the Syria crisis would entail, first and foremost, identifying its causes. For some of those who call themselves anti-imperialists, there is only one cause: Western (that is, North American and Western European) imperialism, which is responsible for all the bloodshed…The overall message communicated by the omissions, distortions and outright lies in such accounts is that, firstly, there is no democratic opposition to Assad; and secondly, that it is the West, due to its support for extremist Islamists, that is responsible for most of the current bloodshed in Iraq and Syria, rather than the Assad regime, Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shia militias, and the Iranian and Russian forces. These writers cover up the real causes of the massive exodus, enabling the war crimes and crimes against humanity to continue, leading to more deaths, continuing Islamist radicalisation, and the continuing outflow of refugees” (Hensman, pp1,2,5).
Moreover, this wave of Syrian refugees that occured after Russia began its own bombing campaigns in Syria was part of a broader Russian campaign to undermine the stability of European nations. It was combined with Russian support for far right parties in Germany, for instance, and an intensive propaganda campaign villainizing refugees. Timothy Snyder comments:
“Facing rising numbers of refugees from war in Syria (as well as migrants fleeing Africa), Merkel took an unexpected position: Germany would accept large numbers of refugees, more than its neighbors, more than her voters would have wished. On September 8, 2015, the German government announced that it planned to take half a million refugees per year. By no coincidence, Russia began bombing Syria three weeks later. Speaking at the United Nations on September 28, 2015, Putin proposed a ‘harmonization’ of Eurasia with the European Union. Russia would bomb Syria to generate refugees, then encourage Europeans to panic. This would help the AfD, and thus make Europe more like Russia. Russian bombs began to fall in Syria the day after Putin spoke. Russian aircraft dropped non-precision (“dumb”) bombs from high altitudes. Even if the targets had been military, non-precision bombing would have guaranteed more destruction and more refugees making their way to Europe. But Russia was not generally targeting ISIS bases. Human rights organizations reported the Russian bombing of mosques, clinics, hospitals, refugee camps, water treatment plants and cities in general. In her decision to accept Syrian refugees, Merkel was motivated by the history of the 1930s, when Nazi Germany made its own Jewish citizens into refugees. The Russian response was in effect to say: If Merkel wants refugees, we will provide them, and use the issue to destroy her government and German democracy. Russia supplied not just the refugees themselves, but also the image of them as terrorists and rapists. On Monday, January 11, 2016, a thirteen-year-old German girl of Russian origin, Lisa F., hesitated to return to their home in Berlin. She had once again had problems in school, and the way her family treated her had aroused the attention of authorities. She went to the house of a nineteen-year-old boy, visited with him and his mother, and stayed the night. Lisa F.’s parents reported her missing to the police. She returned home the next day, without her backpack and cell phone. She told her mother a dramatic story of abduction and rape. The police, following up the report of the missing girl, went to the residence of the friend and found her things. By speaking to her friend and his mother, finding the backpack, and reading text messages, they established where Lisa F. had been. When questioned, Lisa F. told the police what had happened: she had not wanted to go home, and had gone elsewhere. A medical examination confirmed that the story she had told her mother was untrue. A Berlin family drama then played as global news on Russian television. On January 16, 2016, a Saturday, Pervyi Kanal presented a version of what Lisa F. had told her parents: she had been abducted by Muslim refugees and gang-raped for an entire night. This was the first of no fewer than forty segments on Pervyi Kanal about an event that, according to a police investigation, had never taken place. In the televised coverage, photographs were pasted from other places and times to add an element of verisimilitude to the story. The Russian propaganda network Sputnik chimed in with the general speculation that refugee rapists were loose in Germany. On January 17, the extreme-Right National Democratic Party organized a demonstration demanding justice for Lisa F. Although only about a dozen people appeared, one of them was an RT cameraman. His footage appeared on YouTube the same day… The information war against Merkel was taken up openly by the Russian state. The Russian embassy in London tweeted that Germany rolled out the red carpet for refugees and then swept their crimes under the carpet.” (TRU, pp.198-200).
The Russian ambitions to extend its empire in the Ukraine, as we discuss on the podcast regarding the Ukraine, led Vladimir Putin to attack Hillary Clinton in her 2016 presidential campaign and helped Donald Trump get elected. I think it’s past time for a robust discussion of how the left came to this historic defeat, not just in terms of being unable to keep a fascist out of the whitehouse, but having helped to put him there. In the next podcast I’ll return to the history of the US left in the 20th century, to tie all the threads together from the very beginning of this podcast to explain this basic problem revealed by the failure of the left on Syria: that the far left has become a tool for Russian fascism.
Ahmad, Muhhamad Idrees, et al., eds. Khiyana: Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution. Unkant Publishers, 2016.
Dagher, Sam. Assad Or We Burn the Country: How One Family's Lust for Power Destroyed Syria. Hachette UK, 2019.
Hennion, Cecile. Le fil de nos vies brisees. Editions Anne Carriere. Paris, 2019.
Hensman, Rohini. Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism. Haymarket Books, 2018.
Majed, Ziad. Syrie, la révolution orpheline. Éditions Actes Sud, 2018.
Music: Waters Will Flow Again, Gabriel Lewis, else Harry
About the Image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America_First_Committee