During the final stages of the fighting in Aleppo, Twitter’s care-more-than-thou caucus was out in full force, blasting people who questioned the claims of the opposition parroted by the MSM. How gross, how crass, to quibble about numbers when people are dying. Like that one famous Trump fan says, How could you be so heartless? What does it matter whether 250,000 or fifty-thousand people were trapped in East Aleppo? What does it matter if government forces actually raped women and slaughtered children? They committed atrocities; that’s what matters. Assad’s forces are committing summary executions –- the UN (sort of) confirmed it –- and you’re going to whine about people using Holocaust analogies? Doctors Without Borders –- I mean Doctors Without Borders! –- is calling it a humanitarian crisis and you have the audacity to ask for evidence for particular claims?
Such rhetoric appeals to the less informed, as sophistry tends to. If someone like Shawn King, who cares deeply about police violence, likens Aleppo to the Shoah, what’s a caring person to do but Retweet?
Propaganda, however, has the power not merely to shade the truth but to obliterate it. It can make black gray but it can also make black white. As Orwell (I know, I know) said: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Since the beginning of the war, imperialist pundits, journalists, activists, and government officials in the United States, Europe, and Gulf States have constructed a narrative not merely inaccurate but directly at odds with the facts. With their propaganda, a reactionary armed opposition became moderate, and an unpopular armed opposition became popular. The Free Syrian Army, which collaborated with ISIS, became its staunchest enemy. Assad, not Team USA, became primarily responsible for ISIS. The Syrian government, which had retained significant support, became an object of hatred for all Syrians. Al Qaeda became acceptable allies for revolutionaries, and even revolutionaries themselves. More recently, the Obama administration, an Assad enemy, became an Assad ally, and the war on Syria waged by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United States became simply nonexistent.
These aren’t exaggerations or overstatements. These are lies that rewrite the ethical equation.
The debate about Syria on the ostensible left is largely about intervention. All those preeners showcasing their exquisite empathy and questioning the humanity of anti-imperialists never had a recommendation for changing the course of the war other than western military action. (And how could they? Outside of going to fight themselves, people have little capacity to assist uprisings in foreign countries other than by lobbying their government to back them. And even if — no, especially if — the group(s) in question show progressive promise, leftists shouldn’t want them to team up with the United States. See: YPG.) It’s no coincidence that many of those prone to calling anti-imperialists “Assadists” support US/NATO wars. Daniel Wickham has supported the war on Libya and a NFZ in Syria. Hassan Hassan has backed US invasion of Iraq and said the US should do the same thing to Syria. Hassan Hassan has also, along with Kyle Orton, backed the US-Saudi war on Yemen. Idrees Ahmad, Robin Hassin Kassab, and Oz Katjeri have backed the US/NATO war on Libya and called for similar action against Syria. And so on. Usually if you scratch a you’re-an-Assadist-leftist, you smell an imperialist.
Still, there’s the important question of emotional solidarity, and some backers of opposition insist they don’t want the US to bomb Syria. I’m willing-ish to take them at the word. Having not given the game away, they pose a (somewhat) stiffer challenge to western anti-imperialists when they accuse us of selling out Syrians or betraying the revolution or some such. Yet no less than those who openly want the United States to bomb Syria, they rely on sentimentality, magical thinking, and propaganda. Their ethical apparatus rests on a fictional framework that pits an enormously popular and essentially progressive revolution against a widely loathed “fascist” regime. Forget disobedient facts, forget imperialism, forget the evolution of the war over the last five years, this is their story and their sticking to it.
The conflict was never so simple. Stephen Gowans uses the contemporaneous MSM reporting to show that the initial protests were relatively small and that Assad remained quite popular. The protests became larger in subsequent weeks, but broad segments of the population, especially religious minorities, didn’t sign on or actively opposed the uprising, and their number only grew as it became more sectarian and more beholden to foreign powers. Gowans is less convincing, however, when he argues that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists drove all the early agitation. The protest movement was contested space, and various players contested for space. They included students, leftist activists, and lower-middle class merchants. They also included, apparently, the Communist Action Party. (In this May 2011 post, a member of the party, Hassan Khaled Chatila, discusses the demonstrations.) They also included the Brotherhood, which had a long history of violence against the government, and Ahrar al-Sham, which was forming brigades “well before March 15, 2011.” It’s not credible to claim that the opposition turned violent; parts of it were — as Sharmine Narwani and Josh Landis, among others, have documented — violent from the outset. “There was a civilian political protest movement that was often confronted with violence and outright killing,” writes Amer Mohsen, in a piece I recommend in its entirety. “At the same time, and in parallel, there were violent armed clashes in varying frequency and intensity, and any narrative that tries to conceal one side of the story at the expense of the other serves ideological biases, but not the objective truth.”
Non-violence isn’t a moral imperative; under certain circumstances, violence against the state is justified. Yet this violence was waged by reactionary groups possibly in conjunction with foreign governments. Western supporters of the opposition have sought to depict Assad as a stooge of empire. To that end, they’ve exaggerated his Terror War collaboration and his turn toward neoliberalism. They ignore the socialist aspects of the Syrian state, which largely accounted for its significant base of popular support and for the country’s improved quality of life. Consider this: “According to the World Health organization, the life expectancy of the average Syrian in 2012 was 75.7 years, a leap from an average of 56 years in 1970.” Western media would have us believe that the there was nothing to the Syrian government but political repression, and that American hostility to it derived from humanitarian concerns. The truth is that, like Qaddafi and Nasser, the Assads had created a national project of consequence largely outside of, and in opposition to, the US empire. And so, as this 2006 Wikileaks cable makes clear, Syria was on the imperial hit list. The same year, Time Magazine (“Syria’s in Bush’s Crosshairs”) reported on the US plan to destabilize Syria: “The U.S. government has had extensive contacts with a range of anti-Assad groups in Washington, Europe and inside Syria.” The US plan featured a front group, the Salvation Front, spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood. In April 2011, the Washington Post reported on the Wikileaks cable showing that US had secretly financed Syrian opposition groups. And there’s of course Israel, which has fought three wars against Syria, sporadically bombs it, and occupies a piece of it.
None of this conclusively proves the US (or its client states) had a major role in the initial protests; to dismiss this possibility, however, is to ignore history. At a minimum, we know that Team USA immediately viewed the uprising as a chance to pursue its longstanding goal of weakening Syria. The clear and present danger of imperialism wasn’t lost on Syria’s communist parties, which are among the off-script indigenous voices erased by western backers of the opposition. “In the case of both Syrian Communist Parties, historically victims of state repression in Syria,” writes Patrick Higgins, “there was a call to oppose imperialist machinations against Syria, to oppose civil war, and for the implementation of economic and political reform.” In May 2011, the Syrian Communist Party (Unified) sent a message to communists around the world that read in part: “Our party has demanded that violence be ended, that the legitimate demands of the masses be addressed, that peaceful demonstrations be dealt with peacefully, and so on. At the same time, we have warned that popular protests might be exploited, to instigate sectarian strife and destroy the national unity of the Syrian people with the goal of spreading chaos, by conspirators financed and encouraged by external forces opposed to the national policy of Syria.”
The reality of the opposition’s increasingly counterrevolutionary’s nature began to creep into MSM coverage in 2012. “Some rebel checkpoints in Syria are currently flying the black flag of al-Qaida,” reported Der Speigel in August 2012. We would later learn, thanks to the DIA report declassified in 2015, that US intelligence had concluded as least as early as 2012 that “The Salafist, The Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.” According to that same document, Turkey and Gulf countries wanted to use these proxies to try to establish a “Salafist principality in eastern Syria.” The Salafist factions rose to the fore not only because of foreign support and superior fighting skills but because of the welcome from other factions, including official US proxies. Syrian Army defector Riad el-Asaad, who founded the FFree Syrian Army — with the backing of Turkey — described Al Qaeda as “our brothers in Islam.” George Sabra of the Syrian National Council said Al Qaeda was “part of the revolution” and claimed the group was “fighting for freedom and democracy.” The Free Syrian Army also collaborated with Islamic State; ‘We are collaborating with the Islamic State and the Nusra Front by attacking the Syrian Army’s gatherings,” FSA commander Bassel Idriss told the Daily Star in 2014. Josh Landis maintains that the embrace of IS by the opposition is the single largest cause of its rise in Syria. These groups eventually turned against ISIS, but Al Qaeda, Ahrar Al-Sham, and other Salafist factions steadily strengthened their already-dominant position in the opposition and remained Turkey’s and Gulf countries’ favored vehicle for waging their war against the Syrian government.
A fighting force dominated by Salafists and supported by foreign powers (and that envisioned warm relations with Israel): what a surprise that it never managed to become popular with Syrians. Yasser Munif of Emerson University frequently blasts the western left for not supporting the Syrian opposition, yet last year he acknowledged to Amy Goodman that a majority of Syrians “despise” the official opposition.
So let’s get me this straight: western leftists, in the name of solidarity with Syrians, are supposed to lend their moral support (and perhaps demand arms shipments) to a movement most Syrians “despise”?
For many years, western supporters of the opposition simply denied its counterrevolutionary bent. If you asked them to name the progressive or moderate groups that held sway in the opposition, they tended to call you an Assadist and name leftist activists. Yet no anti-imperialist has ever denied that there were activists who opposed — and faced persecution from — the Syrian government. At issue, of course, was and is the armed opposition. Zahran Alloush had a militia; Omar Aziz didn’t. Eventually, (most) leftist supporters of the opposition couldn’t deny its ideological makeup. Yet they fashioned several bogus arguments to rationalize their continued support for it.
2. Assad himself “jihadized” the opposition. The key “proof” for this assertion is Assad’s release of jihadists from prison in 2011. One big problem with the assertion is that Assad released them as part of general amnesty demanded by the opposition. “Too little too late,” one opposition spokesperson said in response. Another big problem with the assertion is that the number of jihadists released from Syrian prisons is fraction of the number ushered into Syria by other countries, which is itself only a portion of the material support they’ve provided to Al Qaeda and ISIS. And let’s pretend that Assad were solely responsible for the sorry state of the opposition, that would still be the state of the opposition.
3. A “Third Way” progressive force will prevail. An extension of the activist-for-armed-opposition bait-and-switch I discuss above, the notion that an anti-Assad, anti-official-opposition force might emerge and take power is utterly fantastical. To be ideologically opposed to both the government and opposition is, of course, valid — surely, this describes a number of Syrians aligned with both camps — but to hope that a movement representing that point of view will take power is magical thinking.
4. Syria is actually Palestine. The people who employ this analogy tend to object to the notion that Syria in any way resembles Iraq or any other country targeted by western imperialism. The western left should support the reactionary Syrian opposition just as it supports Hamas, they argue. Their goal, beyond scoring quick debating points, is to try to transfer the moral credibility of the Palestinian liberation movement onto the Syrian opposition. Erasing imperialism, geopolitics, history, and common sense, the analogy usually gets the rhetorical job done on Twitter but disintegrates if you venture beyond 140 characters. Here’s the analogy corrected: Hamas teams up with Al Qaeda and with the support of the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar tries to overthrow the Syrian government.
5. A lack of US support for “moderate” groups allowed Salafists to rise. If only the United States had given more and better arms — especially MANPADS — to the Free Syrian Army, then Al Qaeda and its ilk wouldn’t have come to dominate. This is an especially strange claim when it comes from people who purportedly oppose American imperialism. It perpetuates the myth that the armed opposition included ideologically admirable factions and ignores the collaboration between U.S. proxies and Al Qaeda (collaboration that the United States encouraged). It also ignores the well-known frequency with which Al Qaeda and other Salafist factions acquired the arms that the U.S. had sent to its “vetted” groups. The US was well aware that it was strengthening Al Qaeda by sending arms into Syria.
But then for backers of the opposition who fancy themselves anti-imperialists, it is crucial to try to uphold the absurdist fiction that the United States has supported the Syrian government. To that end, they point out that the US hasn’t (often) bombed the Syrian government, but by that standard the United States supports the North Korean government. And they point out that the United States bombs “Assad’s enemies,” but by that standard the United States supports the Houthis in Yemen. Indeed, it takes a certain, shall we say, insouciance regarding the truth to try to depict the United States as a friend of Assad even as opposition forces are using American TOW missiles to kill Syrians in government-controlled areas.
The US has, of course, waged war on Syria. In addition to directly supporting the opposition, it’s encouraged the massive effort by Turkey and Gulf States to funnel fighters, money, and arms to opposition groups. (Early on in the war, for example, the CIA arranged for Saudi intelligence officers to buy AK-47s and ammo for Syrian opposition groups.) This effort tends to go unmentioned or under-mentioned by western backers of the opposition even though, or because, its beneficiaries were usually the most sectarian and reactionary factions, including IS. We will never know the extent of this effort because much of it was covert; consider this statement by Hillary Clinton in a hacked email: “[T]he governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia..are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL an other radical Sunni groups in the region.” To my mind, the most overlooked aspect of the war on Syria is the invasion by foreign fighters. Other countries, especially Turkey, facilitated this invasion, knowing that it would empower IS and Al Qaeda and its allies, such as Jund Al-Aqsa, Jund al-Sham, and the Islamic Turkestan Party. A year ago, the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that 44,254 foreign fighters had been killed. Let’s say half that number remain or have spent time in Syria; that’s a total of around 70,000, which would be like a million fighters invading the United States.
Western backers of the opposition tend to ignore this invasion or support it or fantasize that western support of the Free Syrian Army worked in opposition to (rather than in conjunction with) it. Yes, there are differences amomg the opposition factions and yes, they’ve sometimes clashed, but there’s one war on Syria. You either support it or you oppose it. And the armed opposition is the primary manifestation of this war, of imperialism. To support the effort of the Saudi-Turkish-Amnerican-Qatari-backed opposition to overthrow the Syrian government is to support imperialism. That is, you can’t support the armed opposition and oppose imperialism. They are one and the same. If you’re any kind of anti-imperialist, you have to oppose the opposition. You can and should support a negotiated settlement that broadens political freedoms and helps heal the country, but you have to oppose the opposition. You can and should mourn the lives of Syrian civilians killed by the Syrian Arab Army and Russian bombs, but you have to oppose the opposition. Once you break through the propaganda and resist sentimentality, it’s a straightforward question for anti-imperialists, and the answer doesn’t change because Syria received backing from other countries or because the United States didn’t drop hellfire missiles on Damascus.
Which brings me back to Aleppo. Gary Johnson was rightly ridiculed for not knowing what Aleppo is, but it’s clear from the success of the propaganda push during the culmination of the fighting in Aleppo that a number of western liberals and leftists have likewise paid no attention to what’s happened there. Thus the propagandists were able to sell the myth that the groups that controlled East Aleppo were liberators and that this was a Holocaust-level genocide. Virtually erased from the dominant narrative were the large majority of Aleppo’s residents, mostly Sunnis, who live in the western part of the city. In many ways the fighting in Aleppo is a microcosm of the war. Aleppians largely rejected the “rebels” from the start — “rebels” themselves estimated that 70% percent of the city’s population opposed them when they flooded into the city in 2012 — and support for the opposition decreased as it grew ever more sectarian, brutal, and beholden to foreign powers. For years, Aleppians on Twitter, such as @edwardedark and @BBassem7, have reported on the crimes of the opposition that held the eastern part of the city. The horribleness of the opposition doesn’t relieve the Syrian and Russian governments of the responsibility for the suffering they inflicted on civilians in East Aleppo. One can both oppose some of their tactics and support their effort to prevent imperialist destruction of the Syrian state. Remember — here’s more anti-imperialism 101 — our support for a state under imperial attack doesn’t depend on how it chooses to defend itself.
As the Syrian army neared victory in Aleppo, the opposition’s propaganda became outlandish, with claims of mass suicide and child rape dutifully passed along by western pundits. Then government forces prevailed, and the propaganda bubble burst. Reports from independent journalists and activists put the lie to most of the claims of the opposition, and even the MSM couldn’t ignore the relief and jubilation of most residents of Aleppo. The more scrupulous journalists confirmed that the alleged massacres never happened. “As the rebel pocket finally collapsed on Monday and Tuesday, opposition media filled up with references to Srebrenica 1995 and Rwanda 1994, even to the Holocaust,” wrote Aron Lund. “These claims were not backed up by reporting and even overtly pro-rebel media channels had, at the time of writing, produced no evidence of anything remotely similar to these atrocities.” To be sure, many civilians in East Aleppo suffered greatly, but this was no genocide*; this was a brutal battle in a brutal war fueled in large measure by counterrevolutionary foreign governments.
Indeed, the last six months in Aleppo tell an important story about the very nature of the war in Syria. In August, the opposition managed to break the siege of East Aleppo. It was a surge of support from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar that enabled this short-lived success. And later, the removal of that support contributed heavily to the victory of government forces. It’s become increasingly clear, clear even to some mainstream journos, that the opposition forces are, as Aris Roussinos says, “naked puppets of outside powers.” More broadly, the key event in Syria’s recent turn toward relative peace is Turkey’s decision to try to deescalate, rather than escalate, the war. I want to make sure not to overstate the progress; the war’s not over. The country faces gigantic difficulties, including the efforts of other countries — not only Turkey and the United States but also, perhaps, Russia — to violate the self-determination and sovereignty of Syrians. Still, the peace deal worked out by Turkey, Iran, and Turkey may have ushered in the beginning of a long end. Less violence may beget less violence. Now imagine if Turkey had decided to try to push for peace in, say, early 2013, when fewer than 100,000 Syrians had died. Or better yet, imagine if Turkey and other countries had never tried to overthrow the Syrian government. Recent events in Syria should, but won’t, upend the conventional, western-sponsored analysis of the war and its causes.
*I don’t usually preface my political statements with “as a” (in part because I’m a straight white male), and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with Holocaust comparisons, but as a son of a Holocaust survivor, I’m offended by the claim that what happened in Aleppo resembled the Nazi genocide.