By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
There’s a war on twitter. “I have been relentless [sic] harassed by OzKaterji & his pro-NFZ [no fly zone] trollmates over the past days,” wrote Max Blumenthal on August 29th. The latest round of this conflict began on August 17 when Sophie McNeill put up a screenshot of Omran Daqneesh, a Syrian boy injured in a airstrike on his house in Aleppo. In a response by Ali Abunimah, a well known pro-Palestinian writer and co-founder of ‘The Electronic Intifada’ he replied; “who is saying we don’t know? What exactly are you proposing? An Australian invasion of Syria?” McNeill, a journalist for ABC News Australia, replied “funny how you folk like and share my coverage of human rights in Gaza, West Bank and Yemen but suddenly don’t like it re: Syria.” Anas (@Anashwt) wondered if a photo of Palestinian child harmed by Israel would elicit a similar response about “invading Israel” as the only alternative.
The callous and dismissive reply by Abunimah was noticed by many who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and who have spent lifetimes being active against Israeli human rights violations, as evidence of a pro-Syrian regime undertone among people they counted as allies. This wasn’t entirely a surprise, the Syrian conflict has divided many voices, most of whom self-identify as being on the left. They thought they were on the same side because before the Syrian revolution in 2011, the central issue in the Middle East had often been Israel. Regimes such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia were seen through the same light as Israel, as reactionary American allies, not part of the “global left”.
Now there is a full-fledged and visceral debate online among writers, journalists and activists. On one side those such as Katerji have castigated a coterie of writers with similar views as Abunimah, such as Max Bumenthal, Rania Khalek and Benjamin Norton. In the “tweet storm” that followed many expressed shock at the degree to which their supposed ideological friends were wrong about the Assad regime, apologizing for its atrocities. Razan Idris asked “what readings would you recommend to give Americans who think this? Older leftists seem totally convinced against any actions.”
The key issues involved could be seen in the comments on twitter. “Leave Abunimah alone, he has to eat, even if it means he does so while putting his feet up on the heads of Syrian Sunnis,” wrote Elassar Imran. Sangar Paykhar noted that “he is becoming a hypocrite like Zionists who complain about the Holocaust but support ethnic cleansing of Arabs.” Others noted that they had been called “sectarian” for opposing Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria. Adham Sahloul of the Syrian American medical society said “even more sad is how said thought leaders helped isolate Syrian Americans doing advocacy in Washington, constant slandering.” Lina Serene wrote “it shows the moral bankruptcy of the so-called anti-imperialists.” Razan Saffour agreed, saying the debate shows the “despicable views and hypocrisy of the Arab left.” Rasha al-Aqeedi, a tweeter born in Mosul, said it revealed how Palestinians standing in the “anti-imperialist” camp were losing support.
Of course there was pushback. “Your us-backed terrorist filth are US puppets,” wrote @republic_syria. Enter Glenn Greenwald who critiqued one of those standing against the Syrian regime. “Glenn doesn’t care about dead foreigners he can’t weaponize for US-centric debate points. So yes,” wrote Charles Davis in response.
Max Blumenthal and Rania Khalek accused Katerji of “threats” against them. “This was 1 of over 100 messages ‘either change your rhetoric or we will continue to campaign against you,” wrote Khalek. Blumenthal engaged in a long debate with Murtaza Hussain in which Blumenthal asked “what ideas can you offer that can help us American citizens change the situation on the ground in a concrete way?” Hussain noted that he couldn’t help but “notice fact people are very defensive of Assad regime allies and silent about Russian intervention.” Hussain was accused of supporting “armed struggle for regime change” and “presumably that includes the rebranded Al-Qaeda faction.” To emphasize that “Al-Qaeda” is supposedly the only real option to Assad, Blumenthal claimed “this group is the strongest component of armed rebellion against Assad.” Hussain wondered if Blumenthal would have the same view of Palestinians; “we should let Israel steamroll Gaza because Hamas is a bad actor?”
To discredit those who oppose Assad, Abunimah and Blumenthal accused them of being paid to troll and harass. The vociferous debate, involving name-calling, accusations of people being paid to critique and claims that others support either terrorism or genocide, will likely continue.
The Palestinian roots of interpreting the Syrian revolution
The battles on social media about Syria have divided friends and colleagues. Both Hussain and Greenwald are colleagues at The Intercept, for instance. But it is much deeper than that. Large numbers of politicians, journalists and activists on the left have been implicated in the pro-Assad camp and as such their former friends, fellow-travelers and admirers have had a road to Damascus moment in becoming aware not only of betrayal but disgust to see how people ostensibly supporting “human rights” can turn on the human rights of millions in Syria.
The debate has pitted a group of people whose worldview is primarily Israelocentric and US-centric, against those with either a more global view, or one that is more in tune with actual Syrians. It has pitted Arab writers and intellectuals and activists in the West and the Middle East, against western writers and politicians, and it has pitted parts of the Jewish anti-Zionist left against Arabs on the left and center. It involves self-declared Marxists and socialists, as well as apologists for Assad’s crimes and apologists for Islamist crimes.
This has created a strange set of circumstances where white westerners and Jewish anti-Zionists have been “explaining” to Arab activists about Assad and terrorism, telling them what Al-Qaeda is and why “anti-imperialism” is important, to the very people who often come from the countries that suffered imperialism. In a sense a second intellectual colonization has taken place with the Syrian conflict, where boundaries have been set up, assuming that only westerners know what is best for the Middle East, while many of those with Arab names are either “sectarian” for being too proximate to the conflict, biased due to their origin, or simply disregarded in condescending ways. It goes to the heart of the way Western activism for the “poor”, “global south” or “others” tends to ignore indigenous voices and only recruit and respect other western “experts” who know “what is best” for the “natives.”
There has also been an internal wrestling with where one should stand on Syria, which resonated with Palestinians especially regarding Palestinians in Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria. Samah Salaime, a social worker and director of the Arab Women in the Center in Lod, wrote at 972 of the anger, “about the entire world that is simply ignoring what’s happening, about the Arab world that managed to organize a special military force in Yemen overnight, about the silence of the Palestinian Authority, and about the impotence of the international community.” She notes, “When the war in Syria began three years ago, we, the Palestinians here in Israel, were angry at them, with utmost self-righteousness, that they didn’t join the revolution against Assad. Later we understood their immense fear of getting mixed up in it.”
Mehdi Hasan wrote at The Guardian of the selective outrage regarding treatment of Palestinians by Israel and in Syria. “Those who try to use the tragedy of Yarmouk to excuse or downplay Israel’s 48-year occupation of Palestine should be ashamed of themselves. But what of the rest of us? Can we afford to stay in our deep slumber, occasionally awakening to lavishly condemn only Israel? Let’s be honest: how different, how vocal and passionate, would our reaction be if the people besieging Yarmouk were wearing the uniforms of the IDF?” He claimed that a blind eye was being turned on the tragedy because “fellow Arabs” were doing the killing.
Budour Hassan has written a blog post about the bifurcation between pro-Palestine activists and Syria. In one she notes, “The Palestinian cause, I argued, was the litmus test for anyone’s commitment to freedom and justice. Palestine was the one and only compass that must guide any Arab revolution. Whether a regime is good or bad should be judged, first and foremost, based on its stance from the Palestinian cause.” When the protests against Assad began in 2011 the author recalled thinking, “‘Assad is a tyrant and his regime is rotten,’ I thought to myself, ‘but the subsequent results of its fall might be catastrophic for Palestine and the resistance.’ That sacred axis of resistance meant to me back then much more than the Syrian lives being cut short by its defenders.” She said she owed an “apology” to Syrians, “I should have never been so naively deceived by the propaganda of the resistance axis. I owe an apology to a people who, for decades, were trodden upon, silenced, and humiliated in the name of my own cause.” Hezbollah, which many pro-Palestinian activists used to support, part of the resistance to Zionism and Israel’s war in Lebanon, Nasrallah whose photos once appeared throughout the West Bank, praised by Judith Butler as the “global left” alongside Hamas, was now “saturated with Syrian corpses” due to its support of Assad.
Hassan’s posts got to the heart of the problem, “even though if we suppose that the Syrian regime does in fact support the Palestinian resistance, does it mean that this allows the Syrian regime to control Syria, to prevent people from expressing their opinions, to kill and torture hundreds of thousands of Syrians,” she wrote in 2013.
Rukaya Sabbah, a Palestinian media professional, sketched out some of the issues in an article exploring how Arab political parties were divided on the Assad issue inside Israel. She argued that turning Syria into another Iraqi “democracy” and flooding it with weapons from “anti-democratic” regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar would destroy the “only secular Arab regime.” For Communist Palestinian activists, she noted “the price of turning Syria into a democracy is too high, and dividing Syria is out of the question. Supporting Assad means supporting Arab nationalism and socialism against a pro-American Islamic regime.” For Balad, the Arab nationalist party actually migrated from being more sympathetic to Hezbollah to being closer to Qatar on Syria.
These are the signposts and talking points of the differing views on Assad. Is he a representative of a secular regime opposing the US and the West, an axis of resistance against Israel and against imperialism? Is he a brutal dictator crushing the will of the Syrian people? Is he fighting “terrorism” or is he the terrorist. Is he sectarian or opposing sectarianism?
The problem is that Assad is rooted in history, particularly his father Hafez Assad’s regime and its supposed “resistance” to Israel, Zionism and support for Palestinians. Because of this “resistance” and being connected to the Soviets as a client state, Syria was seen on the side of “good” during the Cold War and after, for the left that was critical of the West’s allies such as Israel. Forget for a moment that Suleiman Assad, grandfather to Bashar, told the French colonial authorities that he opposed Sunni Islamic dominance in Syria (“The spirit of hatred and intolerance plants its roots in the heart of Muslim Arabs toward everything that is non-Muslim” he wrote in 1936, working with the imperialists) and he even grudgingly admired Zionism. Hafez Assad informed the Americans on April 24 of 1975 that there “is no prospect of Israel changing its character as a Jewish state” or being defeated and that he thought Palestinians should “established a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.” This was the Assad regime “resistance.”
Much of the Arab and Muslim world recognizes what is happening in Syria as a sectarian conflict. For most it is clearly a brutal crackdown on the majority Sunni Arab population by a family-run dictatorship supported by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia.
But in the West the Syrian conflict divides politicians, writers and activists particularly on the left (the right mostly doesn’t care about the outcome of the Syrian conflict or hopes it will drag on so that “they can all kill eachother.” Some see it through the lens of being anti-Iran and thus anti-Assad, or being anti-Arab in general and anti-Muslim in particularly and thus support Assad. Those who are pro-Israel don’t think either side would be a welcome winner, but tend to think Assad guarantees more stability than Sunni groups, part of a larger anti-Sunni narrative). They also fear Iran’s influence and tend to think Israel should be closer to Saudi Arabia, thus putting them nominally on the side of the Syrian rebels, means for pro-Israel views there is a janus-face on the Syrian issue. It is worth an aside to note that pragmatic western policymakers who were initially for the Syrian revolution, the emergence of Islamic State in 2014 shifted their views against the revolution. Politicians such as Boris Johnson have congratulated Assad’s “saving” of Palmyra.
Mapping the pro-Assad coterie
There are three or four clearly defined pro-Assad camps, which overlap on one another: The Americanocentrics, the Palestinocentrics, the pro-Iran lobby, and the “resistance/anti-imperialism” group.
The Palestinocentric camp has been discussed above, consisting of some pro-Palestinian journalists and activists and Jewish anti-Zionist activists who have been convinced that opposition to the Syrian regime is somehow connected to US interests and therefore connected to Israel and that support for Syria’s Assad constitutes support for a traditional ally of the Palestinians. Some of these activists connect with those who support Russia’s role in Syria or Iran and Hezbollah, the latter of which is part of the “global left” according to Judith Butler, and they believe that since Russia is against Western and US interests, therefore Assad is good, and therefore those who oppose him are bad.
Those who tend towards supporting Iran’s role in the Middle East see the Sunni Arabs as an enemy and therefore need to tar the Syrian rebellion as not only “sectarian” but also as being dominated by Al-Qaeda and ISIS. In this narrative they embrace the Iranian regime’s view that the war in Syria is a “war on terror.” In this view the US supports Al-Qaeda, and is involved in a “proxy war” against Iran. In a strange twist of history, voices who would have once condemned America’s war on terror as wrong, see the Iran-Assad “war on terror” as justified, and the tarring of all Sunni Arabs as “terrorists” as acceptable.
One camp is made up of people who are primarily Americanocentric (US-centric), and who view everything through US policy, which they are critical of. US Green party candidate Jill Stein is emblematic of this. When Manbij was liberated from ISIS she tweeted on August 12 “to Syrians who escaped Manbij because of US-led forces, I’m sorry our weapons terrorized you for two years.” The Syrians had escaped Manbij because of Kurdish-led forces who had support from the US coalition, but for Stein that means “US-led”. For her Syrians suffer only from “our weapons”, not AK-47s, not from Russian bombing, not from ISIS beheadings. It’s about America. Syria is only seen through an American lens. So opposition to US “intervention” or “regime change” or bombing or nofly zones really have nothing to do with Syrians or the justness of protecting them, it is about opposing US policies which in this worldview are seen as historically always wrong.
The Stein worldview can be seen in her post from Moscow, saying we must “reign in US exceptionalism and revise and reform US foreign policy” She said we “don’t need war in Syria.” She claimed she’d seen the vision of “human rights really resonate here,” in Moscow. In this view, America is the problem and its policy, Russian intervention and Assad’s war is not the problem.
Her running mate, Ajamu Baraka, a “human rights activist”, has similar views on Syria and the US and blowback. He was quoted as saying after terror attacks in Paris; “while the victims of the violence in Paris may have been innocent, France was not. French crimes against Arabs, Muslims and Africans are ever-present in the historical memory and discourse of many members of those populations living in France. Those memories, the systemic discrimination experienced by many Muslims and the collaboration of French authorities with the U.S. and others that gave aid and logistical support to extremist elements in Syria and turned their backs while their citizens traveled to Syria to topple President Assad, became the toxic mix that resulted in the blowback on November 13.” Describing regime-run elections, he wrote “After three years of a war financed, armed and manned by the U.S. and its allies, the Syrian people cast ballots wherever it was possible,” in 2014. “After three years of unimaginable atrocities fomented by a demented and dying U.S. empire, with the assistance of the royalist monarchies of the Middle East and the gangster states of NATO, the Syrian people demonstrated, by their participation, that they had not surrendered their national sovereignty to the geo-strategic interests of the U.S. and its colonial allies in Europe and Israel.” For him those who oppose Assad are “slimy Syrian expats” and those in league with “regime change” and “destruction and dismembering of the Syrian state and society.”
Stephen Kinzer also represents this worldview. A former author of books on US interventions and a critic who blames US policy in Libya and other places for “blowback,” he wrote in February that the US media and Washington were misleading us. “This does not fit with Washington’s narrative. As a result, much of the American press is reporting the opposite of what is actually happening. Many news reports suggest that Aleppo has been a “liberated zone” for three years but is now being pulled back into misery…Americans are being told that the virtuous course in Syria is to fight the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian partners. We are supposed to hope that a righteous coalition of Americans, Turks, Saudis, Kurds, and the ‘moderate opposition’ will win.” He describes Assad forces retaking part of Aleppo as “This month, people in Aleppo have finally seen glimmers of hope. The Syrian army and its allies have been pushing militants out of the city.” A glimmer of hope as 11 million Syrians have been made refugees, and 500,000 killed, many by the regime? Kinzer claims “The United States has the power to decree the death of nations. It can do so with popular support because many Americans — and many journalists — are content with the official story. In Syria, it is: ‘Fight Assad, Russia, and Iran!'” In essence his view is that America can make all the difference and America’s role has been wrong.
Noam Chomsky also views the world through an American lens. On Syria he admitted recently that Assad was “brutal” but noted, “the al-Qaeda affiliate, technically broke from it [Nusra], but actually the al-Qaeda affiliate, which is now planning its own—some sort of emirate, getting arms from our allies, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Our own—the CIA is arming them. We don’t know at what level; it’s clandestine. As much as possible, cut back the flow of arms, the level of violence, try to save people from destruction.” Chomsky, who has also written about “blowback” and 9/11 and opposed the war on terror under George Bush and the invasion of Afghanistan, suddenly seems to have discovered Al-Qaeda as an enemy and “Jihadists” as an enemy, claiming “efforts should be made to cut off the flow of jihadis from the places where they’re coming from.” Instead of blaming Assad or Iran for sectarianism in the Middle East, he claims “The U.S. invasion of Iraq was a major reason in the development, a primary reason in the incitement of sectarian conflicts.” He opposes US “carpet bombing” and uses the Libya example, “Take the bombing of Libya, which Hillary Clinton was strongly in favor of, one of the leaders of, smashed up Libya, destroyed a functioning society.” A “functioning society,” under a dictator.
In an incisive rebuttal to Chomsky, Sam Hamad wrote about how he has consistently misled about the Syrian conflict. “In the past, Chomsky’s political stasis seemed virtuous to me. In light of his position on the Syrian revolution, however, it has become dismally clear that a one-dimensional, moralistic politics is (and always has been) an expression of conservatism running through the left.” He noted that Chomsky does not speak out about Russian intervention and bombing in Syria, “Chomsky was asked whether Russia’s deployment to Syria was imperialistic. In response, Chomsky repeated the capricious claim that the entire Syrian opposition is either part of the Islamic State (ISIS) or some variant of al-Qaeda.” But even Chomsky’s mild critiques of the Syrian regime have got him in hot water with voices such as Jay Tharappel, who had a long and tedious correspondence with Chomsky (‘conversation with Noam Chomsky on Syria, January 2015’, trying to get Chomsky to admit that the regime had made reforms and suffered casualties.
The British connection
There are many voices writing in the UK about the need to support Assad. These include the Communist Party of Great Britain which declared “This congress salutes the people and leaders of Syria in their continuing resistance to the murderous Islamist rebellion fomented by the West.” Simon Jenkins, who had opposed Bush’s war on terror, wrote at The Guardian “as everyone knows, the only way to stop the slaughter in Syria is for the US and its allies to work with President [Bashar] Assad – and stop worrying about what looks good.” In his worldview “Reality in this part of the world is that order and power seem invariably to trump ‘western-style’ democracy. The west’s support for Assad’s enemies, like its toppling of Saddam and Gaddafi, aided the cause not of democracy but of chaos.” His view is closely connected to his opposition to the war in Iraq and the view that “bombing never wins war.” In order to make the case for not intervening in Syria he mischaracterizes the issue by making it about bombing, rather than supporting legitimate right of Syrians not to live under a dictator. The opposition to bombing is wrapped inside a “pragmatic” explanation. Of course if the UK was run by an Assad-like dictator, one can imagine the same voices would not say it should be worked with, merely because chaos might breakout otherwise.
The emergence of ISIS has led those experts who already were sympathetic to Assad to claim that the war in Syria is a choice between Assad and ISIS, and therefore the West must support Assad. Patrick Cockburn, said in an interview, “There has to be some relationship between those who are attacking IS and the real forces on the ground…You have to think about a relationship with the Syrian army backed by the Russians as a piece on the board. The largest military force in Syria is the regular Syrian army with Russian air support.” He claimed, that “to give the impression that there is an ultimate moderate power centre in Syria, which means we don’t have to choose IS, we don’t have to choose Assad, we can look to these [rebel groups] as our partner. I think that’s demonstrably untrue.” In Iraq he supports the same Shia alliance that is tied to Assad, “You have to take on board that the Shia militias in Iraq are more numerous and better motivated and more likely to fight than the Iraqi army.”
George Galloway, the British politician, was a frequent commenter on Assad who also met the dictator. He also wrote him a letter in 2010 calling Syria “the last castle of Arab dignity”, asking for assistance with a convoy of goods for Gaza, and noting, “In any case please convey my respect and my admiration to His Excellency the President.” He had praised Assad in 2005, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Galloway said: “The Arab world is ruled by dictatorships, almost without exception. Most of them are dictators who are slaves of ours…The Syrian regime is independent of us and that is why our government, and more particularly the US government, wants to destroy it.” Assad was a “breath of fresh air.”
Galloway explained his rational in a 2011 Facebook post. “The risk of open imperialist intervention in this situation increases almost by the hour. The enemies of the Palestinians and all the Arabs are rattling their sabres. The Syrian people, always the heart of Arab nationalism cry out in their slogans even as they are shot down against any such foreign interventions.” He worried of invasion, “amidst the ruins of that, the rats of reaction, sectarian hatred and treason will certainly run free.” His view was that “It was possible to judge Syria by the nature of its enemies – Israel, US, British and French imperialism, the Arab reactionaries, the Salafist sectarian fanatics.” Syria, in this sense Assad, deserved support because “Syria has refused to sign a surrender peace with Israel, refused to abandon its territory on the Golan to the illegal occupiers. Syria has refused to abandon the Palestinian resistance, continuing to give safe haven for the leaders, and fighters, of virtually the whole gamut of resistance organisations. Syria has insisted on supporting the Lebanese resistance.” The latter “resistance” was Hezbollah.
The vigorous debate in the UK about Syria has sought to show that Jeremy Corbyn and other supporters of the Stop the War Coalition, has for years ignored Assad’s brutality. While they accept Russian bombing and intervention, as Jenkins noted “the only intervention likely to work in Syria just now is from Moscow,” they oppose ay British meddling in Syria. Syrian victims of Assad have not been allowed to speak at meetings, silenced by men of white privilege who assign themselves to be experts on Syria.
As elsewhere the debate is about imperialism and Israel. One article notes that at a meeting of the New Communist Party, Kamal Majid described the Assad family as rulers “with a long history of resisting imperialism…because their defeat will pave the way for a pro-Western and pro-US regime…[the] imperialist plan to replace the Syrian government with a puppet state, à la Libya, which will do the bidding of the Americans and Zionists”. For other far-left groups, the overthrow of Assad is seen as a “set back” for the Middle East. There is a real fetish for Assad.
‘Chto delat’?’ and ‘Common sense’
Idrees Ahmed wrote in March that “Aleppo is our Guernica and some are cheering on the Luftwaffe.” He’s right, there is a strange strain that runs through media, politicians and activists that has been supporting Assad and his allies. They have purposely ignored the mass of human suffering in Syria, often tarring anti-Assad groups as terrorists, supporting non-intervention and encouraging the weak, who are being bombed, to negotiate with the dictator by themselves. They have been apologists for the regime.
The real origin and message of the debate about Syria is that it is not about Syria. Most of those who openly support Assad do not live in Damascus and they don’t want to live in Syria under Assad, nor do they want an Assad-like regime to rule over them. They are almost all western, privileged, and often elites, who are critical of their own countries. They are mostly eurocentric or Americanocentric. For them the historic role of the US or UK in the world is the source of most of the world’s problems, and whatever the policy of the current administration is, must be opposed.
This stance is taken from a long history of association with left wing doctrinaire groups that oppose “imperialism” and naturally see everything that is not “us”, particularly anything non-western, as inherently good, authentic, resistance. This might have made sense in the 1950s when there were global empires and almost all groups opposing them were from the “global south” and those who supported them were a small minority in the West who had seen the light of the need to be opposed imperialism.
This doctrine expanded during the Cold War where the Soviets posed as “anti-imperialist” even as the Soviets themselves ran an empire and colonized foreign states, extracted resources, and created proxies. However in the narrative of the hyper-critical, the Soviet role in Afghanistan was “with the people”, while the US support for Afghan rebels was “imperialism.” The support for the Soviet Union, like the support for Assad, caused a break in the left between those who were critical of Stalinism and those who apologized for it. Later it caused a break between those who correctly saw the Soviet leaders like Brezhnev were not part of a “workers revolution” and Eastern European dictators such as Erich Honecker had more in common with fascists and Nazis than with “the revolution.” But some never strayed too far from the party line. Either way, their embrace of the Soviets was primarily about their own society and its failings, not about love for flacid, blubbery, white dictators in Eastern Europe. In a sense it was a debate about left wing values, what they mean for the West and whether they are universal. Are voting rights important only in the US and UK or also important in other places?
The centrality of Israel to this issue emerged in the 1970s, as Israel began to be seen as part of the US “empire”, a client state, a “settler colonial” entity. Opposing its policies, or its existence sometimes, was part of being part of the “global left”. That dovetailed with Moscow’s policy at the time, which was thinly-veiled anti-semitism in some circles. In those days Palestinian activists were in tune with the secular, Marxist, dialogues happening in the West as well.
The idea that Assad was the “last Arab” was in line with a view that saw all the other regimes as “collaborators” with Israel and the West. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, were tainted by being connected to the West. It wasn’t about the issue of Islam and monarchy, despite lipservice to this affect. The Islamic revolution in Iran was romantic for many, that was the Islamic revolution of good, not like in Saudi.
If Assad had “collaborated” with the West by signing a peace deal with Israel, as the regime came close to doing in the 1990s and 2000s, and as Yasser Arafat did in 1993, then he would have been abandoned by his Western friends. Assad and his family have always been pro-Western, despite their rhetoric, and have done little for the Palestinian cause, but their supporters have ignored that in their adoration for the regime. In that sense it was not about Assad, it was about larger issues. Supporters of Assad like Assad because they use him as a critique of their own country, regardless of who he is. Assad could be good one day and bad the next if he had done what Anwar Sadat had done and worked with the West. As CIA and Wikileaks reports note, Assad did have relations with the West, he told them he wasn’t fighting Israel, that Israel was here to stay, and he urged the West to confront Iran.
At the same time as ideology and self-centered views played a role in crafting the pro-Assad narrative, a major factor has been how media outsources its “expertise” on the Arab and Muslim world to a few choice western “experts” such as Robert Fisk, who have long experience in the region. Despite the romantic attachment to the “other” and “authentic” narratives of resistance, the reality of many parts of the Western readers, including most of the left, is that they only trust “one of us” to “explain” the Muslim world. A Syrian voice is worth less than a white man who has gone to Oxford or Harvard. A western “expert” is seen as less judgmental and less “sectarian” than a local person. In a correspondence, when Chomsky was asked to explain the region he said “learn from the correspondents who do the best work in the area: Patrick Cockburn, Charles Glass, Jonathan Steele.”
The discrimination against Arab voices or local voices and the need to rely on western experts extends into a stereotype that anyone with an Arab or Muslim name in the West can also not be trusted on the Middle East because they are “biased.” This is a soft old-boys club mentality and it is one that runs directly through the left, as much as it does the right. That is why western leftists of the pro-Assad variety who are close to Assad have such influence, and why the vast majority of Syrians who oppose Assad are silenced. It is why they are not on news programs or even allowed to speak at events. There is a colonization of the Palestinian struggle and “the Arabs” that takes place here. When middle-aged white men talk about Assad as “the last Arab,” they betray their own racist and Orientalist fantasies.
The Syrian war has caused a crises in some circles, pitting regime supporters and apologists against former friends and colleagues. This happened in the 1930s as well when the Communist party began to persecute its own and those in the West such as George Orwell began to have a jaundiced and nuanced view of what was happening in the USSR. In some ways the Syrian war has burst a bubble in relation to the pro-Palestinian movement, separating those who primarily only care about Israel and Palestine, some of whom don’t even really support Palestine but merely dislike Israel, from those who support more global norms of human rights. It has separated those such as Judith Butler and their claims that Hezbollah is part of the “global left”, from a more authentic left that doesn’t see theocratic militias with their militarism and chauvinism as “left.”
The debates are still grounded in the old slanders of “imperialist” and “fascist” but the issue is confused by the question of who is really an imperialist and a fascist. Is Assad a kind of Nazi or the Jihadists? Is Russia the imperialist or America?
Some on the right relish in watching their ideological opponents fight eachother, just as they relish watching Shia militias hack to death Sunni groups. But their relish is misplaced because the war in Syria is not a positive thing. Their relish is misplaced because it’s not altogether clear that the extreme pro-Assad “left” is actually part of the left, and it may be that it is actually part of the right. When Iran champions the “war on terror” and the right champions the “war on terror” and both celebrate bombing, they are both on the right. But there is another part of the historical right in the West that is more liberal and libertarian and whose natural affinity is for global human rights, like those who oppose Assad.
In the question of ‘what is to be done’, that Lenin and Thomas Paine both asked, there is a universal value of human rights and the right to life, the right not to be barrel bombed. When the cynics and pragmatists say “work with Assad” and “we don’t want chaos,” one might ask what they would have said of the American Revolution or the French Revolution. Yes, there can be chaos, but it can also be good for human rights. On that, the pro-Assad voices have sold out humanity.