Retrospective, January 2019. I rarely re-read old posts and was apprehensive about doing so here. I know more about Syria’s ordeal than I did in May 2016. What howlers would I find in words close to three years old? What reckless hostages to fortune? Well now. Call me self satisfied but, give or take the odd detail, I’m surprised at how well this stands up.
I know men and women of intelligence, courage, independence and good intent who are sure that Bashar al-Assad – the mild mannered bloke who looks like a French gendarme and, given his druthers, would be the eye surgeon he wanted and trained to be had history not harboured other plans for him – is a monster. Some say he’s every bit as bad as the head choppers bent on turning a diverse and once prosperous nation into a one dimensional horror show; the fanatics’ idea of Allah’s Will on Earth.
Me, I’m inclined to cut the guy some slack, and on these three grounds:
ONE, info on Assad Jnr’s alleged tyranny and universal unpopularity, and on the Daara incidents widely touted in corporate and social media as having sparked a Syrian “revolution”, is of murky origin. Sources include western politicians and intelligence chiefs whose track record on the region would in any sane and halfway alert world see them in the dock at The Hague. They also include Al-Jazeera – owned by an Emir of Qatar whose hostility to Damascus renders nigh on worthless the Syria coverage of this otherwise useful source – as well as a Human Rights Watch widely criticised for bias in Syria, and the so-called Syria Civil Defense. This last, better known as White Helmets, was launched by a British military contractor, is heavily funded by the US-led coalition and – though promoted for Nobel Peace Prize by the Guardian – widely condemned for working with the terrorists against Assad. Then there’s the grandly titled Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, often cited in Guardian and Independent reports on Assad ‘atrocities’. Let me tell you about those guys. Or rather, this guy since even the New York Times, not a mouthpiece for Damascus last time we checked, describes SOHR as “a one-man band whose founder, Rami Abdul Rahman, fled Syria thirteen years ago and operates out of a semidetached [in Coventry].”
Waddya mean, “sounds like steel city scribblings”? We have scores of investigative reporters on the payroll!
Consider: Ukraine and Greece, Iraq and Libya, Bolivia, Venezuela and a string of other nations whose policies displeased Washington and Wall Street. Great overarching narratives on the governance of these nations are built – prior to interventions overt or covert – on the back of dodgy evidence. By sheer weight of repetition, and the sober intonations of politicians and ‘impartial experts’, these narratives acquire the status of unassailable truth. I’ve heard fellow academics – men and women who routinely and rightly take their students to task for failing to substantiate assertions in their essays – trot out such naively pro-imperialist views without a shred of evidence. I’ve had a seasoned leftwing activist of proven courage tell me, when asked to back up a claim that Assad is every bit as bad as ISIS, that she’d see what she could “dig up” – then lose her temper when I said that smacked of cherry picking evidence to prop up an a priori conclusion. (Other than a link to Al Jazeera, its own source that splendid chap at Syrian Observatory, I’ve yet to hear back.) And I’ve had a Jewish friend tell me the dirt on Assad “can’t all be made up”. Lesser chaps than I might fall into the slough of despond when such as he – kinsman to folk who do know a thing or two about industrial scale smear – talk like this.
A core example of this authentication-through-repetition is Assad’s putative use of sarin nerve gas, elevated by repeat airings to the status of accepted fact. On this and related matters I’ve seen too many manifestly biased parties pronouncing Assad’s guilt on zero or vanishingly thin evidence; too many gullible groups and individuals relaying such judgments on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve also heard intelligent friends who should know better say there’s no smoke without fire, a dangerously complacent axiom when the combined weight of western media speaks with a single and singularly uncritical voice. By contrast I recommend this investigation by Who What Why; not just because it counsels caution but also for its impartial approach. Who What Why does not rule out the possibility of Assad’s guilt. What it does is set out the known facts, starting with sarin’s multiple use in Syria, before weighing forensic and ballistic evidence and asking the cui bono? question – of Damascus, the Islamists and NATO. The result is not only a rare example of sober appraisal on an important aspect of the disaster that is Syria; more generally it’s a model of what sound, critical inquiry looks like.
Another oft repeated example of Assad’s villainy is the use of barrel bombs. Is Damascus guilty? To a greater degree of certainty than with sarin, the answer is probably yes. Nasty things, barrel bombs, but they are also makeshift and crude: unlike state of the art weaponry used – to the benefit of the huge US arms industry – by coalition forces in Iraq, whose people are still dying from the depleted uranium left by ‘conventional’ weapons. “Outrageous”, say Kerry and Obama. “Those nasty people are using (gasp) barrel bombs.” And as if on cue, corporate and social media babblers rush to relay the message far and wide – neither group bothering to check out whether barrel bombs are any worse than the daisy-cutters and other paraphernalia of death routinely used by “our” forces. Suddenly, the acid test to tell good guys from bad is the use of barrel bombs. How easily manipulated we are!
But important as they are, these are details within a wider narrative that informs the way we make sense of overseas conflict and “our” unfailingly well intentioned role in it. How is that narrative maintained? By mendacity? When needed, yes. Blair’s a case in point, while Syria coverage across the corporate media spectrum has at times crossed the line from naivity and lazy ignorance to cynicism and worse, but for the most part that’s not how things work. We needn’t posit some grand conspiracy to explain the scale of disinformation. While crooks and liars do run in the midst of our political classes – and at times pen for Mail, Telegraph and Graun – they are few and far between. For the most part politicians and journalists succeed in shaping our views of overseas matters not only because we tend to know little and care less, but because they first convince themselves. With some that’s because they’re thick. (Poor memory and inability to join the dots helps.) With others it’s because they know less than you and I do. And with most it’s because – driven by conformity, cognitive dissonance, a sense of which side our bread is buttered and sheer laziness – humans are good at believing what it suits us to believe. Because we in the west know, as in think we know, said leaders and media to be reined in by checks and balances that more or less work, Hitler’s bigger-the-lie thesis is borne out. Do you deem Assad the demon we’ve been told he is? How and where did you find out? Here’s an ORB International Survey – more credibly impartial, surely, than the sources named above – showing a majority of Syrians backing him. You won’t have seen it in the Mail. You might have seen it in the Guardian or Independent, but only as a dissonantly minor note – quantity mattering more than quality here – in a well orchestrated symphony, Assad the Devil in G major.
TWO, in every instance where the west has put its colossal weight behind unseating an alleged tyrant in the middle east the results have been: murderous chaos … privatisation … the destruction of welfare provision … fat profits not only for arms suppliers but Big Capital in general, aided by opportunist politicians – check Haliburton-Cheney, Clinton-ExxonMobil. In sum, those with most to gain by removing the ‘tyrant’ just happen to be those controlling the narrative on his tyranny. That doesn’t automatically invalidate the narrative but should make us suspicious. So why doesn’t it? Why do so many on the left and centre-left repeat and relay that narrative without troubling to do a bit of independent appraisal of the evidence? And, yes, I do know some of us have jobs, kids and busy lives. We can’t all spend hours investigating every single claim by billionaire media but we can all make room for old fashioned scepticism and that perennially useful question, cui bono?
THREE, suppose some at least of the talk of Assad’s brutality can be proved. I’ve yet to see credible evidence but that doesn’t mean none could emerge. Where would that leave us? For those on the left who favour high minded ‘universalism’ over realpolitik, the answer is clear: all sides are equally and unspeakably vile so a plague on all houses! OK, let’s for the sake of argument say Assad is as bad as the head-choppers. (Worse perhaps, since the latter at least have the courtesy to provide online evidence of their evildoing.) Champions of a ‘moderate Islamist’ third force having dwindled to a rump around London and Washington (whose lead actors themselves no longer believe it, if they ever did, but must hold the line) the conclusion, rarely articulated but flowing logically from this premise, is that were Assad to throw in the towel and ship out tonight to some Swiss clinic to practise optometrics to his heart’s content, that would be just hunky-dory. Especially if the Russians left too, with Hezbollah following suit. Three demons out of the frame; what joy! True, the foot-soldiers for Allah are fond of chanting “Alawis to the knife, Christians to Beirut” – but that’s just youthful high spirits, innit?