What if Assad is as bad as they say?

11 Feb

Two years ago, in a post on privatisation as a global phenomenon, I wrote:

… whether or not the demonising of distant regimes has substance, and whether or not it is hypocritical, are secondary questions. In no case – cold war on the USSR, the devastation of Yugoslavia, violent destabilisation in the middle east – have cited casus belli  been the real drivers of US led hostility. In each example, of regimes practising some degree of state capitalism, we can infer true motive from outcomes: the transfer of wealth from public to private hands, with Wall Street and western imperialism as a whole the winners. The fact of chaos all the way does not negate this conclusion when major economies, most clearly the USA, are boosted by war: directly in arms sales; indirectly by the wholesale destruction of capital and through it the offsetting of capitalism’s tendency to falling profits. Witness the lucrative contracts – and ‘revolving door’ between US government and corporate beneficiaries – handed out for the reconstruction of Iraq.

Fast forward to events of the past week or so. A Russian jet, flying lawfully in Syrian airspace at the behest of an elected government, has been downed by ‘rebels’aka  the former Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra – armed with US surface to air missiles. Meanwhile an Israeli jet flying unlawfully in Syrian airspace on Saturday – retaliation, says Tel Aviv, for an Iranian drone strike from Palmyra – was brought down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire.1

Taken together the two incidents, involving three nuclear powers with distinct agendas of their own, and two with agendas that clash head on, underline how grave the situation is. For all its common ground with the regime change operations of Iraq and Libya, what makes Syria more frightening is that Russia and Iran, having sat on their hands as neoliberals destroyed the state capitalisms of Baghdad and Tripoli, drew a line in the sand on Damascus. Why they did is not a question we should expect to see truthfully answered by mainstream media united in drilling into us – psychologists call this the mere exposure effect – that Assad is evil, Putin is evil, the Ayatollahs are evil and the West’s motives in the middle east pure as the driven snow.

Taken together the two incidents serve to remind those paying a modicum of critical attention that Syria is not only more globally dangerous than Iraq and Libya (for all the lies, millions slain and terror unleashed we have those adventures to thank for) but more complex too. The West’s assault, direct and by jihadi proxy, on a people that refreshed Assad’s mandate four years ago2 was motivated not only by privatisation but by more far reaching plans for regime change in Tehran and the expansion of Western rule in the region by removing potential threats to Israel, and locking out Russia and China.


I spoke of media drilling it in that Assad is evil, Putin evil, Tehran evil and the West pure as the driven. Few on the left admit to buying the last part of that narrative. A show of scepticism is considered de rigeur – it’s all about oil, stupid!  – by a liberal intelligentsia which, its can’t-fool-me cynicism dutifully intoned, turns hastily to preferred topics of Russian aggression and how Trump’s presidency marks a new and alarming departure from civilised values.

No, it’s the preceding parts of the narrative which confuse the left, and not just its Jones-Mason-Monbiot wing. Last month I heard from a friend on the marxist left. In response to my post on a Guardian attack on White Helmets sceptics, he emailed to say:

I agree with exposing the hypocrisy and mendacity of liberal apologists for US/UK intervention in the Middle East but the alternative is not to endorse the brutal policies and actions of the Assad regime. The enemy of my enemy is not my friend …

Like me he rejects mainstream coverage of Syria. Unlike me he accepts as true (or likely) claims that do so much to legitimate the latest regime change offensive in the oil rich middle east. On the latter he may be right and I may be wrong. I doubt it, but leave room for the possibility.

(In this I part company with another tendency, one I call – not unkindly, since I share other of their views – the Assadista. Adherents frequently take to social media to sing Assad’s praises, and they too may be right. Perhaps Assad is the hero they say. My objection is not that he isn’t – in a minefield of disinformation I’ve no way of telling3 – but that, should charges of egregious brutality ever be made to stick, the Assadista will be left with no principled basis from which to oppose Syria’s assailants. In this they are mirror opposite not only to the mainstream narrative but, in a different way, to many on the marxist left. Where the latter pair thorough critiques of imperialism with passive acceptance of allegations that lend cover to it, Assadista vigorously contest the allegations but offer little in the way of well thought out meta analyses.)

But back to my friend’s email. It cites pieces4 in The Militant, organ of the American SWP but typifying a broader section of Western marxist opinion, that show a clearer grasp of what is being done to Syria in our name than anything in mainstream media. That’s not hard when the latter pair – necessarily, given (a) the stakes for Western capital, (b) media ownership patterns and revenue streams and (c) the embarrassing recency of Iraq and Libya – relentless vilification of Assad with the no-platforming of dissent however authoritative.5 But it’s precisely here that The Militant echoes the cherry-picked inclusions and exclusions of those media.

The superiority of Militant’s analysis lies elsewhere. That’s because the media’s biggest crime is not their presentation of self serving allegations as if proven. Wicked as such irresponsibility is, it is eclipsed by a dereliction more heinous yet. I refer to media refusal to ask why – as in really why – ‘we’ are once more unleashing hi-tech death and jihadist terror on a secularist Arab state. It’s here that the real left, which for all its faults does include SWP (US), performs better – and so it bloody well should.

What’s hard at first blush to understand is why so many on the left, marxists not excepted, feel compelled to pair denunciations of imperialism with denunciations as fierce of Assad.6 Though the best of their analyses are way above those of a George Monbiot or Owen Jones (this too is not hard) the sources they cite as proof of Damascene criminality are mainstream media claims they – too busy with meta narratives to pay attention to cracks and fissures at lower but critical levels of detail – simply recycle.

Search those Militant pieces for any mention of John Pilger and Seymour Hersh, let alone Eva Bartlett or Vanessa Beeley, and you’ll draw a blank. Ditto the objections raised by former UN authorities of the calibre of Hans Blix and Theodore Postol. Ditto breaches of evidential custody that would have the Khan Sheikhoun claims laughed out of court. And ditto the circumstantial but powerful evidence from such as ex CIA man Philip Giraldi, Tony Blair’s sacked ambassador Craig Murray and France’s former foreign minister Roland Dumas.

Dig a little, and we find the reasons many on the left reject imperialism’s overarching narrative, only to buy so many of its building blocks. My post on Monbiot, Syria and Univeralism, though focused mainly on liberalism, houses this aside:

Internationalism begins at home. A key tenet is that imperialised states be defended from our own imperialism, regardless of Stalinist, nationalist, theocratic or other defects in their worldviews, or failings real or cynically concocted in their leaders. Such defects and failings must be condemned where proven, but always in the context of – yet meticulously decoupled from – unwavering insistence that the prime villain is ‘our’ imperialism.

… the left in the global north has a sorry record of capitulation to ferocious dominant narratives. That’s why defence of the Provisional IRA was tougher for British socialists than defence of an ANC whose program and leaders were equally flawed. Conversely, it’s why white South Africans in the ANC were truly heroic – likewise Israeli Jews fighting their own apartheid state – and why it was easier to defend the IRA if you were French or American than British. But in their hostility to Damascus, western media have set a climate as vicious as that created by British media at the height of the ‘troubles’ in the Six Counties. I’m sure Weston [a marxist writer], like Jones and Monbiot, does not intend it but his attacks on ‘misguided’ leftists who back Damascus against Washington will  add to a narrative of vilification funded by the deepest pockets and driven by the most venal interests.

That’s a position of critical but unconditional defence: out of favour nowadays but one I’ll hold until such time as I have both proof that Assad is as bad as they say, and a credible alternative – as opposed to those rabbit-from-a-hat fantasies of general strike and workers’ militias the left’s more excitable elements are fond of. An alternative capable of ousting the invader, and putting out for good the jihadi fire Syria’s false friends have for so very long played with. Until I’ve seen the plan, and perused the small print, Assad will continue to get my cautious vote.

Ditto Vlad the Disruptor.

* * *

  1. Postscript two days later. Tel Aviv says the downed Israeli F-16 was not in Syrian airspace, though this may reflect the fact Israel sees the Golan Heights it has illegally occupied since 1967 as its own territory. In any case F-16s and the missiles they carry can strike Syria without leaving Israeli airspace.
  2. His 2014 victory poses only a minor threat to the Assad-as-bloody-tyrant narrative. Unable to evidence electoral fraud, mainstream media do as they have with so many other inconvenient truths. They ignore his mandate.
  3. I may be overcautious here. The would-be eye doctor could easily have cut and run. Says Aidan O’Brien, quoted on this site last August: ‘Syria’s President could have abandoned ship. But he acted like a President when it would have been easier to run. In the West we’re unaccustomed to seeing a leader with backbone. When we do we think it’s unbelievable. There must be something wrong. He must be a “dictator”.’
  4. http://www.themilitant.com/201 7/8116/811603.html  http://www.themilitant.com/201 7/8146/814605.html  http://www.themilitant.com/SWPCampaign2016/pdf/SWPSyriaStatement.pdf
  5. This rare exception that proves the rule comes, tellingly, not from liberal media but the Mail’s free-thinking maverick, Peter Hitchens.
  6. I’ve been using, throughout, ‘Assad’ as shorthand for Syria’s government, the way we use ‘Moscow’ or ‘Washington’ as metonyms for their governments; not to endorse the simplistic idea of him at the apex of a rigidly top-down and micro managed pyramid.

4 Replies to “What if Assad is as bad as they say?

  1. Well said. I found an article by a journalist whom I respect(cautiously)and re-blogged it, but only after I had substituted every reference to government and regime to represent the reverse. In this way, the US govt. was a regime and the Syrian, Iranian and Russian “regimes” were governments. It may seem unimportant but by that very substitution the whole article’s premise was subtly changed. I’m not sure the authour demonising the neo-liberal onslaught was even aware of his underlying bigotry, but it was there none the less. Sometimes intellectuals do not see the wood for the trees, but in many instances, the left uses language intended to frame a given – which it is not – quite deliberately and the focus from capitalism and it’s murderous creep almost becomes blurred and an excuse for the capitalist foreign policy which their representation of the various actors “confuses” to the point at which the reader unconsciously accepts as truth and fact. It of course, is anything but.
    Thanks for your opinion piece and a reminder of your excellent article above, I especially liked Monbiot, Syria and Universalism.

    • Yes, I’ve noted how easily, when it comes to Syria, the R-word trips off the tongue. The three Militant pieces use ‘regime’ fifteen times – yeah, I know, nerdy of me to count but what’s the point of word search tools if not for such vital exercises!

      Like you, I see in this a failing both broader and more serious. Many on the left are not only recycling unproven allegations but lifting entire phrases verbatim from the Graun. Leaving aside the fact that reports from Khan Sheikhoun, April 4 2017, come from one journalist escorted by al-Nusra Front (the UN having declared the alleged sarin site too dangerous for an OPCW team to inspect) isn’t the language in this passage, from one of those Militant pieces, a total steal from MSM?

      “President Donald Trump claims Washington’s 59 cruise missile attack was carried out in retaliation for a chemical bomb dropped two days earlier by the Assad regime against civilians in the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province.

      The Assad regime was being driven back by opposition forces until Moscow moved a fleet of bombers into Syria in September 2015 and joined the civil war. They were backed by troops from Iran, Hezbollah and other Tehran-led militias. Since then the Assad regime and its allies have combined murderous bombing with sieges to starve and batter opposition-held areas.”

      The ‘opposition held town of Khan Sheikhoun’, huh? My, that’s a fancy way of referring to a bunch of head-chopping zealots!

  2. A very good piece. I see many many people on the left falling victim to the same cognitive biases and delusions that MSM followers exhibit. Take the people who have convinced themselves that Vladimir Putin will prevent Syria’s balkanization at the hands of the US and its assorted lackeys and allies. If facts emerge that cast doubt on Mr. Putin’s dedication or ability to meet this goal they are quickly dismissed as nonsense or “fake news” and even reasonable critics of Putin’s superman status are derided as fools, trolls or spies. I wonder if these people are familiar with cognitive biases and the concept of applying critical thinking skills to one’s own assumptions and beliefs?

    Another common, and very depressing, trend is the ease with which evermore people uncritically assume their pet theories are 100% rock-solid truth that is on par with the laws of physics. False-flag attacks and conspiracies are a reality of course but they are not the main thrust driving geopolitical events. Some people think the intelligence services or nefarious individuals orchestrate absolutely everything that happens in the world…it’s like capitalism never happened. They confidently present theories that follow the Hollywood script of good guys vs. bad guys and a steadfast hero that saves the world form destruction. Self-delusion is replacing critical thought, a recognition that we think we know a lot more than we actually do and exchanging ideas with others and updating, or rejecting, them as better information becomes available.

    Part of the problem is that people are deeply dissatisfied with the current status quo but there is no alternative system or inspiring political vision to rally around. A revolution in such circumstances would not progress beyond chaotic violence and it would end in a failed state or, more likely, the establishment cracking down and picking up where they left off. Unless one includes political Islam there really is no system on offer at the moment that can realistically replace the present one. So to avoid existential despair people double down trying to rationalize and explain the world to themselves . But because the internet and the massive amount of information and propaganda available via our digital devices, careful reading, critical thinking and remaining mindful of cognitive biases have all become more difficult.

    The result is the “post-truth” world where every person gets to determine their own “fake truth” and passionately defend it by refusing, at any cost, to entertain criticism or competing ideas. I never thought I would experience a world where university students are literally horrified and reduced to tears at the prospect of being introduced to unfamiliar or challenging points of view. I suspect the neoliberal gutting of society by making competition for material wealth the only thing that matters combined with the endless crisis of capitalism and the internet replacing social interaction are at the core of the dystopian sci-fi world our society has become and people turning to self-delusion as a coping mechanism. Not forgetting, of course, the effects of the endless stream of propaganda, lies and distortions that permeate the mediascape and seep into the collective unconscious via our “smart” gadgets.

    I feel like a character in a novel or a film where the vast majority of people have lost control of their minds and critical faculties but it is the unfortunate few who still have a grasp on cognitive reality who are labelled mad and crazy. Interesting times indeed.

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