For a decade since the Arab Spring, Syria has been plunged into bloodshed and destruction with half a million dead and millions of refugees. A popular uprising for democracy and human rights that occurred in tandem with similar movements across the Levant and north Africa shook the dictatorship of Bashar Assad in 2011. The civil war that followed pitted the Assad regime against the armed wing of the rebellion – the Free Syrian Army – but also Sunni jihadi groups aligned to Al Qaeda and Daesh. Luckily for Assad – he was able to play off opponents against each other, obtain Russian help and rely on the tacit support of a global army of useful idiots on social media.
By useful idiots, I mean those people predominantly (and shamefully) on the Left in Europe and the United States who have decided to throw their weight – and Twitter accounts – behind the Assad regime. Some very explicitly – and some more implicitly – and others have just sucked up Assad propaganda without even realising.
In doing so, they are effectively siding with Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. To justify this, they loudly claim that Assad is an anti-imperialist bravely facing down the West and a jihadi uprising. So, how exactly does one transform Assad from a tyrant to a socialist-friendly liberator?
Well, let me break this seemingly implausible process down into a series of steps based on the writings of various left-wingers who have unwittingly become Assad’s unpaid public relations and reputation management consultants in the west.
Step one: Denigrate the original Arab Spring uprising
Tell your Twitter followers that there was no genuine hankering for democracy and equality among the Syrian people in 2011. Those people who rebelled against Assad were a bunch of theocratic jihadis bent on destroying a secular Syria. This is, by the way, a line that the regime in Damascus pushed from the outset. What else could they say? That the Syrian people hated Assad and his cronies?
As terrorism experts Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan explained:
“(Assad) portrayed his opponents, even those who were calling for modest economic reforms, as Al Qaeda terrorists, hirelings of the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel – surely one of the most elaborate coalitions of the willing in modern history”.
The Arab Spring was an upsurge from Tunisia to Egypt and Syria demanding democracy, freedom of expression, an end to corruption and better economic opportunities. In Syria, it began with teenagers scrawling anti-Assad graffiti then being arrested and tortured. This sparked peaceful protests for their release.
But Damascus – looking to what was happening across the region – reacted with brute force. Assad had no intention of sharing the fate of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, dragged from a sewer pipe and lynched. So he unleashed hell on the demonstrators.
Human Rights Watch that year documented hundreds of deaths and thousands of arrests with evidence of widespread torture. But despite the regime’s propaganda, this first phase of the Arab Spring was an uprising for democracy and not theocracy. The jihadis seemed to be nowhere in sight.
In truth, Al Qaeda was blindsided by events initially struggling to intervene in any meaningful way as one 2011 analysis summarised the situation:
“Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan and throughout the Middle East, the Arabs repudiated and rejected violence to bring about socio-political change. Ultimately, the changes in the Arab World came not from politico-religious forces or insurgent groups employing terrorism as a tactic, but from street protests conducted by ordinary citizens.”
As Marxists critical of Assad at the time noted, where the Assad regime lost control, “People’s Councils” were set up to run local services as well as “people’s tribunals” and protection for refugees. Elections were planned and the Free Syrian Army patrolled the streets. This was often short lived.
Whenever either Assad’s forces or the Salafi jihadis in the form of Daesh or Al Nusra (Al Qaeda’s Syrian front organisation) seized control, these democratic structures were swept away instantly. Assad re-imposed his dictatorship while the jihadis brought in their undemocratic take on sharia law (which is not a majority position among the world’s Muslims by the way).
Right from the start in 2011, the Marxist left split between those who welcomed the revolution against Assad and those who characterised it as “imperialist backed”. I’d argue the latter are very much in the ascendancy now – especially on Twitter.
This was an analysis from an anti-Assad Marxist group in 2011 that is still relevant today:
“It is an unfortunate fact that some organisations, which claim to be ‘leftist’, have adopted a position mirroring the propaganda of the Assad regime where the revolutionary movements are presented as an ‘imperialist conspiracy’ or an ‘Islamic take-over’. Some groups have even described the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as being merely a band of thugs”.
In contrast, there’s a slew of “anti-imperialist” groups and individuals on the Left who don’t so much explicitly defend Assad as attack and denigrate all his opponents. Therefore, should Assad commit some appalling atrocity, they can deny ever having backed him. They’re also very selective in their anti-imperialist outrage. If Assad kills a hundred men, women, and children – don’t bat an eyelid. If the other side kill three captured government soldiers – go into hyper-drive.
Another type of reaction to the Syrian Arab Spring and its consequences from the anti-imperialist has been a kind of fatalism. Noam Chomsky for example. In a 2015 speech, he portrayed the Syrian civil war as a three-corner fight between Assad, Daesh and Al-Nusra.
“If you attack Assad, you’re undermining resistance to the Islamic State and Al Nusra who will then take over. Is that what you want for Syria?”
In one of those Chomsky-esque sweeping statements that make his fans swoon, the old sage declared that in every military escalation, the “most brutal elements” come to the fore and the “nice moderates” are powerless. Therefore, any intervention (especially military) is counter-productive.
Regarding Russia’s decision to intervene, Chomsky declared: “To support a government is not imperialism. Maybe completely wrong but it’s not imperialism.”
Having decreed that Russia was not acting as an imperialist aggressor, his next comments were a rambling sermon on Saudi Arabia funding extreme versions of Islam (and thereby implicated in the rise of Daesh) and Turkey backing Al-Nusra. What Chomsky neglected to mention was Assad’s unusually close relationship with the jihadis which I’ll go into below.
Back in 2011, Assad was keen to pin the blame for the Arab Spring on Al Qaeda and they were only too happy to accept the credit. The CIA for its part – far from being the architect of the Arab Spring as is also claimed online – were caught off guard in a massive failure of intelligence. Moving forward, AQ and its offshoot Daesh did benefit from the weakening of Assad’s police state. But 2011 was not a good year for AQ.
Remember that it was in May that year, US Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Their leader gone, AQ also saw their mission statement being in effect rejected by the Arab masses. The transition to what looked like civilian democracy in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen “undermined the jihadist narrative that violence was a necessary handmaiden for revolution or that the United States would always prop up autocratic regimes”.
Of course, we know now that the rejuvenation of the jihadi Islamist/Salafi project was just round the corner. Daesh – or ISIS if you prefer – would come to prominence not only ruling swathes of Syria and Iraq but attempting to recruit young people across the western world via social media and other means.
But to present the situation in Syria in 2011 and subsequently as a binary choice between Assad’s dictatorship and Salafi jihadism serves only one purpose – to legitimise Assad and perpetuate the idea that the Arab world is incapable of democracy or human rights. Let alone socialism. And some Lefts who believe that really is the binary choice have talked themselves into supporting Assad or at least transmitting his propaganda via social media to wider audiences.
Daesh emerged out of AQ as a rival terrorist organisation with a penchant for ultra-brutality and a belief it could establish a physical ‘caliphate’ implementing a murderous and brutal version of what it took to be sharia law. This encompassed a range of gruesome forms of capital punishment and filmed executions of captured foreigners including an aid worker.
This would give Assad the opportunity to position himself as the saviour of a secular Syria from the clutches of theocratic extremists – something his useful idiots echo still on Twitter.
Step two: Downplay Assad’s attacks on his own people – especially anything involving chemical agents.
Condemn in vehement terms the attack by the United States, UK, and France against the Syrian capital in 2018. But somehow omit to mention this followed the use of chemical weapons by Assad against the population in the city of Douma.
However, if this comes up in conversation, dig up widely circulated conspiracy theories alleging that the chemical gassing of Douma’s population was done by other parties – and not Assad. Even though multiple investigations have shown that the only party in Syria using chlorine and Sarin is the government in Damascus. If questions persist – then just baldly claim that the attacks never happened at all.
This is, to my mind, the most disgusting piece of falsifying of an appalling event. It’s straight out of Stalin’s playbook. Or the tactics employed by those QAnon types denying the Sandy Hook school shooting ever happened. As the Nazi spin doctor Joseph Goebbels once advised, if you’re going to lie – make it big.
I don’t wish to link to the websites and social media channels claiming that Douma was a ‘false flag’ operation. But the same sources normally deny that Assad conducted killings, arrests’, and torture against protestors at Daraa in 2011. They then mix in accusations that ‘mainstream media is withholding the truth followed by a load of whataboutery deflecting attention towards Palestine and Iraq.
In other words, if anybody says ‘Douma’ or ‘Daraa’ – just shout ‘Gaza’ until you’re blue in the face.
Step three: Claim that atrocities against the Syrian people were staged by Assad’s opponents
The Putin playbook here. Deployed in both Syria and Ukraine. Claim that war crimes against men, women and children have been conducted by their own side to besmirch the reputation of the regime.
One extraordinary report – which Russia Today didn’t hesitate to slap up on its website – claimed that the chemical gas attack by Assad’s forces from the air on the city of Douma in 2018 was in fact anti-Assad ‘militants’ exposing people to chemical agents as ‘training exercises’ and then filming the consequences presenting it as proof of a chemical attack.
In recent years, the civilian search rescue group, the White Helmets, has been accused of killing civilians to frame Assad. Or using child actors as victims of bombings. There is not a scintilla of evidence to back this up. Since 2014, about 252 White Helmets – officially known as the Syrian Civil Defence force – have died in rescue operations.
This sort of False Flag stuff is the standard fare of the far right, alt-right, and QAnon types in the United States. But some ultra-Lefts not only use the same tactics but even link to fabrications from anti-socialist sources. Anything that backs up an argument.
The main propaganda offensive against the White Helmets has come from Russian state-sponsored media such as Russia Today and Sputnik. Iranian media has also circulated conspiracy theories. This has then been picked up – as the Russians know it would be – by the useful idiots on Twitter.
These are the ‘anti-imperialists’ who are always up for an ‘alternative’ viewpoint that the ‘mainstream media’ has hidden away. These same anti-imperialists – as I’ve noted – will cheerfully link to Russian and western far right/alt-right sources to give their commentaries some credibility. You have to picture them sitting there with Russia Today on the telly taking copious notes for their next blog or tweet.
They’ll often warn you to double or treble check what the BBC is saying and then blithely inform you that Russia Today is a much needed ‘alternative’ perspective. When in fact it’s a Kremlin mouthpiece.
Step four: Airbrush out Assad’s support for Daesh
At his most desperate in the first years of the Syrian Civil War, Assad’s strategy for survival involved boosting Daesh – or the Islamic State (ISIS) – as a destabilising instrument.
The analogy that comes to my mind is the early fifth century Roman Empire (I’m a big Roman history obsessive), where capable generals retained control of vast territories by playing off the Goths and Huns. It was a dangerous game but the Romans at this stage no longer had the military and financial resources to keep control of the empire.
So – how did Assad use Islamist jihadis to undermine the democratic opposition and regain control of Syria?
There were various tactics. By not targeting Daesh positions, bankrolling the terrorists and buying oil and food from Daesh-held territory that they would skim ‘taxes’ from. Syrian intelligence facilitated the movement of terrorists from Syria into Iraq and was instrumental in the success of Daesh from 2014. In addition, Assad released jihadi terrorists from Syrian prisons fully in the knowledge that they would join their brothers.
One Assad regime amnesty – Decree No. 61 – in May 2011 covered “all members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other detainees belonging to political movements”. Bassam Barabandi, an ex-Syrian diplomat, made clear why this was done.
“The fear of a continued peaceful revolution is why these Islamists were released. The reasoning behind the jihadists, for Assad and the regime, is that they are the alternative to peaceful revolution. They are organised with the doctrine of jihad and the West is afraid of them.”
Assad, in other words, had a scorpion dance with the jihadis. Never trusting them. But realising they had devastating potential to divert the Arab Spring in a direction the West could never countenance. The prospect of another Taleban-run Afghanistan or Iran in the Middle East. Letting the jihadis loose allowed Assad – and his useful idiots – to paint him as the restorer of secular sanity – albeit of a tyrannical nature.
There is evidence that Daesh – as it dug into territory around Raqqa – returned the favour:
“Islamic State forces appeared to take actions favourable to Syrian government interests. For example, in July 2014, Islamic State forces withdrew from the northern suburbs of Aleppo just as the Syrian regime was trying to outflank Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces in the city.”
The useful idiots like to point out that the jihadis predated the Arab Spring ergo they probably organised it. What they fail to point out is that many of these jihadis were foreign fighters and that for years, Assad had allowed them to enter Iraq through Syria. Indeed there is evidence of relationships between Syrian intelligence, Al Qaeda and what would become Daesh going back to 2001.
“Over the course of many years, the terrorist group ISIS (first known as the Zarqawi network, then Al Qaeda in Iraq, then the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, and finally as the Islamic State group) benefitted from a wide range of material and other support from the Assad regime.”
In short, anybody who tells you that Assad and the jihadis had no common interest or connections is either a liar – or a useful idiot.
Step five: Call for diplomacy by which you really mean complete surrender to Assad (and Putin)
One must make a cursory condemnation of Russia having entered the conflict on Assad’s side but then go full throttle eviscerating Uncle Sam and the West. Talk about decades of NATO expansion, US hegemony, oil, and arms contracts. Then hope by the end of it – everybody will have forgotten that it’s Russian troops that are all over Syria right now.
Pretend that diplomacy is the negation of war as opposed to its continuation by other means.
The bitter truth of course is that a diplomatic solution to the Syrian war would involve Assad dipping his pen in the blood of his opponents to put his signature to the final deal. After which, he’d resume dictatorial rule of the country where he left off in 2011. But he doesn’t need diplomacy – thanks to Russia, he’s winning. And the useful idiots are cheering from the social media sidelines.
As he turns the screws back down and mops up his opponents, it helps if a few academics, journalists and bloggers could continue to characterise the Syrian Arab Spring as a jihadi endeavour, that Eurocentric notions of parliamentary democracy don’t suit the Middle East and that Assad never used chemical weapons against his own people.
DISCOVER: The Portuguese revolution of 1974
Useful idiots listen to Assad and ignore ordinary Syrians
It’s no accident that ‘anti-imperialist’ rallies on the subject of Syria often have no Syrians on the platform – same can be said of Ukraine and Ukrainians. What would many Syrian activists think as they listened to certain veteran socialists and Marxists declaring that Assad was the better option to support?
Sadly, the useful idiots just can’t wean themselves off their addiction to Assad:
“They turned a blind eye to Assad filling his gulag with thousands of secular, peaceful, pro-democracy demonstrators for death by torture, while releasing militant-Islamists from prison. Similarly, the continuing protests held in liberated areas in opposition to extremist and authoritarian groups such as Daesh, Nusra and Ahrar Al Sham have been ignored. Syrians are not seen as possessing the sophistication to hold a diverse range of views. Civil society activists (including many amazing women), citizen journalists, humanitarian workers are irrelevant. The entire opposition is reduced to its most authoritarian elements or seen as mere conduits for foreign interests.”