by Philip Roddis, May 23, 2016
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 briefings by Washington, Whitehall, and NATO politicians whose track record on the region would in any sane and halfway alert world be met with disdain. They also include Al-Jazeera – owned by the Emir of Qatar, whose decades old hostility to Damascus renders nigh on worthless the Syria coverage of this otherwise useful source – and the grandly titled Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. 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, Libya and Syria … 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 weight of repetition, and through the sober intonations of politicians and ‘impartial experts’, these narratives acquire the status of unassailable truth. I’ve heard experienced academics – men and women who routinely and rightly take their students to task for failing to substantiate assertions in their essays – trot out such unconsciously pro-imperialist views without a shred of evidence. I’ve had a seasoned and courageous leftwing activist tell me, when challenged to back up a claim that Assad is every bit as bad as ISIS, that she’d see if she could “dig something up” – then lose her temper when I said that smacked of looking for 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 these are details, mere embellishments of wider narratives which come to dominate our understanding of overseas conflict and “our” unfailingly well intentioned role in it. Out and out crooks and liars do run in the midst of our political classes, of course, but for the most part politicians succeed in shaping our views on 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 us. 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 hold Assad to be 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 Daily 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 military and financial 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 that some folk have jobs, kids and busy lives. Not everyone can sink hour on hour into investigating every single claim by billionaire media but what we can all do is make room for old fashioned scepticism and that perennially useful question, cui bono?
(Though not ready to set out my views on this in full I see the Syria mayhem, very much a product of western policies, as best understood in light of tensions between the west and not only Russia but China too. These tensions have many aspects, fiscal and economic as well as geopolitical and military, and there are signs of China and Russia coming together – the former bringing its vast surplus, the latter its vast energy reserves – to challenge a dollar hegemony that has underpinned the western world order since 1945 and near total world order since the 1990 fall of the Soviet Union. While there are positive aspects to this challenge, in particular the ability of ‘developing’ nations to resist IMF austerity by securing less draconian deals in Beijing and Moscow, the world is a more dangerous place as a result. History offers no precedent for the most powerful nation on earth allowing its economic might to be thus challenged, and in this context Syria’s geolocation is significant. Its warm water ports on the Mediterranean make it the obvious candidate for piping oil from landlocked producers into Europe, with competing routes on the table. Assad rejected the Western/Saudi/Qatar backed Egypt via Homs (“Arab”) pipeline to opt instead for the Iran-Iraq (“Islamic”) pipeline backed also by Russia. Given this, an understanding of the Syrian conflict as an oil pipeline war – Washington having once again invented or over-egged a People’s Uprising to be supported in the name of Democracy – cannot be easily dismissed. Nor can that wider context as just sketched out.)
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 evil.) Champions of a ‘moderate Islamist’ third force having dwindled to a rump around London and Washington (who themselves no longer believe it but maintain 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?