conflict zones, latest, Middle East, Syria
Comments 33

Assad the tyrant?

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?


  1. Brewer says

    Barrel Bombs?
    What is a barrel bomb?
    I have this image of resourceful WWII Lancaster aircrew stuffing Mills bombs into used wine casks and lobbing them out the bomb-bays!!
    What is this ordnance and why would anyone use it when Arms dealers queue up to discount the cluster bombs surplus to U.S., Saudi and Israeli requirements?

    • Brian Harry, Australia says

      I imagine that Barrel bombs are no worse than the 500lb bombs used to ‘Carpet Bomb’ large areas in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia about 40/50 years ago. And don’t even talk about that fabulous Napalm to rain firey death on every one in that same war………

    • They did use them, and they were every bit as bad as the bombs Brian Harry reminds us the US used in Vietnam. The use of barrel bombs is a real black mark against Damascus and the Syrian Army. [I recall that back in 2013, even Moscow agreed/conceded that the government had used excessively brutal tactics. This was before the putsch in Ukraine and at a time the Russians kept emphasizing they weren’t invested in Assad but would not support the US demand he step down merely on their say-so.]]

    • Joe Staten says

      Barrel bombs aren’t a terror weapon per se, they’re just an improvised bomb, and usually a lot less powerful than the conventional ordnance – as I think Harry is pointing out. A barrel bomb is only as bad as the amount of explosive and shrapnel it contains. The fact the explosive is inside a “barrel” does not make it any worse than if it were inside a regular bomb casing.

      There’s no direct evidence the SAA used them. Why would they when conventional bombs are much more effective? – but even if they had there’s nothing intrinsically worse about dropping barrel bombs on civilians than dropping ordinary bombs on civilians, in fact since they tend to be smaller the effect is generally less.

  2. Ray W. Ross, Jr. says

    Enjoyed the article…you were able to say what I have been thinking. I’m too intellectually sterile to make such a case.

  3. P see my fried Louis Ptospect , the supporter of US foreign policy, has appeared to support eberything .

    How can you be a “tyrant” for resisting an attack and conquest of your country by a hostile foreign powers ?

    Also, in the light of events in France, defending the country from mass attacks by Jihadists, against these “secukars” and “secular government” ?

    But Color Revolution theory requires him to be portrayed as a tyrant/

    Look up Color Revolutions and Gene Sharp.

    Rule No.2 of Color revolutions requires the president or ruler, who wemay not have even previously heard, of the target country to be demonised like crazy and everything that has gone wrong therein the past 30 years be projected onto him.

    Ten your revolutionary youth movement, organised by you, willlead theuprising against him. he will be forced to “step down”.

    Oh he’s a tyrantas well for protecting the population from your 2operation Nicaragua” death squads and your Muslem Brotherhoolgans terrorists.

    Washington’s propaganda made Dr. Goebbels look an amateur.

  4. The moment has arrived when the Baathists look to the USA as a force for good. Will their amen corner follow suit?

    Syria welcomes statements issued following the recent US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Moscow in assertion of agreement between Moscow and Washington on counterterrorism.

    An official source at Foreign and Expatriates Ministry said on Sunday that the Syrian Arab republic has followed with interest the statements issued following the US Secretary of State’s visit to Moscow on the 15th of the current month, which stressed the agreement between the Russian and US sides on combating terrorism (ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra groups), adding that Syria, which is standing in the frontline in combating this sweeping evil, welcomes these statements.

    • No, Louis, the Syria government and the Baathists consider Syria to be a war with America. A state of war exists. It’s a wartime situation,

      This is because Obama and his Wilsonianist advisor Hillary launched a War of Aggression against them 5 years ago. A Covert War of Aggression using Jihadist paramilitaries, but aggression nonetheless.

      • Jen says

        A comment from Louis Proyect just wouldn’t be the same without a cited article being misinterpreted in such a way as to fit LP’s worldview and try to bait commenters here.

  5. Jen says

    A good source of information and analysis of the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta (Damascus) in August 2013 is Sasa Wawa’s “Who Attacked Ghouta?” at The purpose of the blog was to encourage collaborators to collect, analyse data and share their findings and other information about the CW attack to determine who was most likely responsible for releasing the sarin gas in Ghouta.

    • Thanks Jen. Read the Postol Report that the UN referred to as proof that the attack was the work of anti government forces. Sasa Wawa’s is also well detailed from many sources. The arguments against the conclusion from the comments section seem to range from an Islamaphobic skewed opinion with no contrary evidence and a McCarthyite “Reds under the bed” preposterous alternative with even less basis in either fact or reasoning. There were contributions that suggested that other information was worth consideration but weighted against the findings, did not really alter them. Fascinating reading, so thanks for the embed.

  6. bill says

    Prof Andersons The Dirty War on Syria is well worth reading to get a fuller understanding of what a massive crime the West has committed …..i think his take on barrel bombs is that they are used in mainly the depopulated desert areas of W Syria – as he has visited there many times since the conflict started so im taking his word for this

    • Hi Bill, we in the UK were treated to a leftie’s special insight (Owen Jones) in which he describes with unnecessary lurid detail, the effects of barrel bombs, without once mentioning that it was the Israeli’s who first manufactured and used them. Distortions and misrepresentations abound, none of them sourced or investigated, just thrown out there as a propagandist attack against Assad in order to score points to serve the writer’s selfish interests, but with no intent to include facts or truths regarding their use in the terrorist war against Syria. One instance was the many eye witness accounts of barrel bombs being dropped from helicopters that had arrived from the terrorist held helicopter base and returning by the same route, Anderson’s thinking is likely correct since the witnesses were not actually living in the city that was barrel bombed, but on the outskirts in desert areas. The Dirty War On Syria is likely a very good read(I’ve only read excerpts).

    • Richard Le Sarcophage says

      Do you know Tim Anderson’s history as a member of Ananda Marga, and the manner in which he was fitted up, with others, for the Hilton bombing in 1978? Strangely enough, the supposed guilt of Ananda Marga has been resurrected recently, although in a desultory manner, perhaps as a warning to Anderson. He has, already, been subjected to a Murdochite smear job, in Murdoch’s principal local Hate-machine, the ‘Australian’, in 2014, replete with the usual libels as anti-American, pro-Assad and, naturally, the Supreme and Ubiquitous Crime-‘antisemitism’.

  7. Brian Harry, Australia says

    “A mild mannered bloke who looks like a French Gendarme” Yeah, that’s it. I knew I’d seen him somewhere before. The standard Western ‘Demonization process’ that has been applied to Assad would seem to suggest that he’s not a bad bloke at all. It’s a pity that western journalists don’t apply the same ‘scrutiny’ to the likes of Bush, Blair, Trump, Hillary etc etc who are the REAL Demons……….

  8. rtj1211 says

    I don’t know what teaching in schools is like nowadays, but in my day, there was zero, repeat, zero teaching of critical thinking. Masses of learning how to do maths, learning various chemical reactions, speaking languages fluently etc.

    Zero lessons with a teacher bringing in 6 newspapers and comparing key stories for different output, emphasis or, more interestingly, obvious co-ordination implying state briefing.

    Any school I would set up would have in its core curriculum from 14 – 18 learning to evaluate the question: ‘how do I determine whether to trust what I have just read or not?’ We would discuss sources, reasons why certain sources might put forward particular lines, whether new sources could be found e.g. sources in Russia, China, the Middle East etc.

    Science teaching would be the same: the key learning would be what the scientific method is, how it can be used and the limits of where it is applicable. Climate change ‘science’ would be a key case study and I would risk prosecution by the authorities by teaching the unbiased facts, not the propaganda being force fed currently.

    The other way to encourage independent thinking is to encourage studying and living overseas. I lived in Austria aged 17/18 and I never saw the world the same way again. Hearing certain Austrians blaming Britain for certain world problems wasn’t something I could refute at that age, but it taught me that not everyone thought that Britain was glorious, blameless and worthy of global leadership. Seeing a Foehnsturm on December 18th with huge thunder and lightning showed that climate aberrations could occur.

    Independent skeptical thinking is not a function of how much information you have in your brain, it is a function of not believing what you are told and being comfortable with that concept.

    • Brian Harry, Australia says

      “Like”……………You’re right of course, but the education systems in the West are set up specifically so that the people simply accept what they are told. It’s the only way our rulers can get away with attacking other countries whilst we are fed utter bullshit about what Tyrants their leaders are, when the REAL bastards reside in Washington and London.

    • I was talking with a drinking buddy about this the other night. I was saying that in my experience – for instance in BTL debate on Grauniad pieces on such as Russia, Syria and Ukraine – the biggest suckers tend to be well educated. They KNOW they can’t be fooled because all their lives they’ve been told how smart they are, and of course they have the degrees and doctorates to prove it!

      My buddy and I, we’re both first generation middle class. Though our fathers – mine a steelworker, his a printer – had been full of all kinds of prejudice, they did have an instinctive understanding of realpolitik. IMO that’s what’s lacking in so much of the intelligentia’s abysmal grasp of such as Syria. They could start to rectify that by asking the vital question: who benefits? But of course they never do because even more important than a training in critical thinking – which in any case tends to be applied selectively even by those who teach it – is a materialist outlook. My baby boomer generation spent its formative years under conditions of postwar boom and cold war concession. Living in what seemed an enlightened age we were taught to understand history as driven by ideas, and that’s the problem. While I agree we need to be more critical, a key part of what that means is almost always neglected in formal classes on CT. That’s the importance of understanding conflict, be it class, nationalist or imperialist – in terms of the forces at play, and what is really driving them. Answers to those questions almost always point in directions other than those our rulers would have us look.

      • Brian Harry, Australia says

        You’re right. I know well educated right wing nutters who are absolutely sure that there is nothing at all wrong with the USA and Britain, sticking their nose into numerous Middle Eastern conflagrations on the basis that it is “WE'(Britain, America, Australia etc) that are fighting “Evil”(despite us starting it), and want our borders closed to the poor bastards fleeing as refugees. They’re quite disgusting ‘human beings’, and terribly superior than the rest of us.

  9. The problem is that the MSM is run by the anglo-zionist cause if u really followed the whole Syrian tragedy from day one it was a blatant assault on Syrian sovereignty and more to due with Israel. Negroponte the Un attache at the time blatantly stated that the Sarin attack was not from the Damascus side and further more the barrel bombs that the MSM and all the anglo-zionist profess at nauseam was truely debunked by the reputable Beirut news site Al Masdar and stated that it was the famous hell cannons used by the takfiris and that the MSM along with the new Nazis the washington consensus were using against Damascus hence more fabrications.Its only we the sheeple that make the choice to believe the hasbra. Just like the downing of MH17. Go ask any malaysian with any grey matter about MH17 and they will point the finger at Kiev and their anglo-zionist masters.

  10. The start of the Syrian conflict in 2011 has been grossly misreported to demonize Assad.
    In 2001 US general Wesley Clark admitted that there was a US plan “to take out 7 countries in 5 years: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan & Iran..”
    In a 2006 communique Wikileaks has shown that the US and Israel were plotting to overthrow Assad.
    Ron Paul, the ex US Presidential candidate refers to it in this article.
    In 2009 – the same year former French foreign minister Dumas alleges the British began planning covert operations in Syria with an invasion of gunmen – Assad refused to sign a proposed agreement with Qatar that would run an oil pipeline from the latter’s North field contiguous with Iran’s South Pars field, through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and on to Turkey, with a view to supply European markets – albeit crucially bypassing Russia.
    In 2011 rebels were funded and armed by foreign powers who killed many innocent policeman and security forces brought in to quell the foreign backed coup. More policemen were killed than “demonstrators”. Rebels also fired on peaceful protesters blaming it on Assad which was duly reported in the main stream media which is the propaganda arm of Washington and it’s allies.
    Neo-cons in Washington used the same modus operandi in Ukraine during the Maidan protests.
    In 2012 an email From: Sidney Blumenthal To: Hillary Clinton Date: 2012-07-23. Quoting an Israeli security source Sidney Blumenthal wrote:
    [I]f the Assad regime topples, Iran would lose its only ally in the Middle East and would be isolated. At the same time, the fall of the House of Assad could well ignite a sectarian war between the Shiites and the majority Sunnis of the region drawing in Iran, which, in the view of Israeli commanders would not be a bad thing for Israel and its Western allies.
    Also in 2012 from Hillary Clinton’s email expose by Wikileaks which is particularly damning is a communication from Jared Cohen, the President of “Google Ideas,” (now called “Jigsaw”), which was sent on July 25, 2012.
    “Please keep close hold, but my team is planning to launch a tool on Sunday that will publicly track and map the defections in Syria and which parts of the government they are coming from.” This “tool” was given to the media outlet al Jazeera.
    With the weight of the US, NATO, EU, UK, Gulf States, main stream media and corporations like Google against Assad and with Western backed NGO’s like The Syria Campaign, The White Helmets etc. falsifying reports and photos the rest is history.

    • Thanks Geoff. I see I’ve plenty of reading to do this next day or two! It really can be pretty dismaying to see how easily and thoroughly our ruling classes can spin such self serving narratives on Syria and for that matter Ukraine. So important that platforms like this exist to counter those narratives and keep truth alive.

    • Many thanks Geoff Bridges. I have read most of these links(because wee obviously visit the same sites) alas my filing system is a mess and a lot of the articles do not have their URL appended. This is a very good resource and there were a few I hadn’t actually come across. Excellent!

  11. Roger says

    A lot of words proving nothing. Absurd!
    If Assad were indeed the barrel-bombing Sarin-spraying monster he is purported to be no Syrian would be ignorant of the fact, given the traditional extended-family culture of arab countries (everybody knows everything about everybody else), and the small population of Syria.
    And yet he has at least 75% support, and the country has resisted the most dire situation for 5 years with a mostly citizen army.
    The monster/butcher story only adds up to western indoctrination.

    • Yonatan says

      These stories are not aimed at Syrians. The west doesn’t care a jot about Syrians. They are aimed at the gullible and ignorant western citizens laying ground for war etc with the blame pinned on the ‘evil tyrant’ who ‘kills his own people’ (bad, whereas killing people other than your own appears to be acceptable). No matter how vile and venal western leaders are, they always want ‘history’ to be on their side.

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