It was the first weekend of August, and on the highway leading out of Damascus, Syrian tanks rumbled northwards towards Aleppo. As 20,000 government troops mobilised outside the city, Syrian bomber jets shattered the shopping district of Salahedin, a rebel stronghold. Just metres away from the fighting, a Reuters reporter found a local couple, shaking with fear. “Just to hold power he is willing to destroy our streets, our homes, kill our sons,” cried Fawzia Um Ahmed as she waited for a car to take them to safety.
In Sydney that weekend the sun was out, and so were hundreds of Syrian Australians. In a rally organised by a group called ‘Hands off Syria’, they marched through the city, brandishing posters of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and signs that read, “Thank you Russia and China 4 Vetoes” and “Let the whole world hear: Syria is our Nation, Bashar is our Leader”.
“He’s a doctor, he studied in England,” ‘Naja’ told TruthNews in a broad Syrian-Australian accent, adding that President Assad had been ‘democratically elected’ by 75 per cent of Syrians. “He doesn’t kill his people. We’ve got militants in Syria. They’re terrorists.”
Flanked by cheering Assad supporters, Dr Tim Anderson, a senior lecturer in political economy at Sydney University and a member of Hands Off Syria, made an impassioned speech in support of the Syrian president. “People in this country are very ignorant about what’s going on in Syria,” he began.
“That’s not a crime in itself. But what is unacceptable is the unethical use of this ignorance… Those people saying Assad must go, they have no ethical basis to make that sort of claim,” he continued, cheered by the crowd. To this, he added: “They haven’t
understood that it’s the foundation of the post-colonial era… that a people have a right to self-determination.”
Hang on a minute. Isn’t the Syrian opposition fighting the Assad regime for its right to self-determination?
Don’t try to make sense of this logically; think ideologically.
Anderson is among the ideologues who believe there is no greater enemy than American imperialism. That means the Syrian uprising poses a grave threat to the ‘Axis of Resistance’ — Iran, Syria and Hezbollah — which, according to them, is the only force blocking America’s imperialist ambitions in the Middle East. If Assad falls, they believe it is America, Israel and Saudi Arabia that have the most to gain.
This ideological war is being fought at varying levels of sophistication by leftists with far greater influence than Dr Anderson, such as The Guardian’s associate editor and columnist Seumas Milne, award-winning journalist John Pilger, military historian and intellectual Tariq Ali and British MP George Galloway.
At first glance, it might seem indulgent to slip from reporting on the facts, to reporting on the reportage. Many of us would like to ignore these commentators. Increasingly, however, journalists reporting from Syria are
being driven to despair as their reporting is dismissed as propaganda by anti-imperialist ideologues who claim to know ‘the truth’. Many Syrians I’ve spoken to are also aware that their fate is connected to how the conflict is reported.
Using tactics that vary from the overt to the insidious, these ideologues are willfully twisting the narrative on Syria to score points against the ‘imperialist West’. In the process, they are excusing and providing intellectual cover for the Assad regime. What’s worse, their ‘truth’ is filtering into the mainstream, with many in the public convinced that the conflict in Syria is now little more than a proxy war between the world’s great powers.
This is not to say that hawks who are cheering for intervention in Syria aren’t guilty of peddling their own kind of propaganda — they are. But right-wing hawks don’t typically claim to be champions of the oppressed. Those mentioned above do, and in the same breath, happily undermine a civilian-led uprising against a remorseless dictator, all because said dictator is (on paper, at least) opposed to
Israel and the United States.
“It’s a dreadful moral and political capitulation,” says Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. “It surrenders all other leftist values to a reductive, hyper-simplistic, anti-Western stance which makes all regimes opposed by the West worthy of support by default… That means supporting fascist right-wingers, as long as they have the right enemies.”
Syria has been one of the hardest conflicts in living memory to report on, largely because of the extreme restrictions imposed by the Assad regime. Earlier this year, I wrote about how these restrictions were making it immensely difficult for reporters to sort fact from propaganda, and how important it was that we maintain a critical eye on both sides (‘Syria’s Propaganda War’, April 12).
Now the fog of the Syrian war is providing cover for conspiracy theories which are published as fact with increasing frequency.
Here in Beirut, the worst offenders in this category write for the leftist Hezbollah-friendly newspaper, Al Akhbar. In his scathing letter of farewell to the paper, former columnist Max Blumenthal decried its opinion pages as “a playpen for dictator enablers”.