These questions, alas, are not hypothetical: they accurately describe the position of much of the ostensibly anti-imperialist left on Syria today. These leftists present themselves as the most righteously anti-war—their critics are all described as warmongers—while they foolishly run cover for actual imperialism, as typified by writer Fredrik deBoer in his November 2016 piece for Current Affairs.
DeBoer’s article, entitled “1953—2002—2016: Syria and the Reemergence of McCarthyism,” would have us believe that the new new McCarthyism is defined by social media attacks from an irrationally interventionist left (“do they not remember Iraq?”) on dissident journalists like AlterNet’s Max Blumenthal and Twitter’s Rania Khalek. Their sin, according to deBoer, is not apologism for President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions of others, but simply opposing “a coming conflict in Syria.”
“I believe,” deBoer writes, “that some sort of American military intervention in Syria is likely coming.” In his view, the “interventionist left” is shaming opponents of a coming invasion so that the “the political battle over this war will not involve conservatives and some liberals fighting against a more-or-less unified radical left,” but a few lone steely leftist radicals against a united front of conservatives, liberals and an emergent “pro-war left.”
DeBoer defines this iteration of McCarthyism as a “set of practices consisting of slandering opponents without fair process and based on thin evidence, ascribing dark motives to others to delegitimize their position, suggesting that those you argue with work under the influence of some shadowy entity, and insisting that your targets are not just wrong, but actively malign.”
What DeBoer misses, however, is that, when it comes to Syria, this critique is precisely what he and those he defends are guilty of. Indeed, they casually slander Syrians who oppose Assad as “terrorists” (treating the opposition as a monolith of “Islamic extremists”) and ascribe sinister motives to their defenders (often calling them war mongering “imperialists”). Worse yet, figures like DeBoer do this all in the name of anti-war subversion. In practice, however, theirs is the act of siding with the likes of President-elect Donald J. Trump, who prefers partnering “with every nation that is willing to join us” in the War on Terror.
Protesting the War That Didn’t Come
In terms of U.S. military intervention in Syria, the “future” deBoer ominously warns of happened over two years ago. Since September 2014, a U.S.-led coalition has carried out more than 5,647 airstrikes, approximately seven a day on average, against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and other extremists in Syria, killing hundreds of innocent men, women, and children in the process, according to the monitoring group Airwars.
In the wake of these realities, an objectively pro-war left has emerged. In the 800 or so days since U.S. airstrikes began, these leftists have largely been silent on those attacks. Still, according to calcified leftist thinking, the war we should really be protesting and getting mad about is not the current U.S. intervention underway in Syria, but the “other one” apparently coming around the bend that will bring “regime change.” Better a War on Terror, one must conclude, than a no-fly zone.
Take British author Tariq Ali, who deBoer characterizes as “a far left voice who has consistently opposed Western intervention against Assad.” For deBoer to describe Ali as opposed to Western intervention “against Assad,” rather than “in Syria,” is quite telling. At a Stop the War rally in London last year, Ali addressed the British government on the eve of a vote about whether to bomb ISIS in Syria. “You should be fighting side by side with Assad and the Russians,” Ali declared.
Since then, Western governments have effectively pursued this path through backchannels and a formal joint U.S.-Russia bombing plan (which was only scuttled by a U.S. friendly fire incident and the bombing of a U.N. aid convoy by pro-government forces). It is an alliance we can expect to be resurrected by President-elect Donald J. Trump who only cares, like our far-left, red-baited dissidents in alternative media, that “Assad is killing ISIS [and] Russia is killing ISIS.”
This is how opposition to Western intervention against Assad works—by making overt calls to collaborate with Syria and remaining silent about U.S. plans to work with its Russian backers. This is the pro-war left that, like the U.S. bombing campaign in Syria, actually exists now.
This segment of the left is powerful. It controls the leading anti-war organizations, dozens of which backed a statement supporting “the right of the Syrian government to request and accept military assistance from other countries,” including the United States. It also dominates the media consumed by the far left, from Counterpunch to RT.
Still, there are those who insist it is the other way around: that it is the children of political royalty—those with every advantage—who are somehow the underprivileged truth-tellers. Their aggressive, unrelenting, and “Syria-obsessed” critics, we are told, are simply disingenuous and want more war. This not-so-merry band of fact checkers have even set up their own online version of Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, believing “there is no such thing as a principled opponent of the use of US force to save Syria,” as deBoer argues.
According to deBoer, this online mob “aggressively advocate[s] for more American arms in Syria,” if not an outright invasion. It also engages in “brutal smears” of principled opponents of U.S. aggression, who are digitally barrel bombed by daily, merciless Ahrar Al-Sham-bros. As deBoer sees it, their “chosen targets” (Blumenthal and Khalek) are particularly “vulnerable,” as they are “political orphans” who are “left-wing, disdainful of Democrats, not associated with deep-pocketed publications, and fiercely independent.”
If we take a step back into reality, we can understand why deBoer’s account is far from true, and glimpse the actual reason figures like Blumenthal and Khalek are criticized. As voiced by Khalek’s former Electronic Intifada colleague and Palestinian radical, Budour Hassan, the real problem is that Khalek is an apologist for fascism: “a whitewasher of Assad crimes.” Hassan argues that Khalek’s whitewashing is not simple, unequivocal support for the regime, but something more sophisticated. Khalek uses “every single freaking trick from the Zionist propaganda book,” from appealing to the virtues of cruise missile secularism in the face of practicing Muslims with guns to creating a false equivalence between states with fighter jets and militias with mortars.
Hassan is neither a liberal, an American, nor a supporter of U.S. intervention in Syria. In other words, she is not “polemically useful,” and so in the world deBoer has created, she simply does not exist. Those like Hassan, who do not love imperialism but do hate mass-murder apologism—and are horrified that those they once considered comrades are embracing it—are erased from the discourse.
Justifying the Unjustifiable
In September 2016, Khalek penned an article for The Intercept on the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The article focused exclusively on targeted sanctions against the regime, relying on a new, leaked “UN report” that was neither new, leaked, nor a UN report.
For this false report, Khalek was invited by the Syrian regime to attend a conference in Damascus, financed by Assad’s father-in-law. She was also invited to speak at the event—an invitation she turned down. Her explanation for refusing to speak, which she posted on Facebook, was confusing to say the least. It seems the primary reason for Khalek’s about face was that her speaking role had become public, when she had thought, per the “Chatham House rules” it would remain confidential.
While in Syria, Khalek conducted an interview with a man in Damascus who informed her that the besieged rebels of Eastern Aleppo had, curiously, besieged themselves. She did not disclose, as The New York Times did, that her interview in the capital of a totalitarian police state was conducted in the presence of a regime agent, since Damascus had “require[ed] journalists to travel with minders and to go through elaborate hoops to visit specific areas.” The Times reported that the junket in which Khalek took part was “even more tightly orchestrated than usual.”
In a series of tweets, Khalek said she found the “regime narrative” on the war most compelling—at least among the Syrians she purportedly spoke with. The “West may hate Bashar,” she tweeted, “but Syrians aren’t Westerners.”
Charlotte Silver, an associate editor at the Electronic Intifada, took issue with Khalek’s words and actions vis-a-vis the Damascus conference. “As reporters our job is to expose institutions of power, not participate in efforts to whitewash or legitimize them,” Silver noted on Twitter. “If a journalist can’t figure out the nature of a conference she’s speaking at, she’s been discredited as a reliable judge of info + sources.”
If “apologist” is the wrong word for someone who agrees to speak at a public relations gala for a totalitarian state, and who reports only on the state’s official line of propaganda, then what would the appropriate word be?
Blumenthal and the White Helmets
As for Blumenthal, he himself is not an overt campaigner for Assad, but rather, like Frederik deBoer, is hyper-focused—even fixated—on a hypothetical U.S. intervention. He is so dedicated to this cause he often has very little to say about daily bombing raids, either by the United States, Russia, or the Assad regime.
The ostensibly humanitarian intervention Blumenthal fears and fixates on is reflected in his only substantial written contribution on the debate over Syria, in the last three years: an attack in AlterNet on the Syrian Civil Defense, first-responders commonly known as the “White Helmets.” His article adds almost nothing new to what could already be found on openly pro-Assad media, with the author of one these pieces, Vanessa Beeley, even claiming to be Blumenthal’s indirect source for information on the White Helmets.
As Blumenthal notes in his article, the White Helmets, who are volunteers rescuing people trapped in buildings bombed by the governments of Syria and Russia, have received some funding from USAID. Attempting to suggest this funding has manipulated the group’s agenda, Blumenthal argues that the White Helmets’ motto—“[t]o save one life is to save all of humanity”—is “remarkably similar to that of Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust epic, Schindler’s List.” Unbeknownst to Blumenthal, the quote in question comes from the Quran, which researchers believe predates the 1993 Holocaust film.
The Real Critique
Though President Barack Obama famously pledged to intervene militarily if the Syrian government used chemical weapons, he reneged on this promise after the regime crossed this “red line” and launched a sarin attack on Ghouta in August 2013. Since then, Syrians have given up hope that the international community will do anything in Syria that doesn’t relate to counter-terrorism. The Western left, meanwhile, is still fighting against an intervention that has never come to pass.
The real problem, then, is that Blumenthal and Khalek are using bad journalism and bad arguments to stave off a war that has not come, to preserve a regime that is solidly in place. Ironically, on this latter point, they are in lockstep with the Washington foreign policy establishment. According to a RAND Institute survey (which includes conclusions from “experts from U.S. intelligence and policy communities” and “Washington think tanks”), by 2013, Washington insiders had reached a consensus around the notion that “regime collapse” in Syria represented “the worst possible outcome for U.S. strategic interests.”
What unites these alt-media stars, like the Western left writ large, is that they offer nothing to Syrians, but smug despair and desperate smears amid the worst war of the 21st century, self-righteously adopting the logic of the War on Terror in the name of ending an intervention that has not and likely will not happen.
“Anyone who lived in the immediate post-9/11 world is familiar with this type of thing,” DeBoer writes. “That anyone who didn’t press for all-out war on terrorism—whatever that meant—was guilty of tacit support for al-Qaeda was a given.” Indeed, we see that exact thing now, but not from those waging what DeBoer sees as a crusade. Convicting people of siding with terror is a favored tactic of the ostensibly anti-war left, as Khalek demonstrated when she decided to accuse pro-revolution, anti-imperialists of “whitewashing al-Qaeda.”
More recently, in response to the opposition’s loss of large swathes of territory in Aleppo to the Syrian regime, Blumenthal claimed that the city is “being retaken from armed extremists”—rather than mentioning how it was being destroyed by the bombs of a murderous regime and its allies. In another case, former Salon journalist, Benjamin Norton, accused various anti-Assad analysts of supporting al-Qaeda and likened the U.S. war against the group to World War II. “Al-Qaeda is what the Italian Fascists look like, and ISIS is what the Nazis look like,” he wrote, channeling neoconservative pundit Daniel Pipes, who helped popularize the concept of “Islamo-fascism” after 9/11.
When the Assad regime cleansed the rebel-held town of Daraya of its residents, Norton rubbed sarin in the survivors’ wounds, slandering them as “radical Islamists” because some of their democratically controlled militias used the word “Islam” in their names. Indeed, Norton was one of hundreds of anti-imperialist hawks who signed a letter recognizing the Syrian dictator’s “sovereign” right to request a foreign bombing campaign on his country.
Conflating the word Islam with terror is presumably okay if the targets are Syrian. After all, they are the people we speak for, not to, unless we are in the presence of a government minder. Should they die as a result of an expanded air war, they can thank the “anti-war” left for selling it as a war on fascism.
An Absurd Left
Today, the ultimate absurdity of the “anti-war” left is that those who openly back foreign intervention in Syria (as long as it is the “right” kind), accuse their left-wing critics of silencing free speech, or being imperialists and terrorist sympathizers. But, it is neither 1952 nor 2002: it is the year that a fascist is headed to the White House calling not for humanitarian intervention in Syria, but echoing AlterNet, Salon, and the Tariq Alis of the world in proposing peace with Russia and a jointly fought war against Syrian rebels, activists, and first responders.
Those who banked on a humanitarian intervention under Hillary Clinton, one that would redeem their smears as prescience, should be forced to own the fact that all they have ever offered Syrians is opposition to a war that never was, coupled with silence on the wars that are killing them now.
In the face of the deadliest campaign of state terror the 21st century has seen, we should never forget the false prophecies of those who looked at Syria, and a half-million dead, and decided they were victims too—of a McCarthyism from the bottom up—because some people disagreed with their views.