In a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer, US Representative Tulsi Gabbard repeated the charge that the US was conducting a “regime change war.” She met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in January. She claims he told her he was fighting Islamic State and trying to bring “peace.” She asserts that she went to Congress promising constituents that she would do all she could to prevent the country being misled and dragged into the kind of mistakes that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
It all sounds logical when presented in a clean and polished interview with US media. Asked about Assad bombing and killing thousands of civilians and using chemical weapons, Gabbard is good at staying on message.
“Whatever you think of President Assad, the fact is that he is the president of Syria, for a viable peace agreement to occur, there has to be a conversation to occur,” she told Jake Tapper in January.
Gabbard is good at spinning the Syrian regime narrative, claiming she met with “the Syrian people” and that they told her there are no moderate rebels opposing Assad, that Assad is merely fighting al-Qaida and ISIS, groups the US has been arming to overthrow Assad.
Trump orders US military strikes on Assad airbase in Syria , April 7, 2017 (REUTERS)
There is something insidious about seeing a person elected democratically in multi-party elections in the US or any Western country touring Syria with a dictator and not mentioning that when they meet with “the people,” government minders were standing alongside to make sure “the people” say the right things.
Gabbard is not the first to have done this – she joins a long list of Westerners who enjoy freedom and democracy but have been willing to go abroad and spin the propaganda of dictatorships and present them in a positive light. George Bernard Shaw did the same in Stalinist Russia, others have done it in Cuba, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia or Iran. Wherever there is dictatorship, there are those from democracies who have some bizarre affection for it.
The devotion to Assad among a small, but influential, group in the West has become an interesting club of apologists. They don’t all have the same reasons for defending Assad. Some, like journalist Peter Oborne, try to compare Western support for the Mosul offensive to Assad’s destruction of Aleppo to relativize Assad’s crimes, as if ours were the same.
Before we explore this, let’s remember what Assad is. His father came to power in Syria in 1971 and built a one-party, one-family state. Opposition, such as an Islamist rebellion in Hama in 1982, was brutally crushed. After he died in 2000 his son Bashar became president, much as happens in monarchies. When the Arab Spring swept into Syria in 2011, Bashar used bullets to confront the protests. Amnesty International estimates that around 13,000 opponents of the Assad regime have been hanged in just one prison since 2011.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says around 60,000 have been killed in various prisons.
Why do people support a government like this? The original club of support for Assad was grouped around those who saw Assad as part of the “resistance” or “anti-imperialism” that was “confronting Zionism.” This explains a long list of voices such as Noam Chomsky and Max Blumenthal who tend to see the conflict in Syria as one where the West is “pushing regime change,” while Assad is somehow resisting Western imperialism.
“How can Israel help Syria,” Blumenthal wondered in May 2013. “How about returning the Golan and allowing Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk to return home.” In March 2017 he tweeted: “As a devolutionary al-Qaida-Israeli coalition intensifies its attack on Syria, the goal remains a Libya-style failed state run by militias.” Ben Norton claimed on April 7 that “Israeli apartheid regime ‘fully supported’ and applauded Trump’s bombing of Syria.”
The worldview of those like Chomsky is not pro-Assad as much as it is critical of whatever America is doing. In a 2015 talk at Harvard Chomsky said, “What the US is doing in Syria, the US is supporting the countries that are developing the jihadi movement, the main source is Saudi Arabia, our main ally.” “Who is supporting Nusra Front? Our NATO ally Turkey.”
What Chomsky doesn’t want to ask is what was happening in 2011 when the US wasn’t supporting any groups in Syria, before ISIS or al-Qaida had a major foothold. Why wasn’t there full-throated support for the protests against Assad calling for democracy?
Because even in 2011 to 2013, in the first years of the war, the view among the radical Left and radical Right in the West was that Assad was “resisting” Israel and US agendas. Kim Petersen writes at DissidentVoice.org that “a Zionist and war criminal Barack Obama was bent on attacking Syria in 2013 following false accusations that the Assad government used sarin gas in Ghouta, Syria.”
For many of those who like Assad, primarily because they hate Israel and think that the US is run by “Zionists,” the narrative is that every Assad atrocity is a “false flag,” intended to lure the West into regime change. An article at OffGuardian.org notes that “even the corporate media had admitted there is no proof who perpetrated the Ghouta attack.” In fact, the article goes on to claim, “investigative” journalists have shown that the attack was “perpetrated by the Turkish and US (imperial)-backed rebels.”
The worldview here of “imperialism” and “Zionism” and “regime change” is heavily colored by a long history of internal Western opposition to US policy. It’s not about Assad. If the US supported Assad, then Assad would be a bad “Zionist imperialist” and his enemies would become good freedom fighters.
Among the circle of Assad apologists is another, more convincing narrative that portrays Assad as a “stable” factor in Syria. An article at The Atlantic
noted that “the Syrian rebels are deeply factionalized and have become increasingly radicalized, it is not obvious that the Assad government would be replaced by a central government at all, or that such a government would be meaningfully preferable to Assad.”
Patrick Cockburn and others have written about how Western intervention led to “ruin and lawlessness” in other Arab countries, claiming that somehow the US harmed these “unified” countries.
The theory that Assad brings “stability” is enticing, but it is also wrong. The British Empire also brought “stability” to Africa, and Stalin brought “stability” to Russia, as Hitler and Franco also promised “stability.” Saddam Hussein’s “stability” in Iraq included gassing and committing genocide against the Kurds. Was Hitler’s Auschwitz also a sign of “stability” against the “chaos” of the Weimar Republic? Why is it the same Westerners enticed by the need for “stability” would never accept this excuse in their own countries for chucking democracy out the window in favor of a strongman? The same people who oppose Trump’s aggressive “fascism” also embrace Assad’s “stability.”
The underlying reality of the Assad Apologists Club is that it primarily sees Syrians as not deserving of the same rights people in London or New York enjoy. At its base is a narrative that requires the Syrians to play a role in fighting “Zionism” or “imperialism,” and while supposedly expressing concern at the prospect of “instability” secretly demands they live under a feudal one-party state.
Today’s Assad supporters praise Assad as fighting a “war on terrorism,” when those same voices opposed George W. Bush’s same war on al-Qaida.
That is because the “war on terrorism” of Assad is ostensibly against the West, which supports the “terrorists.”
When people support Assad the question always has to be: why can’t the Syrian people have the same rights as you, the Assad apologist? Why can’t they vote in multi-party elections? Because of “terrorism”? Well why couldn’t they vote in multi-party elections in 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2011, before the excuse of “fighting ISIS” became the reason they can’t? It’s true that the alternative to Assad today tends to be Islamist extremism.
But that is what happens when you suppress people for 50 years. For Assad it is a self-fulfilling prophecy: the longer he stays in power and kills people, the more extreme his adversaries become, which in turn offers even more justification for him being in power. There is no excuse for the Islamist extremism that makes up part of the opposition, but neither is there an excuse for Assad’s crimes. However those who apologize for Assad don’t really care about the presence of ISIS – if they did then where were they in 2012, before ISIS, to oppose Assad?
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.