Initially getting the Syria war wrong, learning from past mistakes, and correcting lies

I have never seen any conflict lied about more than the horrific war in Syria.

Most of the lies have been in the interest of empire. But there has also been a fair share of lying within the camp of those who ostensibly oppose it.

I have been ceaselessly attacked from multiple sides for the evolution of my views on Syria. Some of these attacks have been warranted, I readily concede. Many others have not been.

In a recent denunciation, the blog Moon of Alabama pilloried me, Max Blumenthal, and Rania Khalek, in one of a slew of nearly identical pieces that have done the same (penned by a motley crew of deranged digital stalkers with a penchant for lying, like serial impersonator Pham Binh, Photoshop-wielding demagogue Louis Proyect, and reactionary conspiracy-monger Barbara McKenzie).

Like its many twins, the Moon of Alabama article contains several factual inaccuracies and flat-out lies, along with distortions.

Even more troubling, however, is the fact that neither Moon of Alabama nor any of the other people who have written such hit pieces have ever reached out to me, Max, or Rania for comment. Not once. And for good reason: if they did so, it would show that their entire narrative is wrong, misleading, and sometimes downright libelous.

Shortly after the Moon of Alabama article was published, I emailed the site’s manager Bernhard this message:

I saw the piece you just published. It would be much more fair and accurate if you included a statement from me explaining the evolution of my (and our) views. Please include the following quote below. Max, Rania, and I would have been more than happy to explain our views and provide our side of the story, if you had reached out. Instead of muddying the waters and spreading disinformation about us, we should have a constructive discussion.

It was followed by a lengthy statement, which I have expanded even further below. This is the most detailed explanation of the evolution of my views on the war in Syria. I have already set this record straight multiple times, but here I will do it yet again, in a central location, so that those who falsely claim I have not will find it more difficult to lie about me (although, if history is any indication, they will doubtless continue to do so anyway).

* * *

My views on Syria evolved over a period of years. I readily admit that I was wrong and misguised early in the conflict. I had been deceived by endless propaganda from Cliffite Trotskyites, from destructive yet influential groups on the Anglo left like the US’ International Socialist Organization (ISO), the UK’s Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and Australia’s Socialist Alliance, which claim to oppose imperialism and war but at the end of the day only help serve it.

I was misled by analyses on websites like Socialist Worker, Red Flag, Green Left, and OpenDemocracy, along with writings by figures like Joseph Daher, Michael Karadjis, and Danny Postel, who talk left but walk right. And these were the charlatans claiming to be revolutionaries. More vanilla left-leaning outlets like The Nation and Democracy Now have been just as bad on Syria.

Yet I used to believe that theirs was the principled position. I was convinced the “correct” stance was to oppose Western military intervention (which I genuinely did), but also to support Syria’s armed opposition — ignoring the contradiction that this opposition is entirely held afloat and bankrolled by the US, Europe, and their hyper-reactionary allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, not to mention the fact that this opposition was infiltrated and dominated by hyper-sectarian, far-right Salafi forces from the beginning.

It took some time and I was late, but by 2015 I came to see that this position is nothing but opportunistic, soft-imperialist window dressing. It is lazy moral posturing that avoids actual politics and ignores basic facts on the ground while making lofty generalizations that have no roots in history, yet alone in dialectical materialism. It is the kind of feel-good liberal piffle that led to the dismemberment of Libya.

I was also misled by the Syrian opposition in exile, which is very skilled in the art of disinformation (it certainly has no dearth of funding and support from Western governments and oligarchs). There is a coterie of young Syrians, some from powerful ruling-class families (such as the Atassis, to name one), who grew up and/or were educated in the US or Europe, who speak fluent English, who blog and write articles in major corporate media outlets, who organize protests, and who know how to use lefty social justice-oriented rhetoric in order to push for right-wing imperial policies.

These Syrian voices dominate the discussion in the Western media and political landscape, even in putative leftist circles. They are given platforms along with social democrats like Yassin al-Haj Saleh (who lives in Erdogan’s paradise in Turkey) and George Sabra — who may have some good ideas, but have no impact whatsoever on the ground in Syria.

Most Syrian voices, particularly those still living in Syria, were silenced. It was only when I began talking to Syrians from a different class background, when I met average Syrians like Matar Matar, Rashwan Abdelbaki, Saad Saadi, and others — those who do not get any attention from the corporate press, yet alone glowing profiles in major newspapers, those who do not have a multimillion-dollar foundation behind them — that I realized I had been deceived.

Their voices, along with uncompromisingly consistent and principled scholars like Asad AbuKhalil and veteran journalists like Charles Glass, showed me that I had a grossly simplistic, Hollywood grasp of the war in Syria — a puerile, black-and-white perspective that the US government and the corporate media that so dutifully echoes it have carefully crafted.

I came to see that millions of Syrians feared total collapse above all else. They did not want the government to be torn apart, as the US and its allies did in Iraq and Libya. That does not mean the millions of Syrians (the majority of the population) living in government-held territory were all — as the exiled opposition would have us believe — automata who worshiped Bashar al-Assad.

Given the extreme violence the Syrian military has dispensed in the war and the many crimes committed, Assad is an easy target. Yet he been portrayed in the West with the subtlety of mustache-twirling cartoon villain. Many Syrians had a lot of problems with the Assads and the government overall, I came to see, but wanted the state structure to remain intact — reformed, but intact. Many others came to support Assad out of fear of the armed opposition, which is dominated by genocidal extremists who ethnically cleansed religious and ethnic minorities from “liberated” areas and were intent on sending the “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave.”

I admit I was wrong, and it was gradually around 2015 that I began to see that. When Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra was openly leading the opposition, and yet Cliffites continued to support it (with Trotskyite writers like Louis Proyect and Michael Karadjis cheering on al-Nusra’s offensives), I was hit with the realization that I had been fooling myself.

Max Blumenthal and Rania Khalek came to similar realizations on a similar timeline. The three of us are close friends and colleagues who talk frequently. We discussed the issue at length; our views evolved together organically.

Again, there has been so much propaganda on Syria, perhaps more than on any other conflict I have seen — including Israel-Palestine. It took quite some time to see through it. I deserve criticism for that, and I am more than willing to accept it.

All of this said, it is absolutely false that we have not publicly addressed this before — despite the false claims of Moon of Alabama and others to the contrary. I have written about it numerous times, and Rania and I discussed this at length in a long, three-part episode of the podcast Dead Pundits Society (links: part one, part two, part three).

I did delete some past tweets about Syria, because I no longer agree with them, and more importantly because they were simply wrong, and mistakes should be retracted. I also deleted them because I knew the dishonest trolls who obsessively monitor everything I say and do would continue to bring them up again and again for years in disingenuous smear campaigns (which they have done regardless).

Finally, the most pernicious myth spread about me, Max, and Rania is the notion that our views evolved out of “opportunism.” This is such an outrageous lie it is hard to know where to begin.

What is there to gain professionally from challenging the empire and its relentless propaganda on Syria? Nothing.

In fact, the exact opposite of opportunism is true: Syria led Rania to lose her job. It was likely a factor in me losing mine as well. Max, Rania, and I have been constantly ludicrously smeared as “Assadists.” Major news outlets have regularly refused our submissions because of Syria.

My career has only been greatly harmed for speaking out on Syria. But I did it because I am infinitely more concerned with being on the side against imperialism, war, and capitalism than I am with getting bylines.

The real opportunists are those — writing in The Daily Beast, The Guardian, Dissent, Muftah, Jacobin, and elsewhere — who have persistently attacked the left over Syria and only continued to spread soft-imperialist propaganda. In fact, writing hatchet jobs on How the Western Left Failed Syria™ has become a cottage industry, full of actual opportunists.

I am wholeheartedly willing to accept criticism for being wrong on Syria in the early years of the war. But the notion that my, or Max’s and Rania’s, views evolved out of opportunism is a preposterous and egregious smear that turns reality on its head.

I will conclude with one final note: If we want to convince people who disagree with us, we should be welcoming, not portray their political evolution as part of some dastardly grand conspiracy. I was wrong and I was convinced by the excellent, insightful analysis of writers like David Mizner, Taryn Fivek, and Louis Allday, who were also patient and willing to challenge people who had been misled, like I was.

If we want to change others’ views, if we want to break through the soft-imperialist propaganda of the disastrous Cliffite Trotskyite groups that dominate the Anglo left, if we do not want to just preach to the choir, we should be trying to convince and welcome those who have also been fed misinformation, not alienating them.