By Louis Allday, published on MRZine, Dec 13, 2016
Since 2011, the torrent of ill-informed, inaccurate and often entirely dishonest analysis of events in Syria has been unremitting. I have written previously about the dangers of using simplistic explanations to make sense of the conflict, a problem that has surfaced repeatedly over the past five years. However, there is a greater problem at large. The mainstream discourse on Syria has become so toxic, detached from reality and devoid of nuance that anyone who dares to even question the constructed narrative of ongoing ‘revolution’, or who opposes the arguments of those who advocate for the imposition of a no-fly zone by the West, can expect swift retribution. Such dissenters are immediately attacked, frequently slandered as ‘Assadists’ or ‘Pro-Assad’ and often accused of showing cruel indifference to the suffering of Syrians.
One of many truths lost within this discourse is the reality that the creation of a no-fly zone would, in the words of the most senior general in the U.S. Armed Forces, mean the U.S. going to war “against Syria and Russia”. I wish to be clear from the outset that I write this as someone who has previously lived in Syria and cherishes deeply the memories of my time there. I remain in touch with many Syrian friends, most of whom are now refugees outside of the country. So it is particularly difficult for me to swallow accusations of callousness towards the plight of Syrians and their country: nothing could be further from the truth.
In the current environment, to express even a mildly dissenting opinion, point out basic but unwelcome facts such as the presence of significant public support for the government in Syria, or highlight the frequently brutal acts of rebel groups, has seen many people ridiculed and attacked on social media. These attacks are rarely, if ever, reasoned critiques of opposing views; instead they frequently descend into personal, often hysterical, insults and baseless, vitriolic allegations. Generally, a set of core arguments are used to denounce those who question the dominant narrative: they include the notion that it is somehow Islamophobic to criticise the actions of rebel groups or to label them as extremists, and that to highlight the central role of U.S. imperialism in the conflict is Orientalist as it denies Syrians their ‘agency’. Often, legitimate criticism is simply dismissed outright as ‘fascist’, ‘Stalinist’, ‘Putinist’ or all three. The policing of acceptable opinion in this way has a simple and practical function: to foster a climate in which people feel too intimidated to speak out, thus allowing the dominant narrative to remain unquestioned so that, crucially, it can continue to be utilised to generate public support for further Western intervention in Syria.
Of course, this is a strategy with a well-established precedent; the treatment given to many opponents of NATO’s assault on Libya in 2011 and the U.S./UK invasion of Iraq in 2003 are obvious recent examples. Unfortunately, it remains an effective means to stifle dissent and establish the acceptable parameters of mainstream debate. Its success has meant that those in favour of greater Western intervention in Syria have virtually monopolised the popular debate and control the narrative. I know several people who have admitted to me that they are too intimidated to write or speak honestly about Syria in public and so either limit what they say or, if possible, do not broach the topic at all. I am certain that many reading this will have noticed a glaring difference between private conservations they have with friends and acquaintances that work on Syria in some capacity, and the statements that they make in public.
I have not been silent on the issue in the public domain, but frankly I too have occasionally found myself feeling intimidated. Consequently, I have not written as much on this area as I could have. Indeed, it is likely that as a result of writing this article, some of the individuals that I mention will attack me publicly as some kind of combination of crypto-fascist Assadist, stooge of Putin/Iran and deluded white anti-imperialist; many others may silently judge me in much the same way. However, notwithstanding the short-term uncertainty regarding the exact direction of U.S. foreign policy that has been caused by Donald Trump’s recent victory and looming presidency, direct U.S. military intervention in Syria with the aim of regime change or a partition of the country remains a distinct possibility. Therefore, I feel it is incumbent upon me, as well as others, to speak out, if only to disrupt the usual spurious talking points that have been largely unchallenged for too long.
Bassam Haddad has recently observed that the debate over Syria has now reached a dead end; in the UK, as in many other cases, the debate still continues, but it is increasingly dominated by a relatively small yet extremely vocal group of activists. The figures of whom I speak — the overwhelming majority of whom are non-Syrian — are not a monolith; but what appears to unite virtually all of them is their full blooded support for the creation of a no-fly zone (which is, to be clear, an intrinsically pro-war stance), unquestioning support for the White Helmets, and utter disdain for any principled anti-imperialist position taken in respect of intervention in Syria. Many also share an inaccurate, and at times dishonest, analysis of NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011, which is frequently deployed to justify their stance on Syria.
In this context, I think it is important to be clear that I do not oppose any potential intervention by the West simply because it ‘won’t help’ as some argue: I do so because I do not believe that such an intervention would be motivated by humanitarian intentions. This clarification is crucial, because to accept this humanitarian premise before mounting any disagreement concedes important ground before the argument has even commenced. Reinforcing the notion that the U.S. or the UK would be motivated to intervene in Syria, or anywhere else, through a genuine desire to ‘stop the bloodshed’ is ahistorical and fundamentally disingenuous. On the contrary, any such intervention, in addition to inevitably killing more civilians, would constitute a self-interested and dangerous escalation in the West’s ongoing campaign of aggression against the Syrian state. Such an escalation would not only heighten the chances of the permanent dismemberment of Syria becoming a reality (evidently a long-standing and strongly desired outcome by some parties), but would potentially spark a broader conflict with Russia, the consequences of which could be absolutely catastrophic.
Arguably, no war has been more mediated by misunderstanding than the conflict currently taking place in Syria. This article will seek to correct some of the major fallacies in circulation, illuminate how dissenting voices are forced out of the mainstream debate through smears and intimidation, and unmask the ostensibly neutral stances of a number of prominent voices on the conflict.
The Myth of Western non-intervention
One of the many fallacies that predominate in this prevailing narrative is that the West has not intervened in the conflict in Syria. For instance, Amnesty International has recently described the UK as “sit[ting] on the sidelines” of the conflict. This fundamentally false position ignores several years of the West and its regional allies (primarily Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar) arming, funding and training rebel groups, the crippling economic sanctions imposed against the Syrian Government, ongoing airstrikes, special forces operations, and a host of other diplomatic, military and economic measures that have been taken. Not only has the West (primarily the U.S.) intervened, it has done so on a very large scale. For instance, in June 2015, it was revealed that the CIA’s involvement in Syria had become “one of the agency’s largest covert operations” in which it was spending roughly $1bn a year (about $1 for every $15 in the CIA’s announced budget). At that time, this operation based out of Jordan had already “trained and equipped nearly 10,000 fighters sent into Syria over the past several years”. As Patrick Higgins has remarked, “[i]n other words, the United States launched a full-scale war against Syria, and few Americans actually noticed”.
It is vital to place this aggression in the context of long-standing U.S. animosity to the Syrian Government. As diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have revealed, since at least 2006, the U.S. has consistently sought to undermine it “by any available means”, utilising a variety of techniques including an effort — in co-ordination with Saudi Arabia — to encourage Islamic fundamentalism and sectarianism in the country by playing on fears of Iranian influence. Indeed, although it is rarely mentioned, a senior U.S. intelligence official is on record in a televised interview with Mehdi Hasan confirming that facilitating the rise of ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups in Syria and Iraq was a “wilful decision” on behalf of the Obama administration. The BBC has recently reported that ISIS use ammunition bought legally in Eastern Europe by the U.S. and Saudi Governments that is then transported via Turkey into Syria and Iraq, “sometimes only two months from leaving the factory”.
When U.S. intervention in Syria is acknowledged, it is regularly portrayed as having been small-scale and insufficient. Professor Gilbert Achcar of SOAS has remarked that “Washington’s support to the opposition is more the stuff of jokes than anything serious”. Given that Achcar made this observation six months after the revelations concerning the enormous scale of the CIA’s Syria operation, it is hard to imagine exactly what level of military support would be required in order to be considered more than a ‘joke’. This misleading narrative of non-existent or inadequate U.S. intervention, coupled with a propensity to defend it with insults, is extremely common, including among commentators who write for ostensibly left-leaning publications. Some pundits such as Murtaza Hussain of The Intercept have recently even gone so far as to claim that the U.S. is in fact intervening in Syria, but “in favor of Assad“, an absurd argument that Glenn Greenwald has also expressed.
An atmosphere of intimidation
I tell the following anecdote not to portray myself as some kind of victim or to try and garner sympathy, but rather to provide a small example from personal experience that indicates the level to which the discourse on Syria has descended and to illustrate why so many people are now fearful of partaking in open debate on the issue. In August 2016, Murtaza Hussain conducted an interview with Mostafa Mahamed, then spokesperson of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the recently re-branded Jabhat al Nusra (i.e. al-Qaeda in Syria), during a period when the Western media were giving the group substantial coverage that was frequently entirely uncritical. In the interview, Mahamed pontificated on his vision for the future of Syrian society and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s role within it. Reading this interview I was struck that just as a Sky News interview with Mahamed had failed to do so four days before, Hussain had not thought it pertinent to ask why Mahamed, an Egyptian-born Australian fundamentalist with no previous links to the country, should have any say on the future of Syrian society. I posed this question to Hussain on Twitter and he responded dismissively, before declaring crudely: “It’s amazing how quickly Assadists start sounding like Mark Regev“. In so doing, and without a second’s thought, he had not only denounced me to his 50,000 followers as an “Assadist”, but also cheaply compared me to one of Israel’s most repugnant propagandists.
Hussain’s knee-jerk response to immediately delegitimise even polite questioning of his work by implying that it came from an “Assadist” perspective is revealing and is indicative of the broader tendency at work. Following this exchange, a number of people questioned Hussain’s dismissal of me in such a manner. One of those individuals was the American journalist, Rania Khalek, who has subsequently become perhaps the most prominent victim of this trend. Khalek, who was already being widely criticised at that time, was eventually hounded for her stance on Syria to such an extent that in October 2016, after agreeing to attend a conference in Damascus, she was forced to step down as an editor of Electronic Intifada. Ironically, while Khalek ultimately did not even attend the conference, several other mainstream journalists and analysts who did so have received no criticism. Khalek was specifically targeted for several months by a group that included Oz Katerji, who currently works for the Turkish state broadcaster, TRT World and fellow journalist Charles Davis. In direct messages, Katerji warned Khalek to “change your rhetoric or we will continue to campaign against you“; he also sent similar aggressive messages to Khalek’s colleague, Asa Winstanley.
A recent, two-part investigation by the American journalist Max Blumenthal sparked an irate response and subsequent campaign of intimidation similar to that which Khalek faced. In the investigation, Blumenthal reported numerous inconvenient facts regarding the White Helmets and the lobbying group the Syria Campaign (both of which strongly advocate the imposition of a no-fly zone) that sent many of the groups’ supporters into meltdown. Blumenthal’s investigation, which I recommend reading, was factual, and anything but the ‘smear’ it was widely depicted to be. The fury of the reaction to Blumenthal’s work took me aback, not only because much of the information it contained was already well known in some circles online and had been published elsewhere previously, but because Blumenthal did not explore the explosive allegations that the White Helmets have faked some of the footage and images. These allegations (to even mention which online had seen people condemned as heartless and sickening) have subsequently been lent some credence after a bizarre incident in which the White Helmets posted online a so-called ‘mannequin challenge’ video (that has since been taken down) in which two of its members and a supposedly injured man trapped in rubble posed silently and motionlessly for thirty seconds before a dramatic rescue began and the man suddenly began to wail in pain.
Notwithstanding this omission, after his investigation was published, Blumenthal was immediately attacked and insulted by a number of prominent voices on Syria; Robin Yassin-Kassab slandered him as “pro-fascist filth” who was “desperate for attention, to distract from genocide and Russian imperialist crimes”. Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, who has declared that the White Helmets are his family and that “[a]n attack on them is an attack on me”, reacted to the articles with similar fury. Indeed, Blumenthal has alleged that many abusive and threatening phone calls that he received after the investigation was published were in fact from Idrees Ahmad.
In his response to Blumenthal’s work, the BuzzFeed journalist Borzou Daragahi employed another tactic commonly used to smear leftist political positions, namely their pathologization, and claimed that the “Left’s obsession with SyriaCivilDef [the White Helmets] so unseemly. Likely points to unresolved mommy issues. So much of left psychologically damaged.” Daragahi proceeded to elaborate on this obscene domestic abuse analogy, stating “Perhaps daddy beat mommy, as Assad bombs civilians. You feel guilty for siding with daddy (Assad) and feel rage at mommy (civilians).”
Previously, Daragahi has vilified anti-imperialists as “not really leftists, just anti-West. They are angry, damaged people with huge Oedipal issues”. In an exchange with Vijay Prashad, Joey Ayoub of Global Voices denigrated Blumenthal as a “pseudo-journalist with clear disdain for Syrians”, a particularly hypocritical criticism for Ayoub to make, considering that — in a truly crass distortion of reality — he then declared that there are not two sides in Syria, since the “overwhelming majority of Syrians rose up against Assad”. For Ayoub to so brazenly dismiss a substantial proportion of Syria’s population solely because it does not agree with his own perspective raises serious doubts about his objectivity.
It appears that the source of this widespread and often hysterical reaction to Blumenthal’s investigation by Ayoub, Daragahi and others — none of whom were able to challenge the accuracy of the reporting itself it should be noted — is not only due to the fact that for the first time, a journalist of Blumenthal’s stature was daring to critique the Syria Campaign and the White Helmets, but that in the words of a now fierce critic of his, Blumenthal “used to be one of us“. Indeed, in 2012 Blumenthal resigned in very public fashion from the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, citing its purportedly pro-Assad editorial stance. A strong response to Blumenthal’s decision to resign written by Sharmine Narwani — one of the Al-Akhbar writers he criticised — can be read here. The treatment that both Blumenthal and Khalek have received is indicative of how extremely restricted the mainstream debate on Syria is. Both have previously expressed ‘anti-Assad’ sentiment and have only changed their stances on Syria relatively recently. Yet despite their high profile, or possibly due to it, both have been widely attacked as supposedly callous pro-Assad stooges; and in the case of Khalek, the campaign against her forced her out of her place of employment.
The campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and the UK context
In the UK, significant attention has recently been focused on Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Syria, notably so after the aforementioned Oz Katerji, who by his own admission “unequivocally” advocates for war against Syria, repeatedly heckled him during a Stop the War Coalition event in October 2016. This criticism of Corbyn is part of a broader campaign in the UK that has attacked the Stop the War Coalition and increasingly ‘the Left’ in general for its refusal to support the imposition of a no-fly zone and its allegedly insufficient condemnation of the governments of Russia and Syria. Joey Ayoub’s recent declaration that there is “literally no difference whatsoever” between “much of the Western Left and the *actual Far Right* where Syria is concerned” is typical of this trend. The Vice-Chair of Stop the War, Chris Nineham, can be seen responding to these criticisms calmly and effectively in this interview.
One of the most vocal critics of Corbyn in this regard has been the writer Robin Yassin-Kassab, most widely known for his 2008 novel The Road to Damascus and his recent book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (co-authored with Leila al-Shami). Yassin-Kassab is regularly given a prominent platform from which to speak and write about Syria, especially in the UK. He refers to Corbyn as “pro-Putin, pro-Khamenei” and a “Stalinist worm” and has even gone so far as to call for the Labour leader to be “put to sleep” on account of his supposed “Stalinism (or Putinism, or Assadism, whatever you call it)”. Similarly, he has attacked Jill Stein (the U.S. Green Party’s presidential candidate) as a “ridiculous piece of shit” and has accused her of “cuddling up to the criminal imperialist Putin”.
In addition to these outrageous comments, Robin Yassin-Kassab has taken a number of extremely problematic stances that call into question his credibility as an unprejudiced voice on Syria. Yassin-Kassab has openly and vociferously called for the West to arm the opposition in Syria and has labelled the idea that the U.S. is interested in regime change in Syria as a “false notion” that Western leftists are “obsessed” with. In February 2013, during a Q&A after a performance of the play Sour Lips by Omar el-Khairy, I heard him speciously argue that the situation in Syria was directly analogous to that in Palestine, a conflict between colonisers (Israel/Assad) and the colonised (Palestinians/Syrians). Yassin-Kassab has also praised Turkish military aggression in Syria several times and even offered his thanks after Turkey shot down a Russian plane in November 2015. Disturbingly, in April 2014, he praised the “brilliant” Lattakia Offensive and specifically thanked Erdogan and Turkey “for the supply lines” that facilitated it. This offensive, which was led by a coalition of rebel groups including Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria), attacked civilian areas and, when it took the town of Kessab, looted Armenian-owned shops and homes, took Armenian families hostage, and desecrated the town’s three churches, forcing around 2,000 ethnic Armenians to flee.
Perhaps most worryingly, in addition to those already detailed above, Yassin-Kassab has staked out some astonishingly reactionary positions in relation to events in Syria that illustrate just how extreme the views of many of these campaigners truly are. For example, in December 2015 when Zahran Alloush, leader of the Saudi Arabia-backed group, Jaish al-Islam was killed in an airstrike, Yassin-Kassab publicly called for his “murder by Russian imperialists” to be “avenged“. Alloush was a Wahhabi extremist implicated in a host of brutal human rights violations including torture and assassination as well as selling aid and food at inflated prices. In 2013, Alloush — who was strongly opposed to democracy in Syria — actually announced the re-establishment of the Ummayad Caliphate and declared that “[w]e will bury the heads of impure Shiites in Najaf, God willing”. Yassin-Kassab could not very well have been ignorant of this, which makes his call for the death of such a violently sectarian warlord to be “avenged” a serious concern. This is notably so as — in a sectarian line of thinking that Alloush himself would likely have agreed with — Yassin-Kassab has stated that “Iranian-Shia expansionism is a main cause of rising Sunni jihadism” and argued that “Iran’s trans-national Shia jihadist militias are currently the greatest driver of sectarianism in the region“. In this context, he has even stated that “[m]ost Syrian people would probably say, ISIS is better than Assad”. That a man with such extreme opinions is regularly hosted at literary festivals, cultural institutions, UK/U.S. universities, and even human rights organisations is indicative of just how skewed the mainstream narrative on Syria is.
In common with so many figures who argue for further military intervention in Syria, Yassin-Kassab also appears to be in denial about the reality of events in Libya. In May 2016, he argued that in Libya, a “popular revolution” against a “fascist” who was slaughtering his own people had taken place, and that it was “West-centric” to argue that the reason Gaddafi fell was because of intervention by France, the UK and the U.S.. This stance has been echoed by many others including Ayoub, who has argued that to observe that Libya was destroyed “utterly strip[s] Libyans of agency” and described Libya as a “paradise” compared to Syria. This interpretation of events in Libya has been thoroughly disproved by several sources including a report by the UK Foreign Affairs Committee that is discussed in greater detail below.
The discourse in academia: Libya — a model for Syria?
The dominant narrative on Syria in academia, with some notable exceptions, has been virtually indistinguishable from what is prevalent in much of the media. In fact, a number of academics have become open and in some cases fanatical advocates for greater Western intervention in Syria. For instance, Gilbert Achcar has repeatedly berated President Obama for failing to arm the Syrian opposition sufficiently. Although he has denied it vehemently since, Achcar supported NATO’s intervention in Libya. In March 2011, Achcar argued that given the “imminent threat of mass slaughter” it was “morally and politically wrong for anyone on the left to oppose the no-fly zone” and that the “idea that Western powers are intervening in Libya because they want to topple a regime hostile to their interests is just preposterous”. Despite accounts of Libyan rebels indiscriminately attacking and detaining black Africans, Achcar described the opposition forces as being united in “longing for democracy and human rights“. He also dismissed the notion that much of the most powerful opposition were Islamic extremists, contending that this was Gaddafi “trying to get the support of the West”. On Libya’s prospects after the removal of Gaddafi, he remarked: “[I]f there is no clarity about what a post-Gaddafi Libya might look like . . . it can’t be worse than Gaddafi’s regime”.
Already dubious at the time, these claims have all subsequently been proven to be spectacularly incorrect. In September 2013, a Harvard University study stated that Gaddafi had not in fact targeted civilians or used indiscriminate force, that Islamists were indeed dominant in the ranks of rebel forces and that the intervention had not only dramatically increased the number of casualties in the conflict, but also exacerbated “human rights abuses, humanitarian suffering, Islamic radicalism, and weapons proliferation in Libya and its neighbors”. All of these conclusions were confirmed, and expanded upon three years later by the UK Government’s Foreign Affairs Committee investigation into the intervention, which stated that it had caused “political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa”. Unfortunately, having been so wrong on Libya does not appear to have given Achcar pause for thought, and regrettably, he has taken a remarkably similar line on Syria and stuck with it persistently.
Similarly, Thomas Pierret of the University of Edinburgh has also adopted an explicitly pro-interventionist stance and called repeatedly for U.S. military intervention in Syria. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his apparent fervour for an escalation in the conflict, Pierret takes a decidedly cavalier stance towards the potential dissolution of the entire Syrian state, brazenly arguing: “Why shld [sic] we be scared of statelessness in Syria? Libya is so much better than Syria without a ‘state'”. Such an attitude is presumably easy to adopt from the comfort of Scotland compared to the position of a Syrian depending on the state for survival, or one of the approximately 1.8 million Libyans (one third of the entire population) who were forced to flee to Tunisia after the Libyan state was destroyed. In addition to his involvement in campaigns of intimidation as described above, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, a Lecturer at Stirling University, has also made light of Libya’s destruction, comparing its current state favourably to Syria’s and arguing that it was “being bulldozed into the abyss” by Gaddafi prior to the intervention. Ahmad, who has taken a strongly pro-intervention stance on Syria, is a vitriolic presence on social media and frequently labels any stance or individual he disagrees with, including Jacobin magazine and Seymour Hersh, as “fascist“. He has also recently described Glenn Greenwald as “objectively pro-Assad” and the “alt-left Ayatollah” as well as blamed him for Trump’s recent election win. Sadly, Idrees Ahmad’s opinions and attacks on his opponents are only the most florid expressions of a position that is widely held in the Western academy on military intervention in Syria.
The myth of neutral ‘experts’
Predictably, over the past five years, a similar narrative has been dominant in the world of think-tanks and foreign policy expertise (usually what is in reality imperial strategizing in all but name). During this period, a number of unscrupulous pundits have managed to position themselves as experts on Syria and the broader region. It has been enormously dispiriting to see many people — in both academia and the media — treat the output of these partisan, often deeply compromised individuals as if it were objective analysis. One of the most prominent figures to have built their career on the back of the war in Syria in this fashion is Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute (formerly of the Brookings Institution in Doha). Lister is vocally pro-intervention and for a number of years has deceitfully obscured Western intervention in Syria. In October 2015, he argued that four and a half years of “U.S./Western inaction” in Syria had “clearly demonstrated how ‘doing nothing’ is so often worse than ‘doing something'”. More recently, Lister co-authored an op-ed with John Allen, a retired U.S. Marine Corps General, in which the pair argued for U.S. war against both Syria and Russia. In another recent article in which he attacked Trump’s stance on Syria, Lister made, without providing any evidence, the extraordinary claim that the Syrian Government had “methodically” built both al-Qaeda in Iraq and then ISIS from 2003 until 2010. Yet, inexplicably — given his overt ties to the U.S. establishment, visibly pro-war sentiment and frequent unsubstantiated claims — many continue to treat Lister as a neutral source of analysis. It is no surprise, however, that Yassin-Kassab has praised Lister and defended him from criticism.
In addition to his work with Brookings and subsequently the Middle East Institute, Lister is also a part of the ‘Track II Syria Initiative’. During the course of this work, which in his own description has been “100 percent funded by Western governments“, Lister has evidently formed close links with members of a number of armed groups inside of Syria. At times, his role appears to have been effectively to act as a West-facing public relations agent for these groups, announcing their name changes and mergers and carrying out damage limitation exercises in the wake of their frequently brutal violence. No incident revealed this more starkly than the horrific beheading of a young Palestinian boy by the Nur al-Din al-Zinki Brigade in July 2016. Lister had previously championed al-Zinki — a recipient of both funding and arms from the U.S. Government — as one of the groups that formed the 70,000 supposedly ‘moderate’ fighters in Syria that David Cameron claimed existed in November 2015. When footage of the beheading emerged online, Lister tweeted almost immediately that he had just spoken to the group and that it would issue a statement in response to it shortly. Later the same day, Lister reiterated his argument that it was “utterly absurd” to compare al-Zinki and other groups to ISIS or al-Qaeda and that this was “literally beyond debateable”. To do so after having just watched the group’s members taunt and then behead a child was shocking. Furthermore, Lister’s paradoxical plan for ostensibly “winding down” the conflict in Syria — written after the al-Zinki beheading had occurred — included the U.S. dramatically increasing arms shipments to rebel groups.
Another analyst who has prominently backed U.S. military intervention in Syria for several years is Lister’s former colleague at Brookings, Shadi Hamid. Like Lister, Hamid has repeatedly pushed the canard that the U.S. has not intervened in Syria and throughout the Middle East, arguing Obama has had a “Do-Nothing Policy” in the region. He has even claimed that Obama’s supposed inaction in the country contributed towards Donald Trump’s recent election victory. In short, Hamid — who has argued that NATO’s intervention in Libya was actually a success and that no better world is possible without the U.S. military — is one of the most egregious and blatant propagandists for U.S. empire currently active. Few represent Edward Said’s description of the “chorus of willing intellectuals to say calming words about benign or altruistic empires, as if one shouldn’t trust the evidence of one’s eyes” more accurately than Hamid. As such, it is astonishing that he is frequently treated as an objective expert on Syria and elsewhere. Again, it is important to remember that the pro-war stances held by Lister and Hamid are not exceptional, but in fact largely representative of their peers in both their own and other similar institutions. Other ‘experts’ that could have been discussed at length in this regard include Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss, who have explicitly called for the U.S. to dismember and then occupy Syria, and Emile Hokayem of the ostensibly independent International Institute for Strategic Studies, which in reality has received up to a third of its funding directly from the ruling family of Bahrain. In a striking example of the kind of obfuscation that these analysts excel in, while on stage with Charles Lister in November 2015, Hokayem argued that it was essentially pointless to discover who was funding ISIS and that rather, the emergence of the group should be considered the result of failures in Middle Eastern society as a whole. Subsequently, in October 2016, Hokayem even argued that defeating Islamic state would be a negative development for the region.
In the course of writing this article, I have deliberately identified a number of individuals and documented exchanges and comments on social media that have hitherto been effectively hidden from ordinary view. There are many other individuals, incidents and themes that I could have discussed, but for reasons of (relative) brevity I have limited myself to focusing on only some of the most prominent. It is my hope that by highlighting the ongoing campaigns of bullying and intimidation that are being carried out by a number of prominent voices on Syria, in addition to pointing out that a number of these same individuals have disturbing attitudes and connections, I will encourage others to be more critical of the analysis that they read and question exactly who it is that they are listening to. Given the potentially disastrous consequences of increased Western intervention in Syria, the stakes could not be higher. We cannot afford for these voices to be the only ones that are heard in the debate.
Louis Allday is a PhD candidate at SOAS based in London. Follow him on Twitter @Louis_Allday.