This article is a continuation of The Rebranding of the Anti-Syria Left and endeavours to consider the perceived shift in stance by some of those who have campaigned most vehemently against the Syrian government and in favour of the ‘revolution’, and the implications of this shift.
To recap: Since 2011 researchers and activists have worked tirelessly to investigate and share the facts of the Syrian conflict. For people taking a serious interest in the conflict the concept of the ‘civil war’ has been long debunked – instead the war has been seen for what it is, a proxy war initiated and fuelled from without, both camouflaged and justified through an extraordinary propaganda campaign . Unsentimental people with no personal interest in Syria now discount the unproven charges against Assad out of hand – after all, why would you believe some lies and not others?
In the meantime the likes of Rania Khalek, Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton have facilitated the war on Syria by using whatever platforms available to them, whether it be published articles, videos or social media. They have furthered the agenda of NATO and its allies by relentlessly vilifying the president of Syria, the Syrian armed forces and the Russian forces, and promoted the bogus concepts of popular revolution and a democratic opposition. At every turn they have underwritten the credibility of corporate media and the most discredited of non-government organisations. They have furthered the cause of forced regime change and external intervention, including actively promoting publications and individuals that support a free-fly zone. They have consciously played a role in the propaganda war on Syria, and therefore must bear some responsibility, if not for the inception of the war, at least for its continuation.
However, in the second half of 2016 there was a shift in approach to the conflict amongst these long-time supporters of the ‘revolution’, consisting in a subtle change in language and increased criticism of the armed extremists, US intervention and the corporate media. There is less talk of anti-Assad or popular revolutionaries, and more about insurgents, jihadis and collaboration with al Qaeda: ‘The US seems hell bent on turning Syria into a failed state run by war lords’, RK 3/9/16; ‘There are plenty of Syrians opposed to Assad who also despise your Jihadist rebels and what the US has helped them do to Syria’, RK 27/9/16. ‘Syrian anti-government insurgents prevent civilians from leaving eastern Aleppo’ MB 13/9/16; UN’s Staffan de Mistura warns US/Gulf-backed Syrian rebels’ assault on West Aleppo could amount to war crimes, MB 31/10/16; ‘Theo Padno, US journalist kidnapped by al-Nusra, on how US-trained FSA collaborated with Syrian al-Qaeda’, BN 30/8/16.
Max Blumenthal once again plays the ‘Israel’ card, but this time it is applied against the insurgents rather than ‘Assad’:
while Norton no longer defines himself in opposition to ‘Assadistas’ but instead to those promoting a no-fly zone – the ‘pro-NFZ crowd’.
Ben Norton, in particular, has taken care to delete a large number of article and tweets which he now seems to find embarrassing. Much of this history is recorded in a thread by @nine11inreverse.
In November 2016 Max Blumenthal unexpectedly ‘broke’ the news of Jaish al Islam using caged captives as human shields, a story which had been given wide coverage in corporate and social media a full year earlier.
The fact of Blumenthal deciding to promote a story to the disfavour of the ‘rebels’, 12 months after everyone else, highlights both his disconnect from serious discussion of the Syrian conflict and his change in position.
Thus having for years promoted the NATO narrative about a civil war between an oppressive regime and democratic rebels, all the while being careful not to offend active interventionists, important aspects of the narrative are suddenly being undermined.
Even the credibility of the corporate media, whom Blumenthal and co. have faithfully parroted on Syria, is now in doubt: ‘Compare the coverage of Mosul and East Aleppo and it tells you a lot about the propaganda we consume’ RK 24/10/16; ‘interventionist forces control the narrative on Syria and are immune from scrutiny’ MB 3/10/16.
Rania Khalek, who had not been back in the region for almost a decade, in 28 October began to crowdfund to pay for a trip to Syria and Lebanon, promising scoops and much-needed, apparently, ‘adversarial’ reporting.
Then in September-October Khalek and Blumenthal both published, within a few days of each other, serious research on the Syrian conflict, in each case possibly the first article they have ever written on Syria that does not hang on demonising its president.
People over the years have written about the effect of the sanctions on Syria. Rania Khalek, not having ever before show any such interest, pulled off a coup when the Intercept obtained a copy of the UN report on The Humanitarian Impact of Syria Related Unilateral Restrictive Measures and Khalek was able to publish a related article the same day the Intercept published (the stubs of both articles show 28 September).
A few days later Max Blumenthal published two substantial articles on the activities of organisations such as Avaaz, Purpose and the Syria Campaign, and their use of the White Helmets to push for a no-fly zone in Aleppo: Inside the Shadowy PR Firm That’s Lobbying for Regime Change in Syria and How the White Helmets Became International Heroes whole Pushing Regime Change in Syria. Articles on Syria have continued to appear, by Benjamin Norton on Bilal Abdul Kareem, an American born-again takfiri well known for his pro-terrorist broadcasts from Aleppo, and Rania Khalek on the support of the western media for terrorist groups in Syria.
Meantime the perceived change of stance has attracted the ire of hardline interventionists, who were used to seeing people like Blumenthal as ‘one of us’, as Anas el Hawat put it. Blumenthal’s criticism of the Syrian Campaign, slated by Christina Abraham in an article, In defence of the Syria Campaign attracted particular hostility.
Rania Khalek reported that she had received over a 100 direct messages from Oz Katerji warning her to “change your rhetoric or we will continue to campaign against you (most people would have blocked Katerji long before this point).
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
Given the enormous scale of the propaganda against Syria and in support of the ‘revolutionaries’, no matter how barbaric, people who are prepared to combat that propaganda are sorely needed. Quite understandably, many feel that throwing up their past at a group of people who have ‘seen the light’ and ‘come on board’ is churlish and unhelpful.
However, while the thirdwayers may be abandoning their support for the ‘noble revolutionaries’, and may be selectively questioning Western intervention, a number of things have not changed. One of the fundamental planks of the NATO narrative, that of the genocidal Bashar al Assad, is almost unaffected, with Rania Khalek continuing to reinforce the message on twitter, even when criticising the insurgents:
While in Syria recently, Khalek believed she might be a target of the evil Assad regime.
When this was queried by other journalists who ate at the same table, Khalek deleted the tweet, but did not drop the matter entirely. Other journalists were grateful that Syrian Arab Army and security kept close to them while travelling in Syria, but clearly not Rania Khalek:
The police state motif continues when Khalek is interviewed on Secular Talk (full interview here.
Rania Khalek new video, new lie: “It is a little bit hard to do journalism in Syria because it is a police state” (a complete lie) pic.twitter.com/Cq9nFl4OOX
— Navstéva (@Navsteva) January 6, 2017
Ranis Khalek may be prepared to question the support given to al Qaeda in Syria by Western media, as in her recent article, but at the same time she promotes the assumptions about Syria that underpin the debate within the corporate media.
‘The Syrian government—a dictatorship known for imprisoning, torturing and disappearing dissidents—is easy to vilify. And over the last five years of Syria’s civil war, it has committed its share of atrocities.’
Paralleling the continued assumption of Assad culpability is the ongoing determination not to be seen as ‘Assad apologists’, which is reaffirmed repeatedly, especially on Twitter.
Some of the issues surrounded this rebranding are exemplified by the reception given to Blumenthal’s articles on Avaaz, and the White Helmets, which evoked praise in some quarters but were met with with reservation, surprise or criticism elsewhere. Researchers like Vanessa Beeley and Corey Morningstar have over the years carried out extensive work on the White Helmets and Avaaz, respectively, much used but usually credited. It came as a surprise to many, therefore, when, Max Blumenthal suddenly produced articles which made extensive use of the work of such people, without crediting them.
In the case of the White Helmets Blumenthal’s material is thin and he has watered down the conclusions considerably. Blumenthal had gone for what might be termed a limited hangout by assuming that the White Helmets are a bona fide humanitarian organisation exploited for PR purposes by the Syria Campaign – according to Blumenthal the Syrian Campaign is ‘partnering with local groups like the Syrian civil defense workers popularly known as the White Helmets’. He is therefore choosing to ignore the implications of the fact of White Helmets being founded by one James le Mesurier, ex-British army, ex-Foreign Office.
1.am confused, why do you now write about White Helmets after others have exposed them, no suppot fm u?
2. Why U turn after years attacking other Syria analysts and celebrating @MotherAgnesMari not speaking
3. Why not mention UK FO involvement as primary funder not US?
4. White Helmets are “local civil defence” groups. Why no mention of real Syria Civil Defence?
5. In Part II White Helmets rescue civilians? Russia and Syria are bombing civilians? What are you saying?
6. White Helmets are embedded in Nusra/ISIS areas. Why no mention?
Syria and the Left
On 1 November 2016 Blumenthal appeared in a debate that took place in New York,topic Syria and the Left, organised by Muftah Magazine and Verso Books.
The guests were all proponents of the revolution, the chief point of difference between them being the extent to which they favoured external intervention. Thus a number of assumptions were made by participants which went unchallenged: there was a popular and initially peaceful uprising, the majority of deaths are due to the Syrian government forces, Syrian and Russia are committing massive war crimes, the White Helmets are without doubt heroes (rather than frauds). The highly questionable ‘Russian strike on a school in Idlib’, which supposedly happened in October was mentioned twice without objection.
Sceptics of the NATO narrative would have queried all of these assumptions, but there was not a single person there interested in putting the viewpoint of the Syrian government, or in suggesting that the Syrian government was supported by the majority of the Syrian people, who have always been opposed to the ‘revolution’. There was no acknowledgement of the research supporting alternative points of view, and certainly not of the people carrying out such research.
Any disagreement that Blumenthal had with other members of the panel was concerned with strategy, and not at all with fact. He was against war, and against anything that could lead to escalation, but his language assumes government culpability and the desirability of a successful outcome for the revolution. Thus, ‘weaponising a civil uprising and handing it over to a militarised strategy has legitimised everything Bashar al Assad wants to happen with his war on terror narrative’. ‘Twice he refers to ‘Bashar al Assad using east Aleppo as a “kill box”‘. ‘We have a duty to stop the escalation that encourages the massive crimes that we all know are committed by Russia and the Syrian government. […] Most deaths are caused by Syrian government. […] I agree that what Russia has done is criminal, what Syria has done criminal, I agree with Staffan de Mistura that Russian and Syria should stop bombing east Aleppo and that al Qaeda should leave.’
There are still, it would seem, moderate rebels: ‘There are genuine revolutionaries in Idlib and east Aleppo, who are trying to run radio stations like Radio fresh, and lawyers who are involved in civil activism who have been crushed not only by Syrian govt but by al Qaeda’. What’s needed is ‘legitimate activists to return to the forefront. […] A great idea, and I think Murtaza is thinking similarly, is promoting local ceasefires. That can be done by incentivising peace, by incentivising people who have been involved in violence, including rebel commanders who do have credibility on the ground to put down their weapons …’
‘Filling the Void’
When criticised for his writing on the Syria Campaign, during the Syria and the Left debate Blumenthal, who had spent a lot of time agreeing with the others, was stung to reply:
If you don’t like my reporting, there are dozens and dozens and dozens of other pieces by other journalists who are spoon-fed PR by the Syria Campaign and all of these pieces about the White Helmets look alike and they’re hailing them as heroes, the people on the ground who are rescuing children and yes they’re heroic, but I am trying to fill the void and inform you about the campaign that is insidiously cultivating military escalation, and I’m not going to be spoon-fed public relations by anyone.
In view of the high-calibre work on the Syria Campaign carried out by respected journalists like Beeley and Eva Bartlett, which is shared and promoted by thousands of people who oppose the war on Syria, Blumenthal’s claim that he is filling is a void in the research is startling to say the least.
The theme of a gap in research only now being filled by Blumenthal had already been broached by his article on the White Helmets:
Critical questions about the White Helmets’ role in an interventionist public relations apparatus have been raised by only a few marginal websites that generally support the Syrian government — and those who raise them have been subjected to scorn and castigation.
This is a deliberate attempt to belittle the status of people like Vanessa Beeley, whose work on Syria is highly regarded and shared daily by thousands, and who has spoken to the United Nations on Saudi war crimes in Yemen. A few days after Blumenthal published his article, Beeley, Eva Bartlett and Patrick Henningsen appeared on an edition of RT’s Crosstalk entitled ‘White Helmets, Really?’. All three journalists have appeared numerous times on television and radio speaking about Syria and other issues, and their work is blogged and reblogged, sometimes by the same websites that publish Blumenthal’s own work.
There is a concerted campaign by representatives of the anti-Syria left to deny the existence of huge body of important research into the Syrian war, to marginalise the people that carry out this research, and to create a totally false perception that the essential dichotomy with regard to Syria is between Blumenthal and co. on the one hand, and people of a very similar persuasion on the other.
Two articles from the latter part of 2016, theoretically on different sides of this new divide, work very hard to enforce this perception, . The title of Seth Frantzman’s piece is self-explanatory: Moral Barometer: How Syria Conflict Divided the Left Pro-Palestinian Voices and Exposed a Murderous Support for Assad
Now there is a full-fledged and visceral debate online among writers, journalists and activists. On one side those such as Katerji have castigated a coterie of writers with similar views as Abunimah, such as Max Bumenthal, Rania Khalek and Benjamin Norton. […] many expressed shock at the degree to which their supposed ideological friends were wrong about the Assad regime, apologizing for its atrocities.
Fredrik deBoer on the other hand, in his article 1953—2002—2016: Syria and the Reemergence of McCarthyism, sees the newly rebranded third wayers as heroes: ‘Few have been the subject of more brutal smears than American journalists Max Blumenthal and Rania Khalek.’
‘Blumenthal and Khalek are, in a sense, political orphans: left-wing, disdainful of Democrats, not associated with deep-pocketed publications, and fiercely independent. They are thus vulnerable, and precisely the kind of voices we should be protecting, if we want to preserve an adversarial, questioning, critical press.’
The thirdwayers, too, like to project themselvs as heroes demonstrating enormous courage in the face of great odds:
DeBoer’s article is a determined promotion of the thirdway philososophy and its adherents, and his views on Syria are almost identical to those of Blumenthal, ‘There is no doubt that a large portion of the Syrian public rejects Assad, who share my own conviction that Assad must go…. I think he’s a monster.’
There is considerable consensus between the authors of these two articles and with the position of Blumenthal and co. There is no essential disagreement over the nature of the Syrian conflict, or the fundamental desires and needs of the Syrian people. There is no acknowledgement that serious research disagrees with their view of the facts. Those who disagree with their viewpoint are explained away as being pro-Assad, and irrelevant. To this end, deBoer stated:
Are there in fact pro-Assad leftists? Sure. [..] What matters is not the existence of a pro-Assad left but the influence of the pro-Assad left. I would personally assign the power of that group at exactly zero.
Louis Allday’s article, Controlling the Narrative on Syria, likewise reinforces the false dichotomy and inflates the contribution by Blumenthal and Khalek. It is notable that while Allday does not vilify Bashar al Assad, he does leap to defend Blumenthal’s claim to being anti-Assad: ‘Indeed, in 2012 Blumenthal resigned in very public fashion from the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, citing its purportedly pro-Assad editorial stance’, thus appearing to concur that to be called pro-Assad is indeed libelous.
Follow the Money: Soros and Alternet
In a comment to the Syria and the Left debate, Nakle Awad asked:
George Soros is well known as a sponsor, via his organisation Open Society, of a large number of NGOs, both major and very obscure, which all campaign actively against the Syrian government and in favour of a no-fly zone. Open Society also funds the news outlet Alternet.
Max Blumenthal is a senior editor with Alternet’s Grayzone Project . According to its facebook page , the Grayzone Project is all about confronting Islamophobia, and exposing bigotry. The name is a curious choice, as it evokes nothing so much as the idea of
gray, white and black propaganda (white propaganda being the most truthful, with a fine line between gray and black).
In the past Alternet’s principal contribution to the Syria debate has been to publish hand-wringing articles about US intervention, without offering anything groundbreaking or courageous. Alternet publishes articles by both Ben Norton and Rania Khalek, including their most recent.
Another Alternet contributor is David Swanson, who is also theoretically anti-war and anti-imperialist, while at the same time promoting the NATO narrative in terms of Russian and Syrian war crimes, and likewise never addressing the question of evidence. His article How to Get Yourself Named Pro-Assad in which he mourns the burdens of being slandered as an ‘Assad supporter’, but has nothing to say about the untruths about Syria contained in the article he is addressing, certainly mimics the concerns of Blumenthal, Norton and Khalek. Given that he had previously published (on Alternet) an article entitled The U.S. Has Been Pushing to Overthrow Assad in Syria for 10 Years, one might have expected him to take issue with, for example, claims of an initially peaceful uprising, but this was not his priority.
The connection between Alternet and Snopes, should not be overlooked. Snopes is supposedly a fact-checking site that exposes fake news, though questions have been asked about its credentials, journalistic rigor and impartiality. As with other sites focused on ‘fake news’, the corporate media is the benchmark for credibility. In Snopes Exposed: a Look at the Fake News Industry Vaccine Impact observed: ‘It can probably be accurately stated that Snopes upholds the mainstream media propaganda, while attacking anything in the alternative media’.
Independent journalist Bethania Palma Markus writes for both Alternet and Snopes, producing for the latter in December 2016 a rather flimsy article attacking the credibility of article written by Vanessa Beeley and published by 21st Century Wire. Despite the enormous amount of photographic and video evidence to the contrary, Markus bizarrely concludes: ‘Whatever their motives may be, we found no credible evidence that the White Helmets are linked to terrorist organizations‘.
Controlling the Narrative
Given the co-ordinated and limited nature of their ‘conversion’, the relentless and unwarranted self-promotion, the close links with proponents of a no-fly zone in Syria and the refusal to acknowledge the work of other people in the Syrian field, the view that people like Blumenthal and co. have ‘come on board’ the struggle for truth with regard to the Syrian conflict seems most optimistic.
What is far more probable is that there is a concerted campaign, sponsored by George Soros, to control the narrative on Syria. This is to be achieved by Blumenthal, Norton, Khalek and others moving closer to an anti-imperialist position, in order to create a false dichotomy within the forces opposed to Syrian independence. This false dichotomy will be used to promote people who are hostile to the Syrian government and the interests of the Syrian people as the pro-Syrian voice in the Syria debate. The goal is that Blumenthal and co. are in a position to dominate and weaken the discussion on Syria, and deflect attention from serious research which questions the fundamentals of Western propaganda.
There will be strategic concessions in the form of acknowledgement of ‘rebel’ atrocities and US intervention, while myths that facilitate intervention, such that of a popular uprising, the existence of moderate rebels and genocidal tendencies on the part of ‘Assad and Russia’ will be protected. Important questions relating, for example, to the propaganda campaign against Syria, including the role of the British Foreign Office and the true function of the White Helmets and Bana of Aleppo, will continue to be obfuscated.
The alternative media will give the thirdwayers a platform and permit them to regurgitate the research of others, enabling them to package as their own revelations that others made long ago. Genuine researchers and genuine opponents to the war will be marginalised by being ignored or discredited by the ‘alternative’ and mainstream media. Blumenthal, Norton and Khalek will not risk debating serious researchers directly: that will be left to questionable organisations like Snopes and Bellingcat. There will be a determined effort to erase a whole body of research that questions the NATO narrative on Syria.
There has been a disturbing increase in references to Iran on social media, e.g. the hashtags #IranArabSpring #FreeIran. There is a sense of impatience, as if events are falling behind schedule (see Wesley Clark). The role of the thirdwayers, should there be a colour revolution in Iran, remains to be seen, but having now adopted the role of anti-imperialists, they will be in a better position to claim Iran as a genuine revolution, or to push for external intervention before the ‘revolution’ is taken over by jihadists.
The role of gatekeepers is a controversial matter, with some maintaining that their contribution outweighs any negative consequences. However those who are seriously concerned for the future of Syria and the greater Middle East should think carefully before conceding too much ground to the ‘gray zone’.