On March 6, 2011, social media posts announced a Day of Rage in Syria, apparently, a continuation of the Arab “Spring” that has just brought down the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes. Watching the events of early 2011 from the United States, my blood ran cold when I read the Syrian Day of Rage announcements. Having lived in Beirut while Lebanon was under Syria’s “tutelage”, and having worked on the issue of the 18,000 Lebanese Kidnapped and Disappeared, I knew in my gut that the Syrian Uprising, however brave and inspiring it appeared to be on Facebook, would not end well or culminate in a celebration in downtown Damascus with the international media on hand to praise the courage of media-savvy young people fed up with corruption and oppression. The Assad regime would never countenance a popular uprising, peaceful or armed. Although I could foresee that this Day of Rage would result in death and devastation, I never imagined how horribly the Syrian uprising would end. And end it has, along with the civil war that has killed 350,000 civilians and caused the flight of millions of refugees.
Some might say the Syrian uprising ended by morphing into a civil war when the Army split into factions and armed groups, many under Islamist banners, emerged as the key players. Others might say the uprising ended when comparisons began to be drawn not with the relatively peaceful removals of Mubarak and Ben Ali, but rather, with the mob violence that killed Qadhdhafi in Libya in late 2011. The seeds of the Syrian uprising’s tragic end were to be found not only in the cruelty of a dictatorial regime, but also in the historical and political contexts of that long-ago Day of Rage.
Just six years earlier, in March 2005, Syrian troops, military leaders, and intelligence officials had left Lebanon in the wake of massive popular protests following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri and 20 others. Retreating from Lebanon put Bashar al-Assad’s credibility in question. Unlike Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar never enjoyed the unquestioning loyalty of the regime’s inner circles. The only way he could insure his survival in the wake of an unexpected popular uprising in 2011 was through coercive violence on a scale that even his late father might have found distasteful.
Meanwhile, to Syria’s east, Iraq was collapsing and fragmenting — as many predicted it would –after the illegal and ill-conceived 2003 US/UK invasion. With the emergence of Da’esh (ISIL/ISIS) in 2014, the blurring of the Sykes-Picot border between Syria and Iraq, and the establishment of the so-called Caliphate in Raqqa, Bashar Al-Assad was clearly on the ropes. Not even the terror sparked by disappearances, mass killings, barrel bombs, chemical attacks, and torture prisons could insure his survival now. Enter Russia as Bashar’s savior in 2015.
Vladimir Putin is a very smart man. One has to admire his ability to present old-fashioned imperialistic intervention as a new form of global solidarity with and salvation of the Arabs. War has always been a battle for hearts and minds, not just territory, and in our Internet age, persuasive narratives about the Syrian uprising and the subsequent civil war have extended far beyond the eastern Mediterranean, echoing in debates and discussions on line and in seminar rooms in Europe and the United States. These narratives, characterized by false dichotomies, have silenced the voices of Syrians who dreamed of a different future back in March 2011.
The narratives of the uprising’s architects have been eclipsed by allegedly Leftist narratives portraying an ideologically pure version of the last seven years. While the men, women, and children who marched in the streets of Deraa in March of 2011 were trying to exercise their own political agency and transform their own society, their stories were erased as a new narrative emerged: The war in Syria, we are now asked to believe, is actually a story of a thwarted attempt at U.S. imperialism and hegemony. Protesters are depicted as useful idiots of the West, doing the bidding of those desiring regime change in Damascus. The regime’s barbarity is rewritten as a noble and necessary response to Washington’s designs on the Arab world. The first casualty of any war is the truth, as the saying goes, but in Syria, the uprising’s truths were murdered again and again at every new stage of the civil war.
In the West, the Left has been fighting the last war, against US imperialism and the madness of the neoconservatives who designed the 2003 Iraqi invasion. Any opposition to another Arab regime had to be, in their narrow view, another unjust imperialist push into the Arab heartland. Arab desires, hopes, and dreams have no reality for this Left. Arabs cannot represent themselves, apparently; they must instead be represented by Western social media activists and a handful of Western journalists.
As the waves of refugees increased and death tolls rose, and as world heritage sites crumbled into dust under relentless bombardments, this Left adamantly opposed any humanitarian or political/military intervention in the harshest of terms. They have not been moved or disturbed by families drowning in the Mediterranean, barrel bombs falling on Homs, and the burning of Aleppo. Their outrage is reserved instead for the White Helmets for having the audacity to be filmed saving people from Assad’s onslaughts.
The impact of these twisted narratives on the Left in the US and Europe has been ugly, divisive, and toxic. A “black-and-white” version of history and political realities has been enforced. If you have sympathy with protestors, or any criticisms of the regime, you are automatically denounced as a pro-U.S. imperialist or a Zionist. There is no room for nuance or humanity. Controlling the narrative has become so much more important than worrying about and fighting for the lives of average people, which is what the Left used to do. Syrians resisting a tyrannical regime have been character-assassinated by Leftists in the US and Europe who cannot think outside the narrow frame of late 20th century ideologies.
For Assad regime supporters in the West, Russia is (despite Putin’s ties with fascistic groups) equated with the Soviet Union, and any criticisms of the regime from Washington were equated with the imminent launch of a new U.S. war to depose Assad. Western intervention never came, despite the wild ravings and constant warnings of Putin’s useful idiots on the Left. (And from the standpoint of any informed person in Washington, DC, it was clear that Obama would never greenlight a U.S. military invasion of Syria, given the debacle and criminal negligence of Bush and Cheney’s invasion of Iraq. Obama’s “red line” faded quite fast.)
Now, with the fall of Deraa and the regime’s claims that the war has ended, the absent protestors of the 2011 uprising are suddenly present once again, in the form of thousands of official death notices issued by a regime that had no qualms about torturing and killing its own people. A Left that ignores this should be ashamed.