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In the name of “anti-imperialism,” self-identified leftists dismiss all criticism of Assad’s regime. In response, more than 60 Syrian activists, academics and artists have co-signed an open letter calling out left-wing activists who have ignored or denied Assad’s actions.
As of March 2021, the civil war in Syria has been waged for a full decade. It is a disheartening milestone marked by continual deadly violence throughout the country, while millions of displaced Syrians are dispersed within their own nation or living as refugees around the world.
The international community, including the United States and the United Nations, have struggled with how best to intervene, often choosing to not do so at all. This has been the case even after reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own citizens. Meanwhile, Assad has been given financial and military support by both Russia and Iran.
One of the more inexplicable trends that has taken hold in the last decade has been the rise of Syrian denialism among those who identify as political leftists. These figures deny Assad used chemical weapons, arguing that such claims are the propaganda of imperialist Western nations like the US. In the name of “anti-imperialism,” these self-identified leftists dismiss all criticism of Assad’s regime.
In response, more than 60 Syrian activists, academics and artists have co-signed an open letter calling out left-wing activists who have ignored or denied Assad’s actions. Entitled “Erasing people through disinformation,” the letter, also signed by more than 300 political, educational and cultural leaders from around the world, seeks to set the record straight by refuting the concerted effort to change the narrative around the Syrian war.
Broadly, the letter decries the “dehumanizing propaganda and disinformation” that has been aimed at Syrians and humanitarian groups, such as the White Helmets, who have stood in opposition to Assad’s actions. The letter also calls out those journalists who have spread the “manipulative disinformation that routinely deflects attention away from the well-documented abuses of Assad and his allies.”
“Erasing people through disinformation”
In the March 27 open letter, subtitled “Syria and the ‘anti-imperialism’ of fools,” the authors detail “a curious and malign development” that has obscured the reality of what is occurring in Syria:
“The emergence of pro-Assad allegiances in the name of ‘anti-imperialism’ among some who otherwise generally identify as progressive or ‘left,’ and the consequent spread of manipulative disinformation that routinely deflects attention away from the well-documented abuses of Assad and his allies.”
As the authors note, a movement within a faction of political leftists has essentially erased the atrocities and imperialist tendencies of countries like China, Russia and Iran. This has been done, both in the US and internationally, in the name of criticizing the US and its history of intervention in foreign countries, often for self-interested gain.
“The evidence that US power has itself been appallingly destructive, especially during the Cold War, is overwhelming,” the authors concede. “In the post-Cold War period of the so-called ‘War on Terror,’ American interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have done nothing to suggest a fundamental national change of heart. But America is not central to what has happened in Syria.”
Instead, the authors lay the atrocities that have occurred in Syria, including hundreds of thousands killed and even more displaced, at the feet of Assad and his allies in Russian and Iran, which includes Russian President Vladimir Putin. In shifting the focus to American imperialism, the authors contend, leftists are essentially whitewashing these war crimes in Syria.
Thus, much of the letter is used to criticize those “who selectively and opportunistically deploys charges of ‘imperialism’ for reasons of their particular version of ‘left’ politics rather than opposing it consistently in principle across the globe—thereby acknowledging the imperialist interventionism of Russia, Iran, and China.”
The Grayzone vs Bellingcat
The letter also takes aim at those who claim the mantle of “independent journalism” but who have, in fact, “functioned as chief sources of misinformation and propaganda about the ongoing global disaster that Syria has become.”
There is perhaps no more illustrative example of this phenomenon than the growing antagonism between two nominally independent news organizations, The Grayzone and Bellingcat.
Both organizations bill themselves as independent investigators with a focus on unearthing corruption and abuses of power. Yet, when it comes to Syria, the two publications fall on the opposite sides of the issue.
The Grayzone has been a leading voice in disputing the broadly accepted intel that Assad used chemical weapons (the site has also questioned reports about Russian disinformation campaigns and the captivity of Uighurs in China).
Aaron Mate, a regular contributor to the Grayzone, has published multiple articles citing a whistleblower who claims an investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was falsified. In 2018, OPCW determined that the city of Douma had been attacked from the air by chemical weapons.
That whistleblower, a former OPCW investigator known as “Alex,” claims the organization is covering up evidence that would prove the attack didn’t occur.
Bellingcat countered The Grayzone’s reporting after it unearthed a letter between the whistleblower and the director general of OPCW, Fernando Arias. In the letter, Arias explains that “Alex,” who had left the organization at that point, was simply unaware of the additional evidence that had been found and analyzed since his departure.
Previous investigations have found that the Grayzone is, at least in part, funded by the pro-Assad organization, the Association for Investment in Popular Action Committees.
Alternatively, the Grayzone frequently accuses Bellingcat and other individuals of working with or being paid by the Central Intelligence Agency to support the US’ imperialist interests. One section of the website is devoted to “US Empire” and features videos like one criticizing progressive US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of being a “pseudo-leftist imperialist.”
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