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How Assad and His Apologists Manipulated Syria’s Struggle and Story and Why That Matters

(Atlantic Council)- Ever since it kicked off this macabre dance by shooting a bunch of teenagers in 2011, the Assad regime has masterfully manipulated Syria’s struggle—and story. Not only has it escalated, militarized, and radicalized the struggle, from a peaceful contest for control that it never could have survived to a war that it has survived for more than five years, but the regime has spun Syria’s story to transform the manner in which the world has seen that struggle.

When the struggle was (and was seen as) a Syrian Spring, the Assad regime was (and, again, was seen to be) butchering civilians. The regime shot, maimed, tortured, and imprisoned people, who responded by organizing protests and expressing dissent more creatively. In turn, the Assad regime subtly shifted the story: activists and organizers were less innocent than garden-variety citizens who had protested spontaneously—never mind how the regime handled them—and were, of course, funded and organized by the usual bugaboos. When armed rebels emerged, as they would have under similar circumstances everywhere from Appalachia to the Zagros range, the Assad regime painted them as pawns of Israel, Salafists, Wahhabis, and/or the West. In so doing, it kept rejectionists at home onside and realists abroad on the sidelines, though perhaps not fully on its side.

As Syria’s conflict crested, the regime hid behind the chaos it had created, claimed all the rights—and none of the responsibilities—of a state, and killed at will. It behaved more brutally and illegally, but it somehow became more legitimate in the international arena. In August 2013, the Assad regime crossed former U.S. President Barack H. Obama’s one red line—and promptly found its redemption. The Assad regime gassed Ghouta, killing more than 1000 civilians with sarin—a nerve agent that, within seconds, can cause neurotransmitters to over-fire, orifices to uncontrollably secret their relevant fluids, and people to die. The Obama administration beat the drums of war for a week. But the president dithered. And then he dealt his way out of strikes in Syria and into to a Russian-orchestrated “Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons.” Although Obama and others sold that “framework” as a diplomatic masterstroke, it was really a face-saving arrangement for an administration mired in a crisis of confidence. The Assad regime and Russia were indispensable—politically, logistically, militarily—to the implementation of that framework, so they essentially became the West’s partners in a large-scale, months-long endeavor. And while working with the West to eliminate chemical weapons stockpiles and stave off strikes, the Assad regime went on killing folks with more old-fashioned tools of tyranny: mortars, bullets, barrel-bombs, torture devices, ropes, knifes, etc.

About a year later, in the summer of 2014, ISIS fell to Assad like manna from heaven. Never the sort of movement that could control—let alone govern—all of Syria, ISIS and radicals among the rebels terrorized the world: they killed Western journalists and octogenarian archaeologists, ate human hearts on the battlefield, and attacked European capitals. The Assad regime then cynically—but credibly—repositioned itself at home and abroad: it became a bulwark against Islamists it had helped create, attract, and unleash; a shield to minorities it had long marginalized, exploited, and even persecuted; and the primary player in an envisioned post-war Syria that it had neither democratized nor developed in decades of prewar rule.

Sandwiched between revulsion and apathy, between fixation and fatigue, people tweeted up storms, staged occasional vigils, or wrote their rants (yes, hello)—but did not muster up the attention and energy to do much more. An endless barrage of images—of children bloodied by the regime, of churches pulverized by radicals—distorted, or desensitized people to, the truth.  

Members of the media did not help, though it may have been beyond their power to do so. Even those who tried to set the story straight inadvertently enabled the regime to spin its story. Reporting on a Syria that was “spiraling” out of control, “descending” into chaos, or “collapsing” into disorder, they minimized Assad’s agency. Fixated on tragedy and disaster, they missed the mark: Assad manufactured and manipulated the war, which his regime could survive, to forestall a peaceful and fair contest for control, which his regime could not. 

Worse still, some journalists have doubled as Assad’s apologists: They—Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, and a crop of clones blessed with all of their impulses and none of their talents—have deliberately diluted the regime’s responsibility for Syria’s catastrophe. Fisk, in particular, has let his anti-imperialist impulses and rejectionist reflexes overcome empathy and common sense. At every stage of the war, from the massacre of Daraya to the assault on Aleppo, he has spun the story in favor of the Assad regime and cast a cloud of doubt on the sort of rebels he once would have championed. Just last month, he wasted ink—or data—in another ramble on “the other truth” in Syria: Aleppo was an afterthought, the worst elements of the Syrian free-for-all represent all rebels and any opponents of the regime, and the world is in league with terrorists (“alternative facts” are in vogue, these days). Around the same time, at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute, Cockburn presented a subtly and suitably biased account of journalism’s demise since the American invasion of Iraq. His talk’s takeaways seemed to be that only he had understood Syria and Libya; that Arab opposition movements and Western governments—but not certain other governments like, say, those found in Syria, Russia, Iran, or Qaddafi’s Libya—have a habit of duping the hapless press; and, uh, Internet, Iraq, WMDs, and Bush.

To give Syria a chance, the world—and Washington—must recall some simple truths forgotten, ignored, or downplayed by Assad and his apologists. The struggle for Syria has never been mindless or meaningless. Every death, displacement, or disappointment of this war is ultimately rooted in the Assad regime’s decades-long grip on the state, which it treats like some Damascene bakery to be handed down from generation to generation. The Assad regime, not the rebels, laid the gunpowder for this war with decades of repression. The Assad regime, not the rebels, lit the spark with weeks of outrageous killings and months of unanswered brutality in the face of civilian protests. The Assad regime and its allies, not the rebels, fanned the flames of fundamentalism by killing hundreds of thousands of Syrians in a cynical and self-aggrandizing bid to retain power at (literally) any expense. The Syrian regime never engaged—and, as evidenced by this war and decades of prewar rule, will never engage—in civil competition for control; it will always try to hold instruments of death and destruction over the heads of its own people.

Anyway, here we are: Solitudinem Syriana. The Assad regime is making a desert and calling it “peace.” And with Russian and Iranian support, American acquiescence, and bogeymen to battle and blame, the Syrian regime may one day have its victory over the rebels, even if he lacks the forces to fully control the country. But with hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced, billions lost, and immeasurable impressions on the Syrians of the future, it will be a Pyrrhic victory—and a shared shame. 


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