How do we know what we think we know about events happening in foreign lands faraway?
Americans searching for the truth (or those with a radical curiosity, as my friend Eric Maddox calls it) have several options: (1) the mainstream media, (2) the alternative media like Democracy Now, (3) reports from human rights NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, (4) personal reports from people we trust, and (5) with our own eyes if we visit.
What I know about the very complex situation in Syria comes from 1 thru 4 (I’ve never been to Syria) and also from a handful of Syrians who have managed to flee their country. I spoke with them through an interpreter in Cairo.
I’ve shared my thoughts about Syria from time to time on this blog; never shy about treading on topics I know little about.
So when I learned that Just World Educational was organizing a series of virtual seminars on Syria during this time of COVID-19 self-isolation, I was very interested. Commonsense on Syria is a full agenda of experts and topics — all free. Check out the ten sessions planned through April 25th and register here.
Helena Cobban, the Founder and President of Just World Educational, doesn’t shy away from controversy. During the second seminar, freelance journalist Vanessa Beeley, with extensive experience in Syria, and Professor Richard Falk, an expert on international law, sparred over their disagreements but it was respectful. Ms. Cobban was blasted by some activists for even including Beeley on her program.
Personally, I’m pretty dismissive of Ms. Beeley. Reading her writing from afar, she strikes me as an apologist for Bashar Assad. Nothing she said during the seminar changed my opinion. The full video of that session is available here: bit.ly/COS-2-video
Journalist Max Blumenthal, on the other hand, has earned my respect even if I don’t agree with him on everything. His books — Goliath – Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (2013) and The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza (2015) — are critical resources for anyone with a “radical curiosity” about the Middle East. I’ve ordered his new book, “The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State Fueled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump” (2019).
In the third seminar, Helena and Max discussed how the commonly-accepted narrative in the West about Syria is all wrong. They assert the mainstream media, the alternative media, and the human rights NGOs have all been duped into believing and propagating a “regime change narrative.” Helena and Max contend the “proxy war” in Syria to depose President Assad has played out predictably as the imperialist U.S. government and other outside forces have scripted.
Max says he’s been shunned by some leftists in the Palestine solidarity community because of his views on Syria. I can believe that because I also have felt the cold shoulder from some solidarity activists. If you don’t tow their ideological line about Israel – Palestine, you’re dismissed from the cult. Ironically, their black and white, binary thinking has taught me so much. (More about those lessons in a later blog post.)
Both Helena Cobban and Max Blumenthal are smart and well-informed analysts. They cite convincing arguments to support their position, some of which I can agree with —- such as the devastating impacts of U.S. sanctions on the Syrian people. But I can’t help but wonder about the frame of discourse they’ve adopted.
While their narrative of a “proxy war” competes with the opposing frame of those who oppose Assad — the only truth I’m convinced of is that the vast majority of Syrians have suffered at the hands of Assad and foreign actors, have been victimized by the U.S. sanctions, and continue to be largely forgotten by most Americans and the international community.
It’s frustrating, but understandable, that we want to lay blame somewhere. Some want to blame President Bashar Assad, others believe the blame falls squarely on the foreign actors who have been battling Assad’s military. I suspect, however, that the young Syrian doctor I met in Cairo in January 2013, who fled for his life and succeeded in starting a new life in Europe, cares less about placing blame and more about helping his countrymen. Lets not forget Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian boy who washed up on the beach.