The progressive civil war over Syria and Assad exposes an astonishing lack of intellectual curiosity by some on the American Left
Truth and politics are often mutually exclusive concepts when dealing with the progressive American Left. This unfortunate fact is being driven home in spades in an ongoing spat between two lefty online personalities.
Anyone following Aaron Maté (149K followers on Twitter); The Young Turks (TYT, with 440K followers as an institution, and as many followers each tracking the activity of co-hosts Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian); the comedian Jimmy Dore (274K followers); or any number of other Twitter personalities whose online paths have crossed with any of the above; knows these left-leaning social media stars have been engaged in a vicious feud. Full disclosure, I have appeared on both Maté’s podcast, Pushback, as well as The Young Turks radio show. At issue is Syria and, more pointedly, the contention by both Uygur and Kasparian that Maté is shilling for President Bashar Assad.
A tale of two narratives
The sheer drama and vitriol which has emerged as a result of this feud has been entertaining for those who get a kick out of leftwing internecine warfare. Maté’s use of Jimmy Dore’s popular online program The Jimmy Dore Show as a platform for promoting his arguments has torn the scab off old wounds created when Dore left The Young Turks and struck out on his own, appears to underpin at least some of Uygur and Kasparian’s anti-Maté invective. However, more interesting is the fact that, as Maté pointed out in a recent interview with The Hill, the progressive wing of the American Left has hit a brick wall over the issue of Syria. Criticism of Assad has run up against the lies used to sustain US military hegemony in the Middle East.
“I think,” Maté noted, “that that meltdown reflects just like a general hostility they [The Young Turks] have towards people who are upholding actual progressive values and upholding actual journalism standards.” While the smear campaign waged by Uygur and Kasparian has been as unconscionable as it has been factually wrong, the fact that there is controversy among the progressive wing of the American political Left should not surprise anyone. As Maté observed, “[t]he reason why they slandered me at that time is because I was in Syria and Syria is a, you know, touchy subject for many people on the Left. It has been divisive.”
Syria is a touchy subject, especially for progressives who primarily focus on notions of human rights and democratic values. Maté has come under attack for taking a contrarian stance on two of the most hot-button issues surrounding Assad: allegations of chemical weapons use, and the suppression of political free will through the conduct of elections designed to keep the reins of political power in Syria firmly in his hands. (It should be pointed out that Maté is joined by other outstanding progressive journalists, including Eva Bartlett, Vanessa Beeley, Rania Khalek, and many others whose informative work predates Maté’s on the issue of Syria.)
Chemical weapons, denial and disproval
If there is a case to be made that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own population, it has not yet been made by anyone. The most widely cited incident in terms of casualties (i.e., the primary discriminator for any argument seeking to label Assad a “mass murderer”) is that which occurred in the early morning hours of August 21, 2013, in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. While the number of casualties involved remains unclear (estimates range from 281 to 1,729 people killed, with the higher figure largely agreed to be problematic), what is not up for dispute is the fact that, as the official UN report into the incident concluded, there was “clear and convincing evidence” that Sarin gas was used in the Ghouta incident.
While the UN was precluded by mandate from allocating responsibility for the attack, the US government, together with other organizations such as Human Rights Watch, aggressively asserted that the Syrian government was solely to blame. These claims, however, were not backed up by the science on the ground. A detailed forensic analysis of the rocket used in the Ghouta attack – an improvised 330mm-to-350mm rocket equipped with a large receptacle on its nose to hold chemicals—by Richard Lloyd, a former United Nations weapons inspector, and Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, undermined the claims made by the US government assigning culpability for the attack. Not only were the weapons used not included in the arsenal of chemical weapons declared by the Syrian government to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) which oversaw the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons capability between 2013-2014, but the short range of the weapon made its being fired from government-held territory impossible.
Seymor Hersh, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, published an article in the London Review of Books in December 2013 which outlined a case for Turkish complicity in helping arm the rebels with Sarin nerve agent. Hersh’s claims were vindicated by Turkish media reports, quoting Turkish members of parliament, who outlined the factual case sustaining Hersh’s key point that the Turkish government was behind the Ghouta attack. New analysis of the Ghouta attack reinforces the findings of Lloyd and Postol, assigning a 96% probability that the Sarin attack of August 21, 2013, was carried out by anti-Assad rebels. Moreover, this finding is supported by video evidence, authenticated on June 21, 2021, which shows the rebels firing the Sarin-filled rockets on the day in question. Long story short – the Sarin attack used by President Assad’s opponents as evidence of his status as a mass murderer was not the work of the Syrian government.
Allegations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government are numerous, as is the mountain of evidence which shows these claims to be as false as the ones made regarding the Ghouta attack. Central to the ongoing TYT-Maté dispute is the Douma incident of April 7, 2018, where once again the Syrian government was accused of employing chemical weapons against civilians, killing scores. The US government used the allegations as justification to launch air strikes against the Syrian government. The US case for military action, always weak, was further undermined by reporting from Maté that exposed the lies of the OPCW in bending to US pressure to falsify evidence in order to sustain the justification for US airstrikes.
The attention Maté received as a result of his outstanding reporting on Douma considerably raised his profile – he was invited to testify at an Arria-Formula Meeting at the UN Security Council in September 2020 on the Douma controversy. But it also opened him up to attacks by TYT, with co-host Kasparian deriding Maté as “the guy who denies that Syrian children were killed with chemical attacks.”
What Kasparian and her co-host Uygur get wrong is the fact that Maté does not deny anything, he simply reports the facts, which sustain the truth about the Douma attack – that it was a false-flag incident perpetrated by the Syrian rebels. Similar to what transpired at Ghouta in August 2013 – which set up the Syrian government to be attacked by the US in retaliation.
However, one of the big problems with Maté’s reporting for the progressive wing of the American Left is that, in order to embrace it, they would need to radically alter their view about the legitimacy of the Assad regime, something they are loath to do. The formulation which sustains the current policy position of the progressive Left on Assad is that he is a brutal dictator who has, and will again, use chemical weapons against those who oppose him. The simplicity of this line of argument is that, so long as one can sustain the narrative that Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people, delving into a fact-based discussion about whether or not he is a brutal dictator is avoided by the logic that any man who uses chemical weapons against his own people is, by definition, a brutal dictator.
The reporting done by Maté and others on the allegations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government has, by proving these allegations wrong, undermined the foundational argument used to sustain the notion of Bashar Assad as a brutal dictator. Stripped of this core argument, Assad’s critics are now called upon to venture into uncharted waters (at least for them) and examine the personal biography of the man they detest, the circumstances surrounding his rise to power, and the nature of his political struggle against deeply entrenched special interest groups opposed to meaningful political reform.
They would also have to examine the complicated relationship between Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the role played by the Turkish government in promoting Muslim Brotherhood activities inside Syria. Any honest evaluation of Syria under Bashar Assad would also be compelled to look at the role of the drought that ravaged Syria between 2006-2011, collapsing the agricultural industry and forcing some 1.5 million rural Syrians to seek refuge in major urban centers such as Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus. The role played by Saudi Arabia in channeling reconstruction money into Syria would also need further examination, along with how this money was used to build mosques promoting Saudi-backed Salafist Islam that ran counter to the secular ideology of the Assad regime.
Lastly, the role played by the US, both in terms of destabilizing the entire region by invading Iraq in 2003, and the role that conflict had on radicalizing Islamic resistance inside Syria would have to be considered. As would the decision, following the Arab Spring of 2010-11, to begin providing training, money, weapons and other support to anti-Assad forces backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers.
The resulting civil conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced several million Syrians from their homes. The involvement of Iran, Hezbollah and Russia on the side of Syria, when combined with the false allegations of chemical weapons use by the Assad government, made it easy for the progressive wing of the American Left to condemn these interventions. However, that ignores the reality that, unlike every other foreign military presence inside Syria, these came at the invitation of the Syrian government and, as such, have a legitimacy under international law the others cannot claim. When the chemical weapons allegations are stripped away, the moral foundation for opposing Iranian, Hezbollah and Russian intervention collapses.
The fact of the matter is that the reporting by Maté and others deconstructed the lies about the Syrian government’s role in the chemical weapons attacks alleged by the US, OPCW and Syrian opposition and, simultaneously, exposed the dearth of intellectual curiosity on the part of Assad’s critics – especially among the ranks of the progressive Left. The antics of The Young Turks in attacking Maté, Dore, and anyone else (including myself) who dares seek a fact-based discussion about the true nature of Syria and its president only highlights how far many mainstream American progressives have fallen when it comes to Syria. Their claims to embrace fact and intellectual curiosity in the exploration of complex social, political, and economic issues fall flat when it comes to who rules Damascus.
Whether they can recover from this collapse of moral authority and lack of intellectual integrity is unknown. The answer hinges on their willingness to re-engage with a clean slate that allows all arguments to be heard and discussed free of the kind of rancor shown to Maté by The Young Turks. As of this writing, I wouldn’t hold my breath. But in the end, it does not matter – if the Syrian reality could survive US-backed jihadists, it will survive the fiction based, angst-driven antics of an American political elite that has become irrelevant and inconsequential in any universe except the one it currently occupies for its own edification and entertainment.
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