In November, Rania Khalek was in Syria and in Aleppo to get on the ground reports from a country where international journalists are frequently filing reports from Beirut and Istanbul. She just published a piece for FAIR titled, “In Syria, Western Media Cheer Al Qaeda.”
Emersberger: You put forth a really devastating critique of the Western media’s coverage of the conflict. A question that intrigues me, after the Western produced catastrophes in Iraq and Libya especially, is why any significant number of western leftists, people who wouldn’t be taken in for a second by establishment propaganda on Palestine, would be unreservedly cheering for the same side as the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in Syria?
Khalek: I don't want to paint the Western left as all the same because the left isn't in agreement on Syria. That said, I think that one major problem is that those who happen to be the loudest and have the largest platforms on the left have romanticized the idea of revolution and projected their own fantasies onto what is actually a horror show of death, destruction and chaos. It's easy to cheer an armed revolt from halfway across the world, especially when you're not directly impacted by it. It's especially stunning to see so many Western leftists cheer on armed revolt by right-wing fanatics who kill minorities just because their opponent is a dictator. I think the misguided glorification of armed revolution is a big part of that.
There's also an information vacuum that's been filled with rebel propaganda. The U.S. and its allies in the U.K. and gulf states have spent tens of millions of dollars on public relations that sanitizes the rebels as freedom fighters. Western media outlets have become dependent on this propaganda because their reporters cannot enter rebel areas for fear of getting kidnapped or killed. The Syrian government, on the other hand, has done a terrible job at communicating its side of the conflict. Its propaganda is far less sophisticated than that of the rebels and it’s easy to vilify because its hands aren't clean. I think the rebel narrative dominated the information war so effectively, that even the left bought into it.
Another problem is the need to preserve one's narrative. Even as it becomes undeniable that the strongest and most dominant armed rebel groups have from the beginning been a mix of criminal opportunists and violent sectarian extremists, some on the Western left continue to refer to areas under rebel control as "liberated." To call an area controlled by hardcore jihadists "liberated" defies logic, unless you're so invested in your narrative you're willing to overlook the fact that the rebel groups you spent years cheering on execute people for blasphemy.
Finally, there's the language barrier. In Syria, English is not a common language the way it is in, say, Lebanon. While rebel groups have Western-funded PR firms facilitating their narrative to Western audiences, ordinary Syrians living in government areas aren't nearly as accessible since many speak little to no English. This has created a skewed picture of the reality on the ground. The U.S. left has also been overly reliant on Syrian-Americans for information about the conflict. The irony is that Syrians still living in Syria express a great deal of resentment for Syrian-Americans who advocate the overthrow of their government, who they describe as either Muslim Brotherhood exiles or aristocrats who lost their land to redistribution in the 1960s. Their description reminded me of right-wing Cuban exiles in Miami.
In any case, I think Palestine is a totally different kind of conflict, but there are some similarities with regard to the U.S. left. For example, the U.S. left was once pro-Zionist. It took decades for the U.S. left to finally come around to supporting Palestinians because pro-Israel propaganda in the U.S. was far more sophisticated and effective than anything the Palestinians were able to produce. What's truly cynical is the way the pro-Syrian rebel crowd has used the pro-Palestine discourse popularized on the left to build support for overthrowing the Syrian government. They equate the Syrian army with the Israeli Defense Forces and the rebels with Palestinians. This analogy makes no sense. The Israeli army is a colonial occupier that is systematically stealing land from the Indigenous population. The Syrian army is Indigenous and it's fighting an insurgency made up of some Syrians along with tens of thousands of foreign fighters from all over the world.
Emersberger: You've mentioned that the vitriol and lies directed at you in response to your Syria reporting surpassed what you've ever received regarding Palestine. Do you think that is because, as you mentioned, it has been so many years since Israeli propaganda was as believable to Western progressives? Anything else that has surprised you about the attacks?
Khalek: What surprised me most about the attacks and smears, which were launched by neocons and Zionists, is the degree to which people who support Palestine believed them and participated in spreading them. As someone who has covered Israel/Palestine and has been heavily attacked because of it, I've never experienced the sort of blacklisting that came with showing skepticism toward the mainstream narrative on Syria. The behavior of progressive media, in particular, has been incredibly disillusioning. I lost my main source of income because of the Syria smears. And I've since had a difficult time finding outlets on the progressive left willing to publish on-the-ground reporting from places like Damascus and Aleppo. At the end of the day, I think the U.S. left failed Syria. As U.S.-backed jihadists invaded Syrian neighborhoods, imposed a reign of terror and tried to force state collapse, many segments of the U.S. left cheered the armed groups and ignored their victims.
Emersberger: Some of the pushback I’ve received when I’ve raised the other side of the story about Syria is that Doctors Without Borders has reinforced the Western story in many of its public remarks. Their hospitals have been bombed by the Saudis in Yemen and by the U.S. military in Afghanistan, so it’s understandable why people would find them credible. They do dangerous work and have sometimes been willing to criticize the Western establishment. However, in response to criticism of their Syria remarks, they’ve conceded that they don’t have international staff operating in government-controlled areas. Their sources are Syrian doctors working in rebel-controlled areas who are not MSF staff. Do you have any comment on this, and why does the Syrian government not let groups like MSF into the areas it controls?
Khalek: I have no idea why the Syrian government doesn't allow in Doctors Without Borders. You would have to ask them. What I can say is that rebel areas are tightly controlled by groups that have killed health workers, aid workers and activists, so any information coming out of rebel areas should be treated with a great deal of skepticism. Western humanitarian groups uncritically relaying information out of rebel areas has been a serious problem throughout the war in Syria and suggests they're not as independent of their respective government's geopolitical ambitions as they might claim.
Emersberger: In one interview you mentioned a Western journalist who talked about loving the pubs in Damascus, but then cheering the side who would destroy not only the night life but any semblance of freedom that exists even under Assad’s rule. Did anyone point that out to the journalist in question?
Khalek: No. Most of the Western journalists and think tankers in attendance laughed in agreement and the other half exchanged looks of irritation, including me.
Emersberger: You’ve said that that left should see religious extremism much more as a dangerous tool of the West and of the dictators it supports in the Middle East and less as arising from “legitimate grievances” as many argued after Sept. 11, 2001. Could you elaborate on that?
Khalek: In the 1980s, the U.S. knowingly armed religious extremists — like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a bin Laden associate whose claim to fame was throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women — to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. These armed mujahideen groups were the precursor to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Twenty years later, Al Qaeda got lucky and pulled off an attack in the U.S. that killed 3,000 people and has been invoked to justify endless war ever since. Extremist groups like Al Qaeda certainly harbor some legitimate grievances against Western foreign policy. But people in Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, Chile, Cuba and so on also have legitimate grievances. Why isn't there similar blowback from these regions of the world? The reason is that the U.S. and its gulf state partners have been funding and arming violent religious extremists to fight their adversaries in the Middle East. But as soon as these extremists target the West, they blame Islam, curtail civil liberties and use the predictable attacks as justification for more war. But the problem isn't Islam. The problem is the deliberate spreading of Wahhabism, which preaches hatred and incites to violence. It’s the ideology that drives ISIS and Al Qaeda and all their clones.
That's why I say the jihadist groups the U.S. government has empowered in places like Syria are tools of the West. Their hateful actions, whether in Syria or Iraq or Paris or New York City, should not be excused or explained away as logical responses to legitimate foreign policy grievances. The reality is that the U.S. and gulf states have for decades funded the spread of a hateful and fanatical ideology. One of the consequences of funding hate has been reprehensible attacks that end up fueling the far right in Western countries.
In the era of demagogues like Donald Trump, it's more crucial than ever that the left be very clear about the roots of jihadist violence. We have to have a better response than just blaming legitimate grievances. U.S. foreign policy is to blame for jihadist violence because our governments empowered jihadists in the first place and then used the blowback in our countries to justify more war. If we aren't honest about this, we will end up ceding the conversation to the far right, ensuring that the demagogues get away with blaming Muslims, Arabs and refugees for a problem the West created and continues to aggravate.