Iraq & Syria: A Spark that Lit an All-Consuming Fire, Advocate, 05/10/2016

One of my arts & advocacy projects is my work with the Syria Film Festival. This is an organization that gave me my first communications gig after I finished my business program, an internship for their public relations work.

Though Blumenthal doubts their legitimacy because of it, the White
Helmets are simultaneously humanitarians and publicists for
democratic activism. But advocacy and humanitarianism have
never been separate.
The friendships and professional relationships I’ve built in my work with SYFF have been ethically and professionally rewarding. And aside from my personal fulfillment, I’m proud to be part of an artistic and advocacy network that strives for a peaceful and free Syria – an end to the world’s most brutal ongoing war and an end to the culture and institutions of dictatorship that laid the conditions for that war.

So it burned me pretty hard to see Max Blumenthal’s recent articles floating around my social media networks. These amount to hit pieces on The Syria Campaign, a public relations firm whose focus is building support for humanitarian work in Syria – in particular, advocating on behalf of the White Helmets – and for an end to the Assad regime. 

None of these are objectively bad things. In a war – especially one as horrifying as Syria’s – humanitarian workers are needed. And the Assad regime from Hafez to Bashar has been a Stalinist totalitarian police state, organizing its institutional power along ethnic-religious sectarian lines. 

Ending that dynasty’s decades-long reign would be a chance for a new beginning. And with a population inside and outside Syria of highly educated, democratically-inclined people, that country would have a good chance of growing into an Arab democracy.

The problem is that we in the West have heard all this sort of stuff before.

Substance: Lobbying & Image-Making

Blumenthal does a fine job of tracing the links between the White Helmets, the Syria Campaign, and a variety of activist individuals and organizations who’ve worked with and drawn funds from the American government’s democracy promotion agencies like USAID, the Office of Transition Initiatives, and affiliated contractor companies like Chemonics. 

He’s found examples of individual members of White Helmet brigades who – when out of their humanitarian uniforms – have carried out terrible acts of violence. Who have tortured people who’ve been claimed to work for the Assad regime. Who have apparently picked up a gun with Al Qaeda affiliated organizations like Jabhat Al Nusra.

Seriously. You should go.
He concludes, after combing through the history of all these links, that the Syria Campaign and the White Helmets are not non-partisan humanitarians but are open agitators in the Syrian war. For him, that implies that their humanitarian work is a sham, a mere “public relations” move. 

The move that leads Blumenthal to condemn the Syria Campaign, though, is their new campaign to lobby for a no-fly zone over Syria. This would require a massive military intervention to enforce. Given the current state of Assad’s alliances, this would essentially require a shooting war between the United States of America and the Russian Federation.

That’s a situation that could easily escalate into a true nuclear war. That is something we should all be afraid of. I’d dare say it’s one of the reasons why the United States hasn’t intervened in Syria. Given Putin’s aggressive stance, a more nuanced strategy is needed to stop him without provoking him into authorizing nuclear weapons use.

Between a Quagmire and a World in Flames

Leave aside all the pragmatic arguments, though I can easily make them. Most of them are obvious – the necessity to play power politics when trying to unseat a brutal totalitarian regime like Bashar al Assad’s. 

Yes, you have to lobby with powerful states that have military capabilities to cripple and destroy the regime you oppose. Public relations, building alliances, building popular support in the countries whose governments you want to enlist to your goals. 

The power of the UN is that its neutrality lets them mediate between
even the most horrible actors. I remember stories in his biography
of Sergio Vieira de Mello of how he negotiated with the Khmer
Rouge. But that neutrality is precisely why the Syria Campaign
can't get on the UN bandwagon in the war. Revolutionaries can't
be neutral in their own fight.
Public relations – done right and with an ethical conscience – is the organization of democracy. It’s mobilizing people, taking part in the marketplace of persuasion, ideas, and competing social goals. 

Yes, it’s manipulative – but even the least amount of media literacy, which is near-universal today, gives the public power over advocates. A critical eye can still defend yourself against being a patsy, and hold tight to your freedom when others want to seduce you.

Frankly, it’s easier to act entirely on your conscience when you live far from a war zone. When you do, you have to make what alliances you can to raise your chances of surviving just a little longer. It’s sanctimonious of a Western journalist like Max Blumenthal to demand total virtuousness to the point of saintliness of humanitarians who have to work in horrifying conditions.

This is at the heart of why the Syria Campaign critiques the United Nations and UNHCR for working so closely with the Assad regime. The UN has a mandate to maintain neutrality in all conflicts – it has to be a non-partisan actor because its primary role is as the mediating forum for global politics.

So UN organizations have to work with even the most distasteful regimes. They have to recognize their legitimacy, despite their violence and terror. Even when a brutal government is under siege, the UN has to work with them. And they work with the groups uprising against that government too.

All too often, that need to work with the government of the day impedes the UN’s humanitarian mission. Because the UN and the UNHCR become dependent for access to populations in need upon the very leaders who are intent on slaughtering those populations. 

That is why the Syria Campaign, along with more than 70 Syrian human rights and democracy organizations, denounced the UN’s complicity with the Assad regime. Blumenthal describes their opposition to UN strategy and operations as a sign of their corruption, their being stooges of American military interests.

The Syria Campaign makes no illusion of neutrality in the war. They’re democrats. They want Syria at peace and Assad gone. They want a democratic Syria.

Seeing Shadows

That’s at the heart of Blumenthal’s accusation toward the Syria Campaign and White Helmets: You want regime change. 

Pictured above: Not Bashar or Hafez Assad. Remember that.
For the Western left, that’s a charged phrase. A phrase with a lot of deep and terrible meanings and implications. Regime change.

Since the late 20th century, the Western left has opposed the broad ideology of the American government and the circles of think tanks and lobbying organizations that surround that institution. It kicked into gear with protests against the World Trade Organization, opposing the imposition of global economic rules and institutions running according to what we now call neoliberal austerity.

That opposition gained a military dimension in the Bush years, with the massive protest movement against the American invasion of Iraq. That time made many in the left lose our faith in the global spread of democracy.

It seems to make no sense at first. Why would the progressive left give up on democracy? 

Because we saw it delivered at the barrel of a gun, with a plan designed by a set of neoconservative think tank dorks that was barely up to the task. Within months of the American occupation of Iraq, an Al Qaeda terror campaign began in Baghdad and Anbar, while a sectarian army arose in Shia territory.

No matter how sincere Bush, Cheney, and their crew were about the power of the American army to secure a democratic Iraq – and I have no doubt that they were truly sincere – all they achieved was six years of barely organized violence by the national army and rapacious piracy from leagues of mercenaries.

Through it all ran the not-very-secret word: regime change. The original American plan for Iraq was to install the exiled liberal party of Ahmed Chalabi as the democratically elected ruler of Iraq. Much of the faulty and false intelligence that the Bush Administration used to justify their invasion was supplied by Chalabi’s group and their affiliate lobbying organizations.

When Max Blumenthal looks at Syria, he sees Iraq.

In Syria, the revolution is televised. And ongoing.
It Began With Revolution

That’s why he denounces the Syria Campaign and the White Helmets as stooges for American military expansion and a new invasion of the Middle East. He sees public relations and media lobbying – its methods updated for the online media universe – as more of the same manipulation from liberal autocrats like Chalabi.

He sees the Syria Campaign and other activists calling out the United Nations for their complicity with the Assad regime as a new version of Bush’s railroading of the UN in 2002. A repetition of the old dismissal of the legitimacy of the grounding institution of all international law.

He paints Bashar Assad as the legal and tolerable – if horrid and distasteful – rightful leader of Syria, under siege from a superpower desperate to prevent its military decline. Just as Saddam Hussein was, the totalitarian bugbear of American neoconservatism.

But Syria in 2016 isn’t Iraq in 2002. Syria has already been embroiled in a civil war for years that began in a revolution against Assad’s regime. Blumenthal erases the will of millions of Syria’s people, seeing only public relations firms and shadowy manipulations of empire-minded deep organs of American government.

If you’re going to criticize American military intervention, there are plenty of ways to do it. Mostly because their efforts tend to self-destruct and fall apart through mismanagement. Or they’ll be out-maneuvered by a more ruthless Vladimir Putin, who isn’t squeamish about dropping bunker buster bombs on schools and hospitals.

Don’t forget that the unfolding violence of Syria’s war began – and continues – a revolution against a totalitarian tyrant. In a way, that’s quite an American story. It’s certainly a democratic one.

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