The expectation was that Tuesday evening’s debate on “Syria and the Left,” held at the Brooklyn office of Verso Books, would be contentious. Online, discussion had become hopelessly vitriolic. Emotions were rising as the carnage in Aleppo seemed to approach an apex. “Eight hundred people were interested in the Facebook event,” I heard a Verso employee say as the audience filtered in.
And it was contentious, as well as packed, though moderator Maryam Jamshidi of Muftah Magazine worked strenuously to keep things civil, and largely succeeded. The panel consisted of three journalists and one academic: Murtaza Hussain of The Intercept, Max Blumenthal of AlterNet, Loubna Mrie of Quartz, and Zein El-Amine of the University of Maryland. Blumenthal and El-Amine represented skepticism of the opposition and emphasized the threat of regime change; Hussain and Mrie, a Syrian exile who participated in the uprising’s early demonstrations, argued that Assad must go.
The crowd was occasionally vocal, despite Jamshidi’s insisting the event would be shut down if we got out of hand. There was some #HandsOffSyria sentiment, but for the most part the energized audience members had come to challenge the notion of Assad’s persistence in power being the lesser evil. Blumenthal faced the most pushback, particularly for interjecting when Mrie was speaking.
El-Amine, a poet and activist originally from Lebanon, spoke against the “binary formulation” whereby “anybody criticizing intervention is framed as Assadist,” and those who denounce the regime are accused of supporting Al Qaeda and other jihadists. This is “ahistorical,” he said, detached from any analysis of the Arab Spring and the Iraq War. Throughout his remarks, El-Amine attempted to advance a regional understanding of the Syrian conflict, bringing up Yemen and Libya and Saudi Arabia’s desire to wrest control of the revolutionary wave from democratic forces. (Jamshidi implicitly criticized this approach as evasive—”So is Syria about Syria, or is Syria about Yemen?”—and Hussain complained, “The suffering of Yemenis should not be used to distract from the suffering of Syrians.”) El-Amine’s prescription was to “reframe the discussion to talk about deescalation.”
Mrie said the left’s main problem was “denying Syrian voices and the agency of the Syrian people.” Why is regime change a bad idea, she asked, if it comes from them? Analysis has tended to treat Syrians as puppets, and intervention in any case is already happening, by Russia on the side of Assad. It’s a mistake, Mrie argued, to “focus on the last fragment of the conflict without really understanding the timeline,” how the uprising began. (An Alawite, Mrie left her home in Latakia to join the opposition in 2011.) She called on the left to show “solidarity with the Syrian people by insisting on accountability for all war crimes”—in other words, don’t let Assad off the hook.
Blumenthal recalled how he resigned in 2012 from the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar over its pro-Assad coverage but insisted that “change can’t come from the outside.” Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United States have spent “hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe billions” funding fighters in Syria. “The war is the root of all evil,” he said. Yes, East Aleppo has been “turned into a kill box” by Assad and Putin, but this is presented in “a narrative that erases West Aleppo,” the government-held area subjected to rebel rocket attacks. It’s an “escalationist narrative pumped out of Saudi-funded think tanks inside the Beltway.” The choice is “between more war and less war,” not Assad or the opposition.
Hussein, recently returned from Turkey’s border with Syria, said Assad’s war amounts to “the eradication of poor people in Syria.” Non-intervention is “a perfectly defensible position” but “insufficient in itself.” The refugees don’t want to go back to a country ruled by Assad. If the war ends with the regime still in power, after five years of such appalling state terror, “that’s an affront to humanity, that’s disgusting, there’s no way we can countenance that.” It would be like telling a child to keep quiet after having been raped by a priest, for the good of the church. And far from shoring up regional stability, such a non-resolution would lead to a U.S. invasion in fifteen years. What’s needed instead is a “managed transition” to democracy. But this is not the current trajectory: there was agreement that Assad is now winning.
Blumenthal complained of being harassed and vilified, “subjected to McCarthyite attacks,” for writing about moneyed interests pushing for regime change and their connections to the White Helmets, Syrian volunteers “who rush into freshly bombed building to extract survivors—while filming themselves,” as he put it. Hussain likened Blumenthal’s journalistic methods to searching the Facebook page of a black teen shot by police, perhaps goaded by Blumenthal’s taunt that he was “spoon-fed” White Helmets PR for a recent article.
“It’s not surprising,” Hussain said of some Syrians’ hope for a no-fly zone, “it’s out in the open. We can disagree with it.” But Blumenthal had crossed a line, he suggested, by making an argument “dripping with contempt” for their position.
Mrie also defended the White Helmets, who Blumenthal pointed out are funded in part by USAID’s Office of Transitional Initiatives. She described rescuers unable to reach victims “choking in the dust” in 2013, for want of equipment. To criticize them for accepting hammers from the U.S. government, “who does that?” Along similar lines, she acknowledged that foreign funders of the opposition have “an agenda in the country,” but suggested their assistance is accepted out of desperation.
What the debate lacked was a serious discussion of the U.S. role in Syria. We heard the contestable claim, from Blumenthal and El-Amine, that Hillary Clinton’s no-fly zone rhetoric has pushed Assad and Putin to ramp up their atrocities ahead of the election. But for all the talk of regime change, there was virtually no acknowledgment of the “counterterrorism” bombing campaign carried out since September 2014, which has reportedly killed hundreds of Syrians in the name of fighting ISIS, not Assad. Even Mrie, who seemed to favor a no-fly zone, admitted that it seems unlikely to happen. A stronger focus on developing realistic options for the future might have been more productive than so much recrimination about the past.