The weaponisation of propaganda on Syria has gone from a cottage industry to a mainstream scourge. Does the propaganda enable the Assad regime's crimes?
In one of his essays regarding the crossover between alleged ‘pacifism’ and apologia for Nazi Germany in 1942, George Orwell wrote that “he was interested in the psychological processes by which pacifists who have started out with an alleged horror of violence end up with a marked tendency to be fascinated by the success and power of Nazism.”
From the very beginning of the Syrian war there has been a tendency among a certain milieu of writers, academics, journalists and politicians to use the non-existent threat of a western war of "regime change" against Assad to support and justify the genocidal cause of Assad and his allies.
For some people, the Assad Axis could murder as many Syrians as possible and these apologists-cum-supporters would be the vanguard of those justifying or seeking to enable it. And this is one of the interesting points of history regarding the subject of genocide and questions of different levels of culpability that surround this crime.
The pen sharpens the sword
Following the normalisation of genocide that came with the period of imperialism stretching from the 18th to 20th centuries, with the onset of the Holocaust our species became more and more aware and terrified of its tendency to annihilate.
The Nuremberg Trials are the standard when it comes to the legal recourse for trying and punishing those responsible for genocide. Of all those successfully prosecuted at Nuremberg, the case that is most of interest here is that of Julius Streicher.
Streicher was found guilty of ‘crimes against humanity’ and was swiftly hanged by his neck until he was dead. During the entire course of the Third Reich and WWII, Streicher did not pick up a gun or physically command a death squad against Jews or any other innocent. He didn’t ever personally send a single soul to the gas chambers.
On the contrary, his weapon was the printing press and his ammunition was poisonous words. Streicher was the owner and editor of the notorious Nazi tabloid Der Sturmer, which pumped out a constant stream of the most base, vicious antisemitism, utilising what is today called ‘fake news’ to demonise Jews as rapists, killers and alien demons seeking by conspiracy to destroy Germany.
Streicher’s crime was to craft, through this tabloid propaganda and racist fabrications, the environment that made the Holocaust possible – through the stroke of his poison pen, ordinary Jews were agents of evil and thus legitimate targets for a host of crimes, ranging from pogroms to industrial mass murder.
What sealed his fate with the charge of ‘crime against humanity’ was that he continued saturating the media with these murderous lies after he became aware of the Holocaust.
Relating to Syria, and the crimes against humanity occurring there – crimes that include not just the deliberate targeting of civilians by military aircraft, whether with conventional or chemical weapons, but also mass extermination camps, mass rape, torture and ethnic cleansing, one finds an entire army of Streichers.
They exist on multiple levels of platforms, ranging from the darkest corners of the internet, to social media sites, to ‘alternative media’ platforms and, most dangerously, in elected offices and parliamentary bodies. The apologists for Assad’s genocide are legion.
I do not use the word ‘genocide’ lightly here – and though many of us have been using it for years, it is a designation that is gaining wider use to describe what’s happening in Syria.
The Assad regime, Iran and Russia's target for ethnic cleansing, slaughter, extermination, torture or starvation make up a particular demographic in Syria - namely Syrian Sunnis.
Their purpose is not to return to a status quo ante bellum, but to rule a rump Syria with a vastly reduced and more docile population in formerly liberated areas. The properties of Syrians who flee this terror have can have their properties and land seized by regime forces, making it impossible for them to return.
You have, most immediately, the online apologists – the cyber-Streichers of the Assad Axis, whose job it is to mock the victims, harangue and bully those who want justice for the victims and disseminate conspiracies and propaganda on behalf of the criminals.
Whenever one of Russia’s mouthpieces, be it government officials, or its media wings RT and Sputnik and its employees, unloads a new piece of absurd, genocide-justifying propaganda claiming that the Douma massacre was carried out by the White Helmets, you can be sure the network cyber-brownshirt trolls will spread it far and wide.
Outside of the alternate reality of genocide apologism, the White Helmets are known to the world as teams of civilian volunteers whose job it is to save the lives or recover the bodies of those maimed and murdered by Assad and Russia’s brutal air assaults. Blumenthal accused them of being linked to ‘Al Qaeda’ (a line that comes straight from the Assad regime and Russia) and part of a Byzantine conspiracy linked to "western regime change".
In this spirit, Blumenthal took to Twitter following the recent Douma massacre to immediately scream conspiracy, writing “the pattern is clear now … when the Syrian army advances or liberates cities from NATO/GCC backed insurgents, insurgents allege a chemical attack … sources are invariably insurgent activists, NATO/GCC backed White Helmets…’
This of course was a dolled up version of the Kremlin’s own line on the chemical weapons massacre. Before the attack they ominously accused the White Helmets of "planning another chemical farce", while after it they claimed the White Helmets had staged the attack with the help of the British government.
If you look on Blumenthal’s Twitter feed, you’ll get a glimpse into the Assad Axis’ very own alternate reality – one where Assad and Russia’s genocide in Syria is simultaneously some noble, to use his word, "liberation" from phantom ‘GCC/NATO-backed insurgents’ (actually local Syrian rebels who almost no external supporters left), and wherein anyone who opposes this genocide is some kind of 'neocon’ shilling for regime change and the nefarious machinations of the US empire and ‘Zionism’.
This is boilerplate propaganda that regurgitates and combines 'War on Terror" propaganda (for western audiences) with the sort of propaganda that might be able to seduce conspiracy theorists outside of the west.
You’ll find him haranguing Syrian women who appear on the media to give their Anti-Assad perspective, while he retweets other members of the Assad Axis apologists, such as Rania Khalek, once a guest of the Assad regime and vicious supporter of his war.
This is the alternate reality, very deliberately cultivated, that enables genocide. This is not a charge to be made lightly. But in democracies, even dysfunctional ones, public opinion is often a component of policy making.
When you saturate the modes of information that the public uses with absurd conspiracy theories that obscure and justify events like the Douma massacre, the effect is to raise opposition to those in power who might want to act to stop this massacre.
This is straight out of the Russian playbook – to degrade truth so that it no longer has any meaning. So that meaning itself becomes vacuous and you fill that vacuum with easily digestible propaganda. Even if the propaganda isn’t believed wholesale, so much confusion is created that people don’t know what to believe.
You’ll also note the language used. Blumenthal only ever refers to "the Syrian government", actually a rump state propped up by foreign forces, notably Iranian-led militias and Russia, contrasted with "'GCC/NATO' backed insurgents".
The effect here is not just to paint a misleading picture of the forces involved, but to dehumanise them. In the days following the massacre in Douma, Blumenthal took to Sky News, claiming that “there is strong opposition among progressive Americans to bombing Syrians for a dubious campaign that would help Al Qaeda advance’.
The use of the term ‘Al Qaeda’ here has one purpose – to dehumanise Syrians who find themselves on the end of not just poison gas, but barrel bombs, thermobaric missiles, napalm, white phosphorus and cluster munitions.
The imagery associated with ‘Al Qaeda’ immediately seeks to transform the people the Assad Axis is killing into bogeymen – appealing to post-9/11 Islamophobia and the entire discourse of the ‘War on Terror’ – a terminology that justifies everything.
Combined with the endless conspiracy theories, the effect is to obscure, deny and ultimately justify the reality of babies dying as their chest muscles snap, with their lungs burning within their tiny bodies as they spend their final few painful moments on earth gasping for life.
They would have you believe that Assad and his allies are the liberating heroes fighting GCC-NATO supported ‘Al Qaeda’ insurgents.
It turns the incinerated, the murdered and the cleansed into mere collateral damage of nefarious plots against the heroic liberator Assad, much like Hitler and his propagandists claimed the war against Jews was necessary because the Jews were part of a conspiracy to destroy Germany. It’s the same essential plot with the same essential end – genocide.
Terming all anti-Assad Syrians as ‘Al Qaeda’ is in fact a racist slur which – repeated in a recent article – serves not merely to justify mass murder, but demonises Syrians fleeing terror in Europe and the world.
The idea that Syrian refugees are terrorists, an idea that Assad has also cultivated, has contributed greatly to the rise of the far-right in Europe – ironically, often these far-right forces are allied with Putin.
It also conditions the policy of an already racist government, such as Trump’s Muslim ban and Viktor Orban’s industrialised system of deporting Syrian refugees, often citing the terror threat. Moreover, these forces pressure already limp centrists into ‘getting tough’ on refugees coming to the county.
Across Europe, Syrians find no safe havens, but rather hostile and intolerant states that seek to deport as many as possible – tarring them with the brush of ‘Al Qaeda’ and ‘Daesh’ greatly aids in this endeavour. When Syrians are deported from Fortress Europe, they are being murdered, disappeared, imprisoned and tortured by Assad’s apparatuses of terror.
There’s no doubt that the narrative of Assad as a lesser evil fighting ‘Al Qaeda’ – the twisted idea that Assad is a force of ‘stability’ and he has been destabilised by forces seeking ‘regime change’ – has greased the wheels of Europe’s already racist deportation machine.
At first glance thinking observers might find it odd that Blumenthal and his ilk should go on so much about ‘regime change’, when the very forces they accuse of wanting ‘regime change’ in Syria, notably the US, UK and France, have each said that they want no such thing.
Justifying UK involvement in the action, and despite the hysterical line of the hordes of apologists for Assad, Iran and Russia, Theresa May jumped at the chance to distance what she called the "limited" strikes from any will by the British government to pursue "regime change" or even "interfering in a civil war".
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis was similarly upfront about the limited nature of the engagement, saying "we [are] not out to expand this".
Following suit, French president Macron stated that "we have not declared war on the Assad regime". So where exactly does that leave this global regime change machinery?
Unfortunately, this apologism has streamed into the mainstream media. Two days after Assad hit Douma with poison gas, murdering mostly women and children holed up in shelters, Simon Jenkins, a longstanding supporter of Assad and someone with arrogantly sophomoric knowledge of Syria, wrote an article for the Guardian claiming, "Only Assad’s victory will end Syria’s civil war".
After the usual sleazy whataboutery of pointing out that "the West" in the past has also killed civilians, Jenkins message is that while the use of chemical weapons by Assad is bad, nobody should do anything to stop Assad from using them again and his total victory is the only solution to the Syria question. The final solution, one might say.
This obscenity can be found on the website and in the pages of one of the world’s most celebrated newspapers.
Then you have the seasoned Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, someone who has from the very beginning of the Syrian war audaciously peddled the line of Assad and Russia, enough to successfully muddy the mainstream.
Fisk has actively embedded himself with pro-regime forces, despite once rightly warning that the tendency of western journalists to embed themselves with US and UK forces during the Iraq war endangered their impartiality.
In keeping with his published denial of Assad’s culpability for almost every massacre his forces have committed, from Daraya to Ghouta, Fisk wrote a piece for The Independent that ignored the mammoth amount of evidence for the reality of the chemical attack, while instead relying on the word of one Syrian doctor who wasn’t even a witness to the massacre and its aftermath, to conclude that no chemical attack took place.
This is what Syrians are up against. Not only is their victimisation being justified, but its very existence is constantly being questioned.
During the Holocaust, Jews could not believe how quickly their neighbours turned against them or how readily people in general were willing to abet and encourage their murder. Syrians may well look at these kind of media responses and come to a similarly terrifying conclusion about the world today.
And to complete the process of genocide apologism, you now have it finding concrete political form. Across Europe, alt-right and alt-left forces friendly to the Kremlin and its crimes are rising. This does not bode well for Syrians.
The UK offers up perhaps the most drastic example.
Alt-left leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn merely presents a more publicly acceptable face of the same discourse as Blumenthal. Corbyn uses "procedure" to argue the case for Russia and Assad, saying that even the limited action against Assad’s use of chemical weapons was wrong because it didn’t have full UN backing, despite knowing full well that such UN backing for such action is impossible due to Russia’s veto power.
Ergo: Russia, which has absolutely no obedience to UN procedure can do whatever it likes, include defend the gassing to death of Syrian babies, while Corbyn holds those who want to act to impossibly high standards.
Corbyn even refuses to say Assad was responsible for the attack and claimed that a rebel group might have been behind it. Blumenthal is an internet troll, while the Jenkins, Fisks and Cockburns are merely journalists, but Corbyn could be the Prime Minister of the UK.
The entire process is an interrelated phenomenon – the Corbyn’s of the world justify their preconceived support for Russia and Assad with the material provided by these individuals and outlets.
The world is dark and it’s getting darker. The reason that Assad and Russia despise and fear the White Helmets is because they demonstrate the endurance of the Syrian people against fascism. They demonstrate the humanitarian heart that still beats among Syria’s broken people. These people who save lives are the antithesis of a regime that deals only in death and destruction.
They represent the possibility that one day the current zeitgeist of indifference to, or support for, the onward march of horror will change for the better.
Streicher’s greatest weapon, his writing, was his ultimate downfall. He recorded his own crimes. Today, in the age of the internet, culpability for what we write is if anything potentially stronger - every moment of sneering dehumanisation, justification, obfuscation and enablement is documented for all to see.
All those who have played a part in enabling this genocide ought to take heed.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.
We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to firstname.lastname@example.org