The hateful rhetoric of the “anti-war” left toward Syria

I should begin with a disclaimer or two. First, I typically am a proud member of the “anti-war” left in American politics. In 2001 I co-organized a Peace Concert – that’s right a Peace Concert – in response to the 9/11 attacks and G.W. Bush’s war-drum response. In 2003 I was one of the many millions who gathered around the world to protest yet another Bush and Co. war.

But Syria might be a much clearer-cut case for some sort of international intervention.

You have on the one side a megalomaniac tyrant who is by all means likely to kill tens of thousands more of his citizens, even if all of the rebels put down their arms today. And on the other side you have… mostly just the people. The FSA is currently the strongest and most cohesive representative fighting body on their side, though there are other groups. There are the Kurds, who mostly just want autonomy in their ancestral lands and for now have a bit of just that. And there is Jabhat al-Nusra, which has only a few thousand fighters in the country but seems to get the lion’s share of press – nobody likes them, including the leader of the officially recognized Syrian National Council, as you can see from an interview I linked to here. These are the guys responsible for the horrible atrocities we have seen, and they will only get worse unless this war can be brought to an end and stability can return to the country.

The problem is that Putin, Assad, and friends have worked hard to convince the world that it’s really a case of an embattled politician trying to save his country from terrorists. Every time – or nearly so – I have heard of the war discussed, it has been about Assad (who we don’t like) and the rebels (who we also don’t like). This Modern World states just that:

Syria in This Modern World

The two bad sides according to Tom Tomorrow (click here for the full cartoon).

Why do people on the left hate the people of Syria (a.k.a. the brutal rebels)? 

Hate may be a stronger word than necessary in most cases, but too often the writing on Syria either demonizes or belittles the people of the country. Even Nathan Thompson over at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, who I respect a lot for his writings on such matters -and applaud his attention to the complexities in this area- seems to have skewed his narrative about Syria against the people of the country, suggesting that the opposition violence only started with U.S. weapons and that this (quoting a source) slowed the rate of defection from the Syrian army. It’s more subtle than the usual “everyone is a bad guy in Syria” rhetoric, but it still suggests that a significant proportion of the problem lies with how the people have responded to Assad’s brutality; in fact there is little mention at all of Assad, except for his move to (imho) buy time by agreeing to give up his chemical weapons.

Thanks to Putin, and many anti-war left echoing his points, Assad comes off looking like a good guy, or at least one who is seriously concerned for international law and his obligations to his people, or something like that.

Perhaps, more than guns, what the people of Syria need most is good PR.

On that front, this documentary “Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution” should help. It’s just 15 minutes long and worth every minute:

YouTube Preview Image

The last 2 minutes are the most powerful, and, I would say, the most damning of the American public. Look at the cats. Don’t you care about the kittens? You can see another video with Nour Kelze, the woman in this video, and winner of a 2013 Courage in Journalism Award, here.

For something a bit more creative, try this, and you’ll see Assad’s real view of the UN and the ‘game’ it all is to him:


Al Jazeera has a new two-part documentary on Syria as well which is worth watching if you have the time. Not everyone in Syria is ‘bad’, please call out this rhetoric when you see or hear it. It might simplify our lives and allow us to return to our youtube videos with kittens, but it’s not true.

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  • Nathan G. Thompson

    Justin, as I just wrote over on my post, I did NOT say that the violence started because of U.S. arms supplies. I was pointing to our role in the escalation, however large or small it may be. Because so many folks seem to think that our government has “done nothing” when the reality is we have been active over there or quite some time. In addition, to repeat that issue about the defections after I agreed with you that the quote was probably inaccurate is just low. Furthermore, since I’m the main example here of “anti-war leftists” – odds are your readership will pin me as being another Assad supporter. Which couldn’t be further from the truth.

    • justinwhitaker

      I hope no one pins you as an Assad supporter. Your condemnation of his regime speaks for itself. I chose your piece in part because it was otherwise one of the better articles on the topic and closer to my own views overall than, say, a fox news article. Your sentence was:

      “Lost in all of this is the fact that the resistance movement started as a non-violent one, became violent in part because of U.S. arming of the rebel groups, and that non-violent efforts continue in Syria alongside the armed conflicts.”

      So it’s “became violent in part because of U.S. arming of the rebel groups,” vs “I did NOT say that the violence started because of U.S. arms supplies.” Perhaps I’m missing something…

      • Nathan G. Thompson

        Eh, it’s poorly written. I can see now why you made that link. I agree with you that the violence started before any American (or French) involvement. There should have been another sentence offering some timeline in there, but I was thinking more about Dogen and how his teachings might inform all of this.

        On another note, it’s been really hard to watch pro-Assad folks take over local anti-war groups. A few friends of mine have been smeared and threatened publicly for their more critical analysis and unwillingness to cheer- lead the Assad regime. It’s ugly stuff, and worthy of the general call out you offered.

        • justinwhitaker

          Groovy. I had no idea there were pro-Assad people out there in anti-war groups. Mind-boggling…

  • Kevin Osborne

    The US public has no interest in Syrian affairs because Iraq and Afghanistan have led to the conclusion that picking sides where our direct interest is not involved is a bad idea.
    I’ll bet for 99% it has nothing to do with prefering one side over another.
    I like kittens.

    • justinwhitaker

      Hi Kevin. Yes, perhaps a lack of feeling ‘direct’ interest is itself worthy of discussion. Any interest now would only be indirect, as it was in those countries and Libya and Kosovo.

      • Kevin Osborne

        There is an old baseball story about a brash rookie pitcher who swaggeringly asked a older player if he thought the rookie could throw his fastball to Hank Aaron. The veteran replied, “Yes, but as soon as you let go of the ball be sure to run and hide behind second base”.
        Let me know when you want to poke your head out.

  • 無門 Mumon7

    I think you’re not accurately characterizing people who have reservations about using violence against a violent and murderous regime.

    One doesn’t have to be an absolute pacifist to have concerns that this looks a bit too much like Iraq, as far as any endgame would be concerned, and it’s not clear that any military action would necessarily hasten the end of violence, which is supposed to be the point of any military action.

    Of COURSE it’s a joke that Putin and Assad appeal to UN notions and the rule of law, etc. etc. But ti’s also a joke that the US does or doesn’t as well. We didn’t set it up to have the best interests of the whole wide world in mind, rather we set it up so those who have power could retain it.

    • justinwhitaker

      Hi Mumon. Yes, I agree that there is no clear understanding of the outcomes of any of the proposed actions; which is (I hope) why the President isn’t doing anything. Without such clarity, and broad international support, strikes seem unwise.

      And yes, I agree also that the Putin/Assad UN route and whole chemical weapons plan is a joke. But…. watch the politicians, blogs, and pundits on the left lap it up. Not all of course, but a surprising number – to me at least. The UN will only ever have the power we all afford it. It may be a long ways off still, but nations must learn that overarching rules and regulations benefit all.

  • ThisIsTheEnd

    The West is still fighting the last military adventure, the idea that we should engage in a third war is unappetizing to say the least. The 21st Century is only 13 years old and people are tired of the political, security and media elites dragging us into a perpetual war. I also think that most people reject the idea that War is Peace, that the only way for the West to help Syrians is to kill the Syrians we no longer like.

  • PrimateZero

    I’m anti-war but that doesn’t mean I’m pro-Assad. The man is a tyrannical bastard but let’s face it, do we really trust our Noble “Peace” Prize winning President to do the right thing (think about all the civilians we have killed with our drones). Just because he isn’t GW Bush doesn’t make his war anymore “humane” or righteous. I feel for the Syrian people and that’s why I think the last thing they need is an ill conceived airstrike causing them more hardship. We don’t end wars with more wars… and from the look of the polls I think the American public has figured this out.

    • ThisIsTheEnd

      Yeah, there’s no such thing as humanitarian missile strike.

  • Kevin Osborne

    Why are you responding? He’s a big boy.

    • justinwhitaker

      It’s true, no response is really needed. But Mikels’ question is fair. If you have a point which is not ad hominem, perhaps you could state it in plain terms?

      • Kevin Osborne

        You are you and you have your viewpoint as you. I still don’t know exactly what it is after wading through the above, and your answer to me seemed misdirected.
        Our histories as to how we put our viewpoints on paper are no doubt different. My experience is that the most powerful is attached most closely to you and not to others. You are the compendium of you. I’d rather have what you think as you, without the window dressing. Believe or not, I value it.

        • justinwhitaker

          Then why the “old baseball story?” If you have a point to make, make it. Such stories may edify, but without a common starting point for understanding, they really serve no purpose in developing a discussion.

          • Kevin Osborne

            As you say.

    • Mikels Skele

      I’m responding in the hope such nonsense will stop.

      • Kevin Osborne

        Thank you for a direct answer!

  • justinwhitaker

    Of course rules don’t necessarily benefit all (there will always be those happy to break them, e.g. murderers) and good people breaking the rules, such as speeding down the highway with a pregnant woman in labor, can benefit society. These are exceptions which, often enough, “prove the rule.”

    And yes, there are laws that are unjust that deserve our attention. If we break the laws, it is up to us to be willing to accept the consequences.

  • R Vogel

    The problem is always the same, however. With perfect foresight we could see where it would be positive to apply force and how, but we do not have perfect insight, so the it is difficult to tell whether the use of force would be a positive or just further add to suffering. I am horrified by the violence, but we have to answer the question of whether we really believe that the answer is more violence? Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, who was the cause of much suffering, but how do we weight that against the widespread suffering caused by the sectarian violence that resulted from his removal? How do we know this will not be the case in Syria?

    • justinwhitaker

      Very good questions. These are the sort of ‘deeper’ discussions I hope people in the world can have about Syria, especially if/when there is a similar ‘removal’ of Assad. Can the country be policed by a UN force? Can “Truth and Reconciliation” commissions mitigate further violence? Can we count Kosovo as a success to be emulated? With humility (which is difficult for those at ‘the top’ often times) some helpful way forward could come about.

      • R Vogel

        Agreed. Ongoing dialogue is necessary, as well as a large scale humanitarian effort to alleviate as much as suffering as possible while we deliberate. One point I strongly agree with is that anything action that is taken must be done as a world community.