The New York Times on 11 May carried an op-ed entitled, “Once We Beat ISIS, Don’t Abandon Us,” by Sinam Mohamad, the effective foreign minister of the governance structure in northern Syria administered by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian departments of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This comes just over two weeks after another senior PYD/PKK official, Ilham Ahmed, was given space to disseminate the group’s messaging in The Washington Post, and the problems remain the same.
The West’s Syria policy is beginning to unravel of its own contradictions.
The Turkish government launched airstrikes against the positions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in north-eastern Syria and the Sinjar area of north-western Iraq in the early hours of 25 April. There were international ramifications to this because the PKK in Syria, which operates politically under the name of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and militarily as the People’s Defence Units (YPG), is the main partner of the U.S.-led Coalition against the Islamic State (IS). Turkey has protested the U.S. engaging the YPG/PKK so deeply and exclusively as its anti-IS partner, being displeased at the U.S.’s uncritical (public) stance toward the YPG, even after the YPG violated U.S.-brokered agreements on its operational theatres and used Russian airstrikes to attack Turkey- and CIA-backed rebels.
From the beginning of Syria’s war, the regime of Bashar al-Assad, enabled by Iran and Russia, has run a very elaborate media war to portray itself as the victim of an international conspiracy, wherein its only opponents are terrorists from al-Qaeda and its offshoots who are being used by foreigners—namely the Gulf States, Turkey, Israel, and the United States—to overthrow a defiant “resistance” State.
The other part of this strategic messaging is aimed at the West, which Assad otherwise accuses of supporting jihadi-Salafist terrorism against him: Assad is the only alternative to the terrorists, it says, so the West should support him. War criminal he might be, he will protect the minorities—his role in endangering them by starting a sectarian war against the Sunni majority and bolstering the takfiris within the insurgency to cannibalize all legitimate or engageable armed opposition, notwithstanding—and has no immediate plans to fly planes into Western skyscrapers. (That the leading edge of Assad’s ground forces are made up of radically sectarian, foreign Shi’a jihadists under Iran’s control, some of them Iraqis responsible for killing a quarter of the 4,000 U.S. soldiers who fell in Mesopotamia, and are integrated into a State-run terrorist network that has struck Western and Jewish targets the world over, gets left out.)
For Assad and his allies, it helps if this propaganda is not only delivered by regime spokesman but independent analysts, journalists, academics, and politicians. In the last ten days two salient examples have emerged: Stephen Kinzer, a veteran journalist, including for The New York Times, who wrote in The Boston Globe, and Jeffrey Sachs, an academic economist working at Columbia University, who wrote in The Huffington Post. Mixing together conspiracy theories, half-truths, and outright lies—disinformation, to give it an old name—both Kinzer and Sachs told a version of the regime’s narrative. Why they did this is best-known to them. Continue reading
In the last month, the Islamic State (IS) has been waging a concerted campaign to shut down all independent sources of information emanating from its statelet. IS’s focus has been on Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), an activist group that began in April 2014 in IS’s de facto capital in northern Syria. RBSS has published information—including pictures and videos, much of it via Twitter—on the crimes of the “caliphate”. IS has now murdered at least five RBSS journalists and activists, two of them on foreign soil in Turkey, plus the father of one of RBSS’s founders. (The sixth case, also in Turkey, is more murky.) The suppression of independent media by IS is necessary to allow the group to maintain social control of the areas it rules and to sustain the narrative that it is building utopia on earth, which attracts in the foreign fighters that help IS maintain and expand its territory.
Published at The Independent.
From the outset of the Syrian uprising, the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the ISIS have been united on their strategic goal: eliminate the moderate opposition and make Syria a binary choice between themselves. This is why on the battlefield Assad and ISIS largely leave one-another alone and the Assad regime’s propaganda—that the whole rebellion is composed of Islamist terrorists—reinforces ISIS’s propaganda claim that it is the only effective protection for Sunnis against the regime. Both ISIS and the Assad regime are led by military and intelligence officers trained in the KGB and both rely on propaganda as a means of internal control, not only of controlling their international image, which is why both so virulently repress independent media that contradicts their officially sanctioned version. Last night, ISIS again struck down a member of an activist group that has tried to bring the truth about life under its rule to the outside world. Continue reading
Lee Smith’s The Consequences of Syria is part of the Hoover Institution’s “The Great Unravelling” series, which also included The Struggle for Mastery in the Fertile Crescent by the late Fouad Ajami (which I reviewed here.)
Published in June 2014, Smith narrates Syria’s terrible war to the opening months of 2014, the innumerable excuses made by the Obama administration for letting it run, and the theoretical framework behind the administration’s decision. The book is relatively short and the prose is direct; it takes very complex discussions of ideas and puts them in easily-digestible terms—all while keeping the reader’s eye on the practical implications.
Smith starts with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the central event in President Obama’s thinking about the Middle East. Continue reading