After sixteen months of conflict, U.N. Special Envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, is still trying to negotiate a ceasefire with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
There are some, however, that see al-Assad not as a dictator oppressing his people, but as an anti-colonial hero defending against Western imperialism.
Recently, in June of this year, key staffers of Lebanese left-wing daily, Al-Akhbar, quit because of the publication’s alleged apologist stance on al-Assad. Al-Akhbar was established in 2006, and has a substantial English and Arabic presence on line. As a progressive publication, it aimed to transcend the conventions of western journalism by including a variety of experiences and perspectives on the Middle East. But, on June 20th, 2012, a well-known journalist, Max Blumenthal, resigned because of the newspapers alleged “apologist” stance after the Houla Massacre in May. The massacre was reportedly carried out by Shabiha, a pro-Assad Alawite group notorious for targeting dissidents.
There are several, mainly op-ed, examples of the newspaper’s position. For instance, Amal Saad Ghorayeb describes the Assad regime as engaged in an anti-imperialist struggle, aligned with the Palestinian cause: “the real litmus of Arab intellectuals’ and activists’ commitment to the Palestinian cause is no longer their support for Palestinian rights, but rather, their support for the Assad leadership’s struggle against the imperialist-Zionist-Arab moderate axis’ onslaught against it.” Ibrahim Al-Amin, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief also offered advice to Assad, indirectly affirming the Assad regime’s right to power by focusing on the need for reform. According to Blumenthal, after Houla, these viewpoints began to outnumber stances in support of the Syrian people and against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the newspaper’s pages. Other issues that Blumenthal brings up are outlined in a statement on his website.
To remain in control, the Assad regime has killed over 10,000 people and put 100,000 in prison. The response to these facts from some Al Akhbar writers demonstrates how ideology, in this instance, the liberal anti-imperialist kind, can be used as a cover to justify authoritarianism and brutality– the “by any means necessary” mentality. As Blumenthal says, “the mere existence of Western meddling does not automatically make Assad a subaltern anti-imperial hero at the helm of a ‘frontline resisting state,’ … Nor does it offer any legitimate grounds for nickel-and-diming civilian casualty counts, blaming the victims of his regime, or hyping the Muslim Threat Factor to delegitimize the internal opposition.”
That Al-Akbar would choose to publish these pieces is perhaps unsurprising given its partisan links with Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Free Patriotic (or Aounist) Movement, and the March 8th Movement. The newspaper’s most recent action reinforces these leanings– namely, publishing minutes leaked from the Assad-Kofi Annan meeting, which according to the New York Times, suggest that the dialogue “[seemed] to favor Syria’s perspective, such as criticism of violence committed by the rebels.”
As Blumenthal points out in an interview with The Real News Network, the argument that an axis of Saudi, Qatari, and Western powers are planning another Libya by arming forces in Syria to turn the struggle into a civil war and create a pretext for intervention is not totally hollow. But the voices of Syrian dissidents, many of whom reject foreign intervention, need to be understood in isolation from academic and ideological visions of Syria and the rest of the Middle East. Western designs need to be exposed in Syria, but representing Assad as an ideological bulwark against the West is a crime, especially since, like any self-interested dictator, Assad’s number one priority is his own survival.