“Syrian weapons are being used – most unfortunately – against our camp, while the rulers of Damascus continue to repeat that they are here in Lebanon in order to defend our camp. This is a murderous lie, a lie which pains us more than anyone else… But we wish to inform you that we will fight in defense of this camp with our bare hands if all our ammunition is spent and all our weapons are gone, and that we will tighten our belts so that hunger will not kill us. For we have taken a decision not to surrender and we shall not surrender…”
–open letter from the residents of Tal al Zataar refugee camp to the world, July 13, 1976
I recently learned of a major exodus of key staffers at Al Akhbar caused at least in part by disagreements with the newspaper leadership’s pro-Assad tendency. The revelation helps explain why Al Akhbar English now prominently features the malevolent propaganda of Amal Saad Ghorayeb and the dillentantish quasi-analysis of Sharmine Narwani alongside editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin’s friendly advice for Bashar Assad, whom he attempts to depict as an earnest reformer overwhelmed by events.
When I joined the fledgling Al Akhbar English website last fall, I was excited to contribute my writing on the Israel-Palestine situation and US foreign policy to a paper that I considered one of the most courageous publications in the Arab world. At the time, the Syrian uprising had just begun, and apparently, so had the debates inside Al Akhbar, which reflected the discussions within the wider Lebanese Left. Almost a year later, the results of the debate have become clear on the pages of the paper, where despite the presence of a few dissident voices, the apologia for Assad and his crimes has reached unbearable levels.
I considered responding on my blog to some of the more outlandish ravings published at Al Akhbar, but eventually decided my energy would be better spent on covering the topics I knew best — and which I could discuss with the authority of journalistic experience. Meanwhile, my frustration and embarrassment mounted as one Ghorayeb screed after another appeared on the site, each one more risible than the next.
Following her vehement defense of the Syrian dictator’s use of surgery metaphors to refer to his security forces’ brutal crackdowns, Al Akhbar English featured Ghorayeb’s daftest work to date: an attack on Arab Third Wayers (supporters of the anti-imperialist, anti-authoritarian political tendency) in which she asserted that “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.”
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Ghorayeb’s rant, rightly condemned by As’ad Abu Khalil as an “outrage,” was of a piece with the Syrian regime’s long record of exploiting the Palestinian struggle to advance its narrow self-interests. For me, it was the final straw. Had Al Akhbar’s editorial leadership provided a platform to Ghorayeb and other apologists because of the quality of their writing or because of their willingness to defend the regime behind the cover of leftist ideology? This had become a salient question.
I was forced to conclude that unless I was prepared to spend endless stores of energy jousting with Assad apologists, I was merely providing them cover by keeping my name and reputation associated with Al Akhbar. More importantly, I decided that if I kept quiet any longer, I would be betraying my principles and those of the people who have encouraged and inspired me over the years. There is simply no excuse for me to remain involved for another day with such a morally compromised outlet. And so, instead of preparing to throw up in my own mouth each time I click on one of the pro-regime op-eds appearing with regularity on Al Akhbar English’s home page, I am washing my hands of the whole operation.
I can not disagree with anyone who claims that the United States and the Saudi royals aim to ratchet up their regional influence on the backs of the shabby Syrian National Council while Israel cheers on the sidelines. Though it is far from certain whether these forces will realize a fraction of their goals, it is imperative to reject the foreign designs on Syria and Lebanon, just as authentic Syrian dissidents like Michel Kilo have done. Yet the mere existence of Western meddling does not automatically make Assad a subaltern anti-imperial hero at the helm of a “frontline resisting state,” as Ghorayeb has sought to paint him. 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.
In the end, Assad will be remembered as an authoritarian tyrant whose regime represented little more than the interests of a rich neoliberal business class and a fascistic security apparatus. Those who have thrown their intellectual weight behind his campaign of brutality have cast the sincerity of their commitment to popular struggle and anti-imperial resistance into serious doubt. By denying the Syrian people the right to revolution while supporting the Palestinian struggle, they are no less hypocritical than the Zionists who cynically celebrate the Syrian uprising while seeking to crush any iteration of Palestinian resistance. In my opinion, the right to resist tyranny is indivisible and universal. It can be denied to no one.
Throughout the past weeks, as my sense of anguish mounted, I have thought about the bravery of the Lebanese leftists who fought beside the Palestinian fedayeen at Sidon, halting the US-approved Syrian invasion of Lebanon, which Hafez al-Assad had designed in part to break the back of the Palestinian national cause. And I recalled stories of the Lebanese activists who broke through the Syrian army’s blockade of Tal al Zataar to provide food and supplies to the Palestinian refugees defending their camp against imminent destruction. The long history of sacrifice and courage by the Lebanese and Syrian people in support of the Palestinian struggle — and in defiance of self-interested autocrats — crystallizes an important fact that should not have to be repeated: Palestine will never be free as long as the Arab world lives under the control of dictators.
At Al Akhbar English, Ghorayeb has attempted to advance the opposite argument: that supporting Assad regime is synonymous with support for the Palestinian struggle, and possibly more important. This is what prompted her to falsely claim that “Syrian officials do not meet with their Israeli counterparts,” ignoring the fact that Syrian and Israeli officials dined together at a 2007 commemoration for the Madrid peace talks, and that the Syrians offered the Israelis negotiations over the Golan Heights “without preconditions,” a position the regime maintained until as late as December 2009. Outside of negotiations with Israel, it is unclear what concrete steps Syria’s government was willing to take to regain the Golan.
In the same column in which she praised the Assad regime for blocking Syrian access to Israeli websites and for refusing to give interviews to Israeli reporters, she cited an Israeli professor and an article in the right-of-center Israeli news site, the Times of Israel, to support her points. Apparently the Syrian people must do as Assad says, but not as his apologists in Beirut do.
Besides exploiting the Palestinian cause, the Assad apologists have eagerly played the Al Qaeda card to stoke fears of an Islamic takeover of Syria. Back in 2003, Assad accused the US of deliberately overestimating the strength of Al Qaeda in order to justify its so-called war on terror. “I cannot believe that bin Laden is the person able to outmanoeuvre the entire world,” Assad said at the time. He asked, “Is there really an entity called Al Qaeda? It was in Afghanistan, but is it there anymore?” But now, in a transparent bid for sympathy from the outside world, Assad insists that the Syrian armed opposition is controlled almost entirely by Al Qaeda-like jihadists who have come from abroad to place the country under Islamic control. In his address to the Syrian People’s Assembly on June 3, the dictator tried to hammer the theme home by using the term “terrorists” or “terrorism” a whopping 43 times. That is a full ten times more than George W. Bush during his speech to Congress in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
Echoing Assad, Ghorayeb has referred to the Syrian army’s pornographically violent crackdowns on what by all accounts is still a mostly homegrown resistance as “the regime’s war against the foreign sponsored terrorists and insurrectionists,” calling for “a security solution to root [them] out.” At the Al Akhbar’s Arabic site, Jean Aziz predicted a complete Salafi takeover of Syria if Assad falls. Meanwhile, Ibrahim al Amin claimed that the Syrian opposition “cop[ied] the modus operandi which was devised by the leadership of al-Qaeda,” then uncritically quoted an unnamed regime source who insisted that “a hardline majority of the armed groups have come to be led by non-Syrians.” Similarly, Narwani assertedthat a shadowy 5000-man ultra-Islamist militia has been operating inside the city of Homs with “plans to declare an Islamic Caliphate in Syria” — Creeping Shariah! She based her remarkable assertion on a single conversation with an anonymous journalist.
In joining the Assad regime’s campaign to delegitimize the Syrian opposition by casting it as a bunch of irrational jihadis (ironically, they seem to have little problem with Hezbollah’s core Islamist values), Assad’s apologists have unwittingly adopted the “war on terror” lexicon introduced by George W. Bush, Ariel Sharon, and the neocon cabal after 9-11. Not only have they invoked the scary specter of The Terrorists (gasp!) to justify morally indefensible acts of violent repression, like pro-Israel hasbarists, they have resorted to rhetorical sophistry to dismiss the regime’s atrocities as necessary evils, unfortunate accidents (what al-Amin called “mistakes”), or fabrications of the regime’s opponents (see Ghorayeb on “unsubstantiated allegations of war crimes.”) I wonder, as I do with Zionist fanatics, if there is any limit to the carnage Assad’s apologists will tolerate in the name of the greater cause.
In the true spirit of the Israeli occupation, which refused to allow reporters into Gaza to document the horrors of Operation Cast Lead, and which has stripped journalists of their press credentials as punishment for their perceived “anti-Israel bias,” Narwani spent several thousand words breathlesslycomplaining about “Western journalists” who “head straight for the Syrian activist, the anti-regime demonstration, the man with the gun in a ‘hot spot.’” Narawani’s justifications for keeping the foreign press corps away from the scene of Assad’s crimes were disturbingly similar to those of Danny Seaman, the Israeli Government Press Office director during Cast Lead, who said, “Any journalist who enters Gaza becomes a fig leaf and front for the Hamas terror organization, and I see no reason why we should help that.”
Then there was Narwani’s attempt to spin the regime’s artillery assault on the neighborhood of Baba Amr. Her analysis, if you can call it that, immediately reminded me of US military propaganda following the attack on the Iraqi city of Fallujah, a “shake-and-bake” artillery assault that included the firing of white phosphorous shells on a city center in order to, as Ghorayeb might have said, “root out” the terrorists. “While the dominant narrative in the international media assumed an unprovoked army attack on a civilian population,” Narwani wrote of the indiscriminate assault that flattened the Homs neighborhood, “there remains little evidence to back this scenario, particularly after information emerged that the neighborhood was an armed opposition stronghold, most of the population had vacated the neighborhood in advance, and reports of activists exaggerating violence trickled out.”
Like the neocon chickenhawks who cheered on America’s invasion of Iraq from the offices of Washington’s American Enterprise Institute, none of Assad’s apologists appear to have done any journalistic fieldwork to support their opinions. Ghorayeb and Narwani seem to have confined themselves to Beirut, where Ghorayeb consults the writings of V.I. Lenin and Paulo Freire to back up her hallucinatory portrayal of Assad as a subaltern freedom fighter, while Narwani cobbles together a scattershot of YouTube clips and hearsay from journalists she hangs out with to justify the regime’s very own “war on terror.”
Al-Amin’s sourcing is even more dubious. In a column about supposed armed infiltration from Lebanon to Syria, for example, he cited “records of investigations with those detained for transporting and smuggling weapons and explosives…” Perhaps al-Amin could clarify his cryptic language. In particular, he might explain whether he was referring to notes of interrogations of imprisoned opposition members that he received from regime sources. If so, can he confirm that these interrogations did not involve torture?
My issues with Al Akhbar are not limited to its opinion section. A profile originally published at Al Akhbar’s Arabic site (later translated into English) of Bassel Shehadeh, the video journalist killed inside Homs, did not even bother to note that he was killed by the Syrian army — “bullets” were said to be the cause of his death. And it was the only coverage I could find about his death in the paper, which has too often presented events in Syria in curiously vague terms, especially when they concern the regime’s misdeeds.
According to a close friend of Shehadeh who was also covering the opposition in Homs and across Syria, “Bassel was an essential part of the Homs revolution. He was close to the leadership of the Homs resistance, and he lived on the front lines.” Before he decided to return to Syria to support the uprising, Shehadeh was a Fulbright scholar studying at Syracuse University’s fine arts program. He put his studies on hold to train activists inside the besieged city of Homs, believing all along that his history of good luck in the midst of danger would somehow protect him from death.
As a Christian who fiercely rejected sectarianism, Shehadeh’s very presence shook the Syrian regime. After he was killed, the army shelled the Christian neighborhood of Hamidyeh to prevent his funeral, then a gang of shabiha attacked a memorial service for him in Damascus that would have presented a rare display of Christian-Sunni solidarity. It was this sense of solidarity that appeared to threaten the regime the most. As Shehadeh’s mother reportedly said, “They feared him in life, and they feared him in death.”
A few years ago, while visiting the offices of the Nation Magazine, a publication I frequently write for, I reflected on what it might have been like to be working there during the 1930’s when its editorial leadership supported Stalin and willfully ignored his crimes. What were the internal debates like, I wondered, and how would I have reacted? The past few weeks at Al Akhbar have brought those questions back into my thoughts, and they are no longer hypothetical. The paper’s opinion pages have become a playpen for dictator enablers, but unlike the 1930’s-era Nation Magazine, there is less excuse for their apologia. Indeed, given the easy accessibility of online media produced by Syrian activists and journalists, there is no way for Assad’s apologists to claim they did not know about the regime’s crimes.
At this point, I have no excuse either. I am no longer a contributor to Al Akhbar. It is time to move on.