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Five Myths About Syria’s Revolution

Five Myths About Syria’s Revolution

Thursday, 18 March, 2021 - 08:30
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

I agreed to an interview last week with an American podcast producer from the extreme left of American politics. He invited me because I wrote an article in Foreign Policy magazine in February urging withdrawal of American military forces from Syria. (The Biden administration is, however, staying in eastern Syria.) I accepted the invitation because the extreme left in America and Europe are spreading myths about the Syrian revolution, and it is important their claims not become the accepted story of events.


The first myth is that the Syrian revolution was from the beginning under the control of Salafi extremists. I recalled for his podcast my visit to Hama in June 2011 where I spoke to tens of Hamwis in the huge protest movement there and only one man cursed Alawis. In Damascus I met Christians who joined the protest movement, and we heard the story in late 2011, and saw a video, of Muslims putting on Santa Claus hats to join the Christians protesters in the town of Arba’een. Of course, violence changed the protest movement, so that by 2013 the war gained a terrible sectarian color. However, we saw with our own eyes that most of the violence in 2011 came from Assad’s security forces.


The second myth that we had to debate was that without American intervention the war would have ended quickly. When he suggested the Americans could have stopped the intervention from countries like Turkey, I reminded him that President Erdogan does not ask permission from the Americans to pursue Turkey’s interests. Foreign countries sometimes ask for American help but asking for help and asking permission are not the same thing. Turkey’s deployment of thousands of soldiers into Syria shows that with or without the Americans some of the neighboring and regional states would have intervened in Syria on the side of the opposition.


The third myth is that Assad’s government never used chemical weapons. The logic is that Assad wants to avoid international criticism so he avoids using chemical weapons. The podcast producer insisted there is a scandal about an international expert report published in 2019 about the April 2018 chemical weapons attack in Douma. But there are many international investigations about Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the past nine years, not only the 2018 Douma incident. More importantly, after his bombing of hospitals, schools, murdering tens of thousands in prisons, why would anyone think international criticism would stop Assad? The logic is failed and the total evidence about his use of chemicals is certain.


Of course, we had to argue about the myth that Assad was fighting extremists and the Americans were sending aid to al-Qaeda. He ignored the business cooperation between Assad’s government and ISIS with the mediation of businessmen like Hossam Katerji. He ignored Assad’s release of militants from Sednaya Prison in 2011. Assad and army focused against the Free Syrian Army first. I must acknowledge that some American weapons did reach the Qaeda extremists. Jakub Janovsky a Czech engineer who carefully studied hundreds of armed group videos concluded that Nusra and ISIS obtained fewer than ten American TOW missiles from the Free Syrian Army. The extremists captured the big majority of their weapons from the Syrian Army and from Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraqi Army. Of course the Free Syrian Army did coordinate with Nusra in some operations against the government, and that was a huge political mistake that the Americans warned against. That is the reason we put Nusra on our terrorism list in 2012.


Finally, we debated the myth that American sanctions are the reason for hunger in Syria. Of course, American sanctions hurt Syrian citizens. The sanctions impede entry of foreign exchange into Syria, the price of the dollar rises and with it the price of imported food also rises. The sanctions impede delivery of imported oil to Syria and we see the lines for gasoline. But I reminded the podcast producer that Assad’s government is hugely corrupt, that it impeded investment and increased unemployment and internal displacement (tahjeer) from eastern Syria before 2011. It was not a coincidence that low-income communities in Rif Damasq and Rif Homs immediately joined the protest movement in 2011 demanding social justice and accountability from the government.


Leftists like to blame American imperialism for the Syrian revolution. In their viewpoint, Syrians are not the key player in Syria. Instead, they claim, Americans can easily manipulate millions of Syrians. The final logic of this viewpoint among tens of thousands of Assad supporters who live comfortably in North America and Europe far from the mukhabarat is that Syrians lack the wisdom to build a better government. It is obvious that only Syrians, not foreigners, can fix Syria in a lasting way but spreading myths about the conflict won’t help them.


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