Global Independent Analytics
Danny Orbach
Danny Orbach

Location: USA

Specialization: Modern Japanese History, Modern Chinese History, Military History, History of Counterinsurgency, History of Disobedience, Dynamics of Atrocities in Wartime

Simplistic Portrayals of Rebel Forces in Syria Will Not Do

Even smart and knowledgeable observers can be blinded by ideology. Author`s opinion about one note on GIA

Paraphrasing Karl Marx’s famous phrase, it seems that post-colonialism, anti-Americanism and “empire bashing” serve as a particularly strong opiate for intellectuals. “The Cry of Madaya and a Western fairytale”, Panagiotis Papargyris’ recent piece, is an unfortunate example proving the justice of this dictum. In his article, Papargyris attempts to challenge mainstream media depictions of the famine in Madaya, a city besieged by Bashar Al-Assad’s army and Hezbollah militants. In doing so, he demonstrates glaring ignorance about Islam, Syrian affairs and famines.

Let us leave aside for a moment the inflammatory language of the piece, though we can expect a strategic analyst not to use terms such as “scums”. Less easy to ignore is the dubious notion “Western empire”, banding together a number of forces with competing interests into demonized oneness. This term, with zero analytical meaning, is unsuitable for any reasoned discussion of international affairs. In order to understand the complexity of events in Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East, one has to consider the role of multiple powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the US and the Gulf States, as well as numerous non-state actors. Even if one makes the dubious moral choice of supporting Assad and Iran, it is really unhelpful to recycle age-old Soviet propaganda, dividing the world into socialist freedom fighters and vicious Western imperialists.

Papargyris’ ignorance about the subject matter is overwhelming. Take the following paragraph as an example:

Having said the above, let us have a look at what this “revolutionary council” that provided the images to the good media outlets is all about: it consists of Ahrar al-Sham, al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). All these organizations, branded as “moderate rebels” by Western imperialism, are in fact salafist - jihadist groups that have little or no difference with ISIS.

In these four sentences, there are at least three cardinal mistakes.

First, while Ahrar Al-Sham and Jabhat Al-Nusra are certainly Salafi organizations, the Free Syrian Army is not. Instead, it is a loose coalition of independent rebel groups, mostly not too religious, which receive training from Western/Gulf centers in either Turkey or Jordan (For more information on the FSA, see Aron Lund’s instructive piece). Salafists are easily distinguishable by their dress code and unique looks, see for example here. None of the FSA demonstrators in Papargyris’ pictures looks even remotely like a Salafi. In one of the pictures we can even see a woman with exposed hair, which is an anathema for any Islamist group.  

Second, Jabhat Al-Nusra is not considered “moderate” by “Western imperialism” (whatever that means). Most Salafist organizations, including Nusra, reject American involvement in the war and depict the US, and the West more generally, as an enemy.  At the same time, all important Western countries define Jabhat Al-Nusra as a terrorist organization.

Third, there are enormous differences between the FSA and ISIS, as well as between Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS, see here. The tendency to overlook these differences, and to conflate different groups together for the benefit of a bedtime, “good and evil” narrative may be suitable for Pravda, but not for any serious piece of analysis.

Finally, Parargyris demonstrates surprising ignorance about famines. “Various media”, he writes, “claim that a kilo of rice in the town is sold for prices that range from 100$ to 250$. Why could that be? Obviously because there is a black market.” But black markets existed in almost all known cases of famine, including in besieged ghettos during the Holocaust. Siege conditions disrupt food supplies, people start to hoard, supply/quantity drop down, and the price hikes up. These are the basic truths of economics. Residents do not starve because there is no food at all. They starve because there is not enough food, and they cannot afford the little that remains. 

In a side note, quoting Hezbollah propaganda to prove that all is well in the besieged town, is truly astounding. The Nazis, too, claimed that all was well in Theresienstadt.

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