On September 8, 2019, Syria’s state news agency published an article about the beginning of the Third International Trade Union Forum in Damascus, which hosted “dozens of intellectuals, journalists, (and) political and social activists from Arab and foreign countries.” Among the attendees were the American journalists Max Blumenthal and Rania Khalek.
If you want to know why Blumenthal and Khalek were welcome at an event organized “under the auspices of Bashar al-Assad”—aside from the fact that they’re frequent contributors to the Russian propaganda outlets Sputnik and Russia Today—the rest of the article should give you an idea. It condemns the “aggressive terrorist war” launched against Syria, along with the “economic war that constitutes terror in and of itself” (a reference to U.S. sanctions). It calls for a media campaign to galvanize world public opinion in support of the Syrian government and “reveal the truth about the U.S. policy of besieging independent and free countries.” It points out that the “real goal of the war on Syria is to stop it from being a force that opposes U.S. and Israeli plots in the region.” And it emphasizes the importance of “exposing the practices of international imperialism.”
In other words, Syrian government propaganda is almost perfectly aligned with the arguments Blumenthal and Khalek have been making for years. Like the Syrian Ministry of Information, they present the Assad regime as an embattled and encircled victim of a jihadist-led coup backed by the United States and other Western powers.
For example, Blumenthal constantly emphasizes the atrocities of jihadist groups like Jaish al-Islam and al-Nusra because they give him moral and political cover for defending Assad, who has committed atrocities on a far greater scale. When he posted a picture of himself in a “neighborhood east of Damascus occupied by the Saudi-backed Jaish al-Islam until early last year,” he didn’t bother mentioning the fact that he was also surrounded by notorious government interrogation sites that are part of what Human Rights Watch describes as the regime’s “torture archipelago.” Nor did he mention that he was just down the road from the sites of the Ghouta chemical attacks in August 2013, which HRW reports “killed hundreds of civilians, including large numbers of children” and which can “almost certainly” be blamed on government forces.
Again and again, Blumenthal angrily dismisses the charge that he’s an apologist for Assad. When Jasmin Mujanovic accused him (along with Khalek) of receiving “funds from Assad regime lobby groups” in Foreign Policy magazine, his outrage was righteously indignant: “This is a heinous lie. I did not take a dime from the ‘Assad regime’ or any lobbying group connected to it. Hating my factual journalism undercutting your bogus regime change narratives doesn’t entitle you to lie about me.” Meanwhile, Khalek described the claim as “false and libelous.” But you don’t have to follow some kind of paper trail or do any investigative work to discover that Blumenthal is one of Assad’s most popular Western apologists. He’s happy to do the work for free, and it’s all right there for anyone who cares to look.
While Blumenthal was in Syria, he published a series of video reports about the horrors of U.S. sanctions, the crimes of U.S.-backed rebel groups, and the Assad regime’s valiant resistance to this onslaught. On September 11, he explained: “Because Syria defeated these Wahhabi contras, the U.S. has imposed the most crushing sanctions on this country in history. If you have spasms of rage about my reporting, maybe try to redirect them towards your own government, which imposed this disgusting program on Syria.” He added that he would be “telling the truth about the war of terror waged on Syria” in subsequent videos (again, notice how similar this language is to the propaganda published by the regime).
On September 13, Blumenthal was in Bloudan, a town that was “surrounded on all sides by rebel groups at a certain point,” while a city right down the road was one of the “first towns taken over by the foreign-backed armed groups.” But now that these areas are back under regime control, “people are enjoying life” under Assad’s watchful eye. In a strange digression, he observes that “The Economist said that Syria is now a wretched country. And I think that, while the Economist, which speaks on behalf of the British national security state, wanted to turn Syria into a wretched country, what I’m seeing right here is quite the opposite.” He then pans his smirking selfie video around to demonstrate how wonderful things are in this little corner of Assad’s Syria (thereby contradicting his usual argument that sanctions are strangling the economy and destroying the country—making Syria “wretched,” in other words).
In Blumenthal’s final report from Damascus, he decries the “rabid regime change hyenas who want to reduce all these people you see behind me to one official bad guy—the one that Trump calls ‘Animal Assad.’” He’s standing in a park, surrounded by happy Syrians enjoying their day: “I want you to look at these people behind me,” he implores viewers. “Just look at them.” This reminded me of the scene in Fahrenheit 9/11 when Michael Moore shows us shots of normal Iraqis running errands and living their lives before the invasion—as if living under a genocidal dictator was as tranquil and unremarkable as living in an American suburb. Blumenthal then points out that the “U.S. is imposing brutal economic sanctions on this country that are depriving average people of heating fluid, vital medicines; that are devaluing their currency; that are preventing them from rebuilding their homes. Why? All because their government defeated a ruthless dirty war imposed on them by the West and their Gulf Israeli allies.”
This is the warped narrative Blumenthal peddled before, during, and after his trip to Syria: Forget about the Assad regime’s massacres of protesters and chemical attacks on children. Forget about the torture, rapes, and abductions. Forget about the Syrian Air Force’s joint operations with Russia, indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas, and the wanton destruction of hospitals, health clinics, and schools in Aleppo. The “dirty war” is always “imposed” on the regime from the outside, and Assad is just doing what any besieged leader would do—fighting back. This is why Blumenthal refers to the towns Assad has recaptured as “liberated”—an interesting way to describe territory and people back in the hands of a dictator who has slaughtered tens of thousands of his compatriots, and whose family has ruled Syria for half a century.
In a recent conversation with Robert Wright on Bloggingheads, Blumenthal expressed his contempt for people who’ve been “promoting the break-up of Syria—the destruction of the Syrian nation.” He explained that those people are furious with him for posting videos of Syrians in regime-controlled areas “just basically being happy and enjoying their lives after the war.” Of course, the war isn’t over for a whole lot of people in Syria—from the civilians who are still being obliterated by Russian and Syrian airstrikes to the Kurds who are now at the mercy of their Turkish enemies after President Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria. Blumenthal was sure to point out that the U.S. forces in northern Syria controlled “areas where there was oil” and the Kurds were “selling oil to Damascus under the table,” despite the fact that Assad is the “rightful owner” of Syria’s natural resources.
There’s apparently nothing Assad can do to the population of Syria that would cause him to lose even a shred of legitimacy in Blumenthal’s eyes. If you only listened to his grossly distorted assessment of the war, you’d think Assad was peacefully minding his own business when armies of U.S.-backed terrorists suddenly invaded his country from every direction. Then, as if the United States’ monstrous proxy war wasn’t bad enough, it imposed devastating sanctions.
Speaking of the sanctions, Blumenthal is full of reverence for Asma al-Assad, the first lady of Syria, who “made a point of being treated for her breast cancer in Syria as a kind of a statement of resistance against sanctions. To say: ‘We can do this.’ And, you know, it really did resonate with a lot of Syrians who are facing this situation.” Blumenthal clearly regards this act of defiance as a real “Rosie the Riveter” moment for the people of Syria. A few days before he mentioned it in his chat with Wright, the New York Times reported: “From April 29 to mid-September, as Russian and Syrian government forces assaulted the last rebel pocket in the northwest, 54 hospitals and clinics in opposition territory were attacked, the United Nations human rights office said.” Asma al-Assad’s decision to get cancer treatment in Syria probably didn’t “resonate” with the patients and doctors who were blown apart by her husband’s air force.
Defending the Assad regime is part of Blumenthal’s job description these days, but it was disappointing that Wright could barely muster any criticism. After Blumenthal spent the first half hour of the interview celebrating the Assad family’s defiance of American imperialism, the closest Wright would come to criticizing this narrative was his claim that “I’m not wild about Assad still being the ruler of Syria … I’m not a fan of his.” Even this tepid criticism of Assad immediately upset Blumenthal, who snapped: “I mean, that’s irrelevant.” Wright responded: “Right, it is. But you know, I think one reason you get into so much trouble is you don’t do the ‘to be sure’ paragraph. To be sure, I don’t support this kind of government.” Blumenthal scoffed: “Now you can continue writing for the Atlantic,” as if criticizing a dictator who gasses children and blows up hospitals is such a feeble, establishment thing to do.
Wright is opposed to U.S. interventions like the one that took place in Syria, so he’s sympathetic to many of Blumenthal’s arguments. But his response to Blumenthal’s comments about Assad was oddly indulgent (especially considering how combative he often is in his interviews): “I don’t want to be your strategist, and I’m not even saying you should be adding the ‘to be sure’ paragraphs. You know, the ecosystem has room for all kinds of voices and maybe there’s some virtue in you being out there to be reviled. Better you than me. But I will say it’s amazing how often you have to add the ‘to be sure’ paragraph. It’s like you have to say, ‘I think Assad’s a horrible person.’”
Well, yes. And throughout the conversation, Blumenthal said the opposite. But Wright could only bring himself to offer perfunctory disclaimers as his guest extolled the virtues of life under Assad, launched into a dewy-eyed tribute to the first lady of Syria, etc. This demonstrates that even the most fringe position—open support for a vicious dictatorship—can be deemed acceptable by people who share Blumenthal’s general aversion to interventionism. But these people should recognize that the phrase “Assad is a bad guy” is meaningless if it’s always accompanied by a long speech about why Assad is actually a good guy.
At the end of the conversation, Wright joked that he hoped Blumenthal was “convinced that you need to add more ‘to be sure’ paragraphs.” In that spirit, I’ll offer a few caveats of my own: To be sure, there are plenty of jihadist groups fighting against Assad in Syria, many of which have been responsible for violently subjugating the people who lived in territory under their control. To be sure, some U.S.-backed opposition groups ended up aligning themselves with jihadist organizations like al-Nusra. To be sure, U.S. foreign policy is full of contradictions—it’s far more difficult to say “Assad must go” when your allies include Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt and Mohammad bin Salman in Saudi Arabia. And to be sure, there’s an important debate to be had about the extent of the United States’ involvement in conflicts like Syria.
But here’s a disclaimer for Blumenthal to try out (Wright may want to suggest it next time they chat): To be sure, it’s possible to criticize U.S. foreign policy without becoming a propagandist for one of the most savage dictatorships on the planet.
Matt Johnson has written for Stanford Social Innovation Review, the Bulwark, Editor & Publisher, Areo Magazine, Arc Digital, Splice Today, Forbes, and the Kansas City Star. He was formerly the opinion page editor at the Topeka Capital-Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjj89
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