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Lessons from Putin: Engineering the historical narrative

The thing about 250,000+ dead people is that they do not get to offer their point of view

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

Does anyone really understand what the war in Syria is truly about? Many analysts working for the various governments who have a stake in the conflict seem to think they have a pretty good idea – as do many independent academics. Trouble is, there is does not seem to be very much agreement amongst them.

That various “insider” sources for the Russian or the American government should disagree profoundly is not that surprising. But when we have a reasonably coherent narrative in the Western mainstream media which is nonetheless opposed by prominent commentators and academics such as Stephen Kinzer, Jeffrey Sachs, John Pilger, or Patrick Cockburn, it is no wonder that the public is confused – or often quite polarized behind twisted, partisan narratives.

Quite what the reasons why people who are otherwise perfectly sensible should disagree so deeply about what are, in principle, matters of fact, is not always immediately clear. And the lazy and convenient thing to do here would be to cast doubt on their motivations or character. There has definitely been a lot of that going on as well between commentators on either side of the debate. But I think this is something that should be resisted. Yet we can still give a critical account of where they are coming from.

Largely, I think, people’s analyses will be hugely informed by the broader world-view that they hold. For example, in the case of Cockburn, we can surmise that his highest priority is ending the war as quickly as possible, irrespective of what the outcome may be, so that we can turn our attention to ISIS. Since this is the priority, he wants the West to get over its squeamishness, back the brutal dictator and “do what needs to be done”. It is an understandable point of view, but I also believe it is a tragically short-sighted one. A minority Shiite Alawite government in charge of a population that is 80% Sunni maintained in power by brutal repression and large-scale murder of political dissidents is just not going to be sustainable in the long term. It has not been sustainable up to now. That is how the Syrian civil war started in the first place. And nothing is going to fan the flames of Sunni militancy like the impression that such a brutal dictatorship is being acquiesced, even supported, by Western “imperial” powers. Western leaders coming out for Assad would do ISIS all its recruitment work for decades to come.

The thing about 250,000+ dead people is that they do not get to offer their point of view. But perhaps the millions of displaced survivors will. Who knows?

Azeem Ibrahim

Pilger and other commentators similar to him are somewhat blindsided, in my opinion, by a world-view in which every geo-political event or occurrence is somehow the outcome of malign Western imperialist ideas. Now Pilger is an award-winning investigative journalist for a very good reason. Some of his analyses of human rights abuses and crimes against humanity perpetrated by or enabled by Western governments have been hugely important contributions to our democratic discourse. But unfortunately, if you get yourself into the mind-set that no foreign policy initiative by a Western government can possibly have a benign intention, then every conflict anywhere in the world becomes an American or a British conspiracy. And Sachs too seems to be in the same mould, though for him the malign “enemy” is always a cabal of right-wing hardliners in the U.S. military and intelligence apparatus who always seem to hold sway over what the country ultimately does.

The problem is that if you always assume from the onset that you know who the bad guy is, in this case, ISIS, or America, or some sub-set of the US establishment, then it is entirely too easy to overlook certain facts that should be inescapable:

• Assad has killed more of his own people, mostly civilians, than any other combatant in this war by a factor of many multiples, and has done so through many means specifically prohibited by international law such as chemical warfare and mass starvation of civilian populations.
• Since going in, the Russians are committing reported war crimes with a gleeful frequency that makes even Assad blush.

The driving force of the conflict

From these two facts, I would conclude that these two actors are the driving force of the conflict. When Assad and the Russians are coming at you that way, the people on the other side would ally with whomever and would do or say whatever they thought they would need to in order to survive. Anyone would.

The fact that we have prominent Western journalists and academics blaming Hilary Clinton or the CIA or whoever else is surely a remarkable coup for the Russian propaganda machine. But this is not necessarily all that surprising. In all wars, propaganda and counter-propaganda have muddled up the facts for the otherwise distant global public opinion. What does matter in this conflict, however, is that the Russians are putting their backs into this conflict, and it seems that they are going to win it. When they do, it is them who will be writing the final appraisal of the conflict. Whatever the facts might have been, even our politicians will find it more convenient to just acquiesce the Russian tropes. Nothing else will enable them to hide the shame of our inaction and lack of strategy for the country.

Thus Assad will become the saviour of civilization and of the minorities in Syria, the only reliable ally of the whole world against terrorism in the Levant, and all-round misunderstood good guy. And the thing about 250,000+ dead people is that they do not get to offer their point of view. But perhaps the millions of displaced survivors will. Who knows?

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Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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