Some activists have lost their moral compass with respect to Syria

Photo by John Lehmann/Globe and Mail. Source.

By Maher Arar. Originally submitted to the Intercept in January, 2017. The publication didn’t publish it. I heard back from the editor but no reason was provided.

I know what you are thinking: why should I read for someone who has been tortured by the Assad regime? Isn’t his opinion biased? And doesn’t his grudge against Assad prevent him from seeing the reality on the ground, as it is? If you are one of those people, please stop right here as my words won’t make a difference to your ears.

But if you are ready to read my words with an open mind then continue reading, and hopefully you will learn one thing or two.

And by the way, to the disappointment of many, my Op-Ed will not only speak to the mind but also to the heart. And because of this, I will not include any references as I find them distracting to you, the reader. Contact me on Twitter (@ArarMaher) and I will be more than happy to provide you with references.

I have been watching the Twitter debate over Syria dramatically evolve for the past five years. And nothing more appalled me than the position taken by many who consider themselves to be on the left side of the political spectrum. Those include Rania Khalek, Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton, to name few. I used to have a lot for respect for them, that is until they lost their moral compass with respect Syria (just read their tweets on Palestine and Syria to find out for yourself the huge contradictions).

I tried my best within the last few weeks to engage some of those activists on Twitter but, unfortunately, I didn’t find any willingness on their part to debate the issue. In fact, I was blocked by Rania Khalek immediately after my defence of Murtaza Hussein’s balanced reporting on Syria. I found it inappropriate for her to mock a colleague and as such could no longer stay silent.

I now came to the conclusion that the inconsistency of positions taken by these activists and their cult-like stubbornness make them look closer to religious zealots than to people who are seeking the truth.

I had decided to not confront these people early on because I naively thought their position would self correct as time went by. But I was wrong as the exact opposite happened: these people- many of whom consider themselves as journalists- have become apologists for the Assad regime. They may not agree with me on this but whether they like or not their selective reporting and bias show easily in their articles and tweets.

In fact, many have even gone lower by mocking the victims of Assad’s atrocities and implicitly, or sometimes explicitly, covering up his wholesale crimes and atrocities. And that explains why, contrary to my old habit of not mentioning names, I started naming names in my tweets. That also explains why I went out of my way to write this Op-Ed, despite having made the decision to lead a private life. Consider this a harsh reaction, but for me nothing is harsher than siding with a dictator who is responsible for the majority of the misery, destruction and deaths of his own people.

Now to the facts.

One has first to acknowledge the spontaneous nature of many uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). What happened in Tunisia and Syria, for example, were spontaneous and understandable reactions by people who have been ruled with an iron-first for decades.

In Syria, under-age kids have been arrested by the Assad regime after spray painting anti-regime slogans (as far as I know those kids didn’t receive these “spray guns” from foreign powers).

What was the reaction of Assad’s Mukhabarat? Predictably, these kids were detained, tortured, and some were returned to their mothers in body bags. And when the families of those boys inquired about the fate of their loved ones they were told to forget about them. When they persisted they were told “bring us your wives and we will make you new boys”. You are smart enough to understand what this expression means.

Now, I want you to consider this: what would your reaction and feelings be as a parent if this was done to your son or daughter?

Despite the horrible atrocities carried out by the regime against peaceful protestors, the uprising, by all credible accounts, remained peaceful for months to come. Isolated incidents of shootings here and there should not distract us from the fact the majority of Syrians never thought about carrying arms to begin with. In fact, Syrians didn’t even call for the downfall of the regime during the early weeks of the uprising. They simply demanded that Assad punishes those who tortured the boys.

Assad could have of course punished the perpetrators for their crimes in order to quiet the people but, alas, a regime whose main pillar is the rule of the powerful doesn’t think like you and me.

Nothing best illustrates how the Assad regime thinks and acts than this story that was related to me directly by a 60-year old man who was imprisoned in Sednaya during the time I was there. And by the way, this gentleman was part of a 11-member group who was detained simply because him and his group demonstrated against the US invasion of Iraq without explicit permission from the government. This is the same group that Giath Matar, the famous peaceful activist whom the regime tortured and then cut his throat in September 2011, would later join.

This elder told me that while being interrogated by a high-ranking intelligence official he tried to reason with him by asking him “why don’t you treat citizens with honour and respect”. This Colonel replied “we want to rule people by the shoes”, a famous Syrian expression that signifies the use of force and humiliation as a tool to subdue the citizenry.

Have you ever watched any of Assad’s interviews? Does he seem like a person who wants to compromise in order to save the country? Didn’t he always refer to ALL of his opponents as terrorists, and he still does? So, instead of putting the onus on his opponents, however fragmented and divided they are, to lay down their arms, why not put the blame on Assad who has always held the key to end this bloodshed much earlier? If Assad really wanted peace, he could have called for elections years ago while immediately excluding his name from the ballot. Is that much to ask to end the bloodshed?

To demonstrate how Assad exploited and manipulated the word “terrorist”, he has always labeled the Muslim Brotherhood as “terrorists”. Well, journalists failed to ask him why he then had supported Hamas and hosted their leadership knowing fully well that Hamas was a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood! What is very disturbing is that the activists mentioned above now liberally use these same meaningless labels (terrorists, extremists, fanatics, etc) to describe Assad’s opponents. This is ironic, and laughable indeed, given these same activists have spent a good part of their career mocking the use of these labels when used by the “empire”.

Are Assad opponents angels? No they are not. Have some of them committed war crimes. Yes you bet, according to many credible reports. Do all people in Syria oppose Assad? Not at all, especially when you know the minority he belongs to – the majority of whom support him- forms 10% of Syrians. Do all Syrians support the rebels? No they don’t. Do some vetted rebels receive weapons from the US, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Of course they do. To say otherwise is to deny the obvious.

On the other side of the coin, it is equally deceiving to label all of Assad’s opponents as “Islamists”, “Al-Qaeda”, “extremists” or “terrorists”. To do so is to imitate Assad himself as to shield himself from accountability and to justify his reckless campaign of killing and destruction. It is also important to listen to how the majority of Syrians opposing Assad view these groups. What matters most is their opinions and not ours, Westerners living in comfort and peace thousands of miles away from the conflict.

On the question of intervention

These “anti-imperialist” activists have to be credited for opposing and standing up to America’s militaristic adventures abroad. Without their commendable effort the world would have been much worse today.

The problem I have is that the parallels many of them draw with respect to Syria are completely misplaced. Also, there is this assumption that intervention is always unjustifiable. I do agree that intervention for pure selfish reasons are bad but intervention can serve a good purpose when done for the right humanitarian reasons.

Also, indifference and non-intervention could, at times, have worse disastrous outcomes. One can only cite Rwanda where non-intervention had a disastrous outcome. After all, one cannot deny that Hitler could have not been stopped without the intervention of other countries, though many of these countries had different reasons for opposing him.

Don’t understand me wrong. I am by no means calling for a military intervention against Assad. I am just mentioning this to counter the idea that intervention doesn’t by itself lead to an evil or worse outcome, as religiously advocated by many of these activists. Unfortunately, many of their followers and readers take the same stand without any critical thinking or self reflection.

And by the way, intervention doesn’t have to come in a military form, or be proactive. Also, it doesn’t have to be lead by the US, an imperial power. It could be carried out by countries that have no imperial past. The aim here is to minimize the bloodshed most of which has been attributed to Assad’s indiscriminate aerial bombing.

It is also important to remind these people that the US has already intervened in Syria. An independent observer can also question why is Russia allowed to intervene with no objections raised by these same activists? Or said differently, are Russian bombs much smarter than their American sisters! Or are we to be told that Russia and Iran have no imperial ambitions in the Middle East!

Anti-imperialism is a tool and not an end. It is simply a mean to an end, the end being to fight injustice, greed and the unfair distribution of wealth. When anti-imperialism becomes an objective on its own, without carefully considering each context differently, then an opposite outcome might arise, one that is incompatible with the one it was supposed to serve.

In what follows I would like to highlight many of the moral contradictions these activists have gotten themselves into.

Yemen and Syria

Nothing shows the inconsistent position of these activists than the war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia entered the war after Hadi, the legitimate president of Yemen, was ousted by the Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia, at least that’s what the government claims, is there to help restore stability by restoring the legitimate president of Yemen.

Russia’s presence in Syria is to help maintain Assad’s rule, which Russia views as the legitimate president of Syria.

As you can see both of those claims are similar in nature yet these activists (Ben Norton doesn’t even qualify what’s happening in Yemen as a civil war) side with Russia on Syria while siding against Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Both Saudi Arabia and Russia have committed war crimes, yet only Saudi Arabia’s crimes are magnified and highlighted while those perpetrated by Russia are ignored or minimized, explicitly or implicitly.

It seems to me that the identity of the “imperial” evil force, rather than the principle being violated, is what matters to these activists.


One reason that is frequently cited for opposing “imperialism” in Syria is the Iraq experience. Citing Iraq as a precedent is misleading, and naive at best.

There was no popular uprising when Iraq was invaded. And the context is different, suffice to say that evidence was manufactured in order to fit a post-911 narrative.

With respect to the question of changing the regime: As opposed to George Bush’s administration, the current American administration did not seek regime change Syria, contrary to claims made by these activists.

If the US wanted to get rid of Assad, Obama could have ordered drone strikes against him (please don’t tell me the US cares about international law). After all, US troops actively searched for, and eventually captured, Saddam Hussein. Not a single attempt was made to assassinate or capture Assad, or any of his senior officials for that matter. The US presence in Syria is mainly to fight ISIS and like-minded groups. To say otherwise is to neglect the immense number of airstrikes (45, 000 and counting) that have so far only targeted IS and Al-Qaeda.

The claim that the US government both finance Al-Qaeda and drone them at the same time is laughable, unless we are asked to believe 2+2=5 (I recommend you watch that famous YouTube video if you haven’t yet).

Knowing that the US is not really interested in changing the Assad regime shows the ridiculous claim with respect to the notion that Syria’s conflict could trigger a world war III, a false fear mongering argument that only serves the Assad’s dictatorial and criminal regime.

I wrote this Op-Ed not for those who have already convinced themselves that what is happening in Syria is part of a pure foreign plot, and that those groups fighting Assad are simply remote-controlled pawns.

I wrote this Op-Ed for those people who are still confused by the disinformation campaign many of these so called “anti-imperialist” activists embarked on to discredit the struggle of the Syrian people. Please know that the Syrian conflict has no simple solutions or answers, and don’t fool yourself by resorting to conspiracy theories to find digestible explanations.

If you are still confused after reading my Op-Ed, one thing I would ask you to do is to simply not side with a dictator, or justify his crimes directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly. Don’t feel forced to take a position one way or the other. In other words, you can still resist imperialism while not siding with a vicious dictator. That is the least acceptable moral position one could take.

Despite its shortcomings, the Syrian struggle for dignity and freedom has already demonstrated that the Syrian people don’t forget. I know you might think I am naive. But let me tell you this: I would rather be remembered by future generations as a naive person rather than as someone who has sided with a criminal and a fascist regime.

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7 thoughts on “Some activists have lost their moral compass with respect to Syria

  1. “…I would ask you to do is to simply not side with a dictator, or justify his crimes directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly. Don’t feel forced to take a position one way or the other”.

    Here is the thing Maher Arar, the West are proven to be pathological LIARS! Consequently anything they say and do must be questioned. I will always callout these western hypocrites and their pretensions concerning following the “rule of law” or “humanitarian concerns”.

    I can on principle reject Western psychopathic lies and hypocrisy without being a supporter of Assad.

  2. The trouble is Ebolainfo is that this position is leading many western activists to disbelieve anything Syrian opponents of Assad say and treat them like liars. I find the idea of Americans and British people as the judges of Syrian anti-imperialist credentials laughable. We do we in the west always see ourselves as the experts-and-whether left or right-seem incapable of listening to or treating with respect the actual victims of imperialism.

  3. Brilliant, non toxic, scarcely a word of your own time in incarceration.
    The truth which your words describe isn’t that far beneath the surface, but the lies, deceit, propaganda and self serving interests are bottomless.

  4. It is disheartening that Maher Arar’s voice and his ordeal are not more widely known to Western audiences. I have known of his case since 2003, and watched an intense fight to have his story told (which never received the profile it deserved).

    I applaud the commitment and convictions of Maher Arar. Everywhere online, many people want to deny the humanity of Syrian people and whitewash the crimes of the Assad regime. Thank you for posting Arar’s op-ed.

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