Trying to find your way to clarity through the fog of horror that surrounds the Syrian civil war, you could do worse than start with MSNBC television host Chris Hayes, who took to Twitter in the wake of the US airstrikes on Damascus: “They lie about everything all the time. Everything. Every single thing, big and small. All of it. Constantly.”
First published at the Guardian
He doesn’t distinguish who he means by “they”, but it hardly matters. US cruise missiles arc across a Middle Eastern capital in order to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction by an entrenched dictatorship. But this isn’t 2003. Massive anti-war demonstrations are now just a memory. The clarity of purpose with which millions marched against President George W Bush’s illegal assault on Iraq has been splintered and numbed; first through our failure to prevent the invasion, and then by 15 long years in which war has mutated and spread, each new intervention spawning the next. This time, they’re taking no chances, giving the anti-war movement only the option of response post-fact.
They lie about everything. In less than the time it will take to organise big street protests, InfoWars host Alex Jones will lose his mind on a livestream over Trump’s betrayal of his alt-right base. Google’s top search results for “anti-war demonstration” will be links to articles on Sputnik News, owned by Russian state news agency Rossiya Segodnya. On the eve of the missile strikes, Fox and Friends host Ainsley Earhardt will artfully throw a rhetorical question to a guest: “…if the President, and France, and the UK decide to strike Syria, don’t you think that story would be a bigger story than Comey’s book that’s released on Tuesday?”
Quite. With that story bombed off the front page, US military spokesmen speak now of pinpoint precision, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cruise missiles targeted so as to degrade Bashar al-Assad’s ability to repeat the horrific scenes of bodies piled upon each other on the outskirts of Damascus. Syrian sources claim that no such attacks occurred. They release footage of Assad sauntering into his office as though nothing much has happened. For a while, rumours circulate online that a Hezbollah base has been struck, drawing Iran and Lebanon directly into conflict with the US.
The lead-up to the US attacks was no less surreal. Trump, in one of his more lucid moments, told an audience in Ohio in late March 2018 that with Isis on the ropes, “we’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon.” A week later, for reasons known only to him, Assad’s air force helicopters are then alleged to have attacked a civilian apartment block with chemical weapons, a senseless atrocity that could not have been better timed to end any loose talk of US departure from Syria.
Nonetheless, the accusations are plausible precisely because of how much carnage Assad has been prepared to unleash in the name of regime defence. Chemical weapons represent a “red line”, Assad has been told, but apart from that the regime has been left free to deploy snipers, barrel bombs, and strategic starvation of entire districts. Chemical weapons are different, it seems.
The appalling footage of gas casualties in a basement in Eastern Ghouta prompted the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to claim: “We have irrefutable evidence that this was another staged event.” In case anyone missed the implication, Russian defence spokesman Igor Konashenkov insisted he had “evidence that proves Britain was directly involved in organising this provocation.”
Needless to say, no such evidence was tendered. The world would have to wait until the closest thing we have to a neutral expert body, the UN Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) mission arrived to conduct tests on the ground.
But why wait for something as quaint as “evidence,” when cruise missiles provide a vastly more compelling spectacle? Less than 24 hours before OPCW inspectors were due to arrive in Syria, three members of the UN security council have unilaterally launched air strikes on precisely the facilities that they claim are implicated in war crimes. The Australian government, left on the sidelines for a change, went through the motions nonetheless, with a forgettable government press conference followed by the Labor party falling into line unprompted.
Somehow, presumably deliberately, it has been made nearly impossible to tell the difference between reality and the comments thread on an InfoWars livestream. While much of the news may be fake, the deaths are real. The people of Syria are still caught, after seven long years, between the irresistible force of US cruise missiles, military proxies and terror cells, and the immovable object of Bashal al-Assad and his backstop in the Kremlin.
Syria, and Yemen, and Gaza, each in their own way, are terminal signs that our system of global governance is truly broken. No party to these bruising conflicts can say with a straight face that they are acting in good faith, or with any regard to the “international rules-based order” in which post-second world war generations have placed their trust. Whole populations are being crushed between the tectonic plates of great-power rivalry. Those who take their chances and seek refuge are just as likely to fall prey to the slow-burn horror of domestic refugee politics, while collective attempts to make sense of the carnage are poisoned by strategic misinformation campaigns that flood social media platforms from all directions.
A plague on all their houses. People of good heart have a choice, here, as Occupy Wall Street co-creator Micah White has argued: to either stick with interventions that we can safely assume will continue to fail, or to write a new chapter in globally inspired, coordinated dissent and defiance. We’d best take this leap into the dark before our present generation of “leaders” ignite a third world war, since no one will be left to write caustic tweets in the event of our continued failure to meaningfully challenge the people who continue to lie about everything, all the time.