Syria Deniers: the New Scourge of the Extreme Alt-Left

by John J. Davenport

I presented a paper yesterday at the Left Forum meeting (June 2-4) at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (that's merely the venue, not a sponsor). My paper was pretty moderate, simply detailing how what was the mainstream American position for over 40 years – supporting Israel's existence but rejecting West Bank settlements – has been eroded by Likud party propaganda in the US. All the speakers in my panel defended similar positions with cogency and without any shred of conspiracy theory. But the Left Forum, boasting over 400 speakers, has been dogged by some groups from the crackpot fringe that threaten to give this meeting a bad name. I do not mean Marxists and socialists of many stripes; most of them are fine, though a few Stalin-defenders ooze their way around the lunatic edges. Rather, I'm worried about other groups like "9-11 truthers." According to one organizer, the Forum had to reject at least three panels peddling this b.s., but at least one (by David Slesinger, Richard Ochs, and friends) slipped through and was presented on Sunday. These disgusting nutcases are on a par with Sandy Hook deniers on the right. There are also a few pathetic "Venezuela deniers" who insist that the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans marching to protest the collapse of their economy under the corrupt regime of Maduro are all a false front for American imperialist interests (see the June 1 issue of "Workers World").

But now we have a new and (if possible) even more heinous set of self-reinforcing conspiracy theorists on the fringe left, who are more analogous to the Holocaust Deniers (especially those of the 1944-45 era when the overwhelming evidence was mounting, even given the limits of communication back then). These genocide-deniers of today are the "Syria Skeptics" who try to argue (to varying degrees) that Assad has not killed that many people (maybe a couple thousand?), that the CIA (or NSA or whatever) is behind the Syrian uprising and peaceful protests in 2011-12, that the "so-called chemical attacks" were staged, and basically that it's all a giant conspiracy to get us into another war in the Middle East. This is the appalling result of the worst aspects of Chomsky's massive oeuvre and its influence: his paranoia inspired by US Cold War tactics has combined with a visceral desperation to deny any evidence that might support a case for any kind of military action (even if the US were only a minor contributor to a large coalition in Syria). Still I suspect that even Chomsky would have been shocked by some of the statements on Syria made by the deniers on Sunday.

At least three such panels highlighting Syria Deniers crept into the program this time; their influence is rising: I witnessed part of one personally, and heard reports on Saturday of two others. Instead, the bitter truth was told at a session on "Geopolitics, the International Left, and the Syrian Revolt:" the first speaker was Shireen Akram-Bosher, a very brave refugee who stood with protesters of all backgrounds in Syria during 2011 even though she was from an Assad-controlled village. She described her horror at coming to America only to find some faux-intellectuals on the extreme left trying to tell her that the organic uprising in which she participated must somehow have been orchestrated by the American security bureaus and war machine. It's hard to imagine anything more insulting to someone who has risked her life and sacrificed nearly everything to be told my some armchair conspiracy-monger that her testimony must be false a priori because it is not convenient for their dogmatic mindset!

Ashley Smith, who has written quite a bit on this topic for Socialist Worker, accurately explained this reaction among Syria Deniers by noting that some leftists have become so focused on "American imperialism" because of the Cold War and 2003 Iraq campaign that they cannot accept or see any evidence that some other governments (e.g. Putin's Russia) may be even more imperialist in their conduct. As he noted, this is partly due to Chomsky's long shadow. I would add only that (whether military intervention in some form was the best answer in Syria 2013 or not), some significant percentage of American and European left-wing protesters have adopted such a blanket "anti-war" ideology that they are not willing to consider even the remotest possibility that any government (except the US, of course) could ever be doing anything that might require a military response if diplomacy fails and – say, for example, launching air strikes that bury hundreds of thousands of people, alive or dead, in the rubble of their former apartment buildings.

Case in point: Mark Crispin Miller, Communications professor from the NYU Steinhart School of Design, told a packed crowed on Sunday that Assad has not dropped barrel bombs on his own people, that the new allegation of a crematorium at Assad's Saydnaya prison is a hoax, and that the chemical attacks on Sunni areas were actually staged by the Sunni victims (with help from Turkey in the main 2013 case) to draw the US into the war. One wonders if Miller is on Assad's PR team: although he stopped short of characterizing all opponents of Assad as "terrorists," he did feel that the western media had given Assad spokespersons a rough time. I almost shed a tear on hearing how Bouthaina Shaaban had to handle insulting questions about mass slaughter: how could our correspondents be so rude!

It's tempting to call this event at the Left Forum tragic, because Miller was once a good journalist who drew attention to genuine cases of propaganda and mass deception via news media in history. But its more accurate to call his current effort a case of enormous cowardice: on purely ideological motives, Miller is now so terrified of the truth that he's willing to go to the extreme of denying a genocide as it is unfolding, documented with thousands of videos and eyewitness accounts on the BBC, CNN, and by reporters for the NYT and many other major newspapers. It was like an Orwellian nightmare to see the crowd nodding as Miller insisted to them, in effect, that 2 + 2 must equal 5 if that's what's necessary to preserve a certain totally unnuanced anti-war narrative. Thus Miller has become the evil that he once sought to fight. It's shocking that an intelligent man who once cared about truth could descend to the point where he sounded more like Sergei Lavrov than a real human being.

I was impolite: I interrupted him. Normally rules of decorum should be respected, but not when mass atrocities are being denied. I asked him if he was really denying barrel bomb attacks, and he confirmed that he was. He said that we were all fooled by US government reports of Iraqi WMDs in 2002, and were being fooled again; I said to him (and the mindless crowd as they shouted at me) that in this case, we have literally thousands of eyewitness reports. I did it for Shireen, the 350,000+ Sunnis killed by regime forces and allies in Syria, all the other victims from many minority groups: if we're not going to help them, we should at least not comfort ourselves about it by engaging in massive self-deception. But I guess Dr. Miller really thinks that tens of thousands of videotaped bombings were all staged; I guess he really believes, following Seymour Hersh's reputation-torching conspiracy claims, that Sunni Syrians would gas hundreds of their own children to trick foreign audiences. Miller did not mention the months-long, very detailed UN investigation that confirmed the initial US analysis showing that the 2013 Ghouta attack came from Assad's missiles. Nor did he mention the heat signature evidence cited in the Amnesty report on the crematorium, or the 10,000 + photos of victims killed in Assad's prisons that were snuck out by a defector in 2013. Miller simply ignored these and hundreds of other pieces of evidence, which together make a case more ironclad than the Merrimack. While Arwa Damon, Hali Gorani, and other colleagues at CNN and the BBC have been risking their lives on-scene to document the mass atrocities, Miller has been reading Chomsky, saying "no, no, no" to every report, and spreading his cowardly filth to others. Of course he thinks he knows better than all the experts who have been there and victims who have lived through it: the arrogance of people like Miller is infinite. It would be nice to drop him in Idlib for the next 12 months and see how he fares.

As I said goodbye to that ultrafundamentalist anti-war echo-chamber on Sunday, reminding them of the Holocaust-deniers they so strongly resemble, I reflected on my visit to the Trump rally in Akron, OH, circa August 2016. I went through that five-hour ordeal of war-whoops, anti-Hillary chants, and (most sickeningly) Rudi Guiliani telling the audience that most Syrian refugees are terrorists, in order to speak to Trump for 10 seconds and ask him not to ally us with Assad. For the record, Trump promised me directly, "don't worry, we won't!" But who was worse, I asked myself today: these young white guys with jacked-up trucks sporting big flags and their middle-aged parents who came with their worries about factory jobs going overseas, or these alt-left Syria Deniers who snuck into the Left Forum? Probably half the former had two years of college or less; even though they may have absorbed some racism and xenophobia from their surrounding culture, and lacked the virtue to question the right-wing tv or radio station which they revered, they did not come across like cowardly liars to me. By contrast, the Syria Deniers were holier-than-thou dogmatists holding masters degrees who could easily have known better. Between these mirror-images, I'll take the Akron crowd any day. Some of them were certainly arrogant and brash, and some were desperate to be deceived. But they were not quite so desperate and willfully self-deceiving as the Millerites.

One thing became crystal clear from this comparison: in their attack on the mainstream media, which threatens to erode our democracy's core, the Trump crowds have had plenty of help from the most extreme fringes of the conspiracy-addicted ultraleft. People like Miller make it easier for the right wing to dismiss CNN or the NYT as fake news, because they have done some of their destructive work for them. As their memes spread through the alt-left underground on the web, they join up with conspiracy narratives on the right to quadruple the cultural damage.

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