The murderous conflict in Syria is simplified by both right and left. This account deals with the short period of hope, when the people threw off their chains
It is happening again. Over the last year protest movements – some of them deep and broad enough that we might dare to call them revolutions – have once more been shaking the Middle East and North Africa, ending decades-long dictatorships in Sudan and Algeria, forcing the prime ministers of Lebanon and Iraq to resign. And yet the war brought to Syria by the last wave of revolutionary upheaval – the Arab spring that began in 2011 and by 2014 had turned to something worse than winter – has not ended. It continues to be fought not only with bullets and bombs but, in a parallel battle for narrative control, with words.
In the discourses of American thinktanks and much of the mainstream media, tropes flatten the war into a conflict between, as the Syrian-American scholar Yasser Munif puts it, “western civilisation and the Islamic State’s barbarism” on one front, and between the shining freedoms of the democratic west and the dark tyrannies of Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers on another. Meanwhile the more Manichaean precincts of the left prefer to imagine the war as a single fight between a brave anticolonialist holdout and Islamist terrorists in league with the west. Anyone who disagrees is rewarded with a depressingly predictable slew of smears: “interventionist”, “pro-imperialist”, “regime change advocate” and so on.