Down the Alt-Right’s Syrian Rabbit Hole

How a Chemical Attack in 2013 set the Stage for Trump’s Post-Truth Presidency, and How We Can Fight Back.

On August 21st 2013 rumors of a massive chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta, a rebel held suburb of Damascus began to emerge. A series of now famous videos which showed victims laid out on the floor shaking were uploaded. Over the next few day fragmentary details of a major sarin gas attack began to emerge in the western media. As  journalists started putting the pieces together an Austin based conspiracy theorist named Alex Jones went on air to present his own version of events with absolute certainty.

In retrospect the August 23rd episode of “The Alex Jones Show” is worth re watching, because it was a chilling precursor to the alt right movement that would shape how Donald Trump sees the world. Between segments hawking survivalist and pseudo medical products, listeners called in to speak with Jones. One caller ranted about fears that Obamacare death panels would kill his grandmother, Jones suggested Obama’s Muslim background made him a bad dog owner and a segment about the inappropriate conduct of the Clinton foundation ran (remember this was during the summer of 2013).

The the subject of Jones program that day was the sarin gas attack in Damascus, and he jumped right into it.

“The so-called US, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Chase, that run this country, along with the Sachs, Cobergs, Gothes, and others, the Queen of England, the Dutch Queen others, that’s the main folks that own it all. They are openly taking the funding away from Egypt, and I’m not defending foreign aide, but the point is they are taking it away becasue they aren’t doing what they are told to turn it over to jihadis to just wreck everything.”

Later on the same program he Skyped with  a young woman who, along with Jones, would pen the alt right’s alt-history of the Syrian war. The version of history Donald Trump would use to build his world view. The young woman who Jones hosted called herself, Syrian Girl Partisan aka Mimi Al Laham aka Maram Susli,  a pro-Assad youtube commentator who had been releasing English language videos since the beginning of the uprising. Her commentary condemned the Syrian opposition, and was designed to make inroads with the American far right.

“I’m not gonna come here and deny that the government wasn’t a dictatorship, it wasn’t corrupt, that, you know, that people weren’t angry with it. I’m not gonna say that there wasn’t a legitimate reason for people to want to create that change but the fact is that was totally exploited and even pre planned by the foreign agendas, the US, NATO, basically the global elite as you call them.”

As Jones emphatically agreed and Mimi went on.

“It’s absolutely undeniable that little children died in Damascus three days ago and that the images are shocking and anyone cannot deny that and I’m not gonna comment on the Nature of the gas that was used I’m gonna leave that to experts. and I also don’t want to implicate the rebels as a whole…. I don’t want to implicate them directly because I’m sure some of them have families that live in that area and I believe that they themselves are pasties to a global game that they are cannon fodder for and the powers that be have managed to convince them that they are going to get armed that they are going to get no fly zones… they want to divide Syria up into mini states and they wanna crush any rogue state.” Alex answered this by saying “Yes any state that isn’t run by Goldman Sachs!”  Laham’s words about “letting the experts decide” were the opening chapter to a saga that is far stranger than fiction.

Mimi al Laham as she was known, also had her own YouTube channel, where she would espouse her pro regime views. One video in particular seemed geared to a certain kind of American on the other side of the globe. The Video was entitled “why the New World Order hates Syria.” In other videos Mimi would would brag about her contacts inside the Syrian Electronic Army, a pro-regime hacker syndicate widely believed to be the product of one of Syria’s dozen or so intelligence agencies. She even announced a major hacking scandal as it occurred, a very clear sign that she maintains direct contact with the Syrian Electronic Army.

That same day as bodies and samples were being collected in Damascus it became clear that several hundred civilians had died from exposure to a large quantity of Sarin gas. Diplomacy was heating up, in August and September of 2013 it came to a head. Suddenly the Obama administration was backed into a corner. Obama’s notorious red line on the use of chemical weapons had been breached in spectacular fashion. The president who had vowed to act if Assad used chemical weapons found himself trying to rally support for punitive military action from an obstructionist congress. As US ships sailed into the Mediterranean in anticipation of orders to shoot, it seemed like an aerial intervention was imminent. As the world held its breath, state sponsored hackers went into action against a variety of US-based websites.

In early September hackers identifying themselves as the “Syrian Electronic Army” took over and posted the following “This is a message written by your brothers in the Syrian Army, who have been fighting Al Qaeda for the last 3 years. We understand your patriotism and love for your country so please understand our love for ours. Obama is a traitor who wants to put your lives in danger to resume Al Qaeda insurgents. Marines, please take a look at what your comrades think about Obama’s alliance with Al Qaeda against Syria.” Images were posted of men in various US military uniforms holding signs over their faces which read “I will not fight for Al Qaeda in Syria” and “I didn’t join the Marine corps to fight for Al Qaeda in a Syrian Civil war.” Charges have since been filed against two Syrian citizens, Ahmed Umar Agha, and Firas Darder, both thought to be affiliated with the Syrian Electronic Army. Obama was ultimately unable to get support for military action from congress or his European allies. An ad hoc deal under which Syria would supposedly dismantle it’s chemical arsenal went into effect, ultimately taking a direct confrontation with the Assad regime off the table. Damascus saw this as a green light and acted accordingly.

It was clear from early on that the conspiracy fringe would shape perceptions of Syria by stoking fears and mudding the waters so heavily with an alternative version of reality. I could never have imagined that ‘Syrian Girl Partisan” would be able to affect mainstream perceptions of the war or that Alex Jones would become the go to news source for a Republican presidential campaign. On December 19th 2013 the legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh released an article titled “Whose Sarin?” in the London Review of Books. The article relied heavily on the work of an MIT physicist Theodore Postol who asserted that the chemical composition of samples found by UN weapons inspectors at the site of the attack were inconsistent with the kind of sarin known to be used by the Syrian military. While Hersh has never directly asserted that he believes the rebels carried out the attacks his article has been used as evidence to support the false flag thesis pushed by Jones and many others. Hersh’s article drew on anonymous sources and Theodore Postol’s research. Missing was the important role played by a young chemist in Australia.

In response to Hersh’s article the English blogger and weapons expert Eliot Higgins relied on open source material as well as chemical expertise provided by the chemical warfare expert Dan Kaszeta to form a counter-thesis. The article entitled “Sy Hersh’s Chemical Misfire” was publised in Foreign Policy magazine and debunked many of Hersh’s conclusions. In the wake of a very public disagreement on what had transpired, the discourse between Postal and Kaszeta got ugly. Soon the two experts, Postol an MIT professor, and Kaszeta an expert in chemical protection, were arguing about chemistry via email. As the feud continued, condescending quips were interwoven into emails about the chemical composition of Sarin. Kaszeta noticed that Postol had added an email address to the massive chain, the email was “syriansister,” it looked familiar to him. He did some snooping and found out that it was none other than Syrian Girl Partisan. The young commentator that had appeared on Alex Jones show saying she would “let experts decide” had apparently been communicating with Postol. Soon it was revealed that the Assad’s most passionate ambassador to the American right, supposedly named Mimi Al Laham, was actually a chemistry student at the University of Western Australia in Perth. The young woman’s name was not Mimi Al-Laham, it was Maram Susli. Kaszeta tweeted about this over the next few days and the bizarre dispute went public. Soon Postol was angry and wanted to reply to Kaszeta.

Later that year Postol appeared on the podcast of Ry Dawson, an unrepentant holocaust denier who has since become an important figure in the American alt right. Postol admitted that the Maram Susli had been on his research team and had access to his materials. Susli herself had previously appeared on the David Duke podcast to discuss “Zionism.” It was a small scandal when it was discovered that the Pro-Assad commentator with links to Syrian intelligence and the American far right had been allowed to participate in the research an MIT professor presented to Seymour Hersh. Needless to say the presence of Susli on Postol’s research team was troubling.

The Assad regime had a relationship with the American far-right long before Susli’s appearances on InfoWars. This depth of this bond was on full display when David Duke spoke about Zionism at a rally in Damascus on November 24th 2005 “Your fight for freedom is our fight for freedom” said the former KKK grand wizard before going into a chant of “no war for Israel.” In 2013 journalists could already see Syrians suffering because of misconceptions about refugees and Muslims, misconceptions fed by an online cesspool of misinformation which would one day be known as the alt-right. Looking back on the weeks following the August 21st chemical attacks in Ghouta feels like a chilling precursor to the 2016 election. A lesson in how the darkness of paranoia and fear can eclipse reality. It’s was easy for busy reporters and people with pre-set opinions on intervention to let a deliberately fake story about a distant war go unchallenged. It was only a matter of time before the fake-news chickens would come home to roost.

In 2013 alt-right YouTubers were presented their own version of “the truth about Syria.” Simultaneously, journalists actually covering Syria were following the story of our captive colleagues who had been taken hostage in 2012 and 2013, the public was unaware that American citizens Stephen Sotloff, James Foley and Peter Kassig were being traded and tortured by Islamist groups in Northern Syria, eventually they would end up in the hands of the Islamic State. A small group of friends desperately tried to organize a release while the US government interfered with family attempts to negotiate with the kidnappers. Journalists would whisper updates on our missing comrades, the public had no idea what was happening but the reality weighed heavily on our own travel plans inside the war torn nation.

In 2014 the entire drama,which had played out for over a year in secret burst like an open sore into public view. That summer ISIS had captured Iraq’ second city of Mosul, prompting a military response from the US. Events then escalated and like clockwork when ISIS began murdering it’s American hostages in Syria on camera. The drama that we had all been secretly privy to exploded into the public consciences. America would be intervening in Syria after all, but not against the Assad regime. Suddenly Republican lawmakers who had ignored Syria and obstructed Obama were spouting all sorts of rhetoric about ISIS and Syria. On the fringes the alt right was flooding the internet with fake-news. Stories about Obama funding ISIS and John McCain meeting with Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi wormed their way into the discussion.

Fast forward one year and suddenly these crazy ideas were at the center of the presidential race. When Donald Trump told a rally in Birmingham Alabama on November 21st 2015 that “thousands” of Muslim Americans were cheering as the twin towers fell, commentators thought he had lost his mind. In the wake of Trump’s comments about 9-11 his surrogates were forced to do damage control. Rudy Giuliani was in the awkward position of having to explain that he felt Trump was merle “exaggerating.” Trump was met with scorn by the media and people at large, in fact he found his own team unsupportive, merle walking back his claims or dismissing them entirely. One man would believe the Donald though, the man who came up with the infamous “Hillary for Prison” and “Lock her up” slogans that dominated the RNC in the summer of 2016, the man who would come to, along with Trump’s surrogate Roger Stone, run the “voter fraud prevention” intimidation campaign that Trumps goons wanted to deploy on election day. That man was Alex Jones. Soon after Trump’s 9-11 comments Alex Jones went on air and defended Trump saying he had received “hundreds of calls” saying that Trump was right, traitorous Arabs had in fact been cheering as the towers burned, by the thousands. Trump had not exaggerated and the lying press were covering up. Soon a surrogate of Donald Trump, probably Roger Stone, called Jones. A little over a week later, on December 2nd Trump appeared on the Alex Jones show. During the interview, Trump shocked the Republican establishment by reassuring Jones that he was “highly respected.” It seemed like a suicidal visit to the extremist fringe. The two men spared no time stroking each others egos. Trump said that Jones would be “pleased” with Trump’s presidency. Jones eagerly asserted that Trump had been right about the cheering Arabs.

After he secured the GOP nomination Donald Trump’s rhetoric came to resemble the Alt-Right’s pro-Assad rhetoric so closely that they were almost indistinguishable. The GOP candidate’s off the cuff conspiracy talk about Ted Cruz’s father being involved in the Kennedy assassination or Obama being born in Kenya had narrowed to disturbing and consistent statements about “international Bankers” or the “Globalist Elites” or Obama being the “founder of ISIS.” This may seem like it came completely out of left field but after nearly 4 years covering this shit, it all seems terribly familiar to Syria journalists. These types of conspiratorial tropes had long been the backbone of the Assad regime’s counter narrative to delegitimize the Syrian revolution, and distract from their own atrocities. The Assad regime and it’s supporters in the Kremlin saw great potential in the fringe movement that has come to be called the alt-right. It was inevitable that the conspiratorial view of history would be canonized in Trump’s circles, with some help from the Russian fake news industry. All along myself and other journalists had felt that this dark paranoid thread of Americana could only exist in the minds of angry young men watching a war they don’t understand from a safe distance. We thought this militant strain of bogus reality could only exist on the fringes of American culture. As it became increasingly clear that Trump would be the GOP nominee we realized how wrong we had been.

The far right trolls who cut their teeth trolling the Arab spring now had a presidential candidate, and they are putting their years of experience denying reality and justifying authoritarianism to work in a US election. Trump’s 2016 campaign rhetoric had more in common with that of the dictators crushing the Arab spring with sectarianism and paranoid theories than the rhetoric of an American presidential candidate. By 2016 the Alex Jones Show was peddling conspiracy theories about Huma Abedin being a Saudi agent and it goes without saying that a massive part of Trump’s base actually believed it.  The GOP presidential candidate was now talking about “global elites” and “international bankers,” Trump’s final campaign ad was decried as anti-Semitic by the ADL for focusing heavy criticism on prominent Jews, especially the philanthropist George Soros.

All the pro-democracy movements across the MENA region were accused of being foreign agents by their governments. At various points the protestors in Egypt were accused of being American agents, the protestors in Syria were routinely accused by the Assad regime of being Saudi and Qatari agents, protestors in Bahrian are constantly accused of being agents of Iran though absolutely no link exists. From a distance this could seem like a unique sectarian flaw of the region, something that goes back “thousands of years” as the nauseating mantra goes. Many of us were foolish enough to think that this strain of sectarian paranoia couldn’t infect modern American democracy, but it has. Trump’s alt right legions have been at war with reality for years, denying atrocities, justifying authoritarianism, and trolling conflicts they would never experience first hand. The alt right is an amorphous thing with various iterations running the gambit from Jared Taylor to Milo Yiannopoulos, but they have amost universial consensus on Syria and the Arab spring. The Alt-Right is generally Anti-Isael but not pro Palestinian. They generally blame Israel for Syria’s problems and the Palestinans for their own problems.  The Alt-Right is almost universally in agreement that the protests of the Arab spring were part of a what they describe as a “globalist” conspiracy.

Now in the wake of Trump’s election furious protests have broken out across our own nation. I had the privilege of marching to trump tower with a Syrian who had participated in the 2011 protests, she felt like she had finally come home in the mob of over 100,000 New Yorkers.

Fortunately we are not Syria or Egypt, so people will get the unique opportunity over the next two months to see a popular, intelligent and gregarious president try to gracefully deal with the giant mess an idiotic, historically unpopular president-elect created out of pettiness. Obama is going to have to be presidential during the fallout Trump created before even taking office. Obama is already far more popular and people will get to see the difference in real time. Maybe Trump will be begging Obama for safety advice by the time he takes office. It already looks like the president elect may not be safe living in New York. He will not be giving any commencement speeches at major Universities. He will clash with his intelligence officials who are smugly showing him proof that he was installed by a hostile Russia, bent on using his stupidity to weaken America. Trump will, learn these hard lessons, he will learn that Vladimir Putin thinks he’s an idiot, he will ask us to be civil when the violence he feeds off of suddenly spills beyond the crowds of his supporters attacking journalists and beating up protestors. If he thinks violence and resentment based on lies, hatred and fear is a powerful force, he has something else coming.

Suddenly the story of a chemical attack in Damascus and our bizarre President-elect seem like different parts of the same tragic opera. The Arab spring was not a culturally unique event, it was the inevitable result of humanity having access to unfettered information. The Arab spring’s Middle Eastern origins had very little to do with Islam or any aspect of Middle Eastern culture, this type of dissent was bound to start in the part of the world where the abuses and deceptions of the powerful were the most naked. Now that protestors are taking over major cities America feels a little bit more like an middle eastern nation, confronting sectarianism and authoritarianism at the same time. Trump hasn’t even taken power and already he is behaving like an autocrat. The President-elect gave his first post-election interview with his family sitting in gold leaf chairs, in a scene very reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s palaces.  Trump’s international authoritarian fan club recognizes him as one of their own, early congratulations came from General El-Sisi, Benjamin Netanyahu and of course Vladimir Putin. Trump’s future administration is already reacting to people power the way Qaddafi and Assad did. Trump’s pick for white house chief of staff, Steve Bannon, is a thought leader in a movement that believes anti-Trump protestors are paid agents of George Soros. Trump supporters are eagerly embracing the narratives that protests against the president elect are part of some Jewish or “globalist” conspiracy, the way Assad and Mubarak did at first. Lou Dobbs of Fox News tweeted about #SorosRiots and it seems that most of Trump’s base believe their anger was misunderstood while they blame our anger on a Jewish philanthropist. When Americans are blaming a Jewish conspiracy for the atmosphere of terror their candidate created it reminds me that sectarianism is not a religious issue. The mobs of angry cowards at the Trump rallies make me frightened for my country while I feel a perfectly safe as a white New Yorker in a furious crowd opposed to the hatred Trump has unleashed. Protesting in front of Trump Tower, with one Syrian friend, and over one hundred thousand black white and brown New Yorkers, I felt safety in the angry mob. When helicopters flew over, my friend and I felt fear and unease,  because now America is an Arab Spring nation isn’t it?

I must repeat this, Trump’s authoritiarianism is inextricably linked to the dictators that Trump’s people admire. Trump’s surrogates are already threatening critics in authoritarian terms. He won the election and less than one week later he is tweeting about the New York Times. He’s going to be a media giant and the most powerful person in the world, and he is still complaining about the system being rigged, after losing the popular vote. He seized power and can’t stop complaining about dark conspiracies against him, the way Middle-Eastern regimes ruled for decades. Trump isn’t happy to just move into the White House, he wants to live in Trump tower while half of Manhattan is on lockdown. While Obama tries to calm peaceful unrest from Trump opponents, and violence from Trump Supporters, Trump will be sitting up there in Trump tower tweeting about how unfair the world is.

Fortunately for us Trump isn’t Hitler, and he isn’t Putin. Trump is more like Kim Jong Il, and this is America. But the question remains. Does America feel a little bit more like a middle eastern war zone today? Is it because of too many Muslims? Is it because of too many Christians? Look around you, all this fear and sectarianism comes from lazy powerful people with no ideas. It’s the same in every country. My friend from Syria is now referring to New York as the “liberated zone” of America. For his part Trump phoned Alex Jones after the election to thank him for all he has done. Truth and democracy are now part of the same struggle and America suddenly doesn’t seem so unique on a planet full of religious intolerance and crazy ideas about how the world works. We will have to resist Trump against all odds. The sooner we come to grips with the fact that we are fighting the same Authoritarian strain the protestors in Egypt and Bahrain have faced down for years, the sooner we can prevail. Hopefully we will be armed with the lessons of the past, bullshit detectors on full alert.

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