By Brian Slocock
Assad regime supporter Tim Anderson, who is on the teaching staff of the University of Sydney, is organising a conference at the University entitled “After the War on Syria” on 18-19 April. This is presented with all the paraphernalia of an academic gathering, though I cannot comment on the political diversity or otherwise of the speakers and presenters. But I do recognise some familiar names from Anderson’s local entourage, and I see that one of the keynote speakers is Leith Fadel, editor of the vociferously pro- regime Al Masdar News.
I’m not concerned here with the Conference but rather with Anderson’s long standing attempt to project himself as an authority on the Syrian conflict with academic credentials. Anderson’s principal claim to authority is a book entitled The Dirty War on Syria, much of which first appeared as posts on the Global Research website. This work provides a handy conspectus of Anderson’s approach to the Syrian conflict and to knowledge in general. It merits a closer look.
Tim Anderson as methodologist
Anderson outlines the framework in which he will conduct his work in chapter 2, entitled “Barrel Bombs, Partisan Sources And War Propaganda”. He writes:
War propaganda often demands the abandoning of ordinary reason and principle … A steady stream of atrocity stories – ‘barrel bombs’, chemical weapons, ‘industrial scale’ killings, dead babies – permeate the western news on Syria. These stories all have two things in common: they paint the Syrian President and the Syrian Army as monsters slaughtering civilians, including children; yet, when tracked back, all the stories come from utterly partisan sources. We are being deceived. (p.7)
Here we have a central proposition of Anderson’s – all stories that come from “partisan sources” carry no credibility and can be safely ignored.
Anderson is quick to dismiss “partisan sources” when they bear adversely on the position he is expounding, but appears blithely unware that an argument of this sort is only logically tenable if it is consistent. If it applies to “partisans” opposing Assad then it must equally apply to the partisans of the other side—such as Anderson.
Moreover Anderson & co.’s definition of “partisan sources” has a far wider sweep than the phrase suggests: he applies it not only to anyone who opposes the Syrian regime but to the entire western media, academic institutions, human rights organisations, and even most recently, relief organisations like Medecins sans Frontieres.
Anderson’s world is built around a binary divide—you are either on his side in relation to Syria or you are a paid hack, obeying the orders of some hidden hand. There is no room for professional principles and intellectual independence—every journalist, every human rights worker, every researcher, every academic specialist on Syria, who dissents from his view is simply a “partisan” whose views can be ignored or dismissed.
This is the epistemology, not of an academic or scholar, but of a propagandist.
Tim Anderson as Historian
The key claim of Anderson’s account of the Syrian revolution is that it was from the very inception an Islamist-orchestrated insurrection. To substantiate this he has to place a particular construction on the events that unfolded in the provincial city of Daraa on 18-20. This he attempts in the third chapter of his book entitled “Daraa 2011: Another Islamist Insurrection”
Anderson begins his account with a review of the events of 1980-1982, when an armed revolt against the regime of Hafiz al-Assad, supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, was put down with massive violence that targeted both armed oppositionists and ordinary inhabitants. He claims the events of 2011 in Daraa were cut from the same cloth.
Anderson is neither clear nor consistent in his view of these early days of the uprising. He acknowledges that there was a legitimate protest movement in Syria at some point but asserts that: “the political reform movement had been driven off the streets by Salafi-Islamist gunmen, over the course of March and April”. (p.20) However it was the Daraa events which first prompted a mass “reform movement” to take to the streets, a movement whose high point was the great 300,000 strong Hama demonstration of July 2011. The movement did not subside until it was bombed into submission in late 2013.
The Daraa story
The story of Dara is well known – in early March 2011 a group of 15 teenage boys wrote graffiti on a wall with slogans from the Arab Spring including “the people want the downfall of the regime”. They were arrested for this by the local security police, and tortured. When the families of these children met with the local security chief, Atif Najeeb, related to Assad through the Makhlouf family, they were treated contemptuously.
This led to a demonstration against the local authorities on 18 March which was attacked by the security forces who killed two protestors. On the 20th another demonstration took place in which angry protestors burnt down the offices of the Baath Party and of the Syriatel mobile phone company, owned by Rami Makhlouf, another cousin of Assad; four demonstrators were killed on this occasion. Thus began a familiar pattern which was to mark almost every city in Syria over the following months – demonstrators would protest, at first in solidarity with Daraa and over local grievances, the security forces would attack them resulting in deaths; the funerals would mobilise even larger numbers, and the cycle would begin again.
Anderson’s account of Daraa begins by citing reports from the Lebanese newspaper Ya Libnan and the Israeli Arutz Sheva of an incident alleged to have happened on Sunday 20 March in which they state that seven policemen were killed. (Anderson claims that this took place on 17-18 March and that “These police had been targeted by rooftop snipers” (p.20) although both sources state that the alleged event took place on “Sunday” (the 20th) and neither mentions “snipers”). This argument is not original it was first made in March 2011 by Michael Chossudovsky in Global Research, where he noted that reports in The Guardian and Associated Press did not mention these killings.
Any serious researcher faced with conflicting media reports would look more closely in order to try and establish factual accuracy. But that is not how things are done in the Global Research stable: they simply choose the accounts that fit their pre-determined narrative and adopt them without further inquiry.
So let’s take a closer look at their sources. Arutz Sheva provides no source nor anything to suggest it is a first-hand report and its accompanying photograph is credited to Ya Libnan, so it very likely took its information from them. That leaves us with one report – Ya Libnan – which is clear as to its source (although Anderson overlooks this):
Seven policemen were killed during clashes between the security forces and protesters in Syria, Xinhua reported … The clashes erupted Sunday between the Syrian police and protesters after two young men [were] reportedly killed by the security forces in the town. An eyewitness told Xinhua that the Syrian police had surrounded the town, to prevent people from entering it.
The obvious thing to do here would be to check the original report from the Chinese News Agency Xinhua. The 21 March report from its correspondent reads as follows:
DAMASCUS, March 21 (Xinhua) — Protests in southern Syrian city of Daraa continued on Monday, the fourth consecutive day since the demonstrations broke out on Friday.
Thousands of people were present at a funeral of a man killed on Sunday in clashes between protesters and the police, a Xinhua correspondent in Daraa said. No new casualties are registered up to now, according to the correspondent. However, the Syrian security forces still surround the town to prevent protests to spread to other parts of the country …
Angry protesters reportedly stormed government buildings in Daraa, setting fire to the ruling Al-Baath party’s headquarters, the court house and two phone company branches.
Syrian authorities accused on Monday that ‘infiltrators set fire to public and private property and shot policemen’. …
So we have here confirmation of the burning of the Baath Party offices on 20 March (Xinhua places it on the 21st but that seems to be an error), but the accusation of an unspecified number of police being” shot” (not necessarily killed) comes at second-hand from the Syrian authorities. The Xinhua reports on adjacent days add nothing to this.
At the very least, we can say that the Anderson claim is left resting on flimsy foundations.
However information that has subsequently become available demolishes this claim entirely. The database of the Violations Documentation Centre (VDC), set up by Syrian human rights activists, for many years included “regime casualties”. Anderson and his colleagues dismiss this source on spurious grounds – but in 2011 the VDC drew much of its information from announcements of the Syrian government and from a semi-official pro-government database, which is still accessible. The VDC records show that the first regime casualty in Daraa occurred on 23 March when an army Sergeant was killed, followed by the killing of a second Sergeant on the 24th.This is corroborated by the pro-regime site which gives the same information. It indicates that there were no police fatalities in Daraa, but adds a third death on the 25th that of a warrant officer, a rank usually associated with the intelligence agencies (Curiously, this is confirmed by Sharmine Narwani, who Anderson relies on elsewhere for data on regime fatalities.) So that particular building block in Anderson’s theory of an Islamist conspiracy is clearly disproven.
Let’s see what further evidence Anderson adduces to support this case. He states “The Syrian government, on the other hand, said there were unprovoked attacks on security forces, killing police and civilians, along with the burning of government offices” adding “There was foreign corroboration of this account” (my emphasis) … the British Daily Mail (2011) showed pictures of guns, AK47 rifles and hand grenades that security forces had recovered after storming the al-Omari mosque.” (p.17) And what did the Daily Mail identify as the source of these pictures? Syrian state television.
Most researchers try to “triangulate” evidence (i.e. look for at least two independent accounts to corroborate a claim) – but Anderson’s preferred geometrical figure appears to be the circle, where a favoured claim can be allowed to circumnavigate the internet and come back to corroborate itself.
As a clincher Anderson tells us “Saudi official Anwar Al-Eshki later confirmed to BBC television that arms had indeed been provided to groups within Syria, and they had stored them in the al-Omari mosque.”
This comes from an interview with BBC Arabic that is available on You Tube. Here is what Al-Eshki actually said in the interview:
Let us talk about the ongoing war in Syria. Is it an urban warfare? Is it a war between two equivalent forces? We all know that there is no balance of powers.
We saw in different occasions how to arm small groups to form a “resistance” To arm a “resistance” doesn’t necessarily mean to give them tanks or heavy weapons like what happened in Libya However you give them weapons, so they defend themselves and exhaust the army. The goal is to drive the government forces outside the cities to the villages.
Let me tell you some facts. The first fact. A man came to me at the centre from Daraa, he was injured. They all urged us to supply them with weapons. They stored weapons at that time in the Al Omari Mosque, despite the objections of the blind sheikh. That sheikh refused the idea of using force.
After that I called Riad al-Assad. He told me that about 17 000 joined him, and he wants to engage in fight with the Syrian National army.
I said ‘No’ and told him that we refuse the idea. I mean that our center refuses the idea, because our center is independent. I told him that we in the center refuse the idea. You have to leave and join the opposition outside Syria. He asked me: what opposition do you mean? I said: Join the opposition that is being sponsored and supported by Turkey. Then you will be protected by a state.
First, let’s note that there is no explicit statement by Al- Eshki that the Saudis had been arming people in Deraa. To extract that claim from the video you have to interpret his words in a particular way. What Anderson and co take as the “smoking gun” is the second paragraph which I have highlighted above. But to read it in the way they do is to look at it out of context; if you read it along with the preceding paragraph its fairly clear that Al-Eshki is talking in general terms about the nature of the Syrian conflict and how to conceptualise it (as a “resistance” – i.e. a form of guerrilla warfare). The italicised passage looks more like a description of what you would do if you were sponsoring a “resistance”, than an account of something Saudi Arabia had actually done. Let’s explore the semantics of this text a bit further: Al-Eshki says that the visitor from Daraa “urged us to supply them with weapons” – that clearly indicates that they hadn’t yet done so. Al-Eshki; also reports that the “blind sheikh” who was imam of the mosque objected to weapons being stored there. Why would someone highlight the objection of an influential figure to something they were doing or planning to do? In his conversation with Riad al-Assad Al-Eshki appears to be counselling against the premature militarisation of the struggle. That reading is also the only one consistent with Al-Eshki talking about these things publicly at this early stage.
We also have the question of timing. – for this conversation to fit in with Anderson’s argument it would have had to have taken place well before the 18 March. But there is no indication in Al-Eshki’s interview when the visit from Daraa took place, only that he contacted Riad al-Assad “after” it – a conversation that cannot have taken place until July (al-Assad did not defect until then). It seems unlikely that he would refer to two events more than four months apart in this way, so the Daraa conversation probably took place after the March events.
Finally, let’s look at what the Syrian government was doing in this period – while repressing overt expressions of opposition, it was also trying to conciliate the initiators of the protests – the heads of the Daraa’s leading families. Assad demonstratively removed his cousin from the post of local security head; dismissed the State Governor, and sent two government ministers to convey condolences to the families who had members killed by the security forces on March 18th. (The official news agency SANA even referred to them as “martyrs”) Is it likely that the Syrian government would have responded in this way if an “Islamist insurrection” was in progress?
The real world of the Daraa uprising
We don’t need to invoke some fantastic “Islamist conspiracy” to explain the events in Daraa. The city was not likely terrain for a replay of the Hama rebellion – this was not Muslim brotherhood territory but a Baath Party fief, as every serious analyst of these events has noted. Daraa is an agricultural community that benefitted from the Baath’s early agrarian reform policies, and historically there had been a large Baath membership in the province. Two of the leading figures of the regime – vice-president Farouk al-Sharaa and deputy foreign minister Faisal Mikdad come from the area. That explains why the regime thought it could neutralise the unrest with a few conciliatory phrases.
But it was also a centre that was severely affected by the 2008-09 drought that was so badly mismanaged by the Syrian government. Daraa itself was outside the immediate drought afflicted area, but its region, the Hauran, was badly affected and Daraa was one of the cities to which many devastated families had migrated.
Thus, in 2011 Daraa was not a city of Islamist conspirators but of disillusioned Baath supporters and desperate farmers. That is one reason why their anger was directed against the Baath party headquarters and the offices of Syriatel, a company owned by Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, a symbol of corruption and crony capitalism in Syria.
The boys who were arrested for their graffiti came from some of the leading Daraa families as did the first victims of state repression. Atif Najeeb, the security boss who presided over all this, was an outsider, there because of his connections to the Makhlouf family. Haian Dukhan has documented how he violated all the protocols of tribal courtesy in his handling of the matter, alienating the only people who could have kept the lid on this pressure cooker.
Daraa was a border town where people who had fallen on difficult times could make a living by smuggling – and that meant they often had a rudimentary stock of firearms; it was also an area where tribal identities and clan-based loyalties played an important role. Once the killing started, blood obligations kicked in, among a people who had the means to respond at hand and did so.
As Dukhan explains, “The central element in tribal formation is the establishment of kinship groups. Each member of the group is responsible for each and every other member … When attacked, group members are obliged to unite to defend themselves; when members sustain injury or loss, group members unite to gain compensation or seek vengeance.”
For that reason Daraa did see incidents of armed retaliation against the security forces earlier than other parts of the country, starting on 23 March, by which point 12 local residents had been killed by the security forces. Daraa was the first place to rise against the Assad regime, and the first where some individuals took up arms, not because of any Islamist influence, but because the regime had simply chosen the wrong people to humiliate and kill.
Tim Anderson as Academic
Anderson likes to present his work as that of an academic – he includes his Syria book in his University profile and he furnishes his text with a seeming academic apparatus of footnotes and references. But the way he treats his sources is singularly un-academic. He employs three principal methods to deal with the existing academic literature on Syria (and other sources).
The first striking thing about Anderson’s work is that it makes virtually no engagement with the work of academic Syria specialists. He references academic researchers rarely and then in very strange ways. Thus Reinoud Leender’s detailed studies of Daraa are ignored, despite the fact that they deal with one of Anderson’s principal themes. Ray Hinnebusch’s important 2012 paper “Syria: from authoritarian upgrading to revolution?”’ is cited -but only as a source for statistics on the development of electricity supply! Another paper of Hinnebusch’s is included in the references list but not mentioned in the text. Volker Perthes’ paper Syria under Bashar al-Asad: Modernisation and the Limits of Change is dropped into the references list but also not referred to in the text, despite it addressing one of Anderson’s main topics.
The seminal work of Hanna Batatu on the Baathist regime, Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics is passed over, although a paper of Batatu’s on the Muslim Brotherhood is included (see below for the way that is treated).
Anderson quotes highly selectively from his sources, to avoid anything that would conflict with his narrative Here are a few examples:
Anderson p. 45 “…according to Batatu, it was never the religious beliefs of the Sunnis which were under threat from the Ba’athists, but rather that ‘the social interests of the upper and middle elements of their landed, mercantile and manufacturing classes’ saw advantage in the Brotherhood (Batatu 1982: 13).
But a few pages later Batatu (1982: 20) has this to say about the background to the 1980s political turmoil: “Even more aggravating was the intervention of the Syrian regime against the Palestinians in the Lebanese conflict: at one point, in 1976, the Syrian units pinned down the main Palestinian forces in the mountains, allowing the Maronite Phalange to destroy completely the camp of Tal az-Za’tar with considerable loss of life. Since 1917, no regime in Syria, whatever its coloring, had taken an anti-Palestinian stand. It was a policy without precedent, and shocked and alienated wide segments of Syrian opinion.” (Batatu 1982: 20
Anderson p.37 “Nir Rosen wrote of ‘dead opposition fighters … described as innocent civilians killed by security forces’ (Rosen 2012).”
Rosen (2012): “Many of those reported killed are in fact dead opposition fighters, but the cause of their death is hidden and they are described in reports as innocent civilians killed by security forces, as if they were all merely protesting or sitting in their homes. Of course, those deaths still happen regularly as well.” (my emphasis)
Rosen is good enough for him here but he goes elsewhere to a hearsay source to deny that deserting soldiers were being killed, while this is what. Rosen had to say about it:
Meanwhile, Sunni members of the army are coming under increasing suspicion by the security agencies, and there have been cases of security men killing soldiers for refusing to obey orders to shoot. Hundreds of soldiers and officers have also been arrested.
Anderson on occasion resorts to totally misrepresenting his sources, as this example demonstrates:
Anderson p.20: “The United Nations … estimated from several sources that, by early 2012, there were more than 5,000 casualties, and that deaths in the first year of conflict included 478 police and 2,091 from the military and security forces (OHCHR 2012:2; Narwani 2014). That is, more than half the casualties in the first year were those of the Syrian security forces. That independent calculation was not reflected in western media reports.” (my emphasis).
However on consulting the UN Report Anderson references we find the following
The Commission also received from the Government lists of victims from the ranks of police, military and security forces. According to these lists, a total of 478 police officers and 2,091 individuals from the military and security forces were killed between 29 March 2011 and 20 March 2012. Without access to the Syrian Arab Republic, the Commission is not in a position to confirm these figures. (emphasis added)
Anderson is, of course, perfectly entitled to disagree with every academic Syria specialist on the planet, but it’s a strange sort of “academic” who simply ignores everyone else in the community which he is claiming membership of. And an even stranger sort that uses these methods of cherry-picking and misrepresenting sources.
What Anderson displays above all else in this work is contempt for his readers, assuming that they are either too stupid, too lazy, or too naïve to check his sources and references. Anyone who does so quickly realises that the person they are dealing with is not a serious analyst but a snake-oil salesman in academic regalia.
References (taken from Anderson)
- Batatu, Hanna (1982) “Syria’s Muslim Brethren”, MERIP Reports, Middle East Research and Information project (MERIP), No 110, “Syria’s troubles”, Nov-Dec.
- OHCHR (2012) ‘Periodic Update’, 24 may, online: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/CoISyria/PeriodicUpdate24May2012.pdf
- Rosen, Nir (2012) ‘Q&A: Nir Rosen on Syria’s armed opposition’, Al Jazeera, 13 Feb,: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2012/02/201221315020166516.html