The West must stop its deceptive mantra of regime change in Syria and listen to the people instead

Patrik K. Meyer says the ‘Assad must go’ mantra, and vilification of his allies, is grossly biased and hides geopolitical motives, while ignoring the fact that there is no viable alternative

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2017, 3:27pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2017, 7:10pm

From the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Western governments and mainstream news outlets have been waging a deceptive media war to remove the current regime. They say it is illegitimate and ruthless, poses a threat to both Syrians and the region as a whole, and should be replaced by the leaders of the so-called Syrian revolution, who will arguably transform Syria into a country where every voice is heard and every need addressed.

These seemingly meaningful and altruistic intentions are, however, just a cover for Western governments and their allies opposed to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, to hide their less constructive and legitimate aims.

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Even after it became clear that there was no viable alternative to the existing regime, the West escalated its attacks on the Syrian government, and their Russian and Iranian partners. It seems the Western media believes that if they keep repeating long enough that the Syrian regime is the mother of all evils, the statements will become true. Such attacks against the Assad regime are unreasonable, given that pre-2011 Syria could have been considered a moderately prosperous country, with free education and health care, and the Assad government could have been seen as reasonably legitimate.

One example of this aggressive, biased and deceitful smear campaign is the statements made by the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, accusing the Syrian regime and its allies of heinous crimes against humanity, and blaming them for all the suffering of the Syrian people. Regrettably, her statements were broadly reproduced unchallenged by news outlets and accepted as fact by the majority of Westerners.

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To explore the validity of the West’s “Assad must go” mantra, I recently travelled to Beirut and Damascus to meet both the pro- and anti-Assad camps, and, more importantly, the silent Syrian majority blatantly ignored by Western media and governments. My six years in the Middle East, including six months in the 1980s studying Islam in Damascus, provided me with sufficient context.

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In Beirut, I met young Syrian activists who had fled the country after the failed illusion of the Syrian “Arab spring”. One of the leaders of the early protests said they were mainly rallying against the rampant corruption, especially among security forces, that undermined every sphere of life in Syria, and for greater access to and transparency in the political process. More significantly, she clearly stated that they did not demand the removal of Assad.

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Another activist added that he believed the security forces infiltrated the ranks of protesters, undermined their consensus and encouraged them to turn violent, giving the security forces an excuse to dissolve the demonstrations, violently if needed. Given the turmoil that other regional governments had seen in the context of the “Arab spring”, the Syrian leadership cracked down on the protesters and restricted many constitutional rights of its citizens, such as gathering in large numbers.

A third activist recounted how protesters ended up congregating under the cover of Friday prayers in mosques, to then take to the streets. But he, too, said their central objective was not Assad’s removal, but an end to corruption and a more representative government.

Next, I spent about two weeks in Damascus talking to all kinds of people, taxi drivers and professors, from Alawites to Sunnis and Christians, and from indigenous Damascenes to the internally displaced who had come in from “rebel”-held cities. I found that, before the “Arab spring” wave, Syrians enjoyed a prosperous economy and an eclectic society where different cultures and religions coexisted relatively peacefully. A major source of dissatisfaction was corruption among the security forces but, even though many Syrians were dissatisfied with their government, most did not want Assad to step down. More importantly, most Syrians, including activists, do not see any acceptable alternative to the Assad regime. Based on partial information and biased analyses, powerful Western governments have been shamelessly ignoring the Syrian people’s will and the fact that there is no viable alternative to Assad. For five years, they have been chanting the “Assad must go” mantra, and mainstream media have been imitating and amplifying it without challenging it.

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More worryingly, Western interventions in Syria are not intended to improve its people’s lives but, rather, to modify the regional geopolitical map – even if it results in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, the suffering of millions and the destruction of their country.

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Western governments and media should reverse their biased and destructive interventionist approach, and start reporting the voices of the Syrian people and genuinely support their wishes and decisions. At least, they should stop misleading Western public opinion.

Patrik K. Meyer holds a PhD in International Studies from the University of Cambridge and currently is a visiting professor at Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta and a New America Security Fellow