Elizabeth Tsurkov on the failings of Syria’s “rebels”

Elizabeth Tsurkov is a young Research Associate with the West Jerusalem-based “Forum for Regional Thinking”, who has published several articles and hundreds of tweets over the past two to three years that were all strongly supportive of the anti-government forces in Syria. All the more notable, then, that on July 10, FORTH (as it is known) published a lengthy article in which Tsurkov reported that disaffection and hatred toward the leaders of the rebel factions and all associated with them is widespread among the ordinary Syrian residents of the dwindling number of rebel-held zones.

Tsurkov also highlights the fact that most “international” reporting of the situation (including popular attitudes) inside the rebel-held zones is deeply flawed because,

reporters for international media outlets have rarely ventured into these regions. Even when they do, they are heavily reliant on local fixers who are supporters of the revolution and motivated by the desire to highlight the atrocities perpetrated by the regime and its allies against the population…

Most Syrian opposition media outlets and media activists in rebel-held territories do not strive to offer objective reporting and see themselves as part of the revolutionary struggle against Assad…

Another factor that has reduced coverage of discontent among civilians toward the rebels is journalists’ fear of reporting and civilians fear of complaining about rebel abuses and corruption, as journalists and civilians who have done so have been threatened, attacked, kidnapped and tortured by rebels.

By contrast, she writes that in her past 17 months of investigations (which she describes as “research”), she

made an effort to seek out unemployed, impoverished Syrians, without connections to rebel factions, media outlets or activist collectives, while also relying on traditional sources such as interviews with rebels, NGO workers and media activists, as well as monitoring conversations and posts of Syrians online. The names of all interviewees were changed for their safety.

She had, she wrote, conducted all the interviews she did with people inside Syria via various messaging apps.

There are some problems with her investigative methods– including the basic ethical problem of a Research Associate at a very Israeli institution conducting “remote”, vox-pop interviews with citizens of a country that is in a long-unresolved state of war with Israel, and some of whose key territory remains under Israeli occupation 51 years after 1967. But still, Tsurkov’s report contains some intriguing information and a first attempt to explain the attitudes she uncovers that does a lot to counter the views so widespread among Western publics (as inculcated by many years of deeply flawed “reporting” by the Western corporate media) about the strength of the popular support allegedly enjoyed by the various rebel leaderships and the depth of the antipathy most Syrian citizens allegedly have toward their country’s government.

The evidence she adduces about the hatred that many Syrian citizens have toward the rebel leaders is fragmentary but intriguing. A couple of little examples:

Hossam, a medical worker in Daraa told me “most civilians here hate the rebels”, due to abuses against civilians, in particular kidnappings for ransom and of people who voice opposition to them. Raed, an activist in western Aleppo said that rebels kidnap “anyone who disagrees with them or says anything bad about them, civilian or rebel.”

In fact, the “native informants” whose views she recounts seem uniformly critical of the various rebel factions, along with the media organs and other NGO’s associated with them, and the outside powers whose flows of aid allow the rebel factions to survive and to continue to conduct their oppressive and parasitical rule over the populations under their control. Not a single one of the twenty or so anonymized individuals whose views she reports says anything to excuse or explain the actions of the rebel leaders. That is pretty stunning, given how strongly her previous writings had been in their support of the anti-government movement. But as she wrote in this latest report, “Interviews I have conducted online with civilians inside rebel-held Syria throughout the war indicate that the level of dissatisfaction [with the rebels] has only grown in 2017 and 2018.” (My emphasis.)

Built around the richly suggestive (but still fragmentary) tapestry of anonymized vox-pop quotes in Tsurkov’s report she produces some still preliminary attempts to analyze and explain her findings. At one point she writes:

Some failings of local governance can be attributed to regime bombings and policies, mismanagement, lack of funding for aid and services. Many other problems stem from corruption, nepotism and wanton disregard for the lives of civilians.

This formulation makes it seem as if she is willing to start considering that the rebels’ own failings are at least as much to blame for the popular disaffection as are the admittedly harsh effects of the government’s military actions, if not more so. To me, that is intriguing– especially, coming from her.

Back in late Spring 2011, I was one of the very few people in Washington DC who knew something about Syria who argued publicly that support for the Syrian government was much more widespread among the Syrian public than was support for the anti-government forces, and that this situation was therefore very different from that obtaining in Tunisia or Egypt, which had both seen the recent overthrow of their leaders by nonviolent mass movements. The presentation I gave at DC’s Middle East Institute in May 2011 starts at 4:18 in this partial video of the event, and continues into this segment. In November 2011, I gave this presentation on the topic at the Turkish-American think-tank, SETA.

My voice in the US national discourse on Syria speedily got drowned out by other voices that (unlike mine) were always heavily funded and supported by interested outside parties. A veritable tsunami of GCC funding flooded into the Washington DC think-tanks, always strongly insistent that the views on Syria only of dedicated anti-government analysts would be supported and promoted. The Middle East Institute was just one of those places, along with many others. SETA, of course, always had close ties with the Turkish government. I was never invited back to speak on Syria at either place and neither as far as I know was anyone else who dared to question the strong anti-Asad bias of the funders.

If the tsunami of GCC and Turkish funding was enough to stifle reasonable discussion in Washington DC, then of course those same streams of funding (and weapons), as well as those that speedily came along from Washington itself, had a far more catastrophic effect within Syria itself– both in creating and fueling the armed opposition movement that has kept the country mired in terrible civil war for the past seven years and in stifling any discussion of the shortcomings of the anti-Asad movements and leaders.

But now at last, as numerous centers of previous “rebel” control have surrendered back to the government, the voices of the Syrian people long held under the iron fist of the foreign-funded “rebels” are starting to emerge back into the global discourse. This has certainly started to happen in the areas where the government has regained control, through the reporting of Vanessa Beeley, Eva Bartlett, Robert Fisk, and others; though it remains deeply shocking, the extent to which these people’s on-the-ground reports from inside Syria are still pooh-poohed and demeaned by the overlords in the global discourse-policing business, who deride these people as misguided “Asad-lovers” or whatever.

So what will the global discourse policers say now, about Elizabeth Tsurkov’s latest article, which reports on the rebel-critical attitudes of many people who remain in the areas controlled by the rebels, and which comes from someone with a long and well-demonstrated sympathy for the rebels? Let us wait and see…