Foreign fantasies and Syria

“So many foreign fighters have joined the Syrian insurgency that one wonders if their [sic] is role left for any indigenous Syrian insurgent,” writes “Bernhard” at Moon of Alabama today. To back up this “observation”, he cites nine news reports each referring to the presence of several hundred (or less) foreigners fighting in Syria.

A report last month from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation based at King’s College London acknowledged that there was “no ‘true census’ of foreign fighters” but nevertheless attempted an empirical analysis “based on more than 450 sources in the Western and Arab media as well as the martyrdom notices that have been posted in jihadist online forums.”

The report stated:

The Syrian government has — at various times and for different reasons — claimed that many fighters that are involved in the current conflict are foreigners. Our numbers do not support this assertion.

Even when juxtaposing the most liberal estimate for the number of foreign fighters over the course of the entire conflict (5,500) with the most conservative estimate for the current size of rebel forces (60,000), foreigners would represent less than 10 per cent. The actual figure is likely to be lower.

An empirical analysis based on hundreds of news reports along with other sources has its limitations, but it should carry a bit more weight than the anti-imperialist posturing of a blogger who is doing nothing more than cherry-picking news snippets that appear to reinforce his longstanding opinions.

As has long been clear however, there is a sector of the blogosphere in which statements like the one I cited at the top are regarded as authoritative — an illustration perhaps of the strange melding of skepticism and naivety that leads some people to disbelieve virtually any piece of information that emanates from Western official or mainstream sources, yet discard any semblance of critical analysis when appraising statements coming from alternative sources. Self-appointed “truth-tellers” have an uncanny ability to acquire devoted followers.

In an interview published in the Argentine daily Clarin, Bashar al-Assad reiterates his government’s longstanding claim that Syria is under attack from terrorists and foreigners.

Multiple internal and external elements have contributed to the crisis, outside intervention being the most important factor. At the same time, the calculations made by the countries that have wanted to intervene were erroneous. Those states thought that the plan could end in weeks or months, but this did not take place. Instead, the Syrian people have resisted and we continue to do so. For us, it is about defending our homeland.

Do you know that, according to the UN, this war has already caused more than 70,000 deaths?

You would have to ask those who raise these figures about the credibility of their sources. Every death is horrible, but many of the dead they speak of are foreigners who came here to kill the Syrian people. We cannot omit that there are also many Syrians who have gone missing. What is the number of Syrian deaths and what is the number of foreign ones? How many missing persons are there? We cannot give a precise figure. Of course, this constantly changes since the terrorists kill and sometimes bury their victims in mass graves.

Do you dismiss the possibility that your troops may have used excessive, disproportionate force in the repression?

How could one determine whether or not there has been excessive force? What is the formula? It is not very objective to speak of that. One reacts according to the type of terrorism one faces. At the beginning, the terrorism was local and then it came from the outside, which led to the sophistication of the weapons they brought. The debate here is not about the amount of force employed or the type of weaponry. It is about the amount of terrorism that we suffer and the resulting duty to respond.

This is the legacy of the war on terrorism. On one side we find tyrants and authoritarian governments who gladly redeploy the American narrative on the necessity of combating terrorism. And in parallel among some of the opponents of war and imperialism, the preferred way of tarring Assad’s critics is to suggest that they are fostering terrorism. “Terrorism” as an ill-defined phenomenon has become an all-purpose tool that can be used to further political agendas on both the right and the left.

The effect of ideas that bounce around unquestioned inside an echo chamber is that they simply reinforce beliefs within a community of faith. The sense of solidarity this engenders then serves as a substitute for individual critical analysis. The word of those promoting the gospel (whatever that gospel might be) is treated as authoritative not because it stands up against challenges, but because it’s easier to rely on a trusted source than it is to think, do research, and refine ones own critical faculties.

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