While the complicated Syrian conflict is best known as the focal point for one of the largest refugee populations in world history, few have a firm grasp on the roots of a war that continues to engage major powers alongside some of the planet’s most brutal rebel groups. Presenting an honest picture of that conflagration requires a nuanced exploration of colonial history and contemporary geopolitics that is unafraid to acknowledge the challenges and faults of all parties on the ground. Unfortunately, while Ottawa blogger Stephen Gowans presents some worthwhile historical background, his effort is ultimately undermined by a combination of rigid rhetoric and an analysis with roots in Cold War binaries that fails to prove convincing.
Gowans’s thesis – that Syria’s position as an “Arab secular nationalist” state committed to freedom, unity, and socialism makes it a target of Wall Street bankers – holds a certain logic, but only inside the vacuum in which he constructs his arguments. Readers who do not automatically subscribe to his worldview may feel they have to do some fact checking of their own, as Gowans cherry picks contradictory articles from a mainstream media he elsewhere dismisses as untrustworthy lackeys of the “capitalist class.”
Gowans refuses even the pretence of scholarly rigour required to give credence to his case. At one point, he disavows studies contradicting his position about the aspirations of Syrians rising up against their government; he claims to be “not aware of” the existence of such studies. From insisting that Syria under Assad is a democratic country that governs with the consent of its population to arguing that the Syrian dictatorship is a police state only inasmuch as “all states are police states to one degree or another,” Gowans’s work descends to a level of propaganda more appropriate to a street corner soapbox than an objective appraisal of a very complex situation.
Indeed, wholly missing from this study are the many Syrian voices of democratic opposition that could both colour the antecedents and beginnings of the 2011 uprising, as well as explain how resistance to the regime became so horribly fractured and riven by internecine fighting. Instead, in an unconscious nod to Orwell, Gowans relies on only one Syrian – Assad himself – to illustrate what is truthful and what constitutes propaganda.