NO! IDLIB IS NOT A ‘TERRORIST ENCLAVE’

by Sina Zekavat, Mangal Media

As Turkey and Russia step towards implementing a 15-20 kilometer "demilitarization zone" between Idlib and the surrounding regime-held areas of northern Syria, mainstream media and the forces of status quo are bent on portraying Idlib as a "terrorist enclave"—hile people inside Idlib are determined to break this false and dangerous image.

Days after the renewed aerial bombardment of Idlib by Russia and the Assad regime, the Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard called Idlib an "Al Qaeda stronghold" in a recorded video message published on her Twitter account. In the same tweet, she called Idlib an "Al-Qaeda controlled city." A week later, during a speech addressing members of the US Congress, she claimed that there are "20,000-40,000 al-Qaeda and other jihadists" in Idlib, a number that vastly exceeds those reported by the UN and even pro-regime propaganda platforms.

David Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan (and a vocal supporter of both Trump and Gabbard) has also been tweeting in support of Russian and Assad regime bombardment of Idlib. He claimed this was in order to "protect the real children of Idlib," presumably implying that those children who are targeted by the Assad-Putin aerial bombings are fake "crisis actors" and deserving of death, for the crime of misinforming the American public.

Vijay Prashad, a prominent academic in leftist circles, has joined the chorus by using dangerous and stereotypical portrayals of Idlib. In his latest article, Prashad writes that it's "intolerable to the government in Damascus to allow an enclave of al-Qaeda rebels inside the country—which is why the main battle is to be there, in Idlib." He calls the military campaign against Idlib by Assad and his allies "ugly" but "inevitable." Further normalizing this horrific scenario, Prashad ends his piece by advising everyone in Idlib to "cut a deal now before the terrible slaughter starts. This bombing is not the first salvo in the final battle but the last attempt at a negotiation."

Idlib as a space of struggle for safety and self-determination

Totally absent from the image of Idlib presented by Gabbard, Duke, Prashad and many others; is the presence of more than 3 million civilians (close to 1 million of them children according to UNICEF) trapped between Turkey's militarized border and the regime-held areas. Reportedly, 1.5 million of this population are forcefully displaced residents of Eastern Ghouta, Aleppo and other areas of Syria. These areas have been occupied by the Assad regime, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah through a barbaric campaign of aerial attack, settlement sieges, and forced displacement. But beyond this catastrophic humanitarian situation, Idlib province is also home to hundreds of resilient civil society organizations and local councils which were set up during the revolution. For the last eight years, this grassroots civil network has been at the forefront of challenging the sectarian, repressive and hegemonic politics of both the extremist Salafist groups as well as the Assad regime. As Leila Al Shami reports:

There are over 150 local councils in Idlib province, many of which have had their members democratically elected in the first such elections in over four decades of Assad rule…The existence of extremist militant groups in Idlib province is the justification given by the regime and its Russian ally for continuing their aerial assault. Yet these airstrikes, which usually target residential areas and vital civilian infrastructure, and which maim and kill men, women and children, create the chaos and despair in which extremist groups thrive.

The presence of such groups also provides the rationale for withdrawal of donor funding to civil society organizations over fears it may end up in the wrong hands. Yet the resistance to extremism comes most successfully from local communities that have strong civil society networks and, critically, where women whose rights are most under threat actively participate. A serious anti-extremism policy would require an end to the bombing of civilians and the continuation of funds and support for women’s civil society groups.

Far from an "al-Qaeda enclave," Idlib is currently the center of a complex network of competing political interests, with actors ranging from imperialist nation-states to reactionary militias and a fragile but resilient network of civil society organizations. In a recent collective statement signed by more than 20 local civil society organizations, Idlib was described as a potential "nucleus of a new Syria free from the face of tyranny and extremism."

Idlib's weekly popular anti-war rallies

Also absent from Gabbard, Duke and Prashad's image of Idlib is the popular and peaceful mass anti-war, anti-dictatorship and anti-extremism rallies that have been taking place every Friday for the past several weeks. Each rally has been organized under a specific popular slogan. The first rally on September 7 was held under the banner of #??????_???????? ("Resistance is our choice"), the second on the 14th under the slogan ‎??#??_????_??_?????_???????? ("No alternative to the fall of the regime"), and the last one on the 28th #????_?????_????_???????  ("The Assad regime is the source of all terrorism"). On two occasions the Salafist group Hay'et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has attacked the popular protests with firearms, attempting to end the rallies by dispersing the crowd—but people have remained united and responded with the slogan "This is Idlib! [Regime] thugs leave, leave, leave!"

Thousands of men and women from all ages have been joining these popular rallies with exceptionally beautiful and expressive handmade signs and banners. Many of the protest signs have been focusing on media's false portrayal of Idlib as a "terrorist enclave," the very irresponsible and reductionist image that majority of western experts and politicians from all political backgrounds have been perpetuating. "We want freedom, we are not terrorists," one signs read. "This is our land, we will not get out of it," says another. Letters of solidarity have also been exchanged between Idlib's rallies and Gaza's weekly March of Return.

Malcolm X, racialization and 'War on Terror'

It is ironic that Gabbard [1], Duke, Prashad and many others who seemingly oppose Israel's never-ending war on Palestinians (or America's never-ending wars across the MENA) cynically adopt and repeat Israel's dehumanizing and anti-Muslim discourse of "terrorist strongholds," "human shields," and the local regime's "right to self defense." These are the very terminologies which the Israeli regime has been promoting in the mainstream media to justify its own vicious bombing of schools, hospitals and markets in residential neighbourhoods of Gaza and the West Bank.

However, this lethal and weaponized media rhetoric predates Israel's systemic erasure of Palestinians. This terminology is an heirloom in the colonial arsenal. In his 1964 speech at the Oxford University Student Union, Malcolm X addressed this historic phenomenon:

[I]f you study back in history of different wars, whenever a country that's in power wants to step in unjustly and invade someone else's property, they use the press to make it appear that the area that they are about to invade is filled with savages, or filled with people who have gone berserk, or they are raping white women, molesting nuns, they use the same old tactic year in and year out… The powers that be use the press to give the devil an angelic image and give the image of the devil to the one who's really angelic. They make oppression and exploitation and war actually look like an act of humanitarianism… [T]his again comes through the manipulating of images. when they want you to think of a certain area or certain group as involved in actions of extremism, the first thing they do is project that person in the image of an extremist.

Through his anti-authoritarian observations and analysis, Malcolm X deconstructed the very mechanisms of representation that enable systematic terror and erasure against black and other communities of color, both inside and outside of the US. The "war on terror" discourse which the Assad regime and many other authoritarian states rely on today, is simply the continuation and globalization of America's mechanism of racialized representation.

The rhetorical erasure of local inhabitants and the portrayal of any geography, whether it's Idlib, Aleppo, Afrin, Gaza, Kashmir, Hodeida or Ferguson, as an "extremist enclave" (or "al-Qaeda's heartland," as Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton prefer) is the continuation of the centuries-long history of white supremacist, colonialist and imperialist representational violence. A form of violence that utilizes Islamophobia, stereotyping, racialization and homogenization in order to produce criminalized images of an entire territory and its inhabitants, in preparation for a total extermination. We can only resist such violent, reductionist and hateful images by echoing the voices of the resilient civilian communities who are struggling for collective safety, dignity and self-determination.

[1] Despite receiving funds from pro-Israel lobby groups and also endorsements from right wing pro-Israel religious figures like Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Gabbard has been trying to score extra “progressive” points by exploiting the Palestinian struggle.

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This story first appeared Sept. 24 on Mangal Media.

Photo via Freedom

From our Daily Report:

Thousands rally in Idlib as Assad offensive looms
(with comment on Max Blumenthal's sick 'humor' at the expense of besieged Syrians)
CounterVortex, Sept. 14, 2018

Assad's radical right admirers in Charlottesville
CounterVortex, Aug. 14, 2017

Bernie Sanders must drop Tulsi Gabbard!
CounterVortex, April 13, 2016

Russia bombs ISIS —not! (on Vijay Prashad)
CounterVortex, Sept. 30, 2015

From Beirut to Paris…(on 'de-civilianizing' propaganda)
CounterVortex, Nov/ 14, 2014

See also:

THE 'ANTI-IMPERIALISM' OF FOOLS
by Leila Al Shami
CounterVortex, April 2018

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Reprinted by CounterVortex, Sept. 28, 2018