Adnan Hadad joined the Syrian revolution because he wanted to live freely in his own country. He’s now an exile in Paris. He understands what Ukrainians are now experiencing—and how much worse it can get—in a way most people can’t. Claire Berlinski spoke to him about Syria, Ukraine, Putin, Obama, Biden, red lines, US foreign policy, and how the world decides what it cares about.
Claire: Based on your experience, tell me your thoughts about Biden’s strategy—do you really think he’s just hoping to bleed Russia as much as possible without actually saving Ukraine? If so, are Ukrainians fighting a hopeless cause?
Adnan: Yes, I truly think that Biden Administration has no viable strategy for ensuring Ukrainians win against the Russian war machine. If they do, at least, it won’t be because of the support they’re getting from the US.
Claire: The difference in the military support is pretty significant, though.
Adnan: Yes, the US is definitely providing much more military support to the Ukrainian army, both in quality and quantity, than Obama sent to the moderate Syrian rebels. Remember Obama’s words, “We are sending the Syrian opposition non-lethal aid?” It wasn’t completely non-lethal, but it was nowhere near what Russia or Iran was sending Assad. In short, the US’s Syria strategy was heavily focused on humanitarian and civil society development aid—which was just enough to taint the Syrian revolutionaries as western agents who were fighting on behalf of America and “Israel.” So that made it legitimate to target us. It wasn’t just Assad who thought so, either—the so-called “anti-imperialist” activists kept spamming us on Twitter for the same reason. (They were only against American imperialism: Russian imperialism didn’t bother them.) The assistance also gave the Russians and Assad a continuously replenished bank of targets to hit, schools, hospitals, media centers, refugee camps, you name it. Since we were unable to shoot down these jet fighters, it was more sensible to evacuate those cities than to fight an endless war that we were doomed to lose at an unbearably high cost to civilians.
Claire: Your experience shows that the good guys don’t always win, no matter how just their cause. In retrospect, when do you think Syrian revolutionaries should have given up? What advice would you give Ukrainians based on that experience? You don’t have to give them a definitive answer. In fact, it’s best if you don’t, because there’s no right answer; there can’t be. I’m just curious to know what you think when you reflect on the question and your own experience.
Adnan: My advice to the Ukrainians is this: Cooperate with the West and take those weapons and aid because you need it, but never fall under the delusion that the West is doing this to defeat the Russians. You may have everybody’s eyes and ears in Western capitals right now, but soon people will get used to horrible news from Ukraine. It just becomes normal news. Don’t lay down your weapons if you want to fight for your dignity and country, but never count on any external help to liberate your land. That help will run dry when their interests are no longer aligned with supporting your resistance. You have to prepare for the worst-case scenario—being left alone to face your own destiny. Seeing your cities turned into rubble and your people enslaved by your enemy. Becoming refugees in a foreign land, living among people you thought would care about you forever, but didn’t. Be prepared to be blamed for your own death and destruction if at some point you refuse to surrender. Your lives might be worth more than Syrian lives, but they’re definitely not worth more than Western lives, let alone the risk of a nuclear confrontation with Putin and his generals. Resist because there’s dignity in the act of resistance, even if you know you’ll lose. Resist because you don’t want history to remember that you gave up on your country and your future without a fight. But don’t resist because you think someday the world will hear you. This world is deaf!
Claire: What will happen, do you think, if Russia wins? What would happen if NATO got (more) involved?
Adnan: I wish with all my heart to be wrong, but I think, inevitably, Russia is going to win this war. At a very high price, but yes. The Ukrainian resistance is strong and could survive for a few more years, especially if their equipment keeps getting replaced by the Western powers. I don’t know what the end game is for Putin, but it’s clear that Ukraine is not where he plans to stop. He’s a bully, and bullies don’t stop bullying just because someone tells them to. After Ukraine, he’ll cross more lines and inflict more pain, mostly on non-NATO, non-nuclear allies of the US and the EU. His message will be clear: The US can’t protect you anymore. The Gulf monarchies, at least, have understood this message clearly. They know they could be next. After all, they’re rich; they don’t have nuclear weapons; they’re allied with the West; and they barely have any armies with which they can defend themselves.
Ultimately, despite my criticism of their shameful human rights records, I think the way they’re trying to play this down the middle is very smart. The US is no longer a reliable partner, especially to the non-NATO countries. They can do very little if Russia or China decides to seize a country that they know the US won’t defend. And there will be another country after Ukraine, for sure. NATO almost certainly won’t get involved. It’s about time for the US to realize this and admit they’re helpless outside of the NATO zone. They should either expand that NATO umbrella to all their allies or be realistic and honest enough to say, “Sorry, we can’t defend you anymore.”
Claire: The Red Line moment in Syria … we were talking about that the other day, in that café, you described the way the mood changed, the way people became so desperate in the wake of Obama’s announcement that he wasn’t going to go through with it that they joined the jihadis …
Adnan: I was in Aleppo the day it happened. I remember there was relative calm on all fronts for a day or two following the chemical attack. Everyone was watching those horrible images in disbelief. It was as if everyone, including Assad’s soldiers and supporters, knew American involvement was imminent. Obama’s message about chemical weapons had been as clear as daylight. And sure enough, in the days following the chemical attack on Ghouta, we saw American warships being repositioned to attack Syria. It was just a matter of time and logistics, we thought, before the wrath of the US military was unleashed on Assad’s killing machine.
Then Obama gave that infamously catastrophic speech calling it off.
Immediately after the speech, the fighting resumed at an unprecedented pace. Assad’s gamble had paid off. Now he was emboldened. It’s important to stress that Assad wouldn’t have made such a dangerous bet if he hadn’t been desperate: At that point, it looked as if the rebels could infiltrate Damascus in a matter of weeks. The moderate rebels, back then, were by far more numerous than the Islamic fundamentalists.
But not for long. People suddenly understood that their lives were literally worth nothing to the entire world. Any hope of help from outside suddenly looked like not just an illusion but stupidity. The desperation we all felt that day was exactly what the Islamists had been waiting for to ramp up recruitment. I remember how they did it. “You still want freedom and democracy? How about blood and revenge on everyone who killed your children? How about abandoning them all and joining the group willing to give you your revenge?” I witnessed, with my own eyes, the way the recruitment centers suddenly started buzzing with lines of people who were joining not because they believed in bringing back the Caliphate, but to take revenge, and not just on Assad, but on the whole world who watched their children being gassed and did nothing.
Claire: I get the sense that people still don’t understand this.
Adnan. Yes. Years later, I met a US Marine officer who at the time had been posted to a warship that was ready to receive the orders to attack Syria. I don’t think he’d met many Syrians before. But we’d been drinking and smoking together, and having a good time, and then he said to me, in an apologetic tone, “I was about to hit your country, man. I’m so sorry.”
I said—without any hesitation—“I wish you had.”
He was shocked. He said, “Why would you say that?”
I told him, “It’s more complicated than you think,” and I explained how destroying an army like Assad’s is the only moral thing to do, given the nature of the genocide it was carrying out. That soldier—and most US soldiers—will probably continue to see their involvement in other countries as useless. I don’t blame them. No one ever educated them about how allowing these international norms to be violated has such devastating effect on the whole world, including their own. And to that end, Russia understood where to twist the knife, and very deep. They have every incentive to use WMDs in their future wars. After all, why not? They are effective, deadly, scary, and they can be used with no more consequences than conventional weapons, thanks to Mr. Obama.
Claire: I’ll never forgive him for that. But because he was followed by Trump—and because that was such an insane horror show—the world really hasn’t had to confront Obama’s foreign policy legacy. It’s never received the scrutiny it deserves. The damage he did was incalculable. But we’ll get back to that—for now let me change the subject back to Ukraine. Based on what you experienced in Aleppo, what do you understand about what Ukrainians are experiencing now, things that other people might not understand?
Adnan: What I understand is what I understand about any people who find themselves trapped like that. They almost know that they’ll lose, but they can’t give up fighting for their beloved cities. You don’t need to be blond with blue eyes to love the place to which you feel you belong. When I saw those images from Mariupol and Kharkhiv, it was déja vu. Different year, different city, same murderer. The same people, the same love for their country, the same motivation to defend everything they love from being taken away from them forever. The same desperation that they might not have a chance to live another day. The same tactics. The same ghastly weapons. Even the same statements issued from Western capitals by politicians who are talking like reporters, or news columnists, instead of statesmen in charge of preventing a fragile world order from collapsing.
Claire: Are you saying, maybe, that you want to tell Ukrainians that this is going to get worse, and that in your experience, there’s no guarantee that the US or the world will get involved, not even if Russia uses weapons of mass destruction?
Adnan: Maybe. I still struggle with giving a damn about anything in the world after seeing my part of that world burned down so savagely. I keep asking myself, “Why should we care about other people when they didn’t care about us?” Of course, I hold no grudge, but it’s hard for me to empathize with people who didn’t even know what happened to Aleppo.
The scars and trauma that Ukrainians will feel as they see their cities fall, one after another, that will be with them for years. They’ll view the whole world through that trauma. It will feel as if the only way they can move on is to see the Russian army and Putin pay the price for what they did, at last. Until that day comes, those scars will be the one thing they can hold on to—the only shred of their identity left, the only way to remember who they are.
Claire: When you see the difference between the way the West responded to Syria and the way it’s responding to Ukraine, how do you understand it? Is it as simple as “ethnocentrism?” Or maybe it’s that Zelensky is such a good leader with such a gift for communication? Or maybe it feels closer to Europe? But if that’s why, why does the US care so much more—they’re equally distant from Syria and Ukraine, after all. Is it just because people feel that war is natural in the Middle East but not in Europe? Or maybe it’s because Russian propaganda was more effective before people began to get savvier about it? Or was it because ISIS muddied the waters so badly?
Adnan: I guess it’s a combination of all of that. The fact that Ukraine has a strong and charismatic leader. It’s a democracy. People are more aligned with “western values.” And of course they have the same skin and eye color. That makes it harder to ignore. It’s not that the Syrian cry for freedom wasn’t loud enough. But somehow the Ukrainian plight is easier to understand and identify with.
It’s important to see how our world is so deeply divided across those lines. Seeing that won’t save the Ukrainians, but it makes it easier to predict how people will pick and choose the causes they want to support and why. I blame part of that, if not all of it, on the mass media—including outlets to which I contributed when they were covering Syria, like CNN, BBC, and The New York Times, to mention a few. Valuing human life equally? Nice words, but these outlets were so explicit about valuing Western lives above all other human life. You could see it in the way they even stopped reporting terrorist attacks on civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan unless a Western civilian or soldier was killed. After years of covering the news that way, why wouldn’t you expect your readers to believe, if only unconsciously, that there’s a hierarchy of importance in human life? And if you believe that, it’s not hard to believe that some people are just inferior and destined to die in endless wars, so why even pay attention.
Claire: I’ve been astonished, since the war began in Ukraine, to discover how many people have no idea that every bit of it—every horror they’re seeing—the leveled buildings, the destroyed cities, the hospitals flattened, on purpose; the mass graves, the lies—happened first in Syria. You know, I asked about this on Twitter the other day, because I was so struck by it. I wrote, “I don’t want to judge. I just want to know if you were aware of this, because I think the media really failed people here.” So many people replied to say they hadn’t been aware of it. And amazingly, at least half a dozen people told me they only knew there had been a war in Syria at all because journalists kept saying that what was happening in Ukraine reminded them of what happened in Syria!
And you’ve told me amazing stories of things people have said to you when you’ve told them you’re Syrian, things that suggest they had and have no idea what that means. I’m baffled by this. Maybe I was more aware of it because I was in Turkey and Turkey is closer to Syria, so when the refugees began flowing across the border I was meeting them, talking to them—but I don’t think that’s all of it. The way people are reacting to the horror in Ukraine is the way I expected them to react to the horror in Syria—but they didn’t. What was it, exactly, that allowed people to ignore that conflict?
Adnan: I really don’t know, and I don’t think I’m the best person to answer this question. Maybe social scientists can tell us more. But my best guess is that people only care about people and places they know or can identify with. If you have a friend in Ukraine trying to survive this war, it’s hard to ignore that war altogether. You also have no excuse to say “Well, I don’t know which side is the right side. I don’t trust the media.” It is easy to dismiss other people’s suffering when you convince yourself that whatever you’re hearing about didn’t even happen and it’s all media hype. It’s much harder to do that when your friend tells you that it’s all true.
People want to convince themselves that they have no dog in this fight, no reason to try to stop it. It’s much more comfortable that way. Then you can ignore it and go on with your life. Dictators have always understood this, and they know exactly how to distort the facts just enough to give people the excuse they’re looking for not to care.
Claire: Do you think that will happen with Ukraine? Will people become bored with the suffering and lose interest in helping them, or helping the refugees from the conflict? Will they get used to the idea that Ukraine is just one of those places where you expect people to die? What advice would you give Ukrainians about this?
Adnan: Eventually, yes, but I think it will be a bit longer and much more painful. If you’ve convinced yourself that people in the Middle East deserve to die because of whatever propaganda you believed—they’re savages, uncivilized, fundamentalists—all of that bullshit is now staring you in the face. Westerners forget so easily that they also went through periods of extreme instability, famine, the Dark Ages, poverty, endless and vicious wars, religious fanaticism. It’s so easy to see yourself superior, the pinnacle of civilization, when in truth you were just lucky enough to be born in a country going through a stable phase. It’s harder to admit that wars can happen to people even when they try everything to avoid them. Sometimes it’s your geographic location, your wealth (your oil, for example), the nature of the regime that’s holding on to power, or just bad luck and miscalculation that drags your country into a bloody war. Does that make you less civilized? Less worthy of living? Again, this brings us back to how the media frames these stories and decides which victims deserve death and destruction. Malcom X once said, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
Claire: Well, these days the newspapers are pretty clear about who’s being oppressed and who’s doing the oppressing—unless you’re reading Russian newspapers. But again, the part of this story I don’t get is where this sentiment was when Russia was levelling Syria. And still is. You’ve told me that when you explain this to people now, they tell you how sorry they are that they didn’t understand or do anything to help. What do you feel when they say that?
Adnan: Honestly, I have mixed feelings. People should care about one another, and they should feel responsible for their action or inaction. But part of me wants to scream, “What was so hard to understand? Why is it so different all of a sudden when it’s Ukraine? What makes you think that we wouldn’t love our people and our country so much that we’d be willing to fight back when we were attacked, too?”
But at the same time, I want to believe people will finally get it, how connected our world is, how when something like that, something so grave, happens in one part of the world, eventually it will affect us all, no matter where we are. In some ways the reactions to what’s happening in Ukraine suggest that, but I still don’t see enough evidence it will really make people think differently, long term. Probably, it’s just a matter of time until people move on as if nothing has happened.
Claire: At least people in the West mostly believe what Ukrainians are telling them, this time (although there are some disgusting and ignominious exceptions.) What was it like, in Syria, when these things happened right in front of you, but people wouldn’t believe you, even when you were an eyewitness; or they’d say things like “Who knows who to believe,” or “Who can tell what really happened?” That was an essential aspect of Russia’s propaganda strategy—the so-called firehood of falsehood, which we discussed the other day in this podcast. I think—or I hope, really—that people are becoming more aware of it, because they seem to me a lot less likely to believe that Ukrainians are killing their own kids to make Russia look bad than they were to believe Syrians were gassing themselves with chemical weapons to make Assad look bad. I remember that people actually did say that, though. What advice would you give Ukrainians about this? About combatting Russian propaganda and the “How do we really know this is true” phenomenon?”
Adnan: That was one of the hardest things about going through what happened in Syria. The world’s denial that it had happened at all. You put your life at risk to report the story, to show that you’ve been the victim of heinous war crimes, outrageous human rights violations—then some dude living in his grandmother’s garage starts questioing you on Twitter with recycled Russian propaganda talking points. You can’t help but feel angry and frustrated. I even got to the point where I stopped working with foreign journalists because there was no point to it. You’re either broaching the same subject with people who already believe what you’re saying but can’t do much to help, or you’re talking to people who think you’re some kind of lab-created Western propaganda tool.
For Russia, Syria was a laboratory for dirty tricks—not just a place to field test weapons, but a way to test the effectiveness of their propaganda strategies. Putin and his regime mastered exploiting the free speech environment of Western social media to inject doubt about anything and everything. They figured out that you don’t actually have to have a consistent narrative to counter the truth; all you need to do is create confusion about the facts, so people who aren’t news savvy don’t know what to think.
Claire: Peter Pomerantsev wrote a terrific book about this—everyone should read it. It’s called Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. This strategy, the one you just described, is very much a strategy. They thought it out. The object is to get people to exactly that point—the point where they think, “Nothing is true, and everything is possible, and there’s no way to know, so why bother.”
Adnan: What’s remarkable though, again, is that suddenly people seem so much more savvy about Ukraine and so much less susceptible to Russian propaganda about it. Again, why is that? What’s so different here? I don’t know, but I think answering this question is worth the effort.
Claire: Me too. And we’ll talk more about it. But let me change the subject again to go back to Obama. Again, the world isn’t appreciating as fully as it should the role of the Iran nuclear deal in Obama’s catastrophic decisions—and the role that deal is probably playing now in Biden’s.
Adnan: I don’t think there’s much debate now that this was the only guiding principle of Obama administration in foreign policy generally, and in Syria and the Middle East more specifically. In many ways, that singularity of focus made everything else seem marginal. In hindsight, was denying Iran nuclear weapons worth neglecting all of these equally—maybe more—important issues in global poltitics? I argue: Of course not. I even argue that the world might have been a better place if Iran had acquired nuclear weapons while remaining under such extreme sanctions that they had no money to wage catastrophic wars on Arab nations. After all, we’ve been living in world with a nuclear North Korea since the 1980s and they haven’t dared destabilize South Korea, let alone the rest of the world.
Obama and Kerry amplified the risk of an Iranian Bomb—that was the mother of all evils—but actually, it wasn’t. And now Iran is closer than ever to developing a nuclear weapon, which means the plan wasn’t realistic to start with. Like every major decision Obama made in foreign policy, it turned to be catastrophic and shortsighted.
To be clear, I’m not asking the US to fight wars on our behalf. Still, it’s definitely the US’s international responsibility—and brand—to ensure bad players aren’t advantaged over good ones. And yes, there are good players in the Middle East, just like there are good players everywhere. But right now, the game is rigged in favor of the bad players because no one pushed back on their war crimes and atrocities.
Rolling that back would be hard for any president, let alone the second-in-command from the Obama era. I sense that Biden, instead of admitting the shortfalls of the policy Obama pursued, is doubling down on them. He lacks the leadership and character to say, “I’m the president in my own right, and I can and will try to fix what was broken.”
Claire: It would be so much easier for him if he weren’t also the president of a country that’s gone batshit insane. How do we defend the West when our far-right and far-left are stark-staring berserk, and our country is so divided? I wonder what role social media has played in all of this. It’s the one thing I can really pinpoint as a change significant enough to account for so much political hysteria.
Adnan: The dilemma is how to balance people’s right to free speech on social media with the indisputable fact that rogue governments systematically exploit that right to spread chaos and destabilize democracy. You remember when we talked before about how the very trade routes that made Rome an unparalleled empire became their downfall when the plague spread back through those routes? The plague wasn’t the only cause of the fall of Rome, and the exploitation of the West’s free speech environment isn’t the only threat to the free world now. But it’s certainly a threat. How do we effectively fight back against that?
It turned out that we were okay with denying terrorists’ access to those platforms when ISIS was using them to recruit and incite attacks on civilians. Is the Russian regime not a terrorist regime? Is it not deliberately targeting everything a liberal order holds sacred? Is it not systematically using technologies developed by liberal democracies to undermine democracy itself? Why can’t we deny them the right to access and use this technology? Where do we draw the line?
I don’t know the answer, but I know that denying an agent of the Russian government access to Twitter isn’t the same as denying it to an ordinary Russian citizen. I think the process of getting rid of their trolls and bots has already begun, but can you imagine how many lives we could have saved if they had started doing this when they were destroying Syria? Or how many lives we could have saved if Obama had defended that red line—protecting the very fundamentals of the postwar order, an order forged with the blood of millions of innocents?
In the end, I really hope I’m wrong about many of the things I’ve speculated about here, especially about people becoming desensitized to war crimes. But you and I have both seen enough of this world to know hope isn’t a plan. It will take a lot of will, and leadership, to get us out of this situation—one where we’ll see one war after another, every time praying that none of them will escalate to a world war or a nuclear war. And while we wait for that courage and leadership to emerge, we’ll be forced to sit helplessly and watch more innocent people smashed like ants under an elephants’ legs.
Maybe it’s more moral to admit that this is the sad reality. Maybe it’s better to tell people to live without freedom and make their peace with it than it is to urge them to fight for freedom, given that so rarely does it amount to anything but sorrow and total destruction.
But then again, I’m Syrian. You’re American: You were luckier. Ukrainians may be, too—
But maybe not. The decision is theirs, and only theirs, to make. All I can tell them is that only time will tell them whether it was worth it.
Adnan Hadad is a Syrian in exile in Paris, studying at INSEAD. Claire Berlinski is the editor of the Cosmopolitan Globalist.