When the Arab Spring came to the Middle East ten years ago, most on the left welcomed the protests, except in Libya and Syria largely out of geopolitical concerns. If the world was made up of opposing camps, you had to support Washington’s enemies even if their secret police were torturers and their governments little more than family dynasties. Libya was far more up-front about being the wholly-owned property of the Gaddafi clan but didn’t Syria have elections? Most notably, you can find references to Bashar al-Assad being re-elected to President in 2014 with close to 90 percent of the vote, a seeming anomaly given the depth of the civil war.
It turns out that he did even better in 2007, when he got 97.29 of the vote, a total redolent of Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman’s studies of demonstration elections. But you had to avoid making such a charge since you didn’t want Assad to be mistaken with José Napoleón Duarte’s victory in El Salvador in 1984. He got 54 percent of the vote but—who knows—maybe Assad deserved such overwhelming support. Yes, it’s true that it wasn’t exactly an election but a referendum on whether he should take over for his father after Hafez’s death that year. With word of posters being plastered on Damascus’s walls and songs blaring from cars and loudspeakers “We love you”, who could deny his popularity? Of course, anybody caught writing graffiti on the walls denouncing such a rigged election might end up hanging upside down in a police station and beaten for hours. That would the norm in 2011, when Syrians lost their fear.
Between 2007 and 2011, not much attention was paid to Syria. For many, the charms of the country were irresistible. Visits to Damascus and Aleppo were a perfect alternative to the usual resort spots. What could be more fun than strolling through the bazaars in search of cheap rugs? Even after the country had been torn apart by civil war, you could always count on Vanessa Beeley and Max Blumenthal to report back on the glories of the nightlife and their favorite hotels.