Journalists Rania Khalek and Max Blumenthal were condemned for traveling to Damascus, Syria, to report on recent developments in the country.
The attacks came from a select but influential group of individuals, who resent the manner in which Khalek and Blumenthal have undermined that narrative for supporting regime change operations by Western forces and the militia groups aligned with them.
Both have been targeted before by these individuals who have forced or attempted to force the cancellation of their speaking events or render them toxic to publishers so their journalism does not reach a wider audience. This resentment is a product of an obsession that involves exaggerating their influence in order to justify a campaign that convinces people they should be viewed as pariahs.
Molly Crabapple is a New York artist and writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Guardian, CNN, and Vanity Fair. She equated their journalism to Nazi propaganda.
“This is some Goebbels shit,” Crabapple declared. “Prancing around Syria on a government luxury tour, posting tourist photos near torture centers, and mocking Syrian refugees who can never return to their country without risking being tortured to death.”
It was part of a thread on Twitter that received more than 1,900 likes and was shared over 700 times.
Referring to a photo Khalek shared on Instagram, Crabapple added, “Note that no one in this photo knows Arabic. They are traveling around with a regime driver and translator, on a regime junket. There is zero independent journalism being done, though lots of eating at swanky restaurants.”
Mariam Elba, a fact-checker and associate research editor for the Intercept, reacted, “LMAO Rania and Max are in Damascus. Neither of them speak Arabic, yet they claim to be ‘talking’ to many Syrians there. Why aren’t they disclosing who’s translating for them and helping them out?”
However, Khalek can speak Arabic. “I speak a good amount of Arabic,” Khalek told Shadowproof. “[I] still struggle a bit with some words, but I was basically their translator this whole trip.”
Khalek has lived in Lebanon for nearly three years. She suggested her Arabic has improved a lot since she moved there.
Tana Ganeva, who has been published by the Washington Post, the Intercept, Rolling Stone, and Glamour, replied to Crabapple, “Do the regime driver and translator know how irrelevant these people are? Where do they even publish at this point?”
Replying to Crabapple and Ganeva’s jokes about Khalek and Blumenthal, Maryam Saleh, an editor and reporter for the Intercept, added, “I wonder whether Verso still stands by its decision to publish Max’s Islamophobic drivel.”
Verso Books published Blumenthal’s book, The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State Fueled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump, in April. He received praise from Reza Aslan, Gabriel Byrne, Andrew Cockburn, Juan Cole, Chris Hedges, Oliver Stone, and Asa Winstanley.
The book examined how the United States funded the mujahideen in Afghanistan and drew the Soviet Union into a prolonged war then allowed these same militants to become threats to the safety and security of Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian countries. Through extensive research, it argued America’s efforts to nation-build and overthrow regimes have made the U.S. more vulnerable to terrorism and the rise of ultra-nationalism, including Islamophobia.
Clarissa Ward hyperventilated. “Started to read a certain ‘journalist’s’ thread from inside Damascus this AM, then found myself getting palpitations which progressed into spasms of rage. How can anyone be so blindly credulous? Are narcotics involved? It is such a disgrace.”
Remarkably, Ward was a CNN correspondent and subject of reporting by Blumenthal that showed she contracted Bilal Abdul Kareem to take her into “rebel-controlled territory.” Kareem was an English-language propagandist for Jabhat al Nusra, the al Qaida affiliate in Syria.
One of the photographs Khalek posted to Instagram from Saydnaya, Syria, went viral because she described what she saw as a “breathtaking view in Syria” and these people objected.
According to Khalek, Saydnaya is known to Syrians as a “historic Christian village in the mountains that has a church more than 1000 years old at the very top.” Not only is it a summer destination for Syrians but the village also “managed to protect itself from jihadists during the war with its own militia.”
Nick Waters, a senior investigator for Bellingcat, which has produced analyses of the war in Syria that promote regime change, mapped where Khalek snapped the image. In a tweet with 400-plus likes, Waters asserted she was “only a couple of degrees away from the infamous Saydnaya prison, where tens of thousands of people have been tortured and executed.”
Outrage spread immediately as these individuals contended Khalek was trying to whitewash the crimes of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime. But given how Khalek and Blumenthal frequently are labeled as “Assadists” by this faction of people, how does that allegation make any sense?
These two journalists cannot both be Assadists and be hiding a torture chamber, where prisoners are said to have been brutalized and hanged. A good Assadist would make sure it was in the photograph because they would want to send a message to the world that they will not bow to malicious propaganda spread in order to whip up opposition to the regime. So, it would seem they aren’t very good regime boosters at all.
Aside from the baseless and contradictory allegation, Blumenthal covered the 2017 Amnesty International report on the Saydnaya prison. It claimed 5,000 to 13,000 prisoners were executed, but then in a footnote it mentioned that these were “hypothetical calculations.” It actually was only able to document and confirm 375 deaths.
Even that number may be questionable. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) is a public relations operation for opposition groups in Syria. It operates out of Doha, Qatar, and it was the SNHR’s numbers that Amnesty relied upon for this non-hypothetical number.
Khalek, Blumenthal, Anya Parampil, who traveled with them, and several others were pictured at a conference for union activists. Members of U.S. Labor Against the War attended, and later, the three journalists met with people through arrangements of their own. None of this was part of any government-planned itinerary.
A broader yet similar backlash occurred in November 2016 when Khalek went to Damascus as part of a delegation of journalists that included reporters from the BBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and various other Western media outlets. There were people from think tanks as well, and they were going to cover a conference organized by the British Syrian Society, which is a nongovernmental organization that was co-founded the father of Asma al-Assad, the wife of the Syrian president.
Charles Lister, who was a lobbyist for the arming of Salafi-jihadist militants in Syria at the Qatari-funded Middle East Institute in Washington D.C., posted a copy of a program for the conference. It listed Khalek as a speaker, although she never agreed to speak at the gathering.
The Syrian government never paid for any part of the trip, but the very same people upset with Khalek and Blumenthal for going to Damascus in 2019 made Khalek toxic so that progressive media outlets were discouraged from publishing any reporting from her trip. She lost her position as a member of the editorial board of the Electronic Intifada, a website known for its coverage of the Palestinian struggle for human rights and liberation.
A few months later, this group pushed the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter at the University of North Carolina to cancel a speaking event with Khalek and subsequently the Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) group in Concordia canceled her planned appearance for Israeli Apartheid Week.
Oz Katerji, who works for the Turkish State Broadcaster, TRT World, pledged, “I will never stop fighting against Assad’s propaganda campaign, over my dead body.”
“I will never stop. Not with any of you. I will never rest while you are given platforms or publishing opportunities,” Katerji proclaimed. He maintained Khalek is “no journalist” but rather a “shill” for Assad and Iran. He described people like Khalek (including this author) as enemies of mankind and hoped God would have mercy because he had no plans to show mercy.
More than two years later, Katerji obsessively returned to the campaign he engaged in to have Khalek blacklisted.
“Pro-Assad propagandist Rania Khalek is back in Damascus today on a solidarity trip for the Assad regime from war crimes charges. She was no-platformed by SJP activists,” Katerji wrote. “In response to SJP activists no-platforming Khalek for Assadism, prominent figures signed an open letter in her defense.”
He continued, “Since then she has been employed as a propagandist by the Kremlin and doubled down on war crimes denial.” He bluntly called Khalek a “pro regime war crimes denier and propagandist for mass murder.”
Katerji listed several people who signed a letter of support for Khalek when she was blacklisted: Ali Abunimah, Max Ajl, Reza Aslan, Medea Benjamin, Noam Chomsky, George Ciccariello-Maher, Andrew Cockburn, Jonathan Cook, Lee Fang, Glenn Greenwald, Bassam Haddad, Doug Henwood, Zaid Jilani, Ken Klippenstein, Antony Loewenstein, John Pilger, Vijay Prashad, and Corey Robin.
While Katerji may not be as influential as Lister or Crabapple, his relentless zeal is effective in stirring animosity on social media through deliberate efforts to slander people who depart from the political narratives for U.S. foreign policy that he supports.
Katerji and others were part of an effort to cancel an event for Blumenthal’s book, Management of Savagery, that was to be held at the Politics and Prose bookstore in D.C. in April.
Many of the outlandish gripes from this faction were incorporated into a scurrilous article from the Jerusalem Post staff about Blumenthal. It was filed under “anti-Semitism” and published while he was in Damascus.
Altogether, these campaigns to silence Blumenthal, Khalek, and others have a cumulative impact. They discourage anyone from traveling to Syria to spend money and resources on reporting that may not bolster the agenda for intervention.
Khalek was forced out of regular work in U.S. progressive media and now works for a project called In The Now that openly is funded by Russian state media. Blumenthal independently operates The Grayzone and no longer enjoys the same level of support from progressives that he did a few years ago.
“It is wrong for Westerners to reduce Syria, which is home to some of the oldest cities in the world, to one man,” Khalek argued. “Syria is not Assad. Syria is a historically and culturally rich country of millions who are completely erased by these regime change lobbyists who want to enforce a journalistic siege on the country to prevent Americans from seeing the reality of Syria.”
Khalek maintained, “All the bullying and intimidation is meant to stifle attempts at reporting the reality of the government areas where the overwhelming majority of Syrians live. If Americans saw the reality, the regime change narrative would collapse right away.”
“Journalists should do what they can to report from all areas. That’s a part of the job. But for some reason, they don’t want anyone to report from government areas,” Khalek concluded.
Blumenthal pointed out that the correspondents from the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as D.C. think tanks, are able to have a great time in Damascus and return home to push for the country’s “continued destabilization.” They can access Syria like anyone else would by getting government visas and face little condemnation because nobody questions their ideological commitment to the broader U.S. foreign policy agenda.
Management of Savagery exposed how detached from reality these people are. They do not want to confront the reality that the U.S. relied on Islamic State militants in Syria to pressure the Syrian government. That eventually pushed Russia to back the Syrian military and its efforts to rid Syria of jihadist elements. They say nothing about how Turkey and Saudi Arabia has funneled millions and tons of weapons into Syria to aid any opposition group that will fight the Syrian regime, regardless of whether this means terrorists are effectively armed.
An array of Gulf countries, pro-Israel lobbyists, and individuals from the defense industry maintain a commitment to “rebels” in Syria, even as an uprising hijacked by Islamic fundamentalists dithers. They are disappointed the CIA backed away from sending advanced TOW missiles and communications equipment to militant groups to fight Assad’s regime. They care little about the costs of meddling in a country in a manner that elevates jihadists.
If they have to resort to exaggerating actual examples of human rights abuses in order to drum up support for war, they will, even if that makes it possible to discredit valiant efforts for justice. And that is why they do not like it when journalists, like Blumenthal and Khalek, travel to Syria.