In March 2011, CIA agents operating within Syrian borders threw millions of dollars at Syrian collaborators to create an entirely artificial uprising against Bashar al-Assad. They bribed politicians and military leaders to denounce Assad, and pressured newspapers and other media to publish anti-Assad propaganda. When this proved insufficient, leading CIA agents took matters into their own hands and orchestrated terrorist attacks and riots with the help of Syrian gangs.
One often encounters this type of outlandish conspiracy theory on the streets of Beirut -- indeed, all across the Middle East -- where there is a tendency to see an American or Israeli hand behind all of the dramatic events of the region, particularly the Arab Spring.
Seems illogical, delusional perhaps. Except, if you replace 2011 with 1953, Syria with Iran, and Assad with Mohammed Mossadegh, the story checks out. Conspiracy theories gain so much traction in the Middle East for a simple reason -- they're not far removed from the historical experience of the region.
Danny, who is half-Lebanese and has been living in Beirut on and off his entire life, just recently finished reading Stephen Kinzer's "Overthrow," an historical account of America's ample record of overthrowing foreign governments. One of the chapters focuses on the Iranian coup of 1953.
"What's happening in Syria is a replay of everything that I read in "Overthrow," Danny told me, appealing to scholarship to uphold his theory that the CIA staged the chemical weapons attack in August to justify intervention in Syria.
He had recently consumed a robust diet of anti-Illuminati conspiracy films, which heavily influenced his thinking of the event, yet his analysis was grounded in historical truth. The CIA-engineered coups in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and South Vietnam (1963) all seemed to run according to a familiar script.
In fact, the CIA has a less well-known, but equally significant, footprint in Syria, too. In 1949, the CIA orchestrated a coup -- the second of three that year -- to overthrow the regime of Husni al-Zaim, who refused to allow Aramco to build a pipeline through Syria. His successor, Sami al-Hinnawi, signed an agreement with Aramco immediately upon coming to power.
Saudia Arabia's history of intervention in Syria did not begin in 2011, either. King Saud bin Abdulaziz funneled roughly half a million Syrian pounds to pro-Saudi groups in 1955 in a concerted effort to steer Syria away from the Baghdad Pact, a security alliance that would have strengthened Saudi Arabia's rival in the region, the Hashemite dynasty then in power in Iraq and Syria.
Between 1949 and 1970, there were 26 attempted coups in Syria, nearly all of them driven or supported by external forces, be it Soviet, American, Saudi, or Egyptian. It's not hard to imagine, then, why the Assad family and Syrians more generally are quick to associate civil conflict with western imperialism.
Assad has peddled conspiracies frequently and adroitly to a receptive audience. For Assad, "The terrorism we are facing is a real war waged from outside. Colonization remains colonization but it changes its faces and methods...We are prepared to dialogue with those who do not receive instructions from abroad." According to this narrative, "The opposition is trying to establish a sectarian divide" so that the western imperialist nations can take advantage of the instability to divide and conquer Syria.
That Assad's narrative gains such traction is not entirely a result of western interventions; it also speaks volumes to the dysfunctional polities and eroding social fabric in Middle Eastern societies. "[Conspiracy thinking] points to widespread interpersonal distrust and, thus, inability to communicate and interact in a wholesome manner," said Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. "They attest to people's inability to comprehend the complexity of modern life, let alone their capacity to control their environment and chart their destiny."
Ideally, the societies of the Middle East would ignore Assad's narratives, which seem to strain the bounds of credulity, and engage in healthier political discourse. However, if history is any indication, Assad might turn out to be right.
Tim Eddy, a native of Pittsfield, is pursuing his Master's Degree in political science at the American University of Beirut.