Useful Idiots: How a Facebook Campaign Became Propaganda For Bashar Assad


Syria is a proverbial Gordian Knot; the two-year old conflict is a vexing web of proxy armies, tenuous allies, and a myriad of factions with competing goals.

But just as the real conflict has been a lightning rod for all manner of hidden agendas, so has the domestic debate been here in the United States.  According to polls, the country remains deeply divided over the prospect of air and missile strikes on Syria.

Of course, war is the most serious undertaking of any state, and should only be embarked upon after great deliberation.  After all, debate is healthy in a democracy.

Still, partisan rancor often trumps careful analysis.  Nowhere was this more true than on the 43,000-strong Facebook page for the “Armed Forces Tea Party“, in which purported service members–in full uniform–masked their faces with signs protesting involvement in Syria.

Not only was this an egregious transgression in civil-military relations (Psst, here’s some great reading), but the campaign played directly into the Assad regime’s propaganda, as hackers from the Syrian Electronic Army defaced the US Marine Corps’ website with the aforementioned images, urging the United States not to interfere in Syria.

For decades, the Communist Party wooed influential Westerners into showing sympathy for their causes.  Dozens of authors, actors, and celebrities have, intentionally or not, lent legitimacy to all manner of dictators.  Such activity isn’t limited to the Cold War, either, as we’ve recently seen with basketball star Dennis Rodman’s overtures towards North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, whom  he refers to as “my friend”.

During the Cold War, misguided elites were referred to as “useful idiots“; and whether through vanity or naiveté, they advanced the interests of some very unsavory characters.

Now, service members have fallen directly into that trap.

If there’s a lesson in this, it’s how easily the ease of posting to social media allows the politically naive to fall into the hands of those with a more sinister agenda.  Sure, there are over 1,000 insurgent groups in Syria, some with links to al-Qaeda and other terrorist organization.  On the other hand, the Assad regime is a proxy of Iran and Russia, propped up by fighters from Hezbollah.  His messaging campaign has been more effective than most are willing to admit, as pundits inadvertently pass on Syrian propaganda an an effort to score partisan points.

We don’t need America’s most respected institution giving Mr. Assad any help.

About Crispin Burke

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters. Major Burke has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. In what is likely a sad statement on the state of humanity, Major Burke's writings, musings, and irreverent cartoons have been featured at Small Wars Journal, National Defense University, Foreign Policy Online, Wired Magazine, Egremont, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Great Satan's Girlfriend.
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