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April 01st 2012 print

Paul Stenhouse

What Is Going On in Syria?

                               Don’t untie the tethered elephant.
                                                                          —Arabic proverb 

The sense of this proverb is similar to the more familiar ones about not unleashing the dogs of war, or not opening Pandora’s box. And like the others it is often quoted in hindsight, but seldom acted upon. Had it been heeded by the British back in 1924, the much maligned Hashemites—whose hold on their last bastion, Jordan, is looking more and more problematic—might still be Sharifs of Mecca and rulers of Mecca and Medina; the Wahhabis might not control Arabia; Arabia might not be Saudi Arabia (which has proven itself not to be Arabia Felix—“Happy Arabia”—the term the Romans used for fertile south Arabia, and especially Yemen); and our world might be a very different place.

We may not be able to undo the mistakes of the past, but there is merit in trying not to repeat them.

The much publicised “Arab Spring” is one of the many fallouts from the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 codenamed Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the resultant unprecedented change in the balance of power in the region—from Sunni to Shi‘a.

In Salafi and Wahhabi extremist circles—with whom the USA and the West have dangerously ambivalent relations—the decline of Sunni power in Iraq is viewed as a disaster. They see the results of the US invasion as confirmation of their worst suspicions—that the Americans had toppled Saddam Hussein and seized Iraq from the Sunni in order to weaken the cause of “true” Islam by handing it over to the Shi‘a whom the Sunni regard as heterodox. The circumstances surrounding the death of Al Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden, who was killed in Pakistan during the heady days of the Arab Spring on May 2, 2011, can have done nothing to mitigate their suspicions or their determination to redress the imbalance.

Vali Nasr, in The Shia Revival, describes how, at the height of the Iraq conflict, Saudi Arabians went to fight and die in their thousands: 

According to one estimate, of the roughly 1200 foreign fighters captured in Syria between summer 2003 and summer 2005, fully 85 per cent were Saudis … Wahhabi and Salafi clerics and activists in the kingdom encouraged them to join the anti-Shia, anti-American jihad in Iraq. The sermons that call the youth to jihad in Iraq reek of anti-Americanism but just as important, if not more so, they echo the old Wahhabi hatred of the Shia. War on America is now war on Shiism, and war on Shiism is war on America. 

The Alawites who control the government and army in Syria are a sub-sect of the Shi‘a. They have close ties with Iran, and links with Hezbollah in south Lebanon, and Hamas.

Their fate, along with the fate of all Syria, its neighbours and its region, hangs in the balance as I write. And one can’t help thinking of a comment that T.E. Lawrence made in 1915 to D.G. Hogarth: “I only hope that Aleppo and Damascus will escape a little of the fate that has come on Cairo.”

The proximate cause of Syria’s social and political turmoil was the regime’s doing too little too late to quell anger and violence that erupted when security forces on March 15, 2011, rounded up children for painting anti-regime graffiti in Dara‘a in the south of Syria and allegedly treated them brutally. When thousands gathered to protest, the security forces opened fire and killed four people. That the situation was mishandled is undeniable; and that the tenor of the protests and the nature of the violence have changed in the year since those deplorable events, is also undeniable.

What started in Dara‘a as legitimate demands for an end to corruption, the lifting of the Emergency Law, respect for property rights, release of political prisoners, a multi-party state and reform of the Constitution, has metamorphosed into a Trojan war horse of quite a different colour.

The remote and yet more significant cause of the violence that is threatening to engulf Syria is without doubt the sectarian (Sunni–Shi‘a) tsunami that followed in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq.

By February 4, 2011, a week before the fall of Hosni Mubarak, and almost six weeks before the events at Dara‘a, a new Facebook page—only a week old—called “The Syrian Revolution 2011”, already had 15,000 fans. This was taken as a sign by some that Assad’s regime would be the next to fall. When the Saudi King condemned Syria in August last year, Syrian parliamentarian Shehade Kamel was quoted by the semi-official Iranian Fars News Agency as saying: “This conspiracy against Syria is the beginning of a conspiracy against Iran.” However one may wish to rephrase his statement, it is difficult not to agree with its substance. 

Almost twelve months after that Facebook page opened, and the “revolution” began, and after television news, frantic social networking and twittering from Syria have been beamed nightly into the living rooms, computers and mobile phones of hundreds of millions of people around the world, one would have expected a lively debate to be going on about the rights and wrongs of the conflict.

Far from it. There appears to be no doubt in many people’s minds that the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad is “brutal”, “monstrous”, “murdering its own people”, and “guilty of crimes against humanity”. The opposition, on the other hand, is supposedly the voice of the masses—leading a popular revolution against a hated and feared police state. But how could people be well-informed when most of the reporting, until recently, was coming from neighbouring countries, or from discredited sources like Qatari television—Al Jazeera—and Saudi television—Al Arabiyya—and many of the images have been accompanied by caveats about their authenticity?

In his zeal to remove Bashar al-Assad from office, and bring the doubtful benefits of the Arab Spring to Syria—in that order—the journalist Robert Fisk criticised NATO on August 23 for not being prepared to “devastate the regime’s 8000 tanks and armoured vehicles” as they “besiege the country’s cities”. Less than a month later, I was in Damascus and Hama, looking for those 8000 Syrian tanks and armoured vehicles that were besieging the country’s cities. Perhaps they were there ringing the cities; I saw no sign of them. I felt like Betsy Eunson in George Mackay-Brown’s cautionary tale “The Wireless Set”. In 1939 the first wireless came to Tronvik in the Orkney Isles. After the fall of France, Betsy, one morning, saw a huge grey shape looming on the horizon making for Scapa Flow. A neighbour told her, “She’s the Ark Royal, an aircraft carrier.” That evening Betsy twiddled the dial and the voice of the Nazi propagandist Lord Haw-Haw came drawling out, saying that the Ark Royal had been sunk by German dive bombers in the Mediterranean. “Wasn’t the Ark Royal,” Betsy thought, “safely anchored on the other side of the hill?” Unlike Betsy, it seems that vast numbers of people are reluctant to question the truthfulness of what they see or hear on television or via other media. Lord Haw-Haw would have been gratified. Patrick Cockburn, in the Independent, explains: 

People … believe that if the BBC and other channels were not convinced of the truth of YouTube pictures they would not be using them as their main source of information about Syria … [Yet] television companies are not going to reject or underline the stage management of film that is free, dramatic, up to date—and which they could not match with regular correspondents and film crews even if they spent a lot of money. 

A delegation of foreign journalists went to the Alawite neighbourhoods of Homs. Expecting to see peaceful demonstrations, they saw security forces under siege from unidentified gunmen, and impact damage from rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). They were able to gather testimonials from the local populace who had suffered atrocities at the hands of the insurgents, but “they did not publish these facts on their return, fearing they would be criticised by the mainstream media for breaking with the generally accepted narrative”.

A television journalist reported that he had seen 15,000 people demonstrating against the regime in the forecourt of the mosque of Kenj, in the village of Kusayr. Kusayr is a small village on the Damascus–Homs road only a few kilometres from the Lebanese border. The forecourt of the mosque is twelve metres long and could never hold 15,000 people.

World leaders, too, have no doubts as to where the truth lies. Following President Obama they are vociferous in their calls for Assad to step down: Nicholas Sarkozy accuses him of “barbarous repression” and tells him to go; a senior US official describes the Syrian President as a “dead man walking”; and British officials argue that “there is no worse alternative” to Assad. Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister, confidently predicted in early December 2011 that the Assad regime would “come crashing down within a few weeks”. Saudi King Abdullah even tried to win some points with his Sunni constituency by denouncing Syria, and calling on the regime to “stop the killing machine”. Our own former Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd joined in the chorus, suggesting sagely that Assad “find an exit strategy”.

Invariably opposition leaders are presented as heroes and victims and they always get a positive press. Invariably, the Assad regime, the Alawites and the Army are demonised. There are almost no references to Salafi, Al Qaeda or Muslim Brothers. Instead we read of the Free Syrian Army, made up of “army deserters and others”.

A “witness” was shown to be a Lebanese journalist living in the Netherlands. Several correspondents on French television networks who “witnessed massacres” were found at the time to be living in Dubai, Jordan and Kuwait.

Reports that armed foreigners are attacking demonstrators, or that isolated minority communities are being subjected to terror, kidnapping and murder at the hands of armed militia—some of whom have been identified as Mauritanians, Afghans, Libyans or Turks coming from North Lebanon, Turkey or Iraq—mysteriously slip through the cracks of our democratic “free press”, and never get aired. 

In the opinion of Omar Nashabe, journalist and member of the editorial board of the Lebanese daily Al Akhbar, the Free Syrian Army is a group of soldiers and officers who have deserted the Syrian army and are supported by Western powers in order to create chaos in Syria and to show that the Syrian government is incapable of preserving law and order. Writing at the time of the visit of the Arab League Mission to Syria that began on December 26, Nashabe said that “they would do everything in their power to make sure the report of the Arab League’s observers is to their interests”. And he added that if the Free Syrian Army feels the monitors notice the violations on the part of demonstrators and deserters, they will call for the withdrawal of the observers and they will say the observers are under pressure from the Syrian authorities.

Ahmad Manaï, president of the Tunisian Institute for International Relations, was arrested and tortured in 1989 by the Tunisian Secret Police for his calls for democracy in Tunis, was exiled in France, and beaten up on two occasions in Paris in 1996 and 1997 by agents working for now exiled President Ben Ali. He was one of the 166 observers who took part in the Mission of the Arab League to Syria. When their report was eventually handed to the Council of Ministers for Foreign Affairs of the Arab League he claimed that “they buried it” because, as he put it, it “did not suit their purpose”. Instead, they went to the UN Security Council.

Before going to Syria, Manaï had arranged to meet with Burhan Ghalioun, the Chairman of the Syrian Opposition Transitional National Council. This never eventuated, but he did meet three of Ghalioun’s colleagues. He asked them, “Are you ready to negotiate?” They all replied, “Never!” He comments: “They evidently thought they were going to make a triumphal entry into Damascus behind a NATO force,” and goes on: 

This is definitely not politics. In politics negotiation is the very foundation of any resolution of differences and conflicts, even armed ones. It’s true that the Syrian people have a right to choose their destiny and to live in liberty as they demand. But it’s also true that the transition must come about in an atmosphere of calm, and not one of disorder or accompanied by acts of terrorism. 

Some media claim that Lebanese Hezbollah and as many as 10,000 Iranian Pasdaran (Guardians of the Islamic Revolution) are fighting alongside Syrian military to repress the demonstrators. Manaï dismisses this as propaganda, but he says they may well be providing intelligence. He confirms, however, that the Gulf States—headed by Qatar and backed by Turkey and some NATO states—are “deeply involved in the Syrian crisis”, as are influential political movements like the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis.

The Hudson Institute, a leading consultant to the US Defence Department, has been quoted by Middle East Newsline as asserting that the US administration has decided to work with Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria for a post-Assad government. According to a report by Herbert London, the Hudson Institute said Obama has dismissed the pro-democracy opposition as an alternative.

Recently, glancing through an Algerian newspaper that was reporting on the Arab Spring in Syria, I noticed that readers were being invited to vote in two straw polls being conducted by the paper, which has a circulation of around 30,000. The first poll concerned Libya. The questions were, “Was what happened in Libya a revolution? Or a coup d’état?” Eighty per cent of those polled said it was a coup d’état; only 20 per cent thought what happened was a popular revolution. The second poll concerned Syria. The questions there were: “Is what is happening in Syria a revolution or an attempt to replay the Libyan scenario?” All those who answered thought that what was happening was an attempt to replay the Libyan scenario. Admittedly the number of respondents to the poll was not great, but the results showed that not all had succumbed to media pressure on the question of Syria. 

Unless defections from the 600,000-strong, predominantly Sunni, Syrian army reach significant proportions—which is unlikely—the rebels seem to be pinning their hopes of toppling the regime on enticing foreign powers to enter the conflict on the ground and in the air. In other words, replaying the Libyan scenario. But—as many are starting to realise—Syria is not Libya; nor is it Iraq. Assad is not friendless as was Gaddafi. No one claims that the Assad regime as it stands is a democracy, but it was and is moving towards one. On the other hand, the much publicised efforts its opponents inside and outside Syria are making to demonise Assad and his government have to be seen for what they are: exaggerated and often spurious claims aimed at drawing ill-informed foreign powers into a conflict that will probably draw the whole region into a wider and bloodier one. This is no time for ad hoc solutions, or for settling old scores.

As well, there is the elephant in the room: US financial woes. Military cutbacks have been forced on it by the horrendous cost over-runs of its military commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq. And without US support the Libyan scenario—whatever one may have thought of its wisdom—could not have been played out by the NATO forces. Herbert London notes: 

From the standpoint of Foggy Bottom [the US State Department] it is far better to promote stability even if this means aligning oneself with the goals of presumptive enemies … This, however, is a dangerous game that not only holds US interests hostage to the Muslim Brotherhood, but also suggests that the withdrawal of American forces from the region affords the US very few policy options.  

What “stability” Syrians and the region can expect from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s diplomatic sleight of hand—inviting the Muslim Brothers to work with Turkey to help oust Assad—can be gauged from the fact that some months after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Mahmoud Izzat, Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brothers, called for Egypt to come under sharia law in a way similar to Saudi Arabia: “The implementation of the Islamic sharia punishments comes after taking over the territory. The punishments have to be implemented after Islam enters the lives, ethics and dealings of the people.”

President Obama is quoted as saying that nations cannot afford to be “bystanders” as the killing continues. Certainly the USA is not a bystander in this conflict. As one might expect after what happened in Egypt and Libya, foreign intervention appears to have been taking place from the very beginning.

Reports in British media point to British Special Forces—like the SAS, which was on the ground in Libya before NATO’s military intervention—training and arming the Syrian rebels, numbers of whom are Al Qaeda operatives. If this is the case, it makes a mockery of claims that democracy is the goal of the rebels. The USA is reportedly training and arming Syrian rebels across the border in Turkey.

In July 2011 the White House released a statement by President Obama in which he described himself as “appalled” by the Syrian government’s use of violence and brutality against its own people. He said that he found the reports out of Hama “horrifying” and he declared that they “demonstrate” the true character of the Syrian regime: 

Once again, President Assad has shown that he is completely incapable and unwilling to respond to the legitimate grievances of the Syrian people. His use of torture, corruption and terror puts him on the wrong side of history and his people. Through his own actions, Bashar al-Assad is ensuring that he and his regime will be left in the past, and that the courageous Syrian people who have demonstrated in the streets will determine its future. Syria will be a better place when a democratic transition goes forward. 

I am amazed that President Obama should be “appalled”—as if someone’s elderly maiden aunt had been revealed as the serial killer terrorising the local neighbourhood. Hafiz al-Assad, father of Bashar, was a hard-nosed dictator of the old school. Yet the USA stood by and ignored Syrian involvement in the so-called Lebanese Civil War, just as it stood by and watched as Iraqi Kurds and Shi‘a were massacred by Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of the 1991 war to “restore democracy to Kuwait” as George Bush Sr’s spin doctors put it.

Only when the Alawite regime was accused of acting as a conduit for Iranian weapons that could be used against Israel, did US presidential outrage run white hot. But, even then, the USA dithered about declaring Syria a nation that sheltered terrorists and promoted terrorism in the region. Pariah status was reserved for soft targets like Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya; or more recently, for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran. The real villains go unchallenged—in the short term—while the long-term consequences of the “democratic” West’s dalliance with dictators begins only now to be revealed.

In Beirut in late September 2011, the Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox insisted to me that “Bashar is not his father”. Since succeeding his father in 2000, Bashar al-Assad has undoubtedly tried, and is trying, to turn his back on the Ba‘ath Party’s and his late father’s style of government. He has been mistakenly judged a soft target by some bureaucrats or think-tanks with influence on US policy and policy-makers.

If anyone in the State Department is foolish enough to think—under pressure from Saudi Arabia and its unlikely bedfellow Israel—that a bloody coup to remove the government of Syria will make a military showdown with Iran less problematic, the veto exercised by Russia and China recently in the UN Security Council should make them think twice. Despite media reports to the contrary, Bashar al-Assad can still rely on majority Sunni support in Syria—especially in Damascus and Aleppo, the largest cities, where half the population is to be found. Turkey, a major player in this so-called revolution, is discovering that its advocacy of violence against the Assad regime has rebounded on it. Hundreds of Turkish factories on the Syrian border used to supply goods to the domestic market in Syria. They are closing, with job losses on both sides of the border. Also, Syria used to be the road conduit for Turkish exports bound for the Middle East and the Gulf.

Turkey’s support for “democracy” sits badly with Syria’s two million Kurds, who remember the 50,000 Kurds who have been killed by the Turks since 1984. In the words of Omar Oussi, President of the National Initiative for Syrian Kurds, “It bombs civilian villages with planes supplied by the United States, and it co-operates with Israel. And it wants to give lessons to Syria.” 

As I write, a Reuters news item emanating from Amman has announced that almost eight million voters—a third of the Syrian population—have approved Syria’s new Constitution in a referendum held under extremely difficult conditions. The road back to normalcy will not be easy for Syria, granted the violence, the mistakes on all sides and the levels of misinformation that have plagued the country for the past twelve months. However, the end of the one-party (Ba‘ath) state, the new Constitution and municipal elections augur well for a future in which real dialogue and genuine and non-corrupt democratic institutions will have a vital role to play.

Forty per cent of Syria’s population is made up of minorities—Christians: Catholic (of various rites) and Orthodox; Muslim: Shi‘a, Druze and Ismailis; and non-Arab Sunni: Kurds. Sixty per cent is Sunni Muslim. The departure of the Assad regime, and a new government in Syria run by extremist Salafis, Al Qaeda or Muslim Brothers, is a daunting prospect for the minorities, and for a majority of the Sunni population who have flourished under the tolerance of the Alawite regime. The US State Department and the West generally are curiously not impressed by Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III’s statement that “there is more religious freedom and tolerance in Syria than in any other Arab country”.

The Syrian model of an Arab society offends extremist and closed Muslim societies. It now seems to offend the USA and its allies. If they have their way, it will disappear along with the Assad regime. That will be a sad day for the Middle East, and a worse one for the Western powers, who will have unleashed an uncertain future on millions of defenceless non-Muslims and non-extremist Muslims.

The opinion of British officials that “there is no worse alternative” to Assad is nonsense. But so was the opinion expressed by the chief of the then Arab Bureau in January 1925, in a lecture delivered in London on Wahhabism and British interests. Speaking of British interests in Arabia he said: 

they do not arise, to any extent worth mentioning, from our need of products of the country or from concern about trade. Arabia neither sells nor buys nearly enough to weight the political scales. Nor … do I foresee a day when this will cease to be true. 

For decades, the world has been paying the cost of the flow-on from this flawed judgement. Let’s not keep on untying the tethered elephant. 

Father Paul Stenhouse is the Editor of Annals Australasia.