Scoundrel Time: The Situation in Syria

By Jeremy Salt – Ankara

Even though we are used to double standards, the moral posturing over Syria in recent weeks has been quite a spectacle. At the UN Security Council, Susan Rice bellows her disgust at the use of the veto by Russia and China, when the US has used the veto more than 60 times, mostly to protect Israel. Horror at the violence is sounded by the delegates of the same powers that have dismantled Libya and ended the lives of an estimated two million Iraqis through warfare and sanctions since 1991. When Saudi Arabia and Qatar call for political reform in Syria and an end to the violence, hypocrisy is displaced by farce. Their gulf ally, King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa of Bahrain, told Der Spiegel that Bashar al Assad should listen to his people. There is no opposition in Bahrain, according to His Majesty: ‘we only have people with different views’. If he had to declare a state of emergency it was because ‘our women were very scared and it is the duty of a gentleman to protect women, so I had to protect them’. Apparently the head-scarfed women in the front ranks of the demonstrators needed protecting from themselves.

These two gulf sponsors of salafism across the region sabotaged the Arab League monitors’ mission in Syria the moment it came up with findings they didn’t like and now they want a second bite at the cherry, a joint UN/Arab League ‘peace-keeping’ mission set up in its place. Syria has said no and if this proposal goes before the UNSC Russia and China will probably use their veto again. The airing of the issue at the UN General Assembly might be useful on the propaganda front but will not change the basic situation one way or the other. The only avenue for positive action at the UN is the Security Council and now that the US and its allies are being blocked there they arehaving to think of alternatives. By eschewing the role of constructive arbiter in favor of active support  for the policy of regime change being pursued by the US, Britain, France and their regional allies,  the Arab League has disqualified itself from the right to play any role at all. It is simultaneously shutting Syria out and then demanding that it be let back into Syria. It says it does not want international intervention in Syria but then it calls for it through the presence of UN ‘peacekeepers’. An organization which has never put itself on the line for Arab causes has now blatantly turned itself into the pliant instrument of the most regressive governments in the Arab world and their western backers.

In the past year the governments which have now withdrawn their ambassadors from Damascus have not come up with one constructive solution to the crisis in Syria. They have blocked dialogue and negotiations and done everything they can to deepen the turmoil, in the clear hope that chaos would culminate in the collapse of a regime that is Iran’s most important regional ally. Their willing helpers include Ayman al Zawahiri, Shaikh Yusuf Qaradawi and the takfiri gangs they are urging on to destroy the Alawi heretics. Those so blinded by their hatred of the Baathist regime that they are calling for open outside intervention to destroy it need to look at history. Not once in the past 200 years has western intervention ended well for the local people. The record is consistent from the appearance of Napoleon’s army off the Egyptian coast in 1798 up to the destruction of Iraq as a secular unified state, and the establishment of the Kurdish north as a springboard for Israeli-US sabotage and assassination in Iran. Libya is a complete mess, a melange of squabbling militias fighting for territory and still taking revenge on those identified as ‘Gaddafi loyalists’. The transitional government in Tripoli is a phantom. Hardly surprising that this phantom has recognized another phantom, the Syrian National Council, as the legitimate government of Syria. Fighting amongst itself, stacked with exiles close to the US State Department, at odds with the internal opposition and accused of corruption by the head of the Free Syrian Army,  Riad al Assad,  this council is completely dysfunctional.

The moral posturing over Syria contrasts with the moral  indifference of  western governments when killing suits their purposes. Recall the exchange in 1996 between US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and CBS 60 Minutes interviewer Lesley Stahl on the human cost of the sanctions imposed on Iraq:

“Stahl:  We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

“Albright: I think this is a very hard choice but the price – we think the price is worth it.”

Yes, ‘we’ always do. About 50,000 Libyans were killed during the attack on their country by the US, Britain and France, with Qatar and other states playing a supporting role. During Israel’s onslaught on Lebanon in 2006 Condoleezza Rice held the door open week after week in the hope that Hezbollah could be destroyed no matter how many civilians were killed. In 2008 the US, the EU and distant western acolytes such as Australia blamed Hamas for an Israeli attack on Gaza which pulverized the civilian population. Where was the Arab League then – where has it ever been when it comes to mobilizing support for the Palestinians? When it voted for the ‘peacekeeper’ mission, did it even notice the storming of the Haram al Sharif on the same day by dozens of settlers determined to build the third temple on the ruins of the Aqsa mosque?

In Iraq wars and sanctions have accounted for the lives of about two million people since 1991 plus, following the invasion of 2003, the greatest refugee outflow in the Middle East since Palestine in 1948.   Who was it who kept the sanctions going? The US and Britain. Under whose aegis were they maintained? The UN. Does anyone have to ask why this institution and these governments are distrusted across the Middle East? Mr Jose Moreno Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, where is your moral conscience and sense of justice when it comes to the victims of wars launched by the US, Britain and France? Why do you show no interest in prosecuting the heads of the government of Israel for its violations of international law? Why are you not following up the prima facie evidence of war crimes committed in Libya during missile attacks by British, French and American aircraft? Why were you so eager to prosecute Muammar Qadhafi when no crime he is said to have committed in his 40 years compares even remotely to the crimes for which George Bush and Tony Blair were responsible in Iraq? Of course, these are questions for which we do not need an answer because the ICC is yet another instrument in the toolbox of western governments, to be used only when it serves their interests. The most recent measurement of the value of Iraqi lives spent with such abandon was handed down by the US military court which imposed a reduction in the rank of the soldier who participated in the massacre of 24 people at Haditha, young and old and a man in a wheelchair among them. That was all he got – a reduction in his rank for a crime that would have automatically warranted the death sentence in a civilian court had it been committed in his own country. The spectacle of American soldiers pissing on the bodies of dead Afghans is a perfect metaphor for the decision of this court and the demonstrable indifference of the US government behind pro forma expressions of regret towards the killing of civilians in countries it thinks necessary to attack.

Torrents of propaganda continue to pour through the western mainstream media. Anything that will damage Syria will do, no matter how farfetched  (i.e. the claim in the London Guardian that the Syrian government is packing detainees into shipping containers and dumping them at sea) or unverifiable. Except for occasional faceless references, the civilian and military victims of the Free Syrian Army and the armed gangs are entirely invisible. There are no images of their bodies and their funerals and no reporting of the grief of their relatives, yet amidst the dross some nuggets of the alternative truth are appearing. The following passages are taken from a report by BBC correspondent Paul Woods, reporting from in and near Homs (BBC News web site, ‘Syria’s slide towards civil war’, February 12, 2012):

“The [Free Syrian Army] commander near Qusayr told me they were fighting for all of Syria’s religions and sects: Christian, Muslim, Alawite, Sunni, Druze, Shia. ‘We are experiencing freedom for the first time’, said Maj Ahmad Yaya. But his next words left no doubt, either, that for many, this is a religious – and Islamic – struggle against the secular Baath regime. ‘For the first time’, he went on, ‘we are able to proclaim the word of God throughout this land’. The official doctrine of the FSA is that it is only there to protect the unarmed demonstrators. In fact, the FSA is waging an escalating guerrilla war.

“We followed Maj Yaya’s group of fighters as they attacked an army base near the town [Qusayr]. The attack was big, more than 60 men. In contrast to the fighters in Libya, they were trained, disciplined and followed a plan …

“Inevitably they failed. After an hour of firing on the base they had to flee when the government started using heavy weapons, dropping mortar shells on the hill. Afterwards one of the FSA fighters showed me a video he had filmed in December. They had ambushed a convoy of armoured vehicles. Eight of the security forces were killed, 11 captured. The video showed the prisoners, in camouflage uniform, lined up facing a wall. Some were bleeding after the battle. Their arms were raised. One turned to the camera, looking petrified. The man who’d taken the pictures said that despite their uniforms their ID cards showed that they were shabiha (or ghosts), the hated government paramilitary force.

“’We killed them’, he told me
‘You killed your prisoners?’
‘Yes, of course. They were executed later. That is the policy for Shabiha.’”

I checked with an officer. While soldiers were released, he said, members of the Shabiha were ‘executed’ after a hearing before a panel of FSA military judges. To explain, they showed me a film taken from the mobile phone of a captured Shabiha. Prisoners lay face down on the ground, hands tied behind their backs. One by-one, their heads were cut off.  The man wielding the knife said, tauntingly, to the first: ‘This is for freedom’. As the victim’s neck opened up, he went on:  ‘This is for our martyrs. And this is for collaborating with Israel’.   

These are the people who have been holed up inside Homs. The city itself is no more  in the hands of the ‘rebels’ than Zabadani ever was but large numbers of armed men have succeeded in entrenching themselves inside certain quarters and the Syrian army has been told to get them out. Civilians are obviously being caught in between. According to latest reports, British and Qatari special forces are operating alongside them. Seeing that they were on the ground in Libya, this should surprise no-one. Augmenting the violence between the ‘rebels’ and the army are the bombings in Damascus and Aleppo and the murders of large numbers of civilians by home-grown takfiris and imports from other countries, urged on by Ayman al Zawahiri and the bloodthirsty clerics given a home and air time in Doha.

Syria is now the focal point of a standoff between Russia and China on one side and the US and its allies on the other. Russia and China are calling for a solution through negotiations but for the US anything less than the downfall of the Syrian government will be a defeat. For Russia and China the issue is not just Syria or the attempt by the US to use the Arab spring for a little spring-cleaning of its own in the Middle East, but the way in which the US is pressing hard against Russian strategic concerns in the Caucasus and Central Asia and against Chinese interests in Central Asia and the Far East. Syria is where Russia and China have drawn their own line in the sand.  The west got away with it in Iraq and Libya but enough is enough.  That is the message coming from Moscow and Beijing. 

The same governments that are calling for an end to the violence in Syria are stimulating it, while keeping armed intervention on the table as an option they may eventually choose to pick up. Given that it is only across the borders of Turkey or Jordan (or both simultaneously) that such an operation could be launched, the ball will land in their court if the decision is taken. As a major regional player with a big army, Turkey’s position is a critical  component in western planning. In the past 12 months its regional policy has been significantly refigured. The onset of the ‘Arab spring’ precipitated the abandonment of the ‘zero problem’ policy fashioned largely by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoðlu. This had worked well, resolving outstanding problems with Syria and Iran and leading to visa-less travel across borders for Turks and the citizens of neighboring countries.

Turkey’s initial response to the ‘Arab spring’ was cautious. It only called on Mubarak to step down when it was clear that he was finished. In Libya it refused to support the no-fly resolution before coming in behind the campaign to destroy the government in Tripoli. When Syria’s turn came, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoðan and his Foreign Minister staked out a position which has proven to be fraught with domestic, regional and global difficulties. They claim to have given Bashar al Assad advice last summer which he did not accept. This was probably the case but as the advice they reportedly gave was for him to bring the Muslim Brotherhood into government, this was not advice he could have accepted. Syria is a secular state and the Muslim Brotherhood is a proscribed organization. However, declaring that they had done all they could to bring him around, they joined the governments calling on Bashar to step down.  They clearly wanted to be seen as riding the wave of reform, although the rhetoric of taking on authoritarian regimes obviously raised the question of why Turkey had nothing to say about repression and the lack of basic human rights in Saudi Arabia and other autocratic gulf states.  

The architects of Turkey’s new policy imposed sanctions on Syria (damaging long-distance hauliers and the interests of merchants on the other side of the Syrian border in southeastern Turkey) and threw their weight behind the Syrian National Council (the Syrian equivalent of the Iraqi National Congress) and the ‘rebels’ calling themselves the Free Syrian Army. Their guest, Riad al Assad, openly declared that the mission of the armed men under his command was to kill Syrian soldiers. This is what they have been doing. In a country which purports to live by the slogan of  ‘peace at home and peace in the world’ and has had more than its fair share of violence originating from beyond its borders, this  would seem to be a questionable position for any Turkish government to be taking. The narrative coming from the top in Turkey has been dominated by the theme of one-way violence directed by the Syrian state against civilians. The scale of the violence directed against Syrian soldiers and civilians  by armed gangs and armed men described as ‘defectors’ from the Syrian army (with no evidence ever being provided that all or most  of them are),  along with their sabotage of railways,  power stations and oil  pipelines, has never been acknowledged.

In confronting Syria, Turkey has complicated relations with Iran, Lebanon and Iraq. Relations with Iraq have been further aggravated by accusations from Nuri al Maliki of Turkish interference in Iraq’s affairs. The additional irritant in the relationship with Iran is Turkey’s decision to allow the US to install a ‘defensive’ anti-missile’ radar base in the eastern province of Malatya. In aligning itself with the US, the EU and the gulf states on Syria the Turkish Prime Minister and his Foreign Minister have placed their country in an awkward and potentially very dangerous position. The quarrel is not just with Bashar any longer but with Russia and China. Three basic policy choices would seem to lie ahead of Turkey. One is to continue support for the war of attrition being waged by the Syrian ‘rebels’  in the hope that eventually the government will disintegrate. As there is no prospect of this happening in the near future, Turkey is tied to a policy which has no end point in sight. The second is to back off and formulate a new position based on herding the Syrian opposition into a process of dialogue whether they like it or not. This choice would put prudence before loss of face. The third choice depends on decisions that will be taken elsewhere. If the US does eventually raise the stakes to the highest level and picks up the option of open armed intervention – the militarization of this conflict as Obama calls it – Turkey will be asked to deliver.

The Turkish Prime Minister and his Foreign Minister clearly have a sense of mission about Turkey’s place in the world and their personal place in history but they would scarcely be the first successful politicians to be led astray by folie de grandeur into biting off more than they can chew. Turkey is an important regional player with a lot to contribute, but is intervention in the affairs of a neighboring country, covert or overt, and support for a ‘rebel’  force whose sense of justice and standards of behavior have been described above, really the kind of contribution the Turkish people want their government to make?  

– Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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