An Arab Spring but No Summer?

By Jeremy Salt – Ankara

The attack on Libya is a copy-book example of high imperialism – gunboat diplomacy in the crudest fashion. Extraordinarily, only eight years after Iraq, the US and European governments are at it again. The door was opened for them by the ‘rebels’ whom they have gladly accepted as the ‘transitional government’. The UN Security Council provided the cover as it has done on numerous other occasions. The restrictions included in resolution 1973 were so loose as to amount to no restrictions at all. Basically it was a mandate for the attacking governments to do what they liked and this is just what they have been doing.  In the name of protecting civilians they have killed hundreds of civilians, and probably thousands of men in uniform. There have been deliberate attempts to kill Muammar Qadhafi.  In one of them his son and three of his grandchildren were killed, all of them infants and one only a few months old. The mother of one of the children, Aisha Qaddafi, has initiated legal proceedings in Brussels against those deemed to be responsible under the heading of war crimes. This was a deliberate attack on a suburban home in an attempt to kill the children’s grandfather and not, as the liars at NATO headquarters said, an attack on a command and control centre unless they are talking about the kitchen where meals are prepared for the children and the bathroom where they are washed. Qaddafi only survived the ‘precision bombing’ because he was out the back at the time. So eager were the propagandists that they began by claiming the children hadn’t been killed because the coffin lids were closed. In fact, the bodies were blown to bits. The murder of these infants left the mainstream media unruffled.  Only the former US congresswoman Catherine McKinney seems to have taken the trouble of going to the house and describing what this precision bombing actually did.   

This is not a ‘NATO war’. This is a war launched by the governments of the US, Britain and France. NATO – their cover – is a  transnational  mercenary organisation supplying troops on demand  for their wars. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union it has had no other role. So far there been no direct engagement because the attacking forces are hoping to finish off Qaddafi from the air. That way they won’t have to  put ‘boots on the ground’. That way they won’t take casualties and that way public opinion at home won’t be stirred into action. At the moment they can bomb Qaddafi but he can’t bomb them.  The government in Tripoli does not have the capacity to hit 10 Downing St or the White House with a precision bomb or to send attack helicopters blowing up government buildings inside the Beltway. What would they say if it did? That this is outrageous?   That you can’t do this to us? And that is the whole point. We know that you can’t do this to us,  but we have the means and we are going to keep doing it to you for as long as it takes for us to destroy you.

Many civilians had already died when these foreign governments jumped in to prevent the ‘rebels’ from being defeated and protect civilians. Now they themselves have killed hundreds. Ten days ago the government in Tripoli put out a statement  claiming that about 700 civilians had been killed in these American, French and British air attacks. Given the intensity of daily bombing there seems little reason to doubt the basic accuracy of this statement and many more civilians have died since. They include 13 imams wiped in an early morning missile attack on Brega. Can you imagine the reaction if some crazy leader wiped out 13 Anglican clerics as they were gathering for morning prayer? But these leaders are not crazy, they are the leaders of what they themselves like to call the free world (which apparently means free for them to do whatever they want). The victims include various civilians on duty at the Bab al Aziziyya compound in Tripoli. It has been bombed time after time again. More than 30 people were killed in one attack which began in mid morning and did not end until after midnight. When the ‘defiant’ Qaddafi said he was staying in Libya, dead or alive, they bombed it again. They have reached the point where they are bombing only rubble. The only point of this exercise could be to terrorise the civilian population and show them  that their leader cannot even defend his own capital.

The western media is covering up the number of civilians killed in these attacks and is showing almost nothing of the massive infrastructural damage. All we usually see are massive plumes of smoke on the horizon or the skeleton of a burnt-out tank or armored car.  We don’t see the ruins of government ministries than have been attacked. There is very little questioning of what international law has to say about the war or the numerous attempts to murder a head of state, as Qaddafi has to be regarded despite his formal lack of title. He remains the only person to look for a negotiated way out of this conflict. He has made offers to sit down and talk directly to the ‘rebels’. He has made offers through the African Union. It is significant that the UN Secretary-General has made no attempt of his own to broker a peace. Every single offer made by Qaddafi has been rejected out of hand by the rebels and the governments keeping them on their feet. Of course they don’t want to talk to Qaddafi. They want to destroy him, just as Anthony Eden wanted to destroy Gamal abd al Nasir in 1956. The rebels are their stalking horse.    

At a time of savage cuts to social welfare, education and the funding of local councils, the British government has set aside one billion pounds for the overthrow of Qadhafi. The US economy is in even worse shape but there’s still plenty of cash in the pipeline for the wars on Afghanistan and Libya. As part of the attack on Libya it has frozen $30 billion worth of Libyan investments in the US. Confiscated or expropriated would be a better word than the anaemic ‘frozen’. The European governments have dutifully followed suit, but with an estimated gold bullion holdings of more than 143 tonnes Qaddafi still has the means to continue their war indefinitely – as they can’t – unless they finish him off quickly.

At a time of financial stringency why are all these governments spending so much money on trying to destroy Qaddafi?  Oil can safely be regarded as part of the answer. Libya has immense reserves and while these governments were already getting a plentiful supply and were being given generous concessions, nothing is ever enough  for governments that like total control and even more bountiful profits.  

Then there is Qaddafi’s maverick place in the international financial order. In Latin and South America his friend Hugo Chavez, despised by the same people who despise Qaddafi, has overseen the formation of a cartel of governments refusing to have anything more to do with the IMF. Qadhafi does not want or need the IMF either. He has backed his anti-imperialist rhetoric over the years with plans to set up an African central bank,   an African monetary fund and an African central investment agency. The prospect of an IMF-free zone in Africa is itself enough for these western governments to want to get rid of him.     

Yet another reason is strategic location. Bases in Africa and the Indian Ocean are central to US military planning for the Middle East. Africom – the central US military command – is based at Djibouti. With the Fifth Fleet based at Bahrain, with an integrated ‘defence’ system developed with Saudi Arabia and with the stockpiling arrangements long since in place as part of the US-Israel relationship, the US is also well placed inside the Middle East. Egypt has not quite been ‘lost’ yet whatever happens it is unlikely to go back to where it was, creating vacancy along the North African coastline for a substitute. Libya meets all requirements and in many ways is better suited for the role than Egypt. 

The western governments are also homing in on Syria. For the US and Israel the destruction of the Baathist government would be a strategic victory far surpassing the sidelining of Egypt through the 1979 Camp David treaty. It would bring down the central arch in the strategic relationship between Iran, Syria and Hizbullah. It would mean the destruction of the common front standing in defence of Lebanon and the Palestinians.

The demands being made by Syrians for political reform are authentic and valid. At the same time their demonstrations have been used as a cover by armed groups whose interest is not reform but the downfall of the regime. Their attacks on police and troops have largely been ignored by the western mainstream media. Only when they reached a crescendo with an all-out assault in and around the northern border town of Jisr al Shughur has it taken notice. There, dozens of police, soldiers and civilians were killed by men armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers as well as smaller weapons.   According to reports in the Arab press, they were underground cells of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been waiting its moment for revenge since the ruthless and very bloody crushing of its uprising in Hama in 1982. While giving maximum publicity to the terrible murder and mutilation of Hamza al Khatib, the young boy picked up by security forces during a demonstration, the western media has ignored or dismissed the atrocities committed at Jisr al Shughur, including beheadings and the mutilation of bodies. A truckload of arms caught on the Syrian-Turkish border indicates that these groups of armed men are being helped from outside. The media was quick to point the finger at Iran, when the most likely source was Iraq and the most likely beneficiary the armed gangs and noone else. Northern Iraq is awash with weapons and a natural staging ground for subversive operations against Iran or Syria. It is unlikely that the downfall of the government in Syria would lead to a peaceful transition to democracy. Even worse turmoil than we are now seeing would be more likely, with the Muslim Brotherhood hunting down every last Baathist and Alawi.

Against a long record of subversion, spying and assassination in virtually all Middle Eastern countries, outside forces are certain to be involved in the Syrian uprising in some way. Syria is the visceral enemy for Israel and a long term target of dirty tricks, assassinations and armed attack, as well as decades of sanctions imposed by the US. Mossad and the CIA have agents everywhere and would not be doing their job if they were not trying to keep this pot on the boil. What a sweet victory if in the name of reform the Baathist government could be destroyed.

The Saudis have their own reasons to help things along. They loathe and fear Shiites of any description in about equal proportions. Iran,  Hizbullah and the so-called Alawi regime in Damascus are on the top of the list of  their own primal enemies. Smuggling arms across the border from Turkey or Syria by one or more of these enemies of the Syrian regime would not be difficult and neither would seeding the demonstrations with provocateurs. Given all the circumstances the best option would surely be for the Syrian government to be given time to put its reforms into effect. Bashar al Assad is personally popular and seems well-intended but is trapped within an ossified political system. The protests  were his opportunity to shake it up  but for those inside and outside Syria who want nothing less than the  overthrow of the regime, time and the opportunity to prove that he is sincere is what Bashar cannot be given.

Both Bashar and Muammar al Qaddafi have been referred to the Interrnational Criminal Court for prosecution. The ICC is yet another weapon in the arsenal of western governments, taking its place alongside the UN Security Council. The US doesn’t even accept its jurisdiction over US nationals but does not hesitate to use it against people it doesn’t like. Without producing any evidence, the chief prosecutor is now publicly accusing Qaddafi of promoting mass rape. The gay blogger girl in Damascus said to have been persecuted by the government has disappeared from sight. Was she real or a figment of someone’s imagination? Did Qaddafi really promote mass rape, or will we only find out the truth when he has gone and the accusation has served its purpose, like the babies thrown out of their humidicribs by Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait in 1990 and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003? The propaganda war is again raging and the western media is again playing its part. With the exceptions of its coverage of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, the bias in Al Jazeera’s reporting has been just as bad if not worse. Across the region, the west and its regional allies are working hard to stake out new positions that will enable them to control the Middle East as before. They want to drain, contain and divert the Arab revolution and they are using whatever tactics they think will work,   including bribery in the form of economic and investment assistance, military attack and the support of movements which serve their interests and the suppression of those that don’t.  There is a very real danger that the events of 2011 will be remembered not for what was gained but for what was lost. The Arab spring is at risk of passing directly to an Arab winter, with no summer in between.

– Jeremy Salt is associate professor in Middle Eastern History and Politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Previously, he taught at Bosporus University in Istanbul and the University of Melbourne in the Departments of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science. Professor Salt has written many articles on Middle East issues, particularly Palestine, and was a journalist for The Age newspaper when he lived in Melbourne. He contributed this article to

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