And Now for Syria

By Jeremy Salt – Ankara

‘We came, we saw, he died’. So did Hillary Clinton, paraphrasing Julius Ceasar, only a few years before his own brutal death, she should perhaps be reminded, describe the conquest of Libya and the murder of Muammar Gaddafi. Asked if there was a connection between the killing and her visit to Tripoli a few days earlier, when she spoke of looking ahead to the capture or killing of Gaddafi, she remarked: ‘Of course there was’. So we can reasonably surmise she was there to inform the ‘national transitional council’ of what had been decided. The Americans knew exactly where Gaddafi was. Knowing also that a breakout was imminent, they had decided that he would be prevented from escaping but also prevented from appearing before the International Criminal Court. Whether someone said it out loud or not we don’t know. They probably did, but what it meant was that he would have to be killed.

According to a detailed report in the French newspaper, Le Canard Enchaîné, a US Predator drone had been tracking the Libyan leader’s  movements.  On the ground American and French special forces were charged with helping the ‘rebels’ investing Sirte quarter by quarter. When the time came they were to ‘handle’ the Libyan leader and his family or, according to another euphemism, ‘deliver the parcel to Renard’, a possible reference to a special unit of the ‘national transitional council’. Early in the morning of October 20 three NATO planes appeared outside Sirte. When a column of 75 vehicles was seen leaving the city it was hit by Hellfire missiles fired from a Predator Drone and two 225-kilogram GBU-12 laser-guided bombs dropped by a French Mirage 2000-D. Twenty-five vehicles in the convoy were destroyed. Close to 100 people were killed but the main target – Gaddafi – survived. Some reports suggest that he was leaving the city under a white flag, according to a prearranged plan, but was betrayed.     

On the ground French special forces were waiting. Whatever their role from that point on, Gaddafi was found in a culvert under the road, pulled out by a howling pack of ‘rebels’ and done to death in the most disgusting fashion.  Even Bernard Henri-Lèvi, who flew from Paris to Benghazi to give the uprising the benefit of his illustrious reputation, was disappointed. Up to the point of Gaddafi’s murder, he wrote, the ‘essential morality’ of the insurrection had been ‘almost exemplary’.  The ‘almost’ is the loophole that leaves space for the atrocities committed by the ‘rebels’ from the beginning as well as the civilians killed in British, French and US air attacks.  The bodies of the Libyan leader, his son Mu’tasim and his intelligence chief were put on public display in Misrata until they rotted.  Amidst the ruins of Sirte, the bodies of hundreds of ‘Gaddafi loyalists’ were found, hands tied behind their backs and shot through the head after capture. Other bodies, of men, women and children, remained buried in the ruins of buildings destroyed in NATO air strikes, as part of what Anders Fogh Rassmussen declared  was  ‘one of the most successful’ missions  in NATO history …  we have fully complied with the historic mandate of the United Nations to protect the people of Libya,  to enforce the no-fly zone and the arms embargo’. 

The dishonesty of this statement is a fitting conclusion to an operation that was dishonest from the start. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, there was no popular revolution in Libya. The overthrow of the government in Tripoli was a western operation from start to finish, with the so-called ‘rebels’ and ‘revolutionaries’ on the ground playing a supporting role. There was not the slightest indication that anything but a small number of Libyans supported foreign intervention or the overthrow of their government. Africans certainly did not. Gaddafi took a leading role in the foundation of the African Union, served as its president for one term and had set aside billions of dollars for the creation of African central financial institutions, aimed at freeing the continent from the stranglehold of the IMF, before he was murdered. Nelson Mandela and other African leaders regarded the invasion as yet another criminal adventure in the long history of western assaults on their continent. The evidence that Britain, France and the US committed war crimes is overwhelming. There are also the questions of whether the war itself and the refusal to seek a negotiated solution before resorting to arms violated various articles of the UN Charter or could be justified under the recently invoked ‘responsibility to protect’.    

None of this will be subjected to investigation or inquiry. As far as far as the actions of these three western ‘liberal democracies’  are concerned, not just in Libya but in other countries around the world,  the UN charter, international law and conventions on war crimes are irrelevant. They do what they want, when they want and where they want. It is precisely this lawless behavior that disturbs the rest of the world. It is Saif al Islam al Gaddafi the ICC wants to prosecute for war crimes, not Sarkozy, Cameron, Obama, Rasmussen and the military commanders of the aerial invasion of Libya. The Palestinians have asked the ICC to investigate war crimes committed by Israel during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (2008-09). It has steadfastly refused to act on their petition. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, now calling on the Syrian government to ‘stop the violence’, had nothing to say during the eight months in which thousands of Libyan civilians (not to mention the soldiers obliterated without any chance of being able to defend themselves) were being killed in British, French and American air attacks.   

In a recent article Muhammad Hassanein Heykal, the doyen of Egyptian political commentators, wrote that what we are witnessing is the greatest attempt to reshape the Middle East since the Sykes-Picot treaty of 1916. The ‘Arab spring’ caught the imperial west on the back foot. Quickly recovering, it set out to turn challenge into opportunity. We are now seeing how the script for the new Middle East is being written. The autocratic gulf regimes that are the central pillar of ‘western interests’ are not to be disturbed. Elsewhere the rhetoric of freedom and democracy is to be enthusiastically and openly embraced even as ‘dialogue’ continues behind closed doors with groups that have no particular interest in either.  

In Egypt demonstrations against Mubarak have been replaced by demonstrations against the military council and the mistreatment and imprisonment of protestors.  The masses of largely young people who overthrew Mubarak through the sheer power of their energy, enthusiasm and determination are seeing the revolution being snatched out of their hands. In dealing with the emerging duumvirate – the military and the Muslim Brotherhood – the chief concern of the US will be the protection of US interests across the region and not the wishes of the Egyptian people. It will be framing its position around the expected election in late November of a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government that will be close to Saudi Arabia and correspondingly antipathetic to Iran.  

The Brotherhood is a not a monolithic movement but the US will be relying on the leadership – older and pragmatic – to control the drive from below to scrap the most important item on the American agenda, the 1979 ‘peace’ treaty with Israel.  The influence of Saudi Arabia, underpinned by its money power, will be a central element. What Egypt does within its own borders, as long as it sites its regional policies within the perimeter of US interests, will be regarded as  its own business, with the grievances of women and minorities  dealt with reprovingly  in the country reports issued by the State Department.   
In Libya the ‘Arab spring’ created the opportunity to get rid of a man who had offended the west for decades. The rights of the Libyan people and the need to protect them from the demented dictator were played on to the full. On the basis of lying claims made to the UN Human Rights Council about Gaddafi’s scorched earth campaign and the bombing from the air of his own citizens,  later augmented with other lies, of officially-encouraged mass rape and the use of black mercenaries, the no-fly zone was introduced and passed by the UNSC.  Once Britain, France and the US intervened, Gaddafi was doomed.  

The jamahiriyya now passes into history but without the comfort for the Libyan people of knowing what lies in the future beyond the sharia law promised by Mustafa Abdul Jalil. For the US, Britain and France, the gamble seems to have paid off. The economic rewards for bringing down Gaddafi are already coming their way. Russia, China and Brazil had extensive contracts in the Libyan energy and construction sectors but will be punished for opposing military intervention. Russia was represented by the oil giants Gazprom and Tatneft, Brazil by Petrobas and the Odebrecht construction company, China by 75 companies. Their contracts with the former Libyan government were worth billions of dollars.  ‘We have lost Libya completely’, Aram Shegunts, the chairman of the Russia-Libya Council, told Reuters. It may not work out like this. In 2003 the Iraqi government abrogated oil contracts with Russia and China,  only to bring them back into the picture a few years later, to the displeasure of the US oil giants. At the end of the western road, however the economic spoils are distributed, lies the possibility of military bases and Libya’s reincorporation into the western strategic and economic order. 

The next item in the western deck of cards is Syria and the possibility of finally bringing down a regime which has cooperated with the west from time to time (as it did after the 9/11 attacks) but basically has remained a thorn in the side of the US and Israel.  The US has been after Syria for years.  Indeed, covert intervention in Syrian affairs dates back to the earliest years of its emergence from French mandatory rule. Recently, in 2003, the US Congress passed the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, sponsored by New York Congressman Eliot L.Engel, who describes himself as being amongst ‘the strongest supporters of a close US-Israeli relationship’. The prime purpose of the act was to weaken the Syrian government through economic sanctions and – most immediately – force it to end its presence in Lebanon. US sanctions were quickly followed by EU sanctions, both centring on the banking sector and the export of technology and similar to the sanctions applied against Iran.  

In Lebanon the campaign against Syria reached a climactic point with the assassination in February, 2005, of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri. The crime horrified the Lebanese public, creating the momentum which compelled Syria to withdraw what remained of its military forces within a few months. This coup for the US and its allies was followed by the indictment of four ‘pro Syrian’ Lebanese generals responsible for security, police, intelligence and the operations of the presidential guard. They were held for four years before being released for lack of evidence, a decision which was a complete indictment of the shoddy work of Detlev Mehlis, the first prosecutor appointed by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Without losing a breath, the tribunal then turned its attention to Hizbullah, eventually issuing indictments against four of its members. It has refused to deal with its admission of fraudulent evidence given against the four generals by ‘false witnesses’ and has ignored compelling circumstantial evidence (intercepted drone reconnaissance film released by Hizbullah) implicating Israel in the killing. 

Another weapon used against Syria is its designation by the US State Department’s as a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’ (along with Cuba, Iran and Sudan). The cause is Syria’s support for the Palestinians through Hamas, its support for Hizbullah and its strategic relationship with Iran (which includes a mutual defence treaty). Israel has made its own contributions to the campaign against Syria.  In 2006 it launched an air attack on a site in northern Syria which it claimed to be a fledgling nuclear installation. In 2008 Imad Mughniyeh, a key figure in Hizbullah, was assassinated in Damascus when a bomb exploded in a car as he walked by it. A Syrian agent working for Israel was recently arrested in connection with that murder. Later in 2008 Brigadier-General Muhammad Suleiman, an intelligence advisor to Bashar al Assad, was assassinated near Tartus, very possibly by a sniper firing from a yacht.  This murder is generally believed to have been the work of the Israelis,  rather than an inside job.

Now the ‘Arab spring’ has created the opportunity to strike a terminal blow against the Assad regime. The failure of Israel to crush Hizbullah when it attacked Lebanon in 2006 is said to have persuaded the former Saudi ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, that something could and should be done about Syria. By 2008 Prince Bandar and the former US Ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, according to media reports, were working on a plan to destabilise Syria involving  $2 billion in funding and the creation of a system of overlapping networks tasked with murder and the spreading of  propaganda, disinformation and sectarian turmoil. Media skills and the mobilization of young people were emphasized. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists would be used as tools against the regime. In a recent article (‘The Great Game in Syria’) the Beirut-based analyst Alastair Crooke has filled out more details. In Washington, according to Crooke, Feltman has been working on Syria with two other former ambassadors, Ron Schlicher and David Hale. Hypothetical planning took a more operational form after the fall of the Saad Hariri government in Beirut in January this year and the overthrow of Husni Mubarak a month later. Qatar provided money and a base for operations in Doha. According to Crooke, the Palestinian exile and former Knesset member  Azmi  Bishara ‘cooked up’ a scenario in which Al Jazeera would not just report revolution but would foment it through the region, on a selective basis, of course. The results of this policy were first seen in Libya, where Al Jazeera’s  ‘news’  coverage complemented Qatar’s political coordination with Britain, France and the US and the role played by its special forces on the ground in the overthrow of the government in Tripoli.

With regard to Syria, Feltman and his team were assigned the task of overall coordination; Qatar would host the war room, the news room and would provide money; the ‘Elysee team’ in Paris (including Bernard Henri-Lèvy) and Doha would take the lead in pushing the ‘transitional council’ model; Prince Bandar and Turkey would jointly manage the Sunni theatre inside Syria, ‘both armed and unarmed’,  according to Crooke, with Turkey also assigned the task of  ‘playing point’ on the Syrian border.    

If none of this is true the parallels between these reports of planned destabilization and actual destabilization are certainly an extraordinary coincidence. Arms and money are pouring into Syria from Lebanon and Turkey. Propaganda is at the same time being poured into the western mainstream media. The head of  Al Jazeera’s  Beirut  bureau,  Ghassan bin Jiddu,  a known advocate of political reform in Syria, resigned over the channel’s abandonment of any pretence of neutrality with regard to Libya and Syria and its transformation from a news centre into what the Lebanese daily Al Safir called ‘an operations room for incitement and mobilization’. In the name of the Syrian National Council, a ‘transitional council’ bringing together Syrian exiles of varying ethnic and religious backgrounds has been set up in Istanbul. Turkey is maintaining pressure on Syria through sanctions and its protection of  a Syrian army defector (Colonel Riad Asaad) who openly boasts of the number of Syrian soldiers his small group of army rebels (the Free Syrian Army) is killing.     

Buttressing this mixture of what is known and what is suspected is the hard evidence of US involvement in the campaign against the Syrian government. This has mainly come from the Wikileaks release of US diplomatic correspondence sent from Damascus. Support for opponents of the regime inside and outside Syria has been provided through a State Department program, the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). According to a 2009 cable, a Los Angeles-based organization, the Democracy Council, was given $6.3 million by the State Department to run a program called the Civil Society Strengthening Initiative. Specifically tied to Syria, this initiative was described as a ‘discrete collaborative effort between the Democracy Council and local partners’ to produce – among other objectives – ‘various broadcast concepts’. These included Al Barada satellite channel, the propaganda  arm (broadcasting into Syria 24 hours a day) of the London-based Movement for Justice and Development. According to a State Department spokesman, $7.5 million has been allocated to MEPI projects since 2005. Cables from Damascus put the figure at $12 million from 2005 to 2010. An unspecified amount of money has been funneled through proxy organizations to opponents of the regime inside Syria. 

The relationship between Syrian exiles, including Abdul Halim Khaddam, Burhan Ghaliun and Radwan Ziadeh, and the US government is no secret. Cables released by Wikileaks show that the US was being advised to encourage the Saudis to give Khaddam access to its media so that he could ‘air’ the Syrian government’s ‘dirty linen’. Insofar as the destabilization of Syria from the inside was concerned, it was suggested that rumors should be spread about a possible coup; that rumors should be spread about plotting and restlessness in the military and intelligence services; that Kurdish complaints centring on economic grievances should be highlighted;  and that  Sunni fears of Iran should be played upon.  

A Saudi source quoted by Alastair Crooke said that King Abdullah believed ‘regime change’ in Damascus would greatly benefit Saudi interests: ‘The king knows that other than the collapse of the Islamic republic itself, nothing would weaken Iran more than losing Syria’. Here US, Saudi and Israeli interests intersect perfectly but ‘regime change’ in Syria is a far more complex and dangerous project than destroying the government in Libya. Russian and Chinese opposition even to sanctions rules out the possibility of a second no-fly zone directed against Syria being passed by UN Security Council. Anders Fogh Rasmussen has had to admit that NATO will not be intervening in Syria; if there is to be intervention another route will have to be found. Assad has warned that Syria is a fault line and that armed intervention would trigger off an earthquake across the region.  The violence of the armed gangs and the scenes of destruction and death delivered to Libya through foreign intervention seem to have bound Syrians more tightly to their government. In the war of demonstrations, including the mass demonstrations recently held in Ladhikiyya and Deir al Zor, the supporters of the government would appear to have the numbers.

The struggle for Syria is not just about the Assad government, reform and the wishes of the Syrian people. They are factors in a much bigger game which is being played out across the region, whose outcome will decide the fate of the Middle East for decades to come. It is a game –  a game partly of calculation and partly of chance – because those playing it cannot be sure of the outcome. The reshaping of the Middle East has been a continuing process since the end of the First World War. The western powers have had their ups and downs, their successes and their failures, but in the ‘Arab spring’, behind the regional movement for democracy and freedom, the US and its allies see the opportunity to bring about changes they have wanted for a long time. There is complete convergence between their interests and the interests of Saudi Arabia and other gulf states. Just as in the 1950s western ‘defence’ plans were based on the construction of an anti-Soviet and anti-Arab nationalist wall across the Middle East, so now it seems that western and Saudi plans centre on the construction of a wall of anti-Iranian and anti-Shia Sunni Muslim governments across the region. In a new, reforged Syria, in a country with a 70 per cent Sunni Muslim population, the Muslim Brotherhood, bolstered by its relationship with Saudi Arabia, supported by Turkey and feeding off the electoral success of Muslim movements elsewhere, would be well placed to play a commanding role in government. The strategic relationship between Iran, Syria and Hizbullah would be broken. Whatever comes next, this would be an achievement of surpassing strategic importance to the US and its allies. The problem for them is how to shake the tree so this prize falls into their lap.   

– Jeremy Salt teaches the history of the modern Middle East in the Department of Political science, Bilkent University, Ankara. He previously taught at Bogazici (Bosporus) University in Istanbul and the University of Melbourne. His publications include The Unmaking of the Middle East: A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands (University of California Press, 2008). He contributed this article to

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