Friday, April 26, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Syria: Notes on a Tragedy by Emanuel Stoakes

Syria: Notes on a Tragedy 
Emanuel Stoakes
Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, Syria
PHOTO: Kok Leng

Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Empirical

At the time of writing the Syrian regime is rumored to be “on the brink of collapse” as the battle in the ancient city of Aleppo reportedly approaches its endgame. The reader will, by now, be able to confirm the veracity of such reports, the latest example of similar claims that have been stated confidently on many occasions since the opening of the conflict. I write at a time when the United Nations observer mission has, like Ramadan, recently departed. The sanctity of the Holy month, not unlike the presence of the UN, did little to inhibit the brutality being visited upon Syrians from either side. Neither the Geneva Convention nor the injunctions of religion were forces powerful enough to slow the engine of this dirty war.

By now, as has often proved to be the case in so many internecine struggles in the Middle East, in Syria there’s no side in this fight that one can say are the “good guys” anymore. Both parties simply have too much blood on their hands.

At first, it seemed, there was little doubt about who the common enemy of the Syrian people was. It was as clear as day that the dictator–or nominal “president”–Bashar al-Assad (who is believed to have never won a fair election in his life), his self-serving government, and the military filled that role. Assad sent armed thugs to shoot at protesters, just as his friends in Iran had in 2009 following the election. A series of cruel assaults that followed Assad’s earlier outrages only made the state of affairs more obvious.

That was at the point last year before the opposition had turned to guns. As the popular struggle became an armed one, as its methods became distanced from that of the early Arab Spring uprisings that had inspired it, so too did its outcomes fail to match those of the victorious protesters in Tahrir square and elsewhere.

This is exactly what the intellectual leaders of the anti-Assad protests had warned against. Michel Kilo, Riad Drar, and others explicitly called for non-violence, fearing that they would be playing to the strengths of their enemy if the uprising turned violent. Their concerns were not unfounded as subsequent events have demonstrated.

Having said that, Assad’s forces are not the only killers backed by a political power, or government (or three). The army may be the worst offenders, but they are no longer the only party committing outrageous war crimes. Sensing the potential to further their regional ambitions and geo-strategic interests once the opposition in Syria took up arms, certain powers invested heavily in taking up the cause of the rebels. Saudi Arabia, in particular, widely considered the world’s leading exporter of fanatical Islamism, sent money and arms to the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA). The newly ambitious Qatari leadership acted similarly. In Saudi, clerics like the notorious Adnan al-Arur, a man known for his fierce criticism of the forms and followers of alternative Islamic schools of thought to his own, effectively became an agent of Saudi soft power. He is considered a follower of Salafism, a movement strongly opposed to political secularism. Several militias allied with the rebels claim inspiration from Arur, and his name has been chanted during some protests.

Syrian kids in Aleppo
PHOTO: Kok Leng
Arur’s large following and emotional broadcasts reportedly precipitated some of the most ferocious rebel attacks on the army. Unfortunately, they seem to have also contributed to the increasing brutality of rebel assaults, many now appearing to be sectarian in nature, with certain rebel factions targeting presumed collaborators in non-Sunni neighborhoods. There have been gruesome public executions. At one point in 2011, Arur was broadcast on a popular Arabic channel swearing that Alawites who were opposed to the rebels would have their bodies desecrated. “We shall mince them in meat grinders and we shall feed their flesh to dogs,” he said.

Arur did stress in his broadcast that those Alawites who were neutral would be safe. However, as Human Rights Watch reported earlier this year, the rebels have committed public executions, torture, and kidnappings–such forms of rough “justice” have reportedly meted out to both enemies and civilians. They seem to have shown little interest in applying discernment in some of their revenge attacks. A United Nations report has referred to sectarian violence targeting non-Sunnis by the rebels also.

Augmenting the Syrian rebels, an influx of foreign fighters has joined their ranks. There are estimated to be over one hundred groups fighting the government, among them some heavyweight Islamists, including Salafis. It has been reported also that groups that align themselves ideologically with al-Qaeda are among them. Films, many of which are impossible to verify, have shown appalling scenes including a video appearing to show the dismembered body parts of postal workers thrown off the roof of their workplace by the FSA. However, the video was broadcast by the partisan Russia Today news program, and it is stressed that the film has not yet been proven to be what it says it is.

War of “lies and hypocrisy”

Such a state of affairs is typical of this conflict. The veteran British foreign correspondent Robert Fisk called it “a war of lies and hypocrisy.” This is no overstatement. Many have turned out to be mendacious. On the side of the rebels, a spokesperson interviewed by CNN, Danny Abdul Dayem, a British citizen of Syrian descent, has been one of those accused of deceit. A recording of him appearing to tell unseen friends to start firing guns at the moment he goes on air led to him being asked some awkward questions by Anderson Cooper. However, the provenance of the damning footage, aired on Syrian TV, has yet to be identified.

In another case, a photograph of ceremonially wrapped bodies gathered after a massacre sent to the BBC by “human rights” groups allied to the rebel cause turned out to be merely used for propaganda purposes. The photograph, which the BBC’s source had said depicted the aftermath of the Houla massacre, was actually an image that displayed bodies lined-up in 2003 in Iraq. The Daily Telegraph covered the story, writing: “Photographer Marco di Lauro said he nearly ‘fell off his chair’ when he saw the image being used, and said he was ‘astonished’ at the failure of the corporation to check their sources.”
Banias Protest
PHOTO: Syria Freedom

In yet another case, a video broadcast on Australia’s respected ABC News that appeared to show abuses committed by the Syrian army was later exposed as propaganda. ABC’s News 24 originally ran it in a piece that said, “Video uploaded to a social media website purports to show Syrian security beating detained protesters and holding guns to their heads. In the video, which can’t be independently verified, around eight men can be seen lying face down on the floor, while armed guards lift them up by their belts, pile them on top of each other.” ABC issued an apology later, acknowledging that the footage was taken in Lebanon from a separate conflict.

“Has there ever been a Middle Eastern war of such hypocrisy? A war of such cowardice and such mean morality, of such false rhetoric. . . ?” asked Fisk, aptly it seems, in a piece in late July for the Independent newspaper in England. He lambasted, among others, the US, for supporting the opposition while calling for the establishment of democracy in Syria:

“President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, say they want a democracy in Syria. But Qatar is an autocracy and Saudi Arabia is among the most pernicious of caliphate-kingly-dictatorships in the Arab world. Rulers of both states inherit power from their families–just as Bashar has done–and Saudi Arabia is an ally of the Salafist-Wahabi rebels in Syria, just as it was the most fervent supporter of the medieval Taliban during Afghanistan’s dark ages. . . . The Saudis are repressing their own Shia minority just as they now wish to destroy the Alawite-Shia minority of Syria. And we believe Saudi Arabia wants to set up a democracy in Syria?”

Aleppo Citadel at Night
PHOTO: Luigi Guarino
To which he added: “But what US administration would really want to see Bashar’s atrocious archives of torture opened to our gaze? Why, only a few years ago, the Bush administration was sending Muslims to Damascus for Bashar’s torturers to tear their fingernails out for information, imprisoned at the US government’s request in the very hell-hole which Syrian rebels blew to bits last week. Western embassies dutifully supplied the prisoners’ tormentors with questions for the victims. Bashar, you see, was our baby.”

Fisk’s searing anger also targeted Syria’s allies in Lebanon, Hezbollah, who pride themselves on being a champion of the Palestinians and a resistance force against what they consider Israeli aggression from the South, who yet “have lost their tongue” over Syria. Being a Shia militant organization and an ally of Assad’s, they have failed to condemn “the rape and mass murder of Syrian civilians by Bashar’s soldiers” as they should.

All fair points, it seems. Which leads one to ask, especially given the savagery displayed by both sides, what solution to the conflict would be the most favorable–surely, a diplomatic one guaranteeing democracy, justice, and peace?

Yet, given the failure of Kofi Annan’s hopelessly violated six-point plan, his replacement faces an uphill struggle to try to get the fighting sides, backed by various regional and global powers, to make the necessary concessions. At this stage, such an outcome seems almost impossible.

The alternative is an outright military victory for either side. The respected Middle Eastern expert Patrick Seale considered what might happen in either scenario in June this year. Tellingly, he could only muster questions, not answers: “If Asad [sic] himself were toppled, would not the officer corps and the Ba’th party carry on the fight? If the whole state were brought down–as happened in Iraq–what would the next regime look like? Would extremist Islamists, bent on revenge, come to power? Would the country be dismembered, with the Alawis driven into their mountains, as Iraq was itself dismembered by the creation of a Kurdish statelet? Who will protect the minorities?”

The problem of the minorities
View of Aleppo from the Citadel
PHOTO: Michael Goodine

The minorities in Syria are scared for their lives. They encompass the country’s Shia community including the heterodox Alawite sect who are associated with the ruling regime, the nation’s millions of Christians, along with its Kurds, Druze, Maronite, and other inhabitants. The nation’s Sunni majority would be largely unthreatened by the victory of the rebels, given that the armed opposition are predominantly Sunni themselves. Instead, they have Assad’s brutal war machine to contend with and the threat of murderous reprisals in a government victory to dread.

However, looking at the way things stand, it seems minority prospects are even worse than those of Sunnis, who have each other as support in any outcome involving protracted sectarian struggle. According to most predictions, Assad’s days are numbered and given the demography of Syria, even if the disparate minorities combined to support each other, they would still amount to just that.

A Syrian academic based in Damascus who declined to be named for reasons of safety told me that Shias fear “that any political change [will] mean that they will be slaughtered.” He reports that a series of attacks on minorities in Syria’s capital have already taken place. In one incident “loudspeakers in Sunni mosques and in the streets were heard calling for ‘Islamic jihad’ and ordering the Shi’at [sic] people to leave their places at once or they will all be killed.” He also reported sectarian attacks on a well-known Shia hospital.

Many similar attacks have been alleged, not least targeted assassinations of family members of government figures like the Syrian basketball player Bassel Rayya, who was murdered by unknown assailants. There are Facebook pages appearing to have been set-up by sympathisers with the rebels that openly call for the murder. One, seen by this writer, explicitly calls for the assassination of people with family ties to the regime.

Meanwhile, as the fighting intensifies, humanitarian nightmares mount. Refugees are fleeing en masse, many leaving all that they own. It is estimated by the UN that over three million Syrians need food, crop, and livestock aid in the next twelve months as the conflict raging in their country has prevented farmers from operating as normal. Many need medical aid. The refugees now number 200,000.
PHOTO: Franco Pecchio

What price now a return to the values of the Arab spring? What chance the West will seek to back pluralism, democracy, and the protection of minorities in a new Syria? 

The West has sided, it seems, for good or ill, with those who wish to oust Assad. The CIA are known to have provided assistance to the opposition. The Brits have been sending “non-lethal” support to the rebels also and are known to be communicating with them. Criticism of Assad by Washington and London is explicit; open rebuke of rebel abuses from the governments of the English-speaking world are harder to come by.

President Obama has hinted that he may consider military intervention in the event that Syria uses her stockpile of chemical weapons. Given the deadlock at the United Nations Security Council over any multilateral resolutions, if Assad’s murderous regime turns to such weapons of mass destruction (real ones this time), the West may find justification for a limited military action to “do a Libya” and topple Assad. 

Yet Assad is no fool, and he and his Iranian supporters would be loath to give the West reasons to get involved militarily. The likelihood is that this will not happen, save in a moment of utter desperation. As Martin Chulov, The Guardian’s Middle East correspondent told me:

“No one has the appetite for invasion and occupation so soon after a failed attempt to re-orientate a sectarian state towards the West [presumably Iraq]. A no-fly zone could be possible, but I doubt that anyone can get around to it before Aleppo and Damascus are won by regime forces. . . . The West has very good reason to be cautious about an intervention. Troops on ground would be virtually impossible, unless it was a short raid to secure chemical weapons.”

Thus Syria’s fate hangs on the balance of military might in what may be a bitterly long and drawn out war.

Expert Opinions
Aleppo Citadel and Surrounding City
PHOTO: Luigi Guarino

In order to better understand the state of affairs in Syria, I asked the opinions of other well-known writers on several pertinent issues connected to the conflict.

Earlier this year, I asked the British journalist Nick Cohen, a well-known supporter of the invasion of Iraq, about whether a humanitarian intervention should take place in Syria. He prefers a solution involving the “US and NATO [co-operating] with the Turks and Arab League” to bring about an end to the civil war, given that Syria was “not the same as Libya.” This would involve the provision of a “no-fly zone and a safe zone for refugees” as per the wishes of the Syrian opposition.

I asked Noam Chomsky, a well-known critic of the invasion of Iraq, about what could be done to resolve the situation. Would a military intervention help, I asked? Chomsky replied that he would “defer to people who really know something about Syria” such as the commentators Charles Glass, Jonathan Steele, Patrick Seale, and others. He added: “As far as I am aware, virtually everyone in that category thinks that military intervention would make a terrible situation worse.”

I was lucky enough to get hold of Charles Glass. I asked him two questions that seemed urgent at the time. Firstly, I asked him: “Do you think that an FSA victory would lead to democracy, secular or otherwise? What would happen to minorities?”

He replied: “A victory of armed force, which includes the FSA and many others, could lead anywhere. Much too soon to predict. If the war goes on and/or the Salafists prevail, the Armeninans and Arab Christians will mostly depart. The Kurds will try to hang onto their new autonomy in the northeast, which might lead to conflict with a new government in Damascus.”
PHOTO: Beshr O

I asked him to what degree the conflict had become a sectarian battle. 

He replied: “There are many wars going on at the same time: proxy war between the US and Russia, between Sunni Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey against Shiah [sic] Iran, between Salafists and secularists, between democrats and supporters of dictatorship. It seems the outside powers are influencing events more than Syrians.”

Syria’s future remains uncertain. What’s entirely clear is that Assad is an intolerable dictator and his regime is criminal. This being said, the Free Syrian Army must begin to once again act in accordance with the spirit of the Arab Spring, or risk merely becoming the agents of a politically ambiguous coup d’├ętat.

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