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Day 17

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Disgraceful Distortions by The Guardian

Syria and the Delusions of the Western Press

by PETER LEE

On April 10, a mysterious and bloody incident occurred near the seaside town of Banyas, in Syria.

Nine members of a Syrian army patrol were shot to death and twenty five were wounded—the single bloodiest incident in the Syrian uprising to date.

Western news services largely ignored the incident and concentrated on reports of the army’s move to encircle and pacify Banyas.

When they did report the incident, some were in thrall to their preconceptions and their sources in the democracy movement and have credulously entertained the most improbable explanations for the incident:  that the soldiers were murdered by one of their own number, who refused orders to fire on demonstrators; or that the Syrian secret service ordered officers to shoot their men in order to foment a provocation.

The most likely explanation—that infiltrators may be working to create chaos and destabilize the regime under cover of the demonstrations, and simply pumped two army trucks full of bullets in a carefully-planned ambush—has for the most part eluded them.

But even the paranoid have real enemies, and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad—who chattered vaguely and counterproductively about “conspiracies” in his address to the Syrian parliament– has reason to worry about dangerous opponents, now in exile but perhaps willing to stir up trouble.

The list of potential opponents includes Rifaat al-Assad, Bashar’s uncle, brother of Hafez al-Assad.  Rifaat tried to mount a coup against Hafez, but was forced into exile in 1984.

A more dangerous opponent is perhaps Abdul Halim Khaddam.  The all-around fixer for Hafez and number 3 in the regime, he could not reconcile himself to the elevation of the relatively unproven Bashar at the age of 34 on Hafez’s death.

He went into exile in Paris, followed by an indictment for treason.  In France, he claimed leadership of an opposition organization, the National Salvation Front, and offered damaging statements on the involvement of the Syrian leadership in the murder of Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese statesman.

Khaddam’s home town is Banyas, where the massacre occurred.

By a remarkable coincidence, the events in Banyas attracted the close attention of one of America’s chief Syria watchers: Dr. Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma. 

Dr. Landis’ wife is Syrian, and her cousin, Lt. Colonel Yasir Qash`ur , was one of the two Syrian army officers who died in the incident.

In an April 13 post titled, Western Press Misled:  Who Shot the Nine Syrian Soldiers in Banyas?  Not Syrian Security Forces, Landis debunked the claims reported by Agence France Presse  and the Guardian.  He also highlighted the pathetic ordeal of one wounded soldier badgered by anti-government activists but denying that he had been shot by security forces—only to have the video go out on Youtube the West with the canard attached.

Landis, an extremely circumspect and careful observer, wrote bluntly:

A number of news reports by AFP, the Guardian, and other news agencies and outlets are suggesting that Syrian security forces were responsible for shooting nine Syrian soldiers, who were killed in Banyas on Sunday. Some versions insist that they were shot for refusing orders to shoot at demonstrators.

Considerable evidence suggests this is not true and that western journalists are passing on bad information.

My wife spoke this morning to one witness who denied the story. He is colonel `Uday Ahmad, brother-in-law of Lt. Col. Yasir Qash`ur, who was shot and killed in Banyas with eight other Syrian soldiers on Sunday April 10, 2011. Uday Ahmad was sitting in the back seat of the truck which Yasir was driving when he was shot dead on the highway outside Banyas. Uday said that shooting was coming from two directions. One was from the roof of a building facing the highway and another from people hiding behind the cement median of the highway. They jumped up and shot into the two trucks carrying Syrian troops, killing 9. Col. Uday survived. Here is video of the shooting shown on Syrian TV sent by my brother-in-law, Firas, who lives in Latakia.

* Video of one soldier purportedly confessing to being shot in the back by security forces and linked to by the Guardian has been completely misconstrued. The Guardian irresponsibly repeats a false interpretation of the video provided by an informant.

1. This is what the Guardian writes: “Footage on YouTube shows an injured soldier saying he was shot in the back by security forces.”

The video does not “support” the story that the Guardian says it does. The soldier denies that he was ordered to fire on people. Instead, he says he was on his way to Banyas to enforce security. He does not say that he was shot at by government agents or soldiers. In fact he denies it. The interviewer tries to put words in his mouth but the soldier clearly denies the story that the interviewer is trying to make him confess to.  In the video, the wounded soldier is surrounded by people who are trying to get him to say that he was shot by a military officer. The soldier says clearly, “They [our superiors] told us, ‘Shoot at them IF they shoot at you.’”

The interviewer tried to get the wounded soldier to say that he had refused orders to shoot at the people when he asked : “When you did not shoot at us what happened?” But the soldier doesn’t understand the question because he has just said that he was not given orders to shoot at the people. The soldier replies, “Nothing, the shooting started from all directions”.  The interviewer repeats his question in another way by asking, “Why were you shooting at us, we are Muslims?” The soldier answers him, “I am Muslim too.”  The interviewer asks, “So why were you going to shoot at us?” The soldier replies, “We did not shoot at people. They shot at us at the bridge.”

The Guardian’s pseudonymous reporter in Damascus reported the allegations, incorrect, at least in the matter of the injured soldier shown on Youtube, and used the allegation to paint a dire picture of a military and a regime facing disintegration:

Syrian soldiers shot for refusing to fire on protesters.
Katherine Marsh – a pseudonym – in Damascus
guardian, Tuesday 12 April 2011

Witnesses claim soldiers who disobeyed orders in Banias were shot by security services as crackdown on protests intensifies.

Syrian soldiers have been shot by security forces after refusing to fire on protesters, witnesses said, as a crackdown on anti-government demonstrations intensified.

Witnesses told al-Jazeera and the BBC that some soldiers had refused to shoot after the army moved into Banias in the wake of intense protests on Friday.

Human rights monitors named Mourad Hejjo, a conscript from Madaya village, as one of those shot by security snipers. “His family and town are saying he refused to shoot at his people,” said Wassim Tarif, a local human rights monitor.

Footage on YouTube shows an injured soldier saying he was shot in the back by security forces Footage on YouTube shows an injured soldier saying he was shot in the back by security forces, while another video shows the funeral of Muhammad Awad Qunbar, who sources said was killed for refusing to fire on protesters. Signs of defections will be worrying to Syria’s regime. State media reported a different version of events, claiming nine soldiers had been killed in an ambush by an armed group in Banias.

According to Landis’ informants, the threat of Khaddamist infiltrators, though of limited interest to the Western media, is a matter of considerable anxiety among the pro-democracy activists.

Landis quoted an e-mail from the Damascus correspondent of la Republica, Alix van Buren, who wrote him:

Josh, the picture is extremely confusing and it is often impossible to confirm data on the web. The absence of most foreign media here in Syria adds to that murky picture. What I can contribute about the question of “foreign meddling” is the following. These are direct quotes from leading and respected opposition members:

Sunday two of ex-Vice President Khaddam’s men were arrested in Banyas. A human rights activist confirmed that they were sowing trouble by distributing money and weapons. I don’t know what to make of the confessions of the three guys shown on Syrian tv today. However, several Syrian dissidents believe in the presence and the role of “infiltrators”. Michel Kilo, though he accepts that possibility, cautioned that the issue of “infiltrators and conspiracies” should not be exploited as an obstacle in the quick transition towards democracy.

Haytham al-Maleh was the most explicit in pointing to the meddling of Khaddam people in and around Banias. He also mentioned the “loose dogs” loyal to Rifa’t al-Assad. According to him they are active particularly along the coast between Tartous and Latakya. Here is a link to my interview with al-Maleh in La Repubblica.

The veteran blogger Ahmed Abu ElKheir, unfortunately now in prison for the second time in less than a month, and not yet released, has links to Banyas. The first, peaceful demonstration of Saturday morning was also sparked by the request for his release. In his Facebook profile, before being arrested, he too lashed out against Khaddam. Several commentators from that area agreed with him, cursing Khaddam for meddling “with the blood of the innocents”.

If Dr. Landis is correct about the events in Banyas, the democratic stew in Syria has a dangerous element of foreign provocateurs delivering arms and money—and disinformation of a certain intensity and sophistication direct to Western journalists.

Landis writes dismissively of a literally bloodstained order allegedly issued by the Mukhabarat instructing officers that it was “acceptable” to shoot their own men:

A three-page document purporting to be a “top secret” Mukhabarat memo, giving instruction to intelligence forces that “it is acceptable to shoot some of the security agents or army officers in order to further deceive the enemy” has been published on the web and republished by all4Syria. A copy was sent to me with a translation by a journalist with a leading magazine for my thoughts. It has blood splattered on it and is clearly a fake. What army, after all, would survive even days if its top officers were publishing orders to shoot its own officers? Not a good moral [sic] booster for the troops.

Alleged mischief making by Khaddam and Rifaat al-Assad have an additional, regional dimension.

Saudi Arabia is quietly directing a pushback against Shi’a and Iranian influence in the Middle East, most conspicuously by its suppression of the largely Shi’a demonstrators in Bahrain, but also through a confrontational war of words (and expulsion of Iranian diplomats) conducted through the Gulf Co-Ordination Council of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the other sheikdoms.

Iran is anxious that Saudi Arabia is determined to destabilize Iran’s chief Middle East ally, Syria, as part of its effort to roll back Iranian influence and buttress the power of Sunni forces in the region.

The Assad regime is vulnerable to sectarian, anti-Shi’a agitation because the Assad family belongs to a minority sect, the Alawites, that are somewhat Shi’aesque and mystical in their observances.  The Alawites only comprise 12 per cent of the population.  Their religious practices are eyed askance by strict Sunni observers and opponents of the Iranian alliance, such as Khaddam, sometimes stir the sectarian pot with warnings of the creeping “Shi’aization” of Syria.

The level of Iranian concern—and a much interesting tittle-tattle concerning Khaddam and his alleged activities against the Assad regime—can be extracted from an op-ed carried on the website of the Iranian media outlet Press TV.

Titled Saudi Arabia, Jordan Behind Syria Unrest, it states:

Saudi Arabia, which often bows to US and Israel’s policies in the region, tried to destabilize Bashar al-Assad’s government by undermining his rule.

To this end, Saudi Arabia paid 30 million dollars to former vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam to quit Assad’s government.

Khaddam sought asylum in France in 2005 with the aid of Saudi Arabia and began to plot against the Syrian government with the exiled leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Khaddam, who is a relative of Saudi King Abdullah and former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, used his great wealth to form a political group with the aim of toppling Bashar al-Assad.

The triangle of Khaddam-Abdullah-Hariri is well-known in the region as their wives are sisters.

Khaddam’s entire family enjoys Saudi citizenship and the value investment by his sons, Jamal and Jihad, in Saudi Arabia is estimated at more than USD 3 billion.

Therefore, with the start of popular protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, the Saudi regime saw an opportunity to drive a wedge between Tehran, Damascus and Beirut axis.

Due to the direct influence of the Saudi Wahhabis on Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, the people of the cities of Daraa and Homs, following Saudi incitement and using popular demands as an excuse began resorting to violence.

It is reported that the United States, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia formed joint operational headquarters in the Saudi Embassy in Belgium to direct the riots in southern Syria. Abdul Halim Khaddam, who held the highest political, executive and information posts in the Syrian government for more than 30 years, is said to have been transferred from Paris to Belgium to direct the unrest.

The reason for this was that based on French law, political asylum seekers cannot work against their countries of origin in France and therefore Khaddam was transferred to Brussels to guide the riots.

Jordan equipped the Muslim Brotherhood in the two cities with logistical facilities and personal weapons.

Although, Bashar al-Assad promised implementation of fundamental changes and reforms after the bloody riot in the country, the Brotherhood followed continued to incite protesters against him.

The Syrian state television recently broadcast footage of armed activity in the border city of Daraa by a guerilla group, which opened fire on the people and government forces. It is said that the group, which is affiliated to Salafi movements, obtained its weapons from Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Because Syria’s ruling party is from the Alevi tribes associated with the Shias, the Brotherhood, due to its anti-Shia ideas, has tried for three decades to topple the Alevi establishment of the country.

Hence, the recent riots in Syria are not just rooted in popular demands and harbor a tribal aspect and Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the US are directing the unrest for their future purposes.

It looks like some enemies of Bashar al-Assad’s regime are ready to fight with violence on the streets and roads of Syria—and disinformation on the front pages of the newspapers of the world.

PETER LEE is a businessman who has spent thirty years observing, analyzing, and writing about internatyional affairs. Lee writes frequently for CounterPunch and can be reached at peterrlee-2000@yahoo.