FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Credibility and Intervention

by PATRICK COCKBURN

The Syrian army is moving to crush in blood the protesters calling for democracy and the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Unburied bodies lie in the streets of Deraa, the city in the south which has been at the centre of the popular revolt.

Will the government succeed? The chances for the moment look evenly balanced, with almost everything depending on whether or not demonstrators continue to march and rally all over Syria despite the savage repression. There is also the possibility of divisions in the army, though less so than in many other Arab countries.

The uprising against police states, both republican and monarchical, in the Arab world is entering its fifth month without a decisive victory by either the powers-that-be or the protesters. In Tunisia and Egypt the political and military elite felt that, if they got rid of their geriatric leaders along with their families and cronies, they might prevent radical changes in the political and social status quo. In Bahrain the monarchy, aided by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf states, destroyed the pro-democracy movement and is terrorizing its supporters.

Syria is going down the same road as Bahrain. At the end of last week President Assad and his inner circle appear to have decided that such limited concessions as they were willing to make were only being interpreted as weakness. They gave orders to their security forces to shoot unarmed demonstrators and stamp out all signs of dissent on the streets.

Repression in Syria may work for the moment. The government has a core of support based on the Allawite minority, to which the Assad family and top military and political members of the regime belong. There are others who work for the state and fear change, as well as Christian and Druze minorities who do not believe opposition claims to be non-sectarian.

Overall, however, the police states in the Arab world, which have seemed so immoveable over the last 35 years, are fighting to survive. Before about 1975 there was an era of army coups d’etat, but these stopped as ferocious multi-layered security agencies turned military dictatorships into police states. East European intelligence agencies gave fraternal advice on how this could be done.

There was more to total state control than just keeping the army in its barracks. Censorship of all forms of media was pervasive as was control of all non-state agencies such as trade unions and political parties. Only the mosque retained some autonomy, which explains why opposition to autocracy so often took an Islamic form.

By this year the ingredients of repression had lost something of their old potency. Torturers and executioners still retained their ability to frighten.  But regimes had lost their control over information and communications thanks to the internet, satellite television and even the humble mobile phone. One member of the Syrian opposition points out that when thousands in Hama were slaughtered by the forces of President Hafez  al-Assad in 1982 there was not a single picture of even one of the bodies. Today pictures of the dead and wounded in Deraa and elsewhere in Syria are transmitted to the rest of the world within seconds of them being shot.

 Of course governments can counter-attack and close down mobile phone networks and ban journalists from operating in Syria. But 100 satellite phones distributed by an opposition Syrian businessman make total control of information almost impossible to establish.  The role of the internet in the Arab Awakening has been well-publicized, but that of satellite stations, notably al-Jazeera is underplayed. The US has every reason to be embarrassed by this since Washington spent years claiming that al-Jazeera’s criticism of US policy in Iraq after the invasion showed it must be linked to al-Qa’ida. An al-Jazeera cameraman was held in Guantanamo for six years so US interrogators could find out more about the television station.

Britain, France and Italy have now called on sanctions against Syria to show disapproval of the repression. But they should not do more because intrusive foreign intervention is likely to prove counter-productive. There are already signs of this in Libya. Justifiable action against impending massacre turns into imperial intervention. NATO air strikes against Colonel Gaddafi’s tanks advancing on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi have escalated into an air war, aided by foreign advisers on the ground, with the purpose of overthrowing the regime. In such an offensive the Libyan rebels, whatever their popular support and skill in media relations, may play only a walk on part.

It is worth recalling that most Afghans were pleased when the Taliban collapsed in 2001 and most Iraqis were glad to see the back of Saddam Hussein in 2003. But it did not follow that the opponents of autocracy were united, had real support or were less corrupt or more competent than their predecessors. Nor were Afghans or Iraqis prepared to see foreign armies determine who should hold power in their countries.

People whom Western states claim they are trying to aid for humanitarian reasons are understandably sceptical about how altruistic their motives really are. Their suspicions will only be confirmed by documents published this week by The Independent giving details of talks between the British government and BP and Royal Dutch Shell in 2002 on how to avoid US companies excluding them from exploiting Iraqi oil reserves.

There is a further reason why Britain and other foreign states should limit their involvement in the conflicts now raging in the Arab world. It is true that the struggle is primarily between popular protests or uprisings against vicious autocracies. But these crises have at least some aspects of a civil war: there are tribes which support Col Gaddafi and there are Syrians who believe that the opposition is more sectarian and Sunni-dominated than is evident from their human rights agenda.

It is right for Britain and its allies to protest at the butchery in Syria, though their criticism might carry more weight had they been equally vocal about torture, disappearances and killings in Bahrain.  But this humanitarian zeal easily becomes a cover for wider intervention, because retreat is humiliating and therefore politically impossible, and the field cannot be left open to other competing interventionist powers. The outside world can mitigate, but should not try to change, what is happening in Syria.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq

 

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
Steve Horn
Under Tillerson, Exxon Maintained Ties with Saudi Arabia, Despite Dismal Human Rights Record
John Berger
The Nature of Mass Demonstrations
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
Brian Cloughley
What Money Can Buy: the Quiet British-Israeli Scandal
Mel Gurtov
Donald Trump’s Lies And Team Trump’s Headaches
Kent Paterson
Mexico’s Great Winter of Discontent
Norman Solomon
Trump, the Democrats and the Logan Act
David Macaray
Attention, Feminists
Yves Engler
Demanding More From Our Media
James A Haught
Religious Madness in Ulster
Dean Baker
The Economics of the Affordable Care Act
Patrick Bond
Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions
Robert Fisk
How a Trump Presidency Could Have Been Avoided
Robert Fantina
Trump: What Changes and What Remains the Same
David Rosen
Globalization vs. Empire: Can Trump Contain the Growing Split?
Elliot Sperber
Dystopia
Dan Bacher
New CA Carbon Trading Legislation Answers Big Oil’s Call to Continue Business As Usual
Wayne Clark
A Reset Button for Political America
Chris Welzenbach
“The Death Ship:” An Allegory for Today’s World
Uri Avnery
Being There
Peter Lee
The Deep State and the Sex Tape: Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover, and Thurgood Marshall
Patrick Hiller
Guns Against Grizzlies at Schools or Peace Education as Resistance?
Randy Shields
The Devil’s Real Estate Dictionary
Ron Jacobs
Singing the Body Electric Across Time
Ann Garrison
Fifty-five Years After Lumumba’s Assassination, Congolese See No Relief
Christopher Brauchli
Swing Low Alabama
Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones
La Realidad: the Realities of Anti-Mexicanism
Jon Hochschartner
The Five Least Animal-Friendly Senate Democrats
Pauline Murphy
Fighting Fascism: the Irish at the Battle of Cordoba
Susan Block
#GoBonobos in 2017: Happy Year of the Cock!
Louis Proyect
Is Our Future That of “Sense8” or “Mr. Robot”?
Charles R. Larson
Review: Robert Coover’s “Huck out West”
David Yearsley
Manchester-by-the-Sea and the Present Catastrophe
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail