As insurrection in Syria lurches towards civil war, the brakes need to be put on the propaganda pouring through the Western mainstream media and accepted uncritically by many who should know better. So here is a matrix of positions from which to argue about what is going on in this critical Middle Eastern country.
1. Syria has been a mukhabarat (intelligence) state since the redoubtable Abdel-Hamid Al-Serraj ran the intelligence services as the deuxième bureau in the 1950s. The authoritarian state which developed from the time former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad took power in 1970 has crushed all dissent ruthlessly. On occasion it has either been him or them. The ubiquitous presence of themukhabarat is an unpleasant fact of Syrian life, but as Syria is a central target for assassination and subversion by Israel and Western intelligence agencies, as it has repeatedly come under military attack, as it has had a large chunk of its territories occupied, and as its enemies are forever looking for opportunities to bring it down, it can hardly be said that the mukhabarat is not needed.
2. There is no doubt that the bulk of the people demonstrating in Syria want a peaceful transition to a democratic form of government. Neither is there any doubt that armed groups operating from behind the screen of the demonstrations have no interest in reform. They want to destroy the government.
3. There have been very big demonstrations of support for the government. There is anger at the violence of the armed gangs and anger at external interference and exploitation of the situation by outside governments and the media. In the eyes of many Syrians, their country is once again the target of an international conspiracy.
4. Whatever the truth of the accusations made against the security forces, the armed groups have killed hundreds of police, soldiers and civilians, in total probably close to 1,000 at this stage. The civilian dead include university professors, doctors and even, very recently, the son of the grand mufti of the republic. The armed gangs have massacred, ambushed, assassinated, attacked government buildings and sabotaged railway lines.
5. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has a strong base of personal popularity. Although he sits on top of the system, it is misleading to call him a dictator. The system itself is the true dictator. Deeply rooted power in Syria — entrenched over five decades — lies in the military and intelligence establishment, and to a lesser degree in the ruling Baath Party structure. These are the true sources of resistance to change. The demonstrations were Al-Assad’s opportunity to pass on the message, which he did, that the system had to change.
6. In the face of large-scale demonstrations earlier this year, the government did finally come up with a reform programme. This was rejected out of hand by the opposition. No attempt was even made to test the bona fides of the government.
7. The claim that armed opposition to the government has begun only recently is a complete lie. The killings of soldiers, police and civilians, often in the most brutal circumstances, has been going on virtually since the beginning.
8. The armed groups are well armed and well organised. Large shipments of weapons have been smuggled into Syria from Lebanon and Turkey. They include pump action shotguns, machine guns, Kalashnikovs, RPG launchers, Israeli-made hand grenades and numerous other explosives. It is not clear who is providing these weapons but someone is, and someone is paying for them. Interrogation of captured members of armed gangs points in the direction of former Lebanese prime minister Saad Al-Hariri’s Future Movement. Al-Hariri is a front man for the US and Saudi Arabia, with influence spreading well beyond Lebanon.
9. Armed opposition to the regime largely seems to be sponsored by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. In 1982, the Syrian government ruthlessly crushed an uprising initiated by the Brotherhood in the city of Hama. Many thousands died, and part of the city was destroyed. The Brotherhood has two prime objectives: the destruction of the Baathist government and the destruction of the secular state in favour of an Islamic system. It is almost palpably thirsting for revenge.
10. The armed groups have strong support from outside, apart from what is already known or indicated. Exiled former Syrian vice-president and foreign minister, Abdel-Halim Khaddam, who lives in Paris, has been campaigning for years to bring down the Al-Assad government. He is funded by both the EU and the US. Other exiled activists include Burhan Ghalioun, backed by Qatar as the leader of the “National Council” set up in Istanbul. Ghalioun, like Khaddam, lives in Paris and like him also, lobbies against the Al-Assad government in Europe and in Washington.
Together with Mohamed Riyad Al-Shaqfa, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, he is receptive to outside “humanitarian intervention” in Syria on the Libyan model (others are against it). The promotion of the exiles as an alternative government is reminiscent of the way the US used exiled Iraqis (the so-called Iraqi National Congress) ahead of the invasion of Iraq.
11. The reporting by the Western media of the situations in Libya and Syria has been appalling. NATO intervention in Libya has been the cause of massive destruction and thousands of deaths. The war, following the invasion of Iraq, is yet another major international crime committed by the governments of the US, Britain and France. The Libyan city of Sirte has been bombarded day and night for two weeks without the Western media paying any attention to the heavy destruction and loss of life that must have followed. The Western media has made no attempt to check reports coming out of Sirte of the bombing of civilian buildings and the killing of hundreds of people. The only reason can be that the ugly truth could well derail the whole NATO operation.
12. In Syria the same media has followed the same pattern of misreporting and disinformation. It has ignored or skated over the evidence of widespread killings by armed gangs. It has invited its audience to disbelieve the claims of government and believe the claims of rebels, often made in the name of human rights organisations based in Europe or the US. Numerous outright lies have been told, as they were told in Libya and as they were told ahead of the attack on Iraq. Some at least have been exposed.
People said to have been killed by state security forces have turned up alive. The brothers of Zainab Al-Hosni claimed she has been kidnapped by security forces, murdered and her body dismembered. This lurid account, spread by the TV channels Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya amongst other outlets, was totally false. She is still alive although now, of course, the propaganda tack is to claim that this is not really her but a double. Al-Jazeera, the British newspaper The Guardian and the BBC have distinguished themselves by their blind support of anything that discredits the Syrian government. The same line is being followed by the mainstream media in the US. Al-Jazeera, in particular, having distinguished itself with its reporting of the Egyptian revolution, has lost all credibility as an independent Arab world news channel.
13. In seeking to destroy the Syrian government, the Muslim Brotherhood has a goal in common with the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose paranoia about Shia Islam reached fever pitch with the uprising in Bahrain. WikiLeaks has revealed how impatient it was for the US to attack Iran. A substitute target is the destruction of the strategic relationship between Iran, Syria and the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah. The US and the Saudis may want to destroy the Alawi-dominated Baathist regime in Damascus for slightly different reasons, but the important thing is that they do want to destroy it.
14. The US is doing its utmost to drive Syria into a corner. It is giving financial support to exiled leaders of the opposition. It has tried (and so far failed, thanks to Russian and Chinese opposition) to introduce an extensive programme of sanctions through the UN Security Council. No doubt it will try again, and depending on how the situation develops, it may try, with British and French support, to bring on a no-fly zone resolution opening the door to foreign attack.
The situation is fluid and no doubt all sorts of contingency plans are being developed. The White House and the State Department are issuing hectoring statements every other day. Openly provoking the Syrian government, the US ambassador, accompanied by the French ambassador, travelled to Hama before Friday prayers. Against everything that is known about their past record of interference in Middle Eastern countries, it is inconceivable that the US and Israel, along with France and Britain, would not be involved in this uprising beyond what is already known.
15. While concentrating on the violence of the Syrian regime, the US and European governments (especially Britain) have totally ignored the violence directed against it. Their own infinitely greater violence, of course, in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places doesn’t even come into the picture. Turkey has joined their campaign against Syria with relish, going even further than they have in confronting the Syrian regime.
In the space of a few months Turkey’s “zero problem” regional policy has been upended in the most inchoate manner. Turkey eventually lent its support to the NATO attack on Libya, after initially holding back. It has antagonised Iran by its policy on Syria and by agreeing, despite strong domestic opposition, to host a US radar missile installation clearly directed against Iran. The Americans say the installation’s data will be shared with Israel, which has refused to apologise for the attack on the Turkish ship the Mavi Marmara, plunging Israeli-Turkish relations into near crisis. So from “zero problems”, Turkey now has a regional policy full of problems with Israel, Syria and Iran.
16. While some members of the Syrian opposition have spoken out against foreign intervention, the “Free Syrian Army” has said that its aim is to have a no-fly zone declared over northern Syria. A no-fly zone would have to be enforced, and we have seen how this led in Libya to massive infrastructural destruction, the killing of thousands of people and the opening of the door to a new period of Western domination.
17. If the Syrian government is brought down, every last Baathist and Alawi will be hunted down. In a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the status of minorities and women would be driven back.
18. Through its Syria Accountability Act, and through sanctions which the EU has imposed, the US has been trying to destroy the Syrian government for 20 years. The dismantling of unified Arab states along ethno-religious lines has been an aim of Israel’s for decades. Where Israel goes, the US naturally follows. The fruits of this policy can be seen in Iraq, where an independent state in all but name has been created for the Kurds and where the constitution, written by the US, separates Iraq’s people into Kurds, Sunnis, Shias and Christians, destroying the binding logic of Arab nationalism. Iraq has not known a moment’s peace since the British entered Baghdad in 1917.
In Syria, ethno-religious divisions (Sunni Muslim Arab, Sunni Muslim Kurd, Druze, Alawi and various Christian sects) render the country vulnerable in the same way to the promotion of sectarian discord and eventual disintegration as the unified Arab state the French originally tried to prevent coming into existence in the 1920s.
19. The destruction of the Baathist government in Syria would be a strategic victory of unsurpassed value to the US and Israel. The central arch in the strategic relationship between Iran, Syria and Hizbullah would be destroyed, leaving Hizbullah geographically isolated, with a hostile Sunni Muslim government next door, and leaving Hizbullah and Iran more exposed to a military attack by the US and Israel. Fortuitously or otherwise, the “Arab spring” as it has developed in Syria has placed in US and Israeli hands a lever by which they may be able to achieve their goal.
20. It is not necessarily the case that a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government in Egypt or Syria would be hostile to US interests. Wanting to be seen as a respectable member of the international community and another good example of “moderate Islam”, it is likely and certainly possible that an Egyptian government dominated by the Brotherhood would agree to maintain the peace treaty with Israel for as long as it can (i.e. until another large scale attack by Israel on Gaza or Lebanon makes it absolutely unsustainable).
21. A Syrian government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood would be close to Saudi Arabia and hostile to Iran, Hizbullah and the Shia of Iraq, especially those associated with the Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr. It would pay lip service to the Palestine cause and the liberation of the Golan Heights, but its practical policies would be unlikely to be any different from the government it is seeking to destroy.
22. The Syrian people are entitled to demand democracy and to be given it, but in this way and at this cost? Even now, an end to the killing and negotiations on political reform are surely the way forward, not violence which threatens to tear the country apart. Unfortunately, violence and not a negotiated settlement is what too many people inside Syria want and what too many governments watching and waiting for their opportunity also want. No Syrian can ultimately gain from this, whatever they presently think.
Their country is being driven towards a sectarian civil war, perhaps foreign intervention and certainly chaos on an even greater scale than we are now seeing. There will be no quick recovery if the state collapses or can be brought down. Like Iraq, and probably like Libya, looking at the present situation, Syria would enter a period of bloody turmoil that could last for years. Like Iraq, again, it would be completely knocked out of the ring as a state capable of standing up for Arab interests, which means, of course, standing up to the US and Israel.
23. Ultimately, whose interests does anyone think this outcome would serve?
Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey.