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The Syrian Dilemma

How to evaluate events in Syria and what to do? Syria borders on Turkey (north), Iraq (east), the Mediterranean (west), Lebanon (south and west), Israel (Golan Heights) and Jordan (south). Unlike the “humanitarian” intervention in Libya — now edging toward chaos  — outside fiddling with Syrian destiny will have great costs

Syria’s strategic location and alliance with Iran means its internal violence could evolve from the regional to a larger stage. The West’s intervention formula, starting with a UN Security Council resolution condemning the regime, its killing of civilians and demanding President Bashar al-Assad step down, got derailed by Russian and Chinese vetoes.

The UN vote coincided with Syria’s attack on Homs, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold like neighboring Hama, where in 1982 Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, had wiped out 10,000 (Robert Fisk, veteran Middle East correspondent says 20,000) of his armed foes. The Brotherhood had rebelled against Assad’s ruling Alawite clique (a Shiite sect).

At a party in Damascus, in 2004, I asked a Syrian businessman to assess Hafez al-Assad’s ruthlessness.

“He didn’t kill enough of them.” He didn’t smile.

Did my face show my feeling of horror? Nearby party guests, members of Syria’s commercial elite nodded in agreement. These people had kids in Ivy League schools and wives who shopped in New York.

“How do you rule a country of Sunnis, Shias, Druze, Christians, and in 1982 even Jews?” another businessman asked. “Persuade religious fanatics to disarm and tolerate different beliefs? English settlers and black slaves made the United States. America had immense land to diffuse conflict – and still you had bloody civil war.

“Syria lived for Centuries under the Ottoman Empire [16th Century until 1920]! The League of Nations chose France to govern Syria The French divided city and country people, destroyed homes of suspected insurgents and punished entire villages for the actions of one man. And they bombed cities — even Damascus.”

I reflected on the businessmen’s words after US, French and British UN Ambassadors righteous perorations. All of them had bombed civilians.

I had asked my host about Bashar’s regime. He elbowed me to a corner. “Corrupt, undemocratic, clumsy,” He whispered. “But you can do business with them. Bush (referring to W) crazy democracy talk only encourages the fanatics who want power.”

A doctor, married to one of the businessman, wearing a in a low-cut dress, confronted me. “You poll people in Damascus and Aleppo. I would bet the majority wants to keep Assad. With him women wear comfortable clothes, get education, become doctors and have rights. Those Sunni fanatics in Hama want Syria to return to earlier Centuries, strip women of rights, deport Christians and probably kill the minority Alawites. What happened in Iran would look moderate compared to what would happen here.” (Conversation while filming SYRIA: BETWEEN IRAQ AND A HARD PLACE, 2004)

Eight years later, in January 2012, a YouGov Siraj poll showed 55% of Syrians wanted Assad to remain in power. But the majority was motivated by fear of civil war, not fondness for his regime, said the poll, funded by the Qatar Foundation. (Jonathan Steele Guardian, January 17, 2012).

Ironically, Qatar’s Emir had “just called for Arab troops to intervene” in Syria. Steele thought it was a “pity” that the poll was “ignored” by almost all western media outlets whose governments demanded Assad resign. The poll also showed the majority wanted free elections and more rights.

The US media’s context-free reporting offers simplified (distorted) presentations of Syria and Assad as representing another Libya and Qaddafi. The good guys (peaceful citizen protestors who hate dictatorship, joined by noble army deserters) fight the bad guys (the power-hungry President Assad and his army).

Headlines scream about very real daily violence occurring in several Syrian cities. Most news reports have attributed the killing of peaceful citizens almost exclusively to government forces.  But in January Arab League monitors, from mostly Sunni countries eager to destroy the Syrian-Iran Alliance, saw armed “protesters” doing some of the Syria killing, un-reported by most US media.

“In Homs and Dera‘a, the Mission observed armed groups committing acts of violence against government forces, resulting in death and injury among their ranks. In certain situations, Government forces responded to attacks against their personnel with force. The observers noted that some of the armed groups were using flares and armour-piercing projectiles.”

“In Homs, Idlib and Hama, the Observer Mission witnessed … the bombing of a civilian bus, killing eight persons and injuring others, including women and children, and the bombing of a train carrying diesel oil… A fuel pipeline and some small bridges were also bombed.”

The Mission also “noted that many parties falsely reported that explosions or violence had occurred in several locations. When the observers went to those locations, they found that those reports were unfounded.”

The Mission also witnessed armed attacks against “Syrian security forces and citizens, causing the Government to respond with further violence. In the end, innocent citizens pay the price for those actions with life and limb.”

Peaceful protestors? UN Ambassador Susan Rice excluded these passages when she denounced Russia’s “willingness to sell out the Syrian people and shield a craven tyrant [Assad].” Secretary of State Clinton called Russia’s veto “a travesty.” Washington has used the veto 83 times, mostly on resolutions condemning Israeli actions. Now that Al-Qaeda supports the anti-Assad movement does US “disgust” got hurled at both sides?

In 2111, Saudi troops invaded Bahrain and killed unarmed protestors. US officials uttered no “disgust” sounds. Disgust applies to disobedient states. So, end the hypocrisy.

The West should not use “humanitarian” pretexts to intervene in Syrian affairs. But together with Russia and China they should stop outside arms shipments from entering Syria, and urge Assad to end government-backed violence.

Syria needs truly free elections and Syrians need to have basic rights. These include ending corruption — Assad cronies collect the money. Sincere parties – including Washington and Moscow — should welcome a chance to let peace and democracy actually work in an Arab country.

Saul Landau, an Institute for Policy Studies fellow, produced Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up (Cinema Libre Studio).  CounterPunch published his Bush and Botox World. 

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SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.

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