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Around 1500 people, mostly Australians of Syrian descent marched in Sydney on August 5, calling for an end to foreign intervention aimed at destroying the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The Australian media gave the march almost no coverage, unlike well-publicised though much smaller protests against the Syrian government.
It should surprise no one that large numbers of Syrians support the al-Assad government, with its promise of peaceful reform in a direction indicated by the May 2012 parliamentary elections (when, incidentally, the communists won additional seats), rather than the civil war on religious lines now in progress. One does not have to be an al-Assad supporter to suspect that his government’s immediate departure, as demanded by the rebels and their foreign backers, would create a power vacuum, fragment the country and result in far greater bloodshed.
For its Syria project the US has put together a powerful alliance embracing NATO through its Turkish spearhead, and Israel and its Gulf Arab de facto allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Intervention has ranged from sanctions and economic sabotage to funding and equipping foreign mercenaries and “boots on the ground” in the form of Western military advisers and trainers. The current goal appears to be regime change by promoting civil war rather than foreign invasion. But calls for a “No Fly Zone” along Libyan lines can now be heard – no doubt a precursor to another “humanitarian” bombing campaign.
Foreign forces are playing a substantial role in the campaign to topple the government. According to some assessments, foreign jihadis including Al Qaeda units from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya and Jordan are more effective, and engaged in more significant combat than the so-called Free Syrian Army. Al Qaeda is once again enjoying the backing of the ‘Great Satan’ patterned on their 1980s relationship in Afghanistan.
Foreign jihadis have admitted that they formed brigades to infiltrate Syria well before the first protests in early 2011.
Also instructive is the testimony of two Western photographers captured and tormented by a rebel group comprising fighters from Bangladesh, Britain, Chechnya and Pakistan – but no Syrians. Viewers of the ABC’s 7.30 Report on 7.8.12 would have seen a Chechen combatant in Syria threaten an ABC reporter.
We are not only talking foreign jihadi cannon fodder: “It is highly likely that some western special forces and intelligence resources have been in Syria for a considerable time,” says Colonel Richard Kemp, of the Royal United Services Institute which has strong connections to British intelligence services.
Some on the Left argue that the Syrian regime is unworthy of support because it is a dictatorship. Should the political form of the Syrian state absolve the Left of any responsibility to defend it against imperialist aggression? The al-Assad government is under attack by NATO, Israel and the Arab Gulf monarchies not for its denial of democracy, or harsh treatment of dissent, but because of its positive features: support for Palestinian and Lebanese resistance to Zionist expansion; refusal to join the US in isolating and impoverishing Iran; upholding a unique (in the Middle East) degree of religious tolerance and pluralism. For a visitor to Syria this commitment to freedom of religion – and rights for women – comes as a revelation in comparison to the reactionary US/British protectorates of the Arab Gulf. Such freedoms enrage the poisonously sectarian Sunni fundamentalists now sponsored in Syria by the West. Bin Laden always hated Shia Islam more than Zionists or the CIA.
For much of the anti-government opposition, regime change is about establishing Sunni dominance not democratic freedoms. They hate the regime because it is a heretical government responsible for a secular state with constitutionally guaranteed freedom of worship. The popular rebel slogan “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to their graves” raises the spectre of widespread ethnic cleansing – already underway with the expulsion of tens of thousands of Christians by the NATO-backed ‘Free Syrian Army’.
The fall of the al-Assad government is probably inevitable given the forces ranged against it. Some have predicted an Egypt-like power-sharing arrangement between the Muslim Brotherhood and secular nationalist ‘democrats’ will follow. However Syria’s religious and ethnic make-up is far more complicated than almost anywhere else in the region: a Sunni majority with numerous Muslim minorities (Shia, Alawite, Sufi, Ismailis) as well as Druse and several strands of Christianity – altogether about one third of the population. There are significant ethnic minorities such as the Muslim Kurds and Christian Armenians – descendants of refugees from Turkish genocide – as well as hundreds of thousands of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, many of them Christians. These minorities do not share the cheerful assessment that the outcome of this war is likely to approximate post-Mubarak Egypt – itself now a more dangerous home for minorities.
The Syrian government is widely blamed for starting the war with unprovoked attacks on peaceful demonstrators. Western media spent most of 2011 denying the very existence of armed opposition, until the media narrative was recast to that of peaceful protests gradually morphing into armed revolt as a consequence of regime brutality.
The authorities’ initial response to opposition protests in March 2011 was brutal and inflammatory. But it is not contradictory to also acknowledge that government forces were under armed attack from the outset. Syrian TV was broadcasting footage of the funerals of military and police personnel killed by protestors in March 2011. My son who was living in Damascus viewed these reports and discussed them with locals. I saw similar Syrian TV coverage while in Jordan in April-May 2011.
Reporter Robert Fisk identified the murder of a boy by police as the spark for the initial March 2011 protest in Deraa. Fisk, no supporter of the regime, also pointed to the existence of video footage of gunmen on the streets of Deraa that same month and al-Jazeera footage of armed men fighting Syrian troops near the Lebanon border in April 2011. Fisk noted that Al-Jazeera television, cheerleader for the rebels, chose not to broadcast it. The station is of course owned by the emir of Qatar, a principal financier of the war against the Syrian government.
On 21 March 2011 Israel National News reported that seven policemen were killed in Deraa in mid-March.
As early as August 2011 the anti-regime, UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that soldiers and police accounted for about one quarter of Syria’s death toll since the start of the uprising – a casualty proportion not likely to be suffered by an army ranged against unarmed protestors. SOHR, in a rare moment of candour conceded that some of the dead civilians were tortured and killed by regime opponents. This was before Al-Qaeda bombers began their work in co-ordination with the ‘Free Syrian Army’.
Most Syrians would possibly prefer a ceasefire and negotiations in order to avoid the catastrophic fate of Iraq and Libya. Yet the rebel leaderships and their foreign backers have sought only to prolong the fighting (). ) Four weeks into Kofi Annan’s attempted ceasefire, the Washington Post reported: “Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States, according to opposition activists and U.S. and foreign officials.” CounterPunch’s Patrick Cockburn was one of the few western correspondents to report the UN monitoring team’s observation that during the ceasefire “the level of offensive military operations by the government significantly decreased” while there has been “an increase in militant attacks and targeted killings”.
In Libya, war sold to the gullible as a humanitarian necessity has reduced North Africa’s only welfare state to an ungovernable ruin: where rival tribal militias fight perpetual turf wars, blacks are ethnically cleansed, ancient archaeological treasures plundered and the social gains of the revolution systematically erased. All this mostly goes unreported – a non-story now that Libya’s oil contracts are in safer hands (China and Russia need not apply) and Western weapons sales rejected by the murdered Gaddafi are back on the table.
Only the terminally naïve would recommend the Syrian people risk a repeat of the Libyan triumph.
Chris Ray is a Sydney-based Asia business analyst and journalist.