Former Ambassador Robert Ford was kind enough to accept my invitation to participate in a public political debate about Syria and America’s foreign policy. I started by presenting my perspective on U.S. interests and moral values in Syria and how the two, often contradictory, often shaped America’s Syria policies. Mr. Ford responded (here then here) with a top-10 list of his objections to various aspects of my views which he generally did not share.
My previous article was mostly a review of the history of America’s mistakes in Syria. In this follow up, I will borrow Ambassador Ford’s top-ten format by suggesting ten different ways the United States can reconsider its current approach to dealing with Syria, the crisis, the people and the country.
Although I am confident that what I assembled here is a constructive set of recommendations, I chose this tongue-in-cheek title and format as a reference to the futility of new year resolutions and a recognition of my poor chances of success in this attempt to influence Mr. Ford or anyone who shares his preferences on Syria. Change is difficult and the kind of change I am advocating here faces strong resistance from every corner of the “friends of Syria” camp.
Nevertheless, for whoever has enough interest and patience and for whoever is tired of the “arm the rebels/don’t arm the rebels” or the “Assad might be bad but is he worse than Al-Qaeda?” perplexities that have been debated to death, here is an outside-the-box list of ideas, and a long, comprehensive review of the false perceptions that are limiting American decision makers’ options in Syria today.
1. JUDGE THE CAUSES OF ALL SYRIANS UPRIGHTLY AND IMPARTIALLY + RECOGNIZE “THE WHOLE TRUTH”
“Those who are invested with the power of judgment should judge the causes of all persons uprightly and impartially, … they must divest themselves of prejudice and preconception. They must hear patiently, remember accurately, and weigh carefully the facts and the arguments offered before them. They must not leap hastily to conclusions, nor form opinions before they have heard all. They must not presume crime or fraud.”
Albert Pike, Morals and Dogma | Provost and Judge
The United States has the power to shape narratives around the globe … it has the power to name villains and heroes … it can decide who is on the right side of history and who is not.
Then it can promote the ones that it blessed while building international coalitions to punish the ones it condemned to the wrong side.
Usually it also punishes their people and their countries and sometimes neighboring countries, in the process… collateral damage … the price for freedom …
It is all done is a slick style that the narrative-building machine describes as “Justice” and “protecting the people” or “the price they need to pay to gain their freedom”, rather than the more impulsive or selfish motivators: “teaching them a lesson they won’t forget” or “protecting America’s interests (oil and defense sectors usually).
Similarly, but on a smaller scale, Authoritarian governments (in the Middle East, and elsewhere) have the power to shape narratives inside their countries. They can name “traitors” and “terrorists” and through their control of state owned media and other state institutions, they can manage the theatrics needed to punish them, and sometimes punish their hometown …
And this is how one can summarize the demonization/counter demonization between Syria and the United states: Syria always accused the United States’ governments of aggression and global hegemony … and the United States always accused Syria’s government of oppression and monopoly on power in Syria.
President Lincoln explained it elegantly:
“if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
So did Friedrich Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra):
“So never trust someone who is inclined to punish or who speaks of justice. And when they call themselves the good and the just, do not forget that they would be pharisees, if only they had – power.”
Not to be outdone by the great powers, or by Middle Eastern governments, revenge-seeking Syrian opposition figures and activists did not waste time as they embarked on a phenomenal power trip from the first Friday of demonstrations. Blindly confident that their victory was at most days or weeks away, they started to threaten anyone who failed to follow their holy revolution.
They quickly worked on preparing “shame lists” of influential Syrians who sided with their government and against the revolutionaries. Listed “shabeeha” were promised that “the Syrian people’s justice will punish you“. Assad of course was their favorite target, or … “Assad and his shabeeha” to be more precise. The Shabeeha label was a convenient way to bully anyone who differed with the “freedom” movement.
I received my fair share of their threats during the first year of the freedom revolution although, as their expectations of easy victory diminished with time, the threats stopped. One notices that the chants of the early days “The people want to execute the President” changed to “let him take whatever he wants to take and leave Syria” … then to “how many more years is he staying?”
One month after the protests started, President Assad’s media advisor, Dr. Bouthaina Shabaan presented to the people a basket of reforms that the government felt it can start with. It was a mix between the superficial, and the relatively reasonable. But it was a serious enough opening offer that was supposed to be debated, and improved.
Instead, the reaction by the revolutionaries was a reflection of their perception of being in a very strong position to dictate their terms: “Too little too late, we now decided to topple the regime“. This was echoed at every demonstration on the Friday that followed Dr. Shabaan’s appearance. It was a decision by the revolutionary coordination committees. They felt too powerful to negotiate with the government. They wanted it all at that point. When Syrian television announced that President Assad will speak (on March 29th 2011), the reaction of opposition supporters was “haha … his farewell speech!”
By mid 2013 Syrian opposition and their supporters in the media were still predicting that President Assad’s latest speech is “his farewell speech”. Here are a few samples: A Turkish Parliamentarian, Al-Arabiya, Okaz, Al-Rai, Asharq Alawsat, the Brotherhood, All4Syria, Joseph Bahout …
When President Obama was expected to announce, in late August 2013, the start of American/NATO military campaign to punish “the Syrian regime” for its alleged use of chemical weapons, many of the “moderate” Syrians in opposition (those who were for months convinced that everyone, including opposition and “friends of Syria”, made mistakes and that only dialogue and compromise can solve Syria’s problems) dropped all their rational and balanced positions and instead they signed a totally one-sided statement in which they stated their “deep belief that the tyrannical and corrupt regime that has been controlling Syria’s destiny for over forty years is SOLELY responsible for the misery that Syria is experiencing today, and that the regime must be removed … including ALL its components”
President Obama eventually spoke and declared he will seek a diplomatic solution… that he is not going to bomb Syria/the regime.
The week after President Obama’s change of heart, Samir Aita (who signed the maximalist victory document that exclusively blamed the regime) rediscovered moderation and rationality as he wrote a very different article titled “We are all responsible“, in which he also argued that you can start war but you can’t stop it.
Opposition leader Louay Hussein described this “waiting for the savior” (the United States) attitude of Syrian opposition, and he also admitted the revolutionaries were responsible to a large extent for the violent nature of the revolution as they rejected all kinds of dialogue with the government or its supporters and instead appealed non stop for foreign military intervention. He described the mentality in opposition camp as: “We are the sacred, and they are the profane“… He (or she) who talks to the profane will be defiled. The article is a must read (in Arabic.) it also describes the contradictory messages the opposition was sending: On one hand they are supremely confident of winning … on the other hand they need to appear weak and victimized so that their savior (The United States) will feel obliged to act on its humanitarian obligations by bombing Syria and destroying the regime.
To be a fair judge (and no one has been so far), each side of the conflict needs to spend time learning about the other side’s causes… without allowing one’s latent biases to auto-demonizing opponents and to auto-support allies.
Among the various players of the Syrian crisis, the United States is the most qualified to lead by example. How? … Simply try to judge in Syria the way you judge in America, then teach your allies in Syrian opposition about being fair judges, the same way you taught them for years how to be horrible judges. Lead by example and you will find that this is the best and only effective way to “pressure” the Syrian government. Additional pressure will come from government supporters who will hope for (perhaps even demand) the same kind of fairness and realism from their government.
As an experiment, start with the Facebook page of the American embassy in Damascus. The propaganda on that page is only successful in making supporters of the Syrian government more convinced that the United States is a trouble maker.
Take a look at this post: a picture showing some empty chairs during the UNGA speech by Syria’s foreign minister Mr. Walid Mouallem. The photo captions says “Empty chairs for empty words”. “The whole truth” in this case reveals that most leaders speaking at the UNGA have to face a lot of empty chairs. Here is Turkey’s prime minister Erdogan for example. Here is what Haaretz wrote about Prime minister Netanyahu’s UN speech. “Netanyahu’s empty UN speech …”
Telling “the whole truth” is part of the affirmation of a witness in any court in the United States because without it one can distort the facts in a way that might lead to a wrong judgement, even when telling “the truth” (selectively).
Usually we tend to skip or forget the parts of the truth that discomfort us (and comfort our adversaries). If we use our power to hide the uncomfortable truth, we can, but then we can’t claim we are on the side of justice.
Throughout this long article I will be embedding arguments that explain the Syrian government’s position on the crisis (red stars in illustration below). I hope the reader realizes that this is a good thing, even if it is not the in-thing.
2. DECIDE IF SYRIA IS VALUABLE OR NOT, INFLUENTIAL OR NOT
Mr. Ford says “you’re right that Syria is not as important strategically to us as some other countries”.
The United States’ attitude toward Syria has long been a variation of: “I want to have my cake and eat it too”.
Syria is not significant … fine, that explains why there has been no American economic or financial assistance for 35 years, … no help when the people of Syria had to host 1.5 million Iraqi refugees who actually lost their homes thanks to the Bush administration’s Iraq war in 2003 … compare that to how Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are compensated today for Syrian refugees they are hosting.
But it is not only the failure to help or act kindly, there is also active public demonization of “Syria” … humiliation of Syrian travellers to the U.S. … blocking international loans to Syria, blocking sale of European spare parts for Syrian airlines, no essential equipments for university research labs, constant interference in internal Syrian affairs, siding with Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel whenever there was a dispute between them and Syria, frequent attempts to destabilize the country, to hurt Syria’s economy, to make a popular President Assad less popular, even a leaked proposal from US embassy in Damascus of strategies of exploiting “opportunities” to promote Shia hate among Syrians. Why all that hostility for a country that is insignificant?
President Bush Sr. insisted that Syria was part of the 1991 coalition to remove Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. He traveled to meet the Syrian president and sent his secretary of state, Mr. James Baker, repeatedly to Damascus.
But his son, President GWB speaking to British prime minister Tony Blair during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006 (heard through an open mic) said that he feels “like telling Kofi to get on the phone with [Syrian President Bashar] Assad and make something happen“. He couldn’t talk to the President of Syria himself to try to control the dangerous situation in Lebanon. Since 2000, no American President visited, invited, or called his Syrian counterpart. Since 2003, no American secretary of state visited Damascus. Sending Ambassador Ford to Damascus (for one year) was by itself a generous gift that the Syrians were expected to be thankful for.
I have long argued that while Syria is not a heavy weight (or a light weight), it has enough weight (and the right location at the center of a turbulent region) to tip the scale for all the major conflicts in the middle east. (see my article: “Escalate at your own risk in Syria”
But let me share a quote by Anne Patterson, the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of Middle East, in a recent article in The New Yorker by Robin Wright titled (in reference to Syria) “The Vortex”
“Syria is the most complicated war in the Middle East in the last one hundred years,”
Or Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations
“Syria, by itself, is not actually worth much, … but it’s been at the center of every strategic issue: the Arab-Israeli conflict; stability in Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan; Iran’s influence; and Arab political unity … Since its own war started, Syria has become the vortex. The conflict has every pathology in the region—extremism, foreign fighters, proxy wars, great-power competition, sectarian violence. And now it’s sucking in everyone else on its borders.”
One should add to Mr. Cook’s assessment the fact Syria is also the gate-keeper forTurkey’s relations with the Arab world. Those relations thrived after Syria opened its door ten years ago, … and evaporated when Prime minister Erdogan closed that door as he gambled and bet everything on the Muslim Brotherhood and his/their regional leadership project (aka “the Arab Spring”).
“The 51 agreements with Syria are shelved. With trade routes blocked because of the war, the Syrian market, where Turkish exports reached $8 billion in 2010 during the “fraternity era,” is lost. Exports to 16 other Middle East and Gulf countries via Syria have ground to a halt. Turkish cargo trucks, which form the largest fleet in Europe, used to make 105,000-700,000 runs via Syria and Iraq annually. Many of them now lie idle in border provinces’ parking lots.”
Zülfikar Doğan | AL-Monitor
Every time the United States worked with its allies on destabilizing Syria (or “the regime“), the rest of the Middle East paid the price: As an exercise one can try to remember the many Mideast conflicts that erupted concurrently with previous and current Syrian-regime-change attempts: years 1979-1988 / 2003-2008 / and 2011-present There in no other country in the region that has the depth and breadth of Syria’s influence. Is there?
Although the leadership in Damascus had its share of mistakes, relations between the United States and Syria never reached their potential mainly because, throughout the past few decades, the United States almost always favored its other regional allies over the independent thinking (and economically poorer) Syrians.
It is no secret that when President Hafez Al-Assad assumed power in 1970, one of his objectives was to moderate Syria’s extremist leftist/Marxist ideology. He welcomed any opportunity to communicate and improve relations with the United States. Yet, despite excellent relations between him and President Carter in 1976, the US negotiated in secret with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat to help sign a separate peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. This forever deprived Syria from the only peace and war partner and helped Israel feel over confident and uninterested as it walked away from most (if not all) peace negotiations since Camp David.
Syria and the Palestinians paid a heavy price for what the U.S. (and Sadat) did to them Then in the 80′s the Reagan administration partnered with Saddam Hussein against Syria and Assad who warned them that Saddam is a dangerous man. And similarly the U.S. spent the next few decades siding with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Israel, or Egypt against Syria. Always valuing other countries over Syria. If the reader is interested in learning more, I wrote an expanded account of U.S. Syrian relations between 1967 and 2010 on SyriaComment.com: “The Case for Syria“
Going back to the situation today:
“Obama has seen Syria as the problem from hell. There’s no magic bullet, and there is no fairy dust, so he has just wanted this problem to disappear from his in-box.”
Frederic C. Hof, a former State Department special adviser on Syria.
The United States’ relations with its always-friendly Arab allies are perhaps similar to the relation of a building contractor with his/her good clients. On the other hand, Syria (and its various allies over the years: Nasser’s Egypt, the USSR, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Turkey or Qatar …) is not a rich client but some annoyingly strict city council office that often refuse to approve proposed American Corp. projects that the council is convinced are not good for the health of the city, even though the other local clients (the Rich/or “moderate” Arabs) are willing to sign on and pay for. A few examples:
- in 1958 Syria merged with Egypt (forming the United Arab Republic) to work more effectively against “the Baghdad pact” (CENTO). Earlier in 1958 the U.S. joined (the military committee) of CENTO which was considered a failure. It was formally dissolved in 1979.
- In 1978 Syria (in a rare instance of cooperation with Saddam-led Iraq) pressured all the Arab countries to freeze relations with the largest Arab state, Egypt after President Anwar Sadat signed a separate treaty with Israel. Eleven years later the New York Times reported from the 1989 Casablanca Arab summit: “Syrians let Egypt go to Arab Summit“.
- In 1983 when Israel’s army was occupying Lebanon, secretary of state George Shultz convinced Lebanon’s new President Amin Gemayel to sign a peace treaty with Israel. By March of 1984 Syria managed to convince Mr. Gemayel to scrap that unpopular deal which was viewed by Arab nationalists as a forced surrender to the occupying Israelis.
- in 1991 President Hafez Al-Assad demanded a guarantee from the first Bush administration that U.S. forces will not occupy Iraq or pursue Saddam Hussein militarily in Baghdad.
- in 1980, Syria supported the new leadership in Iran and helped it survive a total western/Arab boycott.
- In 2003-2008 Syria supported Iraqi (mostly Sunni) forces resisting U.S. occupation. At the time the Bush admin had plans to invade Syria next (after stabilizing Iraq). It was a defensive move and an Arab nationalist’s obligation (defending Iraq) and a rational move … as Syria felt that the Sunnis must remain powerful in Iraq, given how Iran and the United States were handing the Shia (majority) absolute power. (regardless of official statements to the contrary)
Why did Syria resist (often successfully) American plans for the Middle East?
- The United States is the first to admit that its top priority in the Middle East is Israel … and Israel occupies Syrian, Palestinian, and Lebanese lands … and the U.S. protects Israel at the U.N. through dozens of vetoes … Israel is the biggest violator of U.N. resolutions on the planet …
- America’s other top ally, Saudi Arabia (“the world’s most irresponsible country” according to Fareed Zakaria), is another source of worry for Syria’s leadership. They export fanaticism and they often obsess about any Shia influence in the region. They do not accept to allow the Shia their space in the regional balance of power and in that way, the Saudis’ decisions would lead to turbulence if not opposed (often by Syria, alone). The United States rarely risks angering or dissatisfying its rich Saudi friends. (Here is an exception though: When Israel failed to defeat Hezbollah in 2006, Saudis tried and failed to convince the Bush administration to let them form an Arab army to invade Lebanon!)
- With no skin in the game, the United States has repeatedly proven so far it is capable of making disastrous mistakes in the Middle East… then simply moving on, and repeating a few years later. Despite a decades-long career of failures and mediocrity, Dennis Ross and Elliott Abrams continue to be recycled as top and experienced Mideast experts each time there is a new administration in Washington. In late 2005 Steven Hadley (President Bush’s director of NSC) decided he wants President Assad out, but like many in the Bush administration, he had no clue who would be a good replacement… so he asked the President of the Italian Senate if he can recommend to him a new President for Syria.
- Syria used to be “Greater Syria” … it included modern day Palestine/Israel/Lebanon Jordan and southern Turkey. While the vast majority of Syrians today realize that their country will probably never grow back to its historical (“natural”) size … they still care about the their neighborhood. They feel they have parent-to-child obligations towards Lebanon and Palestine (and even the bigger Iraq) …
So, here are two legitimate (I hope) questions:
- With a mostly unimpressive series of past decisions, why should the US be trusted to lead, or to take decisive new decisions?
- What right does the United States (that spent the past 50 years either uninterested, or negatively involved in trying to weaken and isolate Syria) has in telling the Syrian people today who should rule them? or who should NOT rule them? … If Israel and Saudi Arabia and Lebanon and Jordan and Iraq and Turkey are America’s regional allies that it exclusively cares for … what is America really optimizing when it plays a role in Syria?
When secretary of state Mr. John Kerry spoke at the Saban Center (Dec 7th, 2014) he suggested that one of the main reasons Assad has to go is the fact … America’s Sunni allies in the region” want him out
3. REVIEW PAST DECISIONS, BACKTRACK AND EXPLORE FORGOTTEN BRANCHES
We [Americans] simply don’t want to know : it’s too upsetting, too much to absorb. This is not behavior limited to journalists; many academics and NGOs who should know better do the same thing … We want to believe that the mayhem is not happening, that in the end everything will be all right, or that the victims are to blame. These kinds of reactions—demonstrated time and again in clinical experiments by social psychologists—are reflected in society and also in the news media.” 1 million dead in Iraq?
6 reasons the media hide the true human toll of war, an article by John Tirman, executive director of MIT’s Center for International Studies.
In 2007 an Associated Press survey asked Americans how many Iraqis died in the 2003 (GWB administration) war, the average of all answers was 9,890 … about 60 times smaller than the real number of casualties of that war (est 600,000+)
Americans are ready to accept that their leaders make frequent mistakes, but they are rarely able to accept (and remember) that they sometime makes BIGGER mistakes … bigger than the bad guys out there. Americans believe their government is good-intentioned, period. They also believe that the country that is managed by “a dictator” (or a communist, in the old days) is automatically the one on the wrong side of history.
Torture of hundreds of prisoners is a good example of mistakes that Americans CAN uncover, debate, and sometimes correct.
But Killing 500,000 Iraqi children, thanks to the Clinton administration’s sanctions, is a bit too much to handle … the implications would shake one’s belief in his or her country’s goodness.
Mainstream media and its viewers and readers might spend considerable time expressing serious disappointment because vice president Cheney recently said he would authorize torture (of dozens of detainees) again if he had to. But did anyone notice that former secretary of state for the (dovish) Clinton administration said something similar about her administration’s sanctions against Iraq during the 90′s that killed …. 500,000 Iraqi children … watch this… she said the price was worth it. Similar to Cheney’s “I would do it again” … but compare her case’s 500,000 killed, to his dozens tortured.
The American constitution and political system provide multiple checks and balances which limit politicians’ ability to do wrong … domestically. But foreign policy mistakes, no matter how grave, are often forgotten or at best revisited by historians and academics (and perhaps some liberal activists) 50 years later when some old state department or Pentagon document gets declassified.
President Nixon “lied to the American people”. He was forced to resign before facing a near-certain impeachment. President Bush Sr. (one of my favorite world leaders) also lied to the American people (the Kuwaiti incubator babies that Iraqi soldiers allegedly killed) because the people did not appear to be convinced they need to send American troops to help save the ultra-rich Kuwaiti royal family. But not many realize their President lied to them to manipulate them into supporting war. And not many who found out later cared.
So if foreign policy is too foreign for most of the people and therefore they would continue to be expected to not care enough to debate, monitor, audit, re-evaluate or punish their own government’s mistakes. What can the people of the Middle East do to protect themselves from a very enthusiastic Sarah Palin in the White House? … she and John McCain almost got elected in 2008.
There is always an assumption that “the people” in country X want whatever the current U.S. administration decides to classify “on the right side of history”. Not many pay attention when information that contradict these choices later emerge.
Example: In 2012, General Ahmed Shafik (who was perceived as a continuation of the Mubarak regime which he was a part of) got close to 49% of the votes in the first post-Mubarak democratic elections. We were told before on CNN that “the Egyptian people” were united in wanting to get rid of Mubarak… the Tahrir Square moment was turned into a fairy tale that “the Syrian people” surely wanted to experience …
I do not envy American diplomats working on the Middle East. Today it appears that there are closed doors, dead ends, and no visible openings. But this lack of good options is often home made (… in DC).
When congressional subcommittee on foreign relations sought help of America’s best Syria and Iraq specialists, it invited four different experts, in order to (one would assume) evaluate their different opinions and ideas. Instead, all four proposed comparable recommendations: arm and train more “moderate rebels” … create a “safe zone” … insist that Assad must go and never cooperate with the Syrian army. It was not unlike the old Communist Soviet Union, and it was not an anomaly.
Look everywhere and you will find that apart from a few exceptions where diverse opinions were present (normally related to poisonous partisan politics, or to implicit objections by ultra-right Islamophobes who only care about protecting the Christians of the Middle East), the majority of events where America’s Mideast foreign policy options are discussed, had little diversity of opinions. From USIP Syria events to the University of Denver’s … one exclusively found an experts panel chosen of this group (all interventionists): Steven Heydemann, Thomas Pierret, Radwan Ziadeh, Amr Al-Azm, Joseph Bahout (only after he did an overnight 180 degree flip in august 2012; from a dov to a hawk), Ambassador Ford, Kimberly Kagan (wife of AEI’s Fred Kagan, brother or top neocon Robert Kagan, husband ofVictoria Nuland, and former boss of fake-PhD Elizabeth O’Bagy … all for the use of more force in Syria). There is too much ideology and very little thinking outside the box.
The United States’ foreign policy making “regime” (or System) is a far cry from what a great nation (and the world) deserve.
To put America’s Middle East foreign policy back on track, and to uncover attractive and more promising options for dealing with Syria and the other Middle East problems/opportunities, I find it very unlikely that anything has a significant chance of success short of a complete review of American decisions, strategies and tactics since the costly strategic mistake of the Camp David accord.
Regardless of how significant, or not, Syria is seen from Washington DC, recent failures in Syria are not unique. Since Camp David’s “diplomatic success” (and strategic wrong move) in 1978, the United States failed in every initiative it tried to promote in the Middle East… 35 years of failures: Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria … partnering with megalomaniacs like Saddam Hussein, Zia Ul-Haq, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan … and experiencing highly negative attitudes that the people of the Middle East consistently have toward the United States. (85% unfavorable in Egypt and Jordan, 72% unfavorable in Turkey). Islamists believe the US continues to secretly promote the crusaders’ project, Pan-Arabists (and Nasserites) believe the U.S. wants to weaken the Arab world in favor of Israeli hegemony, and non-Islamists in general fear the U.S. is trying to empower its Muslim Brotherhood allies.
4. SEEK DIFFERENT SYRIAN FRIENDS
“America and France should broaden their outreach to Syrian dissidents, human rights groups, artists, professors — indeed, almost anyone who’s willing to talk with outsiders. They should convey the message that the West is standing with the Syrian people as they move into the future. When Syria is truly ripe for change, these helping hands can ensure a safe passage.”
David Ignatius | a 2005 article titled “Careful with Syria”
The “America and France” that Mr. Ignatius called on to motivate Syrians to rebel against their government was actually a group of westerners residing in Damascus: Diplomats, NGO management and staff, resident journalists and professional photographers, students studying Arabic in Damascus. Not all of course, but many.
There are three different headings under which countries in the Middle East are classified as far as the United States is concerned;
- Most valuable allies; Israel and Saudi Arabia
- Well-behaved allies; Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt (and many more)
- Pressure/destabilization targets; Syria, and Iran.
If Syria’s authoritarian leadership (“regime”) had an inherent propensity to distrust the intentions of resident foreigners eager to befriend Syrians, their extensive experience with the consequences of such contacts turned their caution into paranoia. They would question or detain anyone who travels to attend private meetings, workshops or conferences without prior arrangements with the Syrian security services. Syrians who frequently visited foreign embassies in Damascus (4thof July events, dinners at Ambassador’s house …etc.) were never trusted again.
Was that paranoia misplaced? … In some cases it was and patriotic, decent Syrians were unfairly punished. But there were also many valid reasons to be concerned.
I will not list specific names here, but will instead expand on David Ignatius’ “anyone” as I list the most common traits of Syrians and Arabs who are eager to “work with” (although “work for” is more accurate in most cases) the United States or one of its allies (France, the EU, Saudi, Qatar …) against their own governments/countries. Note that the traits-list below is not applicable to Syrian opposition in general, there are decent, patriotic, mature, and secular regime opponents, but they are not the ones that the United States promotes:
- Sectarians who hate Iran, Hezbollah and the Alawites. These include liberals who are willing to work with Islamist militias, or to turn Syria into a Turkish province if it means defeating Iran/HA and removing the Alawites from power.
- Narcissists who feel their government in Syria failed to do enough to serve their personal needs, or failed to recognize their brilliance and to promote them accordingly. Also includes those with an inflated sense of their personal power and ability to change their country (to their liking).
- Those seeking revenge for an offense (real, exaggerated, or even assumed but not proven) by their government against them, their relatives or some group that they belong to (regional, ethnic or sectarian). In the Middle East, desire for revenge lasts decades. Parents teach their children to never forget.
- Ambitious self-promoters, … including aspiring artists or novelists. You can count on their loyalty if you can help them shine.
- Elitists from prominent and affluent families who feel entitled to their country’s leadership because of their family name. Note that at the same types will frequently express their contempt to the current “family rule” in Syria.
- Those who express high admiration for the west and who value being associated with it or compatible with its values and culture (including “human rights” and “democracy”). These tend to also despise their backward countries and to tell all their friends that they can’t wait to leave because they deserve better.
- Greedy opportunists who would take money and gladly offer any service in return.
- Journalists, political science analysts and academics, civil society specialists … they need to earn a living. Only if they join the right side would they be employed or funded.
- Those who are easily manipulated: … The Naïve and the inexperienced.
- Those who failed in their lives (at school, work or marraige) and are thirsty for recognition and public praise that would restore their self-confidence and maybe even respect from parents/ ex-husband or wife/ former boss/ schoolmates/ society…
- Millennials and radicals … young and restless and always frustrated that things are not changing fast enough. If the genie grants them just one wish, they will ask for a revolution.
- Islamists (aka “moderate Islamists”) … where moderation is only a convenient excuse for them and the Americans to do (anti regime) business together.
- Heads of major tribes (The Brits can help advice on how to bring them on board)
- Students hoping for educational grants
- Idealists (including many genuine human rights lawyers and activists)
- Risk seekers … those with low risk-aversion.
- Friends of America’s favorite allies: Saudi Arabia and Israel.
I encourage any skeptic to quickly think of any five Syrian opposition figures (or activists) who are working for/with the United States on regime change in Syria, then to (honestly) prove that they do NOT belong to any of the mostly unflattering traits/groups I listed above.
You can also ask for a second (and third) opinions:
In my life, I have almost always been on the side of active foreign policy. But you need to know with whom you are cooperating. You need reliable partners — and I don’t see any in [the Syrian] conflict..
Henry Kissinger | explaining why he does not favor investing more in Syrian opposition Der Spiegel Interview
The Middle East has been trapped for decades between repressive dictatorships and illiberal opposition groups … The dictators try to shut down all opposition movements, and the ones that survive are vengeful, religious and violent.
Fareed Zakaria | The fantasy of Middle Eastern moderates
The point I am hoping to make here is the following: With such an awful collection of “friends”, the United States might manage to topple governments and destroy countries, but it will not be able to rebuild them. It will also never appeal to millions of Syrians who see the United States through the “quality” of its Syrian friends.
Before moving to the Syrian stars of the Arab Spring, I would like to share with the reader one example from post-Saddam Iraq … Not the notorious Ahmad Chalabi, but a promotional article in the New York Times that relied on language that one finds in 19th century letters by western diplomats to tribal Arab leaders, as it struggled to find ways to praise Iraq’s new President who had no leadership record in politics before being selected for the job:
“His robust figure, flowing white robes and rimless eyeglasses — together with a well-groomed mustache, the essential accouterment for so many Arab men — give him a regal air that heads of state with slighter frames and less panache might envy.”
The Arab Spring’s opposition stars (and “moderate rebels”)
The Syrian cast of opposition stars that played leading roles in the final sequel of the Arab Spring pentalogy (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria) deserve credit for managing to turn the classic cliche revolution script: “Olive branch carrying peaceful protesters defeat their dictator”, into a totally unpredictable black comedy.
On day 1, there was opposition hero (former political prisoner) Mamoun Homsi dressed in indispensable orange revolution T-shirt … But he was screaming and trying to give the impression he was crying. He was also surrounded with religious symbols and clearly addressing Syria’s Sunnis exclusively.
In hindsight, Homsi’s clip was the official preview of the upcoming “Syrian revolution”. Homsi is an opportunist, sectarian, lusting for revenge, hysterical,delusional, and a really bad actor. He is also one of many Syrian opposition activists with established neocon and friends-of-Israel connections (Prague neocon conference)
Then there was London-based “human rights activist” Ali Al-Ahmad (member in the SNC, considered “the sole representative of the Syrian people” by the US and its friends). He was on every major TV program from the BBC, to Al-Arabiya to Aljazeera calling for freedom and respect for human rights. Some of us remember his lovely post in 2010 (before the Syrian conflict started) calling on God to wipe out millions of Alawites … and to kill every Alawite child so that none of them can tell the world about what happened to them. On his blog you can also read his other democratic thoughts … like where he wrote “People of Aleppo are as as bad as the Alawites“. Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, was despised by many revolutionaries because it mostly abstained from revolting against President Assad’s government.
And of course there was the ultra charismatic Shaikh Adnan Al-Arour best known for his trademark surprise rise and scream that he performs on every TV show of his. He was for 2011 and much of 2012 the most popular leader of the revolution. Among his memorable lines: “Let 100,000 die in Aleppo, why not? big funerals are good for our revolution”. And: We will throw Alawites who support Assad into the meat grinder.
The revolution fed on blood. And when there was a slow week with not enough bloodshed, they created their own, empty coffin, funerals and cried the victims on Aljazeera.
Then … “the Free Syrian Army” showed up. At first there weren’t many defectors. The same military uniform was used by various alleged defectors appearing in different videos (see here). But eventually they became a real rebel army (or hundreds of little armies) that were given every possible ancient Islamist name anyone could think of, … and a couple of more modern names: “King Abdullah Brigade” and “the Rafiq Hariri Brigade”.
Eventually someone, somewhere realized that these names are not 110% politically correct as they challenged the authenticity of the revolution’s slogans like: “the Syrian people are one”.
A group of “free Syrians” addressed this problem by producing this FSA video allegedly showing one of many Christian brigades. A dozen over-sized crosses were on display, … to silence any skeptic.
Another video was released to revolution supporters claiming that Syria’s Armenians now joining the FSA. The video featured “Artino Abu Aram” speaking on behalf of his heroic Armenian rebel group that appeared targeting Damascus with mortars.
To instil fear in Bashar Assad’s heart, a video showing a secret FSA special operations unit appeared on YouTube. A curator at a British arms museum later told the New York Times that the rebels in that video were holding TD-2007 Chinese-made toy replicas of the MP-5 submachine gun, marketed as appropriate for children above the age of 5. To each, the men had affixed an extension — perhaps a painted dowel or a section of pipe — masquerading as a long barrel.
Dozens of popular Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Egyptian preachers were on TV 24/7 telling their followers in Syria (and elsewhere) that they are fighting God’s greatest fight معركة دابق و عودة الخلافة. They told them that it is ok if 30% of ٍSyria’s population dies. They told them that Sunnis must form an alliance with the US and Europe (عهد بين المسلمين و الروم) that will fight and defeat the Shia and Alawites. After they jointly achieve victory, Sunni forces will promptly kill all those westerners.
Was it the United States that “hired” these weirdos to play?
Not exactly. The Syrian revolution was initially a Qatari/Turkey (and France) project, until Saudi Arabia joined and competed for the leadership role.
But although the United States did not play a leading and visible role, Syrian opposition activists who had close working relations with a number of American government financed democracy promotion organizations or with neocon or zionist think tanks, did play a significant role in connecting or promoting the revolutionaries. See Ammar Abdel Hamid, Mohammad Al- Abdallah, Rami Nakhla,Ahed Al-Hendi, Ausama Munajed …
Ausama Munajed who had lunch with President Bush in 2008 says he is the founder of Barada TV which for many years before the Arab Spring, was being financed by the United States. The TV station was run by Syrian exiles in Europe who founded the Movement for Justice and Development. U.S. cables describe its leaders as “liberal, moderate Islamists” who are former members of the Muslim Brotherhood. These “liberal Islamists” got six million dollars from the United States government (well, through “the democracy council”).
Qatar, offered generous financial rewards to anyone who would defect. According to prominent French journalists Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, authors of “Les chemins de Damas” Qatar offered Syrian ambassadors who would defect $5,000,000 (lower ranked diplomats would still get one million dollars). (Qatar spent $3 billions the first 2 years alone)
Many would not accept such bluntly demeaning direct cash payments but wouldn’t mind if there was a pretend-I-am-paid-for-my-skills option. The Saudis pay handsomely for opinion pieces published in their Asharq Alawsat and Al-Hayat for example. American and European think tanks, or democracy and human rights organizations hired many Syrian opposition supporters. The UN did the same.
This is the polite way to buy loyalty of Syrians who can help in regime toppling and who might be leading their country (after the regime collapses … ).
There is also generous project-based funding if you hate the Syrian regime and call yourself “opposition”. Many of the smarter and highly educated Syrians are busy full time sending proposals to various American, Scandinavian, or Swiss organizations and NGOs hoping to secure a piece of their Syria funding budget for the year. Proposals include research into: Human rights, reconciliation, empowering women, or conflict resolution. It is an attractive and rewarding business. Again, you have to clearly side with the opposition it you want your share of the pie. Balanced reports are not very useful. (although, to be honest, this started to change in 2014 and a few unbiased Syrians started to be taken seriously by European conflict resolution NGOs)
But contrary to what many Syrian government supporters believe, money is not the only motivational tool. Many who didn’t take any money from anyone were attracted to the revolution because they got recognition that they badly needed: Artists got their shows promoted … aspiring authors got international awards for their mediocre books, inexperienced and unqualified figures got invited to Swiss and other conferences (as “opposition”)… Those seeking U.S. citizenship got it … some got honored by being listed in President George W. Bush’s “Freedom collection” … young bloggers were for years (before and after 2011) invited to training seminars and stayed in touch with Natan Sharansky’s cyberdissidents.org (Natan is an Israeli hardline politician) and other western organizations that would teach them how to bring freedom to their countries. This included courses in human rights, citizen-journalism, civil disobedience … and also included (by design, I am sure) a serious dose of ego-boost that would make them love the whole experience even more.
3D democracy games, other fun games and tactics from Canvas/Otpor’s playbookwere shared with joyous young Syrians (and Egyptians and Tunisians …) who couldn’t wait for the day they got to try them back home where they at once laughed at the police and admired their own brilliance (imagining they invented those tactics).
Revolution/democracy specialists taught them how to bankrupt their country … but they described it as “bankrupt the regime” to make it less obvious how repulsive and criminal that was. Thanks to western sanctions and to revolutionaries’ “non-violent” activism by now many people in Syria are getting sick or dying from the cold, lack of proper medical care, and from food shortages. The Syrian government cannot afford anymore to subsidize heating oil and other basic foods, like it used to before 2011. The state used to spend $8 billion per year on essential subsidies.
Young revolutionaries loved the idea, and they worked on multiple campaigns to call on their friends to not travel on Syrian airlines … Not to deposit money in Syrian banks … to try to devaluate the Syrian pound … to boycott school … to force factory owners to close them … to close stores … to close schools and universities … to throw state-subsidized bread in the garbage/river.
A few months after the regime toppling (“revolution”) started, a long list of sanctions was implemented, but western organizations and governments worried it might not lead to the desired results as Syria’s foreign reserves were estimated at $18 billion. Meetings took place where western organizations and officials were present focused on this question: How long will it take before Syria goes bankrupt?
Through generous financial rewards and/or constant ego inflation and until recently, no criticism, the United States and its “international community” allies manipulated/spoiled their Syrian clients to the point where they now live in deep delusion.
Michel Kilo promises (recently) to teach Iran a lesson, and to finish off Hezbollah in Lebanon (and to help his rebels set better military strategies too) … Moaz Al-Khatib offered Bashar (while the real Syrian army was winning) 30 days to escape Syria with 500 of his shabeeha … and Firas Tlass (before defecting busy competing with Rami Makhloof for contracts) often cursed “the corrupt regime” on his Facebook page …
Government opponents grew to realize that no matter what they said or did, the world (or “the international community”) approved. Each thought of himself or herself as a power center, an outstanding intellectual, or simply a national hero. Very few had the patience to work as part of a group, they all wanted to be leaders.
Not only that, but they were constantly brainwashed by outside powers (U.S. included) into thinking they are about to win … that the dictator’s days are numbered. Please take a look at this 1992 White House letter to a Cuban opponent of Castro who, like Syrian opposition, has been seeking more American sanctions on his country, and like Syrian opposition, has been promised by his American friends that … Castro’s days are numbered.
“Conquerors of a system eventually adopt the habits of that system; hope for change lies only in newcomers from the wilderness.”
Medieval Muslim historian, Ibn Khaldun:
By now it is easier to find new ones from the center and let our Syrian opposition stars take their time to come back to planet earth.
Many decent Syrians will resist working with the U.S. or its partners as long as the U.S. is taking sides in the Syrian conflict. A prerequisite to establishing trust would be a clear change in U.S. positions … away from a unique commitment to the dysfunctional and lightweight “moderate opposition”, and toward: “Whatever the Syrian people decide … we stand at an equal distance”.
Ambassador Ford protested an instance in my previous article where I made the mistake of generalizing (I almost never do) by stating that “All Libyan rebel leaders were LIFG (Al-Qaeda)”.
Mr. Ford corrected me: “There are many facts wrong in your analysis… not all major Libyan revolution fighters were from the LIFG… while there were some LIFG, as you noted, there were also tribal figures, defected officers from prestigious families and Salafi fighters who were against jihadis from the LIFG.”
Now my turn to complain about a much more harmful case of generalization: The Arab Spring promoters’ liberal usage of the term “The People” has been one of the main reasons for death and destruction in Syria and elsewhere. Why? … because without that generalization (“The people” are rising against the dictator), GCC and western promoters of the Arab Spring would not have had much of a case for intervention. If they stuck to the truth and said: “SOME of the people differ with THE REST of the people in wanting a faster rate of change” they wouldn’t have been able to t intervene to side with SOME of the people against the rest of the people. You can only justify intervening to support THE PEOPLE (against one evil and very lonely dictator).
This was not the only serious generalization/distortion of the facts. There is also the popular: “Assad killed 200,000 of his people”, and “It is all Assad’s fault because he fired at peaceful protesters” and “It was completely peaceful for the first three/six months”…etc.
“I don’t agree that the Syrian crisis can be interpreted as a ruthless dictator against a helpless population and that the population will become democratic if you remove the dictator
Henry Kissinger interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel:
I have been campaigning (to the best of my very limited ability) against exceptional narrative shaping in the Syria crisis since Spring 2011. See my New York Times interview with Anthony Shadid where he presented me as “a lonely voice in the internet tumult”, and my article on the two propagandist narratives. By now, I am not that lonely as many others have finally started to realize just how serious a problem this process has been:
“Social media create a dangerous illusion of unmediated information flows. The implications for policymakers driven by responsibility to protect concerns are serious. The pattern in social media toward clustering into insular like-minded communities is unmistakable and has profound implications. The appropriate response to these challenges is to develop systematic procedures to guard against predictable fallacies.”
Syria’s socially mediated civil war | Marc Lynch et al.
The government, on the other side, recognized SOME “legitimate demands” but otherwise dedicated most of its communication energy to also generalize by telling the people about the “foreign conspiracy” and later about the “armed gangs” and then eventually “Al-Qaeda terrorists”. Everyone is guilty of constantly trying to construct and promote their biased/propagandist narratives. Everyday more distortions are piled up and the Syrian people (and their different backers) are polarized and the gap between them continue to grow.
Here are daily examples that both sides are guilty of, to various degrees:
- Side A amplifies its military achievements and discounts side B’s … Side A discounts its military losses and amplifies side B’s … side A declares that side B is about to be defeated (within days or months). This is all good to boost your supporters’ morale.
- Side A amplifies its civilian losses and takes photos and videos to market them and share them with the world to hopefully gain sympathy (government) or sympathy+foreign military assistance (opposition).
- Side A maintains that side B deserves full responsibility for everything that went wrong and everyone who died and everything that was destroyed. This is good strategy to help you sleep better at night through total delusion that despite your total commitment to war, YOU are NOT at all responsible for ANY of the bloodshed.
- Side A claims “the Syrian people” are on its side … or if more nuance seem to be necessary for a particular discussion, it claims: “a majority of the Syrian people” are on its side. Side A claims a million demonstrated for it, even if only 10,000 did… Side A discounts/ignores/delegitimizes demonstrations for side B. This also helps you sustain your delusional belief that you are consistently “on the right side of history”.
- Side A claims side B is allowing evil foreign (or regional) powers who are enemies of Syria to control its actions … side A also praises its own foreign allies as friends of the Syrian people.
While both sides tried their best to shape the narrative to their liking, the revolutionaries and their allies (in the U.S., the GCC and Europe) were considerably more successful in distorting facts because “the international community” has tremendous resources and skills in promoting any cause. They mega-wattage power-amplified then outputted their tunes through giant loud speakers that covered the whole planet.
On the other side the Syrian government has been promoting its narrative through a few old battery-operated AM transistor radios.
In general, when the United States enters a conflict, it always has the ability to flood the information market with its own goods. This advantage is a double edged sword since any criticism is quickly considered “on the wrong side of history” or at best eccentric and “not mainstream”. Any U.S. administration can count on the support of its mainstream media for at least two years. By then, if a foreign conflict is not wrapped up and decisive victory is not in sight, then one starts hearing and reading more criticism. Of course if you are a Vietnam, Iraq, Libya or Syria, it is too late by then… your have already been ruined.
A watchdog can easily be setup in a way that allows both sides to be equally represented. The objective of this group would be to evaluate daily rumors, statements, and any other sources of information (you tube videos for example) in a non-biased manner. Governments, NGOs, Media organizations and the general public will both be monitored and will also benefit from the timely analysis by the group of professionals working (or volunteering) as part of this Syria crisis watchdog but it can only work if there is bilateral interest in supporting, promoting and making use of this initiative.
6. ABANDON SECTARIANIZATION
“The biggest Jihadist agent is [French President] François Hollande. In my opinion, these young people have been driven from as early as March 2011, when François Hollande said that Bashar Assad is a butcher and a criminal. These young people have left to fight injustice.”
Lahoucine Goumri, président, Muslims’ union of Lunel., southern France.
In my previous article, I tried to emphasize the dangerous consequences of GCC/Turkish and western rhetoric that attempted to provide convincing arguments as to why “assad has to go” by dividing Syrians into sectarian subnational groups.
Since April 2011 the United States and its allies have been increasingly busy manufacturing anger against President Assad, the regime, and indirectly: The Alawites and their other Shia allies in the region.
One of the arguments often heard (or implied): The Sunnis of Syria have been living under oppression of the minority Alawite regime for forty years and now they are saying “enough is enough!”
There are so many things wrong in that argument. In my previous article I tried to focus on one aspect: if some large religious (or ethnic, or geographic) group does not control the Presidency of their country for a long period of time, that by itself (i’ll cover the other aspects below) is not a legitimate reason to rebel and take one’s country to civil war. And it certainly does not provide a valid excuse for outsiders to arm and promote “rebels” who are trying to defeat their national army. But, Mr. Ford was outraged at my attempt to compare (on one count only) between Syria’s Sunnis and America’s Catholics. He wrote:
“your comparison of politics in the USA, and the share of Episcopalians vs. Catholics compared to the situation of minority/majority groups in Syrian politics is preposterous… Women and black activists, or Catholics, or anybody else in the past 150 years in the USA were not imprisoned without trial for years because of their political activities, or tortured to death, or their families arrested/brutalized as happened all to often during the past 40 years in Syria.”
There is a difference between “comparable”, and “identical”. I’ll get to Syria’s human rights record later, but in my comparison I only mentioned some facts: Syrian Sunnis and American Catholics happen to be the largest religious groups in their respective countries, Syria did not have a Sunni President since 1970, the United States did not have a Catholic President since 1789 (not counting Kennedy who was assassinated.).
And I can add here a similar argument: Women (roughly 50% of the population) never led the United States. Is it really “preposterous” to make these limited comparisons? Now let’s look at that part that is not comparable: Syria’s oppression vs America’s democracy.
This is the fact: Sunnis in Syria the past 40 years were not oppressed. Active opponents of the regime (including Sunnis and many non Sunnis) were oppressed.
Moustapha Tlass, Abdulhalim Khaddam, Farouk Sharaa, Hikmat Shihabi, and countless others (like current defence minister Fahd Jassem El-Freij) are all Sunnis. Although Rami Makhlouf went too far in his business ambitions (and you can certainly blame someone in Damascus for allowing that), Sunnis continue to make up a clear majority of the list of top 100 richest Syrians. Same if you look at ministers, Prime ministers, Baath party officials …
Overall power in Syria is the sum of all forms of power; marginal or significant … political, economic, military, tribal, or cultural … They all count.
If the Ambassador can make a phone call to speak to the man formerly in charge of Syria’s economic reforms, Mr. Dardari (a pious Sunni), he will hear from him about countless attempts to introduce reforms that President Assad wanted, but could not get because Parliament or some labor union or Baath party committee did not approve… those are mostly non-Alawites … and they had the “power” to oppose the Alawite President’s wishes.
Power is defined as the rate at which energy is transmitted. In the example above, there was more applied “power” by the (non Alawite) figures in comparison to the power applied by the (Alawite) president. Much of the special powers that are perhaps reserved for the few close and trusted (Alawites and some secular loyal non Alawites) is never, or rarely exercised. Example: A few Alawites officers are trusted with the power to move a military force of a significant size into the Capital … but before the 2011 crisis, was that power ever put to real use?
It is true that the President and the inner circle (where Alawites have a presence that is disproportionate to their population size) have the typical top-of-the-pyramid flavor of power, but the rest of the pyramid counts too.
Power in Syria resides in a complex and wide network. It is not “the ruling family” or “the Alawite regime” only. Ambassador Ford might be too focused on a number of sensitive positions (in army and security) that President Assad Sr. made sure are held by those he trusts would be less easy to acquire when the American, French, Saudi or Qatari embassies or NGOs in Damascus go shopping for Syrian “friends”
Sadly, many of them were allowed to benefit from serious corruption by the regime. The justification (flawed, but partially valid) is that those who have no financial needs are harder (for outsiders) to buy. This is based on learning and experience with numerous American or British financed coups in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries.
It is true that many of these Alawite officers established themselves as power centers and that many of them abused their power in many ways (including acting in a sectarian manner at times). But again … there were many non Alawites who abused their power too.
Here are some additional, obvious, but sadly necessary reminders of facts that would help the reader abandon the dangerous exceptionalism of the thuggish-Alawite-and-his-Sunni-victims narrative (overt or, more often, insinuated):
- It was during the rule of Abdel Nasser (1958 to 1961) that widespread imprisonment and torture of political opponents was introduced to Syria. Nasser and his “regime” were not Alawites.
- Jordan and Egypt (non Alawites) today continue to hold thousands of political prisoners (each). There is torture and other forms of human rights abuses too. Syria, before the “friends of Syria” attempt to topple its regime by massive force, had a comparable number of political prisoners.
- The “moderate” and “free” FSA (not ISIS) started in 2011 to torture most Syrian army prisoners it captured … they would proudly film them and upload to YouTube their bloodied faces as they are forced to admit they were “Assad Shabeeha”. The FSA are not Alawites… and those who applauded (or did not mind) seeing their rebel heroes torture their prisoners are part of “the Syrian people” that you classify as victims.
- During the rule of President Bashar Al-Assad, more mosques were built in Syria than in any other Arab country.
- Before U.S. backed regime change operation in Syria started in 2011, “Syrian Sunnis considered Bashar one of their own“ admitted Qatar’s Brotherhood idol shaikh Qaradawi, and Saudi based popular shaikh Al-Arifi told his fans at an Aleppo mosque that the Syrian government is considerably more tolerant to Islamists than any other Arab government and that Islamists should be thankful.
- Opinion polls in 2009 and 2010 realized Assad was the most popular leader in the (“sunni”) Arab world.
- Until today, Syria’s Qubaisyiat, a large and popular group of conservative/pious ٍSunni women, are Assad supporters. (Here’s a picture of their recent meeting)
President Assad had opposition (like any other leader) … some “the regime” tolerated, others it unfortunately did not. But “Sunnis” were not singled out for oppression and Syria’s Sunni population was not totally miserable because the President happened to be an Alawite (who was married to a Sunni and who prayed in Sunni mosques and had Sunni friends …)
Before the horrible “Arab Spring”, Syrians consistently scored about 60 on the Gallup annual international happiness poll. (in comparison: Egypt is 58, Turkey is 62 and Israel 66) … it was far from the miserable sunnis dying in regime prisons for “40 years”. Today … post-revolution Syria’s score fell to 36. It is finally the most miserable place on earth that Arab Spring promoters wanted us to believe it always was. (see all results here)
In the 50s, 60s and early 70s, sectarianism in Syria and the Middle East had a fraction of its strength today. It can still be considerably attenuated and reversed … end of hostilities will definitely help, but for a start abandon the sectarian [victim/killer] dichotomy whenever Syria is discussed in public or private. This applies primarily to the revolution’s supporters but it also applies to all sides since many Syrian government supporters are blaming Islam (and Sunni Islam, specifically) for the violence. There should be awareness campaigns on social media and elsewhere to make it clear that sectarian accusations will not be tolerated.
7. ALLOW SYRIANS TO CUSTOMIZE “DEMOCRACY” OR BE SELECTIVE
“Democracy is not in good shape. Many systems seem dysfunctional: The U.S. Congress, the coalition government in the U.K., and many governments in Europe have had difficulty making the decisions necessary to finding a way back to economic growth. Some fledgling democracies seem, in the short term at least, less competent to serve the needs of their citizens than some autocracies are. The simple right to vote is not enough: Systems need to deliver results for the people. They do not at present. If we truly believe in democracy, the time has come to improve it.”
Tony Blair | Is Democracy Dead?
The Arab Spring project was presented as an attempt to transfer full power from “the Assad family’s dictatorship”, to “the honorable people”.
Sadly, Syria, like most of its neighborhood, is not exactly ready for Jeffersonian democracy. “The regime” is not ready, “the opposition” is not ready, and perhaps a majority of ”the people” are also not ready. After trying for almost 4 years, many of the regime-change promoters are finally ready to accept this disappointing fact … but they now claim (and believe their own claims) that they somehow knew it all along: “After 40 years of oppression by this tyrannical regime, of course the people are not ready”… So why did they enthusiastically try in the first place?
What America’s founding fathers started is admirable … Their passion for building the perfect new system of government produced the greatest country on earth.
But today “democracy” is not working according to the original user’s manual. Some buttons still work … others appear to be working (the LED light goes on when pressed) but they don’t really do anything. So, before exploring in more detail the question of how well democracy can fit Syria, I would like to share with the reader some expert opinions to assess the state of democracy today.
Earlier this year Francis Fukuyama political scientist known for declaring democracy the ultimate form of human government, this year wrote an opinion piece at the WSJ that sounded considerably less optimistic:
“The rich tend to get richer not just because of higher returns to capital, as the French economist Thomas Piketty has argued [in his international best seller], but because they have superior access to the political system and can use their connections to promote their interests.” … “But Indian democracy, like sausage-making, doesn’t look very appealing on closer inspection. The system is rife with corruption and patronage; 34% of the winners of India’s recent elections have criminal indictments…, including serious charges like murder, kidnapping and sexual assault.” … “Our Madisonian Constitution, deliberately designed to prevent tyranny by multiplying checks and balances at all levels of government, has become a vetocracy. In the polarized—indeed poisonous—political atmosphere of today’s Washington, the government has proved unable to move either forward or backward effectively” … “In 2003, the George W. Bush administration seemed to believe that democratic government and a market-oriented economy would spontaneously emerge in Iraq once the U.S. had eliminated Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. It didn’t understand that these arise from the interaction of complex institutions—political parties, courts, property rights, shared national identity—that have evolved in developed democracies over many decades, even centuries.”
Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig warns that 99.95% of the American people have near zero influence on power as the other 0.05% max out their campaign contributions and thus form a first-stage filter similar to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatolla Khamenei, who selects/filters the final candidates who end up running for Presidential elections that the Iranian people democratically vote on. In 2012 0.000042% of Americans (or 132 individuals) donated 60% of SuperPAC money.
As a recent example, this Washington Post article tells its readers about the “The billionaire political kingmakers planning to bankroll much of the 2016 presidential campaign”.
The dominance of Economic Elite Domination theory, that Dr. Lessig is dedicated to exposing, was recently validated when Professors Martin Gilens(Princeton U.) and Benjamin I. Page (Northwestern U.) ran multivariate analysis on an extensive dataset that included relevant variables related to 1,779 policy issues and published their findings in the Sep 2014 edition of “Perspectives on Politics”. They concluded:
“Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism”
Freedoms are limited as social media and other digital communication channels are apparently fully monitored by 3-letter government organizations. In a recent PEW research poll six in ten Americans said theydon’t dare discuss government surveillance programs on Twitter or on Facebook.
To be fair, I do not agree that it is that bad. Here I am free to discuss and criticize everything.
But I will add a personal observation: Congress’ “popularity” has been resting for a number of years near the bottom … at about 10% (see here). Most American presidents leave office with a popularity of somewhere between 25% and 40%. The term “Washington politics” is not often used in a flattering manner.
The people do not value the work of those THEY vote for and do not believe things will get any better. A recent PEW research poll indicates that 78% of the public expect similar or deeper political divisions in the future.
On the other hand: The U.S. army and members of the supreme court are both consistently scoring a highly “favorable” rating in various polls. Remember that those are appointees … NOT “democratically elected by the people.
Back to those elected (freely and democratically) by the people (most after first stage filtering took place): Compare these 29 standing ovations to a foreign leader speaking at capitol hill, to the standing ovation President Assad got during his widely criticized speech in March 2011. Please also take a look at this video which was recorded while that same foreign leader who got the 29 standing ovations was speaking casually during a private visit to a settlement where he confidently stated that America is something he can easily move
A quick look at the Middle East demonstrates that with the exception of Tunisia, all other attempts to bring democracy resulted in flawed (or heavily flawed) results. Human rights for women and religious minorities often suffer after democratic change. Corruptions gets worse (see Iraq, Lebanon Libya, and Yemen for example), in many of these countries it is not safe to travel outside the capital, and most of them are facing dark days as their economies have either collapsed or are surviving with serious difficulties for now.
Turkey, the one-and-only inspiration for the Arab Spring (the Muslim Brotherhood project) started its democratic journey over a century ago (with the adoption of the 1908 constitution). After a century of quasi-democracy under the Turkish army’s close supervision (or control) the country appeared ready to drop many of its traditional restrictions when an Islamist party was allowed to govern.
The Turkish success story seems to have peaked though. Over the past two years Prime minister Erdogan has been increasingly ruling like an authoritarian ideologue than a free-thinking liberal democrat. With dozens killed and over 8000 injured while protesting Turkish government’s policies, to banning Twitter and You Tube, to mass arresting journalists, to firing or arresting anyone who fails to support him in the legal system, the army, the police and the educational sector …
The only serious improvement in Arab Spring or other flawed democracies of the Middle East has been: Freedom of expression. In Lebanon where they practice a theatrical version of democracy that not many take seriously, they still have freedom of expression. and THAT is something the rest of the Arab world long envied Lebanon for.
Those who seek democracy for Syria, might want to consider calling for freedom of expression as a start … because the majority of government supporters will agree and join those in the opposition camp in calling on the leadership in Damascus to implement such freedoms… with restrictions.
In the Middle East it is better to restrict people’s freedom to ridicule religious symbols for example. Ridiculing the President or King is also not compatible with many in the tribal, religious, or generally patriarchal societies of the Middle East. In Morocco, Jordan, Syria, post-revolution Egypt, Turkey or even Dubai … they settled for restricting such freedoms.
So what parts of the package (of democracy) would be good for Syria? A lot: Freedom of speech … free press … constitutional reforms allowing any Syrian to run for President … establishing new parties … real (free and monitored) parliamentary elections … coalition government led by a strong prime minister … more transparency … more accountability … more checks and balances …
When should Assad leave? It depends on how fast Syria can be stabilized and can progress under his leadership. The west can either help shorten or prolong the time period needed. (I’ll explain more in section 10 below)
In 2014 the President was re-elected in controversial elections that were flawed in many ways; There was no real competition to President Assad (with all due respect to the two candidates), and millions of Syrians (refugees etc) could not even vote either because of the security situation or because they decided to boycott the elections.
But those presidential elections also revealed significant and genuine support for President Assad that one can comfortably assume that no opposition figure can get close to, if free and monitored elections were to be held this year.
Constructing solid democracy takes time and it starts with building a proper foundation. It also helps if there is a favorable environment when difficult change toward democracy is to be undertaken. The United States can be exceptionally helpful in providing this kind of environment if it really wishes to facilitate Syria’s progress. More on that at the end of this essay.
8. IT IS NOT ONLY MIGs, BARRELS, SCUDs, CHEMICALS AND SHOOTING AT PEACEFUL PROTESTERS, IT IS WAR.
Ambassador Ford wrote:
“you blame the protest movement for violence, but in April-June 2011, the protests were almost entirely peaceful. I saw them myself at Hama and believe me, not the Baath HQ, not the police HQ, not the municipal building, nothing touched. Police were drinking tea in white plastic chairs in the shade. 72 hours later a mob organized by the Lattakia Asad gang attacked our embassy (we got the bus license plate numbers and tracked them down). So you tell me who was violent ? Moreover, towns like Jassim avoided violence, pleaded with security forces not to enter town in force and stoke reaction. SAA intervened anyway even though there had been no violence. Again, I visited, saw myself.”
The conflict in Syria provides infinite bits of information. When information appears to be in-line with our emotional preferences (ex: to demonize the regime / or to despise Erdogan) we will pay attention to it … deliberate it … memorize it … and recall it with ease, and frequently. If, on the other hand, we detect the presence of information that could boost our cognitive dissonance (make us uncomfortable with our previous beliefs or preferences) we tend to … not pay attention to it … not analyse it … not memorize it … and never recall it.
Ambassador Ford remembers so well the many stories that support his convictions, including what happened when he visited Hama. But there are many other stories that are inconsistent with his account of a fully peaceful Hama revolution.
I’ll offer three sample accounts from Hama in June 2011 when the revolutionaries were in charge:
- Lebanese journalist Ghadi Francis reported in mid July 2011 from revolution-controlled Hama. She described it as “Syria’s Kandahar” where revolutionaries, mostly Islamists, carry weapons and knives and control the city’s check points.
- Here is a video showing a Salafi who stabbed an old Alawite man at one of those checkpoints. You can see the bleeding old man is scared and trying to calm down the Salafi revolutionary.
- This celebration where they are throwing the bodies of those they killed in the river outside Hama
And here is another example from the early days of Daraa: An interview with an Islamist from Daraa. at 05:40 you will hear him admit that his two cousins were armed … they were among those fighting inside Daraa’s Omari mosque. Aljazeera of course presented the event as a savage attack by the Syrian regime on peaceful people hiding inside the mosque. This clip makes it clear it was an intense, two way, fight.
During the first three months (until late June when the armed rebels group the FSA was announced to the public) most protests were either peaceful or committed minor violent acts, but there was also widespread and frequent violence against the state and its security forces. The fact Ambassador Ford did not see violence in Hama on the day the organizers and demonstrators knew they were the subject of media coverage (and perhaps knew the Ambassador is visiting?), does not negate the fact violence was committed in many other locations or times. Jisr Al-Sheghoor where 120 policemen were killed, Banias (see the Syrian army hiding from those shooting at them, April 2011), Daraa, Homs … So the question is: was the government’s response to violence warranted? necessary? wise? unavoidable?
Government’s response was indeed excessive is many cases and that contributed unnecessarily to bloodshed that followed. But I also think it was not exceptional. When Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood called for a “day of anger” after Friday prayers, Egyptian police used live ammunition as they killed 650 protesters. The United States did not call on General Sisi to step aside.
Let’s take a look at how the U.S. army responds when “someone within the crowds shoots”:
“On May 17th 2003 thousands of people took to the streets in Kirkuk. At first they were passive aggressive towards the US forces, then it turned to the worse … we were shot at by one individual who just happened to be there … we returned fire into the crowd … Killing 18 and wounding 33″
Interview with James Circello | Former US Airborne Infantryman who served in Iraq
And in case there is any doubt that there were many cases of armed and violent “protesters”:
“From the start, the protest movements were not purely peaceful. From the start I saw armed demonstrators marching along in the protests, who began to shoot at the police first. Very often the violence of the security forces has been a reaction to the brutal violence of the armed rebels.”
Father Frans van der Lugt / a published letter by Jesuit priest who is highly respected by many opposition activists.
Late 2011, The Arab League sent a team of observers to investigate the use of violence in Syria. At the end of their mission, Sudanese General Muhammad Al-Dabi presented their report which concluded that it is the opposition that is responsible for initiating cycles of violence as the Syrian army tried to not respond, but opposition continues to intentionally target them until they respond.
Since Assad was too popular, the “friends of Syria” relied on a strategy that U.S. embassy in Damascus favored and followed for years. A cable from U.S. embassy in Damascus in 2006 was titled “Strategies for destabilizing the Syrian government“. Another cable suggested “playing on Sunni fears” of Iran and Shia influence. Had President Assad been so unpopular with “the Sunnis” … why did America’s embassy need to manufacture Sunni anger?
Destabilization did not stop with the arrival of the Arab Spring … why should it? if it made sense to the Americans before 2011, it surely made much more sense after 2011.
Who is responsible?
Everyone is responsible. But please take a look at the numbers in the following chart (source: Center for documentation of violations in Syria, Nov 20, 2012 data)
- Before the opposition decided to form the FSA 11 Syrians were dying everyday (Blame the government for most)
- July 2011 they formed the FSA and claimed it was only defending and protecting civilians and demonstrators. That’s when the average daily death toll went up to 43.
- By July 2012 the FSA (or armed opposition militias) got much larger in size and started to attack Aleppo and Damascus trying to “liberate them”. This increased the average daily death toll to 142.
So who is responsible?
I will share below another chart (source: Humanitariantracker.org) which makes it clear that the vast majority of Syrians killed are victims of gunshots and artillery. The opposition likes to think that MIGs, SCUDs and barrels are killing most civilians but this is far from the truth. It is not more than a propaganda tactic since only the Syrian government has MIGs and SCUDs. There are 300,000 soldiers, rebels, militia members, shabeeha, Kurdish fighters, and Jihadists fighting in Syria (a very rough estimate) … each has a gun. Most are using them every day. The few MIGs and Barrels (while lethal and horrific) cannot compete with 300,000 machine guns. Incidentally, on a recent appearance on Aljazeera, the former spokesman of the Free Syrian Army Thaer Alnashef said THEY killed so far 135,000 Alawites and 22,000 missing. You can hear for yourself here starting at 31:21 (in Arabic).
The 200,000 who died were victims of … the continuation of war itself.
Humanitarians call for ending the war … propagandists milk MIGs and Barrels videos hoping to convince President Obama to bomb Syria. For 2015, be a real humanitarian.
I will not get into a long discussion about who used chemical weapons but a reminder that it was mostly those committed to regime change in Damascus who were convinced the regime did it.
When I asked why would the regime do that? … they say a) the regime is stupid and b) it loves to kill women and children and c) it ran out of conventional weapons and had to use its chemical arsenal.
I’ll just remind the reader of some facts:
- It was Syria (“the regime”) that paid the price (Giving up Syria’s chemical weapons in full)
- The regime proved on many occasions that it is far from stupid or foolish. It never used its chemical weapons even in difficult times … never against the Brotherhood between 1979 and 1982 ,,,, never against Israel (even though Syria lost in 1982). It was the United States that provided chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein knowing he was going to use them and then provided him satellite images to help him kill more Iranians with those CWs (CIA leaked documents)
- At the time some suggested that CWs were used because the army started to run out of its conventional weapons supplies. Well, 15 months later we know that not only is the Syrian army still operating (using conventional weapons) in many areas simultaneously, but it is today advancing specifically in el-Ghouta where CWs were used last year.
- The UN confirmed the use of CW’s but made it clear there is no way of determining who did it
- Syria’s enemies benefited greatly. Syria gave up its chemical deterrence.
- French presidency asked French intelligence to edit their report on the use of CW’s in Syria by removing all the parts where doubt the regime’s culpability. (see Georges Malbrunot’s new book: Les Chemins de Damas)
- A conversation was leaked that made it clear Mr. Erdogan’s administration was discussing setting up a false flag operation in Syria. They banned youtube to stop people from listening to that leaked tape. Here is a report on that conversation.
- Turkish and Qatari intel have the necessary skills and they have access to many rebel-controlled areas from which the CW attack probably took place.
- Look at the state of minds of the leaders who at the time of the CW attack were all highly frustrated for their collective failure to defeat Assad: 1) Prime minister Erdogan who was very unhappy with President Obama for his lack of interest in military intervention in Syria. Erdogan is often described asparanoid and egomaniac … 2) Qatar, led by a young and inexperienced new emir, has been recklessly escalating its war against the Syrian government, including financing and arming Al-Qaeda, … 3) France was fully ready to bomb Syria using the CW pretext but refrained from doing so because President Obama did not give the green light, … 4) Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar, known for being a risk taker, was frustrated President Obama is not attacking Syria. One of those four should be suspected of staging or facilitating the chemical weapons attack near Damascus.
9. SYRIA IS NOT TUNISIA, SAY NO TO POLITICAL ISLAM AND NO TO SECTARIAN POWER SHARING SOLUTIONS
Robert Ford wrote:
Tunisia 2 weeks ago held elections. Tunisian mainstream Islamists were not fearful of being arrested/tortured to death, and so they were more moderate from the start – Ghannouchi’s party even relinquished the PM slot voluntarily earlier in 2014 as part of a multi-party political deal. In a far calmer atmosphere, secularists won the majority of votes on October 26 in a fair election. Syrians are entirely as sophisticated as Tunisians but alas, the process in Syria was blocked from the beginning. Should we say that Arab societies can’t be democratic or should we say that leader choices on both sides, government/opposition, determine what happens ?
First, the ambassador is partially right. What happened in Syria could have been less bloody and destructive had the authorities been less allergic to Islamists (or to opposition in general). They did over react. But there is more to acknowledge before making easy comparisons between Syria and Tunisia.
There is always eagerness from westerners to reassure us, secular Arabs, that we should not worry about Islamists. In February 2011, WINEP (a right wing, pro Israel think tank) published an opinion poll from Egypt. Their poll somehow concluded:
“This is not an Islamic uprising. The Muslim Brotherhood is approved by just 15 percent of Egyptians — and its leaders get barely 1 percent of the vote in a presidential straw poll.”
Unfortunately, the next elections gave Islamists 71% of seats in the Egyptian parliament (compare to 15% in the WINEP poll), and although the Muslim Brotherhood promised at the time to not compete in Presidential elections, Mr. Morsi showed up and he won … compare that again with WINEP’s poll that suggested the Brotherhood can only get … 1% in Presidential elections.
Back to discussing Tunisia.
Tunisia is a rarity. It unites many Syrians who celebrate its recent success as each side sees it through their own colored filters.
Syrian Islamists can now claim that the civilized behavior of Tunisia’s Islamists who were gracious in defeat is proof they also can be trusted to play the democracy game and that those who claim they stand for “one man one vote … once” are mistaken. (Ambassador Ford shares the same view).
Arab Spring types finally found one success story to justify their attempted revolution in Syria.
Government supporters love Tunisia because its people have a significant number of secular, Arab nationalists who tend to favor the Syrian government’s side in the conflict, and because at the end, the Islamists lost and are now back in opposition and an old regime figure was elected President. They see a vindication to their choices as the people in Tunisia and Egypt are quickly realizing they made a mistake and are undoing it.
But they are all reading too much into the Tunisia story because Tunisia is not Syria. Their Arab nationalists are by now democrats … they have freedom of press … they don’t torture … they are less corrupt …
But this section is about political Islam, so I’ll focus more on that next. Here’s how Syria’s situation is sadly, not as promising as Tunisia’s
President Habib Bourguiba (1957 to 1987), has been considerably more daring in liberalizing his country, by improving the educational system and fighting gender inequality. In Syria “the regime” tried, but was mostly unwilling to exceed limits beyond which conservative elements in Syrian society were bound to react. Hafez Al-Assad learned his lesson early enough when he tried in 1973 to introduce constitutional amendments that omitted article 3 (present since the 1920 constitution) which says the president of Syria has to be a Muslim. Pious Muslims were enraged and President Assad restored article 3 to its original form. A few years ago, President Bashar Al-Assad also tried to move a few inches closer to a liberal society … he faced serious resistance from members of Parliament (yes, those rubber stampers) or from Christian and Muslim religious leaders.
Here are some other ways in which Syria differs from Tunisia:
Tunisia is 98%+ Sunni Muslim (plus some Christians and Jews). They are unaffected by regional Sunni/Shia tensions. Syria is at the center of these hostilities. Allowing Islamists to compete in Syrian politics will ensure they will be very passionate about defeating Iran, Hezbollah and Iraq’s Shia … it is a higher cause for them (freedom of press is not exactly what makes them lose sleep).
Tunisia doesn’t have millions of citizens who were condemned by Ibn Taymiyyah as “greater disbelievers than the Jews and Christians … than most of the polytheists … and their harm to the Ummah is greater than the harm of the disbelievers”. Syria and Lebanon have millions of Alawites, Ismaelis and Druze. They are not safe like Christians (“people of the book”) because many (not all) Islamists believe they should kill them … despite the political correctness that today limits their ability to express their real desires. When we think of the future of Syria and Lebanon, we can’t brush off this risk. In the past the esoterics lived inside fortified castles on top of high mountains and still suffered many attempts of sectarian cleansing. Today they have Syria’s army to protect them from Ibn Taymiyyah’s fans… it doesn’t matter if 90% of Syria’s Muslims are against harming the esoterics. If only one in ten is an extremists (and this is the case) we can still have a bloodbath. There has to be a new formula to allow more political freedoms in Syrian but without any risk to millions of its citizens. We need to talk about it.
Tunisia is not a victim of intense regional Sunni/Sunni competition, but Syria is. Turkey, Saudi, Qatar, Kuwait, and others are competing to buy, host, train, and promote the most effective Islamist allies in Syria. The Brotherhood already proved it is willing to sell Syria to Turkey and Qatar. Syrian nationalists do not consider them Syrians. They are Ottomans who work for and answer to President Erdogan.
Tunisia doesn’t have to worry about Islamists who want revenge (originally for Hama, and now for the conflict’s bloodshed). Syria’s Islamists talk about “justice” (politically correct way to express their lust for revenge). The original date set by the organizers of the Syrian revolution coincided with the 29th anniversary of the events of Hama (Feb 3rd). The poster was about “The Syrian rage”. If Ambassador Ford can ask his friends to provide him with a copy of the comments (not the carefully edited posts) on the main Syrian revolution page on Facebook (has 936,000 likes) he will realize just how strong was their need for revenge from day1 (before there was bloodshed). There is no need to do statistical analysis of the content of those comments … it was easily 90%+ sectarian and revenge driven.
Tunisia doesn’t have to worry about the American embassy trying to play on Sunni Shia (and Alawite) divisions like the one in Damascus did. Israel and its friends in the United States do not need to weaken, punish or isolate Tunisia. They will not try to use the Islamists as pawns like they would against Syrian nationalists if is a political process in Syria one day. Israel and its western + GCC friends are enemies of democracy in Syria for they are all waiting to enter as soon as the door open, and Islamists (especially the Brotherhood) are the opportunists who will eagerly let them in. Syrian nationalists would like to talk to westerners who are pushing for political reforms in Syria about what guarantees they can provide that would be reasonably reassuring.
Tunisia’s Islamists are less aggressive than Syria’s (or Egypt’s) because they realize that, unlike the 2011 Arab Spring’s peak, today “the international community” lost its enthusiasm for their Muslim Brotherhood project. They are thankful to be allowed to play official opposition in Tunisia when they see that their brothers in Egypt are criminalized and thrown in jail and when they remember that Saudi Arabia and the UAE both classified them as terrorists. In 2011 they knew they were the stars of the show and they quickly started to act like bullies. Here is a graphic banner from Egypt’s brotherhood facebook page when they were feeling empowered in 2012. They were warning the Egyptian army to submit to their wishes or remember what happened to previous Egyptian leaders who tried to oppose them. The graphic also has three facebook posts by Syrian liberal opposition figures who had it with the Brotherhood and decided they will never accept to work with them. Some decided to abandon the opposition completely.
Islamists are a threat to religious minorities, as everyone knows by now. But they are also a threat to:
Women: They will try to the best of their ability to drastically change their way of life and to take away their freedoms.
Syrian unity, national pride, and sense of belonging: Islamists’ loyalty goes to any regional Sunni power (Turkey, Qatar or Saudi Arabia).
National security: They would work with anyone, Israel included, who will help them.
Stability in the Middle East: They have plans to fight all Shia powers in their neighborhood.
Coexistence in the Middle East and beyond, as they will introduce more Europeans and North Americans to Islamophobia.
Egyptians (who do not face a fraction of Syria’s challenges) decided to ban the brotherhood from politics. 65% of Egyptians, to be more precise, since opinion polls show 35% support for the Brotherhood.
Turkey started to experiment with Democracy in 1908. Their secular army only allowed Islamists to participate about 100 years later. And how is this experiment going recently? President Erdogan is undoing freedoms and secularism to the extent that his power can take him.
A more serious source of worry is a recent Zoghby poll in Turkey which says“A strong plurality favors victory for Jabhat Al Nusra followed by the Islamic Front”. (see page 2, section III Syria). Turkey is where Syria’s Islamsits live, train, coordinate and interact with their Turkish friends. A cross-border coalition that is based on sectarian loyalties does not bode well for Syria or for the region. The United States is playing with fire if it continues to take this process lightly.
What to do?
The conflict between minorities/ nationalists/ secularists, and the Islamists has no simple, obvious or fair solution. Egypt’s criminalization of Islamists, if implemented in Syria would be seen as oppression of Sunni Muslims in generals. There is an urgent need to talk about other, rational solutions.
Lebanon style power sharing formulas that translate into weak leadership which competes for power with various religious parties, each establishing relations with some foreign backer, and fighting for its own sectarian agenda, would lead to chaos, in Syria and in the wider area.
The only outcome that has a chance of success (with great difficulty) is a military victory by the Syrian army (at least capturing Aleppo and el-Ghouta), a strong president and a new system that allows some limited role for Islamists, as individuals, in Syrian politics. Perhaps a 10 to 20% cap on seats in Parliament + 3 ministers. This would allow them to voice their concerns and the concerns of the many pious Syrians. But it would keep their aspirations and grand Islamist plans in the drawer (knowing that they will never drop them).
Secular, moderate and patriotic opposition should be allowed to run for any seat and should have a chance to form a national coalition government. Defense and foreign relations should remain in “regime” hands. These are not areas of experimentation. Again … Syria is not Tunisia.
Full democracy does not fit in one bite. Those who do not understand this are only focused on their personal agendas and do not really care for, or understand Syria.
Syria needs at least a decade or two of experimenting with democratic change that has reasonable chances of success. If some insist on allowing the Islamists a role, the experiment will fail and it will be very costly for everyone.
10. WITH PROGRESS ON CUBA AND IRAN, CONSIDER ENDING YOUR 35-YEARS OF SANCTIONS ON SYRIA?
R.F.: “you’re wrong to think that we put Syria on terrorism lists without good reason – don’t forget the Hindawi airplane attempt in London, or Syria’s support for Hizballah which has bombed embassies and murdered civilians in places like Lebanon and Argentina”
I will have to disagree with Ambassador Ford again. Syria is the only country to be continuously on the state department’s list of supporters of terror, since its inception in 1979. Libya, Cuba, North Korea, or Iran apparently were not as evil as Syria, because none of them stayed as long on that list.
The United States’ decision makers like to think they protect the Syrian people and champion their causes. In reality, thanks to this pressure tool, America has been punishing the Syrian people for 35 years. Justification? Syria’s support for a number of old Palestinian and Lebanese organizations that, combined, might have taken the initiative to kill eight civilians the past 8 years.
Compare that to Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE … the terrorists they have been supporting killed tens of thousands of Syrians since 2011, and yet the United States’ treats them with polite reminders: Your royal highness … we would be most grateful if you can help us limit the growth of those groups, you know … like Al-Qaeda.
This phrase from the Eagles’ Hotel California “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave” comes to mind here as improvements in Syria’s relations with the U.S. and its cooperation with the Clinton admin and Bush Sr. admin still did not help release Syria from that prison.
I will address in detail each of the accusations leveled against Syria since 1979, but before I start, I would like to help the reader understand just how exaggerated and unusual Syria’s demonization has been, here is a neutral witness, Zvi Bar’el, a prominent Israeli Arab affairs specialist (and definitely not an Assad fan) who wrote an opinion piece in Haaretz in 2005 titled “A toy called Assad”:
“Like a cat that tortures a lizard it found in the yard, first plucking its tail, then tearing off a leg before finally boring with it, seems to be U.S. President George W. Bush’s attitude toward Syrian President Bashar Assad. Since the beginning of the war against Iraq, Assad has become Bush’s toy – until he succeeded in building him up to an enemy on the scale of Saddam Hussein, or at least the president of Iran. This inflation of the Syrian doll has been so successful that today, without a doubt, if there is someone to blame for the failure of the war against terror in Iraq, it is Assad. If there is someone who threatens the peace of the region, it is Assad. And if there is a leader whose deposal would make all of the U.S.’s problems in the region vanish – lo and behold – it is Assad.”
Next I will provide a comprehensive list of charges used to demonize Syria’s leadership and a brief Syria defense for each.
Please note that I am not justifying everything, but arguing that in some cases Syria was accused based on politicized speculations with no evidence. I hope the reader can properly assess the extent to which I defend or explain each item.
Accusation: The Syrian army killed between 10k and 20k (Thomas Friedman’s early estimate), later boosted to “20k to 40k” (Bush Jr. Syrian regime change days’ propaganda quoting some generic “Syrian Human rights organization”), and finally thanks to the Arab Spring’s social networking newly acquired freedom-to-dramatize, some Syrian opposition activists were claiming that Hafez Assad the butcher killed 80,000 people in Hama.
Reality: Yes, Hama is one of the darkest chapters in Syria’s modern history and yes Rifaat Assad led his special forces as they shelled armed gangs and civilians in finally suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood’s three-year terror campaign that killed and injured thousands of Syrians before it had to be finished in Hama. The Brotherhood’s main backer was Saddam Hussein. Many other allies of the United States among Syria’s neighbors (Jordan, Lebanon’s Christian forces) also supported the brotherhood’s project.
How many really died? Probably no one knows the exact number but according to a declassified secret assessment by the Defence Intelligence Agency (May 1982) the number was closer to 2500, including hundreds of brotherhood fighters. The report also states that Syria’s stability (“stability of the Assad government”) is an area of “extreme concern” to the U.S. and that a majority of the Syrian people do not want the Brotherhood to win or to rule them and that if the Syrian army did not use that kind of force, the Brotherhood would have won through their guerilla war tactics.
Conclusion? … Sadly, thousands died in Hama and Palmyra/Tedmor prison (over 5000 probably), but if one keeps in mind the way the Boston bomber situation was handled, a question needs to be asked: What would the U.S. do if Saddam Hussein armed, financed and provided media (radio at the time) support to thousands of armed Islamists committing weekly terrorist acts for three years in the United States (assume they were U.S. citizens)?
Remember also that in 1980 there was an attempt to assassinate the President of Syria while the U.S. and its European and Arab allies were trying to choke Syria economically.
Syrian Army’s behavior in Lebanon:
Accusation: Syria occupied Lebanon and its officers engaged in corruption and committed violence.
Reality: Syria was invited into Lebanon by Lebanon’s legitimate President and as part of the Arab league’s mandate and with a green light from Washington (leaked documents). Syria lost an estimated 13,000 soldiers while trying to control the spread of Lebanon’s 15 year civil war or while fighting the invading Israeli army in 1982. Many Syrian officers engaged in corruption, others did not. Armies are always prone to excessive violence and corruption when they are at war. But claiming, as many Americans or Lebanese did, that Syria was economically surviving by robbing Lebanon is a case of selective attention to the facts. While many Syrians benefited financially in Lebanon, Syria saved Lebanon tens of billions by assuming a large portion of the cost of army and police functions between 1976 and 2005. When Syria withdrew in 2005, its economy did not collapse at all as theBush administration was hoping … to the contrary, there was economic growth in Syria despite being boycotted by the US and its Arab allies at the time.
As for the use of violence … an estimated 200,000 died during the Lebanese civil war … various Lebanese militias did the vast majority of the killing. Syria’s adversaries continuously circulated stories to accuse the Syrian army of mass crimes. Here is one of them from 2006: “A burial site in eastern Lebanon originally believed to be a mass grave for victims of Syria’s military presence is actually a graveyard dating to the 17th century, a Lebanese prosecutor said” The Washington Post.
No army, Syria’s included, can try to end a civil war without using violence itself. Was the American army’s conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan spotless?… Try this 2010 headline from the Guardian: “US soldiers ‘killed Afghan civilians for sport and collected fingers as trophies’”
At least Syria’s army was officially invited to Lebanon by the President of Lebanon with Arab league mandate… and there was a real civil war in Lebanon next door to Syria, compared to the fiction-laden power point presentation at the UNSC that justified military intervention in Iraq (11,000 kilometers away from the United States)
Accusation: Syria supported Hezbollah as they kidnapped journalists, bombed embassies and murdered civilians in places like Lebanon and Argentina …
Reliality: When Hezbollah was first formed in the early 80’s, it was Iran’s attempt to gain influence in Lebanon at the expense of Syria’s established ties to leading Shia movement, Amal.
Iran and Hezbollah at the time were inexperienced and reckless compared to their much more cautious leaderships today. While President Hafez Assad tried (successfully) to not let frequent disappointing actions by Iran in Lebanon ruin their relationship, it got really close to that on many occasions. Syria tried its best to defeat Iran’s new Shia player, Hezbollah, by arming Lebanon’s traditional Shia party “Amal” and urging it to fight Hezbollah. Watch sample footage here
Eventually Hezbollah proved it was there to stay. So between the late 80’s and late 90’s there was a transition period where Syria gradually accepted Hezbollah’s presence provided the group would focus more on fighting to liberate Lebanon from Israel’s occupation. Syria informed Iran that it is under intense pressure from its Arab brethren because of Hezbollah.
Close friendship between Syria and Hezbollah came later and by that time, Hezbollah included a Syrian branch which was much more moderate and pragmatic in comparison to the militant older Iranian branch. These branches are not official, they simply refer to loyalty and ideology of various Hezbollah leading figures.
Syria’s influence on Hezbollah was a moderating one. Syria never accepted Hezbollah’s earlier (true or alleged) role in kidnappings of attacked outside Lebanon.
I scanned two pages from Patrick Seale’s book “Assad: The struggle for the Middle East”. The reader is encouraged to read them as they provide a reminder of some exceptional events from the early to mid-eighties. Another good reference for Syria’s rocky relations with Hezboolah is this new book (Arabic) by Lebanese Shia MP Hassan Fadlallah. The book also describes the undoing (or softening) of Hezbollah’s early extremist ideology.
When was the last time Hezbollah initiated any attack against civilians? … Not since Syria became an influential ally.
(In 2006 it attacked Israeli soldiers violating Lebanese sovereignty and later responded after intense Israeli attacks on Lebanon’s civilian population).
Nasrallah always has a warm welcome to any U.S. backed Lebanese politician even those who issued public threats against him (Jumblatt for example). He also agreed often to give up on Hezbollah’s traditional number of seats to help break the deadlock in attempts to form new governments.
Today Hezbollah has the support of close to 50% of the Lebanese people. In 2006 when it successfully resisted Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah’s support reached 85%.
Incidentally, Syria’s support in Lebanon today (at 52%) is considerably higher than the United States’ (25%) …
Maturity and rationality aside, Hezbollah remains a religious ideological party and in that sense its role in Lebanon’s politics will always have a negative side to it. Religion and politics should not mix, although there is no comparison with other takfiri Islamists that the United States often relies on, directly, or by consenting to its partners in the Middle East supporting, financing and arming them. Hezbollah fighters in Syria today:
- Would leave back to Lebanon the minute Syria’s President asks to them to. (compare to the opposition’s jihadist allies.)
- Never attempted to brainwash Syrian children in areas they operate inside Syria (compare to ISIS, Annusra, IF and FSA religious schools)
- Do not cut heads and hands or crucify or rape women
- Do not promote Sunni hate (compare to most US backed rebels’ attitudes towards the Shia)
- Number perhaps one tenth of the opposition’s foreign jihadists.
- Does not want to turn Syria into an Islamic state, like most US backed (or tolerated) rebels and jihadists.
Ideally the United States would work with Syria and other regional powers to help Lebanon regain its occupied territories (small area) and to reform its confessional political system in a way that allows Lebanon’s Shia to run for President or Prime minister, which today they can’t. If that takes place, then it might be easier to convince Lebanese Shia to look for non-religious and non-armed representatives, like Hezbollah. [Another reason to try harder to sign that deal with Iran.]
Supporting Hamas / Harbouring Hamas leaders in Damascus
Accusation: Syria supported Hamas terrorists and protected Hamas leader Khaled Mashal who lived in Damascus for years
Reality: Just like Syria did not help establish Hezbollah, Syria did not help form Hamas. Syria’s favorite Palestinian allies were the leftists (George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh), not the Islamists. In fact it was Israel that helped in establishing Hamas, as this Wall Street Journal article illustrates.
Hamas leader Khaled Mashal lived in Jordan for ten years and now he lives in Qatar. Not only did we not see Jordan or Qatar on the list of states that support terror, but now there are signs Hamas might be taken off the list of terror organizations.
Same with Hezbollah, Syrian influence on Hamas (between 2005 and 2011) led to a considerable moderation in Hamas’ terms to settle the Arab Israeli conflict. Syria MODERATES religious organizations that OTHERS establish.
The US wants them to go beyond moderation of course … The US was never happy that Syria did not help turn them into tame puppets. But Syria did nothing wrong there. Syria’s terms for a settlement of the Arab Israeli conflict are the same in UN resolutions 242 and 338. If that is extremism, then the US has to let the world know it has its own standards that replace those silly UNSC resolutions.
One valid criticism is that Syria did not clearly condemn attacks on Israeli civilians by Hamas between 2000 and 2005. No matter how violent Israel is (and it is much more violent compared to Hamas) nothing justifies targeting civilians as a strategy. Syria advised Hamas to not attack civilians (and they stopped after 2006) but it did refused to condemn those attacks before that.
Today, supporters of the Syrian government are furious at Hamas for its role in training and supporting many of the Islamists trying to defeat Syria’s national government. Hamas’ relation with Syria is not going to be back to normal. Qatar and Turkey own it now. (Iran is looks at them favorably too)
The Assad family’a forty year rule is unacceptable to the US
“Thanksgiving is a time, too, when we listen to the elders gathered around our table, the people who’ve been through countless springs and winters and, if they’re wise, see things with consequent clarity. There are some wise, older voices left, and they deserve a hearing. So listen for a moment to Prince Saud al-Faisal, the 71-year-old Saudi foreign minister. He’s had that post since 1975 and is the world’s longest-serving foreign minister. Though his body is frail, his Princeton-educated intellect remains sharp: This was the most interesting of our many conversations over the years.”
Washington Post associate editor David Ignatius admiring Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister’s wisdom that was acquired throughout his 40 years as foreign minister of the kingdom that was named after his family… a family that had a monopoly on power for 270 years without any complaining by the United States.
The fact the Assad family has been ruling in Syria for 44 years is obviously not optimal nor is it ideal. Government and its supporters will be happy to talk about the day Syria would be able to freely elect its next president, but it is really not easy to accommodate those in opposition who are hysterical and obsessed with their dream of removing Assad from power. They need to learn to care about Syria’s many urgent challenges, and they need to demonstrate an understanding and a commitment to dialogue.
Years 1970 to 2014 are far from being the disaster that the regime-toppling camp is constantly alleging. Bashar AlAssad was highly popular in 2010 (U. of Maryland/CNN polls), and Hafez Al-Assad was highly respected even if his popularity was questionable (we simply do not know enough).
Anyone who has doubts can read in full the New York Time’s Assad obituary when he passed away in June 2000. Keep in mind this is not the typical kindness that friends of the United States automatically get. He was an adversary that gained their respect as a genuine nationalist and a builder of a strong modern Syria.
The Hindawi affair:
Accusation: Syria gave one of its agents, a Jordanian man who lives in London, a bomb to place in an Israeli 747 flying to Tel Aviv. He placed that bomb in his pregnant Irish girlfriend’s luggage as she was travelling to Israel.
Reality: The Hindawi affair (1986) was probably a set-up. If Hafez Assad is too smart to bomb Israeli or American civilians, well then someone has to fabricate something to tarnish his reputation anyway.
For 16 years before the Hindawi affair, and another 14 years after, Assad never came close to targeting civilian airlines … and he certainly could if he wanted to. Ask all the secretaries of state who dealt with him if he was anywhere near being the fool that would place a bomb on the most secure airline in the world. Before luggage goes on Israel’s flights, it is triple checked by security.
Mrs Thatcher, was very eager to indict, admonish and punish the President of Syria, but her European allies did not seem to be convinced. They refused to withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus. The Brits were furious.
French Prime minister Jacque Chirac told the Washington Times that he and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl believed the Israelis arranged the whole thing to get Hafez Assad’s reputation tarnished.
Robert Fisk wrote that when he met the UK’s ambassador in Damascus wanted him to know that they have reasons to believe the Israelis knew about it in advance. That was probably a diplomatic British understatement.
A short year after the alleged Hindawi affair President Ronald Reagan sent President Assad a letter to urge him to talk to the United States and hopefully work together on a number of issues. Presidents Bush Sr., and Clinton them both travelled to meet President Hafez Al-Assad. Would they forgive him so fast had they really believed he tried to kill hundreds of Israeli civilians?
Please see some scans below that I had in my files. Also, excerpts from Patrick Seale (graphic above) are also valuable for shedding light on the Hindawi affair.
Supporting Kurdish Rebels (the Kurdistan Workers’ party, PKK)
This is a partially valid accusation. Syria did (until year 1999) provide political support and, in some cases, a home to some Kurdish leaders who engaged in violent confrontations with Turkish authorities. But again, Syria did not establish these organizations. The Kurds continued to resist Turkey regardless of the nature of their ties with Damascus.
Kurds constitute about 10% of Syria’s population. Hafez Al-Assad ruled by taking into account the aspirations of all of Syria’s religious and ethnic groups and his support for the Kurds was mostly a part of that strategy.
The Kurdish issue is complex and divisive. No matter what side you take, it is not easy to be confidently on the right side of history. Today, for example, the United States is arming the PYD, a Kurdish group in northern Syria fighting ISIS in Kobane. President Erdogan says the PYD is a terrorist organization and a sister/branch of the PKK which Syria used to be accused of supporting.
Choosing Iran’s “axis of evil” over good relations with the west and peace with Israel
Accusation: Syria had to choose between Iran and the United States and its allies. Syria chose Iran and missed an opportunity to recover its occupied Golan Heights and to enjoy huge investments …etc.
Reality: Syria was close to Iran, Turkey and Qatar and frequently attempted to improve its ties with the west, but the United States and “the international community” were not interested.
Syria learned from other countries’ mistakes that it is better to hedge and to have many friends.
Can the United States tolerate some independence? … can a country like Syria be allowed to have excellent relations with Russia, China, Iran and still be a good friend of the United States?
Unfortunately the answer is no. The United States wants its smaller friends to join in its relentless attempts to dismantle or weaken countries it considers to be adversaries (like Iran or Russia). What does the United States offer in return? … we’ll be good to you provided you rarely say no when we say yes, and provided your interests do not collide with the Interests of our favorite friends: Israel and Saudi Arabia, because they come first.
Oh … and our friendship might expire when the next administration is elected, like Egypt’s Anwar Sadat realized when his friend President Carter was out and President Reagan was in.
Assassinating Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafiq Hariri
Accusation: Syria surely killed him. Everyone knows that …
Reality: If one looks at motives, it is true that Syria had a few reasons to get rid of him. He was at the time coordinating with Egypt’s Mubarak, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdualla, and French President Jacque Chirac a campaign to force Syria out of Lebanon. There are also good reasons to believe that he was part of an alliance with Walid Jumblatt and a number of Syrian old guard figures (Ghazi Kanaan, Abdul Halim Khaddam, Hikmat Shihabi) that was working outside President Assad’s authority on their own agendas (economic, and political).
But Syria also had many reasons to not dare touch Rafiq Al-Hariri who was a close friend of a number of world leaders. The Bush administration had its U.S. army next door in Iraq with plans to do Syria next (see general Wesley Clark’s testimony). All they needed was a good excuse, and Syria killing Hariri would have been the perfect excuse.
Who else could be a suspect? (beside Syria)
- Israel wanted Syria out of Lebanon …
- One or more of the powerful Syrians who wanted to remove Assad and replace him could have done it to implicate him …
- Lebanese score settling (business or politics related) could have led to Hariri’s removal…
Here is an excerpt from “A clean Break”, the most successful strategy paper written by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s closest American and Israeli advisers who were in power in Israel and in the US (neocons) when Hariri was assassinated:
“Israel can shape its strategic environment … by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on rFstandingemoving Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq ― an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right ― as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions … and diverting Syria’s attention by using Lebanese opposition elements to destabilize Syrian control of Lebanon … Syria challenges Israel on Lebanese soil. An effective approach, and one with which American can sympathize, would be if Israel seized the strategic initiative along its northern borders by engaging Hizballah, Syria, and Iran, as the principal agents of aggression in Lebanon”
1) Removing Saddam 2) going to war in Lebanon 3) kicking Syria out of Lebanon … after the Hariri accusations… all done.
Speculation aside, the Hariri investigation and tribunal are the most serious and expensive in history. No other assassinated figure was lucky enough to get a fraction of the attention (and financing) that Hariri’s case enjoyed. Yet … early assumptions that Syria did it were not easy to prove.
Immediately after Hariri was assassinated, the underground bomb theorybecame popular. That’s mainly why everyone assumed Syria did it as many claimed Syria’s army was in Lebanon and no one would dare place an underground bomb without their knowledge … Syria’s detractors told the world.
UN investigators researched that possibility and eventually decided the bomb was not underground. But assumption that Syria did it remained a useful pressure tool that the Bush administration, Saudi Arabia, France and Egypt hoped would lead to the collapse of the Syrian regime … “the low hanging fruit of the resistance axis”.
The net result of the “pressure” is that economic reforms in Syria, and peace negotiations had to be put on hold for years until the Hariri accusations became less noisy. But a good thing came out of the accusations … the Syrian army accelerated its departure from Lebanon. A good and bad thing … for it also allowed the regime change coalition (including Al-Qaeda and many other “Syrian rebels”) to work freely in Lebanon on toppling the regime. Efforts started as soon as Syria departed Lebanon. The Syrian army’s presence in Lebanon was mostly unpopular in Lebanon, true … but recent events prove that Syria has a legitimate need to maintain a security presence in out-of-control Lebanon.
As for accusations that Syria killed Hariri … one hopes that no evidence (despite really, really trying) means … no justification to continue to accuse.
Taking a hardline in Syrian/Israeli and Arab/Israeli peace negotiations
Accusation: Syria used its “cards” to create obstacles that prevented the successful completion of peace negotiations with Israel, from its opposition to the Camp David accord in 1978, the 1983 Lebanese Israeli peace (submission) treaty under Israeli occupation, to the Oslo agreement, to the road map …
Reality: Syria understood the dynamics of the Arab Israeli conflict better than any other party. When President Hafez Al-Assad insisted on a comprehensive peace settlement, it was because he realized Israel would not have any reason to give back the occupied territories to Syria and the Palestinians (and the Lebanese) if they don’t all stick together as a negotiating group. Nevertheless, since the collapse of the Soviet Union (and Sadat’s abandonment of Syria’s struggle to regain its occupied territories) Syria decided that it cannot pressure the Palestinians anymore and he promised President Clinton to not actively oppose the Oslo treaty (although he was sure it will fall by itself).
Syria insisted on its rights and on Lebanese and Palestinian rights as stipulated in many UNSC resolutions, not more and not less. Syria showed up to all US (or Turkish) sponsored … direct or indirect, talks. It was Israel that /1/ Had bad intentions of destroying the Madrid conference as prime minister Shamir later admitted /2/ changed course after assassinating Prime minister Rabin /3/planned to reshape its environment in from Iran to Iran to Syria to Lebanon instead of giving back occupied lands, as Prime minister Netanyahu and his advisers implied many times /4/ used the Gaza withdrawal to end all future withdrawals as an aide to prime minister Sharon admitted to Haaretz /5/ Got cold feet, as President Clinton explained about Ehud Barak’s decision to abandon peace talks with Syria /6/ Broke successful negotiations with Syria in Turkey by bombing Gaza /7/ and rejected its own final counteroffer to the Syrians after President Assad accepted it in 2010, as America’s mediator, Fred Hof, can explain. And contrary to the information published in various newspapers, Israel walked out months before the Arab Spring reached Syria (and not a a result of it).
Syria was very eager, honest and straight forward in its peace negotiations. Israel’s Likud leaders were not.
Supporting Jihadists in Iraq
Accusation: Between 2005 and 2008 Syria facilitated the passage of international Jihadists into Iraq to fight the American army. There were reports that General Petraeus believed Syria must be similarly punished.
Reality: There is some truth to these accusations; I will expand on them, but fist here’s an overview of Syria’s counterarguments:
Large borders are impossible to seal and Syria requested from the United States military cooperation and support (night vision gear for example). The United States refused. Syria suggested that if U.S. troops on the Iraqi side cannot seal those borders, then why should the badly-equipped Syrian army be expected to succeed? Syria’s army was focused on protecting the country’s border with Israel as well as protecting the city of Damascus. Moving large numbers of troops to protect the border with Iraq was a risk not worth taking.
Is it by now (end of 2014) easy to argue that Syria’s claim (between 2005 and 2008) that it was unable to seal all its borders proved its validity during the past 3 years as tens of thousands of foreign jihadists, opposed to the Syrian government, continuously managed to enter Syria from Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
Having said that, I think Syria probably did turn a blind eye to the flow of fighters entering Iraq to fight American troops there. It was a mistake but at the time, Syria was left with very few options. The Bush administration did not care for Syria’s warnings and concerns in 2003. It went ahead with its disastrous Iraq war. Syria was the only Arab country to vigorously lobby against the Iraq war. Syria needed to correct America’s mistakes in Iraq and to make sure that invading countries is not a walk in the park for the United States because if it proved to be that easy in Iraq, Syria was most likely the neocons’ next target.
Syria tried to empower Iraqi Sunnis (here’s a reminder) as Iran was making a mistake in promoting Shia dominance in Iraq. Syria supported and worked with former Baathists (mostly Sunnis), Tribal leaders, and … some Islamist (Sunni) rebels. Syria’s general Iraq strategy proved its wisdom as the US and Iran finally realized that Prime minister Maliki’s sectarianism was highly destructive. But the temptation to use Islamist rebels that Syria in this case, and the US and its allies often go for, is always a mistake. It is only a matter of time armed Islamists will turn against you, if you are interested in anything different from their own agenda.
Accusation: a defector code-named “Caesar” allegedly provided 55,000 pictures of over 10,000 documented torture cases in Syria’s feared security agencies’ prisons. Government of Qatar hired a number of experts to review the photos and judge their authenticity.
Reality: Before the events of 2011, serious torture existed, in small numbers, in Syrian prisons. Humiliation (often bordering on torture) was widespread.
Moreover, one would expect that with all the violence Syria is experiencing after 2011, the number of those arrested and tortured has significantly increased.
Torture is repulsive. It has to stop. It has to be one of the topics that national dialogue will tackle.
On the other hand, the “Caesar” case appears to be a typical media stunt. There might be a number of authentic pictures that this defector (assuming he is) smuggled out of Syria, but the amount and style of propaganda milked out of this story by a number of suspicious characters makes one lose any confidence in the relevant and new information that the story tries to promote, namely the large number: Over 10,000 tortured to death.
By now everyone knows that the United States, and many of its allies also rely on torture tactics. So the propaganda utility of Caesar’s story is mainly in that alleged number of torture victims.
The investigation’s results were publicized on CNN’s Christiane Amanpour program just before the Syrian government’s official delegation arrived at the highly anticipated Geneva conference which Qatar rejected (as it rejects any realistic political solution). Needless to say, the claims were used in an attempt to shame the Syrian official delegation at the conference.
It was ISIS and Al-Qaeda-supporting Qatar who paid for the experts and judges to examine the photos and write a report with their findings.
And if Qatar’s association is not enough to destroy the credibility of the review process, there are also links to U.S. intelligence, neocon think tanks, Syrian opposition and experienced Israel “human rights” propagandists… all milking the report and expressing their outrage at the Syrian regime’s barbarity.
David Crane, former war-crimes prosecutor for Sierra Leone who described Syria’s security agencies as “an industrial killing machine not seen since the Holocaust” is hardly a neutral professional observer. He is a former US government intelligence director. After the Syria crisis, he started workingwith Ammar Abdelhamid (American/Syrian opposition and a fellow at a number of pro-Israel think tanks in the US). Just like Elizabeth O’Bagy was disqualified for working with Syrian opposition advocacy group, Mr. Crane should also not be valued as a neutral judge in Qatar’s torture photos assessment process.
Finally, promoting the findings (that the world did not witness such savagery since the Holocaust) took place at the Holocaust museum where a number of well known Israeli and Syrian opposition propagandists did what they do best. (see full report here)
The fact a former chief prosecutor of the ICC was on board means nothing. Remember the claims by Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the ICC, that Qaddafi ordered the mass rape of Libyan women and distributed Viagra to his troops to help them do a better job mass-raping Libyan women? … well it turns out those were not true. But they were useful at the time when it was the phase of demonizing Qaddafi.
Everyone tortures. Syrian opposition “rebels” frequently torture soldiers and civilians they capture to force them to either admit to things (true or not) or to appear on a You Tube video saying they were stupid to serve in Assad’s army and that they now join the FSA which is militarily stronger and more importantly, God’s favorite in Syria … watch this example and you will remember those classics.
“Liberal” freedom and human rights Syrian opposition activists and intellectuals celebrated and posted on facebook and tweeted with joy dozens of those FSA-beat-up-a-captured-“shabeeh” videos. They rarely complained at their free army’s routine torture of those they captured. Their outrage at torture (or violence in general) is highly selective … only if it can be used as anti-Assad propaganda. Similarly, government supporters mostly react (with shock and sadness) when they see clips or pictures of violence/torture committed by the revolutionaries… everyone’s humanity is selective (just like our friends in the USG)
Most Americans believe torture was justified after 9/11 (where 3,000 Americans died). In Syria we have a savage war… 200,000 Syrians died. It wouldn’t be surprising that today many Syrians also believe torture (by their favorite side of the conflict) is legitimate. This corrupting of people’s values takes place during conflicts and the best way to confront it is to end those conflicts, not through propaganda stunts.
When the conflict ends, the two easiest starting points for those looking for positive momentum for a reforms process are 1) ending torture and 2) fighting corruption … I am confident that a large majority of Syrians will enthusiastically call for both.