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Issue #1718      February 10, 2016

Ignored in commentary on Syria

23 Million Syrians and the secular Syrian state

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003 there was cause for Syrians to be concerned that their country would one day be targeted by the United States. Though not officially in what George Bush termed the “Axis of Evil”, Syria had attained pariah status: it was not a member of any Western club.

Covert and overt interference in Syria by Western governments was nothing new. For example, the first military coup in Syria was orchestrated by the CIA not long after the country achieved independence from France, a country that had destroyed part of the old city of Damascus to quell a rebellion. However, despite its history and position in the world, for those living in Syria in 2003, it was difficult to conceive that this stable, peaceful country would be rocked by a catastrophic war in less than a decade.

Damascus and Aleppo, the two oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, were tolerant, vibrant cities. They were modernising at a great pace. There was a buzz in the air. Sometimes the signs of change were miniscule but significant. For example, by 2009 it was not unusual to see young unmarried couples holding hands in public. At the same time, solid faith traditions were maintained: when Christmas and Eid celebrations coincided, decorations for both festivals were sold together in the souq.

But since then, in other capitals, a new Syria has been configured. It is a notion of Syria that has at its core the conviction that “a brutal Alawite dictator is oppressing a Sunni majority”. It is a narrative that is never substantiated; like so many other claims related to Syria today, it passes unscrutinised. But this is dangerous as it can bolster beliefs that contradict basic tenets of our society in that it can confer a degree of legitimacy to hatred, intolerance and anti-state violence.

Clarity is needed on Syria. Before the “Arab Spring”, women’s rights and freedom of religion as well as the provision of free education were integral to modern Syria. There was talk of evolution, not revolution. To overthrow the Syrian government by violent means, terror had to be inflicted on local populations; fear engendered; hatred stirred up; and lies told. A doctrine that exhorted people to murder their fellow human beings had to be imported into Syria.

A blueprint for the overthrow of a government is not new. Strategists and war rooms have always existed. However, playing with the human heart and mind in war and expecting a clean outcome is like rolling one hundred dices and expecting six to turn up on them all.

In Syria today mortars are fired at random into cities; car bombs explode in suburban streets; people are abducted; public servants are assassinated; women are paraded naked in streets; children are thrown off buildings to stop the army’s advance; mothers become demented as they watch strangers play with the heads of their children; bodies are cut up and bagged and put on a family’s doorstep. On our watch, one’s worst possible nightmares are being played out in Syria.

In June 2012 Jon Williams, a BBC editor who had reported from Damascus, wrote the following on a blog post:

Given the difficulties of reporting inside Syria, video filed by the opposition on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube may provide some insight into the story on the ground. But stories are never black and white – often shades of grey. Those opposed to President Assad have an agenda. One senior Western official went as far as to describe their YouTube communications strategy as “brilliant”. But he also likened it to so-called “psy-ops”, brainwashing techniques used by the US and other military to convince people of things that may not necessarily be true.

A healthy scepticism is one of the essential qualities of any journalist – never more so than in reporting conflict: The stakes are high – all may not always be as it seems.

One example of the muddying of the Syrian story is the oft-repeated claim presented as fact that “Assad crossed Obama’s red line when he used chemical weapons against his own people” in August 2013.

Yet the United Nations has not attributed blame for that alleged sarin attack. Furthermore, a report by MIT Professor Ted Postol and former UN weapons inspector Richard Lloyd points the finger at “rebels” being most likely responsible for firing the munitions. And that suspicion mounts. Turkish opposition MPs recently accused authorities in Turkey of providing sarin to insurgents for the attack, presumably a false flag meant to provoke US, UK and French military strikes on Damascus.

In an interview on AI-Jazeera, Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric based in Qatar and described as the unofficial spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood, condoned the targeting of civilians and religious scholars who support the Syrian regime. Just weeks after this “fatwa”, Sheik Mohamed AI-Bouti, the highly regarded 84-year-old Islamic scholar and imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, was killed in a suicide bombing along with nearly 50 of his students. They were Sunni Muslims killed by a Sunni Muslim.

Acts of terror

There were many acts of terror in Syria before the invention of ISIS. However, the terrorist acts committed by ISIS have appeared more theatrical and on a much larger scale. In June 2014, purportedly over one long weekend, Islamic State massacred 1,700 young Iraqi soldiers. Not long after, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, referenced this bloody orgy, but he declared that the “lesser evil is the Sunni over the Shiites”. He contended that “the math” determined who the lesser evil was. “From Israel’s perspective”, he went on, “if there is going to be an evil that prevails, let the Sunni evil prevail”. But Mr Oren didn’t explain who had drawn up the maths and who had independently audited it.

The discourse that insists that the violence is between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims obscures the reality. If the war in Syria can be described as a religious conflict, it is one between a relatively young school of Islam meshed with the ruling elites of Saudi Arabia and Qatar and a more ancient Islam, the Islam that embraced me, a person of no particular faith, when I lived in Syria.

In the first week of August 2013 (two or so weeks before the alleged sarin attack in Damascus), around 200 civilians, mostly women and children, were massacred in and around their homes in Latakia. About the same number were abducted. Some scholars observe with concern the close connections high profile NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have with the US State Department. However, despite its generally biased stand on Syria, Human Rights Watch did present a well-documented account of the Latakia massacres. To coordinate and carry out the murders and kidnappings, up to 20 armed groups cooperated; the Islamic State was just one Takfirist group involved. The killings were vicious, but the level of cruelty was not new in the Syrian “Arab Spring”.

A retired American pharmacologist, Dr Denis O’Brien, who scrutinised the video footage of the victims of the alleged sarin attack in Damascus, contends that some victims may have been children abducted in Latakia. He noted the stage-managed quality to the display of children’s bodies, and anomalies, such as the appearance of the same body in different locations and clear signs that established the victims didn’t die from a sarin attack, as alleged. But the West was expected to respond with bombs to the bodies of the children; no questions were meant to be asked.

Before the graffiti

It is often claimed that the crisis in Syria began after the arrest and torture of children who wrote up anti-government graffiti in Daraa, a city near the border with Jordan. I have heard different versions of this story: children had their fingernails pulled out; children were killed; children were neither tortured nor killed. Chinese whispers and hearsay are being used to determine narratives on Syria instead of clear-sighted investigations.

But the war in Syria began before any graffiti writing. Soon after 9/11, a Pentagon insider told General Wesley Clark that Syria was on a hit list. And before the “Arab Spring” reached Syria, former French Foreign Affairs Minister Roland Dumas learnt that Britain was “organising an invasion of rebels into Syria”.

Like the former Israeli ambassador to America, some in Australia claim “Assad” has killed many more people than IS. It is as if Assad is a mythological monster, and the protagonists on the battlefields in Syria are ISIS (the bad rebels), the non-ISIS rebels (the good rebels) and Assad (the monster).

Such crude attempts to present “Assad” as the personification of evil omit mention of the tens of thousands of Syrian soldiers who have been killed by various armed groups waving various flags. And they omit reference to the millions of Syrians who seek a safe haven in government-controlled towns and cities. The truth is the Syrian people are caught in a monster of a war. Their secular state could collapse around them, and millions more could be killed or forced to flee while people a long way from the theatre of war speak with certainty and power but with little reference to them.

One month after the start of the so-called Arab Spring in Syria, I returned to Damascus. On Saturday April 23, 2011, I met a young man who had just come from an opposition rally in an outlying suburb of the capital. Some demonstrators at the protest rally had been shot, two of them killed. There were armed police present, but no one saw them draw their weapons, he explained. Who had killed them and why they had been killed was a mystery. In the first stirrings of violence and terror there were many mysteries and many rumours.

The birth of the Syrian “Arab Spring” was not as it was depicted in Australia. That April in a hotel room in Damascus I saw the funerals of soldiers and police on Syrian TV. Bereft widows pleaded for an end to the killings.

In presenting the story of Syria, a skewed narrative may support another US-led war, but it can also engender divisions, intolerance and hatreds within our own communities. We can lose what Australia holds dear: peace, harmony and integrity. The stakes are high indeed.

The Beacon

Next article – Freeing Julian Assange: The last chapter

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