Amid the outcry over the Syrian government’s crackdown on protesters, and now President Obama’s demand that dictator Bashar al-Assad step down, the "world community" is not in the mood for nuance. Yet nuance is precisely what is needed in what has to be one of the most delicate – and complex – socio-political landscapes in the Middle East.
The media narrative, as always, pits Good Guys (the protesters) against Bad Guys (the regime), but reality is rarely so simple and clear-cut, and in this case that caveat needs to be doubly emphasized. We are told all the violence is being visited by one side (the regime) against the other (the protesters), but the International Crisis Group – no friend of the regime, and hardly a principled opponent of US intervention – has a different perspective in their report on the crisis:
"Protesters claim they are entirely peaceful, but that assertion is hard to reconcile with witness testimony and with the vicious murder of several security officers. More plausibly, criminal networks, some armed Islamist groups, elements supported from outside and some demonstrators acting in self defense have taken up arms."
The report goes on to say "but that is a marginal piece of the story," telling us that "the vast majority of casualties have been peaceful protesters, and the vast majority of the violence has been perpetrated by the security services." Yet this doesn’t tell us anything about the character of the violence on the part of the "Good Guys": is it organized violence, or random incidents? Are the protesters engaged in a campaign of organized provocation, seeking to incite the regime to higher levels of violence in order to justify foreign intervention?
In understanding what is going on in Syria, the reporting of Joshua Landis, who blogs at "Syria Comment," is invaluable. Landis is director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, where he is an associate professor, currently living in Syria. While the Western media glosses over reports of violence by the protesters, Landis is in a position to report the actual facts, and he has done so:
"This controversy arose in April during the protests in Banyas, when nine soldiers were killed while traveling down the main highway in two transport vehicles outside of the city. Activists claimed that soldiers in Banyas were executed by fellow soldiers for refusing to shoot at demonstrators.
"This story turned out to be fictional, but was carried by most of the Western Press and never corrected. I wrote about this controversy on April 14 under the title: Western Press Misled – Who Shot the Nine Soldiers in Banyas? Not Syrian Security Forces. The reason I took an interest in this story is because my wife’s cousin, Lt. Col. Yasir Qash`ur, was one of the nine soldiers killed on April 10. We know him well. We spoke with Yasir’s brother-in-law, Colonel `Uday Ahmad, who was sitting in the back seat of the truck in which Yasir and several of the nine soldiers were killed.
"Uday told us that two military trucks were ambushed as they crossed a highway bridge by well armed men who were hiding behind the median of the highway and on the tops of buildings at the edge of the road. They raked the two trucks with automatic fire, killing nine. The incident had nothing to do with soldiers refusing orders. His description of what happened so contradicted the reports I was reading in the press that I began to dig around. Later video footage of the shooting surfaced and was shown on Syrian TV. It corroborated Uday’s story."
Prof. Landis goes on to say that "Western press and analysts did not want to recognize that armed elements were becoming active. They preferred to tell a simple story of good people fighting bad people." He reiterates the ICG’s evaluation that the majority of protesters were peaceful, and adds: "One only wonders why that story could not have been told without also covering the reality – that armed elements, whose agenda was not peaceful, were also playing a role."
We don’t need to wonder. Reality is the enemy of the Western media, which insists on presenting its preconceived narrative as fact: and, of course, it’s just a coincidence this narrative fits in rather neatly with US government objectives and propaganda.
Who are these armed groups, who is arming them, and what is their agenda? These are questions the "international community" is not at all interested in asking, let alone answering – perhaps because some of the governments now condemning the violence in Syria had a hand in provoking it.
Again, claims by the opposition and their Western supporters that some 100 Syrian military were killed in Jisr ash-Shaghour for refusing to fire on their fellow Syrians were repeated uncritically by Western media. As it turns out, however, those soldiers were killed by "armed gangs," as the Syrian government calls them: Landis claims videos here and here seem to confirm this. One Syrian opposition activist, interviewed by CNN, admitted the truth:
"One prominent anti-government activist, who asked not to be named because of the dangers that could arise from the release of the information, told CNN the state TV account was correct. The bodies are those of Syrian secret police killed by Syrian fighters from Iraq who have joined the anti-government fight, said the activist, who gets information about the goings-on in Syria from an extensive network of informants."
Could these Syrians from Iraq conceivably be the very same fighters who were killing US soldiers, and have now turned their guns on the Syrian Ba’athists? This is a replay of the Libyan scenario, where the US/NATO-supported rebel faction contains strong Islamist elements, some of whom were actually involved in the Iraq fighting.
This time, however, the stakes are much higher. What is happening to Syria is far more serious for the region than anything that could occur in Libya. I have written before about the horrific consequences if Syria should come apart at the seams: the horror would be quite bloody as far as the country’s religious minorities – Christians and members of the idiosyncratic Alawite sect – are concerned. Worse, a full-scale civil war in the geographic center of the Middle East’s most volatile sore spot – the "frontline" state of Syria, where the Israeli-Arab conflict is most explosive – has the potential for igniting a regional war, and even a world war if the conflict spirals out of control.
The timing of the present crisis, as it ratchets up to a climax with Obama’s call for regime change, poses a particular danger. With the Palestinians about to declare their independent state, and the UN ready to endorse it, the temptation to create some kind of diversion is likely to take hold of the Israeli leadership. Indeed, I would speculate it already has. Those "armed gangs" didn’t come out of nowhere, and it wouldn’t be the first time the Israelis demonstrated how far their reach extends inside Syria.
Syria’s ally, Iran, is the real target of what looks to me like a coordinated effort to sow chaos in the region: the idea is to draw the Iranians into a proxy war in support of the regime, and lay the groundwork for an all-out US-Israeli attack on Tehran. The encirclement of the Iranians is proceeding apace, with the Israelis on the front line, the Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan and, increasingly, Pakistan. With Israel’s powerful lobby in the US relentlessly demanding that Washington "do something" about the Iranians, and the growing deluge of phony "intelligence" supposedly proving they have an active nuclear weapons program, it seems like just a matter of time before the fuse is lit and the region explodes. Obama’s demand that Assad step down is a giant step forward on this road.
With typical mendacity, the President’s statement avers:
"The United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria. It is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leaders, and we have heard their strong desire that there not be foreign intervention in their movement. What the United States will support is an effort to bring about a Syria that is democratic, just, and inclusive for all Syrians. We will support this outcome by pressuring President Assad to get out of the way of this transition, and standing up for the universal rights of the Syrian people along with others in the international community."
Note, first of all, that the statement doesn’t pledge not to intervene – the author only claims to have "heard" about this "strong desire" for non-intervention on the part of the Syrian people. As to whether the Emperor will grant them their wish – or whether US covert action in the country has already rendered the point moot – remains to be seen.
Secondly, the Americans know their call for Assad to step down, and the accompanying economic and diplomatic sanctions, will strengthen the Ba’athist position inside the country. The President’s statement isn’t aimed at the Syrian people, however, but at the other imperialist powers, the Brits and the French, our "multilateral" partners-in-crime who will be asked, when push comes to shove, to share in the responsibilities of policing their former colonies in Syria, and Libya.
The similarity of these two theaters of conflict is striking: Both are former European colonies saddled with secular dictatorships that claim to be "socialist," and both feature an Islamist "democratic" opposition supported by the NATO/EU powers.
That the Assad forces hardly constitute an army of saints goes without saying: what needs to be said, however, is that the "democratic" rebels, so sympathetically portrayed in the Western media are not exactly the angels they’ve been made out to be. Yet even if they were, this is a judgement that only the Syrians can make: an Alawite or Christian Syrian can be understood, if not forgiven, for supporting a brutal regime out of fear of an Islamist takeover.
The outbreak of civil war in Syria would be sure to bring in the "international community," initially in the visible form of air support to the opposition, conceivably taking out the Syrian navy that shelled rebellious Latakia. This will culminate in air strikes against key military installations, including sites that supposedly harbor "weapons of mass destruction." Indeed, there is enough cobbled-together "evidence," of dubious provenance, to "prove" Syria tried to build a nuke to justify a US/NATO strike on that pretext. Or else they could declare another "humanitarian emergency," as they did in Libya, claiming Assad is about to massacre 100,000 people. Perhaps it’s too soon to pull that one again.
In any case, the idea is to draw US/NATO forces into the very epicenter of the Middle East’s sectarian conflicts, where the religious passions of the three great world religions have clashed for thousands of years. There the "peacekeepers" will sit, policing the roughest neighborhood on earth, ensuring that each faction is properly mollified and controlled, and – not so incidentally – standing between the Israeli Sparta and the rising fury of its Palestinian helots.
Israel is the biggest beneficiary of this policy: a Lebanonized Syria is precisely what they want, producing as it will plenty of opportunities for expansionist incursions – in the name of their "war on terrorism." A "Greater Israel" will emerge from the ashes of World War III, as if to confirm the "end times" prophecies in the Bible, hopping up the evangelicals-for-Israel crowd into a frenzy of war hysteria.
Again, timing is everything in these matters: it’s no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that our new policy of Syrian regime change has been announced at this particular moment. That, after all, has been the real policy since day one of the protests. There may have been a change of administrations in Washington, but there was no change in practically nonexistent US-Syrian relations when Barack Obama came to town. Sanctions were increased, and the Syrian ambassador was ridiculed as a pariah among diplomats. Syria, one of the original "Axis of Evil," has long been in Washington’s sights: regime change in Syria is yet another project of the Bush administration that has been taken up with renewed enthusiasm by the Obama-ites.
As I noted shortly after the 9/11 attacks:
"The dust had not yet cleared from the battered Manhattan skyline when Bill Kristol and his ‘Project for a New American Century’ sponsored a full-page newspaper ad in the form of a letter to the President, demanding that Bush invade not only Iraq, but also Syria and Iran if they don’t comply with all our demands. The letter is signed by every neoconservative known to man."
In the years to come, PNAC would push for US intervention is virtually every nation in the Middle East, including Libya. This "liberal" Democratic president may yet completely fulfill PNAC’s agenda: right now he’s nearly halfway there. Given a second term, he’ll have ample opportunity to go all the way. There’s nothing like a world war to distract attention away from an economic depression – and provide some good old Keynesian "stimulus" in the bargain.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I received a couple of letters complaining about my recent column on Paul Krugman and his deluded conception of war as an economic "stimulus." To refresh your memory: according to Krugman, if the government perpetrated a hoax about an imminent invasion from outer space, and we built up an enormous defensive system against this nonexistent threat, it would lead us out of the depths of depression. I disputed this in my column, and received exactly two letters complaining that I hadn’t mentioned Krugman’s personal opposition to the war in Iraq, for example, and instead branded him a "warmonger."
I’m glad this came up, because I should have mentioned it – in order to make the case that this is far worse than being an honest warmonger. For it inoculates Krugman against the charge while paving the way for the "real" warmongers to have their way: after all, they’ll say, even the "progressive" Krugman, who opposes the war on old-fashioned "moral" grounds, knows it will be good for the country. And that kind of message beamed at suffering Americans is much more insidious and dangerous than the usual neocon blather about "exporting democracy," which nobody ever really believed anyway. If you can persuade people they can materially benefit from a war, you already have half the population – and it’s only a matter of time, in this frightening downturn, before the other half drops its moral pretensions and climbs on board the war-wagon.