Intervention is Now Driving Syria’s Descent into Darkness

Seumas Milne

The Guardian

The destruction of Syria is now in full flow. What began as a popular uprising 17 months ago is now an all-out civil war fuelled by regional and global powers that threatens to engulf the entire Middle East. As the battle for the ancient city of Aleppo grinds on and atrocities on both sides multiply, the danger of the conflict spilling over Syria’s borders is growing.

The defection by Syria’s prime minister is the most high-profile coup yet in a well-funded programme, though unlikely to signal any imminent regime collapse. But the capture of 48 Iranian pilgrims – or undercover Revolutionary Guards, depending who you believe – along with the increasing risk of a Turkish attack on Kurdish areas in Syria and an influx of jihadist fighters gives a taste of what is now at stake.

Driving the escalation of the conflict has been western and regional intervention. This isn’t Iraq, of course, with hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground, or Libya, with a devastating bombardment from the air. But the sharp increase in arms supplies, funding and technical support from the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others in recent months has dramatically boosted the rebels’ fortunes, as well as the death toll.

Barack Obama has so far resisted the demands of liberal hawks and neoconservatives for a direct military assault. Instead he’s authorised more traditional forms of CIA covert military backing, Nicaragua-style, for the Syrian rebels.

The US, which backed its first Syrian coup in 1949, has long funded opposition groups. But earlier this year Obama gave a secret order authorising covert (as well as overt financial and diplomatic) support to the armed opposition. That includes CIA paramilitaries on the ground, “command and control” and communications assistance, and the funnelling of Gulf arms supplies to favoured Syrian groups across the Turkish border. After Russia and China blocked its last attempt to win UN backing for forced regime change last month, the US administration let it be known it would now step up support for the rebels and co-ordinate “transition” plans for Syria with Israel and Turkey.

“You’ll notice in the last couple of months, the opposition has been strengthened,” a senior US official told the New York Times last Friday. “Now we’re ready to accelerate that.” Not to be outdone, William Hague boasted that Britain was also increasing “non-lethal” support for the rebels. Autocratic Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing the cash and weapons, as the western-backed Syrian National Council acknowledged this week, while Nato member Turkey has set up a logistics and training base for the Free Syrian Army in or near the Incirlik US air base.

For Syrians who want dignity and democracy in a free country, the rapidly mushrooming dependence of their uprising on foreign support is a disaster – even more than was the case in Libya. After all, it is now officials of the dictatorial and sectarian Saudi regime who choose which armed groups get funding, not Syrians. And it is intelligence officials from the US, which sponsors the Israeli occupation of Syrian territory and dictatorships across the region, who decide which rebel units get weapons.

Opposition activists insist they will maintain their autonomy, based on deep-rooted popular support. But the dynamic of external backing clearly risks turning groups dependent on it into instruments of their sponsors, rather than the people they seek to represent. Gulf funding has already sharpened religious sectarianism in the rebel camp, while reports of public alienation from rebel fighters in Aleppo this week testifies to the dangers of armed groups relying on outsiders instead of their own communities.

The Syrian regime is of course backed by Iran and Russia, as it has been for decades. But a better analogy for western and Gulf involvement in the Syrian insurrection would be Iranian and Russian sponsorship of an armed revolt in, say, Saudi Arabia. For the western media, which has largely reported the Syrian uprising as a one-dimensional fight for freedom, the now unavoidable evidence of rebel torture and prisoner executions – along with kidnappings by al-Qaida-style groups, who once again find themselves in alliance with the US – seems to have come as a bit of a shock.

In reality, the Syrian crisis always had multiple dimensions that crossed the region’s most sensitive fault lines. It was from the start a genuine uprising against an authoritarian regime. But it has also increasingly morphed into a sectarian conflict, in which the Alawite-dominated Assad government has been able to portray itself as the protector of minorities – Alawite, Christian and Kurdish – against a Sunni-dominated opposition tide.

The intervention of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf autocracies, which have tried to protect themselves from the wider Arab upheaval by playing the anti-Shia card, is transparently aimed at a sectarian, not a democratic, outcome. But it is the third dimension – Syria’s alliance with Tehran and Lebanon’s Shia resistance movement, Hezbollah – that has turned the Syrian struggle into a proxy war against Iran and a global conflict.

Many in the Syrian opposition would counter that they had no choice but to accept foreign support if they were to defend themselves against the regime’s brutality. But as the independent opposition leader Haytham Manna argues, the militarisation of the uprising weakened its popular and democratic base – while also dramatically increasing the death toll.

There is every chance the war could now spread outside Syria. Turkey, with a large Alawite population of its own as well as a long repressed Kurdish minority, claimed the right to intervene against Kurdish rebels in Syria after Damascus pulled its troops out of Kurdish towns. Clashes triggered by the Syrian war have intensified in Lebanon. If Syria were to fragment, the entire system of post-Ottoman Middle East states and borders could be thrown into question with it.

That could now happen regardless of how long Assad and his regime survive. But intervention in Syria is prolonging the conflict, rather than delivering a knockout blow. Only pressure for a negotiated settlement, which the west and its friends have so strenuously blocked, can now give Syrians the chance to determine their own future – and halt the country’s descent into darkness.

Twitter: @SeumasMilne

Echoes of Sykes Picot As Syrian Conflict Deepens

As the Syrian conflict steps up in intensity with the assassination of key members of the regime in a bomb attack in Damascus, it would be a mistake to consider events in Syria in isolation from the rest of the region.

What we are seeing unfold are two concentric struggles taking place at the same time. The wider of the two is the geopolitical struggle for continued domination of the region and its abundant natural resources by the US and the West against Russian and Chinese resistance, supported by Iran and the Assad regime in Syria as it hangs on desperately in the face of a growing insurgency.

The other struggle taking place is the one unleashed by the Arab Spring at the beginning of 2011, which began as a spontaneous outburst of revolutionary ferment from below comprising millions of people throughout the region rising up to claim the political and civil rights denied them over decades of autocracy and dictatorship, supported in many cases by the western powers which are now calling for democracy.

The Arab Spring succeeded in exposing the contradictions that have defined the political map of the Middle East since the West first enshrined its domination with the Sykes Picot Agreement of 1916, which redrew the map of the region to suit the interests of the colonial powers involved – France, Britain, and Russia (with the US emerging as the dominant force after the Second World War) – and not those of the people living there.

The hypocrisy of Hilary Clinton in lambasting Russia for blocking the determined attempt by the US and its allies to legitimise the toppling of the Syrian regime via the United Nations, while continuing to support both the Saudi and Bahraini regimes, responsible for massacring thousands of pro democracy demonstrators themselves, should not be lost amid the focus currently being placed on events in Syria. The Russian foreign minister, Segei Lavrov, has proved a voice of reason in comparison to his US counterpart in consistently drawing attention to the need for both sides in the conflict to agree to a ceasefire. This he has done mindful of what took place in Libya, when a UN resolution agreed by Russia to protect civilians was used to sanction western military intervention to topple Gaddafi. The ensuing chaos in the country in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s demise is a matter of record, as has been the chaos in Iraq, another country treated to regime change courtesy of the West.

That said, there is no doubt that a critical mass of opposition to the Assad regime has grown significantly over recent weeks to the point where it appears it will be unable to survive. Moreover, the extent of the violence that has taken place suggests that all talk of a ceasefire has been rendered unrealistic in the face of what has turned into a full blown civil war.

For the western powers the Arab Spring began as a dangerous assertion by the Arab masses of their rights and freedom. It took them by surprise when it first flared up in Tunisia and Egypt, going on to topple both pro-western regimes. By the time it spread to Libya the West had regrouped and was able to direct its course via the UN resolution previously mentioned. Gaddafi was sacrificed in the interests of protecting the lucrative oil and gas exploration contracts that had been negotiated between western oil corporations and the Colonel previously. As history reveals, the priority of the West when it comes to the Middle East is not to promote freedom and democracy but to put in place and/or support those regimes that are willing and able to protect their interests. This is the sole measure by which the West judges the validity of any regime in this oil-rich region of the world, despite the rhetoric we hear constantly to the contrary.

Another aspect of the Syrian crisis driving Washington and the West’s rhetoric and actions is the opportunity to get rid of a regime that has resisted its writ for decades and that of its major strategic ally Israel. Syria’s fall will increase pressure on Hezbollah and Iran as the remaining poles of resistance to the West’s hegemony

No one should be under any illusion that a wave of sectarian violence is likely to consume Syria if and when the present regime tumbles. The sectarian and tribal fissures which are opening up by the day in the country are a relic of Sykes Picot, a tawdry imperialist treaty which when publicised by Lenin and the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution of 1917 laid bare the real nature of the West’s attitude and intent towards the region. Anybody who believes that this intent has changed in the intervening years is deluding themselves.

Assad like Gaddafi before him and Saddam before them is merely the latest in a line of Arab leaders caught between the anvil of internal dissent and the hammer of western hegemony. Given the chaos which exploded in Iraq and Libya as a result of western intervention the Syrian leader knew from the outset that his only chance of survival lay in crushing the rebellion as quickly as possible before the West could intervene, while the rebels from the same examples were aware that if they could hold out long enough the West would eventually come to their aid, either covertly or overtly. This has defined the brutal nature of these conflicts.

The zero sum game that has taken place across the region on the back of the Arab Spring traces its roots all the way back to 1916, when the western powers first laid out their plans for the region.

History will record their presence as a curse.

Perception and reality: building myths about Syria in the mainstream media

by Lebanese writer Sharmine Narwani, from Al Akhbar

“Perception is 100 percent of politics,” the old adage goes. Say something three, five, seven times, and you start to believe it in the same way you “know” aspirin is good for the heart.

Sometimes though, perception is a dangerous thing. In the dirty game of politics, it is the perception – not the facts of an issue – that invariably wins the day.

In the case of the raging conflict over Syria, the one fundamental issue that motors the entire international debate on the crisis is the death toll and its corollary: the Syrian casualty list.

The “list” has become widely recognized – if not specifically, then certainly when the numbers are bandied about: 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 – sometimes more. These are not mere numbers; they represent dead Syrians.

But this is where the dangers of perception begin. There are many competing Syrian casualty lists with different counts – how does one, for instance gauge if X is an accurate number of deaths? How have the deaths been verified? Who verifies them and do they have a vested interest? Are the dead all civilians? Are they pro-regime or anti-regime civilians? Do these lists include the approximately 2,000 dead Syrian security forces? Do they include members of armed groups? How does the list-aggregator tell the difference between a civilian and a plain-clothes militia member?

Even the logistics baffle. How do they make accurate counts across Syria every single day? A member of the Lebanese fact-finding team investigating the 15 May 2011 shooting deaths of Palestinian protesters by Israelis at the Lebanese border told me that it took them three weeks to discover there were only six fatalities, and not the 11 counted on the day of the incident. And in that case, the entire confrontation lasted a mere few hours.

How then does one count 20, 40, or 200 casualties in a few hours while conflict continues to rage around them?

My first port of call in trying to answer these questions about the casualty list was the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which seemed likely to be the most reliable source of information on the Syrian death toll – until it stopped keeping track last month.

The UN began its effort to provide a Syrian casualty count in September 2011, based primarily on lists provided by five different sources. Three of their sources were named: The Violations Documenting Center (VDC), the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and the Syrian Shuhada website. At that time, the lists varied in number from around 2,400 to 3,800 victims.

The non-UN casualty list most frequently quoted in the general media is the one from the Syrian Observatory – or SOHR.

Last month, SOHR made some headlines of its own when news of a rift over political viewpoints and body counts erupted. Two competing SOHRs claimed authenticity, but the group headed by Rami Abdul Rahman is the one recognized by Amnesty International.

OHCHR spokesman Rupert Colville stated during a phone interview that the UN evaluates its sources to check “whether they are reliable,” but appeared to create distance from SOHR later – during the group’s public spat – by saying: “The (UN) colleague most involved with the lists…had no direct contact with the Syrian Observatory, though we did look at their numbers. This was not a group we had any prior knowledge of, and it was not based in the region, so we were somewhat wary of it.”

Colville explains that the UN sought at all times “to make cautious estimates” and that “we have reasonable confidence that the rounded figures are not far off.”

While “also getting evidence from victims and defectors – some who corroborated specific names,” the UN, says Colville, “is not in a position to cross-check names and will never be in a position to do that.”

I spoke to him again after the UN decided to halt its casualty count in late January. “It was never easy to verify, but it was a little bit clearer before. The composition of the conflict has changed. It’s become much more complex, fragmented,” Colville says. “While we have no doubt there are civilian and military casualties…we can’t really quantify it.”

“The lists are clear – the question is whether we can fully endorse their accuracy,” he explains, citing the “higher numbers” as an obstacle to verification.

The Casualty Lists Up Close: Some Stories Behind the Numbers

Because the UN has stopped its casualty count, reporters have started reverting back to their original Syrian death toll sources. The SOHR is still the most prominent among them.

Abdul Rahman’s SOHR does not make its list available to the general public, but in early February I found a link to a list on the other SOHR website and decided to take a look. The database lists the victim’s name, age, gender, city, province, and date of death – when available. In December 2011, for instance, the list names around 77 registered casualties with no identifying information provided. In total, there are around 260 unknowns on the list.

Around that time, I had come across my first list of Syrians killed in the crisis, reportedly compiled in coordination with the SOHR, that contained the names of Palestinian refugees killed by Israeli fire on the Golan Heights on 15 May 2011 and 5 June 2011 when protesters congregated on Syria’s armistice line with Israel. So my first check was to see if that kind of glaring error appears in the SOHR list I investigate in this piece.

To my amazement, the entire list of victims from those two days were included in the SOHR casualty count – four from May 15 (#5160 to #5163) and 25 victims of Israeli fire from June 5 (#4629 to #4653). The list even identifies the deaths as taking place in Quneitra, which is in the Golan Heights.

It also didn’t take long to find the names of well-publicized pro-regime Syrians on the SOHR list and match them with YouTube footage of their funerals. The reason behind searching for funeral links is that pro-regime and anti-regime funerals differ quite starkly in the slogans they chant and the posters/signs/flags on display. Below, is a list of eight of these individuals, including their number, name, date and place of death on the casualty list – followed by our video link and further details if available:

#5939, Mohammad Abdo Khadour, 4/19/11, Hama, off-duty Colonel in Syrian army, shot in his car and died from multiple bullet wounds. Funeral link.

#5941, Iyad Harfoush, 4-18-11, Homs, off-duty Commander in Syrian army. In a video, his wife says someone started shooting in the mostly pro-regime al Zahra neighborhood of Homs – Harfoush went out to investigate the incident and was killed. Funeral link.

#5969, Abdo al Tallawi, 4/17/11, Homs, General in Syrian army killed alongside his two sons and a nephew. Funeral footage shows all four victims. The others are also on the list at #5948, Ahmad al Tallawi, #5958, Khader al Tallawi and #5972, Ali al Tallawi, all in Homs, Funeral link.

#6021, Nidal Janoud, 11/4/11, Tartous, an Alawite who was severely slashed by his assailants. The bearded gentleman to the right of the photo, and a second suspect, are now standing trial for the murder. Photo link.

#6022, Yasar Qash’ur, 11/4/11, Tartous, Lieutenant Colonel in the Syrian army, killed alongside 8 others in an ambush on a bus in Banyas, Funeral link.

#6129, Hassan al-Ma’ala, 4/5/11, policeman, suburbs of Damascus, Funeral link.

#6130, Hamid al Khateeb, 4/5/11, policeman, suburbs of Damascus, Funeral link.

#6044, Waeb Issa, 10/4/11, Tartous, Colonel in Syrian army, Funeral link.

Besides featuring on the SOHR list, Lt. Col. Yasar Qashur, Iyad Harfoush, Mohammad Abdo Khadour and General Abdo al Tallawi and his two sons and nephew also appear on two of the other casualty lists – the VDC and Syrian Shuhada – both used by the United Nations to compile their numbers.

Nir Rosen, an American journalist who spent several months insides Syria’s hot spots in 2011, with notable access to armed opposition groups, reported in a recent Al Jazeera interview:

“Every day the opposition gives a death toll, usually without any explanation of the cause of the deaths. Many of those reported killed are in fact dead opposition fighters, but the cause of their death is hidden and they are described in reports as innocent civilians killed by security forces, as if they were all merely protesting or sitting in their homes. Of course, those deaths still happen regularly as well.”

“And, every day, members of the Syrian army, security agencies and the vague paramilitary and militia phenomenon known as shabiha ["thugs"] are also killed by anti-regime fighters,” Rosen continues.

The report issued in January by Arab League Monitors after their month-long observer mission in Syria – widely ignored by the international media – also witnessed acts of violence by armed opposition groups against both civilians and security forces.

The Report states: “In Homs, Idlib and Hama, the observer mission witnessed acts of violence being committed against government forces and civilians…Examples of those acts include the bombing of a civilian bus, killing eight persons and injuring others, including women and children…In another incident in Homs, a police bus was blown up, killing two police officers.” The observers also point out that “some of the armed groups were using flares and armour-piercing projectiles.“

Importantly, the report further confirms obfuscation of casualty information when it states: “the media exaggerated the nature of the incidents and the number of persons killed in incidents and protests in certain towns.”

On February 3, the eve of the UN Security Council vote on Syria, news broke out that a massacre was taking place in Homs, with the general media assuming it was true and that all violence was being committed by the Syrian government. The SOHR’s Rami Abdul Rahman was widely quoted in the media as claiming the death toll to be at 217. The Local Coordination Committees (LCCs), which provide information to the VDC, called it at “more than 200,” and the Syrian National Council (SNC), a self-styled government in absentia of mainly expats, claimed 260 victims.

The next day, the casualty count had been revised down to 55 by the LCCs. (link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-16883911)

Even if the count is at 55 – that is still a large number of victims by any measure. But were these deaths caused by the Syrian government, by opposition gunmen or in the crossfire between the two groups? That is still the question that needs to break through the deafening narratives, lists, and body counts.

In International Law, Detail Counts

While the overwhelming perception of Syrian casualties thus far has been that they are primarily unarmed civilians deliberately targeted by government forces, it has become obvious these casualties are also likely to include: Civilians caught in the crossfire between government forces and opposition gunmen; victims of deliberate violence by armed groups; “dead opposition fighters” whose attire do not distinguish them from regular civilians; and members of the Syrian security forces, both on and off duty.

Even if we could verify the names and numbers on a Syrian casualty list, we still don’t know their stories, which if revealed, may pose an entirely different picture of what is going on in Syria today

These questions are vitally important to understand the burden of responsibility in this conflict. International law provides for different measures of conflict: the two most frequently used gauges for this are the Principle of Necessity, i.e., using force only when it is necessary, and the Principle of Proportionality, i.e., the use of force proportional to the threat posed.

In the case of Syria – like in Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt and Libya – it is widely believed that the government used unnecessary force in the first instance. Syrian President Bashar Assad, like many of these Arab rulers, has as much as admitted to “mistakes” in the first months of protests. These mistakes include some shooting deaths and detaining a much larger number of protesters than expected, some of whom were allegedly tortured.

Let us assume, without question, that the Syrian government was over zealous in its use of force initially, and therefore violated the Principle of Necessity. I tend to believe this version because it has been so-stated by the Arab League’s observer mission – the first and only boots-on-the-ground monitors investigating the crisis from within the country.

However – and this is where the casualty lists come in – there is not yet nearly enough evidence, not by any measure acceptable in a court of law, that the Syrian government has violated the Principle of Proportionality. Claims that the regime has used disproportionate force in dealing with the crisis are, today, difficult to ascertain, in large part because opponents have been using weapons against security forces and pro-regime civilians almost since the onset of protests.

Assuming that the number of casualties provided by the UN’s OHCHR is around the 5,000-mark -the last official figure provided by the group – the question is whether this is a highly disproportionate number of deaths when contrasted directly with the approximately 2,000 soldiers of the regular Syrian army and other security forces who have been reportedly killed since April 2011.

When you calculate the deaths of the government forces in the past 11 months, they amount to about six a day. Contrast that with frequent death toll totals of around 15+ each day disseminated by activists – many of whom are potentially neither civilian casualties nor victims of targeted violence – and there is close to enough parity to suggest a conflict where the acts of violence may be somewhat equal on both sides.

Last Sunday, as Syrians went to the polls to vote on a constitutional referendum, Reuters reports – quoting the SOHR – that 9 civilians and 4 soldiers were killed in Homs, and that elsewhere in Syria there were 8 civilian and 10 security forces casualties. That is 17 civilians and 14 regime forces – where are the opposition gunmen in that number? Were none killed? Or are they embedded in the “civilian” count?

Defectors or Regular Soldiers?

There have also been allegations that many, if not most, of the soldiers killed in clashes or attacks have been defectors shot by other members of the regular army. There is very little evidence to support this as anything more than a limited phenomenon. Logically, it would be near impossible for the Syrian army to stay intact if it was turning on its rank-and-file soldiers in this manner – and the armed forces have remained remarkably cohesive given the length and intensity of the conflict in Syria.

In addition, the names, rank and cities of each of the dead soldiers are widely publicized by state-owned media each day, often accompanied by televised funerals. It would be fairly simple for the organized opposition to single out by name the defectors they include on their casualty lists, which has not happened.

The very first incident of casualties from the Syrian regular army that I could verify dates to 10 April 2011, when gunmen shot up a bus of soldiers travelling through Banyas, in Tartous, killing nine. This incident took place a mere few weeks after the first peaceful protests broke out in Syria, and so traces violence against government forces back to the start of political upheaval in the country.

“Witnesses” quoted by the BBC, Al Jazeera and The Guardian insisted that the nine dead soldiers were “defectors” who had been shot by the Syrian army for refusing orders to shoot at demonstrators.

Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, debunked that version on his Syria Comment website. Another surviving soldier on the bus – a relation of Lt. Col. Yasar Qashur, #6022 on the SOHR list, whose funeral I link to above – denied that they were defectors too. But the narrative that dead soldiers are mostly defectors shot by their own troops has stuck throughout this conflict – though less so, as evidence of gunmen targeting Syrian forces and pro-regime civilians becomes belatedly apparent.

The VDC – another of the UN’s OHCHR sources for casualty counts – alleges that 6,399 civilians and 1,680 army defectors were killed in Syria during the period from 15 March 2011 to 15 February 2012. All security forces killed in Syria during the past 11 months were “defectors?” Not a single soldier, policeman or intelligence official was killed in Syria except those forces who opposed the regime? This is the kind of mindless narrative of this conflict that continues unchecked. Worse yet, this exact VDC statistic is included in the latest UN report on Syria issued last week.

Humanitarian Crisis or Just Plain Violence?

While few doubt the Syrian government’s violent suppression of this revolt, it is increasingly clear that in addition to the issue of disproportionally, there is the question of whether there is a “humanitarian crisis” as suggested by some western and Arab leaders since last year. I sought some answers during a trip to Damascus in early January 2012 where I spoke to a select few NGOs that enjoyed rare access to all parts of the country.

Given that words like “massacre” and “slaughter” and “humanitarian crisis” are being used in reference to Syria, I asked International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Spokesman Saleh Dabbakeh how many calls for urgent medical assistance his organization had received in 2011. His response was shocking. “Only one that I recall,” said Dabbakeh. Where was that, I asked? “Quneitra National Hospital in the Golan,” he replied, “last June.” This was when Israeli troops fired on Syrian and Palestinian protesters marching to the 1973 armistice line with the Jewish state. Those same protesters that ended up on SOHR’s casualty list.

A Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) worker confirmed that, recalling that his organization treated hundreds of casualties from the highly-publicized incident.

As the level of violence has escalated, however, the situation has deteriorated, and the ICRC now has received more calls for medical assistance – mainly from private hospitals in Homs. The SARC today has nine different points in Homs where it provides such assistance. The only two places they do not currently serve are the neighborhoods of Baba Amr and Inshaat “because the security situation does not allow for it – for their own safety, there is fighting there.”

During a phone call last Thursday, one NGO officer, explained that the measure for a “humanitarian crisis” is in level of access to basic staples, services and medical care. He told me off the record that “There is a humanitarian crisis in (i.e.) Baba Amr today, but not in Syria. If the fighting finishes tomorrow, there will be enough food and medical supplies.”

“Syria has enough food to feed itself for a long time. The medical sector still functions very well. There isn’t enough pressure on the medical sector to create a crisis,” he elaborated. “A humanitarian crisis is when a large number of a given population does not have access to medical aid, food, water, electricity, etc – when the system cannot any longer respond to the needs of the population.”

But an international human rights worker also cautions: “the killing is happening on both sides – the other side is no better.”

People have to stop this knee-jerk, opportunistic, hysterical obsession with numbers of dead Syrians, and ask instead: “who are these people and who killed them?” That is the very least these victims deserve. Anything less would render their tragic deaths utterly meaningless. Lack of transparency along the supply-chain of information and its dissemination – on both sides – is tantamount to making the Syrian story all about perception, and not facts. It is a hollow achievement and people will die in ever greater numbers.

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.

Foreign Intervention Destroys Revolution

By Abdel-Halim Qandil

Anti-Imperialist Camp

Calling for a foreign intervention serves the Assad regime, betrays the revolutionary cause, and threatens Syria with disintegration. What is required is not to destroy Syria, but to destroy the regime and let Syria rise from the ashes, according to the wish of her people, who long for a democratic Arabic homeland.

Is the crisis in Syria heading down the path of the Libyan scenario? And to what extent are the regime’s stubbornness and bloodiness preparing to open the door to a foreign armed intervention, which would transform the Syrian revolution into a tragedy that would threaten the very survival of the Syrian state?

The danger is present, though not very likely, as Syria lacks petrol – the booty that attracted Western greed as in the case of Libya, and Iraq before.

America and its satellites act in a very pragmatic way. They are not concerned about tens of thousands of people injured or martyred. They may even prefer the situation as it is: the Arab Syrian army worn out in a bloody war against the people. And the Syrian regime challenged and undermined, but not overthrown, because the West does not know exactly where Syria would be going after Bashar. They don’t trust Burhan Ghalioun’s pledges of peace with Israel, which explains why Washington and other Western regimes hesitate to officially recognise Ghalioun’s opposition Syrian National Council.

That Council on one hand includes the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the main sectors of the opposition, but on the other hand most of its other members have dubious identities and backgrounds, are close to intelligence circles – including the Syrian secret services – or simply opportunists, seekers of illegitimate fortunes as money is flowing in from the Gulf states. There are a few others who stand for the Damascus Declaration and are not tempted to collaborate with Washington. And then there is a constant appearance and disappearance of Syrian groups who claim to represent the revolution and sell Syrian blood like a merchant who sells wares who are not his own, but eagerly accepts cash advances.

These are the people who keep begging for a foreign military intervention, for establishing and securing no-fly zones, pretending to protect civilians and to stop the bloodshed, though in fact any foreign military intervention means more bloodshed and the destruction of Syria, of the land and the people, and a transformation of the revolution into an open civil war. Syria might – God forbid – disintegrate. A foreign intervention is not a remedy to a disease, but jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.

Attaining national sovereignty and liberation from personality cults are essential goals of any great national revolution, including the Syrian revolution which is still on-going and seems trapped in marginal regions without access to the heart of Syria – Damascus and Aleppo – where half of the population lives and where the regime has barricaded itself with its savage apparatus.

Just a few weeks ago, the Coordination Committee and Ghalioun’s National Council issued a joint statement. The Coordination Committee includes the basic opposition groups active within Syria, and almost every influential group is a member, except the Muslim Brotherhood. The Coordination Committee and the National Council agreed to reject a foreign intervention in any form or disguise. They agreed not to consider an intervention of other Arab forces a foreign intervention, but an Arab intervention does not seem feasible. The Arab observers’ mission is stumbling and the bloodshed in Syria continues. The ruling family, the clan of the dictator does not seem ready for any compromise, which has created the psychological atmosphere for demands for a foreign intervention, and has prepared the ground for the ultimate sin, not just to destroy Bashar’s regime but to destroy Syria herself.

The first to benefit from the demand for a foreign intervention is Bashar’s regime itself. An intervention harms the cause of the revolution and stains the reputation of its supporters.

* Demanding an intervention facilitates the regime’s agenda of accusing them of treason and being agents of foreign powers.

* Demanding an intervention helps the regime to paint a fraudulent image of the events in Syria, and casts dark shadows on the overwhelming popular desire to end an oppressive regime that has been robbing its own people.

* Demanding an intervention helps the regime to portray the revolution as if it were a colonial conspiracy against the very patriotic regime.

* Demanding an intervention pleases the regime and helps it to rally supporters who originally hesitated to join the revolutionary marsh.

The regime is also aware how difficult it is for the Americans to decide on military intervention. At the same time the US have maintained communication links with the regime, and remain content with fiery statements against Bashar in public, without the will to cross another Middle Eastern mine field teeming with hatred against the Americans, the guardians of Israel.

The United States hesitate to completely antagonise Russia, who considers Syria her most reliable ally in the region, for whom she used the veto in the Security Council. Russia is trying to stop Syria’s deterioration, and offers her efforts to build bridges between the regime and the opposition inside and outside Syria.

All in all so far, the crisis is escalating in Syria, and the bloodshed doesn’t cease one single day. The cause of the revolution is in dilemma, and it is not going to progress one single step by calling for a foreign intervention; on the contrary, exactly the opposite may take place. Demanding a foreign intervention is a sure path to disorientation and total betrayal to the revolutionary cause. The solution is in Syria herself. The solution is in true loyalty to the blood of the scores of thousands of the revolution’s martyrs and injured. The solution is in carrying the spark of the revolution from the uprising at the margins into the heart of Syria. With persistence and heroism of Dar‛a, Idlib, Homs, Hama and Abu-Kamal, where the revolutionary unrest began, to spread it to the suburbs of Aleppo and to the countryside around Damascus. The conscience among the troops is increasingly splitting the army, and is playing a role that is more influential than we might think. The apparent coherence of the regime and the apparent absence of major splits in its closed structure are not going to last much longer. The oppressive security apparatus of the regime is continually exhausted in the fields of blood. Each massacre the regime commits adds to the hostility it faces, to further cracks in the walls of fear and to a stronger inclination towards internal splits – provided the confusion by calls for foreign intervention can be avoided. Such calls help the regime to mobilize its military and security apparatus, suggest to its agents that they are waging a patriotic battle, and cover up the truth of the oppressive war.

In short: calling for a foreign intervention serves the regime, betrays the revolutionary cause, and threatens Syria with disintegration. What is required is not – God forbid – to destroy Syria, but to destroy the regime and let Syria rise from the ashes, according to the wish of her people, who long for a democratic Arabic homeland.

Translation: Qais Abdalla, Vienna, Austria

* Abdel-Halim Kandil (Abdulhaleem Qandil) is a senior Egyptian journalist and political leader of the opposition. As editor in chief of the Nasserist newspaper Al Arabi he was one of the most prominent critics of Mubarak’s regime. In 2004 he was kidnapped by goons, beaten up and left naked in the desert outskirts of Cairo. His brave reaction sparked of the Kifaya (“Enough”) opposition movement from 2005 onwards of which he was a leading figure. After the fall of Mubarak he is again editor of a leftist nationalist news outlet and target of the SCAF’s censorship.

The Syrian Crisis is Being Exploited by the West

The decision by both China and Russia to veto the UN Security Council Resolution on Syria last week, supporting the Arab League plan for a swift transition of power and elections, has served noticed on the West by both countries that further interventions in the region will be opposed.

Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin said, “Some influential members of the international community unfortunately have been undermining the opportunity for political settlement, calling for a regime change, pushing the oppositionists to power.”

Meanwhile, China’s UN ambassador Li Baodong said, “China maintains that, under the current circumstances, to put undue emphasis on pressuring the Syrian government… or impose any solution will not help resolve the Syrian issue.”

The response of the US UN ambassador Susan Rice to the veto was unsurprisingly scathing, describing it as “shameful”. She added that it showed how Russia and China aimed to “sell out the Syrian people and shield a craven tyrant.”

That the US UN ambassador felt justified in to seizing any moral high ground on the ‘shielding of craven tyrants’ when the US remains a major ally of Saudi Arabia, and up until recently was key in helping to maintain Mubarak in power in Egypt, is stark evidence of the hubris that continues to abound in Washington even after the humanitarian disaster precipitated by the US-led invasion of Iraq and the continuing quagmire in Afghanistan.

Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague was also bombastic in his response, saying that the Russian and Chinese veto “will only encourage President Assad’s brutal regime to increase the killing.”

What seems clear is that the Arab Spring which has swept through the Middle East in recent months, toppling autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and which has seen serious unrest in Bahrain and Yemen, has been actively joined by the US, France, Britain, and their regional allies in order to ensure that what emerges are pro-western regimes that will uphold their geopolitical interests in the region.

Providing further impetus in this regard has been the success of the NATO intervention in Libya, which proved to be a win-win in terms of the resources applied and its successful outcome. Indeed, the success of the Libyan operation has breathed new life into the concept of humanitarian intervention by the West – or to give it its old name, imperialism – with the prospect of unleashing the same template on Syria clearly a motivating factor in the UN Security Council resolution and its subsequent veto by Russia and China.

In fact the experience of Libya – when a UN Security Council resolution to protect innocent civilian life was subsequently transmuted into providing military support for one side in a civil war with the objective of regime change – will understandably have deepened the resolve of both China and Russia not to be caught out in this regard a second time.

Though the Cold War is no longer central to international affairs, there has been a resurgence of something akin to it in recent years, a result of China’s emergence as an economic powerhouse, Russia entering a new era of assertiveness vis-à-vis the West, and the West’s comparative economic decline leading to an increased reliance on hard power to maintain and advance its interests. The oil rich Middle East remains every bit as vital to each of the aforementioned power blocs, which is why what we are beginning to witness with regard to the region is a re-enactment of the Great Game that took place in the 19th century between the British and Russian empires. Then the prize was Central Asia and its strategic importance. Now it is oil.

The states that make up the region are currently undergoing seismic upheaval as the contradictions that have for so long defined their existence have burst asunder. This has come under the weight of a global economic crisis which has negatively impacted on their ability to rule in the old way, resulting on the one hand in an inspirational wave of people power rising up from below, and on the other a worrying resurgence of hard power being exercised by western powers, primarily the US, Britain and France, as they seek to place their stamp on its trajectory.

The Syrian government’s crime in the eyes of the West is not so much the repression being carried against a section of its people. Rather the crime is its close relations with Iran and the support it provides to Hamas and Hezbollah, both implacable foes of Israel, along with its history of opposition to the West. Toppling the Assad regime in Syria would significantly deepen the isolation of Iran, which is currently under immense economic, political, and increasingly military pressure to abandon its nuclear programme and is itself a future candidate for regime change.

The tragedy currently unfolding in Syria began as legitimate peaceful protest demanding long overdue reforms from the current regime. However, the unintended consequence of the West’s role in sowing chaos in Iraq and Libya is the Syrian regime’s adoption of lethal force against the Syrian opposition, with a view to destroying it before the West is able to intervene. On the other hand, the Syrian opposition is clearly banking on just such an intervention, following the template employed by the West when it came to Libya last year. It is also crucial for opponents of the present regime in Damascus to understand the extent to which it still enjoys the support of a large part of the country, thus ensuring that any western intervention would result in bloody chaos.

While the Syrian people are certainly justified in demanding reforms from a regime that for too long has placed an over emphasis on security at the expense of civil rights, the fear of the regime and the millions of Syrians who still support it of the country suffering a similar fate to that suffered by Iraq, with the same prospect of sectarian civil war, and the more recent disaster to befall the Libyan people, with verifiable accounts of widespread human rights abuses, torture and summary executions in the aftermath of the fall of the Gaddafi regime, is all too real and cannot be underestimated or easily dismissed.

This is why Russian and Chinese calls for a diplomatic solution in Syria must be taken seriously, especially as the Kremlin enjoys influence with the Syrian regime.

Clearly, Russia and China both have their own geopolitical and economic reasons for taking the stance they have, as do each of the regional and international actors involved. But the question for the people being affected on the ground by this crisis is how best to end the carnage and eruption of sectarian and confessional fissures that have come as a direct result of western intervention over the past decade.

More bloodshed is no solution to the blood already being shed in Syria.

Have Plans Already Been Drawn Up for Us-led Military Intervention in Syria?

by Chris Marsden

World Socialist Website

The Pentagon has drawn up plans for military intervention in Syria.

A military strike would be coordinated with Turkey, the Gulf States and the NATO powers, according to reports that acknowledge such plans officially for the first time. The plan is described as an “internal review” by Pentagon Central Command, to allow President Barack Obama to maintain the pretense that the White House is still seeking a diplomatic solution.

This is considered vital, as military intervention would most likely be conducted through various Middle East proxies, which the US and NATO could then back with airpower. Turkey and the Arab League states, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, do not want to be seen for what they are: stooges of the US. Deniability for them therefore requires the US to conceal the full extent of its involvement.

In the February 6 Financial Times, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning for the US State Department, argued for “A little time… for continued diplomatic efforts aimed at shifting the allegiances of the Sunni merchant class in Damascus and Aleppo.”

As with the war against Libya last year, military intervention would again be justified citing the “responsibility to protect” civilians. But its real aim is regime change to install a Sunni government beholden to Washington, allied with the Gulf States, and hostile to Iran.

A State Department official told the UK’s Daily Telegraph that “the international community may be forced to ‘militarise’ the crisis in Syria” and that “the debate in Washington has shifted away from diplomacy.”

Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said, “We are, of course, looking at humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, and we have for some time.”

The Telegraph noted, “Any plan to supply aid or set up a buffer zone would involve a military dimension to protect aid convoys or vulnerable civilians.”

Leading US political figures have also been calling publicly for the arming of the Free Syrian Army, an exclusively Sunni force stationed in Turkey and backed and funded by Ankara, Riyadh and Doha. They include Joe Lieberman, John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

The issue was discussed this week in Washington directly with the FSA, whose logistical coordinator, Sheikh Zuheir Abassi, took part in a video conference call Wednesday with a US national security think tank.

The US, France, Britain and Arab League are already operating outside the framework of the United Nations as a “Friends of Syria” coalition, in order to bypass the opposition of Russia and China to a Libya-style intervention.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are known to be arming the FSA and to have their own brigades and advisers on the ground, as they did in Libya.

According to the Israeli intelligence website Debka-File, both British and Qatari special operations units are already “operating with rebel forces under cover in the Syrian city of Homs just 162 kilometers from Damascus… Our sources report the two foreign contingents have set up four centers of operation—in the northern Homs district of Khaldiya, Bab Amro in the east, and Bab Derib and Rastan in the north. Each district is home to about a quarter of a million people.”

But the Gulf States do not have the firepower required to overthrow the Assad regime. For that Turkey is the key player. Debka-File notes in the report that the presence of the British and Qatari troops “was seized on by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan for the new plan he unveiled to parliament in Ankara Tuesday, Feb. 7. Treating the British-Qatari contingents as the first foreign foot wedged through the Syrian door, his plan hinges on consigning a new Turkish-Arab force to Homs through that door and under the protection of those contingents. Later, they would go to additional flashpoint cities.”

Turkey is publicly debating military intervention based on establishing “safe havens” and “humanitarian aid corridors,” with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visiting Washington this week after stating that Turkey’s doors are open to Syrian refugees.

Writing in the February 9 New Republic, Soner Cagaptay argues, “Washington’s reluctance to lead an operation may prove a blessing, leaving space for Turkey to take the reins… Turkey would support an air-based intervention to protect UN designated safe havens—as long as the mission is led by a ‘regional force,’ composed of both Turkish and Arab militaries. Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who are funding the opposition, should be happy to work with their new ally in Ankara to protect the safe havens; Washington and European powers could then remotely back the operation, facilitating its success.”

The aim of isolating Iran has become the stated aim of US and Israeli officials, backed by a media campaign prominently involving the liberal press, mixing anti-Iranian sentiment with humanitarian hyperbole professing concern with the fate of Syria’s people.

Efraim Halevy, a former Israeli national security adviser and director of the security service Mossad from 1998 to 2002, wrote in the February 7 New York Times describing Syria as “Iran’s Achilles’ Heel.”

He writes, “Iran’s foothold in Syria enables the mullahs in Tehran to pursue their reckless and violent regional policies—and its presence there must be ended … Once this is achieved, the entire balance of forces in the region would undergo a sea change.”

The New York Times’ British counterpart, The Guardian, entrusts Simon Tisdall with the task of endorsing such anti-Iranian sentiment. He cites favourably Hillary Clinton’s ridiculing of Assad’s claims of foreign intervention in support of the opposition as being “Sadly… fully justified.” Rather, he insists, “The foreign power most actively involved inside Syria is not the US or Britain, France or Turkey. Neither is it Russia, Saudi Arabia nor its Gulf allies. It is Iran—and it is fighting fiercely to maintain the status quo.”

The appalling consequences of an American war against Syria would dwarf those of its Libyan adventure. Syria is only the ante-chamber of a campaign for regime change in Iran and its targeting poses ever more clearly conflict with Russia and possibly China.

Moscow last month sent three warships, including an aircraft carrier, to its only Mediterranean naval base, the Syrian port of Tartus. This followed its blocking of the US, France and UK-backed Arab-League resolution, meant to pave the way for intervention, with the dispatch of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Damascus for talks with Assad, Tuesday, in a further show of solidarity. Lavrov was accompanied by Mikhail Fradkov, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Office.

Of greater significance still were comments made the following day by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, linking efforts to overthrow Assad with a direct Western threat to the stability of Russia through its support for opposition protests there. “A cult of violence has been coming to the fore in international affairs in the past decade,” he said. “This cannot fail to cause concern… and we must not allow anything like this in our country.”

Intervention in Syria Will Escalate Not Stop the Killing

Perceptive article by Seumus Milne in Guardian today: EXTRACT

The Syrian crisis operates at several levels. Part of it is a popular uprising against an authoritarian nationalist regime, which still retains significant public support. In the face of sustained repression that uprising has increasingly morphed into what the Arab League mission’s leaked report described as an “armed entity”.

The conflict has also taken on a grimly sectarian dimension, as the Alawite-dominated security machine trades on minorities’ fear of a predominantly majority Sunni opposition. On the ground, that has fed a surge of Iraqi and Lebanese-style confessional cleansing and killings.

 

But the third dimension – Syria’s role as Iran’s main strategic ally – is what has made the crisis so toxic in a region where the west and its Arab clients have tried to turn the tide of the Arab awakening to their own advantage by ramping up conflict with Tehran.

The overthrow of the Syrian regime would be a serious blow to Iran’s influence in the Middle East. And as the conflict in Syria has escalated, so has the western-Israeli confrontation with Iran. Even as US defence secretary Leon Panetta and national intelligence director James Clapper acknowledged that Iran isn’t after all “trying to build a nuclear weapon”, Panetta has let it be known there is a “strong likelihood” Israel will attack Iran as early as April, while Iran faces crippling EU oil sanctions over its nuclear programme.

Western intervention in Syria – and Russia and China’s opposition to it – can only be understood in that context: as part of a proxy war against Iran, which disastrously threatens to become a direct one. There is little sign, meanwhile, of either the Syrian regime or opposition making a decisive breakthrough.

If the opposition can’t shoot its way to power and the regime doesn’t implode, the only way out of deepening civil war is a negotiated political settlement leading to genuine elections. To stand any chance of success, that would now need to be guaranteed by the main powers in the region and beyond. The alternative of western and Gulf-dictator intervention could only lead to far greater bloodshed – and deny Syrians control of their own country.

read the whole article here

Russia/china Dual Veto Designed to Promote Peaceful Outcome

by Yu Zhixiao, from Xinhua
BEIJING, Feb. 5 (Xinhua) — Russia and China’s double veto of an Arab-European draft resolution on Syria Saturday was aimed at further seeking peaceful settlement of the chronic Syrian crisis and preventing possible drastic and risky solutions to it.

It was the second time since last October that Russia and China used double veto to block a UN Security Council draft on Syria, which they deemed was not the best choice to promote peace in the Middle East country.

The unadopted draft meant to say the UN Security Council “fully supports” the Jan. 22 Arab League plan to ask Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, one of the major stumbling blocks in pre-vote consultations.

With the veto, Russia and China believed more time and patience should be given to a political solution to the Syrian crisis, which would prevent the Syrian people from more turbulence and fatalities.

Hours before the Security Council’s vote on the draft, Russia circulated an amended resolution, which it said “aims to fix two basic problems.” The first was the imposition of conditions on dialogue, and the second was that measures must be taken to influence not only the government but also anti-government armed groups.

“The draft resolution that was put to a vote did not adequately reflect the real state of affairs in Syria and has sent an unbalanced signal to the Syrian parties,” Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said after the vote.

For his part, Li Baodong, the Chinese permanent representative to the United Nations, regretted the Russian amendments were ignored.

“China supports the revision proposals raised by Russia,” Li told the council, adding the request for continued consultation on the draft by some council members is reasonable.”

“To push through a vote when parties are still seriously divided over the issue will not help maintain the unity and authority of the Security Council, or help resolve the issue,” he said.

The United Nations put the total death toll in Syria during the months-long unrest at more than 5,400, while the Syrian government said more than 2,000 army and security personnel have been killed.

In order to deter fresh bloodshed and violence, an inclusive political process should be started immediately in Syria, and it is the Syrian people instead of outside forces that should decide its fate.