From Robert Fisk: Is there any way of escaping the theatre of chemical weapons, now moved to Syria? Click here to read the full article
As the hell of Syria’s ongoing and increasingly intractable internal conflict continues to play out, the announcement by newly installed US Secretary of State John Kerry that the US is to step up its support for the Syrian opposition with $60 million in ‘non-military’ aid should leave nobody in any doubt that the day of western military intervention in the conflict fast approaches.
The British government is also eager to step up support for the Syrian opposition, as attempts to topple the current regime by force shows no sign of succeeding without significant intervention.
At the beginning of January a figure of 60,000 was unveiled as the most up to date and accurate assessment of the number of people killed since hostilities erupted in the country in early 2011.
The US NGO which came up with this figure, resulting from an investigation into the conflict commissioned by the UN, is called Benetech. Benetech’s sponsors, listed on its website, include the National Endowment for Democracy, the Soros Open Society Institute, and the US Department of State.
Regardless, the western media carried the results of Benetech’s investigation at the top of its reports and broadcasts without any analysis of their provenance or this particular NGO’s sponsors. It speaks to the politically-loaded coverage that has been the norm when it comes to this conflict from the very beginning.
But whether the number killed in the Syrian conflict is 60,000 or not, the thousands who have been slaughtered, the tens of thousands more maimed, traumatised, and/or forced to flee their homes, constitutes a human catastrophe of monumental proportions, one that stands as an indictment of the West’s role as an active participant in its support for a polyglot opposition that includes medievalist religious fanatics intent on fomenting a sectarian bloodbath, whose conception of a functioning society involves dragging the country back to the seventh century. In this they are being ably supported by the Saudis and Qataris, who’ve been funnelling weapons and military equipment to them via Turkey.
What cannot be ignored when it comes to the Syrian conflict is its role in the wider geopolitical struggle that is being waged over the future of region between the US and its allies on one side, and Russia and China on the other. It is a conflict over US efforts to maintain a status quo of unipolarity when it comes to global power and influence, with Russia and China increasingly determined to create a multipolar alternative.
The so-called Arab Spring, begun in Tunisia in late 2010, has been hijacked and usurped by western powers which collectively have acted to control and manipulate its trajectory with the aim of maintaining western hegemony over a region first carved up by them after the First World War. Military intervention in Libya, continued pressure being exerted against Iran, continuing support for Israeli efforts to crush Palestinian resistance to its ongoing settler colonial project, support for Saudi aggression in Bahrain, and now Syria – this is the balance sheet of the West’s recent history of intervention in the region.
With the tenth anniversary of the war in Iraq upon us, and the litany of carnage and mayhem it has left behind, events in Syria take on an added importance, especially for the current regime in its struggle to prevent what will certainly be Iraq-style sectarian blood-letting should an opposition which includes assorted foreign and domestic jihadists succeed in toppling it.
Russia’s determination to continue supporting the Syrian regime, which along with Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon constitutes an axis of resistance to western domination, will now be tested further in light of the US decision to ramp up its support for the opposition. Interestingly, just prior to the US and British announcement of increased aid to the opposition, the Russians were engaged in another effort to initiate dialogue with the Syrian opposition and the Syrian regime, after Assad announced that he is ready to talk to all parties, including armed groups, who want dialogue to end the conflict.
The extent of the violence that is taking place in the country reflects the stakes involved. As already stated, Iraq’s fate and the carnage let loose in Libya after the toppling of Gadaffi cannot but be a key motivating factor when it comes to the Syrian army’s attempts to crush the insurgency, while the opposition knows that it can effectively leverage the West’s support given the primacy of the region to its geopolitical interests.
By this point there should be few who still believe that the West is motivated by any noble motivation of spreading democracy to the Arab and Muslim world. On the contrary democracy, human rights, peace and stability – these are nothing more than age-old canards spouted as justification for the hegemonic policies that have bedevilled the southern hemisphere for generations.
Indeed it would be hard to come up with a better explanation and interpretation of the West’s policy towards the Middle East, beginning with Iraq ten years ago and currently ongoing in Syria, than the words spoken by an American major after the destruction of a village during the Vietnam War.
“It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”
Following on from his article earlier this week, leading Palestine solidarity activist Kevin Ovenden responds to the latest events in Gaza
It is far too early to provide a comprehensive account of the impact of the latest Gaza War on the prospects for the Palestinian struggle, Israel and the region as a whole.
But it is clear that the seven day war demonstrated both Israel’s continuing preparedness to seek to solve its ongoing crisis and internal political impasse through war, and at the same time the tighter constraints that exist on account of the Arab revolutionary process and continued resistance to imperialism and Israeli aggression.
In response to questions from and out of conversations with many friends, however, here are some schematic observations and opinions that may stimulate a wider discussion.
1) Friends in Gaza, from across the spectrum, report a great sense of relief. And grief. At least one close friend lost his mother when a bomb hit their apartment block. There is also defiance from withstanding the Israeli assault and from the prevention (whatever people ascribe that to) of a ground invasion. Hamas has been boosted internally. People in Gaza do have a genuine sense of “victory”. There is hope that the siege will fall – quickly and totally.
2) Hamas is also boosted externally and is in the spotlight of diplomacy in the region, despite its continuing proscription in the US, Britain and much of Europe. The political siege imposed since Hamas won the 2006 election is already ended and the West is having to adjust to that. In reality, and through back channels and intermediaries, it already has.
3) Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and his leadership in the Muslim Brotherhood are also lifted. As every correspondent reported, he received warm praise from Washington, London and even Tel Aviv for his role in the ceasefire. He was able to continue to balance deftly the groundswell of support for the Palestinians in Egypt and maintaining relations with the West and the Camp David accord with Israel. There were, however, significant demonstrations in Egypt from those who rightly feel that Morsi should go much further.
There were further, rival, demonstrations both against and for Morsi on Friday in response to his move to use presidential decree to copper-fasten a number of measures. The Financial Times reported on Thursday:
“Mr Morsi ordered the reopening of all cases relating to attacks on demonstrators – a move aimed at absorbing anger on the streets, which has led to a fresh eruption of unrest and fighting between protesters and police this week.
“But he combined this decision with far more controversial measures, including forbidding the courts from disbanding both the controversial panel drafting the constitution and the Shura council or upper chamber of parliament elected last year [both]… dominated by Islamists from Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood”.
The courts are stuffed with hang-overs of the Mubarak era. But, the measures Morsi took also lock out left and progressive elements from drafting the constitution. Christian and liberal members of the committee have walked out. The left has argued for something like a constitutional assembly to draw up the basic law. Hamdeen Sabahi, the left Nasserist presidential candidate who topped the first round poll in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities, took to the streets on Friday.
So Morsi’s is a move against both wings, as friends in Egypt put it, with an instrument – presidential decree – which arrogates power to the post of president, without any new constitution in place defining legally what those powers are. It’s neither simply a popular plebeian sally to forestall the old Mubarak elements (good), nor simply a Sadat-style prelude to presidential dictatorship (bad). In one sense it has elements of both.
That makes it very important for the left – secular and Islamist – to have an independent position and to find ways in which it can win to itself forces both from the secular, liberal wing and from Islamists who were disappointed with Morsi’s performance during the war and with other policies.
The right, the considerable remnants of the Mubarak state and party, and pro-Western liberals have their own, different reasons for opposing Morsi. It would be a big mistake for the left to be seen to fuse with them. It is equally a big mistake to imagine Morsi’s move is a “shift left” or that greater confidence has allowed a more radical Morsi to break out of a vacillating shell.
There is caution and vacillation still. But there is also a clear political objective in the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. While the left should reject the Islamophobia and the pro-imperialist sentiment wrapped up in liberal talk of “secularism”, it should not mistake the political objectives of the Brotherhood with its own.
How to respond in these circumstances for the radical left is very hard and very concrete. The experiences of Peronism in Argentina and Khomeiniism in Iran show that in different ways, and also illustrate the great dangers.
3) On account of the perceived success of Hamas, there is now enormous pressure on the Palestinian Authority President Abu Mazen to see through his gambit, the bid for recognition of a 1967 Palestinian state at the UN General Assembly next week.
There is massive counter pressure from the US, Israel, Britain and the EU to drop it. One reason why they take the move seriously is that it would give a UN-recognised Palestinian state access to various international legal avenues that non-state actors do not have. The British government’s changing of war crimes law in order to lift the possibility of arrest of Tzipi Livni and others shows how mindful they are of the consequences.
Incidentally – I entirely understand why many good friends on the Palestinian left opposed Abu Mazen’s move last year. I agree with much of their analysis of his motivation. I also agree that there is a great danger – perhaps even intention – of eclipsing the Palestinian National Council as the representative body of the Palestinian people. The PNC comprises representatives of all the Palestinian factions and, crucially, representatives of Palestinians not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but also in 1948 Israel, and in the refugee camps and exile.
Changing the voice of the Palestinians from that to the Palestinian Authority with a seat at the UN could threaten the Right of Return and other fundamentals, and even 1967 borders. But, I do think, particularly in the West, that it is right to make those arguments from the standpoint of backing the Palestinians at the UN and opposing the US et al. When virtually the whole of Latin America, the global south, the Middle East and China backed the bid at the Security Council last year, and the US, Britain, and the worst of the EU states opposed it – I think I know where I want to stand.
Some shifting Palestinian realities
The above three points are fairly obvious. But there are other less remarked upon factors as well.
First, there has been for some years now a rising trend of radicalisation among particularly young Palestinians – on the West Bank, in the camps, in exile and under difficult circumstances in Gaza. They have been raising the Right of Return and the historic Palestinian claim.
It is born out of frustration with Oslo and with “all the old leaders”, though almost all the people I know have no difficulty in distinguishing the abject surrender of someone like Salam Fayyad of Fatah from the continued preparedness to resist of Ismail Haniye or Khaled Mishaal of Hamas, Ramadan Shalah of Islamic Jihad or Ahmed Saadat of the PFLP, who is in an Israeli prison. One aspect of the generational break is that this sentiment finds only a limited reflection in attraction to the more militant Palestinian factions, such as Islamic Jihad and the PFLP (though both of those have been gaining in support).
It is fuelled by disgust at corruption in the West Bank and, naturally in the last two years, by identification with the same generation in revolt in Egypt and elsewhere. There is an ongoing major battle in Jerusalem, for example, which is subterranean for all corporate media in the West. There is a sense in the West Bank and in Jerusalem above all that the clock is ticking – if there is no breakthrough, the city and much of the West Bank will be lost. That is the sense. I’m not saying that is what will happen. One reflection of that reality on the ground is the increased talk – sometimes in ways and from quarters that are not of the left – of a “one state” solution.
But among the young people and the fresh Palestinian forces this talk and more importantly action are certainly of the left. People will remember the tens of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians, mainly young, who peacefully marched to the border at Maroun al Ras on Nakba Day last year. Six of them were shot dead by the Israelis and dozens were wounded. The Palestinians were from families of all the factions and across the spectrum of Palestinian society – a large number from traditionally Fatah families. All six who were killed were in their teens or twenties. Three were from Ain al Hilwe camp. There was a similar demonstration in Syria towards occupied Golan and brave attempts in Jordan to get to the border.
It is this sentiment and generation that powered and leads the global call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – and sets its programme of demands, which is incompatible with a Zionist-exclusivist state, apartheid, in historic Palestine as a whole. That is why Norman Finkelstein, for example, who believes in two-states on principle and not as a tactical demand, chose to oppose it, unfortunately with his acerbic, sharp intelligence lashing a part of the movement and not Israel and its friends, which he does so well, defending the right and actuality of resistance in Lebanon and Palestine.
This relatively new factor is also growing – as anyone who speaks to the many young Palestinians and young Arabs on demonstrations in London or elsewhere in the West knows.
Secondly, the historic factions are not monolithic. I don’t for obvious reasons want to get into too much detail or to identify people, but there are different trends and currents within the major organisations.
Hamas is of course united in the face of Israeli aggression. But there is an ongoing strategic debate in Hamas – expressed in many ways, including over the succession to Khaled Mishaal. Is Hamas, which was founded as a Palestinian expression of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (the different Brotherhoods in the Middle East are tightly connected ideologically and theologically, but unsurprisingly reflect their own national political realities) essentially just that? Or is it an Islamically-inflected inheritor of the wider Palestinian national revolutionary struggle, which goes back more than 60 years to the general strike of 1936 and the agitation under the British mandate?
Remember: the position of Hamas in that struggle has changed enormously since the first intifada in 1988 and its founding. Until the fall of Mubarak, it didn’t really matter how you answered that existential question. With the advent of a tight-rope-walking Muslim Brotherhood administration in Egypt, it does. And so the debate continues. It informs tactical differences. Should Hamas pursue reconciliation and unity (of government administration) with Fatah? There is a groundswell for unity. Unity would certainly be a step forward. But many friends caution that it can also be a path to unnecessary trimming of the sails. The question people ask is – what is the unity for?
Conversely, a go-it-alone strategy by Hamas does not necessarily entail a more principled and militant stance. Friends also caution against the idea of running Gaza as a de facto confederal province of Egypt, sundering the connection with the West Bank – as a stage, of course, on the path to the recovery of Palestine as a whole. But we know that every proposition must be described by every Palestinian leader as a stage and not the end goal. And look where Oslo ended up.
While the break of the diplomatic isolation of Hamas in the region – it was formerly welcome only in Damascus, Khartoum, Tehran, Beirut, etc – is a big gain, everyone knows that to become dependent on Riyadh or Doha brings a very high price. Saudi Arabia and Qatar don’t simply meddle. Others have done that down the decades. The issue is, in whose interests do these allies of the US – which have relations with Israel – meddle.
None of these questions has an easy answer. That’s why debate will intensify. The actual debate should inform all friends of Palestine. There are some in the West who, in my view, have insufficiently followed the whole picture and are in danger of making errors by viewing only a part of it. So – absolutely Cairo and Ankara were far, far better than Washington or London (how could it be otherwise?) during the war. More importantly they were better than Egypt under Mubarak or Turkey under Evren and his military. But they were not good enough; not good enough for the needs and possibilities of the hour, and not good enough for the serious radical left – religious and secular – in both countries and in the region. It is a mistake simply to cheerlead from Britain. And it is worse if you single out for praise certain trends – the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey’s AKP (which is very similar) – without even acknowledging that Iranian weapons are what Israel recognises as tilting an important military balance between it and Gaza; it and Lebanon. The words of most of us have little effect. But that doesn’t mean that we should not seriously try to make them as precise as possible and be aware of all signals they send.
There is also debate in Fatah. Though I understand why people who support the resistance of the Palestinians praise Hamas and castigate Fatah in toto, it is far true crude. There is an historic left in Fatah, led by the incarcerated Marwan Barghouti, who has appeal across the Palestinian political and social spectrum. There are also differing trends in the Fatah leadership. The very worst and most corrupt elements broke with Abu Mazen. Mohammed Dahlan, the Fatah commander in Gaza who was armed by the West and Israel to destroy the elected Hamas government in 2007 through a coup, has gone. He has gone with around three quarters of a billion dollars and now owns a large strip of the coast of Montenegro on the Adriatic Sea.
Just as in Hamas, the political and ideological trends animate the tactical decisions of Abu Mazen and others in Fatah. To imagine that Fatah as a whole is just a tool of Israel or that its support will just evaporate is simplistic in the extreme.
Thirdly, there is the regional balance. That depends not only on the immediate fallout from the war but also on internal developments in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and indeed across the region. It also depends on how Israel and the US decide to act on what is an absolutely central and fixed policy objective – weakening Iran and preventing even the possibility of a fundamental shift in the military balance. That is also an obsession of the Saudis, Qataris and the Gulf Cooperation Council which is now both the regional hub of capital accumulation (not simply oil exports) and of counter-revolution as a serious force in the US-organised imperialist hierarchy.
Time will tell how all of that plays out, as it will in Egypt, which is pivotal. But time is moving quickly. We will all need to follow events very carefully. But that is from the vantage point I tried to set out in an earlier article: in the West our argumentation and action need to be bent around both the responsibility of our own states and also around the political necessity of our movement – the labour (lower case “L”)/left/progressive/working class movement – taking up these questions in a manner that weakens our opponents here and, in that way and others, strengthens our friends abroad, and us.
This is a guest post from leading Palestine solidarity activist Kevin Ovenden.
What means this war?
The response from Western capitals and their allies to Israel’s latest war on Gaza was as expected.
There was no hand-wringing about a “no-fly zone” to protect civilians; no cliched demarche from Paris calling for “humanitarian corridors”; no emergency London or Doha conference to agree “non-lethal” defence supplies to the people of Gaza; no total or even token sanctions on Israel; no calls for Binyamin Netanyahu to step down; no media castigation of the “regime” in Tel Aviv; no arms or billions in largesse flowing from Western allies in the Persian Gulf and Turkey to those fighting an illegitimate, murderous aggressor.
Instead, there was full-throated support for Israel. Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague led the pack in laying “principal responsibility” for the aggression on its victims – the Hamas government in Gaza and those who elected it. His subsequent advice that Israel risked “losing international support” through a ground invasion merely indicated the West’s preferred parameters for this bout of slaughter.
All predictable, perhaps wearily so. Why then rehearse this litany of hypocrisy? Because if we become inured to it, let it stand as a harsh fact of life in a cynical world, then unwittingly we allow the West and its allies to shift the narrative in the Middle East, to frame events and to determine which questions will be asked and which buried. And not just there.
That has been a central aim in Washington, London, Tel Aviv and the rest for the last 12 months as they attempt both to grapple with a region that is in a process of long-term profound change and to manage their equally long-term decline.
It is almost exactly a year ago that Palestine was last at the centre of official international attention, when Palestinian Authority President Abu Mazen pushed at the UN Security Council for the recognition of a truncated Palestinian state. Voted down by the US and its allies, he is set to make the same bid at the wider UN General Assembly, where there is no great power veto, at the end of this month.
But in those 12 months, Palestine was off the agenda – as Israeli settlements expanded, the siege on Gaza continued and the apparatus of apartheid deepened. So much so that when Netanyahu visited the US earlier this year to rally the pro-Israel AIPAC conference and nakedly boost the fundamentalist Republican election campaign against Barack Obama, he was able to get away with barely mentioning the word “Palestinian” whilst agitating for war on Iran and seeking to bend the outcome of events in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere to Israel’s and the West’s advantage.
The return of Palestine (which didn’t go away from the minds of those genuinely driving change in the Middle East), as so often through massacre and tragedy, lays bare the true fault-lines and course of development in the wider region. It illuminates also the manoeuvres to subvert progressive change and to distract us – which have preoccupied the Empire since the fall of Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago.
Israel and US decline
The proximate reasons for Israel’s Operation Pillar of Cloud are interlinked and reasonably clear. At the end of October Israel bombed the Yarmouk factory in Khartoum, Sudan, accusing it of being a staging post for the supply of Iranian missiles to Hamas and other resistance organisations in Gaza. Of course, the standard Western government and media portrayal of some kind of equivalence between Israel, a nuclear-armed state with the fourth most powerful army in the world backed by the most powerful, and the Palestinians, occupied, besieged, exiled, without an airforce or air defence and with the most minimal of arms, is risible. And we are told from reliable reports that far from escalating confrontation and triggering the war, Hamas was in fact seeking a truce with Israel when its military commander, and close ally of leader Khaled Mishaal, Ahmed al-Jaabari was assassinated, signalling the start of the war.
Nevertheless, the arrival of rockets such as the Fajr-5 in Gaza is of considerable concern to the Israeli state. It means, as the last week has shown, that Israel’s assault on Gaza, while overwhelming, is not entirely without response. Air raid sirens have sounded in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. An Israeli public, promised that the 2006 war on Lebanon and the 2008-09 war on Gaza would leave them safer, faces the reality that the security balance is shifting even as they have state of the art shelters and the Dalou family, all but wiped out in an Israeli raid on their apartment block in Gaza, had nowhere to hide in the world’s largest open air prison camp. Crushing or disciplining resistance in Gaza has a politico-military logic for Netanyahu – especially as he presses on towards military confrontation with Iran and wants to pre-empt any fighting response from the Palestinian territories and from Lebanon. He has been frustrated from forcing through the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities this year and before the US presidential election. His cartoon performance at the UN two months ago, however, signalled a determination to bring things to the boil by next spring. Unable to lash out at Iran or directly against the resistance in Lebanon after Israel’s defeat in 2006, the caged Palestinians of Gaza provide a convenient target for a barbaric “demonstration effect” of Israel’s power.
The message is clear – despite the changes in the region, we can still do this. We are serious about a greater Israel and “solving” the “Palestinian problem” on Egyptian and Jordanian territory, with the apartheid infrastructure of occupation taking most of the West Bank into an expanded Israel. It is a message for domestic consumption. Netanyahu faces a general election in January. The fusion between his Likud party and the ultra-right Avigdor Lieberman did not produce a poll bounce. It is a message to the Palestinians, including Abu Mazen as he plans to go to the UN and is increasingly desperate in the face of settlement building, the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem and the bankruptcy of the Oslo process. It is aimed at Arab capitals – especially Cairo. And it is addressed to Washington, where even Obama’s craven support for Israel does not have the required zealotry of Netanyahu’s friends on the Republican right, who were rejected in the presidential and Senate elections. It’s a gambit that shows every sign of backfiring, as in 2008-09 and 2006. Ceasefire talks this week could not avoid the calls to lift the six year siege on Gaza.
This isn’t the first time an Israeli prime minister has flayed the Palestinians – pour encourager les autres. In 2001, following 9/11, George W Bush toyed with the call for Palestinian statehood and a renewed peace process. It was window dressing to garner support for the impending wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. Israel’s Ariel Sharon responded with a massive military incursion into the West Bank and Gaza. Israel was going to make no compromise even to assist its benefactor’s war drive.
Israel remains at the centre of the US establishment’s – both Democrat and Republican – calculus of control in the Middle East. Washington provides unique access to weapons and billions of dollars of subventions to Tel Aviv – and the EU and Britain give preferential trading agreements – because it is calculated as in its interests to do so. The pro-Israel lobby does not determine those interests or high policy. But it does exert a vice-like grip on policy discussion to sideline alternatives, and their bearers, which might loosen the relationship with Israel and its right wing for the purpose of securing a broader, more stable set of alliances in pursuit of Persian Gulf oil. Keeping its hand on that spigot remains vital to US strategic policy. Even as it tries to reduce its own dependence on foreign oil, it still wants to control the supply to others, such as China, whose economies cannot function without it. The Israeli tail does not wag the US dog. But an ageing dog can lose full command of its faculties.
The grand gamble under George W Bush and the authors of the Project for the New American Century a decade ago did not pay off. The war on Iraq resulted in weakening the US position in the Middle East, a deep and persisting decline of militarist public opinion in the US and Europe, and the strengthening of Iran in Iraq. The Afghanistan war is lost. Western prestige is falling and the political costs mounting alongside the rising Afghan and Nato death tolls and the destabilisation in Pakistan.
But it would be a foolhardy mistake to read off from that either the impotence of US-organised imperialism or the prospect of pacific development in the Middle East, where those striving for progress would have the space to skirt around the rocks of occupation, military aggression and foreign interference. Changing the Middle East without confronting state power, great and local, as it were.
First, the US remains immensely powerful – militarily more powerful than the next 19 states together, many of them its allies in any case. Its presence in the Persian Gulf is entrenching – in Bahrain and Qatar. Perversely, that is not Washington’s strategic intention, which is rather to concentrate military deployment encircling China. The doctrine is outlined in the Pentagon’s “Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for a 21st Century Defense”. It’s forced to maintain direct deployment in the Middle East because the second limb of policy to manage upheaval and relative decline is unreliable. It is more dependent on proxies and allies in the region. They have their own distinct interests. So Israel and Turkey, a member of Nato, are both close allies of the US. Turkey is no longer a simple client of the US. A decade of AKP rule by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodgan and his foreign secretary, Ahmet Davutoglu, has meant a policy of putting the interests of Turkish capital first. But it remains a close, though more independent ally, and is pitching for the role of US suzerain in the Levant. The problem is that Israel already sees itself as the regional power. Turkey has ambitions which clash with that. Both have conflicting interests over, for example, the future of Algerian-levels of natural gas reserves discovered under the sea between Lebanon, Israel and the divided island of Cyprus. The tensions persist even as Erdogan seeks a tight fit with the US and Nato. So the story of Washington’s response to armed conflict in Libya and more so Syria is not simply of reluctance to intervene directly in conditions of circumscribed power. It is also one of relying on allies who have their own aspirations – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Gulf Cooperation Council. This is not a recipe for ending direct Western intervention – as Libya and the moves to cohere a pro-Western political leadership in Syria demonstrate. It is certainly not a prelude to less war in the Middle East.
There is a parallel with the US response to its greatest ever imperial defeat: Vietnam. The victory of the Vietnamese people encouraged forces of liberation everywhere. It did not mean that a wounded US imperialism tiptoed from the stage, leaving others to play the principal. There followed a new doctrine of intense re-engagement though allies, state and others, overt and covert. The Contra war in Nicaragua; the strengthening of support for Israel after the US presence in Lebanon was forced to a close by the loss of 241 of its soldiers in 1983; the arming of Saddam Hussein against revolutionary Iran; the disastrous meddling in Afghanistan to back favoured sons of the mujahideen; the second Cold War, with the stationing of Cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe directed against the then main strategic competitor, the Soviet Union, upon whose collapse there followed the 1991 Gulf War and a resurgence of direct US interventions throughout the late-1990s. The cycle culminated in the full-blown occupation of Iraq in 2003.
For sure, there are major differences between the position of the US three decades ago and today (though the sanctimonious Western baiting of Russia and China at the UN over Syria is redolent of 1980s Cold War rhetoric, as is the stationing of a missile “defence shield” in Eastern Europe and Turkey). The most obvious difference is the re-emergence of revolutionary upheavals across the Middle East/North Africa region. In 1979, the US lost a pillar of support with the fall of the Shah of Iran. Three decades later, and despite billions of dollars of support, it lost Mubarak.
Response in the Arab region
Anger and shame in Egypt at the complicity of the Mubarak regime in the oppression of the Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, was at the centre of the movement that tore him down. It was the Al Aqsa Palestinian intifada a decade ago which led to a generation of young activists breaking the stranglehold of the Egyptian security state and taking to the streets for the first time in many years. Rage intensified at Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, during which Mubarak sealed the border with Gaza while – let us never forget – pledging along with every other Arab president and prince undying love for “our Palestinian brothers”. A fresh generation faced the ugly triptych of neo-liberal dislocation, national humiliation at their country’s prostration to imperialism and a police state viciously repressive in proportion to its declining legitimacy. That powered the great upsurge of protests and strikes that went on to topple Mubarak, in the wake of Tunisia’s Ben Ali. Underlying those movements are deep shifts in Arab societies, and in the configuration of imperial power. It is not only that these transformations are processes, rather than simply events (a journalistic commonplace now). They are likely to be drawn out over many years. Many Arab historians identify the start of a new epoch in the region. That’s why it is a mistake – understandable from those who continue to experience declining living standards and repression in the Middle East – to imagine that what Western journalists called the Arab Spring has ended, to be replaced not with a glorious summer but by a seemingly permanent winter of dispossession. Equally, to imagine that the movement would simply surge forward and rapidly transform everything, or to exaggerate what has changed, is to underestimate the resources of the other side, their tenacity and the critical political junctures the movement continues to face. Operation Pillar of Cloud poses one such juncture for those fighting for democracy in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere: is this to be done alongside those bombing Gaza, or against them? The answer from the popular masses in Syria and in every Arab state is already known and is resounding. But the same people know from their own bitter history that unfortunately popular sentiment and principle are not automatically reflected in the politics of those who rise to the top – in fact, they rarely have been.
Compared with 15 years ago, the position of Israel and of its Western backers is demonstrably weaker. Then Israel could look to two treaty-allies on its frontline – Jordan and Egypt – an ongoing, though faltering, occupation of southern Lebanon, and a Syria that was contained, almost a Cold War relic which had recently joined the US-led assault on Iraq, then the strongest Arab state.
A lot has changed, but much has not. Saudi Arabia (the oldest US Arab ally), Qatar and the regional capitalist hub represented by the Gulf Cooperation Council states have been pivotal in muting the response to Israel’s aggression on Gaza. Naturally, there have been words. It is easily forgotten, however, that strong words came from all of them, and from Egypt’s rulers at the time, in 1982 over the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, over the first intifada, the second intifada, the siege of President Arafat in Ramallah, Operation Cast Lead… No Arab leader can do anything other than rhetorically boast he is with the Palestinians “until Jerusalem”. The emir of Qatar promises reconstruction aid for Gaza, while hosting the US Centcom base, a keystone of US, and by extension, Israeli military might – which is… flattening Gaza. They cannot be judged on words. At all. Ever.
Their actions are to suppress, cajole or crush the militant heart of the movement which is best exemplified in Egypt. So they have systematically repressed the movement in Bahrain over the last 12 months, with the full support of the West. British prime minister David Cameron earlier this month toured Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. He was selling arms and grovelling his apologies to the House of Saud for a rare, critical British parliamentary report on the total absence of human rights in the kingdom. He cemented the recent military agreement with Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet. All this while Cameron and the kings posed as champions of democracy in Libya and Syria. The nauseating hypocrisy is summed up by Britain’s William Hague. Six days into the assault on Gaza, which as a great friend of Likud he backs above and beyond the call of his office, he proclaimed that the British government would now recognise the latest umbrella group of the Syrian opposition. It’s the one which the West – Britain and France above all – has with Gulf allies spent months ensuring is safely politically aligned. If they get their way, the fruit of the appalling fighting in Syria will be a government still more amenable to the West. We expect the Western media and politicians to fall silent about their double standards. The movement in solidarity with the Palestinian people and with the mass of Arabs cannot.
Wiping Palestine off the map of public concern as thoroughly as it was wiped off the geographical map in 1948 has been key to Western and Gulf efforts to redirect and redefine the “Arab Spring” over the last 12 months. That has gone hand in hand with the direct suppression of the movement in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and with the effort to usurp and bend political forces from Libya to Syria and Egypt. The strategy has had some success. Until now. Until the renewed Israeli aggression on Gaza, which provides a moment in which the central issues are again clarified.
The process is concentrated in Jordan. Last week tens of thousands of protesters broke a taboo and the law by calling for the fall of King Abdullah (the monarch, who rules by sole virtue of being his father’s son but who with no hint of irony said last year that Syria’s Bashar Al Assad lacked “democratic legitimacy”). The protests and strikes over fuel hikes in Jordan began on the eve of Operation Pillar of Cloud. Israel has an embassy in Jordan, where two thirds of the population are expelled Palestinians. The tripartite treaty and security arrangements between Israel, Jordan and (still) Egypt are central to Tel Aviv’s capacity to hold down the Palestinians. Fear of an Egyptian-style confluence of rising social discontent and heartfelt support for the Palestinians led Abdullah to cancel a visit to London in order to manage the crisis on Saturday as protests intensified. Part of his arsenal of response was, along with other Arab leaders, to call for a ceasefire and to issue a verbal fusillade against Netanyahu. He and they were licensed to do so. Words. Words – while the embassy of Israel and the mutual treaty stayed in place. Words while Jordan’s secret police host the CIA to train those approved by Israel to serve in the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, containing the incipient Palestinian spring in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Egypt and Turkey
The venue for the ceasefire negotiations was Cairo, where President Mohamed Morsi on the one hand recalled Egypt’s ambassador to Tel Aviv and on the other received warm praise from Washington and London for his “mediation efforts” between Israel and Hamas. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood is not only closely linked to Hamas, which has moved through Cairo to normalise relations with Doha, Riyadh and other Arab capitals. The Brotherhood also stakes much of its claim for legitimacy on pan-Islamic solidarity to recover Palestine. Of course, by the standards of political leaders in Britain, where I’m writing this from, the recall of an ambassador from Israel is a huge step forward. But Morsi came to office in Egypt thanks to the revolutionary overthrow of Mubarak. The yardstick is very different. What may be lionised in Britain is lamentable in Egypt. Throughout the Israeli assault on Gaza restrictions have remained in place at the Rafah crossing with Egypt. The argument from Morsi and from the Brotherhood since his election has been that caution is necessary – a balancing act – so as not to provoke the still powerful Egyptian military or Western powers, who warily see the Brotherhood as a force they are obliged to do business with, rather than one they would have freely chosen. Egypt has just secured a loan from the International Monetary Fund, with the customary attendant neo-liberal conditions. Now, no friend of the Egyptian people would relish war or a reckless military confrontation with Israel. But we are not talking about some preemptory abrogation of the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt at a moment when Egypt would be isolated and seen to be inviting reprisals. We are talking about the moment when Israel launches its biggest aggression against Palestine since Mubarak sat idly by (while telling us he was praying for Gaza) four years ago. If not now, when? Operation Pillar of Defence has produced significant protests in Egypt, including from Muslim Brotherhood members. A gathering of parties, among them the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, called for action, rather than words, from Morsi.
His election run-off against the candidate of the SCAF military council this year produced a division in the revolutionary movement in Egypt. First there was a liberal argument – echoed by sections of the historic left – that the Muslim Brotherhood, indeed Islamist forces generally, are simply reactionary, as much an enemy of the mass of the population as the military junta which hankered for continuity with the Mubarak years. At the extreme end were pro-Western liberals or social democrats who openly said they preferred the “secular”, military-backed Shafiq to the “Islamist” Morsi. A second, more difficult, argument was among those who rightly do not equate the Muslim Brotherhood with the military, but who differed over the tactics of whether to boycott the election or to vote for Morsi in order to stall the direct attempt by the military to roll back the revolution. I believe that the narrow victory of Morsi and the course of politics since is a vindication of arguing for the defeat of Shafiq in the election, which meant favouring the victory of Morsi, against the understandable feeling of overwhelmingly young, urban revolutionaries to boycott the election in the name of radical street action against all the old conservative faces.
Be that as it may. The point for all the radical wing for the Egyptian revolution was what were the best tactics to propel it forward. It was about how to go beyond the chronically cautious, vacillating Brotherhood leadership and how to defeat the move by Western powers to limit the changes to a parliamentary/presidential facade, behind which Egypt’s role in the region would remain little changed, as would the position of working people, peasants, the poor and the oppressed at home.
The assault on Gaza and the tepid response from the Egyptian government provide a moment when radical revolutionaries can aspire to do just that: to win broader layers to the radical goals of the revolution as workers and the poor continue to resist at home and the government’s vaunted Islamic solidarity stands diminished abroad. The divisions among the Brotherhood over Morsi’s performance mean that the genuine left can pose a militant way forward alongside those disappointed with Morsi – in common initiatives.
This is so not only in Egypt. Turkey, under Erdogan’s AKP Islamist government, has issued strong words against Israel, calling it “a terrorist state”. Erdogan and Davutoglu have been at the centre of steering the “Arab Spring” towards an outcome in their own image, a kind of Islamic version of European Christian Democracy.
No one can doubt the sincerity of the mass of Turkish people, religious and secular, in their support for the Palestinians. Those of us who were aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship attacked by Israel two years ago will forever attest to that. Erdogan also issued strong words against Israel in 2009, during Cast Lead. But since his “just one minute” speech at the Davos summit in Switzerland nearly four years have passed. In that time, and despite diplomatic spats, trade between Israel and Turkey has increased 60 percent to $4.4 billion. That provides a significant portion of Israel’s foreign earnings. It is exactly the vulnerability identified by the global, Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. But there are no Turkish economic sanctions on Israel. Erdogan is on the point of requesting extra missiles from his Nato partners. They are not to protect the Palestinians or even theatrically to wave at Israel. They are for pointing at Syria, as the border tension between the two countries escalates and Turkey wishes to play kingmaker in Damascus.
The US, Britain, Europe and the war at home
Suggestions and observations from those in the West to friends in the Middle East are cheap – in fact worthless – if they do not flow from and are subordinate to building a serious movement in the heart of the Empire. There is a long tradition of “progressives” in the West refusing to oppose or giving tacit support to their states’ war machines in the name of “liberating” people from only carefully selected “despots” in far off lands. It may indeed be inadequate for one Middle Eastern foreign minister after another ritualistically to visit Gaza under bombardment. But the US and British governments are not inadequate. They are self aware and irreplaceable backers of Israel. They are participants in this war. The EU foreign minister Catherine Ashton, with the war criminal Tony Blair as Middle East peace envoy, was despatched not to Gaza under bombs, but to the West Bank. There they sought to pressure Abu Mazen not to push recognition at the UN.
The Western public response to Israel’s attack on Gaza has been angry. In most countries support for Israel continues to fall. But those of us active in the West must be honest: we have a very long way to go. The ease with which the British media and political class supported this aggression on Gaza shows that. Too easily and too often have we allowed Palestine to be sidelined over the last 12 months. Too readily have some of us not singlemindedly honed in on the crimes of our own governments. Failing to do that allows greater space for them to sow confusion and division; falsely to pose as liberators; to redefine the public perception of the Arab Spring as a movement directed mainly at those at odds with the West, while our allies are supposedly quietly reforming. And our core allies in the region are spewing an ethnic-religious poison against “Persians”, “Alawites” and Shia minority Muslims in a sickening reheating of Sykes-Picot divide and rule. That poison has entered the veins of even some in Britain’s Muslim communities. While the venom weakens the body, the ideological barrage softens the mind. Few may buy the brazen trickery of Israel’s venerable war criminal Shimon Peres, who claimed last year that he welcomed the “Arab Spring” as it represented, he said, an overdue, pro-Western modernisation of the Middle East, directed against the “old politics” of “Hamas, Hezbollah” and Arab nationalism. But the more we allow Palestine to be glossed over, the easier it is for all those who wish to derail the movements to rid the Middle East of all foreign domination and of corrupt rulers, and who manipulate the better part of the feelings of Western citizens, mostly prey to the media corporations.
The return of revolutionary events to the Middle East did not mean that the struggle against imperialist interference ended. It meant that that struggle could be refounded on mass, revolutionary movements. There is every reason to stand with mainly young people in the Middle East facing over a century of dismemberment, disfigurement and disillusion with those who have promised to solve it. There can be no excuse in the imperialist states for mature movements not to confront systematically and in all fields our governments. The century-long foreign domination of the Middle East is weakening, thanks in no small measure to the continued resistance of the Palestinian people. Tensions and conflicts in the US-organised hierarchy of control are mounting. But there is still a hierarchy of control. It is that which defines the problems it faces, not the other way around.
Britain, post-Suez, has been wedded as a junior partner, an adjutant to the US. When Cameron’s government backs Israel in deed and not just word, helping to arm it, covering for it at the UN, when it props up the Gulf dictators and seeks to usurp the future of the Syrian and Arab people more generally, then these are not simply Middle Eastern questions, the subjects of theoretical debate or ideological elucidation. They are British political questions.
Three generations ago several leaders of what would become successful anti-colonial liberation movements spent time in London: it was the capital of the biggest empire. Gandhi, Kenyatta and others, discussed with Labour Party people, the Independent Labour Party, Communists, Fabians and more besides. They did not look to progressives in Britain primarily for an organised discussion about politics in the Indian subcontinent or East Africa. Principally, they sought out people here who would construct a movement that could help lift the Union Jack-boot off the necks of people in the two thirds of the globe then run from London.
Britain’s despicable support for the latest war on Gaza shows why a movement and political principles opposed to contemporary imperialism remain vital. Keeping Palestine as “the issue” is central to that movement. It embraces the welcome reality that globally for tens of millions of people, especially young people thirsting for change, Palestine has become the symbol of the world struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter – as Malcolm X used to put it. Palestine is also a loadstone. Real progress in the Middle East, in deeds not empty words, brings the liberation of Palestine closer, not more distant.
The change from Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 or the war on Lebanon two years earlier is not only in the Middle East. It is in Europe and north America. Here, now, we are in the throes of a long economic crisis. Austerity grips the US, Britain and Europe in a way that was only dimly discernible on the horizon when Israel killed 1,417 Palestinians four years ago. The stakes for the old imperial powers are very high. So too for their people.
In addition to the considerable minority who were already moved to side with the Palestinians, there are many others in Britain who ask or who can be encouraged to ask – why should we stand with Cameron behind Israel’s shooting war on the Palestinians, when it is Cameron and his Etonian millionaires who are at economic and social war with us? As austerity bites deeper and domestic support for the government withers, then foreign imperial adventures are all the more risky. Ensuring that the risk is realised requires an unswerving focus on the duplicity and crimes of our rulers, intensifying every argument against them through whatever actions we can muster with broad support. With a British government in occupation of Afghanistan, a belligerent in Gaza and at war against us at home this is not a distraction. It is the most meaningful thing we can do in solidarity with those resisting in Palestine and across the Middle East.
Greece is the European country hardest hit thus far by the economic war of the rich against the rest. There have been many demonstrations, strikes and electoral battles by the left over the last four years. On the annual commemoration of the Polytechnic Uprising against the military junta in 1973, a massive demonstration unsurprisingly took to the streets of Athens on Saturday, 17 November. There were many excellent candidates for where the march should go to, given the manifold domestic and international tormentors of the Greek people today. The demonstration, three days into the assault on Gaza, chose to go the Israeli embassy in Athens. To its credit, on that evening at least, the Communist Party contingent argued with the police that its permit for that route should also include everyone else who wished to protest against the outpost of the Zionist entity in solidarity with the Palestinians. The anti-capitalist left and the bulk of the demonstration did wish to; they marched there together.
It was more than a gesture of solidarity, splendid alone as that would have been. The governments of austerity Greece, a member of Nato, have drawn increasingly close to Israel over the last two years. In striking at that pact and for the people in Gaza, the Polytechnic demonstration revealed a political intent for a radical break with all the filth of Western capitalism and imperialism.
Internationalism is not simply support for those elsewhere; it is the beating heart of a truly radical politics at home. And the meaning of this latest Israeli war? More war and imperialist meddling are to come. Alongside them, further upsurges and resistance. And for those of us who resist – Palestine is still the issue.
20 November 2012
As Syria descends deeper into civil war and human misery, pressure for yet another western military intervention in the Arab world is growing. Last week, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, declared that the US might take the “military option” in Syria if it was “asked to do so”. Barack Obama’s Republican rival Mitt Romney is meanwhile demanding that the US government arm the Syrian opposition.
Today, Russian and Chinese leaders reaffirmed their opposition to forced regime change and support for UN envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan. But Susan Rice, US ambassador to the UN, has made clear western powers might act alone and take action “outside the authority” of the UN. Even the new French president François Hollande has said military intervention in his country’s former colonial territory was “not to be ruled out”.
The latest calls for action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime follow the slaughter of 108 people, including 49 children, in Houla less than a fortnight ago. Opposition activists have blamed pro-regime “shabiha” sectarian militias for the massacre; the government al-Qaida terrorists. But there’s no doubt that atrocities such as Houla – let alone killings on a larger scale – have the potential to turn intervention grandstanding into the real thing.
That’s what happened in Kosovo 13 years ago, when contested killings in Racak led to Nato’s bombing campaign outside the authority of the UN. The US administration continues to resist demands for open intervention in Syria. But Hillary Clinton says the case for intervention is getting stronger “every day”, while the opposition Free Syria Army has now declared itself “free of any commitment” to the UN peace plan.
The reality is that intervention in Syria by the US and its allies has already begun. The western powers have backed the fractious opposition Syrian National Council since the early days of last year’s uprising. So have the Gulf autocracies led by Saudi Arabia, who have stepped up the flow of weapons and cash to favoured Syrian rebel groups in recent months, while Turkey has provided a cross-border base. That is co-ordinated with the US, which supplies the same groups with “non-lethal assistance” and “communications equipment”.
In other words, the US and its allies are sponsoring regime change through civil war. And while paying lip service to the Annan plan for demilitarisation and negotiation, they are making sure it won’t succeed. The results can be seen on the ground. Overall, lethal violence is estimated by human rights groups to have dropped by 36% since the plan was supposed to come into effect, but government casualties have increased sharply over the same period (953 reported killed since mid-March). Rebel fighters claimed to have killed 80 government troops last weekend alone.
Syria is reported by the western and Gulf-controlled Arab media through the prism of a popular uprising against an authoritarian regime. But that is only one vital dimension of the conflict. And as brutal repression by a government which retains significant support has been met with a growing armed campaign, grassroots opposition has been displaced by foreign-backed groups whose strategy to win power is based on engineering outside intervention.
It has also increasingly morphed into a sectarian conflict, as the Alawite-dominated regime has used minorities’ fears of a Sunni-dominated opposition to bolster support. The latest phase of Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East owes its virulence to the occupation of Iraq, where the US ruthlessly played the sectarian card to prevent the emergence of a genuinely national resistance. It has also been a knife at the heart of the Arab revolution and the linchpin of the Saudi-led strategy to prevent uprisings engulfing the conservative Gulf regimes.
Anti-Shia incitement has been central to Saudi propaganda against reform in the kingdom itself, the crushing of democratic protest in Bahrain and the drive to focus opposition across the region against Damascus (Alawites being a quasi-Shia sect), rather than Amman or Riyadh. It’s also what has attracted al-Qaida and other Sunni volunteers to join the fight against the Assad regime, as tit-for-tat confessional killings multiply. For Syria and neighbouring Lebanon, with their precarious ethnic and religious makeups, that is a disaster.
But it is the third dimension of the crisis – Syria’s role as Iran’s principal ally – that gives it the potential to set the region on fire and draw the outside world into a devastating conflict. The internal struggle in Syria, whose territory has been occupied by Israel for the last 45 years, has already become part of a western and Saudi proxy war against Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. As James Rubin, US assistant secretary of state under Bill Clinton, claimed this week, US intervention in Syria would be a “risk worth taking” because Iran “would no longer have a Mediterranean foothold from which to threaten Israel and destabilise the region”.
In fact, Iran’s alliance with Syria is one more reason why increasing western and Gulf dictators’ intervention in Syria would escalate the conflict, not end it. Last year’s Nato intervention in Libya increased the death toll by a factor of 10 to 15 and left a country of lawless warlords, torture and ethnic cleansing. Intervention in Syria, whether by fully arming the opposition or using air power to create “humanitarian corridors”, would have a far more devastating impact.
That’s partly because the Syrian regime has significant air defences and large-scale armed forces and the conflict is being fought out in heavily populated areas. But it’s also because of the sectarian schisms and the risk of spreading the conflict further into countries such as Iraq and Lebanon. Why the states that brought blood and destruction to Iraq and Afghanistan should be thought suitable vehicles of humanitarian deliverance to Syria is a mystery. But full-scale foreign intervention would certainly lead to a far greater civilian death toll and many more Houlas.
Right now, lower-level intervention is bleeding Syria in a war of attrition. Short of an internal coup, the only way out of a deepening sectarian and regional conflict is an internationally guaranteed negotiated settlement that allows Syrians the chance to determine their own future. That means the US and its allies giving the Annan plan a chance, as much as Iranian and Russian pressure on Damascus. The consequences of the alternative – full-scale military intervention – would be incalculable.
The massacre which took place in the Syrian village of Taldou, near the town of Houla in the country’s Homs province on Friday May 25, leaves no room for equivocation when it comes to condemnation. Of the 108 civilians slaughtered 34 were women and 49 were children. The majority were executed at close quarters, many with their throats cut according to UN observers.
This level of savagery reflects a society teetering on the edge of all out sectarian civil war, which up to now has been the justified concern of informed opinion and commentary with regards to the country. The sectarian fault lines running through Syrian society are very real, and with the examples of the carnage in Iraq and most recently in Libya burned into the consciousness of every Syrian who fears regime change, not forgetting the West’s role in co-opting what began as a genuine movement for social and political emancipation in Tunisia and then Egypt, the stakes could not be higher.
Regardless, if the current regime in Damascus was responsible, as has been claimed by eyewitnesses, opposition voices and western governments, it is impossible to see how it can continue to claim legitimacy. Indeed, a government whose military is shelling villages indiscriminately, preparatory to so-called pro-regime militiamen entering those villages to kill women and children with such naked brutality, has either lost control of its armed forces or is guilty of mass murder. Either indicates a regime that is no longer able or fit to govern.
However, it is important to state at this point that Damascus denies responsibility for the massacre and is blaming it on ‘terrorists’, this despite that fact that according to survivors the perpetrators were the loyalist ‘shahiba’ militiamen already mentioned, whom they claim came from nearby Alawite villages. Those same Alawite villages have taken the step of donating blood to the survivors of the massacre, though opposition voices claim this is motivated by fear of retribution and not out of solidarity with the victims.
Echoes of the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982 could not be louder when the method and nature of this appalling atrocity are considered. Then the Israeli army ensured the passage of Christian Phalange butchers into both Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and stood by as they proceeded to massacre every living thing in sight. It was an act of wanton butchery which thirty years later is still capable of inducing feelings of anger and horror in all but the darkest of human hearts.
Events in Houla stand on a par with Sabra and Shatila, both because of the savagery involved and because it promises to be a seminal moment in an ongoing conflict that has plunged large parts of the country into chaos.
Yet again Washington and London have outdone themselves with the rhetoric of regime change in recent days. But the credibility carried in either capital when it comes to the region has long been absent for obvious reasons. One million dead Iraqis won’t disappear from the page of history quite so easily, nor the millions of refugees in a nation that was bombed back to the Stone Age. And this is before taking Libya into account.
Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, flew to Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, hoping to finally crack Russia’s opposition to the prospect of western military intervention. After the meeting, Lavrov said
“Both sides have obviously had a hand in the deaths of innocent people, including several dozen women and children. This area is controlled by the rebels, but it is also surrounded by government troops.”
Lavrov, however, also made clear that in Russia’s view the Syrian government bears most of of the responsibility for failing to provide security for its citizens.
“we [Russia] don’t support the Syrian government, we support Kofi Annan’s plan.”
This in itself is significant, as it marks a departure for Moscow when it comes to directly supporting and offering diplomatic protection to the Assad regime. Meanwhile the ‘Kofi Annan plan’ referred to by Russia’s foreign minister is the six-point peace plan authored by former UN Secretary General in February but which thus far has failed to produce a lasting ceasefire between regime and opposition forces. Annan himself arrived in Syria on Monday to meet with Assad, when he is expected to push the Syrian president to put a stop to the violence by the forces under his control.
Upon his arrival in Damascus, Annan told reporters
“I urge the (Syrian) government to take bold steps to signal that it is serious in its intention to resolve this crisis peacefully, and for everyone involved to help create the right context for a credible political process.”
One of the key stumbling blocks with regard to the Annan initiative hitherto has been either the inability or refusal by western governments to exercise influence over the Syrian opposition when its fighters on the ground to abide by a ceasefire, while the fact that arms shipments have continued to reach the Syrian rebels from Turkey and Saudi Arabia throughout will not have been lost on Damascus.
Speaking before the massacre, Jihad Makdissi, spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Affairs Ministry, said:
“Since we signed the ceasefire on 12 April, we have documented 3,500 violations of it by the opposition.”
Renewed efforts must be made to implement the Annan peace plan in the immediate to short term. Western military intervention would be a disaster for reasons already stated, while the continuation of the conflict promises more of the same when it comes to the massacre of innocent civilians. As for a long term solution to the conflict, this will become apparent as time passes. The priority now is holding to account those responsible for the slaughter of 108 innocent civilians in Houla and ensuring that the violence ends sooner rather than later.