Syria: how Russia and China got Obama off the hook
The obituaries for Assad's regime are premature – after Libya, no one has the stomach to intervene
FEW spectacles have been more surreal than senior US officials – starting with the President, the Secretary of State and the US ambassador to the UN - solemnly lecturing Assad and his beleaguered Syrian government on the need to accommodate rebel forces whose sponsors are intent on slaughtering the ruling Alawite minority or driving them into the sea.
At one grimly hilarious moment last Friday, these worthy sermons were buttressed by a message from Ayman al-Zwahiri, the head of al-Qaeda, therefore presumably the number one target on President Obama's hit list, similarly praising the 'Lions of Syria' for rising up against the Assad regime. Al-Qaeda and the White House in sync!
The last time the United States faced serious internal dissent was in the 1960s and early 1970s, from war resisters and black and Native American movements. The government responded instantly with a methodical programme of violent repression, including a well-documented agenda of assassination.
In 1993, the first year of the Clinton administration, federal agents launched an armed assault on a religious group in a compound outside Waco, Texas. Attorney General Janet Reno concluded that negotiation with the besieged Christian fundamentalists was useless and ordered an assault. Seventy-six Branch Davidians were burned alive. Autopsies showed that five children were among those shot by federal agents. The outcome was widely endorsed by the national press.
No one could doubt that determined separatist activity or armed challenges to the government of the United States would be met with immediate, overwhelming and lethal ferocity. For further historical illustration I recommend an interview with any moderately informed American Indian or black.
For a while it looked as though Obama's government was being swept into yet another intervention, ranging itself shoulder-to-shoulder with the Sunni coalition, headed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, stoking the fires in Syria. That momentum was certainly checked by the Russian and Chinese veto of the US-backed resolution presented to the UN Security Council.
Maybe it's fanciful, but perhaps enthusiasm for underwriting the destruction of the Syrian state was somewhat undermined by Anthony Shadid's report from Libya in the New York Times of 9 February. Shadid, a good reporter, described a dismembered country, rent by banditry:
"The militias are proving to be the scourge of the revolution's aftermath. Though they have dismantled most of their checkpoints in the capital, they remain a force, here and elsewhere. A Human Rights Watch researcher estimated there are 250 separate militias in the coastal city of Misurata, the scene of perhaps the fiercest battle of the revolution. In recent months those militias have become the most loathed in the country."
One martial enterprise of some of these Misurata militias is to attack a refugee camp of 1,500 people they had previously driven from their homes in Tawergha on the grounds they had supported Col Gaddafi. Other militias from Benghazi and Zintan are trying to protect these refugees.
Shadid met an elder, Jumaa Ageela, who told him: "Nobody holds back the Misuratans." The same was true for the militias in Tripoli, Shadid heard from Bashir Brebesh. "On 19 January, his 62-year-old father, Omar, a former Libyan diplomat in Paris, was called in for questioning by militiamen from Zintan. The next day, the family found his body at a hospital in Zintan. His nose was broken, as were his ribs. The nails had been pulled from his toes, they said. His skull was fractured, and his body bore signs of burns from cigarettes.
"The government has acknowledged the torture and detentions, but it admits that the police and Justice Ministry are not up to the task of stopping them. On Tuesday, it sent out a text message on cellphones, pleading for the militias to stop. 'People are turning up dead in detention at an alarming rate,' said Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, who was compiling evidence in Libya last month. 'If this was happening under any Arab dictatorship, there would be an outcry'."
Civil war in Syria would be of a brutality and level of bloodshed far beyond what is transpiring in Libya – as veterans of Lebanon's civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990, or of the sectarian bloodletting in Iraq in 2006-07, can attest.
There is no doubt that Assad's police state is corrupt and brutal. There is every reason to press Assad towards reform. But it has become plain that negotiated reform is not on the agenda of the rebels. To the contrary, the bombs that killed 28 and wounded 235 in Aleppo, no doubt set by Sunni suicide bombers, probably operating through al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, were intended to elicit government repression, not to encourage negotiation.
The performance of the western press has been almost uniformly disgraceful. In the wake of the Aleppo atrocities, network journalists here hinted that yes, perhaps the Syrian security forces had blown themselves up to discredit the rebels .
Aisling Byrne of Conflicts Forum recently described in considerable detail the propaganda machine that has provided a non-stop flow of mendacious bulletins eagerly seized upon by the western press.
As Byrne reported, "Of the three main sources for all data on numbers of protesters killed and numbers of people attending demonstrations - the pillars of the narrative - all are part of the ‘regime change' alliance. The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, in particular, is reportedly funded through a Dubai-based fund with pooled (and therefore deniable) Western-Gulf money (Saudi Arabia alone has, according to Elliot Abrams allocated US$130 billion to ‘palliate the masses' of the Arab Spring). What appears to be a nondescript British-based organisation, the Observatory has been pivotal in sustaining the narrative of the mass killing of thousands of peaceful protesters using inflated figures, ‘facts', and often exaggerated claims of ‘massacres' and even recently ‘genocide'."
But will the US really mount a covert supply effort to the Syrian rebels? The US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, may use the undiplomatic word "disgusting" to describe the Russian and Chinese vetoes, but perhaps these vetoes came as something of a relief, getting the US off the hook, in terms of action rather than rhetoric. An article in The Washington Post of 11 February was headlined: "As carnage builds, US sees ‘no good options' on Syria". In the story, the reporter wrote that the US government has "no appetite for a military intervention".
Does Israel really crave Assad's fall, a prolonged period of anarchy and the probable emergence of a Sunni regime eager to confront Israel? All in all, Syria under the Assad dynasty has been a relatively good neighbour. Turkey has its own Kurdish problems which Syria could exacerbate if it wanted to. The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia was careful to tell the New York Times that "international intervention had to be ruled out".
Assad has been written off many times in recent months. Israel's Ehud Barak said a while ago he would be gone in weeks. In December the US State Department described Assad as "a dead man walking". But Syria is not Libya. Assad commands an army that has remained loyal. Large numbers of Syrians gaze into the abyss and decide that, all things considered, they don't want to follow the fate of Iraq or of Libya. The obits for Assad's regime have been premature. He could be with us for a while yet and it seems that behind the thunderous rhetoric the US government may be accommodating to that fact.