Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Between A Rock and A Hard Place - The Syrian Mirage

Men are huddled, naked and bleeding, by a wall as a crowd swarms around them, ready for the kill. A few moments later, gunfire blazes and they lie dead, butchered by a mob of supposedly democratic rebels.

This then is the face of "free Syria" - revealed today in a sickening video just as it is announced that the rebels have now received heavy armaments and surface-to-air missiles from anonymous donors via Turkey. And who are these patrons of the allegedly peace and freedom loving insurgents battling the Assad regime in Aleppo and Damascus?

None other, it seems, than our old friends, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. That's right, the same regimes that have sponsored the bloody crackdown on democracy protesters in Bahrain, and just last week in one of Saudi's eastern provinces. The enlightened despots, promoting a deeply fundamentalist strain of Wahabist Islamism, are funding the increasingly violent assault against the secular regime of Baathist Syria, just as previously they sponsored and, in Qatar's case, sent troops to support the battle against Gaddaffi's Libya and interfered in Iraq. They are even paying a wage to rebel fighters - all to advance their particular form of faith, probably the most repressive in the Muslim world and one disavowed by hundreds of millions of Muslims.

Just as the fall of the secular Libyan regime saw the al-Qaeda flag hauled above a courthouse in Benghazi, so violent jihadists are flocking to Syria, set on turning the country into the latest arena in their long war: and, it seems, with at least the passive support of the West. The Assad regime, which has long campaigned against fundamentalism, among other measures banning the niqab and hijab in universities, is particularly disliked by Islamists - just as was Gaddaffi.

Why? What possible motive could there be for the USA and its European allies to connive, albeit covertly,  with the very people they have spent so much time and squandered so many lives, military and civilian, in the mountains of Afghanistan?

Syria under Bashar al-Assad and his late father has of course been no picnic - the regime has been brutal and repressive itself (and indeed almost certainly was behind the Lockerbie bombing rather than the Libyans). Yet in terms of personal freedom, especially for women and minority faiths (its has one of the largest Christian populations in the Middle East) it is light years apart from the monolithic dictatorship of the Kingdom of Ibn Saud. Its military opponents, while masquerading as democrats, have ranks filled with mainly people from a fairly narrow segment of the Sunni section of the Syrian community; this is why Shia Muslims, Alawites and Christians - as well as many Sunnis- have stayed loyal to the Assad regime, deeply anxious about precisely what form their "liberation" might take.

Yet America and the UK especially keep parroting the line that Assad must go, weeks ago destroying the Kofi Annan peace plan that might have fumbled its way towards some sort of peaceful, negotiated settlement. Repeatedly, they have taken at face value the often spurious claims - on a number of occasions shown to be downright lies - made by the Free Syrian Army, and they have ignored the calls by a wide range of other opposition groups inside and outside the country for a negotiated path to be followed. Instead, just as Iraq unravelled into bloody sectarian conflict, the West and its fundamentalist allies in the Gulf seem intent on providing the rebels with the means of turning a low level conflict into a bitter and bloody conflagration out of which who knows what horrors may emerge.

But peace and democracy is not what any of this is about. Rather, it is about neutralising an opponent of Israel and an ally of Iran in the wider geopolitical game played by the White House. As it skirts round and round Iran in ever decreasing circles, readying to strike, what is more obvious than ever is America's willingness to let millions suffer war simply to punish those regimes which, unlike Saudi and Qatar, dare to refuse to comply with US foreign policy.

As for their domestic policies, Washington is as unconcerned about the rights of Arabs under the Ibn Sauds as it was unfazed by the repression of regimes like Somoza's Nicaragua and Pinochet's Chile. It has never yet criticised Saudi Arabia for its oppressive regime, which reaches into the most private aspects of the Kingdom's subjects' lives, and it stood aside while Saudi troops assisted Bahrain in crushing democracy protests almost at the gates of the biggest US military overseas base in the world.

Just today, Iran was joined to al-Qaeda and the Taliban by a US judge who ruled it should pay compensation for the 9/11 atrocity - completely ignoring the fact that Bin Laden and his Taliban allies have always been sworn enemies of Tehran and Iran lent the US vital support both in capturing scores of al-Qaeda suspects and persuading the Northern Alliance to ally with the USA in the Afghan invasion. But of course, a similar, equally spurious claim was made against Saddam just before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

So we know what to expect next and, as former US Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, unapologetically told the BBC about US policy in the Arab world not so long ago, "It's not about democracy. It never has been."

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