What exactly is going on in Syria, and what should we make of it?
I’ve been puzzling over this, and what is becoming clear is that the answers make for disturbing reading. In my first article on the subject, I started by looking at the situation from the perspective of the position of the Christian minority in Syria. Rather than looking at the pronouncements of governments, I looked at what (MERF) Middle East Reformed Fellowship was saying about the situation for Christians in Syria. Of course, the situation on the ground for Christians in Syria is, in many ways, very similar for those of their neighbours of other religions – particularly where those neighbours are members of other minority religious groups.
MERF’s reports didn’t just look at the situation on the ground. They also looked at aspects of the political and security situation – giving us a feel for the way the Syrian Christian community see the political situation – which is quite different from the way the situation is seen through the eyes of the western media.
In this article, I want to turn more to the politics of the situation. And I’ll start by recapping what MERF has been saying about the political situation.
1) Syria has been ruled by the Ba’ath Party, which came to power in a coup in 1963. Since then, Syria has been a one-party dictatorship. The Ba’athists are committed to a secular pluralist system, which has meant that by Arab standards, freedom of religion has been excellent.
2) While many of the people of Syria appreciate the religious and personal freedoms that a secular pluralist government allows, there are substantial numbers of Sunni Muslims who would like an Islamist government, and in the late 1970s, there was an Islamist uprising against the Ba’athists.
3) In 2011, there were anti-government demonstrations in favour of more political freedom, which were part of the “Arab Spring”. Things turned increasingly violent, and the movement for change was taken over by Islamists, directly supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, all of which have Islamist or pro-Islamist governments, and which are American allies (Turkey being a member of NATO). In addition to direct support from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the anti-government Islamists received “encouragement” from America and some other Western governments.
4) The situation deteriorated into civil war, with large numbers of volunteers from outside Syria joining the Islamist rebels. Christians (and others) were often kidnapped and murdered by Islamists – and hence tended to flee from rebel-held areas to government-held areas, where they were much safer. Where government forces regained control, security was restored and Christians (and others) returned home.
The politics of the Syrian civil war
According to Wikipedia, Syria’s civil war broke out in March 2011, and it is estimated that between 300,000 and half a million people have been killed. That is straight-forward. Much less straight-forward are the groups who are actually fighting. Wikipedia’s colour-coded war map shows Syria divided between 5 different groups: the Syrian government, the Syrian opposition, the Federation of North Syria, Islamic State, and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, better known as the al-Nusra front.
The reality is, in one sense, even more complicated, since the “Syrian opposition” consists of many different militia groups.
The actual reality is, however, somewhat simpler.
Firstly, the Federation of North Syria is basically the Kurds, who, for a long time, have wanted to break with Syria and have an independent Kurdistan. Broadly speaking, all the other parties oppose this desire for independence.
Secondly, the Syrian government are the Syrian army, though they do have the support of some smaller militias.
Thirdly, the Islamic State is a hard-line Islamist group, originally Iraqi. At first, they were close allies of al-Nusra, but they broke with al-Nusra in early 2014. Their strength is in the eastern desert of Syria in the region bordering Iraq.
And fourth, there is everyone else. To split them into al-Nusra and “the Syrian opposition” as the Wikipedia map does is misleading (which is slightly surprising, since Wikipedia’s coverage of the Syrian Civil War is generally regarded as fair and accurate).
Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies described the rebel militias like this:
“Some, like the Al Nusra Front—one of the most successful in military terms—are linked to Al Qaeda. Others are less radical Islamist factions, but are scarcely secular or moderate, [and] have no ties to the hollow outside efforts to create moderate governments in exile, and are being backed by Arab states like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The small groups being given limited support with U.S. weapons and Special Forces assistance are at best petty and uncertain players.”
The fact is that these militias are closely linked, most of them are Islamist, and in terms of military / political power, they are completely dominated by al-Nusra. And al-Nusra is a Jihadist organisation, that until a few months ago, was the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.
In short, there are the Kurds fighting for independence in the North of the country, and three other groups fighting for the whole of the country – the government, Islamic State, and a coalition of other groups who are almost entirely Islamist, and who are closely linked with al-Qaeda.
(Note, by the way, that this basically fits with what MERF reports. Hence the MERF report from June 2015 says “For four years, militant Islamic groups, heavily sponsored by pro-Western Sunni rulers and wealthy Sheikhs of the Arabian Peninsula and Turkey, have tried to topple the secular Syrian government and establish a Sunni Islamic state. The Syrian government is supported by secularists, moderate Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and minorities opposed to living under a radical Islamic regime.”)
If you ignore the Kurds, the civil war is basically between the Syrian government and militant Islamic groups.
This is where it gets murky.
The Syrian government’s outside help (see Wikipedia) comes from Iran and Hezbollah, and from Russia. Help from Iran and Hezbollah is easy to understand: they are Shi’ite, and the Syrian opposition is militantly Sunni. The Shi’ites, like the Christians, are very much a minority group and hence fear rule by militant Sunnis and prefer the secular pluralism of the current government. Russia’s main motive for supporting the Syrian government is probably the fact that Russia and Syria are longtime allies.
What about outside support for the opposition? Very strangely, Wikipedia’s table splits the main opposition into two groups: the al-Nusra front dominated “Army of Conquest”, which it says is supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and the “Syrian opposition” which it says is supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, France and America.
What is one to make of this? There two basic questions:
1) Who are Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey helping?
2) Who is America helping?
Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey
A WikiLeaks release of a State Department cable sent under Hillary Clinton’s name in December 2009 states that “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan].”
A recently leaked email from the Hillary Clinton archive provides some even more interesting information. This email appears to be a US State Department memo, dated 17 August 2014, says “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIS and other radical groups in the region.”
This was written at a time when ISIS were sweeping through Northern Iraq and Eastern Syria killing Yazidi villagers and slaughtering captured Iraqi and Syrian soldiers, and when the US government was not admitting that Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies were supporting ISIS and al-Qaeda-type movements.
So Saudi Arabia and Qatar have, for years, not only been supporting al-Qaeda, but also ISIS in Syria.
What about Turkey? Last year, former CIA Officer Philip Giraldi, a well-respected source, wrote:
“From the start, Turkey, which nominally opposes radical rebel groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, has been curiously absent from the fray, instead arguing that the major effort should be focused on defeating al-Assad. Indeed, when I was in Istanbul last July bearded rebels were observed in the more fundamentalist neighborhoods collecting money for ISIS without any interference from the numerous and highly visible Turkish police and intelligence services. Turkey has also been surreptitiously buying as much as $3 million worth of smuggled oil from ISIS every day, virtually funding the group’s activities. Ankara has allowed ISIS militants to freely cross over the Syrian border into Turkey for what might be described as R&R (rest and recreation) as well as medical care and training. Weapons have been flowing in the opposite direction, cash and carry, some provided by the Turkish intelligence service MIT. “
The American government has, from the beginning, made it clear that it wanted to see the Syrian government fall. It was involved in stirring up discord in Syria before the civil war began. According to the Seymour Hersh:
“State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks show that the Bush administration tried to destabilise Syria and that these efforts continued into the Obama years. In December 2006, William Roebuck, then in charge of the US embassy in Damascus, filed an analysis of the ‘vulnerabilities’ of the Assad government and listed methods ‘that will improve the likelihood’ of opportunities for destabilisation. He recommended that Washington work with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to increase sectarian tension and focus on publicising ‘Syrian efforts against extremist groups’ – dissident Kurds and radical Sunni factions – ‘in a way that suggests weakness, signs of instability, and uncontrolled blowback’; and that the ‘isolation of Syria’ should be encouraged through US support of the National Salvation Front, led by Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian vice president whose government-in-exile in Riyadh was sponsored by the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood. Another 2006 cable showed that the embassy had spent $5 million financing dissidents who ran as independent candidates for the People’s Assembly; “
Who is America helping?
Right from the beginning of the conflict, the American government was involved in supporting and supplying rebel militias. Writing in 2011, in the early days of the Syrian Civil war, Philip Giraldi said
“Unmarked NATO war planes are arriving at Turkish military bases close to Iskenderum on the Syrian border, delivering weapons from the late Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenals as well as volunteers from the Libyan Transitional National Council who are experienced in pitting local volunteers against trained soldiers, a skill they acquired confronting Gaddafi’s army. Iskenderum is also the seat of the Free Syrian Army, the armed wing of the Syrian National Council. French and British special forces trainers are on the ground, assisting the Syrian rebels while the CIA and U.S. Spec Ops are providing communications equipment and intelligence to assist the rebel cause, enabling the fighters to avoid concentrations of Syrian soldiers.”
And the American government has remained on the side of the Syrian rebels against the government, despite the fact that the Syrian rebels are dominated by Jihadist Islamists who are closely associated with al-Qaeda and have a track record of brutality against Christians and other religious minorities in Syria.
Furthermore, the American government is well aware of the Syrian opposition is dominated by Jihadist Islamists. As long ago as August 2012 the Defence Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s intelligence arm, said that the “Salafists [Islamic fundamentalists], the Muslim Brotherhood and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq, later Isis] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”
And we’ve seen that the American government continued to work together closely with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, despite knowing that they were actively supporting Islamist militants in Syria (including ISIS).
And the American government has been actively involved in supporting this opposition – despite knowing what it is really like.
In August 2012, an intelligence official with the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) stationed in Iraq wrote a report saying that out of the Syrian war could emerge “a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime….” Which supporting powers? The memo said, “the West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition.” That seems to be saying that the American government wanted an Islamic group to take over Eastern Syria – which, of course, is what happened when ISIS seized most of Eastern Syria in 2014.
The American government has been involved in funding and supplying rebel groups. While, in theory, they are not funding and supplying Islamist militias, the reality is that in practice, they are. Brad Hoff, writing in the Foreign Policy Journal, supplies some examples.
1) The American Ambassador to Syria was filmed alongside a Free Syrian Army commander who, not long afterwards, personally led ISIS and Nusra fighters in the rebel’s seizure of the Syrian government’s Menagh Airbase (August 2013). The future high commander of Islamic State’s military operations, Omar al-Shishani, himself played a leading role in the US-sponsored Free Syrian Army operation.
2) US advisors assisted the Al-Qaeda linked “Army of Conquest” in its 2015 takeover of Idlib from an “operations room” in Turkey.
3) Independent weapons research organisations like the UK-based Conflict Armament Research have documented Balkan origin anti-tank rockets recovered from ISIS fighters that are identical to those shipped in 2013 to Syrian rebel forces—weapons which were likely part of a joint CIA/Saudi covert program.
In the words of Former MI6 spy and British diplomat Alastair Crooke, “The West does not actually hand the weapons to al-Qaida — let alone to ISIS…, but the system they’ve constructed leads precisely to that end.”
1) the American government has made no secret of the fact that it wants to see the Syrian government replaced.
2) The American government was actively seeking to destabilise the Syrian government since before the civil war began.
3) Those fighting against the Syrian government are Islamic militants. The existence of a “moderate” armed opposition of any strength inside Syria is simply fiction, and this is well known by the American government.
4) The American government has worked closely with allies (Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar) who are supplying those Islamic militants.
5) The American government has been involved in supplying rebel groups who are fighting alongside (and, therefore, on behalf of) the Islamic militants, or to put it another way, the American government is, indirectly, supporting and supplying Jihadist Islamists.
Russia, Syria and the media
Despite the fact that it is well known that the rebels are militant Islamists, most western media reporting of the fighting plays it down. Patrick Cockburn, writing in the Independent, again:
But as news spread this week that the Russians had started bombing in Syria, the FSA and the “moderates” were disinterred in order to suggest that it was they and not Isis who were the targets of Russian air strikes. [The Guardian] claimed that Russian bombs “mainly appeared to hit less extreme groups fighting Basher al-Assad’s regime”. David Cameron worried that if Russian action was “against the Free Syrian Army in support of Assad the dictator, then obviously that is a retrograde step”.
Television presenters spoke of anti-Assad forces being bombed in northern Syria, but seldom added that the most important of these were Jabhat al-Nusra and Bahrain ash-Sham. More than 30 air strikes were against Jays ill-fated, the Army of Conquest, which has seized much of Idlib province but is led by al-Nusra.
That is certainly the case in Aleppo at the moment: US Army Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, recently said: “it’s primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo.” And yet in all the reporting of the recent battle in Aleppo, there has been almost no acknowledgement of the fact that the Syrian armed forces, assisted by Russia, are basically fighting to take back part of the city that has been occupied by militant Islamists.
Which brings us to the question: Are we being systematically misled in a way which is fundamentally dishonest? Vanessa Beeley, an investigative journalist who spent some time in Aleppo recently, says that we are. Her interview a month ago, which has accumulated 200,000 views on Youtube, is well worth watching.
She doesn’t pull her punches. What she says is shocking. It is very different from what people in the west are hearing from the western governments, and from the mainstream media. But it fits with what MERF have been saying, and what the American intelligence services have been saying, and what respected reporters have been saying.
What comes out of it is that the Syrian Army, assisted by Russia, are basically fighting to liberate eastern Aleppo from NATO-backed Islamic terrorists.
Insanity and dishonesty
The shocking truth is that some 15 years after the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers by al-Qaeda, the American government and its allies are now spending millions of dollars backing an attempt by al-Qaeda (or al-Qaeda lookalikes) to take over Syria.
Have I got this wrong? I don’t think so. I don’t think the facts that I quote are in any doubt. At least I an unaware of any credible sources that are questioning them.
I come back to the comparison with Libya and the report by Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, and in particular, their quote from Amnesty International:
“much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no security challenge.”
Almost the same thing could be said about Syria today.
“In short, not only were the governments of Britain and France saying things that were highly misleading, but it was also the case that much Western media coverage of Libya was highly misleading.
It is worth noticing that Western media were biassed in exactly the same direction as the Western governments. That raises an interesting question: “Were Western governments unduly influenced by the biassed media, or was the media coverage biassed because the media did not want to be out of step with the politically powerful, or was there a general bias in Western countries which affected both media and governments?”
Again, I think the same thing could be said of Syria.
If I have got this right, then this whole thing is totally insane – as well as being evil. And it seems that either very few people have noticed that – or that they are not prepared to say it.