Syria 3: Motes, Beams, and Russians

In my first two articles on Syria, I looked at the civil war in Syria, and in particular, the role played by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and America.

In this article, I want to look at the role played by Russia in the Aleppo area in recent weeks, and at the West’s response to it.

The battle for Aleppo began on 19 July 2012. Aleppo had, until that point, been largely unaffected by the war – but from that point on, the battle there has raged fairly continuously, broken only by sporadic ceasefires.

Russia had been a long-standing ally of the Syrian government, but was not militarily involved in the war until September, 2015, when it launched air strikes against ISIS and other rebel forces. It soon became involved in the battle for Aleppo, but it was not until September this year that its actions there started raising serious concerns – with western governments (notably those of America, Britain and France) criticising its actions, and suggesting that Russia may be guilty of war crimes. The US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, said “What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter-terrorism. It is barbarism. History will not look kindly on security council members who stay silent in the face of this carnage.” And that narrative has been well publicised by the Western media.

And it seems that Russian actions in Aleppo (and Syria in general), are, indeed, pretty bad. According to Chris Woods, the director of Monitoring group Airwars, “everything we understand about the way Russia is behaving shows they are deliberately targeting civilians, civilian infrastructure.”

The big question

The big question is “What about the Western powers that are criticising Russia?”

https://www.theguardian.com/world/reality-check/2016/oct/12/reality-check-are-us-led-airstrikes-on-syrians-as-bad-as-russias

A recent Guardian article begins: “A Labour party spokesman has suggested there is too much focus on Russian atrocities in Syria, which “sometimes diverts attention from other atrocities that are taking place”, and highlighted killings by the US-led coalition. The remarks implied the casualties were comparable, and that coalition attacks had been ignored by politicians, rights groups and the media in the west, ” and asks “What are the facts?”

It tells us that

Airwars has recorded 3,600 civilian deaths caused by Russian bombing raids since they joined the Syrian conflict just over a year ago, a number Woods described as an “absolute minimum”. In contrast, the coalition has caused nearly 900 civilian deaths over 26 months of bombing, 19 acknowledged by the coalition itself and another 858 recorded by monitoring groups.

It also tells us that

The Violations Documentation Centre said just more than 147,000 civilians had been killed between the start of the war in 2011 and 11 October. It only attributes deaths with clear evidence so not all are accounted for, but its records hold the Syrian government and affiliated militia responsible for 92,000 civilian deaths, Russian forces for 3,412, Syrian opposition fighters, excluding Isis, for 2,470, and Isis for 3,078. It attributes 768 to the international coalition.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights had a higher toll than the VDC, but similar ratios. It said that by the end of December 2015, government forces had killed more than 187,000 civilians, armed opposition groups nearly 3,500, Russian forces 2,585, Isis 2,503 and coalition airstrikes 627. “

In short, the Guardian tells us that the vast majority of civilian deaths have been caused by Syrian government forces, and that Russia has killed far more civilians in Syria than the American-led coalition.  It thereby implicitly concludes that attention is not being diverted away from other atrocities, that there is not too much focus on Russian atrocities in Syria, and that coalition attacks were not being ignored by politicians, rights groups and the media in the west.

However . . .

However, there are some things that need to be remembered.

1) If this is about civilian deaths and civilian suffering, then these statistics show that it is a matter of degree, not kind. The fact that the Russians are guilty of killing some three thousand civilians in Syria is a serious matter, because killing civilians in war is a serious matter. But the fact that the American-led coalition has killed several hundred is also serious. If the Russians are to be condemned because of the suffering they have caused in Syria, so is the coalition.

2) If you include the whole Middle East over the past 15 years, the US government (with its western partners) has caused far more civilian deaths – & civilian suffering – than the Russian government. Iraq Body Count estimates that the American-led coalition has directly killed over 16,000 civilians in Iraq since the beginning of 2003.

But it also has to be said that since the Iraq war began with an unprovoked invasion by an American-led coalition, there is a sense in which the invading forces are responsible for all civilian deaths in Iraq – and that is at least 167,000 people, according to Iraq Body Count. And if you add over 20,000 civilians killed in the civil war in Afghanistan that was sparked off by the 2001 invasion, then Putin’s total in Syria looks tiny.

And then there is the matter of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – not to mention Dresden. We don’t know the exact number of civilians killed in these bombings, but it could total a quarter of a million people. If the Russian government is guilty of war crimes because it has killed 3000 civilians in Aleppo, what does that say about the Allied governments in 1945?

3) The criticism of Russian action in Aleppo is not, however, just about the total number of civilian casualties It is also about whether civilian targets are being deliberately attacked. This is always difficult to prove. What, for example, does one make of the 17th September 2016 Deir ez-Zor air raid, in which the American-led coalition bombed Syrian government forces who were in a battle with ISIS, thus enabling ISIS to over-run government-held positions?

The coalition stated that the attacks were a mistake, but the Russian and Syrian governments have been sceptical. president Putin, nearly a month after the attack, said in an interview with French television:

Our American colleagues told us that this airstrike was made in error. This error cost the lives of 80 people and, also just coincidence, perhaps, ISIS took the offensive immediately afterwards. At the same time, lower down the ranks, at the operations level, one of the American military service personnel said quite frankly that they spent several days preparing this strike. How could they make an error if they were several days in preparation?

If the American-led coalition could make such a basic error in fairly straight-forward terrain in a sparsely populated area, how does one know that the Russians were deliberately hitting civilian targets in the much more messy situation of Eastern Aleppo?

4) Why are the US & UK governments talking about war crimes in Aleppo, but have been completely silent on Saudi bombing of civilian targets in Yemen (see my article). In fact, they have not just been completely silent on the subject; they have been assisting the Saudi Air Force in its bombing, and trying to ensure that the Saudi bombing doesn’t get too much scrutiny.

5) Who got Aleppo into this mess in the first place? While the blame does not lie with just one party, we need to remember (see my previous article) that the American government, by actively seeking to destabilise the Syrian government before the civil war began, was partly responsible for the outbreak of the war.

We also need to remember that from the early days of the war (2011), before the fighting reached Aleppo, the American government and its allies (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey) were involved in supporting and supplying rebel militias. The Russian government did not intervene militarily until 2015. It looks pretty strange that America and its allies stirred up conflict in Syria, helped to get a war started, supported (directly or indirectly) Islamist militias seeking to overthrow the government, and are now complaining about what Russia is doing.

Hypocrisy?

In short, it seems to me that the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1-5) are appropriate here:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a beam in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

That, it seems to me, describes the behaviour of the British and American governments. Indeed, it seems to me that they have more Middle Eastern blood on their hands than the Russian government. And it also seems to me that such is the affect of the beam in their own eyes that they are utterly incapable of seeing their hypocrisy.  (Of course, that’s just human nature, and our politicians are only human, but one should hope for better.)

And I am not the only one who thinks so. Gareth Porter, a prize-winning veteran investigative journalist, comes to exactly the same conclusion. He looks at the whole mess in a recent devastating article and ends by saying: “Heavy bombing in a city is inherently fraught with moral risk, and attacks on genuine civilian targets can never be excused. But such practices have been carried out and legitimised in the past by the very government that is now claiming the role of moral and legal arbiter. That hypocrisy needs to be recognised and curbed as well.”

And the media?

So let’s come back to the Guardian article. As I say, it implicitly concludes

a) that attention is not being diverted away from other atrocities,

b) that there is not too much focus on Russian atrocities in Syria, and

c) that coalition attacks were not being ignored by politicians, rights groups and the media in the west.

I am not so sure.

I think it is right to turn the spotlight on Russian actions in Syria. Is there too much focus on them? In one sense, no – there is probably not enough focus on them – if you are comparing them with some of the complete trivia that fills news broadcasts and newspapers. But if you are comparing them with the virtual silence about what Saudi Arabia has been doing in Yemen, and the way that America has been supporting Islamist militants in Syria, the attention given to Russian actions in Syria seems strange.

And hence it can be said that attention has been diverted away from other atrocities, and coalition actions are being ignored by most politicians, most of the media, and many human rights groups.

And there is an obvious bit of evidence for this.  While I do hear people talking about Russia’s bombing in Aleppo (which only started less than two months ago) I have never heard anyone mentioning Saudi bombing of Yemen, which has been going on for a year and a half.  Not once.  And that is because of the Western media.

And Gareth Porter also highlights this failure of the media – albeit fairly gently: “The Russian-Syrian bombing campaign in eastern Aleppo, which has ended at least for the time being, has been described in press reports and op-eds as though it were unique in modern military history in its indiscriminateness.”   And of course, that is something that is obviously just not true.  It is far from unique.  In Porter’s words, “such practices have been carried out and legitimised in the past by the very government that is now claiming the role of moral and legal arbiter.

In other words, the problem is not just with Western governments. It is also with the Western media.  And in some ways, that is the really scary thing.

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