By Tim Anderson
The world has been deceived over the conflict in Syria. It was always a ‘regime change’ dirty war and never a popular uprising. The root of the deception was a cabal of western governments, media and NGOs on a war footing and using partisan sources linked to their proxy armies.
As veteran journalist Philip Knightley pointed out, war propaganda typically involves “a depressingly predictable pattern” of demonising the enemy leader and people through atrocity stories. In this way a mild-mannered eye doctor called Bashar al Assad became the new evil in the world and apparently did little but kill civilians for five years.
Of course, Syria has had an authoritarian system, with a feared secret police. But President Bashar al Assad remains very popular, as even many of his enemies have conceded. Yes, the Syrian Army has executed captured terrorists and continues to arrest and imprison those suspected of supporting terrorists. But the stories of the Army targeting civilians and gassing children are all fabricated, by an even more ruthless enemy. Extremist internationalised groups, from the beginning of the conflict, have served as proxy armies for the big powers. I have documented this in my book The Dirty War on Syria.
The propaganda war has been intense and has drawn on ‘embedded’ NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. These groups, along with most of the western media, have almost unswervingly repeated the line from Washington. Let’s take a look at some key evidence.
The violence of the current conflict in Syria first broke out in the southern border town of Daraa, in March 2011. The Syrian Government has always said that violent elements took cover under the ‘Arab Spring’ demonstrations (both anti-government and pro-government), killing police. The western line has always been that Syrian security forces ‘brutally repressed’ peaceful protestors. Who should we believe?
Human Rights Watch, in lock step with the US State Department, claimed that “the protest movement in Syria was overwhelmingly peaceful until September 2011”. Yet independent witness the late Jesuit priest Father Frans Van der Lugt (who lived in Homs for over 40 years before being murdered by Jabhat al Nusra, the al Qaeda franchise in Syria) said, “I have seen from the beginning armed protesters in those demonstrations they were the first to fire on the police. Very often the violence of the security forces comes in response to the brutal violence of the armed insurgents.”
In fact sectarian violence against Syrian security forces in those first few weeks and months has been well documented. It did not come from ‘peaceful protestors’. On 11 March Reuters reported that Syrian forces had seized “a large shipment of weapons and explosives and night-vision goggles … in a truck coming from Iraq”. The driver said he had been paid $5,000 to deliver them to Syria.
Arms did reach Daraa. A week later snipers fired from rooftops at police and crowds, just as they had in the Muslim Brotherhood’s 1982 insurrection at Hama. Saudi official Anwar Al-Eshki later confirmed to BBC television that his country had sent arms to the al-Omari mosque. The jihadist plan was underway. From exile Salafi Sheikh Adnan Arour called for a holy war against the liberal Alawi Muslims, who he claimed dominated the Syrian government: “By Allah we shall mince [the Alawites] in meat grinders and feed their flesh to the dogs”. The genocidal slogan “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave” came from the Farouq (FSA) Brigade, a fact reported by the western media in May 2011. This was well before ISIS came to Syria.
Yet for the first year US officials maintained ‘the peaceful protesters’ line, blaming all violence on ‘the regime’. Meantime journalists began resigning from Al Jazeera, owned by Qatar, a key financier of the jihadists. Their stories of foreign jihadists flocking to the Homs area were systematically censored.
Nevertheless, the UN estimated from several sources that, by early 2012, there had been more than 5,000 casualties, and that deaths in the first year of conflict included 478 police and 2,091 from the military and security forces. That is, more than half the casualties in the first year were those of the Syrian security forces. That independent calculation was not reflected in western media reports.
Why did the US and its local allies (especially the Saudis, Qatar and Turkey) want ‘regime change’ in Syria? It was part of a plan set in train by President George W. Bush, a proposed clean sweep across the region to create a ‘New Middle East’. After Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, Syria was the next state to be overthrown.
As early as 2005 US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began to speak of spreading “creative chaos” in the region, to advance the ‘New Middle East’. This was a ‘divide and rule’ strategy. White House insiders called it “the redirection”, involving an open confrontation with Iran and attempting to drive a “sectarian divide between Shiite and Sunni Muslims”. The White House was very worried that Iran had “forged a close relationship” with the Iraqi government led by Nuri al-Malaki. Rice told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee she saw “a new strategic alignment” in the region, with “Sunni states” [the Gulf monarchies] as the centres of moderation and Iran, Syria and Hezbollah “on the other side of that divide”.
The cutting edge of this operation was the creation of al Qaeda in Iraq or the Islamic State of Iraq (IQI or ISI), funded by the ‘moderate’ Saudis and carrying out sectarian attacks to inflame community tensions. The February 2006 bombing of the al Askari mosque in Samarra, in southern Iraq, killed over a thousand people. Records captured by the US military in 2007 at the Iraqi-Syrian border showed that, of an AQI/ISI group of about 500, half were Saudi, while the next biggest group were North Africans.
Prior to 2011 there had been US programs to build TV, radio and other ‘opposition’ groups but, with the ‘Arab Spring’, Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and international jihadists were Washington’s best bet. The aim was always regime change, but pretexts were needed. The first was that NATO and the Gulf monarchies were supporting a secular and democratic revolution. Alternately, they were saving the oppressed majority ‘Sunni Muslim’ population from a sectarian ‘Alawite regime’. Then, when sectarian atrocities by the jihadists attracted greater attention, the claim was one of a shadow war: ‘moderate rebels’ were said to be fighting the extremist groups. Western intervention was therefore needed to bolster these ‘moderate rebels’ against a ‘new’ extremist group, ISIS.
A steady stream of atrocity stories – ‘barrel bombs’, chemical weapons, ‘industrial scale’ killings, dead babies – permeate the western news on Syria. They all paint the Syrian President and the Syrian Army as monsters slaughtering civilians, including children. Yet when tracked back all these stories come from utterly partisan sources.
For most of the anti-Syrian stories the western media has placed extraordinary reliance on one man based in Britain who calls himself the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). Most of the stories about Syrian body counts, ‘regime’ atrocities and huge collateral damage come from this man. Rami Abdul Rahman has always flown the flag of the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated ‘Free Syrian Army’. He is an obviously partisan source.
From Rami and a few others, using their al Qaeda sources, we get the ‘barrel bomb’ stories. Here it was said that a particular type of Syrian Air Force bomb, which includes fuel and shrapnel, has been responsible for massive civilian casualties. There is nothing special about the technology, it is simply a new way to generate horror and support for the war, by claiming that the Syrian Army is either targeting civilians or has a massive ‘collateral damage’ rate. The slogan is repeated endlessly.
The great majority of these ‘barrel bomb’ attacks have been on places occupied for years by sectarian gangs: in north-eastern Aleppo and Douma in north-eastern Damascus. Yet the last major evacuations of civilians from Douma, well reported, were in January 2015. Six months later ‘civilians’ in Douma were said to be killed by ‘barrel bombs’. Video from the US funded and Jabhat al Nusra linked group ‘The White Helmets’ shows the injured to be fighting age men shouting Islamist slogans.
The recycling of war photos is extensive. Human Rights Watch boss Kenneth Roth dishonestly posted photos from Israeli-ravaged Gaza, and others from Kobane, claiming they showed the aftermath of “Assad’s barrel bombing”. When the Russian bombing began, the ‘White Helmets’ posted a photo of an injured child, supposedly the victim of that bombing. This fabrication was quickly exposed. The photo had been posted several days before the Russian bombing began.
Syria has been the site of many ‘false flag’ incidents. The most notorious was the use of chemical weapons in the East Ghouta region of countryside Damascus. UN chemical weapons inspectors were in Syria at the invitation of the Government, to investigate the Islamists’ use of sarin gas in Khan al-Asal, near Aleppo. Armed gangs based in Douma used the occasion to stage a chemical attack and blame it on the government. Virtually all western governments and major media channels adopted this story, citing telemetry and some other circumstantial evidence.
However there was no plausible motive. Further, studies at MIT quickly showed the rockets to have a much shorter range than was suggested. The final report by Lloyd and Postol concluded that the rockets “could not possibly have been fired at East Ghouta from the ‘heart’, or from the eastern edge, of the Syrian Government controlled area shown in the intelligence map published by the White House on August 30, 2013”.
A Syrian group led by nun Mother Agnes Mariam presented a detailed analysis of video presented by the Islamist groups, saying that they used “artificial scenic treatment … there is a flagrant lack of real families in East Ghouta … who are the children [without parents] that are exposed in those videos? How was it that many hundreds were reported dead but only eight bodies were buried?”
Veteran North American journalist Seymour Hersh interviewed US intelligence agents and concluded that Washington’s claims on the evidence had been fabricated. He found “intense concern” and anger amongst US agents over “the deliberate manipulation of intelligence”.
The UN special mission on chemical weapons returned to Syria in late September and investigated several sites, including East Ghouta. Their December 2013 report said that chemical weapons had been used in Syria on at least five occasions, and in three of those five occasions against soldiers. Logically those attacks came from groups that were fighting soldiers. The independent evidence was overwhelming and inescapable: chemical weapons had been used in East Ghouta, but the charges against the Syrian Army were fabricated.
While western governments (making use of ‘information’ from their proxy armies) were busily painting President Bashar al Assad as the new Hitler, he faced a different sort of criticism from Syrians. I heard him referred to as “Mr Soft Heart”, with a number of Syrians saying they wished he had been as tough as his father. They were thinking of 1982, when Hafez al Assad crushed an earlier Muslim Brotherhood insurrection in Hama. US intelligence that same year put the casualties of the Hama insurrection at about 2,000, mostly Muslim Brotherhood jihadists and their families. Islamist and western revisions later raised the toll to 40,000 ‘civilians’.
Many Syrians have expressed frustration at the ‘failure’ of the Syrian Army to simply flatten jihadist hold-out areas, like Douma and East Aleppo, which constantly send mortars and rockets into the heavily populated cities. The US did just this at Fallujah (Iraq) in 2004.
The Syrian leadership has been more careful, as explained by a former Government militia member: “Islamists hide behind civilians. But if we really killed everyone who supported the enemy, the Douma district would have been destroyed long ago – simply levelled with tanks in a single day, like some [Syrian] hotheads have been [demanding] for a long time already. But Assad doesn’t want that … our task is to reunite the country. Therefore, before each mission, we were told that we should not shoot at civilians under any circumstances. If a civilian dies, there is always an investigation and, if necessary, a court-martial”. Such concerns have been ignored by the largely self-obsessed western debate.
There is no doubt that President Bashar al Assad has maintained and probably increased his popularity within Syria during the crisis. Most still see him as the best hope of reform for the Baathist system, often criticised for its corruption. Estimates by jihadists and a NATO consultant that he had 70% support more or less coincided with the results of Syria’s June 2014 Presidential poll. In the first competitive poll in decades Bashar gained 88.7% of the vote from a 73.4% participation rate, in other words support from 65% of all eligible voters. The western media were cynical but had to acknowledge the massive turnout.
Resistance by the Syrian Army, with strong popular support, has thwarted constant predictions that the Syrian Government would fall. Then the Russian intervention of September 2015 turned the military tide decisively. However, by this time, Syria had assembled a large coalition of militia from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, to back Syrian forces. These neighbouring countries joined ranks against a ruthless power they believe has deliberately cultivated every single terrorist group in the region.
The US and its allies have sought overthrow of the Syrian state or, failing that, a dismembered group of sectarian statelets, thus breaking the axis of independent regional states. However that plan is failing, along with Washington’s ineffective ‘war on terror’. There are wider implications. The ‘Axis of Resistance’ has grown to include Iraq and Russia. Syria’s successful resistance to this dirty ‘regime change’ war may mean the beginning of the end for the vision of a Washington-dominated ‘New Middle East’.
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