Part 1: A green light to Assad
Ever since the Syrian regime gassed its own citizens in the Damascus suburbs in a chemical attack on August 21, the issue has rarely been out of the Western news media. However, the debate has been very simplistic. Any observer would be forgiven for thinking that the only crime committed in Syria was this chemical attack, and that the Syrian people had not been subjected to a genocidal war at the hands of a ruthless sectarian dictatorship for two and a half years.
Of course, the original cause of the conflict has been largely forgotten. Outside Syria, not many people remember the peaceful protests calling for freedom and democracy that began the Syrian revolution in March 2011, and how those protests were met by the Assad regime, with unarmed protesters being slaughtered in the streets and children who wrote slogans on walls or took part in the protests tortured, on many occasions to death, in the regime's jails. It was only after many long months of killing and oppression that defecting soldiers from the regime's army formed the Free Syrian Army, to defend peaceful protesters as well as ordinary citizens from government attacks.
An observer of the debate would also be forgiven for thinking that the countries of the world are divided on Syria. The received wisdom on the Syrian conflict is that the United States, its allies in NATO and the Gulf States are offering support to the rebels while Russia, China, Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah are supporting the regime. Bashar Al-Assad's regime likes to paint itself as part of an "axis of resistance" against US and Israeli imperialism which includes Iran and Hezbollah and is supported by Russia; this is why it has gained support from the anti-imperialist left in Western countries. A closer look at the support the regime is receiving vis-a-vis the "support" the rebels are receiving from their supposed allies shows that there is in fact little difference between the major powers on the Syrian issue. Russian ships carrying weapons, including aircraft, dock regularly in Latakia and Tartus, ensuring that the regime remains armed to the teeth and able to fight on despite the military setbacks inflicted on it by the rebels. Iran has not only sent weapons to the regime but also troops and advisers. It is believed widely in Syria that these advisers are the real rulers of the country. Hezbollah was instrumental in the regime's ruthless bombardment and capture of Qusair, and its fighters now line up alongside the regime in Deraa and Aleppo.
On the other hand, the United States and the European countries have given rhetorical support to the Syrian opposition while making sure that the Free Syrian Army remains unable to defeat the government's forces by imposing a strict arms embargo. For example, last year the Free Syrian Army managed to acquire anti-aircraft weapons but the United States and NATO refused to allow them to be transported to Syria and they remained in storage in Turkey. In June this year, following a regime chemical attack on the town of Saraqeb, the Obama administration announced that it would arm the Syrian rebels. To-date they have not received a single bullet from the United States or from any of its European allies. The FSA's main source of weapons remains those captured from the regime or those sold to it by corrupt regime officers. It is thought that Gulf countries have supplied weapons but not on a scale that would tip the balance of the conflict. The main factor ensuring that the conflict and genocide continue, and the Assad regime stays in power, is the continuing embargo on weapons to the Free Syrian Army, which lacks the heavy weapons needed to defeat the state's armed forces.
In order to understand the position of the United States and its European allies, it is helpful to look at the statements of Israeli officials. While the main pro-Israel lobby group in the United States, AIPAC, publicly declared its support for strikes against the Syrian regime following the most recent chemical weapons attack, it is much more evident that Israel would in fact prefer Bashar Al-Assad to remain in power. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged US Secretary of State Kerry to reach a deal with Russia that would avoid a military strike on Syria, expressing fears that a US strike would strengthen the Syrian opposition and allow it to gain control of Assad's chemical weapons. Netanyahu's office later issued a denial that any such exchange took place.
In November 2011, relatively early in the Syrian revolution when there was no serious talk of an Islamic extremist presence in Syria, Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defence ministry official, said that Assad's removal from power would be "devastating for Israel"; the Zionist state, he added, would then face an "Islamic Empire" encompassing Syria, Jordan and Egypt run by the Muslim Brotherhood and committed to its destruction. In May 2013, shortly after an Israeli strike on Damascus, Ephraim Halevy, a former director of Israel's Mossad spy agency, went much further in an article in the American journal Foreign Affairs. Calling Assad "Israel's Man in Damascus" he spelt out the reason why: for the past 40 years Assad has kept Israel's "border" with Syria quiet and guaranteed its security. What Halevy means is that Assad has allowed Israel to occupy the Golan Heights, undisturbed by any resistance. Another Israeli intelligence official summed up the Israeli position towards the conflict in Syria thus: "Our 'best-case scenario' is that they continue to busy themselves fighting each other and don't turn their attention to us."
Israel's attitude to the Syrian conflict allows us to consider the developments that have taken place since the chemical attack in a new light. After President Obama announced that the US would strike Syria, anti-war activists and left-wing "anti-imperialists" were up in arms, as were right-wing pro-Israel Republicans in the United States. There was much comment that the rebels fighting against Assad were sectarian extremists with links to Al-Qaeda, who posed a threat to Syria's minorities, especially its Christian community, and that they were just as brutal as Assad. Conspiracy theories without any evidence which blamed the rebels for the sarin attack received mainstream coverage and were used to argue that the US and its allies were being dragged into an Iraq-style war.
Sadly for the conspiracy theorists, the evidence that the Syrian regime carried out the attack is incontrovertible. The United Nations report on the attack published on Tuesday, which does not assign blame, nevertheless concludes that it was launched from Mount Qassioun, a major government military base outside Damascus from which attacks against the Damascus suburbs are launched regularly. The report also concluded that the attack was launched using M14 rockets, which only the regime possesses, and that the sarin used was of a quality that could only be produced on an industrial scale using the resources of a government. The Assad regime's own reaction to the attack points to its responsibility, and to its sectarian character. First, it denied that any such attack took place; then it conceded that the attack happened but blamed the rebels; then a few days later the world was treated to the bizarre spectacle of Syrian government spokeswoman Buthaina Shaaban appearing on Sky News to claim that the child victims of the attack were in fact brought to the Ghouta area from Latakia province (an Alawite-majority area 300 miles away) by "terrorists" and then killed. The government did not declare any period of mourning for the 1,429 victims of the attack and, in fact, its supporters were seen celebrating and handing out sweets on the streets of Damascus in its immediate aftermath.
The anti-war activists and their new-found allies the Assad supporters and right-wing Republicans need not have worried. Despite a great deal of emotional language from John Kerry about the use of chemical weapons and the 426 children who died as a result, Obama's strike threat dwindled away to nothing. From being a "limited" attack to punish Assad, but not tip the balance in favour of the rebels, it became an "unbelievably small" one, as Kerry called it on his visit to London, to a non-existent one, when Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov agreed to a deal which would allow Assad to keep his conventional weapons and continue using them to kill his own people, but oblige him to give up his chemical weapons. It is doubtful whether the deal will be backed by a binding Security Council resolution, and it is estimated that it will take until the middle of 2014 to destroy the chemical weapons. This is probably the first time in history that a criminal is to be punished simply by taking away one of his weapons.
The deal struck between Kerry and Lavrov makes almost everyone a winner. The United States can continue posing as a supporter of the Syrian people; Israel is satisfied that "their man in Damascus" is still in place; Russia can continue arming Assad and today appears to have stood up to the United States, when in reality there is little difference between the positions of these two nations on the Syrian issue; and Iran can continue to participate actively in Assad's sectarian war while pretending that it is standing up to the United States and Israel. The anti-war campaigners are in ignorant bliss because they believe that they have stopped a war on Syria, not knowing or caring that Syrians are still enduring the most horrific war since the genocide in Rwanda. The only losers are the Syrian people.
For two and a half years, they have been pleading with the world to stop Assad's war against them but to no avail. The chemical attack is only the latest chapter in this genocide. Constant efforts have been made in both the mainstream and alternative media to belittle the suffering in Syria, discredit the casualty figures and assign blame to the opposition for the regime's crimes but what is happening is genocide by any standard. United Nations figures reveal that 110,000 people have been killed since the Syrian revolution broke out in March 2011. Seven million people have been displaced and the death rate is approximately 5,000 people per month. Only the regime has the capacity to kill and displace people on this scale and it has now received a green light to continue killing its own citizens, as long as it doesn't use chemical weapons.
The suffering and the genocide of the Syrian people will be detailed in the part 2 of this article.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.