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Lame duck presidents and angry secularists should keep quiet; it's Syrian voices which must be heard

Image of civilians trying to flee from Aleppo on 15 December 2016 [Mamun Ebu Ă–mer/Anadolu Agency]
Image of civilians trying to flee from Aleppo on 15 December 2016 [Mamun Ebu Ă–mer/Anadolu Agency]

There is a narrative being pushed today by members of the global anti-war movement and other pro-Syrian regime supporters that they are defending a secular state against the Islamic "head choppers" who have descended on the Middle East from around the world. The latter, including Daesh, are in league with western imperialistic states, or so they say.

It's the sort of crude "them and us" school playground kind of dialogue which was pushed by US President George W Bush after the horrific events of 9/11, when he insisted, "You're either with us or with the terrorists." Those of us who were both aghast at the World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks as well as the knee-jerk "War on Terror" response were given no room to manoeuvre; the Bush administration's mantra was extremely threatening.

However, the overly simple demands of the vocal and aggressive pro-Assad lobby — the "them or us" brigade — serve no purpose other than to mask the complexity of the situation on the ground in Syria. Rather than incur their wrath and be branded as a supporter of Islamic extremists, the net effect has almost served to stifle open debate and discussion, especially among the under-fire Muslim community which used to form the backbone of the anti-war movement in Britain. Today, the Muslims have been marginalised and largely silenced, dismissed in a patronising manner as though they are incapable of understanding such complex issues.

It is true that reports from inside Aleppo have often come from pro-rebel sources outlining in detail atrocities they say have been carried out by Assad's troops. If some of these reports turn out to be exaggerated or unreliable, this is just one of the challenges of covering any war where the mainstream media is neither present nor trusted.

Equally, for activists and bloggers to assert that the anti-Assad rebels are all jihadists who are brutalising the local population serves no good purpose either. Nor does it help when some of the most vocal who claim to be journalists are sending out their op-eds and blogs from five-star hotels in Damascus where they are receiving the finest hospitality that the Assad regime can offer.

I know this because, as a journalist, it is the only way you can move about Assad-controlled Syria, unless you sneak in as a "tourist", which I've also done. I have been a guest of the Assad regime and a very nice experience it was for myself and the other foreign journalists with me. Although no expense was spared, we were not allowed to go wandering off on our own, nor were we allowed to interview anyone who wasn't already presented to us by a government minder. That experience was before the war, so goodness knows what the security apparatus is like today.

Having said that, I experienced similar censorship at the hands of the US military when I went to film in Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and have undergone similar vetting of my work when embedded with other western military forces. In truth, the only place I've been able to wander around freely with a cameraman colleague in tow was in Gaza, but reporting there is easy; the Palestinians want the truth to get out and they don't need to manipulate the news.

But let's return to the secular state which the pro-Assad lobby is so keen to promote and defend unconditionally. Having personally been on the ground during the 2002 elections in Baghdad when Iraq's then President Saddam Hussein enjoyed a 100 per cent turnout and victory — all 11,445,638 Iraqis registered to vote voted for him — I'm fully aware of how dictatorships work. Similarly, President Bashar Al-Assad's recent election win with 88 per cent of the vote lacks the same credibility. Only a brainwashed fool would hail this as an outstanding example of democracy, secular or otherwise.

Yet a po-faced array of white-privileged bloggers has been paraded on state TV in Syria, Iran and Russia, to serenade Assad's popular vote without realising how silly they look and sound. I served a four year apprenticeship before I was allowed out unsupervised with a notebook and pen; it is offensive to my professional sensibilities that they portray themselves as serious journalists because, quite simply, they're not. To degrade the profession in such a way is an insult to war correspondents and Arab reporters who are risking their lives to cover the conflicts in the region.

So they push the line that Assad presides over a secular state, as though religion is something to be despised and sneered at, while choosing to airbrush the other major players from the landscape of this terrible, terrible war. In the process they ignore the presence of more than 30 militias, many with religious-sounding names or with God mentioned therein, supporting what's left of Assad's depleted military. Step forward Hezbollah, Liwa Sayf Al-Haq Assad Allah Al-Ghalib and Kata'ib Sayyid Al-Shuhada, for example.

Not one of these "expert analysts" has come forward to explain — lacking a journalist's sense of curiosity, of course — how Daesh fighters managed to retake the ancient city of Palmyra without a single spy plane, spy satellite or surveillance drone operated by Syrian, Iranian or Russian forces spotting them. Hundreds of flag-waving militants were able to advance across the empty desert wastelands unhindered. Really?

Anyone who has travelled in an unescorted convoy of more than three cars in Syria will tell you of the risks of aerial attack because the eagle-eyed spies in the sky are constantly monitoring road movements; where were they when Daesh headed for and took Palmyra? It is becoming increasingly clear that Assad and his Russian allies have no interest in destroying Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi or his so-called caliphate. Western forces including the US and Britain are equally culpable as they also use the presence of Daesh as their justification for bombing the region. It seems that Al-Baghdadi may have many paymasters and must be receiving millions of dollars, Euros, roubles, riyals and Syrian and British pounds, depending who you listen to.

Yes, some of the radical Islamists in rebel-controlled areas do belong to Al-Qaida or the group's affiliates but, without exception, all are sworn enemies of Daesh. Thus, for the Assad lobby to say that the extremist group was operating inside Aleppo has to be nonsensical. I was told by a western journalist recently that 99 per cent of the rebel fighters in Aleppo were from Aleppo or other regions of Syria. The only supporters of Daesh are Daesh members themselves who turn up at the most convenient times when the regimes in Syria and neighbouring Iraq need to divert attention or regain popular support.

If Assad falls, claim his cheerleaders, so will his secular state. The truth is, though, that Syria is not a secular state. It is rich in the history and symbolism of the three great monotheistic faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Furthermore, with Iran having a huge influence across Syria in favour of Assad, it might not be long before the same secularists are told to put on a hijab before entering the country, which is what is required of females, regardless of beliefs, when they arrive in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The growing influence and stature of Tehran is a major annoyance to the rival Saudi regime and other Arab countries.

I imagine that Vladimir Putin couldn't care less about the religious status of Syria because he has already got what he wants; a strategic naval base on the Mediterranean coast of Syria and, equally significant, air force bases for his surveillance planes and fighter jets.

In all of this, the main players and their lobbyists seem to have forgotten — or couldn't care less — about the humanitarian catastrophe which has erupted in Aleppo, a modern-day Srebenica, Guernica or even worse. Who remembers the pledge of "Never Again" after the Holocaust when millions were massacred on an industrial scale?

As I write, there are still tens of thousands of Syrians waiting to be escorted to safety from a one square kilometre of land in eastern Aleppo. That news was provided by the humanitarian team from Turkey's IHH charity. They are on the ground ready with aid for a desperate people who've been without regular food and clean water for months.

I look on in amazement at the callousness of some of my old comrades in the anti-war movement and remember how we stood shoulder to shoulder for the children of Iraq and Palestine, yet they can shed not one tear for the little ones of Syria. Some of them even howled in protest over the very notion of a ceasefire in Aleppo, or the introduction of a no-fly zone, or even a humanitarian aid drop. It was unbelievable, but the same voices cried out against intervention in Libya even though Gaddafi and son had publicly declared their intention to get rid of the revolutionaries "street by street".

Yes, Libya is a basket case today, but not because of western military intervention which, at the time, helped to end Gaddafi's brutal rule. The country has collapsed once again because meddling Arab dictators do not want to see any sort of democracy flourish in the Arab world otherwise it might signal their own demise. Hence, both they and religious extremists have sought to undermine any attempts to create a fledgling democracy anywhere in the region.

Muslim communities across Europe know the truth. They are among the most educated and informed people when it comes to Middle East and North African current affairs and politics because many still have relatives in both areas who keep them up to date. There may be many views and opinions but there is one constant in all of this; the suffering of innocents while power-grabbing regimes and lame duck presidents from Assad to Barak Obama are playing out a tragedy which may come to define man's inhumanity to man in the 21st century.

I do not support the secularists and nor do I support any of the religious extremists whatever their sects or weird beliefs. I stand with the children of Aleppo; with the women of Idlib; with the tireless Syrian rescuers who risk their own lives to save others. In this crazy, confusing, complex war there is only one guaranteed solution and that is to stop the war, stop the bombing and stop the killing; then listen to the ordinary Syrian voices on the ground. Has anyone even bothered to ask the people what they want?

If ever there was an opportunity for the UN to become meaningful and give a voice to the voiceless, this is it. Will the international organisation take it? I doubt it. There are too many foreign interests at stake. Forget "Never Again"; the next slaughter is probably already lined up and waiting to happen. The lame duck presidents and angry secularists should keep quiet; it's Syrian voices which must be heard.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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