My following piece appears in the Guardian today:
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad wasn’t supposed to survive. Since the uprising began in 2011, it’s been long presumed in western political and media circles that he would be deposed or killed and that a new, more US-friendly autocrat would be installed. This hasn’t happened.
We know Russia and America have vastly different interests in the conflict. As for Australia, foreign minister Bob Carr predictably parroted the Washington line in October 2012 when he said, “this sounds brutal and callous, perhaps an assassination [of Assad] combined with a major defection, taking a large part of its military, is what is required to get … a ceasefire and two, political negotiations”.
Carr was rightly condemned for his comments, yet he ignored another harsh reality: when it comes to Syria, the US and its Saudi Arabian and Qatari allies are backing Islamic fundamentalism under the guise of defeating the west’s key Middle East villain, Iran. Al-Qaida is now thriving, and the number of beheadings and other assorted acts of extreme sectarian violence have been steadily rising. It’s like the funding of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan never happened, or that the lessons learned after the west armed what became al-Qaida under Osama Bin Laden were wiped from the record.
By June this year, Carr accepted the necessary presence of Assad in any successful peace negotiations. Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop urged for a “negotiated settlement” in February, but refused to condemn the role of western-backed jihadis.
Meanwhile, foreign fighters are flooding into Syria – and they’ve become some of the fiercest and most successful insurgents against the Assad regime. US officials talk of the country becoming an extremist haven. Blue-eyed jihadists from Europe recently told Foreign Policy that they were committed to establishing an Islamic state inside the nation. Abu Salman (not his real name) said that, “They [the United States] only give weapons to the worst groups … These groups operate inside the Free Syrian Army, but they even don’t fight for democracy, they just steal money”.
At least a few hundred Australians are involved, causing growing sectarianism in Sydney between Sunni and Shia communities. I’ve spoken to many local Muslims who say the blindness being displayed on both sides – Assad backers ignoring the vast crimes perpetuated by his forces and rebel backers denying the extent of hardline Islamist support – is fuelling resentment and violence on the streets and online.
I’ve attended events where the estimated death toll of over 100,000 Syrians and immense refugee crisis engulfing neighbouring countries is mostly forgotten amidst the conflicting visions of a future Syria without war. The Syrian diaspora is fragmenting along lines that their birth country never experienced. Syrians pushing for the overthrow of Assad are often as belligerent as his loudest advocates, willing to ignore the war crimes committed by their own side. Like we see daily in Iraq, rampant sectarianism fuelled by outside forces only leads to chaos.
Tammam Sulaiman, the former Syrian ambassador to Australia, now Damascus-based senior member of Assad’s foreign ministry and soon to be head of mission at the Syrian embassy in Pyongyang in North Korea, told me last week in an exclusive interview that he didn’t understand why the west remained silent when “rebel terrorism” was committed. He acknowledged that the regime had made “mistakes”, but stressed his government was determined to win. “Our general impression is that the battle will not finish soon”, he said.
I pushed him on human rights reports that found regime forces were slaughtering civilians. “The US talks about collateral damage”, he argued. “The US coined that term and what we’re doing is the same. We don’t want to kill civilians. They started the war.”
In fact, I told Sulaiman, there were peaceful protests in Daraa in March 2011, and these were brutally crushed by Assad forces. How could the regime talk about democracy when civilians were tortured and killed by pro-government soldiers?
Sulaiman had little to say about this question. And yet, he correctly said, the war in Syria has exposed the hypocrisy of the western powers. “Those western officials, including in Australia, don’t say anything because they’ll upset their allies in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. I recently said to a representative from the Vatican here in Damascus, ‘I can’t understand why Catholic Europe is standing up behind Saudi Arabia, and yet no Christian can stand in Riyadh with a beer. The Vatican man smiled and responded by saying nothing’”.
This is the kind of ugly truth the western media is too keen to ignore, rushing to repeat US, UK and Australian talking points about a regime that for decades has refused to bow to western dictates – the ultimate sin of which Tehran is also guilty of.
The war in Syria has become an ugly proxy battle between innumerable outside forces, and virtually none of them care about the plight of the Syrian people. The announcement by the Assad regime that private security firms can now operate inside the nation is yet another ominous sign that unaccountable terror will be roaming the streets.
Australia can play a small but significant part by looking clearly at the failures of western policy towards Syria since the first rumblings of major public dissent against the regime. Canberra should urge all parties to de-escalate the fighting and not arm, train or fund either side. If the Australian government is so worried about terrorism on its shores, it should stop backing it in Syria.