Assad's government and military in Syria are definitely guilty of torturing and killing civilians, including children, as well as targeting the wounded and doctors. That’s sickening and it needs to be stopped (1) – (4). Accounts by Syrian opposition activists of the killing of whole families are painful to read (5).
That has to be stopped – the question is how to stop it without creating a longer civil war or mass revenge killings and torture of the kind going on in Libya.
We should be wary of believing every claim made by the Syrian opposition. Some of the claims made by the Libyan opposition of Gaddafi ordering his troops to rape women and anti-aircraft guns being used on demonstrators turned out to be false (6).
A look at the results of a rebel victory in Libya or the situation in “liberated” Iraq should throw some serious doubt on the idea that the overthrow of Assad through Arab League and Western government arming and training of the rebels would guarantee an end to torture and murder. It might, as in Libya, lead to fighting among different rebel factions and the torture and murder by them of people even suspected (often wrongly) of having supported the dictatorship. NATO and Arab governments will only care about removing Assad as an ally of Iran, just as they lost all interest in torture and killings in Libya once Gaddafi was overthrown and his enemies were responsible for the crimes. As in Libya though, they are the only source of military support that the opposition have to turn to. However the Russian military presence in Syria (their fleet is allowed to use Syrian ports) would make any direct NATO involvement risk World War Three, which is probably why the US and it’s allies have ruled out direct military involvement – if they intervene it is likely to be covertly by arming and training the rebels with Special Forces, as in Libya. In Syria even that could risk war with Russia though.
A power sharing agreement of the kind suggested in the UN Resolution that the Chinese and Russian governments vetoed may be less bad than a Libyan or Lebanese style civil war – but that would first require an end to the government forces’ attacks on civilians – and then there would be the problem there is how to achieve a balance of power which results in compromise and a transition to democracy rather than a long civil war which neither side can win.
Many minorities in Syria including Kurds and Christians also fear being targeted by Sunni Muslim fundamentalists among the opposition if Assad is overthrown by force, just as black Libyans and African immigrant workers have been lynched and tortured in Libya and Assyrian Christians and other minorities have been killed and ethnically cleansed in Iraq. The Assad family are from the Alawite minority sect of the Shia Muslim religion.
Achieving peace is a lot harder than just overthrowing Assad, which would achieve the aims of the US government and it’s allies without ending the fighting or the torture and killing, just as with overthrowing Gaddafi in Libya. As in Libya it might reduce the scale of the torture and killing, but at the risk of civil war continuing indefinitely.
Getting that agreement will be hard as the sides now have plenty of reasons to hate and distrust one another ; and getting each to make real concessions requires convincing them that they have enough power to force the other to make real concessions to them, but not enough that they can be sure the other won’t defeat them in a fight to the end.
In Libya there are over 8,500 people held without trial by the rebel factions including women and children, many of them tortured using the same methods Gaddafi's forces used, some to death. It's so bad that Medicines Sans Frontieres have pulled out as they were being given hundreds of prisoners to keep them alive in between torture sessions so they could be tortured again. (7) – (10).
The rebel militias have been fighting one another in Tripoli ever since Gaddafi's death right up to present (in one case over control of the airport as NATO flew in planeloads of released Libyan funds in bales of cash - much of which will likely end up disappearing 'unaccounted for' just as with the billions of dollars of Iraqi Oil for Food funds that went missing under Bremer in Iraq ) and creating revolts against their rule by arresting and large numbers of people on suspicion of being Gaddafi supporters, with no trials and torturing or killing many of them (i.e behaving exactly like Gaddafi's forces did towards anyone they suspected of not supporting Gaddafi) (11) – (15).
In Iraq the torture and death squad methods used by Saddam continue to be used by the US trained police commandos and counter-terrorist units - who also kidnap and torture people just in order to extort money from their families (16) – (21).
The Arab League, which backed the UN motions on Libya and Syria is mostly made up of dictatorships that torture and kill their own civilians themselves (the Saudi monarchy, Bahraini monarchy both last year and last month, the Yemeni dictatorship, the Egyptian military) and which the NATO governments continue to back despite this. The Saudis, who have backed the brutal repression in Bahrain which has included shooting unarmed protesters, torturing protesters to death and targeting ambulances, ambulance crews and hospital staff, are the main supporters of the Syrian rebels as part of a US and NATO alliance with Sunni dictatorships against Iran and Shia Muslims. The Saudi and Qatari monarchies, along with the Egyptian military, also provided arms, funding and Special Forces to aid the rebels in Libya. None of them are democracies so promoting democracy is not likely to be their main motive (22) – (30).
The motives for intervention among the Arab League and western governments are as much about their own power in the Middle East, rather than democracy or human rights, as the Russian and Chinese governments’ are. Syria provides Russia with a naval base in the Mediterranean, while Bahrain provides the US with a naval base in the Persian Gulf, the main export route for Middle Eastern oil to the net oil importing NATO governments. That’s why Russia had blocked intervention to stop the massacres in Syria and has even sent arms shipments to Syrian forces as they commit these crimes; and why the US and it’s allies did nothing about the massacres in Bahrain (except for the Saudis, who sent troops to ensure it would continue and prevent any concessions to the protesters from the king of Bahrain) (31).
Having seen what happened in Libya, i am sickened by what Assad's forces are doing, but a complete rebel victory might lead to similar brutality against anyone known or suspected to have supported Assad. The Libyan rebels may not be killing as many civilians as Gaddafi’s forces were, but they’re still torturing and murdering plenty of people on suspicion of being Gaddafi supporters.
What's needed is a balance of power between the two sides so neither feels it can torture and murder the supporters of the other.
The UN Resolution that the Arab League backed was a good peace plan for power sharing and reconciliation before elections and is still the best plan despite the Russian and Chinese vetoes.
Unless the US and it’s allies want to risk ending up at war with Russia any peace deal will require a deal between the US and it’s allies and the Russians and theirs.
After Iraq and Libya it's not hard to see why Russia and China, apart from their own self-interest, didn't trust NATO governments to not go much further than the Resolution allowed them to, but that doesn't make the main parts of the plan in the Resolution they vetoed any less valid.
The problem is that the Syrian government has to fear foreign sanctions and/or support for the rebels enough to make a real deal with the rebels, but the rebels have to fear losing enough to be willing to compromise with a government that they have very good reasons to hate; and both have to believe they’re strong enough that the other side will be forced to make genuine compromises, but not so strong that they could defeat it completely. That will be a very difficult balance to achieve. The sad truth is that whatever governments outside Syria do now, there is a high risk of a long civil war. Ending the current civil war without either creating a longer one or letting whoever wins take brutal revenge on anyone suspected of having supported the losing side should be the aim now.
That first requires an end to the massacre in Homs though – which requires Assad’s regime to fear intervention by outside powers - and it’s hard to see how that can be done at all, since direct military intervention on the side of the rebels could lead to all out war with Russia. The Assad-Russian side may have a point that attacks by rebels would also have to end for any ceasefire and power sharing deal to happen, but no-one can believe their claims that all violence is the result of attacks by armed enemies of Assad’s government any more.
(1) = Amnesty International UK 24 Oct 2011 ‘Syria: Hospital patients subjected to torture and ill-treatment - New report’, http://www.amnesty.org.uk/news_details.asp?NewsID=19770
(2) = Amnesty International 01 Feb 2012 ‘Security Council: Russia must not block efforts to end atrocities in Syria ’, http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/security-council-russia-must-not-block-efforts-end-atrocities-syria-2012-02-01
(3) = Human Rights Watch 03 Feb 2012 ‘Syria: Stop Torture of Children’, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/02/03/syria-stop-torture-children
(4) = Medicines Sans Frontieres 08 Feb 2012 ‘Syria: medicine used as a weapon of persecution’, http://www.msf.org.uk/Syria_repression_20120208.news
(5) = guardian.co.uk 07 Feb 2012 ‘Syrian siege of Homs is genocidal, say trapped residents’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/07/syrian-homs-siege-genocidal-say-residents
(6) = Independent 24 Jun 2011 ‘Amnesty questions claim that Gaddafi ordered rape as weapon of war’, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/amnesty-questions-claim-that-gaddafi-ordered-rape-as-weapon-of-war-2302037.html
(7) = Guardian 24 Nov 2011 ‘Libyan rebels detaining thousands illegally, Ban Ki-moon reports’ , http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/nov/24/libya-illegal-detentions-un-report , ‘Libya's former rebels have illegally detained thousands of people, including women and children, according to the United Nations secretary general….Many of the 7,000 prisoners have been tortured, with some black Africans mistreated because of their skin colour, women being held under male supervision and children locked up alongside adults, the report by Ban Ki-moon found.’
(8) = BBC News 26 Jan 2012 ‘Libyan detainees die after torture, says Amnesty International’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-16741937 , ‘More than 8,500 detainees, most of them accused of being loyal to former Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi, are being held by militia groups in about 60 centres, according to UN human rights chief Navi Pillay.’
(9) = Independent 27 Jan 2012 ‘Free' Libya shamed by new torture claims’,http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/free-libya-shamed-by-new-torture-claims-6295394.html
(10) = Amnesty International 26 Jan 2012 ‘Libya: Deaths of detainees amid widespread torture’, http://www.amnesty.org/zh-hant/node/29388
(11) = Reuters 01 Feb 2012 ‘Rival Libyan militias fight gunbattle in capital’,http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/01/us-libya-tripoli-battle-idUSTRE81029420120201 ; ‘Rival militias fought a two-hour gunbattle over a luxury beach house being used as a barracks in the Libyan capital Wednesday…Militias have carved up Tripoli and the rest of Libya into competing fiefdoms, each holding out for the share of power they say they are owed.’
(12) = guardian.co.uk 17 Dec 2011 ‘Libyan scramble for £100bn in assets fractures the peace at Tripoli airport’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/dec/17/libya-tripoli-airport-assets-un
(13) = CNN 31 Aug 2005 ‘Audit: U.S. lost track of $9 billion in Iraq funds’, http://edition.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/meast/01/30/iraq.audit/
(14) = Reuters 24 Jan 2012 ‘Anger, chaos but no revolt after Libya violence’, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/24/libya-idUSL5E8CO2HB20120124 , ‘elders in the desert city…dismissed accusations they wanted to restore the late dictator's family to power or had any ambitions beyond their local area…."When men from Tripoli come into your house and harass women, what are we to do?" said Fati Hassan, a 28-year-old Bani Walid resident who described the men of May 28th as a mixture of local men and outsiders, former anti-Gaddafi rebels who had turned into oppressors when given control over the town….."They were arresting people from the first day after liberation. People are still missing. I am a revolutionary and I have friends in The May 28th Brigade," said Hassan, who said he urged them to ease off. "The war is over now."….."On Friday, the May 28th Brigade arrested a man from Bani Walid. After Bani Walid residents lodged a protest, he was finally released. But he had been tortured…."This caused an argument that escalated to arms.’
(15) = BBC News 24 Jan 2012 ‘Libya: Competing claims over Bani Walid fighting ’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-16702044 , A source within the Libyan government, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the BBC the fighting broke out after a group of former rebel fighters, the 28 May Brigade, arrested one person.
The fighting was "more a clash between local people regarding a difference of who this [arrested] person was," the source said. "But of course now other people seem to be involved as well. The situation is not very clear who is who. It's still confused."
(16) = NYT magazine 01 May 2005 ‘the way of the commandos’, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/01/magazine/01ARMY.html
(17) = The Nation 22 Jun 2009 ‘Iraq's New Death Squad’, http://www.thenation.com/article/iraqs-new-death-squad
(18) = BBC News 27 Jan 2005 'Salvador Option' mooted for Iraq’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/4209595.stm
(19) = Times 08 Aug 2005 ‘West turns blind eye as police put Saddam's torturers back to work’, http://www.infowars.com/articles/iraq/west_turns_blind_eye_saddams_torturers_at_work.htm
(20) = Amnesty International Annual Report 2011 – Iran,http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/iran/report-2011#section-64-6
(21) = Guardian 16 Jan 2012 ‘Corruption in Iraq: 'Your son is being tortured. He will die if you don't pay'’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jan
(22) = BBC News 13 Jan 2012 ‘ Shia protester 'shot dead' in Saudi Arabia’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-16543013 ‘At least one person has been killed and three others injured in clashes between security forces and Shia protesters in eastern Saudi Arabia, activists say.Issam Mohammed, 22, reportedly died when troops fired live ammunition after demonstrators threw stones at them in al-Awamiya, a town in the Qatif region.’
(23) = Amnesty International Annual Report 2011 – Saudi Arabia, http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/saudi-arabia/report-2011#section-121-5 and http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/saudi-arabia/report-2011#section-121-11
(24) = CNN 27 Jan 2012 ‘4 killed in protests in Bahrain, opposition group says’, http://articles.cnn.com/2012-01-27/middleeast/world_meast_bahrain-unrest_1_bahrain-center-bahraini-police-wefaq?_s=PM:MIDDLEEAST
(26) = CNN 04 Feb 2012 ‘Death toll climbs after Egypt soccer protests’, http://edition.cnn.com/2012/02/04/world/africa/egypt-soccer-deaths/index.html
(27) = Independent 07 Mar 2011 ‘America's secret plan to arm Libya's rebels - Obama asks Saudis to airlift weapons into Benghazi ’, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/americas-secret-plan-to-arm-libyas-rebels-2234227.html
(28) = Al Jazeera 03 Apr 2011 ‘Libyan rebels 'receive foreign training'’,http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2011/04/201142172443133798.html ; US and Egyptian special forces have reportedly been providing covert training to rebel fighters in the battle for Libya, Al Jazeera has been told….An unnamed rebel source related how he had undergone training in military techniques at a "secret facility" in eastern Libya.
(29) = Guardian.co.uk 23 Aug 2011 ‘Libya: battle for Tripoli – live blog – 5.50pm’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/middle-east-live/2011/aug/23/libya-battle-for-tripoli-live-blog#block-11 ; ‘Defence expert Robert Fox is telling the BBC special forces from Qatar and the UAE, with US, British and French training, are responsible for the successful attack on Tripoli. "It has been a genuine Arab coalition ... I think it was the Qataris that led them through the breach." He said William Hague was "dissembling" in his comments just now.’ ;
(30) = Go to the post on this link and see sources 7 to 14 on it
(31) = Amnesty International 01 Feb 2012 ‘Security Council: Russia must not block efforts to end atrocities in Syria ’, http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/security-council-russia-must-not-block-efforts-end-atrocities-syria-2012-02-01
(32) = Amnesty USA blog 30 Jan 2012 ‘U.S. Arms Sales to Bahrain: 4 Questions for the Obama Administration’, http://blog.amnestyusa.org/middle-east/u-s-arms-sales-to-bahrain-4-questions-for-the-obama-administration/
(33) = Amnesty International 26 Jan 2012 ‘Bahrain’s use of tear gas against protesters increasingly deadly’, http://www.amnesty.org/zh-hant/node/29403 ; ‘A Bahraini human rights group has reported at least 13 deaths resulting from the security forces’ use of tear gas against peaceful protesters as well as inside people’s homes since February 2011, with a rise in such deaths in recent months.
“The rise in fatalities and eyewitness accounts suggest that tear gas is being used inappropriately by Bahraini security forces, including in people’s homes and other confined spaces,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director.’
(34) = CNN 27 Jan 2012 ‘4 killed in protests in Bahrain, opposition group says’, http://articles.cnn.com/2012-01-27/middleeast/world_meast_bahrain-unrest_1_bahrain-center-bahraini-police-wefaq?_s=PM:MIDDLEEAST