The Syrian government, the armed rebels and foreign governments involved in Syria are deceiving themselves in believing that what they want is what’s best for everyone, in believing that a complete military victory over the other side is possible, and in believing that such a victory would benefit even their own side.
The US and British governments are as fond of saying that Assad, Russia and Iran are destabilising Syria and the Middle East as Assad and the Russian and Iranian governments are of saying that NATO and its Arab allies arming the rebels is doing the same. They are each deceiving themselves in the commonest ways possible, assuming that what they want and what’s good for everyone else is the same thing; and that what they want themselves and what’s good for them is the same thing too.
This is not an unusual fault, but in this situation its one that’s killing a lot of people who would otherwise still be alive and leaving a lot of families mourning who wouldn’t be otherwise.
In fact a military victory for either side is likely to lead to more atrocities against the losers and civilians known or suspected of supporting them ; and each side stepping up training, arms and money supplies to their proxies may just result in a long bloody civil war in which civilians suffer most and the most extreme groups like Al Qa’ida grow stronger.
(“Stability” here obviously means, as Chomsky points out, not stability at all but “our influence or control there”).
In focusing on overthrowing Assad to weaken the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance NATO governments and the Sunni ruled dictatorships of the Gulf Co-operation Council are handing another country as a base to Al Qa’ida and similar extreme Islamists, just as in Iraq and Libya. This is in no-one’s real interests. Al Qa’ida is a far more dangerous and extremist enemy than Iran (1).
The Assad regime and the rebels are also deceiving themselves, believing that they can achieve peace and justice through civil war, through crushing their enemies totally and without compromise. The factions in Lebanon did the same for 15 bloody years, from 1975 to 1990, before they finally realised that none of them were ever going to win a complete victor over the others and agreed to share power instead. Will the Syrian factions spend 15 years and tens of thousands more lives before they face up to the same reality?
It’s easy also to deceive ourselves into seeing one side or the other in Syria as the villains and the other as all basically decent, and so believe that victory for one or the other will set everything right.
Rebel fanatic terrorists Vs sane secular Assad government?
Some say all the rebels are crazy religious fanatics who want to murder everyone who doesn’t share their beliefs, while Assad’s secular government is sane and defending itself against extremist terrorists. There is some truth in that. Al Qa’ida / Al Nusrah are among the rebels and the vast majority of the rebels are Sunni Islamists of varying degrees of sectarianism or non-sectarianism, extremism or moderation. There have been some massacres of Shia and Alawites and ethnic cleansing of Christians on a large scale. Al Qa’ida have even executed a 15 year old boy who for supposed blasphemy in mentioning Mohammed in an argument over the price of coffee he was selling (2).
This is not the whole truth though. Secular governments can be brutal, extremist dictatorships, like Stalin’s, Pol Pot’s, Hitler’s, Saddam’s or Assad’s. Assad’s forces have carried out a campaign of rape, torture and murder against civilians, including children (3) – (7).
We only know about the 15 year old executed by Al Qa’ida only because the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad exile group, reported it as a crime. While many other rebels, including much of the FSA, have fought alongside Al Nusrah and Al Qa’ida some of them have fought against both those groups as well as against and Assad (9) – (12).
While many of the conscripts who have defected to the rebels are Sunnis, the vast majority of the Syrian professional military are Alawites, of the same religion as Assad.
Some of the most notorious rebels, like Abu Sakkar, the Sunni rebel leader who had himself filmed eating the lungs of a dead soldier and saying he and his men would kill and eat the hearts and livers of the Alawites, started out as peaceful anti-sectarian protesters, but decided after seeing other unarmed protesters killed around them by government soldiers and women in their family raped by government soldiers, that taking up arms was their only option. Such people are not necessarily monsters (13).
They may be decent people disfigured by atrocities and war. I would never mutilate anyone’s body, but who could say that if they had seen their peaceful protest met with death, rape and torture they might not have decided that fighting to the death was the only option? Who can say that if people they loved were murdered, raped or tortured by their government that they wouldn’t want revenge at all costs? Not me.
There are also claims that polls show the majority of Syrians support Assad. Apart from the virtual impossibility of carrying out a poll during a civil war, the only poll reported by any reliable source, supposedly showing 55% of Syrians supporting Assad, was an online poll of Arab countries in which only 97 of the respondents were Syrian. Even if online polls were reliable (and they’re not) 97 is far too few to judge anything from (14).
Brutal murderous Assad dictatorship Vs Rebels forced to fight to defend themselves?
Others say that Assad is a brutal sectarian, murdering, torturing dictator who responded to peaceful protests with bullets and torture, and that only overthrowing him and his regime will bring peace, justice and democracy. Again, this is part of the truth, but not the whole truth.
Assad’s regime, like his father’s, has been a dictatorship based on hereditary rule and the dominance of one religion as much as the Saudi monarchy’s. Peaceful protests were met with sniper fire, jailings, torture and rape.
However many Syrian Alawites, Shia Muslims, Druze and Christians fear sectarian Sunni Muslim rebels far, far more than they fear Assad, with good reason. Assad’s forces attack those who they know or suspect of opposing him, while Sunni religious fanatics among the rebels want to kill or expel anyone who is not a Sunni Muslim, just for not being a Sunni. Large numbers of the refugees fleeing Syria are Christians fleeing the rebels, or people who support neither side and just want to escape the fighting (15) – (19).
The practice of kidnapping and torturing people just to extract money from their families, practiced by militias on both sides of the Iraqi civil war and by the US trained Iraqi Police Commandos today too, has also been adopted by many of the Sunni rebels in Syria including some of the FSA , criminal gangs, and Assad’s Shabiha too (the Shabiha and many of the rebels, like militias in the civil wars of the former Yugoslavia are partly in the war for money and loot and as in Yugoslavia US sanctions plus civil war have made war and kidnapping into businesses) (20) – (22).
Not all Sunnis oppose Assad either. Some of his air force pilots are among the minority of Sunnis in the professional military. Two of the most senior Sunni clerics in Syria spoke out to support Assad and condemn the rebels as not true Muslims. One of them was assassinated by the rebels in a suicide bombing attack on a mosque which also killed many others praying there (23) – (24).
We can speculate on whether these Sunnis support Assad out of fear of him or out of opposition to the fanaticism and extremism of many of the rebels, but it’s as likely to be the latter as the former.
While the majority of the pro-Assad Shabiha militias are made up of Alawites, there are some are Sunnis, for instance in Aleppo (26) – (27).
Assad’s forces are not the only ones torturing people or murdering civilians. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have reported on the torture and execution of prisoners of the rebels, civilian and combatant alike. They have also carried out sectarian murders and massacres and many terrorist car bombings.
Assad also scrapped the single party state in Syria last year and held the first multi-party parliamentary elections, though some of the opposition boycotted them (29). This makes his government less undemocratic than the pro-Syrian-rebel Saudi Arabia, where the only elected officials are local councillors and they are only there for show, complaining that they have no power to do anything.
Assad and his supporters also fear that they, their communities, their supporters and their families may be massacred, tortured to death or made refugees by their opponents and Sunni extremists. This is not an irrational fear, many already have been, whether for supporting Assad or just being the wrong religion (30).
Why many Syrians say negotiations are a more realistic solution
than fighting or arming each side
Both sides believe they are protecting their communities against murdering fanatics.
The question both sides have to ask themselves is “How will more civil war protect me and my family and friends and community?”. The answer is that it won’t. Every revenge killing, every act of torture against the other side puts your side’s people at greater risk and makes it more likely the war will go on longer. You may never achieve victory either. It may all turn out be pointless, as it was for 15 years for Lebanon, as it has been for 13 years in Iraq. You may have to accept that sharing power with your enemies and making peace with them is the only way out. So why not do it now before more of the people you love are hurt or dead?
Syrian rebels may say they tried peaceful protest and it was met with bullets. True, but Assad will sooner or later have to face up to the fact that he can’t win outright given the NATO and Arab governments’ arms, training and funding for the rebels along with the Muslim Brotherhood’s. He has already had to concede an end to the one party state and parliamentary elections. In negotiations he will have to concede more.
And if you overthrow Assad by force, what then? Al Nusrah and its allies will keep fighting against their opponents and rivals among the rebels. Many of the rebel fighters take no orders from anyone but themselves. Al Nusrah and its allies might well win such a war.
The Syrian governments’ supporters may say their enemies include fanatics and terrorists who can’t be allowed to win. That’s true. The rebels can’t be entirely defeated either though – and every attempt to crush such movements has failed, only making them stronger, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan – and not all the opposition are violent and not all the armed ones are extremists. Sharing power with the opposition will strengthen those among the opposition who are against civil war and violence ; and reduce the influence of the armed rebels and the most extreme among them, like Al Nusrah. If Al Nusrah try to fight on they will be isolated.
Many Syrians say they don’t care who the government is, so long as the fighting and killing ends and that’s been the case for a long time with much of the opposition to Assadin exile also opposing a civil war to overthrow his government. (31) – (34).
When will those in power listen and learn?
As one Syrian professor stuck in the middle of the fighting in Damascus said recently “Stop the killing! The more killing takes place, the more hatred is sown, and the more difficult it will be to rebuild.” (35)
Similar warnings have been made in other wars before. After the September 11th attacks killed her husband Craig Amundsen, Amber Amundsen said “We cannot solve violence with violence. Revenge is a self-perpetuating cycle. Gandhi said, ‘An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.’ ….I ask our nation's leaders not to take the path that leads to more widespread hatreds — that make my husband's death just one more in an unending spiral of killing. I call on our national leaders to find the courage to respond to this incomprehensible tragedy by breaking the cycle of violence.” (36)
Her government did not listen. Twelve years, thousands of NATO troops and tens of thousands of dead Afghan civilians later, they are negotiating with the Taliban. So why not start the negotiations in Syria now instead of losing thousands more lives in another decade of pointless fighting?
After the invasion of Iraq in 2004 Adnan Pachachi of the Iraqi governing council warned the US government and military not to take revenge for the killing of 4 American Blackwater military contractors and the mutilation of their bodies by attacking the entire city of Falluja. “More violence will cause more violence and this will be an endless spiral.” he warned (37).
They did not listen, killing 600 civilians including 300 women and children in revenge, by firing indiscriminately on anyone they saw including civilians, ambulances, medics and the wounded (38) – (39). Six years later the US withdrew from Iraq with over 3,000 US troops and over 100,000 Iraqi civilians dead. It did not end terrorist attacks on the US or its allies. Al Qa’ida has grown strong in Iraq and set up its Syrian branch Al Nusrah.
The professor in Damascus has warned us again. Will enough people listen to him this time?
This may seem idealistic or unrealistic to some, but is a civil war in which there is no justice for anyone, only suffering and death and grieving and atrocities by both sides, and extremists gaining ground every day, a more realistic solution? The people of Lebanon didn’t think so after 15 years of it – and many of the people of Syria don’t think so 2 years into theirs.
There are already some small scale local ceasefires, like one organised by the head of a Sunni tribe in the city of Talakakh (40). A power sharing agreement could make them solid across the whole country.
So what will everyone involved do, Syrians and foreign governments? Is it victory at any cost in Syrian lives, including thousands of civilians and children? At any cost in strengthening Al Qa’ida? Or will they do what’s really best for Syrians and really best for other countries and persuade the factions they back to negotiate a compromise instead?
(1) = Reuters 14 Nov 2011 ‘Syria urges Arab League to reconsider suspension’,
http://www.jpost.com/MiddleEast/Article.aspx?id=245466 ; ‘Gabriel Ben-Dor, director of national security studies at the University of Haifa… Ben-Dor said the decision should also be viewed within the context of Arab and Western attempts to contain an emboldened Iran.…“They’re hoping to dismantle the axis of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah... to isolate Iran even more by depriving it of its only major ally in the Middle East.”’
(2) = Al Jazeera 09 Jun 2013 ‘Syrian rebels 'execute teenager' in Aleppo’, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/06/201369175918244221.html
(3) = Human Rights Watch 15 Jun 2012 ‘Syria: Sexual Assault in Detention - Security Forces Also Attacked Women and Girls in Raids on Homes’,
(4) = BBC News 25 Sep 2012 ‘Syria ex-detainees allege ordeals of rape and sex abuse’,
(5) = Human Rights Watch 17 May 2013 ‘Syria: Visit Reveals Torture Chambers’,
(6) = Human Rights Watch 10 Apr 2012 ‘In Cold Blood - Summary Executions by Syrian Security Forces and Pro-Government Militias’, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2012/04/09/cold-blood-0
(7) = Human Rights Watch World Report 2013 – Syria ,
(8) = CBC News 07 Dec 2012 ‘Free Syrian Army an uneasy mix of religious extremes’
http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2012/12/06/f-vp-bedard-syrian-rebels.html (scroll down to sub-heading ‘Abandoning Secularism’)
(9) = See (2) above
(10) = Guardian 30 Jul 2012 ‘Al-Qaida turns tide for rebels in battle for eastern Syria’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jul/30/al-qaida-rebels-battle-syria
(11) = Independent 15 May 2003 ‘Syrian civil war: The day I met the organ eating cannibal rebel Abu Sakkar's fearsome followers’,
(12) = Time 26 Mar 2013 ‘In Syria, the Rebels Have Begun to Fight Among Themselves’, http://world.time.com/2013/03/26/in-syria-the-rebels-have-begun-to-fight-among-themselves/
(13) = See (11) above
(14) = BBC News 25 Feb 2012 ‘Do 55% of Syrians really want President Assad to stay?’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17155349
(15) = Independent 18 Feb 2012 'Syrians flee their homes amid fears of ethnic cleansing',http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syrians-flee-their-homes-amid-fears-of-ethnic-cleansing-7079802.html ; 'Members of Syria's minority Alawite community are fleeing their homes and going into hiding, terrified that avenging rebels will hunt them down as more areas of the country come under the control of fighters trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad. '
(16) = Independent 02 Aug 2012 ‘'What will happen to us?': Loyalists fear rebel attacks’, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/what-will-happen-to-us-loyalists-fear-rebel-attacks-7999495.html
(17) = NYT 19 Jun 2013 ‘The Price of Loyalty in Syria’,
(18) = Los Angeles Times 07 Mar 2012 'Syria Christians fear life after Assad', http://articles.latimes.com/2012/mar/07/world/la-fg-syria-christians-20120307
(19) = Independent 02 Nov 2012 ‘The plight of Syria's Christians: 'We left Homs because they were trying to kill us'’, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/the-plight-of-syrias-christians-we-left-homs-because-they-were-trying-to-kill-us-8274710.html
(20) = BBC News ‘Syrians live in fear as kidnappings increase’,
(21) = Telegraph 07 Sep 2012 ‘Epidemic of kidnappings breaks out in Syria’, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9528698/Epidemic-of-kidnappings-breaks-out-in-Syria.html
(22) = Syria Deeply 06 Jun 2013 ‘In Syria, Kidnapping Becomes a ‘Big-Money Business’, interview with Peter N. Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch,
(23) = LA Times 13 Mar 2013 ‘Syria denies mass conscription, says military remains strong’,
(24) = Wall Street Journal 21 Mar 2013 ‘Top Cleric Killed, With Dozens More, at Syrian Mosque’, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324103504578374580724798360.html
(25) = Guardian.co.uk 31 May 2012 ‘Ghosts of Syria: diehard militias who kill in the name of Assad’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/may/31/ghosts-syria-regime-shabiha-militias
(26) = Time 11 Jun 2012 ‘The Wrath of the Shabiha: The Assad Regime’s Brutal Enforcers’, http://world.time.com/2012/06/11/the-wrath-of-the-shabiha-the-assad-regimes-brutal-enforcers/
(27) = Reuters 03 Feb 2012 ‘Uprising finally hits Syria's "Silk Road" city’, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/03/us-syria-aleppo-idUSTRE81213720120203
(28) = BBC News 29 May 2012 ‘Syria unrest: Who are the shabiha?’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-14482968
BBC News 16 May 2012 ‘Syria election results show support for reforms, says Assad’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-18084827 3rd paragraph ‘The election commission said on Tuesday that turnout was 51% for the polls, which the opposition said were a farce.’ 18th paragraph…The polls were the first held under a new constitution adopted in February, which dropped an article giving the Baath Party unique status as the "leader of the state and society" in Syria. It also allowed new parties to be formed, albeit those not based on religious, tribal, regional, denominational or professional affiliation, nor those based abroad.
(30) = See (16) above
(31) = Independent 20 Jun 2013 ‘‘We don’t care who rules us, we just want to live’: After a year of fighting, most Damascans are simply weary of the battle for Syria’,
(32) = guardian.co.uk 20 Aug 2012 ‘Pursued by violence, pawns in Syrian conflict await an endgame’ , http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/aug/20/pawns-syrian-conflict-await-endgame
(33) = Guardian 22 Jun 2012 ‘Syria's opposition has been led astray by violence’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/22/syria-opposition-led-astray-by-violence
(34) = Guardian 18 Dec 2012 ‘Syria: after Assad falls, what then?’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/18/after-assad-falls-what-then
(35) = Independent 20 Jun 2013 ‘Letters: Let’s not fuel the flames in Syria’, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/letters/letters-lets-not-fuel-the-flames-in-syria-8666958.html
(36) = PBS Now 02 Jan 2002 ‘Amber Amundson's Letters’,
(37) = Guardian 08 Apr 2004 ‘Battles rage from North to South’,
(38) = Iraq Body Count 26 Oct 2004 ‘No Longer Unknowable: Falluja's April Civilian Toll is 600’, http://www.iraqbodycount.org/analysis/reference/press-releases/9/
(39) = BBC News 23 Apr 2004 ‘Picture emerges of Falluja siege’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3653223.stm(40) = Guardian.co.uk 18 Feb 2013 ‘In a small corner of Syria, rebels attempt to reconcile’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/18/syrian-city-truce-sheikh