I think I might have made reference before to a Beirut-based British journalist called Robert Fisk. He writes for the British daily newspaper "The Independent", among others. Over the years, I've considered him a bit or a left wing reactionary. Also, I have to say I've also seen him lately as an increasingly rambling old man who's spent too much team with secular Arab "intellectuals", to the point that he's started writing quintessentially Arab op-eds, that leave you wondering "so what is your point, then?" If you've ever had the dubious pleasure of reading a self-consciously "high-brow" editorial think-piece by a prominent Egyptian, you'll know what I mean (sorry Egyptians, but YOU know what I mean too!)
But he's back to journalism at the moment, and has been in Syria. A couple of months ago, I asked readers what they'd like me to write about, and one of the few specific requests was for a viewpoint on what's happening in Syria. I've been meaning to do so for ages, but either too busy or sometimes just too angry, to try to write something coherent. However, reading Mr Fisk's article a few weeks ago reminded me. And another one yesterday finally brought me to the keyboard. So it's back to "ramblings that take three hours to read", as Mr Mutt put it!
Amidst all the undoubtedly awful, ill-conceived, ill-disciplined and excessive reactions that the Syrian Government has made since the insurgency began, they have finally done something sensible for their own international image: they've taken an overt critic of "the Assad regime" (his words not that long ago, and those of most Western media these days) and put him alongside Syrian army soldiers. The "critic" in question, is Robert Fisk. A man who has openly condemned Bashar as a "dictator", and made no equivocation over his support for any and all forces for "democracy" and freedom of speech around the region. As the region in question is one where shooting oneself in the foot, in public, twice, is the public relations default for most governments, this is quite some progress from the Syrians.
So back to the point: in this article, Fisk describes being allowed to wander alone with ordinary Syrian soldiers, as well as talk to their more on-message senior officers. He was also allowed to speak alone to foreign terrorist prisoners. If you're only ever heard about the "war" or "revolution" from Sky News, Fox, or indeed the increasingly sectarian mainstream Arab media, you might find reading this a surprise. In short, this is one of the first major news editorials to say credibly, and first hand, that not every Syrian wants to have a sectarian civil war, and that much of it really is being fueled from outside.
Having applied, or been invited, to spend time in Syria as a well-known liberal foreign journalist, it's refreshing to hear a first-hand story put in such a balanced way. Contrast quickly with some kevlar-wearing half-wit from Sky talking about "snipers" and "massacres" and "the Free Syrian Army", and it's easy to spot the difference between news that comes through a single interpreter (provided by an insurgent group), and news that comes from long-standing experience in the region, at least a basic understanding of Arabic, and talking to both sides.
I suspect the Syrians also chose Fisk to have this privileged access because of his anti-war articles about Iraq, and his generally hostile attitude to GCC "dictatorships", especially Saudi Arabia. But their wisdom was in choosing a credible and openly cynical "Middle East expert" of many years' standing, who would neither be afraid to contradict the prevailing line, nor deviate from his contention that he didn't like the Syrian Government either.
So when Fisk saw elderly Syrian civilians coming out and hugging the army when they entered Aleppo, he wrote about it, and although he's second-guessed all the lines he's been given from Syrian generals etc., they've been smart enough to let him have unguarded conversations with ordinary soldiers, foreign jihadis recently arrested, and members of the public who have sympathies either way or neither. Even though Fisk says he thinks the prisoners have been mistreated on arrest and quotes them saying so, and even though he's condemning the tactics of the Syrian army in Aleppo, in fact, because he's doing those things...his message that the Syrian goverment is correct in saying they're fighting a forieng-sponsored terrorists insurgency, at least to a point, is at last getting out. I hope it goes further, and with such credibility, as I've been ranting on about the same for a long time.
To me, this all looks too much like the Libya situation all over again: some genuine popular discontent, much of it based on rivalries and grievances with sectarian, regional, economic, and all sorts of other angles, directed against the government in protests -some peaceful, some not. All of this inspired, of course, by the domino effect of the "Arab Spring". The Syrian government react harshly, as usual, and just as Libya and others did. But then, just like in Libya, and for what insane reason I still can't grasp entirely, the "West" not only jump on the bandwagon, but start sponsoring self-proclaimed opposition groups outside Syria. They also encourage others to fund and arm insurgents (again just like in Libya), and end up backing Al Qaida against a sovereign (and secular) government. Of course, we've seen brought home only last month how grateful extremist groups are a year later for support from the "West". As we now know, prior to the protests about the notorious internet movie - that just provided serendipitous cover on the day- a group planned the storming of the US Consulate in Benghazi, and the assassination of the visiting US Ambassador.
But still the war-mongering and "enemy of my enemy is my friend" fallacy, rumble on. Thankfully, unlike with Libya, Russia and China have stood in the way of air strikes on the Syrian Government and military infrastructure. No doubt they are well aware of how the Libyan experiment turned out so far - even though that is a super wealthy country that could theoretically spend its way out of social problems. Russia also has a strategic base in Syria that might be at risk, but that's to over-simplify the point, I think. Not only are China and Russia increasingly confident in this global economic turmoil, but are well aware that neither the American nor British public have any mind to see a war that involves spending more billions, and possibly having familiar pink faces dying in the sand. And perhaps they can also see that this escapade has no good outcome among the variables.
So, unable to bomb another "dictator" directly, the process of equipping, training, inciting and cheerleading the armed terrorist insurgency in Syria continues. The Saudis and Qataris provide the money and guns, and encourage the terrorists to go over there. The Al Qaida types who were in Libya and Tunisia etc, now have a new place to go and shoot at people. Desperate and despondent suicide bombers are recruited from Palestine, and mind-mangled Salafi converts from Turkey and anywhere else, are invited to the party. Then alongside them, in an alliance that is so bizarre it's almost funny, British, American and French special forces (and Turkish, of course), provide intelligence, training and "non-lethal" equipment (actual guns come from Saudi, as I mentioned - "plausible deniability" is the term, I think), to anyone who's willing to shoot a Syrian policeman in the name of "freedom".
So, for the love of God, why? Well, of course Iran has a good relationship with Syria. Syria is run by non- Sunnis. Iran is also already running the show in Iraq, through skilled manipulation of its Shia-majority politics. Whereas Turkey is in NATO, and Sunni. The GCC countries, aligned firmly with the West, are also run by Sunnis (one notable exception, of course!), and in at least two cases, Sunnis who are trying to control internal strife that they blame on Shia, and Iran.
Therefore, the "revolution" in Syria is a chance for both the West, and the Gulfie Salafis who believe they are already fighting Iran in Bahrain, and to a degree in Saudi Arabia, to knock over an Iranian ally. The goal seems to be, then, to replace Bashar's minority Alawite govermnent, with a Sunni who will be a Saudi ally against Iranian influence.
But of course, they're all idiots. Even if this so-called "opposition" won, which it can't because it's not one force any more than the Libyan one was, and even if there emerged a new Sunni/Salafi led government hostile to Iran, such a government would not stay a Western ally for long. It would be far more interested in fighting to liberate the Golan from Israel, than in fighting from a distance with Iran. With Syria's own territory, and a newly-repaired common cause with the Palestinians against Israel that would be inevitable, there would be another great irony: just as Iran supports the Salafi-influenced Hamas in Palestine, a reparation, re-arming and re-calibrating of Iranian relations with the "new Syria", would happen quicker than you can say "f*ck Israel".
The fact is, in typically Middle Eastern fashion, that for all their rivalries and proxy wars, Saudi Arabia and Iran and their various acolytes, also have common cause from time to time. If anything, Bashar with his "talk tough but do nothing" policy on Israel, is exactly the kind of secular stability that Israel and indeed the West, would wish for from a strategic point of view. But a newly theocratic "jihadist" regime in Damascus is going to have to live up to its warlike credentials. And that will mean less stability, a rapid cooling of relations with the West, a subsequent detachment of the GCC from their sectarian bedmates in fear of the terrorist hydra growing new heads, and ultimately, the headlong rush of the new Syrian government back into bed with Iran. Not just a state that supports Hamas, but a state that becomes Hamas - secular causes of liberation from the Occupier, Sunni-Salafi religious labels, and money and support from Shia Iran. No wonder nobody in Washington ever seems to understand what the hell is going on.
But they should. In Libya now, there is an ex Al Qaida detainee in charge of the armed forces, such as they are, with most armed men who aren't AQ-affiliated cadres, still belonging to their local or tribal militia rather than under any government control. There is still no prime minister or cabinet, because nobody will agree to be told what to do by a member of another faction. The former ruler was buggered with a stick and then murdered in the street on live television, and his son is still being held by the Misrata militia rather than handed over to either a Libyan court or the ICJ, because they want to be paid $12 million "expenses" for him. The East of the country is trying to take over the oil export infrastructure and secede, raising the spectre again of civil war. And in the mean time, as I mentioned, of course they murdered the US Ambassador to remind everyone whose friends are whose, and whose aren't.
So it's been a disaster, because all that talk of freedom and justice has just made Libya into a fragmented, unstable, terrorist-funding mess. Yet now the idea of exporting that to Syria seems to be popular because western leaders still don't get it, and because both they and the Saudis, are more interested in poking Iran in the eye than in what actually happens to Syria. It's pathetic, and it's criminal. Starting civil wars deliberately, to my mind, is a far bigger crime than invading Iraq was supposed to be: at least at that point, the goal was supposed to be to make Iraq better, deal with a (overblown, as it turned out) threat, and do so by putting their own troops on the line to die, while asking the UN to ensure a better system for the future. Of course, the justifications turned out to be empty - a shallow fabrication by cynical Iraqi exiles, designed to encourage eager and ignorant intelligence officials to rubber stamp a war that would deliver those same exiles into power and prestige. The Iraqi "regime change" was a disaster too, but at least there were some good intentions initially - however misguided.
The only intentions here, though, are to break something. Not to deal with a threat (phantom or real), not to liberate or re-construct, not even with some vague notion of "regional stability". Just, like Libya, a simple convenient bogeyman. In the case, a bogeyman who is also Iran's little friend. Attacking Iran directly is to messy a prospect. But undermining an Iranian ally is just fun.
So that's why i'm glad to hear an independent voice suggest that for all Syria's lies and infamies, not everything the Syrian Government says is a lie, and not all it does is infamous. The world needs to know that the image of a cohesive and popular opposition ready to "liberate" the Syrian people, is a nonsense fabricated by the same kind of people who formed the Iraqi "opposition", and sold fanciful tales of WMD to the CIA. The reality is that thousands of men in Syria are taking arms from the Gulf, training from the West, facilitation from Turkey, and shooting at the Government for any reason they like. Some have been wronged, some have a cause, some are religious extremists, and some just want to fight. Some of them are even Syrian. But what this civil war isn't, is good versus bad.
It's wrong from every possible angle. Ask the confused, terrified people who hugged the familiar figures of government soldiers as they rolled into Aleppo. Civil war might be exciting to watch, and support one team over another, in another country. But imagine that the protesters in your country last year were being armed by, say, Russia or China. That militiamen from other countries had come to fight for "your freedom" and were camping with their guns in your children's primary school or church, hoping to draw the police and army into a street battle. Ask yourself how much you'd love to see that, however much you hate your government.
Yesterday, Mr Fisk wrote about another nonsense, the canard that Syria is now a mighty aggressor attacking poor old Turkey. I love Turkey, actually, and its people. But it's a highly-militarised country, once said to have the largest standing army in NATO, and several times the size of Syria, also richer and more powerful in every possible way. Syrian soldiers might have been stupid to fire at insurgents over the border, and risking civilian lives is evil. But so is peddling the myth that some murderous drooling beast in Damascus, some Disney-cartoon villain, is sitting stroking his beard and cackling, perhaps in a turban and curly slippers, plotting with his evil henchmen on how to murder some babies. Turkey is smuggling arms and armed men into Syria to commit acts of terrorism. That is a bad thing. Read this for an interesting allegory.
So there's another epic rant over for now, and thanks for reading this far. I'm not an apologist for despotism, Syria, Iran, or even Robert bloody Fisk. But having seen a little of one, I maintain that War is Always the Greater Evil, and this one is no exception.