Sunday, July 29, 2012

Robert Fisk on the Syrian civil war and the US-British game there

Robert Fisk has shown himself over the last two decades to be one of the very best reporters on Middle Eastern affairs, especially when it comes to wars. His book The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (2005) is a great primer on the involvement of the West in the oil heartlands of the Middle East, the conflict that Andrew Bacevich calls The Long 20th Century. Fisk's book is also an unusually good read.

In Syrian war of lies and hypocrisy The Independent 07/29/2012, Fisk writes of the current situation where Western allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar fund and arm Sunni rebels in Syria:

Has there ever been a Middle Eastern war of such hypocrisy? A war of such cowardice and such mean morality, of such false rhetoric and such public humiliation? I'm not talking about the physical victims of the Syrian tragedy. I'm referring to the utter lies and mendacity of our masters and our own public opinion – eastern as well as western – in response to the slaughter, a vicious pantomime more worthy of Swiftian satire than Tolstoy or Shakespeare.
Foreign policy runs to a large degree on conventional hypocrisy. But sometimes the level of hypocrisy required to sustain a given policy can cause problems of its own, as we've seen in many ways in US involvement in the Middle East:

President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, say they want a democracy in Syria. But Qatar is an autocracy and Saudi Arabia is among the most pernicious of caliphate-kingly-dictatorships in the Arab world. Rulers of both states inherit power from their families – just as Bashar has done – and Saudi Arabia is an ally of the Salafist-Wahabi rebels in Syria, just as it was the most fervent supporter of the medieval Taliban during Afghanistan's dark ages. [my emphasis]
Qatar may allow Aljazeera to broadcast from its territory as long as it stays away from embarrassing reporting about Qatar, but neither Qatar nor our Saudi friends are likely to be keen on having democratic government in Syria.

The government of Syria is based on the support of the ʿAlawī minority which practices a variety of Islam often taken to be a variety of Shi'a Islam. ʿAlawī Islam as a distinct trend dates back to the 10th and 11th century. Their classical theology involves a variety of trinitarianism, not that God is three Persons as in the Christian doctrine but that God manifests himself in triads in history. Urban ʿAlawīs tend to be closer to the Twelver Shi'a than their rural co-religionists are.

Iran has been Syria's most important regional ally based in no small part on sectarian solidarity, though thanks to the US invasion of Iraq, the Shi'a government of Iraq is now an important regional friend of the regime, as well.

There is a mistake in Fisk article as of this writing. It quotes President Obama as saying, "Given the regime's stockpiles of nuclear weapons ..." The actual statement from his 07/23/2012 speech to the VFW was about chemical weapons: "And given the regime’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, we will continue to make it clear to Assad and those around him that the world is watching, and that they will be held accountable by the international community and the United States, should they make the tragic mistake of using those weapons."

But Fisk turns a jaded but not cynical eye on this situation. He certainly seems to care what happens in this region (Fisk lives in Lebanon):

But what US administration would really want to see Bashar's atrocious archives of torture opened to our gaze? Why, only a few years ago, the Bush administration was sending Muslims to Damascus for Bashar's torturers to tear their fingernails out for information, imprisoned at the US government's request in the very hell-hole which Syrian rebels blew to bits last week. Western embassies dutifully supplied the prisoners' tormentors with questions for the victims. Bashar, you see, was our baby.

Then there's that neighbouring country which owes us so much gratitude: Iraq. Last week, it suffered in one day 29 bombing attacks in 19 cities, killing 111 civilian and wounding another 235. The same day, Syria's bloodbath consumed about the same number of innocents. But Iraq was "down the page" from Syria, buried "below the fold", as we journalists say; because, of course, we gave freedom to Iraq, Jeffersonian democracy, etc, etc, didn't we? So this slaughter to the east of Syria didn't have quite the same impact, did it? Nothing we did in 2003 led to Iraq's suffering today. Right?
And he reminds us that from the point of view of Western capitals, the situation in Syria is a side-show to policy on Iran:

And all the while, we forget the "big" truth. That this is an attempt to crush the Syrian dictatorship not because of our love for Syrians or our hatred of our former friend Bashar al-Assad, or because of our outrage at Russia, whose place in the pantheon of hypocrites is clear when we watch its reaction to all the little Stalingrads across Syria. No, this is all about Iran and our desire to crush the Islamic Republic and its infernal nuclear plans – if they exist – and has nothing to do with human rights or the right to life or the death of Syrian babies.
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