The sudden reversion of Washington to a “war on terror” pretext for intervention in Syria confused western audiences. For three years, they watched “humanitarian intervention” stories, which poured contempt on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s assertion that he was fighting foreign-backed terrorists. Now, the USA claims to be leading the fight against those same terrorists. However, what do Syrians think, and why do they continue to support a man who the western powers claim is constantly attacking and terrorising “his own people?” To understand this, we must consider the huge gap between the western caricatures of Bashar al-Assad as a “brutal dictator” and the popular and urbane figure within Syria. If we believed most western media reports, we’d think that President Assad launched repeated and indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, including the gassing of children. We might also think that he heads an “Alawi régime”, where a 12 percent minority represses a Sunni Muslim majority, crushing a popular “revolution” which, only recently, was been “hijacked” by extremists.
The central problem with these portrayals is Bashar’s great popularity at home. The fact that there’s popular dissatisfaction with corruption and cronyism, and that an authoritarian state maintains a type of personality cult, doesn’t negate the man’s genuine popularity. His strong win in Syria’s first multi-candidate elections in June dismayed his regional enemies, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey; but it didn’t stop their aggression. Syrians saw things differently. They saw Bashar as maintaining his father’s pluralist and nationalist traditions, whilst modernising and holding out the promise of political reform. Opinion polls in Syria showed major dissatisfaction with corruption and political cronyism, mixed views on the economy, but strong satisfaction with stability, women’s rights, and the country’s independent foreign policy. The political reform rallies of 2011… countered by pro-government rallies and quickly overshadowed by violent insurrection… weren’t necessarily anti Bashar.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and other sectarian Islamist groups did hate him, as they also hated the secular state. Yet, even these enemies, in their better moments, recognised his popularity. In late 2011 a Doha Debates poll (created by the Qatari monarchy, a major backer of the Muslim Brotherhood) showed that 55 percent of Syrians wanted Assad to stay. Armed Islamists went further. In 2012, Reuters, the UK Guardian, and Time magazine reported three “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) leaders in Aleppo saying that Assad had about “70 percent” support; or that the local people, “all of them, are loyal to the criminal Bashar, they inform on us”; or that they’re “all informers … they hate us. They blame us for the destruction”. Of course, unpopularity is fatal to a revolution; to a religious fanatic, it’s merely inconvenient. All three FSA groups were Islamists on good terms with al-Qaeda. None of these revelations changed the western media reliance on Muslim Brotherhood-aligned sources, “activists” or “moderate rebels”. They relied, in particular, on UK-based Rami Abdul Rahman, who calls himself the “Syrian Observatory of Human Rights”. Such sources kept “Bashar the Monster” alive, outside Syria.
Central to the Bashar myth are two closely related stories… that of the “moderate rebel” and the story that conjures “Assad loyalists” or “régime forces” in place of a large dedicated national army, with broad popular support. To understand the Bashar myth we have to consider the Syrian Arab Army. At over half a million, the Army is so large that most Syrian communities have strong family links, including with those fallen in the war. There are regular ceremonies for families of these “martyrs”, with thousands proudly displaying photos of their loved ones. Further, most of the several million Syrians displaced by the conflict haven’t left the country, but rather have moved to other parts under Army protection. This would be inexplicable if the Army were indeed engaged in “indiscriminate” attacks on civilians. A repressive army invokes fear and loathing in a population, yet, one can see that people do not cower as they pass through the many army road blocks in Damascus, set up to protect against “rebel” car bombs.
Syrians know there were abuses against demonstrators in early 2011; they also know that Assad dismissed the Governor of Dara for this. They know that the armed insurrection wasn’t a consequence of the protests, but rather a sectarian insurrection that took cover under those rallies. Saudi official Anwar el-Eshki admitted to the BBC that his country provided weapons to Islamists in Dara, and their rooftop sniping closely resembled the Muslim Brotherhood’s failed insurrection in Hama, back in 1982. Hafez al-Assad crushed that revolt in a few weeks. Of the incident, US intelligence said that total casualties were probably “about 2,000” including “300 to 400” members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s élite militia. The Brotherhood and many western sources since inflated those numbers, calling it a “massacre”. Armed Islamists posing as civilian victims have a long history in Syria. Quite a number of Syrians criticised President Assad to me, but not in the way that the western media did. They say that they wanted him to be as firm as his father was. Many in Syria regard him as too soft, leading to the name “Mr Soft Heart”. Soldiers in Damascus told me there’s a general order to make special efforts to capture alive any Syrian combatant. This is controversial, as many regard them as traitors, no less guilty than foreign terrorists.
Well, what about the “moderate rebels?” Before the rise of ISIS, back in late 2011, the largest FSA brigade, the Farouk unit, the original “poster boys” of the “Syrian Revolution”, took over parts of Homs city. One US report called them “legitimate nationalists … pious and not Islamists, not motivated by sectarianism”. The International Crisis Group suggested that the Farouk troops might be “pious” rather than Islamist. The Wall Street Journal also called them “pious Sunnis” rather than Islamists. The BBC called them “moderately Islamist”. All this was false. Syrians in Homs said that Farouk went into the city with the genocidal slogan, “Alawis to the grave, Christians to Beirut”. Shouting, “God is Great”, they blew up Homs hospital, because it treated soldiers. The churches blamed Farouk for the ethnic cleansing of more than 50,000 Christians from the city, and for the imposition of an Islamist tax. Journalist Radwan Mortada says most Farouk members were sectarian Salafis, armed and funded by Saudi Arabia. They later happily worked with the various al-Qaeda groups, and were the first to blame their own atrocities on the Army.
Let’s consider some key accusations against the Syrian Arab Army. In May 2012, days before a UN Security Council meeting set to debate possible intervention in Syria, there was a terrible massacre of over 100 villagers at Houla. Western governments immediately blamed the Syrian Government, which in turn accused foreign-backed terrorists. Western officials at first blamed Army shelling, changing their story when it was clear that most died from close quarter injuries. One UN report (UNSMIS) was shelved, while another (CoI), co-chaired by US diplomat Karen Koning AbuZayd, blamed un-named pro-government “thugs”, giving no motives. Although the Houla massacre didn’t result in a Libya-style intervention because of opposition at the UN from Russia and China, controversy raged over the authors of this atrocity. German and Russian journalists, along with the Mother Superior of a Monastery, managed to interview survivors who said that a large Farouk battalion, led by Abdul Razzaq Tlass, overwhelmed five small army posts and slaughtered the villagers. The gang sought out pro-government and Alawi families, along with some Sunni families who’d took part in recent elections. One year later, a detailed, independent report (by Correggia, Embid, Hauben, and Larson) documented how the second UN Houla investigation (the CoI) was tainted. Rather than visiting Syria, they’d relied on Farouk leaders and associates to link them to witnesses. They ignored another dozen direct witnesses who contradicted the “rebel” story. In short, they tried to bury a real crime with identified perpetrators and a clear motive. As Adam Larson later wrote, the “official” Houla massacre story turned out to be “extremely ambiguous at best and at worst a fairly obvious crime of the US-supported Contras”.
Houla set the tone for a series of similar ‘false flag’ massacre claims. When 245 people were murdered in Daraya (August 2012), media reports citing “opposition” activists said, “Assad’s army committed a massacre”. British journalist Robert Fisk contradicted this, writing that the FSA slaughtered kidnapped civilian and off-duty soldier hostages, after a failed attempt to swap them for prisoners held by the army. Similarly, when rebels slaughtered 120 villagers at Aqrab (December 2013) the New York Times headline read “Members of Assad’s Sect Blamed in Syria Killings”. In fact, as British journalist Alex Thompson discovered, the victims, not the perpetrators, were Assad’s fellow Alawis. FSA groups had held 500 Alawis for nine days before the fleeing gangs murdered a quarter of them. Yet, without close examination, each accusation seemed to add to the crimes of the Syrian Army, at least to those outside Syria. Another line of attack was that there was “indiscriminate” bombing of rebel-held areas, resulting in civilian casualties. The relevant question was, “How did they dislodge armed groups from urban centres?” Those interested can see some detail of this in the liberation of Qusayr, a town near the Lebanese border, which Farouk and other Salafi groups, including foreigners, had occupied. The Army carried out “surgical attacks”, but in May 2013, after the failure of negotiations, decided on an all-out assault. They dropped leaflets from planes, calling on civilians to evacuate. Anti-government groups stopped many from leaving, whilst an “activist” spokesman claimed that there was “no safe exit for civilians”. In opportunistic criticism, the US State Department expressed “deep concern” over the leaflet drop, claiming that “ordering the displacement of the civilian population” showed “the régime’s continuing brutality”. As it happened, on 5 June, the Army, backed by Hezbollah, liberated Qusayr… they drove the remnants of Farouk, the FSA, and their al-Qaeda partners into Lebanon. This operation, in principle at least, was what one would expect of any army facing terrorist groups embedded in civilian areas. At this point, the war began turning decisively in Syria’s favour.
Accusations of “indiscriminate bombing” recur. In opportunist questioning, more than a year later, British journalist John Snow demanded of Syrian Presidential adviser Dr Bouthaina Shaaban why the Syrian Army hadn’t driven ISIS from Aleppo. A few questions later, he attacked the Army for its “indiscriminate” bombing of that same city. The fact is, most fighting in Syrian urban areas is by troops on the ground. The most highly politicised atrocity was the chemical attack of August 2013, in the Eastern Ghouta region, just outside Damascus. For months, the Syrian Government complained about terrorist gas attacks and invited UN inspectors to Damascus. As these inspectors arrived, “rebel” groups posted videos on dead children online, blaming the Syrian Government for a new massacre. The US government and the Washington-based Human Rights Watch were quick to agree. The UN investigation of Islamist chemical attacks stalled, as attention moved to the gassed children. The western media demanded military intervention. Only a Russian intervention and a proposal that Syria hand over its chemical weapons stockpile (a stockpile it maintained it never used) defused a major escalation of the war.
Saturation reporting of the East Ghouta incident led many western journalists to believe that the charges against the Syrian Government were true. To the contrary, a series of independent reports systematically demolished those claims. Very soon after, a Jordan-based journalist reported that residents in the East Ghouta area blamed “Saudi Prince Bandar … of providing chemical weapons to an al-Qaeda linked rebel group”. Next, a Syrian group led by Mother Agnes Mariam provided a detailed examination of the video evidence, saying the massacre videos preceded the attack and used “staged” and “fake” images. Detailed reports also came from outside Syria. Veteran American journalist Seymour Hersh wrote that US intelligence evidence was fabricated and “cherry-picked … to justify a strike against Assad”. A Turkish lawyers’ and writers’ group said, “Most of the crimes against Syrian civilians, including the East Ghouta attack, were committed by armed rebel forces in Syria”. Most likely, the Saudi-backed FSA group Liwa al-Islam was responsible for the chemical attack on Ghouta. A subsequent UN report didn’t allocate blame, but confirmed that chemical weapons were used on at least five occasions in Syria. On three occasions, they were used “against soldiers and civilians”. The clear implication was that these were anti-government attacks by rebels. MIT investigators Lloyd and Postol concluded that the Sarin gas “couldn’t possibly have been fired … from Syrian Government-controlled areas”. Despite the definitive nature of these reports, combined, neither the US Government nor Human Rights Watch retracted or apologised for their false accusations. Indeed, western government and media reports repeat the claims as though they were fact, even falsely enlisting UN reports, at times, as corroboration.
When I met President Assad, with a group of Australians, his manner was entirely consistent with the pre-2011 image of the mild-mannered eye doctor. He expressed deep concern with the impact on children of witnessing terrorist atrocities as fanatics shouted, “God is Great”. The man is certainly no brute, in the manner of Saddam Hussein or George W Bush. The key factor in Syria’s survival is the cohesion, dedication, and popular support for the Army. Syrians know that their Army represents pluralist Syria and that it fights sectarian foreign backed terrorism. This Army didn’t fracture on sectarian lines, as the Takfiris had hoped, and defections have been small, certainly less than 2 percent. Has the Army committed abuses? Probably it has, but mainly against members of armed groups. There’s some evidence of execution of foreign terrorists. That’s certainly a crime, but probably has a fair degree of popular support in Syria, now. The main constraint on such abuses seems to be a binding general order from “Mr Soft Heart”, to save the lives of Syrian rebels.
However, despite the repeated claims by sectarian Islamists and their western backers, there isn’t any convincing evidence that the Syrian Army deliberately bombed and gassed civilians. Nor would there be a motive for it. Nor does the behaviour of people on the streets support it. Most Syrians don’t blame their army for the horrendous violence of this war, but rather the foreign-backed terrorists. These are the same terrorists backed by the governments of the USA, UK, and France, hiding behind the fig-leaf of the mythical “moderate rebel” whilst reciting their catalogue of fabricated accusations. The high participation rate (73 percent) in June’s presidential elections, despite the war, was at least as significant as the strong vote (88 percent) Bashar received. Even the BBC couldn’t hide the large crowds that came out to vote, especially those that mobbed the Syrian Embassy in Beirut. Participation rates are nowhere as near in the USA… indeed, no western leader can claim such a strong democratic mandate as this “dictator” has. The size of Bashar’s win underlines a stark reality… there never was a popular uprising against this man; frankly, his popularity has grown.
30 September 2014
Senior Lecturer in Political Economy
University of Sydney (Sydney NSW AUSTRALIA)