Who, really, are the Syrian opposition? What are their goals? What is their real level of support amongst Syrians? These are fundamental questions in the Syrian conflict.
If we go along with most Western leaders, and the vast majority of news reporting across the board in Western media, we get a consistently oversimplified picture of a straightforward battle between good and evil, using the nuance-laden terms ‘the rebels’ vs ‘the regime’.
According to this conveniently dumbed-down version, ‘the rebels’ are apparently ‘freedom fighters for democracy’ and hugely supported, and ‘the regime’ is not liked or supported by anyone, only feared.
This is the one-dimensional – and so misleading it is basically just false – image, which has filled our news media consistently for the past two years, and to which we have become very accustomed having heard the same storyline almost daily over a long period.
However, after even quite a superficial inspection, this simplistic dominant scenario quickly proves to be misconceived and culpably misleading to the Western public. Much worse, this version of events is being used by pro-war politicians, and parroted to excess by news providers, as a reason for foreign nations to somehow achieve peace in Syria by arming ‘the good guys’ to fight ‘the bad guys’.
We the public must not passively accept the waving through by news media of politicians pushing for increased military intervention on inaccurate grounds, as happened so disastrously in Iraq 10 years ago. On the contrary, we need to demand independent accurate reporting.
So what’s wrong with the simple clearcut ‘good’ against ‘evil’, ‘rebels’ vs ‘regime’ story?
First of all, what independent evidence there is – in terms of a YouGov survey carried out as part of the Doha Debates in December 2011 and UN figures of internal refugee resettlement in government areas as opposed to opposition controlled – shows overwhelmingly that the majority of Syrian citizens want President Assad to stay in power. (1)
They want him to continue to lead a secular Syrian state, and to protect them from extremist jihadis, largely from outside the country, a great many, perhaps most, according to well respected sources, from the UN and US termed terrorist group al-Nusra.
Why is that turned on its head in the vast majority of news reporting, which emphatically takes the side of the opposition? The only logical explanation, we believe, eventually drawing apologies from many in the media following the echoing of false pretexts for war in Iraq, can be that there is a subservience to leading politicians in our news media and a desire to stay on good terms to have access to them.
We would certainly agree that there was a movement for democratic reform in Syria in early 2011, but all the available publicly reported in-depth analyses into the composition of the militarised opposition show that this peaceful movement was ‘railroaded’ by violent jihadi extremists with their own wholly undemocratic sharia state objectives for wanting to topple Assad.
Among the vast majority of Syrians there has been a major recoil against the commandeering of that movement by jihadi combatants, who would immediately be called “terrorists” in the West, if that did not run against the dominant ‘good rebels’ vs ‘bad regime narrative’.
Ethnic cleansing of Christians, the inculcation of Sunni v Shia sectarianism and the brutal enforcement of a fundamentalist version of Islam upon a hitherto very inclusive Syrian society have sounded alarm bells for the majority of citizens.
As a Sunni shopkeeper in Damascus puts it: “I wanted Assad to go because he is corrupt. But what happened here, what they [the jihadi militias] did, it scared me. It made me angry. I cannot support the murder of my neighbors in the name of change. You cannot bring democracy by killing innocent people or by burning the shrines of Shiites.” (2)
Used to living in a religiously tolerant country, Syrians naturally fear the type of sectarian breakdown being forged by jihadi extremists set against their government.
“If their revolution is for everyone, as they keep insisting it is, why are Christians being targeted? It is because what they are waging is not a struggle for freedom, and it’s certainly not for everyone.” (3)
So says this Christian from Homs, interviewed in the NY Times. Along with 80,000 other Christians he had to flee the Homs area as a result of violence against himself and his family at the hands of the so-called Free Syrian Army.
Why on earth is this mass ethnic cleansing of Christians by the jihadi dominated opposition militias (‘the rebels’) not reported, and instead turned on its head in Western media?
One can only assume that geopolitical objectives – surrounding Iran being high up there – are the ends that justify the means for top ranking politicians in the West, and that, as happened re Iraq, news providers are playing ball.
The popular support for Assad and the rejection and fear of foreign jihadi-dominated opposition forces is further demonstrated by a recent report to the UN agency for refugees which states that 85% of internally displaced Syrian refugees choose to find safety in government-controlled, rather than opposition-controlled areas (4). Surely if the opposition carried the support Western leaders and news reports assert, internal refugees would settle in areas they controlled.
Many of the opposition combatants have come from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Libya, Chechnya and Pakistan as well as from many Western countries; some as straightforward mercenaries, many for their jihadi convictions:
“Religious leaders in Qatar and elsewhere have issued fatwas – religious decrees – calling on Muslims to join the opposition forces” (5).
In November 2012 the Syrian government presented proof to the UN of foreign mercenaries / jihadis: 143 killed combatants who came from 19 different countries, those mentioned above plus: Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Chad, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan, Tunisia and Turkey. (5B)
Mother Agnes-Mariam de la Croix, a Carmelite nun, who was forced to leave her home in Syria under threat of abduction by the jihadi militias, insists that only about 1 in 50 of the opposition fighters are Syrian: “The rest are jihadists from elsewhere in the Middle East and abroad, even from Australia. What is worse, many of these fighters have had support in money and arms and morale from the West.” (6)
Recruitment networks spread over a wide area covering the Middle East, North Africa and parts of the Near East, the Economist confirms, enabling fighters to arrive and train in Turkey, which has become a hub, and then travel on to Syria:
“The rate at which foreign fighters, both seasoned jihadis and inexperienced young men, have headed for Syria eclipses that of recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen; and rivals the pull of the battle against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s … Turkish flights from Istanbul to Antakya, the entry point to Syria, are something of a jihadi express-though men now travel with women to avoid arousing suspicion from the authorities. Salafi networks from Chechnya to Jordan, Brussels to Tunis arrange the logistics for fighters to transit into the country. Most, but not all, fight with Jabhat al-Nusra an extremist group with links to al-Qaeda. There are brigades led by Chechens and Libyans.” – Economist article. (7)
There is no doubt among military analysts that the extremist militia Jabhat al-Nusra forms the most successful military backbone of the opposition fighting forces, (8), alongside other jihadi groups, with non-religious militias playing no significant role at all.
As one NY Times analyst puts it: “Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.”(9)
To clarify that again, the Economist and the NY Times in their highly detailed analyses make absolutely clear that the military opposition has ZERO significant forces motivated purely by democratic, political aims; on the contrary, religious fervour drives them, and the more extreme the religious fervour, the more effective the militia, al-Nusra being at the top of the pile, followed by slightly less extreme jihadi groups. (7)
Again this is directly contrary to the narrative we are given by mostly subservient news media, which give us a story of freedom fighters battling for democracy.
Jabhat al-Nusra is aligned with al-Qaeda and has a shadowy foreign leadership and a majority of foreign combatants, from the countries listed above. Declared a terrorist organisation by both the UN and the USA, it is the most extreme, in terms of religious belief, and also the most effective Syrian opposition military faction (10).
The goal of al-Nusra is to create an Islamic sharia state in Syria, an objective shared by the many other extreme Islamic militias. Together they have made clear their goals and their brutal methods: in statements about a sharia state in Syria; and in barbarous acts, including the recent execution of a teenage blasphemer in the street in front of his parents, and a filmed act of cannibalism by a senior ranking member of the so-called ‘Free Syrian Army’.
Achieving the creation of a sharia state in Syria would involve the genocide or ethnic cleansing of great swathes of the population, not least the 10% of Christians.
“They are fighting not for freedom but for a terrifying Islamic state in which they would have the whip hand – and yet there is no dodging or fudging the matter: these are among the Syrian rebels who are hoping now to benefit from the flow of Western arms ” – Boris Johnson, Mayor of London (11).
So, the almost unswerving version of events which we have been given daily by our politicians, and parroted daily by almost all news providers almost all of the time, is a false one of ‘the rebels’ fighting for freedom and democracy against ‘the regime. There is only a much rarer mention of jihadi groups being involved. Yet in spite of all that, the facts are clearly visible through this fog:
* The opposition fighting forces are dominated by jihadi extremists; non-religious purely politically motivated democracy-seeking opposition groups are insignificant as a fighting force.
* The opposition certainly do not represent the views of the majority of Syrians, who want their government, led by Assad, to protect them from the mostly foreign terrorists.
* The opposition militias are largely, perhaps mostly from Libya, Chechnya, Qatar, Turkey and many other countries, carried to Syria by their jihadi ideals – and pushed on by some religious leaders – or money, or both.
* The jihadi militias have no interest in the inclusive society which Syrians know and love, but on the contrary want to ethnically-cleanse and divide Syria into a brutally-enforced strict Sharia-law state.
Yet the overriding story we receive on almost all of our news almost all of the time, in line with senior politicians’ rhetoric to justify increased intervention, turns the telescope completely back-to-front: “The ‘rebels’ are fighting for freedom and a democratic inclusive Syria”, we are told; “religious extremist militias do play some part but it is minor, and we can overcome that by carefully arming the moderate combatants”, we are reassured.
But why even think of arming anyone at all given the support most Syrians have for their president in a sovereign state, plus the paths for negotiated settlement that exist?
Two vastly-experienced ex-NATO Secretary Generals, also both ex-foreign ministers of their own countries, Spain and the Netherlands, recently wrote an article in the NY Times appealing urgently for some sanity in this conflict.
Entitled “Geneva Talks Hold Only Key to Syria”, it is a desperate plea to leaders in the West to step back from the abyss and be pro-active in seeking a peaceful settlement. It is certainly worth reading in full, being written by two minds so experienced in international politics and conflicts.
But one specific point to raise here about ‘careful arming’ which they make is this: “The idea that the West can empower and remotely control moderate forces is optimistic at best” (12)
That is a very diplomatic way of saying the plan is ‘hopeless’.
The explanation that ‘arms will bring peace’ seems to jump straight out of Orwell’s 1984, but it is all the rage in political circles and reports on the conflict.
In fact, “Arming the Rebels will Bring Peace” (13) is, as I write this, across all the major news providers, mostly completely unchallenged despite the poor logic, and the outright misrepresentation of who ‘the rebels’ really are (mostly foreign jihadis), what their goals are (a sharia state), and what the majority of the Syrian public want (their government, led by Assad, to protect them).
As Javier Solana and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the two ex-NATO Secretary-Generals, put it: “Given the ongoing cycle of escalation fueled by announcements of new weapon flows, restrictions on which countries can take part in talks, and desired preconditions, Geneva II is already on the ropes. The United States and Europe need to act urgently to reverse this trend. The grim alternative is an internationally backed escalation that could leave Syria and the region in permanent ruins, with likely spillover much closer to home.” (14)
The only path to peace is peaceful dialogue.
Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, writes:
“This is the moment for a total ceasefire, an end to the madness. It is time for the US, Russia, the EU, Turkey, Iran, Saudi and all the players to convene an intergovernmental conference to try to halt the carnage. We can’t use Syria as an arena for geopolitical point-scoring or muscle-flexing, and we won’t get a ceasefire by pressing weapons into the hands of maniacs.” (15)