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The Syrian Mirage

From the Alawite Fantasy to the Surrealism of the UN

By PIERRE PICCININ | March 06, 2012

More than a year after civil unrest broke out and plunged part of Syria into the chaos of the ‘Arab Spring’, the Baath government remains firmly in control and the majority of the country is calm; almost untouched by an opposition which is scattered and confined to the cities of Homs and Hama, as well as a few towns on the Turkish and Lebanese border. The main reported cases of unrest are linked to regular attacks from Salafist bands which are of an extremely violent nature and more importantly, the Free Syrian Army. The latter counts amid its ranks numerous Qataris and Libyans, all whom have been trained in the art of urban guerilla warfare by the French army in refugee camps, which provide perfect bases from which to operate and orchestrate attacks.

How can one explain the resilience of this regime? A regime which is more or less in complete control despite facing what is usually described as a “revolutionary populist uprising”? One which is determined to overthrow the “Alawite dictatorship” from the political and economic realms of Syrian society, the so-called privilege of the Alawi, a community which accounts for  no more than about 10% of the population?

Perhaps it is because the reality does not correspond to this over simplified equation.

Indeed, the communitarian and religious Syrian patchwork is far from closing ranks on the Alawi population. Moreover, this group, do not in fact monopolize the political landscape.

Therefore, even back in the 1980s, when Hafez Al-Assad, father of the incumbent president, Bashir, and author of the “Alawi coup d’état”, succumbed to serious health issues, he had designed a directorate of six members to run the Syrian government – All six were Sunnis.

Furthermore, all the prime ministers who have served in Bashir Al-Assad’s government have been Sunnis.  Similarly key positions including the Ministers of Defence, Finance and Oil and the heads of the numerous police corps and the secret service do not depend on the Alawi community. The Druze, Christian, Shiite and Kurd minorities also benefit from governmental representation.

This would explain why the opposition is a fractious minority whose support base lies outside Syria’s borders rather than at the heart of the population.

In these circumstances it is understandable that Russia (and China), treading carefully in order to preserve her last card in the Middle East, resolutely opposes the pressure to sign up to the latest United Nations Security Council resolution. This would undoubtedly lead Syria into a scenario similar to Libya, where tens of thousands of civilians would perish as during the destruction of Sirte (and Russia has asked for there to be a UN commission to investigate these Atlantic war crimes).

The most striking element in this whole situation is that the UN has neither the right nor the objective, to decide the nature of a sovereign government, less still the identity of its head of state; meaning that the text proposed to the Security Council by the Arab league, calling for the departure of President Bashir Al-Assad, a text supported by Qatar with substantial French backing, is directly opposed to the basic principles of international law and completely surreal.

Furthermore, if the Baath regime is dictatorial and brutal, so are numerous factions of the opposition: an opposition which is seriously divided and made up of groups with conflicting objectives, none of which necessarily represent the Syrian population; for on the one hand there are the radical Islamic factions, who massacre their opponents and commit atrocities against the military (kidnappings, mutilations, decapitations…) but also civilians who refuse to support their objectives. This is why Russia has demanded that any UN resolution must be applied not only to the government forces but to all factions resorting to violence, including those supported by foreign states, specifically France and Qatar.

It would therefore seem that from an Alawite fantasy to the surrealism of the United Nations, Syria as depicted by the mass media certainly bears very little resemblance to the reality of the actual situation.

Pierre Piccinin is a professor of political science at the Ecole Européen de Bruxelles I.


March 6, 2012 Posted by | Deception, Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Militarism | , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Syrian Mirage

Syrian Operations at Borders with Lebanon, French Officers Held in Homs

March 5, 2012

The Lebanese army on Sunday arrested a group of Syrian armed men who had entered Lebanese territory via the border town of al-Qaa, seizing a car and a large cache of weapons.

In addition, the Syrian forces started bombing the tunnel which connects the Syrian town Jose with the region of al-Qaa in the Lebanese territory.
“The tunnel was used, facilitated by “Future” party, to the smuggling of arms and fighters to Syria,” NNA reported.

In the same issue, al-Binaa newspaper reported that “39 armed Syrians were arrested by the Lebanese army in al-Qaa region.

In parallel, the Daily Star Lebanese paper reported Monday that “around 13 French officers are being held by Syrian authorities in central Homs city.”

“It was not clear why the officers were in Syria, when they had arrived or whether they were part of a larger contingent in the city,” the paper informed.

Stating that the “French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said there was no confirmation of French armed forces being held in Syria,” the paper’s sources stressed that “Paris and Damascus were working to reach an agreement on what to do with the officers.”

Source: News agencies, Translated and Edited by

March 5, 2012 Posted by | War Crimes | , , , | Comments Off on Syrian Operations at Borders with Lebanon, French Officers Held in Homs

Questioning the Syrian “Casualty List”

By Sharmine Narwani | Al Akhbar | February 28, 2012

“Perception is 100 percent of politics,” the old adage goes. Say something three, five, seven times, and you start to believe it in the same way you “know” aspirin is good for the heart.

Sometimes though, perception is a dangerous thing. In the dirty game of politics, it is the perception – not the facts of an issue – that invariably wins the day.

In the case of the raging conflict over Syria, the one fundamental issue that motors the entire international debate on the crisis is the death toll and its corollary: the Syrian casualty list.

The “list” has become widely recognized – if not specifically, then certainly when the numbers are bandied about: 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 – sometimes more. These are not mere numbers; they represent dead Syrians.

But this is where the dangers of perception begin. There are many competing Syrian casualty lists with different counts – how does one, for instance gauge if X is an accurate number of deaths? How have the deaths been verified? Who verifies them and do they have a vested interest? Are the dead all civilians? Are they pro-regime or anti-regime civilians? Do these lists include the approximately 2,000 dead Syrian security forces? Do they include members of armed groups? How does the list-aggregator tell the difference between a civilian and a plain-clothes militia member?

Even the logistics baffle. How do they make accurate counts across Syria every single day? A member of the Lebanese fact-finding team investigating the 15 May 2011 shooting deaths of Palestinian protesters by Israelis at the Lebanese border told me that it took them three weeks to discover there were only six fatalities, and not the 11 counted on the day of the incident. And in that case, the entire confrontation lasted a mere few hours.

How then does one count 20, 40, or 200 casualties in a few hours while conflict continues to rage around them?

My first port of call in trying to answer these questions about the casualty list was the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which seemed likely to be the most reliable source of information on the Syrian death toll – until it stopped keeping track last month.

The UN began its effort to provide a Syrian casualty count in September 2011, based primarily on lists provided by five different sources. Three of their sources were named: The Violations Documenting Center (VDC), the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and the Syrian Shuhada website. At that time, the lists varied in number from around 2,400 to 3,800 victims.

The non-UN casualty list most frequently quoted in the general media is the one from the Syrian Observatory – or SOHR.

Last month, SOHR made some headlines of its own when news of a rift over political viewpoints and body counts erupted. Two competing SOHRs claimed authenticity, but the group headed by Rami Abdul Rahman is the one recognized by Amnesty International.

OHCHR spokesman Rupert Colville stated during a phone interview that the UN evaluates its sources to check “whether they are reliable,” but appeared to create distance from SOHR later – during the group’s public spat – by saying: “The (UN) colleague most involved with the lists…had no direct contact with the Syrian Observatory, though we did look at their numbers. This was not a group we had any prior knowledge of, and it was not based in the region, so we were somewhat wary of it.”

Colville explains that the UN sought at all times “to make cautious estimates” and that “we have reasonable confidence that the rounded figures are not far off.”

While “also getting evidence from victims and defectors – some who corroborated specific names,” the UN, says Colville, “is not in a position to cross-check names and will never be in a position to do that.”

I spoke to him again after the UN decided to halt its casualty count in late January. “It was never easy to verify, but it was a little bit clearer before. The composition of the conflict has changed. It’s become much more complex, fragmented,” Colville says. “While we have no doubt there are civilian and military casualties…we can’t really quantify it.”

“The lists are clear – the question is whether we can fully endorse their accuracy,” he explains, citing the “higher numbers” as an obstacle to verification.

The Casualty Lists Up Close: Some Stories Behind the Numbers

Because the UN has stopped its casualty count, reporters have started reverting back to their original Syrian death toll sources. The SOHR is still the most prominent among them.

Abdul Rahman’s SOHR does not make its list available to the general public, but in early February I found a link to a list on the other SOHR website and decided to take a look. The database lists the victim’s name, age, gender, city, province, and date of death – when available. In December 2011, for instance, the list names around 77 registered casualties with no identifying information provided. In total, there are around 260 unknowns on the list.

Around that time, I had come across my first list of Syrians killed in the crisis, reportedly compiled in coordination with the SOHR, that contained the names of Palestinian refugees killed by Israeli fire on the Golan Heights on 15 May 2011 and 5 June 2011 when protesters congregated on Syria’s armistice line with Israel. So my first check was to see if that kind of glaring error appears in the SOHR list I investigate in this piece.

To my amazement, the entire list of victims from those two days were included in the SOHR casualty count – four from May 15 (#5160 to #5163) and 25 victims of Israeli fire from June 5 (#4629 to #4653). The list even identifies the deaths as taking place in Quneitra, which is in the Golan Heights.

It also didn’t take long to find the names of well-publicized pro-regime Syrians on the SOHR list and match them with YouTube footage of their funerals. The reason behind searching for funeral links is that pro-regime and anti-regime funerals differ quite starkly in the slogans they chant and the posters/signs/flags on display. Below, is a list of eight of these individuals, including their number, name, date and place of death on the casualty list – followed by our video link and further details if available:

#5939, Mohammad Abdo Khadour, 4/19/11, Hama, off-duty Colonel in Syrian army, shot in his car and died from multiple bullet wounds. Funeral link.

#5941, Iyad Harfoush, 4-18-11, Homs, off-duty Commander in Syrian army. In a video, his wife says someone started shooting in the mostly pro-regime al Zahra neighborhood of Homs – Harfoush went out to investigate the incident and was killed. Funeral link.

#5969, Abdo al Tallawi, 4/17/11, Homs, General in Syrian army killed alongside his two sons and a nephew. Funeral footage shows all four victims. The others are also on the list at #5948, Ahmad al Tallawi, #5958, Khader al Tallawi and #5972, Ali al Tallawi, all in Homs, Funeral link.

#6021, Nidal Janoud, 11/4/11, Tartous, an Alawite who was severely slashed by his assailants. The bearded gentleman to the right of the photo, and a second suspect, are now standing trial for the murder. Photo link.

#6022, Yasar Qash’ur, 11/4/11, Tartous, Lieutenant Colonel in the Syrian army, killed alongside 8 others in an ambush on a bus in Banyas, Funeral link.

#6129, Hassan al-Ma’ala, 4/5/11, policeman, suburbs of Damascus, Funeral link.

#6130, Hamid al Khateeb, 4/5/11, policeman, suburbs of Damascus, Funeral link.

#6044, Waeb Issa, 10/4/11, Tartous, Colonel in Syrian army, Funeral link.

Besides featuring on the SOHR list, Lt. Col. Yasar Qashur, Iyad Harfoush, Mohammad Abdo Khadour and General Abdo al Tallawi and his two sons and nephew also appear on two of the other casualty lists – the VDC and Syrian Shuhada – both used by the United Nations to compile their numbers.

Nir Rosen, an American journalist who spent several months insides Syria’s hot spots in 2011, with notable access to armed opposition groups, reported in a recent Al Jazeera interview:

“Every day the opposition gives a death toll, usually without any explanation of the cause of the deaths. Many of those reported killed are in fact dead opposition fighters, but the cause of their death is hidden and they are described in reports as innocent civilians killed by security forces, as if they were all merely protesting or sitting in their homes. Of course, those deaths still happen regularly as well.”

“And, every day, members of the Syrian army, security agencies and the vague paramilitary and militia phenomenon known as shabiha [“thugs”] are also killed by anti-regime fighters,” Rosen continues.

The report issued in January by Arab League Monitors after their month-long observer mission in Syria – widely ignored by the international media – also witnessed acts of violence by armed opposition groups against both civilians and security forces.

The Report states: “In Homs, Idlib and Hama, the observer mission witnessed acts of violence being committed against government forces and civilians…Examples of those acts include the bombing of a civilian bus, killing eight persons and injuring others, including women and children…In another incident in Homs, a police bus was blown up, killing two police officers.” The observers also point out that “some of the armed groups were using flares and armour-piercing projectiles.“

Importantly, the report further confirms obfuscation of casualty information when it states: “the media exaggerated the nature of the incidents and the number of persons killed in incidents and protests in certain towns.”

On February 3, the eve of the UN Security Council vote on Syria, news broke out that a massacre was taking place in Homs, with the general media assuming it was true and that all violence was being committed by the Syrian government. The SOHR’s Rami Abdul Rahman was widely quoted in the media as claiming the death toll to be at 217. The Local Coordination Committees (LCCs), which provide information to the VDC, called it at “more than 200,” and the Syrian National Council (SNC), a self-styled government in absentia of mainly expats, claimed 260 victims.

The next day, the casualty count had been revised down to 55 by the LCCs. (link:

Even if the count is at 55 – that is still a large number of victims by any measure. But were these deaths caused by the Syrian government, by opposition gunmen or in the crossfire between the two groups? That is still the question that needs to break through the deafening narratives, lists, and body counts.

In International Law, Detail Counts

While the overwhelming perception of Syrian casualties thus far has been that they are primarily unarmed civilians deliberately targeted by government forces, it has become obvious these casualties are also likely to include: Civilians caught in the crossfire between government forces and opposition gunmen; victims of deliberate violence by armed groups; “dead opposition fighters” whose attire do not distinguish them from regular civilians; and members of the Syrian security forces, both on and off duty.

Even if we could verify the names and numbers on a Syrian casualty list, we still don’t know their stories, which if revealed, may pose an entirely different picture of what is going on in Syria today

These questions are vitally important to understand the burden of responsibility in this conflict. International law provides for different measures of conflict: the two most frequently used gauges for this are the Principle of Necessity, i.e., using force only when it is necessary, and the Principle of Proportionality, i.e., the use of force proportional to the threat posed.

In the case of Syria – like in Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt and Libya – it is widely believed that the government used unnecessary force in the first instance. Syrian President Bashar Assad, like many of these Arab rulers, has as much as admitted to “mistakes” in the first months of protests. These mistakes include some shooting deaths and detaining a much larger number of protesters than expected, some of whom were allegedly tortured.

Let us assume, without question, that the Syrian government was over zealous in its use of force initially, and therefore violated the Principle of Necessity. I tend to believe this version because it has been so-stated by the Arab League’s observer mission – the first and only boots-on-the-ground monitors investigating the crisis from within the country.

However – and this is where the casualty lists come in – there is not yet nearly enough evidence, not by any measure acceptable in a court of law, that the Syrian government has violated the Principle of Proportionality. Claims that the regime has used disproportionate force in dealing with the crisis are, today, difficult to ascertain, in large part because opponents have been using weapons against security forces and pro-regime civilians almost since the onset of protests.

Assuming that the number of casualties provided by the UN’s OHCHR is around the 5,000-mark -the last official figure provided by the group – the question is whether this is a highly disproportionate number of deaths when contrasted directly with the approximately 2,000 soldiers of the regular Syrian army and other security forces who have been reportedly killed since April 2011.

When you calculate the deaths of the government forces in the past 11 months, they amount to about six a day. Contrast that with frequent death toll totals of around 15+ each day disseminated by activists – many of whom are potentially neither civilian casualties nor victims of targeted violence – and there is close to enough parity to suggest a conflict where the acts of violence may be somewhat equal on both sides.

Last Sunday, as Syrians went to the polls to vote on a constitutional referendum, Reuters reports – quoting the SOHR – that 9 civilians and 4 soldiers were killed in Homs, and that elsewhere in Syria there were 8 civilian and 10 security forces casualties. That is 17 civilians and 14 regime forces – where are the opposition gunmen in that number? Were none killed? Or are they embedded in the “civilian” count?

Defectors or Regular Soldiers?

There have also been allegations that many, if not most, of the soldiers killed in clashes or attacks have been defectors shot by other members of the regular army. There is very little evidence to support this as anything more than a limited phenomenon. Logically, it would be near impossible for the Syrian army to stay intact if it was turning on its rank-and-file soldiers in this manner – and the armed forces have remained remarkably cohesive given the length and intensity of the conflict in Syria.

In addition, the names, rank and cities of each of the dead soldiers are widely publicized by state-owned media each day, often accompanied by televised funerals. It would be fairly simple for the organized opposition to single out by name the defectors they include on their casualty lists, which has not happened.

The very first incident of casualties from the Syrian regular army that I could verify dates to 10 April 2011, when gunmen shot up a bus of soldiers travelling through Banyas, in Tartous, killing nine. This incident took place a mere few weeks after the first peaceful protests broke out in Syria, and so traces violence against government forces back to the start of political upheaval in the country.

“Witnesses” quoted by the BBC, Al Jazeera and The Guardian insisted that the nine dead soldiers were “defectors” who had been shot by the Syrian army for refusing orders to shoot at demonstrators.

Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, debunked that version on his Syria Comment website. Another surviving soldier on the bus – a relation of Lt. Col. Yasar Qashur, #6022 on the SOHR list, whose funeral I link to above – denied that they were defectors too. But the narrative that dead soldiers are mostly defectors shot by their own troops has stuck throughout this conflict – though less so, as evidence of gunmen targeting Syrian forces and pro-regime civilians becomes belatedly apparent.

The VDC – another of the UN’s OHCHR sources for casualty counts – alleges that 6,399 civilians and 1,680 army defectors were killed in Syria during the period from 15 March 2011 to 15 February 2012. All security forces killed in Syria during the past 11 months were “defectors?” Not a single soldier, policeman or intelligence official was killed in Syria except those forces who opposed the regime? This is the kind of mindless narrative of this conflict that continues unchecked. Worse yet, this exact VDC statistic is included in the latest UN report on Syria issued last week.

Humanitarian Crisis or Just Plain Violence?

While few doubt the Syrian government’s violent suppression of this revolt, it is increasingly clear that in addition to the issue of disproportionally, there is the question of whether there is a “humanitarian crisis” as suggested by some western and Arab leaders since last year. I sought some answers during a trip to Damascus in early January 2012 where I spoke to a select few NGOs that enjoyed rare access to all parts of the country.

Given that words like “massacre” and “slaughter” and “humanitarian crisis” are being used in reference to Syria, I asked International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Spokesman Saleh Dabbakeh how many calls for urgent medical assistance his organization had received in 2011. His response was shocking. “Only one that I recall,” said Dabbakeh. Where was that, I asked? “Quneitra National Hospital in the Golan,” he replied, “last June.” This was when Israeli troops fired on Syrian and Palestinian protesters marching to the 1973 armistice line with the Jewish state. Those same protesters that ended up on SOHR’s casualty list.

A Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) worker confirmed that, recalling that his organization treated hundreds of casualties from the highly-publicized incident.

As the level of violence has escalated, however, the situation has deteriorated, and the ICRC now has received more calls for medical assistance – mainly from private hospitals in Homs. The SARC today has nine different points in Homs where it provides such assistance. The only two places they do not currently serve are the neighborhoods of Bab Amr and Inshaat “because the security situation does not allow for it – for their own safety, there is fighting there.”

During a phone call last Thursday, one NGO officer, explained that the measure for a “humanitarian crisis” is in level of access to basic staples, services and medical care. He told me off the record that “There is a humanitarian crisis in (i.e.) Baba Amro today, but not in Syria. If the fighting finishes tomorrow, there will be enough food and medical supplies.”

“Syria has enough food to feed itself for a long time. The medical sector still functions very well. There isn’t enough pressure on the medical sector to create a crisis,” he elaborated. “A humanitarian crisis is when a large number of a given population does not have access to medical aid, food, water, electricity, etc – when the system cannot any longer respond to the needs of the population.”

But an international human rights worker also cautions: “the killing is happening on both sides – the other side is no better.”

People have to stop this knee-jerk, opportunistic, hysterical obsession with numbers of dead Syrians, and ask instead: “who are these people and who killed them?” That is the very least these victims deserve. Anything less would render their tragic deaths utterly meaningless. Lack of transparency along the supply-chain of information and its dissemination – on both sides – is tantamount to making the Syrian story all about perception, and not facts. It is a hollow achievement and people will die in ever greater numbers.

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.

February 29, 2012 Posted by | Deception, Mainstream Media, Warmongering | , , , | Comments Off on Questioning the Syrian “Casualty List”

Syria as Tonkin Gulf for Attack on Iran?

By Daniel McAdams | | February 10, 2012

Michael Lofgren, an old friend who recently retired after a long career analyzing House and Senate national security budgets, has an excellent piece in the Huffington Post, in which he admits that after dismissing the decades of scare reports on Iran by the warmongers he is suddenly a bit more worried about a possible attack on Iran.

Writes Lofgren:

During this presidential campaign season, there is on the GOP side the most toxic warmongering political dynamic imaginable: one that makes Bush look like a pacifist in retrospect. President Obama for his part is trying to triangulate à la Bill Clinton between the GOP, a Democratic base that is mostly antiwar but politically ineffectual, Israel, the military-industrial complex, and his polling numbers.

Lofgren warns that with “the U.S. and Iran…reprising the Gulf of Tonkin in the Strait of Hormuz…these factors compose a a brew potentially so toxic that one would think it would give even the most belligerent chickenhawk pause before quaffing it.”

But what if Syria itself is the Gulf of Tonkin rather than the cat and mouse games around the Hormuz Strait?

Let us consider a few points:

First: The atrocity stories are mostly cooked-up to make the case for Western military intervention.

Human rights groups like the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” are the sole sources of information for events on the ground in Syria, even though the SOHR is based in London, has no contact information, no street address, no e-mail address, no list of officers or employees. The sole responsible person listed, Rami Abdul Rahman, is in fact not a real person at all, as the organization admits, but rather is “just an alias that was being used by all SOHR members.” (Readers: have a good look at their website and decide if you would base a US war on Syria on the credibility of this organization providing the “atrocity stories” about Syria.) The only other mention of a real human attached to this organization is in this photo, whose caption reads, “Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, leaves the Foreign and Commonwealth Office after meeting Britain’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in central London November 21, 2011.” (Thanks to Land Destroyer blog for first pointing out the curiousness of the Syrian opposition coordinating with the UK government).

It is this organization that has been almost the exclusive source of the horror stories coming out of Syria, such as the tale of Assad’s callous murder of 18 premature babies in Homs — dutifully reported yesterday in the UK Independent newspaper AND last August on CNN! For a full and compelling report on the pro-war propaganda campaign being cooked up by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and dutifully amplified by our complicit media, see today’s excellent piece on Infowars.

I guess nothing says “let’s go to war” like the old babies in incubator stories. Who can forget that poor 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, known only by her first name of Nayirah, who told us harrowing tales of Saddam’s ruthlessness: “”While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where . . . babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.”

Except, as we now know, she turned out to be the Kuwaiti ambassador’s daughter and the tale was cooked up in the PR offices of Hill & Knowlton with the collusion of the late war-loving US Rep. Tom Lantos…

Likewise, the Syria Observatory for Human Rights was the source of last week’s stories of “hundreds murdered” in Homs, conveniently on the day before the UN Security Council was to vote on US/UK/French regime change resolution. The absurdity that Assad would be insane enough to go Rambo on his cities the day before the UN/NATO’s Libya liberators decided whether or not to invade was lost on most observers, who see what they want to see in these situations once the narrative has been established. That is why just a day later when “hundreds” became “dozens” and many of those dozens turned out to be Syrian security forces killed by the famed unarmed democracy protestors, nobody noticed. The narrative was set. No matter who kills who, it is always, as Hillary Clinton says, the government murdering peaceful protestors.

Now the Syrian opposition propaganda machine warns that Assad might be “mulling” the use of chemical weapons in Homs! First the babies, then this!

Today’s bomb attacks on the Military Security Directorate in Aleppo follow a familiar pattern of rebels targeting Syrian security forces and taking out scores of civilians in the process. The Syrian opposition groups, i.e. Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, again makes the claim that in fact Assad is blowing up his own military and intelligence facilities. Rational people might judge for themselves whether a leader attempting to put down an armed insurrection in his country would start by blowing up his own military. Alas, rationality has been thrown out the window in the frenzied rush to regime change.

Second: Once burned, twice shy — or, the pitfalls of falling for the propaganda.

The Russians and Chinese, whose skepticism on Libya proved to be very well placed and who as a result vetoed the recent Syria “regime change” resolution in the UN Security Council are doubly skeptical on Syria, and having been proven right on Libya should be accorded a degree of attention this time. That is why when someone like Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says that those pushing the UNSC resolution on Syria were “hysterical” and “indecent” the world should listen. The Russians urged that any resolution call for an end to all violence — on the part of the government and on the part of the rebels (based in Turkey and armed by Qatar and the West). Their urging that both sides stop shooting rather than just the government side was ignored by the US/UK/NATO/GCC regime changers.

Third: Western militaries and secret services are already in the vicinity.

We must consider reports of UK and Qatari special forces troops operating in Syria (alongside their US counterparts no doubt). One reason to believe these reports is that they have been denied by the British government.

Fourth: Has Iran really thrown Syria under the bus?

We have heard reports, most recently yesterday from RT, that Iran was sending some 15,000 special forces into Syria to help its government defend against rebel attacks.

Fifth, and finally: Why is Syria being readied as the next target?

The US is “reviewing military options” against the Syrian government. US bases literally surround Iran and Iran may have lent military assistance to its ally, Syria. The Israelis have been champing at the bit to attack Iran, but fear having to go it alone. When the US begins military action against Syria, what are the chances that a huge Iranian attack on US forces in Syria or vicinity might be manufactured? What would be the US response considering the “toxic” pro-war brew that Mike Lofgren points out is currently being quaffed in Washington? Smells a bit like Tonkin in Damascus?

One final note: News organizations and websites that have uncritically reported the atrocity stories from these “human rights” groups have helped set the stage for military action against Syria, and have been in fact part of the psychological preparation of the battlefield. As such, they should be considered as morally culpable for the disaster that will soon unfold for the Syrians and for us as the John McCains and the Hillary Clintons and the Sean Hannities and the Bill Kristols of the world.

February 11, 2012 Posted by | Deception, Militarism | , , | Comments Off on Syria as Tonkin Gulf for Attack on Iran?

Veteran US Diplomat Questions Syria Storyline

By Sharmine Narwani | Al Akhbar | 2012-02-10

The problem with US policy in the Middle East is that it now operates almost entirely at the political level: gone are the days when area experts were the heavyweights in the command center, weaving historical context, relationships and nuance into vital policy decisions.

Today you are more likely to have single-issue interest groups, commercial projects and election cycles impact key deliberations. It’s a short-term view: tactical more than strategic and black and white in its approach. Like a high-octane marketing campaign, it is heavily focused on key phrases, scene-setting, and narrative building.

The spotlight on Syria in recent weeks has been intense and the propaganda has been incessant: Regime massacres in Homs, evil Russia and China, a benevolent UN Security Council trying to save Syria, 1982’s Hama slaughter resuscitated, and an American ambassador left “disgusted” at the gall of others using veto power.

But take the hysteria down a notch or two, bring the debate back into the hands of measured, experienced observers, and the storyline may be tangibly different. Over the weekend, I had the privilege of receiving an email that reminded me of a time when area experts at the US State Department delivered honest assessments of events so that wiser decisions could be taken.

The missive was from a former US diplomat with service experience in Syria who has asked to remain unnamed. I am publishing the email below in its entirety for the benefit of readers:

I have serious problems with all the talk about military intervention in Syria. Everyone, especially the media, seems to be relying solely on anti-regime activists for their information. How do we know 260 people were killed by the regime in Homs yesterday? That number seems based solely on claims by anti-regime figures and I seriously doubt its accuracy.

I served over three years in Damascus at the US Embassy and I know how difficult it is to sort fact from rumor in that closed political society. We were constantly trying to verify rumors that we had heard about assassinations, regime arrests, etc., and that included the Agency, which was just as much in the dark as everyone else. Today, we have a skeleton embassy which I am sure is under constant surveillance and with very few personnel to go out and report on what is happening. When I was in Damascus over two years ago, I was less than impressed with the Embassy’s sources and with its understanding of the dynamics of what was going on Syria. And the same is true when I talk to officials at the State Department.

The media, and to an extent the Administration, have personalized the conflict in Syria as being about Bashar Assad and his family. They have consistently underestimated the sectarian nature of the conflict there. It is not just Bashar Assad and his family that are hanging onto power at all costs, it is the entire Alawi system of control of the country, including the military, the security services and the Baath Party. I believe that Alawites firmly think that if they lose power, the Sunnis will slaughter them, That was one reason Hafez and his brother Rifaat were so ruthless in Hama thirty years ago. And everyone in the West conveniently forgets the campaign of assassinations and suicide bombings carried out in the three or four years before Hama by the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the country. I personally witnessed the aftermath of such bombings in which several hundred people were killed. While the State Department, the CIA and other organs of government may have short historical memories, the people in Syria do not.

There have been few good analyses of the conflict in Syria. With the exception of the journalist Nir Rosen and the International Crisis Group, most reporting has been superficial and biased in favor of opponents of the regime. This is no basis on which to base policy, especially if officials in Washington are contemplating some form of military intervention. We would be opening a Pandora’s box of sectarian conflict that could easily spread to Lebanon, Israel, Kurdish areas of Iraq and elsewhere.

One irony of the current situation compared to thirty years ago is Iraq’s role. Then, we had reasonably good information that Saddam Hussein was supporting the Brotherhood with arms, explosives and facilitating the smuggling of both across the Syrian-Iraqi border. Today, the Maliki government in Baghdad appears to be supporting the Assad regime. And thirty years ago, we also had information that the Brotherhood leadership was given sanctuary in Jordan by King Hussein and in Saudi Arabia.

I don’t think we know how to play in this arena, just as we don’t understand how to play in the Afghanistan-Pakistan arena. US military intervention, whether under the guise of NATO or some other umbrella, could have serious unforeseen consequences for the US, Europe and the region. Officials in Washington should have the law of unforeseen consequences hammered into their heads every morning.

These thoughts are from a US diplomat with direct and fairly recent experience in Syria. Why don’t we ever hear similarly sober assessments from the figures in Washington? Part of the reason, of course, is the over-politicization of the policy-making process, which has long been wrested from the hands of able area experts and delivered into the arms of hawks, ideologues and politicians building campaign warchests.

It is worth mentioning that much of the US administration’s focus on Syria derives from its unhealthy fixation on Iran. In supporting Iran’s worldview that US and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East must end, Syria has put itself in the crosshairs of American policy priorities.

The New York Times’ David Sanger wrote shortly after the Arab Awakening had devoured its first two dictators, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak:

“Every decision — from Libya to Yemen to Bahrain to Syria — is being examined under the prism of how it will affect what was, until mid-January, the dominating calculus in the Obama administration’s regional strategy: how to slow Iran’s nuclear progress, and speed the arrival of opportunities for a successful uprising there.”

Efforts to undermine Bashar Assad’s government were a longstanding policy objective, even in the years before popular revolts hit the wider Middle East in 2011. WikiLeaks has revealed a veritable goldmine of information about Washington’s interventions in Syria, which include direct US financial assistance to opposition groups.

Dirty politics and geopolitical mudslinging aside, at the heart of this matter rests an issue that is fundamental to good policy-making: When do handy narratives simply become lies that spawn bad policies?

This WikiLeaks cable from 2006 illustrates Washington’s efforts to identify “opportunities” to expose “vulnerabilities” in the Syrian regime and cause sectarian/ethnic division, discord within the military/security apparatus and economic hardship. How will the US achieve this? The cable lists a whole host of Syrian vulnerabilities to be exploited, and then recommends:

“These proposals will need to be fleshed out and converted into real actions and we need to be ready to move quickly to take advantage of such opportunities. Many of our suggestions underline using Public Diplomacy and more indirect means to send messages that influence the inner circle.”

Propagandizing the American Public

Public Diplomacy, in effect, means propaganda – which under the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 specifies the terms in which the US government can disseminate information to foreign audiences. In 1972, the Act prohibited domestic access to information intended for foreign audiences – in other words, it became illegal for the US government to propagandize Americans.

But Washington has found many ways around this. After all, US citizens need to be “on board” the myriad overseas military adventures undertaken by successive administrations. How, then, does government stay within the confines of the law while propagandizing Americans so that they are pumped up for wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, maybe Iran), weapons sales to questionable allies (Saudi Arabia and Israel), and human rights violations (Guantanamo, drones)?

The fake story of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) targeting the US and its allies was an essential narrative in the build-up to military intervention in Iraq. Recall then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s testimony about evidence of Saddam’s WMD activities and President George W. Bush’s State of the Union speech when he falsely accused Iraq of procuring yellowcake uranium from Niger – the media scrutiny of these statements was wholly justified: it is illegal to lie to the American people.

Officials are careful about how they circumvent the restrictions of Smith-Mundt. The quickest way to feed Americans inaccurate, tainted or sometimes entirely false information is through “leaks.” Peruse any newspaper of record in Washington, New York or Los Angeles and you will see the foreign news sections chock full of leaks from “officials.”

The internet, too, is a natural playground for the dissemination of disinformation. Its vast reach across the globe, its millions of blogs with varying credibility – these lend themselves well to the game of public diplomacy.

Powell’s former Chief of Staff Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson – another ex-official who has spoken candidly about policy and process shortcomings since leaving his post – told me in April 2010: “(Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld and others, for example, just ignored the law. They would put a story in a Sydney newspaper, for example, and then ‘internet it’ back to the United States. So you’re propagandizing the American people.”

Wilkerson insists: “we have a statutory divergence that needs to be fixed first – legislation that says you can’t mix public affairs, which is aimed at the American people, and public diplomacy, which is aimed at the international audience. We need to stop propaganda, period. We need to tell the truth. I understand we don’t give out state secrets, but why don’t we tell the truth?”

The problem with foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, is ultimately about the kinds of people making the decisions – ideologues with clear agendas: against Iran and for Israel; against the Syrian “dictator” but in favor of the Saudi, Bahraini, Yemeni, Qatari ones; against Iranian nuclear capability, defending 200 nukes in Israel; abusing UN veto power (80+ times), deriding others for exercising a veto (Russia, China), and so on and so forth.

“It’s broken – it’s utterly dysfunctional,” Wilkerson says about the decision-making process in government: “They put ideologues in to corral, corner, orchestrate, cajole, push, wheedle the civil servants into doing something that they think ought to be done.”

Back to Syria.

A reporter from a major western cable news network just emailed me about his visit to Syria: “I got back from Homs last month unconvinced that the country was rising up against the Assad regime, and far from convinced that there are any good guys.”

Very little is known about what’s going on in the country. And it is not necessarily because there is limited media there: the Arab League mission report lists 147 foreign and Arab media organizations in Syria. The reason we still do not know what is taking place in Homs is because there is a ferocious battle for narratives between two rigid political mindsets. And the current dominant narrative is the one coming out of Washington – which, according to Wikileaks, has been waiting for “opportunities” to seize upon “vulnerabilities” to undermine the regime of Bashar Assad.

Not give us the truth, mind you. But to pursue a policy objective that US citizens have not agreed upon because they are unaware of the facts.

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.

February 10, 2012 Posted by | Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Timeless or most popular | , , , , | Comments Off on Veteran US Diplomat Questions Syria Storyline