Today, I paused to recap what I really know about Syria and the violence affecting its people. I started with the Government. We know that the Al-Assad government is composed of Alawites, Shiites, Sunnis and even a few, perhaps token, Christians. We know that the State security forces composed of the Army, Police and Special or Secret services are also populated by Shiites, Alawites and Sunnis. Similarly federal and provincial government and ministries are staffed by a mixture of religious groups all Syrians.
On top of this came the violence. We were told by mass media that the huge wave of violence that hit Syria was State sponsored: State military forces were ordered by President Assad to fire and kill Syrian civilians. This was easy to believe because like his father, Al-Assad Junior ran a very closed country and a very undemocratic political process that kept him and his Alawite tribe in power. As soon as allegations started to be made at the international level, the Al-Assad Government issued repeated statements concerning the implication of Al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist organizations in the growing violence engulfing the country. We paused, considered the statements and then put them on a sidebar while the main debate continued to crucify the Al-Assad government. Attention was also directed at the “Shabihia” forces, allegedly informal militant forces being directed by Al-Assad to carry out gruesome massacres and killings of innocent civilians (Houla; Al-Qubyr).
My analysis has proceeded a little differently. I know that firstly, the Armed Forces, police and other formal State security forces are holding firm in their support for Al-Assad, even though they are ethnically and religiously representative of Syria. There have been no large-scale defections or mass desertions from the Army and Police to the free Syrian Opposition. Secondly, only about 25% of all official state forces have been deployed out of the barracks to guard or perform active duty functions in public arenas in and around Syria. The rest of the forces are still barracked and have not been in position to actively participate in the violence. This fact was confirmed and spoken to by General Robert Mood, Chief of the UN Syria Verification Mission. Thirdly, no credible information has been provided about the loyalty of other state officials – but the assumption has to be that they remain in post and operational to the extent that services and offices are functioning.
On the other hand, no media inquiry or investigation has been conducted in the implication of countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia in providing significant funding to Sunni-based opposition groups within Syria. Yet Al Jazeera has exploded some information on this that was pulled from their website very quickly. I understand that Saudi Arabia has been pumping in money into Salafi and extremist (Al-Quaeda linked) groups inside Syria. This is important because of what happened in Iraq where Saudi Arabia did very much the same thing, sparking a huge Al-Quaeda insurrection that set back Iraq’s efforts to recover and rebuild their country by decades. Saudi Arabian money is likely doing the same thing in Syria. We must think well before we support particular civil groups without studying and verifying their origins and their support base.
Turkey has been using the refugee traffic on the border to send over a significant amount of non-humanitarian support including weapons and ammunitions. As a member of NATO, Turkey has a privileged position that means any attack on Turkey automatically triggers a protective military response from the combined NATO force structure, including the US. If forces within Syria react to illegal weapons and ammunitions supplies, one undesirable outcome could be the implication of Turkey and therefore NATO in a conflict which is as yet undefined.
Russia is accused of supplying weapons and helicopters to support the Al-Assad regime. The details are fuzzy but no doubt that there is some truth to these allegation. Are these back orders? Are these maintenance orders? Can we have a real investigation please?
Ultimately, the UN verification mission’s work in Syria is of critical importance in establishing the facts and shed light on what is really happening in that country. Without this mission and its important work, all of us outside and inside Syria are unable to gain a credible fix on who is perpetrating what inside Syria. In reports from the UN and General Mood’s team, in doing their verification work, the observer mission had to navigate between government and opposition dominated areas in towns like Homs and in rural areas where alleged atrocities have been perpetrated. They were attacked as many or more times in areas dominated by opposition forces as government controlled areas. This gives us a clue that the Verification Teams’ work was contested by both parties, and that an examination of facts on the ground might have produced undesirable or unpopular conclusions.
The truth is that today, I do not know what is factually happening in Syria. There is a lot of You Tube postings and civilian filming but this can be misleading and erroneous because email and video films can be worked up to produce evidence to support virtually any point of view. Please read an article on this issue on http://fair.org that looks at evidences gathered by European newspapers versus US newspapers and also includes a little publicized “retraction” by BBC on their Houla reporting. It is likely that there is little objectivity in news reporting right now and this makes me all the more cautious in forming opinions about the situation in Syria.
What this does not change is the need to stop the violence in general in Syria, and the need to enforce the mandate of the Observer Mission if possible. It also underscores the need to convene an international conference at which all the actors are there that are implicated, including Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, so that some smoke can be dispersed to allow us to study the causes of the fire. I can never forget, the Security Council Session at which the US Leadership presented “irrefutable” evidence that Saddam Hussain’s Iraq had weapons of mass distraction – never again will I fall for that one again. If there is evidence of who is doing what in Syria, let a large forum verify the information and let us also see the evidence. In the end, what happens to Syria happens to us all.
Categories: Middle East Analysis