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Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

Andrew Gilligan and Dr Fawaz Akhras

Wafic Said, a British-Syrian billionaire and philanthropist, recently resigned as a director of the British Syrian Society (BSS). The problem is, he told the Guardian, “the BSS has buried its head in the sand, maintaining a policy of silence, which amounts to tacit support for the current regime in Syria and what is happening there”.

As the Guardian then reported, the BSS said it was “saddened and appalled at the violence and loss of life in Syria” – but the release was too little, too late for Said, who was also joined by the HSBC bank who said it would no longer represent the society in September 2011.

These decisions have not been helped by Dr Fawaz Akhras, the father of Asma Akhras, wife of President Assad of Syria. He is the co-chairman of the BSS. As well as comparing the Syrian uprising to the London riots, the recently “leaked emails published in the Guardian showed him advising Assad on how to handle the crisis.”

Akhras is now under pressure to resign his position by Sir Andrew Green, “a former British ambassador to Syria and co-chairman of the society.”

In other news, Akhras chose to compare the uprising to the riots in London last summer to the Telegraph journalist Andrew Gilligan. He told Gilligan “what would you do? Just watch them killing you?” justifying David Cameron’s threat to use the army.

The ever-diligent Private Eye reported last week that this was not the first time a Syrian has turned to Gilligan in “need of a sympathetic ear”, citing the time in October 2011 Assad was interviewed by him, where Assad pointed out that “[c]omparing Syria’s leadership with that of a Western country… was like comparing a Mac with a PC.”

The Eye, later in the article, asked why Gilligan, who “normally writes about Ken and Boris and isn’t known as a Middle East expert”, got exclusive access to Assad – before pointing out that last December Gilligan addressed a private meeting of the BSS to talk about, as PE put it, “his delightful chat with the president”.

Gilligan managed to body-swerve Mehdi Hasan’s question, in 2010, of when Gilligan will “quit [his] lucrative job at Press TV?” to which the answer then was 11 months ago, after quitting in opposition to the Iranian government’s increasing “Islamism”.

But can he explain away the relationship, with benefits, between him and Dr Fawaz Akhras?

Mehdi Hasan admits that he speaks but nothing comes out

February 12, 2012 19 comments

Mehdi Hasan, I once said in a blog post, can say whatever he wants about how difficult it would be to operate a military intervention in Syria, but we know deep down his principles are unmovable – he is against western intervention whatever the circumstances, and that can never change. A deeply disturbing thesis.

In a piece for the Guardian last year he said:

There is no call for [foreign military intervention] by opposition leaders, a NFZ would be of little value as Assad is operating with use of small clans on the ground, and a carpet bombing campaign would not help the opposition.

The trouble is, a pro-intervention Michael Weiss, for the Henry Jackson Society, says exactly the same thing.

It would be extremely difficult given the lack of a safe zone, particularly now given the retaliation of Assad’s regime over Zabadani. It has to be said that while opinion is changing, perceptions of foreign intervention by Syrian rebels is split – this is a problem.

All this is fine, and Hasan can write about this until he is blue in the face, but a fact remains the same for him – in his own words - “The sad truth is, it is not our job to topple Assad.”

So no matter how long he spends on looking at the operational difficulties a coalition of willing nations would have, it’s all for nothing, since his first principles override reason.

Before, on my part, this was an accusation. But now he admits as such. He is romantically against western intervention because it doesn’t sit well with him.

In a new article, for the New Statesman, he writes:

Whether we like it or not, it is incumbent upon those of us who are instinctively opposed to western military interventions in the Middle East to answer the question: what would you do to stop Assad?

Let me tell you, Mehdi, when on the coalface, instinct is often all you have, but when you live the cosseted life of a second-rate commentator, shaping opinion for the rest of us, perhaps instinct is the very last thing you should appeal to.

The concerns he spells out are no different from those of us who are, albeit cautiously, pro-intervention. But one thing divides us from him: namely, that we listen to the people in Syria and the best information that leaves that country and enters ours. Further still, reason.

He has sacrificed these for simple instinct. On the Middle East, I honestly fail to see why he is listened to at all by anyone other than those on the fringes.

Russia’s roaring trade in Syria

February 1, 2012 11 comments

As Shamik Das reported today, Emad Mahou, an activist with the Syrian Revolution Co-ordinators Union, has called for the west to step up pressure on Assad by coordinating a “no-fly zone” after it had come to light that 18 people were killed by the security forces in Zabadani.

It was looking for some time, albeit a brief time, that Zabadani would be to Syria what Benghazi was to Libya – a “safe-zone” in which strategy could be undertaken by rebel forces.

Encouragingly, the Declaration of the Free Local Council of Zabadani concluded (my italics):

Democracy is a new experience and a new born baby that needs attention and everyone knows that they are lacking experience and culture of democracy, and that it is necessary to move to the system of parties. But first an atmosphere of freedom is necessary for different party point of views to form and crystallize…..It is a start, and a successful start if God wills. We want it to be the beginning of the liberation of all lands and people of the homeland who are dear heroes deserving all good, respect and support……and God will bring success……..”

Local leaders of Zabadani have said that it was taken over after a spike in defections from Assad’s army to the rebels. The former were told to go heavy on the area looking for terrorists, but instead a “rare truce” had taken place seeing many turn their arms.

Government presence is reduced to a few buildings on the edge of town, but the question is of course will they let that last? As the escalation today reveals probably not. Given the signficance of Benghzai in Libya, Assad’s troops will know what losing control of such space might mean for rebel confidence.

At the start of January I noted that military intervention from outside would benefit greatly from two things from Syrian rebels – unity on their position of foreign help and a “safe-zone”. On the latter the government is quickly clawing back at the closest Syria has thus far. On the former the tables are turning. There is not full unity yet, and some groupings within the rebels still determined not to have foreign intervention, but pleas from the Syrian Revolution Co-ordinators Union signal progress.

As for the UN resolution, Russia and China said they would veto the draft unless it explicitly rules out military intervention. According to the UN 5,400 have died in Assad’s government’s 10-month crackdown on protesters. But the facts won’t deter Russia – they’ve other priorities.

While Hilary Clinton was finishing giving fresh calls for Assad to stand down and stop the bloodshed, Russia were signining a deal to sell 36 (Yak-130 aircraft) combat jets to Syria.

The deal, as ever, is done with a high amount of risk. Like in Libya, Russia could find itself down the road trying to deal with a Syria, lacking in Russian allies. If Assad was to go, Russia would have to try and ensure Syria does good on the deal – even if the sole purpose of the transaction was essentially to keep Assad in power. At best it could find itself out of pocket.

Moscow-based military analyst, Ruslan Pukhov, said, “This contract carries a very high degree of risk … Assad’s regime may fall and that would lead to financial losses for Russia and also hurt its image.”

But isn’t this why Russia is selling weapons anyway? So as to ensure existing contracts are made good? Russia already has weapons contracts with Syria worthy $5bn – to see those contracts fall into the hands of the rebels would make very bad business.

Syria is Russia’s seventh-largest customer in a global market that yielded almost $8 billion for Rosoboronexport [Russia's official arms export cooperation] in 2009. Sales to Syria over the past decade have amounted to about 10 percent of Russia’s total weapons exports.”

This is the long and short of it. If a resolution fails to go through the UNSC then this will mean further bloodshed in Syria. And one of the reasons a possible resolution will fail is because of Russia – whose concern here is that they don’t lose an ally who does their weapons a roaring trade. It is healthy business for Russia that Assad carries on killing en masse – and they will probably go on about it if a western sanction goes ahead, via illegal routes.

Intervention in Syria: a cautious acknowledgement of its benefits

January 4, 2012 14 comments

When one reads about the shootings in Syria, the killings, those who have gone missing at sea, the burning metal plates on which Assad’s lackeys place a victim in order to extract information from them – one cannot help be emotionally torn. Something must be done – and fast! But what?

The Syrian national council (SNC), so far recognised by 6 UN member states as the government-in-exile, is a split body. It has not yet formally accepted foreign intervention as a viable strategy to end the Assad regime, but then has the same teething problems as did the Libyan national council – that is organising amongst a rainbow coalition of varying different political directions, many of which are totally at odds.

An opposition of the size we’re talking about, in Syria, combining Islamists, Communists, liberal secularists and anything in between is always going to have complications operating, but analysis on the Syrian case shows divide is far more intrinsic and unceasing.

Even if consistency on foreign intervention was brought to fruition by the opposition groups, the legal case for western-backed military intervention would be frustrated by Russia and China – nations with too many business and diplomatic interests in Assad’s Syria, whose priorities are not to rock this particular boat (Russia having recently sent a flottila to Syria to symbolise its opposition to regime change).

Furthermore, Assad’s muscle men on the ground have been taking on protesters with bullets, utilising small mob groupings to contain dissent on the ground. Not only would intervention – like the one rumoured for Syria, reported PressTV (often hard to take seriously) – be tricky from western backers, far more so than in Libya where a No Fly Zone (NFZ) had obvious and immediate benefits, there is no safe base for rebels to coordinate resistence from. There is, as yet, no Benghazi of Syria.

As the American commentator David Dietz put it:

The problem isn’t a lack of military might or intelligence capabilities, but rather a lack of political resolve […] there is no clear group to save or a unified opposition to back [and] [t]he protesters are not based in an iconic square or area like they were in Egypt.

All this speaks to the great difficulties that dialogue between concerned nations and the Syrian opposition groups will have. But for some of the less thoughtful critics of military engagement in Syria, one is forgiven for suspecting that how complex intervention would be really doesn’t matter anyway.

Mehdi Hasan, in a piece for the Guardian’s Comment is Free, published in December last year, treads through the same motions as those I’ve explained above.

There is no call for [foreign military intervention] by opposition leaders, a NFZ would be of little value as Assad is operating with use of small clans on the ground, and a carpet bombing campaign would not help the opposition.

All well and good, but his primary belief shows itself right at the end of the piece, in fact the very last line, where he says: “The sad truth is, it is not our job to topple Assad.”

This simply overrides all previous considerations Hasan has made regarding how operationally difficult it would be to engage foreign action – and like the opinion of Alex Callinicos that the West did not have the moral authority to avert humanitarian crisis in Libya on the grounds that western capitalism destroys people at home, therefore opting for nothing to happen, allowing Gaddafi to unleash hell on his own people as revenge for daring to speak out against him, so Hasan believes it is a good and responsible principle that when a people are losing a fight for the freedoms we enjoy, the west should sit on its hands and watch because it is “not our job to topple Assad”. Well how terribly principled and privleged.

And because this seems to be the rule of the day, particularly for the political left, one is forced to seek information elsewhere on how to try and overcome the operational difficulties that engagement of the military would have right now. Seemingly, Michael Weiss has made the best effort to date, in his report Intervention in Syria? An Assessment of Legality, Logistics and Hazards.

In it he exemplifies the attacks that Turkey has experienced upon its embassies in Damascus, which raises questions of self-defense – and if ever there was a more prescient time for Turkey to do something, it is now after more than 10,000 refugees from Jisr al-Shughour fled to Antakya, in mid-June.

Problems here are obvious. Turkey has never conducted a humanitarian intervention on its own and it is unlikely to start now. Therefore a UN security council resolution authorising a NATO-led intervention or an Anglo-French-American-Turkish would assist in the defense of those parts of Turkey under attack – grounding the legal step that would later assist in halting the crimes perpetuated by Assad on his own people, in spite of sanctions and calls from foreign leaders to stand down.

Next for Weiss’ report is to note the Northwest province of Idleb as the best place to build up a “safe zone” (like Benghazi to the Libyan rebels) as anti-Assad sentiment is reasonably high. The Syrian military is already quite weak, numbering 450,000, ground troops at 100,000, reliant on soviet-era weaponry, including Naval facilities, and therefore is unlikely to be able to resist an intervention by a coalition of willing nations under legal writ.

Sanctions have done little to curb Assad’s brutality, and 10 months of peaceful protest by an opposition in Syria has resulted, at least, in 5,000 killed, 50,000 missing, 59,000 declared incarcerated and 16,000 dispossessed. The Arab League is to consider ending its monitoring process in Syria as violence continue, the Free Syrian Army has publicly threatened to escalate attacks against the Assad regime, and French President Sarkozy has said that Assad is committing massacres. Assad is ignoring all diplomatic calls to stop the violence – and when an autocrat breaches this level, history shows there are few peaceful alternatives left in the armory.

As Luke Bozier said recently: “Assad is a stubborn player, and he will have to be forced out.”

On top of all this, chemical weaponry is a real possibility. Syria has amassed a large cache, and is rumoured to have been building up more.

As I began, something must be done – time is running out and people are being slaughtered. The Syrian rebels need to appropriate what worked in Egypt and Libya by occupying a “safe zone”, they need to come together to commit to a working set of principles and arrangements vis-à-vis on agreeing a plan for engaging with foreign military powers. All legal procedures need to be completed, all alternatives need to be exhausted, and proven to be unhelpful (like sanctions – if more proof were needed), and the case for responsibilities beyond our own borders needs to be made once more. It worked in Libya, we should all like to see it work in Syria.

Civil war or forgo power; the options for Assad as for Saleh

October 22, 2011 2 comments

As someone put it in the week Gaddafi is dead, now the hard part starts. Hard, too, for those on the wrong side of history. 

While China looks set to change its tune at an hour far too far after the eleventh, going from calling Gaddafi the Libyan “strongman” in the state media to the “madman”, Russia continues to do itself no favours, with Ministers calling the dead despot a “martyr”.

The chances of the oil and railway contracts being dignified by the National Transition Council in Libya seem weak at best.

And rightly so. The NTC have taken it upon themselves to maintain contracts only with those supportive nations, leaving China, Russia and, of course, Brazil out in the cold. 

This trade system of vested interests can be more or less modelled on the trade system of vested interests that preceded it. Those countries that abstained in the UN resolution were happy to see the rebels killed for long term oil gain from a crook and killer, now they can shop elsewhere.

Oil will now only be as political as it has always been, but more so.

Regarding Syria, some have taken to repeating Assad’s desperate bluster, but as James Denselow for HuffPo has said, his carrots of reformed media and political party laws (etc.) are somewhat outweighed by his sticks of armed militias flattening dissent.

As Rupert Read in a fantastic essay on Left Foot Forward this morning pointed out, some, including the usually right on MediaLens, are falling for Assad’s carrots, but ignoring his sticks as so much imperialist horseshit.

The fear of change should only deter us from supporting the Arab Spring uprisings if what it was challenging had been proven to be working and successful, and the effort against it seemingly futile. This not the case, not in Syria, not in Yemen and not in Libya.

The death of Gaddafi, if it proves anything, is that the people are rising to destroy dictatorships and taking control of their states of exception (in the sense that Giorgio Agamben uses the term). But they can’t do it alone because of the weapon stockpiles, and military loyalties, of their dictators. 

Assad, as Saleh, knows, after watching Gaddafi die, that their options are to forgo power or wage civil war. 

The United Nations should know that a civil war in Syria, without their efforts, will be harder to contain later on. They can bypass no fly zones, just arm the people – now, or see advocates of democracy burn.

Categories: General Politics Tags: , ,
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