Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stressed Monday the importance of dialogue among the state’s parties in order to reach a sound political environment.
During his meeting with Baath party figures – Damascus branch, Assad pointed out to the importance of the Syrian capital Damascus, which is featured by preserving the Islamic and Christian inheritance together, thus presenting a model of modern openness.
“Damascus played a major role in Syria’s steadfastness during a three-year crisis,” the Syrian President indicated.
He also stressed the need for dialogue and effective and constructive communication with the new parties in Syria, in order to identify future mechanisms of sound communication.
“We are facing great challenges emerged by the crisis and the first one is to confront the extremist ideology which tries to penetrate the society,” he stated.
“We also have unprecedented serious intellectual vacuum… Our duty is to deal with it,” Assad went on to say, adding that “Without dialogue we cannot develop neither the party (Baath) nor the country.”
President Assad assured that the popular support of terrorism is shrinking while the reconciliation circle is being widened, and it is the most effective way to fight off the project of defeating Syria.”
In Ukraine, US-backed rebels seize weapons from a military depot and begin firing on police — killing at least ten. The rebel groups occupy and torch government buildings, trade union headquarters, the central post office, and political party headquarters. They occupy local government facilities in other cities and physically attack local authorities. Their goal is to overthrow the elected government.
Reports of rebel reinforcements arriving, with “bulky backpacks near the scene of the latest protests,” are suspiciously reminiscent of the “Internet in a Suitcase” project funded by the US government to provide tools for “activists” in regime-change candidate countries. The US has similarly trained and equipped the Syrian rebels.
US-backed rebels are photographed all over Ukraine with weapons, sometimes photographed shooting at police. In Syria, the US covertly provided the weapons and approved Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other “friends of Syria” to provide even more. A Russian official has accused the US of arming the Ukrainian opposition.
As in Syria, where US Ambassador Robert Ford adopted the rebels from the beginning of the insurrection, US officials have beat a steady path to the Ukrainian rebels to offer their support and assistance. Senator John McCain has even dined with Svoboda Party president Oleh Tyahnybok, shown here in a rather different pose. US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was recorded plotting the overthrow and replacement of the Ukrainian government with the US Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt.
Pyatt, a man surely devoid of any sense of self-reflection, boldly proclaimed that his recorded plotting to overthrow of the Ukrainian government was merely “helping to build bridges between the government and the opposition.” Of course in a strict sense that is true: he is actively engaged in building a bridge to government power for the Ukrainian opposition.
The Syrian rebels are presented as a moderate group of would-be democrats seeking political reform; Ukrainian rebels are presented as a bunch of pro-Western, pro-EU “peaceful demonstrators.” In both cases the real power on the streets has been radical extremists with whom US officials have had considerable contact.
In Syria, President Assad responded early on to the unrest with offers of compromise, including agreeing to hold a constitutional referendum which put an end to generations of one-party rule. In Ukraine, President Yanukovich granted amnesty to violent protesters, rescinded legislation seen as inhibiting protest, fired his government at the request of the opposition and even offered to name opposition leaders to a new interim government. Each move toward compromise and appeasement of the opposition was met with increased violence and escalating demands on the part of the rebels, most recently in Ukraine after opposition leaders met with US and EU officials at a security conference in Munich.
President Obama sternly warns the Ukrainian government against restoring order: “We expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protesters.” He cryptically hinted at possible US escalation, stating: “We’ll be monitoring very carefully the situation, recognizing that, along with our European partners and the international community, there will be consequences if people step over the line.”
He similarly warned Syrian president Assad against taking action to defend the country against armed rebels fighting for its overthrow.
Another red line drawn? This time on Russia’s doorstep?
Here again is the million dollar question: What would Washington do if rebels intent on overthrowing the Obama regime raided military weapons depots, killed at least ten police officers and wounded dozens of others, set Washington D.C. on fire, occupied key government buildings including the US Capitol complex, and demanded a change in the Constitution favoring their ascendance to power?
Obama warned the Ukraine government to make sure the “Ukrainian military does not step in to resolve issues that could be resolved by civilians.” The US military was called in to quell a far less significant protest in Seattle over the World Trade Organization meeting there in 1999.
The US Capitol area has been on “lockdown” innumerable times over such “threats” as a mentally disturbed woman driving erratically — who was unarmed and shot dead by police.
One need not side with either opposing group in Ukraine to point out the choking hypocrisy of the US position.
But what is truly remarkable are the many similarities between what has been happening in Syria and what is now happening in Ukraine. It almost seems as if the same hand with the same playbook is plotting both regime change operations.
Mr. President, what do you expect from the Geneva conference?
President Assad: The most basic element, which we continuously refer to, is that the Geneva Conference should produce clear results with regard to the fight against terrorism in Syria. In particular, it needs to put pressure on countries that are exporting terrorism, – by sending terrorists, money and weapons to terrorist organisations, – especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and of course the Western countries that provide political cover for these terrorist organisations. This is the most important decision or result that the Geneva Conference could produce. Any political solution that is reached without fighting terrorism has no value. There can be no political action when there is terrorism everywhere, not only in Syria but in neighbouring countries as well. From the political side, it is possible for Geneva to contribute to a process of dialogue between Syrians. There has to be a Syrian process within Syria and whilst Geneva could support this, it cannot be a substitute for it.
AFP: After nearly three years of devastating war and the big challenge of reconstruction in the country, is it likely that you will not be a candidate for the presidency?
President Assad: This depends on two things: It depends on personal aspirations or a personal decision, on the one hand, and on public opinion in Syria, on the other. As far as I am concerned, I see no reason why I shouldn’t stand; as for Syrian public opinion, there is still around four months before the election date is announced. If in that time, there is public desire and a public opinion in favour of my candidacy, I will not hesitate for a second to run for election. In short, we can say that the chances for my candidacy are significant.
AFP: In these past years, have you thought for a moment about losing the battle, and have you thought of an alternative scenario for you and your family?
President Assad: In any battle, there is always the possibility of winning and losing; but when you’re defending your country, it’s obvious that the only choice is to win. Should Syria lose this battle that would mean the spread of chaos throughout the Middle East. This battle is not confined to Syria and is not, as Western propaganda portrays, a popular uprising against a regime suppressing its people and a revolution calling for democracy and freedom. These lies have now become clear to people. A popular revolution doesn’t last for three years only to fail; moreover, a national revolution cannot have a foreign agenda. As for the scenarios that I have considered, of course these types of battles will have numerous scenarios – 1st, 2nd, 3rd……tenth, but they are all focused on defending the country not on running away from it. Fleeing is not an option in these circumstances. I must be at the forefront of those defending this country and this has been the case from day one.
AFP: Do you think you are winning this war?
President Assad: This war is not mine to win; it’s our war as Syrians. I think this war has, if you will, two phases. The first phase, which took the form of plans drawn up at the beginning, was the overthrow of the Syrian state in a matter of weeks or months. Now, three years on, we can safely say that this has failed, and that the Syrian people have won. There were countries that not only wanted to overthrow the state, but that also wanted to partition the country into several ‘mini-states;’ of course this phase failed, and hence the win for the Syrian people. The other phase of the battle is the fight against terrorism, which we are living on a daily basis. As you know, this phase isn’t over yet, so we can’t talk about having won before we eliminate the terrorists. What we can say is that we are making progress and moving forward. This doesn’t mean that victory is near at hand; these kinds of battles are complicated, difficult and they need a lot of time. However, as I said, and I reiterate, we are making progress, but have not yet achieved a victory.
AFP: Returning to Geneva, do you support a call from the conference for all foreign fighters to leave Syria, including Hezbollah?
President Assad: Clearly the job of defending Syria is responsibility of the Syrian people, the Syrian institutions, and in particular the Syrian Army. So, there would be no reason for any non-Syrian fighters to get involved had there not been foreign fighters from dozens of countries attacking civilians and Hezbollah especially on the Syrian-Lebanese border. When we talk about fighters leaving Syria, this would need to be part of a larger package that would see all the foreign fighters leave, and for all armed men – including Syrians – to hand over their weapons to the Syrian state, which would consequently achieve stability. So naturally, yes, one element of the solution in Syria – I wouldn’t say the objective – is for all non-Syrian fighters to leave Syria.
AFP: In addition to the prisoner exchange and a ceasefire in Aleppo, what initiatives are you ready to present at Geneva II?
President Assad: The Syrian initiative was put forward exactly a year ago, in January of last year. It’s a complete initiative that covers both political and security aspects and other dimensions that would lead to stability. All of these details are part of the initiative that Syria previously put forward. However, any initiative, whether this one or any other, must be the result of a dialogue between Syrians. The essence of anything that is proposed, whether it’s the crisis itself, fighting terrorism, or the future political vision and political system for Syria, requires the approval of Syrians. Our initiative was based on a process to facilitate this dialogue rather than a process to express the government’s point of view. It has always been our view that any initiative must be collective and produced by both the political actors in Syria and the Syrian people in general.
AFP: The opposition that will participate in Geneva is divided and many factions on the ground don’t believe it represents them. If an agreement is reached, how can it be implemented on the ground?
President Assad: This is the same question that we are asking as a government: when I negotiate, who am I negotiating with? There are expected to be many sides at Geneva, we don’t know yet who will come, but there will be various parties, including the Syrian government. It is clear to everyone that some of the groups, which might attend the conference, didn’t exist until very recently; in fact they were created during the crisis by foreign intelligence agencies whether in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, France, the United States or other countries. So when we sit down with these groups, we are in fact negotiating with those countries. So, is it logical that France should be a part of the Syrian solution? Or Qatar, or America, or Saudi Arabia, or Turkey? This doesn’t make any sense. Therefore, when we negotiate with these parties, we’re in fact negotiating with the countries that are behind them and that support terrorism in Syria. There are other opposition forces in Syria that have a national agenda; these are parties that we can negotiate with. On the issue of the vision for Syria’s future, we are open for these parties to participate in governing the Syrian state, in the government and in other institutions. But as I mentioned earlier, anything that is agreed with any party, whether in Geneva or in Syria, must be subject to people’s endorsement, through a referendum put to Syrian citizens.
AFP: In this context, could the ceasefire agreements that have been started in Moadimiya and Barzeh be an alternative to Geneva?
President Assad: The truth is that these initiatives may be more important than Geneva, because the majority of those fighting and carrying out terrorist operations on the ground have no political agenda. Some of them have become professional armed robbers, and others, as you know, are takfiri organisations fighting for an extremist Islamic emirate and things of that kind. Geneva means nothing for these groups. For this reason, the direct action and the models that have been achieved in Moadamiyeh, in Barzeh and other places in Syria has proven to be very effective. But this is separate from the political process, which is about the political future of Syria. These reconciliations have helped stability and have eased the bloodshed in Syria, both of which help pave the way for the political dialogue I mentioned earlier.
AFP: Are you prepared to have a prime minister from the opposition in a future government?
President Assad: That depends on who this opposition represents. When it represents a majority, let’s say in parliament, naturally it should lead the government. But to appoint a prime minister from the opposition without having a majority doesn’t make any political sense in any country in the world. In your country, for example, or in Britain or elsewhere, you can’t have a prime minister from a parliamentary minority. This will all depend on the next elections, which we discussed in the Syrian initiative; they will reveal the real size of support for the various opposition forces. As to participation as a principle, we support it, of course it is a good thing.
AFP: Are you prepared to have, for example, Ahmed Jarba or Moaz Khatib, be your next prime minister?
President Assad: This takes us back to the previous question. Do any of these people represent the Syrian people, or even a portion of the Syrian people? Do they even represent themselves, or are they just representatives of the states that created them? This brings us back to what I mentioned earlier: every one of these groups represents the country that created them. The participation of each of these individuals means the participation of each of those states in the Syrian government! This is the first point. Second, let’s assume that we agreed to the participation of these individuals in the government. Do you think that they would dare to come to Syria to take part in the government? Of course they wouldn’t. Last year, they claimed that they had control of 70% of Syria, yet they didn’t even dare to come to the areas that they had supposed control of. They did come to the border for a 30-minute photo opportunity and then they fled. How can they be ministers in the government? Can a foreigner become a Syrian minister? That’s why these propositions are totally unrealistic, but they do make a good joke!
AFP: Mr. President, you said that it depends on the results of the elections, but how can you hold these kinds of elections if part of Syria’s territory is in the hands of insurgents?
President Assad: During this crisis, and after the unrest started in Syria, we have conducted elections twice: the first was municipal elections and the second was parliamentary elections. Of course, the elections cannot be conducted in the same way they are conducted in normal circumstances, but the roads between Syrian regions are open, and people area able to move freely between different regions. Those who live in difficult areas can go to neighbouring areas and participate in the elections. There will be difficulties, but it is not an impossible process.
AFP: Now that opposition fighters are battling jihadists, do you see any difference between the two?
President Assad: The answer I would have given you at the beginning of the events or during its various phases, is completely different to the answer today. Today, there are no longer two opposition groups. We all know that during the past few months the extremist terrorist groups fighting in Syria have wiped out the last remaining positions that were held by the forces the West portrays as moderates, calling them the moderate or secular forces, or the Free Syrian Army. These forces no longer exist. We are now dealing with one extremist group made up of various factions. As to the fighters that used to belong to what the West calls ‘moderate forces,’ these have mostly joined these extremist factions, either for fear or voluntarily through financial incentives. In short, regardless of the labels you read in the Western media, we are now fighting one extremist terrorist group comprising of various factions.
AFP: Would it be possible for the army and the opposition to fight against the jihadists side by side?
President Assad: We cooperate with any party that wants to join the army in fighting terrorists, and this has happened before. There are many militants who have left these organisations and joined the army to fight with it. So this is possible, but these are individual cases. This is not an alliance between ‘moderate’ forces and the army against terrorists. That depiction is false and is an illusion that is used by the West only to justify its support for terrorism in Syria. It supports terrorism under the pretext that it is backing moderation against extremist terrorism, and that is both illogical and false.
AFP: The state accuses the rebels of using civilians as human shields in areas under their control, but when the army shells these areas, do you not think this kills innocent people?
President Assad: The army does not shell neighbourhoods. The army strikes areas where there are terrorists. In most cases, terrorists enter particular areas and force out the civilians. Why do you think we have so many displaced people? Most of the millions of displaced people in Syria have fled their homes because terrorists forcefully entered their neighbourhoods. If there are civilians among these armed groups, why do we have so many displaced people? The army is fighting armed terrorists, and in some cases, terrorists have used civilians as human shields. Civilian casualties are unfortunately the consequences of any war. There is no such thing as a clean war in which there are no innocent civilian victims. This is the unfortunate nature of war, and that is why the only solution is to put an end to it.
AFP: Mr. President, some international organisations have accused the government and the opposition of committing abuses. After this war ends, would you be ready for there to be an investigation into these abuses?
President Assad: There is no logic to this claim made by these organisations. How can the Syrian state be killing its own people, and yet it is still standing three years on, despite the fact that there are dozens of countries working against it. Had the Syrian state been killing its people, they would have revolted against it long ago. Such a state could not survive for more than a few months; the fact that it has resisted for three years means that it has popular support. Such talk is more than illogical: it is unnatural. What these organizations are saying is either a reflection of their ignorance of the situation in Syria, or, in some cases, it shows they are following the political agenda of particular states. The Syrian state has always defended its civilians; it is well documented, through all the videos and the photos circulating, that it is the terrorists who are committing massacres and killing civilians everywhere. From the beginning of this crisis, up until today, these organizations do not have a single document to prove that the Syrian government has committed a massacre against civilians anywhere.
AFP: Mr. President, we know of foreign journalists who were kidnapped by the terrorist groups. Are there any foreign journalists in state prisons?
President Assad: It would be best for you to ask the relevant, specialised agencies on this issue. They would be able to give you an answer.
AFP: Would a reconciliation be possible, one day, between Syria on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey on the other?
President Assad: Politics changes constantly, but this change depends on two factors: principles and interests. We share no common principles with the states you mention; these states support terrorism and they have contributed to the bloodshed in Syria. As for interests, we need to ask ourselves: will the Syrian people agree to shared interests with these countries after everything that has happened and all the bloodshed in Syria? I don’t want to answer on behalf of the Syrian people. If the people believe they share interests with these states, and if these states change their policy on supporting terrorism, it is plausible that the Syrian people might agree to restore relations. I can’t individually as President, answer on behalf of all the Syrian people at such a time. This is a decision for the people.
AFP: Mr. President, you were welcomed on the occasion of July 14 (Bastille Day) in the Elysee Palace in Paris. Are you now surprised by France’s position, and do you think France may one day play some kind of role in Syria?
President Assad: No, I am not surprised, because when that reception took place, it was during the period – 2008 to 2011 – where there was an attempt to contain Syria’s role and Syria’s policy. France was charged with this role by the United States when Sarkozy became president. There was an agreement between France and the Bush administration over this, since France is an old friend of the Arabs and of Syria and as such it is better suited to play the role. The requirement at that time was to use Syria against Iran and Hezbollah, and to pull it away from supporting resistance organisations in the region. This French policy failed, because its goal was blatantly obvious. Then the so-called Arab Spring began, and France turned against Syria after it had failed to honour the pledge it had made to the United States. This is the reason behind the French position during that period why it changed in 2011.
As for France’s role in future, let’s talk frankly. Ever since 2001 and the terrorist attacks on New York, there has been no European policy-making to speak of (and that’s if we don’t look back even further to the 1990s). In the West, there is only an American policy, which is implemented by some European countries. This has been the case on all the issues in our region in the past decade.
Today, we see the same thing: either European policy is formulated with American blessing, or American policy is adopted by the Europeans as their own. So, I don’t believe that Europe, and particularly France, which used to lead the European policy in the past, is capable of playing any role in the future of Syria, or in neighbouring countries. There is another reason too, and that is that Western officials have lost their credibility. They no longer have double standards; they have triple and quadruple standards. They have all kinds of standards for every political situation. They have lost their credibility; they have sold their principles in return for interests, and therefore it is impossible to build a consistent policy with them. Tomorrow, they might do the exact opposite of what they are doing today. Because of this, I don’t think that France will play a role in the immediate future, unless it changes its policy completely and from its core and returns to the politically independent state it once was.
AFP: How long do you think Syria needs to rid itself completely of its chemical weapons stockpiles?
President Assad: This depends on the extent to which the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will provide Syria with the necessary equipment to carry out the process. So far, the process of making this equipment available has been quite slow. On the other hand, as you know dismantling and neutralizing the chemical materials is not taking place inside Syria nor by the Syrian state. A number of countries in different parts of the world have accepted to carry out that process; some have agreed to deal with the less dangerous materials, whilst others have refused completely. Since, the time-frame is dependent on these two factors – the role of the OPCW and the countries that accept to neutralize the materials on their territories – it is not for Syria to determine a time-frame on this issue. Syria has honoured its part by preparing and collecting data and providing access to inspectors who verified this data and inspected the chemical agents. The rest, as I said, is up to the other parties.
AFP: Mr. President, what has changed in your and your family’s daily, personal lives? Do your children understand what has happened? Do you talk to them about this?
President Assad: There are a few things that haven’t changed. I go to work as usual, and we live in the same house as before, and the children go to school; these things haven’t changed. On the other hand, there are things which have affected every Syrian household, including mine: the sadness which lives with us every day – all the time, because of what we see and experience, because of the pain, because of the fallen victims everywhere and the destruction of the infrastructure and the economy. This has affected every family in Syria, including my own. There is no doubt that children are affected more deeply than adults in these circumstances. This generation will probably grow up too early and mature much faster as a result of the crisis. There are questions put to you by children about the causes of what’s happening, that you don’t usually deal with in normal circumstances. Why are there such evil people? Why are there victims? It’s not easy to explain these things to children, but they remain persistent daily questions and a subject of discussion in every family, including my own.
AFP: Through these years, what was the most difficult situation you went through?
President Assad: It’s not necessarily a particular situation but rather group of elements. There are several things that were hard to come to terms with, and they are still difficult. The first, I believe, is terrorism; the degree of savagery and inhumanity that the terrorists have reached reminds us of what happened in the Middle Ages in Europe over 500 years ago. In more recent modern times, it reminds us of the massacres perpetrated by the Ottomans against the Armenians when they killed a million and a half Armenians and half a million Orthodox Syriacs in Syria and in Turkish territory. The other aspect that is difficult to understand is the extent of Western officials’ superficiality in their failure to understand what happened in this region, and their subsequent inability to have a vision for the present or for the future. They are always very late in realizing things, sometimes even after the situation has been overtaken by a new reality that is completely different. The third thing that is difficult to understand is the extent of influence of petrodollars in changing roles on the international arena. For instance, how Qatar was transformed from a marginal state to a powerful one, while France has become a proxy state implementing Qatari policies. This is also what we see happening now between France and Saudi Arabia. How can petrodollars make western officials, particularly in France, sell their principles and sell the principles of the French Revolution in return for a few billion dollars? These are only a few things, among others, which are difficult for one to understand and accept.
AFP: The trial of those accused of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri has begun. Do you think it will be a fair trial?
President Assad: Nine years have passed since the beginning of this trial. Has justice been served? Every accusation was made for political reasons. Even in the past few days, we have not seen any tangible proof put forward against the parties involved in the case. The real question should be: why the timing? Why now? This court was set up nine years ago. Have the things produced in the last few days been uncovered only now? I believe that the whole thing is politicized and is intended to put pressure on Hezbollah in Lebanon in the same way that it aimed at putting pressure on Syria in the beginning, immediately after al-Hariri’s assassination.
AFP: You have said the war will end when terrorism is eradicated. But the Syrians and everyone else want to know when this war will end. Within months? After a year? In years to come?
President Assad: We hope that the Geneva conference will be able to provide an answer to part of this by exercising pressure on these countries. This aspect has nothing to do with Syria; otherwise we would have put pressure on these states from the beginning and prevented terrorism from entering Syria. From our side, when this terrorism stops coming in, ending the war will not take more than a few months.
AFP: It appears Western intelligence agencies want to re-open channels of communication with Damascus, in order to ask you for help fighting terrorism. Are you ready for that?
President Assad: There have been meetings with several intelligence agencies from a number of countries. Our response has been that security cooperation cannot be separated from political cooperation, and political cooperation cannot be achieved while these states adopt anti-Syrian policies. This was our answer, brief and clear.
AFP: You have said in the past that the state has made mistakes. In your view, what were the mistakes that could have been avoided?
President Assad: I have said that mistakes can be made in any situation. I did not specify what those mistakes were because this cannot be done objectively until the crisis is behind us and we can assess our experience. Evaluating them whilst we are in the middle of the crisis will only yield limited results.
AFP: Mr. President, without Russia, China and Iran’s help, would you have been able to resist in the face of the wars declared against you?
President Assad: This is a hypothetical question, which I cannot answer, because we haven’t experienced the alternative. Reality has shown that Russian, Chinese and Iranian support has been important and has contributed to Syria’s steadfastness. Without this support, things probably would have been much more difficult. How? It is difficult to draw a hypothetical picture at this stage.
AFP: After all that has happened, can you imagine another president rebuilding Syria?
President Assad: If this is what the Syrian people want, I don’t have a problem with it. I am not the kind of person who clings to power. In any case, should the Syrian people not want me to be president, obviously there will be somebody else. I don’t have a personal problem with this issue.
Thank you very much Mr. President.
A new MIT report is challenging the US claim that Assad forces used chemical weapons in an attack last August, highlighting that the range of the improvised rocket was way too short to have been launched from government controlled areas.
In the report titled “Possible Implications of Faulty US Technical Intelligence,” Richard Lloyd, a former UN weapons inspector, and Theodore Postol, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), examined the delivery rocket’s design and calculated possible trajectories based on the payload of the cargo.
The authors concluded that sarin gas “could not possibly have been fired at East Ghouta from the ‘heart’, or from the Eastern edge, of the Syrian government controlled area shown in the intelligence map published by the White House on August 30, 2013.”
Based on mathematical calculations, Lloyd and Postol estimate the rocket with such aerodynamics could not travel more than 2 kilometers. To illustrate their conclusion, the authors included the original White House map that depicted areas under Assad control and those held by the opposition. Based on the firing range and troop locations on August 21, the authors conclude that all possible launching points within the 2 km radius were in rebel-held areas.
“This mistaken intelligence could have led to an unjustified US military action based on false intelligence. A proper vetting of the fact that the munition was of such short range would have led to a completely different assessment of the situation from the gathered data,” the report states.
The authors emphasize that the UN independent assessment of the range of the chemical munition is in “exact agreement” with their findings.
The report goes on to challenge the US Secretary of State’s key assessments of the chemical attack that he presented to the American people on August 30th and to the Foreign Relations Committee on September 3rd in an effort to muster a military attack on Syria.
“My view when I started this process was that it couldn’t be anything but the Syrian government behind the attack. But now I’m not sure of anything. The administration narrative was not even close to reality. Our intelligence cannot possibly be correct,” Postol told McClatchy news.
“The Syrian rebels most definitely have the ability to make these weapons,” he said. “I think they might have more ability than the Syrian government.”
It also remains a mystery why the particular type of rocket that was used in the attack was not declared by the Syrian government as part of its chemical weapons arsenal when it agreed to destroy its chemical weapons and their delivery methods. OPCW inspectors charged with implementing the agreement also did not discover such a rocket in possession of government forces.
Syria agreed to the destruction of its chemical weapons through a deal brokered by Russia and the US after a sarin gas attack on August 21. Western nations blamed the deadly attack on President Bashar Assad’s forces, while Damascus accused the rebels for the incident. The UN fact-finding mission had no mandate to find out who carried out the attack.
Under the UN-backed plan, all of the country’s declared 1,290 tons of toxic agents should be destroyed by June 30. Initially, the first batch of the most dangerous materials was to be moved out of Syria on December 31.
However, the deadline was missed because of the ongoing war in Syria and technical issues. It was only on January 7 that “priority chemical materials” left the Syrian port of Latakia on a Danish ship for international waters.
Suppose a great power declares that it supports a peace process aimed at finding a political solution to a terrible, ongoing conflict. Then suppose that this great power makes such declarations after it has already proclaimed its strong interest in the defeat of one of the main parties to said conflict. And then suppose that this great power insists on preconditions for a peace process—preconditions effectively boiling down to a demand for pre-emptive surrender by the party whose defeat the great power has already identified as its major goal—which render such a process impossible. Is it not reasonable to conclude that the great power in question is (how to put this gently) lying about its purported support for peace?
That, in a nutshell, is the Obama administration’s posture toward the ongoing conflict in Syria.
Earlier this week, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon began sending out invitations for the Geneva II conference on Syria scheduled for January 22. And, as Ban’s spokesperson acknowledged, the Islamic Republic of Iran was not among the “first round” of nations asked to take part.
According to the spokesperson, invitations to the talks are subject to the approval—or veto—of the two “initiating states,” Russia and the United States. The Islamic Republic has said repeatedly that it is prepared to attend and to contribute constructively to the search for a political settlement. Of course, Russia supports Iran’s participation in Geneva II—as does China, Germany, Turkey, every other state seriously interested in resolving the conflict in Syria, and the United Nations itself. (Ban’s spokesperson publicly stated this week, “The secretary-general is in favor of inviting Iran.”)
It is the United States—whose leader, President Obama has demanded for more than two years that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad relinquish his position—that is blocking Iranian participation in Geneva II. And it is attempting to justify this position by continuing to insist on Assad’s pre-emptive surrender as part of the Geneva II agenda. Moreover, Washington is couching its demand for Assad’s pre-emptive surrender in a shamelessly dishonest reading of the 2012 Geneva I communique, which is supposed to set the terms of reference for Geneva II.
On this last point, Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week (before Ban started sending out invitations) reiterated the Obama administration’s opposition to Iran’s participation in Geneva II as a “ministerial partner.” In the administration’s view, Iran can’t come to the meeting because it has not signed on to the Geneva I document—in particular, the passage positing that a “transitional governing body” for Syria “shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent” among “the present government and the opposition and other groups.”
Since Iran (at Washington’s insistence) was not invited to Geneva I, it is not clear exactly how or why Tehran should sign up to a communique it had no part in producing. But the most shamelessly dishonest aspect of the Obama administration’s posturing on the matter is its insistence that Iran accept the administration’s warped reading of the passage from Geneva I just cited, which Team Obama (including Kerry) interprets as a requirement that Assad leave office and play no future political role—whether as part of a transitional government or as Syria’s first president elected after a settlement is negotiated.
We suspect that Assad would, in all likelihood, win another national mandate—even in the “free and fair multi-party elections” envisioned in Geneva I. But Washington doesn’t want Syrians to have the chance to make that choice. And so Washington continues to block Iranian participation in Geneva II—save perhaps, as Kerry pompously suggested earlier this week, “from the sidelines” (a proposition that Iran has roundly rejected).
What is so appallingly arrogant about the Obama administration’s position is that it was explicitly rejected at Geneva I. Then-UN envoy Kofi Annan’s draft communique originally contained U.S.-backed language barring figures from the conflict resolution process whose participation would block creation of a national unity government—language that the United States, Britain, and France crafted to exclude Assad. Russia and China insisted that this language be removed from the final communique. But the Obama administration has disingenuously continued asserting that the language in Geneva I bans Assad from any future political role—even though it is as clear as day that Geneva I, as actually adopted, does not do any such thing.
Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are supposed to discuss the question of Iranian participation in Geneva II on January 13. Let’s see if the Obama administration can actually decide that it wants to resolve the conflict in Syria, rather than prolonging it further.
TEHRAN – Syria is entrapped in a mesmerizing and unusual conflict these days. Fighters from more than 80 countries, mostly the European and Arab allies of the United States, have taken up arms against the Syrian government and persistently push for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad from power. Opinion polls, however, show that the majority of Syrians support President Assad and want him to remain in power.
Thousands of innocent civilians have lost their lives in the clashes that have erupted in the recent months between the Army forces and the foreign-backed mercenaries, and the international community is divided over finding a definite solution to the crisis in Syria.
Political commentator and Middle East geopolitics analyst Sharmine Narwani believes that the United States, fearing the growing domestic and international popularity of President Assad, has long sought the destabilization of Syria with the final objective of breaking down the axis of resistance comprising Iran, Syria and Lebanon.
Sharmine Narwani said in an exclusive interview with Fars News Agency that the Syrian opposition forces have been “funded and assembled by foreign foes of Syria for geopolitical gain”.
She said the goal of the opposition was to unseat Assad so that they could then come in and establish their own foreign-backed “dictatorship” at the heart of the Resistance Axis.
“The reason this opposition has never been able to articulate a cohesive, inclusive, political platform for the Syrian people is because they are all backed by different, sometimes competing, interests, and because their goal is not a politically reformed Syria, but instead the establishment of their own power and economic bases,” she added.
Sharmine Narwani is a political commentator and analyst of Mideast geopolitics. She is currently a Senior Associate at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University and a blogger for Al Akhbar English in Lebanon. She has a Master of International Affairs (MIA) degree in both Mideast studies and journalism from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), and has written commentary for numerous publications including Al Jazeera English, the New York Times, The Guardian, USA Today, Huffington Post, BRICS Post, Asia Times Online and others.
What follows is the text of FNA’s interview with Ms. Narwani about the ongoing conflict in Syria and the future of war in the crisis-hit Arab country.
Q: The United States and its European and Arab allies have been calling for a military invasion of Syria for a long time. They view the military option as the only solution to the Syrian crisis. However, they are apparently ignoring the massive support of the Syrian people for President Assad as echoed in the street demonstrations of the pro-Assad citizens and the opinion polls which show that a strong majority of the Syrian people want President Assad to remain in power. Aren’t these states disregarding the will of the Syrian people?
A: The conflict in Syria today has been a long time in the making. For years, the US and its western allies have sought to undermine Iran’s influence in the Mideast by targeting its staunchest allies, Syria and Hezbollah. Wikileaks Cables show this quite clearly – a 2006 cable after the Israeli war on Lebanon shows US officials worried about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s improved domestic and regional status, and urges the development of a plan of action to “exploit vulnerabilities” – sectarian, economic, political – that could chip away at his legitimacy.
The Arab Uprisings provided a unique opportunity for the US and its allies to exploit the narratives of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and impose them on Syria through blatant media propaganda and subversive activities on the ground. I have often wondered why, for instance, at the same time that Syrian government officials were offering conciliatory measures, dialogue and reforms to defuse tensions in early 2011, vulnerable Syrians in “hot” areas were being sniped at. From the start of events in Syria there has been a determined effort by its adversaries to use sabotage, assassinations, political violence and information warfare to whip up popular sentiment and sway large segments of the populations into supporting a rebellion.
I can’t speak for the veracity of polls taken during this conflict, but it isn’t hard to cobble together a picture of the population demographics that have supported Assad – or specifically, that have rejected the armed rebellion. You have the major cities (Aleppo and Damascus), minorities (Alawite, Druze, Christian, Kurds, Shiite), Baathists (3 million members, most Sunni), the armed forces, the business community, the government elite – most of whom have rejected the militarization of the opposition, if not outright supported Assad. This, in itself, constitutes millions and millions of Syrians whose voices have been entirely ignored until recently.
Karen Koning AbuZayd, a UN commissioner for the Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria, said much the same thing earlier this year about persistent support for Assad inside Syria: “There’s quite a number of the population, maybe as many as half – if not more – that stand behind him.”
Q: What do you think about the activities of the foreign-backed rebels and mercenaries who have taken up arms against the Syrian government and are hell-bent on removing President Assad from power? Why are the foreign powers backing, financing and arming them? Isn’t it strange that even some of the Arab states in the region have joined them and are contributing to the destabilization of Syria?
A: The armed opposition has been opportunistic and bloody from the start, targeting security forces, on and off duty, and pro-government civilians since March 2011. While there were indeed Syrian army defectors who joined the “revolution” early on in the conflict in response to government clampdowns and/or their own genuine political sentiments, much of the armed rebellion has been funded, assisted and organized from outside Syria’s borders. We know, for instance, that non-Syrians were entering the country right from the beginning – we have video, photographic and anecdotal evidence of this happening over the Lebanese border, for example. These people were provided with wages, weapons, intelligence and training, with the expectation that a hard thrust against Assad’s government would unseat him in short shrift, much like what had already happened in other Arab states.
When this did not happen, foreign intervention increased substantially, always with the notion that “one more” big effort would cause Assad to fall. Whereas in the past, the enemy had been the US, some European states and Israel, we suddenly started to see the ferocious engagement of Arab regimes in the Syrian conflict – Qatar and Saudi Arabia, assisted by a smattering of other Persian Gulf states, Jordan, Turkey, and jihadists from all corners.
Each may have had their own reasons for participating, but at the core, the Arab states that threw weapons, funding and fighters at Syria were seeking to undermine the Resistance Axis in the region and to create a counter-revolution that would push back Arab popular uprisings against illegitimate regimes. For some though, the fight in Syria became existential. Saudi royals – who view the uprisings and Iran’s influence in the region as being a threat to their very survival – have said that a loss in Syria would mean the loss of their oil-rich, Shiite-dominated Eastern Province. It isn’t a very rational train of thought, but it has been the main impetus behind Saudi support for the armed rebellion.
Q: It sounds like the anti-Syrian opposition groups are not united and cannot follow a cohesive path. Some of them call for dialogue with the government to resolve the disputes, while some of them utterly reject any kind of negotiation, calling for the removal of President Assad and the dissolution of his government. What’s your viewpoint on this inconsistency and lack of harmony among the Syrian opposition?
A: I am assuming you are referring mainly to the externally-based Syrian opposition here. This opposition has been funded and assembled by foreign foes of Syria for geopolitical gain. Their goal was to unseat a “dictator” so that they could then come in and establish their own foreign-backed “dictatorship” at the heart of the Resistance Axis. The reason this opposition has never been able to articulate a cohesive, inclusive, political platform for the Syrian people is because they are all backed by different, sometimes competing, interests, and because their goal is not a politically reformed Syria, but instead the establishment of their own power and economic bases.
The lack of cohesion in this group and the embarrassing infighting that has plagued them from their inception, is a testament to the fact that you cannot just manufacture revolutions, assign leadership, cobble together “governments in exile.” Legitimacy comes from the people who are within the state. Leaders have to earn their positions, based on consensus of some kind that is accepted by the majority. Meanwhile, inside Syria, for nearly three years a peaceful domestic opposition has been ignored by foreign media and governments. These are activists who have credibility among their communities and have the potential to create grassroots movements that can exert pressure on the government to produce desired reforms. But these domestic opposition types were never empowered and encouraged. It goes to show that the foreign backers of the Syrian “revolution” were less interested in reform than they were in assuming power.
And no, I do not foresee the possibility of a last-minute delegation with common goals representing the “opposition” at Geneva talks. It is too late for some things. I believe the major issues that must be tackled to achieve a political solution will be resolved between the Syrian government and key regional and international players in advance of any Geneva talks. The “public” negotiations will just put a pretty face on things for mass consumption. Today, if you want a political solution, you first need the disarmament of the conflict – and this will not be an issue for Syrians to resolve, it is a concession that can only be wrenched from states that arm both the rebels and the Syrian armed forces.
As for whether Assad stays or goes, that is not something that should be decided by external parties at negotiations in Geneva. It is a choice for Syrians only. And I sincerely hope that the Syrian government is obliged to conduct transparent elections under the rigorous supervision of impartial, professional, international observers. It is the only way the next government can enjoy legitimacy.
Q: Why haven’t the international organizations, especially the UN Security Council, prevented the influx of illicit arms and weaponry into Syria which directly reach the rebels and insurgents who not only kill the Syrian army forces, but the innocent civilians, children and women? The Security Council surely knows that the smuggling of arms and ammunition to the rebels and mercenaries is taking place furtively, but it doesn’t condemn or take action to stop it. Why?
A: At this juncture in our collective political evolution, it befits us to be honest about what we call the “international community.” In effect, this term really only ever refers to those countries that politically and economically dominate our global political system. For the past few decades, “international community” has come to mean the United States and a handful of its allies. Even UN Security Council permanent members Russia and China haven’t truly counted. Nor have the next generation of fast-growth economies and major population centers like India, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa – until very recently. These second tier players have suddenly begun to insert themselves into critical political and economic developments – and Syria has been the theater in which some of these geopolitical battles have been fought.
The reason the UN and other western-dominated NGOs have not sought to impose punitive measures on parties that weaponized the Syrian conflict is simply because the UN and these NGOs are absolutely dominated by parties backing one side in this conflict. It was not in their interest to do so. Nobody understands the issue of weaponizing conflicts better than these groups – they have spent years churning out analyses and reports that document the dangers of “small arms” in conflict. They know better than anyone that weaponizing conflicts has a direct correlation with the breakdown of law and order, and that human rights violations spike dramatically. They know that even after “peace treaties” are signed, these weapons continue to change hands and keep conflict “humming.”
The fact is that the UN could not take action against the weaponization of the Syrian conflict because its dominant members were still seeking a military solution to oust Assad. Now that the US and key western allies are reassessing this route and are pursuing diplomatic solutions for a Syrian exit, we may see an altered NGO posture, where violators are named and punitive actions are taken. It is important to note that the only parties to have vocally advocated for the mutual de-weaponization of the conflict are those states outside the old international “power paradigm” like the BRICS and Iran.
Q: What’s your viewpoint on the state of Syrian refugees who have fled to the neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey? They are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, foodstuff, medicine and above all, a permanent shelter; however, it seems that there’s no entity assuming responsibility for them. How does their future life look? With the current destruction and instability imposed on Syria, can they foresee an early return to their homeland?
A: Nobody is assuming responsibility for them because refugee absorption requires money, which many states have preferred to throw at a military solution inside Syria. When I visited Syria in early 2012, an official with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told me very specifically, “if the fighting stops today people can return home tomorrow.” At that time, the biggest humanitarian problem they were facing was internal displacement, so he was mainly referring to the fact that continued violence from both sides inside towns and villages was the primary inhibitor of Syrians being able to return to their homes.
Today, that problem has grown exponentially with millions of refugees seeking safety outside Syria’s borders and even more millions being displaced internally. Again, for those interested in assisting refugees, I tell you that the moment the political violence and military operations cease, is the moment that these people can start returning to their communities. Obviously, this would have been easier a year ago – today, so many areas have been leveled by fighting with homes, schools, infrastructure destroyed, that there is sometimes nothing to go home to. But the best solution still remains one that involves rebuilding of communities – that’s where the international financial assistance should go, and not to resettling Syrians outside their countries or in unfamiliar areas within, which is why a solution to this conflict is urgent. We are approaching winter in the Levant, and it is unconscionable that international and regional parties cannot diplomatically agree to demilitarization of the Syrian conflict, so that more lives can be spared. Otherwise our attention will be turned from Syrians getting shot and bombed and beheaded, to Syrian starving and freezing to death.
Q: It was on the reports that US President Barack Obama has ordered a temporary lift on the arms ban to Syria so that certain weaponry and ammunitions could be delivered to the rebels and those whom Secretary of State John Kerry has called “moderate” terrorists. Isn’t this order somewhat hypocritical as the United States has always depicted itself an ardent opponent of terrorism and extremism? How is it possible to justify its overt support for the terrorists in Syria?
A: The US has acted very opportunistically inside Syria, prioritizing interests over values at every turn. It has tacitly and sometimes actively supported those individuals and groups which were Washington’s targets in a decade-long “war on terror.” Washington knows full well that weapons cannot be funneled specifically to “moderates” – rebels will sell them for good money at a moment’s notice, and many of these rebels change groups with great frequency. When Kerry first made that statement about arming the moderates, I got in touch with a US State Department spokesman and asked him repeatedly to name one “moderate” rebel group that “could” potentially be a recipient of American military largesse. He couldn’t.
As is the case with most US foreign policy in the Mideast, we now see an “unintended consequence” emerge – Salafi-Jihadist cells, gangs, militias and networks have grown like weeds, not just in Syria, but throughout the Levant, Persian Gulf and North Africa. This is the main reason the US is now reassessing its interests in Syria and the broader Mideast.
It is ironic that the US spent so many years allegedly fighting terror, when in fact its policies spawned an unprecedented growth in terror groups, networks and activities, both in and out of the Middle East. Today, this arm of American policy has been crippled by the challenges it faces against Salafi extremists. It is why Washington is rapidly altering its position vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran. The US actually needs Iran now to regionally lead the charge to eliminate these groups, secure borders and help stabilize a very chaotic region.
Q: And a final question; how does the future of Syria look? On one hand, we have the United States and its regional allies that seem to be strangely intractable and unwilling to allow the Syrian people to decide their fate, and on the other hand, there are the foreign-backed terrorists, Al-Qaeda fighters and Al-Nusra Front warriors that are carrying out bloody operations every single day. Can we foresee a peaceful future for Syria one day?
A: I’m a rare optimist on Syria. I firmly believe we have the potential to see the reestablishment of a secure and unified Syria with a modified and reformed central government.
I don’t believe that this can be achieved only via a political solution, however. As I said earlier, a political outcome must first be reached between the regional and international parties that weaponize the conflict. This is stage one. The next stage will need global consensus because it entails a massive military push to purge Syria and its neighbors of jihadists and their local brethren. This will consist of several things: aiding and empowering the Syrian army to use full military force against these groups inside Syria; a worldwide effort to inhibit the financing of militants by individuals and states and slapping punitive measures against violators; heavily policed borders in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon.
This may not be easy, but it is not difficult either – if the political will is there. And I believe we are coming to that stage – where Syria’s western and Arab foes, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, Israel and wealthy financiers of jihad, have fully realized the dangers of allowing this conflict to continue and political violence to escalate to these levels. Jihadists from dozens of countries, from all continents, have found a haven in Syria, and are spreading with relative impunity into neighboring states. If this trend is not stemmed, they will come back home and wreak their carnage there.
The final stage is reconstruction – which will again require the material assistance of the international community – and elections.
How is all this possible? And if it were, why haven’t we seen these measures being implemented earlier? I do not believe the political will existed until recently. I think Washington’s threat to launch military strikes against Syria was a “last stand,” and it failed because the west knows it cannot fight any more wars in the Mideast or predict outcomes. It also knows that Syria’s rebels have become everyone’s worst nightmare. The US knows it is going to need regional help to unwind this conflict – and that its traditional allies are unable to deliver, hence the “unprecedented” negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva. Geopolitical realities have fundamentally shifted. Yesterday’s enmities do not compare to the horrors ahead for the international community if the jihadi genie is not put back into its bottle.
These new alliances will not only work to resolve the Syrian conflict and re-stabilize the state, but will also serve to push “stability” throughout the region.
Washington knew Syrian rebels could produce sarin gas but “cherry-picked” intel to blame President Assad for the Aug. 21 attack on Ghouta, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has revealed, citing senior US security sources.
The report was published in the London Review of Books after two of Hersh’s regular publishers, The New Yorker and The Washington Post, turned the article down.
Hersh, whose Pulitzers were for his exposes on American military misconduct in the Iraq and Vietnam wars, got his information on Syria from whistle-blowing acting and former intelligence and military officers, who for security reasons were not identified in the report.
According to Hersh’s findings, months before the chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus, which almost prompted US air strikes on Syria, “the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports… citing evidence that the Al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with Al-Qaeda, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity.”
The attack took place on August 21, the same day UN inspectors arrived in Damascus to investigate allegations of use of chemical weapons. The casualty figures have ranged from several hundred to more than 1,400 deaths.
Before the attack, the Obama administration repeatedly described the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a “red line,” which would signal the US could intervene in the conflict.
Hersh wrote that he does not believe that the intelligence data, pointing at the rebels’ having capability for making sarin, could have in any way escaped the White House’s attention.
“Already by late May, the senior intelligence consultant told me, the CIA had briefed the Obama administration on Al-Nusra and its work with sarin,” he wrote.
Obama’s laying the blame for the nerve gas attack on Assad’s forces, completely disregarding Al-Nusra as a suspect in the case, is thus described in the report as the administration’s having “cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad.”
“The cherry-picking was similar to the process used to justify the Iraq war,” Hersh wrote.
It’s because of the lack of sufficient evidence against Assad that Obama quickly abandoned his plan for military strikes.
“Any possibility of military action was definitively averted on 26 September when the administration joined Russia in approving a draft UN resolution calling on the Assad government to get rid of its chemical arsenal,” the report reads. “Obama’s retreat brought relief to many senior military officers. (One high-level special operations adviser told me that the ill-conceived American missile attack on Syrian military airfields and missile emplacements, as initially envisaged by the White House, would have been ‘like providing close air support for al-Nusra’.)”
The investigative journalist then points at an annual budget for all national intelligence programs, leaked to the media by Edward Snowden and partly published by The Washington Post. According to the document, by the time of the Eastern Ghouta chemical attack, the NSA “no longer had access to the conversations of the top military leadership in Syria, which would have included crucial communications from Assad, such as orders for a nerve gas attack”. That puts to question the confidence with which Obama spoke of Assad’s responsibility for the deaths.
The same document described “a secret sensor system inside Syria, designed to provide early warning of any change in status of the regime’s chemical weapons arsenal”. Hersh wrote it was suspicious that the US intelligence received no alarm, if the Assad forces really prepared for an attack.
Hersh also analyses the news coverage of the chemical gas attack investigation, pointing to instances when the media outlets omitted the information that suggested there could be other suspects, beside Assad.
The UN September 16 report, confirming the use of sarin, contained one part that noted that the organization’s experts did not have immediate access to the attack sites controlled by rebels, so potential evidence could have been manipulated there. The passage was largely ignored in the news.
Following the release of the report, the spokesman for Director of National Intelligence, Shawn Turner, denied the report’s major point – that the US knew of the rebel group being capable of creating sarin.
“We were clear with The Washington Post and Mr. Hersh that the intelligence gathered about the 21 August chemical weapons attack indicated that the Assad regime and only the Assad regime could have been responsible,” Turner told Buzzfeed. “Any suggestion that there was an effort to suppress intelligence about a nonexistent alternative explanation is simply false.”
Hersh has remained unconvinced by the denial and has summed it up with a warning against ignoring alleged Al-Nusra’s chemical weapons potential.
“While the Syrian regime continues the process of eliminating its chemical arsenal, the irony is that, after Assad’s stockpile of precursor agents is destroyed, Al-Nusra and its Islamist allies could end up as the only faction inside Syria with access to the ingredients that can create sarin, a strategic weapon that would be unlike any other in the war zone. There may be more to negotiate.”
American national security journalist Jeremy Scahill and leftist British columnist Owen Jones announced recently that they would not share a platform with a Palestinian-Lebanese nun at the Stop The War Coalition’s November 30 UK conference.
Neither Scahill nor Jones provided any reason for their harsh “indictment” of Mother Agnes Mariam, who has worked tirelessly for the past few years on reconciliation in war-torn Syria, where she has lived for two decades.
The journalists – neither of whom have produced any notable body of work on Syria – appear to have followed the lead of a breed of Syria “activists” who have given us doozies like “Assad is about to fall,” “Assad has no support,” “the opposition is peaceful,” “the opposition is unarmed,” “this is a popular revolution,” “the revolution is not foreign-backed,” “there is no Al Qaeda in Syria,” “the dead are mostly civilians,” and other such gems.
For some of these activists, anything short of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s departure is no solution of any kind. Mother Agnes Mariam, whose Mussalaha (Reconciliation) movement inside Syria works specifically on mediation, dialogue and the promotion of non-violence, is unmoved by black-and-white solutions: Reconciliation, after all, is a series of political settlements forged on both local and national levels. There are only compromises there, not absolute gain. She doesn’t actually care who leads Syria and who wins or loses, providing the choice comes from a Syrian majority.
Yet the smear “Assad apologist” persists in following Mother Agnes on her visits to foreign capitals to gain support for Massalaha and its methods. It puts her at risk on the ground in Syria and inhibits her ability to open communications with those who would otherwise welcome the relief she brings.
When Scahill and Jones announced they would not share a platform with Mother Agnes at the STWC conference, she withdrew so as not to undermine the event’s anti-war unity objective. But instead of bringing this incident to a close, a maelstrom has erupted around the actions of the two journalists: “Who are they to pass judgement? Why would reporters seek to censor any voice?”
Award-winning British journalist and author Jonathan Cook perhaps put it best in his piece entitled “Bowing before the inquisitors on Syria”:
“Scahill and Jones have not done something principled or progressive here. They are trying to stay ‘onside’ with the corporate media, the main political parties and the Syria war-mongers. In short, they are looking out for their careers…They are looking to keep their credibility within a wider political system that, they otherwise seem to acknowledge, is deeply compromised and corrupt. In this episode, they are not chiefly worrying about countering moves towards an attack or saving Syrian lives, even while they claim this is exactly what their participation is about.”
Both journalists are outspoken against the censorship of information by the “establishment media” so it is particularly galling to see them succumb to the bullying narratives that have so dominated Syria coverage in the mainstream. In their own domain and area of expertise they don’t trust establishment voices, so why trust them in any other arena? This rather obvious contradiction has turned the tables on Scahill/Jones – if anything, generating interest in Mother Agnes and what she has to say.
Time to give her that platform back – no need for others to filter your information, you can judge for yourself below. And because so much of this debate has taken place on Twitter and the blogosphere, I invited “tweeps” from all sides of the Syrian divide to pose some questions too:
So without further ado, here is Mother Agnes Mariam, in her own words:
Did the Stop The War Coalition ask you to withdraw from their anti-war conference or did you choose to do so of your own volition?
I was invited to this conference, then I was informed about people that were against my coming and threatening to blow it up because of me. I preferred to immediately withdraw for the sake of this conference. Now, to tell you the truth I also have fear that this conference will not be useful, because these people attending are not applying non-violence principles. Non-violence principles means to be open to all adversaries. We can deal with people who don’t think like us. A non-violent approach is to dialogue precisely with people who are different. For a peace conference to begin like this, I felt like it is not a peace conference.
Have you ever heard of Jeremy Scahill and Owen Jones before this?
No, not at all. Who are they? Didn’t even notice who the people were. I heard about this from my organizer – that some people opposed even my presence. I understand everybody – I have been in dialogue with precisely the kind of people who opposed my presence. But it is the first time I hear their names, so no, I don’t know them. I’m not a person in the “scene.” (laughs)
What do you think of the attempt to censor views on Syria – and does your own experience this week have any correlation with how the mainstream media has covered Syria for almost three years?
You know, before working in reconciliation, I thought the so-called “democratic world” was really protecting freedom of expression and political choices. I am not involved with politics but they are ‘framing’ me; politicizing me. Am very shocked to learn that in this democratic world it is forbidden to think differently, talk differently and act differently from people who proclaim themselves as the ‘absolute reference’ for public opinion. This is a campaign of defamation. I am threatened by them: not by Jabhat al-Nusra, with whom I sometimes have good relations, or Al Qaeda – but by French media, by prominent leaders and CEOs of catholic NGOs, and by reporters. Am really astonished at how a reporter can become a prosecutor and a judge and can issue the sentence, and I am afraid that he can apply this sentence because today I see he works in total impunity.
Some media outlets and activists have accused you of brokering a civilian evacuation in rebel-held Moadamiya, only to hand them over to the Syrian authorities. What actually happened?
It was a purely humanitarian endeavor. Our (Mussalaha) team receives calls from all over Syria asking us to investigate people who have disappeared, to find out conditions for their release, to mediate on prisoner exchanges, to get food supplies to populations in need, how to transport humanitarian aid to hot areas, how to bring medical equipment to dangerous areas, how to arrange ceasefires, how to help violent opponents to shift to non-violence. We help to implement a non-violent spirit – we work with everybody, all sides, to do this.
This particular evacuation was requested by the civilian population itself in Mouadamiya. We have Mussalaha team members from Mouadamiya who are mediators. We were addressing the humanitarian issue in Moadamiya for many months before this, to try to make reconciliation from a violent opposition to a non-violent opposition. And when I saw photos of starving children on the Facebook – like in Biafra – I went to the Syrian Minister of Social Affairs Kinda al-Chammat to say this was not acceptable and that we should do something. Then we made contact with all the world health groups and international NGOs – we had talks with them to provide food. A caravan of more than 20 trucks was ready to enter Moadamiya, but it was forbidden to enter. It is difficult to say by who – I think it was from the army that was besieging this rebel stronghold, but also from the warlords that fix enormous prices to provide the entrance of food. Minister Chammat was really open to finding a solution, I said if they are not giving us the green light, I will go myself to take the 18 children who were under threat of dying. So we were entrusted to negotiate with the notables and the families in Moadamiya. Our mediators (also from Moadamiya) were surprised when whole families expressed the wish to be evacuated – because they are the families of the rebels, and to ask to be evacuated means they will be relying on the government. When we heard this we thought it was an easier and safer solution because if you bring in food but the violence continues, those civilians will be harmed anyway.
You know, under the Geneva Convention, it is illegal to transform a residential area into a battleground and if you do that you cannot keep civilians there like human shields. So the evacuation was motivated first by the desire of the families (not all, you know). The first project was to evacuate 100-200 women and children without any of their belongings, because there was a big fear that undisciplined members from either side would breach the ceasefire. It was delicate. Then on the very day, Minister Chammat, seeing hundreds of women and children arriving, told us “let as many who want to leave come out, because we cannot make discrimination,” so she made it open for that day. The government agreed to let us go alone; we were not escorted. All this was done in negotiations between the ministry and the governor of rural Damascus. Our responsibility was to bring the civilians to the barricade, but when we went there the rebels did not allow the women to proceed. I concluded, through contacts with the families that they were willing to come out, but we had to negotiate directly with the rebels. So I took a white flag into the area called no man’s land. I was followed by two of our mediators and by Sister Carmel – and it was heroic from her because she is a fearful person but she didn’t want me to go alone. There were tens of young rebel men, some armed, others not. And we were taken on a tour to see the destruction of the city and they asked us to come to the military council. (A video of Mother Agnes inside Moadamiya can be viewed here) They gave us security assurance. The commander arrived and they asked me to make a statement, which they recorded by video. But then we were detained, they wanted us to remain like ransom in exchange to let the women go out. We were hearing many noises and even gunfire while we were waiting. Then a real battle broke out – it was a big danger for everybody. We noticed that among them there was no unity, each would say their own thing. Finally, another leader came and agreed to the evacuation. Many of the leaders of fighters wanted their own families to leave. Others who don’t have families didn’t care. All we did was to answer a humanitarian request from rebel families.
In total, we evacuated 6,600 women and children – we have all their names, they are all registered. More than 200 are not registered because they left immediately with relatives. Also 650 young men came on their own to surrender. The army considered them as fighters. A few were badly wounded and they were taken to hospital. The (media) criticism was based on fake stories because the opposition (not the ones in Moadamiyada) do not want to accept the success of reconciliation based on mediation between the government and rebels. And because – after the success of the Moadamiya evacuation – ten other points in Syria have asked for the same mediation. Yesterday, for example, we had another evacuation – from Beit Sahm I believe – who were evacuated temporarily until the violence ceases. These critics said many were killed, abducted, raped when they came out of Moadamiya. Yes, there have been some errors and undisciplined acts. For instance, nine of the women were robbed. Volunteers from the ‘popular committees’ robbed their gold. We have done this evacuation in three separate days. On the first day we had 20 boys that were arrested, but we launched a campaign about this and they have been released. There are only two young boys now who are detained. We are still following up to secure them. The rebels with whom we have negotiated have entrusted us with their families, and they are the families of leaders and fighters, not just normal families. Until today, the two boys who disappeared after the Moadamiya evacuations are a problem for me and my credibility with the rebels. I am struggling with the authorities to find these boys right now.
The other major attack against you stems from a report you wrote about the aftermath of an alleged chemical weapons (CW) attack in Ghouta. You are accused of whitewashing the incident, blaming rebels for it and even charging children of “faking death.” How do you respond to these charges?
I have been accused of denying CW attacks, of protecting the Syrian regime and of accusing the rebels of launching those attacks. I have never said this. In the forward of a study I did on this, I affirm: I am not an expert. I am not talking on a military basis, or a forensic or medical basis. I just questioned some videos. It started because I was asked by the parents – survivors of a terrible massacre in the Latakia mountains – to help find some children abducted with women after the massacre. Some had recognized their children in the pictures of the chemical attacks. They delegated me to look into this for them. I was tracking those children in the videos – without this task I would not have had any incentive to look at the videos. My work at the monastery was in iconography and restoration (preservation) – I am very used to using my eyes to look for tiny details. I noticed discrepancies in the videos. I came to look at them for one thing (the abducted children) and in the process I discovered these videos were fake. When I went to Geneva to the commissioners in the Human Rights Council, I told them about my findings in relation to the missing children and the videos, and they said they would be interested to have something written. I do not incriminate anybody in this study. I do not pretend to decide if there was a CW attack or not. There were discrepancies and I am simply asking questions. The study was done in a hurry – we even said it was a beta version. Now I am finalizing the study that will introduce even more evidence. Those videos – numbers 1, 6, 11, 13 among the 13 videos claimed by the US intelligence community as authenticated and verified to be presented to Congress as genuine evidence of CW attacks – are fake, staged and pre-fabricated. Nobody thus far is answering my charges – they are incriminating me without answering. My goal in this is to find the children; that’s my only goal. If they were used for staging, are they alive? Where are they now? If they are alive they must be returned to their families. If they are dead, we want to see their bodies to bury them so their parents can mourn them and we want to know how they were put to death and where. I am asking to see the graves where 1,466 alleged corpses are buried in Ghouta and to take from the pit samples to conduct an honest inquiry. Because I doubt that there is such a pit.
Question from Twitter user @MortenHj: “Can she elaborate on how she conduct her talks between the warring sides? How do they acknowledge her; promise safety?”
Normally, we are called by the rebel sides who invite us for some settlements. Usually Syrian fighters either want to shift to non-violence, surrender and continue their lives, or they want us to mediate an exchange between abductees and detainees. We mediate among the responsible parties in government, like the ministry of justice and ministry of social affairs – it depends, since each case has its own context. We do it on a neutral basis – we are mediators, not part of the conflict. We want to ease the fate of civilians and we consider the fate of the Syrian rebels. We do not care about foreign fighters. Those foreign fighters are legally not allowed to enter or be in Syria. But we have special care for the Syrian fighters. We consider them as victims. A 17 or 18-year-old boy who is to be jailed, his mother is crying, what am I to do?
We talk via phone or Skype, sometimes we visit them as I did in many places. Sometimes the leader of a rebel group come to see me in a disguised way. Our (more detailed) talks are preferably face to face to build trust and transparency.
Sometimes you have rebels who request the release of their people who have been captured, others want to surrender – they don’t want anymore to participate in the armed struggle. Sometimes the liberal factions ask for help against the radical factions. I always say that between Syrians there is not a real wall. There is not a watertight impervious wall, so we receive many requests. We have had meetings with Jabhat al Nusra (JaN). When they are Syrians they can be flexible, when they are radical (foreigners) they will not talk to you, they will kill you. It’s like the Baggara tribe of around 3 million – they have relatives in Liwa al-Tawhid and JaN too. Half the tribe are loyalists, half are opposition. And this is a hope for the future. Everybody can talk to everybody. Once in Raqqa they put me on the phone with the emir because they wanted dialysis equipment for their hospital and so we mediated and the ministry of health sent 3 dialysis machines for the sake of the civilian population. I am always astonished how my people in the reconciliation committee know everybody.
Question from Twitter user @Kreasechan – What does she think should happen to those in command positions in the regime who have committed or commissioned war crimes and crimes against humanity?
I will tell you something. All this ‘apparatus of incriminations’ is politicized. If you can read between the lines of the report of the international Commission of Inquiry, you will see that the Syrian government has a hierarchy so it is easy to incriminate the government as a whole. But the rebels don’t have a hierarchy – you have 2,000 different battalions. Every time you see violence by rebels, large scale ones with hundreds of civilians now killed every week on a sectarian basis… If you study the more than 100,000 dead in Syria, you will be surprised to see that more than 45% of them are from the army and security forces. Then you have 35% of civilians among those dead, more than half of whom are killed by opposition. Then you have 15-20% of dead who are rebels. So it is not true to say the government is the only one perpetrating things against human rights. The Commission of Inquiry will have to work without political pressure to implement a good inquiry where everyone will be heard, because we are scandalized that light is shed on one side, but not on the other side. I know by saying this, they will incriminate me. But in reality, I am on side of the victims – I care that they will be heard. If you don’t hear from every side, these victims will continue to be under violence with impunity. We must ask accountability from everybody. Those incriminated by a fair, unbiased inquiry will have to pay their crimes, even those who have instigated and financed sectarian crimes.
Question from Twitter user @Paciffreepress – Do you love Assad, Mother Agnes?
I live in Syria and I have a burden on my shoulders for Syria. I believe beheading Syria from its government is a dangerous aggression when the UN still continues to consider the government of Assad to be the legal government. I rely on the UN position, which is the legal position. I consider that the dismantling of any State is a crime against humanity because it deprives the citizens of their citizenship and from their legality. They become pariahs. The Syrian people should decide through fair elections.
Question from Twitter user @r3sho – What is her opinion about Kurdish autonomy in Syria?
I am with the Syrian people – they will choose their own way, even if they want to make a federation or whatever. I am personally against the division of Syria, but federalism is up to the people. In my view, dividing a country is an aggression, but if the country decides to be a federation, it is a legal thing. They are free to do so.
Question from Twitter user @broodmywarcraft: what does she have to say to those who call her a stooge for Assad?
I am a stooge only for peace, not for Assad. I am for peace through reconciliation. I am for dialogue and I am for discussing issues with everybody who wants to discuss peace. If any Syrian, on any side of this horrible conflict wishes to discus peace or work toward peace through reconciliation, I am ready to help.
Question from Twitter user @bangpound: Does she still think the children were faking it in Ghouta?
They were not faking it. I never said that at all. I believe that they were either under anesthesia or that they were killed. But as the videos are fake, my terrible question is what were they doing with them?
Question from Twitter user @Nouraltabbaa: If she is trying to perform a Mussalaha why is she meeting with Ali Kayyali and other militias but not the opposition fighters?
For some hard cases, I have to go beyond the civil administration to negotiate with the warlords. We go there officially as a reconciliation committee, accompanied by some Muslim clerics. I have to mediate with the opposition and the government and the popular committees. I have to mediate with everyone.
Question from Twitter user @HRIMark: What effect is the campaign of defamation and threats against her having on her and her work?
It affects my life. I cannot go back to my monastery. I was saved by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). They informed me about orders to abduct and kill me by foreign parties. They helped me to go out from Qara and they protected our monastery and they have not, to this day, given me the green light to return. A lot of them were workers in our monastery.
Question from Twitter user @Net_News_Global: Ask her, if she thinks, that there was, besides murderous propaganda, a real CW attack.
We have witnesses and ‘social sensors’ everywhere in Damascus. Until today we have received 88 claims of death in Moadamiya (from the August 21 attack).
We are told they were not killed because of sarin, that they were killed because of heavy shelling from the army and from suffocation from heavy shelling. The deceased were together in a shelter and they suffocated from this. Moadamiya people told us this. One of the reasons that I would like to see the graves is because 1,466 deaths is a real “social tsunami” in the Syrian society where everybody knows everybody and everybody is related. In the case of East Ghouta, we did not even have one case show up. We did not know of one single person who is dead. You know, to have relatives claiming this – the brother, the friend – nobody did. We did not have the “echo” of the death of 1,466 people. We are asking for a neutral inquiry with the presence of witnesses from both sides, where they will open the pits, see the victims, they will take samples randomly – where they took it, how they took it, etc. Samples should be sent to 5 labs under the same conditions and precautions. Until then there is a question mark on everything. I cannot say yes, I cannot say no.
Question from Twitter user @tob_la: How would she describe her relationship with Syrian intelligence services?
There is no relationship. This is despite the wild allegations of some people who believe that the heads of the Syrian intelligence meet with me, a simple nun, on a daily basis. Do you believe that these people would spare such time?
I have no “relations” with such authorities. As mediators we have to deal with these people when necessary. And without my mediation task I don’t have anything to do with them.
Question from Twitter user @MortenHj: What does she view as the biggest problem facing the refugees, especially children, with the approaching winter. How can anyone support?
This is a very big problem. We need warm clothes, blankets urgently. During my trip in the US – from California – they are sending me a container with a special kind of textile that is very warm. “Oakley” warm clothing. We can provide for the local diaspora or NGOs to come collect these things from anywhere in the world and send them in containers to Syria. We are trying to do a big push for winter now. We’re also getting some tents. I will be going back to the US where an NGO will be providing us with something that resembles tents, but is rectangular. We are planning to get thousands of these – one per family. You have whole neighborhoods that are destroyed. Instead of displacing residents outside their areas, I would like to return them to their home, even if it is destroyed, and put them on their land in a refurbished structure. Like this, slowly by slowly they can rebuild their homes.
Question by Twitter user @edwardedark: Could you please ask her why the Vatican has not been more outspoken on the plight of Christians in Syria?
I don’t know – maybe because the Vatican and all of us we are in solidarity with all the civilian population in Syria and we don’t want to emphasize a sectarian dimension because we viewed this as artificial. Christians have shared the same fate as Muslims in Syria – everybody faced the same violence. Monsignor Mamberti and the Pope are finally expressing their sadness for the sectarian nature that the conflict is taking, I think because now there is too much targeting of Christians now in Maaloula, Sadad, Qara, Deir Atieh, Nabek and other places. Every day Christian buses, schools are being targeted. In Bab Touma, Bab Sharqi, Jaramana, Kasa’a, Malki…
Now the Vatican is talking. Mgr. Mamberti is saying loudly and clearly that The Holy See cares about unity, sovereignty, and the place of the minorities so they will not be isolated, cornered, or forgotten. The Holy See is promoting reconciliation, dialogue and a peaceful settlement of the crisis. They are against the arming of any side. They want more creativity for peace and not creativity for war. What I found outstanding about the Monsignor’s recent comments is that he said the Syrian people should isolate the foreigners, distance themselves and denounce them. This is a very clear statement against foreign intervention. Then he opened the issue of humanitarian aid and the dialogue between religions – interfaith dialogue. This is not the task of experts, but the task of everybody, the believers. So there is a real change in language from the Vatican. The Holy See is no longer shy about Syria – and to tell you the truth, it is time. What is left for the Christians in Syria otherwise?
Mother Agnes is now on Twitter https://twitter.com/MotherAgnesMari
- Activist Group Issues Statement on Mother Agnes and the Campaign Against Her (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- ‘Investigative Journalist’ Scahill Takes Swipe at Mother Agnes (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- On Owen Jones and the Stop The War Coalition (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Mother Agnes and the Self Destruction of the Political Left (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Owen Jones & Mother Agnes. A lesson on conciliatory “leftists”. (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Open Letter to the Stop the War Coalition (pulsemedia.org)
Leftist luminaries Jeremy Scahill and Owen Jones attempted to cast aspersions upon Mother Agnes, but instead they have brought discredit not only upon themselves, but upon the conference at which they are to speak in London next Saturday. We should not be surprised at the way all this has turned out.
As I reported previously, Scahill and Jones announced they would not take part in an antiwar conference organized by the Stop the War Coalition should they have to share the same platform with Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross, a Syrian nun who has worked tirelessly to bring about an end to the bloodshed in her country. As yet, no explanation or elaboration has been offered by the pair as justification for their laying down of such an ultimatum. But for her own part, Mother Agnes has taken steps to ensure they will not have to undergo the abhorrent ordeal of appearing with her. She has pulled out of the conference.
In the war in Syria, or more precisely in the way the war has been reported, radically different narratives have been presented, narratives that are, and have been, almost completely counter to one another. In one view, that reported by Western mainstream media, Syrian President Bashar Assad is a brutal, criminal dictator intent on killing his own people, while those fighting to bring his government down are freedom fighters (although following the posting of a video showing one of the freedom fighters eating a human organ, the media shifted slightly and began allowing that “some” of the insurgents were extremists). By contrast, the picture presented by Russian and other foreign media, and on blogs like this one, is that Assad has the support of a sizeable portion of the Syrian people and that the conflict has little or nothing to do with democracy. Instead it is aimed at effecting regime change to the benefit of Gulf oil monarchies as well as the West and Israel. Also in this view, Assad, while not perfect, is not nearly as ogreish and demonic as he is made out to be in the Western media.
It comes down to who has the greater credibility—the Western, and principally US, media, which promoted the war in Iraq on the basis of false claims about weapons of mass destruction, or Russian media outlets like RT, who have no record of peddling lies in an effort to justify wars. You would think that for leftists the choice would be clear. But for some reason, Scahill, a reporter for The Nation, and Jones, who has a column in The Independent, have taken a position that possibly would suggest they accord the Western media the greater credibility—at least insofar as the Syrian war in general, and Mother Agnes in particular, are concerned.
Those favoring US intervention in Syria no doubt had their hopes raised by the August 21 chemical weapons attack. An all out escalation into a regional and possibly even global conflict seemed imminent, but the hopes of warmongers were dashed through some clever statesmanship by Vladimir Putin and also after Mother Agnes released a 50-page report introducing evidence that some of the videos uploaded immediately after the attack had been staged and scripted and suggesting that the attack might have been carried out not by the Syrian government but by the opposition. You can read the full report here. Decide for yourself whether you think it’s credible.
My own take on it all is that through her report, as well as through her presence, her holiness, and her actions—including the evacuation of more than 5,000 people from a besieged town in October—Mother Agnes has considerably undermined the Western narrative on events in Syria. And that obviously has upset a lot of plans and made a lot of people mad.
“Why did the invitation from Stop the War to a nun working to stop war raise objections?” asks William M. Boardman in an article posted Thursday. Boardman goes on to comment, “It’s hard to find any evidence that Mother Agnes has committed anything worse than what others consider thought-crimes and politically incorrect obeservations, some of which are actually correct.”
So was somebody pressuring Scahill and Jones to disassociate themselves from Mother Agnes? Did they think doing so would advance their careers? Did Scahill think it would win him additional appearances on the Rachel Maddow Show or CBS Evening News? Is Jones hoping for more exposure on Sky News and the BBC? I don’t have an answer to these questions. I would note only that intoxication of power is not something leftists are especially immune to any more so than anyone else. The main problem is succumbing to such impulses at the expense of someone making a genuine effort to achieve peace.
When faced with a choice between taking a stand based upon principle and one based upon convenience, the left seems to opt more and more for the latter these days, and it is attitudes such as this that are leading it, much like Western society as a whole, toward self destruction. So what should the organizers of the conference do? Here is my suggestion: Re-extend the invitation to Mother Agnes. Do so publicly. She may decline. But you will at least regain some credibility. Should she accept, all the better. And if Jones and Scahill wish to pull out as a result, even better yet. Their presence at the podium at this point is probably more of a liability than an asset in any event. Proceeding under the present conditions—with Scahill and Jones on the bill and the curtain in effect drawn on any participation by Mother Agnes—will cheapen and devalue the event.
- Owen Jones & Mother Agnes. A lesson on conciliatory “leftists”. (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- ‘Investigative Journalist’ Scahill Takes Swipe at Mother Agnes (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- On Owen Jones and the Stop The War Coalition (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Open Letter to the Stop the War Coalition (pulsemedia.org)
After the Aug. 21 chemical weapons incident in Syria, a number of senior U.S. intelligence analysts disagreed with the Obama administration’s rush to judgment blaming the Syrian government, but their dissent on this question of war or peace was concealed from the American people.
The administration kept the dissent secret by circumventing the normal intelligence process and issuing on Aug. 30 something called a “Government Assessment,” posted at the White House press office’s Web site and fingering the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad as the guilty party.
Normally, such an important issue – a possible U.S. military engagement – would be the focus of a National Intelligence Estimate, but that would also cite the disagreements expressed within the intelligence community. By avoiding an NIE, the Obama administration was able to keep the lid on how much dissent there was over the Assad-did-it conclusion.
Once the “Government Assessment” was issued, Secretary of State John Kerry was put forward to present the case for launching a military strike against Syria, an attack that was only averted because President Barack Obama abruptly decided to ask congressional approval and then reached a diplomatic agreement, with the help of the Russian government, in which the Syrian government agreed to dispose of its chemical weapons arsenal (while still denying that it was responsible for the Aug. 21 attack).
Although war was averted, the Obama administration’s deception of the American public – by pretending that there was a government-wide consensus regarding Syrian government guilt when there wasn’t – was reminiscent of the lies and distortions used by President George W. Bush to trick the nation into war with Iraq over bogus WMD claims in 2003.
The behavior of the rest of Official Washington and the mainstream U.S. news media also shows that little has changed from a decade ago. Obvious indications of a deception were ignored and the few voices who raised the alarm were treated with the same mocking contempt that greeted skeptics of Bush’s case for invading Iraq.
Writers for Consortiumnews.com were among the few in the American media who noted the glaring flaws in the Obama administration’s case, including its refusal to release any of its supposed proof to support its conclusions and the curious absence of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper from the public presentation of the administration’s casus belli.
The reason for keeping the DNI on the sidelines was that he otherwise might have been asked if there was a consensus in the intelligence community supporting the administration’s certitude that Assad’s regime was responsible. At that point, Clapper would have had to acknowledge the disagreement from rank-and-file analysts (or face the likelihood that they would speak out).
Similarly, it appears that on-the-ground inspectors for the United Nations had their own doubts about the Syrian government’s responsibility, especially since Assad’s regime had allowed a UN team into Damascus on Aug. 18 to investigate what the regime claimed was evidence of rebels using chemical weapons.
It never made sense to some of these inspectors that Assad – just three days later – would launch a chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus just a few miles from the hotel where the UN inspectors were staying. Assad would have known that the Aug. 21 incident would mean serious trouble for his government, very possibly drawing the U.S. military into the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels.
The UN inspectors also failed to find Sarin or other chemical agents at one of the two sites that they subsequently examined near Damascus, and they inserted a qualification in their report about apparent tampering at the one area where Sarin was found.
However, instead of noting the many holes in the U.S. “Government Assessment” and the UN report, the mainstream U.S. news media simply joined the rush to judgment, hyping dubious claims from both U.S. government officials and non-governmental organizations favoring U.S. military intervention in Syria.
The New York Times and other major news outlets that swallowed Bush’s false claims about Iraq WMD a decade ago also began reporting Obama’s dubious assertions about Syria as flat fact, not as issues in serious dispute. As I wrote on Oct. 25, one typically credulous Times story accepted “as indisputable fact that the Syrian government was behind the Aug. 21 attack on a suburb of Damascus despite significant doubts among independent analysts, UN inspectors and, I’m told, U.S. intelligence analysts.”
New details of the rebellion among the intelligence analysts have just been reported by former CIA officer Philip Giraldi for the American Conservative magazine. According to Giraldi’s account, a “mass resignation of a significant number of analysts” was threatened if the Obama administration issued an NIE without acknowledging their dissent.
A “hurriedly updated” NIE had reflected the Syrian government’s suspected use of chemical weapons against rebels and civilians, “while conceding that there was no conclusive proof,” Giraldi wrote, adding:
“There was considerable dissent from even that equivocation, including by many analysts who felt that the evidence for a Syrian government role was subject to interpretation and possibly even fabricated. Some believed the complete absence of U.S. satellite intelligence on the extensive preparations that the government would have needed to make in order to mix its binary chemical system and deliver it on target was particularly disturbing.
“These concerns were reinforced by subsequent UN reports suggesting that the rebels might have access to their own chemical weapons. The White House, meanwhile, considered the somewhat ambiguous conclusion of the NIE to be unsatisfactory, resulting in considerable push-back against the senior analysts who had authored the report.”
Demands from Above
When Obama’s National Security Council demanded more corroborative evidence to establish Syrian government guilt, “Israel obligingly provided what was reported to be interceptions of telephone conversations implicating the Syrian army in the attack, but it was widely believed that the information might have been fabricated by Tel Aviv, meaning that bad intelligence was being used to confirm other suspect information, a phenomenon known to analysts as ‘circular reporting,’” Giraldi wrote.
“Other intelligence cited in passing by the White House on the trajectories and telemetry of rockets that may have been used in the attack was also somewhat conjectural and involved weapons that were not, in fact, in the Syrian arsenal, suggesting that they were actually fired by the rebels.
“Also, traces of Sarin were not found in most of the areas being investigated, nor on one of the two rockets identified. Whether the victims of the attack suffered symptoms of Sarin was also disputed, and no autopsies were performed to confirm the presence of the chemical.
“With all evidence considered, the intelligence community found itself with numerous skeptics in the ranks, leading to sharp exchanges with the Director of Central Intelligence John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. A number of analysts threatened to resign as a group if their strong dissent was not noted in any report released to the public, forcing both Brennan and Clapper to back down.”
The Obama administration’s “solution” to this analyst revolt was to circumvent the normal intelligence process and issue a white paper that would be called a “Government Assessment,” declaring the Syrian government’s guilt as indisputable fact and leaving out the doubts of the intelligence community.
While this subterfuge may have satisfied the institutional concerns of the intelligence community – which didn’t want another Iraq-War-style violation of its procedural protocols on how NIEs are handled – it still left the American people vulnerable to a government deception on a question of war or peace.
Yes, there was no scene comparable to the positioning of CIA Director George Tenet behind Secretary of State Colin Powell as he delivered his deceptive Iraq War speech to the UN Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003. Both Clapper and Brennan were absent from the administration’s testimony to Congress, leaving Secretary Kerry to do most of the talking with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey bracketing Kerry as mostly silent wing men.
And, yes, one could argue that the Obama administration’s hyping of its case against the Assad regime had a happy ending, the Syrian government’s agreement to eliminate its entire CW arsenal. Indeed, most of the grousing about the Syrian outcome has come from neocons who wanted to ride the rush to judgment all the way to another regime-changing war.
Dogs Not Barking
But Americans should be alarmed that a decade after they were deceived into a disastrous war in Iraq based on bogus intelligence – and the complete breakdown of Official Washington’s checks and balances – a very similar process could unfold that brought the country to the brink of another war.
Besides the disturbing fact that the Obama administration refused to release any actual evidence to support its case for war, there was the gullibility (or complicity) of leading news outlets in failing to show even a modicum of skepticism.
The New York Times and other major news organizations failed to note the dogs not barking. Why, for instance, was there no NIE? Why were the U.S. government’s top intelligence officials absent from public presentations of what amounted to an intelligence issue? It shouldn’t have required a Sherlock Holmes to sniff out the silenced intelligence analysts.
When a government leader refuses to reveal any of his supposed proof for a claim and conceals the professionals who don’t agree with his claim, any reasonably savvy person should draw the conclusion that the government leader doesn’t really have a case.
Though some Americans may cite the work of a few Web sites, like our own Consortiumnews.com, as having challenged the misguided conventional wisdom on Syria as we also did on Iraq, they should not draw too much comfort from this. After all, our readership is tiny when compared to the many sources of misinformation being disseminated to the broad American public.
The dangerous reality is that the United States remains vulnerable to the kinds of stampedes in judgment that can end up crushing people around the world.
[Here is some of our earlier reporting on the Syrian crisis: “A Dodgy Dossier on Syrian War”; “Murky Clues From UN’s Syria Report”; “Obama Still Withholds Syria Evidence”; “How US Pressure Bends UN Agencies.”]
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
“The following report contains disturbing images”
This is how the BBC website introduces a report by its BBC Panorama’s Syria correspondents Ian Pannell and Darren Conway on August the 30th, 2013. The story contained a video, ostensibly shot near Aleppo, Northern Syria, by an anonymous school headmaster, and documenting the aftermath of a napalm attack on his school, supposedly perpetrated by the Syrian armed forces on August 26th. According to the story, the “evil” forces of Bashar al-Assad, at a time when they had just about established their strategic advantage over the anti-government rebel forces and the foreign mercenaries they had been fighting for over two years, had found nothing better to do than attack a school, a target which presented no military interest whatsoever, with napalm – no less – just so the international media, and BBC Panorama in particular, could pick the story and broadcast it to Western audiences, in perfect timing to coincide with the British Parliament’s vote on the so-called “humanitarian intervention” in Syria, which was being pushed for by Prime Minister David Cameron, ostensibly to prevent precisely this kind of atrocities.
Were Assad’s forces really that stupid? Of course not.
It did not take long before several international commentators and observers pointed out the many implausibilities in the video and the story in general. Among them, Italian author Francesco Santoianni, showed how incongruent the whole story was, sparking the suspicion that the entire video might have been a fabrication. What follows is his analysis.
First of all, Napalm is a substance which generates temperatures between 800 and 1,200 degrees Celsius: in other words, no one has ever survived direct exposure. These physical characteristics mean that when Napalm was utilised in theatres of war, it was primarily used to defoliate areas covered with thick vegetation, and not urban areas, where white phosphorus is more often used, as the United States Armed Forces did in Falluja in 2005, and the Israeli Defence Forces did in Gaza in 2008. Nevertheless, the BBC expected its viewers to believe that Assad’s forces had employed the obsolete napalm on a school. Of course, a school with no teaching resources in sight, but somehow a swimming pool in the back. Oh, and a swing. Case closed: it MUST be a school. Although, we are told by our sources in Syria that the school year did not start until September 15: so what exactly were all those people doing in a locked-up school?
In the video, we were also shown a pair of winter shoes – not clear how they ended up there: it was after all August – and a woman’s shoe. Was all this footwear worn by the victims? How did it remain intact?
Almost every British newspaper which reported the story informed us that “The attack killed more than ten pupils and left many more seriously injured”: and yet, despite the warning against graphic images, we are not shown the bodies, or the grieving parents.
There is – to be sure – a child, seeing shaking in one scene. His skin is actually intact, and so is his hair: certainly not consistent with napalm, or anything like it. And what is the white stuff on his body? Surely, it cannot be the chemical fired from the fighter jets – that wouldn’t have left his hair intact – therefore we must assume that it’s some kind of first-aid ointment, of sorts? Whoever administered it could not even be bothered to remove the watch from the kid’s wrist. In fact, no one seems to be attending this child: the only person with some kind of interest is the cameraman.
Somewhat less convincing is a couple, seen in the video going through the well-rehearsed motions of cursing in Arabic. There is a problem though: the woman’s face is covered in that same white stuff: and the couple has just arrived to the so-called hospital, so it cannot be “some kind of first-aid ointment”. It must be the “napalm-like chemical”. We are expected to believe that a “napalm-like” chemical, fired from a fighter jet, somehow ended up sprayed on this woman’s face leaving her veil intact?
We also see what is supposed to be a makeshift hospital. On the floor, five adult males are shaking – three of them still have their clothes perfectly intact, of course – although one of them at some point stands up and walks off, having presumably decided that he’s had enough.
By the way, we keep seeing paramedics from the so-called charity Hand in Hand for Syria supposedly handling chemical burns victims without any gloves on – but wearing gas masks, for some reason. And even a dust mask: what’s that? The woman in question is of course Dr. Rola, the star of this video [segment introducing Dr. Rola]
Then, of course, we get the obligatory segment showing a distraught local, venting his powerless rage at the International Community, invariably denounced as inefficient and perennially locked in futile negotiations. The Public Relations rules dictate that such a character must be somehow connected with the tragedy (no details given), and that, when he addresses the camera, he must not speak in the local language – which would only sound like terrorist gibberish to most Western audiences: rather, he has to produce an impromptu speech in an impeccable English, so impeccable to the point of sounding scripted and well-rehearsed, or even read off a prompter. After all, these PR rules did work for Libya.
All these absurdities were exposed almost immediately after the release of the video on the BBC’s channels. So why talk about them again now?
Well, one reason is that the BBC itself, presumably after receiving dozens of complaints from viewers who didn’t appreciate their intelligence being insulted, decided to salvage what little they could from the story, and delete the biggest blooper of all. And this is where it gets creepy. Because what follows leads one to believe that this was not the case of the BBC naively buying into a story packaged and sold to them by the anti-Assad PR machine (it wouldn’t have been the first time), but rather that the BBC itself actively created a product that was intended to steer the public opinion towards a more interventionist position. For such a product, there can only be one definition: propaganda.
What happened was that Human Rights activist Craig Murray, among others, realised that, between the first and the second release of the video, something was different in the lines spoken by Dr. Rola. Listen to the original one, containing references to napalm.
The reference to napalm has disappeared in the redacted version.
Both audio clips have the same identical sound quality: of course, there is very little that cannot be accomplished with the kind of technology that’s available to the British Broadcasting Corporation, thanks in part to the fact that Dr. Rola was wearing her exaggerated dust mask, which conveniently did away with all the challenges involved in dubbing, lip-synch, etc. However, the redacted audio clip must have been added at a much later stage, for reasons we have just explored, which prompts us to ask: how can we even be sure that the original audio clip was not scripted and recorded in a studio? Also, Robert Stuart, writing on the Media Lenses Forum, points out that Dr Saleyha Ahsan, featured in the new version of the video, is a filmmaker with a military background: a former Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps and a freelance current affairs journalist. Was she involved in packaging this product?
Also of interest is the fact that the Charity Hand in Hand for Syria, where Dr. Rola supposedly works as a volunteer medic, happens to sport a flag of the French colonial era on its logo – a flag now adopted by the Anti-Assad Coalition. This is an affiliation which the BBC did not see fit to disclose to its viewers.
For those who still believe in whatever is left of the BBC’s reputation for upholding the mediatic standards of fair and balanced reporting, here is some useful information about another so-called “charity”. The BBC Media Action (formerly the BBC World Service Trust), with its catchy slogan: “Transforming Lives through Media around the World”.
In an interesting report available on its website, BBC Media Action explains: “In 2008, BBC Media Action launched its three-year project ‘Socially Responsible Media Platforms in the Arab World’ with funding from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Syria News was the official Syrian partner, endorsed by the Ministry of Information on behalf of the BBC. The project aimed to set up an interactive online training platform, the Ara2 [opinions] Academy, for Syria’s journalistic and blogging communities, creating networks between the two. This reflected the changing status of bloggers in the regional media and responded to their aspiration to be seen as credible social commentators. The project also supported Syria News as an example of a sustainable independent media organisation, with managerial staff taking part in study tours in London and in business development training. BBC Media Action did not work with a local partner on blogger training, as this could have alienated and excluded parts of the blogging community. Instead, the BBC collaborated with an informal network of bloggers from across the country and recruited mentors for the distance learning system (the Ara2 Academy) who were trained at workshops in London and Damascus”.
One could not have wished for a clearer description of a Trojan horse, funded by one government in order to destabilize another. Just to go over the timeline again: the three-year BBC Action Syria Project started in 2008. The “Syrian uprising” began in February 2011.
One thing about the ongoing crisis in Syria almost never mentioned in our media — even the alternative media — is the role of the nonviolent opposition to the Baathist regime. After the uprising began in the spring of 2011, the government engaged this opposition in discussions about reform of the Syrian political system. Out of these discussions came a new constitution, approved in February 2012 by 90% of the electorate in a popular referendum with a 57% turnout rate.
Prior to the new constitution, Syria was officially a one-party state: the Baathist party, to which the current and former president belonged, being that party. In 2007 the nomination by the Syrian parliament of Bashar al-Assad as President of Syria was approved by 98% of the electorate with a 96% turnout rate — just the sort of mandate you would expect of an authoritarian regime. Under the new constitution Syria became a multiparty state; elections to parliament were open to any political party.
In May of last year parliamentary elections under the new constitution were held. There were two blocs contending for the vote: the pro-government National Progressive Front, comprised of 6 parties, and the oppositional Popular Front for Change and Liberation, which included two parties. Of the 250 seats in the assembly, the Baathists won 134 seats with 34 seats distributed among the other parties in the National Front, including 6 seats for the two factions of the Communist Party. The opposition shared 5 seats. Seventy-seven members of the new parliament were not affiliated with any party. The constitution stipulates that at least half of the members of the assembly must be workers or farmers.
In other words, the Syrian parliament encompasses a diversity of opinion we can only dream of seeing in our own Congress — quite a coup for the nonviolent opposition. An election for President is scheduled for next May, quite a concession for a man our media labels a “thug”, “dictator”, “tyrant”, especially as most governments, including our own, when facing a stressful situation become more authoritarian (e.g., Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, Palmer Raids of the 1920s, the Patriot Act, etc.) . What more does the violent opposition want? No wonder they have to rely on foreign Jihadists to do their fighting!
Critics of the Syrian regime will claim the elections were fraudulent, or, as the Obama administration put it, “ludicrous”. I have no idea whether this is the case and would welcome the views of those better informed than me. I suspect critics of the elections seldom offer any supporting evidence for their claims. Every country grapples with seeing that their elections are fair (cf. Voter ID laws). Before we dismiss the newfound democracy in Syria as a sham, maybe we should give it a chance, especially as the lives of thousands of people — mostly Syrian but perhaps some of our own — are at risk. If the administration’s goal in Syria is regime change, maybe it should wait and see whether the Syrian people effect it in a peaceful manner next spring or, if the incumbent is re-elected, accept the fact that democracy doesn’t always work out the way we would like.
Postscript: If you didn’t know about recent political developments in Syria, don’t feel bad. I attended an event today where none of the speakers — neither Cole Bockenfeld and Stephen McInerney of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) nor Shadi Hamid, Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution — were aware of the elections held under the new Syrian constitution.
Ken Meyercord is an avid follower of foreign affairs who has visited over 70 countries and worked in four of them. He has a Master’s in Middle East History from the American University of Beirut. He produces a public access TV show called Worlddocs which he bills as “bringing the world to the people of the Washington, DC area through documentaries you won’t see broadcast on corporate TV.”