Does Syria Have the Right to Defend Itself?
There is a hypocritical disconnect in Western and especially U.S. foreign policy. When it comes to Israel, the U.S. is quick to claim “Israel has a right to defend itself.” For Syria, that same right does not seem to exist.
When Israel executed intense bombing campaigns against Gaza in 2008, 2012 and 2014 the U.S. justified the attacks. At the United Nations on July 18, 2014, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said, “President Obama spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu this morning to reaffirm the United States’ strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself…. Hamas’ attacks are unacceptable and would be unacceptable to any member state of the United Nations. Israel has the right to defend its citizens and prevent these attacks.”
Israel claimed it was simply responding defensively. The human rights group BtSelem reports that over the decade between June 2004 and July 2015, Palestinians launched over 8,700 rockets and 5,000 mortars from Gaza into Israel. But the total number of civilians killed over 10 years was 28 for an average of fewer than three persons per year. Using this as a justification, Israel has attacked by air and invaded every few years inflicting far heavier casualty rates on the Palestinians in Gaza. For example, Israeli attacks on Gaza in Summer 2014 killed more than 2,000 Gazans, the vast majority of them civilians and many of them children.
With so few deaths and little damage caused by the rockets from Gaza, it seems Palestinians have launched these as almost symbolic protest against Israeli repression. The Gazan economy is hugely restricted, the borders are closed and even the sky and ocean are off limits. Many people would say that Israel is keeping the entire population of Gaza in prison-like circumstances. In addition, many residents of Gaza are descendants of refugees from nearby Israeli towns and cities. Under the Geneva Conventions and U.N. Resolution 194, they have the right to return but have been deprived of this in addition to most other rights.
In summary, Palestinians have launched rockets and mortars to protest Israeli occupation and apartheid policies. The Palestinians are not seeking the overthrow of the Israeli state so much as recognition of their rights and an end to the Occupation. Casualties from the rockets have been few. In response, the West has given Israel a virtual free pass to attack Palestinians in Gaza and unleash horrific bombing in densely populated urban areas where there are huge civilian casualties.
The disproportionate nature of these Israeli attacks suggests that the Israeli government is not defending itself; it is imposing punishment on a captive and defenseless population.
Syrian State Under Real Attack
The situation in Syria is dramatically different. The armed opposition in Syria has inflicted a huge number of deaths and damage in its five-year campaign to overthrow the government. Data from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is sympathetic to the opposition, show the following number of casualties since March 2011: Pro Government forces (army and militias) – 105,000; Anti Government forces – 101,000; Civilians – 86,000.
These numbers reveal the intensity of the violence and how wrong it is for critics to blame President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government for all the deaths. As shown, soldiers and militias defending the state make up the largest number of casualties.
The conflict in Aleppo is currently in the news. Aleppo was the largest city in Syria and the industrial and financial engine. The largest and most effective opposition force in Aleppo is Al Qaeda’s affiliate Nusra Front, which is recognized to be “terrorist” even by the U.S. and was never part of the “cessation of hostilities.” There are other factions and fighting groups in Aleppo also seeking to destroy the Syrian state. Most of the groups are explicitly Wahhabi sectarian and hostile to secularism, Christianity and moderate Islamic faiths.
The opposition in Syria is heavily armed with weapons, ammunition and explosives. Daily they launch hell cannon missiles into western Aleppo, killing randomly in this government-controlled part of the city. Car bombs have killed thousands of civilians and soldiers. Tunnel bombs have killed thousands more.
Aleppo was relatively quiet until summer of 2012 when thousands of armed fighters invaded and occupied neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city. The “rebels” were disliked by the majority of the population from the start. This was documented even by Western journalists such as James Foley and Stephen Sotloff, who went there inclined to be sympathetic to the opposition. (Foley and Sotloff were later captured and beheaded by Islamic State jihadists.)
Martin Chulov of the Guardian described East Aleppo in 2015 and estimated its population at just 40,000. In sharp contrast, there is a large population of about 1.5 million Syrians living in the rest of the city. This is reflective of the reality: the vast majority of Syrians support the government and hate the terrorists. This includes many who are critical of the Baath Party and who want reforms but not violence and destruction. This important fact is generally ignored by Western media. (The current situation in western Aleppo is described here by journalist Eva Bartlett.)
In contrast with Israeli’s periodic wars on Gaza, the Syrian government is truly fighting to defend itself – and its civilian population – against an armed opposition that is violent, sectarian and unpopular with the large majority of Syrians.
Adding to the legitimacy of the Syrian government’s right to defend itself, the armed opposition in Syria has been heavily supported by foreign governments. Western states and their Gulf allies have supplied weapons, training, logistical support and salaries for many thousands of fighters. Qatar’s Al Jazeera has broadcast misinformation, fabricated stories and heavily biased reporting from the start.
The same governments have been complicit in the recruitment and travel to Syria by thousands of foreigners from all parts of the globe. European, North American and Australian governments “looked the other way” as their citizens were recruited and then traveled to Syria via Turkey to join ISIS or Nusra. According to one study, over 12,000 foreigners including 3,000 from Europe and North America traveled to Syria in the first three years of the conflict. That was before ISIS peaked. Only in the last year, following terrorist actions in the West, have Western governments started arresting or detaining recruits and recruiters.
Violating International Law
The situation in Syria is more extreme but has similarities to the situation in Nicaragua in the 1980s when the Reagan administration was covertly arming and financing the Contras, a rebel army that inflicted death and destruction across parts of Nicaragua. On June 27, 1986, the International Court of Justice ruled:
“the United States of America, by training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying the contra forces or otherwise encouraging, supporting and aiding military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua, has acted, against the Republic of Nicaragua, in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to intervene in the affairs of another State”.
The court also decided that the U.S. should make reparations to Nicaragua for injury caused by the violations. The U.S. ignored the ruling and later withdrew from the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice.
The former Nicaragua Foreign Minister and former President of the United Nations General Assembly, Father Miguel D’Escoto, has written “What the U.S. government is doing in Syria is tantamount to a war of aggression, which, according to the Nuremberg Tribunal, is the worst possible crime a State can commit against another State.” (Personal correspondence quoted with permission)
Some foreign governments seeking “regime change” in Damascus have poured huge amounts of money into what is called “smart” or “soft power” via the funding of an array of organizations with nice sounding names to control the narrative and influence public opinion.
There is the Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre, initiated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to prepare for victor’s justice. There is the Syrian Network for Human Rights which largely ignores the deaths of Syrian soldiers and seeks U.S./NATO intervention. There is the Syrian Civil Defense also known as the White Helmets, a support group for Al Qaeda/Nusra but most importantly a political lobbying tool actively campaigning for U.S./NATO intervention.
All of these organizations, and many more, are said to be “Syrian” and “independent.” But they were all created after the conflict began and they are all funded by the foreign governments that seek to overthrow the Syrian government.
These and other organizations support the opposition in various ways, demonize the Syrian government and romanticize the opposition. They are part of the reason why many people around the world believe that the anti-government protests in 2011 only became violent after peaceful protests were brutally crushed, which is untrue. There were seven police killed in the first protests in Deraa. That was soon followed by dozens of soldiers being massacred in Deraa and Banyas at the end of March and in April 2011.
By justifying the continued “rebel” violence, this “soft power” acts in concert with “hard” or military power. For example the White Helmets was originally called the Syrian Civil Defense and began with a military contractor training some Syrians in Turkey. This group was then rebranded as the “White Helmets” by a New York marketing company called “The Syria Campaign.” Since then, the “feel good” White Helmets brand has been heavily promoted.
As a measure of the marketing success, the White Helmets recently won the Right Livelihood Award for 2016 and are even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Ironically, there is a REAL Syrian Civil Defense working since 1953 and a REAL White Helmets/CascosBlancos from Argentina which have received little recognition alongside the slick new “White Helmets” created and promoted by the shadowy PR firm.
Soft power distorts the reality in the conflict. Thus we are not told that the Syrian government is defending against terrorists but that the “Assad regime” is ‘”targeting hospitals and civilian markets.” Are the claims true? My investigation of the claims regarding the Doctors Without Borders/MSF supported “Al Quds Hospital” in April 2016 revealed that the accusations were full of contradictions, inconsistencies and unverified accusations.
The “hospital” was an unmarked building; the damage was unclear; the number of deaths varied wildly and could not be verified. The photographic evidence, supplied by the ubiquitous White Helmets, was dubious. The investigation resulted in a open letter to MSF. So far they have failed to corroborate or document their accusations and claims.
Doctors Without Borders/MSF continues to issue politically biased messages. Their Oct 2 tweet about a “bloodbath in East Aleppo” led to false accusations that two teenagers were killed by Syrian government bombing when they were actually killed by terrorist bombing.
Currently the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), funded by France and other countries, has been at the forefront accusing Syria and Russia of intentionally bombing an underground hospital. Is the story real or fabricated propaganda? The Russians and Syrians are trying to fight the terrorists; why would they waste resources and generate negative publicity by attacking a hospital? The reports seem to be based on phone or skype conversations with sources of unknown reliability.
The narrative promoted by “soft power” is that the Syrian government is an unpopular dictatorship dominated by the Alawi religious group. Is that true? On the contrary, key ministries including Defense and Foreign Affairs are held by Sunni leaders. The majority of the Syrian Arab Army are Sunni. Visitors to Syria readily meet mothers who are proud of their sons who died defending their country against foreign-backed terrorism.
The narrative promoted by “soft power” is that the Syrian uprising was largely progressive, secular, and seeking democracy. This myth makes for a good rationalization for effectively supporting the “regime change” war against Syria, but it is contradicted by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. In a classified report from August 2012, the DIA analyzed the conflict as follows: “THE SALAFIST [sic], THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD, AND AQI [“Al Qaeda in Iraq,” now known as ISIS or the Islamic State] ARE THE MAJOR FORCES DRIVING THE INSURGENCY IN SYRIA.”
“Soft power” in Syria has involved the creation and funding of Syrian groups who convey a message supportive of the “regime change” goals. For example there is a group in the town of Kafranbel which produces an English language banner each week. The group is provided with the message by a foreign source and the group holds the banner to be photographed and displayed on social media in the West. Most of the locals probably have no clue what it says.
Then there is the Aleppo Media Center which creates videos for influencing Western audiences, and the White Helmets previously discussed. These Western-created groups are the examples of the “Syrian Revolution” by those who promote this narrative. What kind of “revolution” is on contract with the U.S. State Department?
Current Situation and Coming Crisis
The Syrian government, with the support of the majority of Syrian people, is doing its best to defend itself against an onslaught financed by some of the wealthiest and most powerful countries on earth. The Syrian Army and popular militias have suffered huge losses but are advancing. In the last year, Russia has provided crucial air support. Unlike the invasion of Syrian land and air space by the U.S., the Russian intervention is in compliance with international law because it followed a request for assistance from Syria’s internationally recognized government, whereas the U.S. government and its allies have no such permission.
Currently the Syrian government and allies are seeking to drive Nusra and other terrorist groups from eastern Aleppo. If that is successful, they could then focus on ISIS in Raqqa and the remaining terrorists in other parts of the country. Unlike densely populated Gaza, the opposition-held areas of Aleppo have very few civilians left. Although civilian casualties happen in all wars, it makes no sense that the Syrian military would target civilians. On the contrary, the government has opened corridors to facilitate civilians and fighters to leave Aleppo.
Largely unreported in the West, the Syrian government has an active reconciliation program which allows former gunmen to move to a different area or return to society. This has been successfully used to clear the last remnant of terrorists from Al Waer near Homs and Darraya near Damascus. Many thousands of Syrian fighters who were coerced or bribed into joining the opposition have laid down their arms, signed an agreement and rejoined society.
In contrast with the frenzy and alarm in Western media and political circles, there is a growing optimism and hope among the vast majority of people in Aleppo. Syrian journalist Edward Dark recently tweeted “Aleppo soon will be freed from the jihadis that invaded & destroyed it. After 4 years of hell its people will finally know peace.” They are looking forward to the final defeat or expulsion of the terrorists who invaded the city in 2012.
What will the foreign enemies of Syria do to prevent this? Will they continue or escalate their campaign to destroy Syria as they destroyed Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya? Are they prepared to risk potential World War III with Russia? In the last month Turkey sent troops into northern Syria and the U.S. attacked the Syrian Army in Deir Ezzor, killing at least 62 soldiers. The U.S. claims this was an accident, but many believe it was intentional.
Since the collapse of the cessation of hostilities, “soft power” propaganda has escalated. Accusations that the Syrians and Russians are targeting hospitals are linked to new social media campaigns to “Save Aleppo.” Two things are clear:
–The public should be wary of media stories based on the claims of biased actors and not supported by solid evidence
–The Syrian government has the right to defend itself against foreign-funded violent extremists seeking to destroy it.
Rick Sterling is an investigative journalist and member of Syrian Solidarity Movement.