The Conflict in Syria, its Origins

There is a scene in The Syrian when Andrew is in south Lebanon and the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel has just begun. His friend Camille attempts to explain the relationship between the two enemies and how it all ties into a broader regional conflict. This essay attempts to explain the origins of that conflict.

A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Security the Realm was a policy document prepared in 1996 by a study group led by Richard Perle, David Wurmser and Douglas Feith, and intended as a political blueprint for the incoming government of Benjamin Netanyahu, then about to begin his first term as Prime Minister of Israel. The document advocated a new approach to solving Israel’s security problems that included the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, abandoning the land for peace formula to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Ironically, A Clean Break became, instead, the game plan for the George W. Bush presidency and its authors became top national security advisors in his administration.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the removal of Saddam Hussein changed the overall balance of power in the region, inadvertently giving rise to Shiite-Iran. This, in turn, stirred up a decades-old conflict with Iran’s traditional enemy-Saudi Arabia and its fellow Sunni nations. Sunnis represent approximately 85-88% of all Muslims. However, between the Mediterranean and the Gulf the ratio is approximately 50% Sunni, 50% Shiite with Iran being the largest Shiite Muslim nation with a population of 70 million, 90% of whom are Shia. This ratio represents a threat to the Sunni dominance across the Middle East.

Iran’s natural allies are Syria, ruled by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and Lebanon where Shiites represent approximately 40% of the population. Further exasperating the Saudi-Iran—Sunni-Shiite divide was Syrian President Hafez al Assad’s brutal crackdown in 1982 on the Muslim Brotherhood which advocates Wahhabism, the puritanical version of Islam that prevails in Saudi Arabia.

If Saudi Arabia saw Iran as a threat to its regional hegemony, so did Israel. Its war with Hezbollah in 2006 was an attempt to destroy Hezbollah but it was also an attempt to redefine its military deterrence. Hezbollah forced them out of south Lebanon in 2000 after a twenty-two year illegal occupation. The United States, seen in the region as an extension of Israel, also saw Iran as a threat to its regional interests, and thus supported Israel in its proxy war with Iran. Jonathan Cook in his December 19, 2006 article “Do America and Israel Want the Middle East Engulfed in Civil War,” quoted Meyrav Wurmser, David Wurmser’s wife who said that the Bush administration dragged its feet, waiting for Israel to expand its attack on Syria during the war with Hezbollah. “The neocons are responsible for the fact that Israel got a lot of time and space,” she said. “They believed that Israel should fight against the real enemy, the one backing Hezbollah. It was obvious that it was impossible to fight directly against Iran, but the thought was that Iran’s strategic and important ally, Syria, should be hit.”

In an article which appeared in The Telegraph on October 5, 2007 David Wurmser said “we need to do everything possible to destabilize the Syrian regime …that would include the willingness to escalate as far as we need to go to topple the regime.” And with that, the idea of regime change once again took center stage.

According to a April 18, 2011 Washington Post article: “Newly released WikiLeaks cables reveal that the State Department has been secretly financing Syrian opposition groups and other opposition projects for at last five years.” This is nothing new. In 1979 when Russia invaded Afghanistan, the CIA with the help of Pakistani intelligence, trained and armed what became known as the mujahedeen (extremist Sunni fighters). When the Russians were defeated and left Afghanistan, Washington turned its back on these fighters assuming they would disappear. This didn’t happen. The Sunni fundamentalists who are fighting today in Syria are the second, third, and even the fourth generation of these original mujahedeen fighters whom the US trained in Afghanistan.

In the early years of the Obama’s presidency, there was some attempt at diplomatic engagement with Syria but shortly after the civil conflict broke out in 2011, the legacy of official hostility toward Syria set in motion Washington’s disastrous confrontation with Bashar Assad.

The West’s mainstream media initially presented the Syrian civil war as a simple case of good-guy protesters vs. bad-guy government but the conflict was more complicated and the one-sided version only made matters worse.

According to Jonathan Marshall writing for Consortium News in an article entitled Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War, nearly a quarter million people have perished and fully half of the country’s inhabitants have been forced from their homes, creating the worse refugee crisis in the past quarter century. Many parties are to blame but certainly among them are the interventionists in the US who rationalized supporting the Islamist opposition on the grounds that Bachar Assad was an evil dictator.

The city of Dara’a near the Jordanian border was the epicenter of protests that triggered Syria’s civil war. In early March 2011, police arrested and severely beat several high school students. Protests broke out. Syrian police responded with water cannons, batons and gunfire, killing three protesters. Matters went from bad to worse when demonstrators fought back. In an effort to ease tensions the government offered to release the detained students. Instead, seven police officers were killed and the courthouse torched and gunmen set an ambush killing two dozen government troops. According to a journalist on the scene, “The ‘Daraa protest movement’ on March 17-18, 2011 had all the appearance of a staged event involving covert support to Islamic terrorists by Mossad and/or Western intelligence. Roof top snipers were targeting both police and demonstrators.”

President Assad tried to calm the situation by sending senior government officials to the city to emphasize his personal commitment to prosecute those responsible for shooting protesters. He ordered the release of the students arrested. Assad also announced national reforms that included the formation of a new government, the lifting of the state of emergency, the abolition of the Supreme State Security Court, the granting of general amnesties and new regulations on the right of citizens to participate in peaceful demonstrations.

Assad’s response failed to satisfy protesters who took to the streets and declared the city a “liberated zone.” The Assad government reacted ruthlessly, laying siege to the town with tanks and soldiers. Meanwhile, unknown gunmen killed 19 Syrian soldiers. In another incident 140 members of the police and security forces were slaughtered.

Western media refused to recognize that armed elements were becoming active. They preferred the simple story of good people fighting bad people. One has to ask why the story could not have been told without also covering up the reality—that armed elements whose agenda was not peaceful were also playing a role.

What should one make of these facts? First, there can be no reason to doubt the many reports by United Nations and private human rights organizations that government forces committed war crimes and gross violations of international human rights. However, as Jonathan Marshall noted in his article “the deadly provocations against Syrian government forces put an entirely different cast on the origins of the conflict. In March 2012 Human Rights Watch sent an “open letter” to leaders of Syrian opposition, decrying crimes and other abuses committed by armed opposition elements.”

A classified Defense Intelligence Agency report in the summer of 2012 concluded: “The Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq), and later the Islamic State are now the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”

Vice President Joe Biden said: “The fact of the matter is that there was no moderate middle. Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad except that the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis.”

What the West should have learned from Iraq and Libya was that “regime change” in Syria may well bring about either a fanatical Islamist state or a failed state, but with no end to the violence.

Jonathan Marshall concludes:  “In Syria as in Libya and Iraq, human rights became a convenient bludgeon for supporting the longstanding ambition of US neoconservatives to topple critical Arab regimes as part of their grand plan for redrawing the map of the Middle East.”

This book is available for purchase here.

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