|The U.S. sees Syria as a prime candidate for regime change after Libya and extends liberal support to the ongoing efforts to topple the Bashar al-Assad government.|
WITH regime change accomplished in Libya, the focus of Western destabilisation plans will now be concentrated mainly on Syria. Since the middle of this year, senior American officials, including President Barack Obama, have been demanding that President Bashar al-Assad leave office. Washington is openly supporting the opposition, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, in its ongoing efforts to topple the government. It has roped in its regional allies – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar – to keep funds and arms flowing to the Syrian opposition. The objective seems to be to stoke a civil war and then intervene with the tried-and-tested ploy of “humanitarian intervention” or the “right to protect (R2P) doctrine” concocted by the West.
In late October, Robert Ford, the controversial United States Ambassador to Syria, was recalled by the White House. The U.S. State Department stated that there were “credible threats against his personal security” in Damascus. The envoy had been ignoring diplomatic niceties ever since the political upheaval started in Syria. He used his Facebook page frequently to criticise the Syrian President. Ford even visited Homs and Hama, the hotbeds of protest in the country, and held a meeting with the leaders of the opposition after Friday prayers. The violence in these towns, where the opposition has a following, usually peaks on Fridays after the afternoon prayers. The Syrian government has said that the violent armed groups, mainly concentrated in Homs, have killed 1,100 security personnel since the trouble started in March. According to the United Nations, more than 3,000 people have died in the ongoing violence. The Syrian government puts the total number of deaths at around 2,000.
Abdul Halim Khaddam, the former Vice-President of Syria who lives in exile in France, has sought international military support for the opposition. After Bashar took over the reins in 2000, former Ba’athists like Khaddam and the President’s uncle Rifaat al-Assad had been leading the dissident Syrian groups in Europe. The Elysee Palace had been backing Khaddam, but with Washington and Istanbul now preferring to back the more organised Islamists, France seems to have ditched the secular opposition. As Defence Minister under his elder brother Hafiz al-Assad, Rifaat was in charge of the force responsible for the crushing of the 1982 rebellion in Hama in which more than 20,000 civilians were reported killed. The root of the present rebellion can be traced to those events. Rifaat had never hidden his ambition of ruling Syria. He now stays in London and was last seen in Riyadh when he met Saudi King Abdullah to convey his condolences on the recent demise of the Crown Prince Sultan.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, during a visit to India in the third week of October, bemoaned the failure of the United Nations Security Council to take action against Syria. Juppe has gone to the extent of predicting the demise of the Syrian government. He said the collapse would, however, take time given the complexity of internal and regional politics. Unlike Libya, Syria has a comparatively large population. From available evidence, the majority of the people still support Bashar al-Assad. The major cities of Damascus and Aleppo, where the bulk of the population resides, have not witnessed any serious anti-government protests.
The Syrian National Council, set up by the opposition in Istanbul, has the blessing of Washington. One of the first things that the new National Transitional Council (NTC) government in Libya did after the killing of Mummar Qaddafi was to recognise the National Council. An exiled Syrian human rights activist, Haitham Manaa, recently said that many of the members of the National Council were the creations of the U.S., Turkey and France. Manaa, who is an outspoken critic of Bashar, has, however, maintained that there will be “no Ahmad Challabis in Syria” who will take the assistance of U.S. tanks to topple the government in Damascus. Challabi had, in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, helped the Bush administration fabricate evidence for the country’s so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
Within Syria, the opposition is urging the West to impose a “no-fly zone” over the country. It knows fully well that a “no-fly zone” is a precursor to full-scale military intervention. Large shipments of weapons have been smuggled into Syria from Lebanon and Turkey. Israel-made hand grenades have been among the weapons seized by the security forces in recent months.
In September, a senior officer from the Syrian Army, who had defected to the opposition, resurfaced in Damascus. The officer, Col. Hussein Harmoush, said on Syrian TV that he was “bribed” by the Muslim Brotherhood to defect to Turkey and concoct stories about a serious split emerging in the army. A “Free Syrian Army”, propped up by the West, has been issuing periodic statements from Turkey. Two months before he returned to Syria, Harmoush was claiming that he had defected after being told to shoot at unarmed civilians.
Washington, meanwhile, continues to stoke the fire. The Obama administration said that the Ambassador’s return would depend on the U.S.’ “assessment of the Syrian regime-led incitement and the security situation on the ground”. The Syrian government was quick to react by recalling its own Ambassador from Washington for consultations. The U.S. had sent an Ambassador to Syria after a gap of six years with the stated aim of improving relations with the country and its people.
Before Ford reached Damascus, an opinion poll conducted in March 2009 revealed that more than two-thirds of the Syrian populace viewed the U.S. unfavourably. Syrians have seen two of their neighbouring countries, Iraq and Lebanon, virtually destroyed as a result of U.S. intervention. The opposition’s dependence on the U.S. and its allies such as France to further its cause could prove detrimental in the long run. The opposition, at the instigation of the West, has rejected the comprehensive reform package offered by the government, which includes fair and free elections.
In the eyes of the U.S. political establishment, Syria is a prime candidate for regime change. The Syrian government has successfully withstood intense pressure from the Bush administration since its invasion of Iraq in 2003. The fierce resistance put up by Iraqis did not leave much scope for the neo-conservative Bush administration to launch new military adventures in the region. The Syrian government played host to millions of refugees from Iraq. Despite threats from Washington, Damascus continued to support Hizbollah and Hamas, the two movements in the region that are leading the resistance against Israel. The U.S. State Department has classified both as “terrorist organisations”.
Another major grouse of Washington is the close relations between Damascus and Teheran. Regime change in Syria offers juicy prospects for the West and its conservative allies in the region to isolate Iran and neutralise the two resistance movements. A Syria dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood will be hostile to Iran and Hizbollah. In Tunisia and Egypt, the Brotherhood is on the ascendant. In Libya, the Islamist tendencies of the NTC have been apparent for some time. It suits the U.S. and Israel to see the Arab and Muslim world split on sectarian lines.
The international media campaign, orchestrated by the West with help from the satellite channels owned by the Gulf monarchies, is similar to the propaganda that was carried out successfully in Libya. The build-up to the eventual “humanitarian intervention” in Libya started with stories about an impending massacre in Benghazi. The international media glossed over the atrocities by the rebels in Benghazi, which included the public hanging of security personnel. Minimal coverage was given to the rape of Sirte by the combined might of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the rebel forces. The international media’s coverage of Syria, too, is one-sided.
An illustration is the case of Zainab al-Hosni, a young Syrian woman. The international media faithfully reported the story put out by the opposition that Zainab had been kidnapped by the security forces and tortured and that her body was dismembered. When she turned up hale and hearty some weeks later, not much credence was given to the news in the international media. The Obama administration has provided the opposition with “shadow” Internet and mobile communication systems. The New York Times reported in June that the State Department was financing the creation of “stealth wireless networks that would help activists to communicate outside the reach of governments in countries like Iran, Syria and Libya”.
The governments in the West have totally ignored the violence being perpetrated by armed opposition groups against the Syrian security forces as they go about their plans to introduce a no-fly zone. The efforts to introduce even more punitive international sanctions have been thwarted by Russia and China in the Security Council. The Obama administration now seems intent to invoke the provisions of the 2003 Syria Accountability Act, which allows the U.S. to freeze unilaterally Syria’s assets independently of a U.N. Resolution or congressional approval. Washington has already convinced its European partners to stop buying Syrian oil. Oil exports are a significant source of hard currency earnings for the Syrian government.
Sanctions imposed unilaterally by the West have started biting. The cost of essentials have gone up; the tourism industry, which was booming until early this year, is in the doldrums. The West and its regional allies are hoping that rising unemployment will further bolster the opposition and weaken the government.
Recent pro-government rallies held in Damascus and other major cities have attracted huge crowds. A rally in Damascus in the second week of October drew more than a million Bashar al-Assad supporters. The rally was held a day before the establishment of a special committee to rewrite the Constitution.
The current Constitution has given a special status to the Ba’ath Party. The new Constitution will usher in a multiparty system, and elections to a new Parliament will be held in February 2012.