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Assad Chooses Civil War

29 May 2012

Assad Chooses Civil War

By Gwynne Dyer

“There is no doubt that the (Syrian) government used artillery and tanks (in Houla),” said Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday – but then he added: “There is also no doubt that many bodies have been found with injuries from firearms received at point-blank range. We are dealing with a situation where both sides participated in the killings of innocent civilians.”

Russia is at last admitting that Syria is using heavy weapons against its own civilian population. It could hardly do less, given the scale of Saturday’s massacre in the village of Taldou in the Houla region: at least 108 civilians killed, including 49 children. But while other countries are expelling Syrian ambassadors, Lavrov is still trying to spread the blame in order to protect Bashir al-Assad’s regime from foreign intervention.

While some of the victims in Houla were killed by shellfire, others had been shot at close range or knifed to death. Assad’s propagandists insist that the fighters of the Syrian opposition (the “armed terrorist gangs,” as the regime calls them) massacred their own people with rifles and knives in order to put the blame on the government, and Russia is actively promoting the same story. But it is nonsense, and Lavrov must know it.

The testimony of eyewitnesses is consistent: after two hours of shelling by the Syrian army, armed men belonging to the pro-government Shabiha militia entered the village and went door to door killing suspected activists and their families. The government in Damascus doesn’t care that everybody knows it’s lying: the whole point of the massacre is to terrify Syrians into submission, and it knows that NATO will not intervene.

The victims murdered in Houla last weekend are only one percent of the Syrian citizens killed by their own government since the anti-regime protests began in March of last year, but some people hope that this will be a turning point in foreign attitudes to Assad. They even talk about it as a “mini-Srbrenica”.

That was the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims by Serbian forces in 1995 that finally persuaded the NATO countries to use force against Slobodan Milosevic, the dictator of Serbia, but it’s not going to happen here. The brazen effrontery of the Assad regime in perpetrating such a massacre even after United Nations/Arab League monitors have entered the country shows how confident it is that the Western alliance will not use force against him.

NATO will not go beyond empty threats because it cannot get the support of the United Nations Security Council for using force against Assad’s regime (the Russians and the Chinese would veto it), and because the Syrian armed forces are so big and powerful that it would suffer significant losses if it attacked.

If there is no foreign military intervention, then Syria is heading into a prolonged civil war like Lebanon’s in 1975-1990: the ethnic and religious divisions in Syria are quite similar to those in Lebanon. If the Syrian regime understands that, then why does it persist in killing the protesters? Because it reckons that fighting a prolonged civil war is better than losing power now.

The pro-democracy protests in Syria began soon after the triumph of the Egyptian revolution in February, 2011, and for six months they remained entirely non-violent despite savage repression by the regime. (By last September, Assad’s forces had already murdered about 3,000 Syrian civilians.) And so long as the demonstrations stayed non-violent, the vision of a Syrian democracy embracing all sects and ethnic groups remained viable.

Assad’s strategy for survival had two main thrusts. One was to divide the opposition. At the start the protests included Christians, Druze, and even some people from Assad’s own community, the Alawites. He needed to separate those minority groups from the majority of the protesters, the Sunni Muslims who make up 70 percent of Syria’s population.

His other goal was to lure the protesters into using force, because that would license his own army to use far greater force against them. Eventually, in October/November, deserters from the Syrian army (who took their weapons with them) began shooting back at Assad’s troops, and he had his pretext. After that, he was free to use artillery against city centres, slaughter whole villages, whatever he liked.

The shift to open warfare also had the effect of frightening most Christians, Druze and Alawites back into the regime’s camp. They bought the regime’s lies about the resistance being run by Sunni Islamist fanatics with al-Qaeda connections (although it is nothing of the sort), and decided that even Assad and his henchmen were better than a democracy that brought vengeful Sunni Muslims to power.

So Assad now has about 30 percent of the population on his side, plus most of the army, all of the heavy weapons, and the world’s nastiest intelligence services. That’s enough to fight a long civil war, and maybe even enough to win it.

Russia and China will guard Assad’s diplomatic flank, and the other Arab states will do nothing beyond sending some money and a few weapons to the rebels. Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan is a dead letter, and NATO will not intervene militarily. Civil war is Assad’s best option for survival, and he’s not stupid.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“The victims…against him”)



Lebanon: Another Frame-up?

1 July 2011

Lebanon: Another Frame-up?

By Gwynne Dyer

Here we go again. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, a United Nations-backed body investigating the killing of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, has accused four people of his murder. They all belong to Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shia movement that Israel and the United States define as terrorist. But they are probably not guilty.

Special tribunals of this sort have no intelligence agents of their own. In practice, they rely heavily on information supplied to them by national intelligence services that they trust. But they are judges and lawyers and other unworldly types, and they don’t seem to understand that there is no such thing as a trustworthy intelligence service.

Immediately after the explosion that killed Rafiq Hariri and 22 other people in Beirut in 2005, Western and Israeli intelligence services said that the Syrian government was behind it, and that the Iranians were behind them. Well, of course. The main aim of the US and Israel at that time was to get Syrian troops out of Lebanon, where they had been stationed since shortly after the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975.

Four Lebanese generals accused of working for Syria were arrested. The non-violent “Cedar Revolution” broke out, demanding an end to Syrian meddling in Lebanese politics and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country. And in the end the Syrians left and a pro-Western government took power: mission accomplished.

But there was actually no evidence against the four Lebanese generals, and as one of its first acts the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, created in 2009, ordered their release. So who had organised the killing of Hariri, then? Well, accusing the Syrians had worked pretty well for the Western intelligence agencies. So maybe they decided to blame Hezbollah now, and see if that worked too.

Hezbollah came into existence in response to the long Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon (1982-2000)). It has the support of most of Lebanon’s Shias, who dominate the south. And it gets arms and money not only from Syria but also from Syria’s ally, Iran.

During the last Israeli attack on Lebanon, in 2006, Hezbollah fought the Israeli army to a stand-still in southern Lebanon. But its leadership has always been intelligent and subtle, and the notion that it would let itself become a tool for some ham-fisted Syrian operation to kill the Lebanese prime minister seems simply unbelievable to most Lebanese.

The judges of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon were persuaded by evidence that Western intelligence services pointed them towards, particularly about mobile phone calls allegedly made by Hezbollah officials. So arrest warrants have now been issued for Mustafa Badreddin, Hezbollah’s chief operations officer, and three other Hezbollah officials.

They probably had nothing to do with Hariri’s assassination. It’s more likely that they are being framed by Western intelligence agencies because Hezbollah is seen as a serious threat to Israel. If this sounds paranoid, consider the case of the Lockerbie bombing.

The bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988 killed 270 people, most of them American. At first US intelligence blamed Iran, claiming that it used an Arab terrorist group based in Syria to carry out the operation. So Syria was under pressure too – but then in 1990 Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait, and Washington needed the Syrians as allies in the war to liberate it. Suddenly the whole Iran-Syria case was abandoned, and the new suspect was Libya.

Libya under Muammar Gaddafi was an enemy of the West, so new evidence was found linking Libyan intelligence agents to the attack. Gaddafi was brought to heel, and one Libyan intelligence officer, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was tried by an international court and sentenced to life in prison. Alas, the new “evidence” was then gradually discredited as key “witnesses” turned out to be incredible.

One man, a Maltese shopkeeper called Tony Gauci whose testimony apparently linked al-Megrahi to the suitcase that contained the bomb, was later found living in Australia on several million dollars that the United States had paid him for his testimony. Another, Ulrich Lumpert, admitted that he had lied to the tribunal about supplying Libya with timers for the bomb. And so on.

In 2007 the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission announced that it would refer al-Megrahi’s case to the Court of Criminal Appeal in Edinburgh (the Libyan was being held in a Scottish prison) because he “may have suffered a miscarriage of justice.” To avoid all this coming out into the open in a new trial, al-Megrahi was released in 2009 and sent home on the grounds that he was a dying man who wouldn’t last three months. (He’s still alive.)

If Western intelligence agencies played this kind of game over the Lockerbie bombing, what’s to stop them from doing the same over the murder of Hariri? And why would they want to do that? Because Hebollah and its Christian and Druze allies now dominate the Lebanese government, and are seen as a threat to Israeli and American interests.

The Middle East runs almost entirely on conspiracy theories, most of them ridiculously implausible. But some of them are real.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“Hezbollah…Iran”; and “One…on”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Iraq Fifth Anniversary

18 March 2008

Iraq Fifth Anniversary

 By Gwynne Dyer

It is five years since President George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq (20 March). Can Iraq emerge from this ordeal as a place where people lead reasonably safe and happy lives?

The American troops will leave eventually, and probably quite soon, but that is unlikely to be followed by an orgy of violence. The civil war has already happened, and most formerly mixed neighbourhoods and villages are now exclusively Shia or Sunni. That, as much as the “surge” in American troop numbers, is why the civilian death toll has dropped significantly over the past year.

Between four and five million Iraqis have fled their homes (out of a population of less than thirty million), and most of them will never be able to return to those homes. But half of them are still in Iraq, and most of the rest are in neighbouring countries and will ultimately have to return. They will eventually find somewhere safe to live, and they will start to rebuild their lives.

It sounds callous to talk this way when so many have suffered so much, but after every war there is a return to normality. It may be a new normality where some of the things that used to be possible, like freedom of movement and equal opportunities for women, are no longer available, but the danger level drops and everyday concerns replace the obsession with mere survival. The best analogy is the aftermath of the Lebanese civil war.

Lebanon’s tragedy was largely self-inflicted, and the various sects had more clearly defined identities before the war began, but it is what happened after the shooting stopped there in 1990 that concerns us. Most of the refugees found somewhere to live, the shattered buildings were rebuilt or replaced, and within ten years a reasonably healthy economy emerged from the ruins.

With oil at over a hundred dollars a barrel, Iraq certainly has the money to rebuild, even if oil production has not yet recovered to the pre-invasion level. And there is now a kind of democracy in Iraq, although it is heavily distorted by sectarian and ethnic rivalries — not all that different from Lebanon’s democracy, in fact.

There is little chance of another strongman like Saddam seizing power in Iraq, because power is now so widely distributed among the different factions and militias. Iraqi democracy may even survive the departure of the American troops.

So was it all worthwhile, in the end? That is a different question, because the implicit comparison is between the future of the country as it is now and the conditions that reigned five years ago when Saddam Hussein was still in charge. Even that comparison yields an ambiguous answer, for Saddam’s Iraq was a secular society where people were safe unless they trespassed into politics, and women enjoyed an unusual degree of personal freedom. But it is also the wrong comparison.

This was the trick that the old Soviet Union played endlessly, comparing the wonders achieved under Communism with the horrors of poverty and oppression under the Tsars — as if Russia would have stayed forever frozen in 1917 if the Bolshevik revolution had not happened. The Chinese Communist regime plays the same game now, pretending that it would still be 1948 in the country if they had not seized power. It’s utter nonsense, and that applies to Iraq, too.

Saddam was only executed a year ago, so he probably would still be in power today if the United States had not invaded Iraq, but he was not going to live forever. It’s not possible to know what would have followed him had he stayed in power and died a natural death, but would it have involved hundreds of thousands of Iraqis tortured, shot or blown up? Would it have led to the permanent alienation of Sunnis and Shias? Probably not.

In the meantime, Saddam posed no serious threat to his neighbours, as his army was largely destroyed in the first Gulf war of 1991 and never rebuilt (due to sanctions). He posed no danger at all to the United States, since he had absolutely nothing to do with al-Qaeda (as was confirmed by a recently released Pentagon study of more than 600,000 Iraqi documents captured after the US invasion).

The number of Iraqis who were tortured and murdered by Saddam’s security forces in the average year was in the thousands, no more than the MONTHLY civilian death toll from sectarian violence in recent years. Occasionally, when there were uprisings against his rule, Saddam killed far more people, but the last time that happened was in 1991. Nine-tenths or more of the Iraqis who have been killed in the horrors of the past five years would probably still be alive if Saddam was still in power. So would four thousand American soldiers.

The real question is what will Iraq be like twenty years from now, and what would it have been like in twenty years if the United States had not invaded. But it can never be answered, because that alternative future was cancelled by the invasion.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“It sounds…ruins”)

Pakistan: Forecasts of Disaster

5 August 2007

Pakistan: Forecasts of Disaster

By Gwynne Dyer

“There’s going to be a civil war.” You heard it all the time in the old Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s. People fretted about it constantly in South Africa in 1994. They have been worrying about it in Lebanon for the past year. Now they’re predicting it for Pakistan — but nine times out of ten, the forecast is false.

The Soviet Union broke up with remarkably little violence, although there were some nasty little wars in various non- Russian republics down south. Apartheid’s end in South Africa was astonishingly non-violent, given all that had gone before. There was a ghastly civil war in Lebanon in the late 70s and 80s, but the odds are better than even that there will not be another. And there probably won’t be a disaster in Pakistan either.

“We are very scared,” Senator Enver Baig of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party told the “Guardian” last week. “If we don’t mend our ways, it could spell the end of the country. The Islamists have sleeper cells in every city. We could have a civil war.” And if the “Islamists” won that civil war, then people with a world-view not dissimilar to Osama bin Laden’s would control a country with 165 million people, an army of 600,000 men, and an estimated fifty nuclear weapons.

But the civil war hasn’t happened yet, and it may never come to that. In fact, there are as many hopeful signs as frightening ones in the current turmoil in Pakistan, although it is getting hard to read the tea-leaves.

Pakistan is certainly becoming unstable. The government has effectively lost control in the tribal belt along the frontier with Afghanistan, which is increasingly dominated by pro-Taliban militants. The week-long siege of radical Islamists holed up in the Red Mosque in Islamabad, the capital, in mid-July culminated in the deaths of over a hundred militants and soldiers.

The military dictator who has ruled Pakistan since 1999, General Pervez Musharraf, is a living incarnation of the phrase “one-bullet regime”: he has already survived four assassination attempts. More than 200 Pakistani soldiers and civilians have died in terrorist attacks since the Red Mosque incident, and the alarmists are predicting civil war and Islamist take-over.

On the other hand, there is a thriving free press in Pakistan, including (at last) independent television stations that actually report the news. The economy has been growing fast in recent years, and at least a bit of the new prosperity is trickling down to the impoverished majority.

President Musharraf is the fourth general to seize power in Pakistan’s sixty-year history, but the country always returns to civilian rule in the end. And late last month Pakistan’s supreme court, in an act of defiance against military rule, threw out Musharraf’s accusations of corruption against the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.

The charges were fabricated to ensure that the chief justice did not interfere with the general’s plans for another five-year presidential term. (He planned to have himself re-appointed by very same national and regional assemblies, chosen in rigged elections in 2002, that obediently voted to appoint him five years ago — without any new election to renew their membership.) What actually happened, however, was that the charges turned Chaudhry into a national hero and a focus for resistance to the continuation of thinly disguised military rule.

There is a good chance that this crisis could end in a restoration of civilian democracy in Pakistan: that is how all three previous bouts of military rule ended. The fanatics and the extremists dominate the sparsely populated areas along the Afghan frontier because the population there is identical to the Pashtuns across the border who are the main base of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and they have been radicalised by 28 years of foreign occupation and civil war in that country. But the vast majority of Pakistanis live down in the flat, fertile lands along the rivers, and what they want is not martydom but peace, justice and prosperity.

They stand a better chance of getting those things if democracy returns, even if previous intervals of democracy in Pakistan have usually ended in massive corruption and paralysis as the political class fought over the spoils. Musharraf is probably on the way out unless he declares martial law under the pretext of fighting the Islamists — and it is not certain that the army would follow him if he did.

So he is trying for fake democratisation. Twice, in January and again last month, he has met secretly in Abu Dhabi with Benazir Bhutto, the exiled head of the largest opposition party, trying to make a deal that would let her return as prime minister (for the third time) but leave him as president. That would be a big mistake on Bhutto’s part, but it wouldn’t be the first.

Despite the highly publicised violence in Pakistan, there is little chance that it will fall under Taliban-style rule. There is perhaps a one-in-three probability that Musharraf will cut a deal with Bhutto that leaves him in power for a while, but that wouldn’t really end the crisis. And the odds on a return to real democracy within the year are probably better than even.

It would be nice if Pakistan’s fractious and venal politicians could make it work this time.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“President…militaryrule”)