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President Bashar

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The Vanishing Civilians of Aleppo

Did it cross your mind occasionally, in the past week, to wonder where all of the “250,000 civilians trapped in eastern Aleppo” have gone? As the area of the city under rebel control dwindled – by Wednesday morning the Syrian regime’s troops had recaptured three-quarters of it – did you see massive columns of fleeing civilians, or mounds of civilian dead?

If several hundred thousand people were on the move, you would expect to be seeing video images of it. If they were fleeing into the enclave the rebels still hold (to escape the evil Syrian army), you would expect the rebels to give us dramatic images of that. They certainly gave us footage of every civilian killed by Russian bombing in eastern Aleppo over the past three months.

And if hundreds of thousands or even just tens of thousands of civilians were fleeing for safety into government-held territory, you would expect the regime’s propagandists to be making equally striking images available. “Look!” they would say. “The civilians really loved President Bashar al-Assad all along.”

Or maybe the civilians are all dead. Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, warned just a week ago that if Assad’s forces went on advancing, then “the besieged parts of eastern Aleppo” would become “one giant graveyard.” So where are those quarter-million bodies? Or even a few thousand bodies? That’s kind of hard to hide.

Here’s a radical thought: Have most of those quarter-million people suddenly become invisible because they were never really there in the first place?

There were certainly a significant number of civilians trapped with the rebels: you saw them crying and shaking their fists every time the Russians bombed another hospital. But even then, did you sometimes think how strange it was that the Russian air force never seemed to bomb anything but hospitals? Where’s the strategic sense in that?

Well, here’s a clue. There were no foreign journalists in eastern Aleppo. They were quite reasonably afraid of being kidnapped by one of the many rebel groups in the city and held for ransom – or accused of being spies and ritually slaughtered by one of the more extreme Islamist outfits.

All the reporting out of eastern Aleppo for the past three months has been what the rebel groups wanted us to see, and nothing else. And to them, the presence of large numbers of “defenseless civilians”, the more the better, was their best protection against a full-scale onslaught by the regime.

So of course they gave us video of every civilian killed by a bomb, and greatly exaggerated the number of civilians in their part of the city, and almost never showed their own fighters.

There’s no crime in this. It’s the way propaganda works, and nobody fighting a war can afford to be too respectful of the truth. The real question is this: why did the international media fall for it?

For months, what was obviously rebel propaganda has been shown by the world’s media as if it were the impartial truth. Was it just laziness, or was it subservience to a political agenda set by the West and its main allies in the Middle East? A bit of both, probably.

The United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were all determined to see the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, even if it did take six years of civil war. And even though they didn’t agree on what they wanted to replace it with.

Washington pursued the dream of a democratic, secular Syria. Riyadh and Ankara wanted a decisive victory by the Sunni Arab majority (about 60-65 percent of the population) and an authoritarian Islamic state. But they all agreed on the need to overthrow Assad, and left the rest for later.

Syrians from the start were much more ambivalent. Few loved the Assad regime, which was repressive and brutal. But many Syrians – including many Sunni Muslims, especially in the cities – saw the regime as their only protection against the triumph of an even nastier Islamist dictatorship.

There was never a mass uprising in Aleppo against the regime. Various rebel groups from the overwhelmingly Sunni rural areas around Aleppo stormed into the city in 2012 and won control over the eastern half, but it was never clear that the local residents were glad to see them.

On the other hand, it was not a good idea to look too unhappy about it, so over the next four years a great many people left the rebel-held part of the city, whose population gradually dwindled to – well, we don’t know exactly how many remained by this year, but it was certainly not a quarter-million or anywhere near it.

And it would appear that when the Syrian army retook most of eastern Aleppo in the past week, most of those people just stayed in their homes and waited to be “liberated”. Some of them will be terrified of being arrested and tortured, especially if they collaborated with the rebels even under duress. And others will simply be relieved that it’s over.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 11. (“There…outfits”;and “There’s…it”))

The Syrian Opposition’s Great Mistake

8 February 2012

The Syrian Opposition’s Great Mistake

By Gwynne Dyer

As the Syrian opposition abandons non-violent protest for armed resistance, many people think this means that President Bashar al-Assad and his Baathist regime are in even deeper trouble than before. On the contrary, it means that Assad and the Baathists are winning.

The Baathists know how to destroy armed resistance. Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, crushed the armed uprising of 1982 with massive military force, destroying the city of Hama and killing between 10,000 and 40,000 people in the process. He got away with it, stayed in power, and died peacefully in his bed eighteen years later.

This time, the focus of the Baathist regime’s attention is the rebel city of Homs, only an hour’s drive south of Hama, and it is clearly willing to do the same thing there. The people around Bashar believe they’ll get away with it this time too – and they may be right.

The Arab League can pass a resolution demanding that Bashar hands over power to a deputy at once, and that the Baathists form a “unity” government with the opposition within two months, but Syria’s rulers simply shrug it off. The Arab League is not going to send troops to Syria.

Besides, the Baathist leadership comes mainly from the Alawite community, a Shia Muslim minority that accounts for only ten percent of Syria’s population. About seventy percent of Syria’s people are Sunni Muslims, as are the governments in all the other members of the Arab League except Iraq and Lebanon. So the Syrian Baathists think that the League’s resolution is merely intended to drive Syria’s Shias from power, and they just ignore it.

A comparable resolution by the United Nations Security Council will never happen, because Assad’s Russian and Chinese friends will veto it again if necessary. And even if such a resolution were passed, no Western country is going to send troops to intervene in Syria either. The country is too big and the regime is too well armed: this is not another Libya.

So Assad’s calculations all have to do with how the confrontation plays out in Syria itself. In that context, it is greatly to his advantage that the opposition is turning to violence. Violence is much easier to defeat than non-violence.

It’s a quarter-century since non-violent movements began driving oppressive regimes from power: the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea, East Germany, the Soviet Union, Chile, South Africa, Serbia, Georgia, and most recently Egypt, not to mention a dozen others. By now, everybody on both sides of the barricades has the playbook. The tactics of the protesters are governed by strict rules – and the regimes also know and understand those rules.

Non-violent protesters have a whole menu of actions they can take to undermine the regime’s authority: mass demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins, stay-at-homes and much more. They also have a strict rule never to use violence against the regime and its servants – not because the protesters are pacifists, but because non-violence works better.

It gets better results because if the protesters avoid violence, it is almost impossible for a dictator to unleash all the force at his command. The regime’s troops and police will kill a few protesters each day, or even a few dozen, but they are psychologically deterred from mass killing because the protesters pose no direct threat to them.

Whereas if the protesters do attack the regime’s security forces, the soldiers and police are released from this inhibition and will use extreme violence to “protect” themselves. If physical force is what decides the confrontation, the regime almost automatically wins, because the force it can deploy is so much greater. As soon as the protesters throw the first brick or fire the first shot, the balance of power shifts radically in favour of the regime.

Nowadays dictators understand this, and do everything in their power to provoke their opponents into using violence. The Syrian protesters resisted this pressure for months, clinging bravely to non-violence despite a relentless toll of deaths and injuries inflicted by Assad’s regime. But then some of the regime’s troops, sick of killing their own people, deserted from the army – and they took their weapons with them.

Once the “Free Syrian Army” started fighting back, the internal pressure on Assad’s regime lessened dramatically. Its claim that it was fighting “armed terrorist gangs” gained some credence, especially among Alawites, Christians, Druze and other Syrian minorities who fear Sunni Muslim domination in a democratic Syria. And the willingness of the security forces to use really large-scale violence grew, because now they were scared for their own safety.

It is a disaster for the Syrian opposition: their death-toll has now risen to hundreds each week, but the deaths have less moral impact because they are happening in what is becoming a mere civil war. Ugly and destructive though that will be, Assad’s regime has a better chance of survival now than it did when the protests were strictly non-violent.


To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. “Besides…Libya”)