16 March 2014
The Framing of al-Megrahi
They lied, they’re still lying, and they’ll go on lying until Libya calms down enough to allow a thorough search of its archives. That’s what intelligence agencies do, and being angry at them for lying is like being angry at a scorpion for stinging. But we now KNOW that they lied about the Libyans planting the bomb on Pan Am flight 103 in December 1988.
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a Libyan airline official who was convicted of placing the bomb aboard the plane and sentenced to 27 years in prison by a special international court in 2001, was freed from jail in 2009 and sent home, allegedly dying from cancer and with only three months to live. He eventually did die three YEARS later, but it was a very peculiar thing for the Scottish government to do.
Megrahi was in a Scottish jail because Pan Am 103, en route from London to Detroit, had blown up over the Scottish village of Lockerbie, killing all 259 people aboard and eleven in the village below. But he clearly wasn’t dying when he was freed, and he had served less than a third of his sentence.
And there was something even more disturbing about the case. As a condition of his release, Megrahi was required to drop an appeal against his conviction that had been granted by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission in 2007.
The SCCRC listed no fewer than six grounds for serious concern about Megrahi’s conviction, including the fact that the US Justice Department made an undisclosed payment of $3 million to two Maltese citizens whose evidence had linked Megrahi with the suitcase that contained the bomb. If the appeal had gone ahead, Megrahi’s conviction would probably have been quashed.
That would have been deeply embarrassing for the Scottish authorities, especially since the evidence suggested there had been a deliberate attempt to frame the Libyan. But they did have the power to delay the hearing of his appeal for a very long time, and al-Megrahi was not a well man. So one can imagine a bargain being struck: his freedom for his silence.
Megrahi never stopped protesting his innocence, but he did withdraw his appeal, so the new evidence was never heard in court, his conviction was never cancelled, and nobody was embarrassed. But why did the intelligence agencies pick on him in the first place?
Because they had to abandon their first working hypothesis, which was that Pan Am 103 was destroyed in late 1988 as tit-for-tat Iranian revenge for the accidental shooting down of an Iran Air plane with 290 people aboard by the US warship Vincennes earlier that year.
Since the Iranians didn’t have people in the right places with the right skills to do this job, US intelligence calculated, they paid some Palestinian terrorists to do it. The US even fingered the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, headed by Ahmed Jibril, as the ones who took the contract.
But the investigation moved slowly, and 20 months after Pan Am 103 went down, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. The US was mobilising a coalition of Western and Arab armies to liberate Kuwait, and it wanted Syria to be part of it. But Syria was Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world, so this was not the right time to get into a confrontation with Iran.
Nevertheless, somebody had to be punished or the intelligence services would look incompetent. The people who carried out the bombing for Iran had made some rudimentary attempts to put the blame on Libya, and the security services now started using that evidence to frame Megrahi. The evidence was full of holes, but the Libyan’s defence team did a poor job of exposing them, and he was convicted anyway.
The reason his defence team did so badly may have been that the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafy, had made a deal: in order to be released from a crippling trade embargo, he would admit the blame for the Pan Am bombing and pay compensation to the families of the victims. For that deal to stand, Megrahi had to go down. A few threats to his family back in Libya would have persuaded him to sabotage his own defence.
But with the appeal that would have exposed the truth smothered, all this remained mere conjecture until last week, when the al-Jazeera network broadcast an interview with Abolghassem Mesbahi, a former Iranian intelligence officer. Mesbahi, who once reported directly to the Iranian president, said it quite plainly: Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, gave direct orders for the destruction of an American airliner after the Vincennes incident in 1988.
So the original hypothesis was correct, and the Western security services probably always knew it was correct. They don’t care; the case is closed, and with Megrahi’s appeal cancelled it will never be re-opened. But it is worth noting that he was an innocent man, not a mass murderer, and that his life was cynically destroyed by the same people who brought us the invasion of Iraq, mass surveillance, and so much more.
To shorten to 725 words, open paragraphs 9 and 12. (“Since…contract”; and “The reason…defence”)
24 April 2013
A Rather Small Weapon of Mass Destruction
By Gwynne Dyer
George W. Bush wasn’t lying about Iraq after all, and those of us who said that he was owe him an apology. Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction. We just didn’t read the small print.
When President Bush said in a speech: “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun—that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud,” we thought that he was talking about nuclear weapons. And many of us didn’t believe him.
When Vice-President Dick Cheney assured us: “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends…and against us,” we just assumed he was lying as usual.
And when Colin Powell, the secretary of state, told the UN Security Council that “Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction….We know that Iraqi government officials…have hidden prohibited items in their homes,” we thought he meant nukes and poison gas and nasty biological agents. Poor old Colin, we thought. An innocent soldier, too gullible for his own good.
But we were all wrong. The real threat was pressure cookers, and there were thousands of them in the homes of Iraqi officials
We shouldn’t be too hard on the Bush gang for not making full disclosure of what they actually meant by “weapons of mass destruction” at the time. Imagine how silly Colin Powell would have looked at the United Nations if he had shown the disbelieving audience not a vial of suspicious-looking liquid (nerve gas? bubonic plague?), but merely a pressure cooker. But there can be no doubt now: there WERE “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq.
These penitential thoughts are inspired by the charge brought against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving brother of the two young Chechen-Americans who detonated two pressure cookers stuffed with explosives and ball-bearings at the Boston Marathon last week, killing three and wounding several hundred. It was a wicked deed that brought great sorrow to many families – but are pressure cookers really “weapons of mass destruction”?
The US Department of Justice certainly thinks so. On 22 April it charged the 19-year-old Tsarnaev with “using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction against persons and property.” Not a nuclear weapon, or poison gas, or some filthy plague, but a home-made bomb that killed three people.
The US federal government’s definition of a “weapon of mass destruction”, it turns out, is quite different from the one we ordinary mortals use. It covers almost any explosive device, specifically including bombs, grenades, mines, and small rockets and missiles.
The requirement seems to be that the weapon in question has to explode, so assault rifles with large magazines, for example, are exempt, even though they have been used to kill much larger numbers of innocent American civilians on several occasions. (Mustn’t upset the National Rifle Association.)
Of course, AMERICAN bombs, grenades, mines and small rockets and missiles are not “weapons of mass destruction.” That would be unthinkable. Otherwise we would have to accept that President Barack Obama signs off on the use of drone-delivered weapons of mass destruction on the guilty and the innocent alike in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen almost every morning.
What’s really going on here is just another manifestation of what Americans themselves call “American exceptionalism”. In this context, it means that killing Americans, especially for political reasons, is a special crime that calls for special terms and special punishment. It’s the same logic that has been used to justify imprisoning people indefinitely without trial and even torturing them in the endless “war on terror”.
Don’t get too excited about it. One of the things that makes Americans completely unexceptional is that they are playing the same games with words and meanings that every great power has used to justify its actions since the dawn of time. Lewis Carroll nailed it a century and a half ago in “Through the Looking-Glass”, the sequel to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 10. (“The requirement…Association”)
30 June 2012
Syria XIV (or whatever)
By Gwynne Dyer
Kofi Annan does the best he can. At least he’s back in harness, doing what he does best: trying to make peace where there is no hope of peace. The rest of them do the best they can, too, give or take the odd Russian. Well, not exactly the best they can, but at least they do enough to make it look like they’re trying. And you can’t really blame them for faking it, because they all know it that it can’t work.
On Saturday Kofi Annan, ex-United Nations Secretary-General and now special UN envoy for Syria, announced that a special “action group” meeting in Geneva had come up with a plan to stop the carnage in Syria. Or at least a faint hope. Or not, as the case may be.
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council were there, plus some of the biggest regional players (but not Iran, which backs the Syrian regime, or Saudi Arabia, which supports the rebels). They condemned “the continued escalating killing” and agreed that there must be a “transitional government body with full executive powers.” Then they all went outside and spat into the wind, just to show how determined they were.
I made up the last bit, but they might as well have done that. The final communique said that the transitional government “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed victory, saying it clearly signalled to President Bashar al-Assad that he must step down. But it didn’t, actually.
An early draft of the communique said that “those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transitional government” – Bashar al-Assad, in other words – should be excluded, but that wording was gone from the final document. So Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was delighted with the outcome, since “no foreign solution” was being imposed on Syria.
Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council, the most coherent opposition group, said it would reject any plan that did not include the unconditional departure of Assad, his family, and his close associates. Assad himself told Iranian television that no amount of foreign pressure would make his government change its policy. And on Friday, the day before the Geneva meeting, an estimated 190 people were killed in Syria, most of them by the government.
Assad’s regime has now killed around as many people – 16,000, by last count – as his father did in suppressing the last revolt against the regime in 1982. He must take hope from the fact that his father, in the end, terrorised all opposition into silence, and ruled on until his death in 2000. Bashar might win, too – and besides, what choice has he, at this point, but to fight until the last ditch?
So many people have already been slaughtered by Assad’s troops and their Alawite militia allies that there is no forgiveness left among the opposition. There is so little trust that a negotiated handover of power could not succeed even if Assad wanted that. His only remaining options are victory, exile or death.
It bears repeating that this is not how the Arab Spring ended up. It’s just how Syria has ended up, after eight months of non-violent demonstrations in the face of extreme regime violence gave way to armed resistance. The other Arab revolutions have not been drowned in blood (with the exception of Bahrain), and some of them, like Tunisia’s and Egypt’s, have already wrought huge changes. There’s even another one starting up in Sudan right now.
Two things make Syria different. One is its extreme religious and ethnic complexity, which makes it hard for protesters to maintain a united front against a regime that is adept at playing on inter-group fears and resentments. The other is that Assad heads the Syrian Baath Party, an utterly ruthless machine for seizing and holding power that copied much of its organisation and discipline from the Communists.
Why, then, would we expect it to behave any better than its former twin, the Iraqi Baath Party that was led by Saddam Hussein? Even the party’s role as the political vehicle for a religious minority was the same: Alawites in Syria, Sunni Muslims in Iraq. So if you were wondering how Saddam Hussein would have responded to the Arab Spring, now you know: just like Bashar al-Assad is responding.
(At this point in the argument, the American neo-cons will be getting ready to claim that the US invasion of Iraq was a blessing for Iraq after all. Not so fast, boys. Iraq is still not a very democratic place, and at least ten times as many Iraqis as Syrians have already been killed in the process.)
How long will the killing in Syria last? Until the rebels win, or until they are crushed. Are they going to win? Nobody knows. Will the neighbouring countries get dragged into the fighting? Probably not, although Lebanon is seriously at risk. Can Kofi Annan, the United Nations or the great powers do anything about this? Not a thing.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 8 and 12. (“I made…actually”; “So many…Damascus”; and “At this…process”)
7 October 2011
Civil War in Syria?
By Gwynne Dyer
Back in 1989, when the Communist regimes of Europe were tottering towards their end, almost every day somebody would say “There’s going to be a civil war.” And our job, as foreign journalists who allegedly had their finger on the pulse of events, was to say: “No, there won’t be.” So most of us did say that, as if we actually knew. But the locals were pathetically grateful, and we turned out to be right.
It was just the same in South Africa in 1993-94. Another non-violent revolution was taking on another dictatorship with a long record of brutality, and once again most people who had lived their lives under its rule were convinced there would be a civil war. So we foreign journalists (or at least some of us) reassured them that there wouldn’t be, and again we turned out to be right.
Now it’s Syria’s turn, and yet again most of the people who live there fear that their non-violent revolution will end in civil war. It’s not my job to reassure them this time, because like most foreign journalists I can’t even get into the country, but in any case I would have no reassurance to offer. This time, it may well end in civil war. Like Iraq.
The Assad dynasty in Syria is neither better nor worse than Saddam Hussein’s regime was in Iraq. They had identical origins, as local branches of the same pan-Arab political movement, the Baath Party. They both depended on minorities for their core support: the Syrian Baathists on the 10 percent Alawite (Shia) minority in that country, and the Iraqi Baathists on the 20 percent of that country’s people who were Sunni Arabs.
They were both ruthless in crushing threats to their monopoly of power. Hafez al-Assad’s troops killed up to 40,000 people in Hama when Sunni Islamists rebelled in Syria in 1982, Saddam Hussein’s army killed at least as many Shias in southern Iraq when they rebelled after the 1991 Gulf War, and both regimes were systematically beastly to their local Kurds.
When the American invaders destroyed Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in 2003, however, what ensued was not peace, prosperity and democracy. It was a brutal civil war that ended with Baghdad almost entirely cleansed of its Sunni Muslim population and the whole country cleansed of its Christian minority. Only the Kurds, insulated by their own battle-hardened army and their mountains, avoided the carnage.
So if the Baathist regime in Syria is driven from power, why should we believe that what follows will be any better than it was in Iraq? The country’s ethnic and sectarian divisions are just as deep and complex as Iraq’s, and although non-violent protest continues to be the main weapon of the pro-democracy movement, there is now also violent resistance to the regime’s attacks on the population.
This is not to swallow the Baath regime’s claim that the army is protecting innocent Syrians from terrorist “armed gangs.” The overwhelming majority of the estimated 2,900 civilians killed in the past six months were unarmed protesters killed by soldiers and secret policemen. But some Syrians – especially ex-soldiers who deserted from their units to avoid having to murder civilians – are starting to fight back with weapons.
Time is running out in Syria. The revolutionaries struggle to keep their movement inclusive and non-violent, but people are retreating into their narrow ethnic and religious identities and resistance is turning violent. The most vulnerable minorities, like the Christians, are starting to think about flight.
If it goes wrong in Syria, it could be almost as bad as the civil war that raged next-door in Lebanon for fifteen years: massacres, refugees, devastation. What can be done to avert that outcome? Perhaps nothing short of foreign intervention on behalf of the revolutionaries can stop it now, for otherwise the regime will fight on until the country is destroyed.
Help has to come from outside, and it’s hard to imagine that happening. NATO certainly won’t take this one on: Syria has four times Libya’s population and quite serious armed forces. Non-military intervention in the form of trade embargoes and the like is unlikely to work in time, even if the rest of the world could agree on it.
There is already foreign intervention in Syria, of course, but on the wrong side. The Shia regimes in Iran and Iraq are already giving material support to the Baathist regime in Syria on the grounds that it is a) Shia and b) steadfast in its resistance to Israeli expansion. And there is no point in hoping for timely concessions from President Bashar al-Assad, son of the late, great dictator: he is effectively the prisoner of the Alawite elite.
The Syrian revolutionaries are on their own. They will probably bring down the Baathists in the end, but by then the regime’s increasingly violent efforts to suppress the revolt may well have triggered the civil war that everybody fears. Another six months like the last six months, and it will be all but inevitable.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“This is not…flight”)