Syria: Who to Trust?

I haven’t posted about Syria this week because I’ve been thinking a lot about what to say.

In recent weeks I’ve met people who’ve told me that:

1) Assad has to stay because otherwise Syria will end up being controlled by a US-Wahhabi-Zionist alliance, and Christianity will be wiped out in the Middle East – once there is peace, though, then he can removed from power by the UN;
2) that the White Helmets belong to ISIS;
3) that after the first gas attack in Ghouta Israeli gas canisters were found – that is to say, the attack was an IDF false flag, which is why the West never responded to it
4) that we don’t know who is responsible for the attacks, or if gas has even been used.

I don’t mention these claims because I want to debate them. I’ve already debated them in person. But as everyone is urgently discussing Syria right now, I will state my opinion of them:

1) Yes, it is complicated on the ground. But overwhelmingly, as Idrees Ahmad documents here, in his article Aleppo is Our Guernica, the killing is being done by the regime, on an industrial scale. To allow Assad to stay condones genocide. And to claim that the opposition is all American-Wahhabi-Zionists set on wiping out Christianity from the Middle East is fearmongering that absolves Christians of their duty to speak truth to power, and completely ignores the secular Syrian opposition – some of whom have joined Islamist militias simply because those outfits have weapons, and many of whom have successfully created neighbourhood councils and participatory democracies in rebel-held areas. Note also Annas, doctor in Ghouta, speaking about one of the earliest demonstrations: ‘the “Great Friday” demonstration was held in solidarity with Easter. We wanted to encourage Christian Syrians to come out and participate.’ (As quoted by Wendy Pearlman, in an email from The Syria Campaign). And if the UN can’t get it together to remove Assad while he’s murdering hundreds of thousands of people, I can’t see how they are going to remove him after he’s won the war.
2) has been thoroughly debunked by the Guardian.
3) is completely wild – I can’t even find a reference to it online.
4) is what is always said after these attacks, and although the April 7th attack in Douma needs to be investigated, the general question has been sufficiently answered in the past.  Here is an OPCW report on two chemical attacks last year, one in Umm Hawsh and one in Khan Shaykhun. The report assessed evidence from a variety of sources, and concluded that ISIL and Assad were respectively responsible for the attacks (the regime for Khan Shaykhun). As far as I can make out from their site, the OPCW is currently investigating the use, in general, of chemical weapons in Syria and they cannot comment on any more instances while investigations are on-going. At the same time, however, the report was part of a 2 year investigation that has now expired, and the UN is basically ineffective anyway because Russia blocks all its draft resolutions on Syria. However, from this shameful state of international inertia, it is at least clear that OPCW has concluded that Assad is not at all afraid of dropping chemical weapons on Syrians.

If your opinion differs radically to mine on these issues, please take some time to investigate the links I have posted.  I am not an investigative journalist, but I respect the profession, and I have tried hard over the last seven years to sift through the news to find sources I trust on this volatile, heart-wrenching and, to most non-Syrians, very confusing issue.

I trust Pulse Media because the Scottish-Syrian editor, Robin Yassin-Kassab is embedded in a network of activists and has dedicated himself to publishing accounts of the conflict no-one else is covering – those of the revolutionaries, in their own words. He and activist Leila al-Shami are also the authors of Burning Country, a critically acclaimed book about the war, telling stories that the mainstream media simply ignore. Fellow editor of Pulse Media Idrees Ahmad, is a lecturer in journalism who has also written extensively on Syria, including the article linked to above, which contains a long list of verified information about regime atrocities in Syria.

I absolutely do not trust Assad or Vladimir Putin. While all news media is inevitably biased, there’s a difference between slanting and omitting truths (as the BBC does on Palestine), and telling out-and-out lies. My 2014 visit to Ukraine demonstrated to me that the Russia media consistently blatantly lied about their military involvement in the country – Putin’s ‘toxic assault’ on the truth is well documented. Like all Putin’s political opponents, Russian independent journalists are routinely jailed on trumped up charges, beaten or killed. The Guardian article linked to above also reveals the extent of Kremlin trolling and fake news dissemination. That’s why I don’t watch RT, and don’t for a second believe that the White Helmets gassed their own people.

It’s terrible choice the world is facing – to establish as a precedent that a dictator may gas his own people with impunity, or to potentially spray oil on a bonfire. I’ve also spoken to people who are quite simply terrified and infuriated by the prospect of escalating the conflict, causing even more suffering for the Syrians, and possibly even a world war.  Much as I believe the Leftist position of appeasement has utterly failed Syria, this position is one I do now have sympathy with.

I don’t trust Trump and the Tories to intervene appropriately – that is to say, conducting targeted strikes against arms factories and military bases, and supplying the secular opposition with self defense equipment and weapons. Even targeted strikes risk raising the ante. In the end, not that my opinion matters one whit to anyone trapped in the inferno of East Ghouta, I agree most with Paul Mason, who essentially argues for ‘Banks not Tanks’ – hitting the Russians with economic and political sanctions, and bolstering our international multilateral institutions of justice and democracy. What if oligarchs suddenly couldn’t buy London flats anymore, and no-one showed up at the World Cup this year? Unless things have changed dramatically by then, I won’t be watching it, at least, much as I love it.

At the heart of this argument is a stress on the importance of due process. But due process has already been followed in the case of Khan Shaykhun. It is long past time for the world to take action. All the dire warnings about military intervention from our Left leaders need to be followed up with alternative plans for a robust political response, including demands to reform the UN. The UN was created (by the victors of WW2) after the failure of the League of Nations. Now that the UN is so manifestly failing, it should be, if not replaced, vitally restructured. Why should there be five permanent members of the Security Council, three of them Western powers, none from the global South? Why should they be able to veto anything at all, let alone resolutions about wars they are directly involved in?

But this is just a creative writer’s blog post. The only thing I really can do right now that makes a drop of difference is to give money to Syrian relief charities. People are burning in hell, and other people are risking their lives to help them. The least I can do is help send them some medical supplies. It’s not an adequate response to this unending tragedy, but currently I don’t know what is. I work on Palestine, not because I don’t care about Syria, but because the situation there is clear to me – the Palestinians are calling for BDS, which I can help create. In Syria, while previously I thought that intervention was needed, I fear that it’s too late for that now, and the wrong hands and minds are at the controls. The Syria Campaign is calling for Europe and the US to enforce a ceasefire in Ghouta, but I just don’t know any longer if I can join calls for the use of force in Syria. I do believe in cultural resistance, and using my position as an editor and lecturer to help give Syrian voices a platform, and a megaphone. Currently, apart from my own writing, I am still focused on promoting my Palestinian anthology and on looking after my health. I hope that the time will come soon for an opportunity to make good on that wish.

More than that, though, I hope against hope that somehow the world finds non-violent but effective ways to challenge and punish Assad and Putin, strengthen the moderate opposition, and support Syria’s eventual transition to a democracy of its own people’s making.

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