A member of the Free Syrian Army with his face covered with the pre-Baath Syrian flag patrols with comrades in Idlib in northwestern Syria. Syrian security forces on Sunday flooded a tense neighbourhood where a mourner was shot dead in the largest anti-regime rally seen in Damascus, activists said, blunting calls for a "day of defiance."
As President Obama confirmed in an interview with the Atlantic on March 2, 2012, one of the strategic goals of U.S. policy in Syria has been to weaken and isolate Iran by removing or helping to remove its strongest Arab ally. Asked what the U.S. could do to accelerate the removal of President Assad, Obama replied, laughing, "Well, nothing that I can tell you, because your classified clearance isn't good enough."
In practice, as President Obama implied, the U.S. government has played a "disguised, quiet, media-free" but nonetheless significant role in the escalation of violence in Syria. As early as last December, even as a Qatari-funded YouGov opinion poll found that 55% of Syrians still supported President Assad, former CIA officer Philip Giraldi reported that unmarked NATO planes were delivering weapons and militiamen from Libya to Turkish air-bases near the Free Syrian Army (FSA) headquarters in Iskanderum. British and French special forces were training FSA recruits, while CIA officers and U.S. special forces provided the FSA with communications equipment and intelligence. Turkey was already committed to attacking or invading Syria whenever the West gave the green light.
Obama didn't bother to mention the new hope for a peaceful settlement of the crisis with the appointment of Kofi Annan as a U.N. Special Representative to Syria just a few days before this interview. In fact, just as Kofi Annan launched his last-ditch peace plan, the U.S. and its allies took critical steps to ensure that the forces they were supporting in Syria would keep fighting, instead of agreeing to the ceasefire that was the essential first step in Annan's plan.
President Sarkozy of France initiated a series of international meetings under the Orwellian rubric "Friends of Syria," at which the U.S., its NATO allies and the absolute monarchs of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) publicly offered unconditional support to their Syrian proxies instead of pressing them to cooperate with the Annan plan. Saudi Arabia and Qatar pledged more weapons, backed by a U.S. commitment of $15 million in "non-lethal" aid, including satellite radio systems like the ones NATO's proxy forces used in Libya in 2011. As the New York Times noted in June, "What has changed since March is an influx of weapons and ammunition to the rebels." The same article described Turkish Army trucks delivering anti-tank weapons to the Syrian border, and CIA officers in southern Turkey controlling the flow of weapons into Syria.
The timing of the three "Friends of Syria" meetings could not have been worse for any hope that Western-backed forces would comply with the Annan plan. The first meeting was held in Tunisia the day after Annan's appointment and the second was in Istanbul on April 1, nine days before the initial cease-fire was due to take effect. At that meeting, the Syrian National Council (SNC) declared it would use its newfound financial support to start paying salaries to FSA fighters, a timely move that discouraged rebels inside Syria from laying down their arms.
It's no coincidence that the main "outside" players in Syria's civil war are the same countries that led and supplied the "NATO rebels" in Libya in 2011, in a war that cost at least 25,000 lives and plunged Libya into a state of chaos with no clear end in sight a year later. U.S. officials pay lip-service to the obvious differences between Libya and Syria, but their actions and those of their allies reveal that the same forces are trying to adapt what they see as a successful regime-change strategy in Libya to achieve a similar goal in Syria, knowing full well that it will be even more bloody and destabilizing.
In Libya and Syria, Western powers and Arab monarchies turned the Arab Spring on its head. They diverted the world's attention from their efforts to contain or repress nonviolent revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and not least, U.S.-occupied Iraq, harnessing the hopes raised by the Arab Spring to their own interests. In Libya and Syria, as in Iraq, they have exploited sectarian and ethnic differences to divide and conquer with little regard for human life or for the integrity of these complex societies, sowing the seeds of long-term instability and future "blowback."
The Western media have stoked fears of impending bloodbaths and cast the schemes of Persian Gulf emirs and Western policy-makers as reluctant "humanitarian interventions." The resulting violence has been far greater than the violence it claims to be preventing, but this predictable cause and effect has been easily buried in the frenzied media coverage of escalating wars. Rwanda, where the West failed to intervene, is pulled out as a trump card to justify each new intervention, establishing a pattern in which the West has ensured maximum violence everywhere — on the one hand by failing to stop genocidal violence in Rwanda and the DRC and on the other hand by aggression and escalation everywhere else, from Kosovo to Syria.
The post-Cold War doctrine of "humanitarian intervention" or "R2P" (responsibility to protect) is an effort to carve out an exception to the U.N. Charter's universal prohibition on the use of military force. R2P's emotional appeal to the court of public opinion challenges the wisdom forged in the hell of two world wars that war is too terrible to be justified by such arguments. In practice, R2P has provided cover for a new U.S. doctrine of "information warfare" which Major Ralph Peters explored more honestly for military readers in a U.S. Army War College journal article in 1997:
One of the defining bifurcations of the future will be the conflict between information masters and information victims… [Information] seduces, betrays, yet remains invulnerable. How can you counterattack the information others have turned upon you?… Societies that fear or otherwise cannot manage the flow of information simply will not be competitive. They might master the technological wherewithal to watch the videos, but we will be writing the scripts, producing them, and collecting the royalties. Our creativity is devastating… The de facto role of the US armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing. We are building an information-based military to do that killing… We are already masters of information warfare.
And so, in Libya, the "information masters" ensured that the world saw only the rag-tag NATO rebels, never the British, French and Qatari special forces that armed, trained and ferried them along the coast on board NATO warships and led them to victory, even when Qatari special forces led the final assault on Libya's Bab Al-Azizia military headquarters in Tripoli. U.S. forces were even more invisible, as they "led from behind" and conducted their share of 9,700 total air strikes in six months, the heaviest bombardment anywhere since Iraq in 2003.
Once the dust has settled on tens of thousands of graves, some latter-day Lawrences of Arabia will cut book and film deals to tell us the "inside" story of how they brought down and butchered Gaddafi. But the dramatic images they produce will still be subject to the careful manipulation of the information masters, who will by then have the benefit of hindsight as they decide how the heroic liberators of Libya should be remembered. As Winston Churchill cheerfully told his cabinet when British voters sent them packing in 1946: "Never fear, gentlemen. History will be kind to me, for I shall write it."
But one of the basic questions that historians will have to answer about the Arab Spring is this: why did revolutions against Western puppets in the Arab world remain mainly nonviolent, while those against independent governments turned into bloody civil wars? The initial response of the Libyan and Syrian governments to nonviolent protests was no more brutal than in Egypt, Iraq, Bahrain or Yemen. Every government killed peaceful protesters, disappeared and tortured dissidents and tried desperately to hold onto power, and the early death tolls were comparable.
The critical difference was the role of the U.S. and its allies: the "information masters." In response to rebellions in Libya and Syria, Western politicians and media used pro-Western exile communities as critical tools in their regime-change strategies, shaping narratives that ensured Western public support for violent anti-government forces. They promoted exile groups as governments-in-waiting in a way that would have been unthinkable in Yemen, Bahrain or Iraq, where U.S. special forces instead continued to train and support regime forces as they committed atrocities that Western media consumers were only dimly aware of.
Western public perceptions of the new battlefield in Syria were shaped by a sophisticated "information warfare" operation that used Western media coverage to demonize the Syrian government, legitimize unsubstantiated reports of large numbers of civilian casualties, broadcast sometimes fabricated reports by "Syrian activists" directly into Western living-rooms, and present the Western public with the classic false choice between "doing something" and "doing nothing."
From the outset, the U.S. and its allies selectively supported the Turkish-based Free Syrian Army and Syrian National Council (SNC) instead of the National Coordinating Body for Democratic Change (NCB)that was formed by the political opposition that took to the streets in Syria in March 2011. The Western "information warfare" narrative that peaceful protesters were forced to take up arms by the severe repression of the Syrian government ignores the clear distinction between the NCB and the FSA, and it fails to explain why this only appears to have happened in Libya and Syria.
The NCB was formed in June 2011 by 15 opposition groups and several independent figures who were leading anti-government protests. The three fundamental principles they have consistently agreed on are nonviolence, non-sectarianism and opposition to foreign intervention in Syria. Their detailed plan for a political transition in Syria has many common points with Kofi Annan's peace plan, suggesting broad Syrian and international agreement on a way forward that belies Western claims that no political solution exists and that violent regime change is the only viable option. These common points include the release of political prisoners; withdrawal of the army from urban areas; allowing foreign journalists free access throughout the country; and a political transition leading to free and fair elections.
A review of the 15 parties that make up the NCB helps to explain why capitalist Western governments and their monarchist Arab allies do not support it. It is chaired by Hassan Abdul Azim, the leader of the Democratic Arab Socialist Union, and it includes the Arab Revolutionary Workers' Party; the Communist Labor Party; the Democratic People's Party; Together for a Free Democratic Syria; the Arab Socialist Movement; and the Syrian Union Party; along with four Kurdish parties and several regional parties.
The NCB has serious differences with the Turkish-based Syrian National Council (SNC), which the "Friends of Syria" meeting on April 1, 2012 recognized as "the umbrella group under which opposition groups are gathering." Despite these differences, the NCB has tried to engage with the Western-backed opposition-in-exile. It has taken part in meetings with the SNC and other groups to try and develop a unified political opposition in Syria, and NCB delegations have travelled to Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and Arab capitals, and met with Western ambassadors in Syria.
In an interview with the French newspaper L'Humanite on July 29, the NCB's Haytham Manna was asked whether the peaceful and democratic popular movement that began the revolt in 2011 had now been dispossessed by the mainly Islamist armed groups. Here's his reply (my translation):
The armed groups and the military solution adopted by the regime have eradicated civil resistance. So, whatever the strength and the number of peaceful demonstrations today, they are less than a tenth of what we saw a year ago. There's a retreat from peaceful action. And today, if there's a small demonstration in a village, nobody pays attention, as if it doesn't make any difference. Military action has taken the upper hand over a political discourse that could regroup and create a peaceful solution in the short term in Syria.
Asked whether the NCB's divisions with the SNC and the FSA are weakening the opposition, Manna replied,
The idea that something had to be built from the outside weakened what was happening inside the country. They thought that a structure outside the Syrian people could represent it internationally. But it's a structure that's really not representative of Syrian society or political forces in the country and, what's more, it depends on the will of three states: France, Turkey and Qatar. The SNC, despite the financial, diplomatic and media support it has obtained, has not achieved its goal. Now there's a search for another formula to unify the opposition. Meanwhile, the armed groups have gained ground and become radicalized. Because the money came from Salafist groups all along. This "Salafization" of some of the military groups has plunged us into civil war. On one side, there is fear of extremism in a moderate society where 26 religious and ethnic groups coexist. Foreign intervention, whether it's official or not, has favored an Islamist ideological trend to the detriment of democratic and secular forces. It's also favored acts of vengeance and political assassination on a sectarian basis. These acts are manipulated and influenced by non-Syrian jihadist movements that are starting to find a place in the country and who coordinate with the Islamist armed groups. The power vacuum is a danger, because civil resistance is poorly organized or often absent because of the presence of the armed groups. The political solution for a transition period doesn't exist. There's no timetable agreed on among different opposition forces. This lack of coordination gives the advantage to the most extreme Islamist groups. Secular leaders were murdered by the regime in the first months, which opened the door to the Islamists. When you marginalize the political solution, you marginalize democratic forces.
Finally, L'Humanite asked Manna about the Annan plan. He said:
Annan's proposals were a chance for a peaceful transition. Sadly, right from the start, Qatar buried the plan and opted to militarize the opposition. Western powers were also thinking of a "Plan B." So, without regional and international support, a plan like this can't succeed. They're leaving arms to settle the issue, whether it's the loyalist army or the dissident or Islamist armed groups. We will pay very dearly for this absence of a political solution. There are local conflicts breaking out. This is compost for a civil war that can lead to rule by militias, but certainly not to the creation of an army that can protect the population in a time of transition.
Clearly, Kofi Annan's peace plan presented a problem for what Haytham Manna referred to as the West's "Plan B." Installing a pro-Western government in Syria as in Libya requires Western-backed forces to gain military control of Syria to dictate that outcome. As in Libya, there are Western-based exiles who could fit the bill, and the SNC could function as "the umbrella group under which opposition groups are gathering," as the Friends of Syria declared. But the kind of peaceful political transition that Kofi Annan's plan called for would not achieve that result — there is still too much support for the Baathist government, and the legitimate political opposition inside the country, as represented by the NCB, would not stand for a Western-Islamist takeover of Syria.
So, the West's Plan B seems to require that Syria must first be torn apart by a bloody civil war that will kill hundreds of thousands of people, until Syrians become so desperate that the loss of their sovereignty will seem a small price to pay for a restoration of peace. On the other side, the Syrian government is equally determined to use as much force as necessary to prevent this from succeeding. Lakhdar Brahimi's effort to revise and revive Annan's peace plan is a final chance for the U.S. and its allies to rein in their proxies and step back from the brink. The Syrian government agreed to his call for a cease-fire during the three-day Eid al-Adha holiday, but once again, the Western-backed rebels rejected it. The stage is set for far greater bloodshed and chaos, and the U.S. government's actions have been critical, maybe even decisive, in plunging the people of Syria into this crisis and preventing a peaceful resolution.
Nicolas J. S. Davies is author of Blood On Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. He wrote the chapter on "Obama At War" for the just released book, Grading the 44th President: A Report Card on Barack Obama's First Term as a Progressive Leader.