– By Ebrahim Moosa, Cii News Analysis
In the first public comments attributed to him since an alleged Israeli airstrike on a Syrian target last week, Syria’s embattled President Bashar al Assad has slammed Israel for what he suggested were its attempts to destabilise his country. Citing the raid as further proof of foreign instigation against his rule, Assad alleged that the strike had unmasked the “true role Israel is playing in collaboration with enemy forces and their agents on Syrian soil”.
In making his appraisal, Assad appeared to be reading from a familiar script. His regime has consistently argued that the conflict raging in Syria had more to do with foreign imperialism than the aspirations of the Syrian people for self determination. In a meeting with the Iranian Foreign Minister last year, he described the war as an assault not only on Syria, but on the entire ‘axis of resistance’ – a bloc consisting of Syria, Iran, and the Lebanese group Hizbullah, all considered by themselves to be vanguards against Israeli and Western domination of the region.
Such posturing, however, long predates the current conflict. In fact, it has arguably been a staple element of Syrian regime parlance ever since the ascention of Hafez Al Assad to power in the 1970′s. The Assad dynasty has always prided itself as the champion of Pan-Arabism and has anointed itself as a key patron of the Palestinian resistance against Israel. And it is such ‘credentials’ that the regime is now touting most earnestly in its greatest hours of need.
Ordinary Syrians and activists, it seems, are just as eager to challenge this pretense.They allege that the regime dependance on the notion of an “axis of resistance” is little more than a transparent cover for its policies that have little to do with the resistance. The National Alliance for Syria, a network of Syrians in the diaspora, calls it the “myth of resistance”. For a long time, it explains, the regime have “aligned their public narrative with the desires of the people, hence creating the illusion, both internally and across the Arab world, that they are brave protectors of Arab ideals.” Criticism of Israel and the West by the regime is thus just a ruse meant to insulate it against legitimate calls for democratisation and reform.
Yet, in both word and deed, when examined more closely, the Assad track record paints a picture diametrically at odds with its public militancy.
Not unlike the neocon movement in the West, Assad – first and foremost – considers himself a champion of the fight against ‘terror’. Just examine his much feted recent speech to supporters at the Damascus Opera House for more than ample evidence of the phenomenon. In the well constructed presentation in January, Assad littered his argument with dozens of references to ‘terrorists’ and his onslaught against them. “When it comes to combating terrorism(I reassure everyone that), we will not stop as long as there is a single terrorist in Syria,” he declared, in words that could well have been spoken by George W Bush or Benjamin Netanyahu. Echoing a similar train of thought, Foreign Minister Walid al Muallem earlier alleged that Syria had been confronted with ‘organized terrorism’ for more than a year,” adding that “Arab and international monitors have confirmed presence of terrorist activity in Syria.”
“Terrorists, terrorists, terrorists,” wrote a flustered Robert Fisk in his book, The Great War for Civilisation. In the Middle East, in fact across the Muslim world, he remarks, this word “has become a plague, a meaningless punctuation mark in all our lives, a full stop erected to finish all discussion of injustice, constructed as a wall by Russians, Americans, Israelis, British, Pakistanis, Saudis, Turks, to shut us up.”
“Who would ever say a word in favour of terrorists?” asks the seasoned correspondent. “What could justify terror?” he continues, adding that this “dangerous equation” has now become the hallmark utterance of capitalist and communist, president and prime minister, generals and intelligence officers, and newspaper editors all alike.
In the case of Assad, this commitment to fighting ‘terror’ however goes beyond the mere empty rhetoric of others, and the regime has the blood on its hands to prove it. The elder Assad fought alongside US forces in the “Coalition of the Willing” against Iraq in 1990 and has gladly collaborated with the US in its so-called ‘War on Terror’ more recently.
Writing in the New Republic, Lawrence Kaplan illustrates the full extent of this Syrian collaboration in a war, widely considered to be a disaster for human rights, civil liberties and the application of international law.
“In the immediate aftermath of September 11, Assad provided the United States with what one administration official describes as a “treasure trove” of intelligence on Al Qaeda activities among Syrian nationals-principal among these Mohammed Haydar Zammar, an Al Qaeda commander living in Germany, and Mamoun Darkazanli, one of the organization’s alleged financiers. Assad even sent President Bush a letter proposing that the two countries “establish sound bases of worldwide cooperation … to uproot terrorism in all its forms.” Before long, Syrian intelligence operatives were meeting with the CIA and passing along warnings replete with details about likely terrorist targets. Even the administration’s Syria hawks concede that one such warning, which alerted American policymakers to a plot against American forces in the Gulf, “saved American lives.” Against all expectations, Damascus even voted for U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, the U.S.-backed measure that sent weapons inspectors back into Iraq.”
Kaplan further enumerates a host of gestures adopted by the Bush team to demonstrate its gratitude to Assad. “It excluded Syria from the axis of evil and barely uttered a peep when Syria was elected to the U.N. Security Council. Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned Assad to praise his cooperation in the war on terrorism; congressional delegations appeared at the Syrian dictator’s palace gate; Vice President Dick Cheney called to chat; the administration kept mum about Syria’s ongoing military occupation of Lebanon; and it even authorized the opening of a back channel to Damascus. Employing similar logic, Bush’s closest ally, Britain’s Tony Blair, feted Assad at Downing Street and even ushered him in to meet the Queen.” Official papers recently obtained by the Sunday Times have revealed that Blair regime also considered asking the Queen to bestow an honorary knighthood on the Syrian President.
The regime’s complicity in the much publicised torture case of Maher Arar, a Canadian telecommunications engineer born in Syria, was to again highlight the key role the regime played in the US War on Terror. According to the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, Syria was one of the “most common” destinations for rendered suspects, a reference to the secretive US government program that had been devised as a means of extraditing terrorism suspects from one foreign state to another for interrogation and prosecution purposes. Critics contend that the unstated purpose of such renditions were to subject the suspects to aggressive methods of persuasion that are illegal in America—including torture. Acknowlegding the Syrian regimes propensity for violence, former CIA agent Robert Baer, in 2004 remarked: “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria.”
In 2002, Arar, was returning to Canada after a family vacation in Tunisia. During a stopover at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, Arar was arrested by U.S. authorities, who proceeded to interrogate him for 13 days on the pretext of a connection to al Qaeda. Since Arar would not tell them what they wanted to hear, they shipped him off to Syria, where he was held in a tiny, dark, rat-infested cell and “punched, kicked and whipped with an electrical cable during 18-hour interrogation sessions.” Curiously, his interrogation sessions consisted of exactly the same questions Arar had been asked in New York.
Describing his ordear to Mayer, Arar recollected the pain being so unbearable, that “you forget the milk that you have been fed from the breast of your mother.” Although he initially tried to assert his innocence, he eventually confessed to anything his tormentors wanted him to say. “You just give up,” he said. “You become like an animal.”
Arar was eventually released, with the Syrian government concluding that he was completely innocent. The Canadian government paid Arar $8.5 million in compensation, and apologized for its complicity in Arar’s rendition and torture.
Another Syrian-born citizen, Mohammed Heidar Zammar, who had been questioned and put under surveillance after 9/11 in Germany, shared a similar ordeal. Mohammed Heidar Zammar, who was illegally rendered to Syria, faced American scripted questions from his Syrian interrogators who duly relayed his answers back to the US embassy in Damascus. Despite accusations of torture, US State Department officials reportedly said they liked the arrangement because it insulated the U.S. government from any torture the Syrians may be applying to Zammar.
Top level security collaboration meetings between the US and Syria reportedly continued until even as recently as 2010 when intelligence chief Ali Mamluk met with the top US counter-terrorism official Daniel Benjamin and deputy foreign minister Faisal Meqdad.
On the Israeli front, in spite of the rhetoric, Syrian activists point out that the Assad’s have policed the Israeli-Syrian frontier with such profiency, to the extent that even the Zionist regime considered it to be the country’s most secure “border”. Writing in Ha’aretz in 2011, Salman Masalha called Assad “Israel’s favourite Arab dictator.” Labelling the regime’s resistance slogans as “hollow”, Masalha observed that the “resistance” regime was and still remains ready to fight Israel to the last Lebanese, and if that doesn’t do the trick – then to the last Palestinian. Support for resistance groupings is viewed by the regime merely as an insurance policy against any demand for freedom and democracy.
The Syrian regime’s alleged possession of a deadly chemical weapons arsenal too, it has been argued, had never been a pressing concern to Israel. Of larger concern to the Zionist State, however, has been the possibility that these weapons stockpiles may fall into the hands of rebel groups in the country, many of whom view Israel as their ultimate adversary. A senior Israeli cabinet minister last December rushed to Assad’s defense when it was rumoured that he could turn the guns on Israel. Moshe Yaalon insisted that Bashar al-Assad had always kept chemical weapons out of the hands of militants, deemed hostile by Israel. “In the past, clear messages [regarding chemical weapons] were relayed to Assad on a number of opportunities, and in response Assad in fact gathered up the weaponry and separated the materials,” Yaalon told Israeli media.
The Syrian regime also stands accused of consistently making numerous overtures to concurrent Israeli administrations from Sharon to Netanyahu to secure a peaceful conclusion to the state of affairs between the nations. Palestinian refugees have also repeatedly found themselves at the receiving end of regime tyranny, with many lives lost across the decades. In the assessment of the National Alliance for Syria, it is about self-preservation for the regime: any party deemed a threat to its control will be dealt with accordingly, even if they represent the resistance – cases in point being the fate of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Syria, in the aftermath of the uprising.
Unbeknown to many, Syria also instituted some practices that Muslims deem Islamophobic, which have caused an uproar in Europe. In 2010, the Syrian minister of higher education, Ghiyath Barakat announced that Syria would ban women from wearing full face veils (such as the niqab) at Syrian universities, reportedly stating that the veils ran counter to the secular and academic principles of Syria.
The Assad regime’s claim to champion the Palestinian and Muslim causes, hence lies on very shaky ground, to state the least. However, the aforementioned facts have not deterred many – including Pro-Palestinian advocates and human rights campaigners – from interning Assad as a valiant hero. To them, Assad is a no less than a modern day Saladin, who is all that stands between resistance and outright Israeli domination of the Middle East.
But the Palestinians and Middle East certainly do deserve better. The medeival Saladin was chivalrous, courageous, tolerant and just to friend and foe alike. He most certainly did not do the violent bidding of his opponents, torture innocents and crush the Islamic identity.
The Middle East today is definitely calling out for a new savior, a new Saladin. But, as the status quo remains, that savior is assuredly not Bashar al Assad.