Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Syrian rebels have hand in atrocities

SECURITY PROBLEM: Assad is depicted as the sole purveyor of violence but nothing is mentioned of the rebels' crimes

FOR over two years, the armed conflict in Syria has dominated news headlines, but international opinion has remained divided over varying interpretations of the conflict and its protagonists. The American stance is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been ruthlessly killing his own people, and that Assad has lost his legitimacy and must step down. The United States and its allies have lent enormous financial and material support to the rebels fighting Assad's regime, with heavy CIA presence on the ground coordinating the distribution of weapons, aid and materials, as confirmed by The New York Times. The Russian interpretation is that the Syrian government is the legitimate government of the country, and that Assad is fighting militant movements infused with jihadist elements. In other words, the Russians believe Syria is not facing a political problem as much as it is facing a terrorism and security problem.

I recently spoke with Mother Superior Agnès-Mariam de la Croix, a Syrian nun who visited Malaysia as part of a religious delegation, and her testimony from the ground confirmed that the Russian account of events is far more accurate that what those in the West claim is happening. Reports indicate that several Malaysian media outlets received negative feedback from their audiences after giving Mother Agnès the platform to share her views, mainly because many in Malaysia's Muslim community hold sympathetic views of the rebels. At this stage, it would be irresponsible to deny the documented human rights abuses committed by anti-Assad militants fighting in Syria, and testimony like that given by Mother Agnès shouldn't be so easily shrugged off. She has her fair criticisms of the Assad regime and is a member of a reconciliation initiative aimed at ending the fighting through dialogue.

She told me how the Syrian conflict is the first "virtual war", in a sense that every form of persuasion is being used by the enemies of Assad to depict him as the sole purveyor of violence, when those same figures suppress reports of crimes committed by the al-Qaeda affiliated rebels. She shared her compelling and harrowing eyewitness account, and she claims that civilians, religious minorities and pro-Assad loyalists have been targeted by rebels, and executed or beheaded. Her claims have been corroborated by others, and by mounting photo and video evidence showing atrocities committed by the US-backed rebels. It should be noted that those states that have supported the rebels -- the primary backers being the US, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Israel -- have maintained their positions for political and strategic reasons.

The geopolitics of the region are very complicated, but the West, including Israel, have mutual interests with the Sunni-majority Gulf states that champion the Wahhabi and Salafi brands of Islam. Both the West and their allies in the Gulf view Iran, the Assad regime in Syria, and Hizbollah in Lebanon as a threat to their interests; these forces also happen to be Shia Muslims. There is an undeniable sectarian element to the fighting in Syria that senselessly pits Sunnis against Shias, which has led to disaster for civilians and Syria's religious minorities. At a conference in Putrajaya in late May, former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad made a joint statement with former Iranian president Muhammad Khatami, addressing the issue of sectarianism within the Islamic world. Dr Mahathir did not refer to Syria during his address, but he mentioned how the enemies of Islam were clapping among themselves over the growing prevalence of sectarian violence in the world.

The conflict has also taken an enormous toll on Syria's Christian communities, which comprise some 10 per cent of the population. Today, many of them fear the fall of Assad over concerns that they would be persecuted and marginalised under a hardline Taliban-style regime in Damascus. Media reports tell us tens of thousands of people have been killed in the fighting, and yet, France and Britain argue for the arms embargo on Syria to be dismantled so they can arm anti-Assad fighters. It is some wicked irony that those powerful countries who talk of human rights are flooding Syria with weapons that will be used to end lives. The West and Israel often accuse other countries of being state sponsors of terrorism, while they arm non-state actors and militants who are fighting to topple the Syrian government.

During a session of the United Nations General Assembly in May, Malaysia voted in favour of a resolution on Syria drafted by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The resolution, being drafted by the two main backers of Syria's militants, was transparently slanted in favour of the political opposition, and dozens of countries abstained from the vote. Malaysia and Syria share common ground because both countries have complex multi-ethnic and multi-religious landscapes, and they have both benefited from stability and their population's ability to coexist and prosper. Putrajaya and Damascus endorse a moderate brand of Islam that is opposed to radicalism and violence. Malaysians were shaken by the Lahad Datu incursion, but the violence seen there has become the status quo in Syria.

Malaysia, which has proven to be a peace broker in the past, should not endorse any resolutions that could undermine the legitimate government of Syria. Russia, China, and Iran have said that Syria's people must decide the fate of their president in free and fair elections. The US argues that Assad used chemical weapons against his people, despite its failure to provide evidence. UN investigations led by Carla Del Ponte into the use of chemical weapons have laid the blame on the Syrian rebels. Washington acted outside of international law by invading Iraq over concerns of weapons of mass destruction that it clearly could not prove. The same is true today, as the Obama government becomes more engaged in the Syrian conflict. Whether we like it or not, the Assad government is the legitimate representative of Syrian people, and his fate should be in their hands. It can only be described as disturbing that some of the most powerful countries can support militants who would be described as "terrorists" if they turned and pointed their guns towards the West.

This article appeared in the July 16th print edition of the New Straits Times newspaper. 

Nile Bowie is a Malaysia-based political analyst and a columnist with Russia Today. He also contributes to PressTV, Global Research, and CounterPunch. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.