The United Nations estimated early last month that more than 5400 people had been killed since protests against the dictatorship of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in March last year. Since then, the rate of killing has probably increased, but the UN said the violence has made further casualty counts impossible.
Most of the deaths have been civilians killed by the regime, but increasing numbers of defectors from the military, who are loosely organised in the Free Syria Army,l has meant casualties are more frequent on both sides.
On February 3, talks between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov failed to secure Russian support for a motion in the UN Security Council against the Syrian regime, despite the resolution being “watered down [removing] references to the departure of President Bashar al-Assad”, the British Daily Telegraph said.
Western leaders have cast Russia’s opposition to the resolution as protecting Assad’s abuse of human rights. “We believe the UN must act to support the people of Syria and that Russia can no longer explain blocking the UN and providing cover for the regime’s brutal repression,” a spokesperson for British PM David Cameron said on January 30.
Russia said its concern was that an open-ended UN Security Council resolution could become a pretext for the Western powers to intervene and overthrow the Syrian regime. It would not have been reassured by Clinton’s January 29 statement that, “the [UN] Security Council must act and make clear to the Syrian regime that the world community views its actions as a threat to peace and security. The violence must end, so that a new period of democratic transition can begin.”
Claims that the UN resolution is motivated by a desire for democracy and an end to violence are undermined by the fact that its principal sponsor is Morocco.
Morocco is an absolute monarchy, which responded to democracy protests last year with a few small reforms — such as broadening the franchise and increasing the powers of the Kingdom’s consultative parliament — and a lot of repression. In 1975, it invaded neighbouring Western Sahara and has since maintained a violent occupation.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, neither of which is remotely democratic, have spearheaded diplomatic efforts in support of the resolution. The global corporate media have obscured the fact that the Saudi regime, like its Syrian counterpart, is now deploying the military against unarmed democracy protests.
Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record is hard to hide. Women with Saudi citizenship are banned from driving, working and many other activities.
Executions by beheading are common in Saudi Arabia and are carried out in public. Amina bint Abdulhalim Nassar was beheaded on December 12 — her conviction was for sorcery and witchcraft.
Saudi and Qatari forces are also now repressing unarmed democracy protesters in Bahrain, which they invaded in March to save the ruling monarchy from a democratic uprising.
This intervention was carried out under the framework of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which groups together Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain with three other absolute monarchies in the region.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are conducting their diplomatic offensive against the Syrian regime through the GCC.
In March last year, Russia and China abstained from the UN Security Council resolution which gave NATO and the GCC the pretext to intervene in Libya.
The African Union, in particular South Africa, opposed the Libya resolution but does not have a veto on the UN Security Council.
Russia and China later complained that the Western intervention in Libya was more than the resolution authorised, and supported the African Union’s peace plans. However, by this time the Western powers, having the fig leaf of legality from the resolution, could ignore any calls for restraint.
However, Russia (and before 1991, the Soviet Union) has had a close and stable diplomatic relationship with Syria even before Assad’s father, Hefaz al-Assad, took power in the late 1960s. Syria continues to buy most of its military hardware from Russia. In Libya by contrast, by 2011, Italian, French and British arms companies were competing for deals.
On February 4, Russia and China vetoed the Moroccan-sponsored resolution.
Opportunistic considerations also determine Western policy, and military intervention is not inevitable. The failure of the US to achieve its war aims in Afghanistan and Iraq (the US-installed Iraqi regime was one of only two Arab League members apart from Syria to oppose a recent anti-Syrian resolution) may caution against another adventure.
What is inevitable is that if a Western intervention does take place, it will not end the Syrian people’s suffering and will probably increase it significantly. That as many as 6000 Syrians have been killed in the past 10 months may seem like justification to ignore national sovereignty. However, more than 30,000 Libyans have been killed since NATO intervened in March.
Many of these were killed in the destruction of the Libyan city of Sirte, which continued for two months after the NATO-aligned militias had taken control of the capital, Tripoli, in August. NATO pounded the city from the air until the militias could enter for a spree of murder, looting and rape.
Whole communities in Libya were deemed supporters of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and treated accordingly. Migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa, falsely accused of being mercenaries for Gaddafi (despite having suffered racist discrimination under his regime) have particularly suffered. Thousands were tortured, detained, raped or murdered. About a million migrant workers fled.
Dark-skinned Libyans were also targetted. The most notable example was the ethnic cleansing and almost complete depopulation of Tawergha, which formerly had 30,000 inhabitants.
Moreover, three-and-a-half months after Gaddafi was killed, the body count in Libya is still rising.
“People fled from Tawergha to all over Libya, but they are still being harassed, especially by roaming Misrata rebels who pursue them,” an elderly man told Reuters on February 1. “Two days ago some rebels from Misrata roughed up some Tawergha here in Benghazi. Another group of eight Tawergha people were caught in Sirte. One was stamped to death.”
Western politicians and media talk about Libya as though it has been liberated.
But medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has suspended its work in Libya’s Misrata detention centre to avoid being made complicit in torture.
MSF general director Christopher Stokes said on January 26: “Patients were brought to us in the middle of interrogation for medical care, in order to make them fit for more interrogation. This is unacceptable. Our role is to provide medical care to war casualties and sick detainees, not to repeatedly treat the same patients between torture sessions.”
Most of the current fighting in “liberated” Libya does not involve supporters of the old regime but is between different elements of the new one. There are ideological rifts between Islamic fundamentalists and defectors from the Gaddafi regime, and rifts between the new government and the militias that, along with NATO, put them in power.
But most clashes involve rival militias whose loyalty is geographic. Reuters reported a two-hour gun battle between rival militias from Misrata and Zintan on February 1. Militias from communities outside Tripoli are occupying different parts of the city trying to extract resources for their hometowns from the government, often clashing with each other. Tripoli residents for their part have formed militias to try to get rid of all the out-of-town militias.
This ongoing violence in part results from the covert aspect of the NATO intervention — foisting a leadership on a spontaneous and amorphous uprising by using military and other aid, control of access to the global media and the promise (albeit false) that NATO bombs and missiles could stop Gaddafi’s bombs and missiles.
Syria and the West
In Syria, the West is also trying to impose a leadership. The West treats the Syrian National Council, based on Syrian exiles, as the representatives of the Syrian people. But the council does not even represent the protest movement on the ground.
The February 1 Al-Akhbar said at the beginning of the uprising, secular Syrian protesters “were subjected to a two-fronted attack … from the official and ‘semi-official’ media on one side, and by a ferocious propaganda assault, on the other.
“This [second assault] was from the group — still then in its formative stages — sponsored by the alliance between Gulf capital and political Islam … With the increase in violence, murder, and terror resulting from the only policy ever pursued by the regime … a succession of conferences were held outside Syrian territory. Eventually, the Syrian National Council emerged (SNC), with a hybrid (Islamist and liberal) structure.”
The SNC has, albeit with some ambiguity, made calls for foreign intervention. However, another exile-based opposition group, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, has opposed outside intervention.
The Syrian Local Coordinating Committees (LCC), the activist networks responsible for most of the anti-Assad protests, have also opposed foreign military intervention.
A November 2 LCC statement said: “We assure that all calls based on the ground of … ‘humanitarian intervention’ or ‘responsibility to protect’ should not hinder the aspiration of the Syrian people to cause peaceful change by its own forces; or lead to dealing with the Syrian people as yet another sphere of influence in the game of nations …
“The Syrian People does not want to substitute authoritarian rule by submission to foreign influence. The Syrian People extracted its independence and founded its modern state.
“It aspires to liberate all its lands and chiefly the Golan. It aspires to continue supporting the struggle of peoples for self-determination, and chiefly that of the Palestinian People. As the Syrian People is revolting against its oppressive rulers, it will not hesitate to revolt against all forms of foreign domination.”