Syria: Rising sectarian violence push by regime, West

Despite escalating rhetoric and sectarian violence, it seems for the time being NATO is not planning a direct military assault against Syria along the lines of its attack on Libya last year.

If NATO had been looking for a pretext for such an assault, the June 22 shooting down by Syrian forces of a air force F4 phantom jet belonging to NATO member Turkey provided one ― notwithstanding evidence the plane was shot down in Syrian airspace.

The West has used the incident to escalate its campaign to diplomatically isolate the Syrian regime and to increase covert interference. This includes directly and indirectly giving resources to armed opposition groups, notably Sunni Islamist outfits sponsored by Western-allied absolute monarchies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Turkey has also massed military forces on the border.

Officially, this Western pressure against the regime of Bashar al-Assad is in support of the democratic uprising that began in March last year. But in reality, it is a bid to hijack the uprising using violent religious sectarian proxies.

This is fuelling violence and the danger of civil war between religious communities. Ironically, this mirrors the Assad regime’s response to the uprising.

European Union and NATO leaders have publicly backed Turkish claims that the jet mistakenly strayed into Syrian airspace, but was 1.6 kilometres inside international airspace when it was shot down. This account has gone mostly unquestioned in the Western media.

However, the June 29 Wall Street Journal reported: “US intelligence indicates that a Turkish warplane shot down by Syrian forces was most likely hit by shore-based anti-aircraft guns while it was inside Syrian airspace … a finding in tune with Syria’s account and at odds with Turkey.”

Emergency EU and NATO meetings condemned Syria, but specifically ruled out a military response. “We do not go for any interventions,” Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal said after EU foreign ministers met in Brussels on June 25.

However, the West is pursuing diplomatic moves for the UN to recognise a “national unity government” as an alternative to the Assad regime.

This “government” would be appointed from among the pro-Western exile opposition, such as the Syrian National Council (SNC). The US was pushing for such an outcome at a June 30 UN conference in Geneva to discuss the peace process being headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

However, while Russia and the West are both committed to the UN-sponsored peace process, Russia does not interpret it as supporting regime change.

The BBC reported on June 29 that Russian deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov tweeted: “Our Western partners want to decide the outcome of the political process in Syria themselves, even though it is a job for the Syrians.”

Not only is Syria a major importer of Russian arms, it hosts Russia’s only naval base outside the former Soviet Union, at Tartus.

After the conference, it was announced that the West and Russia had agreed on a process that included the establishment of a transitional government, whose members would be chosen by “both sides” of the conflict.

However, while US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton interpreted the agreement as meaning Assad would be excluded from the transitional government, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov insisted this was not the case.

The West’s attitude toward the Syrian uprising has been defined by the Assad regime’s alliance with Iran and partial support for Palestinian and Lebanese movements resisting Israel on the one hand, and the West's preference for authoritarian, neoliberal regimes such as Assad's on the other.

Syria’s opposition to Israel can be overstated. Al-Jazeera said on June 26: “Despite the rhetorical and diplomatic antagonism between the two, Syria has been a generally reliable and predictable neighbour.

“The occasional border clash or small-scale eruption of violence aside, Assad has kept the border, and thus the strategic and water-rich Golan Heights ― illegally occupied by Israel since 1967 ― largely quiescent.”

The West’s promotion of the Islamist-dominated SNC as a government-in-exile, and complicity in Saudi, Qatari and Turkish military support to sectarian Sunni Islamist groups, is aimed at both pressuring the regime and determining the political character of the opposition.

“The non-violent opposition movement for freedom and democracy, which still rejects calls for military intervention, survives, but is under extraordinary threat,” al-Jazeera said.

The government continues to be responsible for most of the killing inside Syria. But violent attacks by opposition groups, such as the June 27 attack on the al-Ikhbaria television station, are becoming more frequent.

On June 27, a panel from the United Nations Human Rights Council reported its findings that both government and opposition forces were responsible for attacks against civilians, often for religious sectarian reasons.

The panel noted it was often difficult to determine who was responsible for particular atrocities. It found “that forces loyal to the government may have been responsible for many of the deaths” on May 25 in Houla, when an estimated 108 civilians were killed.

An article published on the New York Times website on June 27 reported the UN panel “said it had also received many reports of summary executions by anti-government rebels, foreign fighters and people suspected of being informers or collaborators.

“A Free Syrian Army soldier told the panel that captured soldiers from the Alawite sect, from which President Assad draws strong support, are usually executed immediately, while soldiers from other sects are given the option of joining the opposition.”

However, this paragraph did not appear when the article was published in the June 28 NYT print edition and has since been deleted from the website, said that day.

The Syrian regime is also keen to promote sectarian groups in the opposition so that the government can gain support, or at least acquiescence, from people from religious minorities.

As’ad AbuKhalil wrote on on June 28: “I have been hearing this from Syrians from early on in the uprising: that the Syrian regime went out of its way to target secular and leftist leaders and cadres thus depriving the internal uprising from its potentially key effective leaders.

“I know that leaders and cadres of the Communist Action Party were arrested early on, and some were killed by the regime.”

However, Khalil Habash, an activist with the Syrian Revolutionary Left, wrote on the Syria Freedom Forever blog on June 7, that the “main and dominant and reality of the Syrian popular movement” was still secular activists who “refuse sectarianism, call for the support of Palestine, and want a civic, independent and democratic state”.

The working-class element of the uprising had been under-reported, Habash wrote in a June 26 post. “Successful campaigns of general strikes and civil disobedience in Syria in December 2011 paralysed large parts of the country also shows the activism of the working class and the exploited who are indeed the heart of the Syrian revolution.

“For this reason, the dictatorship laid off more than 85,000 workers from January 2011 to February 2012, and closed 187 factories (according to official figures), to break the dynamics of protest.”

With both Assad and his Western opponents fuelling sectarian violence, the Syrian people need solidarity.

Habash called for “refusing foreign intervention from all actors, being in solidarity with the Syrian people in their struggle … attempting to sustain and protect the agency of the Syrians themselves, while opposing foreign military intervention”.