The US response to the uprisings in the Arab world remains deeply hypocritical.
“It is time to stop the killing of Syrian citizens by their own government,” US President Barack Obama said at a February 24 meeting in Tunis of the representatives of 60 countries, led by the Western powers and their Arab allies.
The group cynically called itself the “Friends of Syria”.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the opportunity to lash out at the US’s main global competitors, Russia and China.
“It’s quite distressing to see two permanent members of the Security Council using their veto while people are being murdered ― women, children, brave young men ― houses are being destroyed. It is just despicable and I ask whose side are they on? They are clearly not on the side of the Syrian people,” she said.
But Syria is not the only Arab country where the government has been confronted with non-violent protests, as well as armed opposition, and responded with military force against both. Another is Yemen.
Like in Syria, but considerably less reported, the conflict between the government and opposition has cost thousands of lives.
On February 21, when Yemen held presidential elections, Clinton released a statement saying: “On behalf of the United States, I want to congratulate the people of Yemen on today’s successful presidential election.
“This is another important step forward in their democratic transition process and continues the important work of political and constitutional reform.
“Today’s election sends a clear message that the people of Yemen are looking forward to a brighter democratic future.”
These sentiments were echoed in the media. On February 24, reporting the results, Voice of America said: “[Abdu Rabu Mansour] Hadi’s election clearly demonstrated that the people of Yemen are embarking on a two-year path towards a new, more democratic Yemen: and, after more than three decades in power, Ali Abdullah Saleh will no longer be Yemen’s president.”
However, Hadi, vice-president under Saleh and acting president since November, was the only candidate. The February 24 New York Times reported that he won 99.6% of the vote.
This parody of democracy is the culmination of efforts by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to stabilise Yemen since April last year. At the time, under pressure from mass non-violent democracy protests, the regime splintered.
The GCC is a grouping of oil rich, pro-Western absolute monarchies ― Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain. Since the Arab uprisings began, it became the main Western proxy in the Arab world.
Yemen was already riven by violent conflict before the protests started in January last year.
Wars against secessionist movements in the north (the Houthi rebellion based on a religious minority) and the south (a secular movement) have cost thousands of lives in the past decade.
The Saleh regime was able to prosecute these counterinsurgency wars with the US$50 million military aid Yemen receives annually from the US.
This aid is supposedly to fight al Qaeda. However, Saleh was never threatened by al Qaeda, whose Yemen-based operatives directed their attention toward Saudi Arabia and the West. Instead, he used the military aid against his more internal serious enemies.
The US has prosecuted its fight against al Qaeda in Yemen directly, using cruise missiles, piloted airstrikes and unpiloted predator drones. Casualties, uncounted, have been predominantly civilians.
The US drone strikes have continued since the uprising against Saleh began. The September 21 British Daily Telegraph said they were being increased with the expansion of bases in the Seychelles, Djibouti and Ethiopia.
In April last year, parts of the military and paramilitary split with Saleh. The student-based protest movement distanced itself from this new armed opposition.
On June 3, Saleh was injured in a bomb attack, probably carried out by paramilitary defectors. Despite being seriously wounded in a Saudi hospital, Saleh continued to resist GCC pressure to hand over power to Hadi.
In September, he returned to Yemen. Finally, in November, he signed the GCC-arranged transfer of power that culminated in the one candidate elections.
This process appears to have ended the opposition from the military and paramilitary defectors, but the protest movement has consistently opposed the GCC deal. The secessionist movements have also opposed it. Stability in Yemen seems unlikely.
The West and the GCC’s double standard over Yemen and Syria is similar to that a year ago when the GCC intervened in Bahrain to violently repress a democratic uprising and in Libya (as a token part of a NATO-led force) allegedly to support one.
There is every reason to believe that a Western military intervention in Syria would be as devastating as that in Libya, which multiplied the loss of life and has not brought democracy. But it is not inevitable that an intervention will take place.
It is certainly a danger. As was the case in Libya, the West has established an unaccountable National Council to speak in the name of the Syrian opposition. However, the Libyan intervention was motivated by the West seeing an opportunity to insert itself into the Arab Spring.
With its relatively homogenous and small population, Libya seemed a relatively safe country in which to intervene. Nonetheless, the proliferation of warlord militias since the overthrow of Gaddafi means that the possibility remains of it spinning out of the West’s control.
Syria has a considerably larger and more ethnically and religiously diverse population.
Also, despite its rhetorical opposition to Israel, support for Lebanese and Palestinian resistance groups and alliance with Iran and Russia, the Assad dynasty has kept the peace in an unstable part of the world.
It has frequently allied with the West at crucial times and given Israel a secure border, despite the border being deep inside Syrian territory ― Israel has occupied Syria’s Golan Heights since 1967.
Lebanese blogger and journalist As’ad AbuKhalil explained in a February 23 article on Al-Akhbar English: “Syria was not a principled ‘rejectionist’ government as its Arab champions would try to make it seem. It spearheaded the (token) Arab military effort to legitimize the American war for Kuwait … in 1991.
“Syria worked for years with the US on intelligence matters and it provided crucial assistance whenever the US turned to Syria (or Jordan or Morocco or Egypt) for effective torture techniques on difficult prisoners. The two countries worked closely together after September 11 …
“But the US position on Syria remains ambiguous. The US and Israel … want the Syrian regime to be weakened to the point that it will accept Israeli dictates.
“But it is not yet clear that either Israel or the US want the regime to fall.”
The host of the February 24 “Friends of Syria” meeting, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, the first leader to be democratically elected after an Arab Spring uprising, said: “We have to respond to the demand of the majority of the Syrian people to get rid of a corrupt, persecuting regime.
“We have to stop the bloodshed, but this cannot be through military intervention.”
Western leaders also ruled out direct military intervention. But they then undermined this with a proposal for “drawing up plans for … a joint Arab League-UN peacekeeping operation that would be comprised of civilian police officers,” CBS News reported on February 24.
Likewise, the West did not support a Saudi proposal to arm opposition fighters, but did not rule it out either.
However, there is considerable evidence that the West is already supporting armed groups in Syria, covertly through Saudi Arabia and Qatar. How representative these hard-core Sunni sectarian groups are of the Syrian armed opposition is unclear.
Also unclear is whether this covert interference, and the promotion of the Syrian National Council as the recognised voice of the country, is a prelude to full scale invasion, an attempt to bring about regime change without a full-scale invasion or simply a means to put pressure on the regime.
Either way, the interference is against the interests of the Syrian democracy movement.
Lebanese researcher Khalil Issa wrote on Jadaliyya.com on February 21: “The only thing achieved by the United States through its current stance on the Syrian revolution … is appealing to greater numbers of Syrians and the development of increasing hostility amidst the Syrian people towards Russia and China.
“This is a political gain that is significant to the United States; one that it is satisfied with today.
“From its perspective, there is nothing wrong with the country drifting into civil war. Such a situation would advance US interests as well as those of Israel much more than democracy in Syria would.”