Saturday, April 15, 2017

Brest 1944, Aleppo 2016: What they did to their own people

       As the international community has watched the destruction of Libya and Syria, and then the flow of refugees out of North Africa and the Middle East, there has been much controversy about how to interpret the causes, events and consequences of the wars, as if the destructive forces unleashed on these countries arose from some mysterious origin. The war in Libya ended with the death of Kaddafi, at which point the wretched conditions in that country disappeared from headlines. The war in Syria launched afterwards never came to such a quick conclusion thanks to Russian intervention and a certain amount of American hesitation after the results of Libya’s destruction became apparent.
The argument for the legitimacy of a war for regime-change says that the Assad government in Syria has a long history of internal oppression, that it is such an egregious and exceptional house of horrors compared to all other parts of the world that might be contenders for states in need of kinder government through American intervention.
The argument against such action claims that Assad is the head of state of a sovereign nation and that the government’s actions, however problematic they may be, are what is to be expected in the “rough neighborhood” of the Middle East, and not as bad as the actions of other nations that never receive such condemnation from the “international community.” The Assad government is also much better than whatever form of extremist regime would take power in the vacuum created by an overthrow.
There are other factors in play which motivate the drive to overthrow Assad, such as the fact that the Syrian government has been viewed as an obstacle to the objectives of the United States, Israel, Britain and France for a very long time. Israel has had territorial disputes with Syria in the Golan Heights, and considers Syria a supporter of its enemies, Iran and Hezbollah. Western oil and gas interests would like to build pipelines from the Gulf oil kingdoms through Syria in order to supply markets in Europe—pipelines that could deprive Russia and Iran of essential markets. It is to Assad’s advantage to block these pipelines and have Iranian and Russian support against an alliance that is pro-Israel. As long as Israel is committed to the overthrow of the Syrian government, there is no strategic advantage to Assad in accepting pipeline projects that would help Israel’s allies, regardless of how lucrative they might be.
Syria has always followed many independent policies that have aggravated those nations that would like it to join the so-called “international community” and follow imposed norms concerning monetary policy, neoliberal market and “small government” practices, and relations with Israel, but the subject addressed below is focused on the accusation against the Assad government of crimes against the Syrian population. Many critics of American foreign policy and the war in Syria have also denounced Assad as being guilty of horrible atrocities against his own people. A lot of support for the war against Syria has come from the self-proclaimed progressive left.
Vijay Prashad, a scholar with deep knowledge of the region, has pointed out that there have been human rights abuses in Syria, but the government remained popular, with no homegrown revolution possible:

The Syrian government had made enormous advances, despite really quite ruthless prison policies against the opposition. Ruthless against anybody that stood up against the government. They nonetheless made some advances in human welfare, they created institutions of different kinds, etcetera... [Assad] made an alliance with the Turks. Turkey made so much money, in a sense, gentrifying northern Syria in the 2000s. This was a period where it created a sense of displacement among the population. There were real grievances in the country. Nonetheless, despite having these grievances, popular opposition was extraordinarily weak in Syria. There was no way they were going to be able to actually win against the government. And I don’t mean militarily. I mean even in terms of appealing to vast numbers of people who had yet supported the government. So you can’t create revolution by shortcuts.[1]

 The popular support for Assad and the stability that comes from it has to be weighed against the chaos and misery that would follow after a “successful” regime-change operation. Prashad points out the absurdity of the American ambassador Robert Ford breaking international law and diplomatic protocol in 2011 by meeting with and encouraging small groups of dissidents to rise up against the government of Assad, with the implication that American support would follow through with a “Libya solution.” After that, mercenary soldiers from North Africa and the Gulf oil kingdoms were sent to fight in Syria’s “civil war,” creating the atrocious situation that the world is familiar with now.
Before Assad had to fight off this foreign invasion, his country was always part of the typical “rough neighborhood” that is the Middle East. He has to hold together a formerly colonized territory as an independent, secular nation that allows all religious expression. One would think that the West would prefer this to risking loss of the country to head-chopping extremists who have no tolerance for other faiths. Holding such a country together required the control of internal extremist elements and constant defense against foreign nations that wanted to undermine every achievement and de-stabilize the country. President Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer, in what looked like the truth escaping in a slip of the tongue, recently admitted that the US is one of these destabilizing agents. [2]
An individual who is constantly provoked and stressed will engage in atrocious behavior, and the same can be said of nations. Andre Vltchek pointed out the distinction that should be made in assessing the relative sins of aggressors and defenders:

Rebellious and independent-minded countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East (most of them have been actually forced to defend themselves against the extremely brutal attacks and subversion campaigns administered by the West) have been slammed, even in the so-called ‘progressive’ circles of the West, with much tougher standards than those that are being applied towards both Europe and North America, two parts of the world that have been continuously spreading terror, destruction and unimaginable suffering among the people inhabiting all corners of the globe.
Most crimes committed by the left-wing revolutions were in direct response to invasions, subversions, provocations and other attacks coming from the West. Almost all the most terrible crimes committed by the West were committed abroad, and were directed against enslaved, exploited, thoroughly plundered and defenseless people in almost all parts of the world. [3]

In this case, if we are going to accuse Assad of crimes against his own people, it is reasonable to ask about the provocations and especially the timing of the escalation of atrocities. Undoubtedly, they became much worse after the war began, but this issue of timing is always ignored, or reversed, when Syria’s critics accuse Assad of atrocities. Instead of arguing about the extent of his crimes, we should be able to admit that it is a matter of course that civil liberties and human rights will be eroded and civilians will die when a country is fighting for its survival. This is war. If you don’t like the consequences of war, don’t make war.
Some of Assad’s defenders prefer to deny the violence of the Syrian government’s war and just point to his popular support and legitimacy. There have certainly been many atrocious exaggerations and lies about Assad, one of them being the implausible lie that he used chemical weapons in April 2017, at a point in the war when their use, even if he were immoral enough to use them, would have provided no strategic benefit while inviting further aggression from his enemies.
Nonetheless, there is little to gain in portraying the Russian and Syrian military forces as harmless in the way have waged war to rid Syria of foreign fighters. Airwars.org has been tracking the damage done by air strikes by all parties in the Syrian conflict. Its recent report finds that since Trump became president, civilian casualties from American, French and British bombardment now exceed the level of casualties of the Russian bombardment during 2016. [4]
The Russian foreign ministry itself never denied that people were suffering from bombardment. Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry did not deny that civilians were being harmed: “Of course we see that armed conflict is taking place and the civilian population is suffering. There is no question about that.” [5] It is understood that this is a war and of course civilians suffer, and she was understandably surprised that her American critics would pretend to be shocked civilian casualties in urban warfare.
During the battle to liberate Aleppo in 2016, foreign fighters based themselves in hospitals and schools, and these became targets as the government decided to sacrifice some lives in order to shorten the war and save the many who would die if the war lasted longer. Similar decisions were made by Americans in the way they fought battles in Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq. In fact, the battle for Aleppo was arguably more humane because amnesty and escape were offered to rebel fighters who agreed to disarm. In Fallujah in 2004, fighting-age males were not allowed to leave. [6] [7]
Under international law, armed forces cannot take refuge among civilians, but it is also illegal for armed forces to strike any such enemy forces sheltering among civilians in ambulances, hospitals, schools and so on. These laws may be known more in the breach than the observance, and it is utter hypocrisy for the United States and Israel to cry foul about the way the Syrian military has fought against a foreign invasion. In every war those with the heavy artillery claim to be minimizing harm to civilians, but they regularly accept the necessity of harming civilians in pursuit of military objectives.
They Syrian government has also faced criticism for its treatment of dissidents before the war, but this too is hypocritical. Other states in the Middle East have horrible human rights records, but they don’t receive the same criticism. Even in the presumed advanced democracies that don’t exist in “rough neighborhoods” like the Middle East, various forms of oppression occur regularly against minorities, indigenous people, and political protesters. Civilians in the West have been exposed to pepper spray, tear gas, and nuclear bomb test fallout, and US soldiers were exposed to depleted uranium in the Gulf Wars. All of these are chemical weapons, so one must maintain the proper perspective on one’s outrage about the sort of leader who would expose his own people to such substances.
One could cite many examples of conflicts where the civilian populations became the victims of the governments responsible for protecting them. However, it seems Western nations have been at peace for too long to understand what happens when the dogs of war are unleashed. They seem to think that the various nations wishing to overthrow Assad could do so without being responsible for the atrocities that would come out of the war they fomented. It seems only Assad should be blamed for all that he has had to do to defend his country. Unfortunately, the warmongers and regime-change advocates were unable to follow a simple moral precept: if you don’t like the consequences of war, don’t start one.
The example chosen here to illustrate the unavoidable brutality of war is the story of Brest, France during the German occupation of WWII, and the Allied liberation that came in 1944. It is only one example among hundreds from this war that could be mentioned. The city was occupied early in the war, at which time the British and Germans quickly realized the importance of its port and its strategic position as a supply route for the Allied assault on the Western Front. Like Aleppo in 2016, the strategic importance of Brest made it the site of intense warfare. The Germans threw everything they could into holding it, and likewise the Allies did all they could to liberate it.

Brest, France & Aleppo, Syria



The citizens of the city found themselves under aerial attack by the British as soon as their German visitors had settled in. They were, as one would expect, a little confused about who the enemy was when the bombs started to fall on their heads. However, the internationally recognized head of state was Charles de Gaulle, leading his government in exile in London, so the British were merely bombing France under the invitation of the French government. Russia explains its assistance to Syria in the same way, while the United States can claim no such legitimacy for its actions against Syria. They are illegal aggressors, and every time US senator John McCain visits Syrian rebels, he enters Syria illegally without going through passport control. In this analogy with Brest, the United States is the Nazi occupiers, who also liked to say they were preventing the spread of communism and protecting persecuted minorities. In contrast with the Nazi occupation, in Syria America has been fighting a low-intensity, undeclared war with only a few boots on the ground, aerial bombardment, and foreign mercenary proxies referred to dishonestly as “moderate rebels.”
The bombardment of Brest is said to have claimed about 1,000 lives, while the total cost in human suffering is obvious in the photos that show the total destruction of the city. The resemblance to Aleppo in 2016 stands out. [8]
The interesting difference between Brest and Aleppo is in the way they have been perceived. In past and present interpretations of WWII, there has never been a furious controversy about civilian casualties caused by the Allies and the strategic decisions that were made to cause deaths in the short term in order to save more lives in the long term. The term “collateral damage,” if it existed at the time, was not part of public discourse. Politicians and military spokesmen didn’t have to express regrets about it. Everyone knew that nasty things had to be done to expel an occupying force from an urban environment.
Another contentious issue that exists in the discussion of Syria is the claim by Russia that their forces are in Syria legally, at the request of the sovereign head of state. In this case it seems clear that the responsibility for the destruction of Syria, for the refugee flows, and for the immense human suffering, rests with the nations that fomented the phony civil war out of a small amount of dissent that existed within Syria. But the justification of offering requested help to a sovereign nation is not in itself enough. Henry Kissinger offered the same defense for the bombing of Cambodia when North Vietnamese fighters were using it as a safe short cut into South Vietnam. The American bombing missions were said to be simply helping King Sihanouk keep the country free of communist insurgents.
The key difference with Syria is that Sihanouk wasn’t so proud and didn’t talk so loud about the deal with Americans because he knew his popular support was eroding as rural Cambodians were turning red like their North Vietnamese neighbors. President Nixon had his own reasons to keep the bombing operation a secret from the American public. The bombing campaign became so fierce and excessive that it succeeded in creating support for the communist Khmer Rouge, whom Sihanouk eventually supported until he resigned and went into exile in protest over the excesses of the genocide in the late 1970s.
Thus this contrast of Syria in 2015-17 with Cambodia in 1969-79 shows that merely lending military support to a government requesting help is not sufficient to justify the military operations and all the collateral damage they will cause. Judgment about the justice of the effort has to be based on popular support for the government and the war it is conducting to defend the nation. A government could be democratically elected, but the legitimacy of the government might be undermined by oligarchic control of the electoral process, or popular support may be absent due to low voter participation. A single-party state, with the same leader in power for decades, might have a high level of popular support evident in the fact that living standards are good, social equality exists, and the population has not rebelled. The authenticity of a civil war could be questioned if it were obvious that the “rebel” faction was artificially created by external propaganda and financial aid, and fought mostly by foreign mercenaries.
It is not clear how any international body at this point could form an unbiased assessment of the level of popular support for Assad in Syria. The United Nations seems to always be influenced most by the country that makes the largest financial contributions to it. None of the nuances of the Syrian situation are considered in the official government and mass media discourse in countries aligned with American interests. The people targeted with such information are expected to just accept it without reflection. It is assumed that they cannot ask questions or think for themselves about the situation. They are told that Assad must go because he is a tyrant. No evidence required. No one, including Tulsi Gabbard, the Iraq war veteran representing Hawaii (supposedly a US state but actually the occupied nation of the Hawaiian Kingdom) in the House of Representatives, is supposed to remind Americans of similar cases in the past when disaster followed regime-change operations in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq. She received a scolding from her colleagues and most notably from Howard Dean, the formerly anti-war, "progressive" contender for nomination as the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party in 2004.
Former British ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, said about those who want war with Syria, “[Intervention] is just prolonging the agony. We should have backed off, we should not have tried to overthrow the regime. Despite the failures of this in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, like a dog returning to its vomit we go back.” [9] The citizens of North America and Europe are expected to approve and join in the rancid feast.

Notes

[1] Abby Martin, “Examining the Syria War Chessboard,” The Empire Files, January 22, 2016.


[3] Andre Vltchek, “Now only rational thinking can save the world!Investig’action, April 14, 2017.


[5] “American stupidity is worse than terrorism – Russia,” Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, October 6, 2016. This video originated with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but the link refers to a YouTube channel that created the title and the English translation.

[6] “U.S. Won’t Let Men Flee Fallujah,” Fox News/Associated Press, November 13, 2004.

[7] “Buses resume taking remaining civilians, rebels from Aleppo,” Fox News/Associated Press, December 19, 2016.

[8] “La Bretagne dans la Guerre, 39-45,” Histoire de France, Accessed April 15, 2017. All information cited here about the siege of Brest was found in this source. Between 1939 and 1944, 4,000 tons of bombs fell on Brest, 965 civilians were killed by them, 4,875 buildings were destroyed, and 5,103 additional buildings were seriously damaged.

[9] Lizzie Dearden, “British policy against Isis in Syria is like ‘dog returning to its own vomit’, says former British ambassador,” The Independent, February 17, 2016.

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