Azhar Vadi | Cii Analysis | 27 November 2013
While governments, media houses and advocacy groups that champion the right to freedom, dignity and human rights deliberate and analyse the various international interests and global dynamics playing out in Syria, a catastrophe of unparalleled proportions has been ongoing.
No sooner had a chemical weapons deal been secured in late September 2013 between the West and the Russian/Iranian backed Syrian regime, so to did reports of gross human rights violations that continue to occur in Syria drop off the news radar.
Even Muslim news broadcasters, who pride themselves in conveying news from the Muslim world, almost ceased to relate events unfolding as the mainstream coverage of Syria waned.
The lack of information and knowledge about a virtual starvation camp created by the regime of Bashar Al Assad around the suburb of Muadhamiya-al-Sham in Damascus has been an example of the sick nature of news hype created to suit the interests of world powers.
This approach to the Syrian crisis by the world’s do-gooders is supposedly because of the complicated and often hidden agendas of the various international role players and being afraid of getting tripped up in the mess.
So let’s help clear the confusion.
The Russians and Iranians have to a large degree played open cards in their support of the Syrian regime. A steady supply of military hardware, expertise and even ground support has been forthcoming. So when analysts get going on foreign intervention in what started off as an internal issue, this is a point worth remembering.
Diplomatically the two regional giants, Russia and Iran, have provided all necessary support to Syria at the UN and its Security Council.
Russia has long standing military, economic and social ties with Syria. The Russians have leased a nuclear capable naval port in the Mediterranean port of Tartus and with economic investments of up to $19.4 billion and arms contracts in the region of $4 billion, Russia has significant interests in keeping Al Assad in power. The cover for their involvement has been the terrorism bogey. Russia has also provided the technical support for the Arab Gas Pipeline that runs through Syria originating in Egypt and also passing Jordan, Lebanon and Israel.
Iran, the so-called bulwark of the Palestinian resistance to Israel, has vested interests in Syria. Against common perception, their relationship is not based on religious principles. The Shia ideology, predominant in Iran, does not recognise the Alawi beliefss of the Assad family and ruling Syrian elite to be congruent with the Islamic faith they profess. Theocratic Iran also strains against Baathist Syria.
Rather, the two states are united by common political and strategic interests. Military deals have been signed between the two nations obligating the states to assist each other against common enemies. While both countries today accuse the US of playing foul in Syria, they supported the American’s illegal invasion of Iraq and the ousting of Saddam Hussain just over ten years ago.
Another aspect that cannot be dismissed is the long standing desire of the Iranians to recreate the Persian Empire and Shia crescent extending from Iran across Iraq (now an effective province of Iran), to Syria, Lebanon and the northern borders of Saudi Arabia. At the helm of this dream is a man known as Qaasem Suleimani, referred to by some as the most powerful man in the Middle East.
On the other pan of the scale, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been pinpointed as being amongst the foremost sponsors to some of the anti-government fighting groups that are operating in Syria. And since the common goodwill of standing up for the oppressed has long disappeared from among the character traits of the Muslim ruler, what has driven these two states into sticking their necks and petro-dollars into the bloody Levant?
Another natural resource of course, this time gas export, is said to be the prize for those who can kill at a better rate in Syria.
In 2009 the Qatari Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Thani, agreed on a visit to Turkey to build a pipeline to carry Qatari gas via Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria on to Turkey with supplies also flowing into Europe.
Qatar has the third largest reserves of gas in the world after Russia and Iran, with the latter two countries holding a monopoly on the lucrative Turkish and European markets up until now.
It is this stranglehold that the Qataris sort to break. The move, had it materialised, would have also made Turkey less dependent on Iran and Russia allowing it to play a more independent international role. A large percentage of the Turkish economy is based on gas. Mainland Europe has also been trying to shake off its dependence on Russian gas. The Qatari option would have proved beneficial for them in this regard.
The Syrians in 2011 however decided to go the conventional route entrenching the regional status-quo by signing up with the Iranians to construct a gas pipeline running from the Assaluyeh gas fields through Iraq and into Syria. The Russians did not oppose this deal. The Qataris and Saudis, as was expected, fumed.
At the same the time protests that broke out in Syria calling for reform were being harshly dealt with. The Assad regime would not tolerate any form of dissent and unleashed the full might of the military and security agencies upon his own people. For months, Syrians who opposed the regime called on world powers to act and assist them in the establishment of a new dispensation. These rag-tag fighting groups at the time however expressed their desire for the eventual creation of a democratic ‘Islamic’ state. Their calls fell on deaf ears.
The Americans for all their bru-ha-ha, have set by almost idly watching the situation deteriorate into a sectarian battle with the pronounced active arrival of the Lebanese Shia armed group, Hezbollah. The Arab Spring had produced the destabilisation the US may have sort as had been described in the openly publishedRand Report of 2008.Without much effort a self-inflicted divide and rule opportunity presented itself in Syria. Drips and drabs of mostly none-military aid was sent to selected opposition groups by the West to keep them fighting and holding them on to the hope of getting better war machinery. Hardly anything arrived.
The Americans, however, seemingly missed an opportunity. After two years of intensive fighting, over 100 000 people dead and a country in ruins, the Syrian opposition has had to learn the hard way that they have been out there all on their own.
Instead of becoming more democratically inclined, they have turned increasingly to Islam. In the process they have freed themselves to a large degree from the dependence of American guns by ridding themselves of the begging bowl syndrome of give-us-weapons-we-will-give-you-control.
This void has been filled by wealthy Gulf donors, private individuals and to some degree governments, and on the weapons seized as booty in their victories against the Syrian army. The black-market has also provided a steady stream of arms, provided the price has been right.
The human resources have been supplied by and large by the shear brutality of Bashar Al Assad himself in driving thousands of men and even women to the battlefield everyday. In the last 18 months an increasing amount of foreign fighters have also entered Syria in the hope of joining a Jihad (struggle) for the establishment of an Islamic state in the Levant.
On the 22 November 2013 the most powerful armed groups announced a merger and the creation of the Islamic Front that has detached itself from the Syrian National Coalition, the political leadership in exile, which had been seen in the earlier days by the West as a possible replacement to the current regime.
Groupings that form part of the newly established Islamic Front have worked with others like Jabhatun Nusra (JAN), a US classified terrorist organisation and even the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The latter grouping splintered from JAN and has become the home of most foreign fighters from various countries around the world.
While the Saudi’s have for long been assumed to be the closest US Middle Eastern ally, the recent deal between Iran and world powers regarding Iran’s nuclear policy has opened up the reality that power play is changing in the region. Described as a shift in political tectonic plates, the detente deal has seen the Iranians get cozy with the Americans after years of tension. Amid the blossoming relationship the Americans also eased up on Syria despite the chemical weapons allegations. Coincidental? Perhaps not.
The Saudi kingdom’s intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was also openly spurned by an emboldened Russian president, Vladimir Putin in July this year, when he appealed for the removal of Al Assad. This even though Bandar promised military deals worth billions and threatened to unleash Chechen fighters during the upcoming winter Olympics in Russia. Did the Russians know the Americans were in bed with the Iranians already and that a move to get rid of Al Assad was highly unlikely? Your guess is as good as mine.
Nonetheless the Saudi’s hardly have a toe to stand on in the world of public opinion after supporting the Egyptian military’s ouster of the democratically elected Muhammed Morsi and therefore would also be assumed to have a clear political interest in Syria. Based on their actions in crushing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, it could be assumed that their role in Syria has been to manage the change that was at the beginning thought to be inevitable following the expected removal of Al Assad. This change would have to be in line with Saudi interests that vehemently exclude the rise of political Islam as espoused by the Ikhwan movements around the world. Saudi Arabia also feared that the success of an Ikhwan driven revolution could have a spillover effect into its own territory and therefore the Saudi’s call for support of the Syrian revolution cannot be viewed as sincere.
The master move by the Russians in negotiating the chemical weapons deal has all but assured Al Assad his cemented place in world politics as the leader of Syria. The increased presence of foreign fighters openly linked to Al Qaeda has further distanced any moral world voice who would dare to stand up to the horrors being meted out to the people of Syria. Claims that countries on all sides of the conflict in Syria have no interests besides the interests of the Syrian people are not true. The result of all of this has been a human tragedy beyond the pages of internet files and newspaper analysis.
Back in Muadhamiya, people have started calling it the “town of the starving” located just five kilometers from central Damascus.
It has been placed under siege by the Syrian Arab Army of Al Assad for over one year. For the past eight months nothing has left, nothing has entered. Not a single piece of bread, no medication, no basic living supplies like toiletries and other consumables, in fact not a single person or anything else has reached the people stuck inside. It is one of the most grotesque examples of collective punishment currently underway in the world, a level of suffering that quite possibly no other oppressed people in the world are experiencing at present.
An account from Amnesty International from a besieged resident read as follows.
Every morning at dawn you see mothers going out to search for food for their children who have spent the previous day and night with empty stomachs.
On one of those days of extreme hunger, I went into one of the homes only to see one of the mothers and her children with their faces pale with hunger. They had not eaten at all for two days and had no food in the house. They had not seen bread for six months.
The same circumstances prevailed all over town – elsewhere, people were fighting over some vegetables planted by their father. He had died during an air force raid on the town nearly a month ago.
Walking down one of the town’s streets, my eyes became fixed on a group of children searching in one of the garbage bins for anything to eat. This is one of the few places left to rummage for food. But they found nothing – the residents have stopped throwing away their leftovers; everything edible is now spared.
Khalid, a former weightlifter who had broad shoulders and strong muscles, has now lost most of his weight and become so skinny that when he sent a photograph to his mother, who has left Moadamiya, at first she did not recognise him. When she realised it was her son, she spent the whole day crying. His only message to her said “pray for me to bear this hunger”.
In another house we found a group of young people sitting silently. When asked about their silence one of them replied: “We have not eaten for two days, not because we forgot to eat but because there is nothing to eat. So we sit in silence, since talking uses up calories that one needs and cannot be replaced”.
Perhaps it’s the confusion about the politics and interests that has so silenced those who have usually been so vocal about the plight and sufferings of human beings.
Read an open letter from the people trapped in Muadhamiya here.