Where do you start with discussing the European (Western?) response to the Assad Regime and the struggle for representative government?
People have been revolted by the mass murder and torture committed by the Assad regime, in response to protests and then armed revolt, against this dictatorship. They were sickened by the 2013 chemical attacks by the Assad regime against civilians in Ghouta. Since then the much smaller number of deliberately choreographed and documented barbaric acts of cruelty by Islamic State in Syria, have shifted attention from the Assad regime. Few people would guess that around 80% of the causalities in this conflict are being caused by the Assad regime.
Against the popular response in the West that Assad should go, is the popular believe that chaos would inevitably follow, with extreme jihadists and sectarian militias left free to carry on murder and oppression. Leaving no chance for a more representative government to be created. This was the public experience of Western “intervention” in Iraq, and to a smaller extent in Libya.
The partly rhetorical question is then asked by opinion makers about “why are we in Syria helping the opposition?” This really means “why is this country intervening in Syria to help the opposition, when the public do not want it to?” It is the motives of Western governments that are being questioned.
Those on the Left give the cynical answer, that the Assad regime is not an ally of the West, and these Western governments are only motivated by geopolitical interests, which mainly benefit the elites. So the Left has a strong reflex against any involvement, which is associated with the now completely negative idea of “intervention”. The Right has traditionally felt less responsibility for the populations of other countries, and are not so open to revulsion at the human rights abuses of dictatorships. They cannot identify any particular “national interest” (that really means, a benefit to elites in the West) in regime change in Syria.
So the public is faced with human rights abuses on a huge scale in Syria, and no definite course of action. The weak answer is given of continued diplomacy, which has yielded nothing in nearly five years. The problem has greater urgency due to a large refugee crisis, which is spilling over into Europe, and so becoming greatly more visible to a Western audience.
The recent attacks in Paris by Islamic State, will lead to more strikes against Islamic State by the West. The terrorist attack on a Russian passenger Jet, will allow Russia to continue bombing the moderate opposition and the extreme jihadists (including those of Islamic State). The arguments about “defensive action” for the benefits of the international community can be used. All this means the focus will change to the war on Islamic State, and a call for “stability” at any cost, which is a euphemism for authoritarianism. This will probably mean the rehabilitation of a modified form of the Assad regime, and the side-lining of moderate Syrian opposition. The regime can then present themselves as the long term suppressors of extreme jihadism, such as that of Islamic State. A major recurring theme in Assad regime propaganda from the beginning.
The opinion makers therefore need to deal with the mismatch between the Assad regime’s appalling history of human rights abuses and the Western political need of making a deal with the regime. It is useful to them that the past 40+ years of the use of systematic torture in Syria as a central instrument of state control, before 2011, is largely unknown to the public.
The blame for the atrocities committed by the regime since 2011, can be rebranded as the reaction of any despotic authoritarian regime in the Middle East, which is under serious threat of being toppled. The implication is that this could have been Egypt, Bahrain, the new sectarian Iraqi regime, Saudi Arabia or Iran. Therefore regime change itself is seen as an act of inhumane folly that can only cause suffering.
It is surprising how many people who live under representative “democratic” governments in the West have no particular antipathy to authoritarianism for foreigners. Some popular apologies are:
(i) These authoritarian governments are popular. The degree of dissatisfaction, political suppression and vote rigging is exaggerated by Western governments, who have a perfectionist approach to “democracy”.
(ii) Authoritarian leaders supply “peace and stability”. There are far worse extremists waiting to take over, with the help of greedy external vested interests.
(iii) Authoritarian rulers can produce strong economies, and push progress more quickly.
(iv) All countries have favoured groups, and the wealthy cliques that surround dictatorial governments are just a form of this.
(v) The alternative to “heavy handed” authoritarian rule is “civil war” which is worse. Violence never leads to representative “democratic” government.
(vi) Ordinary people in backward countries need to be governed by an elite of strong dictatorial leaders. History has shown this to be true. Representative government is incompatible with the general population’s religion, culture and ethnic divisions. It will take hundreds of years for them to progress to a stage where they can cope with democracy.
(vii) When faced with serious challenges to their rule, nearly all authoritarian leaders are willing to make concessions. It is usually egotistical dissidents who ruin the situation, by not compromising, being distrustful and not honouring their own promises.
(viii) Mistakes have been made in the past by dictatorial governments, which has encouraged the spread of extremist oppositions. Poverty caused by circumstances outside the government’s control has created anger. In this climate only authoritarian strong government can prevent chaos.
(ix) There are plenty of examples of authoritarian governments which peacefully restore democracy when the time is right. South Korea is a great example of this.
(x) There is no international law that allows people to rise up against authoritarian governments. There is nothing illegal about unrepresentative governments.
(xi) Some authoritarian counties are independent of Western neo-colonialism, and favour the rights of peoples victimised by allies of the West.
Apart from the hypocrisy, these arguments are full of logical and factual holes.
Pepperdine University conducted two clandestine polls in Syria in 2010 and 2011. Under the emergency laws of 1963, only government approved surveys are openly allowed. In August 2011 81.7% wanted the government to leave power. Both polls revealed a government that was corrupt, ineffective and repressive. A government which has a huge internal state security infrastructure, encourages the systematic use of torture and even bans opinion polls is likely to need these restrictions to compensate for a lack of legitimacy and genuine popularity.
Assad may have made Syria “stable” to external onlookers, but being a citizen at risk of being accused of being disloyal to the regime, leading to barbaric torture is hardly “peaceful”. A well run prison is stable from the outside.
The Syrian GDP had grown since Bashar Assad took over from his father, but the new wealth created by privatising the economy, has gone into the hands of the Assad clique. It is estimated that his cousin Rami Maklouf controls 60% of the economy through a vast business empire.
According to the UNDP in 2007, 34% of Syrians were living in poverty, with 12% in extreme poverty. According to the ILO in 2008 11% of Syrians were unemployed, with youth unemployment at 22%. At the same time “underemployment” was estimated at 3 times the official unemployment rate, so this could have effected a third of the population. Obviously the situation is far worse now, after five years of conflict and lack of international humanitarian support (Saudi Arabia has no interest in supporting even Sunni Muslims rebelling against dictatorial rule).
Civil war involving extremist jihadists and sectarian militias, has now become the major aspect of the Syrian Conflict. Since 2011 Assad’s Alawite militias have committed a huge number of atrocities against mostly Sunni civilians. He has encouraged the involvement of Shia Iranian and Hezbollah militias. At the same time Saudi Arabia and many of the other monarchist Gulf States have been funding extreme Sunni jihadists, who in turn have actively recruited foreign fighters. Divisions of any type can always be exploited by those opposed to representative government.
In the American “revenge” invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the traditionally dominant Pashtuns were marginalised. In Iraq in 2003, Sadam Hussein’s government was demolished overnight, the resulting vacuum allowed a civil war to take off between Iran backed Shias and Saudi backed Sunnis. This was meant to lead to a stalemate, with a new weaker ruler dependent on America then taking power. There was a similar lack of constructive partnership in Libya after the ousting Gaddafi in 2011. Now Libya is divided between a government in Tripoli backed by conservative Gulf States, and a rival moderate Islamist government in Benghazi backed by Turkey and Qatar.
A state of “civil war” after the forceful violent removal of a reluctant dictator, depends on an internal power vacuum, local leaders willing to exploit divisions and external powers willing to support them for mercenary short term gain.
The “backward culture” argument for authoritarian rule is popular with racists, who have a chauvinistic view of western civilisation. The degree of misrepresentation of Islam is astonishing, accompanied by a strange denial of “Islamophobia”. There is little recognition that the wealth stolen from the Arab people by the Saudi family, has been used in part to spread a distorted “Wahhabi” version of Islam. Most people in the West have a wholly inadequate knowledge of Islam, its many strands and the cultures of countries where it is the majority religion.
The idea that “representative government” is a matter of “cultural advancement” and can take centuries to accomplish, based on European history, is flimsy. This notion ignores the often violent struggle to overcome authoritarian government in Europe. It also ignores the changes in technology and advancements in knowledge. These are available in some form to everyone, they do not stop at borders. The notion that Islamic societies are incapable of creating forms of “representative government” that are the same, different, equal and possibly better than those in the West has no substantial basis.
The creation of “representative government” in the West has been significantly dependent on violence and the threat of violence. The French Revolution that started in 1789 did lead to a period of chaos and violence, from which Napoleon ceased power in 1804. The fear that ordinary people could topple unrepresentative governments dominated by monarchs and their elites, put pressure on these regimes to concede greater rights to the masses. As who could vote was expanded (the “franchise”) competition between liberal and conservative parties created a pressure to expand the franchise further, and so empower more votes for a particular party. The struggle between European powers, and the resulting two world wars, required national cohesion and further franchise expansion. Crucially this included the enfranchisement of women. The Russian Revolution and the threat of Soviet expansion acted in a similar way to the French Revolution more than a century earlier.
Democracy is not just about who gets to votes, but the range of parties and policies that can be presented to the voters. It took centuries of struggle and two world wars, before socialist parties were fully accepted into European elections.
In this context, the Iranian electoral system is not a representative system, as it gives an effective veto to the supreme leader (senior cleric) over parliamentary and presidential candidates. The supreme leader has direct and indirect control of the composition of the “Council of Guardians” who have the power of veto over election candidates and laws passed by parliament. He also has effective control of the “Assembly of Experts” who choose his successor. Voting is not rigged, but the choices presented to voters are rigged, to ensure an authoritarian government.
South Korea was definitely not a dictatorship which willingly and peacefully transformed itself into a democracy. Democracy in South Korea was created by decades of internal struggle, and strong external pressures. South Korea was created by the United States in 1948. The Korean War of 1950 to 1953 was fought by an international coalition led by the Americans to stop a take-over by the communist North. A semi dictatorship in South Korea propped up by the Americans lasted until mass protests in 1960.
Democracy was then overthrown by Park Chung Hee in 1961. Initially improvements in the economy reduced resistance to the regime. South Korea had been incorporated into the economic empire of a rapidly industrialising Japan in the late nineteenth century. This continued until the upheavals of Second World War and the Korean War. A strong relationship with Japan and the United States (based on Cold War alliances) allowed Park to pursue aggressive economic development.
In 1972 the openly dictatorial “Yushin Constitution” was forced on the country. Laws became more repressive, leading to uprisings in the late 1970s. A military coup swapped Park with a new dictator General Chung Doo Hwan. In 1980 over a 1000 people were killed by Special Forces in the Gwangju Uprising. The death under torture of a Seoul Student, Park Jong Cheol was the spark for a mass protest , the ”Great Peaceful March Of the People” in February 1987, which involved over 1.4 million Koreans. The Chun dictatorship did not have confidence in enough of the armed forces to attack this number of civilians, and crucially the United States put pressure on the regime not to use military force as it had done in Gwangju. Without these restraints the dictatorship may have survived, and there certainly would have been a blood bath.
In contrast to this situation, the Assad regime has complete control of a large number of ruthless Alawite dominated security forces, and the professional core of the Syrian Army. The conscripts are mostly Sunnis. Assad’s main allies are Iran and Russia, both authoritarian regimes with no interest in compromise and restraint. The idea that the Assad regime would willingly compromise after 40+ years of ruthless one party rule, the systematic use of torture and economic extortion is extremely improbable. Add to this nearly five years of mass murder, killing hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians, including many attacks with chemical weapons and indiscriminate barrel bombs. The death under torture of tens of thousands of Syrians (documented by “Caesar”). The idea of compromise is literally ludicrous.
The arguments that different regimes are better or worse in terms of human rights abuses, should not over shadow the central argument about whether the human right situation is acceptable, the history of these abuses and then if it they are improving. The Assad Regime has an appalling long term history of human rights abuses, which is an important motivation for ordinary Syrians to demand that the regime goes, and a major reason why the regime is utterly distrusted. In “Report On The Human Rights Situation In Syria Over A 20-Year Period, 1979-1999” by Syrian Human Rights Committee (SHRC) in 2001:
“At a conference held by Amnesty International Organization in September 1985, and attended by more than 400 delegates representing more than 50 states, participants considered Syria, out of 60 states covered by a study, as being at the top of repressive and terrorist states.”
The report uses “state terrorism” to refer to the regime of Hafez Assad’s use of systematic torture, collective punishments and the assassination of political opponents inside and outside of Syria. These methods were also used to extend Assad Regime power into Lebanon.
In a 1987 Report “Syria: Torture by the security forces.” by Amnesty International, 38 forms of torture against Syrian Civilians were documented. The listing of these methods is important for people to properly understand what the euphemisms of a “tough police state” really mean:
“3.4 Types of torture and ill-treatment reported to Amnesty International, [pages 20-22]
The following are details of allegations of torture and ill-treatment which have been made to Amnesty International over several years by former detainees. It should be noted that not all of the methods listed below are widely used in Syria. Some are said to be exclusive to certain prisons or detention and interrogation centres. They are said to include:
1. Beatings on all parts of the body, involving punching, slapping and/or kicking, administered with fists, feet, leather belts, sticks, whips, hammers, braided steel cables or cables inside plastic hoses with the ends frayed;
2. Dullab (tyre): hanging the victim from a suspended tyre and beating him/her with sticks, clubs, cables or whips;
3. Falaqa: beating the soles of the feet;
4. Bisat al-Rih (Flying Carpet): strapping the victim to a piece of wood shaped like a human body and either beating him or her or applying electric shocks all over the body;
5. Al-Shabah (the Phantom): tying the victim’s arms behind the back and suspending him or her by them or by the feet. In both cases the victim may also be beaten or given electric shocks;
6. Al-’Abd al-Aswad (the Black Slave): strapping the victim onto a device which, when switched on, inserts a heated metal skewer into the anus;
7. Al-Kursi al-Almani (the German Chair): a metal chair with moving parts to which the victim is tied by the hands and feet. The back rest of the chair bends backwards, causing acute hyperextension of the spine and severe pressure on the victim’s neck and limbs. This is said to result in difficulty in breathing almost to the point of asphyxiation, loss of consciousness and, in some cases, the fracturing of the vertebrae. A variation of this device is known as al- Kursi al-Suri or Syrian Chair. In this metal blades are fixed onto the front legs of the chair at the point where the victim’s feet are tied, causing profuse bleeding from the ankles when pressure is applied. Both variations may be used in conjunction with beating or whipping.
8. Al-Ghassala (Washing Machine): a hollow spinning drum similar to that of a domestic washing machine into which the victim is forced to insert his or her arms, resulting in the arms and/or fingers being crushed;
9. Using domestic appliances to burn parts of the body such as the chest, back, genitals, buttocks and feet. The appliances include electric boilers (hot water tanks) against which the victim’s body is pressed; paraffin stoves covered with a metal sheet on which the victim is forced to sit; electric irons; electric welding machines;
10. Placing a piece of cotton wool soaked in petrol on various parts of the body and setting it alight; pouring petrol on the victim’s feet and setting them alight;
11. Piercing the victim’s back or chest with a pointed heated metal rod;
12. Extinguishing cigarettes on sensitive parts of the body; using gas lighters to burn the victim’s beard, moustache or other body hair;
13. Applying electricity to sensitive parts of the body including the ears, nose, tongue, neck, hands, genitals, anus and feet;
14. Applying salts and caustic substances (acidic and alkaline solutions) to the victim’s wounds or burns;
15. Slashing the victim’s face lips, ears, nose – with shaving knives and razor blades;
16. Forcing the victim to stand in bare feet against a wall with the hands tied together above the head. The top of the victim’s foot and toes are then crushed with the heel of a boot in a grinding motion;
17. Administering blows to the same areas of the victim’s body (including the head) for prolonged periods with a long thin rod tipped with a metal ball;
18. Suspending the victim by the hands and feet to bedposts or by the feet from a ladder, and beating or whipping him or her;
19. Al-Farruj (the Chicken): strapping the victim to a revolving wooden bar resembling a roasting spit and subjecting him or her to beating with sticks;
20 Hanging the victim for prolonged periods by the neck in such a way that the neck is not broken;
21. Suspending victims from a rotating fan in the ceiling and beating them as they rotate;
22. Forcing the victim to lie fully clothed in a bathtub filled with water for prolonged periods (sometimes overnight). Water may also be poured onto the victim at the same time;
23. Showering or pouring boiling hot or cold water alternately over the victim;
24. Plucking hair or skin with pincers or pliers;
25. Extracting finger and toe nails;
26. Sexual abuse or assault;
27. Forcing the victim to sit on bottle necks or inserting bottles or sticks into the rectum;
28. Forcing the victim to stand for long periods on one leg or to run carrying heavy weights;
29. Complete isolation in a small dark cell without any human contact at all for several days;
30. Switching on the light while the victim is asleep or keeping a bright light on for long or short periods day or night, possibly for several days;
31. Using loudspeakers to transmit noise, such as loud music and screams of people undergoing torture;
32. Subjecting the victim to mock execution, by holding his or her head below water almost to the point of suffocation;
33. Al-Miqsala (Guillotine), forcing the victim to lie on his or her back, facing a blade. A device on the machine ensures that the blade stops just before it touches the victim’s neck;
34. Threatening the victim that his or her relatives or friends are in danger of, for example, torture, sexual abuse, assault, kidnapping, amputation of limbs and execution;
35. Torturing other detainees in front of the victim;
36. Torturing or sexually assaulting the victim’s relatives in his or her presence;
37. Degrading the victim by using obscene language or insults or by forcing him or her to undress in front of guards of the opposite sex;
38. Depriving the victim of sleep, food, water, fresh air, toilet or washing facilities, visits by relatives or medical treatment;”
These techniques were and are applied to Syrian citizens who express dissent or criticize the government or its policies, or are perceived by the authorities as opponents of the government.
A report by Amnesty in 2008 “Syria, Briefing to the Committee against Torture”, after Bashar Assad had taken over power from his father in 2000:
“2.3 METHODS OF TORTURE [pages 6,7]
Torture and other ill-treatment remain prevalent in Syrian prisons and detention centres and are commonly used against detainees in the custody of Military Intelligence, Political Security, State Security and Air Force Intelligence.
Allegations received from detainees, detainees’ families and lawyers, and other sources have described a wide variety of methods, including: beating with fists or bamboo canes or cables; kicking; whipping; the application of electric shocks, often while the victims are suspended from the ceiling by their ankles or wrists; being burned with cigarettes; “falaka” – beating on the soles of the feet with sticks; and the “dulab” or “tyre”, whereby the victim is beaten or whipped while forced into a car tyre and hung up. In some cases, detainees are reported to have been subjected to the “German Chair” (al-kursi al-almani), in which the victim is strapped to a metal chair with moving parts in which the backrest is lowered away from the body causing hyperextension of the spine and severe pressure on the victim’s neck and limbs; in other cases, detainees are reported to have been subjected to the “frame”, whereby the victim’s limbs are tied to a large metal frame and the victim is then beaten. A further method of torture, known as the “flying carpet” (‘besat alrih’), involves the victim being tied to a piece of wood shaped like a human body and then beaten; the most recent use of this method of torture received by Amnesty International relates to December 2009. Detainees are also reported to be commonly subjected to sleep deprivation, and to be made to stand facing a wall, often while blindfolded and sometimes with arms outstretched, for long periods. One member of the Kurdish minority is reported to have been tortured by Military Intelligence officials in the Palestine Branch in Damascus around June 2009 with electric shocks and to have been blindfolded and had his arms tied behind his back for nine days.”
There is international law that condemns the actions of the Assad regime. How can it both commit mass war crimes against its own citizens, and be the legitimate government?
The idea that the Assad regime deserves credit for being anti-Zionist is grotesque. The Assad regime is an illegitimate bunch of gangsters, who run a neo-colonialist state that allows a small number of Alawite families to dominate an entire country. Their murderous contempt for ordinary Sunni Muslims more that matches that of the racist Zionist regime in Israel-Palestine.
The case for not intervening in Syria against the Assad Regime if far weaker than it appears. The claim that non-intervention against the Assad regime is progressive is repellent. Clearly both force, diplomacy and partnership in state building is needed to oust the Assad clique and end the Syrian Crisis.
The major problem still remains that people in the West can see no particular advantage to them in intervening in Syria against the Assad Regime, and this reality is a major driver for the dogma against action and the unwillingness to challenge and examine non-intervention. This attitude could be summed up as “do you want to pay more taxes to intervene in Syria to remove Assad, in a constructive way that will end the crisis?”.