I am making this observation with a degree of authority because I returned last week from Damascus, Ham’a, Homs and vast Syrian spaces in between in searing 45°. As for Libya, well, I have been there earlier.
Some months ago, when David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy were salivating at Libyan oil, the International Herald Tribune published a cartoon.
A group of hatted Europeans are sipping Campari under an umbrella. Uncle Sam, looking rather like a butler, says, “There is a fire raging next door”. The European grandees reply: “don’t just stand there; go put out the fire”.
Altruism is obviously at a discount when major fires, like the one in Libya, are to be put out. European leaders may be drooling at the sight of Libyan light crude, but all their representatives, flying in from Malta to Benghazi, have been trumped by the visit to Libyan opposition leaders by Jeff Feltman, US envoy and expert on Middle East. Americans are not likely to loosen their grip on Energy resources.
The ultimate compliment to Feltman came from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah after Israeli reversal in the 2006 Lebanon war. The government of Fouad Siniora, installed with American help was called the “Feltman Government” by Nasrallah. The label was adopted by Lebanese opposition groups.
The US ambassador to Syria, Robert Stephen Ford is no mean operator either. He has been travelling around the country with the audacity of a Special Forces stuntman in diplomatic guise. His visit to Ham’a, a Salafist center, along with the French Ambassador, in early Ramadan created conditions for some frightful rioting against the regime. The army retaliated, killing 75.
Just when the Bashar Assad establishment was seething with rage, last week Ford decided to poke his fingers in the regime’s eye by turning up in Darr’a, another trouble spot where the variety of Muslims in bad odour with the west are up in arms against Assad. But there is no ambiguity in Ford’s mission: he had gone to boost the morale of exactly the variety who, two months ago, had come out on the streets across the border in Jordan, brandishing their swords and demanding Shariah.
But has anyone seen that story? Ofcourse not, because stories about human rights in any monarchy in West Asia are taboo by edict of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on whose coffers an economically declining West has its eye. Only Republican dictatorships are in the line of fire. And towards this end the media has been deployed – BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and Al Arabia, the last two represent the Monarchies (Saudi Arabia and Qatar) now in the coalition of the willing, (Israel is the silent partner) in a blistering media assault on Assad’s regime. Mission Libya, in their perception, is as good as accomplished.
After the Darr’a visit, the Syrian cabinet got into a huddle. Should the meddlesome US ambassador be shown the door? There were divisions in the highest leadership. Ford stays on. Assad knows his clout. When John Negroponte was US ambassador to Iraq, Ford was his deputy. The Pentagon confirmed to Newsweek in 2005, that the two masterminded “hit squads of Kurdish and Shia fighters to target leaders of the Iraqi insurgency”. Negroponte described Ford as “one of those very tireless people…..who, didn’t mind putting on his flak jacket and helmet and going out of the Green Zone to meet contacts”. And now his genius is being put to good use in Syria.
It is universally accepted that disinformation is part of warfare. But who is the Assad regime at war with? In imitation of the choreography in Libya, an impression is sought to be created that the Alawite dominated regime is brutalizing the majority Sunni population.
To amplify this image, totally fabricated stories are being flashed on Al Jazeera, Al Arabia, BBC and CNN. “I have seen with my own eyes,” says a lady hosting some Indian friends, “how arms are being smuggled from Turkey in my hometown, Aleppo, given to the rebels but the subsequent violence is being blamed on the regime”. The lady is a scarf wearing Sunni.
Non Arab ambassadors visited the coastal town of Latakia to verify reports of “heavy shelling from the sea”. Persistent questioning of a cross section of people revealed that no shelling had ever taken place.
Journalists on a tour of Ham’s were shown the police station from where seventeen people, including policemen, were pulled out, beheaded and their bodies thrown in the nearby river. However macabre the story, it gets no play because it is a narrative of the government which is in the west’s line of fire.
The story of “mass graves” in Darr’a makes headlines on BBC and CNN even though inquiries made by embassies reveal that the burial of five members of a family (intra family vendetta) had been exaggerated as “mass graves”, resulting from an army crackdown.
But how is the media circumventing censorship? The New York Times says that “the Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy ‘shadow’ internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.”
Really, what some people will not do for freedom. A million deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and heaven knows how many more to follow in Syria, and wherever else, is but small sacrifice to keep the flame of freedom burning eternally and all flames need fuel.