I am writing regarding the posting of an interview/article on one of the peace and justice list-serves I belong to. The article is called “From Homs to Azadi Square: Iran and the Spectacle of Syria” The interview in question focuses on Iran’s role in supporting the Syrian government, and presents their interest in a very negative light. The underlying assumption of the conversation is that the Syrian government is not legitimate and that the opposition fighters are fighting for democracy and freedom as seen through a Sunni vs. Shia lens. I don’t concede that. When Assad was formally declared the winner of the Syrian Presidential election a few weeks ago, there were men dancing in the street in Homs.
This article expresses one opinion about the situation in Syria and about Iran’s engagement with the Syrian government. There are no specific facts stated to back up these opinions, which is fine because ‘experts’ talk all the time. However, I want to say that not only do I disagree with the perspective, but I have spent some time in Syria recently, and have spoken to a number of Iranians about this and other issues so I have my reasons for doing so. For starters, the comparison between Homs and Azadi Square is ludicrous and misleading, and calling the war in Syria a spectacle is hardly a compassionate response to a full blown calamity afflicting the people of that country.
Even according to the statistics presented by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which talks only to members of the Opposition, the largest single group of casualties in the Syrian war are Syrian soldiers. When I was in Syria in early June as an Election Observer, we saw images of the martyrs (Syrian Soldiers who died fighting for their country) along the roads in towns and cities in Latakia and Tartous, and in Damascus and in Homs and Sweita.
These authors like to talk about Syria’s allies who support the government in derogatory terms, but from the very beginning of the insurrection, Qatar was paying men from economically depressed areas of Syria to fight against their government and our president, by sticking to the line “Assad must go.” was implying that a new government would somehow magically solve their problems. This makes no sense as these economic problems were caused by nature and by decades of sanctions against their country by the US, the EU and their global circle of ‘friends’. Rich Saudi and Kuwaiti princes and business men have spent a fortune building up foreign militias to fight mercilessly in Syria, killing and maiming civilians and destroy civilian resources with impunity.
There isn’t now and there never was any element of the Syrian ‘opposition’ that was in a position to rule if Assad were deposed by the war any more than there was in a replacement in Libya for Qaddhafi. Libya is now ruled by militias. The people no longer have free education, free health care and a bountiful supply of potable water from one of the biggest underground aquifers in the world. Instead they have lawless communities awash in guns and the freedom to fight for their day to day survival. When I was in Syria, the people clearly rejected the Libya option, if you want to call it that.
The US government and their allies dismissed the Syrian election as a fraud. But, they got a toe in the door of a multiparty system AND there was a historic referendum on the Syrian government. Yes. Assad won by a landslide, in the middle of conducting a war for the security of the people and the welfare of the state. But, what matters is that 73% of the population came out to vote. Observers all over the government secured parts of the country saw long lines and large crowds waiting to vote. The people I talked to said that they appreciate the new constitution, but now wasn’t the time they want to change leaders. People who voted for Assad said that they voted for security and for the return of civilization. They were feeling hopeful and they voted to build for the future.
When the US says that Assad must go, they point to the Syrian National Coalition as the new leadership of the country. Most of these men (are there any women? – there are many women in the current government) are living abroad. The Syrian people don’t know them. There were a couple of rather scandalous defections, but this is not the behavior that most people would find trustworthy in a leader. Betraying one’s friends and family is not a highly regarded trait in the Middle East. But, we know very well that the US would install these men (the SNC) as some kind of ‘caretaker’ government, and then have an election among them after a while so people can vote. Is this a democracy? Voting for people you don’t really know, and who server as foreign agents? Is it freedom?
The explanation that this is a Shia vs Sunni conflict does not hold up in Syria. Syria is 75% Sunni, and about 10% Christian with other sects of Islam making up 16% of the population. They Syrian Arab Army is mostly Sunni. The Syrian government is mostly Sunni. Christians, as well as other sects of Islam hold high posts in the government. The ‘opposition’ in Syria is massacring Christians and attempting to drive them from the country. The ‘opposition’ is fragmented and engaged in communal warfare while at the same time targeting members the Christian communities and Alawites and members of other small sects. People are targeted by them, not only for the religion they practice, but based on whether or not they follow arbitrary systems of rules posed by local Emirs as ‘Shariah’.
The Syrian ‘opposition’ is supported by Saudi, Qatari and Kuwaiti religious leaders who openly recruit soldiers to go and fight there, but none of the significant Sunni Religious leaders in Syria support the ‘opposition’. The city of Aleppo has been destroyed. The population has largely been evacuated long ago and the ‘opposition’ fighters who moved in more than a year ago have dismantled the factories and moved them to Turkey.
Comparing the situation in Homs with that in Azadi Square in Tehran is absurd. Iran is supporting a legitimate sovereign government in a fight to drive out an insurgency driven from outside the country. Iran supports the Palestinians and Hamas. When I was there pretty much everyone I talked to supported the Palestinians. Iran now has economic issues and there may be debate over foreign aid (as there is here) but that does not delegitimize their foreign aid policies.
And while Secretary of State John Kerry left the door open to cooperating with Iran in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, I think he forgot that they are already fighting ISIS in Syria where the US and US allies have provided all kinds of support to ISIS. Why on earth would Iran consider the US an ally in this war? Iran, at least, has a consistent standpoint which sees ISIS as an enemy that attacks civilians and is attempting to undermine the government in both Iraq and Iran. The US wants to fight them in Iraq and support them in Syrian. What sense does that make?
ISIS is not economically independent. In today’s world, no one is. The EU had to end sanctions against Syrian oil and provide assistance with running the well before ISIS could profit from it. The money they stole from the bank in Mosul was Iraqi dinar which are pretty much without value outside of Iraq. When I was there a few years ago, you couldn’t even exchange Iraqi dinar in Jordan. Their men trained with FSA members at the American camp in Jordan and they benefit greatly from the forbearance of the Turkish government.
Any way, please don’t think that the conversation below reflects a one and only viewpoint. The one I stated above is held by much of the world, including myself. When I went to Iran as an election observer there were MPs from many countries among the observers. There were observers from Pakistan, India, Venezuela and Brazil, from the US and Canada, from Uganda and Swaziland, and from Iran and North Korea. You may not think much of the latter two countries with regard to Democracy but we are told that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Gulf Monarchies are all supporting a democratic revolution in Syria. Does that make any sense? At least Iran has had a Parliament for over a century, and they have regular, well organized elections, which are free enough that the people talk about the candidates and come out to vote in greater numbers than Americans do – just like the Syrians did earlier this month.