An old war in new clothes

Prospect Magazine

An old war in new clothes


International diplomacy in Syria has failed—but it’s not too late to change course

© FreedomHouse

The situation in Syria continues to spiral out of control. Bashir al-Assad’s forces including tanks and helicopter gunships, supported by Russia and Iran, are currently amassed around the city of Aleppo, where Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels have fought a nearly three-week offensive leading 200,000 civilians to flee their homes—with both sidesclaiming they are winning the battle.

What began on 15th March 2011 with public demonstrations which rapidly accelerated into a national uprising, has now become an armed insurgency complete with suicide bombings—provoked by Assad’s ruthless efforts to stamp out peaceful protests through an unmitigated “scorched earth policy” that has deliberately targeted and tortured civilians, while ravaging crops and homes. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that over 19,000 have been killed so far, while between 1 and 1.5 million people have been internally displaced.

Today, Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague weighed in confirming that the UK will step up “practical and non-lethal” assistance to the rebels, because “diplomacy has so far failed the people of Syria.” He declined to comment on UK intelligence involvement. But has diplomacy really failed, or has the international community made it fail?

While the White House has ruled out a direct military intervention, a presidential “finding”—a highly classified secret directive authorising greater covert assistance for the rebels—came to light recently via White House sources as Obama administration officials spoke openly about a post-Assad Syria. “We are in the early stages of contemplating an Assad aftermath,” said one senior US official. The New York Times reported that the US is “increasing aid to the rebels and redoubling efforts to rally a coalition of like-minded countries to forcibly bring down” Assad’s regime. The US administration is “in talks with officials in Turkey and Israel over how to manage a Syrian government collapse,” including “regular talks with the Israelis about how Israel might move to destroy Syrian weapons facilities.” US diplomats are also meeting “various Syrian opposition groups outside the country to help map out a possible post-Assad government.”

The US has already supported the rebels indirectly through its regional client-regimes—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Turkey and even Libya. “Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States,” reported the Washington Post, which also noted that the exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was playing a major role in financing arms supplies.

In fact, US and UK covert intervention began much earlier. A leaked confidential email authored by Reva Bhalla, Director of Analysis at the private US intelligence firm Stratfor, refers to his 6th December 2011 Pentagon meeting with the US Air Force Strategic Studies Group. “After a couple hours of talking,” writes Bhalla, “they said without saying (ie confirmed off the record) that SOF [Special Operations Forces] teams (presumably from US, UK, France, Jordan, Turkey) are already on the ground focused on recce [reconnaissance] missions and training opposition forces.” Their mission is to “commit guerrilla attacks, assassination campaigns, try to break the back of [Assad’s] Alawite forces, elicit collapse from within.” Diplomacy was not even mentioned.

The seeds of this strategy go back further still to over five years ago, when the New Yorker reported that the Bush administration has “cooperated with Saudia Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations” intended to weaken the Shi’ite Hizbullah in Lebanon. “The US has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria”, a byproduct of which is “the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups” hostile to the US and “sympathetic to al-Qaeda.” He also noted that “the Saudi government, with Washington’s approval, would provide funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashir Assad, of Syria.” One faction receiving covert US “political and financial support” through the Saudis was the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

Such intrigues continued post-Bush. According to Alastair Crooke, former MI6 officer and Middle East advisor to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana: “US officials speculated as to what might be done to block this vital corridor [from Iran to Syria], but it was Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia who surprised them by saying that the solution was to harness Islamic forces. The Americans were intrigued, but could not deal with such people. Leave that to me, Bandar retorted.” This region-wide strategy involves the sponsorship of Islamist extremists in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq “to disrupt and emasculate the awakenings that threaten absolute monarchism.”

No wonder that John Hannah, former national security advisor to Vice-President Dick Cheney, remarked early last year that “Bandar working as a partner with Washington against a common Iranian enemy is a major strategic asset.” Mobilising Salafi extremists “across the region” under “Saudi resources and prestige” can “reinforce US policy and interests”—they can “weaken the Iranian mullahs; undermine the Assad regime; support a successful transition in Egypt; facilitate Qaddafi’s departure; reintegrate Iraq into the Arab fold; and encourage a negotiated solution in Yemen.” Indeed, Osama bin Laden had thanked Prince Bandar bin Sultan personally for galvanising US support for his mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets. The same logic, it seems, still applies.

The wave of suicide bombings in Syria thus underscores the infiltration of al-Qaeda jihadist ideology into the FSA, including an influx of fighters from neighbouring Iraq, Jordan and elsewhere. “To them,” reports The Global and Mail, “the real target is Shi’ism, and Iran, and the crescent of Shia forces from Tehran to Beirut.”

Thus, while Assad’s intensifying brutality is undeniable, US/UK-backed rebel forces are also reportedly implicated in terrible atrocities. One of the most appalling was the Houla massacre of 25th May, where at least 108 people were killed, including 49 children and 34 women.

Although the conventional wisdom lays the blame solely on Assad’s security forces, a series of reports in the German national press have attributed responsibility largely to the rebels. Citing eyewitnesses and opposition members who visited the area, Frankfurter Allgemaine Zeitung, reported that the episode began with Sunni Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels attacking three Syrian Army checkpoints “designed to protect the Alawite villages around the mostly Sunni Houla.” The Syrian Army sent reinforcements, with fighting continuing for 90 minutes, during which the three villages of Houla were blocked off from the outside world, allowing the rebels to attack the villages.

The victims included “… families of the Alawite and Shia minorities of Houla, the population of which is made up of 90 percent Sunnis. Several dozen members of a family that had converted in recent years from the Sunni faith to Shia Islam were slaughtered. Also among the dead were members of the Alawite family Shomaliya and the family of a Sunni member of parliament who was regarded as a collaborator. Immediately after the massacre, the offenders are said to have filmed their victims, calling them Sunni victims, and distributed the videos via the Internet.”

To date, the full story of what happened at Houla remains unclear—but it seems likely at least that the rebels played a key role. Similarly, sources from the Jacob Monastery in Qara told Dutch journalist Martin Jannsen that armed rebels had murdered “entire Alawi families” in the village of Taldo in the Houla region. In one case, rebels piled the bodies of dead soldiers and civilians in front of the mosque and told UN observers their version of the massacre. In early April, Mother Agnès-Mariam de la Croix of the Monastery recorded in an open letter that rebel atrocities were being wrongfully repackaged in media accounts as regime atrocities. Rebels had, for instance, gathered Christian and Alawi hostages in a building in Khalidiya, Homs, which was blown up with dynamite and blamed on Assad’s troops. “Even though this act has been attributed to regular army forces”, she wrote, “the evidence and testimony are irrefutable: It was an operation undertaken by armed groups affiliated with the opposition.” Indeed, 90 per cent of Christians in Homs—over 50,000 people—fled after “their homes have been attacked and seized by ‘fanatics’ with links to al-Qaida” according to the Catholic News Agency.

It is therefore far from clear that the FSA represents the sentiments of Syrian civil society. Even its civilian benefactor, the Syrian National Council (SNC)—an umbrella body for Syrian opposition groups formally recognised by the West as “a legitimate representative of all Syrians”—is “undemocratic,” merely a “liberal front for the Muslim Brotherhood” according to Kamal Labwani who resigned from his SNC post earlier this year. Labwani slammed the Council’s drift away from “democracy and modernity… towards a renewed form of [religious] despotism,” a complaint corroborated by activists on the ground including the Council’s own Local Coordination Committees. “One day we will wake up to find an armed militia… controlling the country through their weapons,” warned Labwani.

How liberal democracy will emerge from this process is difficult to imagine. The Syrian people—the driving force of the peaceful protests against Assad’s regime—are faced with a “choice” between Assad’s brutal dictatorship, and US-sponsored Islamist rebel militants allied with an exiled Muslim Brotherhood-dominated opposition. They have become unwitting pawns on a geopolitical chessboard in which the principal players—the US, Iran, Russia, and China—are fighting a proxy war for strategic influence.

For the US and UK, the three main goals are complimentary and interlocking: firstly, to shore-up Washington’s autocratic “guardians” of the old regional petroleum order in the Gulf, against expanding Iranian power and to defuse the impact of popular uprisings in the wider region; secondly, to counter the growing reach of traditional rivals Russia and China into the Middle East and Mediterranean; and thirdly, to protect Israel against Iranian influence in the Levant through Syria.

But just as the West’s Islamist gambit during the Cold War (and after) paved the way for the global acceleration of al-Qaeda’s operations, the implications of this ill-conceived strategy will be even more devastating. It will intensify sectarian conflict, escalate anti-Western terrorist operations, and push the potentially destabilise the whole Levant.

It is not too late to reverse course. Caught in the midst of a proxy war for strategic influence, UN envoy Kofi Annan’s diplomatic efforts never had a chance. Foreign powers should unequivocally cease all support to both Assad and the rebels. Maximum pressure using all reasonable diplomatic, economic and other mechanisms must be exerted on both sides to demilitarise the situation and encourage each to enter into meaningful negotiations, so far scuppered by international geopolitics.


Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London, and Chief Research Officer at Unitas Communications Ltd. His latest book is A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (2010), which inspired the award-winning documentary feature film, The Crisis of Civilization (2011). Ahmed’s international security research has been used by the 9/11 Commission, the Ministry of Defence Joint Services Command, and the US Army Air University. He has also advised the British Foreign Office, the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, the UK Defence Academy, the Metropolitan Police Service, the Home Office’s Channel Project, and the UK Parliamentary Inquiry into UK counterterrorism strategy.

  1. August 3, 2012


    It is sad to see the dubious FAZ report still being peddled in a seemingly respectable publication. The author clearly hasn’t spent much time researching. He claims that “to date, the full story of what happened at Houla remains unclear”. That may be a personal choice. It certainly isn’t unclear to those who have bothered to investigate. Leaving aside the implausibility of the FAZ story (written by someone who has admitted never having visited Houla or having met a survivor), there is the simple fact that survivors were interviewed on camera first by Alex Thomson of Channel 4 and subsequently by Der Spiegel. The story is incontrovertible: the massacre was carried out by the regime-affiliated Shabiha militia.

    There is no reason why one shouldn’t be sceptical of received wisdom, but one should at least try doing it more honestly, using more credible sources, and without suppressing contrary evidence.

    • February 12, 2013


      C4 ? you come on here criticizing someones reporting and you cite c4….are you serious? you think any british channel has any credibility! these are the same people who made the propaganda documentary syrias torture machine and who whilst reporting from syria claim western journalists have been denied entry to syria!

      the fact that you consider witnesses on c4 as credible is laughable…c4 and other uk stations dont even confirm their sources, nor do they attempt to!

      as for the houla massacre, you have coun tless witness testomonies from citizens, the styles of killings, uniquely like those of the algerian slaughters in teh 90s, not of syrian history. the best way to really see this is to go to the al jazeera videos re the 7 bodies found slaughtrered…all soldiers, police and warrant officers. go and look at their wounds, basically the rebels left a calling card of sort. add to that robert fisks report of the independent paper, who did go to houla and spoke to neighbours, survivors and family memebers. if that isnt enough for you, perhaps terrorist confessions may convince you.

      the people who were killed were in 3 different areas, the media only reports one because it fits their reporting aims but what they fail to report is one of the families was that of a recently appointed member of parliament and the others were all from the allawi sect

      perhaps you should take yourself for a reality check, no story by C4 should ever be considered incontrovertible. The british sense of logic and understanding really worries me….the laziness of ratying preconceived assumptions through state media outlets is truly shameful and a disgusting choice of actions of a person whom professes to care about the peoples to which they are referring to!

      your delusional and badly informed knowledge is in fact contributing to the suffering of syrians! way to go!

  2. August 3, 2012


    @Pulse > all these testimonies could as well signify that those murderers operated under cover of Shabiha uniforms, writings on scarfs,and even mocked up ways of speaking. It can also be biased by the real fear of the inhabitants, of being killed by the rebels with whom Alex Thompson is travelling… if they “speak the truth”…(like in many other places, testimonies are now legion, and there are even authentified TV reports in Alep as well), i re-read those articles friom Thompson and SPIEGEL… do not find them convincing AT ALL. and the SPiegel has such a bad reputation for falsifying facts, that it doesn’t alterate my doubts…. I doubt that elements of the syrian army would behave on their own, whereas butchers’behaviours have been mentionned in many circumstances on the rebels side. The ASL is not more than a “convenient brand”…could be named AlQaïda as well, since half of its members are NOT syrians, and do seek money and power, whatever the price is (murdering,killing, slaughtering, raping, robbing, threatening etc.) and NOT a better future for syrians. See Libya’s case…. chaos everywhere…. THINK ABOUT THAT….

  3. August 3, 2012


    This response to the my article overlooks many key issues. Firstly, that the full story of what happened at Houla is unclear is a matter of record. The official UN investigation – the same investigation which gave access to Channel 4′s Alex Thomas – has consistently argued that the circumstances surrounding the massacre remain “unclear.” This remains the case, even as of 27th July, where Thomson reports the conclusions of the latest UN investigation:

    “In the end the report plays out two scenarios for the massacre, both of which it says are possible… The first is that after a prolonged shelling barrage after Friday prayers that day, several hundred anti-government militia entered al-Houla probably from the east, from areas such as al-Rastan. They then used the shelling barrage in one area as cover to leave that area and attack and kill several families living to the south and southwest of the town.

    The motive for that would be that these families were perceived as being pro-government and the militias wanted to escalate the conflict by blaming the atrocity on government forces.”

    Thomson continues:
    ‘Both sides are, say the UN, guilty of atrocities.

    “…the government forces and shabbiha have perpetrated unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests and detention and torture and…have committed acts of sexual violence against men, women and children.”

    Of the rebels fighting against the government for the Free Syrian army and other groups the report concludes:

    “…anti-government armed forces have extra-judicially executed captured members of government forces” and says there’s evidence of such groups abducting and torturing people as well.’

    Although Thomson notes that most people they interviewed in the locality stated that the regime had perpetrated the massacre, Thomson himself acknowledges that there remain differing explanations.

    It is significant that the UN investigators despite a more robust investigation than Thomson’s journalists, was unable to firmly pin the massacre on pro-government forces.

    In this light, the FAZ report remains worth remembering. Dr. Hermann, the FAZ’s distinguished Middle East correspondent, wrote the report from Damascus on the basis of interviews with opposition activists who interviewed eyewitnesses at the scene, and who blamed the house to house executions on the FSA rebels. Also linked above in the article is an Asia Times piece which reviews a whole range of German press reports in Bild, Die Welt and Morgen Post, by journalists who visited Houla and interviewed eyewitnesses – such as Alfred Hackensburger and Jurgen Todenhofer.
    e.g. http:/

    These reports note that Taldo and much of Houla is under FSA control, and that many eyewitnesses feared reprisals if they challenged the rebel narrative – Hackensberger quotes one local witness: a lot of people in Houla know what really happened” but were keeping silent due to fear of reprisals. “Whoever says something,can only repeat the rebels’ version. Anything else is certain death.”

    These sources are credible. In this context, they certainly do not disprove the Spiegel report, but they suggest that the situation is far more murky and complex, and that both sides appear to have played a role in Houla.

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Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London, and Chief Research Officer at Unitas Communications Ltd. 

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