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Tuesday, August 14, 2012 

The same old mistakes.

Just when you thought you couldn't be surprised any further by the apparent naivety of our rulers, as well as that of the journalists and commentators helping to push policy forward, up pops this latest piece in the Graun on Syria. Horrors of horrors, it seems as though the best funded groups among the rebels are Salafists, and they're being directly supported by the Saudis and Qataris! This is only what those of us who hadn't fallen completely in love with the Free Syrian Army have been saying for ooh, weeks now. What started out as a peaceful uprising against the Assad regime understandably turned to armed insurrection when it became clear that the Ba'ath party could not be removed bloodlessly, but the original leaders of the revolution were quickly usurped by veteran fighters, some of whom had come back from fighting the Americans in Iraq, and who had no problem with following Assad's lead and turning the conflict into a sectarian struggle. Since then civilians have been trapped between a rock and a hard place, the brutality and heavy weaponry of the government and the savage guerrilla tactics favoured by the FSA, with Iran and Russia supporting the regime, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey doing the same for the rebels. As well as a civil war, it's also a proxy war.

And as such, we've had to stick our noses in. With the Chinese and Russian blocking any action at the UN, quite understandably considering the liberties we took with the "responsibility to protect" doctrine invoked over Libya, we've been reduced to promising "non-lethal aid" to the rebels, although who exactly it will be receiving it on the ground is anyone's guess. Whether the United States is directly providing weaponry is unclear, but you most certainly wouldn't bet against it. The other thing that has been so staggering is how we've failed to learn even the most basic lessons from the Libyan intervention, where we didn't have the slightest clue who it was we were helping to overthrow Gaddafi. Luckily enough, while there were some Islamists among the rebels there, they've mainly been sidelined by their more "liberal" allies, although such terms are relative.

In Syria, scratch even slightly below the surface and you'll find the rebels aren't much better than those they wish to replace. In Libya there was plenty of concern about the fate of "mercenaries", those the NTC claimed were soldiers from other African states being paid by Gaddafi to fight on the government side, but whom many worried were being rounded up purely on the basis of their darker skin colour. While there were reports of summary executions from Libya, the worst most were subjected to was torture. Back in Syria, videos abound of those the rebels claim are "shabiba" (non-army militia) being swiftly dispatched, while at the weekend videos of soldiers being thrown from rooftops were widely circulating. Some of this is always going to happen when atrocities have undoubtedly been committed by the government; unlike in Libya though barely a word of condemnation has passed the lips of our politicians, while media commentators have all but ignored these clips, even while they're perfectly prepared to show "unverifable" footage of bombings and demonstrations. The one major exception was the mass execution of members of the Aleppo al-Barri clan by the rebels, and that was glossed over as quickly as was possible with claims of how they themselves had killed a number of FSA troops during a supposed truce.

The fact is that the FSA's propaganda is far better than that of the regime's. Even if the claim by the defected prime minister that the regime now only holds 30% of the country's territory is accurate, and that's extremely doubtful, then it's the 30% that matters. The battle for Aleppo isn't over, but the retreat of last week was a setback the rebels had to spin ferociously. There are also still small parts of Damascus reverberating to the sound of gunfire, but the attempt to capture the capital in the main failed hopelessly. The assumption has to be that Assad will eventually fall, such are the forces now ranged against him, but these are defeats that are important in the short-term. Rather than reporting them as such, they've been presented exactly as the FSA has wanted, as strategic. This is clearly nonsense.

As I said previously, this reticence from the media is understandable, partially due to how volatile the rebels are, and partially down to how many see them as the lesser of two evils, Salafis among them or not. Our politicians have no such excuses: how on earth could they not see that the Saudis were always going to sponsor the most extreme groups they could find when it's what they've been doing for decades? What made them begin to imagine that the Syrian National Council, a group based outside the country, could ever manage to organise the opposition within it? Why do they think providing aid to the rebels, either military or "non-military", will end any differently to how it has before The weapons provided to the Libyans (as well as those taken from Gaddafi's stocks) were swiftly supplied to extremists in Mali, currently attempting to shore up the region of the country they control, while they're also reported to have gone to Gaza and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. We don't need to rehash what happened in Afghanistan, while the funding of the Contras led inexorably to atrocities. Hizbullah might have plenty of weaponry already, but you can bet those on the right in America cheerleading for the rebels, such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham would hardly welcome their aid being sold on at the earliest opportunity.

The sad reality is that whatever we do, it's going to get far worse before it gets better. You only have to read the terror of those trapped in the village of Al-Dmayina Al-Sharqyia, after a shell hit a house killing ten people, to realise how trust in everything and everyone has irrevocably broken down. Unsure whether it was fired by the regime or the rebels, they're left with pleading on their Facebook page for both to stay away.

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