Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 10:59 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 10:59 | SYDNEY

Syria: Who are the good guys again?


Rodger Shanahan


17 August 2012 09:14

The air is thick with the stench of hypocrisy over Syria.

For a country whose own politicians often refer to it as 'The City Upon a Hill' for its role as a moral exemplar, the US risks losing what remains of its moral authority in the Middle East through its hypocritical policy in Syria. Perhaps the most egregious example is the way the West has allied itself with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two of the least democratic states in the world. As it seeks to establish freedom and democracy in Syria, it does nothing to encourage the same in Riyadh, Doha or the other Gulf capitals. 

Secretary of State Clinton must have felt a delicious sense of irony as she declared after the most recent Friends of Syria meeting that she and her undemocratic allies '...all agreed to support Kofi Annan's principles and guidelines for a Syrian-led transition, including the goal of a democratic, pluralistic Syria that upholds the rule of law and respects the universal rights of all people and all communities, regardless of ethnicity, sect, or gender...'

The yawning gap between the principles the West espouses over Syria and the company it keeps has not been lost on Syria's supporters. As Saeed Jallili, the Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, observed during his recent trip to Damascus: 'How can those who have never held an election in their country be advocates of democracy?'

The West should also be derided for its 'half pregnant' approach to providing aid to the opposition. Both the US and the UK have scored high on the hypocrisy scale when it comes to providing 'non-lethal' aid to the opposition. This may take the form intelligence, training, planning, communications and medical assistance but no weapons. That's because the Saudis and Qataris supply the lethal weapons and the West just the non-lethal means by which to employ them.

Politicians should not pussy-foot around the issue. The aid they provide to the opposition will result in deaths, of Syrian military certainly and more than likely Syrian civilians also. It can only be described as non-lethal insofar as it is non-kinetic. But it enables killing so it is lethal aid.

Which takes me to the opposition. There are a worrying number of reports that they are far from the rule abiding, secular, freedom fighters many would have us believe. Even the UN has accused both the Syrian government and the opposition of carrying out war crimes, although the Syrian Government's crimes have been on a grander scale. 

The US State Department tried to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, boldly declaring that the US is supporting the (relatively) good guys, declaring that 'the preponderance of the violence, the preponderance of the abuses, are on the side of the regime'. The State Department did concede that 'there have been problems' on the rebel side as well. We should be worried when the side the West is backing is criticised for carrying out the same type of human rights abuses as the Assad regime, only on a smaller scale.

One of the reasons the regime's core has stayed solid is the fear of what an opposition victory will mean to the religious minorities that make up a quarter of the Syrian population. This Libyan-Irish fighter neatly sums up the fear many Syrians have about the aims of the opposition when he says that the conflict '...is about the Sunni Muslims of Syria taking back their country and pushing out the minority that have been oppressing them for generations'.

I have some sympathy for those having to deal with the mess that is Syria. The post-mandate political solutions that carved out much of the modern Middle East and made sense nearly nine decades ago simply set the conditions for ongoing conflict, interspersed with periods of stability largely imposed through autocratic regimes. Changing that dynamic is a difficult task, if its achievable at all.

But if we are to change it, then foreign policy informed by values at the possible expense of interests must be a feature. By calling for secular, democratic change in one country while aligning oneself with sectarian non-democracies to achieve it, and providing military support to groups accused of human rights abuses, the US and others risk trampling on the very values Western states seek to export. Syria is a difficult nut to crack, but the way the West is approaching it makes it appear as simply another transactional actor like Russia or China, rather than one whose policy is informed by a morality that it would like others aspire to.