Syrian Refugees Are Fleeing Regime-Change (Not Assad)
By Jay Tharappel
Palm Sunday rallies used to be about protesting war and demanding nuclear disarmament until the focus shifted over the past many years towards championing the rights of refugees. Yes, it is a humanitarian necessity, but the greater task is to expose and restrain the role played by the Anglo-American alliance (including Australia) in fueling the proxy-wars that created the vast majority of those who were made refugees in the first place, but for that the consciousness of the west needs to be weaned off a saviour-complex that sees third-world societies as comprised of ‘victims’ who need to be saved, and ‘tyrants’ who need to be defeated.
What those wars have in common with the refugee rights movement is both are fueled by a neo-colonial saviour-complex that targets and encourages westerners to think about ways they can save people in third-world countries from their own governments. When directed at Australia’s horrific mandatory detention regime, this saviour-complex serves a worthy humanitarian purpose, however when confronted with war-propaganda designed to ‘manufacture consent’ for regime-change, this saviour-complex lends itself to backing covert wars of aggression with great enthusiasm. What needs to be understood and accepted is that the refugee crisis over the course of the past few years was caused, far less by people fleeing oppressive governments, and far more by the covert wars waged to topple the governments of their homelands.
In keeping with this saviour-complex, the western corporate media presents the Syrian war as a one-sided conflict between the government, derisively referred to as the “Assad regime”, and ordinary civilians who we are told are being killed, simply because they protested for democracy (see here). The portrayal is one of contrasting a cartoonishly evil ‘tyrant’ with an insatiable desire for inflicting arbitrary evil, against a homogenised mass of civilian victims whose suffering is blamed on the failure of the west to intervene.
None of this is logical for the simple reason that in Syria, the driving force behind the war is the attempt to militarily overthrow the government, NOT the government resisting that attempted overthrow. Therefore, the demand that Syrian government to stop the war on their end is to objectively aid the attempts of anti-government forces to seize state power. War is not an ideological contest over a spectrum of political beliefs, rather a struggle with limited choices for those directly affected by it. Therefore, the question of whether one “supports Assad” is entirely meaningless because although many Syrians are critical of their government, that doesn’t automatically mean they’d support the armed overthrow of the state by the actual forces attempting it. By that same token, it makes no sense to claim that one supports the overthrow of the Syrian government but NOT the forces that are attempting it.
Who are those actual forces? From the very beginning of the conflict in March 2011, the war against the Syrian government has been dominated by Islamic fundamentalists fighting to establish a theocracy inspired by the Wahhabi movement that rules Saudi Arabia. They espouse an ideology that routinely denounces the secular character of the Syrian government, appeals to Sunni-majoritarian chauvinism, calls for the marginalisation of religious minorities, and in the case of the Shia Alawite community to which the Syrian president belongs, calls for their outright genocide, accusing them of being “more disbelieving than the Christians and Jews”, to quote the 14th century scholar Ibn Taymiyyah whose works were revived by the Wahhabi movement.
These forces waging war on the government also threaten the secular freedoms that women had won in Syria over many decades, completely subjugating them in the areas they control, forcing them to don the veil, and reducing them to mere property. A recent UN sponsored report on gender-based violence titled ‘Voices from Syria 2018’ is dominated by horrific accounts primarily from areas held by anti-government Wahhabi militias. It found that “in 66% of communities in Idleb” which is almost entirely controlled by anti-government forces, “adolescent girls are affected by child marriage as well as 28% of girls below the age of 12”, and “observed girls below the age of 10 being married in Idleb governorate, including marriage to foreign members of armed factions” (p. 116).
Throughout the war, the town of Kafranbel gained prominence in the corporate media as being emblematic of “free Syria” because of all the photos from the town of men (suspiciously no women) holding large English-language banners, targeting western audiences, calling for western intervention against the Syrian government. However, in that same town, according to that previously mentioned report, “extremist groups impose more restrictive rules for women and girls compared to before the crisis”, which is why according to one girl from that town, “we used to live comfortably, and now we are monitored and have to wear a veil and they stop us from leaving the house” (p. 123). According to an adolescent girl from that same town, and this is truly disgusting, “girls get married at a young age as when they are married young they cannot get pregnant” (p. 116). Unsurprisingly the report also states that “religious authorities were reported to be conducting the weddings” (p. 117), implying therefore that these disgusting practices, illegal according to Syrian law, which sets a minimum marriageable age of 17 for women, are sanctioned by the Wahhabi militias controlling these towns.
The corporate media constantly accuses the Syrian government of targeting and bombing civilians, but what they rarely mention is that civilians are barred from leaving by these armed militias themselves. The most brazen case of this is from November 2015 when Jaysh al Islam, one of the militias controlling Eastern Ghouta, published videos showing mostly women civilians being paraded around in cages, used literally as human-shields, justifying their actions as a deterrent to the national army’s attempts to take back the area. More recently this month, reporting for the Independent, Patrick Cockburn interviewed a man named Ghafour who lives in Eastern Ghouta and sympathises with the insurgency who said, “I tried to send my family out, but the opposition militants prevent all families leaving”. The article also cites a UN sponsored report which states that “women of all ages, and children, reportedly continued to be forbidden by local armed groups from leaving the area for security reasons”. The only reason the article’s title blames “both sides” for “preventing civilians escaping” is because men living under siege are suspected of having been former fighters, making them liable to be interned, or conscripted by the national army.
Not only are the forces waging war against the government far more reactionary than the status quo, they’re also far more reliant on external support than on internal discontent. As early as September 2012 one of the co-founders of Doctors Without Borders, Jacques Beres, who had treated wounded anti-government fighters in Aleppo, stated that more than fifty percent of them were foreigners – this is coming from someone who can be seen in videos online participating in protests in Paris against the Syrian government. Similarly, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which is the leading anti-government source, foreigners are roughly half of the insurgent dead. Yes, the Syrian government’s strength is also bolstered by foreign volunteers, especially Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias, however there’s no denying that the government is by far the more indigenous force – the Syrian Arab Army alone has lost around 100,000 soldiers, which is roughly at least a quarter of the total war death-toll.
Observers of war may believe that a certain level of oppression justifies the armed overthrow of the state in question, but that doesn’t mean that the attempted armed overthrow being witnessed was entirely caused by that real or perceived oppression. This is especially true of third-world countries with a history of resisting colonialism and fighting for their independence. For them the external enemy is a genuine threat, whereas for the former colonial powers of Europe and their settler offshoots (like Australia), there is no external enemy capable of overthrowing them. This probably explains why the anarchist obsession with toppling the state exists only in countries that aren’t threatened by external powers.
All the evidence shows that attempts to violently overthrow the Syrian government are internally unpopular. Naturally the western corporate media scoffed at the 2014 presidential election results in which the Bashar al Assad won 88 percent of the vote with a 73 percent participation rate against two other candidates. However, what cannot be denied is that these results are entirely consistent with the perception of those attempting to topple the state, whose admissions cannot be accused of being self-serving. In November 2012, Rania Abouzeid, reporting for Time Magazine, quoted a Free Syrian Army fighter saying, “the Aleppans here, all of them, are loyal to the criminal Bashar”. Two months later Reuters reporter Yara Bayoumy interviewed a Free Syrian Army militant in Aleppo who put “support for Assad at 70 percent”.
For countries with powerful external enemies, it is not inconceivable therefore that external support to a minority among their population can magnify and multiply their ability to challenge the state. According to leaked emails obtained by Wikileaks, US and British special forces were training fighters inside Syria to fight the Syrian govt as early as 2011. The CIA has spent at least $1 billion on “Syria-related operations” including the training of up to 10,000 fighters in Turkey, according to the Washington Post. By May 2013, Qatar had spent up to $3 billion arming the insurgency according to the Financial Times, and in that same month, the European Union had lifted their oil-sanctions on Syria making it legal for European companies to buy oil from al Nusra and Islamic State, thereby fuelling the war on Syria via the theft of its resources. Then there are the economic sanctions on Syria that have contributed to the twelve-fold devaluation of the Syrian currency, driving up the price of food and medicine, making it extremely difficult for Syrian refugees to send remittances home to their families. For more information about the sanctions, see ‘Break the sieges? What about the economic siege on Syria?’ which I wrote for Al Masdar News in September 2016.
Given all these external factors intended to topple the government, the notion that refugees are fleeing because of the Syrian government is nothing more than a propagandistic distortion popularised by an apparent poll conducted by ‘The Syria Campaign’ in 2015 claiming that “70% of refugees are fleeing Assad”, however this claim turned out to be fake news. According to the poll’s actual raw data, 70 percent of the 889 respondents in Germany said the Syrian military “was responsible” for the fighting, but because the respondents could choose multiple options, 74 percent also chose anti-government militias. Similarly, 77 percent said they feared arrest by the Syrian military, but the figure was even higher for anti-government militias at 82 percent. It would therefore make even more sense to claim that 74 percent of Syrians are fleeing anti-government militias. That however wouldn’t suit the agenda of manufacturing consent for a no-fly-zone over Syria – a euphemism for a direct invasion targeting the Syrian military and nuclear-armed Russia, and another example of the neo-colonial saviour-complex being weaponised to justify military aggression. For more information about this fake news, see ‘How “The Syrian Campaign” Faked Its “70% Fleeing Assad” Refugee Poll’ by Tim Anderson, writing for Global Research.
The broad trend regarding refugees over the course of the war is that Syrians have left their homes when the government loses territory (to the Islamists), and tend to return when the government takes back that territory. When I travelled to the Syrian cities of Damascus, Lattakia, and Tartous in July 2015 (when Islamic State was at the height of its territorial control) everyone from local government officials to ordinary citizens were of the view that the populations of their cities had tripled. This makes sense given that roughly half the total number of Syrian refugees are internally displaced, and the overwhelming majority of them live in government-controlled cities. In Lattakia this made complete visual sense given the high number of cars with ‘Idlib’ and ‘Aleppo’ number plates – residents even jokingly referred to their city as ‘New Aleppo’. However, after Aleppo was taken back by the government in December 2016, people started returning in droves as evidenced by a report by the International Organisation for Migration, which stated that in the following year, between January and October 2017, “a total of 714,278 internally displaced Syrians returned to their places of origin within Syria” – a movement largely explained by people returning to parts of Aleppo that the government had retaken.
In Australia like in other first-world countries, the persecution of refugees is an expensive exercise intended to win votes by selling fear of non-white foreigners who are blamed to direct public attention away from genuine economic problems, and does nothing to address the original cause of the refugee outflow, exactly because the actions of the United States and its allies have contributed to the original cause, politically, diplomatically, and militarily. Demanding that we accept responsibility for taking in refugees caused by the policies endorsed by our government is necessary but not enough. We should demand an end to the relentless demonisation of the Syrian government, an end to the sale of Australian weapons to Saudi Arabia (which are being used to pulverise Yemen for the apparent crime of actually pulling off a popular revolution) and an end to the crippling economic sanctions on Syria that punish millions of ordinary people for refusing to side with foreign powers wanting to topple their government.
All the evidence shows that the forces waging war against the Syrian government are unpopular, reactionary, and infinitely more reliant on external support than they are on internal discontent with the government. The reason Syrian refugee flows have stabilised over the past year is because the government is winning the war, whereas had it been toppled, the result would have been a failed state falling prey to a direct military occupation. This is exactly what happened in Afghanistan after the Soviet-backed socialist government of President Najibullah was overthrown in 1992 by warlords armed and funded by the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, who seized control of the country, massacring, raping and looting their way through Kabul, completely levelling the capital city in the process, causing an unprecedented outflow of refugees that continues to this day, thereby softening up the country for direct invasion by the United States in 2001. The only reason this history hasn’t repeated itself in Syria is because of the sheer determination of the Syrian people to resist the most well-funded dirty-war in modern history.