The elusive truth about Syria

Sanjay Kapoor

After returning from Syria’s capital Damascus, the Sudanese general heading the Arab Observer Mission to Syria told the media in Cairo that the situation was not “apocalyptic”. General Mohammed al-Dabi also said that during the time the mission was in Syria, there were only 139 killings and that included security personnel. He also said that armed groups were killing people in Syria. Surely, the Arab League and many of the western countries that have been demanding the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad did not appreciate General Dabi’s report where he also claimed that the violence had come down due to the presence of the observers. He also clarified that one of the observers who had decided to part ways with the mission after visiting the violence-wracked city of Homs had not even stepped out of the hotel.

However, not only was General Dabi trashed by the Arab news channels like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya for his report, they also questioned his credibility. Expectedly, his report was bypassed by the more powerful Arab ministerial council that proposes to get an endorsement from Security Council similar to the one that saw the end of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

General Dabi incidentally was not the only one who did not see hellish fires engulf Syria. A few months ago when I visited Damascus as part of the media delegation that was invited by the Syrian government to ascertain for ourselves what was happening on the ground, Syria was largely peaceful. What we saw in Damascus and even in Homs was not very different from what General Dabi and other observers witnessed in Syrian cities.

In the capital of Syria, with its timeless Souks and majestic Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque, there was no violence, road blocks, police checks or military presence anywhere. It hardly looked like a country in the throes of a civil war. It seemed so surreal to be sitting at cafes in Damascus or Alleppo when BBC, Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya were hysterically reporting, based on some undated YouTube videos, about brutal repression in the country, while the only turbulence you hear there is when a Syrian pulls hard on his hubble-bubble.

Even in Homs, reportedly the epicentre of the mass uprising against Assad, we did not see any tanks or other obvious signs of military presence. Only one armoured personnel carrier (APC) was parked in a corner, which, as General Dabi recently explained in a press conference, was meant to protect the troops, which have been targeted by armed gangs and snipers. In fact, in the city hospital, besides some civilians with grievous wounds from sniper fire, there were some army officers who were nursing bullet wounds. As General Dabi pointed out, many of the 139 people who died in Syria during the uprising belonged to the security forces.

 

Quite clearly, thisdid not fit into the narrative woven by the western and Arab media about the uprising in Syria, which claimed that peaceful demonstrators were being killed by Assad’s troops. London-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights and Local Coordination Committees has put out all these death figures, which have been found to be unconfirmed and exaggerated on numerous occasions.

For a country of its size, the Syria we saw did not look like a place that had lost 5,000 people in the violence since March 2011. The truth lies elsewhere. What is it?

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite, is the only ally of Iran, which is under pressure from the western powers and Israel to shut down its nuclear programme. The path to Persia, these powers realise, goes through Damascus, where the government of President Assad managed to survive the first wave of democratic upsurge that swept the country. He could see the writing on the wall and realised he would not be able to remain at the helm without democratising the country, but he just could not get moving. This gave an opportunity to those playing a bigger game to take him out.

Western powers, stoking Sunni fundamentalism and leveraging the enormous wealth of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are busy trying to neuter Iran and Syria, cut the supply lines of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group, and also settle an age-old issue of sectarian supremacy between Shias and Sunnis.

If this very dangerous game is allowed to be played out, then it will give a new meaning to Dante’s description of Hell.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2012

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