Russia's role in Syria: a chance for peace

The Syrian conflict is reaching a breaking point, it has been going on for far too long now and it could go on like this for another five years leading to  the spread of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) both territorially and ideologically and more refugees knocking on Europe’s door.  Regardless of who is responsible for the ISIS phenomenon, political and security void is always fertile ground for groups like ISIS.

Some tried to use the refugee exodus we are witnessing from conflict zones, including Syria, to Europe to push for a military intervention against Assad and break the five-year military stalemate.  But, after Libya, we know, and cannot afford to ignore, that a military victory against Assad will give us the same results as the current stalemate, not to mention the fact that it is not assured at all, as in Libya. A military victory against Assad will embolden ISIS and sends more refugees to the shores of Europe. The region cannot afford one more failing state.

If neither a military action against Assad nor a stalemate will stem the flow of refugee and eradicate ISIS, which are the immediate concerns of rational actors in this crisis,  then adequate action in the Syrian dossier is needed.  And certainely not the kind of action that has been going on, supporting different groups to militarily challenge the government, and certainely not the kind of action some are calling for like a No Fly Zone leading to open military intervention.

With the refugee exodus, Europe has been caught up with the reality of the Syrian crisis.  It is softening its stance on Assad’s departure. The US state department has followed suit.  Kerry's latest declarations with their technical and convoluted terminology to talk about Assad's departure or Russia's presence in Syria are indications of a willingness to compromise.
In fact, the US risks losing its european allies in the halls of power if its doesn’t change its stance on Syria to ease its allies’ concerns.

The time for a political solution is ripe and Russia is well positioned to carve out this solution ; it is cordial with every country in the region and has leverage on every country in the region.  Moreover, Russia, with China in mind too, is the country who stands to lose most if the Syrian confict continues threatening it with terrorism spreading to its territory and its communities.

Russia has two incentives for actively working out a solution to the Syrian crisis, stopping terrorism from spreading and transforming its leverage in the ME into political capital on the regional and international scene.  

But for Russia to convince all actors of the seriousness of its intentions and to give itself the means of the leverage it intends to exert it needs to beef up its military presence in Syria.  This is how we should interpret the recent moves by Russia in Syria.  In this, Russia’s task was made easy by its long standing military cooperation and military presence in Syria. 

This is not what some have called propping up Assad or inserting itself in the region. Russia has always been in Syria, it doesn't need to 'insert' itself there.  Russia's interests are in eradicating ISIS because ISIS wants to expand its brand in the Caucasus, and beyond.  Currently, ISIS is becoming a territorial threat to the Eurasian and African continents, America being protected by two oceans (ISIS marines is not for tomorrow.) 

Russia's other interest is in officializing its role as an unavoidable regional player.  Indeed, Russia doesn't seek to become an unavoidable regional player, it already is. Contrary to the US, it has maintained good relations with every country in the region and intends to capitalize on this as well as on its positive role in carving out a deal between Iran and the P5+1.  Iran is the other regional player that has interest to see the end of the Syria crisis.  But while Iran is certainely an important regional player with Saudi Arabia, none of them has Russia's leverage in the region and can be seen as a neutral party.  Russia certainely has Iran's blessings in its moves in Syria and intends to build on them.  

Russia may be seen in some circles in the US and the West as having a partisan stance in this crisis, however, it is currently the party that's most neutral and that has diplomatic channels with every player in the crisis.

Let's see Russia's new assertiveness in Syria and the region for what it is: a chance for eradicating terrorism and a chance for peace.  Russia has proved in August 2013, with the chemical weapons agreement between Syria and the UN, that it is capable of putting the breaks to another catastrophic military intervention in the Middle East, and it is going to do it again.


The Iran nuclear deal, the future of Islam, and Ayatollah Khamenei’s Letter to Western Youth

 Published at Iran's View.

If I were a faithful and pious Muslim and if I were to take a look at the state of the religion of Islam and Muslims today, I would be extremely worried. And even though I am not a Muslim faithful but an Arab secular Christian woman, I can still worry for my Muslim sisters and brothers and the religion of Islam. This is not a selfless concern. The future of minorities in the Middle East depends largely on the state of the Muslim religion, which is the religion of the majority. Also, the Muslim religion and its people are part and parcel of my cultural background, of who I am as an Arab Christian, as much as Muslims of the Middle East are culturally shaped by their presence as pieces in a mosaic of religions and sects, which the region never ceased to be, until al Qaeda and its most notorious branch, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS, came to be.

Again, as an Arab Christian, I was educated not on the holy Qur’an, but on the religion of Islam and its History. I grew up seeing Islam as a religion of conquest and enlightenment in the Arts and Sciences. I grew up seeing Islam as a forward progressive religion. Of course, as in every religion, I could perceive some extremism here and there, some backwardness, but these seemed marginal, or so was my perception during the late seventies, early eighties, until al Qaeda and its most notorious branch, ISIS, came to be.

Since 911, I have been asking myself: what happened to Islam? More so since the emergence and mainstreaming of sectarian killings inside Iraq after the 2003 US invasion and the recent mass displacements of religious minorities by ISIS in the Middle East, the largest since the Ottoman Empire disintegrated.

To answer this question one must understand what happened between the late seventies and the early eighties and how the struggles born out of these years came to their conclusion as the iron curtain fell on the Soviet bloc ushering in a short era of revigorated and unchallenged American and western imperialism.
During these decisive years, we witnessed an Islamic revolution in Iran that rose against western imperialism while another Islamic movement in Afghanistan came to be subsumed, and consumed, by the goals of western imperialism. We also witnessed a war on Iran from the West, with Iraq as a proxy, meant to challenge to the nascent Islamic revolution of Iran. 

These events, which will lead to a profound misunderstanding inside Islam, took place after the strong anti-imperialist sentiment in the Middle East, in which Palestine was the main conduit, was sidelined through a partial peace between Israel and Egypt. The Palestine struggle was buried by partial peace and the Palestinian resistance lost the support of most Arab states. This was going to lead to the still-born Oslo peace process and the slow asphyxiation of the Palestinian struggle, while Israeli settlements flourished as they continue to do until today.

The eighties end with the triumph of western imperialism. But in the Middle East, the Islamic revolution of Iran stood in the way of this triumph, albeit weakened and its society profoundly wounded by the Iraq war. After the end of the Iraq-Iran war and Ayatollah’s Khomeini’s death, the Islamic revolution of Iran had survived but the country was going to spend the next decade rebuilding itself amid a climate of increasing hostility, unilateral and multilateral sanctions.

Iran’s Islamic revolution inspired many and in many ways in the region. Islamist groups and Islamist movements rose in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. Only few survived and those who did, like Hezbollah, did so because they understood the spirit of the Islamic revolution of Iran, as it stood, as an Islamist insurgency, first and foremost, against western imperialism. Hezbollah resonated with the populations of the Arab world because it revived the Palestinian struggle and the struggle against western imperialism. At the same time, Hamas was born to challenge the occupation of Palestine, based on a non-compromising attitude toward the occupation, but with a different spirit marked by the context of inter Palestinian rivalry heavily weighed by outside and competing regional influences.

This is why Hamas and Hezbollah, two groups moved by the same goal for many years, find themselves today at odds because the forces that have been pulling Muslims apart since the event of the Islamic revolution of Iran, not only are still at work today, but they are now aided by scores of terrorist Takfiri groups claiming to be working for Muslims and Islam.

The Islamic revolution of Iran had clearly designated the anti-imperialist struggle as the defining project of modern Islam. But the Islamic revolution of Iran was not the only Islamic movement renewing the search to redefine Islam in modern times. However, the Islamist groups who came before it and most of those who were inspired by it sought a return to an era of Islam before western imperialism to find the tools to challenge western imperialism. 

Thus, the nostalgic return to Islam resulted in ambiguity toward the West. I am thinking here specifically of the Muslim Brotherhood. The ambiguity is in confronting modern western imperialism with conceptual tools that existed before this imperialism. This is at best a flight strategy, at worst, a legitimization of Wahhabism, the gangrene that’s been eating at the heart of Islam. Ambiguity exists also in the fact that running away from modernity prevents these movements from ever understanding imperialism, replacing understanding with mystification, leaving modernity to exert a fascination on their entire ideological conceptual apparatus without ever being able to understand it.

This is a tragic misunderstanding, by the insurgent Sunni branch of Islam, of how to conduct the struggle for relevance against western imperialism and renew the search to redefine Islam in modern times. Western imperialism, in its essence, is about the superiority of science and technology. By choosing nostalgia and pre-imperialist conceptual tools, insurgent Sunni Islam could then only fight western technical superiority and the way of life it implies with increased barbarism. Hence, al-Qaeda and ISIS.

The Islamic revolution of Iran, on the other side, has sought to fight western imperialism with the elements of its alleged superiority; technology. But contrary to other Muslim countries that had sought nuclear technology as a way to achieve military superiority, like the West, Iran sought nuclear technology only for civilian purposes and as a right to achieve equal status, to oppose to western imperialism the right to dignity. Because western imperialism sees itself as superior in status, it refuses dignity to others, to subdued countries, and it does so mainly through technology.

But, no matter how much Iran seeks nuclear energy for civilian purposes and technological research, the West can still be suspicious of Iran’s intentions. The recent deal concluded between Iran and the P5+1 adresses the question of suspicion by claiming that the requirement for trust was replaced by evidence and verification. Moreover, and away from gauging the intentions of the Islamic republic, the West should celebrate Iran’s quest for civil nuclear technology, under verification, on the basis that anything else than progress, including technological progress, will lead to barbarism. Of course, one might argue that technological progress has its own load of barbarism. European colonialism, and later American colonialism, in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and in the Americas, have many features of the barbarism we are witnessing from groups like al Qaeda and ISIS today. But that’s the problem with all technologies, they raise our living standards while at the same time becoming tools of the fundamental Human condition that aspires to God but has the instincts of a beast, so that without Ethics, technology or not, barbarism is always lurking behind the human condition. However, technology gives us at least the promise of lifting us from the condition of barbarism with the hope for a better life.

In renouncing, or more exactly, never wanting nuclear technology for military purposes, despite having the tools and the know-how for nuclear technology, the Islamic republic of Iran chose progress and Ethics over barbarism. It chose to confront western imperialism with both western superiority tools, technology, and its own tools taken from the moral handbook of the Islamic revolution. This is how, Iran’s negotiators unrelentelssly referred to Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa against developing nuclear weapons. Recently, Iran’s president Rouhani repeated this in a different form by affirming that Iran will never use its technological knowledge against other countries. This is how, to calm suspicions and ends unjust sanctions, Iran committed on July 14, 2015, to an unprecedented list of demands and inspections, effectively halting any potential imaginary nuclear military program. This ‘renouncement’ comes at a time when Iran is seen as a major player in a region shaken by various threats, conflicts, warfare, displacements, ethnic cleansing, barbarism and terrorism.

How could then Iran relinquish a nuclear military program when it needs it the most? That’s the question that was put forward recently by Vali Nasr. His answer is that pressured at home, the Islamic republic is relinquishing its regional standing to focus on its political survival at home. Nasr opposed in his argument the Islamic revolution survival at home to its regional standing.

I argue here that Nasr’s argument relies on the falase western perception of the Iran Islamic revolution and the false dichotomy between the internal and the external context.

A lot has been said about the internal pressure after the 2009 events in Iran and the idea that these events led Iran to enter the negotiating arena endures today. But it is based on many false assumptions and there is plenty of evidence for this. It was the US, in the first place, who started the process of the negotiations. Concerning the 2009 events, many studies attempted to validate the claim that the elections were stolen by Ahmadinejad but to no avail, Ahmadinejad was the choice of Iranians in 2009 and there was no elections’ fraud as alleged by western media. The wikileaks cables even show it was the US who was pushing the fraud narrative, contrary to the reality on the ground. Concerning the 2009 events too, there were many false assumptions concerning Iranian youth and how they were against the Islamic revolution but a western study shows that these assumptions were false and Iranians youth, in great majority, even those who are critical of the government, have integrated and internalized the Islamic revolution’s conservative values.

About the dichtotomy between the internal and the external context, this dichotomy can be proven false, especially in the context of ISIS, which Nasr recognizes as a threat to Iran. In the context of ISIS, the survival of the Islamic revolution of Iran equals the survival of Islam in general. Because that other branch of Islam which chose barbarism over modernity, as ISIS, its promoters and its mentors do, is taking Muslims on a self-destructive path from which there is no going back. Within the new context of ISIS, there will be victims to protect and dignity to restore to all Muslims so that it is through its Islamic revolution and particular Islamic message open to modernity,that Iran will exert its regional influence and this cannot be done without opening up and getting rid of years of ostracization and sanctions.

Of course, opening up is a risky move for the Islamic revolution of Iran, but it is also an ideological move, it is about Islam, defending Islam against itself by spreading a different kind of islamist message. It is also about rightfully assuming the leadership the Islamic republic of Iran deserves in the region and the world.
Iran did not relinquish its regional influence, isolating its revolution from the world to better save it by accepting a deal on its nuclear program. On the contrary, the Islamic republic of Iran will be exerting its influence differently and even more greatly on Muslims and the Islamic message, simply because in the context of ISIS, the survival of Islam will depend on the survival of the Islamic revolution of Iran, and one might argue that the survival of the Islamic revolution of Iran will depend on the survival of Islam as a whole as a religion well entrenched in modernity. This is the problematic we are facing now in the Middle East, and this is what makes reactionary rulers fear Iran.

After the beginning of the Arab Spring, there was panic among reactionary Persian Gulf rulers that the Islamic revolution of Iran model was going to spread in the region, as this commentator noted, so they unleashed al Qaeda and ISIS against revolutionary and anti-imperialist political Islam as embodied by Iran. This is why, after the nuclear deal, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif sought to address these fears through a series of visits and diplomatic initiatives to Arab and foreign capitals.
In light of what preceded, one could argue that it is not internal pressure that forced Iran to the negotiating table, but rather a regional context threatening Islam as a whole that convinced the Islamic revolution of Iran that the only way to positively affect Islam and the region, and therefore save its core mission, was to get rid of the imposed isolation and sanctions.

This is why, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015, one more attack among too many perpetrated by an Islamist insurgency gone bad, and while the only initiative the world could expect from Iran was the initiative around the nuclear talks, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, launched his own dialogue with the West on the Muslim religion and the Islamic message. #LetterForYou was addressed to the western youth and the world, through social media as an attempt to explain Islam away from al Qaeda/ISIS stereotypes.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s letter to the western youth has deeper meaning. It is the continuation of the Islamic republic of Iran’s policy of openness, which complements the nuclear deal.
By opening a dialogue with western youth on Islam, Khamenei’s letter seeks to extend the respect and normalcy gained from merely negotiating as equals with the West to all Muslims and the religion of Islam. Khamenei explains that he chose to address youth because it is too late to correct misconceptions about Islam among adults in West, especially when these misconceptions have been forged also in the West.

Someone has to save Muslims from themselves. The West is not going to do it. The Islamic revolution of Iran has achieved resistance, survival, dignity and respect. It is best positioned to take on the task. And this task starts and ends with an honest conversation about Islam. This is the deep meaning of Iran’s supreme leader letter to the western youth. After the nuclear deal, the Islamic republic of Iran is up to counter the message of barbarism with true knowledge in all domains, in the domain of technology as in the domain of religion.

This mission is of the utmost importance today. If you followed the nuclear deal and you didn’t pay attention to ‘Letter for you’, then you didn’t understand the most important thing about the deal: a dialogue of civilizations on the basis of mutual respect and dignity against the new barbarisms that threaten Islam.


We Are Many: a unique documentary about the Iraq war worldwide protests

Yesterday I went to watch the only screening in Montreal of the documentary about the worldwide protests against the Iraq war on February 15, 2003. The documentary is directed by Amir Amirani.  The main producers are Wael Kabbani & Omid Djalili.

I still don't understand why the producers chose to screen their documentary at the Montreal Just for Laughs festival, because one of the producers, Omid Djalili, is a comedian? It hurts the documentary more than anything else.

I have to admit I was looking forward and waiting to see this movie and think it is a necessary movie.

The documentary lasts one hour and 50 minutes.  It starts with 911 and ends in 2013 with the vote in the UK not to authorize war on Syria. It is well documented and edited.  It describes well the run up to the Iraq war and the social forces that brought us the protests on this unique day of Februray, 15, 2003.

The director and producer had access to the main protagonists in the anti-war movement and to many prominent experts and politicians who voiced their opposition to the war, some before, others, after the war. It has footage of parliamentary sessions about the Iraq war in the UK.

For someone who went to the protests, recalling this moment through the doucmentary can be quite emotional as the documentary succeeds in recreating the context.

The documentary is flawless as long as it stays within the main subject, but it does not stay within the limits of its main subject, and this is an error in my opinion because it misses on some aspects of the Iraq war and the anti-war movement that were not adressed.

The documentary does not adress the failure of the anti-war movement to act on the Libya invasion in particular and the failure of their movement in general.  It does not even mention Libya.

The documentary does not address Israel’s and the Neocons’ role in the push for the war on Iraq.  It even manages to show an Israeli flag in an anti-war protest at the end when Israel’s anti Iraq war protests were marginal.  Israel and its role in this war are totally absent from the movie.

The documentary rightly attributes the vote in UK not to go to war on Syria in 2013 as being a consequence of the changing public mood after the Iraq war. Although this is partial since it is Libya and its Islamist winter that were on the minds during this vote.

The documentary branches to the Arab Spring and the protests in Egypt and tries to establish a link between the Iraq war protests and the 2011 protests in Egypt.  This attempt is unconvincing and part of many attempts to own the Arab Spring. 


Footage of the protests on February 15, 2003.  Although they were insufficient in my opinion.

The resignation of Robin Cook in the house of parliament before the Iraq war vote.

John Le Carre saying about the Iraq war : This is a crime of a century

Bush jocking about Iraq’s WMD at the 2004 Correspondants' dinner association with the press hilarious is a sordid reminder of the complicity of the press in the Iraq war crime.

I recommend this documentary and hope it will gain a larger audience. 


The Iran Talks: Waiting for Godot?

 Original Text in French at RT en Français.

The talks between Iran and P5 + 1, relaunched since president Obama's historic phone call to president Rouhani in September 27, 2013, stand today, a few hours from the self-imposed deadline of July 7, as a set of technical problems. However, behind this technical aspect hide fears and hopes resulting in regional and international reactions oscillating between classical Greek drama and the theater of the absurd. 

Indeed, the Iranian nuclear issue plays on an existential backdrop for some of the actors and their regional allies. The Islamic Republic of Iran wants, beyond the agreement and the lifting of sanctions it entails, some dignity and normality within the international community, through the recognition of its right to civilian nuclear power.  In contrast, the United States and Israel have always seen the Iranian civilian nuclear program as a preamble to the military nuclear program.  Israel's suspicions in particular  derive from the fact that this country has developed its own military nuclear program, to which it never admitted, without any control or verification. Israel continues to produce nuclear weapons, has never signed any international treaty on proliferation and is not subject to inspections by the United Nations Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA). 

The climate of suspicion accompanies the Iranian nuclear program since the advent of the Islamic revolution, despite the fact that it began under the Shah's regime with the blessing of the West. But the absence of a permanent dialogue and diplomatic channels between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Western countries, and the presence of permanent tensions, as well as Iran's recent rise as a regional actor, have strengthened the climate of suspicion against Iran. On the other hand, Iran is afraid to open up to countries like the US, France or the UK, who do not hide their ambitions of making Middle Eastern governments docile, often by force. 

In 2003, France, the UK and Germany, then closely followed by the United Nations Security Council (UN) and the United States (US), put pressure on Iran to stop enriching Uranium, even for purposes of Research and Development. In conjunction with the UN, a system of unprecedented inspections is established, to which Iran submits as a signatory of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Thus, in 2003 and 2004, Iran voluntarily agrees to suspend its enrichment activities, although not in violation of the NPT, to calm suspicions and pressures. But in 2005, President Ahmadinejad announces the resumption of the nuclear program for civilian purposes. In fact, Iran has always insisted on the civilian dimension of the program and some commentators rightly point out that during the war with Iraq, Iran has never used weapons of mass destruction against Iraqis who have not hesitated to use their chemical weapons, developed with the help of the West, against Iranian soldiers. Iran has also repeatedly insisted on the existence of a fatwa issued by the father of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, against the development of nuclear weapons. But the announcement of the resumption of the civilian nuclear program is not well received in Western capitals and by the members of the Security Council. They gradually impose a regime of unilateral and multilateral sanctions, increasing in severity, peaking in 2010 and 2012 with draconian and punitive economic sanctions by the US, along with a secondary sanctions regime to tighten the noose on Iran 

The culmination of the sanctions, and the feeling in Western capitals of their inability to alter the position of Iran on its civilian nuclear program, as well as a political change in Iran in 2013, open the possibility for the resumption of talks. The US establishes diplomatic contacts with the Iranians secretly as soon as August 2013, few days after the election of Rouhani. These contacts lead to a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in September 2013 in New York on the sidelines of the General Assembly of the UN, and a call from President Obama to President Rouhani. With the tacit approval of the Supreme Leader of the Revolution, Ali Khamenei, the conditions are ripe to resume negotiations between Iran and the P5 + 1. 

The premise of the Iranian side of the talks is simple: once the civil dimension of the nuclear program is accepted, Iran agrees to give guarantees to calm suspicions about a possible nuclear military program. Therefore, the task of the negotiators is to separate civilian and military dimensions through a process of reducing the Iranian nuclear issue to a series of technical problems; the amount and percentage of enriched uranium, the number of centrifuges, etc... The recognition of Iran's right to a civilian nuclear program is formalized at the beginning of the negotiations in Novembre 2013 in Geneva in what is called the preliminary agreement or the joint plan of action.  The joint plan of action results in a limitation of Iran's enrichment activities, a series of verification by the IAEA and partial lifting of sanctions unfreezing Iranian assets abroad. The subsequent goals of the talks, and not the lesser ones, were going to try to separate the civilian from the military dimensions of the program by implementing processes of verification and control. 

It is clear that reducing the Iranian nuclear issue, for long an  existential problem, to a series of technical problems, is done with the political will to reach an agreement and is made possible by a plethora of highly able scientists and engineers, as well as negotiators. But the existential aspect never left a negotiation arena that has become technical, bringing additional difficulties along the way, despite the fact that the main opponents to a deal with Iran, Israel and the Gulf monarchies, have raised their all-out barrage of objections from the start of the talks.  For it was not until a year and half and two missed self-imposed deadlines, that a framework for an agreement emerges in April 2015, but no final agreement. The framework agreement reduces the number of Iranian centrifuges, halts the construction of new enrichment facilities, poses constraints on the work in some reactors, provides for the monitoring of sites by the IAEA and the lifting of sanctions. Very quickly, the timing of the lifting of sanctions becomes problematic. The US wants to make it conditional on Iran's compliance while Iran expects nothing less than the simultaneous lifting of all sanctions, the timetable for the lifting of sanctions immediately becoming a thorny issue. 

Another thorny issue, which was added to the negotiations, and which was not present at the start, is that of a past and possible military dimension of the program (PMD).  According to investigative journalist Gareth Porter, this question was raised based on information provided by Israel to the US. Porter comes to the conclusion that the information about a possible past military dimension to Iran's nuclear program isn't confirmed by other intel agencies and goes against the religious beliefs of the Iranian leadership. Furthermore, assuming that a military nuclear program existed in the past, it is clear that it no longer exists because neither past IAEA inspections nor inspections requested during the negotiations have been able to demonstrate the existence of such a program. Then asking explanations about a past program is akin to asking Iran to prostrate itself accused and guilty, which goes against creating a productive climate for negotiations. 

But if excessive demands from the US and its ally Israel were to continue, or if these excessive demands were to prevent an agreement or prevent the US from being bound by a possible agreement via a political coup made against the agreement by a hostile and fiercely pro-Israel congress, it is not certain that other countries partaking in the negotiations will follow this path. Indeed, the unity of the P5 + 1 is admirable because their interests  vis-à-vis an agreement with Iran differ and diverge.  And the progress made until now is considerable to be squandered. 

Whatever the outcome of talks on July 7, or after July 7, which may emerge to be the case, there are already two major achievements. The first achievement is the indisputable right of Iran to civilian nuclear energy endorsed by all negotiators. The second achievement is rather psychological, it is the ability of the public, now that the negotiations have taken place, to separate reality from fears, therefore discrediting the propaganda against the Iranian nuclear program. As for the rest, and if we are to believe the latest statements made by John Kerry and Javad Zarif in Vienna on July 5th, it seems that we will have to wait again.

Le nucléaire iranien: En attendant Godot?

My analysis for RT en Français on the nuclear negotiations between Iran and P5+1 (in French).


Book Review: Les chemins de Damas

The roads to Damascus (Les chemins de Damas)

France knows Syria well.  It carved out the country from the remnants of the Ottoman empire.  But France, who opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, gambled the hard line on regime change in Syria and lost.  The recent crisis in Syria, said recently ‘Les chemins de Damas’ author to L’orient Le Jour, has been treated in France with emotions and political irrealism.

The authors of ‘Les chemins de Damas’, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, are successively Grand reporter at RTL and journalist at Le Figaro.  They were both taken hostages by an alQaida affiliated group in Iraq in 2004 for four months.  Malbrunot and Chesnot have been keen observers of the Middle East and jihadist groups.  They published on Iraq and Qatar, and Malbrunot has published on Palestine.   Malbrunot writes a blog on the Middle East for Le Figaro and he is the only French reporter to have met and interviewed Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in the most critical period of the crisis in 2012.  Assad gave recently an interview to Paris Match in December 2014, and today to Foreign Affairs.

‘Les Chemins de Damas’ is an investigation into how the Syrian crisis was mismanaged by Paris, despite a deep knowledge of Syria formed by a long history of hostility and collaboration at the diplomatic and intelligence levels between the two countries.  The main sources for Chesnot and Malbrunot are the principal actors of this long history.  That’s one of the many strengths of the book.  The book has also annexes of previously unpublished intel reports and diplomatic cables, as well as a letter from Hollande to Saudi king, dated Decembre 2013, concerning the Saudi financing and buying of French military equipment destined to Lebanon and the kingdom.

The book offers a brief historical background and it is rich in historical context and covers the French-Syrian relations during a time period extending between the Lebanese civil war and the present day.  It is divided in eight sections that follow the ups and downs of the relation between France and its former colony, more exactly 'protectorate'.  The introduction is an overview of the main content while the conclusion attempts to exlain France’s attitude during the current Syria crisis suggesting France might take the road to a Damascus ruled by the Baath again.  The preface of the book is by general Philippe Rondot,  a veteran of the French secret services as well as a specialist of the Arab world.  Mr. Rondot retired only recently and he gives the authors great insight throughout the book.  His insight is informed not only by his own experience but also by his father’s legacy in the Levant. Pierre Rondot, a St Cyrien in the French army who served in Morocco and the Levant, is credited of establishing the Lebanese and Syrian secret services.  The core of the book follows the relationship during the presidencies of Mitterrand, Chirac and Sarkozy, with the greater part devoted to the current crisis.

There is a great deal of continuity and quality in what the French know about Syria, and this is reflected in Chesnot and Malbrunot’s book, which makes the main question the book addresses all the more relevant : how could the French have been so wrong on Syria recently?  So the book tries to answer this very question.

Covert wars

The book starts by detailing the covert war that France and Syria waged on each other during the Lebanese civil war, wrestling to become the main influence in Lebanon.  This covert war started with the assassination of the French ambassador in Beirut in Septembre 1981 during what might have been the most critical period in the Lebanese civil war. The assassination was blamed first on Iran, but the French suspected Syria.  There were retaliations.  A bomb explosion at a Baath party headquarters in Damascus killed 43 people, a week after the assassination of the French ambassador in Beirut.  In 1983, few minutes after the attack on the US marines, 58 French UN soldiers die from an explosion at their barracks in Beirut.  This became known as the Drakkar post attack or the Beirut barracks bombings.  In 2008, when Bashar el-Assad was on official visit to Paris, some in France protested the visit, recalling the attack on the French soldiers, but an Elysee source told Le Monde that France blamed the assassination of the French ambassador on Syria but thought that Iran was behind the Beirut barracks bombings. 

The critical years of the Lebanese civil war, which culminated with the withdrawal of the PLO form Beirut, the massacres of Sabra and Chatila, the Israeli occupation and the killing of  the US marines and French UN soldiers, convinced the international community that the situation in Lebanon couldn’t be managed but by Syria.  France then expatriated the rebel Lebanese army commander Michel Aoun, who fought the Syrian army, and made peace with Damascus.  This would lead down the road to the Taef agreement and the pax Syriana in Lebanon that will last fifteen years, between 1990 and 2005. 

The pax Syriana will be followed by a period of relatively  good relations between Paris and Damascus.  But the French didn’t wait until the end of the Lebanese civil war to mend relations with Damascus.  François Mitterrand paid a visit to Syria in Novembre 1984.  The people close to Mitterrand at the time of the visit told the authors that Mitterrand despised the methods of Hafez but held him in great respect and was impressed by him.

There is hope for western capitals to influence Syria again after Hafez's death

But the height of the French-Syrian relations will be reached when Bashar el-Assad succeeds his father at the presidency.  Hafez el-Assad’s death has been anticipated by Paris when news of his declining health were known after the Jordanian and Israeli secret services managed to take a urine sample during his visit to  Jordan to pay his respects at king Hussein’s funerals.  Hafez was feared and expectations among regional and international players to influence the future of  Syria were henceforth permitted with Bashar.  France, like others, and maybe more than others, was eager and ready for change in Syria.

When Bashar el-Assad takes over after his father’s death, there is hope in the country and hope abroad. In the country there is hope for reforms, and in France and other western countries, there is hope that the fortress Syria, built by the respected and feared Hafez, would not and cannot be maintained by his son.  France wanted Syria's influence in Lebanon diminished.  Lebanon was and still is a source of great tension between the two countries.  While close collaborations between Damascus and Paris at the security and economic levels were ongoing, a tension was building between the two countries in Lebanon, mainly thanks to Lebanon's prime minsiter, Rafik Hariri.  

Rafik Hariri worked hand in hand with both the Syrians and the French, and it is understood that it was Hariri, whom Chirac had met earlier in 1981 at a donor’s event after his failed bid for France’s presidency, who suggested to Chirac to mentor young Bashar. Hariri’s role is dissected at length in the book and he will attempt to emancipate himself from Syria by using his personal relationship with Chirac.  There is a story about Chriac visiting Damascus for Hafez’s funerals.  He pays a visit to the French embassy where he is secretly met by Hariri welcoming him on the stairs as if he were the real owner of the place.  This small event is emblematic of Hariri and of the relations between the two men.  Chirac’s Middle East policy became hijacked by Rafik Hariri who counselled Chirac on all matters related to the Middle East, to the great dismay of the Quai d’Orsay, and the French secret services, who saw in it a ‘Harirization’ of France’s foreign policy in the region.   

Chirac wanted to act as a mentor for Bashar and Bahsar granted French advisors and companies contracts in a bid to reform the state apparatus at the adminsitrative level and open the economy to foreign and private investments.  The authors speak on many occasions of Bashar’s genuine desire to distinguish his rule from his father’s.  But Bashar faced resistance at home from an anchylosed state apparatus and administration, and from old regime apparatchiks like Abdel Halim Khaddam who would later leave Syria for a Hariri paid golden exile in France.  Bashar’s willingness to reform the state had many French experts, businessmen and academics shuttling between France and Damascus, invited to evaluate and propose partnerships and solutions, including the creation of a national school of administration modeled on the French one, which produces high level civil servants and elected officials.  The authors tell the story of the French academic, responsible for setting up the Syrian school of administration, visiting Rafik Hariri in Beirut to offer him the same deal, at the behest of Chirac who wanted to please his friend Hariri.  They say Hariri wasn’t interested.  He received the Academic in his bedroom, in his pajamas, and told her that he was more interested in the creation of business opportunities, not in governance.   

The frantic collaboration in education, culture, and business investments will resume with Sarkozy between 2008 and 2011, after the relation cools between 2005 and 2008, due to the assassination of Rafik Hariri.  Syria stood accused of assassinating Hariri, but the international community later absolved Syria only to point fingers at Hezbollah.

The Harirization of France’s foreign policy meant that France was seeing the region through the lens of political Sunni Islam since Hariri’s patron is the king of Saudi Arabia.   This might have led to a de facto rapprochement between France and the US who was also close to Saudi Arabia when it came to crafting its policies in Lebanon and Syria.

But during the period between 2000 and 2005, Hariri grew frustrated with Bashar as Bashar wasn’t letting Hariri, who was a businessman more than a politician, lay hands on Syria’s new budding economy, especially the telecom sector which the Baath considered as a sector of strategic importance not to be given to outsiders.

Regime change

Hariri was the origin of UN resolution 1559 sponsored by France and for which France cooperated closely with the US to demand all foreign armies depart Lebanon.  This was a first in France's policy in the region where it previously had a policy distinctive from the US.  But UN1559 failed to weaken the Syrian influence in Lebanon after 2005.  So after what might have been considered as a last attempt to co-opt Bashar, encouraged this time by Qatar and executed by Nicolas Sarkozy, between 2008 and 2011, a decision for direct regime change in Syria was taking shape in the minds of western politicians when the 'Arab Spring' knocked at Syria's door in Deraa.  In a recent interview with Paris-Match, Bashar el-Assad confirmed that Sarkozy’s initiative to resume good relations with Damascus was at Qatar’s behest.  It is reasonable to believe that the French were surprised by what happened in Deraa. Assad was due to make a high level visit to Paris in 2011, after his highly visible 2008 visit where he attended the Bastille day parade.  Between 2008 and 2011, Assad visited Paris at least three times, two on an official schedule and once in a private capacity with his wife.  Sarkozy’s ‘Relance’ was beneficial for France.  Between 2008 and 2011, La crème de la crème of French companies were signing contracts with the Syrian state and private French entrepreneurs were opening businesses in Syria.  However, business wasn't easy for foreign companies in Syria because of the problem of state corruption.

But despite the ups and downs,  and up until the uprising, the authors write that the security collaboration never ceased between Syria and France, even after the assassination of Rafik Hariri. France honored its contracts to deliver two Helicopters for Bashar’s personal use in June 2005, 4 months after Hariri’s assassination.  And Alcatel built a secured network of telecommunications on Mount Qassioun for fourteen of the highest ranking members of the ruling Baath party.  This despite France’s deep involvment with the international justice process that accused Syria of Hariri's assassination.  Its agents were first on the ground of the explosion that killed Hariri and members of his convoy.  France was also involved in producing a witness who was later discredited.  France hosted a re creation of the Beirut explosion on its terrirory for the international tribunal, in great secrecy, allowing only Israeli planes to fly over the site two days before the reenactment took place.  This was done without even informing homeland security about the fly-over.   

Then Deraa happened.  France seems to have been caught off-guard and was wary of not repeating the mistake of being on the wrong side as with the Tunisia revolution.  Plus, France was now feeling strong, fresh from the Libya adventure.

The agenda for regime change in Syria might have been just an idea lacking serious planning and coordination, taking shape only through improvisations along the wave of the 'Arab Spring.'  What probably weighed in the decision to proceed with precipitation in Syria was the fallout of the July 2006 war in Lebanon during which Syria provided support and weapons to Hezbollah to resist the Israeli assault.  This made Hezbollah and his Syrian and Iranian allies strong and made the matter to break this alliance urgent. 

However, the Syrian uprising was unfolding on the ground in a different manner from what was described in the media and in the communiqués of the Quai d’Orsay.  The authors write that at the height of the civil non violent protests there were only 400000 present over a total of twenty two million people. French intelligence agents, who were present on the ground in Deraa and elsewhere, witnessed violent protests by Islamists early on.   We learn for example that there were French agents in Baba 'Amr in Homs when French journalist Edith Bouvier was evacuated and that they were probably the reason why Edith Bouvier refused to be evacuated by the Syrian red crescent.  Early on, the chants weren’t ‘selmiah’ (we want peace), but ‘we want to topple Assad.’  Early on, Islamists, organised and supported from the outside, were armed on the ground.  Early on, the media lied.   The French ambassador Eric Chevalier present in Syria at the time, and who famously went to Hama on his own initiative with Robert Ford when the protests started there, complained about France24 for its biased coverage, which wasn’t in his opinion close to the reality inside Syria.  Chevalier was adamant at repeating that regime change wasn't going to be easy in Syria and that Assad wasn't going to fall. 

The irreality of the Syrian war in the media

The authors critique the media when they write that, caught by a defiant international media whose coverage was about regime change, the Syrian regime didn't want to appear bent on reforms, because there was a risk of appearing soft, and losing ground.  They also argue that if the protests were only internally motivated, asking for reforms, then a simple apology for the Deraa shootings might have worked.  This is argued in a chapter titled ‘The sorcerer’s apprentices’ and validate the early assessment made by Assad of the protests, that they were the work of external actors waging war on Syria. For instance, it is obvious that the Muslim Brotherhood led the early protests and it is known that the Muslim Brotherhood had no foothold in Syria, being an external organization, not a grassroot Syrian organization.  The authors also write that the Islamist radicals, not indigenous to Syria, did not want a pacifist rebellion which was going to leave them on the side. They prepared the ground for a military rebellion very early.  There are many indications in the book that external actors wanted to militarize the crisis.  Former deputy prime minister Abdallah Dardari confided to the authors that intercepted phone communications heard Saudis saying ‘we want blood.’  There were also calls from the radical cleric Ibn Andallah al-Hosni to kill Christians, Shias and Alawites, as early as August 2011.  The same cleric also spoke of the need for an influx of foreign fighters to make jihad in Syria, adding that, following the Libyan model, Syria needs an alliance between the West and militant Islam (quoted verbatim by the authors).   This was the time when the West thought it could control Islamist fighters and use them to achieve its ends in Libya, Syria and maybe elsewhere.  Under this tacit paradigm, western media turned a blind eye on the militarization and the sectarian and extremist characters of the rebellion, and presented a pacifist rebellion oppressed by an evil regime.  Only more than a year later, early 2013,  the media came to admit that there was some armed rebellion in Syria.  By then they started to speak of a ‘mainly pacifist rebellion.’ On the other hand, the authors write that under assault, the regime hardened its stance, and from August first to August eight 2011, many prominent pacifist militants were arrested or assassinated. Syria's tragic fate was sealed early in the crisis.

Once the uprising turned to militarization, western powers, France included, who by then uttered only the usual ‘Assad must go’, delegated the management of the crisis to Qatar.  They will come to regret it later.  Contacts were taken with secular opponents of the regime to join the external opposition, which was mainly Islamist, for the sole purpose to hide both the Islamist and militaristic aspect of the uprising, to make the uprising appear as an internal one, and to provide a fig leaf to a full blown war on Syria by external powers.  But the fig leaf won’t work for long, secular figures were a minority in the opposition.  Under the patronage of Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood imposed its conditions, using secular figures without giving them support, and refusing a proposal to form an internal opposition council, which would have led to a diminished Brotherhood influence.

In octobre 2011, When Sarkozy’s foreign minister Alain Juppé meets with the newly formed opposition council, with secular fig leaves Kodmani and Ghalioun as members, he speaks of France’s support for the pacifist revolution.  But by then the ‘revolution’ was fully militarized and fully Islamist.

The drive for a war of intervention led by France and the UK with chemical weapons as casus belli

The chapter titled ‘La haine’ (the hate) exposes the attempts made by France to provoke an intervention in Syria.  Most of these attempts turned around chemical weapons' use and how France tried to pin it on the regime despite the fact that there was no hard evidence the regime used chemical weapons.  Moreover, France blatanly ignored the use of chemical weapons in the spring 2013 by the rebels in the Aleppo area.  The authors come to the same conclusion as Seymour Hersh in his two investigative reports about the subject, published in the LRB, here and here.  They detail the implication of the Élysée in doctoring a report on chemical attacks in which the informants’ note, that a gaz leak could have resulted from a regime bombardement of a secret rebels’ chemical weapons laboratory, was simply redacted. 

But another interesting story is the alleged ‘investigation’ led by a journal close to the French government line on Syria, Le Monde, on chemical weapons’ use.  Starting in May 2013, le Monde published a series of articles on chemical weapons’ use by the Syrian regime in Ghouta.  Laurent Fabius, foreign minister under Hollande, thanked Le Monde for their 'help' in a June 5th appearance on French TV channel 2.  However, Chesnot and Malbrunot reveal that Le Monde journalists who took the samples from Syria, served only as ‘mules’ carrying samples given to them by the doctors of the ‘free Syrian Army’, collected from more than one site, sites that le Monde journalists weren’t able to verify.  Le Monde photographer and journalist took the samples and handed them to French intel agents across the border in Amman, where they were stationed after the closure of their embassy in Damascus.  The samples were then given to the French embassy in Amman who sent them directly to the only Paris laboratory capable of analyzing such samples, without the knowledge of the Quai d’Orsay.  The Quai was surprised to receive a letter from Le Monde editor-in-chief, Nathalie Nougayrède, asking when she could expect the results of the analysis.  Under such circumstances, The Quai had to publish the results, which converged with earlier reports made after sample collection by French intelligence.  The results of the French investigations pointed to discrete traces of sarin used on a small scale.  It is around this time, write the authors, that Paris and London, against all other western countries, were in a drive for an intervention war on Syria. The next chemical weapons attack of August 2013 was just few weeks away and it was going to be on a larger scale.

The 'New Roads to Damascus'

The book ends with a final chapter titled  ‘The new roads to Damascus’.  In it, the auhtors conclude that Paris, among all other countries, must have known well the difficulties related to regime change in Syria because of the strength of the regime.  The Syrian government, ever since an earlier bloody revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood in the eighties, was ready for such a challenge.  The authors advise that western countries should have aimed for reform and not for regime change.  They anticipate the resumption of relations between western countries and the current regime in Damascus, and the need for security collaboration between Syria and the West to fight Islamist radicals.

The authors write that France acted with emotions and was not able to assess the reality of the uprising but rather wanted its wish for regime change to become a reality.  Not everyone saw things this way: as dissent inside the Quai d’Orsay grew on the irrealist stance France took on Syria, a personal envoy of Sarkozy was disptached to tell dissenters that one message was to be heard and followed: ‘Assad was going to fall.’  Where differences of opinions existed, they were muted.  

What emerges from the book is a relationship between France and Syria that became vassalized, subjected to other interests: the Gulf and the US.  Chirac saw Syria through the eyes of his friend Hariri and Saudi Arabia.  And Sarkozy departed from Chirac’s policy only to follow Qatar’s.  In both cases, the US, whose policies in the region have long been aligned with the Gulf's, won by rallying to its hardline on Syria, and in both cases, the formidable French diplomacy in the Levant not only became redundant, but was now working against its initial aims when it won a mandate on these countries after WWI; protecting Christian minorities.

Contrary to appearances, France didn’t lead during the Syrian crisis, it merely followed blindly, and against its own intelligence, experience and interests, policies made in the United States and the Gulf, serving as a frontline for these policies. The best proof of this is that one can look hard at a rationale, direction, and centre of decision for France's Syria policy, and yet find none.


Us and Putin

Yesterday, I watched the 2012 documentary 'I, Putin',  by Hubert Seipel (French version, Youtube.)

Seipel was one of the few westerners to approach Putin so closely, accompanying him on hunting trips, to his Hockey games, and swimming and Judo practices.  His documentary is one of the few to present a complex portrait of Putin and was hailed as objective while being intimate, leaving the international audience to make its mind and gain a better knowledge of Putin through the documentary.  Despite this, Spiegel gave a largely western centric and negative account of Putin, as he appears in the documentary, brushing aside the insight offered by Seipel.

The documentary is not intimate in the sense that it offers knowledge of Putin's private life, which was kept off-limits.  It is intimate in another way, in reducing the distance between the largely a priori western perception of Putin - as a leader whose only aim is soviet revival - and the national perception of Putin, by presenting Putin against a backdrop of recent Soviet and Russian history and Putin's family history.

The most important thing we learn from this documentary, in my opinion, is that Putin was not part of the Soviet nomenklatura.  He comes from a working class background and had an ambition for himself to work for the KGB.

Putin left the KGB after their failed coup against Gorbatchev's Perestroika, proved his skills in the St. Petersburg's municipal council, as advisor to the mayor, fighting the crime that engulfed Russia after the fall of the USSR, then became Yeltsin's trusted man, probably because of the same skills he showed in St. Petersburg. He restructured & headed the new KGB, the FSB, and climbed quickly the different echelons of power during the Yeltsin's years.  Putin's rise to the pinnacle of power during these troubled years appears as natural, he had the right instincts to rescue his country from disintegration navigating between a disoriented class of apparatchiks, and young oligarchs seizing the country's resources and industry, unemcumbered by the non existant law and order.  This was a time when the USSR had disappeared leaving Russians without institutions, without a country, and in economic apocalypse.  Putin filled the void and guided the existent institutions on the road to reformation, while nationalizing the country's resources and bargaining them on the world market in order to sustain an economic activity capable of lifting the country and its population from the economic abyss towards which it was pushed by the oligarchs who were aided by West.

One can fairly say that the new Russia is not the Russia of the Tzars, not the Russia of the communist party, not the Russia of the oligarchs, it is the Russia of Putin.  We can easily understand the responsibility that Putin must feel and shoulder for Russia.  It is within this context that we have to understand Russia's nascent democracy.  Putin could have easily become a full-fledged autocrat, unemcumbered by the democratic process.  But here we see another aspect of Putin: a man self-aware of the perception of his leadership in the rest of the world - and correlatively - of the place of Russia in the world.  The Putin we see in the documentary is a leader who wants to work with the rest of the world, and the West, as he proved it many times already by developing Russia's diplomacy and econnomic reach worldwide.

But what has the West offered Putin?  At best, an inability to understand the new Russia, at worst, disdain, arrogance and threats to comply with the diktat of a league bent on keeping Russia 'contained' or rather weak - to speak plainly.  Indeed, neither Russia, nor the USSR, even at the height of Soviet might and power, ever achieved the military reach of the West.

I wondered, at the end of the documentary, which emphasized Putin's outsider status among his country's elite, if western leaders, none of whom come from a working class background similar to Putin's, and none of whom ever felt the weight of having to shoulder, on their own, the responsibility of keeping a country over their heads, as in keeping a roof over one's head and bread on the table, will ever be able to understand the man and his mission.

For certain, Putin can be ruthless, but which leader isn't when his country is on the brink?   The western press would like us to believe that Putin is only this.  He isn't. 

Of interest in the documentary:
Minute 21 : 19 Putin on NATO's anti-missile defence shield
Minute 24 : 26 Putin on Chechnya
Minute 35 : Putin on the disintegration of the USSR
Minute 40:  Footage of Yeltsin, the West's darling, during a government session
Minute 46 :23 Putin and the oligarchs


Syria: The Year of Living Dangerously

It is said that Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president after independence, borrowed the expression ‘vivere pericoloso’ from Italian, to which he added ‘Tahun’, or ‘year’, making it ‘Tahun vivere pericoloso’, or ‘The Year of Living Dangerously.’  He used it as a title for his independence day speech in 1964, a year before a coup attempt against him by various groups – the army, the communist party, and the Islamists - weakened him to the point of making him relinquish power, ending in house arrest.  ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’ is also the title of both a novel and a movie about the coup, a fiction built around three central characters, a local activist opposed to Sukarno, an Australian journalist, and a female British embassy officer who provides him privileged information.

To draw an analogy between Syria and Indonesia at the time and between Assad and Sukarno is revealing: Syria is still very much in a post colonial era and Assad has been, since March 2011, the target of a concerted and open effort from various forces aimed at ending his rule.  But in his third year into the crisis, Assad is going nowhere and does not appear to be weakened by the crisis.  If anything, Assad’s leadership is now uncontested, as no credible leader has emerged from the various groups working to remove him from power.  Also, the fictional account of the coup against Sukarno touches directly on the way the Syrian crisis has been portrayed in the West.  In the movie, the trio formed by the local activist, the British diplomat and the journalist produces a view of events marked by their own relationships, hopes, and fantasies.  This provides a measure of how fraught with manipulation, and marked with a western-centric perspective, is the information that western journalists, as foreign correspondents, weave their stories around.  In Syria’s case, this paradigm has had its limits tested by the duration of the crisis as the manipulated information has led to unreal expectations about seeing Assad gone, now severely challenged by realities wilfully ignored for most of the first two years of the crisis.  Chief among them are the heavy presence of Islamist extremists in the heart of the Syrian ‘revolution’, the dynamic of the Resistance axis, and Syria allies’ – Iran and Russia - formidable diplomacy.

Enter Al-Qaida and other related groups

We were told that the uprising against Bashar el-Assad became violent as protesters retaliated against the initial violence of the regime.  But there are many indicators that the violence of the uprising was not a spontaneous outpouring of grief and anger, but an organized one, and that Islamist extremists affiliated with or inspired by al-Qaida, already operating in Syria in 2011, were responsible for this violence.  Most of the violence in 2011 and 2012 happened in towns  bordering Lebanon and Iraq where al-Qaida, and/or al-Qaida inspired groups, have been particularly active since 2007-2008.  There is not one fighting video provided by the Syrian opposition in which there are no enthusiastic shouts of ‘AllahuAkbar’, indicating, at least, that secularism is not the hallmark of armed groups fighting the Syrian state, contrary to what we were repeatedly told by the mainstream media.  Add to this the attacks against religious minorities and the vociferations of extremist scholars, or the thinking masters of jihadists against Bashar el-Assad and his ‘sect’, and we end up with an uprising carrying an Islamist militant agenda from the beginning.

Less than three months into the crisis in Syria,  in  June 2011, armed groups attacked government checkpoints and buildings at Jisr el-shugur, took the town, and killed 120 army and security personnel.  There are differing accounts of what happened in Jisr el-Shugur, but the main fact is still that this was the first act of organized violence against the army and the police aimed not at retaliation but at terrorizing and infusing fear among army and police personnel and the population at large, with bodies of the police and the army mutilated and thrown into the river.  During the same period, parts of the city of Homs were overtaken by armed groups who, to this day, still control a small area amidst continuing and uninterrupted fighting with the Syrian army since May 2011.  The next territory infiltrated by armed groups would be on the Syrian-Turkish border, culminating in the fall of parts of Aleppo - the city who did not want the revolution - to armed groups in the summer of 2012.  With the ‘revolution’ in Aleppo and Kurdish areas along the Turkish border inflamed, Turkey opened its border to jihadists and weapons destined to Syria after having tried, and failed, to promote ‘humanitarian’ corridors to open the way for a NATO bombing campaign on Syria. 

Looking at the maps of rebel-controlled areas - as al-Qaida terrorists came to be called, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey appear to have been the main providers of both al-Qaida and al-Qaida inspired militants operating on a regional level (French expert Fabrice Balanche calls the latter non-internationalists Islamists).  This new al-Qaida field operation in Syria, after Iraq, was facilitated by many factors.  Among them are Lebanon’s weak institutions and sectarian worries, Erdogan’s Islamist agenda, and the larger political context set up by the Bush administration, with complicity from Israel and Saudi Arabia, to weaken the Resistance axis of Syria, Iran, and Lebanon, as Seymour Hersh uncovered in ‘The Redirection’.  

To explain the organized violence against the Syrian state and its institutions, we were told that defected soldiers did most of the fighting.  Some estimates point to 100000 defected soldiers, an unverified number, with al-Jazeera only recently publishing an interactive tool tracking Syria defections, pointing to merely 82 senior army and security personnel who defected, and no tracking of soldiers’ defections. The myth of the FSA, the ‘empty logo’ for a non existent secular uprising against Assad, was born, and it stood firm in the media narrative until only recently, when it appeared that the FSA leadership, following in the footsteps of the Syrian opposition, imploded, with one notable leader defecting to a foreign country seeking a decent living away from the uncertainties of the ‘revolution’.

It is very troubling to watch the schizophrenia of mainstream journalists who portray the Syrian crisis as a civil and sectarian war led by mainly ‘secularists’ fighters from FSA, without seeing any contradiction in their statements.

Talk about al-Qaida in Syria in the mainstream media started openly, albeit timidly, only after the US labelled the main Islamist group fighting there, Jabhat el-Nusra, as a terrorist organization in December 2012, probably prompted by the assassination of its ambassador and three others in the US embassy compound in Benghazi by armed Islamists, on September 11th, 2012.  Barely one month later, jihadists were threatening both Algeria and Mali.  The new opportunities have emboldened al-Qaida and the groups it inspires.  By early 2013, those who were hoping that the unleashing of jihadists and their sectarian violence would result in the ‘controlled’ collapse of the Syrian state realized that they were losing control over the process to jihadists.  Serious people noticed, but not the mainstream media, who are still keeping the lid on horrible stories of abduction and detention of their own people at the hands of al-Qaida groups in Syria, with some coming back to tell the dark side of the ‘revolution’, still unheard by their colleagues.

Enter Hezbollah

We don’t know when Hezbollah did enter the fray in Syria, but it must have been a gradual process.  The Syrian opposition accused Hezbollah from day one of helping Assad, despite the party’s apparent neutrality, going as far as to offer mediation between the parties in 2011. Hezbollah always maintained that it took the decision to enter Syria when it felt that it was being targeted by the armed groups fighting against Assad.  Indeed, at the time, not only was the Lebanese border porous with fighters crossing in both directions, but friction points appeared quickly in the Lebanese territory, notably in Tripoli and Palestinian refugee camps in Saida.  With Syrian refugees pouring into Lebanon, the Lebanese state’s authority challenged in ‘Arsal, a Lebanese town staunchly against Assad, and the instability in Lebanon’s two Sunni cities, Tripoli and Saida, the stage was set for a serious challenge to the territorial integrity of both countries, a delicate question when it comes to relations between Syria and Lebanon. Losing territorial integrity  was going to be a slippery slope for the Syrian government,  starting the irreversible process of losing control over the whole country.  As Assad spelled out in one his speeches, what is important, he said, is not winning here and there: what is important is territorial integrity.  Hence, the battle for Qusayr, in which Hezbollah openly joined Syrian government troops, was a battle for territorial integrity for both Syria and Lebanon.

From the party’s leader declarations during the speeches he made in 2013, it appears that Hezbollah first provided strategic and logistical help to approximately 30000 Lebanese Shia living in Syrian border towns who were subjected to the violence of armed groups battling Assad.  Secondly, Hezbollah sent fighters to protect the shrine of Sayyidah Zainab, near Damascus,  when it was surrounded by rebels.  Then Hezbollah openly admitted its role in the battle to retake Qusayr, a town near the Lebanese border, in June 2013.  After Qusayr, there was question as to whether Hezbollah would retreat or continue the fight in other parts of Syria. Even though the party’s leader said, in defiance of its critics, that Hezbollah reserves the right to intervene anytime and anywhere in Syria, the lines of the battle for Hezbollah are still mainly oriented, to this day, at preventing Syria’s armed groups from entering or leaving Lebanon, and preserving the territorial integrity of the country.

Hezbollah’s role meant that the Syrian government could count on Hezbollah’s fighters to secure its borders with Lebanon.  The Syrian government proceeded similarly on the Turkish frontier where it allowed Kurdish fighters, who are neither his nor the armed groups’ allies, to operate freely to protect their areas. 

The Syrian army has been fighting for more than two years to repel armed groups from Damascus, the capital, and to maintainthe country’s territorial integrity.  Are we in a state of stalemate, as some mainstream media suggest?  Not if we consider that no army can easily get rid of an insurgency aided by exterior actors, and not if we consider that, at no point in time, the armed groups were able to exert total control over towns and frontiers.  Until now, the Syrian army has succeeded in preventing the armed groups from putting into question the territorial integrity of the Syrian state, and this, in itself, is a victory.  Not to mention the unique experience acquired by the Syrian army in fighting these groups in rural and urban settings.

Diplomacy, not chemical weapons, as a game changer in the ME: the case of Russia and Iran

A reality often overlooked by the mainstream media is the help provided by Iran and Russia to Syria.  Just as one cannot count how many editorials were written about the danger facing Hezbollah in Lebanon because of his role in Syria, one cannot count how many times a shift in Russia’s and Iran’s stances toward Syria was actually postulated, and announced, based purely on wishful thinking.  In fact, contrary to Hezbollah’s stance toward the Syrian regime, Iran’s and Russia’s stances are based neither on territorial integrity thinking nor ideology, at least not for the new rulers of Iran.   Their stances are based on the simple fact that there is no point in leaving a strong ally – as Assad has proved to be – to the unknown, even though Russia’s diplomatic moves included intensive diplomacy directed at the Syrian opposition.  Although Iran apparently refused to discuss Syria as part of the negotiations with the US on its nuclear program, it has always advocated a diplomatic solution to the crisis and has openly criticized, without naming them, the countries who send extremists to fight in Syria.   Additionally, Syria and Hezbollah, Iran’s allies, welcomed the US-Iran deal and understood its potential to bring about a relative peace in the region.  Many, myself included, see the Iran-US rapprochement as potentially capable of changing Iran’s support for the Resistance in the near and long term.  However, the strong anti-Iran sentiment among many in the American political class, and among America’s close allies in the ME, will delay this kind of rapprochement, even if a permanent deal is struck on the nuclear file.  Moreover, Iran’s new regional role, eclipsing and replacing Saudi Arabia, has benefited greatly from its support to the Resistance.  It is unlikely, then, that Iran will abandon Hezbollah and Syria, at least not in the short and middle term.  It will maybe abandon its active support of Palestinian groups, but not of its allies in Syria and Lebanon who have never betrayed their alliance with Iran. 

Iran’s new leadership diplomacy seems to have started unofficially well before Obama and Rouhani’s historic phone call in September 2013, leading to a temporary deal on Iran’s nuclear capacity just a month ago, in November 2013.

One has to view the shift in Obama’s stance on Syria and on its red line warning, against the backdrop of the potential US-Iran deal on the nuclear file.  It is true that Obama offered shaky evidence of the chemical weapons’ attacks that happened in Ghouta, Syria,  on August 21st.  It is also true that Obama seemed determined to go to war on Syria, based on this shaky evidence, as Seymour Hersh recently demonstrated.  But when Obama promptly accepted  Russia’s offer to mediate the Syrian regime’s compliance with the chemical weapons convention in exchange for the US backtracking on its threats to attack Syria, many saw a radical shift in Obama’s stance.  It was a radical shift from the outside, but if Obama had proceeded with his attack on Syria plan, he would have lost the Iranian deal.  What would have Iran made of a nuclear deal while the region would have been ablaze with bombs again?  In his first interview with Press TV, and before going to the UNGA in September 2013, Iran’s FM outlined his new motto: diplomacy, not threats, is how countries deal with each other.  ‘Not all options are on the table’ said Zarif, echoing in negation a famous US motto used when dealing with other countries.

Russia and Iran’s diplomacies worked in tandem to avert another devastating war in the region.  Obama didn’t mind bombing Syria, just as he didn’t mind bombing Libya, even if the evidence pointing to the regime’s responsibility is shaky and even if solid evidence rather pointed to al-Qaida possessing chemical weapons in Syria.  Obama’s red line wasn’t meant to ‘punish’ or ‘stop’ atrocities.  It was meant as a provision to offer a justification to intervene in Syria when it was going to be the time to intervene.  A possible scenario was that, in case the controlled collapse of the Syrian state by al-Qaida wasn’t going to work, the US would step in to weaken these groups, as Seymour Hersh uncovered in a recent investigation.  But Obama was eager to strike a deal with Iran and he wasn’t going to get it if he had attacked Syria.

Bush famously said that he looked Putin in the eyes and saw his soul, but Putin didn’t have to look Obama in the eyes to read his mind.

2013: The Year Assad lived dangerously and won

One can understand the disappointment that pervaded Syrian opposition circles in the aftermath of the deal on Syria’s chemical weapons, as they have played all their cards and lost.  The ‘peaceful revolution’ did not work, the controlled collapse of the Syrian state did not work, and even the game-changing chemical weapons attacks did not work.
But the perception of the Syrian ‘revolution’ being offered to us in the mainstream media endures, even when the expectations that were built on this perception have been repeatedly collapsing.   In Indonesia, after  a ‘Year of Living Dangerously’, Sukarno, a communist dictator, was replaced by a western-friendly dictator.  This scheme will not work in Syria because the western-friendly dictators-to-be have just lost.
Since March 29th 2006