My main message to you today is that the EU sanctions on Syria should be lifted. As a member of the EU in good standing, unlike some, Ireland can and should play a role here.
It’s easy to get confused about Syria. It’s very complex, for sure. But two points are crystal clear: first that it’s essentially a sectarian war pitting the forces of secularism against the forces of religious bigotry. Second that Western powers have kept adding fuel to the flames.
I’m going to hit you with some revealing quotes which you will not see anywhere in the mainstream media.
Abu Firas al-Suri, a leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, said in an interview: "We are not fighting the Syrian government except because they are an obstacle in the face of Islam. Our mission is ..to achieve the supremacy of the sharia of Allah on Earth. Our mission in Syria is a part of that mission…Our goals are not limited only to Syria, however our current battle is in Syria."
Bear in mind that Western governments are currently preventing the Syrian government from attacking Al Nusra in Idlib.
One of the mujahideen’s favourite preachers is Sunni imam Abdur Razaaq Mahdi. Al-Muhajirun Media, a front for extremist groups including Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and others, posted a video of a sermon by Mahdi that makes his extreme views clear. He implores God to smite unbelievers: "Oh Allah, destroy the Alawites and those who ally with them: the Shia, the Russians, the Iranians! …Kill them all! Do not leave a single one of them’. The Shia are characterised as non-Muslim polytheist hypocrites. Mahdi said:
"Their beliefs are contrary to the beliefs of the Sunnis. In their beliefs is blatant unbelief and blatant polytheism," he said. "The battle in Sham (Syria) is based on belief, the fight is between the Sunnis and the Shiites," The Alawites are the greatest in their unbelief." The preacher went on to claim that Assad is not only not truly Muslim because he is Alawite, but also because, if he were truly Muslim, "He would have imposed prayer, hijab and other things."
Mahdi claimed that Asma al-Assad, Assad's wife, is not Muslim because she does not wear a headscarf. "They all reveal their bodies — may Allah preserve us from such things."
This preacher, Mahdi, is typical of those ministering to the spiritual needs of the mujahideen. He went so far as to falsely claim that prayer is banned in the Syrian army. If a soldier tries to pray, "He may be beaten for this, he may be imprisoned and must make an oath never to pray again," Mahdi said. (In reality, the majority of the Syrian Arab Army consists of Sunnis.)
Pure, unadulterated bigotry. Syrian Christians, who have been persecuted by these people, cannot believe that Western governments are trying to bring down a government which is all that stands between them and genocide and ethnic cleansing.
You now have a far deeper understanding of Syria than 99% of the media. Who frame the conflict as Asad simply butchering his people. They photoshop the mujahideen and the Christians out of the picture.
As to Western governments, hear this recent quote from Trump’s envoy for Syria, an ultra-hawk by the name of James Jeffrey:
The basic US objective is the “enduring defeat” of IS, and that requires fundamental political change. It requires “a Syrian regime that is not as toxic as the current one” .
And get this:
Jeffrey said the US would work for additional sanctions if Assad’s government failed to cooperate on rewriting the Syrian constitution as a prelude to elections in which the millions of Asad’s enemies living abroad could vote.
“Even if the U.N. Security Council won’t pass the [sanctions] we will just do it through the European Union, we will do it through our Asian allies, and then we will make it our business to make life as miserable as possible [for Syria].”
So there you have it: your role, Ireland’s role, as part of the EU, is to help the US make Syria suffer so much economically that the government will buckle and permit elections engineered so that Asad has to make way for religious fanatics who will make Syria like Saudi Arabia.
Leave aside whether Asad is a 'monster' or not. The point is that sanctions are only harming the Syrian people. On their own terms sanctions are counter-productive and punitive against the very people the EU is claiming it wants to support.
There are basically three types of sanctions:
- On individuals deemed to be helping the government in some shape or form. One is a friend of mine. His crime? He owns some of the buses that were used to evacuate surrendering Islamist fighters and their families to Idlib. That’s helping the government. Sanction that man! Ruin his business! What would we have preferred : that the jihadis, our pets, be made to walk to Idlib?
- The sanctions on individuals are grotesque but not that damaging to the Syrian people generally. The same cannot be said of the sanctions preventing Syria from buying oilfield equipment or oil refining equipment. The objective here is to prevent repair of damaged oilfields and refineries, thus theoretically hobbling the government’s ‘war against its own people’ as the propaganda has it. In practice the effect has been to hamper the government’s struggle to protect its people against ISIS and other jihadis. Worse, it forced the government at one point to buy oil from ISIS through middlemen, because needs must. If you are a government you have to get oil from somewhere and if all other routes are blocked …
The sanctions apply to dual-use items. The oil industry needs a lot of pumps and pipes. But so does water supply and sanitation. Tough. If you are a Syrian importer you have to prove to unsympathetic Western authorities, who are often unfamiliar with their own regulations, that the kit could not possibly be for the oil industry. Result: no fresh water and leaking sewage. Smart sanctions? No, dumb, self-defeating sanctions!
- Most damaging of all, sanctions on financial transactions. EU banks can only do business with Syrian entities under the most stringent conditions, so stringent as to make trade prohibitively cumbersome, uncertain and costly. As a result Syria struggles to import not only vital industrial goods like spare parts for its decimated industry but food and healthcare products. You want a prosthesis? Bad luck. Sanctions make them unobtainable. Your hospital can’t import cancer treatments for you ? Bad luck. Get another government.
What is the point? Honestly, what is the point of sanctions, of this suffering inflicted unthinkingly, uncaringly, on the Syrian people? At one point the EU used to claim the purpose was to influence the behaviour of the Syrian government. Well, seven years in, has it? Is there a scrap of evidence that sanctions have influenced the behaviour of the Syrian government? It is also argued that not lifting sanctions until there is a political settlement gives Asad an incentive to compromise. But again, seven years experience proves that Asad cannot be strongarmed into accepting a Western-imposed settlement.
We just are not interested that our sanctions have helped produce a tripling of the price of wheat flour, a 600% rise in the price of rice and a doubling of fuel prices.
An internal UN report noted that the sanctions on Syria are some of the most complicated and far-reaching ever imposed anywhere in the world.
If you query this with governments they will claim there are humanitarian exceptions. This is disingenuous. In practice, as even NGOs helping the rebels will acknowledge, it is dauntingly difficult to get so much as a laptop into Syria. You need expensive lawyers even to reach first base with the bureaucracy.
We bewail the suffering of the Syrian people and condemn the Syrian government for subjecting some areas to siege, although in practice these sieges have always been extremely leaky. Or for attacking hospitals. But our economic weapons of mass destruction, sanctions, cause far greater suffering. If that is not hypocrisy I don’t know what is. And Ireland is a party to it.
Let’s be honest. Our governments keep sanctions on just out of vindictiveness. Out of stubbornness. Out of fear of losing face. Out of not really caring about the suffering of Syrians, whatever crocodile tears they shed. Out of not being held to account by a compliant media and supine legislators.
Sanctions seem all the more pointless and cruel when you look at the map of Syria today and consider where things are heading.
About 80% of Syria’s population live in areas controlled by the government. These areas are quiet and there are no reports of any atrocities. Normal life is gradually being restored. But war damage and sanctions combined mean that conditions are very grim.
The remaining 20% have the misfortune to live in areas controlled by a hodge podge of foreign armies and militias. The Far North is controlled by Turkey and its proxies. The North East is controlled by the US and its proxies, mainly Kurds. Idlib province is a maelstrom of various militias, the most powerful being the extremist Hayat Tahrir Ash Sham aka Al Nusra aka Al Qaida. What is preventing the Syrian government from recovering all these areas and pacifying them as it has other areas is us, the US and the EU.
As Mr Jeffrey said very clearly, our goal is to remove Asad. Sometimes our governments claim willingness to respect the will of the Syrian people. They are being disingenuous because they know that regime change has a bad name after Iraq and Libya. But that is their goal. That is the point of the attempted partitioning, the military threats, the use of proxy militias, the propaganda support for jihadis, the blocking of reconstruction assistance, the discouragement of refugee returns. And sanctions.
Possible futures for Syria
So where is all this heading? I see three possible futures for Syria.
One is for the West to achieve what it wants. Economic and military pressure combine to force Asad to stand down. With no Mandela in the wings, no organised political parties and nobody to hold the ring chaos would ensue. Alawites who manage to avoid genocide would flee to their heartlands around Lattakia. Christians would flee in their hundreds of thousands. Those would be the lucky ones. ISIS would likely reemerge, held in check only by Al Qaida. That’s if our policy is successful.
Second possible future. We fail. Asad recovers control of Idlib; the Kurds get tired of their US overlords and rejoin Syria but with more regional autonomy. A new power struggle, but a peaceful one, arises between conservative religious forces and more secular forces. Asad stays in power but has to be more accommodating. How terrible! We can’t possibly allow that to happen. Or if it does we try to spoil it with continued attempts at destabilisation.
The third, and most likely, future is for the current situation to congeal. Intermittent fighting on the fringes of Idlib but no major conflict. The economy suffers, still hobbled by the economic war the West will continue to wage. The people suffer from shortages, destroyed infrastructure, and continuing depopulation. The partition puts down roots. Refugees don’t return. The country remains crippled.
There is actually a fourth possible future. Almost too terrible to think about. Armageddon. The White Helmets fabricate another fake flag chemical weapons incident and the US, UK and France carry out their threats to punish Asad very severely. This will mean targeting the presidential residences and army command and control centres. The aim: to decapitate the state. What comes after? Who cares? Who cared what came after Saddam? After Qadhafi?
This scenario would have come about if Trump had had his way last April. His top generals talked him out of it because they were not sure how Russia would react, not sure if US troops on the ground would be attacked in reprisal. These considerations still apply today. But today there is no escape ramp. After April’s caper the Western powers vowed to strike more heavily next time. So there is no escape ramp. We could be on the brink of World War Three, our fate in the hands of Donald Trump. And consider this: the Muslim equivalent of Armageddon is a place called Daabiq. It’s in Northern Syria. Not far from Idlib…..
It doesn’t have to be like this. Already France and Germany have met separately with Russia to discuss Syria’s future. With the UK trojan horse out of the EU the EU will develop a new centre of gravity. The EU could go its own way on sanctions. Ireland should be pressing for this. Parliamentarians should be pressing for this. Don’t be party to inflicting more unnecessary suffering on the Syria people, or paving the way for partition and for religious bigots to take control.