Chapter 3: A battle of narratives

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Claiming that Syrian rebels had faked the chemical attacks wasn’t simply a case of making excuses for the regime: it also served a political narrative constructed by the regime and its “anti-imperialist” defenders. They sought to portray the conflict not as the result of internal discontent in Syria but as part of a long-standing western plan for reshaping the Middle East — a continuation of the policy that had toppled Saddam Hussein through the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. In this scenario Assad was a victim of western imperialism rather than the oppressor of his people.

Western governments had used false claims about weapons of mass destruction to create a pretext for going to war in Iraq and, based on that, the anti-imperialists made plausible-sounding claims that the chemical weapons issue in Syria was a similar fabrication, for similar purposes. Memories of the deception over Iraq and the turmoil that followed Saddam’s removal had left a mark on the public’s consciousness. Many people who had swallowed the propaganda at the time felt cheated and distrustful — and this was something the anti-imperialists could exploit in promoting their narrative about Syria. But despite the anti-imperialists’ determination to portray the Syrian conflict as Iraq War II, western powers were anxious to avoid anything of the kind. Having had their fingers burned in Iraq they were wary of becoming as deeply involved in Syria.

The origins of the conflict in Syria were also very different from those in Iraq. In 1990 Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, seizing its oil resources, but were expelled by a US-led international coalition. In the decade that followed, Iraq was subjected to punishing economic sanctions, no-fly zones and weapons inspections which, over time, became increasingly controversial and difficult to maintain. At that point President George W Bush and his British ally, Tony Blair, decided that a change of course was needed and resolved on military action

The origins of the Syrian conflict, on the other hand, lay in the Arab Spring protests that began in Tunisia at the end of 2010, spreading shortly afterwards to Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain as well as Syria. After decades of oppression and mis-rule, pent-up frustrations suddenly boiled over, bringing demands for change. The protesters’ slogan was “The people want the fall of the regime” and in Tunisia and Egypt the presidents fell relatively quickly and peacefully. In Yemen, though, President Saleh resisted and clung on for a year. In Libya, the Gaddafi regime fought back but was eventually toppled with support from a mainly western military coalition. In Bahrain the protests were crushed with assistance from other Arab members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and in Syria the Assad regime’s position looked precarious until Russia came to its rescue in 2015.

This background was largely ignored by the anti-imperialists and if they mentioned it at all the usual suggestion was that the uprising in Syria had been instigated by the west as part of a long-prepared plan. The rebels, of course, were seeking to get rid of the Assad regime — and in that sense it could be described as a “regime-change war”. When used by the anti-imperialists, though, the term meant something else: a war orchestrated and waged by the west against a sovereign government with the aim of overthrowing it.

Western powers did call for Assad to step down once the uprising had begun and they later supported armed rebels trying to topple him but that was in response to events rather than something they had planned in advance. Syria, unlike Iraq, had not been a major concern or preoccupation among western governments or foreign policy analysts apart from a short period around 2005–2006. This is not to say that relations between western powers and Syria were good. They were often difficult but had ups as well as downs. The general approach from the west was to use a combination of pressure and inducements in the hope that Syria would change its ways. In some areas Syria cooperated; in others it did not and the broad picture, on both sides, was one of wary coexistence.

The ‘regime-change’ papers

Document 1: In 1996 Richard Perle and several others who later became influential in the Bush administration produced a document advocating the removal of Saddam Hussein and the installation of a Hashemite monarchy in Iraq as a first step towards reshaping Israel’s “strategic environment”. It was intended as a foreign policy blueprint for the incoming right-wing government of Binyamin Netanyahu and it acquired some notoriety later when war loomed in Iraq. Known as the “ Clean Break” document, it urged a complete break with the past and suggested that once Saddam was out of the way Jordan and Turkey could form an axis along with Israel to weaken and “ roll back “ Syria.

The document was significant as an example of the discourse that led up to the invasion of Iraq but although it was often cited as evidence of a “regime-change” plot against Syria, the document itself stopped well short of advocating Assad’s overthrow. Instead, it said Israel should move to “contain” Syria.

Document 2: Following the 9/11 attacks President Bush declared a “war on terror” and one of the issues it raised was Syria’s support for groups involved in terrorism. In 2001 British prime minister Tony Blair sent a note to the Americans headed “The war against terrorism: the second phase”. On Iraq, Blair proposed a gradual build-up of pressure “until we get to the point where military action could be taken if necessary”. On Syria and Iran, it said: “If toppling Saddam is a prime objective, it is far easier to do it with Syria and Iran in favour or acquiescing rather than hitting all three at once.”

Piers Robinson of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media interpreted this as “clearly suggestive of some kind of military action” against Syria and Iran. However, he omitted to mention the next sentence in Blair’s memo which clearly suggested the opposite: “I favour giving these two a chance at a different relationship: help and support in building a new partnership with the west in return for closing down support for Hizbollah and Hamas and helping us over Iraq.”

Document 3: This was a diplomatic cable written in 2006 by William Roebuck, the US ambassador in Damascus, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the Assad regime. The cable identified a number of the regime’s “vulnerabilities” and suggested ways they could be exploited to America’s advantage. Although this showed the US was trying to cause difficulties for the regime, there was no indication that the aim was to topple it, or that the Americans thought it was likely to fall. The cable ended by saying …

“The bottom line is that Bashar [al-Asad] is entering the new year in a stronger position than he has been in several years, but those strengths also carry with them — or sometimes mask — vulnerabilities. If we are ready to capitalise, they will offer us opportunities to disrupt his decision-making, keep him off-balance, and make him pay a premium for his mistakes.”

Document 4: A story recounted several times by retired US general Wesley Clark was that he visited a former colleague in the Pentagon some weeks after 9/11 and the ex-colleague told him of a one-page memo proposing to “take out seven countries in five years”. Iraq, as expected, was on the list but Syria and Iran were there too. The other four were Lebanon, Libya, Somalia and Sudan according to some versions of the story.

Clark didn’t read the memo himself but was told it had originated in the office of the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. It seems to have been one example of the extreme militaristic talk circulating in Washington at the time and Clark said later it wasn’t necessarily a plan — “Maybe it was a think piece … a sort of notional concept.” In any case, it didn’t happen. By the time war broke out in Syria the memo’s five-year time span had expired and Rumsfeld was gone too but that didn’t stop the story from popping up repeatedly on the internet.

Befriending Bashar

Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad presided over Syria for almost 30 years. In a region of oppressive regimes his was one of the most cruel, and Syrians lived in perpetual fear of the regime and its undercover informers. It was dangerous to discuss politics, even among friends. Arbitrary arrests were common and some of those detained were never seen again. In conversation, Syrians had a coded way of referring to people who were in prison: they were said to be staying at their aunt’s house. The public were never allowed to forget that Hafez was in charge and posters and statues — sometimes of colossal size — served as constant reminders of his brooding presence. Citizens were also required to show allegiance: whenever the president’s name was mentioned in a public gathering it was customary for the audience to applaud.

Internationally, Syria considered itself part of the “resistance” to Israel and western political influence in the Middle East more generally. Its grievances against Israel were not without justification, because Israel continued to occupy part of the Golan Heights — Syrian territory it had captured in the 1967 war. In pursuit of its quarrel with Israel, Syria hosted “political bureaux” of various Palestinian groups, including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). Its actual support for these groups fluctuated, “depending on its national interests and international pressure,” according to a US State Department report in 2005. Syria’s development of chemical weapons was also, at least initially, linked to its disputes with Israel — as a response to the Israeli nuclear arsenal. Chemical weapons were cheaper to produce and were sometimes described as “the poor man’s nukes”.

Although Syria was officially a republic Hafez had begun preparing his eldest son, Bassel, to inherit the presidency. Bassel was carefully groomed for the role but in 1994, at the age of 31, he was killed in a car crash and the mantle of inheritance passed to his brother, Bashar. When Hafez died in 2000 Bashar was still only 34 and too young to legally become president because the constitution stipulated a minimum age of 40. However, the Syrian parliament hastily amended the constitution, lowering the age requirement to 34, and a month later Bashar was confirmed as president in a yes/no referendum where he secured 99.74% of the votes.

Bashar’s succession was widely seen as a hopeful development. He seemed to be a moderniser, made some gestures towards tackling corruption and, for the first time in almost 40 years, allowed an independent newspaper to be published (though it didn’t survive for long). Bashar was less charismatic than his brother, and with less experience of politics, but he had potentially-useful connections with Britain. A graduate in medicine, he had spent some time in London doing postgraduate studies in ophthalmology and shortly after becoming president he married Asma al-Akhras, an investment banker from a Syrian family, who had been born and raised in Britain. Asma was a glamorous figure who attracted media attention and, with the aid of western PR firms, helped to give the regime a more palatable image.

Given that background, it was natural for both Britain and Syria to explore the possibility of better relations. During a Middle East tour in 2001, prime minister Tony Blair made a hastily-arranged stop-off in Damascus where he was photographed chatting with Bashar in the courtyard of the historic Umayyad mosque. It was the first British-Syrian encounter at such a high level in more than 30 years and the discussions did not go particularly well. Nevertheless, in the following year Bashar and his wife were granted an official visit to Britain which included lunch at 10 Downing Street an audience with the Queen.

In October 2003 the king and queen of Spain paid a state visit to Syria — the first since Juan Carlos had come to the throne in 1975. Agreements aimed at boosting tourism and investment were signed and the royal couple were treated to a tour of Damascus’s old city.

Also in 2003, Syria and the EU began negotiating an Association Agreement. Similar agreements granting trade privileges and providing for cooperation in other areas had previously been struck with several countries in the region — Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia — as well as with the Palestinian Authority. Negotiations with Syria were eventually completed though the agreement was never signed. Nevertheless, by 2011, the EU was Syria’s largest non-Arab trading partner.

US-Syria relations

Thierry Meyssan, a French conspiracy theorist, later described Congress’s action as a declaration of war on Syria by the United States. In reality, though, it contained no threat of military action and made no mention of regime change in Syria but listed six possible sanctions:

● Reducing US diplomatic contacts with Syria;

● Banning US exports to Syria;

● Prohibiting US businesses from investing or operating in Syria;

● Restricting travel by Syrian diplomats in Washington and the United Nations;

● Banning Syrian aircraft from taking off, landing in or flying over the United States;

● Freezing Syrian assets in the United States.

The act required President Bush to impose at least two of these but allowed him to waive them (for six-months at a time) if he decided it was “in the vital national security interest of the United States to do so”. Bush, who had initially opposed this measure, eventually signed it into law but issued a disclaimer:

“My approval of the Act does not constitute my adoption of the various statements of policy in the Act as US foreign policy. Given the constitution’s commitment to the presidency of the authority to conduct the nation’s foreign affairs, the executive branch shall construe such policy statements as advisory …”

Bush’s concern was partly about safeguarding presidential prerogative but also about the constraints the act sought to impose on American dealings with Syria. In a letter to Congress, Paul Kelly, Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs, explained:

“If our efforts on both comprehensive peace and the war against terrorism are to succeed, the president and the secretary [of state] will need flexibility to determine what combination of incentives and disincentives will maximise cooperation and advance our goals… For this reason, we do not believe this is the right time for legislative initiatives that could complicate our efforts. The imposition of new sanctions on Syria would place at risk our ability to address a range of important issues directly with the Syrian government and render more difficult our efforts to change Syrian behaviour and avoid a dangerous escalation.”

John Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control — regarded as one of the most hawkish members of the Bush administration — was also critical of the moves by Congress and urged lawmakers to let the US try to change Syria’s behaviour through diplomatic means before passing trade restrictions and other measures.

The difficulties in relations between the US and Syria came nowhere close to those between the US and Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein. Regime change in Iraq had been official American policy for more than four years before the invasion. The Iraq Liberation Act, approved by Congress in 1998 under the Clinton administration vowed support for efforts to remove Saddam from power and to promote the emergence of a democratic government in Iraq. Some even imagined that once Saddam was gone Iraq would become a model for the rest of the Middle East.

Between the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the war in 2003 Iraq was a constant and much discussed issue, unlike Syria in the years preceding the conflict there. Syrian and American interests were also not always diametrically opposed. Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, for example, Syria had provided about 20,000 troops for the US-led coalition in Operation Desert Storm, though it stipulated that they would be used only to help defend Saudi Arabia and not to attack Iraq. In 2002, as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Syria had also voted in favour of Resolution 1441 — instigated by the US and Britain — which declared Iraq to be “in material breach” of several earlier resolutions and threatened “serious consequences” if its “violations” continued.

On the counter-terrorism front there were major areas of disagreement but also some where the US and Syria could, potentially, work together. Syrian officials publicly condemned international terrorism, though they made an exception for what they considered to be “legitimate armed resistance” — by Palestinian groups and the Lebanese Hezbollah, for instance. A State Department report in 2005 noted that Syria had cooperated with the US and other foreign governments “against al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations and individuals”. Syria also claimed to have expelled more than 1,200 foreign “extremists” and to have arrested more than 4,000 Syrians trying to go to fight in Iraq. The State Department report added: “During the past seven years there have been no acts of terrorism against American citizens in Syria. Damascus has repeatedly assured the United States that it will take every possible measure to protect US citizens and facilities in Syria.”

A dangerous moment came in 2005 when Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri was assassinated in Beirut and suspicion initially fell on Syria. Syria’s troops had remained in Lebanon after the civil war ended in 1990 and its intelligence apparatus kept a watchful eye on the situation there. Meanwhile, Israel controlled a smaller portion of territory in the southern border area where Hezbollah — a non-state ally of Syria — waged a guerrilla struggle against the Israeli occupation.

The positive side of the Syrian presence in Lebanon was that it brought a degree of stability in the immediate aftermath of the civil war but Lebanese opposition to it grew after Israel’s withdrawal from the south in 2000 and especially after Hariri’s assassination. His killing triggered the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon, with protests calling for Syrian forces to leave the country. At that point Assad defused the situation with a judicious but politically difficult decision to withdraw his troops.

The following year, after a cross-border raid by Hezbollah, Israel waged a month-long bombing campaign in Lebanon but, again, Syria erred on the side of caution. Despite its close ties with Hezbollah and its official rhetoric about "resisting" Israel, Syria was at pains not to become directly involved.

Syria's international relationships, though fraught at times, were generally seen as capable of being managed by diplomatic means rather than full-on confrontation. There was no sign that western governments, during the 10 years or so leading up to the conflict in Syria, were seeking to overthrow the Assad regime or had serious plans to do so. It's also worth noting that in March 2011, during the initial stages of the Syrian uprising, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was still calling Assad a reformer and an article in Haaretz newspaper described him as Israel's favourite Arab dictator. If the Arab Spring protests hadn't spread to Syria in 2011 it's very likely that relations between the regime and western governments would have been plodding along on the same bumpy road as in the decade before the conflict broke out.

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Originally published at https://al-bab.com.

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: www.al-bab.com. Author of 'Arabs Without God'.