Australia's Naivety On Syria

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Spot the three fundamental flaws in this statement by Foreign Minister Bob Carr after he expelled the two most senior Syrian diplomats from Australia:

"Getting Damascus to move towards a ceasefire and to engage in political dialogue with its opposition is the one game plan we’ve got here."

First, by blaming the Syrian government for the al-Houla atrocity in the Homs Province, he was at odds with the two other diplomats from the UN: Major General Robert Mood, Head of the UN Observer Mission and Joint Special Envoy for the UN/Arab League and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Mood, in his statements after the al-Houla tragedy that saw 108 civilians killed, including 49 children, exercised caution.

"I should not jump to conclusions" he said, urging both the government and the "armed opposition to refrain from violence in all its forms".

Likewise, Annan issued a condemnation of this "appalling crime… not only for the government but for everyone with a gun".

If both diplomats remain unconvinced that this massacre could be attributed totally to the Syrian government while the evidence is still being investigated, why has our foreign minister jumped the gun on our behalf?

After the Syrian National Council "repeatedly called for the arming of the Free Syrian Army" the United States pledged "non-lethal" communications equipment while the oil rich states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar committed US$100 million. The military toys are now in the hands of the boys, many of whom are non-Syrian youth recruited from neighbouring countries.

How can we "move towards a ceasefire" if Annan’s six week old, six point plan is undermined by this foreign funding to militarise the conflict? Similarly, Russia should cease to supply arms to the Syrian government.

Second, after Syrian National Army founder Osama al-Munjid vowed "we will never sit and talk" with "butcher Bashar", how can our foreign minister seriously advocate the possibility of political dialogue? If the SNA are hell bent on toppling this "murderous regime", they have no interest in negotiation, and will seek every opportunity to incriminate the government to trigger a Libya-style NATO intervention.

Hence the recent 48-hour ultimatum to abandon the ceasefire by the Free Syrian Army’s Colonel Qassim Saadeddine was a cynical stunt. They have no serious intention to engage in political dialogue, yet demand the government "hand over power to the Syrian people". This is ironic given the 7 May parliamentary elections in Syria. They threaten civil war if the Syrian army does not honour the ceasefire which they themselves have dishonoured.

The stalemate is compounded when the Syrian president insists that there would be "no dialogue" with opposition groups which "seek foreign intervention".

Our foreign minister needs to use the word opposition in the plural, for Syria’s rebel forces are far from united in their goals and strategy. The original youth who staged an unarmed protest have had their cause hijacked by everyone from Marxist intellectuals to the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Salafists, foreign mercenaries, and Jihadists linked with al Qaeda — ironically now "in bed" with the USA. Some want democracy, others theocracy. Some want urban guerrilla warfare or a bloody overthrow of Assad and others oppose all violence.

It appears the US prefers a Yemen style revolution, maintaining the established secular regime to control the masses, but replacing the president with a puppet who they can control to suit the agenda of their Saudi-Israeli sponsors.

This undermines the goals of political dialogue is indeed the best outcome; it is naïve and hypocritical to push for discussion while the US and our other allies condone an increasingly militarised and divergent "opposition".

Third, the "game plan" advocated by our foreign minister appears to have misread the more complex reality on the ground in Syria. Modelled on the Libyan rebels, opposition groups seek to create strongholds by setting up road blocks and consolidating pockets of territory.

Once this is achieved, foreign funding can be funnelled in and anti-government attacks can be launched. The Syrian government then overreacts, moving in to smash the potential pocket.

Although the Syria debate is becoming more polarised, critics of the opposition groups are not, by default, Assad apologists. The government’s predictable propaganda and claims of a "tsunami of lies" from the Western media is useless without offering a tsunami of credible evidence to support its claim to truth.

It is insufficient to say the army has "taken an oath to protect civilians" from a foreign armed invasion, and then respond heavy-handedly, rolling army tanks into residential areas. The Syrian government has created a rod for its own back and cannot continue to blame armed gangs and terrorists every time an atrocity is committed.

For example, it needs to explain what its army was doing during the infanticide from 2pm until 11pm on Friday 25 May when the al-Houla area was "guarded by the government forces at five points", according to Syrian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi, who also announced a "military judicial committee" to investigate the incident?

President Assad’s speech to the newly elected People’s Assembly on Sunday reiterated his siege mentality as he referred to "a war from abroad, to destroy the country". Hence he has not pitched the violence as a civil war between his own citizens, but as a foreign invasion of Syria’s sovereignty by terrorists and a conspiracy.

Ironically, this has become a self fulfilling prophecy as the more protracted the conflict, the more foreign forces take root. His speech offered nothing new, and the only circuit breaker to the spiralling violence is unconditional political negotiations, as all armed soldiers in Syria are ultimately supplied by foreign forces. 

Like the twin suicide car bombs in Damascus which killed 55 people on 10 May near the Syrian military intelligence building, we may never know the truth about these terrorist acts. The close-range shootings and stabbings are atypical to the Syrian army’s methods. It is probable over time that opposition will not have a monopoly on splinter groups and proxies; vindictive pro-Assad militia will likely emerge and commit atrocities in the government’s name.

During his press conference, our Foreign Minister appeared besieged by journalists who appeared to have a more sophisticated understanding of Syria than he did, as he repeatedly retorted: "I need to get advice on that".

Indeed, he should have been advised not to copy allies who are enemies of the Syrian government. The only message expelling diplomats sends is that we are pre-empting the emergence of conclusive evidence on the many monsters behind the al Houla massacre. By joining the US-led chorus pushing for regime change regardless of the facts, we become followers, not leaders.

New Matilda

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