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PREM SHANKAR JHA | 10 FEBRUARY, 2016

GETTING THE BATTLE IN SYRIA ALL WRONG

War devastated Aleppo


NEW DELHI: The Guardian has repeatedly broken new ground in journalism in recent years. One of its more daring innovations has been to open its opinion pages to outside writers, This has done miracles for its identification with its readers. But its choice of opinion pieces is becoming more and more puzzling by the day. Last week I read a powerful defence of the British government’s contemptuous dismissal of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions’s condemnation of Wikileaks founder Julius Assange’s enforced incarceration in the Uruguayan embassy in London. Today I read a long piece by the esteemed French journalist Natalie Nougayrede, published on February 5, titled " What will Happen Next in Aleppo will Shape Europe's future' .

Coming hard on the heels of the previous piece, it has made me begin to wonder whether along with its long time editor Alan Russbridger, the Guardian has also shed some of the liberalism that had so endeared it to readers across the world.

Nougayrede’s pedigree is impressive. She has won several awards, been the diplomatic correspondent of Le Monde from 2005 and the first woman editor-in-chief of the paper in 2013-14. This makes an examination of anything she has to say worthwhile. On this occasion it is all the more necessary because she has urged NATO to back Turkey if it decides to send in troops to prevent Aleppo and areas north of it from falling back into the Syrian government's hands. That could bring in Iran and start something close to another world war.

Her advocacy is not only not new: it is the standard fare of a neo-imperialist Right in Europe and the US, as well as of Saudi Arabia and Israel. What is surprising is that it is coming from a former staffer of that bible of the French far left, Liberation, and editor of the iconic Le Monde.

The reason I find the Guardian's decision to publish her odd, to say the least is that from the first paragraph to the last her argument is based upon almost illiterate simplifications and a completely uncritical acceptance of the propaganda barrage launched against the Assad regime and Russia, by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Turkey, and enthusiastically endorsed by the spin doctors in Washington and London. Let me give a few examples:

Her central thesis is “The defeat of anti-Assad rebels who have partially controlled the city since 2012 would leave nothing on the ground in Syria but Assad’s regime and Islamic State. And all hope of a negotiated settlement involving the Syrian opposition will vanish. This has been a longstanding Russian objective – it was at the heart of Moscow’s decision to intervene militarily four months ago… Russian military escalation in support of the Syrian army was meant to sabotage any possibility that a genuine Syrian opposition might have its say on the future of the country."

Never once in the entire piece does she spell out who this genuine Syrian opposition is made up of? But a host of other analysts have done so a score of times . Thus, Aron Lund, a Syria analyst who edits the Syria in Crisis blog for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, deems the idea of the moderate secular rebel a myth. “You are not going to find this neat, clean, secular rebel group that respects human rights…because they don’t exist.”

Andrew J. Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who follows Syrian events, has pointed out that most of the rebels backed by the United States come from “rural, Sunni areas where Islamist thinking has long held sway and often colors their thinking.” They are not moderate fighters for secular liberal democratic values.

These US-backed rebels cooperate with the Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda operating in Syria, which the UN Security Council denounced in August 2014 along with ISIS for its “gross, systematic and widespread abuse of human rights”

Two members of the Jabhat al Nusra were presented to Senator McCain as part of the 'moderate' opposition in May 2013 along with Abu Bakr al Baghdadi? And in October 2014 Vice President Biden candidly dismissed the moderate opposition , saying that the only moderate sunnis in Syria were shopkeepers. at Harvard's Kennedy school.

In 2014 Obama spent $532 million on training a moderate opposition army to fight ISIS and was finally left with 5 soldiers. I could go on exposing this fiction ad nauseam , but seems not to know any of this , because it is not what the newspapers, periodicals and television peddles daily to the masses in Europe and the US.

Then there are some breathtaking simplifications: " A defeat for Syrian opposition forces would further empower Isis in the myth that it is the sole defender of Sunni Muslims ..... "

The absurdity of this reasoning is breathtaking :Russia is helping Assad. Assad is a Shia; ISIS is Sunni. Most Syrians are Sunni. So Russia’s attack is bolstering Sunni support for ISIS. Does she really not know that most of ISIS' victims in Syria and Iraq have been Sunnis. And that the fighting on the ground is being done by the Syrian army, which is almost 90 percent sunni.

Nougayrede’s most priceless conclusion is the following: “Putin wants to reassert Russian power in the Middle East, but it is Europe that he really has in mind. The defining moment came in 2013, when Barack Obama gave up on airstrikes against Assad’s military bases after chemical weapons were used. This encouraged Putin to test western resolve further away, on the European continent

Can Nougayrede really not have read Seymour Hersh’s essay in the London Review of Books in which he revealed that two days before the air strike on Syria was to commence Porton Down the British Chemical and Biological weapons Research Laboratory inform David Cameron that the Sarin Gas used in several strikes in April could not possibly have come from the Syrian army, because it knew precisely which companies had supplied the binary chemicals needed to make it, and the residue from April did not match those obtained from the combination of these agents. That was why both Cameron and Obama called off the strikes.

By publishing Nougayrede the Guardian has done me a favour , for it has given me the opportunity to set the record straight.

(Prem Shankar Jha is a well known journalist, columnist and author)

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