In an attempt to deflect his role in the death of his nation and the subsequent exodus of its people, President Assad said it was all the West's fault and it was hypocritical to cry over dead children.
Yesterday The Wall Street Journal reported on an interview with the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. During the carefully arranged interview, Assad pointed the finger of blame and hypocrisy at Western countries. These countries, he implied, have backed rebels aiming at toppling the Assad regime.
This, he claims, is turn what has led to the flood of refugees.
The Interview and the Numbers
Seated before a panel of very sympathetic Russian reporters, President Assad explained that the reason for the mass desertion of the population is because of terrorism.
"Actually those refugees left Syria because of the terrorism, mainly because of the terrorists and because of the killing, and second because of the results of terrorism. When you have terrorism, and you have the destruction of the infrastructure, you won’t have the basic needs of living, so many people leave because of the terrorism and because they want to earn their living somewhere in this world.
“The West is supporting terrorists since the beginning of the crisis when it said that this was a peaceful uprising. The West is crying for them."
“How can you be sad for a child that dies at sea and you are not sad for the thousands of children, elderly, men and women who died at the hands of terrorists in Syria.”
If you are worried about them, stop supporting terrorists. That’s what we think regarding the crisis. This is the core of the whole issue of refugees.
(For the full interview click here.)
While there is no shortage of hypocrisy in this crisis, Assad's remarks certainly hit a new low in attempts to manipulate world opinion.
The facts, however, speak for themselves.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, Syrians make up more than half of the over 400,000 refugees and migrants who have arrived in Europe by sea since the beginning of this year. Prior to that, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon were shouldering the burden of refugees streaming out of Syria. The economic and social burdens to these neighboring countries are enormous and have reached the breaking point.
These people aren't leaving to earn a living elsewhere, as Assad's has said.
They are leaving in order to live.
In fact, Assad's assertions are pretty easy to rebut.
The Washington Post recently cited reports from analysts and monitoring groups which claim that Assad's own forces are "responsible for many more of the estimated 250,000 deaths in the four-year-old conflict than are the Islamic State militants and rebel groups."
The figures, they say, underscore how Assad’s indiscriminate use of violence has empowered the Islamic State and other extremist groups and forced millions of Syrians to flee to neighboring countries and Europe.
According to the latest report of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR).
The Syrian government forces killed no less than 133,586 people; including 109,347 civilian (88% of the total) among them 15,149 children and 13,695 women. In addition, 4892 person were killed under torture.
Fadel Abdul Ghani, director of SNHR, explains that the majority of those killed) were civilians and most of them were killed as a result of indiscriminate regime shelling.
Those numbers show, says Abdulghani, that the main cause of the civilian deaths has not been the result of rebel insurgency but the regime's use of barrel bombs and SCUD missiles.
In SNHR's report, one child was killed every two hours, one woman was killed every three hours and around 100 people were killed every day in Syria by pro-Assad forces.
Even if these numbers are just estimates, they would still render Assad's premise that the West is the cause of the problem without any substance. If he sincerely believes this, then it calls into question the mental stability of the man.
A Sacrificed Nation
Assad's indiscriminate use of barrel bombs in residential areas has led to the destruction of entire city blocks. Neighborhoods reduced to rubble. Thousands of instances of the use of barrel bombs have been reported since the Syrian Civil War began.
Here is an incomplete list.
Yet, even if one somehow accepted the excuse that might make right and such weapons are being used as a last resort. the primary victims of this imprecise type of warfare are not the rebel fighters but the civilian population.
War is hell and unfortunately, when the war zone takes place in an urban or residential stage, there's always collateral damage. However, according to the BBC. between January 2014 and May 2015, only 1% of those killed by barrel bombs were rebel fighters.
Just take a look at the city of Aleppo, Amnesty International earlier this year reported that between January 2014 and March 2015, an estimated 3,124 civilians were killed by barrel bombs dropped from helicopters. Three schools were destroyed and 17 hospitals were damaged. Fourteen public markets were targeted along with 12 transportation hubs, and 23 mosques,
The number of rebel fighters killed?
A mere 35.
How can a leader ever justify the destruction of his country with the aim of saving it? How can Putin ever justify Russian support of that kind of leader?
The Sword of Damocles
If Syria is quickly being drained of its civilian population, there is a very good reason for it. And it has nothing to do with Western-supported terrorist groups and very much to do with war crimes being committed by President Assad.
That war crime allegation is not an idle claim.
In May of this year, it was reported that classified documents smuggled out of Syria left little doubt that president and his regime should be prosecuted for war crimes. There was more than enough evidence to indict President Assad and 24 senior members of his regime.
This evidence is related only to the government's role in the suppression of the protests that triggered the conflict in 2011. Our source notes:
Tens of thousands of suspected dissidents were detained, and many of them were tortured and killed in the Syrian prison system.
Again, this evidence does not include the use of barrel bombing nor the use of chemical weapons in residential areas. It just covers the crackdowns of civil protests during the Arab spring.
This evidence, the product of a highly dangerous smuggling operation, is now awaiting the day when or if Assad is brought before a future war crimes tribunal. As Assad's war-crime enabler, Russia has repeatedly used its UN security council veto to block any investigation of the Assad regime in the international criminal court or the creation of an ad hoc court for Syria.
* * *
In that recent interview, the frazzled-looking Assad also said
“These European double standards have become flagrant and obvious, and they are no longer acceptable."
Having double standards is one of the usual criticisms of European powers. It's no doubt true and European double standards are nothing new.
If the European reaction to what is going on in Syria is confused and imbalanced, then it is, at least, better than Assad's reaction of showing no compassionate response at all.
However, that double-standard charge works both ways when it comes to the support of terrorist organizations.
Supporting terrorists is something that Assad (and his father before him) might even consider a family tradition.
Since the designation was created back in 1979, Syria has been considered one of the top state sponsors of terrorism. By 1986 Reagan's Secretary of State Alexander Haig considered Syria the "number one" sponsor of terrorism.
During the Cold War, Ḥafiz al-Assad was pro-Soviet if only for the gifts of Soviet military hardware. An admiring Henry Kissinger, Nixon's Secretary of State, said that Hafiz possessed "a first-class mind allied to a wicked sense of humor." (It doesn't appear to have been part of his genetic inheritance .)
In none of the seven visits to Damascus conducted by Secretary of State James Baker in 1991, did he comment publicly on human right violations by the Syrian government? Other matters were taking precedence.
With the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, Syria joined the US-led coalition and new era of cooperation between the West and Syria began. It was a shrewd move by Hafiz. The Soviet Union was in chaos and could not be relied upon for any further support.
The message was clear: so long as you play ball, don't get in bed with the Soviets, and keep away from harboring or financing terrorists, we can overlook human rights abuses committed against your own people. That was the Nixon Doctrine in a nutshell. It wasn't our business how a nation handles internal security.
We can now see the long-term effects of that failure of basic principles.
* * *
For the Assad family, the 1990s were a traumatic time. On 21 January 1994, Assad's son, Bassel al-Assad, the most likely successor, was speeding through the foggy streets of Damascus, on his way to catch a flight to Germany. His Maserati collided with a motorway roundabout. Bassel died in hospital a short time later. After all the grooming, it must have been a terrible blow for his father.
President Assad, his father's second choice, became president in 2000, ten days after the death of his father. At that time. among many of the reformists, hopes grew that young Bashar might bring about positive changes for Syria after 30 years of his father's iron-fisted rule.
Following his father's death, Syria's parliament obligingly voted to lower the minimum age for presidential candidates from 40 to 34, so that son Bashar could be eligible for the office.
The public voted in a referendum where Bashar ran unopposed.
Even though he had had no other qualifications (other than being the son of the former president) and had. in fact, trained as an eye doctor, Bashar received 97% of the vote.
Such decisive electoral outcomes are not uncommon in the Middle East and should always naturally be viewed with a great deal of skepticism.
It was exactly those questions of legitimacy that lead to the uprisings in the first place. If Assad wants to blame somebody for the Arab Spring protests then he really needs to examine how he became president in the first place and whether he was really ever the right person for the job.
Bashar Assad might claim that Syria has not been directly involved in terrorist operations since 1986. And it is true as far as it goes but that doesn't mean his hands are clean.
Even though, Syria has long been a predominantly secularist country under the House of Assad, Bashar was more than willing to commit to "a marriage of convenience” with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In 2004, Syria and Iran signed a mutual defense agreement. The July 2006 Hezbollah strikes on Israel prompted allegations that Syria and Iran were using the group to deflect international attention from other issues, such as Iran's contentious nuclear program.
There were other question marks. As one source points out:
According to the State Department, Syria’s government supports U.S.-listed terrorist groups and allows some of these organizations such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to maintain headquarters in Damascus. The 2006 State Department Country Report says the Syrian government remains an active supporter of Hezbollah and has a covert presence in Lebanese politics. According to the report, Syria has suspected ties to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Syria rejects the terrorist categorization, denies involvement in the Hariri killing, and says it regards Hamas, Hezbollah, and other groups on its soil to be legitimate resistance movements aimed at liberating Arab territory held by Israel. [emphasis mine]
Supporting rebels in other countries was fine with Syrian leadership when it suited them but now karma has come a-knocking on Assad's door. The hypocrisy that Assad condemned in his interview now looks like a larger hypocrisy.
The destabilization caused by the Arab spring was the spark that started this conflagration.
However, before that, the stage had been perfectly set and all of the elements were there for a catastrophe. An inexperienced leader desperate to hold onto power at any cost, a family reputation for strong leadership, a failure to abide by basic human rights as a norm, an atmosphere of unrest spreading throughout the entire region, and outside financing and military support from a superpower.
Add to that explosive mix, a long history of mixed messages from the West.
As Assad finds himself backed into a corner, incapable of stepping down and incapable of winning, it is the Syrian people who are being victimized.
And, if the interview is any indication, their plight isn't very important to the president of Syria.
He is in survival mode. In April, the Associated Press reported the extent of Bashar Assad's failure and how increasingly desperate he must be.
But in a small way, when it comes to Western hypocrisy, President Assad has a point. Part of the problem in dealing with the problem of Bashar Assad is that, he has learned all the wrong lessons. His instructor was the West.
Under President Bush, Syria proved to be a valuable partner in the so-called war on terrorism.
Like his father during the first Gulf War, President Bush could, when necessary, put aside all of America's principles on human rights. He could mislead his own citizens, by dealing with the very people he had public condemned as terrorist sponsors. (Reagan in the Iran-Contra scandal did very much the same thing, of course.
Here's one case but there are probably hundreds more. Syria-born Canadian Maher Arar, was a case of torture outsourcing, courtesy of Syria. Suspected of being a terrorist, Arar was picked up by US authorities at a New York airport and sent back to Syria.
Arar was detained because his name had been placed on the United States Watch List of terrorist suspects. He was held for the next thirteen days, as American officials questioned him about possible links to another suspected terrorist. Arar said that he barely knew the suspect, although he had worked with the man’s brother. Arar, who was not formally charged, was placed in handcuffs and leg irons by plainclothes officials and transferred to an executive jet. The plane flew to Washington, continued to Portland, Maine, stopped in Rome, Italy, then landed in Amman, Jordan.
In short, a Canadian citizen with a Syrian passport was allegedly picked up on American soil, not charged with any crime, transferred by stealth operatives to a third country with a well-recognized history of human rights abuses.
If the allegations are true, there was a seemingly well-established system of rendition between Washington and Damascus.
How can this not be illegal?
In Syria, Arar endured months of brutal interrogation, including torture. According to his own testimony, Arar's hands were whipped repeatedly with two-inch-thick electrical cables, and he was kept him in a windowless underground cell which he compared to a grave.
Eventually, like most torture victims, Arar initially tried to claim innocence to his interrogators but eventually said whatever he thought they wanted to hear. When the story emerged, the US officials claimed it was not at all rendition but merely deportation. (Arar had dual Syrian and Canadian citizenship.)
However, according to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, approved by the Senate in 1994, Article 3 of that document requires that no state party expel, return, or extradite a person to another country where there are substantial grounds to believe he would be subjected to torture.
For the purpose of determining whether there are such grounds, the competent authorities shall take into account all relevant considerations including, where applicable, the existence in the State concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights.
That's crucial point since President Bush's then-Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton had classified Syria as a rogue state in a speech entitled "Beyond the Axis of Evil."
That speech was given in May 2002 and only a few months later, in September of that year, Arar was handed over to Syria, courtesy of US authorities.
It really doesn't get much more hypocritical than that.
President Bush's action in the Arar case violated other statutes and regulations prohibiting the transfer of foreign nationals to countries where such people would more likely than not to be tortured. Even then, in case of doubt and as a further safeguard, these rules permit the consideration of diplomatic assurances that an alien will not be tortured there.
By March, a New York Times article had revealed the full extent of the Bush's lie.
"The Bush administration’s secret program to transfer suspected terrorists to foreign countries for interrogation has been carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency under broad authority that has allowed it to act without case-by-case approval from the White House or the State or Justice Departments, according to current and former government officials. The unusually expansive authority for the CIA to operate independently was provided by the White House under a still-classified directive signed by President Bush within days of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the officials said."
The message to the apprentice in Damascus, who had been president only for a few months, was clear. Presidents had a right to lie to their people and to the world if the stakes are high enough. Even when they get caught out, they can escape justice.
From his point of view, all of the international laws against war crimes or torture are a merely Western hypocrisy. Bush and his crew were his models.
Western Hypocrisy is No Excuse
It's no wonder that Assad is convinced he can hang on to power. His point of view is based entirely on his own survival- not the survival of his nation. In his eyes, all humanitarian arguments count for nothing.
The idea that his nation is to be sacrificed for the sake of saving his own hide doesn't disturb his sleep at night. He sees things in a very pragmatic way. (What else can explain his mockery of the West when it weeps for drowned Syrian children who had fled his reign of terror?)
And besides, one never knows when either the West or Russia might find one's survival important to its own agenda. One never knows when there will be a sudden reversal of policy in the US or Europe or even in Russia. (Also with war crimes charges hanging over one's head, there's not too much incentive to step aside.)
All that European and Western double-dealing, as shameful as it is, still doesn't justify President Assad's calculated use of weapons of mass destruction on his own people.
Whatever the West might or might not have done, it cannot explain nor excuse the more than 133,000 people that were killed, the majority of which civilians, in attacks by forces loyal to Syrian President Assad. President Assad might think so. And Putin might encourage him to think in this way but it cannot.
No amount of Western hypocrisy can absolve the man from his own responsibility in causing an entire nation, including the elderly, women and children, to flee in panic.