ARE THE FORCES WITH THEM?
By Ryan Gallagher
The Big Issue in The North (Liverpool, U.K.)
February 13-19, 2012
** Despite the violence in Syria, Western governments remain opposed to direct military intervention. But behind the scenes there aresigns that special forces are helping the rebels **
The Syrian forces’ bombardment of Homs reached new levels of brutality last week, posing a major dilemma for Western governments. With reports of indiscriminate attacks on civilians sparking international outrage, there were clear echoes of the civil war in Libya a year ago. But as revolutionary fighters in the region have repeatedly asked for outside assistance, nations including Britain and America have been hesitant to directly intervene. Instead, they have increasingly turned to covert methods.
The situation in Syria reached crisis point ten days ago, when embattled leader Bashar al-Assad’s military began shelling the city of Homs in the west of the country. Though Assad denied responsibility, activists said hundreds of civilians --including many children -- died in the attacks, while some of the few journalists on the ground reported seeing some of the most gruesome scenes since unrest began in the country in January 2011.
Shortly after the wave of bombardment commenced, on 4 February a United Nations (U.N.) resolution to remove Assad from power was tabled. The resolution was quickly vetoed by China and Russia, allies of the Assad regime, dashing hopes of a quick solution. Yet while the international community failed to reach a consensus on how to respond, some reports have suggested unofficial, secret efforts are already underway to assist revolutionary forces -- known as the Free Syrian Army -- on the outskirts of the country.
Late last year, an article [translated here] in the respected Paris publication Le Canard enchaîné -- France’s version of British investigative magazine Private Eye -- contained leaked information. Quoting senior military intelligence sources, it reported that British and French secret services were already at work in northern Lebanon and Turkey, establishing contacts with Syrian soldiers who had fled after defecting from Assad’s army. It added that French special operations teams were “already prepared, in Turkey, should they get the order, to train these deserters in urban guerrilla warfare”.
This revelation was compounded by details divulged by former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer Philip Giraldi in December. Citing insider sources, Giraldi, who served in the CIA for 18 years, wrote in a U.S. magazine that the agency was assisting Syrian dissidents and rebels in the region, and that unmarked planes had been used to fly in small arms seized from toppled Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. According to him, the arms were distributed to Syrian anti-government fighters from a U.S. airbase in Adana, Turkey, near the Syrian border.
“I’m fairly confident that there has been what the intelligence community calls a ‘finding’ on Syria,which has authorized the intelligence and special ops elements to undertake operations basically against the Syrian government,” Giraldi says, speaking to *The Big Issue in The North* from Virginia in eastern America. “That means the White House is on board saying that we will be doing things that will be deniable but which we approve of.
”The U.S. is known to have wanted regime change in Syria for some time, as it considers the country a state sponsor of terrorism. A secret U.S. government document published by whistleblower organization WikiLeaks in 2011 revealed that as recently as 2006 the U.S. was plotting to undermine the Assad regime. The document, written by a U.S. diplomat in Damascus, noted: “If we are ready to capitalize, they [the Syrian regime] will offer us opportunities to disrupt his [Assad’s] decision-making, keep him off balance, and make him pay a premium for his mistakes.
[INSET [BACKGROUND]: REPRESSION AND DISSENT. Led by 46-year-old president Bashar al-Assad, Syria is an authoritarian, military dictatorship that crushes dissent violently. Assad came to power in 2000 as leader of the Arab socialist Ba’ath Party, succeeding his father, and had been seen as a potential reformist. He trained as an ophthalmologist in London and is married to a British woman.
Syria is officially a secular state that recognizes Islam as the majority religion, with around 74 percent of Syrians Sunni Muslims. Alawites, a minority Shiite sect, account for about 10 per cent of the population -- including President Assad himself. Christians make up ten per cent of the population.
Protests first began in Syria on 26 January 2011. The demonstrators called for an end to Assad’s rule along with greater political freedoms.
Widespread civil disobedience was eventually met with brutal acts of attempted suppression by the regime, which sent in tanks, shut off electricity, and ordered snipers to shoot people.
By July, a number of soldiers from the regime’s military defected and formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to fight against Assad’s rule.
Last month the FSA took control of its first city -- Zabadani, in southwest Syria. The force also reportedly took control of Douma, a suburb near the capital Damascus, and claimed to control around two-thirds of Homs prior to the recent bombardment by government forces. With only small arms at its disposal, the FSA has been powerless to defend itself against heavy artilleryand tank fire.]
”With this in mind, Giraldi believes it is “implausible” to think U.S. special forces are not already operating in Syria, and cites it as one of what he calls America’s “secret wars,” which cause him concern. Questioning the wisdom of getting involved in a conflict in the country, he argues that very little is known about the fragmented Syrian rebelforces and their motivations. This reflects a much wider fear that, if Assad is to fall, the militias -- madeup of differing religious groups --could turn on each other in the struggle for power, leading to even greater bloodshed.
“When you don’t know what you’re getting into, you would probably be better served by not doing it,” Giraldi says. “It could well be that the British, French, and American governments know a lot more about Syria than we do, but I don’t know about that. I was in the intelligence profession and I know how thin this stuff can be.”
The pattern developing in Syria appears similar to how the civil war unfolded in Libya last year. Both before and after a U.N. resolution imposed a no-fly zone over the country, agents from both Britain’s MI6 and America’s CIA were known to be on the ground. MI6,accompanied by elite Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers, reportedly helped direct air strikes, met with Libyan rebel leaders and gathered information about the locations of key Gaddafi military sites.
According to former SAS officer Robin Horsfall, the role of elite British soldiers was crucial in helping rebels topple Gaddafi. Horsfall believes, as in Libya, U.N. forces or “subversive support” will be essential for any successful overthrow of Assad. But he doubts British special forces are currently engaged directly in helping Syrian fighters given the current stalemate over the U.N. resolution.
“To be seen to be training a cadre of revolutionaries and supplying them with information and weapons in a place like Turkey, where there is free movement of the press, would bea huge political risk and I don’t think they’d be inclined to do that right now,” he says. “There may well be special forces, as there always are, moved close to any flashpoint in the world. But in reality they’re not doing anything. They’re probably close to the theater [of war] practicing for any eventuality.
”Though Horsfall thinks there are unlikely to be British soldiers within the country, he says the presence of British spies is likely. “One of the eventualities that they [the SAS] will be preparing for without any doubt is the evacuation of any diplomats, any VIPs . . . Also agents -- people use the word diplomats but often they are agents working for MI6, who are intelligence gatherers.”
“With mobile phones and the internet, the risks that spies have to take are far less difficult, the main reason being that information is freely available and transmittable from every street in Syria, which is to the great disadvantage of Assad.”
As Homs continued to suffer at the time of going to press, one of the few certainties about the Syrian crisis is that there will be more violence. Anti-Assad fighters say they will settle for nothing less than his removal from power -- but Assad shows no sign of leaving without an almighty fight. If the conflict continues on this path, and a peaceful solution is not negotiated, it is increasingly likely that teams of elite Western soldiers -- if they have not yet done so -- will covertly enter Syria to help train, arm, and co-ordinate rebel fighters.
“I would be very surprised if that sort of back-channel activity wasn’t already happening,” Lord Williams, formerly the U.N.’s most senior official in the Middle East, told the BBC lastweek.
“I would expect the services of some countries to be involved . . . In consultation with Turkey, there is scope for further action in that regard.”
HOULA MASSACRE SURVIVOR TELLS HOW HIS FAMILY WERE SLAUGHTERED
By Martin Chulov
** Syrian boy, 11, claims he played dead to escape pro-Assad gunmen who killed five members of family in Houla **
May 28, 2012
An 11-year old boy has described how he smeared himself in the blood of his slain brother and played dead as loyalist gunmen burst into his home and killed six members of his family during the start of a massacre in Houla, central Syria.
The young survivor's chilling account emerged as Russia continued to blame both Syrian troops and opposition militias for the weekend rampage in the town that left at least 116 people dead and prompted fresh outrage against the regime's crackdown.
It comes on the eve of Kofi Annan's scheduled meeting on Tuesday in Damascus with Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, which is seen as the last hope of salvaging the U.N. special envoy's failed peace plan.
Speaking to the Guardian, the young survivor said government troops arrived in his district at around 3:00 a.m. on Saturday, several hours after shells started falling on Houla.
"They came in armored vehicles and there were some tanks," said the boy. "They shot five bullets through the door of our house. They said they wanted Aref and Shawki, my father and my brother. They then asked about my uncle, Abu Haidar. They also knew his name."
Shivering with fear, the boy stood towards the back of the entrance to his family home as gunmen then shot dead every family member in front of him.
"My mum yelled at them," said the boy. "She asked: 'What do you want from my husband and son?' A bald man with a beard shot her with a machine gun from the neck down. Then they killed my sister, Rasha, with the same gun. She was five years old. Then they shot my brother Nader in the head and in the back. I saw his soul leave his body in front of me.
"They shot at me, but the bullet passed me and I wasn't hit. I was shaking so much I thought they would notice me. I put blood on my face to make them think I'm dead."
Apparently convinced their work was finished, the gunmen moved on to other areas of the house, from which they proceeded to loot the family's possessions, the boy said. "They stole three televisions and a computer," he said. "And then they got ready to leave."
On the way out of the house, the boy said the gunmen found the three men they had been looking for. They killed them all. "They shot my father and uncle. And then they found Aref, my oldest brother, near the door. They shot him dead too."
The Guardian contacted the boy through a town elder who is a member of the Syrian Revolutionary Council and is now caring for him. We are unable to independently verify the account and have chosen not to name the boy for security reasons.
The boy said he waited until the armored personnel carriers had moved from his street, then ran to his uncle's house nearby, where he hid. He said the same militiamen knocked on the door minutes later, asking his uncle if he knew who lived in the house that they just rampaged through.
"They didn't know he was my relative and when they were talking to him they were describing six people dead in my house. They included me. They thought I was dead."
Throughout a 15-minute conversation, the boy remained calm and detached until he was pressed on how he knew the gunmen were pro-regime militia men, known as al-Shabiha. The irregular forces have been widely accused by residents of Houla of entering homes and slaughtering families. At least 32 of the dead are children and many of them appear to have been killed at close range.
"They got out of tanks and they had guns and knives," he repeated. "Some of them were wearing civilian clothes, some army clothes.
"Why are you asking me who they were? I know who they were. We all know it. They were the regime army and people who fight with them. That is true."
Damascus has denied its forces were responsible for the massacre, and again blamed terrorist groups. Houla is a stronghold of the Free Syria Army in Homs province. Many military defectors have returned there to live with their families.
Damascus suggested on Monday a UN inquiry should be established to verify what took place in Houla.
--Additional reporting by Hala Kilani.
SHOULD THE U.S. INTERVENE IN SYRIA?
By Rabbi Brad Hirschfield
May 29, 2012
The question of U.S. intervention in Syria became more urgent over the weekend in light of the apparently execution-style murders of more than 100 people, as many as 40 of them children. How could it be otherwise, especially after one has seen the images of the tiny bodies wrapped for burial or worse, the images of those same bodies absent the wrappings, in all of their graphic clarity?
Unless one’s heart is made of stone, the sense that “we must do something, and do it now” is unavoidable. In fact, the sense that now may be a time for U.S. military intervention was voiced by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey who told Congress that escalating atrocities in Syria could trigger a military response.
Going even further, Arizona Sen. John McCain, referring to lack of U.S. military involvement, called this “a shameful moment in U.S. history . . . an abdication of everything America stands for and believes in.”
While I share Senator McCain’s sense of moral outrage about current events in Syria, I wonder about the “shamefulness” of our (in)actions and the supposed betrayal of our national values.
Were America to spend blood and treasure in Syria, what would be the result? Even were we successful in deposing Bashar Assad, would he be replaced by a less repressive regime or simply one which practiced the same governance style, albeit with a new set of victims?
As the conflict in Syria is fueled as much by competing understandings of Islam, Sunni vs. Shia, as it is about anything else, there is little reason to assume that the side we would presumably be helping would, when in power, be any more in line with the American values which demanded, in McCain’s view, that we support them to begin with.
There is no doubt that what is transpiring in Syria today is not only heartbreaking, but repugnant. And there is no doubt that if the United States could truly help, we should. But as General Dempsey went on to tell Congress, “There is no template.”
"You'll always find military leaders to be somewhat cautious about the use of force, because we're never entirely sure what comes out on the other side," General Dempsey said. And that is the real lesson in all this.
Moral outrage is actually a relatively cheap and easy emotion, even when it is entirely sincere as I have no doubt it is when expressed by Sen. McCain. But the ethical searching and uncertainty that is known to any wise warrior who must not only stir his audience but wield deadly force and put his own people in harm’s way -- that is the voice that needs to guide the current debate.
We should heed no call to arms that ignores that price. Precisely because we are a good and decent people, our sense of moral outrage is relatively easy to provoke. It’s something about which we, as a nation, should be proud. But it is also something about which we must be careful.
The United States is the most powerful nation in the world, and also one of the most moral, but the exercise of our power, our moral conscience or both, comes at a very dear price -- one which needs to be fully acknowledged before any action is taken.
Perhaps the time has come for greater military intervention in Syria, but not without a clear sense of what could be realistically achieved, and what the potential costs really are.
Neither the map of those outcomes, nor the costs necessitated by their achievement, has been demonstrated. Until they are, we have no business entering the conflict in Syria. If and when they are, it will be time to revisit the question, but not until then.
Sen. McCain invoked Memorial Day as the appropriate time to get more involved in Syria. But one could just as easily invoke it as a reason to say out.
The first argument remembers the causes for which those fallen heroes gave their lives, and perhaps Syria is indeed one of those causes.
The second argument remembers the individuals whose lives were actually lost in those conflicts and shudders at the enormity of that cost, no matter how justifiable it may be. A wise, and truly ethical, response to events in Syria will factor in both of those arguments before any decisions are made.
--Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism, and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
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