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Syria: No to Western intervention, no to illusions in Assad

Tariq Ali on Russia Today, July 13, 2012: "We have a very grim, polarised situation in which the choices are limited: either a Western-imposed regime composed of sundry Syrians who work for the Western intelligence agencies ... or the Assad regime. It's clear the people of Syria want neither ..."

By Phyllis Bennis

June 28, 2012 -- Znet -- Fifteen months on, the short Syrian spring of 2011 has long since morphed into a harsh winter of discontent. Syria is close to full-scale civil war. If the conflict escalates further, it will have ramifications far outside the country itself. As former UN Secretary-General and current envoy of both the UN and the Arab League Kofi Annan put it, “'Syria is not Libya, it will not implode, it will explode beyond its borders.”

Like so many other times before, the human cost of this conflict is incalculably high. It’s not surprising that the normal human reaction is “We’ve got to do something!” But exactly what any army or air force might do that would actually help the situation isn’t very clear. US/NATO military intervention didn’t bring stability, democracy or security to Libya, and it certainly is not going to do so in Syria.

The one crucial outside approach that could help resolve at least the immediate conflict – serious negotiations in which both sides are represented – for the moment remains out of reach. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the joint UN and Arab League envoy in Syria, has proposed at a new diplomatic initiative that would include the Syrian regime’s supporters, Iran and Russia, as well as the US-allied western countries and those Arab and regional governments backing the armed opposition. So far the US has rejected the proposal, at least regarding Iran, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying that Tehran is part of the problem in Syria and thus can’t be part of the solution. The current UN secretary-general, Ban ki-moon, who frequently reflects Washington’s interests, further undercut the potential of his own envoy’s proposal, saying that Assad has “lost all legitimacy” – diplomatic code for “we don’t have to talk to him.”

For those eager for analogies or counterparts, this isn’t Egypt or Libya, where opposition to the leader was overwhelming. Despite his government’s history of brutal repression, Bashar al-Assad still enjoys significant support from parts of Syria’s business elites, especially in Damascus and Aleppo, and some in minority communities (Christian, Shi’a, parts of the Druse and even some Kurds) whom the regime had cultivated for many years. The opposition was divided from the beginning over whether massive reform or the end of the Assad regime was their goal. It divided still further when part of the opposition took up arms, and began to call for international military intervention. The non-violent opposition movement, which still rejects calls for military intervention, survives, but under extraordinary threat.

There is no question that the regime has carried out brutal acts against civilians, potentially including war crimes. It also appears the armed opposition is responsible for attacks leading to the deaths of civilians. It is increasingly difficult to confirm who may be responsible for any particular assault. The UN monitors on the ground, whose access was already severely limited, have now been pulled from the field. The regime has allowed a few more foreign journalists to enter the country, but restrictions remain and the fighting is so severe in many areas they are often unable to get solid information. The regime is clearly responsible for more attacks with heavy weapons, including tanks and artillery, but it is also clear that the anti-government forces are being armed with increasingly heavy weapons, largely paid for by Qatar and Saudi Arabia and coordinated by Turkey and the CIA. Indications are growing of well-armed outside terrorist forces operating in Syria as well.

Accountability, whether in national or international jurisdictions, is crucial – but stopping the current escalation of violence and avoiding all-out war must come first.

Religious sectarianism on the rise

Syria is erupting in a region still seething in the aftermath of the US war in Iraq. While most US troops and mercenaries have left Iraq, the destruction and instability left behind have created a legacy that will last for generations. One aspect of that legacy is the sectarian divide that the US invasion and occupation imposed in Iraq – and as the expansion of that divide continues across the region, the threat of increasing sectarianism in Syria looms. Although the Assad regimes – from father Hafez’s rise to power in 1970 through his son Bashar’s rule since 2000 – have always been ruthlessly secular, Syria remains a poster country for sectarian strife. The ruling Assad clan are Alawites (a form of Islam related to Shi’ism), ruling over a country with a large Sunni majority.

If the increasing sectarianism of the Syrian conflict extends beyond its borders, it could lead to regional conflagration involving even greater refugee flows and potentially battles in or around Syria’s neighbours Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey or elsewhere. Already, alongside the international power interests colliding in Syria, there is the beginning of a Sunni-Shi’a proxy war taking shape, with Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and Shi’a Iran, backing opposing forces.

Threats of US intervention

Iran’s role is the single most important basis for US and other western interest in Syria, making that emerging proxy war even more dangerous. At this moment of continuing US pressure, increasing US and EU sanctions, and Israel's threats against Iran, Syria remains a tempting proxy target. Syria itself isn’t a significant oil producer, and Washington has been far more concerned about keeping Syria’s borders secure for Israel, and reducing Iranian influence than with getting into Syria itself. Damascus’s longstanding economic, political and military ties with Tehran mean that efforts to weaken or undermine Syria are widely understood to be at least partly aimed at undermining Iran, by destroying Tehran’s one reliable Arab ally. This is perhaps the most influential factor pushing the US towards greater action against Syria.

Certainly the US, the EU and the US-backed Arab Gulf governments would prefer a more reliable, pro-Western (meaning anti-Iranian), less resistance-oriented government than Assad’s in Syria, which borders key countries of US interest including Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey. They would also prefer a less repressive government, since brutality brings protesters out into the streets, threatening instability. But for the moment, despite the US involvement in helping its allies arm the opposition, conditions in the area still make a direct Libya-style US/NATO military strike on Syria somewhat less likely.

The US and its allies are all too aware of the consequences for their own interests of direct military involvement in Syria – based on what they see now in post-Qaddafi Libya. That model in Syria would create greater instability in the core of the strategic Middle East; expanding regional sectarianism; chaotic borders adjoining Israel, Iraq and Turkey; extremist Islamism gaining a foothold in Syria; and the end of any potential diplomatic arrangement with Iran.

In Europe, there is no “attack Syria” pressure equivalent to the political demands brought to bear on French and Italian leaders to intervene in Libya last year, following the PR fiasco of their overt colonial-style disdain for the earlier uprising in Tunisia. For Turkey, among the most active supporters of arming the opposition, Syria’s shoot-down of the Turkish plane could lead to even stronger calls for military intervention; so far, though, while Ankara’s call for a NATO “discussion” of the matter means risks of escalation continue, the uncertainty of whether the plane was over international or Syrian waters has allowed both governments to moderate their responses.

So at the moment it still appears unlikely the administration of US President Barack Obama would risk an attack on Syria without a UN Security Council endorsement. And that endorsement is simply not going to happen in the near future. China and Russia have both indicated they oppose any use of force against Syria, and so far they are both opposing additional sanctions as well.

Russian opposition to an attack on Syria goes beyond Moscow’s usual resistance to Security Council endorsement of intervention anywhere in the world. It goes to the heart of Russia’s strategic national interests, including its military capacity and its competition with the West for power, markets and influence in the Middle East. Russia’s relationship to Syria more or less parallels the US relationship to Bahrain: Damascus is a major Russian trading partner, especially for military equipment, and most crucial of all, hosts Moscow’s only Mediterranean naval base (and only military base outside the former Soviet Union), in Tartus on Syria’s southern coast.

Certainly, there are no guarantees. Politics still trumps strategic interests. The risk of a US/NATO attack on Syria remains, and the threat could be ratcheted up again in a moment. This isn’t about humanitarian concerns – neither the US nor any other country has ever used military force for purely humanitarian purposes. But the “CNN factor” – the relentless depiction of all-too-real, heart-wrenching suffering – creates a political reality that influences decision making in Washington, London, Paris, Ankara and beyond. As the violence escalates in Syria, as more civilians, especially children, are killed, calls for intervention, some real and some cynical, escalate as well.

In the US and Europe, the media and politicians’ earlier embrace of the armed opposition has subsided somewhat as reports rise of opposition attacks and resulting civilian casualties. But anti-Assad propaganda remains dominant. And Washington is in election mode, so the pressure to “do something” is on the rise. The calls for military intervention are coming from the media and some in Congress, from neo-cons who never gave up on their plans for regime change across the Arab world, and from hawkish liberal interventionists who again see military force as a solution to every human rights or humanitarian problem.

There are also prominent opponents of military force inside the White House and Pentagon, who recognise it would create worse problems for US interests (even if they don’t care much about the impact on Syrian civilians). Whether they can stand up to election-year “do something” pressures remains unclear. The push back by those in civil society who say no to military intervention, while refusing to accept the mechanical “enemy of my enemy is my friend” claims that the Syrian regime is somehow a fraternal bastion of anti-imperialist legitimacy, will be crucial.

Syria, resistance, anti-imperialism?

Syria’s position, geographic and political, and the resulting interest in it from outside actors, makes things very complicated. The country lies on the fault lines of the Middle East – from sectarian divides in war-battered Iraq and precariously balanced multi-confessional Lebanon and across the broader region, to great power competition including the US and NATO vs. Russia, to the Arab-Israeli conflict, to the roles of non-Arab Turkey and Iran. There is a crucial divergence between the role the Assad regime has played domestically and its regional position. As Jadaliyya co-editor Bassam Haddad has written, “most people in the region are opposed to the Syrian regime's domestic behavior during the past decades, but they are not opposed to its regional role. The problem is the Syrian regime's internal repression, not its external policies.” That opinion could describe the view of many Syrians as well.

Of course, unlike Egypt or Tunisia, the target of Syria’s original non-violent protests was not a US-backed dictator but a brutal though somewhat popular leader at the centre of the anti-Western resistance arc of the Middle East. Of course even if Assad had played a consistent anti-imperialist role in the region, Syrians would have every right and reason to challenge his regime’s brutality and denial of human rights. But the claim led some international activists to lionise the Syrian government as a bastion of anti-imperialism and therefore to condemn all opposition forces as lackeys of Washington.

In fact the regime’s reality is far different. Certainly the US views Syria, largely based on its alliance with Iran (and somewhat for its support of Hezbollah in Lebanon), as an irritant. But Damascus has never been a consistent opponent of US interests. In 1976 it backed a massive attack by right-wing Falangists and other Christian militias against the Palestinian refugee camp at Tel al-Zataar during Lebanon’s civil war. In 1991 Syria sent warplanes to join the US war coalition to attack Iraq in Operation Desert Storm. After 9/11 US President George W. Bush collaborated with the Assad regime to send innocent detainees such as Maher Arar to be interrogated and tortured in Syria.

It is also crucial to note which important US ally in the Middle East has been uncharacteristically silent regarding the Syrian uprising: Israel. One would have expected Tel Aviv to be leading the calls for military intervention against Syria, the demands for regime change, the constant drumbeat of demonisation and the calls for war. But Israel has been largely silent because, despite the rhetorical and diplomatic antagonism between the two, Syria has been a generally reliable and predictable neighbour. The occasional border clash or small-scale eruption of violence aside, Assad has kept the border, and thus the economically strategic and water-rich Golan Heights, illegally occupied by Israel since 1967, largely quiescent. As late as 2009 Assad was offering Israel negotiations “without preconditions” over the Golan Heights. And further, Assad is a known quantity; despite Syria’s close ties to Iran, Israel has little interest in a post-Assad Syria like today’s Libya, with uncontrolled borders, unaccountable militias, arms flooding in and out, rising Islamist influence, and a weak, illegitimate and corrupt government ultimately unable to secure the country. For Israel, the “anti-imperialist” Assad still looks pretty good.

Origins, impacts and consequences

The Syrian uprising that began in early 2011 was part of the broader regional rising that became known as the Arab Spring. Like their counterparts, Syria’s non-violent protesters poured into the streets with political/democratic demands that broke open a generations-long culture of fear and political paralysis. Like those who mobilised against US-backed dictators in Egypt, Tunisia,and elsewhere, the Syrian protesters were both secular and religious, reflecting a wide diversity of backgrounds and opinions. There were calls for democratisation, demands that long-silenced voices be heard and empowered, and for immediate and massive political changes.

For some that meant that the regime must end, some were willing to negotiate with the government without Assad, still others called for broad reforms, ending political repression and opening the political system, within the existing governing structures. But at first none called for international military intervention.

Then, like in Libya, some in the Syrian opposition, particularly military defectors, took up arms in response to the regime’s brutal suppression of the initially non-violent protests. The defensive use of arms soon morphed into a network of militias and fighters, largely unaccountable and uncoordinated – some of whom later began to call for military assistance.

Now, for some US and supporters of Western military intervention in Syria, last year’s assault on Libya provides the model of how to respond to a human rights/humanitarian crisis. They believe it was a victory for human rights when a couple of European leaders proposed a no-fly zone, and part of the anti-Qaddafi opposition eagerly accepted their offer, and part of the Arab League and part of Europe and part of the Obama administration and most of NATO agreed. With the fig leaf of Arab League approval (the African Union was sidelined as soon as it refused to support the military assault), the US/NATO warplanes quickly became the air force of the armed Libyan opposition, the “no-fly zone” was immediately transformed into an all-out air war and bombing campaign, and “protection of civilians” was instantly redefined as regime change.

But they were wrong to see it as a “human rights victory” then and they are more visibly wrong now. A year later, following the overthrow (and killing) of Qaddafi and the deaths of thousands of Libyans, the now-divided country struggles with out-of-control militias holding thousands of prisoners, torture, escalating violence, continuing attacks on sub-Saharan Africans and other foreigners, a virtually powerless government with more legitimacy in the West than at home, and a shattered national, social and physical infrastructure.

The impact of a military strike in Syria could be even worse. Syria’s conflict poses far more complex challenges than any of the earlier derailments from the non-violent mobilisations of the Arab Spring in Bahrain, Yemen or even Libya. Inside the country, the nature of Syria’s diverse economy, its strong middle class, the once relatively small gap between Syrian wealth and poverty, all mean that the regime maintains some level of legitimacy despite years of repression against political critics.

Bashar al-Assad appears to maintain significantly more support than did Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, for instance. The Assad regime’s own minority status strengthens claims it is protecting other Syrian minorities. And the tight links between ruling family and the military, mean that despite significant numbers of increasingly high-level military defections, the government and top military command appear largely intact. If the defections, such as the high-visibility flight to Jordan of Syrian air force officer in their Russian-made MiG fighter plane, escalate, the military capacity of the regime will be seriously undermined. But so far, the military-government unity remains viable.

For ordinary Syrians, struggling to survive amid escalating fighting, with virtually no access to electricity, water or medical assistance in more and more cities, the only hope starts with ending the fighting. The best – probably the only – useful thing outside powers can do, would be to move immediately towards serious new diplomacy, in which supporters of both the regime and the armed opposition participate, with the goal of imposing an immediate ceasefire. Kofi Annan’s call for just such a diplomatic option could be the start, if Washington could be pressured to reverse its opposition.

Such a diplomatic channel – bringing together Iran and Russia on one side, the US, EU, Turkey and pro-Western Arab monarchies on the other, under UN auspices – would not solve all the problems that led to the Syrian crisis. The United Nations, particularly the veto-bound Security Council, remains thoroughly undemocratic, with US domination a longstanding challenge. This kind of diplomacy would likely not reflect all the diverse interests of the Syrian people – but it would stop the current escalation towards full-scale civil war, and perhaps open enough political space to re-empower the original indigenous non-violent democratic movements in Syria. It will only work if it is kept out of the UN’s currently popular “responsibility to protect” (R2P) framework, which inevitably leads to outside military force.

The best the Annan plan could achieve would be to bring enough pressure to bear on the two sides (assuming the US/Western/Arab monarchy side and the Russian/Iranian side could agree on a goal) to reverse the current military escalation and perhaps impose a lasting ceasefire, long enough to force real negotiations inside Syria between a re-empowered internal opposition and the regime on some kind of political transition. Finding agreement between the diplomatic sponsors, let alone between the two sides inside Syria, will obviously not be easy.

But only with an end to the war, will the original unarmed opposition forces have a chance to remobilise public support for the internal, non-violent protest movement for real change, reclaiming social movements for Syria’s own freedom and democracy, and reasserting Syria’s place in the Arab Spring.

The uprising

There are at least five distinct forces at play in the Syrian uprising:

1. The regime – power largely concentrated in the extended Assad family and broader Alawite community; political leadership closely interconnected with top military command and mukhabarat (secret police). Maintains some popular support also from key business and banking powers in Syria, especially in Damascus and Aleppo. Has political support and some military assistance from Iran; recent expressions of political support from ALBA countries of Latin America (Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Venezuela) in context of US and other Western threats. Key military and commercial ties with Russia, especially through providing Russia with naval base at Tartus. Higher-level defections from military on the increase.

2. The original non-violent opposition – broad and diverse, secular and faith-based. Many activists came together in new informal coalitions and groupings that bypassed some older, more staid organisations. Maintains opposition to arming of opposition and especially to any outside military intervention. These activists were the primary force of the early uprising, but achieved less visibility as regime’s repression targeting non-violent actions succeeded in suppressing protests, international media was largely excluded, and internal independent media focused primarily on attacks on civilians. Renewed attention in recent months, including documenting street protests that are continuing despite civil war-like conditions in the country. It appears that more public mobilisations, including but not limited to street protests, are on the rise again with broadly democratic participation, especially in and around the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo, once known as relative strongholds of regime support. In April a young woman stood alone outside the parliament in Damascus with a banner that read “Stop the killing, we want to build a homeland for all Syrians”. Islamist forces are among those involved in the non-violent opposition; longtime Syrian non-violent leader Sheikh Jawad Said.

The non-violent opposition also includes the National Coordination Committee, made up of 13 political parties including some leftist forces, and independent mainly secular activists. It is against any military intervention, including a so-called “no-fly zone” (that opened the assault on Libya); its leader, Hussein Abdul Azim, said “We reject foreign intervention – we think it is as dangerous as tyranny. We reject both.” The NNC does, however, support economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure against Assad. The NCC does not call for overthrowing the regime, but instead for a national dialogue – though it does not support Assad’s proposed dialogue initiative, but rather a process conditioned on the pullback of military forces from the streets, ending attacks on peaceful protests, and release of all political prisoners. Some in the NCC have called for trying to replace the SNC as the “official” or recognised representative of the Syrian opposition.

3. The internal Syrian armed opposition – originally based on military defectors who created Free Syrian Army, morphed into assorted militias using FSA name, but with little central coordination; includes both defectors and armed civilians. FSA leaders have admitted they are not in control of the proliferation of groups of armed civilians operating under the FSA name. In recent weeks numbers of soldiers reported killed have escalated, as have reports of direct fights between regime soldiers and armed opposition groups. Appear to be receiving heavier weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey is providing logistical support to transfer weapons, and US providing “non-lethal” military equipment including night-vision goggles, GPS gear.

4. The internal/external supporters of the armed opposition – grouped primarily in the Syrian National Council (SNC), and call explicitly for overthrow of the regime. Includes Muslim Brotherhood, Local Coordination Committees (grassroots activist groups inside Syria), Kurdish factions, and others, including exile factions. Muslim Brotherhood probably most organised single organisation within it; consistent disagreements over Islamist influence. Have political base outside Syria, in Italy and Turkey. Originally claimed to defend non-violent nature of uprising but later called for coordinating role over armed factions inside and control of all weapons going in (FSA says will not cooperate with that, want weapons directly). At least some of SNC leadership calling for outside military assistance. The SNC recently asked individual countries to provide the Syrian opposition with “military advisers, training and provision of arms to defend themselves.” Very diverse politically, secular and Islamist, have had continuing problems with achieving enough unity to engage with international forces. Despite divisions, uncertain leadership and questionable levels support from inside Syria, SNC has been adopted by western (US, parts of EU) and Arab Gulf (Saudi, Qatar) governments and to some degree Turkey. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “they will have a seat at the table as a representative of the Syrian people.” The SNC has appeared weaker in recent months.

Largely through the SNC, the US is providing the Syrian opposition with “non-lethal” military supplies, including communications gear, GPS equipment more. Washington is also apparently supporting some kind of military training and backing efforts to unify the disparate opposition elements into a more coherent whole.

5. Non-Syrian armed forces – unknown forces, apparently mostly non-Syrian, including volunteers or others from international Islamist fighting groups appear to be arriving to fight in Syria. Goals unclear, could include opposition to Alawite/Shi’a government (Alawites considered an off-shoot of Shi’a Islam, and thus heretical to some extremist Sunni fundamentalists), and/or efforts to create chaos through military attacks resulting in power vacuums they might hope to fill.

[Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam and of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. Her books include Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN.]


Syria : debate and analysis on the popular armed opposition



Debates on the role and the nature of the armed opposition groups have been ongoing since their inceptions last year in June 2011 with the establishment of the Free Officer movement by Colonel Husayn Harmoush. This initiative was born killed because of the capture of the Colonel and his execution by the regime, but far from stopping there, the Free Syrian Army followed, led by the former Syrian Air Force Colonel Riad Asaad. Colonel Asaad defected from the air force in July 2011 and took refuge in Turkey where he settled since then.

Despite the fact that the Syrian revolutionary process is until today still characterized by its popular actions, from demonstrations to civil disobedience and strike campaigns as we saw in December 2011. We nevertheless like to express our opinion on this debate through a deep analysis on the nature of the armed opposition groups and the understanding we have on armed resistance.

Opposition to armed opposition

Some Syrian opposition groups has denounced the rise of an armed opposition inside the country and claimed that this has weakened the popular movement. The leader of the NCB Haitam Mannaa has for example declared that “When we were non-violent, we had three million people with us,” in addition to “Now, with the armed resistance, we don’t have more than 50,000 people in the streets.” He also said that “the armed struggle cannot be won. It plays in the hands of the extremist groups who are supported by the Gulf states” ( He added that these groups were pushing for foreign intervention, which we oppose (see our position regarding this topic:

Although we agree on the fact that solely armed resistance to overthrow the regime is not enough and we oppose foreign intervention, we believe the approach of the opposition activist Haitham Manna is not right. The popular movement in Syria has not ceased to grow and increase. In addition the violent repression on the protesters started on the first day of the revolutionary process in March 2011, it was not the armed resistance that launched it. Therefore as said the Cuban anti imperialist and national hero Jose Marti “he who triggers an avoidable war in a country is criminal, but is as criminal he who does not trigger an inevitable war“. We cannot deny that many Syrians felt like this against the violent repression of the regime, which could have avoided this war on its people.

It is worth remembering that there were more than 800 martyrs in Egypt during the three weeks prior to the overthrow of Mubarak. At one point protesters used violence to resist the thugs sent by the Mubarak regime to invade Tahrir square. People in Syria and elsewhere have the right to defend themselves and their families against the oppression of an authoritarian regime. Did we deny this right to the Palestinian resistance against the racist, colonial occupation of their territory by the Israelis? Did we deny the right in the past to South Americans population to launch guerrilla armed resistance against their dictatorship? Obviously not. The right to self-defense against the regime’s repression is not in contradiction with the peaceful struggle of the popular movement and the overthrow of the regime, as we will see.

Beginning of the armed opposition groups

Few elements favored the appearance of the armed groups:

-          Firstly, the violent repression of the regime against the peaceful protesters and in particular against the leaders of the popular movement by killing them, arresting them or pushing them to exile. This radicalized the movement and brought figures more keen to use armed resistance. Groups of citizens therefore increasingly took arms out of necessity to defend their homes and demonstrations from the shabihas, the security services and the army, and respond to attacks from them.

-           Secondly, the increasing defections in the army particularly from rank and files army soldiers refusing to fire on peaceful protesters.  On June 26, the 13th general was defecting and leaving to Turkey, while on June 22 a Syrian air force colonel became the first senior officer to defect in an aircraft after he abandoned a mission to attack the city of Dera’a and landed his MiG 21 fighter jet in Jordan. The refusal of soldiers to shoot at peaceful demonstrations led to many mutinies and defections inside the Syrian army. A Syrian general who was a leading member of Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle, Manaf Tlass, has also defected to Turkey.

-          Lastly, the will of some foreign groups and / or state to fund some armed groups inside Syria to build a base of support, which they lacked.  The movement of the Muslim Brotherhood has for example provided financial backing to a militia called the Civilian Protection Committee or the Khalid Ibn al-Walid Battalion in exchange for the groups’ loyalty. Some suspicions exist as well on Farouk Battalion led by the famous Abdel Razak Tlass and links with Saudi Arabia. An activist actually declared that “Some Qatari and Saudi businessmen are bypassing the military councils and pumping a big amount of dollars directly to fragmented armed opposition movements inside Syria. Some is going to radical groups

As we can see nothing was planned to turn the Syrian revolutionary process, which stayed completely peaceful for months, into an armed military component.

Composition of the armed groups

The people composing the armed  opposition groups are socially issued from the biggest section of the Syrian revolutionary movement, which includes the economically disenfranchised rural and urban working, lower and middle classes who have experienced the accelerated imposition of neoliberal policies by Bashar Al Assad since his arrival to power ( see this article for more info: In the armed opposition groups we found both defectors and civilians who took up arms, they are actually the far majority inside them. The armed opposition groups have real popular roots within the uprising and is simply too diverse for it to be easily turned into a unified proxy force acting in the interests of foreign powers.

Units and branches of the Syrian army were structured at the time of Hafez Al Assad, making it difficult to mutiny or organize collective insubordination. The structure of the high military command has been based on clientelist and sectarian relations, and very often a mix of the both. Most of the units loyal to Assad are dominated by Alawite officers, but there are also Sunni officers and even generals. For example, the battalion commander who led the terrible attack on Baba Amr in Homs was a Sunni colonel.

The role assigned to them was to repress popular protests to protect the regime, implementing various forms of repression and discrimination. Most of the time, the defectors had no choice but to revolt individually or in small groups, carrying their weapons or not, what often happened.

These conditions nevertheless did not prevent increasing defections and the regime has been forced to bail out its military unity by new elements, some of which are subordinated to the security apparatuses. Thousands of soldiers and officers have been imprisoned for being suspected of sympathy towards the revolution. At least half of Syrian army’s casualties were actually killed by regime loyalists, according to different sources.

The names of the armed groups: sectarianism or just product of their social milieu?

Most of the names of the armed groups have a religious Sunni connotation (such as Khalid Ibn al-Walid, who was the Muslim Arab conqueror of Syria in the 7thcentury. The names of other units associated with the Free Syrian Army–such as the Umar Ibn al-Khattab battalion in Dir al-Zour–also offer evidence of this orientation) and for this reason some have be fast to accused them of being sectarian. These names on the opposite do not indicate a sectarian trend, but is a result of the social milieu their members are from, which is usually rural, socially marginalized and where practice of religion is usual. These names are therefore a reflection of their social milieu.

In addition to this, we do found other communities among members of the armed opposition groups. Alawite brigades were also formed in the beginning of the year 2012 in the province of Idlib notably. Officer Muteeh Ilyas Ilyas was the first Syrian Christian officer to defect from the Syrian army. Security forces killed many Syrian Christian activists assisting or being linked to the FSA. Hossam Mikhail was killed because of his links with the Free Syrian Army.



Military equipment

Most of the armed opposition groups have denied the reception of weapons supplied by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, despite Western media claims (

The far majority of the armed opposition groups are struggling against the regime with basic equipment (including army Kalashnikov, Dragunov sniper rifle, machine gun PKT and rocket launchers RPG-7) stolen or purchased from the corrupt Syrian army. The more sophisticated equipments were, especially Metis and Kornet anti-tank missiles, generally gained and captured in battle with the regular forces of the Syrian regime or by buying them to corrupt officers

This is does not mean some arms and ammos were not delivered to the armed opposition groups but not as we portray it as organized and in big quantity. A first large delivery was provided in few months ago (March or April), and was allocated to various selected groups operation in and around Idlib, Hama, Homs and the outskirts of Damascus. Each area received several hundred rocket-propelled grenade launchers (with 10 grenades per launcher), Kalashnikov rifles, BKC machine guns and ammunition, according to several sources ( There were also two smaller consignments since the first delivery, but none of it was made following the demands of the armed opposition groups. These latter just took what were given to them.

According to various opposition sources, only small amount of arms have been sent by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while the Turks have denied any role in arming the Syrian rebels. A large amount of armed opposition groups have actually refuse to pledge allegiance to the Gulf groups, a condition by these latter on delivery of weapons and arms (

The claim of Saudi Arabia to pay the FSA elements is still awaited and is not happening until now, while CIA presence in Southern Turkey is more an operation to list the armed opposition groups than to assist them in any way. A high religious cleric member of the High Council of Oulemas, the most important religious authority in Saudi Arabia, has actually issued a Fatwa beginning of June forbidding Saudis to go fight the Syrian regime, or in other words to make the Jihad in Syria.

Some of the armed opposition groups also used to purchase weapons and munitions via smugglers from Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, but these passages have been weakened considerably as these countries have arrested and forbidden increasingly any movement of arms on their borders.

Lastly but not least, the armed opposition groups receive support from the population in supporting the fighters with money, arms, food, medical supplies and whatever other aid they can secure.

Strategy for armed opposition groups

Until today, the FSA is not a single and unified institution and until recently, coordination rarely extended beyond neighboring towns and villages and never to the provincial or national level. Many rebels didn’t even know the commanders in towns two hours away. Despite the lack of coordination, increasing and encouraging progresses have been witnessed these past few months.

Over the past months grassroots popular movements have increasingly burgeoned into a system of national, regional, and local actors who together coordinate demonstrations, armed attacks, humanitarian aid and interviews for media outlets. The establishment of the ‘Joint Action Committee’ is designed to “unify the political work and the field work in Syria across all the revolutionary levels to ensure a smooth future transition ( Its Executive is formed of three representatives from each of the four main opposition groups in Syria, including the two most important the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC) and the Local Coordination Committee (LCC), in addition to other local committees. The Committee also has the objective to coordinate and have authority over the armed opposition groups linked to or claiming to be part of the Free Syrian Army.

On the armed resistance side, some efforts have been made to coordinate the activities of the various armed groups in Syria by establishing a Unified Military Council. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been negotiating with the various factions in the hope of persuading them to join such a body.

Military councils have actually increasingly being formed throughout Syria in an effort to bring a command and control structure to disparate militia groups. According to an activist of the Joint Committee, they had in June ten military councils across the country, which were now sharing tactics and other information. The city of Homs is the notable exception. It lacks such a council because the three main military groups in the city do not get along.

Responsible operational level structures have therefore continually emerged in the form of provincial military councils that derive legitimacy from the local rebel groups operating under their command.  The provincial military councils operate under the umbrella of the FSA, but make their own operational decisions.

Viable provincial military councils have formed in Homs, Hama, idlib, Deraa, and Damascus.  Each military council represents a collection of effective, pre-existing FSA battalions.  Each military council coordinates with their political opposition counterpart, the provincial revolutionary councils, some powerful and established rebel organizations have not accepted their military council’s leadership, but enough rebel units have backed the councils to give them legitimacy (

The FSA is nevertheless until today more of a label representing a number of independent armed groups located throughout Syria, despite important progresses towards more coordination.

The LCC (see their analysis of FSA) and different groups such the Syrian revolutionary left have called for unification of the various armed groups in Syria under a civil authority towards which they would be accountable. The actions of the FSA should also be coordinated by local opposition groups to achieve the objectives of the revolutionary movement and not other interests foreign to it.

Role of the FSA and popular actions, the necessary complementary

This is why we support the role of the FSA in a coordinated role with forces on the ground such as the LCC and other groups struggling against the regime, addressing the objectives of the Syrian revolution.

This also means the respect of the FSA of Human rights and human dignity and therefore we condemn the practices listed by Amnesty in this report ( In the same time, the armed groups are to serve only the objectives of the popular movement and the revolution and not foreign powers. They also have to distinguish them clearly from some armed groups pursuing mafia or sectarian objectives, both elements weakening the revolutionary process.

In a statement made by the FSA in June, it committed to “respect to the principles of international and humanitarian law” and added that it will also only serve the “government to be elected by the people” after the fall of the Assad regime, ” it will ensure the people’s unity and territorial integrity” and that “it will not interfere in the political process.”. We oppose the calls from some armed groups for a foreign military intervention, but moreover we tell them that their calls are a lost of time, because it will not change the fact that currently no foreign power is willing to undertake a foreign military intervention in Syria. We tell them let’s unite and collaborate between the popular movement and the armed opposition groups, because this is the only element we can have control on!

Notwithstanding the need for a unified and accountable FSA, this should not detract from the project of building the revolutionary and popular movement, as stated by the LCC:  “We must work with local leading activists to focus on continuing and improving their revolutionary activities and increasing their efficiency. The discourse on peaceful civil disobedience has not yet reached the majority and persuaded them of its effectiveness. Many methods of civilian resistance have yet to be used, or have been used only briefly.”

Local groups and coordination committees are the effective and direct organizational format for the revolution. The political groups should support them and work on developing a clear and unified revolutionary strategy. From there we can build a revolutionary coalition bringing together the majority of dissidents.

The struggle of the Syrian people must not be transformed solely into in a military clash with the militarized regime.

The Syrian army is composed of about 295,000 active members. Some 175,000 of those are conscripts with varying levels of training and commitment. However, the army also includes a number of highly trained and capable units, including the Republican Guard Division and the 4th Mechanized Division, totaling between 25,000 and 35,000 in number. These units are under the command of Maher Assad, brother of Assad. Further, there are an additional 100,000 paramilitary forces linked directly to the ruling Baath Party. There is also the internal security apparatus which includes police forces linked to Syrian Military Intelligence, the National Security Bureau, the Political Security Directorate, Air Force Intelligence, and finally the General Intelligence Directorate. The latter division alone is comprised of about 25,000 men, and is directly linked to the highest levels of the government.

This is why we support the role of the FSA in an exclusively defensive and coordinated role with forces on the ground such as the LCC and other groups struggling against the regime, addressing the objectives of the Syrian revolution

The conjunction between the armed and popular resistance is necessary and crucial to hope overthrow the regime, as written by the opposition activist Salameh Kaileh:

بالتالي، لا إمكانية لان تتحول الثورة إلى ثورة مسلحة، وبكل بلدان العالم لا اذكر أن هناك دولة تحررت من سلطتها بالكفاح المسلح، الكفاح المسلح مفيد في مواجهة الاحتلال، ولكنه في صراع طبقي داخلي، يمكن أن يكون عنصرا مساعدا ولكن لا يمكن أن يتحول إلى كفاح مسلح، الحراك الشعبي هو الأساس ويجب أن يستمر كذلك

In other words, he says that “there is no possibility to the turn the revolution into an armed revolution, and in all countries of the world I do not remember that there is a country that freed from itself from its state in armed struggle, armed struggle is useful in the face of the occupation, but in the local class struggle, it can be an assistant but cannot be turned into a solely armed armed struggle, the popular movement is the basis and it should continue this way.”

The popular movement has to continue and be the main organizer of the revolution; it is the actor that can paralyze the means of repression and the economic centers of the regime which will lead to its downfall. This allows the armed resistance to extend and develop in region it could reach not reach before and therefore present a new challenge to the regime’s army and the security forces in addition to the resistance of the popular movement.

The armed opposition groups are until nowadays mostly present in rural regions, except in the city of Homs where they were massively active, while provoking some clashes in some the outskirts of Aleppo and Damascus. The cities will nevertheless be the game changer; around 75 percent of the populations actually live in the largest six cities: Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Latakia and Tartous. It is the role of the popular movement to organize the protestors in these towns, which contains important groups of workers.

As we have seen previously like in December 2011 and January 2012, coordinated strike action by the LCC and other popular groups must be even deeper and larger, attempting in the future to involve powerful groups of workers employed in the oil refineries, ports, factories, offices, mines, railways, airports, schools and hospitals. This would have the potential power to bring the economy to a grinding halt and break the regime, while giving more possibility to the armed resistance to expand and assist the popular movement in its action.

This means rebuilding as well popular organisations, especially unions in universities and workplaces, which is starting ( see article for more info:

Che Guevara explained well in his various struggles the necessity for the guerrilla war to be supported by the struggle of the peasant and the workers to overthrow the regime and seize power.

In conclusion, the struggle concerns everyone and all sections of society, we support armed resistance as asserted above but this will not be enough. The popular movement is the key element in the continuation of the revolution and its success. The popular movement and armed resistance have to unite completely and coordinate fully to achieve the objectives of the Syrian revolution and to overthrow of the regime. No assistance whatsoever will come from the outside that will be a game changer for the opposition and the popular movement, the solution is in Syria and among Syrians.

Where Is the Non-Violent Opposition in Syria?

A response to Phyllis Bennis by Clay Claiborne

Some observers of the crisis in Syria have sought to divide the opposition to Bashar al-Assad into an “armed opposition” and a “non-violent opposition movement for freedom and democracy, which still rejects calls for military intervention” as Phyllis Bennis does in a recent opinion piece in Al Jazeera.

She sees these as two distinct oppositions movements, one non-violently fighting for freedom and democracy, and another that has taken up arms and “is also responsible for attacks leading to the deaths of civilians” and who knows what they are fighting for.

Even though the opposition to the Assad regime has clearly been growing in the last year, she sees this current state of the opposition as the result of fragmentation:

The opposition was divided from the beginning over whether massive reform or the end of the regime was their goal. It divided further when part of the opposition took up arms, and began calling for international military intervention.

Like many observers, she sees this armed opposition as drowning out the non-violent opposition in recent months.

Assad’s body count.

I believe this way of looking at the opposition to Assad is incorrect and historically inaccurate. For 18 months there has been a main opposition to the Assad regime that has been composed of a lot of forces from across the political spectrum of Syrian society. There have always been political differences within the movement and there has been political development within the movement as a whole.

The movement started out as peaceful demonstrations demanding reform, as it did in Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Egypt in January and February of 2011. There were always revolutionaries with in these movements that thought these demands could never be met by the current dictators and argued for regime change. In all of the movements of the Arab Spring, those demanding regime change gained greater and greater sway in the movement as the regimes met the peaceful protests with violence.

While, no doubt, there are Syrians who were part of this reform movement and left it when the main demand shifted to regime change, I think it is false to portray this as a split in the movement. I think it much more accurate and much more useful to realize that the movement as a whole shifted from being a movement demanding reforms from Assad to one demanding his overthrow. The opposition movement in Syria has grown massive and is united in the demand that Assad must go! Only long time fans of Assad, not members of the original opposition, are still asking him to stick around but just clean up his act.

Likewise, I think it is wrong to suggest that there is a separate and distinct “armed opposition” as opposed to the “non-violent opposition.” In the beginning, this “Arab Spring” opposition to Assad was overwhelmingly non-violent. Assad may have been fighting al Qaeda or other “armed terrorist gangs”elsewhere, but he was lying when he used that as an excuse for firing on peaceful protesters on Homs, Hama, Dara and other places.

A member of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) sports his Christianity in response to the Assad government’s charge (echoed by the Western left) that FSA is sectarian.

As Assad followed Ghadafi’s lead in applying military power to peaceful protesters, this started to have a powerful effect on the attitude towards non-violence within the movement as a whole. Whereas the movement, even as it started to demand the removal of Assad, continued to stand on the principal of non-violence and non-intervention, this started to change as more and more Syrians were killed by the regime.

The attitude of the opposition movement both towards armed struggle and outside support changed as the revolution developed and was illustrated by massive demonstrations demanding intervention. They named July 29, 2011 “Friday of ‘Your Silence Is Killing Us’” and held massive demonstrations across Syria that directed that slogan not only at other Syrians that had yet to join the struggle but to the people of the world as well. The Syria wide mass protests of September 9, 2011 were named the “Friday of International Protection.” That was the first time the movement as a whole put forward an explicit demand for foreign intervention. As Assad’s violence continued unabated on March 16, 2012 the opposition called the protests the “Friday of Immediate Foreign Intervention.” Assad killed 15 protesters on that day. So you see, it is a most shameful falsehood to speak of a “non-violent opposition movement for freedom and democracy, which still rejects calls for military intervention.” It lets us off the hook by telling a lie on them.

Damascus Protesters Call for International Protection Now ! Erbeen 9-2-11

Assad sent his troops out to crush the rebellion when it said “Your silence is killing us.” From Wikipedia “20 protesters were killed throughout Syria, most notably in Deir ez-Zor, where the government tried to stop mass gatherings” on July 29th. And it was there, at Deir ez-Zor and on that day that a colonel in the Syrian Army defected to the opposition together with hundreds of soldiers to found the Free Syrian Army to protect the protester. So you see, separating the opposition into armed and non-violent camps is ahistorical as well.

The Free Syrian Army developed from soldiers ordered to shoot protesters, soldiers who decided instead that it was their patriotic duty to defend the protesters. They have been joined by formerly peaceful protesters that have now also taken up arms in defense of the revolution. The FSA started out exclusively as a force to defend peaceful protesters but as Assad’s attacks continued and grew both in scope and brutality, the FSA has also started conducting offensive operation and while they may or may not have weapons given to them by the CIA or Qatar, it is clear that they have overwhelmingly armed themselves with weapons taken from Assad.

Even though the FSA is getting better weapons, that doesn’t justify Phyillis Bennis’ attempts to create a false parity between the two forces as she does when she says:

The regime is clearly responsible for more attacks with heavy weapons, including tanks and artillery, but it is also clear that the anti-government forces are being supplied with increasingly heavy weapons

“Heavy weapons” is a distinct military category that does include tanks and artillery as well as combat aircrafts. “Increasingly heavy weapons” is no such category. Since the FSA has had to do most of its fighting with AK-47s and they are now getting more rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), it can be said that the FSA is getting “increasingly heavy weapons” but that rhetorical flourish doesn’t make an RPG equal to a 120mm cannon.

Syrians in Homs put Assad’s head on a dummy to draw sniper fire. Assad’s killers are firing at Assad’s image.

Furthermore, “being supplied” is an underhanded way of implying that the FSA is “being run” by outside agencies without providing any proof. It is by no means “clear that the anti-government forces are being supplied” with weapons by anyone. It is very clear that they are getting more and better weapons, here is a video of the FSA taking over of a Syrian military base and capturing a lot of weapons. Would you call that “being supplied?” More recently we have heard of whole units of the Syrian army defecting with sophisticated anti-tank weapons and manpads. Would you call that “being supplied?” They have even been successful at capturing intact, some of Assad’s tanks. Would you call that “being supplied?”

This increased militarization in defense of the people has given the crisis in Syria all the characteristics of a civil war, which is what it has in fact become. But as has been said many times: War is a continuation of politics by violent means. So in assessing the legitimacy of either side of the conflict, its not enough to point out that both sides are “responsible for attacks leading to the deaths of civilians.” That is unavoidable by either side in any war. It is much more important to understand what the two sides are fight for, i.e. what policies are being continued.

Assad is attempting to suppress a rebellious population. He has elected to use mass murder as his principal method of doing that and his armed forces as this principle instrument. With canon and aerial bombs he is attacking whole neighborhoods, not just those that oppose him. In response to that the opposition to Assad has developed armed forces of their own, but the mass opposition to Assad continues to grow.

This is a collection of videos of mass demonstrations in Syria in the past few days. These are the people that are driving this whole process, not NATO or Russia or Assad, and the whole UN diplomatic corp. They are all just reacting to thousands of Syrians in revolt. These protesters are united and have courageously come out to demonstrate knowing it could cost them their lives.

They are united in demanding regime change.

They are united in their support for the Free Syrian Army.

They are united in demanding that the world come to their aid and stop Assad’s slaughter.

Please look at these videos and understand that Assad wants these people dead. He will continue to kill as long as they continue to oppose him and they will never stop opposing him.

(Full text available here:

The Syrian opposition: who's doing the talking?

The media have been too passive when it comes to Syrian opposition sources, without scrutinising their backgrounds and their political connections. Time for a closer look …

Rami Abdulrahman
The director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdulrahman, speaks on the phone in his home in Coventry on December 6, 2011. Photograph: Reuters

A nightmare is unfolding across Syria, in the homes of al-Heffa and the streets of Houla. And we all know how the story ends: with thousands of soldiers and civilians killed, towns and families destroyed, and President Assad beaten to death in a ditch.

This is the story of the Syrian war, but there is another story to be told. A tale less bloody, but nevertheless important. This is a story about the storytellers: the spokespeople, the "experts on Syria", the "democracy activists". The statement makers. The people who "urge" and "warn" and "call for action".

It's a tale about some of the most quoted members of the Syrian opposition and their connection to the Anglo-American opposition creation business. The mainstream news media have, in the main, been remarkably passive when it comes to Syrian sources: billing them simply as "official spokesmen" or "pro-democracy campaigners" without, for the most part, scrutinising their statements, their backgrounds or their political connections.

It's important to stress: to investigate the background of a Syrian spokesperson is not to doubt the sincerity of his or her opposition to Assad. But a passionate hatred of the Assad regime is no guarantee of independence. Indeed, a number of key figures in the Syrian opposition movement are long-term exiles who were receiving US government funding to undermine the Assad government long before the Arab spring broke out.

Though it is not yet stated US government policy to oust Assad by force, these spokespeople are vocal advocates of foreign military intervention in Syria and thus natural allies of well-known US neoconservatives who supported Bush's invasion of Iraq and are now pressuring the Obama administration to intervene. As we will see, several of these spokespeople have found support, and in some cases developed long and lucrative relationships with advocates of military intervention on both sides of the Atlantic.

"The sand is running out of the hour glass," said Hillary Clinton on Sunday. So, as the fighting in Syria intensifies, and Russian warships set sail for Tartus, it's high time to take a closer look at those who are speaking out on behalf of the Syrian people.

The Syrian National Council

The most quoted of the opposition spokespeople are the official representatives of the Syrian National Council. The SNC is not the only Syrian opposition group – but it is generally recognised as "the main opposition coalition" (BBC). The Washington Times describes it as "an umbrella group of rival factions based outside Syria". Certainly the SNC is the opposition group that's had the closest dealings with western powers – and has called for foreign intervention from the early stages of the uprising. In February of this year, at the opening of the Friends of Syria summit in Tunisia, William Hague declared: "I will meet leaders of the Syrian National Council in a few minutes' time … We, in common with other nations, will now treat them and recognise them as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people."

The most senior of the SNC's official spokespeople is the Paris-based Syrian academic Bassma Kodmani.

Bassma Kodmani

Bassma Kodmani at Bilderberg
Bassma Kodmani of the Syrian National Council. Photograph: Carter Osmar

Here is Bassma Kodmani, seen leaving this year's Bilderberg conference in Chantilly, Virginia.

Kodmani is a member of the executive bureau and head of foreign affairs, Syrian National Council. Kodmani is close to the centre of the SNC power structure, and one of the council's most vocal spokespeople. "No dialogue with the ruling regime is possible. We can only discuss how to move on to a different political system," she declared this week. And here she is, quoted by the newswire AFP: "The next step needs to be a resolution under Chapter VII, which allows for the use of all legitimate means, coercive means, embargo on arms, as well as the use of force to oblige the regime to comply."

This statement translates into the headline "Syrians call for armed peacekeepers" (Australia's Herald Sun). When large-scale international military action is being called for, it seems only reasonable to ask: who exactly is calling for it? We can say, simply, "an official SNC spokesperson," or we can look a little closer.

This year was Kodmani's second Bilderberg. At the 2008 conference, Kodmani was listed as French; by 2012, her Frenchness had fallen away and she was listed simply as "international" – her homeland had become the world of international relations.

Back a few years, in 2005, Kodmani was working for the Ford Foundation in Cairo, where she was director of their governance and international co-operation programme. The Ford Foundation is a vast organisation, headquartered in New York, and Kodmani was already fairly senior. But she was about to jump up a league.

Around this time, in February 2005, US-Syrian relations collapsed, and President Bush recalled his ambassador from Damascus. A lot of opposition projects date from this period. "The US money for Syrian opposition figures began flowing under President George W Bush after he effectively froze political ties with Damascus in 2005," says the Washington Post.

In September 2005, Kodmani was made the executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative (ARI) – a research programme initiated by the powerful US lobby group, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

The CFR is an elite US foreign policy thinktank, and the Arab Reform Initiative is described on its website as a "CFR Project" . More specifically, the ARI was initiated by a group within the CFR called the "US/Middle East Project" – a body of senior diplomats, intelligence officers and financiers, the stated aim of which is to undertake regional "policy analysis" in order "to prevent conflict and promote stability". The US/Middle East Project pursues these goals under the guidance of an international board chaired by General (Ret.) Brent Scowcroft.

Peter Sutherland


Peter Sutherland pictured at the Bilderberg conference. Photograph: Hannah Borno

Brent Scowcroft (chairman emeritus) is a former national security adviser to the US president – he took over the role from Henry Kissinger. Sitting alongside Scowcroft of the international board is his fellow geo-strategist, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who succeeded him as the national security adviser, and Peter Sutherland, the chairman of Goldman Sachs International. So, as early as 2005, we've got a senior wing of the western intelligence/banking establishment selecting Kodmani to run a Middle East research project. In September of that year, Kodmani was made full-time director of the programme. Earlier in 2005, the CFR assigned "financial oversight" of the project to the Centre for European Reform (CER). In come the British.

The CER is overseen by Lord Kerr, the deputy chairman of Royal Dutch Shell. Kerr is a former head of the diplomatic service and is a senior adviser at Chatham House (a thinktank showcasing the best brains of the British diplomatic establishment).

In charge of the CER on a day-to-day basis is Charles Grant, former defence editor of the Economist, and these days a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a "pan-European thinktank" packed with diplomats, industrialists, professors and prime ministers. On its list of members you'll find the name: "Bassma Kodmani (France/Syria) – Executive Director, Arab Reform Initiative".

Another name on the list: George Soros – the financier whose non-profit "Open Society Foundations" is a primary funding source of the ECFR. At this level, the worlds of banking, diplomacy, industry, intelligence and the various policy institutes and foundations all mesh together, and there, in the middle of it all, is Kodmani.

The point is, Kodmani is not some random "pro-democracy activist" who happens to have found herself in front of a microphone. She has impeccable international diplomacy credentials: she holds the position of research director at the Académie Diplomatique Internationale – "an independent and neutral institution dedicated to promoting modern diplomacy". The Académie is headed by Jean-Claude Cousseran, a former head of the DGSE – the French foreign intelligence service.

A picture is emerging of Kodmani as a trusted lieutenant of the Anglo-American democracy-promotion industry. Her "province of origin" (according to the SNC website) is Damascus, but she has close and long-standing professional relationships with precisely those powers she's calling upon to intervene in Syria.

And many of her spokesmen colleagues are equally well-connected.

Radwan Ziadeh

Another often quoted SNC representative is Radwan Ziadeh – director of foreign relations at the Syrian National Council. Ziadeh has an impressive CV: he's a senior fellow at the federally funded Washington thinktank, the US Institute of Peace (the USIP Board of Directors is packed with alumni of the defence department and the national security council; its president is Richard Solomon, former adviser to Kissinger at the NSC).

In February this year, Ziadeh joined an elite bunch of Washington hawks to sign a letter calling upon Obama to intervene in Syria: his fellow signatories include James Woolsey (former CIA chief), Karl Rove (Bush Jr's handler), Clifford May (Committee on the Present Danger) and Elizabeth Cheney, former head of the Pentagon's Iran-Syria Operations Group.

Ziadeh is a relentless organiser, a blue-chip Washington insider with links to some of the most powerful establishment thinktanks. Ziadeh's connections extend all the way to London. In 2009 he became a visiting fellow at Chatham House, and in June of last year he featured on the panel at one of their events – "Envisioning Syria's Political Future" – sharing a platform with fellow SNC spokesman Ausama Monajed (more on Monajed below) and SNC member Najib Ghadbian.

Ghadbian was identified by the Wall Street Journal as an early intermediary between the US government and the Syrian opposition in exile: "An initial contact between the White House and NSF [National Salvation Front] was forged by Najib Ghadbian, a University of Arkansas political scientist." This was back in 2005. The watershed year.

These days, Ghadbian is a member of the general secretariat of the SNC, and is on the advisory board of a Washington-based policy body called the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies (SCPSS) – an organisation co-founded by Ziadeh.

Ziadeh has been making connections like this for years. Back in 2008, Ziadeh took part in a meeting of opposition figures in a Washington government building: a mini-conference called "Syria In-Transition". The meeting was co-sponsored by a US-based body called the Democracy Council and a UK-based organisation called the Movement for Justice and Development (MJD). It was a big day for the MJD – their chairman, Anas Al-Abdah, had travelled to Washington from Britain for the event, along with their director of public relations. Here, from the MJD's website, is a description of the day: "The conference saw an exceptional turn out as the allocated hall was packed with guests from the House of Representatives and the Senate, representatives of studies centres, journalists and Syrian expatriats [sic] in the USA."

The day opened with a keynote speech by James Prince, head of the Democracy Council. Ziadeh was on a panel chaired by Joshua Muravchik (the ultra-interventionist author of the 2006 op-ed "Bomb Iran"). The topic of the discussion was "The Emergence of Organized Opposition". Sitting beside Ziadeh on the panel was the public relations director of the MJD – a man who would later become his fellow SNC spokesperson – Ausama Monajed.

Ausama Monajed

Along with Kodmani and Ziadeh, Ausama (or sometimes Osama) Monajed is one of the most important SNC spokespeople. There are others, of course – the SNC is a big beast and includes the Muslim Brotherhood. The opposition to Assad is wide-ranging, but these are some of the key voices. There are other official spokespeople with long political careers, like George Sabra of the Syrian Democratic People's party – Sabra has suffered arrest and lengthy imprisonment in his fight against the "repressive and totalitarian regime in Syria". And there are other opposition voices outside the SNC, such as the writer Michel Kilo, who speaks eloquently of the violence tearing apart his country: "Syria is being destroyed – street after street, city after city, village after village. What kind of solution is that? In order for a small group of people to remain in power, the whole country is being destroyed."

Ausuma Monajed Ausuma Monajed. Photograph: BBC

But there's no doubt that the primary opposition body is the SNC, and Kodmani, Ziadeh and Monajed are often to be found representing it. Monajed frequently crops up as a commentator on TV news channels. Here he is on the BBC, speaking from their Washington bureau. Monajed doesn't sugar-coat his message: "We are watching civilians being slaughtered and kids being slaughtered and killed and women being raped on the TV screens every day."

Meanwhile, over on Al Jazeera, Monajed talks about "what's really happening, in reality, on the ground" – about "the militiamen of Assad" who "come and rape their women, slaughter their children, and kill their elderly".

Monajed turned up, just a few days ago, as a blogger on Huffington Post UK, where he explained, at length: "Why the World Must Intervene in Syria" – calling for "direct military assistance" and "foreign military aid". So, again, a fair question might be: who is this spokesman calling for military intervention?

Monajed is a member of the SNC, adviser to its president, and according to his SNC biography, "the Founder and Director of Barada Television", a pro-opposition satellite channel based in Vauxhall, south London. In 2008, a few months after attending Syria In-Transition conference, Monajed was back in Washington, invited to lunch with George W Bush, along with a handful of other favoured dissidents (you can see Monajed in the souvenir photo, third from the right, in the red tie, near Condoleezza Rice – up the other end from Garry Kasparov).

At this time, in 2008, the US state department knew Monajed as "director of public relations for the Movement for Justice and Development (MJD), which leads the struggle for peaceful and democratic change in Syria".

Let's look closer at the MJD. Last year, the Washington Post picked up a story from WikiLeaks, which had published a mass of leaked diplomatic cables. These cables appear to show a remarkable flow of money from the US state department to the British-based Movement for Justice and Development. According to the Washington Post's report: "Barada TV is closely affiliated with the Movement for Justice and Development, a London-based network of Syrian exiles. Classified US diplomatic cables show that the state department has funnelled as much as $6m to the group since 2006 to operate the satellite channel and finance other activities inside Syria."

A state department spokesman responded to this story by saying: "Trying to promote a transformation to a more democratic process in this society is not undermining necessarily the existing government." And they're right, it's not "necessarily" that.

When asked about the state department money, Monajed himself said that he "could not confirm" US state department funding for Barada TV, but said: "I didn't receive a penny myself." Malik al -Abdeh, until very recently Barada TV's editor-in-chief insisted: "we have had no direct dealings with the US state department". The meaning of the sentence turns on that word "direct". It is worth noting that Malik al Abdeh also happens to be one of the founders of the Movement for Justice and Development (the recipient of the state department $6m, according to the leaked cable). And he's the brother of the chairman, Anas Al-Abdah. He's also the co-holder of the MJD trademark: What Malik al Abdeh does admit is that Barada TV gets a large chunk of its funding from an American non-profit organisation: the Democracy Council. One of the co-sponsors (with the MJD) of Syria In-Transition mini-conference. So what we see, in 2008, at the same meeting, are the leaders of precisely those organisations identified in the Wiki:eaks cables as the conduit (the Democracy Council) and recipient (the MJD) of large amounts of state department money.

The Democracy Council (a US-based grant distributor) lists the state department as one of its sources of funding. How it works is this: the Democracy Council serves as a grant-administering intermediary between the state department's "Middle East Partnership Initiative" and "local partners" (such as Barada TV). As the Washington Post reports:

"Several US diplomatic cables from the embassy in Damascus reveal that the Syrian exiles received money from a State Department program called the Middle East Partnership Initiative. According to the cables, the State Department funnelled money to the exile group via the Democracy Council, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit."

The same report highlights a 2009 cable from the US Embassy in Syria that says that the Democracy Council received $6.3m from the state department to run a Syria-related programme, the "Civil Society Strengthening Initiative". The cable describes this as "a discrete collaborative effort between the Democracy Council and local partners" aimed at producing, amongst other things, "various broadcast concepts." According to the Washington Post: "Other cables make clear that one of those concepts was Barada TV."

Until a few months ago, the state department's Middle East Partnership Initiative was overseen by Tamara Cofman Wittes (she's now at the Brookings Institution – an influential Washington thinktank). Of MEPI, she said that it "created a positive 'brand' for US democracy promotion efforts". While working there she declared: "There are a lot of organizations in Syria and other countries that are seeking changes from their government … That's an agenda that we believe in and we're going to support." And by support, she means bankroll.

The money

This is nothing new. Go back a while to early 2006, and you have the state department announcing a new "funding opportunity" called the "Syria Democracy Program". On offer, grants worth "$5m in Federal Fiscal Year 2006". The aim of the grants? "To accelerate the work of reformers in Syria."

These days, the cash is flowing in faster than ever. At the beginning of June 2012, the Syrian Business Forum was launched in Doha by opposition leaders including Wael Merza (SNC secretary general). "This fund has been established to support all components of the revolution in Syria," said Merza. The size of the fund? Some $300m. It's by no means clear where the money has come from, although Merza "hinted at strong financial support from Gulf Arab states for the new fund" (Al Jazeera). At the launch, Merza said that about $150m had already been spent, in part on the Free Syrian Army.

Merza's group of Syrian businessmen made an appearance at a World Economic Forum conference titled the "Platform for International Co-operation" held in Istanbul in November 2011. All part of the process whereby the SNC has grown in reputation, to become, in the words of William Hague, "a legitimate representative of the Syrian people" – and able, openly, to handle this much funding.

Building legitimacy – of opposition, of representation, of intervention – is the essential propaganda battle.

In a USA Today op-ed written in February this year, Ambassador Dennis Ross declared: "It is time to raise the status of the Syrian National Council". What he wanted, urgently, is "to create an aura of inevitability about the SNC as the alternative to Assad." The aura of inevitability. Winning the battle in advance.

A key combatant in this battle for hearts and minds is the American journalist and Daily Telegraph blogger, Michael Weiss.

Michael Weiss

One of the most widely quoted western experts on Syria – and an enthusiast for western intervention – Michael Weiss echoes Ambassador Ross when he says: "Military intervention in Syria isn't so much a matter of preference as an inevitability."

Some of Weiss's interventionist writings can be found on a Beirut-based, Washington-friendly website called "NOW Lebanon" – whose "NOW Syria" section is an important source of Syrian updates. NOW Lebanon was set up in 2007 by Saatchi & Saatchi executive Eli Khoury. Khoury has been described by the advertising industry as a "strategic communications specialist, specialising in corporate and government image and brand development".

Weiss told NOW Lebanon, back in May, that thanks to the influx of weapons to Syrian rebels "we've already begun to see some results." He showed a similar approval of military developments a few months earlier, in a piece for the New Republic: "In the past several weeks, the Free Syrian Army and other independent rebel brigades have made great strides" – whereupon, as any blogger might, he laid out his "Blueprint for a Military Intervention in Syria".

But Weiss is not only a blogger. He's also the director of communications and public relations at the Henry Jackson Society, an ultra-ultra-hawkish foreign policy thinktank.

The Henry Jackson Society's international patrons include: James "ex-CIA boss" Woolsey, Michael "homeland security" Chertoff, William "PNAC" Kristol, Robert "PNAC" Kagan', Joshua "Bomb Iran" Muravchick, and Richard "Prince of Darkness" Perle. The Society is run by Alan Mendoza, chief adviser to the all-party parliamentary group on transatlantic and international security.

The Henry Jackson Society is uncompromising in its "forward strategy" towards democracy. And Weiss is in charge of the message. The Henry Jackson Society is proud of its PR chief's far-reaching influence: "He is the author of the influential report "Intervention in Syria? An Assessment of Legality, Logistics and Hazards", which was repurposed and endorsed by the Syrian National Council."

Weiss's original report was re-named "Safe Area for Syria" – and ended up on the official website, as part of their military bureau's strategic literature. The repurposing of the HJS report was undertaken by the founder and executive director of the Strategic Research and Communication Centre (SRCC) – one Ausama Monajed.

So, the founder of Barada TV, Ausama Monajed, edited Weiss's report, published it through his own organisation (the SRCC) and passed it on to the Syrian National Council, with the support of the Henry Jackson Society.

The relationship couldn't be closer. Monajed even ends up handling inquiries for "press interviews with Michael Weiss". Weiss is not the only strategist to have sketched out the roadmap to this war (many thinktanks have thought it out, many hawks have talked it up), but some of the sharpest detailing is his.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

The justification for the "inevitable" military intervention is the savagery of President Assad's regime: the atrocities, the shelling, the human rights abuses. Information is crucial here, and one source above all has been providing us with data about Syria. It is quoted at every turn: "The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told VOA [Voice of America] that fighting and shelling killed at least 12 people in Homs province."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is commonly used as a standalone source for news and statistics. Just this week, news agency AFP carried this story: "Syrian forces pounded Aleppo and Deir Ezzor provinces as at least 35 people were killed on Sunday across the country, among them 17 civilians, a watchdog reported." Various atrocities and casualty numbers are listed, all from a single source: "Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP by phone."

Statistic after horrific statistic pours from "the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights" (AP). It's hard to find a news report about Syria that doesn't cite them. But who are they? "They" are Rami Abdulrahman (or Rami Abdel Rahman), who lives in Coventry.

According to a Reuters report in December of last year: "When he isn't fielding calls from international media, Abdulrahman is a few minutes down the road at his clothes shop, which he runs with his wife."

When the Guardian's Middle East live blog cited "Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights" it also linked to a sceptical article in the Modern Tokyo Times – an article which suggested news outlets could be a bit "more objective about their sources" when quoting "this so-called entity", the SOHR.

That name, the "Syrian Observatory of Human Rights", sound so grand, so unimpeachable, so objective. And yet when Abdulrahman and his "Britain-based NGO" (AFP/NOW Lebanon) are the sole source for so many news stories about such an important subject, it would seem reasonable to submit this body to a little more scrutiny than it's had to date.

The Observatory is by no means the only Syrian news source to be quoted freely with little or no scrutiny …

Hamza Fakher

The relationship between Ausama Monajed, the SNC, the Henry Jackson hawks and an unquestioning media can be seen in the case of Hamza Fakher. On 1 January, Nick Cohen wrote in the Observer: "To grasp the scale of the barbarism, listen to Hamza Fakher, a pro-democracy activist, who is one of the most reliable sources on the crimes the regime's news blackout hides."

He goes on to recount Fakher's horrific tales of torture and mass murder. Fakher tells Cohen of a new hot-plate torture technique that he's heard about: "imagine all the melting flesh reaching the bone before the detainee falls on the plate". The following day, Shamik Das, writing on "evidence-based" progressive blog Left Foot Forward, quotes the same source: "Hamza Fakher, a pro-democracy activist, describes the sickening reality …" – and the account of atrocities given to Cohen is repeated.

So, who exactly is this "pro-democracy activist", Hamza Fakher?

Fakher, it turns out, is the co-author of Revolution in Danger , a "Henry Jackson Society Strategic Briefing", published in February of this year. He co-wrote this briefing paper with the Henry Jackson Society's communications director, Michael Weiss. And when he's not co-writing Henry Jackson Society strategic briefings, Fakher is the communication manager of the London-based Strategic Research and Communication Centre (SRCC). According to their website, "He joined the centre in 2011 and has been in charge of the centre's communication strategy and products."

As you may recall, the SRCC is run by one Ausama Monajed: "Mr Monajed founded the centre in 2010. He is widely quoted and interviewed in international press and media outlets. He previously worked as communication consultant in Europe and the US and formerly served as the director of Barada Television …".

Monajed is Fakher's boss.

If this wasn't enough, for a final Washington twist, on the board of the Strategic Research and Communication Centre sits Murhaf Jouejati, a professor at the National Defence University in DC – "the premier center for Joint Professional Military Education (JPME)" which is "under the direction of the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff."

If you happen to be planning a trip to Monajed's "Strategic Research and Communication Centre", you'll find it here: Strategic Research & Communication Centre, Office 36, 88-90 Hatton Garden, Holborn, London EC1N 8PN.

Office 36 at 88-90 Hatton Garden is also where you'll find the London headquarters of The Fake Tan Company, Supercar 4 U Limited, Moola loans (a "trusted loans company"), Ultimate Screeding (for all your screeding needs), and The London School of Attraction – "a London-based training company which helps men develop the skills and confidence to meet and attract women." And about a hundred other businesses besides. It's a virtual office. There's something oddly appropriate about this. A "communication centre" that doesn't even have a centre – a grand name but no physical substance.

That's the reality of Hamza Fakher. On 27 May, Shamik Das of Left Foot Forward quotes again from Fakher's account of atrocities, which he now describes as an "eyewitness account" (which Cohen never said it was) and which by now has hardened into "the record of the Assad regime".

So, a report of atrocities given by a Henry Jackson Society strategist, who is the communications manager of Mosafed's PR department, has acquired the gravitas of a historical "record".

This is not to suggest that the account of atrocities must be untrue, but how many of those who give it currency are scrutinising its origins?

And let's not forget, whatever destabilisation has been done in the realm of news and public opinion is being carried out twofold on the ground. We already know that (at the very least) "the Central Intelligence Agency and State Department … are helping the opposition Free Syrian Army develop logistical routes for moving supplies into Syria and providing communications training."

The bombs doors are open. The plans have been drawn up.

This has been brewing for a time. The sheer energy and meticulous planning that's gone into this change of regime – it's breathtaking. The soft power and political reach of the big foundations and policy bodies is vast, but scrutiny is no respecter of fancy titles and fellowships and "strategy briefings". Executive director of what, it asks. Having "democracy" or "human rights" in your job title doesn't give you a free pass.

And if you're a "communications director" it means your words should be weighed extra carefully. Weiss and Fakher, both communications directors – PR professionals. At the Chatham House event in June 2011, Monajed is listed as: "Ausama Monajed, director of communications, National Initiative for Change" and he was head of PR for the MJD. The creator of the news website NOW Lebanon, Eli Khoury, is a Saatchi advertising executive. These communications directors are working hard to create what Tamara Wittes called a "positive brand".

They're selling the idea of military intervention and regime change, and the mainstream news is hungry to buy. Many of the "activists" and spokespeople representing the Syrian opposition are closely (and in many cases financially) interlinked with the US and London – the very people who would be doing the intervening. Which means information and statistics from these sources isn't necessarily pure news – it's a sales pitch, a PR campaign.

But it's never too late to ask questions, to scrutinise sources. Asking questions doesn't make you a cheerleader for Assad – that's a false argument. It just makes you less susceptible to spin. The good news is, there's a sceptic born every minute.

who is fighting, protesting, and dying in Syria?

Forget about who is talking on CNN and look at who is fighting, protesting, and dying in Syria?

Not a word on any of that in this piece! No words about the general strike in Damascus:

Not a word about how the Assad governments attacked the Palestinians, kept the peace with Israel, and tortured people on behalf of George W. Bush:

It's sad to see so many Western leftists take Assad's side in the Syrian revolution.

Assad governments attacked the Palestinians

"Not a word about how the Assad governments attacked the Palestinians, kept the peace with Israel, and tortured people on behalf of George W. Bush:"



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