Category Archives: Bashar el-Assad

The Tehran summit 7 September: Idlib

Sept 8: Assad drops barrel bombs on Khan Sheikhun, South Idlib Province, where he previously used chemical weapons

As Russia, Turkey and Iran sit down to discuss the future of Idlib today, there are a few facts to keep in mind which I have reiterated over and over.

Assad is an unreconstructed bloodthirsty and vengeful tyrant. He uses chemical weapons. The Russians rely on his régime to keep their military bases in Syria open. They spin and lie  (convincingly) through their media outlets (RT) about his use of chemical weapons.

Russia has in its sights thousands of Chechen, Dagestani, and Tatar jihadis of Russian origin who fight with HTS, who are hiding amongst the civilians population, and will not surrender. Russia is the prime mover in the prospective fight in Idlib.

Russia has already conducted airstrikes to pressure Turkey ahead of the summit, and Turkey has responded by blacklisting HTS to indicate its willingness to cooperate in rooting these elements out, and to differentiate them from the Free Syria Army (FSA) elements organised by the Turks under the umbrella Jabhat al-Wataniyya lil-Tahrir (National Liberation Front/NLF).

Only the considerable diplomatic pressure by the Turks, given the important economic relationship it has with Russia, has so far kept the lid on the advance on Idlib. It is also clear that the only relatively free and prosperous areas in Syria today are those in the north under Turkish control.

There is no sense among Syrians that Turkey, whatever its national interests, will ever let up on its efforts to counter the destruction meted out by Assad on his own people. Only Turkey, it seems, is looking out for the future of Syria’s children.

 

The Syrian War: Showdown in Idlib

While a semblance of peace reigns over Idlib’s marketplace, Syrian government forces are striking the Turkmen Mountains in northwestern Syria’s Latakia province, with Assad himself threatening a major offensive to retake Idlib Province, at least rhetorically. Not long ago on July 31, the Russian president’s envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, had made it clear on the sidelines of the Astana 10 conference that ‘Any large-scale operation in Idlib is out of the question.’ However, Sergey Lavrov, in a visit to Turkey yesterday said, despite warnings by the Turkish government that an uncontrolled offensive would be catastrophic, that ‘Syria has a right to defend itself against militant groups’.

Despite the apparent disagreement, things are not what they seem. Turkey, with Russian and Iranian consent, has set up “observation posts” around Idlib’s conurbation of some 3 million people, most of whom are displaced persons (IDPs) from other parts of Syria, now threatened once again by Assad’s army. Apart from the observation posts dividing Afrin from Idlib to the north, a front has been established facing Syrian government forces from El-Eis south of Aleppo to Kafr Sijnah and Qalaat al Madiq to the south of Idlib (north of Hama), and back up on the western side up to Jisr al-Shoughour. Furthermore, these positions have been heavily fortified with massive prefabricated concrete (being delivered below), and it doesn’t look as if  the Turks intend to move anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Turkish security officials have been negotiating for some months now to integrate the various fighting groups spread across Idlib Province into an organized defence force under their control. But Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS or the Institution for the Liberation of the Levant), previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front) when it was still a declared al-Qaeda affiliate, has, typically, been refusing to cooperate.

Furthermore, elements from within HTS have been making and sending armed drones to cause damage at the Russian airbase at Khmeimim, which has made the subject of HTS’ dissolution a matter of heated debate between Russia and Turkey. While Turkey has recently been having more success at reducing the numbers of HTS’ followers, hardcore elements have broken away to form a new group called Tanzim Horass el-Din which, in virtue of its name (Organisation for the Protectors of the Religion) seems to be declaring an inflexible conservative stance. The al-Jazeera video below summarises these and other related events.

So while Russia is expressing its impatience with the situation in Idlib in its support for the threatened advance by Assad’s forces, the Turks continue to insist that the campaign be stopped. Presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın told reporters at a press conference today: ‘We are calling for the immediate termination of the operation into Idlib. Referring to Turkey’s role in the Astana  process, he said: ‘ As a guarantor country, we are working to avoid the mistakes carried out by the [Assad] régime in other parts of Syria, like Deraa and Homs, in Idlib.’ This is a diplomatic way for the Turks to say that they are not moving, and that the Russians have to give them more time to get the situation in Idlib under control. It is understood, however, that Russia’s change of tone conveyed in Lavrov’s statement yesterday is a necessary threat in the interests of speeding things up with recalcitrant fighters on the ground.

Meanwhile, it is the next round of the Astana process in Tehran that will be decisive in all these respects (including Assad’s advance) since, undoubtedly, the Iranians will be bringing into the mix the question of trade with Turkey, in trying to overcome the difficult new sanctions environment .

Despite the liberal whitewashing of Assad: the evidence is overwhelming that the unreconstructed Arab tyrant is true to type

As the Russians spin Assad’s way out of blame for the chemical atrocities he is responsible for, his régime continues to dodge the real questions the chemical weapons watchdog (OPCW) want answered. Assad’s denials over chemical attacks, are no different to his denials over the systematic torture and destruction of the Syrian people in his prisons.

Liberal arguments just as those after Ghouta and Khan Sheikhun (to the effect that Assad ‘had no reason to commit such an atrocity’ because he was winning the war), fail to understand the mentality of Arab tyrants, who scheme to use plausible deniability of daylight murder as a policy intended for the promulgation of the fear their rule depends on. The RT media machine, usually a valuable counterweight to such as the BBC and CNN, is nevertheless a boon to the Syrian despot in that particular respect.

Russia continues to spin Assad’s way out of any blame for chemical attacks

Further evidence of Russia’s continued cover-up of Assad’s atrocities emerges as France’s broadcasting regulator warns the French arm of Russia Today (RT) over a news report that dubbed over the voices of Syrian civilians with words they had not said. It noted that the testimony of a Syrian witness had been dubbed with a voice saying “words that bore no resemblance with what he had said”.

The CSA added that another witness had been dubbed with a voiceover saying that local residents had been ordered by militant group Jaysh al-Islam to simulate the effects of a chemical attack, “but the testimony did not mention any particular group”. France’s Audiovisual Council (CSA) accused the state-backed broadcaster with “failures of honesty, rigour of information and diversity of viewpoints”.

The news report, aired on 13 April, “contested the reality of chemical weapons attacks in the Syrian region of Eastern Ghouta.” The CSA further said the report demonstrated “an imbalance in analysis” of the situation in Syria and that “on a subject this sensitive, the different points of view should have been expressed”.

As client of the régime, Russia is compelled to cover up Assad’s atrocities

I have consistently maintained that Assad is an unreconstructed tyrant in the traditional Arab mould whose mentality Westerners, especially those well-intentioned souls on the left supporting him, are completely unable to fathom.

Assad’s theatricals, staged with the help of the Russians and involving the apparent disposition of a stock of chemical weapons in 2013, were intentionally planned as cover for subsequent gassing campaigns which could then be blamed on rebel forces.

As Gilles Dorronsoro writes in Lobelog: “Why does the régime resort to gassing? The question matters because it conditions the response due the Syrian régime in the longer term. One argument frequently heard for holding the régime blameless is the lack of a military rationale for attacking with gas, because the insurgent pocket was destined to fall in any case.

In fact, the attacks with gas above all send a political message to Syria’s own society and to Westerners. If the latter look the other way, they discredit themselves: recall how the Obama administration’s refusal to intervene changed the dynamics of the war and helped pull a régime on the verge of collapse back from the brink. If they act, they polarize the situation, solidify the regime’s alliance with Russia and Iran, and, come the next chemical attack, will only confront their own impotence.

Hence, the bombings ordered by Donald Trump in 2017 after the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack obviously did nothing to deter the régime. In addition, Bashar al-Assad sends a message to his population. You are alone, there is no limit to what we can do: gas attacks on civilians, rape on a massive scale, torture (with hundreds of thousands of victims, and tens of thousands of them killed), systematic bombing of hospitals, and the list goes on.”

Gilles Dorronsoro has just published an in-depth sociological survey of the Syrian Civil War with Adam Baczko and Arthur Quesnay, with Cambridge University Press.

We also find Robert Mackey writing for The Intercept on recent events at Douma that it was very odd that the Russians were propagandising at the Hague, using 11-year old Hassan Diab, before the OPCW had finished the investigation, which had been inexplicably delayed by the Russians, ostensibly while preparing the ground for the new set of theatricals.

“When Hassan told Russian state television last week that he had been given sweets in return for taking part in the filming of the video in the hospital, and his father said that the boy had been doused in water for no reason, since there was no sign of any chemical attack, Russia’s United Nations ambassador announced plans to screen the interview for the Security Council.

However, Russia has failed to acknowledge concerns that the boy and his father might not have felt free to accurately describe what happened, given that the interview was filmed at a Syrian army facility used by Russian military advisers. Former colleagues of the Douma hospital workers told The Guardian that Syrian officials had subjected the medics to “extreme intimidation,” threatening to harm their families if they made any mention of chemical weapons.

When they arrived in the Netherlands on Thursday, Hassan and the medical workers were first taken to the headquarters of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, for a presentation of Russia’s case that the attack was a hoax.

During the presentation, text on a screen behind Russia’s ambassador to the OPCW, Alexsander Shulgin, described the footage shot in Douma’s hospital on April 7 as “Fake Video” produced by the volunteer rescue workers known as the White Helmets.

Since the video was in fact shot by another group, the activists who run the Douma.Revolution Facebook page — and the images used by Russia include their logo — it is unclear why Russian officials insist on attributing the footage to the White Helmets. One possible explanation is a pre-existing campaign to demonize that group, which receives funding from Western governments and has documented the aftermath of Russian air strikes on rebel-held areas.

Russia had ignored a request from the OPCW to allow its inspectors in Syria to interview the witnesses first, and wait until after the investigators had filed their report to present its theory of the case. When the Russian briefing went ahead, it was denounced as “a crude propaganda exercise” by 17 nations that boycotted it, including the United States, Britain and France. Those three countries are convinced the Syrian government did use chemical weapons, and carried out retaliatory airstrikes two weeks ago, before the OPCW inspectors had even begun their work.

The Syrian entourage was then presented to the media at a bizarre press conference in which the opposition activist’s video of each of them in the hospital on the night of the attack was projected onto a big screen behind them as they delivered prepared remarks to reporters.

Many reporters in the room expressed disquiet at the spectacle of the young boy, who addressed them for all of 40 seconds, speaking in defense of the government that has been shelling his hometown for half his life.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the event, though, was how deeply beside the point it seemed. Witness after witness swore that there had been no sign of chemical exposure and no deaths among the patients they treated in the hospital, and Hassan’s father insisted that no one in his family had been sickened by gas, but there was no testimony at all related to what took place that same night in a nearby residential building — where activists had filmed piles of dead bodies, some with foam on their lips, and a large yellow canister identical to those used in previous chlorine gas attacks.

The exclusive focus on what took place in the hospital that night, in nearly two hours of testimony, was particularly bizarre because two different witnesses told reporters in Douma last week, on a government-led press tour, that their families had been killed by gas in that residential building.

One witness, Nasser Amer Hanen, told Stefan Borg of TV4 Sweden that he had survived the attack but lost his wife, mother and brothers to gas. When the same man spoke to Seth Doane of CBS News inside his ruined home in the building, he led the reporter to an upper floor, where the large yellow gas canister was still resting.

Another witness in Douma, Kahled Mahmoud Nuseir, told Bassem Mroue of the Associated Press that his wife and two daughters had been killed by gas in a basement shelter that still had a peculiar smell 10 days later. Speaking to AP outside Douma’s hospital, Nuseir blamed the gas attack not on the Syrian government but on the Islamist rebels who held the town until April 8. He also faulted the White Helmets for failing to save his family. Although it contradicts the Russian claim that no gas was used anywhere in Douma, and the images from the hospital were fabricated by the White Helmets at the direction of British intelligence**, video of Nuseir’s AP interview was obtained and posted online by Press TV, an English-language channel owned by Syria’s ally Iran.”

However, given that scepticism about the Douma justification for the launch of missiles by the US-UK-French trio would reach Tucker Carlson and would become a major talking point of his on FOX NEWS, of all TV stationsRussian information warfare seems to be succeeding in spades in undermining the credibility of Western intelligence services. If the Iraq War hadn’t done the job of burying that forever, the inexplicable lies of the UK government over the Skripal case should have hammered a final nail into this particular coffin. The Russians are driving their advantage home. They are possibly better liars than the Americans and the British.

** N.B. The White Helmets are an operation funded by the UK and US governments, and directed by their intelligence services, although acknowledging this does not absolve Assad of his crimes nor Russia of the crime of covering up his crimes.

Assad and the crimes at Khan Sheikhun

Assad’s crimes divide polite society. He must be enjoying it. The report by the French Intelligence services – if correct – would not only confirm Assad as the perpetrator of the Khan Sheikhun chemical attack, but would lend yet further credence to the catastrophic errors of naysayers on Assad’s role in the Ghouta chemical massacre such as Seymour Hersh and Robert Parry (the latter doubled down on Khan Sheikhun), while vindicating the view of Muhammad Idrees Ahmad that the editors of the London Review of Books were negligent in their duty in publishing Hersh’s article, and that Hersh was spectacularly obtuse in proceeding with evidence from a single intelligence source among the Western intelligence services to write his article.

The new evidence is furthermore a huge embarrassment for Putin, who has admitted to Erdoğan that he would like a solution to the Damascus problem and that he ‘… is not Assad’s lawyer’. It must be said that Russia refuses to accept the evidence in the reports on the basis that the samples tested by French authorities could have been obtained anywhere, and of course, there is always a margin of doubt. It is pushing out the meme that it has “irrefutable proof” that the Khan Sheikhun attack was a “provocation”, without supplying any evidence.  This is the same face saving ploy Russia used in the case of the downed jet which “hadn’t strayed into Turkish territory”, when it said the black box was broken and couldn’t yield any information. Human Rights Watch, however, maintain that Assad’s forces not only used chemical weapons at Khan Sheikhun, but is actually using them systematically even at the present time, with evidence of this in at least four other locations. A BBC report even provides some evidence as continuing chemical weapons manufacture at three different sites (see map above).

The argument ran after Khan Sheikhun that Assad ‘had no reason to commit such an atrocity’ in view of the fact that the war was going his way and that it would cause a reaction from the West. David Morrison’s argument that ‘Assad didn’t do it’ – or indeed do Ghouta – is firmly based on this presupposition (the reference there to Hersh suffers from the problems outlined above). But these kinds of arguments display a lack of experience as to how Middle Eastern despots actually function and how they are used to promulgate fear among their populations. Watching Ali al-Dhafiri’s (Arabic) interview on al-Jazeera with Abdel-Halim Khaddam, Assad’s minister of foreign affairs until 2005, could be an education in this respect. See Part 1 (which starts with Hafez al-Assad), and Part 2

To read the actual forensic report from the French government see here, and to see the annex click here