On the Iraq-Syria Border, ‘Terrorists’ and a Prime Minister on One Side, ‘Rebels’ and a ‘Brutal Dictator’ on the Other
By Stephen Gowans
No one would be surprised these days to open a newspaper to read: Violence in Syria has risen dramatically since the spring of 2011, when a mostly Sunni and primarily peaceful protest movement against the Alawite-dominated government in Damascus drew a violent response from regime forces.
But would they be surprised to read the same sentence, with Shiite replacing Alawite, and Baghdad in place of Damascus?
Yet much the same sentence appeared in the Wall Street Journal on October 24. Reporters Matt Bradley and Ali A. Nabhan wrote that, “Violence (in Iraq’s Anbar province) has risen dramatically since the spring, when a mostly Sunni and primarily peaceful protest movement against the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad drew a violent response from security forces.”
Anbar borders Syria.
The Western narrative on Syria is that a government dominated by one religious group used violence to quell a largely peaceful protest movement of another, triggering an armed rebellion. Just like Anbar.
The government’s actions, and the uprising that followed, were labelled a problem by Western news media and governments—a problem to be resolved by removing a president who is “killing his own people” (and who also, just happens, to refuse to play along with Washington’s economic and foreign policy agenda.) Not like Anbar.
Hence, while two very similar situations exist side-by-side, they have been met by completely different reactions in the West, not only on the part of governments, but also the news media, and a certain faction of leftists that mistake reaction for revolution.
The Western news media have been virtually silent on Maliki’s cracking down violently on a mostly Sunni and primarily peaceful protest movement, yet fevered and voluble in its coverage of the Syrian insurgency, and was, even in the uprising’s early days. Practically everyone knows about Syria. How many know about Anbar?
Western governments have designated Syrian president Bashar al-Assad a pariah, but haven’t demonized Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, have refused to denounce him as a brute who kills his own people, and haven’t told him he has lost his legitimacy, and must step down, as Assad has been told.
And yet as the Washington Post’s Liz Sly noted on 8 February,
The grievances [against Maliki]…are real, as was articulated last week in a Human Rights Watch report condemning the “draconian” measures used by the Maliki government to curtail its opponents. The report cited widespread allegations of abuse within the criminal justice system including torture, the rape of female prisoners and arbitrary arrests, as well as the successful suppression of an earlier attempt to organize Arab Spring-style demonstrations in Baghdad and elsewhere in 2011 (“Arab Spring-style protests take hold in Iraq”).
While some leftists in the West have embraced the Syrian insurgency as if it were a modern day October Revolution in embryo, they have not rallied to the cause of the Anbar insurgents. Probably because they’ve never heard of them, and maybe because the Western news media have yet to invent a faction of moderate (i.e., ‘good’) rebels that the kind souls of the left can embrace. The field, instead, is dominated by the same al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who lead Syria’s insurgency.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Anbar fighters “flow fluidly back and forth across the Iraq-Syria border, staging attacks on both sides…” These are the same fighters the US occupation army battled in Iraq during the surge of 2007. Of course, back then, they were called “terrorists”, and were considered “legitimate” targets in a war on terror.
Funny, “terrorists” is what the Syrian government calls them today, when they set off car bombs, execute captives, eviscerate bodies, and saw off heads, on the Syrian side of the border. All the same, this is considered illegitimate terminology by Western governments, who prefer that terrorists who work on their side be called rebels, freedom fighters, or part of a popular, democratic, uprising.
Maliki, the prime minister who wields violence to crush largely peaceful protest movements, remains Washington’s man in Baghdad. As a consequence, he need not worry about getting the Assad-treatment…for now. Just as Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi was in reality the monster Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is made out to be by Western governments and news media, Meles escaped sanction and demonization from the West, and was lionized when he died last year, because he did the West’s bidding. Mugabe is more interested in his country’s independence from the West—hence, the sullying of his name in Western capitals and newsrooms.
It didn’t matter how many people Meles locked up, killed and tortured, he remained the model statesman in Western eyes, as Maliki may, so long as he doesn’t develop too much of an independent streak. Assad, the president who says “Syria is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West,” is, however, quite another matter.