Whitewashing Assad’s crimes in Syria

Whitewashing Assad’s crimes in Syria

Syrian regime forces in the southern province of Dara’a. (AFP)

“History is written by the victors.” When the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill uttered these defining words, he clearly understood that the voices and perspectives of the victors in history will always be much more dominant than those who have been conquered, oppressed and killed.

One would think that in today’s world, where everyone has a smartphone with the ability to broadcast to the globe, that such historical domination may no longer be possible. But on the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, the extensive censoring and self-censoring by the Chinese Communist Party has shown that it is still possible to control the narrative despite all the hopes of technology being the great equalizer.

With President Bashar Assad on the verge of complete victory in Syria, we can expect his regime to follow a similar trajectory of engineering the historical narrative to paint him as the greatest statesman, and the civilian uprising as nothing but a plot by dark foreign powers and Islamists.

In fact, much of this groundwork has already been laid by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cyber warriors, with the demonization of the White Helmets and declaring all opposition to Assad as Al-Qaeda and Daesh.

And the West, suffering from guilt after a complete dereliction of duty to stand up for its own values, will likely not offer much resistance. After all, the absence of war is much more important than justice and accountability. The Syrian people, who rose up against a brutal dictator and paid with their lives, will simply be recast as enemies of stability.

This handbook for beating a civilian population into submission will become a must-read for any authoritarian regime facing a popular uprising within its territory. Militarily, first encircle the target area and block all supplies of food. Then bomb hospitals to ensure insufficient medical facilities when casualties start mounting. Last, use munitions with the highest psychological impact, such as cluster bombs and chemical weapons, to break the targets into surrendering. In case you were not certain, all three of these tactics are explicit war crimes.

With President Bashar Assad on the verge of complete victory in Syria, we can expect his regime to follow a similar trajectory of engineering the historical narrative to paint him as the greatest statesman.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

What used to happen is that the Russian propaganda machine would obfuscate and confuse evidence for war crimes committed by Assad and the Kremlin either during the acts or immediately after. This has now changed, and the Kremlin has moved onto the next logical evolution of its propaganda capabilities: Pre-emptive misinformation.

Prior to any offensive, Kremlin-backed “media” channels started pushing the narrative that the rebels are acquiring and planning to use chemical weapons. This did two things: It supposedly gave Assad and Putin cause and urgency to step up their offensive against the rebels; and if chemical weapons were to be deployed, this time “we know” that it was the rebels who had them.

Translation: An all-out military assault is necessary even if it will be an utter bloodbath, complete with liberal deployment of chemical weapons and any other illegal weapons against civilian targets deemed necessary to shatter the psycheof the local population.

Under normal circumstances, such advance warning of intent to commit war crimes by clearly identifiable state actors would be useful in formulating a response from the international community, which might prevent such an attack or at least mitigate it to some extent.

But we do not live in normal times. The incumbent administration in the US has no personal moral interest in humanitarian concerns, either around the globe or within its own borders. China does not get involved in these kinds of disputes as a matter of policy. And Western Europe has neither the leadership nor the will to risk direct confrontation with any serious adversary.

The aftermath of this kind of assault is equally predictable: Tens to hundreds of thousands dead, horrific pictures on the news, a new wave of refugees heading toward Europe, and tacit acceptance by the West that the situation is what it is and nothing can be done about it now. “At least the regime is killing terrorists,” is what the West will tell itself.           

  •  Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Center for Global Policy and author of ‘The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide’ (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim​
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