Saturday, January 18, 2014

Right and wrong: British conservatives, still falling for Assad

[Originally posted at NOW]

Reviled though he might officially be by David Cameron’s right-of-centre cabinet, Bashar al-Assad has never been short of friends in the fustier, more bucolic hinterlands of authentic, red-blooded British reactionism.

Everyone knows of the now-bankrupt British National Party leader MEP Nick Griffin’s “fact-finding” trip to Damascus in June, which was short on facts but long on things like warm handshakes with Assad’s prime minister and praise for the “better job” Hezbollah has done than London’s policemen in “dealing with ‘British’ Jihadi cut-throats.”

But while Griffin may be a crackpot – he has since washed up in Athens, where he denounced the government’s “totally illegal” crackdown on the “patriots” of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn crime gang – his way of thinking on Syria is shared by somewhat saner conservatives, like Peter Hitchens, who has insinuated the 2011 protests were a foreign conspiracy and said the region-wide refugee crisis is “largely [Cameron’s] fault.”

And it’s a sign of how much further this rot has spread that yesterday’s Telegraph brought us a column titled, “If we’re not talking to President Bashar al-Assad, we should be.” The writer, veteran foreign correspondent Con Coughlin, welcomes the news that Western governments are “finally persuaded” that the fall of Assad is not in their “countries’ long-term security interests” (“Better late than never, I say”), and are thus seeking to work with Damascus to combat the Islamists among the opposition’s ranks “who pose the greatest threat” to the West. He refers to recent claims by Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Moqdad that western intelligence services had indeed done just that; claims which are quite believable in the current zeitgeist in which Assad’s continuing rule is said out loud to be, in former US ambassador Ryan Crocker’s words, the “least worst option.”

Coughlin, at least, has the honesty to admit his is not a moral argument but one of realpolitik (or “common-sense,” as he prefers). How could it not be, when the atrocities committed by Assad – chemical weapons attacks, airstrikes, SCUD missiles, aerial barrel bombs, cluster bombs, and what Michael Weiss has called terror-famines – are so many multitudes vaster than anything seen from the rebels? What Coughlin is really saying is that Assad, while naturally far worse for mere Syrians, can at least be relied on to leave our civilians alone, which is all that counts.

This would be a repellent thing to say at any point in time, but is especially distasteful coming just a month after the cold-blooded murder of a British surgeon, Abbas Khan, by his Syrian regime jailors, who had passed the previous eight months beating, burning, and electrocuting him until his weight dropped to a childlike five stone (32kg). To this day, the regime continues to humiliate not just Dr Khan’s family but the entire British government with its ludicrous claim that he committed suicide, only days before a scheduled release that his mother spent six terrifying months in Damascus trying to secure, and to which he was known to be looking forward tremendously.

Yet the Khan murder is only the most recent example of Assad’s danger to “us” as well as “them,” which has been amply demonstrated over the course not of years but of decades. Perhaps Coughlin has forgotten the last-minute discovery of a bomb on the tarmac at Heathrow in 1986, planted there by a Syrian national on orders from the Syrian embassy in London, which later harbored the would-have-been-bomber.

And it’s certainly odd, given Coughlin’s aversion to “Islamist fanatics,” that he would overlook Assad’s frantic funneling of al-Qaeda fighters into Iraq after 2003, where they helped kill nearly 200 British troops. His glossing over Assad’s history of incubating jihadist cells in Lebanon, for use whenever expedient against whoever is convenient, including the Lebanese army of whom Britain is supposed to be an ally, is similarly curious.

But perhaps strangest is Coughlin’s apparent insouciance at Assad’s watertight alliance with Hezbollah, the formidable jihadist militia whose kidnapping of British and other civilians in the 1980s supplied the material for one of Coughlin’s own books. All behind us now, perhaps. What, then, about Hezbollah’s refusal to hand over its members indicted by UN prosecutors for the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister; its continuing violation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701; or its intimidation of UN peacekeeping units in south Lebanon? None of Britain’s business, evidently. Not that that stops Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, from making Britain his business. In a rousing war speech on Jerusalem Day last year, the Sayyid made special mention of Coughlin’s compatriots, promoting them to the uniquely villainous status of being worse than both the Greater and the Lesser Satans:

“Today, we want to say to all of them: to America, Israel, and the English… [pauses for emphasis, smiles] they’re the most cunning at [manipulation] [applause erupts]”

Nasrallah may have his hierarchy of enemies, but for Western policymakers, picking favorites between Sunni and Shiite jihadists doesn’t suggest itself as the most thoughtful approach. Coughlin is undoubtedly right to raise concerns about what passes for “moderation” among Syria’s rebels nowadays. But it’s a complete non sequitur – not to mention a moral outrage – to jump into bed with Assad, Hezbollah and Iran in response. If Britain doesn’t want to help Syria’s rebels, the least it can do is not bolster their enemy; an enemy which, in Syria more than anywhere, is certainly not its friend.

[Correction: An earlier version of this text mistakenly ended with "the enemy of which, in Syria more than anywhere, is certainly not its friend". This has been amended as above]

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