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Konrad Werner: Staying sane on Syria

Konrad tries to pick his way through the conspiracy theories on Syria. Because they're not helpful even if they're true.

The situation in Syria could – pretty much literally – not be any more horrific. It’s the biggest evil that humanity has manufactured since probably Rwanda, if you’re counting in bodies. One of the members of the UN’s ongoing Commission of Inquiry, who also investigated war crimes in Bosnia, says the atrocities are worse than they were in the Balkans – children being tortured to death, militias occupying villages, then abandoning them only for the opposing forces to move in and massacre civilians one at a time – sometimes with bayonets to save on ammunition. The suffering has spread into the entire society (despite those odd TV reports from Damascus where everything is fine) and by far most of the people being killed are civilians. A couple of weeks ago, the UN stopped counting them, with the number of deaths at above 130,000.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is fretting about one question: whose side were all those dead people on? Who is killing more people? Who is worse? The thing is, probably the people doing the killing don’t really know either. When President Bashar al-Assad levels another district of Homs or Aleppo with another air strike, he probably doesn’t look into the hearts of the people he’s killing.

Clever foreign policy analysts will tell you that the war is “really” all part of a power struggle between the US and Russia and Saudi Arabia and Iran. That’s true enough. That’s what the entire Middle East basically has been for the past century – the fault-line between tectonic plates where every now and then hundreds of thousands of people get crushed.

Understandably jaded by previous intrusions from great powers – most recently Iraq and Afghanistan – a lot of people are now assuming that any reports about Syria must be propaganda from one side or another. Bush and Blair’s made-up “intelligence” dossier that started the last Iraq War is directly to blame for this, and now we’ve become so cynical that when reports come out from the International Red Cross or any number of internationally respected NGOs, we think that Evil America is looking for a reason to invade and pump oil. Never mind the fact that the American public is so war-weary now that any invasion would effectively destroy what is left of Obama’s popularity at home. Never mind that the US has burned so many billions of its taxpayers’ dollars in two borderline farcical nation-building experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan that it couldn’t undertake such a thing in Syria now even if it wanted to.

Not that that stops the conspiracy theorists, who are getting more and more confused. Now, apparently, some people (probably the same people who think 9/11 was not the work of the US government and al Qaeda was always a fabricated organization) have come to the conclusion that the West’s secret plan is to arm jihadist groups. Never mind that those groups are currently strong enough to occupy entire cities of Iraq, inflicting further humiliation on the US failures there.

The reaction to two new reports that came out in the last two weeks illustrate this. One, by a group of eminent international lawyers, pointed to “industrial scale” torture by Assad’s regime. Another, by two respected MIT scientists, concluded that the chemical weapons attack of August 21 last year could not have happened the way that the US government said it did, so that the US government couldn’t be sure that Assad’s troops are behind it. Both reports – one supporting the “Assad is evil” narrative, the other supporting the “the idea that Assad is evil is a Western fiction” narrative were reported in serious, leftish papers (the first in The Guardian, the second in der Freitag, which sometimes syndicates and translates Guardian material).

But that didn’t stop people deciding that both these reports are actually all part of the western media conspiracy to justify a war in Syria. The fact that the MIT report got less press coverage than that the UN report is being taken as evidence that it must be true, and that the UN one must be a lie. But the fact is that both come from credible and respected sources – as opposed to, say, intelligence reports redacted by Alastair Campbell. In fact both of them are probably true. The “Assad is evil” narrative easily more substantiated than the other narrative. The MIT report itself doesn’t challenge that. The scientists can’t say for sure that the Assad government wasn’t involved in the chemical attack, only that the US intelligence on the incident was misleading.

But even if the opposition is evil too, it doesn’t negate the theory that Assad. The two ideas do not contradict each other. Whoever’s side you’re on, the grand theories about what the Syrian war is “really about” don’t change the fact there is a holocaust going on there at the moment – that dozens if not hundreds of unarmed people are being massacred every day. And logic says that Assad is killing most of them, if only because he has all the air-power and the bigger weapons. And sure, the West, like Russia, has its interests in Syria, but the military pressure (EVEN if the US intelligence on the chemical attack was wrong) is the only thing that got Assad to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention in the first place, and the only reason why his chemical weapons are being destroyed now.

Some Syrians, by the way, have their own conspiracy theories about Western intentions – they think that America is secretly on Assad’s side, and if Obama did, say, launch air strikes on his military, he would drop the odd bomb on the opposition side too to keep them quiet. So maybe we can just all agree that everyone is evil?