Byron Bay filmmaker Richard Mordaunt has filmed and researched in Syria several times over a long life. He understands more than most western journalists the country’s complex history and questions whether the overthrow of Assad regime is in the interests of the Syrian people.
Twice weekly we are now witness to the bloody civil war that is tearing Syria apart. The images are horrendous, but few of us possess any idea of what has caused this terrible human disaster.
I returned from Syria in November 2010. While I was filming in Syria there was no sign of what was to come and we felt very safe. Three months later, following Egypt, Libya and the Yemen, the Syrian uprising against the Assad government tore through the country like a massive bushfire.
What is now happening is a tragedy for the Syrian people. Robert Fisk describes it as ‘a war of lies and hypocrisy’. Over the last nine months I have listened to the manipulation of public opinion and the rhetoric of journalists supporting ‘the democracy movement and the rebels’ against the monster Bashar al Assad, who is described as a dictator, every bit as bad as Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, a brutal opponent of democracy and the arab spring. But a closer understanding of history tells another story, which is not being told to us.
Today the population of Syria is 90 per cent Muslim and 10 per cent Christian – 74 per cent of the Muslims are Sunni and 12 per cent are Shiite-Alawite.
The Assad family are Alawites and what we are witnessing is a bloody sectarian war between the Sunnis and the Alawite-Shiites. The Sunni majority are determined to get rid of the Assad family and the Baathist Party, which has ruled Syria for the last 42 years.
It was Bashar al Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, who formed the first Baathist Party, describing Syria as a secular socialist state with Islam recognised as the majority religion. But the Sunnis never accepted the secular Baathist Party and in 1982 the Muslim Brotherhood led an uprising against the Baathist government, attempting to assassinate Hafez Assad. The centre of the Muslim Brotherhood resistance was Hama, just as it is today. The rebels were brutally crushed by the Hafez-led Baathist government with an estimated 25,000 people dying and the Muslim Brotherhood banned in Syria, just as they were in Egypt.
In 2000, Hafez died and his authoritarian régime came to an end.
His son Bashar al Assad had trained as an eye doctor at St Mary’s Hospital in London, and it was after the death of his brother in a car crash in 2000 that he became the reluctant new president. Many believed he would introduce the arab spring in Syria. His wife was western and university educated, and women’s rights, education and university entries were now taken seriously across Syria.
Within traditional conservative Islam, men still believed the Koran gave them the right to own women, so it was advancing women’s rights and independence, that happened in Syria under Assad, that made Syria feel safe and enjoyable to visit. His government was made up of Shiites, Sunnis and Christians and he was a popular president. But reforms came slowly and his attempts to hold free elections, the last in May 2012, were boycotted by the Sunnis and the Muslim Brotherhood.
This ancient rivalry between the Sunnis and the Shiites, which is now threatening to tear the Muslim world in Syria apart, has been happening across the Middle East since the death of Mohammed in 632CE. Today the Muslim world in the Middle East is split between the Sunnis and the Shiites, each hating and distrusting the other, just like the Protestants and Catholics did for centuries.
Who pays for the rebels and the Muslim Brotherhood’s armaments in Syria? It is Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both oil-rich Sunni countries backed by the US. And if Mitt Romney wins in the US, he has pledged to support the rebels with arms – and this may well lead to the next middle-eastern war. Make no mistake: Romney, like Bush, is a warmonger.
Syria is the largest arab state in the Middle East and has been invaded 33 times. The battle for Syria’s history has been fought many times before. First it was the Assyrians, then the Egyptians, then the Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Mongols, then for 400 years it was ruled by the Ottoman Empire before being handed over to the French in the carve-up at the end of the first World War. It finally gained its independence in 1946 as a parliamentary republic.
Because of the Middle Eastern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, led by the US against al-Qaeda, there is now deep distrust between the East and the West. What Bush described as the ‘axis of evil’ has determined American foreign policy in the Middle East for the last 20 years and Hillary Clinton is now putting huge pressure on the West to intervene in Syria, as it will in Iran.
When Obama announced dates for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, it was the US army commanders and Hilary Clinton as secretary of state who insisted that more US troops should be sent, even though the situation had been described by US commanders as ‘a disaster not dissimilar to Vietnam’.
Syria is caught in a western propaganda war where the world press and media have, without questioning, taken sides with the ‘rebels and so-called revolutionaries’ against the brutality of Assad’s army. Only recently have we been shown the fear and chaos in the communities as these young rebels, urged on by the press, take on Assad’s army in this bloody civil war. Kofi Annan’s UN peacekeeping force tried for six months to end the violence and bring the parties to the table. He gave up and left.
After terrible further bloodshed this will almost certainly lead to a Sunni Islamist government, more than likely run by religious fundamentalists, with sharia law at its centre just like Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.
What role will the US play in the next chapter of this tragic story?