Syria's descent into Holy War
by Patrick Cockburn Independent/UK December 16, 2012
It is one of the most horrifying videos of the war in Syria. It shows two men being beheaded by Syrian rebels, one of them by a child. He hacks with a machete at the neck of a middle-aged man who has been forced to lie in the street with his head on a concrete block. At the end of the film, a soldier, apparently from the Free Syrian Army, holds up the severed heads by their hair in triumph.AC
The film is being widely watched on YouTube by Syrians, reinforcing their fears that Syria is imitating Iraq's descent into murderous warfare in the years after the US invasion in 2003. It fosters a belief among Syria's non-Sunni Muslim minorities, and Sunnis associated with the government as soldiers or civil servants, that there will be no safe future for them in Syria if the rebels win.
In the past week,130 countries have recognised the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. But, at the same time, the US has denounced the al-Nusra Front, the most effective fighting force of the rebels, as being terrorists and an al-Qa'ida affiliate. Paradoxically, the US makes almost exactly same allegations of terrorism against al-Nusra as does the Syrian government. Even more bizarrely, though so many states now recognise the National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, it is unclear if the rebels inside Syria do so. Angry crowds in rebel-held areas of northern Syria on Friday chanted "we are all al-Nusra" as they demonstrated against the US decision.
The execution video is very similar to those once made by al-Qa'ida in Iraq to demonstrate their mercilessness towards their enemies. This is scarcely surprising since many of the most experienced al-Nusra fighters boast that they have until recently been fighting the predominantly Shia government of Iraq. Their agenda is wholly sectarian, and they have shown greater enthusiasm for slaughtering Shias, often with bombs detonated in the middle of crowds in markets or outside mosques, than for fighting Americans.
The Syrian uprising, which began in March 2011, was not always so bloodthirsty or so dominated by the Sunnis who make up 70 per cent of the 23 million-strong Syrian population. At first, demonstrations were peaceful and the central demands of the protesters were for democratic rule and human rights as opposed to a violent, arbitrary and autocratic government. There is compelling evidence that the movement has slid towards sectarian Islamic fundamentalism intent on waging holy war.
The analogy with Iraq is troubling for the US and British governments. They and their allies are eager for Syria to avoid repeating the disastrous mistakes they made during the Iraqi occupation. Ideally, they would like to remove the regime, getting rid of Bashar al-Assad, but not dissolving the government machinery or introducing revolutionary change as they did in Baghdad by transferring power from the Sunnis to the Shia and the Kurds. This provoked a furious counter-reaction from Baathists and Sunnis who found themselves marginalised. Washington wants Assad out, but is having difficulty riding the Sunni revolutionary tiger.
Syria today resembles Iraq nine years ago in another disturbing respect. I have now been in Damascus for 10 days, and every day I am struck by the fact that the situation in areas of Syria I have visited is wholly different from the picture given to the world both by foreign leaders and by the foreign media. The last time I felt like this was in Baghdad in late 2003, when every Iraqi knew the US-led occupation was proving a disaster just as George W Bush, Tony Blair and much of the foreign media were painting a picture of progress towards stability and democracy under the wise tutelage of Washington and its carefully chosen Iraqi acolytes.
Patrick Cockburn Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent [Extracts only]