x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Giving Assad the benefit of the doubt distorts history

Even as Bashar Al Assad alleges rebel atrocities, the world would do well to consider the source of the information.

A good rule of thumb for assigning accountability to the wave of indiscriminate bombings gripping Syria of late should be this: it's almost certainly the regime unless proven otherwise.

For over a decade, the Assad regime has built a career of relying on such tactics, in Iraq and elsewhere, for self-serving interests.

And yet there is now a banal tendency to forget the regime's brutal past and, two years into an endless civil war, almost automatically point fingers at the rebels. Why is this?

Almost all of the anti-Assad fighters had been ordinary civilians with limited militancy experience. Before this war began it was common for Syria's neighbours to blame Bashar Al Assad for the region's unrest (Iraq's prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, once complained about Damascus' engineering of terror in his country). Today, however, the narrative is changing.

Two recent examples illustrate this trend. The first is the killing of a top Sunni cleric in a mosque bombing. Second is the purported use of chemical weapons in two parts of Syria last month.

First, the cleric. A video emerged yesterday that purportedly belies the regime's account for how a pro-Assad senior Sunni cleric, Mohammed Saeed Al Bouti, was killed on March 21.

The video shows the cleric sitting at a small table speaking to worshippers when a small bomb goes off. The bomb appears to be so minor that the cleric sits back and fixes his turban. But then a man sitting in front of him stands up, moves towards the cleric, bear-hugs him and smoothly slips away.

Immediately after the man exits, the cleric is shown again on camera, blood on his head. He then tumbles to the ground.

How were the 40-plus people killed? The bomb could not have killed the other people, as even the people sitting less than a metre away from him were hardly affected. Why, then, has the regime insisted it was a suicide bombing that killed the cleric? Why did the regime lie about the details of the killing?

Activists have alleged that many of those who died were shot at a point-blank range. The area around the mosque, which is also close to the Russian embassy and relatively open, was also well-guarded.

Another important point is the fact that no one claimed responsibility for the killing. Extremists often do not shy away from their work, especially given that the cleric was a key ally to the regime justifying its campaign of terror against the Syrian people.

On one jihadist web forum, participants questioned the regime's account and blamed the regime for the killing. Another observer, Al Bara Al-Shami (the Levantine), wrote: "This YouTube [video] is the biggest evidence that the regime killed Al Bouti. Where is the suicide bombing they spoke about? The blast did not lead to destruction or killing, as the regime's media showed. Where did they get the 40 bodies and put them in the mosque?".

The second case of misdirected blame concerns the use of chemical weapons in two parts of Syria last month - near Aleppo and near Damascus - and another in Homs last year. Regime officials have accused the rebels of using chemical weapons near Aleppo, and even requested a UN investigation. But this week Damascus blocked a planned UN probe, saying that its mission was a "manoeuvre" and borne of "bad intentions".

UN investigators, according to Syria's state news agency Sana, want to expand the investigation into other areas - which should be expected, considering that there were reports of other incidents.

It is astonishing that, despite the regime's persistent lies about the atrocities it has committed over the past two years, the world is now spending all its energy to question the rebels rather than the regime.

For the regime, it is enough to create a cloudy situation where the outside world is not sure who is behind the act. Some go further. Daniel Pipes, a conservative American historian and commentator, said last week that it is in the United States' interests that the bloodshed in Syria continues as long as possible.

"I believe we are best off with them continuing to fight each other," he said. "I don't want to see this end. I don't want to see them turn their guns on us or our allies."

To be sure, some among the rebels have committed unforgivable atrocities. But the situation is not grey; it is still black and white with a small circle where the back and white mix. The regime represents that black and the atrocities committed by some of those who fight against the regime are acts of brutality born of the regime's violence.

Extremism begets extremism, that is a simple fact. But the fact remains that the majority of people fighting the regime are fighting to free themselves from its horrors. Even as Mr Al Assad looks to whitewash his past with vocal allegations of rebel atrocities, the world would do well to consider the source of the information.

 

hhassan@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @hhassan140