Republican Reference - Area ( 185,180 - Population 22,517,750 - Capital Damascus - Currency Syrian pound (SYP) - President Bashar al-Asad

















Books on Syria

Key Economic Data 
  2012 2009 2008 Ranking(2012)
Millions of US $ 73,672 52,177 55,204 63
GNI per capita
 US $ 2,610 2,410 2,160 150
Ranking is given out of 213 nations - (data from the World Bank)

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The Ba'ath Party and the rule of Hafez al-Asad
In many ways modern Syria has followed the familiar course of Arab nationalism during the 1950s inspired by the Egypt of Nasser and from 1958 to 1961 united with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic. Dispute over leadership dissolved that union quickly, and Syria would form the Syrian Arab Republic in 1961. In 1963 the Ba'ath Party seized power. The Ba'ath (renaissance or rebirth) party professed socialist inclinations and it was conceived by the two Syrian teachers the Christian Michel Aflaq and the Muslim Salah al-Din Bitar as an ideology to fight European colonialism in the 1930s. The Ba'ath is the same nominal party that has ruled Iraq from the same period in the 1960s until April 2003 when the rule of its most infamous exponent, Saddam Hussein was terminated by the Anglo-American invasion that began in March of that same year. It's important to recognize that, while the Ba'athist leaders described their seizure of power in 1963 as a revolution, it was in fact a coup carried out by a few military officers, and did not result, nor did it have the support of, a mass uprising of workers and peasants. 
The resulting regime was another military dictatorship. Bitar became the first president from 1963 to 1966 when a more radical faction seized power. A further coup in 1970 brought Hafiz al Asad to power. He ruled Syria until his death in 2000, when his son Bashir al Asad took over. The foundation of the party since the coup has rested with the Alawites, a Shi'i Muslim sect to which less than ten per cent of the Syrian population is affiliated. Asad therefore closed the circle of power to Alawites he could trust and co-opt letting few outsiders into the inner circle. The nominal use of the term 'revolution' to describe what was in fact a coup is crucial in understanding the importance the Syrian Ba'athist party under the Asad regime has placed on maintaining an extensive and repressive internal security apparatus and why reforms, economic and political, have been so difficult to implement. In a very similar approach to that of his neighbouring Ba'athist rival Saddam Hussein, Asad relied on a power group that was organized far more on a tribal or ethnic basis, rather than an ideological one. 

Regional Tensions: The Ottoman past, Israel and the USA
Internal problems have been compounded by the events of the region in which Syria has unavoidably become entangled even before the period of the European mandates in the 1920s and 30s that fuelled the rise of nationalist parties and ideologies. During the Ottoman Empire the area now occupied by Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and the current Syria was part of the region known as Bilad-al-Sham. The repercussions of this legacy are still being felt. In 1860 there was a civil war that affected Damascus and the Lebanon involving Druze, Sunni Moslems, Maronite Christians and Jews - along with their European patrons engaged in bitter disputes that are still partially unresolved and that have contributed to fuelling inter-confessional tensions resulting in civil wars in Lebanon in the 1950s, 1970s and 1980s. At the end of World War I and the defeat of Ottoman Turkey, The British and the French divided the region of Sham and drew the boundaries of new states. The inter-confessional tensions acquired a trans-national nature and the region continues to endure a constant level of tension. While Syria has enjoyed generally good relations with Turkey, its neighbour to the north, it has engaged in wars against Israel four times on the battlefield maintaining a level of war readiness best described as a 'cold-war'. 18,000 Syrians still live in the territory of the Golan, a precious source of water and arable land, occupied by Israel in 1967. 
Moreover, Syria has had disputes with fellow Ba'athist Iraq to the east supporting Iran in the latter's costly war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988 and continues to occupy part of Lebanon in which it played an important military role. Syria's initial involvement in Lebanon was during the 1976 civil war when it supported the Christian Maronites. The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon led by General, now Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon saw another round of military clashes between Syrian and Israeli forces. Meanwhile, as Iran's quiet ally in the war against Iraq, Syria also helped sustain the Shi'a faction represented by Hezbollah. In 1989, Syria endorsed the Charter of National Reconciliation, or "Taif Accord," a comprehensive plan for ending the Lebanese conflict negotiated under the auspices of Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco. More significantly, in May 1991, Lebanon and Syria signed the Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination outlined in the Ta'if Accord, which intended to establish the basis for Syrian-Lebanese relations. The Treaty's provisions have yet to be fulfilled. The Israeli occupation of south Lebanon until the spring of 2000, its frequent attacks on Hezbollah and other groups said to be operating in Lebanon and the second Intifada by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza territories have heightened Arab - Israeli tensions and precluded Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon. Syria also claims that the UN resolution 425, which called for Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, also demanded its withdrawal from the Sheba farms in the Golan Heights. This territory is often used by Hezbollah to launch attacks against Israel and is at the heart of continued tensions between the three countries.

The Two 'Gulf' Wars, Intifada II and the War on Terror
Escalating regional tensions exacerbated by the continuing intractability of the stalled Arab Israeli 'peace-process' and the USA's war on Iraq suggest that the Syrian presence in Lebanon will be extended indefinitely. However, when dealing with the United States, Asad has often adopted more strategic and pragmatic policies rather than ideological ones, confirming the need to insulate the party from popular tensions. Indeed, Asad's participation on the side of the American coalition during the 1991 Gulf War was a calculated gamble that paid off handsomely in terms of regional politics and international prestige - in the West. Syria's support was rewarded by considerable financial aid upwards of $2 billion from the USA and Arab oil producing states of the Gulf - who had, ironically, ignored Syria in the 80s for supporting Iran in the Iraq-Iran war - while also receiving a virtual blessing to pursue its interests in Lebanon. The important element that eluded it was the return of the Golan Heights, which are still occupied by Israel. In the mid 90s Syria's international prestige was heightened as it became clear that Syria's participation was crucial in any comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace arrangement.
The collapse of the Soviet Union also facilitated Syria's position in foreign policy orientation and it succeeded in securing better relations with the West and America during the Bush sr. and Clinton administrations. But, even as Bashir al Asad has taken steps to relax some of the Ba'ath party control while gradually shifting to a more liberal economic system, Syria has been relegated merely one step below 'Axis of Evil' status by the Bush jr. administration after the September 11th attacks and the so called War on Terror. Syria had provided assistance to the US in its pursuit of militant Islamic groups, but was opposed to Gulf War II as Syrian - Iraqi relations improved considerably in the last decade leading to the war. Syria even received oil from Iraq after re-opening a pipeline leading to the Mediterranean Sea, which was shut down in the tense period of the 80s decade. Moreover, the failure of the Arab - Israeli peace process has also relegated Syria to a less favourable geo-political position in the Americans' view and heightened tensions in the region of Sham, particularly in terms of allegations by Israel and the US that Syria continues to back Hezbollah, which is now also a fully recognized political party with representation at the Lebanese parliament. It seems that little has changed since Ottoman times. The political risks that Syria faces now are high as tensions between itself and Israel continue to increase, but there are also internal issues related to Bashir al Asad's gradual efforts to liberalize the economy as well as the political system.

The economy and economic liberalization efforts
Most analysts have conceded that during the 1950s Syria was one of the most rapidly developing countries in the Third World. Its economic growth was diversified and relied on one of the healthiest agricultural production systems in the entire Middle East that was even in the declining growth years of the 1980s, still capable of guaranteeing a high degree of self sufficiency in food supply. Few countries in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region can claim such an achievement. Syria was also industrializing at a better rate than Egypt and could also count on petroleum and natural gas resources. However, the frequent coups and political instability in the early decades of Syria's independence mismanaged the many advantages that it held over its neighbours, not least of which were a relatively strong supply of water and arable land. Ideological concerns led to the nationalization of most enterprises and the alienation of the business and economic establishment. Many of the Sunni capitalists fled to neighbouring Lebanon where they shifted their economic activity from capital intensive industry and agriculture to services and trade. 
The economy of Syria, then, has since the 1960s been characterized by varying degrees of state intervention designed to reduce regional and class disparities. This is crucial in understanding the Asad's regime's reluctance to adopt full liberalization measures and the ineffectiveness of reforms. As in any highly nationalized economy, reform presents severe economic as well as political challenges; Syria's situation is made all the more difficult as such reforms also have a delicate ethnic dimension. 

The Reforms and Their Political Risks
Economic reform in Syria has been a gradual process that was actually begun with the ascension of Hafez al Asad to power in 1970. He relaxed some of the nationalization measures of the 1960s and fostered the emergence of a new business class based on state officials who were allowed to amass fortunes in exacting transaction fees from foreign companies wishing to do business in Syria. He also took a risk by inviting some of the Sunni capitalists and landlords, who left Syria in the wake of its nationalization, back, inviting them to invest in the important industrial, tourism, construction and agricultural sectors along with the government officials - mostly from the Alawite minority - as they accumulated wealth. Industry is very important in the Syrian economy accounting for 15% of the labour force and even in the recession in the 80s, Syrian GNP was still made up 18% by industrial manufacturing, while oil exports only accounted for 4% in a pattern which is the very reverse of the Gulf States.
The 1980s saw the first important efforts to implement market reforms. The Iran - Iraq war caused shortages in foreign exchange, while subsidized oil from Iran and budget spending cuts of 5% were unable to sustain the subsidies on which the distributive socialist pretensions of the government rested. Its greatest concern was to prevent a rise of the unemployment rate, while also blocking the rise of the Sunni capitalist class that dominated politics prior to 1958. By 1988, the Syrian pound was devalued by 70% to invite inflows of hard currency and mixed private - public sector enterprises in agriculture (a precursor of Britain's Private Finance Initiatives) were formed with the aid of twelve entrepreneurs. The measures worked, but the government used the extra revenues to re-invest in public enterprises and was then faced by having to import food after a long drought severely reduced agricultural output. 
Nevertheless, while these reforms appear rather typical on paper, it must be appreciated that Asad had to play a skilful balancing act in managing the tensions in the all important ethnic element of the equation. Inviting Sunnis to resume a role at the commanding end of the economy, even if limited, was an affront to the Alawite elite that relied on Asad. The revolt of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, which ended with the ruthless extermination of 20,000 of its inhabitants in 1982 by the armed forces, was largely a revolt by the Sunnis against the Alawite minority and was supported by the Sunni business middle class of Damascus. It was this continued threat of reprisal against Sunnis that also gave the government some room for reform. Hama had sent a clear message of what just how much dissent would be tolerated. The Sunnis were allowed to take part in the economy but only so long as the Alawites dominated. The balance that is needed in managing the ethnic tensions is a continuing factor in slowing the rate of reform today. 
Bashir al-Asad cannot move too rapidly in order not damage his Alawite basis of support, which is the only real support he can count on, given the nature of his succession and the continued reliance on a repressive security apparatus to sustain him. Asad the younger, a British trained ophthalmologist, was a reluctant choice as successor and lacks the political determination to engage the kind of massive violent reprisals that his father, a military man, showed with Hama. In many ways, Bashir al Asad is a prisoner of the strong minority that relies on the perpetuation of the Asad legacy for its survival. Reforms will, therefore, inevitably be gradual as he faces both the internal threat of dissent, from his own Alawite sect as well as from the Sunni majority, as well as the external one posed by increasing tensions in the region and continued threats from the United States.

Bringing Globalization to Syria
Political risk is doubtless very high. Meanwhile, support from the Gulf States is declining and the unemployment rate, which Asad's father was so concerned in reducing, is now estimated at 25% to 30%. The political and likely military tensions in the region mean that military spending will be sustained and even increased in order deal with the multiple threats. This will free up even less money for social welfare support, which would in political terms allow Bashir al Asad to consider increasing the rate of market reform. A solution to this problem could come in the form of greater foreign involvement in the Syrian economy while increasing efforts to integrate it in the global economy. In other words bring Syria into globalization. Regional efforts promoted by the European Union such as the Mediterranean free trade zone which has been proposed for 2010 are welcome by Syria.
Indeed, Syria maintains very good relations with Italy and Spain, two countries that are sure to play a very significant role in a more open Syrian economy. Hoping to generate foreign investments, Bashir al Asad has announced the privatization of the banking sector in 2002 ending forty years of the exclusively government run financial system. The problem remains, nevertheless, that the legal system is not designed to protect the accumulation of capital; there being no mechanisms in place to protect it institutionally. Any serious effort to invite foreign investment will have to address this fundamental lack of financial structures, which is currently keeping Syria out of the fold of globalization. 
The current instability of the region may also play to Syria's advantage in terms of restructuring the financial system. Lebanon's advanced financial services and its long trading traditions have long played a role akin to what Hong Kong has done for China. In the eventuality that Lebanon became fully absorbed by Syria as part of a regional re-stabilization that also include a peace treaty between Israel and the Arabs, the economic prospects for Syria and the region would improve dramatically. The chances of this happening in the short term are extremely slim, barring a miracle - in a region long famed for this type of phenomenon - but for the time being such hopes merely reflect how many and how obstinate the obstacles are to balanced and sustainable economic growth. 

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Syria: Speaking Truth to Power
Mrs Clinton visited Jordan three years ago with William Hague the British Foreign secretary and together summarised the civil war raging in next door Syria, with a call to action: "Assad must go." They failed to recognise a civil war when they saw one (instead, repeating a convenient mantra that still doesn't change, that 'Assad was making war on his own people').

It is ironic about Mrs Clinton's statement:- 'Assad must go', for if that had have happened, we would almost certainly by now, have seen the world's first new fundamentalist Islamic state established as a fact of life, carved out of Syria and Iraq on the ancient territory of mesopotamia.and that still might come about! The city of Fallujah is gone and a vast tract of Anbar Province is no longer under Iraqi government control.

As a result of western states misreading the Syrian/Iraqi scenario and looking the other way, there now exists a pool of several thousand Islamist fighters well-armed and financed, with modern battle experience, of whom many may be expected to move on elsewhere, if they are unable to achieve their objectives in Syria and Iraq. It seems that Israel, normally astute about such dangers were so blinded by their loathing of Iran and old enmities with the Assads, that they failed to sound the alarm. So they now have Islamist warriors on some parts of their formerly quiet Syrian border, rather than just the un-menacing Syrian soldiers they had got used to since the war of 1973.

Since the visit of Clinton/ Hague we have been waiting for something more profound by way of a positive contribution from the leaders of the free world. NewNations have been reporting 'modern' Syria rather longer than most western media (approx. 120 reports since 2003). We were of the view that since Foggy Bottom, Quai d'Orsay and the Foreign Office all included some excellent career arabists, they would clearly see and advise their ministers that the turning of the wheel of the Arab Awakening - as it applied to Syria's authoritarian government - had brought about something entirely different in the phenomenon of these events in North Africa. We wonder whether they did but were simply overruled?

Current events in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, had nothing to compare with this incursion into the territory and affairs of an Arab nation, by two neighbouring Arab and the Turkish (sunni) powers. All three encouraged their co-religionists in Syria to rise up against the 43 year rule of the Assads, and by bringing in foreign religious warriors - sunni jihadists - effectively licensed the sworn enemies of the west - soon identified as al Qaeda, its affiliates and look-alikes. It is notable that many of these groups emanate from the very same targeted Arab states (Saudi, Egypt, Libya, Jordan, Gulf States), that according to bin Laden-ite doctrine, are 'the corrupt puppets of America.'

The irony here, being that whatever its grip on the politics and lives of its citizenry, Syria is by far the most religiously tolerant of all the Arab states, and has been for millennia.

The jihadis were pouring in even then, three years ago, yet somehow unnoticed by Secretary of State and Foreign Secretary, as these brought their joint wisdom to bear on Syria, neglecting to realise that the character of the uprising had already changed from Syrian v Syrian, into something quite different. Historians may judge that this western myopia was influenced by the larger (to the US and friends) issue of Syria's alliance with a 'rogue' Iran, looming rather disproportionately at that time.

Before Secretary of State and Foreign Secretary showed up to make their masterly evaluation that Assad must go, his government had clamped down hard on a justified and widespread peasant protest upcountry, that was seeking government intervention in restoring their water supplies and enabling them to get a harvest, after severe drought and financial hardship. It was the first and the key event within Syria, during the 'Arab Awakening' that was sweeping the middle-east.

The Assad government clamp-down was outrageous against civil protestors concerned about their harvest, a deeply irresponsible government reaction. That then became enmeshed with the long anticipated armed uprising in the central cities of Homs and Hamah, by the Moslem Brethren - nothing to do with harvests, but the latest chapter in a long Syrian affair. This was a conflict between the majority of the Sunni militant activists of the MB, against the Alawites; and those many other religious minorities including the several Christian denominations and other Moslem sects such as Druses, Shia, Sufi, Ismaelis, et al, championed by and gathered around the Alawite al Assad led government, in Damascus.

Then the Egyptian Dr Zawahiri, chosen successor to bin Laden, in a powerful and sustained multi-media appeal to worldwide existing and 'wannabe' jihadists, urged them to make their way by any means to Syria. This was 'the big one'.

A fight, a civil war even in Syria, with the (sunni) Moslem Brotherhood had been long expected, although the previous round of that struggle forty years before had brought the Assad clan into total control of government, which in middle- eastern states are mostly light-years away from western democracy, and do not tolerate their enemies. But the 'Arab Awakening' looked like things were changing throughout the region and Syria must have known that they would not be excluded from the prevailing winds of change.

There were other factors that may have been pre-eminent with Mrs Clinton and colleagues. In particular, that Syria had in 1948 and in the '60's been at war with Israel. Ever since, this has precluded the US supplying arms, or much of anything else to Syria, and indeed made it absurdly difficult to even sustain a US embassy in Damascus, despite some earlier attempts, largely scuppered back in the US it has to be said, by hostile lobbies.

Since the US would not supply them, Syria had inevitably formed a relationship with the then Soviet Union, who had become its arms supplier and much else. More, Syria had established an ideological bond, if it can be called that, with the leading non-Sunni Moslem and non-Arab state of Iran, well hated by both Israel and the USA, a relationship at that time steadily getting worse.

Bashar al Assad, from the beginning, had told whoever would listen, that foreign militant groups had and continued to infiltrate his country and that growing numbers of jihadis, including North American and West European Islamic volunteers were coming into Syria every day. Yet, the US Secretary of State and UK Foreign Secretary abetted by the French Foreign Minister, were curiously unmoved by growing evidence of jihadists. At the time Iran loomed much larger in western consciousness and Syria after all, was Iran's only Arab ally.

The master diplomats departed from the neighbourhood and the western media on the whole, editorially and uncritically adopted their line (several journalists that were regional specialists did not, rather reserving their judgement - and retaining their integrity).

This was partly explicable by the news emerging all the time of jihadist and government excesses, indeed of a series of particularly brutal urban battlegrounds with fighting exacerbated by religion, to the extent that even the western supporters of the uprising came to realise that there might not be an heroic-good/villainous-bad division in what had become, even for a middle east religious-civil struggle, a very dirty war.

Internationally, it became quite clear that Qatar and Saudi Arabia were sponsoring the Sunni rebels, a large number of whom are actually non-Syrian foreigners - alarmingly the most extreme elements amongst them. They are well armed, disciplined and trained, typically displaying an eagerness for battle and accepting, if not positively welcoming, martyrdom.

Of the more moderate rebels, many most even, were Syrian nationals. Several of their military leaders were former professionals of the regular Syrian armed forces. Their understandable target was simply to overthrow and replace the Assad government (which is what the western nations had hoped for), not to create an Islamic Caliphate - which al Qaeda and the other salafist Moslem groups were by now fully engaged upon with their sponsors Qatar and surprisingly Saudi Arabia, fully on board. Turkey's position was perhaps, and remains more ambivalent.

The home-grown Syrian 'secular' rebels had expected arms from the US and Nato countries but there was demonstrable reluctance in the event, since the western governments feared quite justifiably, that some sophisticated arms, like shoulder-fired ground to air missiles (manpads), would wind up in the hands of the Islamists -which has now happened, partly at any rate via Qadaffi's former armouries in Libya, so now an existential threat to civil aviation world-wide. Apart from these, the incoming Islamist rebels appeared to have adequate modern arms -there was the mass buy-up of Libyan armouries once Qadaffi had gone. Qatar played a significant role in acquiring these distributing via Turkey, for their favoured Islamist rebel groups, as did apparently the CIA for their secular clients, via Jordan. Further, the Islamists abroad were routing in a steady stream of new foreign recruits to jihad -and still are - continually boosting the Islamist rebel numbers.

Yet the home-grown secular rebels had now been challenged on their own patch and in danger of losing control of 'their' rebellion, were in certain places openly fighting against both government forces and the religious rebels. So the civil war had become to some extent three-sided, with the original secular rebels and the government forces fighting, not only each other, but also both of them separately, against the Islamist jihadis, steadily growing in strength.

The Islamist High Command - if it can be so described- has switched to some extent, from contesting cities and towns held by government forces, this falling more to the 'secular' rebels.

The Islamists are making an all-out attempt, now well advanced, to take over for their own (rather than to 'liberate'), a large area of southern Syria contiguous with Iraq's frontier Anbar province - a large area in neighbouring Iraq, placing these territories as they come under their control, to be the foundation of their new Mesopotamian Caliphate, resisting both the Iraq and Syrian governments and armed forces.

This would become the first territorial example of Osama bin Laden's imposed Sharia Islamic state. (Hence, our earlier comment on the Clinton/ Hague statement that 'Assad must go'. If that had actually happened, we would almost certainly by now have seen the Caliphate emerge as a separate state).

With no western boots on the ground there is nothing to stop that Islamic Caliphate coming into being, from which neighbouring states should be made to bow to this new epicentre of sharia law and fighters exported to achieve the same. Unless that is, the Syrian army with collaboration from the Iraqi army, can prevent it. Yet a conflicted west is in its disarray, still seeking to bring the Assads down. Even Bashar's announcement of seeking re-election is under attack, although his presidential period has expired. His own Alawite minority plus the Christian and other moslem minorities that support him probably don't exceed 30% of the electorate. But of those that remain in country of the Sunni majority, particularly in the towns and cities, who have tolerantly lived alongside their minorities for centuries, many would likely support him and the stability he used to represent, rather than the fearful unknowns characterised by the rebel fighters and the dreadful violence of these past few years.

International attempts at broking peace did not bring it about. There were talks about peace talks. The Islamists weren't the slightest bit interested and indeed declared it treachery by those who even attended the first, and so far only attempt (under UN chairmanship). The secularist fighters also did not embrace the opportunity and at the same time, it was becoming clear that the Syrian army had held together, taken a lot of casualties but steadily were becoming more successful.

Then there was the poison gas crisis. The world audience was asked to believe that the Syrian government, having clearly turned a corner and being seen to be winning the struggle, suddenly had used poison gas in a terrible attack on civilians - not a military target - in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. Someone had!

Assad absolutely denied this. Israel said they believed it -but they are less than reliable on such issues in their own neighbourhood. Now a new and important report by the US maverick, but arguably most distinguished investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, has rocked those very assumptions which so nearly brought down the full wrath of western intervention -a remarkable story in itself.

There had been earlier independent evidence from the UN, widely ignored, that Sarin gas had been traced on a small scale to certain victims (not in Damascus), but the UN also said, not from government sources. After the large-scale gas attack in Damascus, there were intelligence efforts to work out from the trajectory of the very short range poison-gas missiles, used there in the big attack on civilians, from where within Damascus they might have been launched onto the Ghouta district. Intelligence sources (we were told by the media), opted for the location of a Syrian army base. Suspicions remained.

Western governments, primarily the US, UK and France; that had supported the rebel cause to overthrow the Assad government, picked up on an earlier statement by the US President that the use of gas in the conflict would be to 'cross a red line,' never clarified, but broadly understood to mean leading to a western intervention. Obama was on the horns of a dilemma. He wanted no more ruinous mid-east wars, indeed he needed his administration to remain fully concentrated on US domestic policies. What to do? New Secretary of State Kerry threw him a lifeline, which in turn had come from Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign Minister.

The solution they all agreed upon was to get Assad to urgently shift all his pre-war armouries of poison gas weapons from around the country to the coast, to be collected by NATO ships that would take them away and disarm them. That process is ongoing, 92.5% gone at the last count. That alone might be thought quite extraordinary, running road convoys with lethal cargoes from around the country, during a raging civil war, but the process is not yet complete.

What looked like an inexorable march towards intervention, probably from air attack by the US, UK and France, first became seriously checked when the British Parliament refused to have anything to do with it. President Obama decided to put it to the Congress and they similarly wouldn't have it. The "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" meanwhile had already, ahead of the game, despatched attack squadrons to the region, in anticipation. Then neither the US nor UK showed up (so much incidentally for Fox's customary racist news treatment where France is concerned)!

Seymour Hersh in his 'London Review of Books' article makes several points from which the whole ghastly story begins to unravel:-

Brit. intelligence had got hold of a sample of Sarin gas used in the 21st August attack on Ghouta.

It failed to match the Sarin samples known to be held in Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. That was quickly relayed to the US joint chiefs. The case against Syria wouldn't hold up! Obama cancelled the attack.

So who..?
Attention switches to Turkey. PM Erdogan was known to be supporting al-Nusra Front, a large leading jihadist faction (and al Qaeda affiliate). Apart from that, allied intelligence knew that some rebel groups were developing chemical weapons since Spring 2013. The NYT had at the time reported that Syrian rebels had been caught in possession of Sarin gas cylinders near to the Turkish border. It goes further. Classified intelligence sources told that Saudi and Turkish-based chemical facilitators "were attempting to obtain Sarin precursors in bulk, tens of kilograms, likely for the anticipated large scale production effort in Syria."

There's much more - 'a must read' - in April's London Review of Books "The Red Line and the Rat Line"

So if we are to believe Hersh - and on that score, google his record - an attempted 'setting-up' of the allies to bombard the Syrian army, which could have been relied upon to reverse the current course of the civil war, was narrowly frustrated. The Syrian victims of the gas attacks were mere expendable pawns. An attempt to 'bounce' Obama, Cameron, Hollande, et al, into a fatal error was deflected -but it was a close-run thing!

The ultimate sin of al Assad and his government of Alawites, Christians, Shia, Druses, etc (who are unquestionably the outstanding champions of religious toleration in the Arab world), is that Sunni fundamentalists are their core opponents supported by salafist rulers in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Qatar and it seems Turkey, engaged here in a flat-out religious war.

Not a single Arab state is even close to being democratic. The World Audit Democracy table at January 2014 shows the highest placed Arab League State, the UAE, in the 4th division at 75th (out of 150). (The 1st and 2nd divisions (37 nations) alone are held to be democratic).

It has been and remains a hideous civil war which is almost inevitable given its length and the lethal reality of 21st century weaponry. As ever, it is the civilians that have been the principal sufferers. It was inevitable that any government would fight a violent opposition as the Syrian one has done. It has surely now emerged for everyone to see, that apart from libertarian complaints, none of the rebels have offered to replace the Assads with a democracy -that has nowhere been on offer. It would have been ludicrous, given who they are, if the 'sponsoring' Saudis or Qataris had taken that line .

The prevailing issues have been clearly seen to be religious -entirely the motivation of the Islamic jihadists. The US and western democratic powers had no business assisting these, with whom they are at war elsewhere, against the only mid-eastern government that remains unique in Arab countries where religion is concerned, a country where Moslems of all kinds of different sects, and Christians also of many persuasions, have lived side by side for centuries.

We have previously and continue to argue in the absence of a peace settlement, that the appropriate role now for the western powers, is to taper off support for the rebels, other than humanitarian help for civilian populations and let Assad and his neighbours in Iraq, get on with winning this fight and most importantly - unless it otherwise implodes - expunging the planned formation of the Caliphate project.

In the interests of future peace the Syrian government should offer generous terms to surrendering secular rebels, but the fight will go on with foreign jihadis, religious warriors with no interest in democracy and every interest in crushing 'heresy,' hoping to do that from their very own new state, the occupied 'caliphate' territory carved out of Syria and Iraq.

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