EARLIER THIS WEEK I visited the optometrist. Making the appointment, I was stunned to discover that it had been ten years since my last appointment. That’s a long time for my eyesight to be corrected by a single set of lenses. When I finally made it to the clinic, the receptionist was surprised to learn that I was still wearing the same glasses. “Usually,” he told me, shaking his head, “people go through three or four pairs in ten years. They either lose them or break them. You must be a very careful person.”
No more than the country I live in. This week also marked the tenth anniversary of the outbreak of a vicious civil war in Syria. Through that whole grim decade of conflict, however, New Zealand’s view of events has not changed. My country, no less than myself, has been careful to protect the lenses through which it views the terrible tragedies of the Middle East.
The moment we put on our new Syrian eyeglasses ten years ago, our perception of that country’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad, was profoundly changed. Prior to the escalation of the widespread protest activity of 2011 into full-scale military conflict, New Zealand, like the rest of the West, had been fêting Assad and his glamorous British wife as encouraging emblems of those tightly wound Middle Eastern regimes that were slowly but unmistakably unwinding into something looser – something which, in time, might even be described as democratic.
But then came the clamorous upheavals of the so-called “Arab Spring” (2010 – 2012). Reacting with the opportunistic and predatory instincts common to all successful imperialists, the United States, Britain and France immediately abandoned the slow and uncertain processes of diplomacy and seized upon the turmoil in Middle Eastern streets to effect some long overdue regime changes and settle some old scores.
If Hosni Mubarak and Muhammar Ghaddafi could be brought down by the Arab “Street”, then why not Bashar al-Assad?
Contacts were made. Meetings were arranged. Crateloads of weapons were loaded on to trucks. Satellites were repositioned. All the talk was about the “democratic Syrian opposition”, but that was just window-dressing. Democrats, especially those with the welfare of their people at heart, cannot be relied upon to perpetrate the sort of mayhem demanded by the boys and girls at Langley, Virginia. The idealistic students and genuinely “moderate” patriots of the “democratic Syrian opposition” proved easy meat for the highly-trained and battle-hardened jihadists the CIA were actually backing.
The problem was, Assad’s army – unlike Mubarak’s – was not ready to overthrow him. The complex religious and ethnic equations out of which the modern nation of Syria had emerged in the 1930s had left its armed forces vulnerable to the Sunni majority. Unwilling to put their faith in the forgiving instincts of their compatriots, Assad’s soldiers fought back and, to the fury of the West, Syria’s long-time allies, the Russians, fought alongside them. What should (and could) have been a peaceful evolution towards democracy, was transformed by Western cynicism and impatience into a bloody civil war.
Not that we here in New Zealand ever saw it that way. Through our carefully fashioned Western lenses all we saw were a succession of skilfully contrived horrors attributed to the “vicious Syrian regime and its Russian allies” by a complacent (and complicit) Western media.
We recoiled in disgust from alleged “poison gas attacks” and other “war crimes” inflicted on “innocent Syrian civilians”. Images of their broken bodies and frothing mouths, captured for maximum propaganda effect by white-helmeted videographers, broke our hearts.
Deemed unfit for Western consumption was news of the thousands of adults and children condemned to slow, painful, and needless deaths by Western sanctions. Not even life-saving pharmaceuticals were excluded from these blunt instruments of coercion – directed at the Assad Government, but whose principal victims were, overwhelmingly, “innocent Syrian civilians”.
Presumably, the US Secretary of State for the first two years of the civil war, Hillary Clinton, was convinced, like her predecessor, Madelaine Albright (another Democrat) that the tragically high human cost of these interventions “was worth it”. Presumably, it’s also why President Joe Biden, determined, like his own predecessor, Donald Trump, to “protect” Syria’s US-occupied oil-fields, recently authorised air-strikes against targets operating on Syria’s sovereign territory?
Maybe I’m not the only short-sighted observer in need of a new pair of glasses?
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 March 2021.