Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War

Exclusive: In the early months of the Syrian civil war, the West’s mainstream media presented the conflict as a simple case of good-guy protesters vs. bad-guy government, but the conflict was more complicated than that and the one-sided version only made matters worse, writes Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall

Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, nearly a quarter million people have perished and fully half of the country’s inhabitants have been forced from their homes, creating the worst refugee crisis in the past quarter century. Meanwhile, the continuing advance of brutal Islamist factions, which a leading CIA officer in 2013 termed the “top current threat to U.S. national security”, makes the chances of restoring peace and human rights seem more remote than ever.

Many parties are to blame, but certainly among them are interventionists in the United States and its allies who rationalized supporting the Islamist opposition, and refusing to embrace serious peace negotiations, on the grounds that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a uniquely evil dictator. That image of Assad grew directly out of his regime’s brutal response to civilian protests that began in early 2011, soon after the start of the Arab Spring.

A scene of destruction after an aerial bombing in Azaz, Syria, Aug. 16, 2012. (U.S. government photo)

A scene of destruction after an aerial bombing in Azaz, Syria, Aug. 16, 2012. (U.S. government photo)

Summarizing the conventional wisdom, the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect notes that “The crisis in Syria was prompted by protests in mid-March 2011 calling for the release of political prisoners. National security forces responded to widespread, initially peaceful demonstrations with brutal violence. From summer 2011 onwards, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad refused to halt attacks and implement the meaningful reforms demanded by protestors. In July 2011, accounts emerged from witnesses, victims, the media, and civil society that government forces had subjected civilians to arbitrary detention, torture, and the deployment and use of heavy artillery.”

That August, following critical reports about the regime’s crimes, President Barack Obama joined European leaders in demanding that Assad “face the reality of the complete rejection of his regime by the Syrian people” and “step aside.” Washington imposed new economic sanctions, prompting Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari to assert that the United States “is launching a humanitarian and diplomatic war against us.”

But the convention wisdom, that “the protest movement in Syria was overwhelmingly peaceful until September 2011”, is wrong, or at best incomplete. In fact, opposition to the government had turned violent almost from the start, and was likely aimed at provoking a harsh reaction to polarize the country.

Although nothing justifies the myriad crimes committed by state forces then and since, facts ignored by most media and government accounts suggest that responsibility for the horrors in Syria is widely shared. The facts undercut the rationale behind inflexible demands for “regime change” from Western and Gulf leaders that closed the door on serious negotiations and opened the way to mass slaughter and the rise of today’s Islamist-dominated opposition.

A Violent Start

The city of Dara’a, near the Jordanian border, was the epicenter of protests that triggered Syria’s civil war in 2011. Anti-government sentiment had been growing due to a recent influx of angry and desperate families dispossessed by what one expert called “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.”

In early March 2011, police in the city arrested and severely beat several high school students for painting anti-government graffiti on a wall. No doubt inspired by the Arab Spring, protesters gathered at a local mosque and began to march for political rights and an end to corruption, chanting “God, Syria, Freedom.” Syrian police reportedly responded with water cannons, batons and even gunfire to disperse the marchers, killing three protesters. The government news agency claimed that “infiltrators” among the marchers had smashed cars, destroyed other property and attacked police, causing “chaos and riots.”

Matters went from bad to worse when demonstrators fought back. As one Israeli journalist reported, “In an uncharacteristic gesture intended to ease tensions the government offered to release the detained students, but seven police officers were killed, and the Baath Party Headquarters and courthouse were torched, in renewed violence.” Around the beginning of April, according to another account, gunmen set a sophisticated ambush, killing perhaps two dozen government troops headed for Dara’a.

President Assad tried to calm the situation by sending senior government officials with family roots in the city to emphasize his personal commitment to prosecute those responsible for shooting protesters. He fired the provincial governor and a general in the political security force for their role. The government also released the children whose arrest had triggered the protests in the first place.

Assad also announced several national reforms. As summarized by the UN’s independent commission of inquiry on Syria, “These steps included the formation of a new Government, the lifting of the state of emergency, the abolition of the Supreme State Security Court, the granting of general amnesties and new regulations on the right of citizens to participate in peaceful demonstrations.”

His response failed to satisfy protesters who took to the streets and declared the city a “liberated zone.” As political scientist Charles Tripp has observed, “this was too great a challenge to the authorities, and at the end of April, a military operation was put in motion with the aim of reasserting government control, whatever the cost in human life.”

The Assad regime reacted ruthlessly, laying siege to the town with tanks and soldiers. Security forces cut water, electricity and phone lines, and posted snipers on rooftops, according to residents quoted by The New York Times. At the same time however, according to another report, unknown gunmen in Dara’a killed 19 Syrian soldiers.

Meanwhile, protests had begun spreading to other towns, fed by social media campaigns. By late April, government forces had reportedly killed several hundred protesters. Dozens of their own were killed as well.

In early April, for example, nine Syrian soldiers on their way to quell demonstrations in Banyas were ambushed and gunned down on the highway outside of town. Western news media suggested they were killed by Syrian security forces for refusing to fire on demonstrators, a fanciful tale that was analyzed and demolished by Professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

An opposition leader based in Paris, who urged local demonstrators to remain non-violent, told Landis that he had been approached by three groups “to provide money and weapons to the rebels in Syria.” They included “several pro-American Syrian opposers” whom he refused to name. He declared that anyone providing money and weapons to the rebels was “pushing them to commit suicide,” a prescient warning.

The Failure to Report

As Landis concluded, “Western press and analysts did not want to recognize that armed elements were becoming active. They preferred to tell a simple story of good people fighting bad people. There is no doubt that the vast majority of the opposition was peaceful and was being met with deadly government force and snipers. One only wonders why that story could not have been told without also covering the reality that armed elements, whose agenda was not peaceful, were also playing a role.”

He also accused the Western press of similarly misreporting a massacre of government security forces in early June, 2011, in the city of Jeser al-Shagour, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold near the Turkish border, where some 140 members of the police and security forces were slaughtered.

Several Western news accounts uncritically recited claims from local activists that the victims had mutinied against their commanders and been killed by government forces. But video footage of the fighting was “fairly conclusive in corroborating the original government version of events: the soldiers stationed in the town were overrun by armed and organized opposition,” Landis noted.

In the city of Hama, another video emerged, showing rebels dumping the bodies of soldiers off a highway bridge. As CNN reported on Aug. 2, 2011, “One prominent anti-government activist, who asked not to be named because of the dangers that could arise from the release of the information, told CNN the state TV account was correct. The bodies are those of Syrian secret police killed by Syrian fighters from Iraq who have joined the anti-government fight.”

The same activist insisted that such anti-government violence was the exception, not the rule, but admitted that it gave “credence to the Syrian government’s assertion that it is targeting ‘armed gangs.’”

Shortly thereafter, an analyst at the private intelligence firm Stratfor warned colleagues not to be misled by opposition propaganda: “The opposition must find ways to keep the Arab Spring narrative going, and so the steady flow of news relating to regime brutality and opposition strength is to be expected. Although it is certain that protesters and civilians are being killed, there is little evidence of massive brutality compared to . . . other state crackdowns in the region. Stratfor has also not seen signs of heavy weapons being used to massacre civilians or significant battle damage, although tank mounted .50 caliber weapons have been used to disperse protesters.”

That August, just days before Western leaders called on Assad to quit, Landis rightly predicted that the regime would not simply step aside quietly and let the opposition take over:

“Syria’s divisions are too deep. The fear of revenge and ethnic cleansing will galvanize those who have backed the present order for decades. Had the Syrian leadership been willing to hand over power peacefully or establish some sort of constitutional convention, it would have done so already. The poverty and loss of dignity for so many Syrians is a crushing part of Syrian reality. . . .

“Syria is filled with people who have little to lose, who have little education, and few prospects of improving their chances for a better and more dignified life. The potential for violence and lawlessness is large. Most worrying is the lack of leadership among opposition forces.”

But rather than heeding such advice and seeking to promote dialogue and reconciliation, the United States and other Western powers, along with their allies in Turkey and the Gulf states, chose confrontation and a deepening civil war. As former CIA intelligence analyst Philip Giraldi warned in December 2011,

“Americans should be concerned about what is happening in Syria, if only because it threatens to become another undeclared war like Libya but much, much worse. . . . NATO is already clandestinely engaged in the Syrian conflict, with Turkey taking the lead as U.S. proxy. . . . Unmarked NATO warplanes are arriving at Turkish military bases close to Iskenderum on the Syrian border, delivering weapons from the late Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenals as well as volunteers from the Libyan Transitional National Council who are experienced in pitting local volunteers against trained soldiers, a skill they acquired confronting Gaddafi’s army.

“Iskenderum is also the seat of the Free Syrian Army, the armed wing of the Syrian National Council. French and British special forces trainers are on the ground, assisting the Syrian rebels while the CIA and U.S. Spec Ops are providing communications equipment and intelligence to assist the rebel cause, enabling the fighters to avoid concentrations of Syrian soldiers.”

What to Conclude?

What should one make of these facts? First, even if opposition propaganda sometimes inflated the case against the Damascus regime, there can be no reason to doubt the many reports by United Nations and private human rights organizations that government forces, accustomed to decades of authoritarian rule, “ committed the crimes against humanity of murder and of torture, war crimes and gross violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, including unlawful killing, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence, indiscriminate attack, pillaging and destruction of property.”

However, the deadly provocations against Syrian government forces put an entirely different cast on the origins of the conflict. Furthermore, some human rights organizations also acknowledge that armed opposition forces began committing crimes against civilians by the summer of 2011. In March 2012, Human Rights Watch sent an “open letter” to leaders of the Syrian opposition, decrying “crimes and other abuses committed by armed opposition elements,” including the kidnapping and detention of government supporters, the use of torture and the execution of security force members and civilians, and sectarian attacks against Shias and Alawites.

Western media did not ignore such reports, but significantly underplayed them, no doubt wanting to maintain focus on the larger (and simpler) narrative of Assad’s evil. (In much the same way, Western media sympathetic to the Ukrainian opposition underplayed the role of rightist violence in the putsch that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.)

In choosing to cite human rights selectively as their rationale for regime change, Western governments, including the Obama administration, followed longstanding double standards. Many of the U.S-backed states involved in the anti-Assad campaign, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, have also committed gross human rights violations and war crimes, whether at home or in neighboring territories and states such as Gaza, Yemen and Lebanon.

In Syria as in Libya and Iraq, human rights became a convenient bludgeon for supporting the longstanding ambition of U.S. neoconservatives to topple critical Arab regimes as part of their grand plan for remaking the map of the Middle East. The worthy cause of saving lives perversely enabled a much greater sacrifice of Syrian lives.

History shows that war itself is the greatest threat of all to human rights. Surely our common “responsibility to protect” should start with efforts to limit the start and expansion of armed conflicts, not to inflame them in humanity’s name.

[For Part One of this two-part series on the Syrian crisis, see The US Hand in the Syrian Mess.”]

Jonathan Marshall is an independent researcher living in San Anselmo, California. Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; and “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster.”]

18 comments for “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War

  1. Moohammad
    August 1, 2015 at 06:49

    The Syrian Revolution is a call for freedom and dignity. The Syrian regime headed by the power maniac and blood thirsty Bashar Assad has been using all sorts of weapons to crush the revolution, killing thousands of innocent civilians, children and women ruthlessly, but all in vain. The whole world is an accomplice in this horrible genocide committed against the Syrian people just because they want to change this crazy presudent and live in democracy and dignity. Shame on this brutal world.

    • Mark
      August 1, 2015 at 13:19

      Moohammad, or is Mossadman?

      The trouble in Syria is due entirely to Israel’s pre-planned wars in the Mid-East being carried out by their American double agents and puppets.

      Whether you realize it or not your comment amounts to propaganda that Israel has been spewing to promote their continuous illegal wars…

  2. Winston Smith
    July 31, 2015 at 16:13

    Although good ,the article only goes so far. The Syrian Counter Revolution was a Color Revolution as they are known, planned out of Washington and with an absolute fortune in the American taxpayer’s taxes spent on it and in planning. it will have gone out under Obama’s signature, since a “finding” is required since 1974 signed by the president. Extreme violence by the American intelligence services accompanied it from the first since Color revolutions are in fact extremely violent.

    Since the Syrians were not going to surrender and allow Obama to instal a pro-American government, the Obama regime proceeded to a Covert Operation using THEIR Jihadists of various sorts. They are called Covert Operations. This began just after Obama with collossalcheek demanded his opposite number “set down.”

    This is like the Nazis in1940 expecting Mr.Churchil to resignand a pro-German government emerge. It just wasn’t going to happen.

  3. Abe
    July 24, 2015 at 14:21

    The plan to balkanise and redraw the Middle East was laid out by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2006 called “The Project For a New middle East”. The US’s policies during the Iraq war, such as the use of death squads and the introduction of federalism, were designed to cause sectarian divisions. Even as early as 2007, think tanks such as the Brookings Institute were suggesting the ‘soft partition of Iraq’. In 2013, at the University of Michigan, Henry Kissinger stated that he would prefer to see the partition of Iraq and Syria. The strategy is becoming more and more openly discussed not only amongst think tanks but in the media.

    The neocolonialist powers in the United states have exploited Wahhabism to pave the way towards balkanisation. Saudi Arabia, ISIS, Al Qaeda and the Taliban have all been useful to this end. In the book Confessions of a British Spy and British Enmity Towards Islam it is claimed that Britain founded Wahhabism in order to weaken the ottoman empire. Whether or not the book’s claims are legitimate, it is clear that Wahhabism and specifically ISIS objectives fit seamless with the imperialist agenda of the United States. A declassified Defence Intelligence Agency document stated that creation of the Islamic State, would be useful in order to isolating Syria from Iraq and Iran. Dividing and conquering, these nations into sectarian based state lets in constant antagonism towards each other, will make them perpetually weak and unable to defend themselves. Israel has already set out its designs to claim the Golan heights as its own if Syria disintegrates.

    The balkanisation process is expedited by dismantling a nations Identity. Syria and Iraq derive their national identity from there thousands of years of history. By destroying these ancient artifacts ISIS are wiping out any tangible evidence of Syrian and Iraqi ancient civilisations even existed. Looting these artifacts, and selling them to Europe and the US, also detaches these ancient civilisations from modern day Iraq and Syria. ISIS also useful in that it shares the US government’s disdain for middle eastern nationalism. They believe all loyalties should lie in religion rather than the nation state. British citizens of Pakistani origin who have joined ISIS are claiming Syria as land that belongs to them, though they have never stepped foot in Syria, simply because they perceive it to be a ‘Muslim country’.

    It is because of these powerful imperialist interests, that world stands by and watches as ISIS destroys the cradle of human civilisation. The so called ‘Anti-ISIS coalition’ spear headed by the US, is nothing more than window dressing and is never serious about defeating ISIS. They US doesn’t just want to destroy Syria and Iraq, they want to wipe out any memory that these countries ever existed.

    The Agenda Behind ISIS’ Cultural Genocide
    By Maram Susli

  4. Abe
    July 24, 2015 at 11:35

    The alternative press has noted for months that Israel is supporting jihadis in Syria. But Israel has consistently denied these allegations … until now.

    The Times of Israel reported 3 weeks ago:

    “Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Monday that Israel has been providing aid to Syrian rebels…”

    Israeli Military Admits to Supporting Syrian Jihadis

  5. John P
    July 23, 2015 at 15:08

    Besides the great debate here, I came across an article which very much supports. not confirms, views of what I have about what is going on in the Middle East. I have also included the address for an article referenced in the first article. I think Consortium News does a good job and the debates are very thought provoking.
    First article
    European Immigration and Greater Israel by Roger Van Zwanenberg


    Referenced article
    “Greater Israel”: The Zionist Plan for the Middle East by Israel Shahak


  6. F. G. Sanford
    July 21, 2015 at 07:51

    This article is a typical example of American punditry relying on the United States of Amnesia to predictably gobble up revisionist history. All of a sudden, the notorious “Ford-Negroponte Death Squad Destabilization Strategy” is completely forgotten. Now, we turn back to the usual revisionist propaganda: “There were some violent elements, and mistakes were made, but after all, Assad really brought it all on himself because he really was abusing human rights, torturing people and he’s an evil dictator, so even though we were wrong, we were actually right”. The part about Assad’s government being the number one destination for ‘extraordinary rendition’ of people to be tortured at the behest of the CIA is conveniently ignored. When he was working for us, torture was no problem. Now that all the US ‘black sites’ have been outed, isn’t it about time we dispensed with the hypocrisy?

  7. James Lake
    July 21, 2015 at 04:18

    Can I just emphasise the following

    It’s not a civil war.
    It’s an attempted takeover by forces backed by UK, US,Turkey, Qatar, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia.

  8. m
    July 21, 2015 at 02:24

    WE are responsible for this. WE elect these warmongering, murderous thieves election after election after election.. It’s on us. Anyone who votes for these warmongers is complicit in mass murder.

  9. Alec
    July 21, 2015 at 02:21

    In 1996 four advisers to netanyahu presented a paper called ‘Clean break’ which proposed that hostile countries surrounding Israel which had military capacity should be reduced to chaos …. after 9/11 the authors of Clean break were ‘placed’ in positions of influence within the bush government to implement this strategy …. however it is my opinion that the objective is no longer to prevent attacks upon Israel but to prepare the way for greater Israel which has always been an ambition of netanyahu and likud …. after the US presidential election next year we will see a false flag carried out by mossed to which the us will respond by bringing chaos to Iran and then Israel and it’s media will turn their attention to demonising Saudi Arabia and Jordan. If Israel’s ultimate objective is ever achieved …and I see no reason why it won’t … then God help us goyim because as Dostoyevsky wrote ” …. they are merciless in their dealings with those not of their faith …”

  10. Abe
    July 20, 2015 at 23:59

    Joshua Landis is a frequent analyst on TV, appearing on PBS News Hour, Charlie Rose Show in 2012, CNN and Fox News. He has been widely quoted in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, LA Times, and Time magazine. He also comments frequently for NPR and BBC radio.

    Landis has spoken at the Brookings Institution, USIP, Middle East Institute, and Council on Foreign Relations.

    Throughout the conflict in Syria, the Syria Comment blog of Joshua Landis has promoted the Brown Moses blog of Eliot Higgins.

    Back in 2013, the New York Times elevated Higgins to prominence with the claim that he had offered a key tip that helped the newspaper prove that Saudi Arabia had funneled arms to opposition fighters in Syria. Never mind that this was already well known.

    After a couple of well-gnawed bones of truth “verified” by the somehow ingenious Higgins, the MSM and social media was flooded by a tsunami of lies from the Brown Moses blog.

    The fact that Higgins was thoroughly debunked for his sensational “it was Assad” internet claims about the 2013 sarin attacks in Ghouta, Syria hasn’t prevent Landis from directing further attention to Higgins.

  11. Mark
    July 20, 2015 at 23:32

    The coveting of more wealth and power by those who have it, simply will not allow them to equally and simultaneously honor the truth or the law — the overwhelming majority of humans are too easily intoxicated with any relative power at their personal disposal!

    Is it any wonder the magically dangled carrots will not deliver the promised riches and glorious ecstasy to be realized by the benevolent and deserving conquerors they happen not to be?

    The world goes from the subjective whims of one tyrant just after ridding itself of some other — the real tyranny here is not the relatively tiny Syria but lies within, and for the benefit of, the Western powers led by the US and what began with European Zionism and their reletively recent decades old plan to destabilize the Mid-East to personally benefit themselves. While in all truth the Western powers could halt the flow of weapons to the Mid-East at any time they so choose.

    As the Zionists had set out to; their extremist religion has morphed into an all encompassing entity reaching across the Atlantic and with carrots deployed they’ve managed to corrupt and coerce European descendants there that had a pre-existing inclination to sell the blood and taxed labor of their US countrymen for the right price and the sake of pre-planned Zionist terrorism in 2003 Iraq and Syria and Iran to name three — while all the unworthy help themselves to a parcel of freshly minted carrots.

    Included in this equation are those Eropean politicians under the spell of dangled carrots again, no less. And enticed to dispose of their honor, they’ve pledged their countries loyal unwitting bows to the undeserving criminally hypocritical Stars of David with American stripes.

    Truth is not reaching the masses while carrots feed the media shills spouting lies on que to manipulate the vast and great uninformed masses into relishing the destruction of human lives by the machine of dishonor as it rolls along unconsciously without remorse, understanding or empathy — in phony ecstasy as the world’s most guilty religiously extremist exceptionalists that live in fear from having breathed a reason for being into ISIS because of their own actions in Iraq. The combination of Americans and Zionists has now temporarily employed ISIS for the purpose of ousting Assad without considering what they will all do next. But the stripes of David don’t care, it means less killing for them at this very moment — they are concerned about image but truth is no concern at all — and they’ll pretend to do the world a favor when they kill ISIS after ISIS serves their purposes; though in all truth it could actually be better for the world if David and his striped friends would take themselves out and get it over with — how could we possibly know the answer to that long enough beforehand?

    And while the machine does not produce continuity through truth, honor or justice, it encourages the lecherous coveting of carrots while approving any means to acquire power through ever yet more carrots that must be had at any cost. Pile up those carrots boys and when your ongoing war with the world destroys the earth’s food supply you can all eat carrots and each other with exceptional delight.

    And so it was, and so it is, technologically advanced but primitive humans that emanated from, and still reside in Europe, are the greatest danger to themselves — and so the story goes as does the story of humankind…

    • Abe
      July 21, 2015 at 00:13

      All that death and destruction in Syria, coming soon to Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and yes, Saudi Arabia, will continue to yield limitless subsidies to keep Israel “secure”.

      Israel has worked tirelessly to ensure that it never is surrounded by a stable and prosperous Middle East.

  12. Abe
    July 20, 2015 at 20:02

    Jonathan Marshall simply repeats Western media lies about the armed conflict in Syria.

    Marshall inaccurately describes the beginning of the war in March 2011 in Daraa:

    “The Assad regime reacted ruthlessly, laying siege to the town with tanks and soldiers. Security forces cut water, electricity and phone lines, and posted snipers on rooftops, according to residents quoted by The New York Times. At the same time however, according to another report, unknown gunmen in Dara’a killed 19 Syrian soldiers.”

    In fact, the very title of Marshall’s article, “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War” is an inaccurate description.

    The war in Syria has never been a “civil war” and the anti-government forces almost entirely are terrorist mercenaries, not “rebels”.

    • Roger Milbrandt
      July 25, 2015 at 01:17

      Sharp observation Abe. It had not occurred to me that the very title smuggles in the MSM distortion of the event.

  13. Abe
    July 20, 2015 at 19:47

    Terrorist groups have been set loose on Syria since the US, UK and their western and Gulf State allies launched a covert war in early 2011, dressed up by the media as a “revolution”.

    Manufacturing Dissent: The Truth About Syria

  14. Abe
    July 20, 2015 at 19:43

    The Daraa “protest movement” on March 17-18, 2011 in Syria had all the appearances of a staged event involving covert support to terrorists.

    The “humanitarian mandate” of the US and its allies is sustained by diabolical “false flag” attacks which consist in killing civilians with a view to breaking the legitimacy of governments which refuse to abide by the diktats of Washington and its allies.

    In Daraa in 2011, as in Kiev in February 2014, roof top snipers were targeting both police and demonstrators.

    Syria: Who Was Behind The Protest Movement?
    Fabricating a Pretext for a US-NATO “Humanitarian Intervention”
    By Prof Michel Chossudovsky

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