Syria’s Christians become propaganda pawns

The ancient Syrian Christian village of Maaloula has changed hands at least three times in the past week of fighting between government forces and al-Qaeda franchise Nusra Front—and Syria’s Christians are becoming propaganda fodder in an international war of perceptions. Nusra Front issued a video clip showing a commander urging his men not to harm Maaloula’s historic churches and monasteries. The Assad regime countered with images of the rebels shooting in the air and at buildings in in the village, and of a church damaged by mortar fire, Haaretz reports. The village has already suffered civilian casualties from the fighting, and local youth have organized a self-defense militia. AFP, citing local residents, reports that rebels forced at least one person to convert to Islam at gunpoint and executed another when they held the village Sept. 10. “They arrived in our town at dawn…and shouted ‘We are from the al-Nusra Front and have come to make lives miserable for the Crusaders,” AFP quoted a resident who identified herself only as Marie.

The battle for Maaloula comes just as the CIA has apparently started delivering weapons to Syrian rebels, after months of delay. (WP, Sept. 11) The very real plight of the Syrian Christians is clearly being exploited for propaganda against such aid, or direct US intervention. We have noted before the problematic claims of Agnes-Mariam de la Croix, a Carmelite nun from Syria who has been prone to stretching the facts (to be very charitable) in her accusations—such as that the Houla massacre was a ruse by the rebels. Her latest claim, made to Russia Today Sept. 6, is (of course) that the footage of the Aug. 21 Ghouta chemical attack is a “fraud.” A less ambitious claim in that interview is that in a rebel attack on an Alawite village named al-Khratta, residents were tortured and massacred—and that a young girl was dismembered alive with a chain saw. She claims that “there is even a video” of this, although we are happily spared a link to any such footage. This claim is echoed from RT by a stateside right-wing website called The American Dream (in an article in turn picked up by the conspioranoid-right InfoWars) under the shameless headline “Precious Little Girl Dismembered While She Is Still Alive By Obama’s Psychotic Syrian Rebels.”

OK, apart from noting the maudlin adjective which actually cheapens the girl’s suffering by reducing it to pornography (assuming the story is true), we can also ask if in fact the perpetrators were “Obama’s rebels.” We’ve noted that in the rebel battles for the Alawite villages of Latakia governorate, the nominally secular Free Syrian Army has pledged (at least) to protect civilians, while the Nusra Front and its jihadist allies have also jumped into the fray, expressing no such scruples. Given that it is the jihadists who hate the Alawites as “aspostates,” not merely regime collaborators, such an atrocity is far more likely to be their work. Indeed, American Dream identifies the perpatrators (with predictable subtlety) as “al-Qaeda Christian killers.” And, contrary to the lies being avidly spread by both the Islamophobe right and the “anti-war” left, the Nusra Front is assuredly not being armed by the US. The CIA arms pipeline is to the FSA, which is linked to the Syrian National Coalition, with its official ties to the US. The Nusra Front, in contrast, is on the State Department’s “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” list, and officially barred from receiving aid. In fact, collaborating with them is a federal crime.

Has the FSA also got human rights abuses to answer for? Certainly. Is there a case to be made against arming them? Undoubtedly. But at least argue honestly. And resist the temptation to use the dead as propaganda ammo.

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  1. Syria conspiranoia makes strange bedfellows
    Bartholomew Notes on Religion also made note of Mother Agnès-Mariam de la-Croix’s improbable claims to Russia Today, adding that she had made similar assertions about the Houla massacre being a fraud in an interview last year with Thierry Meyssan, a leading light of the 9-11 “Truth” (sic) industry. Bartholomew also notes, disconcertingly:

    At the start of last week, Palestinian Christians held a sit-in at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, at which supporters chanted “Only God, Syria, and Bashir”; the crowd was addressed by Orthodox Archbishop Atallah Hanna, a Palestinian who is not on good terms with the Greek hierarchy, but who is often quoted in the media as representing the church.

    We’ve blogged about the problematic Atallah Hanna before, and also noted how the Syria crisis has exacerbated the Hamas-Fatah split. It could now start driving a wedge between Sunni and Christian Palestinians…

    1. Christian patriarchs as propaganda pawns
      A Sept. 20 piece for Lebanon’s Now magazine by Michael Young, entitled “Cassocks fly over Syria,” is perhaps too dismissive of the fears that have driven the Christian patriarchs into collaboration, but it provides an interesting overview:

      Among the ecclesiastical chorus chanting Assad’s name has been, of course, the Maronite Patriarch Bishara al-Rai, who in his greed for travel, exposure, and extravagance has forgotten what the Assad family did to his own community. Alongside him is the Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III Lahham, who has rarely missed an opportunity to pander to the Assad regime, helping ensure that his flock will file toward Syria’s borders when or if Assad is overthrown.

      Apparently Lahham has come under harsh critricism from the French bishop of Angouleme, Claude Dagens, which has escalated into a public spat with accusations flying back and forth. The Greek Catholics are apparently the Melkites—following the Eastern rite but recognizing Rome. We reported a year ago that the Melkite archbishop of Aleppo was forced to flee to Lebanon after his offices were ransacked. We are curious which patriarch invited Mairead Maguire on her recent propaganda junket…

  2. Syria: dueling atrocity stories redux
    The UK’s conservative Daily Mail on Sept. 13 runs a lurid story, complete with gruesome photographs, entitled “Beheaded in front of children, Assad’s thugs are dragged to their doom and butchered like animals in some of the most brutal scenes to emerge from Syria’s civil war.” We aren’t told until well down the screen who the players actually are in the Aug. 31 incident at Keferghan “in the north of the country” (no governorate given). The guys getting beheaded are from the pro-regime Shabiha militia; the guys doing the beheading are from the jihadist faction ISIS. We aren’t told what that stands for, but other accounts have rendered it variously the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham. (In other words, once again, not “Obama’s rebels.”)

    Human Rights Watch that same day issued a report finding that “Syrian government and pro-government forces executed at least 248 people in the towns of al-Bayda and Baniyas” (both apparently in Tarus governorate, on the coast south of Latakia) in May. “Based on witness accounts and video evidence, Human Rights Watch determined that the overwhelming majority were executed after military clashes ended and opposition fighters had retreated. The actual number of fatalities is probably higher, particularly in Baniyas, given how difficult it is to access the area to account for the dead.”

    “While the world’s attention is on ensuring that Syria’s government can no longer use chemical weapons against its population, we shouldn’t forget that Syrian government forces have used conventional means to slaughter civilians,” said Joe Stork, HRW’s acting Middle East director. No kidding.

    Meanwhile, Bashar Assad has sure got his talking points down. He gave Charlie Rose of CBS in an interview last week exactly the line calculated to play to (ignorant) “anti-war” sentiment in the US: “Any strike will be a direct support to al-Qaeda offshoots.” In reporting this, Al Arabiya on Sept. 14 recalled an advisor’s reassurance to Assad ahead of a 2011 interview with ABC News’ Barbara Walters that the “American psyche can be easily manipulated.”

    Right, the great fallacy of nearly all “anti-war” propaganda: there is no legitimate resistance in Syria, only al-Qaeda. Give ’em what they want to hear, Bashar.

  3. Syrian rebels battle jihadists

    Contrary to the relentless blather from the "anti-war" crowd that the Syrian rebels are all jihadists (or, at least, that the FSA and the jihadists work in tandem), Al Jazeera provides yet another report Sept. 15 of clashes betWeen FSA partisans and jihadis. In the town of al-Bab, Aleppo governorate, the headqauters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, yet another variant of the name) was stormed by fighters of the al-Nasr and al-Farouq battalions, both operating under the FSA's Supreme Military Council. ISIL (or ISIS, or whatever they actually call themselves) responded by attacking positions held by the battalions, with fighting ongoing. Meanwhile in Deir Ezzor governorate, on the Iraqi border, clashes drupted in al-Bu Kamal town between jihadists and the Allahu Akbar Brigade, credited with the capture of the city from Assad forces in November 2012 and which also operates under the Supreme Military Council. The name indicates they are likely Islamist, but presumably not jihadist. Fighting is also reported from the northeastern governorate of al-Raqqa, between ISIL and the Ahfad al-Rasoul battalion, another formation under the Supreme Military Council umbrella. (See map.)

    Sorry to rain on your dogma. Don't shoot the messenger.

    1. Syrian rebels battle jihadists
      BBC News reports Sept. 19 that ISIS rebels have driven the FSA from the town of Azaz, on the Turkish border north of Aleppo. Sure sounds like open war between the FSA and the jihadists. Of course, this will be seized upon by the Assad propagandists as evidence that the jihadists are more powerful than the FSA, while happily ignroing the fact that it demolishes their thesis that the jihadists and the FSA are one and the same. (Actually, it has been open war between these two antagonists for at least two months now.)

    2. Syria: jihadis as propaganda pawns
      McClatchy reports that a “tense cease-fire” between the FSA and ISIS has been brokered by the Syrian Opposition Coalition, which harshly criticized the latter as having values that “run counter to the principles that the Syrian revolution is trying to achieve.” It said the main rebel groups are pursuing an agenda that was “moderate and respects religious and political pluralism while rejecting blind extremism.” 

      Al Arabiya tells us that a top ISIS commander, Abu-Abdallah al-Libi (al-Libi apparently being a very popular name for Qaeda militants), was killed killed Sept. 22 in fighting in Idlib in governorate. The FSA denied responsibility for Libi’s death, but the Syrian Youth activist network launched an online campaign entitled “ISIS doesn’t represent me.”

      We wish Syrian Youth luck, because the Western media have sure been working overtime to portray the opposition as overwhelmingly jihadist. The Sept. 21 Washington Post headline reads: “Private donations give edge to Islamists in Syria, officials say.” But the “officials” are (of course) unnamed, and the closest we get to an actual identification of these private sources is “small networks of Arab donors.” Qatar, we are told, “cut off aid to the most radical groups under pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia.” So might this story actually be saying the opposite of what the headline implies—that the jihadists are having to turn to “small networks” because the big bucks from the Gulf States have been cut off?

      Another case in point is a Sept. 15 story in the The Telegraph, much touted by Assad’s online partisans, entitled: “Syria: nearly half rebel fighters are jihadists or hardline Islamists, says IHS Jane’s report.” But look at the actual breakdown:

      Opposition forces battling Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria now number around 100,000 fighters, but after more than two years of fighting they are fragmented into as many as 1,000 bands.

      The new study by IHS Jane’s, a defence consultancy, estimates there are around 10,000 jihadists—who would include foreign fighters—fighting for powerful factions linked to al-Qaeda.

      Another 30,000 to 35,000 are hardline Islamists who share much of the outlook of the jihadists, but are focused purely on the Syrian war rather than a wider international struggle.

      There are also at least a further 30,000 moderates belonging to groups that have an Islamic character, meaning only a small minority of the rebels are linked to secular or purely nationalist groups.

      So by Jane’s figures, the “jihadists” of the most “hardline” variety constitute 10% of the total resistance fighters—not the 50% stated in the headline. To get above the 50% cut, they actually had to throw in the “moderates”—again, the opposite of what was stated in the headline. Add to this two further distortions: First, the account ignores the fact that it is the secular nationalists that are in the leadership position of the Opposition Coalition. Second (as usual), the civil resistance—that is, the unarmed opposition movement—is completely excluded from the accounting.

      Why is everybody in such an unseemly hurry to delegitimize the Syrian opposition?

  4. Syria: Maaloula propaganda wars continue
    The Syrian Observer reported Sept. 11 that pro-regime Internet partisans have launched a fierce campaign against Mother Pelagia Sayyaf, head of the Saint Mar Takla monastery in Maaloula, for appearing on Lebanese media denying rebels have destroyed Christian monuments in the village. In her interview with LBC Satellite Channel, Pelagia denied any attack on churches and monasteries, countering a regime’s account that rebel fighters had committed massacres, broken crosses, burned churches and abducted civilians. There has since been a barrage of posts on social media tarring her as a “traitor” and “terrorist.”

  5. Syrian anarchist speaks on jihadist threat
    A group calling itself First of May Anarchist Alliance, seemingly in Detroit, recently issued a portentously entitled statement, “Toward an anarchist policy on Syria,” which appeared on the libertarian-communist website Among it’s several all-too typical “leftist” errors is massively overstating the role of Islamists in the Syrian resistance. A commenter by the name of “Shiar” issued a “Response by a Syrian anarchist to the First of May statement on Syria,” reading in part:

    Speaking of Islamist fundamentalists, no one denies that al-Qaeda-linked or inspired groups fighting in Syria, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, whose members include many non-Syrians, are becoming stronger and getting out of control. But claims that the Syrian revolution has been (completely) hijacked by them are massively exaggerated. The most accurate estimates I’ve seen say radical Islamists do not constitute more than 15-20% of the so-called Free Syrian Army. All these two groups have been doing recently is to wait for other factions of the Free Army to do the fighting, then go to the “liberated zones” and try to impose their control. Both groups’ initial popularity—mostly due to their charity work—is declining among many Syrians as more and more reports of their repressive and sectarian practices come to light, not to mention reports that both groups are infiltrated by the regime and are now turning against the Free Army. Indeed, there have [been] mass demonstrations against Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISIS in the areas under there control, such as al-Raqqa, parts of Aleppo and so on.