December 21, 2011

Syrian Massacre Spotlights U.S. Double-Standard

Few people are certain of the last 24 hours in Kfar Owaid - and most people probably wouldn’t want to know the details.

For the past two days Syrian security forces have engaged army defectors in Idlib province with brutal efficiency. Local activists estimate their casualties above 100, including one incident that saw upwards of 70 defectors gunned down near Idlib. Following these events (according to a composite account from opposition groups, independent activists and local witnesses), a large group of army defectors and protesters fled Kfar Owaid village in anticipation of a security unit.

One villager told the Associated Press that Syrian troops subsequently quarantined and shelled Budnaya Valley with tank artillery, guided rockets and gunfire. A handful of witnesses claim that no survivors have emerged, and allege that security personnel beheaded a local imam in the process. Initial casualties are being set at 111.

Syrian’s National Council (SNC) reacted by calling for an “emergency UN Security Council session to discuss the regime’s massacres in Zawiyah mountain, Idlib, and Homs, in particular.” Regarding al-Assad’s defiance towards the Arab League and its political initiative, the council demanded an “emergency meeting... to condemn the bloody massacres...” SNC member Murhaf Jouejati warned that Bashar al-Assad “may be trying to crush this thing before the monitors get in.”

“It was an organized massacre,” said Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based activist group. “The troops surrounded people, then killed them.”

The Syrian government, of course, denied the opposition’s version of Idlib: “Competent authorities in Daraa and Idleb countryside stormed dens of armed terrorist groups.” Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi insisted that Damascus “has been fully committed to facilitating the mission of the Arab League which will come to see the reality of the crisis.” Falling back to its secure political line, al-Assad’s regime blamed the SNA and Free Syrian Army (FSA) for “trying to sabotage the protocol.”

As the opposition is using Kfar Owaid to lobby for international protection, Makdisi charged that the SNA is “seeking to push for foreign intervention rather than accept the call to dialogue.”

While armed defectors have become a clear piece of Syria’s opposition (wanted or not), none of their actions justify the disproportionate force currently applied by al-Assad’s regime. What exactly transpired in Budnaya Valley remains undetermined, but Syria’s available intelligence appears to justify the White House’s rhetorical counteroffensive.

“The United States continues to believe that the only way to bring about the change that the Syrian people deserve is for Bashar al-Assad to leave power. The words of the Assad regime have no credibility when they continue to be followed by outrageous and deplorable actions. Only two days following the Assad regime’s decision to sign the Arab League initiative, they have already flagrantly violated their commitment to end violence and withdraw security forces from residential areas.”

Yet these words begin to lose their legitimacy outside Syria’s vacuum.

Ask any U.S. official and they will tell you that the Obama administration supports all pro-democracy movements. Many Americans and protesters know this isn’t the case. Belief isn’t necessary - Washington’s engagement in Libya and Syria offer a stark contrast between Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain. Granted, what took place near Kfar Owaid could be “a massacre of unprecedented scale in Syria on Tuesday," in the words of France’s Foreign Ministry. 100 Egyptians, Yemenis or Bahrainis haven’t been killed in one day, at one place - but dozens did lose their lives in December alone.

Nor are universal rights intended to be relative.

Undaunted by external criticism, Washington has applied a day-and-night strategy to Syria and U.S.-allied regimes. This double-standard is once again spiking in Egypt, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a “very good call” with Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri. The White House’s condemnation of heavy-handed security forces has persistently lagged behind Tahrir’s crackdown (officials naturally dispute this criticism), and U.S. statements avoided confrontation with the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) until no longer politically feasible.

In addition to private assurances, the Obama administration generally continues to voice public support for the SCAF regardless of its previous statements.

The parallel between Syria and Yemen is especially vivid; foreign blocs negotiated a political settlement with the regimes of both countries. Syria’s revolutionary opposition enjoyed minor input in the Arab League’s process, and now appears discontent, while Yemen’s pro-democracy movement was shut out of GCC negotiations. A crucial divergence stems from Washington’s desire to toss al-Assad and keep Ali Saleh. Since the White House directly authored the GCC’s proposal, Saleh has escaped the thorough condemnation levied against al-Assad. The administration ignored months of violence as it pushed onward to the GCC’s signing, only criticizing Saleh for failing to approve an unpopular proposal in Yemen.

John Brennan, the White House’s counter-terrorism adviser, would recycle a phrase throughout 9/11’s 10th anniversary: “counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen is better than it's been in years."

Once Saleh did sign in Saudi Arabia, Obama extended his personal praise as Yemeni security forces besieged Taiz (Brennan would “congratulate the people of Yemen on initiating a political transition”). In polarizing contrast to the State Department’s rhetoric against al-Assad - “a signature on a piece of paper from a regime like this, that has broken promise after promise after promise, means relatively little to us” - U.S. officials welcomed Saleh’s “unity government” for proceeding with the GCC’s initiative.

What’s left of his regime remains on friendly terms with Western capitals, whose diplomats attend regular meetings Vice President Abdo Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi and various security officials related to Saleh.

Meanwhile in Bahrain, the same praise awarded to Tantawi and Saleh was quick to flow after King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa released his “Independent Commission of Inquiry.” Funded by the King, the BICI whitewashed Bahrain’s crackdown by admitting to limited abuses and punishing selected police officials. The Obama administration has proceeded to ignore the monarchy’s systematic suppression of protests and funerals - and would never touch the language of Navi Pillay.

“We continue to receive reports of the repression of small protests in Bahrain,” the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights warned upon the return of her team, “and although some security officers have reportedly been arrested, we have yet to see any prosecution of security forces for civilian injuries and deaths. Such impunity – at all levels – is a serious impediment to national reconciliation.”

America’s double-standard may have a modest effect on Russia’s political stance, but it still feeds into an obvious narrative that Washington is biased against Syria. Beyond the direct damage inflicted by Washington’s favoritism, selective democracy applies a continual source of friction between U.S. diplomacy and the region’s grassroots movements. The Obama administration expects “actions, not words” from threatened dictators - and millions of protesters expect the same from America.

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