West blind to war horror

By Glen Johnson

New Zealand academic William Harris says he has watched for 30 years as the atrocities perpetrated by the Syrian regime worsen. Now, observing from the border, he is calling on the world to intervene in the brutal conflict.

The uprising in Syria started with peaceful demonstrations, but has since morphed into a bloody civil war influenced by hard-line jihadists. Photo / AP
The uprising in Syria started with peaceful demonstrations, but has since morphed into a bloody civil war influenced by hard-line jihadists. Photo / AP

Professor William Harris sips his cup of tea in a small cafe in southern Turkey and recounts meeting Yasser Arafat, the former leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.

It was war-stricken north Lebanon, in 1983. "He was there with all these phones in front of him giving simultaneous interviews, as what was quite explicitly the Syrian regime besieged the building - artillery bombardments," Harris says. "He was in a building surrounded by taller buildings, because it made it more difficult to get at him."

The more things change, the more things stay the same. Again, bullets fly almost within earshot of Harris and his Turkish cafe.

Again, he is watching a Levantine nation in the grips of an internecine civil war, complicated along sectarian lines. Yet Harris insists the comparisons between 1980s Lebanon and present-day Syria are "superficial".

"The Lebanese regime was not party to the conflict, so there was something to build back on. That is not the case in Syria," he says. "The Syrian regime has shown it is absolutely willing to do whatever it takes to survive."

A short drive away, past olive and pistachio groves, war is raging in Syria. And its recent gains in Aleppo coupled with improved strategy and an imploding, in-fighting opposition suggests that the regime could well overwhelm its enemies.

"We could see a mid-term military outcome in the crisis," Harris says. "But the regime is seriously degraded, it is not sustainable."

Sixty-year-old Harris, from Otago University's politics department, was in Turkey participating in talks about the crisis in Syria. Held at the Middle East Technical University in the Turkish capital, Ankara, the discussions brought together Middle East experts from the UK, Russia and Iran, among others, reflecting the international dimensions of the Syrian war, now approaching a third year.

"I would absolutely want to see Aleppo but the extreme kidnapping risk makes that out of the question for any of us journalists or academics for now."

More than 100,000 people have been killed - an estimated 40 per cent of those are regime soldiers and their paramilitary allies. More than two million people have fled across borders and up to 6.5 million are displaced within Syria.

Entire neighbourhoods in Aleppo have been levelled by long-range ballistic missiles, pummelled by President Bashar al-Assad's attack helicopters and so-called "barrel bombs".

Harris makes no secret of his hostility towards the Syrian regime and "self-righteous, imperious" Assad, who inherited rule over Syria from his father, Hafez, in 2000.

"The all-encompassing criminality of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the clique around him remain the central reality of the evolution in Syria since March 2011," wrote Harris in an opinion piece for the Washington Post this year.

"Unfortunately, this truth has been obscured, even sidelined, by the standard 'post-modern' impetus in the West to equalise parties to conflicts. The West can thereby walk away from the crime of the 21st century."

In May, Government-linked Shabiha paramilitaries stalked through the villages of Baniyas and Bayda, summarily executing 248 people. Reports by watchdogs found that many of the dead had been knifed or bludgeoned to death.

Tens of thousands of Syrians have disappeared into prisons where torture, including "the use of electricity, burning with acid, sexual assault and humiliation, the pulling of fingernails, and mock execution", is rife, according to a July Human Rights Watch report.

"Assad uses the metaphor of being a surgeon, saying if he must cut off a few limbs to save a patient, he will do it," says Harris. "A person with these kinds of personality traits is unfit to run a country of 20 million people, or any country."

For Harris, demanding accountability for war crimes may be the only lever left to reduce the violence. "Bombing bakeries, sarin gas, targeting schools, hospitals and media centres ... all this has elicited a pathetically inadequate response from the international community that has airbrushed these crimes out of history," he says.

However, the opposition matches Assad for ferocity and has morphed into a hard-line Sunni Islamist movement in which secular fighters are few and far between.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, full of at least 10,000 foreign extremists adhering to Takfiri ideology under the control of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Iraq and a Chechen by the name of Abu Umar al-Shishani - beheads its opposition. Sharia law is being implemented in rebel-occupied areas, with public floggings now routine.

Then there is the grainy footage of Abu Sakkar, from the rebel Farouk Brigades, eating a soldier's liver; the photograph of 14-year-old Mohammed Katta, bloodied flesh and mangled teeth where his mouth used to be before a Nusra Front extremist shot him in front of his family for "insulting" the prophet.

"It [the jihadist presence] has crippled the opposition," says Harris. "These people's brains are fried. But we have to ask, does the regime have a finger in with these groups?"

• New Zealand journalist Glen Johnson writes for the Herald on Sunday from Africa and the Middle East.

- Herald on Sunday

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