Even if true, The New York Times’ secret torture prison allegations hardly make Syria a rogue state

May 13, 2019

By Stephen Gowans

Reporter Anne Barnard has written a long piece in The New York Times titled Inside Syria’s Secret Torture Prisons: How Bashar al-Assad Crushed Dissent. The undoubted effect of the article—which accuses the Syrian government of running “a sprawling system of secret prisons” in which opponents of the Syrian state are maltreated, even raped and tortured—is to cast Syria as a rogue state operating outside the bounds of international norms.

It’s difficult to assess whether Barnard’s accusations are true. Exaggerated and even false atrocity stories are the norm in times of war, and the United States is unquestionably at war with Syria, and has been since the 1950s. This doesn’t mean that Barnard’s story is, ipso facto, false or exaggerated, only that it must be treated with scepticism appropriate to the context in which the story has been published, i.e., by a US newspaper, interlocked with the US state, reporting on an officially designated enemy.

Barnard relies on the work of an outfit called The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR). It is a civil society organization, likely reliant on funding from Western and allied governments and wealthy individuals. Judging by its partnership with The International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, the SNHR is part of the civil society apparatus of human rights imperialism, a movement which accepts a view, at odds with international norms, that Washington has a unilateral right—indeed, an obligation—to abridge the sovereignty of foreign states in response to major violations of human rights. In practice, the responsibility to protect movement gives license to the United States to intervene against whichever of Washington’s adversaries it can prepare a human rights case against, but never against its allies, many of which, by the US State Department’s own accounting, are major human rights violators. Expecting the United States—long a de jure white supremacist state, now a de facto one, which boasts the world’s greatest per capita incarceration rate, and which, until recently, ran a sprawling network of CIA secret torture prisons and continues to carry out targeted assassinations of political opponents—to act as the world’s champion of human rights, makes as much sense as asking Al Capone to protect banks from robbery.

All the same, the basic accusation levelled by Barnard and the SNHR—that the Syrian government jails its opponents—is beyond dispute. Imprisoning political opponents, especially during times of war, is hardly a departure from international norms. A fundamental characteristic of all states is to deny the freedom of state opponents who seek to organize the state’s demise.

It is also likely that some opponents of the Syrian government have been maltreated, even tortured, by state authorities. Maltreatment of prisoners appears to be an invariable characteristic of states, across time and place.

Barnard’s accusations do not demonstrate that Syria is a rogue state, or that it is in violation of international norms.

  • Syrian government actions toward its opponents, principally jihadists, including those belonging to, or affiliated with Al Qaeda, are not out of line with the accustomed practice of states facing existential emergencies.
  • Indeed, the United States itself ran a sprawling system of secret prisons, in which Al Qaeda and other jihadists were imprisoned and tortured, many to death.
  • Human rights issues including allegations of torture by security officials are hardly unique to Syria, but are typical of the United States’s closest allies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey.

The US State Department has long viewed Middle East oil as “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” [1] But in order to seize this prize, Washington has had to overcome an obstacle—the Arab and Persian peoples. The people of the Middle East have formed, or backed, what one State Department official called “local forces of independence and national assertiveness.” These forces have sought to control the great material prize of Middle East oil for their own development.  The Arab nationalist movement has been counted among local forces opposed to US control of the region’s resources, and Syria has been a principal state representative of the movement. Indeed, it remains the sole state representative today.

From the 1950s, Washington sought to undermine, degrade and eventually destroy Arab and Persian nationalist opposition to US control of the Middle East. In addition to intervening directly in Arab Asia, Washington has worked through three proxies to crush Arab nationalist opposition to US hegemony: the Muslim Brotherhood and its Sunni political Islamist offshoots, Israel, and local British-imposed Arab monarchies, which depend on US protection to survive. (As US president Donald Trump recently reminded Saudi King Salman: “King – we’re protecting you – you might not be there for two weeks without us.” [2])

Syria has been at war with Israel since 1948. The Jewish settler state currently occupies part the Syrian Golan. Israeli warplanes regularly bomb Syrian territory. Israel is immeasurably stronger militarily than Syria, largely owing to generous subsidies it receives from Washington. These subsidies are provided for the purpose of weakening local forces of independence and national assertiveness which resist US control of the Middle East.

Since the 1960s, Washington has worked with the Muslim Brotherhood to overthrow Arab nationalism in Damascus.  Recently, Israel armed, equipped, and healed, Islamist fighters operating in south Syria against the Arab nationalist government.

In 1979, the United States initiated a campaign of economic warfare against Syria, reacting to the Arab nationalist government’s alliance with the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which proclaimed its opposition to US domination of the Middle East. Washington escalated sanctions in 2003, as an alternative to a contemplated US military invasion, which was to follow the invasion of Iraq, but was abandoned when opposition in Iraq proved more vigorous than anticipated. US efforts to strangle Syria economically—to detonate an economic atom bomb (a metaphor alluding to the devastating human consequences of sanctions)—grew even more determined in 2011, as an accompaniment to an Islamist uprising Washington facilitated.

On top of Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan, one-third of Syria is now under US military occupation.

US efforts to crush Arab nationalist opposition to US control of the Middle East are explored in two of my books, Washington’s Long War on Syria and Israel, A Beachhead in the Middle East.

In the face of the high level of threat to the Arab nationalist project posed by the United States, Israel, and US-, Israeli-, Turkish-, and Saudi-backed jihadists, the Syrian government has two choices: allow opponents operating within its territory to freely organize the government’s demise (that is commit suicide), or abridge civil and political liberties in the face of an undoubted national emergency. As Lenin said when the Bolsheviks similarly faced determined opposition to their project, “We do not wish to do away with ourselves by suicide [by allowing our opponents to freely organize against us] and therefore will not do this.” [3] This is true of all governments.

During both the First and Second World Wars, the executive branches of the US and Canadian governments assumed dictatorial powers, limited civil and political liberties, and locked up political opponents and suspected or potential fifth columnists. Significantly, neither country faced a national emergency as severe as that faced by Syria today. Both countries were protected by two vast oceans from their enemies; neither was subjected to an economic blockade; neither faced an internal insurrection supported by enemy powers; and North America wasn’t under occupation by enemy forces. On the battlefield, US and Canadian soldiers maltreated and abused prisoners, engaged in unlawful killings, and resorted to torture.

Similarly, when Al Qaeda attacked New York and Washington in 2001, the US government escalated its police state powers, and launched the most extensive program of internal surveillance any country has ever carried out, and yet the threat posed to the United States by Al Qaeda paled in comparison to the damage the same organization has inflicted on Syria. What Al Qaeda did to the United States on one day, it did to Syria every day for years. In pursuit of its Al Qaeda foe, the CIA ran a sprawling network of secret prisons, in which jihadists were tortured. At the same time, the Pentagon ran a prison at Abu Ghraib, in which opponents of the US invasion were infamously abused. Jihadists of the same stripe the Syrians have locked up, were sent to a prison at Gauntanamo Bay, which operates outside the parameters of US law.

In its war against violent jihadism, the United States tortured to death more than 100 prisoners in a sprawling system of prisons. [4] US General Barry McCaffrey said, “We tortured people unmercifully. We probably murdered dozens of them during the course of that, both the armed forces and the CIA.” [5] And when, embarrassed by negative publicity, Washington abandoned its torture program, it replaced it with targeted assassinations by drone strikes, i.e., unlawful killings.

To the extent that Barnard’s and the SNHR’s allegations are true, the actions of Damascus are no different from those of Washington. Nor are they different from the actions of Washington’s closest allies in the Middle East.

Consider, for example, the actions of the Egyptian government in connection with the Muslim Brotherhood. What follows are excerpts from a January 25, 2019 Wall Street Journal article, “Eight years after Egypt’s uprising, a new autocrat is determined not to permit a sequel.”

Mr. Sisi’s government is restricting freedom of expression more than Mr. Mubarak ever did, jailing thousands of dissidents, expanding censorship of the media and banning key opposition parties.

Mr. Sisi , a former chief of the armed forces, came to power after the military ousted Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was the country’s largest opposition group under Mr. Mubarak.

Mr. Sisi soon began a lethal crackdown on political opponents. He has said that he wants to prevent a repeat of the 2011 uprising, arguing that his type of security state is the only alternative to the chaos gripping such Arab countries as Libya and Yemen. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have lauded Egypt’s regime as a bulwark against extremism in the Middle East.

Since the 2013 military coup, Mr. Sisi has given the country’s security forces a free hand to detain political opponents and snuff out dissent. Many activists and intellectuals associated with the 2011 revolt are in prison or exile. [6]

“Some 40,000 people have been arrested for opposition to the government since 2013,” according to The Wall Street Journal. “Hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood officials and their supporters have been sentenced to death, including Mr. Morsi.” [7]

Volumes could be written on the draconian lengths to which the Saudi government goes to repress the very strong opposition to its illegitimate rule, but a Wall Street Journal assessment sums up the situation succinctly: “Saudi Arabia remains one of the planet’s most repressive societies, where public practice of religions other than Islam is outlawed, where women can’t drive and where critics of the government face prison or execution.” [8] The following, from a recent New York Times article, offers only a hint of the kingdoms brutality:

On Tuesday, the official Saudi news agency announced that 37 men, nearly all from the minority Shiite Muslim community, had been executed on terrorism-related charges. Executions in Saudi Arabia are usually by beheading, often in public, and the Interior Ministry said one man was also crucified, something reserved for the most grievous crimes.

According to Human Rights Watch, 11 of the men were charged with spying for Iran and 14 in connection with protests during the Arab Spring of 2011. Some of the convictions were based on confessions that the men withdrew in court, saying they had been tortured. One of those beheaded was Mujtaba al-Sweikat, who was 17 and preparing to enter Western Michigan University when he was arrested in 2012 after attending a pro-democracy rally.

The most-heralded evidence of modernization under Prince Mohammed was his lifting of a ban on women driving. The very fact that there was such a ban is ridiculous, but a few weeks before it was ended, in May 2018, several women’s rights activists were rounded up — including women who had campaigned against the driving ban — and accused of crimes against the kingdom.

According to human rights organizations and their families, at least some of the women were tortured. The techniques included beatings, electric shocks, whipping and waterboarding. [9]

About Turkey, a US ally that borders Syria, and has been instrumental in facilitating the armed jihad against the Arab nationalist government in Damascus, we can note this: The government, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, immures 50,000 political opponents in a sprawling network of prisons, “including, by several counts, more than 170 journalists and over a dozen lawmakers.” Additionally, it has dismissed or suspended “more than 140,000 Turkish workers, including several thousand academics as well as tens of thousands of teachers, prosecutors and civil servants who were believed to be critical of Turkey’s authoritarian, religiously conservative government.” [10]

The United States State Department has this to say about the Kingdom of Jordan, another US ally:

Human rights issues included allegations of torture by security officials, including at least one death in custody; arbitrary arrest and detention, including of activists and journalists; infringements on citizens’ privacy rights; undue restrictions on free expression and the press, including criminalization of libel, censorship, and internet site blocking; restrictions on freedom of association and assembly; reports of refoulement of Syrian and Palestinian refugees to Syria without adjudication of whether they had a well-founded fear of persecution; allegations of corruption, including in the judiciary; “honor” killings of women; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; and conditions amounting to forced labor in some sectors.

Here’s the State Department report for the United Arab Emirates, a close US ally:

Human rights issues included allegations of torture in detention; arbitrary arrest and detention, including incommunicado detention, by government agents; political prisoners; government interference with privacy rights; undue restrictions on free expression and the press, including criminalization of libel, censorship, and internet site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; the inability of citizens to choose their government in free and fair elections; and criminalization of same sex sexual activity, although no cases were publicly reported during the year. The government did not permit workers to join independent unions and did not effectively prevent physical and sexual abuse of foreign domestic servants and other migrant workers.

Israel’s violations of the rights of Palestinian are too innumerable to mention, and are in a category of their own. The apartheid state’s treatment of the occupants of the open-air prison known as Gaza, to say nothing of its brutal treatment of other Palestinians, exceeds in cruelty Syria’s repression of internal opposition. There are 1.8 million people imprisoned in Gaza, far in excess of the number of people Barnard and the SNHR claim are locked up in Syrian prisons. Additionally, Israeli authorities jail, and in some cases assassinate, Palestinians who resist their ongoing and systematic oppression. They even shoot unarmed demonstrators. A recent independent investigation sponsored by the United Nations Human Rights Council found that Israeli security forces unlawfully killed almost 200 and wounded by gunfire over 9,000 Gaza residents last year who were peacefully protesting Israeli oppressions. More significantly, by itself, the settler colonialism on which Israel is founded as a state, is a gross violation of human rights.

Clearly, no matter how unpleasant the Syrian government’s crackdown on its opponents, the jailing and maltreatment of its opponents is by no means an indication that Syria is a rogue state operating outside the bounds of international norms. On the contrary, its actions are consistent with, if not more restrained relative to the existential threat it faces, than those of other states in the region, and with those of the United States itself.

With the able assistance of the interlocked US media, Washington has labored to make the world perceive the Syrian insurgency as the product of a vicious crackdown on pro-democracy dissent by a brutal dictator. Not only is this a misrepresentation (the insurgency is Islamist-inspired and what democratic content it had was meager at best), it is sheer hypocrisy and indicative of Washington’s lack of sincerity. Washington has no particular dislike for vicious crackdowns on pro-democracy dissent; its Arab clients—all of them anti-democratic kings, emirs, sultans, and military leaders—are doing precisely what U.S. officials accuse the Syrian government of doing, except in their case, Washington averts its gaze. “We give a free pass to governments which cooperate and ream the others as best as we can,” a U.S. official explained in a moment of candor. [11]

The Saudis, Turks, Egyptians, Jordanians, Emiratis, and Israelis cooperate with Washington in protecting US access to the stupendous strategic and material prize of Middle East oil; the Syrians do not. Accordingly, Washington’s regional allies get a free pass to crack down on dissent without restraint while the Syrian government is reamed, including by the US state-interlocked New York Times, for reacting to the eruption of jihadist violence in the same manner U.S. authorities reacted to jihadist violence from the same organization, Al Qaeda. What is clear is that the actions of the Syrian state are hardly unique, and are hardly unexpected in light of the national emergency it faces.

To be sure, the Syrian government might be admired as a moral paragon if it gave its opponents a free hand to organize its downfall, but the moral victory it would gain would come at the expense of an opportunity to build a society in the Middle East that is responsive to local needs, rather than to those of US investors bent on monopolizing the stupendous material prize of the region’s oil and a US government determined to control a stupendous strategic asset.

1] Quoted in Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians, (Pluto Press, 1999), 61.

2] “Patrick Cockburn, “How the disappearance of a journalist and a humiliating remark by Trump shows Saudi Arabia’s weakness,” The Independent, October 5, 2018.

3] “A Letter to G. Myasnikov,” Lenin’s Collected Works, 1st English Edition, vol. 32, (Progress Publishers, 1965), 504-509.

4] Seamus Milne, “Sending troops to protect dictators threaten all of us,” the Guardian, December 10, 2014.

5] Glenn Greenwald, “The suppressed fact: Deaths by US torture,” Salon.com, June 30, 2009.

6] Jared Malsin and Amira El-Fekki, “Eight years after Egypt’s uprising, a new autocrat is determined not to permit a sequel,” The Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2019.

7] Tamer El-Ghobashy, “Egypt moves to head off popular unrest,” The Wall Street Journal, January 21, 2016.

8] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Saudi claim to lead Muslims gets a Trump boost,” The Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2017.

9] “What price profit in Saudi Arabia?”, The New York Times, April 24, 2019.

10] Patrick Kingsley, “On the road with protesters marching across Turkey to condemn Erdogan’s purge,” The New York Times, July 2, 2017.

11] Craig Whitlock, “Niger rapidly emerging as a key U.S. partner,” The Washington Post, April 14, 2013.