What’s truly terrible isn’t what these pictures actually contain, but the cynical way they are being used to manipulate Americans.
The ongoing dark comedy that is the civil war in Syria took a turn for the surreal on Wednesday as CNN and The Guardian released an ‘exclusive’ story alleging that the government run by Bashar al-Assad has detained and tortured thousands of dissidents and opponents. It was, said quoted experts, major evidence that indicated the regime was guilty of some the most horrible war crimes imaginable. But Americans should be wary of seeing such evidence as any kind of justification for additional U.S. intervention into that country’s civil war.
First, a quick run through of the documents and pictures provided by a Syrian defector – purportedly a former military police photographer who defected at the outset of the conflict – reveals a horror show of human pain and misery. They show the results of starvation, strangulation, beatings and worse forms of torture in full, living color. The images cry out for someone, hopefully someone with a heavily-armed army and air force to spare, to step in and do justice to Assad’s victims.
While the images are likely genuine in that they show tortured people, the source of the material is more questionable and has a definite agenda. That’s because, as the Christian Science Monitor reports, it appears they have been provided by an opposition movement funded in no small part by Qatar – a nation that, along with the other Gulf states, has a vested interest in seeing Iran’s main regional ally – Assad – go down in flames. Although this should not make us discount the pictures out of hand, it nonetheless raises some red flags.
One of which is the relatively poorly documented nature of the torture dossier. It is sourced from a single individual and, like with other so-called sources that have gotten the U.S. into trouble – the infamous ‘Curveball’ comes to mind – it is difficult to determine just what, exactly we are seeing. Broken and starving bodies, for sure, but as the CSM points out, there is little in the way of accompanying documentation to say definitively what happened to each individual, where those individuals came from, or where they may be found now.
Moreover, closer inspection of the file shows that rather than there being proof that “11,000” individuals have been tortured by Assad, the actual photos available for inspection seem to show only 843. This is still a terrible number, but far less compelling than the headline number that has been bandied about in the media. Given the amount of violence in Syria at present, 843 sounds like a rather tepid number and is less than the number allegedly gassed by Assad last September. A compelling justification for war it certainly is not.
What’s more, the torture dossier and the descriptive report accompanying it have, reports the CSM, not been produced by a reputable human-rights organization with experience and credibility in handling claims of torture and abuse. Rather, it has been issued by a London-based public-relations outfit that has attached the names of a few prominent war-crimes prosecutors to its report. Given, as noted below, that the images were known about since at least last November, the fly-by-night treatment the documentation has received before publication is more than a little suspicious. All this suggests that the dossier may have been ‘sexed up’ for propaganda purposes by those eager to see an outraged Western public further condemn Assad.
Second, why any allegations of torture by Assad should be news to anyone – including the U.S. – is mystifying. That the Assad regime engages in torture goes without saying. Indeed, that was one of the charming characteristics of the regime that recommended it to Washington when the U.S. government outsourced the ‘enhanced interrogation’ of suspected terrorists to Damascus’ truncheon and electrode-wielding goons in the years after 9/11. It can only be without a sense of irony, then, that U.S. officials were reputedly shocked and horrified by the images of torture contained in the Qatar-funded, sexed-up report.
Perhaps that’s because they saw someone they recognized. Just ask, for instance, Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen who was waylaid by U.S. security during a layover at J.F.K. International Airport in New York City in September 2002. After detaining Arar for two weeks without allowing him to see a lawyer, Uncle Sam subsequently deported him not to Canada – which was the citizenship listed on his passport – but to Syria, where he was tortured for nearly a year before he was released to Canada by the Syrian government after the Syrians determined he was not, in fact, a terrorist – a fact subsequently confirmed by the Canadian government.
So that Damascus tortures people is nothing new. That very fact was a ‘feature,’ not a ‘bug’ of the system in place there, or so it must have seemed from Washington’s perspective for much of the last decade. After all, Assad’s thugs could openly do what the CIA had to do clandestinely and at great expense so as to keep hidden from Congress, the media, and the American people. Much easier, then, to let Syria’s secret police do the dirty work that Washington didn’t want to do itself. Syria had a comparative advantage in torture, so to speak, and a good free-trader like Uncle Sam knows a bargain when he sees it.
This fact, like Arar’s legal case against the U.S. government, has since been lost down the memory hole and today, a decade later, the evil, no-good torturers in Damascus are no longer on Washington’s go-to list for outsourced torture. No, today the Syrians find themselves in the crosshairs and their country on the frontline of a broader Sunni-Shi’ite cold war being fought between the Gulf States and Iran. Naturally Washington, which is closely aligned with the Sunni Gulf despots and Israel – which hates Iran for its own reasons, has come down hard on its onetime partner in the dark art of enhanced interrogation.
That Washington’s tut-tutting over torture comes about now is also more than a little suspicious. A report by the New York Times, for instance, indicates that the State Department knew as far back as November of last year that these ghastly pictures existed. If they are as horrible an indicator of the character of the Syrian regime as Secretary John Kerry seems to believe, why were they not released earlier? Perhaps because just two months prior, in September, the U.S. public let it be known that it was overwhelmingly opposed to U.S. intervention in Syria’s civil war, and the release of such photos would have done little to sway the country toward intervention given that alleged chemical weapons use by the regime against civilians did little to stir up the desire to do so.
Their release now, however, just prior to the beginning of peace talks between the Assad government and its various armed opponents stands to once again remind the world of Assad’s odious nature. This is especially important since the public image of the armed opposition has taken a beating of late with the revelation that it has mostly fallen under the sway of Gulf-funded Salafists every bit as evil as the Assad regime itself. Indeed, if reports can be believed, torture, summary executions, and other hallmarks of Middle-Eastern despotism have become depressingly common in those areas of Syria controlled by regime opponents.
The pictures released this week, then, are not so much a moral argument against Assad so much as a propaganda cudgel that allows Washington and its allies to sanctimoniously condemn Damascus for similar crimes that they themselves have committed. They are poker chips fashioned out of human suffering and thrown into a pot by a U.S. that is attempting to bluff concessions out of a weakened Assad or acceptance by war-weary Americans that stepped-up assistance to the Syrian rebels or even outright military action against Damascus might be soon warranted.
Thus what’s truly terrible about these pictures is not what they actually contain, but the cynical way in which they are being used to manipulate Americans into supporting yet another half-baked, no doubt ill-fated Middle Eastern adventure against their stated will and self-interest. Rather than serving as a grim warning of what we can expect, these images of torture are instead being used by hawks at home and our cynical regional allies as a marketing ploy aimed at engineering an outcome the Gulf’s Sunni despots can live with. Syria’s tortured dead deserve better than to be used as a prop by the region’s duplicitous actors – and so do we.