Alba, Caricom and Syria
In a Reuters report carried in this newspaper yesterday, it was said that the eight nations which make up Alba had praised President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria. “We are worried that the same process of interference that foreign powers applied in Libya will be repeated,” their statement read, going on to say, “We value the Syrian government’s steps in attending to the legitimate demands of those who have protested peacefully… and the program of reforms carried out, as well as its willingness to implement the peace plan of Kofi Annan.”
This statement was issued in the context of a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution condemning the Syrian government over the massacre at Houla. The 47-member Council based in Geneva voted overwhelmingly in favour of the resolution condemning the “outrageous use of force against the civilian population.” There were three countries which voted against it, including inevitably Russia and China, while two abstained and one was absent.
Alba’s babblings might not have been of too much interest under normal circumstances, were it not for the fact that the membership of that body now includes Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica and St Vincent and the Grenadines – all of them part of Caricom. Alba also numbers Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador among its members, but their stance is none too surprising given their ideological postures and the fact that President Hugo Chávez has already given not just vocal support to President Assad, but material support as well by shipping diesel to Syria. And the moving force behind Alba, of course, is Mr Chávez himself. Two Alba countries currently sit on the UN Human Rights Council, viz, Cuba and Ecuador, the former of which (unsurprisingly) voted against the resolution, while the latter abstained.
Reuters went on to quote the Alba statement as saying: “The resolution reflects the desire to interfere in Syria’s internal affairs, without contributing to dialogue nor to the search for peace.” The agency also reported the Alba bloc as condemning the Houla massacre and calling on all sides to cease the violence.
While such distorted perceptions are perturbing, in the case of the minuscule democracies of Caricom that have hitched their little carts to the Venezuelan racehorse, the motivation is quite clear: they have become totally economically dependent on Caracas, and now they must careen off in whichever direction they are pulled. Whatever else it is, it is hardly independence, and their association with the Alba statement makes nonsense of Caricom positions on democracy and the rule of law, etc, for which they have always professed support.
One must presume that there are some among their populations who are repelled by this public endorsement of the bloody repression of civilians by a despotic government, and that perhaps even certain of their more discerning government ministers might have the decency to be embarrassed by it; that, however, does not alter the fact that their association with the Alba statement has both tainted the three island nations which are signatories, and divorced them from the larger political Caricom frame of reference. As a consequence by implication a rift has been created within the organization, since now it is clear that when there is a contradiction in terms of underpinnings between Alba and Caricom, the former supersedes the latter as far as states which belong to both are concerned. If contradictions should also arise in the sphere of economic matters in a major way at some point, they could make the already lame Caricom project unviable.
As indicated above, the excuse for Alba’s repudiation of the UN discussions in Geneva was that it was a cover for interference in Syria’s internal affairs. This is despite the fact that the United States in particular, and the West in general are showing absolutely no appetite for military intervention in Syria, even although the Annan peace plan is in tatters. Syria is, in any case, a far more complicated situation than Libya, and unless the Free Syrian Army actually held a piece of territory as the Libyans did in the east of their country, military intervention would be highly problematical. This, however, is only one of the practical issues militating against direct foreign intervention, and there are many others, not to mention a host of political ones.
The second fig leaf which Alba is clutching on to, is an acceptance of the Syrian government position that the continuing violence against civilians is the work of “armed terrorist gangs” from the opposition. Hardly anyone except countries like Russia, China and Iran actually believes that (and it is highly likely that they don’t either, they just pretend to do so), and the UN Human Rights Council certainly did not. The BBC obtained satellite images of Syrian government dispositions at the time of the Houla massacre, which provide the geographical context, among other things, for what happened. The likelihood is, according to the BBC analysis of the images in addition to other information available to it, that Houla represented a revenge attack after Sunni rebels attacked a government checkpoint in the area. First the Syrian army softened up the target with an artillery barrage, and then the killings were carried out by a pro-government militia.
This pro-government militia (or militias) is critical to the Syrian government’s fig leaf. They are known as the Shabiha – an interesting detail from a Guyanese point of view is that the word is thought possibly to derive from the Arabic for ‘ghost’. Their origins go back to the port of Latakia in the 1970s, when they first emerged as a crime organization running protection rackets and engaging in drug and gun trafficking and the like, and then extended their tentacles along the Mediterranean coast. They were allowed to operate with few controls under Bashar al-Assad’s father, and although he tried to rein them in a bit in the 1990s, their activities were never completely suppressed.
In their latest incarnation various gangs turned out to assist Assad in the Latakia area when the protests first broke out last year. According to the BBC, residents said they joined soldiers from the army’s 4th Division, which is commanded by Assad’s younger brother, and attacked civilians. Normally dressed in black, they also act as snipers on the rooftops, and are associated with ‘executions’, drive-by killings and sectarian attacks. Nowadays, apparently, the Shabiha name has been expanded to apply to pro-government gangs all over the country, and not just those from the coast. They are armed by the military, move with the military, and as reported by witnesses at Houla, it is not unknown for some of them to wear military-style clothes.
The most important thing about them is that they are almost all drawn from the Shi’ite Alawite sect, the same group to which the Assad oligarchy belongs, and their attacks on civilians often take place – as in the case of Houla – in Sunni areas. Their importance to the regime lies in the fact that they allow it to distance itself from the killing of unarmed civilians, including many children, and say that the Syrian army – and by extension, the Syrian government – is not involved. They are certainly “terrorist gangs,” but they answer directly to Damascus.
In the light of events in Syria, it would be interesting to learn what the official Caricom position is in relation to events there – or are they avoiding the topic altogether, for obvious reasons? In fact, it would be interesting to know whether the Government of Guyana has a position on Syria – or is it waiting to find out if the Organization of the Islamic Conference has adopted a stance, considering we are now a member?