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The West must quit the theatrics and tell the truth on Syria

Foreign Minister Bob Carr expelled two Syrian diplomats on 29 May, 2012. AAP/Lukas Coch

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr announced that Australia will lead the way in expelling Syrian diplomats in response to the Al Houla massacre.

These theatrics are just another act in the shadow play over Syria.

Western governments and Arab world allies declaim violence and at the same time support financial and logistical aid to an increasingly violent armed opposition, not all of whom are Syrian.

We call for a ceasefire and push for military intervention without any intention of following through on either.

The intentional killing of more than 100 civilians in Al Houla, including women and children, is as shocking and frightening to Syrians as it is to Australians. But it is not a new development.

Armed gangs and militia, including the Free Army, have been abducting, extorting, and murdering citizens, destroying energy and water utilities, and robbing, vandalising and torching private properties for many months.

Suicide bombings in Aleppo and Damascus have caused carnage recently, with terrible loss of life on 10 May in particular.

In March, the murder of women, children and elderly men in Karm Al Zaytoun was a chilling precursor to Al Houla.

Many Syrians say the presence of the UN special envoy and monitoring mission, who are a ready audience for opposition propaganda, has sparked an escalation in such acts of terror.

The Syrian President continues to call for foreign financing, arming and abetting of militias to cease, and Kofi Annan continues to invoke the fragile ceasefire with such unequivocal statements as “This message of peace is not only for the government, but for everyone with a gun.”

Both Kofi Anan and Head of the UN monitoring team Major General Robert Mood reserve judgement on the perpetrators of the Al Houla massacre.

The “mainstream” armed opposition and agitators outside Syria blame militia aligned with the government. Within Syria there is much more conjecture.

UN Observers in the city of Mera, northern Syria. EPA/Vedat Xhymshiti

UN monitors report evidence of Syrian government involvement through spent tank shells, yet a spokesman for the UN High Commission on Human Rights claims that fewer than 20 of the 108 killings can be attributed to artillery and tank fire. The rest were executed at close range.

While no-one will yet confirm who did this, word on the street says it is an act of retribution by militia. But which militia? And retribution for what?

Apart from the criminal gangs, opportunists, and the criminally insane now operating without restraint in Syria, there are “thugs” who have been active in suppressing political agitation for decades. Known as the Shabbiha, this network of men loyal to a “big man”, with all the criminal activity that this can entail, are brutal.

The Shabbiha’s alliance with the Syrian government may not be formalised but the conditions that allow them to operate are created by this government. Therefore the government bears responsibility for their actions.

The Syrian government has sworn to make those responsible accountable, and well they might. Like other Arab governments the Syrians now find that control of “the street” by a de facto security force is not only unpredictable but a liability.

Meanwhile the armed opposition (as opposed to the peaceful pro-democracy movement in its various forms) comprises not only the Free Army but also Al Qaeda and Sunni jihadist “brigades”. They are united only in their shared distaste for Syria’s secularism. Their appetite for a Sunni Islamist government is patently clear.

To this end the Free Army intimidated and barred Syrians from voting in the Constitutional Referendum. Despite this, a new multiparty system was heralded in Syria - surely cause for universal celebration and yet unremarked by “Arab Spring” enthusiasts.

The armed opposition boycotted Parliamentary elections held on May 7 across Syria and now denounce new Parliamentary members as government loyalists.

By their logic, every Syrian who accepts political enfranchisement is a government loyalist. Many speculate that this belief is motivating such shocking actions as Al Houla’s massacre.

When the BBC ran a 2003 photograph from Iraq to depict this Syrian massacre the slaughtered became double victims.

In a propaganda war of breathtaking proportions, and after more than a year of civil unrest, the Assad-led government has yet to fall.

The President’s broad, but by no means absolute, Alawi clan support has not achieved this alone. Syrian government Ministers and Parliamentary members are men and women of Shia, Sunni, and Christian backgrounds. The President’s wife is a Sunni. Syria is a secular state.

By these factors all-out sectarian civil war is being held at bay. But how long can Syria hold out against the onslaught of external (economic) and internal (violent) pressures?

Insistence that these pressures remain legitimate clearly imperils children of the “wrong” sect, or of parents caught between peace and mayhem.

For the sake of all vulnerable Syrians, we must insist that the truth of the Al Houla massacre is told.

The Secretary General of the 57-member state Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) representing over 1.4 billion Muslims is leading the way. In a radical statement he calls on religious scholars to denounce these crimes and on OIC member states to reevaluate their positions.

Australia’s continued support for the armed opposition can only be read as acceptance of the opposition’s “higher purpose” - a Sunni Islamic state at all costs. Australian government theatrics over Syria must cease.

Our vindicated whistle blower on Iraq came out of Canberra. It’s time Australia had some truth on Syria.

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