On its website (which I created) Conflicts Forum is referred to as “an international movement which engages with Islamist movements” — a partially correct but somewhat misleading statement.
Conflicts Forum does indeed engage Islamist movements — principally Hezbollah and Hamas. It does have an international element — evident in its advisory board. But by no stretch of the imagination can it accurately be described as an international movement.
It is an operation so small it can barely be described as an organization, let alone a movement. It serves first and foremost as an institutional identity for the former senior British intelligence officer, Alastair Crooke.
In his decades-long service for the British government, Crooke was deeply engaged with resistance movements across the globe, opening up vital dialogue leading to peace deals for which politicians and prime ministers would later eagerly take credit.
That work was prematurely cut short in 2003 because of pressure from an administration in Washington that refused to recognize that governments, however powerful, must sooner or later learn how to talk to their enemies.
Having been pushed out of his official role, Crooke attempted to continue what had become a personal mission through the creation of Conflicts Forum. The problem was: how much value can dialogue yield if only one side is willing to engage?
The outcome — perhaps inevitable — was that Conflicts Forum would be unable to effectively serve as a bridge between Islamists and Western governments and instead become an informal advocate for those movements and for the Middle Eastern governments whose backing they still enjoy.
In the summer of 2009 after Iranians from across the social spectrum took to the streets en masse to reject the outcome of the presidential election, Crooke rejected the idea that this was a “genuine popular uprising“; as for the significance of the unrest he said, somewhat dismissively: “plainly for some in north Tehran it was very real”.
Two and a half years later, Crooke and his partner Aisling Byrne are engaged in a similar effort to portray unrest in Syria, not as a popular uprising but instead as the result of America’s covert war against Iran for whom Syria remains a vital ally. The people on the streets are supposedly just pawns serving a neoconservative agenda: regime change in Damascus and Tehran.
The Guardian’s Brian Whitaker justifiably pours scorn on Conflict Forum’s conspiratorial missives and those on the left who have become Assad and Ahmadinejad’s useful idiots.
Denying the authenticity of the Syrian uprising is a central plank of the Assad regime’s propaganda message – that the whole thing, as the official news agency put it recently, is a "Zio-American" plot.
To anyone who has been following events in Syria closely since last March, the regime’s conspiracy claims are not only ridiculous but terribly insulting to the thousands of protesters who have risked (and often lost) their lives in the struggle against dictatorship. Even so, there’s a small chorus of westerners who seem to be echoing the Assad line.
“Arguably, the most important component in this struggle,” Aisling Byrne wrote in an article last week, “has been the deliberate construction of a largely false narrative that pits unarmed democracy demonstrators being killed in their hundreds and thousands as they protest peacefully against an oppressive, violent regime, a ‘killing machine’ led by the ‘monster’ Assad.”
Arguably, my foot. Information about the protests has sometimes been wrong – as always happens in conflicts, especially when media access is so severely restricted – but to suggest that this has led to a “largely false narrative” is utter nonsense.
Byrne’s article has been doing the rounds on the internet – Counterpunch, the Asia Times and Countercurrents – as well as being touted enthusiastically inside Syria by the Assad regime. Running to more than 4,700 words, it’s probably the fullest exposition yet of the grand international conspiracy theory.
Of course, it’s true lots of countries have been reacting to the uprising in Syria and some are certainly trying to influence the outcome. Given Syria’s strategic importance, that is to be expected. Reacting to events, though, is not the same as orchestrating things according to some pre-conceived plan – which is what the Assad regime claims is happening, and what Byrne also seems to imply:
“What we are seeing in Syria is a deliberate and calculated campaign to bring down the Assad government so as to replace it with a regime ‘more compatible’ with US interests in the region.
“The blueprint for this project is essentially a report produced by the neo-conservative Brookings Institute for regime change in Iran in 2009.”
There’s no harm in discussing or criticising what foreign powers may be up to with regard to Syria, even if Byrne draws some rather fanciful conclusions. Any attempts to prevent the Syrian people from making their own choices ought to be resisted, too. The overall effect of such articles, though, is to delegitimise the popular struggle – which is unfair to the protesters and also plays into the hands of the regime.
But what of the article’s author, Aisling Byrne? She is projects co-ordinator for the Conflicts Forum, based in Beirut. Its director is Alastair Crooke, a former British intelligence officer who until a few years ago was heavily involved in British and European diplomacy relating to Israel/Palestine. Among many other things, he took part in clandestine meetings with Hamas.
Crooke left his government job and founded the Conflicts Forum in 2004 “to open a new relationship between the west and the Muslim world”, mainly through promoting dialogue with Islamist movements – something that western governments have often been reluctant to do. Members of the forum’s advisory board include Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo detainee, and Azzam Tamimi, regarded as an unofficial voice for Hamas in Britain.
“While facing increasingly intractable problems in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan and elsewhere,” Conflicts Forum says on its website, “we [ie western governments] immobilise ourselves by turning away from the homegrown political forces that have the power to resolve these crises.”
Judging by Byrne’s article and another by Crooke himself in the Guardian last November, though, Conflicts Forum seems oddly reluctant to engage with the “homegrown political forces” in Syria.
There’s an inconsistency and selectivity here that is also apparent among sections of the more traditionalist left. Pro-western dictators like Ben Ali and Mubarak are considered fair game, but when it comes to toppling contrarian dictators like Gaddafi and Assad there’s lingering sympathy for them.
In Syria’s case this is further complicated by viewing the uprising through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For instance, a briefing paper on Conflicts Forum’s website examining Hizbullah’s continuing support for the Assad regime says:
“Just as Hizbullah viewed the 2009 protests in Iran as a ‘bid to destabilise the country’s Islamic regime’ by means of a US-orchestrated ‘velvet revolution’, the protests in Syria are branded a form of ‘collusion’ with outside powers who seek to replace Asad’s rule with ‘another regime similar to the moderate Arab regimes that are ready to sign any capitulation agreement with Israel’…
“Echoing Hizbullah’s stance on the Iran protests is Nasrallah’s characterisation of the US role in the Syrian uprising as an extension of the July War and the Gaza War. Since the resistance in Lebanon and Palestine had foiled the ‘New Middle East’ scheme in both these military aggressions, Washington was ‘trying to reintroduce [it] through other gates,’ such as Syria.
“With this in mind, attempts to overthrow the Assad regime are considered a ‘service’ to American and Israeli interests.”
Such views are not confined to Hizbullah, however. But how realistic are they? Many neocons hoped the invasion of Iraq would deliver a pro-Israel government there. It didn’t, and instead it strengthened Iran.
Tunisia is no more favourably disposed towards Israel than it was under Ben Ali. Nor is Libya. Nor is Egypt – if anything, less so. And a democratic Syria would still have the same territorial issues with Israel – the occupied Golan Heights, etc – that it has now. In any case Israel seems an odd reason for denying Syrians a chance to determine their own future.