Syria, the ‘Zio-American plot’, and Conflicts Forum

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.

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5 thoughts on “Syria, the ‘Zio-American plot’, and Conflicts Forum

  1. rosemerry

    I have never seen the site mentioned, and have not heard of Alistair Crooke for years, but I really think that a writeup in the Guardian these days (with the way they have treated Julian Assange and Wikileaks) is not much of a recommendation. The Green Revolution in Iran in 2009 was pounced upon by anti-Iranian commentators as representative of the country, but most polls conducted showed a much bigger support for Ahmedinajad than they wanted to admit. As for Syria, of course there is opposition and violence, including the murders of many military and police, but interference on all sides does not mean the outsiders are correct. Leftists supported the Libyan intervention (eg Juan Cole), and look at the situation now. The one intervention needed but not occurring is to stop the Zionist push to destroy any strong government, especially a secular one, in the MENA region, and the breakup of existing nations.

  2. Colm O' Toole

    This is a very complicated issue, as can be seen by the amount of people with normally the same politics and views who are so divided by this (and on Libya for most of last year). I wouldn’t single out the Conflicts Forum though, half the alternative media share the same view. Pepe Escobar (who called Syria and Libya the GCC counter-revolution), Sharmine Narwani who teaches Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford and blogs on the Huff Post, Moon of Alabama, not to mention the foreign ministry of Russia and probably the military in China (though China has been very quiet and diplomatic).

    I suppose it is best to admit that none of us know the full story or even half the story of what is going on. The propaganda and spin on all sides is huge. In that case probably the best reaction I’ve read is the Angry Arab who says he “hates both the Assad government and the Syrian Opposition”. That seems like a wise viewpoint. After all you didn’t have to like Saddam Hussein to oppose the American regime change campaign.It’s possible to both oppose Saddam and oppose the invasion to topple him.

    Finally to mention the headline “Zio-American plot” isn’t really accurate of the views. I would consider it to be mainly “a Saudi-Qatar plot” with America involved. I think Israel is very marginal. Saudi Arabia is providing the money through the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and the Saudi linked Syrian Observatory in London which is feeding the press as well as fighters likely from Iraq’s Sunnis that fled to Syria (2 Million Iraqi refugees). Qatar is using its links to the Libyan rebels and its ownership of Al Jazeera. I think the American role is they are just backing this plan.

    Also I think we can all agree that the fact that the collection of kings, tyrants and religious fanatics that is named the “Arab League” has been given the job of sending human rights monitors to Syria to look into the situation, is a sick joke.

  3. Lysander

    I would say that if someone with Mr Crooke’s experience in the intelligence business tells us that foreign agencies are helping to create an armed uprising, we should probably take it seriously, or at least under consideration.

    Let’s be Frank. Leaving aside Iran and Syria, the US has arranged “revolutions” in Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala, Nicaragua….and in Iran itself in 1953, and possibly in Syria in 1949. Many of these revolutions included an element of public protest.

    So even if you don’t believe that the US/UK are now trying to create or assist revolutions in MENA, you should at least consider it to be plausible that the US is doing something that it has done several times in the past.

    None of this is to suggest that Assad is a great guy, or that there is no legitimate indigenous movement. Only that the west will happily stick its paws into it for its own gain and to Syria’s detriment.

  4. dmaak112

    Wishing to use any and all accusations against Bashar al-Asad, even if out of context, the prevailing narrative would condemn the Syrian president for doing what most nations have done already. Counting only the rebels deaths and not those who support the regime is at the top. We invaded Iraq and Afghanistan in pursuit of terrorism. Based upon politicians’ rhetoric, we are still at war with terrorism–to the point of having our government murder US civilians without trial and placing suspects in indefinite detention. So much for a Constitution. Britain, France, Germany, Italy and others have used extreme force to destroy groups that oppose their policies. But, the narrative is about a terrible dictator (the worse according to Western media sources). If only Syria was more like Yemen or Bahrain or Saudi Arabia or Iraq or Afghanistan (the last two beneficiaries of our democratic invasion) or how about our most important trading partner China? Hypocrisy. Mr. al-Asad is correct that there is a foreign hand behind the explosion of violence. Enemies of old–relatives, disgruntled government officials, segments of Lebanon’s groups, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, NATO and its aid to rebel forces in Turkey and Jordan, as well as the old religious fanatics–have come together to topple the government. When Bashar is gone, the media will ignore the disintegration of Syria as quickly as we have disassociated ourselves from the fragmentation of Iraq.

  5. Godfree

    The US may not be much good at waging conventional wars, unless we credit its success in killing civilians but, when it comes to overthrowing governments, it is experienced and successful.
    It overthrew the government of a close, even slavish ally, Australia, without that country’s even noticing until after the event.
    All Western countries’ governments understand completely that their term in office will be quickly ended should they displease the USA.
    Why is it so difficult to understand that the US would use its abundant, unaccountable black funds to overthrow governments with independent policies and, even worse, oil? (Venezuela comes readily to mind.) Especially when it has readily accessible plans and policies to do so?

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