Column: Syria and denial as a war strategy

Column: Syria and denial as a war strategy

Bashar al-Assad’s audacity knows no bounds. Last week, in an interview with AP news agency, he denied that his forces were besieging rebel-held areas of Syria’s eastern Aleppo.

“If there really is a siege around Aleppo, people would have been dead by now,” said Assad, expecting us to believe not only that there is no siege, but that no one there has died. This despite regime and Russian air strikes killing hundreds of civilians within days of the latest ceasefire collapsing, in what the United Nations describes as the most intense bombing of the city in years.

Assad questioned how his regime could “prevent food and medical aid from reaching that area”. The answer is in UN statements blaming the regime for obstructing aid deliveries to Aleppo – a fundamental element of the ceasefire agreement – and in the UN’swarning in July that the city is “on the brink of starvation”.

Denial of access

Besides denial of access, last week’s attack on UN aid lorries heading to rebel-held Aleppo – just hours after the regime proclaimed the end of the ceasefire, in an area where only Syrian and Russian warplanes operate, and which UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described as an “apparently deliberate attack” – led the UN to temporarily suspend all aid convoys.

“How could you accuse Syria of attacking hospitals?” Assad asked. Easily and credibly. An Amnesty International investigation this year found that regime and Russian forces were “deliberately attacking” hospitals and other medical facilities “as a strategy of war”, in “flagrant violation of international humanitarian law”.

Such attacks were also highlighted by Human Rights Watch last month. In the last week of July alone, the regime bombed six hospitals in Aleppo.

In June, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR)reported that since the start of the conflict, regime and allied forces were responsible for 90 percent of attacks on medical facilities (344 out of 382), and 93 percent of medical personal killings (703 out of 757).

PHR said the regime’s “assaults on Syria’s hospitals, doctors, and patients” are “a clear violation of the universally recognised principle of medical neutrality”.

Assad claimed that rebel-held parts of Aleppo “have everything” they need. Not water, Unicef said on Saturday, the results of which could be “catastrophic”.

Its deputy director said Aleppo “is slowly dying”, echoing the Red Cross’s assessment in July that “the situation is devastating and overwhelming”, and “the bombing is constant”.

War strategy

Denial is integral to the regime’s war strategy. Last year, Assad had the gall to tell the BBC that his forces did not use indiscriminate weapons, including barrel bombs, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

He also denied using chlorine gas, despite the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons reporting otherwise last month.

Never underestimate the power of denial. It is always easier and quicker to deny wrongdoing than to admit culpability or explain oneself. It stifles legitimate scrutiny in favour of a simplistic “yes or no” argument that is designed to confuse and deceive. This is what makes denial so appealing, and hence so prevalent in cases of injustice.

Denial is the default setting of the pro-Assad propaganda machine, as with other oppressive regimes. There are striking similarities in this respect, for example, between the Syrian regime and Israel.

According to Assad’s apologists, there was no peaceful, popular uprising against decades of dictatorship and repression, no brutal crackdown, no war crimes or crimes against humanity, and no opposition to the regime except from “terrorists”.

To them, it was a violent, jihadist insurgency from the start, fuelled by foreign agitators, against a benevolent, misunderstood leader whose only fault was defying the West and Israel.

None of this is true, but propaganda does not have to be – it just has to be effective, and if lies are told often enough they are eventually believed, even by those telling them.

As such, one can wonder whether Assad – like other human rights abusers who surround themselves with yes people – has become so detached from reality that he really believes his warped narrative.

Danger of denial

The danger of denial is that it is based on delusion or deceit. It only makes matters worse, shutting down debate and making common ground impossible. Accusations by respected human rights organisations are met with counter-accusations that they are biased and part of an international conspiracy. Ironically, those counter-accusations are made by people who have cited those organisations on other issues.

Last week, Ban accused the regime of killing the most civilians in the conflict, echoing his former human rights chief Navi Pillay, and Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, head of the UN commission investigating war crimes in Syria. However, this will fall on the deaf ears of those who claim, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the regime is defending Syrians.

Denial is fostered by impunity, in Israel’s case by its Western allies, and in Syria’s by the regime’s Eastern allies. As such, engaging in diplomacy with it is pointless, because a party drunk on its false self-righteousness feels no need to negotiate sincerely or concede anything significant.

That is why the regime has repeatedly violated every ceasefire, and insists that Assad’s fate – the crux of the conflict – is untouchable. It is why he has preceded both ceasefires this year with vows to retake the whole country, and followed their collapse with major onslaughts. As with Israel, the Assad regime engages in diplomacy as a fig leaf towards pacification, not peace.

Sharif NashashibiAl-Jazeera

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs