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American pot, meet Russian kettle

February 29, 2012

Mohammed Said Najaf, 90, mourns his nephew Ghassan Ali, 40, who was killed during clashes yesterday. -Photo by AP

Last December Syria’s embattled President, Bashar al-Assad, in an interview with Barbra Walters, coolly denied any responsibility for the atrocities that were being committed against its people.

They are not my forces, they are military forces belonging to the government,” he said. “I don't own them. I am president. I don't own the country, so they are not my forces.

Yet the pictures have told a different story.

The graphic images of the 13-year-old boy Hamza, who was tortured and mutilated to death last May, were enough to warrant an international outcry alone.

A little less than a year later, mourners are burying their dead in the cover of darkness, for fear of being killed themselves.

Armed with tanks and rockets, the rebels’ guns are no match for the regime’s forces. They have targeted the city’s makeshift clinics where witness have said the floor is slick with blood. And yet, the violence has only fueled the resolve among Syrians to bring down an oppressive regime that they’ve endured for decades.

So far the world has just watched. A vote on Feb 4, in the UN Security Council, condemning Assad, and calling on him to step down, was defeated thanks to vetoes from Russia and China.

The Arab League’s hasty mission ended in bickering. Division has eviscerated international co-operation just when the turmoil whipped up by the Arab spring makes it essential.

Russia’s continued support of Assad in particular, has provoked a chorus of outrage from across the political spectrum in the US as almost everyone has been falling over themselves to denounce Russian intransigence in increasingly hysterical terms.

Critics of Russia’s policy on Syria have ample justification. Russia’s continued support of Syria’s bloodstained regime is not only atrocious but seemingly pointless because it’s hard to see Assad’s regime hang on to power longer than a few more months.

But the reality is that Russia has significant long-term geopolitical interests in Syria, sizable weapons contracts and the presence of a naval base.

Those who are now loudly demanding that the US do something in Syria, and who are using Russia’s support for Syria as proof positive for Russia’s inherent danger, have been largely silent in the case of a brutal and lethal crackdown on a popular protest movement in another Middle Eastern country — Bahrain.

In symmetry that seems almost too fitting, much like Syria’s relationship with Russia, Bahrain is a significant customer of American weapons and hosts an American naval base.

Sure, the crackdown in Bahrain hasn’t been as brutal as Syria’s, but is there really an allowed amount of killing that a regime can get away with? Security forces in Bahrain have killed dozens of protesters, several of them tortured to death — particularly abhorrent was the regime’s targeting of hospitals treating the wounded.

The Bahraini government has made a big show of “reform,” and, a-la our own Pakistani government, has commissioned a “report” to look into the matter, though admitting that “mistakes were made.”

The truth is that the US is far better positioned to influence Bahrain than it is to influence Syria. Bahrain is a close ally and dependent on the US and has long relied on American weaponry and American support to guard its security.

Syria, on the other hand, has never enjoyed a particularly constructive relationship with the US for decades. So while the presence of the Fifth Fleet gives the US an enormous amount of leverage over Bahrain, the levers it has at its disposal with Syria are virtually non-existent.

The double standard adopted by the American foreign policy establishment reeks of the kind of hypocrisy and hubris that the US has become known for. And the Russians, in particular, are not amused.

American platitudes about “democracy” are palpably disingenuous given that one of America’s closest regional allies, Saudi Arabia, is often alleged to be one of the most brutally repressive regimes around, and the US has repeatedly shielded other allies, including Bahrain, from any consequences for actions that, when committed in unfriendly countries, have been cited as causes for war.

I’ll admit that some degree of hypocrisy is probably inevitable in the execution of foreign policy where strategic interests are paramount. But the Russians are being vilified for doing something — shielding a nasty regional ally — that the US does every day.

The brazen hypocrisy of American foreign policy is rendering moot any political leverage it may have with countries around the world, especially in the Middle East.

That in itself should give Americans pause. Meanwhile, the world is watching as Syria burns.


The writer is a reporter at