Really, it was only a matter of time before Syria would draw the comparison

With public unrest sweeping across Britain, Syria’s U.N. envoy, Bashar Jaafari, scurried to the microphone outside the Security Council chamber, where Syria’s bloody crackdown on mostly unarmed protesters was being debated, to ask why everybody was picking on the Syrian government. “This is hypocrisy; this is arrogance,” he said, objecting to a diplomatic campaign by ...

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LONDON - UNITED KINGDOM - AUGUST 11: Metropolitan Police officers prepare to carry out a raid on a property on the Churchill Gardens estate in Pimlico during Operation Woodstock on August 11, 2011 in London, England. Over 1,000 people have been arrested since the rioting began on Saturday and Police have started to raid properties across the capital as they round up people suspected of involvement in the rioting and recover stolen property. (Photo by Anthony Devlin - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

With public unrest sweeping across Britain, Syria's U.N. envoy, Bashar Jaafari, scurried to the microphone outside the Security Council chamber, where Syria's bloody crackdown on mostly unarmed protesters was being debated, to ask why everybody was picking on the Syrian government.

"This is hypocrisy; this is arrogance," he said, objecting to a diplomatic campaign by the United States and European powers to ratchet up public pressure on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to rein in its security forces. "It's very indicative and informative to hear the prime minister of England describe the riots and rioters in England by using the term ‘gangs,' while they don't allow us to use the same term for the armed groups and the terrorist groups in my country."

With public unrest sweeping across Britain, Syria’s U.N. envoy, Bashar Jaafari, scurried to the microphone outside the Security Council chamber, where Syria’s bloody crackdown on mostly unarmed protesters was being debated, to ask why everybody was picking on the Syrian government.

“This is hypocrisy; this is arrogance,” he said, objecting to a diplomatic campaign by the United States and European powers to ratchet up public pressure on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to rein in its security forces. “It’s very indicative and informative to hear the prime minister of England describe the riots and rioters in England by using the term ‘gangs,’ while they don’t allow us to use the same term for the armed groups and the terrorist groups in my country.”

Jaafari said Western governments’ description of events in Syria were designed to “mislead you,” noting that the regime has committed to enact sweeping political reforms and participate in far-reaching negotiation with the opposition about the future of the country.

The Syrian envoy noted that Western diplomats rarely mention the hundreds of Syrian security forces (he claimed more than 500) that have died in the unrest as a sign of their apparent ill will. The claim of hundreds of Syrian soldiers and police killed has served as a basis for several Security Council members, including Brazil and India, to portray the situation in Syria as a struggle between armed camps. 

He also insisted that Assad — whose family has ruled Syria since 1970, when his father, Hafez al-Assad, came to power in a bloodless coup — is a democratically elected leader.

“The Syrian government is a legitimate one,” he said. “Our president is democratically elected — equal to Sarkozy, Obama and the German chancellor.”

Britain’s deputy U.N. envoy, Philip Parham, slapped back at what he called his colleague’s “frankly absurd comparisons” between the situation in Syria and Britain, where the police shooting of a 29-year-old-man apparently triggered days of violence and widespread looting and destruction of property.

“In the United Kingdom, you have a situation where the government is taking measured, proportionate, legal, transparent steps to insure the rule of law for its citizens,” he said. “In Syria, you have a situation where thousands of unarmed civilians are being attacked and many of them killed. That comparison made by the Syrian ambassador is ludicrous.”

The first difference one notices is that British media, joined by a massive force of foreign journalists, have been documenting the unrest in Britain, offering an on-the-ground view of clashes between police (who have employed non-lethal methods) and rioters. In Syria, the government has imposed a media blackout during its crackdown on anti-government protesters, while army troops have  opened fire on protesters, killing more than 2,000.

In a closed-door briefing to the Security Council, a top U.N. official, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, expressed frustration that a government blackout on U.N. and media access to Syria’s restive cities has complicated efforts to gain a “fully comprehensive and accurate picture of developments on the ground.”

Taranco said that Syria has provided the United Nations with documents and video footage showing “acts of brutality against both civilians and security forces,” but that it cannot verify the claims independently without access to the crisis areas, according to the confidential briefing notes, which were leaked to Turtle Bay.

Still, the United Nations has been able to document the fact that Syria has used heavy artillery, militias, and tanks in attacks on several cities, including Hama, Deir Az-Zor, and Homs. It has also carried out mass arrests of civilians and cut off basic services, including water, electricity, and telephone and Internet service to targeted towns.

“While calling for dialogue and committing to reform, the Syrian authorities have continued to repress these protest through violent military action, undermining the credibility and implementation of the announced reforms,” the briefing notes read.

Taranco also addressed Syria’s claims that armed protesters have killed hundreds of security forces. While citing “some reports” of armed conflicts between government security forces and armed opposition elements, he noted that not all official deaths can be attributed to the opposition. “Security forces, backed by civilian pro-government militia, are reported to have shot from behind soldiers who refused to shoot at civilians,” he said. 

Taranco described an atmosphere where the level of violence and popular unrest varies by location. In Homs, he said, witnesses cited a combination of “peaceful protest in some areas and violent clashes with security forces in others.” The outskirts of Damascus, meanwhile, “have witnessed an increased number of protests as well as confrontation with security and military forces, which resulted in a number of deaths and injuries.”

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which is carrying out an investigation into crimes in Syria, has gathered “numerous accounts attesting to the excessive use of force by Syrian security force against civilians,” Taranco told the council.

“The most egregious accounts concern the use of live ammunition against unarmed civilians, including from snipers positioned on rooftops, and the deployment of tanks and other heavy weaponry in areas densely populated by civilians,” he said.

“Accounts obtained from military personnel who defected suggest and apparent ‘shoot to kill’ policy.”

In Britain, the police have been authorized to use rubber bullets–but they still haven’t used them.

The more you learn, the less it sounds like England.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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