The Killing Machine vs. Al Jazeera

For once, it wasn’t all about the Americans, the Europeans, or even Israel for that matter. Syria’s U.N. envoy, Bashar Jaafari, saved his bitterest barbs at the United Nations this week for his fellow Arabs, particularly Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, the architect of an increasingly assertive foreign policy that has helped topple ...

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

For once, it wasn't all about the Americans, the Europeans, or even Israel for that matter.

For once, it wasn’t all about the Americans, the Europeans, or even Israel for that matter.

Syria’s U.N. envoy, Bashar Jaafari, saved his bitterest barbs at the United Nations this week for his fellow Arabs, particularly Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, the architect of an increasingly assertive foreign policy that has helped topple a government in Libya and is now pressing for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Arab League secretary general, Nabil Elaraby, and the Qatari prime minister, who serves as the chairman of the league’s council of ministers, issued an appeal on Tuesday to the Security Council to support an Arab plan calling on Assad to yield power and make way for a new government of national unity. The Arab leaders, meanwhile, denounced the Syrian government as a murderous regime that had repeatedly defied Arab efforts to calm the violence in Syria.

Speaking before a congregation of top Western diplomats, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, Jaafari denounced the Qatari leader as an agent of the West whose betrayal of Syria, a fellow Arab and a former ally, marked an end of an era of Arab nationalism. 

"I would ask him before you: Is Qatar a member of NATO or a member of the Arab League?" Jaafari said to Shiekh Hamad, whose government armed rebels and contributed warplanes to the NATO air campaign in Libya. "How is it that Qatar has come to the aid of NATO in destroying Libya?"

The debate pitted Syria, the old guard of the Arab League, an ancient country that invented the alphabet, against Qatar, a nomadic upstart, which had hardly a place on the world stage before the discovery of massive oil wells. Jaafari derided the Gulf sheikdoms for their role in abetting the military aims of the British officer and adventurer, Lawrence of Arabia. Invoking the spirit of Arab nationalism, Jaafari recalled that as a schoolboy he and his classmates routinely dug into their piggy banks to lend to the cause of their oppressed brethren.

"We used to sing to the anthem of the Algerian revolution, instead of reciting the Syrian national anthem," he said. "We also used to give our pocket money to Arab liberation movements in Gulf [that were] struggling to be liberated from British colonialism."

The gauzy recollections of a united Arab past contrasted sharply with the portrait Elaraby and Sheikh Hamad painted of life in Syria under Assad’s rule. They appealed to the Security Council to support their diplomatic efforts to promote a political transition, arguing that the killing of thousands of civilians continues unabated.

"Our efforts and initiatives … have been useless because the Syrian government failed to make any sincere effort to cooperate," the Qatari official said. "And unfortunately, the only solution available to it was to kill its own people. The fact of the matter is that bloodshed continues and the killing machine is still at work."

"The crisis we are talking about started in absolutely peaceful demonstrations by unarmed civilians," he said.  "The important question to be asked at this stage is what would be the solution for a people being slaughtered. The Syrian government invokes the violence committed by armed groups. Could it not be that they are defending themselves after months of killing, detention, and torture?"

Jaafari challenged that portrayal, insisting that his government was besieged by local terrorist groups, backed by hostile foreign governments. And he mocked the Qatari’s new-found commitment to democratic governance in the Middle East. Some observers believe that Qatar’s commitment to democracy in Syria is driven by its interest in weakening its most powerful regional rival, Iran, a close supporter of Syria.

Comparing Assad’s current struggle to restore stability to that of liberation leaders like Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and George Washington, Jaafari said: "It is really strange these days … that some oligarchic states cosponsor draft resolutions promoting the alternation of power, the freedom of assembly, the promotion of democracy, and the protection and promotion of human rights."

And yet, he added, "those very states don’t even have a constitution, let alone a genuine electoral system." They "have only exercised democracy through satellite stations and fancy conference halls," he added, referring to the influential Doha-based new network, Al Jazeera. "Al Jazeera should cease to fan the flames."

The Qatari countered that he was proud that God had blessed his country with great oil wealth and that he had no shame in working on a just cause alongside his Western partners. He reminded Jaafari that Syria too had supported the Arab League’s decision to create a no-fly zone in Libya, and that Syria had joined forces with the Gulf states as part of a U.S.-led coalition that drove Iraq out of Kuwait.  "We all contributed to the liberation of Kuwait against the Iraqi invasion," he said.

Jaafari acknowledged that his government had confronted Saddam Hussein’s government, but insisted that Damascus had never physically invaded Iraq or Libya. "We never were involved in any conspiracy against any Arab country," he said. Meanwhile, he took aim at the Arab League saying that the Arab people would have preferred that the league had come to the U.N. Security Council to press for an end to "Israel’s occupation of occupied territories. How strange to see some members of the League of Arab States having decided to resort to the Security Council seeking support against Syria."

"Without Syria," he concluded, "there is no Arab League."

Follow me on twitter @columlynch

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

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