The Daily Telegraph is an odd duck. Loathsome in almost every respect — from its nutball, feudal lord owners to its repulsive politics — from time to time it will suddenly print a piece of reportage that undercuts the prevailing propaganda narratives of the Anglosphere’s oh-so-very-free press.
For example, in the midst of America’s disastrous occupation of Iraq in the last decade, the Telegraph — pro-war Thatcherite Tory to the bone — published a remarkably in-depth story detailing the murderous “dirty war” being fought by the US/UK security apparat in Iraq: death squads, torture, arming extremists, deliberately sewing sectarian division, etc. What’s more, the paper traced a clear line of the UK side of the scheme back to the very similar black ops that helped keep Northern Ireland in deadly ferment for so many years. (For more on the story and other revelations of the programme, see "Ulster on the Eurphrates: The Anglo-American Dirty War in Iraq.")
I don’t know what prompts these sudden spasms of truth-telling in such an odious rag — probably moves in some game in the bowels of the Deep State, one faction of apparatchiks trying to undercut another. But they’ve done it again this week, albeit on a smaller scale than the Iraq dirty war piece, with a story by Peter Oborne, reporting from Damascus, where, as he notes, a diverse, secular regime (repressive to be sure, but much less repressive than, say, Saudi Arabia, and far more religiously diverse than, say, Egypt — or even Israel) is being torn apart by monomaniacal extremists backed with money, weapons, bombs and gear from the West. A few excerpts:
… On Palm Sunday, I went to the Old City and walked up Straight Street, following the route taken by St Paul after he had been blinded (Kokab, the scene of his Damascene conversion, is now in rebel hands). At the Greek Catholic church, I watched ceremonies of breathtaking beauty – in precincts that had been struck twice in the past week, though happily causing no injuries. On the way back, I passed a man looking dazed next to his ruined car. A mortar had struck it just a few minutes earlier. When I picked up the shell casing, it was still warm.
… People here see their country as being threatened by foreign powers (above all Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, all backed by the West) who are sponsoring the jihadist groups that make up the opposition. I was struck by the fact that this argument is not made only by the Alawite coterie around the president. I also heard it from Sunni Muslims, Christians and members of the various other cultural and religious groups that abound in Syria.
How can this square with the Western narrative that President Assad’s government, with the aid of a handful of tribal followers, is hell-bent on the destruction of the rest of the country? Consider the facts. Only a handful of members of Assad’s 30-strong cabinet (I was told two) are Alawite. The prime minister is Sunni, as are the interior minister, the justice minister, the foreign minister, even the defence minister. The delegation that travelled to Geneva for the failed peace talks several months ago was also almost entirely composed of Sunni Muslims (though they would probably reject sectarian terms, and prefer to think of themselves just as Syrians).
Nor is it merely the political class that thinks in this way. Last night I had dinner with a young doctor. He showed me a Facebook exchange that he had recently had with a former friend from medical school, who has joined the extremist opposition group al-Nusra. The doctor had put out a public status aimed at all jihadists asking them: “Please stop shooting at us with your mortars.” He was astonished to receive a reply from his friend: “I will put a bullet in your heads.” My doctor friend messaged him back: “I am not afraid of you.” This was followed by a horrifying response. “We love death, we drink blood. Our president is dead bodies. Wait for our exploding cars to kill you.”
… [A shopkeeper] walked me along an alleyway to his home and pointed to a destroyed balcony where his mother had liked to sit. Two months ago, she had been resting there as usual when she was killed by a direct hit from a mortar. “Your government,” he told me, “is the worst ever; they want Syria to be a democracy and ally themselves with Saudi Arabia, which has nothing to do with democracy.”
… I am well aware that the government has committed dreadful atrocities, though I suspect that some of the accounts have been exaggerated. Nevertheless, I do think the words of my shopkeeper friend are worth pondering. If the insurgents who killed his mother win the war, there will be no Christian churches in Syria any more (just as there aren’t in Saudi Arabia at the moment). Life will be similarly terrible for many of the ordinary Muslims who make up the great majority of the population.
There are no “good guys” in Syria’s civil war. But we should not be blind to the fact that there is a project out there to destroy its rich, pluralist and unbelievably intricate culture and replace it with a monochrome version of Wahhabi Islam, of the kind favoured by Saudi mullahs. And for reasons that history may come to judge very severely, Britain, the United States, and the West have been aiding and abetting this project.