As armed rebels – “terrorists” in the eyes of the regime – tighten their grip on the country, at one stage holding 60 per cent of the land, government troops hit back, seizing control of the main roads and laying siege to major towns.
The ruthless dictator, supported by Russia, accuses foreign powers of assisting his rebel enemies. There are massacres by both sides. NGOs fear for the tens of thousands of civilians trapped amid the fighting, while Western powers threaten to strike at the dictator unless he abides by a humanitarian ceasefire.
Sound familiar? Of course. I’m describing Kosovo in 1998, the year before Nato launched its war against Slobodan Milosevic’s regime in Serbia.
The Kosovo Liberation Army – assisted and advised, as we now know, by the CIA – was threatening to seize all of Kosovo, the Serbian province in which Milosevic’s regime had long committed human rights abuses and ethnic murder against its Muslim majority. Milosovic accused Albania of sending weapons into Kosovo with the help of Western powers. All true.
The difference between then and now is that, in 1998, the Western powers were itching for a war with Serbia. Today, those same Western nations will do anything to avoid going to war with Syria.
For Albania, of course, read Turkey. For Milosevic, read Assad. For the KLA, read the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra or Isis or any of the other outfits which we either love or hate in Syria.
But it’s worth remembering how much the humiliation of Bosnia was driving the West to war in Serbia. And it’s not, I fear, by chance that a UN official (widely quoted and, as usual, anonymous) said this week: “Aleppo is the new Srebrenica.” Good soundbite; bad history.
Aleppo’s tragedy is unique and terrible and totally different from the massacre at Srebrenica, the Bosnian mass slaughter of more than 8,000 Muslims by Christian Serb militia in 1995 while Western UN troops watched and did nothing.
In Aleppo, Sunni Muslim militias are fighting largely Sunni Muslim soldiers of the Syrian army whose Alawite (Shia) leader is supported by Shia Muslim Hezbollah militiamen and Shia Muslim Iran. Only three years ago, the same Sunni militiamen were besieging the surrounded Syrian army western enclave of Aleppo and firing shells and mortars into the sector where hundreds of thousands of civilians lived under regime control.
Now the Syrian regime’s forces are surrounding the Sunni militiamen in the eastern enclave of Aleppo and firing shells and mortars – and dropping bombs and explosives – into the sector where hundreds of thousands of civilians live under rebel control. The first siege didn’t elicit many tears from the satellite channel lads and lassies. The second siege comes with oceans of tears.
For, since 2011, the West has been demanding the departure, overthrow or death of Bashar al-Assad, blaming him for 90 per cent or 95 per cent, or – the latest figure I’ve heard – 98 per cent of the 300,000 civil war deaths, or 350,000 deaths or – again, the latest figure I’ve heard – 400,000 deaths. And before you dismiss this as a cynical game of statistics, let me add that I suspect the real death toll may be more than 450,000.
But if the West is correct, then Assad’s forces have killed well over 400,000 of the dead – which is odd when the fatalities among the regime’s own army alone come to well over 60,000 – a military secret, but a real statistic which the regime does not wish to make public.
And if the West’s figures are correct, then the rebels – including the horrific Isis, whom we want to destroy, and the horrid Nusra whom we probably want to destroy, and the kindly Free Syrian Army and New Syrian Army and Syrian Democratic Forces, whom we like very much because they are Kalashnikov-toting “moderates”, who want to destroy Assad – have killed, at most, only a few thousand of the war’s victims.
This is absurd. There are no "good guys" among the Syrian warlords; yet still, despite all the evidence, we want to find them. At the same time, we can’t really work out who the "bad guys" are.
Of course, Isis – or the “so-called Islamic State” as the BBC likes to refer to them, for they are neither Islamic nor a state – must be liquidated. But the American supplied and reinforced Syrian Democratic Forces – which are never referred to as "so-called" by the BBC, even though they are neither a force (since they rely on US air power), nor democratic (since they are not elected), nor Syrian (because they are largely Kurdish) – must be supported.
Having thus divided the cult-like evildoers of Isis from the groupuscules of “moderates” – be they old Dave Cameron’s 70,000 ghost warriors or just CIA clones – we are having problems with the Nusrah-whoops-changed-our-name-to-Sham-and-no-longer-with-the-al-Qaeda chaps.
Because they hate Assad, but they also kill Christians, blow up churches, chop the heads off their enemies and do other rotten things which make it hard to like them, even though they are financed by Qatar – one of our wealthy "moderate" Arab Gulf allies – as opposed to Saudi Arabia, another of our wealthy "moderate" Gulf allies, which still unofficially supports the horrific Isis. And it’s the Nusra-Sham-no-longer-al-Qaeda rebels who are now besieged in Aleppo, along with 300,000 civilians.
Trouble is that our wealthy American allies – who may or may not be “moderate”, depending on who wins the presidential election – are going to have two candidates who will go all out over the next three months to demand once more the destruction of Bashar al-Assad.
We will not only be told all over again that his regime is responsible for almost the entire death toll of the Syrian civil war, but that he maintains the cruellest torture chambers in the world. Yet I promise you that the US presidential contenders won’t remind Americans that, until a few years ago, they were happily dispatching dark-skinned folk of the Muslim faith (including two Canadians) to endure the horrors of those very same torture chambers via a “security” agreement with the Syrian government. Rendition, I think it was called.
And the parallels with Kosovo? Well it’s Hollywood. A movie. A simple plot.
In 1998, we had to go to war to save the Muslims of Kosovo from the Hitler of Belgrade. In 2016, we are going to be urged to go to war with the Hitler of Damascus – although whom we are supposed to save this time is less clear. The Kurds? The armed “moderates”? The Syrian people – millions of whom now live outside Syria? Isis? Surely not the latter.
Or will we be saving Sunni Saudi Arabia and Sunni Qatar from disintegrating under the pressure of the war they have been stoking in their weary battle against the Shia of Iran and Lebanon and, yes, Iraq?
No, unlike 1998, we will not go to war for Syria. In Kosovo, we bombed from the air until Milosovic was told by Yeltsin’s Russia that he was on his own. But Putin’s Russia is not going to tell Assad he’s on his own.
And besides, we don’t have Nato armies waiting on the Syrian border to invade the country if Assad surrendered. We used to have the Turks. Remember them? Wasn’t Nato’s most powerful army just itching to move into Syria on our behalf? Not any more, it’s not. And we all know why.
We can also forget “red lines”. Both sides in Syria have, I suspect, used gas and we didn’t go to war, even though we put all the blame on the regime. But we didn’t go to war for the Kurds when Saddam gassed them in 1988 – it became one of the smaller excuses for the Blair-Bush invasion of Iraq 15 years later. And after suggesting the Russians have just dropped gas in Idlib province, you can be sure we’re not going to war with Moscow.
So amid the anguish of Syria’s people, let’s not offer more lies to the Arabs. We are not going to save Aleppo, even if the Assad regime forces the rebels there to surrender (as they did in Homs, with scarcely a whimper from us). And I don’t think we are going to destroy Assad – indeed for several months before the US elections reached their climax, the "Assad-must-go" routine mysteriously faded away.
Yes, it’s time we stopped lying to the people of the Middle East. And it’s time we stopped lying to ourselves.