The latest Wikileaks document from American diplomatic files may not embarrass the US government nearly as much as it might the Assad regime in Syria. In February 2006, enraged Muslims took to the streets of Damascus in protest over the publication of editorial cartoons that depicted Mohammed, and put the Danish and Norwegian embassies to the torch. The newly-released document relayed intelligence back to Washington that not only had the Assad regime condoned the attacks on the embassies, they purposefully incited the riots — and cracked down when the wrong embassy was in danger of attack (via Islam in Europe):
1. (C) Summary: An influential Sunni sheikh provided details February 6 that seem to confirm SARG [State Dept acronym meaning Syrian Arab Republic Government — Ed] involvement in escalating the situation that led to the violent rioting in Damascus two days earlier, including communications between the PMs office and the Grand Mufti. He also noted that SARG authorities now seem intent on identifying a few scapegoats to be blamed for the incidents. The Danish Ambassador confirmed to us separately that the Minster of the Awqaaf had inflamed the situation the day before the rioting, with his remarks at Friday prayers in a mosque. End Summary.
2. (C) xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx one of the most influential Sunni religious figures in Damascus, provided PolChief February 6 with his assessment of SARG involvement in the run-up to the violent February 4 demonstrations (and its reaction in their aftermath). He noted that PM Naji al-Otri several days before the demonstrations instructed the Grand Mufti Sheikh Hassoun to issue a strongly worded directive to the imams delivering Friday sermons in the mosques of Damascus, without setting any ceilings on the type of language to be used. Hasson complied with the order. (Note: Several Muslim contacts have confirmed that sermons based on these instructions were delivered, criticizing the publishing of the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, and condemning the actions of the Danish, Norwegian, and French governments. An Egyptian diplomat reported that the sermon he heard was critical but not inciteful.)
3. (C) PM Otri also instructed Hassoun and Minister of the Awqaf Ayoubi that if diplomatic representatives from the Danish and Norwegian Embassies attempted to deliver apologies to them and to seek their assistance in defusing the situation, they were to take a hard line and insist that the only way forward was for the PMs of the two countries to issue official apologies.
At one point, however, the rioters got a little out of control and headed for the French embassy. Rather than stand around and do nothing, as the security forces of the police state did with the Danish and Norwegian embassies, the Assad regime made it clear to the rioters that they needed to leave the French out of it:
6. (C) After the Danish Embassy was attacked (along with the Swedish and Chilean missions housed in the same building) and the Norwegian Embassy was torched, Syrian security officers acted much more resolutely to prevent damage at the French Embassy. Sheikh xxxxx friend Ayoubi, the Minister of the Awqaaf, was on the scene trying to calm the demonstrators and get them to disperse. Ayoubi told xxxxxxx that the senior Syrian security officer then informed him “Thats it. Tell them to disperse or we will use live ammunition” to stop the rioting and to prevent them from storming the Embassy.
After the burnings and rioting had continued long enough for the point to be made, Assad put an end to it — but only after the intended messages were received, loud and clear. The message for domestic consumption was significantly different than what Assad wanted the US and other Western nations to learn from the riots:
7. (C) xxxxxxx assessed that the SARG allowed the rioting to continue for an extended period and then, when it felt that “the message had been delivered,” it reacted with serious threats of force to stop it. He described the message to the U.S. and the broader international community as follows: “This is what you will have if we allow true democracy and allow Islamists to rule.” To the Islamic street all over the region, the message was that the SARG is protecting the dignity of Islam, and that the SARG is allowing Muslims freedom on the streets of Damascus they are not allowed on the streets of Cairo, Amman, or Tunis.
None of this should surprise anyone; I wrote at the time that the riot looked like “well-planned spontaneity,” and that organization was evident in both the preparation and the surprisingly quick dispersal of “rioters.” The role of imams in the Friday sermons has also been well known, and most people assumed that the government gave at least tacit approval to incitement of the rioters.
Now it appears that they ordered it — and picked the targets themselves, at least according to the intel collected by the US intelligence and diplomatic services at the time. That is a different kettle of fish. Although it’s beyond unlikely that the Danes and Norwegians would do anything about it, an attack on an embassy is an act of war, especially if directed by the host government. If nothing else, that should force a reconsideration of the Assad regime and its role in the Middle East, perhaps especially by benighted American politicians who travel there for photo ops.
Assad certainly succeeded on one level. His message about the inability of Arabs to handle democracy has been absorbed by the West, which has curtailed its pro-democracy push in the region considerably since that time. The real lesson, though, is that dictatorships can call up informal storm troopers at the drop of a hat, and that perhaps democracy is the best bulwark against mindless radicalism after all.
Update: I forgot to hat-tip Islam in Europe for the story; my apologies.