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Cartoonist Bruce Petty asks Dr Jeremy Salt: Has Bashar al-Assad killed more people than ISIS? and similar questions

Bruce Petty is a highly regarded political satirist and cartoonist as well as an award-winning film maker. He went to Syria in 2009 (before the war) on a project to interview Syrian intellectuals and university students about their political views. Dr Jeremy Salt is a former journalist, turned academic and is the author of The Unmaking of the Middle East. A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands, (University of California Press, 2008). Until recently, Dr Salt was based in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey, where he ran courses in the history of the modern Middle East, in politics and in politics, propaganda and the media. The story behind this series: On 16 November 2015 a small group of concerned Australian citizens got together to talk about the problems of getting real information out to Australians and other US-NATO allies about war in Syria, in spite of mainstream press efforts to confuse the public. Bruce Petty and Jeremy Salt were part of that group. Inside is the transcript of the embedded video. (There are two other videos in this series: "Cartoonist Bruce Petty and Dr Jeremy Salt: Where news comes from: reporting on the Middle East." and "Does Bashar al-Assad really have to go? Cartoonist Bruce Petty talks to Dr Jeremy Salt")

Transcript below with headings inserted by editor

JEREMY SALT: One of the claims is that Bashar al-Assad has killed in his political position more people than have been killed by Islamic state.

Well, who's saying these things? Bashar al-Assad hasn't killed anyone in his life as far as I know. He himself. But that's the way the media loves to do this.

BRUCE PETTY: He's representing the army.

JEREMY SALT: But how do they actually work out their calculus? Who is killing who and the numbers that are being killed by each person involved in this. There's no way they can do it. And so it becomes just a simple propaganda statement.

And the fact is that Syria has been targeted in what is the most extraordinary attempt in modern history to destroy an Arab state. That's it. It's worse than Iraq, worse than Lebanon, worse than anything that's happened before. Go all the way back to Algeria and 1830 with the French. It is the most relentless, remorse[less] attack on an Arab country in modern history.

And the fact is that Bashar, is the president - right - and he has a functioning government. I don't know what these people who use these expressions like 'dictator' are thinking. He has a foreign minister, he has an interior minister, he has a defence minister. He listens to them. He takes their advice. They're the ones who know. And they formulate strategies to try to fight off this attack. And they've been doing this for four years.

Civilian casualties

Now, of course, of course people are going to be killed. And civilians are going to be killed too. If you've got armed men who've infiltrated towns and cities, how can you get them out without civilians being killed? And there's a big difference between killing civilians, when you're trying to drive these people out, than what ISIS does, which is to pick them all up, round them up, and kill them by the hundreds. Because they don't like them - because they're Alawis, or because they're Christians, or whatever ... So, this is a war.

Is Syria an Alawite state?

Proportion of Sunni muslims in army and government

One point to make, first, is the Gulf Arabs, Saudi Arabia in particular, and Sheikh Qaradawi and his cell mates or soul mates, perpetually say that this [Syria] is an Alawite state.

Well, excuse me, the Syrian government is multi-ethnic; it includes Christians, Sunni Muslims, Alawis, across the range. Who's got the talent gets into the ministry.

The Syrian army is more than 80 per cent Sunni Muslim. More than 80 per cent of foot soldiers are Sunni Muslim. The Alawis constitute about 10 per cent of the population of the country. So, what are these Sunni Muslims doing holding together? Because the army has held together. The media tried to drum up defections in the early stages - 'Oh, all these people are defecting!' There were hardly any. The army has just been rock-solid through this whole attack.
So, what are the Sunni Muslims doing? Well, they're not acting as Sunni Muslims, of course, they're acting as Syrians. And they're defending their country. And large numbers of them have died. Roughly about 60,000. Probably more. Out of the 200,000 or so we are told - who have been killed. So, that's one of the things that the media doesn't like to talk about.

Unelected, hated dictator?

Bashar al-Assad is popular and elected.

The second thing is that Bashar is popular. People like him. They might be critical of the system. They might not like the system. They might think the system should be replaced. They like Bashar. And this has been the case from the very very beginning. Something else that the media very rarely acknowledges.

Electoral reforms under Bashar al-Assad

Bashar al-Assad is popular and legally elected.

Third thing is that Bashar, over the last few years, has made very important steps in reforming Syria's constitution. Okay? They had a constitutional referendum. They changed the constitution. They took the Ba'ath party, removed it as a central pillar of state, they introduced a multi-party system, they had multi-party elections, they had observers from ... thirty countries observing those elections. They all said they were perfectly fair, perfectly free, and an overwhelming majority - this is for the presidential elections (they had parliamentary plus presidential) - voted for Bashar.

Mainstream media facilitates war by hiding the facts from the public

Now, all these things Syria has done, are completely ignored or dismissed out of hand in the western media. Because it doesn't suit them. It doesn't suit them. The main point here, of course, this whole rhetoric about, you know,' we have to give the Syrians democracy, and we have to kind of give Syrians a transition to democracy' - was all nonsense. Because it was not the point at all. The whole point was to destroy Syria, and to divide destroyed Syria up, in particular. And to destroy Syria, that's what you have to do.

So, you know, the readers of the media, the print media, the viewers of television, are gulled and being played upon. And this is what happens in every war. This is what governments do, you know. They dehumanise, they invalidate; they set people up as worthy of being destroyed.

BRUCE PETTY: We don't want complicated issues. We don't want complicated events.

JEREMY SALT: Of course, if Australia ever got to the point where they were going to send troops to Syria, it's all set up. 'Oh, we have to - our boys have to go and fight and get rid of the dictator. And give the Syrian people democracy. They just fall into it.

What about the chemical weapons?

’Red lines’.

BRUCE PETTY: The other claim is he had used chemical weapons on his own people. Is that true?

JEREMY SALT: Well, as far as I'm concerned, no. [inaudible] And before the big chemical weapons attack, apparently, round Damascus in 2013, there had been many many smaller episodes of chemical weapons being used. And one - where was it? In northern Syria - and I forget the person who it was - UN person - who concluded that, no, this wasn't the Syrian government.

VOICE OFF-SCENE: "Carlo Ponti."

JEREMY SALT: Was it Carlo Ponti? Right. And, when you come to the big one, round Damascus, well, we know what was behind that. Barack Obama has said that the use of chemical weapons - implicitly by the Syrian government - is a 'red line'.

Now, if chemical weapons had been used by someone else, probably there wouldn't have been a red line, but, implicitly, the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government is a red line; [if] that red line's crossed, we'll be in there. That is a signal to outside elements. All we have to do is set it up to get him across the red line. So some of these earlier attacks had been set up for that reason.

And they didn't work. 'Okay, we have to try harder.'

So you get the big chemical weapons attack around Damascus - apparently - in August 2013, where sarin gas was used and there have been many many allegations that this came from Turkey and a large number of people killed - 1300 we were told by the media. Are those figures correct? We don't know what the truth is behind these chemical weapons attacks. We don't know much about it at all, because the media picked it up, used it - 'Look what he's done! This beast, this monster, this tyrant, is now using chemical weapons against his own people.' And they used it as propaganda, then they dropped the whole thing.

Then we saw pictures of children who had been killed. Who were those children? They were just kind of 'faces'. In a photograph. On television or in the media. And they were used for a few days and then dismissed. We never heard about them again.

Mainstream media did not try to identify the children in the photos, but a Syrian nun did

So ... and... a lot of people go into this, like Mother Agnes, the Syrian nun. I mean, she did the work the journalists should have done. She looked at the photographs and said, "Hang on, wait a moment, that photograph's taken here; and that photograph is taken there: and they've got the same people in it. And allegations that some of those children we saw actually come from Latakia, which is a heavily Alawi population. And the Takfiri [...inaudible] would have no hesitation in killing Alawi children. It might seem a terribly harsh thing to say, but that's them. That's what they're like. So, there are all kinds of questions to be asked about that chemical weapons attack which the media didn't even look at.

MIT scientific study of purported gas attack

And then we had more thoughtful studies, like scientists in America at MIT. They studied the trajectory of the rocket - where they would have had to have come from. No way, they couldn't have come from Syrian military positions. We had one person who came on television, a victim of a sarin gas attack, and whose report was that - I forget who got involved in all of this, but there was no sarin anywhere else in the environment. There was nothing on the grass, nothing on the [inaudible]; just this man saying, 'I've been a victim of a sarin gas attack.' And so the whole thing unraveled.

Mainstream media refused to publish contrary evidence

And Seymour Hirsh, the gun American reporter since Vietnam, he weighed in with his report, which the New Yorker would not publish, London Review of Books published. And he pulled a lot of this together.

And the conclusion that he came to was that Obama nearly fell into this trap and retreated just at the last moment because he'd been told by his own people, 'Actually, there's something about this that is not right. We're being set up. don't get involved here.'

Gas attack – if real - came from outside, not from Syrian military

And what Seymour Hirsch - the only conclusion in his article was that this had nothing to do with the Syrian military or the Syrian government. It was an attack by armed groups - if it was a real attack - with the support of outside governments.


If Middle East strongmen Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were still in this world, it would have been a better place, because what came instead is much worse, US presidential candidate Donald Trump said.

Both Hussein and Gaddafi were dictatorial leaders who ruled with a strong hand. Hussein was ousted by a US-led coalition that acted with no mandate on a pretext that he had a clandestine program of weapons of mass destruction. The accusation was later proven to be false. He was tried and executed by the post-invasion authorities.

World would be a better place with Saddam, Gaddafi still in power – Trump (26/10/15) | RT

So was the "regime-change" theory of the war wrong from the start, or is it still possible that the theory was right and the execution incompetent?

Trump mentioned the countries in comparison to current efforts to drive Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of power.

"You can make the case, if you look at Libya, look at what we did there, it's a mess," Trump said on NBC.

Middle East would be more stable if Saddam, Gaddafi still in power: Trump (4/10/15) | Reuters

Trump said last week Assad might be replaced by someone worse if he were ousted.

According to the findings of a recent survey by local rights NGOs, women were treated better during the Saddam Hussein era – and their rights were more respected – than they are now. According to the survey, women's basic rights under the Hussein regime were guaranteed in the constitution and – more importantly – respected, with women often occupying important government positions.

What Iraq needs is a strong leader, a man who can keep a violent, bloodthirsty argumentative Iraqi population all under total control. Iraq has always been violent, that's how Iraqis are.

Anonymous, paraphrasing Donald Trump, wrote above:

"Assad might be replaced by someone worse if he were ousted." (my emphasis)

It's unfortunate that so many lies about Syria and its President Bashar al-Assad are being parroted by otherwise informative and well-meaning people.

In fact, far from being a ruthless dictator – or worse – as he has been portrayed by the pro-war mainstream media – and even some people opposed to war including Donald Trump – since March 2011, Bashar al-Assad, for a national leader who has led his country through such a terrible and bloody conflict, is surprisingly humane, compassionate and good-humoured.

Also, he seems to have an intellect that towers well above that of any of the world leaders opposed to him.

This can be seen in the large number of interviews President al-Assad has given in recent years, including the 27 minute interview with the BBC of 9 Feb 2015, embedded below. Other recent examples include:

President al-Assad to Chinese PHOENIX TV Channel ... From the very first day, we were determined to fight terrorism (22/11/15) | SANA

President al-Assad to the Italian TV Channel RAI UNO: ISIS has no incubator in Syria…Terrorists are main obstacle in front of any political progress (19/11/15) | SANA

Three earlier examples, republished on candobetter, include:

Interview: Syrias President Bashar al-Assad: "The West has no Desire to Combat Terrorism"; channels money and arms to terrorists (31/3/15) with embeded video – previously published (6/3/15) on Global Research.

Swedish Expressen Newspaper interviews President Bashar Al-Assad 17 April 2015 (18/4/15)

Syrian President al-Assad interviewed by CBS News (10/9/13)

Syria conflict: BBC exclusive interview with President Bashar al-Assad (FULL)


I suppose the mainstream media keeps Bashar -al- Assad hidden from view because to hear what he has to say would contradict the image of him they wish to create.

The following was posted to a discussion on It is now 'awaiting moderation'.

Ikonoclast wrote on December 8th, 2015 at 08:03

I know we disagree about Bashar al-Assad because we have disagreed about him in the past.

Could you please explain again your views about the Syrian President? I cannot recall what you wrote about President Bashar al-Assad and I couldn't find anything you had written about him. The discussions about Syria on that I could find are:

Monday Message Board (7/12/15), Monday Message Board (9/9/15), Monday Message Board (24/8/15), Sandpit (26/10/14), Yesterday's enemies, today's allies ... and tomorrow? (7/10/14)

It seems to me that the Syrian President could well be the most unjustly demonised political leader in all history and those 'journalists' and politicians who continue to push the narrative that he is a murderous tyrant are ignorant and lazy at best.

What other political leader has been so closely scrutinised by all the world's newsmedia including CBS's 60 Minutes on 10 September 2013? Only last month he was again interviewed by an Italian TV station and by the Chinese Phoenix TV station. If he really were the monster claimed by the mainstream media and by the likes of Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in November 2015:

Interviewer: ... has described Assad as a butcher. Is that how you would classify him, and is that why he has to be removed?

Malcolm Turnbull: Well, he's killed - he's been responsible for killing many, many thousands of his of his citizens. So, the many people have described him as a butcher. I think he has been a murderous tyrant. There is doubt about that.

The calculation is this. There is a lot of opposition. Obviously there is a very deep enmity, as I've said the other day, towards Assad and his regime by many people - perhaps most people in Syria. Well, it's hard to tell. There's obviously, there's deep enmity towards him by other players in the Middle East - the Sunni, you know the Sunni majority states. His supporters, of course Iran and Russia. I think the reality however is that the approach has to be a pragmatic one, and whatever combination of players that are able to achieve the settlement - that includes groups inside Syria, with the exception of Daesh, who as I say, have no interest in settlement and nobody has any interest in a settlement with them, but there is going to be a need to be very pragmatic about it.

If you look at the other countries that are close to the scene and, that is, certainly what neighbouring countries are talking about, now. A more pragmatic approach and I think that David Cameron spoke for the room in [Antalia?] when he said the negotiations had to be approached in a spirit of pragmatism and compromise.

The fundamental problem is that there is a war there that is going on there that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, is still killing thousands of people and there are 4 million plus refugees - two and a half million of them, or thereabouts, in Turkey alone. So this is a humanitarian catastrophe of extraordinary scale. It's said to be the worst since the Second World war and I have no reason to doubt that. So a resolution is absolutely critical.

... and by 'Opposition' leader Bill Shorten:

Bill Shorten: I do not believe that long term peace in Syria can be guaranteed while Assad the butcher remains in control. Now I understand that in transition arrangements, some compromises may have to be made in the short term.

Well, what I am completely convinced of, is that if Assad was to remain in charge of Syria, then there is no prospect for any stability and peace for the millions of people who live in Syria and there's very little chance of the millions of Syrian refugees wanting to return to Syria whilst Assad remains in control.

... Bashar al-Assad would surely have been torn to shreds more than once in these interviews recent years. Yet in each interview the Syrian President stood his ground, confronting all allegations made against him and refuting them.

This is to be posted to

Ikonoclast wrote on December 8th, 2015 at 08:03

I know we disagree about Bashar al-Assad because we have disagreed about him in the past.

My response, which seems to have vanished after 'awaiting moderation' has also been published on my own web-site,, as The most unjustly demonised national leader in history?.

Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten, by labelling the Syrian President a 'butcher' and a 'murderous tyrant' have revealed to us that they are uninformed - whether wilfully or otherwise - at best.

Bashar al-Assad, far more than either Turnbull or Shorten ever has been, has been scrutinised by the global newsmedia, including, as an example, in a marathon 56 minute interview by 60 Minutes on 10 Sep 2013. This is far scrutiny has been subject to in recent years. (Only the Russian President Vladimir Putin has come even close.)

In my view Bashar al-Assad came out of all of those interviews look very good. Had there been any truth in the claims by Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull that would not have been possible. I have yet to see either of those two be subject to that kind of scrutiny.

Like Labor Prime Minister John Curtin and President Franklin Roosevelt during the Second World War has so far, succeeded in defending his country against foreign aggression. Given the ferocity and ruthlessness of the invaders - armed and paid for by the United States, the United Kingdom, the dictatorships of Saudi Arabia and Qatar and others, the trials endured by the Syrian President surely surpass even those trials. Certainly, the Syrian President, unlike either Turnbull or Shorten, will be be left standing alongside the likes of Roosevelt and Curtin by future historians.

Professor John Quiggin, who posts to and maintains web-site, is a Social Democrat and avowed opponent of economic neoliberalism.

As with with every Australian blog of which I am aware, articles about overseas conflicts such as Syria, Yemen, Libya, Ukraine, Afghanistan, etc, in which thousands, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands have died are never published on

This is in spite of John Quiggin's labeling his web-site as "Commentary on Australian and world events from a social-democratic perspective". (my emphasis)

Nevertheless, on pages labeled "Monday Message" and "Sandpit", I and other site users have, from time to time, published comments and engaged in debate about these conflicts.

This happened until on 20 Dec 2015, when, without warning, John Quiggin deleted a comment I posted about Syria with the message:

Please, nothing more in support of Assad. I don't intend to debate this topic. Anything further will lead to a permanent ban – JQ

So, contrary to what is stated at the top of "Monday Message Boards", that visitors can "post comments on any topic", John Quiggin from that day on, forbade discussion about the Syrian conflict where possibly as many as 250,000 Syrians including 80,000 members of the Syrian armed forces have died since March 2011. This is no better than censorship. To advise site users that they can "post comments on any topic" is clearly misleading.

Fortunately, the comment I posted was previously posted above on, so it has not been lost.

What you can do: Could I suggest that if you share my concerns about this instance of censorship, that you post your objection to and elsewhere on the web. Be sure also to post copies of your comments here.

My apologies for this 5 month delay in advising other candobetter users of my above concerns.