The road to Damascus


The road to Damascus (1)

The Star, commenting on the proposed Syrian arms deal, argued that 'of course selling weapons to Syria is immoral; but then so is America's support of Israel, a country that stands accused of human rights violations similar to those of its neighbour'. The same sort of equation was made by ANC spokesmen, including Thabo Mbeki, who talked of re-balancing our attitudes towards the Middle East, ending the 'apartheid policy' of favouring Israel.

This makes peculiar reading given that our attitude is now supposed to be based on the human rights records of the various countries. Israel, though it is a functioning democracy with regular elections, a vocal opposition and a free press, certainly has its faults. But what of Syria?

Under Assay, all laws are made by the President and his circle of advisers, with his Ba'ath party guaranteed a majority however people vote. The regime uses arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention without trial and does not allow freedom of speech, the press or of association. There is no opposition: when the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of El Hama challenged the regime in 1982 Assad destroyed much of the city with artillery fire and then sent in the army to carry out the mass execution of 20 000 people. Some 800 000 fled the country in terror.

There is strong racial discrimination against the Kurdish minority - 120 000 Kurds have been deprived of their nationality in much the same way blacks were in apartheid South Africa. There is systematic torture in detention with methods including electrical torture, the insertion of objects into the rectum, beatings of prisoners suspended from the ceiling, and the use of a specially made chair which bends the prisoner backwards to asphyxiate him/her or fracture their spine. Many detainees have been held incommunicado for years, some have simply disappeared, and there is no provision for fair trial or redress for false arrest.

The regime exercises a strict censorship - many journalists are in prison and forbidden subjects specifically include the government's human rights record. The government owns all newspapers and threatens to confiscate all satellite dishes.

Jews are barred from government employment on racial grounds and the authorities prosecute anyone found trying to emigrate. Workers' rights are suppressed: only govern mentally sponsored unions may exist and strikers are detained. No local human rights groups are allowed to exist and the government refuses to co-operate with the Red Cross or Amnesty.

There is strong legal discrimination against women. The Greek government recently revealed that Syria is sheltering Alois Brunner, the world's most wanted Nazi war criminal. Greece wants to try Brunner, a senior SS officer, for the deportation and murder of 130 000 Greek Jews.

There is little doubt that the arms whose sale was proposed by the Asmal Committee, would be used for killing Jews, dissidents and/or Kurds. Those who would have us believe that human rights considerations were carefully considered and delicately balanced face the problem that the more they argue their case, the more one wonders if they would recognise a human rights consideration even if it came up and bit them in the leg.

The road to Damascus (2}

The attempted Syrian arms deal has many interesting aspects besides its sheer lunacy. One is the light it sheds on South Africa's difficult future as an arms exporter. It must be remembered that Armscor prospered only because of the huge investment in defence in the apartheid era and because it was willing to do polecat deals for other outcasts [arms to Iran and Iraq via Turkey etc].

With defence spending [and thus domestic orders) now way down, the country's only hope of staying in the arms export game is by even more polecat deals. Hence the attempted exports to Rwanda and Syria.

The government's claim that a number of other European and American concerns were trying to sell the Syrians tank-sights should not be taken too seriously. In the old days the USSR would have filled all Syria's needs and the obvious supplier after that is France, which sees the Levant as its natural sphere of influence and anyway has a Gaullist president who would enjoy discomfiting the Americans. If either of these countries had been willing or able to sell them tank-sights, the Syrians would certainly have clinched the deal. The fact is that South Africa is a supplier of last resort and only had the tank-sights to sell because it had copied United States-Israeli technology.

And there lies the rub. In the early 1980s the United States developed the F-20 Tigershark, an all-purpose supersonic fighter with low maintenance and low cost, targeted at Third World buyers. It was a good plane but it didn't sell: as soon as Third World countries realised that it was also low-tech compared to the F-14s, F-1 Ss and F-18s the United States was flying itself, they wanted nothing less for themselves.

For, whether one is talking tanks or planes, what matters today is not the hardware but the electronics. This was vividly illustrated in the Falklands war where Argentina's faster and more heavily armed Mysteres and Super Etendards were no match for the slower British Harriers with their VIFF [Vector in Forward Flight] ability, their better avionics and better ECM and ECCM [electronic counter-measures and counter-counter measures].

This sort of high-tech wizardry is increasingly beyond the reach of Armscor/Denel: in effect, the South African arms industry is a rapidly wasting asset. Even if the Asmal Committee, in line with its sell-to-polecats strategy, decides to cut deals with Pol Pot, the Chinese triads or the Russian mafia, it is increasingly going to find that these demanding customers want higher tech weaponry than we can provide.