Omar Dahi: External powers are manipulating the struggle, Jihadist forces are increasingly prominent, but most Syrians believe a settlement is not possible with Assad in power.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
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On January 6, President Assad of Syria gave a speech to his nation. Here are a few excerpts of what he had to say.
BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA (VO TRANSLATION): The terrorists and the takfiris, who have the thinking of al-Qaeda and call themselves jihadists, they came from everywhere. They lead the terrorist operations on the ground, and the armed figures or armed elements, they went to the backlines as people who assist in kidnappings and also sabotage.
If we chose a political solution from the beginning, this doesn’t mean that we don’t defend ourselves. And if we chose a political solution from the very beginning, this means that we need a partner.
Is this a confrontation over power? Or is it a confrontation between the nation and its enemies? Is it a confrontation over power? Or is it revenge against the people who didn’t give those terrorists and those killers the main say in order to divide Syria and divide our society? They are the enemy of the people, and the enemy of the people are the enemy of Allah, and the enemies of Allah will be in Hell on judgment day.
JAY: Now joining us to talk about Assad’s speech and the situation in Syria is Omar Dahi. He’s an assistant professor of economics at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He’s also editor at The Middle East Report. And he grew up in Syria.
Thanks very much for joining us, Omar.
OMAR DAHI, ASSISTANT ECONOMICS PROF., HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE: Thanks for having me.
JAY: So, first of all, what’s your reaction to Assad’s speech?
DAHI: Well, in general it was similar to many speeches that he gave before. He explored the same themes, that the country overall is under attack by terrorists internally and under attack by an international sort of conspiracy by the West aimed to destroy Syria because of its anti-Israel resistant position, more broadly its sort of anti-imperialist position.
It also in many ways was worse than previous speeches, in that in previous speeches he usually started off by saying that there were initially some demands, there were initially some peaceful demonstrations, but they turned violent. In this speech, he seemed to say that from the very beginning this was a plot and this was violent and these were terrorist acts and it was never an opposition versus a government, it was never a revolution, it was always a big plot against the nation.
He ended the speech with some things that people who were trying to look for hopeful signs saw [as] perhaps encouraging, saying that maybe there will be a process where there’s going to be a dialog, and then there is going to be perhaps a transition with a new constitution that’ll be voted on.
But in reality, most of those things in one way or another were in previous speeches. Overall, it was a negative speech, but not something unexpected, given the pattern of previous ones.
JAY: Well, what do you make of what he says? In the news reports, we see increasing reports that the resistance, actual fighters on the ground, seem to be al-Qaeda type jihadist fighters, and in the new government that met in Doha, the government in exile that the Americans and French and others have recognized, there seems to be this split with the people that are actually doing the fighting. I mean, how much of the fighting is jihadist-led now?
DAHI: Sure. In terms of what has changed—so I mentioned that from the very beginning the themes in the speeches were the same. But what has changed on the ground is that you’ve seen the rise to prominence of these fighting groups, many of which have—who can be broadly termed the Salafi, very conservative ideology in terms of their tactics. They seem to employ improvised explosive devices; they seem to employ attacks that do not necessarily avoid civilian targets.
And Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the most prominent one that is—you can consider it al-Qaeda type group in terms of fighting—is fairly prominent. It’s slightly two different questions how prominent it is in the overall numerical representation and how prominent it is in terms of the most success in terms of fighting the regime. I would say that the Salafi groups and the Jabhat al-Nusra in many areas in Syria have been the most prominent, and particularly in the northern areas.
But you’ve seen a very fluid and dynamic situation in Syria, where over the course of the battles in the past year these jihadi groups have grown in influence and have actually, even though some of them include fighters who came from outside of Syria—but I would say they were able to draw many people from inside Syria who felt that they were more serious, who were more skillful, who were more prepared to militarily fight the regime.
So I would say that in the past several months in particular, you’ve seen more and more the Free Syrian Army, even though it’s still active—and the Free Syrian Army was mainly made of defectors, former soldiers who took up weapons against the regime, or local people who took up arms. But in terms of overall ideology, there’s been more openly, explicitly Islamist ideology. In many ways it has represented itself in a very sectarian, anti-Shiite, anti-Alawite type discourse. So that trend is on the upswing. It’s hard to pin down the exact numbers, because it’s hard to really get a sense of what’s happening overall inside the country, but definitely their prominence is quite high at this point.
JAY: Now, Assad’s basic charge against the revolution from the very beginning is that it hasn’t really been popular-resistant, it’s been externally-manipulated small groups, terrorist groups and such. I mean, what’s your take on the truth of this?
DAHI: Well, that’s not accurate. I mean, it depends on if you look at the first six months of the uprising. I would say that was overwhelmingly nonviolent, even though not exclusively there were rather violent episodes from few months into the uprising. But overall, in terms of the people on the street, it was broadly representative, much more than perhaps it is at this point, at least in terms of the people doing the fighting. So it has evolved over time.
And I would say from the very beginning there is some truth and there is a great deal of truth, and increasingly so, that there are attempts to manipulate it, most prominently from the Gulf Arab states, who’s openly supported the uprising from the very beginning and increasingly became the main financiers of the opposition, in particular the external opposition groups and the armed forces.
Now, a lot of the financing, I would say, over the first year, most of it came from Syrians themselves, whether Syrians inside Syria or expatriates outside of Syria. But increasingly as the conflict became more militarized—and it’s probably accurate to say that in many cases the militarization was facilitated by the flow of weapons from these groups, but not exclusively. But definitely in the past six months, you’ve seen more and more the sense that the external opposition is completely in line with the policy objectives of the Gulf Arab groups.
JAY: So you could say the struggle increasingly gotten influenced, and perhaps even directed, by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to a large extent, and Turkey obviously very involved. Step back a bit and give us the geopolitical picture here.
DAHI: Sure. I think the geopolitics has been misread somewhat in the uprising, at least among people who are sort of somewhat critical of the overall reporting or overall picture. In my view, there has been points of agreement within the allies, and disagreement, and points of agreement/disagreement among the adversaries, in this sense, that on the one hand you have the U.S. and its regional allies broadly supporting the uprising, and Russia, Iran, the Syrian regime, Hezbollah, China, on the other hand, more supporting the Syrian regime itself.
Within this broad picture, I think there is some agreement between Russia and the U.S. on keeping the Syrian regime or the Syrian army intact. I think both sides have an interest in preventing a complete collapse, each for their own purposes—Russia because of the fact that they contain—they have ties with the Syrian regime, they have a base in Syria in Tartus; the U.S. because the U.S. is afraid of a power vacuum that would essentially create a place where, for example, Israel might be threatened.
And I think the U.S.-Israeli position on this, my own analysis is that they’re very close in that, despite the fact that they outwardly criticized Assad. For many years, Assad had a de facto peace treaty with Israel and protected the northern borders of Israel. So I feel the U.S. didn’t have a problem with Syria weakening, didn’t have a problem with laying siege to the Syrian regime, but they don’t want a complete collapse, and I think they’ve been putting pressure on their allies not to supply the opposition with weapons that might ensure a complete victory for the opposition.
That’s not been the case for the Gulf Arab states, who do not have to pay the costs of a complete regime collapse. From their opinion, weakening the Syrian regime is the key to weakening Hezbollah and weakening Iran and weakening Iran’s influence in the region, which is, I believe, their primary goal of the uprising. And second, they’re trying to transform the Arab uprising, they’re trying to go on a counteroffensive on all the Arab uprisings, to position their allies in power, to turn it into a Sunni-Shiite battle, and to try to head back any democratic movements in their countries. So I believe they’ve played a very destructive role.
But increasingly what you see with the formation of the new coalition is an attempt by Russia and the U.S. to manage the conflict more directly and to put pressure on their allies to follow a line.
Turkey increasingly has been trying to extricate itself from the crisis after initially—as you probably know, in the last decade, the Turkish and Syrian governments were very close. At the start of the uprising, Turkey wavered a little bit and then took a very strong position against the regime. But as the fighting has continued and as you’ve seen the Kurdish movements really stirring in northern Syria, and as the conflict has had a severe toll in terms of refugees and in terms of instability, they’re also trying to extricate themselves. So I feel even though the external parties are fueling the conflict, they’re also trying to manage the conflict in a way that suits their interests. And there seems to be some agreement.
Now, having said that, most of the dynamics of the Syrian uprising can also be understood in terms of the internal militarization of the conflict, in terms of the internal polarization that’s happened inside the country. So there’s a sort of a inside-outside loop that has happened as a result of these.
JAY: And where are we at in terms of the inside part of the loop? I mean, where—it’s hard to answer the question I’m about to ask, but I’ll ask it anyway. Your sense of what the majority of Syrians want now, what is it?
DAHI: Well, it’s been very hard to say, and I have been from the very beginning against trying to make claims on what most people want.
But I would say that given the extraordinary level of suffering and hunger and destruction that has happened, given the recent dire warnings by the World Food Programme, by the refugee councils, of inability to feed hundreds of thousands of people, warnings of a catastrophic collapse, something even much worse than the perhaps 50,000 people who have already died, which is already incredibly tragic and really hard to fathom, most people want a political settlement. Most people want the ability to be able to survive. And I think that’s quite rational.
The question is: on what terms will the political settlement be? A lot of people want anything that ends the violence at the moment, even if it means entering into some sort of transitional government that includes the regime. And the sticking point is whether or not Assad himself will be in power.
In my opinion, most people, the overwhelming majority of Syrians, would probably support immediately a transition if Assad was to step down. If Assad is not going to step down, anyone who enters into an agreement, anyone who enters into a transition, will be immediately branded as a traitor by the opposition, can be credibly branded as a traitor, or ostracized, and the cycle of violence, I feel, will continue.
So I could probably confidently say that most people really just want the violence to stop and for the humanitarian situation and medical situation to be addressed right away. But the question is: how is it going to be stopped? And I think that’s the tough question.
JAY: Now, why don’t we see what happened in Egypt? Why doesn’t the Syrian elite throw Assad under the bus and, you know, in other words, try to keep Assad-ism going without Assad?
DAHI: That’s a good question, and I think many people thought that something like that might have happened several months ago, perhaps a year and a half ago. It hasn’t happened, and the Syrian elite has shown quite remarkable unity. And I think it has to do with the fact that the structure of the Syrian regime is much more of an organic whole than the Egyptian regime. The Egyptian regime, the army, the military, the presidential sort of group, had more autonomy from one another, and they were not intertwined together in Syria at the level of sect, kinship, family ties.
And I think in Syria what matters is the presidential Republican Guard, the national guard, the army, and the security intelligence apparatus and the paramilitary groups. And all of these have very close ties. Assad is the sense of the symbol that unifies them together. And so there is not an obvious other figure that can simply replace him around which there is unity within those groups. And I think many of them believe that they’re fighting for the preservation—many of the lower-ranking people, many of them feel that they’re fighting for the preservation of the Alawite community.
And as the conflict becomes more militarized, as the sectarian voices, partly from inside the country and partly coming from propagandistic escalation from the Gulf and other sources, many of their fears have some truth to them. They’re founded to some extent. I don’t think they’re completely founded, and I think the best way to address them is to have this transition and is to end the violence. But I think they’ve clung closer together, rather than fragmented, as the uprising has continued.
And I think that’s partly what the regime’s strategy has been from the very beginning. They escalated into a zero-sum game, all or nothing, and gave people a very clear choice: you’re either with us, we either stick together under no compromises, or the whole country will be destroyed. And I think that marginalized many people who would have been interested in a negotiated settlement who even had critiques of Assad.
In many ways this was a successful strategy. It was an insane strategy, but it was successful. Of course, we’re paying the cost for it, as we can see in the sort of the tragic daily events.
JAY: Now, if—as you say, if Russia and the United States have kind of decided for their own reasons not to let the Assad regime completely fall, in other words, not to let the amount of arms go in that would tip the balance of power, I guess, is the only effective way they could do that, but if Iran keeps sending arms to Syria—and I don’t know where else Syria’s getting arms. I guess that’s part of my question. Is the Syrian regime getting arms other than Iran? Is Russia still sending arms to Assad? But that seems like the scenario for this conflict just keeps going.
DAHI: Yes, and it’s possible the conflict will keep going and that there won’t be a settlement any time soon. As I mentioned, there is an internal logic to the conflict that is still very strong. It’s not completely the case, as some people claim, that this is only a proxy war. To some extent it is, but to a large extent it’s still determined by the logic of the violence and the events inside the country. And both sides have a lot of leverage over their respective allies or people that they influence within the opposition and the regime, but they don’t have complete control.
And there are reports that they’re also receiving financial aid from Russia, and possibly military aid, although it’s hard to really confirm this and I don’t know for sure. Many of the reports I’ve read are speculative in terms of military aid from Russia. But they’re at least receiving—there are credible reports that they’re receiving financial aid, and I think that hasn’t been even a secret that the Syrian regime has tried to hide. So yes.
And it’s also the case that even though the U.S. is pressuring its Gulf allies to stop the flow of weapons, they also don’t control them completely, and many of the weapons are coming from individual benefactors who are not necessarily under the control of the royal family.
So you’ve seen many people trying to make a name for themselves inside Syria by funding one group or another. Some of them are trying to read out their names and sort of pay loyalty to them that this so-and-so prince has supported the Syrian revolution and so forth. So in many ways you’ve seen sort of the rise of small warlords being funded by different people.
Nevertheless, I do believe Iran also wants to extricate itself from this crisis in a way that doesn’t signal a complete defeat, doesn’t mean that Syria will become a place that will be a launching pad for attacks against Iran. And I think that’s what they’re concerned about. And they have some founded fears, given the level of rhetorical escalation, given the fact that they’ve been under siege by the West for decades. [Their fears] may be founded.
JAY: So, just finally, for people who are not Syrian, who are outside, what sort of things should they be demanding from their governments?
DAHI: Well, I think the main thing they should be demanding is assistance, humanitarian assistance. All the Western governments, all the European governments, North American governments who openly supported the uprising, who claimed that they cared about the Syrian people, should be ashamed of the scenes we’re seeing from the refugee camps in Jordan, in Lebanon, and Turkey, the absolute level of malnutrition, hunger, the threat of mass starvation. So all those who really claim to support Syria really need to support it in terms of material assistance. And I think that’s the primary concern now, because we have an impending mass catastrophe that can possibly happen according to the World Food Programme and the United Nations.
The second thing they should be demanding is really a political settlement, a meaningful political settlement. In my view, the political settlement cannot include Assad, because any inclusion of Assad will mean a continuation of the violence, but a meaningful political settlement and the beginning of a transition to try and salvage what’s basically left of the country.
JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Omar.
DAHI: Thanks for having me.
JAY: And thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.