Omar Dahi: Israel and US want to weaken Assad but don’t trust opposition to take power creating conditions for a perpetual civil war.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Paul Jay.
Israel has been accused of bombing inside of Syria. According to the Associated Press, Israel bombed a convoy, perhaps—the accusations say—carrying arms from Syria to Lebanon. But the Syrian government say that’s not what happened at all. They say a defense installation near Damascus was hit. Of course, the Israeli army is saying nothing, as they usually do in such situations.
But it suggests a broader question facing Israel: what is their attitude towards Syria? They’re concerned about arms going to Hezbollah in Lebanon, in which case they would like to weaken the Syrian government of Assad. On the other hand, they’re perhaps even more concerned about the fall of Assad and what comes next.
Now joining us to discuss Israel’s attitude towards Syria is Omar Dahi. He’s an assistant professor of economics at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He’s also an editor at The Middle East Report.
Thanks very much for joining us, Omar.
OMAR DAHI, ASSISTANT PROF. ECONOMICS, HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE: Thanks for having me.
JAY: So what do you make of Israel’s posture? Their rhetoric still more or less is about the downfall of Assad. But do they really want that?
DAHI: I don’t think so. And from the beginning of the Syrian uprising, they’ve actually been very measured and careful in what they said. And I believe, although it’s hard to tell for sure, that there’s close coordination between the U.S. and Israel on this subject, as there is on most subjects that relate to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, specifically those that might relate to Israel.
And I think over the years there are many things that the Syrian regime does that Israel doesn’t like. It provides support to Hezbollah, a resistance organization that has been very effective in fighting Israel in Lebanon and resisting Israeli attacks against Lebanon. They provide support, up until very recently, they provide a base for a political bureau for Hamas inside Syria. So they provide support for oppositional groups, Palestinian oppositional groups.
At the same time, they’ve been very pragmatic and practical and have had a de facto peace agreement with Israel since the 1973 War, even though it’s not an official peace agreement. But they have been very effective in maintaining calm over the Israeli border and essentially trying to rein in any groups that might try to destabilize this peace agreement.
And I think from the beginning of the uprising, what they had in mind seeing was Syria getting weaker, Syria being destroyed, Syria being subjected to more sanctions and under siege globally. So in many ways the status quo still very much serves Israeli interests.
The danger is that the Assad regime might actually collapse and you suddenly find the northern border of Israel, after being silent for 30 years, be filled with all sorts of heterogeneous groups from the Free Syrian Army, but other groups related to al-Qaeda, that might use it as a springboard for launching attacks against Israel. And I think that’s the most preoccupying concern from their perspective.
JAY: It seems to me Israel’s, you know, quote-unquote “interest”, if you—based on the mindset of the current leadership of Israel, at any rate, would be a civil war that never ends. As long as you keep Syria in mostly chaos, but not enough where Assad actually falls, then you can do what they’re accused of doing yesterday, which is you can take out military installations you don’t like, or you could bomb convoys going to Lebanon, stuff they couldn’t have done prior to all the chaos. On the other hand, as you’re suggesting, they don’t want Assad to actually fall, because what may come next may be al-Qaeda forces or whatever kinds of forces that might be much more active against Israel. And by extension, this seems to be what the Americans want, which is a complete disaster for the Syrian people, which is a civil war that never ends. It’s almost like, you know, Lebanon at its worst.
DAHI: Exactly. And over the past two years there’s been a lot of weapons going from Lebanon into Syria that obviously haven’t been attacked by Israel. They don’t mind that, as long as it’s going into Syria, that it’s going to be—being used to fight inside the civil war. But weapons going from east to west into Lebanon that may be used by Hezbollah in a war perhaps with Israel, that’s a problem to them.
In addition to what you just said, another goal that comes out of weakening Syria is weakening the link between Iran and Hezbollah, further isolating Iran, further sort of removing that link that strengthened Hezbollah and strengthened Iran together. And as you know, over the past several years Israel has made isolating and even bombing Iran a foreign-policy priority.
JAY: And I wonder if isolating Hezbollah isn’t even a more urgent priority, in the sense that, you know, is Israel really going to get into a war with Iran? It’s—one wonders. But the possibility of another war with Hezbollah is quite real.
DAHI: Absolutely. And I think they can—they’ve been watching this situation carefully and they can take what they can get. If they can—if they have a chance to strike at Syria, to further weaken Syrian infrastructure, particularly military infrastructure, they’re likely to do so. We’re not exactly sure what they hit.
But the general trend seems to be that the regime needs to be strong enough to contain the uprising. And I think you see the pressure from the U.S. and the agreement between the U.S. and Russia to come to a sort of political settlement heading in that direction. The political settlement will likely keep elements of the regime in power, specifically the army, and then include members of the opposition as part of a transitional government.
JAY: So if Russia, the United States—and you throw in the other powers, you know, Israel, but even Turkey, Qatar, the Saudis—seem to just want to keep fueling this thing, if it’s in all of their interests, more or less, to let this war just keep going, is there any sense of a response from the Syrian people that this is a completely no-win situation for the Syrians?
DAHI: I think so. And over the past week you’ve seen two very interesting initiatives that are meant to counter this sort of endless war. The first was that there was two oppositional group summits, one that took place in Paris and one that took place in Geneva.
The one that took place in Paris was the national coalition of Syrian revolutionary forces, which is the new umbrella group that is supported by the West and which is mainly composed of Islamists and Liberal forces.
The one that took place in Geneva are the oppositional groups that are called the forces for democratic change, and they include mostly left-wing groups, and independent Kurdish groups as well, who have been more independent of Western patronage and who have been calling for dialog, or at least negotiations, with the regime. Their final goal was negotiations with the regime to achieve a political settlement.
But the interesting thing was that the head of the Syrian National Coalition came out yesterday and called for negotiations with the regime to end the bloodshed out of concern for the total destruction that’s happening in the country. And he was attacked by some, but there was an overwhelming response of people who thought that now the time has finally come to enter into negotiations with the Syrian regime.
Now, of course, it’s not been simply the opposition that’s been rejecting negotiations. The Syrian regime has been calling for dialog, but they want dialog on their own terms that preserve the regime.
But the point is, there has to be something that breaks the stalemate. And you see for the first time real direction from the political leadership of the opposition groups towards that end.
JAY: So is there any sense of a negotiation with Assad still there? That’s always been the position, that there’s no talking as long as Assad’s still there. But there seems to be no break on the side of the Syrian elite that they’re going to hang tough with Assad. And what was the speech he made recently? I think it was at an opera house where he sort of laid out a plan for what a resolution might look like.
DAHI: Yeah. The speech, he called for a plan where there’d be a dialog or negotiations with some opposition groups that he said are not out for the destruction of the country, and that they would form a committee that would then lay a new constitution.
But I think aside from the speech that he gave, which is mostly a condemnation of the opposition and mostly, basically, a promise that Syria’s going to be stronger and that the regime is winning and so forth, there are other changes that are happening in the position of Russia. So you see a change in the Russian position over the last couple of months saying that we are not committed to Assad himself, that we are not particularly wedded to the Syrian regime remaining the way it is forever.
And from the other hand, you see the U.S. stopping to blame Russia. If you noticed last year, all of the U.S. pronouncements was taking advantage of the Syrian situation to blame Russia and China for everything that’s happening. That has stopped, and you’ve seen much more condemnation of the regime itself and increasing awareness of what the U.S. says are terrorist groups and jihadis among the Syrian opposition.
JAY: But if the obstacle to any kind of negotiation has been Assad has to go, the meeting in Geneva, did they take any different position on that? I mean, are they willing to talk to an Assad-led regime?
DAHI: What they’re proposing is a transitional government with full powers (what that means remains to be seen) that removes the powers of the presidency. So they will be a transitional government. The president’s powers will be stripped of him. He might remain ceremonial for a period of six months, and then there’ll be fresh elections. So the idea is that he’s not—he doesn’t step down first, that he steps down at the end of the transitional period.
Now, of course, any of these scenarios, for them to happen there has to be a willingness by the parties fighting on the ground to accept this. Otherwise, this is all a moot point.
JAY: And to what extent are the people in Geneva representing people fighting on the ground?
DAHI: The people in Geneva don’t really represent the people fighting on the ground. The people in Paris, the Syrian National Coalition of revolutionary forces claim to have the representation of the people on the ground. They can’t force them to immediately drop their weapons. But in the end, the increasing tendency has been by the supporters of those rebel groups, the ones who supply them with weapons, on putting the squeeze on. Over the last period of several months, you’ve seen increasingly the rebel groups, the Free Syrian Army complaining that all the arms, the equipment, is basically trickling down, and they’re being squeezed by their funders, many of whom are in the Gulf, to basically unify under one command that can be controlled more easily.
JAY: I’m reading that the Saudis are continuing to really fuel the jihadist forces and are not interested in any kind of negotiation or resolution, and as long as—and the jihadist forces, I understand, are not feeling very represented by the people that were in the Western-recognized coalition that they’ve now—that the Americans and others have recognized. So if it turns out that most of the fighting is kind of being pushed by the jihadists, it sounds like the only ones the jihadists are answering to are the Saudis.
DAHI: That’s true, although I don’t know and it’s not clear that most of the fighting’s being fueled by them. They’re certainly strong enough to do a lot of damage, and they’re certainly capable of fighting the Syrian regime for a long time. But if other segments of Syrian society, ones such as the Free Syrian Army groups that have not been directly controlled by the Saudis, if you can slowly isolate those groups, I think you can come to a resolution.
Expecting the violence to just end until a resolution happens is impossible in my view. We have to have the start of a political process and then try to isolate or marginalize the groups that are simply refusing entering into any negotiations.
You’re absolutely right. The Saudi Arabian officials have come out in the last week and called for more armament of the rebels. And you see here a split between Qatar and Saudi Arabia on that front.
JAY: And if Assad were to agree with this, which I—so far there’s no indication, but a kind of dignified way out is more or less what the Geneva proposal is. But if he was to agree with it, do the people that met in Geneva have enough popular support to be able to have this process without being called traitors and this and that?
DAHI: It’s tough. It depends on how the process unfolds. I think if there’s a clear change on the ground—for example, one of the conditions that the head of the Syrian National Coalition asked for was the release of over 160,000 prisoners. If those prisoners are released, that’s a real, tangible sign of progress. You have tens of thousands of people in areas that don’t have any humanitarian access. If the regime pulls back, stops bombing these areas, and allows humanitarian aid to enter them, that’s a tangible sign of progress.
I think in order for people to jump on the bandwagon of a solution, they have to see some tangible steps. And I think these small steps may restore the trust of the political oppositional leadership, may allow people to put their trust in their political oppositional leadership that will allow them to enter into serious negotiations with the regime. If [unintel.] enter negotiations without any change in the behavior of the regime, that’s not going to actually be considered legitimate.
JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Omar.
DAHI: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.