PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
Secretary of State John Kerry has been very active on his Syria file.
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JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: So today, on behalf of President Obama, who has been very clear about the stakes in Syria, I am proud to announce that the United States of America will be providing an additional $60 million immediately in nonlethal assistance to support the coalition in its operational needs day to day as it continues to organize and work for the political transition that we all want to see.
JAY: Now joining us to talk about U.S. policy 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. And he’s from Syria originally.
Thanks very much for joining us.
OMAR DAHI, ASSISTANT PROF. ECONOMICS, HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE: Thanks for having me.
JAY: So the United States announced that they were going to increase their level of indirect—or I should say direct but nonlethal support, whatever that actually means.
In an earlier interview, we talked about the sort of quandary of the American position. They’ve always been, it seems, a little bit betwixt and between. They would like to see Assad go. They would like to see a pro-Israeli government come to power in Syria. But now they’re not so sure who actually will come to power in Syria and whether it might not be more opposed to Israel than the current Assad government. And so we were saying that perhaps what the outside powers want right now is just ongoing civil war, ’cause they would like a weak Syria, perhaps not a new leadership. Does this announcement by the United States change your assessment about that in any way?
DAHI: Well, in a way it’s part of increasing U.S. attempts to assert itself in the Syrian crisis. Initially, I think over the first year, since the start of the uprising in March 2011, the U.S. stepped back and let its regional allies take the lead, meaning Turkey and the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
I think what we’ve seen since the summer, the past summer, of June 2012, especially with the signing of the Geneva Accords, is some sort of understanding with Russia. The Geneva Accords were with U.S. and Russian agreement. They were a six-point plan. And they basically did not specify Assad’s fate. They said there would be a transitional period. But they didn’t say anything about Assad himself. So the U.S. has no problem as long as the crisis is contained, as we mentioned last time.
But I think they’re trying to be more assertive, they’re trying to find a way to control the opposition more than they were able to in the past. If they are able to find a way to control the opposition, which so far they have not been able to—and it doesn’t look likely, given the fragmentation of the opposition inside Syria—but if they’re able to assert themselves more and control the pace of events, they may be trying to do so at this point. It’s hard to know what the latest announcement means, but I think it’s part of an attempt of the U.S. to take over directing the Syrian crisis from its allies.
JAY: And the meetings that took place recently, in Rome, I think, what came out of all of that?
DAHI: Well, basically nothing major came out of them, other than the fact that the Syrian opposition council that recently formed, thinking that as soon as they form, they will get massive aid from the U.S. and its allies as soon as the coalition was formed—but that aid did not materialize. So the Rome meeting was a desperate attempt by the Syrian opposition to ask for aid. And in particular, what the Syrian opposition is viewing, at least up until the last two days, was a stalemate in the fighting and a drying up of the resources of the rebels inside Syria.
Now, the slight change that happened over the last two days was that the rebels were able to take over Ar-Raqqah province, which is north-central Syria along the Euphrates. This is the first province in Syria that is now completely dominated by the rebels. Nevertheless, we’ve seen a stalemate in the fighting, a drying up of the resources of the rebels. And the Rome meetings were a desperate plea for help by the national opposition council.
JAY: How are the rebels able to control a whole province? The Syrian army has not fractured that much, has it? I know there’s been, you know, a fair number of desertions, but my understanding was the Syrian army was still mostly holding together, as well as its high command. How do the rebels able to do such a thing?
DAHI: So far they haven’t been able to do it very successfully. And the evidence is that after two years of fierce fighting, this is the first province that they’ve been able to take over completely.
Nevertheless, there seems to be an evolving military strategy by the regime, which is to withdraw into certain geographic locations, starting in Damascus in the south, moving up to Homs and central Syria, and up to the northwest, towards the coast, of clearing those zones and making them areas of solid control for the regime.
I think the regime seems to have, at this moment, at least, given up on controlling large parts of the Syrian territory, because they have been subjected to constant guerrilla attacks. What they resorted to doing is withdrawing from these areas and bombing them from the sky. Even the last couple of weeks, there were many reports of Scud missiles being launched from Damascus into Aleppo causing massive damage.
So the Syrian army is mostly intact. At least since over the past year, there haven’t been major defections, particularly no defections in the top. But they have evolved their military strategy on seizing certain areas and letting go of others.
JAY: It suggests—I mean, from what I know of guerrilla warfare, this suggests that there has to be a fair amount of popular support for these guerrillas, in spite—you know, Assad wants to make this look like there’s just a few marginal fighters out there, and most of them are foreigners and all this. But I don’t see how guerrillas take over a whole province unless they have fairly extensive popular support.
DAHI: Yes, in many areas they have extensive popular support. In other areas they did not have the support. For example, in Aleppo you did not find that kind of support from the residents of Aleppo, who did not want to be dragged into a fight they knew would be very destructive. I mean, many of the areas have really—even though they initially supported the rebels, they have gone to resent them because of the fact that every time the Free Syrian Army or the rebels enter an area, they know there will be massive retaliation by the regime and that area will be destroyed. And the regime has been doing that on purpose to make the costs of basically joining the rebels or sustaining the rebels prohibitive.
Nevertheless, in the vast majority of the rural areas of Syria, the rebels have tremendous amount of support. It’s not at all the way the Syrian regime tries to paint the picture, of course, of scattered armed groups. There was no way that they’d be able to basically sustain this level of fighting, wasn’t, there, a popular support and really, unfortunately in many ways, an unlimited supply of young people willing to fight against the regime, many of whom initially may not have been opposed to the regime but as a result of the massive repression turned against it.
JAY: And to what extent are the young people joining involved in sort of you could say the Islamic or militant Islamic sections of the fighters? Or is it kind of spread out throughout the various types of units, guerrilla units that are fighting?
DAHI: Well, it spread out. Initially there was the formation of the Free Syrian Army, which was mostly defected soldiers from the army, former soldiers, and other people who took up arms to initially defend themselves and then launch guerrilla attacks against the regime. But what we’ve seen since February and March 2012 is the rise of the Salafi jihadi groups, many of whom came from outside Syria. Some of them were in Iraq. Some of them had originally traveled from Syria to Iraq to fight the U.S. invasion, and in many ways Jabhat al-Nusra itself is viewed by many inside Syria to have been—basically with the aid of the Syrian intelligence themselves in 2003 and 2004—traveled to Iraq to fight the U.S. occupation.
Nevertheless, what we’ve seen over the past year is that Salafi jihadi groups are the most disciplined and the most skilled fighters. They have long experience. They are effective. Of course, they’re very brutal and they’re very ruthless, and many of them really don’t care about civilian casualties at all. But given the lack of ability of the Free Syrian Army to make progress against the regime, we’ve seen an increase of the popularity of these Salafi jihadi groups, so much so that really the borders between them and the other Free Syrian Army are very porous.
Many groups claim to be Salafi and jihadi just to attract funding, because that’s what brings funding from the Gulf. Many groups, many youth who are really alienated from the ability of the Free Syrian Army to make headway now find this determination and effectiveness of these Salafi groups appealing. Of course, this is increasing the radicalization and the sectarianization of the conflict itself, but it’s part of this evolving dynamic of the uprising.
JAY: And in terms of the funding coming come from the Gulf, we touched on this in a previous interview. But how much difference is there now between the strategy of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, especially when it comes to funding jihadist and Salafi groups?
DAHI: I think there is a split that has increased over time, with Qatar trying to be very selective in who it’s funding, although that was not the case, perhaps, originally so, but, with U.S. agreement, trying to be more selective, and Saudi Arabia, or at least sources within Saudi Arabia (it’s not very clear), being the main source of funding to the various jihadi groups and perhaps Jabhat al-Nusra itself.
There’s also many sources of funding that are going to different groups that are really uncoordinated. For example, there are individual sheikhs or princes trying to make a name for themselves inside Syria by funding their own Salafi jihadi groups. There was a recent article in The London Review of Books by the Guardian correspondent that talked about how to form your own jihadi group, and it’s basically you can, you know, gather some funding, pick a few fighters from previous—Free Syrian Army or other groups, and there you go.
So in many ways it’s fertile ground for the formation of these groups. And the funding coming from the Gulf has exacerbated the presence of these radicals.
JAY: Now, the Saudi government kind of plays this game, don’t they not, like, the—you know, sort of officially the Saudi government isn’t doing this. On the other hand, the Saudi intelligence, I would think, knows just about everything going on in Saudi Arabia, and if they wanted to stop any particular Saudi prince from supporting this or some other activity—and there’s lots of, you know, evidence about individual Saudi princes even being connected to the 9/11 events here—they could have stopped them. But isn’t that part of their strategy, to kind of have a public face here and a private face doing all kinds of things?
DAHI: Absolutely. And I think it’s been very clear that from the very start Saudi Arabia has supported overthrowing the regime in Syria at any costs. They see this, quite frankly, as a proxy war with Iran. They want to weaken Iran. They want to weaken Hezbollah. And the recent increasing hostility between some Free Syrian Army groups and Hezbollah—in fact, some possible attacks on Hezbollah troops that the Free Syrian claimed are inside Syria—may be a further push to show that really this funding is being directed mostly at destroying the regime at any cost, really with no regard to what’s happening inside Syria itself. It’s a proxy war.
JAY: Yeah. And, in fact, if groups came to power in Syria that were more antagonistic to Israel, I don’t think Saudi Arabia minds, not from the point of view that the Saudis are really antagonistic to Israel, ’cause I think they have all kinds of backdoor dealings going on with Israel. But it gives them another card to play: oh, we’ll control these guys that are in Syria now; you’re going to need us even more. It gives the Saudis even a more prominent role in this situation.
DAHI: Here’s where you see—exactly. Here’s where you see the divergence between U.S.-Israeli interests on the one hand and Saudi Arabia on the other hand. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have to pay the costs of these groups coming to power. Of course, they’re, as you said, implicit allies with Israel, given their alliances with the U.S. and all sorts of backdoor deals between the two. But, yes, it’s another way of extending Saudi Wahhabi influence, as they have tried elsewhere.
JAY: And, of course, who pays the price for all this is the Syrian people, who are in the midst of one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of recent decades.
Thanks very much for joining us, Omar.
DAHI: Thanks for having me.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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