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Transcript: Syria on the brink

As global and regional powers fight their own battles, will Syria's revolution succeed before the country falls apart?
Last Modified: 04 Dec 2012 19:34

This is the full transript for the Empire episode Syria on the brink (March 24 2012).

Marwan Bishara:

Syria is being torn apart.

William Hague, British foreign secretary:

This is a doomed regime as well as a murdering regime.

Marwan Bishara:

The regime is fighting for its life. And the once peaceful opposition is fighting back.

Soundbite:

I think we should have peace by all means.

Marwan Bishara:

As global and regional powers fight their own battles

Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state:

This council stands silent when governments massacre their own people.

Marwan Bishara:

And the president remains defiant. Can the revolution succeed before the country falls apart? This is Empire.

Marwan Bishara:

Hello and welcome to Empire. I am Marwan Bishara. Over the past year we've taken special interest in the Arab uprisings and dedicated a number of episodes to better understand the evolution of the Arab revolutions from Tunisia to Yemen, through Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain. Syria has proved to be the most complicated and certainly the most dangerous of all. As the uprising enters its second year, what started as a relatively peaceful upheaval against repressive dictatorship is spiraling out of control. With more than eight thousand Syrians dead, a quarter of a million displaced, and countless imprisoned or tortured, the opposition is arming itself in self-defense. And its regional supporters are chipping in with Western compliciting. In the shadows of international polarization and paralysis, the militarization of the revolution coupled with the regime's bloody crackdown will most probably pave the way to civil war and even lead to the breakup of the country with dramatic spillover effects on Syria's neighbors.

Why is the path to change so rocky and so long? What are the future scenarios for Syria? Will the global and regional powers allow the escalation to war to continue? Will they intervene or stop it or will they inflame an already volatile situation? I will address all of these questions and more with my guests.

Nikolaos Van Damme, a Dutch academic who's written extensively on the Middle East, including "The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society Under Asad and the Ba'th Party" and a former diplomat with extensive service in the Middle East, including Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey and many others.

Robert Fisk, a renowned British journalist, who covered the Middle East for three decades, has authored several books including "The Great War for Civilization: the Conquest of the Middle East".

And last but not least, Anas Al-Abdah, the chairman for the Movement for Justice and Development and a member of the Secretariat General of the Syrian National Council.

But first, a quick reminder of the year that changed the country forever.

Marwan Bishara:

The weeks slip by. The death toll climbs. The casualties mount. And while outrage grows ever louder, Syria is being torn apart. What started a year ago as a peaceful protest in the southern town Daraa demanding limited justice and reform has turned into a national upheaval demanding regime change.  All the while becoming ever more violent and chaotic.

Even those who merely poke fun at the regime are treated with ferocious brutality. Ali Ferzat's cartoons have long been hugely popular in the region but when Assad took offense to one of his drawings, he ordered thugs to beat him and smash his hands.

Translation of Ali Ferzat, Syrian political analyst:

I'm just one person compared to thousands of martyrs who paid and still pay the price for freedom. This will continue and no one will stop it. The price of pain is small for the country and the people.

Marwan Bishara:

President Assad has made belated promises to reform and hold referendums and elections.

Bashar al-Assad:

We need the people's support to achieve this reform.

Marwan Bishara:

But these overtures have been dismissed as bogus and firmly rejected. Syrians continue to pour to the streets right across the country. Meanwhile the regime continues its brutal crackdown against the largely peaceful protest movement, leading to thousands of dead and injured, a nation humiliated and bruised.

David Mepham, Human Rights Watch:

You have rarely seen a situation where the level of violence and human rights abuse and torture is as severe and as gruesome as is the case in Syria. We are talking about a very, very serious human rights situation.

Marwan Bishara:

Even the Secretary General of the United Nations isn't mincing his word.

Ban Ki-Moon, UN secretary-general:

The Syrian government has failed to fulfill its responsibility to protect its own people and instead has subjected citizens in several cities to military assault and disproportionate use of force.

Marwan Bishara:

Instead, the Syrian opposition has been arming in self-defense and more Syrian army soldiers are defecting to join the opposition forces.

International sanctions are crippling the Syrian economy. The regime's inability to pay salaries to its soldiers and bureaucrats  is diminishing its capacity to rule and threatening and implosion from within. Judging from Syrian State Television, the Assad regime is defending the country from foreign terrorist insurgency. The question is, does the regime itself believe these claims? Evidence suggests otherwise.

A trove of intercepted emails a clue to show an Assad-led regime the callous indifference to the brutality of the crackdown. And if there was any doubt about the President's knowledge of these events, official documents have come to light which leave no doubt whatsoever.

Translation of Abdul Majid Barakat, FMR SYRIAN INFORMATION OFFICER

Any person reading these reports will be shocked. And will realize that Syria is living a true crisis, killing, criminality, suppression of protesters.

Marwan Bishara:

There are no simple solutions and these challenges are made even more difficult by the realization that the opposition is deeply divided. The spate of suicide bombings in Damascus and Aleppo has added another element of unpredictability to an already inflamed situation. All that played into Bashar al-Assad's argument that the Syrian opposition in whatever guise is somehow connected to Al Qaeda, a claim the regime continues to use to justify the crackdown.

Meanwhile, the weeks slip by, the death toll climbs, and the casualties continue to mount.

Marwan Bishara:

Professor Van Damme, Nikolaos, the first question that comes to mind is, why unlike Libya, Yemen, certainly Tunisia and Egypt, why is Syria taking so long?

Nikolaos van Dam:

I think the core of the issue is the composition of the regime, of the regime's elite, of its power institutions, the armed forces, the security institutions and so on. In all these places, all centers of places of the regime's power institutions, there are people who are very closely linked to the President and the people surrounding him. Mostly with an Alawite background and the Alawites are originally a downtrodden minority who choose to be discriminated against also by the Sunni population they consider even their religion to be heretic. So these people are sticking together, of course they have a history together from before. At first the Ba'ath regime was much more diverse, but gradually all factions were disposed of and there was one faction which remained, which was at the time the faction of Hafez al-Assad and he was the only one who really decided what happened.

Marwan Bishara:

So it's the same premise for why the regime has preserved its power all these years are the same reasons why it is still holding power now days?

Nikolaos van Dam:

Exactly, this has remained the same for the past 40 years, even longer. And I think what originally the role of Alawites in the regime was a stimulant for social change and so on, but once these people established themselves, became more rich, they become an obstacle to social change, but also they are an obstacle to peaceful transformation from dictatorship to a regime which is more democratic or less dictatorial.

Marwan Bishara:

Is that, Robert, the reason why many people discount the possibility of diplomatic solution or peaceful transition?

Robert Fisk:
 
Well, I think probably when he took over from his father, which is when I first met Bashar, I think he genuinely had an idea of changing Syria for the better. He realized what was wrong with Hafez's rule, his father's rule. And of course, it wasn't meant to be him, it was meant to be his brother who was going to become President, but he died in a road accident on the way to the airport. I think what has happened, you see, is that Syria has been ruled by repression for so long that the moment you suggest that you're going to give way on power, the people want more. It happened with Mubarak it happened with Ben Ali. As soon as you make one step in their direction, they want more than you're offering. So you have to keep retreating. But of course when you view repression on such a scale--I'm talking about the Hafa's regime--what happens is that the longer the repression goes on the more fearful you become on what'll happen if you give way on everything. So the government has to fight for its survival out of fear as much as out of its own belief.

Marwan Bishara:

So that's why what started as a demand for reforms in Dara'a and later on up in the north--

Robert Fisk:
 
And started as peaceful demonstrations, unarmed, which became armed demonstrations later on. Yes, absolutely, but I think what happens is you've got a situation where a secular regime, which is what it claims to be, became a sectarian conflict.

Marwan Bishara:

Do you accept that premise that although there's a sectarian element at heart of the issue here, this goes beyond sectarian divisions?

Anas al-Abdah:
 
Absolutely, I think it's due to the structure of power in Syria. What really completed the job in Tunisia, Egypt, to a certain extent is the army. When did they envy a struggle--nonviolent struggle--is something that is against dictatorship which relies on pillars of support so the more you can get from these pillars of support to side with you or to be neutral, then you can get these dictatorships down. In the case of Syria, the main institution, which is the army, is still holding with the regime and as long as the army is still holding the regime, the revolution will continue for some time until either the army decides to side with the people or start to fracture.

Marwan Bishara:

And do you see signs of that happening? More people deserting the army?

Anas al-Abdah:
 
We are seeing more and more defections, but not at the level that will make the army disintegrate.

Marwan Bishara:

And why is that taking so long, if the army is majority Sunni?

Anas al-Abdah:
 
It is not a question of sectarian identity. It's majority Sunni in terms of soldiers, but when we talk about the high ranking offices from lieutenant upward, we're talking about 1,200 high ranking offices in Syria. Out of this 1,200 at least 1,000 are from the Alawite background. And these are the people who are the real decision makers in the army.

Robert Fisk:
 
I think there's one thing we're not sort of concentrating on in the case of Syria, and that is I've noticed where nations which have revolutions have strong trade unions--Tunisia and Egypt, Mahala for example, the cotton factory, cotton town in north Cairo, where the trade unions have been strong, there has been much less bloodshed. But where the trade unions have been part of the government--have just been facades as in Syria, unfortunately, and in Yemen and particularly in Libya, there has been much more bloodshed. What is missing is not just an army that fractures, which is what you're talking about, or an army that stands with the people, which is what happened certainly in Egypt and some extent Tunisia. You're lacking a social cohesion beneath the military in the social side where trade union, the idea of left is thought, the equal spread of opportunities simply isn't there. It's based on the grouping of minorities in Syria, and you don't have the strong trade union movement, which could give a strong political foundation to many of the statements being made.

Nikolaos van Dam:

Absolutely true. Concerning the disintegration of the army, all those or most of those who have deserted are Sunni soldiers, but they cannot do anything because they cannot take with them any arms. So as long as there are no whole armed units who desert, the opposition cannot do anything, or cannot do much. And besides, the elite units and they best equipped army units are the Alawi units?

Marwan Bishara:

The Republican Guards?

Nikolaos van Dam:

Yes, they are fully, or to a big majority Alawites so they are loyal to the regime.

Marwan Bishara:

You don't see a process by which the opposition is increasingly arming more and more segments of the army out there and probably will be armed more and more as time goes by.

Nikolaos van Dam:

You could say it’s a very asymmetric battle. Because on one hand you have a few military lightly equipped, they can do something; they can be a huge nuisance, so to say, between quotation marks, for the army. They can hide somewhere in cities, they can have armed attacks on roads on the side of the road, but they are not really a military strength. They can trigger, however, a lot of violence, because the regime, with its armed forces, will enter cities and will try to get those people, and this has a lot of what they call collateral damage.

Marwan Bishara:

But despite that, you think the arming of the revolution is imminent or not in Syria?

Nikolaos van Dam:

Well some parties, some countries, like Saudi Arabia, have announced that they are willing to arm the opposition and if they arm the opposition if they have more arms there will be more bloody conflict. So in the end I don't think it will help much. It will lead more easily to civil war.

Marwan Bishara:

That's my sense, Robert, my sense is that we are escalating towards civil war.

Robert Fisk:
 
Yes, I'll tell you something. The something that all the world is reflected by in the Syrian conflict and that's wishful thinking. Because so many people have decided that Assad is the new hate figure after we had Saddam and after we had sort of Mubarak, or he's going to be toppled. We've been told this in the New York Times, that he's past the tipping point in all the usual indications. We've been told that Homs was gonna be the new Benghazi, the stepping off point for the revolution to go to the masses. I think it's time we stop the wishful thinking. Because regimes are dictatorships doesn't mean they're going to go as fast as we think they will.

Marwan Bishara:

But go they will?

Robert Fisk:
 
Syria's going to change in the end. Even the Hezbollah privately say that when I talk to them. They know it's going to change. I think Bashar knows it's going to change, though where he's going to be I don't know. But I think it's not going to change as fast as we think. As Nicolas quite rightly said, you know, in effect, you can't fight a tank with a Kalashnikov. It doesn't work. And even if the Saudis, who are very keen to keep their claws clean while offering cuts to other people. Even if they sent weapons--and they can't send tanks to Syria--

Marwan Bishara:

But Robert, in a lot of the asymmetrical cases of war, mostly the weak has won, when it takes long.

Robert Fisk:
 
We're not talking about World War II, Marwan.

Marwan Bishara:

No, I'm talking within--

Robert Fisk:
 
Revolutionary groups.

Marwan Bishara:

Mostly, it has been the light arms that won because if there is justice on their side.

Robert Fisk:
 
You wouldn't say that at Hama, would you? Because at Hama, the weak rose up in an Islamist revolution and the regime, with the full diplomatic support of the United States, ruthlessly crushed the uprising.

Marwan Bishara:

But you certainly agree that this revolution or this upheaval, this uprising, is far more popular than anything we've seen in this area.

Robert Fisk:
 
But I'm not sure it's winning.

Marwan Bishara:

But time is on its side. Or is time on the regime's side? Of course not.

Robert Fisk:
 
Time up to a point is on the regime's side.

Marwan Bishara:

In terms of the opposition, and you are one of those who represents segments of the opposition, or the main body of opposition, you are being blamed for why this is not working. You are not united, you don't have a single message for the rest of the Syrian party which explains why a major sector of the Syrian society, such as Damascus and Aleppo are not joining the revolution.

Anas al-Abdah:
 
Well, I'm afraid this is true. The Syrian opposition has not been up to the standard required by the revolution and by the Syrian people. But we should also remember that the Syrian opposition did not start the revolution in the first place and it is not leading it at the moment. It's basically led by activists on the ground and the Syrian opposition, in a way, still is imprisoned in its traditional thinking and traditional framework.

Marwan Bishara:

Is it still leaderless? I mean, various autonomous, segmented opposition from various parts of Syria.

Anas al-Abdah:
 
Absolutely. And I think this could be one of its main strength points of the revolution, the fact that its a leaderless revolution, which does not give the dictatorship the ability to crush it. It does not give the dictatorship the ability to obliterate it. But on the other hand, it gives us a huge challenge in terms of communicating with the Syrian people. And sometimes in order to do that, you need a leader. You need somebody who commands more authority within the society. Now I hope the Syrian National Council will develop into being such an institution. We're not there yet.

Marwan Bishara:

Is time on its side?

Anas al-Abdah:
 
I think so.

Marwan Bishara:

But there is no crackdown from the regime?

Anas al-Abdah:
 
I think time is still on the revolution's side and on the Syrian people's side. But in terms of the SNC, we have to do a better job.

Marwan Bishara:

Nikolaos, before we go to our second half to discuss the international aspects of this question, it seems to me that we have many who argued about--and we just did that earlier-- the specificity of this country, of this situation. But it is coming in the midst of what everyone called The Arab Spring. There is a revolution of consciousness in the Arab World. Do you see that there is a certain generalization that could be done that Syria is part of a movement that is changing in the region and there is no turning back?

Nikolaos van Dam:

I don't think that there is any turning back. I think, I'm sure, that the Syrian situation has been inspired by others, certainly how it begun and in the south, in Dara'a. But it is on the other hand, very specific, very Syrian, I think the whole Syrian population or all groups are participating in the opposition. It is very difficult, in that respect, to define the opposition. They are all fed up with dictatorship.

Marwan Bishara:

Like those in Tunisia and Yemen and...

Nikolaos van Dam:

Yes. But also many people have the impression that all this terrorizing the population, suppressing bloodily the population, that is something new because it has been visible now for a year. But this oppression has gone on for tens of years already and one of the issues is that those people inside the regime are used to using violence without having any accountability. So that's very difficult to stop.

Marwan Bishara:

Is that, Robert, why the recent use of excessive force against Idlib and Homs and so forth is seen as a desperate attempt on the part of the regime or is it actually a very strategic step?

Robert Fisk:
 
Every time the bad guys do something violent, we say they're in distress, they're desperate; I don't necessarily think it is. But one thing you have to remember: as long as he holds Damascus and Aleppo, Bashar can carry on. And if you've got Idlib and you've got Homs as well, fine. We talk about the “leaderlessness” of the revolution. It's also a danger. I was in Egypt throughout the revolution and the great they kept saying to me, "Look nobody knows who the leaders are, they're just the youth, the activists, they don't know who to arrest." When eventually, the army happily moved in and took the place over, the Muslim Brothers came in with a perfectly well groomed election machinery, and the people who started the revolution, who were in Tahrir Square, were left high and dry because they didn't have any leaders. Problem.

Anas al-Abdah:
 
Absolutely, this is why I'm saying that the SNC will hopefully have time to develop into that political leadership, so in a way, the revolution is going on but that is giving us an opportunity to develop into that and will not let any specific faction to take over.

Robert Fisk:
 
Just one other thing I'm going to ask you. In every revolution we've had so far, defectors from the regime or former members of the regime have turned up to be extremely influential in the post-revolutionary countries. Is that going to happen in Syria? Is there going to be a role there for Uncle Bashar at some point, I wonder?

Anas al-Abdah:
 
I think if we look into how the NVS works, how non-violent struggle works, we have to rely on such people. Because at the end of the day....

Marwan Bishara:

What do you mean by non-violent?

Robert Fisk:
 
And such people, what do you mean by such people?

Anas al-Abdah:
 
The people from within the regime because they are the people who've been governing the country for 40 years.

Nikolaos van Dam:

The biggest danger to the regime is from within the Alawite officers corps, if you can call it that.

Marwan Bishara: 

So not just the partition, but from the officers.

Nikolaos van Dam:

It's particularly the officers. There must also be a lot of criticism of the behavior of the regime. The only problem is, and it's a huge problem, is that if they only think about staging a coup then they'd already be dead.

Marwan Bishara:

Do you see any signs of that? If anything--it's not imploding a role--if anything, it's hardening.

Nikolaos van Dam:

But it can be playing a role in the background.

Marwan Bishara:

But in the meanwhile I think there's certainly the international powers and regional powers are coming to bear on the situation in Syria. But we're gonna discuss that after we come back from a news break.

Welcome back. With my guests, Nikolaos van Dam, Anas Al Abdah, and Robert Fisk. The international and regional powers have failed to agree on the diagnosis and prescription for the escalating situation in Syria. The resulting paralysis has allowed the regime to intensify its crackdown and has pushed the opposition to arm itself. Russia and China have been adamant of their rejection of Western attempts to repeat the same diplomatic maneuvers in the UN Security Council that paved the way for NATO's military intervention in Libya under the pretext of their responsibility to protect. But lack of consensus at the UN doesn't mean lack of movement. The man responsible for the UN embracing the responsibility to protect doctrine, its former Secretary General Kofi Annan, has been appointed special envoy to Syria as the violence spirals out of control. Meanwhile, the so-called Friends of Syria are heightening the pressure and raising the stakes by establishing a hardcore coalition of countries willing to act outside the framework of the Security Council with dramatic consequences for Syria and the region.

Marwan Bishara:

Based on public statements from many Western leaders and opponents of the Assad regime, the situation in Syria is black and white

David Cameron, British prime minister:

What is happening is Syria is appalling. You have a government that is butchering and murdering its own people.

Nicolas Sarkozy, French president:

We did not accept a dictator that massacres his own people.

Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state:

How cynical that even as Assad was receiving, former Secretary General Kofi Annan, the Syrian army was conducting a fresh assault on Idlib and continuing its aggression in Hama, Homs, and Al Rastan.

Marwan Bishara:

They say Syria is in the throes of a murderous regime out to crush all rebellion. With atrocities carried out against innocent civilians and an opposition movement struggling to hold on against overwhelming odds. Those same leaders claim the international community is being thwarted, prevented from doing more by two nations out to prove a point.

Dr. Wael Aleji, Gen commission, Syrian Revolution:

My message to the Russian and Chinese governments is "Shame on you."

Marwan Bishara:

Russia and China have blocked the UN Security Council from any action which could form the legal basis for intervention in Syria. And they have been very clear why.

Sergey Lavrov, Russian foreign minister:

Some favor confrontation of authorities; some endorse military action from forces inside and outside the country. These are all risky and could ignite conflict across the region.

Liu Weimin, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman:

China is a friend of the Syrian people. On the issue of Syria, a considering is based on the Syrian people's fundamental, long term interests as well as a regional peace.

Marwan Bishara:

That position has provoked a predictable response.

William Hague, British foreign secretary:

This is a doomed regime as well as a murdering regime.

Marwan Bishara:

What Moscow and Beijing are now willing to do is endorse the efforts of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to attempt to broker a ceasefire.

Kofi Annan, UN special envoy:

First objective is for all of us to stop the violence and human rights abuses and then the killings.

Marwan Bishara:

But this doesn't mean these two nations are going to bow to Western pressures. But what exactly does the West want to do? There is plenty of rhetoric and theatrics and precious little detail.

Malik al-Abdeh, Movement for Justice and Development:

People realize that the West also are particularly enthusiastic about having radical change in a country and actually what they want to do is reach a point where there can be a managed democratic transition in such as way as to keep the minorities happy in Syria, keep the middle class happy, and also, and let's face it, to protect Israel's interests.

Marwan Bishara:

There is no doubt that any intervention, overt or covert, runs the risk of exacerbating the situation far beyond the current crisis. And that, for all the strong words and bellicose language, there is a sense that nobody actually has any intention at all in getting involved militarily. If Syria is indeed a step too far for the West, these same leaders certainly wouldn't admit it publicly. Instead, they need a convenient obstacle. A means by which they could continue to rail against Assad's regime, knowing full well they won't have to do anything about it. So in that light, are UN Security Council negotiations a frustrating process which is needlessly holding the West back? Or does the endorsement of Kofi Annan give everyone the wiggle room they need in order not to lose face diplomatically? Any discussion of the broader geopolitical dimension would be pointless without mentioning Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran is ready to give whatever support is needed to bolster the Assad regime, its strategic partner. Saudi Arabia is eager to offset that by arming the opposition. And they're not alone.

Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim al-Thani, Qatari foreign minister:

I think we should do whatever necessary to help them including giving weapons to defend themselves.

Dr. Wael Aleji, Gen. Commission, Syrian Revolution:

There is a feeling now in the grassroots movement in Syria that we kind of rely on the international community. And that's why people have been hedging their bets on countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Marwan Bishara:

What we're left with then is cautious support from limited diplomatic overture. No resolution, no intervention, and a regime still firmly in place. In other words, no end in sight.

Marwan Bishara:

Do you think Russia and China are going to change their minds anytime soon and vote in favor of Security Council regarding Syria?

Robert Fisk:

They're not gonna vote in a Libya type resolution, that's for sure. I think they must be giving, I mean the Russian Foreign Minister has already expressed in quite strong words his frustration with Assad's regime acting too slowly, not coming up with reforms in time. But I think the Russians do genuinely believe that they were conned over Libya, that the no fly zone suddenly became get rid of the regime zone, very quickly, I mean it was only a matter of days before we were bombing the Gaddafi house. So I think they genuinely feel misled there and they do feel as a "great power" that they're not going to be pushed around anymore. But as many people have been saying, what are the Russians going to say to the revolution if the revolution wins. What are relations going to be like? Is the new revolutionary Syria, if if happens, going to say, "Oh by the way, do keep your base in Tartus. We've very happy for you to have your naval base there. I don't know, not very pragmatic, but certainly very beating of the chest with Russia at the moment.

As for China, I think what China wants to do is to have political strength in the Middle East commensurate with its economic strength. And that is why China is quietly pushing for a de-dollarization of oil. It's on that scale.

Marwan Bishara:

Is there anything for Russia to worry about for the future of Syria?

Anas al-Abdah:

Absolutely not, Syria tries always to be independent of the major superpowers.

Marwan Bishara:

And you protect the conscious and importance of Russia?

Anas al-Abdah:

Historically speaking, Syria has always been a friend of the Russian people. Syria will not be a Western base if it wins and it will not be an Eastern base as well. So Russia has nothing to worry about in that sense.

Nikolaos van Dam:

I understand that Russia is extremely unpopular among the opposition but I think we shouldn't exaggerate the meaning of the vetoes because they tried still to find ways to have a kind of dialogue, to try to convince the regime. And while then later on you can have a veto, but there was a hurry to have this veto.

Marwan Bishara:

What Robert argues is that if there would have been a veto perhaps the Western powers would have abused it to do what they did in Libya. Would they have done that?

Nikolaos van Dam:

I don't think so, but it is of course a very valid reason for the Russians to be very careful. But there are other Security Council resolutions that have been vetoed by the United States, for instance, the less famous resolution 2 for 2, almost 45 years old, not having been carried out, so I think the reaction was over dramatic.

Marwan Bishara:

Do you actually think Western powers today, NATO, would intervene in Syria?

Robert Fisk:

No, absolutely not. There are two nations which are least critical of Syria. One is called Israel and the other's called Iran. Which tells you a lot about the situation. I don't think Israel wants a war in Syria involving Western forces because they will be involved. I don't think we have the taste for it. America has lost the war in Iraq, it's losing the war in Afghanistan, it's turning into anarchy. The last thing it wants to do is get involved in another war.

Marwan Bishara:

Let me tell you why there's a counter argument to this. An intervention, Libya style, in Syria will mean bombing the radar centers, bombing the land-to-air centers.

Robert Fisk:

And the presidential palace.

Marwan Bishara:

Which means paralyzing the Syrian military for decades. Why is that not in Israel's favor?

Robert Fisk:

Because Israel's fear, and I think it's a wrong fear, but Israel's fear is that "Islamists will take over. Al Qaeda will take over."

Marwan Bishara:

Are you buying into this, by the way, Robert? There's a lot of talk recently about the whole Al Qaeda thing and...

Robert Fisk:

I don't buy into Al Qaeda at all. One of the most important things of the Arab Awakening, which is what I call it, is that there hasn't been a single picture of Bin Laden, a single Al Qaeda flag raised by any revolutionary street group anywhere in the Arab world. So Al Qaeda's out, it's a has-been, and when Osama Bin Laden died he was already a has-been.

Marwan Bishara:

So in the process, Anas, the situation continues to deteriorate, in light of the international paralysis. We have the man, as I said earlier, responsible for doctrine, the responsibility to protect, has been appointed an envoy to your country. What are your expectations for diplomacy?

Anas al-Abdah:

Well, our main hope is the fact that Kofi Annan is talking to Russia and China a lot.

Marwan Bishara:

So you actually have faith in his mission?

Anas al-Abdah:

Well I mean we have no other option you know.

Marwan Bishara:

Is this diplomacy a prelude to more pressure on the other Security Council members in order to go to military intervention?

Anas al-Abdah:

Well...

Marwan Bishara:

Humanitarian intervention?

Anas al-Abdah:

Let's remember that when Russia voted against the resolution it was not voting against the Western-backed resolution. It was voting against an Arab League sponsored resolution, aimed at resolving the issue peacefully. And by the way, let me tell you this, one day before Russia voted against, we were given a signal by the Russians that there was a breakthrough. Lavrov agreed to it. He sent to Bashar al Assad the finally, which in our view was very, very much diluted, but he sent that resolution, Bashar al Assad refused it, and as a result the Russians voted against it.

Marwan Bishara:

If ever there is a military intervention, whether within the Security Council context or outside, "the coalition of the willing" so called, you think the intervention will help Syria?

Nikolaos van Dam:

It will be disastrous for everyone, for all Syrians, for generations to come I'm afraid. There have not been in recent history and also in past history, there have not been really successful military interventions, look at Afghanistan, look at Iraq, look at Libya, and people are already talking, but now unfortunately only talking about military interventions.

Marwan Bishara:

But Nikolaos, you are a student of Syria. Why are the Syrians--why is there a popularity for military intervention?

Nikolaos van Dam:

Well I don't think there is much popularity, in fact, among the Syrians, for military intervention.

Marwan Bishara:

You think these are just silent voices among a silent majority?

Nikolaos van Dam:

Well some people, of course, there are people who are desperate, these people from the Free Syrian Army, they want help. But it doesn't really mean they want military intervention. Military intervention will, in my opinion, also trigger civil war, which will be endless, and also just imagine that the foreign military intervention will topple this regime. And would help bring to power, let's say, people from the majority, Sunni majority, and they want to have their day of revenge against Alawites. Then this same military intervention forces must then start to protect the people of the regime they have just helped topple, so this can be...and Bashar al Assad, he was supposed to be a protector of the minorities, the Alawites in particular, but he turns out by the behavior of the regime, to be the biggest danger for all those Alawites. Also those who don't, who really dislike him or are against it, but cannot openly be against it.

Anas al-Abdah:

We are not openly asking for international intervention to topple the regime. We are asking for international intervention to save civilians.

Marwan Bishara:

Is that semantics or...

Anas al-Abdah:


No. The thing is, if the regime stops targeting civilians, now nobody will ask international intervention.

Marwan Bishara:

Of course not. But if it continues, would you be in favor of international or Western intervention?

Anas al-Abdah:

Since the veto was used, an average of 100 people are killed on a daily basis. I want people to give me an alternative.

Marwan Bishara:

But Nikolaos says it will get worse if there is military intervention. In Libya, 1500 died before the military intervention. Twenty-five to 40 died after the military intervention to protect civilians.

Anas al-Abdah:

Yeah but if there was no intervention, probably there would be 300,000 in Benghazi who would have been slaughtered.

Marwan Bishara:

You know that as a fact? Because it didn't enter some of these cities like Musrat and so on.

Anas al-Abdah:

No, no, I mean he sent his troops to Benghazi and he was stopped by NATO.

Marwan Bishara:

But he did enter Musrat, by the way, and he didn't do any of these atrocities.

Anas al-Abdah:

The military intervention that we are talking about is not necessarily like Libya...

Nikolaos van Dam:

It's probably worse. Because you must make a calculation between being more principled and looking for justice and having much more bloodshed or being more pragmatic and less bloodshed.

Robert Fisk:

One day after every military intervention, it always goes totally wrong. And it would go wrong in Syria immediately. Not least since we're reading our history books because the Syrians have always fought the foreigner: they fought the Ottomans, they fought the French, and they fought the French again, they fought the Israelis, and look how quickly Afghanistan changed. We went to Afghanistan because we loved them so much, we wanted to give them freedom and women liberation and everything else. And what happened? We've got the whole of Afghanistan against us.

Nikolaos van Dam:

Look what happened in Rwanda.

Robert Fisk:

I thought we should mention Rwanda.

Anas al-Abdah:

After what happened in Rwanda, the international community said "Never again." And it's happening.

Marwan Bishara:

This is the responsibility to protect.

Anas al-Abdah:

Absolutely.

Marwan Bishara:

And you think that there shouldn't be humanitarian intervention?

Robert Fisk:

What's Kofi Annan, may I say so? It's the same guy, that's another thing you should be worried about.

Marwan Bishara:

Let's discuss the three possible scenarios, in my head anyway. Robert, the Algerian scenario in this case. Meaning there's no military intervention, as in Algeria in 1991. France makes sure no one interfered there. The generals then basically slaughter most of the people, call them terrorists. You think with Russian protection for the Syrian regime this could be the scenario in Syria?

Robert Fisk:

No I think Algeria has nothing to do with that. Algeria is not Syrian. Because when the Algerian military were fighting against the GIA in the Aures Mountains and failing, they sent a delegation to Damascus to be taught by the Defense Brigades how they'd won in Hama so that the Algerians could learn from it. I was in Algerian when that military delegation returned from Damascus.

Marwan Bishara:

You were the one who says no military intervention. You think in that absence we will have a repeat of the Algerian situation in Syria?

Nikolaos van Dam:

No I don't think so. I think gradually every support for this regime will report.

Marwan Bishara:

But you think absence of military intervention from the outside, will the opposition be able to take power or at least oust...

Nikolaos van Dam:

I think it will take some time. Perhaps the Ba'ath regime has still its opportunity next year March to "celebrate" their 50th anniversary.

Marwan Bishara:

It could implode in just fall apart.

Nikolaos van Dam:

Yes, it could implode.

Marwan Bishara:

Let me go to my second scenario, we discussed it slightly earlier, which is the Libyan scenario. You said Libya's not Syria, and now we're saying Algeria's not Syria, but certainly there was no intervention on the ground in Libya. This was not Afghanistan or Iraq. Took care of all the defense, this or that and military bases, and basically the regime in Libya more or less collapsed. And when the revolutionaries moved on, that happened. Could we expect between Kofi Annan, the Russians, and the Western pressure, for the Libyan scenarios to be repeated in Syria?

Robert Fisk:

No, because Libya was being led by a raving lunatic. And Bashar al Assad is not mad. He's a very sane man in comparison to Gaddafi. Libya, in my view, was never a proper nation under Gaddafi. It was a crazed place. You cannot draw parallels like that.

Marwan Bishara:

You think Assad is too smart to allow things escalate that far to be an international consensus...

Robert Fisk:

The Syrian regime is much smarter than the Gaddafi regime, which was a tin pot organization, we know that.

Marwan Bishara:

You agree with that?

Anas al-Abdah:

The Syrian regime is smarter than Gaddafi, absolutely that's true. I think the Syrian regime will be forced into political solution by a credible threat of military intervention.

Marwan Bishara:

So you think this will be a Yemeni scenario.

Anas al-Abdah:

Exactly. If such a threat is, talk to Bashar, "If you don't stop targeting civilians, if you don't stop making change according to a road map agreed by the international community, we are going to bomb you." Then the Syrian regime will move.

Marwan Bishara:

Some of the Alawite officers will move on to say, "It's time for Bashar to move on and for us to hold some power in the country."

Nikolaos van Dam:

I think the president wants to do it the legal way, having elections, his legal way of course. But I think I'd also like to bring up the so called humanitarian corridors. Having corridors on Syrian territory means occupation. And having that occupation means, of course, the opposition from there would like to extend its occupation or liberation, the regime calls this of course occupation, it depends because its occupation by foreign forces because the opposition itself cannot do this. So they will not accept it. They will try to shoot at those people who try to...

Anas al-Abdah:

What I'm saying is a credible threat will move the Syrian regime a long way. That's what I'm saying.

Marwan Bishara:

Okay, so in the absence of that, and I will move to my last scenario, and maybe it's the worst possible nightmare, but maybe we are going in that direction. So here we are stuck in the arming of the opposition and then within a year when things really get bad in Syria on the humanitarian level, civil war, there will be an international intervention and hence we have Balkanization. Are we witnessing the Kosovo situation?

Robert Fisk:

By which time, the Syrian crisis will also become the Lebanese crisis. It's amazing the Lebanese through their courage and good sense have not yet got sucked in.

Marwan Bishara:

But I'm talking here about the Kosovo/Serbia scenario. Will we see the Balkanization, arming the revolution, and that's just Kosovo, and later intervening in the breakup of the country.

Robert Fisk:

No, I'll tell you something very interesting about all the revolutions including Syria. Oddly enough, all these countries have kept within their colonial borders. The Jordanians have not risen up and rushed to help the Syrian opposition. The Egyptians didn't rush in and help the Libyans, nor did the Tunisians. They've, oddly enough, their nations are just old enough to stick within their borders and I don't think...we were being told by the Tom Friedman School of Journalism that Iraq was gonna be three nations, Kurdish, Sunni, Shiites at the bottom as usual, like in Lebanon. It never happened. Lebanon was going to be cantonized.

Marwan Bishara:

We shouldn't have to worry about the breakup of Syria.

Robert Fisk:

No, it's not going to break up. Syrians are much smarter than that.

Nikolaos van Dam:

What helps is that everyone in Syria is against civil war, everyone is against sectarianism. Nobody wants it, so let's say from Arab Nationalist, they're more Syrian Nationalist now.

Anas al-Abdah:

This revolution has built a new sense of national identity within the Syrian people that will be against sectarianism that will be against civil war, and against the breakup of Syria.

Marwan Bishara:

So you think the revolutionary consciousness that we've seen in the Arab world that we are seeing in Syria continues to be dominant. It's not losing steam

Anas al-Abdah:

Absolutely not.

Nikolaos van Dam:

It's a miracle. Because of all this violence that these people in Syria have the courage to revolt for many people have a great probability that they will be killed.

Marwan Bishara:

Well I'll tell you, with an issue of a miracle and the revolution going on and the possibility of Syria not breaking up, this is good enough news for me to end, gentleman, thank you for joining Empire, and I'll be back with a final note.

Fasten your seatbelts, or so I titled one of the final thoughts in my recent book, "The Invisible Arab: the Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution". The next few years, I wrote back in November, promise to be difficult. The revolutions' aftershock could be dangerous if people are not prepared to combat the looming forces of counter-revolution, which manifest in the region's pervasive dictatorships, in its reactionary and political, religious movements, sectarian groups and with cynical regional and international powers. The revolutions have added new elements of unpredictability to a region bridled with instability and conflict that the nascent revolutionaries will find hard to turn their back on. This is especially true as the seasons have turned on the Arab Revolutions. The Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt gave way to a heated summer in Libya and Syria, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands. The regime's violent crackdown, the militarization of the revolutions, and the international intervention in Libya have derailed the uprisings from their original popular democratic course. Now, there is every likelihood that the change will only come through military struggle. Though the Arab Maghrib and Egypt might begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, the Arab Mushriq, around Syria and Iraq isn't looking too bright. For all practical purposes, national sovereignty, personal liberty, social progress, and regional security are intertwined. Attempts at peaceful dealings will fail utterly. And that's the way it goes. Write to me with your ideas and suggestions. Until next time.

8296

Source:
Al Jazeera
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