Saturday, 9 April 2016

Syria: The 21st-Century Disaster

Robin Yassin-Kassab:

 'What does that mean, an arsonist playing at being a firefighter? Well, for example, everyone at the moment is saying the greater evil is ISIS, the mad jihadists, who want to kill us in London, and Paris, and probably Boston, and so on. We would argue that the greater evil, in Syria, is president assad. He's responsible for 95-97% of the civilian casualties. Until recently he's been the only force there with an airforce, the vast majority of civilian casualties have come from the airforce. He's responsible for the vast majority of people displaced; 70% of refugees in Europe say they're escaping Assad, the rest say they are escaping various militias, Nusra, the PYD, etc.

 The other point is that the problem is that Syria has changed from what started as a peaceful protest movement, it became militarised, it turned into a war, every state in the world jumped in and started interfering in that situation; and it became a sectarian war, it started feeding into the larger regional dysfunction, the Sunni-Shia issues between Saudi Arabia and Iran, all the problems left by Saddam Hussein's sectarianism and then the disastrous American invasion and occupation of Iraq, so people think, "Look how dangerous this region is! Look how sectarian it is! Look at all the terrorism and mad jihadism coming out of there! We have to work with the dictator for the sake of stability. This guy's wearing a tie, he doesn't have a beard, so even if he's killed 97% of the people, we should work with him." But Assad has deliberately started this war, he has deliberately made the thing militarised, and he deliberately made it sectarian.

 For a start, it hasn't become completely jihadised, or Islamised. That's been overdone. It's been dramatically overdone in a rather Orientalist way, by commentators of left as much as right. Because there are still all of these democratic councils on the ground, self-organised communities, Free Army militias which a lot of journalists claim don't exist, but clearly do. So that's not the whole story. But how did it happen? Well, Assad deliberately provoked a war, because he knew that he couldn't survive a genuine reform process, that one thing would lead to another, and he and his cohort would end up, at best, in prison, and stripped of their wealth. So as they wrote on the walls, "Assad or we burn the country," they decided to burn the country, because the people didn't want Assad. They did this because it worked before.

 In the late 70s, there was a movement of Islamist, nationalists, leftists, Communists, against Assad. Not a massive popular movement like 2011, but a movement nevertheless. It was so ruthlessly suppressed, that by 1982, all that was left of that movement was the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Which then out of idiocy or desperation staged an armed uprising in the city of Hama, at which point the Assad régime said, "Great! They've brought guns out, it's a war situation." They went in and flattened the 
historical centre of that ancient city, and killed somewhere between ten and forty thousand people, we don't know how many, and that kept Syrians terrified and silent for the next decades until 2011. It worked. Then the Algerians did something similar in 91/92, and are still there, that régime is still in power. The Russians did it, from Chechnya I to Chechnya II, you see the same thing.

 Assad, at the same time that he was locking up and torturing to death tens of thousands of peaceful non-violent non-sectarian protesters, he was also releasing salafist jihadists from prison, and a lot of these people went off and founded these organisations, Jaish al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, and even worse, went of to join the upper ranks of the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra (the al-Qaida franchise) and so on. He did this deliberately, he organised a series of sectarian massacres in 2012, on the plain between Homs and Hama, because he wanted a sectarian backlash. In order to terrify two constituencies. Firstly minorities in Syria, religious minorities, bourgeois secularists in Syria, who may have sympathised with the aims of the revolution, but when they saw angry Sunni Muslims threatening vengeance, as you do after massacres and children being tortured to death and a mass rape campaign, they suddenly thought, well if the alternative to this guy is people who may kill us just because of who we are, just because we aren't Muslims in the way they are, then we have no choice but to stick to this guy. And secondly, the West. He's done it very effectively. He's convinced people that don't know much about Syria, or don't want to know much about Syria, in the West, that yes, this guy is the lesser evil. But he's actually the source of the problem, him and his backers.'

Leila Al-Shami:

 'I think we need to remember that when the protest movement first started, people were not calling for the fall of the régime, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt. People were calling for reform, they were chanting slogans such as, "The Syrian People Will Not Be Humiliated," "The Syrian People Will Not Be Insulted." But due to the massive repression which the state unleashed upon peaceful protesters, people radicalised, and over time started calling for the fall of the régime, and in time you got calls for the execution of the president. But yes, I agree with Robin, the Assad régime really provoked a war, and provoked sectarianism within this conflict. There was a string of massacres carried out against Sunni communities, often by solely Alawi militias, to frighten, to cause tension within different communities in Syria, and as the violence increased from the state, of course people took up arms to defend themselves, to defend their communities from the assault of the state, and in that sense, you get an increasing militarisation within the conflict. And then, as Robin said, because of the provocations against certain communities, specifically targetting Sunni communities, and also through releasing lots of Islamists from jail, you get an increasing sectarianisation of the conflict as well.

 But I think the important thing is not to see this solely through a military lens, and not see this solely through a sectarian lens. Because what's missing from the debate about Syria is what people have been doing on the ground in the most difficult of circumstances. Since the revolution started, I mean what you need to understand first about Syria is that it's an ultra-authoritarian régime where they was no political pluralism, there was no active independent civil society in Syria prior to the revolution. Since the revolution started, you've had an explosion in civil activism. For example, you have many groups that are working on recording human rights violations, talking about issues of democracy. You have organisations that are working to provide relief. Also one of the most interesting things is the way in which communities are self-organising to manage the basic necessities of life, as the régime has withdrawn from those areas.'
Robin Yassin-Kassab:

 'How remarkable, therefore, that today there are over 400 democratically elected councils working. So despite the fact of Russian imperialism, of Iranian imperialism, American imperialism too, Saudi imperialism; despite all of these states jumping in, despite the fact that the Syrian people are under attack from their own state and internationally and from transnational jihadists, both Sunni and Shia, they have remarkably achieved the formation of over 400 democratically elected councils.'
Leila Al-Shami:

 'I agree that democracy is not something that can be brought by the West, they tried that in the last decade to bring democracy to the Arab people on the back of American tanks, and obviously it failed. But what people are failing to see today, is that it doesn't need the West to bring democracy. Arab people, Syrian people, are practising democracy in the most difficult of circumstances, and that's something that's really missing from the narrative on Syria.'
Robin Yassin-Kassab:

 'It's something that people don't talk about. It's something that if you ask people in the street what's happening in Syria, they know about ISIS cutting heads off, they know about all the states and the geopolitics and the supposed Sunni-Shia conflict, although actually Shia people in Syria are 1% of the population so that's not really what it's about, but they don't know about this miracle. It was supposedly so important to the West that the Arabs have democracy a decade ago that they invaded and occupied a country and created a whole load of problems, and today we don't even bother talking about it because we're so wrapped up in geopolitical nonsense, preconceived grand narratives, and we don't bother talking to people on the ground.

 If you look beyond American statements, and Western statements, and rhetoric, to actual actions, the Americans in the Syrian case, actually have been on the side of counter-revolution. It seems that Obama has actually decided to hand over the Syria file, as we heard at the beginning, when he made a red line supposedly for chemical weapons and then he didn't mean it, then when it happened he handed it over to Russia. He said I don't want this Middle E
astern cake any more, I'll just hand it over to other versions of imperialism. Unfortunately, after 2011, it's a very messy process, revolution is wrapped up with all the forms of counter-revolution. The people themselves, however, started asking for a say in how their countries were governed. This makes it complicated for all régimes because it's much easier to have one guy that you can tap on the head or bribe or threaten to get what you want than to have a complex society full of different actors who you have to deal with. But I think the first part of an answer is to stop the horrific violence, because these democratic councils, self-organised communities that we're talking about, at the moment they are keeping life together in these horrifically bombed and traumatised and tormented areas. The reason why there is any life surviving, why there's any rubbish collection, or food distribution, or education or healthcare at all, is because of these local councils. All they're able to do is focus on day to day survival. If you could really stop the bombing, if the United States does want to get involved, I think the best way it could get involved would be to pressure other states to get out, and that includes the Saudis, the Qataris, the Turks, and the most violent, the most committed, the Russian imperialists, and the Iranian occupation troops.

 There are very, very, very few Syrians who are asking outside powers to come and remove Assad. It's true that the Coalition, the élite based outside, has put its eggs in the basket, foolishly, of states outside coming in and removing Assad for them. That's a massive misconception. The states of the world don't want democracy in the Middle East, they don't want the dictators to go, and that's why actually, I don't understand what Jeffrey Sachs saying about how supposedly Obama's letting the war party get its way partially. The Free Army got a few ready meals, so therefore the war party has got its way. At the same time Russia is supplying the guy with attack helicopters and tanks and so on, Iran is providing tens of thousands of on the ground troops and organising transnational jihadists on the frontline, which is making the ISIS problem, and the Sunni identity politics, so much worse. It seems strange to me that the most significant act of the Obama administration, militarily, has been to veto other powers from sending the anti-aircraft weapons which the civilian community so desperately need to defend themselves. The Saudis, the Turks and the Qataris have said they want to give anti-aircraft weapons, of course for their own filthy reasons, to do with their own geostrategic chess game, they don't want democracy either; but they, in part responding to public pressure in their own countries, they want to give anti-aircraft weapons to the resistance, and the Americans have vetoed that. The Americans have done a deal with Iran over the nuclear sanctions. I don't think there should have been sanctions on Iran in the first place over the nuclear issue, but they are doing a deal with Iran and are going to do business with Iran precisely at the first moment in 300 years that Iran takes a really aggressive and sectarian and expansionist turn, and it has Shia militias and occupation troops in both  Syria and Iraq. This is a major source of ISIS. This is a major cause of the Sunni Islamist backlash.

 Putin went in there with his direct intervention. Of course he'd been intervening, politically, militarily and economically since the start, and he's the main sponsor of this terrible dictatorship, but since last September his direct military intervention started. He said he was going in to take out ISIS, to rescue Palmyra, and all the rest of it. Well, 80% of his bombs fell on democratic nationalist communities. Not even on the militias defending those communities, but usually on bakeries, schools and hospitals. On the logic that he's doing what Assad has been trying to do, to destroy the democratic nationalist opposition, so the world is presented with a choice between the fascist dictator and the mad jihadists, assuming that the world will choose the fascist dictator because he wears a tie and doesn't have a beard. It's appalling. If you think the political answer is to bomb the hell out of democratic nationalist civilian communities, their bakeries, their schools and their hospitals, then you might see some logic in inviting this savage imperial assault on Assad. Here is the problem with the so-called left: it seems to think that American imperialism is bad, which of course it is, but Russian imperialism is somehow good. Russian imperialism is filthy, it's disgusting, it's grotesque, it's murderous. There's no excuse for it.

 The Arab people are trying to have a say in their own lives, and Hugh Roberts is saying these filthy imperialist powers should make a deal between themselves, and what he's doing, as he does in his articles for the London Review of Books, is completely and totally ignore what happens on the ground. The Kofi Annan plan in 2012 had absolutely no chance whatsoever of working, not because of America, not because of Russia, but because of the actors on the ground. Because the Syrian people could not stand to see the mass rape campaign, the mass torture campaign and the destruction of their cities, and because the Assad régime had absolutely no intention of compromise, or of going. That's the fundamental reality. You need some local possibility of peace before foreign imperialist powers put a seal on it.'
Leila Al-Shami:

 'I think America should stay out of Syria. I'm against all interventions from foreign powers in Syria. But I think also there's a tendency to overstate America's influence in Syria at the moment, and I think this comes from a basic misunderstanding of how the region has changed since 2011. Yes of course, when you have a popular struggle, a revolution, you have every state in the world trying to intervene in terms of influencing that process and trying to control that process and get power in that situation. Let's be very clear, that no state is intervening to support the popular struggle, they're intervening for their own interests. But as far as I'm concerned, yes America is involved. it's trying very much to control the negotiations, it's trying to influence the SNC and the external coalition, and its also intervening in terms of bombing ISIS. But I think people really have a tendency to overstate what America's role is now, because the main imperialisms in Syria at this time are Russian and Iranian imperialism, and America has played a marginal role, has been scrambling for influence, and really failing since 2011 to assert its influence in Syria.'
Robin Yassin-Kassab:

 'I think that one thing the vast majority of Syrians, pro-revolution and pro-régime, or more commonly anti-revolution or scared of the revolution, can agree on, apart from some Kurds, is that they don't want partitions. At the moment, with this imperial carve-up that seems to be being discussed behind closed doors by all these powers, it looks like we might be moving towards that. Some kind of federalism and more decentralisation probably is part of the solution in Syria when after years of war we've got these explosive polarisations, but...Sykes-Picot, there's nothing sacred about those borders that were drawn by foreign imperialists, and followed by sectarian engineering which worked out very badly indeed; but if we're going to get rid of Sykes-Picot borders, we want something better. We want something that doesn't divide people more on sect, and what it looks like is, Syrians are already upset that Greater Syria was chopped up into little bits, and each one given to a different sect or a different sphere of influence, different imperial control. They are angry about that, they don't want what's left of Syria to be carved up into more pieces, which will then be at war with each other, which will then lead to a great sectarian cleansing. It doesn't work because everyone's mixed up. There are Alawis, not just on the coast, but in Damascus. There are Sunnis on the coast. There are Christians in the east, etc.

 If there was a permanent dramatic drop in the violence, if you could stop everybody bombing, fundamentally, things could start moving again, What you've seen recently is not a ceasefire, because the death count has gone down from 120 a few weeks ago to about 40 a day now, which is a lot better, it's still awful, but with that you see the revival of civil protest, you see women back on the streets, you see the Free Army flags rather than the black flags of the Islamist battalions. You see people in Idlib province fighting against, and protesting against al-Nusra, the al-Qaida franchise. As soon as there is a breathing space for the people, then the civil activism becomes very visible again, and you don't need the Free Army to defeat Damascus, to move into central Damascus and destroy the Alawi enclaves around there, and the military bases around there. You don't need to storm the coast. What you need is a calming of the violence, and then there's the possibility of a good example in the liberated areas. And when people in places that are controlled by the régime see that good example, they will be less scared of the jihadist movements and so on, and there will be more possibilities for people to come together and communicate, and that would be a dramatic movement against the régime. That's why the régime wants war, because as soon as the war stops, the régime will be truly challenged again.'
Leila Al-Shami:

 'One thing we have seen is women back on the streets, and I think that's very positive, because women have long argued that one of the main reasons they have not been on the streets is security issues. I agree that an end to the bombing would allow civil activism to resume, and it gives these extremist groups less rationale when there's no military conflict.'

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