Thursday, 21 April 2016

WNYC - Syrian Voices

 Robin Yassin-Kassab:

 "The Assad régime would have gone in 2013 if the Iranian military hadn't come in to rescue him, and then he would have gone by the end of 2015, even with that help, if Russia hadn't come in to rescue him. So Putin has a big influence. He's saved the régime, he seems to have kind of frozen the battle lines for now. We're not going into this in a good way. The opposition negotiations committee is threatening to withdraw from the negotiations because none of their minimal demands have been met, which include an end to the bombing, an end to the starvation sieges which a million people are suffering from, and the release of political prisoners. John Kerry is threatening to blame the opposition committee if it doesn't work out, as usual, but of course they're much more beholden to the Syrians on the ground than to a United States that hasn't helped them.

 There is indeed a renewed concern about human rights. The people on the ground are demanding that they get more than this reduced level of hostilities. There's been a reduction in bombing, which has been very welcome. You've seen the civil activists go back on to the streets. Women and men returning to the streets, calling for the original aims of the revolution, waving the revolutionary flag, protesting against the foreign jihadist groups which have jumped in as well as the Assad régime. The people on the ground after five years of this terror, and the scorched earth policy the régime has unleashed against them, are expecting a lot more than they're getting at the moment. So unless the people on the ground see more, I don't think this process is going to go very far."

 Leila Al-Shami:

"I was working there as a human rights activist prior to the revolution, during the time of the Damascus Spring, which was a time of hope for political change in Syria. People were starting to ask for political reforms. They were starting to ask for the release of political prisoners, more political pluralism, and an end to emergency law, which was the law really used to crack down on political dissent. So it was work defending political prisoners, because that movement was ruthlessly suppressed.

 Assad certainly had a very populist rhetoric, as an anti-imperialist resistance régime, but his rhetoric didn't match reality. Because ostensibly emergency law was in place because of the war with Israel - that was the justification for it - but it was the law that was really used to suppress political dissent. Torture was very widespread prior to the revolution, and since the revolution occurred we've seen torture being practised on an industrial scale.

 Assad was a partner in the War on Terror. There was an illegal rendition programme, where people were rendered by the US to Syria for torture by proxy. A very famous case is that of the Canadian citizen Maher Arar, who was arrested at JFK airport, deported by the Americans, by the CIA, to Syria, where he was held in detention and tortured for over a year on suspicion of being a terrorist; in fact he was completely innocent."

 Robin Yassin-Kassab:

"The Ba'ath Party came to power in both Syria and Iraq in 1963, and then in both countries it changed from being a supposedly socialist nationalist movement, into really a vehicle for the power of dictators, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar, in Syria. He came to power in 1970, and he established a totalitarian dictatorship, which very quickly went far away from the socialist origins. It was really a vehicle for his personal power. It was in some ways secular, but it was also very sectarian, one sectarian community was vastly over-represented in the army and the security forces which really run the country. By the time Bashar, the son, inherited the dictatorship, it really became a neo-liberal régime, and a crony capitalist régime, in which the president's cousin, Rami Makhlouf, by 2011 was estimated to have a finger in 60% of the national economy.

 I think a lot of Syrians misunderstood Bashar, and gave him the benefit of the doubt. He personally remained popular until his first speech in 2011 after the outbreak of the popular uprising which then became a revolution. It was when he degenerated into conspiracy theories, and laughed at the fact that people were being killed, and threatened a fight, that so many people came off the fence and lost their respect for him. It is remarkable that in this country - the Western media as well was making a huge fuss about the fact - that briefly in the year 2000 there was one semi-tolerated semi-independent satirical newspaper. Today of course, in revolutionary Syria, in the liberated areas, there are tens of Free newspapers, tens of Free radio stations.

 It's chaos, but it's a wonderful revolutionary chaos, which is being attacked. There are over four hundred local councils in Syria, which we don't really talk about here. Most of them are democratically elected, so there are real achievements in the middle of this bloodbath.

 I don't think Obama has been weak. I think he has made a very definite, deliberate, and very unwise decision to hand over to Syria to other savage imperialist powers, primarily Russia, but also Iran. The crowning achievement of his administration has been a deal with Iran which I don't think we're against in principle, but it comes precisely at the time that Iran's got tens of thousands of occupation troops, and transnational Shia jihadists that it's organised, in Syria, who are really contributing to the problem, they're contributing to the arguments that ISIS use for their Sunni identity politics. I wish that Obama - it's a good aim after the Bush years to want to withdraw from the Middle East - but what he should have done is try to hand over to the democrats who are standing up in the Middle East and asking for a say in running of their own country, and not just handing it over, as if it's a cake he doesn't want. to other savage imperialist powers, who are causing more refugees, more extremism, and helping Assad destroy Syria, which isn't in anybody's interest.

 Iraq is a complicated situation, there are mistakes on all sides, the Iraqi society is divided and wounded. I think American policies have contributed to the sectarianism there. Saddam Hussein's policies contributed to the sectarianism, likewise Iran and other regional players. In Syria today, as I said, we have over 400 mostly democratically elected local councils, so the Arabs in Syria are practising democracy, and they're being ignored."

Leila Al-Shami:

"The media has focused on Syrians either as victims or as terrorists, and people have not focused on them as agents of positive change within their communities. I think it's essential that the local councils are given support. I also think it's essential that they're at the negotiations, because these are the only democratically elected representatives of Syrians that we have, and legitimacy really needs to be built from the ground up, democracy has to be built from the ground up, not imposed externally from outside.

 I think the US could support the local councils, or at least make them more visible and support their inclusion in the negotiation process, because where the US does seem to have influence
 is over the external negotiations. It doesn't really have much influence on the ground."

Robin Yassin-Kassab:

"Early on there were many members of the Ba'ath Party who hoped that pan-Arab secular nationalism would happen. That's why many members of the religious minorities in the early days went into the Ba'ath Party. But of course these dictatorships use divide and rule tactics. They were vehicles of power for the dictators, and the dictators, not because they were interested in religion, but just for divide and rule purposes, and because they trusted men that they were close to, they brought in people from their families, from their villages, from their communities, from their sectarian communities.

 But I must say the conflict in Syria is not ultimately a Sunni-Shia conflict at all. The president is from the Alawi community, which journalists tell us are Shia, but actually they're not. Traditionally both Sunni and Shia clerics consider Alawis to be heretics. Most Alawis are not very religious. To the extent that they are loyal to the régime, and several or many aren't, but to the extent that they are loyal, it is due to their fear of Islamist alternatives, and because the régime has been very clever in manipulating those fears, by releasing salafist jihadists from prison, having in effect a non-aggression pact with ISIS for a very long time, to allow them to build up, to scare both the West and religious minorities in Syria. But it's not really about that. It's about a struggle between dictatorship and democracy, and there are people from all sectarian backgrounds on the side of the revolution and also people from all sectarian backgrounds who are still loyal to the régime."

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