I relocated to the Mideast two years ago because I thought there was a need to break through deafening western-constructed narratives on the region, and believed it was important to do this from inside the region, close to events. Blogging for Lebanese news outlet Al Akhbar English didn’t limit me to an Arab audience either – readers from around the world, eager to follow fast-moving events in the Mideast, came to the website for authentic coverage that they were not reading elsewhere.
Protests in Syria were only just starting to break out as I packed up my possessions for the move to Lebanon. Little did I know that later that year I would start to write about Syria – tentatively at first; more determinedly as the picture cleared for me – and that my Syria coverage would become meaningful in helping to break through false narratives propagated in most western media.
My experiences inside Syria changed my worldview forever. The nastiness of geopolitical games, the disregard for human sacrifice, the wretched suffering of innocents – these are life-changing experiences.
But Syria didn’t just impact lives in the Levant. This conflict has fundamentally shifted the global political landscape and ushered us into an era of multilateralism, altered alliances and new priorities.
The foreign media has fallen behind in its coverage, struggling to make sense of a Mideast that has moved beyond sophomoric soundbites and dumbed-down stereotypes. It is local media that is taking the lead, breaking stories and predicting outcomes today. And it is local media, ultimately, that needs to take the lead in defining the future of the Mideast – with home-grown, not foreign, narratives that “frame” developments and aspirations here.
In the next year I hope to do more work with regional media – either in English or for translation. I’ve been fortunate to have many articles translated into French, Portuguese, Greek, Russian, Italian, Spanish, German and other languages. But the greatest gratification has been when they appear in Arabic, Farsi and Turkish.
So to kick things off before the New Year, here is an interview on Syria I gave to Iranian journalist Kourosh Ziabari for publication on Iran’s Fars News website. The interview was conducted in November and appeared a few days ago on Fars’ English website. Am hoping we will see a version in Farsi too:
Q: The United States and its European and Arab allies have been calling for a military invasion of Syria for almost a long time. They view the military option the only solution to the Syrian crisis. However, they are apparently ignoring the massive support of the Syrian people for President Assad as echoed in the street demonstrations of the pro-Assad citizens and the opinion polls which show that a strong majority of the Syrian people want President Assad to remain in power. Aren’t these states disregarding the will of the Syrian people?
A: The conflict in Syria today has been a long time in the making. For years, the US and its western allies have sought to undermine Iran’s influence in the Mideast by targeting its staunchest allies, Syria and Hezbollah. Wikileaks Cables show this quite clearly – a 2006 cable after the Israeli war on Lebanon shows US officials worried about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s improved domestic and regional status, and urges the development of a plan of action to “exploit vulnerabilities” – sectarian, economic, political – that could chip away at his legitimacy.
The Arab Uprisings provided a unique opportunity for the US and its allies to exploit the narratives of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and impose them on Syria through blatant media propaganda and subversive activities on the ground. I have often wondered why, for instance, at the same time that Syrian government officials were offering conciliatory measures, dialogue and reforms to defuse tensions in early 2011, vulnerable Syrians in “hot” areas were being sniped at. From the start of events in Syria there has been a determined effort by its adversaries to use sabotage, assassinations, political violence and information warfare to whip up popular sentiment and sway large segments of the populations into supporting a rebellion.
I can’t speak for the veracity of polls taken during this conflict, but it isn’t hard to cobble together a picture of the population demographics that have supported Assad – or specifically, that have rejected the armed rebellion. You have the major cities (Aleppo and Damascus), minorities (Alawite, Druze, Christian, Kurds, Shiite), Baathists (3 million members, most Sunni), the armed forces, the business community, the government elite – most of whom have rejected the militarization of the opposition, if not outright supported Assad. This, in itself, constitutes millions and millions of Syrians whose voices have been entirely ignored until recently.
Karen Koning AbuZayd, a UN commissioner for the Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria, said much the same thing earlier this year about persistent support for Assad inside Syria: “There’s quite a number of the population, maybe as many as half – if not more – that stand behind him.”
Q: What do you think about the activities of the foreign-backed rebels and mercenaries who have taken up arms against the Syrian government and are hell-bent on removing President Assad from power? Why are the foreign powers backing, financing and arming them? Isn’t it strange that even some of the Arab states in the region have joined them and are contributing to the destabilization of Syria?
A: The armed opposition has been opportunistic and bloody from the start, targeting security forces, on and off duty, and pro-government civilians since March 2011. While there were indeed Syrian army defectors who joined the “revolution” early on in the conflict in response to government clampdowns and/or their own genuine political sentiments, much of the armed rebellion has been funded, assisted and organized from outside Syria’s borders. We know, for instance, that non-Syrians were entering the country right from the beginning – we have video, photographic and anecdotal evidence of this happening over the Lebanese border, as example. These people were provided with wages, weapons, intelligence and training, with the expectation that a hard thrust against Assad’s government would unseat him in short shrift, much like what had already happened in other Arab states.
When this did not happen, foreign intervention increased substantially, always with the notion that “one more” big effort would cause Assad to fall. Whereas in the past, the enemy had been the US, some European states and Israel, we suddenly started to see the ferocious engagement of Arab regimes in the Syrian conflict – Qatar and Saudi Arabia, assisted by a smattering of other Persian Gulf states, Jordan, Turkey, and jihadists from all corners.
Each may have had their own reasons for participating, but at the core, the Arab states that threw weapons, funding and fighters at Syria were seeking to undermine the Resistance Axis in the region and to create a counter-revolution that would push back Arab popular uprisings against illegitimate regimes. For some though, the fight in Syria became existential. Saudi royals – who view the uprisings and Iran’s influence in the region as being a threat to their very survival – have said that a loss in Syria would mean the loss of their oil-rich, Shiite-dominated Eastern Province. It isn’t a very rational train of thought, but it has been the main impetus behind Saudi support for the armed rebellion.
Q: It sounds like the anti-Syrian opposition groups are not united and cannot follow a cohesive path. Some of them call for dialogue with the government to resolve the disputes, while some of them utterly reject any kind of negotiation, calling for the removal of President Assad and the dissolution of his government. What’s your viewpoint on this inconsistency and lack of harmony among the Syrian opposition?
A: I am assuming you are referring mainly to the externally-based Syrian opposition here. This opposition has been funded and assembled by foreign foes of Syria for geopolitical gain. Their goal was to unseat a “dictator” so that they could then come in and establish their own foreign-backed “dictatorship” at the heart of the Resistance Axis. The reason this opposition has never been able to articulate a cohesive, inclusive, political platform for the Syrian people is because they are all backed by different, sometimes competing, interests, and because their goal is not a politically reformed Syria, but instead the establishment of their own power and economic bases.
The lack of cohesion in this group and the embarrassing infighting that has plagued them from their inception, is a testament to the fact that you cannot just manufacture revolutions, assign leadership, cobble together “governments in exile.” Legitimacy comes from the people who are within the state. Leaders have to earn their positions, based on consensus of some kind that is accepted by the majority. Meanwhile, inside Syria, for nearly three years a peaceful domestic opposition has been ignored by foreign media and governments. These are activists who have credibility among their communities and have the potential to create grassroots movements that can exert pressure on the government to produce desired reforms. But these domestic opposition types were never empowered and encouraged. It goes to show that the foreign backers of the Syrian “revolution” were less interested in reform than they were in assuming power.
And no, I do not foresee the possibility of a last-minute delegation with common goals representing the “opposition” at Geneva talks. It is too late for some things. I believe the major issues that must be tackled to achieve a political solution will be resolved between the Syrian government and key regional and international players in advance of any Geneva talks. The “public” negotiations will just put a pretty face on things for mass consumption. Today, if you want a political solution, you first need the disarmament of the conflict – and this will not be an issue for Syrians to resolve, it is a concession that can only be wrenched from states that arm both the rebels and the Syrian armed forces.
As for whether Assad stays or goes, that is not something that should be decided by external parties at negotiations in Geneva. It is a choice for Syrians only. And I sincerely hope that the Syrian government is obliged to conduct transparent elections under the rigorous supervision of impartial, professional, international observers. It is the only way the next government can enjoy legitimacy.
Q: Why haven’t the international organizations, especially the UN Security Council, prevented the influx of illicit arms and weaponry into Syria which directly reach the rebels and insurgents who not only kill the Syrian army forces, but the innocent civilians, children and women? The Security Council surely knows that the smuggling of arms and ammunitions to the rebels and mercenaries is taking place furtively, but it doesn’t condemn or take action to stop it. Why?
A: At this juncture in our collective political evolution, it befits us to be honest about what we call the “international community.” In effect, this term really only ever refers to those countries that politically and economically dominate our global political system. For the past few decades, “international community” has come to mean the United States and a handful of its allies. Even UN Security Council permanent members Russia and China haven’t truly counted. Nor have the next generation of fast-growth economies and major population centers like India, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa – until very recently. These second tier players have suddenly begun to insert themselves into critical political and economic developments – and Syria has been the theater in which some of these geopolitical battles have been fought.
The reason the UN and other western-dominated NGOs have not sought to impose punitive measures on parties that weaponized the Syrian conflict is simply because the UN and these NGOs are absolutely dominated by parties backing one side in this conflict. It was not in their interest to do so. Nobody understands the issue of weaponizing conflicts better than these groups – they have spent years churning out analyses and reports that document the dangers of “small arms” in conflict. They know better than anyone that weaponizing conflicts has a direct correlation with the breakdown of law and order, and that human rights violations spike dramatically. They know that even after “peace treaties” are signed, these weapons continue to exchange hands and keep conflict “humming.”
The fact is that the UN could not take action against the weaponization of the Syrian conflict because its dominant members were still seeking a military solution to oust Assad. Now that the US and key western allies are reassessing this route and are pursuing diplomatic solutions for a Syrian exit, we may see an altered NGO posture, where violators are named and punitive actions are taken. It is important to note that the only parties to have vocally advocated for the mutual de-weaponization of the conflict are those states outside the old international “power paradigm” like the BRICS and Iran.
Q: What’s your viewpoint on the state of Syrian refugees who have fled to the neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey? They are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, foodstuff, medicine and above all, a permanent shelter; however, it seems that there’s no entity assuming responsibility for them. How does their future life look like? With the current destruction and instability imposed on Syria, can they foresee an early return to their homeland?
A: Nobody is assuming responsibility for them because refugee absorption requires money, which many states have preferred to throw at a military solution inside Syria. When I visited Syria in early 2012, an official with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told me very specifically, “if the fighting stops today people can return home tomorrow.” At that time, the biggest humanitarian problem they were facing was internal displacement, so he was mainly referring to the fact that continued violence from both sides inside towns and villages was the primary inhibitor of Syrians being able to return to their homes.
Today, that problem has grown exponentially with millions of refugees seeking safety outside Syria’s borders and even more millions being displaced internally. Again, for those interested in assisting refugees, I tell you that the moment the political violence and military operations cease, is the moment that these people can start returning to their communities. Obviously, this would have been easier a year ago – today, so many areas have been leveled by fighting with homes, schools, infrastructure destroyed, that there is sometimes nothing to go home to. But the best solution still remains one that involves rebuilding of communities – that’s where the international financial assistance should go, and not to resettling Syrians outside their countries or in unfamiliar areas within, which is why a solution to this conflict is urgent. We are approaching winter in the Levant, and it is unconscionable that international and regional parties cannot diplomatically agree to demilitarization of the Syrian conflict, so that more lives can be spared. Otherwise our attention will be turned from Syrians getting shot and bombed and beheaded, to Syrian starving and freezing to death.
Q: It was on the reports that US President Barack Obama has ordered a temporary lift on the arms ban to Syria so that certain weaponry and ammunitions could be delivered to the rebels and those whom Secretary of State John Kerry has called “moderate” terrorists. Isn’t this order somewhat hypocritical as the United States has always depicted itself an ardent opponent of terrorism and extremism? How is it possible to justify its overt support for the terrorists in Syria?
A: The US has acted very opportunistically inside Syria, prioritizing interests over values at every turn. It has tacitly and sometimes actively supported those individuals and groups which were Washington’s targets in a decade-long “war on terror.” Washington knows full well that weapons cannot be funneled specifically to “moderates” – rebels will sell them for good money at a moment’s notice, and many of these rebels change groups with great frequency. When Kerry first made that statement about arming the moderates, I got in touch with a US State Department spokesman and asked him repeatedly to name one “moderate” rebel group that “could” potentially be a recipient of American military largesse. He couldn’t.
As is the case with most US foreign policy in the Mideast, we now see an “unintended consequence” emerge – Salafi-Jihadist cells, gangs, militias and networks have grown like weeds, not just in Syria, but throughout the Levant, Persian Gulf and North Africa. This is the main reason the US is now reassessing its interests in Syria and the broader Mideast.
It is ironic that the US spent so many years allegedly fighting terror, when in fact its policies spawned an unprecedented growth in terror groups, networks and activities, both in and out of the Middle East. Today, this arm of American policy has been crippled by the challenges it faces against Salafi extremists. It is why Washington is rapidly altering its position vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran. The US actually needs Iran now to regionally lead the charge to eliminate these groups, secure borders and help stabilize a very chaotic region.
Q: And a final question; how does the future of Syria look like? From one hand, we have the United States and its regional allies that seem to be strangely intractable and unwilling to allow the Syrian people to decide their fate, and from the other hand, there are the foreign-backed terrorists, Al-Qaeda fighters and Al-Nusra Front warriors that are carrying out bloody operations every single day. Can we foresee a peaceful future for Syria one day?
A: I’m a rare optimist on Syria. I firmly believe we have the potential to see the reestablishment of a secure and unified Syria with a modified and reformed central government.
I don’t believe that this can be achieved only via a political solution, however. As I said earlier, a political outcome must first be reached between the regional and international parties that weaponize the conflict. This is stage one. The next stage will need global consensus because it entails a massive military push to purge Syria and its neighbors of jihadists and their local brethren. This will consist of several things: aiding and empowering the Syrian army to use full military force against these groups inside Syria; a worldwide effort to inhibit the financing of militants by individuals and states and slapping punitive measures against violators; heavily policed borders in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon.
This may not be easy, but it is not difficult either – if the political will is there. And I believe we are coming to that stage – where Syria’s western and Arab foes, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, Israel and wealthy financiers of jihad, have fully realized the dangers of allowing this conflict to continue and political violence to escalate to these levels. Jihadists from dozens of countries, from all continents, have found a haven in Syria, and are spreading with relative impunity into neighboring states. If this trend is not stemmed, they will come back home and wreak their carnage there.
The final stage is reconstruction – which will again require the material assistance of the international community – and elections.
How is all this possible? And if it were, why haven’t we seen these measures being implemented earlier? I do not believe the political will existed until recently. I think Washington’s threat to launch military strikes against Syria was a “last stand,” and it failed because the west knows it cannot fight any more wars in the Mideast or predict outcomes. It also knows that Syria’s rebels have become everyone’s worst nightmare. The US knows it is going to need regional help to unwind this conflict – and that its traditional allies are unable to deliver, hence the “unprecedented” negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva. Geopolitical realities have fundamentally shifted. Yesterday’s enmities do not compare to the horrors ahead for the international community if the jihadi genie is not put back into its bottle.
These new alliances will not only work to resolve the Syrian conflict and re-stabilize the state, but will also serve to push “stability” throughout the region.
Interview by Kourosh Ziabari for Fars News on December 8, 2013.