Transcribed from the 2 April 2016 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the full interview:
“The movement has shown very clearly that they will not accept fascism, and their struggle is against all authoritarianism. They’re not going to replace one authoritarian state with another.”
Chuck Mertz: A little over five years ago, small groups of Syrians broke out into peaceful protests asking for democratic reforms. The protesters were greeted by the state with violence. The protests continued, and as they grew, so did the brutality of the security forces supporting Bashar al-Assad. Here to tell us how Syrians wanted democracy but instead face annihilation, Leila Al Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab are co-authors of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War.
Leila was a founding member of Tahrir-ICN, a network that connects anti-authoritarian struggles across the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, and has worked with the human rights movement in Syria and throughout the Middle East. She blogs at leilashami.wordpress.com.
Robin is the author of the novel The Road From Damascus and a contributor to the anthology Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Front Line. Robin writes frequently for the Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera English. He is co-editor of the blog Pulse and former editor of the journal Critical Muslim.
Leila and Robin will be discussing their book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War on Tuesday April 12 at six p.m. in Assembly Hall at the International House at the University of Chicago.
[to Antidote readers in the US: the University of Chicago event is only one on an extensive tour already underway; please check out this list for an event near you. —ed.]
Leila, let’s start with you. You write, “This is where the revolution happens first—before the guns and the political calculations, before even the demonstrations: in individual hearts, in the form of new thoughts and newly unfettered words. Syria was once known as the ‘Kingdom of Silence.’ In 2011 it burst into speech. Not in one voice, but in millions. An immense surge of long-suppressed energy, a nonviolent protest movement crossed sectarian and ethnic boundaries and spread to every part of the country. Nobody could control it, no party or leader or ideological program, and least of all the repressive apparatus of the state, which applied gunfire, mass detentions, sexual assault, and torture—even of children—to death.”
So Leila, what were the words that needed to be said that could cause such an uprising?
Leila Al Shami: Well, the uprising was a response, I think, to two aspects. One was the authoritarianism of the state, and the complete denial of political freedom, the complete lack of space for Syrians to participate in their communities, in their society, under the Assad regime.
It was also a response to the neoliberal economic reforms which were brought in under Hafez al-Assad, the former president, and really sped up under Bashar. These reforms led to the impoverishment of wide sections of the population during Bashar’s decade in power.
As you mentioned in your introduction, a leading Syrian dissident called it the “Kingdom of Silence.” People didn’t have the opportunity to express themselves, and this is what made what happened in 2011 so remarkable. It came in the wave of a transnational revolutionary uprising across the region, in North Africa and the Middle East—people going into the streets and saying, “Enough!”—but we should also remember that at the beginning of the protest movement, people in Syria were not calling for the fall of the regime, unlike in Egypt and Tunisia. They were asking for very modest reforms. But because of the response of the state and the massive amounts of violence that were directed towards peaceful protesters, people radicalized and started calling for the fall of the regime.
CM: Robin, let me follow up on what Leila was just saying. She mentioned the neoliberal economic reforms under Hafez al-Assad prior to Bashar al-Assad’s succession to power after his father’s death. What do we miss in our understanding of the Syrian civil war when we don’t mention the neoliberal economic reforms and the impact that they had on the citizenry of Syria?
Robin Yassin-Kassab: Unfortunately, I think we in the West—left as much as right—have missed most of what’s happening, because we’re stuck with our preexistent “big stories,” our grand narratives of Sunni-Shi’a conflict or geopolitical conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, or the supposed conflict—which actually doesn’t exist at the moment—between America and Iran, or between America and Russia.
We don’t attend to the voices on the ground. We don’t ask Syrians why they are doing it, what their motivations are. And then we come up with silly conspiracy theories: some people seem to think that the Syrians are rebelling because the CIA told them to, which of course is absurd—the vast majority of Syrians are not interested at all in what Obama or the Sauds or the Israelis have to say. They’re responding to their immediate circumstances.
As Leila said, the economic situation in Syria by 2011 was fairly disastrous, because of these neoliberal reforms. And whether or not you agree with neoliberal economic reforms, these ones were done particularly badly. It was crony capitalism, really, to the extent that the president’s cousin, a man called Rami Makhlouf, was estimated by 2011 to have a finger in sixty percent of the national economy. At the same time, the subsidies on food and fuel—which had provided a safety net, traditionally, for the poorest people in society—were drastically cut.
A lot of people would put up with the humiliation and the repression of the regime, because they felt that economically they were getting something out of it—they were at least able to feed their kids. By 2011 a lot of people were working three jobs, were suffering daily humiliation and repression, and also were finding it really difficult to feed their kids. So they began to feel like they’d gotten to a breaking point: “There’s no safety net; we have to go out and complain.”
But as Leila said, it was just a complaint. And then the regime provoked a war—and I would say deliberately, which sounds a bit strange, but could tell you why.
Why on Earth would a regime, a government, a state, provoke a war against itself? The reason is that the regime knew that to satisfy the people it would have to start a real, genuine reform process—political as well as economic—and that they couldn’t survive it. One thing would have led to another, and at the end of that process the regime elite would have ended up—at best—in prison, stripped of its wealth. And they really didn’t want that.
And of course, they’d done it before and it had worked. In the late seventies in Syria, there was a political movement—nothing like the mass mobilization of 2011, but nevertheless a political movement against the regime—which included leftists, nationalists, and liberals as well as Islamists. By 1982, as a result of ruthless repression, all that was left of it was the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which staged an armed uprising in the city of Hama, at which point the regime said, “Okay, you’ve brought guns into it, so we will go in.” And they smashed the historical heart of that ancient city, killed somewhere between ten thousand and forty thousand people (we don’t know), and the terror of 1982 kept the Syrians quiet until 2011, when there was a new generation who couldn’t remember the scale of the terror.
So by torturing children to death—and then, interestingly, returning the mangled corpses to the parents, because they wanted a response—and by organizing a mass rape campaign; by forcing soldiers to shoot on their unarmed countrymen every day, so some of them defected; by doing all of this, they provoked a war.
And sadly, although it’s destroyed Syria and made half the population homeless and killed up to half a million people, it does seem to be working. Because now there are international jihadists jumping in; we’ve got lots of different states jumping in; and everybody is ignoring the original democratic demands of the people in favor of these grand narratives.
And lots of people—including in the West, including Western governments—are coming around to the idea, which they may have had all along, that it’s best for the sake of so-called stability to work with this tyrant who wears a tie and shaves, because he’s supposedly the “lesser evil” as opposed to the jihadists with beards who want to kill us even in the West.
And of course there are other people we are ignoring. There are democrats, there are self-organized communities, local councils. There is another alternative which should be supported, that isn’t being supported or even being heard of.
CM: Leila, when we in the West think about this uprising, we think about it as something that started in 2011. But does this uprising date back to the 1980s? Instead of looking at this as something that has only happened within the last few years, should we be looking at this uprising as something that has been taking place for decades against a brutal dictatorship that was handed on from father to son?
LS: There were instances of protest against Hafez al-Assad—there were demonstrations and strikes that occurred throughout the eighties, and Robin has just talked about the uprising that occurred in Hama. Also in Bashar’s period there were a few movements happening. There was a very interesting nonviolent youth movement which was carrying out things like boycotts of businesses; they were doing a lot of work campaigning against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, these kinds of things. But in general there was no independent or active civil society existing in Syria prior to the revolution.
What civil society existed was very much controlled by the Ba’ath party. For example, there were a number of development organizations which were established under the patronage of Asma al-Assad, the first lady of Syria. And there were a few charities, which were mainly involved in service provision. But political activity was ruthlessly suppressed throughout that period.
So 2011 was very unique, and people often talk about the fear barrier being broken, that people found a voice that they had suppressed, themselves, for decades, out of fear of repercussions. To me, what happened in 2011 was unexpected, and a very, very interesting historical moment, when people suddenly found their voice and really said enough is enough.
“Men and women of Maarat al-Nouman have continued their civil resistance against Jabhat al-Nusra for 21 days”
CM: Let me follow up on that, Leila. You write, “The two-fold character that the battle imposed on Syrians is against the Assadist necktie fascists and the Islamist long-bearded fascists.” So more than anything, is this ongoing war that we’re seeing right now—is this a war against fascism?
LS: I would argue yes, and I think it’s very interesting not only how the Syrian uprising began against the fascist regime, against the authoritarianism of the Syrian state, but how that movement has also radicalized over time. Because over the course of the conflict—and certainly when the conflict became militarized—there was the arrival of all kinds of different groups, many of them Islamist extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Jaysh al-Islam. And in areas where those groups have tried to impose their dominant vision or tried to control the freedoms of the people, we’ve again seen popular protests against such groups, and that’s happened continually over the past five years.
What’s been very interesting now, with the reduction of hostilities by Russia, is the massive resumption of protests. The civil movement has not been so visible, because of the violence and the dominance of the military struggle. But we’ve seen people in places like in Idlib—at protests on the streets that have erupted in the past few weeks once again, really showing that civil activism is still alive—calling not only for the fall of the regime and stating that their original concerns have not been addressed and they’re still very committed to that revolutionary struggle against the regime, but also showing that they reject Jabhat al-Nusra. People in Idlib have been protesting against Jabhat al-Nusra, and Jabhat al-Nusra has been trying to suppress the protests in Idlib.
So yes, I think the movement has radicalized some people, and shown very clearly that they will not accept fascism, and their struggle is against all authoritarianism. They’re not going to replace one authoritarian state with another.
“It’s a state-centric discourse, and there’s very little knowledge about the popular struggles or grassroots civil movements in Syria. When this kind of discourse comes from sections of the left, it is very strange, because the politics of liberation should be grounded in people’s struggles for freedom, dignity, and social justice.”
CM: Robin, are these democratic reformers—the people who started the nonviolent protests back in 2011, the people who wanted to have real democracy, the people who put in these local coordinating committees—are these reformers the real threat to not only Assad, but to Russia and even the United States?
How much of a threat—and I don’t mean that as a negative thing—do they pose to all of the powers that are trying to control what is taking place within Syria?
RY: I think it is a threat, because for outside powers, for states—whether domestically that state has some degree of democracy or not—externally, it’s always easier for foreign states to deal with one man. If you’ve got one guy in charge of a country who you can bribe or threaten or pat on the head when he’s good, you can get what you want out of him, it’s quite simple.
It’s much more complicated when the people themselves are jumping up and saying they want a say too. Then power becomes diffuse, and you have to deal with different sectors in the society; it’s much more difficult.
So yes, I don’t think that America or Britain or France, any more than Iran or Russia, particularly want to see democracy in the Arab world. It’s always dangerous, because those people may not want the things that we think they should want. They may not want to make peace with Israel until occupied land has been returned. They may not want American bases in their countries. They may not agree with the economic policies of the dominant states in the world. So there’s that danger.
And there’s also this very outmoded idea—which, again, is shared sometimes on the left as well as the right—that for the sake of stability we have to stick with these security states, these so-called secular dictatorships. I think that fails to understand what’s happening now. When Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar, came to power in 1970, there were six million Syrians, six million people in the country. By 2011 there were 23 million people in the country. And it was overwhelmingly a young population. And despite the best efforts of the regime to censor the internet and so on, they’d become experts at getting onto proxy servers. It was a more connected-up population than ever before. They were connected to other Arabs, and internationally.
So I don’t think you can rule the Arabs through the security state in the way that you could in the past, and you certainly can’t get back to stability by backing dictators. It’s actually making the problem worse.
It’s notable that in the last three or four decades of totalitarian dictatorships in the Arab world, jihadism and Salafist extremism have become so prominent; I think the two things are intimately related. It’s a result of the failures of the educational system, of cultural repression, of economic oppression, that there are some people jumping to extremes to try to find a solution.
CM: Leila, speaking of security, stability, and safety for the region: when that is said within the US or in the Western media, it’s seen as a very altruistic thing, that we’re thinking about what’s “best for them.” We’re thinking about making certain that they can live from day to day, that they can have security, stability, safety.
What is the problem with focusing on security, safety, and stability as our goals—and we’re trying, of course, as a foreign power, to impose them on somebody else…but what is the problem with focusing on those as our foreign policy goals rather than democracy?
LS: Well, I think one of the main problems is that people believe that it’s Assad who can bring stability and security to Syria, and failing to recognize that the main cause of the instability currently is the Assad regime. I mean, 97% of civilian deaths in Syria have been carried out by the regime. But the focus has very much been on ISIS and intervention against ISIS, and believing that Assad can be worked with as a partner in the struggle against ISIS, when in fact Assad created the chaos which allowed groups such as ISIS to thrive in Syria.
So it’s been a huge problem to see Syria through the security lens, especially when the partner for security is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Whenever there’s a popular struggle like there is in Syria, a popular revolution, all states are going to try and intervene to control that process, and try to exert their dominance and power and influence over that process. That’s how power politics works. But a lot of the focus has been on these geopolitical struggles between states, which has really stripped political agency from the Syrian people. Syrians are unable to define what their struggle is, or say what’s happening in their own country. Everything is being seen as this chess game between foreign powers.
It’s a state-centric discourse, and there’s very little knowledge about the popular struggles or grassroots civil movements in Syria. And when this kind of discourse comes from sections of the left, it is very strange to me, because the politics of liberation should be grounded in people’s struggles for freedom, dignity, and social justice.
I don’t see support from the West for the popular struggle. The West is intervening because of its own interests. I also think that it’s a fallacy to see Western intervention as having played a significant role in Syria. They have intervened: they’ve been trying the influence the external negotiations, they’ve attacked the Islamic State, but they’ve not intervened in a meaningful way that would support the popular struggle on the ground.
Of course, we don’t want Western intervention. At least I don’t want Western intervention. I think the best role that the West could play would be to stay out of Syria, and to use its influence to call on other powers to stay out of Syria—primarily Russia and Iran, who have been the main outside powers that are interfering and that have contributed to a massive worsening of the situation on the ground.
“Even so-called progressive voices on the left, generally out of ignorance of the Arab and Muslim world, and an orientalist laziness, haven’t felt the need to study specific political decisions that were made to manipulate sectarian fears, and instead they rely on old orientalist tropes like, ‘Oh, those people, it’s in their blood, that’s the way they’ve always been.’”
CM: Robin, you write about the making of modern day Syria’s borders by the post-WWI European powers. The reason I want to bring this up is a lot of people point to the Sykes-Picot agreement as the reason that there are so many problems within the Middle East.
You write, “To some extent, the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Lebanese civil wars, and the current chronic instability in Iraq and Syria can be traced to this early twentieth century bout of imperialist map-making and sectarian engineering.
“The Kurds, split between Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, inherited no state whatsoever from the ruins of Ottomanism. The Arabs were embittered by the imposition of many states. For Syrians in particular, the dismemberment of Bilad al-Sham was a primal trauma. Because the truncated post-colonial state had no historical legitimacy, Syrians tended to affirm either more local identities or super-state allegiances to Bilad al-Sham or the Arab nation or the global Islamic community.”
So was Syria never sustainable given those limitations from the post-WWI roots?
RY: I think it was, because all states, everywhere in the world, are artificial—people refer to them as “imagined communities.” Everywhere has had borders drawn around it in strange circumstances, and there are very different groups of people thrown together who, if it works, over time, they grow to feel a sense of common belonging. And I think that was happening in Syria. It did happen. There was a Syrian identity. And there still is, although it’s under great strain at the moment with the sectarian and ethnic polarizations which war has brought about.
There’s nothing sacred about Sykes-Picot borders at all. I mean, they’re not great borders; they weren’t drawn by the locals, they were drawn by British and French imperialists. And so some people are saying we should carve up Syria again, into different zones of influence. But one thing that almost every Syrian agrees on—whether they are pro- or anti-regime, and with the exception of some Kurds—is that they don’t want another partition. They don’t want the country to be carved up.
Some people are talking about it rather ignorantly, as if there’s one area of the country which is Alawi, and one area which is Sunni, and you can draw a line between them. But Syria doesn’t look like that. On the coast, which is often presented as the Alawi heartland, there are lots and lots of Sunnis living in the cities there. There are lots of Alawis living in Damascus and Homs. There are lots and lots of Christians living in the Jazira, in the east of the country, which at the moment, unfortunately, is controlled by ISIS. And people intermarry, and people work together, and people eat together. Nobody wants a carve-up.
If the borders are going to be altered, we would hope they would be altered in a more positive way, and certainly not in some sectarian way under the aegis of Russia or Iran or groups like the Islamic State with their narrow sectarian or power-based ideologies. This kind of partition would result in an ethnic cleansing on a scale greater than we’ve seen in the last five years.
CM: Leila, as you know, Bashar Al Assad tried to exploit sectarianism in his control of the Syrian people. You write, “Between ISIS and the Assadist-Iranian partition scenario, Syria is now witnessing sectarian engineering far worse than any under the French.”
How did the revolution resist sectarianism? How did they bring all of these sects together under one revolution? What is hammered into our heads over and over again, Leila, is that these different sects have been at each other’s throats for millenia, that it’s innate sectarianism that is tearing apart the Middle East.
How did the Syrian revolution overcome that sectarianism?
LS: You’re absolutely right. People often say that the sectarian tensions that we’re seeing now in Syria are the result of millenia of struggle. But that obviously doesn’t tell the story, because over many periods of history people have coexisted and lived together without any problem. But sectarianism has risen at certain key points as a result of power politics and how sectarian tensions have been manipulated to create conflict between communities, often for divide-and-rule purposes.
And as you said, when people rose up in 2011, it was a non-sectarian movement. People from all of Syria’s ethnic and religious communities participated in that movement. But now we’re in a situation where communities are often against each other and there’s great tension between communities. That’s not because over the past five years the main theological texts in Syria have suddenly changed. It’s because sectarian tensions have been manipulated by the regime.
For example, in the early months and years of the revolution and subsequent war, the Assad regime sent primarily Alawi militias into Sunni communities to carry out massacres. Men, women, and children had their throats slit. This contributed to resentments between the communities, and minority communities often became loyal to the regime for protection, because they feared reprisals.
Another aspect of the increase in sectarianism has of course been Iran’s intervention. When a Shi’a, non-Arab power intervenes on a massive scale in Syria to support the regime against a predominantly Arab and predominantly Sunni population, of course people who give the conflict a sectarian reading see this as a Shi’a power against Sunnis.
So I think it’s very important not to fall into the trap of thinking that sectarian tensions have always existed in Syria, but rather to look at why sectarian tensions have risen in key moments of history, as a result of power politics and manipulation.
“Whenever a civilian community is subjected to full-scale military assault, whoever the community is, they have a right to seek weapons to defend themselves from wherever they can get them from.”
RY: I would just add to that, if I could, that we should remember that in the early months of the revolution, the regime, in a so-called “prison amnesty,” released 1,500 prisoners from its prisons (this is at the same time that it was rounding up tens of thousands of nonviolent, non-sectarian, peaceful protesters for indefinite detention and for torture, and sometimes just to kill them). It released 1,500 people—the vast majority of those prisoners were Salafist jihadists who the Syrian government had helped to go to Iraq during the American occupation; they fought the Americans, but more to the point, they helped to precipitate a sectarian civil war in Iraq. When the survivors among those jihadists came back to Syria, they were arrested, put in prison, and they were kept there until 2011, when they were all released.
And these included leaders of Islamist militias like Ahrar ash-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, and many high-up people in the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra. High-level [Syrian military] defectors say that it went beyond that, that in some cases there was even logistical help for these groups from the regime. And this was done to promote the Islamist-jihadist bogeyman, to terrify religious minorities in Syria, and more to the point, to terrify Western powers: “The choice is between me, wearing a tie, and these mad people who want to kill you in America and Europe.”
Of course, that isn’t the choice. But this is what’s being presented, and it’s working very well. And sadly, even so-called progressive voices on the left—generally out of ignorance of the Arab and Muslim world, and a kind of orientalist laziness—haven’t felt the need to study these specific political decisions that were made to manipulate sectarian fears, and instead they just rely on old orientalist tropes like, “Oh, those people, it’s in their blood, that’s the way they’ve always been.”
And it’s not true. In Iraq, for example: before 2003, a third of marriages were cross-sect Sunni-Shi’a, which is quite a high number. It wasn’t a big issue. And then suddenly, as Leila said, it became a big issue. Not because the religious texts changed; not because the people’s DNA changed, but because of politics.
CM: Leila, you write about the peaceful revolution that began in 2011, and still exists today, with its local coordinating committees and this type of democracy. Is the nonviolent nature of that revolution a direct response to the level of violence Syrians have experienced under Assad? Is this a war for nonviolence, in a sense?
LS: Well, certainly. I think all Syrians want to be in a situation where the violence ends. The civil resistance in Syria has been a nonviolent resistance movement, both in the way people are coming out into the streets, carrying out peaceful protests, as well as the way people are organizing their communities. Now in Syria there are hundreds of local councils which have been established in liberated areas where people are self-organizing and practicing democracy. Most of these councils have been democratically elected or chosen through popular consensus. People are coming together, practicing mutual aid and solidarity, trying to find solutions to the problems that they face, trying to keep basic services operating in very difficult circumstances: to try and keep electricity, water supply, and garbage disposal operating.
So yes, people want to live their lives in peace. That’s a natural human desire, I think. And yes, it is a response to the fact that people have seen the way the state has monopolized violence for decades, and they now want a different system. They want a system where they can participate; they want a system where they can live in peace with their neighbors.
But of course violence and militarization has also been a response to the violence of the state. Because when the regime applied gunfire against peaceful protesters, when it started bombing civilian communities, when it carried out mass rape campaigns—going into oppositional communities and raping men, women, and children—people took up arms because they felt that they needed to defend themselves from the violence of the state.
But what we have seen, as I mentioned previously, is that with the reduction in hostilities there has been a visible revival of civil activism in Syria, and of people’s commitment once again to nonviolent struggle.
But we must remember that although this visibility of the protest movement is something we haven’t seen for a while, nonviolent civil activism has been continuing in Syria throughout the militarization. It hasn’t disappeared, it just hasn’t been so visible.
Collection of 170 videos from nationwide anti-government protests in Syria on 18 March 2016
CM: Robin, you write, “Abstract criticisms of the revolution’s militarization miss the point. Syria’s revolutionaries didn’t make a formal collective decision to pick up arms. Quite the opposite. Rather, a million individual decisions were made under fire. In this sense, the militarization was inevitable, and once it had become an undeniable reality, most civil revolutionaries sought to adapt. Some, in the face of the regime’s persistence, rethought their nonviolent principles.”
You also add, “Militarization was not solely a natural human response to regime brutality, it also grew from the logical realization that civil resistance was not enough, that the regime would only go if forced.”
So was nonviolence abandoned for violence? And does nonviolence, in that sense, fall short in the face of extreme violence?
RY: Yeah, it’s a very sad situation. If we look at what local coordination committees and other revolutionary bodies were saying in late 2011 and early 2012, they were releasing statements saying they could understand why people are picking up weapons, but they were basically begging people not to. Because of course it is, in the abstract, a mistake.
And a lot of the people who picked up weapons knew it was a mistake as they were picking up weapons. Violence alienates certain key constituencies who the revolution needs to win over. It scares foreign powers; it scares the West, and makes them more likely to stick with Assad—which is why he provoked it.
And of course the Assad regime has a lot more weapons than the people. And the Assad regime has received a massive and constant supply of weaponry and funds from Iran and Russia and others, unlike the people. So when it comes to a military fight, what the people have got on their side is that they’re in the majority, and that they’re defending themselves in their own neighborhoods. But militarily they’re completely and totally outgunned.
What they needed, when they came under sustained military attack by the state, was anti-aircraft weapons. Because the thing which has been most important in creating the scorched Earth and the vacuum into which international jihadists could jump, was aerial bombardment: the barrel bombs, and also the Scud missiles and all that. These civilian communities needed anti-aircraft weapons to defend themselves.
And the idea that the Americans have been arming the revolution is absurd, because the most significant thing the Americans have done, militarily, is to veto other people from sending in anti-aircraft weapons, when that’s the one thing that would have made a difference. We wouldn’t have half the population homeless, or have a huge refugee crisis in the neighboring states and in Europe, if the people had been able to defend themselves from aerial bombardment.
The Americans vetoed that. The CIA was down at the Turkish border to make sure that the Saudis and the Qataris and the Turks didn’t send these weapons in. Of course the Saudis, the Qataris, and the Turks are not interested in democracy in Syria, either. They’re doing it for their own geopolitical reasons, for their own chess game with other states. But nevertheless, I think that whenever a civilian community is subjected to full-scale military assault, whoever the community is, they have a right to seek weapons to defend themselves from wherever they can get them from.
CM: So are there “good guys” to arm? It seems like the only solution that the United States is ever willing to offer, in any foreign policy issue, is a military option. Who should we be arming?
RY: If America doesn’t want to arm people in Syria, then that’s fine, it doesn’t have to. It should really keep out of it—and stop vetoing other people from arming the Free Army. One of the excuses for not allowing sufficient and suitable weapons for the people to defend themselves was that maybe some of these weapons will get into the hands of jihadists, and that will be a problem for everybody. Well, I could see that argument in 2011-2012, but here we are in 2016 and groups like ISIS have become dominant precisely because the democratic nationalists, the decent defectors from the national army, were not armed.
Because those people weren’t able to arm themselves sufficiently, other actors came in, and people started turning to them. There are foot soldiers even in Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda franchise, who are not committed to al-Qaeda’s ideology; they’ve joined up simply because they can get a weapons supply, and they can get food, and they can get a small salary to send to their family in a refugee camp.
There are tens of thousands of Syrians fighting who are non-ideological. They have no aid other than to defend their communities from this attack, and, once the regime is gone, to allow the Syrian people through some kind of process to decide what comes next. Those people exist, and it’s really hideous racism and orientalism to imagine that every Syrian fighting is a mad jihadist. They are not, by no means. As Leila said, there are over 400 democratic, self-organized local councils and provincial councils in Syria practicing democracy.
Supposedly, Arab democracy was so important to Britain and America in the last decade that they occupied Iraq and made a war supposedly to bring the Arabs democracy. And here in Syria today, there are Arabs doing democracy themselves, and we don’t even know about it, let alone support it.
LS: The US doesn’t need to support democracy in Syria, because the fact is that the Syrian people themselves are organizing and practicing democracy already—and in these circumstances. And as Robin said, the US has played a largely negative role, stopping arms getting to people who are trying to defend their communities from assault.
CM: Leila and Robin, I really appreciate you being on the show with us this week. This is a fascinating book. If our listeners want to know what is happening within Syria at this moment and what has happened not only over the last five years but the last fifteen years, they should read your book. Thank you so much for your insight today.
LS: Thanks for having us.
Featured image source: ANA Press (Facebook).