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  • Al Qaeda, Saudi Arabia and the Collapsing Free Syrian Army

    Omar Dahi tells Paul Jay that there is widespread belief among many Syrians that Geneva II is going to be a way to preserve the Syrian state and create a front for fighting al-Qaeda -   January 13, 14
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    Omar S. Dahi is an associate professor of economics. He received his B.A. in economics from California State University at Long Beach, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. His research and teaching interests are in the areas of economic development and international trade, with a special focus on South-South economic cooperation, and on the political economy of the Middle East and North Africa.


    Al Qaeda, Saudi Arabia and the Collapsing Free Syrian ArmyPAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore.

    In Syria, General Idris, the head of the Free Syrian Army, on Thursday was reported to have fled the country for Turkey. Now he's saying he didn't flee; he just happened to be in Turkey. But one way or the other, the story seems to be there were warehouses full of arms that had been donated by the West--not quite specified exactly who gave the arms. Those warehouses were not defended by the Free Syrian Army, and apparently, al-Qaeda-allied forces seized them, although even that's in some dispute.

    But what doesn't seem in too much dispute is the Free Syrian Army is either weak, on the verge of, or has actually already collapsed. What does that mean in terms of Western policy? And more importantly, what does that mean for the struggle within Syria?

    Now joining us to talk about all of this is Omar Dahi. He's an associate professor of economics at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and he's a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

    Thanks for joining us again, Omar.

    OMAR DAHI, ASSOC. PROF. ECONOMICS, HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE: Thank you for having me back, Paul.

    JAY: So, first of all let's talk about what all this means. I mean, first of all, if in fact he did flee, I guess that's quite significant. He couldn't defend the leader of their own army. If he actually was just at his house in Turkey, it's another story. But it's all pretty weird that this wasn't clearer up front.

    DAHI: The details on the story are not very clear yet. This just broke yesterday. There are contradicting news about whether he fled to Qatar, went back to his house in Turkey, or, you know, it was just a routine trip outside the country.

    But what's basically clear is that it comes within the general trend of the disintegration or the marginalization of what is called the FSA, which itself was never a unified army throughout the country. In fact, it was always a project to unify that kept leading to more disintegration rather than unification.

    At any rate, they have become very marginalized compared to the al-Qaeda-affiliated group, the extremist Salafi groups, many of them that are competing, fighting against the FSA, fighting against each other as well as Kurdish groups, and basically presents the basic dilemma that the different sides pushing for a political settlement are confronting. In a way, it is a further indication of the difficulty of reaching a political settlement, not to mention the fact that there has been a complete takeover by forces that no one seems to be wanting to support but at the same time seem to be at the forefront of the fighting against the regime.

    JAY: Now, Idris was quoted just before he either ran or didn't run that if there was a negotiation that was successful in the upcoming Geneva conference and Assad in some way was stepping down, Idris was actually willing to ally with the existing official Syrian army and fight the al-Qaeda forces, and that he said he's fighting the al-Qaeda forces now as much as he's fighting the Syrians. In fact, some of the reports, it sounds like he's actually fighting the al-Qaeda forces more than he's fighting the Syrian army.

    DAHI: Well, that's part of what Geneva II is supposed to be. I think there is widespread belief among many Syrians and others that Geneva II is basically going to be a way to create a front for fighting al-Qaeda.

    The parameters of the general agreement, actually, if we step back to June 2012 and Geneva I, have been laid out in a way that preserves the regime. So even back as far back as June 2012, you had a U.S.-Russian agreement that in many ways did not specify the fate of Assad but did not call completely for the overthrow of the regime. There's been some dispute in what it actually meant. The Russians claim that it meant that the changing of the government, as in, basically, ministers and prime minister. The Americans claim it meant the top leadership. But at any rate, there was an agreement to preserve the state institutions, to preserve the military security apparatus of the regime.

    JAY: This is because they learnt at least something from Iraq when they destroyed the entire state and left the place in chaos.

    DAHI: Yes. From the very beginning, the U.S. has wavered between allowing its allies to push for weakening the regime, attacking the regime, isolating it, laying it under siege, and between a red line that it had in which it did not want a complete collapse of the regime.

    And I think what has happened since Geneva I is a sort of brutal negotiation, a brutal bargaining between the different sides. Since the basic parameters of the solution were laid out, there was an attempt by both the regime and its allies and forces against the regime to push for more territory to create more--better bargaining facts on the ground, so that when the final settlement happens, they would have a more favorable geographic military situation.

    The problem is that this process itself has increased the hold of the extremist al-Qaeda type groups at the expense of what was left of the Free Syrian Army, which has resulted that, by this point in time, those groups are widely considered to be a bigger problem than the regime. There is little talk anymore coming out from Europe or from the U.S. about the complete overthrow the regime. There are talks that are still in their infancy, but they're important, of trying to unite the Syrian army with the Free Syrian Army to create a national army, which would not be a Ba'ath Party army but would be a Syrian proper national army, and that this Syrian army would then continue to carry on the task of destroying or attacking al-Qaeda.

    Now, in order for this to happen, there has to be a political payoff, there has to be an actual settlement that addresses part of the grievances of the opposition or a bulk of the grievances of the opposition. And that has basically not been settled yet. The opposition is beginning to abandon its preconditions or has almost completely abandon its preconditions of Assad to step down.

    JAY: Yeah. Idris said that as far as he was concerned, that was no longer a precondition. But the question is: who does he actually speak for?

    DAHI: Well, it's hard to say who exactly the opposition's speaking--or on behalf of whom the opposition's actually speaking. But the coalition forces have very few options. They have basically, in effect, surrendered their autonomy since the very beginning, the national coalition of what is considered the external opposition. They have heavily depended on their backers coming from the Gulf. And those backers are increasingly under severe pressure by the U.S. and by Europe to come to the negotiating table and to abandon these preconditions.

    This doesn't mean that Assad will stay for sure. There's increasing evidence that perhaps if the right deal for all the different sides is on the table, Assad's fate might be that he steps down, that he doesn't run for reelection, and so forth. That's yet to be determined. But the basic agreement is going to have to preserve some of the interests of Iran. And that is why the U.S.-Iranian rapprochement has been so keen towards making this step happen.

    JAY: Now, you know, to quote Mao Tse-tung, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. I mean, who cares what gets said in Geneva? The armed opposition, if in fact it's primarily now al-Qaeda-type forces, they're not going to Geneva. They don't want to negotiate. And they're the ones with the guns.

    DAHI: Everyone with a gun, their willingness to keep on fighting depends on their ability to keep on fighting. And that ability in turn depends on funding. It depends on armaments. And both the regime and the forces fighting against the regime are increasingly almost completely reliant on external funding and external support. The regime, through Iran, and the militants fighting against the regime, heavily rely on external funding, as well as armaments that are coming through Turkey.

    And so if both sides are pressured through turning off the tap of weapons flow and money flow, they can be brought kicking and screaming to the negotiating table. And they should be.

    Now, it's very complex to make this happen, and there won't be a single-day ceasefire. But in terms of the al-Qaeda type groups, the key is to begin to marginalize them. But the only way to marginalize them is to have a meaningful transition. And that's why there has to be some meaningful transition in Geneva II.

    Absent that, why should the opposition cooperate in trying to marginalize and eliminate al-Qaeda groups if they don't see themselves getting anything? The only thing they'll be doing is going to Geneva to commit political suicide, because if they already gave up the precondition of Assad leaving and there is no actual transitional government in Geneva, then they basically haven't achieved anything.

    But both sides have to be forced to compromise. And the only way this will happen is through beginning the political process, because the other thing that's going to do is that new voices are going to begin to emerge. Syrians are wary of war. And you have people, both people who support the regime as well as people who oppose the regime, resentful of both of those sides, resentful of the fact that both sides seem to be continuing to drag the country to total destruction, continuing to use the rhetoric of victory, of annihilation of the other side, which has resulted in a real catastrophe for the country, and everyone knows that it has to stop.

    JAY: If this is in fact a proxy war which is really all about Iran, which--most people have analyzed from the beginning that's the agenda of the external forces--certainly for the Syrian people this has been about overthrowing a dictatorship. But the external forces, this has more or less been a regional proxy fight.

    And the role of the Saudis have been certainly one of the main if not the main driving force fueling funding of their allies in the opposition. And many people think that includes the al-Qaeda forces. You know, the Saudis certainly have a history of working with al-Qaeda type terrorists ‑in various other situations. We just did an interview with Senator Bob Graham, who ran the congressional joint investigation into 9/11, and he says that the Saudis were involved in 9/11 attacks on the United States. And, you know, there's other instances, certainly in Afghanistan and other ways. The Saudis seem to use this kind of alliance as a foreign-policy tool.

    There's a story that The Guardian broke that has been acknowledged in the British press that Bandar, who's now, I think, head of Saudi intelligence or their National Security Council, literally threatened Tony Blair with another 7/7 if they continued an inquiry into a bribery scandal that put $1 billion into Bandar's pocket. I mean, the Saudis have their own agenda here, and the primary agenda seems to be they want to go after Iran and they want to create situations that will draw the United States into, first, some kind of military role in Syria, and then against Iran. And Bandar was in Europe only, what, a few weeks ago complaining that the Americans weren't doing this.

    I mean, I guess my question is: the al-Qaeda forces cannot be so dominant if they don't have lots of money, and that lots of money's got to be coming from somewhere.

    DAHI: The primary funders coming from the Gulf has been Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the Emirates to a certain extent. And in many ways, from the very beginning it was obvious that the goal was to--especially the goal of Saudi Arabia was to defeat Iran and Syria, to weaken the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah nexus, to isolate Iran, and to further lay siege and strangle it. And we know from the past decade, from their response of the Gulf during the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006, everything we know about the WikiLeaks cable releases where the Gulf was pushing the U.S. for further punishing Iran, that this has been--.

    JAY: This is where Abdullah says to the American ambassador, we want you to cut the head off the beast, which meant Iran.

    DAHI: Correct, as well as there are many declarations which essentially gave a green light in the 2006 war for Israel to destroy Hezbollah.

    We know that these policies have preceded the Syrian uprising, and we know that from the very beginning Iran recognized that this is happening. And this has been one of the main reasons why they have increased their support for the Syrian regime. And from the very beginning, Iran declared that they would not allow the Syrian regime to collapse and that they're willing to go as far as it takes to support the Syrian regime. And now you see that actually happening on the ground.

    On the other hand, this has been met with an increased attempt by Saudi Arabia and the some of the other Gulf countries--not all of them; Oman, for example, has had a much more independent policy on this--but primarily Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to increase the funding. And the funding was dominated, increasingly dominated by these extremist groups.

    On the other hand, Saudi Arabia now sees itself isolated, and they're going to be forced to change their line sooner or later because of the fact that they have picked battles with almost all of their allies. To begin with, Saudi Arabia used to claim in the past ten years that they're going to look east towards Russia and China while they're on opposite sides of Russia and China at this point. They managed to cross with or break with Turkey, because they supported the coup in Egypt and Turkey stood against the coup. So their relations with Turkey deteriorated. They have a rivalry with Qatar from the very beginning, and over the past year, Qatar was marginalized on behalf of Saudi Arabia. And now, with U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, they're fuming because they see the U.S. basically doing the opposite of what Saudi Arabia had hoped they would do, but the U.S. doing what is the rational thing to do, which is a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue.

    So sooner or later Saudi Arabia is going to have to toe the line. And I think over the next couple of months they're going to be making a decision whether or not to attend Geneva II and to support the process. But I think they're going to have to sooner or later.

    JAY: But you say they're going to have to, but maybe they don't have to. I mean, they're sitting on billions of dollars. If this is correct that they have direct ties with terrorist networks, they can create a lot of problems.

    There's an organization called INEGMA. This organization's led by former heads of, for example, the Emirates Air Force and very, very senior officers from the various militaries of the GCC countries, those particularly allied with the Saudis, not so much Qatar. And at the end of this piece he says that if Saudi Arabia is not included in the P5+1, the negotiations with Iran, look out. I mean, I don't have the quote in front of me, but it's hellfire and brimstone are coming. I mean, the Saudis have--you know, maybe they're in a somewhat desperate situation. They're going to lose their leverage here.

    DAHI: When it comes to Syria, they can still do a lot of damage. But the main way in which the armaments are reaching the rebel side is through Turkey. Perhaps it could happen through Iraq, but it mainly hasn't been through Iraq. The supply lines through Lebanon are cut, and there is little if nothing coming in from Jordan. So the main route for the rebels is Turkey. And if Turkey agrees to prevent the continuation of the arms flow, they will be able to clamp down considerably.

    And so, as I mentioned earlier, it's never going to be a single-day ceasefire. You won't have a situation where all the violence is going to stop immediately. It's a process where you begin to see limited ceasefires happening in many parts of the country and an attempt, through improving the security situation, through economic aid, through economic reconstruction, and through many people seeing a meaningful transition, the marginalization of these groups, such that they no longer have the ability to do the damage that they're doing right now.

    JAY: I mean, the other player in this, who seems--I don't know how much direct influence they have, but if you follow the debate within the Israeli punditry and military analysts and in Washington, although maybe a maybe a little less so in Washington right now, they want this war to go on forever. Once again, actually, you sort of see the Israelis and the Saudis somewhat on the same page.

    DAHI: They didn't see eye to eye on Syria, in the sense that the U.S. was with Israel in rejecting a complete collapse of the regime, whereas Saudi Arabia had no problem with continuing the fight and more and more destruction against the regime.

    And the regime has suffered lots of losses, by the way, in terms of lives. Tens of thousands of pro-regime fighters have been killed. And so you've seen more equal violence happening over the past year.

    But on the case of Iran, they now see eye to eye. And you do see attempts by Israel, through their contact or their allies in the U.S. and in Congress, to try and sabotage the nuclear deal. I think Israel's going to be doing all it can at the congressional level to block the deal or to hopefully signal to Iran that Obama is not going to be able to deliver on the nuclear deal, and therefore they should not, basically, come to the table at all.

    JAY: Is anything new and more significant happening in terms of humanitarian relief? Certainly probably the biggest humanitarian catastrophe on the planet right now.

    DAHI: So on Monday you're going to see a major announcement in Geneva by the United Nations relief system of what are called the RRP6 and SHARP plan. SHARP is the humanitarian relief program for everything inside the borders of Syria, and the RRP is the humanitarian relief for everything that is in the regional countries, in the neighboring countries, for both humanitarian relief, refugee work, but also for development that helps the local countries as well. And it's going to be the biggest pledge in the history of the international relief system, maybe upwards of $5 billion or $6 billion. And that's going to be a major milestone that is just as important as Geneva II, because if there's no dramatic improvement in the humanitarian situation, even if the Geneva II--.

    JAY: Who's making a pledge? Where is the money coming from?

    DAHI: Well, the money--this is basically going to be the need. They're going to announce the need, and the pledge is going to come from perhaps a Kuwait II conference. The first Kuwait conference was what gave the pledge for this past year's RRP and SHARP, and then next year perhaps another Kuwait II conference, where the Gulf countries and other countries around the world are going to be pledging assistance.

    But it's going to be unprecedented. It's going to be massive. But it's going to be sorely needed, because you really have a catastrophic situation.

    JAY: But so far it's a massive ask, not a massive pledge.

    DAHI: Massive ask, yes.

    JAY: Alright. Let's see if anyone actually ponies up.

    Thanks very much for joining us, Omar.

    DAHI: Thanks for having me.

    JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

    Don't forget we're in our year-end fundraising campaign. We have a $100,000 matching grant. We're more than halfway there, but we're getting near the end of this year. The match has to be done by the end of this year. So if you like what we do at The Real News, we need you to, if you haven't already, click a donate button, send a check, come knock on our door. One way or the other, we need your support if you want us to keep making real news.

    Thanks for joining us.


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