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  March 6, 2018

As Eastern Ghouta Besieged, What is the Answer for Syria? (2/2)

The Syrian government has a license to kill in Eastern Ghouta, and the world is failing to act, says Yasser Munif of Emerson University. But is intervention the answer, and what is to done about the right-wing militants trying to topple Assad?
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Yasser Munif Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College. He is the co-founder of the Global Campaign of Solidarity for the Syrian Revolution.


AARON MATÉ: It's The Real News. I'm Aaron Maté, continuing my conversation with Yasser Munif, assistant professor of sociology at Emerson College and co-founder of the Global Campaign of Solidarity for the Syrian Revolution. In Part One, we discussed the ongoing attack on Eastern Ghouta by the Syrian and Russian governments as well as the militant shelling from Eastern Ghouta into the capital, Damascus. Here in Part Two, we discuss the wider Syrian conflict and what can be done to resolve it.

Let me quote for you something by Robert F. Worth. He's a veteran Middle East correspondent with The New York Times. He wrote a piece last year called "Aleppo After the Fall," about the siege in Aleppo, and he is speaking to a lawyer in Aleppo named Anas Joudeh who says that he initially supported the protests against the regime, but now, since it turned into a proxy war, has lost faith at least in the military groups that are fighting. This is what he says.

"'No one is 100 percent with the regime, but mostly these people are unified by their resistance to the opposition. They know what they don't want, not what they want.' In December, he said, 'Syrians abroad who believe in the revolution would call me and say, "We lost Aleppo." And I would say, "What do you mean?" It was only a Turkish card guarded by jihadis.' For these exiled Syrians, he said, the specter of Assad's crimes looms so large they cannot see anything else. They refuse to acknowledge the realities of rebellion that is corrupt, brutal, and compromised by foreign sponsors. That is true. Eastern Aleppo may not have been Raqqa, where ISIS advertised its rigid Islamist dystopia and its mass beheadings. But as a symbol of Syria's future, it was almost as bad: a chaotic wasteland full of feuding militias, some of them radical Islamists, who hoarded food and weapons while the people starved."

That's Robert F. Worth. My question is, do you think that's a fair characterization? Is it possible that the crimes of the Assad regime have led those who initially supported the protest against them to overlook the crimes of those militant groups who are now fighting the Assad regime?

YASSER MUNIF: I think that it's a bit of a simplistic account of what was there in Aleppo. I mean, despite the presence of those right-wing Islamist fundamentalist group, some components of the Syrian Revolution was coexisting in Aleppo. I mean, people created civilian councils and cultural centers and new institutions and were creating a new culture, and there was some form of democracy and they were able to put some pressure on some of those military groups. Not all of them, obviously, but to certain extent, there was some kind of power balance between them and the disobedient. That would never be possible under the dictatorship, under the Assad rule. I mean, the Assad family has been ruling in Syria for more than four decades, and intends to do so for a number of years, and I think the main tragedy for the Syrian people is dictatorship, and that's true for the entire region. Without an end to dictatorship, nothing would be possible.

I think that toppling the dictatorship would allow people to tackle the question of fundamentalism and military groups and create a new form of democracy, but as long as we have a dictator in Syria, none of that would be possible, and those discussions would not even be possible. I mean, before the revolution, there was no cultural or political debates around the fate of Syria and who decides that and what form of democracy should we adopt, and how do we create a social life and everyday life from the bottom up and so on? If Assad succeeds in crushing what remains of the Syrian Revolution, I think we'll be in a very dreadful situation, and I don't hope that the Syrian regime will be able to do that. I mean, all the talks about peace and the end of a proxy war is very silent about the fate of the Syrian regime, and for the most part, it's a kind of reproduction of the Syrian regime with minor modification. So I'm not very hopeful about that kind of scenario.

AARON MATÉ: Okay, so we have to wrap, but I'll just, I'll put this point to you, which is that the counterarguments that I hear not from people who support Assad, but people who recognize that Assad is a brutal authoritarian dictator, is that, unfortunately, the alternative is worse, that if he were to be overthrown right now, it would be either ISIS or Al-Qaeda flying their flags in Damascus, which would not be preferable to Assad, as many crimes as he's committed. Is that a fair fear? I mean, you have Al-Qaeda right now in Idlib with their largest safe haven since 9/11, at least according to the U.S. ISIS has been defeated, but there are still remnants. Is it fair to say the alternative right now, I mean, that if Assad was to be overthrown right now, it would be by right-wing jihadist groups who would be even more of a threat to the people and to the region than the current government is?

YASSER MUNIF: Arab dictatorship has used a Muslim fundamentalism and political Islam for many decades. Political Islam has been instrumentalized to basically maintain a dictatorship in the region. That's true for Egypt. It's true for Libya. It's true for Iraq and Syria, and so I don't buy into that argument. I think that the Syrian regime prevented the emergence of any political spaces. Politics was forbidden. It was banned. No political parties, I mean truthful political parties, were allowed to function in Syria. All political debate was repressed very harshly, and people were just put in prison, tortured, killed, exiled, and I think as long as we have-

AARON MATÉ: I got that.

YASSER MUNIF: ... dictatorship in Syria-

AARON MATÉ: I got that. No argument there, but the question is, see, that's, even if we accept that that's all true, which obviously it is, does that still rule out the fact that the alternative right now, as it currently is ... We're not talking about back when the revolution started, but now, that the alternative is worse?

YASSER MUNIF: I don't think so. I think that the alternative, the reason why we have Al-Qaeda and ISIS and powerful Islamist group is a reaction to a dictatorship. If dictatorship didn't exist in the region, there wouldn't be political Islam. I think that that illusion would disappear very quickly, and we saw that in Egypt. I mean, the Muslim Brotherhood lost a lot of popularity very, very quickly because they don't have any political agenda or economic solution for the problems of the Middle East, and that's true for Syria. I think that the reason why we have political Islam and we have those fundamentalist group is due to dictatorship, and the minute we get rid of dictatorship, it would be much easier to fight and undermine this political Islam. I mean, even-

AARON MATÉ: But even if you-

YASSER MUNIF: [crosstalk 00:08:55]

AARON MATÉ: Even if you have dictatorships like Saudi Arabia currently funding those Islamists who are fighting Assad right now? It's like, if they win, they're going to be in a better position to take on the dictatorships that they themselves are funded by?

YASSER MUNIF: I think that the dictatorship in the region is over and is going to be over in the coming few years, maybe 10 years, because the Syrian people, the Arab people, have learned their lessons and have been able to build alternatives and have discussed political alternatives to dictatorship, and they are not willing to let another form of dictatorship, whether that's Islamist or secular, to reemerge in Syria. I think that Syrian people and the Arab people are opposed to all forms of dictatorship, whether the type of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, or the secular type, as in Syria or Egypt. I mean, at the same time, we have to remember that even in Raqqa and Manbij, where ISIS was present, there was a vibrant political life, and there were discussions, and there were civilian groups and grassroots movements, and people were able to operate and have political debates and newsletters and so on. All that is impossible under dictatorship.

I'm not defending ISIS and Al-Qaeda. On the contrary. But just to say that the Syrian regime and Arab dictatorship has instrumentalized those powers and those groups for many, many decades. It's not new, and it didn't start with the Syrian Revolution or the Arab revolution. The Syrian regime has utilized political Islam, and the Egyptian regime has utilized political Islam, to scare the population and tell them that their destiny should be, or that the dictatorship is the only power able to protect them and protect minorities and protect secular groups in Syria or Egypt. I don't think that people buy into that argument anymore, and we have seen how violent and atrocious the regimes are, that one of the achievements of the Syrian Revolution and the Arab revolts is that people reject Arab dictatorship and political Islam equally. It's not either/or. I think that people don't have that privilege of choosing between dictatorship, imperialism, or political Islam, and they have to create political alternatives that oppose all three in creative ways. I don't think that there will be a solution without that.

AARON MATÉ: All right. We'll leave it there. Yasser Munif, assistant professor of sociology at Emerson College, co-founder of the Global Campaign of Solidarity for the Syrian Revolution. He is among the signatories of a recent open letter calling for global action on Syria. Professor Munif, thank you.

YASSER MUNIF: Thank you.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.


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