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  March 12, 2018

Debate: Syria, Ghouta, and the Left (1/2)

In a complex proxy war that has killed so many, where should leftists and people of conscience stand? Independent journalist Rania Khalek and scholar Yasser Munif debate the ongoing siege of Eastern Ghouta and the wider Syrian war
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Rania Khalek is an independent journalist and co-host of the weekly podcast Unauthorized Disclosure. Her work has appeared at The Nation, FAIR, Vice, The Intercept, Alternet, Salon, The Electronic Intifada, Al Jazeera and more.

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. An international aid convoy has reached the besieged Syrian suburb of Eastern Ghouta for the first time in days. Aid was suspended earlier this week amid an ongoing bombardment by Syria and Russia, which seeks to reclaim Eastern Ghouta from militant groups. Doctors Without Borders says the Syrian-Russian assault has killed more than 1,000 people. At the UN, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, denounced the Syrian and Russian bombardment.

ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN: To justify indiscriminate brutal attacks on hundreds of thousands of civilians by the need to combat a few hundred fighters, as in Eastern Ghouta, are legally and morally unsustainable. Also, when you are prepared to kill your own people, lying is easy, too. Claims by the government of Syria that it is taking every measure to protect its civilian population are frankly ridiculous.

AARON MATÉ: Well, for our discussion on Eastern Ghouta and the wider Syrian War, I am joined by two guests. Yasser Munif is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Emerson College and co-founder of the Global Campaign of Solidarity for the Syrian Revolution. Rania Khalek is an independent journalist and co-host of the podcast Unauthorized Disclosure. Welcome to you both. Let me just say by way of introduction that you are both people on the left with very different views of the Syrian conflict, and given that this issue of Syria has really been polarizing on the left, I really appreciate this opportunity for a dialogue.

Rania, you just wrote a piece for RT this week called Syria War: What the Mainstream Media Isn't Telling You About Eastern Ghouta. Explain.

RANIA KHALEK: Well, the western press is generally presenting Eastern Ghouta as a place that is being bombarded just by the Syrian government. It's a one sided war, and you just don't hear the whole story. Yes, Eastern Ghouta is being bombarded by the Syrian government, but it's not a one sided war. Eastern Ghouta is under the control of a collection of Salafi jihadist groups, among them Jaysh al-Islam, Faylaq al-Rahman, Ahrar Al-Sham, and there's some elements of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham, which is the newest name for the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. These groups are based in different neighborhoods in Eastern Ghouta and they have been firing and shelling civilians in Damascus for years. And civilians in Damascus have been dying as a result of this.

You don't hear about these victims ever really in the western press because it just doesn't go with the western mainstream narrative about what's taking place in Syria, but the fact of the matter is, that what's taking place right now, which is in escalation, a very brutal military escalation of eastern Ghouta, there's a context behind it. And that context is that the United States and its allies in the region spent billions of dollars arming and funding a collection of jihadist groups inside Syria, a right wing armed insurgency that collapsed the state and large parts of Syria and led to a very brutal war that we've been watching play out for the past several years, but people never hear about the role that the west has played.

AARON MATÉ: What about the argument that we just heard there from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, that fighting a few hundred fighters in this besieged suburb doesn't justify this intense bombardment that has killed so many people?

RANIA KHALEK: Well, there's a couple things there. First of all, it's not just a few hundred fighters. Second of all, this isn't about trying to justify the military means that are being used to take back these areas. But there does need to be, we need to put some context to this and that is that back in August, Faylaq al-Rahman actually signed in Geneva a ceasefire agreement that went into effect for a few months with the Russians, and then they violated that agreement in December by participating in suicide attacks against Syrian government installations. That actually broke the agreement with Eastern Ghouta and actually led to the escalation and violence that we see now.

On top of that, there's also a lot of pressure on the government from people in Damascus to do something about these groups because for the past several years, they've been firing at people in Damascus on a daily basis and the people there have had enough. They're very angry about it. That's what's led to the escalation of violence here. And frankly, the international community hasn't really done much to try to deescalate the violence because they haven't been really participating in any sort of attempts to put in place reconciliation agreements. On top of that, the international community, particularly the west, has played a huge role in creating the conditions that started this in the first place by arming and funding these groups inside Syria to begin with.

Let's remember the ideologies of these groups. What are they fighting for? They are fighting to impose an Islamic State. They are Salafi jihadist groups that are no different in their rhetoric and in their intentions than the Islamic State, the ISIS, and they also participate openly with Al-Qaeda. And so, that needs to be taken into consideration, as well. They are also firing on civilians who are trying to leave. This in no way justifies again the military assault of the government, but we do need to put some context into place here because this is not a one sided fight.

And I would also argue that it's not that different than what we saw take place in Iraq, to try and route ISIS from various Iraqi cities. The Iraqi government, a sovereign government, fought with the same military tactics, in fact, to get rid of ISIS in the areas that they took over. Again, I don't agree with all those tactics, but the Syrian government really is doing no different, yet it's placed under this level of scrutiny that you just didn't see happen in the Iraqi case.

AARON MATÉ: I should clarify that according to the Associated Press, the number of fighters in Eastern Ghouta is about 20,000, and the figure of a few hundred refers specifically to the number of Al-Qaeda linked fighters. Yasser Munif, if you could respond to what we just heard from Rania Khalek. She says that it was the militants actually in Eastern Ghouta whose rejection of ceasefire efforts have led to this conflict now, and also that what we're seeing is not that much different from than, for example, the US bombarding Mosul to dislodge the Islamic State.

YASSER MUNIF: I think this narrative is very disturbing. I mean, Rania starts by saying, "I'm not justifying the Syrian regime or the Russian bombardment of the region of Eastern Ghouta," but then justifies throughout. I mean, what's happening in Eastern Ghouta right now is mass bombing and mass killing of a population that is unable to defend itself, that has been besieged since 2012, that is being starved. I mean, people have been living on 400 calories a day for several years now.

And it seems that the blame is put on the people who are inside of Ghouta. I mean, she adds also context. I think that the context that should be added is that the violence of the Syrian regime didn't really start in 2011. The violence of the Syrian regime started in 1970 with the coup in 1970 of the father, and so on, and the installation of a security apparatus and the building of a military institution that harshly basically crushed any political opposition and closed any political spaces in Syria, tortured any opponent, exiled most of the political parties and people, and tortured thousands of people, and killed many, as well.

I mean, that's the general context, which shouldn't confuse and put some kind of moral equivalency between the people who are besieged in Eastern Ghouta and the violence of the Syrian regime and the Russian and the Iranian and Hezbollah, whom are also very sectarian. I agree with her that there are sectarians among the opposition, but the Shia sectarianism is as powerful as the Sunni. The militia that are coming from Iraq are very violent and sectarian, the Iranian are very violent and sectarian. They have been funding the Syrian regime since 2011 and the Russians have been also supporting and funded the Syrian regime. So, this idea of foreign intervention that is backing the opposition is very surreal and one sided, according to Rania.

AARON MATÉ: Yasser, let me put to you a clip from Joe Biden that I think that captures what I find puzzling about the Syrian war, which is what the Syrian government was supposed to do in response to the role that outside players that are trying to overthrow it have played. I mean, no one can justify cracking down on peaceful protesters, but what happens when it becomes a proxy war. On this front, I want to play what Joe Biden said in 2014 about what the US allies in the Gulf did in Syria.

JOE BIDEN: Our biggest problem is our allies. Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks were great friends and I have a great relationship with Erdoğan, which I just spent a lot of time with. The Saudis, the Emirates, etc. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except that the people who were being supplied were Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadists coming from other parts of the world.

AARON MATÉ: That's Joe Biden speaking in 2014, so yeah. What about that? Does the Syrian government have the right to fight those forces, especially the jihadist forces, who are not just a threat to the Syrian government, but also especially to minorities like Christians and Jews and Shiites inside Syria?

YASSER MUNIF: I mean, the Syrian conflict is very complex and I think one of the dangers of the narrative described by Rania and others is this very reductive kind of...kind of binary, where there is only the west and Europe and the intervention on the one hand, and then the Syrian regime. When in fact, it's a very complex conflict. And I think the most important element is the Syrian Revolution, the grassroots movement, the popular revolt against the Syrian regime that a part of what happened in 2011 that is an aspiration for democracy and freedom and dignity.

And there are many dimensions to that conflict. I think the way I view it is there is a popular uprising, a revolution in Syria that started in 2011 and that revolution has been countered by several reactionary forces, including the Syrian regime and its allies, the ISIS and Al-Qaeda and its allies, and the western leadership... and it's very unfortunate to see some of the left, I don't know if it's considered still the left, siding with the Assad regime or trying to be silent or denying that the violence of the Syrian regime, when, in fact, we should do whatever is possible to support the Syrian Revolution against this multiple reactionary forces.

AARON MATÉ: Rania Khalek, a lot there to respond to, including that if one's criticizing the opposition today, then you're denying the agency of the protesters who rose up in 2011.

RANIA KHALEK: Well, Yasser made a lot of claims that I actually want to respond to and I'll start with this. I think he's presenting a very dishonest narrative about the uprising in 2011 and I think that we should be honest about this. It's now 2018 and presenting this sort of romanticized version of this utopian beautiful secular leftist uprising that was crushed is just not accurate. Yes, there were people who participating in protests in Syria who had secular ideals and leftist ideals and wanted more freedoms and more democracy. That's absolutely true.

There were also, though, and we should be honest about this, there was also some elements of the uprising that was sectarian and Islamist in nature and have very bad intentions and were calling for very bad things. And there was also some component of the uprising that were and there were clashes from the beginning. So, it's not simplistic perfect leftist uprising versus mean evil government. That's first.

Second, Yasser mentioned the intervention of Russia and Iran and Hezbollah. He's right. Russian, Iran and Hezbollah did intervene in Syria. However, the reason that emphasize so much more on US intervention is two reasons. First, we're speaking to an American audience and they haven't been told the honest truth about what the US has done in Syria. That's first and foremost. Secondly, the intention of these interventions matter. The Iranian, Russian, and Hezbollah intervention in Syria was at the behest of the Syrian government. The sovereign government of Syria called on its allies to come help it prevent state collapse because that is what Syria was facing. It was facing state collapse and when the state collapsed, armed insurgent groups made up of Salafi jihadi fighters, many of whom were foreign fighters, by the way, took over those areas.

So, they were there to help restore order and help keep Syria from collapsing and turning into Libya. From the US side, though, US intervention was not there to prevent state collapse. US intervention was armed and funding an insurgency that was actually leading to state collapse, and it was leading to the rise of a failed state across much of Syria, which by the way, was then filled by thousands of foreign fighters coming in to the Turkish border, which the US practically encouraged because they thought it would force the regime to make concessions, which of course, it didn't.

Then after that, ISIS came in a lot of those areas and took over some of those areas and started kidnapping westerners and the Qataris ended up paying millions of dollars for the release of these westerners, basically giving ISIS the startup funding it needed to consolidate its fighters in Raqqa and in the east of Syria and ultimately invading Iraq and taking over a third of Iraq. That is what US intervention led to. As a result, you had the brutality of ISIS and a massive influx and flow of refugees into Europe leading to the rise of right wing politicians across Europe and, ultimately, you could even say the election of Donald Trump because he used the refugee crisis and the brutality of ISIS to fear monger and he campaigned on that and won over that. So, we have to think about the causes and consequences of this war and those are the consequences of US intervention that are never discussed and talked about and that is why it's so important to focus on US intervention.

As for the last point I want to make, just one more point about the issue of Shia sectarianism versus Sunni sectarianism. You're comparing Hezbollah, groups like Hezbollah and Iran to Salafi jihadist groups. In my opinion, there's absolutely no comparison whatsoever because Salafi jihadist groups impose Saudi Arabia style laws on people, they kill minorities, they subject women to second class gender status. I don't see the same thing happening when Hezbollah comes into an area. I don't see them killing minorities. That's just not happening.

Nobody wants to live under Salafi jihadi groups and, in fact, Iran and Hezbollah have played a major role protecting and saving people in the region from ISIS, including Sunnis, by the way, including Sunnis, saving Sunnis from ISIS, as well, who were working alongside Hezbollah and Iranian linked groups. I think he's presenting a completely false narrative that does not in any way comport with what's happening on the ground here.

AARON MATÉ: Before I get a response from Yasser Munif, Rania, let me ask you, because you were talking about causes. Before the US intervention, before the proxy war flares up, is it fair to say that if Assad had just responded in a legitimate way to the protesters' demands, so those protesters who were demanding reforms, not even regime change back then, and not chosen to crush them so brutally, that he could have avoided all this?

RANIA KHALEK: I actually don't think he could have. I'm not saying the Syrian government had a good response. They responded very stupidly and very brutally, and I'm not in any way justifying that, and Yasser can say as much as he wants that justifying all these things I'm not, but I apparently have to take add these qualifications to my statement.

No. I don't think they could have prevented this because from the very outset, you did have certain elements, particularly elements connected to the Muslim Brotherhood that were demanding that Assad step down from the beginning. And they continued to demand that and then he released prisoners, political prisoners at the behest of protesters, he released many, many political prisoners, and they were continuing to say that's not enough, he needs to step down.

So, there was elements and components. Yes, there were people calling for reform and not calling for regime change, but there were elements calling for regime change and those are the elements that were being backed and funded by the US and its allies in the region. I mean, you have a government that I don't think there's really anything the Syrian government could have done to avoid this when you have the most powerful governments in the world funding an armed insurgency, a right wing armed insurgency inside your country. It's kind of inevitable that it's going to descend into lawless chaos the way that it did.

And I actually want to add one more thing about US intervention in Syria. It's actually illegal under international law to fund an insurgency inside another country. That was a ruling that was decided by the International Court of Justice over, it was in a ruling of Nicaragua vs. the United States basically stating it was illegal and violated Nicaraguan sovereignty for the US to fund the Contras in that country. That's very, very similar to what the US did in Syria. Again, it's very important that leftists understand what the US did in Syria, and that is to fund a right wing fascistic insurgency that is completely illegal and very, very similar to the sort of death squads the US funded in Central America in the 1980s.

AARON MATÉ: That's going to wrap part one of this discussion between Rania Khalek and Yasser Munif on Eastern Ghouta and the Syrian War. Join us in part two.


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