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  August 2, 2012

Pt.2 The Syrian Civil War and Big Power Rivalry

Sami Ramadani: The US and allied regional powers pushed early militarization of struggle as outside powers try to control outcome of Syrian revolution
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Sami Ramadani is a senior lecturer in sociology at London Metropolitan University and was a political refugee from Saddam Hussein's regime. He is a frequent contributor to the Guardian and other publications.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore.

We're now continuing our series of interviews, trying to make more sense of the very, very complicated, very tragic and difficult situation in Syria.

So now joining us again to continue our discussion is Sami Ramadani. He's a senior lecturer in sociology at London Metropolitan University. He was a political refugee from Saddam's regime in Iraq. He contributes regularly to The Guardian. And he joins us now from London. Thanks for joining us, Sami.


JAY: So let's pick up more or less where we left off. (If you haven't watched part one, I suggest you do, 'cause we're going to just pick up the conversation.) We left off talking about the forces for militarization of the opposition and that there was a split there. There was a large section of the opposition forces in Syria that did not want to militarize, that wanted something more akin to what we saw, perhaps, in Egypt—mass but relatively nonviolent struggle. You said that the first violent repression came from the Syrian regime, but then there were some snipers appeared, shooting at the Syrian army with a clear intent to try to notch up the level of conflict and militarize it. Do we have any idea who those snipers were and who was behind them?

RAMADANI: Obviously, this is very, very difficult to establish, but you could see that if you hear some of these opposition leaders who were calling for a violent overthrow of the regime, it is they who were more or less saying you cannot negotiate anymore with this regime, we should overthrow it, because there is a conspiracy theory that maybe even the regime wanted the opposition to militarize to justify a crackdown.

This is all speculative, but what is very clear is that on the side of the opposition, there were forces which I think were in a small minority who wanted to militarize, while the overwhelming majority of those marchers for reform, for democracy, were opposed to militarization.

JAY: And the push—a lot of the push for militarization came from the Syrian National Council, who are, if I understand correctly, mostly outside Syria and quite closely linked to—the Saudi governments, American governments are kind of in negotiations with them. Is that correct?

RAMADANI: Absolutely. Absolutely. Some key figures in the Syrian National Council are well-known figures who are close to Washington. One or two of them actually live in Washington. And there is also a predominance of the Muslim Brotherhood within the Syrian National Council. They are the best-organized force within the Syrian National Council.

JAY: 'Cause the Syrian National Council is a broad grouping of many groups and individuals. And we have talked to members of the Syrian National Council who in fact are opposed to the militarization, opposed to outside intervention. But they seem to be a real minority within the SNC.

RAMADANI: They are. They are extremely marginal and marginalized. The people who call the shots are the Muslim Brotherhood and those figures who are very close to Washington. These are really the important voices. There are one or two who are closer to France and Britain than the United States, but you're talking about NATO, NATO countries. And Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Qatar mostly finances the Muslim Brotherhood, but Saudi Arabia also have some links with some of them. But significantly, the Saudis seem to be backing the more extreme Salafis, the more extremist Islamists, who tend to make anybody else, any other Muslim, a baddie, calling for violence, calling for—they wouldn't regard even the Shia Muslims are true Muslims, and they tend to shoot at them and so on. Saudi Arabia is closer to those forces which are now becoming quite strong within Syria.

JAY: Now, in part one of our interview you talked about the role of Turkey and how they had previously had relatively good relations with Assad but changed their position, had a sort of rapprochement with Israel after the flotilla incidents. Why did Turkey—what is this reason for this shift in policy in Turkey, to become so antagonistic and wanting to actually help engineer the downfall of the Assad regime?

RAMADANI: Okay. Turkey has had historical ambitions in Syria, just like they have some historical ambitions in Iraq, because remember after World War I, the Ottoman Empire was the dominant empire in the region. After World War I, the Ottoman Empire was defeated in that war, and all areas controlled by the Ottoman Empire, based in Turkey, were divided amongst Britain and France mainly. Now, Turkey became extremely angry at that settlement, and forces within Turkey still are determined to regain lost influence in Syria and Iraq, both territorially and politically.

Economically, Turkey became a big power in the region. They started building relations with various—and that's important—with various Muslim Brotherhood forces across the region.

JAY: But you mentioned in the first interview that these refugee camps for Syrians had been built in Turkey even before the greatest violence broke out in Syria.


JAY: But why would Turkey take the risk of such destabilization of a neighbor, the perhaps hundreds of thousands of refugees heading to Turkey? I mean, why take such a risk?

RAMADANI: I think they underestimated the strength of the Syrian regime. This is my own take on this, that they took a huge risk. And I think maybe the United States gave them ill advice as well that this popular uprising in Syria could topple the regime.

Well, once it started being militarized, you could see the size of the demonstrations started going down with every passing week. People stopped going on demonstrations which were hundreds of thousands strong. They became tens of thousands, and then thousands, then hundreds.

JAY: So let's talk, then—before we start discussing the other side of this, which is the pro-Assad forces, let's go back to the bigger geopolitical picture. Why do the Americans consider the Syrian regime worth all of this destabilization of the area and the potential consequences of all this? I mean, I've heard top American military leaders interviewed on television, and they seem genuinely concerned that, you know, we don't know where all this leads—you have no idea who winds up in power in Syria, you don't know the repercussions on the neighboring countries. So, I mean, Assad wasn't that big a problem for the Americans, as far as I can see. Why do all of this, other than, I suppose, the Iran agenda?

RAMADANI: I think you're right to refer to the Iran agenda. It is one of the most important aspects of this conflict if you look at the region in general. The United States and Israel are agreed—or broadly agreed, although the Israeli position is more extreme than the U.S. administration's of containing Iran and maybe even using military force against Iran. Now, Syria is a close ally of Iran, so that will obviously put it in the baddies book, as far as the U.S. administration is concerned and Israel is concerned. Syria also arms Hezbollah, the Lebanese resistance movement in Lebanon. They arm them very heavily. They are a conduit not only in terms of their own direct support for them, but also a conduit for Iranian support to Hezbollah.

Syria also has very close links—has had, at least, close links with Hamas, the Palestinian resistance movement in Gaza. They have also a presence in the West Bank. And they used to arm them and support them.

So for all of these regional reasons, Syria has upset the United States.

JAY: So this is all part of an American chessboard and Israeli chessboard, perhaps, which is all about knocking down the king in the game, and that's Iran. So whatever long-term consequences all this have are almost secondary to what might be some kind of near-war with Iran.

RAMADANI: Yes, I think that is not far from the mark. Although obviously the conflict in Syria could lead to numerous unintended consequences, because of the social-religious-ethnic mosaic of Syria, if that gets knocked sideways, if that disintegrates—remember, this is a country for a couple of thousand years, at least, has had various ethnicities and religions and sects and so on. And the last few hundred years, there has hardly been any communal—there might have been regime-type repressions, but communal coexistence has been predominant in Syria.

So if that Pandora's box gets opened, this could spread easily into Lebanon. Lebanon and Syria are almost one country socially, politically, and so on. There is so much—so many interconnections, they are almost one society.

JAY: Right.

RAMADANI: There'll be a knock-on effect on Iraq, enormous knock-on effect on Iraq.

And also, in terms of the Israeli forces' presence in the Golan Heights, which we have not mentioned—Golan Heights are part of Syria, occupied by Israel in the 1967 War, and they have been in occupation ever since. In fact, Israeli tanks in the Golan Heights are one hour's drive away from Damascus.

JAY: And this is sounding like pre-World War I Europe in some ways.

RAMADANI: In some ways. In fact, today I was reading an article by the Arab world's best-known journalist, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal. He's an Egyptian journalist. He was adviser to President Nasser at some stage. And his analysis is that we are witnessing a new Sykes–Picot in the region (Sykes–Picot is a reference to the secret deal between Britain and France to divide the region after World War I), that an attempt to re-divide the region is at play here, and that the Arab nationalist forces that came to the fore have been defeated one after the other, and that the Muslim Brotherhood is the alternative, and that the United States has listened to some advice suggesting that they should make a rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood. And I think this has matured now.

JAY: And you can see some of that happening in Egypt.

RAMADANI: In Egypt, and in Tunisia, very significantly. The Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia have shifted enormously in the past year. Immediately before the success of the revolution in Tunisia, it seems there was some kind of an agreement with the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood that Ben Ali and so on will be abandoned, the dictator Ben Ali in Tunisia, in return for some so-called moderation from the Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Tunisia. And we can see that. In fact, they are very active in support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria now.

JAY: Now, I don't think we should end this segment before we move to another segment without going back to one fundamental: all of this happens because the Assad regime is an antidemocratic, brutal, repressive regime that represents a very, very rich Syrian elite, and in terms of basic exploitation of Syrian workers and minorities and people. And the underlying condition here is that there was enormous popular opposition to Assad. In the context of this, you have this whole geopolitical struggle taking place. Is that a—would you agree with that?

RAMADANI: I think I would agree with that. I would agree with that but add one proviso, which is that the Assad regime is not just a family dictatorship.

JAY: We're going to pick this up in the next part. We're going to talk about who is in power and who's in wealth in Syria in the next part of our series of interviews with Sami Ramadani. So please join us for this on The Real News Network. And don't forget there's a "Donate" button somewhere around this video player, and if you don't click on it, we can't do this.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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