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  August 2, 2012

Who Supports Assad in Syria?

Sami Ramadani: Pt 3 The Syrian Civil War and Big Power Rivalry: Assad has a social base of support, but if opposition had not militarized, he would have been pushed out by now
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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 to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore. And we're continuing our series on, I guess we could say, a modern history of Syria and trying to understand the nature of that very difficult and tragic conflict.

Joining us again now from London is Sami Ramadani. He's a senior lecturer in sociology at the London Metropolitan University. He was a political refugee from Saddam's regime in Iraq. And he now joins us again from London. Thanks, Sami.


JAY: So let's pick up the story from who makes up this ruling elite, because one wonders why Assad, like Mubarak was, has not yet been thrown under the bus by the Syrian elite. You would think there would be a deal to be made there where the Syrian elite would say, okay, let's get rid of the Assad family and kind of carry on without them, as they're trying to do in Egypt.

RAMADANI: Yes, I think this is a very good question. There are two points here, one which has to do with the relative strength of this regime, what sort of social base is it relying on within that strength; and secondly, the nature of the armed opposition, which has fed into that relative strength.

I'll explain. The Syria regime is—there is an oversimplification as to the nature of this regime. Some say, oh, it's just a few family members of the Assad elite, they belong to a sect called the Alawites, and they rule by brute force. Well, that's an oversimplification. Brute force there is. Repression there is. Brutality there is. Imprisonment there is. Torture there is. But a regime could never survive just by that, especially the Syrian regime.

In the past few decades, and especially in the last 10 to 15 years, the Syrian regime has succeeded in spreading its social base. There is an elite which is around the Armed Forces and the security forces. There is an elite which is around the merchant classes of Aleppo, where a lot of fighting is going on today, and the capital, Damascus. The merchant classes of the main cities, especially these two cities, are also supportive of the regime. And these merchant classes do not belong to one sect or anything. On the contrary, most of them belong to the majority Sunni sect of Syria.

There is another layer, which is the upper middle classes and some sections of the middle class which enjoy social benefits, some economic, but some social, significantly, women in public life.

JAY: Now, when you say "middle class", let's define that, 'cause in the United States they tend to use middle class instead of the words working class, but in some other countries middle class means professionals and such. So which way are you using?

RAMADANI: No, no, I'm using it in the sense of the professionals here, the professional classes, lawyers, accountants, people who are in certain professions. But they are well-to-do people, yes?

JAY: Right.

RAMADANI: Now, the women sections of these or women members of families of these (and they are a large section of society) who do not wear the hijab have enjoyed relative freedom, socially speaking, in terms of women issues, women in public life. That is why today a lot of these women are dead against the armed opposition. They're frightened. They're frightened because of the Muslim Brotherhood and because of the Salafis and the extreme Muslim organizations and al-Qaeda. They're frightened that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the main backers of the opposition, because, remember, Saudi society is the most brutal—and I use my words carefully—the most brutal, socially speaking, towards women in the world on planet Earth. And a lot of Syrian women fear that. They don't necessarily love this regime, but they fear the consequences of an opposition that is backed by the Saudis and the Qataris, even Turkey. The Turkish government is a Muslim Brotherhood type government, and they tend to be socially less progressive than in Syria. Okay.

And another aspect which relates to the nature of the armed opposition which has in a way strengthened the regime is the existence of a mosaic of ethnicities—Kurds, Yazidis, Druze. These are national ethnic-type groupings.

And you have Christians. The Christians compose 10 percent of Syria's 26 million people. Some of the churches of Syria are older than Islam itself. They belong to early Christianity. They regard themselves as the truest Christians of this world, Orthodox Christians in Aleppo, in various parts of Syria, and Homs. Aleppo has some of the oldest churches in the world. They're terrified of the armed opposition. A lot of—in Homs, there were upwards of 80,000 Christians who had to flee the city of Homs because there were a couple of massacres of Christian families in Homs.

Add all this together, apart from the Shia and the Alawites (the Assad family belong to the Alawite, and the Alawites are a sect within a sect of the Shia sect in Syria), you get a complex picture where the nature of the armed opposition—I repeat, armed, because as we said in the beginning, there is a democratic, peaceful opposition which wants complete, radical change and true democracy in Syria; they are against the militarization—it's the armed opposition which is calling the shots today which terrifies all these sectors of the population that I have mentioned.

JAY: So why—with this broad stratum of people who I would expect amongst even them the majority want some kind of democratic reform, certainly when you're talking ordinary people that are in this stratum that are more or less opposed to the militarization and to some extent support Assad, still, why don't they get—why don't they throw Assad under the bus? Why one family, given that there was such a broad stratum of forces on the other side, why do they hang—why does the military hang on to Assad this way?

RAMADANI: Okay. I think if it wasn't for the militarization of the conflict, Assad would have gone long time ago. This is my own assessment of Syria, that once the demonstration started, had it not been for the militarization, I think the Syrian popular uprising would have been even greater than Egypt's. I really do believe that, because of the history of struggle for democracy in Syria, because women wanted more rights, because students wanted more rights, because of the rising unemployment, because of the privatization plans of the regime, and so on. This coalition of forces—had the peaceful uprising continued, Assad would have gone. That is my own reading. And the militarization.

And I hear maybe some people might accuse me of being a conspiracy theorist. I think militarization of conflicts pushed on by the Saudis, Qataris, and the United States are designed to stop the democratization of these countries. They want to stop genuine democratic forces from taking over and overthrowing these dictatorships.

JAY: Because then you might end up with a Syria that's outside all of the various spheres.

RAMADANI: Absolutely, absolutely, because why would a decent democratically elected government hand over sovereignty of the people to a foreign power?

JAY: Okay. Let's—we haven't talked in any detail now about Israel's interests in all this. And while they try, I think, on the Syrian issue to have somewhat of a low profile, there's no way they're not up to their eyeballs in this, one way or the other. And how is it in Israel's interests, in spite of their, you know, clear objective to try to get regime change in Iran—why is it in Israel's interests to risk forces coming to power in Syria that are far more antagonistic to Israel than Syria has been?

RAMADANI: Well, what they are banking is on the Saudis and Qataris controlling the scene, and Turkey. If Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar succeed in bringing those forces that are paid and armed by them, then we will have a regime that will deal with Israel, that will sell the Lebanese resistance, that will sell out on the Palestinians, that will break, definitely, links with Iran. So there is a lot at stake, and Israel has thrown, I think, its weight behind that alternative.

JAY: So they believe the more extreme Islamist forces that are entering the fray are fodder that they can control afterwards.

RAMADANI: Yes. They might be wrong. Look at what happened in Afghanistan. But I think they are—unfortunately or fortunately, depending on the way you look at it, I think they are not wrong. I think they can control these extremists, because this time the extremists are going in, the al-Qaeda types are going in with known associations. They know who they are one by one. They came in through Turkey. They came in through Iraq. They came in through areas under U.S.-Turkish-Barzani control. So they think they can control them much, much better. And also they're arming and financing them through old associations.

There was a big banking scandal. The HSBC, Britain's biggest bank, there was a scandal (I think it also made some headlines in the United States) where that bank was uncovered to be dealing with drug cartels and with banks that were financing al-Qaeda type terrorists in the region. So the funding for these guys is known. The arming is known. Unlike Afghanistan, they think they can control them.

JAY: Okay. Let's—before we end this segment, let's just talk a little bit more about the oppositional forces that are not involved in the free Syrian army, what you've been calling the more democratic opposition for a peaceful protest. So what is their status now? Because now that it is militarized, there is an armed war going on, usually in these situations if you don't have guns, you don't have much to say about it.

RAMADANI: Unfortunately that is true. That's why these democratic forces feared militarization and warned against its consequences. I have their literature very early on, last year, saying, look, if this thing goes military way, the people will suffer, the protest movement will suffer. Foreign intervention, they were predicting it will start appearing. And true enough, this is what happened.

JAY: In fact, we saw—just I think in the last couple of days, the new president of France, Hollande, actually called openly for foreign intervention.

RAMADANI: Yes, he did. He did. And Saudi Arabia and Qatar and so on have been obviously on the record. Turkey as well. But you are right. France became the first power to call for military-type intervention.

United States is saying, we supply some money; and they are also saying, we're supplying communication equipment. Well, communication equipment in a war zone is war materiel. But also the CIA is obviously now—it's on the record now that the CIA is controlling who to arm and who not to harm from within Turkey. So the CIA has taken over control of who to arm and who not to arm through Turkey into Syria, and I think through Lebanon as well. This is my own—although they have not admitted Lebanon yet, I think they are also doing it through the Lebanon.

JAY: Okay. In the next segment of our interview, we're going to talk about Russia, and to some extent China, and more about the geopolitical jigsaw puzzle in all of this. And, of course, it's the Syrian people that are caught in the middle of it all. Anyway, join us for the next part of our series of interviews with Sami Ramadani on The Real News Network. And don't forget the "Donate" button, 'cause if you don't click that, 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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