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.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore.The civil war continues intensely in Syria, with many more civilians dying in the midst of a war that seems to be without end. But it seems to be without end somewhat by design. There's an interesting blog written by a man I guess most people consider and he would probably consider himself a neoconservative, certainly a defender of Israel from the most right-wing kind of position, and his name is Daniel Pipes. He runs something called Middle East Forum, where he writes. In 2003, he was nominated to the U.S. Institute of Peace by then president George Bush. Democrats in the Senate actually blocked that appointment, but it went ahead during--as a recess appointment. So he was not only an adviser to President Bush. He is taken very seriously in certain U.S. foreign policy circles, and in recent writings, I think, articulates U.S. foreign policy in more overt, I guess you could say, transparent, or honest way than we're hearing from the Obama administration.Here's a couple of quotes from his recent writings. He writes: "I am changing my policy recommendation from neutrality to something that causes me, as a humanitarian and decades-long foe of the Assad dynasty, to pause before writing:"Western governments should support the malign dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad."Here is my logic for this reluctant suggestion: Evil forces pose less danger to us when they make war on each other. This (1) keeps them focused locally and it (2) prevents either one from emerging victorious (and thereby posing a yet-greater danger). Western powers should guide enemies to stalemate by helping whichever side is losing, so as to prolong their conflict."That was written on April 11. On April 17, Daniel Pipes writes again. He takes credit for what he says is now the Obama administration, which is essentially that--support whichever side is losing. So the conflict continues. Pipes then quotes from a peace in The Wall Street Journal:"Senior Obama administration officials have caught some lawmakers and allies by surprise in recent weeks with an amended approach to Syria: They don't want an outright rebel military victory right now because they believe, in the words of one senior official, that the 'good guys' may not come out on top."Now joining us to talk about U.S. strategy in Syria is Omar Dahi. He is an assistant professor of economics at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He grew up in Syria, and he's an editor of The Middle East Report.Thanks for joining us, Omar.OMAR DAHI, ASSIST. PROF. ECONOMICS, HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE: Thanks for having me.JAY: So, Omar, what do you make of Pipes? Is he essentially articulating the real foreign policy of the United States, a policy that Obama clearly doesn't want to speak out loud?DAHI: Yes, I think you can, through his words--and we talked about this before on the program--look at the trajectory of what the U.S. has been doing over the past couple of years and see that it more or less articulates the U.S. response. In fact, it's also what the Assad regime has been trying to argue all along, even before the uprising, and in many ways explains how the Assad regime was sort of the perfect enemy, if you will, in the sense that they're opposed to the U.S. in rhetoric, but in many ways they don't pose a very strategic threat to either the U.S. or Israel.JAY: So the argument, obviously, is that al-Qaeda type or aligned forces have come out and essentially taken over much of the on-the-ground fighting, or leading much of the on-the-ground fighting against Assad. And apparently there was some message or tape recording or phone call that the Assad regime got hold of. What was that about, where they swore allegiance to al-Qaeda?DAHI: Yes. It was a message that allegedly showed a major fighting force within Syria swearing allegiance to al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda, essentially pledging to be part of the worldwide network in fighting for al-Qaeda, rather than fighting for sort of the domestic uprising.JAY: So you've got the--essentially, an American strategy, and Pipes articulates it: let the two sides slaughter each other. And then he throws a bone at one point in what he writes, Pipes, where he says the way the civilians should be protected is all the various people that are sending arms in, which he's of course not against, he says, send arms to either side that's losing. So he's okay with the Russians and Chinese and Iranians sending arms to Assad, as long as that keeps Assad from being overthrown. He's okay with Saudis and Qataris and Americans giving arms to the rebels, as long as they don't get too strong. But, of course, the fact that civilians are getting slaughtered in the middle of all of this, he says, oh, both sides should say that to have our arms, you have to agree to play by the rules of civilized warfare.DAHI: Of course that's ludicrous in terms of--as you can see, the civilian cost has been massive. About 4 million Syrians are now between refugees and internally displaced, almost a quarter of the population, with upward of 70,000 dead and perhaps hundreds of thousands wounded. And this is basically a cycle for endless war. Now, what he has said, though, which is true, which is that the weapons flow has been carefully calibrated to the rebels, such that there's sort of an upper limit of the type of weapons that they can get, and a sort of American veto on any weaponry that can perhaps be used against Israel in the future. And this has been something that some of the military leaders themselves, the military rebels' leaders, have articulated in the past.JAY: A lot of the kind of Salafist forces, the al-Qaeda type forces that are fighting in Syria, they're getting a lot of their money from Saudi Arabia, and everybody knows it, and I don't think the Saudis are even particularly hiding it, and that they're either coming from official Saudi sources or from members of the ruling family unofficially. But nobody speaks about this. If that's what they're so worried about, shouldn't they be leaning on Saudi Arabia?DAHI: Well, it's coming from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Those are the two main funders. And I think if you look at what the U.S. did in Syria in terms of the last two years, they were happy to let Saudi Arabia and Qatar take the lead on arming the rebels for the first year and a half. And I think since the summer of last year, when it was obvious that the ones really making headway in terms of the militay fighting against the regime, were increasingly Salafis, jihadis, and al-Qaeda type groups, that's when the U.S. moved to be more assertive. And I think, despite what Daniel Pipes said, there is increasing evidence that given the U.S. sending signals of arming certain types of rebels itself, they are asserting more control. They are leaning more and more on Saudi Arabia and Qatar to try and curb the flow of weapons, to try and unify the opposition so that they can control them better, and perhaps, increasingly so, trying to form their own network of rebels and supplies that they think that they can control better. And you see that flowing through Jordan, for example, where there's some evidence that the U.S. and Jordan has been training some rebels that can perhaps be used to secure the southern border of Syria, i.e. the northern border of Israel. In other words, the U.S. is increasingly intervening because it sees the situation as perhaps moving out of control in case there is a collapse by Assad. And what I think what happened is perhaps the U.S. intervention under that scenario, if there's a big collapse, that's when the U.S. might be preparing for moving, actually, into Syria.JAY: But are you getting any sense of that? There was an AP story just, I think, a day or two ago about Assad consolidating his position, Assad is getting stronger, Assad is gaining the initiative. I mean, it's the kind of stuff you hear in mainstream media when the State Department or the Pentagon wants to kind of send out signals the other way. I mean, if you want your enemy to lose, you're usually talking about how weak they are and destabilized and falling apart. You're starting to get something in the media here to get people's sort of head around to accepting that Assad is actually going to stay in power.DAHI: Yes. And if you look at the geographic sort of spatial fighting, I think what--we're moving towards a settlement whereby Assad consolidates his power over a certain territory in Syria, which is in Damascus stretching to the north of central Syria, through Homs, through the coastal region in the northwest, and the rebels consolidating their control over south of Damascus, as well as the north of Aleppo and the northeast region. I think that's what seems to be in the works, where the U.S. and Russia, through their agreement that has been [incompr.] back through the summer of 2012, is sort of agreeing on carving out spheres of influence within Syria. Assad will continue, perhaps, to rule over that territory. The rebels, through their Qatari-funded national coalition, are setting up a provisional government in the rebel-owned territory. And perhaps that will then lead to some sort of political settlement that keeps Syria from completely collapsing, as well as works out some sort of political agreement.JAY: If Pipes and people that think like Pipes have their way, this--what you're describing might happen. But it happens in the context of, again, this endless civil war, with civilians paying the price.DAHI: Of course, because the price of spheres of influence is essentially ethnic cleansing. And you've seen elements of that in the last couple of weeks with this regime offensive that seem to be, in a way, assaults aimed at clearing out entire zones so that the army can move in. And this process is continuous. There is more and more war crimes being reported that the rebels themselves are committing in the rebel-controlled areas. It's basically a massive humanitarian disaster as well. And that's one of the things which also seems to be triggering the push for a political settlement, because it's coming to bother and really intervene into the neighboring countries, such as Turkey, for example, which is increasingly overwhelmed by the number of refugees, and the possibility that you could have many, many more millions if Damascus perhaps was to fall or if the fighting was to continue.JAY: So who does this serve? It seems the Saudis, the Qataris, the Israelis, the Americans, they achieved a certain objective here, which is they've taken an Iranian ally and more or less destroyed the country and weakened its position, both in terms of Iran, and for Israel the kind of support that Syria can give to Hezbollah.DAHI: Absolutely. I mean, in many ways the main strategic goals, you could say, have been achieved, even if there is a--what you can call an Assad victory, because the regime is going to remain under siege through sanctions and other means. In terms of its moral position, its moral standing, I mean, aside from its own weakness, that's significantly deteriorated. It's unlikely to pose any threat to Israel or even basically be the kind of support for Iran and Hezbollah that it used to be. And I think that's perfectly fine for the U.S. and it's perfectly fine for the Gulf countries, which is what they wanted to do to begin with. I mean, I think Saudi Arabia has been very clear from the beginning: they want to defeat Iran in Sryia. And there is a push to further escalate the fighting, in fact, drawing in Hezbollah, which is increasingly happening in Syria. And, of course, Hezbollah's intervention into Syria and its support from the regime, sort of standing next to the regime, has happened since it became clear for many Iranians and Hezbollah that this is part of one of the strategic goal of the Gulf is in Syria.JAY: Many of the Syrians I'm talking to--friends, people I know--who were rather enthusiastic with the rebellion in the early stages--they certainly supported the peaceful protests. They were people--some of the people I'm talking to actually, you know, they weren't so anti-Assad previously, 'cause they had done not so badly with Assad. But when the protests were crushed by the Assad regime, they sided with the protesters, and they came to support the rebellion, and they believed that people had a right to defend themselves. They--I'm hearing something different from them now. Now they're saying the killing just has to stop, there has to be some kind of political settlement, and the country's just being destroyed, and that the issue that everything is about Assad leaving is not that--their main objective right now. They want the killing to stop and then some kind of negotiated process. How popular a position is that? And does it have any political voice with any clout?DAHI: Well, it's hard to gauge how popular it is, but it's certainly the most humanitarian and most realistic position in many ways. You can't keep egging on people to die when you know there are other people who are going to pay the price, especially for people on the outside of Syria. People on the inside of Syria, as I mentioned, there are millions of people who are internally displaced, 4 million in total between refugees and others, hundreds of thousands of wounded, and people basically trying to--worrying about their daily survival on the economic level. So simply upping the ante and claiming that Assad has to leave as a precondition for the fighting to stop is essentially a very [incompr.] a morally unacceptable position, because it doesn't take into account the people who are suffering as a result. Of course, it's a given that the Assad regime has basically been behaving in a lunatic fashion, essentially destroying the country. There's no doubt in my mind they've committed mass crimes against humanity in terms of the systematic level of destruction. And their response has been in any way--doesn't give them legitimacy to continue. But the question is: how do you move towards the future Syria many Syrians want in light of this total destruction? And there has to be a push for a political settlement or there has to be a push for opening a third way that can start a transitional process. Perhaps at the end of that process Assad will leave, but the focus has to be now on the fighting to stop, on humanitarian aid to go in. The maximalist position is no longer tenable.JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Omar.DAHI: Thank you for having me.JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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