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Bassam Haddad: The Syrian revolution must guard against interference by external powers and the Syrian National Council

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

In Syria, the government announced the results of a referendum on Sunday for a new constitution. They say that 57 percent of eligible voters voted and 87 percent of those voters approved the new constitution. But the question is: does any of this really matter, given the deteriorating situation in Syria?

Now joining us to analyze this is Bassam Haddad. Bassam is the director of Middle East Studies program at George Mason University. He teaches in the Department of Public and International Affairs. He’s the author of the book Business Networks in Syria and cofounder of [dʒæd] magazine dot com. Thanks for joining us, Bassam.


JAY: So what weight do you give to the announcement about almost 60 percent of people (they say) that are eligible did vote in this referendum?

HADDAD: It’s really as you suggested. The significance of this referendum is not high at all, considering the deteriorating situation on the ground in Syria. So we have basically another attempt that is way too little way too late that’s taking place at the regime level. And the intention is to not sway the opposition towards the regime; the intention is to maintain the support of the existing constituency of the regime, the existing either supporters or the supporters of the status quo that do not necessarily like or support the regime but would like to have an end to the current crisis.

JAY: Now, what do you make of the information that’s coming out of what is happening on the ground?

HADDAD: Yes, but let me just also say: importantly, the reason we have also this referendum or the reason regime is actually doing this is to give something to its international supporters, specifically Russia, to use as leverage in negotiations and further discussions, which is pretty important.

JAY: Yeah. Well, then, let’s get back to the referendum, then. I mean, what about this number that 57 percent of people that are eligible did vote? I mean, if that’s true, a majority of people then participated and somehow endorsed the process.

HADDAD: There is no way we can verify this. It just seems extremely high considering the situation in Syria today, that 57 percent of eligible voters in such a short period have actually voted. So I would be skeptical. But, again, the function and purpose of the referendum is quite utilitarian at this point and less about building a new kind of society.

JAY: So, then, let’s talk about, then, the quality of information we’re getting. When we see mainstream news reports from Syria, it’s almost entirely based on phone calls and other kinds of contact with opposition activists, and that’s a fairly complicated picture, who are all the opposition activists. So, first of all, what do you make of what is happening? How reliable is the information?

HADDAD: The information is actually not quite reliable on all fronts. Early on, the information coming out of Syria, based on the blackouts that the regime imposed on journalists and so on, was problematic in the sense that the regime was actually the dominant force that was obfuscating information and distorting it. As time went by, especially in the recent months, we begin to see that the misinformation and propaganda has actually also been taking place among some of the opposition groups and the supporters of the opposition in ways that have actually undermined the revolution extremely unnecessarily, because you do not need propaganda on the side of people who are protesting against dictatorships. Unfortunately, there are a lot more dimensions here that involves interests beyond the struggle for freedom and a political voice for those who have been repressed for decades in Syria. So we have a propaganda machine by the regime that’s now being countered by opposition propaganda, and not always based in Syria and not always based on Syrian interests. So one should take, actually, almost all information coming out of Syria with a grain of salt, not just that of the regime.

JAY: And, then, let’s talk about the opposition. There seems to be two big divisions in the opposition. One is on the question of foreign intervention, where some forces are calling for foreign intervention, although, if I’m correct, that seems to be most ex-pat organizations outside the country. And if I understand correctly, most of the organizations inside the country are against foreign intervention. But there also seems to be a division on how militarized this conflict should become and whether or not there should be arming of groups in Syria by outside forces are not. Can you talk about this debate?

HADDAD: Sure. The situation continues to be quite complex, actually, and it’s one where early on most of the opposition, especially in March, April, and May, was against foreign intervention or it had a position towards that that is negative. It also did not support violence in terms of the uprising, and of course did not support sectarianism.

As time went by, we realized that there were a few things happening. First of all, the opposition became a lot more divided with time, as the brutality of the regime crushing the protests early on was, of course, enormously accepted and caused a lot of the opposition groups’ members to differ on how to respond to this brutality. The idea that the opposition or the revolution would be nonviolent was dropped, and people started calling for foreign intervention. Some in the opposition, especially the group headed by or led by certain individuals like Haytham Manna, who leads the national coordinating body for the coordinating committees inside Syria, continue to oppose intervention, whereas the SNC, the Syrian National Council, which is perhaps the largest group outside Syria, supported or began to support national intervention in fall, when it was—right after it was formed, in fall of 2011. So we have this kind of difference externally. Internally, early on there was opposition to intervention, and more recently it seemed from the best sources that most of the opposition internally is now open to the question of intervention, especially as repression goes up.

The problem in all of this, or the issue, the new element in all of this recently, is that we can no longer take the opposition in Syria at face value, we can no longer consider this simply—although it is in essence a fight against dictatorship, but we can no longer—after the past few months, we can no longer consider the revolution at face value as we did in the first few months. We must consider the external elements that are actually playing a significant role. Whether or not the internal opposition to dictatorship should continue to remain or should continue to be valid and legitimate, it does not mean that we should continue to take the opposition as a whole and the revolution as a whole at face value. Things are becoming more complex.

We have to recognize that various players are now playing a much greater role in turning this opposition or this revolution into something that will serve regional and perhaps international goals. And this was precisely why countries like Russia, despite the brutality of the regime, are voting in favor of the regime, supposedly. But that’s largely in response to the other dimensions that are not as clear. And we all know that over and beyond all of this there is a struggle or a conflict between conservative countries in the region, like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and the United States against what we can call the resistance [incompr.] which is Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran. And wherever one stands in this conflict, I think people are trying to back their positions, not necessarily the players. In other words, social support, resistance to external domination or hegemony, are by default supporting Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah whether or not they like these players in all their dimensions.

So that’s the reality of things today. That’s why you see the left supporting actors that are not necessarily ideal from the—based on the principles of the left, and then, of course, the conservatives in the region who would like to favor or overemphasize the military over everything else support not only, you know, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United States, but also now are supportive of counterrevolution more broadly, in the sense that they want the space of uprising to end and restore the status quo ante in order to preserve these interests.

JAY: Well, if one starts from the well-being of the majority of the Syrian people, what are your views in terms of where this should go, in the sense that if the external players—and primarily we’re talking about Qatar and, I guess, even more so Saudi Arabia and United States—it’s—. I’m not sure. Maybe you can say something about this, ’cause the American military is saying it’s too early to arm the Syrians, ’cause we don’t know, really, who the opposition is, where the Saudis and Qataris seem pretty adamant that there should be arming. Why don’t you start there?

HADDAD: Well, let me just say that there is no position today vis-à-vis the Syrian situation that is going to be free of a problematic dimension. If you are trying to emphasize the role of external players, then you are basically being unfair to the question of the repression of the legitimate protest and the killing of people in that regard. And if you try to emphasize only the importance of fighting the dictatorship no matter who is doing the fighting, no matter what happens down the line in terms of NATO intervention, you’re also not paying enough attention to the number of people that are likely to be affected, which would be much larger than what we are seeing today. Unfortunately, this cold analysis is actually reprehensible, but this is the reality today. And then whatever position one takes will be infringing upon some rights, some value that many of us actually hold dear.

So having said that, I would just like to reiterate the importance of not losing sight of the fact that this regime and dictatorship in general throughout the region should be fought against and overthrown. And this does not simply apply to the Syrian regime, although this is what’s happening today; it should also apply to other regimes that now are pretending to be on the side of democracy and democratization and democrats, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the rest of the Arab countries today.

Now, as far as the military conception or question, I think it’s important to not take too seriously the caveat of not wanting to arm the revolution or the protesters because one is worried about al-Qaeda taking, getting these weapons. I mean, that sounds a bit silly and disingenuous, considering that al-Qaeda is not waiting for the United States to give it M16s or whatever rifles are used today, and they’re not waiting for that kind of support to take advantage of it. They’re not talking about the Americans giving the protesters F-16s and F-18 jet fighters or nuclear weapons.

So this is, I think, a cover for other things that are taking place, especially that the task of or the whole approach to the Syrian revolution from the very beginning has been faced with ambivalence on parts of the United States, even if a decision was made for regime change. The United States, as well as Israel, are quite careful in what kind of change will take place and what will be the consequences regionally.

We can talk about or speculate about this, but the reality is that there’s no alternative to fighting dictatorship, in my view, in Syria and throughout the region, as at the same time fighting the option of external military intervention, which might or might not take place. But if we leave the Syrian situation alone—which sounds cruel, and every time I say this people tell me I’m advocating killing—I think the regime by the week is losing ground and we will find that whatever outcome we have will be actually in the Syrian people’s best interests in the long term.

We also must recognize that the broader regional picture is really [incompr.] supporting right now, supportive. But we really should pay attention to the kind of problems that lurk in the background as a result of this kind of support from, especially, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have interests beyond the Syrian people, who are thinking about maybe questions of sectarianism, questions of stability for their own economies and their own policies, and then questions of counterrevolution, which might actually be served if they seem now to be on the side of revolution.

JAY: Saudi Arabia and Qatar seem very willing to fish in troubled waters, even if it creates more chaos and instability there.

HADDAD: Sorry?

JAY: I said Saudi Arabia and Qatar seem very willing to fish in troubled waters, in the sense that even if it seems—if it leads to civil war and real instability, they don’t seem to mind that.

HADDAD: Maybe they are—perhaps they are miscalculating, more so than intending for this to be the outcome. And there will come a time when they will face their own opposition. And the question has always been, if we actually do have a situation where we have mass protests in these countries, it will be very interesting to look at what the position of the United States will be in that regard. You have to, of course, let alone the princes and kings that control these territories.

I do not think that most people right now outside Syria are thinking about what’s good for the Syrian people. The Syrian people, who I think—I cannot even speak on their behalf, but have suffered for several decades from the kind of—brutal repression and manipulation, externally and internally. And I think this is precisely why a solution should—or the best course of action would be to avoid muzzling the Syrian situation [incompr.] that will continue this manipulation and might actually, in an odd twist of fate, revert back to supporting the status quo.

This is why I support the Syrian uprising against dictatorship outside and in separation from external efforts, because these efforts at some point supported the Syrian regime and at some point in the future may revert back to doing so. So I think if we keep our eyes on the prize, which is what the external opposition, the one that has a genuine interest in more open society in Syria—this is what I think we should focus on, not on external intervention, and certainly not on parts of the opposition, including the SNC—.

JAY: So SNC—you mean the Syrian National Council.

HADDAD: Yes [incompr.] Syrian National Council, which was established in the fall of 2011. And it’s mostly made of ex-pats, although there are some connections to what’s happening on the ground in Syria), and seemed to have lost all legitimacy by being completely dependent on external powers, external funding, and have become far less transparent and far less insistent on the actual prize. They are much more, now, interested in what will get the SNC more support internationally and regionally and much less on what is good for Syria, because some of the things that are good for Syria and the Syrian people involve negotiating with states and actors that are not necessarily considered friends. It includes pushing diplomatically for certain solutions and not others. But all of these approaches and more are being neglected by the SNC for reasons that have to do with their dependent position on these countries that we’ve been mentioning, the conservative Arab countries, some European countries, and the United States.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Hassam.

HADDAD: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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