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Elaine Hagopian: Syrians are caught between horrors of Assad and sectarian forces with external support

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

On Wednesday in Damascus, President Assad announced he’s going to call a referendum on February 26 for a new constitution for Syria. This follows earlier-in-the-week Arab League meetings that took place in Cairo, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They essentially call for arming the opposition in Syria, and they are going to take a resolution that did not get through the Security Council (because of vetoes of Russia and China) to the General Assembly, calling for some kind of peacekeeping force. So where is all this leading? And what is the opposition in Syria made up of?

Now joining us to help us unpack a very complicated situation is Elaine Hogopian. Elaine is a Syrian-American sociologist. She’s professor emeritus of sociology at Simmons College in Boston. And she joins us from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Thanks for joining us, Elaine.


JAY: So let’s start with sort of the more geopolitical picture before we get into what’s happening inside Syria. What exactly does Syria and Qatar plan to achieve here? If they actually—if they already are arming opposition, which some people are suggesting, as—and they’re also suggesting some arms are coming from Turkey. But if they do it overtly and openly under an Arab League resolution, one would think that leads to kind of the situation we saw in Lebanon for years, like, a horribly long-term, violent civil war. What would be in—how could that be in the interest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar?

HOGOPIAN: Well, what they are thinking is that the world is looking at them to do something, and all they can think about is that they’ll arm the Free Syrian Army. And they’re actually hoping that in some way Turkey and/or the Free Syrian Army will have sufficient strength to set up a kind of Benghazi, and that, theoretically, more of the Syrian army will defect if there is a place to go to.

And I think the Arab League is at a dead end. After all, it’s filled with people (especially those who head it—Saudi Arabia and Qatar at this point, Qatar being the official [incompr.] right now) who themselves have ruled their countries as families for years and years, are corrupt, and don’t exactly have a lot of human rights in their own countries. So—and the other end of that is that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are so fixated on Iran, and their desire somehow to break this Syrian regime and to usher in something that would be more pro-Western, yet at the same time fit into a kind of Islamic mold that both of them are fostering—.

JAY: I mean, the level of hypocrisy, especially on the part of Saudi Arabia, where they can send troops in to Bahrain to help suppress protest, suppress protest inside Saudi Arabia—. And if Iran ever sent arms to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia would be screaming blue murder. On the other hand, it’s fine for Saudi Arabia to do exactly the same thing in Syria.

HOGOPIAN: Exactly. And it might be said here that the Arab League, when they passed this, they haven’t said they’re actually going to send him arms. They have built-in options that they could arm if the violence continues and people need help and that they need to defend themself. So they’ve given themself a kind of out. At the same time, we know that arms are going in to the Free Syrian Army and they’re coming from all directions, whether it be from Lebanon, whether it be from parts of Iraq—not necessarily the Lebanese government or the Iraqi government, but coming in from various other groups. And Turkey, while it tries to play a dual role, we don’t know. It’s arming—. The U.S., after all, also has bases in that area and may in fact be helping in some form of training, though the U.S. stays in the background. And hopefully—they’re hoping that others, like Turkey and Jordan, will accommodate some of the goals that the U.S. has in the area.

JAY: So what do you make of the opposition, the Free Syrian Army? And who else is in the opposition? ‘Cause it seems to be very diverse and very splintered.

HOGOPIAN: It is. And I think it’s important to recognize—and I’d like to emphasize this point—there has been in Syria, long before this protest, a whole group of people, a kind of movement, if you will, for reform and human rights in Syria. They, in the early days—let us just even start from 2000, when Bashar Assad came in. A group of 99 intellectuals signed a statement because they thought he was a reformer and he had opened up Syria a little bit, and they signed a statement calling for specific reforms, and they did not call for a change in the regime or for the Assad family to step down or anything of this sort.

Later—and it seems that Bashar’s brother Maher seemed to advise him that opening up Syria was a bad idea at this point, that it would bring in all kinds of people trying to get clients in the area. And so they clamped down.

Nonetheless, in 2001, a group of 1,000 Syrians issued a statement in which again they were calling for reforms. And then later, again, in 2005, there was another declaration and call, and they each time became more intense and more demanding. But nothing happened.

The “Arab Spring”—I use that word in quotes—comes along, and this sort of strengthened the people who want reform. And so there was this authentic nonviolent movement going out in the streets, and they were not calling for Bashar Assad to step down. I think that’s very important.

I think that the regime—and I would emphasize here that Bashar Assad himself is not the regime. He is the head of the regime, and we don’t really know how much power he has, although he is responsible and he seems to be going along with what is happening, and may even be fostering it. But I think he handles it very poorly in Daraa when this whole thing broke out.

JAY: Why were the reformists not calling for the end of the regime, or at least some kind of multiparty election process?

HOGOPIAN: At that point, of course, they wanted more plurality. They didn’t want a removal of the emergency laws [incompr.] But they were not asking for regime change or Assad to step down, mostly because the Assad regime, for all of its horrors—the father, of course, initiated many horrors. But for all of its horrors and the continuing human rights violations under Bashar and so forth, it brought stability to Syria.

You have to remember, before the father took over in 1971—actually, 1970, officially ’71—Syria had had 15 coups. It was almost a yearly event. Fifteen coups. And there was no stability. The economy was in shambles. He takes over, has what he called the Corrective Movement, and he in a sense insists on a secular society. And being an Alawi, of course, that’s [incompr.] as well. But he insisted on a secular society. And in a sense, by very strong authoritarian regime and a very strong security system that he built up and force, he forced the integration of the different provinces and sects of Syria, which had eluded them, as you know, under the French. The French had split the area into so many pieces. Within what they left of Syria it was split. And so he brought it together. There was this stability.

When Bashar came in, he looked like a reformer and people liked him.

JAY: So if this, what you’re saying, the sort of authentic reformist movement wasn’t at least at that time calling for Assad to step down or for a regime change and all, which I guess partly too would have been, in the circumstances, more provocative than what was achievable, what happened? I mean, early in all of—. Just one sec. Early in this, even Hillary Clinton was calling Assad a reformist. So where does this change and why?

HOGOPIAN: Well, I think that, number one, as I say, I think the regime didn’t play it well. They’re used to not having a challenge to the regime itself. And while Bashar seems to have wanted reform, announces reform, the question always comes up of how much power does he actually have and who was advising him. There is a [incompr.] and a whole series of security forces, his brother leading the most important security force, and all kinds of domestic intelligence—Mukhabarat, as they are called. And they just didn’t handle this well. And yet the people continued peaceful for a while.

I think external forces like Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, the U.S. in the background, Israel, for all of its protests that it really doesn’t want to see change in Syria because it will bring in Muslim Brothers, etc., also has certain interest in seeing regime change—and they have for a long time—that, you know, for all of this, the regime, as I say, didn’t play it well. The forces from outside, these external forces, saw an opportunity, and they began to send in some of their own people or to pay in return a number of [incompr.] Muslim Brothers who are vied for both by Turkey and by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis sent in Salafis, as they did in Egypt. The Qataris are also sending in their own people, although the Qataris are such a small nation; but they have lots of money where they can buy people.

And in this process, when you began to get a kind of tit-for-tat, the defectors are predominantly from the Idlib area. The Idlib area is where the Muslim Brothers are. And they fled into Syria, and they began, in a sense, this more militant group. And these external forces sort of overran the authentic protesters and absorbed them in some way, and both the regime and these other externally paid people began to play the sectarian game.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Elaine.

HOGOPIAN: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

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


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Dr. Elaine Hagopian is Professor Emerita of Sociology, Simmons College, Boston. She was awarded two Fulbright Hayes Faculty Research Grants to do research in the Middle East; held appointments with UNICEF in the United Arab Emirates and with UNESCO throughout the Levant and Gulf to do a Feasibility Study for a Palestine Open University. She has traveled to and lived in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan for periods of time from 1971 on. Her publications focus on issues in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria as well as the Civil Rights of Arabs and Muslims in America.