Hamid Dabashi: Syrian people caught in a proxy war as they fight a brutal dictatorship
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Now joining us from New York City to discuss the very complicated and very difficult situation in Syria is Hamid Dabashi. Hamid is professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York. His newest book, about to come out in May, is The Arab Spring. Thanks for joining us, Hamid.
HAMID DABASHI, PROF. IRANIAN STUDIES AND COMPARATIVE LIT., COLUMBIA UNIV.: Thank you, Paul. Anytime.
JAY: So the Syrian people are caught between many forces, so many external players playing in Syria, the horrors of the Assad regime, sectarian groups being armed by Saudi Arabia and others. Everyone’s fishing in troubled waters, and the Syrian people are paying the price. What’s your take on the most recent developments?
DABASHI: I’m happy you mentioned the word people. We have to remember, Paul, that this uprising in Syria began like the rest of the Arab world, with peaceful demonstrations by ordinary Syrians across their homeland, demanding their civil liberties against a brutal, brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, and before him his father Hafez al-Assad. It is the regime, it is the Syrian regime and the military that is in charge of the regime that began brutal suppression and murdering its own citizens.
So, first and foremost, you cannot blame some Syrians who have picked up arms resisting. It is a perfectly legitimate thing to do. That’s the basic facts on the ground from which we have to build.
Beyond that, Syria has now emerged as the site of a proxy war between two contending forces. On one side is Islamic Republic and Russia, and by extension China, that they don’t want a post Bashar al-Assad Syria to be to their disadvantage. And on the other side you have Saudi Arabia, United States, and Israel, and by extension the Gulf Cooperation Council, and even the Arab League. They are also actively involved in micromanaging the aftermath of what will happen to Bashar al-Assad. And in between, as you said in the introduction, are caught ordinary Syrian people who have started these demonstrations, this uprising peacefully, and who will have to survive this brutal confrontation/proxy war between two contending forces. Chiefly responsible for this on one side is Russia that wants to have a piece of the pie in the aftermath of Bashar al-Assad. They don’t care about Bashar al-Assad particularly. And on the other side is Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, as a retrograde regime, is very frightened by what will happen in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. As we have seen, they deploy forces, military forces in Bahrain when it comes to their interest. Equally frightened is, of course, Israel. Israel is using the events in Syria, and also the fabricated crisis in the Islamic Republic, to detract attention from their own crisis, namely the question of Palestinian homeland.
JAY: The Americans are pretty overt about why they think Assad should go, even though certainly most of the American official policy, although I think there was some ambiguity in the beginning, but now it’s a front of struggle against Iran. And if you listen to what they’re saying in Congress, there’s justâ€”there’s no doubt about it: they want Assad to fall because it’s a stepping stone towardsâ€”what they want is regime change in Iran.
DABASHI: I agree. And in fact, Iranians know this. The ruling regime in Islamic Republic realizes that Russiaâ€”that Syria is the front line of their fighting for their survival. They have realized that if they resist this encroachment of Saudi Arabia, United States, Israel, in Syria, they don’t have to do it in Iran itself. So, unfortunately for the Syrian people, the site [incompr.] Syria as a country, as a nationstate, has become a site of confrontation between Islamic Republic (and, of course, aided and abetted by Russia and China) and Saudi Arabia and United States and Israel.
JAY: Now, there seems to be divisions in the Syrian opposition, many divisions in terms of different groups and such, but in terms of the policy issues, a serious division on the question of foreign intervention, where a lot of the ex-pats outside Syria seem to me more pro-intervention, whereas more of the forces inside Syria are anti-intervention. And then there’s another debate about whether or not they should be armed or not. This whole situation of whether to arm the opposition seems very controversial.
DABASHI: Fortunately, Navi Pillay, the high commissioner of United Nations for human rights, based in Geneva, has just come out very forcefully against any kind of arming of any opposition.
But when we talk about the Syrian opposition, Paul, we have to remember we don’t have a history of sustained democratic operation in Syria for the opposition to have a political line, to have an ideology, to have a systematic way of resisting this tyranny. So this opposition is natural. And it is also important to keep in mind that the fragmentation among the oppositionâ€”some of them are calling for foreign intervention, others are resisting foreign interventionâ€”does not discredit the Syrian revolutionary uprising. It’s very important not to throw the baby and the water out both. This is a legitimate revolutionary uprising, and there are two parties external to Syria trying to take advantage of it for their own benefits. But their taking advantage of it, such as Islamic Republic or Russia on one side and U.S. and Saudi Arabia on the other side, does not discredit the revolutionary uprising, nor the fact that there is perfectly legitimate and understandable fragmentation within the opposition.
JAY: Now, one of the divisions is on whether or not to negotiate with the Assad regime, have some sort of ceasefire and some kind of negotiations or not. The Syrian National Council and some of the forces they’re supporting seem to be opposed to any kind of negotiations, and that seems to be more driven from people outside, although not entirely and not so clear. Internally there seems to be a little more support for negotiations. What’s your understanding of this [crosstalk]
DABASHI: No, I think it’sâ€”again, it’s perfectly understandable that in places like Damascus there are more tendencies towards negotiation. But I don’t believe from a place like Homs, for example, or Hama you will haveâ€”or [“bÉ‘bÉ™’ambr], where the slaughter is taking place, you will hear much about reconciliation or negotiation. And as we said last time we spoke, I think the brutality of the repression and the slaughterhouse thatâ€”people are now comparing it to Srebrenica and so forthâ€”has gone so far in full global perspective that this regime does not have any legitimacy to even engage in any sort of a dialog. But nevertheless, yes, there are forces both within the opposition and there are forces inside Damascus or outside Damascus that are calling for a negotiation. The key factor remains to lowerâ€”as, for example, the Red Cross has tried to doâ€”lower the level of violence and brutality that has been perpetrated, and particularly in places like [“bÉ‘bÉ™’ambr], to see what will happen.
JAY: Now, what do you make of the conflicting information coming out of Syria about the extent of the violence? Some of the Arab League monitors that were there previously were saying that the reports of civilian deaths were exaggerated, and then that report was apparently covered up by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. I mean, what do you make of that whole issue?
DABASHI: Listen, Paul, as you well know, we’re all at the mercy of news agencies, and news agencies by definition have their own agenda. If you choose, for example, to go to RT, they will give you one news. If you go to Press TV, they will give you another news. And if you are limited to BBC and Al Jazeera and CNN, you will have a different kind of news.
I think for us to be intelligent observers and for us to be able to make critical judgments, we should not take any one of these news agencies on face value, whether it is lowering the number of casualties or exaggerating the number of casualties. The fact is that there is no free press. Al Jazeera has a very limited presence. And even if Al Jazeera had a wider presence, it has also its own editorial policies and directions. I think for your viewers, that is, anybody with interest in the future of democracy in the region and future of democracy in Syria in particular, they have to have agency, critical agency looking at all of the data and making a balanced perspective, not falling into the trap of any news organization [incompr.] New York Times, BBC, and CNN, or even Guardian are on one side and RT and Press TV and so forth on the other side.
JAY: Right. Thanks very much for joining us, Hamid.
DABASHI: Any time, Paul, with pleasure.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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