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Hamid Dabashi: Saudi’s and US attempt to control outcome of Syrian revolt

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

In Syria, the conflict intensifies. The Arab League, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, those countries have pulled their monitors out of Syria, though some monitors continue to stay there. Some people consider it a bit rich that Saudi Arabia is the one leading the charge or helping to lead the charge with Qatar, which is also a bit rich, demanding human rights in Syria. On the other hand, the people of Syria certainly have a right to rebel against dictatorship. It’s a complicated question.

And now joining us to help us unravel this is Hamid Dabashi. Hamid is a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York, and his new book coming out this spring is The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism. Thanks for joining us, Hamid.


JAY: So it’s a bit of the Libya question for people outside the country. People in Syria have a right to rebel against the dictatorship, as do people in Syria have a right, who want the Assad regime, to have it, whereas everyone on the outside has—there’s agendas everywhere playing themselves out here. How do you sort this out?

DABASHI: I think in your introductory remarks, Paul, you said it very well. What we’re witnessing here from the initial stages of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, then in Egypt, and Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, is a series of grassroots, genuine revolutionary uprisings against the status quo. Obviously it is not just against the figure of Ben Ali or the figure of Hosni Mubarak. These revolutionary uprisings are deeply rooted in economic terms, in social terms, in cultural terms. And there is, as you said, absolutely not a grain of doubt that we’re dealing with world-historic circumstances, that people want to change their regimes.

But changing the regimes means changing their circumstances, changing their lives, bettering their lives. It doesn’t mean that they want the World Bank and IMF and American and European businessmen going there and managing their affairs. This is where the issue enters, or as you put it, the dilemma. You’re dealing, on one hand, with grassroots revolutionary uprisings, and on the other, with the fact that United States, European Union, and their regional allies, which include some Arab countries, such as United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, etc., they want to micromanage these revolutionary uprisings in a manner that suits their benefit.

And then, like in Libya, as you said, people are confronted with this dilemma, what to do when you have severe crackdown, militant violent crackdown, on part of Gaddafi or on part of Hafiz Assad [Bashar Assad]. These forces, such as Saudi Arabia or United States, European Union, appear as an angel of mercy that are helping the people, whereas the fact of the matter is that they are after their own economic interest. This is not something, Paul, as you well know, that I or any other observer says; this is what President Obama said on the night that he declared that United States is going along with the NATO bombing or no-fly zone over Libya. He said that of course there are many places—he had Bahrain in mind—that United States could theoretically intervene, but we only intervene when our interests and our values coincide. And as I—we had a discussion earlier—the interests are decided by—their values are decided by their interests.

JAY: And in Syria the interest is not about oil, because Syria doesn’t have a heck of a lot of oil left. I guess what’s at stake in Syria is Iran and, you know, this quote that if you can’t take out Iran, start with Syria. This is about geopolitical strategic positioning.

DABASHI: Political and strategic. This is a jigsaw puzzle. You touch one thing, everything else changes. And Syria is an incredibly important country—after Egypt, perhaps the most significant Arab country in the region. And were it to fall, it has consequences not only for the rest of the Arab world, for Jordan, for example, and for Lebanon, but also for Iran, as you rightly said. So everything is connected.

And Israel is deeply implicated in this, because Syria is a chief sponsor and backer of Hezbollah. Hamas has its office in Damascus. Islamic Republic is deeply interested in and implicated in Syria. So, yes, it is not oil, but it is strategically important.

But more than just its strategic significance, it is the tsunami, Paul. You have to look at it as these massive revolutionary uprisings from Morocco all the way to Syria, from Bahrain to Yemen, that on the model of Libya, what United States and its European and regional allies are trying to do is to have a foothold (and Gaddafi was the first one to give them that foothold), that they will micromanage the post-revolutionary period, what will emerge in the aftermath.

JAY: The issues of the isolation of the Assad regime in Syria, if you just follow the American or Western mass media, it would seem like the Arab League is all on board. But in fact there’s big divisions in the Arab League. If I understand correctly, both Iraq and Jordan have not actually implemented any sanctions against Syria.

DABASHI: It is not in control. The Arab—initially, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the GCC, and then by extension the Arab League, they are really manipulated and controlled primarily by Saudi Arabia. Not even Qatar is a player. Saudi Arabia, that is deeply invested in the retrograde geopolitics of the region, is completely in line with United States, European Union, and Israel. Part two: keep the situation under control, push it back to a status quo ante if possible, such as Bahrain, or micromanage it if they cannot, such as in Yemen. As you know, they have been micromanaging it in Yemen to the point that Ali Abdullah Saleh has just left and is coming to the United States. So it’s either keep it at bay, such as they have tried to do it in Bahrain, or to micromanage it as they do in Libya or Yemen.

And Syria is the case that now we don’t know which way it will go. They tried to micromanage the post-Assad period, but apparently there is enough military power within the Syrian junta and enough manipulation of minority-majority issues, such as the role of the Alawites in the Sunni-majority Syria, that they have managed to stay in power.

JAY: On Tuesday, the Arab League announced that they’re going to take this to the United Nations Security Council, because the Arab League sanctions itself hasn’t created regime change. This is how it began in Libya, with the Arab League going to the Security Council. Now, again, it’s the “Arab League”, quote-unquote, because both Lebanon, Iraq, I believe Jordan, they’re not, I don’t think, in favor of any of this. But does this steps toward the Security Council lead—what does it lead to? I have to say, just from my personal observation, it’s hard to see that there’s enough in this. As much as the U.S. would like a straightforwardly pro-American regime in Syria, I can’t see that they’re going to get involved in direct intervention. Can you?

DABASHI: It is very difficult to imagine a direct intervention in Syria à la—on the model of Libya. It is simply not possible to imagine it. But the scenario, as you rightly said, is for the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League [to] initially do as they did, or to say, we have done all we could and this is a belligerent regime; it’s not working; now we go to the Security Council of the United Nations. And this, in fact, is the point that Muallem, the foreign minister of Syria, today said. I mean, he puts it in conspiratorial language, but that they want to internationalize the crisis and so forth, meaning they want to push it towards the United Nations Security Council, which means United States and European Union will have the upper hand, and we will—with the usual exception of China and Russia, who will resist these political machinations.

If you pull back as a result and put Iran in the picture as well, you see there are two scenarios unfolding on the model of Libya, namely, United States and its European and regional allies try to control the revolutionary uprisings. In Syria they are doing it through the machination of Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League. And in Iran the Gulf Cooperation Council and Arab League doesn’t have anything to say. They are doing it by embargo and military threats and assassination of scientists, etc. But to me the strategy towards Iran is part of this scenario of trying to control the Arab Spring in specific terms, that the post-revolutionary period will be, in a way (as you see has been implemented in both Egypt and Yemen), on two different levels, namely, in Egypt you have the military in control, and in Yemen you have Saudi Arabia in control. You want the—they want to have the same scenario in Syria and in Iran, that they have a foothold in post-uprising period.

JAY: Now, if you look at the response of the media and alternative media and political forces, you kind of hear one of two things. The majority of what you hear is of the atrocities and brutal suppression of the rebellion in Syria by the Assad regime. And there seems to be enough fact-based information on that to say that there have been at least several thousand deaths and quite brutal repression. But you also hear that there’s not been much reporting of shooting back at Assad forces. And apparently there is some armed fighting taking place against the Assad regime. But you’re also kind of—on the left left what you’re hearing is that—and you’re hearing this from within some of the Arab press, and certainly you’re hearing it from the Assad regime itself, that this is—really is a Western-inspired movement, and this is all about the overthrow of Assad to put in a pro-American regime, and the domestic dissent is not legitimate, and so on. What do you make out of all of this?

DABASHI: What I make, as we have discussed this, Paul, many times, I think that there is something absolutely accurate about the fact that United States and its allies are trying to muddy the water and take advantage of these circumstances for their own interest. There’s nothing weird or unusual or conspiratorial about that; it’s just simply a statement of geopolitical fact. But that this whole uprising is instigated conspiratorially by United States is absolute gibberish. That is, you are dealing with the fundamental fact that the body politic of this society, the political culture of these societies in Syria, in Bahrain, in Yemen, etc., has outgrown this outdated political apparatus, political regimes that is ruling over them. They’re highly educated, sophisticated, advanced, progressive societies, and they want to have modern nation states with representative democracies and the whole apparatus that goes with it.

So I have absolutely no doubt about the genuine grassroot revolutionary disposition of these uprisings. Are United States and Saudi Arabia and Israel, etc., trying to put a spin on this or take advantage of it for their own geopolitical reasons? Of course. But that, as we have repeatedly said, does not discredit the fact of the grassroots revolutionary uprisings.

So what you have is—are the circumstances that, yes, there are people shooting back at the military, but they’re shooting back because they are being shot at by the military. The number of people who are civilians and artists and children who have been at the mercy of sharpshooters, Hafez Assad’s sharpshooters, are simply a fact for everybody to see. But everybody in the region—including Turkey, by the way—that plays double standard—. On one side, Turkey is on the side of democracy and so forth, but on the other side, because of the presence of the Kurdish element in the Syrian uprisings, they are not very happy with a post Bashar al-Assad Syria in which the Kurdish component of the Syrian society will have a powerful voice, because that will have implication for the Kurds in Turkey and in Iraq, and also in Iran.

So everybody in this business has their own interest. But the fact that they are—they have interests and they are trying to muddy the water for their own advantage, it doesn’t dilute, it doesn’t pollute.

JAY: So then what attitude do you take, do you think people should take? In this sense: if you say, you know, this is up to the Syrian people to sort out and everybody else should stay the hell out, but you’re also then faced with this situation where this military regime can so outgun the people opposed to it, then what attitude does one take to this?

DABASHI: The attitude is the attitude of a moral person, not—. We’re not—as we have talked about this many times, we were never asked when United States, under Obama administration or Bush administration, were having rapprochement with Bashar al-Assad’s regime, including during the invasion of Iraq—that is, the geopolitics of the region and relationship among the states has absolutely no bearing on individual activists, journalists, scholars, peace activists who are interested in the peaceful process. And they are—so they are perfectly in a legal—in a moral position to criticize any military intervention, because any military intervention on the model of Libya or Afghanistan or Iraq is bound to increase the civilian casualties, not to reduce them.

JAY: So number one is opposition to intervention.

DABASHI: Yes. I remain as steadfastly [in] opposition to any kind of intervention. Whether they call it “humanitarian” or “military” makes no difference.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Hamid.

DABASHI: My pleasure. Anytime.

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


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Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He received a dual Ph.D. in Sociology of Culture and Islamic Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 1984, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. He wrote his dissertation on Max Weber's theory of charismatic authority with Philip Rieff (1922-2006), the most distinguished Freudian cultural critic of his time. Professor Dabashi has taught and delivered lectures in many North American, European, Arab, and Iranian universities.
Professor Dabashi has written twenty-five books, edited four, and contributed chapters to many more. He is also the author of over 100 essays, articles and book reviews on subjects ranging from Iranian Studies, medieval and modern Islam, and comparative literature to world cinema and the philosophy of art (trans-aesthetics). His books and articles have been translated into numerous languages, including Japanese, German, French, Spanish, Danish, Russian, Hebrew, Italian, Arabic, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Polish, Turkish, Urdu and Catalan.