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Maher Arar updates his case and discusses the struggle in Syria

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Today the UN announced the death toll in Syria since the protests began is over 3,500 people. Some other analysts say the number’s probably more than 4,000. The Arab League proposal for the Syrian government to cease its attacks on Syrian civilians doesn’t seem to have much effect on the ground, with at least 12 to 15 people apparently being killed every day. Now joining us to talk about the struggle in Syria is a man who was born in Syria, grew until the age of 17, moved to Canada. And his name is Maher Arar. Maher is a human rights advocate now, whose story gained public attention after American authorities falsely accused him of being linked to terrorists. Despite being a naturalized Canadian citizen, Arar was then rendered to his birth country, Syria. There he was subjected to torture, like incessant beatings, and with electrical cables, and confined to a cell the size of a grave. After his release in 2003, Canada and Syria found him to be completely innocent of all allegations. He’s since founded the nonprofit national security magazine Prism and is a commentator for publications like The Guardian and the Huffington Post. And he now joins us from Ottawa, Canada. Thanks very much for joining us, Maher.


JAY: So, first of all, I mentioned in the introduction that both Canada and Syria had found you completely innocent. Before we talk about the current situation in Syria, what is your status in the United States?

ARAR: Well, I launched a lawsuit in early 2004, and the lower court dismissed my lawsuit. We appealed, and we again lost after the–even after a panel of judges decided to re-hear my case. And the last hope we had was the Supreme Court. But, unfortunately, the Supreme Court refused to hear my case. So, legally, from a legal point of view, I have no more recourse within the United States. What is left for me is basically political lobbying. And, in fact, the court decision clearly–made it clear that it is up to Congress to take decisions on this issue.

JAY: Let’s talk, then, about Syria. You grew up there. You obviously keep following the story. There’s this interesting twist to this involving you is just how close the Syrian regime and the US worked together in the so-called war on terror. So what do you make of today’s events, US policy, and this weird love-hate relationship between the two governments?

ARAR: Well, we have to remember, right after 9/11 the United States clearly said through its CIA agents that the gloves went off, and they found in al-Qaeda their top priority enemy. And so they started looking for allies, even if those allies were dictatorships. And also remember that those dictatorships were–have already been in–at war with al-Qaeda. So the al-Qaeda represented a common enemy for both the United States and its allies, as well as the dictatorships. And so whether they loved them or they hated them, they used them to do their dirty work. We all know now that few hundred terror suspects have been sent to those countries to be tortured so that information could be extracted and sent back to the US for further processing.

JAY: So talk about, then, what–how you assess the situation in Syria. There was, a few days ago, apparently, a pro-Assad, pro-government demonstration that might have been as many as 200,000 people–some reports say even more. We hear Damascus is actually quite peaceful, whereas the situation in the countryside is on the verge of what may even be kind of an armed uprising, there’s some suggestion. So far it’s been peaceful on the side of the protesters. Of course, the Syrian government says this is all really being caused by outside forces trying to destabilize or even bring down his regime. What do you make of it?

ARAR: Whenever there’s issues in Syria, troubles, they always blame foreign intervention. That’s always been the case. I do not want to deny that the regime has core supporters. I do not think that it’s a big percentage. In fact, in my opinion, most of the support comes from the Alawite community, which the president belongs to, as well as some other people who have interest. Now, the fact that there have been hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating in the streets for the regime should not tell us much, because when I was in school there, they would just actually force us to go into such demonstrations. But, again, I do not want to deny that the regime still has support, especially within Damascus and Aleppo, which have so far actually stayed quiet. But if the regime were to give people the total freedom to go out in the streets, I think we’ll see millions of people demonstrating against the regime. It’s just fear. People are afraid to go out and demonstrate freely. But what we’re seeing right now is only a small percentage of those people who are opposed to the regime [incompr.] risking their lives to demonstrate on the streets.

JAY: Assad positions himself as the force–his government as the force stopping sectarian war in Syria, and that without his regime there will be, essentially, civil war. Is there any truth to this? And just how much danger is there to this kind of sectarian warfare now?

ARAR: Given that Iran and Hezbollah are big supporters and big allies of the Syrian regime, we should not totally discount his threats. But at the same time, I think he’s exaggerating, knowing that a majority of Syrians oppose his regime, as well as now–we have to remember that Turkey has abandoned their regime. It was one of its closest allies just as of a year ago. So I think they could cause [incompr.] they could cause wars. But given that the Arab League even now is taking action and the whole world is against the regime–and in my opinion, even Russia and China will at some point abandon the regime. We’ve heard this, threats from dictatorships like Mubarak and Gadhafi, and I think it’s just to scare the outside world about what they could potentially do.

JAY: The–what do you make of the US policy? Early on in the protest movement, the US government’s position was that–actually calling Assad a reformer. Now, as the movement has grown, their rhetoric, American rhetoric against Assad has gotten more vigorous, you could say. But are they not a little bit in a bind here that better the dictator you know than some form of democracy you don’t know?

ARAR: Frankly, I think the US doesn’t know what to do. I don’t think they have a clear foreign policy vis-à-vis Syria or even other countries. If you remember, they were taken by surprise when the revolution happened in Tunisia. So I think what it is right now, they are trying to ride the wave. They don’t have a clear picture of what to do. And we all know, unfortunately, that the US has viewed Middle Eastern politics through the one and single prism, which is to protect the security of Israel. Right now there are so many unknowns–they don’t know, like you said, whether the next regime will be better than this one, and as you clearly mentioned, they’re basically saying that it’s at least better the devil we know we deal with. But what I’ve noticed is when there is a tipping point, when people are about to overcome the regime, that’s when the US will actually start to change its policy.

JAY: I saw The New York Times reported that there was a armed force of ex-Syrian soldiers being given safe haven in Turkey, and they’re asking for arms to be supplied to them by the international–quote-unquote, “international community”, which I suppose means the United States and NATO countries. But Turkey, also a member of NATO, apparently is not arming these people, but are allowing them to operate. And the report is still very small, but, I mean, is there a danger that you start to see–instead of the Libyan people sorting this out one way or the other on their own, that you do see various external forces, the United States to start with, but also Hezbollah and Iran and some of the others, starting to develop proxy armies in Syria and turning this into a kind of–what we used to see in Lebanon?

ARAR: I think there is this potential. I think NATO and other Western governments have made it clear that at least in the short term they will never intervene. And I think it’s a wise thing to do. It’s also better for the Syrian people. And let me go back to Turkey. I think whatever Turkey says publicly is not necessarily what is really happening on the ground. Turkey now, in my opinion, has completely abandoned the Syrian regime. And who knows? They may actually be the ones not only sheltering the defectors, but they’re also arming them. And in my opinion, Syrians’ only hope right now–and that’s, again, a personal opinion–is those army defectors, we know that–or at least history has shown that sanctions alone will not actually be able to topple a regime like the Assad regime. So I think what we’ll be seeing in the next few months is more defections happening and even higher-level defections, and it will grow. And at some point even Western governments, in my opinion, will probably intervene, not directly but indirectly, through the arming of these defections.

JAY: Okay. Thanks very much for joining us, Maher. And as I mentioned at the beginning of the interview, Maher is joining us from Ottawa. We’d like him to be able to visit the United States, but he can’t, ’cause he’s still on a no-fly list, he’s still not allowed in. And even though everyone else in the world acknowledges the fact that he was not guilty of anything, the United States finds it a national security concern to admit they were wrong. Thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.

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