Dahi: Although John Kerry says Bashar al-Assad must step down, most Syrians think Geneva II will be about creating a front to fight Al-Qaeda, extremist groups, and that the U.S.-Russian agreement had basically accepted that the regime would stay.

Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

The Geneva II peace talks have begun in Switzerland just days after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon uninvited Iran from the Geneva conference due to pressure from the Syrian opposition coalition. During the first day of the conference, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that Assad cannot play a role in a transitional government. This comes on the heels of a report in The Telegraph that says the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are funding rebel groups to fight al-Qaeda forces within Syria. Another recently released report, commissioned by the Qatari government, also claims that over 11,000 people have been tortured and executed by the Syrian government.

Here to discuss all of this is Omar Dahi. Omar is an associate professor of economics at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Thanks for joining us, Omar.


DESVARIEUX: So, Omar, let’s start off with what Secretary of State John Kerry had to say. He said, quote, “Mutual consent, which is what has brought us here, for a transition government means that that government cannot be formed with someone that is objected to by one side or the other. That means that Bashar Assad will not be part of that transition government.”

So, first, what do you make of Secretary of State Kerry’s position? And what do you think is the American strategy behind all of this?

DAHI: Well, the statement is part of the negotiating process of Geneva II. It’s important to remember that Geneva I did not specify the fate of Assad and instead said that there would be a meaningful transitional government inclusive of both current members of the government and also opposition members. And for a long time, in fact, the Syrian coalition, which is now attending the Geneva II talks, has in fact stated that the removal of Assad was a precondition for engaging in the talks to begin with. In fact, they had been saying all along they would not attend any talks with any representative of the regime unless Assad first left, and then they would negotiate. In other words, them being there without Assad leaving and without seemingly the prospect of Assad leaving any time soon is basically a major turnaround.

And in many ways the U.S., as early as August 2011, had said that Assad should step aside. But in many ways this is more of a negotiating position, rather than a position that the U.S. is willing or able to enforce at this point. It may be the case that at the end of the negotiation process, depending on whether the different external parties that are backing both the regime and the opposition are on board–in fact, Assad may step aside and may not run for reelection, although he has declared that he will run for reelection. But it may be the case that he might step aside. But this should be understood as part of the U.S. trying to keep the high line, which it has in fact in reality abandoned a while ago. And it’s attempting to appease its allies and appease the pressure that it’s getting from Saudi Arabia and other friends of the opposition, so to speak, in order to hold the maximalist line.

DESVARIEUX: Do you feel, like, in any way that the Americans are really committed to removing Assad from power? I know you just said that they’re trying to keep this high line, but is this a way to mobilize forces for fighting al-Qaeda groups in Syria?

DAHI: Well, most Syrians, or a lot of the Syrians that you talk to in the months leading up to Geneva II, have basically felt that Geneva II is not going to be a chance to make a meaningful political settlement, but that it’s going to be a way to create a front to fight al-Qaeda, to fight extremism, and that the U.S.-Russian agreement had basically accepted that the regime would stay. And the regime itself, and perhaps then members of the opposition in some sort of transitional government which has yet to be specified, would join into this fight.

And in the weeks leading up to the conference, the opposition has tried to change the narrative after seemingly losing the battle on the ground and after increasingly having the media coverage point out the extremists within the ranks of the opposition. They’ve been trying to turn the narrative upside down. So the first thing that they’ve been emphasizing is the different reports, one of them that you cited, showing the brutality of the Syrian regime, the fact that in addition to the report that you mentioned about prisoners being killed, the dropping of barrel bombs over civilian areas, and the collective punishment and laying siege of the Yarmouk Camp and so forth–.

But they’ve also tried to flip the terrorism narrative by claiming that it is the opposition that is now fighting the extremists and al-Qaeda groups, and pointing to the assault that several rebel groups or antigovernment groups, including al-Nusra, as well as Ahrar ash-Sham and the Mujahideen front, which are all a variety of antigovernment troops that have banded together to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham–. And in addition to that, there was a report that came out yesterday which showed that–or which claimed that Assad has been in fact funding al-Qaeda. And as proof of that, they pointed to evidence that Assad is buying oil from oil wells that were controlled by al-Nusra Front, which is something that has been known for a while. But all of this is part of a media push to flip the narrative upside down in order to increase the bargaining position or to help the bargaining position in Geneva II.

DESVARIEUX: And hasn’t Assad kind of used the terrorist card as a way to claim legitimacy, in the sense that he needs to still be in power in order to fight these extremist groups?

DAHI: Absolutely. And in many ways this has worked. Most of the discussions no longer talk at all about removing the regime–and perhaps Assad himself may not be removed–but that the spread of these extremists groups is the main preoccupation. And in many ways there are a lot of Syrians that have been basically put off by the way that these extremist groups have increased over the past two years. And in many ways, many of the extremist groups that are–such as al-Nusra Front, were at one point embraced by the opposition as an authentic opposition group. And even the report that showed that al-Nusra has been paid by the regime for the oil that it was controlling is certainly true, but at some point in time many of even the moderate or mainstream opposition members have called al-Nusra Front an authentic part of the opposition. And this process of for a long time being ambivalent about these extremists has turned off a lot of ordinary Syrians from the discourse of the opposition.

In many ways, the opposition is trying to flip the narrative at this point, but for many Syrians the damage has been done. And for many Syrians–I mean, the regime does not need to show that it is the best possible regime out there. What it has been trying to show all along is that it’s better than the alternative. And the creation and the rise of these extremist groups, some of which perhaps were enabled by the regime itself, but a lot of which were not obviously enabled by the regime and were obviously tolerated by the opposition or enabled by the opposition and supporters, have been so extreme in their behavior and the way they’ve treated the areas that have fallen under their control that many Syrians are rejecting both the actions of the regime and the opposition as well. And that’s why most Syrians wanted to push for a political settlement, because they see both sides as leading the country towards this endless cycle of death, which is beyond the breaking point.

DESVARIEUX: Omar, I want to shift our conversation and discuss who’s behind Assad, ’cause we know Iran, as well as Russia, they’re both backing Assad. Why are they still standing by him?

DAHI: Well, that’s a very good question, and it basically points to an understudied or underreported aspect of this, which is that over the last three years there’s been a lot of focus on the way that the opposition has changed, in the sense of what I just mentioned about the rise of extremists. But there hasn’t been a lot of talk or a lot of thought about the way the regime itself has changed. And over the past two to three years, the regime is still talked about in the same way that they were talked about before, as you have the regime with Assad at the head of the army, military, security apparatus, and you have the social base of the regime that is supporting it.

What’s happened over the last two to three years is the fact that (A) the allies of the Syrian government, Iran in particular, have basically claimed–and they have legitimate reasons to do so–that the main reason for the backing of the opposition by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and others is to destroy the Syrian regime in order to further weaken and isolate Iran. And this is something that is not a secret goal of many of these countries and in fact could be viewed as their main goal and as their main reason for embracing the opposition.

DESVARIEUX: What about Russia, though, Omar?

DAHI: Well, Russia has similar reasons for pushing back against the U.S. The Russians view the Syrian regime as one of the last few governments in the region that is sympathetic to Russian influence. They see many of the regimes as pro-U.S., and in particular the U.S. and NATO intervention into Libya, where the U.S. felt it was duped to go along with a UN resolution that became a license for regime overthrow. And in general it’s part of the U.S. foreign policy or U.S. foreign power decline and the rise of Russia’s assertiveness and its view that it needs to push back against the U.S. So for all these reasons, it’s been basically supporting Assad and continues to support Assad until today. And there were reports just recently of increased, even, military support for Assad.

DESVARIEUX: So, essentially–I just want to get to this point, because they cut ties with Gaddafi, but with Assad they seem to still be cozying up to him, and it just doesn’t make sense. Is it just, like, this is the final frontier, they have to put their foot down somewhere? Is that what you’re saying?

DAHI: Yes. In many ways they see this is another attempt to extend Western or U.S. influence into another country where the U.S. has a foothold and basically wants to maintain its interest. And so does Iran. It wants to maintain its ties to the regime. Syria was the only government that has basically been allied, the only government in the Arab world in particular that has been allied to Iran since the Islamic Revolution. And it stuck with Iran even while many Arab countries sided with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. So losing Syria would be a major blow to Iran.

And it may not be in the same way a major blow to Russia, but at least from their new foreign policy directions, they wanted to maintain their influence and their presence in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean at large in particular. And that’s why they continue to support the regime.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Omar, there is so much to get into here. We’re going to leave the conversation now. But in part two, we’re going to discuss the report that was released that I mentioned earlier in the introduction, the timing of it, as well is what would a resolution really look like if it were in the interests of peace and the Syrian people’s future.

Omar Dahi, thank you so much for doing joining us.

DAHI: Thank you.

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


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Omar S. Dahi is an associate professor of economics. He received his B.A. in economics from California State University at Long Beach, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. His research and teaching interests are in the areas of economic development and international trade, with a special focus on South-South economic cooperation, and on the political economy of the Middle East and North Africa.