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Omar Dahi says Obama is wrong to say the Assad regime has no legitimacy, as most Syrians want an end to war, the creation of a broad-front government, and a national army to confront warlords and extremism

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

On Wednesday night, President Obama gave his speech on how the United States plans to “degrade” and “destroy”, as he says, ISIL or Islamic State. Here’s a little bit, particularly what he had to say about Syria.


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: As I’ve said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission–we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq. But they are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence, and equipment. We’ll also support Iraq’s efforts to stand up National Guard Units to help Sunni communities secure their own freedom from ISIL’s control.

Across the border, in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition. Tonight, I call on Congress again to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters. In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its own people–a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.


JAY: Now joining us to discuss the Syria part of this very complicated situation is Omar Dahi. Omar is the associate professor of economics at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He’s an editor of The Middle East Report and the editor of the Syria page at the publication Jadaliyyah.

Thanks for joining us, Omar.


JAY: So in the first part of this, he talks about no American ground troops and using air support to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces. Who knows if that’s going to be successful. But if it is successful and they do start actually beating back Islamic State in Iraq, then IS simply goes into its areas it controls in Syria. And then what? Well, President Obama says the then what is we will arm and train and arm forces in Syria. Well, who the heck are those? And still, as he says, confronting and not relying on Assad, although I suppose he doesn’t completely rule out some kind of deal with Assad. But who the heck–who are these forces?

DAHI: Well, we don’t know who are these forces. First, the U.S. has in fact already been, for the past couple of years or more, arming and training various kinds of forces or backing them financially, directly or indirectly through their allies. And many of these forces have fought the government. They have fought each other. And they have in fact committed lots of–many of them have committed lots of crimes against the Syrian population. Many of them are considered by many Syrians not very different then ISIS itself in their ideology, in what they’re striving to accomplish on the ground. They may differ, some of them may differ in the sense that they’re considered to be composed of more Syrians. But in many ways they certainly don’t represent forces that can be trusted by large amounts of Syrians. And we’ve seen many of these forces, like the Islamic front, like Jabhat al-Nusra, basically entrench themselves as warlords. And this strategy of further arming them is further going to entrench this warlordism, which has been springing up all over Syria. And, in fact, the UN fact-finding mission, which was released August of–it was released last month, August 13, 2014–documented mass human rights violations by the government, but it also documented mass human rights violations not only by ISIS, but also by many of these other groups. So it’s not clear to me, first, what purpose further increasing the support to these groups will achieve other than entrenching their power and other than creating more of a problem for the future, rather than really necessarily combating the general source of discontent, the general source of resentment, and the grievances that have given rise to ISIS and other groups.

JAY: And if the main battlefield does switch to Syria, just what is it that will get bombed? I mean, if I understand correctly, IS controls towns where people live. So what does that mean? Americans are going to start bombing Syrian cities and villages and somehow then support these other–the good Islamist versus the bad ones?

DAHI: Well, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion. In fact, if they start doing that, they wouldn’t be much different than what they claim Assad is doing and what Assad is actually doing, bomding cities, barrel bombs and other sorts of air raids against areas that are heavily populated by civilians. This is going to be an attack against Syria, just like it would have been last year if the U.S. attacked Assad. And so it’s hard to see how bombing is going to solve any of this other than, basically, extend U.S. control over more territory. The U.S. has been bombing or giving itself the authority to bomb Iraq for a quarter of a century on and off, starting with Bush the father through Clinton, Bush number two, and Obama. And now we see the U.S. saying it’s going to extend its air control over further territory.

Now, I agree with you that it’s also possible and in fact has been happening that this U.S. has been reaching out through emissaries to representatives of the Syrian regime. So, behind the rhetoric it’s quite possible that the U.S. is going to not partner with the Assad regime but coordinate with the Assad regime. The only thing that Obama said, or one of the two things that Obama said in his speech that made sense was the idea of pushing for a political solution in Syria. And the other thing he said was relating to humanitarian assistance. Of all the points that he raised, I would consider these the only two points that really are worth supporting and that would in fact start to initiate a process to solve the root causes of this issue.

JAY: The problem is he’s said that before. There was supposed to be a humanitarian surge in Afghanistan. This was when he first came into office. That was going to be the new big thing. And it turned out to be not much of anything. There was going to be a humanitarian surge in Pakistan, and that didn’t turn into anything. So far, these humanitarian pieces of his policy don’t seem to amount to very much.

But in the final analysis, if this fight does mostly take place in Syria, or certainly a critical part of it, how is it possible it takes place without some kind of a deal with Assad? Or let me back up. Certainly we know there’s a deal–already it’s made and in the making–with Iran. And if the Americans do come to some deal with Iran on how to deal with Islamic State in Iraq, then isn’t the next step, one would think, they have to give Iran something it wants, and they give them the head of Assad? I mean, if they could somehow get Assad to step down, that opens up a whole range of political options in Syria, does it not?

DAHI: Sure. Just to clarify, I was referring to humanitarian assistance in the form of economic assistance. I didn’t mean to–.

JAY: No, no, no, no. I was referring to that, economic–. Just there’s been many promises of this economic assistance as a way to try to deal with the underlying problems, except you don’t see very much of it.

DAHI: Absolutely. Going back to the issue of the political solution, there has been the possibility of a political solution if the U.S. would push in that direction. But the U.S. and its allies for a long time enabled the external Syrian opposition, or those who claimed to be speaking on behalf of the Syrian opposition, to be maximalists. And only when it was too late, only when the tide had turned militarily against the Syrian opposition, did they then start claiming to be pushing for a political solution.

There may be one in the making if there is a deal with Iran, if Turkey is brought on board, and perhaps Saudi Arabia. There’s no guarantee that that would happen, but that’s a much more likely strategy of success than bombing. And one that opens the possibility for a political solution and inclusive government in Syria, possibly reconfiguring the Syrian army to be a national army rather than a Ba’ath Party army. And then that national army might take the lead in helping against the pushback, as part of a regional solution, which includes those other countries.

JAY: What is the state of the Syrian opposition now? You know, in this early stages, if I understand it correctly, there was a very popular character to the anti-Assad forces. There was a real civilian, civic uprising, if you will, that very quickly got militarized to a large extent, thanks to Assad’s brutality, but to a large extent outside forces, the Saudis and Qataris and Americans arming people. But what’s left of those–you know, where are the forces, and what shape are they in, who are not the Islamic extremists?

DAHI: At the moment they are in various places, many of them, many of the potential leadership of a new kind of opposition that is not necessarily this current group, the national coalition, which claims to speak on behalf of the opposition. They may be refugees. They may be inside Syria. They may be people in areas outside of the regime control inside Syria.

The point is, most of them are tired of war. Most of them want an end, a de-escalation, including many people who are fighters, whether they are fighters in the Free Syrian Army or otherwise, the so-called people who are referred to as moderates. They are tired of this war. So they want a process which begins to de-escalate the war, revive the economic conditions. But also it takes steps, not just in recognizing one specific opposition. It takes lots of steps, such as releasing the political prisoners from jails, such as reforming or beginning to rein in the security forces that are still reigning with impunity inside many areas under regime control. It takes a serious process of political inclusion and liberalization. It is not a power-sharing deal in the sense of a sectarian power-sharing like the kind imagined in U.S. and these D.C. policy circles of Sunnis and Shiites. It’s one that begins a gradual process of opening. This seems, like, very far-fetched at the moment, but this is the strategy that will lead to the kind of success of pushing back forces that cannot be considered authentic representations of Syrian or Iraqi society, such as ISIS.

JAY: I mean, it’s always hard–the question I’m about to ask is kind of always hard to answer, ’cause it’s somewhat subjective opinion. But at any rate, where is a majority of Syrian opinion right now? What do they want? I mean, I understand, I would suspect kind of what you just said. But to what extent–what do they want done in terms of the Islamic State? And how much is the issue of Assad still the issue? I know for a long time a lot of the opposition forces wanted Assad stepping down as the first condition of any negotiation. Where is that at?

DAHI: I think that the Syrian opposition, through a lot of their actions, whether you consider the external opposition, the political opposition, or the armed forces that claim to speak on behalf of the opposition, have through their actions driven many Syrians to cling to the regime, because what they saw was not an alternative that was viable to them. What they saw was something that they abhorred. This does not mean that they like the Syrian regime, but it’s a fact that many people clung further to the Syrian regime as a result of this increasing brutality of many parts of the opposition. This is a fact that can’t be denied by anyone. I would say it’s hard to tell what most Syrians would say in terms of political representation. But, in fact, if you speak with many refugees outside Syria, who are languishing–there about 3 million registered refugees, and many more who may be not registered–they want to go back home. They want, if they have security guarantees, even if it means going back to places under the regime.

However, this is war fatigue. It may lead to temporary cease lead to a temporary [snip] lead to a lasting peace in Syria unless, again, there is a meaningful political liberalization and a political transition and an inclusive government. And [snip] improving the security situation, the economic [snip] But in many ways Assad, per se, is no longer the problem. It’s a problem of trying to find an adequate representation of different social forces [snip] And this regime has a social base. It has a social base in the country, whether of lot the opposition likes it or not.

JAY: So when President Obama says this government has no legitimacy, you don’t think that’s correct. Amongst a significant section of the Syrian society it does have legitimacy.

DAHI: It does have legitimacy among large members of the Syrian society. And, in fact, it has more legitimacy if these members feel that the entire social base is under attack. For so long, the opposition said, we need to remove the Assad regime and all its symbols. Their language and their rhetoric and their actions imply that this meant a large-scale attack on not just the top leadership of the regime, but on the social base of the regime. This side of the logic used by Assad and the Assad leadership of annihilating every form of form of political opposition. The first target of the Assad regime historically, even before the uprising, was against the civilian non-militarized opposition. The fact that the Assad regime sought to militarize the opposition [snip] from responsibility of embracing militarization and turning this into, basically, a civil war.

JAY: So the U.S. policy of striking IS wherever it is and bombing in Syria [snip] or does it hinder the kind of process you’d like to see?

DAHI: It hinders it, absolutely. U.S. strikes against Syria and U.S. strikes against Iraq are not the solution. I consider them strikes against these countries. I don’t consider against ISIS or if they were to take place against Assad [snip] against Iraq for the past quarter century, as I mentioned, and look where we’ve arrived.

JAY: Right.

DAHI: That kind of solution is only going to come through political negotiations and political pressure. And so far [snip]

JAY: Alright. Thanks so much, Omar.

DAHI: Thank you for having me.

JAY: 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.