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Rania Masri: Both sides of the conflict are capable of such a war crime, but UN report does not settle who is responsible; bigger question is whether UN can achieve a ceasefire and a negotiated end to war

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

Today in Geneva, the United Nations investigating team looking at chemical weapons attacks in Syria announced their report.

Now in the studio joining us to talk about this report is Rania Masri. She’s an antiwar and human rights activist, a writer, and a professor of environmental science at the University of Balamand in Lebanon.

Thanks for joining us, Rania.


JAY: So give us the highlights of the report, to start with.

MASRI: Well, the essence is they concluded that sarin gas was used, so they have confirmed that it is a chemical attack. Nothing really surprising about that. They’ve confirmed what the majority of people believed. Now the question becomes who committed the attack.

JAY: And part of this report is they think it was delivered by surface-to-surface missiles.

MASRI: Exactly.

JAY: And the French and the Americans immediately are jumping on it saying, well, only the government could have had such capabilities. What do you make of that argument?

MASRI: It’s a possibility. But to me the important aspect is the inspectors themselves were not asked to investigate who did the crime, only to get information as to whether the crime actually contained chemical weapons are not, versus what is really questionable is who actually committed it. And so, therefore, we need to ask why were the inspectors not given that task, to identify the who, so we can be able to conclude conclusively as to did the Syrian government commit it, did the rebels commit it, was there a third party that was involved. That’s the crux of the issue. We know that an atrocity was committed most definitely, but the question is who has committed it.

JAY: And virtually all sides had conceded that before Monday’s announcement anyway. So nothing much changed from this announcement.

MASRI: But it’s being used. It’s being used already by the French government. It will be used even more by the American government, and probably by the British government, to see, ah-ha! See? the Syrian government is behind it, this is what the UN report says, even though the UN report does not place responsibility.

JAY: Now, just to say–I think you’d probably–I think you do agree with this, but I’ll say one of the things that makes this so complicated is that either side has forces within it and the opposition, and of course Assad, who are more than capable of this. It’s not a stretch to imagine that this atrocity could have been committed by the other side, because so many atrocities have been committed by both sides.

MASRI: Exactly. Exactly. And UN report after UN report continues to say that all sides are guilty of committing atrocities, all sides are guilty of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. That is not questionable.

But the fact that they’ve raised the issue of sarin gas–and we know since at least in May of this year that certain aspects of the rebel brigades have either tried to or have successfully achieved accessibility to sarin gas. So the question becomes: do they have the military power to transfer it in that particular way? Which myself I’m not a weapons expert; I can’t answer that.

JAY: But it seems kind of ridiculous. I saw the American intelligence assessments. I haven’t seen the whole thing, ’cause they haven’t made the whole thing public, but I’ve talked–we’ve talked to congresspeople who have been supposedly briefed, and they haven’t seen much more than what went public, and the American case seems to be a process of sort of deduction. You know, they couldn’t have delivered it, ’cause they couldn’t have such weapons, so thus it must be the government, except if some force like, say, the Saudis, who certainly have that kind of capability, and if they transferred some of that capability, well, then they would have it.

MASRI: Exactly. There are possibilities out there. And there could have been so many different culprits. What we know is that Syria right now has porous borders. We know that there is various intelligence agencies that are operating in Syria. We know that there are various independent rebel brigades that are operating in Syria. So it’s not just the fact that the Syrian army could have done it or defections from the Syrian army could have done it. The possibilities are quite open as to the various responsible parties behind this.

JAY: And to some extent, you know, Obama made this big thing about chemical weapons and that’s going to be the red line. But that’s now become the issue, other than, you know, more than 100,000 people have already been killed in this war, many of them slaughtered in massacres–again, both sides. But certainly, if you look at the recent UN report, the majority of massacres have been committed by the Assad regime.

MASRI: Well, the question is–I mean, personally, I would say that we don’t have the numbers to be able to verify who has committed more. The 100,000 fatalities, according to the Syrian Human Rights Observatory, comes up with quite skewed numbers that to me don’t make much sense. They say 43 percent of the people killed from the 100,000 fatalities are Syrian army, you know, combatants. So either Syrian army or Shabiha, so pro-Syrian army, leaving 14 percent, according to the same report, being rebel combatants. So that’s giving us a three-to-one ratio of army versus rebel, which seems kind of skewed. So even if we’re going to say it’s a one-to-one ratio, it leaves 30 percent of the 100,000 being civilians. Okay?

The question is–I mean, to me, without getting into this who has killed more, we know they’re all guilty of war crimes. We know they’re all guilty of crimes against humanity and atrocities. So the bigger question becomes: how do we stop all this killing, whether it’s by the Syrian army or by the various different rebel brigades? How do we actually protect the civilians on the ground?

JAY: Well, let me give you one argument, which you’re hearing from some progressive people in the region, which is they don’t agree with this, making this equivalent, in the sense they say that there is such a thing as the Syrian revolution, that the people have a right to overthrow this dictatorship, that Assad regime have committed many crimes during the civil war and before, and that you can’t judge the whole revolutionary process just because it’s been essentially infiltrated by al-Qaeda type elements or other elements funded by the Saudis or the Qataris or the Turks or the Americans. I mean, the fact that this is being or has been transformed into a proxy war shouldn’t completely overtake the fact that there was a legitimate revolutionary uprising. What do you make of that?

MASRI: Well, I think we have three aspects happening in Syria. We have most definitely an indigenous uprising that began officially more than two and a half years ago, but I believe that has been in the works for a very long time, a civil society that has been in the works for quite a long time. We have that. So you may call it an uprising, you may call it a revolution. I don’t really want to play linguistics. But we do have that.

We also do have a civil war. By a civil war I mean armed combatants. Okay? So we do have parts of them being violent, parts of them being part of the Free Syrian Army, so to speak, or others. We do have that.

And then we do have a proxy war with foreign-funded, foreign-led elements.

What is unknown is what are the sizes of these three elements. And there are some that argue that the indigenous armed combatants are larger, and there’s other reports that argue that al-Qaeda is actually larger. And I can present references as to both. And, you know, we really don’t know whether al-Qaeda elements are 15 percent or 50 percent of the armed brigades. We really don’t know how much within all this scope is the indigenous, you know, uprising, and within the indigenous uprising, how large is the group of the nonviolent civil society uprising within that, and how large is the armed combatants within that.

So I would argue that we do have an uprising, we do have a civil war, and we do have a proxy war all happening at the same time in Syria.

JAY: Well, we’re going to get into Syria much more in-depth as we do a series of interviews with Rania. Let’s just focus quickly now on the agreement between the Russians and the Americans to get rid of Syrian chemical weapons. What do you make of the deal?

MASRI: Based on my experience in Iraq and based on the sanctions that were imposed upon the Iraqi government and the Iraqi community, Iraqi country as a whole for 13 years, I’m quite worried by this framework. So reading from the framework as was published by the U.S. Department of State, Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons, it scares me, because–and I want to quote this if you would allow me. There’s three points here that I find to be scary.

One is it claims that “the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.” Now, the Russians have said that measures under Chapter VII would exclude force, okay, and they would only include sanctions. Both I believe to be different kinds of act of violence, be they economic sanctions, upon whom the people would be suffering the most, or, of course, be it military force. But the fact that it’s in here and left vague raises an issue.

JAY: But the Russians aren’t going to agree to it unless it’s explicitly not military. But you’re saying sanctions–.

MASRI: It doesn’t say. It doesn’t say.

Now, what–the statements that have been made by the Russians is, after this, Lavrov went publicly and he said, we are excluding military force, we’re only leaving the issue of sanctions on the table. Given that the Syrian economy’s already in ruins, that inflation’s already ridiculously high, additional sanctions would impact whom? You know. So that in and of itself I would argue to be an act of economic violence. Military force, the Russians won’t allow that at the UN Security Council, but nevertheless, it leaves it open.

JAY: Well, there might be one place sanctions could be effective. In theory, if the sanctions said Russia couldn’t send weapons to Assad, if there were such sanctions, that might be meaningful.

MASRI: Possibly. But then that opens up what the UN Security Council and what this agreement would consider to be justification for that. And here is where I get to be worried, because they argue that in addition to chemical weapons, stocks of chemical weapons agents, their precursors, all of these need to be removed.

So the chemical weapons precursors–now, I’m not a chemist. I talked to a few chemist friends of mine, and they raised the issue that chemical weapons precursors, basically the agents that are needed to construct chemical weapons, have dual-use components. And we saw this significantly in Iraq. And the dual-use components of these chemical weapons precursors include use in refineries, use for detergents, use in other forms of industry, and use in teaching and research labs. Okay? Based on this, given that it also states that “the Syrians must provide the OPCW [the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons], the UN, and other supporting personnel with”–and I quote–“the immediate and unfettered right to inspect any and all sites in Syria”–so given the range of these sites that are then applicable–and now they want immediate and unfettered sites–that raises an issue of alarm for me.

JAY: Why?

MASRI: Again, based upon what they’ve done in Iraq. In Iraq many times they would ask to see certain sites on Fridays, and nobody would answer, and they would list that as noncompliance. And they gradually built up a case to, quote, justify bombing campaigns by the United States against Iraq for their noncompliance.

And here I see these caveats. It’s not tight enough to prohibit misuse of it. And, again, we’ve developed a healthy cynicism based on the weapons inspectors’ work in Iraq.

JAY: Now, the other side, the critics of this coming from, you could say, the right, if you will, are saying that there’s too many holes in it, that Assad can kind of delay and delay and delay and fight over whether you can inspect this or not inspected that, and they’re arguing from the other side that there’s too many ways out for Assad.

MASRI: I don’t really see that here. You know. And, again, the issue of who has the way out becomes an issue of who’s stronger. And the Syrian government is not the strongest party here. The strongest party here remains the United States and Russia. And I don’t trust anyone. So it raises an issue.

And also what it doesn’t talk about and what I would love to see is the eradication of all chemical weapons in Syria and not just chemical weapons by the Syrian government. So the possibility of rebel brigades having chemical weapons, what happens to those? Because here it simply talks about the Syrian government.

JAY: Yeah, there’s no mention of that at all.

MASRI: There’s no mention whatsoever. But, again, to me the scariest issue is talking about precursor agents for chemical weapons and talking about immediate and unfettered access to any and all sites in Syria. How do you define that? What else would be included within this? Who would be able to, you know, determine the details behind this? That becomes the question.

JAY: So why are the Russians agreeing to this thing? ‘Cause it does set up, you could say, either an excuse for an attack in the future or it sets up spying on Syrian armed forces, ’cause you can–this is what the Iranians have always been complaining about is that they’re using the inspections to actually spy on conventional weapons systems.

MASRI: Exactly. And we know that’s what happened in Iraq. We know for a fact that the weapons inspection teams in Iraq did provide information directly to the Israeli Mossad. That has been confirmed. It’s not questionable information. So what could happen here?

JAY: Well, I think maybe there’s all these various problems with this because neither Russia nor the United States actually really cares about any of this. This is kind of a political way out for President Obama. It’s a political feather in the cap of Putin. And everybody gets not to go where they didn’t want to go because it was becoming a no-win situation for Obama anyway, so as long as they have something that looks like an agreement and then they can haggle this out over a year or whatever.

But I guess this gets to the bigger question: is this the beginning of a Russian-American deal on Syria? And does this open up a door to Iran or not? And I guess it’s hard to say. But, you know, if you look at the interests involved, you would think the Russian/Americans would want to kind of work something out. On the other hand, there’s certainly a section of the American foreign policy establishment, and certainly the Israeli foreign policy establishment, that this Syrian war should go on forever and as many Syrians should die on every side as possible. And maybe the Russians don’t really mind that either, ’cause they continue to be able to play powerbroker here.

MASRI: Yeah. Yeah. I completely agree. And if we look at the statements by Secretary of State John Kerry, time and again he talks about the need to, quote, address the imbalance in Syria, to address the imbalance, not to talk about overthrow or stability, democracy, human rights, any of that, but simply to address the imbalance.

So this could then be raised when we see a shift in the imbalance. Maybe [incompr.] the Syrian army becomes stronger, then all of a sudden we’ll hear rhetoric of they’re not complying with the weapons inspectors, you know, because ultimately chemical weapons really was not the end goal. You know, I don’t believe that the U.S. government ever really cared about chemical weapons attacks in Syria. It was simply used as a means for a larger goal, and that larger goal has been to shift the imbalance on the ground in Syria, to prolong the civil war as long as possible, until it reaches a stage where the country has completely been destroyed, and then to be able to replace the regime with a more clientelist regime than we currently have.

JAY: They hope, except then you have people like General Dempsey, who’s warning that it’s precisely that situation that’s going to lead to opening the doors to the al-Qaeda type forces in a way they never were before.

MASRI: That may already have happened. That may already have happened.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

MASRI: Pleasure.

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


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Rania Masri is an Arab American human rights activist, environmental scientist, university professor, and writer. Since 2005, she has been an  Chair of the Environmental Sciences Department at the University of Balamand in Lebanon. Before then, Rania directed the Southern Peace Research And Education Center at the Institute for Southern Studies in NC.  She has been active against the wars on Iraq, Lebanon, and, now, Syria. Since May, she has been giving a series of talks about US involvement in Syria.   She has been representing a growing coalition of NC social justice organizations against the war.