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Sharmine Narwani: Many opposition leaders want end to militarization on both sides as GCC and US neo-cons call for arming opposition

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

“The fog of war” is often said about conflicts, but perhaps few situations have been quite so confused when it comes to information flow as Syria. It’s hard to know just who’s doing what to whom, what the scale of the atrocities we’re being told, and on which side are they being committed if they are.

Now joining us to help us try to unravel some of this and just who is in the opposition in Syria is Sharmine Narwani. Sharmine is a senior associate at St. Anthony’s College at Oxford. She blogs on Middle Eastern geopolitics for Al Akhbar English and the Huffington Post. And she’s now based in and she now joins us from Beirut. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So when were you in Syria last? And what did you find?

NARWANI: I visited Syria in early January. It wasn’t there for too long. I was in Damascus, primarily. You’re not going to see the Syrian story in Damascus, for sure. But I did arrive four days after the Midan bombing, which was a suicide bombing in the center of Damascus. So people were on edge for sure and wondering if things were going to move to the capital.

I think for me the most striking things were, in comparison to my previous trips, political discourse was in the open. I had certainly not seen that in the past. In cafés and restaurants where they had TV screens, you could watch Alhurra, which is the US-backed Arabic network. You could watch Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya that have been vilified by the Syrian government as carrying anti-regime stories. I went in with a list of mobile numbers for Syrian opposition figures and, you know, called them all up, come on over. You know, doors were open. It was not a difficult thing. I didn’t have any government minders. I went in as a journalist. So, I mean, very different from in the past, for sure.

JAY: So—and this is in Damascus, not where the fighting is taking place.

NARWANI: Correct. Correct. This is in Damascus. But, you know, let’s note that there have been protests and incidents of varying severity in the suburbs of Damascus as well. So—and given that it was right after the bombing, there was tension and there were security checkpoints at various places in the city. But it was very easy. It was easier than it had been in the past. I mean, even crossing the border was easy. The lines were not necessarily shorter of people going into Syria. The car checks, for instance, was nothing worse than I’d experienced in the past. And, you know, I found it easier.

The thing that struck me in Damascus is this discourse about people being frustrated about gunmen, so much so that now there were people moving to the right of the Syrian government and saying things about taking up arms themselves if the government would not protect civilians. So I’m sure that’s not necessarily the discourse outside the capital or the two or three major cities.

JAY: Well, there is a difference, is there not, between this sort of reform movement demanding political rights that was a little more Damascus-based traditionally over years and the more militant opposition that’s been developing outside Damascus. So what sense did you get of the opposition? And let me just add to that question: is there not a difference in the way the regime deals with the opposition, that in Damascus maybe they’re creating a little more space for this reform movement, but in the cities that are—you know, had a more militant opposition, it’s actually quite the opposite?

NARWANI: I mean, perhaps somewhat. But also, the stances that the opposition within Damascus and then outside in the provinces would be quite different. I mean, there are regime figures in Damascus that—or opposition figures, rather, who are prepared to [incompr.] dialog with the regime. So you have quite a variance in the positions of even Damascus-based opposition. And these people are not all from Damascus. They are from also regions that are under fire right now. So you have disparate views.

I would say the most striking thing I took away from the various domestic opposition figures I met with in Damascus was very contrary to what we’re hearing in the media from the external opposition, meaning Syrian activists based outside the country. You know, clearly the ones inside the country are not interested in militarization of the conflict. Quite the contrary: they’re not interested in international intervention or internationalizing the crisis in Syria. And they’re very much against sanctions. There was one person of the lot I met who actually said, well, these are targeted sanctions, which clearly they’re not the case. Syrians are, you know, up in arms about sanctions that are affecting their lives now.

JAY: Well, I guess we saw this in Iraq, too, where the ex-pat—much of the ex-pat Iraqi community was only focused on regime change, where oppositional figures who are fighting Saddam in Iraq were very much against any kind of foreign intervention. They wanted this thing to take its own course based on domestic dynamics. Is that what you found there?

NARWANI: I think that the thing that needs to be scrutinized in Syria—and it’s not being done—are the narratives. What we read outside the country is very one-sided in many respects. You know, what is going on in Syria? You talk to several people within Syria and you hear different stories of the same events. So we need to look more closely, instead of hyping it up as most media has tended to do in the West and even throughout the Arab world.

I was talking to a UN official about the death toll count, for instance, in Syria. It’s not very clear. I’m doing a piece shortly on the casualty list. There are people who are pro-regime who are on that list. There are people who are anti-regime on that list. There are civilians on that list. There are government personnel on that list. But we are sort of, you know, rounding them all up into some kind of narrative that civilians are being slaughtered. We have to scrutinize these things.

The whole basis of calling this a humanitarian crisis is that list of five or six or seven thousand names, when, you know, I think very, very important to this narrative is looking at this in the context of international humanitarian law. For instance, there are two things that we need to look at. One is the principle of necessity: did the government use excessive force? I would argue that absolutely they did. In the first few months, when people were largely protesting peacefully, they didn’t need to shoot at them. So the government certainly instigated, I think, the use of force. And the Arab League monitors’ report actually points this out.

The Arab League monitors’ report also points out that a lot of the incidents taking place now are instigated by the opposition groups. And this brings in the second principle in international humanitarian law, and that’s the principle of proportionality. Is the government now using disproportionate force? I think that’s a very important question to get to the heart of this crisis, because we know that there are around 2,000 Syrian soldiers who have been killed, and in my research I can take this back to early April 2011—that’s within a few weeks of the first protests hitting the streets.

JAY: And just let me ask: when you say Syrian soldiers that have been killed, Syrian soldiers that are still in the Syrian Army, not defectors?

NARWANI: Correct. And that’s another narrative that needs to be scrutinized, you know, is this storyline about, you know, soldiers getting killed being defectors. Correct? I suspect there are probably some, and possibly because, you know, violence is happening in the towns they grew up in. But I think by no means are they the majority.

You know, in fact, looking through the casualty lists, I found a number of soldiers whose names were on it and probably shouldn’t have been on it, and I did YouTube video searches for funerals for these gentlemen, and you have people at their funerals holding up banners of Bashar al-Assad and pro-regime. So these are pro-regime soldiers, and not defectors, who were killed who are on the Syrian casualty list. There’s a lot more scrutiny that needs to go into this.

JAY: Now, some people are suggesting that part of the escalation of violence is the role of external players, and mostly pointing at Saudi Arabia and Qatar. And I guess with the resolution from last week, where they actually overtly came out and advocated arming the opposition, it suggests that perhaps maybe they already are—and the Free Syrian Army. What sense did you get of this and what people make of the Free Syrian Army and such forces?

NARWANI: Well, there doesn’t seem to be a body called the Free Syrian Army that operates in the way we’re imagining they operate. From various quarters who’ve been [incompr.] certainly some of Al Akhbar’s reporting on the Lebanese border, we know that these are groups that—small groups that function under local commanders. And there is no centralized command for the Free Syrian Army.

But I think it—again, it’s a storyline that feeds into this larger narrative, you know, organized opposition to the government. And it’s not, even externally, certainly internally not, you know, armed rebels who follow the command of, you know, a handful of people who are in coordination with civilian opposition groups and figures. And that’s not the case.

There is a lot of interest from a lot of players globally, not just in the Middle East. You named two, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Outside there are some NATO countries, certainly, that would like to ramp up the volume on Syria. And if you look at why, it actually goes to the heart of what I cover in the Middle East, which is the geopolitical faultlines here.

Over the last few years there has been the growth in influence of a bloc of countries and groups—Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas—that has posed a threat to the status quo in the region, meaning pro-U.S. governments, and largely dictators and monarchies. So, you know, when the Arab Spring broke out, there was real concern, because initially, as you remember, Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak were very much pro-U.S. dictatorships. If they fell and others like them fell, what would that do to the balance of power in the region?

And so I think a lot more attention was given and a lot of activity was ramped up towards undermining the influence of this resistance bloc against U.S. hegemony in the region, primarily Iran, because Iran does fund Hezbollah and Hamas to some degree and is in a close alliance with Syria. And Syria became—you know, it’s been called Iran’s Achilles’ heel in the region. So if you take down Syria, what is Iran going to do? It’ll leave it in a much more weakened position. So I think there’s real effort to break this bloc up and shift the geopolitical balance back in the favor of the U.S. and its allies by ramping up the volume on Syria, which is why you see, you know, hardly a week goes by without some international body looking at Syria, taking a vote, that kind of thing, where, you know, there’s another Arab League member state, Somalia—last year, tens of thousands of civilians killed, and there’s nary a resolution on that country.

JAY: Right. Now, when you were talking to opposition figures when you were there in January, you say they’re against further militarization of the conflict, which suggests they’re critical of the level of arms being used against the Syrian regime. They’re against the militarization and suppression of the opposition by the regime. They don’t want foreign intervention. What do they want? And how do they see this in some way unfolding?

NARWANI: Well, this is one of the dispiriting things for me, I think, talking to these opposition figures in Damascus. It was very clear to me that there is no plan. I mean, a lot of people have grievances, but they don’t have these—sort of the kind of cohesive grassroots, member-driven groups that you need to drive an initiative forward. And frankly, it feeds into the regime’s hands, that, you know, even the sort of logical, rational opposition in the country doesn’t have that kind of leadership.

JAY: Well, what do you make of this vote that Assad’s organizing on February 26?

NARWANI: The referendum? Look, you know, it’s not the first effort in the region to bring forth a constitutional referendum to try to preempt a crisis in the country or to try to stem a crisis. So, you know, people have been debating it online and in the media, and there are, you know, positive points and negative points.

I think it’s really important, from my perspective, for countries in this region to get past colonialism and imperialism and start to evolve themselves. They have to make their own mistakes. You don’t expect a two-year-old to know how to ride a bike. He has to fall off quite a bit. And this region deserves the time and space to evolve rightfully along whatever path they intend to. And you’ll have—at the end of the line, you’ll have conservative governments, Islamist ones, secular ones, but they all deserve that chance.

The referendum opens up some possibility. Let’s see if people participate in it or boycott it. It’s not clear. But the government, the Syrian government, certainly is chugging ahead on its own plans for reforms, and those cannot just be ignored. I’m very, you know, unhappy that the Arab League monitor mission report was basically squashed by the Arab League and many of these Western powers that are, you know, pushing against the Syrian regime. There were some real positive efforts have been made. They were the only boots on the ground doing investigation and observation that we’ve had since the beginning of this conflict, and they made some very, very important observations, primarily, I think, that many of the violent incidents have been taking place, certainly, under their watch were initiated by gunmen, and that the regime cooperated in almost all instances with the mission.

So we need to create some time and space round Syria so that, you know, it can demilitarize this conflict, it can move forward with reforms, we can see if they work out. I mean, step one is this referendum, and step two for the government is elections held early in the summer, so we have some space for—.

JAY: Just quickly, ’cause we’re running out of time, some of our Syrian friends are telling us, you know, outside Syria that whoever’s responsible for the violence, more or less, there is a real humanitarian catastrophe developing and that relief is not getting to the people that need it—I guess I don’t—partly I think ’cause Assad is not allowing it in, we’re told. And I don’t know whether any obstruction’s coming from the armed oppositional side. But is that the case, that there really is this crisis and there needs to be some effort in the short term?

NARWANI: I don’t know the answer to that, but I can tell you that while I was in Syria, I interviewed NGOs, humanitarian NGOs that have access to all parts of the country, and those are primarily the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent, who work hand-in-hand to deliver assistance. Their biggest problem they were seeing—and this is in January, even—was the displacement of people because of violence and other things like that.

And so of course there is a need to get assistance to these people. And I think the Arab League monitoring mission would have been just such a group to mediate and make these things possible. One thing I will note that I haven’t seen anywhere but you will see in my story this week on the Syrian casualty list is I asked the International Committee of the Red Cross, how many requests for emergency medical assistance did you receive in 2011 from various towns and cities across Syria? And the answer absolutely shocked me. The answer was one. When I asked where that was, they said it was in the Golan Heights, Quneitra National Hospital, and that was on the day that the Israelis were shooting across the border at Syrians.

So, you know, on almost all levels, we’re not hearing the whole story, and we really need to ask more questions and scrutinize what’s going on.

There is displacement. That is a big problem. I’m not sure that the government necessarily wants to impede foodstuffs and, you know, help getting to these people, because they’re not all anti-regime. There are pro-regime areas also that have been hit by, you know, the opposition gunmen, etc. So I think what’s important is to, you know, support these existing organizations and NGOs in Syria, and to also perhaps let the Arab League back in. It’s a real shame they’re out.

JAY: Well, part of the problem about the Arab League is Saudi Arabia and Qatar that seem to be running most of the Arab League agenda have so much of their own agenda and they seem committed to regime change.

NARWANI: Well, if you think about what happened after the Arab League monitors came out and the mission report was issued, those two countries ignored it. They did not want to hear the conclusions of this mission and they did not want to send a mission back in for more fact-finding and more observation. The mission report, the way I read it was, you know, it was professional. It was short. They complained about not having, you know, logistical help that they needed and equipment, etc. But they did make great strides in 23 days that they actually were on the ground. And I think we need to continue that.

So, you know, do Saudi Arabia and Qatar control the Arab League? No. They tried to control the initiative before the deal was struck with the Syrian government and the Arab League, and thereafter they had little control, and they made great efforts to undermine this mission at every turn, which [incompr.] mission report.

So I think, you know, if you have a mission of technocrats—and they have asked for people with more military experience the next time around and people with different kinds of experiences—you’re going to have a more robust mission and a better opportunity to, you know, intervene in this crisis in a reasoned way.

JAY: Okay. Well, thanks very much for joining us, Sharmine.

NARWANI: Thank you very much for having me, Paul.

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


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Sharmine Narwani is a writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. She is currently a Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University, and has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in both journalism and Mideast studies. Sharmine writes political commentary on the Middle East as a blogger for Al Akhbar English and the Huffington Post. She has also written opinion pieces for Al Jazeera English, the New York Times and USA Today.