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Sami Ramadani: The US and allied regional powers pushed early militarization of struggle as outside powers try to control outcome of Syrian revolution

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

The civil war in Syria has been one of the more difficult stories for The Real News to cover. We don’t have anyone on the ground there who we think is doing reliable reporting—not to say reporters aren’t finding slivers or pieces of the truth, but not an overall view of it. It’s very difficult to get analysis and takes on Syria that aren’t propagandistic for one side or the other.

What we know is you have the brutal and repressive Assad regime opposed by popular opinion throughout Syria, but not all of Syria, and opposed by outside forces, including the brutal and repressive Saudi regime and Qatari regime, and, of course, all within the geopolitical strategic aims of the United States vying with Russia and other outside powers, including Turkey and others. It’s a very complicated situation.

So to some extent at The Real News we kind of haven’t been doing much, because we’d rather do nothing than just add to the noise and the propaganda. But today we make another attempt to try to understand the balance of forces, who’s fighting, and where things are.

So now joining us from London is Sami Ramadani. He’s a senior lecturer in sociology at the London Metropolitan University and was a political refugee from Saddam’s regime in Iraq. He’s a frequent contributor to The Guardian newspaper and many other publications. And he now joins us from London. Thanks for joining us, Sami.


JAY: So let’s start with sort of a big overview. Who makes up the opposition? What are they fighting for? And let’s kick off from there.

RAMADANI: I think it’s a very good starting point, because the opposition as such does not exist as a unified body. And opposition forces exist, and there is a very wide-ranging variety of opposition forces in Syria. Some have been opposing the regime for decades. Some are more newcomers in the last few years. In terms of those forces which have been active on the ground for many decades, you could divide them broadly into three categories.

The Muslim Brotherhood is one force. They’ve been in Syria for decades—underground organization, fairly strong, perhaps the best-organized opposition force in Syria—not necessarily the most popular, but the best-organized.

There is a force which is, if you like, in the middle between these three political, broad opposition groups. The one in the middle are democratic forces who want elections, who want better economic stability in the country and so on.

And there is a more left-of-center and left-wing and socialist type opposition. This has also been going on for many decades.

All these opposition forces have—especially those on the left and the Muslim Brotherhood, have been the subject of regime repression, successive Syrian governments and so on.

Now, more recently, especially after the uprisings in Tunisia, followed by Egypt, opposition to the Syrian regime spread to the streets. There were demonstrations, protest marches, and so on demanding reform, demanding democratic changes in the country. They’re fighting against corruption, because the Syrian regime is also—at least lower down, is a very corrupt regime. Those who make enormous amounts of capital and money are also linked to the regime. The richest strata in society are linked to the regime. So there is a certain degree of corruption that people have been opposed to.

Also, high levels of unemployment played a factor.

Another important factor: that in recent years the Syrian government started privatizing large sectors of the economy. These measures were quite unpopular. It created new multimillionaires, while ordinary people’s living standards started dipping.

So a whole host of issues gathered or congregated, and you had the protest movement growing.

Now, the initial response of the regime was brutal. It was in Daraa, a town near the Jordanian border. This only inflamed the situation, and there were more demonstrations across Syria. Significantly, Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two most important cities [snip] a lot of the popular support for the regime, or at least most of the population is not strongly opposed to the regime. This will acquire enormous significance later on and to the armed conflict that is going on inside the country.

Now, within the opposition forces, there immediately appeared a force which was heavily publicized by Al Jazeera television and Al Arabiya television. Al Jazeera television is owned by the Qatar royal family, and Al Arabiya satellite television is owned by the Saudi royal family members, some of the Saudi royal family members. And these two stations immediately started not only transmitting video of demonstrations, but interviewing certain political figures, both sitting in London and Paris especially, and from Cairo and other cities, and later on from Turkey and Istanbul and Ankara so on.

Some of these opposition figures were immediately talking about overthrowing the regime while the street was calling for reform, for radical reform and radical changes and so on.

Now, you could see immediately there is a divergence. Important former regime figures also threw their weight in, particularly somebody called Abdul Halim Khaddam, who was Syria’s deputy prime minister under Assad’s regime, Assad the father. And somebody called Rifaat al-Assad, part of the Assad family, he also fled Syria. A big multibillionaire, he joined forces with the Saudis and so on, and for many years he’s been trying to regain power in Syria.

All these figures, plus prominent people from within the Muslim Brotherhood, started calling for the overthrow of the regime in a much more pronounced way.

JAY: So this divergence you’re talking about had a lot to do with the question of militarization of the opposition, and there was quite a division over that. And if I understand it correctly, a large part of the opposition, in the early stages at least, inside Syria, didn’t want to militarize, and a lot of the pressure for militarizing the opposition came from outside Syria. So if that’s true, pick up how that developed.

RAMADANI: Yes. Incidents started appearing when popular demonstrations—some snipers started appearing, and there they started engineering clashes with the security forces, not the army, because the army wasn’t involved at that stage. And there was one major incident that, if you like, gave a pretext for the regime, but also was clearly designed to militarize the opposition. And that incident was the Jisr al-Shughur incident, where about 110 Syrian soldiers were entrapped and slaughtered and buried in a communal burial ground. That incident happened in March last year, March, April last year.

JAY: And do we know who was responsible for that?

RAMADANI: And there was video footage showing that Turkey was encouraging that incident. They were trying to have as many refugees leave Syria to go to Turkey. Turkey had already established refugee camps along the Turkey-Syrian borders before the incident.

JAY: And what is Turkey’s interest in this? Why would they do that?

RAMADANI: Turkey, as it transpired, became very hostile to the Syria regime—a complete shift in policy. Remember that Turkey was also very close to Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. They were doing very good commercial deals with Gaddafi, thank you very much. But once the balance of forces shifted in Libya, Turkey switched sides and started backing some of the Muslim Brotherhood type forces amongst the opposition in Libya and called for the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime.

A shift in Turkey’s policy is very significant for the region. Turkey over the last few years built friendly relations with Iran, with Hamas, the Palestinian resistance movement, and with the Syrian regime it developed very close links. Turkey decided to agree to installing the antiballistic missile umbrella in Turkey. Before that, they objected to such installation. This started souring relations with Iran. When it came to the demonstrations inside Syria, gradually Turkey took the side of those who want to militarize the conflict.

Turkey, there is a lot of analysis now as to Turkey’s new role. Obviously they became much closer to U.S. policy in the region. And they patched up their problems with Israel. Remember, Israel and Turkey had a problem over the Gaza Strip, and the Turkish ship that tried to take food to Gaza was interrupted, intercepted by Israeli forces; eight Turkish citizens were killed; and so on. But this was patched up.

Together with the missile deal with the United States and some European promises to have Turkey join the European Union, to lift the veto on their membership by Germany, and probably France as well, Turkey shifted its policies.

They have problems now with Iran, and they developed problems against Syria. They have ambitions in Syria. They do occupy the İskenderun region, which is part of—historically part of Syria. They also fear the Kurdish national minority inside Syria, because the Kurdish national minority inside Syria has links with the Kurdish democratic rights movement and on Kurdish movement inside Turkey. This is a conflict that has been going on for decades. Some 20,000 Kurdish people were killed by the Turkish Armed Forces over so many decades.

JAY: So what you’re saying is this push from the outside for militarization is really driven by Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Qatar. To some extent it seemed to me, at least in the early stages, they were even more out front than the Americans were, at least in terms of public statements coming from American military leaders. They seem much more ambivalent on whether arms should be given to the opposition, where the Saudis and Qataris and, I hear from what you’re saying, the Turks, they were full speed ahead on this.

RAMADANI: My own take on this is that there are some differences within the U.S. administration as to what to do exactly in Syria. But in the meantime, I think they were pushing—the United States was pushing the Saudis and the Qataris and the Turks to give active support to the armed factions within Syria [snip] very close alliance the United States has with some political forces inside Lebanon. These became very active within Syria. A lot of the arms smuggling were happening not only through Turkey, but through the Lebanese port/border areas where these pro-U.S. and even some forces that are close to Israel within Lebanon are very active in terms of smuggling arms into Syria. Also, from the Kurdish regions of Iraq (these also border with Syria), some arms smuggling started occurring there, and that region is controlled by a Kurdish leader called Barzani, who is a very close ally of the United States.

So all these very close U.S. allies—Saudis, Qataris, Turkey, Lebanese forces, Kurdish forces in Iraq, some al-Sahawa forces in Iraq, which were established by General Petraeus when he was commander in Iraq, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, also became supportive of the Syrian armed opposition and some al-Qaeda and former al-Qaeda. Forces started arriving from Libya to Turkey to enter Syria. So all these very close U.S. allies were being encouraged, it seemed, by the United States, while in public the United States says, no, I’m not going to arm the opposition.

JAY: Okay. So please join us for the next part of our interview with Sami Ramadani, as we continue to make sense—or try to make sense—of the conflict in Syria on The Real News Network.


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