Debate: Syria, Ghouta, and the Left

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In a complex proxy war that has killed so many, where should leftists and people of conscience stand? Independent journalist Rania Khalek and scholar Yasser Munif debate the ongoing siege of Eastern Ghouta and the wider Syrian war

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Story Transcript

AARON MATÉ It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. An international aid convoy has reached the besieged Syrian suburb of Eastern Ghouta for the first time in days. Aid was suspended earlier this week amid an ongoing bombardment by Syria and Russia, which seeks to reclaim Eastern Ghouta from militant groups. Doctors Without Borders says the Syrian-Russian assault has killed more than 1,000 people. At the UN, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, denounced the Syrian and Russian bombardment.

ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN: To justify indiscriminate brutal attacks on hundreds of thousands of civilians by the need to combat a few hundred fighters, as in Eastern Ghouta, are legally and morally unsustainable. Also, when you are prepared to kill your own people, lying is easy, too. Claims by the government of Syria that it is taking every measure to protect its civilian population are frankly ridiculous.

AARON MATÉ: Well, for our discussion on Eastern Ghouta and the wider Syrian War, I am joined by two guests. Yasser Munif is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Emerson College and co-founder of the Global Campaign of Solidarity for the Syrian Revolution. Rania Khalek is an independent journalist and co-host of the podcast Unauthorized Disclosure. Welcome to you both. Let me just say by way of introduction that you are both people on the left with very different views of the Syrian conflict, and given that this issue of Syria has really been polarizing on the left, I really appreciate this opportunity for a dialogue.

Rania, you just wrote a piece for RT this week called Syria War: What the Mainstream Media Isn’t Telling You About Eastern Ghouta. Explain.

RANIA KHALEK: Well, the western press is generally presenting Eastern Ghouta as a place that is being bombarded just by the Syrian government. It’s a one sided war, and you just don’t hear the whole story. Yes, Eastern Ghouta is being bombarded by the Syrian government, but it’s not a one sided war. Eastern Ghouta is under the control of a collection of Salafi jihadist groups, among them Jaysh al-Islam, Faylaq al-Rahman, Ahrar Al-Sham, and there’s some elements of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham, which is the newest name for the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. These groups are based in different neighborhoods in Eastern Ghouta and they have been firing and shelling civilians in Damascus for years. And civilians in Damascus have been dying as a result of this.

You don’t hear about these victims ever really in the western press because it just doesn’t go with the western mainstream narrative about what’s taking place in Syria, but the fact of the matter is, that what’s taking place right now, which is in escalation, a very brutal military escalation of eastern Ghouta, there’s a context behind it. And that context is that the United States and its allies in the region spent billions of dollars arming and funding a collection of jihadist groups inside Syria, a right wing armed insurgency that collapsed the state and large parts of Syria and led to a very brutal war that we’ve been watching play out for the past several years, but people never hear about the role that the west has played.

AARON MATÉ: What about the argument that we just heard there from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, that fighting a few hundred fighters in this besieged suburb doesn’t justify this intense bombardment that has killed so many people?

RANIA KHALEK: Well, there’s a couple things there. First of all, it’s not just a few hundred fighters. Second of all, this isn’t about trying to justify the military means that are being used to take back these areas. But there does need to be, we need to put some context to this and that is that back in August, Faylaq al-Rahman actually signed in Geneva a ceasefire agreement that went into effect for a few months with the Russians, and then they violated that agreement in December by participating in suicide attacks against Syrian government installations. That actually broke the agreement with Eastern Ghouta and actually led to the escalation and violence that we see now.

On top of that, there’s also a lot of pressure on the government from people in Damascus to do something about these groups because for the past several years, they’ve been firing at people in Damascus on a daily basis and the people there have had enough. They’re very angry about it. That’s what’s led to the escalation of violence here. And frankly, the international community hasn’t really done much to try to deescalate the violence because they haven’t been really participating in any sort of attempts to put in place reconciliation agreements. On top of that, the international community, particularly the west, has played a huge role in creating the conditions that started this in the first place by arming and funding these groups inside Syria to begin with.

Let’s remember the ideologies of these groups. What are they fighting for? They are fighting to impose an Islamic State. They are Salafi jihadist groups that are no different in their rhetoric and in their intentions than the Islamic State, the ISIS, and they also participate openly with Al-Qaeda. And so, that needs to be taken into consideration, as well. They are also firing on civilians who are trying to leave. This in no way justifies again the military assault of the government, but we do need to put some context into place here because this is not a one sided fight.

And I would also argue that it’s not that different than what we saw take place in Iraq, to try and route ISIS from various Iraqi cities. The Iraqi government, a sovereign government, fought with the same military tactics, in fact, to get rid of ISIS in the areas that they took over. Again, I don’t agree with all those tactics, but the Syrian government really is doing no different, yet it’s placed under this level of scrutiny that you just didn’t see happen in the Iraqi case.

AARON MATÉ: I should clarify that according to the Associated Press, the number of fighters in Eastern Ghouta is about 20,000, and the figure of a few hundred refers specifically to the number of Al-Qaeda linked fighters. Yasser Munif, if you could respond to what we just heard from Rania Khalek. She says that it was the militants actually in Eastern Ghouta whose rejection of ceasefire efforts have led to this conflict now, and also that what we’re seeing is not that much different from than, for example, the US bombarding Mosul to dislodge the Islamic State.

YASSER MUNIF: I think this narrative is very disturbing. I mean, Rania starts by saying, “I’m not justifying the Syrian regime or the Russian bombardment of the region of Eastern Ghouta,” but then justifies throughout. I mean, what’s happening in Eastern Ghouta right now is mass bombing and mass killing of a population that is unable to defend itself, that has been besieged since 2012, that is being starved. I mean, people have been living on 400 calories a day for several years now.

And it seems that the blame is put on the people who are inside of Ghouta. I mean, she adds also context. I think that the context that should be added is that the violence of the Syrian regime didn’t really start in 2011. The violence of the Syrian regime started in 1970 with the coup in 1970 of the father, and so on, and the installation of a security apparatus and the building of a military institution that harshly basically crushed any political opposition and closed any political spaces in Syria, tortured any opponent, exiled most of the political parties and people, and tortured thousands of people, and killed many, as well.

I mean, that’s the general context, which shouldn’t confuse and put some kind of moral equivalency between the people who are besieged in Eastern Ghouta and the violence of the Syrian regime and the Russian and the Iranian and Hezbollah, whom are also very sectarian. I agree with her that there are sectarians among the opposition, but the Shia sectarianism is as powerful as the Sunni. The militia that are coming from Iraq are very violent and sectarian, the Iranian are very violent and sectarian. They have been funding the Syrian regime since 2011 and the Russians have been also supporting and funded the Syrian regime. So, this idea of foreign intervention that is backing the opposition is very surreal and one sided, according to Rania.

AARON MATÉ: Yasser, let me put to you a clip from Joe Biden that I think that captures what I find puzzling about the Syrian war, which is what the Syrian government was supposed to do in response to the role that outside players that are trying to overthrow it have played. I mean, no one can justify cracking down on peaceful protesters, but what happens when it becomes a proxy war. On this front, I want to play what Joe Biden said in 2014 about what the US allies in the Gulf did in Syria.

JOE BIDEN: Our biggest problem is our allies. Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks were great friends and I have a great relationship with Erdoğan, which I just spent a lot of time with. The Saudis, the Emirates, etc. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except that the people who were being supplied were Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadists coming from other parts of the world.

AARON MATÉ: That’s Joe Biden speaking in 2014, so yeah. What about that? Does the Syrian government have the right to fight those forces, especially the jihadist forces, who are not just a threat to the Syrian government, but also especially to minorities like Christians and Jews and Shiites inside Syria?

YASSER MUNIF: I mean, the Syrian conflict is very complex and I think one of the dangers of the narrative described by Rania and others is this very reductive kind of…kind of binary, where there is only the west and Europe and the intervention on the one hand, and then the Syrian regime. When in fact, it’s a very complex conflict. And I think the most important element is the Syrian Revolution, the grassroots movement, the popular revolt against the Syrian regime that a part of what happened in 2011 that is an aspiration for democracy and freedom and dignity.

And there are many dimensions to that conflict. I think the way I view it is there is a popular uprising, a revolution in Syria that started in 2011 and that revolution has been countered by several reactionary forces, including the Syrian regime and its allies, the ISIS and Al-Qaeda and its allies, and the western leadership… and it’s very unfortunate to see some of the left, I don’t know if it’s considered still the left, siding with the Assad regime or trying to be silent or denying that the violence of the Syrian regime, when, in fact, we should do whatever is possible to support the Syrian Revolution against this multiple reactionary forces.

AARON MATÉ: Rania Khalek, a lot there to respond to, including that if one’s criticizing the opposition today, then you’re denying the agency of the protesters who rose up in 2011.

RANIA KHALEK: Well, Yasser made a lot of claims that I actually want to respond to and I’ll start with this. I think he’s presenting a very dishonest narrative about the uprising in 2011 and I think that we should be honest about this. It’s now 2018 and presenting this sort of romanticized version of this utopian beautiful secular leftist uprising that was crushed is just not accurate. Yes, there were people who participating in protests in Syria who had secular ideals and leftist ideals and wanted more freedoms and more democracy. That’s absolutely true.

There were also, though, and we should be honest about this, there was also some elements of the uprising that was sectarian and Islamist in nature and have very bad intentions and were calling for very bad things. And there was also some component of the uprising that were and there were clashes from the beginning. So, it’s not simplistic perfect leftist uprising versus mean evil government. That’s first.

Second, Yasser mentioned the intervention of Russia and Iran and Hezbollah. He’s right. Russian, Iran and Hezbollah did intervene in Syria. However, the reason that emphasize so much more on US intervention is two reasons. First, we’re speaking to an American audience and they haven’t been told the honest truth about what the US has done in Syria. That’s first and foremost. Secondly, the intention of these interventions matter. The Iranian, Russian, and Hezbollah intervention in Syria was at the behest of the Syrian government. The sovereign government of Syria called on its allies to come help it prevent state collapse because that is what Syria was facing. It was facing state collapse and when the state collapsed, armed insurgent groups made up of Salafi jihadi fighters, many of whom were foreign fighters, by the way, took over those areas.

So, they were there to help restore order and help keep Syria from collapsing and turning into Libya. From the US side, though, US intervention was not there to prevent state collapse. US intervention was armed and funding an insurgency that was actually leading to state collapse, and it was leading to the rise of a failed state across much of Syria, which by the way, was then filled by thousands of foreign fighters coming in to the Turkish border, which the US practically encouraged because they thought it would force the regime to make concessions, which of course, it didn’t.

Then after that, ISIS came in a lot of those areas and took over some of those areas and started kidnapping westerners and the Qataris ended up paying millions of dollars for the release of these westerners, basically giving ISIS the startup funding it needed to consolidate its fighters in Raqqa and in the east of Syria and ultimately invading Iraq and taking over a third of Iraq. That is what US intervention led to. As a result, you had the brutality of ISIS and a massive influx and flow of refugees into Europe leading to the rise of right wing politicians across Europe and, ultimately, you could even say the election of Donald Trump because he used the refugee crisis and the brutality of ISIS to fear monger and he campaigned on that and won over that. So, we have to think about the causes and consequences of this war and those are the consequences of US intervention that are never discussed and talked about and that is why it’s so important to focus on US intervention.

As for the last point I want to make, just one more point about the issue of Shia sectarianism versus Sunni sectarianism. You’re comparing Hezbollah, groups like Hezbollah and Iran to Salafi jihadist groups. In my opinion, there’s absolutely no comparison whatsoever because Salafi jihadist groups impose Saudi Arabia style laws on people, they kill minorities, they subject women to second class gender status. I don’t see the same thing happening when Hezbollah comes into an area. I don’t see them killing minorities. That’s just not happening.

Nobody wants to live under Salafi jihadi groups and, in fact, Iran and Hezbollah have played a major role protecting and saving people in the region from ISIS, including Sunnis, by the way, including Sunnis, saving Sunnis from ISIS, as well, who were working alongside Hezbollah and Iranian linked groups. I think he’s presenting a completely false narrative that does not in any way comport with what’s happening on the ground here.

AARON MATÉ: Before I get a response from Yasser Munif, Rania, let me ask you, because you were talking about causes. Before the US intervention, before the proxy war flares up, is it fair to say that if Assad had just responded in a legitimate way to the protesters’ demands, so those protesters who were demanding reforms, not even regime change back then, and not chosen to crush them so brutally, that he could have avoided all this?

RANIA KHALEK: I actually don’t think he could have. I’m not saying the Syrian government had a good response. They responded very stupidly and very brutally, and I’m not in any way justifying that, and Yasser can say as much as he wants that justifying all these things I’m not, but I apparently have to take add these qualifications to my statement.

No. I don’t think they could have prevented this because from the very outset, you did have certain elements, particularly elements connected to the Muslim Brotherhood that were demanding that Assad step down from the beginning. And they continued to demand that and then he released prisoners, political prisoners at the behest of protesters, he released many, many political prisoners, and they were continuing to say that’s not enough, he needs to step down.

So, there was elements and components. Yes, there were people calling for reform and not calling for regime change, but there were elements calling for regime change and those are the elements that were being backed and funded by the US and its allies in the region. I mean, you have a government that I don’t think there’s really anything the Syrian government could have done to avoid this when you have the most powerful governments in the world funding an armed insurgency, a right wing armed insurgency inside your country. It’s kind of inevitable that it’s going to descend into lawless chaos the way that it did.

And I actually want to add one more thing about US intervention in Syria. It’s actually illegal under international law to fund an insurgency inside another country. That was a ruling that was decided by the International Court of Justice over, it was in a ruling of Nicaragua vs. the United States basically stating it was illegal and violated Nicaraguan sovereignty for the US to fund the Contras in that country. That’s very, very similar to what the US did in Syria. Again, it’s very important that leftists understand what the US did in Syria, and that is to fund a right wing fascistic insurgency that is completely illegal and very, very similar to the sort of death squads the US funded in Central America in the 1980s.

AARON MATÉ: That’s going to wrap part one of this discussion between Rania Khalek and Yasser Munif on Eastern Ghouta and the Syrian War. Join us in part two.

AARON MATÉ: This is part two on Eastern Ghouta and the Syrian War. My guests are Yasser Munif of Emerson College and the co-founder of the global campaign of solidarity for the Syrian revolution. Also joined by Rania Khalek, independent journalist, co-host of the podcast Unauthorized Disclosure. Now, she’s speaking to us from Beirut, so her connection at times might be a little bit choppy.

Yasser Munif, a lot that I respond to, let me ask you first, I mean. in a war where there’s sort of no good side, what Rania says there raises a question for me, which is that, on the one side you have this authoritarian ruler, really repressive, versus a foreign funded right wing Islamist militants who pose a threat especially to minorities who are threatening to overtake Damascus. Is the authoritarian repressive ruler, which at least is the sovereign government, and there’s some form of state structure, is that not preferable to the foreign backed militants?

YASSER MUNIF: No, I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t agree with that international relation kind of language and state sovereignty. I think that’s really not very relevant, to me, at least as electives. I think that the Syrian regime lost its sovereignty and that we should, instead, look at the sovereignty of the people and the popular uprising. So, in that sense, I don’t think that the Syrian regime is… It doesn’t have any right to invite any foreign force to fight on either side, whether that’s the Iranian or the Russian because it’s a brutal and genocidal regime.

But I wanted to respond to this idea of the people’s protest. I mean, I was in Syria. First of all, I lived in Syria for many years. I don’t Rania did. I witnessed the brutality of the Syrian regime before 2011, and it’s the way that it crushed the leftist forces and the secular forces. So, this idea of the beginning of the protest, was not secular or leftist, I mean, show me a country in the Arab world where the left and secular forces are powerful and represent the masses. They don’t exist, for a simple reason, because the Arab dictatorship crushed them very early on and funded the Islamist forces. When the Syrian regime crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in 1980, they founded the… that later on became the…force.

I mean, it’s very convenient to start history from 9/11, but that’s not how history or society works. I think it’s a very truncated and simplistic version of history that Rania’s presenting. I mean, where is the less powerful in the entire world? In the US, or in Europe? Why is she expecting a powerful left in the Arab world or in Syria? I think that’s a very orientalist and islamaphobic version of history. I went to demonstrations in Syria. There were thousands of people protesting and some of them were Islamist. Muslims have the right to dignity and freedom and democracy like anyone else. I think Rania’s narrative is very similar to some of the right wing and fascistic narratives about Muslims and Islamists, confusing and complicating all these different categories, in a convenient way to make it easy to equate Muslim people, who are pious to the Jihadist, to ISIS, to Al-Qaeda.

So, if we want to really understand why the left doesn’t exist in the Arab world, we should understand the brutality of the Syrian regime and Arab dictatorship. The Arab dictatorships really prevented any emergence for political spaces or the functioning of any political party in an independent way. We have to remember that Syria was almost a democratic country, with multiple parties in the 1950’s and I urge her to go and read about that. There were tens of political parties in the 1950’s, there were hundreds of publications, independent publications, and when the Ba’ath came to power in 1963, they crushed all that. It built a security apparatus, and different branches of the security and the military to crush all that political culture, and Leftist them and secularism. And then, blaming the people of Syria for that, is really bewildering and absurd.

AARON MATÉ: …sorry, go ahead. Finish your thought.

YASSER MUNIF: I think that the entity to be blamed is the Syrian regime and it’s brutality and dictatorship.

AARON MATÉ: Alright, let me go to Rania Khalek for a response.

RANIA KHALEK: I mean, it’s just really stunning, you’re completely erasing the consequences of US intervention in Syria. You are having an argument with the Syrian regime. I’m not the Syrian regime. I am talking about US intervention and you completely erase it. What is the preferable alternative? Currently, as we speak. Do you believe that the Al-Qaeda linked groups in Syria, and the FSA groups that fought alongside ISIS and Al-Qaeda, are those preferable alternatives? Because that is the reality on the ground.

What is the preferable alternative, as it stands right now, to what exists in Syria? Which is, yes, a very flawed system. But a system that isn’t genocidal, like these extremist groups that are the alternative. The alternative is the black… flying over Syria. And before you do answer that, I just want to say, that there is something that the left should support in Syria and that is de-escalation of violence. And the rhetoric that Yasser is using, the blaming everything on the Syrian regime and signing statements that call for intervention as he has done, lead to one thing and that is a furthering and a prolonging of the violence.

Our goal should be ending this war. And unfortunately, that means that you have to accept the fact, that the state stays intact and retakes control of areas. But the state, in my opinion, retaking control of areas and being able to have law and order in Syria, is a far better outcome than a bunch of armed insurgent criminal gangs, as they’ve behaved, as criminal gangs, being in charge of different areas, and using civilians as hostages, and holding them hostage to their whims, and imposing awful Right wing ideologies on them. That is where stand on that issue and there are things that can be done, that are being done to de-escalate the violence in Syria. And that includes reconciliation agreements with the government.

Yes, the world should do something in Syria. What it should do, is it should be encouraging the armed groups to pursue reconciliation agreements with the government, under international supervision, that includes amnesties and a gradual process of handing over their weapons back. And re-integrating these areas into the state. And I’ve seen this. I’ve visited parts of Syria, where these reconciliation agreements have been put into place, where people have put down their weapons and stayed and received amnesty. And where others have decided to leave and go live with their weapons and continue fighting. But in these areas people have been able to return, displaced people have been able to return and life has been able to go back to some semblance of normality that is better than what has existed for the past seven years.

That is what we should be looking towards doing. Trying to make places safer for people. Not looking for ways that we can overthrow government and leave it to the people of Syria to deal with reconstructing the government and the areas that have been crushed. I just don’t think the US has any place in Syria after what it’s done the last seven years.

AARON MATÉ: Yasser Munif, if you could respond to that. That point that, in continuing to encourage a continued battle, we’re denying peace to all those Syrian residents who have returned to government controlled areas. I just saw pictures of masses of people in Aleppo, which was the site of such horrible fighting, a few years ago, going to a big public garden. If we continue to call for intervention and continue conflict, are we denying them the right to live in peace?

YASSER MUNIF: I mean, the left has no business choosing between a brutal, genocidal Syrian regime and Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The situation is much more complex than that. We don’t have to defend or choose between either/or. This kind of binary that some of the left has created is very disturbing, and very violent, and justifies the violence of the Syrian regime. There is a Syrian revolution in Syria and that’s what we need to support.

RANIA KHALEK: Where, where? I’m sorry, where? Yasser, where? Can you tell me where, tell me where this revolution is? Where is it? Where is this revolution? What is the alternative to the Syrian government? Right now, I want to know where. Who can I, as a Leftist in America, who should I be supporting? Where? Give me the name of a group, an organization. Where?

YASSER MUNIF: I could conveniently ask the same question in Palestine. Where is the Palestinian resistance and revolution? And yet it exists and we know that it exists. It’s not in the mainstream media, it’s not.

RANIA KHALEK: No, but you can’t compare Palestinian, you can’t compare it to Palestine! Palestine is not the equivalent of Syria. It’s not. In Palestine, you have people fighting a settler, colonial government, a settler, colonial system that’s stealing their land, in Syria you have armed Jihadist groups, armed by outsiders, by foreigners, that have been destroying the country the last seven years.

And you refuse to even admit or talk about, you papering over that as if it’s not an issue as if people haven’t been killed by these groups. As if people haven’t been chased out of Syria by these groups. You’re acting as if they don’t exist, and it’s not a big deal, what the US did isn’t a big deal. ISIS and Al-Qaeda aren’t a big deal.

AARON MATÉ: Alright, let’s –

RANIA KHALEK: I don’t understand, what is the alternative?

AARON MATÉ: Let’s let Yasser respond. Alright, go ahead.

YASSER MUNIF: I was in Syria, in the opposition and the government region. In the government’s region, if you are stopped at a checkpoint, you can be easily killed if you have medical devices. Going through these areas. In Manbij, where I was, we were able to protest against ISIS, before it became a major force in 2014. So, I don’t think it’s very productive to compare even those very brutal and criminal factions, ISIS and Al-Qaeda and the Syrian regime.

The reason why we have the political Islam and the Jihadist, and Islamists in Syria, is due to the brutality of the dictatorship in Syria that has been going on for forty years. That prevented any kind of political discussion or the emergence of any political alternative, besides radical Islam. Syrian regime, as I said, has been funding Salafism for the kids. That’s what we’re getting now. The Salafist…

AARON MATÉ: Yeah, so let me ask you. On this question of alternatives. So, right now, in Idlib province, you have what the US calls the largest Al-Qaeda safe-haven since 9/11. So, if not Al-Qaeda and not the Syrian government, who is there to control that region?

YASSER MUNIF: I think that we have to really think about the complexity of the region and try to prevent talking about very simplistic kinds of scenario or narrative. The situation is not simple in Syria. And so, the left has to produce that kind of complex narrative about Syria. It’s complex because there are multiple actors intervening in Syria. There is the West, that would prefer Assadism without Assad. And there is Iran and Russia, that prefer to have Assad in power because they have been supporting him and they know that he is their guy.

There is not really a major difference between the West and the Russian and Iran on that matter. One wants Assad without Assadism and the other wants Assad with Assadism. And the left has to produce another solution than that, meaning that you have to look at the corrective movements that do exist… and the popular counsel that do exist, and the resistance tableau that do exist, and have been resisting the Syrian regime and it’s violence for seven years now. There are thousands of voices that are speaking about those grassroots movements and grassroots narrative. It’s important that we listen to them, and not dismiss them.

AARON MATÉ: Alright, so we have to wrap, so let’s go to final comments. One minute each. Rania, you go first.

RANIA KHALEK: Well, I want to use this to actually respond to the idea that somehow the dictatorships of the region are completely responsible for developing Jihadism in the region. I actually hold the West responsible for a large portion of that, West, with its allied Saudi Arabia, for spreading that ideology across the region. Salafi Jihadism is something that’s foreign to Syria. Syria has a very secular, progressive minded population than some of the other countries in the Middle East.

So, it’s a very foreign element there and to the issue of accusing me and some of the left of Orientalism, for being against Salafi Jihadist groups and ideas, there is a very good reason to. These groups are racist and sectarian. We’re not talking about the US context where people are Islamophobic if they think Muslims are coming to take over. But in the Middle East you really do have Salafi Jihadi problem that threatens people for secular, that threatens people even for religious beliefs, who just don’t happen to be on the side of Al-Qaeda. That severely threatens minorities like Christians, and Druzes, and Shi’a populations and wants to commit genocide against them.

People in the Middle East actually have something to fear from these groups. So, it is not Orientalist to suggest that there is an Al-Qaeda threat. And it’s not Orientalist or Islamophobic to be anti-Al-Qaeda, to be anti-ISIS, and to be anti-Salafi-Jihadism. That’s the most absurd argument I’ve ever heard. I think at the end of the day, what our priority should be, in Syria is de-escalating the violence as I mentioned before and also as Americans to understand what our government has done, and to be be against that sort of intervention in the region. Enough with these regime change operations that keep bringing more chaos, and more destabilization, and more lawlessness and state collapse to the region that’s causing all this suffering. Enough with that. That should be, as Americans, our first priority. At the very least, we should be able to agree on that.

AARON MATÉ: Alright, Yasser Munif, you’re final comments as we wrap.

RANIA KHALEK: I think that what Rania presented is really Orientalist. I mean, in this narrative of the binary, either/or, either them or us is coming from the Bush playbook. I mean, the idea that the Syrian regime is better than Al-Qaeda and ISIS is really disturbing. And presenting that image to the US audience is very disturbing. I come from Syria, I lived in Syria and Iraq for a long time, I care about Syria, I have family in Syria. I have friends who were killed by the Syrian regime in Syria and I think it’s very important to really talk about the complexity. That’s the duty of the left, and we don’t really have the luxury of choosing between ISIS and Al-Qaeda and the Syrian regime. We have to

RANIA KHALEK: I’m sorry, I have to –

YASSER MUNIF: The complex narrative –

RANIA KHALEK: Yasser, I just want to, Yasser, I just ask you something. On that one point, where you’re saying that ISIS, you can’t compare, that they’re the same, or something, or that the Syrian regime is worse. What do you tell people like me? I’m a woman, I’m an Arab woman from a minority sect background. Do you really believe that for someone like me, ISIS and the Syrian regime living under those two things is no different?

YASSER MUNIF: What do you say about the thousands of women who are tortured and killed and raped in the Syrian prison? What about those people? And again, this is again an Orientalist image of the Syrian regime. I don’t want to really choose between either/or. I don’t think we have the luxury of choosing between either/or, as an Arab and as a Syrian. We have to develop a full-circle project that concerns this binary, that is opposed to Western intervention, to dictatorship, and to Islamist Salafi forces. That narrative is not easy to develop, but that’s what we should fight for and that’s what we should look for in Syria.

AARON MATÉ: Alright, we’ll leave it there for now, but hopefully we’ll continue this dialogue in the future. I want to thank you, both of you for engaging in it. Yasser Munif is an assistant professor of sociology at Emerson College, co-founder of the Global Campaign of Solidarity for the Syrian Revolution. And Rania Khalek, independent journalist, co-host of the podcast Unauthorized Disclosure. Thank you.

YASSER MUNIF: Thank you.

RANIA KHALEK: Thank you.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us, on The Real News.