US Tries to Control Outcome of Syrian Conflict; Russia Might Back Off Support for Assad
Vijay Prashad: US recognizes Syrian National Coalition as Russia says Assad may have to step down
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to this week’s edition of The Prashad Report with Vijay Prashad. He joins us now from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticutâ€”I guess you’re not in Trinity College, but you teach there. His latest books are Arab Spring, Libyan Winter and Uncle Swami: South Asians in America. Thanks for joining us again, Vijay.
VIJAY PRASHAD, PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES, TRINITY COLLEGE: Pleasure.
JAY: So what’s on your mind this week?
PRASHAD: Well, this week the Friends of Syria had their fourth conference, their fourth meeting. This time they met in Marrakesh in Morocco. Hillary Clinton could not go because she in her world travels has developed a stomach bug, but in her place, her deputy was able to represent the United States. The Friends of Syria meeting, you know, met with the Syrian National Coalition, now, you know, much more robust as an opposition formation. And they came up with a declaration that was quite interesting.
In two points there were some cliches. For instance, the, you know, Friends of Syria and the Syrian National Coalition formed the integrity of Syria, which is a statement, you know, directly toward the fear of sectarianism or the breakup of Syria. So they affirmed its integrity. They called for a ceasefire, which everybody knows is basically what you have to say, although there’s no sign, really, of a ceasefire.
But the most interesting statement in the declaration was the statement that the Syrian people have the right to defend themselves. Now, on the surface, this, again, looks fairly straightforward. The Syrian people have the right to defend themselves. But if you scratch the surface, what this is saying is now that most of the West has recognized the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate political vehicle for Syria, and now that they say that the, you know, Syrian people have the right to defend themselves, this opens up the question of, you know, state-to-coalition, you know, arms delivery. In other words, state governments, not just Qatar and the Saudis, but perhaps the Turks, the United States, and others, could channel arms to the rebellion. You know, that’s what this opens the door toward. But it’s not likely that that’s going to happen in a hurry.
There was one part of the declaration, in fact, of the meeting that I think bears some discussion, and that is the timing of U.S. recognition of the Syrian National Coalition. You know, by many indications it seems now that the Assad regime is actually weakening. And so it appears interesting that the United States has at this point said that they would like to recognize the coalition. The one sign of the weakness is that the Russians have indicated that they are no longer certain that Mr. Assad is going to last at least even till next summer. So given the weakening from the Russians, given the fact that the United States (very likely with a nod and a wink from Moscow) have brought a big aircraft carrier into the eastern Mediterranean, this is a good sign that the Assad regime is in fact quite weak. It’s at this point that the United States decided to recognize the coalition.
And many people, I think, are quite, you know, credibly wondering why this is so. Is it the case, for instance, that, you know, after the Syrian people have bled deeply in their fight against the Assad regime, 40,000 people dead, 2.5 to 4 million people affected deeply by, you know, the ongoing civil war, is it because at this point the United States feels that they might be able to influence the, you know, future government of Syria that they’ve decided to enter? In other words, you know, having allowed the Syrians to bleed, the United States might want to, you know, pluck the fruit of the, you know, next stage in the history of Syria. So that’s the [incompr.]
JAY: Well, they’ve always had as theirâ€”I mean, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as the allies of the United States, managing all this, to some extent, one thinks, in cahoots and on behalf of the U.S., of course with their own interests very much at heart. But is there not also a kind of split on the ground? We’re seeing reports that some of the fighters, many of whom have al-Qaeda type links but are Syrians, that those fighters and some of the allied fighters in the rebel forces are telling the Americans to stay the hell out, that it’s not up to you to choose who the leadership’s going to be, and there’s some resentment amongst the fighters about the role the United States is playing.
PRASHAD: Well, this is precisely why, for instance, in Marrakesh the Syrian National Coalition was not able to create a cabinet, you know, out ofâ€”you know, to further the political process. I mean, let’s take the case, you know, of the United States’ approach to the rebellion. The United States has decided that there are increasing al-Qaeda type elements inside the rebellion. And at the eve of the Morocco meeting, the United States banned the al-Nusra Front, you know, saying that we want to marginalize the Islamists inside the rebellion.
Of course, this is a kind of approach that the U.S. took slightly in Libya, where you allowed various elements to do the fighting, and when the crunch time came you tried to marginalize them and put the more liberal voices forward, you know, to take charge of the institutions of the state. But they will not be so successful in Syria. I mean, in the Syrian National Council there are senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood who say that the banning of the al-Nusra front was, to use their language, too hasty. And just when the Syrian National Coalition met with the Friends of Syria in Morocco, in Turkey a supreme military council was formed of the various factions that are fighting on the ground, but they as well decided to exclude the al-Nusra front.
So there’s a great deal of infighting amongst the Syrian opposition, you know, within the Syrian opposition, over the status of various shades of Islamism, and I think this is weakening their ability to take the next political step forward. It’s true, of course, that there are various elements that are very extreme inside Syria. You know, in a sense, how would you expect them not to be part of the equation? You know, after all, from the 1980s, the Assad regime has beenâ€”you know, basically, by using its dungeons, using torture, using exile, has stamped down on any kind of Islamism. Naturally it will tend, therefore, towards the extreme side. You know, also, the experience of having the United States occupying Iraq and where a very large section of that resistance was also radicalized to extreme Islam, you know, there is no question that inside the Syrian opposition there would be this section. But, you know, unlike what the United States wants to see happen, even moderate voices in the Syrian National Council are not keen to at this point excise those sections from among their fighters.
JAY: And the Americans historically have no problem working with Islamic extremists from Afghanistan to Libya. It’s been part of their deck of cards for a long time. But is there also not something specific here about the role of Saudi Arabia, which usually has quite close connections with these groups, in spite of their rhetoric?
PRASHAD: Well, it’s not just Saudi Arabia. Let me back up for a little bit. You know, Robert Baer, who worked at the CIA, wrote in his book some time ago that the United States, from the 1980s, has utilized the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as a surrogate inside Syria. So the United States has had no problem having direct links with the Muslim Brotherhood and other extreme elements when it suited U.S. purposes.
You know, now that it appears that the Assad regime is going to fall, some of these elements might end up being liabilities. And the Saudis, on the other side, have often been the post office that the United States has used to reach out to these more extreme elements. This has been the history in Afghanistan. This was the history, in fact, in most of the Middle East, where it was through the Saudis, through the World Muslim League, that the United States was able to have direct links with the very extreme elements. And, by the way, it wasn’t just in the Middle East, it wasn’t just in Afghanistan, but in Chechnya as well. It was through the Saudis that the United States was able to keep contact and try to, you know, puppeteer these sections. Of course, when you come to the threshold of the fall of one regime and the emergence of another, the last thing the United States wants to see is those whom they have used now come to a point of political authority.
JAY: Now, the big issue here is going to be the role of the Russians, ’cause it’sâ€”if the Russians are going to stop sending Assad arms and support, I don’t see how they can last very long. Is there any reflection thatâ€”I shouldn’t say anyâ€”any indication that the Russians are actually pulling back on support for Assad other than language?
PRASHAD: The language is very significant. You know, in Paris, Mr. Putin said that the relationship Moscow has is not with the currentâ€”Mr. Assad; it was the Soviet Union’s relationship with his father. You know, that is a very straightforward statement. In Moscow, the deputy foreign minister said that he thinks that the Assad regime is going to fall.
At the same time, indications have come from the ground that the Assad forces, armed forces, are beginning to use their second-level type weaponry. That might indicate that they’re not being able to get logistical military support from their outside partners. You know. But openly the Russians have not yet indicated that they are going to stop providing logistical support to the Assad regime.
JAY: And the Russians did exactly this in Libya after, you know, weeks, or months, even, of condemning the Americans and the West and condemning the violation of the U.S. regulations and, you know, sort of supporting Gaddafi after a meeting, I think, that took place between Obamaâ€”when Obama was in Europe with Medvedev. All of a sudden they did a 180 and they said, yeah, okay, now it’s time for Gaddafi to go. And then we found out later Russia was able to maintain its oil deal it had with Gazprom to maintain oil fields through the Italians in Libya, and they got essentially what they wanted. So maybe the same thing will happen here: they’ll get some assurances about their naval base, and then that will be the end of Assad.
PRASHAD: I mean, it looks very much like that. You know, the two things that the Russians seem concerned aboutâ€”one is the entry of the NATO Patriot batteries in Turkey. And these are very few. You know, there’ll only be six batteries. There’s over 500 kilometers of border between Turkey and Syria, so those batteries, I think, are largely symbolic. But the Russians, you know, they have an allergy to the eastward motion of NATO. So that’s one issue.
Secondly, one of the reasons why the Morocco meeting couldn’t produce a cabinet for the Syrian national coalition, you know, where they could start becoming a government in exile, one of the reasons, of course, was the infighting within the coalition. But also the Russians were quite adamant that sections of the Assad regime must be part of the so-called coalition or transitional government. Obviously, they are jockeying to maintain some of their authority in the region. But, you know, over the course of the last few weeks, the Russians just rhetorically have moved an enormous amount.
JAY: Now, to what extent do we know whether the Syrian elite that had previously backed and collaborated with Assadâ€”how much are they now joining the opposition? And howâ€”and the complexion of this new government, if there’s going to be one, how much is that going to maintain the status quo of the Syrian elite?
PRASHAD: It’s not clear to me. I don’t follow the machinations of the Syrian elite very well, you know, very closely. But I do know that in other experiences, other places where similar things have happened, elites often start hedging their bets. And I’m not sure if that is happening, but that really requires some reflection. It’s a good sign when a regime has lost its hold if the elite starts to hedge its bets more formally.
JAY: Okay. Well, we’ll continue to follow this story, of course. And, of course, the most important thing here is the Syrian people are caught in a horrible tragedy in the middle of all these forces. Thanks very much for joining us.
PRASHAD: Thank you so much.
JAY: And thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.
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