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Vijay Prashad: Outside interference in the Syrian civil war does not excuse the barbaric crimes of the
Assad dictatorship

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

We’ve received quite a bit of email about our coverage of Syria. Some people have suggested that we have focused too much on the external players, the role of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United States in perhaps arming the opposition, financing the opposition, recognizing the Syrian National Council. And these letters have suggested we have not reported enough about the atrocities of the Assad regime and the underlying issue, which is the Assad dictatorship.

So now joining us to talk about all of this is Vijay Prashad. Vijay is a professor of international studies at Trinity College in Connecticut and author of many books, including Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World and Arab Spring, Libyan Winter. And he joins us again from Hartford. Thanks for joining us, Vijay.


JAY: So what do you make of this issue? In our last interview, we talked a lot about the role of Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Qatar, and such and how a lot of this, it seems like the militarization of the opposition was spurred by these outside forces. And it’s probably true, in that interview, at least, that we didn’t talk as much about the underlying issue of the Assad dictatorship and the way they’ve handled this protest movement. What’s your take?

PRASHAD: Well, it depends what one is focusing on. I mean, there is no question that the Assad regime has been extremely brutal in suppressing the protests that began last year. I mean, one could even suggest that it is in the DNA of the Ba’ath Party to be vicious in its, you know, suppression of any dissent. You know, Bashar al-Assad is not that different from his father, Hafez al-Assad, who in 1982 killed about 20,000 people in Hama in order to save the regime, and at that time it was against, largely, a Muslim Brotherhood uprising. So it is without question that the brutality of the regime is for everybody to see. I mean, the United Nations has now produced a number. They suggest the total casualties in Syria are about 9,000. You know, we are gradually, unfortunately, catching up to the 20,000 point.

But it depends on what one is focusing on. At this point it’s important, I think, having come to understand the nature of the regime’s violence, having come to understand the fact that Syria is in a position of civil war. The question is: what does one do now? I mean, do we continue to simply talk about the brutality of the regime, or do we also talk about, you know, how we’re going to deal with the, as it were, position that is before us, where there is a regime that is brutal, there is an opposition that is largely outclassed, and then there is, you know, the bloodletting that the international community—by which I mean all of it—is allowing the Syrian people to live with? I think that is the reason why it’s important to concentrate on the role of the Saudis, Qataris, Americans, English, French, and Russians. There is a game here that is not with the Syrian people at its center.

JAY: Now, just to be clear, some of the most recent information on crimes of the Assad regime—Human Rights Watch reported today that at least 85 to 100 people have been summarily executed by the Assad regime. Some of them were fighters, but they say at least 85 were civilians who were not involved in the fighting or could not be seen as any threat to the Syrian army, included some women and children. And I should add to that, Human Rights Watch did do a report a few weeks ago—or maybe it’s actually a month ago or so—on atrocities conducted by opposition fighters, which included executing Syrian soldiers who had been captured and a lot of kidnapping for ransom of Syrian soldiers and some civilians. But this idea that there’s violence on both sides isn’t quite right, is it? I mean, even if these charges against the opposition are correct and some of these forces that are conducting these things are either thug-like or very sectarian and either are or are not being spurred on by Saudis and Qataris, that doesn’t excuse that the Assad regime has state power and supposedly operates within some kind of law. And so it’s not like there’s violence on both sides in some equal measure, is there?

PRASHAD: No. I mean, look, just to underscore your point, the Human Rights Watch letter of March 20 detailed the opposition violence. But this report, which came out, you know, in early April, April 9, this report, which is called, I think very tellingly, In Cold Blood, is not about violence of the regime; it’s about extrajudicial executions conducted by the regime and by the shabiha militias that are pro-government forces.

So there is something, I think, to be said about governments that conduct just enormous, disproportionate violence against civilians in the name of stability. I think that is without question something that needs to be condemned. You know, whatever the character of the government, whether the government is progressive, whether it’s reactionary, any government that disproportionately uses force against civilians is to be roundly condemned. Otherwise, one has lost one’s humanity. I think that is plain for anybody.

The specific issue here, I think, with the use of violence is that, you know, ever since—the Assad regime has essentially played a little game, that they have used negotiations to better improve their position on the ground. Every time there is a little window, the violence has increased. So late March they cut a deal with Kofi Annan, the envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League, and then they stepped up violence the day before the ceasefire. This is a game that all regimes play around the world. You know, the Israelis play this all the time. In fact, they gave us the phrase, which is—to change the facts on the ground is the phrase they gave us, before you come to negotiations.

So this—you know, there is no question that violence of this kind is outside the pale of any kind of reasonable conduct by states. There is indeed a difference between state violence and the violence of insurgents. Why there is some, you know, complication here is [that] the question is there among some people [of] whether these are simply insurgents, or whether the force that is operating around Syria has become a little bit like the Kosovo Liberation Army that was operating outside Albania into Yugoslavia in the 1990s, you know, with heavy backing by the United States, etc. I think that is a fair question to ask as well. You know, this is not simply unarmed civilians being killed in general. It is also combatants who are backed by outside powers.

But certainly the Human Rights Watch report demonstrates that there is unimaginable violence against civilians who do not appear at all to be combatants. And if that is not condemned, yes, as I said before, we have lost our humanity.

JAY: So what then should people outside of Syria demand, ask their governments to do? I mean, on the one hand, you could say a progressive position would be against any kind of military intervention. But what do you make of some form of sanctions, then, even if they’re driven by—you know, obviously they will be driven by—if they’re coming from governments in the West or in the Middle East, they’re always going to be driven by the agendae of those countries. But still, is there an argument for some form of sanctions?

PRASHAD: The first sanction that one would reasonably place is a sanction against delivery of arms. You’ll remember that in Libya it was Resolution 1970 that was universally accepted by all the parties in the Security Council, pretty much because that was a resolution that said no side should be armed. The problem we have now (and it’s a serious problem, which is why the left is placed in a position of, you know, having kind of utopian solutions): we don’t have enough power, as it were, in this situation.

But at any rate, the problem before us is: none of the important parties are trusted by others. That is to say, it is the case that the Syrian regime doesn’t trust the opposition or its Western and Gulf backers with seizing supply of arms. In the same way, the opposition does not trust that the Russians, for instance, are not continuing to arm the Syrian government. So until some mode of trust is established, until at least both sides see that what they are doing is damaging the lives of Syrian people, unless one is able to appeal to their sense of Syrian [incompr.] there is no way that the solution is going to come from Washington, D.C., from Paris, from Russia, from anywhere. Good-thinking Syrian people have to recognize that the path that all sides have chosen is leading to more destruction of Syrian people and Syria, and I think that has to be the first thing that they have to come to terms with. Upon the basis of some trust, I think mechanisms will have to be built to draw down from what will otherwise be a very bloody engagement.

JAY: So in terms of international position, number one, you think there should be a sanction against all arms going into Syria. And there really isn’t. I mean, as you said, the West and the Middle East, certainly Saudis and Qataris, are openly arming the opposition. Iran, apparently, is sending arms to the Assad regime in flights over Iraq. It’s hard to know for sure what the Russians are doing, but they haven’t denied they’re sending weapons. They just say they’re not weapons that could be used at the street level, they’re bigger armaments. But what would you—what about other forms of sanctions against the Syrian regime?

PRASHAD: You know, in a sense the Syrian economy has collapsed, and as others have pointed out, there is very little that—you know, pressure that can be placed on the regime that has not already been placed. I think the principal problem here is the lack of trust on all sides and the fact that the external actors—in other words, the geopolitical forces—are helping Syrians harden sides against each other and making it impossible for them to see that their solution is with each other and not with their external friends. I think that is the principal problem. And as they get empty promises coming from either the Friends of Syria or from the Russians are from whatever outside party, as they get these empty promises, it hardens their own stand. They take maximum positions against each other. And those maximum positions are in a sense minimum positions for Syria itself.

JAY: And there has been the issue or question raised about at least focus on a short-term humanitarian corridor and some form of ceasefire. There’s talk about that, but there doesn’t actually seem to be a lot of focus about it.

PRASHAD: Well, one of the six points in the Annan plan calls explicitly for a so-called humanitarian pause, which is a two-hour period where aid and assistance can come into beleaguered areas. I think that’s a very modest, you know, corridor to be created, this two-hour pause. But it’s what the opposition within Syria has been calling for. It’s what I think the Syrian people deeply need.

There is a sense of crisis inside the country. I think people are scared. Sectarian feelings are rising as a consequence of people being sequestered in their various valleys and towns. And I think if there is a concerted effort by the international community to set aside the question of violence for a minute and come to the question of humanitarian assistance, if corridors out of cities are created, if refugees who wish to flee are allowed to flee, I think this is precisely what is very important.

And in some ways it’s the thing that has gone out of fashion from the international human rights community since the Somalia wars of 1990s. You know, they have become—the human rights organizations have become more tied in with militarism than with trying to find a way to create a humanitarian agenda for the people. In a sense, they are living the nightmare of Somalia, if not Biafra from 1967, you know, when the International Red Cross was badly beaten up for pushing a humanitarian agenda which was not political. I think some of this needs to come back.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Vijay.

PRASHAD: Thank you.

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


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Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor, and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.