Vijay Prashad: Al-Qaeda linked rebels have made strong advances due to weak morale of Assad fighters and rebel groups with strong financial backing from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. And welcome to this edition of the Prashad Report. Now joining us is Vijay Prashad. He is a professor of international studies at Trinity College, and he has a new book out called Letters to Palestine. Thank you for joining us, Vijay. VIJAY PRASHAD, PROF. OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES, TRINITY COLLEGE: Thanks a lot. DESVARIEUX: So Vijay, I know you’ve been tracking the developments in Syria. Can you just give us an update on what’s going on over there? PRASHAD: Well, over the last several months it’s been the case that the government of Mr. Assad has suffered some serious reversals. Particularly in the western part of Syria up near the Turkish border, they lost the city of Idlib to the rebels. And even in Damascus, there are strains in parts of the city as the rebel forces make gains. So it has been a very difficult period for the Assad government. So much so that on May 5th, which is Martyrs’ Day in Syria, Mr. Assad made a public appearance where he said that this is a long war, and in a war there are many battles, and he acknowledged the reversals. Now, why these reversals have come and what they mean I think is very important. You have to remember that last year the Assad regime alongside its allies such as Hezbollah and various Iraqi militias made some serious gains in the Qalamun Mountains, which is again in western Syria, and up towards Aleppo. Some of these gains have been taken away by the rebels. So the statement that this is an impending defeat of the Assad regime I think might be exaggerated. What this is, really, is a return to the status quo that prevailed last year, before the gains made by the Assad army and by Hezbollah and other militias. Why this has happened now I think is very important, and bears some reflection. There are of course several factors why the rebels have been able to make advances. One of them is that the Assad government has been unable, or having a harder time, recruiting people for the army and morale is very low. This was acknowledged again by Mr. Assad at his statement on Martyrs’ Day where he talked about morale, and the importance of morale. I think everybody understands this is a very important problem that the Damascus government is facing. But on the other side, there has been interesting geopolitical developments. Remember that the rebels, when we speak of the rebels, we don’t any longer really consider them to be a moderate force. The main, or last major moderate force, Harakat Hazzm, was overrun by Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the al-Qaeda affiliate. So in these current dashes toward Damascus and the taking of Idlib the hegemonic force, the main military force, has been the extremist groups, many of them linked to al-Qaeda. Such as, of course, Jabhat al-Nusra. But it’s not only Jabhat al-Nusra that’s making audacious moves. It’s also the Saudi-backed group called Jaysh al-Islam, which is led by Zahran Alloush. What’s interesting is that over the last couple of months the governments of Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have come to an agreement on helping their various proxies on the ground, and in fact have coordination between them. So Zahran Alloush made a trip in April to Turkey where he met the leadership of Ahrar ash-Sham, which is a group close to al-Qaeda, very close to Jabhat al-Nusra at this point. They’ve had their differences previously. This relationship between Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar is largely predicated on the fact that Saudi Arabia no longer sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat, and certainly not the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. So it’s now allowing its proxy, Jaysh al-Islam, to work closely with the Syrian National Coalition opposition force, and to coordinate with al-Qaeda. So the gains are being made largely by al-Qaeda thanks to this new geopolitical alignment, and also because of the exhaustion of the Syrian military. DESVARIEUX: Vijay, where does America stand in all of this? PRASHAD: Well, the United States is not a non-actor. Certainly in Jordan the United States has begun once again to train what it considers to be a moderate force. 90 Syrian volunteers have signed up for training in a camp in Jordan run by the United States. The surface reason for this camp is to have these men go and fight ISIS. That is, the Islamic State. But the United States, when asked about whether this force would also take on the Assad government, said that if they are attacked of course they will defend themselves. In other words, leaving the door open for these forces to also engage the government in Damascus. It should be said that most of the other forces trained by the United States over the last four years have had a very flexible relationship with the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, which is Jabhat al-Nusra. And indeed, many of the American-trained fighters find themselves in the Jabhat al-Nusra camp, which they see as the more audacious fighting force. So the United States is active in this way. It is obviously coordinating with the Saudis in terms of their strategy. And it’s certainly bombing targets in northern Syria, which are targets of ISIS. Remember that when the United States began to bomb in Syria, it also bombed a Jabhat al-Nusra stronghold. Now, of course, Nusra is making major gains in western Syria, or at least bringing Syria back to last year’s status quo. And this is not, it seems, bothering anybody in Washington. DESVARIEUX: All right. Vijay Prashad, author of the new edited book Letters to Palestine. Thank you so much for joining us. PRASHAD: Thank you. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.