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Vijay Prashad: It is no longer the Free Syrian Army but the radical Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams that is a serious threat to the Assad government

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. And welcome to this edition of The Prashad Report.

Now joining us from Lebanon is Vijay Prashad. He’s the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut, and his most recent book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.

Vijay, always a pleasure to see you. Thanks for joining us.


DESVARIEUX: So, Vijay, you recently wrote an article in The Hindu titled “Al-Qaeda’s Corridor through Syria”. You say that it is no longer the Free Syrian Army but the radical Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams that is a serious threat to the Assad government. What do you mean by that, exactly?

PRASHAD: Well, you know, firstly I should say that the situation in Syria is deplorable. You know, there are 22 million Syrians. About between 6 million and 7 million Syrians have been displaced. Two and a half million Syrians currently have no access to any relief or assistance. So the situation in Syria is just terrible, and the war has not abated.

But in northern Syria, a belt that runs from the Iraq border all the way out, if the belt bends downwards to Tripoli and Lebanon, there has been a real shift in the situation, the political and military situation. In earlier parts of the revolt, it was different kinds of groups that had emerged there to fight against the regime. There had been popular resistance groups, and eventually the Free Syrian Army. Over the course of the last several months, a new development has broken through. Much further, highly radicalized Islamic groups have emerged in dominance in cities like Raqqah, at the Turkish and Syrian border in A’zaz, and even including in Kurdish regions. And these groups have been–you know, they mushroomed. They’re a series of groups with different names, different emirs, different allegiances.

But recently one particular group, which seems to have its origin in Iraq, the ISIS, has come to dominate the north and has absorbed many of the smaller, you know, radical Islamist factions. And this group, the ISIS, is very closely linked to al-Qaeda. It has, you know, an allegiance to al-Qaeda ideology. They’ve [inaud.] have begun a campaign about two months ago called Expelling the Filth. And by “expelling the filth”, they don’t directly mean the regime of Bashar al-Assad. They mean groups like the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups that, you know, are not 100 percent with their own al-Qaeda type ideology. And they have been able to dominate very large chunks of northern Syria.

This is a troublesome, you know, feature for many reasons. One, they are utterly uncompromising and they’re not willing to talk about ceasefires or to talk about coming to Geneva in late November to discuss some kind of, you know, modality to close down this civil war, which, as I said, has had a devastating impact on the Syrian people. But they are utterly uncompromising. They have no political interlocutors who are willing to go to Geneva. And furthermore, they have directly said that anybody who goes to Geneva and represents the rebellion is going to be considered a traitor, which means that they are going to then come after them.

So this is a great very dangerous situation for Syria right now, where, as I said, the conflict persists, the suffering is very great, and as the increase of this al-Qaeda type group comes in the north, it seems unlikely that any kind of political process can open up.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. And can you just give us a bit of an update on where things are at in Syria concerning the chemical weapons?

PRASHAD: Well, yes. The UN organization tasked with inspection of the chemical arsenal of the Syrian regime has just declared that they have completed their paperwork. In other words, the first phase of the operation has finished. They’ve been around, they’ve looked at the various sites, etc. You know, this is a very long, drawn out process. There first has to be some kind of, you know, accounting. They have to go in there, inspect the various sites. They will then tag them, number them, you know, inspect them again, and suchlike. This is going to take several months. So the process is not over, but they’re certainly keeping to that timetable.

It looks like the issue of the chemical weapons is no longer the main issue for Syria. The main issue right now is to somehow come to a political process where the ceasefire can come into effect and all parties can discuss a way out of the war. Unfortunately, as I said, the dominant force in the opposition does not at all want to have a ceasefire, and thus far the regime as well has not demonstrated a stomach to come to the table in good faith and close down operations.

You know, the momentum just now on the battlefield is with the government of Mr. Assad. And this is, of course, the time when he should, you know, try to come to the table and say, let’s stop this war, if indeed, you know, he is interested in a peaceful outcome. But because the momentum is with him, I’m afraid it may not be likely that even the government will come in good faith to the table.

So the situation for Syria is very bad. Government may not come in good faith, and the current dominant force in the opposition has said that any political dialog is tantamount to treason against the rebellion. So we are in a very bad situation right now in Syria.

DESVARIEUX: Okay, Vijay, we’ll certainly keep tracking things happening over there in Syria. Thank you so much for joining us.

PRASHAD: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: 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.