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Charles Glass on Syria’s Mutual Destruction and the Unconvincing Fears of Assad’s Chemical Weapons

StoryDecember 11, 2012
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Veteran journalist Charles Glass joins us to discuss his recent trip to Syria and its largest city, Aleppo. Addressing U.S.-led warnings that the Assad regime could deploy chemical warfare, Glass says: “I think it’s pretty clear that the Syrians have never used chemical weapons, that there is no advantage to them to use chemical weapons. The areas where there is fighting are areas where people who support them are living, and their own soldiers would themselves be vulnerable to inhaling chemical gases. … It sounds to me pretty much like the propaganda that was used prior to the invasion of Iraq, where the chemical weapons were held up as an excuse to bring about Western intervention, ultimately, when it wasn’t true.” A former ABC News chief Middle East correspondent, Glass’s book on Syria, “Tribes With Flags,” was reissued this year. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. And a shout out to the interns of The Nation magazine, who have come to watch the broadcast of Democracy Now! today. And speaking of Nation interns, last night on the plane back from Oslo, Norway, covering the Nobel Peace Prize, I was on the plane with the British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who was representing Britain at the Nobel Peace Prize. I asked him, “How does being an intern at The Nation,” which he was, “prepare you to be deputy prime minister of Britain?” And he said he wouldn’t hold a news conference on the plane.

Well, we turn now to the ongoing crisis in Syria, where rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad are seeking recognition ahead of a meeting with U.S. and European Union officials tomorrow in Morocco. The meeting comes as the United States has raised concerns that radical Islamists associated with al-Qaeda are flocking to the country and that Assad’s regime may be preparing to use chemical weapons. On Monday, the U.S. added the Syrian rebel group al-Nusra Front to its global terrorist list as an alias of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Britain’s military chiefs have drawn up plans to provide Syrian rebels with maritime and possibly air power, but say they will only act if the United States also intervenes. European Union foreign ministers met Monday with the head of the newly formed Syrian opposition coalition, which could be recognized as the legitimate replacement for President al-Assad. This is EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton.

CATHERINE ASHTON: It’s important that there has to be a political process alongside everything else. You know, you have to get from here to the position where you have an inclusive and chosen government in Syria that the people can all feel proud of. And that’s really important. So you do need a political process.

AMY GOODMAN: After the talks, the European Commission announced it would provide another 30 million euros in humanitarian aid to help people affected by the Syrian crisis. At least half-a-million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries since fighting began. Meanwhile, Syrian regime ally, Russia, said Monday plans for Syria’s political future must not be forced on it from outside. More than 42,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President al-Assad began last March, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

For more, we’re joined by journalist Charles Glass, former ABC News chief Middle East correspondent. And his book on Syria, Tribes With Flags, was reissued this year. His most recent piece for The New York Review of Books is called “Aleppo: How Syria Is Being Destroyed.”

Charles Glass, welcome to Democracy Now! Welcome back. If you could start off with this piece, with your recent visit to Damascus and Aleppo, focusing on Aleppo, the significance of the city in what is taking place in Syria right now?

CHARLES GLASS: Aleppo is the economic center of Syria. It probably is responsible for 65 percent of the economic activity of the whole country, if you take away—if you take the oil sector apart. It’s where most of the things are made. It’s where the big pharmaceutical companies in Syria manufacture their products. It’s where furniture is made. It’s where the electronics, such as it is, electronics industry is, where the artisans are. It’s also a cultural capital of Syria. It claims, as Damascus does, to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It was the cradle of the rebellion of 1979 against the Assad regime. But it is a city that is, in and of itself, now divided between those who want the regime to remain and those who want to destroy the regime, with a large number of people in the middle who would rather see both sides go away and see the war end so they can resume their lives.

AMY GOODMAN: When this latest news that I’ve just been a sharing around the—around Syria—I wanted to go to an exclusive report on Monday. The U.K.’s Independent newspaper suggested Western powers are negotiating some form of military intervention in Syria. The paper reports, quote, “A plan to provide military training to the Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime and support them with air and naval power is being drawn up by an international coalition including Britain.”

Charles Glass—we wanted to get a comment from Charles Glass. We’ve just lost him. So we’re going to bring him back on the video stream. But let’s go to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said on Sunday his country is not holding any talks on the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

SERGEY LAVROV: [translated] You can demand Assad’s resignation forever, but the war is continuing. And our American colleagues—we met with Hillary Clinton in Dublin three days ago, as well as with the U.N. and Arab League special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who acts as a mediator in the Syrian conflict—they offered that we hold a special expert meeting on the deputy foreign minister’s level, along with Lakhdar Brahimi, for a brainstorming session. We said we would be ready, under one condition: that the basis of such brainstorming sessions will be formed by the Geneva document without any additions, without any ultimatums, without any preconditions, like President Assad’s resignation.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The latest that is coming out of Syria right now, Charles Glass, including the significance of the U.S. calling the Syrian rebel group al-Nusra Front a terrorist organization, an alias for al-Qaeda in Iraq, and how the European countries and the European Union, the latest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is organizing right now?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, there are many Islamist Salafist groups in Syria who have come from neighboring countries to take part in the Syrian revolution in the hope of overthrowing what they see as a heretical Alawite regime and replacing it with a strict Sunni regime. That’s their goal, and they are in the forefront of some of the fighting. And they are the best—probably the best armed and best trained and most experienced fighters on the rebel side in Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does it mean for the U.S. to put al-Nusra Front on the terrorist list? And the preparations for—do you see a kind of united European, possibly U.S., involvement in any kind of intervention?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, clearly, the British and the French would like to intervene but can’t do so without the United States, as happened in Libya. But they have their own people on the ground on the borders of Syria training some of the non-Salafist groups, while the Saudis and the Qataris are helping the Salafist groups. And they would like—they want very much to intervene to get rid of the Assad regime and have some influence on the opposition that would ultimately take power if it succeeds. But I think, in fact, given that the regime is as strong as it is and the opposition is as divided as it is, and some of the opposition being absolute anathema to Western countries, it’s likely that this will simply help the fighting to go on and on and destroy more of Syria in the process.

AMY GOODMAN: As talks approach to determine the European Union’s recognition of the Syrian opposition, EU foreign ministers have urged the Syrian National Council to uphold human rights. This is British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

WILLIAM HAGUE: I have urged him once again to make very clear the commitment of the national coalition to all the things the Assad regime is not committed to—to human rights, to international humanitarian law, to democracy and freedom for the people of Syria. And I believe they will do that, clearly, at the Marrakech meeting.

AMY GOODMAN: The implications of the EU, Charles Glass, potentially recognizing the Syrian National Council as the official opposition in its Marrakech meeting?

CHARLES GLASS: I think you mean the Syrian National Coalition, of which the Syrian National Council is a small part. The Syrian National Coalition has been recognized by much of the groups that are—they call themselves the “Friends of Syria,” including the United States. This is meant to be an umbrella group that embraces just about everyone. However, the fighting forces on the ground refuse to recognize it, from—basically from the day that it was announced in Qatar. So it’s not—it’s not having much influence on the ground. It’s going to be seen, I assume, as another exile group without strong roots in the country, which often happens when the West decides to use people to intervene in a third-world country.

AMY GOODMAN: In your interviews that you did in Syria, one of the people you spoke to allowed you to use his name, is Zaidoun al-Zoabi, professor at the Arab European University in Damascus. Talk about his assessment of the situation today.

CHARLES GLASS: Well, he and many of his colleagues, who were at the forefront of the peaceful demonstrations at the beginning of the rebellion in 2011, are in despair at the way the opposition has become purely violent, and that those who were willing to risk of being tortured and arrested and having their families arrested and being shot at in the streets, willing to risk all that, against a regime that is so powerfully armed that it could not be easily defeated without bringing destruction to the entire country. So they—they still try to have peaceful demonstrations, which the regime controls and puts down, but they’re not—they see that their tactics have become irrelevant, because what is going on now is a civil war, in which neither side is winning, in which the great majority of the population is suffering to no benefit.

AMY GOODMAN: And the U.S. talking about chemical weapons that Bashar al-Assad could use, warning him not to, what do you make of this being raised? Do you think this is a real threat?

CHARLES GLASS: I think it’s pretty clear that the Syrians have never used chemical weapons, that there is no advantage to them to use chemical weapons. The areas where there is fighting are areas where people who support them are living, and their own soldiers would themselves be vulnerable to inhaling chemical gases. There is absolutely no advantage to the regime to do it. It sounds to me pretty much like the propaganda that was used prior to the invasion of Iraq, where the chemical weapons were held up as an excuse to bring about Western intervention, ultimately, when it wasn’t true.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think President Bashar al-Assad will ultimately step down?

CHARLES GLASS: I think whether it happens peacefully through a transition—I mean, if there can be discussions sponsored by the United States and Russia to bring about a peaceful transition that would allow him to save face and step down at the end of his term in 2014, that would be a positive outcome for the country, or he may be overthrown sooner through violence. Ultimately, I suspect that he won’t be able to survive.

AMY GOODMAN: Charles Glass, I want to thank you very much for being with us from Britain, former ABC News chief Middle East correspondent. His piece in The New York Review of Books, we’ll link to, “Aleppo: How Syria Is Being Destroyed.”

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Report from Turkey-Syria Border: Syrian Refugees Claim “Horrific Carnage” in Besieged Aleppo

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