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A Struggle for Regional Supremacy: Syria Conflict Escalates as World Powers Debate Assad’s Future

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Syria is seeing some of the worst violence of the 11-month uprising against Bashar al-Assad amid an ongoing international standoff over how to respond. Assad’s forces have launched what appears to be one of their fiercest assaults on the flashpoint city of Homs to date. Both the United States and Britain have closed their embassies in the Syrian capital of Damascus and withdrawn diplomatic personnel, citing safety fears. As the crisis escalates, Russia and China are facing criticism for blocking a U.N. Security Council resolution backed by the United States and Arab League calling for a political transition in Syria. To discuss the situation in Syria, we’re joined by Patrick Seale, a leading British writer on the Middle East and author of “Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East.” “It’s at least a two- or possibly a three-stage crisis. Internally in Syria, the situation is getting worse by the day,” Seale says. “At a higher level, there is a struggle between the United States, on the one hand, and its allies, and its opponents like Russia and China… Then there’s a third level, possibly, of Arab Gulf states like Qatar, for example, even Saudi Arabia behind it, who are obsessed and worried by Iran, and they think that Iran might stir up Shia communities in the region.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJan 30, 2012Syrian Activist Speaks from Hiding: The Bloodshed is Continuing Despite International Criticism
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Syria is seeing some of the worst violence of the 11-month uprising against Bashar al-Assad amidst an ongoing international standoff over how to respond. Assad’s forces have launched what appears to be one of their fiercest assaults on the flashpoint city of Homs to date. Witnesses say dozens of people have been killed in shelling and rocket fire that has reportedly struck residential areas and at least one field hospital. There are widespread fears Assad’s regime is launching the attacks in preparation for a full-scale ground invasion of Homs.

Both the U.S. and Britain have closed their embassies in Damascus, the Syrian capital, and withdrawn diplomatic personnel, citing safety fears. As the crisis escalates, Russia and China are facing criticism for blocking a U.N. Security Council resolution backed by the United States and Arab League calling for a political transition in Syria. On Monday, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, stood by her previous claim of being “disgusted” by the Russian and Chinese vote.

AMB. SUSAN RICE: The fact that Russia and China chose to align themselves with a dictator who’s on his last legs, rather than the people of Syria, rather than the people of the Middle East, rather than the principled views of the rest of the international community, was indeed disgusting and shameful. And I think that, over time, it is a decision they’ll come to regret. When there is a democratic Syria, they won’t not forget this action.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in Washington, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the U.S. will now pursue a response to the Syrian crisis outside of the U.N. in light of the standoff with Russia and China. Nuland also urged Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to press for Assad’s departure during his visit to Damascus.

VICTORIA NULAND: In a situation where the Security Council has been blocked from acting in support of the Arab League plan, in support of the defense of a democratic path for Syria, we’re going to have to take measures outside the U.N. to strengthen and deepen and broaden the international community of pressure on Assad. Our hope and expectation is that Foreign Minister Lavrov will use this opportunity to make absolutely clear to the Assad regime how isolated it is and to encourage Assad and his people to make use of the Arab League plan and provide for a transition.

AMY GOODMAN: For their part, Russia and China say the U.N. resolution was too one-sided and would have dangerously emboldened anti-government fighters. In response, Syria’s main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said it would hold Russia and China, quote, “responsible for the escalating acts of killing.”

The Assad regime, meanwhile, has denied committing atrocities, says it’s fighting foreign-backed armed groups. Speaking to Reuters, Syria’s cultural attaché in Washington, Roua Sharbaji, said the Assad regime has been responsive to protesters’ demands but has been forced to battle militants that have hijacked their cause.

ROUA SHARBAJI: The picture in Syria right now is very much different from the picture all the media around the world are trying to portray it. The Syrian government acknowledged legitimate demands of the people there, and there’s a lot of reforms going on. We have a lot already achieved, and we are working on the others. So, there’s a political process ongoing in Syria. But in the same time, these demands and this people movement have been hijacked with armed groups and terrorists. And no country in the world, even the U.S., will tolerate such incidents on its ground, because the responsibility of the government is, first and foremost, to ensure the security and safety of the people and to maintain law and order in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: The crisis in Syria has revived the foreign intervention debate that’s surrounded the Arab Spring uprisings of the past year. While the U.S. leads calls for Assad’s departure, critics have pointed out its backing of longtime allies in Yemen, Bahrain and Egypt despite the repression of peaceful protesters in all three countries. The fears over intervention in Syria are compounded by the memories of Libya, where NATO countries used a U.N. Security Council mandate for the protection of civilians to help overthrow the Gaddafi regime.

Well, to discuss the situation in Syria, we’re going to London, where we’re joined by Patrick Seale, leading British writer on the Middle East. He is author of Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East, which is about the current president’s father, and most recently, The Struggle for Arab Independence.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Patrick. Can you talk about what’s happening right now in Syria and the United Nations?

PATRICK SEALE: Well, Amy, I think, to understand what’s happening, one has to see that it’s not a simple matter. It’s at least a two- or possibly a three-stage crisis. Internally in Syria, the situation is getting worse by the day. It’s a very ugly struggle. It’s been reduced to something like “kill or be killed.” And we can explain that in a second. At a higher level, there is a struggle between the United States, on the one hand, and its allies, and its opponents like Russia and China. And so, that is a struggle for regional dominance, who is to be top dog. Then there’s a third level, possibly, of Arab Gulf states like Qatar, for example, even Saudi Arabia behind it, who are obsessed and worried by Iran, and they think that Iran might stir up Shia communities in the region—the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, in Bahrain, in Yemen—and challenge the existing political order. So it’s a multi-stage crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: And for what’s happening at the United Nations, the motivations for Russia and China to veto the U.N. Security Council resolution, talk about the significance of this.

PATRICK SEALE: Well, it’s of great significance, and there’s a whiff of a new cold war about it. You see, Russia has decades-long interests in the Middle East, and particularly in Syria during the time of Bashar al-Assad’s father, during the Cold War, in fact. China is a leading customer for Iranian oil and very much objects to American sanctions and European sanctions on Iran’s oil exports. China is, of course, not overjoyed by American attempts to contain its influence in the Asia-Pacific region, which President Obama has spoken about a great deal. And so, these two powers, what are they saying by their vetoes? They’re saying they don’t accept American and Israeli hegemony over the Middle East. They say they have interests there, too, and they want their interests to be addressed and to be respected.

AMY GOODMAN: And Russia’s interest here, Russia selling Syria millions of dollars’ worth of weapons?

PATRICK SEALE: Well, I mean, small amounts compared to what America supplies Israel with. You see, I think, to understand what’s happening, one has to see this as a concerted attack, assault, on not only Syria, but Iran, as well. You see, Iran, Syria and their ally Hezbollah in Lebanon, that trio, a sort of Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis, has in recent years been the main obstacle to American and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East. And the attempt now is to bring that axis down. Of course, they’re fighting back with their allies, their friends, like—precisely, like Russia and China. So that’s what we’re seeing on that level.

Internally in Syria is a completely different struggle. Now, you see, the main element in the opposition, the main—the most powerful element in the Syrian National Council is the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, just the other day, they celebrated the 30-year anniversary of the assault on Hama by Hafez al-Assad, the father of the present president. And in that struggle, at least 10,000 people were killed in the city of Hama. Now, we have to understand the background of that. Hama in 1982 was the climax of a terrorist campaign by the Muslim Brothers, which began in the late '70s, to overthrow the Assad regime at that time. And they seized control. The insurgents seized control of Hama, butchered Ba'ath Party members and officials, and it’s only at that stage that the regime moved in and crushed that insurgency and killed a lot of people, a lot of innocent people. Now, the specter of what happened then, 30 years ago, hangs over the present situation. And the Muslim Brothers, they’ve been outlawed for the last 30 years. They’ve suffered all sorts of problems at the hands of the regime. And they are thirsting for revenge. So that’s why I’m saying it’s “kill or be killed.” The present government feels that these are armed insurgents, and the mistake of the opposition was in fact to resort to arms. And as we heard a moment ago from, I think, a Syrian spokesman there, that any government, whatever its political coloring, will cease—will seem justified in putting down an armed insurrection in its territory.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Patrick Seale is our guest, leading British writer on the Middle East, author of the book, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East, which is about Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president of Syria, and most recently has written The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: In a rare interview two months ago, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, spoke to ABC News’ Barbara Walters and tried to defend his regime. He said only a crazy person would kill his own people. He also denied he was in charge of the armed forces. Let’s play a clip.

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD: We don’t kill our people. Nobody kill—no government in the world kill its people, unless it’s led by crazy person. For me as president, I became president because of the public support. It’s impossible for anyone in this state to give order to kill people. We have militants, those militants killing soldiers and killing civilian. This morning, we lost nine civilians killed in Homs in the middle of Syria. And they are supporters. Most of the victims are government supporters. That’s something they don’t know. They think every civilian is demonstrator and every civilian is against the government, which is not true.

BARBARA WALTERS: But the protesters in the beginning who were killed—


BARBARA WALTERS: —what about them?


AMY GOODMAN: Barbara Walters’ interview of Bashar al-Assad.

The hacker group Anonymous has just leaked hundreds of internal emails from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. One email reveals a briefing document prepared for Assad ahead of this December interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters. The email was written by Assad’s U.N.-based press aide, Sheherazad Jaafari. She wrote, quote, “The major points and dimensions that have been mentioned a lot in the American media are: The idea of violence has been one of the major subjects brought up in every article. They use the phrases 'The Syrian government is killing its own people,' 'Tanks have been used in many cities,' 'Airplanes have been used to suppress the peaceful demonstrations,' and 'Security forces are criminals and bloody.'”

She went on to write, on the subject of torture, quote, “'Syria doesn't have a policy to torture people’ unlike the USA, where there are courses and schools that [specialize] in teaching police men and officers how to torture criminals and 'outlaws'. For [instance], 'the electric chair and killing through injecting an overdose amount of medicine' …etc. We can use Abu Ghraibe in Iraq as an example,” she wrote.

Patrick Seale is with us, a well-known writer on the Middle East, speaking to us from London. Can you talk about what the Syrian president said and this leaked email in the briefing of him?

PATRICK SEALE: Obviously, one of his advisers has been telling him, or suggesting to him, some of the things that he should be saying, like saying, “We are not the only people who resort to torture. Look what the United States did in Iraq. We are not the only people who object or try and crush internal upsets, internal uprisings, if they’re armed. The United States, when it was attacked, invaded a couple of countries, killed hundreds of thousands, tortured, and so forth.”

The truth is that terrible mistakes have been made on both sides in the Syrian conflict. The regime’s mistake was to resort to live fire right at the start, when the protesters were peaceful. And the opposition’s mistake has been to resort to weapons. And that has given the regime the justification it felt it needed to crush them. So, on both sides, there have been mistakes.

Now, I should add a word to what I was saying earlier about the higher level, the international campaign. Now, the United States has suffered—its reputation has suffered in recent years because of its catastrophic war in Iraq, its war in Afghanistan, the hostilities it has aroused throughout the Muslim world, especially in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and so forth. Now, its ally, Israel, has also suffered recently, in recent years. It tried to crush Hezbollah in 2006, when it went into Lebanon. It tried to crush Hamas in Gaza when it invaded Gaza in 2008, '09. It feels that the combination of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah has made a dent in its military supremacy in the region. It's seeking to restore its overall dominance. Now, both these powers, United States and Israel, its ally, believe, I think, that overthrowing the regimes in Tehran and Damascus will allow them to restore their supremacy and come back on top. So that’s what we’re witnessing. It’s a struggle for regional supremacy, regional dominance, as well as an internal struggle between the Assad regime and its enemies, of whom the Muslim Brothers are the most organized and best funded element, the only element perhaps in the opposition that enjoys some really—support at a public level.

AMY GOODMAN: In recent testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said President Assad cannot sustain his hold over Syria.

JAMES CLAPPER: I personally believe it’s a question of time before Assad falls. But that’s the issue. It could be a long time. Given the protracted—I think two factors here, is just the protraction of this—of these demonstrations, the opposition continues to be fragmented. But I do not see how he can sustain his rule of Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Seale, last month you wrote that Assad does not seem to be in any immediate danger of collapse or overthrow. Have your thoughts changed in recent weeks?

PATRICK SEALE: Well, his image has been severely tarnished. There’s no question about that. I mean, killing so many people has, of course, damaged him, undermined his legitimacy. But for the moment, his army and security forces remain loyal. Therefore, it will be very, very difficult for the opposition to topple him. There’s no appetite in the West, or anywhere in the East, for that matter, in the Arab world, for a military intervention. That’s, again, an important asset. He has—as we’ve seen last Friday at the Security Council, he has the support of Russia, China, and perhaps also the support of countries like India and Brazil. And, as Clapper mentioned a moment ago, the opposition is greatly divided. And by resorting to arms, it has greatly damaged, I believe, its own prospects, because it’s given the regime the justification to try and crush it. And so, for all these reasons, one might say that, for the moment, at least, President al-Assad seems secure.

But, of course, there are weaknesses in his regime. His economy is in a tailspin, and that could undermine his position. Elements in support of him in the country—and there are such elements, notably leading merchant and new bourgeoisie, which have been created by his neoliberal economic policies of recent years—people might start defecting from the regime, and that could also weaken him.

But for the moment, I would say there’s still a good slice of the population supporting him. You see, if you live in Syria and you see what happened in Iraq, the civil war, which was triggered by the Anglo-American invasion, which killed hundreds of thousands of people and created millions of displaced people and refugees—there are still about a million Iraqi refugees in Syria. If you see what happened in Lebanon, 15-year civil war, you don’t want that to happen in Syria, as well. So quite a lot of people would rather the present regime survived than opening the door to the Pandora’s box of the opposition.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Seale, I want to talk more about the opposition. Democracy Now! recently spoke with a Syrian activist and filmmaker in Damascus named Bassel. He just returned from Homs. For security reasons, he asked us only to use his first name. Let me go to a clip of that interview, where Bassel describes the opposition forces in Syria.

BASSEL: The violence in the city of Homs is like—what I saw the last week I was there, like, it’s threatening to turn into like almost a civil war. A heavy crackdown on the city, punishing the rising area and killing the civilians, is forcing the locals to form like an armed resistance to the regime’s forces. And they are supported by army deserters. So the fight is between the locals and the security forces and the supporters of the regime. The rising areas are besieged by the regime forces.

AMY GOODMAN: As you heard Bassel say, Patrick Seale, the regime forces are overwhelming the opposition. Talk more about who the protesters are.

PATRICK SEALE: Well, at the beginning, the protesters were the rural poor, the rural and the urban poor. You see, Syria has had a sort of demographic explosion in recent years, in recent decades. When I wrote my first book on Syria, there were four million Syrians; today there are about 24 million. What does this mean? And this has been motto of the revolution right across the Arab world. It means that educational establishments are overburdened. They churn out half-educated young people, for whom there are no jobs, or not enough jobs. Now, these are the people who started the revolt, as they did in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Yemen and elsewhere, in Syria, as well.

Now, they were joined by, of course, intellectuals, professional men, educated people, who suffered from a lack of freedoms in Syria. And there haven’t been any freedoms—no free press, no freedom of assembly, no free trade unions; rather, a one-party system, rather suffocating controls over society as a whole. And they are the people who formed this external exile opposition, mainly in Turkey and also in Cairo, who are demanding freedoms.

But then there’s this extra element in the opposition of the Islamists, the Muslim Brothers, which I mentioned earlier, and they want revenge. And they have been, of course, encouraged by the success of the Muslim Brothers in other countries, notably in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Morocco, and elsewhere. So they think that their moment has come. The trouble is that Syria is a mosaic of ethnic groups, of religions. There are 10 percent Christians. There are 12 percent Alawis. There are other smaller groups of Ismailis and Druze and so forth. So, these people are worried by the thought of the Muslim Brothers coming to power. And they are the main supporters of the regime, including, I would say, a slice of the population that simply doesn’t want change, is frightened of change, and supports the regime for that reason.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Seale, I don’t think, when people hear the—and I hate to use the word “chatter” when we talk about war or bombing—Israel, the escalated rhetoric around possibly Israel attacking Iran—make a connection between that and what’s happening in Syria and the U.S. belligerence toward Iran, as well, in isolating Iran. But can you talk about the connections you see between how the U.S. and Israel are dealing with Iran and what’s happening in Syria right now?

PATRICK SEALE: Well, Amy, the connection is very, very close. It’s a combined assault on Iran and Syria, which Syria is Iran’s principal ally. Now, Israeli policy—Israel says that Iran’s nuclear program is an existential threat to Israel and a threat indeed to the whole world. Of course, not many experts believe that. For one thing, Israel has a huge nuclear arsenal, able to deter any would-be aggressor. The point about the Iranian program, in which, of course, everybody agrees they haven’t yet taken a decision to make a—to build a bomb, but they may be trying to acquire the capability of doing so—now, if they were to acquire that capability, untroubled by external intervention, if they were able to acquire that capability, this could restrict Israel’s freedom in the region and, notably, its freedom to strike its neighbors at will, as it has been doing. So it is a question of regional dominance.

Now, Israel’s policy has been to make a big fuss about saying, “We will strike. We will strike, unless you do something about Iran’s nuclear program.” And so, this—they have in fact been pressuring—perhaps some might say blackmailing—the United States and the Europeans into imposing crippling sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and its Central Bank, which handles the transactions to do with oil and other transactions. So, President Obama has just recently tightened those sanctions on the Central Bank. Now, this is a dangerous policy, because it could lead to war. And war could be disastrous for everybody. Wars are easy to start, difficult to end. The Gulf states, which at the beginning joined in this assault on Iran, are now having second thoughts. They know that if there is—if there were a war in that region, they could suffer. Their oil terminals, their desalination plants are all very vulnerable to an Israeli counter-strike against American bases in the Gulf states. So, most experts agree that war would be a disaster. So it is rather a game of chicken—Israel pushing, pushing, hoping to bring down the regime in Iran and in the regime in Syria, and restore its regional supremacy. That’s what the Americans, under Israeli pressure, are doing, as well.

Now, the situation is not unlike that which was the case in 2003, when the pro-Israeli neocons in the United States, people like Paul Wolfowitz and his friends, pushed the United States to attack Iraq, because Israel, at that time, saw Iraq, after the Iran-Iraq War—when it emerged unbowed from that war, it saw Iraq as potentially threatening to Israel. So we’re seeing a replay, in a way, of that terrible scenario.

AMY GOODMAN: And last question. We only have about 30 seconds, but what a post-Assad Syria would look like, and what role would Saudia Arabia play in this?

PATRICK SEALE: Well, that’s a very good question. The trouble is that the opposition hasn’t produced a single charismatic leader or a clear political project. There are tremendous disputes going on in the opposition. Some say we must cooperate with the Muslim Brothers; others say no. Some say we must seek external intervention; others say no. Some say we need a dialogue. I believe dialogue is the only way out of this. And indeed, the Russians have suggested to both sides to come to Moscow and start a dialogue. But the opposition says, “No, we can’t dialogue with Bashar al-Assad. He must be toppled first.” Well, that’s a dangerous—a dangerous position to adopt.

Now, Saudi Arabia is the Arab world’s heavyweight. It is the great financial powerhouse. It doesn’t particularly like Iran. It thinks—sees Iran as a regional competitor. It’s frightened of Shia power, the fact that Shias have come to power in Iraq, as well. And so, it would rather like to contain Iran. However, there are some Saudis, some senior Saudis, who understand that Saudi Arabia and Iran are really partners. They share a responsibility for the security of the Gulf region, and they should start a security dialogue. That’s what they need to do, rather than being dragged in to this quarrel between the United States and Israel, on the one hand, and Russia and China, on the other.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Seale, I want to thank you very much for being with us, leading British writer on the Middle East, author of Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East, and most recently, The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East, speaking to us from London.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, it’s the 50th anniversary of the embargo against Cuba. We’ll speak with Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith, who wrote the book, Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away with Murder. Stay with us.

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