Viewpoints on the crisis in Syria (Sept 2012)
G. Munier and A. Chevalérias
Alain Chevalérias and Gilles Munier have explored the middle-east for decades. Familiar with local populations and regional issues, they both agreed to answer to our questions.
The integrity and legitimacy of their work have never been questioned (they were both against the invasion of Iraq in 2003).
That is why we are grateful to them for answering our questions. Truth possibly stands in between the agreements and disagreements of their conflicting viewpoints.
Interview conducted by Denis Gorteau
QF: How would you call Bachar al-Assad’s regime before protest and violence started?
GM: When Bachar al-Assad came to power, the regime was a people’s democracy, similar to what existed in Eastern Europe during the Soviet Union. Since the military putsch that eliminated the founders of the Baas party in 1966, Syria has been ruled by Alaouite militaries –Salah Jedid the Hafez el-Assad- who are members of a so-called Shiite sect which in fact doesn’t really follow the Koran’s precepts.
Michel Aflak, who was expelled from the party he created, died in exile. The co-founder of the party, Salah Bitar, who dared to suggest to Hafez el-Assad to make democratic changes within Syria’s political system , was assassinated. The Baas party opponents i.e. followers of the original party’s doctrine, were put to prison or killed. Druse Chebbi al-Ayssami, 87 years old, also one of the original founders of the Baas party, was kidnapped in Lebanon in May 2011 by Bachar al-Assad’s secret services. No one has heard from him since then…
In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood organization which is the main protest force, is prohibited. The Hama massacre of 1982 -20 000 or more Sunni victims- which was committed during Hafez el-Assad’s all powerful reign, is considered by many as an “Alaouite crime”. When Bachar came to power, he should have talked and presented with his apologies to the people of this tortured city. He should have started talks with the Muslim Brotherhood in response to their demands. He refused to do both, probably because the clan he promoted at the top of the Republic took part in the massacre.
When Bachar came to power, in order to prove he was different from his father, he promised he would make many reforms, which never came. For 17 months now, he’s paying the price for it. In August 2011, his back against the wall, he tried to make up for it by proposing to change the constitution, calling for general elections and declaring the freedom of the press: but it wasn’t enough and it was too late. Changes as an attempt at diversion.
The Syrian state is a ”cold monster” as Nietzsche would say, coupled with a stubborn military and civil dictatorship. Its ruling class is against all changes and fears that granting more freedom would lead to the regime’s fall. Bachar doesn’t deserve to be supported in the name of anti-imperialism or anti-Zionism which he uses as a means for keeping the power all for himself, like his father did.
AC: The Assad regime was tyrannical, clannish, trooper, violent and led by a unique party which despoiled the country of its economy.
It was tyrannical since all the powers were put in the hands of a small group, actually a family, whose head was a President for life.
It was clannish since an ethnic and religious minority, the alaouites, was at the top of the hierarchy and held many intermediate positions within the political system, the army, the intelligence services and the economy.
It was a trooper state since the population was constantly under surveillance to avoid any forms of political protest, and even arresting people on the charge of suspicion.
It was a violent regime because Bachar did not hesitate to use force blindly and disproportionately, enforcing collective punishment as seen as in the early 1980’s during the Islamic upheaval, or during the bombing of Hama (thousands were killed) or in March 2011 when unarmed protesters faced repression, before and after fighters appeared.
It was conducted by a unique party since the Baath party was in control of Parliament. Meanwhile, supporters of other formations (even those allied to the regime like the communist party) were put to prison at the slightest call for autonomy.
It despoiled the country of its economy since big corporations, first nationalized, were then handed down to the pillars of the regime, mostly Rami Makhlouf today, Bachar’s cousin.
Of course, Syria is not the only country in the Middle-East to display all the characteristics listed above. But it is the only one to have reached such a degree of “perfection”, so to speak, having a whole State serving the interests of one clan.
QF: The West was quick to demand the end of the regime. Why? Wasn’t Hafez el-Assad an ally to the USA against Iraq in 1991? And Bachar one of Sarkozy’s partners?
GM: The West knew very well what to ask for, since they are taking part in the operation designed to get rid of Bachar al-Assad. The westerners took advantage of the regime as long as the benefits were superior to the drawbacks. If the term “plot” were not so derogatory, it could be used to describe the situation set in motion since the Deera protest in March 2011. What we see is a replay of the aborted coups encouraged by the CIA back in the 1950’s and during the 1970’s riots.
Whether it’s a plot set up by the USA or Israel… or not, it does not give the right to Bachar to accuse his opponents of having contacts with foreign intelligence services. This is precisely what he did when he let the CIA run secret prisons in order to torture Islamists in Syria, who had been kidnapped in Afghanistan or elsewhere.
By taking part in the first Gulf War, his father Hafez, did participate in a “plot” set up by the USA to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Bachar al-Assad did not think that a rebellion of the population, like in Tunisia, could happen in Syria where everything is locked and controlled. He did not understand that time had changed, and that the only reason why Nicolas Sarkozy what interested in him, was to trick the Chirac-Villepin couple who had decided , together with Rafic Hariri, to get rid of him.
The Syrian people will have to decide what to do with Bachar al-Assad, but he only, will have to reflect on his own choices and take his responsibilities. The westerners, who have been fond of the Muslim Brotherhood for the past 20 years, want him to leave. They will stick to it. Lakhdar Brahimi, the international mediator in Syria, perfectly knows that his mission is useless. He is there to let the “international community” have good conscience about it. As seen in Afghanistan or Iraq, the failure of such missions is decided beforehand. The USA, the NATO coalition and Israel will attack the “Shiite arc” when they’re ready. And once again, people –like myself- who are deeply attached to the concept of people’s freedom of choices, will condemn this aggression.
AC: In 1970, when Haffez el-Assad came to power, Syria decided to side with the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, he used the protection of his Soviet godfather to subject his people to his tyrannical power with absolute impunity and helped terrorist activities (as seen with Carlos), and satisfied his expansionist views over Lebanon as well.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Hafez realized how isolated he was. Since Moscow was now demanding the complete payment of all the weapons needed to sustain his regime, Hafez started negotiating with the West. Taking part in the war in Iraq (a nation also ruled by the Baas party, but also a direct enemy of Syria) enabled Hafez to provide some guarantees.
He then noticed the flaws among westerners and used it to maintain his influence over Lebanon. In the Land of Cedars, he skillfully played on the international community’s desire to see peace restored and acted as the only partner capable of assuring peace. Like an arsonist transformed into a firefighter, he played his role relying on police force and terror in Syria.
Thus, as partners to be reckoned with, Hafez and then Bachar, managed to obtain the West’s neutral approval. Moreover, whoever needed contacts in Syria, only had to deal with members of the same clan who held power de facto, if not legitimately, at least legally.
Furthermore, the Assad family worked tirelessly to create a network of useful friendships in the West. In that respect, in March 1993, the offer by the Tlass family, to buy a scanner from Sarlat’s hospital (in Dordogne) was a way to back up Roland Dumas’ deputation campaign.
Except for these attempts somewhat similar to political briberies, the western political leaders can’t be blamed for keeping ties with Syria. If members of tyrannical governments were not to be approached, our diplomatic network would indeed be reduced to a handful of countries.
Moreover, despite his regime, Hafez was a skillful politician who succeeded in being an essential partner. To avoid the worst that could happen, you had to deal with him.
Nevertheless, under the Assad regime and in something similar to what happened with Mouammar Qaddafi, the western leaders had to endure some humiliations. Qaddafi’s fall was a good opportunity, under the justification of Human Rights and democratic values, to make him pay back.
Finally, you have to take into consideration the new international context. Syria appears as an ally of Iran, which the West and the Arab nations have decided, for different reasons, to isolate.
So we are witnessing a chess game in which everyone is participating in order to protect their interest. In the eyes of these people, the notion of good and evil is merely secondary.
QF: What is Israel’s role in the crisis? Do the Zionists have any interest in the fall of a hostile, yet not so dangerous regime? Wouldn’t an unmanageable chaos be worse?
GM: When war is coming, the Israelis keep quiet. They have been relatively quiet concerning Syria over the last few months. You can’t possibly imagine Israel supporting the Assad regime! The Mossad is said to be secretly pushing for a domestic coup. But, by regularly threatening to bomb Iran, Benyamin Netanyahou and Ehud Barack are adding fuel to the fire. If it were to happen, it would lead to a chaotic situation which, coupled with a civil war in Syria and…in Lebanon, would dramatically be out of control. It would be like taking a leap into the unknown.
AC: The Israelis are in a difficult position. On the one hand, they considered the Assad regime as hostile. But on the other hand, they knew that the Assad family, and in particular Hafez, had always been aware of the forces at stake and knew where the limits were. They were reliable enemies and treaties with Syria were possible.
Hence the reason why the Syrian army would withdraw from occupied Lebanon whenever the Israelis attacked, in order to avoid direct confrontation with them.
Also, not a single Palestinian attack came out of Syria. Syria never launched nor organized attacks against Israel, even in the Golan region though occupied by Israel.
So, a modus vivendi prevailed between Israel and Syria, even leading to secret meetings between their respective intelligence services.
In that respect, Israel has no reason to wish the end of the Assad regime. On the contrary, Israel is worried that a new power may emerge, a power controlled by Islamists that would be hostile to the point of aggression.
However, the Israelis can’t possibly support the Assad family whose regime is, and they’re sure of it, doomed. They even have to pretend to be in favor of the “Revolution” in the name of democratic values, since they pretend to be the only ones in the region to protect them.
There is nevertheless, another reason why the Israelis are satisfied with the fall of the Syrian regime. As an ally of Iran, its collapse means the loss of an ally for Teheran. The link between the ayatollahs and Syria is embodied by the Alaouites in charge who, somewhat not without hypocrisy, claim to be Shiite to make sure they can be trusted.
Yet, whatever it may be, the new regime will be controlled by Sunnis who are more numerous and traditionally hostile to Teheran, thus weakening Iran.
In this context, Israel is keeping a low profile, waiting to see what’s coming and hoping it won’t be too bad, coaxing the new power by adapting its speech in the meantime.
QF: Who controls the “free Syrian Army”? Are they sincere opponents? Or agents from the Gulf?
GM: Jean-Pierre Chevènement who knows his stuff from experience, said a few days ago that the civil war in Syria was “inspired and fueled by foreign interference professionals”. It doesn’t mean that the free Syrian Army is controlled by westerners or hasn’t got any autonomy. The intelligence services belonging to NATO nations don’t really have much control over what’s going on there. To me, they must be ready to face some disappointments.
The free Syrian Army is composed of sincere opponents, members of Islamic fighting squads, agents from the Gulf, from Saudi Arabia and… spies from Assad’s regime. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood are numerous. Some opportunist war-dogs joined too, perhaps showing that the result is worth the trouble.
To make things even scarier for public opinion, figures of foreign jihad fighters are increasing, according to the media, day by day. They’re said to be 5000, 10 000 even. NATO actually estimates that there are roughly 1600 of them. Their fighting spirit energizes the inexperienced fighters who enrolled in the free Syrian Army. However, when confronted to the National Syrian Army, mostly a draft army, the katibas of the free Syrian Army are no match and it’s hard to see how they could win.
AC: Firstly, the “free Syrian Army” is a strange mixture of individuals in which several men and movements are trying to impose their views. Moreover, some fighting squads are acting completely unchecked. However, there is no doubt that all these fighters are genuinely trying to seek freedom from Assad’s tyranny.
What will become of them is another matter. The Muslim Brotherhood could take control of them using money from the Gulf, from the Qataris in particular. Or the Syrian people could be wise enough to avoid falling under the spell of fanatics. As seen in Libya, and even more vividly in Tunisia, following general elections, even if the Islamists’ influence and public nuisance are real, they can’t always impose their voices into politics as in Egypt. Another confrontation, even civil wars, are possible within the Arab world between “modernists” and Islamists and the outcome will depend on the world’s ability to understand what is at stake.
QF: If the regime is destroyed, is Syria running the risk of breaking-up as in Iraq? Kurdish and Christian minorities, Shiites and Sunnis, as well as militias are present in Syria…
GM: On August 17, on the Israeli military radio, Danny Ayalon –vice-minister for foreign affairs and a member of Israel’s far-right party Beytenou- has predicted Syria’s break-up as well as Lebanon’s. The Arab world, he added, is going to have the same organization it had before World War I. According to him, for the next 10 or 15 years, the Arabs will be unable to find an agreement with Israel but will eventually understand the importance of cooperating with the Hebrew State. And something else he’s secretly hoping for too: to nip in the bud the Palestinian resistance for good…
Zionists have always dreamed of breaking up Arab nations into religious or ethnic entities. It’s a matter of life and death for a State for which they obtained the artificial creation in May 1948. David Ben Gourion, Israel’s founder, mentioned it in his “theory of regional allies”. In 1982, Oded Yinon, who worked for the Israeli foreign affairs ministry, explained such project in an edition of the World’s Zionist Organization. Will the Israelis eventually succeed? In any case, they are wrong to think that an Islamic coalition won’t ask for Jerusalem or Palestine’s freedom as well as the Golan Plateau’s restitution.
(interview made with G. Munier on Aug 23, 2012).
AC: Every country has its own specificity, its own history and culture. Examples can’t be reproduced everywhere, even if the worst that could happen is always a possibility.
Syria is however a country with an ancient civilization, the first in the world to have set up an empire around 3000 BC. Through history, the Syrian people inherited an urban culture in which the various religious communities, especially Christian and Muslim, have found a common agreement, despite ups and downs.
When in a foreign country, Syrians get together according to their home city (Damascus, Homs, Alep, Hama…) and not merely on a religious basis, which is quite meaningful.
Moreover, these cities constitute the basis of an identity reference for Syrians inherited from the Arab caliph’s jurisdiction and the Turkish empire.
Contrary to Iraq, where the three main groups Sunni, Shiite and Kurd have their own history and territory, in Syria, within urban areas, Sunnis, Shiites and Christians cohabitate.
Some ethnic and/or religious entities that are less urbanized and more present the mountainous areas still prevail. It is the case for the Alaouites, Druzes and Kurds. For fear of reprisals and ethnocentrism, it is among those minorities that nationalist fever can appear.
The Alaouites are more inclined to fall into it. Under the Assad regime, the accumulation of wealth and convenient accommodations in their region, centered on Lattaquie, paved the way for self-sufficiency. Moreover, the Alaouite mountain, called Jebel Alaouite, offers the possibility to reach the seaside, thus avoiding territorial isolation.
As for the Kurds, mostly found in the north-east, they can easily get together with their brothers in Iraq and Turkey and count on them to help them separate from Syria.
The Druzes however are highly isolated, stuck in the mountains on the border between Israel and Jordan and only represent 3% of the population. Their demography is so weak that it leaves them little hope to be economically sustainable unless they find an agreement with Israel, which in turn, would alienate them from the rest of the Arab world.
Nevertheless, the Alaouites represent merely 11% of the population, 15% for the Kurds. That is why we believe a break-up of Syria would only concerns the country’s outskirts: Jebel Alaouite, the Kurdish north-east, and perhaps the extreme south Druze region.
The country’s integrity will depend on the new authorities’ wisdom and policy. It can rely on an Arab and Sunni version of Islam, like the Muslim Brotherhood, leading to Syria’s break-up, or it can turn the page of the Assad regime and call for reconciliation, thus promoting the reconstruction of the Syrian nation.
(Interview made with A. Chevalérias on Sept 7, 2012)
General Mustapha Tlass, a Sunni and long-time minister of defense for Hafez el-Assad is Nahed Ojjeh’s father, the beautiful and extremely rich widow of Saudi billionaire Akram Ojjeh. She now lives in Paris and was once Franz-Olivier Giesberg’s mistress as well as Roland Dumas’. Mustapha Tlass is the main organizer of the 1982 Hama massacre. He found refuge in Paris a year ago and was followed by his son Manaf, himself a general, last July.
Date de dernière mise à jour : 05/07/2021