War crimes in Syria: a shared responsibility – By Nikolaos van Dam

Dr. Nikolaos van Dam was ambassador of the Netherlands to Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Germany and Indonesia, and Special Envoy for Syria.

This article is translated to Arabic and published by al-Dustur (Jordan), here. A response to Mrs. Alia Mansour’s commentary in al-Majallah magazine is added below.

More than 50 kinds of war crimes are defined in the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court. All 50 of those crimes have been committed by various combatants during the war in Syria. Some examples of prohibited acts include: murder and torture; taking hostages; employing chemical weapons; pillaging; any form of sexual violence; conscripting children under the age of 15 years into armed forces; and intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population and civilian objects, such as schools, mosques, hospitals or historical monuments.

Intentionality’ is important. It implies that if the same act were carried out unintentionally it might not be a war crime. If, for instance, an inhabited city is bombed, one can assume the probability of killing civilians will be high. The bombers may argue that ‘they did not know’ that they would kill civilians, but realistically, ‘they should have known.’ Therefore, any war that takes place within inhabited cities will most probably have collateral effects which can be defined as war crimes. Military battles which have taken place in, for instance, uninhabited deserts, like the well-known Second World War battle of El Alamein, did not result in such collateral damage. However, the bombing of Syria’s urban centres, such as Aleppo or Raqqa, inevitably caused many civilian casualties.

It is clear that a lot went wrong with the Syrian Revolution. Not only did it fail to achieve its proclaimed goals, but the number of killed and wounded has been huge. Almost half the Syrian population were driven from their homes with half of those fleeing the country. The destruction has been massive in every part of the country. The effort of the opposition to topple the Syrian regime was bound to lead to bloody violence, which has to be taken into account when apportioning blame. The party that first ‘pulled the trigger’ – the Syrian regime – bears responsibility, but so too does the opposition which could calculate the government’s violent crackdown.

The opposition should not have been surprised that the Ba’thist dictatorship responded violently to its demands for radical reform. Earlier massacres committed by the Syrian regime were a sure guide to its actions in 2011. I am not talking about justice and moral principles here, but about the hard realities on the ground. These realities should have been taken into account. As I noted at the beginning of the Syrian Revolution, to expect that President Bashar al-Asad was going to resign voluntarily and, thus, effectively sign his own death warrant, was unrealistic. Nevertheless, many people imagined that the Syrian president would decamp as had the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. This, however, was based on wishful thinking or a lack of knowledge of the power structure of the Syrian regime.

It is remarkable that war crimes are sometimes condoned, depending on which country or which leader has committed them. When, for instance, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates carry out bombardments in Yemen, causing numerous civilian casualties, we hear fewer protests than when something similar happens in Syria. Governments tend to turn a blind eye on war crimes when friendly countries commit them. But when unfriendly or hostile governments bomb their enemies causing civilian casualties, things are different. Even within the same country, concern for civilian casualties depends on when they were carried out and by whom. In the past some crimes against humanity committed in Syria were excused, whereas today, they are condemned and considered unforgivable. In 1982, the Syrian regime committed serious war crimes in the central Syrian city of Hama. At the time, it bombarded the city for almost four weeks with the aim of quelling the Muslim Brotherhood uprising. Estimates of the number of people killed vary between 5,000 and 25,000.

In his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, published in 1989, the American journalist Thomas Friedman argued that the Hama massacre could be justified because it had to be seen as “a natural reaction of a modernizing politician in a relatively new nation state.”

Friedman explained that President Hafiz al-Asad, the father of Bashar, was:

trying to stave off retrogressive – in this case, Islamic fundamentalist – elements aiming to undermine everything he has achieved in the way of building Syria into a twentieth-century secular republic. That is also why, if someone had been able to take an objective opinion poll in Syria after the Hama massacre, Assad’s treatment of the rebellion probably would have won substantial approval, even among many Sunni Muslims. They might have said, ‘Better one month of Hama than fourteen years of civil war like Lebanon’. [1]

The Hama massacre was clearly a war crime and a crime against humanity. Many Syrian opposition members today refuse to label the Hama uprising of 1982 as a ‘battle’, because they consider it to have been a one-sided slaughter of innocent people carried out by the Syrian Ba’thist dictatorship. Indeed, many of the civilians killed in the suppression of the uprising had nothing to do with it. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood was well enough armed to resist the Syrian army for almost a month. And it was the Muslim Brotherhood which started the revolt with the intention of toppling the regime; an aim which was quite unrealistic.

Four decades later, many Westerners judge Syria quite differently. This time a massacre like that in Hama has been resolutely condemned. One similarity between the uprising of the Hama Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 and the uprising of 2011, is that the opposition forces in both instances wanted to topple the Asad regime but were unable to do so. The main difference between the two is that in 2011 the Syrian uprising was not confined to one city or one political group. It quickly spread to every province of the country. The spectrum of opposition forces was broad. Some of the protests were peaceful at first, others not.

Tens of thousands of war crimes have been committed in Syria, by the regime, by the opposition, by the international supporters of both sides, and by the Islamic State. The number of civilians killed by the regime outnumber those killed by the opposition, perhaps by ten to one. It is not only the numbers that count, however. The victor often kills more than the vanquished. The facts also count, irrespective of the numbers. In that sense, the various sides are equally guilty of war crimes. Being guilty of a smaller number of war crimes does not mean that one is less guilty.

My vision of how the Syrian conflict could best have been approached, can be summarized as follows:

  1. I am generally against military intervention in countries which do not pose a threat to the foreign countries which want to interfere militarily. For example, the Syrian regime threatened its own people, but not the countries that militarily intervened in it; neither did the Iraqi regime of president Saddam Hussein pose a threat to the United States and Great Britain who occupied the country in 2003. A principal reason I am against such interventions is that invariably they cause more casualties, greater instability, more widespread destruction, and larger numbers of refugees. In the Middle East, there is no shortage of examples to prove that interventions cause greater harm. One need look no farther than the wars in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The military interventions in these seven countries were not only unsuccessful; they were disastrous. They generated thousands of war crimes. The countries that intervened achieved the opposite of what they claimed to want to achieve by intervening. The American-British removal of the regime of President Saddam Hussein produced a power-vacuum that enabled the rise of al-Qaida and the Islamic State. It also dramatically increased the regional influence of Iran. The unintended consequences of intervention are many and usually lead to greater death and destruction. There is, however, a second type of military intervention: a response to another country’s invasion and occupation of a country. A good example of this sort of intervention is the expulsion of the Iraqi army from Kuwait in 1991, Operation Desert Storm. This was a successful operation. It ended a foreign occupation and liberated Kuwait.
  2. If a military intervention is undertaken under the auspices of the UN principle of Responsibility to Protect, the intervening parties should not leave the country once they have achieved regime change, as happened for instance after the killing of the Libyan leader Qadhafi. In such a case, the intervening forces should stay until a new and better situation has been realized. In practice, this would mean that the intervening parties would have to stay for 10, 20 or even 30 years. Naturally, the hope is that stability would not collapse once foreign forces left. Iraq and Libya are clear examples of interventions where imposing ‘better government’ and durable stability was not realized following occupation. Because few countries are prepared to occupy other peoples for decades, as we have seen in Iraq and Libya, it would have been better had they not intervened at all.
  3. If foreign military interventions are intended to change the political order of the occupied countries, the outcome will depend on the views of the occupier. But democracy and political freedom cannot be imposed by military force. It even sounds contradictory to militarily impose so-called ‘freedom’. Moreover, it would be naïve to think that military interventions are generally only motivated by idealistic ideals, such as bringing democracy, without strategic calculations playing an important role.
  4. In the case of Syria, it would have been better not to intervene at all. Without foreign military intervention, the regime would in all likelihood have clamped down on the opposition forces just as ruthlessly as it did. But the number of casualties would have been far fewer. Perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 Syrians would have been killed rather than 500,000. The number of refugees would surely have been smaller, and the country would have been spared such extensive destruction. It would have been better to have the Asad regime remain in power with 10,000-50,000 dead, than to have more than ten years of war with over 500,000 dead, the country in ruins, 10 million refugees, and al-Asad still in power. The expected number of victims should always be an important part of the equation. One could argue that those officials who now complain of the large numbers of Syrians who have taken refuge in their countries helped cause the refugee flow themselves through their intervention in Syria. Turkey, which has most of Syria’s refugees, is a clear example in this respect.
  5. It reminds me of the words of Thomas Friedman, whom I quoted earlier: “Better one month of Hama than fourteen years of civil war like Lebanon.” When applying these words to present-day Syria, they should read: “Better a year of intense bloody conflict, than ten years of bloody war with no political solution in sight.” The longer the conflict lasted, the more difficult it became to see a way out or a solution. Solutions that might have been practical one year after the start of the Syrian Revolution, were not practical later on. As the violence grew more intense and the destruction of Syrian society compounded, the chances for halting the war narrowed.
  6. One could argue, of course, that all this should never have been allowed to happen, but most foreign countries only interfered half-heartedly. Yes, some countries sent military weapons worth billions of dollars, but they did not send large enough quantities with enough military sophistication to help the opposition prevail against the Asad regime. Actually, by supporting the opposition morally, without arming them sufficiently to achieve the goal of toppling the regime, the countries that sided with the Syrian rebels effectively sent them to their deaths. And once the Asad regime was threatened in earnest in 2015, Russia and Iran intervened. Their intervention should have been expected. It was naïve not to expect Russia and Iran to defend Asad or to counter the ambitions of the United States, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Russia and Iran simply wanted to save their most important ally in the Middle East. Ironically, the result of Western intervention in Syria is that the position of both Russia and Iran in the region has been strengthened.
  7. The most serious threat to the Syrian regime may come from a coup, carried out by members of its own military. But possibilities for such a threat to materialize have essentially diminished over the past half a century since Hafiz al-Asad took over in 1970. During this period, the regime has efficiently protected itself from coups, by posting only the most loyal people to the most sensitive military positions and units. Any doubt about loyalties has always led to purges from those who were suspected or were considered to be disloyal. The persons involved have been dismissed, imprisoned, or executed.
  8. Personally, I would have preferred a continuous dialogue with the Syrian regime on how to end the conflict, even though the prospects for such a dialogue have been very bad from the outset. A failed dialogue, however, would have been better than a failed war.

To conclude, as the old adage goes: don’t start a war unless you can win it. This is particularly true if such a war implies the high risk of massive bloodshed, as could have been predicted – and was predicted – in the Syrian case. The party that failed to achieve its aims – however idealistic and positive these may have been – carries a responsibility for the bloody results, just as does the party that frustrated the revolution. In the end, the results count; not the so-called good intentions that led to those results. The costs of not-winning should have been sufficiently calculated before engaging militarily in the conflict, the more so as it was bound to include thousands of war crimes. This is easier said than done, of course. The Syrian Revolution erupted to a large extent spontaneously as a result of the so-called Arab Spring. Developments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya led to the swift fall of their leaders, causing euphoria among many Syrians and leading opposition members to misjudge the chances of success. Even though opposition leaders were painfully aware of their own disorganization and lack of a plan for success, they believed that they could not let the revolutionary moment slip through their fingers. Their euphoria turned out to be unjustified. Moreover, the fate of the Syrian opposition groups was quickly determined by foreign countries. The Syrian civil war turned into a war-by-proxy.

If external powers really wanted to help the Syrian opposition, they should have done so with full conviction and not half-heartedly. The countries that intervened in the fighting should assume full co-responsibility for the results. But they did not, and it was predictable that they would not do so. Thus, it should be concluded that all major parties to the Syria war are responsible for war crimes, some by proxy, some directly, and some more than others. In Syria, perhaps even more so than in similar conflicts, the commission of war crimes is a shared responsibility.


[1] Thomas L. Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem, London 1989, pp. 100-101.

[*] Dr. Nikolaos van Dam was ambassador of the Netherlands to Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Germany and Indonesia, and Special Envoy for Syria. As a junior diplomat he served in Lebanon, Libya, Jordan and the Palestinian Occupied Territories. He is the author of various books on the Middle East, including The Struggle for Power in Syria and Destroying a Nation. The Civil War in Syria (also published in Arabic and other languages). This article is part of a lecture he presented to the World Affairs Council of the Desert (California) on June 8th, 2021, on behalf of The Hague Institute for Global Justice. https://nikolaosvandam.academia.edu

_____ END

This article was commented upon by Mrs. Alia Mansour in al-Majallah magazine. You will find Nikolaos van Dam’s response below

ما لم يقله فاندام | مجلة

في محاضرة ألقاها في مجلس شؤون العالم للصحراء في كاليفورنيا بتاريخ 8 يونيو (حزيران) الماضي، اعتبر الدبلوماسي والمبعوث الخاص السابق لهولندا إلى سوريا الباحث نيكولاس فاندام أنه من الواضح أن أخطاء كثيرة حدثت في الثورة …arb.majalla.com

Response to Mrs. Alia Mansour’s column about “What Van Dam did not say

Mrs. Alia Mansour has been so kind as to informing me about her column in al-Majallah, giving her views on my article in Syria Comment concerning “War Crimes in Syria”, which was also published in Arabic in the Jordanian newspaper al-Dustur.

She wrote largely about subjects which I, in her view, did not bring up, hence her title “What Van Dam did not say”. I have written about developments in Syria frequently and at length about Syria since the start of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, and also before the Revolution. Most of my writing on Syria, published over the last fifty years (starting in 1970), can be found on my website, and several of them also in Syria Comment. There, I have dealt extensively with most of the issues which I did not specifically address in my 25 minutes presentation on “War Crimes in Syria.

Some specific comments on Mrs. Mansour’s column. The Arabic text is hers.

أثارت محاضرة فاندام بعد نشرها كمقال بعدة صحف استياءً بين أوساط معارضين وناشطين سوريين، ورأوا أن فاندام الذي كان متعاطفا مع الثورة في سنواتها الأولى، قد أصبح يتحدث عن سوريا كأي مستشرق أوروبي وأن ما قاله غير منصف بحق السوريين حيث لام الضحية لأنها لم تكن تتوقع رد فعل النظام وحجم الإجرام الذي سيرتكبه.

I did not only sympathize with the Syrian opposition during the first years of the Syrian Revolution, but also afterwards. In particular, I sympathize, until today, with the ideas expressed in the Riyadh communique of December 2015. Its main principles are: a “democracy through a pluralistic system in which all Syrian groups, including both men and women, would be represented, without discrimination or exclusion on the basis of religion, denomination or ethnicity and to be based on the principles of human rights, transparency, accountability and the rule of law as applied to all”.

I sympathize with those who sincerely believe in those principles and would themselves be willing to implement them, once they would have the power to do so. There are also parties, however, which signed the Riyadh principles as a political compromise, even though their ideologies are not in line with those principles, or even contrary to it. I doubt whether these parties would be willing to implement these ideas once they would be in power.

Supporting the Syrian opposition is not only showing sympathy and solidarity, but should in my view also consist of putting forward realistic views, if possible. What is the use of flattering the Syrian opposition without taking the realities on the ground into serious consideration? Just to give an example from my book Destroying a Nation (in Arabic: Tadmir Watan):

“During one of the meetings in March 2016 in Geneva between the Higher Negotiations Council and the Special Envoys for Syria, Muhammad ‘Allush [who had been appointed as principal negotiator] asked the Envoys who represented the permanent members of the UNSC what their countries were going to do to help implement UNSC Resolution 2254, particularly paragraphs 12 and 13. After all, their countries had fully subscribed to it. The reaction was that they were ‘fully committed’ and would ‘go for it’. In reality these countries were not able, however, to impose the resolution they had adopted, because they had excluded direct military intervention.”

After the session, I told the leader of the Syrian delegation that nothing was going to happen, because in practice direct military intervention had been excluded. Nice words of moral support had been spoken by representatives belonging to the group of the “Friends of Syria”, but it would have been better to additionally, and in all honesty, provide a realistic picture. That, in my opinion, is a preferable kind of friendship and this is what I have done over the years, also in my time as Special Envoy for Syria.

Mrs. Mansour criticizes me for blaming the many Syrian victims who apparently did not expect the regime’s reaction and the extent of the crimes it would commit. I am well aware that this part of my presentation must be the most sensitive and painful.

I have predicted a bloodbath 30 years before the start of the Syrian Revolution, in the case of serious efforts of toppling the regime (as I did in the second edition of my book The Struggle for Power in Syria in 1981 and later editions). And in March 2012, I publicly expected the number of victims to go up from 10,000 to 300,000 if the situation existing at that time would continue (as was the case, and it resulted in even more than half a million dead). Unfortunately, all these predictions have turned out to be correct. And those who had some knowledge of the Syrian regime could have predicted them just as well, including the numerous Syrians who personally were the victims of the regime’s repressive methods over the past decades, or who heard about them. But wishful thinking and over-optimism got the upper hand and encouraged them to think and act otherwise. And foreign forces only encouraged them further in this, hoping in vain that the Syrian regime would be toppled.

ولكن ما لم يقله فاندام، هل كان بقاء نظام ديكتاتوري كنظام صدام حسين هو الوسيلة الأنجح لوضع حد للنفوذ الإيراني في المنطقة؟ أليست بيئة القمع والظلم بيئة خصبة أساسا لظهور حركات مثل داعش وأخواتها؟

With Saddam Hussein in power, Daesh and al-Qaeda would not have had the slightest chance, and the Iranian influence would have been curtailed. It was the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein which made the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq possible, just as the rise of IS. The American claim that Saddam Hussein’s regime had been cooperating with al-Qaeda turned out to be a pretext to occupy the country in 2003. The American claim was not only false, but also illogical.

لكن فاندام لم يتحدث عن الدعم الذي تقدمه دول العالم «الديمقراطي المتحضر» للديكتاتوريات التي تقمع شعوبها، وتمدها ليس بالمال والغطاء السياسي فحسب بل وبكل أنواع أسلحة القتل أيضا،

In my article I pointed out that “it is remarkable that war crimes are sometimes condoned, depending on which country or which leader has committed them. When, for instance, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates carry out bombardments in Yemen, causing a lot of civilian casualties, we hear fewer protests than when something similar happens in Syria. Countries sometimes tend to turn a blind eye on war crimes when friendly countries are involved. But things are different when a government is considered as unfriendly or hostile.” On many occasions I have pointed at the double standards applied by Western countries towards allies with authoritarian regimes, including in my book Destroying a Nation, and in various articles, giving the additional message that “the West should stop creating false expectations.”

فهنا أيضا لم يطرح فاندام أين هي مسؤولية المجتمع الدولي بنشر ثقافة الحرية والديمقراطية، بدل سنوات من محاولات تلميع صورة نظام الأسد وتصويره على أنه نظام حداثي شبيه نوعا ما بالأنظمة الأوروبية بحكم دراسة الأسد العابرة لمدة عامين في بريطانيا وزواجه من امرأة تحمل الجنسيتين. ألم يكن المجتمع الدولي حينها يعلم بالانتهاكات الفظيعة التي يرتكبها الأسد في سوريا وسجونها ضد أصحاب الرأي الآخر؟

I fully agree with Mrs. Mansour. In my book Destroying a Nation, I noted that the “influence of Bashar al-Asad’s exposure to the West and its ideas have generally been highly exaggerated. It was more based on wishful thinking than on realities… Instead of being a child of the West, Bashar was an authentic child of Syria and his Syrian parents.”

The recent presidential elections in Syria in 2021 are another example. Most articles in the Western media stressed that they were not legitimate and a farce. But do these articles, by saying so, imply that the earlier presidential elections were genuine and representative? Of course not, but on earlier occasions hardly anybody bothered.

مما زاد من حدة العنف وسقوط الضحايا الذين يحاول فاندام تقليل أعدادهم، ومجددا أليس هذا ما حصل في سوريا من دون أن تتدخل الأمم المتحدة ومن دون أن يتم إسقاط نظام الأسد؟ أليست سوريا اليوم ساحة حروب كثيرة لمتحاربين كثر؟

Mrs. Mansour is correct. The war in Syria has become a war-by-proxy to a large extent. I noted this in my book and articles more than once. And see also my remark above about some UN Security Council members that they were “committed” and “would go for it” to implement UNSC 2254. The United Nations only intervenes militarily if it is authorized to do so by the Security Council, and in the case of Syria it was not.

ومن النقاط التي ذكرها فاندام كسبب من أسباب معارضته للتدخل العسكري في سوريا خصوصا، أنه كان من الأفضل عدم التدخل على الإطلاق. ولكن تفنيده لهذه النقطة تحديدا فيه الكثير من عدم العدالة بحق السوريين، فهو يقول: «لولا التدخل العسكري الأجنبي، لكان النظام على الأرجح سيضيق الخناق على قوى المعارضة بنفس القسوة التي مارسها. لكن عدد الضحايا سيكون أقل بكثير. ربما قُتل ما بين 10 آلاف إلى 50 ألف سوري بدلاً من 500 ألف». فهل بات الأمر يقاس فقط بعدد الضحايا؟ وهل من المبرر أن نسكت عن سقوط خمسين ألف ضحية خوفا من أن يرتفع العدد إلى 500 ألف؟ وكيف يمكن لوم السوريين لأن عدد ضحايا الأسد من أبنائهم قد ارتفع، ومع ذلك بقي في السلطة؟ ألا توجد أي مسؤولية أخلاقية على المجتمع الدولي والدول المتحضرة؟

Any number of victims should be criticized, of course. And there is a moral co-responsibility in this respect for the international community; but this responsibility has mainly been expressed in the form of declarations, by way of a “declaratory policy”, without accompanying actions on the ground. As a result, the “international community” has not always lived up to its responsibilities.

In my article I stressed that “the expected number of deadly victims should always be an important part of the equation.” In my recent Dutch book “Grenades and minarets. A diplomat in search of peace in the Arab and Islamic world”, I argued that “each victim is one too many. In some cases, however, it might still be argued – at least by the survivors – that the deadly victims (i.e., the death of others) would have been “worth it” if something “very positive” would come out of it, for example a radical improvement of the situation as a result of a revolution [perhaps like after the French Revolution of 1789-1799]. But it remains worrisome, especially when the number of victims is large. And if a revolution has failed, those who started it bear at least some co-responsibility, whether or not their aims could be considered as being of the highest moral standards. The same goes for failed military interventions.”

 نعم كان على المعارضة توقع التدخل الروسي والإيراني، دفاعا عن الأسد، وكان عليها أن تكون أكثر تنظيما وواقعية، ولكن كان على المجتمع الدولي أن يكون أكثر صدقا، أما القول «إن استمرار الحوار مع النظام السوري حول كيفية إنهاء النزاع، كان أفضل رغم أن آفاق هذا الحوار كانت سيئة للغاية منذ البداية». وأن «فشل الحوار يظل أفضل من فشل الحرب»، فقد يكون ذلك صحيحا بالنسبة لدبلوماسي غربي، ولكن بالنسبة للسوريين، فإن نجاح المصالحة في بعض المناطق تسبب في قتل المصالحين تعذيبا في سجون الأسد، فكيف لنا أن نتخيل ردة فعل هذا النظام على تراجع السوريين يومها عن ثورتهم.

نقاط عديدة أثارها الدبلوماسي الهولندي في محاضرته تستحق التوقف عندها ونقاشها بين السوريين أنفسهم، ولكن نقاطا كثيرة أخرى تجاهلها فاندام ليؤكد وجهة نظره، فلم يتطرق إلى صراعات دول ما كان يعرف بأصدقاء الشعب السوري ولا إلى تخاذل الإدارة الأميركية في زمن أوباما، التي كانت من أسباب استمرار الكارثة التي وقعت على السوريين، كما تجاهل بشكل تام عدد المرات التي أبدت فيها المعارضة استعدادها بل وانخراطها في مفاوضات للتوصل لحل سياسي وإصرار الأسد على استمراره بحربه على السوريين واعتباره كل هذه المفاوضات «تفاصيل لإغراق المجتمع الدولي»،

In my book Destroying a Nation and my article “No room for Political Compromise”, I concluded that the opposition wanted to negotiate on the basis of the removal of president Bashar al-Asad, but this was a non-starter, because al-Asad was in power and the more powerful. As I predicted at the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, it was unrealistic to expect the president and those around him to voluntarily step down, and this was not that difficult to predict. Bashar al-Asad was not going to sign his own death warrant. I think the maximum achievable at the time was a “government of national unity” with the opposition having hardly anything to say.

 ولو طبقنا منطق فاندام بشكل حرفي فإن الثورة الفرنسية التي سقط فيها مئات آلاف الفرنسيين كانت خطأ جسيما، وكذلك فإن منطق فاندام يقودنا للقول إن تضافر العالم الحر للوقوف في وجه النازية والفاشية خطأ لأنه أدى لسقوط عشرات ملايين الضحايا، وكان من الممكن توفير هذه الدماء لو أن العالم الحر تعايش مع ظاهرة هتلر وموسوليني.

There are many differences between the French Revolution (1789-1799) and the Syrian Revolution (2011- ), one of the most important things being that the French Revolution has been considered a success, with its principles (Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité) surviving strongly until today. The number of victims of the Syrian Revolution has already strongly superseded that of the French Revolution, and the Syrian opposition parties remain divided over some of their main principles. There is no agreement on a Syrian version of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”. Islamist forces have gained the upper hand militarily in some of Syria’s regions, and they in practice reject the original ideals of the Riyadh Declaration (2015). The Kurds of the PYD/YPG have their own agenda.

Drawing a parallel between the victims of the Syrian Revolution and the millions of victims who fell during the Second World War as part of the defeat of Hitler’s Nazi Germany is not very reasonable in my view, because the war of the allied forces against Nazi Germany was part of a war of liberation from German foreign occupation. Likewise, the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 was a successful military operation, because it meant the liberation of the occupation by Iraq. Syria was not occupied by foreign forces when the Syrian Revolution started in 2011, but now it is.

Whereas many Syrian demonstrators at the beginning of the Syrian Revolution stressed in their slogans that they wanted freedom, most foreign countries subsequently did not intervene in Syria to help bringing the freedom of these Syrian people about – as has been suggested more than once – but they did so to rather serve their own perceived interests, and not those of the Syrian people. Turkey wanted a Muslim Brotherhood type regime in Damascus, not a democracy as portrayed in the Riyadh Declaration. Qatar and Saudi Arabia did not either have the intention of bringing democracy to Syria, if only because it is forbidden in their own countries. The United States is more concerned with its own strategic position in the region than in helping to bring democracy to Syria. And Russia and Iran are there to help their ally, the Syrian regime, staying in power. Democracy cannot be imposed by military force.

هذه الازدواجية عند بعض المثقفين الغربيين ليست جديدة؛ ألم يقل الرئيس الفرنسي إيمانويل ماكرون نفسه: «إن بشار يقتل شعبه وبالتالي هو ليس عدوا لفرنسا»، ربما هذا ما لم يقله فاندام.

I have noticed more than once that in case I write something with which some Syrians (or other people from the Middle East) disagree, it is conveniently attributed to me as being from the West, or being a so-called “orientalist”. This type of criticism looks to me like an unjust cliché. Moreover, many “orientalists” and “Europeans” or people from “the West” have views on Syria which differ essentially from mine. And what about those Syrians who agree with my opinion? Are they also “orientalists”?

To conclude: I hope that my writings will at least contribute to stimulating some further critical debate among Syrians, and for them to rethink and reconsider possibilities for looking for solutions to the present conflict, thereby taking into account the new circumstances that have developed during more than ten years since it started. It is up to the Syrians themselves, of course, to give the answers. I am just an observer, feeling great sympathy and personal affection for the people of Syria.

Nikolaos van Dam

“More of a coexistence than a togetherness” of Assyrians and Kurds in Northeastern Syria: An Interview with Dr. Thomas Schmidinger

By Abdulmesih BarAbraham

The 24th annual conference of the Initiative Christian Orient (ICO) was held on September 20-21,2021 in Salzburg under the title “Dis-ORIENTation – Life worlds between Orient and Diaspora.” The first day focused on the massive migration of Christians from the countries of Middle East. In addition to expert presentations, representatives of the oriental diaspora churches were provided the opportunity to talk on their personal story of migration, life in the diaspora, and on the relations to their original countries of origin. I has the privilege to be on that panel.

The second day of the conference was dedicated to the question whether there is a persecution of Christians in the Middle East or not? Dr. Thomas Schmidinger, a political scientist and cultural anthropologist was one of the key speakers to talk on the issue with focus on Syria.

Dr. Schmidinger reported that the Syrian regime utilizes the fear of most Christians from Islamist and/or Jihadists to gain them as loyal citizens, and that Church hierarchy (especially Syriac Orthodox, Greek Orthodox Armenian Apostolic Church) is being very loyal to regime. As generally “Christians tend to be urban middle and upper class, they afford to flee and have been able to get asylum in Europe more easily,” he continued. He confirmed that there is an increased Christian migration but affirmed that there is “no religious persecution of Christians” in Syria.

Following the conference I had the opportunity to speak to Dr. Schmidinger about the situation of the Assyrians, also known as Syriac-Aramaic speaking Christians belonging to different denominations (Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Church of the East, and Chaldean Catholic Churches). The interview was conducted in German language and translated; few addition in [] are for clarification and reference.

Dr. Thomas Schmidinger is political scientist, and social and cultural anthropologist. He lectures at the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna and at the University of Applied Sciences at Upper Austria. Among others, he is also co-founder and Secretary General of the Austrian Society for the Promotion of Kurdology / European Center for Kurdish Studies, editorial board member of the Vienna Yearbook of Kurdish Studies, and on the editorial review board of the international peer-reviewed journal Kurdish Studies.

Dr. Thomas Schmidinger speaking at the ICO annual Conference on September 21, 2021 held in Salzburg, Austria.
Source: ICO – Initiative Christian Orient

Abdulmesih BarAbraham (AB): First of all, thank you for your willingness to accept this interview. You have just returned from Qamishly, northeastern Syria. What is your assessment of the security situation and the situation of Christians in the northeast of the country right now? 

Dr. Thomas Schmidinger (TS): Things are quiet in Qamishly, but this is not true for all parts of the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria. In the province of Deir az-Zour, the activities of the “Islamic State” have increased significantly again in recent months. Minor clashes continue to occur along the cease-fire line with Turkish-occupied territory, which also affects the Christian-majority of Tal Tamr, as it lies directly on this cease-fire line. But the relative security in Qamishly and Derik, where there are relatively large numbers of Aramaic-speaking and Armenian-speaking Christians, is also precarious in that people fear a renewed Turkish invasion. It is very questionable whether U.S. troops will be able to remain in the region after the planned withdrawal from Iraq, and such a withdrawal would then be associated with corresponding fears of a renewed Turkish invasion.

AB: According to your observations, what visible impact has the Corona pandemic and the international embargo had on the living conditions of the people in the region?

TS: The economic situation is actually worse than ever. Food prices have risen sharply, and in some cases there are shortages of certain foods. On top of that, there is also a massive shortage of water, which on the one hand is due to the climate catastrophe, but on the other hand is also due to Turkey, which is making water scarce with the large dams on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers; in October 2019 Turkey got its hands on the water supply for al-Hasakah and the surrounding area with the Allouk water station. For al-Hasakah and the Assyrian villages on the Khabur river, this is currently one of the most pressing problems. The Khabur river is currently completely dried-out. As a result, everyday conflicts over water are also on the rise.

AB: During your presentation at the ICO annual conference in Salzburg on September 21, you spoke about the general situation of Christians in Syria and emphasized that there is no persecution of Christians in either regime-controlled or Kurdish-controlled areas. I would agree with that, however, specifically in the northeast, there is ethnically-motivated expulsion pressure against Christians as an indigenous ethnic group. Ultimately, the Kurds are trying to secure this region for themselves at the expense of the Assyrians. How else do you explain the disproportionate rate of emigration of Christians from the country?

TS: I strongly disagree with you. I do not see any ethnically motivated expulsion pressure against the Christians as an indigenous ethnic group, and certainly not against the Assyrians you mention here. First of all, the actual Assyrians in this [Khabur] area are not an “indigenous” people group, but fled Iraq after the 1933 Semele massacre and then settled along the Khabur river between al-Hasakah and Tal Tamr. “Indigenous” were these in the Turkish-Iranian border region between Hakkari and Urmia, but there they became victims of genocide in 1915. Their villages on the Khabur river were captured by the “Islamic State” in February 2015.[1] More than 200 Christians were kidnapped at that time and could only be freed again at the end of 2016 with high ransom payments. The others fled and did not return even after the liberation of the region [from IS] in May 2015.

I also visited these villages this time and many of the villages, such as Tel Hurmuz, remain completely empty and uninhabited to this day. Many of these Assyrians have unfortunately fled abroad and now live in Germany, Sweden or the United States. If the Kurds wanted to take over this area, they would not even have to expel anyone. Nevertheless, they do not do this, but have housed their displaced people from Sere Kaniye / Ras al-Ain in tent camps, because they still hope that the rightful owners will eventually return.

The second [Assyrian-]Aramaic-speaking group, the Suryoye [2] could indeed be called “indigenous,” since they have lived in their present settlement area on both sides of the present Turkish-Syrian border long before the Islamic conquest of the region. There is no pressure for expulsion against them either. One of their most important parties, the Syriac Unity Party (SUP), is part of the self-administration. Their language is the third official language in the Jezira Canton of the Autonomous Administration, along with Kurdish and Arabic. All public inscriptions are trilingual, and the Autonomous Administration is proud of the region’s ethnic and linguistic diversity. Those who are less well integrated are the Armenian Christians, whose language has a much worse status, probably due to the fact that these are two smaller communities in Qamishly and Derik, which date back to survivors of the 1915 genocide and are thus of lesser importance in purely quantitative terms. But even they are not displaced.

Billboard and license plate depicting three languages.
Source: Dr. Thomas Schmidinger

AB: In your detailed presentation at the mentioned conference, you described Christians – you explicitly pointed to the leadership of the Syriac Orthodox Church – as generally too loyal to the Syrian regime in the context of the crisis, without addressing what their alternative would have been or is. This view ignores the fact that at the beginning of the crisis Christians, and Assyrians in particular, demonstrated for reforms throughout the country. Is the accusation of loyalty therefore not a superficial one? Moreover, is the position of Christian Churches not understandable in light of the experience of Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood came to power for a short time and quickly wanted to transform Egypt into an Islamic state?

TS: During my presentation, I clearly stated that the support of the church hierarchy for the Syrian regime is not due to any enthusiasm for Assad or Baathism, but due to fear of the alternatives, especially from Islamist forces. This is not an accusation, but a statement of a fact that can hardly be disputed if one looks at the behavior of the leadership of the Syriac Orthodox Church over the past decade.

No one disputes that there are also Christians in the self-government of northern and eastern Syria and in the ranks Etilaf [3]. But these are mostly political activists and groups rather than the clergy. I do not want to judge the behavior of the church leadership morally, as this is an internal matter of the faithful. However, your comparison with Egypt makes the dilemma clear, because the support of many Coptic Christians for al-Sisi’s military coup has in turn made them more vulnerable to the Muslim Brotherhood.

AB: You also referred to the Sutooro in Qamishly as a regime militia in your lecture in the same context, although it has never been involved in fighting and only guards the central city core, which is inhabited by Christians. True, this guard force has not allowed itself to be integrated into the PYD-affiliated militia. Doesn’t this give the impression that the position-based assignments happen across the board and out of sympathy for the Kurdish cause?

TS: I pointed out in my presentation that the Sutoro has split and that the group in Derik operates within the framework of the Autonomous Administration, while the group in Qamishly operates within the framework of the regime. What is wrong with that?

AB: I don’t mind at all that you sympathize with the Kurdish cause. I noticed, that you have written several scholarly books and reports on the so-called PYD-led self-administration. It is correct that two Assyrian groups, the SUP (Syriac Union Party) and the ADP (Assyrian Democratic Party), are involved in it. But their supporters form a minority within our ethnic group. To the best of my knowledge, you have hardly mentioned in your reports the oldest Assyrian political party, namely the Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO), which was part of the Syrian Opposition from the beginning and co-founder of the Syrian National Council.  

TS: I don’t know how you arrived at this impression and it seems to me that you haven’t read all my texts. In my 2020 anthology titled The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria: Between A Rock and A Hard Place,” in which I wrote the only longer scholarly text on the situation of Christians in northeastern Syria, I also discuss all parties, including of course the ADO, its membership in the Syrian National Council [3], and its problems with the Autonomous Administration. Who represents a minority and a majority here is simply impossible to say scientifically. You would then also have to mention those Christians who support the Baath Party ruling in Damascus. The latter still has supporters in northeastern Syria too.

AB: Thanks for the tip on that particular book; I’ll certainly read and comment on it. What do you think of the opposition groups involved in the UN-coordinated process to negotiate a new constitution for Syria in Geneva with regime representatives and civilian delegates from the country? 

TS: I do not believe that it is my task as a political scientist to formulate my personal sympathies for certain groups. The opposition groups represented in the Etilaf are also too diverse to be lumped together and range from liberal and secular groups to very militant Islamists. What is certainly a problem is the massive Turkish influence on the Etilaf. But these groups obviously have to be part of a peace process, since they also control territory in northwestern Syria under Turkish protection and have a base in parts of Syria’s population. The problem with the negotiations in Geneva is rather that important forces that control over a quarter of the country are not involved. 

AB: As you certainly know, due to Turkey’s resistance, the PYD is not part of the country’s political opposition and therefore is not present at the constitutional meetings in Geneva. Instead, the Kurdish National Council is represented there as an umbrella organization of several Kurdish groups. The National Council is in opposition to the PYD. How do you assess the chances of a rapprochement between the two groups? 

TS: Yes, it was precisely the exclusion of the PYD, but also of the other members of the Syrian Democratic Council, from the negotiations in Geneva that I criticized earlier. As you know, there have long been negotiations between the PYD and the Kurdish National Council, mediated by the United States. Unfortunately, there has been little progress here. The parties of the National Council were allowed to reopen their offices in the Autonomous Administration, but there is still no agreement and there are always setbacks. Most recently, the attacks by a PKK-affiliated youth organization on a Kurdish National Council rally last week dealt a massive setback to the reconciliation process. As long as the conflict between Barzani and Qandil does not ease, it will be difficult in Syria because both sides will have to keep checking with their supporters.

Q: How would you assess the future of the Kurdish-led self-administration, which is very dependent on the support of the Americans?  

TS: This dependence on the U.S. is certainly a massive problem. Ultimately, the U.S. presence in Syria is certainly limited in time, and for the future of self-government, it will be crucial to find a negotiated solution with the Syrian government until the U.S. withdrawal, which will at least help them preserve some political and cultural rights. There are direct talks, but Damascus has so far rejected any autonomy or federalism. 

AB: Again and again, people are arbitrarily arrested by the police of the self-administration (e.g., here and here), and opposition party members are prevented from traveling. Only on September 21, the militia of the self-administration arrested the Assyrians George Yousef Safar and Samer Danho Kouriyeh, members of the Syrian Orthodox Church Council. How do you view the PYD’s repeated authoritarian behavior and human rights violations as a non-state militant actor with respect to opposition and specifically against Assyrians in the region? 


TS: While the self-government of northern and eastern Syria is less authoritarian than the Regime, the jihadists of Hayat Tahrir ash-Sham, or the pro-Turkish Islamists, that does not mean that there is a functioning rule of law and a thriving democracy here. It is just less bad than in the other parts of Syria, and the abolition of the death penalty is certainly a milestone for the region. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t human rights abuses by the self-government police. Repression, however, is not directed specifically against the Assyrians, but more generally against political opposition that cooperates with Turkey and Barzani or with Damascus. I would even say that the biggest problems there are more for the members of the parties of the Kurdish National Council, ENKS. So this repression is directed more against rival Kurdish parties than specifically against the Assyrians. In any case, it is about politics and not about ethnicity or religion.

AB: How do you see the future of Kurdish-Assyrian relations in the northeast of the country?

TS: On a day-to-day basis, these relations are good, even if there is more of a coexistence than a togetherness. For all religious minorities, however, the question is what the future holds for the region in general. The worst thing would certainly be a Turkish occupation. Then the Christians and Yezidi would probably flee from this region just as they fled from Afrin or Sere Kaniye / Ras al-Ayn.

AB: Dr. Schmidinger, I thank you for your frank answers.

———–

[1] See: Anne Barnard, “More Assyrian Christians Captured As ISIS Attacks Villages in Syria,” New York Times, February 26, 2016, http://aina.org/news/20150226171440.htm , and “ISIS Attacks Assyrian Villages in Syria, 4 Killed, Dozens Captured, Churches Burned,” Assyrian International News Agancy, http://www.aina.org/news/20150223174904.htm

[2] Suryoye/Suryaya is a self-designation, aka. Syriac

[3] Abdelahad Astepho, a representative of the Assyrian Democratic Organisation, is Vice President the Syrian Opposition groups, see: https://en.etilaf.org/general-body/abdul-ahad-steifo

War crimes in Syria: a shared responsibility

By Nikolaos van Dam *
@nikolaosvandam on Twitter


This article is translated to Arabic and published by al-Dustur (Jordan), here.

More than 50 kinds of war crimes are defined in the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court. All 50 of those crimes have been committed by various combatants during the war in Syria. Some examples of prohibited acts include: murder and torture; taking hostages; employing chemical weapons; pillaging; any form of sexual violence; conscripting children under the age of 15 years into armed forces; and intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population and civilian objects, such as schools, mosques, hospitals or historical monuments.

Intentionality’ is important. It implies that if the same act were carried out unintentionally it might not be a war crime. If, for instance, an inhabited city is bombed, one can assume the probability of killing civilians will be high. The bombers may argue that ‘they did not know’ that they would kill civilians, but realistically, ‘they should have known.’ Therefore, any war that takes place within inhabited cities will most probably have collateral effects which can be defined as war crimes. Military battles which have taken place in, for instance, uninhabited deserts, like the well-known Second World War battle of El Alamein, did not result in such collateral damage. However, the bombing of Syria’s urban centres, such as Aleppo or Raqqa, inevitably caused many civilian casualties.

It is clear that a lot went wrong with the Syrian Revolution. Not only did it fail to achieve its proclaimed goals, but the number of killed and wounded has been huge. Almost half the Syrian population were driven from their homes with half of those fleeing the country. The destruction has been massive in every part of the country. The effort of the opposition to topple the Syrian regime was bound to lead to bloody violence, which has to be taken into account when apportioning blame. The party that first ‘pulled the trigger’ – the Syrian regime – bears responsibility, but so too does the opposition which could calculate the government’s violent crackdown.

The opposition should not have been surprised that the Ba’thist dictatorship responded violently to its demands for radical reform. Earlier massacres committed by the Syrian regime were a sure guide to its actions in 2011. I am not talking about justice and moral principles here, but about the hard realities on the ground. These realities should have been taken into account. As I noted at the beginning of the Syrian Revolution, to expect that President Bashar al-Asad was going to resign voluntarily and, thus, effectively sign his own death warrant, was unrealistic. Nevertheless, many people imagined that the Syrian president would decamp as had the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. This, however, was based on wishful thinking or a lack of knowledge of the power structure of the Syrian regime.

It is remarkable that war crimes are sometimes condoned, depending on which country or which leader has committed them. When, for instance, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates carry out bombardments in Yemen, causing numerous civilian casualties, we hear fewer protests than when something similar happens in Syria. Governments tend to turn a blind eye on war crimes when friendly countries commit them. But when unfriendly or hostile governments bomb their enemies causing civilian casualties, things are different. Even within the same country, concern for civilian casualties depends on when they were carried out and by whom. In the past some crimes against humanity committed in Syria were excused, whereas today, they are condemned and considered unforgivable. In 1982, the Syrian regime committed serious war crimes in the central Syrian city of Hama. At the time, it bombarded the city for almost four weeks with the aim of quelling the Muslim Brotherhood uprising. Estimates of the number of people killed vary between 5,000 and 25,000.

In his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, published in 1989, the American journalist Thomas Friedman argued that the Hama massacre could be justified because it had to be seen as “a natural reaction of a modernizing politician in a relatively new nation state.”

Friedman explained that President Hafiz al-Asad, the father of Bashar, was:

trying to stave off retrogressive – in this case, Islamic fundamentalist – elements aiming to undermine everything he has achieved in the way of building Syria into a twentieth-century secular republic. That is also why, if someone had been able to take an objective opinion poll in Syria after the Hama massacre, Assad’s treatment of the rebellion probably would have won substantial approval, even among many Sunni Muslims. They might have said, ‘Better one month of Hama than fourteen years of civil war like Lebanon’. [1]

The Hama massacre was clearly a war crime and a crime against humanity. Many Syrian opposition members today refuse to label the Hama uprising of 1982 as a ‘battle’, because they consider it to have been a one-sided slaughter of innocent people carried out by the Syrian Ba’thist dictatorship. Indeed, many of the civilians killed in the suppression of the uprising had nothing to do with it. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood was well enough armed to resist the Syrian army for almost a month. And it was the Muslim Brotherhood which started the revolt with the intention of toppling the regime; an aim which was quite unrealistic.

Four decades later, many Westerners judge Syria quite differently. This time a massacre like that in Hama has been resolutely condemned. One similarity between the uprising of the Hama Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 and the uprising of 2011, is that the opposition forces in both instances wanted to topple the Asad regime but were unable to do so. The main difference between the two is that in 2011 the Syrian uprising was not confined to one city or one political group. It quickly spread to every province of the country. The spectrum of opposition forces was broad. Some of the protests were peaceful at first, others not.

Tens of thousands of war crimes have been committed in Syria, by the regime, by the opposition, by the international supporters of both sides, and by the Islamic State. The number of civilians killed by the regime outnumber those killed by the opposition, perhaps by ten to one. It is not only the numbers that count, however. The victor often kills more than the vanquished. The facts also count, irrespective of the numbers. In that sense, the various sides are equally guilty of war crimes. Being guilty of a smaller number of war crimes does not mean that one is less guilty.

My vision of how the Syrian conflict could best have been approached, can be summarized as follows:

  1. I am generally against military intervention in countries which do not pose a threat to the foreign countries which want to interfere militarily. For example, the Syrian regime threatened its own people, but not the countries that militarily intervened in it; neither did the Iraqi regime of president Saddam Hussein pose a threat to the United States and Great Britain who occupied the country in 2003. A principal reason I am against such interventions is that invariably they cause more casualties, greater instability, more widespread destruction, and larger numbers of refugees. In the Middle East, there is no shortage of examples to prove that interventions cause greater harm. One need look no farther than the wars in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The military interventions in these seven countries were not only unsuccessful; they were disastrous. They generated thousands of war crimes. The countries that intervened achieved the opposite of what they claimed to want to achieve by intervening. The American-British removal of the regime of President Saddam Hussein produced a power-vacuum that enabled the rise of al-Qaida and the Islamic State. It also dramatically increased the regional influence of Iran. The unintended consequences of intervention are many and usually lead to greater death and destruction. There is, however, a second type of military intervention: a response to another country’s invasion and occupation of a country. A good example of this sort of intervention is the expulsion of the Iraqi army from Kuwait in 1991, Operation Desert Storm. This was a successful operation. It ended a foreign occupation and liberated Kuwait.
  2. If a military intervention is undertaken under the auspices of the UN principle of Responsibility to Protect, the intervening parties should not leave the country once they have achieved regime change, as happened for instance after the killing of the Libyan leader Qadhafi. In such a case, the intervening forces should stay until a new and better situation has been realized. In practice, this would mean that the intervening parties would have to stay for 10, 20 or even 30 years. Naturally, the hope is that stability would not collapse once foreign forces left. Iraq and Libya are clear examples of interventions where imposing ‘better government’ and durable stability was not realized following occupation. Because few countries are prepared to occupy other peoples for decades, as we have seen in Iraq and Libya, it would have been better had they not intervened at all.
  3. If foreign military interventions are intended to change the political order of the occupied countries, the outcome will depend on the views of the occupier. But democracy and political freedom cannot be imposed by military force. It even sounds contradictory to militarily impose so-called ‘freedom’. Moreover, it would be naïve to think that military interventions are generally only motivated by idealistic ideals, such as bringing democracy, without strategic calculations playing an important role.
  4. In the case of Syria, it would have been better not to intervene at all. Without foreign military intervention, the regime would in all likelihood have clamped down on the opposition forces just as ruthlessly as it did. But the number of casualties would have been far fewer. Perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 Syrians would have been killed rather than 500,000. The number of refugees would surely have been smaller, and the country would have been spared such extensive destruction. It would have been better to have the Asad regime remain in power with 10,000-50,000 dead, than to have more than ten years of war with over 500,000 dead, the country in ruins, 10 million refugees, and al-Asad still in power. The expected number of victims should always be an important part of the equation. One could argue that those officials who now complain of the large numbers of Syrians who have taken refuge in their countries helped cause the refugee flow themselves through their intervention in Syria. Turkey, which has most of Syria’s refugees, is a clear example in this respect.
  5. It reminds me of the words of Thomas Friedman, whom I quoted earlier: “Better one month of Hama than fourteen years of civil war like Lebanon.” When applying these words to present-day Syria, they should read: “Better a year of intense bloody conflict, than ten years of bloody war with no political solution in sight.” The longer the conflict lasted, the more difficult it became to see a way out or a solution. Solutions that might have been practical one year after the start of the Syrian Revolution, were not practical later on. As the violence grew more intense and the destruction of Syrian society compounded, the chances for halting the war narrowed.
  6. One could argue, of course, that all this should never have been allowed to happen, but most foreign countries only interfered half-heartedly. Yes, some countries sent military weapons worth billions of dollars, but they did not send large enough quantities with enough military sophistication to help the opposition prevail against the Asad regime. Actually, by supporting the opposition morally, without arming them sufficiently to achieve the goal of toppling the regime, the countries that sided with the Syrian rebels effectively sent them to their deaths. And once the Asad regime was threatened in earnest in 2015, Russia and Iran intervened. Their intervention should have been expected. It was naïve not to expect Russia and Iran to defend Asad or to counter the ambitions of the United States, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Russia and Iran simply wanted to save their most important ally in the Middle East. Ironically, the result of Western intervention in Syria is that the position of both Russia and Iran in the region has been strengthened.
  7. The most serious threat to the Syrian regime may come from a coup, carried out by members of its own military. But possibilities for such a threat to materialize have essentially diminished over the past half a century since Hafiz al-Asad took over in 1970. During this period, the regime has efficiently protected itself from coups, by posting only the most loyal people to the most sensitive military positions and units. Any doubt about loyalties has always led to purges from those who were suspected or were considered to be disloyal. The persons involved have been dismissed, imprisoned, or executed.
  8. Personally, I would have preferred a continuous dialogue with the Syrian regime on how to end the conflict, even though the prospects for such a dialogue have been very bad from the outset. A failed dialogue, however, would have been better than a failed war.

To conclude, as the old adage goes: don’t start a war unless you can win it. This is particularly true if such a war implies the high risk of massive bloodshed, as could have been predicted – and was predicted – in the Syrian case. The party that failed to achieve its aims – however idealistic and positive these may have been – carries a responsibility for the bloody results, just as does the party that frustrated the revolution. In the end, the results count; not the so-called good intentions that led to those results. The costs of not-winning should have been sufficiently calculated before engaging militarily in the conflict, the more so as it was bound to include thousands of war crimes. This is easier said than done, of course. The Syrian Revolution erupted to a large extent spontaneously as a result of the so-called Arab Spring. Developments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya led to the swift fall of their leaders, causing euphoria among many Syrians and leading opposition members to misjudge the chances of success. Even though opposition leaders were painfully aware of their own disorganization and lack of a plan for success, they believed that they could not let the revolutionary moment slip through their fingers. Their euphoria turned out to be unjustified. Moreover, the fate of the Syrian opposition groups was quickly determined by foreign countries. The Syrian civil war turned into a war-by-proxy.

If external powers really wanted to help the Syrian opposition, they should have done so with full conviction and not half-heartedly. The countries that intervened in the fighting should assume full co-responsibility for the results. But they did not, and it was predictable that they would not do so. Thus, it should be concluded that all major parties to the Syria war are responsible for war crimes, some by proxy, some directly, and some more than others. In Syria, perhaps even more so than in similar conflicts, the commission of war crimes is a shared responsibility.


[1] Thomas L. Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem, London 1989, pp. 100-101.

[*] Dr. Nikolaos van Dam was ambassador of the Netherlands to Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Germany and Indonesia, and Special Envoy for Syria. As a junior diplomat he served in Lebanon, Libya, Jordan and the Palestinian Occupied Territories. He is the author of various books on the Middle East, including The Struggle for Power in Syria and Destroying a Nation. The Civil War in Syria (also published in Arabic and other languages). This article is part of a lecture he presented to the World Affairs Council of the Desert (California) on June 8th, 2021, on behalf of The Hague Institute for Global Justice. https://nikolaosvandam.academia.edu

10 years of the Syrian Crisis and the Future of Christians in the Country: An Interview with Dr. Mark Tomass

By Abdulmesih BarAbraham

Until the outbreak of the Syrian revolts in March 2011, Syria had the largest Christian population in the Middle East after Egypt. According to different sources, two to three million Christians (making up 10-15% of the population) lived in the country forming a rich mosaic in terms of their denominations, visible in a variety of Christian churches in Syria. During the conflict, they have not been acting as a homogeneous group and remained fragmented along many denominational lines. Geographically, they remain scattered in different cities of the country. According to Open Door assessment from 2013, their geographical concentration in strategic areas marked an important factor of their vulnerability.

While Christians too participated initially in the peaceful protests that emerged in 2011 demanding reforms, the bulk of the Christian population distanced itself from the development very early on due to the rapid militarization, radicalization and Islamization of the insurgency. Not actively involved in the conflict, they have been casually blamed as supporters of the regime. Many observers see the Christians as the biggest losers in the Syrian conflict. Their numbers have been dwindling, more than half of them has left the country.

Partially with diverging interests and priorities, US, Turkey, Russia, and Iran, as the key actors to the Syrian conflict, are not able to find a common solution for Syria while some observer see the ongoing disagreements and rivalries over the post-conflict reconstruction of the country indicative of new difficulties and disagreements.

In his New Year message in early February to the audience of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, Pope Francis drew attention to Syria and called for the end of the conflict, pointing that 2021 marks its 10th anniversary.

How I wish that 2021 may be the year when the conflict in Syria, begun ten years ago, can finaly end!” Pope Francis told 88 ambassadors from around the world.

For this to happen, renewed interest is needed also on the part of the international community to address the causes of the conflict with honesty and courage and to seek solutions whereby all, regardless of ethnic and religious affiliation, can contribute as citizens to the future of the country,” he added.

The Pope also touched on the suffering caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis which aggravated a number of humanitarian emergencies in some regions and countries, saying that his “thoughts also turn to Yemen and beloved Syria, where, in addition to other serious emergencies, a large part of the population experiences food insecurity and children are suffering from malnutrition.”

I had the opportunity to speak to Dr. Mark Tomass, Harvard University’s Extension School instructor and former research fellow at the Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies to get his insights into the various aspects of the Syrian crisis. Of particular interest is his view on how US Policy will be forming after President Joe Biden took office in Washington. Dr. Tomass addressed in this context several issues, with some focus on the situation of the Christians in the country.

Dr. Mark Tomass is an author of two books on Syria. He has a Ph.D. from Northeastern University and is sought-after commentator and analyst on Middle East issues. He is an economist specialized in financial markets and monetary and credit crises. By virtue of his Syrian birth and upbringing, he engaged in the research field of civil conflict in the Middle East to explain the Lebanese civil war and subsequently the Syrian conflict. In his book “The Religious Roots of the Syrian Conflict: The Remaking of the Fertile Crescent,” published in 2016 by Palgrave McMillan, Dr. Tomass outlines the role of religion in the history of Syria and the Middle East from early Roman times to the rise of ISIS, with particular relevance to understanding the genesis of the regional civil war sparked in 2011 as a result of the Arab Spring Uprisings while portraying Syria’s religious and sectarian communities, describes their origins and development over time, and identifies sources of intractable conflict among some groups. 

His second book, edited with Charles Webel in 2017 by Routledge, and titled “Assessing the War on Terror: Western and Middle Eastern Perspectives,” highlights the works of prominent scholars and policy-makers’ insights regarding the direction and efficacy of the War on Terror.

INTERVIEW

Abdulmesih BarAbraham (AB): Professor, thank you for accepting this interview. Let me start with the most raised questions these days: What are the political and military options the new U.S. President Joe Biden might consider with respect to Syria? Will he follow the policy of President Obama as he was Vice-President under him for two terms?

Dr. Mark Tomass (MT): As of today, and since his inauguration, President Biden has not spoken about the Syrian conflict. However, we can conclude what his policy will look like from the appointment of Antony Blinken as Foreign Secretary, Brett McGurk to head the National Security Council and oversee U.S. policy in Syria and Iraq, and Victoria Nuland to be Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. The track records of the three are those of interventionists.

Secretary Blinken’s announcement on March 3 that Biden’s foreign policy will not pursue regime changes with military means is welcomed, but we will wait and see how serious that announcement is. The U.S. army has several military bases in Syria without the consent of its government. As we speak, new military bases are being built to the west of the Euphrates, most likely to prepare for a confrontation with the Iranian backed militias. If that is not military intervention, then Blinken needs to define what he means by military interventions. Biden has already struck Iranian backed militias in Syria on February 25, killing 22 and injuring many in retaliation for a missile attack on a U.S. base that killed one contractor hundreds of miles away in Irbil, northern Iraq.

Moreover, McGurk is strongly in favor of empowering the Kurdish militias in Syria as opposed to the Obama-Biden administration’s wrong bet on the Islamist rebels to topple the Syrian government. The Obama-Biden support to the Islamist rebels inadvertently led to the expansion of ISIS into eastern Syria and the expansion of al-Qaida in various parts of Syria, which in turn provoked Russian military intervention. The U.S. bet on the YPG, the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, as a secular alternative to the Islamists because it had no other alternative, given that its policy was still to topple the Syrian regime. However, the YPG cannot maintain its control of eastern Syria without indefinite U.S. military support and presence. I believe Biden’s policy will continue along the same lines. The aim of the policy is to continue blocking the Syrian government’s access to the oil fields and the grain corps, thereby continue the ongoing starvation policy in the hope of inciting a new wave of rebellion, this time from inside the Syrian regimes’ ranks. Yet, the U.S., following Trump’s instructions, did not obstruct the Turkish incursion into parts of northern Syria, and even encouraged Turkey’s incursion into the northwestern Idlib region to stem the Syrian and Russian military advances to retake Idlib from al-Qaida, its affiliates, and rival jihadi groups. It is still to be seen, what U.S. policy towards Turkey will be. We will see what sort of tools Biden’s team will resort to as they follow up on his presidential campaign promise to support the Turkish opposition to President Erdogan’s rule, but it is highly unlikely that the U.S. will engage with Turkey militarily.  

AB: In fact, northern Syria particularly became a playing field for external powers: US, Turkey, with its mercenaries, Russia and Iran. The players have partially diverging interests and goals. Is northern Syria the Gordian knot for the solution of the decade long Syrian conflict?

MT: Sadly, I do not see now any positive sign of a solution emerging in any part of Syrian landscape. Each part has its own problems, reflecting the divergent visions of its multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-sectarian inhabitants regarding what their country should look like. This is also true in the various nation-states of the Middle East, with one exception that only in Syria these divergent visions are currently engaged in an armed conflict with regional and international forces fueling opposing sides.

The north can be divided into a western and eastern part, each with a different problem. The northwest, including eastern and northern Aleppo, the Idlib province, and northern Latakia, are dominated by domestic and international Jihadis of various group affiliations. All those groups, except Hurras al-Din, a splinter group from al-Julani’s al-Qaida, have an understanding with the Turkish military intelligence not to clash with the Turkish army in that region, but they nevertheless have not abided by the Russian-Turkish agreement to open the Aleppo-Latakia M4 highway. This situation has been at a standstill for the past three years with no prospect as to what is to be done with the tens of thousands of jihadi fighters.

The rest of the northeast is occupied by the Turkish army and the Syrian fighters under their command. Their primary aim is to keep the U.S. sponsored Kurdish YPG away from the Turkish border and to prevent the formation of a separate Kurdish entity anywhere in the northeast. Russian forces are attempting to moderate between the three parties and persuade the YPG to relinquish control to Syrian government troops to avoid a situation like Afrin’s fate. In Afrin, the YPG’s refusal to allow the Syrian government to take over the city, prompted Russia to lift its protection of the city and for the Turkish backed militias to advance into it. The fleeing Kurds’ houses were subsequently inhabited by refugees from various parts. In short, until Turkey, the U.S., and Russia agree on how to settle their differences in the northwest and the northeast, the current stalemate will continue, and I do not see a sign that those parties are about to arrive at a formula on how to settle their conflicting interests.     

AB: In 2015 the U.S. founded the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to combat ISIS on the ground. What is the SDF’s role after the total territorial defeat of ISIS?

MT: That is a great question. As you recall, President Trump wanted to withdraw from Syria immediately after he thought that ISIS was defeated and intimated that the U.S. mission is not to serve nationalist Kurdish aspirations, the fact which prompted Brett McGurk’s resignation at the time. Indeed, it is said that the acronym SDF was McGurk’s creation to bestow legitimacy to the dominant Kurdish YPG component of the U.S. sponsored militia. I would not be surprised that the adding of Syriac script on its flag was also at his request. While it is clear to me that the SDF cannot continue to rule the Mesopotamian part of Syria without direct U.S. backing, I suspect that the U.S. military presence cannot remain for long without a clash with the Syrian government’s allied militias.

Flag of the Syrian Democratic Forces

On March 3, the Syrian presidency’s informal mouthpiece on social media with the fictitious name Naram Serjoonn, accused the U.S. of killing of hundreds of sheep and their shepherds as part of its policy to starve people and called for taking their revenge on U.S. soldiers stationed in al-Tanf airport, the desert triangle between Syria, Jordan, and Iraq that is blocking the road from Iraq into Syria. In the past, Syrian military intelligence officers arrested and imprisoned Syrian troops who spontaneously plotted to attack U.S. military personnel. That may not continue for long, as a perceived policy of deliberate starvation to incite another popular rebellion continues.     

AB: With U.S. support, the SDF was able integrate also some Arab tribes into its structure. According to an 2019 analysis by the Carnegie Endowment SDF has “been loath to relinquish any significant decision-making power to both Kurdish communities and the titular political and military leadership of the Arab participants in the Self-Administration and SDF.” How would you assess the relations between Kurds and Arabs in view of Kurdish aspirations to claim big parts of country including most fertile land and control its oil resources?

MT: This is another great question that only those intimately familiar with the Middle Eastern landscape will ask. The YPG faces problems with the local Kurdish and non-Kurdish Muslims. One is the Kurds, in general, are not perceived as devout Muslims. In fact, their conversion to Islam in the past millennium is not viewed by non-Kurds as genuine. They are often accused of not practicing the five pillars of Islam properly, especially the five daily prayers. While this may be true of members of the YPG, being a genuinely secular organization, this prejudicial attitude extends to all Kurds who are seen as always prioritizing their ethnic identity over their religious one and therefore cannot be trusted as fellow Muslims. The fact that prominent Syrian Kurds in the past were devout Muslims, such as Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (Jerusalem’s liberator from the Crusaders) and Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah (the father of the Takfiri scholars) were Kurds and that approximately one third of Iraqi Kurds are Muslim fundamentalists does not seem to change that prejudicial attitude.

The other problem between the two ethnic groups is that the Arabs of the eastern Euphrates have a tribal structure and therefore are hard to bring under one command. Their allegiance may change once rival opportunities emerge. They may turn on the YPG if the Syrian government promised them rewards, each separately. The third problem is between the shifting ideology of the PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan and the other Kurds who are not followers of the imprisoned PKK leader. For those three reasons, I do not see the current YPG dominance within the SDF can be sustained in the long run without continued U.S. support.    

AB: Despite reservations of the majority of Assyrians in Syria, which have their roots in the Genocide of 1915, to cooperate with the Kurds, the Syriac Military Council as a military wing of the Syriac Union Party in Syria, joined the Kurdish-led self-administration and SDF. It is not a surprise that this cooperation is hailed as democratic and multi-ethnic by the PYD. Though, looking at next-door Assyrian experience in northern Iraq with the Kurdish Regional Government, Assyrians became marginalized under the Kurdish rule. According to a 2018 report by the Assyrian Policy Institute “electoral law left the voting process for the selection of Christian MPs [based on the quota] open to abuse, enabling powerful non-Christian parties to exploit the quota system.” How can a similar scenario be avoided in northern Syria?

MT: A similar scenario cannot be avoided in Syria. The fact of the matter is that the Kurds have been deprived of national and cultural rights for a long time and now they find themselves in power and are eager to exercise it. Accommodating their dwindling Christian Assyrian/Syriac neighbors is their last concern, as was seen in the YPG’s insistence on imposing a Kurdish curriculum in Assyrian schools. There is a special rivalry between those two groups, since the aspired greater Kurdistan is imagined on what Assyrians believe is their ancestral historical land.

AB: Within the Syrian opposition there seems to be still disagreement on key issues related to a new constitution. These are the name of the country (Syrian Republic vs. Syrian Arab Republic), religion of the president of the country, source of the legislation, and official languages. This doesn’t promise good prospects for Christians. They would be postmarked to second-class citizens from the outset. Doesn’t their survival depend very much on a secular (non-religious) and democratic constitution that guaranties equal citizenship?

MT: Syrian Christians, as is the case in other Arab countries, are broken people. They accepted their second-class status a long time ago and were historically grateful just to be left to live in relative safety and be spared from public humiliation policies occasionally enforced by certain rulers. In fact, Syrian Christians have always had a second-class status, even before the Arab conquest of Syria. When the Romans ruled Syria before and after their adoption of Christianity, they dealt with Syrians as a conquered people, while the Christian East Romans, or Byzantines, actively persecuted them for their refusal to accept the Roman Chalcedonian doctrine. That is partly why Syrians did not resist the Arab conquest of their dwellings. I deal with this question in my book ‘The Religious Roots of the Syrian Conflict.

On the question of equal constitutional rights, that matter has been debated often since Syria’s independence from France, but it always faced strong opposition from the Muslim Brotherhood organization and it still does. I doubt that they will accept equality now, even though they have been militarily defeated. At any rate, in the event a new constitution would state that all citizens are equal, it is not conceivable that if a Christian would run for president in a fair election, she or he would be elected. Yet, the Christians’ exclusion from that right is a matter of principle and is rooted in religious doctrine. I suspect that the current government will compromise on this point and keep the condition that the president must be a Muslim and that Muslim scriptures be one source, if not the primary source for legislation.

The other question regarding the supremacy of Arab identity and its addition to the name of the republic is a regime-related demand because the Syrian leadership believes that Arabism serves to legitimize its rule in the eyes of the Sunni Muslims. First, the Arab identity ties itself to Islam because, according to tradition, the Prophet of Islam was an Arab and presumably Syria was Islamized by the Arabs. Second, it distances itself from the Iranian identity. Third, it satisfies its support base among the Alawite Muslims, the majority of whom are of Tanoukhi origin, a confederation of Arab tribes that migrated from southern Iraq prior and during the Arab conquest of Syria and Mesopotamia, who incidentally were Nestorian Christians before they were Islamized. The removal of the term Arab from the official name of the Syrian Republic is a Kurdish, Assyrian, and Syrian nationalist demand, all of whom put together make up less than 15% of official Syrians. That is why President Asad dismissed the notion that the Islamic tradition is influenced by Syriac literature and emphasized the relationship between Arabism and Islam in his most recent theological sermon to the body of Muslim religious scholars which he summoned to the Presidential Palace. Last, making Kurdish and Syriac/Assyrian an official language next to Arabic is also unlikely. The maximum these two ethnic groups can hope for is their freedom to teach their native languages in their private schools and possibly in public schools where they constitute a sizable majority. 

AB: Due to the U.S. Caesar Act and the sanctions imposed on Syria the humanitarian crisis in Syria worsening, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last July, Russia, China vetoed an U.N. Security Council resolution to deliver humanitarian aid to Syria from two Turkey locations. What were the issues here? What were China’s motivation to block this?

MT: To begin with, the tens of billions of Gulf Arab funds that were spent on the weaponization of the uprising did not ask for the Security Council’s permission to do so and were freely and illegally delivered into Syria; if the intention to deliver humanitarian aid is genuine, why isn’t it also being delivered illegally into Syria? Why ask the Security Council or the Syrian government, for permission?

It should be clear to all observers that none of the domestic, regional, or international forces care about the humanitarian aspect of the Syrian conflict. If that were the case, government forces would not have heavy handedly cracked down on the protesters in 2011 and the regional and international forces would not have weaponized the uprising. That said, the July 2020 resolution you asked about was intended to deliver aid not to Syria at large, but to the Idlib region, which is currently administered by the Syrian Abu Muhammad al-Julani faction of al-Qaida and other splinter jihadi groups. Because Russia and China are backing the Syrian government, their vetoes were consistent with their official policy not to strengthen any party on the ground that operates outside government-controlled regions and end up strengthening the non-state actors controlling those regions, incidentally among whom are also Uighur Chinese nationals, who have been fighting along al-Qaida since the war began. Both China and Russia are weary of foreign interference because they keep in mind that their countries can also become subject to foreign intervention. Therefore, they only approve of interventions that are requested by the Syrian government. That is why China has not objected to the Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict because it was requested by its government that is still the only internationally recognized one despite the brutal 10-year war and the West’s taking the other sides of the conflict. As we well know, China itself is having trouble with Uighur dissidents and separatists who either refuse conform to the social aspect of communist ideology or violently resist Han immigration in Xinjiang where the Uighurs are the majority. This should explain why China is inclined to consider the Syrian government’s brutal crackdown on the Syrian protesters and then the rebels and their supporting communities an internal matter.

AB: Professor, you are native of Syria with roots in Aleppo. Aleppo has been before the Syrian crisis the most visible multi-religious and multi-ethnic cosmopolitan city of the country. It was home for Christian communities from all denominations, orthodox, catholic, and Protestants. How would you assess the situation of the Christians in the city now? Will Christianity be able to revive again in Aleppo?

Greek Orthodox church in Aleppo’s old quarter

MT: As long as Aleppo does not fall under the control of al-Qaida or its daughter ISIS, it will always maintain a token presence of Christians of all denominations to maintain their magnificent liturgical traditions in their ancestral land. Unfortunately, the Syrian conflict has taken such a long time that forced the approximately 70% of Aleppo’s Christians to flee death and starvation. Most of those have permanently settled elsewhere and are not likely to return. The Christians of Aleppo, like many other Syrian cities, have lived in relative peace within their semi-segregated quarters and prospered under various Syrian regimes including the current one. My family, for one, was deported from Urfa in February 1924, two years after the formation of modern Turkey, along the rest of the Assyrians/Suryan and found refuge in Aleppo, where they built the Assyrian Quarter. My paternal grandfather came back from the U.S. in the early 1930s searching for survivors from the 1915 genocide, found his sister in a convent in Beirut and settled also in the Assyrian Quarter of Aleppo. He would not have stayed had he not felt safe. Today, the fate of the remaining 30% of Aleppo’s Christians or the other Christians elsewhere in Syria will be the same as their Muslim neighbors, living through perilous uncertainty and worsening starvation. We should not forget Iraq’s Christians, whose numbers declined by about 85% since the U.S. invasion in 2003.       

AB: Christian communities in Syria are scattered across the country, as they lived mainly in cities like Aleppo, Homs and Damascus and did not occupy a large visible region. An exception were the Assyrian/Syriac communities in the north-east (Hassake governate), who formed till the 1970 the majority of the population there. At the turn of the millennium, they were still one third of the population in that region. These communities are indigenous to the country and trace their existence to the era prior to Islam. While Assyrian political organizations are engaged with the Syrian opposition or collaborating with the Kurdish-led self-administration in northern Syria, the leadership of Churches softly argues for reforms. In the West they are falsely seen as regime friendly. At the Munich Security Conference in 2019 the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II lamented (http://www.aina.org/news/20190220203444.htm) how casually Christians “are blamed as supporters of the regime,” ignoring that they are struggling to survive in a country where they live for thousands of years — even prior to Islam and Christianity emerging in the region. Would you agree that majority of the Christians do not believe that a change pushed by a Syrian opposition that is dominated by Islamic groups would be a better alternative to the current but reformed regime?

MT: I faced similar criticisms when in October 2012, I contributed a blog to Harvard’s website with the title “The Syrian Conflict Is Not About Democracy.” The article was taken down a year later because it was perceived as justifying the government crackdown on opposition forces. The same article was cloned by AINA and is archived on its site for one to assess its diagnosis of the Syrian conflict and its prediction of the rise of al-Qaida and its daughter ISIS. Prior and during the uprising, I gave numerous lectures open to the public to explain the complexity of the Syrian conflict, especially its inhabitants’ lack of understanding of constitutional freedoms and individual rights, without which no democracy could be established.

It was an uphill battle to offer an alternative narrative to the dominant one that the Obama administration and the corporate media in the U.S. decided to peddle. I am confident that once the CIA’s intelligence reports are declassified thirty or fifty years from now, it will be apparent that the rebellion was antigovernment and not prodemocracy. It is not conceivable that the CIA with its billions in resource endowment could not figure out the Syrian demographic landscape and that chaos would emerge from the destruction of the Syrian state in a similar manner that took place in Iraq. The Syrian conflict is a result of an intra-Muslim civil war. After the dust settles, history will classify it as the third major civil war in Muslim history, or “fitnah” as Muslims will refer to it, and a byproduct of the Islamic Awakening.

The Syrian Christians were bystanders and suffered the consequences like everyone else, although they were only targeted directly by al-Qaida and ISIS, including the Patriarch himself who narrowly escaped a suicide bombing that targeted him in 2016, and I should not forget my friend, the vanquished Aleppo’s metropolitan Yohanna, who was most probably beheaded in 2013 like many other “infidels” and “apostates” at that time. Most, if not all, Christians withdrew their support of the protesters and the rebellion after it quickly transformed into a sectarian war. They took the side of the government, not because they were happy with it, but because it was obvious to them that it was a better alternative to chaos.

The Syrian protesters wanted to have state without corruption but ended up having corruption without a state. All of those who wielded power in various regions abused it and prayed on the weaker. That is a structural sociological phenomenon that could not have been eradicated through a rebellion. The dominant anti-democratic, anti-individual liberties, anti-individual rights cultural patterns reproduced themselves within all the alternative governing structures that emerged outside government-controlled regions, while they became worse than before in every single category within the government-controlled ones. People must first learn how to respect each other’s rights before they ask government officials to respect theirs. Lack of respect for your fellow citizen’s humanity cannot be overcome with a revolution from the bottom up and certainly not through violence. I do not intend by this to moralize to my fellow Syrians, but I am making this diagnosis out of years of direct observation and interaction. A culture that does not respect individual human rights, produces despots. The personal identity of that despot is a footnote; it is not the cause of despotism.     

AB: Thank you very much for your time and answers.

______

Selected Blogs and Books on the Middle East in Chronological Order:

Interview: “Understanding the Syrian Conflict” (March 2012) http://unypressfullstories.blogspot.com/2012/03/understanding-syrian-conflict.html   

Blog: “The Syrian Conflict Is Not About Democracy” (October 2012) http://www.aina.org/news/20121022163331.htm (Originally published by Harvard, then taken down one year later for its controversial content)

Blog: “Why the Western Diagnosis of the Syrian Conflict Is Wrong” (February 2015) http://www.aina.org/releases/20150216194247.htm 

Book: The Religious Roots of the Syrian Conflict: The Remaking of the Fertile Crescent (Palgrave Macmillan 2016)

https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=m7btCwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&hl=en&pg=GBS.PP1

Edited Book: Assessing the War on Terror: Western and Middle Eastern Perspectives (Routledge 2017)

https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781315469164

Blog: “The ISIS Caliphate Will Be Eradicated, But What Will Follow?” (August 1, 2017)

“Current political confrontation between the US and Iran will not escalate into a military confrontation.” (December 4, 2018) https://www.ilna.ir/Section-politics-3/698979-current-political-confrontation-between-the-us-and-iran-will-not-escalate-into-military-confrontation-harvard-lecturer

Will Iran support the PKK? Turkish expansion in Syria, Iraq and Azerbaijan will not go unanswered.

BY Hedwig Kuijpers

(Twitter: @Hedwigkuijpers2 – Email: hedwigkuijpersjournalist@gmail.com

Where will Turkey strike next? An analysis of events in Sinjar, Ayn Issa and Iraqi Kurdistan

Will Iran Support the PKK to gain leverage against Turkey?

As springtime is near, Turkey is preparing for its next large-scale offensive against its archenemy; the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). It already started with its incessant shelling of Ayn-Issa in North-Syria, threatened to invade Sinjar, and the execution of an operation centering around the Gare mountain in Duhok district, Iraqi Kurdistan. But where will the next large offensive take place? Will it be Sinjar, Ayn-Issa, or Iraqi Kurdistan? Will Turkey make new enemies along the way?

Sinjar

On January 22th, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan uttered his famous phrase: We may come there overnight, all of a sudden,” threatening the Sinjar region. “Turkey is always ready to carry out joint operations against the PKK with Iraq but we cannot openly announce the date for such operations.”

Turkish analysts argued that Ankara was intent on launching a military operation in Sinjar (Iraq), noting that the surprise visit of Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar to Iraq brought with it an offer to carry out a joint operation against the organization. Akar stated that Turkey is determined “to end terrorism” through cooperation with Baghdad and the KRG, and pointed out that the next phase in Turkish operations will witness important developments in this regard.

I contended that Turkey was baiting Biden and the new US administration, hoping to test its reaction to Turkish operations in regions with a PKK presence in my article: ‘Turkey takes Biden for a test-ride’. Sinjar, which is still digging up the mass graves of Yazidis slaughtered by ISIS, is not just any province. It is still reeling from genocide. Turkey’s threat to hit the PKK in Sinjar may not elicit a response from the United States, but it is likely to get a reaction from Iran.

Turkish threats to Sinjar have provoked pro-Iranian Iraqi militias to increase their presence in the region. Hashd al-Shaabi or the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), have announced that they will increase their role in the area, claiming that both the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Region Government have failed to implement the Baghdad-Erbil Sinjar agreement. The pact initiated in October 2020 was meant to stabilize the region and end the ongoing turf war in Sinjar. Disputes over who controls Sinjar have led to collapsing government services and insecurity. Insecurity is the main reason that Sinjar’s population has not returned.

Having established a strong foothold in Syria’s North-East, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its proxy, the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Units (YPG), offered fleeing Yazidis humanitarian and military aid, leading to the formation of a Yazidi sister-militia, the Shingal Resistance Unit (YBS) in 2014. Other remaining Yazidis joined the Yazidi-Yazidkhan force, while a smaller amount joined the Peshmerga and the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd al-Shaabi).

The Sinjar agreement stated that only Iraqi federal forces should operate in Sinjar. All other armed groups, including the PKK and the PMF, should leave the area. It also gave the KRG a say in establishing a new local government, including appointing a new mayor and planning and running reconstruction efforts in Sinjar. The KRG was also supposed to have a say over the budget. This agreement was to have settled Baghdad-Erbil disputes over control of the region and to have led to the withdrawal of the militias currently active there. Turkish threats to enter the region began when the agreement was not quickly implemented.

The Kurdistan Region Government did not respond to Turkey’s threatened incursion, nor did the Iraqi government in Baghdad. The only forces to pick up Turkey’s gauntlet were pro-Iranian militias. They spoke out against the threat and began to move into the region.

Harakat al-Nujaba threatened the Turkish Military with action if an incursion was to take place in Nineveh and Sinjar. It reminded Turkish forces of action taken against American forces. It concluded its statement by saying that unless the Iraqi government would take divisive action, there would be active resistance against Turkish occupation.

Shortly after, another militia allegedly affiliated with Iran – Asaib al Khayf -published a video of the launch of a missile targeting the Turkish military base in Bashiqa, Iraq. Another militia attacked the airport of Erbil and killing one civilian contractor, and injured nine others, amongst them one US service member.

Another statement believed to be linked to Iran’s IRGC, says (claims) that all resistance axis groups in Iraq have pledged to take action against Turkish forces in the case of an incursion in the Sinjar region. The statement reads there are 20.000 personnel deployed in Sinjar so far.

Pro-Iranian forces taking a harsh stance against a Turkish invasion – something both KRG and the Iraqi central government have failed to do – are believed to have averted the threat (for now). Turkey will not want to provoke Iran.

Last night, another Iran-linked ‘Islamic Resistance’ telegram account stated: “We are following events in Sinjar. We are monitoring the operation rooms of the enemy and its agents. As they disturb Iraqis, we are going to disturb them soon.”

Ayn-Issa

Turkey has been aiming to capture the M4, a highway connecting Aleppo with Qamishlo. It runs all the way to the Yaaroubia border crossing. About 140 kilometers of this road borders the areas its Syrian proxies occupy in North-Syria. The SDF-held town of Ayn Issa sits at the point the highway bends north. It is a thorn in Turkey’s eye.

Shelling and small-scale proxy-attacks to capture the M4 have continued over the winter, forcing the Russians to increase their military checkpoints in the area.

Yesterday, military sources in Ayn Issa confirmed that Russian troops stationed at the main Russian military base in the city, located in the southeast forming a buffer between Turkish-backed forces and the SDF, pulled back to Til Samen. Reportedly, the Russians left some troops in the three shared bases north of the city.

On February 19th, Nuri Mahmoud, a spokesman for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), confirmed that the SDF, may be part of the new “Syrian army” after reaching a comprehensive political solution to the Syria crisis.

The Russian withdrawal happening in the context of tensions between Russia and the SDF and the new Astana talks – a Turco-Ruso-Iranian-led initiative to end the Syrian conflict – and was obviously meant to pressure the SDF in striking a deal with Damascus to avoid an impending Turkish incursion. This manoeuvre led to panic among SDF-supporters foreseeing Turkish troops flooding the area as the Russians withdraw.

It is yet to become clear how both Turkey and the SDF will react to Russian withdrawing from Ayn Issa, and to what extend the Russians really intend to withdraw. Are they merely (temporarily) stomping their feet at differences with the SDF leadership, is it a ploy to show it has lost its patience with SDF’s ‘waiting game’ to reapproach Damascus, or does it intend to let Turkey invade?

Personally, I see this move as a political move, serving the second. I do not foresee a full-blown Turkish incursion of Ayn-Issa starting this week. Turkey is still pivoting to gain a clear reaction from both Russia and the NATO-allies. It has allegedly amassed tanks and troops at its border with Tal Abyad. Yet, I believe it will try to finally reach the M4 through intensified war-by-proxy, hence the – once again – increase in Turkish-backed militants’ shelling of the villages surrounding both Tal Abyad and Ayn Issa throughout the last 48 hours.

Iraqi Kurdistan

Events concerning Turkey’s ever-lasting war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party never leave the stage. Its operations of 2020 have led to Turkey controlling swats of North-Iraq militarily, and an incredible amount of Turkish military bases in KDP-held areas of the KRG.

Lasting from February 10th to the 14th, Turkey started its most recent operation – dubbed Operation Eagle Claw 3 –  surrounding the Gara Mountain, situated in the Duhok Governorate of the Kurdistan Region. It also bombed the nearby Zap region. The result was such that both the PKK and the Turkish Armed Forces claimed victory following the operation. The accounts of what evolved during this operation vary.

In the aftermath, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to expand military operations to other regions where threats are still significant. “Whichever hole they enter, we will find them there and we will bump them off,” he said during the provincial congress of his ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party in Trabzon, a city located on the Black Sea coast.

Turkish interior minister Süleyman Soylu released a television statement explaining the strategic importance of Gare for Turkey. He stated Gare is the PKK’s corridor connecting Qandil and North-East Syria. He also explained – showing locations on the map – that Gare is extremely important as it hosts most PKK academies. His statements are true. PKK fighters use the Gare regions extensively for training, and use the local infrastructure to transport themselves between Qandil and the Syrian border. Gare also borders other areas that are used to launch forces into Turkey.

Süleyman Soylu also threatened the PKK’s military commander Murat Karayilan, vowing not to rest until capturing him, and “cut him into thousand pieces”.

This was met with laughter by Karayilan, who released his own statement yesterday, saying: “Süleyman Soylu threatens us with street language. If we were afraid of death, we would not have carried out this struggle. Soylu should stop threatening from his halls and sending the children of the poor to death. I challenge him. If he has the courage let him come.”

He also stated that the Turkish operation in Gare was an operation ‘meant to stay’. According to him, Erdogan intended to capture the Gare mountain and interrupt the PKK’s logistics, trainings, and movement of forces from East to West.

In my opinion, Turkey will certainly continue its attacks on PKK targets in Iraqi Kurdistan, as previous offensives have not been met with resistance by Erbil, Baghdad, or the international community. The only place Turkey currently feels certain of attacking, lies here. It will try to further interrupt the PKK’s movement there, mainly targeting Gare and Zap, and by bombing Qandil throughout the summer.

By doing so, it might attempt to push PKK leadership and camps further to the Iranian side of Qandil – where it cannot target them as easily as inside the KRG, in an attempt to hurt their ceasefire with Iran, and ‘making them Iran’s problem’.

Looking at events in Syria – where Turkey and Iran have different goals -, Sinjar, and possibly future strive along Qandil’s border, a new question arises. Will the PKK become the cause of strive between the two neighbouring countries?

Why the U.S. Should Pivot Out of the Middle East and Lift Sanctions on Syria

By S. Farah

The United States (U.S.) and China are engaged in a great power competition and the winner will set the standard for our future world. Since the end of the World Wars, the U.S. has laid the technological and security architectures, as well as norms and practices worldwide, including trade and investment. Today, China is fast eclipsing the U.S. in key areas, including 5G, civil engineering, infrastructure, quantum computing and cryptography, and artificial intelligence. Additionally, China’s economy is poised to overtake that of the U.S. as the biggest economy in dollar terms by 2027; however, based on purchasing power parity, the cost of goods and services, China’s economy is already about $4 trillion bigger than that of the U.S.

For the U.S. to succeed, this competition requires an all-hands-on-deck approach, including a massive investment in research and development in new technologies and realignment of our military. The Middle East (M.E.), with the trillions of dollars being sunk there, is a distraction, especially considering how little strategic value the M.E. is to the U.S. today.

Historically, the U.S. had justified its involvement in the M.E. based on the strategic importance of oil to the U.S. economy. Today, however, imports of crude oil and petroleum products from OPEC is down 75%; meanwhile, U.S. production of crude oil and petroleum products has increased by over 250%, making the U.S. a net exporter of crude oil and petroleum products. At the same time, the volume of trade between the U.S. and the entire region of the M.E. is merely around 1% of the total value of U.S. trade. Despite this trend, the number of U.S. military bases in the M.E. has increased from a small handful of bases during the Cold War with which we were able to confront the Soviet Union and protect the flow of oil, to 25 bases today.

The U.S. should pull back from the M.E., and the U.S. and the M.E. will be better off for it. After decades of deepening U.S. engagement in the region, the M.E. today is not flourishing with the liberal democracy the neoconservatives imagined, but is a cesspool of nationalists, Islamists, theocracies, autocracies and dictatorships mired in corruption. Turkey, once hailed as an example of democratization in the Muslim world, is increasingly authoritarian and irredentist. Israel and the Palestinian territories under its control are being called a single “apartheid” regime by leading Israeli human right groups. On terrorism, the record is not much better. Al Qaeda, once operating in the mountainous region of Afghanistan, is now in Idlib on the Mediterranean, bordering Turkey, a NATO country, and ISIS, a far more violent group than Al Qaeda ever was, has spread to over 18 countries. Regime-change operations in Iraq, Libya, and Syria have emboldened Turkey and Iran and expanded their reach in the region through armed proxy jihadi groups. These regime-change operations have plunged Iraq, Libya, and Syria into war and destruction for over a decade, the human cost of which is incalculable. Those countries were once middle-income countries and are now on the brink of starvation, with devastated infrastructure and crippled health care systems.

The unilateral broad sanctions imposed by the U.S. on Syria are exacerbating an already dire humanitarian crisis. The sanctions are hitting the reconstruction, energy, health care, banking, and agricultural sectors. These sanctions are indiscriminate and are affecting a large section of the population and disproportionately hitting the poor and vulnerable, leaving many Syrian children going to bed cold and hungry.

These sanctions have pushed Syria deeper into the Iranian orbit and have made it dependent on Russia. There is agreement in foreign policy circles that sanctions will not force regime-change; they have only harmed innocent Syrians.

Everyone in the U.S. intelligence community as well as many politicians from both parties know that while there is a legitimate political opposition to the Syrian government, Assad has been fighting jihadists that cover the entire spectrum of Salafi-jihadism. All the armed groups fighting Assad called for a greater application of Sharia law. The U.S. tried to fashion a “moderate” rebel force, but failed. And for a large section of the Syrian population, a jihadist win is not merely a political issue, but an existential one.

It is abundantly clear now to all sober and independent political observers that the U.S.’s deepening involvement in the M.E. is counterproductive. It has made the region worse off, at a huge cost to the U.S. treasury and at the expense of thousands of American lives. It is time to pull back. The first step for the U.S. out of the M.E. should be to reverse the last one it made, to pull its troops out of Syria and allow for reunification and reconstruction of this war-torn country.


Why America and Israel need a new Iran strategy

By Steven Simon, Joshua Landis & Aiman Mansour
Published: Haaretz 29 November 2020

The U.S. and Israel have two problems with Iran: its regional meddling and its nuclear aspirations. Their current approach, which devolves to bumping off senior officials, imposing extraterritorial sanctions, and abandoning negotiated agreements isn’t working, and seems unlikely to work in the future.

To deal with Iran’s regional activism, the U.S. assassinated Quds Force General Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil; to deal with the nuclear challenge, Israel apparently killed Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an important Iranian nuclear scientist. 

While there’s no question that killing competent, even inspirational managers like Soleimani or Fakhrizadeh can cause administrative setbacks, assassination doesn’t solve the underlying problem. It does, however, incur risks both in the near term and down the road. In the latest instance, many Democrats see an Israeli attempt in collusion with the outgoing Trump administration to preempt a return to negotiations with Iran. This perception will only make it harder to sustain the relationship as a bipartisan priority over the long haul. More generally, killings of this kind are legally questionable and lower the barrier for other states that might want to get in on the game. At this stage, “maximum pressure” might have damaged Iran’s economy, but it has also resulted in a renewed stockpile of fissile material and reduced lead time to a bomb. Incinerating Soleimani didn’t reduce Iranian influence in Iraq at all, but triggered Shi’a militia rockets landing in the Baghdad Green Zone. 

There’s a better way to deal with these underlying problems. 

On the nuclear side, the U.S. could go back to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), https://www.haaretz.com/misc/tags/TAG-iran-nuclear-deal-1.5598931 assuming the Biden team can successfully engage an Iranian leadership that has little reason to trust Washington. Prime Minister Netanyahu has already fired a warning against such an effort; in a divided Washington, his voice will have an impact. And the new team, like any administration, will face a complicated political landscape. The situation might yield paralysis rather than resolution.

On the regional security side, however, an alternative strategy might be easier to apply. And that would be to direct Arab financial and commercial prowess to outbid Iran wherever it tries to get a foothold – or increase its influence – within the region. This approach might also clip the wings of an increasingly authoritarian and aggressive Turkey. 

From both an American and Israeli perspective, mobilization of Arab resources to compete with Iran is simply more practical than the use of U.S. power or Israeli covert operations to subjugate or weaken it. 

The Abraham Accords, followed by Netanyahu’s meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, gives Israel leverage to persuade its Arab partners to give nonmilitary competition with Iran a chance. 

These states, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have the resources and the strategic instinct to outbid Iran across the board. Add Egypt to the mix, with its strong construction sector, and the monopoly that Iran enjoys – or is trying to cultivate – in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon will shrink. 

The Trump administration, which viewed Iraq as a stalking horse for Iran, Syria as Tehran’s vassal, and the Lebanese state as irrelevant, could never do this. A new U.S. administration focused less on coercively rolling back the Iranian threat and more on crowding it out of the Arab world could achieve more at less risk. 

Likewise, instead of trying to starve Syria to turn it into a quagmire for Iran and Russia, the Biden administration could restructure sanctions so that Arab states eager to get on with reconstruction – and having the means to do so – can get to work. Instead of pushing Syria into Iran’s embrace, this approach would marginalize Tehran by demonstrating its relative incapacity and creating an alternative to its support. 

This same tack could be applied to Lebanon as well, where the Trump administration had decided the best way to limit Iran’s influence was to torment the Lebanese people, as though they would have the capacity to disarm Hizballah to avert whatever new punishment Washington might devise.

Iran is not the only adversary that requires a rethink. Turkey has emerged as a disruptor in a region that is trying to settle down. 

The Trump administration catered to Erdogan’s aggressive maneuvering, giving a green light to Turkish occupation of a large chunk of Syrian territory and the depredations of Turkish-supported militias against Kurds that had fought with the U.S. against ISIS. Erdogan, it should be remembered, afforded these jihadists safe haven. Trump’s approach emboldened Ankara to become an aggressive player in the Eastern Mediterranean (while threatening other NATO allies, especially Greece) and to assert itself in the Azerbaijan-Armenia crisis. Biden will have to mobilize an Arab coalition to clip Turkey’s wings while exploring ways to encourage Turkish restraint, via pressure from its NATO allies.

These policy departures won’t solve every regional problem. The Palestinians will remain isolated, the political opposition in nearly every regional state will still be at risk, and economic and environmental security for many will remain elusive. A way forward for Palestinians will still need to be found, Egypt will have to be pushed to restore civil liberties, Saudi Arabia must stop its attacks on noncombatants in Yemen, a political transition in Syria remains be be negotiated. For the US at least these objectives – among others — will remain important. But a new strategy of promoting Arab cooperation and Israel’s further integration into its surroundings can go a long way toward reducing risk of conflict and improving quality of life – even survival – for the peoples hardest hit by civil war and state breakdown. 

Instead of continuing with “maximum pressure,” the U.S. and Israel should opt for “smart pressure,” exerted through non-violent competition wielded by regional Arab states. This won’t usher in the Age of Aquarius and render hard power irrelevant. But rather than single-handedly trying to roll back Iran and Islamic radicalism, which have filled the void left by state collapse in the region, it is imperative that the U.S. and Israel help Arab states take a constructive role in using soft power to build a more durable balance of power and shape the post-Arab Spring Middle East for the better.

Joshua Landis holds the Sandra Mackey Chair & is Director of the Center of Middle East Studies & Farzaneh Family Center for Iranian and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Aiman Mansour served in the Israeli National Security Council for 13 years; his last post was as head of the Middle East and Africa Division. 

Steven Simon served on the National Security Council in the Clinton and Obama administrations and is Professor of International Relations at Colby College

The Syrian Prime Minister was a double agent who gave crucial intelligence to David Ben-Gurion

File:Jamil Mardam Bey with Prince Faisal.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Jamil Mardam with Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince (later king) Faisal

By Meir Zamir

First published in Haaretz newspaper on November 13, 2020

In the summer of 1945, no one was more hated by French officials in Syria and Lebanon than Jamil Mardam. Intelligence information obtained by France revealed that Mardam, the prime minister of Syria under the French mandate there, had been recruited by Brig. Iltyd Clayton, head of MI6 in the Middle East, and by Nuri Sa’id, the Iraqi prime minister. Mardam had also reportedly agreed to a plan whereby Syria, after the expulsion of France from its mandated territories, would unite with Iraq and with Transjordan under the Hashemite family, and Britain – which controlled those two countries – would enjoy hegemony in Damascus as well. For Mardam’s part in what was called the “Greater Syria” plan, he received handsome sums and was promised that he would rule in Syria, under the Hashemite monarch.

That information was only the opening round in a dramatic – and previously unknown – episode that helped shape the Middle East as we know it. What happened was that the French decided to exploit the situation for their own purposes and began to blackmail Mardam. They threatened to publish the documents in their possession and to leak the information to his political foes. Mardam ultimately resigned in August 1945 after consulting with his British handlers, but they did not know that he had capitulated to blackmail and had become a double agent. In that period, with the future of the region hanging in the balance, Mardam provided the French with valuable information about the intentions of the British military and intelligence services in the Middle East.

But the story doesn’t end there. Research in French and Israeli archives, together with a perusal of Syrian government documents, now shows that the Syrian prime minister was actually handled by a Zionist intelligence agent together with the French. The information that was conveyed through his auspices to David Ben-Gurion was critical to the Zionist leader’s strategy during the period leading up to the state’s establishment.

The remarkable resonance of David Ben-Gurion's actions - The Jewish  Chronicle

It all began in October 1945, when the French encountered a new problem. Mardam had been appointed Syria’s ambassador to Egypt and its envoy to the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, but the French had a hard time utilizing him there without arousing suspicion. The solution was to recruit Eliahu Sasson for the mission of relaying the information provided by Mardam.

Sasson, who was then the head of the Arab division of the Jewish Agency’s political department, had been appointed by Agency head Ben-Gurion in February 1945 to coordinate cooperation with French intelligence. The Syrian-born Sasson knew Mardam and had met with him in 1937, when the latter had served an earlier term as prime minister. The French, who were well acquainted with Sasson and thought highly of his operational capabilities, began to collaborate with him in handling Mardam.

Eliahu sasson.jpeg
Eliahu Sasson

The documents show that on November 12, 1945, Sasson met with Mardam in Cairo; he did so again six days later, when Mardam visited Jerusalem as head of an Arab League delegation to arrange Palestinian representation in the League. Following these encounters, Ben-Gurion met with Sasson, and in a diary entry of November 22, related details of the Jewish Agency official’s conversations with Mardam. This is one of the few occasions when Mardam can be identified directly as an intelligence source of Ben-Gurion’s. In the years that followed, both French intelligence and Sasson concealed by various means the fact that Mardam was the source of information, in order not to expose him.

However, information first uncovered in the diary of Maurice Fischer, an intelligence officer in the military headquarters of the Free French Forces in Beirut, who had previously served in the Haganah pre-state militia and was later to become Israel’s first ambassador to France, provides additional evidence that Mardam was an important source of information for Ben-Gurion. Fischer writes that Mardam revealed the secret Anglo-Iraqi plan to establish the so-called Greater Syria to Zionist agents in Cairo.

Further confirmation of the Syrian envoy’s importance vis-a-vis the Zionist effort appears in a report by Nahum Wilensky, who served as liaison between Fischer and the top ranks of the Agency’s political department. In a report in September 1945, he noted that a “[French] general related, among other items, that the French are in possession of authoritative documents attesting that many Syrian leaders received sums of money from the English. The French are waiting for a propitious moment to publish these papers, and in the meantime are using them to put pressure on the leaders named in the documents. Heading the list is Mardam.”

From July 1945, Ben-Gurion had prepared for the possibility of an attack by the Arab states should the Jewish state declare its independence. But the information from Mardam turned the spotlight elsewhere. Ben-Gurion learned that the immediate threat to the establishment of the Jewish state lay not in an attack by Arab armies, but rather in the plan of British military commanders and intelligence agencies in the Middle East to thwart that development by various other means. These included declaring the Haganah militia a terrorist organization and disarming it, and implementing the Greater Syria plan, under which a limited Jewish entity would be created in Mandatory Palestine, but not an independent state. It was apparently also Mardam who revealed the fact that British intelligence had recruited an agent who was operating in the Jewish Agency and conveying to his superiors information about the discussions being held by the Agency’s leadership, including copies of the minutes of its most secret meetings.

According to the information passed on by Mardam, the Arab rulers who were fearful of Soviet intervention had decided to assist the British in the event of an all-out war in the Middle East between the Soviet Union and the West, while London’s policy was to play for time in order to rehabilitate its economy and set relations with the United States on a solid footing. As to the Palestinian question, in deliberations of the Arab League council concern was expressed that ongoing Jewish immigration to Palestine would allow the Haganah to field an army of an estimated 80,000 troops and that “we will never be able to match them in preparation and organization, even if the English help us.” Accordingly, the Arab leaders wanted the British Army to remain in Palestine.

In the end, the Greater Syria scheme was foiled by the Saudi monarch, Ibn Saud, who saw it as a threat to his kingdom. He enlisted the support of U.S. President Harry Truman and the State Department, resulting in heavy pressure being brought to bear on London. On July 14, 1946, the British government was compelled to declare that it did not support the Greater Syria project. Nevertheless, the British military and secret services in the Middle East continued their efforts to establish a Hashemite Greater Syria as part of a regional defense alliance against the Soviet threat.

Back to Damascus

The events that occurred in 1946 confirmed the accuracy of the information conveyed by Mardam about British military intentions in Palestine. To begin with, in May of that year Brig. Iltyd Clayton, in collaboration with Abd al-Rahman al-Azzam, secretary of the Arab League and also a British agent, initiated a meeting of the heads of the Arab states at the Inshas Palace in Cairo. The conference’s resolutions asserted for the first time that Zionism constituted a danger not only to the Palestinians but to all the Arab states. A second meeting of the Arab League council was held in June in Bloudan, near Damascus. Some of its resolutions, which were secret, stated that the danger existed of a military confrontation with the Zionist movement, and in that case the Arab states would be duty-bound to assist their Palestinian brethren with money, arms and manpower.

Mardam was present at the Bloudan discussions, as was Sasson, who returned thereafter to Jerusalem with the information about the secret resolutions.

Subsequent moves by the British military and secret services corroborated Mardam’s information. On June 29, 1946, in what was known as “the Agatha Operation” – or “Black Sabbath,” in Hebrew – British Army units arrested leaders of the Jewish Agency, notably foreign policy head Moshe Sharett, confiscated files in the Agency’s Jerusalem headquarters and raided a large number of kibbutzim in a search for illegal arms. The true goal of the operation was to disarm the Haganah and replace the “extremist leadership” – first and foremost Ben-Gurion – with more moderate figures.

The British operation largely failed, as details about it had leaked to the Haganah’s leadership two months earlier. Ben-Gurion escaped arrest, as he was in Paris at the time. The British also tried to find proof of French support for the Zionist movement – the files of Eliahu Sasson were among the first they seized – but they found nothing that might suggest it.

King David Hotel bombing - Wikipedia
The King David Hotel

To justify the Agatha Operation, on July 25, three days after the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the British government published a “white paper”, which included intercepted coded cables which it claimed indicated that the leaders of the Jewish Agency and the Haganah were responsible for acts of terrorism. Two days later, Ben-Gurion held a press conference in Paris in which he sharply condemned the blowing up of the King David Hotel by the Revisionist Irgun (Etzel) militia, rejected the claims of Jewish Agency and Haganah involvement in terrorism and imputed responsibility for Black Sabbath to the commanders of the British Army in Cairo and to officials in the Foreign Office.

He was more explicit in a message to the Mapai party conference on August 23: “The assault of June 29 was prepared in March or April this year by the initiators of British policy in the Middle East – the most reactionary circle of the diplomatic, military and colonial bureaucracy, whose center is in Cairo.” After all, Ben-Gurion had known about these schemes earlier, from information provided by Mardam.

Strings and triggers

In December 1946, Clayton forced Syrian President Quwatly to remove the prime minister, Saadallah al-Jabiri, because of his part in scuttling the Greater Syria plan, and to replace him with Jamil Mardam. The move was intended to make it possible for Mardam to ensure a parliamentary majority for the plan. But Mardam now began to distance himself from the British, although MI6 continued to see him as a trusted agent, and to demonstrate greater readiness to cooperate with the French. Indirect corroboration of this is found in Syrian government documents. For example, Mardam cautioned his ambassador in London about intrigues of “our British friends who are warning us about French attempts to stir ferment among the Druze and the Bedouin tribes in the Syrian Desert against the government in Damascus, when in practice their agents are responsible for this.”

Mardam’s return to Damascus from Cairo enabled the French to run him directly, without Sasson’s mediation. In the summer of 1946, France had established diplomatic relations with Syria and established a consulate in Damascus in which intelligence agents operated under diplomatic guise. These representatives were able to meet with Mardam in their official capacity without arousing suspicion.

In any event, after the failure of British efforts to resolve by force the problem of the Jews in Palestine, the mission was imposed on the Arab armies. I have described this stage, which began in August 1947 and reached its peak with the invasion of the nascent Jewish state by the Arab armies following the state’s establishment, in May 1948, in two previous articles:

Intelligence Documents Reveal What Ben-Gurion Knew, May 14, 2020

Israel’s Secret war for Syria’s Independence, June 20, 2018

René Neville, the French consul in Jerusalem, rightly termed Clayton and other British agents as “string pullers” and the Arab leaders who were maneuvered by them as “squeezers of the trigger.”

In the wake of the defeat of the Arab states in the 1948 war, storm winds of political, social and economic unrest swept the old regimes in Syria, Egypt and Iraq. One of the victims of the upheavals was Jamil Mardam. In December, following an acute political-economic crisis in Syria, he was again forced to step down as prime minister. He spent his last years in Cairo, where he died in 1960, with the chapter in his life in which he collaborated with the French and the Zionists remaining unknown until now.

In February 1947, Ben-Gurion met in London with British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin and praised Mardam as a moderate Arab leader. Probably, had circumstances permitted, Ben-Gurion would have expressed himself even more warmly about the Syrian prime minister.

Meir Zamir is professor emeritus at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His book on the secret Anglo-French war in the Middle East and Israel’s establishment will be published in 2021. His article “The Role of MI6 in Egypt’s Decision to Go to War Against Israel in May 1948” was published in May 2019 in the British journal Intelligence and National Security.

APPENDICES

  1. April 15, 1944    Secret agreement between the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Sa’id  and the Syrian Foreign Minister, Jamil Mardam Bey

We, Nuri al-Sa’id and Jamil Mardam Bey, have agreed:

  1. To work together for Syria’s liberation from the yoke of the colonizers and for the unity of these countries.
  2. To strive for the formation of an Arab Hashemite state including Syria.
  3. The head of the kingdom will be and can only be Jamil Mardam. The latter, who will be the sole leader of the kingdom, will be second in rank after the designated sovereign.
  4. Nuri Sa’id undertakes to work towards the realization of this plan and to accept the authority of the chosen sovereign.
  5.  The two parties undertake to respect this agreement, which God is the only witness thereof.

                                                       Signed: Nuri al-Sa’id and Jamil Mardam

Two copies made

Author’s note: An identical agreement was signed again on September 15, 1944.

2.  March 5, 1945        Extract from a letter from Emir Abdullah to his nephew, the Iraqi Regent Abd al-Ilah

Greetings. You are most certainly aware that we placed our hopes on Jamil Mardam’s promises and on his agreement with Nuri Pasha. Today the Prime Minister gave me positive proof of Jamil’s treason and double dealing. In reality, he only reached agreement with Nuri Pasha through ruses and hypocrisy. I think that this whole intrigue, from start to finish, is some mischief on the part of General Spears, the British ex-Minister Plenipotentiary in Syria. May God protect you.

                                                                                    Your Uncle   S/ Abdullah

  • March 26, 1945        Extract from a letter from Emir Abdullah to his nephew, the Iraqi Regent Abd al-Ilah                                                                                   

My beloved son,

  I repeat it to you today and advise you to avoid slipping into the chasm the Jews and Americans want to throw us into. You know just how well-intentioned I was towards the Jews and how hard I tried to find agreement or understanding with them. When the occasion presented itself to them, they showed zeal toward Shukri al-Quwatli and Jamil Mardam. I am convinced that the latter is still betraying us despite all the money he has taken from us. The Jews today only seek to reach an understanding with all the Arab presidents except me, because they are convinced that I would not work against them.  They support them to the Americans, neglecting me, as if my success was not theirs.

4.   August 20, 1945   Mardam’s letter of resignation                                              

Secret                                                                                                              

                                                From Jamil Mardam Bey

                                    to         H.E. the President of the Republic

            I have just found out about the letter my colleague the Minister of the Interior kindly addressed to you and in which he makes unfounded accusations against me. 

            I do not seek to exonerate myself, because my innocence is clear to see. Only those with evil intentions doubt it; but I beg Your Excellency to ask my colleague to provide proof and I will then be ready to account to anyone. I am convinced that there is no proof and that there are only rumors (rumors spread by lackeys of the French, enemies of this fatherland) who infiltrate government services and populist circles to reach the ears of my colleague the Minister of the Interior.

            I challenge anyone to show me the weak point in the policy I have followed. I do not see anyone with the right to complain about me except for the French colonizers who I have the honor of treating as my implacable enemy. I cannot allow or accept being accused by a colleague on simple suppositions.

            Anyway, while handing you my resignation I want to provide Parliament with an explanation.

August 20, 1945                                                          The Minister of Foreign Affairs

                                                                                                S/ Jamil Mardam Bey

5.   January 1, 1946    President Quwatli informs his Cabinet members of British pressure to agree to Greater Syria plan

 Secret

From the President of the Syrian Republic

to the noble Council of Ministers

     The mission of General Clayton, head of the Special Section of Arab Middle Eastern Affairs, has two aims:

     First: to convince us that Syrian unity will come about;

     Second: to seek an understanding between Syria and Turkey.

     For the understanding with Turkey we have confirmed to him that we have given our agreement and that we want it within the limits of the British memorandum that has been presented to us.

     As for unity, he presents us with two plans:

     – Syrian unity including Syria, Transjordan and part of Palestine with a plebiscite on the nature of the regime and on the choice of king if the regime is a monarchy.

     – Arab unity including Iraq, Syria, Transjordan and part of Palestine. Then the King would be Faisal (King of Iraq) and there would be three guardians to the throne. Laws, rules, armies etc., would be unified.

     Having highlighted our clear will for independence and having asked his opinion on France’s attitude and the agreement concluded with it, he said, “This is not under discussion; when you want unity, everything will be settled with France.”

     Our replies were negative but were tied to Great Britain’s attitude towards us by comparison with France. If Great Britain attained the removal of French troops from Syria and Lebanon it will then be possible for us to discuss the plan he has presented. Before that, any discussion is impossible.

                                                     The President of the Syrian Republic

                                                                                     S/ Shukri al-Quwatli               

6.   November 29, 1946    Syrian Prime Minister Sa’adallah al-Jabiri is threatened by top MI6 agent

Top secret   

                                                      The Syrian Legation in Cairo

                                                         To the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs

The insolence with which the Friend of the Arabs, General Clayton, received me today was beyond a joke.

            He was not bothered about laughing at all our efforts, saying,

            “You are playing around (like children), you don’t know what you want or where you are going.” I was unable to hold a conversation with him; in fact, he seemed to have only one aim, which was to get me angry. I remained calm and replied,

            “I have nothing to do with you. I represent an independent country; you yourself are the agent of a friendly power, but for me you are not its representative, so I cannot recognize you.”

            He shot back, “You will know me well enough once I’m in Damascus.” In reality, I could not know where this conversation was leading; it seems that he unveiled his whole plan during the course of a conversation he had with him, to our friend Jamil whom he immediately sent to you.

November 29, 1946

                                                                                                 Sa’adallah al-Jabiri

7. January 17, 1947     The Syrian Ambassador in London informed Mardam on British suspicions of secret Franco-Zionist collaboration in Syria

The Syrian Foreign Ministry – Damascus

            British politicians fear above all a Franco-Jewish agreement and they are convinced, here, that France itself is conducting a skewed policy with them and that Socialist-Communist intrigues will not allow the reaching of a sincere agreement between France and Great Britain. And this agreement, if it is ever signed, will not have any real importance for France has for a long time before being on an equal footing with Great Britain, in the event of a global conflict with the Soviet Union.  For all these reasons, they are convinced that France, which has been unable to maintain its position in the Middle East, would shake hands with the devil himself to stop Great Britain signing as the more important party. They admit that if there is agreement with the Jews, already accomplished or possible, the help that France will provide to the Jews will be powerful, even if the modalities remain secret.

            Also, they are very closely watching the two French legations in Damascus and Beirut, because they are in areas favourable to Jewish activity. The British spy on everything that happens, fearing that the French Consulates, with their money, will come to the aid of the Jewish rabbis but, so far, nothing tangible has confirmed this.

            The leaders here force us to register these realities in order to know what view of them we should take: as enemies who only want to hunt and intimidate us.

17 January 1947                                                          The Minister Plenipotentiary

Negib el Armanazi 

8. May 8, 1947   Mardam to Armanazi on the French Legation’s activities in Damascus                                               

                                                Top secret

            Rest assured that the French Legation in Damascus is closely supervised: its staff will be unable to undertake any action likely to harm us.

            As for the content of the advice officials in the Foreign Office gave us, I am convinced that its intention is to hide their intentions, for, it is quite clear to us that from now on the French are completely incapable of doing anything in Syria.  For, as you know, they do not know their lines of action; they begin with culture, cinema, religious schools and all that is simply “small beer” (unimportant). But our English friends warn us of the French intrigues towards the Bedouins and the Druze and the truth is that it is they themselves who incite them against us.  Well, at the moment, we cannot subdue them for fear of the English who protect them, and if they served the French now we would not hesitate for a minute to subdue them.

            The reply you will give to the Foreign Office is that we thank them for their directives and advice which we will take into consideration.

            But the thing we would like you to make them take note of is that we do not want the Legation of Great Britain to be more important than the French Legation, because it is important to us to bring an end to this foreign Legation movement in our country and when we want to have contact with a foreign Power we have our Ministers Plenipotentiary there.

            The fact is that insulting France no longer worries people here, because they are now convinced that all those who attack the French are simply instruments of the English, so the Syrian government wants to make people understand that it is not a British tactic, but that must not stop us observing French activity and ending any movement by France in our country.

8 May 1947                                         The Foreign Minister

                                                                                                                                                  Jamil Mardam Bey

9.   June 3, 1947    Mardam’s complaint to Bevin about activities of British agents

Top secret                                                                                                                   

                                             From the Syrian Legation in London

                                                to H.E. the British Foreign Secretary

Dear Minister,

     For the seventh time I call Your Excellency’s attention to the intrigues of British officers who have the upper hand over the army of Transjordan from where aggression is directed against Syria and Syrian independence.

     What makes the situation even more delicate is that the plot organized against Syria is welcomed by all the British officials in the Near East.

     Neither the Syrian government, nor the Syrian people, would ever have thought that Great Britain had helped Syria drive France out so that British sovereignty could replace French sovereignty in Syria, for Transjordan and King Abdullah, as is well understood, are working to achieve British sovereignty and British interests and no more.

     To prove our good intentions, I place before Your Excellency the Soviet memorandum which was presented to us and to which we have so far refused to reply.

     But if the British Government were to push us to despair, we would have recourse to any foreign aid whatsoever to safeguard our independence which, today, is threatened more than at any other time in the past.

     I hope that you will want to undertake an act that will put an end to the state of extreme tension which, in the Middle East, creates a man with illegitimate appetites who acts with the acknowledged inspiration and advice of the British.

Yours sincerely,

                                                                          The President of the Council,

                                                                               The Minister of Foreign Affairs

                                                                                         Jamil Mardam Bey

10. 18 November 1947     Mardam on British consent to an Arab invasion of the Jewish state

Top secret

From H.M. Minister [Alex Kirdbride], Amman

To: Foreign Office

Syrian Prime Minister [Mardam] telephoned Samir [Rifai-Jordanian P.M.] on the evening of 15th November and said that the British representative in Damascus had informed him that His Majesty’s Government would have no objection to the invasion of Palestine by the Arab States once the British forces had withdrawn. He asked Samir if he could obtain confirmation at Amman that this was the case.

I informed Samir that I could not confirm the statement and that I did not believe that His Majesty’s Charge d’Affaires at Damascus had said any such thing. I pointed out that Jamil’s request for confirmation was suspicious and would not have been made if a statement of the kind reported had been made in such ambiguous terms.

The Democrats and Syria: The Potential for a Regional Grand Bargain if Biden Wins?

By Kevin Amirehsani

With the U.S. presidential election just one week away, the Democrats’ sights are set on taking back the Oval Office. Should they win, they would be wise to quickly pivot to crafting a forward-looking Syria policy. A Biden administration could offer hope for a new approach, one that addresses the Damascus-Tehran alliance while reducing the scope of regional conflicts and maintaining historic relationships with our Gulf allies.

Most observers might agree that the prospects for peace in the Levant are intrinsically tied to the tensions between Iran and its regional proxies and the Gulf monarchies and their American backers. Yet far fewer would hold out hope of Washington reducing them, especially given the prospects of a conservative hardliner winning power in Iran’s June 2021 presidential elections. However, a path to regional stability is possible, but only if the Democrats are willing to rethink their dogma in the Middle East, make tough compromises, and act quickly.

First, Biden needs to reach an accord with Iran during his first five months in power. It’s unclear whether Iran’s fractured reformist movement can survive the next decade after their decision to accept the restraints of the JCPOA backfired when Trump pulled out of it and implemented his policy of “maximum economic pressure” on Tehran. Indeed, the Iranian regime predetermined the results of February’s parliamentary elections, when the reformists were trounced, largely because they were prevented from fielding candidates for 230 of the Majlis’ 290 seats. Still, even if they don’t, and a decidedly pro-Khamenei hardliner comes to power, returning to the JCPOA or entering a similar deal could be at least tacitly enforced by the next Iranian president, since it would be in their interest for the U.S. to remove its crippling economic and financial sanctions on Iran, particularly those on its banking and oil sectors. This could be done in a phased approach, where both sides could claim an early victory, with more substantial progress on other issues (potentially even the issue of Iran’s ballistic missiles and the number of U.S. troops in Persian Gulf bases) delayed until after June.

While clearly not the end-all be-all, doing so would open to the door to more cooperation in the Syrian theater. There are already hints of Damascus losing patience with its Iranian benefactors, as evidenced by Syrian government troops recently taking control of an oil field near al-Mayadin in Deir al-Zour Province following skirmishes with Iranian-backed militias. This occurred not too far from parts of the province where those same militias have come close to confrontation with Russian troops. Moreover, outside of Rojava and Idlib Province, the pro-Assad forces have successfully retaken most of the country with Russian air support, reducing their need for Iranian assistance. Elements in the Revolutionary Guards will be sure to lobby strongly against any Iranian withdrawal from Syria, but given Tehran’s financial straits, reducing their costly foreign excursions is also in their interest, assuming that they have confidence that Assad will remain in power.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2008.

While more difficult, it is not farfetched for Assad to eventually reach some understanding with Erdogan, especially with the backing of Iran. Recent weeks have seen Turkish troops remove a number of their observation posts near Idlib. A Damascus-Ankara détente with Tehran as a participant may be possible due to their shared suspicion of the Kurdish forces who are now in control of Manbij to Kobane, and from Al-Thawrah to Syria’s northeastern borders. While Washington should not abandon our longstanding Kurdish allies, we also should not let the wonks’ hope of an independent Kurdish state in Syria derail a wider regional solution. Face-saving compromises abound, such as a de jure Syrian federation but de facto independent Rojava. This might entail allowing Syrian government troops outposts at Rojava’s border, which Ankara would much prefer in lieu of the PKK-linked Kurdish fighters. It might also mean expanded investment in oil extraction in the Kurdish region of Jazila, coupled with expanding the Syrian government’s refining capacity (which would boost their ongoing refined oil exports to the Kurds). A further swap could be reopening the vital al-Yarubiyah/Rabia border crossing to aid flows (which would provide an economic boost to Rojava) while committing to reduce U.S. forces in the region or relaxing the stringent Caesar Act sanctions.

“[Biden’s] strategy in Syria, including Rojava, should be pushing for a new democratic federal system, in which the rights of all Syrian people [are protected] through a new constitution,” according to Dana Taib Menmy, a freelance journalist from Iraqi Kurdistan.

Of course, the Kurdish question remains one of the thorniest in the Middle East. It’s unlikely that Assad would ever allow a Rojava to emerge as a fully economically independent (and prosperous) as what occurred in Iraqi Kurdistan, which ironically is the model of a Kurdish semi-state that Ankara and Tehran can live with. Yet recent talks between U.S. special envoy to Syria James Jeffrey, the Syrian Kurds, and a pro-Ankara/pro-Erbil Kurdish group suggest that there are already attempts at compromise in the works. The Syrian Kurds could curry favor with Turkey and Iran by embracing the pan-ethnic nature of its SDF army and reducing its linkages with the cross-border Kurdish movements. This might also be done in concert with progress towards increased autonomy for Shia and Turkmen communities within its jurisdictions. None of these strategies on their own would be a game changer in their relations with Damascus, but could help assuage Turkey and convince Iran to pressure Assad to soften his stance towards Rojava.

“The Assad government, the Kurds and Turkey should be able to agree on something like the status quo ante, where the Kurds retain self-defense capacity, but government forces man the border to placate Turkey,” says Benjamin Friedman, Policy Director at Defense Priorities, a Washington think tank. “Any idea of an independent Kurdish state should be squelched, since it would be a source of endless instability and/or demand for U.S. protection, with risks of war we don’t need.”

Finally, although such a rapprochement – even modest in size – would be opposed by some of the Gulf Arab states, there are enough leverage points in their relationship with Syria and Iran to preserve the viability of a deal. For one, the UAE – long seen as one of the staunchest Iran hawks in the region – has since last year reassessed its relationship with the country, contributing to tensions with the Saudi-led anti-Houthi forces in Yemen. This is partly due to Abu Dhabi’s support of Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, which puts it squarely on opposite sides of the battlefield as the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord, and more broadly, its growing regional rivalry with Ankara.

Indeed, the UAE has been training Syrian regime elements since January and is a major player in the country’s reconstruction, suggesting that the gulf state would be among the first of the anti-Iran old guard to temper its opposition to any larger regional deal in the works (provided that Turkey is not perceived to gain an advantage). Similarly, earlier this year Saudi Arabia allegedly began a reconciliation of sorts with the Assad regime (at the same time as it has bankrolled the presence of the U.S. troops in Rojava), an apparent realigning of resources to confront what its Gulf Arab neighbors are increasingly viewing as the main enemy – Turkey and its continued dalliance with the region’s Sunni Islamist movements. Under the right conditions, Washington can both address a number of Turkey’s security concerns outlined above while using the specter of Erdogan’s growing influence to obtain support from the Gulf Arabs for any deal involving Syria, Iran, and the Iranian proxies.

While it’s obvious that several dominos would have to fall before anything approaching a regional grand bargain is reached, there are certainly some alignments of interest, and Washington is well-placed to compensate any “losers.” If Biden wins next week, the Democrats will need to seize this opportunity – it may not last.


Kevin Amirehsani is a Denver-based political and economic analyst with the Colorado Governor’s Office and the Economist Intelligence Unit. He is the former managing editor of the Raddington Report, and his analysis has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, France24, Deutsche Welle, and other publications. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KAmirehsani

Ambassador Nikolaos van Dam: My great personal affection for the Syrian people, together with my academic interest in Syria, are the source of my inspiration and activities.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Nikolaos-Van-Dam.jpg
This interview with Dr. Nikolaos Van Dam was originally published on October 8, 2020 by the Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies.

Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies hosts today, Dr. Nikolaos Van Dam (1945), Excellency of the Dutch Ambassador, who served in 2015-2016 as a special envoy of his country to Syria, after many years of diplomatic work in Lebanon, Jordan, the occupied Palestinian territories, Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Germany and Indonesia.

The author of “The Netherlands and the Arab World .. From the Medieval until the Twentieth Century” studied political science at the University of Amsterdam. including international relations, modern Middle Eastern history, and the Arabic language. In 1973, he has got a PhD in political and social sciences, and a second one in Arts from the University of Amsterdam in 1977.

Our guest, the expert on Syrian and Middle East’s affairs, is one of those who positions Syria’s dilemma in its historical and contemporary context. In 1979 he published his book in English, entitled: “The Struggle for Power in Syria: Sectarianism, Regionalism and Tribalism in Politics”, which was later translated into Arabic and published in Cairo (1995, 1996), later on, several editions of it have issued, as well as one in Turkish language in Istanbul (2000).

Among the most prominent books his book, which is entitled: Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria, which was published in English (2017) and published in Arabic in Beirut (2018).

In this dialogue, Dr. Nikolas Van Dam, the Ambassador, talks to us about his country’s government’s decision to prosecute Bashar al-Assad regime before the international justice Court in The Hague, after more than nine years of bloodshed in Syria, asserting that the evidence is explicit that the Assad regime has committed -again and again- horrific crimes.

The dialogue with the inveterate Dutch diplomat, also took us further, to talk about what is happening in Syria at the current stage, and about his vision and stances towards the latest developments in the Syrian, regional and international political scene. We also touched upon his books dealing with Syrian political life under the Ba’ath Party, and his latest book, “A Diplomat Looking for Peace in the Arab and Islamic Worlds,” which is published in English last September, and in which he devoted a separate chapter to Syria, which he hopes to be translated into Arabic one day.

Here is the dialogue

Ambassador Nikolaos van Dam: My great personal affection for the Syrian people, together with my academic interest in Syria are the source of my inspiration and activities.

* At First, how do you introduce yourself to the Syrians through our center?

When I first visited Syria in summer 1964 as a student, I was fascinated and overwhelmed by the great hospitality and friendliness of the Syrian people. During my first night at the border crossing of Bab al-Hawa (which was only open during the day), I lost my purse and papers, when sleeping on a wooden bench. They fell on the ground without me noticing it, and were kindly given back to me by a young Syrian, who had found them the next morning. This was a very friendly and positive experience. If my passport and money would have been stolen, my first encounter with Syria and the Arab world would probably have been different and negative, because the first impression of a new country and its people can be very important. The following night, I was the invited guest of some Syrian youths in the rural countryside west of Aleppo, in the village of Kfar Karmin, where I slept under the open sky, next to the traditional beehive mud-brick houses in the village. The people were very friendly and hospitable. This also was a very positive experience, which was repeated various times afterwards in my contacts with Syrian people all over the country. All this left an unforgettable impression, which shaped my great affection for Syria and its people. Almost every year afterwards, I came back to Syria, enjoying its friendly atmosphere, people and beautiful treasures, both historical and cultural.

After having returned to the Netherlands in 1964, I studied Arabic and Political Sciences at the University of Amsterdam. As part of my studies, I spent the greater part of 1970 in Damascus and Aleppo to write two theses: one about the ideology of the Ba’th Party and the other about the history of Syria under Ba’thist rule. This study led to my PhD thesis about The Role of Sectarianism, Regionalism and Tribalism in the Struggle for Power in Syria in 1977. In 1979, I published a shorter version of it as a book in English, titled The Struggle for Power in Syria: Sectarianism, Regionalism and Tribalism in Politics. This book was later expanded into new editions in 1981, 1996 and 2011, each time taking later developments into account. After more than 40 years it is still considered as a widely known standard work, which has been used in universities, academic circles and elsewhere, all over the world. It was also published in Arabic in Cairo (1995, 1996) and in Turkish in Istanbul (2000). I made an internet edition available in 2009, which can be downloaded from my website.

In 1975, I joined the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and worked as a junior diplomat in Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian Occupied Territories and Libya. Afterwards, I was ambassador for 22 years in respectively Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Germany and Indonesia. My greatest wish to serve in Damascus was never fulfilled, but in 2015-2016 I was Special Envoy of the Netherlands for Syria, operating from Istanbul. In my book Destroying a Nation, I wrote about some of my experiences during this period. It was published in Arabic in 2018, and is now also available as an e-book.[i]

* After Moscow having obstructed several resolutions’ drafts condemning the Bashar al-Assad regime’s violations against civilians in Syria, the Dutch government decided to prosecute the Syrian regime before the International Court of Justice in Hague, according to what was reported in a letter written by the Dutch Foreign Minister to Parliament on Friday (September 18, 2020). In your appreciation, why did your country’s government take this step now? What is your stance on this measure as a first one of its kind from a Western government? Do you expect that this step will have an effect in making any change in the Syrian political scene if Assad and his pillars’ rule are convicted after it is proven that they have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, especially torture, murder, enforced disappearance, and the use of chemical weapons?

The Netherlands announced its decision to hold Syria responsible under international law for gross human rights violations and torture in particular. The evidence is overwhelming that the Asad regime has committed horrific crimes time after time. The Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs has declared that there must be consequences. Since Russia will block any attempt to bring the Syrian regime before justice via the UN Security Council, a different way was sought and found.

International organizations have repeatedly reported serious human rights violations for years. Large numbers of Syrians have been tortured, murdered, forcibly disappeared, and subjected to poison-gas attacks, or have lost everything fleeing for their lives.

The Netherlands has invoked Syria’s responsibility for human rights violations under international law, specifically holding Syria responsible for torture under the UN Convention against Torture.

The timing of this initiative coincided with the sessions of the United Nations General Assembly, and therefore got extra attention.

I think this is a good initiative, and better than doing nothing. It might even have been initiated years ago, because proof of the crimes involved already exists for many years. Personally, I do not think that it will cause any real changes in the political scene on the ground. The Syrian regime has immediately strongly rejected the Dutch initiative, arguing that The Hague is the last capital that should accuse Syria, because it accuses the Dutch government of supporting Syrian terrorist organizations. In any case, this initiative may bring some movement in making the Syrian regime accountable for its atrocities. But if you really want to bring people before justice, you have to catch them, instead of having them tried in absentia.

The Hague likes to call itself the “international city of peace and justice”. This name is well deserved in the sense that, according to its municipality, “thousands of people are working here every day to build a more peaceful and just world”. But when it comes to Israel, this name is not justified, at least when taking into account the policies concerned of the Dutch government, which thus far has condoned more or less all Israeli gross human rights violations, and has not done anything practical against it.

* How do you look at what is happening in Syria in the present period? And what is your message to all the parties of the Syrian-Syrian conflict?

After more than 9 years of bloodshed, I cannot keep repeating my earlier elementary advises, because that would not be realistic. Times have changed, and the heavy burden of deadly victims, millions of refugees and material destruction have all asked their toll, making any compromise even more difficult than before.

The situation in Syria has turned out to be a disaster since the start of the Syrian Revolution in 2011. From the very beginning, my message has been that in order to solve the conflict, it was necessary to have a dialogue between the opposition and the regime. But quite early on, any dialogue with the regime was strongly rejected, not only by the opposition but also by many foreign countries, which broke off diplomatic relations with Damascus and closed their embassies. Their message was that president al-Asad had lost his legitimacy, and therefore had to leave. Many demonstrators demanded the fall of the regime and the execution of the president (al-Sha’b yurid isqat al-Nizam; al-Sha’b yurid I’dam al-Ra’is). And the regime did not want any dialogue with those who wanted its downfall and persecution.

The extremely violent reactions of the regime to previous efforts to topple or oppose it, like the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama (1982), or other occasions, made it unthinkable for me that the regime would willingly give in to any threats against its position, let alone efforts to topple it. But emotional and enthusiastic feelings for justice prevailed over realism, together with the dangers accompanying it.

Of course, the demonstrators had been inspired by the swift fall of the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, and the killing of the Libyan leader al-Qadhafi after foreign military interventions against his regime. But the structure of the Syrian regime, with its Alawi-dominated power elite, was completely different. Moreover, it had half a century of experience in how to effectively and ruthlessly deal with any coups and threats against its position. The most potential possibility for toppling it, could come from within the regime, but not anyone from its inner core dared to take any initiative in this direction for fear of being liquidated.

Many Syrians of the opposition, and with them many Western politicians who supported them, expected the regime to fall by the latter half of 2012. But this turned out to be fully unrealistic, as they did not take the strong and coherent power structure of the Syrian regime into account. The regime wanted to survive, whatever the costs.

In March 2012, I argued that it would be better to have al-Asad with 10,000 dead (which was the number of deadly victims at the time), rather than to have al-Asad with 300,000 dead (which later even turned out to be even worse by going in the direction of half a million dead). For this, a dialogue with the regime had been necessary.

In my opinion it was better to have a failed dialogue than to have a failed war, with half a million dead, more than 10 million refugees and a country in ruins. But many refused any dialogue with the regime, arguing that this was useless anyhow.

As Special Envoy for Syria, I aimed at providing the Syrian opposition with what I considered to be some realistic counsel. I could, of course, have taken the easier, more popular way of joining the opposition and many others in their wishful thinking that the Asad regime was going to be brought down anyhow through political pressure, UN resolutions and military support from Western and Arab countries, but these countries created false expectations. They had so-called “good intentions” of helping the Syrian people, but were not really prepared to implement their declared intensions in the form of sufficient deeds and actions on the ground. I rejected the idea of creating false expectations, because it contributed to making the situation even worse than it already was.

Direct military intervention was excluded by these countries, even though US president Obama had proclaimed that “there would be consequences” if certain “red lines” were crossed, such as the use of chemical weapons. Not crossing these red lines meant thereby, implicitly, that all other means of suppressing the Syrian people and the opposition groups were condoned by the US (and others). Not carrying out their promises, meant that the United States could not be considered as a reliable ally.

Many people kept on thinking in terms which were in fact wishful thinking, and the countries supporting the opposition did the same. They kept turning around in the same vicious circle, arguing that one day their wishes and ideals would be realized. But the realities turned out to be different, and the human cost was disastrous.

By only supporting the military opposition groups halfheartedly, and not providing them with the necessary arms (both quantitatively and qualitatively) the Western and Arab countries involved, in fact sent many of the opposition military to their death.

I argued at the time that if the opposition kept insisting that president al-Asad should be deposed and brought before justice, negotiations were useless, because you cannot bring down the opposing party through peaceful negotiations, if that party happens to be militarily stronger, and is not prepared to relinquish its power.

With some hindsight, I guess that the maximum achievable through negotiations at the time was a “national unity government”, in which eventually participating opposition figures could be included, but would hardly have anything to say. In fact, the regime in Damascus could have included various “moderate” opposition ministers in its government, while at the same time excluding any risk of being deposed, as long as they kept the strategic ministries, army and security agencies under their control. But the regime did not.

The opposition rejected any “national unity government” because it only wanted the regime to disappear; although the opposition stated that it was prepared to share a transitional governing body with members of the Syrian government or regime who did not have blood on their hands. Inclusion of president al-Asad was fully rejected, however, although there were different opinions among the opposition about whether al-Asad would be acceptable or not during a “transitional stage” leading to a new regime without him. But this “transitional stage” never came.

The opposition interpreted the Geneva Communiqué (2012) as including the principle that president al-Asad had to leave. The Americans did the same, but the Geneva Communiqué did not include any such clause, otherwise the Russians would not have agreed to it.

The opposition generally took notice of my views, and some members appreciated my straightforward positions, but this did not change their original views in any way, because they maintained their “basic principles of the revolution”: bringing down the al-Asad regime and bringing to justice all those with blood on their hands. Even though these demands could have been considered fully justified from a moralistic point of view, they were not realistic in my opinion, due to the military imbalance of forces on the ground. The opposition could only have implemented their “basis principles” by winning the war and defeating the regime, but they were not strong enough to do so.

Some opposition leaders afterwards admitted that their demands had not been fully realistic under the circumstances at the time, and that demanding the disappearance of president Bashar al-Asad as a precondition had been a mistake that made realistic negotiations impossible.

The regime should, if it really had wanted a solution, have implemented UN Security Council 2254 (2015) without delay, and immediately allow humanitarian agencies rapid, safe and unhindered access throughout Syria to reach people in need; release any arbitrarily detained prisoners; immediately cease any attacks against civilians and civilian objects as such, including attacks against medical facilities and personnel, and any indiscriminate use of weapons, including through shelling and aerial bombardments.

Implementing Security Council resolution 2254 would not really have weakened the regime’s military position, because the included measures hardly have any strategic military value; except perhaps in the sense that the military opposition groups might also profit from food and medical supplies. Bombing civilians and medical facilities, for instance, has no strategic military value. Therefore, it should have been relatively easy for the regime (and the Russians) to start implementing it.

The opposition should in my view continue their efforts to come to negotiations with the regime on a realistic basis, including in the Constitutional Committee, even though I do not expect the regime to make real concessions to the parties that want to depose it, and have lost much of their political and military power. That does not mean, however, that it should not be seriously tried, because there are only very few options left for negotiations. Here the saying applies of “nothing ventured, nothing gained”. And miracles only happen when one keeps believing in them.

In March 2018, I suggested in a lecture that it would be better to admit that the war against the regime had been lost. But almost three years later on, the war is still being continued, and Syria, as a result of the many years of the war-by-proxy with various countries involved in it, is further going down the drain with further victims and destruction. And a political solution is not getting nearer.

After the war became a war-by-proxy, finding a solution was not really any longer fully in the hands of the opposition and the regime. It was the rivaling outside forces which had obtained a predominant role in co-deciding what could be a way to solve the conflict.

Prolonging the war means more deadly victims, more refugees and more destruction. It is understandable that the opposition wants to continue its fight against the regime, but one should also take into account what the concrete results are in human and material costs, and pose the question: is it worth it? Isn’t it at a certain stage better to wait for a better opportunity in the future?

Under the present circumstances, a new revolution is bound to come in the future.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Opmaak-1-scaled.jpg

* Ambassador, a few days ago, your new book was published, titled “A Diplomat seeking Peace in the Arab and Islamic World”, which contains a summary of your experiences and analyzes during the years of your diplomatic work (career). Can you tell us more details about the content of the book?

My new book has been published in September 2020. It contains my memoirs and analyses of my experiences during the time I worked for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from 1975 until my retirement in 2010: As ambassador to Iraq from the end of the war between Iraq and Iran (1988) till the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait (1990), the taking hostage of many foreigners, and Operation Desert Storm (1991), during which the Iraqi army was expelled from Kuwait. Secondly, as ambassador to Egypt under the rule of president Mubarak (1991-1996), at a time when Egypt still played a prominent political role in the Middle East. Thirdly as ambassador to Turkey, with the Turkish accession talks with the European Union, and the political change from secularism to Islamism, which made real EU membership for Turkey a fiction. Fourthly, as ambassador to Germany and the transfer of the capital from Bonn to Berlin, with the accompanying changes of forces within Europe. And fifthly, as ambassador to Indonesia, where I had to deal with the sensitive Dutch colonial past.

As a junior diplomat I served in Lebanon (1980-1983) during the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion (1982), in Jordan and the Palestinian Occupied Territories, and as Chargé d’Affaires in the Libya of Qadhafi (1983-1985), with his provocative regime. A separate chapter is devoted to Syria, and is based on my experiences as Special Envoy for Syria (2015-2016). Another separate chapter deals with the Arab-Israeli conflict, and is based on my experiences as secretary of the European Middle East mission in 1981 (the most extensive of its kind) and my experiences in the subsequent decades.

Much of what is happening today in de Palestinian-Israeli conflict, was fully predictable some 40 years ago, if we would have better realized that the Israelis were not prepared to make any real compromise. The Israeli key positions have remained the same: no withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders, no Palestinian State, and an “eternally united Jerusalem”. The core positions of Likud and Labor were the same: keeping control over the whole of Palestine, with as few Palestinians as possible. The main difference was the way in which they presented themselves. One of the major problems has been that more or less everything Israel did has been condoned by Western countries. The United States has even encouraged it, and its recognition of the annexations of Eastern Jerusalem and parts of the Golan Heights constitutes a serious undermining of the order of international law. The United States has never been an honest broker, but rather “Brokers of Deceit”, as described in the book of Rashid al-Khalidi titled “How the US has Undermined Peace in the Middle East” (2013).

European countries criticized Israeli behavior, but did do nothing against it, except for issuing statements, deploring what happened. Since European governments are not going to do anything to really help solving the conflict, I think the non-governmental BDS-movement (Boycott-Divest-Sanctions) is fully justified.

I hope the chapters on Syria and the Arab-Israeli conflict can be made available in Arabic one day.

There is too much in the book to present here in short detail.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Screenshot-2020-04-21-at-15.41.09.png

* In your new book, you have dealt with your personal analyzes of your experience as a special envoy for the Netherlands to Syria. can you let us know the most prominent positions that you have stood on which led to protracting the life of the Syrian disaster, whether by the boss of the Syrian regime, the opposition forces, or external Arab and Western forces?

Most of my experiences as the Dutch Special Envoy for Syria have already been published in my book Destroying a Nation.  In my new book I dwell on some of the incompatibilities between democracy and realpolitik. Politicians in democracies want to show their good intentions by making political statements, supporting in the Syrian case the Syrian opposition, but when it comes to realpolitik, they are unwilling to implement what they have been proposing, except when it comes to some sanctions. Therefore, most of their statements remain statements, without being implemented. My new book further deals with the way the conflict in Syria is being dealt with in Dutch internal and foreign politics.

The factors that have contributed to the disastrous war in Syria and its prolongation are many. I mention only some of the most important ones.

– The violent suppression by the Syrian regime of the demonstrations and its ruthless violent suppression of any opposition. Its rejection of any essential reform which could, in its own perception, undermine its power monopoly.

– The declaratory support of various foreign countries for the opposition forces, without them being prepared to mobilize the necessary means and providing the necessary military and material support to help achieving their declared (or undeclared) aim of regime change.

– Providing billions of dollars in military aid to the military opposition groups in an uncoordinated way, which turned out to be insufficient to win the battle against the regime.

– Creating false expectations among the opposition by Western and Arab countries.

– Russian and Iranian support for the regime helped these two countries in maintaining their strategic ally in Damascus.

– The occupation of parts of Syria by Turkey, the United States, Russia and Iran have contributed to prolonging the conflict, just as have the endeavors by these states to serve their own strategic interests in the region, without taking the suffering of the Syrian people enough into account.

– The opposition has allowed itself to being deceived to some extent by the so-called good intentions of the foreign forces that expressed their support.

– Overdoses of wishful thinking have prolonged the war, while at the same time neglecting the hard realities of realpolitik.

– Seeking justice, without having the power to bring those responsible for the committed crimes to justice, except in some individual court cases abroad. In itself it is a good thing to bringing those responsible for war crimes and bloodshed to justice, but this does not mean that the conflict is brought to an end swifter than would otherwise be the case.

* What is the origin of your personal interest in the Syrian dilemma, and to set it through your writings, in its historical and contemporary context, using a unique blend of academic uniqueness and diplomatic experience?

My personal and academic interest for Syria, which started in 1964, and my great personal affection for the people of Syria and the country are the source for my continuous activity and inspiration to help analyze what may be the better (or less bad) options for achieving a solution to the conflict. Having a wider experience in both the academic and diplomatic field can be a fruitful combination, which may be better than having experience in only one of these fields.

* Ambassador, allow us to return with you to your book “Destroying a Nation. The Civil War in Syria”, which was translated and published by the “Jana Tamer for Studies and Publishing House” in Beirut, (2018). I would ask you: What are the most prominent conclusions that you reached in the context of finding solutions and exits to the flaming Syrian crisis?

Anyone with some knowledge of the regime should have known that any effort to topple it would lead to a bloodbath, as I predicted in the second edition of my book The Struggle for Power in Syria, which was published in 1981, 30 years before the start of the Syrian Revolution in 2011. And this was not difficult to predict.

If you want to defeat a lion, you must be well armed and be in the stronger position, in order to prevent not to be killed oneself. But the reality for the military opposition forces turned out to be that of the weaker party.

The opposition military were not in such a strong position, and once they started to threaten the regime to some extent in 2015, Russia intervened militarily.

Often, it is pointed out that the Asad regime has caused many more deaths than the opposition groups altogether. And that is correct: roughly 90% of all victims have been the result of military and other actions of the regime. This is often used as an argument to underline that only the regime is responsible for the disastrous situation in which Syria finds itself. This does not, however, fully exonerate those who tried to topple the regime, because they could have known the bloody consequences, even though these groups themselves might be held responsible for “only” 10% of the deadly victims.

When discussing the controversial concept of who carries responsibility for the present situation in Syria, the hard reality should also be taken into account of who has achieved a certain victory and who has been defeated. Perhaps the situation would have been completely different if the military and civilian opposition forces together would have succeeded in bringing peace, and in creating a “new Syria” that could be described by the ideal characteristics and aims, as described by the Higher Council for Negotiations in 2016: “A political system based on democracy, pluralism and a citizenship that provides for equal rights and duties for all Syrians without any discrimination on basis of color, gender, language, ethnicity, opinion, religion or ideology.” In such a case, it could have been argued that the war of the opposition against the regime “had been worth it”, because it would have led to a substantial improvement of the situation in Syria. In reality, however, this did not happen, because the military opposition or – better said – the numerous opposition groups altogether, did not succeed in defeating the regime. Therefore, it can be argued that the opposition groups, together with the countries supporting them, at least bear a large co-responsibility (together with the regime) for the disastrous consequences which the war has had for all Syrians; this irrespective of the fact that the regime has numerically caused by far the most victims and material destruction. Having the right ideals does not mean that one does not have any co-responsibility when things go wrong when trying to achieve them.

If you want to negotiate, and demand the disappearance and court martialing of your opponent, which is militarily stronger, it is impossible to achieve a political solution. Negotiations are doomed to failure if the aim is to eradicate your opponent, while refusing to come to any compromise with the opposing party. A compromise implies that the negotiating parties are not fully eradicated once the agreement reached is being implemented. Regime change in Syria can only be achieved by military means.

In order to really know what I wrote in the book, one should read it oneself.

* We have noted the objection of many Syrian revolutionaries to describing what has happened and is happening in Syria as a “civil war,” considering that the classification of the Syrian war does not deviate from the context of being aggression by the Bashar al-Assad regime against its people who rose up against its authoritarian rule in mid-March 2011, with the help of external intervention militarily. What is your response to those?

I should start by noting that the vast majority of the mass media and reporters use the terminology of “civil war” to describe the bloody conflict in Syria, such as: BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeera, just like most academic authors and journalists. Only a tiny minority of writers specifically rejects this terminology, being fully aware of the sensitivities of opposition circles in this respect. This in itself does not imply, however, that the terminology is correct or wrong.

Most of those who have criticized me for speaking about a “civil war”, have apparently only read the outside cover of my book containing the title of eight words, without reading the contents of the book itself. Had they done so, they would have discovered that I have explained in my book that “as a result of foreign support, the war in Syria developed into a war by proxy, next to being an internal intra-Syrian war. Therefore, the terminology of ‘civil war’ was no longer appropriate.”

My father used to say: “It would be nice if people reviewing a book would also really read it.”

In the Arabic edition of my book, I have given an additional explanation about its usage based on academic research. It is all a matter of terminology.

One might argue that it was the regime that waged “a war against its own people”, but one cannot deny that a great many people wanted to bring down the regime, and were subsequently indignant and angry, once the regime did not want to step down voluntarily, as could have been expected. It has not developed into just one side waging war against the other, because otherwise the regime would have won long ago, but also into Syrian opposition military waging war against the regime.

* What is the meaning of Professor Fabrice Balanche (Research Director at Lyon 2 University), who said that “anyone who wants to look at the future of Syria, especially if he is in the process of making new decisions, he should read this book, which is necessary for a deeper understanding of the Syrian crisis. It delves into history and dismantles the sectarian dimension of society and power in Syria?”.

Actually, this question should be addressed to professor Fabrice Balanche himself. He, in fact, recommends reading my book because it is based on in-depth research and experience, and on what he considers to be a more realistic approach. My argument is that one should not only take into account what is idealistically desirable, but also what is realistically achievable. Ignoring realities has led to a lot of additional bloodshed.

* What the book is credited for, is that it analyzes the dimensions of the Syrian tragedy, not only from the perspective of domestic politics in (Assad’s Syria), but also explores the Syrian-Arab-Israeli conflict, the Syrian-American relations, and the Syrian-Russian relations. This invites me to ask you, if we accept that the solution came out of the Syrians’ hand, then who has the solution, Russia, the strongest ally of the Assad regime, or the United States of America and, in the background Israel? And Why?

The final say in any solution to the conflict in Syria should be in the hands of the Syrians themselves, of course. Since, however, various outside powers started to intervene in the war in Syria, also at the request of various Syrian parties themselves, it has become inevitable that in any solution the main foreign parties should also agree to some extent among themselves on how this should be achieved. One of the problems in this respect is that various foreign parties that intervened at the request of Syrian parties, both the regime and opposition groups, want to give their own regional interests priority over the wishes of the Syrian parties themselves.

* Ambassador, you were a special envoy for your country for Syria in the years 2015 and 2016, which means that you met the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar Al-Assad more than once. Can you tell us about your personal impressions of this man? And is it really, as a number of diplomats and media professionals who met him have spoken, that he is a person who is separated from the reality in which Syria is sinking?

In my capacity as Dutch Special Envoy for Syria, I did not have any meetings with president Bashar al-Asad, because the Netherlands closed their embassy in Damascus and stopped diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime. This meant that contacts between Dutch diplomats and the Syrian government were prohibited. Personally, I have argued since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution that in order to help solve the conflict, contacts with the regime and the main parties to the conflict were a necessity.

It happens more often that authoritarian leaders lose touch with realities, and as a result do not judge correctly how foreign countries can be expected to react to their actions or behavior. Concerning president Bashar al-Asad, I think the impression reported by various media, as if he has lost a feeling for the realities inside Syria, is exaggerated. He can follow developments closely through the media, and is being confronted, for instance, with the death of many Alawi military from his own community, and therefore has to take the feelings of their families into seriously account. His views also depend on the reports he receives from his subordinates and supporters, and these may be biased, of course.

Reports about president al-Asad supposedly having lost his sense for realities inside Syria, also contain some elements of wishful thinking in the sense that outside politicians want him to do what they want, like “if he would be aware of the real situation, he would resign as president”, which I do not expect to happen. In my opinion it is just as well dangerous not to take him seriously. Likewise, it has turned out to be dangerous or reckless to underestimate his will to stay in power.

* Ambassador, upon your appreciation, what are the reasons for the failure of Western policies towards the Syrian issue, despite the fact that Western leaders express at any available opportunity that a just solution must be based on Security Council Resolution 2254, and that they insist that they are not willing to finance the reconstruction in Syria under the economic sanctions because of the continuing presence  of the Assad regime?

Most Western countries failed in their policies towards Syria, because they were not prepared to communicate with the regime, and were not either prepared to intervene militarily, just as they were not prepared to effectuate the major part of their declarations and stated principles. And even if they had been willing to intervene militarily, they would not have been prepared to take up the responsibility to protect the Syrian people for another ten, twenty or more years, in order to help lead Syria into “a better future”, as they would see it. For this reason, it had been better for them not to militarily intervene at all, also not indirectly. Non-intervention would have cost much less victims, fewer refugees, and less destruction.

After all the bloodshed and destruction, I don’t believe that it is possible to achieve a just solution anymore, if it was ever possible at all. It will at most have to be a compromise.

Refusing to give Western financial aid to help Syria’s reconstruction does not mean that the regime will change its behavior or will give in to Western or Arab wishes for drastic internal reforms. United Nations Security Council 2254 contains some major elements for a way to a political solution, but the regime refuses to implement it, and the measures imposed on the regime, such as sanctions, will in my opinion not result in regime change. On the contrary, they are bound to lead to a further worsening of the situation for the Syrian people. Civilians will not be able to topple the regime, however desperate their situation may be. Most probably, it can only be military, toppling other military.

* How do you look at the Russian and Iranian role in Syria now, and at their military presence in Syria and the possibility of its continuation or not? What about the future of the US military presence in the north and northeast of the country?

The Russian and Iranian military presence, which has been requested or accepted by the Syrian regime, is bound to continue, as long as these two countries deem it necessary to keep their Syrian ally in power. They will not give up, just to please some Western or Arab countries that are in fact hostile to them. The American military presence can be expected to be continued for some time as part of US efforts to put the regime under pressure. One of the complications of the US military presence in the North East is that they cooperate with the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) (which have played an important role in the fight against the Islamic State), whereas on the other hand, Turkey rejects any Kurdish autonomy on the Syrian side of its border (let alone inside Turkey itself). A strengthening of the SDF, and for that matter of the authoritarian Kurdish PYD/YPG, may result in a strengthening of the position of the PKK inside Turkey. The US cannot stay in Syria forever, and much depends on the policies of the US president. Moreover, the US military presence is rather small, but the dangers of confrontations with Russia are clearly present.

The Turkish military presence in Idlib is mainly intended to prevent a new stream of Syrian refugees into Turkey, and to curb the activities of radical terrorist Islamist organizations, like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, and preventing them from having any influence or effect on terrorism inside Turkey. Perhaps Turkey still aims at regime change in Damascus, although it may have realized by now that its efforts have failed in this respect.

In fact, the strengthened position of organizations like the PYD/YPG, HTS and others is to some extent an indirect result of Turkish interference in the war in Syria on the side of various opposition groups, and their failed efforts to topple the regime.

* Ambassador, what is your reading of the “Caesar Act”, which came into effect on June 17th, in terms of its ability to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime on the one hand, and on the other hand, in terms of deepening the suffering of the Syrian people, which means facing brutal difficulties for nearly a decade, as a result of the ongoing war throughout Syria?

The Caesar Law may bring some feelings of justice to the Syrians who have suffered under the regime, but I don’t believe that it will help in having the regime’s behavior being changed. The accompanying sanctions may bring some moral satisfaction to many Syrian refugees abroad, but it will not lead to the disappearance of the Syrian regime. The Syrian regime elite will not directly suffer from the sanctions, because it will maintain all the privileges it already has, but the population will be the indirect victim. The Syrian regime will, in my opinion, never be able to satisfy the American demands for “changing its behavior” except by stepping down, which is not going to happen.

More often than not there is a fixation on the position of president Bashar al-Asad, in the sense that if only he were to disappear, a real solution to the conflict would be at hand. The president, indeed, formally has a lot of authority, but it is not only he who decides what happens. Asad’s position is not like that described in the saying which is popularly ascribed to king Louis the 14th of France (1638 – 1715): l’État c’est moi (“I am the state”). If, purely theoretically, Asad would leave, there would still be the thousands of key military figures, and intelligence people who can take the law into their own hands, leaving a situation in which the same regime would in fact still be there without Bashar Asad, at least as long as they would remain unified, whether or not behind a new “figure head president”. Therefore, one should take into account that the effects of president Asad resigning, generally are unrealistically portrayed as being much simpler than they really are.

And one should also take into account what would happen if the regime succumbs due to the increasingly deteriorating economic situation in the country. Even if Russia and Iran would, purely theoretically, allow the Syrian military opposition groups to overrun the regime and bring its downfall, one should not expect “paradise” to break out. It is very unlikely that the more than 1000 military opposition groups would suddenly unite and make a run for parliament in order to have free elections and create a new peaceful and democratic Syria. They can be expected to engage in a power struggle among themselves until one group, or a coalition of groups, will monopolize power, and establish yet another authoritarian regime. This would mean a continuation of the bloody war. A new regime would be confronted with the same disastrous situation of a Syria in ruins. Even if all building materials and finances would be available, reconstruction of the country could take tens of years, because there should also be enough construction workers to carry it out.

* Does sectarianism in Syria -or “asabiya”as your Excellency considers it- stand as an obstacle against seeking to build the future of a new Syria? And first of all, what was the responsibility of the Assad regime and the Ba’ath party in establishing this great dilemma?

The Ba’th ideology strongly rejects sectarianism, regionalism and tribalism as old residues of society. In practice, however, the Ba’thist military were able to consolidate their power by exactly those principles which they rejected ideologically. There certainly was a lot of favoritism towards Alawi, tribal or regional friends of those in power.

This was a kind of sectarianism or ‘asabiya within the regime’s power instruments, like the army and security services (Mukhabarat). During the war which started after the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, the regime was able to maintain its position and survive, also because of this ‘asabiya, and sticking together among the regime’s elite.

That does not mean, however, that this should prevent the building up of a new Syria, at least if there would be a new regime which is not dependent to the same extent on tribalism, regionalism and ‘asabiya, and the clientelism derived from it. Such a regime would thereby provide an example to Syrian society that things can be dealt with differently. One of the obstacles in this respect would be, however, that there should be reliable, more neutral armed forces and power institutions to guarantee such a neutrality. Creating such new power instruments will be extremely difficult, as loyalties within the Syrian armed forces have often depended on such primordial loyalties.

One should make another distinction: the dependence of the power structure of the regime on sectarian, regional, tribal and ‘asabiya loyalties, does not mean that Syrian society in general is the same. Neither does it mean that the war in Syria is a sectarian war, even though some stages have had some sectarian dimensions. Of course, the same sectarian elements are present in the social fabric of Syrian society, but there are many more factors which are relevant in existing identities.

* Do you think that Syria will live in a crisis of identity and coexistence in the post-war period, after all the destruction and sabotage that has befallen on it?

Although it may sound contradictory, the war in Syria may in the end indirectly well have contributed to strengthening the Syrian national identity, instead of weakening it. The war is to a great extent about who will be in power within the framework of the Syrian state. Nevertheless, there are still many Syrians who give priority to their Arab and Islamic or other identities, whereas many Kurds, for instance, are doing something similar by giving priority to their Kurdish identity, some within the framework of a “Greater Kurdistan” which would be the counterpart of the “Arab Homeland”. Within this framework, the request is made by some parties to drop the word “Arab” from the present official name of the “Syrian Arab Republic”. The shorter name would be more neutral, as it does not distinguish between Kurds and Arabs (like in de official name of the Republic of Iraq). Dropping the word Arab would be difficult for those who are still convinced that Damascus should be seen as “the beating heart of Arabism”.

The Syrian identity should supersede religious and ethnic identities, and this may take a long time to be realized. Accepting a change in the name of the Syrian state does not in itself mean that Syrians would really have changed their attitudes, but it would reflect their willingness to do so in the future.

* How do you see the prospects and future of the Kurdish question in the context of a Syrian solution which would have to be accepted by all components of Syrian society?

A solution to the Kurdish question should inevitably be achieved. In particular, there should be freedom of expressing the Kurdish identity, including its language. The Syrian national identity should however, in my opinion, officially supersede other identities, be it the Arab, Kurdish or other identities. Otherwise, it will be not that easy to realize a Syria in which all citizens can be considered as equals. If the area inhabited by a Kurdish majority would have been rather homogeneous and large, like in northern Iraq, it would be easier to recognize an area with a kind of Kurdish autonomy. In reality, however, there are only three enclaves in northern Syria, where Kurds constitute a majority: Kobani, Ifrin and upper Jazira. Therefore, a similar construction as in northern Iraq, appears to be unfeasible.

We have seen that the Kurdish PYD/YPG has had seemingly contradictory alliances with different sides: with the Syrian regime, with the United States, occasionally also with the Free Syrian Army, but more often against it. One element has remained the same, however: they want to achieve Kurdish autonomy, and in this respect, they do not really care with whom they have an alliance, as long as this helps them in achieving their main aim. The countries that presently support the PYD/YPG, do so mainly for strategic reasons, which does not mean that they also support their ideas.

* At last, through your experience, your long diplomatic career and the role that you played in Syria, do you see that we have in this country a national project that brings together all Syrians, after Bashar al-Assad’s departure and the end of all forms of occupation and foreign presences on Syrian soil?

Of course, there is such a possibility. All depends on the Syrians themselves and on a united military to protecting it and bringing it about.


[i] https://e-poetssociety.com/book-details?id=245


Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial