Syrian rebels’ faults are surfacing

Roger Owen, professor of Middle East history at Harvard University talks about Syrian rebels’ narratives and current US strategies. Interview. 

Acconcia: Professor Owen, can you explain why Israel attacked Syria in recent weeks?

Owen. It is mysterious, we know only a few facts. Apparently, the Israeli target was a centre of military research. Thinking about the dangers posed by Syria, on the one hand the Israelis worry most about Iranian rockets that are destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and on the other Americans worry about chemical weapons - possibly sarin. Only the former has so far come under attack. 

A: Would it be true to say that the attacks exposed how the use of non-conventional weapons by the regime has been wrongly portrayed abroad?

O: President Obama has spoken about the «red line» that must not be crossed on several occasions. But news coverage on the use of chemical weapons has disclosed a deeper truth: the rebels can do whatever they want, but the information we receive only entails that which is the exclusive responsibility of the regime. There is an evident lack of credibility in this.

A: At this stage, the situation on the field appears unclear.

O: We cannot draw a map of Syria at the moment. The government assures us it controls some cities but not others. The army has just two reliable divisions. In this context, military personnel are forced to withdraw from some areas and the rebels take advantage of this. Certainly, the regular army aims to control the borders, especially with Iraq and Jordan because it is from there that weapons come into the country. The same happens in the north, along the border with Turkey and Lebanon. This allows the transfer of war materials from one side to the other of the country, destabilizing the regime.

A: And increasing the number of refugees?

O: In Daraa and Damascus the atmosphere of war with its sense of destruction and danger has forced many people to leave, as happens during any military campaign. In a sense, the history of the Palestinian refugees in 1948 is similar. The only reliable numbers come from the United Nations and the only country that would have any interest in exaggerating the figures is Jordan, in order to ask for more help from the international organizations.

A: The minorities face major challenges, especially the Kurds, would you say?

O: It is necessary to draw a distinction between the interests of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the remaining Kurdish movements who are trying to take advantage of the current crisis. There is a continuous flow of Turkish and Iraqi Kurds to Washington. The Iraqi Kurds argue that their administration would be far more effective than the al-Maliki government. However, just two families manage the entire flow of international aid into Iraq. Christians and Sunni are also waiting: if they can afford it, they try to leave for Beirut. The most worrisome thing is the presence of the Alawites who have displaced Sunni Muslims within many villages. Moreover, it is interesting to look at the Druzes, because they do not have any external support. So they are forced to find a refuge in the mountains.

A: It is very difficult to grasp the nature of the Syrian opposition and who makes it up?

O: There are ideologically-driven as well as local opposition movements who draw on weapons and money coming from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. There are the Qaedists who are very well organized, but thy have no links with the previous type of rebel. The jihadists have tried to establish popular committees and courts, but they cannot put in place a restrictive interpretation of Sharia. And neither can impose themselves on the population because there are not many of them, as was the case in Afghanistan, even if they are ready to die.

Former and current State Secretaries Hilary Clinton and John Kerry both attempted to unify the opposition. They began with the intention of giving aid to ngo’s, but they could not find any. What they should do in fact is to support the women’s associations in the north of the country: they are the only ones who know what the people need and who controls each local network. Finally, the Syrians of Washington and London act as lobbies in favour of military intervention, but they too are not an organized and coordinated movement.

A: If the attempt to unify the opposition has failed, what is the strategy of the United States?

O: They only have an end game in sight. If Assad is defeated, they would support the intervention of Saudi and Qatari soldiers in Syria favouring the refugees’  return to the country. They fear that control could pass into the hands of the Muslim Brothers. But it is too late to intervene now. They are waiting for the moment when the Syrians become exhausted. Meanwhile, the Russian authorities do not want to see regime change. They know that Assad has a good army, able to shoot down Turkish planes. It is important that there is a general feeling that Israel will not attack Iran. Nevertheless, the fear is that missiles might arrive from the South of Lebanon and this spreads terror in Tel Aviv.

A: Is the Syrian economy as bankrupt as was its counterpart in Egypt?

O: The economy never collapses. People find a way to restart, and not only people on the rebel side. These people live in a free market. For sure, such a crisis entails the return of longterm planning. Thus, the left, whether it has been killed off or incorporated into the status quo in the past, could be back, beginning in Egypt. Ordinary people are living through a revolutionary moment, especially middle class women. They are experiencing a sexual liberation, and it does not matter how long they have to wait before incorporating that into their legislation – they won’t let it go.

A: Does this transformation of the Middle East have any historical precedent?

O: In 1917-18 Russia, local leaders organized popular committees relying on those who the people trusted. However, Middle East societies are patriarchal, managed by religious and political authorities. Revolutions involve politicians and judges: and if they are purged, nobody can do anything. If in Libya the new government wants to exclude those who had connections with Muammar Gaddafi, who actually remains?

The other model is the French Revolution, with the magnificent eruption of people, even if they are disorderly, where the square itself created the revolutionary process. Then we can turn to the American version, with a document that begins with the people and the necessity to create a new political order, settle down and obey these new rules.

About the authors

Roger Owen, professor of Middle East history at Harvard University is the author of two classic books on the history of the region: State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East and A History of the Middle East Economies in the 20th Century.

Giuseppe Acconcia, an Italian journalist and researcher, has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and a dissertation on the role of the military in politics in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. He is the author of The Egyptian Spring (Infinito, 2012).