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|Why Syria Matters: Interview with Aijaz Ahmad
by Prabir Purkayastha
Aijaz Ahmad: For one thing, Syria is the last remaining representative of Arab nationalism as it used to be understood historically. It still calls itself socialist. Even though it has implemented a great deal of neoliberal reform, the state sector is still dominant. It bans, literally bans, religion from politics. It will not recognize the existence of religious political parties. It is the historic opponent of Israel for a variety of reasons. . . . If you remove Syria, the cordon sanitaire around Israel is complete. There's no adversary left. There is then Iran -- not sharing a border, not a part of the historical Arab world. Iran gets isolated. And their perception is that both Hezbollah and Hamas will lose enormously. . . . So, Syria has that kind of strategic situation. In the old days, it was very closely aligned with the Socialist Bloc, and some of that kind of alignment still remains. . . .
Secular democratic -- well, not terribly democratic but secular -- Arab nationalism; secular, republican, anti-Zionist, anti-monarchical nationalism (in its social economic policy quite progressive -- it destroyed feudal remnants in Egypt for example) -- Syria is the last remaining representative of that. So, the Saudis, the Qataris, the monarchical Gulf Council, all these people -- their hatred of Syria comes from that old place [i.e. the reaction against the aforementioned current of nationalism] and then gets connected with Syria's more recent alignment with Iran. . . .
Since the days of the Truman Doctrine, Islam has been looked at as a great bulwark against all of these insurgent [nationalist and communist] forces in this part of the world. One of the prominent leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and a whole gang of them were welcomed to the White House by Eisenhower. It goes back that far, this alignment with the Muslim Brotherhood. . . . And it is that same process that brought jihadis to Afghanistan. Islam will fight against Arab nationalism, against communism. . . . [Imperialists] having defeated them in one place after another [by means of that alignment], Syria is perceived as that [i.e. the last of the kind that is yet to be defeated].
So, there is the Syria Accountability Act passed by the US Congress. Since then, the undermining of the Syrian government with a view to regime change has been an objective of the successive US administrations. . . .
Yes, there were disgruntled elements in Libya, in Syria, for a variety of reasons. But, in Syria certainly, they were very small. The Muslim Brotherhood historically had a very small base. They were quite powerful in the sixties and the early seventies. . . . But the regime contained them very well. So, what you had in Syria was the Muslim Brotherhood inside the country and a whole lot of exiled intellectuals in Paris, mainly in Paris, and elsewhere. . . . The Americans have known from the beginning, the West has known from the beginning, that their only chance in Syria would be if they could establish a so-called "liberated zone," preferably on the border with Turkey, which could become a kind of Benghazi . . . which could become a ground for intervention. They have known that there would not be a popular uprising of the kind that you had in Egypt. In Syria there are too many forces afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood. Syria is a genuinely secular country, by and large, for 25% of the population consists of various kinds of minorities. The fact that the Assad regime absolutely insists on secularism gives that 25% a great sense of security in the state. So, there were no grounds that they could use. This is very much manufactured -- very much manufactured from the beginning. And the killings of the state personnel have been going on from the beginning. Over a thousand members of the state personnel have been killed so far.
Prabir Purkayastha: So, almost 30% of the total number of casualties that have taken place in Syria.
Aijaz Ahmad: Yes, but you'd never know it from the established media. That has been going on from the beginning. And violence has been there from the beginning because the kind of popular uprising you saw in Tunisia, or Egypt, or Yemen, or Bahrain, there were no grounds for that sort of thing in Syria. You could not bring hundreds of thousands of people into the streets, and that's not because the Assad regime is more authoritarian than all those other regimes. . . . Disinformation in the case of Syria is actually in my view even greater than it was in the case of Libya. . . .
There are a number of things going on, on this question of the offering of reforms. Very extensive reforms, by the way, very extensive reforms. The only thing on which they've dug in their heels is the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that is the issue, I'm told, on which the negotiations with Turkey broke down. Turkey wanted 50-60% of the transitional umbrella organization's seats to be allotted to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Syrian regime said: Constitutionally we cannot give a seat to a religious party. So, reforms were rejected out of hand because the objective is regime change.
Prabir Purkayastha: Do you think the Bashar Assad regime can ride it out? At the moment it seems that he has tided over the initial crisis, which was there, and he seems very much in control, except in one or two spots like Homs and a couple of other places. Do you think this particular phase is actually over?
Aijaz Ahmad: The control of the regime is not in question. What the regime has been able to do is to deny them the creation of that sanctuary where these people could all be brought together, the creation of a Benghazi. . . . The amount of weaponry, and the quality of weaponry, that has come into Syria, in the hands of these anti-state elements that Syria is calling "armed gangs," is extraordinary. Extremely sophisticated weaponry has come in. It has come from Israel, it has come from Turkey, it has come through Lebanon, paid for by Saudi Arabia and so on. So, it is quite an achievement on the part of the regime so far to have denied them a place where the army could not penetrate. This much they have been able to do so far. How long this will last, we don't know.
Aijaz Ahmad is a Marxist critic in India. Prabir Purkayastha is a member of the Delhi Science Forum. Video by NewsClick (released on 27 November 2011). The text above is an edited partial transcript of the interview.