Tuesday 15 October 2013

“Not even the majority of the Sunnis are with the opposition”

Full transcript of interview with Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News, on the situation in Syria. Story, in Portuguese, here.

Transcrição completa da entrevista a Osama Siblani, editor da Arab American News, sobre a situação na Síria. Reportagem aqui.

What is your view of what is going on in Syria?
The Syrian crisis has many layers. The thinnest layer, at the moment, is between the Syrians themselves. When the so-called revolution, or uprising started, in a city called Deraa (?) it was for reforms, democracy, but they were not asking for the overthrow of the Government.

Unfortunately mistakes from the Government’s side, and interference from outside powers which have their own regional agenda, have put their input into the uprising and immediately after that it started becoming militarized. Once it had been militarized the dynamic changed on the ground and it slowly became a conflict within Syria but with outside forces intervening all the time, more and more. This is the second layer, of the regional forces, with Iran, Hezbollah and Iraq on the side of the Regime and on the other side Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Israel had a silent role.

This layer also became important in the game and the whole dynamic had changed.

The biggest and probably the most important one, which has been always present but has become more and more prominent, having become the thickest layer, is the international involvement, with Europe, USA, Saudia Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Jordan on the side of the rebels and on the other side Russia and China.

So there are the three layers, the Syrians, the regional players and the international layer.

So at this time it is no longer about freedom, reforms, overthrowing the regime and installing another one. It is a struggle to determine the future of the World Order. The Russians want to change how to do business in the world order and to flex their muscles in the Eastern Mediterranean. So this is where we are right now.

I don’t think Arabs, Arab Americans or even Syrians at this time are able to reconcile their differences and stop this war.

What do you think of the possibility of USA intervening?
I am against intervention, for many reasons.

The USA is not the policeman of the World. I don’t think it should be.

The USA is in financial difficulties, Detroit filed bankruptcy and is the first of many cities to do the same, because the country is going through a financial crises. We have 16 trillion dollars in debts and 1.5 trillion in budget deficit. We are cutting right and left and we cannot afford to lose more money, more troops, more men and women, and kill other people and have a bad reputation, considering what we did in Iraq in 2003, when we went in under false premises. We fought an immoral and unjustified war. We destroyed Iraq, we left 10 years later with the country still in shambles, and disintegrated, with more killings every day.

We killed millions and drove our economy into the ground. It is not in America’s best interest to intervene in Syria. It is not in Syria’s interest for America to intervene. If America intervenes militarily, on which side should they fight? If they fight Assad’s regime they will find themselves in the company of Al Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra, which we claim to have been fighting over the last 13 years.

So we are in a peculiar position, America is no longer the only power in the world. The world is changing, and it is changing in Syria, by the conflict in Syria. The USA can no longer dictate policies around the world. It is still the most powerful country, but others are rising, including Russia and China.

You don’t believe the Syrians can reconcile their differences. So how can this war end?
Probably it won’t end in the near future, because as I said it consists of three layers. The weakest layer is at the national level. I don’t think that the Syrians and the Arab countries are willing or able at this time to come together to resolve the situation, because it is far more spread and the regional interests of non-Arab countries, such as Israel, Turkey and Iran are heavily involved.

So I believe that we have to start at the top. We need to start by having an American – Russian agreement, and this will be an umbrella for a regional agreement. They cannot force it on the regional players, because they also have an agenda, so they need to bring Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Israel into the mix and try to find a solution at the regional level, that the international umbrella will cover.

Once this is done I believe the local layer can be resolved as quickly as anybody can imagine. Because all the players are financed and supported by regional and international powers, so once the international and regional players come to the table with an agreement, then the Syrians themselves, even if it is not acceptable to them will have to accept it.

Of course it remains to be seen who will have the upper hand on the ground at the time. That local player will perhaps be the local winner of the war. So there are too many components, it is very complicated, it cannot be resolved immediately and there is a lot at stake economically with the gas supplies, the pipelines, supply to Europe, how this will affect the Russian’s gas supply to Europe, which is the lifeline of Russia. How this will affect the industrial revolution in China, which depends heavily, up to 70% on Middle Eastern oil, how is this going to affect Europe in the long run, and Israel and the United States? All this is shaping up at this time, and unfortunately the ones who are paying the bill here are the Syrian people.

Do you imagine a future for Assad in a post-war Syria?
It depends on who will have the upper hand on the ground. I believe that Assad has proven, so far, that he has a formidable machine on the ground. There were some defections but they were insignificant for his army, his diplomatic and governmental branches are still robust and functioning. In this last crisis he has shown that a leader can make a decision quickly and abide by it, whereas the opposition are disintegrated, they have no central command, they are not able to make decisions, their loyalties are divided among their sponsors and supporters.

At the end of the day, in politics there are no feelings, it depends on who can deliver on the ground. Bashar Assad has proven that he is the strongest player in Syria, and when you are the strongest player. And when you are the strongest player you are not eliminated. It does not make sense to win and have them say “now you have to leave, you won, you fought, you paid all these sacrifices and now you have to pack and leave”. It doesn’t make any sense.

Do you believe that Assad was responsible for the chemical attack?
No I don’t.

First of all, I don’t know. I am the publisher of a newspaper, I have connections, I have met with several congressional leaders, to find out what they have. I did not get any indication from the congressional leaders I met with in the past few weeks. Nobody gave me any evidence. They have no evidence that Bashar al-Assad’s troops did that. In fact, we are hearing more facts coming out, like not all the people gathering in the hospitals were the casualties of that particular attack.

So I believe it has not been proven. We do not know what happened, we don’t know what kind of chemical weapons were used [interview recorded before UN’S final findings], I wanted to wait for the UN to come out with their findings, and again there is a major problem with United States intelligence and British intelligence, because they have fooled and lied to people in 2003 and they lost credibility and even their own people don’t believe them anymore and the world does not believe them either. They went to war on false pretence, where are the weapons of mass destruction? We have no answers to all these lies. Colin Powell holding the chemical agents, and such things.

I don’t believe the regime would use chemical weapons, for a simple reason, just logic. I don’t have proof, but I know they were making progress on the ground, scoring victories and taking over villages. So why would someone who is making gains on the ground use chemical weapons in order to aggravate the situation and get the west to intervene?

Also, the Syrian regime had accepted a UN commission to enter Syria and investigate previous acts of chemical attacks and allegations. They had just arrived in Damascus, so who would strike with Chemical weapons while a UN committee is sitting in a hotel in Damascus? It doesn’t make sense.

Plus, the third reason, is because the regime has a very organised structure that prevents something like this from happening. On the other side there is a chaotic situation and the loyalties are divided all over the place, and there is a major player who was introduced recently, Bandar bin Sultan [member of Royal Hhouse of Saud], who holds the whole issue of the opposition from the Saudi side, and some reporters have indications that he has given the opposition some chemical weapons or agents.

These are all assumptions, I have no proof. I am only using  my own analysis to look at the situation, to see who would benefit from this, the one who is losing on the ground, the one who has been asking for an American intervention, knowing that Obama had drawn a red line [in the case of use of chemical weapons]. They were trying to provoke the USA and bring them into the battle field, and they almost won, we were on the brink of war.

But fortunately we had cool heads in Moscow, Putin proved himself to be more worthy of the Noble Peace Prize than Barack Obama, unfortunately. Now the military solution is taking a back seat, the diplomatic solution is now what everybody is talking about, and that makes me happy.

Siblani fala a um grupo de manifestantes pró-Assad
Within the community in America is there also a sectarian divide?
I do not believe that most of the Sunni in Syria supports the opposition, it just doesn’t make sense.

Maybe not all the Sunnis support the opposition, but most of the opposition are Sunni…
First of all lets look at who is fighting the regime. There is Al Qaeda, the Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood, which are Sunni. And who is supporting them? Turkey, run by the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia, which is Wahhabi. So if you look at it this way, then yes, the majority of the opposition are Sunni, but the majority of those fighting for the regime are also Sunni.

Now maybe the forces that are actually making progress on the ground are not Sunni. I don’t know, I don’t know if the Alawites have special divisions or not. But I know that there is the Baathist party, and that there are socialist movements in Syria that cross the sectarian line. I know that they have forces and militias on the ground and that they don’t have religious affiliation. The Baathist party crosses all lines.

Christians in Syria, in Egypt, they want the government, they want stability. Look at what happened in Egypt. Immediately after the instability 72 churches were burned in two days. This is what is happening in Syria too. So under the Assad regime or the Mubarak regime, before, and under the Sisi regime know, the situation is under control and the Christians are more comfortable with the situation. I am not saying they are against democracy, but nobody is really respecting the democratic process anyway.

Aleppo and Damascus are majority Sunni, and the rebels were not able to get into Aleppo in the beginning. When they did get in to Aleppo and started the process of destruction, most of the people wanted the regime to come back. I am not saying that the Sunnis in Syria are in love with the regime, but they are definitely not in favour the chaotic situation in the country. They want change, but they want evolution, not revolution, not destroy and then build, and kill, but to change slowly but surely towards a democratic regime.

It has been proven that democracy is not a pill you can take. It is a process and a culture that you have to grow. Nobody can send a missile with a warhead of democracy. So we have to be careful when we start to talk about Sunnis and Shias. Is this a perception? Yes it is. Are there Sunnis opposed to the rebels? Inside Syria and outside Syria, yes. Here in this community, yes. But are there Sunnis also with the opposition, yes.

The minorities always stand with the Government because they want protection and they do not want the majorities to take over and they have seen what they have done in other areas, especially in Egypt and Tunisia. They want to be protected by the regime. Bashar Al-Assad is Alawite, but his wife is Sunni. I really don’t think that the struggle there is Sunni – Shia. I think that it has many shapes. One of them is that the World Order has to be changed. There are other powers… They may not be as powerful as the US, but they are willing to challenge.

But the countries supporting the regime and the opposition, here there seems to be a clear sectarian line…
At the regional level the countries that are supporting the regime… for example, the Government in Egypt is now supporting the regime…

Because of the Muslim Brotherhood?
Because of the Muslim Brotherhood, but at the same time the blood between Qatar and Saudi Arabia is deeper than between them and Iran. Also what is happening between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, there is a real struggle there. What is happening in Egypt has nothing to do with Sunni and Shia. Algeria, for example, is Sunni and is supporting the regime. They have interests that they have to take into consideration with the Saudis, but they voted against the strike against Syria, they voted against kicking Syria out of the Arab League.

So I do not want to draw these lines with a knife, but at the same time I do not want to blur them to the extent that I look silly. They exist, some people are trying to play this card and it is very obvious that the sectarian line and tension has been played for a long time. Some forces in the region wanted this to happen. I hope that what we have seen in Lebanon, that the majority of the Sunnis may be standing with the Saudis, with the March 14th, but also there are 30 to 40% of the sunnis who are not with the March 14th and the Saudis. So there is a blurred line. We have to see that this is a struggle, it is a war, and in a war you use all your weapons, including the sectarian and there is a ground that is fertile for the sectarian struggle, and it is being used.

I don’t think that there are many things in common between the shias of Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. You’ll find, if you look back in history, that it is not true. The Shia in the Arab world are more nationalist, they looked at Nasser, and at Khadafi at a younger age, and Arafat, they never were in the fold of the Shah of Iran, even though he was Shia.

The historical differences between Sunnis and Shias are 1400 years old, they are not something new. Why have they surfaced now? Because there are people who are playing with this, really feeling it and trying to use it for a different goal. So far they have failed and I hope they do fail, because this is a very dangerous thing to play with.

You were born in Lebanon?
I was born in Lebanon and came to the USA in 1976.

And you are from a Shia family?
I don’t like to identify myself, because I don’t feel this way. I don’t even feel Lebanese. I have always been a pan-arabist. Look at this picture behind me? It is Nasser. He is more important to me than my father. I don’t have a picture of Hassan Nasrallah, for example [leader of Hezbollah], and I could if I wanted to. I have grown up with Nasser’s ideas that there is one Arab nation and that we have common causes, grounds and denominators. I don’t believe in sectarianism. I am a Muslim and I happen to be from the Shia family, but I don’t believe in any of this.

I don’t even believe in differences between Muslims and Christians. I believe what Imam Ali, son in law of the Prophet said, “A man is either your brother in religion or an equal to you in humanity”. So if you are not my brother in religion you are my equal as a human. I truly believe this. I truly believe that as humans we have more in common among us than differences. And religion and politics sometimes gets in the way.

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