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Posts Tagged ‘Bassam Haddad

Jadaliyya Co-Editor Bassam Haddad Speaks on Syria’s Internal Wars and External Interventions, on NPR’s Spectrum

March 18, 2018

[This is a transcript of an interview conducted by NPR-affiliate WOUB Public Media. It was transcribed by John Kallas. See the original audio post here.]

This month the uprising in Syria will enter its eighth year.

More than 400,000 have been killed and over one-third of the nation’s infrastructure has been destroyed, says Bassam Haddad.

Half the population has been displaced from their homes and other countries have felt the glut of millions of Syrian refugees fleeing the fighting.

What started as a revolt against dictatorship in 2011 has become a cauldron of regional and international intervention. In addition to the United States and Russia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Hizbollah have been involved in supporting one side or the other.

The “Islamic State,” ISIS, at one point controlled more than 40 percent of the country’s territories. ISIS was finally routed from most of their strongholds by various military coalitions after fierce battles in Fall 2017. (East Aleppo, Deir-Zour, Mosul…)

At the eight-year mark of the struggle for Syria, reminiscent of similar goals decades prior, the country still faces internal political unrest, external interventions, battles between Turkey and the Kurds, and a massive task to rebuild the physical part of the country and infrastructure destroyed by war.

The recent and ongoing incessant pummeling of Al-Ghouta suburb of Damascus by the Syrian regime and Russia speaks in terms of the Syrian regime’s determination to liberate other regions under international control in support of terrorist factions

Haddad talks to Spectrum about all of these issues. He puts the conflicts into historical context from the beginning of the uprisings and discusses the current challenges facing Syria and Syrians. (In context must go before and during France colonial mandate in 1919)

Haddad is a scholar, a teacher, an author, and a documentary film-maker.

His second book is provisionally titled “Understanding the Syrian Tragedy: Regime, Opposition and Outsiders” to be published by Stanford University Press. He also has been the co-producer/director of the award-winning documentary film, “About Baghdad” and he also directed the acclaimed film, “Arabs and Terrorism.”


Tom Hodson: Welcome to Spectrum. Spectrum features conversations with an eclectic group of people. Some are famous and some are not, but the common thread is that they all have captivating stories.

Today we are talking with Dr. Bassam Haddad, the Director of Middle East and Islamic Studies Program at George Mason University.

He’s also part of the core faculty there in philosophy, politics, and economics. He is working on his second book about Syria and its internal struggles. Dr. Haddad talked with us about the armed struggles in Syria, especially since the defeat of ISIS and the continuing struggles in this war-torn country.

Can you explain why the situation in Syria is so confusing to anybody outside? (Why outside? Is there anybody outside the Syrian international conflict?)

Bassam Haddad: I am delighted to speak on this topic and I would like to address what you asked by saying something a little different. That is: if you are actually following the news on Syria and the more you follow the news on Syria, in fact, you actually become more confused. (The story has been much clearer after the successive victories of Syria army)

So if you are confused, I always say it is probably because you are following the news. Those who do not follow probably have a sort of classical view of the situation where they understand that there is an uprising against dictatorship which is exactly correct in terms of the basic narrative.

It actually became much more than that. It might surprise people that the trajectory of the Syrian Uprising is actually one of the more cautionary trajectories of uprisings and revolutions. (Unlike Libya, Tunisia, Egypt?)

Not because the uprising was not legitimate—it was perfectly legitimate and kind of late, if you will, because of the forty-some odd years of dictatorship. But it is because of what happened to the uprising as a function of meddling of various regions and international players on both sides, who effectively hijacked the uprising and turned it into a proxy war that serves the interests of state and non-state actors that are supporting either of the sides.

Of course the regime, on the one hand, and the opposition—or oppositions with an S—on the other hand. And of course, you have the third player in the boxing ring, which made things even more complicated, which is ISIS, a group that was not interested in a revolution against dictatorship and for the purposes of democracy, but interested in territorial gains across Syria and Iraq to erect its own version of a state called a Caliphate or an Islamic state.

(What’s that crap ” for the purposes of democracy”? You can’t but kiss ass with US rhetoric?)

Tom Hodson: So once ISIS entered, and that was about 2013, is that about the time? (When Iraq turned down the proposal of Obama to retain indefinitely its military presence)

Bassam Haddad: It basically had a presence in Iraq. And then we basically have a number of developments where the Syrian border—the porous Syrian border—allowed the entry of what was called the Islamic State in Iraq into Syria with early potential alliances with Jabhat Al-Nusra, which is an Al-Qaeda affiliated group in Syria. That did not go very well. And then, of course, the Islamic State in Syria and Al-Sham, or ISIS, emerged out of this sort of experience between 2013 and 2014.

Tom Hodson: And ISIS in Syria meant to take over territory. It was not just an ideological movement, it was actually a territory movement.

Bassam Haddad: Absolutely, and this is what distinguishes ISIS from, say, Al-Qaeda. (Wrong. Al Nusra was controlled by Turkey and its activities delimited)

Given that ISIS actually had territorial aims, it wanted to establish a state of sorts with communities, with all the trappings of a state from a judiciary, to a bureaucracy, and so on and so forth, and of course an army.

And it aimed to establish its state in both Syria and Iraq and, in fact, at some point, ISIS controlled about 30% of Iraq and close to forty-five percent of Syria. And we are talking here mostly about non-metropolitan cities because ISIS was better equipped to seize and control non-metropolitan cities as a function of the existence of more equipped armies in metropolitan cities but also as a function of the social structure in more rural areas that was more susceptible to control by a group like ISIS with its own ideology and its own conservatism socially and otherwise.

Tom Hodson: And Mosul became sort of a focal point of ISIS, correct?

Bassam Haddad: And the only city that actually is a full fledged metropolitan city in either of these two countries that ISIS was able to seize. And it actually seized it sort of in an odd way because there was no battle, really, in Mosul.

They just almost like walked in. And that was a function of the dissatisfaction that people in Mosul had with the government, on the one hand, and the lack of readiness of the troops or the official presence of the Iraqi government in Mosul.

And ISIS was able to walk in without much of a battle. And that became, in 2014, the most significant territorial gain in terms of metropolitan areas for ISIS besides its, if you will, its wilaya or its statelet in Raqqa, in rural north Syria.

Tom Hodson: So let us summarize to this point, and then we will go on. But we had the Assad Regime trying to stay in power against multiple intersections of rebels that were not necessarily consolidated in one force. Then we had ISIS coming in, disrupting that battle between those two entities, and interjecting a third entity into this conflict.

Now ISIS, allegedly, has been pushed out. Were they pushed out by sort of a ceasefire or… how did ISIS get pushed out while the other two were still battling?

Bassam Haddad: Let me start from the beginning, perhaps, and that is always a thing when one talks about Syria; you get involved in more, so to speak, juicy or, if you will, exciting details and then you have to go back to the beginning.

The narrative about Syria, of course, is always contested. There are no narratives on Syria that are not contested. (Great news). What I would like to share with you are some of the basic narratives that are very difficult to contest, even by differing opinions—and they will still be contested to an extent.

So the most important thing I think we should recognize about the Syrian situation is that Syria has been ruled by a dictatorship since 1970 or 1963 depending on when you want to start the clock, but in all cases some four to five decades.

(Before the successive military coups funded by Saudi Kingdom, Syria was a democracy and most parity-like in laws and state practices)

And it does not mean that the pre-dictatorship era was rosy, it just means that we have a particular sort of dictatorship under a particular party that ruled since 1963 and then 1970 respectively when Assad Sr. took over.

The background is the context within which everything happens.

After forty years of dictatorship, we cannot expect an uprising of angels. We cannot expect allies of the dictatorship to actually be on the sidelines. they will actually intervene. We cannot expect that the opposition to this dictatorship is going to be supported also by angelic state actors or non-state actors. (But it was peaceful until the colonial powers decided to meddle in)

So the situation from the very beginning has been set up to attract problematic allies, supporters, and as we have seen, foreign fighters with the case of ISIS and other groups.

So we have a situation where a legitimate uprising emerged in Syria in 2011, very much instigated by the uprisings and somewhat successful quick results in Tunisia and Egypt. (I guess how the uprising in Libya unfolded reminded the Syrians of the grave situation when colonial powers step in)

This uprising was civilian in character, was peaceful.

However, those early days and weeks of the uprising, and in some cases months, were disrupted by a number of developments. The first development that disrupted this uprising against dictatorship which then, as I shared earlier, was transformed into some sort of a proxy war was the weaponization of the uprising, the militarization of the uprising.

Which changed the character of the situation and provided an already brutal regime that was content to crush even civilian protesters voices was even more intent on doing so and went the extra mile with the justification that the uprising is not civil or civilian.

And that began to change the character of the uprising and changed the conflict from an uprising against dictatorship to somewhat of a war with a significant number of people on the side of the uprising.

Forming various groups that became quickly empowered, not just militarily but also politically from the outside.

And that created a war-like situation that gave a carte-blanche, from the regime’s perspective, to crack down even more brutally on the protestors as well as, of course, the rebel armies.

That transformed the context from an uprising against dictatorship to, as I shared, a proxy war in which various groups—on both sides—supporting both sides regionally, were trying to use this context of the Syrian Uprising to transform the region or to redraw the map of the region according to their own interests, each assuming that they will be victors.

The tragedy of the Syrian situation is that there are no victors, especially several years down the line. There are only victims. And those victims are the majority of the Syrian population that ended up being exhausted by what was going on on all sides.

Not necessarily supporting the area or the leadership within which they live because territoriality, they were confined to a particular area. And you root for where you are at, for the most part, unless you are able to flee or become a refugee like most Syrians.

The idea here is that the exhaustion of the majority of Syrians made them step back, actually, from the conflict— not in a neutral way. I believe that the majority of Syrians—the overwhelming majority of Syrians—want a change in Syria, want a removal of this regime.

What became more complex, and that is what a lot of people sometimes miss, is that the alternatives were becoming less and less desirable.

It is not that the regime became more attractive, it is that the alternatives, given what was happening on the ground, the nature of the rebel force, was changed from a civilian military rebel force that wanted a more progressive alternative to a rebel force that actually was bent of formulas that did not necessarily meet the aspirations of the revolutionaries—the original revolutionaries in Syria. (Actually, when the regime decided to let the army step in instead of the Presidential guards, there was an actual  regime change since then)

Within that context, various actors—state actors and non-state actors— locally, regionally, and internationally tried to take advantage of this mess to basically settle their own scores and to serve their own interests.

Whether it was the pro-opposition camp represented by countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the United States or whether it is the pro-regime camps represented by Iran, Russia, Hezbollah, and when it came to diplomatic relations, China. (I believe China was the deep pocket behind Russia forceful intervention)

So we ended up producing a disillusionment among most Syrians as far as who to support—again not because the lack of clarity that the regime needs to go—but because the lack of certainty that this alternative on the ground is the way to go.

 

 

Tom Hodson: And this uprising—this civil uprising—became an international conflict. And that internationalism made people wonder what interests were going to prevail and what countries were going to interfere, correct?

Bassam Haddad: Absolutely, and that is the tragedy we are actually encountering year after year and today. So if you want to look at the larger context, if we want to establish a bird’s-eye-view, we find that the Syrian Uprising that started in March 2013 has gone through a couple of phases and each of these phases include various stages.

The first stage was a civilian uprising which was transformed into a militarized uprising and then into a proxy war. So these represent stages within the first phase that ended in December 2016 when the regime was able to seize the entire city of Aleppo from the rebels, which constituted the retaking all major metropolitan cities by the regime because the regime did in fact control it beforehand, of course.

At this point the civil war ended for Syria.

Those who wanted to remove the regime, whether they really cared about the Syrian people or not but wanted to remove the regime for one reason or another, that signaled the end of that goal, or the end of that objective because the regime was able to control most of what is called “Useful Syria” or “Syria Al-Mufida” by December 2016.

The second phase is what started after this process, which is basically: we moved from a war over Syria to a number of smaller wars within Syria that really represent at least a couple of goals; either settling scores for certain countries such as Turkey with its war against the Kurds, or retaking what is left of Syria by the regime.

These constitute the two major dynamics today in Syria, even though there are other dynamics at work. And what made those dynamics dominant, especially today in 2018, frankly, is the dramatic degradation of ISIS over the past year, which freed up most players who actually were together; even though they oppose each other on everything else they actually worked together as in, maybe I should not say work together but they actually all had a goal of degrading ISIS

Tom Hodson: That was a common enemy.

Bassam Haddad: That was a common enemy and they had a similar opposition.

Even if, in my view, whether it is the US, the Syrian Regime, the Iranians, the Russians, or the opposition—at least in some cases, there is some sort of a utility for leaving ISIS degraded but not completely destroyed because that can be used as a card in various situations down the line.

And this is a speculation but there is enough reason to believe that there is not an intent to completely rote out ISIS from the very small remaining parts of Syria.

And that represents the second phase of the Syrian Uprising, whereby we no longer have a war to take over the central government of Syria, at least nothing extant and evident.

And more smaller fragmented wars that represent the interests of various countries, in using Syria to settle scores or to actually prevent further development of a conflict or threat in the case of Turkey and the Kurds.

Turkey’s invasion and incursion into Syria, happening today, in the city of Afrin in Syria is meant to basically dismantle and defeat the YPG, a Kurdish movement that is accused of being connected to the KPP, which is the Kurdish Workers Party, a separatist party with which the Turks have been at war for many years.

(KPP leader, Abdullah Ocalan, a Turkish Kurd, is in Turkish prison since 1999, after Hafez Assad delivered him to avoid a war with Turkey)

And it accuses both of them, by association, of being terrorist groups. Turkey is trying to do this because it claims to secure its southern border and is now in conflict with other groups and actors that view this as a violation of sovereignty, including the Syrian regime, whose militias—or pro-regime militias—are now in this fight.

So we have a very complex train in that regard and it is actually proceeding at very high losses of course on the side of the Kurds in Afrin, but also on the side of the Turks who were not able to push forth as fast as they wanted.

(Afrin was captured by Turkey and the terrorist factions that Turkey hired, including members of ISIS. Over 400,000 civilians fled to the regime liberated territory in the city of Nobol. Looting of Afrin is going on unperturbed)

The regime, on the other hand, is trying to retake various parts of Syria that have been lost to the rebels over the past several years. And we see the tragedy unfold today in Eastern Damascus, in the Ghouta region, where the regime and the Russians are pummeling the region of some 380,000 people that have been besieged for years. (After the USA gave the green light to pound Damascus every day with missiles and harvesting hundreds of casualties)

In response, they claim to various rockets that are sent to Damascus and claims about the proliferation of terrorist groups inside. Of course all groups name terrorists as the enemy or the enemy becomes terrorist respective of the veracity. And that is one, or the first attempt right now, after Aleppo, to retake one of several major strategic areas. Ghouta has now suffered the deaths of about 600-700 civilians, even though the regime claims they are mostly military personnel or militia fighters.

And it seems that the next step in this campaign will be a hotbed of the rebel opposition that is controlled by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham in the North, and that’s the Idlib province, where it is said that Ghouta is basically either the training ground or the first step before getting into that region. (Al Ghouta is now occupied by the Syrian army. The terrorist groups have boarded the regime buses to Edlib)

Because this is the only major stronghold of the opposition that is well equipped in terms of military might. And then of course other parts of the country seem to be in the sights of the Syrian regime including the South—which is actually pretty much stable as a function of the lack of one military authority controlling that region, though it is actually a coalition and it is confined or bound by various treaties and agreements made with Syria, Jordan, Israel as well in terms of what kinds of movements can happen there.

Then you have the big question which is the latent potential conflict between the Syrian regime and the Kurds—who have been friends at certain points, fighting similar enemies, and they actually are in opposition structurally and ideologically. But they have not really entered into a full-fledged war. (There won’t be any war with the Kurds: They Syrians first of all and no foreign mercenaries)

And one of the reasons has to do with economics, given that the Kurds control more than 65% of (inland) oil fields now in Syria. (Talking of the potential in the future. Currently it can produce just 25% of inland gas and oil. And they have no refineries)

Tom Hodson: What you have described really helps us, I think, understand the regionalism here and the historical dynamics. It seems, though, to an outsider that the American foreign policy, as it relates to Syria, has been one that is in flux. It is confusing. It is fragmented. Is that a correct characterization?

Bassam Haddad: From the point of view of people living in the United States, like you and me, it might seem like there is hesitation. It might seem that there is a kind of confusion as to what to do about Syria.

But in reality, the confusion is not all that much. The appearance of confusion actually is evident, yes, is palpable. But in reality, the United States under the Obama Administration—and interestingly under the Trump Administration—if you notice there has not been a dramatic change on actual policy in Syria.

There has been rhetoric that spoke of difference but in reality, states operate based on national interests usually, that are rather stable. And the single most important point for the US Administration has always been that the prize in Syria is Not that high, on the one hand. (Actually, the Silk Road and train transport do Not cross either Iraq or Syria)

So we are not looking at a conflict where the returns or the rewards are evident and the costs can be minimized. That is a central component of the US position on Syria.

Another component has to do with the extent to which the US public and the US Military and US Government is willing to go into a full-fledged war generally. And that has been perspired by the problems that took place in Iraq—and in a way, not recognizing the catastrophe that befell Iraqis themselves—but what the United States went through in Iraq has actually tempered our appetite for war.

Whether it was in Syria in 2005 when some were calling for striking Syria or the ongoing appetite for war with Iran where there is calls, this administration with its very blunt rhetoric is actually treading very carefully on the question of war.

So this second issue of appetite for war in the region or full-fledged war is also Not high.

The third is a factor that allows us to understand US foreign policy over and above the zig-zagging of rhetoric is the combination of the two in recognizing the context in Syria. The simple fact is, and that is part of the reason why the uprising was Not successful, is that all the supporters—if not most of the supporters—of the Syrian Uprising, the uprising for democracy, are for the most part not genuine supporters of an uprising for democracy.

If anything, they were betting on removing the regime for purposes that served their interests. The coincidence of wanting to remove dictatorship with the aspirations of the overwhelming majority of Syrians created an alliance that was very fragile, between the uprising, if you will, and external forces.

However, what the US administration—the previous administration, recognized is that this fight, this conflict, for the regime and its allies is an existential conflict. (For the survival of Israel that is going fast downhill)

Whereas for the supporters of the uprising, it’s a strategic conflict in which they could actually withdraw at any moment when the threat and the danger becomes higher than a particular threshold, which is exactly what happened in the case of Qatar and Saudi Arabia who recently were actually arguing among each other who messed up in dealing with Syria and the Syrian rebels; who weaponized which groups and radicalized the situation in Syria or the uprising.

Tom Hodson: It became a point of conflict between those two.

Bassam Haddad: Absolutely. And they both withdrew their, you know, ample support to a large extent, not completely. Turkey no longer was willing to make its border open and porous to incoming fighters from which many thousands of fighters came to fight “the good fight” and got into its own trouble with the islamists or with ISIS who began to blow things up in Turkey.

And Turkey therefore hit the brakes on its rhetoric against the Syrian regime and its facilitation of various forces fighting the regime—state or non-state actors, as well as individual foreign fighters.

It became more, as you shared, involved with the Kurdish situation. And the United States, of course, has no stake compared to, for instance: Iran, Hezbollah, and the Russians who actually went in full force and did what the United States was not necessarily willing to do in terms of going all-out vis-a-vis ISIS, even though the Russians also did this as a cover to help the regime root out the remaining rebels in the name of fighting terrorist, not distinguishing between groups that they do not like that are against the regime and groups that they do not like like ISIS—

Tom Hodson: Whether you are ISIS or a rebel, either one, you are an enemy of the state so you are the same—

Bassam Haddad: And there was some sort of manipulation on the part of the Russians whereby they grouped these movements together like Jabhat Al-Nusra that was mostly Syrian and fighting the regime (Moslem Brotherhoods in Syria and Turkey) as opposed to ISIS that is significantly non-Syrian and not interested in revolution in Syria; more interested in its territorial control in Iraq and Syria, and creating a state of its own that goes against, almost literally, most of what the rebels want, even the fighting rebels.

So in a way, the US readiness for anything from establishing a no-fly zone to committing to significant troops on the ground—because obviously there are some troops on the ground— was extremely low within the Obama Administration for those three reasons I mentioned and continue to be low under Trump with the one exception, and that is: should there be an event that might spin things out of control in Syria? The Trump Administration will be more likely to respond in ways that, perhaps, the Obama administration would not.

Tom Hodson: If we look at the country, at least from the news clippings that we see and from the newscasts that we see, Syria is destroyed. The infrastructures, the buildings, there is widespread damage, at least in some of the cities and some of the areas where they were fighting. How will that be rebuilt? And who will help pay the bill to have it rebuilt?

Bassam Haddad: I recently gave a talk at both UCLA and George Mason University precisely about this question. The question of reconstruction, rebuilding, reconciliation, potential peace. And the unfortunate fact is that the problem in Syria—as opposed to what many believe, especially in the international community who are looking for lucrative entry points into Syria—the unfortunate fact is that the problem in Syria is not one of destruction.

(Syria is claiming that it can reconstruct with $200 bn and is Not about to sell off its sovereignty and accumulate any foreign debt in that process)

I mean that is a component of the problem, but it is wrapped up in profound political rivalries, decades of repression, and various other factors that make the resolution not simply one of reconstruction. The destruction is evident.

Besides the more than 400,000 Syrians killed, we have, of course, more than a million injured severely, we have hundreds of thousands of disabled Syrians, and we have the destruction of at least a third of the infrastructure, and the destruction of various institutions of learning, various healthcare centers and hospitals—thanks to the purposeful regime bombing and Russian bombing for the most part—and for the most part in rebel held areas.

(Yes, blame it all on Russia, as if the USA, France and Britain were angels, angels of death everywhere they sent troops )

We have more than half the Syrian population—a population of about twenty-four million—displaced. Some, about half or a little bit less than half, displaced from Syria to other countries including Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and various other countries like Egypt, Europe, and so on. And then the rest are internally displaced.

We also have a considerable amount of damage that is not concrete and tangible, that a lot of people do not talk about, and that is a very destructive development in Syria.

The trauma that has affected all Syrians. The psychological issues that—you know, we talk here about our own tragedies, our small tragedies like the high school shootings. And you can imagine the trauma of some of these people who did not even witness firsthand what happened.

And we get concerned about them and we put their pictures on CNN and we talk to these people who are traumatized by just being in the territory of the school when this happened. So you can imagine after seven years of death and destruction the extent of the trauma in Syria.

There are developmental consequences. For seven years, many people did not have the proper education in a country that is used to actually having almost full literacy. So we have seven years blacked out from the lives of many people—not all, because schools continue to operate here and there in various places.

The working force, imagine the extent to which Syria lost a workforce with skills who are now actually doing a good job in places like Germany and elsewhere in terms of being able to use their skills.

So Syria now is bereft of all sorts of dignity and resources. So we have a damage that is profound. The rebuilding, however, cannot continue or even start properly without some form of establishing… not peace, even, but territorial integrity. There are at least four major semi-sovereign or sovereign divisions in Syria.

The regime which has the largest portion now, the Kurds who have the second largest portion in most of northern and northeast Syria, and then of course the opposition who have some strongholds in the North in Idlib and around Damascus and some in the South, and then, of course, ISIS which is mostly in eastern Syria in smaller patches (protected by the USA) of land and they are now trying to, if you will, close their businesses and smuggle out weapons, people, and money (cash).

Without having some sort of territorial integrity, the rebuilding is going to be fragmented and it will actually not serve the average Syrian. It is, in fact, starting in Syria—in the Syrian regime controlled territories—where they are actually engaged in heavy reconstruction.

But this reconstruction does not seem to be aimed on the account of the best analysts and field researchers to actually serve those Syrians who lost their lives and their homes. It is actually reconstruction that is more aimed at propping up the state and basically providing housing for people who can afford this sort of housing. And it is tragic that most people who lost their houses and are displaced within and outside Syria will not be able actually to come back to those areas.

If there is a plan to rebuild Syria, whether it is the World Bank or the IMF’s support. Whether it is the Chinese, the Iranians, the Russians, the United States, and various international institutions like the UN and the UNDP and so on, the question is: who will they make these deals with? If it is the regime, then the rebuilding will happen according to the interest of the regime and its immediate partners, not according to the interest of most Syrians who have lost their lives and their homes. (Going off to standard generalization and rhetoric of academics) 

If it is others, well one worries how long these others will be in their place. The rebels, the Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, for instance, in Northern Syria, who are not exactly admired by most Syrians… it is not exactly tenable.

The Kurds have a very similar precarious future. Of course ISIS is not even a contender. So the best case scenario which is: the regime yields undesirable results and then you move on from there. (How that? Can this war be won without the people backing the regime?)

Tom Hodson: You have a new book coming out shortly—the second book that you have written about this area.

Bassam Haddad: I cannot claim that I have written it completely, every time I try to finalize what needs to be part of this document, things develop—and not small things, either. So I tried from 2013 to finalize things, and then ISIS emerged, of course. I was both busy enough and lucky enough to not have finished it.

So I am working now on—my first book was on the collusion between the regime and big business moguls in Syria. The collusion that actually led to the deterioration of the Syrian economy and to the dramatic social polarization in Syria which was the background to the uprising.

My second book is the continuation of the story that starts with the first ten years of Bashar Al-Assad’s rule starting in 2000 that demonstrates the extent to which that rule drove discontent to a higher degree and set the stage in very tangible ways for an uprising that was long overdue to begin with. And it continues to address the dynamics of the Syrian Uprising by first looking at why is it that it is so complex, even more complex than the other uprisings around the same region, in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain.

And looks at the pivotal role—the regional role—of Syria and how it is at the center of various conflicts simultaneously—local, regional, and international. And then goes to address the transformation of the uprising to something that does not any longer resemble the original sentiments of the uprising and addresses the driving—or the drivers—for the prolongation of the uprising including what is called the “War Economy” from which all rebels benefit and from which all fighters benefit and all states benefit, which sort of explains to an extent why there is very little interest locally and regionally in ending the war—because that is an economy that has benefited various players who are not really interested in revolution… on all sides.

And it addresses the dynamics of the uprising in the sense that it allows us to understand the formation, reformation, and breakdown of various coalitions and groups amongst the opposition. What explains this roller coaster of emergence and disappearance and breakdown of groups within the opposition. Instead of doing what a lot of think tank papers do or a lot of analysis does sometimes—or news—which is basically follow this or that group and how they emerged and how they coalesced and how they broke down,

I tried to develop a framework to understand what governs these processes—the larger picture that governs these processes—so that we could link pre-2011 Syria with the dynamics of the uprising itself locally, in the interest of regional and international players that come together in basically providing the incentive structure for formation breakdown of these various coalition groups.

And then it ends with this discussion of reconstruction. Basically, in my view it is a bit of a farce. At the same time that you cannot not reconstruct, right? So I am not critiquing the reconstruction for the purpose of rebuilding hospitals and schools and homes. What I am concerned about is that this has become an opportunity for capital gain. This has become an opportunity for increasing revenue of various actors. And this has become an opportunity to replenish state coiffers in some ways and support various international allies and enemies by offering them a piece of the pie.

Tom Hodson: And graft and corruption is along the way I am sure.

Bassam Haddad: That is a constant, unfortunately. And the bottom line is that after this tragedy of more than seven years soon—this month, actually—we will not be serving the Syrian people, even after everything that I just shared in terms of damage. The reconstruction might well not serve the majority of Syrians, but serve to prolong the life and security of the supposed victors. (Wrong conclusion. Bassam is trying hard to abide by the US standard wishes and rhetoric)

Syrian refugees in Lebanon: Understanding racism?

A Syrian refugee, when asked how Lebanon was treating him, lamented and said:

“How is it treating me? It isn’t treating me, it treats my money. Because of the nature of my job (veterinarian) I’m dealing with middle upper class Lebanese who only make their judgments based on money. They see that I’m here spending, and they see that I too come from the middle classes so they don’t show as much bigotry as it is normally the sentiment against us (Syrians) in Lebanon”.

Mohamad Ali-Nayel, Bassem Chit published this October 28, 2013 on Civil Society Knowledge Center

Understanding racism against Syrian refugees in Lebanon

The end of Lebanon’s civil war was marked by a more direct hegemonic role of the Syrian regime over the country’s political and economic spheres, with a high level of complicity from the Lebanese rulers with the Syrian regime.

This status quo allowed the Syrian regime to escape the economic stagnation that the country faced (1), through the open borders policy, allowing scores of Syrian workers to come to Lebanon in search of jobs.

And it gave the Lebanese ruling class and its contractors access to cheap labor, without providing them with any rights, in the large reconstruction projects that were initiated by the government in the early 1990’s, after 15 years of civil war.

Source: yalibnan.com

Syrian refugees in UNHCR waiting room, Beirut, Lebanon | Photo by: yalibnan.com

Resentment against the Syrian regime’s control over Lebanon grew in the post-civil war years, yet this discontent was easily channeled through the dominant discourses into an unchallenged (neither by the Syrian or Lebanese State, nor by the majority of civil society organizations and political parties in Lebanon) xenophobic and racist sentiments against Syrian workers.

The Syrian workers became stereotyped and stigmatized as “ignorant” and “menial” workers. Although it was exactly this Syrian labor force that rebuilt Lebanon in the post-war era.

The ongoing popular uprising that started in Syria in early 2011, especially after the oppressive response by the regime, has now turned into an all-out war across the country.

As a result, a high number of Syrian citizens fled their country into Lebanon. Yet, and in contrast to the previous composition of the Syrian community that was present in Lebanon before 2011, this new influx introduced new and different segments of the Syrian population into Lebanon, such as the Syrian upper and lower middle classes.

These newcomers found striking similarities with the Lebanese middle classes. However, the majority of refugees is still composed of Syrian workers and the urban and rural poor.

The multi-class composition of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has challenged pre-existing xenophobic sentiments and stigmas, as the starting quote mentions:“They see that I’m here spending, and they see that I too come from the middle classes so they don’t show as much bigotry as it is normally the sentiment against us (Syrians) in Lebanon”.

However, it only does so on a class basis. The Syrian middle classes are able, in effect, albeit to a small extent, to escape the stigmatization, which is becoming more and more focused and concentrated on poor and working class Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

At the same time, the influx of Syrian refugees is also shaping contradictory sentiments among the wider populace in Lebanon.

On one side there is an element of basic sympathy, which can be identified through a diverse scope of activities such as Lebanese families hosting refugees in their homes or property, as well as basic support like clothing and food in different regions and locations in cities and villages. As a 50 year old woman comments, contemplating that issue of basic sympathy: It is unethical to blame the refugees for the problems we are facing, they had no choice in coming here, they are running from war, like we ran before them from the [Lebanese] civil war”.

On the other side, there are the dominant discourses propagated by leading political forces and elites, along with their affiliated media stations. They have been actively scapegoating Syrian refugees and blaming them for economic, social and security failures in the country. These discourses are then replicated through the daily politics of individuals and groups, forging a xenophobic and racist popular culture against Syrian refugees.

MP Michel Aoun recently stated that the “Syrian refugees are a serious danger”, while Samir Geagea, the main figure in Lebanon’s Lebanese Forces, stressed on the 30th of August 2013, about “Lebanon’s inability to handle [The Syrian refugee crisis] more, and that a viable solution needs to be put in place, and the only solution is to establish safe zones within Syria’s borders under international protection.”

Marwan Charbel, Lebanon’s internal security minister, declared on February 28th 2013 that the “Syrian refugees are threatening the security situation in Lebanon”. Other major political forces in Lebanon, like Hizbullah, Amal, Jumblatt’s PSP (Progressive Socialist Party), and Hariri’s Future Current mostly stressed the Humanitarian aspect of the “Syrian refugees Crisis” in Lebanon, but have refrained from countering any of the racist and xenophobic discourses, in the political and media spheres and even among their base of supporters and cadres.

The scapegoating discourse does not spur out of a natural inclination towards racism. Rather, it signals a deep crisis that the Lebanese state and its ruling elite have been facing since 2005 (2).

More recently, it became galvanized by the crisis faced by the Syrian regime and the consequent influx of refugees, which has uncovered Lebanon’s ruling elite’s inability to manage the rising needs within society and the calls for reform.

Social dismay in Lebanon also started to accumulate around 2011, exacerbated by a history of corruption and conflicts, in the absence of any real and concrete plans of economic and social development and reform.

The past two years witnessed a short-lived social mobilization against sectarianism and a prolonged mobilization and strike movement by the Trade Union Coordination Committee, in addition to localized protests, such as the electricity workers’ open strike.

Added to that was the rising pressure from civil society forces for equal rights for women and other social issues. This led the Lebanese State and major political forces in the country to actively try to escape that pressure by attempting to channel existing popular resentment against the State towards a xenophobic and racist victimization of poor Syrian refugees.

To simply say that the Lebanese are naturally racist is shortsighted. This over-simplification tends to overlook factors that concentrate and divert people’s frustration against their own regime, towards scapegoating and discrimination against Syrian refugees.

In order to discern this process of diversion or deflection, the role of Lebanon’s media institutions needs to be interpreted and the manner in which they shape people’s general understanding and consciousness of the world around them and its contradictions.

On August 6th, 2013, a news article published by An-Nahar newspaper, a Arabic Lebanese political daily, mentions that:

“The worker and craftsman from Akkar already suffers from a tough economic hardship and shrinking job opportunities. They are being forced between the hammer of a human feeling, sympathy with the displaced Syrians, and the anvil of the reality of living difficulties. The Syrian seasonal workers have become today’s workers and permanent residents working in various business available in Akkar”

The author in this paragraph summarizes the problematic of this article.

1. The author manages to establish an unquestionable status quo in Akkar by saying it “already suffers from a tough economic hardship and shrinking job opportunities.” He then suggests that what is galvanizing these hardships is also another unquestionable fact, which is the taking over of jobs by the Syrian refugees, who are “already registered as refugees and are benefiting from international, Arab and local aid”.

2. The author fails to mention the reasons of economic stagnation in Akkar, North of Lebanon, which has been witnessing a serious lack of attention from the Lebanese State especially in terms of socio-economic development. A study conducted by Mada Association in 2008 notices the following about the area:

“In 1998, Akkar accounted for 12.5% of the total number of deprived individuals in Lebanon, with 63.3%of the families in the region living in poverty and 23.3% of them in extreme poverty. Preliminary results of the 2004 mapping using the same living conditions index show that Akkar continues to have the highest share of poor households in Lebanon.”

3. The author also fails to mention the reasons why Syrian refugees, who are “receiving aid”  are in dire need of finding jobs. He also fails to ask whether the provided aid is actually enough to sustain the Syrian refugees, who did not flee to Lebanon by choice, but were rather forced to do so due to the ongoing violence in Syria.

Oxfam, an international humanitarian organization, carried out a Fair Share Analysis of Donations to the UN Syria Crisis Appeal, September 2013 and deduced the following:

“Research carried out by international aid agency Oxfam reveals that many donor countries are failing to provide their share of the urgently-needed funding for the humanitarian response to the Syria crisis. While the need for a political solution to the crisis is as urgent as ever, Oxfam says donors including France, Qatar and Russia, must also prioritise funding the UN’s $5 billion appeals.”

By omitting these facts, the author leaves the reader with the conclusion that people in Akkar are communities who, in order to make a living, need to fend for themselves, without showing the shortcomings and responsibilities of the State or the region’s elected MPs. He also suggests that Akkar’s residents, although living a tough reality, they were generally doing ok, until the Syrian refugees arrived to the region.

This method of diversion is prevalent in Lebanese media reporting.

In an article published by Assafir newspaper on September 4th, 2013, which could be read as a feel-good story about the refugees. However, the story’s conclusion focuses on the negative sentiments that sum up refugees as a nuisance and alien to the “Lebanese way of life.

“The large number of motorcycles, though making life easier for Syrian refugees, has become an ample curse for the local population in the villages. The movements of dozens of motorbikes in villages have annoyed their residents, who in turn complained about the annoying sounds in narrow streets and alleys, in addition to the smoke that is emitted from each motorbike. This urged local authorities and security forces to control their movement, by setting specific limited hours for their movement.”

Although the author mentions the reasons why Syrian refugees use motorbikes, as it has a low cost compared to the high costs of local transportation systems in Lebanon, he misses the fact that the use of motorbikes is also a prevalent means of transportation for the Lebanese  working class or poor backgrounds.

Instead of tackling the question of transportation, facing both poor Lebanese and poor Syrian refugees alike, which is by all means the responsibility of the Lebanese State and ruling elites, the issue is thus diverted into an unresolvable dilemma presented in the concluding comparison, portraying quaint Lebanese villages versus the noise and nuisance that is caused by Syrian refugees on motorbikes.

Another example of this method of reporting can be found in an article published on April 19th, 2013 by Al-Akhbar newspaper, another Arabic, Lebanese political daily. The author seems to have just discovered or is re-discovering Souk Al-Ahad (The Sunday Market). The author observes, based on the present businesses and the crowds in the Sunday Market, that the Syrian refugees are now:

“changing landmarks in Beirut and its daily routine and Sunday market has had the lion’s share from this change”. 

Yet this market has been historically one of the most visited places by poor working class Lebanese and Syrian and other migrant workers alike. But the author neglects that fact by saying that, before the Syrians came, it was a “quiet” shopping area. When one of the stall owners mentions the real problem of the continuous rising of stalls’ rent prices by the market’s Lebanese management:

“Mohamad denies the increasing number of stalls in the market is a result of the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon, and explains it on the basis that the price of a stall in Souk Al-Ahad is U.S. $175 per week, with raising prices permanently put up by the market management.”

The author fails to pursue this issue, but continues to generally describe the Lebanese stall owners’ reaction to Syrian customers and vice versa.

The article overlooks the effects of rising rent prices and the reasons behind the hike in product prices, which many of the author’s interviewees mentioned in the article. One woman is reportedly saying: “Are Lebanese used to pay such prices or where they hiked just to welcome the Syrian visitor?” The author simply focuses on the antagonism that exists between Lebanese and Syrians, inadvertently contributing to the portrayal of an embedded racism, without showing who are the ones responsible or pulling the strings and fueling such racism.

The use of the word “Lebanese prestige” at the beginning of the article, to describe an assumed slow or quiet movement in the market before the influx of Syrian refugees, hints at a certain assumed bourgeois character of Lebanese citizens. It is then re-established by describing the “Lebanese corner” of the market, as being similar in shape to the bourgeois streets of downtown Beirut, compared to the popular character of the other stalls (where the author does not really say whether they are Lebanese or Syrian).

The missing facts and questions for understanding the antagonism rising within the politics of this market are many. Who is the Lebanese management? Why did it hike the rent prices?,What were the reasons behind the rent hike? How did that impact the prices of goods sold in the market? Who was affected? How did that play in fueling or driving antagonistic sentiments between Syrian and Lebanese shoppers and stall operators?

Falling into the same problematic of media reporting in Lebanon when dealing with the question of racism against Syrian refugees is the continued focus on reporting “racist behavior,” whether in support or in condemnation. Either way, it is being enforced as the media fails to look into what drives it, what encourages it, and what are the conditions that are nourishing its propagation within society.

All in all, those responsible for economic policies in Lebanon, the establishment of working and accessible transportation systems, the management of markets, such as Souk Al-Ahad, are all outside the picture the media reports when tackling questions related to Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The reader is left with two conclusions; either the Lebanese are inherently racist, as a unchanging fact, or Syrian refugees are greedy workers who steal jobs from poor Lebanese citizens.

The examples of media reporting on Syrian refugees in Lebanon are many and most follow these two stereotypes in one way or another. On rare occasions, articles point to the structural causes and the political environment that effortlessly manage to divert existing genuine resentment against the harsh conditions people face in Lebanon, through scapegoating “foreign elements.”

This culture of diversion, if it may be called as such, is not new. It has been a longstanding accompanying discourse of Lebanon’s ruling elite, in building their own political hegemony and preserving their rule. The ills of Lebanon are always relegated to being the result of interference of “stranger” and/or “foreign” elements.

This is exceptionally true in the dominant discourses interpreting the causes of the long civil war that destroyed the country between 1975 and 1989, following which the ruling elite declared a general amnesty and resorted to explain the civil war as a result of the interference of “Palestinians” or “Syrians” in local Lebanese affairs. It was enough to divert attention from the real causes of the war, the State’s sectarianism being one of the major causes.

Yet this scapegoating is never done on the level of interfering governments or rich Arab and foreign interventionists. Quite the contrary, it has always been directed against migrant workers, refugees, workers, and the poor. It is exactly this economic or class element of this culture that is worrying. The opening quote of this article mentions that “it [Lebanon] treats my money”, making Lebanon a safe haven for the rich and, at the same time, a punitive establishment for the poor. The punishments is incited through sectarianism and racist and xenophobic strife and conflict.

In an environment of economic scarcity, hardship, and poverty, questions about who is more poor and more needy, among the poor, is directly and indirectly attempting to hide a more important and more crucial question, which is why do Syrian and Lebanese, whether in Lebanon or in Syria, have to live in poverty and hardship? In the mean time, projects for constructing billion-dollar shopping malls and sky-high expensive resorts and buildings are ongoing in different places around the country. It is that culture of not questioning poverty and scarcity,that allows and drives the development of racism, sectarianism, and xenophobia.

 As a result, it is the poor and the refugees who pay the price and they learn to replicate the same discourse within their own interpretations of reality:

“We have covered larger sections of Lebanon and we have become too many to the extent that the Lebanese cannot tolerate us any longer. They have also increased their authority and control over us at work. Even some of them have stopped paying us our salaries. The hard living conditions are not the only reasons that make Syrian refugees line up at the doors of UNHCR, but also because in Lebanon they don’t feel that they are outside the Syrian crisis. Everyone in Lebanon wants to know where we are from, who we belong to. or who we support. This way, the Lebanese choose to deal with us based on our backgrounds”. Nasser fled with two generations from his family, all wanting to reach the West. It doesn’t matter which country they go to, what only matters is to get out of here. Nasser tells al-Akhbar newspaper on October 16th, 2012.

Stories and news reports about Syrian refugees in Lebanon are abundant in Lebanese media. Stories covering the refugees seem to cover almost all aspects of being a Syrian refugee in Lebanon. However, they are always portrayed in majority as having a “turbulent” effect on Lebanese society, without actually looking to the already existing turbulent conditions in the country. The fact that Syrian refugees are being coerced towards a refugee status is similar to that which many Lebanese faced during the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon or the Civil War. But it is mostly neglected or only used to justify support for the regime or segments of the opposition in Syria. It does not purport to show the striking similarities in hardships, oppression, and exploitation that both Syrian and Lebanese face, while living under the existing ruling orders; the continuous state of stagnation of reforms that both the Syrian and Lebanese regimes are facing; or the effects this stagnation has in terms of exacerbating social and civil injustices.

The media commands how people understand and interpret reality to a large extent. Thus, if the space is left for a shortsighted or deflected explanation of reality, this contributes, in one way or the other, to diverting people’s focus away from the real problems. Thus, it creates a culture of misinformation, which contradicts the democratic culture that the media presumably contributes to developing.

In conclusion, civil society organizations in Lebanon cannot continue treating Syrian refugees in Lebanon through a strictly humanitarian lens. They must be mindful of the prevailing discourses that shape people’s opinions about refugees. They should also systematically counter that discourse by putting pressure on media institutions, in addition to the State, and by developing alternative discourses. This could win people outside the racist and sectarian discourses and lead to a focus on real issues that people face and the shared experience both Lebanese and Syrians are facing and have faced in the past, in their struggle against exploitation and survival under oppression, exploitation, wars, and social injustices.

*Mohamad Ali-Nayel is a freelance journalist based in Beirut.
*Bassem Chit is the excutive director of Lebanon Support.

  • 1.“Syria’s economic stagnation is rooted in official as well as informal economic and fiscal policies and decisions that have undergirded incentives for liberalizing the national market since the early 1990s”, Bassam Haddad, Change and Statis in Syria, Merip, 2013
  • 2.The Lebanese ruling class crisis has presented itself in several forms during the past few years, either by their inability to resolve the political conflict that has been reaping through the country since 2005, and in their inability to respond to the rising economic hardships that most Lebanese are facing, as well as the massively accumulated national debt which accounts to more than 40 billion US dollars (which is a result of the pandemic state of corruption that characterizes the Lebanese ruling order).

adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

October 2020
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