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    Middle East
     Sep 22, 2012

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On Syria and way beyond
By Lars Schall

One of Europe’s most outstanding experts on the Middle East, Professor Guenter Meyer, addresses in this exclusive in-depth interview for Asia Times Online the Syrian civil war and its international dimensions.

Professor Dr Guenter Meyer has for almost 40 years carried out empirical research on the social, economic and political development in Arab countries and has published more than 150 books and articles, especially on Syria, Egypt, Yemen and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. He directs the Center for Research on the Arab World at the Johannes Gutenberg

University in Mainz, Germany, which is one of the world's leading information centers for the dissemination of news and research on the Middle East. Professor Meyer is chairman of the German Middle East Studies Association (DAVO), president of the European Association for Middle Eastern Studies (EURAMES), and chairman of the International Advisory Council of the World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies (WOCMES).

Lars Schall: Professor Meyer, since our perceptions are framed by the media, how do you feel about the coverage of the conflict in Syria in the Western media?

Guenter Meyer: My perceptions are not only framed by the media, but also by my own experience in Syria and by contact with Syrians, other Arab experts and political activists of the Arab spring. The information I receive from these sources and also from Arab news media covers a much wider range of views and assessments than the rather one-sided reporting in the majority of the Western media.

LS: What kind of things do you have to criticize in particular?

GM: Until recently mainstream reporting in most Western media was clearly biased. It focused mainly on the distinction between the "bad" Syrian regime, which has to be toppled, and the "good" opposition, which has to be supported because it is fighting against a corrupt, authoritarian and brutal government. This perception has changed gradually during the past few months. More and more media are reporting about the conflicting interests of the highly fragmented oppositional groups as well as about the atrocities of the rebel groups and their crimes committed against the civilian population, especially against Alawites but also against Christians.

The influx of Salafis, jihadis and followers of al-Qaeda and the expectation that radical Sunni Islamists will control Syria after the fall of Bashar al-Assad are disturbing themes that are now also reported in Western media. After a long delay, the news coverage of the development in Syria does no longer focus only on spreading the political view of the "Friends of Syria", but has started to provide a more comprehensive picture about the highly complex situation in Syria.

Nevertheless, there is still a bias when it comes to the reporting of massacres. The majority of Western media - and also Western governments - tend to take the information offered by oppositional sources for granted that government forces, in particular the Shabiha militia, are responsible for the cruel killings of civilians, many of them women and children. At the same time, evidences of a systematic "massacre marketing strategy" [1] by the rebels are rejected as propaganda of the Assad regime. It is obvious that in many cases, especially in the massacres with the highest number of victims at Houla [2] and Daraya [3] oppositional forces committed brutal crimes against civilians in order just to blame the government for these massacres. Through this strategy they try to manipulate public opinion and influence political decision making against the Syrian regime.

LS: Would you say that those who want to explore the interests that collide in the conflict in Syria would do well to examine the geopolitical importance of Syria for the Eurasian energy chessboard? I mean, ultimately Syria is a main transport hub for future oil and gas pipelines, right?

GM: Whenever you try to analyze political conflicts in the Middle East and get to the bottom you are likely to find oil or gas. The present conflict has been linked to Syria's role as transit country for Iranian gas export. Last year, a contract was signed between Iran, Iraq and Syria to build a natural gas pipeline by 2016 from Iran's giant South Pars field to the Syrian Mediterranean coast in order to supply Lebanon and Europa with gas. As a result Turkey would loose her highly profitable and political important position as the dominant transit country for gas from Russia and the Caspian Basin. [4]

Could this expected competition have been a reason for the Turkish government to give up its good relations with the Syrian regime and support the opposition? This is rather unlikely. During the last few years, Iran has signed numerous Memoranda of Understanding and contracts with foreign governments and companies to exploit Iranian gas and oil fields and to build pipelines. None of these schemes has been executed, as a result of the US embargo against Iran. Therefore, it has to be supposed that the contract to build a pipeline to Syria was signed mainly for domestic political reasons of the Iranian government. One has also to question the economic viability of this project. Why should gas from Southern Iran be exported to Europe when the highest demand for Iranian gas comes from neighboring Pakistan and India?

There is another project that would make much more sense. In 2009, Qatar had proposed to build a pipeline from the emirate's giant gas fields via Syria to Turkey to be connected with other pipelines to Europe. [5] Based on this scheme, Assad loyalists had claimed that the unrest in Syria is not an uprising but a Qatari-instigated aggression designed to dominate the country and ensure Qatari access to the Mediterranean Sea for its gas export. However, this argument can be regarded as a conspiracy theory. [6]

LS: Are the discovered energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean and Levantine Basin also of interest here?

GM: The untapped natural gas finds are extremely important for Israel, which will no longer have to rely on the insecure supply of gas from Egypt. The discovered gas reserves are so huge that Israel can not only achieve energy independence but will also benefit from lucrative export deals. Further gas and even oil reserves are expected to be discovered in the offshore areas of Syria and Lebanon. [7] Nevertheless, the newly discovered resources have no direct impact on the present crisis in Syria.

LS: When it comes to the Western powers, are they especially intended to weaken the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis?

GM: There are numerous statements from the US government which stress the geostrategic importance of the ousting of the Syrian regime so that both Iran and Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon will loose their most important ally. The Iranian and Syrian supply of military equipment to Hezbollah will no longer be possible. The weakening of the military force of this Shiite organization means that its impact on the power structure of Lebanon and especially its ability to attack Israel will dramatically decline. [8] The fall of Bashar Al-Assad will also weaken the influence of Russia and China in the Middle East and strengthen the role of the US and Saudi Arabia in this region.

LS: Are we currently experiencing a "Balkanisation of Syria" or a "Balkanisation of the Middle East" in general?

GM: During the last decades Syria has been a secular state with a strong focus on pan-Arabism. Now the ethnic and religious frictions have become a dominant factor and threaten the unity of the Syrian state. The worst case scenario would indeed be a "Balkanization" for Syria, which means that the country is split into a northeastern Kurdish state providing a safe haven for the PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party] and a nightmare for Turkey, an Alawite state in the western mountains and the coastal area, a tiny Druze enclave in the south, and a Sunni state in central Syria. Only the last one would probably have sufficient economic potential to exist on the long run.

Other experts suggest a "Lebanonization" scenario that pins down the Syrian army and weakens the central government in Damascus. [9] The model of an "Iraqization" of Syria might also have chances to become reality, with several autonomous or semi-autonomous regions. Similar demands are also raised in the oil-rich east of Libya, where large parts of the population no longer want to be dominated by the center of the political power in Tripolitania, the western region of Libya.

LS: Do we see in Syria a similar situation as earlier in Libya or is it very different?

GM: The situation in Libya was completely different. Gaddafi's military forces were far too weak to resist the combined military power of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] which was authorized by the UN Security Council to intervene in Libya. Large parts of the population and almost the entire east of Libya opposed the authoritarian regime so that foreign advisers were able to move freely in this part of the country, support the oppositional fighter groups with heavy weapons and train them how to use the sophisticated military equipment.

Bashar Al-Assad, on the other hand, can rely on the excellently trained and best-equipped Republican Guards and the 4th Armored Division - elite troops who are almost entirely Alawites. The Syrian air force and in particular the air defense force are equipped with the latest Russian military technology. A recent analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came to the conclusion that the Syrian air defense is five times more sophisticated than [former Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi's. [10]

A military offensive by foreign troops to oust Bashar al-Assad would be an extremely risky and expensive operation. In addition, there is no chance that Russia and China will accept a UN resolution for a military intervention in Syria. Under these circumstances, the US, France and the UK have so far only resorted to training opposition fighters on Turkish territory close to the northwestern border of Syria and to supplying them with communication means and other non-lethal equipment. At the same time, Iran is using civilian aircraft to fly military personnel and large quantities of weapons across Iraqi airspace to help Syria crush the uprising, according to a Western intelligence report seen by Reuters. The Iraqi government, however, denies that such flights are taking place.

LS: We know that forces of al-Qaeda are fighting on Syrian soil. Ed Husain, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote about this:
By and large, Free Syrian Army (FSA) battalions are tired, divided, chaotic, and ineffective. Feeling abandoned by the West, rebel forces are increasingly demoralized ... Al-Qaeda fighters, however, may help improve morale. The influx of jihadis brings discipline, religious fervor, battle experience from Iraq, funding from Sunni sympathizers in the Gulf, and most importantly, deadly results. In short, the FSA needs al-Qaeda now. [11]
That's quite a statement after more than 10 years of the so called "War on Terror", isn't it?

GM: Indeed! There are many similar reports - among others from the Eastern Euphrates valley near the Iraqi border - where opposition fighters had for several months tried in vain to take over garrisons from the Syrian army. At last, they asked an al-Qaeda group for support. As a result of their attacks the army withdrew from this base within a few days.

The al-Qaeda fighters and jihadis are not only from Arab countries, especially from Iraq, Libya, the Arabian Peninsula, but also from Pakistan and include even radical Islamists from European countries. Their number is rapidly growing. This is the major reason why the US government has been so reluctant to supply the opposition fighters with surface-to-air missiles, which might end up in the hands of al-Qaeda or Hezbollah. It has only recently been reported that the Free Syrian Army acquired 14 Stinger missiles. So far, however, it has not been confirmed that these weapons were used to attack Syrian fighter planes and helicopter gunships [12].

LS: What kind of importance has it that al-Qaeda is a Sunni terrorist organization?

GM: About 70% of the Syrian population are Sunnis. Many of them regard the ruling Alawites not as real Muslims. The same applies to al-Qaeda, which demands that all Muslims should unite in order to eradicate the Alawite "infidels". However, this does not mean that al-Qaeda and other foreign jihadis are supported by all Syrian Sunnis. Quite the contrary. The vast majority is rejecting both the extremist views and the intervention of radical foreign Islamists.

LS: It is said that Syria's ruler, Bashar al-Assad, could use chemical weapons. What is your view on that?

GM: The regime has assured that it will never use chemical or biological weapons. This statement can be regarded as reliable because the use of weapons of mass destruction or even the movement of such weapons would mean "crossing the red line", as President Obama threatened. A massive military intervention against the Syrian government would be the consequence [13]

However, there are detailed reports that NATO powers in coordination with Saudi Arabia are preparing a fake attack with chemical weapons in southern Syria for which the Assad regime will be blamed in order to justify a massive international invasion. [14]

LS: Do we observe in the Syrian conflict certain developments like under a microscope: the US can no longer afford financially some certain types of adventures and has reached the limits of its influence, while the Russians and the Chinese don't want to be told what to do in the Middle East?

GM: The financial aspect is very important from the perspective of the US government, but there is also President Obama's promise "to bring our boys back home". A new American involvement in another war is extremely unpopular, especially during the present presidential election campaign. Concerning Russia and China, they have important geostrategic interests in Syria. There is no compelling reason why they should give up this comfortable and influential position.

LS: With regard to the external influences, it was written recently that European and Arab states pay high government officials, if they turn away from Assad. [15] Your thoughts on this?

GM: This applies not only to leading representatives of the Syrian regime, but especially to members of the Syrian army. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have publicly announced that they will spend at least US$300 million to pay the salaries of the oppositional fighters and also financial incentives to motivate soldiers from all ranks to defect from the military forces and to join the oppositional troops. Under these circumstances, it is really astounding that only so few officers, generals and leading members of the regime have defected until now. This underlines how stable the power of the government, the military and the security services still is.

LS: How would a European attitude look like be considered worthy of support?

GM: Let me start by explaining why the present European attitude is not worthy of support. The leading governments of the EU have discarded a political solution of the Syrian conflict and opted instead for the - at least indirect - support for a military ousting of the Assad regime. They are co-operating in particular with the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and which consists mainly of Syrians who have lived for a long time in Western countries, especially in the US. These people want to rule post-Assad Syria, but they are by no means accepted by the majority of the population living in Syria.

In Berlin, for example, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik) in cooperation with the US Institute of Peace arranged the facilities for members of the Syrian opposition and international experts to meet in order to plan for "The Day After". [16] The result is an agenda to create a new political system in Syria according to Western democratic standards and values after the fall of the present regime.

This plan was designed without any knowledge about the future distribution of power among the various forces that might be involved in the toppling of the government, and with only a little participation of the numerous oppositional groups inside Syria. It is not surprising that such a plan was rejected by members of the inner Syrian opposition as an "academic exercise" with no relevance at a time when the outcome of the Syrian crisis is still completely open. The same applies to various government-sponsored committees planning the Syrian future in Paris, Rome, Istanbul and Cairo.

The frequent demands that the extremely heterogeneous opposition should unite have turned out to be futile. This applies also to the latest attempt of the French President Francois Hollande, who also offered to recognize a new Syrian government-in-exile. The proposal was immediately rejected by the US government as untimely due to the lack of unity among the opposition groups.

Much more relevant for the present development of the crisis is the proposal to establish a safe haven for Syrian refugees. This was first demanded by the Turkish government and was recently supported by the French president. At present, more than 80,000 Syrians have arrived in refugee camps in Turkey; 100,000 have been declared by the Erdogan government as the maximum number of refugees to be accepted on Turkish territory. Additional refugees have to be accommodated in a safe buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. The same has been proposed along the Jordanian border.

At first sight such a demand might appear to be rather harmless and unproblematic, involving only a limited military intervention. However, the establishment of a safe buffer zone in Syria can only be achieved by a full-scale war of NATO and allied troops from Arab countries against the strong Syrian armed forces. To protect the refugees in the safe haven, a no-fly zone has to be established, which can only be controlled after NATO has gained air superiority over the total Syrian territory.

This would involve the destruction of the Syrian air force with about 400 fighter planes and the huge arsenal of highly sophisticated anti-air craft missiles. The size, expenditure and duration of such an intervention would be tremendous as the MIT analysis showed. [10].

One has also to keep in mind that in legal terms such an attack could be carried out under the rather controversial international norm of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). But its application has to be approved by a resolution of the UN Security Council, where a veto from Russia and China can be taken for granted.

Coming back to the question about the position which should be supported: the most sensible position and the only one that would allow a peaceful solution is still the [Kofi] Annan plan [proposed by the former United Nations secretary general] involving not only the opposition and their supporters, but also the governments in Damascus and Teheran in the negotiation about the future development of Syria. However, there is no chance that this proposal will be accepted by the opposition in exile and its supporters in the US, the Arab League, Turkey and the EU.

LS: What do you think about the helping hand that the Bundesnachrichtendienst [BND - Germany's foreign intelligence agency] is giving to the rebels?

GM: The German newspaper Bild had revealed that members of the BND stationed on ships near the Syrian and Lebanese coast and at the NATO base near Adana collect intelligence on the movement of Syrian government troops and share this information with the forces of the Free Syrian Army. [17] The same applies to agents of the British intelligence service based in Cyprus and also to the activities of US intelligence agents and spy satellites.

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