No 405 Posted by fw, February 8, 2012
“The fact that Russia and China chose to align themselves with a dictator who’s on his last legs, rather than the people of Syria, rather than the people of the Middle East, rather than the principled views of the rest of the international community, was indeed disgusting and shameful. And I think that, over time, it is a decision they’ll come to regret. When there is a democratic Syria, they won’t not forget this action.” —Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the UN
“In a situation where the Security Council has been blocked from acting in support of the Arab League plan, in support of the defense of a democratic path for Syria, we’re going to have to take measures outside the U.N. to strengthen and deepen and broaden the international community of pressure on Assad.” —Victoria Nuland, US State Department spokesperson
“The United States has suffered—its reputation has suffered in recent years because of its catastrophic war in Iraq, its war in Afghanistan, the hostilities it has aroused throughout the Muslim world, especially in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and so forth. Now, its ally, Israel, has also suffered recently, in recent years. It tried to crush Hezbollah in 2006, when it went into Lebanon. It tried to crush Hamas in Gaza when it invaded Gaza in 2008, ’09. It feels that the combination of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah has made a dent in its military supremacy in the region. It’s seeking to restore its overall dominance. Now, both these powers, United States and Israel, its ally, believe, I think, that overthrowing the regimes in Tehran and Damascus will allow them to restore their supremacy and come back on top. So that’s what we’re witnessing. It’s a struggle for regional supremacy, regional dominance.” —Patrick Seale, leading British writer on the Middle East
The words of Rice and Nuland are clearly for domestic public consumption, a transparent façade for the US-Israel hegemony to reclaim its dominance in the region. As usual, Democracy Now is quick to unmask the deception with its interview of Middle East expert Patrick Seale.
Here is a 17-minute video of yesterday’s interview followed by a transcript that is not only abridged but restructured to bring together topically related sections. To view Amy Goodman’s original interview with Patrick Seale and access the full transcript, click on the following linked title.
TRANSCRIPT, abridged and restructured with added subheadings, links and text highlighting
To understand what’s happening, one has to see that it’s not a simple matter. It’s at least a two- or possibly a three-stage crisis.
There’s a whiff of a new cold war about [the veto]. You see, Russia has decades-long interests in the Middle East, and particularly in Syria during the time of Bashar al-Assad’s father, during the Cold War, in fact. China is a leading customer for Iranian oil and very much objects to American sanctions and European sanctions on Iran’s oil exports. China is, of course, not overjoyed by American attempts to contain its influence in the Asia-Pacific region, which President Obama has spoken about a great deal. And so, these two powers, what are they saying by their vetoes? They’re saying they don’t accept American and Israeli hegemony over the Middle East. They say they have interests there, too, and they want their interests to be addressed and to be respected.
Internally in Syria is a completely different struggle. Now, you see, the main element in the opposition, the main—the most powerful element in the Syrian National Council is the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, just the other day, they celebrated the 30-year anniversary of the assault on Hama by Hafez al-Assad, the father of the present president. And in that struggle, at least 10,000 people were killed in the city of Hama. Now, we have to understand the background of that. Hama in 1982 was the climax of a terrorist campaign by the Muslim Brothers, which began in the late ’70s, to overthrow the Assad regime at that time. And they seized control. The insurgents seized control of Hama, butchered Ba’ath Party members and officials, and it’s only at that stage that the regime moved in and crushed that insurgency and killed a lot of people, a lot of innocent people. Now, the specter of what happened then, 30 years ago, hangs over the present situation. And the Muslim Brothers, they’ve been outlawed for the last 30 years. They’ve suffered all sorts of problems at the hands of the regime. And they are thirsting for revenge. So that’s why I’m saying it’s “kill or be killed.” The present government feels that these are armed insurgents, and the mistake of the opposition was in fact to resort to arms. And as we heard a moment ago from, I think, a Syrian spokesman there, that any government, whatever its political coloring, will cease—will seem justified in putting down an armed insurrection in its territory.
The truth is that terrible mistakes have been made on both sides in the Syrian conflict. The regime’s mistake was to resort to live fire right at the start, when the protesters were peaceful. And the opposition’s mistake has been to resort to weapons. And that has given the regime the justification it felt it needed to crush them. So, on both sides, there have been mistakes.
Well, [Assad’s] image has been severely tarnished. There’s no question about that. I mean, killing so many people has, of course, damaged him, undermined his legitimacy. But for the moment, his army and security forces remain loyal. Therefore, it will be very, very difficult for the opposition to topple him. There’s no appetite in the West, or anywhere in the East, for that matter, in the Arab world, for a military intervention. That’s, again, an important asset. He has—as we’ve seen last Friday at the Security Council, he has the support of Russia, China, and perhaps also the support of countries like India and Brazil. . . . the opposition is greatly divided. And by resorting to arms, it has greatly damaged, I believe, its own prospects, because it’s given the regime the justification to try and crush it. And so, for all these reasons, one might say that, for the moment, at least, President al-Assad seems secure.
But, of course, there are weaknesses in his regime. His economy is in a tailspin, and that could undermine his position. Elements in support of him in the country—and there are such elements, notably leading merchant and new bourgeoisie, which have been created by his neoliberal economic policies of recent years—people might start defecting from the regime, and that could also weaken him. But for the moment, I would say there’s still a good slice of the population supporting him. You see, if you live in Syria and you see what happened in Iraq, the civil war, which was triggered by the Anglo-American invasion, which killed hundreds of thousands of people and created millions of displaced people and refugees—there are still about a million Iraqi refugees in Syria. If you see what happened in Lebanon, 15-year civil war, you don’t want that to happen in Syria, as well. So quite a lot of people would rather the present regime survived than opening the door to the Pandora’s box of the opposition.
The Muslim Brothers are the most organized and best funded element, the only element perhaps in the opposition that enjoys some really—support at a public level. The Islamists, the Muslim Brothers want revenge. And they have been, of course, encouraged by the success of the Muslim Brothers in other countries, notably in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Morocco, and elsewhere. So they think that their moment has come. The trouble is that Syria is a mosaic of ethnic groups, of religions. There are 10 percent Christians. There are 12 percent Alawis. There are other smaller groups of Ismailis and Druze and so forth. So, these people are worried by the thought of the Muslim Brothers coming to power. And they are the main supporters of the regime, including, I would say, a slice of the population that simply doesn’t want change, is frightened of change, and supports the regime for that reason.
Now, I should add a word to what I was saying earlier about the higher level, the international campaign. Now, the United States has suffered—its reputation has suffered in recent years because of its catastrophic war in Iraq, its war in Afghanistan, the hostilities it has aroused throughout the Muslim world, especially in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and so forth. Now, its ally, Israel, has also suffered recently, in recent years. It tried to crush Hezbollah in 2006, when it went into Lebanon. It tried to crush Hamas in Gaza when it invaded Gaza in 2008, ’09. It feels that the combination of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah has made a dent in its military supremacy in the region. It’s seeking to restore its overall dominance. Now, both these powers, United States and Israel, its ally, believe, I think, that overthrowing the regimes in Tehran and Damascus will allow them to restore their supremacy and come back on top. So that’s what we’re witnessing. It’s a struggle for regional supremacy, regional dominance.
I think, to understand what’s happening, one has to see this as a concerted attack, assault, on not only Syria, but Iran, as well. You see, Iran, Syria and their ally Hezbollah in Lebanon, that trio, a sort of Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis, has in recent years been the main obstacle to American and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East. And the attempt now is to bring that axis down. Of course, they’re fighting back with their allies, their friends, like—precisely, like Russia and China. So that’s what we’re seeing on that level.
Israel says that Iran’s nuclear program is an existential threat to Israel and a threat indeed to the whole world. Of course, not many experts believe that. For one thing, Israel has a huge nuclear arsenal, able to deter any would-be aggressor. The point about the Iranian program, in which, of course, everybody agrees they haven’t yet taken a decision to make a—to build a bomb, but they may be trying to acquire the capability of doing so—now, if they were to acquire that capability, untroubled by external intervention, if they were able to acquire that capability, this could restrict Israel’s freedom in the region and, notably, its freedom to strike its neighbors at will, as it has been doing. So it is a question of regional dominance.
Now, Israel’s policy has been to make a big fuss about saying, “We will strike. We will strike, unless you do something about Iran’s nuclear program.” And so, this—they have in fact been pressuring—perhaps some might say blackmailing—the United States and the Europeans into imposing crippling sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and its Central Bank, which handles the transactions to do with oil and other transactions. So, President Obama has just recently tightened those sanctions on the Central Bank.
Now, this is a dangerous policy, because it could lead to war. And war could be disastrous for everybody. Wars are easy to start, difficult to end. The Gulf states, which at the beginning joined in this assault on Iran, are now having second thoughts. They know that if there is—if there were a war in that region, they could suffer. Their oil terminals, their desalination plants are all very vulnerable to an Israeli counter-strike against American bases in the Gulf states. So, most experts agree that war would be a disaster. So it is rather a game of chicken—Israel pushing, pushing, hoping to bring down the regime in Iran and the regime in Syria, and restore its regional supremacy. That’s what the Americans, under Israeli pressure, are doing, as well.
Now, the situation is not unlike that which was the case in 2003, when the pro-Israeli neocons in the United States, people like Paul Wolfowitz and his friends, pushed the United States to attack Iraq, because Israel, at that time, saw Iraq, after the Iran-Iraq War—when it emerged unbowed from that war, it saw Iraq as potentially threatening to Israel. So we’re seeing a replay, in a way, of that terrible scenario.
The trouble is that the opposition hasn’t produced a single charismatic leader or a clear political project. There are tremendous disputes going on in the opposition. Some say we must cooperate with the Muslim Brothers; others say no. Some say we must seek external intervention; others say no. Some say we need a dialogue. I believe dialogue is the only way out of this. And indeed, the Russians have suggested to both sides to come to Moscow and start a dialogue. But the opposition says, “No, we can’t dialogue with Bashar al-Assad. He must be toppled first.” Well, that’s a dangerous—a dangerous position to adopt.
Now, Saudi Arabia is the Arab world’s heavyweight. It is the great financial powerhouse. It doesn’t particularly like Iran. It thinks—sees Iran as a regional competitor. It’s frightened of Shia power, the fact that Shias have come to power in Iraq, as well. And so, it would rather like to contain Iran. However, there are some Saudis, some senior Saudis, who understand that Saudi Arabia and Iran are really partners. They share a responsibility for the security of the Gulf region, and they should start a security dialogue. That’s what they need to do, rather than being dragged in to this quarrel between the United States and Israel, on the one hand, and Russia and China, on the other.
Books by Patrick Seale