Ammar Waqqaf is an independent Syrian political analyst based in England.
Q: Why do you think the western powers are so keen to see regime change in Syria?
A: Western powers would be fools not to exploit such an opportunity to turn a key regional player from an opposing side into an allied one. Achieving such a target would seriously upset the current balance in the Middle East and lead to the total isolation and subsequent fall of Iran. This would mean a long-term total grip on the region for these countries.
Such dominance is not only vital in securing long-term stability in the energy resources markets, but it is also important in beating competitor powers to such resources.
Q: What is the significance of the current crisis in terms of the longstanding contradiction between Israel and the Arabs?
A: This is not very significant within the context of the nature of the struggle, in the sense that, although Israel is a beneficiary of part of what is happening, the elements leading to this struggle are mostly inherent in the Arab societies.
It is significant, however, in terms of outcome. So, for example, should a new government take over in Syria, which would be affiliated to the moderate Arab countries, the Israelis would expect more favorable treatment in terms of key issues, most importantly the refugees’ right of return. Moreover, the fall of the current government in Damascus would likely have a determinant effect on the longstanding, relatively successful, anti-Israeli coalition in the region.
Things could go either way, however, because the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood faction in Egypt would probably mean more support for the likes of Hamas. Israel wouldn’t want that to happen, obviously, so they would be seeking assurances through players with influence on the Egyptian front, like the US and the increasingly influential Gulf states.
Q: Do you consider that the majority of the Syrian population support the government?
A: My understanding is that the majority of Syrians do not want the current government to fall. It is my view that, had this not been the case, the current government would have fallen a long time ago.
We obviously have the diehard supporters of President Assad, who still enjoys a surprisingly significant popularity, but we also have a significant proportion of Syrians who may or may not like him but whose main concern is the future of the country. They are rational and risk-averse people who have concerns with regards to the nature of the alternative.
Q: The uprising is painted by the Syrian state as being primarily composed of armed terrorist fundamentalist elements. The western authorities — along with the bulk of the western left — paint the uprising as being primarily composed of peaceful protestors with legitimate democratic demands. Are either of these characterizations accurate?
A: The former is most accurate at this moment in time, in my opinion. Peaceful protests are mostly a thing of the past, and many progressive elements who peacefully demonstrated at the start of the uprising receded as they saw the overwhelming advancement of the armed Muslim extremist faction.
Q: Is there a legitimate political opposition in Syria that has differences with the government and yet is willing to unite with it in a patriotic front against external interference?
A: There isn’t an opposition in the political sense, but certain figures who oppose the current political system. Legitimacy is gained through public recognition and mandate through a legitimate process, say parliamentary elections for example, and that was almost nonexistent.
Unlike the previous political set-up in Syria, though, the new one does allow for such an opposition to form and for it to be groomed over a few years in order to grow into a credible and influential force. Due to lack of experience because of decades of unilateral party rule, however, this process will take time.
There are current opposition figures who have declared their refusal of external interference, some of whom are even outside Syria. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether they would be able to unite themselves in a front that would form a credible dialogue partner to the current government.
Q: Britain, France, and the US are talking in an increasingly belligerent way. Do you think the Annan peace plan has any chance of success?
A: Even though I view the Annan peace plan to be a good opportunity, both for the Syrian government and the opposition figures, I regret to say that I doubted its viability since day one.
Certain regional powers seem to be unable to envisage a Middle East with President Assad around, and they are treating the fall of the current Syrian government as a matter of life and death. The Syrian opposition is not independent at all and they follow those who support them with recognition, money, and even weaponry, so they won’t commit.
I believe that it is the Gulf states’ pressure that is causing the West to talk in such language, as they need to stick with their allies’ interests, even though they are clearly reluctant to do something that would put them in a direct confrontation with the likes of Russia and China.
Q: The so-called “Friends of Syria” claim that their sanctions are targeted against specific individuals in the Syrian government and are not hurting ordinary Syrians. Is this the case?
A: I can’t imagine that Mrs. Assad would have any trouble in getting her child the new Sony PlayStation when it is released. It is the ordinary Syrians who are suffering, and this is what the sanctions are actually designed to achieve, in my opinion.
The declared theory is that such sanctions would force a break between the merchant class and the political regime. This, in turn, is based on the false assumption that the reason why Damascus and Aleppo (dubbed as the merchant class) did not revolt was due to fear for their interests, as they are benefiting from ties with the regime. What is becoming more evident is that they did not revolt for completely different reasons, which are mostly related to the lack of credible alternative.
However, the real idea behind sanctions, I believe, is to make more Syrians suffer. The planned consequences of the sanctions are:
1) To make it easier to convince the Syrian people that this was all the regime’s fault, so they would blame it and detach from it;
2) To render more attractive a new government that is closely tied with the rich Gulf states, with the expectation that this magic wand would solve all their economic problems.
Q: Is the Syrian state sufficiently cohesive, popular, armed, and well-connected to defend itself if the crisis drags on for several years, or if there is a significant military escalation?
A: While not that popular, as one would imagine, the Syrian state is sufficiently cohesive, armed, and well-connected to defend itself should the crisis drag on for a long time. Employees still go to their jobs, students to their schools (the baccalaureate national tests are being carried out with sufficient success throughout the country), and council workers even water the trees in the streets and parks.
Still, should there be a significant military escalation, the results can never be guaranteed with regard to the stability of the government, but they equally cannot be guaranteed with regard to the stability of the entire region. The Syrian government and its allies in the region have enough cards up their sleeves to upset the apple cart, let alone the Russians and Chinese digging their heels in on this issue.
Q: Do you think that the Syrian Ba’ath has remained true to the founding principles of the Ba’ath Party: Arab unity; freedom from imperialist and zionist interference; and Arab socialism?
A: The Ba’ath party has faced two major problems since it seized power in 1963.
The first was that, for reasons of securing the stability of the state against the frequent foreign-influenced military coups d’état that swept across Syria in the 50s and 60s of the last century, the party command saw fit to impose unilateral party rule, which was achieved by the early 70s. This took place in the form of a coalition of progressive parties, the Progressive National Front, whose parties eventually became almost obsolete. This resulted in a lack of competition, which meant that the Ba’ath party lost the biggest incentive for sticking to accountability and seeking creativity within its ranks. The result, a few decades later, was a fat and old-fashioned political organization.
The second problem was the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the late 70s and early 80s of the last century, which dealt a huge blow to the coherence of the state due to conflicting national and religious identities. In order to combat its effects, loyalty became more important than merit and this led to the frustration and departure of many good elements from within the society, let alone from the party itself.
With regards to its founding principles, one could say that, all in all, the party remained true to them. However, corruption, coupled with the last decade’s market economy reforms, did have an effect on the perceived commitment of the Ba’ath party towards Arab socialism.
Q: Why was the state of emergency in place for so long?
A: This was needed at the very beginning to ensure the stability of the state. Security forces needed extrajudicial powers to combat the more sophisticated and well-funded incursions of foreign intelligence elements.
By the time the state became stable, the security forces had no incentive to learn to go back to the proper way of dealing with detainees through the judicial system, for example, and the external enemy was always at the doorstep to provide them with an excuse. The fact that Syria has been a beleaguered country for most of her modern history is the reason why she never felt sufficiently comfortable and unthreatened so as to sort its interior affairs in a proper way.
The continuous state of emergency is not uncommon in the region, though. Egypt has only just lifted its almost five-decade emergency status, despite enjoying a peace with Israel for much of the period, and despite the fact that all Western powers were interested in the stability of the Egyptian regime, and not the opposite as in the case of Syria. Israel on the other hand is yet to enjoy any year of her life without the state of emergency.
Q: One particularly controversial moment of modern Syrian history is the repression of the uprising in Hama in 1982. Are you able to shed some light as to what the uprising in the late 70s and early 80s was and why it was repressed so harshly?
A: The uprising in the 70s and 80s of last century, generally known as the Muslim Brotherhood uprising, was a clash of identities that has been brewing since Syria and the rest of the Levant countries secured their independence from the Ottoman Empire. The cornerstone of this independence was the rise of Arab nationality and secularism, under which all citizens are equal regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds — as against the Islamic identity of the state, where non-Sunni Muslims were second-class citizens.
Remnants of this identity picked themselves up when the Ba’ath party came to power, as it brought with it the deprived classes to power, who mostly came from the rural areas and were not necessarily Sunni Muslims. The new leaders clashed with the feudal economy, whose lords used this religious identity as a weapon against the new regime. The notion was this: We are the majority (Syria is a predominantly Sunni Muslim country), and we have the democratic right to rule, as a majority.
Similar notions are behind much of what is happening now in Syria and, just like what is happening right now, the dominant regional powers of the day did support the militants in order to weaken or break the regime then.
Moreover, just like what is happening now, in order to convince more people into participating, more extreme Islamic views were pumped into the minds of largely the less educated classes, and with such ideologies, carrying out Jihad and killing infidels becomes quite the norm.
And just like what is happening now, again, the state became trapped between her duty to protect its citizens from being taken hostage by armed groups and her duty to protect their lives when dealing with them. At the end of the day, though, the inevitable happened and the military solution of that crisis found its way into the history books.
Q: There has been much criticism of Syria from the left, partly on the basis of recent moves towards economic liberalization. Has Syria abandoned its commitment to the poorer sections of society?
A: The theory was not to do so. The abandonment came partly in practice, due to corruption, which meant that people had no equal opportunities in benefiting from the economic reforms, and partly due to planners overlooking basic economic issues like monopolies, oligopolies and so on, and their effects on the public’s perception of fairness and justice.
From an economic point of view, I actually support many of the steps that were made, as it is not easy to run a successful socialist economy where much of the basic needs of the society are subsidized, while all your neighboring countries run market economies. Much needed employment-creating enterprises came to exist in the past decade and, with them, a new middle class started to evolve once more in Syria.
The Syrian economy was certainly not Thatcherized, as one would imagine, but still, people felt the squeeze, saw others benefitting from the new economic conditions in an unfair way, and saw the gap between them growing rapidly. This was not supposed to take place, but corruption made it so.
Q: Hafez al-Assad had an often troubled relationship with the mainstream of Palestinian resistance (Arafat and the PLO), and Syria’s role in suppressing the Palestinian/Lebanese revolutionary upsurge has earned it much criticism. Do you think Syria has on balance been a positive force for Palestine?
A: The way I see it is that, had it not been for Syria and its ability to hold against external pressure, the Palestinian cause would have died a long time ago (the Palestinian cause being the notion of self-determination for Palestinians, as a group of people who were driven out of their land so that another group of people could live there).
Syria, with its ability to withstand external pressure, is the only reason I can think of why a Palestinian, who does not wish to surrender his or her right of return, can find someone to provide him or her with hope.
The reasons why Syria and some parts of the Palestinian resistance clashed in Lebanon are numerous, and the issue is quite complex. Suffice to say, with the best of intentions assumed from both parties, that it was a clash between a “Che Guevara” type of revolutionary logic and a stable-state resistance logic.
Q: Do you think that Syria needs political changes, and do you feel that such changes can occur under Ba’athist leadership?
A: I do believe that Syria needs significant political changes, or reforms so to speak. As for whether they can be achieved under the Ba’ath rule, I can assure you that many would prefer this happening under a progressive secular party than under an Islamic or ethnic one.
The Ba’ath party needs much reform itself, as well, and it is its ability to carry out such reform in a meaningful way that would determine whether people would eventually entrust it with the much-needed overhaul of the political system in Syria.