Dr Issa Chaer is a member of the Syrian Social Club (based in England).
Carlos Martinez: Thanks very much for agreeing to be interviewed. You have been very active in spreading information about the Syria conflict. Can you explain why you have chosen to give so much time and energy to this cause?
Issa Chaer: For the first few weeks of the conflict, we Syrians abroad helplessly watched the reports that were being put out about Syria by various Arabic news outlets. At the same time, the information we were receiving from family members and friends in Syria was contrary to what was being reported. The false nature of much of the reporting on Syria was confirmed by personal experience following our visits to Syria. The visits proved the lies that were being reported, and we came to conclusion that those media stations are creating their own news rather than actually reporting, and we saw that they are part of a bigger plot targeting Syria. Hence, we decided to be the UK voice for the millions of ordinary Syrians who have been ignored by the international media. We decided to report — via interviews, pickets, demonstrations and so on — the real facts about what is going on in Syria; to portray the Syrian people’s support for peace; and to help preserve the integrity and security of Syria.
William Hague has recently announced that the British state will be providing “a further 5 million pounds” to the opposition. Meanwhile, the US and Britain maintain good relationships with the Saudi, Bahraini and Qatari monarchies. Why do the leading western nations support the Syrian uprising whilst opposing the uprising in Bahrain?
It is basically double standards based on political and economic interests. In practice, what is now happening in the Arab world is a ‘correction’ of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, when the main colonial powers, Britain and France, carved out the boundaries of the current Arab states and installed their own Arab agents. Saudi, Bahrain and Qatar lack any form of democracy and have outrageous human rights records (see for example www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2010/nea/154472.htm; humanrightsqatar.blogspot.co.uk/; www.hrw.org/middle-eastn-africa/qatar) and yet western powers are still backing the rulers in those countries because they consider them as allies who are looking after the western powers’ financial, political and strategic interests in the region. Syria, on the other hand, is seen as a key regional player with strong links to the resistance movements in Lebanon (Hezbollah in particular) and Iran, both of which are major stumbling blocks to Israel’s long-term strategy. At the same time, Syria is now Russia’s only real strategic link in the Middle East. So the west has taken this opportunity to support the opposition groups in an attempt to turn Syria into a western ally. Achieving such a target would give the western powers total domination of the region and would lead to the isolation — and possible fall — of Iran.
These ongoing neo-colonial plans include provision for two or more Arab parties to fight the Syrian regime and to keep them fighting until such time as each state is dismembered and fractured into 2-3 states along sectarian lines. Such countries will be easy for the west to control, and colonial elites will be well positioned to scoop up the wealth, just as envisioned by Mr Sykes and Monsieur Picot nearly a century ago.
Syria is known as a historically secular and tolerant nation. What are the roots of the sectarian violence that we are now seeing?
There are a number of elements that have influenced sectarianism in the whole region over the last ten years and that have filtered into Syria:
1) Sectarianism in the region as a whole was reignited after the Iraq war. The political masters, the main colonial powers, with the self-serving undemocratic Arab monarchies such as Saudi and Qatar, have been driving it, with direct strategic help from Turkey and indirect help from Al-Qaeda groups in the region.
2) The Muslim Brotherhood clerics who fled Syria in the 1980s have also flourished over the last ten years (following the Iraq war) under the Wahhabi system in Saudi Arabia. Subsidised by the Saudis, they have been very active in setting up TV stations and publishing companies that have been publishing religious books promoting hatred against minorities and Christians. Such propaganda has filtered into Syria undetected and has been used by extreme preachers to brainwash vulnerable youngsters and encourage them to take up arms.
3) Certain clerics with sectarian heritage have also made it to western countries like the UK, Germany, Holland, France and Belgium. Here, they have been preaching sectarianism and hatred to first generation migrants and their children in some mosques built under the equality and diversity acts. But the ones which had international influence are the ones who had links with Al Qaeda or their affiliated groups and have shot to fame after their initial media exposure and have used digital media technology to spread their sectarian ideology around the world. Unfortunately, some young people in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Saudi and Turkey have fallen for their traps.
Should the Syrian government fall, which segments of the opposition do you think are likely to fill the power vacuum that will follow?
The opposition groups are currently divided, and the extreme ideology of certain groups of the opposition will prevent any amicable unity or any moderate group from leading. Hence, if the government was to fall, we would see an increase in violence over the coming 2-3 years, and this violence would spread regionally to Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. New groups with external links will appear on the scene. The only solution in the event of the Ba’ath government falling would be a coalition government based on the Lebanese model. But that would take a long time to emerge.
Israel has been relatively quiet about the situation in Syria. How do you think it views the situation?
Israel is benefiting indirectly from the conflict in Syria and I think they will do their best to prolong the conflict, as this in their view will weaken the Syrian Army and hence will weaken the longstanding, relatively successful anti-Israeli coalition in the region and might also lead to more divisions in the region that could open doors for Israeli expansion.
The recent international initiative, led by Iran, towards a peaceful settlement has been largely ignored by the western press. Do you think this initiative has any chance of success?
All the ideas that have been proposed by Iran in relation to the conflict are logical, and Iran deserves respect for its efforts to promote a political solution in Syria. Iran has proposed something sensible, which is the establishment of a contact group from among the participating countries aiming to end the violence and starting inclusive dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition. If this gains regional support, then it might be successful as part of a parallel process to the initiative of the new United Nations envoy, al-Akhdar al-Ibrahimi. Such moves are far more helpful in terms of ending the war than the approach of the western countries, which is simply to back the opposition (with weapons, money and propaganda).
Syria has a startling array of forces ranged against it, including the US, France, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with Israel ready to act at any time. Can Syria avoid the fate of Libya and Iraq?
The geographic structure of Syria and the timing are now completely against a repeat of the Libyan scenario. The west will continue to wage war by proxy until after the US presidential elections in November, at which point they might think about a new strategy for ground troops’ involvement. But this would need consent and might be a risky move, especially given that the public has not forgotten the repercussions of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Does the Syrian government retain a significant support base within Syria?
The main thing that is being talked about amongst Syrians living in Syria now is the peace and security they got accustomed to over the last 30 to 40 years — this is currently the most important thing they would like a return to. So support for the Syrian government is very much now dependent on the government and the army’s ability to give to the people this lost security. As long as the army is strong and as long as it maintains the upper hand, popular support will continue.
Is there anything that those of us in the west can do to more effectively support Syria and help to prevent further bloodshed and destruction?
I think the main igniter of the conflict is certain media stations, and the best we could do is campaign more on behalf of the majority of the Syrians whose cries and suffering does not get reported by western international media and whose main aspiration is for peace and normality. I also think it is important to put pressure on media stations to be impartial and not to report unverified stories and numbers.