Over the past days there have been different messages by the US government regarding a possible intervention in Syria. How do you interpret this and how is it interpreted inside Syria?
At this point, we are only working on suppositions. I think what we’ve been hearing since the chemical attack tends to emphasize the fact that it will be a more or less surgical operation. McCain even called it ‘cosmetic’, criticizing that Mr. Obama is not willing to take serious action. If it is going to happen, it will only prove that Obama won’t allow this crass violation of the red lines he set exactly a year ago.
The whole discourse is about limited attacks, assuring that there is no intention of changing the balance of power, but only to put pressure on the parties to go to Geneva II, or something similar. It might put the opposition in a slightly better position, but there won’t be any dramatic change.
My concern with the fluctuation in the American position is that Syrians on the ground, especially those on the front lines resisting the regime forces, will be affected by it and that they will become discouraged psychologically.
Syrians have not been expecting much. But many have reached the point where there is no going back. This has been the first time in 28 months of the conflict that we have witnessed serious action being threatened against Syrian regime forces. If, now, the United States and its allies fail to deliver, people will feel more isolated than ever and they will see that there are really no limits to brutality. They knew before that the limits were few, but if there’s no action now, the regime will regard it as a successful test of what it can get away with. And honestly, I cannot see why they should then not do it again.
Briefly, we are today facing a dilemma. On the one hand, we have serious doubts concerning the true intentions behind a possible strike. If it is only a limited strike, the aim would be just to warn the regime not to use its chemical arsenal again. This might result in more cruelty by the regime forces in dealing with liberated areas, as the message would be: “You can continue your brutal crackdown using all kinds of heavy weapons, but don’t touch the chemical ones!”
On the other hand, if there is no decisive reaction to the chemical attack, it would, in effect, give permission to the regime to move to a new level of killing its own population. And it would be the ultimate level – the use of chemical weapons.
What exactly do the people inside Syria expect the international community to do?
This is a crucial issue. The fact is that Syrians, even anti-regime Syrians, are divided about this. It is mainly a division between people in the liberated territories and those who are still under regime control. Syrians in the liberated territories have been subject to constant shelling and very tough war conditions. The majority of victims in Syria are dying as a result of aerial and missile attacks by the Syrian regime. Even if they live in areas where there are no longer any government troops on the ground, there are still airstrikes. These can take place on a daily basis and involve all kinds of explosives – missiles, rockets, and even barrels filled with TNT. Apart from three Military bases, the whole province of Raqqa is under rebel control, but it is subject to daily air raids. There are no fronts, but people are dying at the hands of the military.
People joke about it and say we have been “laboratory rats” for the regime and have been exposed to all sorts of heavy weaponry. If you asked them whether they were afraid of military strikes by the Americans, they would probably laugh. The same is true for many refugees and internally displaced persons. They would welcome an intervention, because they feel they have nothing to lose. Their homes are destroyed and they have already been exposed to so much violence.
It is a different story for areas under regime control, particularly those where the regime, from the very beginning, has made an effort to keep things calm, such as the center of Damascus or the coastal area. There, even for the most serious anti-regime forces, the prospect of shelling is scary and people are hesitant.
How does the regime ‘control’ its areas?
Through the heavy presence of security forces and checkpoints. Checkpoints are controlled by the army, the intelligence service (mukhabarat), and by the so-called ‘public committees.’ The latter are the worst. They are manned by armed civilians.
You mean untrained people with guns?
Actually, many of them have formerly done their military service. No, the worst about them is that the regime has recruited them to create and enhance tensions among the local residents. It has given certain civilians power over their neighbors. This naturally creates friction and violence. The regime is extremely experienced in these kinds of games, in creating tensions between people and between the different sects. It serves to keep areas divided. In Damascus for example, the majority of those in the public committees have been recruited from minority communities. This is an ugly tool for increasing fear among the population. You are exposed by carrying a weapon, you are singled out, and this in turn raises the fear that you will be targeted. It makes you believe that you need to protect yourself and your neighborhood.
In July and August, you travelled through the liberated areas in the north and northeast of Syria – Aleppo, the countryside of Idlib, and Raqqa. From what you have seen, who are the fighters and how strong are the groups?
There are mainly three types of ideologies. First of all, there are the radical Salafist-Jihadists. They are the smallest group (forming less than 10% of the fighters), but, unfortunately, it is the one getting the most attention in the media. These consist of primarily two factions, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN). Both of them enjoy ties and share the ideology of al-Qaeda, but they operate independently of each other. Both of them include Jihadists from outside Syria, but the ISIS has a larger number of foreign fighters than JaN. It has demanded that JaN should be under its control, yet JaN has refused.
The second largest group is the Syrian Salafists. They are not linked to al-Qaeda. Their main body is the Syrian Islamic Front. It is an umbrella organization under which Ahrar al-Sham forms the largest faction. They are opposed to the leaders of ISIS and JaN, and, what is most important, they have a vision for Syria as a country, and not simply as a part of an Islamic emirate. They see the Sharia as the main foundation of a future constitution, but the room for negotiation is much greater with them than with the Salafist-Jihadists.
The third and the largest group is the Free Syrian Army (FSA) under whose auspices fall a wide range of conservative to secular factions. They believe that a future constitution and system of government should be decided upon by the Syrian people.
In terms of external support, it has been easier for the Salafists and Jihadists to find private sponsors, mainly networks and individuals in the Gulf and elsewhere, although there has not been any government support. We often hear analyses in the media that have things horribly wrong, claiming that Saudi Arabia is the biggest sponsor of the radical groups. The Saudi government has a very sensitive relationship with Salafists and Jihadists due to its own vulnerability. The Saudi authorities have imposed serious restrictions on the private funding of armed opposition in Syria, because the Saudi government doesn’t want to see aid going to the Salafist-Jihadists. The FSA has had a lack of what they term “decent and sustainable funding,” so some of the fighters have felt compelled to join more radical groups that have attracted more funding. The reluctance to support the more moderate groups in the armed opposition (mainly the FSA) has only strengthened the more radical groups. The Americans and Europeans offer very limited support to the moderate groups and they even restrict other countries who are more willing to support them (certain Gulf States). The Americans and their European allies are still unwilling to provide opposition fighters with advanced anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets. Their excuse has always been the fear that such weapons could fall into the “wrong hands”. Don’t they realize that by not supporting the moderate groups, they are only allowing the “wrong hands” to get stronger on the ground? I’m certain they do.
It is rather a silly game. It reveals that Western powers are not truly willing to allow the revolutionaries to achieve a decisive victory over the regime forces. All they want is to achieve a kind of balance that will force the two parties to enter into a negotiation process, which will lead to a new situation with part of the opposition and part of the old regime sharing power, without any radical change to the system.
Do the above-mentioned percentages also reflect the level of support the respective groups enjoy among the population?
It is important to realize that most of the local fighters come from the areas in which they are fighting. This means that civilians and militants are fighting side by side. Many of the armed fighters used to be peaceful protesters and at a certain point started to carry weapons. Most of the fighters actually say they are eager to get back to their normal life and work. They simply had no choice but to take up arms.
We cannot take this for granted, of course. Among the major challenges of any future government will be to collect the weapons and to form a new national army, or rather to merge the remnants of the Syrian army, which has been falling apart, with major opposition armed groups (especially the FSA).
What makes you so confident that after a change in the situation, the radicals won’t be ruling?
This is a valid question. There are radical forces within the opposition and we discuss this issue a lot. We are transparent about this, and this differentiates us from the regime. But you know, the majority of Syrians are not at all warm to radicalism. Syrians are well known for their adherence to moderate Islam. Today, even some local conservative armed groups differ greatly in their practices, ideology, and vision for the future Syria from those of the radical Jihadists. It is often only the concrete danger they are still facing from the regime forces that makes some local communities in Syria currently accept the presence of radical troops. In addition, some of these radical troops are better trained and equipped than local FSA groups. This means that they are more capable of fighting the regime forces. When the regime is finally toppled, the Salafist-Jihadists will lose most of their popular support. Furthermore, many Syrians have serious doubts about the Salafist-Jihadist groups, because they consider them to be infiltrated by the regime, as well as by Iranian and Iraqi intelligence. It is no secret that Syrian intelligence has made history by creating or cooperating with Jihadist groups, directly hiring them, or implicating them in dirty activities throughout the whole region. Everybody knows they sent many Jihadist fighters from the whole region to Iraq under the pretext of fighting against the occupation. Now, we have many who came from Iraq to Syria. Therefore, there is a measure of doubt concerning the nature of the relationship between some current groups and the regime’s intelligence service. These suspicions are supported by the way they launch only limited operations against each other, thereby ensuring the support of their own constituency. The irony about the regime and the Salafist-Jihadists is that they obtain their legitimacy through the very existence of the other group.
It is easy to tell, even if you enter the liberated areas only briefly, that the more radical Salafist-Jihadists do not make up the largest group. Therefore, I believe that others will have the power and confidence to rise against them. In fact, the tension between local communities along with local FSA groups and the radical Salafist-Jihadists (especially the ISIS) has been increasing notably in recent weeks. And we have already seen some protests against them in many areas like the one that took place in the city of Dana near the Turkish border, as well as in the city of Raqqa. In Raqqa, for example, the tension boiled over into an armed clash between one of the FSA groups (Ahfad Al Rasoul) and the ISIS. The battle continued over four days and was only ended by a sort of agreement, but tensions are still running high between the two groups.
You mentioned that the Syrian army has been falling apart. How does that correspond with the regime’s claims of having been winning ground recently?
Yes, it is falling apart, but not yet totally. Some elite troops are still strong. The regime troops have pulled themselves together and won Qusayr and some other strategic locations in the city of Homs. Hezbollah, Iran, and militias from Iraq have supported the regime’s efforts. And their intervention proved decisive (Hezbollah, for example, played the major role in the Qusayr battle). But it is a different thing to win a battle and to control territory. There are a number of places they have lost, re-conquered, and then lost again. This sort of dynamics is something we will see for some time. But, recently, they have also suffered from setbacks, such as in Aleppo and its rural surroundings, in Deir Ezzor in the northeast of the country, and in the province of Daraa in the south. There have even been attempts in Latakia, although not very successful attempts. But it is a sensitive area, because it is regime heartland. And in some areas, such as Qusayr, the only possibility for the regime to gain the upper hand seems to have been that everybody had to leave. These areas were shelled heavily, because even the stones are your enemy. Only then could the regime establish control. After the fall of Qusayr, the regime announced that it was set for a quick victory in Aleppo. This has not materialized, though. For about two weeks now, Aleppo has been completely besieged by the opposition; more than 60 % of the city is already controlled by opposition armed groups. This means, even if you have the troops necessary to win a battle, it doesn’t mean you can control the area. And if you can’t control a city, then how long can you control the whole country?
What do you think are the main flaws in Western policies dealing with Syria?
They wanted to repeat the scenario of Egypt and Yemen – a change in leadership while keeping the system. But first of all, Syria is very difficult to compare to those regimes. There is no clear border between “head” and “body” – it is an organic overlap between army, sect, economic power, and family.
If only the president steps down, there will not be any transition because of this overlap, and we would all pay a huge price for that. Syria needs a profound change, yet there has always been too little room for negotiation in order for a real change to take place.
Secondly, by now it will be very hard to convince many Syrians about only a cosmetic compromise. It might be possible for individual groups, but no overarching figure in the opposition would be able to achieve this for the whole population, simply because of the huge sacrifices we have made. Most would actually want the conflict to end today rather than tomorrow, but it will not be easy to accept a cosmetic compromise.
It is also a lesson that we learned from Iraq and Lebanon – without a minimum of justice, we will not be able to lay the foundations of a new state. If there’s only a treaty but no justice, it will merely be a more civilized version of civil war, perhaps less destructive, but certainly no guarantor for stability.
There are reports that the regime has been transferring further prisoners to prisons located in military airports – likely targets of a strike. As a result, many in the West have refrained from supporting airstrikes. What is your view on this?
The regime has always had detention centers in its military and intelligence headquarters. This is already a gross violation and counter to international conventions. And most of these centers are located in civilian neighborhoods. This situation should not have been permitted from the very start. It only reveals the extent of the regime’s callousness towards the life of civilians. Of course, we are hugely concerned, because people will be exposed to severe danger. But those who talk about the potential victims of American airstrikes seem to forget that Syrian civilians are dying every day – an average of one hundred per day that we know of, not to speak of the scores of people arrested, of which we do not have any exact information.
Do you think the debate about whether and by whom chemical weapons were used has drowned out the fact that there have been many civilian casualties over the past two-and-a-half years? Is the international community putting too much emphasis on that particular type of weapon?
Again, I would say that the only reason why Syrians would accept an intervention is that we have no guarantee that chemical weapons will not be used again on a larger scale. Other than that, we have hundreds of questions about why such an intervention should only come now.
In fact, the whole situation is somewhat insulting. Syrian citizens have been killed by all kinds of weapons. In some of the current debates, people abroad seem to have only now realized that Syrians are being killed. We thought that the firing of live ammunition on peaceful protesters would have already evoked a stronger reaction in the international community. And then, when the armed troops marched into the cities, and then the tanks, and then the use of helicopters. And finally, when they started bombarding the cities with planes – but nothing ever happened, even though all this was so well documented. It has been a step-by-step escalation, and therefore it is a bit confusing to understand why only now we have reached the point where the international community seems prepared to react.
There has been no genuine desire to act on behalf of the interests of Syrians. I believe that for many, the motto has been “the devil you know is better than dealing with a new situation.” Assad cooperated well with the interests of many countries, and they do not see any alternative to him.
There has not been enough pressure put on the regime and not enough effort to make Russia and Iran end their support. In the first year, we let many opportunities slip from our hands and therefore we are now only left with tough and painful options. It is not easy to hear others lecturing us now on good and bad options. We do not need anybody preaching to us to know that today there are only “bad” and “worse” options. Where were the preachers over the past two years? Syrians didn’t wait for military intervention when they went out on the streets to demand their freedom. For almost a year, they kept their movement peaceful in the face of a brutal crackdown by regime forces. If the international community had showed serious action then, we wouldn’t be here today. We don’t need people preaching about the potential consequences of a military intervention. We know that a “cosmetic” operation will convey the message that it is fine to kill civilians by any means – except with chemical weapons. On top of that, it will provide the regime with the narrative that it is fighting American allies when it oppresses the opposition. Therefore, the only valid solution today is to offer real support to the opposition to overcome the regime. But, again, you simply can’t allow the regime to get away with using chemical weapons. The world should do something serious and do it quickly. It is now or never.
Mohammad Al Attar (1980) is a Syrian playwright.
His plays, such as “Withdrawal,” “Online,” “Look at the street…this is what hope looks like,” “Could you Please Look into the Camera?” and “A Chance Encounter,” have been adapted for performances on stage in London, New York, Seoul, Berlin, Brussels, Tunisia, Athens, and Beirut.
Al Attar’s career as a writer includes numerous contributions to many magazines and newspapers, recently with a special focus on the Syrian Revolution.
The interview was conducted by Bente Scheller on September 1, 2013 in Beirut.