Monday October 21, 2013, no154
Weekly information and analysis bulletin specialized in Arab Middle Eastern affairs prepared by neworientnews.com
Editor in chief Wassim Raad
New Orient Center for Strategic policies
Lebanese hostages in Syria released: decrypting a happy ending
By Ghaleb Kandil
The nine Lebanese hostages kidnapped by Syrian rebels in Aleppo, 17 months ago, arrived in Beirut on Saturday night after being handed over to the head of the General Security Abbas Ibrahim. An official and popular welcome was reserved for them at the Beirut airport and the streets of the southern suburbs.
The two Turkish pilots abducted in Beirut on August 9 were also released in a complex exchange transaction, which also saw the release by Syria of dozens of prisoners, mostly women .
This happy ending should not prevent us from making a rational assessment of this case:
-The abduction of Lebanese hostages returning from a pilgrimage in Iran was intended to provoke sectarian strife in Lebanon and the region. This plan has been avoided thanks, first, to the responsible attitude of the leader of the Resistance, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who prohibits any revenge reaction. Partisans of the Resistance responded with a strong sense of responsibility, while showing determination in its motion calling for the release of hostages. Families of Lebanese detainees have shown patience with inflammatory rhetoric, supported by patriotic positions expressed by the Mufti of the Republic Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, Sheikh Maher Hammoud, imam of al-Quds mosque in Sidon, the former Prime Minister Salim Hoss, Minister Faisal Karami and many others. The plan of discord, fomented by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and executed by the Muslim Brotherhood, Takfirist and terrorist groups in Syria, was defeated.
-From the beginning of this case, the Lebanese government should put pressure on the state sponsoring terrorist groups in Syria, if he really wanted to free the hostages. But the Lebanese did not dare to even verbally criticize the trio responsible for aggression against Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, and their true master, the United States. Only the Director of General Security, Abbas Ibrahim, was fully invested in this case, despite the shameful criticism he has received from the Lebanese parties involved in the terrorist war against Syria.
-The timing of the release of Lebanese hostages is related to the failure of the aggression against Syria and the disruption of regional and international front formed to fight this countr. This dislocation has increased since the axis of the Resistance, supported by the Russian ally, managed to prevent the U.S. military intervention against Syria. Turkey was forced to comply because of the repercussions of the Syrian crisis on its soil, and unfortunately we must admit, after the kidnapping of two Turkish pilots on the road to the airport, on August 9.
-This case revealed the mercantilist spirit of some Lebanese media that have tried to take advantage of this tragedy, through press trips and reports, funded by Qatar and Saad Hariri. The aim was to improve the image of the Lebanese hostages kidnappers and to tarnish that of the Resistance.
-The release could not succeed if Syria did not respond positively, from the beginning, to the efforts of Abbas Ibrahim. This attitude shows a Syrian desire to preserve Lebanon's stability. And the fact that the Syrian interlocutor of Ibrahim is General Ali Mamlouk shows how Syria rises above the pettiness of some Lebanese.
France is supporting the losers
By Ghaleb Kandil
French officials link the future of their relationship with the region to the aggression against Syria. The administration of President Francois Hollande has replaced its partnership with the emirate of Qatar, inherited from the mandate of Nicolas Sarkozy, by an alliance with the Saudi monarchy, which hysterically and publicly expressed his disappointment at the failure of Barack Obama's attack on Syria.
Presidents Sarkozy and Hollande have managed to destroy the supposed image of France as a great independent power, and appeared as small performers of U.S. orders. Suspicions suggest that their enthusiasm for universal war against Syria was dictated by financial considerations directly related to Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The French media have also cited recent years the financial aspect in determining the foreign policy of France.
Anyway, Francois Hollande hysterically supported aggression against Syria and has not been able to adapt to the retreat of the United States, imposed by the resistance of Syria and the determination of Russia and Iran. Holland shared the disappointment of Saudi Arabia, which is passing through difficult times after the failure of all its choices, due to the change in the international climate in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Francois Hollande has transformed France into a failed state. In the past, the French authorities had managed to distinguish, at least verbally, from American policies, in order to maintain flexibility and to play the role of mediator when the United States needed it. This is the role played by Nicolas Sarkozy, after 2007, to absorb the American failure in the Middle East and especially the Israeli defeat in the 2006 war.
By aligning with Saudi Arabia, Francois Hollande binds the fate to the losing side and takes the side of those who fund Al-Qaeda in Syria. He endorses the Saudi anger against the rise of Russia and Iran -recognized by Obam-, and the victory of President Bashar al-Assad, whose announcement is only a matter of time. This attitude will lead to the total isolation of France, which will not be able to take advantage of the changes taking place in the world. Winning the favor of Saudi Arabia will not be enough to compensate for this loss, especially that the tyrannical, despotic and obscurantist kingdom is indefensible. For his part, Bashar al-Assad, remains a modern and a secular president, fighting terrorism supported and funded by the Saud dynasty.
The greatest shame of Holland, and before him Sarkozy, is having betrayed the constants in the foreign policy of France, the most important being the protection of Eastern Christians and their role in their respective countries.
France has armed and politically supported terrorist groups responsible for heinous crimes against Christians, their churches and their assets in Syria. Paris was assigned to cover crimes committed under the banner of the Syrian revolution, which is in reality a western colonial aggression supported by the reactionary monarchies of the Gulf and the neo-Ottoman Turkey. Worse, senior French officials did not hide their involvement in the plot to drive Christians from Lebanon and Syria, according to information that had filtered the stormy meeting between Nicolas Sarkozy and the Maronite Patriarch Beshara Raï. The destruction of the secular state in Syria can only lead to the demise of Eastern Christians threatened by the rise of Takfirist movements supported by new strategic ally of France in the region, Saudi Arabia.
Michel Sleiman, Lebanese President
«The meeting in Geneva and those preceded led to the approval of the following: the financial burden-sharing, sharing the number of refugees, hosting them inside Syrian territory without resorting to the air embargo and the result for a political solution to the Syrian crisis to ensure the return of refugees to their homes. Participation in financial expenses is insufficient participation in the distribution of refugees is also setting up shelters in Syria has not yet taken place and the route Geneva 2 is still difficult.»
Naïm Kassem, deputy secretary general of Hezbollah
«By paralyzing the country, 14-March prevents the other side of fully governing, but it does not rule him, either. While he accepts a government agreement could share equal power with others and participate equally in decision making. This camp wants all the power, but he must understand that his dream of a government to take full control is impossible. And if he continues to paralyze the country, the presidential election will not take place and the caretaker government will lead the country.»
Michel Aoun, Leader of the Free Patriotic Movement
«As a Christian representing a large proportion of Christians in Lebanon, I invite them to unite to face the crisis, despite the political rivalries. There are vital issues that we must address through cooperation. If this unity is achieved, it will necessarily lead to national unity.»
The European Union is donating an additional 70 million euros in aid to help Syrian refugees in Lebanon during the winter months, the EU envoy to Beirut said Friday. Speaking after a meeting with President Michel Sleiman, Angelina Eichhorst praised the country for welcoming nearly 780,000 refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria. "We are making every effort to help meet the urgent needs of Lebanese and refugees through emergency humanitarian aid and the development of infrastructure and basic services," she said. "An additional amount of 70 million euros ($95.8 million) will be allocated by the EU humanitarian agency ECHO to help the poorest refugees through the winter," she added. Eichhorst said the extra funding, which would cover a period from November to March, would go to help 90,000 families identified as the most vulnerable. UN refugee agency UNHCR has registered 779,000 Syrians in Lebanon, which has a population of four million, but the real number is thought to be much higher.
The National News Agency (official) reported that the government commissioner to the military court, Sakr Sakr, has filed a lawsuit against 18 Palestinians, including one in detention for terrorist planning. These include Palestinians accused of forming an armed group in order to carry out terrorist attacks. They face the death penalty if convicted. Wissam Ahmad Naim, now in custody, was arrested Monday for falsifying identity and manufacturing timing system for bombs cards.
A car bomb exploded outside a military intelligence building in Egypt's Suez Canal city of Ismailiya on Saturday, wounding four people, security officials said. The blast destroyed part of the military compound's wall and set fire to several cars in the area. Officials said a second car bomb was found in the area, but experts managed to defuse it. Ismailiya and surrounding areas have seen regular attacks on police and military personnel, especially since the military toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi on July 3. More than 100 police officers have been killed across Egypt in attacks and clashes since then. The military has been conducting an extensive operation in the Sinai Peninsula east of canal to crack down on Islamist militants, who have killed dozens of soldiers and police officers.
As Safir (Lebanese daily, Arab nationalist)
Mohammad Ballout, Paris (October 18, 2013)
The warning of an impending battle Kalamoun signs multiply. The villages in this region of Syria, located at the foot of the Anti-Lebanon mountains, became a stronghold of Syrian jihadist groups who have decided to conduct a preventive war against Hezbollah strongholds by sending car bombs in the southern suburbs of Beirut. In this context, several sources indicate that a car packed with explosives in Yabroud ( Kalamoun ) is en route to the Bekaa via Kara and Flita in Syria. This vehicle is actively searched before it crosses the border.
The Battle of Qalamoun will have an impact on Lebanon, especially that the brigade of Islam, led by Zahran Allouche, became the main opposition force near the Anti-Lebanon moutains, particularly in Assal Al Ward, the Ranjouss plain and Hoch Al -Arab. This threat should be taken seriously because Allouche went last week in Saudi Arabia, where he met the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who finance him. Brigade Islam has between 3,000 and 5,000 fighters and a squadron of 23 T72 tanks.
As Safir (October 15, 2013)
A diplomatic report on Syria says surprises will occur in the positioning of the protagonists towards the Syrian crisis and the contours of this new landscape begin to appear at the time of contact and dialogue has been opened between members of the opposition, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and officials from the Syrian regime. The report indicates that the armed conflict between the factions of the Syrian opposition (FSA and Kurdish organizations on one hand, al-Nosra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (EIIL) on the other) fall within a predetermined scenario. The report adds that the U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, have agreed on the need for the Geneva 2 conference, provided that the opposition agrees to negotiate with the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad. The practical implementation of this plan would entail the sidelining extremist armed groups, to allow a subsequent step integration of FSA and Kurdish organizations in the Syrian army, which later cleanse Syria from these extremist groups. The report emphasizes that "reversal in the Syrian crisis found its consecration during the Geneva Conference 2." The diplomatic report notes Lebanon has the international umbrella that seeks to maintain stability in the country and it will also be called upon to respond favorably with countries in the region to the Russian-American agreement in order to solve the crisis in Syria.
An Nahar (Lebanese daily close to March-14 coalition)
Khalil Fleihane (October 15, 2013)
Steps have been taken discreetly by a great power, through its ambassador in Lebanon, in order to remove barriers preventing the formation of the government, but they failed. Diplomatic sources said the ambassador recognized that the mission entrusted to him was extremely difficult and delicate, despite he is an expert of Lebanese politics and he has relationships with several Lebanese leaders. Despite this, he failed to convince them to abandon their requirements in order to facilitate the establishment of the new government. The diplomat stressed that the continuation of the vacuum at the government level would be harmful to Lebanon, saying his country fears that this will have a spillover effect on the Presidency of the Republic.
According to the same diplomatic sources, the ambassador said that the mission of Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam is impossible due to the absence of a referee able to reconcile the conflicting demands. Political forces require a certain number of ministry and refuse the principle of portfolio turnover, and resume the chorus of blocking third.
According to the same sources, the second reason which brought the Ambassador to consider the formation of the new Cabinet is an impossible mission is the position of Saudi Arabia. Formulas that have been proposed so far were not accepted by to leaders of the kingdom. Deputy for Political Affairs of the United Nations Secretary General, Jeffrey Feltman, intervened in the debate, saying that Riyadh "is not softened its stance in favor of the birth of a new government and feels animosity towards the President Sleiman, whose visit to Riyadh was canceled 78 hours before the scheduled date, without any convincing justification."
Al Akhbar (Lebanese Daily close to the Lebanese Resistance)
Amal Khalil (October 19, 2013)
A few weeks ago, the Saida branch of the Lebanese Brigades to Resist the Israeli Occupation launched an internal workshop to strengthen its organizational structure and members’ commitments to Saraya principles. However, the workshop is not set to address accusations against of the group’s "thuggery and assaults.”
According to Hossam, one of the founders of the group in Saida, the Saraya "is taking the normal path of such organizations when they emerge,” after being forced to postpone due to security concerns, especially the Ahmad al-Assir phenomenon.
The group does not require the help of Hezbollah to oversee the workshop. "The group is capable of organizing itself," insisted Hossam. He is a veteran of the leftist resistance, which he joined when he was 16. "I am still a Marxist Leninist and a believer in social justice and armed struggle for people's liberation," Hossam said.
Hossam rejected the idea that the Saraya are a political and sectarian tool for Hezbollah, being utilized internally. "We are not mercenaries," he insisted. Many joined the Saraya "to defend the resistance and not Hezbollah, which does not need anyone to defend it." He pointed to a giant portrait of Hassan Nasrallah hanging above his home's entrance in Saida across from a poster of his "unveiled and modern" wife. He laughed at the rumors spreading among Sunnis accusing Hezbollah of spreading Shiism in Saida through the Saraya. "I remain the same," Hossam explained. "I do not pray and I am not convinced of the religious doctrine, but my ID says I am a Sunni." He recalls his first session at the Saraya, when he asked a Hezbollah and Saraya official, "What do you want me to do?" The reply was to "keep your sect and social behavior and think about going back to the organization you were with and practice resistance from there."
This type of advice was adopted by Hadi, a Palestinian. He prefers to remain quiet politically and militarily, since he lives in the Siroub area, which includes a mix of Lebanese and Palestinians from the Future Movement and the Popular Nasserist Organization (PNO), in addition to Hamas and al-Jamaa al-Islamiya.
A few days ago, flyers were distributed around the city, demanding that the Saraya be dissolved. However, a Hezbollah field commander explained to Al-Akhbar, "In 2006, Hezbollah carried out an evaluation to conclude the lessons learned from the July aggression and the Saraya became a main priority. The party found that all future battles with the enemy should have their incubating environment, due to the importance of popular support for the resistance against Israel."
"The next war with Israel will be all over Lebanon and will not necessarily start in the South,” he said. “Thus, every Lebanese who could carry a weapon should be ready, since the whole Lebanese society should be a resistance society.”
The Saraya, he said, "will be one of the major surprises to the enemy if it decides to attack. If the Israelis decide to attack in any location in Lebanon, they will be ambushed and confronted by the men of the Saraya, anywhere they go, not merely in the Shia environment."
What about the resentment felt by some of Hezbollah's allies, due to the Saraya attracting their partisans and being active in the same political environment? "The Saraya chose to revitalize existing forces and currents, which are committed to the ideas of the resistance instead of creating new groups," the commander said. "It does not want to embarrass them in their milieu and create animosity with the party."
However, the sensitivities of the allies rose to the surface in Saida a few months ago, in what became known as "the Saydoun melee." Back then, a few neighbors clashed for personal reasons. One side belonged to the Saraya and others to the PNO. However, the individual incident, caused by known troublemakers, betrayed pent up hostilities, which the party worked on containing.
In this context, the party decided to reactivate an old decision, rejecting the membership of any former members of the PNO in the Saraya and welcoming any decision by a Saraya member to switch to the PNO.
Gradually, the party initiated actions to contain the repercussions of the Saydoun melee and win back its Saida allies, particularly former MP and head of PNO Osama Saad. "He is one of the leaders of the resistance and the party trusts him blindly and puts all its means under his discretion," the commander said.
The passing storm between the two allies prompted their adversaries in Saida, especially MP Bahia Hariri and former prime minister Fouad Siniora, to launch tirades against the Saraya after the Abra battle.
The commander rejected rumors spread by the Future Movement that Hezbollah is spreading Shiism among Sunni youth through the Saraya. "The party refused to allow the conversion of members of the Saraya from their original sects to Shiism," the commander said. "The Saraya is paying the price of sectarian incitement by the Future Movement," he said. Nevertheless, many people do not have an ideal view of the Saraya.
The Saraya turns 16 next month. On 13 November 1997, Nasrallah announced the establishment of the "Lebanese Brigades to Resist the Israeli Occupation." The announcement came two months after the martyrdom of his son, Hadi, in the South.
Back then, a group of Lebanese, Arab, and Muslim young men started asking to join the Islamic resistance. However, the party does not accept non-Lebanese members. Additionally, its religious nature also prevented other Lebanese from joining. The need for an independent faction to work alongside the Islamic resistance and provide it with various kinds of support became apparent.
In the press conference, Nasrallah announced several phone numbers to call for applying to the Saraya, no matter the individual’s sectarian, regional, ideological, or political affiliation. By the end of his speech, the phone lines had been jammed and the party's headquarters began to be filled with thousands of applicants.
The application form requested information on personal issues, military experience, and mental, psychological, and physical abilities. However, the form did not ask about personal beliefs and mentioned its concern about "ideological, religious, and social freedoms, in which the Saraya will not interfere." Those who were accepted were subjected to lectures and theoretical and practical training.
One of the most prominent leaders of the Saraya today says that its establishment was "a strategic decision taken by the party's leadership, following lengthy negotiations and discussions, in order to involve the biggest number of Lebanese in resisting the Israeli enemy, creating an environment which embraces the resistance over the largest possible area of the homeland, and transferring the ideas of resistance to the biggest segment of its population."
The Saraya began its military operations on 14 March 1998, following months of training. It executed around 380 operations against the enemy until 2000. However, the liberation of the South led to the downgrading of the Saraya's position, although it maintained its readiness and structure.
The July 2006 aggression brought it back into the limelight. The recent campaign against the Saraya was one reason why one of its most prominent commanders accepted to be interviewed, since "its leaders do not waste their time replying to the rumors and confusion spread by who do not know the reality of the Saraya, its size, or its responsibilities."
The commander was sitting between the flags of Lebanon, Hezbollah, and the green banner of the Saraya and under portraits of the two resistance martyrs Abbas al-Moussawi and Imad Moghnieh. The Saraya "is no less dangerous to the enemies of Hezbollah than the party itself," he told Al-Akhbar with a big smile. "It has trained groups, which are ready when needed and its field of operations covers the whole homeland."
Al Akhbar (October 16, 2013)
Members of Lebanon’s Future Movement are worried about Saudi’s shifting politics toward Lebanon. Are the Saudis – or at least some of them – punishing Saad Hariri? Or is Riyadh concerned about the stability of Lebanon, even at the expense of its spoiled prodigy?
Restlessness prevails in some March 14 circles, including the Future Movement, concerning the policies of Saudi Arabia in Lebanon. "Riyadh lifted its cover on us," is the conclusion.
Sources close to former prime minister and current head of the Future Movement Saad Hariri insist that a certain Saudi side has decided to punish him, either for his inability to confront Hezbollah or possibly his failure to support the "Syrian revolution." Either way, the sources are deeply concerned with Riyadh's coldness as they enviously watch Saudi Ambassador Ali Awad al-Asiri meet with their political adversaries Michel Aoun and Gebran Bassil.
This leaves them under the impression that the Saudis do not intend to negotiate with their Lebanese allies as in the past. In short, the situation is critical for the Future Movement, which has always derived its strength from Riyadh's political and financial support.
However, the shift in Saudi policy is nothing new. It is not the natural outcome of Riyadh's entanglement with Damascus, either, despite the political and security situation. Veteran Future members, involved in Riyadh's Lebanese policies since the era of assassinated prime minister Rafik Hariri, saw the specter of this transformation five years ago and attributed it to "a Saudi objection to Saad Hariri's management and efficiency,” during his time as head of government and then the Syrian-Saudi Agreement.
During that period, Riyadh's policies toward its allies were characterized by political and financial fluctuation. This was especially true for the Future Movement, whose organizations are suffering a long-term and acute financial crisis. Its officials have also failed to impose themselves politically on the popular level, "in light of the change of mood in the Sunni street, which is heading toward extremism."
They see that "Saudi did not act effectively follow the removal of its allies from power in 2011. It is a clear adoption of a policy of a provisional surrender to the reality of a power switch to March 8.”
Some in the organization cannot contain their irritation that "Saudi anger toward Hariri was translated into collective punishment of all Sunnis in Lebanon, poor and rich, strong and weak." They wonder about "the reasons that prompted the decision to penalize, causing the collapse of Sunni social, economic, and media organizations, which were forced to sell their assets on many occasions."
"There are no meetings with Saudi officials, no communications, and not even coordination" with its own team in Lebanon, which is in dire need of support.
According to informed sources, the intuition of some Future members, however, reflects that of Hariri. "He no longer feels himself the Saudi court's spoiled son," they say. But those who have met or spoken to him maintain that he "does not want to discuss the issue with anyone, not in Lebanon or in Riyadh."
Hariri is worried that whatever he says will add fuel to the fire, especially since his economic interests are "in the hands of the Royal Court."
While the disgruntled March 14-Future Movement bunch do not have much to say about how they perceive the "transformation" of Saudi policies toward Lebanon, "Riyadh's partisans" in the Future Movement have an abundance of analysis and justifications, all linked to the Syrian situation.
"Over there, the kingdom fights a war to defend its identity and influence in the region," they say. For them, Riyadh is not sleeping or isolated and it did not lift its support of its allies as some want to think.
However, concerning the Lebanese issue, "the transformation of Saudi policy from supporting one team against the other, to openness toward all sides is a result of a Saudi-American agreement to keep Lebanon neutral and avoid using it as a conduit to topple Bashar al-Assad's regime."
Although the partisans acknowledge that March 14’s situation in Lebanon is not witnessing its best days, they stress that the kingdom "did all it could with the Lebanese and the Sunni sect, but it now prefers to deal with Lebanon as a state, not as factions."
An indicator was the killing of Sheikh Ahmad Abdul-Wahed at a Lebanese army checkpoint in Akkar in April 2012. "Back then, the kingdom addressed a letter to President Michel Suleiman, not the Sunni prime minister, asking him to take care of the Sunni sect."
"The gates of the Gulf Cooperation Council opened up to Suleiman in spring 2012. On this basis, he was greeted in the kingdom and then the dialogue roundtable was launched with the participation of all March 14, with the exception of head of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea."
For the past two years, "Riyadh had been holding the stick from its middle and seeking a balance with all Lebanese sides."
However, those who hold these views are not certain that disengaging Lebanon means that Riyadh will be joining the US and Iran in the new atmosphere of openness. "Saudi refuses to go along with the new US policy. It believes the confrontation with Iran is a comprehensive battle. It cannot fight Tehran in Syria and be friends in Lebanon."
"Riyadh is putting its policies in Lebanon on hold so as not to embarrass its allies, either because they do not have the capacity to confront the situation or because it does not want them to go to war with the other side."
Today, Saudi Arabia knows the epicenter is in Syria, not Lebanon. Therefore, "it puts all its efforts there, which could be seen as negligence toward its allies here."
Al Akhbar (October 14, 2013)
It is remarkable how much Russia occupies the strategy of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He seems very reassured by the Russian role, but stresses that the Russians are not defending Syria as much as they are ultimately defending themselves.
During a recent meeting with visitors at the presidential palace, includingAl-Akhbar, Assad recalls a meeting he held in 2005 with President Vladimir Putin. At the time, the Syrian president told his host that he felt the Cold War still existed. Putin agreed, but tackled the question from a different angle: “True, it is a war,” he said, “but it is a cultural war between the East and the West.” This is a conviction that the Syrian president shares.
Assad believes that Syria’s security and stability can be protected by politics over weaponry. He reckons that international equilibrium is the best guarantee, citing the three Russian-Chinese vetoes during the Syrian crisis as proof.
The Syrian president does not regret giving up chemical weapons. He maintains that their capacity for deterrence has expired for three reasons: First, Syria’s missile arsenal has made huge strides, so deterrence can now be established from the first moments of the war. This, he said, eliminated the need for chemical weapons, which can only be used as a last resort if the enemy deploys nuclear weapons.
Second, Assad continues, huge progress has been made in the past two decades in countering the military effectiveness of chemical weapons, meaning, their effect is largely psychological.
For example, the Syrian president went on to say, whenever there is a spike in tension, we see Israel distributing gas masks to its scared citizens, but when the weapons are used, their effects can be treated with relative ease. The proof, Assad purports, lies with the five Syrian soldiers who, hurt in an opposition attack using chemical weapons, were treated with shots and quickly returned to the battlefield.
Consequently, Assad says that Syria suspended production of chemical weapons in 1997, replacing them with conventional weapons, which he believes are the decisive element in the battlefield. Assad explains that he built the armament structure of his army based on missiles, saying, “It is enough to lay down fire on Israel’s airports to paralyze it,” since, as is known, Israel’s strength lies with its air force.
Third, chemical weapons are obsolete because the war is now internal.
No doubt, there was a moral and political loss in handing over the chemical weapons, according to Assad. In 2003, Damascus proposed ridding the Middle East of all weapons of mass destruction. Syrian chemical weapons were a bargaining chip whose price was the Israeli nuclear weapons arsenal. But today, the price has changed. It was agreed that the Syrian chemical weapons would be handed over in return for sparing the country a Western military strike.
Even the manufacture of conventional weapons, which was aimed at countering Israel, is now aimed at internal enemies, which can be counted as another loss, Assad says. Regarding the Nobel Peace Prize awarded recently to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Assad quips, “The prize should have been mine.”
Assad does not believe that Geneva II will be held, even if scheduled for November. Perhaps the proposed peace conference will be held only to appease Russia, which is seeking to ward off the specter of war.
Assad says that Syria has no qualms attending, and that its only demand is clear and based on two principles: elections and ending support for terrorists. “Whenever we kill 1,000 terrorists, 2,000 more terrorists enter the country,” Assad says.
The West’s problem, according to the Syrian president, is that the faction it supports is fragmented and has no control on the ground. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is almost done for, he says. Its fighters have either abandoned it to join Islamic groups, or have joined the government and are now fighting in the ranks of the Syrian army. Nothing is left of the forces supported by the West and the Gulf except terrorists, who have no place in Geneva II, Assad adds.
The problem, from Assad’s point of view, lies with the other side, specifically the West. Those that the West can bring to the conference, he says, have no control on the ground, and as for those who have control on the ground, the West has no influence over them. He recalls that Lakhdar Brahimi came to him one time, carrying an American assessment stating that there were 2,000 militant groups fighting in Syria. When the Syrian president asked him what his own estimate was, Brahimi said 1,200. So, Assad asks: Who can control all these groups and guarantee they would implement any political agreement?
Foreigners Are Better Than the Arabs
Assad is bitter. “Not one Arab official has contacted us with a plan for mediation or for an Arab solution,” he says. The Arabs, he says, were always only an echo of their Western “masters,” if not worse.
The Syrian president adds that the West, despite all its flaws, “Always dealt with us more honorably than some Arabs.” Kofi Annan was honest and resigned, he remarks, while his Arab aides were not.
Assad stresses that this issue will be dealt with after the crisis. He does not want to handle it emotionally like Muammar Gaddafi did when he pivoted to Africa. Assad is adamant about Syria’s Arab identity, but does not see this as something necessarily linked to the Arab League. The framework of this identity, in practice and in form, shall be determined later, according to the president.
Assad seems reassured by the progress of military operations. He says the war follows a hit-and-run pattern, where his army regains control of some territories while losing others, and so on. However, Assad adds, if we consider the general course things have been taking, we would find that the Syrian army is clearly advancing.
In the same vein, the Syrian president highlights two particular problems: Daraa and the Jordanian front on the one hand, and the north, on the other hand. In the first, Assad says that fighters and weapons continue to flow from Jordan, regardless of whether this was being staged by the Jordanian regime or Gulf countries. As for the second, specifically in Aleppo near the border with Turkey, Turkish support has kept the front hot. “But the Turks have a problem now, after al-Qaeda seized the crossing,” Assad says, adding that there are no intractable problems in the rest of the regions.
Assad denies categorically the reports circulated a few days ago, holding that Abbas Zaki, member of Fatah’s central committee, had brought him a message from the new emir of Qatar. Interestingly, beyond the reporter’s question about this issue, Assad did not mention Qatar again in the interview. Khaled Meshaal and his team in Doha figured more in our conversation with the Syrian president, in fact.
The conversation moves to Hamas when the president is asked about the reports regarding Meshaal’s visit to Tehran, and whether Damascus, specifically the presidential palace, would be his next stop. But Assad is keen on clarifying everything in this regard, ending all equivocation.
First, Assad says that the Muslim Brotherhood, for 80 years, has been known for its opportunism and betrayal, but stresses that Damascus did not treat Hamas in the beginning as being part of the international Islamist organization. “The Europeans would come to us and ask what Hamas was doing here, and we would say that it was a resistance movement,” the Syrian president says, adding that only that capacity made Syria welcome and sponsor Hamas.
Assad says, “When the crisis began, [Hamas officials] claimed that they gave us advice. This is a lie. Who are they to give Syria advice? Then they said that we asked for their help, which is also not true. What business do they have in internal Syrian affairs?”
Later, the president of the World Federation of Muslim Scholars, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, made his insulting statements about Syria. Assad says, “Yes, we demanded that they take a stance. A while later, they came and said that they spoke with Qaradawi. We said that those who want to take a political stance should do so publicly. What value does a stance have if taken in closed rooms?”
Estrangement between Hamas and the Syrian regime ensued. Assad holds that Hamas ultimately decided to abandon resistance and to fully merge with the Muslim Brotherhood. He adds, “This was not the first time they had betrayed us. It happened before in 2007 and 2009. Their history is one of treachery and betrayal.” Assad then wished “someone would persuade them to return to being a resistance movement,” but says that he doubts this will happen. “Hamas has sided against Syria from day one. They have made their choice,” he adds.
Oddly, Walid Jumblatt and US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns suddenly slip into the conversation, when Assad is asked whether he would receive Meshaal. “Don’t rule out seeing Jumblatt here,” he jokes.
Assad then recalls how Burns came to visit him before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Burns presented Assad with a list of demands to facilitate the military operations against Iran, including allowing US warplanes to cross Syrian airspace, telling him that no one would notice. Assad’s answer was simple: “You are a government with no principles, and you pursue your foreign policy on commercial bases. Give us a deal, and we will see if it is in our interests and we will show it to the Syrian people.”
Assad is clearly still wounded by Hamas’ actions. But he keeps the door open to all possibilities if Syria’s interests require making certain rapprochements. In the end, he says, politics is about both principles and interests.
“[Iraq’s] stance has been very good from the beginning,” he says. Assad stresses that he’s not only talking about Baghdad, but also Iraqi Kurdistan. Though Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari expressed some extreme positions, Assad says, Iraq’s stance remains “very good.” Meanwhile, Damascus has been closely monitoring the situation in Egypt. Assad asserts, “Egypt is the fortress of the Arabs,” saying that relations with Egypt are today better than they were, even under former President Hosni Mubarak.
Under Mubarak, Assad continues, “We considered the Egyptian Foreign Ministry the equivalent of the U.S. Department of State.” But interestingly, Assad said that relations with Egypt were never severed, even under deposed president Mohamed Mursi, revealing that the military and intelligence channels remained open with Egypt the entire time.
In the meantime, hostility and estrangement with Saudi Arabia continues. At the end of the day, Assad remarks, Saudi Arabia is nothing more than “a state of tribes and individuals.”
“Personal relations determine [policy], and when one person falls out with us, all of Saudi Arabia falls out with us,” he adds.
“The Saudis have been hostile to Syria for the past 20 to 30 years to begin with. What changed was the relationship with their master. When their master’s relationship with us is good, they are good with us. When their masters fall out with us, they become hostile to us. There is always the personal factor in Saudi policies,” he says.
With respect to Turkey, according to Assad, the problem is confined to the person of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish people, Assad maintains, are opposed to Erdogan’s policies. Even President Abdullah Gul has started to publicly express his opposition to the policies of his prime minister, Assad purports, saying that Gul thinks that if Erdogan wants to gamble with himself, he should at least not gamble his entire political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Under no circumstances will Syria follow the Lebanese or Iraqi model, Assad proclaims. Syria is and will remain a secular state because this is the only suitable formula for cohesion in the country, which enjoys religious, sectarian, and ethnic pluralism, Assad says. He asserts there should be no politicization of religion in Syria because this would simply be a recipe for disintegration. Religion, he went on to say, has its spiritual and humanitarian functions, praising the vital role played by patriotic clerics in maintaining the unity of the Syrian fabric and combatting takfiri ideas, especially the late Mohammed Saeed Ramadan al-Bouti, who was killed while doing this duty.