The escalating militarization of the Syrian conflict only favors foreign players’ interests, claims Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute of Policy Studies, and an activist on the Middle East.
The US political activist insists that Syria has become a battle ground in a “power struggle in UN between the US and Russia, between NATO and the Gulf States on the one hand and other Arab states on the other.”
“Almost none of the players are taking into account the interests of the people of Syria,” she noted.
Bennis, who is also a fellow of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, believes the situation in Syria differs a lot from that one in Libya, because Syria has never witnessed sectarian violence. If sectarian violence in Syria explodes – it would spill over the borders, she told RT.
RT: The Red Cross and other experts are saying the situation in Syria has descended into full-scale civil war. How does that affect the positions of the US, the positions of the West versus the position of other countries?
Phyllis Bennis: So far we have seen no indication that either the US or any of the outside actors are taking seriously the consequences of the determination by the International Committee of the Red Cross that it is a full-scale civil war. What it means, among other things, is that the international laws of war what’s known as international humanitarian law applied throughout the region and it applies to the opposition as well as to the regime. They are obligated under the conditions of international law not to use certain kinds of weapons, not to attack civilians, not to hold prisoners without some kind of process. All of those things are part of international humanitarian law and we have seen no evidence yet that any of the outside actors are taking any of that seriously.
RT: What does that mean to the Syrian conflict?
PB: What it means for the Syrian people is that the militarization of this conflict is escalating. That can only be in my view dangerous, more dangerous. The notion that there can be a transition a regime that would not have the same kind of repression that we have seen from Assad all these years is still possible – a fact that Hillary Clinton is now reduced to acknowledging. That if Assad himself arranges a transition safe haven – whether it’s in Moscow, whether it’s in Saudi Arabia or somewhere else – that’s still possible. Then the question becomes, who is going to be in control, if the escalation continues, if the militarization continues, what we would then see is that the post-Assad government will be led by the men with guns.
RT: Just like when we saw in Libya, just like when we saw in Somalia and many other places.
PB: I don’t want to make comparisons. Libya is a very different country than Syria, Somalia is a very different country, but the notion that the victors of a political struggle because this is still a political struggle in Syria. When the victors are those with the guns that always bolds ill for women, for children, for civilians. Syria is not Libya. Syria has a long history of civil society mobilization and organizations. They have many things that were not possible in Libya. It’s not the same. I don’t want to equate them, but the danger is that you will have certain parallels, certain similarities such as unaccountable militias who will not put themselves under the accountability of a new government.
That is a very dangerous reality and as diplomats have already acknowledged if there is another bigger explosion in Syria, if the entire Syrian body politic explodes, it will be an explosion not an implosion as Libya was. There is the danger because it is becoming sectarian, because of that sectarian character that is only now becoming dominant in Syria.
In a country that was not traditionally a sectarian divided religiously divided country, despite the use by the regime of religious and sectarian divisions to maintain its power, this was not a population that identified primarily by their religious affiliation as Sunni or Shia or Alawi or whatever. It was a possibility that if you were an Alawi you had a better shot at power. But it was not the way people defined themselves. The danger of course is that with that growing, the sectarianism growing, there is the danger that it will spill over the borders.
RT: And some congressmen and senators’ calls to arm the rebels, for the West to intervene, don’t you think that’s just going to make it worse?
PB: Any further intervention by further militarization is going to make things worse. The original militarization has made things far more difficult. Further militarization is going to kill more civilians. The choice of the Syrian opposition to take up arms was contested from the beginning by other parts of the Syrian resistance who said that we have a better chance of changing over government, of overthrowing the government by non-violent methods. So certainly more escalation, whether it’s by the US or some other outside power, is going to be very dangerous.
RT: Experts now say that the rebels in Syria are very much dominated by Al-Qaeda.
PB: There is an interest in the US, for instance, of downplaying the role of the Islamists, but it’s become more apparent that there are Islamist forces. Whether they are Al-Qaeda I think there is no much evidence yet. I think that it is very dangerous for outside actors who were not on the ground, who don’t necessarily have good sources on the ground, to assume that any Islamist forces of resistance are part of Al-Qaeda.
That is a word that designed to sow terror in the minds of anybody in the West, anyone in Europe, in the US, etc. I don’t think we know yet. What we do know is that the opposition in Syria is very diverse, there is a part of it that has the Islamist framework, the same is true of all of the rebellions that have led to the Arab Spring. We see the Muslim Brotherhood in power now in Egypt. That’s not Al-Qaeda. There were people claiming at them that it was not true, we don’t know if it is true in Syria.
RT: Diplomatically, the efforts, what impact do you think that’s had, given that the situation on the ground is escalating?
PB: The fact that the UN has allowed the monitoring mission to remain on the ground for at least another 30 days is the one bit of hope that I see right now. Kofi Annan’s team led by [Major] General [Robert] Mood, a Norwegian general, has begun a political process in which they have been able to use in one town, another town, in small areas from the ground up to make possible a kind of diplomatic process of local commanders, of the military and local commanders of the opposition forces of the resistance to create small-scale ceasefires in three or four towns.
The town of Deir ez-Zor is one town in Syria where it’s apparently working. If that could be expanded, if that mandate could be shifted from simply monitoring a non-existent national ceasefire to facilitating small-scale local ceasefires that could then spread and move up from the bottom bringing people with it, rather than trying impose something from outside from the top down which certainly has not worked. That might be one hope for a diplomatic and less militarized solution.
RT: Susan Rice and other foreign diplomats at the UN said that they are willing or that they will withdraw the monitors if the situation on the ground does not improve and so far it’s not improving, so does it let them say that “this is the time where expanding this mission?”
PB: They are saying this is the last time. They said that the last time. They will change based on political realities not based on the realities on the ground. The realities on the ground are not what is determining the US position, Russian position, Qatar’s position, Saudi position – anybody’s positions. Except for the people of Syria.
What the outside powers has been doing has virtually nothing to do what has actually is going on on the ground. So what we are seeing play out at the UN is a power struggle between the US and Russia, between NATO and the Gulf States on the one hand and other Arab states on the other. We are seeing a bunch of different battles playing out diplomatically, almost none of which are taking into account the interests of the people of Syria.
RT: Where do you think that heads at? Do you think there will be intervention – since Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton and other diplomats have talked about intervention on the side of the UN. Do you think that is going happen, do you think that’s a possibility that the West is looking at?
PB: There is already intervention underway. The Western countries have provided the military of Saudi Arabia, the military of Qatar – that’s where they buy their weapons from. They buy American weapons. So it is already Western weapons that are going in. It’s not coming directly from the US, but it is weapons of the West. The danger of that escalating is very serious. The danger of further escalation involving other outside actors is very serious.
I don’t think the US right now, in an election cycle, I don’t think the Obama administration wants to engage in a direct involvement in an air campaign, for instance, against Syria of the kind they engaged in Libya. I don’t think they want to. Whether what is known in the US is the CNN factor, the political pressure on the president and in this case on a candidate in the election, based on what people are seeing on their TVs becomes very important.
It’s not impossible that even the regime in power in any country, in this country, when the Obama administration does not want to engage directly, if there is enough political pressure they may give in to that pressure. That’s happened before it could happen again.
RT: McCain is trying to exercise that kind of pressure – and other congressmen other senators.
PB: There is a number of senators, there is a number members of Congress, there are calls from the “hundred tree” in the mainstream media. There is a lot of pressure on the Obama administration. Not because any of them have a proposal of what would actually work, but simply because they are using this as a stick to hit candidate Obama in the context of the elections. That’s very dangerous for the rest of the world.
RT: What are the solutions that you think are best now for Syria, and do you think there is time for a dialogue between the government and the opposition?
PB: I think there is still time. I think that the time is diminishing, I think that the level of repression from the government has been so horrific and in response the opposition – which I support as a principle of the right of people to rise up against the repressive regime – the fact that they are using stronger and stronger military strategies and military tactics makes that kind of discourse, that kind of discussion, negotiation more difficult. But there is still time.
I think the question remains, will the international community help to make that possible? For example by small-scale, community-by-community, village-by-village, city-by-city negotiating processes at the grass roots, bringing together local commanders with local officials of the military to work out a ceasefire and then a political process. The best thing the international community could do is to allow the UN to play that role rather than a fig leaf of international involvement, a fig leaf of multilateralism to cover the unilateral decisions of several different governments.