This interview was originally published on the website of the International Strategic Research Organisation (USAK), in Ankara.
Interview: Tibor Hargitai, a visiting researcher at USAK .
In light of the international efforts to convene the Geneva II meeting next month – aimed at getting all the political actors in Syria, including opposition elements and the Assad government, to the table – USAK’s Middle East expert Ali Bakeer was asked about the course that political developments surrounding Syria could take, who are the actors involved, and what roles do they play.
The Syrian opposition said it would not attend the Geneva II talks next months if there’s a possibility of President Assad remaining in power after 2014. On the other hand, Assad said on Lebanese television last week that he might want run for re-election in 2014. And also, since the Geneva talks last year were ineffectual, what do you expect the coming weeks to look like in terms of political developments in and around Syria?
Ali Bakeer: I don’t think the Syrian opposition has enough space to manouver, or options to take. Obviously, there is a lot of pressure on them to participate in Geneva II. My own opinion is that the international community has to readjust their agenda to make sure that Assad abdication is a condition of participation. They should also ask Assad to free all the political prisoners, and (after the negotiations) ask the powers to donate money to reconstruct Syria and to help the Syrian refugees come back.
I think their agenda should focus on this – as the conditions to participate in Geneva II. It was not just to force them to participate, because it’s not logical to negotiate with Assad after he destroyed Syria and after 150,000 people have died on his watch. It’s neither just nor ethical. But unfortunately this is the will of the international community – the U.S. and Russia.
I think that it would be entirely illogical for Assad to continue after his term finishes in June-July 2014,– for many reasons. First, I am supposing that parties participating in Geneva II are considering Geneva I in their agenda. It is a continuation of Geneva I. So, Geneva I implies that Assad would stripped of all power, because it would form a transitional body with complete authority, including administration and security branches, the army, and everything else. In other words, a powerless Assad. It is not logical to attend Gevena II and negotiate, if Assad is to stay in power afterwards. That would be a contradiction to what Geneva I.
It is not an easy task to hold Geneva II in November, as the Arab League is determined to do. Many parties will object. The Syrian opposition is considering their position right now. Also, U.S. regional allies are not happy with recent developments following the chemical weapons attack in August, especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey. They believe that Geneva II is the wrong response, and conflicts with the logical course of the Syrian crisis. They also think that the U.S. may have betrayed them with the chemical deal with the Assad regime, which the U.S. saw as a step to reel him in. So, they may also have difficulties accepting Geneva II, as it has no clear parameters. They see that Iran and the Russians are the winners because, in the end, it appears that they will let Iran participate with no conditions. This was rejected before.
Do you think it would be possible to exclude President Assad from the talks as what the opposition wants?
Ali Bakeer: According to Geneva I, Assad has no role in this negotiation. On the other hand, the opposition said that Assad will be without power. If the opposition participates, it should be guaranteed that Assad will be removed from power. They want a guarantee to make sure that Assad is not making use of Geneva II just to legitimise himself, gain time, and stay in power. The opposition doesn’t want him to be in either, as Geneva I stated.
To what extent do you think there is unity within the Syrian opposition? We heard in the news, over the last years, that there is a growing jihadist presence in Syria, how influential do you think they are, and how much influence does the Syrian National Council have?
Ali Bakeer: The parties to be blamed for this chaos, from what are called jihadist groups, is the international community and the Friends of Syria group. Because, we at USAK warned from the beginning of the crisis that if no effective action is taken against Assad, and things are left to run their own course, then groups will come to fill the vaccuum and will start to play by their own rules and on their own terms. And this is what happened. The United States and the Friends of Syria let things develop by themselves. On the other hand, Assad was getting great support from Russia and Iran politically, militarily, and financially. So, this is to be expected.
I think they focused on these groups later, to justify their non-interference. Especially the United Stated said, “there are jihadists, we should not support them, because we are afraid that radical groups will be supported.” So, I think, they have been used as a tool in this big crisis.
Second, some parts of these groups, like the ISIS, are really harming the real Syrian opposition, both politically and militarily. They are also serving the interests of the Syrian regime, in many ways. And they are not supported by anyone. They are even killing members from Jabhat al-Nusra. Last month, for example, the ISIS killed a member from Jabhat al-Nusra. They are even fighting Salafist groups, groups of the military Syrian opposition, and groups from the Syrian army. So, basically, they are weakening the real Syrian opposition. I think, in the long run, the quicker the Syrian crisis is solved, the smaller the problem will be.
However, if it remains an open fight – and it appears that some players may want Syria as an open playground – then this would be very dangerous for Syria, the Syrian people, and the region as well.
So, the influence of the jihadist groups can still be contained, if we come to a quick political solution.
What do you see as the next step towards a solution of this tragic humanitarian crisis?
Ali Bakeer: It may be too late to take action in Syria. We are already playing in the extra time – time is up. Syria is now almost a failed state. Seven million – more than one third of the Syrian people – are refugees, internally and externally. The Assad regime is now using starvation tactics against internally displaced Syrians. We have militias, military groups, the army is dissolving. We have Iraqi military groups fighting with Hezbollah, with Shia from Yemen, Afghanistan. Actually, it is a kind of a Shia military reserve in the region, organized by Iran, which is frightening.
Basically, there’s little hope. We are too optimistic about the coming period in Syria. The international community, Friends of Syria, came too late.
Should there have been a military intervention in Syria?
Ali Bakeer: When we talking before about intervening in Syria, many, even decision-makers, were interpreting this as boots on the ground. Actually, it’s not. It’s not like “shall we intervene militarily, or shall we not intervene at all?” There are many ways to intervene, not only by deploying soldiers. Unfortunately, not even minimal steps – arming fighters, limited airstrikes, financial support – were taken.
I think the Syrian Crisis exposed the international community to be impotent. It is a helpless situation. And at the same time revealed how pro-Assad countries are committed to his regime.
The ties between Saudi Arabia and the United States have been deterioring over the last weeks. Some would argue this has been going on for longer. However, how do you expect the worsening relations between Saudi Arabia – a key actor for the Syrian oppositon – and the United States to affect negotiations over Syria?
Ali Bakeer: I think that Saudi Arabia was sending signals of their frustration and disappointment from the U.S. position since the deal between the United States and Russia on chemical weapons. They saw that the United States has no clear policy to follow on Syria and they cannot depend on the United States in a critical, political situation. They have been abandoned. The U.S. was just looking after its own interests, ignoring the interests and the concerns of its allies in the region. Even they saw that the U.S. is more anxious to mollify its enemies and competitors – like Iran, Russia, and China.
But the Americans were not looking after their allies’ interests, fears, and concerns regarding regional developments. I think this perception created a kind of anger among Saudi decision-makers and this might manifest in a negative way. Riyadh might reply by challenging U.S. interests or even ignoring their concerns about some issues. They may still militarily support the Syrian opposition with arms. We will see how things will develop on the ground in the near future. So, when they see the U.S. is coming to Iran without giving any guarantees for them, security guarantees, or without clarifying the course of negotiations. This is not only about Saudi Arabia. Turkey also took some steps that also expressed their dissatisfaction with the American way of dealing with the issue. I think that we may see different policies from U.S. regional allies in the future.
U.S. losses its influence in the region, and it is evident that the U.S. is focusing more on economic problems, “pivoting out” of the Middle East, and focusing its strategic power on East Asia, to carefully monitor the rise of China.