You traveled to Syria during the Syrian civil war, right? When were you there, what were you doing there and what did you see?
Yes, I have traveled into Syria on a number of occasions over the last year and a half. The first time was in February, 2012 and the most recent visit was in March, 2013. On each occasion, I was there for reporting purposes and I interviewed rebel fighters, civilians, Kurdish militiamen, and civilian political activists. I also visited the frontline areas in Aleppo city and witnessed clashes between the two sides, on which I later reported.
The Obama administration is telling the American people that the rebels aren’t composed primarily of al-Qaida fighters — that there are moderate rebels. Supporters of intervention point to an op-ed by Elizabeth O’Bagy, who has also traveled through rebel controlled territory, in which she says, “Moderate opposition forces … continue to lead the fight against the Syrian regime.” She also writes that “there is still a large moderate force with some shared U.S. interests.” What do you make of this and who are the “moderates” the administration speaks of? From your experience, are they John Locke and Montesquieu enthusiasts?
I can only speak regarding my own experiences and my own knowledge. Undoubtedly outside of Syria, and in the Syrian opposition structures, there are civilian political activists and leaders who are opposed to al-Qaida and opposed to Islamism. There are also civilian activists and structures within the country which are opposed to al-Qaida and Islamism. But when one looks at the armed rebel groups, one finds an obvious vast majority there who are adherents of Islamism of one kind or another — stretching from Muslim Brotherhood-type formations all the way across to groups openly aligned with al-Qaida central and with al-Zawahiri.
The “moderate” force which we are told about supposedly consists of those rebel brigades aligned with the Supreme Military Command, of Major-General Salim Edriss. Most of the units aligned with the SMC actually come from a 20 unit strong bloc called the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front. This includes some powerful brigades, such as Liwa al-Islam in the Damascus area, Liwa al Farouq and Liwa al Tawhid. These and the overwhelming majority of the units aligned with the SMC are Islamist formations, who adhere to a Muslim Brotherhood-type outlook. I spent some time with the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo city at the height of the fighting there. I interviewed one of the leaders of the brigade. I’ve been in the Middle East for a long time and have worked on these issues for a long time. This was an Islamist fighting force, adhering to an Islamist ideology. So even those forces nominally aligned with western supported bodies are themselves overwhelmingly Islamist in outlook (there may be a very small and marginal number of forces who are ostensibly secular, but these are of no military significance). Its my contention that the real power in the rebellion lies not in the external structures, but among the commanders of the major fighting groups. These men are Islamists.
If the rebels were to win the Syrian civil war, what would a rebel-controlled Syria look like?
I think that if the rebels were to destroy the regime and take Damascus, then a subsequent civil war would then commence between different rebel formations, probably pitting the Muslim Brotherhood-type units against the more extreme Salafis and the al-Qaida-types. The rebels would also then commence war against the Kurds who control an enclave of northeast Syria, in an attempt to reunify the country. These subsequent wars could go on a long time. At the end of it, I would think that the MB-types would most likely be victorious and a Syria controlled by one or another group of Sunni Islamists would most likely come into being — though of course this is only speculation and its impossible to know in this regard.
What do you make of President Obama’s handling of the Syria situation? Do you think the U.S. should intervene?
I did support a rapid response following the use by the regime of chemical weapons on a large scale on August 21. I don’t think it was necessary to begin a huge political process and to telegraph intentions, and it doesn’t surprise me that that whole great mountain has now given birth to the mouse of no action at all. Israel’s actions over the last year in Syria offer I think an object lesson in how to enforce red lines. Go in quickly and forcefully, deliver the lesson, achieve the objective and get out — with the proviso that the action can be repeated if deemed necessary. That didn’t happen in this case with the U.S., and I think instead the administration came across as vacillating and indecisive — and glad to take the fig leaf that the Russian president provided for it.
What is the opinion of Israeli leadership of the president’s handling of the situation in Syria? Some have said that Israel may be more likely to strike Iran now because of the Obama administration’s bungling.
I think there is a great deal of dismay and disappointment at the weakness of the U.S. response. But I think it is important not to be simplistic here — Iran obviously features far higher on the list of U.S. national security priorities than does Syria, so I don’t think there will be an automatic assumption that the behavior pattern on Syria will reflect the pattern on Iran. So I don’t think one should begin any countdown to an Israeli strike on Iran deriving from the U.S. weak position on Syria.
Do you think there is a serious threat to the Syrian civil war destabilizing Jordan? How serious a blow would that be to Israel and America, and what is the best way to prevent such a catastrophe?
Undoubtedly Jordan has been negatively affected by a massive influx of Syrian refugees. At the same time, as of now at least the political implications or effects of that in Jordan have been relatively minor. The Jordanian monarchy’s survival is a key interest of Israel and Saudi Arabia, and indeed of the U.S. too, so my sense is that if the king gets into trouble he will find, as the king of Bahrain found when he got into trouble in early 2011, that he has plenty of friends willing to assist him. Saudi Arabia will provide large amounts of money to tide the Jordanians through. Israel will undoubtedly provide behind the scenes assistance on the security front. I think Jordan is less weak than it is sometimes presented as.
How is America viewed in the Middle East nearly five years into the Obama administration?
I think the U.S. is seen widely as a country that does not stick by its friends and does not punish its enemies. It is seen this way both by friends (such as Israel, Jordan, Lebanese moderates, Gulf monarchs) and by enemies (Iran, Assad, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah). The friends are dismayed by this, the enemies are invigorated. It isn’t a good way to be seen in a region where patronage and the building of alliances is the essence of success. I think the rapid abandonment of Mubarak in Egypt, the failure to grasp the danger represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the failure to act decisively in Syria when there was still time to build a rebellion led by pro-western, non-Islamist officers all contribute to this perception.
Can you compare and contrast how Obama is viewed in the Middle East today compared to how George W. Bush was viewed at the end of his presidency?
All the indications are that the U.S. is no more popular in the Middle East today than it was in the last year of the Bush administration. The difference, I would say, is that while Bush was hated by America’s enemies in the region, they also regarded him at least to some degree as a serious customer who understood the way power is wielded and knew how to reward friends and punish enemies. This isn’t the case with Obama. Lets take Egypt as an example: there, the fight is between the army regime and the Islamists. In the days of Bush, the army regime of Mubarak respected the U.S. president and relied on him, and the Islamists hated Bush but also took him seriously as an enemy. With Obama, the army regime of al-Sisi despises and scorns Obama because of his abandonment of Mubarak and his failure to back the recent army coup against the anti-US Muslim Brotherhood. But the Muslim Brotherhood also hates Obama no less than they did Bush. Indeed, in a way that would be funny if it weren’t tragic, both sides in Egypt now try to make out that America is backing their enemy.
If President Obama called you up today, what advice would you give him?
See above. I’d tell him that its vital for regional and maybe global order that the U.S. stand at the head of a coherent alliance of states in the Middle East, able to face down enemies. This can be re-established through the judicious backing of friends (Israel, Sisi in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi) and determined stances and action against enemies. This goal must be the watchword. All else will follow from setting this clear goal.
America Has No National Interests In Syria & There's No Guarantee That Our Intervention Will Make Things Any Better...For Anyone.