| INTERVIEW WITH PATRICK SEALE, WELL-KNOWN MIDDLE EAST AND SYRIA SPECIALIST
We had the chance to have an interview with Patrick Seale, the writer of the books “Asad of Syria”, “The Struggle for Syria”, who is accepted as one of the most respectful specialists on Syria in Russia during the Valdai Forum. Meeting frequently with Hafez al-Assad and knowing him very well, Seale answered our questions in the interview about how son Assad was taking decisions carefully and how he was different from his father. Seale shared his invaluable views on the developments taking place in Syria and on the policies that Turkey is implementing on the matter.
Interview: Hasan Kanbolat, Oytun Orhan
ORSAM: You knew Hafez Assad very well. So you had a chance to express an opinion about how he was taking decisions. Do you think that son of Hafez, Bashar Assad is taking decisions in a different way or he is also as pragmatic as his father was. What are the differences and similarities between Hafez and Bashar Assad?
SEALE: You see Hafez was much more pragmatic. He was very cautious. You remember how he dealt with the Abdullah Ocalan crisis in 1998. I remember then Farouk al Shara was the Foreign Minister. He said to me “If we had moved a single tank, we would find ourselves at war”. Turkish forces were actually there and they came in for a kilometer or two. Hafez Assad withdrew. This situation now is different. The specter of Hama hangs over the situation today. The Muslim Brothers want revenge, not only because of Hama, but also for thirty years, they have been outlawed, the membership was punished by death. This is the opportunity to take revenge. The regime is frightened to be massacred. So it is “kill or be killed.” That’s the situation now. That makes it very difficult for negotiation. Both sides think they can win. The opposition is getting more and more weapons from various countries including Qatar. The Free Syrian Army is based in Turkey. I’m glad that Turkey is not yet giving them weapons. The more weapons you give them the more casualties, the more killing you will get. There has to be a negotiated outcome. In order to get a negotiated outcome, you have to have a formula. I think you have to give Bashar to preside over the transition, Even if at the end of it he goes, it will be an honorable exit. Otherwise he will fight to the death, because he thinks he has still many assets. First of all his army and security forces remain loyal more or less. Russia exerts veto in the Security Council. The opposition is divided. There is no appetite for Western intervention. Who is going to topple him? He thinks he can crush these little pockets of rebellion. But the more he kills, the more he loses legitimacy. His image is tarnished. And the less likely the negotiations become.
The regime claims that they are fighting with the terrorists. But everybody knows that the majority are the civilians. Besides at the beginning there was no armed resistance. How do you define the current conflict in Syria?
That’s true. There is a lot of manipulation. The opposition is armed now. I think it is a mistake to militarize the opposition, because it gave the regime a justification to crush them. Any regime will not tolerate an armed uprising. It is the same for Turkey, for the Chinese, for Russia and for the Americans.
There are many many sections of the opposition. On the one level there are the civilian protesters. They are the urban and rural poor. They had many years of draught in Syria. The countryside is very much affected and neglected. Then you have the intellectuals, political activists, and the people that went abroad. Then you get the Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, the strongest, the most-funded element in the opposition. As I said they want revenge and they took weapons. Then you get another level, the Islamist extremists coming from Iraq. They are probably responsible for the suicide attacks. Definitely there are armed gangs.
And last question. How do you evaluate Turkey’s Syria policy?
I think that in Syria, Turkey started attacking too quickly. Bashar is very proud. He doesn’t like to be pushed around. It is something he inherited from his father. He likes to lecture, but he doesn’t like to be lectured. I understand Turkey’s disappointment. Syria has a long border with Turkey and so many common interests. The trade was going so well and everything collapsed. I think Bashar lacks political imagination. His mindset is focused on the conspiracies against Syria, even from his father. You see particularly he came to power shortly after 9/11, the global war on terrorism and the attack on Iraq. He knew if the Americans were successful in Iraq, he would be the next target. That’s why he sent Jihadists to help the insurgency. Then you got the Lebanese crisis when Chirac and Bush tried to overthrow him. He was kicked from Lebanon and then you got the invasion of Lebanon in 2006 and the attack on Syrian nuclear facilities in 2007, the invasion of HAMAS to Gaza, attempts to destroy Hezbollah. He feels that he survived these regime-threatening crises. When this thing happens he thought this is another conspiracy. He neglected the legitimate grievances inside because his mind focused on the enemies outside. He thought the protesters were the allies of his enemies. It’s a mistake. Because the crisis has many levels, it has an internal level. Then it has a regional level, and a great power level. I mean there is an attack now by the United States and Israel to bring down the Iranian and the Syrian regimes, to bring down the whole axis, the Tehran-Damascus axis. I think Israel’s strategic environment suffered recently. The failure to destroy HAMAS and Hezbollah, the quarrel with Turkey, the rise of the Islamist Egypt. They think now they can bring down this crisis to stall the opposition. It’s the same with America. The Americans suffered in Afghanistan and Iraq, failed in Palestine. They think again that Iran is challenging their supremacy in the Gulf region. They want to stall that.
As I said, I was sorry to see Turkey’s leaders changing attitudes so rudely. I wish they had been a little bit more considerate and conducting secret diplomacy with Syria. It would have been better to influence it that way. Turkey has a strong interest. There you are the neighbor. What else you are going to do. Russia is beginning to do something, perhaps with Brazil and India, preparing a contact group for negotiations. Turkey should do the same.
Mr. Seale, thank you very much for sharing your opinion with us.
* This interview was made on February 18, 2012 in Sochi, Russia where the Valdai Forum was held. The interview was conducted by ORSAM Director Hasan Kanbolat and ORSAM Specialist Oytun Orhan.