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Jadaliyya Co-Editor Bassam Haddad on the Left, Imperialism, and Syria at KPFA

The following interview aired live on Wednesday 21 December 2016 on the UPFRONT show of KPFA (Pacfica Radio San Francisco and Oakland). The episode takes the recent developents in Aleppo as the launch point to discuss dynamics in Syria. The episode features Jadaliyya Co-Editor Bassam Haddad (also the Director of the Middle East and Islamic Studies program and Associate Professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University) and author and journalist Richard Becker.



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[STARTS AT 10:10]


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Cat Brooks (CB): You are listening to UpFront, I am Cat Brooks here with Mitch Jeserich . . . good morning:

Bassam Haddad (BH): Good Morning.

Mitch Jeserich (MJ): Good Morning

CB: Thank you for joining us. So I want to jump in, just to, to Bassam. What is happening, what is the current situation in Aleppo right now, what is the most up to date information we have about what is happening on the ground there?


BH: Well, first, it is a grueling situation overall. It is a situation at this point where most of the territory occupied by the rebels has been retaken by the regime, the Syrian regime and its allies. Except for a small territory that is still occupied by (some say) a few thousand or a couple of thousand rebels, depending on what kind of confirmation you can get. And more, citizens, Syrians, who are in part, many are trying to leave. Others for some reason either have stayed or there are reports that they are staying. But the evacuation is not complete. It has been halted as a function of problems with a larger deal between the regime and the rebels, whereby the freeing, or the end of a siege, in another set of two towns that are besieged by the rebels. The regime is asking for those people to leave, and that kind of caused problems when the rebels burned buses and so on. Overall, we are approaching the end of this particular juncture in Aleppo. And one only hopes that the rest of it can continue without the kind of bloodshed that we have seen, as a function primarily of a really vicious bombing campaign by the regime. But also, we in the western media and press, do not also hear very much about the violations committed by the rebels themselves, either in terms of the shelling of residential neighborhoods or the burning of the buses (which was an exception because this was all over the news). But also in terms of intimidating some of the citizens in east Aleppo from the very beginning, a few weeks ago, in terms of not wanting them to leave in order to hold out as much as possible.

Richard Becket (RB): [Audio on link Above]

CB: That actually—the last part of what he said about sort of pointing out bad actors on both sides, right? Of this equation feels like a good opportunity to sort of taken an even bigger step back, Richard, and help explain to people how we got here. Like from 2011 to today . . .

RB: [Audio on link above]

Bassam would you like to add to that or comment?


BH: I mean, there is no question that the United States' intervention in the region has been disastrous for the past sixty years at various levels. Not just politically in terms of supporting authoritarian regimes and apartheid in Israel. But also in terms of economically swaying development in a direction that actually has been a complete disservice and a complete failure, and brought destitution for the majority of people in the region. Of course with the complicity of the local business elite and the local dictators—especially in the Arab world. However, what we are witnessing today in Syria is not necessarily something that we could just dump on the United States. It is very important for people on the left, in my view, to strike a balance in terms of responsibility so as not to assume that we have no agency in the region: that leaders do not have agency; that people do not have agency; that most of the things that are happening are simply a function of external meddling. If we do not assume responsibility, specifically in this case of the dictatorship in Syria from 1963 or 1970, however you want to calculate it, to 2010 or 2011, we will not be able to recognize why is it that so many people in Syria were so desperate to reach out and get help, even from the most horrendous actors, which admittedly they were, who helped the rebels or helped the opposition for their own reasons, not for the sake of Syrians. We will not be able to understand that dynamic which ended up producing an uprising that was dependent, that was not democratic, and that was not inclusive, and that ended up becoming more sectarian, ended up becoming more radicalized, weaponized and, in many people’s view, went in the wrong direction which led to these kind of failures we are witnessing.

This outcome has been brought about by both the brutality of the regime in suppressing the uprising early on, very early on, before al-Nusra was created and before many of the things we are seeing today took place; and also as a result of external meddling by those Arab regimes, specifically in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as Turkey. And, of course, the United States is always playing a role despite everyone talking about Obama and the administration not doing very much in Syria and so on. It is true they have not gone head to head with Russia, they have not gone head to head after the chemical attack in 2013. But the United States is in many ways indirectly or directly, underwriting almost everything we have been witnessing, perhaps until recently when it appeared that the battle on the ground is a losing battle on the side of the rebels, many of whom actually are not popular at all according to most Syrian people because of their exclusivity or exclusionary ideology.

RB: [Audio on link above]

MJ: Bassam Haddad we want to allow you to get in on that, and of course I guess part of it, couple things there to address but I think one of them is the complexities of this, of who the rebels actually are.


BH: Yes. Well, first, let me just say that there is a bit of obfuscation in using the word imperialism, you know, lightly, and throwing it around and then accusing Russia of imperialism. It is not that Russia is imperial or not imperial. We can analytically address these issues as my colleague here did. But it does not really matter. It is true that the US is a certain sort of an imperial power that is unparalleled in human history. But the issue today, especially when you look at the actual practice, whatever the nomenclature, the Russian military in Syria is basically bombing cities and killing of civilians in the name of fighting terrorists. It sounds very much like what the United States is doing. Now the fact that the other side, or the rebels, include reprehensible actors like Jabhat al-Nusra--actors that are not necessarily on good terms with the sentiments of the uprising, the Syrian uprising, or the sentiments of many within the Syrian uprising--is a different issue. Because, ultimately, what is being considered here, the fight, is producing so much "collateral damage"--the favorite word of the neocons is now being used by those who oppose US imperialism--that is very tragically problematic.

So while acknowledging that in the larger picture there are foes or enemies of the left, or enemies of the people, not just people in the region but enemies of the people in their own countries like here in the United States, it does not absolve us or absolve any of the people or dictators or institutions or the regime, or friends of the regime, the allies of the regime, of the horrendous wrongdoing: the killing, the persecution, that has been, you know, on display. Not just now, but also in the past forty years, which brought Syrians to this stage.

People forget that there is a history in Syria before 2011, which brought us here. The fact that things got muddled, and the uprising got entangled with problematic actors, to say the least, and then with actors who do not differ in many ways from the regime’s politics, is a development that we can also critique.

But we cannot just muddle everything and assume that these two sides have a certain equivalency that we refuse in other cases where the matter is about power asymmetry. The powerful parties in the Syrian conflict are the regime, its allies, and the Russians at this point, and they have been wreaking havoc. The responses are also reprehensible in many cases, and that is something to condemn without any excuses. The "pro-revolution" people are not happy when we condemn these kinds of responses. But that is their problem. They have to deal with it. So long as we understand that in the big picture we are not talking about any kind of equivalency that A is bad and B is bad and therefore it is complex. No it is not that complex, it is not that simple. This is CNN talk; we have to be serious. In the future when the US commits these atrocities or when Israel continues to commit atrocities in the Palestinian territories, with Palestinians especially in Gaza, we cannot go back to this pre-Syria mode, and talk about lack of equivalency, and talk about the viciousness of the powerful party in destroying life. Because we won’t be able to do this on principle given what so many of us on the left have actually problematically described within the Syrian situation. We have to stick to principle. Otherwise, why do we call ourselves leftists?

CB: We have a few minutes left, and I feel like since November eighth we have been asking people to look into a crystal ball, but I think it is really relevant here. Given Trump’s coziness with Russia, how in the new administration, how do you think Bassam, that that is going to impact U.S. intervention in Syria?


BH: As far as the new administration, I mean, there has been, you know, an article every three seconds written about Trump. And most of these articles are internally consistent with themselves. But they are not necessarily consistent with what might be taking place. Because of two things. First of all, we do not know exactly how the new administration will be moving starting on January 20th. Not that we have no idea, but we really do not know exactly what the balance of power or the groups within that administration, all problematic to be sure. But we do not know in what problematic direction they are going to proceed. So that's number one. But more importantly, news, or not news but developments, on the ground in Syria and elsewhere will also trump, to use a bad word right now. They will trump even the plans of these new interlocutors and decision makers in a manner that is also unpredictable. For instance, this idea of not wanting to engage in regime change, wanting to return to some sort of isolationism, with the exception of fighting terrorism, in quotation marks. You know, it is something that we kind of figured out, we can glean. But if a development takes place that those kinds of policies will have to be expanded, that is not something we can figure out right now. What we can figure out is, yes, there is a sort of inclination not to support the Syrians per se in the manner that this was done before. However there's also obfuscation here. It is not that the Americans really cared about Syrians to begin with. Support, actually, of the Syrian regime throughout the "war on terror" has been what Syrians know. The United States was very grateful that the Asad regime participated in  "the war on terror" under the rubric of fighting terrorism when in reality, just like in Egypt, it was a cover to fight their opposition.

MJ: And Bassam Haddad you will have to forgive us. We have the tyranny of the clock at play here . . .

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