This is a conversation between Bassam Haddad and Rabie Nasr on the activities and research of the Syrian Center for Policy Research and on critical issues related to the Syrian Uprising, including its causes and the polemics surrounding where Syrians stand six years on. It was conducted in Arabic in April 2017.
Bassam Haddad: We are happy to have you with us again, but this time in the studio in Washington. I want to talk with you about Syrian affairs and other matters as you are a co-founder of the Syrian Center for Policy Research.
Rabie Nasr: Hello, Bassam. I am always glad to meet with you.
BH: Right now, the situation in Syria is bad, as usual. It is late April 2017 now, and I want to talk about certain matters related to the Syrian situation. Before we move on to other topics, I want to talk about the atmosphere of discourse surrounding Syria politically and socially, etc. One can easily say that the atmosphere is poisoned; there is no productivity, there is no point in this discourse on many occasions. It deviates to trivial and useless matters. Therefore, I am one of the people who truly appreciate what people like you are doing in such an atmosphere and situation. I appreciate the work of your institution and our work here in the Arab Studies Institute to produce knowledge and research, etc. Could you please tell us a little about the research you have been doing and things that can be of interest to our listeners, especially the field research you have carried out?
RN: Of course. In this tragic Syrian situation, and in light of the armed conflict that has been going on for seven years, the main thing that can be used as a gauge for Syrian society is the conditions in which people are living, and the vision for a future that can be an exit towards future prospects.
In the center, we work on knowledge that serves society, utilizing all potential tools, researchers, and research tools, which serves societal priorities, in order to end the armed conflict, while distancing ourselves from political polarization and media propaganda that may accompany various events. It is surely a difficult and complicated process, however, we think the objective is important, so that people can see the common interests and the major issues they have in common, and the matters that sustain their future, society, and social solidarity, so that society can overcome this difficult stage it is going through.
One of the latest research projects we have been working on is research regarding social capital and the extent of the social rift that has occurred. Many of the outcomes refer to matters different from the issues raised in political discourse. This injustice that the Syrian society has endured, which led to the breakdown and lack of security; and the lack of trust between individuals, which was a result of using violence whether directly through killing, or indirectly through economies of war, exploitation, extortion, and siege; all of these things can be gauged by this kind of research. In fact, one of the most important outcomes of this research is how the powers of authoritarianism, whether political, military, or economic, engage in violence and war to oppress and exclude people. This is what most of the people involved in war do.
You can see here that there is an absence of society’s role, and an absence of the suffering within society. The political discourse focuses on who is in control or how to support one of the parties that is in control; control through hegemony and fear, of course.
The major challenge is how to present people’s suffering and how to raise the importance of society’s role, so it can go back to being an influential factor that affects policy-making, development, and the future in Syria, and how to limit the role of authoritarian powers and propaganda that are being touted as a solution in Syria.
There are some parties that propose political tyranny as a solution for the future Syria; and that there is no escape from hegemony, tyranny, dictatorship, and radicalism, as they are a fait accompli or the only reality present in Syria. This type of discourse disregards alternatives that many people hope for and seek in Syria nowadays. It is a disregard of a major portion of the truth and a service for programs that do not coincide with society’s priorities.
BH: Could you tell us about the research topics you are currently working on? I know what they are, and we are cooperating on some of them. Could you please give us a brief explanation? I am sorry for being so courteous with you now, we were talking before the interview and we were not that courteous.
RN: Exactly; we do not know who is listening. To make it clear for everybody, the main idea that we are working on is trying to understand the dynamics of violence and its economic, social, and political impacts through a humble effort of a large group of researchers, most of whom are volunteers. Our current work is how to build independent institutions in light of such conflicts. This is the main challenge we are all facing because society is in desperate need of guidance regarding what is going on right now and the future, and what is best for the long run, and how to get out of this context, especially with the emphasis on the fact that there is no option either on the local or international level.
We have had a major discourse since 2012 that the solution of the Syrian issue is not in the hands of the Syrians; the solution of the Syrian issue is between the United States and Russia. This is partially true. However, there is another part that revolves around the role of Syrian society and the role of people in Syria. This role is absent. It is a necessary and essential role for any sustainability that overcomes what we are going through. The role of such independent research centers is to focus on what people want in the future. One of the tasks is to understand these dynamics and the way in which the situation in Syria has changed from a societal movement that aspires towards justice, freedom, and dignity, to militarization of the movement and finally the domination of economies of violence.
The economic factor was not the major factor. The political factor and exclusion were major factors in the beginning. Many of the forces engaged in the armed conflict were able to transform the economic factor into a pressure factor on people to subjugate them, first of all, and then engage them in economic activities or activities related to these forces, thus making these people part of the violence and enabling the sustainability of this violence. This is the first type of research we are working on and it seeks to understand this dynamic, and how to dismantle it and provide alternatives for this issue.
The second issue we are working on is the issue of an alternative development model. It is not exclusive to the center as it includes a great number of researchers and is currently being established. Its goal is to look at the future in a way that seeks to overcome two major issues: the first issue is that there is a set of globally dominant policies that have negatively affected the region, and Syria in particular, before 2011 and during this tragedy that Syrians are living in. This is the first issue, i.e. what policies can be proposed for the future; which procedures and programs enable us to overcome the great imbalances in the global policies: the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are examples of policies being put forward in the region, in addition to the vision put forward for reconstructing Syria. The second issue that the project is seeking to address, in light of the scale of violence in Syria and the tensions in the area, is how can there be initiatives to overcome this violence in a sustainable manner. How can society go back to playing a fundamental role in building a nation and building a society and achieving well-being? Here we have a lot of ambiguous matters due to the lack of clarity, precision, and evidence.
For example, there are two lessons we learned: the first is that tyranny cannot yield development and build societies, no matter the form it takes, because it subdues people’s potential; the second is that extremism cannot build societies, welfare, and sustainable development. If we do not incorporate these two lessons in the political solution, then we cannot anticipate a future that is non-violent, healthy, and sustainable. These two types of research constitute a large umbrella for our work in the center. They branch into a great number of topics such as studies surrounding poverty, the informal sector, social capital, composition and nature of current institutions in Syria, and the disintegration related to economies of war and social relationships. It is a large scope of research, but its main purpose is to provide future alternatives for public opinion first and foremost, and then for the rest of the actors in Syria at a later stage.
BH: All the people who talk about the Syrian situation, who talk about the Syrians and what they want and how they think, talk as if Syrians think the same way they do. We would like to hear from you as a person who has lived his entire life in Syria and carried out field research all over Syria. Could you give us a brief response, through your experience, about the problems a person faces when they speak on behalf of Syrians? Because when you follow the discussions, you will find that the situation is quite despicable. Everybody speaks with absolute confidence… that is, a large portion of the analysts speak with absolute confidence. There is no understanding, not even among the Syrians themselves, of the vagueness of the current situation.
When you ask someone about their position and who they are with, there will be a difference between their response and what they are thinking internally. They are two distinct things. The reply to a question is usually the same, however, the ideas in the minds of the Syrians are many, with a lot of analyses, ideas, and calculations. Could you please shed some light on this point?
RN: I imagine this is one of the most complicated issues, and it was used to increase the polarization between Syrians. The first concept is the concept of representation. Who represents the Syrians? Which group of Syrians commissioned the current political forces? From a research point of view, we use a group of arguments that revolve specifically around this issue. The first issue is that we cannot know the opinion of Syrians under fear, which is the main tool used through violence and armed conflict, that is using fear and subjugation of society without any form of participation.
This was present as a form of repression before 2011, political repression. I think it is one of the most important factors at the root of the movement. However, the main issue is the use of direct violence to intimidate people and prevent them from expressing their views or having a discussion with them in order to find out what they want their future to look like. This repression of open discussion between Syrians is what we consider the first barrier to finding out what Syrians want. You cannot talk about representation unless there are electoral tools or commissioning tools, and this is not present under violence. The solution, as we see it, is to start public discussions in order to find out the Syrians’ opinions, what they focus on, and their priorities, in a safe atmosphere. This is absent; there is an absence of the ability of Syrians to express themselves, and unfortunately this is not just inside Syria. This is another issue that is being ignored because donors do not want to upset the countries hosting refugees. For example, in neighboring countries, such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, refugees cannot have serious dialogues or develop representation regarding what they want for the future or how they want it, because there is a fear that communities of refugees may turn into a political bloc, which may threaten current regimes in those countries. There are no real channels for Syrians to conduct this dialogue to express themselves. There is a major topic that we should talk about which is concerned with tools used within violence, such as polarization and hate speech. From the propagation of hate and grudge speech, and the use of tools such as direct killing and kidnapping, all the way to sectarian, regional, and ethnic incitement - all of this leads to the inability to take opinions from people who suffered from pain, which was used as the same tools of tyranny and the same authoritarian forces. You cannot ask a person who himself is a victim, for example one of his relatives was killed, do you accept living with people different than you are? These questions in this method do not reflect how Syrians see the solution in the future or how they see their priorities in the long run.
The alternative employed by the center, which we think is closest to the priorities of Syrians, is collaborative research. Conducting independent and collaborative research is one of the major tools to overcoming this bypass. Through this kind of professional research, you can find out what Syrians are thinking in the long run, and what the nature of questions and dialogues should be like through large scale collaborative research. This will lead to an understanding of what the solution for the future could be like, thus we escape from reactions like: are you with the American strike or against it? Are you with the Russian intervention or against it? There are issues on which Syrians agree when they are put forward objectively or put forward from a research point of view, and when they address their problem but without incitement that increases polarization instead of easing it. Therefore, I think the concept of representation can be substituted with the concept of serious and independent research.
BH: There are a lot of people who may be listening and saying what in the world are you talking about? When you talk about the need for dialogue so one can understand what is happening, they may say that what is happening is clear; especially those outside Syria who say that the situation is clear: there is a problematic authoritarian regime, an opposition, and the overwhelming majority of Syrians who are with the opposition, except for those with the regime. There is no one in the middle, nobody is confused, only a very few number of people see things differently. There is incitement and intimidation when this subject is brought up. If a stinging critic of the regime, for apparent reasons, is not aligned with the so-called opposition, then he will be considered as having no place in Syria. There are not people like you in Syria; people are either on this side or that. Why, then, should we then have discussions? Are not matters very clear?
RN: We are talking about one of the most complicated issues in the world, which is the Syrian crisis or the Syrian conflict or the global conflict in Syria. The simplification, shortening, and reduction of matters is an example of the seven-year-old failure. This failure has accumulated. A great part of the cultural elite, if we call it an elite, and the leaderships of various parties have lost their credibility in the eyes of society. This is a matter on which there is clear evidence.
Was there a margin of freedom in the areas controlled by the opposition, ISIS, the Kurds, or the regime? We have a multi-dimensional failure, and what is clear about it is the scope of authoritarianism, oppression of freedoms, and injustice towards society. We have a lot of evidence regarding this. There is no area in Syria that has accomplished what Syrians wanted in 2011, unfortunately. So, by assuming that the issue in Syria is clear, as we all wish it were, or that there is a societal uprising and movement to achieve a pluralistic and democratic state that represents its citizens in representative and inclusive institutions with all the development and diversified cultures, I think we would be simplifying matters. If we wanted to talk about the current situation and what the various parties have done, then this would be a simplification.
We can look at the matter from a different perspective: with all this failure in Syria, which parties carried out a realistic review of the mistakes it made and presented them to the Syrians? Who said, we made strategical mistakes on three levels and we announce to the Syrian society as a political class or educated group that these imbalances need correction? We either need to withdraw so others can have a dialogue and discussion or rethink the previous strategy through the relationship with outside actors or the relationship with the Syrian society itself.
This marginalization of society’s role and the role of the people is a common characteristic throughout Syria. In order to reach this idea, which you and others assume to be very clear regarding the nature of conflict in Syria, then you must rely first of all on dialogue, so we can find out what injustice people in Idlib, Raqqa, Damascus, Homs, Hasakeh, Deir al-Zour, and others are living in right now. You cannot find this out in an atmosphere of fear. They are still trying to move away from their homes or immigrate, or to distance themselves, or to become expatriates, this includes the fighters as well. Are the fighters fighting for a cause they believe in? If this were true for all the fighters in Syria, then why are they fighting parties that are similar to them in beliefs and vision of the future and leaving enemies, between brackets, and others? The way Syrians think about the future and their approaches for solutions can be seen through their dissatisfaction towards various political parties. I think this can be proved with more than one piece of evidence, but what we have to say is that in order to find out what Syrians need, then we need to have in-depth and open dialogues with the Syrian, away from fear. This should be the most important item in the first step towards reconciliation or the solution; that is, we should learn the lesson from conceding to political tyranny and radicalism and pave the way for Syrians to have a dialogue and serious discussion in order to find the mistakes and set a vision for the future. I think this should be the first step, away from the illusion of ballot boxes that are dominated by polarization, money, and intimidation to exit the current situation towards the future.
BH: What is the first step? We hear people talking about or calling for dialogue, and at the same time they talk about the prevailing situation as if it was clear, as we have just said, and they consider that the country is divided into two parts, let us put ISIS aside because it is not interested in the mentality of the opposition or the regime. It has a project of its own. What is the starting point in light of the discourse that says there are two groups in Syria, one loyal to the regime and the other to the opposition, in both military and civil aspects? They refuse to see that clearly there are Syrians, especially since 2013 and especially those who study, listen, and analyze things coming out of Syria, not just what is on websites and American, European, and even Arab think-tanks. It is clear that a great portion of Syrians have a position that is deeply critical and refuses the regime, however, they have abandoned or left the opposition in its current state but they did not abandon the concept of opposition or revolution. How can there be a starting point when there are people who do not recognize that there is a great portion of Syrians in this category, regardless of their precise position; they are against the regime and certainly not with the opposition? Or is this framework not right?
RN: In my opinion it is right, however, we have a major issue which is investing in partisanship. Investing in partisanship and hatred of others is the fuel for violence and the continuation of fighting and slaughtering. This was abused by several parties who have a desire for the fighting and armament to continue. But if we were in a normal discussion with Syrians in the areas controlled by the regime or the opposition, will they want to have ninety percent of them poor? Or ninety percent of them marginalized? Or under the threat of participating in a fighting they do not wish for? Is the current situation in Syria, in all areas, controlled by actors who are participating in militarization and in fighting? Is this situation satisfactory for people living in the areas controlled by these people? To make people afraid of the other and make them accept inhumane conditions is one thing, but to say that these people actually accept this and that it is their choice is a totally different matter. The fear you plant in people that the other will kill you, and that the performance of the other is not worthy of trust or worthy to be different from this vision. And then after that, you use this fear to repress people. In this case people will abandon peaceful change and discussions to set a vision for the new Syria; they will recline and withdraw. This distancing from violence is obvious in many of the sectors of society. The cold relationship between Syrian society and those participating in fighting is evident. It is evident through the great decline in numbers of people willing to fight along with the armed opposition and the regime. There is a great decline in the number of people willing to provide support, even intellectually and culturally, for any of the conflict’s parties. This withdrawal is a result of the failure of authoritarian forces, including radicalism in its most extreme form such as ISIS or the political hegemony and authoritarianism on part of the regime. These forces have put forward one option: either everybody accepts political tyranny, regardless of all the losses, or they go towards radicalism. Reality is not like that. This is what authoritarianism wants to convince people of: you have two options and no third choice.
BH: When some people talk about authoritarianism and radicalism they mention the regime and ISIS. They say that ISIS is not part of the opposition. They say that this problem is only present in ISIS and the regime. But generally speaking, all factions of the opposition are part of the revolution, despite the radicalism of some of its components, they do not distort the revolution or make us rethink it, I mean the prevailing revolution, not the concept of revolution or the abstract revolution. These people consider that Syrians are either with the opposition or with the regime. If you are not with the opposition, then you are necessarily with the regime. This is a large part of the conversations, most of them are trivial, unfortunately. However, they dominate the minds and the discourse of people, especially outside of Syria.
RN: There is always the romance of the revolution, which is the desire to imagine that there are forces of struggle that seek freedom, and that these forces will eventually win. Unfortunately, this was the wish in 2011, but this wish collapsed with the armament. Armament was not spontaneous, it rejected the democratic discourse. We have various political bodies that hesitated to present the democratic issue because it is a sensitive one. Sensitive to whom? Sensitive to the armed factions. And I am not talking about ISIS. I am talking about the major armed factions that refused to address the concept of democracy as a concept for the future Syria. Is this what Syrians want? Did the Syrians in 2011 imagine that the elegant civil courts they hoped for as a result of the revolution would be replaced with religious courts that rely on criteria set by different groups according to their interpretation and jurisprudence, and that those groups would impose these options on society? Was this truly the option for the Syrian future? This is a regression. If we take the governorate of Idlib as an example, does the society in Idlib possess the freedom to have discussions and dialogue and to develop institutions within it?
We are obviously witnessing the scale of the tragedy we are living in, whether we are from the opposition or people who do not have a clear political option. Is the behavior or even the theoretical proposition of any of the current armed forces… Are they proposing a pluralistic, enlightened, and diverse future? I think here lies the great frustration.
Some people attempt to defend from a polarizing point of view, arguing that we are in a battle and we should stand with one of the parties until the end because the battle necessitates the loss of the other side. I think this discourse was the major failure for the movement in 2012, after leaning towards armament as a major alternative, regardless of the cost of armament and regardless of the cost on society, and through using the required radicalism and the dishonest support to continue the fighting. This applies to all parties, including the regime and the Kurds. It applies to all the parties that used this sort of support, this sort of culture of hate towards the other in order to dominate. This is the true enemy of society.
If there are proposals that want to restore society’s role, then we should not look for the dominant parties that use force and fear towards society. I think this is the starting point in any dialogue with any party. The idea is that we have clear enemies; if we do not recognize the enemies in their entirety and consider that the US intervention is different from the Russian intervention, or that a strike in one area is different than the killing in another area, then this is a loss of credibility from an intellectual point of view, and a loss of credibility towards the people. Because people know that killing innocents is a crime no matter where it takes place, and that subduing people is a crime and not part of the desired future. The future could be like the US pragmatic method, but we say more than that. If there is not a just solution in society, it will not settle down. This society that was subject to all this unfairness will not be stable and will be absent in a nation for a long time, because this society, with all the unfairness it was subjected to, will not accept unfairness for a long time. Thus, this will lead to a new eruption of movements in the future.
BH: One can say that what you are saying is reasonable and correct when criticizing all parties that kill innocents or use violence and incite hatred. This is correct in general terms. However, you will be criticized because of the discourse outside of Syria. The people who live outside of Syria are different than those who live inside it. People who live inside have known for decades what the main problem is, but people outside of Syria want to hear about it. You are saying this and you live in Syria, and clearly you are a person who wants a radical change. People might feel that you are equating between the oppressors, that is, you are equating between the regime and the opposition, or even the radical opposition. This position is unacceptable ethically, because to them you should differentiate. If you do not differentiate, then your position is not correct. You might be accused of sympathizing with the regime or that you are not against the regime sufficiently. This is the discourse present outside of Syria, and frankly in some areas in Beirut, who are also outside of Syria.
RN: There is more than one axis. The first axis, with which I started to talk. For example, before 2011 and the societal movement, it was clear that political tyranny was an essential factor in the just social movement and the change towards… and here is the essential part, towards what? Towards freedom, justice, and democracy? Towards protection, representation, and participation of people? This is the current proposal. To change this proposal, we need to face it with the same courage that we want for the change, or else we will be setting the wrong image.
Actually, the strongest actor inside Syria is the regime and it holds the keys to the solution more than any other party. This is true, but the reality is, regardless of what the regime is accused of or not accused of, that this polarizing discourse will not lead to any result. I mean the polarizing discourse that expects others to clarify themselves, to show which way they lean, to show if they are closer to al-Nusra or to Ahrar al-Sham, or closer to certain forces and against others. There is no point in talking about this polarization. We think in an independent manner that is biased toward humanity and society as a whole. Thus, what is the main problem in this proposal? It is that we have a proposal for the future. When opposition forces, let us put ISIS aside, a proposal for the future that is non-democratic, non-inclusive, and does not suit Syrians’ potentials, then how do we gauge the balance: Did the regime kill more? Did al-Nusra Front kill more? Or is it Ahrar al-Sham that killed more? We are talking about the future. The promise you are giving to people is not suitable for the movement of the people. They are considered foes to society. If you say that crime is bigger, I will tell you yes, but does that mean I should go along with the less criminal party? Does this ‘less criminal party’ propose an acceptable solution to the Syrians, even from a theoretical point of view? I think this is the starting point. Which party participating in the fighting is proposing a different future, and saying: I will use fear, subjugation, and weapons for a temporary period of time, but after that I will open the way up for democracy and inclusive development and I will allow the pillars of society to participate in the future. This is what is missing, and it applies to the active actors in Syria. And as for those willing to engage in what I will call heresy away from the society, why is there a chill in the relationship between society and the forces of armed opposition? This is true from Idlib all the way to Daraa.
BH: But there are those who reject this matter.
RN: I provided a small example. I did not mention the immigration and displacement. I will mention the recruitment and volunteering to fight since 2014. Since 2014, there has been a decrease and it was evident in 2015. There is a decrease in volunteers to fight in many of the opposition factions. Secondly, there are the indicators that we did some surveys on, relating to social capital and the role of ruling institutions in areas controlled by the opposition and the opinions of people there regarding corruption, tyranny or participation. We found very negative and dangerous indicators which reflect that the desired prospect has not been reached.
There is evidence for this. If this evidence is not enough, then we are ready, provided that there is space for open dialogue in any of these places, to start an open dialogue regarding the major imbalances in the programs and future vision of these forces, and how well they coincide with society’s priorities.
BH: If one wants to carry on in research like your institution is doing (we as a group are also working on research), is it important to determine that what is going on is our inability or the inability of some people to agree on whether what is going on is a revolution or not? How many people were involved in the revolution and then left part of the revolution? What is the fate of the revolution? Do these questions constitute an obstacle for serious field research, or are they not important at all? How can one approach these questions in a serious research, in your opinion?
RN: First of all, I think that diagnosis of phenomena has its rules of conduct, whether they are knowledge-based, scientific, or through the acceptance of society. This could be part of participatory research. I think that part of polarization is the acceptance of the symbols and discourse of the polarized person. This is way far from scientific research. Scientific research that seeks to serve society should distance itself from polarization.
The situation in Syria in 2011 is different than that of 2013 and different than that of 2015 and different than that of 2017, which is the situation we are in currently. What is happening in the area under direct Turkish control between Jarablus and Izaz is different than the approach in Idlib, or the approach in Duma, Damascus, or Hasakeh. A proposal put forward by one of the officials in Hasakeh is wrong. He said that they are following a democratic method, as the Arab component is administered by Arabs and the Kurdish component is administered by Kurds. This is a clear and overwhelming contradiction with the concept of democracy.
I think setting the facts is the most important thing. Through our experience in the center, we found that the more we present evidence objectively and focus on society’s priorities, the more acceptance we receive from the society and its various sectors. The main objective is not determining. Because polarized people may continue to be so for a temporary period of time. But is this what is required from the political institution that you are working in or the military institution that you support? Is this what is required for the well-being of future Syria? I think this question is foremost an internal confrontation with oneself, I mean when people are able to confront the mistakes that were made and the deviations that occurred. I think this is materializing currently. There is a greater inclination for criticism right now, and I hope it will increase in the future, so that we do not fall victims to categorization according to the color of the flag or according to the vision for the term of ‘revolution,’ ‘movement,’ or ‘crisis’. I think the objective is far more superior. As time passes, and after the increase of complexity in the Syrian disaster, I think this is materializing. From a scientific point of view, I think the stages should be categorized as they really are.
The extent of foreign intervention is currently large and direct. This is a stage that needs an analysis that it totally different than the previous stages. The participation of foreigners in fighting alongside Syrians, that is a different stage. The stage before militarization during peaceful movements is certainly a different stage. I think we should carefully analyze this in an objective manner.
BH: If we wanted to know what is happening in Syria right now, the Syrian situation, and the position of various sectors in Syria, is there, in your opinion, a desire to go on in the same manner as that is present in the opposition; the opposition between parentheses, because there are various groups of opposition. This is written in publications and books. They define the opposition differently within the opposition itself. Some say, to me the opposition is the civilians that oppose the regime who are not associated with the killings. And there is another group that says, as we see it, the opposition includes certain sectors and groups engaged in fighting but not those specific groups. We focus on the Free Syrian Army for example, but we distance ourselves from other factions. Generally speaking, do you think there is a willingness to go on with a different plan or different strategy? Do you think there is a willingness to change the entire course and think of other means that do not include the groups that are fighting, that is the factions? This question assumes that the issue of the continuity of the regime is a huge problem. And naturally, this is not the desire of Syrians, even those living under the control of the regime. In the current situation, is there a willingness to change the concept of opposition? What is your take on matters, through your relationships, knowledge, and studies? What needs to happen now to restore a better concept for the movement that is transparent and democratic?
RN: We have more than one frustrating factor. On the international level, you have Trump being elected as president, and the Russian role of Putin. This is one of the factors that will prolong the Syrian crisis.
As for the strong and active parties in the area, they are clearly enthusiastic for the conflict to continue for a long period of time. There are no serious proposals for an exit up until now. This is from a not so pessimistic perspective, but from what things will look like in the few coming years, based on an analysis of forces and their effectiveness and desire to find a serious solution in Syria. There is no desire for a solution in Syria, not even an unfair solution. There seems to be no prospects. However, what we can actually invest in for the future is reinstating the role of society, which requires several stages of action, the most important of which is restoring society’s role in providing future alternative, and in acknowledging the presence of options and pressure, not the pressure to get rid of authoritarian powers. The situation is not so fanciful. We have to retake a portion of the negotiations towards a change that is more just, refocus on the importance of a just solution for society, and acknowledge the inability of authoritarian forces in their war and their sustainment in the future. Military resolution, no matter its form, cannot sustain the forces using it in the future, in a country on its edge and living in fear and injustice and capable of exploding once again.
The importance of a solution on the societal level, and on the level of reaching out to people in Syria, is of interest to all who want to be part of the future in Syria. This is not a fanciful thing, it is reality. Because when a country is unstable with no just solution, all of society will be unstable and that will threaten any existing power or rule. A just solution is an essential matter. The pressure we apply as Syrians, as a Syrian society, and as Syrian activists, in setting an alternative and focusing on it, including an open Syrian dialogue, respect of human rights and human dignity, and reaching a threshold of change and learning the lessons that led to all this violence and conflict, I think all of this is a turning point, firstly to move towards a serious political transition phase and secondly for sustainability in the future. This requires an effort that is different than previous efforts and especially in dealing with people. Certain political forces and civil society forces have dealt with people carelessly, as they were influenced by donors’ strategies, accessibility, and the nature of the political polarization.
It is time to conduct a serious review regarding the method to reach a greater sector of people and reactivate their role, in order to have a greater effect on mentality in the future. However, if we look at the greater picture, and in the medium term, we can say that the crisis is going to continue, not the solution.
BH: Thank you for this optimism. You are more optimistic than I am.
RN: They usually say I am optimistic.
BH: There are other topics, but we will leave them for the future, such as the beginning of the movement, and how it transformed from the perspective of a person who lived all its details inside Syria. We will also talk about other future matters and available alternatives that reflect a project we are working on together with several other people and institutions, and several other matters regarding what is happening in Syria. For Example, how the Syrian society changed as a result of the killing, displacement, destruction, and lack of educational institutions that were present previously and the ones that changed their orientation and curricula, which will affect the future of Syria. There are those in Raqqa who have received education for five years that is very different from that of those living in opposition-controlled areas. ISIS has its own curriculum. And from what I know, the opposition under Ahrar al-Sham or Al-Nusra Front did not totally change the curriculum as it was changed in Raqqa. I hope we can talk about these topics. I also hope you can be with us here or in Beirut or perhaps in Syria, although it is difficult for me to get into Syria now. Thank you Rabie. I enjoyed this interview with you.
RN: I also enjoyed it. Thank you and good-bye.
[This is a transcript of an interview conducted in Arabic in April 2017. Translation by Mazen Hakeem. The Arabic transcription can be found here. This interview is published jointly in partnership with Status/الوضع.]
Rabie Nasser is a co-founder of the Syrian Center for Policy Research, working as researcher in macroeconomic policies, inclusive growth, poverty, and crisis socioeconomic impact assessment.
He obtained a B.A. in Economics from Damascus University 1999. In 2000 he obtained a Diploma in Financial and Monetary Economics from Damascus University. He has MSc in Economics from Leicester University, UK. Before joining The Syrian Development Research Center, Nasser worked for State Planning Commission as Chief Economist and Director General of Macroeconomic Management Directorate in 2004 and 2005. Then, he worked as an Economic Researcher in Arab Planning Institute in Kuwait. Then He was a senior researcher working between 2009-2011 for the Syrian Development Research Center that conducts studies, evaluations, and applied research.