A candid interview with a dangerous adversary?

The Ukrainian website «Khvylya» has translated and published a long interview with the Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, recently given to journalists from the regime’s media outlets «Al-Suriya» and «Al-Ikhbariya» (https://hvylya.net/interview/geopolitics2/bashar-asad-o-novoj-arhitekture-v-sirii-i-regione-posle-okonchanija-vojny.html). We provide a link to the full text of this interview — for people with strong nerves and the ability to analyze events, abstracting from the emotions that any normal Muslim listening or reading this butcher will inevitably experience. Emotions are not good helpers where cold reason is needed. And it is needed today because, however much we may dislike it, the main winner among the internal participants in the Syrian war is the Bashar al-Assad regime, which, with the help of its foreign patrons — Iran and Russia — has regained control over a large part of the country’s territory and is determined to regain the rest.

Of course, without this external support, the regime of Bashar al-Assad is nothing, as the course of military action in the country has repeatedly demonstrated. In the first years of the war, which he himself brought upon his country by refusing to enter into political negotiations with peaceful protesters, whose mediator was offered by the then Turkish leadership (Erdogan and Davutoglu), he lost control over a large part of the country’s territory. He lost it because, if even Christians and some Alawites joined the ranks of his enemies, the Sunni majority did not want to fight for him, and representatives of that majority deserted the army in large numbers, including its top command. Assad managed to turn the tide of the war thanks to a combination of external and internal factors — on the one hand, the support of Iran’s Shiite cannon fodder on the ground, gathered from all over the world, and Russian aviation from the air, and on the other hand, the political impotence of his Syrian opponents. The latter, as we have written repeatedly, consisted in their initial failure to unite under a military-political leadership with an adequate program addressed to the country and the world, creating fertile ground for the entry of destructive forces among the rebels, dividing and discrediting them, the apotheosis of which was the emergence of ISIS*, which did not emerge without the support of the Assad regime.

For anyone who is aware of all this, positioning oneself as a Syrian patriot-statesman, a person who led his country to disaster just to avoid changing the nature of the regime from a dictatorship of the Alawite minority to a broad national unity, can only provoke disgust. But once again, emotions aside. As this interview shows, this is exactly how he presents himself — a consistent and uncompromising patriot of an independent and territorially integral Syrian state. And, no less important, he does so convincingly to a significant portion of Syrians and the world, even if it is extremely uncomfortable for his opponents.

Why is Assad’s rhetoric convincing to many today? For a long time, the modern world existed in the form of nation-states or state-nations (since the nation is usually derived from the state, not vice versa), the aggregate of which forms the so-called international community, functioning on the basis of international law. But since the end of the last century, there has been talk about the crisis of these nation-states and the fact that they will become a thing of the past, giving way to more natural political forms that exist in a globalized world. When the Arab Spring entered its hot phase, it seemed that this process was beginning precisely in the Middle East, where many of these nation-states were created in the post-colonial period according to purely arbitrary principles (the so-called Sykes-Picot system). The fact that in some of these countries, such as Syria, power was openly seized by representatives of religious minorities under the guise of the idea of a new nation-state, establishing a dictatorship over the Sunni majority (an uprising of which had already been drowned in blood in 1982), generated a demand not only for the overthrow of this dictatorship, but also for the unification of artificially drawn borders. This desire was reinforced by the revival of Islamic self-consciousness, the core of which is the aspiration to unite Muslim lands and peoples into one political entity, fragmented by nationalists under the leadership of sectarians and apostates. Unfortunately, as a result of the actions of their leaders and groups challenging the idols of nation-states with sectarian-tyrannical content, these ideas have suffered defeat in practice and have been deeply discredited not only in the eyes of the whole world, but also in the eyes of a significant part of their supporters. Why and how this happened is another question, but the fact is that alternatives to the nation-state have proven ineffective in this region. And if so, then the states themselves, in the person of their ruling regimes, have once again presented themselves as the only pragmatic and patriotic alternative to irrational utopias that lead to chaos and foreign occupation. Against this backdrop, Assad’s sectarian regime, clinging to power only by foreign bayonets, presents to the world an image of a sovereign patriotic national state that represents an alternative to religious sectarianism, ethnic separatism, and foreign occupation, each of which Assad himself brought about.

What is remarkable about this interview? Assad’s main hatred is now directed at Turkey, or rather its leadership, which is supporting the rebels who are currently consolidating into the Syrian National Army (SNA). This is crucial to note, especially in light of recent discussions about an ongoing or inevitable reconciliation between the «legitimate Syrian government» and the Turkish leadership, mediated by Russia and Iran.

As can be seen, Assad perceives any interaction with the Turkish side, which he delegates to Russia as a guarantor of his policy, as tactical, forced and temporary. At the same time, he does not hide his strategic goal — the Turks must leave or be pushed out, and the Syrian opposition fighters and rebels they currently support (just as Iran and Russia support Assad himself) must be eliminated as terrorists and traitors. Assad does not hide the fact that the so-called intra-Syrian dialogue, which many foreign powers hope will lead to a peaceful change of his regime, is perceived by him as nothing more than a farce, necessary for the sake of formality. «Let’s be honest. Why should we lie and use diplomatic language? The reality is that there is a patriotic side that negotiates with agents and terrorists, it’s as simple as that. But to be diplomatic and not offend anyone, I will call it an intra-Syrian dialogue, but only from the perspective of identity cards, passports and nationality,» he says.

Moreover, this interview contains several passages that unmistakably indicate that he envisions the political reconstruction of the Syrian state, which de facto does not exist at the moment in a country divided into different parts and occupied by foreign forces, not through the creation of a system of dialogue and representation of different groups, but through the elimination of all disloyal or insufficiently loyal elements. He laments that during the years of war, a generation has grown up that «does not understand the meaning of state power and the supremacy of the law. They did not live under the rule of the state, but under the rule of armed groups. Translated into Russian, this means that these people did not live under a regime where any word or sideways glance towards the regime or its Alawite elite would land them in jail, but they grew up in an atmosphere of freedom, of military democracy. And he does not hide his goals after victory: «We must work with the Syrians to change the nature of Syrian thinking and to reformulate the foundations of a patriotic Syrian society: to revive patriotism, unity of opinion, and not to allow the emergence of new Syrian traitors. To ensure the idea that all Syrians are patriots, that treason is not just a matter of different opinions or political differences.» In other words, what is needed in the future is not dialogue, but a totalitarian «unity of opinion», as it was before the war and led to it, in which every opponent is perceived as a «traitor».

Let’s return to Turkey and the original idea of this article. To Assad’s credit, he has been very consistent with regard to Turkey, opposing Erdogan not only against the Syrian but also against the Turkish nation-state. He says: «At the beginning of the war, the Turkish army supported the Syrian army and cooperated as much as possible until Erdogan’s coup took place, which was directed against the army. So we must continue in this direction and not allow Turkey to become an enemy state. Erdogan and his group are the enemies because he is the one who is leading this policy, but at the moment the majority of the political forces in Turkey are against Erdogan’s policy…. «Al-Qaeda,» «Ahrar al-Sham,» and so on. I assure you that these militants are spiritually closer to Erdogan than to the Turkish army».

Moreover, to understand what Assad means, let’s rewind a bit. When Erdogan’s government and Davutoglu, the architect of neo-Ottomanism, opposed the Assad regime and supported the Syrian rebels, almost all Turkish nationalists condemned this, that is, the forces standing on the platform of the nation-state created by Mustafa Kemal. Their logic was simple — the Turkish nation-state has no interests in Syria; on the contrary, it is in its interest that there be a Syrian nation-state that prevents the emergence of religious extremism and Kurdish separatism on this territory. Thus, when Erdogan and Davutoglu opposed Turkey to the Assad regime, many of their opponents accused them of acting not in the name of Turkish national interests but in the name of their neo-Ottoman and pan-Islamist utopia. Such forces in Turkish politics have not disappeared, and it is they who are lobbying for reconciliation between Ankara and Damascus, as we regularly write. So from their point of view, nothing has changed during this period. But from Erdogan’s perspective, there have been changes because he first forced Davutoglu to resign and then formed an alliance with radical nationalists from the Nationalist Action Party, paying homage to Mustafa Kemal and his legacy, thereby accepting the reality of the Turkish nation-state and its foundations.

But if Erdogan is acting from the perspective of Turkish national interests, what is keeping him in Syria? At present, he justifies his actions there with the need to neutralize the threat of Kurdish terrorism and separatism, as well as to relocate the accepted Syrian refugees to the safe zone, which corresponds to Turkish interests. But his opponents rightly point out to him that all this can be done by the Assad regime, i.e. the so-called «legitimate Syrian government», as he himself claims. So what keeps Erdogan there?

In reality, there is hope that Erdogan is being held by certain remaining personal principles and commitments, and Assad, who opposes this policy not only to Syrian but also to Turkish national interests, seems to be proceeding from this as well. And he is playing the long game — today Erdogan is here, tomorrow he may not be, but the Syrian and Turkish nation-states must remain constants, and if so, then after Erdogan’s departure, the new power, not bound by his personal principles and commitments, will restore Damascus’ control over the territory currently controlled by Ankara, standing behind the SNA.

And one must admit that this risk is significant in the framework of the process of returning the nation-states to their places, which Erdogan himself adopted after the termination of the neo-Ottoman project, because such a development of events is absolutely logical in its framework. This is the strength of Assad and the weakness of his Syrian opponents in the SNA. In terms of independence from external actors, there is little difference between them at the moment — as long as one side supports them, the other has no chance. But at the level of an image or project, we see that Assad is selling himself to the world in the form that may be in demand at the moment — as the embodiment of a Syrian nation-state with internationally recognized authority, opposing religious extremism and the division of the country along sectarian and ethnic lines. The remnants of the SNA will only be able to resist such a project as long as Turkey stands behind them, which, in the logic of national statehood, strictly speaking, has no reason to remain in Syria once the Kurdish problem is solved and the issue of refugee return is resolved. And this means that the hypothetical chances for Assad’s opponents can only be in one case — if they take advantage of the currently consolidated territory not controlled by the regime and actively work on creating an image that can be offered to the world as an attractive alternative. This is what they should think about in the context of this interview, as well as Erdogan, who still supports them.

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