Syria – “An awful lot needs to be done”

Sanctions of the West are against international law and slow down the rebuilding efforts

Interview with Karin Leukefeld, Damaskus and Bonn

ef. Independent journalist Karin Leukefeld was born in 1954 in Stuttgart and has studied ethnology, islamology and political sciences. She has been reporting from the Extended Middle East for daily and weekly journals as well as German state sponsored radio programmes since the year 2000. She was accredited in Syria in 2010 and has been reporting on the Syria conflict since then. Since the beginning of the war in 2011 she moves back and forth between Damasucs, Beirut, other places in the Arab world and her hometown Bonn. She has published several books, such as “Syrien zwischen Schatten und Licht – Geschichte und Geschichten von 1916–2016. Menschen erzählen von ihrem zerrissenen Land (Syria between light and shadow – history and stories 1916-2016. People narrate about their war-torn country.)“ (2016, Rotpunkt Verlag Zürich); “Flächenbrand Syrien, Irak, die Arabische Welt und der Islamische Staat” (Surface fire Syria, Iraq, the Arab world and the Islamic state.) (2015,3rd edition 2017, PapyRossa edition, Köln). Her new book will be released soon: “Im Auge des Orkans: Syrien, der Nahe Osten und die Entstehung einer neuen Weltordnung” (In the eye of the hurricane: Syria, the Middle East and the rise of a new world order (2020,PapyRossa edition, Köln).

Current Concerns: Ms Leukefeld, you returned from Syria a couple of weeks ago. How are people coping with the situation in Syria in their daily routine?

Karin Leukefeld: The daily routine is very hard, this is true for the whole country, for the 70% of the country under control of the government, for Idlib where fighting is still going on as well as for the North East which is under control of the Kurds and the US-led alliance, the situation is difficult everywhere, and one needs to stress that the regions under control of the government had hoped that after at times up to 60 frontlines and now that the fighting is over except for Idlib and the East, that the situation might stabilise at last and that one wouldn’t have to be afraid of direct military confrontations any longer. But of course, an awful lot needs to be done, water and electric power supply needs to be restored, streets and bridges need repairing. There are so many areas with huge destruction, it is possible to rebuild them but first the debris has to be cleared.

All families affected by the war

You have pointed out before that there was practically no family who have not lost at least one member in this war.  
This is the social aspect. The reconstruction may be done by the state. But the healing of the wounds, the traumas – there is a lack of professional caregivers for that and quite often one will not even find out about it – this is a huge problem, especially for the children. There are many widows, women who lost their husbands or families who lost their breadwinner, be it the older brother or the father. The men fell in combat on either side, some are still fighting or imprisoned, many have emigrated abroad.
Especially young men have left Syria in large numbers and now the women have to cope on their own.  They try to work – one can see a lot more women in the workforce now – there are women technicians and engineers helping to restore the electric power supply or women establishing small co-operatives to produce and sell something.
But another aspect of why everything is so difficult now is the huge increase in prices. Everything is about ten-times more expensive as compared with before the war, the Syrian pound was devalued, and many of the factories that need to be rebuilt used to export into neighbouring countries, for instance medical products like drugs. Then these factories were destroyed, all this needs to be rebuilt and the facilities to be repaired, and they need raw materials. But these things are subject to the sanctions. The EU declared sanctions, the US declared sanctions, the effects aggravate each other.

Why are especially the European countries so relentless with their sanctions?  

The official explanation is that all members of government and entrepreneurs who cooperate with the government, with government officials who work in the oil industry or in the industry in general, anybody who has some connection to the government, all these people need to be sanctioned because they support a government which slaughters their own people. This is what they say is the justification. In some cases, more sophisticated explanations are offered such as the accusation that an entrepreneur who has ordered chemicals for medical products was involved in the chemical weapons programme of Syria. Syria has joined the moratorium on chemical weapons and has handed over their chemical weapons – which were quite old and had been intended to deter Israel – to the UN. The chemical weapons were destroyed but claims that Syria was producing and employing poison gas keep being made. This is a crucial explanation for the sanctions. At least according to the official narrative.

Western sanctions as part of their foreign policy

From a political point of view, I think – this is perhaps not so widely known, but I can say for sure as far as the federal government in Berlin is concerned – that sanctions have become an integral part  of foreign relations in the NATO states and the West in general. Because the people in these countries won’t accept so easily if German soldiers were to be sent abroad to be garrisoned there or for fighting missions such as in Afghanistan. Every soldier killed in action is a heavy burden for the foreign policy of the German federal government. It has been shown in surveys that economic sanctions may have the same devastating results as a military offensive against a country one wants to subdue or force into obedience, that those sanctions will have similar effects but will be tolerated more easily on the domestic front.

“Unilateral coercive measures”

So, this is an integral part of foreign policy. Having said that, in international law sanctions are only legal if they are imposed by the United Nations Security Council. The sanctions against Syria, Iran and other countries are imposed unilaterally, that’s why they are called unilateral economic coercive measures. This means, the imposing states, in this case the European Union, take their national law as the foundation for this war-like aggression, not an outright military but an economic aggression against another country. Legally speaking, national or European is meant to justify these measures. In the United Nations this is viewed differently, under international law. Idris Jazairy, the Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that a majority of the UN member states are opposed to these unilateral coercive measures. But since they are imposed by the economically and politically powerful Western states they cannot do anything about it.

Political fractions in Syria

Which political fractions exist in Syria herself?

Idlib is more-or-less controlled by Jihadists, by Muslim theocrats, by Islamists. It’s the last refuge for them and they are under attack by other Muslim opposition groups. They keep fighting each other and these intensify while the enclave shrinks. The Syrian government troops get Russian air support in their efforts to contain these groups. A so-called “government of redemption” has been proclaimed in Idlib, which seems to be in contact with certain Syrian expatriate opposition groups abroad, who have formed a National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and even developed plans for an independent state in Idlib. However, from what I’ve heard their influence on the Jihadist fighters on the ground seems to be negligible. The al-Nusra front, after changing their name several times, is aligned with al-Kaida and is the strongest group, but their political opposition structures are weak and get bullied by the Jihadist warlords. Nevertheless, these opposition structures in Idlib still receive money from Europe, from Germany, also Britain and France, but less than what used to be paid. This money is labelled as “stabilisation aid” but the only ones who benefit from it in Idlib are the Jihadists.

Tax-payer money for the al-Nusra front

Really, official aid by the governments?

The BBC did an interesting report two years ago. There was a project to establish a “free Syrian police force” in Idlib, financed by Germany, France and Britain, with official aid, instructors, policing equipment and all you need for such a thing. However, when the BBC went about to do their documentation on how this police force works, they wanted to locate some of the addresses mentioned in the official statement of account – a paper from any recipient of government aid is required to be delivered after some time – but all they found were empty buildings where the alleged police stations were supposed to be. They investigated this further and found the money trail of the “free Syrian police force” aid going directly to al-Kaida, to the al-Nusra front, that is. This report resulted in the British government having to cancel these payments, and subsequently the German government did the same. This was confirmed in Berlin when members of the Bundestag made an official inquiry. Even the USA stopped all humanitarian aid to these groups when it became clear that the shipments of  US-Aid, the support programme of the state department in Washington, ended up with the Jihadist warlords as well. A criminal investigation has been launched against certain people accused to have organised these transfers.  In other words, Western financial aid has been drastically reduced, but still exists, for instance for schools and hospitals. It is hard to say how much of the money reaches these places since the whole area is a warzone.

Discordance among the Kurds

In the North-East of Syria there are the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of local Arab structures under the rule of Syrian Kurds, namely the Party of Democratic Union. There are twelve different Kurdish organisations in Syria altogether, and not all of them support the position of the Party of Democratic Union and their project of an autonomous region often referred to as “Rojava”, which literally means “Western Kurdistan”. Some of these Kurdish organisations cooperate with the Party of Democratic Union of North Iraq which is led by the Barsani clan. Others do in fact collaborate with Turkey and Islamist opposition groups financed by Turkey. There are also groups who view themselves as Syrians of Kurdish descent and are loyal to Damascus. In other words, the Kurds are anything but united.
The “Rojava” project of an autonomous Kurdish region in North Syria is supported by the US led anti-IS alliance. This mission has no UN mandate but is officially backed by 70 states including Germany and the big European states, the NATO states. They support the Syrian Kurds and Syrian democratic groups as their partners, who are their boots on the ground and get air support with bombardments or logistic back-up. The Syrian government has largely lost control of this region and at present the situation is changing there with military confrontations after the invasion of Turkey and the partial retreat of the US-Americans.

Russia has moved in together with the Syrian army, who are partially cooperating with the Syrian Kurds against Turkey and the Islamist militias supported by Turkey. In other words, it is a very unstable situation. The Syrian Kurds who would prefer autonomy in a federal system are torn between cooperation with the Syrian government and cooperation with the Americans. It is too early to say where this will lead.

Domestic Syrian secular and religious opposition forces

In the rest of the country there are several opposition parties whose influence and visibility are much smaller now as compared with before the war. Before the war broke out there used to be an intense discourse about a new constitution, there were round table discussions in various cities. People were meeting there regularly to discuss political reform, and still in the summer of 2011 a big congress of Syrian opposition groups convened in Damascus. But now the expatriate opposition abroad claims to represent opposition within Syria, so-to-speak. They have slandered all who stayed in Syria as puppets of the regime and the European governments and the US have focussed almost exclusively on the expatriate opposition groups and supported them politically and financially.
But these domestic Syrian opposition groups do exist, and some parties are represented in parliament. There are several communist and socialist fractions, also Nasserists, i.e. Arab nationalists, and there is the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the SSNP. This party has been founded in 1932 already and as far as I know is the largest secular opposition party in Syria, after it had been illegal for a long time but was re-established in 2003 and gained a lot of support during the war. They favour the integrity of the country and therefore have led the ministry of national reconciliation for a while.
Now it is a commission, they have attracted many young people because they provided practical help for the displaced persons in the country who had to flee because of persecution. Their approach is quite pragmatic this party is also represented in parliament. Of course there are also religious opposition groups, there is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is officially forbidden but plays an important role in the armed conflict in connection with Turkey and support from Qatar and also Saudi-Arabia for some time, who supported the uprising in a more strategic rather than political or religious way. Their goal was a confrontation with Iran, without strengthening the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood used to be supported by the Palestinian Hamas for a while, but they have discontinued this collaboration. As I said, the Muslim brotherhood is illegal, but certain industrial Sunni-Muslim circles, also at the universities, sympathise with this organisation.
There is a ministry for religious affairs with strong sympathies for a conservative, even political, Islam. There are tendencies towards a bigger role of conservative Islam in society, despite the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood. These are difficult discussions in parliament but also within the population, because this conflict between a secular or religious character is very old in Syria, same as in Iraq, in Jordan, in Egypt. Basically, this conflict has been going on for 100 years, since the independence. The question: are we a secular state, or does the fact that most of us are Muslim mean that we should be ruled by sharia law, that sharia should shape our constitution? This discussion surfaces again now.

Russia’s contribution to solving the Syria conflict…

Which role does Russia play in the whole conflict?

Russia has supported Syria as well as Iraq, Libya and Egypt economically and militarily since the Cold War, i.e. since the 1950s, and within the movement of nonaligned nations Moscow cooperated with these states also as a political partner. After the end of the Soviet Union not so much attention had been payed to Syria while Russia herself had to re-structure and find a new political focus.
Syria, however, failed to tackle political reform at home. Their protecting power had ceased to exist, and Syria had to face a lot of new influences and Western demands. The young president liberalised the economic system, this among several other things may have furthered political turmoil within Syria.

… respecting territorial integrity and national sovereignty

Meanwhile Russia has stabilised a lot internally and since the outbreak of the current conflict in Syria Russia has always supported the country diplomatically, including a veto in the UN Security Council if necessary. Russia adheres to the maxims of international law:  territorial integrity and national sovereignty of a country have to be respected. In the case of Syria, both are represented by the elected president in Russia’s view. Any desirable changes within the country have to be pursued in a peaceful atmosphere rather than by war and foreign interference.  
When the military situation became extremely different for his government in 2015, the Syrian president approached Russia asking for military support. They were granted this support, the Russian military started to intervene in September 2015 and the situation changed immediately. When the US-led alliance had started to intervene in September 2014, one year before, the immediate consequences were anything but as dramatic as with the Russian campaign. As an analyst of the Anti-IS alliance’s activities one got the impression that their main goal was to prevent the Syrian army from regaining control in the Euphrates valley East of the Iraq border. Besides, as mentioned before, the Anti-IS coalition neither had a UN Security Council mandate nor was it invited by the sitting president.
The Americans later proceeded to establish military bases without any legal framework. The Russians on the other hand laid down everything they did in treaties with Damascus. They cooperated militarily with Iran, Iraq and Syria, including the establishment of a permanent military envoy in Baghdad, that way they were very effective militarily. Then Russia and Syria signed a treaty about two military bases for 49 years, an air-force base at Latakia and a naval base at Tartus. This means, the Russian presence in Syria is there to stay.

Russia as a new regulatory power

Russia has started to play the role of a new regulatory power in the whole region. The Russians have talked with all fractions from the beginning, including the opposition and all governmental and non-governmental actors. And they have established a Russian centre of reconciliation in Syria the work of which gets totally ignored by the media. They publish a regular bulletin to document what they have done. Their main task – and there they have been successful – was to urge fighting units into negotiations to abandon their weapons. For that reason, some local warlords had to be separated from foreign Islamist units because they pursued different agendas. In a lengthy and painstaking process they were finally able to end or at least contain the violent fighting.

… and the Astana peace process

The Astana peace process also emerged from this work. The Russian efforts to end the fighting could be described as its preliminary phase which also provided important data. Contacts established on the local level could be transferred to the next stage in the Astana negotiations.  Needless to say that Russia has economic goals as well. The Russians plan to create a trading centre for their wheat in Syria, which they plan to export to the Arab countries. This is in the planning phase and Syria would obviously also benefit from it. The airport of Damascus shall be extended into a big regional hub between Europe, Asia and Africa. Treaties have been signed to the effect that Russia will reorganise Syrian oil and gas drilling facilities. An awful lot was destroyed – by the US, by the anti-IS alliance but also but the Syrian fighters themselves. Wide areas in the East of the country are polluted by oil.
Syria faces a lot of reconstruction work in this regard and Russia shall provide know-how. And last but not least there are big offshore gas reservoirs in the eastern Mediterranean off the Syrian coast.
Presumably Russia will also support the exploitation of these. All these plans begin to take shape but have not materialised yet.

Peace is possible, provided the West will learn from history

Which hope is there for Syria?

One way to end a war is the capitulation of one actor or alliance. This could be possible in Syria if only Syrians were involved in the conflict. In such a scenario, negotiations could be started with the Islamists and the Syrian Kurds who want more rights. Prisoners could be exchanged and released. Internal reconciliation could begin, people could return and start to rebuild their country. But reality is different. There are so many regional and international actors in this war, all of whom have not achieved their goals. Take only the three European powers Britain, France and Germany. They are competing over spheres of influence in the region and at the same time with their unilateral coercive measures against Syria they take the entire EU hostage for their own power-political ambitions.
The EU views Syria only as one step towards the big confrontation in the Middle East, with Iran. The question which role Turkey is supposed to play in future, if war could erupt between Israel, Iran and their Arab neighbours, is unsolved. Historically, Syria and Irak have always been the “fertile crescent” in the region. There is water there, ethnic and religious diversity of the people has created a distinct culture of tolerance, which remained stable over centuries despite all conflicts. Both countries provide the land bridge between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, they are integral part of the historic as well as the re-emerging Chinese silk road. All this offers huge chances for political, cultural and economic cooperation in the region. Both countries could flourish with their rich natural resources, their historic experience and the craftsmanship of their people.
But the policies of neither Germany, France nor Britain are heading that way. The old colonial reflexes are still alive, they want to dissect and control Syria and the region. The Western military alliance NATO has singled out Russia and China – who favour a multipolar world in cooperation with the countries of the Middle East – as their enemies and competitors. The West does not encourage cooperation with and between the region of the Middle East but more confrontation. This has paved the way towards the First World War more than 100 years ago which devastated Europe, the Middle East, Africa and East Asia and cost the lives of millions of people. It looks as if the West has learned nothing from history.     •
(Translation Current Concerns)

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