Syria – from the colonial interests of Britain and France to securing raw materials for the USA

Interview with Karin Leukefeld*

In the media there is already talk about a modern migration of peoples. And they also discuss the responsibility of so-called gangs smuggling possibly but at least secretly wealthy immigrants. The causes of the mass misery of the refugees, however, are poorly investigated. In an interview with Jens Wernicke the correspondent to Syria Karin Leukefeld reports on an economic and proxy war, which increasingly leads to an exitus of the Syrian state, driving the people into starvation and 11 million Syrians into flight.

Mrs Leukefeld, besides Jürgen Todenhöfer you are the only German journalist I know who is really present in the Middle East, talking with people there, and based on that  providing qualified analyses that do  more than just serving stereotypes. You have just returned from a voyage to Syria. What is the situation there?

It depends on where you are staying in Syria. In the coastal area it is quiet, some Syrians who are now living in Europe even go on vacation there to meet their families. However, there are very many internally displaced people, so it has all become very crowded.
In Idlib, a province adjacent to the coastal region, the “army of conquest” and the Al-Nusra Front dominate, tens of thousands have fled, some villages are besieged. In Aleppo, the situation is very bad; it’s a war between the armed groups and the Syrian army. Many parts of the city have been destroyed, the electricity and water supply often fails, food is very expensive if at all available. Armed groups fire mortars, rockets and homemade missiles in residential areas, the Syrian army fires back.
To the east of Aleppo, there are areas controlled by Kurds, others by the self-proclaimed “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” (IS). There the situation is extremely unsafe, sides are changed every day, the Syrian air force and the US-led “anti-IS-alliance” fly air attacks. Lately the Turkish air force has started to fly  attacks, too. In northern Iraq, they attack positions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In northern Syria, they attack areas controlled by the Syrian Kurds. The deployment is running under the slogan “fight against ‘Islamic State’”. The US aims at a “protection zone” north of Aleppo together with Turkey. This is a military action inside Syria, which requires the approval of the UN Security Council. This does not exist, so it is an attack on a sovereign state and violates international law.
The populated areas in the central province of Homs are largely controlled by the Syrian government and the army. The desert areas that extend to the east to the border with Iraq are unsafe. The situation in Tadmur, the modern city, which lies at Palmyra, is unclear. From the monastery of Deir Mar Elian, which I have visited many times, the priest Jacques Mourad and another clergyman were kidnapped at the end of May. Both could not be traced. Meanwhile, the people from Qaryatayn and Sadat were expelled from the IS, many of them Christians.
Damascus accommodates up to 7 million people, internally displaced persons from all over the country. It is largely peaceful, electricity and water are scarce, the city is repeatedly fired at from the suburbs to Damascus, where the Islamic Front and the Al-Nusra Front have bases, and the Syrian army also fires back at them.
Sweida, where Druze and Christians live, is still quiet. I go there every time when I’m in Syria. Deraa is still embattled like the Golan, on the border with Israel. Currently, a great battle of Zabadani takes place, which lies on the border with Lebanon. There are headquarters of the armed groups that are active around Damascus. The Syrian army and the Lebanese Hezbollah, fighting together, want to reclaim this strategic base of the battle troups.
Life is expensive, the Syrian pound has only one fifth of its purchasing power of 2010. Many people have lost everything, people are begging, there is rarely meat on the table, if there is at all a table. Unemployment is above 40 per cent, children are working in order to help the family, so they don’t go to school any longer. Half of Syria’s Palestinians have fled since their camps – which actually had been towns –were destroyed.
Syria’s economic centres – situated around Aleppo, Homs and Damascus – are widely destroyed. Syria had its own pharmaceutical industry, a food industry and large corn reserves. All that has been destroyed, looted or sold to Turkey. The humble oil fields in the east are being controlled by fighters who smuggle the oil out of the country in order to sell it there or also inside the country – even to the government.
Meanwhile, many oil production facilities  have been bombed by the Anti IS Allies. And then the archaeological sites in Syria dating back as far as 10,000 years before Christ – have been conquered by fighters, sieged, looted, destroyed.
The situation is tough; misery is huge. Especially for the Syrian refugees. Four million have fled to neighbouring countries, seven million more have been dispelled within Syria.
And, maliciously, these refugee movements are being instrumentalized politically. The local Syrian conflict has been extended to a regional and eventually to an international proxy war. Where the people had fled, armed groups have entered which are still being supported regionally and internationally. And then we hear that the Syrian government has lost control and is the “root of all evil” in Syria anyway, as it has just been declared by a US State Department spokesman. Syria has been labeled a failed state where it is legitimate to intervene by humanitarian or military means.

And this poverty, this misery you are describing, which the people are fleeing from: where do they come from? And could you please explain briefly why you are speaking of a proxy war?

Syria is a developing country. In 2010, the situation was improving and it was expected that in 2015 it would be the fifth largest economic power in the Arabic world.
Today Syria is just ahead of Somalia. The economic crisis created by the war is being aggravated by the EU’s economic sanctions. We are also observing an economic war against a rising country.
The EU’s economic sanctions started as early as at the end of 2011 and affected the trade in oil and gas and the financial sector. The Syrian airline was no longer allowed to fly to European airports, all bilateral projects were stopped, personnel withdrawn, Syria was isolated. At first the state and the population were able to fill the gaps with their own resources, but one day they were used up. The state received financial support and credit from Iran. Thus the losses from the oil industry could be reduced; oil and gas could be delivered to the population, to the still functioning industry and the army. But the national economy was subordinated to the war – a war economy developed.
Officially, the EU is using its economic sanctions to put the political and military leadership of Syria under pressure to yield and resign. This has not happened. Instead, the society was punished, its livelihood, laboriously built up, destroyed. Money is made by those profiting from the war: militia, smugglers, black market dealers.
But beyond the sanctions, Syria’s economy was also purposefully destroyed materially. This could be observed clearly in Aleppo and Damascus. In summer 2012 there was a coordinated attack which was meant to overthrow the Syrian leadership. An assault on the National Security Council killed four senior military leaders and security officers. This was followed immediately by attacks on Aleppo and Damascus. They were led by fighters who were withdrawn from Homs after the fight for Baba Amr had been decided in favour of the armed forces. The fighters had gathered near the two large cities where they were supported by local forces. The overthrow did not succeed; both the people of Aleppo and those of Damascus refused to open the gates of their cities for the fighters. The reaction to this refusal was the destruction and looting of the industrial areas around both cities which were then converted into strongholds for further attacks.
The statement that we are talking about a proxy war becomes plausible if we realize that the so-called Islamic State, which is called “Daish” locally, has not materialized out of the blue – in contrast to what we read in our leading media. It has been and is backed by regional and international sponsors so that its financial resources are unfailing.
These sponsors are using the fighters to destroy the nation states which were formed 100 years ago in the Levant against the will of the population. Then the colonial interests of Great Britain and France were at stake, now it is the securing of national resources for the Western world, led by the US. The Gulf States’ anger against the independent policy which is being defended by Syria leads to the armament and training of irregular fighter groups, dominated by “Daish”. Their breeding ground is poverty.

Do you have a concrete example for this kind of “poverty spiral” which this is obviously about?

Consider a firm that has been selling medical equipment for medical practices and clinics. So far the firm has been buying the equipment from Germany. Now, due to the EU sanctions, it cannot buy or sell anything. And buying from another country is difficult for the firm because all money transfers have been interrupted. The Syrian central bank is sanctioned as well; nobody is allowed to do business with it. To bypass this, the German supplier has now begun to deliver its products to a firm in Lebanon which is reselling it to the Syrian firm. Lebanon is not tied to the EU sanctions. This makes the transfer of goods extremely expensive.
Another example is that parents of children studying abroad are no longer able to send them money because it is not allowed to do business with Syrian banks. By the way, the same is true for Syrian government scholarships for students abroad. Or take pharmaceuticals: So far they were very cheap because they were produced in Syria. Now the pharmaceutical industry has been widely destroyed, so drugs are imported from Lebanon or smuggled from Turkey – driving the prices sky-high.

And the interests behind this conflict – what powers are we talking about? What exactly do you mean by“sponsors”?

Sponsors are those who support armed groups against the Syrian government and army. Russia and Iran who are backing the Syrian government are its allies because they are linked with the Syrian state by treaties under international law. The regional states Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are more like “sponsors” because they use groups for their own purposes which they can, however, drop again if it suits them. This is also true for the sponsors among the European states, Australia and the US.
It is mainly the Gulf States, Turkey and the US who are profiting from the chaos spreading over Iraq and Syria. Of course not the population but the industrial elites, with the arms industry leading the way. In the past five years, the Arab peninsula has been turned into a huge weapons depot. Western military, official and private, are training fighters, arming them and sending them to war. The US are delivering billions of dollars’ worth in armaments to the Gulf States as well as to Israel. Germany is arming and training the Kurd Peshmerga in northern Iraq and Turkey, as a NATO country, is profiting from its proximity to Syria and Iraq. Of course Syria is supported by Russia and Iran, but this is based on bilateral treaties.
By the way, in none of the countries affected by the “Arab Spring”, the protest movements of the young, educated and modern youth have survived, in none of them! In Tunisia, Egypt and Syria events are dominated by political Islam, as a fighting or opposition group.

The religious fanaticism of the local people is certainly relevant in all this as it contributes to the fact that there are veritable “religious wars” ...

The Syrians were never religious fanatics! Only the Muslim Brotherhood, which advocates the political Islam; or to say it more specifically it is merely a wing of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s with their attempt at revolt against the Baath Party, which had enforced a secular state. This uprising ended with the massacre of Hama in 1982. Thousands died during an air raid by the Syrian army, thousands disappeared or were imprisoned. Who ever could escape, fled, and membership in the Muslim Brotherhood was subjected to capital punishment.
This is clearly having an impact, even today. Many young people who have now hired in Islamist combat units are referencing Hama, when asked why they are fighting. A young man who peacefully demonstrated, however, told me in 2011, when it all began, that his uncle had disappeared in Hama and then the whole family became supporters of the opposition. However, one must also remember that the Damascus-wing of the Muslim Brotherhood was in 1970s opposing an armed uprising.
The role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the emergence of radical political Islam must not be underestimated. The ruling AKP party in Turkey is a sister party of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a survey has shown that more than 10 percent of the Turkish population do not consider the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” a terrorist organization, nor a threat, but legitimate and worth supporting. This is only possible because the Turkish government follows a line of political Islam itself. In a secular state this would be impossible.
But back to Syria: There were many political conflicts, but culturally and with respect to religion Syria has always been a very tolerant and open country. Now, this tolerance is to be destroyed, as well. However, this does not come “from the people” nor “from the nature of man” there – rather it is the result of geo-political interests and strategic conflicts.

So people are fleeing and suffering because the so-called West brings war to their homes and exerts economic pressure to bring them to their knees? So, evil gangs who smuggle illegal immigrants, which receive a lot of  media coverage, are not the main problem, due to which now 11 million Syrians are fleeing?

The gangs are the result of a totally wrong policy in the Middle East, not the cause. These gangs are an integral part of the war economy. Without the war they wouldn’t have any business. The gangs use the same paths that are used to smuggle arms, ammunition, equipment, satellite phones and fighters as well as drugs and other things that are required for the war in Syria.
The refugees meet the fighters on these smugglers’ routes, for the organizers are the same. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has submitted a detailed report on these smuggling paths.
As long as war and the suffering of the affected people are a lucrative business nothing will probably change.

How come that our media do hardly ever cover this, and if they do, they report in a completely non-differentiated manner?

You have to put these questions to the big media, the so-called “lead media”. They are supposed to guide the thought and perception of the population, they are to mentor and “classify”, as the latest jargon has it. To me this means something like: media prescribe the direction in which you have think and judge a conflict. This has little to do with the reality in the conflict regions, especially since many of my colleagues are not on site, but are in the city of a neighboring country, or even at home in a studio. An alternative to this kind of reporting would be a coverage that although it includes military options and developments, it would put the same emphasis, if not a greater one, on the political proposals, initiatives and developments.

What needs to be done in your view so that peace will become possible again in Syria? And: Is there something we, the German people, can do to support and help to alleviate the misery on site?

USA and Russia need to agree on a joint approach to stabilize Syria and the Iraq which involves the Syrian government, the armed forces as well as the government and army of Iraq. Preconditions – such  as “Assad has no future in Syria” – have to be omitted. The Syrian actors must be encouraged – and not discouraged – to sit down at a table. Exerting influence to push one’s own interests has tobe waived. Turkey must be forced – either  by NATO or bilaterally by individual NATO countries – to  cease their support for the so-called Islamic State. In case Turkey refuses, military sanctions have to be imposed. Furthermore, the home countries of international Jihadists must prevent the departure of Islamist fighters or supporters. This implies a debate on respectful coexistence and equality.
The German population must especially support the incoming refugees. However, the federal government must not be relieved from its responsibility as they have contributed to a wrong policy that led to this high number of refugees. In the “Bundestag”, in the “Länder” parliaments, trade unions, schools, churches, in blogs and political meetings – they must all be informed about the background of the war in Syria. That is everybody’s business, everyone who wants this war to come to an end.

One last word?

Yes. 70 years after the end of World War II, I want the people to remember the poem by Wolfgang Borchert: “There’s only one thing to do: say NO.” In the direct neighborhood of Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean areas and in parts of Africa, we have now seen 25 years of wars without interruption, wars being extended ever more. If we add the Israel-Palestine conflict to that, we have had war in the Middle East since 1948. With the wrongful occupation of Iraq in 2003 which was contrary to international law, the US has finally opened “the gate to hell” against which many warned as early as then.
Palestinians have been fleeing for almost 70 years, or they live – as in Gaza or the West Bank – as prisoners in their own country. Iraqis have been fleeing, as are the Syrians now. The West fueled these wars. Even Germany is supplying arms and stays silent to the breach of international law. The political opposition in the “Bundestag” or in the European Parliament does not live up to their tasks in terms of war and peace. And many media are acting as war drummers.
I miss the great peace and anti-war movement, which once took to the streets against the Iraq war. They must stand together and must not get divided. The peace movement must protest against these wars in the streets!

Thank you for the interview.     •

(Interview Jens Wernicke)

*     Karin Leukefeld, born in 1954, studied ethnology, Islamic and political science and is a trained bookseller. She did organizational and public relation tasks among others for the “Bundesverband Bürgerinitiativen Umweltschutz”, BBU (Association of Citizens’ Initiatives for Environmental Protection), the Greens (federal party) and the information agency El Salvador. Since 2000 she has worked as a freelance correspondent for the Middle East.
Her website is leukefeld.net.

Source: www.nachdenkseiten.de/?p=27340, retrieved on 27 August 2015

(Translation Current Concerns)