This interview was originally published by Fars News Agency
German journalist and magazine editor Manuel Ochsenreiter believes that the Western powers along with regional countries are backing and financing terrorists and insurgents in Syria because each of them have certain interests linked to the disintegration of the Syrian government and the removal from power of President Bashar Assad.
He also says that these countries are supporting such dangerous groups as Al-Qaeda to destabilize Syria and fight the Syrian army at the expense of the lives of innocent Syrian citizens whose only crime is supporting their government.
“These groups like Al-Qaeda, but also other armed militias that have infiltrated Syria during the course of the past year, now fight the proxy war of the big powers. For Ankara, Riyadh, Washington or Doha it is much more convenient and also cheaper to use (or abuse) those insurgents instead of having a conventional war against Damascus. You have always a supply of men and arms. You just have to pay and to give support by means of intelligence, logistics and training,” said Ochsenreiter in an interview.
Manuel Ochsenreiter is the chief editor of the German monthly magazine ZUERST and contributes to other journals and magazines in Germany, as well. He spent a few weeks in Syria last year and dispatched special reports of the Battle of Damascus and other developments in the war-hit country.
What follows is the text of my interview with German journalist Manuel Ochsenreiter to whom I have talked about the situation in Syria, the connection between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the foreign powers and the prospect of unrest in the country.
Q: You have just been to Syria and witnessed the situation on the ground in the crisis-hit country. Why do you think such countries as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are supporting, funding and equipping the insurgents who are intent on disintegrating the Syrian government and removing from power President Bashar al-Assad?
A: I was in Damascus in July 2012 when the so called “Battle of Damascus” raged. Western mass media claimed that the Syrian capital was besieged by tens of thousands of “FSA” fighters and that the city would fall soon. Nothing was true about those reports. There were terrorist activities in some suburbs, but not something like a “siege” or a real “battle”. Terrorist fighters were infiltrating the suburbs and some parts of the city and shooting civilians and Syrian security forces. I was with the Syrian army in the neighborhood of Al-Midan where still some “FSA” men were fighting against the army, and I saw fallen “FSA” fighters of non-Syrian origin on the streets.
It is not a secret that the Syrian Arab Republic plays today a sort of “disturbing role” in the region. Damascus is an important ally for the much bigger disturbing state in the region, the Islamic Republic of Iran. For Saudi Arabia and other Sunni monarchies, the so called “Arab Spring” was the big chance to gain a lot of influence by supporting the radical Sunni groups in all the states where these protests against the governments took place (Tunisia, Libya and Egypt). They tried the same plot in Syria but it did not work with peaceful means, so they financed and armed militia and paid mercenaries.
Turkey has its own geopolitical agenda in the region. The “neo-Ottoman dream” is about to become a sort of state reason. It is all about influence in the region and becoming a leading power. Turkey as well as Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states are partners of the West (Turkey is NATO-member as we all know) and the West is also strongly against Tehran. So you see, in Syria, the common interests of the West and the Sunni monarchies come together. Syria, the secular state ruled by an Alawite president and a close ally of Russia, does not fit in this type of “New Middle East” plan.
Q: There are rumors that Al-Qaeda has been involved in the conflict in Syria and that some of the high-ranking members of the cult have been directing attacks on civilian areas as well as the army bases. It was even reported that the brother of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda commander in Syria, was just arrested in Daraa city. What’s your viewpoint about the collaboration of Al-Qaeda with the terrorists and insurgents? In what ways does Al-Qaeda benefit from unrest and instability in Syria?
A: These are not just rumors. Groups related to Al-Qaeda have admitted to fighting together with the FSA a “Jihad” against the Syrian government; what means in reality to kidnap and kill civilians, security forces and religious authorities and to place bombs in civilian areas.
These groups like Al-Qaeda, but also other armed militias that have infiltrated Syria during the course of the past year now, fight the proxy war of the big powers. For Ankara, Riyadh, Washington or Doha it is much more convenient and also cheaper to use (or abuse) those insurgents instead of having a conventional war against Damascus. You have always a supply of men and arms. You just have to pay and to give support by means of intelligence, logistics and training. These groups like al-Qaeda themselves follow completely different ideological agendas. Maybe they even oppose their financers. For example, for the authorities of al-Qaeda, the West is the “useful idiot” by making them strong; while the Western officials similarly think that the al-Qaeda fighters are the “useful idiots.” What comes out at the end is what we have witnessed in countries like Afghanistan, where the West supported radical Sunni militias against the Soviet occupation.
At least we should not forget to mention another important point: insurgents generally do not respect any law in war. They are criminals by definition. They kill, torture, and terrorize the population. Even the worst organized regular army has some instruments and mechanisms to persuade war criminals in their own rows. There are fixed standards on how to treat prisoners of war, how to save the lives and goods of the civilians and how to keep the war outside civilian areas. But none of these mechanisms exist in the groups like the al-Qaeda-linked militias. They are the “bulldozers” of war, and the countries that support those militia gangs keep their “innocence”.
Q: It was on the news that Saudi Arabia has dispatched to Syria a large number of dangerous criminals, including murderers and prisoners sentenced to death to take part in terrorist activities against the supporters of President Assad and even ordinary citizens. We have seen on the TV channels footages of Sudanese, Yemeni and Saudi criminals beheading the Syrian people and committing other atrocities. What’s your take on that?
A: In the military hospital of Damascus where I visited and interviewed horribly injured Syrian soldiers, a young officer told me, “We fight against the whole world.” And these soldiers told me about insurgents who even do not speak the Arabic language. Terrorists from the Caucasus are right now in Syria as well as Sudanese, North Africans, Pakistanis and Afghanis.
The strategy of using criminals as insurgents is not very new. In almost all the wars in the past, convicted criminals played a role. For Saudi Arabia, this has a practical benefit. They get rid of their hardcore criminals somewhere far away, the “enemy” civil population in Syria is horrified by the news that brutal murderers and rapists are on the way to their homes, and this might be also a reason that criminals are fighters without any lobby. Nobody in Saudi Arabia cares when they are killed or captured by the Syrian army. No diplomat will try to set them free. So we cannot really wonder when we see now the results of the Syrian civilians and soldiers being brutally massacred, beheaded and tortured.
Q: What do you think about President Assad’s speech on Sunday? The opposition figures swiftly reacted to it and said that it included nothing new. British Foreign Secretary also accused President Assad of killing his own people and called his speech hypocritical. This is while President Assad promised reforms in the political structure of the country and called for a public referendum and the formation of parliament in his speech. What’s your viewpoint on that?
A: In my opinion, President Assad said what had to be said in this situation. I would not count so much on the reaction of the so-called “opposition” and western politicians. Most probably their declarations were already typed before Assad began his speech. When it comes to hypocrisy, the Western politicians are the real experts. They claim that they want a regime change in Syria for civil and human rights, yet at the same time they support the absolute backward monarchy of Saudi Arabia. So why should we listen to their words?
The Syrian President will be measured by the promises he made in his speech on Sunday. I personally know a lot of Syrians who were very critical of their government before the crisis. I would have considered them as “opposition”. They criticized especially the corruption in Syria. Since the war broke out they began to support their government and their army in the fight against the foreign terrorists. Those supporters expect that when the crisis is over, the Syrian government will keep its promises.
Q: The United States has spared no effort to bring together and unite the different opposition fractions and opponents of President Assad, especially in the Doha conference and the Friends of Syria conference in Paris, but it failed to link the Salafist and Jihadi groups to the coalition forces and there seems to be a growing rift between the different opposition groups. What do you think in this regard? Has the United States succeeded in realizing this goal?
A: “Friends of Syria”, with whose existence Syria does not need enemies anymore seem to be very chaotic in their policies. Within this construct of “FSA”, so many different groups and fractions are fighting and it’s extremely hard to bring them together because they will start fighting against each other as soon as the common enemy is out of their sight. Of course it is almost impossible to bring Salafi groups together with civil rights activists because they have a completely different understanding of how a society should be built.
The western powers try to put all these groups together in one frontline; they try to force them to some western democratic games with each other. But at the end, and this seems clear, the brutal guys with the biggest guns will become the leading people and not the well-spoken, sophisticated writers and philosophers who Washington, Paris and London recommend for the leading position. So the U.S. has already failed and any western project to “organize” the “armed opposition” in Syria has to fail. Why? Because those “opposition” fighters have nothing to do with people inside Syria who may have some criticism toward their government and now support their army against the insurgents and terrorists.
Q: What’s your viewpoint regarding Israel’s role in the fomentation of unrest in Syria? It’s said that Israeli arms and ammunitions have been seen in the hands of the terrorists and insurgents. What efforts has Israel made in order to break up Syria as an integral part of the resistance front?
A: Syria is really an old player in the resistance front against Israel, and a well-known supporter of the Lebanese Hezbullah, and the former “homeland” of high-ranking Hamas officials in Damascus like Khalid Mash’al as well as other Palestinian resistance groups, and, as already mentioned, a close ally of Iran. Syria might have been seen by Israel as the key country of the resistance. The strategy might have been that, when Syria falls, the resistance might also fall.
Meanwhile, the strategic situation has changed. Syria refuses to fall and defends itself while radical foreign mercenaries infiltrate Israel’s neighborhood from almost all borders. Maybe Tel Aviv tries to support some of the groups with arms and intelligence, and as you said, it’s already reported that Israeli weapons were captured in Syria by the security forces.
From the Israeli point of view, the Syrian Arab Republic is an enemy; an enemy with a regular army and with a clear structure and hierarchy. You can make a ceasefire agreement and rely on the other side. But what happens when Syria becomes a failed state? With whom shall they talk then? Who to negotiate with? The negotiations of the Syrian government about a ceasefire with the so called “FSA” show that this cannot be successful as almost every armed militia acts on its own. So in case of a failed state, there will be lots of different warlords with their militias. The vacuum of power in the center of the Middle East will be filled by the guys with the biggest guns. Tel Aviv might then make expensive agreements with 99% of the militia leaders, but at least one percent will fire rockets at Israel and send insurgents.