Ambassador Nikolaos van Dam: My great personal affection for the Syrian people, together with my academic interest in Syria, are the source of my inspiration and activities.

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This interview with Dr. Nikolaos Van Dam was originally published on October 8, 2020 by the Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies.

Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies hosts today, Dr. Nikolaos Van Dam (1945), Excellency of the Dutch Ambassador, who served in 2015-2016 as a special envoy of his country to Syria, after many years of diplomatic work in Lebanon, Jordan, the occupied Palestinian territories, Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Germany and Indonesia.

The author of “The Netherlands and the Arab World .. From the Medieval until the Twentieth Century” studied political science at the University of Amsterdam. including international relations, modern Middle Eastern history, and the Arabic language. In 1973, he has got a PhD in political and social sciences, and a second one in Arts from the University of Amsterdam in 1977.

Our guest, the expert on Syrian and Middle East’s affairs, is one of those who positions Syria’s dilemma in its historical and contemporary context. In 1979 he published his book in English, entitled: “The Struggle for Power in Syria: Sectarianism, Regionalism and Tribalism in Politics”, which was later translated into Arabic and published in Cairo (1995, 1996), later on, several editions of it have issued, as well as one in Turkish language in Istanbul (2000).

Among the most prominent books his book, which is entitled: Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria, which was published in English (2017) and published in Arabic in Beirut (2018).

In this dialogue, Dr. Nikolas Van Dam, the Ambassador, talks to us about his country’s government’s decision to prosecute Bashar al-Assad regime before the international justice Court in The Hague, after more than nine years of bloodshed in Syria, asserting that the evidence is explicit that the Assad regime has committed -again and again- horrific crimes.

The dialogue with the inveterate Dutch diplomat, also took us further, to talk about what is happening in Syria at the current stage, and about his vision and stances towards the latest developments in the Syrian, regional and international political scene. We also touched upon his books dealing with Syrian political life under the Ba’ath Party, and his latest book, “A Diplomat Looking for Peace in the Arab and Islamic Worlds,” which is published in English last September, and in which he devoted a separate chapter to Syria, which he hopes to be translated into Arabic one day.

Here is the dialogue

Ambassador Nikolaos van Dam: My great personal affection for the Syrian people, together with my academic interest in Syria are the source of my inspiration and activities.

* At First, how do you introduce yourself to the Syrians through our center?

When I first visited Syria in summer 1964 as a student, I was fascinated and overwhelmed by the great hospitality and friendliness of the Syrian people. During my first night at the border crossing of Bab al-Hawa (which was only open during the day), I lost my purse and papers, when sleeping on a wooden bench. They fell on the ground without me noticing it, and were kindly given back to me by a young Syrian, who had found them the next morning. This was a very friendly and positive experience. If my passport and money would have been stolen, my first encounter with Syria and the Arab world would probably have been different and negative, because the first impression of a new country and its people can be very important. The following night, I was the invited guest of some Syrian youths in the rural countryside west of Aleppo, in the village of Kfar Karmin, where I slept under the open sky, next to the traditional beehive mud-brick houses in the village. The people were very friendly and hospitable. This also was a very positive experience, which was repeated various times afterwards in my contacts with Syrian people all over the country. All this left an unforgettable impression, which shaped my great affection for Syria and its people. Almost every year afterwards, I came back to Syria, enjoying its friendly atmosphere, people and beautiful treasures, both historical and cultural.

After having returned to the Netherlands in 1964, I studied Arabic and Political Sciences at the University of Amsterdam. As part of my studies, I spent the greater part of 1970 in Damascus and Aleppo to write two theses: one about the ideology of the Ba’th Party and the other about the history of Syria under Ba’thist rule. This study led to my PhD thesis about The Role of Sectarianism, Regionalism and Tribalism in the Struggle for Power in Syria in 1977. In 1979, I published a shorter version of it as a book in English, titled The Struggle for Power in Syria: Sectarianism, Regionalism and Tribalism in Politics. This book was later expanded into new editions in 1981, 1996 and 2011, each time taking later developments into account. After more than 40 years it is still considered as a widely known standard work, which has been used in universities, academic circles and elsewhere, all over the world. It was also published in Arabic in Cairo (1995, 1996) and in Turkish in Istanbul (2000). I made an internet edition available in 2009, which can be downloaded from my website.

In 1975, I joined the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and worked as a junior diplomat in Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian Occupied Territories and Libya. Afterwards, I was ambassador for 22 years in respectively Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Germany and Indonesia. My greatest wish to serve in Damascus was never fulfilled, but in 2015-2016 I was Special Envoy of the Netherlands for Syria, operating from Istanbul. In my book Destroying a Nation, I wrote about some of my experiences during this period. It was published in Arabic in 2018, and is now also available as an e-book.[i]

* After Moscow having obstructed several resolutions’ drafts condemning the Bashar al-Assad regime’s violations against civilians in Syria, the Dutch government decided to prosecute the Syrian regime before the International Court of Justice in Hague, according to what was reported in a letter written by the Dutch Foreign Minister to Parliament on Friday (September 18, 2020). In your appreciation, why did your country’s government take this step now? What is your stance on this measure as a first one of its kind from a Western government? Do you expect that this step will have an effect in making any change in the Syrian political scene if Assad and his pillars’ rule are convicted after it is proven that they have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, especially torture, murder, enforced disappearance, and the use of chemical weapons?

The Netherlands announced its decision to hold Syria responsible under international law for gross human rights violations and torture in particular. The evidence is overwhelming that the Asad regime has committed horrific crimes time after time. The Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs has declared that there must be consequences. Since Russia will block any attempt to bring the Syrian regime before justice via the UN Security Council, a different way was sought and found.

International organizations have repeatedly reported serious human rights violations for years. Large numbers of Syrians have been tortured, murdered, forcibly disappeared, and subjected to poison-gas attacks, or have lost everything fleeing for their lives.

The Netherlands has invoked Syria’s responsibility for human rights violations under international law, specifically holding Syria responsible for torture under the UN Convention against Torture.

The timing of this initiative coincided with the sessions of the United Nations General Assembly, and therefore got extra attention.

I think this is a good initiative, and better than doing nothing. It might even have been initiated years ago, because proof of the crimes involved already exists for many years. Personally, I do not think that it will cause any real changes in the political scene on the ground. The Syrian regime has immediately strongly rejected the Dutch initiative, arguing that The Hague is the last capital that should accuse Syria, because it accuses the Dutch government of supporting Syrian terrorist organizations. In any case, this initiative may bring some movement in making the Syrian regime accountable for its atrocities. But if you really want to bring people before justice, you have to catch them, instead of having them tried in absentia.

The Hague likes to call itself the “international city of peace and justice”. This name is well deserved in the sense that, according to its municipality, “thousands of people are working here every day to build a more peaceful and just world”. But when it comes to Israel, this name is not justified, at least when taking into account the policies concerned of the Dutch government, which thus far has condoned more or less all Israeli gross human rights violations, and has not done anything practical against it.

* How do you look at what is happening in Syria in the present period? And what is your message to all the parties of the Syrian-Syrian conflict?

After more than 9 years of bloodshed, I cannot keep repeating my earlier elementary advises, because that would not be realistic. Times have changed, and the heavy burden of deadly victims, millions of refugees and material destruction have all asked their toll, making any compromise even more difficult than before.

The situation in Syria has turned out to be a disaster since the start of the Syrian Revolution in 2011. From the very beginning, my message has been that in order to solve the conflict, it was necessary to have a dialogue between the opposition and the regime. But quite early on, any dialogue with the regime was strongly rejected, not only by the opposition but also by many foreign countries, which broke off diplomatic relations with Damascus and closed their embassies. Their message was that president al-Asad had lost his legitimacy, and therefore had to leave. Many demonstrators demanded the fall of the regime and the execution of the president (al-Sha’b yurid isqat al-Nizam; al-Sha’b yurid I’dam al-Ra’is). And the regime did not want any dialogue with those who wanted its downfall and persecution.

The extremely violent reactions of the regime to previous efforts to topple or oppose it, like the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama (1982), or other occasions, made it unthinkable for me that the regime would willingly give in to any threats against its position, let alone efforts to topple it. But emotional and enthusiastic feelings for justice prevailed over realism, together with the dangers accompanying it.

Of course, the demonstrators had been inspired by the swift fall of the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, and the killing of the Libyan leader al-Qadhafi after foreign military interventions against his regime. But the structure of the Syrian regime, with its Alawi-dominated power elite, was completely different. Moreover, it had half a century of experience in how to effectively and ruthlessly deal with any coups and threats against its position. The most potential possibility for toppling it, could come from within the regime, but not anyone from its inner core dared to take any initiative in this direction for fear of being liquidated.

Many Syrians of the opposition, and with them many Western politicians who supported them, expected the regime to fall by the latter half of 2012. But this turned out to be fully unrealistic, as they did not take the strong and coherent power structure of the Syrian regime into account. The regime wanted to survive, whatever the costs.

In March 2012, I argued that it would be better to have al-Asad with 10,000 dead (which was the number of deadly victims at the time), rather than to have al-Asad with 300,000 dead (which later even turned out to be even worse by going in the direction of half a million dead). For this, a dialogue with the regime had been necessary.

In my opinion it was better to have a failed dialogue than to have a failed war, with half a million dead, more than 10 million refugees and a country in ruins. But many refused any dialogue with the regime, arguing that this was useless anyhow.

As Special Envoy for Syria, I aimed at providing the Syrian opposition with what I considered to be some realistic counsel. I could, of course, have taken the easier, more popular way of joining the opposition and many others in their wishful thinking that the Asad regime was going to be brought down anyhow through political pressure, UN resolutions and military support from Western and Arab countries, but these countries created false expectations. They had so-called “good intentions” of helping the Syrian people, but were not really prepared to implement their declared intensions in the form of sufficient deeds and actions on the ground. I rejected the idea of creating false expectations, because it contributed to making the situation even worse than it already was.

Direct military intervention was excluded by these countries, even though US president Obama had proclaimed that “there would be consequences” if certain “red lines” were crossed, such as the use of chemical weapons. Not crossing these red lines meant thereby, implicitly, that all other means of suppressing the Syrian people and the opposition groups were condoned by the US (and others). Not carrying out their promises, meant that the United States could not be considered as a reliable ally.

Many people kept on thinking in terms which were in fact wishful thinking, and the countries supporting the opposition did the same. They kept turning around in the same vicious circle, arguing that one day their wishes and ideals would be realized. But the realities turned out to be different, and the human cost was disastrous.

By only supporting the military opposition groups halfheartedly, and not providing them with the necessary arms (both quantitatively and qualitatively) the Western and Arab countries involved, in fact sent many of the opposition military to their death.

I argued at the time that if the opposition kept insisting that president al-Asad should be deposed and brought before justice, negotiations were useless, because you cannot bring down the opposing party through peaceful negotiations, if that party happens to be militarily stronger, and is not prepared to relinquish its power.

With some hindsight, I guess that the maximum achievable through negotiations at the time was a “national unity government”, in which eventually participating opposition figures could be included, but would hardly have anything to say. In fact, the regime in Damascus could have included various “moderate” opposition ministers in its government, while at the same time excluding any risk of being deposed, as long as they kept the strategic ministries, army and security agencies under their control. But the regime did not.

The opposition rejected any “national unity government” because it only wanted the regime to disappear; although the opposition stated that it was prepared to share a transitional governing body with members of the Syrian government or regime who did not have blood on their hands. Inclusion of president al-Asad was fully rejected, however, although there were different opinions among the opposition about whether al-Asad would be acceptable or not during a “transitional stage” leading to a new regime without him. But this “transitional stage” never came.

The opposition interpreted the Geneva Communiqué (2012) as including the principle that president al-Asad had to leave. The Americans did the same, but the Geneva Communiqué did not include any such clause, otherwise the Russians would not have agreed to it.

The opposition generally took notice of my views, and some members appreciated my straightforward positions, but this did not change their original views in any way, because they maintained their “basic principles of the revolution”: bringing down the al-Asad regime and bringing to justice all those with blood on their hands. Even though these demands could have been considered fully justified from a moralistic point of view, they were not realistic in my opinion, due to the military imbalance of forces on the ground. The opposition could only have implemented their “basis principles” by winning the war and defeating the regime, but they were not strong enough to do so.

Some opposition leaders afterwards admitted that their demands had not been fully realistic under the circumstances at the time, and that demanding the disappearance of president Bashar al-Asad as a precondition had been a mistake that made realistic negotiations impossible.

The regime should, if it really had wanted a solution, have implemented UN Security Council 2254 (2015) without delay, and immediately allow humanitarian agencies rapid, safe and unhindered access throughout Syria to reach people in need; release any arbitrarily detained prisoners; immediately cease any attacks against civilians and civilian objects as such, including attacks against medical facilities and personnel, and any indiscriminate use of weapons, including through shelling and aerial bombardments.

Implementing Security Council resolution 2254 would not really have weakened the regime’s military position, because the included measures hardly have any strategic military value; except perhaps in the sense that the military opposition groups might also profit from food and medical supplies. Bombing civilians and medical facilities, for instance, has no strategic military value. Therefore, it should have been relatively easy for the regime (and the Russians) to start implementing it.

The opposition should in my view continue their efforts to come to negotiations with the regime on a realistic basis, including in the Constitutional Committee, even though I do not expect the regime to make real concessions to the parties that want to depose it, and have lost much of their political and military power. That does not mean, however, that it should not be seriously tried, because there are only very few options left for negotiations. Here the saying applies of “nothing ventured, nothing gained”. And miracles only happen when one keeps believing in them.

In March 2018, I suggested in a lecture that it would be better to admit that the war against the regime had been lost. But almost three years later on, the war is still being continued, and Syria, as a result of the many years of the war-by-proxy with various countries involved in it, is further going down the drain with further victims and destruction. And a political solution is not getting nearer.

After the war became a war-by-proxy, finding a solution was not really any longer fully in the hands of the opposition and the regime. It was the rivaling outside forces which had obtained a predominant role in co-deciding what could be a way to solve the conflict.

Prolonging the war means more deadly victims, more refugees and more destruction. It is understandable that the opposition wants to continue its fight against the regime, but one should also take into account what the concrete results are in human and material costs, and pose the question: is it worth it? Isn’t it at a certain stage better to wait for a better opportunity in the future?

Under the present circumstances, a new revolution is bound to come in the future.

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* Ambassador, a few days ago, your new book was published, titled “A Diplomat seeking Peace in the Arab and Islamic World”, which contains a summary of your experiences and analyzes during the years of your diplomatic work (career). Can you tell us more details about the content of the book?

My new book has been published in September 2020. It contains my memoirs and analyses of my experiences during the time I worked for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from 1975 until my retirement in 2010: As ambassador to Iraq from the end of the war between Iraq and Iran (1988) till the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait (1990), the taking hostage of many foreigners, and Operation Desert Storm (1991), during which the Iraqi army was expelled from Kuwait. Secondly, as ambassador to Egypt under the rule of president Mubarak (1991-1996), at a time when Egypt still played a prominent political role in the Middle East. Thirdly as ambassador to Turkey, with the Turkish accession talks with the European Union, and the political change from secularism to Islamism, which made real EU membership for Turkey a fiction. Fourthly, as ambassador to Germany and the transfer of the capital from Bonn to Berlin, with the accompanying changes of forces within Europe. And fifthly, as ambassador to Indonesia, where I had to deal with the sensitive Dutch colonial past.

As a junior diplomat I served in Lebanon (1980-1983) during the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion (1982), in Jordan and the Palestinian Occupied Territories, and as Chargé d’Affaires in the Libya of Qadhafi (1983-1985), with his provocative regime. A separate chapter is devoted to Syria, and is based on my experiences as Special Envoy for Syria (2015-2016). Another separate chapter deals with the Arab-Israeli conflict, and is based on my experiences as secretary of the European Middle East mission in 1981 (the most extensive of its kind) and my experiences in the subsequent decades.

Much of what is happening today in de Palestinian-Israeli conflict, was fully predictable some 40 years ago, if we would have better realized that the Israelis were not prepared to make any real compromise. The Israeli key positions have remained the same: no withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders, no Palestinian State, and an “eternally united Jerusalem”. The core positions of Likud and Labor were the same: keeping control over the whole of Palestine, with as few Palestinians as possible. The main difference was the way in which they presented themselves. One of the major problems has been that more or less everything Israel did has been condoned by Western countries. The United States has even encouraged it, and its recognition of the annexations of Eastern Jerusalem and parts of the Golan Heights constitutes a serious undermining of the order of international law. The United States has never been an honest broker, but rather “Brokers of Deceit”, as described in the book of Rashid al-Khalidi titled “How the US has Undermined Peace in the Middle East” (2013).

European countries criticized Israeli behavior, but did do nothing against it, except for issuing statements, deploring what happened. Since European governments are not going to do anything to really help solving the conflict, I think the non-governmental BDS-movement (Boycott-Divest-Sanctions) is fully justified.

I hope the chapters on Syria and the Arab-Israeli conflict can be made available in Arabic one day.

There is too much in the book to present here in short detail.

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* In your new book, you have dealt with your personal analyzes of your experience as a special envoy for the Netherlands to Syria. can you let us know the most prominent positions that you have stood on which led to protracting the life of the Syrian disaster, whether by the boss of the Syrian regime, the opposition forces, or external Arab and Western forces?

Most of my experiences as the Dutch Special Envoy for Syria have already been published in my book Destroying a Nation.  In my new book I dwell on some of the incompatibilities between democracy and realpolitik. Politicians in democracies want to show their good intentions by making political statements, supporting in the Syrian case the Syrian opposition, but when it comes to realpolitik, they are unwilling to implement what they have been proposing, except when it comes to some sanctions. Therefore, most of their statements remain statements, without being implemented. My new book further deals with the way the conflict in Syria is being dealt with in Dutch internal and foreign politics.

The factors that have contributed to the disastrous war in Syria and its prolongation are many. I mention only some of the most important ones.

– The violent suppression by the Syrian regime of the demonstrations and its ruthless violent suppression of any opposition. Its rejection of any essential reform which could, in its own perception, undermine its power monopoly.

– The declaratory support of various foreign countries for the opposition forces, without them being prepared to mobilize the necessary means and providing the necessary military and material support to help achieving their declared (or undeclared) aim of regime change.

– Providing billions of dollars in military aid to the military opposition groups in an uncoordinated way, which turned out to be insufficient to win the battle against the regime.

– Creating false expectations among the opposition by Western and Arab countries.

– Russian and Iranian support for the regime helped these two countries in maintaining their strategic ally in Damascus.

– The occupation of parts of Syria by Turkey, the United States, Russia and Iran have contributed to prolonging the conflict, just as have the endeavors by these states to serve their own strategic interests in the region, without taking the suffering of the Syrian people enough into account.

– The opposition has allowed itself to being deceived to some extent by the so-called good intentions of the foreign forces that expressed their support.

– Overdoses of wishful thinking have prolonged the war, while at the same time neglecting the hard realities of realpolitik.

– Seeking justice, without having the power to bring those responsible for the committed crimes to justice, except in some individual court cases abroad. In itself it is a good thing to bringing those responsible for war crimes and bloodshed to justice, but this does not mean that the conflict is brought to an end swifter than would otherwise be the case.

* What is the origin of your personal interest in the Syrian dilemma, and to set it through your writings, in its historical and contemporary context, using a unique blend of academic uniqueness and diplomatic experience?

My personal and academic interest for Syria, which started in 1964, and my great personal affection for the people of Syria and the country are the source for my continuous activity and inspiration to help analyze what may be the better (or less bad) options for achieving a solution to the conflict. Having a wider experience in both the academic and diplomatic field can be a fruitful combination, which may be better than having experience in only one of these fields.

* Ambassador, allow us to return with you to your book “Destroying a Nation. The Civil War in Syria”, which was translated and published by the “Jana Tamer for Studies and Publishing House” in Beirut, (2018). I would ask you: What are the most prominent conclusions that you reached in the context of finding solutions and exits to the flaming Syrian crisis?

Anyone with some knowledge of the regime should have known that any effort to topple it would lead to a bloodbath, as I predicted in the second edition of my book The Struggle for Power in Syria, which was published in 1981, 30 years before the start of the Syrian Revolution in 2011. And this was not difficult to predict.

If you want to defeat a lion, you must be well armed and be in the stronger position, in order to prevent not to be killed oneself. But the reality for the military opposition forces turned out to be that of the weaker party.

The opposition military were not in such a strong position, and once they started to threaten the regime to some extent in 2015, Russia intervened militarily.

Often, it is pointed out that the Asad regime has caused many more deaths than the opposition groups altogether. And that is correct: roughly 90% of all victims have been the result of military and other actions of the regime. This is often used as an argument to underline that only the regime is responsible for the disastrous situation in which Syria finds itself. This does not, however, fully exonerate those who tried to topple the regime, because they could have known the bloody consequences, even though these groups themselves might be held responsible for “only” 10% of the deadly victims.

When discussing the controversial concept of who carries responsibility for the present situation in Syria, the hard reality should also be taken into account of who has achieved a certain victory and who has been defeated. Perhaps the situation would have been completely different if the military and civilian opposition forces together would have succeeded in bringing peace, and in creating a “new Syria” that could be described by the ideal characteristics and aims, as described by the Higher Council for Negotiations in 2016: “A political system based on democracy, pluralism and a citizenship that provides for equal rights and duties for all Syrians without any discrimination on basis of color, gender, language, ethnicity, opinion, religion or ideology.” In such a case, it could have been argued that the war of the opposition against the regime “had been worth it”, because it would have led to a substantial improvement of the situation in Syria. In reality, however, this did not happen, because the military opposition or – better said – the numerous opposition groups altogether, did not succeed in defeating the regime. Therefore, it can be argued that the opposition groups, together with the countries supporting them, at least bear a large co-responsibility (together with the regime) for the disastrous consequences which the war has had for all Syrians; this irrespective of the fact that the regime has numerically caused by far the most victims and material destruction. Having the right ideals does not mean that one does not have any co-responsibility when things go wrong when trying to achieve them.

If you want to negotiate, and demand the disappearance and court martialing of your opponent, which is militarily stronger, it is impossible to achieve a political solution. Negotiations are doomed to failure if the aim is to eradicate your opponent, while refusing to come to any compromise with the opposing party. A compromise implies that the negotiating parties are not fully eradicated once the agreement reached is being implemented. Regime change in Syria can only be achieved by military means.

In order to really know what I wrote in the book, one should read it oneself.

* We have noted the objection of many Syrian revolutionaries to describing what has happened and is happening in Syria as a “civil war,” considering that the classification of the Syrian war does not deviate from the context of being aggression by the Bashar al-Assad regime against its people who rose up against its authoritarian rule in mid-March 2011, with the help of external intervention militarily. What is your response to those?

I should start by noting that the vast majority of the mass media and reporters use the terminology of “civil war” to describe the bloody conflict in Syria, such as: BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeera, just like most academic authors and journalists. Only a tiny minority of writers specifically rejects this terminology, being fully aware of the sensitivities of opposition circles in this respect. This in itself does not imply, however, that the terminology is correct or wrong.

Most of those who have criticized me for speaking about a “civil war”, have apparently only read the outside cover of my book containing the title of eight words, without reading the contents of the book itself. Had they done so, they would have discovered that I have explained in my book that “as a result of foreign support, the war in Syria developed into a war by proxy, next to being an internal intra-Syrian war. Therefore, the terminology of ‘civil war’ was no longer appropriate.”

My father used to say: “It would be nice if people reviewing a book would also really read it.”

In the Arabic edition of my book, I have given an additional explanation about its usage based on academic research. It is all a matter of terminology.

One might argue that it was the regime that waged “a war against its own people”, but one cannot deny that a great many people wanted to bring down the regime, and were subsequently indignant and angry, once the regime did not want to step down voluntarily, as could have been expected. It has not developed into just one side waging war against the other, because otherwise the regime would have won long ago, but also into Syrian opposition military waging war against the regime.

* What is the meaning of Professor Fabrice Balanche (Research Director at Lyon 2 University), who said that “anyone who wants to look at the future of Syria, especially if he is in the process of making new decisions, he should read this book, which is necessary for a deeper understanding of the Syrian crisis. It delves into history and dismantles the sectarian dimension of society and power in Syria?”.

Actually, this question should be addressed to professor Fabrice Balanche himself. He, in fact, recommends reading my book because it is based on in-depth research and experience, and on what he considers to be a more realistic approach. My argument is that one should not only take into account what is idealistically desirable, but also what is realistically achievable. Ignoring realities has led to a lot of additional bloodshed.

* What the book is credited for, is that it analyzes the dimensions of the Syrian tragedy, not only from the perspective of domestic politics in (Assad’s Syria), but also explores the Syrian-Arab-Israeli conflict, the Syrian-American relations, and the Syrian-Russian relations. This invites me to ask you, if we accept that the solution came out of the Syrians’ hand, then who has the solution, Russia, the strongest ally of the Assad regime, or the United States of America and, in the background Israel? And Why?

The final say in any solution to the conflict in Syria should be in the hands of the Syrians themselves, of course. Since, however, various outside powers started to intervene in the war in Syria, also at the request of various Syrian parties themselves, it has become inevitable that in any solution the main foreign parties should also agree to some extent among themselves on how this should be achieved. One of the problems in this respect is that various foreign parties that intervened at the request of Syrian parties, both the regime and opposition groups, want to give their own regional interests priority over the wishes of the Syrian parties themselves.

* Ambassador, you were a special envoy for your country for Syria in the years 2015 and 2016, which means that you met the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar Al-Assad more than once. Can you tell us about your personal impressions of this man? And is it really, as a number of diplomats and media professionals who met him have spoken, that he is a person who is separated from the reality in which Syria is sinking?

In my capacity as Dutch Special Envoy for Syria, I did not have any meetings with president Bashar al-Asad, because the Netherlands closed their embassy in Damascus and stopped diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime. This meant that contacts between Dutch diplomats and the Syrian government were prohibited. Personally, I have argued since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution that in order to help solve the conflict, contacts with the regime and the main parties to the conflict were a necessity.

It happens more often that authoritarian leaders lose touch with realities, and as a result do not judge correctly how foreign countries can be expected to react to their actions or behavior. Concerning president Bashar al-Asad, I think the impression reported by various media, as if he has lost a feeling for the realities inside Syria, is exaggerated. He can follow developments closely through the media, and is being confronted, for instance, with the death of many Alawi military from his own community, and therefore has to take the feelings of their families into seriously account. His views also depend on the reports he receives from his subordinates and supporters, and these may be biased, of course.

Reports about president al-Asad supposedly having lost his sense for realities inside Syria, also contain some elements of wishful thinking in the sense that outside politicians want him to do what they want, like “if he would be aware of the real situation, he would resign as president”, which I do not expect to happen. In my opinion it is just as well dangerous not to take him seriously. Likewise, it has turned out to be dangerous or reckless to underestimate his will to stay in power.

* Ambassador, upon your appreciation, what are the reasons for the failure of Western policies towards the Syrian issue, despite the fact that Western leaders express at any available opportunity that a just solution must be based on Security Council Resolution 2254, and that they insist that they are not willing to finance the reconstruction in Syria under the economic sanctions because of the continuing presence  of the Assad regime?

Most Western countries failed in their policies towards Syria, because they were not prepared to communicate with the regime, and were not either prepared to intervene militarily, just as they were not prepared to effectuate the major part of their declarations and stated principles. And even if they had been willing to intervene militarily, they would not have been prepared to take up the responsibility to protect the Syrian people for another ten, twenty or more years, in order to help lead Syria into “a better future”, as they would see it. For this reason, it had been better for them not to militarily intervene at all, also not indirectly. Non-intervention would have cost much less victims, fewer refugees, and less destruction.

After all the bloodshed and destruction, I don’t believe that it is possible to achieve a just solution anymore, if it was ever possible at all. It will at most have to be a compromise.

Refusing to give Western financial aid to help Syria’s reconstruction does not mean that the regime will change its behavior or will give in to Western or Arab wishes for drastic internal reforms. United Nations Security Council 2254 contains some major elements for a way to a political solution, but the regime refuses to implement it, and the measures imposed on the regime, such as sanctions, will in my opinion not result in regime change. On the contrary, they are bound to lead to a further worsening of the situation for the Syrian people. Civilians will not be able to topple the regime, however desperate their situation may be. Most probably, it can only be military, toppling other military.

* How do you look at the Russian and Iranian role in Syria now, and at their military presence in Syria and the possibility of its continuation or not? What about the future of the US military presence in the north and northeast of the country?

The Russian and Iranian military presence, which has been requested or accepted by the Syrian regime, is bound to continue, as long as these two countries deem it necessary to keep their Syrian ally in power. They will not give up, just to please some Western or Arab countries that are in fact hostile to them. The American military presence can be expected to be continued for some time as part of US efforts to put the regime under pressure. One of the complications of the US military presence in the North East is that they cooperate with the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) (which have played an important role in the fight against the Islamic State), whereas on the other hand, Turkey rejects any Kurdish autonomy on the Syrian side of its border (let alone inside Turkey itself). A strengthening of the SDF, and for that matter of the authoritarian Kurdish PYD/YPG, may result in a strengthening of the position of the PKK inside Turkey. The US cannot stay in Syria forever, and much depends on the policies of the US president. Moreover, the US military presence is rather small, but the dangers of confrontations with Russia are clearly present.

The Turkish military presence in Idlib is mainly intended to prevent a new stream of Syrian refugees into Turkey, and to curb the activities of radical terrorist Islamist organizations, like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, and preventing them from having any influence or effect on terrorism inside Turkey. Perhaps Turkey still aims at regime change in Damascus, although it may have realized by now that its efforts have failed in this respect.

In fact, the strengthened position of organizations like the PYD/YPG, HTS and others is to some extent an indirect result of Turkish interference in the war in Syria on the side of various opposition groups, and their failed efforts to topple the regime.

* Ambassador, what is your reading of the “Caesar Act”, which came into effect on June 17th, in terms of its ability to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime on the one hand, and on the other hand, in terms of deepening the suffering of the Syrian people, which means facing brutal difficulties for nearly a decade, as a result of the ongoing war throughout Syria?

The Caesar Law may bring some feelings of justice to the Syrians who have suffered under the regime, but I don’t believe that it will help in having the regime’s behavior being changed. The accompanying sanctions may bring some moral satisfaction to many Syrian refugees abroad, but it will not lead to the disappearance of the Syrian regime. The Syrian regime elite will not directly suffer from the sanctions, because it will maintain all the privileges it already has, but the population will be the indirect victim. The Syrian regime will, in my opinion, never be able to satisfy the American demands for “changing its behavior” except by stepping down, which is not going to happen.

More often than not there is a fixation on the position of president Bashar al-Asad, in the sense that if only he were to disappear, a real solution to the conflict would be at hand. The president, indeed, formally has a lot of authority, but it is not only he who decides what happens. Asad’s position is not like that described in the saying which is popularly ascribed to king Louis the 14th of France (1638 – 1715): l’État c’est moi (“I am the state”). If, purely theoretically, Asad would leave, there would still be the thousands of key military figures, and intelligence people who can take the law into their own hands, leaving a situation in which the same regime would in fact still be there without Bashar Asad, at least as long as they would remain unified, whether or not behind a new “figure head president”. Therefore, one should take into account that the effects of president Asad resigning, generally are unrealistically portrayed as being much simpler than they really are.

And one should also take into account what would happen if the regime succumbs due to the increasingly deteriorating economic situation in the country. Even if Russia and Iran would, purely theoretically, allow the Syrian military opposition groups to overrun the regime and bring its downfall, one should not expect “paradise” to break out. It is very unlikely that the more than 1000 military opposition groups would suddenly unite and make a run for parliament in order to have free elections and create a new peaceful and democratic Syria. They can be expected to engage in a power struggle among themselves until one group, or a coalition of groups, will monopolize power, and establish yet another authoritarian regime. This would mean a continuation of the bloody war. A new regime would be confronted with the same disastrous situation of a Syria in ruins. Even if all building materials and finances would be available, reconstruction of the country could take tens of years, because there should also be enough construction workers to carry it out.

* Does sectarianism in Syria -or “asabiya”as your Excellency considers it- stand as an obstacle against seeking to build the future of a new Syria? And first of all, what was the responsibility of the Assad regime and the Ba’ath party in establishing this great dilemma?

The Ba’th ideology strongly rejects sectarianism, regionalism and tribalism as old residues of society. In practice, however, the Ba’thist military were able to consolidate their power by exactly those principles which they rejected ideologically. There certainly was a lot of favoritism towards Alawi, tribal or regional friends of those in power.

This was a kind of sectarianism or ‘asabiya within the regime’s power instruments, like the army and security services (Mukhabarat). During the war which started after the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, the regime was able to maintain its position and survive, also because of this ‘asabiya, and sticking together among the regime’s elite.

That does not mean, however, that this should prevent the building up of a new Syria, at least if there would be a new regime which is not dependent to the same extent on tribalism, regionalism and ‘asabiya, and the clientelism derived from it. Such a regime would thereby provide an example to Syrian society that things can be dealt with differently. One of the obstacles in this respect would be, however, that there should be reliable, more neutral armed forces and power institutions to guarantee such a neutrality. Creating such new power instruments will be extremely difficult, as loyalties within the Syrian armed forces have often depended on such primordial loyalties.

One should make another distinction: the dependence of the power structure of the regime on sectarian, regional, tribal and ‘asabiya loyalties, does not mean that Syrian society in general is the same. Neither does it mean that the war in Syria is a sectarian war, even though some stages have had some sectarian dimensions. Of course, the same sectarian elements are present in the social fabric of Syrian society, but there are many more factors which are relevant in existing identities.

* Do you think that Syria will live in a crisis of identity and coexistence in the post-war period, after all the destruction and sabotage that has befallen on it?

Although it may sound contradictory, the war in Syria may in the end indirectly well have contributed to strengthening the Syrian national identity, instead of weakening it. The war is to a great extent about who will be in power within the framework of the Syrian state. Nevertheless, there are still many Syrians who give priority to their Arab and Islamic or other identities, whereas many Kurds, for instance, are doing something similar by giving priority to their Kurdish identity, some within the framework of a “Greater Kurdistan” which would be the counterpart of the “Arab Homeland”. Within this framework, the request is made by some parties to drop the word “Arab” from the present official name of the “Syrian Arab Republic”. The shorter name would be more neutral, as it does not distinguish between Kurds and Arabs (like in de official name of the Republic of Iraq). Dropping the word Arab would be difficult for those who are still convinced that Damascus should be seen as “the beating heart of Arabism”.

The Syrian identity should supersede religious and ethnic identities, and this may take a long time to be realized. Accepting a change in the name of the Syrian state does not in itself mean that Syrians would really have changed their attitudes, but it would reflect their willingness to do so in the future.

* How do you see the prospects and future of the Kurdish question in the context of a Syrian solution which would have to be accepted by all components of Syrian society?

A solution to the Kurdish question should inevitably be achieved. In particular, there should be freedom of expressing the Kurdish identity, including its language. The Syrian national identity should however, in my opinion, officially supersede other identities, be it the Arab, Kurdish or other identities. Otherwise, it will be not that easy to realize a Syria in which all citizens can be considered as equals. If the area inhabited by a Kurdish majority would have been rather homogeneous and large, like in northern Iraq, it would be easier to recognize an area with a kind of Kurdish autonomy. In reality, however, there are only three enclaves in northern Syria, where Kurds constitute a majority: Kobani, Ifrin and upper Jazira. Therefore, a similar construction as in northern Iraq, appears to be unfeasible.

We have seen that the Kurdish PYD/YPG has had seemingly contradictory alliances with different sides: with the Syrian regime, with the United States, occasionally also with the Free Syrian Army, but more often against it. One element has remained the same, however: they want to achieve Kurdish autonomy, and in this respect, they do not really care with whom they have an alliance, as long as this helps them in achieving their main aim. The countries that presently support the PYD/YPG, do so mainly for strategic reasons, which does not mean that they also support their ideas.

* At last, through your experience, your long diplomatic career and the role that you played in Syria, do you see that we have in this country a national project that brings together all Syrians, after Bashar al-Assad’s departure and the end of all forms of occupation and foreign presences on Syrian soil?

Of course, there is such a possibility. All depends on the Syrians themselves and on a united military to protecting it and bringing it about.


[i] https://e-poetssociety.com/book-details?id=245

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