Joseph Daher is a Swiss-Syrian academic and activist. Originally from Aleppo, Daher is a staunch opponent of the Syrian Ba’ath regime. He maintains the website Syria Freedom Forever, which is dedicated to building a secular and socialist Syria.In his latest book Hezbollah: The Political Economy of the Party of God, Daher takes apart the misconceptions around Hezbollah and its role in Lebanese society.
In the years since the Arab Spring began the international left has become increasingly divided over Syria, particularly as the revolution turned into a civil war with plenty of interference from outside. As a result, the left has diverged into at least three main camps: those who see Western imperialism as the main foe, and others who claim Western intervention is vital for the Syrian rebels to triumph. But these two postures are not the only positions available.
There is another strain on the left, those who see no hope and no justice in either American or Russian involvement. Rather the case for Syrian emancipation requires a critical account of the different international forces at work in the civil war. Not just Russia and the United States, but also the roles played by the Gulf powers, Turkey and Iran. This is the premise of every serious analysis. And this is a vital part of Daher’s standpoint.
The following Souciant interview with Joseph Daher examines the poison gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun in the context of the civil war, as well as the interventions of foreign powers, the class character of the Assad regime and the politics of the Syrian opposition.
Josh White: The gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun stirs memories of the Ghouta attack in 2013 for a lot of observers. Why do you think the Assad regime resorts to such measures?
Joseph Daher: First of all, I would like to say that since the chemical attacks Eastern Ghouta in 2013 until the gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun, many attacks with chemicals occurred and on a regular basis since 2013. This despite the fact Assad declared in June 2014 that chemical weapons had been removed from Syria to be destroyed. These kinds of attacks have become so frequent in Syria that most have not made it to the international news headlines.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) has actually documented 167 attacks using a toxic substance since the first U.N. resolution in September 2013. Forty-five of those attacks were carried out after August 2015, when the U.N. passed a resolution establishing the Joint Investigative Mechanism to identify perpetrators using chemical weapons in Syria. In 2017, SNHR documented 9 attacks using toxic substances by regime forces.
The chemical attack was another step in the murderous campaign to destroy what is left of the popular opposition to the Assad regime. After putting under siege and destroying Eastern Aleppo, the most important center of the popular and democratic opposition, and forcing the survivors as well as the survivors from other besieged opposition areas to go to Idlib, the regime is now concentrating its forces on bombing the civilian population in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Syrian regime has actually focused its use of poison gases on opposition-held areas where 97% of its chemical attacks targeted opposition-held areas while 3% of the attacks were carried out in ISIS-held areas.
The objective of chemical weapons is clearly to instil terror in people, while there are few ways for civilians in liberated areas to protect themselves. This also showed the impunity with which the regime conducts its war against the Syrian people.
JW: Many people have called for a military intervention against the Assad regime and we’ve just seen the US bomb a Syrian government airbase. What’s your view of Trump’s missile strike in response to Khan Sheikhoun?
JD: I think we need to understand why for some sections of Syrians, especially within the country, were satisfied or happy at US bombing of a regime’s military base from which the chemical attack was launched. After more than 6 years of a constant war and in total impunity of the regime against the Syrian people, this was the first time a military base of the regime was targeted for its murderous actions.
This said, no kind of optimism or illusions should be put in US administration in bringing anything positive to the Syrian people to achieve democracy or relieve even their pain. Many Syrians in liberated areas also understand this very well, as we can find many testimonies saying for example that the strikes were not to punish Assad too harshly, but to make him understand that he must not cross the “red lines”, in other words the use of chemical weapons, while it is okay that its military forces continue to use barrel bombs, vacuum rockets, cluster bombs, phosphorus weapons, etc.
Residents of Khan Sheikhoun actually suffered from regime’s bombing few days after the chemical attack on Saturday, 8th of April, which killed one woman and wounded several other people. Regimes and Russian warplanes also bombed last weekend various provinces, resulting in the deaths of new civilians.
The USA have not changed their strategy in Syria: the priority is still “the war on terror”, in other words Daesh, and try to reach stability in Syria in maintaining the regime, with at its head or not Assad. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is expected to visit Moscow on April 12 for talks with Russian officials, actually said on ABC’s This Week program there was “no change” to the U.S. military posture toward Syria.
The way also the US bombing occurred showed that they did not want to hit too “hard”, to say the least. Moscow officials confirmed that they received advanced warning from the U.S. about its strike on Syria, while according to some testimonies, regime soldiers were prepared for the 35-minute strike and, in advance, evacuated personnel and moved equipment out of the area. Within 24 hours of the strike, regime’s warplanes were actually again taking off from the bombed Shayrat air base. So for the moment, a change of strategy of the USA is still to be seen, although we also have to be careful as well as Trump is unpredictable, as he likes to say.
In addition to this, recent American airstrikes in Mosul, Aleppo and Raqqa, which are supposedly aimed at stopping ISIS, have also brought about large civilian death tolls. They have been some of the deadliest since U.S. airstrikes on Syria started in 2014. On Saturday 8th of April, At least 15 civilians, including four children, were killed in a suspected US-led airstrike on Saturday near the city of Raqqa. This shows that greater U.S. military intervention in Syria will only lead to more death and destruction. According to Airwars, during the month of March alone, as many as a thousand civilians have been killed by U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria in the name of the “War on Terror”.
In general, since coming to office, the Trump administration has given every indication that its goal is to promote authoritarian, racist, sexist Arab leaders and strengthen the repressive environment of the Middle East. These realities not only reveal the Trump administration’s motives but also compel us to condemn all the states that are carrying out wars against innocent civilians in the Middle East: The Syrian and Iranian regimes, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, all the other authoritarian regimes in the region, IS, Al Qaida, and other religious fundamentalist movements, as well as Russian and Western military interventions.
These moves are all part of an imperialist logic and the maintenance of authoritarian and unjust systems. They all oppose the self-determination of the peoples of the region and their struggles for emancipation. Hence, anti-war activists whether in the Middle East or the West need to address all forms of repression and authoritarianism, and condemn all forms of foreign intervention against the interests of the people of the region, instead of limiting their criticisms only to the West and Israel.
Clearly, no peaceful and just solution in Syria can be reached with Bashar al-Assad and his clique in power. He is the biggest criminal in Syria and must be prosecuted for his crimes instead of being legitimized by international and regional imperialist powers.
JW: Some people on the left have tried to defend the Syrian Ba’ath regime as a ‘lesser evil’ to Islamic State and jihadi rebels. How would you describe the character of the Assad regime and its role in the region?
JD: This perception of these sections of the left is completely wrong and destructive of the “lesser evil”. The solution to struggle against Islamic fundamentalist movements does not lie in the collaboration with authoritarian regimes like the Assad regime, quite on the opposite. When it comes to the IS and similar organizations, it’s necessary to tackle their root causes: authoritarian regimes and international and regional foreign interventions.
IS emerged as the result of crushing the space for popular movements linked to the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. The interventions of regional and international states have contributed to ISIS’s development as well. In addition to this, neoliberal policies have impoverished the popular classes, together with the repression of democratic social and trade union forces, have been key in providing ISIS and Islamic fundamentalist forces the space to grow.
The left must understand that only by getting rid of these conditions can we resolve the crisis. That means we have to side with the democratic and progressive groups on the ground fighting to overthrow authoritarian regimes, defeat the counter-revolutionary Islamic fundamentalists, and replace neoliberalism with a more egalitarian social order in Syria and the region. Without addressing the political and socio-economic conditions that allowed and enabled the development of the IS, its capacity of nuisance or that of other similar groups will remain.
The solution is therefore of course to oppose the IS and other reactionary and jihadists forces, which as a reminder the Ba’ath regime has encouraged their developments at the beginning of the popular uprising in Syria by liberating the worst jihadist and Salafist personalities from its prisons, while killing and repressing democratic and progressive forces, but also and especially the barbaric, criminal and authoritarian regime of the Assad family.
The Assad regime is the main responsible of the disaster in Syria and of the exile of millions of Syrians. Both actors are barbaric and they feed themselves and are therefore to be overthrown to hope to build a democratic, secular and social society in Syria and elsewhere. This requires the support of democratic and popular movements that oppose these two counter revolutionary forces (authoritarian regimes and Islamic fundamentalist forces) and different forms of international (United States and Russia) and regional imperialisms (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel and Turkey) that are all fighting against the interests of the people in struggle in the region.
The Assad regime is an authoritarian, capitalist and patrimonial state using various policies such as sectarianism, harsh repression, tribalism, conservatism, and racism to rule, very far from being anti-imperialist and secular as presented by some of its supporters. The patrimonial nature of the state means the centres of power (political, military and economy) within the regime were concentrated in one family and its clique, the Assad, similar to Liby